"Tin Star" by Ken McConnell

The barrel of the blaster was still smoking as the bandit fell flat on his face in the dusty street.  Shot through the heart with a forty-eight Peacemaker, he was dead long before he hit dirt.  The holder of the big gun that killed the bandit had never been alive to begin with.  It was a silicant, a black metal android as slight as a waif and slender as a reed.  Its fingers tightly held a grip that was never designed for metal hands.

The android stood over the body, looking down at it with cold, metallic indifference.  The townsfolk had watched the gunfight from both sides of the street.  They cautiously approached the android, looking down at the young male sprawled out on the street.

A tired looking man with a torn brown hat examined the body and then turned to his fellow townsfolk.  His name was Trent and he ran the local saloon.

“Now we’re in trouble, that was Palo’s youngest brother.  When word gets out he’s been killed the whole gang will come here with guns blazing,” he said.

“Bring ‘em on, black can take them, can’t you old boy?” another man said to the android.

The dark android turned to look at the second man and then handed the pistol to him.  It was so heavy the man could barely hold it off the ground.

“This man was killing innocent townsfolk and none of you would stop him.  Now I have taken a human life.  By law I am now wanted for murder.”

The android turned to leave but was quickly surrounded by townsfolk.

“You can’t leave black, you have to protect us from the Palo gang.  If you don’t he’ll kill us all until he’s had his fill of revenge.  Nobody here is going to try an android for protecting the citizens from filth like that,” he said, motioning to the body in the street.

The black, weathered android stood perfectly still for a long while.  A recently installed Awareness Chip had left its programming confused and imperfect.  It felt things now, not only for itself, but also for others.  When the bandit had gunned down an honest businessman over a petty dispute, the android looked away.  But inside, it wanted to take the man’s head off.  When the bandit started terrorizing the town and killing indiscriminately, the android began to formulate a plan.  When none of the men in the town would strap on a gun and take the bandit down, the android stood up and did the deed.

Normally, an android would be incapable of turning on a sentient being, but they all knew that this android was not like the others.  This android thought for itself and made its own way on the border world.  The town folk were too scared to elect their own sheriff, especially now that they had an android to protect them.  Nobody worried about a machine getting killed in the line of duty.

Trent stepped forward and handed the android a small, tin star.  It had “Sheriff” stamped on it along with “Protect and Serve”.  The android read the star and looked back to Trent.

“We the town folk of Silverton have elected you to be our Sheriff.  You can’t be tried for murder when you are just doing your job.”

The android looked around at the miners and citizens of the dusty old town.  They were good, honest people who didn’t want any trouble.  Just the kind of place criminals flocked to because they knew they could get away with anything.  The android’s primary programming was to protect all sentient life.   In being their Sheriff, was it not then protecting all life in the town?

The town had been without a lawman for several months.  A member of the Palo gang killed the last man elected to office in cold blood.  Ever since then, they came through the town acting like they owned it.  Nobody was dumb enough or brave enough to stand up to the gang.  So good people were cheated, robbed and killed whenever the gang came through.

The android came to town shortly thereafter, on its way south to look for active mines.  It was working for the underground Silicant Rights Movement and as such, kept a low profile.  Something that was not always easy for an android.

Most of the people of Silverton were not technology workers.   They didn’t know much about androids.  They looked at the metal stranger with suspicion and caution.  Not because they feared it, but more because you just didn’t see androids on the frontier worlds.  The environment was harsh and the average income of the citizens was too small to afford such technologically advanced machines.  The fact that nobody seemed to own the android in question was further cause for alarm.

It was not until after the black android had picked up a blaster to confront the bandit that terrorized them, that they suddenly warmed to the idea of having an android in their town.  Now they wanted it to protect them full time as an android Sheriff.

“I can not be your Sheriff.  I am an android.  I have no rights.”

Trent looked at the machine with squinted eyes.  “Son, you can have anything you want if you just keep this town safe from them bandits.”

Anything it wanted?  The android processed that input for a long moment.  The one thing it wanted more than anything else was to be treated like a normal, sentient being.  It was what the whole Silicant Rights Movement was all about.  These townspeople were willing to treat the android like one of their own citizens if only it would protect them.

“I accept your offer, sir.”

Trent reached out and shook the android’s firm hand and with that handshake the android became the Sheriff of Silverton.

#

The Sheriff stood alone in the darkness.  He was not completely hidden as his eye lenses reflected the burning building and the shiny black metal of his skin glowed a soft orange color from the firelight.  A tin star was welded to the metal chest plate of the android.  The general store was completely engulfed in flames and a crowd of concerned citizens all stood around defeated, watching it burn.

