by Jon C. Picciuolo
Captain Golonev, EuroRus Armed Forces, nosed his hover-transport toward the rising sun and shoved the throttles forward. “Khorosho! Proceeding at max velocity. Arrival in twenty minutes. Transmit details of violation!”
Golonev’s holodisplay filled with drone reconnaissance data. He scanned the screen and whistled softly—an entire robotic battery of EuroRus Flashlights and their automated command post, obliterated. The work of a rogue machine, he decided. Another artificial intelligence module gone haywire in the desert war game. It had happened before, but never with such disastrous results.
“Mitado? Awake back there?”
There was no answer. Golonev jiggled the controls, triggering a clatter of mess gear.
“What the hell’s going on?” demanded the other half of the umpire team, her voice thick with sleep as she stumbled into the pilot cabin.
“Violation, Lieutenant. Big one. We are closest team.”
Lieutenant Mitado, AmerAsian Military, slumped into her couch and struggled with its inertia straps. “Not another fouled up warp! Why don’t those bastards extend the max temporal offset to three minutes? Save us all a lot of…”
Golonev knuckled the screen. “No, not logistics. Shut up and look.” He shot a sideways glance at her.
Her oriental features contorted with pleasure. “Great Reagan! Eleven of yours bagged by one of ours! So what’s the problem?”
“You damn well know problem! Max kill ratio is two-for-one, da? Ten beam throwers and CP cost thirty million at least. You have nothing out there worth over six. Five-to-one economic victory is too high! It is clear war game violation by your side!” The transport lurched as Golonev angrily adjusted its flight path.
“Okay, you goddamn Cossack, I was just kidding. Simmer down! How soon before we get there?”
“Ten, maybe twelve minutes.”
“Let me see, where is it?” She studied the screen. “Oh, shit. Bir Hacheim zone. That means goddamn protection suits. I don’t suppose we could stay in the ship and run a low level look-see?”
Golonev glared at her.
“Okay, okay,” she added unhappily. “I know the procedures. Cat-One violation means mandatory ground inspection. Area been sanitized?” She peered at the holodisplay’s maze of symbols, seeking an answer to her own question. “Well, the zone’s bio-safeties all test positive, anyway. So the hardware won’t shoot at us. My god, what a desolate place!”
The Russian nodded glumly and stared out through the windscreen. The rock-strewn North African desert stretched from horizon to horizon. A perfect landscape for war, he told himself. No industrial centers, no population, few political boundaries. Just wasteland dotted with rusted wrecks from the Second World War and hotspots of radiation and anthrax-2 spores from the Pan-Afro conflicts. And seven kilometers straight down, nature’s unique gift—a trillion-ton lead ore mass, perfect as a gravitational lens for the time warping system. Plus, somewhere out ahead, the melted scrap of his side’s expensive war machines.
As though Lieutenant Mitado could read his mind, she blurted: “What a damn waste! Another thirty million Euros thrown down this rat hole!”
“And one thousand workers in Minsk beam weapon plant still have jobs, “ he added tonelessly. “No one gets killed. Is best kind of war, da?” And, he added silently, also the very worst. Weapons randomly time-jumped into and out of combat. Armed struggle devoid of tactical skill. No death. No shame for the vanquished. No glory for the victor. Only profit and loss in multinational ledgers. But it was—according to their political masters—the most humane of wars, fought bloodlessly by robots.
Mitado shrugged. “Hell, Captain! Those factories could be making something useful and… Hold on! Sensors picking up multiple heat sources. There! Smoke on the horizon—one o’clock!”
The Russian studied the greasy brown wisps and toggled down the landing gear. He didn’t share the other umpires’ blind trust in bio-safeties. Much safer to come in low and slow. “Can you spot violator?” he asked, squinting against the glare.
She pulled down the binoc-scanner and peered for a few seconds at a fixed point on the horizon. “Something’s out there in the shadow of an escarpment. Hell, it doesn’t look like one of my side’s units. Can you get higher?”
“Negative. We approach on ground. Prepare for landing.”
Minutes later, as the turbine whine subsided to a low hum, both officers struggled into bulky white protection suits. Seams and seals passed the overpressure test. The war game umpires trudged through the airlock and stood in the desert beside their sealed cargo hold. The big hatch unlatched and pivoted downward, forming a steep ramp along which the tracked reconnaissance vehicle automatically descended.
As they buckled into the recce crawler’s crew compartment, Golonev mechanically recited the checklist. “Survival rations?”
