By S. Hutson Blount
Read by Mat Weller
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Originally appeared in The Fifth Dimension
All stories by S. Hutson Blount
All stories read by Mat Weller
Rated 15 and up for language and violent imagery
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By S. Hutson Blount
“It’s quiet outside,” Nohaile said, trying to find a comfortable way to sit in his armor suit. “Are you sure it’s started?”
“It’ll get plenty loud,” said the girl. She was armored only in a ratty sweatshirt and a patched bib coverall. She’d entered the bunker
with a vest and some sensible-looking boots, but promptly removed them. Her bare feet made her look about twelve years old. “For right
now,” she continued after some rapid two-thumb typing on her hand console, “we got time to kill.”
“Miz Bamboo, do you think we can win?” Nohaile had a matching helmet to go with his armor. He felt foolish either leaving it off or putting it on, so it worried in his hands.
The girl laughed a little. It didn’t reach her eyes. “There’s no ‘miz.’ Bamboo is my handle, not my name.”
“No worries. And yeah, we can win. The other guy hired cheap.”
Bamboo kept looking at the display on her console, checking through her seemingly-infinite pockets and producing unidentifiable items to
inspect and disappear again. Everything she carried seemed dirty but functional.
Nohaile looked down at his shiny armor suit and was ashamed.
“So, when do I get the story?” Bamboo asked.
“I thought you said you didn’t care about the circumstances of the lawsuit.” She’d been very clear on that point. Rude, even.
“I don’t. But every client has to tell. You care enough about whatever this disagreement is to put your ass on the line. You might as well get it over with.”
“I don’t want to burden you while you’re…” He gestured at her control pad, blinking and murmuring to itself on the concrete floor beside
She’d produced a handgun hidden somewhere in that shapeless coverall, a considerable-looking piece of artillery. To Nohaile’s inexperienced eyes, it looked like it would break her wrists if fired.
Bamboo stopped disassembling it and looked at him more pointedly. “Where did you say you were from, again?”
“Baltimore,” Nohaile said. “Before that, Dire Dawa. In Ethiopia,” he added, because he knew he would have to.
“They grow ‘em polite in Ethiopia, I guess. Burden away. When something happens, I promise I’ll take care of it.” She grinned at him, freckles behind straw-colored bangs.
Nohaile set his streamlined, buglike helmet beside him. “It was a patent infringement case. Originally, I mean. I had tried to interest
VesterDyne in my extrusion bearing process. Shortly after the first round of presentations, they cancelled the exploratory contract. They said they’d found another source with a similar product. I knew it couldn’t be similar, I had a patent.”
Bamboo test-fitted a cartridge the length of her hand into one of the gun’s three barrels, frowned, and kept cleaning.
“I looked into it after the press release,” he continued, emotion creeping in to his voice. “It was exactly the same. They didn’t even bother to disguise it. Their source was one of their own engineers, one of the ones who had reviewed my proposal.”
“That’s this Sintov guy?” She’d been paying attention after all.
“Yes. Niklaus Sintov.”
“He stole your bearing design and shafted you for your payment.” She put her hand-cannon away, finally satisfied. Was it a flare gun?
“Not a design for the bearing itself, a manufacture process improvement for making them.”
“Is that really worth fighting over?”
His eyes grew distant. “It’s saving them about three million a year, in materials and time.”
“Wow,” Bamboo said, in distinctly non-wow tones. “I may be in the wrong racket. So, the lawsuit didn’t go how you’d hoped.”
“No. Sintov quit VesterDyne and I had to sue him personally. He had some documents stating that I’d stolen the process from him and tried to patent it.”
Bamboo nodded. “There was a countersuit brewing, and you took certus per bellum.”
“My attorney advised it,” Nohaile said, feeling trapped all over again. “Sintov accepted. The judge just seemed glad to be rid of us.
I’d be ruined if I lost, or even if I won after a drawn-out trial.”
“Yeah, that’s how we in the champion racket stay in business.”
“My attorney, he— he recommended you.”
“Artie’s good people. He knows not to send clients to crap outfits like your friend there hired.”
“Sintov. The guy in the other bunker.”
“He is definitely not my friend. He’s a thief!”
Bamboo raised a hand in defense. “Just an expression.”
“He is a coward besides. He’s not in the other bunker, he sent his new wife.”
Bamboo’s feigned interest was instantly replaced by laser-like focus. “What do you mean, ‘new wife?'”
“Sintov was married during the course of the suit, about two weeks ago. The lawyers said it was legal for her to take his place.”
“Oh, it is. It’s just-” She dug in her pockets again, produced a ruggedized phone. “Office,” she said to it.
The phone clicked, and a tinny voice said, “Bam, I thought you were on today.”
Bamboo set down the phone and took up her control terminal again. “I am, Zats. It’s started. Look up the case file for me, quick.”
