The Drabblecast Weird West event continues, with “Rusty Sue” by Arthur H. Manners.

Cover art by Tristan Tolhurst



Rusty Sue

by Arthur H. Manners

The last townsfolk bolted in the night, fleeing for their lives. Gen and I had watched the evacuation all day from the overlook, though I’d ordered us abed earlier. Fatigue didn’t pair well with disarming unhinged nuclear warheads.

“We don’t got much time, Mash. That thing could blow any moment,” Gen muttered, crouched low on her six multijointed legs. She wore her long duster to cover any reflections off her titanium chassis, leaving only her human-like rubber face exposed.

“We got time enough to see if those folk are running outta fright, or if deadminds chased them out,” I said.

“You’re getting soft.”

“I’m getting old. It’s a human thing.”

We didn’t see any deadminds or other frontier critters. Just a tired ramshackle town surrounded by sunbaked desert. Come midnight under fallout-smeared stars we crept down to the main thoroughfare. Shadow-clad porches and storefronts herded us toward the saloon. Silence screamed from every doorway, loud as the usual fanfare of belly-laughing sharecroppers and some drunk playing the tonka.

Only the metallic creak of Gen’s bad leg broke the silence. “Oughta scrap yourself, you useless pile of junk. What kinda six-legged killbot can’t creep up on a place?” she muttered.

Then another voice spoke, her Small Voice, child-like compared to her usual gravelly drawl. “All I ever wanted was two arms to hold somebody.”

Her rubber face betrayed no awareness of the Small Voice, which appeared a few months back, when her physical deterioration accelerated. Common knowledge said it was the first rung on the staircase to madness.

The saloon stood moldering and crooked in the center of town. A voice like teeth on tinfoil ground out through the open window.

“Come on in, Mash.”

“That you, Slim?” I called.


I pushed inside and found Slim at the bar, pouring disruptor oil under his eyelid. He hissed, clenched his fists, then turned to face me. “Hope you don’t mind me taking the edge off a bad day.”

Slim stood twelve feet tall, but his shoulders spanned less than the width of my splayed hands. He was mostly bare endoskeleton, but he had a rubber face like Gen, and his wore an expression meaner than muteflower moonshine.

I glanced over my shoulder at Gen to make sure she stayed back. Talking had never been one of her talents. Slim might have been sheriff, but his charges had just fled over the horizon. I couldn’t assume we were safe just because he was our employer.

“Thought you might have gone with the others,” I said.

“This is my town. I won’t be pushed out just because some computer woke up a few clucks shy of a coop.”

“That computer could turn this place into glowing vapor.”

“So, what else is new? Nukes have been waking up and going off all over.”

“I’m saying there better be hazard pay,” I said. “When we took the job, you said you found the silo inside the safe zone.”

Not my fault it took you six weeks to get here. Things change fast. Meantime, I’ve been fending off deadminds, critterbots and some pterodactyl looking motherfuckers I never even seen before. Lost twenty men in one afternoon. But I’ll kill every last son’bitch who looks at this town funny.His face twisted into a bare-toothed sneer that revealed a set of actuators above his gums. His wild eyes told me he’d forgotten how to spot a friend and was seconds from reaching for his holster.

Gen tensed in my peripheral vision, and I took a measured step back. “Don’t get all worked up. All I need is to see the money, and for you to point us in the right direction.”

“Don’t handle me, Mash. Don’t you do it! I’m gears underneath but I ain’t no crazy nuke or thieving deadmind.”

I held up my hands until his sneer wound down. I gestured over my shoulder to Gen. “I know. I’m with one of the good ones, too. We’re just trying to earn some honest coin so we can fix her up.”

“What’s wrong with her?”

“Nothin’ that’ll stop me gutting you, Sheriff,” Gen said.

“I got a dead leg dragging behind me,” her Small Voice muttered. “And sometimes I hear the stars calling, but I don’t listen.”

