Author : Benjamin Fischer

“It’s Bronco Eight Seven. He’s down, but he’s alive. Tight canyon, known hostiles–gonna be a hell of an extraction,” said Colonel. “Any volunteers?”

Matherson raised his hand, the bandaged one from last night. Colonel looked right through him, looked at the crates and laptops at the back end of the tent. Looked at Paki sitting there.

“Sir, I got it,” Matherson insisted.

“Sergeant, sit the hell down.”

Colonel’s gray eyes traced over Paki’s squat, compact frame.

“No takers?” he said. “Fine–I’m sending the damn robot.”

Paki wasn’t reliable. That’s why he was a medic. Something jacked up about his programming. Enough autonomy to get himself into a helluva fix, but not enough guile to get himself out. But the Army never turned away a recruit, especially one bought on contract. So they painted a red cross on one side of the black lettering announcing him a PACKBOT NINE. On the other side went a red crescent, just over his serial number.

Matherson walked with him out to the Herc.

“Nothing stupid, OK?”

“Understand all, Staff Sergeant,” said Paki, rolling on shock-mounted rubber treads.

“Hell you do. Come back in one piece, so I can finally beat you in Halo.”

“Unlikely, Staff Sergeant.”

Matherson grinned and patted Paki’s fuel cells with his broken hand.

The drop was bad. Paki figured out in a hurry why the Raptor pilot had two broken legs and a concussion–the canyon walls were nearly vertical, and baseball-sized rubble covered any surface that could remotely be considered horizontal. He strained uphill, through the narrow gully, using his surgical-grade manipulator arms to haul himself hand-over-hand through the rough patches. This wasn’t work for a lone soldier–this extraction required at least a squad.

His dorsal cams picked up movement behind him, below. Hostiles. He called for close air support–the unfortunate Bronco Eight Seven’s mission. He pulled harder, his treads whining high and loud in the mountain night. His pursuers quickened their pace.

Careening up a low rise, Paki approached the pilot, his chute bunched up underneath him behind a low boulder. Blacked out–two ugly compound fractures.

Paki touched his face gently, pressing the mask of an oxygen pack to the pilot’s lips.

“Major William Shapiro,” he said, choosing a woman’s prerecorded voice, “I am Second Armored Division automated recovery vehicle callsign ‘Paki’. I am here to extract you.”

He repeated this message until the pilot coughed, groaned.

“They’re coming.”

“Yes sir, my brothers are inbound. You are safe.”

“No. The others.”

Paki telescoped his dorsal camera boom and zoomed in. The pilot was right–the hostiles were visible now, clearing the steepest leg of the ascent. Paki did some very quick calculations.

He pulled the pilot’s sidearm from his bloody left leg, checked the magazine with his delicate, precise manipulators.

“Sir, I will stop the hostiles. You are safe.”

Shapiro groaned again. The robot whirred away, bouncing off the irregular gravel.

A rifle barked, then chattered. Full auto. Booming–rocket propelled grenades. More gunfire.

The mayhem rocked the valley for minutes, the pock-pock-pock of a little handgun lost in the cacophony.

Silence, broken by a few probing rifle shots.

The whumpth of a hydrogen fire starting.

Shapiro rolled onto his side, glanced around his makeshift bunker just in time to catch the guerillas profiled against the burning wreckage.

Then the Omnivores swooped in from nowhere and added human bodies to the pyre, their antipersonnel cannon flashing like fiery swords as they crisscrossed overhead.

Shapiro wept.

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