Chapter 1


Awe, that mischievous little punk, had slipped through his clutches again.  Despite the fact that in another few minutes Awe would have been behind bars, he had escaped.  Sean realized that he was grinding his teeth together.  He stopped himself.  He was still upset about the incident, even though more than a week had passed since it happened.  Reasoning with himself, Sean came to the same conclusion that he'd come to every day for the past week: at least they stopped Awe's scheme to take over the city's government.  That was something, anyway; he almost would rather have had Awe.  Since then, Checkwolf had handled a few other incidents, all certainly more minor than the ordeal with Awe. 

Sean almost rubbed his hands in anticipation when he thought about the new base.  The latest estimate for its completion had been sometime in the next ten to fourteen days.  Sean, for one, was counting the days until they could get out of these cramped accomodations into something that would be a little larger.  It would have to be in order for them to have room and board.  And with the tantalizing offer of "state-of-the-art equipment" that the mayor had mentioned, Sean was sure that the organization would improve by leaps and bounds.

It had taken a little courage for Sean to return to Kewanee and get Checkwolf going as he had, especially considering the big step down he had to take in quality of arrangements.  In New York, he had his hands on all the latest equipment.  Here, they had learned to make do with what they had, and with what Sean had been able to provide from bank loans and other funds he had squirreled away.  But they'd been doing it for the past two years, since Sean's return from New York.  Those two years had been a building, learning experience for the group, making them a more cohesive unit.  Now, an advance in technological quality was the next logical step in the evolution of the organization. 

"So, when are you going to make your move?"

Sean was startled out of his deep thought.  His eyes refocused and he found himself looking at a chessboard.  He glanced up.  His opponent was Jay Wayne, who at this point had a broad smile on his face.  Sean frowned and looked at the board again.  He saw why Jay was so happy; he had Sean's king on the run.  Checkmate was virtually inevitable.  Then Sean's eyes alighted on an opening in his opponent's defenses.  With one bold move, he brought his bishop out from behind enemy lines and overpowered Jay's queen, sweeping it off the board.

Jay's mouth dropped open.  He hadn't seen that move, either.  "Rats," he muttered.  His eyes darted from piece to piece on the board, his mind probing all of the varied alternatives.  He recovered from Sean's daring move, by taking his knight and disposing of Sean's pesky bishop.  He set the bishop beside the board and leaned back, grinning again.  "Check," he said smugly.

Sean considered the choices laid out before him, of which there were very few.  He advanced a pawn, putting Jay's rook in danger of being captured on the next move.

Jay's smile faded once more.  He looked Sean in the eyes.  "Good game," he complimented.  Sean looked back to the board, seeing that by moving his pawn he had unintentionally left his king wide open.  With a decisive move, Jay took his rook in and checkmated Sean's king.  "Checkmate," he said unnecessarily.

"I was distracted," Sean said with a wave of his hand. 

"Yeah, right," Jay said as he began picking up the game.  "Maybe next time," he said with a laugh.

Sean nodded.  Actually, more than distracted, he was a bit tired.  He looked around the garage.  The day was coming to a close and just a few members were still around.  One of those was Scott .  He had finally returned the night before, a Saturday night, after being away for over three weeks.  He and Sean had talked long into the early morning hours.  Scott had had a lot on his mind, things he had been thinking about, mulling over in his mind and hadn't had a chance to talk over with with anyone else.  Sean had been more than happy to offer a listening ear. 

Right now, Scott was playing cards with his cousin and Checkwolf second-in-command, Ryan.  James Washburn was out on patrol while Tyler had remained at the garage.  Normally Sean didn't send one person out by himself.  But there was no doubt in his mind that James could take care of himself.

James had seen a lot of difficulty in his life. When James had become one of the original Wolf Club members, he had been a fun-minded ten-year-old boy. But his life had become very tumultuous a few years later. When he was twelve, his father had died in a drive-by shooting; by fourteen his mother had also been shot and killed during a robbery while working her second job at a convenience store, leaving James and his two sisters; his older brother had already landed in prison. His oldest sister had been involved in shady dealings and moved away, joining a gang, after a dispute with their other sister, Heather, the former member. So it had been just Heather and James remaining. His sister had dropped out of school and taken two jobs to ensure that James could continue. Then, three years later, he had returned home from school to find that she had been killed. The police had ruled it a suicide, but James had always assumed that it was his oldest sister, settling that final argument. After that, James had refused any outside help. He had finished school and held down a job so he could keep the apartment that he lived in, that he still lived in, in fact. James had indeed let a troubled life.

But it was exactly that type of difficulty that gave Sean confidence in James.  He glanced at his watch.  Nine forty-four.  One more minute and he should be reporting in.  Sean wondered if James had found anything happening.


