ENCOUNTER

by Rick Blackburn

Early Morning,
STARDATE 6904.02
Casa Alto

Danny Gulledge looked cautiously across the sixty-meter expanse of Star Port
Avenue, now more than half-clogged with the rubble and debris of the fierce battles fought
here a day or two earlier. In places, thin trails of inky smoke still rose from burnt-out
Armored Personnel Carriers, jet trucks, and various types of civilian traffic unlucky
enough to be caught in the firefight between the defenders and the invading rebels. The
proud towers of the city's hotel district were now just so much detritus, through which
prowled danger and sudden death in the form of armored infantrymen from both sides of the
campaign. The morning fog was cold and damp against his face . . . half way to being a
bone-chilling drizzle. It was about seven in the morning, the twelve-year-old estimated .
. . but with the ever-present fog and the thick clouds of smoke generated by battle.
 
It had been several days since he'd seen the sun, and to make matters worse, he'd broken
his watch the day before yesterday. The fog was thick and gray; so thick in fact that now
the opposite side of the wide avenue was totally obscured from sight. A Saurian patrol
could pass by and he'd never know it; with their advanced combat sensors and IR-vision
equipment, THEY would make short work of him, however.

There were swirls and eddies in the fog as a stiff Fimblewinter breeze pushed against
the wet mist. Abruptly, a clear area in the uniform blanket of gray swept across the
immediate area, and the boy's vision extended to several hundred meters. At the edge of the
fog, half a klick away, a huge bipedal form moved. From around a large mound of debris
from a shattered residential tower, and slowly materializing out of the fog, came a shape
out of the lower chambers of hell.

Advancing slowly up the center of the avenue on thick, stubby durrillium legs was a . . .
"Combat droid," Danny whispered to himself and scrunched back into the rubble, hoping
there would be enough ambient heat in the debris to partially mask his body heat from the
droid's infrared sensors.
 
 
 

At 07:13:21.05680, local time, I am upgraded from standby alert to full combat
alert. My combat reflex center is brought on line and responds with its report that all
weapons systems are at 100 percent effiency. My ego center feels pleasure at this
reactivating and the anticipation of the coming battle. For 1,962,815 u-seconds I receive
a combat situation update and combat briefing. It is now clear that I have spent over six
hours in standby alert mode. This was brought about by a successful enemy assault on the
CP, causing the standby signal to be transmitted by Command while a new CP was
established, further to the south.

After the briefing, I conduct a total maintenance check. I have suffered minor combat
damage to my Ku-band imaging radar in the last action. During my enforced inaction, my
maintenance sector has nearly completed repairs. In 00:06:53.10000 the repairs will be
complete.

My early warning radar detects two targets at an altitude of 1,800 meters, azimuth
037ß 14'55".01355. My infrared sensors also detect a ground target at extremely close
range, azimuth140ß 04'21".99895. There is no response to my IFF interrogation of the
ground target. The aircraft are tentatively identified as friendlies by the transponder
codes received in answer to my IFF pulse. In the absence of a valid IFF transponder code
from the round target, I lock an antipersonnel laser on to the target.
 
 
 

As the droid came closer on its bipedal transport carriage, Danny could clearly
make out the markings. He relaxed a little and stood up. It was NOT a Saurian droid, but
one of the Tarsus RFL-3Ns, a Rifleman-class combat droid. The boy watched admiringly as
the twelve-and-a-half-meter tall, sixty-ton war machine came closer. For years, Danny
had dreamed of someday joining the Terran Dynachrome Brigade and "piloting" one of the
droid behemoths, or perhaps even a BOLO continental siege unit. He had read everything
every scrap of declassified data available on the Dynachrome Brigade and the gigantic
sentient BOLO units and simi-sentient combat droids.

The RFL-3N Rifleman, Danny thought, mentally reviewing everything he knew about the
droid, was sixty tons of fighting mecha. Built originally in the late 22nd Century by
Kallon Industries on Dariabar, it was now obsolete by Dynachrome standards. But because
of the large number manufactured, and the Rifleman's legendary battlefield
survivability-to-kill ratio, they had quietly moved from front-line mecha to the various
planetary defense forces on frontier worlds like Tarsus. Technically, they were still
reserve members of the Terran Dynachrome Brigade, but operational command has passed
to the various planetary governments.

The four hundred RFL-3Ns of the 3rd Battalion, Tarsan Mechanicals, comprised the
backbone of the planet's armored attack forces. In its current configuration, the Rifleman
was armed with two giant Magm MK III laser cannons and a105mm auto cannon, in addition
to a backpack-mounted battery of 12 SAM-27 antiaircraft missiles. At the Rifleman's
"knees" were eight 12.9mm antipersonnel lasers arranged in four duel turrets. The droid
was a biped and could use its legs to good advantage, crawling over practically any kind of
terrain, at speeds approaching 175 km/hr.
 
