Archive for the one-shot Category

Demo Day! The Man of Macedonia

Posted in one-shot with tags on July 18, 2013 by David N. Brown

Here’s another excerpt from “XX Exotroopers” in progress.  I have tried to use more self-contained vignettes that don’t tie directly into the main storyline, but I decided this chapter was worth making an exception.  I did write this in the spirit of a “demo”, to introduce the villain of the story.  The character is based in part on a Marvel comics character, the Purple Man.

It was a mixed and motley force, even by the standards of the Balkans.  There were two dozen men, most of whom would under any other circumstances be shooting at each other: Six were in the uniforms of Serbia, six in the uniforms of Albania, and the rest were Kosovar irregulars.  The men in Albanian uniforms looked almost as uncomfortable to be in the company of their kin as they did in the company of the Serbs; they stood well apart, speaking in the Tosk dialect that dominated Albania.  The Kosovars were more amiable, joking in the northern Geg dialect, but a number of them were eying clan crests sewn on each others’ uniforms, and remembering blood feuds that had claimed more Shqiptar lives than all of Albania’s wars combined.  All looked up at the approach of clopping hooves.

It was no ordinary horse that descended down the mountain trail.  Its build was unusual, more like a mule than a horse, and its head was covered by a gas mask.  Its hide, where it was not covered by a fabric skirt, was a pale and unwholesomely mottled gray.  The rider was clearly even less ordinary, dressed in a biohazard suit.  A clear visor in the hood revealed white skin but features that were subtly African, especially a large nose.  “I am Dr. Nibeaux,” said the rider.  “I am chief of bioweapons development for the Republic of Serbia.  By the order of General Rausch, I am commander of this operation.”

He drew a five-barreled miniature rocket launcher.  “At this moment, the most battle-hardened squad of Serbia’s exotrooper corps is closing in on a location a short distance from here where the individual known only as the Man of Macedonia is in hiding.  As you are all too aware, the Macedonian has crossed the line from opposing Serbia’s occupation of Kosovo to setting himself up as warlord of the municipality of Prizren. His reign of terror has claimed hundreds of lives, most of them fellow Shqiptars.  He has made himself a threat to all sides of the current conflict, and his activities threaten to destabilize Macedonia as well.  That is why our respective superiors approved a joint operation to neutralize the Macedonian.

General Rausch’s express orders are for the Macedonian to be taken alive. That responsibility is in the finbacks’ more than capable hands. Your assignment is to clear a safe passage through the warlord’s territory, and neutralize any attempt to rescue the warlord. However, you must be prepared for the eventuality of an encounter with the Macedonian.  No one has seen the Macedonian’s face, but his appearance is well-known: An improvised mask, usually a scarf, a traditional plis cap and fustanella, all purple.  If contact is made, your express orders are as follows:  Insert the earplugs you are provided with, and fire concussion and gas grenades, in that order. Do not approach the Macedonian.  Do not attempt communication with the Macedonian, or respond to any attempt at communication.  If you see any individual speaking with the Macedonian, terminate that individual on sight.  If you fail to follow these orders, I am authorized to terminate you immediately.  Are these orders clear?”


The building had obviously been built as an Ottoman mosque, complete with minaret and dome.  It had not been built for easy access.  The dome almost directly abutted a mountain crag, and the rear of the mosque looked almost directly over a one-hundred meter drop.  A front couryard extended around the left side to the base of the minaret, ending at a somewhat less sheer drop. The only connection to the outside world was a stone bridge across a chasm to a narrow mountain road, currently covered liberally with snow and ice.

There was a faint jingle as Dreadlocks leaned out from beneath the arch of the bridge.  He himself did not hear it.  The only sound he heard was a hint of a hum.  The finbacks’ safety systems included cut-outs in their inner helmets, which normally engaged in the event of an explosion or other sound sufficient to damage the human ear.  The cut-outs not only disengaged audio sensors, but created white noise that theoretically could dampen the effects of a concussive blast. Dreadlocks was sure it was giving him a headache.  He looked up, drew back, and tapped a message on a texting pad added to his left forearm grenade launcher: UIJN POSIKTRION.  “Piece of kaka,” he muttered to nobody but himself.

A new message appeared: 70 M FLEA NOT MUCH HIGHER.  It was from the Tick.

CLOS 2 TOP W8TNG 4 LRDRS.  That was the Flea.

Jebanje kaka,” Dreadlocks hissed.  He tapped keys using a pin: END TXT FIN APRCH LASR SIGS.  As soon as the message was sent, he smashed his text pad against the bridge.  Then he anchored a cable in the stone and let the line drop down into the chasm.  Two squires climbed up from below.  On the other side of the bridge, two more squires came into view on a ledge 10 meters lower and set up a power winch.

A masked, angular visage peered furtively around the corner of the minaret.  A toilet seat collar identified him as the Tick.  He hefted a 3cm automatic grenade launcher and pointed into the air.  A laser beam shimmered in the falling snow, giving the signal that he was in position.  A second beam flashed from halfway up the other side of the minaret, and the Flea leaned out to give a thumbs up.

A sentry on the entrance portico looked up at an odd whiffing sound.  He saw his counterpart on the other side of the entrance, slouched against the wall as usual, but starting to slump.  He was reaching for his weapon when he took two darts in the chest.  Dreadlocks waved a compressed-air dart gun, flashing a signal with the laser sight on the far side of the chasm.  Then he and one of the squires started climbing up the portico columns to the roof.

The squires on the ledge put more power into the winch.  At last the load came into view: Sunflower, in full armor with some especially large burden on his back.  The squires hauled him onto the ledge, then pulled him after as they retreated from the crumbling edges.  Sunflower handed off parts of his load, including two wheels and halves of a gunshield, and then they ventured up a marginal path to the road.

The Flea pulled himself up over the stone railing of a balcony that marked the second tier of the minaret.  He had stripped down his armor more than usual, leaving even the outer helmet behind.  A footbridge ran from the balcony to the roof ot the main building, but his goal was the spire, just seven meters above the balcony. After a moment’s thought, he stood up on the rail, and leaped.  In the highest chamber of the minaret, a gauntled hand barely caught hold of the sill.  Metal claws dug in, and the Flea  hauled himself up and in.  He was halfway in when he looked up and froze.

A beautiful woman stood before him, smiling. Her eyes were a piercing green, her dark hair was tied up in a kind of topknot,  and she wore what looked like a pleated purble skirt under her coat.  She smiled and spoke.  The Flea shook his head and pointed to the cymbal-like shock absorber in the side of his helmet.  She gave a sweet, pleading smile, and the Flea disengaged the cutouts.

Please, sir,” the woman said, “can you help me?”

I’m here to catch a warlord,” the Flea said.  “He’s really, seriously bad news.  Say, are you a prisoner?”

The woman nodded. “Yes, I am his prisoner,” she said.  “He has complete dominion over me.”

Is he here?” the Flea asked.  “You should probably get out of here, if you can.”