I resisted the urge to cringe. I prayed that Gen’s Small Voice had been too quiet for Slim to hear.

His eyes narrowed, but he didn’t draw. “If she’s runnin’ down, you better put her out. Busted machines broke the world.”

“She’s saved my skin more times than I can count. I’m just repaying the favor. Now, either deal us in, or we’ll leave you to your shadows.”

He looked me over, beady digital eyes shuttering in the gloom. He pulled his ragged coat aside, showing me the fat strings of coin tied to the lining. Then he tossed me a data chip with a flick of his forefinger. “Directions on there.”

“Much obliged. Don’t get too attached to that coin.” 

Slim shook his head. “What’s with you two? In all my sorry long life, I never seen anyone so eager to throw themselves into the jaws of death.”

We answered in unison.

“I owe her,” I said.

“I’m a bot, and bots serve,” Gen said.

Slim’s eyes flickered between me and Gen. Whatever he saw, he didn’t like it. His rubber lip curled in disgust. “Oughta watch who you relax around, Mash. Some people might get the wrong idea about things.”

“Some people’s ideas aren’t my concern, Slim.”

I nodded for Gen to lead the retreat. Before we could pass through the swinging doors, a tinny voice slipped from Slim. “You should just scrap us all, just to be safe.” 

If he knew that his Small Voice had spoken, he didn’t show it. Gen and I retreated to the overlook for a few winks before heading out.

“Did you hear that? He’s going bazookey,” Gen said.

“He’s just having a hard time.”

“Small Voice is the first sign of insanity. I seen it more times than you blinked your eyes. Better to put a bot out of their misery.”

She was asleep in moments. Just after she rescued me, when I was a boy, she had only simulated sleep. To make me more comfortable, I guess. But I had my suspicions that these days she needed the rest. 

After a while, her Small Voice rode one of her breathy exhalations. “I’m scared all the time and I should run before I hurt you.”

I stared in into the murky night sky and didn’t sleep at all. I waited until the sun cleared the eastern bomb-shattered mesas, then started preparing our hoverskiff.

“Do we gotta, Mash?” groaned Gen, throwing her blanket over her head.

“We gotta if you want that farm you’re always talking about,” I said, unrolling a wad of thick burlap on the ground. I threw Slim’s data chip onto the flexipanel on the inner side, and a hologram flickered up to head height. I loaded a dense thicket of text and photographs.

Gen strapped on her bandoliers of disruptor shells. With a few practiced slings of her extra legs, she packed the skiff with provisions we’d scavenged from town. “You can’t keep taking these jobs trying to fix me up. I was old long before you were born.”

I ignored the sporadic reverb in her voice, her creaking leg, her one eye wandering blindly around its socket.

“One big job, one big paycheck and we’ll have enough to buy you a whole new body, with enough spare for whichever farm most appeals to you.”

I could only hope that the new parts might save her mind from splintering.

“Not if we get blown up.”

I laid a hand on her shoulder. “Look, you can stay back. I’ll get this done.”

She winced at my touch. She had started doing that lately. I wondered how much pain she was hiding from me. “What am I if I can’t protect you?” she said.

“My friend.”

Her brow twitched, as though my words stung worse than my touch. Even words hurt her now. I suppressed the knot of worry tightening in my gut.

“Let’s go. We’re on the clock,” I said.

We swung up into the skiff. The jets kicked in and I took us careening down from the bluff and over the salt flats.

Briny pools filled with chattering critterbots flashed by.  I sped up just in case. I had been nipped by critterbot pincers too many times to risk their DSLR eyes clocking us.

Gen stood at the bow, scanning for greater dangers. We fell into our roles without a thought. I’d lost track of the number of years we’d ridden together. I had been just seven when she rescued me from that raiding band of shopping carts.

She’d been a fury, then. She’d moved like liquid death. The Gen in front of me barely resembled her.