“Which case file?”
“The one I’m _on!_ No-hile.” She looked up at Nohaile. “What was your first name again? Wendell?”
“Wendimu,” Nohaile said, not bothering to correct her pronunciation of his last name. She got closer than most.
“Wendimu Nohaile,” Bamboo repeated. “And fast, they’re moving.”
Nohaile could see symbols moving on what he recognized was a topographic map on her terminal’s screen. He started to put on his helmet, but stopped when he noticed Bamboo wasn’t armoring back up.
“Okay, I found it,” said the phone. “I’ve sent it to your phone.”
“Don’t have time to read, Zats. That’s why you’re on speaker. Hit me the highlights in the hostage section.” Bamboo’s thumbs were moving
very rapidly now, tapping both screen and buttons harder than Nohaile thought one should. Her head shook occasionally.
“It’s his wife,” said the phone. “Amberlee Sintov. Newlyweds, looks like.”
“I got that far, Zats. Is it legal?”
There were popping noises outside, loud enough to be heard through the concrete. Nohaile put his helmet on.
Six army-surplus scout robots sat low in the desert scrub, compound wheels drawn up to let their chassis rest on the dust. Remnants of pixilated camouflage paint had faded to a splotchy gray-green that matched the sage around them. With only camera eyes and the slender barrels of automatic cannon visible, they scanned and waited for their enemy.
A converted bulldozer was afire already, too large to hide and its tool-steel ‘dozer blade inadequate to stop thirty-millimeter tungsten slugs.
The robots identified another luckless opponent, composed mainly of golf cart and lawnmower parts, as it struggled out of the arroyo that bisected State Battlefield Twelve.
They waited. They’d received no orders to move, and their own dim intelligences were patient.
The disembodied voice of Zats cut in again. “Nevada marriage license. Court tagged it. It’s legit.”
“Does it say who Sintov’s lawyer is?”
The phone paused. “Gregory Young. From the firm of Young, Van Ness, and Shabahangi.”
Bamboo shook her head some more, not taking her eyes off the terminal. “Never heard of them.”
“They’re-” Nohaile started to say, then remembered to lift his helmet visor. “They’re the same firm that represents VesterDyne.”
Bamboo looked at him as if she’d never seen him before. “Thanks, Zats,” she said after a moment. “Stay close by the phone.” The phone went dark again. “Wendell-”
Bamboo visibly bit back her response, took a breath, then continued. “Is there a reason why this Sintov guy would hire a hot-shit law firm, agree to a per bellum decision, and then hire total amateur dipshits to fight for him?”
“I… I could not say…” Nohaile’s English was failing him. He had to calm down and think.
“These guys are sending garage-built robots at us. This isn’t a champion firm I’m facing here, this is a street gang that’s been to shop class. They aren’t even sophisticated enough to have networked controls. There are twelve live operators on the field out there.”
The former golf cart/mower had followed the arroyo for much of its length, seeking a shallower grade. It was sophisticated enough to have a camera on an extensible mast, allowing the remote operator to take bearings above the limited horizon of the gully, as well as watch for enemy action. It also had a rack full of spigot mortars, homemade and short-ranged, but throwing enough explosive to be dangerous. No attempt at camouflage had been made; what skin the machine had was decorated with spray-painted flames.
Behind it came a rustling crunch as a scout robot slid down the arroyo’s steep bank, its wheels-of-wheels and active suspension sure-footed on the loose gravel. It stabilized itself behind the scrambling homebuilt machine, turret whipping around to bear on it.
There were more popping noises. Nohaile looked around in horror, as if he could see the fighting through the bunker’s walls. “I thought only one other person was allowed inside, besides the-” He couldn’t bring himself to use the word hostage. “-the party to the suit.”
“_Minimum_ of one. You can bring as many as you want, but nobody does, because it’s dangerous. These punks can’t afford to automate. This won’t even make good TV.” She turned her attention back to her terminal for a brief flurry of tapping. “Anyway,” she continued, “it doesn’t add up.”
“Why would he send his wife,” Nohaile wailed. “Why would he send her, if he was sure to lose?”
“I just asked you, remember?”
Nohaile wanted to hold his head in his hands, but holding his helmet just felt stupid. “It isn’t right,” he said, rocking back and forth. “It isn’t right.”
“Goddamn straight, it isn’t right,” Bamboo agreed, sweeping up her clamshell armor vest and latching it on. She stepped into her boots, which automatically hinged shut around her step and sealed themselves. “Somebody’s up to something.”
“Bamboo,” said Nohaile, recovering himself, “what did you mean earlier about being ‘good TV’?”
“Not good TV. Nobody wants to watch amateurs get their bots trashed by professionals. Well, I take that back. Some of the raw feed from this fight will wind up somewhere on the ‘net. Set to music, probably.” Bamboo wasn’t looking up at him, engrossed in images flashing on her handheld.
