In the future, giant corporations fight each other with robots. There is much money in the outcome -- until the day
when the robots all froze, despite commands!
Then there is the sleeper ending.
Introducing a new author, Martyn Osmundsen, with new ideas.


It was not to be just another routine day at the Central Gammand CoPomPlex. If all went according to plan, this was the day they had been aiming for.

Breakthrough.

Director Lohengren had been through this a number of times before, so he was able to hide his anxiety from the visiting dignitaries as best he could. They were mostly corporate types who had plenty on their minds and knew that old rubric well.

When did anything ever go as planned?

As usual, this morning's visit was scheduled for the lull between the dispatches of the manovacs at 0800 hours and the ninety minutes it would take for them to arrive at their pre-assigned positions.

Fast they weren't and it was a huge battlefield. It occupied a good chunk of Nevada's remote Elko County. By design, nothing around for many miles, but inhospitable terrain.

This visitation Gene was conducting was nearing its natural end at the command center. As director of the complex, he was obligated to lead any tours.

Especially when a U.S. senator was included in the group, for the nominal reason that he represented the client's home state. An aide and three fancy title bigwigs made up the rest along with one of the three on-duty proctors who enforced the rather strict rules of engagement.

The suits had to see what they were paying for and that it was well maintained. After all, the very name of the center was derived from the conglomerate whose financial interest was the only reason for its existence.

Still, by Tournament rules, there was a limit to company meddling.

That's not what Lohengren was being paid for.

It was definitely not why the megacorporation had taken this option.

There was no mention of that even when he had been alone briefly with his morning visitors, who in effect were his true employers. Everyone knew who was what.

No amount of legal buffering and use of subcontracted specialists could change that. A delegation every fifth day was allowed in, during the thirty day time frame. This was the third such event and Gene had never known a company to skip one.

Too much at stake and he'd been doing this a long time.

Director Lohengren was just about to bid Vice President of North American Sales and Marketing Kiohara and his group a fond sayonara when the big board froze.

THAT had never happened before.

The execs immediately wanted to know what the heck was going on. Years of experience benefitted Lohengren here. Inevitabilities were something that was taught at Army Leadership School and this came close. Never admit to a problem until you KNEW there was a problem.

Lohengren's voice was flat as he ignored the puzzlement. "Nothing serious. Just a momentary glitch. Happens all the time. I'm afraid the tour is over, so if you'll just come with me."

Senator Harding had thirty years of political bickering behind him. "Now wait a minute." He and everyone else was looking at the holoscreen that covered an entire wall. He knew the director had lied. This did not happen all the time.

He overrode Gene's conciliatory gesture. "We came here to check on things. . . ."

The hired hand overstepped the elected one. "Sorry, sir. As Director, I insist we leave. By Protocol 1A, there will be no further discussion and what you may have witnessed shall remain unreported."

The Senator was nothing if not feisty. His contretemps were aborted by Kiohara's hand on his arm.

"Please, Senator. Director Lohengren is right. No good can come of our staying. We are only in the way." He matched his words with action by walking out the door, followed by his cohorts.

Harding hesitated a minute, looked like he wanted to say something, then slowly moved out to the corridor.

As soon as the elderly politician's back was turned, Gene flicked his eyes to the control room, signaling his aide to go find out what indeed was going on, if anything.

Raymond got the message without really needing it.

The long-time aide had only been waiting out the visitors. Still, while he was puzzled, there was no reason to panic.

The actual control room was behind the big screen, accessible by non-descript doors on either side. That's where the manovacs were controlled from, individually monitored by technicians watching their status on 19 inch flat screens in five rows of ten each. The views were transmitted from cameras mounted on each unit.

By charter, there were no independent monitors on the battlefield.

Wilton, the operations coordinator, was waiting for him with a big shrug. Nothing was happening. "We tried override. The vacs just stopped moving. Only a minute ago as. . . ."

Ray held up a hand. "Save it for Lohengren. He'll be back in a moment. In the meantime get the company on the line."