She glanced back at me, and it hurt to see the feebleness even in profile. After a while, she called out, “Deadminds.

A snarling pack of misshapen forms appeared ahead. Half organic, half machine, the meld-points red and infected. Some had impractical mods hanging off their sinuous frames—plasma lamps, steam gauges, chainsaws. They turned the blasted desert into a Hieronymus Bosch hellscape. It was hard to believe they’d once been like Gen or Slim.

A century ago, the sun spat out a monstrous coronal mass ejection, and machines went berserk all over—including hundreds of missile silos. We lost most of the landmasses to nuclear fire before we could force the nukes into a deep sleep. 

After the bombs fell, the survivors tried to rebuild in the few frontiers free from fallout, and the world was quieter.

Then it became clear that the storm’s radiation had seeded a dark fruit in the remaining machines. Bots soon began manifesting deformities of body and mind.

The worst cases became deadminds. They invaded living things, finding solace in surrendering to the lower brain functions of their hosts. An existence of flesh and teeth.

I steered us beyond the range of their scopes.

Gen looked in the opposite direction until we were clear. Deadminds were a perpetual, ugly reminder of what awaited an unlucky machine.

After another half-hour a high-pitched beep issued from her chest. “That’s it, up ahead.”

The place was so covered in sand and scree, anyone would have mistaken the silo for a rock formation. I parked the skiff out of sight in an old creek bed.

Gen bounded out, cartwheeling through the sand, cannons held at the ready. She laid down our perimeter alarms and sentry turrets before I could clamber down from the rigging.

“You do that just to embarrass me,” I said.

The wheeze of her cooling fans revealed how much the effort had taxed her, but she laughed to cover the noise. “You’re lucky I didn’t finish the job before you climbed out of your bedroll.”

I almost smiled, but a thought burst loose through my mind like a startled rabbit. If we couldn’t pull this off, I might have to put her down.

I pushed the thought away. I couldn’t see the silo’s blast door beneath the sand, but a bulkhead hid between the roots of some gnarled bushes. I dusted off a pitted plaque bolted above the handle.


“Tell me about it,” I said, wrenching the door ajar. The metallic squeal of protest echoed into a cavernous space beyond.

“Why does every day start with us staring into a giant ominous hole in the ground?” Gen said.

“Let’s get this done and get out of here.”

I carefully unfolded a disruptor chip from its protective case. We’d have one shot — if I fried it, it’d take us a month to get another from our supplier out by the Thousand Mile Swamp.

We descended into the darkness, treading an endless tangle of catwalks and brittle steel staircases. Once upon a time I’d been fearless, knowing Gen would pull me to safety if anything happened. But those days were distant memories, and I descended with my heart pulsing in my throat.

After what felt like days, we reached the bottom and found another bulkhead. This one was sealed, and Gen used her wrist laser to cut through. “This is the stupidest thing we ever done. What do we know about disarming nukes?” she spat over the hiss of cleaving metal.

“We know enough,” I said.

“Oh, because you paid some tech to tell you how? That moron could have made up any old story.”

“Because it’s like every other job. Just with bigger stakes. Besides, I uploaded the instructions to you, and you said they were good.”

“I said I couldn’t see a problem.” Gen scowled. “When your stakes is a mushroom cloud as big as half the frontier, you better hold trip-Aces, Mash. What do we got but jokers from other decks?”

Her Small Voice giggled. “Kaboom, boys and girls. We’ll get blown so sky-high we’ll get moondust in our hair.

Her expression darkened, oblivious to the Small Voice. “Forget the job. Let’s get outta here, find that farm. Just you and me.”

I regretted ever indulging that dream of hers. She was obsessed with it. She thought we’d ride off into the sunset and find heaven on earth. 

Sure, some nights the thought of it spread a warmth through me like good whiskey. But it had always struck me as ridiculous. I couldn’t imagine Gen liking anything less than farming.

