A Fire in the Distance
by John-David Karnitz
December 28, 2018
"Hornet Elements, this is Hornet Six," the task force net squawked in the calm, measured, and ultimately inhuman tones of the task force commander.
That should have been Hauptmann Tesch, aboard D06, Decarabia. Instead, a metal monster none of them had even met before got the top slot — which figured with Sector Command running things directly of late. But where the blazes was Dec in any event?
"Break and reform vicinity Golf-Rome Two-Two-Six-Niner. Execute. Out."
The metal monster hadn't waited for a reply from any of its human charges, even a confirmation of receipt of orders. The bastard probably didn't care if they made it to the rally point or not. Maybe it was too busy fighting for its own life . . .?
Fire split the night anew behind Danjal as it sped away. The other GEVs were beginning to reform on it. Walther made out three blips beside his own.
"Think . . . that . . . thing knows . . . something . . . we don't?" Lukacs Fielder asked from the weapon-system's operator position to the right of Walters' command chair. Even suspended in the shock cradle, technology could only do so much to protect him from the jolts of a ground-effect vehicle slamming over terrain at two meters off the ground and a hundred fifty kilometers per hour and rising.
"Who the Hell knows what those bloody things think, Lucky?" Walters demanded over the howl of the podded turbines mounted on the pylons at the aft end of their craft. "Who the Hell cares?"
But he was just mad, really. Mad at the Amis — the North American Combine troops — who, after fifteen years of war, wouldn't simply go home. Mad at himself for getting in a position where he'd have to deal with the metal monsters, let alone follow them. And mad at the cybertank for putting them all in this predicament in the first place.
He missed the fold in the ground until they were already on top of it.
"Bleeding Christ!" Fielder exploded after Danjal had landed — hard — from the bounce it had taken. "Give me a damn chance, here, will you?!"
"Just hang the Hell on, Weps," Walters replied through teeth that were not gritted only because he was too focused on the terrain before him and the controls in each gloved hand, throttle in the left and control stick in the right. "Just take a damn shot whenever you bear."
The Lord knew there were enough targets lying about right now.
The WSO was a veteran enough to know that even a meter rise in a grassland was not inconsequential at a hundred and fifty kph. Even at two meters-altitude, Walther himself was hanging on for dear life. And in times like the present, returning fire was always encouraged, but the need for accuracy decreased in inverse proportion to the need to escape what had become death ground.
Still, Lucky Fielder was a professional, and if Danjal was headed away from the contact area as fast as its lift fans and flexible skirts could take it, he would try to make his mark. Futile as it might have been, he had the twin-thirty millimeters on the roof-mount over the fighting compartment horsed over the back deck for a Parthian shot. They were well out of range, and they were antipersonnel weapons besides, but at least it gave the gunner something to do.
Walters could still see the reflections of the mushroom clouds from the command-detonated mines in his mind's-eye as if they were memories from decades past, and not merely a collection of minutes ago.
The rest of the task force's escort elements had scattered in all directions like a burst star-shell when the ambush first popped. They were on his ass now, though. The escort element of TF Hornisse was a good team, even if they had been dropped into the midst of a Class A disaster. He knew that because he had a twenty-percent mask of the task-force's position and status readouts on his heads'-up display. That was a part of his job, to be ready to jump into the commander's seat the moment it became available.
Which it very well might be, since the icon for the hauptmann's ship, Decarabia, was notably absent. Along with Four-Three. Walters hadn't seen anything, of course. But he could well imagine the sudden sunrise erupting beneath a hovercraft. He could see its flexible skirts ballooning in the microsecond they still existed. Its crew looking down in horror as the floor of their fighting compartment disintegrated under the onslaught of hellfire so complete that only a column of smoke would provide both their epitaph and grave marker . . .
"Delta Zero-Six, this is Delta Four-Four. Come in, over," Walters asked over the task-force frequency. He waited for a few beats and then queried again.
After a few moments, he pursed his lip as if to spit. Instead of fouling his fighting compartment, he grimaced and swung Danjal wide around a copse of trees that — despite being fifteen meters high on average and half a kilometer wide in aggregate — managed to sneak up on him.
"Negative contact. Max Delta elements, this is Four-Four; assuming command of the escort element. Rendezvous at Romeo Papa Two-Two-Six-Niner. Out."
