Here’s another excerpt from “XX Exotroopers” in progress. I have tried to use more self-contained vignettes that don’t tie directly into the main storyline, but I decided this chapter was worth making an exception. I did write this in the spirit of a “demo”, to introduce the villain of the story. The character is based in part on a Marvel comics character, the Purple Man.
It was a mixed and motley force, even by the standards of the Balkans. There were two dozen men, most of whom would under any other circumstances be shooting at each other: Six were in the uniforms of Serbia, six in the uniforms of Albania, and the rest were Kosovar irregulars. The men in Albanian uniforms looked almost as uncomfortable to be in the company of their kin as they did in the company of the Serbs; they stood well apart, speaking in the Tosk dialect that dominated Albania. The Kosovars were more amiable, joking in the northern Geg dialect, but a number of them were eying clan crests sewn on each others’ uniforms, and remembering blood feuds that had claimed more Shqiptar lives than all of Albania’s wars combined. All looked up at the approach of clopping hooves.
It was no ordinary horse that descended down the mountain trail. Its build was unusual, more like a mule than a horse, and its head was covered by a gas mask. Its hide, where it was not covered by a fabric skirt, was a pale and unwholesomely mottled gray. The rider was clearly even less ordinary, dressed in a biohazard suit. A clear visor in the hood revealed white skin but features that were subtly African, especially a large nose. “I am Dr. Nibeaux,” said the rider. “I am chief of bioweapons development for the Republic of Serbia. By the order of General Rausch, I am commander of this operation.”
He drew a five-barreled miniature rocket launcher. “At this moment, the most battle-hardened squad of Serbia’s exotrooper corps is closing in on a location a short distance from here where the individual known only as the Man of Macedonia is in hiding. As you are all too aware, the Macedonian has crossed the line from opposing Serbia’s occupation of Kosovo to setting himself up as warlord of the municipality of Prizren. His reign of terror has claimed hundreds of lives, most of them fellow Shqiptars. He has made himself a threat to all sides of the current conflict, and his activities threaten to destabilize Macedonia as well. That is why our respective superiors approved a joint operation to neutralize the Macedonian.
“General Rausch’s express orders are for the Macedonian to be taken alive. That responsibility is in the finbacks’ more than capable hands. Your assignment is to clear a safe passage through the warlord’s territory, and neutralize any attempt to rescue the warlord. However, you must be prepared for the eventuality of an encounter with the Macedonian. No one has seen the Macedonian’s face, but his appearance is well-known: An improvised mask, usually a scarf, a traditional plis cap and fustanella, all purple. If contact is made, your express orders are as follows: Insert the earplugs you are provided with, and fire concussion and gas grenades, in that order. Do not approach the Macedonian. Do not attempt communication with the Macedonian, or respond to any attempt at communication. If you see any individual speaking with the Macedonian, terminate that individual on sight. If you fail to follow these orders, I am authorized to terminate you immediately. Are these orders clear?”
The building had obviously been built as an Ottoman mosque, complete with minaret and dome. It had not been built for easy access. The dome almost directly abutted a mountain crag, and the rear of the mosque looked almost directly over a one-hundred meter drop. A front couryard extended around the left side to the base of the minaret, ending at a somewhat less sheer drop. The only connection to the outside world was a stone bridge across a chasm to a narrow mountain road, currently covered liberally with snow and ice.
There was a faint jingle as Dreadlocks leaned out from beneath the arch of the bridge. He himself did not hear it. The only sound he heard was a hint of a hum. The finbacks’ safety systems included cut-outs in their inner helmets, which normally engaged in the event of an explosion or other sound sufficient to damage the human ear. The cut-outs not only disengaged audio sensors, but created white noise that theoretically could dampen the effects of a concussive blast. Dreadlocks was sure it was giving him a headache. He looked up, drew back, and tapped a message on a texting pad added to his left forearm grenade launcher: UIJN POSIKTRION. “Piece of kaka,” he muttered to nobody but himself.
A new message appeared: 70 M FLEA NOT MUCH HIGHER. It was from the Tick.
CLOS 2 TOP W8TNG 4 LRDRS. That was the Flea.