"Yes, sir." The control room manager went the few feet to his desk to call The Man Of Action Company, who by fiat made all the combatants. For both sides. No exceptions. Both models. Exactly the same, no customizing.

Instead of a big holoscreen, section monitors at the beginning of each row transmitted their data to a 60 by 30 inch plasma HD3 monitor. Wilton had the best view of this.

Still no movement. At least none was visible. It had been almost two minutes. It seemed longer.

Wilton had to ask, although he knew what the answer would be.

"Should I issue a recall?"

"No, wait for Gene. Just get Action on the line."

The Director was indeed back soon.

Lohengren had settled the visitors in the main conference room, with his secretary babysitting them. Wilton started an update as soon as he walked in.

"We don't know if this applies to the others or just us. I have Action on the line. Technical Support, but I asked for a supervisor."

Gene put on the headset and identified himself with his security code. "Who am I talking to?"

"Technician Ramsoong. My manager is coming, he is quite busy at the moment. May I assist you?"

"Get your cans moving." Lohengren was referring to the war machines here and not the tech's rear end, although this was debatable. He had no patience for flunkies. Only someone at the top level would have a key to override an equipment freeze. "Can you do that?"

"This just happened. We are working on a. . . ."

"Work with my assistant." Gene handed the phone to Ray and turned to Wilton. "Tell me what you know. Every detail."

As the deputy was giving his code, the two stepped away. "There are no details. It just froze. A quarter report is due in five minutes that has computer analysis. Until then. . . ."

"Yeah. Well, the question as to whether this happened to the other side has been answered, I think. They called first and the boss tech is dealing with them."

Wilton said, "Grummond may already outflanking us."

Nothing like an old friend to put you in your place. It's why Lohengren refused to replace him with a younger man, not that there was any retirement age set here. Gene was ex-Army, Ray and Wilton were retired executives and one-time competitors.

"Yeah, call that Ramsoon again."

"He's right here. His manager is coming. . . . Right now."

Lohengren put the headset to his ear just as a voice came on. "Hello, who is there?"

"Director Lohengren. Who are you?" Gene's voice wasn't rude but he was in no mood for pleasantries. This was understood as a way of life at the help center. No one called them to chat about their families. The voice that answered was well polished.

"Night Manager Gupthara Singhemon. I recommend a total shutdown and restart. This applies equally to both sides. We can do that as soon as you concur. The others already have."

Gene looked at his aides, who both nodded agreement. There really was no other choice. They had to get moving if they wanted their surprise to work. Lohengren gave his password consent after making it clear he wanted an answer as to what went wrong ASAP. Knowing that both sides were affected would not in any way hinder him from checking out his end. The real question was: Sabotage or simple error?

Gene sighed. "Authorized. Acceptance code 814 alpha." That was today's cipher and it would work for both him and his deputy, the only two designees.

"Code cleared. Procedure will take three minutes to finalize from. . . right now." The voice on the other end of the line was remarkably calm, as if he did this every day. It was just a job to him. His prior job was managing a tech help call center in India. This was the same thing.

"Thank you. Out for now. Let's get back to work." Gene's last sentence was for his people. What this accomplished was basically silence, since until the warbots moved, all the techs could do was stare at their screens like they always did. Now it had been made clear that all they could do was wait for reboot. Focus.

It took just over five minutes for the action to resume, not the promised three. In the meantime, Gene decided to pester his chief nerd, Gorman, who had his own little office down the hall that was always locked, even during duty times and tours.

'Gory' worked alone. No one used his given name Francis and he had accepted the nickname since his mastery of excessively violent video games early on in grade school. His official title was Chief Technical Engineer. His reputation was that he was familiar enough with the machines to build one from scrap electronics. He naturally had been following the morning problem and spoke as he let his supervisor into his workspace.

"Near as I can tell, they stopped because they wanted to." He held up his hand and waved Gene to a seat at a cluttered desk. Very polite, for him. "Yeah, I know. Makes no sense. They have no artificial intelligence capabilities. None. Mindless robots, by law. So who is controlling them?"