James crept around the side of the building, making sure that nobody saw him.  He thought he had seen a strangely shaped object moving around inside the Army lab.  And it looked distinctly as if it was flying.  Or floating at least.  He grimaced.  He hoped it wasn't that drug again already.  Sean had said that he thought it would be awhile before they saw Awe again. 

James leaned to one side and looked into the lab through a window.  He was startled; somebody with James' character wasn't typically easy to startle.  Sure enough, the object was floating in the air, taking photos of something, to judge by the occasional blue flash.  It looked to James in the dim light to be blueprints of some classified Army apparatus.  But none of that was the surprising bit. 

The thing was a robot.

As James watched, the robot finished its work, turned, and headed for the door.  As it did, it passed by a shaft of light coming in from outside, allowing James to see it in detail.  It was a squat piece of machinery, no more than four feet from head to . . . maneuvering jets, James supposed.  It had no hands.  Instead, it seemed to possess different mechanical instruments, weaponry, and cutlery.  That was all James had time to see, as the robot swiftly headed out the door.  It quickly panned its head from one side to the other, taking in everything.  James quickly ducked back by the cover of the building, not caring to be spotted, not after seeing that robot's "hands."  After a couple of seconds, James peeked around the corner.  The robot was moving very fast, headed for the gate, fading quickly into the dark of the night. 

Suddenly a bright light flashed on, highlighting the robot in distinct relief for a split second.  Then, it moved so quickly that it seemed to disappear.  It realized that it wasn't supposed to be there.  James knew that he shouldn't be there, either.  He bolted for the nearest fence, not able to see very clearly because his night sight had been ruined by the searchlight. But he had memorized the exact location of the fence.  He jumped and grabbed the fence halfway up, reached for the top with his other hand, and vaulted over, dropping smoothly the ten feet to the other side and rolling to a stop.  Then he leapt to his feet and sprinted away from the base.  He didn't stop until he was, not only off the base entirely, but several blocks away as well. 

James took a moment to catch his breath, then glanced at his watch.  It was several minutes after ten.  He was supposed to have checked in twenty minutes before.  He took out his walkie-talkie and turned it on.

" . . . repeat, James, are you there?  Answer, please."

"I'm right here," James said.

"Where have you been?" came Sean's voice over the speaker.  "I've already sent the others out to look for you.  You were supposed to report back twenty minutes ago."

"I know," James acknowledged.  "But I can explain.  I just came from the Rollins Army Base.  I found something extremely interesting and couldn't call you.  I'll tell you all about it when I return."

There was a short pause.  "We'll be waiting."

Chapter 2

"I see."

"You do believe me, don't you?" James asked.

"Of course I believe you," Sean assured him.  "I'm trying to decide if this is within our jurisdiction, and, if so, what to do about it."

"I think it's well within our jurisdiction," James volunteered.  "We're supposed to be an 'elite police force,' right?  Well, this is pretty elite in my book."

Sean nodded.  "Tomorrow evening we'll go to Tree Air Force Base and see if anything happens over there."

At seven o'clock the next evening, James and Sean were in position at Tree Base, in Osceola.  They scouted around the perimeter and discovered nothing over the next three hours.  Following that, they returned to Rollins and tried to discover what exactly the robot had been trying to photograph the previous night.  But they had no hope of getting in.  The place was crawling with personnel, put on their guard by the robot.  Evidently it had found something pretty important, which would be the primary explanation for the extra guards. 

"I don't think we're going to find out anything tonight, after all," Sean stated.

James nodded in agreement.  They returned to the garage.

Wednesday evening, two days later, the telephone rang.  Sean picked it up with varying amounts of reluctance and curiosity.  He was reluctant because they had checked out each of the four military bases in the city and hadn't been able to determine what the robot had photographed, or why the Army was so touchy about it.  He was curious since it was past eight in the evening.  Usually they didn't receive any calls this late.  "Checkwolf. Matts."

"Sean.  This is Chief Morrison.  I have a request."

"Oh?" Sean said flatly, leaning forward in his chair despite himself.  He was beginning to notice a trend over the past month.  Ever since the Belsky incident, Sean had been in more contact with the police department than usual, and specifically with Morrison.  Sean was grateful for the help, but he didn't want the police to become a crutch on which they depended for assistance or a guide for their actions.  Autonomy was what the mayor had promised, and what Sean would prefer.  It was bad enough having the city government and that joke of a mayor involved at all; he didn't want external involvement any more than necessary.  But respect prompted him at least to hear what the chief of police had to say.

