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Harry Silver had already had a lifetime of trouble from Berserkers, the automated killing machines which were armed with weapons powerful enough to sterilize a planet and programmed eons ago by a now extinct race to denude the galaxy of life. After losing his merchant spaceship in a recent battle with one of the death machines, he faced economic ruin.
Then Winston Cheng, one of the wealthiest humans in the galaxy, offered to buy him a new top-of-the-line ship in return for doing a job. While the two men talked, a holograph of a young woman and her child played over and over. The woman was Cheng's granddaughter. She and her son were Cheng's only surviving descendants -- and they had been kidnapped from their space yacht by a Berserker. Cheng wanted to hire Silver to rescue them.
The offer would have been tempting if Silver hadn't thought the job was not only too dangerous, but likely to be futile, as well. Berserkers usually killed humans outright, in accord with their programming. When one of the killer machines took humans alive, it was invariably for experimentation, trying to determine what made their human enemies tick and looking for a weakness to exploit. Silver was certain that Cheng's loved ones were dead by now, or, if alive, no longer recognizable as anything human. And Silver had barely survived his previous encounters with Berserkers. So he declined Cheng's offer -- until Silver's own wife and daughter were similarly kidnapped by a Berserker, possibly the same one.
Silver now had nothing to live for but revenge. Cheng's offer was still open, and silver quickly joined the assault team, but not without suspicions which he kept secret. The timing of the abduction of his wife and daughter could not be a matter of chance. someone on Cheng's team must have leaked silver's name to the Berserkers somehow. He also thought it suspicious that an old acquaintance with a strong grudge against him was also on the team. Before the mission was over, Silver would find that his wildest suspicions fell far short of the truth. And he would find himself in an alliance he could never have predicted -- one which he was unlikely to survive . . .
--From the Cover blurb.
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by Fred Saberhagen
Published by Baen
Copyright (c) 2005 by Fred Saberhagen
Jacket art by: Kurt Miller
ROGUE: (1) A deceitful, double-dealing evildoer . . . (4) A fierce elephant or stamodont that has been banished from the herd . . . (10) Having a peculiarly malevolent or unstable nature . . . (11) No longer loyal, affiliated, or recognized, and hence not governable or accountable . . . erring, apostate.
--Galactic Dictionary of the Common Tongue
The tall thing with four arms came close to catching Harry Silver with its first three-legged rush at him in the dark alley. In frightening silence it burst out at him from the deeper darkness behind a tall stack of crates and boxes. Not really running, but stepping rapidly across the gray resilient pavement on its trio of padded feet. Some inner alarm, a distillation of small clues and experience, clicked a warning in Harry's brain an instant before he actually saw the thing, granting him the essential moment to drop to the ground and roll out of the robot's way. One of its grabbers brushed Harry's right sleeve as its thin legs carried it by.
Dark alleys on unfamiliar planets were good places to avoid; this was the first time in standard years that he'd tried to use one for a shortcut.
The fact that the natural gravity on this world was a bit weaker than Earth-Descended normal gave him the ability to move a shade faster than usual. He wasn't moving as swiftly as his opponent, but the disadvantage was not as great as it might have been . . . some part of his mind was still playing the role of spectator, and as he fell and rolled and spun away, he noticed that the alley floor was remarkably clean and smooth. Evidently the people living here on Cascadia prized neatness.
Coming up out of his roll into a crouch, Harry saw that his attacker was ten or fifteen centimeters taller than he was. Of course it would be vastly stronger. That he had managed to dodge it on its first rush meant it was slower than most machines, but no doubt it was fast and capable enough to get its job done, ninety-nine times out of a hundred. By now he'd recognized the type. People who dealt with such devices on a regular basis called them handpads, or more commonly just paddies--a step up from a footpad, an old name for a stealthy strong-arm robber. They were also a long step in the wrong direction, of robots designed to hurt people in some way. Such were thoroughly illegal, on every world that Harry knew about, but right now that fact was of very little help.
Even though a paddy was bad news, the identification brought relief. For just a moment Harry had feared that he was facing something infinitely worse. That fear was already proven baseless, the evidence being that he was still alive.
