This story is copyright 2002, Robert Marney. Contact me if you have any questions.

Background Note: This is the year 2096, NOT 2100. The Nova hasn't been invented, and HAR fighting is definitely NOT an established sport.

* * * *

==February 5, 2096, 22h

The main simulator room at World Aeronautics and Robotics ("The Company" to its employees, "WAR" to the media) was obviously a holdover from the bad old days of giant computers and text-only output. It resembled nothing so much as a set from a vintage sci-fi movie, with exposed cables and sprawling hardware along three walls and the ceiling. The fourth wall, opposite from the door, housed a giant display screen where those not actually fighting could watch from a separate camera. What dominated the room, however, was the central column: eight reclining chairs with built-in HAR hookups, with monitors and emergency switches arrayed above them. To Dr. Hothe, it was simply the same as it had been yesterday when he checked in and would be the same tomorrow; familiarity breeds contempt, as the adage says.

Shirro Lang, however, was not accustomed to the crushing atmosphere of technology, the omnipresent hum of electricity and the whir of cooling systems. He was only there to keep his skills at a reasonable level, trying to hold off the unpleasant sensation that he was getting old. However much he tried to deny it, however many prosthetics or cutting-edge drugs he used, he still only had a few decades left before he would have to retire. As always, Lang mentally added: Before that I will be President, and then it won't matter.

As Hothe prepared the necessary controls, Lang settled himself in and attached the electrodes. Though it was unnecessary, he braced himself for the transition. The specialists told him there was nothing to it, his mind was simply inventing sensations to fill the void that came as his body was disconnected, but all the same, there was that wrenching feeling, over before he could determine what it was or even if it had really been. As the soporifics entered Lang's bloodstream, he could feel his body slowly deadening to any stimulus, his hand refusing to move from its slightly uncomfortable position. Now he could no longer hear the air vents' ceaseless murmur; now only the memory of the chair beneath him remained; now there was that odd sensation of being inside out, of being cut off from everything including himself; now there was nothing.

He opened his eyes, but he had none, and was reintroduced to reality as a few hundred tons of metal and ceramic alloy. The famous acronym of Human-Assisted Robot was a misnomer, for Lang was not "assisting" his thirty-meter-tall Jaguar model, he was the robot. He opened his eyes, or rather became aware of new input from his optic nerve, and reveled in what he saw.

POWER!

A simple hop carried him ten meters into the air. With agility and grace he had never possessed, he landed on what passed for his hands, making two insignificant dents in the stone floor, and was back on his feet with a speed that the human eye could comprehend only in a blur. He felt the impeccable condition of his armor plates and, deep in his chest, the fusion reactor operating at ninety-four percent capacity. The Synthoil surged through his veins and Shirro Lang laughed. It was good to be back.

Lang did not normally let himself loose like this, but it was after hours and only Hothe would know, so he allowed the laugh to be transmitted through the radio link to anyone who happened to be listening. He imagined his booming voice filling the arena like the judgment of God and inwardly cursed the spaceborne heritage of the HAR that prevented speakers from coming into widespread use. A tendency to be grandiose had always been a weakness of Lang's, especially with the feeling of power controlling a HAR gave him. Simulators could never replace the real thing, but they came close enough for him to remember what it was really like, and that was enough.

Not since the discovery of the Drive that let man escape the solar system had there been such a revolution. The first HARs, used to create the first successful lunar colony, had merely been robots under remote control, much like a toy car that given proper control could theoretically perform all the maneuvers a real one could. WAR had been quick to patent anything relating to a direct brain-machine connection, the foundation of the modern HAR, the only reason it still remained control over the business. The Systex Corporation and others like it could make giant robots, true, but they would never be as accurate or efficient as WAR's setup.

After all, no matter how complicated the control mechanisms were, they bore only the most superficial relation to being there. A HAR was less dangerous and unweildy than a powered suit, faster and better-controlled than a remote, smarter than a true robot: in other words, the perfect combination of man and machine. Or so the marketing blurb went; apparently perfection needed improvement, for Dr. Ibrahim Hothe was head of an entire HAR research division in the largest company in history.

Hothe, callous to the transition from flesh to metal after decades of doing it several times a day, allowed Lang to get rid of some tension before he plugged himself in. Checking the monitors one last time to make sure the computer could adequately handle his new parameters, he faded from consciousness with half a smile on his face. The next thing he knew was control over WAR's latest creation, the Shadow robot.

