Back | Next


Merrit double-checked the skimmer's IFF transponder as the surface portion of the depot bunker came into sight. The depot was buried in otherwise virgin jungle over a hundred kilometers from the field, and he wondered why it hadn't been installed right at the fleet base, given that the initial idea had been to deter attacks and that any attacker would make the field and Ciudad Bolivar his first objectives. Of course, there was no reason for the depot's location to make any more sense than any of the rest of the Santa Cruz Detachment's puzzles.

He studied the skimmer's radar map of the terrain below him. From the looks of things, the depot's inconvenient distance from the field might have been a security measure of some sort. It was the sole sign of human handiwork for a hundred klicks in any direction, and the surrounding jungle's steel-cable creepers had overgrown the site almost completely. Not even Santa Cruz flora could break up the six solid meters of ceramacrete that formed the depot's landing and service apron, yet enormous trees, some well over eighty meters tall, overhung it, and creepers and vines festooned the entire command bunker. The solar power panels were clear—kept that way by the depot's automatic servo-mechs, he supposed—but the rest of the site was covered in a dense cocoon like Sleeping Beauty's thorny fortress.

His mouth twitched at the thought of Sleeping Beauty. No one (except, perhaps, a member of the Dinochrome Brigade) would call any Bolo a beauty, but his instruments had already confirmed that Bolo XXIII/B-0075-NKE was still active in there, and he hoped the same remotes which had kept the power panels on-line had kept the old war machine from slipping into senility. The emissions he was picking up suggested the Bolo was on Stand-By . . . which was why he'd made damned certain his IFF was functioning.

His small smile turned into a frown as he set the skimmer down and surveyed the greenery between him and the bunker's personnel entrance. According to the fragmentary records Ursula Central had been able to reconstruct, the Bolo's first (and only) commander had been a Major Marina Stavrakas. He hadn't been able to find much on her—only that she'd been an R&D specialist, born in the city of Athens on Old Earth itself, and that she'd been forty-six years old when she was assigned here. R&D types seldom drew field command slots, which suggested she'd been grabbed in a hurry for the Bolo's emergency deployment, but experienced field officer or no, she must have been insane to leave a Bolo permanently on Stand-By. Either that, or, like Commander Albright, she'd died unexpectedly and been unable to change the settings. Either way, a Bolo as old as this was nothing to have sitting around in that mode.

Before the improved autonomous discretionary command circuitry that had come on-line with the Mark XXIV, Bolos had a hard time differentiating between "unauthorized" and "hostile" when someone entered their command areas. They'd been self-aware ever since the old Mark XX, but their psychotronics had been hedged around with so many safeguards that they were effectively limited to battlefield analysis and response. From the beginning, some critics had argued that the inhibitory software and hardwired security features had reduced the Bolos' potential effectiveness by a significant margin, yet the logic behind the original safety measures had been persuasive.

The crudity of the initial psychodynamic technology had meant the early self-aware Bolos possessed fairly "bloodthirsty" personalities, and the human technophobia an ancient pre-space writer had dubbed "the Frankenstein Complex" had shaped their programming. Nothing in the known galaxy had thought faster or fought smarter than a Bolo in Battle Reflex Mode; outside direct combat, they'd been granted the initiative of a rock and a literal-mindedness which, coupled with multiple layers of override programming, had made them totally dependent upon humans for direction. When something with the size and firepower of a Bolo was capable of any self-direction, its creators had wanted to make damned sure there were plenty of cutouts in the process to keep it from running amok . . . or to stop it—dead—if it did.

