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Breakfast Of Champions

by Thomas A. Easton

No answer. Of course. By all the laws of sainted Murphy, that last skirmish had to cost me my antenna. Not just my head.

So here I am. Surrounded by savages. Or not surrounded, really. They're all in front of my eyes, except when the chief or one of his wives goes into his hut. They've got that dinnerbell look on their faces, but I should be safe enough. It takes another ironguts to do me in, like the one that shot my head off.

The battle was last night. Why? I don't know, except that that's when our forces met. There's no difference between sun and stars when your IR is built right in. The only way anyone will ever lick that is when they build a cryogenic soldier. I suppose they're working on it.

Night or day, though, the hell of it is that you can't hide. You duck behind a rock, and it takes two shots to get you instead of one. One for the rock, one for you. Marvelous stuff, these modern weapons. They make the battlefield unsafe for human beings. That's why they built us. Ironguts, they call us, and for good reason. We look like men, smell like men, sound like men, think like men. Taste like men? I don't know, but maybe I'll find out soon.

The natives are gathered around my body now. One's got a big knife. He's working on my clothes. Tough stuff, hey? That's right, fellow. Saw at it a bit. It'll cut, as long as your blade is sharp enough. It is, too. But you'd better hone it again soon. Or you'll never get through my skin. Even honing it's no guarantee.

Just like men, I was saying. Except we're tougher. Lots tougher. It takes a war to kill us, nothing less, so if men could just keep their noses in their own business we'd live forever. If you can call it living. After all, we're just fancy machines.

I wish I could get through to HO. That knife is sharp. I'm stark naked now. And the savages are staring. They've never seen anything like me. No equipment. I'm not that manlike. I swear they look disappointed. Especially the chief. Maybe he was counting on a delicacy.

But now for the skin, hey? That's right, stroke it right down the middle, breastbone to crotch. Lean on it a little. You have to clean the carcass before you can do anything else with it. What? Not a mark? I told you I was tough. That's right, try honing it. Here comes a kid with your stone. Do a good job, now.

What's the war all about, you ask? How should I know? I'm just a grunt, after all. But I can guess. Probably real estate, or resources. Jungle stuff, too. Futile, as always. What's it all about? From where I sit, it's battles, battles, and more battles. Kill or be killed. A classic story.

Last night's was just one in a long string of firefights. Maybe my last. Somebody caught me right across the neck with a beam. I don't even know which side did it. And there I was, lying on the ground in two pieces. And there I stayed while the fighting faded out in the distance.

Eventually these little brown fellows showed up to pick up the pieces, including me. Took me back to their village, stuck my head up on top of a pole, and planted the pole in front of the head man's place. Then they spread my body out in the middle of the compound, right in front of me, so I have a good view. Close to the fire, too. Nice and warm. Nice and handy..

The knife seems to be honed as sharp as it can be now. He's ready to try again. No luck slicing. Can he stab? The blade has a good point. Ummph! If I was alive, that would have knocked the breath right out of me, if I breathed.

Now somebody's bringing a hammer. More of a mallet, really. He's got the knife. He's planting it right over my power pack. Won't he be surprised if he pokes a hole in that! He's raising the mallet. Wham! No luck. Wham! Still none. The chief grabs the mallet and holds it in both hands. The first guy steadies the knife. WHAM! And the knife breaks. Snaps right in two. Not a mark on me. But the guy who had the knife in the first place looks right pissed.

I'm lucky, really. Here I am, able to watch the cannibals carving up my carcass. My main power pack's in my belly, with connectors to my weaponry' built into my fingertips. Grab the gun right, and you're ready to shoot. But there's a little auxiliary pack in my skull. Just enough juice to keep the sensors working and the brain ticking along. Not enough to blink or talk, though. I wish I could talk. I'd pull the god bit and get them to cart me back to base.

Speaking of which, it's not a complete disaster, having my antenna knocked out. They can home on my power pack. Sometimes. In theory.

These savages are determined. They're going to have me for breakfast if it takes all day. Here comes an axe now.

And the beefiest guy in the tribe. Guy? Hell, no. That's a woman. But built! Like a Mack truck. Somebody grabs my right arm and hauls it out from my body. She raised that axe overhead. Her muscles bulge as she brings it down. Just as hard as she can. And that's hard! THUNK! The joint looks a little flattened from here, but my skin's intact. Guess I'll need a little rebuilding if I ever get out of here. Oops! They see what the axe did too. She's raising it again. THUNK! A little flatter. They wiggle the arm. It flops. Goodbye elbow.

And I was overdue for an overhaul before this battle. I should have stayed at base. Had the mechs fix that wobble in my left pinkie. I've been having a little trouble plugging the connector into the sighting control on my beamer. And I swear there's a bearing going in my right hip. Not to speak of a patch of jungle fungus up my right nostril. Though that might be stretching things a bit. They told us the fungus can't root in our hides, another advantage we have over men. And if they catch you malingering-we can do it, believe me!-they program you. Even that would be better than what's happening now.

They're building up the fire. If steel can't hack it, maybe heat will. They're logical, anyway. It's a reasonable assumption. They can see the scorch marks on the stump of my neck. I wish I could understand what they're saying. My ears are working, just like my eyes, but all the noise is just gibberish. Gobbledygood. Is that what started folks calling them gooks? Who cares? I can tell what they're planning. I can see well enough. The eyes have it. They've grabbed a hold of my bad arm. They're dragging me over to the fire, laying that elbow right on top of a flaming log.

