Unwise Child - Randall Garrett - ebook

Unwise Child ebook

Randall Garrett

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After two unsuccessful and seemingly random attempts on his life in the space of as many hours, Michael Raphael Gabriel finds himself called on to act as engineering officer on a new type of spacecraft designed for one mission only, to carry a giant computer to a distant destination before it can destroy the Earth. But once underway he discovers there is a murderer on board and the computer has gone crazy in... Unwise Child!

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UNWISE CHILD

Randall Garrett

JOVIAN PRESS

Thank you for reading. If you enjoy this book, please leave a review.

All rights reserved. Aside from brief quotations for media coverage and reviews, no part of this book may be reproduced or distributed in any form without the author’s permission. Thank you for supporting authors and a diverse, creative culture by purchasing this book and complying with copyright laws.

Copyright © 2017 by Randall Garrett

Published by Jovian Press

Interior design by Pronoun

Distribution by Pronoun

ISBN: 9781537824833

TABLE OF CONTENTS

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

11

12

13

14

15

16

17

18

19

20

21

22

23

24

1

~

THE KIDS WHO TRIED TO jump Mike the Angel were bright enough in a lot of ways, but they made a bad mistake when they tangled with Mike the Angel.

They’d done their preliminary work well enough. They had cased the job thoroughly, and they had built the equipment to take care of it. Their mistake was not in their planning; it was in not taking Mike the Angel into account.

There is a section of New York’s Manhattan Island, down on the lower West Side, that has been known, for over a century, as “Radio Row.” All through this section are stores, large and small, where every kind of electronic and sub-electronic device can be bought, ordered, or designed to order. There is even an old antique shop, known as Ye Quainte Olde Elecktronicks Shoppe, where you can buy such oddities as vacuum-tube FM radios and twenty-four-inch cathode-ray television sets. And, if you want them, transmitters to match, so you can watch the antiques work.

Mike the Angel had an uptown office in the heart of the business district, near West 112th Street—a very posh suite of rooms on the fiftieth floor of the half-mile-high Timmins Building, overlooking the two-hundred-year-old Gothic edifice of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. The glowing sign on the door of the suite said, very simply:

m. r. gabriel

power design

But, once or twice a week, Mike the Angel liked to take off and prowl around Radio Row, just shopping around. Usually, he didn’t work too late, but, on this particular afternoon, he’d been in his office until after six o’clock, working on some papers for the Interstellar Commission. So, by the time he got down to Radio Row, the only shop left open was Harry MacDougal’s.

That didn’t matter much to Mike the Angel, since Harry’s was the place he had intended to go, anyway. Harry MacDougal’s establishment was hardly more than a hole in the wall—a narrow, long hallway between two larger stores. Although not a specialist, like the proprietor of Ye Quainte Olde Elecktronicks Shoppe, Harry did carry equipment of every vintage and every make. If you wanted something that hadn’t been manufactured in decades, and perhaps never made in quantity, Harry’s was the place to go. The walls were lined with bins, all unlabeled, filled helter-skelter with every imaginable kind of gadget, most of which would have been hard to recognize unless you were both an expert and a historian.

Old Harry didn’t need labels or a system. He was a small, lean, bony, sharp-nosed Scot who had fled Scotland during the Panic of ’37, landed in New York, and stopped. He solemnly declared that he had never been west of the Hudson River nor north of 181st Street in the more than fifty years he had been in the country. He had a mind like that of a robot filing cabinet. Ask him for a particular piece of equipment, and he’d squint one eye closed, stare at the end of his nose with the other, and say:

“An M-1993 thermodyne hexode, eh? Ah. Um. Aye, I got one. Picked it up a couple years back. Put it— Let ma see, now....”

And he’d go to his wall ladder, push it along that narrow hallway, moving boxes aside as he went, and stop somewhere along the wall. Then he’d scramble up the ladder, pull out a bin, fumble around in it, and come out with the article in question. He’d blow the dust off it, polish it with a rag, scramble down the ladder, and say: “Here ’tis. Thought I had one. Let’s go back in the back and give her a test.”

On the other hand, if he didn’t have what you wanted, he’d shake his head just a trifle, then squint up at you and say: “What d’ye want it for?” And if you could tell him what you planned to do with the piece you wanted, nine times out of ten he could come up with something else that would do the job as well or better.