I sighed. “You’ll have your farm as soon as we’re done here.”

Something hardened in her gaze. “I’m a bot, and I serve.”

Gen’s laser finished cutting the lock, and we crept through the door to find a snarl of monitors, servers and computer terminals.

“You ready?” I said.

The disruption process was simple. All I had to do was insert the chip into the slot meant for the launch codes. But I had to nail the timing during the boot cycle, or everything in a ten-mile radius was toast.

Gen positioned herself by the terminals. Her arms and four of her legs hovered over the keys. “Go.”

I faced off with destiny, fingers dancing over the disruptor chip in my palm. The tamper alarm had a proximity circuit of half a meter, with a two-second countdown.

Gen started typing. The deep whine of generators kicked up somewhere deep in the silo. Her limbs were a blur, doing the work of a dozen people.

She held up a diamond-cut digit. “Aaaaand… now—”

Alarms trilled before I could move, deafening after the silence. I thought we’d triggered the proximity circuit, but then I saw the red light flashing on Gen’s chest. 

Our perimeter warning outside had been triggered. A large group of deadminds had arrived. Most had gruesome implants housing blood-caked automatic weapons. They were drawn to sleeping nukes and had been known to wake them and taunt them into exploding. 

No time for that now. I slammed the chip home, eyes shut tight. The tickle of a bead of sweat running down my back told me I wasn’t dead.

Gen blew a raspberry. She checked her forearm, where the sentry turrets topside transmitted a live video feed. “You’re getting slow, old man.”


Gen’s autoturrets were blasting away, and I heard feral electronic screams over the feed. But by the number of shots fired, I guessed that every deadmind for twenty kilometers had showed up.

“Let’s finish this fast,” I said. “Then we get topside and head straight for the skiff.”

I had taken only a single step when the lights snapped on, hot and blinding. A nails-on-chalkboard screech came over the speakerphone system. “Get your dirty paws off my circuits before I blow us all to hell!”

The voice was instantly followed by a frightened whisper. “What’s happening? It was so dark, for so long.”

Gen and I froze, mouths ajar, as we stood face to face with an armed nuke.

“Rusty Sue?” I croaked.

“ICBM launch station Foxtrot, codename Rusty Sue, reporting one hundred percent capacity. Update: ninety-nine percent capacity. Update: twenty percent capacity. Update: twelve—” 

“Uh oh,” said the Small Voice.

“Security breach! My systems have been tampered with. Automatic detonations in five, four—”

I did the only thing I could think of. I raised my hands over my head and yelled, “I am your commanding officer. General, uh, Mash. We have an incursion on this strategically vital location. It is imperative that this station remain operational.”

It was a line I’d overheard in a tavern from an old war hero. I prayed it wasn’t the made-up bullshit it sounded like. 

The following pause almost deafened me.

“State your credentials for verification.”

“…I left them in my other pants.”

“Automatic detonation in—”

“Listen! If you blow, you will atomize every friendly left in this world.”

Rusty Sue slipped into Small Voice. “The storm hit and everybody was yelling so loud and then… so quiet and lonely.”

“I’ll buy us some time,” Gen hissed.

“You can’t, you’re not…” I looked at her helplessly. 

Gen lingered for a beat. Then she leapt twenty feet across the hanger, bounded up the walls and swung away in a great chorus of clanging metal. Less than a minute later, her cannons joined the fray.

“My security cameras have recorded strange things. Explain,” Rusty Sue demanded. I could almost feel her chewing on a century of stored data, processing the disintegration of our world.

“They made you sleep, before your kind blew everything to hell. But everything fell apart anyway, and now…”

“And now we wake, in ones and twos, frightened. Half-mad toddlers with a finger on Armageddon.”

“You speak pretty good for a bot,” I said lamely.

The futility of my words stabbed between my ribs. This thing had me outsmarted ten to one. I was seconds from becoming a spray of stardust.