He shaped Danjal's course to the north and the rally-point the cybertank had marked out for them. It was in an area of broken ground well away from the course the operational orders had set out for them at their firebase outside the recently liberated city — liberated ruins — of Bremen. Maybe that mechanical monster thought the Combine troops wouldn't be looking for them there. Things being what they were, maybe it saw a clot of them already there and wanted to save its own skin at the cost of a half-dozen meat bags instead.
That iron-shod demon was probably winging its way south west as fast as its tracks could carry it. Meanwhile, Walters and his merry band of unloved bastards might be headed right into a maelstrom.
Walters paused in his reflection while he negotiated a pass between two hills that blocked out his sight of the surrounding terrain for a moment. Danjal bounced up, onto, and over a roadway that had seen better days since the civilian infrastructure in this area had collapsed following the invasion several years before. On his screen, he could see the three other survivors of the screening element for the cybertank coalescing behind his speeding ground-effect vehicle.
Well, if the monster was running, it couldn't be doing it any better than they themselves were. From the shadows cast by the glare of heavy weapons-fire behind them, it wasn't having as notable success, though.
"Nearing the rally-point, Lucky," Walters said over the intercom. "Give me a scan-report, yes?"
"Delta elements, Four-Four," he said over the task-force frequency. "Conform to my movements and follow me in to the Romeo-Papa. We will sweep in on our present course, clear the site, then hook back around and invest it from the north and await further instruction. Four-Four, out."
He didn't need nor require confirmation from the remaining skirts. Everyone in Dusty Delta, 2/33, was a veteran, and those in the Fourth Platoon had been together longer than most. What they were doing now was about as standard an operation as there was. Other than escorting a damn cybertank into Ami-held territory and getting whacked before they were halfway to the objective area.
Well, life is risk.
"Board is clear," the WSO replied coolly; now that the immediate danger was passed he wasn't looking for a throat to tear out and take with him. "Solid nothing for ten kays."
"Roger that," the pilot responded. "Stay sharp, though."
"Like a tack."
Danjal led the three other GEVs into the swale and out the other side. Their lift-fans screamed as the pilots added power to pull themselves out of the northern end of the depression, then wailed anew after they had reversed course and dropped back into the low ground. The newly-appointed command vehicle cantered to a halt and each of the skirts faced outwards in a cruciform before dropping to the loamy soil.
If they had been on a proper roadway or track, they might have adopted a herringbone, but this far into Ami country, all around defense — even at a short halt — seemed like the best plan. They fact they were within a dozen meters of their fellows and not a kilometer or more was risky enough. The fact that they were here at all was at once a curse and a minor miracle.
Walters idled the pylon-mounted turbines and dropped the incidence of the lift fan blades to zero but kept them spinning so they could slide at a moment's notice. He sat for a moment and let his mind absorb the present reality. He thought he could detect the echo of a flash of explosions to the west.
"Christ Alive," he breathed while the rest of the escort detachment — his detachment for the time being — reported on their status. All green. For now.
Beside him, Fiedler stretched minimally and sighed softly, a sound barely audible even in the near sudden silence of the fighting compartment after their frenzied flight from the killing zone. The whisper of the fans under the floor of the compartment was noticeable more from their vibration than as a sound. The viewscreen, status monitors, and Fiedler's attack board provided the only illumination, giving Danjal's two crew members a pale, sickly coloration that reminded Walters of a three-day old corpse.
He reached over and slapped his five-point restraint harness with the heel of his right hand and lurched upwards to pop the hatch with his left. He stood on the pedestal of his seat and steadied himself on the hatch coaming. The blast of fresh air was disorienting; clear, cool and dark after the miasma of fearful anticipation building up in the fighting compartment since they had buttoned up prior to crossing the line of departure hours before.
They were in a swale whose lips sheltered them from direct view from the adjoining grassland. The rise on both sides provided a frame for the formless clouds overhead. As a child, the only constellation he had been readily able to find was Orion, but he hadn't seen a clear night sky in almost a decade, since the war began. Modern nuclear munitions had remarkably low yields compared to their ancient progenitors, but their profusion made up for that. Regardless, he still missed seeing the stars.