 
 

Suddenly, the air overhead was rent by the shriek of two Saurian Viper attack
craft coming in low, just over the tops of the local buildings. The Vipers quickly aligned
themselves on the Rifleman and released a salvo of 76mm rocket bombs, all of which
detonated harmlessly in the rubble around the droid, as its electronic-warfare transmitter
succeeded in interrupting the link between the rocket bombs and the Viper's onboard
guidance, depriving them of guidance.

Danny dove for cover; cowering behind an especially large chunk of concrete, the boy
pulled the hood of his windbreaker up and jammed his hands against his ears.

The Rifleman's main batteries swung around and two bursts of killing light raced after
the retreating Vipers. A hell-flower of burning fuel and exploding ordnance blossomed as
one of the laser beams caught the trailing Viper. Immediately, a SAM-27 rose on a trail of
fire from the combat droid's back pack launcher and sped after the remaining raider.

Two turbofan-powered Jackhammer air-to-ground cruise missiles fired before the
attack began thundered over Danny's head and slammed directly into the droid's blind
back side. The force of the detonations literally picked up the twelve-year-old and threw
him against a permaplast wall a dozen meters away.
 
 
 

ALARM! ALARM! I am under attack, I have been the victim of electronic deception.
The Air Targets are not A36C Corsairs from PDS-214, as their forged IFF transponders
indicated, but are instead A19E Viper attack craft flown by enemy pilots and equipped with
Jackhammer turbofan-powered air-to-ground cruise missiles. ADF tracking indicates
two have been fired.

My laser cannons fire at the hostiles. Take THAT, you lizards. I have missed one of the
raiders, but a SAM27 will eventually destroy the remaining enemy. Meanwhile my ADF
system takes on the incoming Jackhammer missiles. My ballistics and time computer
estimates that I have a less than one percent chance of successfully neutralizing both
targets. I alert my Damage Control sector to be prepared for the missile strikes.
 
 
 

When Danny managed to recover his balance, and the ringing in his ears had
dulled to a still-painful rushing sound, the Rifleman had advanced to approximately ten
meters away. Icy fear gripped the boy as he saw that the droid's antipersonnel lasers were
trained on him. Although they were the smallest armament the Rifleman carried, they
were designed to be used against armored infantrymen, not small boys in cloth jackets. A
50 u-second burst from even one of those barrels would be sufficient to render most of his
small body into an atomic mist, leaving only a pile of scorched bones behind.

Even worse was the fact that the missile attack had destroyed the Rifleman's
communications array. Nothing but twisted, fused metal showed through a blackened gash
in the droid's upper-right quadrant. This left the droid without the benefit of command and
control signals from his human counterpart, somewhere in a CP, perhaps tens of
kilometers away. The RFL-3N was only semi-intelligent, possessing only those attributes
of intelligence useful in combat. Like all combat droids, the Rifleman also had a modified
set of the Three Laws.*

The droid's multi-layered positronic influx grid computer could handle the immediate
tactical situation, but the majority of command decisions were made by the droid's human
counterpart at the CP. If this link were severed, the RFL-3N was capable of independent
operation, relying on its last situation briefing, but they were highly unpredictable.
There were hundreds of stories of Riflemen bereft of command and control signals going
berserk. There was simply no way to anticipate how the droid would interpret his
surroundings and react to them in accordance with its battle plan.
 
 
 

My Ku-band radar is still under repair. The cruise-missile strikes luckily
did not set back that repair schedule because they hit 180ß away from the radar's emitter
horn. The most serious damage has been done to my communications array. Although
relatively minor damage has been sustained by the communications hardware itself, the
entire antennae array has been 100 percent destroyed, thus cutting me off from command
and control signals. Although I have practiced the emergency response to loss of signal, it
has never happened to me before, and I am temporarily confused.

Since I am still at combat-alert, and fit for duty, I have brought my invite
programming block on line. My ego again feels pleasure as I am once again able to perform
my primary mission, to seek out and destroy all enemy troops and vehicles. I am still
capable of reporting to my combat station as ordered by the CP, and as soon as the
stand-down order is transmitted, maintenance will be available to replace my blasted
antennae array.

It is good to be performing one's primary function!

I have advanced to within ten meters of the ground target without its firing upon me.
My battle reflex screams "FIRE," but I have placed a hold on weapons release. The target
does not match any of the target overlays in my warbook. I again regret the loss of my
comm antennae; with it, I could turn this thorny problem over to command. Without it, I
am forced to deal with the possible threat on my own. A primary tenet of my battle plan
says, "Never bypass an enemy who may then attack from the rear."
 