"Yes," Chief Morrison continued.  "Earlier this evening, two flying objects, robots according to eyewitnesses, went streaking down 147th Avenue, in Wethersfield.  The one in the lead was randomly firing some sort of energy weapon, whereas the one behind it was attempting to subdue the lead robot.  It succeeded.  They both went hurtling into a nearby building, reducing it to rubble.  Three people were injured."  Morrison paused. "When we arrived on the scene, we pulled the two robots out of the debris.  Both appeared to be nonfunctional."

"So why call me?" Sean asked.

He could almost hear the chief of police shrug.  "I don't know.  You're supposed to be our elite force.  You seemed like our best shot.  We'd like you to come down and take a look at these robots."

"I have to admit, I'm kind of reluctant," Sean said.  His hesitation was based more on principle than anything else.  After all, this was exactly the sort of break they'd been looking for.  Sean just didn't want it handed to them on a silver platter.  "This seems like the type of thing that the police can handle.  Is that really all?"

"Honestly, no.  We also want you to find the creator of these two.  We want you to find out why he, or she, made them."

"Sounds simple enough," Sean said sarcastically.

"My hands are kind of tied here, Sean.  I can see what type of investigation this case is going to need, and I'm concerned that it might become one that isn't . . . suited to the police."

Sean nodded, catching the fairly obvious undertone.  "I see."

"You'll do it?"

Sean also caught that he didn't have a lot of choice in the matter.  Checkwolf was still young and they didn't have their base yet.  It wouldn't really do to make an enemy of the police, or for Sean to make an enemy of a personal friend."Yes," he replied.

"Good," Chief Morrison said.  "Come down to the police HQ as soon as possible."

"We'll be there."

Sean replaced the cradle and beckoned to Jay.  They left the garage and got into the ten-year-old Chevy van.  Jay slid into the driver's seat and started it up.  "Where to?"

"Police headquarters."

Jay nodded and put the vehicle into drive.  He backed out onto 14th, then drove the few blocks up to Main Street.  He pulled into the righthand lane and accelerated to forty-five.  Dusk was beginning to settle over the city.  Most of the cars had their headlights on.  Ten blocks later, Jay signalled and pulled onto Fourth Avenue.  Police headquarters sat on the corner of Fourth and Main.  Jay parked in back.

Sean had been quiet all the way to the station.  As he and Jay got out, Jay asked, "Why are we here, anyway?"

Sean opened the door and stepped in.  "There's something here that Morrison would like us to take a look at."  Sean walked over to the desk sergeant, an old friend from high school, Tim Drawyer. 

Sergeant Drawyer looked up.  "What can I do for you two this evening?"

"We're here to see the chief."

Drawyer pointed behind him, to a staircase.  "Forensics."

"Thanks."  Sean and Jay went up to the second floor, where the forensics lab was located.  As soon as they entered, they saw the troublemakers.  Chief Morrison was standing on the other side of the room, amid a cluster of police scientists.  Sean caught Morrison's eye, raising an eyebrow, questioningly indicating the robots, who were currently unattended.  The chief nodded slightly.  Sean turned to the robots.

Laid out on two tables were two strange-looking robots.  The first had a very realistic-looking, humanlike torso.  But below the "waist," there were two maneuvering jets in the place of legs.  His head looked just like a helmet.  Its "eye" was a narrow band of a visor that was set into its face. 

The other one looked just like James had described the robot from three nights before.  It was wide and squat, a little over three feet long.  Its "eye" was a tapered "V" set in the middle of its face.  For a left hand, it had a dagger and a laser and for a right had what looked like a taser, only different, seemingly more powerful.  Its body abruptly ended with a wide maneuvering jet at its bottom.

"Is this what we're here for?" Jay asked, gazing intently at the robots, his azure eyes burning with curiosity.  

Sean nodded.  

Jay eagerly looked over the two robots, starting with the human lookalike.  He pored over it, examining every detail, from its head to its jets to the realistic hands and fingers.  Then he turned his attention to the other, spending most of his time trying to figure out the weapons systems, opening the chest and peering at the intricate electronics inside.  Finally he stood erect again and walked over to Sean.

"Well?" Sean prompted.

"This is cutting edge robotics work," Jay began.  "I can only begin to understand the technology behind them.  They're extremely sophisticated."

"We need to figure out who built them," Sean informed him.

"Well," Jay said hesitantly, glancing back at the two motionless robots.  "The craftsmanship on them seems oddly familiar, like something I've seen at an electronics show before.  But the creator's name is escaping me right now."

Sean raised an eyebrow, a half-smile on his face.  "Really?"

Jay grinned, almost embarrassedly.  "Hey, it was a big show.  Do you expect me to remember everybody?"

Sean turned to Chief Morrison who was standing nearby.  He looked up into the tall, bulky man's eyes.  "Can we use your computer for information?"

