Operation Starfold 10

“That can’t be a mass grave,” Boggs muttered as they watched the men toss their shovels down and line up in front of the trench.

The two armed men split apart, and headed equal distance down the line before turning. They unslung the blasters and aimed at the men.

Jamieson said, “No, no, no! Battle bot! Protect the citizens!”

The Verberger X99 sprang into action. It too had observed the events below, and whatever thought processes had been programmed into it agreed with the humans’ assessment of the situation.

It unslung its blaster and ran down the hill at full speed, aiming at the enemy with electronically calibrated functions. Despite moving on its anthropomorphic legs at maximum speed, going downhill, the blaster remained rock steady on the man aiming a gun at unarmed civilians.

The X99 battle bot was built primarily meant to serve as a replacement for human Marines. While combat remained its primary objective, it could also serve as a military policeman and participate in guard duty, something Marines were expected to do while serving as “boots on the ground.”

It had been programmed to not only have a voice, but it could speak very loudly. It had a voice loud enough to be heard over the sounds of combat or riots.

For the first time in its brief existence, it spoke.

“Put down your weapon! Put down your weapon or I’ll shoot! Put down your weapon!”

The X99 grabbed the attention of everyone in the field below. Behind it, Boggs and Jamieson ran out, also with their blasters unstrapped. Of course, they could not hold their weapons steady while running like the X99 could.

The man with the gun made a fatal error. He turned, swinging the muzzle up toward the hill in the general direction of the battle bot and two Marines.

Thoop!

The X99 eliminated the potential threat with a shot to the man’s chest. He flew back, arms and legs spread wide, dead before he hit the ground.

The bot had now closed to a distance of less than a hundred meters from the trench. It turned its weapon to the other armed man.

This man’s name was Duhring and he was in charge of the League reeducation camp on the island, although of course the bot knew nothing about that.

Duhring’s eyes grew wide at the sight of Buchner’s still smoking body lying spread-eagle on the ground. He turned and ran back toward the camp.

At this point, the battle bot had to make a decision. An enemy disobeyed his command to drop the weapon and was now in full retreat. Hundreds of years of artificial intelligence had led his designers to create a dynamic virtual flowchart when facing an almost infinite variety of situations.

While it was true the enemy no longer threatened innocent civilians, and while it was true the enemy was not aiming his weapon at the battle bot or Republican Marines, and while it was also true the enemy retreated . . . the enemy was still armed.

The bot was in enemy territory, in a combat zone. And, an armed enemy had been sighted, showing hostile and now belligerent actions.

The conclusion based on his programming? The armed enemy had not surrendered, and thus should be eliminated if possible under current circumstances. Armed enemies were a threat. Even in retreat, they could come back and kill or destroy at a later time.

This entire decision process played out in the bot’s circuitry within microseconds.

Thoop!

A hole burned through Duhring’s back and he stumbled, dropping face-first to the ground.

The X99 scanned the area. Sensing no further threats, it returned the blaster to the front of its chest, muzzle aimed up at a sharp angle.

Boggs and Jamieson ran up, panting.

Jamieson put his hands on his knees, catching his breath. Boggs wheezed and looked at the two men the bot had shot.

“Dang! These things are gonna replace us, Jamieson!”

“You can never . . .” Jamieson said, panting. “Never take . . . all the humans . . . out of combat.”

“Did you see the shots this thing made? While running at full speed? We couldn’t have done that! It’s superior in every way.”

Jamieson shook his head.

He said, “You got to have humans. At least some. I don’t care if you have a whole army of these things. There are some decisions only a human should make. And these buckets of bolts are not cheap, either. You think our side could afford to make one for every single human Marine? I don’t care how much gold they mine out of Gotha Mu.”

“There’s no need for so many! They can replace ten humans each. All you need is a hundred of these things and you could take over an entire city!”

“Never gonna happen.”

Boggs’s face flushed in anger and he started shouting. Jamieson shouted back, and the argument devolved into bitter name calling.

The prisoners watched, some in amazement and some in amusement, as the two Marines verbally fought it out over the issue of battle bots right in front of them.

Topher left the line and approached the men, eyeing the X99 with some apprehension.

He said, “Ah, excuse me? Excuse me!”

Boggs and Jamieson stopped yelling at one another and looked at him.

Topher said, “Who are you, and what are you doing here?”

Boggs frowned at him. “Who are you? And what are you all doing here?”

Topher smiled. He said, “I asked first.”

Boggs drew a breath to start arguing when Jamieson cut him off.

“I’m PFC Jamieson, Planetary Republic Marines. This is PFC Boggs. And this here is our friend and battle buddy, a Verberger X99. He doesn’t have a name, I guess. I think he has a serial number or something.”

The bot said, “X99-1119.”

“Hah!” Jamieson said. “Well, there you go.”

The other prisoners, some 200 of them, crowded in to listen to the conversation, although they kept a wary distance from the bot.

“So what you guys doing here?” Jamieson said. “And why were those men lining you up in front of a mass grave to execute y’all?”

“Yeah,” Boggs chimed in. “Lucky for you we came along when we did.”

“This is the prison island of Patmos,” Topher said. “It’s a League reeducation camp. And as for why we were lined up to be executed . . . I’ve no idea. So, what are Republican Marines doing here? Are you invading our planet?”

“Yes. No. Well, you see . . .” Boggs traded a glance with Jamieson before continuing. “We tried. But you all have some sort of oddball defense system that took out a bunch of our ships.”

This news generated quite the stir in the crowd. Men pressed in despite the concerns over the bot and the blasters the Marines still held.

Jamieson said, “Yeah. We were on a troop transport, the Ronald Reagan, and a chunk of it just up and disappeared. Life support was shot, so PLAIR sent us into the atmosphere and looked for a place to land the ship. We touched down over there.”

He pointed back over the hill.

“So that explosion this morning? And the other ones we’ve heard since?”

Boggs said, “Missiles took out our ship. Evidently somebody has been spying on us via satellites, because whenever our people cluster together, a missile flies in a moment later.”

Somebody in the crowd said, “I told you MARS was real!”

“There’s this global defense system,” Topher said. “That’s what you’re dealing with.”

“Hey . . .” Jamieson said as a thought crossed his mind. “How come the missiles aren’t taking you guys out?”

He looked up in the air, apprehensively. If one were coming in, now would be about the time.

Boggs said, “Yeah, for that matter if they wanted to execute all of you, sending in missiles would be a lot quicker than making you dig your own graves and shooting everybody.”

Topher said, “Well, you see, we’re not the bad guys, even though we’re prisoners. So, missiles never strike the camp. I’ve been here for years and I’ve never seen anything like that. Plus, MARS is part of the global defense network, and reeducation camps like this one are under SSI. So, our execution order came down from SSI, not the military.”

Several of the prisoners nodded their heads at this. The logic of the statement made sense to everybody. A few muttered dire imprecations against SSI.

Boggs and Jamieson looked at one another and smiled.

Boggs said, “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”

Jamieson nodded. He said, “I’m thinking we can sneak Marines into their camp and not get blown up.”

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