As a follow-up to the first Demo Day, here’s another self-contained entry in the “XX Exotroopers” project. This is a scene I wrote out this weekend, which represents my original idea for an opening chapter for the story. Since writing out “Zed Fights A Girl”, I have been debating whether to use this scene at all. Still, I felt like it deserves to be written and read, and I would welcome feedback on both demos.
It was the beginning of the third year of the war between the alliances of Serbia and Montenegro and Albania and Kosova. Serbia had seized almost half of its former province of Kosovo, nearly splitting the remaining territory in three pieces, and occupied a part of Northern Albania, while the world gnashed its teeth even as the thousands of Shqiptars (as ethnic Albanians called themselves) took the side of the Serbs. Through it all, Serbia’s greatest champions had been its hercegs, known to the wider world as finbacks, the latter-day knights who wore the angular armor of the world’s first and, for practical purposes, only exotrooper corps.
But the shoe was well and truly on the other foot. Bulgaria had made an alliance with the Albanians, for the transparent purpose of reclaiming historic territories in southeastern territories. Bulgars and Shqiptars had overrun southern Serbia from either side, aided by ethnic insurrections and even uprisings of disgruntled Serbs. Even so, Serbia had held on stubbornly to occupied Kosovo, especially to the enclave of Kosovo Polje, mere kilometers from the Kosovar capital of Prishtina. The municipality was holy ground to the Serbs, named for a shallow basin between the rivers Lab and Sitnica where the Serbs (and, per their persistent and plausible traditions, Shqiptars too) had fought their most celebrated battle against the Medieval invasion of the Ottomans. It was Jerusalem and the Alamo rolled into one, studded with graves, monuments and churches. It was on the bank of the river Lab at the far end of the ancient battlefield that Serbia now made its last stand, with a full-strength platoon of forty exotroopers. So great was the Shqiptars’ respect for the ground and the fearsome finbacks that a fighting force of forty tanks and more than five hundred mechanized infantry stood at bay across the river Sitnica rather than pressing the attack.
In the heart of a UN museum and administrative center, the leader of the finbacks stalked. This was Zaratustra, aka Zed. A crown of steel rebar rods upon his pyramidal helmet marked him as commander, and the wing-like radiators that earned the finbacks their name gave him the look of a prince of fallen angels. Even without the crown, none could have beheld his bearing or that of the other troopers without knowing his station. They would have known that what his men felt, first and foremost, was fear, tempered only by the sure knowledge that it was safer to fight at his side than without him, much less against him.
Only one person ventured to stay by Zed’s side as he paced, wearing lighter armor. This was Martinez, a squire support trooper. “Sir,” said the clearly female squire, “Flank team has visual confirmation of engineering vehicles, including a bridge, approaching the bank to the north of their present position. They need your confirmation to engage.”
“I give no confirmation,” Zed said in a deep but rasping voice. He jabbed the air with a fist whose third finger had been replaced with a rigid metal prosthesis. “On the contrary, I order Flank to withdraw to the far side of the Lab. We know the game already. They mean to strike against the flank, and perhaps cut off our retreat. But they know full well that they must also effect at least one crossing of the Lab. Then they shall make themselves doubly vulnerable, and we shall let them.”
Zed’s full name Albert Zaratustra Schwartz. He was not a Serb, or even a Slav, but a German national who had gotten himself incarcerated in Serbia for murdering a fellow member of a neo-Nazi cult known as the Ophites. His mental state was one of schizoid psychosis so profound and pervasive that interested clinicians had published learned dissertations for the purpose of classifying what was wrong with him. His physiological state, from his strange build to his evident obliviousness to pain, was no less unique, inspiring some to speculate of either evolution in action or some secret program of genetic engineering. It had been enough to inspire his captors to take him for an otherwise-disastrous attempt to train convicts for the exotrooper corps, and they had been increasingly alarmed as he not only succeeded but rose to the highest ranks. Martinez was kept as much as possible by his side, officially as his aide, but in truth his handler and overseer for the Serbs and the Ophite order that had insinuated itself at many levels of their government.