"Certainly."  He led them to a computer on the other side of the room, connected to the extensive police database.  "What would you like to know?"

Sean glanced at Jay.  Jay spoke up.  "A list of the robotics experts currently residing in Kewanee."

Morrison gestured to the sergeant at the terminal to bring up the information.  Then he turned back to Jay.  "We've already taken a look at that list and come up with nothing.  I don't think it's going to tell you anything."

"But I know who created these things," Jay insisted.  "I just can't remember his name."  His eyes strayed to the list of names appearing on the screen.  "I'm sure if I just saw it, I'd . . . ."  His voice trailed off.  He leaned forward and stabbed at the screen with his index finger.  "Jon Stollen!  That's his name."

"Bring up all the information you have on Dr. Stollen," the chief instructed the sergeant.  After a few keystrokes, a photo and other pertinent information appeared.  The picture showed a middle-aged, balding white man. 

"Is this him?" Sean asked Jay.

"Yes," Jay said, nodding.  "I'm sure of it."

"Could we get a hard copy of this?" Sean asked the sergeant. 

"Sure thing," he said.  Seconds later, the laser printer spit out a replica of the information on the screen.  The sergeant snatched it and handed it to Sean.  "Here you are, sir."

"Thank you."  Sean turned to Chief Morrison.  "We'll get on this right away."

"We certainly appreciate the assistance," Morrison said, catching Sean's eye.

Sean nodded.  "Let's go, Jay."

Chapter 3

Jay pulled the van to a stop along the curb in front of 1893 119th Avenue, in the Jubilee district, and clicked the exterior lights off.  Glancing at the printout from the police database, he said, "1893."  Then he looked up and spotted the golden numbers above the front door of the expansive three-story abode.  "This is supposed to be where Doctor Stollen lives," he said.  He opened his door, stepped out, and spent a few moments looking around the area, checking for any particular trouble spots.  Just a few yards ahead was the next street, 19th.  Cocking his head and listening, Jay could hear the sounds of fairly heavy traffic coming from a block to the north, busy 118th.  But here, all was relatively quiet.  A luxury sedan slowly coasted by the van, came to a stop, and turned left. 

Jay glanced over at the house itself.  No lights were on anywhere inside.  He backtracked to the van.  "Looks like nobody's home," he stated.  

Sean narrowed his eyes.  "Looks can be deceiving."

"Right," Jay said.  "We should, of course, be very quiet anyway."

"Exactly."  Sean opened his door and hopped out.  Both shut their doors as quietly as possible.  They stepped across the sidewalk and into the plush yard, already slightly wet with the accumulating dew.  Carefully avoiding any silent burglar alarms that may have been placed on the premises, the twosome stepped up to the front door of the house, or, for a more appropriate term, mansion. 

Jay donned a pair of lightweight black gloves and tried the knob.  Locked.  "It's locked," Jay said unnecessarily.  

Sean nodded.  "Open it."

Jay shrugged slightly and took out his lockpicking tools.  He probed inside the lock for tumblers, touching them in just the right way, just the right sequence.  In seconds, Jay had quietly accomplished his task.  He quickly replaced the tools in an interior pocket of his jacket, taking out his penlight in the process.  A chilly night breeze started blowing as he swung the door open and clicked on his penlight, flashing it quickly around the interior of the foyer, illuminating two large doors leading into the house proper and a spiralling staircase leading up to the second floor.  Sean followed behind, clicking on his own light while Jay shut the front door and quietly locked it again.  Sean took the lead and began climbing the stairs.  Jay followed closely behind.

Silently they went up the stairs.  After reaching the top, Sean took the left side of the hallway and Jay took the right.  Stealthily they opened each door in turn, finding nothing of interest.  After thoroughly covering the floor, Sean indicated that Jay take the attic, while he crept back toward the ground floor down the rear staircase. 

Jay looked up the short stairwell leading to the attic.  He noticed that the steps looked old.  He decided to risk it anyway.  The third step creaked ever so slightly.  Jay froze, motionless, and listened for any clue that he had been discovered.  He heard nothing.  He continued up the stairs.  At the top, he came upon what looked like a laboratory.  He crept around, occasionally creaking old floorboards, and saw that it was, in fact, a robotics laboratory, evidently Stollen's.  After determining that there was nothing of use there, Jay turned to leave.  As he did so, he found that he was blocked by an obstruction.

A metal obstruction.

A robot.

Sean crept back toward the first floor.  Halfway down, he heard a stair squeak.  He knew it wasn't his own.  Jay messed up, he thought to himself.  But he realized that he was hypersensitive to the quiet of the house.  Assuming Stollen was even here, he would most likely just sleep through something like that.