Walters gripped the rim of the hatch tightly, then made his hands relax in increments. After a time, he half-raised his helmet's visor. He scrabbled for a black-papered Eckstein and lit it with his minitorch so he could think. He could feel the eyes of the other skirt-commanders on him; watching, waiting. Through his bulbous commo-helmet's earphones he could hear the susurrus of quiescent ground-effect vehicles — "skirts" to their crews — waiting like leashed hounds in the lightening veil of dust that was slowly settling from their arrival.
Mitzi Trager aboard D42, Dagon, would be standing up in her hatch as well, just as Jankowitz in D41, Dracula, would stay buttoned up until they reached basecamp. Ioannou aboard D13, Demogorgon, and his WSO would both be standing in their chairs as if on a holiday. Well, the pair were Greek; they were only here to kill Amis and drink ouzo; what did they care about elsewise? Other than the fact that they were out of ouzo and had to switch to retsina.
Walters faced around and found himself facing the others from their hatches, just as he expected. He felt a sudden surge of warmth for the men and women that he had known for months, or even years in the case of Trager. As far as he was concerned, the mission was scrubbed; he only had to get them home safely . . .
"What'snext?" Mitzi asked for the other three; this close, they werespeaking on the inter-ship laser and there was little need forregular commo procedures, let alone security from outside listeners.
Walters made himself shrug, but that was as much a mental reaction as it was a physical one. He was spent already and between darkness lighted by their helmet-visors' integral vision enhancers and distance, the movement would be barely visible to the trim brunette. On the other side of the cruciform the skirts formed, light flared anew as Ioannou lit up another cigarette.
"First things, first — check out your skirts and make sure everything is in one piece. Then . . . look, the mission is scratched so far as I can tell," he continued. "Whatever the blazing Hell that thing thinks of the situation."
He thumbed back to the west where every so often light still flared. Nothing came over the net, though, and Fiedler would be watching his screen to alert them all if anything changed, locally or back where the cybertank was evidently still fighting. Thunder pulsed, incongruously out of sync with the lightshow. Walters found himself opening and closing his left hand reflexively and willed it still. He took a drag of his Eckstein.
Almost immediately, the WSOs from each skirt popped their hatches. Fielder paused to remote a readout of his attack board to his commo-helmet. They picked their way down the boarding ladder inset into the sides of the fighting compartment and began a quick spate of preventative maintenance. It wasn't especially common for the crews to dismount in the middle of Amiland, but doing so now was infinitely better than finding a problem at operational altitude and speed during a run-to-contact.
To the west, three distinct pulses of light brightened the horizon. It took several seconds to hear the dull reports; crumpcrumpTHOOOM!
"So we head back," Trager replied. Ebbe Walters had never met someone quicker to put a boot on someone's throat than Mitzi, but she was more pragmatic than most. "Just give the word."
"Great, so we're headed back, then?" Jankowitz asked from his skirt. "If so, I say we bid that big bastard good riddance and pull up stakes right now."
The Greeks grunted assent. "That thing probably has killed all the Amis anyways," Ioannou interjected dispiritedly. "And is trash now besides. I say we leave it and try again tomorrow. Another day, another Ogre."
No one laughed, but all felt the corners of their mouths twitch upwards. It had been a black joke amongst the Paneuropean forces since before any of those present had been old enough to put on a uniform. It had only taken a different meaning, one that was at least as dark, once Paneurope had started fielding their own cybertanks.
"Roger that," Jankowitz, a survivor of two other platoons over the past year, said. "Let the bloody cybertank take some bloody hits for a change and leave us the Hell out of it."
Walters grimaced despite himself. He took a long drag of his Eckstein and tossed the filter into the intake fan amidships of his craft. He was not — none of them were, or else they wouldn't be crewing skirts — one to run from a fight, but the ambush wasn't one they had a chance of winning. The cybertank could, and it was in charge when it had sent them away, and now when it was still evidently still fighting. It had been an order Walters, and the rest, surely, had been quick and happy to obey. Who the Hell wanted to die for a machine that took up half a city block?
Hell, who wanted to die in the first place? Maybe the cybertanks did; they certainly didn't seem to care much . . . though in their hearts, none of the troopers present really believed they were going to die, not now especially.