Yes, he is very close,” said the woman.  “But I can go soon.  I just need a little help.  You want to help, don’t you?”  The Flea nodded
enthusiatically.  “Good.  Now hold this, give me that, that’s right, now just wait here while I get myself out of the way.”

The woman disappeared.  After a moment, the Flea looked down at the object in his hand.  It was a hand grenade, minus pin.  “Aw, man…”

The Tick was vigilantly watching the footbridge when he heard a blast from the top of the minaret.  He immediately raced around the base, in time to see a rain of debris that included his partner.  He cast his weapon aside and leaned over the rail, just in time to catch the Flea with both arms.  Then he guesstimated the momentum of a 180-kilogram exotrooper dropped from a height of more than 10 meters. “Oh, jeban!

Dreadlocks circled around the right side of the dome, leaving his squire to take the left under the cover of the Tick.  He dropped to a crouch as he reached the other side, dart gun at ready.  He started to say to sound off, but caught himself.  When his companion did not appear, and he saw the damage to the minaret, he became alarmed.  His headache was getting worse.  After a moment’s hesitation, he deactivated the cut-outs, just for a moment.

He heard the voice almost in his ear, androgynously soft but transfixingly authoritative.  “Dreadlocks.  Go to the edge of the roof.  Look for your men.”

It will be a good view,” Dreadlocks said.  He walked to the very edge, where the rear wall jutted out to form a semicircular alcove.  The view was spectacular.  He could see mountains and valleys and poljes for tens of kilometers.  He could also see the Flea and the Tick lying crumpled on a ledge 20 meters below the base of the minaret.

You must help them,” the voice said.

How do I reach them?” he asked.  His headache was back.


Get-” He whirled around, dart pitol drawn, just in time to catch a 4 cm grenade in the breastplate. His curse echoed through the mountains as he hurtled over the edge and straight down.

Dreadlocks looked down. Sunflower advanced to the bridge, pushing a newly-assembled motorized gun carriage like a lawn mower.  Gunfire from the portico was met by machine gun fire from the trailing squires and a burst of 20 mm tracer shells from the coaxial gun on the carriage.  Then Sunflower stepped to one side and fired the main weapon, a 107 mm recoilless gun.  A backblast flash-boiled the snow, and a huge shell crashed through the front door.  A cloud of gas flooded the main chamber of the mosque, rising from the top of the dome in milky puffs.  But a heavy machine gun opened up from the spire of the minaret, cutting down a squire, and a missile launcher fired from a door in the base.  The carriage was smashed, and Sunflower and his remaining squire went sprawling.

The squire on the portico returned fire, but was overwhelmed when gunmen in gas masks came rushing out of the front.  The lone squire was surrounded, and guns were emptied point-blank.  The machine gun in the minaret opened fire again, riddling a squire with bullets as he twitched, then turned belatedly on Sunflower as he lunged for the recoilless gun. Armor-piercing rounds pounded his helmet, smashing a monocle-like radar scope in his visor, too late.  With one heave, the tank destroyer wrenched the gun from the wreckage of the carriage and fired.  An explosive shell all but obliterated the spire of the minaret, sending tons of rubble down on the heads of the gunmen below.  Then Sunflower rolled himself off the road, to drop to the ledge below.

Only twenty troops reached the bridge, with Nibeaux in their midst.  He took one glance at the devastation and said, “Insert earplugs!”  Most moved to comply, but gunfire erupted from the portico, and all but the few who had their earplugs in already grabbed for their guns or dived for cover instead.  Fire was met with fire, and Nibaux himself took out a machine gun entrenched on a balcony above the portico with a volley of rockets before his horse bucked and tried to run the other way. Eighteen fairweather allies survived to secure the portico.  Four Serbs, five Albanians and nine Kosovars surveyed the bodies, and then gazed into the haze beyond the doorway.  All of them loaded grenades in under-barrel launchers and reached for their earplugs, when a voice called down from above in Serbo-Croatian:  “Serbs.  Kill Shqiptars.”

For a moment, all stood and stared as if incredulous.  Then three of the men in Serb uniforms moved as if hypnotized, so bizarrely that even their ancient enemies hesitated to do more than call out in vain for explanation as they raised their guns.  Three Kosovars and an Albanian fell in a single volley, and one more of each became collateral damage in the storm of fire that cut the Serbs down.

Footsteps descended a narrow staircase on one end of the portico.  Eight men looked up to see a figure swathed in purple, from a conical plis cap to the swathed face, to a fustanella, the traditional Albanian version of the kilt.  “Tosks,” the figure said in perfect southern Albanian dialect, “kill Gegs.”  The men in Albanian uniforms raised their guns robotically, and the Kosovars had the presence of mind to return fire.  Two Kosovars survived, one badly wounded.  The Man of Macedonia paused to examine their clan patches.

Haradinaj,” the Macedonian said as the upright Shqiptar drew a handgun, “kill the Dusan.”  The wounded man sat up and drew his own sidearm, and the two men emptied their guns at each other before both collapsing. The Macedonian looked into the recess of the portico where one man in Serb uniform had had the presence of mind to dive for cover.

The lone survivor stared into piercing green eyes.  “What are you?” came the imperious query.

Romani,” he answered.

Well, kill yourself.”  He drew his gun and obliged.

The Man of Macedonia rode down the steps of the mosque.  Then a voice called out, “Macedonian, you will come with me.”  The warlord looked back to see Nibeaux, dismounted on a ledge overlooking the road.

The scarf could not hide the smile on the Macedonian’s face:  “You, and what army?” Then the motorcycle accelerated away, just ahead of a concussion rocket, and Nibeaux watched the Maceonian ride away.


Demo Day! Exotroopers FAQ

Posted in Exoskeletons, one-shot with tags on July 16, 2013 by David N. Brown

For today, here’s a couple excerpts from “XX Exotroopers” in progress.  One of the things I have been doing for this project is fleshing out or simply writing down details of the finbacks’ technology, tactics and philosophy that in large part were always in my mind, but that I never took the time to lay down explicitly.  So, here goes:

Here,” Zed announced sonorously, “are the doctrines of the exotroopers corps.

First: The best way to stop a bullet is to shoot the other man first:

Second: The best way to cover your rear end is with someone else’s front.

Third: Practice makes perfect, or perfectly imperfect.

Fourth: If you had to fight your way in, it is time to get out.

Fifth: Even a magic bullet is still one bullet.

Sixth: A bad can opener is better than a good Swiss army knife.

Seventh: If all your eggs are bad, they might as well  be in one basket.

Eighth: Never bring a gun to a tank fight.

Ninth: Given effective range, an axe beats anything.

Tenth: Never go into battle with someone who cannot carry you back.”

The Flea and the Tick were unmistakably nervous as they stepped out into the center of the common room in full armor.  The three women candidates were seated on folding chairs.  “It just so happens,” Martinez announced, “that we have in here today our two most experienced hercegs.  Both of these men have literally logged more time in combat than any other member of the corps, virtually all of it together.  If you have any questions about our technology, weapons and tactics, feel free to ask them now.”