“Even if people die?”
“Especially if people die. Selling broadcast franchise to the battlefields pays for the upkeep and then some.”
“I only wanted what they owed me for my work! I did not come to this country to be made into bloodsport!”
Bamboo was still distracted. “You could have pressed the suit,” she said. “I-”
She was interrupted by a piercing tri-tone shriek from her terminal’s overworked speaker. On the screen, the overhead map had zoomed way
out, showing several red lines drawing themselves towards the center of the image.
Bamboo’s eyes went wide. She grabbed his hand, hard enough to hurt through the gel layers and carbon fiber, and pulled him towards the
The rockets themselves were not sophisticated. They were empty shells devoid of any refinements beyond a simple radar altimeter. Their
cargo, however, was the product of decades of refinement in the art of killing machines. High over the desert, the thin skins of the rockets separated into petals, pulling canisters into the wind at the end of parachutes.
As soon as the canisters floated to a stable vertical beneath their chutes, glowing streams of tracer rose from the ground, seeking them. Bamboo’s scout robots were able to fire at flying targets but were not specialized for it, and the descending cans were difficult targets even before they released themselves from the chutes and began to spin and dance on tiny jets.
The canisters flung disc-shaped skeets from themselves once they were up to speed. Each skeet had a tiny, fixed eye that scanned loops beneath its flight path as it spun along. When the infrared image of something that might be a vehicle-sized object passed before its sensor’s view a few times, the skeet detonated. Its pancake of explosive melted the copper plate coating the bottom of the disc, the action of the shockwave reforging the metal into a bullet-shaped ingot, now propelled downward faster than sound.
Nohaile exited the bunker and thought the battle was over; the desert was as empty as when they’d stepped in. Then everything started exploding.
Nohaile jumped at the first detonation; the rest came so close behind it that there was no more surprise left in him. Drumbeats ignored the hearing protection built into his helmet, hammering him to the ground. He curled up, shaking, as the crackling went on and on.
And suddenly, all he could hear was a girl, sobbing.
Sitting up, there was little in view besides dust, and several thin columns of oily black smoke. More smoke was coming out of the bunker door behind them, smelling of hot metal. Bamboo seemed unaffected by the explosions, but was intent on beating the ground with her fist.
“Fuckers!” she kept saying.
Her terminal lay discarded beside her. Nohaile couldn’t understand most of the symbology used, but assumed all the flashing red symbols corresponded to the funeral pyres of robots that now decorated the desert waste.
“Miz Bamboo,” he began.
With that, she was herself again. “Come on, Wendell,” she said with a last sniffle. “We have to get moving.”
“What happened is that the other side had a plan. They hired somebody else in addition to their official champion. Whoever that second outfit is, they launched a bunch of tank-killers over the area, wiped out all my bots. Looks like all the rest of theirs, too.” She looked around after retrieving her console. “Probably both bunkers while they were at it.”
“Is that legal?”
“No. Well, yes. It’s a gray area. C’mon, we have to hurry.” She began picking her way through the sage.
Nohaile’s head was swimming from the concussion, from the heat, and from the unreality of his situation. “But… Both bunkers, you said. Why would they harm their own side? Sintov sacrificed his own wife?”
Bamboo looked over her shoulder at him, pityingly. “If you were both killed, there’s no certus per decision, and he goes on using your patent. I doubt the garage-built kids over there were informed of the grand strategy. It’s a godsend for them if they pull off a victory now, anyway.” She kept walking.
Nohaile scrambled to catch up. The shiny armor suit he’d bought had already picked up a thick coat of dust. Nohaile hoped it would help conceal him somewhat. “What are we going to do?”
“Daisy—my number four machine—is showing a malfunction signal,” she said, pointing at the screen. “That means she’s not completely dead.”
“Why does that help us? Isn’t it over? Won’t they just send more of those things until they kill us, if we don’t surrender?”
“A BLU-108 won’t trigger on a person. We don’t look enough like a tank. Besides, that was an expensive little stunt they just pulled. And as long as they’re willing to push the envelope, we will too.” Bamboo’s openly predatory grin repelled Nohaile. He wasn’t as confident in their safety from whatever a “blue one-oh-eight” was, but there was nothing else he could think of to do. It was easy enough to catch up with her while she was concentrating on her computer again.
“What do you mean by a ‘gray area’?” he asked eventually.
“We’re not allowed to bring in fighting units from outside the combat area once the battle is on,” she said, brushing hair out of her eyes as she tapped out new messages. “The loophole is that UAVs are allowed. The legal definition is vague enough that guided munitions technically can be written off as ‘reconnaissance devices’ and their impacts as ‘crashes.’ They’re really stepping over the line here. I just texted Zats about starting up a complaint. You won’t have to worry about that, that’ll be something between us and Sintov’s people.”