Shadow was only a month old, but already had created more of a buzz in the robot industry than anything in the last fifteen years. The details of its mysterious ability to create quasi-real projections of itself were kept so secret that Lang, by all estimates one of the five most powerful men in WAR, had no idea who created it or even where it was tested. It was certainly an impressive sight, and boasted intimidating armor plates that rivaled anything an ancient Japanese metalsmith could build, the major difference being that no human could have created these five-meter-long shoulder guards.

Dr. Hothe let Lang soak in the image for a few seconds, then started talking. "I'm sure you know about the Shadow's little gimmick, so I won't bother you with the details. Suffice it to say that this model needs no promotion to be useful in ordinary work: who wouldn't want a robot that does the work of four? Our R&D division is already looking for ways to slim down the duplication mechanism to allow us to market a 10-meter model, perhaps even a 3-meter one for light industrial work. But that's immaterial to the point, which is your proposed plan to see how well these things fight.

"I've no doubt you see only good in this: public tournaments, martial arts tournaments, and all that. But with WAR's armada of HAR models, if we can demonstrate their effectiveness in battling each other as well as conventional defenses, we could do anything! I'm sure I don't need to mention what would happen when, say, a small team of our models under the control of "rogue elements" of our workforce obliterates the new Systex manufacturing plant orbiting Mars. It's your job to turn this possibility into something the masses will welcome as entertainment, not as a diabolical new weapon."

The head of Lang's Jaguar nodded, deep in thought. Idly, one hand drew small abstract patterns in the air, referring to a whiteboard only Lang could see. The engineer interrupted him with a raised hand and voice, saying, "To this end I've constructed a simulation using one of my early exploration designs, a bot I call Mantis. I've made some alterations that should make it the equal of any Jaguar or Electra model."

A wave of the left fingers in Hothe's personal system signaled the simulation computer that it was time to recall the prototype from its memory. Hothe once again experienced the sensation of his body slowly dematerializing and becoming realized as something else; to Lang, the Shadow was there one instant and Mantis the next.

A burly frame, typical of Dr. Hothe's early efforts, provided protection from anything the solar system could offer, up to and including the storms of Venus and the ice of Europa. A variety of sensors were cleverly disguised to seem part of the "helmeted" head, allowing the controller of the Mantis to switch between different pairs of "eyes" with a simple reflex movement. Hothe's modifications were immediately apparent: where Lang assumed manipulator hands once rested, there were a pair of blades, with a point he knew was sharper than anything else in the known universe. Monofilament technology allowed the edge and point of the Mantis' twin blades to file down to only a couple hundred molecules, enabling it to slice through meters of solid lead with ease.

To demonstrate his creation's prowess, Hothe shouted with enthusiasm, "En garde!" and rushed at Lang. The Jaguar rolled and came up facing the engineer, and readied itself for a flying leap, but hastily abandoned that line of thought as the opposing Mantis lazily extended one blade. In his real body, Lang could never have moved fast enough to avoid being skewered, but a machine had no reaction time and servos had long ago surpassed muscles. Fortunately, the Jaguar was equipped with a "concussion cannon" for situations just like this. Lang fired off a couple shots, then came in low and fast.

With remarkable courage and skill, Hothe dodged one projectile, took the other on an armored shoulder, and sliced downward with both hands. The two went down together, the Jaguar missing a good chunk of shoulder plate. A few seconds later, both Lang and Hothe were circling warily, excited how easily the old combat forms adapted to a hundred tons of steel death.

With a crash like the end of the world, a quick three punches drove Hothe against one simulated stone wall and a flying kick aimed to finish the job against the jury-rigged Mantis prototype. But the old engineer simply took the hits, ducked, and calmly impaled Lang as he came down on one super-sharp point. A few slices with the other "hand" later, Lang no longer felt the superhuman creation of a few minutes before, but simply an old man who has taken a few hits from a sword and will be in no condition to fight again for months, if ever. With a sigh, Lang conceded the impromptu match and ended the simulation.

It was always a let-down to come back into a frail human body, especially one still aching from imagined wounds inflicted during one's existence as steel and Synthoil. Hothe merely rubbed one shoulder absently as he got up and prepared to close down the simulators for the night. "You really have got something there, Ibrahim," said Lang. "In fact, if you'll release a couple holos of that—what did you say? Mantis?—I'm sure we can get WAR to agree a tournament will be just the thing to attract the media to our newest designs." Hothe acknowledged the complement with a smile, a handshake, and a promise to have his department get the holos ready by tomorrow.

Lightheaded from the battle that had been just as "real" as any martial arts competition, caught up with what he saw as a golden PR opportunity, Lang left WAR headquarters with a smile on his face and a spring in his step. He'd let the public know, all right. He'd put the name of Shirro Lang in the record books as the founder of the greatest sport in a hundred years!