Rock ’em, Sock ’em

Tommy Tomorrow recalled that one time in school, in geophysics class, the teacher had shown a video taken by a drone flying over a robotic icebreaker cleaving a wedge through broken sheets of white ice on a jet-black sea. At the moment, Tommy couldn’t recall whether the video was of Earth’s arctic, or Jupiter’s moons Europa or Enceladus. But in any case, the wedge of wreckage left behind by blue Geri looked liked the jumbled icebergs left in the wake of the icebreaker.

Geri had zigzagged between the highway and the houses on the adjacent frontage roads. As a result, Tommy strode over an ever widening pileup of scrambled vehicles and debris from damaged build­ings. It looked like a tornado had ripped through. People were running in panic from the disaster, while pulling dried shock-absorbing foam from their hair and clothes. Tommy was surprised that no one appeared seriously injured, until it dawned on him how important it would be for a lone colony in a sky full of careening asteroids to have extraordinary impact and collision safety devices built into every home and vehicle.

Tommy finally came up behind blue Geri as it smashed through a residential neighborhood, still on a crooked trajectory toward the South Face. “The Wolf ‘bot is right in front of me,” Tommy said to his friends back in the pit area. “Now would be a good time to get that cure for the computer virus.”

On Becky Yesterday’s computer, her custom virus code passed its test suite. Breathlessly, she dragged the code’s icon on top of the icon for Big Red. Joey Today checked his computer display of Big Red’s status, then replied over the Bear ‘bots telemetry link, “Tommy, the cure downloaded successfully. Go!” 

Tommy reached out Big Red’s right hand toward the blue robot’s shoulder. All he needed was a few seconds contact. Then as suddenly as a bear trap snapping, Geri swiveled around and punched Big Red square in the chest. A painful hammer blow shot through Tommy’s body. The red robot staggered back, tripped over a car, then landed on its back. Tommy was under his robot’s bulk, but the roof of the operator’s cage protected him like a tortoise shell.

“He’s fighting back?” Tommy exclaimed in disbelief. “He fights like a professional boxer. Who’d program a robot to do that?” he said to his friends.

“We should have guessed,” Milo said. “There’re all kinds of capabilities Wolf pack could have programmed into their robot. A bully like Bruno wouldn’t think twice about adding a boxing library to the mix.”

“Is that really the most important thing right now?” Miyoko said to everyone. Then she addressed herself to the other end of the telemetry link. “Tommy, are you alright?”

Tommy slowly began to stand up, his robot mimicking him palming the ache in his chest. But before he could answer, Pack Master Dimbleby entered the tent and pushed his way to the front. Col. Dubois was right behind him, but remained at the back of the tent and observed. 

Mr. Dimbleby said, “Goldarn it, Tommy, are you hurt in any way? Your parent’s will never forgive me if I let you get hurt. I’ll never forgive myself if I let you get hurt. What’re you trying to do anyway? Come back here right now. That’s an order!”

“I think I’m fine,” Tommy answered, “although that punch did feel like getting hit by a sledgehammer.” Besides the direct physical impact, whatever Big Red felt was transmitted in reduced form to Tommy’s nervous system through the hallucination I/O hardware. “Big Red seems okay, too,” Tommy said. “Joey, do you agree?” Joey Today checked his telemetry, then gave his okay. 

Then Tommy haltingly said to his pack master, “I’m…I’m sorry Mr. Dimbleby. I guess I’m disobeying orders, but I’m the only one who stands a chance of stopping the Wolf pack’s robot. I’ve got to do this.”

Mr. Dimbleby was silent for a moment as he considered Tommy’s rebellion. He glanced over his shoulder at Col. Dubois, but knew that as pack master, the decision was his to make. He could have insisted that Tommy obey orders, but he reluctantly said, “Considering the danger of the situation, I think you’re right to try, Tommy. But I’ll still order you to retreat if you get in over your head.” Then he added gently, “And for the love of Pete, don’t go and get yourself hurt. I don’t want to have to explain to your folks how anything happened to you.”

Mr. Dimbleby turned to Becky, “But why is the Wolf pack’s robot fighting Tommy? His programming shouldn’t allow him to hurt a human.”

Becky considered for a moment. “Maybe the Wolf ‘bot is too damaged to follow its basic programming,” she said. 

“Or maybe it doesn’t know Tommy is human,” Joey said. “After all, right now he looks like just another machine.”

“What difference does that make?” Milo said in frustration. “The Wolf ‘bot is still out there, heading south toward the spaceport and the airlocks, planning to do who knows what? 

“Tommy, you aren’t touching the Wolf ‘bot long enough to vaccinate him with the cure,” Milo said. “Near-field communication is slow. You’ll need—what Becky? Five seconds or so—to inoculate him.”

“Oh sure, that’ll be easy,” Tommy replied. “When I try to touch him, he tries to knock my head off.”

“Then don’t just touch him,” Milo protested. “Fight him! Smash him down long enough for our virus to take effect.” 

“Hey, Tommy,” Joey said with a smile in his voice, “you know Becky and I are the last ones to take strategic advice from Milo, but we agree. Forget you’re a ‘Tomorrow’. Smash him!”

Tommy listened for a beat, considered the alternatives, then replied, “With pleasure.” 

The next thing Bear pack heard was Big Red’s metallic footsteps thundering like earthquakes, and Tommy whooping like a wild man. The telemetry from Big Red’s camera eyes was shown on a display that everyone could see. The view showed Big Red rushing toward blue Geri’s back; then a mad scramble as the two robots collided; rolled over and over; then regained their footing and began facing off against each other, exchanging one clangorous blow after another. 

