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Written by William Ledbetter
Illustrated by Laura Givens



Sam gripped the cargo locks on the floor as tightly as he could, but still swayed back and forth each time the Osprey zigged or zagged along its radar-avoiding slalom course. A frustrated Ernie Ochoa tried to mount a defensive pod on one of Sam's three attachment points.

"Hold still, Sam. This is hard enough without you doing the hula."

Sam tried to cinch himself tighter.

The plane jerked again and one of the troopers in the back vomited. Dozens of lasers felt out the terrain, keeping the blind aircraft from clipping trees, power lines and radio towers as it flew under radar. The computer-controlled plane did its job well, but the flight equations cared little about passenger comfort or last minute additions to robots like Sam.

"You scare me, Ochoa," Clef yelled from the other side of the plane. "You talk to that damned thing like it's your bedroom buddy."

Several people snickered as Ochoa made the connection and locked the defensive pod into place.

Sam started diagnostics. Servos whirred as he cycled through launchers for taser darts, fire pellets, tear gas canisters and wire netting. Then he armed the targeting system and observed as the pod's sensors locked onto and identified every movement in the cabin.

Ochoa grinned. "Hey, Sam! Do you think Clef is jealous of your equipment?"

A direct question. Sam searched forand found a tag attached to Clifford Harmon's data. The squad called him Clef because he played classical violin. Sam searched his response tree.

"He probably has good reason," Sikes said from her seat next to Ochoa. "I doubt that his equipment measures up to Sam's."

Everyone close enough to hear the exchange laughed.

Sam adjusted the weighting of his responses.

"Well, my dear, you sure didn't complain the last time you invited me in for some mattress poundin'," Clef said with a grin.

Whoops and whistles filled the dark cabin.

"Your right arm was the only thing poundin'," she said amid more laughter.

Sam flagged Clef as being Harmon's preferred name, then scanned the soldier's weapons and gear. All standard combat issue. After searching the tree of possible responses again, Sam selected the best one. He knew the answer would be irrelevant, but he had to respond because Ochoa had directly addressed him.

"I have an automated defensive pod," Sam said. "Clef could have the same equipment, but would have to carry a separate battery pack."

"What is this shit?" Clef said. "I wish you wouldn't let that thing talk, Ochoa. It creeps me out. And don't call me Clef, you tin can, only soldiers can call me Clef!"

Sam changed Harmon's tag again. He kept thetag but would only address him as Harmon. He then locked into the comm-net and cycled through the soldiers' bio-monitors. Other than elevated pre-battle stress levels and some nausea, all the troopers reported normal.

"You'll see," Ochoa said. "Sam has some slick moves. He can do a lot that I can't."

"Well, if I get hit, just send me to the field hospital," Clef said with a snort. "I don't want a mechanical crab poking around inside me."

Lieutenant Wei came back from the cockpit and rapped the floor with his rifle butt. "Listen up troopers! We've just crossed the border and have about three minutes. Armor and equipment checks. Remember this is a politically sensitive mission, non-lethal rounds only."

After the lieutenant went forward again, Clef slammed the bench with a clenched fist. "This is a bunch of shit! Non-lethal rounds? Who the hell are these turds anyway?"

Ochoa shrugged.

The red lights flashed, the lieutenant returned and the rear ramp started to open slowly.

"This is it, people! The whole place has been dusted with fire-pellets, so if we're real lucky, there'll be very little resistance. Let's make it quick, get in, grab that hostage and get out."

Before the ramp even touched ground, troopers began leaping out into the ankle-deep snow. Sam set his defensive pod to auto-response and followed Ochoa as weapons fire started sizzling against the Osprey's slough armor.

" 'Little resistance,' my ass!" Ochoa said and darted for cover as the Osprey poured on full power and raced out of range.

Sam's night vision filters revealed incapacitated defenders writhing on the ground all around them. The fire-pellets delivered by drone only minutes before had burrowed through clothing, then initiated hundreds of electric nerve stimulations that made human skin feel like it was on fire. The combatants would be unhurt once the pellets were deactivated, but until then they wouldn't be a threat.

Sam scanned the walled compound and compared it to the mission map they had uploaded during prep. A central courtyard, a parade field and fourteen single-story, stone and wood structures. It matched. Flashing icons appeared on his tactical display, one for each soldier of the twenty member team. He also had two yellows for the surveillance drones and four green lights for the LAMEs (Lifter, Armored, Medical Evacuation) that were still deploying from two other Ospreys a mile away. In the center of one building a red X flashed. It was the GPS locator implant in the missing envoy. She had been moved to a building on the north end of the compound, nearly 200 meters from their landing zone.

