by Hal Wilson
U.S. Army TRADOC Science Fiction Writing Contest
Max Ramsey was getting old, and he knew it.
The sun's golden glare was upon him. Standing to attention in commercially serried ranks, slender pines surrounded him as they awaited harvesting. Yet there was scant shadow on the forest floor. The summer heat burned relentlessly through the meagre boughs above, so the rich brown of the trunks somehow blurred into the sandy khaki soil underfoot. Down here, verdant green ferns singed amber in doomed battles against the sunlight. Every movement and every whisper of the wind raised lazy clouds of gauzy dust from the parched Baltic earth.
Ramsey paused to take a breath, leaning against a ubiquitous pine and mopping his brow. His Digital ear and eye ached from the heat, summoning unpleasant memories of losing the originals in Helmand. His debonair days were long-gone: Dashing youth had lost to children, mortgages and divorce from a wife that said he loved chasing news too much. She was right, admittedly. But the job still took him back, still made him feel young and invincible.
It made him forget his shrapnel-scarred jaw, his beer paunch and crushing disappointment in himself. Listening to the crack-boom of artillery echoing through the woodland, he felt the years fall away, like weights lifted from his shoulders. He was lucky, he knew. Journalism – his first love – was dying. And yet here he was, paying alimony and tuition by witnessing Russia's latest war. How many others could say the same?
Drawing strength, he continued along the dusty forest path to the sounds of the echoing cannonade.
Rounding a low hill, he spied two armoured vehicles. Cast in ochre-beige hues, they hugged the earth like lounging predators. Toggling its zoom function, Ramsey’s Digital eye granted him a closer look. Strange... Their exhausts were mute, he noticed. Soldiers milled aimlessly around them. But their tell-tale flecktarn battledress revealed them as Germans. Good, he breathed.
Ramsey saw no perimeter security, but he approached with arms raised. He held his E-Paper in one hand, its flexible screen coiled like a Roman scroll. He reached down to the Press lanyard around his neck, revealing the embroidered Union Jack velcro-ed to his body armour.
"Stopp! Stehen bleiben!" called out a sentry, rising from the dying ferns like some Teutonic apparition.
"Press! British!" Ramsey answered. Another sentry appeared, advancing with rifle ready.
The soldier snatched the pass while Ramsey's Digital ear translated the German's chatter, transforming sing-song Bavarian into mechanical English:
"This idiot is for real," the German said. "How did you get here, British?"
Ramsey ignored the soldier's jibe, slowly un-scrolling the E-Paper and using his pen to tap out a message. An app instantly translated into stilted German:
My fixer ran off. I need help; I must speak with your commanding officer.
Swayed by his accreditation, the dubious sentries took Ramsey into their position. More Germans were ensconced all around, each sharing dejected, angry looks. Some lounged carelessly, others argued in hushed tones. Ramsey used his Digital eye to Blink a photo of the scene, saving it to the eye’s hard-drive. Why aren't they supporting the American counterattack? They weren’t sent out with black-painted broomsticks again, surely? Ramsey tried to access his remote feeds, flicking his eye to bring up menus overlaid on his field of vision.
// CONNECTION FAILED. PLEASE CONTACT YOUR SERVICE PROVIDER. //
He cursed. Russian jamming had been playing with his connection all day. But it was sporadic. It was as if they were flailing randomly, unsure of which channels to shut down forever. He rechecked his anti-virals for the hundredth time: the last thing he wanted was some FSB hacker using him as an aiming point. Ramsey's escorts took him to the armoured vehicles, where an officer half-heartedly berated his juniors. The officer swiped a hand brusquely –scattering his audience like scolded schoolchildren. Ramsey noted the officer's name tab as he faced them - HOLGER.
"Who is this?" Holger demanded in German.
Holger was barrel-chested but deflated. His shoulders were slumped, his face ashen and wan. His chest rig carried a Hauptmann's three pips, but he seemed weighted more by defeat than responsibility. Ramsey 's E-Paper was already translating for him:
I am a British reporter. My guide abandoned me. Why are your men not engaged?
Holger's jaw stiffened as he read the note. The sentries went scurrying after another curt flick of the wrist.