For 218 u-seconds my battle reflex argues with my primary logic center, urging
weapon's release . . . pointing out that it was an error in my identification program sector
that has led to the last attack upon me, and to the current crisis in command and
communications.

My audio detectors, located on the outside of my durilium skin, detect the complex
amplitude and frequency modulated waveforms of biological communications. I shift into
long-time scan mode to accommodate the ridiculously low baud rate of biological
communication.
 
 
 

"I am non-hostile, Rifleman. Do you copy?"
 
 
 

The linguistics bank of my command computer analyzes the biological communication.
It proves to be System English, but the timber and pitch of the voice are too high by 50
percent to be any authorized voice at the CP. My battle reflex urges weapons release again,
and again my command computer refuses. I decide to test the voice for deception.

"Hello Command, this is unit DNE-993. Request Combat Status Update and Command
Verification."
 
 
 

The voice pauses for 529,411 u-seconds. "Unit DNE-993. I am NOT command, I am a
non-hostile, do you copy? NOT hostile."
 
 
 

Once again my battle reflex urges my command computer to release its hold and assures
me that the antipersonnel lasers can reduce the unarmored biotarget to ashes in under a
microsecond. It points out that over 500,000 u-seconds delay is very long, even
considering the low baud rate of biologicals. Are we the victims of clever psych-war? My
ego center concurs, but the command computer still refuses to authorize the strike, and
instead I direct several infrasound and biological sensors at the target. The results are
inconclusive, except that the target is not Saurian but human. The combat intelligence
sector informs me that although the enemy fleet currently in orbit is made up of primarily
Saurians, nearly fifty percent of the rebel ground forces encountered so far have been
human/humanoid. I decide that more extensive testing is required.

"Not-hostile, transmit your authentication codes for IFF identification."
 
 
 

"DNE-993. I am a non-combatant. My name is Danny Gulledge, I'm twelve years old. I
have no idea of what your authentication codes are. Please deflect your antipersonnel
lasers."
 
 
 

I re-analyze the input from the infrasound and other sensors. The infrasound data
reveals the target to be immature, both physically and sexually. Probable time elapsed
since primary activation twelve years, two months, plus or minus five
days. Since this agrees with the bio-target's statement and it has not tried to deceive me,
nor is it in armor, I order the antipersonnel lasers raised thirty degrees and transversed
ten degrees right.

"What is your mission in this theater of operations, non-combatant Danny Gulledge?"
 
 
 

Danny breathed a little easier as he watched the deadly laser guns deflected. Now,
here was a chance to get the droid to continue on with its own mission.

"The entire city is a combat area, DNE, I had no choice in that."

An abrupt thunderous report caused the boy to jump. From around a corner a block
away came a squad of Saurian infantry.

"DNE!" shrieked Danny, "SAURIANS! To your right flank. Watch out, they are armed
with LAWS!"
 
 
 

My Ku-band radar is still out, but my back-up, an obsolete X-band imaging radar has
locked on to the Saurian enemy. Unit Danny Gulledge is correct in his analysis of the
danger. Although the X-band image is vastly degraded from what I am used to from the
higher-resolution Ku-band image, I can detect the bright flash as one of the LAW rockets
begins its attack run on me. As I open fire with my antipersonnel lasers, the rocket
detonates against my right drive pylon, causing substantial damage.

Unit Danny Gulledge has traveled around my bulk, and into sight and the line of fire
from the Saurians. It is not immediate apparent what this action will gain him. He is
drawing attention to himself by throwing stones at the enemy, a tactic which I conclude
will be totally ineffective, as the enemy is dressed in light combat armor. But as the
surprised Saurian troops turn to Unit Danny Gulledge, I see the tactic, he is buying the
precious seconds I need to destroy the enemy. Six of the seven enemy fall to the bursts
from my antipersonnel lasers, the seventh is partly sheltered by rubble. He is aiming a
projectile weapon at Unit Danny Gulledge.

I launch an RPG at the enemy. My ballistics and time computer shows me that the
running time of the RPG is too long to prevent the enemy from firing.

A blast from my air horn causes unit Danny Gulledge to jump. A line of impacts from
the enemy's weapon causes sparks from the permaplast rubble around unit Danny Gulledge.
My tactic has, however, been only partially effective. The last projectile in the series
strikes Unit Danny Gulledge in the shoulder, spinning him around and throwing his body
against a pile of rubble. The last enemy is neutralized as the RPG detonates within a meter
of him.

PAIN! FEAR!

Searing P A I N !!!!!!
 
