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Artificial Irreverence

by Andrew Mull
October 19, 2018

Bremen in spring; the history books talk about how it used to be so beautiful, with flowering fields and gentle rains. In 2089, it's nothing but an irradiated wasteland, crushed under the treads of Ogres time and time again. Nothing dares to grow; forests of craters have replaced the forests of trees, and the rains can't begin to quench the parched earth. Still, it's home; not just to me, but to what's left of the 46th Teutons, the pride of northern Germany.

It's been quiet since a Mark IV forded its way up the river a week ago, getting too close for comfort and costing us dearly. If it weren't for Reinhardt, a Fencer on loan from Hamburg's 9th Regiment, we'd be the glowing corpses instead of the Ogre. Having my skin saved by it doesn't mean the self-awares unnerve me any less. Whoever decided cybertanks needed true AI ought to be out here on the lines; maybe they'd have thought better of that particular bright idea. Thanks to Descartes, the tin cans are getting smarter . . . and the smarter they get, the more consolation letters I have to sign every time one shows up.

Official word from High Command is that reinforcements are coming, but High Command always says that. They promise us tanks, they promise us GEVs, they promise us ammunition for the Howitzers; so far all we've gotten is rescheduled deliveries and a few iron riders fresh out of training.

The rookies arrived at first light three days ago, and I can't say I'm impressed. They're so green they can barely put their armor on by themselves; my hopes aren't very high that they'll be of any use in a real fight. The Fencer hasn't been refitted, either: one gun destroyed, two missile launchers heavily damaged, and even worse, a mere five missiles remain. Combined with the reduced state of our conventional forces, we'd be easy pickings for a Mark III, let alone anything bigger.

For now, we camp in the shadow of the hulk of the Mark IV, waiting, trusting that High Command is actually sending us the replenishment we need. The Howitzers pound it daily, making sure it stays a hulk; Specialists able to deliver the coup de grace won't be here for another month. From our commander's point of view, a few dozen shells a day are immaterial compared to the cost of finding out that thing was playing dead, waiting for us to forget about it so it could finish us off. In spite of the CO's insistence otherwise, even Reinhardt has taken a couple pot-shots at it – one of the only times I've smiled at the thought of one of those mechanical monsters having a mind of its own.

A few of us have escaped the claustrophobia of the oversized tent set up on the remains of what used to be the mess hall; myself, Lt. Hayden, and Sgt. Slaugenhaupt, along with two of the newbies, Pvts Hoffman and Fleischer, are eating our rations under the stars, still suited up from our evening patrol. The Sergeant and I have taken up positions sitting on the bogies of a Heavy, while the Lieutenant is leaning against a truck to my left, and the privates are sitting on the open gate of another straight across.

The new guys can't pronounce the sergeant's last name; since they don't know his first name is Dave, they've taken to calling him Slag. Even better for me, Dave hates his new nickname; we've served together long enough I could tell he was going to retaliate soon. I didn't know how or when, only that it was going to be funny when it happened. All I had to do was bide my time, and at least something would lift my spirits.

Crew members taking a break around a heavy and some trucks

"So, what do you think of that monster?" Dave asked, pointing a fork still dripping with baked beans toward the Mark IV, the scars in its armor glowing against the twilight sky. "You newbies have probably never seen a real Ogre before. It's nothing like what's in VR training, eh?"

Pvt. Hoffman paused, voice cracking a little as he talked around his fork. "No, Sergeant! N-nothing really prepares you for the real thing."

Lt. Hayden . . . Al . . . laughed from deep in his belly. "Now imagine fighting that thing! If you were done learning to tie your shoes even a week sooner, you'd know what it's like to see combat against one. There were so many missiles in the air even Reinhardt got scared!"

As I opened my mouth to say something I heard the unmistakable crackle of a radio from the Heavy's rear bogie, not far from where Dave was sitting. He made eye contact, then informed me of the obvious. "Your radio's talking to nobody in particular, Lieutenant. Here, catch."

It was all I could do to catch the helmet without dropping my dinner, an incident the other old men wouldn't have let me live down. Setting my mess tray aside, I held the headgear to where I could hear clearly without having to put it on. "This is Fogelman, last transmission was missed. Say again?"

My heart sank when the voice that replied was obviously synthetic. It had taken the vocal patterns of a boisterous, booming man with a Rhineland accent, but wasn't able to disguise that it was a machine. "I said, I am not programmed to feel fear!" It tried to follow up with a hearty laugh, but all it succeeded in doing was making me shake my head at the clumsy synthesization. "Fear reduces combat efficiency by 27.42%; why would they program us for that when they could program us for glory instead?"

