Merchants of War Prologue

Pain speared through my forehead like a needle of plasma straight from the heart of a star and I sat up in bed, crying out.  The shout died aborning, drowned out by the alarm klaxons, and I was sure for just a brief, waking moment that the warbling scream was inside my head, an illusion brought on by the fiery agony.

But the pain faded into the background and the klaxons remained and I slapped the touchpad for the lights, half expecting to see my barracks room in flames and collapsing around me.  Instead, my “I love me” wall stared back at me in a series of certificates declaring Captain Nathaniel Stout was good-to-go, high-speed and ripe for promotion as far as the United States Army was concerned.  Below the certificates and diplomas was something even more important to me: a small, framed photo of a compact, wiry dark-haired man in an olive-drab flight suit—me, unless the image in the mirror had changed while I was sleeping—and a chubbier, taller, slightly older man in work coveralls stained with grease, my best friend, Robert Franklin.  Despite being dressed like a construction worker, he was the CEO of Franklin Enterprises and the designer of the machine we stood beside in the picture, my reason for being here.

Is it a drill?  I leaned against the bed with my left hand, feet swinging off the side, hesitant to get up for what might be just another circle jerk by the brass to prove how ready we were.

Then the walls shook with the concussion of something far away, but not far enough away for me to ignore it.

Sonic boom? I thought hopefully.  

Another crashing explosion, much closer, and my graduation certificate from Army Aviation School pitched forward to the cheap carpeting.

Shit.

I was out of bed before the sound of cracking glass registered in my brain.  I grabbed my flight suit out of the open closet, not understanding why no one had come looking for me.  If this was an attack, why the hell wouldn’t they call me, or knock on my door?  

Unless they’re too busy being dead.

The flight suit went on with rote motions, my hands working from memories too deep to be affected by the haze over everything else from the lingering migraine.

I didn’t used to have migraines, did I?  I couldn’t remember.

Boots strapped, I grabbed my ID tag and fastened it to a Velcro patch on my arm and hesitated for just a moment at the door.  The knob didn’t feel hot, so there wasn’t a fire outside.  The only thing I’d have to worry about was getting shot.

Who would be shooting at me again?  Who were we fighting?

It seemed like something I should know, something I should remember.  It didn’t want to come to me, though, and there wasn’t time to stand around and coax it out.  Whatever I couldn’t remember, I did recall where I should be and what I should be doing.  I yanked open the door and ducked through into a hallway filled with smoke.

I threw my arm across my mouth and nose automatically in conditioned reflex, slitting my eyes and running blindly along a route I’d traveled in pitch darkness during blackout drills.  The alarm was even louder out here and the pain in my head seemed to intensify with each second of exposure to the unceasing wail.  If I hadn’t known better, I would have sworn someone was actually digging a red-hot scalpel into my temple, trying to get to the gooey caramel center.

I would have asked someone to look at my head and tell me if I was bleeding or something, but there was no one around.  The hallways were deserted and that seemed very wrong.  I expected someone to be here, but who?  Flight crew?  Engineers?  Mechanics?  Robert?

Swinging plastic doors with a window at eye level on each, but I couldn’t see anything through them for the smoke.  I crashed through anyway into a broader hallway, offices maybe, workshops.  Posters on the wall, unclear through the haze in the air and in my head.  Schematics, circuit diagrams, skeletal views of weapons and their mounts.  Recruiting posters, some of them defaced with markers, adding improbable endowments to the men and women in them.  

I knew where I was, even if I couldn’t put a name to it.  The hangar was what I wanted and it was straight ahead, through another set of doors, larger ones.  So was the source of the smoke, so were the explosions, coming more often now.  Mortars, I somehow knew, walking to their target a few dozen meters at a time.  

I found the first bodies just this side of the door.  I couldn’t put a name to them, just faceless drones I’d seen running errands around the base, enlisted under someone else’s command who never spoke to me.  A man, his skin the color of aged ebony, a few years younger than me, a Spec-4’s rank on his collar.  His eyes were white and wide and permanently open, his mouth slack, lips stained with blood.  He was lying on his chest, head turned to the side, and I couldn’t tell what had killed him.  It hadn’t been smoke inhalation.

The woman off to the side of him was a civilian, dressed in coveralls, clean but with old stains ground in that would never come out, and new, red ones soaking into them.  She had a gaping wound in her throat, wide enough I could see the white of her vertebrae through it, drained of blood now.  The blood was on the floor, spreading in a puddle a meter across, all the way from her to the dead Specialist.

The doors were still shut, though there was a gaping, blackened, smoking hole through them where the fragments that had killed the two of them had penetrated.  I didn’t really want to see what was on the other side, but something was screaming inside my head, something behind the pain, maybe in the pain, telling me I had a job to do.  I hopped over the blood and put a shoulder into the right-hand door, slipping through the gap before it was all the way open. 