“You told your friend to wait by the phone.”
“Left it in the bunker,” Bamboo said. “Next to everything else that’s happened today, that’s chump change. Zats got the message.”
The robot they came upon was obviously the worse for wear. It took Nohaile a minute to find it despite its proximity, but once he did, it was obviously in no shape to travel. One of its curious multiple wheels was scattered in blackened shreds on the sand, and that entire corner of the machine looked scorched and pitted.
Bamboo attached a cable to a port hidden on the machine’s hull.
“Crap,” she said after some poking on the terminal. “Oh, wait.”
The robot made a grinding noise, and the turret turned slowly. Nohaile moved over to the side Bamboo was on in a hurry, opposite the gun’s muzzle. It was extremely hot out in the noon sun. Though it reminded him of home, he was concerned. Most of his water was back in the bunker, probably splashed all over the concrete.
“This is not going to cut it,” Bamboo said. “I can only get the weps package to move in maintenance mode, meaning they’d have to
practically walk up and stand still for me to hit them manually.”
Nohaile was going to lower his visor, to protect his eyes, but stopped. “Hit them? I thought all the machines were destroyed.”
“They have twelve guys out here, remember? They aren’t going to give up now. I wouldn’t, in their place. At least, not until I give them a little of their own medicine.” The jackal’s smile again. It made Nohaile shiver inside his armor.
Bamboo pulled her awkwardly-large pistol and pointed it at the sky. It coughed twice, a hollow sound, replaced quickly by rising shrieks that sounded like holiday fireworks.
“It is a flare pistol, after all,” Nohaile said.
“Nope. It’s a drone launcher. I’m going to find those sumbitches and bend the rules a little for our side.”
The eight-wheeled truck sat off its wheels some miles from the State Battlegrounds, propped up on metal jackstands not unlike a mobile crane’s. The resemblance didn’t end there: it had a long pole mounted on a revolving turntable like a crane did and was painted in industrial-looking white and orange safety colors.
The long boom wasn’t for lifting loads on hooks, though. It was the tube of a former 130mm coastal defense gun. When it had been built, it would have needed a crew of five and another two trucks full of equipment. Bamboo had that amount of computer power and more in her handheld console. Getting it to talk to the gun’s systems had been trivial compared to getting the vehicle into the country from Russia.
Once the gun had fired its ready ammo there would be no one to reload it, but that was hardly an issue.
High over the battlefield, the two drones coasted on their burnt-out motors until gravity finally bent their paths back Earthward. Fins sprang from their sides, rotating like falling seed pods as they caught the apparent wind. Suspended from their rotorkites, the bullet-shaped drones opened their camera eyes and beheld the world.
“There they are!” Bamboo almost squealed. “Somebody’s about to find out they signed on to the wrong outfit.”
“Do not kill these men,” Nohaile said suddenly. “This kind of victory, I no longer wish it.” He wanted to spit into the dust, but couldn’t because of the helmet.
“They’re coming for us, Wendell. They don’t have bots, but they do still have guns. The Saturday Night Special club out there is just this close,” Bamboo held up her thumb and forefinger next to each other, “to pulling off the upset victory of the year. And whether you ‘wish it’ or not, I have no intention of surrendering to ease your poor conscience. You signed a contract to abide by the results of the combat, and these are the results.”
Nohaile stepped closer to her. Even without his armor, he was a head taller than she. “Do not fire,” he said quietly. “We’ll surrender.”
“I fired twenty-five seconds ago,” she replied without much concern for his tone. “And ‘we’ will do no such thing. Mister Nohaile, I recommend in your future endeavors you have someone do a better job of reading the fine print on your agreements. They signed away their safety just like we did.”
“Yet, you agreed to it. You were afraid of being ruined. Now, I’m the one that’s ruined unless I win this fight, and probably several to come afterward.”
They locked eyes for several seconds. Nohaile could see nothing human in Bamboo’s.
“Splash,” she said.
There was a noise like cloth ripping. Then the ground vibrated, and detonations in the distance kicked up fountains of dust. The noise from the bursts followed, noise Nohaile could feel in his chest. “I think we’ve just won,” Bamboo said.
The bunker was a ruin when they reached it, caved in around several direct hits. Identifiable parts of bodies were visible from beneath some of the jagged concrete slabs. Nohaile wanted to retch, but couldn’t show any further weakness to Bamboo.
They found the new Mrs. Sintov sprawled in an intact corner. She had no visible wounds, but blood streamed from her eyes, nose, and ears. Bamboo photographed the body with her terminal.
“Concussion,” Bamboo said, shaking her head.
The bride didn’t look very young, or pretty. Nohaile wondered what Sintov had promised her.
Nohaile tasted ashes when he tried to swallow. He wandered away from his capably murderous champion and all the carnage to await the trucks that would bear him away to the fruits of victory.