Great. Of all the conversations in the camp right now it was listening to ours, and more importantly, it was in the mood to be sarcastic. I wondered why the clever sorts back at R&D decide these things needed moods and personalities . . . a humanlike voice doesn't change that they're imposing monsters with inhuman minds.

Putting the helmet down, I turned to my comrades. "Be careful what you say about Reinhardt. It has nothing better to do than listen to us, apparently . . . and it objects to you saying it was scared, Lieutenant." The radio crackled again; I couldn't make out what it was saying. I could tell it was Reinhardt, so I didn't bother asking for a repeat. I was in no mood to be sassed by a machine, especially when a perfectly good knackwurst was getting cold. They didn't feed us real sausage often; usually only to keep our minds off the dead after one of those things shows up, and I was determined to enjoy it.

A few minutes passed before anyone dared break the silence. Pvt. Fleischer spoke up, looking like he was spooked by something. "S-sir? Is it true they get even bigger than that one?"

Poor kid, less than a week in a real unit and he was already getting cold feet. "They do," I replied, as calm and as reassuring as I could manage with a mouth full of sausage. "That's a Mark IV: fast, soft, not built for a stand-up fight. Disable a couple of the missile tubes, and they lose their teeth in a hurry. The trouble is catching the things. Not even a heavy can keep up." Trying to reassure the kid turned out to be a bad move. Not because it scared the rookie, but because I inadvertently gave Dave an opening.

"Have you seen a Mark V, rookie?" inquired Dave. He was a small man, and what he lacked in raw stature he made up for with steely resolve. I realized my mistake the instant his voice sounded animated. "Those are the main battle units. Two mains, six secondaries, a half-dozen missiles each with their own tubes . . . and sturdy! It's not as fast as that Mark IV, but it can take more hits before it slows down. Covered in point-defense turrets too! We infantry are pretty useless against one, not much more than a distraction so the bigger guns can hit it, but every now and again somebody's armor gums up the treads enough to slow it down."

I had forgotten that Dave saw action against a Mark V at Calais. I had taken leave to go see him in the hospital when he finally woke up. To hear him tell it, that battle was a bloodbath, and the KIA list certainly backed up his assertion. Two heavies and not quite three squads of infantry are all that came home with a pulse; the massacre left him so rattled it took two years behind a desk before he summoned the nerve to suit up again.

The embellishment worked; deal with enough guys fresh out of training and it isn't difficult to notice when something's got one spooked. As the next moments passed, the color left their faces, their eating slowed, and unfortunately for them the old hats smelled their fear.

Lt. Hayden couldn't resist twisting the knife. "That's nothing compared to the Mark VI, though. Those are the real monsters. Smash a Mark IV and a Mark V together, putting all the guns from both on a single chassis. Three primaries, countless secondaries, single-shots and missile racks. You see one of those, you may as well bend over and kiss yourself goodbye." Al talked casually, eating between words as if he'd personally seen so many they were old news.

While the recruits tried to process that information, I took the time to reflect on what it was like when I was green. That was a lifetime ago, back when the Mark II was the biggest dog in the yard and I was convinced a Mark III was just a tall tale told by commanders to scare the rookies into following orders. I'll never forget the day I found out just how wrong I was on that one.

". . . Sir?" Pvt. Hoffman spoke up, snapping me out of it. While I was off reminiscing, the poor kid had started to visibly tremble. This wasn't going to end well; he had been trying to act tough, giving us all a hard time since he got here in a misguided attempt to fit in. Dave was especially fed up with the antics and right now my guys were giving better than they were getting. "The Mark VI is as big as they come, right? Do we have an answer to even the Mark V?"

"Well," started Al. "Good news is, we have the Huscarl; refitted Mark Vs we inherited thanks to the siege at Sheffield. Bad news is, I heard rumor that High Command is talking about ending the program; the French would prefer we build bigger Fencers rather than use Combine tech."

Before either of my compatriots could follow up, my helmet crackled, eliciting a sigh of resignation. If the tin can was going to be this insistent, I may as well oblige it. To save myself the trouble of playing middleman, I put helmet next to me and switched its commlink to loudspeaker. "Say again, Reinhardt?"

"Calculations suggest that yes, they do get bigger. A Mark VII is technically feasible, but essentially impractical." At least this time it sounds like a machine, I thought.

Dave pounced on the opportunity the machine had given him. "Impractical is right . . . but there's no kill like overkill, and we're fighting a war of overkill! Look at Dresden. It's little more than a glowing crater now!"

"Yeah," added Al, keeping the pressure on. "When I was at Sheffield, I heard whispers they found notes labeled Mark VII in some secret computer hidden deep in the base. Supposedly it's even bigger and meaner than the Mark VI; the front half of two Mark Vs welded to the back half of a captured Fencer. Four primaries, twelve secondaries, and four racks of 8 missiles each . . ." He paused, pointing to the tank Dave and I were sitting on. ". . . and able to take 25 solid hits from that tank there before it finally stops moving. A real juggernaut, it'd be lucky to hit 50 kph but with that much arms and armor, nothing could stop it."