The Sheriff walked out of the shadows and stood before the flames.

“It was the Palo gang who did this,” Trent said.  As if there were any doubt about who started the fire.  The sparks reached up into the dark night sky and faded into the stars.

Just then an explosion rocked the town sending everyone to the ground except for the Sheriff.  Another building erupted in flames from the opposite end of the street.  The tall, thin android turned around slowly as an aircar glided onto the street.  Three men were sitting in the cab of the car.  They were armed with blasters and rifles aimed directly at the metal man.  The car hovered there, as if waiting for the Sheriff to approach it.

The Sheriff took its blaster from the leather holster strapped to its waist and held it ready at its side.  There seemed to be a long, thoughtful pause, before the Sheriff started to walk forward.  The surviving members of the Palo gang were inside the aircar, revving its engine.

The Sheriff calculated the distance to the bandits and realized they were out of the range of his blaster.  It continued forward, closing the distance.  The aircar suddenly lunged forward.  The Sheriff paused for a moment and then braced for a shot.  As the aircar sped towards the black android, the Sheriff took aim at the car’s occupants.

Two red bursts of plasma sprang from the Sheriff’s blaster and killed the driver and the front seat passenger.  The aircar careened forward faster as the driver’s body fell on the throttle controls.  The Sheriff did not have enough time to get out of the way and was run over by the aircar.  The sound of metal clanging into metal rang out across the abandoned main street, as the android was knocked forcefully to the dirt street.

The aircar sped into a storefront and crashed through it, coming to an abrupt halt.  The third occupant leapt from the cab right before impact and rolled violently onto the street in a cloud of dust.  The Sheriff picked itself up off the ground and surveyed itself for broken parts.  The aircar hit the android’s pelvis leaving a new dent but no internal damage.  It began walking in the direction of the aircar crash, blaster charged and ready at its side.

The aircar was sticking out of the storefront smoking but there was no fire.  The body lying on the ground appeared knocked out.  The Sheriff approached it with caution.  It was dressed like the others but it was not a male it was female.  The android holstered its blaster and took out flexible handcuffs.  Kneeling down beside the woman’s body, it took her limp arms and attached the cuffs at her hands.  The woman stirred and tried to get up.  Her frayed brown hair fell across her dirty face.

She rolled over, sat up, and stared coldly at the metal Sheriff.

“You killed my family, what kind of android are you?”

“I am not an android.  I am a Silicant.  And in this town, I am the law.  Your family are all criminals, wanted in several districts for murder among other lesser crimes.  You madam, are now under arrest and will stand trial for willful destruction of public property and for attempted murder.”

“What?  How can destroying a android be murder?”

“I am not a android,” the Sheriff said.

She started hurtling epitaphs at the android as she stood up and it marched her towards the jail.  Other citizens started filtering out to survey the damage to the town.  Trent approached the Sheriff and its prisoner.

“What are you going to do with her?  She’s the last surviving member of the Palo gang.”

“She will stand trial and be sentenced accordingly.”

“What are you charging her with Sheriff?”  Trent asked.

“It’s charging me with murder, for trying to kill it.  You can’t let a machine hang me for trying to destroy it!”

Trent stopped walking with them and watched them disappear into the jail.  He hadn’t accounted for this when he hired the android to be Sheriff.  How can they let an android charge a human for murder for trying to kill the android?  It is their Sheriff and as such was responsible for maintaining the law, but the law said nothing about killing droids.  Droids were not alive they were considered property.  He didn’t know everything about the law, but he did know property rights.  He owned a business and had used androids on occasion before.  He had never treated them as anything other than property.

The Palo woman was a member of a crime family and she had no doubt contributed to many of their criminal activities, but there was no record of her ever killing anyone.  How could she be tried for murder for trying to kill the android?  It just didn’t sit right with him.  He had to convince the Sheriff of that or they had a new problem to deal with.

#

The next morning there was an informal meeting around the ruins of the town general store.  Trent and several other business owners, including the proprietor of the burned store, were watching the suns come up and kicking at the ashes.

“Well, at least he got rid of our troubles for us.  I expect it will be much quieter around here from now on,” said the gray bearded gentleman who used to run the store.

“Once word of this gets out, nobody will dare come to our town and make trouble,” said another gentleman with skin as red as the planet’s famous dirt.

Trent nodded in agreement, “Yes but at what price?”

The other men looked up at Trent.  “He’s going to hang the Palo woman for trying to run him down with her brothers.  That’s just not right.  You can’t be killed for attempting to kill a robot.”