I wish I could get HO.

The fire shouldn't make much difference. It takes a good 1800 degrees Celsius to hurt that skin polymer. A little less than what a beamer produces. But they're all worked up anyway. Optimistic, I guess. Maybe even with reason. Even from here, I can see my skin changing color. That shouldn't happen! Maybe the axe bruised the polymer enough to weaken it. But the axe shouldn't have done that! It shouldn't even have hurt the joint, actually. We're supposed to be immune to mechanical accidents, like axes and steel-jacketed slugs. So I'm not perfect. That's news? What with being put together by the lowest bidder?

Oh, great! They're going to try the axe again. They're hauling me out of the fire, laying the arm across a stick of firewood. A chopping block. And wham! This time they make it. That's my arm they're passing around. Looks like bone, doesn't it fellows? Metal-ceramic alloy. Nice and white, it's a little dry. Looks like meat, too, hey? Might even taste like it. It's something like protein, after all. The most compact muscle they could design. Not very nourishing, though. It's made of silicon, not carbon.

It doesn't taste right, you say? That's right, you guys are licking your fingers, aren't you? Getting juice all over you from the stump. I hope it rots your guts out. No, don't spit. Swallow it. How can it rot you if you don't?"

Somebody just lost interest in me. She's getting a more edible breakfast. Bringing out a pot of something. Setting it over the fire. Looks like porridge. No wonder they wanted meat! They're drifting away from me. Maybe they're done. Maybe the mechs won't have too much work to do.

No, they're coming back. Some of them, anyway. Bowls of porridge in their fists. Staring at me. Talking around their food. Gesticulating. One bright boy seems to have an idea. He sets his bowl aside and points at me. Then he waves his hands down over his body. My skin for a coat, huh? The invulnerable warrior.

Another guy holds up the broken knife. Good boy! How can you skin me if you can't cut me? But the bright one isn't fazed. He picks up my arm and begins to peel the skin back from the stump, like taking a glove off. Great! A genius! The others get it too. and two of them start working on my neck.

It's really a shame that my skin is so lifelike. That means it's flexible. It has to be, if I'm going to do much moving around. It also means it'll stretch. Just enough for them to get it over my shoulders and start it moving.

Now I really am naked. That's my skin they're pawing over, six feet away from my body. Inside out, yet. A women brings a jug and they wash the juices off. Then they start scraping away the fibers that fastened the skin in place. Pretty soon, it's all ready for drying, and the fire does a quick job of that. The fire also lets them open up the neck opening a bit, that and what's left of the knife.

And now, here comes the chief. He's not too young-there's a bit of grizzle in his hair-but no one's about to hold out on him. He's the boss, and my skin is now his. If anyone in this tribe is going to be invulnerable, it'll be him.

As he approaches, they quickly turn my skin right side out and hold it up for him. He inspects it carefully. Pokes it with a finger and grins. Then he grabs it and holds it up to his scrawny frame, for all the world like a woman getting ready to try on a dress. The fit is going to be lousy. My feet drag on the ground in front of him.

The others hold it for him as he crawls in through the neck hole. They help work his feet down where my feet ought to be and get his left hand into place. He gestures, and they bring him the skin of my right arm. He puts that on, just like a long glove, and there he is, me, skin-deep. Though he's all wrinkles. But he's still grinning. All he needs to do now is test his new outfit.

He speaks and gestures and one of his wives runs out of sight under my perch. She returns in a second with one of the chiefs spears. When she hands it to him, he tests the point with a thumb. He grimaces when he can't feel a thing and touches it to his tongue. Then he hold it out to one of his young followers.

The young guy steps back a few feet and raises the spear. He cocks his arm back and lets fly. And, of course, the thing bounces off my skin. Though not painlessly. The chief roars at the blow and leaps at his spearman. A quick blow knocks him to his knees, and I can almost understand what the boss man is crying: "Not that hard, you idiot!"

Hah! My skin will keep anyone from poking holes in you, but it won't stop you from feeling them try. And it won't stop anyone from caving your chest in or breaking your back with a club. The chief seems to realize as much, but that doesn 't keep him from swelling up with pride over his new possession. He's right in front of me now. Waving his spear under my nose. Screaming something that sounds pretty triumphant. As if he'd just licked me.

But he isn't watching his people. And they're throwing quick glances at the sky, glances that very soon take on a terrified cast. They're beginning to cry out, too, shouts of panic as they scatter and run for the trees. Could it be?

Yes! There's the floater, coming down right on top of my body, one skid scattering the fire. The Search and Rescue squad, homing on my power pack at last. The Repair squad if you're not too far gone. The Salvage squad if you are.

The sudden silence gets the chief's attention. He whirls to face the compound, his arm dropping and his mouth hanging open in midshout as he sees the sudden apparition. Those things are silent! He pulls himself together. I can see it happen. Isn't he invulnerable now? Aren't his people watching from the bushes? He lifts the spear again, shakes it at the floater, and charges.

He's a brave bastard, but he's dumb. He doesn't have a chance. What does he think took my head off my shoulders? As soon as my saviours see a hairy savage in a robrob skin coming at them, they open fire. Two beamers at once. Before he takes his third step, he's in three pieces.

Well, that's not as bad as me. Counting everything, I'm now in seven pieces. But I can be fixed.

Sally by Isaac Asimov | Isaac Asimov's Worlds of Science Fiction. Book 9: Robots | Sun  Up by A.A. Jackson IV and Howard Waldrop