The robot he was facing would have been built, or rebuilt and illegally modified, in some clandestine shop. Quite possibly it toiled by day, like countless innocent general purpose machines, at some dull routine job. It was equipped with four padded hands, or grippers--Harry had seen some paddy models that carried five, when you counted a sort of rope-like monkey-tail, which served the same purpose of grabbing and holding on. The monkey-tail had never worked the way it was supposed to, as Harry recalled. The carefully fitted pads were meant to prevent injury to the people they were designed to capture and restrain. The robot's master could hope that this calculated forbearance might offer a chance to avoid draconian punishment, should he or she be caught.
And a human master there would be, somewhere. One certainty was that the machine had not decided to do this all by itself. The robot's fagin would be staying in the background, out of sight, safe from fists and feet and whatever other form of opposition might materialize, waiting until the victim was blindfolded and helpless, before coming on the scene.
The model of paddy currently confronting Harry had no tail. Neither were its grippers divided into fingers--the fagin's all-too-human hands, at this point still remaining safely out of sight, would provide all the fingers necessary. He or she would walk on the scene only after the victim had been rendered helpless, clamped into immobility and probably blindfolded. Paddy's only function would be to hold the victim still while the human operator rifled his or her pockets, or got on with the commission of whatever other offenses against the person that might seem like fun. Robbery, without serious bodily harm, was not punished on the same scale as mayhem or murder. On any world where human law prevailed, as far as Harry knew, the penalties were severe for building, employing, or even just possessing any kind of self-guiding devices intended to actually injure people.
* * *
Following the robot's first rush, it had turned, unhurriedly reassessing its target. Now it was methodically stalking Harry. What little the man could see of his dark opponent in the dim light suggested that its head and body and arms were made of some composite material. If he punched any part of that surface with all his strength, he was probably going to break his hand.
To turn his back on it and run would only make the damned thing's job a little easier; he knew he wasn't going to outspeed those three long springy legs . . .
. . . the robot closed in, and suddenly there was an opening, and before Harry could make a conscious plan his body was doing its best to take advantage of the opportunity. His right leg got home with a thrusting kick on the bulky torso. The impact sounded like a note from a bass drum, and would have caved in the thickest human ribs. The robot was rocked back half a meter or so, but that was all. One of its grabbers, flailing wildly, thrown off its aim by the force of the kick, bruised Harry's extended leg but failed to catch hold.
This was not the kind of machine that people used when they set out to commit murder. There were a lot of simpler ways of killing, less trouble and more reliable. So, even if Paddy caught him it wouldn't kill, which meant he could take a bigger chance . . . he decided to let his left arm be seized.
One gripper had caught Harry by the left wrist, and yanked him almost off his feet, but he would bet his life that that one was pretty quickly going to let go of him again . . .
Now another gripper had Harry by one ankle, so he could no longer kick effectively with either foot. One second later it had seized his right arm . . . but his left arm was no longer being held, and he put the newly available fist to good use, rattling the thing's head with a karate blow that he could hope (not much of a hope, really) was hard enough to jar its senses. He struck again and again with his bladed left hand, satisfied to keep pounding even though he could get nothing like full power from the awkward position in which he was being held.
Ten or a dozen hits like that, and suddenly he was free. The robot was reeling back, legs gone awkward, stumbling to a collapse that left it wedged half under a metal railing, a kind of fence that defended a sunken areaway beside a dark-walled building.
* * *
Gasping, picking himself up from where the thing had dropped him, Harry Silver stood unsteadily, a dark-haired man of indeterminate age, average height and wiry build, wearing the lightweight boots and coverall that served almost as a uniform for professional spacers. His chosen color for the coverall was mottled gray, almost a camouflage, aimed at avoiding attention rather than attracting it. Another violent encounter, long years ago, had left his nose pushed sideways, and it had never been entirely straightened. What the dim light revealed of his hands and forearms indicated strength.
Before approaching his fallen opponent, Harry looked around. It appeared that whoever might be paddy's fagin, its human master and controller, was going to remain out of sight. Screw up one robbery, robot, and you're an orphan. Nobody ever heard of you.
But the orphan was interesting. Probably it was not totally disabled, but it did appear to be stuck in a position where a reasonably careful man ought to be able to take a closer look at it with a minimum of risk.