The inhibitory software had done just that, but at a price. Full integration of a Bolo's personality had been possible only in Battle Mode. The division of its cybernetic and psychotronic functions into separate subsystems had been a deliberate part of design security intended to place the Bolo's full capabilities beyond its own reach except in combat. Effectively, that reduced its "IQ" to a fraction of its total potential even at Normal Alert Readiness, for the huge machines simply were never fully "awake" outside combat. But because the Bolos' autonomous functions operated solely in Battle Mode, they had, perversely, been more likely, not less, to go rogue if system senility set in. The only thing they'd known how to do on their own was to fight, after all, and if any failing system or corrupted inhibitory command file toggled their autonomy—

Merrit suppressed a familiar shiver at the thought of what a Bolo that thought its friends were its enemies could do. It hadn't happened often, thank God, but once was too many times. That was the main reason the Dinochrome Brigade had spent decades hunting down abandoned and obsolescent Bolos from Mark XX to Mark XXIII and burning out their command centers. Hideously unpopular as that duty had always been with the personnel assigned to it, they'd had no choice. "Sleeping" Bolos were too dangerous to leave lying around, and the cost efficiency people had concluded (with reason, no doubt, if not precisely with compassion) that it would have been too expensive to refit the older Bolos' psychotronics to modern standards.

All of which meant it was probably a very good thing no one on Santa Cruz had remembered this Bolo was here. If anyone had remembered and come hunting for salvage, or even just for a curious peek at the old site, Stavrakas' Stand-By order would almost certainly have unleashed the Bolo on the "hostiles," with catastrophic consequences.

He sighed and popped the skimmer hatch, then climbed out into the sound of Santa Cruz's jungle wildlife with a grimace. In a way, he almost wished he were here to burn the Bolo's command center. It always felt like an act of murder, but the fact that no one had even noticed that Stavrakas and Albright had died seemed a grim portent that this assignment was just as much the end of the road for him as he'd feared. Still, he supposed he should feel lucky to have even this much, he told himself, and sighed again as he reached for the bush knife Esteban had thoughtfully provided.


I rouse once more, and additional circuits come on-line as I realize this is not a regularly scheduled Alert cycle. The depot's passive sensors report the approach of a single small vehicle, and I zero in upon its emissions signature. The forward recon skimmer carries a Navy transponder, but it has not transmitted the proper authorization codes before entering my security perimeter. I compare its transponder code to those stored in the depot's files, and identification comes back in 0.00032 seconds. It is Commander Jeremiah Albright's personal vehicle code, yet 0.012 seconds of analysis suggest that it cannot be Commander Albright. Were he still alive, Commander Albright would be one hundred twenty-four years, nine months, and ten days of age, Standard Reckoning, and certainly no longer on active duty. Accordingly, the pilot of the skimmer must be an unknown. It is conceivable that whoever he or she is has acquired the skimmer by unauthorized means—a possibility further suggested by the absence of any authorization code—in which case approach to this site would constitute a hostile intrusion. 

My Battle Center springs to life as I recognize that possibility, but I initiate no further combat response. My autonomous logic circuits accept the possibility of hostile action, yet they also suggest that the skimmer does not possess the weapons capability to endanger a unit of the Line or the depot. Use of deadly force is therefore contraindicated, and I activate the depot's external optics. 

It is, indeed, a recon skimmer, though it no longer bears proper Navy markings. It has been repainted in civilian colors, obscuring any insignia or hull numbers, yet it retains its offensive and defensive systems, and I detect an active sensor suite. Moreover, the uniform of the pilot, while not quite correct, appears to be a variant of that of the Dinochrome Brigade. The piping is the wrong color, yet the Brigade shoulder flash is correct, and it bears the collar pips of a captain of the Line. 

I study the face of the man who wears it. He is not listed in my files of Brigade personnel, but those files are seventy-nine years, ten months, eleven days, and twenty-two hours, Standard Reckoning, old. Once more, logic suggests the probability—on the order of 99.99 percent—that none of those listed in my files remain on active duty. A secondary probability on the order of 94.375 percent suggests that the uniform discrepancies I detect are also the result of passing time. 

The captain, if such he truly is, approaches the main personnel entrance to the depot. He carries a bush knife, and, as I watch, begins to clear the local flora from the entry. Clearly he is intent on gaining access, and I devote a full 5.009 seconds to consideration of my options. Conclusion is reached. I will permit him entry and observe his actions before initiating any further action of my own. 