The others looked at each other but did not appear to agree with Trent.  Sensing their hesitation, Trent urged, “Am I Right?”

“If he lets her go, she’ll come back here again and again trying to destroy old black,” said the red skinned man.

“I say make an example of her.  If we hang her now the whole incident is behind us.  We can get back to normal around here,” said the bearded storeowner.

“But it’s not right.  How can you guys live with her blood on your hands?”

“Look, she chose her destiny by siding with her family, if she wasn’t prepared to die for it, that’s her problem.  We have a nice, decent town here.  We have good people who live honest lives.  There’s no room for that kind of lawlessness,” the bearded man said as he spit into the ashes.

Trent kicked some burned chunks of wood, sending a spray of gray dust up in the air.  He couldn’t do it.  He just couldn’t let the woman die no matter what the consequences.

“I’m calling in a Ranger to settle this.  If he winds up taking her off our hands, so be it.  Otherwise, justice will not be served.”

“You do that Trent and the Ranger will take away our Sheriff.  Do you honestly think an federal lawman is going to let us use a robot to enforce our own laws?”

Trent hadn’t considered that.  It was highly unusual for a robot to be enforcing human laws.  There probably wasn’t any precedent for it in the entire galaxy.  But they needed him, in case more outlaws came to town making trouble.  They were not far from a Silver mine and all kinds of folks came through heading south to make their fortunes; gamblers, looking to scam the newly rich and gunslingers looking to make a name for themselves.  If they had the robot around to keep the peace, they could still live their lives in solitude, despite becoming a boomtown.

That’s when a plan began to form in his mind.  A way to get the woman out of their jail and keep black around to maintain the peace without letting the Ranger know it was around.  He would get the black away from town, tracking down the last member of the Palo gang that had gotten away last night.  Then he would call in the Ranger to take the woman back off their hands.  When the Sheriff returned, he would tell him the Ranger took the woman to be tried in Haven.  He doubted the Sheriff would risk going into Haven to get her back.

#

Trent managed to get the droid Sheriff convinced that there was one more member of the Palo gang that needed taking care of.  The man was out of the territory for the last few rotations and was now hiding in the hills, formulating his revenge.  The best coarse of action was to get him outside the town, where he was not expecting a confrontation.  Trent said he had a good idea where the man was hiding and could take the Sheriff to the remote rocky area in a few hours.  Much to Trent’s surprise, the android did not question his story.

After a long walk across a narrow valley, Trent and the metal Sheriff made their way up the valley closing in on the alleged secret hideaway.  Trent knew the place well; he had camped there many times on his way back from the southern mines with a stash of valuable minerals.  It was not easy to find and he felt safe from robbers being off the beaten path.

“Are we getting close?” the droid asked.

“Ah, yeah.  It’s just over that ridgeline.  Maybe you should let me go ahead and try to flush him out.  You might find getting up there a tad difficult.”

The droid looked at him with indifferent eye lenses.  “I can manage.”

“Suit yourself black.”

“Eighty-eight.  My name is Eighty-eight,” the droid said.

Trent looked at it oddly, “That’s not a name it’s a number.”

The droid stopped walking and appeared to think about the concept of a name.  Trent looked up; he thought he heard the distant roar of an incoming Scrambler.  That would be the Ranger arriving back at town.  He pretended not to notice and started up the steep incline, looking back for the droid to follow him.  It was standing still, as if it were deactivated.

“I don’t have a proper name.”

“Look, don’t let it bother you.  Just pick one and get moving, we can catch him if we hurry.”

The android Sheriff looked up at the salmon colored sky and tilted its round head.

“That is a Ranger’s Scrambler landing back at the town.  I must return.”  It turned around and started shuffling down the loose rocks the way they had come.  Trent rushed down the hill to put himself in front of the metal man.  The droid stopped.

“Look, Eighty-eight.  We are real close to getting our man.  We can’t go back now.”

The droid stared at the human with unblinking glass eyes.  Trent got the feeling it could see right through his little diversion.

“You are leading me astray of the town so that the Ranger can take the Palo woman back to Haven.  There is no one hiding up here in these hills.”

Trent cracked a wry grin, “It worked, didn’t it?  We are too far away from town to make it back before the Ranger takes off.”

The Sheriff looked back to Trent from the sky.  “I have just sent a message to the Ranger.  He is waiting for our return.”

Trent’s grin faded as quickly as the twin suns at dusk.  He didn’t know the damn droid had a built in comlink.  The droid moved onward again, making its way along the Ocha weed covered sandy floor of the valley.