In either case, he always insisted that the piece be tested. He refused either to buy or sell something that didn’t work. So you’d follow him down that long hallway to the lab in the rear, where all the testing equipment was. The lab, too, was cluttered, but in a different way. Out front, the stuff was dead; back here, there was power coursing through the ionic veins and metallic nerves of the half-living machines. Things were labeled in neat, accurate script—not for Old Harry’s benefit, but for the edification of his customers, so they wouldn’t put their fingers in the wrong places. He never had to worry about whether his customers knew enough to fend for themselves; a few minutes spent in talking was enough to tell Harry whether a man knew enough about the science and art of electronics and sub-electronics to be trusted in the lab. If you didn’t measure up, you didn’t get invited to the lab, even to watch a test.

But he had very few people like that; nobody came into Harry MacDougal’s place unless he was pretty sure of what he wanted and how he wanted to use it.

On the other hand, there were very few men whom Harry would allow into the lab unescorted. Mike the Angel was one of them.

Meet Mike the Angel. Full name: Michael Raphael Gabriel. (His mother had tagged that on him at the time of his baptism, which had made his father wince in anticipated compassion, but there had been nothing for him to say—not in the middle of the ceremony.)

Naturally, he had been tagged “Mike the Angel.” Six feet seven. Two hundred sixty pounds. Thirty-four years of age. Hair: golden yellow. Eyes: deep blue. Cash value of holdings: well into eight figures. Credit: almost unlimited. Marital status: highly eligible, if the right woman could tackle him.

Mike the Angel pushed open the door to Harry MacDougal’s shop and took off his hat to brush the raindrops from it. Farther uptown, the streets were covered with clear plastic roofing, but that kind of comfort stopped at Fifty-third Street.

There was no one in sight in the long, narrow store, so Mike the Angel looked up at the ceiling, where he knew the eye was hidden.

“Harry?” he said.

“I see you, lad,” said a voice from the air. “You got here just in time. I’m closin’ up. Lock the door, would ye?”

“Sure, Harry.” Mike turned around, pressed the locking switch, and heard it snap satisfactorily.

“Okay, Mike,” said Harry MacDougal’s voice. “Come on back. I hope ye brought that bottle of scotch I asked for.”

Mike the Angel made his way back between the towering tiers of bins as he answered. “Sure did, Harry. When did I ever forget you?”

And, as he moved toward the rear of the store, Mike the Angel casually reached into his coat pocket and triggered the switch of a small but fantastically powerful mechanism that he always carried when he walked the streets of New York at night.

He was headed straight into trouble, and he knew it. And he hoped he was ready for it.

2

~

MIKE THE ANGEL KEPT HIS hand in his pocket, his thumb on a little plate that was set in the side of the small mechanism that was concealed therein. As he neared the door, the little plate began to vibrate, making a buzz which could only be felt, not heard. Mike sighed to himself. Vibroblades were all the rage this season.

He pushed open the rear door rapidly and stepped inside. It was just what he’d expected. His eyes saw and his brain recorded the whole scene in the fraction of a second before he moved. In that fraction of a second, he took in the situation, appraised it, planned his strategy, and launched into his plan of action.

Harry MacDougal was sitting at his workbench, near the controls of the eye that watched the shop when he was in the lab. He was hunched over a little, his small, bright eyes peering steadily at Mike the Angel from beneath shaggy, silvered brows. There was no pleading in those eyes—only confidence.

Next to Old Harry was a kid—sixteen, maybe seventeen. He had the JD stamp on his face: a look of cold, hard arrogance that barely concealed the uncertainty and fear beneath. One hand was at Harry’s back, and Mike knew that the kid was holding a vibroblade at the old man’s spine.

At the same time, the buzzing against his thumb told Mike the Angel something else. There was a vibroblade much nearer his body than the one in the kid’s hand.

That meant that there was another young punk behind him.

All this took Mike the Angel about one quarter of a second to assimilate. Then he jumped.

Had the intruders been adults, Mike would have handled the entire situation in a completely different way. Adults, unless they are mentally or emotionally retarded, do not usually react or behave like children. Adolescents can, do, and must—for the very simple reason that they have not yet had time to learn to react as adults.