Mitado glanced downward. “Four packs, under seats. Check.”
“Air filters… Check. Cooling systems… Check.”
“Fuel, power, sensors, navigation, holocameras. All check.”
“Wait… Testing. “Mitado slewed the roof-mounted projector toward the grounded transport and fiddled with a small control panel. The hover vessel’s cargo ramp began to hinge upward. When it was halfway raised, the AmerAsian officer jabbed at a button. Immediately, the ramp froze in mid-air.
Golonev nodded: all electronic systems in the hover-transport had been neutralized, a sure sign that the cripple field was functioning. If the field worked against their own transport, it would work against any rogue war machine that might be lurking out there—every piece of equipment on the battlefield incorporated identical failsafe circuitry.
He breathed a small sigh of relief. “Khorosho. Cancel field, restore all functions.” The transport’s ramp continued its upward arc until it smoothly faired into the hull. “Okay, Lieutenant. Southeast. Best speed until we are at closest destroyed vehicle. Then stop for assessment.”
The crawler bucked and lurched across trackless desert toward the first of several low hillocks that lay across the route. Here and there patches of fused sand gleamed in the morning sun—glistening monuments to fusion weapons detonated in anger almost eighty years ago. The external dosimeter needle trembled far into the red, as did the readout from the bio-poison sensors.
Mitado reminded him of the violation. “Eleven kills. What do you suppose happened, Captain?”
“A.I. failure, probably. Another shoddy product of your side’s industry.”
“But if that failed, our disabling field might not…”
“Do not worry,” Golonev said quickly. “Cripple circuits are independent of A.I. unit. We will be safe.”
Lieutenant Mitado fell silent as she steered the recce crawler up a steep slope, then she said, “There was a hell of a freak thunderstorm out here last night, about the time of the jump. The met boys say a storm like that comes once every ten years or so. Could it have scrambled programming in an A.I. unit? Removed some inhibition logic?”
“Nyet! Shielding is too efficient. But lightning plays hell with warp generators and…” The crawler crested the hillock and started down into the shallow valley. “Look! There is first beam thrower. Drive close for inspection.”
The Flashlight lay on its side, drive pods tilted obscenely upward, collimation snout buried in the sand. Charred scraps of plasti-hull littered the rocky landscape. The recce crawler circled the smoking wreckage.
Golonev snapped one final holoframe. “Drive to next one. Three hundred meters southeast.
She hesitated. “Captain…”
“I know!” he spat out. “Damage not from plasma beam. Drive on!”
The second Flashlight had been reduced to a charred pile of splintered plastic and metal junk. And again there was none of the distinctive softening and puddling caused by directed energy weapons. He could see fine beds of sweat forming on Mitado’s forehead.
“Lightning!” she exclaimed. “It must have been the lightning!”
Golonev slammed his fist against the instrument console. “Nonsense! Maybe one, da. Maybe two. But not eleven! Look over there… another machine! Same damage. Only one weapon possible.”
“Explosive projectiles did this!” None of the other cadets had troubled to learn the old ways of armored combat. But for him—the grandson of a Red Army officer who had fought in Afghanistan—it was a fitting subject.
She laughed nervously. “Explosive projectiles? That’s ancient technology!”
“Also very clever.”
“Clever? I don’t understand…”
Golonev savagely triggered the holocamera, recording the evidence. “Is filthy AmerAsian trick! Explosive shells are not on list of valid weapons—there is no treaty-approved defense for them.”
Mitado stammered. “No! Wait! There must be some other explanation. Old landmines, maybe?”
“Use eyes! Look at damage! Would landmines do that? Besides, minefields cleared decades ago. You know truth, don’t you!” He glared at her sweating profile, thinking: the woman has guilt written all over her face. His duty now was simple and clear—gather evidence and report. His masters at Desert War Headquarters would seek revenge. It would be swift and just—an entire AmerAsian port, maybe even the enemy’s lunar base, reduced to rubble. Such was the price for war game cheating. Nevertheless, not so long ago, when combat really meant something, treachery would have been paid for in lives. That was when war was a noble thing, when the glorious USSR existed…
Mitado’s whining protestation cut into his thoughts. “Captain, I assure you…”
“Be silent and drive!”
They crested the next hillock. Seven more shattered Flashlights and the mobile command post lay scattered like smashed toys. The recce crawler slowly circled each; Golonev took meticulous holographic records. He had no doubt now—explosive projectiles had been used. Perhaps AmerAsian technicians had raided one of their own museums for the antique weapon, made it mobile and converted it to automatic operation. It would not have been difficult. Perhaps, too, their sloppy improvisation had led to the A.I. failure.