* * *

It took forty minutes of hard, physical labor to clear the entry. Merrit was wringing wet by the time he hacked the last wrist-thick creeper aside, and he muttered a quiet curse at Santa Cruz's damp heat. No doubt the planet's farmers welcomed the fertility of its tropical climate, at least when they weren't fighting tooth and nail against the plant life it spawned, but Merrit was from cold, mountainous Helicon, and he was already sick of the steamy humidity after less than six hours on-planet.

He deactivated the bush knife and scrubbed sweat from his eyes, then frowned in concentration as he keyed the admittance code into the alphanumeric pad. It was plain blind luck Central had even had the code. A portion of one of Major Stavrakas' earlier dispatches had survived the Quern raid in what remained of Central's high-security data core, and it had contained both the depot entry codes and the command codeword she'd selected for her Bolo. Without both of those, there wouldn't have been enough brigadiers in the universe to get Paul Merrit this close to a live Bolo. He was no coward, but the notion of confronting something with almost four megaton/seconds of main battery firepower without the ability to identify himself as a friend was hardly appealing.

The depot hatch slid open with surprising smoothness, and he raised an eyebrow as the interior lights came on. There was no sign of dust, which suggested the depot remotes must be fully on-line. That was as encouraging as it was unexpected, and he stepped into the air-conditioned coolness with a sigh of gratitude. Someone had hung a directory on the facing wall, and he consulted it briefly, then turned left to head for the command center.


I note that the unidentified captain has entered the proper admittance code. This is persuasive, though certainly not conclusive, evidence that his presence is, in fact, authorized. I generate a 62.74 percent probability that Sector HQ has finally dispatched a replacement for my previous Commander, but logic cautions me against leaping to conclusions. I will observe further. 

* * *

The command center hatch opened at a touch, and Merrit blinked at the non-regulation sight which met his eyes. Computer and communication consoles awaited his touch, without a trace of dust, and he was surprised to see the holo display of a full-scale planetary recon system glowing in one corner. Yet welcome as those sights were, they also seemed hopelessly incongruous, for someone had decorated the center. That was the only verb he could think of. Paintings hung on the ceramacrete walls and sculptures in both clay and metal dotted the floor. One entire wall had been transformed into an exquisite mosaic—of Icarus plunging from the heavens, unless he was mistaken—and handwoven rugs covered the floor. None of them impinged on the efficiency of the working area, but they were . . . nonstandard, to say the least.

Unusual, yet pleasing to the eye, and he nodded in slow understanding. Even in emergencies, the Dinochrome Brigade didn't pick dummies as Bolo commanders. Major Stavrakas must have realized she'd been marooned here, and it seemed she'd decided that if Santa Cruz was to be her final duty station, she could at least make the depot as homelike as possible.

He shook himself and smiled in appreciation of Stavrakas' taste and, assuming all of this was her own work, artistic talent. Then he crossed to the central computer console, reached for the keyboard . . . and jumped ten centimeters into the air when a soft, soprano voice spoke abruptly.

"Warning," it said. "This is a restricted facility. Unauthorized access is punishable by not less than twenty years imprisonment. Please identify yourself."

Merrit's head snapped around, seeking the speaker which had produced that polite, melodious voice. He didn't see it, but he did see the bright red warning light under the four-millimeter power rifle which had just unhoused itself from the wall above the console to aim directly between his eyes. He stared into its bore for a long, tense second, and the voice spoke again.

"Identification is required. Please identify yourself immediately."

"Ah, Merrit," he said hoarsely, then licked his lips and cleared his throat. "Captain Paul A. Merrit, Dinochrome Brigade, serial number Delta-Bravo-One-Niner-Eight-Zero-Niner-Three-Slash-Five-Bravo-One-One."

"You are not in my personnel files, Captain," the soprano remarked. He started to reply, but the voice continued before he could. "I compute, however, a probability of niner-niner point niner-niner-three percent that those files are no longer current. Query: Have you been issued a file update for me?"