Gene had taken a seat as his tech cleared space from the desktop. "That's what I wanted to ask you." He expected a shrug from the much younger man.

Instead he got a rueful smile, about as emotional as the habitual loner would get. "It's not me." Now the shrug. "And, it can't be anyone else. I would know. Which leaves them."

Not what Lohengren had expected. He was hit with a loss for words, at least intelligent ones.

Gory saw this and went on. "Impossible. Right. These are remote controlled automatons. I check constantly for interference. No jamming and as you know, the vacs are programmed to execute the daily mission strategy until told otherwise."

Gene recognized the need to explain the obvious. The youngster may be a geek, but he was above suspicion. His source program was right there on his non-networked laptop.

The director thought of his charges as armored vacuum cleaners with lasers. This suddenly came into question when the tech's eyes got big as he checked his screen.

"Uh. oh. It's been three minutes and they're not moving. Checking on reboot. Um. . . we're good here." Gorman looked up at Gene, who promptly left the room.

Ray was already coming out the door of the command center when Gene got to it. "You can call the--"

"Yeah. Just get them on the line." Gene was in no mood for pleasantries. Then he added, "Please."

"Wilton should have them on." They went to the control room, ignoring the puzzled controllers.

Gene was put on hold by the equally clueless help staff. Then, at the five minute mark, the vacs started moving again. This caused a small flurry of activity as everyone checked on their duties. When Singhemon got back to Gene, he had no explanation.

"We did everything we could. Nothing. We are unsure of why they started now. Both sides are Clear To Go." Gupthara's voice sounded genuinely mystified, with an undertone of concern for his job.

Gene was thinking of his talk with Gory when he interrupted. "Maybe they just wanted to." A bit sarcastic, but he knew what the call center manager would say next anyway.

"Oh, I think not. I must tell you the next. . . any more incidents will end the day."

Both he and Gene said it at the same time. "Three strike rule." Gene added "I know. Out here."

A quick conference led to the unanimous consensus that little actual time had been lost and they should proceed as originally planned, no alterations necessary since the other side had been stuck too.

What Grummond didn't know was that six of the manovacs they thought had been knocked permanently out of action had instead been held in reserve, with only superficial damage or none at all. Gene's Gammand side had taken a huge risk, mitigated slightly by the other side not having the exact count, playing it safe by not going for a win and having those reserve vacs ready to defend the flag if absolutely necessary.

Of course, it wasn't really a flag and the enemy did not capture it so much as smash into the glass depiction of the corporate logo using their heavy metal bodies. Rather rude and rather final. No best of three.

Once the vacs reached the plaza, there were two dozen paths to get them started out. It was expected, after a month of battles, there would not be enough war machines to cover them all. The paths were all asphalt, raised up four plus inches and only a foot wider than the base of the vacs, where the batteries were located. The tarmacs did cross in several places, to create an opportunity for some strategy. This was more complicated than one might think at first blush.

Gene thought of it as a cross between chess and Stratego, both of which he was really good at. He was smart enough not to use the McCabb defense, so named for a high school chum, in which one hid his flag behind all six bombs in a corner. The equivalent here would be to station a bunch of the heavy vacs right in front of the logo, taking them out of progressive action. The idea was to win, not draw.

Since it would be maybe a half hour before any contact, he took a breather for almost one minute, then went to the conference room to 'brief' the dignitaries. That was the only way he allowed himself to think of them and he would not tolerate any negative attitudes from his workers about the ones paying for all this.

"Vice president and Senator, everything is back on schedule. As you know, time is not an issue here. We have six hours from first sighting to execute our attack, so we are proceeding as planned."

Kiohara, the younger than one might have expected oriental, put it politely. "Has there been a determination yet as to what happened?"

"No. We have some time before engagement. After that, we will be too busy. Will you stay for an answer?" Once they left, there would be no communication.

The senator had to leave. This was an all or nothing proposition, so salutations were made and the visitors escorted out by security.