Sean searched the ground floor quickly, finding nothing.  Then he looked for a basement door.  He found it, locked.  Knowing the problems that these old houses had in keeping water out of the basement, Sean figured that Stollen wouldn't put a robotics lab in the basement.  Therefore, it was in the attic, meaning there probably wasn't much of interest in the basement.  He didn't bother trying to open it.  Instead, he returned to the master bedroom, which, oddly enough, was on the first floor.  He tried the door.  Unlocked.  He swung it inward, being very silent.  He clicked the penlight onto the lowest setting and covered the beam almost entirely with his fingers, letting just a faint crack of light go between his fingers.  He swept it around the room quickly, then brought it to rest on the bed. 

The empty bed.

Sean felt for the wall switch and turned on the light in the room.  Since the room was situated on the interior of the house, there were no windows and therefore no evidence to any passersby of the light being on.  He looked more carefully around the room.  He then went along the walls, feeling for possible hidden doors.  He found one.  He pushed on the door and it slid accomodatingly to one side.  Beyond it was a hallway, dimly lit.  Sean decided to follow it.

He silently walked down the corridor, quickly coming to a "T".  To the left, the hallway led to a staircase, leading up, presumably to the second story.  To the right, the hall went to another stairway, this one leading downward.  Sean went right.  He cautiously moved down the stairs, then followed a short corridor.  At the end was a door, slightly ajar, light shining from beneath.

Sean readied himself, then kicked the door open the remainder of the way.  It swung around violently and slammed back against the wall.  Inside, a man had been sitting at a console.  At least, until Sean kicked the door open, at which point he jumped out of his chair, frightened.

"Dr. Stollen?" Sean asked.

"Y-y-yes," he stammered.

Sean smiled and stretched out a hand.  "My name's Sean Matts."

Stollen composed himself and grasped Sean's outstretched hand, completely forgetting the fact that Sean was a stranger that had broken into his home late at night.  "Doctor Jon Stollen," he stated, shaking Sean's hand.

Sean's smile then fled from his face as he squeezed Stollen's hand.  Stollen cried out and fell to his knees.  

"What . . . what are you doing here?" 

Sean released his hand.  Stollen cradled it in his arm.  "I have a few questions."

Stollen nodded fearfully.  

Sean considered what he would ask first.  As he was doing so, he raised his eyes and looked at the monitor on the computer console.  There, on the screen, he saw Jay in battle with some sort of robot.  "Stay here," he commanded the doctor as he ran from the room.

The doctor nodded and sat still.

Jay studied the opponent facing him.  He attempted to circle around it, but it compensated for his every move.  It didn't look as if it would attack first, so Jay took the initiative.  Not wanting to injure his hands on the unforgiving metal, he aimed a kick at the robot's head.  It connected.  The robot's head was flung backwards.  It righted itself and attacked Jay.  The robot swung at him, but Jay ducked, narrowly avoiding having his head smashed.  He was beginning to wonder if this was such a good idea after all.

Jay quickly ran behind the robot, kicking at its head again, connecting again.  The robot's head flipped forward and back again, like whiplash.  Maybe I've finally hurt it, Jay mused as the robot swung again at Jay and missed by a good twelve inches.  Jay didn't even have to dodge.

He again directed a kick at the robot's head.  This time, though, he missed.  The robot immediately swung at Jay.  Its metal hand connected with the side of Jay's head.  Letting loose a groan, Jay went flying backwards, tumbling down the stairs.

Sean rushed up the stairway on the other side of the "T" and went up a flight.  He ran for the attic door.  As he approached it, he heard a thumping sound, as if something was bounding down the stairs.  He flung the door open.  Something slammed into him, sending him sprawling backwards to the floor.  He instantly recognized that it was Jay.  Gently, Sean got out from underneath him and straightened him on the floor.  He saw that Jay was thoroughly unconscious.  A trickle of blood came from his forehead.

"Stollen!" Sean roared.  "Get up here!"

Less than a minute later, the door from the lower floor slid to the side, admitting Stollen.  

"Look what your robot did!" Sean exclaimed in anger.

"I . . . I . . . .  I mean, he wasn't supposed to this, I mean, . . . ."

"Shut up!" Sean commanded.  "Do you have a first aid kit?"

"Yes.  I brought one with me," Stollen said as he pulled out the kit.  

Sean took it and attended to Jay's injuries.  When he had finished, he stood up.  "That should stabilize him."  He then picked Jay up and headed for the front door.  "Follow me," Sean commanded Stollen.  He heard the smaller man's footsteps behind him as they went down the corridor, then down the stairs, out the front door, and over to the van.  Sean positioned Jay on the backseat of the van and got in the driver's seat.  He started it up.  Stollen was still standing outside.  "What are you waiting for?" Sean asked.  "Get in!"