The WSOs were beginning to clamber back aboard. Fiedler gave the leutnant a thumbs-up before he slipped back into the fighting compartment. Beneath them both, Danjal purred like a contented lioness.
The escort commander murmured a command to his helmet and Danjal's core obediently projected a slice of the operational graphics on his visor. There were only a few real options back to the firebase outside Bremen. None of them looked great, but things were shifting even at the relatively small scale at which Walters was viewing them. He could see a route to the south, past Ganderkesee, paralleling the E233 that might work.
He wondered if that road, 233, was an omen.
He opened his mouth to speak, but was interrupted by Fiedler, speaking over the intership linkage for the benefit of all. "Incoming traffic from Scepter. On the hard channel."
Walters grimaced for real now. Scepter was the call sign for Sector Command this night, and they were calling over the satellite net using laser comms bounced off orbital debris. Communications in such a manner could be tricky, but there was no more secure way to send traffic over a continental battlefield populated by so much jamming, electromagnetic hash, and prying eyes and ears. No one wanted to talk to the people that sent others off to die on a whim with such regularity as SeCom. But it wasn't something that was denied, all the same.
"Hornisse Echo element, this is Scepter Two-Five. Stand by for Change Order, over."
The voice was clipped and businesslike. Bored, even. Walters wondered if it was a machine and not some nameless functionary who wore a uniform in name only. It would be fitting to start getting even general orders from machine intelligences instead of just tactical ones. Hell of a war —
"Scepter Two-Five, this is Delta Four-Four. Roger. Standing by."
"Prepare to pull back to Point Tango on order. Refit, resupply, and prepare for follow-on mission. Over."
Walters reached for another Eckstein. "Wilco, Scepter Two-Five. Withdraw to Point Tango on order for refit, resupply, and follow-on mission. What about the Hornisse Prime Element, over?"
There was a pause on the other end of the link, which made Walters smile under the gentle glow of his minitorch. The brief flame turned the gesture into the leer of a devil.
"Hornisse Prime will have to fend for itself; your primary mission objective is unattainable at present but substantial enemy forces are being drawn to your area. Prepare for exfiltration; execute in one-zero mikes, Delta Four-Four. Scepter Two-Five, out."
And that was that.
"Huh," Lucky said from his hole. "Didn't even ask how we were doing. How rude."
Walters thumbed upwards towards the glowering sky; he thought he could detect an imperceptible brightening to the east. Maybe they would live to see another sunrise. "They know everything we do already."
He didn't bother adding that there was no sense reporting their status for SeCom's planning purposes until they were back behind the front-line trace; a lot could happen between now and then. Mostly bad. SeCom had a point, though: this mission was blown, but a lot of Combine troops were headed to be in on the Fencer's kill. Hard lines for the blasted cybertank, but tomorrow's op would have four scouts who had been through the area recently.
Well, life was a series of trade-offs. Until you died.
"Follow-on operation, eh?" Jankowitz said dejectedly. "This one wasn't good enough for them?"
"What did you think was going to happen, Janko?" Trager spat with mild venom. "Take the rest of the war off?"
"Well, we've been attacking each other since I can remember," Dracula's commander retorted. "Hasn't worked yet for either side."
"Settle down, you two," Walters said. "Really, Janko, you want to give up all this and go home to your wife and kids?"
Someone blew a raspberry over the line, while Trager chuckled lightly.
"Lot of Amis headed here, not so?" Ioannou mused suddenly. "Maybe we stick around and pot a few. Then head back for tomorrow? Perhaps that devil is not as bad as we thought, eh?"
"The sooner we are rid of it, the sooner we can get back to something more survivable," Jankowitz replied. In this he was pretty much speaking for them all: they were hunters, not shepherds. Tying them down to a specific location, even a mobile one, was a recipe for disaster on an individual basis.
"We stay here until we go," Walters returned. "I am quite sure we will get our chance to kill as many Amis as we can find on the next op."
"Where we will be on the vanguard, no doubt," Trager said as a statement of ironic fact, not a general complaint. "So cheer up, Jank. And you too, Yanni."
"Opa!" Ioannou chortled before sobering. "So it is settled, then, yes? We blow out of here, leave the devil to its fate, and then prepare for tomorrow?"