Had the intruders been adults, and had Mike the Angel behaved the way he did, he might conceivably have died that night. As it was, the kids never had a chance.

Mike didn’t even bother to acknowledge the existence of the punk behind him. He leaped, instead, straight for the kid in the dead-black suède zipsuit who was holding the vibroblade against Harry MacDougal’s spine. And the kid reacted exactly as Mike the Angel had hoped, prayed, and predicted he would.

The kid defended himself.

An adult, in a situation where he has one known enemy at his mercy and is being attacked by a second, will quickly put the first out of the way in order to leave himself free to deal with the second. There is no sense in leaving your flank wide open just to oppose a frontal attack.

If the kid had been an adult, Harry MacDougal would have died there and then. An adult would simply have slashed his vibroblade through the old man’s spine and brought it to bear on Mike the Angel.

But not the kid. He jumped back, eyes widening, to face his oncoming opponent in an open space. He was no coward, that kid, and he knew how to handle a vibroblade. In his own unwise, suicidal way, he was perfectly capable of proving himself. He held out the point of that shimmering metal shaft, ready to parry any offensive thrust that Mike the Angel might make.

If Mike had had a vibroblade himself, and if there hadn’t been another punk at his back, Mike might have taken care of the kid that way. As it was, he had no choice but to use another way.

He threw himself full on the point of the scintillating vibroblade.

A vibroblade is a nasty weapon. Originally designed as a surgeon’s tool, its special steel blade moves in and out of the heavy hilt at speeds from two hundred to two thousand vibrations per second, depending on the size and the use to which it is to be put. Make it eight inches long, add serrated, diamond-pointed teeth, and you have the man-killing vibroblade. Its danger is in its power; that shivering blade can cut through flesh, cartilage, and bone with almost no effort. It’s a knife with power steering.

But that kind of power can be a weakness as well as a strength.

The little gadget that Mike the Angel carried did more than just detect the nearby operation of a vibroblade. It was also a defense. The gadget focused a high-density magnetic field on any vibroblade that came anywhere within six inches of Mike’s body.

In that field, the steel blade simply couldn’t move. It was as though it had been caught in a vise. The blade no longer vibrated; it had become nothing more than an overly fancy bread knife.

The trouble was that the power unit in the heavy hilt simply wouldn’t accept the fact that the blade was immovable. That power unit was in there to move something, and by heaven, something had to move.

The hilt jerked and bucked in the kid’s hand, taking skin with it. Then it began to smoke and burn under the overload. The plastic shell cracked and hot copper and silver splattered out of it. The kid screamed as the molten metal burned his hand.

Mike the Angel put a hand against the kid’s chest and shoved. As the boy toppled backward, Mike turned to face the other boy.

Only it wasn’t a boy.

She was wearing gold lip paint and had sprayed her hair blue, but she knew how to handle a vibroblade at least as well as her boy friend had. Just as Mike the Angel turned, she lunged forward, aiming for the small of his back.

And she, too, screamed as she lost her blade in a flash of heat.

Then she grabbed for something in her pocket. Regretfully, Mike the Angel brought the edge of his hand down against the side of her neck in a paralyzing, but not deadly, rabbit punch. She dropped, senseless, and a small gun spilled out of the waist pocket of her zipsuit and skittered across the floor. Mike paused only long enough to make sure she was out, then he turned back to his first opponent.

As he had anticipated, Harry MacDougal had taken charge. The kid was sprawled flat on the floor, and Old Harry was holding a shock gun in his hand.

Mike the Angel took a deep breath.

“Yer trousers are on fire,” said Harry.

Mike yelped as he felt the heat, and he began slapping at the smoldering spots where the molten metal from the vibroblades had hit his clothing. He wasn’t afire; modern clothing doesn’t flame up—but it can get pretty hot when you splash liquid copper on it.

“Damn!” said Mike the Angel. “New suit, too.”

“You’re a fast thinker, laddie,” said Old Harry.

“You don’t need to flatter me, Harry,” said Mike the Angel. “When an old teetotaler like you asks a man if he’s brought some scotch, the man’s a fool if he doesn’t know there’s trouble afoot.” He gave his leg a final slap and said: “What happened? Are there any more of them?”

“Don’t know. Might be.” The old man waved at his control panel. “My instruments are workin’ again!” He gestured at the floor. “I’m nae sure how they did it, but somehow they managed to blank out ma instruments just long enough to get inside. Their mistake was in not lockin’ the front door.”