Cautiously Harry moved forward, trying to get a better look at Paddy the Bad, wishing he had some extra light. Now he could see, with a certain satisfaction, that the parts of the robot's body that had come in close contact with Harry's left hand, beginning with one of the machine's wrists and its attached forearm, had been chewed into a ruin.
There were a couple of deep, narrow holes, each one fringed by a raw edge of composite, where material had been shredded into shagginess with little pieces falling off. The side of the robot's stubby head where Harry's bladed hand had pounded was in similar shape. An empty socket showed, where an eye lens had been crudely carved out of its lifeless skull. All in all, Harry's quondam opponent looked like it had lost a fight with a giant sewing machine.
It wasn't his merely human muscles and training that had wrought such havoc. Didn't he wish. He twisted the plain-looking, silvery ring on the little finger of his left hand.
* * *
As Harry, still breathing hard, backed away from his late opponent, a slight noise made him turn.
A well-dressed man, by his appearance most likely a tourist, was standing some ten meters away, in the mouth of the alley, bending forward a little, watching Harry warily. When Harry looked around, the man straightened and said, almost defensively: "I've called the police."
"That shows good citizenship," Harry grunted. This was one of the rare occasions when he wasn't going to mind having a conversation with the cops. Still keeping a wary eye on paddy--the well-dressed good citizen had disappeared--Harry moved to a handy curb and let himself sit down.
* * *
About five minutes later, a uniformed policeman had stepped out of his vehicle, taken his first look at the robot, and was remarking: "First time I've seen anyone get away from one of these."
Harry was about to retort that he hadn't got away, he was still here, but his better angel reminded him to be nice. Now an ambulance came rolling up, smoothly and silently, to stand beside the police vehicle. Harry grunted, turning his ring round on his finger. He would have to remember to recharge it soon. He was well aware that even with his secret weapon he had not vanquished the robot so much as caused it to recompute the situation and decide to call off its attack.
"Did it look like this when it first came after you?" the cop asked blandly. "I mean, was it all chopped up? Or maybe you had some kind of help."
"Maybe I did."
Approached by the human medic from the ambulance, Harry firmly declined a ride to a hospital, then compromised by submitting to on-the-spot first aid treatment for his own trivial injuries. These consisted of a few scrapes, and a bruised calf where the grabber had failed to grab.
While this was going on, he gave the officer a good look at his ring, and began an explanation--he had no reason to believe that he was currently being recorded. Any of several combinations of commands and conditions triggered the action of a forceblade concealed in the ring, a nonmaterial cutter somewhat sharper than a microknife and a little stronger than ordinary steel, that stung and stabbed into anything or anyone whose behavior had triggered the defense.
The Cascadian cop was professionally interested. Harry demonstrated, briefly, on the robot's torso. The operation was almost silent, and the thin blur of concentrated force offered nothing at all to see except a little spray of fragments from its target.
Harry had given his ring's programming some thought. On its first
flickering thrust, the blade of force stabbed out only one
centimeter. The initial wound inflicted on a human body was hardly
likely to be serious, but it would get anyone's notice. After an
interval of one and one half seconds, it stabbed again, and one
second after that blurred into a frenzy, the rate of repetition going
up rapidly, along with the depth of the penetrations, the latter
maxing at ten centimeters. Good armor would stop the little stabber
cold, of course, but Paddy was neither a military machine nor the
horror Harry had feared in his first bad moment.
* * *
The cop was shaking his head. "Cute. But you know your gadget's illegal on a lot of planets."
"Not here, I hope."
"Not on my beat, not if it gets a paddy off the streets." The policeman had already determined that Harry had no criminal record, at least none that showed up in this planet's database. Now he took a quick look up and down the alley. "But I wouldn't do any public bragging about it."
"I wouldn't either."
Harry went on answering the investigator's continued questions, mainly by coming up with what seemed appropriate monosyllables. Half his mind was elsewhere. His anger at having been attacked was growing, all the fiercer when he recalled that moment of fear when the mechanical body first confronted him.
The cop's next question brought his attention back. "You know anyone who might think they have some reason to--get back at you for something?"
