There was frost whiskering the long safari grass when I got outside. The Rongor, its blunt oxidized snout projecting from the dome above its sensory battery, skewered me with a steel gaze. War surplus from the Rongor system is getting around these days despite the rules. Its chameleon paint looked as if it had stassed about the time I earned my first twon blind at the age of eleven. It glided toward me smoothly enough. Its ancient ceramoglas legs flexed as easily as the human infantrybone they had been poured to emulate before I was born.

The Rongor presented its blast-snout for inspection, not pointed at me. Suddenly I was back at the front on Zion when the Orthodox offensive came through, with an override on the media-immunity circuits. The chammy coats of the Rongors in their order-of-battle had been flaking off them too, and some of the heavy units creaked a bit when they caught the Federal crossfire at the gap. But they wheeled on line like infantry moving at armor speeds, or maybe cavalry, like Ghengis Kahn out of Jeb Stuart, or maybe Guderian, and they drove through the Federal lines to the Lebanon-Said locks before the suborbital air came down and tore them. The Rongors retreated in good order, but they had never been programmed for Zion sub-orb jet jocks. The jetmen had a field day, and wrecked half of Lebanon-Said, before the last Rongor stopped shooting back. It all made a good story for the newscasts.

“Sah!” the kill machine barked. Just like some regimental sergeant-major on parade.

“Just a walk,” I said, “to smell the air.”

“The air smells of greer, sah! Wind quartering, south-southwest, one decimal five knots, scent positive, estimated range twelve kilometers. Hunting males.”

The morning turned sour a little. “And does LaChoy use you to hunt and kill the greer?”

“Sah! No, sah! I am programmed to perimeter defense only, sah! Mr. LaChoy does not wish his hunters disturbed in their rest, sah!”

I hadn’t really thought about that last night. My rifle was still in its travel case. Too much civilization had made me stupid.

“The greer attack the camps?

“Sah, individual attacks by single males are on recent record. No attacks by hunting packs in this century, sah!”

“But you don’t hunt the greer?”

“It is prohibited by the hunting regulations. I may not hunt for you, sah.”

“It’s just as well, considering I don’t want you to, and would probably try to have your boss thrown in the slammer if you did.”

“Yes, sah.”

“May I walk outside your perimeter?”

“Unarmed? No, sah!”

“I’ll get my rifle, then.”

“Records show you have not been briefed, sah, on the greer.”

“Now, look…”

“Orders, sah!”

“Ramsey?” Ball trundled into view.

“I was taking my constitutional,” I said. “I didn’t call you on.”

“You were getting creative when you were interrupted by this outlandish pile of junk.” He didn’t approve of the Rongor. “My duty is to nurture your creativity. Shall I scrap this thing for you?”

The Rongor went by me so fast it seemed to blur. Ball made that whirtling, high-pitched sound he makes when he’s playing with gravity or a planetary magnetic field, or both. As fast as the Rongor moved, Ball was gone when the robot got there. The Rongor upended and would have fallen, but Rongor engineering was that robot infantry can’t advance if sudden shocks bowl it over. It pirouetted nicely, got one steel hand on Ball — and stuck as if glued. It was sucked into a silver dervish, spun with astonishing force, and launched across the grass. It demolished the stylish toilet tent in a thunderclap of sound.

While it was in the process of regrouping, a little more slowly this time, five watchful natives, armed with heavy flamers, materialized. LaChoy was in the lead. They weren’t formally dressed, but they were ready. The other paying guest was only a little behind them.

Nail shouted a command that broke the Rongor’s second attack. The killing machine took up its momentum in a kind of boxer’s shuffle, and went quiet.

Pools of writhing reflections from the sun skittered across Ball’s featureless exoskeleton. The whirtling sound had passed human hearing in a heartbeat, but whatever he was doing, the Rongor still was reading him, all right. There was an almost human quivering in the robot. It seemed to take me a long time to realize Ball was killing the killing machine.

“Stop it!” I said. “Right now!”

“This scrap metal attempted to do me violence,” Ball replied calmly. His voice was completely unaffected by his exertions. The air hissed from the speed of his rotations, and the temperature seemed to have elevated slightly.

“Your fault, Ball,” I said. “You threatened to scrap it. Rongor robots were built for war; it was taking defensive action.”

“It thought it was defending itself,” Ball corrected. “It was wrong on two counts; there was no danger, because you did not tell me to scrap it; and any defense it could offer itself against me is so pitiful as to constitute a programming myth.”

The shudders of the robot were growing more pronounced. Its main armament — that mini-blaster capable of wrecking an armored column with one full-strength squirt — snapped convulsively in and out of its head like a demented cuckoo.

“Don’t kill it, Ball,” I said. “That’s an order. Don’t even damage it. That’s an order. And sit still!”

Ball’s smooth rotation altered a bit, like a top beginning to wind down. I had been around him long enough to know it indicated reluctance.