“Jebanje kaka,” Dreadlocks hissed. He tapped keys using a pin: END TXT FIN APRCH LASR SIGS. As soon as the message was sent, he smashed his text pad against the bridge. Then he anchored a cable in the stone and let the line drop down into the chasm. Two squires climbed up from below. On the other side of the bridge, two more squires came into view on a ledge 10 meters lower and set up a power winch.
A masked, angular visage peered furtively around the corner of the minaret. A toilet seat collar identified him as the Tick. He hefted a 3cm automatic grenade launcher and pointed into the air. A laser beam shimmered in the falling snow, giving the signal that he was in position. A second beam flashed from halfway up the other side of the minaret, and the Flea leaned out to give a thumbs up.
A sentry on the entrance portico looked up at an odd whiffing sound. He saw his counterpart on the other side of the entrance, slouched against the wall as usual, but starting to slump. He was reaching for his weapon when he took two darts in the chest. Dreadlocks waved a compressed-air dart gun, flashing a signal with the laser sight on the far side of the chasm. Then he and one of the squires started climbing up the portico columns to the roof.
The squires on the ledge put more power into the winch. At last the load came into view: Sunflower, in full armor with some especially large burden on his back. The squires hauled him onto the ledge, then pulled him after as they retreated from the crumbling edges. Sunflower handed off parts of his load, including two wheels and halves of a gunshield, and then they ventured up a marginal path to the road.
The Flea pulled himself up over the stone railing of a balcony that marked the second tier of the minaret. He had stripped down his armor more than usual, leaving even the outer helmet behind. A footbridge ran from the balcony to the roof ot the main building, but his goal was the spire, just seven meters above the balcony. After a moment’s thought, he stood up on the rail, and leaped. In the highest chamber of the minaret, a gauntled hand barely caught hold of the sill. Metal claws dug in, and the Flea hauled himself up and in. He was halfway in when he looked up and froze.
A beautiful woman stood before him, smiling. Her eyes were a piercing green, her dark hair was tied up in a kind of topknot, and she wore what looked like a pleated purble skirt under her coat. She smiled and spoke. The Flea shook his head and pointed to the cymbal-like shock absorber in the side of his helmet. She gave a sweet, pleading smile, and the Flea disengaged the cutouts.
“Please, sir,” the woman said, “can you help me?”
“I’m here to catch a warlord,” the Flea said. “He’s really, seriously bad news. Say, are you a prisoner?”
The woman nodded. “Yes, I am his prisoner,” she said. “He has complete dominion over me.”
“Is he here?” the Flea asked. “You should probably get out of here, if you can.”
“Yes, he is very close,” said the woman. “But I can go soon. I just need a little help. You want to help, don’t you?” The Flea nodded
enthusiatically. “Good. Now hold this, give me that, that’s right, now just wait here while I get myself out of the way.”
The woman disappeared. After a moment, the Flea looked down at the object in his hand. It was a hand grenade, minus pin. “Aw, man…”
The Tick was vigilantly watching the footbridge when he heard a blast from the top of the minaret. He immediately raced around the base, in time to see a rain of debris that included his partner. He cast his weapon aside and leaned over the rail, just in time to catch the Flea with both arms. Then he guesstimated the momentum of a 180-kilogram exotrooper dropped from a height of more than 10 meters. “Oh, jeban!”
Dreadlocks circled around the right side of the dome, leaving his squire to take the left under the cover of the Tick. He dropped to a crouch as he reached the other side, dart gun at ready. He started to say to sound off, but caught himself. When his companion did not appear, and he saw the damage to the minaret, he became alarmed. His headache was getting worse. After a moment’s hesitation, he deactivated the cut-outs, just for a moment.
He heard the voice almost in his ear, androgynously soft but transfixingly authoritative. “Dreadlocks. Go to the edge of the roof. Look for your men.”
“It will be a good view,” Dreadlocks said. He walked to the very edge, where the rear wall jutted out to form a semicircular alcove. The view was spectacular. He could see mountains and valleys and poljes for tens of kilometers. He could also see the Flea and the Tick lying crumpled on a ledge 20 meters below the base of the minaret.