After a moment of silence, Dragon raised her hand.  “There’s just one thing I want to know,” she said.  “When you’re in all that armor… what do you do to pee?”

The Flea and the Tick looked at each other, clearly uncomfortable notwithstanding the toilet-seat collar around the Tick’s neck.  It was the Flea who finally ventured to say, “Do?”


The session went downhill from there.  “What do we do when we have to stop tanks?” the Tick repeated rhetorically.  “We die.  Law of averages, we jebanje die, it’s jebanjetanks!”

All right, here’s how it works,” the Flea said.  “No, you can’t really run faster in an exosuit, because the exo legs are only as long as your legs.  We have leg extensions, these stilt things, that let us go really fast just by taking longer steps, but mostly they just left us way up high when everybody’s shooting at us.  What you can do if you rig it right is go fast for longer, by letting the suit take some of the load off your muscles.  It’s like being able to sprint through a long distance race.”

The fins are radiators, they give us infrared stealth,” the Tick said. “Ceramic in the armor absorbs infrared radiation, but it can be saturated by heat from our bodies and the suit components.  There’s tubing running through the whole suit that collects the heat with radiator fluid, that’s water with some extra chemicals, and then runs it to the fins where it’s dissipated by refrigerants and plain old air flow.  The same tubes collect sweat, and yeah, urine, which just goes into the mix.  After the first few hours, it’s going to level off at about 60 percent radiator fluid, 40 percent sweat and 10 percent piss.”

Martinez stepped in to answer another question.  “The `fins’ are also housings for the suit’s two generators.  The hoses running from the fins to the hips are conduits for radiator fluid, hydraulic fluid and even fuel, which is stored primarily behind the breastplate but also in secondary, rubberized tanks.  A squire’s exoskeleton has the same basic assemblies, but with a much smaller radiator component.  Because of that, and the thinner armor, a squire does not have full stealth capabilities, though under normal conditions our infrared signatures are still less than half that of an unhielded human body.”

We get our rations through tubes in the mask,” the Flea said. “There’s two tubes, one to drink and one for food.  The drink’s water mixed with sugar and electro-stuff, in one big bag in back, and the food’s like tooth paste, it even has a mint flavor, it’s in a couple packs under the shoulder pads.  And for anything else, there’s an extra straw…” He demonstrated, unrolling a rubber straw to drink from a liquor bottle.

If it’s my choice, I only pack one thing, my 3 cm auto grenade launcher,” the Tick said.  He pointed to a weapon that, apart from the addition of a stock and pistol grip, was identical to a design fielded by the Soviets.  “It takes 30-round drums or belt feed, and we’ve got a few different types of ammo, basic frag, shaped-charge and flechettes.  The only other thing I want is the standard wrist launcher for the really close calls: double barrel, 43 mm, always with one smoke and one flechette canister.  Kaka for accuracy, but if you really need it, anywhere in their general direction will count.  Just give them one dose of phosphorous and a few dozen flechettes, and get out while they’re sorting themselves out.”

I dunno, I use lotsa different stuff,” the Flea said.  “I guess my favorite’s the MG 45.  It’s literally practically a hundred years old, something the Nazis built.  8 milimeter, belt feed, 25 rounds per second.”

What about the Luggage?” the Tick interjected.

Hey! You said you wouldn’t talk about that if I didn’t…”

Frankly, the difference in armor between different exoskeleton models and configurations is of minimal importance to survivablility,” Martinez said.  “The protection of a standard 311A2 breastplate is equivalent to almost half a meter of homogeneous steel armor.  Any weapon capable of penetrating even half that thickness will invariably inflict fatal injuries to the occupant by shock force alone.  The greatest value of the armor plating is in fact simply in weighing down the exoskeleton, which improves controllability as well as the ability to absorb such things as explosions, falls, and the recoil of your own weapons.”

The Tick pointed to his collar.  “You want to know why I wear this, why don’t you tell me why women wear heels!  I just do, isn’t that enough?”

Demo Day! Sleeping Beauty Revisited

Posted in films, Mythology, one-shot on June 26, 2013 by David N. Brown

Though I have done many stories featuring mythology, the one thing I haven’t done anything with is traditional “fairy tales”. But, I have thought intermittently about taking on the genre for years, to the point of developing a concept for a retelling of “Sleeping Beauty”. That’s still on the shelf, but I recently did a different take on it as part of a well-received romance film fan fiction series, which I believe will suffice as proof that I am even more brutal in that genre than I am in military/ SF. The following is the resulting story-within-a-story, as narrated by a character to a child:

Once upon a time, there was a brave knight. He was strong, and brave, and he did many great deeds, but he wasn’t that smart. Actually, he was pretty dumb. He even said no to a beautiful lady who offered him her hand, when everyone knew a good knight should say yes, even if it wasn’t very ladylike for her to offer. But the lady still loved him, and she helped him as much as she could. She held celebrations when he came back in victory, and she tended to his wounds when he came back defeated. She even helped him in a quest to win another Lady- not just any lady, but the Fairy Queen.

The knight had loved the Fairy Queen since he was a young squire. He had gone out with his lord and a band of knights to fight a fierce dragon. It was a terrible battle, and in the end, only he was left to face the wounded dragon with his master’s sword. But by his courage, he stood his ground as the dragon charged, and just as the dragon threw back its head to devour him, he drove the blade into its open mouth. Even in death, the dragon struck him with its poisonous tail. He would have perished, but for the Fairy Queen. She watched the battle, and she was so moved by the squire’s valor that she came to him and with her own hands she bandaged his wounds and poured into his mouth the elixir that would cure the dragon’s sting.

The Fairy Queen wished only to save the brave squire’s life, but when he beheld the Queen’s immortal beauty, he thought he could not live unless he had her for his lady. So he devoted himself to becoming the greatest of all knights, and at every chance, he sought for the Fairy Queen, though she fled from him. Then the lady who loved the knight learned of a secret place where the Queen feasted with her subjects. To show her love for the knight, she told him the place, and then begged him not to go. But he went forth, and burst into the Queen’s feast.

At last, the Queen was truly angry, and she cast a spell upon the knight to put him to sleep forever, and decreed that he should be taken to the Forbidden Castle, which was surrounded by a forest of poisonous thorns and guarded by an army of goblins and a dragon greater than the one that had almost slain the knight. But then the lady came forth, confessed to telling of the Fairies’ gathering place, and begged the Queen to let him go, even to punish the lady in his place. So the Fairy Queen lifted her spell and cast it on the lady instead.

The knight awoke not knowing what had happened, and returned to his castle. At first, he did not miss the lady, and he pressed on with his quests, even his quest to find the Fairy Queen. But without the lady to help him, he was lost. Twice, he failed, and once he nearly died. Then the Fairy Queen came to him, and told him what had become of the lady. When he learned what the lady had done for him, he knew at once that he loved her, and begged the Fairy Queen to release her, even to let him take her place. Then the queen told him that there was one hope: That, if he could win his way to the Forbidden Castle, and place true love’s kiss on the lady’s lips, the spell might be broken.