“Where to now, Captain?”
“We’ve recorded all your side’s casualties. Where to now?”
“Surely you joke. Lieutenant Mitado!”
“No, sir. I just want to know…”
“East! To escarpment. To what you saw from transport. Or have you forgotten we are here to collect evidence of AmerAsian treachery?” His words were meant to cut; the hurt in her eyes told him he had been right on target.
It was early afternoon when the recce crawler wallowed up the final slope. A few meters from the top, Golonev ordered, “Dead slow! Use periscope. Do not expose us.”
Immediately, Mitado reduced speed to barely perceptible forward motion. She pressed her face into the sighting device of the disabling field. A few seconds later both umpires were thrown forward against the inertia straps as she slammed on the brakes. “Visual!” she reported. “Two hundred meters ahead. Slightly below our present position. But it doesn’t look like…”
She made a few control adjustments and hit the button. “Field radiating full power.”
Once again she stabbed at the button and studied the panel readout. “Field… On. All parameters normal.”
“Final approach will be on foot,” the Russian ordered. “Machine is one of yours, so you will conduct recce. When you are satisfied that all is in order, report back and I will bring up crawler. Is that clear?”
“Yes, perfectly. But…”
“Is no danger, Lieutenant,” Golonev said, forcing courtesy into his voice. After all, he told himself, they were still a team on a mission. “Disabling field is fail safe. But we must follow standard procedure. And procedure says…”
“Shit, I know—procedure says that final approach must be on foot. Well, wish me luck.”
He muttered a mild pleasantry in Russian as she unsealed her hatch and swung out of the cabin. The crawler’s biomonitor, data-linked with the woman’s suit, signaled her nervousness by a twinkling handful of yellow stress lights. He slid across to her now-empty seat and peered through the periscope. It took a second for the optics to automatically compensate to his eyes, another second or two to snap to wide-angle lens.
Her bobbing white helmet and upper body filled the right side of the panorama. The rogue war machine was visible over her left shoulder, its dark silhouette curiously foreshortened and vaguely familiar in the optics. Golonev increased magnification and adjusted the contrast.
He opened the intersuit channel with a crackle of static. “Lieutenant Mitado, can you hear me?”
“Loud and clear.”
“What is your distance to machine?”
“Approximately one hundred meters.”
“Does anything look unusual?”
“Well, sir. I tried to tell you earlier, I don’t recognize the model and…”
“No. Look closer. There are three—no, four—objects on ground in front of machine. Close together. Can you see them?”
“Yes, just barely. I’m almost there and… My god!”
The sun glinted cruelly from the white-suited figure’s visor. She had pivoted around and was running back toward him with an awkward gait. Her breath was harsh and gasping on the circuit. Spurts of sand erupted around her ankles, accompanied by an odd barking sound. She went down.
“Lieutenant Mitado, report!” he yelled.
There was an unintelligible gurgle and background noise as though someone had violently dragged a stick along a picket fence. Then there was silence. The biomonitor panel flashed pure red—the monochromatic announcement of death.
Heat waves shimmered in the periscope’s field of vision. The crumpled white figure lay absolutely still. There was no movement from the rogue machine. Golonev turned audio gain full up. Static hissed crazily, but no human sound intruded into the noise. His hand was poised above the long-range comms panel. It took iron will to still the impulse drilled into him by fifteen years of service: when in doubt, report. But the fatal decision had been his. He had lost a junior officer. If the situation was salvageable, it was now his duty to salvage it. The rogue machine’s cripple circuits had failed, a technical fault of stunning proportions. Somehow he had to find out why and put the machine out of commission. Afterward, he would report.
Golonev nudged the helmet’s ventilation blower to max to dry sweat that stung his eyes. He scanned the surrounding landscape, searching for a way to get closer unobserved. If he could make it without being killed, there were the manual override switches, fitted to every machine that took part in the war games.
His first periscope pass missed the ravine. But, as he panned back from right to left, its irregular shadow caught his eye. Narrow, three meters deep, it cut through the hillock and snaked toward the escarpment, to within perhaps a dozen meters of the killer machine. If he kept low it might just be possible.
Two ration packs and the suit’s life support module made an awkward load, but he strapped them all to his body and wriggled out of the cabin. A minute later he was stepping into the ravine’s steep “V”. The stony rubble turned the Russian’s footsteps into an awkward series of stumbles.