So, this was where everyone had gone.

The bodies were torn and charred, clothing shredded or burned, grotesque caricatures of humanity.  They reminded me of the plastic dummies I’d seen in High School health classes, the skin peeled away to expose the muscles and bones and organs, except there hadn’t been the sticky, sickly-sweet stench of blood and burnt flesh in the health classes.  The smoke was good.  I knew the fires engulfing the other end of the hangar would burn the whole thing down eventually—there seemed to be no one left to fight them—but the smoke was doing its best to hide the bodies from my view, to drown out the sickening smell.  The wind from the open hangar doors, from the rents and jagged holes in the walls, was trying to draw it off, pull its concealing blanket away from the carnage; but each time it tried, it fed more oxygen to the blaze and it flared again with a fresh billow of snarling, black haze.

The fires, the smoke, the wrecked sections of hangar had been direct mortar hits on the mechs.  Their absence was a cratered, flaming gap in the landscape, and if I couldn’t have named even one of the other pilots, I could recite chapter and verse of their technical specs, their fuel capacity, their typical weapons load.  One still stood, wreathed in a cloak of grey and black, only meters from the edge of a fire licking at an ammo locker.  I ran to it, a lost child racing for the arms of his mother amidst the chaos and panic.

Bob lay at the circular, pad-like feet of the bipedal, metal beast, hand stretched out as if asking her for help in his last moments.  Robert Franklin hadn’t died as ugly as the others, but death had claimed him still.  The blood soaking his coveralls didn’t have an obvious source, but bomb fragments from a mortar could be as small as a coil of spring.  An emptiness roiled in my gut at the sight of him, but there was something else, something wrong about his face.  Maybe it was the slack indignity of death, but he looked so much older than he should have, older than the picture in my room, older than I remembered.

I didn’t have the time to stand there and stare at him.  A rolling chain of explosions thundered in from the edge of the airstrip, getting closer, nearly drowning out the screaming whine of the jets.  The attack wasn’t over and if I stayed here, I’d wind up just as dead as Bob.  I edged past his body, afraid to touch him, as if he’d developed some dread, communicable disease and I would drop dead at first contact.  

I had no such fears of the Hellfire.  She waited for me with open arms, and the death she promised wasn’t something to be dreaded, but rather embraced.  I grabbed at the latch for the cockpit entry hatch, jumping up and snagging it one-handed rather than hunting down the portable stairs and hauling them into place.  The clam-shell canopy lowered in silent invitation and I clutched at the handholds, justifying all those pull-ups I did twice a day at the base gym.  Another lunge upward, grabbing the seat, cold plastic, hard and unyielding, and wrestling into it, slipping my arms and legs through the safety restraints and buckling them with a comforting series of clicks.  

My helmet stared at me darkly through a mirrored visor, hanging from the control harness impatiently, showing the reflected image of my face, pale and drawn and not looking at all well. Tired of its discontented glare and scared of my own visage, I pulled it over my head, plugging the oxygen hose into the connection beside my seat and strapping the mask into place.

The power-up procedure was as ingrained as brushing my teeth.  I felt the pressure against the edge of my fingers as I flipped the switches, but it could have been someone else’s hands going through the motions.  I watched the control board light up as if I were a spectator at a NASCAR race, rooting for the system to finish its cycle.  Turbines grumbled low, speeding up into a scream, a savage battle cry, begging to be set free of her restraints and leap into the contest.  

“Yeah, let’s do that.”

There were a series of diagnostic checks demanding to be run, but I bypassed them, earning a scolding from the computer systems.  I ignored it and pushed the turbines into the red, feeding them air and fuel and setting them loose.  The textbook takeoff procedure for the Hellfire Pi-Mech was a slow buildup to a hover, then a nice, steady cruise to operational altitude.  I got in trouble with Bob constantly for goosing her right out of the hangar, but I think even he would have given me his blessing under the circumstances.

Acceleration shoved me back into hard plastic, every millimeter of its surface impressed into my torso through the flight suit, and I wished Bob had listened to me about adding some sort of cushion to it, and the weight penalty be damned.

When did I tell him that?  Was that yesterday?  A year ago?

The hangar disappeared and my doubts with it.  Radar and lidar and thermal sensors chirped in annoying chorus for attention, but I didn’t need their help.  I could see the threats very well, thanks so much, even if I couldn’t quite believe them.  I’d expected helicopters, maybe drones, some armored infantry.  What I got was mechs.  

Nothing as sophisticated as the Hellfire, of course, but still mechs, manned and unmanned, squat, bipedal shapes silhouetted against the gold-red ball of the rising sun.  