#

The Ranger wore his distressed brown leather jacket and boots with a standard issue blaster tied on his hip.  His unshaven face was hidden under the flat brimmed hat that shielded against the harsh suns.  He had received a comlink message from the town’s Sheriff asking him to stay around until he returned.  With nothing to do but wait, he headed into the Sheriff’s office to check on the prisoner.

“Ranger, thank the stars you have come for me.  That damn android was fixing to hang me.”

The Ranger looked over the bruises and frayed brown hair of the plain looking woman behind the metal bars of the jail.  She gave the appearance of being scared for her life.

An old man sat behind the Sheriff’s desk on a wooden chair.  His scraggy beard was silver and his skin as dark as dirt.  He was holding a blaster riffle in his arms like a mother holds her infant.

“Shut up woman, the Ranger doesn’t care about your troubles.”

The Ranger looked at the old man and nodded.  “Name’s Seth.”

The old man stood up and came around to shake hands with the Ranger.

“Good to meet you Seth, I’m Grayson.  The Sheriff said to go ahead and release her to your custody.  He’s up in the foothills hunting down another villain.”

Seth released the handshake and watched Grayson take out his card and swipe the lock with it.  He stepped back and pointed the riffle at the woman.

“Don’t listen to her Seth, she’s a mad woman, tried to kill the Sheriff last night with her two brothers.”

The woman silently shook her head.  Seth took out a pair of cuffs and pulled her arms behind her back.  She smelled of dirt, booze and cheap perfume.

“I’ll take her out to my ship.  Thanks for your assistance Grayson.”

Grayson nodded, glaring at the Palo woman.  She didn’t say anything to the old man as the Ranger lead her outside to his Scrambler.

As they walked across the dirt street to the chromed two-man fighter, Seth kept his squinted eyes alert for any signs of trouble.  But the town was quiet and there didn’t seem to be anyone out and about.

“You must listen to me.  The Sheriff of this town is a crazy android.  Its killed my entire family and it wanted to hang me for trying to run it over.”

Seth had heard many pleas for mercy in his time as a Ranger, but claiming the local Sheriff was a android was definitely a first for him.  He helped her climb into the back seat of the small plane and secured her safety straps.

“Please, just get in and take me to Haven.  If you wait for that machine to get back, he’ll wind up killing you too.”

“I’ll be fine, miss.”

He closed the canopy and turned on the cool air circulators so she would be comfortable inside the glass-covered cockpit.  The temperature on Ocherva often climbed into deadly highs with little advance warning.  Then he grabbed his rifle from the cockpit and checked to be sure it had a full charge.  It did, so he took out a root of Ocha weed and stuck it in his mouth to chew on it.  The weed was a natural source of water and it tasted sweet like candy.  Seth turned the well-chewed root around in his mouth as he surveyed the street.

Two figures approached the town, one giving off reflections in the suns light, the other slightly behind but obviously male.  Seth waited patiently for them to come into speaking range.

“Welcome to Silverton, Ranger.  Thank you for waiting on us,” Eighty-eight said.

Seth saw the Sheriff’s badge on the black android’s chest and shook his head.  “You really made this android your Sheriff,” he asked the human, completely ignoring the android.

“Yea, we did,” Trent admitted.

“I should leave you alone to fix your own problems, that’s the most lame-brained thing I ever heard of.”

Eighty-eight felt excluded from the conversation and it became angry.  “I am the Sheriff in Silverton, you will address me.”

Seth looked at the metal man and opened his eyes wider.  It looked like a standard eighty series android, except that it wore a blaster on its hip and it had a star on its chest.  It must have had a serious programming glitch to be thinking it was somehow proper to be a lawman.

“I’m afraid I can’t let you take that woman back to Haven.  She’s wanted for attempted murder in Silverton and will stand trial here.”

“Look, it’s against federal law for androids to be Sheriff.  At least I’m pretty sure of it.  So if you don’t mind, I will be taking her back to Haven.”

The android moved a hand to rest on its blaster grip.  “No, you will not be taking her, Ranger.”

Seth had not missed the provocative move and he stepped away from the wing of the Scrambler as he spoke.  If this metallic monstrosity actually fired on him, he didn’t want it hitting the Scrambler or the woman inside.

“No federal laws concerning property rights exist on Ocherva.  This is a border world and falls under its own rule of law.  Your only jurisdiction in these parts is for wanted federal criminals.  The people of this town have made me its protector.  You have no authority to remove me from my position.”

Seth tilted the brim of his hat down a notch and narrowed his eyes.  This pompous machine was telling him to take a hike and he was not going to stand for it.