Harry was nodding. No need to ponder that one. "I might come up with a few names. But none of them sent this."
"How do you know?"
Harry was smiling faintly now. "I doubt they'd be satisfied just to pick my pockets."
* * *
The ambulance had gone on its way, and a police team of robotic experts had arrived. The team was headed by a human tech, a woman who gave the impression of being dedicated to her job, in command of a couple of specialized machines. These were sturdy, functional units, slightly larger than most full-grown humans. They had two thick arms and two sturdy legs apiece, and their surfaces of scarred metal armor suggested they were used chiefly in jobs considered notably unsafe for humans. That type of work included the immobilization of any of their fellow robots that might demonstrate a tendency to be dangerous or unpredictable.
The lady was soon briefed on the situation, and quietly issued orders. In a few seconds her two mechanical bodyguards, approaching the stranded paddy one on each side, had strong-armed its massive body out from under the guard fence and were holding it clamped between them. Each bodyguard was twisting one of Paddy's arms, and using one of its own large feet to pin down one of Paddy's three.
Precautions having been taken the human tech herself, optelectronic probes and other gear in hand, cautiously approached the renegade robot, while the cop and Harry stood back.
The lady applied her probes. Vigilant testing showed that paddy was still quite capable of movement when commanded, but was now inclined to be completely docile.
In another moment the tech, with deft, experienced moves, had produced a kind of soft, eyeless helmet and fitted it loosely over paddy's head. Immediately she began to get readings on her handheld showing what was going on inside. It seemed that the doors of communication might be opening a bit, but when the tech attempted a voice interrogation, the subject moved slightly but remained mute.
"I order you to answer me," she commanded in a firm voice.
Still no response.
Leaning forward cautiously, the tech put out a hand and plucked a small, thin object from a kind of utility belt that circled paddy's generous waist. She studied it a moment, then tossed it to her human colleague. Harry, looking over the shoulder of the male cop, saw that he was now holding a flat, narrow band of some composite designed material, about as long as a human forearm. Some kind of ligature, the kind of thing that might be used to restrain people without causing injury.
The tech commented: "That's a newer model, one I haven't seen before."
The cop, with Harry looking over his shoulder, observed: "Looks a little tougher than the cuffs we use. I bet it would leave some marks."
The lady was holding out her hand, and he gave the specimen back. By way of illustrating its use, she put it round the arm of one of her own compliant robots. The instant the band was in place, it molded itself to the surface, as if it were settling in, getting ready to resist removal.
"Can you pull that loose, Holdy?" she asked the machine. "Give it a try."
A powerful metal hand began to work. Fifteen seconds elapsed before the metal equivalent of a fingernail managed to scrape a purchase under the band, and five more before the composite yielded with a snap.
"Holdy's strong," the lady tech remarked. A fine example of understatement, Harry supposed, considering the line of work for which her robot aide had been designed.
She added: "Human being wouldn't have much chance to get away."
Harry could well believe that too. There was still no response forthcoming from the robber machine. Shrugging, the tech did not persist in her attempts at interrogation.
"We'll try again when we get this cute little feller in the lab," she commented. Then she frowned, and flicked a finger at the ruined section of Paddy's right upper forearm. "How'd he get so chewed up?"
"I didn't see it," the beat cop admitted.
"I didn't get a very good look either," Harry acknowledged. There was a note of bewilderment in his voice. "It all happened so fast."
The tech gave him an appraising look. "I bet it did," she observed. But finding out what had happened wasn't her department, and she turned to make a signal to the second tame robot in her crew. It extended a thick arm and retrieved the helmet from Paddy's head. Harry's imagination painted a glum look on Paddy's face, made it the image of a human waiting for his lawyer to show up. But a robot was going to have a long wait before that happened.
"No luck, huh?" the patrolman asked his coworker sympathetically.
The woman shrugged. "When we start taking things apart, we'll probably find all its vocal gear has been taken out. Maybe even its language capability. And all identifying marks and numbers will have been removed. Who this belongs to will take some digging to find out--if we ever do."
She looked at Harry one more time. "Consider yourself lucky, mister."
"I always try to do that. Sometimes it works."