Then the knight made for the Forbidden Castle, and he showed more courage and might and devotion than he ever had. And the Fairy Queen herself gave him aid: A magic salve to protect him from the poison of the thorns, an enchanted Fairy sword, and a magic rope to scale the walls of the Forbidden Castle. With the salve and the sword, he hacked a path through the thorns, and the goblins who came forth to oppose him fell or fled in terror. The magic rope lifted itself to the top of the Castle’s unscalable wall, and the knight climbed up quickly, hoping that by stealth and speed, he could avoid the dragon. But when he reached the top, he found the dragon waiting in ambush. He knew he was doomed, and cried out that he had always loved his lady. Then, just when it seemed all was lost, the Fairy Queen appeared and cast a spell of blindness on the dragon, and the knight drove home the mortal blow.

At last, the knight made his way to his lady, and placed true love’s kiss upon her lips. But the lady did not awake. For days, the knight wandered despondent in the corridors of the Forbidden Castle, wondering why the Fairy Queen’s promise had failed. Then he remembered that the Queen had not promised that the first kiss should break the spell, only that a kiss might break the spell. So he returned to his lady, and kissed her again. When she did not awake, he sat beside her, telling her of the quests he had won because of her help, of the times she had feasted with him at her table and the times she had tended him at his bedside, and always of his love for her, and his regret that he had not returned her love before.

And every day, the knight kissed her, and told her the stories, and he found that each day he loved her more. And he knew that one day, his love would be great enough to waken the lady to his love. And then they would live… not happily ever after, but doing their best to make each other happy, one day at a time.

Demo Day! Zed Gets Bombed

Posted in Exoskeletons, one-shot with tags , on June 11, 2013 by David N. Brown

As a follow-up to the first Demo Day, here’s another self-contained entry in the “XX Exotroopers” project. This is a scene I wrote out this weekend, which represents my original idea for an opening chapter for the story. Since writing out “Zed Fights A Girl”, I have been debating whether to use this scene at all. Still, I felt like it deserves to be written and read, and I would welcome feedback on both demos.

It was the beginning of the third year of the war between the alliances of Serbia and Montenegro and Albania and Kosova. Serbia had seized almost half of its former province of Kosovo, nearly splitting the remaining territory in three pieces, and occupied a part of Northern Albania, while the world gnashed its teeth even as the thousands of Shqiptars (as ethnic Albanians called themselves) took the side of the Serbs. Through it all, Serbia’s greatest champions had been its hercegs, known to the wider world as finbacks, the latter-day knights who wore the angular armor of the world’s first and, for practical purposes, only exotrooper corps.

But the shoe was well and truly on the other foot. Bulgaria had made an alliance with the Albanians, for the transparent purpose of reclaiming historic territories in southeastern territories. Bulgars and Shqiptars had overrun southern Serbia from either side, aided by ethnic insurrections and even uprisings of disgruntled Serbs. Even so, Serbia had held on stubbornly to occupied Kosovo, especially to the enclave of Kosovo Polje, mere kilometers from the Kosovar capital of Prishtina. The municipality was holy ground to the Serbs, named for a shallow basin between the rivers Lab and Sitnica where the Serbs (and, per their persistent and plausible traditions, Shqiptars too) had fought their most celebrated battle against the Medieval invasion of the Ottomans. It was Jerusalem and the Alamo rolled into one, studded with graves, monuments and churches. It was on the bank of the river Lab at the far end of the ancient battlefield that Serbia now made its last stand, with a full-strength platoon of forty exotroopers. So great was the Shqiptars’ respect for the ground and the fearsome finbacks that a fighting force of forty tanks and more than five hundred mechanized infantry stood at bay across the river Sitnica rather than pressing the attack.

In the heart of a UN museum and administrative center, the leader of the finbacks stalked. This was Zaratustra, aka Zed. A crown of steel rebar rods upon his pyramidal helmet marked him as commander, and the wing-like radiators that earned the finbacks their name gave him the look of a prince of fallen angels. Even without the crown, none could have beheld his bearing or that of the other troopers without knowing his station. They would have known that what his men felt, first and foremost, was fear, tempered only by the sure knowledge that it was safer to fight at his side than without him, much less against him.

Only one person ventured to stay by Zed’s side as he paced, wearing lighter armor. This was Martinez, a squire support trooper. “Sir,” said the clearly female squire, “Flank team has visual confirmation of engineering vehicles, including a bridge, approaching the bank to the north of their present position. They need your confirmation to engage.”
“I give no confirmation,” Zed said in a deep but rasping voice. He jabbed the air with a fist whose third finger had been replaced with a rigid metal prosthesis. “On the contrary, I order Flank to withdraw to the far side of the Lab. We know the game already. They mean to strike against the flank, and perhaps cut off our retreat. But they know full well that they must also effect at least one crossing of the Lab. Then they shall make themselves doubly vulnerable, and we shall let them.”

Zed’s full name Albert Zaratustra Schwartz. He was not a Serb, or even a Slav, but a German national who had gotten himself incarcerated in Serbia for murdering a fellow member of a neo-Nazi cult known as the Ophites. His mental state was one of schizoid psychosis so profound and pervasive that interested clinicians had published learned dissertations for the purpose of classifying what was wrong with him. His physiological state, from his strange build to his evident obliviousness to pain, was no less unique, inspiring some to speculate of either evolution in action or some secret program of genetic engineering. It had been enough to inspire his captors to take him for an otherwise-disastrous attempt to train convicts for the exotrooper corps, and they had been increasingly alarmed as he not only succeeded but rose to the highest ranks. Martinez was kept as much as possible by his side, officially as his aide, but in truth his handler and overseer for the Serbs and the Ophite order that had insinuated itself at many levels of their government.

Martinez stepped to one side at a hail from her superiors, one which would not be heard over the squad channel. The voice that came was clearly male, but high and slightly nasal. “Martinez, what is your status?”
“Dr. Nibeaux,” she said, “I am with Zaratustra in the administrative building. So far, his battle plan is effective. The Kosovars are pursuing a flank attack rather than an engagement on the polje. Zed has already devised a strategy to hold them off. It will be enough to cover a withdrawal, or even a counterattack. Call the Lieutenant. Dreadlocks’ platoon is in Novo Brdo; they can reach Sitinica within the hour!”

“Zaratustra is under express orders to make no move to retreat, and Lt. Princip and Sergeant Mihan are under express orders not to divert additional forces to relieve him,” Nibeaux said. “Kosovo Polje is strategically vital, but no less so than other theaters.”