Martinez stepped to one side at a hail from her superiors, one which would not be heard over the squad channel. The voice that came was clearly male, but high and slightly nasal. “Martinez, what is your status?”
“Dr. Nibeaux,” she said, “I am with Zaratustra in the administrative building. So far, his battle plan is effective. The Kosovars are pursuing a flank attack rather than an engagement on the polje. Zed has already devised a strategy to hold them off. It will be enough to cover a withdrawal, or even a counterattack. Call the Lieutenant. Dreadlocks’ platoon is in Novo Brdo; they can reach Sitinica within the hour!”
“Zaratustra is under express orders to make no move to retreat, and Lt. Princip and Sergeant Mihan are under express orders not to divert additional forces to relieve him,” Nibeaux said. “Kosovo Polje is strategically vital, but no less so than other theaters.”
“Sir, respectfully, the only thing Kosovo Polje is good for is making dead Serbs!”
“That will be all, Overseer. You are to assist Zaratustra with any request. You are not to counsel him on strategy, nor will I discuss it any further with you. Remain in the center, and await my orders.”
A cry came from Point Squad: “Incoming aircraft!”
At Novo Brdo, four finbacks and their squires stood impatiently around their encampment. A sergeant with a headdress of chains on his helmet was making another query whether to do something, anything. Two other finbacks, one with a tire belt around his pelvis and the other with a toilet seat around his neck, were playing cards. A fourth finback in the heavier armor of a tank destroyer was cutting a road wheel from an APC into a distinctly floral shape that matched similar trophies already arrayed in ornamental patterns on his armor. The finback with the tire around his waist paused from collecting his winnings to check a chirping smartphone. “Guys, hey guys!” he said. “Zeds being bombed by Bulgarians!… Say, that sounds like it should be funny.”
The finbacks’ Russian-built 311A combat exoskeleton had originally been designed with fully mechanized mounts for their weapons. Trials had quickly established that the armatures were useless under virtually all combat conditions, prone to jam or break down in routine use, even more easily discombobulated by hostile fire, and impossible to calibrate for accurate fire with a recoilling firearm. But the concept had been salvaged for a special piece of equipment, which Zed bore on his back as he stepped forth into a rain of fire from the skies.
From either shoulder, a mechanical arm unfolded, each one supporting a pair of surface-to-air missiles. Each missile’s targeting system was hooked in to a miniature radar dish that Zed bore on his forearm shield. Exhaust scorched the ground as Zed fired two missiles after a pair of ground-attack jets banking for a second pass against Flank. The hindmost lost half its tail to a direct hit, and made a marginally-controlled dive for the Lab, while its partner made a rapid ascent. Zed strode forward, pivoting back and forth to search the skies. He ignored a circling helicopter, but locked in on a trio of distant needles.
The needles rapidly grew into long, dart-like crafts with wings and tail joined in a single triangle. As they closed, it decelerated rapidly, from Mach .7 down to 0.5 in a split second. Zed waited for the wings of the first to swing forward before he fired again. The leader rolled to dodge the missile handily, but the second was caught by a proximity detonation while its wings were still in motion. The damaged wing jammed halfway, and a wild effort to regain control only sent the plane in a wild tumble into a distant hill.
An insect-like squatter drone rolled to Zed’s side, with four 23 mm cannons blasting and eight anti-aircraft missiles ready to fire. The leader veered off, its wings returning to delta position as it soared upward, while the hindmost rushed in. Zed fired his last missile at the same moment that the jet started blasting away with a pair of 3 cm cannons on either side of the fuselage. Its passage cut two lines of fist sized divots with Zed precisely between them. “Three blind mice!” Zed shouted. “Three blind mice!” But the pilot was obviously past hearing, even if it had been possible to hear. The guns still blazed, but the plane’s flight path was as blind as a ghost ship, and in a moment it went into a ponderous yaw that drove its shredded fuselage straight into the polje’s hallowed earth.
