I watched a great many bad war movies before I wrote this. They rarely get the details right.
It wasn’t like Hollywood…
"Incoming fire," the comnet buzzed. Sergeant Tony Jones cursed as the threat display began lighting up with warning icons. "Keep your fucking heads down!"
In Hollywood, there was only one way it went.
The men of the 1st Armoured Battlesuit Regiment – so named because Hollywood couldn’t be bothered learning the names of the other units – would march up the hill in the full view of the enemy forces. The Iron Men – as they called themselves when copyright lawyers weren’t anywhere to be seen – would advance on the enemy, wisecracking as the enemy poured fire on them from a distance. From time to time, the stereotypes would suffer embarrassments, from the tough-guy soldier who had never heard a shot fired in anger in his life and was shitting himself at the first thought of combat, to the scrawny wimpy guy who was rightfully disliked and hated by the other members of the squad, and was probably plotting to stick a knife in them at the first opportunity.
Led by the warm and friendly, yet tough, Sergeant, who would encourage the soldiers with one voice and kick them up the slope with the other, the Iron Men would advance to the top and march right into the enemy encampment. To the strains of the latest battle theme tune, the battlesuits would become covered in sparks as all manner of weapons, from the primitive AK-47 to more modern antitank weapons, or even a primitive plasma cannon, none of which had the slightest hope of breaking through the battlesuit armour. The bad guys would run, charging at the battlesuits like demons, shouting their battle cries, from ‘Allah Ackbar’ to ‘Save the Earth,’ while the battlesuits would just stand there and take it…
Until the commander – who was always strong, mighty, and with a strong chin and firm jaw – gave the order. With a Heroic Phase on their lips – ‘Hasta la Vista Baby’ was still popular – the 1st Armoured Battlesuit Regiment would open fire. Within microseconds, every last Wrecker would be dead…and Grateful American Chicks would come out of hiding to join the soldiers in a happy dance before partnering up and leading the soldiers to tents for some rest and relaxation.
Hollywood loved its war movies.
The reality was just a little bit different.
In fact, it was quite a lot different.
The air above the four battlesuits lit up as lasers and Metalstorm weapons, mounted on the vehicles that had followed them at a safe distance, opened fire on the incoming shells. The Wreckers – whichever group they actually were – had gotten themselves some long-range guns and were using them, trying to hammer down the battlesuits before they could break in and engage their positions directly. Hollywood might have claimed that a shell couldn’t penetrate a battlesuit, but Tony knew that that was bullshit; a shell that struck a suit would blow it – and its occupant – to hell.
"Zack, give the flyboys something to use as a target," he snapped, trying to direct the battle as best as he could. It never failed; ten minutes into what had been a carefully-planned attack, everything was going to hell. The Wrecker base clearly not only had defences, but competent defenders; most of the Wreckers inclined to the Inshallah method of shooting had been killed off during the first ten years of the war. "Tell them…"
A streak of blinding light flared down from the jungle. It wasn’t the sort of terrain that he would have preferred to use a battlesuit, but from what he’d heard, the local authorities were shaky; they wanted the Americans to not only intervene, but to send their best. If it had been up to Tony, the entire base would have been struck from orbit, but no, that would have been too easy. The brass had wanted a demonstration of American power; at the moment, the Wreckers looked as if they were about to give a lesson in how to kick American arse.
"Plasma burst," someone snapped. It took Tony a long moment to recognise the voice through the disruption caused by the superhot plasma. "The bastards have plasma weapons!"
"Pray and the damn thing might explode," Tony snapped. They were pinned down; unable to get at the enemy, safe from actually being killed…unless the shells managed to lock onto the battlesuits and guide themselves down onto their targets. The presence of the plasma weapon was alarming; it suggested a high degree of competence on the part of the Wrecker group. "Zack, where the fuck is my shellfire?"
A second streak of plasma burned through the trees. This time, it struck a pool of water and sent it up in a gout of steam. Plasma weapons were rarely used outside the military with good reason; they were unreliable and tended to explode if used too violently. If the Wreckers had assembled one out of duel-use technology, they would have run a serious risk…and if they overused it…
"Pour on the fire," he snapped, designating targets. The battlesuits opened fire, launching a hail of bullets through the trees, up towards the location of the plasma weapon. There was an instants pause…and then bolt after bolt of blinding white plasma, enough to blind him without the visor, flared down towards their position. The jungle seemed to howl as the bursts tore through the trees and bushes; it had never been quite the same since the first round of the Wrecker War had burned though the region. "Make them waste their fire…"
An explosion, dead ahead of them; a wave of heat that set the ground afire. He was running before he even realised what had happened, powerful servomotors pushing the battlesuit forward as bullets spangled off the armour, directly towards the enemy position. The wave of burning plasma had set the entire enemy position on fire; the battlesuits ran through it as if it wasn’t there, moving too quickly to be slowed by the flames. Enemy soldiers, some of them burning alive, looked up at them, unable to resist or even beg for help.