Why had I slept in?  What had happened yesterday?  Why couldn’t I remember yesterday?

Three of them still patrolled the sky a hundred meters or so off the ground, a manned Pi-mech and two U-mechs, drones, their jets spilling out heat mirages in their wake, firing at some threat on the ground every few seconds with precision bursts from their cannon.  Another two had already landed, loping forward across the airstrip on ostrich-bent legs, their gait ridiculous and yet ridiculously fast.  

More mysteries—I’d expected them to be Russian Tagans.  Who else would be attacking us?  But these were domestic designs, unmarked, unflagged.  Mercenaries.  Sent by who?

Or is that whom?

I shrugged.  I couldn’t decide, so I launched a missile.  I would have launched more, but I only had four of them and had to be choosy.  The Xyston kicked free on a puff of inert gas before the main rocket motor ignited and it flared away from my left shoulder, taking only two seconds to cover the kilometer between my Hellfire and the enemy Cobra hovering between the two U-mechs.  You could tell the manned version by the control dish mounted above the cockpit, like the old whip antennae on the RTO in infantry units of decades past, making him a high-value target.

He hadn’t seen my launch, hadn’t expected any opposition and he wasn’t ready for it.  His automated CWIS spun the Vulcan on his right shoulder toward the incoming missile, but I was too close and there was no hope.  The Xyston anti-armor missile took him in the portside turbine and ripped his mech apart in mid-air, sending one of the twin turbines sailing kilometers away on a track of black smoke and engulfing what was left in ravaging fire.  He fell out of the air with a sickening inevitability, tumbling and rolling and I hoped for his sake he was already dead, because impact wasn’t the way I wanted to go.

The U-mechs continued to hover, motionless, waiting for a command signal that wasn’t going to come, and I took the opportunity to rake them with cannon fire.  The 40mm rounds tore through their jet turbines and gravity took care of the rest, sending them to join their control mech.  Miniature mushroom clouds marked their crashes, but I wasn’t waiting around to watch their denouement.  I was heading down again, spiraling around behind the twin Cobras already on the ground, the old welcome flip-flop feeling hitting my stomach with the descent.  I’d use to get it when I flew Comanche scout choppers, but this was as close as I got anymore.

Wait.  When had I flown Comanches?  How long ago was that?

They’d seen me.  It was too much to hope they wouldn’t notice.  I’d gotten lucky with the ones in the air, and luck didn’t last.  Nothing ever lasted.  

They were shooting at me.  I saw the missiles leave their launch racks, not state-of-the-art Xystons, but much older Javelins, probably picked up on the black market for cheap.  Easy to spoof, easy to jam.  Why were they even wasting their time?  My Hellfire touched tarmac, her legs bending backward digitigrade as the hips absorbed the landing, but the missiles kept going, spiraling upward, unguided, ignored.  

The cockpit was a video arcade from the movies my father used to watch, lights flashing, warnings beeping for attention, alerting me to radar and lidar scans, missile locks and enemy detected and hell, that my breakfast was ready and I’d left my keys in my car for all I knew.  It was background noise—I knew what was coming and where it was coming from, and I was already giving it back.

One more missile, the flare of its launch a star in my vision, the white clouds of its exhaust curling around my cockpit, obscuring my sightlines.  I didn’t need them.  Radar and lidar and thermal and sonic sensors painted a computer-simulated tactical portrait in the targeting reticle of my helmet, showing me the two Cobras turning toward my Hellfire, white fire flashing from the .50-cal rotary cannons they mounted at the end of their left arms.  

Something wrenched hard against the right side of my Hellfire, armor-piercing 750-grain .50 caliber Browning Machine Gun bullets shattering part of the plastron on my mech’s right chest, not quite penetrating to the vitals beneath but coming too damned close.  Not bad for a round designed 150 years ago, but I preferred a slightly more modern weapon.  My targeting reticle lit up a solid green on the Cobra to my right.  I ignored the one on the left because he was the center of a swiftly-expanding ball of white, yellow and red fire and pieces of him were showering down on the tarmac.  God, I love Xystons, and no one has figured out a way to jam them yet.  I squeezed the trigger on the right-hand control stick of the Hellfire’s steering yoke and the 20mm Vulcan that took up most of her right arm cleared its throat, coughing up ten, massive, tungsten slugs.

Sparks showered from the Cobra’s left arm and shoulder, honeycomb boron armor shattering and splintering from the first two or three slugs before the ones coming in fractions of a second later chewed through the muscle fibers and servomotors and took the shoulder joint off in a cloud of electrical fireflies from severed power cables.  The Cobra stumbled off to the side, its balance thrown off by the sudden loss of an arm laden down with a tri-barrel .50-cal cannon and thousands of rounds of ammo for it.  