Mike the Angel was busy searching the two unconscious kids. He looked up. “Neither of them is carrying any equipment in their clothing—at least, not anything that’s self-powered. If they’ve got pickup circuits built into the cloth, there must be more of them outside.”

“Aye. Likely. We’ll see.”

Suddenly, there was a soft ping! ping! ping! from an instrument on the bench.

Harry glanced quickly at the receiving screen that was connected with the multitude of eyes that were hidden around the area of his shop. Then a smile came over his small brown face.

“Cops,” he said. “Time they got here.”

3

~

SERGEANT COWDER LOOKED THE ROOM over and took a drag from his cigarette. “Well, that’s that. Now—what happened?” He looked from Mike the Angel to Harry MacDougal and back again. Both of them appeared to be thinking.

“All right,” he said quietly, “let me guess, then.”

Old Harry waved a hand. “Oh no, Sergeant; ’twon’t be necessary. I think Mr. Gabriel was just waiting for me to start, because he wasn’t here when the two rapscallions came in, and I was just tryin’ to figure out where to begin. We’re not bein’ unco-operative. Let’s see now—” He gazed at the ceiling as though trying to collect his thoughts. He knew perfectly well that the police sergeant was recording everything he said.

The sergeant sighed. “Look, Harry, you’re not on trial. I know perfectly well that you’ve got this place bugged to a fare-thee-well. So does every shop operator on Radio Row. If you didn’t, the JD gangs would have cleaned you all out long ago.”

Harry kept looking at the ceiling, and Mike the Angel smiled quietly at his fingernails.

The detective sergeant sighed again. “Sure, we’d like to have some of the gadgets that you and the other operators on the Row have worked out, Harry. But I’m in no position to take ’em away from you. Besides, we have some stuff that you’d like to have, too, so that makes us pretty much even. If we started confiscating illegal equipment from you, the JD’s would swoop in here, take your legitimate equipment, bug it up, and they’d be driving us all nuts within a week. So long as you don’t use illegal equipment illegally, the department will leave you alone.”

Old Harry grinned. “Well, now, that’s very nice of you, Sergeant. But I don’t have anything illegal—no robotics stuff or anything like that. Oh, I’ll admit I’ve a couple of eyes here and there to watch my shop, but eyes aren’t illegal.”

The detective glanced around the room with a practiced eye and then looked blandly back at the little Scotsman. Harry MacDougal was lying, and the sergeant knew it. And Harry knew the sergeant knew it.

Sergeant Cowder sighed for a third time and looked at the Scot. “Okay. So what happened?”

Harry’s face became serious. “They came in about six-thirty. First I knew of it, one of the kids—the boy—stepped out of that closet over there and put a vibroblade at my back. I’d come back here to get a small resistor, and all of a sudden there he was.”

Mike the Angel frowned, but he didn’t say anything.

“None of your equipment registered anything?” asked the detective.

“Not a thing, Sergeant,” said Harry. “They’ve got something new, all right. The kid must ha’ come in through the back door, there. And I’d ha’ been willin’ to bet ma life that no human bein’ could ha’ walked in here without ma knowin’ it before he got within ten feet o’ that door. Look.”

He got up, walked over to the back door, and opened it. It opened into what looked at first to be a totally dark room. Then the sergeant saw that there was a dead-black wall a few feet from the open door.

“That’s a light trap,” said Harry. “Same as they have in photographic darkrooms. To get from this door to the outer door that leads into the alley, you got to turn two corners and walk about thirty feet. Even I, masel’, couldn’t walk through it without settin’ off half a dozen alarms. Any kind of light would set off the bugs; so would the heat radiation from the human body.”

“How about the front?” Sergeant Cowder asked. “Anyone could get in from the front.”

Harry’s grin became grim. “Not unless I go with ’em. And not even then if I don’t want ’em to.”

“It was kind of you to let us in,” said the detective mildly.

“A pleasure,” said Harry. “But I wish I knew how that kid got in.”

“Well, he did—somehow,” Cowder said. “What happened after he came out of the closet?”

“He made me let the girl in. They were goin’ to open up the rear completely and take my stuff out that way. They’d ha’ done it, too, if Mr. Gabriel hadn’t come along.”