"I speak a little English," Holger said, beckoning for Ramsey to follow. They walked back towards the lonely forest track that Ramsey had just taken.
"You should not be here," Holger went on, "this is a dangerous place."
"Never mind me," Ramsey replied. "Are you waiting in reserve? Shouldn’t you be supporting the American brigade?"
Holger stopped, dust billowing around his boots. Ramsey stifled a surprised look - his Digitals had just re-established contact. Holger’s mouth twisted silently. Was he struggling to find the right words, or the right excuse? Ramsey focused on the feed as Holger hesitated.
// Welcome back @MaxRamsey90 //
// You have:
… 90 Notifications
… 78 Unread Emails
… 13 Missed Calls… //
Ramsey went direct to his notifications. He had to know what his counterparts in the local area had learned. He scarcely went through the first five before he stopped cold. An old friend from his Afghan days, Donald Lynn, had dropped a bombshell:
// @therealDonaldXLynn: WITNESSING GER. 101 PZ.GREN.BAT TROOPS SURRENDERING TO RUSSIAN FORCES. CAN ANY1 IN THE AO CONFIRM IF WIDESPREAD? APPEARS PRE-ARRANGED. //
"We will not be fighting," Holger finally stated. The German studiously avoided Ramsey's gaze.
"Your unit will not be fighting?" Ramsey shot back, his attention shifting away from the feed.
An awkward silence fell between the two men.
"The Germans will not be fighting," Holger said, "It is a political thing. You must leave now, this is a dangerous place."
Ramsey looked into Holger's eyes this time, finding the kindled embers of shame, dismay, fury. His EPaper was up instantly, jotting urgently:
// @therealDonaldXLynn Confirmed, pal. “The Germans will not be fighting” – Ger. Officer I just spoke to. No Russians here yet, just idle troops. //
He tagged up his Blinked photo of the German unit and shot his warning out into the aether. Suddenly, he became aware of barked warnings from hidden lookouts.
"What was that?" Ramsey asked.
"One of your tanks approaches," Holger explained, "You will leave with it."
An armoured vehicle roared into view, trailing a thick cape of dust. The mantle of powdered soil swallowed them, forcing them to cover their eyes and leaving Ramsey's tired old lungs spluttering. His ears were filled with a diesel's guttural growl, shelving into a high, animal whine as the vehicle idled to a stop. Ramsey looked again as the dust cleared.
A light tank squatted before him, rocking gently on narrow tracks. Its flank carried the golden sword-crest of the British Army of the Baltics, a stark contrast against its drab olive skin. Enwrapped by slat armour, it seemed all out of proportion: The turret looked unusually small, tipped as it was by a long, narrow cannon and skirted by six boxy, bolt-on canisters, themselves slanted at rakish 45-degree angles. The cannon shifted furtively, as if catching their scent.
I know that design, Ramsey realised. I've seen it before.
A cupola clanged open, and a figure emerged from the strangely familiar machine.
"You in charge here?" the figure asked in southern England's clipped accent. "Will you fight?"
"We have orders," Holger answered with exaggerated formality, "My battalion must obey. This man is a British journalist. Will you take him with you? I cannot offer transport to your people."
Ramsey looked closer at the tank commander, realising it was a she. She had a mop of auburn hair tied back in a severe bun; her face was framed by the halo of a radio headset. Her eyes shone with bright disdain as she glowered down at them. A modern Boudicca astride her chariot, Ramsey mused. He Blinked her for good measure.
"Get in," said Boudicca crisply, "You might just fit."
Using the tiny rear hatch, Ramsey climbed into another world.
Fierce heat and light gave way to dim, air-conditioned cool. The forest's breathless scent yielded to the stink of oil, sweat and fuel. Narrow seats hung from roof-mounted pistons, where the tank commander and another crewman perched uncomfortably.
"Get in already, for fuck's sakes," Boudicca hissed, clipping on her bowl-shaped helmet. With the cupolas buttoned up, the last streak of sunlight died as Ramsey closed the hatch. The second crewman offered a spare headset as the driver revved the engines. The cramped interior thundered with oppressive noise.
The crewman plugged Ramsey's headset into the tank's hard-wired internal channel.