I didn’t give him a chance to recover and I didn’t stand there like a dumbass either.  In any gunfight, whether you’re on foot, in a chopper or in a mech, movement is life.  I jogged to my left, circling around, keeping the Hellfire’s upper body twisted toward the crippled enemy, not giving him a chance to line up the twin forties mounted to his right shoulder.  I fired the Vulcan again, another ten-round burst, and turned his right-side turbine into scrap, the cylindrical pod exploding as the vanes came apart at speed.  

That was it for him.  I didn’t finish him off, because there wasn’t a need to and because mech pilots, no matter who they fought for, shared something of a code.  You didn’t fire on a helpless mech and you didn’t kill the pilot if he got out, because someday, that could be you in there.  The damned Russians didn’t always go by the code, but I did because of something about the Golden Rule and karma and shit.

No more targets on the airstrip, but there had to be more.  Five mechs hadn’t taken down the whole base.  I was sure there was infantry coming in somewhere, probably up the front approaches.  A few running steps and a stomp on the throttle and the Hellfire was back in the sky, rising on columns of superheated air.  I rose through the clouds of dark smoke billowing over the hangar, cruising at thirty meters up over the boring, warehouse-basic roof of the complex.  

Out beyond the airstrip and the parking lots, I could see the high desert, bleeding red with the sunrise, and the snow-capped mountains in the distance.  They seemed clean and untouched and I envied them.  Back on the ground, things were a lot dirtier.  Smaller columns of smoke were adding their output to the dark smudge rising over the base and…

What was the name of the place?  Why the hell couldn’t I remember the name?

There they were.  Infantry in armored personnel carriers, some of the vehicles already burning, skidded aside from the main gate under fire from the guard posts.  The turrets at the gate were silent now, contributors to the smoke.  The men and women who’d been stationed out there might have fallen back to cover inside the buildings.  Maybe they got away.  I told myself that, hoping they were taking off across the desert, getting out of this alive.

Heads went up among the troopers streaming through the front gate, brown camouflage doing its best to blend in with the background but not quite making it.  They’d seen me and they were firing their rifles, 6.5mm anti-personnel rounds at two hundred meters.  Even if they hit me, the bullets were spitballs against the Hellfire’s armor.  Still, best not to encourage bad behavior.

I switched the 40mm cannons to anti-personnel rounds and fired a spread into the middle of the troops.  The recoil pushed the Hellfire back in its hover and I had to open the throttle a bit more to compensate, but the results were worth the effort.  Black blossoms of smoke marked detonations, a line of them springing up across the front parking lot, running from the back bumper of a beat-up Toyota to the front windshield of one of the busses they used to ferry people in from the park-and-ride.  Enemy troops littered the space between, tossed to the ground by the blasts, some writhing in agony, some not moving at all.

I brought the Hellfire down in the middle of the access road running from the front entrance out to the airstrip, breaking into a long, loping run, the footpads of the Hellfire cracking the pavement where they struck.  I could do this.  If this was everything they’d brought, I could take enough of them out that they’d have to retreat.  Then I’d call in support and we could secure the place until…

Until what?  What support?  Who the hell ran this place?

I had a sudden urge to just take off, fly toward those mountains until my fuel ran out, then abandon the Hellfire and just walk.  No one would know.  I could go find Cecelia and…

Find her where?  Where was I?

Infantry interrupted the questions, rushing forward around the corner of the building, rifles firing like ineffectual mosquitoes.  The 20mm would have been a waste, so I used the coaxial machine guns, raking them with a few hundred rounds of 6.5mm and sending them scurrying away.  

Damned crunchies.

I didn’t notice the MANPAD until it was too late.  One of those annoying flashes I could almost ignore, and the whining tone of a laser designator being detected and I was looking everywhere for another mech or a chopper or one of the APCs until I saw the missile team right at the corner of the facility where the road curved.  I was clutching the trigger of the machine guns when they fired.  There was only a couple hundred meters separating us and the missile arrived before I could even think of deploying countermeasures and I did the only thing I could think of and jammed my heels down on the pedals and jumped the Hellfire into the air.

I don’t know how high I was when the missile hit, but it was high enough to eject.  I didn’t make the choice myself, Hellfire’s fail-safes did it for me in far less time than a human could have.  I don’t know if the massive concussive blast was from the missile striking the turbines or the ejection rockets carrying the cockpit pod clear of the main body of the mech, but it hurt like a son of a bitch either way.

I saw nothing but light and fire, heard nothing but thunder, felt nothing but pain.  I was falling, and I was burning…and then everything was darkness.

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