Walters shifted uncomfortably on the pedestal of his command chair. Leave the devil to its fate, Ioannou had said from atop Demogorgon. Walters hated the cybertanks for what they were, for what they represented — a weapon so terrible even their creators viewed them askance. But he wondered now how he would feel about himself on other mornings when he thought about it cracked open and burning as they ran away.
Walters shook himself. Doesn't really matter, he thought, but Fiedler looked up with a querying eyebrow as if he had spoken. The escort commander cleared his throat as a cover and said, "Weps, plot us a course past Ganderkesse and back to basecamp. Be ready to execute on order in five."
Lucky gave him a thumbs-up and started working his attack/plotting board. When he was finished, he would upload it to the rest of the detachment without needing to be asked. It wouldn't take long, but it gave Walters a moment to think.
As he did so, he saw the first of what promised to be a wave of red beginning to build on his sensor readout. Just a few icons, and unspecific due to the range. But thanks to a complicated mixture of sat-recon, signals intelligence, data-linked but hitherto unknown friendly elements, and the task force's own sensors, they were visible. At present, it was just a handful approaching from the northwest, moving slowly but methodically towards the cybertank's location.
He couldn't tell why the Fencer had sent them away when the ambush popped instead of keeping them around as a foil for the attackers sure to follow up their initial advantage. Hell, it was their job to screen the monster, even if they were cold meat in a surprise knife-fight.
But sent them away to safety it had —
"Hornet elements, this is Hornet Six," the commo virtually exploded in his ears. "Come in, any station this net. Over."
"Bloody Hell," someone mumbled over the troop net before professionalism reasserted itself. In the distance, Walters could see Mitzi slam a fist down on her hatch coaming and then stab her left hand to the east imperiously.
"Hornet Six, this is Delta Four-Four, over," Walters responded by rote but his mind was whirling amidst a kaleidoscope of images of nebulous red icons, eye-searing nuclear bursts, and thin glowing paths home — and hope.
"Delta Four-Four, Hornet Six. Situation is untenable. Large enemy force building to the southwest and headed to present location. What is your present status? Over."
"Six, we have four victors. Have received orders to exfil," Walters responded, almost breathlessly. "Will you, ah, be able to rendezvous at our location? Over."
"Four-Four, negative," the monster said; the voice it now used had a different timbre and inflexion than previously; it was out of sight to the east but the leutnant could feel its vast presence. "I have sustained considerable damage to primary offensive capabilities and motive systems. This includes critical failures to fifty percent of missile-launching equipment and direct-fire weaponry. Point defense array holding at seventy-five percent capacity. Running gear down to seventy-three percent with resultant loss of ground speed and maneuverability. Over."
The leutnant blinked despite himself. Below him and to his right, he could feel Lucky Fiedler shift uncomfortably in his cradle. It was a hell of a situation for the poor bastard to be in, but at least he and his were clear . . .
"Ah, good copy, Hornet Six," he replied while his eyes searched the display on his visor that he unconsciously increased from its typical twenty percent mask of his visor to forty. "I estimate at least ten mikes before the lead elements of the approaching force will make contact at your vicinity. Recommend you withdraw towards my location and we retrograde together. Over."
The troop net remained silent, but he could well-imagine the incredulous rage of his troopers as they listened to the erstwhile task force commander and the escort leader make a paradigmatic shift in their fortunes. But they were professionals of the Army of Paneurope, God love them. For better or worse.
And, Hell, they were all volunteers to be crewing the skirts, weren't they?
"Negative, Four-Four," the distant cybertank breathed after a moment, a microsecond of consideration that might well have been interminable deliberation for a colloid mind. "I ascertain a probable likelihood of success against the plausible approaching force of less than eight percent. A withdrawal in my present condition will increase that in the short term, but not eliminate the chances of failure to a broadly acceptable degree."
The infernal machine paused long enough that Walters wondered if it was for human benefit or because the blasted things was actually considering what the import of its next words would be. "Prepare to execute your orders, Four-Four. Over."
The leutnant's mind whirled, and Mitzi Trager's voice broke in on the troop net. "Dammit, Walters, if the damn thing wants to die so much, let it have its chance!" she said, her usual dispassion broken by the heat of the moment.