In the next hour, despite the five top planners meeting in Gory's office, nothing unusual was uncovered. Although the geek was a bit unnerved to have so many people in his space, he wisely kept his mouth shut. It was not that he was hurting for work that kept him quiet, it was more that his reputation was on the line here. The fact that one more glitch and they were done wasn't THE issue. Pay for the entire period was already in the bank for everyone. To him, this was a giant video game and he hated losing at games he deigned worthy of his skills.

He was unsure of one thing. "We don't use wireless because of possible interference. The bots do not communicate since they have no intelligence. However, IF they did, the wires embedded in the pathways would let them coordinate a stoppage and we would have no way to know since each server is only programmed to pick up feedback from the unit it controls. I was writing a program for a spare module that can detect vac to vac coding. I need another day, at least."

"Or another outside force could control them with the wires." Gene frowned as he said that, really just throwing out the garbage.

Only Gory bothered to pick it up. "It's a zillion degrees out there. Satellite surveillance would show something, anyone stupid enough to infiltrate us."

It was actually about a hundred. Still, his point was valid. A proctor routinely checked orbital imagery. A notice would appear if any anomalies were detected.

"Which would bring us to the proctors, except we all know that they are chosen from non-technical fields and given minimal training. Which leaves us where we were.

Gene intended that as a finale, and walked out the door.

He didn't have to tell Gory to focus on the bots. They were the only truly questionable options.

Not good ones and only by process of iffy elimination.

Victory was in sight, well, not quite yet, this afternoon, if all went well and no one screwed with them. Gene worried that something had jerked them around and Repair/Restore was now going over a vac who they hoped to have available later today. Gory had on eye on this in the corner of his largest screen. Nothing to report so far.

This period normally would be a quiet mini-break for Gene, as his tour ended and his aides watched and waited for the action to begin. No decompression time today as everyone, him included, scanned their devices for any hint of trouble. 10 o'clock coffee breaks were unheard of here. You showed up at 8 and a supervisor spelled you for necessary functions. Fortunately, nothing of note happened until 10:30:17, when one of the light vacs made contact with, naturally, another light bot.

They were each the exact same model, one dull black, one rusty looking by a design intended to minimize the appearance of the damage they suffered nearly every outing. Not that esthetics were a high priority. These automatons had been very deliberately made to look as non-human as possible, unlike some other models supposedly in development.

It was only a rumor, but Gene was too old to have any interest in what some wits were calling a thighdroid. Whatever it might have would never, could never, match his wife's legs in his estimation.

The controller running this scout knew the game plan. Minimal engagement at this site. He backed it off and put his man in block mode, which was a fancy way of saying the vac turned its much more heavily armored back to its opponent angle so the laser bolts did not hit squarely. Every one of these mechanical soldiers had two weapons, one in the end of each arm. They could only fire once every five seconds using either laser and the targeting sensor was a part of the assembly that was installed in place of a hand.

On the smaller, faster scout model, the laser was weaker as more battery power was devoted to speed. So basically no damage was being done to the first contact unit and since its arm was just long enough to bend backward, it could shoot blindly behind it. Both cameras were mounted on retractable

rods on each shoulder and only pointed forward. So the enemy bot backed off, since it was accomplishing nothing by closing in.

The main thrust was happening on the other side of the battlefield, hopefully much deeper into Grummond territory, although there was no such actual delineation. Sporadic contacts beginning to come in had everyone holding their breath. The key strategy was to slow two scouts and let the other side advance deeper, 'knowing' that Gammand did not have enough units to cover all routes.

Gene was gambling that his opposite number would sense a trap and not commit an all-out assault today. As more contacts were made and all the known bots located, the six stashed units would sneak in behind advancing heavy bots and race for the prize. It should only be so easy. Keeping them up close, yet off of the quarter reports was going to be just a bit tricky.

Every fifteen minutes, Gene got a detailed printout of all sightings and contacts that had occurred since the last update. While minute by minute data was vital, these transparencies could be laid atop each other to show tendencies. It would take another hour at least, maybe an hour and a half, to get a solid handle on the situation, which was so far, so good.

