They shoot cattle thieves in old Texas.
Author's note: This story features characters that were introduced in Robot Amnesia and portrayed in Robot Remembrance, Robot Refuge, and Robot Relationship. You are invited to acquaint yourself with them by reading those stories here on Vocal:
Major Freiburg and I stepped back from the tarp we had laid over my brother in arms. We solemnly regarded our work for a moment before the major looked at me.
"How's the leg feel, Sergeant?" he asked with a concerned expression.
"Perfect." I flexed my left knee and articulated my ankle and foot joints. "Sir? I have the requisite audio file."
"Play it." He motioned for Libby to stand next to him.
Miss Liberty, slender and feminine, looked small and vulnerable next to her tall, muscular father. But I knew the teenager's outer appearance hid a quick, decisive mind and a tough will. At her father's command, she snapped to attention and placed her right hand over her heart.
The major saluted, and I played Taps. While I did, a breeze stirred the branches above us, and a red leaf settled on the tarp that covered the broken body of my twinned unit. It would have to serve as my flag. After the final notes died out, I stepped forward to take it.
"Allow me," Major Freiburg said. He retrieved the leaf and presented it to me with a second salute.
I released the latch to open my chest compartment and placed the leaf within the black book that served as my analog critical data repository.
"Are you part robot, Sir?" I asked. "How is it that you had the same idea I did just now?"
"Symbols and tokens are important in the human world as much as in the programming world, Ben."
The sharp crackle of twigs breaking alerted us to movement along the trail that led down Hill 529. Heavy thumps punctuated the rustling of multiple feet in the leaf-fall. The thicket of saplings that concealed where we stood also prevented our seeing whoever was approaching.
I crouched next to the major as he took up his joule rifle and motioned for Libby to take cover behind the tarp-covered robot.
He lisped to eliminate the whistle from his whisper to me. "Do you think it'th a deer?"
"Doeth are quieter, Thir," I answered. "Maybe a big buck."
"Or maybe another thcout bot," he said with a glance up at me. He signaled for Libby to draw her sidearm as well.
I slipped my .90 caliber pistol out of its holster as the major raised his rifle and tracked the source of the approaching sounds. He pointed, and I crept toward the opening of our tiny clearing, placing my feet deliberately and carefully. I aligned myself behind a large tree, holding my weapon at low-ready. The forest seemed to listen with us as the thumps, footfalls, and twig-crackings became more pronounced. Then they stopped.
The major put two fingers below his eyes briefly and pointed at me before repositioning them at the trigger guard.
As I leaned just enough to peer around the large trunk, someone let out a loud huff. I stepped from behind concealment to observe who was on the trail. "Oh." I reholstered my pistol.
The major looked at me curiously, tentatively lowering his rifle. "What? There's nothing there?"
"The bull. I think it followed us from the barn. And it apparently found a friend."
Libby sprang up from her concealment. "My bull? Dad, if it followed us here, you have to let me take it home."
"Cadet, I already told you, one doesn't collect livestock on a recon exercise."
"But you also said our mission objectives had changed. And we've done the repairs on Ben's leg." Libby cast a hope-filled gaze at him, creasing her lower lip with her teeth.
"I also said we need to get back to base quickly and report that we killed a scout."
The two stared at each other, and I wondered who would win the battle of wills—the seasoned officer or the charming adolescent daughter.
Libby broke the silence, speaking barely over a whisper. "But now there are two. Isn't two better than one?"
Major Freiburg appeared to be weakening. I pivoted toward the pair of hairy red bovines, keeping the father-daughter contest in my peripheral vision.
"If I say yes, you're probably going to want to name it. What are you going to name it? Eddie?"
"Eddie's a nice name. I like—" Libby glowered at the major. "No, Dad, I'm not naming him edible."
The major smiled, something I hadn't seen very often in my brief acquaintance with him.
"Freeze, robot!" A man's voice rang out from behind me, near the crest of Hill 529. "Raise your hands and face me—slowly."
I did as I was told.
Five men stood at the top of the trail, four of them with rifles trained on me. The man between the two fire teams spoke with a twang. "Identify yourself, robot."
"I am BN-2062101779601, Sergeant in the MIL defense forces. Lower your weapons, please."
"How do I know you're with the Midlands Independence League, BN?" The five descended toward me slowly, never lowering their weapons.
"Because I just told you, Lieutenant. And because I am an ANAK unit. And I can tell from your insignia and your accent that you've come from the Texoma Free State. You're way out of your territory, Sir."
He sneered. "That's not the right answer, robot. You could've been captured and reprogrammed. I think you're a scout for the Coastal People's Republic. And we are currently on a scout bot hunt."
"ANAK units are notoriously difficult to capture, and we are equipped with mechanisms to thwart reprogramming."