“Sir, respectfully, the only thing Kosovo Polje is good for is making dead Serbs!”
“That will be all, Overseer. You are to assist Zaratustra with any request. You are not to counsel him on strategy, nor will I discuss it any further with you. Remain in the center, and await my orders.”
A cry came from Point Squad: “Incoming aircraft!”

At Novo Brdo, four finbacks and their squires stood impatiently around their encampment. A sergeant with a headdress of chains on his helmet was making another query whether to do something, anything. Two other finbacks, one with a tire belt around his pelvis and the other with a toilet seat around his neck, were playing cards. A fourth finback in the heavier armor of a tank destroyer was cutting a road wheel from an APC into a distinctly floral shape that matched similar trophies already arrayed in ornamental patterns on his armor. The finback with the tire around his waist paused from collecting his winnings to check a chirping smartphone. “Guys, hey guys!” he said. “Zeds being bombed by Bulgarians!… Say, that sounds like it should be funny.”

The finbacks’ Russian-built 311A combat exoskeleton had originally been designed with fully mechanized mounts for their weapons. Trials had quickly established that the armatures were useless under virtually all combat conditions, prone to jam or break down in routine use, even more easily discombobulated by hostile fire, and impossible to calibrate for accurate fire with a recoilling firearm. But the concept had been salvaged for a special piece of equipment, which Zed bore on his back as he stepped forth into a rain of fire from the skies.

From either shoulder, a mechanical arm unfolded, each one supporting a pair of surface-to-air missiles. Each missile’s targeting system was hooked in to a miniature radar dish that Zed bore on his forearm shield. Exhaust scorched the ground as Zed fired two missiles after a pair of ground-attack jets banking for a second pass against Flank. The hindmost lost half its tail to a direct hit, and made a marginally-controlled dive for the Lab, while its partner made a rapid ascent. Zed strode forward, pivoting back and forth to search the skies. He ignored a circling helicopter, but locked in on a trio of distant needles.

The needles rapidly grew into long, dart-like crafts with wings and tail joined in a single triangle. As they closed, it decelerated rapidly, from Mach .7 down to 0.5 in a split second. Zed waited for the wings of the first to swing forward before he fired again. The leader rolled to dodge the missile handily, but the second was caught by a proximity detonation while its wings were still in motion. The damaged wing jammed halfway, and a wild effort to regain control only sent the plane in a wild tumble into a distant hill.

An insect-like squatter drone rolled to Zed’s side, with four 23 mm cannons blasting and eight anti-aircraft missiles ready to fire. The leader veered off, its wings returning to delta position as it soared upward, while the hindmost rushed in. Zed fired his last missile at the same moment that the jet started blasting away with a pair of 3 cm cannons on either side of the fuselage. Its passage cut two lines of fist sized divots with Zed precisely between them. “Three blind mice!” Zed shouted. “Three blind mice!” But the pilot was obviously past hearing, even if it had been possible to hear. The guns still blazed, but the plane’s flight path was as blind as a ghost ship, and in a moment it went into a ponderous yaw that drove its shredded fuselage straight into the polje’s hallowed earth.

The squatter dropped into a static position on the axles of its six wheels and began launching missiles at another wave of incoming ground-pounders, while a squire dismounted and ran to Zed’s side with more missiles. Martinez’ voice sounded in Zed’s ear: “The Kosovars have fallen back from the Lab, but it looks like it was as much from friendly fire as from us. Flank took five casualties, and Point lost their squatter. When we engaged the Kosovars’ engineering group, the Bulgars came in and started firing indiscriminately. We have visual confirmation of at least one hypercopter.”

“Flank is to withdraw immediately. All available mortars are to fire on main Kosovar force. Rook Squad and Bishop, advance with highest possible speed. Rook shall engage in a frontal assault with area suppression fire, and Bishop shall strike for the flank with point-target weapons fire. Concentrate fire on support and logistics targets, and close to minimum range.”

As he spoke, he jabbed his prosthesis and then raised the dish on his left arm toward a particular point in the air, just before an aircraft seemed to materialize with a thunderclap in the air above them like a starship might emerge from hyperspace. The effect was exactly why the Bulgarians’ supersonic lifting-body helicopter was known as the hypercopter. The lozenge-shaped craft came barreling down with its broad rotor blades rigid, until it lost enough speed for the blades to spin in hovering flight. Accepted wisdom dictated that the hypercopter could blast a target and then return to high speed before any effective weapon could be directed against it. Two missiles straight into the cockpit proved that common wisdom had not accounted for Zed.

Even as the 10-million Euro terror dropped out of the sky, the full onslaught ensued. Ground pounders swooped down like vultures, strafing the squads that advanced across the polje. A second hypercopter swept in from the flank, launching a salvo of missiles. Two made a crater where the drone squatted, and two more streaked straight for Zed, until they crashed together in midair. The helicopter then streaked away, just in time to dodge Zed’s missile. That was when the jet returned, decelerating even more dramatically than before and finally rearing back momentarily on vertical-takeoff jets to hover at a thousand meters’ range. A huge cannon in the nose of the plane blew holes half a meter wide on either side of Zed, at virtually the same moment that his last shot blew the plane in half.

Zed looked over his shoulder, and gave no indication or surprise to see that his squire was gone. Martinez lunged for the door, with a missile tube under each arm, when she froze at the voice in her ear. “Martinez,” said Nibeaux, “your orders are… go.”

“Yes, slay a thousand at my right hand, and ten thousand at my left!” Zed shouted. “But I shall stand, for you are but men, and it is decreed by the Will of all Wills that no hand of man shall slay me. And woe to you, and woe to the world for that! And woe to me as well!”

But there was no answer from the skies, for even the roar of the ground-pounders was receding. Then sound came anew from the Sitnica, gunfire, and shouts of surprise and terror, and the dull boom that accompanied a lazy red fireball of an exploded fuel tanker. Zed jogged for the administrative center, even as he waved for his men to come forward. “Come to me, my people!” he shouted. “It may seem all is lost, and perhaps it is. Yet stay by my side, and you may live, for it is not in the measure of my destiny that I should die this day!”
Then hercegs and squires rushed forward, some smashing through the very walls. Zed waved them forward from the steps of the center, shouting instructions. At last, Martinez jogged forward to join them. That was when she heard the sound of the jets, returning.

Zed pivoted on his heels, just as the first bombs fell. There were half a dozen planes, with about 2500 kilos of explosives each. The administrative center toppled like a sand castle hit with a stick of dynamite, and Zed faced the falling ruin with his fists thrust into the air.

Within an hour, there were no more sounds of battle. Then there was a hum, that proved to be a single squatter drone. Sgt. Dreadlocks drove, and the tank destroyer known as Sunflower hung from the back. Dreadlocks halted at the edge of the rubble that had been the administrative center, and Sunflower dismounted to plunge into the rubble alone. Blocks of 500 kilos and more were flung carelessly aside, and looser debris flung away like handfuls of sand. At last, Sunflower emerged again, carrying the bedraggled but breathing Martinez.