From the attack console, Lucky Fiedler cleared his throat. "Bandits coming on hard, now, sir. Whatever we do, stick or move, we gotta do it quick."
"What are we waiting for?" Jankowski wondered incredulously. "It's time to make dust!"
Ioannou remained characteristically silent while he and his WSO awaited a chance to kill, whether it be now or twenty-four hours from now. On Walter's visor, the icons were beginning to coalesce as they neared the quiescent cybertank and their identities could be more accurately assessed. The pair of mobile howitzers in the enemy force would be in range in minutes at worst.
Walters slammed both his hands on the edge of his hatch coaming in frustration and the sudden unyielding rage of a veteran who knew in his bones there was always a new fight to be had if only one was alive to face it. "Hornet Six, a slight chance is better than no chance at all!" he roared back at the machine that was had ceased being only an inanimate object, as well as his nominal superior. "If you start moving now, we can cover you back to friendly lines, Lord take you!"
When the machine spoke anew, its voice was softer than before, "Four-Four, one of your fundamental texts inveighs that greater love has no more than to lay down one's life for one's friends. Your orders are to recover to friendly lines and prepare for a more successful thrust in the very near future. Execute those orders now, Herr Leutnant. Good luck and Godspeed. Hornet Six, out."
By now, everyone knew what was really going to happen. The Fencer would sacrifice itself, to be sure. But the next thrust would be right here, in the hole that the monster would blast in the Ami lines during its death throes. The onrushing Combine troops were simply too bent on slaughter of a wounded foe to realize what they were doing in full truth: rushing into their own trap. The enemy battalion — in aggregate — that they would lose destroying the giant would leave this sector critically undermanned.
Walters cursed bitterly and slipped back into his command chair, elbowing the crash bar to drop the hatch over him and worming his leaded arms into the harness and locking its closure-points down. His ears popped as the overpressure system equalized to seal out the contaminants of a soon-to-be nuclear battlefield.
Mathematically, operationally, it made perfect, clinical sense. The demon out of sight certainly saw it that way. But humans were ruled by baser instincts. Humans on both sides of the line.
To the west, wicked light flashed. Contact. Hell, they were going to be late . . .
"Delta elements, this is Delta Four-Four," he said over the troop net formally. "You have your courses marked for exfiltration. Prepare to execute on command." He took a deep breath and reached over and squeezed the WSO's shoulder. "Delta Four-Two is in charge. Danjal will instead move to reinforce the Hornet Prime element in order to secure your safe withdrawal. Any last words, troopers?"
"This is Four-Two," Trager responded almost as if she had expected the orders; and maybe she had. They had slid together for long enough. "Negative. Dagon will accompany the leader on his ill-advised foray. Four-Two, out."
Ioannou chuckled into his boom-mike. "Now is better than later, not so? Demogorgon will find its own way back with the rest of you. One-Three, out."
"This is Four-One," Jankowitz said after a heartbeat, then another. "Let's get this over with, then. Dracula, out."
Walters grinned despite himself. Lukacs Fiedler snorted and cursed mildly. They reached over and shook hands, maintaining the contact for a few seconds longer than absolutely necessary because, for the moment, they still could.
"Hell, it won't be that bad," Walters said as he dropped the incidence of the lift fan blades to increase their bite of the air being sucked in by the intake fan. Danjal lifted to a dynamic stasis and the WSO scanned his attack board to ensure all their weapons were live. They were going to need them.
"Well, it can't be any worse than where we are now," Fiedler deadpanned over the rising cacophony.
Ebbe Walters blinked, and then laughed out loud. It was a long time since he had done that.
He dropped the throttle and Danjal nosed out of the swale, picking up altitude and speed as they went. The three other GEVs formed on them in wedge with D44 in the lead.
Walters keyed the task force net. "Hornet Prime, this is Delta Four-Four. Hold what you got. Help is on the way."
In the distance, the embattled Fencer stood in profile against a trebled flare of light as three shells found its sleekly broad hull amidships, a living symbol of Man's inhumanity to man. The four human-crewed vehicles howled towards it, like moths to a beckoning flame.
The Ogrezine II PDF, combining all of these articles with additional new material, will be available on Warehouse 23.