For several seconds, the population of Juventas held its collective breath.

The League Navy had returned, in force, in an effort to take out the Diego Fleet.

Amateur astronomers and others eagerly scanned the skies looking for the telltale flashes from chunks of sun, teleported by Condor-class warships and one time torpedoes alike.

Within seconds it was over.

The Republic did not guard information as zealously as the League. Wartime restrictions on information were in place, but in general the Republic prided itself as an open society.

And so, Admiral Severs announced to the planet that the Third Fleet, or at least the portion that showed up to fight, had been soundly defeated and StarCen pulled the survivors away.

He did not indicate enemy numbers, nor did he mention losses or damages on the Republican side. This was just in case someone loyal to the League found a way to communicate. Spies could be anywhere, after all. The saying, “Loose lips sink ships,” still held true.

Marine First Sergeant Gina Wilcox sighed. One might think it was a sigh of relief, that they would not be engaged in a horrific ground battle with League forces. But it was not that.

She did feel relief that their side won, that fewer Republican ships were lost, although she had no idea of casualties. Obviously, more League ships were taken out since they retreated. That’s usually the way it works, she thought.

Mostly, she sighed because now there would be little to do.

Other than guard duty.

The population had settled down considerably. Already somewhat predisposed toward liberty, the people of Juventas had a strong and vibrant resistance network. Once the remaining SSI personnel were rounded up along with a few diehard League loyalists who wanted to stir up trouble, problems with the populace evaporated.

Surely there were spies. Maybe even a saboteur skulking about somewhere. But they were smart enough to keep their heads down right now.

And Wilcox was bored.

She amused herself by exploring her capabilities in her down time. She could detect sensors and other electronic devices from at least a block away. Perhaps farther, although the number of devices increased with greater range resulting in a jumble of signals difficult to differentiate.

But the most exciting development, and one she kept to herself, was the fact she could eavesdrop on neural net connections.

It came to her one night in the barracks when she could not sleep. Her mind wandered, and she began pulling in a holo called “Lucky Lou.”

It was famous for being bad, the sort of entertainment designed to appeal to teen-aged boys. It told the story of a young woman named Lou who had her choice of three boyfriends one summer on the beach.

The actors had horrible lines.

“Oh, Dirk! Are you really that glad to see me? Are you? Are you really?”

“Why, yes I am, Lou. You know it! I’ll prove it to you.”

Wilcox caught that bit of awful dialogue and frowned. She was not playing “Lucky Lou,” so where did it come from?

And by the way, wasn’t Lou a man’s name? She tried to remember. She thought the female lead was Louise, Lou for short.

Suddenly she was in the holo. There was “Lou,” a breathless young thing, tanned and wearing a red bikini top. And there was Dirk, a massive muscle-bound lifeguard on a Diego beach somewhere. Wearing, of course, tight red swim trunks.

“I’ll always be looking for someone to love me, Dirk!”

“I’ll be here, Lou. Waiting for you.”

Good gosh, it’s terrible, Wilcox thought. Wait. I’m not playing this holo. Then . . . who is?

She rooted around, looking with her enhanced electronic senses until she came across a name imprinted in the circuits: “PRM PFC Boggs, Morton.”

The next morning she could not pass up the opportunity to embarrass Boggs during roll call.

“Awright maggots! Today we’re going to do some actual work instead of laying around in our bunks watching ‘Lucky Lou!’”

She said this staring straight at Boggs, who grew beet red.

It backfired on her, though. Jamieson said, “Lucky Lou? That’s my favorite!”

Someone else said, “Yeah! You know the holo’s tagline don’t you?”

All the Marines said together, “‘When Lou gets lucky, you do too!’”

She cut short this celebration of awful holos with an acerbic statement.

“You’re all being replaced with bots.”

That caught their attention.

“Say what, Sarge?”

“Diego factories have been working overtime, and this new round of supply ships brought in thousands of them. Evidently higher ups feel confident the mechanicals can take over simple guard duty. And they don’t watch ‘Lucky Lou’ over and over like you lousy reprobates.”

She nodded as Lt. Meyers walked in, followed by a new model guard bot.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Meyers said, “meet your new partner. This is a Verberger Model X99, the latest in Republican battle bot design.”

Somebody in the back of the group whistled.

Jamieson said, “Don’t it look pretty? I almost want to take it out for dinner.”

“That’s about the only way you’d ever get a date,” Boggs said.

“Awright, pipe down!” Wilcox said, cutting short the laughter.

“Right,” Meyers said. “Blaster resistant skin, same material as our armor. A new head, designed to hold up against explosions, rectangular. Of course, if it’s a big enough explosion that won’t matter, but the techies are saying it should withstand an egg grenade at close range.”

He pointed at the shiny gunmetal gray head. It was featureless, Wilcox thought. No eyes, ears, or even a representation of a mouth. It stretched about half again as tall as a cube, with rounded edges. Presumably the rounded edges helped deflect explosions.

Jamieson said, “How’s it turns its head, Lieutenant? Or does it? Where are its eyes and such?”

“Sensors inside the head give it a 360 degree view. Far superior than comparable League bots at the moment.”

“How do you kill it?” Boggs said.

The Lieutenant smiled. He had everyone’s attention as they waited for the answer.

He said, “Great question. The answer is, same as the others. Bomb the heck out of it. It’s not foolproof, but our guys and gals have come up with a very slick design here. We think it will be impervious to most of what is thrown at it. It should be very hard to take down.

“The Verberger X99 is your friend and battle buddy!”

Wilcox found herself concentrating on the bot’s circuits while Meyers spoke. They seemed easy enough to figure out. She ran through various subroutines until she found the one she wanted. She concentrated and adjusted some things . . .

The bot snapped its heels together and saluted smartly with its right hand.

This bought some exclamations of surprise from the Marines. Then applause.

Lt. Meyers beamed at the machine.

Under his breath he said, “I didn’t know it was going to do that.”


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