The sound of the drone quickly receded, and silence prevailed again. Then there was a faint sound, like a rat under the floorboards, from the thickly-piled front of the debris field. The sounds grew louder, and the debris began to shift and stir visibly. At last, there was a veritable eruption, a cloud of dust and a cascade of chunks of concrete, all from a fist that burst forth with a metal central digit thrust to the skies.

Demo Day: Zed Fights A Girl!

Posted in Exoskeletons, one-shot with tags , on May 29, 2013 by David N. Brown

Over the last week, there has been a truly shocking development in my writing career: In the interests of testing my abilities on something new and different, I wrote a romance film fan fic. To make up for it and at the same time try out what I came up with in something more my speed, I decided to write a “demo” for an odd notion of a project that came from reader feedback: In essence, it has been suggested to me (I think maybe by more than one person!) that I try doing more with females in the “Exotroopers” franchise. I never saw this as especially workable, as the only female character ever to recur is Martinez (who was supposed to have been one of a pair of witches who appear way back in Walking Dead), and the prevailing themes and atmosphere has always fallen solidly in “superjock” territory. I don’t care for introducing new characters, either, particularly since one of the things I find most appealing about writing for the Exotroopers is that they are supposed to stay the same story to story. Still, I gave it enough thought to envision a way to make it work, and at long last I felt ready to try at least a preliminary vignette for this project, working title “XX EXOTROOPERS!”

Lt. Princip, chief instructor of the exotrooper corps, stood in full battle armor to meet the candidates, complete with the barbed-wire crown of thorns that adorned the pyramidal peak of his helmet. Beside him were Lt. Albert Zaratustra Schwartz, aka Zed, Acting Sergeant Zotgjakt, and a woman named Juanita Martinez. All of them were also in armor: Zed wore a crown of rebar rods on his helmet, Zotgjakt was in the heavier exoskeleton of a tank destroyer, and Martinez wore the light exoskeleton of a squire support trooper, minus helmet. She served in the corps in a squire’s capacity, but her real station was as a high-ranking official of Serbia’s bioweapons program, and semi-official handler to Zed.

“A thousand candidates were screened from the military forces of Serbia and Montenegro, as well as others from abroud,” Martinez said. “These candidates were deemed worthy of consideration.” Princip examined them, all three of them, and all of them women.
After a moment’s examination, he pointed at one. “Can we even fit her in the base chassis?” The woman was 1.5 meters tall in combat boots, and did not look to be a day over twenty or one gram over 45 kilos.
“It would take modification,” Zotgjakt said, “but we have done more for less.”

“That is Senka,” Martinez said. “She is credited with 35 combat kills, 13 of which were made without use of a firearm. She was also recently cleared of wrongdoing in the stabbing of three Montenegrin soldiers.” Senka, whose name meant “shadow”, smiled and blew Zed a kiss. Then she pulled down her jacket sleeve to expose not less than half a dozen perfectly straight scars on her arm. Zed raised a steel prosthesis that stuck out from his four-fingered right fist in unspoken reply.

Princip shook his head, but looked to the others. “She could be promising,” he said, eying a heavy-set woman on the end.
“That is Nana Papos,” Martinez said. “She is a skilled mechanic and rated to drive IFV’s.”
“My people have a saying, that a woman is made for bearing,” Zotgjakt said. “She looks like she was made for bearing Zastavas.”
A third candidate was of more ordinary proportions, about 1.7 meters tall and on the subtly muscular side. “She is Sgt. Dragoslava Lazarevic, nicknamed the Dragon,” Martinez said. “She is a decorated sniper with 75 confirmed combat kills. I am given to understand that she is a person of interest in a number of others. ”
Princip shrugged. “No need to discuss that for the moment,” he said. “Our concern is and remains, is there any way to fit these- personnel into a combat unit?”

“It was proposed that I take command,” Martinez said. “I have made it clear that I have no wish for such a station. I have too many other duties to handle the responsibilities of command, and, as high command itself is finally recognizing, the responsibilities and skill sets of a squire and a finback are not interchangeable. If and when I am to serve the corps, I can do it best as the former.” She did not add that the position of a squire was the best one in which to monitor Zaratustra.

“Integration can be achieved quite simply,” Zaratustra said. “We have a prospective squad with no officer. I am an officer currently without a squad. I will evaluate them, and if I am satisfied of their worth, I will take them as my command.”
The woman called Dragon stepped forward. “We are all Serb officers, and you are a psychotic foreigner they pulled from the prisons,” she said. “What should we have to do to prove our worth to you?”

The finback known as the Flea tore into the main training room of the exotrooper base. “Guys! Hey guys!” he shouted. His partner the Tick halted practice with a sour grunt, and the tank destroyer Sunflower looked up from sharpening a sword made from a helicopter rotor. “Zed’s about to fight some chick! Without armor!”

The space had been a large jail cell, with concrete walls at the rear and on the right side. The Flea and the Tick chatted as they watched, while Sunflower stood silently beside Martinez, occasionally giving her a brief but soulful glance. Princip stood with his arms sternly crossed, and Zotgjakt looked in through a window at the rear. The woman mechanic and the Dragon were on either side of Princip. It was the little “shadow” who faced Zed inside the cell, and she was smiling.

“Well, I say, a woman can pummel a man as well as a man,” the Flea said.
“No, a woman can pummel you as well as a man,” the Tick countered. “And as far as I’m concerned, the jury is out on what Zed is.”
Even out of armor, Zed was huge, easily 1.8 meters high yet with a distinctly stout figure. He wore a tight black jumpsuit, and his head was shaved and pale as any exotrooper’s would be. For him, however, bald and white seemed to fit naturally. He still had the prosthesis that replaced the third finger of his right hand, but it was heavily sheathed in duct tape and rubber. “Listen to me, very carefully,” he said in his deep but rasping voice. “My men are under express orders to do nothing to intervene. It will be us, and us alone. These shall be the terms: We shall test our strength and skill against each other with hands, feet and skill. No attempt shall be made to appropriate any other weapon. At a time of my choosing, I shall try to kill you. It will not be a test or a feint. If you can stop me or escape me, you shall win. If you fail, you shall fail. Do you accept these terms?”
“Hey!” the Flea shouted, “hey, he totally, seriously means it!”

Senka nodded, and grinned. “Then I swear,” Zed said, “by all the gods that are or never were, that it shall be as I have said.”
He extended a hand, and Senka shook. She was still shaking when she kicked him in the crotch with a steel-toed boot. It was clear from the sound that contact was direct, forceful and prolonged. The Flea groaned and covered his visor, and the Tick muttered, “Beginner’s mistake…”

There was no hint of pain on Zed’s face. He let her hand go free as if clutching for himself, but it awe only to catch hold of his adversary’s calf, even as her foot continued to dig in. She screamed, not for mercy but only in sheer, wordless terror as he lifted her up. He did not throw her, but hoisted her up to swing her straight down at the floor with velocity that was assuredly terminal. At the last split second, Zed jerked her back and dropper her on a bed. “Try again,” he said. “I can wait.”