The sector that Gene and his gang of four had targeted, not that he ever even once said that out loud, seemed to be opening up at the projected time. The downside was that two scouts were getting hammered and their prognosis was bleak. One was the unit on the far side that had made first combat. A rambot had taken the place of the scout that backed off. The good news was that Red 43 had gotten lucky and a wild shot had damaged one of the bigger vac's weapons.

The bad news was that Black 17 only needed one weapon and its sensor was easily replaceable, in the shop. Plus, Gene's resources were spread thin here and they could not afford to lose track of that scout. Red 43 retracted its rollers and locked down, making it too difficult for the heavier opponent to push it off the raised roadway. Ironically, the lighter scouts had bigger bases with more batteries. Also, at such close range, its cameras were in danger. Without them, it mattered little if it won this duel.

Fortunately, nothing untoward had been found by examining the ram being repaired and it was almost ready for duty. It would have to limp along on a damaged roller at half speed, but Red 12 could defend the flag.

Lunchtime was a quick bite for everyone, a five minute break with a supervisor covering for you, even if you were a supervisor. As expected, things were heating up by one. All six infiltrators were close to slipping into a perceived gap in Grummond coverage. To everyone in on the game plan, which basically covered all the supervisory personnel, it was a rather tense time. Almost all the operators had gotten the idea as well. While official policy was never to talk shop when off-duty, people will talk and speculate and share what they saw on-duty.

There was a prize for the operator whose machine won the day. Those monitors whose unit was out of action acted as fill-ins and could only share the reward, usually an island getaway for two, if they happened to be in the chair at the moment of breakthrough. That was unlikely to happen.

It would have been too much to expect a free and clear path, so when the lead bot encountered an enemy ram, it engaged it full blast to limit its range of vision. The others, who had been taking the same path about a minute behind, promptly turned around to split off into preplanned directions. There weren't a lot of intersections on the field and the vac just encountered had been guarding one. There figured to only be one more chance of a clear path, assuming the other side thought they had all the enemy accounted for. A big if and not what Gene was counting on.

Three of the four rams went one way and the scout took the hopefully uncovered way, with ram trailing behind its faster ally. This strategy worked when Red 39 ran into Black 9 blocking the last juncture. While neither side knew the other vacs' designations, they each used, by rule, the same numbering scheme of rams 1 to 30 and scouts 31 to 50. Nowhere was this shown on the unit. Only its coded controller frequency identified it.

The guardian stood its ground on the narrow tarmac in front of junction 12. The red counterpart charged it and kept it occupied while the ram following along caught up and slammed into both of them. Before the ram could lock down, both it and the scout had been pushed off the edge of the roadway that was barely wider than it was. Red 7 barely hung on, one roller going over the twelve centimeter high edge onto the dirt below. Not only would the automatons have no way to get back up, without contact with the road, they were off the grid. This strategy of two on one was rare since it might leave an opening somewhere else. Dicey.

Gene could imagine something close to panic was now going on in the other control room. What he didn't imagine was that this sudden anxiety came on top of the tension caused by their expectation that Black 41 had a free shot. Now it was a matter of who would get there first.

That scout had gotten mixed up with another and both Wilton's staff and Gory only thought they had a handle on it. The damaged bot was just now being rolled out just in case it was needed to try and stop such an event, but a scout could easily outmaneuver it in the wide open plaza.

The others were scrambling to get something back or from R/R. This was not looking good.

Then, just when both units entered the enemy yard and could see the target, all units froze.

If there hadn't been panic before, there was now. All supervisors were running around checking connections, checking screens, checking each other, trying to think of something else to check.

Gene got the call from tech support before he could call them. He wasn't going to rush since he knew the outcome. It was over.