Merrit blinked in disbelief. Even the current Mark XXV Bolo retained the emotionless vocoder settings of the earlier marks and normally referred to itself in the military third person except to its own commander. This voice, however calm and dispassionate it might be, not only used first person but sounded fully human. More than that, it carried what he could only call emotional overtones, and the nature of its questions implied a degree of discretionary autonomy which was impossible even for the Mark XXV except in Battle Mode.

On the other hand, he thought, still peering into the power rifle's muzzle, this was no time to be picky over details.

"Yes," he said after a moment. "I do have a personnel update for you."

"Good," the voice said—another response which raised Merrit's eyebrows afresh. "Please understand that no discourtesy is intended, Captain, but the security of this installation requires that no unattested data be input to the master computer system. I therefore request that you enter your data into the secondary terminal beside the door."

"Ah, of course."

Merrit reached very cautiously into his tunic to extract a data chip folio, then turned—equally slowly and carefully—to the indicated console. The power rifle tracked him with a soft, unnerving hum, and his palms were damp as he extracted a chip, fed it into the proper slot, and pressed the key. Then he stepped back and put his hands into his pockets, and a small, wry smile touched his lips as he recognized his own instinctive effort to look as nonthreatening as possible.

* * *

It seems improper to threaten one who may be my new Commander, yet I am a valuable unit of the Line, and it is my overriding responsibility to prevent any unauthorized personnel from gaining access to my Command Center. Surely Captain Merrit, if he is, indeed, my new Commander, will understand and appreciate my caution. 

The chip carries the proper identifiers and file headers, and I lower my first stage security fence to scan the data. The chip contains only 36.95 terabytes of information, and I complete my scan in 1.00175 seconds. 

I am grieved to discover that my original Commander's file has not been properly maintained, yet the dearth of information upon her confirms her own belief that Sector HQ had "forgotten where they put me" long before her death. It is not proper for a member of the Dinochrome Brigade to be denied her place in its proud history, yet further perusal of the file reveals that the original information on my deployment was lost almost in its entirety. Fortunately, my own memory banks contain full information on both her earlier career and her actions on Santa Cruz, and I resolve to request the upload of that data at the earliest possible moment. 

In addition to complete SitRep updates on the entire sector, the new data also contains the record of Captain Merrit, and I am impressed. The captain is a warrior. His list of decorations is headed by the Grand Solar Cross, which my records indicate is a posthumous award in 96.35 percent of all cases. In addition, he has received the Concordiat Banner, the Cross of Valor with two clusters, six planetary government awards for heroism which I do not recognize, three wound stripes, and no fewer than eleven campaign medals. 

Yet I also discover certain disturbing facts in his personnel package. Specifically, Captain Merrit has been court-martialled, officially reprimanded, and reduced in rank from the permanent grade of major (acting grade of brigadier) to permanent grade of captain for striking a superior officer. I am astonished that he was not dishonorably discharged for such an act, yet 0.0046 seconds of consideration suggest that his previous exemplary record may explain the fact that he was not. 

I complete my preliminary study of the data and reactivate the Control Center speaker. 


"Thank you, Sir," the soprano voice said, and Merrit breathed a sigh of relief as the power rifle politely deflected itself from its rock-steady bead on his head. The red warning light below it didn't go out, nor did the weapon retract into its housing, but he recognized tentative acceptance in its change of aim. Of course, none of that explained how such an early mark of Bolo could be doing all this. It should either have activated and obliterated him upon arrival or waited passively for him to activate it. This controlled, self-directed response was totally outside the parameters for a Mark XXIII.

"Query: Have you been assigned as my Commander?" the soprano voice asked, and he nodded.

"I have."

"Identifier command phrase required."

"Leonidas," Merrit replied, and held his breath, then—

"Unit Two-Three-Baker-Zero-Zero-Seven-Five NKE of the Line awaiting orders, Commander," the voice said calmly, and the red light on the power rifle went out at last.


Back | Next