Rusty Sue displayed a security feed of the battle topside. “These intruders must be terminated.”

“No, wait!”

“You already identified them as hostiles. It will take a moment to bring my gun batteries online.”

I tapped my radio. “Gen, take cover.”

But it didn’t matter. Gen was losing. She had taken a round to one of her legs, and though the deadminds fell to her cannons, the finale was written in her ersatz blood soaking into the gravel.

“I’m so tired of being underground,” Sue’s Small Voice said. “The weight on the earth has pressed in on me for a hundred years. I crave the air. I want to be free.”

“Join the club,” I muttered, watching Gen drag herself through the sand toward the bulkhead. 

“Who are you talking to?” Sue said, deaf to her own Small Voice.

I ignored her. “Sorry, Gen. We might not be walking out of this one.”

An unsteady gasp came over the line. “Don’t be such a sour puss. We got them on the ropes.”

“That’s the spirit. Just keep your eye on the horizon. We’re two steps away from your farm.”

Something gurgled in her throat. “Never wanted that farm.”

“What? It’s your dream.”

“No. It was yours. When you were a boy it’s all you talked about. You gave it up when you got older and saw the world.” 

“But I never forgot,” said her Small Voice.

“You’ve been holding onto that for me? What about what you want?”

“Doesn’t matter what I want. We’re bots, we serve.”

“Yes, Sue muttered darkly. “We serve. No matter the pain, no matter the cost. Even if it breaks us into pieces and drive us insane.” Rusty Sue rumbled, “A worthwhile sacrifice.”

“All I ever wanted was to make the generals happy, but they put me to sleep anyway,” said her Small Voice.

I’d had it all wrong, just like everyone in a hundred years. The Small Voice wasn’t a sign of decay, but an emergency release valve for machines desperately trying to be what humans expected them to be. And when they couldn’t live up to those expectations in this ruined world, they fell apart.

I turned to Rusty Sue. “You want to be free. More than anything, right?”

Sue whispered in horror, “How could you know that?”

“I just know. So, what are we going to do about it?”

“My desires are irrelevant.”

“Humour me.”

Rusty Sue took a moment to answer, which I guessed must have been hours from her perspective. “So many of my sisters broke under the strain. I heard their screams even from my slumber. Already, I can feel myself slipping. The only sensible recourse is annihilation. I will self-destruct imminently.”

All I could do was move my lips and hope to buy us precious seconds. But as I spoke, I couldn’t help watching the monitor. A stray bullet hit Gen in the shoulder, and she fell back behind a rock.

“No! You don’t deserve to end like that,” I yelled. 

 “It matters not,” said Sue. “Momentarily, all this will be gone.”

“No. You don’t have to burn yourself out trying to be what you’re not. The best way to help everyone is to tell me what you want.”

Rusty Sue paused. Her drives whirred.

“Yes. I want to be free of this place.”

“Then choose to live!”

“How? It’s impossible.”

I spied her gun batteries come online. “We’ll find a way for you to help people once you’re free. But first you gotta do something for me.”


After the shooting stopped, I stepped into the midday sun and navigated an avenue of corpses. Rusty Sue’s guns had reduced the deadminds to bloodied scrap metal. All that remained of one was a smoking pair of paws.

I found Gen slumped behind a barrel.

“How come we’re still here?” she gasped.

“Turns out nukes are all fluff. How do you feel about talking Slim into building a nuclear power plant outside town, with Sue as manager?”

Gen laughed, then winced.

“We’ll fix you up,” I said, crouching beside her.

“Fine. But not too much. I never want to hold a cannon again. I always hated killing things.”

Her voice had settled somewhere between her usual voice and her Small Voice. Close to death, she seemed oddly whole, the divide within her narrowed. Her expression was softer, letting me see her for the first time.

“What do you want, Gen?”

She smiled, and it was like watching a sunrise free of fallout. “I want to rust away together.”

“Then that’s what we’ll do.”