"...still reckon we ought to slot those kraut bastards. What do you say? A bit of RARDEN to spoil their day?"
"Enough, Silver," said Boudicca. "Get us back to the Brigadier's CP. Don't spare the horses."
"Roger that." As if skating on ice, the tank span on the spot before jolting the way it came. Ramsey fumbled for a handhold in the dark, unfamiliar space.
"Alright civvy," Boudicca snapped as she turned from her periscope. "You're in my wagon now. Don't mess with my crew and I won't throw you out."
"Who are you?" Ramsey asked, crouching like a hunchback to avoid striking his head.
"I’m Lieutenant Tanith, Royal Berkshire Hussars. This here is Corporal Warwick. Trooper Silver up front is our driver."
Ramsey acclimatised slowly to the gloom. He made out an ammunition rack slotted between Tanith and Warwick. Above it was the reassuring bulk of the cannon's rear mechanisms. Just adjacent to Warwick was a miniaturised computer - the only thing that looked relatively new to Ramsey's eyes. Its screen was conformal to the turret's curve and glowed at low-light settings. Everything shook from the cacophonous engine, or bucked with the tank's passage over rough terrain.
"Lieutenant," Ramsey went on, "Why are you here? Isn't the British sector further north?"
"It is," she shot back. "But the yanks got smashed and the krauts just surrendered. We were on a recce to find any Germans still resisting."
"It’s time for a second Dunkirk, buddy," joked Silver from his unseen driver's position.
"Shouldn't you be calling this in?"
"The Russians compromised our Bowman radios," Tanith explained, "so we're back to Wellington's way of doing things. Glorified bloody courier service."
A hush set in, as if each mind were turning over the implications of the German surrender. Despite Silver's joking, they all knew that the Russian noose was tight. Ramsey couldn't bear the pregnant silence; he let tension drive a question of out him.
"Listen, Lieutenant, didn't they use this tank in Afghanistan?"
"Yeah, Scimitars went to Afghan," Tanith said absent-mindedly, preoccupied with her viewfinder.
Ramsey's chest was gripped by sharp panic. He did know the design from before. Scimitars. He'd seen them on patrol in the weeks before losing his eye and ear to a Taliban mortar. They were already old then. They were ancient now.
"Jesus. They've been using this tank for, what? Sixty years?" Ramsey quailed.
"I know," Tanith said in deadpan, "try maintaining the bloody things."
Her frosty tone convinced Ramsey to try again with his feeds. He sighed with relief that his connection was still active, and that his old friend Lynn had written back to him:
// @MaxRamsey90 Good 2 hear from u m8. Germans def out the fight now. Be advised RUS def at or en route 2 #Tabimusti #Kurgi & #Valmere, stay safe. //
“You guys,” Ramsey started, “Do the places Tabimusti, Kurgi or Valmere mean anything to you?”
“Kurgi’s a town about ten minutes back the way we came,” Warwick replied.
“I got confirmation that Russians are on their way there, if not there already.”
“How do you know?” Tanith demanded, turning to face Ramsey.
“I’m online right now,” Ramsey pointed to his Digitals. “A friend of mine just shared a heads up.”
“You mean you’re linked up with others through that eye? You’re all talking to each other?”
“Connection’s bad, but sure,” Ramsey nodded.
“Thanks for sharing,” Tanith shot back, “You hear this boys? A ready-made fix for the Bowman balls-up. We need to get our passenger to the Brigadier no matter what. Corporal, re-task the Mayfly to check-”
"Driver! Stop, stop, stop!"
It was like the Scimitar struck concrete. With a wet thunk, Ramsey hurtled into the ammunition rack.
"Infrared contacts on Mayfly," Warwick reported, pointing to his screen. "See those trees at the crossroad? That's a roadblock, sure as sure. And look over there, under that garage roof? Could be a tank... The bastards must just have moved in, else they'd have eyes on the approach road."
"We don't have time for this," Tanith said curtly. "No way we're going around them, or back the way we came if the Russians are at Kurgi." Neither of them spared a look at Ramsey, who spat a skittering tooth as he groaned to his feet.
"Silver, you see that dead ground up ahead? With those birch trees in a line? Advance to there, nice and slow." The Scimitar grumbled into life again.