Golonev was breathing hard when at last he arrived at the escarpment. He sat down to catch his breath before tackling the slope. Tepid gulps of water injected into the helmet mouthpiece did little to refresh. He forced himself to remain still. He would need speed and strength at the top; there would be little time to rest.
Only when his breathing had slowed did he begin the climb. Meter by hard meter, Golonev pulled himself upward. After every handhold, he inspected the scuffed and dirty fabric of the suit. Tough material, but not indestructible. One tear meant a fatal dose of anthrax-2; the spores lay scattered on the desert.
Finally he hugged the loose, pebbly slope and heaved himself up until his eyes were just above the lip of the ravine. From the moment the Russian suspected explosive projectiles, he had expected to see something like this. But it wasn’t the sight of the old armored machine that chilled his blood. Twenty meters to the left was the shiny white of Mitado’s crumpled form—that he was prepared for. But directly in front of the Nazi tank were four human corpses, their exposed flesh peeling blackly under the sun. None was clad in protective gear.
He swallowed hard to quell a wave of revulsion, then turned his attention to the tank. It was the baked-earth color of the desert, dust-covered and filthy; ugly lumps of caked mud clotted the huge iron wheels that carried its track. Protruding from the squat turret a short, evil-looking barrel pointed into the desert.
Half-forgotten academy lore spilled from his memory: Panzerkampfwagen IV. Panzer IV. Twenty-plus tons, 75-millimeter gun. Seven-kilogram rounds that could pierce a hundred millimeters of steel at 1500 meters. The deadliest tank to fight in the North African desert. Rommel’s best weapon, crewed by men who had fought a real war…
He stared at the corpses. Could it actually have happened? Given surprise, such a machine could have knocked out some of the Flashlights, but surely not all of them. Unless… the zone bio-safeties! Of course! His side’s Flashlights would not return fire at a crewed target. But how could unprotected men in an antique war machine have gotten so far into this contaminant-sown wasteland? As though they had accidently stumbled into the middle of it. Stumbled through a door in time.
What was it Mitado had said before she died? Once every ten years. A lightning storm once every ten years. If the warp generators were running. If the timing were perfect. If… my god—could it be possible?
There had been no A.I. failure. The killer was a German tank snatched forward in time, but not mere minutes. More than eighty years! Five men, the crew of a Panzer IV, had been caught in a terrible snare.
Five men. Four corpses.
He forced himself to study the tableaux of death. They had collapsed in a rough circle around a long-dead campfire. That Panzer commander—what would he have done after battling strange war machines and winning? Given his men rest. But not all of them, surely. One, at least, would remain in the tank—monitoring the tactical radio, awaiting orders from a company commander long since turned to dust. One man, protected by a shell of steel, who could have survived a little longer than the others. One man, sickening to the point of death, watching his comrades die horribly, his mind filled with the horror of poison gas. One man who could machinegun an enemy approaching on foot. The spurts of sand around Mitado’s feet. The picket fence staccato. It all made sense now. There was a man alive in the tank!
Machinegun. Panzer IV had two: hull and turret. Hull’s couldn’t hit him unless the tank turned. The engine was silent. And the turret pointed out into the desert.
Golonev elbowed himself onto the level ground and stood. He lowered the ration packs to the ground, picked up a jagged chunk of rock and walked toward the Panzer. A dozen strides brought him to where he could stroke the dimpled smoothness of a welded seam. The Russian balanced the rock on the platform above the track. Using the iron wheels as toeholds, he clambered onto the deck. He retrieved his rock and examined the turret top. The hatch was tilted open a bit, a window of death. Survival inside would have been a bit longer than for anyone totally exposed; but still the inevitable would come—anthrax-induced insanity followed by slow, wasting death.
Golonev raised the rock and brought it down sharply on the turret. The clang echoed hollowly through the hull. There was nothing in reply, not even a groan. He grasped the edge of the hatch cover and hinged it open with a protesting squeak. The Panzer’s interior was shrouded in shadow.
The Russian could pick out the turret positions of the commander, loader, and gun layer. It was difficult to squeeze through the narrow opening. When his helmet top had finally passed below the level of the turret top he paused, heart thudding, waiting for his eyes to adapt to dimness. The interior was incredibly cramped—much more so than the recce crawler which had roughly similar external dimensions. Rounds of ammunition and boxed supplies were piled everywhere. The driver’s seat, low in the hull to the left, was empty—just as he had expected. To the right, a motionless khaki-clad body was slumped forward over the hull machine gun; a solidifying pool of vomit soiled the deck beneath its head. Golonev muttered quick thanks that the protection suit was impervious to odors.