"Holy, shit!" Clef yelled. "Take cover, they have ComBots!"

Sam scanned the squad's comm-net as his defensive pod searched for nearby threats. Armor piercing rounds tore through the sides of buildings and tossed up clouds of dirt as three combat robots advanced, pinning the squad down in the south end of the compound.

"Shit! Aren't ComBots illegal," Ochoa said as he tried to burrow into the frozen ground.

A direct question. Sam scanned his general information database and formed a response. "Terrorist organizations are seldom signatories on international treaties."

The corner of a nearby building disintegrated in a cloud of stone and mortar. Clef's bio-monitor alerted Sam to an injury. Three leg wounds.

"Harmon's hit," Sam sent to Ochoa and the lieutenant, then darted across the ten meters of broken glass and swirling dust to reach the wounded soldier.

"Where are you hit, Harmon?" Sam already knew, but talking to the troopers sometimes helped calm them. His readings showed that three small bullet fragments had pierced Clef's leg and were already engaged by active medical nanos. The inner uniform layer contained a fluid that not only helped to maintain a constant body temperature, but also carried millions of medical repair nanos that automatically looked for blood loss if the layer was punctured.

"My leg. Damn!"

Sam scanned the feed from the microscopic robots in Clef's wounds. They had already stopped the bleeding and were knitting protective sleeves around the intrusive metal shards. It would keep them from doing further damage until they could be removed.

Another hail of bullets crumbled more wall onto them. Sam grabbed the loading eyelet on the back of the wounded man's armor and dragged him across the hard packed snow into a narrow alley.

The young man gritted his teeth and grunted in pain. "Leave me alone you stupid fuck! MEDIC!"

Sam determined that Clef wasn't in any immediate danger and sent that information to Ochoa. He grabbed Clef's leg and tried to seal the wounds, but each time his glue nozzle neared the holes, the man shoved it away.

Through the comm-net, Lieutenant Wei ordered everyone in the harried squad to stay under cover until the Ospreys were able to target the ComBots for a hot plasma strike.

"Medic!" Clef yelled again.

Sam tried to close the wounds one more time, but to no avail. "Harmon, your wounds aren't serious and the lieutenant ordered us to stay under cover."

"Screw off, you damn machine! How do you know they aren't serious? Shut up! I want a medic!"

"Clef, evac's on the way," Ochoa said over the comm-net. "I'm coming up."

Sam's defensive pod sent a warning as one of the ComBots stepped into the opposite end of the alley about twenty meters away and started firing. Sam crawled over a writhing, fire-pellet infested defender to shield Clef with his rear armor. He then called to Ochoa over the comm-net. "Go back!"

It was too late. A half second later the medic entered their end of the alley at a full run. Ochoa's monitor sent an alarm and Sam turned in time to see the man fall to his knees. He grabbed at a ragged hole in his upper left chest armor then fell face first into the snow.

"Shit, shit, oh shit!" Clef pounded his fist on the ground. "Ochoa!"

A level one alert from Ochoa's bio-monitor launched Sam into motion. He considered over four hundred actions in less than a micro-second, then grabbed the disabled rebel, found the implanted "friendly" transmitter, cut it out and sealed the incision. With the same glue, he attached the flea sized transmitter to the exposed skin on Clef's wounded leg just before a round hit square on Sam's armor and pushed him a half meter down the filthy alley.

"What're you doin? What'd you put in me?" Clef demanded. "Christ, that hurts! And I got the medic shot! Damn, damn, damn!"

Sam ignored Clef as he scampered the rest of the way to Ochoa, whose vitals were already dropping. Clef was half moaning, half sobbing, "I'm sorry, Ernie! Jesus, I'm sorry!"

Sam had to stabilize Ochoa and stop the bleeding before moving him. He rolled Ochoa over, injected nanos into the wound, stuffed tissue fluff into the gurgling hole and covered it with a compress.




Sam's defensive pod sent an alarm as it launched impotent taser rounds at the advancing ComBot. The spider-like robot stopped with its heavy caliber guns pointing down, inches from Clef's chest, but seemed momentarily confused. Clef's vitals spiked on the bio-monitor and then he urinated. Then the ComBot swung its guns to the right and fired three rounds into the squirming rebel, before continuing its advance toward the downed medic.

Sam turned so that his rear armor protected Ochoa's head and torso, just before a volley of close range shells slammed into him, flipped him over and left him on his back two meters away from his patient.

His rollover routine tried again and again to flip his crab-like body upright, but the piston was damaged and wouldn't fully extend. He sent a general message that he needed help, but no one answered, except Clef.

"Get up, Sam, keep trying!"