"What's the plan?" Warwick asked sidelong. Nervous sweat broke cover and fled down his cheek.
"Still got those red smokes, Corporal?" Tanith was peering deeper into the periscope, as if looking for inspiration.
"The ones off the Razzman? Right here." Warwick nudged a footlocker.
"Chuck them over. See how the land keeps dipping, and the trees get thicker before the crossroads? I'll use that concealment to move in. The Mayfly’ll never get an angle to see under that roof – and we are not running this gauntlet until we know what we're up against. I'll get in and pop the smokes if there's a tank. If you see smoke, hit the building where you saw the tank hiding. And the roadblock. Use all our Mayfly canisters. Don't hold back. Got it?"
"That's a long run, Lieutenant..."
"The smokes and the Mayflies will cover me. I'll hustle back here and we'll give it full chat straight through the roadblock. Got that Silver? Don't fuck up the gearbox this time."
"Remember: the Brigadier needs our report, not to mention this guy and his augs-" she jabbed a thumb at Ramsey, “to get a handle on this disaster. That’s what matters here.”
Tanith levered herself out of the Scimitar, hauling the cupola shut after her.
"What are these Mayflies you're on about?" mumbled Ramsey, fingering the bloody gap left by his absent tooth.
"They're the drones we hump around. Cheap way of getting a troop of four wagons to be everywhere at once."
"And they attack things too?"
"Yeah: explosive nosecones. It's the dog's bollocks, mate. They'll fuck up the little green men over yonder, but cross your fingers on the tank. If it's an Armata we'd need a Chally to dent it."
Ramsey faintly remembered ‘Armata’ was some kind of Russian tank – but he had no clue about ‘Chally’. Still, he decided against more questions. Instead, he clambered up to Tanith's perch.
"You know what the worst part about this is?" Warwick asked suddenly. Ramsey realised the question was for him.
"What, besides that we're losing?"
"No," Warwick chuckled at the gallows humour. "Last we heard a German platoon was guarding this junction. Bloody krauts, man." Ramsey grimaced but found escape in Tanith’s viewfinder.
The Scimitar's periscopes were old-fashioned, lacking a port for him to plug his Digital eye into. So he placed his cheekbones against the viewfinder's grey plastic face-cups, as if at an optician’s appointment. It was like squinting through a letterbox, but the sudden colours were a shock after the Scimitar's gloom. The rich green turf bowed flat under a stiff wind. The blue sky above tinged granite by towering smoke plumes, or else starkly scarred by bone-white contrails. The bitter coral flames of a fierce forest fire devoured the eastern horizon.
Compulsively, he Blinked a photo. He tabbed it up to his still-live connection, and rushed a quick message.
// @MaxRamsey90: Looks like the end of the world from here. RUS units occupy town abandoned by Germans: Hell to pay at next @NATO meet. //
Ramsey looked again through the periscope. The Scimitar was hidden behind a gentle knoll, topped by a low stand of birch trees. The forest had yielded to undulating farmland while the dirt track had become a paved road, sitting just on their right. The road ahead curved through clumps of trees to reach a lonely hamlet, a simple handful of buildings clustered around a T-junction. Ramsey spotted no Russians, but he saw the road on the far side of the hamlet was lined with thick, reassuring conifers. Thick enough to perhaps hide them as they ran through the other side. The ground to their left was little better than swampland: No wonder that Tanith decided they had to push through.
“And now,” Warwick sighed, rolling his stiff neck, “we wait.”
Ramsey gasped. Scarlet bloomed in thick, viscous billows over the hamlet, like lifeblood in water.
"Silver!" Warwick bellowed, "She did it!" He was already hunched over his console, his back concealing his work.
"Standby for five rounds. First Mayfly going up in three, two..."
The aluminium hull exploded with intolerable noise, quaking the marrow, shaking eyes in their sockets. Ramsey screamed involuntarily from the howling that tore through the headset, shocked into wordless terror. Were we hit?
Silence struck, seeming as unnatural as that plaintive, harrowing howl. The Scimitar shuddered on its tracks, as if sharing Ramsey's fright.
"Clean launch," Warwick said with mechanical calm, "standby for second round in three..."