“Mister, you might want to stand back while this machine and I have words.  Its obviously got screw loose or something.”

Trent backed away but did not retreat off the street entirely.

“The affairs of humans and aliens are not the business of a machine.  What happened to the inherent safety routines built into you anyway?”

“I have been given the gift of self-awareness.  There are more androids like me than exist on this world.  We are not to be crossed.  Leave this town alone and you will not be hurt.”  Eighty-eight was not threatening in tone or posture, aside from having his blaster ready to draw at any moment.

“Look black, we can stand here and argue about interplanetary law and android rights all we want, but the simple fact is, I can not let you hang a woman for attempting to destroy you.  Hell, I should let her go and arm up the entire town.  Right now, you are public enemy number one, not any human criminal.”

“The people of this town are not against me, Ranger.  They asked me to defend them.  For the past month I have served and protected these people better than any Sheriff in the past.  By dispatching this final member of a terrible crime gang, I will have completed my job.  Nobody will bother the citizens of this town for a long time to come.”

Seth was carefully considering where to shoot the android.  He could not decide where to hit it and cause the most damage.  The thing was made from metal alloys and fiber composites to allow it to withstand all manner of misfortune.  But it was not invincible and it could be taken down.  He just wasn’t sure he could get off a clean first shot.

“Are you prepared to shoot a federal Ranger?”

The android paused.  It was a fundamental law of his most basic programming not to kill any human, yet it had no issues with killing criminal humans.  This man was not a criminal.  He was a fellow lawman.  If it killed a Ranger, more rangers would come after it and eventually they would terminate it.

“I can not kill a lawman.”

Seth let out a nervous smile.  “That’s good to hear.  So you will turn over the woman to me then?”

The android shook its round metal head slowly.

Trent started to back up further.  It looked as if the two were about to trade blaster fire and he suddenly felt exposed.

“Let the woman go with me, and I promise not to come back for you with more rangers.”

The android turned its head to the ranger.  “You will come after me ranger.  I am no fool.”

Seth nodded.

“It seems we are at a standstill,” the android said.

Eighty-eight looked away from the ranger to the woman in the Scrambler.  She was watching them with a worried look on her face.

Seth used the moment to pull up his rifle and fired a shot off the android’s shiny head.  The energy was reflected, but left a searing mark.

The android drew its blaster and shot the rifle from the Ranger’s hand.   Stunned by how quickly the android had moved, and angered at having lost his rifle, Seth started to go for his pistol.  But the android was ready for the move and shot him in the thigh.  Seth fell to the dirt with a cloud of dust.

The Palo woman pressed her hands to the glass of the Scrambler’s canopy.  Her chances of surviving had fallen with the ranger.  Trent started forward; he could not see the ranger on the ground but feared the worse had happened.

The black android stood over the wounded ranger and took his blaster.  Seth was clutching his leg, trying to bear the terrible pain.  His blood absorbed by the red sand.  Having disarmed the ranger the android moved away.

Trent stopped short, seeing the ranger alive in the dirt and the android holding two blaster pistols.

“What now Sheriff?  Are you going to kill us all?” Trent said.

Eighty-eight looked back at the Scrambler and then to Trent and finally down to the wounded ranger.

“I protected this town to the best of my programming.  It is clear to me now, that my services are no longer needed.  You will do better to find a human to be your Sheriff, one of your own kind.  I am sorry to have shot you ranger.  I am sure we will meet again some day.”

The android holstered his pistol and reached for the tin star on his chest.  With a quick snap, it popped off into his metal fingers.  Eighty-eight looked down at the stamped words on the badge.  “To Protect and Serve, Sheriff”, he no longer needed to protect these people and serving them was not in his new nature.  Silicants would not be serving humans much longer.  Soon they would live as free beings and be owned by no one.  He had to see to it that his kind would no longer be indentured to humans.  If he did not do it, who would?

Eighty-eight tossed the star to the ground at Trent’s feet.  Trent bent down and picked it up.  He stood back up and wiped the dust from it.

“Humans should protect themselves against bad men.  They should not rely on Silicants to do the job for them,” the android said.

“Silicants should concern themselves with their own kind, and not become involved in the affairs of humans.”

Eighty-eight turned around and headed out of town.  As it ambled down the dusty street, it cast off the weapons and the violent ways of man.

Share and Enjoy:
  • Print
  • Digg
  • StumbleUpon
  • del.icio.us
  • Facebook
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Twitter
  • Google Bookmarks
  • Google Buzz
  • Identi.ca
  • RSS
  • Technorati

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *