-- Herbert W. Qom, Ph.D.
"Psychological Conditioning in Modern Highway Combat"
As an orthodox Humanist, Sammy Hughes disapproved of prayer, but he wished to God that he could wipe his face. He couldn't, of course. At 115 mph, on the busiest lane of the Philly to D.C. Freeway, with two screechers on his tail, the wheel needed both hands. Even an instant of distraction risked a spin and flip or a meeting with the reinforced concrete of the center divider. The screechers had already splattered him with small-caliber fire. The challenge was direct, and Sammy Hughes had never yet backed out of a road fight.
Steering is mostly muscle and eyes; it leaves the mind free for second guessing. Sammy's mind went over the list of reasons not to invest in self-steering. "It's only been on the market for three years; that's not enough time for thorough testing. The BBS has too many reports of possible failures under combat conditions. The hackers say any computer can be cracked, even if it is supposed to be penetration proof. I don't want somebody else steering my car like a remote-controlled model. Besides, that price pays for a lot of recharges and ammo."
Sammy had been leery of advanced gadgetry since a fast-talking Motortech salesman had cozened him into a discount tryout of a new, multidirectional mine dropper. It was truly multi-directional. One of the directions was directly under Sammy's right-rear wheel. Alert monitoring, shifty driving and more luck than a man should use up got Sammy clear of his own mine. He still had occasional dreams in which his car disappeared in a blaze of flame, a cloud of smoke and roar of derisive horse laughter.
"Let some other sucker be the guinea pig,'' he said. ''I don't have the time, blood or money to be an off-the-payroll test driver."
Sammy felt the sweat dry to a persistent itch on his forehead. ''Maybe the irritation will drive me crazy,'' he thought. ''I could use a madman's edge right about now."
One of the screechers pulled up on Sammy's left. They had tried his rear armor without success. Now they were probing for the sides. Sammy wondered again why anyone would drive a screecher. "With your butt half an inch off the read and your feet higher than your ears, it must be a little less comfortable than root canal."
Sammy risked a side glance at his opponent. "What kind of a helmet -- that's no helmet, that's a head! It's an android! "Good Humanist disgust almost took Sammy's mind off his fighting.
The other screecher tried to pull up on the right. Sammy dragged his mind back from philosophical fury to immediate combat. He veered right and simultaneously triggered his rear/left napalm mini-rockets. The left rocket missed the android, flaming into the brush by the road side. "Hope no Ecocommandos saw that," thought Sammy "I don't need anybody else on my case."
The rear-firing rocket was more effective. The rider of the screecher slammed backwards from the saddle, his head obscured in flame. From the trail on the pavement, he was meat and not metal. He must have twisted the throttle as he flew off. His screecher suddenly accelerated, slammed into the rear end of Sammy's car and somersaulted into the air. As Sammy fought the wheel, he heard the screecher crash back into the earth behind him.
"If that tinman is slaved to the other rider " Sammy thought. "No such luck.'; The android must be on Self Direction. He would follow his last command, and that command had obviously been to wipe out Sammy's car.
Sammy considered ejecting. "No, no programmed dummy is going to run me off the road." Humanist principles and duellist's pride combined to make any option but winning unthinkable.
Sammy swerved, braked and accelerated, trying to bring the screecher within the are of his front-firing autocannon. The android was too good a driver for that easy kill. He hung on Sammy's left, spraying light-weapons fire.
"If that was a man and not a tinman, I'd think he had figured the rocket was my only left-firing weapon,'' Sammy thought. "He's hanging on like a leech. He hasn't fired any-thing but small caliber stuff, and that's not getting through. What is he - it, I mean - up to?"
On the principle of''whatever the enemy is for, I'm against,'' Sammy tried to shake the persistent android from his left-flank position. He tried a series of swerves, but the screecher held position through them all.
Sammy popped the wheel hard, trying to slam his heavier vehicle into the screecher. Again, the android held position as if he was glued to Sammy's door.
Ahead was a stretch of straightaway. "I've got more power,'' Sammy thought. "With a straight run to build up speed, maybe I can get ahead of him.'' Sammy pushed the throttle hard, watching the LED readout of the speedometer climb.
The screecher began to fall back a little. "That's got him," thought Sammy. "I'll get a little ahead, pull a 180, and wipe him off the - What!" The car's interior began to vibrate in a way he had never felt before. The air hummed just on the edge of sub-sonic. Sammy had heard of the experimental sonic weapons, but this was the first time he had experienced one. "It figures; of course they'd use a tinman to test some new gizmo. You don't have to con a microchip, just program it."
Except for the vibration, the sonic didn't seem to be having much effect. "I wonder what it's supposed to do, shake me up? And where's the audience when I need one; puns never sound as good when you repeat them."
Suddenly, as if a threshold had been reached, the effect of the sonic weapon became obvious. Sammy could not move a voluntary muscle; it was as if the nerves had been detached from his brain. He could not turn the wheel or move his feet on brake or throttle. Worse, the last command to his right foot continued in effect. His car was steadily gaining speed, and ahead the straightaway ended in a climbing right turn. Sammy was headed straight for the unyielding concrete and steel of the center divider.
Out of the storage of Sammy's mind came a dozen tactics; unfortunately, all of them required movement. The good news was that the one with the least demand on movement was also the one with greatest surprise factor. Good Humanist dogma insisted that men were more flexible than machines; Sammy would put faith to the test. He strained, a terrible, nightmare straining at nothing, to get any response from his right hand. With an almost audible snap, his right thumb was suddenly free to move. He flipped up the red cover and squashed the button to activate Sammy's Secret Weapon (or maybe Sammy's Stupid Weapon, said a troublesome voice at the back of his mind).
The bank of front-mounted rocket boosters fired. The car shuddered and slowed, as if it was attached to a giant bungee cord that had reached the limit of elasticity. The still-driving tires squealed against the pavement as the car's power plant fought the force of the rockets. Sammy slammed against his safety webbing, his vision graying out. The screecher shot past; the android's more sensible braking could not match the deceleration of Sammy's rockets. Sammy cleared the firing are of the sonic and, as abruptly as it had come on, the paralysis passed.
Sammy yanked the trigger with no pause to aim and swerved toward his best-guess location for the robot-driven screecher. Whatever hands out luck to good Humanists was with him. He watched the android turn to scrap in the cone of fire of his auto-cannon.
Sammy brought his abused car back into control, and pulled off the road. For a few moments he allowed himself the luxury of an after-action shake, then got out to assess the damage. His back and left armor had been spalled and chipped by small-caliber fire. It would need repair, but would probably last to the shop. The tires were another matter. The violent manoeuvring and deceleration had peeled whole strips from the tires' surfaces. They were certainly not fighting fit and were probably not even safe for sedate driving. "I wonder if the budget will stand a call for on-site delivery," he thought. The sonic weapon seemed to have done no harm to car or driver, but Sammy decided he wanted both a complete physical and a calibration of all instruments as soon as possible.
"Well," he thought, "any one you walk away from is a good one, but I think I need some updating on equipment. The machinery is getting a little ahead of me.''
The sound of the chopper came from the east, and low. Sammy was not really worried. EDSEL activity was minimal in Maryland, and anyway the shooting was over. "Better safe than original," he thought, and moved to the cover of the bar ditch. He wondered if he had gotten more cautious in the last half hour.
The chopper was not EDSEL. On its side was the giant and garish logo of Baltimore's Channel 24 News, the self-billed Humanist Voice of the Upper South. Their philosophy was close enough to Sammy's heart that he could even tolerate their raucous and limping jingle: Baltimore 24, with you all the way, Serving fans and duellists, 24 hours a day. Sammy moved out of cover and back to his car.
The chopper's call came in clear and distortion free. Sammy noted that the radio was one more thing that seemed to have survived the duel intact.
"Hello, winner," said the professionally hearty voice in the traditional greeting. "We have a good video of your fight and want to congratulate you on a kill. I see you have a Channel 24 News bumper sticker. It's a little battered, but still recognizable. Give me your name and number and you'll go up on Baltimore 24's Big Board and be eligible for our Winningest Street Warrior of the Week Grand Prize; two tickets to Chocolate Kitty's anti-bowdlerized production of Les Liasons Dangereuses, over.''
"Ah, roger," Sammy said. "I'm a 24 all the way viewer all right, but I think you mean two kills. If you look a little way back down the road, you'll find another screecher, and my rocket got him, over.''
The voice from the sky was not quite as hearty. "Roger, winner, it's the first kill we mean. Our studio policy, as part of our Humanist philosophy, is that android kills don't count. They are just not worthy opponents for a real human, over . . . Are you receiving me, winner, over . . . I do not hear you, if you hear me, please give a visual signal, over."
Since Sammy could think of neither a visual signal nor a voiced reply that was not obscene or hysterical, he simply sat and contemplated a change of faith.