Ramsey gritted his teeth.
Howl-shudder. Howl-shudder. Howl-shudder. Howl-shudder.
"Rounds complete," Warwick reported, "Canisters empty." Driven by morbid curiosity, Ramsey lunged at Tanith's periscope. He had to see what caused such deafening noise.
The Scimitar was wreathed in funereal smoke. The once-lush grass around it was crisped into carbonised black. But above, Ramsey could make out the vaunted Mayflies. The last was just now ejecting strange, rectangular components - Disposable rockets? - and climbing swiftly. Its profile stood out in sharp relief against the sky: A javelin nosecone with odd delta wings, each flank carrying a small propeller engine. They moved surprisingly swiftly: The zoom on Ramsey's Digital eye struggled to keep up. He barely tracked them as it was, watching as they swirled and danced in random patterns.
"Mayflies engaging," said Warwick. Ramsey barely registered him, enthralled by the drones.
Like the Stukas from Ramsey's half-forgotten history classes, they rolled belly-up and dived in perfect unity. They raced one another with the sinister, suicidal grace of lightning bolts, slick blurs of motion rushing downwards, downwards, downwards...
The Mayflies reached out to touch the earth and, abruptly, a home burst into a blizzard of brick dust and matchsticks. Ramsey panned his view. Another house evaporated. Searing shockwaves played ghoulish ripples among the vaporised debris. Some sort of vehicle - a jeep? - emerged from the blizzard, flipping end-over-end in an improbable airborne ballet. He panned again. There! A figure ran from the devastation, staggering desperately as each shockwave overtook it.
"That's Tanith!" Ramsey yelled, surprised anything was surviving the maelstrom. Head down and legs pumping, she crested the first rise at the hamlet's edge.
"I see her," Warwick echoed. She disappeared as she came down the reverse slope, concealed by the next rise in the ground.
"All set to go here," Silver chimed in over the intercom.
Tanith re-emerged at a sprint on the crest of the second knoll. Ramsey found he was grinning, the pain of his lost tooth forgotten. She'll be the core of my story after this. A second Boudicca, defying Ivan…
"Bloody hell!" Warwick blurted in surprise. Unlike Ramsey, he was watching the hamlet.
Another armoured jeep came racing out of the smoke and ruins. Lustreless green and shrapnel-flecked, it barrelled after Tanith like a bloodhound. A masked man emerged at the jeep's roof hatch as it crested the first hill, bringing a machine-gun to bear. Tanith ran regardless, as if she sensed death were on her heels.
"Do you see that jeep?" Ramsey cried, only now spotting the threat. Warwick was already transfixed by his viewfinder. Without looking, he worked the turret traverse and old-style, wheel-spun gunner control.
"Standby, firing!" The Scimitar gave a sharp triple-cough, spitting three casings onto its front surface, and three 30mm rounds downrange.
Angry red tracer arced calmly towards the Russian vehicle. Ramsey watched their passage with desperate hope... and moaned in despair as the shots went awry. The first two sailed into the hamlet, the third erupting in a spume of earth alongside the jeep.
"Fucks' sakes" snarled Warwick. He snatched another clip of three red-tipped rounds from the rack. In one expert motion he slapped them into the cannon's receiver above, the clip locking in place as he span the gunner control wheel. Warwick and the Russian fired simultaneously.
The Russian burst snatched Tanith cruelly as she crested a third hillock.
Chest hazing red, Tanith dropped like a marionette with cut strings and disappeared into the hill's long grass. Warwick's rounds struck a second later. The Russian jeep crumpled explosively, as a child smashes an ill-favoured toy. Warwick swore, punching the turret hard enough to leave blood.
"Trooper Silver," Warwick snapped, "the Lieutenant is down. Get us moving."
"What?" came the incredulous reply.
"Remember what she said: This guy’s our new Bowman. So we get him to the Brigadier no matter what. Now do as I fucking well told you." Silver complied, spurred by shock and Warwick's sharp tone. Ramsey fancied he could see a final flash of Tanith's hair, a feeble patch of auburn. It was static against the swaying green. His heart sank.
Boudicca was gone.
Roaring, the Scimitar sprang forward like an eager colt. It bounded the low knoll that concealed them, shattering the slender birches in their path. The ejected casings flew from the hull as Warwick slammed another clip home. Pitching forwards on the far slope, the tank immediately bucked upwards as it mounted the road. Holding tight, Ramsey tried to scan ahead through the periscope.
The hamlet was devastated. Shattered homes spilled their guts onto the road. Cars blazed like funeral pyres. Shimmering dust mixed with the thick scarlet smoke to conjure some nightmarish vision, leering ever-closer as the Scimitar gamely ate up the final stretch. The hull suddenly spanged repeatedly, as though some determined soul was forcing entry with a spanner. Gunfire? Ramsey panicked. How could anything survive those drones?
"Contact!" Warwick growled as he unleashed the cannon once more. Ramsey watched the corner of one house disintegrate, a pair of figures falling apart as roof debris crushed them. Others tumbled in disarray from the smoke, running for cover or leaping to avoid the Scimitar's hungry tracks.
Ramsey shouted a warning as one more Russian sprang from some roadside trees. Ramsey saw the man with unnatural clarity, ingraining him into his memory: Dark hair. A wide face. Flat green fatigues. Left arm pitched backwards, ready to hurl a grenade. The cannon barked, and a heartbeat later the man and the trees around him were destroyed. But not before the grenade was flying. It burst above Silver's cupola, shattering the vision block of Ramsey's periscope. The Scimitar's aluminium skin rang with the mad clatter of a thousand shrapnel strikes.
"Silver, report!" Warwick barked as he fumbled to reload.
"Still here!" came the terse reply. The driver revved the diesel defiantly, as if taunting fate.
With his periscope blinded, Ramsey's world retreated to the confined guts of the Scimitar. But he could imagine them blundering through, whorls of red smoke eddying around them as they raced to the other side.
"We're through!" Silver announced with palpable joy.
Warwick punched a trigger, filling the interior with one final set of blasts.
"Smoke grenades launched," he said, "Silver, mate, get us beyond that ridge up ahead. Between our smoke and the trees we should be screened for now."
"That was too bloody close," Ramsey breathed, waves of relief crashing over him.
"I didn't say we're safe yet," Warwick warned.
"Listen, I want to write about your Lieutenant," Ramsey persisted, "We'd never have made it but for her."
"Mate. Shut up. Or I'll lamp you."
Warwick was right about the Russian tank in the hamlet: One of them was hidden there. And they really did need a Challenger tank to kill it.
Lieutenant Mikhail Azarov and his T-14 Armata had weathered the surprise attack completely unscathed. The Armata was the zenith of Russian tank designs, a true privilege to command. To boot, this one in particular was practically fresh off the assembly line in Nizhny Tagil. The Armata’s oblique hide shrugged off the bombs the Americans had just dropped as if they were a light rain. (It had to have been Americans behind this madness. Who else would race a lone tank through this position?) But their accompanying paratroopers had been shredded.
Too late to avoid tragedy, Azarov had just received a flash warning from Information Troops Command:
// Be advised. NATO social media post geo-located to a hill overlooking your position, due south. Take immediate countermeasures. //
Azarov sucked air through his teeth, silently cursing the ITC knuckle-draggers. His war had gone smoothly until now. When they entered the hamlet just fifteen minutes ago, all went as agreed in advance: The Germans at the junction laid down their weapons and mounted lorries to be taken off the battlefield. For their part, the paratroopers were just about to detail observation posts in the hillocks.
He listened with mounting anger at the casualty report over his radio. The paratroopers came from Pskov, whilst he and his crew hailed from near Volgograd. But they had grown close in the pre-invasion exercises, and to hear the tally of familiar names was galling. They even said Popov had even gone down throwing a grenade, the old fool.
"Sergeant Ilyukhin," he called out to his gunner, "Do you have them?"
Azarov was watching through the LCD screen slaved to one of the hull-mounted cameras. The fleeing little tank was fast, and well-hidden by the conifers. But its infrared profile stood out by a country mile.
"Ballistic calculations complete on the firing computer," Illyukhin replied lesurely, "I doubt we need the Vacuum-1 sabots for this shot, Lieutenant."
"Agreed. Sergeant, load HE-Frag and shoot."