 
 

Wincing, the boy managed to sit up, propped against the shattered wall behind
him. Blood was running down his left arm from the bullet wound. Danny took only a second
to examine the wound. Although it seared like a branding iron pressed against his flesh, the
boy was relieved to see that the wound was just a scratch. The bullet had torn a large,
ragged hole in his playsuit, but there was no hole in his shoulder. Evidently, the 7.62mm
slug had grazed his upper shoulder and torn the skin open that was where the blood had
come from and now as he watched, the bleeding stopped. He grinned slyly and wondered if
he were eligible for the purple heart.
 
 
 

The Rifleman was still standing over him.

"Are you operational, Unit Danny Gulledge?" the droid's synthesized voice asked.
 
 
 

"Yes, DNE, I'm okay just a graze."
 
 
 

"Unit Danny Gulledge, a heavy vehicle is approaching. My imaging radar is still
inoperative. Can you direct my main battery?"
 
 
 

"I'll try, DNE. I can hear something out there in the fog. Swing your torso 90ß port."
Danny crouched and listened; from much too close he could hear the rumble of a large,
heavy-duty deisel-electric engine coming ever closer in the fog and drizzle.

"DNE!" Danny shouted. "Crouch down, it'll be easier for me to aim your weapons if I
don't have to guess with them eleven meters over my head."

Without a sound, the Rifleman crouched down, bringing the main armament to within
three meters of the ground. Wincing, because of the wound, Danny managed to crawl up on
some rubble and from there out onto the blast baffle of the Rifleman's twin MK III lasers,
making it possible to visually sight down the twin barrels.
 
Danny squinted through the fog. At the very edge of visibility, something rumbled,
crashing through the rubble and debris with abandon on huge multi-wheeled tracks.

"Target azimuth . . . ."
 
 
 

I wait an agonizingly long time for the correction to feed into my fire-control
computer. Unit Danny Gulledge has now twice aided me in combat against the enemy;
alerting me the first time to danger, and now augmenting my ineffective X-band imaging
radar.
 
With a total disregard for tradition, I assign Unit Danny Gulledge the symbol of a
Comrade-in-Arms on my combat-situation plot. My primary batteries are fully charged,
I will trust my comrade to aim my blow, and at his command I will unleash the furies of
nuclear fire boiling deep within my reactor.

My ego center receives a reprimand from my combat reflex for being overly poetic and
verbose. These are serious flaws in an RFL-3N. Perhaps I should apply for a position as
an embassy guard instead of a member of the elite Tarsan Mechanicals . . . .
 
 
 

"DNE! Abort fire mission! The vehicle is a non-hostile a maintenance VTR, with our
markings."
 
 
 

I allow Unit Danny Gulledge to dismount from my main battery before I stand up again.

At 07:18:55.00000, local time, VTR Number Six from the maintenance section of my
unit, D Company, Third Battalion, Tarsan Mechanicals, arrives, and we exchange
authentication codes. The biological who is the maintenance VTR's counterpart rigs an
optical data cable so that the VTR and I can communicate via a datalink.
 
 
 

"Looks like you have some pretty bad battle damage there to your comm array. That's
what alerted me and sent me your way . . . the CP lost contact with you."
 
 
 

"Yes. I'm glad to see you, Six. I've been without command and control input for far too
long now."
 
 
 

"What was the biological doing on your main guns?"
 
 
 

"Unit Danny Gulledge has been acting in tandem with my command sector since I lost
communication with the CP."
 
 
 

"Well, we'll let my counterpart take care of him . . . not much I could do for him," the
electronic equivalent of a chuckle reaches me from the maintenance VTR. Sometimes they
are hard to fathom.
 
 
 

". . . And let's see about YOUR battle damage. Let's see, imaging radar out, comm out,
structural damage to upper-right quadrant . . ."
 
 
 

The maintenance VTR shuts down my command computer, and I revert to the
near-death of maintenance standby. Just before I loose consciousness, I require the VTRs
counterpart to see to it that Unit Danny Gulledge is also taken care of as befits a veteran of
combat. The VTR and his counterpart, not being initiated into the rites of combat, do not
understand, but the human assures me it will be taken care of. I hope the battle isn't over
by the time the VTR is finished with the repairs.
 
 
 

I still have work to do.  
 
 
 

* The Three Laws of Robotics. Originally suggested by the 20th Century SF author and
bio-chemist Isaac Asimov, they state in brief that a robot cannot either harm a human
being, nor through its inaction allow harm to be done to a human being. The Third Law is
about self-preservation, which would be counter-productive in combat.
 
 
 

(Editor's note: Rick Blackburn can be contacted at StarTrek76@aol.com or at
R.Blackburn2@genie.geis.com.)
 
 
 

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