He killed the seriously-wounded ones. It was a mercy.
"Control, this is Unit Four," he barked. "We have secured the enemy position!"
There was no reply. The howl of jamming, instead, greeted his ears. It suggested even more alarming things about what the Wreckers might have in their base, the ruined city with an unpronounceable name. The briefing had claimed that the local tourist board had claimed that it was an Aztec city in Peru – Tony knew enough history to know that there was something wrong with that statement – but in fact it had been build twenty-seven years ago, before the Crash, to serve as a tourist attraction. Abandoned, the Wreckers had moved in…
The radio buzzed as the battlesuits found an unjammed frequency. "Unit Four, could you say again, over?"
"We have knocked out the enemy position," Tony said. "Where the fuck is our support?"
"They shot down the drones, Unit Four," Captain Dominus Novus snapped. Tony swallowed a curse; the enemy had somehow shot down the drones that had been intended to direct long-range artillery fire onto the Wreckers, or even guide in a precision strike from orbit. "Higher Authority refused to send in a bomber or even a unmanned bombing machine; any identification on the bodies?"
Tony looked down at the charred bodies. They were all unrecognisable.
"Negative," he said. The Intelligence pukes, once again, hadn’t been sure which particular nest of Wreckers they were clearing out; they might have been Greenpeace Commandos, Independence Activists, Druglords, Doomsayers or even one of the hundreds of versions of Al Quida. There were literally thousands of Wrecker cells scattered around the globe, some of them in very strange places; the Internet might have been great for the pornographic industry, but it was also great for the terrorist groups that had become the Wreckers. Ever since the Middle East had melted down and…
"We’re bringing up heavy guns," Novus informed him. Tony bit back a second curse; they’d been intended to have heavy guns right from the beginning, except for the fact that local roads were terrible and the locals more than willing to help the Wreckers, in exchange for the money that the Wreckers could offer…or escape from the terror. It might even have been political; it wasn’t as if the local government was a paragon of democracy and respect for human rights. Entire sections of the jungle had been ripped away for money; it suggested, more than anything else, the presence of Greenpeace Commandos. They had an ideological reason to be present…
He threw himself down – the suit took the impact – as a hail of bullets flashed up at them. Warning messages – a fraction too late, as always – blinked up in front of him; the enemy were attempting to evict them from their new conquest. It made a certain kind of sense, after all; the Wreckers had thousands of people who had served in one of the armies scattered across the world, from the stereotypical dark-skinned soldiers from the remains of Pakistan or Bangladesh, to some of the darker secrets of the western world. They had nothing left, but destruction.
The others were already firing at the enemy position. One thing was certain; the Wreckers weren’t new at the game. They weren’t charging up the hill, AK-47s blazing; they were taking their time and solidifying their position before preparing to advance. They had far more manpower than the four men in the battlesuits, and if they could crack a battlesuit, the fighting was as good as over. He peered down with his sensors, looking for the telltale sign of a second plasma weapon, but found nothing. That meant…
The Wreckers launched a hail of RPGs into their position. Hollywood, once again, would have it that the suits could shrug off the impact. Once again, Hollywood was dead wrong; the suits could take some of the impact, but not all of it…and the shock alone could hurt the occupant. Admittedly, it would take a direct hit and a lot of luck to seriously injure the suit – one reason the Wreckers had risked the plasma weapon – but if enough grenades were fired, the odds of chance alone would offer them a victory.
"Return fire," he snapped, ordering the suit to unleash its inbuilt grenade launcher. The other suits joined the attack, providing suppressing fire as the Wreckers, flushed from cover, attempted to take advantage of the American exposure. Explosions shook the ground, but the Wreckers didn’t flinch; the crump-crump-crump of mortar rounds falling within the position held by the Americans shocked Tony out of his near-complacency. What the fuck else did the Wreckers have inside their camp? "Where the fuck is our support?"
"The guns are ready," Novus informed him. Tony didn’t quite manage to bite down the sharp retort that rose to his lips, namely a demand to know why a unit that was under attack hadn’t been given all the support it needed, at once, not ten minutes after they were all dead. "Where do you want them to engage?"