Strike three. He tried appealing, saying it was impossible, but that was exactly the point. By the rules, it did not matter why the machines stopped, it was that they had and this was specifically a cause for termination of contract since there was a chance of outside interference. The Oversight Committee held an emergency conference call and decided not to reboot the vacs for fear of unreliability. Trucks would have to be sent out to pick them up, which would take some time. Before any real progress could be made with the mere two salvage wreckers each side had, the units reactivated. Except for two disabled ones, they were returning to base. The question now was what could be done to stop them. Having 31 possibly out of control mechanical warriors at your door was not a pleasant prospect. Sending a shutdown signal had never been done only for the reason it had never been necessary. A consensus was reached without dissent to let them return to the plaza and only then, IF they acted menacingly, to shut them down. For a period during the several hours the vacs were rolling back, Gene had everyone with a brain gathered in the command center to discuss anything relevant to what had just happened. He began with the obvious, just to get it done. "The Supreme Court is inundated with over 100,000 petitions a year and can only see a relative handful. Even a major copyright dispute involving hundreds of billions of dollars, yes, it was that big, between two humongous megacorps didn't make the docket. This will now go to arbitration. Exactly what they tried to avoid. I won't speculate on the outcome, but others have and these rivals want a win and not a tie. Top analysts think that the Court might have split here, so we offered a clear victory. Or defeat, backed by the authority of the Supreme Court. Now that that's out of the way, we need to clear the air about what went wrong. Everybody who wants to chime in will get a chance."

Most everyone did. Unfortunately, all that was offered were variations of alien interference, internal sabotage and robotic sentience, none of which had a shred of evidence to support the conjecture. Not even Gory had a clue. He did make one thing clear.

"I didn't do it. I did send an override, that's what brought them back. BUT, big but, that was only to our side. Tech support got ahold of the other. . . geek and he told them he was still writing the program. The problem here isn't just artificial intelligence, it's self-will. Somebody wanted a tie. We were going to win. That's my opinion."

Gene agreed with his aide and told him so before expanding. "This will change things, a massive investigation will follow. Do not touch your screens or devices unless the vacs act up. All evidence must be preserved. There is still almost two weeks on your contracts and if you are detained longer, you will be paid for that. Those personnel not needed return to your rooms. Well, you're not confined, to quarters. I guess consider yourself off-duty until called, told otherwise. The facilities are open, pool, gym, rec center. Umm, just not the main building. No visiting your old buddy while he's working. Or she. Got it? That includes R/R and any other workspace. That clear enough?"

Many controllers had job security issues. "Will we do this again?"

It was too soon to be sure and Gene had deflected queries earlier, concentrating on the immediate problem. "My personal opinion. . . no. Not for some time. Not until, uh, not until a cause is found. And even then, none of us will. . . be hired. I don't see it happening. I really don't."

"Why? I'm innocent. I didn't do anything." A repairman's claim was basically affirmed by the others, some at the same time.

"I know. You have to convince the. . . whoever comes of that." Gene shook his head. There was grumbling and he was going to say how hard that was, except it was time for some to check on their units, so he got them organized for that.

All the vacs came back and went to their charging stations without incident. No maintenance would be done on these mechanisms today and not until they had been inspected. In the days to come, nothing would be found. A long week of inquiry yielded nothing. The workers were let go then and outside experts brought in to examine and run the units. They worked fine.

Just before they left, Gene took Gory aside and asked him how he did it.

The geek acted confused. "Did what?"

"You know, control the bots."

He was too surprised to be offended. "How. . . hey, if I was that smart, I wouldn't need. . . ."

"That's the point. You are that smart. The only answer. So how did. . . ."

"I didn't." He had heard eye contact was key here, so he looked straight at his ex-boss. He had done the same with the investigators. "I've been cleared to go home. Goodbye."

With that he walked off and Gene could do nothing about it. He had hoped for a last second slip of the tongue and didn't get it. He would not have reported it even if he did. Oddly enough, no crime had been committed here and however it was done would increase in value in the near term the longer it remained a mystery. Who would know this better than the slender youngster moving away.

Francis Gorman did not allow himself even a tiny smile as he went to the bus.

After all, the best magicians NEVER reveal their tricks.

end

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