Stollen complied.

"Where's the nearest hospital?" Sean asked as he put the van in gear.  

"St. John's on 105th."

Sean nodded and headed for the hospital.  When they had gotten going, he glanced over at Stollen.  "Why couldn't you stop your robot?"

"I didn't have enough time," Stollen said, spreading his hands apologetically.  

Sean nodded and thought for a moment.  He glanced back over to him when they came to a stop at a red light.  "You're probably wondering why we're here in the first place."

Stollen nodded.  "Well, yes."

"You're a prominent robotics scientist, aren't you?"

Stollen nodded, with a touch of pride.

Sean tossed him a picture of the two robots from the forensics lab.  "These two yours?"

Stollen looked at the picture.  His face turned white, then deepened into red.  "Yes.  Why?"

"Earlier this evening, these two robots were chasing each other down a busy street in Wethersfield.  They ended up crashing into a building and are now at police headquarters.  Would you please explain, if possible, what that was all about?" he asked as he began heading east on 105th. 

Stollen took a deep breath.  "Well, I was under contract from a government agency---"

"Which one?"

Stollen shot an annoyed glance at Sean.  "I don't know.  A secret one.  Anyway, they asked me to create two robots to use as spies.  They were to be equipped to not only move undetected into high security areas, but also be able to defend themselves if found out."

"That strikes me as slightly illegal," Sean said.  "But never mind that for now.  Why were they chasing each other?"

"While I was tuning them up earlier this evening, suddenly Alpha zero-zero-two---"

"Excuse me," Sean interrupted.  "Alpha zero-zero-two?"

"Yes.  That's the name of the robot that doesn't look humanlike.  The other is Alpha zero-zero-one," Stollen explained.  "Anyway, zero-zero-two must have gotten some sort of virus or stray radio signal or something because it started talking about destroying everybody on the earth.  I mean, it was crazy.  I don't know exactly what happened to make it change like this.  But it started up its weapon systems and started coming at me.  I suppose I was to be his first victim.  I quickly activated Turbo Jet and instructed him to destroy Ditto at any cost.  He protected me and drove Ditto from the house."

"Wait a second," Sean said.  "Who are Turbo Jet and Ditto?"

"My pet names for Turbo Jet Alpha zero-zero-one and zero-zero-two."

"Oh.  Okay."  Sean paused for a moment.  "And they were talking to you?"

Stollen smiled.  "Oh, yes!  I try to incorporate a speech chip into all of my creations.  It is much easier to program them directly that way."

Sean half-shrugged.  "Okay.  Now, you said to . . . Turbo Jet to destroy Ditto at any cost."

"Right," Stollen said.  "I shouldn't have said that.  My mistake.  Robots take things so literally.  Turbo Jet won't stop until he destroys Ditto.  Whatever is in his way, he will eliminate."

"Terrific," Sean said.  He accelerated away from another intersection.  After a few moments of silence, Sean spoke again.  "What happened to the big robot?"

"He's just a security robot," Stollen said.  "He guards my laboratory."

Sean glanced back at Jay.  "He does a good job."  He looked forward and saw the imposing bulk of St. John's Medical Center just ahead.  He pulled the van in and went straight for the emergency room.  "Stay here," he instructed Stollen.  He then hopped out and went inside.  He briefly told the nearest doctor what the problem was.

"Where is he?" the doctor asked as he motioned to a nurse to get a stretcher.


"Lead me to him."

Sean led the doctor to the van, opened the side door, and let the doctor have a look.  He peered under the bandages.  "It doesn't look too serious."  He turned to Sean.  "But it's a good thing you brought him here as soon as you did.  As it is, we'll probably have to keep him overnight."  He looked outside, past Sean.  "Here's the stretcher."  They carefully got Jay onto it.  As they were wheeling Jay away, the doctor turned to Sean.  "You'll have to fill out some forms."

Sean glanced over at Stollen, who was waiting patiently.  He turned back to the doctor.  "Can it wait awhile?" he asked, lowering his voice.  "I'm on official business from the police department."

The doctor cocked a skeptical eyebrow.

"My name is Sean Matts from Checkwolf."

"Check . . . wolf?" the doctor asked, rolling the unfamiliar name around.

Sean nodded.  "Listen, I'm on a special assignment authorized by the chief of police, Chief Morrison.  If you don't believe me, call them up.  But I need to go right now."

"Morrison, huh?" the doctor said, wavering.  He threw his hands up.  "All right.  I suppose."

Sean dug out his wallet, pulling out a credit card with a low credit limit.  "Here's some collateral.  I'll be back as soon as I can."