Detective Sergeant Cowder looked at Mike the Angel. “About what time was that, Mr. Gabriel?”

“About six thirty-five,” Mike told him. “The kids probably hadn’t been here more than a few minutes.”

Harry MacDougal nodded in silent corroboration.

“Then what happened?” asked the detective.

Mike told him a carefully edited version of what had occurred, leaving out the existence of the little gadget he was carrying in his pocket. The sergeant listened patiently and unbelievingly through the whole recital. Mike the Angel grinned to himself; he knew what part of the story seemed queer to the cop.

He was right. Cowder said: “Now, wait a minute. What caused those vibroblades to burn up that way?”

“Must have been faulty,” Mike the Angel said innocently.

“Both of them?” Sergeant Cowder asked skeptically. “At the same time?”

“Oh no. Thirty seconds apart, I’d guess.”

“Very interesting. Very.” He started to say something else, but a uniformed officer stuck his head in through the doorway that led to the front of the shop.

“We combed the whole area, Sergeant. Not a soul around. But from the looks of the alley, there must have been a small truck parked in there not too long ago.”

Cowder nodded. “Makes sense. Those JD’s wouldn’t have tried this unless they intended to take everything they could put their hands on, and they certainly couldn’t have put all this in their pockets.” He rubbed one big finger over the tip of his nose. “Okay, Barton, that’s all. Take those two kids to the hospital and book ’em in the detention ward. I want to talk to them when they wake up.”

The cop nodded and left.

Sergeant Cowder looked back at Harry. “Your alarm to the precinct station went off at six thirty-six. I figure that whoever was on the outside, in that truck, knew something had gone wrong as soon as the fight started in here. He—or they—shut off whatever they were using to suppress the alarm system and took off before we got here. They sure must have moved fast.”

“Must have,” agreed Harry. “Is there anything else, Sergeant?”

Cowder shook his head. “Not right now. I’ll get in touch with you later, if I need you.”

Harry and Mike the Angel followed him through the front of the shop to the front door. At the door, Cowder turned.

“Well, good night. Thanks for your assistance, Mr. Gabriel. I wish some of our cops had had your luck.”

“How so?” asked Mike the Angel.

“If more vibroblades would blow up at opportune moments, we’d have fewer butchered policemen.”

Mike the Angel shook his head. “Not really. If their vibros started burning out every time they came near a cop, the JD’s would just start using something else. You can’t win in this game.”

Cowder nodded glumly. “It’s a losing proposition any way you look at it.... Well, good night again.” He stepped out, and Old Harry closed and locked the door behind him.

Mike the Angel said: “Come on, Harry; I want to find something.” He began walking back down the long, narrow shop toward the rear again. Harry followed, looking mystified.

Mike the Angel stopped, sniffing. “Smell that?”

Harry sniffed. “Aye. Burnt insulation. So?”

“You know which one of these bins is nearest to your main control cable. Start looking. See if you find anything queer.”

Old Harry walked over to a nearby bin, pulled it open, and looked inside. He closed it, pulled open another. He found the gadget on the third try. It was a plastic case, six by six by eight, and it still smelled of hot insulation, although the case itself was barely warm.

“What is it?” Harry asked in wonder.

“It’s the gizmo that turned your equipment off. When I passed by it, my own gadget must have blown it. I knew the police couldn’t have made it here between the time of the fight and the time they showed up. They must have had at least an extra minute. Besides, I didn’t think anyone could build an instrument that would blank out everything at long range. It had to be something near your main cable. I think you’ll find a metallic oscillator in there. Analyze it. Might be useful.”

Harry turned the box over in his hands. “Probably has a timer in it to start it.... Well.... That helps.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’ve got a pretty good idea who put it here. Older kid. Nineteen—maybe twenty. Seemed like a nice lad, too. Didn’t take him for a JD. Can’t trust anyone these days. Thanks, Mike. If I find anything new in here, I’ll let you know.”

“Do that,” said Mike the Angel. “And, as a personal favor, I’ll show you how to build my own super-duper, extra-special, anti-vibroblade defense unit.”

Old Harry grinned, crinkling up his wizened face in a mass of fine wrinkles. “You’d better think up a shorter name than that for it, laddie; I could probably build one in less time than it takes you to say it.”

