Archive for exotroopers

Demo Day! The Man of Macedonia

Posted in one-shot with tags on July 18, 2013 by David N. Brown

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.

Jump.”

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.

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Demo Day! Exotroopers FAQ

Posted in Exoskeletons, one-shot with tags on July 16, 2013 by David N. Brown

For today, here’s a couple excerpts from “XX Exotroopers” in progress.  One of the things I have been doing for this project is fleshing out or simply writing down details of the finbacks’ technology, tactics and philosophy that in large part were always in my mind, but that I never took the time to lay down explicitly.  So, here goes:

Here,” Zed announced sonorously, “are the doctrines of the exotroopers corps.

First: The best way to stop a bullet is to shoot the other man first:

Second: The best way to cover your rear end is with someone else’s front.

Third: Practice makes perfect, or perfectly imperfect.

Fourth: If you had to fight your way in, it is time to get out.

Fifth: Even a magic bullet is still one bullet.

Sixth: A bad can opener is better than a good Swiss army knife.

Seventh: If all your eggs are bad, they might as well  be in one basket.

Eighth: Never bring a gun to a tank fight.

Ninth: Given effective range, an axe beats anything.

Tenth: Never go into battle with someone who cannot carry you back.”

The Flea and the Tick were unmistakably nervous as they stepped out into the center of the common room in full armor.  The three women candidates were seated on folding chairs.  “It just so happens,” Martinez announced, “that we have in here today our two most experienced hercegs.  Both of these men have literally logged more time in combat than any other member of the corps, virtually all of it together.  If you have any questions about our technology, weapons and tactics, feel free to ask them now.”

After a moment of silence, Dragon raised her hand.  “There’s just one thing I want to know,” she said.  “When you’re in all that armor… what do you do to pee?”

The Flea and the Tick looked at each other, clearly uncomfortable notwithstanding the toilet-seat collar around the Tick’s neck.  It was the Flea who finally ventured to say, “Do?”

 

The session went downhill from there.  “What do we do when we have to stop tanks?” the Tick repeated rhetorically.  “We die.  Law of averages, we jebanje die, it’s jebanjetanks!”

All right, here’s how it works,” the Flea said.  “No, you can’t really run faster in an exosuit, because the exo legs are only as long as your legs.  We have leg extensions, these stilt things, that let us go really fast just by taking longer steps, but mostly they just left us way up high when everybody’s shooting at us.  What you can do if you rig it right is go fast for longer, by letting the suit take some of the load off your muscles.  It’s like being able to sprint through a long distance race.”

The fins are radiators, they give us infrared stealth,” the Tick said. “Ceramic in the armor absorbs infrared radiation, but it can be saturated by heat from our bodies and the suit components.  There’s tubing running through the whole suit that collects the heat with radiator fluid, that’s water with some extra chemicals, and then runs it to the fins where it’s dissipated by refrigerants and plain old air flow.  The same tubes collect sweat, and yeah, urine, which just goes into the mix.  After the first few hours, it’s going to level off at about 60 percent radiator fluid, 40 percent sweat and 10 percent piss.”

Martinez stepped in to answer another question.  “The `fins’ are also housings for the suit’s two generators.  The hoses running from the fins to the hips are conduits for radiator fluid, hydraulic fluid and even fuel, which is stored primarily behind the breastplate but also in secondary, rubberized tanks.  A squire’s exoskeleton has the same basic assemblies, but with a much smaller radiator component.  Because of that, and the thinner armor, a squire does not have full stealth capabilities, though under normal conditions our infrared signatures are still less than half that of an unhielded human body.”

We get our rations through tubes in the mask,” the Flea said. “There’s two tubes, one to drink and one for food.  The drink’s water mixed with sugar and electro-stuff, in one big bag in back, and the food’s like tooth paste, it even has a mint flavor, it’s in a couple packs under the shoulder pads.  And for anything else, there’s an extra straw…” He demonstrated, unrolling a rubber straw to drink from a liquor bottle.

If it’s my choice, I only pack one thing, my 3 cm auto grenade launcher,” the Tick said.  He pointed to a weapon that, apart from the addition of a stock and pistol grip, was identical to a design fielded by the Soviets.  “It takes 30-round drums or belt feed, and we’ve got a few different types of ammo, basic frag, shaped-charge and flechettes.  The only other thing I want is the standard wrist launcher for the really close calls: double barrel, 43 mm, always with one smoke and one flechette canister.  Kaka for accuracy, but if you really need it, anywhere in their general direction will count.  Just give them one dose of phosphorous and a few dozen flechettes, and get out while they’re sorting themselves out.”

I dunno, I use lotsa different stuff,” the Flea said.  “I guess my favorite’s the MG 45.  It’s literally practically a hundred years old, something the Nazis built.  8 milimeter, belt feed, 25 rounds per second.”

What about the Luggage?” the Tick interjected.

Hey! You said you wouldn’t talk about that if I didn’t…”

Frankly, the difference in armor between different exoskeleton models and configurations is of minimal importance to survivablility,” Martinez said.  “The protection of a standard 311A2 breastplate is equivalent to almost half a meter of homogeneous steel armor.  Any weapon capable of penetrating even half that thickness will invariably inflict fatal injuries to the occupant by shock force alone.  The greatest value of the armor plating is in fact simply in weighing down the exoskeleton, which improves controllability as well as the ability to absorb such things as explosions, falls, and the recoil of your own weapons.”

The Tick pointed to his collar.  “You want to know why I wear this, why don’t you tell me why women wear heels!  I just do, isn’t that enough?”

Demo Day! Zed Gets Bombed

Posted in Exoskeletons, one-shot with tags , on June 11, 2013 by David N. Brown

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.