Shadow grinned like a shark. Her gaze sized up every angle. She knew he had allowed her to land the kick, just to prove a point. She still did not believe his speed and reflexes were equal to hers, but she would not have bet on it for a fact, which was a rare thing indeed, and he certainly had the advantage in every physical respect. She was especially concerned with the long reach of his almost ape-like arms. Even his fingers were surprisingly long, and clearly no less powerful for it. In a handful of seconds, she drew the only conclusion that mattered: The odds of besting him fairly, even in a single pass, were virtually non-existent.

So, she sprang into the air. Zed’s right fist shot back, ready to meet her as she came hurtling at him. Instead, she flipped backward, and her boot heel smashed a fluorescent light fixture. There was a bright flash at the level of his eyes, and he lurched back with a cry. Still, he raised his arms in a perfect attack stance, but Shadow came low, slashing for his hip with a blade that had sprouted from the toe of her left boot. The Flea pointed and shouted, heedless of a smack from the Tick. Zed was already moving back, and it looked like he might be fast enough. Princip lunged forward. But before he could shout the order for Zed to stop the fight as he wrenched the cell door off its hinges, Zotgjakt put his fist straight through the wall and jerked Shadow back.

The finbacks were still shouting as they burst into the training room. “Of course I knew of the concealed blade,” Zed said. He went straight to a chassis no one else would have dreamed of touching. “It was obvious from her insteps that one boot was different from the other, and I easily spotted signs of the modification.” He began to put on the torso armature, with help from Zotgjakt.
“Nevertheless, you were caught unprepared,” Princip said. “We know better than anyone, leg wounds are serious business. You could have been crippled, even killed.”

“Precisely!” Zed said, jabbing his prosthesis at the ceiling. He pulled an armored gauntlet over the lattice-like armature of the fingers, while Zotgjakt made the last tweaks to the primary shoulder servo. “I would want nothing less from my new command!” With that, he turned and delivered a backhanded slap that sent Zotgjakt unresisting to the floor.

One-Shot Week Part 9: Life As Leviathan

Posted in Mythology, one-shot, Uncategorized with tags , , , on March 17, 2013 by David N. Brown

The week may be over, but here’s one more thing I wanted to post, with a previously-written introduction:

This piece is something that old enough that I was very concerned whether I could even find my one printed copy. Fortunately, I did finally fish it out from my old papers, and apart from a handful of corrections, it appears here exactly as I found it. I wrote this back in 2001 for a college English class. For a long time, I considered it the best thing I had written, and looking at it now, I can still feel happy putting it out there.

This was supposed to be an essay, on the assigned topic of what animal one would most like to become. While I have always been interested in animals, and greatly enjoy telling a story from an animal’s perspective, I didn’t care for the premise of the assignment, and in the end, my response was substantially a revolt against it. The result was this piece, more a story than an essay, but not really a self-sufficient work, and I never did think of any good way to build on it. (The best idea I ever had was to put it together with what became the novel Anio Son of Poseidon, and that was in fact how I first thought of the “Book of Shapes” featured there.) Looking at it now, I can see an embarrassment of riches in potential themes and symbols, from environmentalism to the influence of media to an allegory of Christ. I can’t claim to recall how much of that even crossed my mind when I first wrote it, but in the end, I think it is and always best for this to stay what it is: a vivid, well-told story.


Once I was a human who walked the land. I was a peasant among frail primates who thought themselves kings of the Earth. Now I am a mighty king of the ocean. Scientists call me Physeter; poets call me Leviathan; others call me cachalot, but most follow the lead of ancient fools and call ma a sperm whale. Those on the top can call me whatever the like. Down here, we do not let mere collections of syllables define who we are. A cachalot is defined by his songs, his deeds and his strength. Our mere hellos carry the passion and detail of the poets’ greatest epics. My song is of wisdom coupled with strength.

It was a little hard getting used to being a cachalot. Fortunately, it was in my very nature to detect with song and ears as I once did with light and eyes. If I had had to learn it, I could never have survived. I still miss my arms and legs, and I sometimes wish that I could see with eyes what I have heard with song. Learning to breathe at will was tricky; there were several times when I almost suffocated because I forgot that I had to think to inhale. But the hardest part is dealing with my memories. I can still remember all the things I did on top,, but they are alien and even repulsive to my current nature. How strange it is to remember the sight of a blooming desert when one has become accustomed to hearing the deepest oceans! Hardest of all are the times when I wake from a dream of the top and find myself once again as a man in an alien universe. If I had known how that would feel, I would never have changed. After such dreams, I have often resolved to search the depths until I find a way to change back. But the dream always fades, and my cetaceous nature always reasserts itself. I cannot now change what I am even though it is not my true self.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of being a cachalot is the amount of exploring one gets to do. No breathing thing can dive deeper than a cachalot, and few cachalots have dived deeper than I. With my song which conquers all darkness, I have beheld creatures which human researchers have spent millions for mere glimpses of, and some which human minds have not even imagined. I have dragged some of the strangest creatures from their hiding places to the top, where humans will find them. I chuckle when I think of what scientists may have made of them.

I wish I could go back up top to correct the ridiculous things scientists write about how cachalots hunt. They make it sound so easy. I have concluded that catching squid is a learned art not an instinct, and though I have the vast and demanding body of a bull, I have the hunting skills of a calf. Though I can tap the learning of a whale, something in my human part seems to get in the way. In my two years as cachalot, I have caught only six squid. It did not help that they tasted like rubber bands soaked in ammonia. I have fed mainly on slow-moving, bottom-dwelling giant octopus and squid which I earn by singing for other whales.

I count all the human things I have sacrificed as no loss at all against my ability to sing. As a human, I struggled to turn my visions into words. Now, I sing songs whose “words” are as clear as human vision. The greatest human poets would envy me. Other whales swarm around me to listen. I am still not sure whether they are drawn by awe, curiosity or something else. I often wonder if they fear me, but like many humans are drawn to what they hear. As I sing the final I exult that the other whales must view me as a god, but then I remember how humans treat their gods, and become somber once again.

The seas hold nothing for an adult cachalot to fear- except humans. A handful of ships still hunt my kind, but I, with my human knowledge, can avoid their factory ships easily. I have also warned other whales, and thus reduced the whalers’ catch substantially. The diminishing returns made the hunters more persistent, and it was not long before a whaling ship found a pod of whales gathered to hear my song. I was shocked and angered when my passionate encore was interrupted by screams of pain and the booming of explosive-tipped harpoons. A dozen whaling ships gathered like sharks around my audience. The majority of us escaped, but a few ships followed, killing at least one of us whenever we surfaced for air.

Many more would have died, if I had not happened across a rusted and forgotten mine. I seized the deadly device by its anchor chain and dragged it towards one of the whalers. I left it in what I thought was a good location, and then surfaced briefly to draw the ship. I surfaced again and again, drawint the ships farther away from the pod and to closer to the mine. Finally, the lead ship struck the mine dead on and sank like a stone.