“Want to bet?”

“I’ll bet you twenty I can do it in twenty-four hours.”

“Twenty it is, Harry. I’ll sell you mine this time tomorrow for twenty bucks.”

Harry shook his head. “I’ll trade you mine for yours, plus twenty.” Then his eyes twinkled. “And speaking of money, didn’t you come down here to buy something?”

Mike the Angel laughed. “You’re not going to like it. I came down to get a dozen plastic-core resistors.”

“What size?”

Mike told him, and Old Harry went over to the proper bin, pulled them out, all properly boxed, and handed them to him.

“That’ll be four dollars,” he said.

Mike the Angel paid up with a smile. “You don’t happen to have a hundred-thousand-unit microcryotron stack, do you?”

“Ain’t s’posed to,” said Harry MacDougal. “If I did, I wouldn’t sell it to you. But, as a matter of cold fact, I do happen to have one. Use it for a paperweight. I’ll give it to you for nothing, because it don’t work, anyhow.”

“Maybe I can fix it,” said Mike the Angel, “as long as you’re giving it to me. How come it doesn’t work?”

“Just a second, laddie,” said Harry. He scuttled to the rear of the shop and came back with a ready-wrapped package measuring five by five by four. He handed it to Mike the Angel and said: “It’s a present. Thanks for helping me out of a tight spot.”

Mike said something deprecative of his own efforts and took the package. If it were in working order it would have been worth close to three hundred dollars—more than that on the black market. If it was broken, though, it was no good to Mike. A microcryotron unit is almost impossible to fix if it breaks down. But Mike took it because he didn’t want to hurt Old Harry’s feelings by refusing a present.

“Thanks, Harry,” he said. “Happen to know why it doesn’t work?”

Harry’s face crinkled again in his all-over smile. “Sure, Mike. It ain’t plugged in.”

4

~

MIKE THE ANGEL DID NOT believe in commuting. Being a bachelor, he could afford to indulge in that belief. In his suite of offices on 112th Street, there was one door marked “M. R. Gabriel.” Behind that door was his private secretary’s office, which acted as an effective barrier between himself and the various employees of the firm. Behind the secretary’s office was his own office.

There was still another door in his inner office, a plain, unmarked door that looked as though it might conceal a closet.

It didn’t. It was the door to a veddy, veddy expensive apartment with equally expensive appointments. One wall, thirty feet long and ten feet high, was a nearly invisible, dustproof slab of polished, optically flat glass that gave the observer the feeling that there was nothing between him and the city street, five hundred feet below.

The lights of the city, coming through the wall, gave the room plenty of illumination after sunset, but the simple flick of a switch could polarize it black, allowing perfect privacy.

The furniture was massive, heavily braced, and well upholstered. It had to be; Mike the Angel liked to flop into chairs, and his two hundred and sixty pounds gave chairs a lot of punishment.

On one of the opaque walls was Dali’s original “Eucharist,” with its muffled, robed figures looking oddly luminous in the queer combination of city lights and interior illumination. Farther back, a Valois gleamed metallically above the shadowed bas-reliefs of its depths.

It was the kind of apartment Mike the Angel liked. He could sleep, if necessary, on a park bench or in a trench, but he didn’t see any reason for doing so if he could sleep on a five-hundred-dollar floater.

As he had passed through each door, he had checked them carefully. His electrokey had a special circuit that lighted up a tiny glow lamp in the key handle if the lock had been tampered with. None of them had.

He opened the final door, went into his apartment, and locked the door behind him, as he had locked the others. Then he turned on the lights, peeled off his raincoat, and plopped himself into a chair to unwrap the microcryotron stack he had picked up at Harry’s.

Theoretically, Harry wasn’t supposed to sell the things. They were still difficult to make, and they were supposed to be used only by persons who were authorized to build robot brains, since that’s what the stack was—a part of a robot brain. Mike could have put his hands on one legally, provided he’d wanted to wait for six or eight months to clear up the red tape. Actually, the big robotics companies didn’t want amateurs fooling around with robots; they’d much rather build the robots themselves and rent them out. They couldn’t make do-it-yourself projects impossible, but they could make them difficult.

In a way, there was some good done. So far, the JD’s hadn’t gone into big-scale robotics. Self-controlled bombs could be rather nasty.