The ComBot straddled Ochoa but didn't shoot him. Targeting lasers from a nearby Osprey danced all around them, and the killer robot knew that a wounded man worked well as a shield. It instead fired at the hovering plane until it ducked out of sight behind a building.

Sam's tactical display indicated that part of the team had already surrounded the building containing the hostage and he heard Lieutenant Wei stop the plasma strike.

Ochoa's status monitor showed that the nanos were working furiously on the bleeding, but they were losing ground. Sam had to act. He used the damaged piston to push him as far as possible, then turned his defensive pod toward the ground and fired a burst of taser rounds. The recoil tipped his center of gravity just enough. He flipped over and started toward Ochoa as the LAME dropped into the alley from above.

"Ernie!" Sikes yelled from down the alley behind Clef. "Hang on, Ernie. I'm coming!"

The ComBot turned its guns toward Sikes, but noticed Sam's sudden movement and whipped them back around. Sam leapt forward, underneath the guns, so that when they fired, the rounds merely grazed his rear armor. Taking advantage of his forward momentum, he shoved upward, extending to his full height. The robot was well made and didn't tip over, but it did stagger backward. Sam fired two wire net rounds—one at the ComBot's legs and one at the targeting sensors—in an effort to slow the thing down by tangling it up for a couple of seconds.

A scream and a thud announced Sikes' arrival. She hit the ComBot low, tipping it on its back, then using the tangled wire netting, strapped a concussion grenade under the armored carapace.

"Get down!" she yelled and dove for cover behind Sam.

Sam instructed the LAME, little more than a pair of armored canisters located between two ducted fans, to land between them and the ComBot. The grenade's detonation blew ComBot pieces into the air and spun the descending lifter like a falling leaf, but it still protected them.

Sam could hear Sikes cursing and checked her bio-monitor. She had several small abrasions and a torn ligament in her right elbow. He flagged her injuries as level three and returned to Ochoa.

The comm-net roared with screamed orders to other troopers and the Ospreys. Sam instructed the battered LAME to land near Clef as two bright flashes announced the arrival of plasma shells that turned the other two ComBots into sagging composite heaps.

"Sikes! Help me move Ochoa," Sam said. They dragged the wounded man deeper into the alley next to Clef. Once under cover, Sam opened the chest armor, cut the shirt away and made a small incision on either side of the wound.

"What are you doing? Get him into a LAME!" Clef yelled. Clef's bio-monitor reported that his inner uniform layer absorbed the urine before it could contaminate his open wounds.

A direct question. "Ochoa needs immediate intervention or he will die before getting to a hospital," Sam said. He inserted the probes, found a hole in the lung and glued it closed.

Sikes gave Clef a withering look and turned back to her wounded comrade. "Sam saved your life, asshole, now put a sock in it," she said.

Ochoa woke up and began to moan. His hands and heels dug into the muddy snow.

"Sikes, I'm not done yet. Please hold him down," Sam said.

She dropped her rifle and tried to pin Ochoa's arms but he was very strong, in pain and easily broke free.

Clef dragged himself over, grabbed the flailing right arm and instructed Sikes to take the other. "Do your stuff, robot."

With each of them holding an arm and Sam's own weight on the man's waist, he was able to inject more nanos and apply a compress.

Ochoa gritted his teeth and stopped struggling long enough for Sam to pull the IV line from the LAME and attach it to his right arm. Status on the nanos showed that they were flooding the nerve centers near the wound with pain killers and as a confirmation, Ochoa relaxed and took a deep breath.

Sam hooked the recovery cable to the back of Ochoa's armor eyelet, winched him into the armored tube and sent instructions for Ochoa's care to the LAME. Only then did he check the nearby rebel soldier. He was already dead.

Lieutenant Wei darted around the corner followed by two troopers dragging a limp form. "Is Ochoa going to make it?"

A direct question. "Yes, sir," Sam said. "But he needs a hospital."

"Here's the hostage. She's been shot—at close range. Bastards. Do what you can."

Sam could see that she'd been hit once in the throat and once in the chest. He went to work immediately, injecting nanos to stop the blood flow and to report the damage, but he didn't wait for their input. He shoved a breathing tube down the ruined throat, started the oxygen flow and attached a portable bio-monitor to her arm.

"Sikes, stay here and cover them," the lieutenant said then moved to the end of the alley and began sending orders to secure the Osprey's landing site.

"What can I do?" Sikes said.

A direct question. "Cover us, like the lieutenant ordered. Harmon, I need the other IV line," Sam said.

The nano data began to trickle in giving Sam a better picture of her condition. She'd lost too much blood. She was dying. He grabbed the IV line from Clef, but her heart stopped beating before he could attach it. With accelerated movements, Sam finished connecting the IV, opened her chest and found damage to the subclavian artery. In less than a second he had sealed the rupture with glue and fluff, then began resuscitation. He jammed electrodes into her chest.