Fascinated, a student once again, he studied the archaic details. Magnetic compass and charts for land navigation. Ration tins labeled in German. Antique pistol with spare clips of ammunition. He stood on the tips of his toes to examine the beautifully-machined breech of the main gun and the high explosive rounds that were clipped to the inner skin of the turret.
The slash to his thigh was only a dull blow at first, before nerve endings could react to the pain. And just as the pain began, the stink of the Panzer assailed his nostrils. Rancid oil, vomit, excretory odors. He stared downward with horror at the gash in his suit, knowing that he was looking at a death sentence. He could almost feel the anthrax-2 spores filling his lungs and radioactive filth entering his bloodstream.
The final exertion had carried the Panzer crewman beyond the point of death. The German lay face up, eyes staring blankly, bloody-edged bayonet clutched in a white-knuckled grip.
“Why?” demanded Golonev, not expecting a reply. The only living man in the Panzer whispered again, “Why?”
A base hospital might be able to save him if he could get there in under a quarter-hour. Even then, the Russian realized, there would be immediate amputation and sequential organ failure. So what was the point? He unsealed his helmet and twisted it from his suit. Off came the gloves, too, and the upper body protection. It was a relief to be free of it all—to prepare to meet death like a man.
How much longer? He looked down at the dead Nazi and asked, “How long did you have, Fritz?”
The answering silence was comforting. It wasn’t so bad, he decided, to share a Panzer with a man who had fought well and died. There was a ring of honor to it. A comforting finality.
But it wouldn’t do to waste time. Much could be learned. No one had ever said that waiting for death couldn’t be interesting.
The Russian started with the big gun. After a few sweaty tries, he managed to load a shell and trigger the firing circuit with an ear-numbing detonation. The acrid stench of powder mercifully overwhelmed the other odors. Then another blast, more felt than heard. Not so hard once he knew how. The machinegun was next. Easier, this time. The belt-fed ammo rattled though the breech mechanism at a light touch on the trigger.
He turned his attention to the driver’s position. The thick-padded seat fit him comfortably. Levers and pedals moved with oiled ease. He studied the controls and instruments. Compass. Engine gauges. Periscope that gave a bright, surprisingly complete view of the way ahead. Banks of switches and buttons, one labeled ANLASSEN. Starter? He touched it experimentally. Far behind him, metallic chattering vibrated. He touched the switch again. The chattering was followed by harsh coughing. And again. The cough became a dull roar. All the gauge needles sprang to wavering life.
The Panzer came alive. It took a few minutes to learn the feel of the pedals and control levers. Not as sophisticated as the recce crawler, he decided, but the general principle was the same. In short order he could nudge the tank forward and backward. And with one track going forward, the other back, the machine slewed from side to side with a stiff wallowing motion.
“Where to, Fritz?”
The corpse’s hand flopped in the direction of the open desert, a signal to a man whose mind was disintegrating under the onslaught of anthrax-2. Golonev chuckled and eased the tank past the rotting Germans. As he rumbled past dead Lieutenant Mitado, he threw her a casual salute.
Once over the crest of the hillock, he stopped the Panzer and clambered back to the turret. He sat in the gun layer’s position and traversed the 75-millimeter weapon from side to side. It was easy to center the recce crawler in the sights.
Hell, why not? he thought through the hissing in his skull. As he struggled into the loader’s seat, the first choke of nausea wracked his throat. But it was quickly forgotten as he rammed home a round and slammed shut the breech.
When his ears stopped ringing, he moved back to the commander’s position and stood to peer through the hatch. The recce crawler was torn in two, its front end reduced to twisted scrap.
“Not bad!” Golonev congratulated himself in his native tongue.
He clutched the hatch combing until the wave of dizziness passed. The stench of seared plastihull hung heavily in the desert air. He caressed warm steel and stared out into the desert toward the setting sun.
A soft voice, whispering cunning logic, murmured into his ear: they all deserve to die. The ones who stole glory from war. Three shells lobbed into Desert War Headquarters would do the job nicely. The Tripoli bio-safeties would be useless against the Panzer. If he could just live long enough, it might be possible.
“Fritz! I think we could get your machine into the cargo bay of my transport. What do you say?”
Through the armor plating of the tank, oddly transparent now, his fellow crewman winked in sly agreement.