“Ball, dammit!”

For a longish moment I thought he was past control, and going to kill it anyway. Then he came down all at once, and the sound he made came back into hearing at about the intensity of a small jet engine, went through the octaves at an ear-hurting plunge and cut off at about the fingernail-scraping range. He drifted silently to the grass and the twinkling sunfire became motionless in the facets of his ornery hide.

There was another heavy impact, like the sky falling, and Rongor measured its length in the ruins of the toilet tent.

“It’s not seriously hurt,” Ball said quickly. “Think I can’t follow orders, Ramsey? I was just unscrewing its orientation a little. It’ll screw back into place on its own. I didn’t weaken its circuits — just road-tested them a bit. Pretty sound software, for it not to be Intergal Cybby stuff.” It was a grudging admission.

“The Rongor experimenters were pretty sound engineers, all right,” I said. “They meant business.”

“Monkey business,” said Blaise LaChoy. He grounded his big Colt-Vickers frontier pacifier and looked Ball over. “I’ll buy it from you,” he said.

“What? Ball?”

“Anything that can handle a Rongor S-M like that needs to be working for me.”

“You have half the price of this planet in your account?”

“Pondoro isn’t for sale.”

“Neither is Ball.” Sometimes I can’t help myself.

“Why, Ramsey,” said Ball. “I didn’t know you cared.”

“Go to hell!”

“Give me a star-map and an ETA,” he countered serenely.

“I’ll pay for the toilet tent,” I told LaChoy. “Can I send another one out when I get to the spaceport?”

“Already on the way,” LaChoy said. “Forget it. Insurance will take it. Pay hell’s own premium for coverage of a camp in prime greer habitat. Can’t get any coverage at all without the Sergeant-Major there.” He nodded at the Rongor as it got feebly to its feet.

“Sah!” The Rongor snapped to attention, teetering. It wasn’t going to break attention if it had to topple over again.

“Permission to repair yourself. You are relieved of the duty.”

“Sah!” The gunport clicked and the gun popped out of sight. The old machine wavered unsteadily across the clearing and behind the tents.

“Modesty?” I said.

“Atmosphere,” LaChoy said. “The serene dawn of the hunting camp as the mighty greer-slayers drink their billy and prepare for the uncertainty of the day. You know the drill. Spoiled by a battered old war machine across the fire with its guts and an oil can in its lap.”

“Not if it was the way you describe.”

“You’re the writer here. You were saying something about leaving?”

“I was, yes. After that business last night…”

“Forgotten. Python has. Gone before dawn, even the S-M didn’t see him.”

“I find that hard to believe. A Rongor Infantry Nine Command model doesn’t miss much. The gunrunner who cleared that deal must be retired on Old Earth.”

“Not exactly.” LaChoy grinned for the first time, crookedly. “It’s a bit of a story, actually. Remind me to tell you before you get collected by your greer. Or collect him. I notice the S-M’s presence impressed you a sight more than your valet there. Yet Ball made child’s play of him.”

“Ball is a decadent test-tube experiment locked in a cybernetic girdle and totally insensitive to the entire cosmos outside his own programming. He can shoot sound-on-color news footage — or home holos, if you prefer — and whip his weight in barbarian robot infantry. Probably at the same time. I fail to be surprised by anything Ball does. But I was on Zion for the Federal suppression; I’ve seen Rongor stuff in action.”

“No lie?” His eyebrows went up. “When?”

“I was in Joshua Sayeth when Rongor units went against the Fortress of the Word. I saw Model Nines like this one gang up on Federal siege tanks deployed at the Gates of David. Their S-M skipped along a line of those tanks with his blaster fined down tight like a kid running a stick down a picket fence. The line was over ten kilometers long! The rest of the Rongors opened the slits he’d cut in 20-gauge Eterna with their hands. Just grabbed them and peeled them open, like field rations. Then they killed the crews. They didn’t use firepower inside; might have destabilized the piles. They used their hands. It took them ten minutes. If it takes one of them to keep a greer out of my bedroll, you may inherit Ball.”

“You know how prissy insurance companies are, surely? The S-M calms any fears they may have to return any tiny fraction of the premium to the customer. Ball has screwed their statistics for this year, so I find myself fond of him already. But I won’t feed you to the greer so I can have him. Not raw, anyway. Shall we just get some breakfast and then get on with shooting in your gun for local atmosphere?”

“We might as well. Ball has had his fun for the day.”



Professional writer, Pacific Northwest. 20 Books: “Sleeping Planet” 1964 to “Venus Mons Iliad” 2018–19. Most on Amazon for sale. Il faut d’abord durer.

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Bill Burkett

Professional writer, Pacific Northwest. 20 Books: “Sleeping Planet” 1964 to “Venus Mons Iliad” 2018–19. Most on Amazon for sale. Il faut d’abord durer.