I tried not to snicker; Al had never been to Sheffield, but it made for a good fish story. Pvt. Hoffman suddenly looked really uncomfortable; with the way his face was twisted, I couldn't help but wonder if he was stress-testing his suit's waste-recycling systems. I felt sorry for him, in a way . . . but what did he expect? He'd been needling these guys all week; he should have known retaliation was inevitable.

"That's ridiculous." Dave snorted. "Something like that would sink in dirt, let alone a swamp. No, it'd have to have longer range, not more guns. You want something to be that scary, you're better off taking a Mark VI, bolting Howitzers in place of the Primaries, Primaries in place of the Secondaries, and adding another pair of Missile Racks."

"Negative," interjected the cybertank. It seemed not even our Fencer could resist getting in on it. "I have run the battle simulations; neither proposed Mark VII would be more effective than its predecessors. I suggest using the design streamed to your HUDs."

Everyone but Dave reached for their helmets, including me; if the tin can was playing Ogre designer, now that I had to see. Slipping it on, I was greeted by a terrifying, horrible sight. What Reinhardt had to show us was insane, something so outlandish no human would ever dream it up . . . but that thing's a heavily armed super-computer. If it's saying the calculations actually work out? I shuddered just thinking about it.

At first glance the design on my helmet's screen looked like the front of a Mark III-B mated to the rear of one of those Israeli things with the secondaries on the deck, but the "tank for scale" was way too small and the barrels were just wrong. It took only a moment to realize why. "Reinhardt, you're one twisted tin can, you know that? A Mk. IV with Light Howitzers, LADs, and Missile Racks, and you're telling me that makes it light enough to keep pace with a Personnel Carrier?"

"Correct!" came an enthusiastic, synthesized reply. "I estimate such a unit to already be active. Tactical maps suggest this location is the ideal spot for such a unit to make landfall for an assault on Gotha. The glory to be had in fighting one of those!"

The timing of what came next was too perfect; the Howitzers began their nightly song, pounding the hulk of the Mark IV with ten million Euros worth of ordnance.

Hearing the deafening roar of an Arquebus, Dave couldn't resist going for the kill. The Sergeant leapt to his feet and grabbed his helmet. "The Howitzers are singing! Guess it's not dead after all! You boys ready for action?"

I don't know how he kept a straight face. I was glad mine was inside my helmet where they couldn't see it. The thunder of Reinhardt's motive systems powering up and the unholy clatter of damaged treads bound for some soon-to-be-leveled destination made even my chest go tight; the Fencer's cybernetic voice roared across our comms units with a hint of glee. "This one is mine! To battle, for the glory of the German regiments!"

Moments later, its remaining battery joined the chorus of ordnance; I swore I could hear the base commander cursing about being outranked by a disobedient AI.

Mess kits clattered to the ground as the rookies scattered as fast as their legs could take them. Such a waste of good wurst, I thought, struggling to contain my laughter. Moments later I could hear Pvt. Hoffman throwing up behind the mess tent. Reinhardt's motive systems went quiet, but from the sounds of things it was over a klick away. It took turning my visor's low-light mode on to be able to find Pvt. Fleischer hiding with the GEV jockeys. Reinhardt informed us that it was still listening, and that Fleischer considered the pilots less insane than us at this point.

I took my helmet off, picked up my tray, and went back to my dinner, which, to my dismay, was now completely cold. "I think we were too hard on them, guys. They're just rookies. When something else comes through here, we're going to need them," I chided.

"Relax, old man," shot Al. "We were just having fun with them. You still remember what you put me through when I was green, don't you?"

Thinking back to when Lt. Hayden was Pvt. Hayden brought a smile to my face. He was right, we did get him good . . . but to my credit as his CO, after the late-night GEV ride we arranged for him, he never again drank so much he was unfit for duty. "Maybe so," I replied, pointing my fork in the general direction of where the Fencer had been parked. "But the cybertank doesn't know that. It's a machine, and a German machine at that. It's not programmed for humor."

I did not expect what came next; my helmet crackled to life once more. If I could have seen the HUD, I would have noticed the rookies being dropped. Reinhardt spoke with a more serious tone. "Are you certain, Lieutenant Fogelman? These new recruits have been tormenting my infantry since they got here. Turnabout is fair play, is it not?"

Dave and Al began howling with laughter. Even I couldn't resist laughing with the way it inflected my. Heh. Maybe I could grow to like this tin can after all . . .

The Ogrezine II PDF, combining all of these articles with additional new material, will be available on Warehouse 23.

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