Witnesses to the clash of the iron giants saw a red robot standing toe-to-toe with a blue robot. Their heads were down; their fists struck like jackhammers into each other’s humanlike torsos; and they bobbed and weaved to avoid a final punch that would be as disabling as a knockout, while they fought a rock ‘em-sock ‘em battle to the finish.

Miyoko’s eyes avoided the screen that showed the brutal fight, but instead watched the telemetry from Big Red’s hallucination I/O system that represented Tommy’s physical state. “Joey, look at this,” Miyoko said with serious concern in her voice. “Look at Tommy’s heart rate; his adrenaline level; his nervous system function. He’s getting hurt!” 

Miyoko took control of the microphone connecting Bear pack to their Tomorrow. “Tommy, stop fighting! Fall back! You can punch Wolf pack’s robot all you want and you’ll only rattle its machinery. But you’re merely flesh-and-blood inside a metal shell. Every punch you take—no matter how cushioned you are by your armor—is hurting you.”

Only a sickening grunt and groan came back in reply. “I can’t stop now, Miyoko,” Tommy said, but with exhausted slowness. The panoramic display view wobbled crazily. “What other choice do I have?”

“I don’t know,” Miyoko Tomorrow replied, trying but failing to be unemotional, “but think strategically. How much punishment can you take? Is this tactic working?” Miyoko finished talking, but the line was silent, and only the steady hammer and clang of metal fists continued. Mr. Dimbleby and Col. Dubois pushed forward, ready to give Tommy an ultimatum.

Suddenly, the panoramic display view receded as Big Red retreated from the fight. Blue Geri was dented and broken, but still moved with obsessive determination. Then as abruptly as switching a transistor, blue Geri turned from the fight and continued his march south. The hyperloop station was less than half a kilometer away. Once there, nothing stood in the way of the Wolf ‘bot hitching a ride straight to the Axis.

“Okay, I’m not an idiot,” Tommy said. “You’re right, Miyoko, I can’t beat a library of great boxers. It was like Muhammed Ali was jabbing me with one fist and Joe Louis was pounding me with the other.” Every listener could hear the despondency in Tommy’s voice. “I failed.” 

Mr. George Dimbleby was by all measures, a restrained man. So it came as a shock to everyone when he said, “You’re not trying to win a schoolyard fight—despite what Bruno Cardellini might have threatened!” Suddenly all the kids realized Pack Master Dimbleby knew more about his cadets than he let on. Maybe Col. Dubois knew too. “All you really want to do is touch the Wolf pack robot for five seconds or so. So stop fighting him, Tommy…and start wrestling him.”

Milo Forever, an expert in self-defense, exclaimed, “Brilliant!” Then he leaned in and advised, “A full-nelson, Tommy. A full-nelson! That move won’t be in any boxing library.” 

Tommy couldn’t tell if he’d gotten his second wind or if he was buoyed by his pack’s support, but either way he picked himself up and zeroed in on the Wolf pack’s ‘bot.

Blue Geri crashed through the corner of a building as if it wasn’t there. Debris exploded from the far side of the house, followed by a whipped-cream flood of meteor-collision safety foam that wafted the flabbergasted building occupants on its crest. Then Geri jumped back onto 60 Degree Avenue and ran fast. The compulsion he felt was irresistible; he had to get “home” as soon as he could. And he had to get there fast; his GPS sense of location said “home” was moving away quickly, south and up.

Tommy Tomorrow sprinted like a broken field runner on the most important steeplechase of his life. Just as the Wolf pack’s ‘bot was about to reach the hyperloop terminal, Tommy sprang Big Red’s huge electric-powered legs and leaped into the air as hard as he could. “No you don’t!” Tommy yelled as he crashed onto blue Geri’s back, wrapped the machine in a full-nelson before the rogue robot could react, and then hung on for dear life.

The Wolf ‘bot immediately started to stagger and twist in an attempt to pry Tommy off its back. But the robot was anthropomorphic; that is, it was shaped like a man, and could bend its limbs only so far and in certain directions. And like a man held under his arms and behind his neck by other strong arms, blue Geri could only flail and scratch feebly at the red robot holding it from behind.

“Hang in there, Tommy,” said Becky Yesterday over their telemetry link. “Our virus code’s being transmitted. Hang on for five seconds…four….” The Wolf pack’s ‘bot frantically tried to awkwardly reach over its shoulders with its big, claw-like, metal alloy fingers and scratch through the metal shield covering Big Red’s operator’s cage, but it was helpless against Milo Forever’s wrestling advice.

“Can this go any faster?” Tommy complained. “This blue piece of junk is trying to claw into my operator’s cage and the noise is deafening me.”

“Suck it up, Tomorrow,” shouted Milo.

“Three…two…,” Becky counted down over the communication link. “One! Download complete. Their ‘bot has been inoculated with our code.” 

All of a sudden, the Wolf ‘bot stopped thrashing and stiffened. “Hold on a moment longer,” Becky said. “Give their ‘bot time to reboot.” 

Tommy could feel the Wolf pack’s robot come to a stop, relax in his grip, and then idle awaiting further orders. Joey Today shouted excitedly, “Tommy, the Wolf ‘bot is cured! His immunity is already spreading to other nearby infected machines. You did it!”

Almost as one, Bear pack 1641 and its friends let out a triumphant roar.

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