“You must help them,” the voice said.
“How do I reach them?” he asked. His headache was back.
“Get-” He whirled around, dart pitol drawn, just in time to catch a 4 cm grenade in the breastplate. His curse echoed through the mountains as he hurtled over the edge and straight down.
Dreadlocks looked down. Sunflower advanced to the bridge, pushing a newly-assembled motorized gun carriage like a lawn mower. Gunfire from the portico was met by machine gun fire from the trailing squires and a burst of 20 mm tracer shells from the coaxial gun on the carriage. Then Sunflower stepped to one side and fired the main weapon, a 107 mm recoilless gun. A backblast flash-boiled the snow, and a huge shell crashed through the front door. A cloud of gas flooded the main chamber of the mosque, rising from the top of the dome in milky puffs. But a heavy machine gun opened up from the spire of the minaret, cutting down a squire, and a missile launcher fired from a door in the base. The carriage was smashed, and Sunflower and his remaining squire went sprawling.
The squire on the portico returned fire, but was overwhelmed when gunmen in gas masks came rushing out of the front. The lone squire was surrounded, and guns were emptied point-blank. The machine gun in the minaret opened fire again, riddling a squire with bullets as he twitched, then turned belatedly on Sunflower as he lunged for the recoilless gun. Armor-piercing rounds pounded his helmet, smashing a monocle-like radar scope in his visor, too late. With one heave, the tank destroyer wrenched the gun from the wreckage of the carriage and fired. An explosive shell all but obliterated the spire of the minaret, sending tons of rubble down on the heads of the gunmen below. Then Sunflower rolled himself off the road, to drop to the ledge below.
Only twenty troops reached the bridge, with Nibeaux in their midst. He took one glance at the devastation and said, “Insert earplugs!” Most moved to comply, but gunfire erupted from the portico, and all but the few who had their earplugs in already grabbed for their guns or dived for cover instead. Fire was met with fire, and Nibaux himself took out a machine gun entrenched on a balcony above the portico with a volley of rockets before his horse bucked and tried to run the other way. Eighteen fairweather allies survived to secure the portico. Four Serbs, five Albanians and nine Kosovars surveyed the bodies, and then gazed into the haze beyond the doorway. All of them loaded grenades in under-barrel launchers and reached for their earplugs, when a voice called down from above in Serbo-Croatian: “Serbs. Kill Shqiptars.”
For a moment, all stood and stared as if incredulous. Then three of the men in Serb uniforms moved as if hypnotized, so bizarrely that even their ancient enemies hesitated to do more than call out in vain for explanation as they raised their guns. Three Kosovars and an Albanian fell in a single volley, and one more of each became collateral damage in the storm of fire that cut the Serbs down.
Footsteps descended a narrow staircase on one end of the portico. Eight men looked up to see a figure swathed in purple, from a conical plis cap to the swathed face, to a fustanella, the traditional Albanian version of the kilt. “Tosks,” the figure said in perfect southern Albanian dialect, “kill Gegs.” The men in Albanian uniforms raised their guns robotically, and the Kosovars had the presence of mind to return fire. Two Kosovars survived, one badly wounded. The Man of Macedonia paused to examine their clan patches.
“Haradinaj,” the Macedonian said as the upright Shqiptar drew a handgun, “kill the Dusan.” The wounded man sat up and drew his own sidearm, and the two men emptied their guns at each other before both collapsing. The Macedonian looked into the recess of the portico where one man in Serb uniform had had the presence of mind to dive for cover.
The lone survivor stared into piercing green eyes. “What are you?” came the imperious query.
“Romani,” he answered.
“Well, kill yourself.” He drew his gun and obliged.
The Man of Macedonia rode down the steps of the mosque. Then a voice called out, “Macedonian, you will come with me.” The warlord looked back to see Nibeaux, dismounted on a ledge overlooking the road.
The scarf could not hide the smile on the Macedonian’s face: “You, and what army?” Then the motorcycle accelerated away, just ahead of a concussion rocket, and Nibeaux watched the Maceonian ride away.