"Clear!" he said. The electric jolts made the woman's body jerk. After the second try, her heart started beating.

The compound erupted with shouts and the sound of small arms fire.

"Let's go!" The lieutenant said over the comm-net. "The fire pellets deactivated early and these creeps are really pissed."

"Shit!" Clef and Sikes said simultaneously as an alarm sounded from Sam's defensive pod.

Two rebel soldiers fired at them from the other end of the alley, but their still jumpy muscles sent the rounds high. Sam tried to shield his patient from the spray of plaster, brick and glass that showered down from above. He added tissue fluff and a compress to the open wound, then attached the recovery line to the woman with a sling and helped the winch ease her into the LAME. The nanos reported that she was starting to stabilize.

As soon as the hatches sealed over the hostage and Ochoa, he sent the emergency return order. The lifter went to full power, covering everyone with billowing snow as it disappeared into the night sky.

Per standard procedure, Sam called for another LAME, and then started checking the bio-monitors of the remaining troopers. His defensive pod again sounded a warning and Sam saw a grenade sliding down the snow packed alley, but Sikes and Clef were looking the other way. Sam grabbed each of them by a leg, yanked them down and turned his rear armor toward the grenade. It exploded about two meters from him.




When the snow and steam cleared, Sam couldn't move.

He could see and even had network contact to the rest of the squad, but he couldn't move. He sent a status message to Lieutenant Wei, and then scanned the soldiers' bio-monitors again. Sikes had sustained minor wounds to her mouth and nose when her face hit the ground. Clef had broken two fingers, clean fractures that should not prevent him from playing violin.

Sam tried to get up but couldn't.

"Sikes!" Sam yelled. "You have nano bulbs and a compress in your first aid kit. Get someone to help you."

Small arms fire raked the walls as two Ospreys arrived and hovered overhead, creating an icy wind storm that drowned out the lieutenant's barked orders. Sam switched to the command channel on comm-net.

"Mount up! Let's get out of here!" the lieutenant yelled as rope ladders dropped from the planes.

Sam watched as the squad scrambled one by one up the swinging ladders beneath an umbrella of cover fire from the planes. He ran diagnostics on his self-destruct mechanism, determined it was in working order and triggered the seven minute timer.

Clef grabbed Sam with his good hand and dragged him over to the ladder.

"C'mon, Clef!" Sikes yelled.

"This sucker's heavy. I can't lift him with this bum hand. Help me get him hooked to the ladder," Clef said.

"He's a robot, Clef!" she said, but slung her rifle and helped anyway.

"I have activated my self-destruct mechanism in order to prevent the capture of sensitive technology. Please stand clear," Sam said.

"No way, tin can," Clef said. "You saved my ass twice. You're comin' with us."

Sam aborted the self-destruct routine.

"You should get off that leg, Harmon," Sam said, but Clef was gone and he was being lifted above the snow into a waiting Osprey.

Five minutes later they were weaving their way through the mountains toward the coast along a new course. They strapped Sam to the floor next to Clef's wounded leg. He checked each monitor, noted that the nanos in the hostage, Ochoa and Clef were working well.

"Hey Sam! You still with us?" asked Sikes. She was behind him somewhere and he couldn't see her.

"Yes. How is your mouth?" Sam said. "Doesn't it hurt too much to talk?"

"No, it's fine now, Sam," she said. "Just a fat lip."

"Yeah," Clef said. "We thought it would shut her up too, Sam. But never underestimate a woman's yakking ability."

No one laughed.

"You saved my ass back there, Sam," Sikes said. "Too bad I can't buy you a drink when we get back."

"Careful, Sam," Clef said. "She's trying to pick you up. Musta been all that talk about your equipment earlier."

Sikes ignored Clef.

Sam couldn't identify a direct question, but since his equipment was mentioned, his response tree settled on a simple status report. "My equipment is damaged."

This time the soldiers laughed.

"Sam?" Sikes said. "How's Ernie? Do you still have a link to his bio-monitor?"

A direct question. "Yes. Ochoa is stabilized," Sam said then scanned his response options and added. "He's going to be okay."

The soldiers grew quiet. Sam could hear one snoring and thought he heard Sikes sniffling. He wondered if her nose might be bleeding because of the grenade and checked her monitor.

Clef patted Sam's pitted and broken armor casing. "I owe you too, Sam. You're the best momma a soldier ever had. Oh and Sam, from now on you can call me Clef."

Sam changed the tag on Harmon's file. After scanning possible responses he didn't know what to say, so he kept quiet.

* * *


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