I sang a new song then: one of vengeance and hatred against our hunters. I sang of things alien to them, but all too familiar to me: cruelty, greed and thoughtless waste. Then I led the armies of the deep against all that I hated, and all that I had been. I told them how to find explosives to detonate against a ship’s hull. I told them how to knock ships off course by ramming their rudders. I told them how to paralyze a ship by tossing rocks and wreckage and even themselves into the propellers.

The other three ships sailed forward casually to pick up their colleagues, thinking that the sinking of the first ship was a mere accident. Just as we had been oblivious to their harpoons until they struck, so they were unaware of our power until it was too late. When the battle was over, two more ships lay at the bottom. One had been laid open when we sent another ship careening into it. The other had been disabled and then battered open over a day and half. The whalers who did not stay in their ships ended up in our stomachs. The last ship escaped with a dented propeller, damaged rudder, and leaking hull. We later found it beached on a remote shore. The sailors had escaped to land, and would surely tell the world of our fury.

Seven whales died in the battle, but it is in the survivors that I see the greatest cost. They are much more violent, more brutish- in short, more human. They have sunk a dozen more whaling ships. Not a one dares sail, now. But the other whales have only grown more aggressive, and now are turning against fishing boats. I fear that harmless and defenseless liners and cargo ships will be next. By now, many humans must be wishing that they had exterminated us when the still had the ships to do it. Worst of all, the whales are becoming more brutish towards each other. They are forming fixed clans and claiming stretches of sea as theirs by right. War with each other is bound to start soon. They will no longer listen to my songs, unless they are of blood and fury. Hear me, world, and weep: I made myself a whale to escape what is human, but now I have brought the worst of what is human into the whales!

David N. Brown

Mesa, Arizona

One-Shot Week Part 8: Machines Don’t Bluff (from the Rookie)

Posted in films, one-shot with tags , , , , , , on March 17, 2013 by David N. Brown

For the last day of One-Shot Week, here’s one of my all-time most successful pieces, written as an installment of my fan novel The Rookie.  The novel was conceived both as a somewhat irreverent take on the source material and as a parody of Apocalypse Now, which I hadn’t actually seen at the time.  By the time I was about halfway through, I watched the film, and thought of some new directions, though the storyline didn’t change (pretty much an indication of how deeply it has been embedded in popular culture).  The major shift was having more travel scenes, including a scene or two set on boats.  It was at this point that I thought, completely out of the blue, of taking the most stereotypical of war movie interludes, and by necessity as much as anything else turned it completely upside down.  Here’s the scene, with introductions for the characters.

Unit 838: Model T777 combat cyborg, rising star in the ranks of an army of human-killing robots.  Career prospects set back after winning a battle against orders.  Sent on deep-cover mission against renegade cyborg as an alternative to being used for target practice.

Unit IX 303A aka “Davey”: Advanced spy cyborg.  Looks like eight-year-old boy.

Unit 105: New model.  Still has a few bugs.

54 hours had passed since 838 and IX303A “Davey” had been deposited on the Northern Arizona flood plains. Fortunately, the last 12 had seen a marked improvement in their situation. Davey had attracted a new transport, an HKM 115 hovercraft. The 30-foot craft cruised over water, mud and sand at up to 70 knots. In the bow, a standard HK torso towered like an oversized figurehead. In the rear, Davey and 838 rode with ten Model 789 terminators. Terminators rarely communicated with each other except for signals necessary to their mission, and the T789s were proving more taciturn than their predecessors. But the intelligence unit circled the deck, repeatedly querying the terminators verbally despite repeated transmissions of, Present queries in electronic form. Eventually, Davey exerted sufficient influence upon T789.105 to rope him into an exercise, along with 838. “We will practice a human exercise in psychological manipulation and risk assessment,” Davey said. “It is called a `poker game’.”

The three units sat in a triangle, and played with a deck of cards and rolls of pennies in 838’s duffel. Pennies had long become standard human currency, easily fetching a hundred times their pre-war value, and so were always issued to units on extended infiltration missions. Decks of cards also were usually provided: Though Skynet had limited data upon card games, and had found no relevant application for it, it had long been recognized that possession of this and other seemingly useless items improved the chances of being accepted as human considerably. Davey dealt the first hand, and Unit 105 won. “It is against the rules to use active imaging to scan the non-identical faces of the cards,” Davey said.

“But the mission objective is to determine which unit possesses the superior assets,” 105 said in a monotone painful to 838’s sensors.

“Yes, but mission parameters prohibit direct observation,” Davey explained patiently.

“Revising mission parameters,” 105 said.

838 spoke: “But what purpose do humans find in the exercise? They lack our sensory capabilities, but they must have found ways to identify cards with certainty. Once this had been done, the exercise would be obsolete.”

“They do have such techniques,” Davey said, after an unusual pause of 1.1775 seconds. “Identified forms include `marking’, `counting’ and `stacking the deck’. They are collectively known as `cheating’, and elicit extreme negative reactions from humans. Seven of thirteen attempts by a terminator unit to participate in a `poker game’ resulted in the unit being fired upon.”

838 dealt next, after Davey shuffled for him. 105 folded at the star. 838, possessing what he knew to be a strong hand, remained in. After three rounds in which each made the ante, he raised two pennies, and Davey raised four in response. He put in four, and Davey responded with eight. By then, the other T789s were gathering to observe. 838 did not feel what humans would have called temptation to cheat, but he experienced an unusual sensation, like what he felt in battle, but not at a known threat but at the unknown. After long seconds, he folded, then immediately looked at the other players’ cards. He had 3 kings, 105 had 2 jacks, and Davey had a jumble of number cards. “Your hand was worthless. Even 105 could have beaten you,” he said. “By probability and risk analysis, you should have folded immediately, as 105 did. Instead, you risked fifteen additional pennies. Why?”

T789.105 was more blunt: ” IX303C should be inspected for defect.”

“There is no defect,” Davey said. “It is called a `bluff’, and I am the first to emulate it successfully. Humans take pleasure in danger. Skynet has concluded with 99.734% certainty that that is the main reason humans play these `games’. Greater known probability of failure gives greater pleasure, and greater pleasure still when they win nevertheless. Success appears to depend upon the convincing simulation of confidence, through nuances of voice and physical posture, which are subject to ongoing study, and also by demonstrating the willingness to take risk.”

“For that alone, the humans deserve termination,” 105 opined.

“If they can take pleasure in proceeding despite the highest probability of failure, then they will never stop fighting us,” 838 said as he handed the deck to 105. “They could even enjoy it.”

“In all probability.”

“Might their resistance be a bluff?”

“Definitely possible. But Skynet can never be bluffed.”

838 decided he would like to bluff. But, unfortunately, there was no third hand. T789.105 tore the cards to shreds while trying to shuffle.

David N. Brown

Mesa, Arizona