The doctor nodded, accepting the card, checking the name, and tucking it into a pocket.  "All right.  But make sure when you get back here that you come see me first."  He indicated his nametag: Pesina. 

Sean smiled.  "Thanks."

Dr. Pesina smiled back, then departed.

Sean got back in the van.  He pulled back onto the thoroughfare.  

"Where are we going now?" Stollen asked.

"Police headquarters."


"You're the expert," Sean told Stollen.  "You have to disassemble those two robots."

"Why?" Stollen asked in horror.

"Come on, doctor.  You're smarter than that," Sean said.  "You should be able to figure that out.  They're a menace to society, in every sense of the word."

"I . . . suppose you're right," Stollen relented.

Sean drove toward headquarters.

Chapter 4

Sean climbed the stairs to the forensics lab at police headquarters, with Stollen in tow.  As he neared the lab, though, he noticed that something was wrong.  A lot of people were running in and out of the lab, which was strange considering that it was creeping up on midnight; there certainly weren't this many forensics scientists on duty this late at night.  He and Stollen edged their way through the police officers running every which way.  Sean even noted a few reporters among the throng. 

The first thing Sean noticed as he entered was that there were two gaping holes in the wall of the building, leading outside, something he would have noticed right off if he hadn't pulled up to the station from the other side of the building.  And he had something of a distraction riding along with him.  A quick glance at the table served to confirm that the two robots had escaped, and none too quietly, it seemed.

"Captain?" Sean said, stepping up to the commanding officer as he entered.  It was certainly too late for Chief Morrison to be around.  Sean had actually been surprised to see Morrison the last time he'd been in the building.

"Sean Matts?" the captain asked, extending his hand.  "Jim Freeman.  The chief told me to be looking for you.  Good to meet you."

"Likewise," Sean replied, grasping the older man's hand.  "What's going on?"

"Somehow those two robots came back to life.  Simultaneously.  The wide one flew right at the wall, and then went right through it, like it was made of paper.  The other one immediately flew after it.  Two officers were hospitalized trying to stop them."  Freeman paused, looking at Sean's companion.  "Who's this?" he asked.

"This is Dr. Stollen," Sean said.  "He's a robotics expert."  Stollen nodded his head at Freeman, who had already redirected his attention to Sean.  Sean had intentionally left out the specific reason for Stollen's presence; there simply wasn't time to get into it.  "How long ago did this happen?" Sean asked.

The captain glanced at his watch.  "I'd say fifteen minutes ago.  Couldn't have been more than twenty."

"Any idea which direction they went?" Sean asked.

Freeman nodded.  "The last report placed them about twenty blocks west of here."

Sean briefly tried to deduce where that was.  Suddenly he pulled out his cell phone and stepped away from the hubbub of the room.  He speed-dialed number two: the base.  After three rings, James picked it up.  "Checkwolf.  Washburn here."

"James, this is Sean."

"You're calling about the robots, right?"

"Right.  Did you see them?"

James nodded.  "Yeah.  They came by here about ten minutes ago, then headed off toward the Ravine.  The other guys all jumped in Scott's car and chased after 'em."

"All right, James.  We'll be there to pick you up and head to the Ravine."

"Are you at police headquarters?"


"Just go straight to the Ravine, then.  I'll bike over," James said.

"Good idea."  Sean hung up the phone, then turned to Freeman.  "They're in the Ravine, apparently contained for the moment.  We'll stop them for you.  Dr. Stollen'll help us."

The captain hesitated.  Sean understood his reservations.  Clearly he was having an inner discussion, weighing the obligations he had with the instructions he had likely received from his superior.  "All right," the captain said, relenting.  "I'll have my men hold off for a little while.  But if you take too long, or especially if they get away, we're taking over by any means necessary."

"Understood."  Sean took the stairs downward four at a time, with Stollen behind him.  He leapt into the van and waited just long enough for a panting Stollen to get in before tearing away toward the Ravine.

Sean turned the van off.  He and Stollen got out.  "Are you sure you're going to be able to stop them?" Sean asked as they ran along the Illinois Power fence.

"I can try."

Sean nodded.  They could both hear the sounds of weaponry being fired from the Ravine.  Years before, Checkwolf had throroughly explored this extremely deep drainage ditch.  It had initially been carved when sewage had run through it decades before from the now-defunct sewage station on its south end.  It had been added to by the Kewanee Air Filtration Plant, and several decades of erosion, so that now it was a virtual maze.  On all sides it was obscured from the nearby roads by trees. 

Sean half slid, half ran down the embankment, headed for the deepest area of the trench, which was at least a hundred feet below ground level.  There, the winding path of the Ravine came to an abrupt end.  Hopefully, the robots had trapped each other in that area, and the Checkwolf members were staying well out of the way.