The squatter dropped into a static position on the axles of its six wheels and began launching missiles at another wave of incoming ground-pounders, while a squire dismounted and ran to Zed’s side with more missiles. Martinez’ voice sounded in Zed’s ear: “The Kosovars have fallen back from the Lab, but it looks like it was as much from friendly fire as from us. Flank took five casualties, and Point lost their squatter. When we engaged the Kosovars’ engineering group, the Bulgars came in and started firing indiscriminately. We have visual confirmation of at least one hypercopter.”
“Flank is to withdraw immediately. All available mortars are to fire on main Kosovar force. Rook Squad and Bishop, advance with highest possible speed. Rook shall engage in a frontal assault with area suppression fire, and Bishop shall strike for the flank with point-target weapons fire. Concentrate fire on support and logistics targets, and close to minimum range.”
As he spoke, he jabbed his prosthesis and then raised the dish on his left arm toward a particular point in the air, just before an aircraft seemed to materialize with a thunderclap in the air above them like a starship might emerge from hyperspace. The effect was exactly why the Bulgarians’ supersonic lifting-body helicopter was known as the hypercopter. The lozenge-shaped craft came barreling down with its broad rotor blades rigid, until it lost enough speed for the blades to spin in hovering flight. Accepted wisdom dictated that the hypercopter could blast a target and then return to high speed before any effective weapon could be directed against it. Two missiles straight into the cockpit proved that common wisdom had not accounted for Zed.
Even as the 10-million Euro terror dropped out of the sky, the full onslaught ensued. Ground pounders swooped down like vultures, strafing the squads that advanced across the polje. A second hypercopter swept in from the flank, launching a salvo of missiles. Two made a crater where the drone squatted, and two more streaked straight for Zed, until they crashed together in midair. The helicopter then streaked away, just in time to dodge Zed’s missile. That was when the jet returned, decelerating even more dramatically than before and finally rearing back momentarily on vertical-takeoff jets to hover at a thousand meters’ range. A huge cannon in the nose of the plane blew holes half a meter wide on either side of Zed, at virtually the same moment that his last shot blew the plane in half.
Zed looked over his shoulder, and gave no indication or surprise to see that his squire was gone. Martinez lunged for the door, with a missile tube under each arm, when she froze at the voice in her ear. “Martinez,” said Nibeaux, “your orders are… go.”
“Yes, slay a thousand at my right hand, and ten thousand at my left!” Zed shouted. “But I shall stand, for you are but men, and it is decreed by the Will of all Wills that no hand of man shall slay me. And woe to you, and woe to the world for that! And woe to me as well!”
But there was no answer from the skies, for even the roar of the ground-pounders was receding. Then sound came anew from the Sitnica, gunfire, and shouts of surprise and terror, and the dull boom that accompanied a lazy red fireball of an exploded fuel tanker. Zed jogged for the administrative center, even as he waved for his men to come forward. “Come to me, my people!” he shouted. “It may seem all is lost, and perhaps it is. Yet stay by my side, and you may live, for it is not in the measure of my destiny that I should die this day!”
Then hercegs and squires rushed forward, some smashing through the very walls. Zed waved them forward from the steps of the center, shouting instructions. At last, Martinez jogged forward to join them. That was when she heard the sound of the jets, returning.
Zed pivoted on his heels, just as the first bombs fell. There were half a dozen planes, with about 2500 kilos of explosives each. The administrative center toppled like a sand castle hit with a stick of dynamite, and Zed faced the falling ruin with his fists thrust into the air.
Within an hour, there were no more sounds of battle. Then there was a hum, that proved to be a single squatter drone. Sgt. Dreadlocks drove, and the tank destroyer known as Sunflower hung from the back. Dreadlocks halted at the edge of the rubble that had been the administrative center, and Sunflower dismounted to plunge into the rubble alone. Blocks of 500 kilos and more were flung carelessly aside, and looser debris flung away like handfuls of sand. At last, Sunflower emerged again, carrying the bedraggled but breathing Martinez.
The sound of the drone quickly receded, and silence prevailed again. Then there was a faint sound, like a rat under the floorboards, from the thickly-piled front of the debris field. The sounds grew louder, and the debris began to shift and stir visibly. At last, there was a veritable eruption, a cloud of dust and a cascade of chunks of concrete, all from a fist that burst forth with a metal central digit thrust to the skies.