"James, you've worked with robots," the lieutenant said. "Is that true?"
The soldier wielding a pre-war Barrett M82A1 sniper rifle replied without looking up from his sights. "I believe so, Sir."
"Well, then." The TFS Lieutenant grimaced and scratched his belly. "In that case, you can put your hands down and step away from that brisket. We're gonna eat good tonight, men."
"I wouldn't recommend shooting this bull, Sir," I said.
"Really? Why is that?"
"Because right now my major has a joule rifle aimed at you."
The lieutenant scoffed. "Your major. You don't have a—"
"Drop your weapons," commanded Major Freiburg. "Just toss them over there at the feet of the ANAK."
The lieutenant paled at the realization two figures stood in the thicket to his right. "All right, no need to get hasty," he said, raising his hands. "We can work this out."
His four companions raised their trigger hands high overhead, holding the rifles just by the handguards.
A loud report shattered the silence of the forest. The bovines snorted and shuffled several meters down-trail.
Libby snarled, "He said, drop them. Now do it!"
The major didn't move, but his eyes grew a little wider as he adjusted his gaze to include his daughter at his side. At the same time, four rifles thudded onto the trail in front of me. The lieutenant gingerly extracted his sidearm from his holster and tossed it on a pile of dead leaves.
"Now, Major, we're allies, the TFS and the MIL." Beads of sweat appeared on the lieutenant's forehead. "There's no need to create a situation here that might—"
"That's right, Lieutenant, but I suspect your superiors back in old Texas wouldn't object at all if I told them I had to shoot a bunch of cattle thieves."
"I follow what you're saying, Sir. We didn't mean any harm."
"You were going to shoot our ANAK," barked Libby. "And those are my cows."
The operator who had been carrying the Barrett fought to restrain a smile.
The major relaxed and lowered the joule rifle. "So, do we have an understanding, Lieutenant—what's your name?"
"Cervantes. I'm Lieutenant Reilly Cervantes, Major. And, yes, I do understand. These are the young lady's cows, and we're going to eat something else tonight." The lieutenant grinned as the major side-eyed his bright red hair. "I know, Sir. I don't look Mexican. My twin brother does. I got the red hair from my mother—she was a Baird. May I ask who I'm addressing, Sir?"
"Major Freiburg, MIL. Cervantes, huh? Any relation to the author?"
"No way to know, Sir. Too many gaps in the records."
The major gestured toward the weapons lying on the trail in front of me. "Go ahead and pick up, and tell me what you're doing this far north."
"TFS Central Command received enough reports of scout bot encounters that they decided the coastals must have initiated some kind of recon wave. So they sent us north on what they calculated to be an intercept path."
Major Freiburg slung his joule rifle on his shoulder. "And did you find any?"
"We killed seven at almost perfect fifty mile intervals. We thought we'd found the eighth when we saw your ANAK here," said Cervantes.
"No, this ANAK killed your number eight last night." The major nodded toward Libby. "With her help. The pieces are in an old rundown barn across the valley. You said fifty mile intervals? That means there's one getting close to Freetown."
"Do you need us to go there with you, Major?" the lieutenant asked.
"No, I'm sure my men there can take care of it. But I do need to get back and report what we found here—along with what you just told me. You sounded hungry. How are your men set for grub?"
"We're parsing our rations, Sir, but we should be fine to make it home."
"There might still be some pears on the pear tree next to the old barn, if you're interested," said Major Freiburg.
"Not unless I missed one," said Libby. "Eddie likes pears."
The lieutenant's sniper smirked.
"Eddie?" I asked.
"No, but I haven't had time to think of a better name."
"You know, up close, you're an imposing hunk of metal," Cervantes remarked to me with an admiring nod before returning his attention to Major Freiburg. "Well, Sir, I guess it looks like there's nothing left for us to do here. With your permission, I'll take my team back to base."
"Have a safe trip, Lieutenant. And keep your eyes peeled, in case these lightweight scouts are followed by a second wave. Let's pray there won't be another—we don't need even a little bit of a sequel to the last war."
They exchanged salutes. Libby stood beside me, watching the party of TFS scout-hunters ascend to the crest of Hill 529 and disappear behind it.
Major Freiburg regarded her. "Cadet, I don't normally approve of wasting ammunition on warning shots. As effective as your outburst was, don't do it again." The corner of his mouth twitched, and his stern eyes gleamed with pride.
"Yes, sir." Libby looked down the trail to where the two bovines eyed us warily. "Dad? I still have some cord. Will you help me rig a couple of harnesses for my cows?"
The major nodded, and Libby extracted something from her rucksack before walking downhill.
"Hey, bull," she said sweetly. "Want a pear?"
Major Freiburg stared after her with a confused expression.
"She said there weren't any left on the tree, Sir," I said. "She didn't say there weren't any left."