Sean could hear Stollen puffing heavily behind him.  He wasn't cut out for this.  Sean still didn't see James anywhere.  Either he wasn't there yet, or he had already joined the fray.  Finally, Sean sprinted around the final bend and saw the five currently active members doing their best to avoid the searing laser blasts that the robots were casually shooting at each other.  Each time they missed, they brought down mounds of earth.

Another movement caught Sean's eye.  He looked up and saw James fifteen feet above Turbo Jet and Ditto, preparing to jump on one of them.  Sean caught his attention and indicated for him to hold his position.  "You're on, Doctor," Sean said.

Stollen stepped forward cautiously.  "Turbo Jet!  Ditto!  Stop this at once!" he commanded in a wavery tenor.  They both stopped momentarily, looking at him.

Turbo Jet, in a very humanlike voice, said, "You commanded me to destroy Ditto."

At the word "destroy," Ditto broke out of its stupor.  "Kill humans," it said in a flat, monotonic, noticeably metallic voice.  It shot a bolt of energy from its left "hand" at Stollen.  The older roboticist dove aside, the bolt narrowly missing his head. 

"Attack!" Sean yelled. "Put them out of commission!"  He made sure that Stollen was all right, then ran and attacked Ditto.

Stollen sat up, coughing.  "No, wait!" he said in a weak voice.  Sean couldn't hear him.  "They're too powerful," he said, more to himself.  "They'll kill you all."

Sean let loose with a karate kick, which Ditto easily evaded.  Before it could react, it looked up.  James was falling toward it, screaming bloody murder.  With lightning fast reflexes, Ditto dodged James at the last second.  James landed roughly.  Ditto then aimed its laser at James.  But again it was distracted, as Scott came charging, screaming at it incoherently, with all of his imposing bulk.  He took a flying leap at Ditto, attempting a tackle.  But he was much too slow, and Ditto easily dodged to one side, leaving Scott to scrabble uselessly at its side as he fell past it.

Turbo Jet saw its opportunity to attack.  It hurled itself at Ditto, moving so fast it seemed to disappear.  But Ditto was able to follow its course and swiftly moved out of the way, allowing the flailing Turbo Jet to crash into the earthen wall.  Stollen ran up to the fallen robot to ensure that it was still operating.  Ditto aimed its laser again at Stollen.  Tyler and Ryan came charging up, but Ditto didn't waver as it fired. 

Stollen heard the two brothers yelling and instinctively fell backwards.  The laser shot went wide.  Instead of hitting Stollen, it scored the metal on Turbo Jet's chest.

Tyler cut in front of Ditto's line of sight, giving him a target, while Ryan moved around behind him.  Just before Ditto shot Tyler, Ryan came up and jumped at Ditto, leg cocked.  Ditto evidently "heard" him coming and attempted to move out of the way, but was slightly too slow.  Ryan compensated for the movement and connected with the robot's torso.  The metal buckled slightly and sparks began flying from the robot's chest.  Its attitude control went wild, and it hurtled backward.  A metallic scream came from its vocal box as it slammed into the earthen wall, burying itself several feet deep.  It struggled to free itself, but was so disoriented, it only succeeded in causing a miniature avalanche, burying itself under a mound of dirt.

That miniature avalanche, though, was all that was needed to touch off the already weakened walls of the Ravine.  The whole dead-end area started coming down.  

Sean quickly sized up the situation.  "We've got to get out of here!" he yelled as he headed for the bend leading away from what could literally become a dead end.  Sean emerged from the area and continued running until he came to a stable portion of the Ravine.  He turned, seeing Tyler and James emerge directly behind him.  Ryan and Scott came sprinting away next.  Right before the entire area became closed off, Turbo Jet rocketed out, clutching Stollen, dust covering it entirely.

Sean turned to Stollen as Turbo Jet set him down on the ground.  "I don't think we'll have to worry about Ditto anymore."

Stollen nodded.  "I would hasten to agree.  That kick was most well-placed," Stollen said to Ryan.  "You succeeded in connecting with the weakest area of Ditto's exoskeleton.  And the angle of the kick severely damaged some of Ditto's key systems.  Then the avalanche came and . . . well, let's just say that I don't believe there is any way in which he can escape."

"That's what I wanted to hear," Sean said.  He glanced up, seeing the alternately flashing red and blue lights of police cars parked above.  "Now let's head back."

"Wait a second," Tyler said.  The others stopped.  Tyler was looking around.  "Where'd the other robot go?"

Stollen was looking up, smiling.  The others followed his gaze.  Rocketing away from the scene was Turbo Jet, intent on preserving its life.