Tony designated a set of targets. Had everything gone to plan, the armoured units would have brushed aside or killed all of their opposition by now; instead, five of the unit had been killed and four more were pinned down by enemy weapons. The very air seemed to pause as the first wave of American shells were launched into the air…and then they came crashing down, bare meters from the American positions. Tony held himself together, using the suit to keep himself as insulated from the effects of the bombardment as possible; he watched as the fires of hell itself came for the Wreckers.
He’d wondered if the Wreckers had anything that could have served as counterbattery units; after all, they seemed to have everything else. They didn’t; no lasers or Metalstorm weapons rose to swat away the imprudent shells as they mashed they defenders to paste. Tony knew better than to assume that they had all been killed, of course; the Americans had learned a great deal – relearned, would be more accurate – about how many men could survive the attack, if they were lucky. None of the shells would fall within the ‘city’ either; the brass was determined to take the city intact and hopefully a few Wreckers who might know useful details like the names of the people who were supplying them with money and weapons.
"Hang fire for a moment," he ordered. "I want to know if they’re still alive…"
Silence fell, very loudly. The enemy position had been badly mangled; at least one shell had fallen within the city itself, setting something on fire. The battlesuits advanced carefully, watching for trouble or surviving enemy soldiers, finding nothing. A handful of things, barely recognisable as bodies, could be seen; the shells had torn them up pretty badly. Something moved…
"Shit," one of his men breathed. A burst of plasma had struck Zack right in the chest; no armour could hope to shield its wearer from such a weapon. It had been the final impetus behind the decommissioning of most of the old Abrams tanks, even the newer Franks tanks; their armour was no longer capable of standing up to a modern battlefield. Tony didn’t look; he knew what he would have seen, the armour curving away from the battlesuit with burning meat inside. "Sir…?"
"Covering fire, now," Tony barked. The battlesuits opened fire, aiming directly towards the ‘window’ in the ‘Aztec City’ where the plasma bolt had come from, trying to kill the murderer who had murdered one of their friends. The city itself looked like everyone’s conception of an Aztec City, with temples and weird carvings; it said something about the local government of the time that they had spent their money on this, instead of programs that might have helped the tens of thousands caught up in the humanitarian crises that had fed the Wrecker movement. "Take that fucker out!"
The building disintegrated under the hail of fire. Explosions tore at shoddy building materials, shattering the supports that had held it together, finally sending it crashing to the ground and impacting with enough force to shake the ground. The other American units, he saw now, were advancing, closing in on the city and trapping the Wreckers within their base. A handful of expendable drones flashed overhead, daring the enemy to fire at them; shellfire took out the guns that dared shoot down a drone.
"Remain focused," Novus warned. "The satellites are still reporting movement within the enemy city."
Rear-echelon motherfucker, Tony thought. It wasn’t entirely fair; the endless war had gone on long enough to ensure that each and everyone who held a commission in the United States Army – let alone the USAF or USN – had had plenty of combat experience and the incompetents had been weeded out with the usual brutality of war. At the same time, the advances in communications technology – although not perfect, as the jamming attempt had proven – had made it much easier for high-ranking officers to both supervise and control their men, sometimes to the detriment of the subordinates who occasionally found themselves charged with impossible missions.
There was no escape. Procedure was quite clear; the Wreckers had to be offered one chance to surrender, whereupon they would be taken to one of the Gitmo bases, interrogated, tried, and either executed or jailed. They had been caught in a war zone, firing on American forces; no lawyer would be willing to try and argue their case in court. It hadn’t been that long since a lawyer had been tarred and feathered after the bombing of Seattle. If they didn’t surrender…
"ATTENTION," someone bellowed, though their suit’s megaphone. Tony felt his ears sting under the massive volume of the voice. "ATTENTION; YOU ARE SURROUNDED AND COMPLETELY OUTGUNNED. UNDER THE UN WRECKER CONTROL RESOLUTION OF 2015, YOU ARE CALLED UPON TO SURRENDER OR DIE. THERE WILL BE NO FURTHER WARNING."
They waited. Procedure was clear; any prisoners were to be searched, cuffed, and sent back to the base camp. Tony would have been surprised if any of the Wreckers had surrendered; it wasn’t as if any of them would have had much to look forward to, as prisoners. Attitudes had hardened on all sides in the fighting; whoever they actually were, they would know that they could expect no mercy. The days when people had protested at detaining possible terror suspects had died with Seattle. No, the Wreckers would stand, fight, and die.
"Prepare for kill-sweep procedure," Novus said, as calmly as possible. Tony sensed his disappointment; Wrecker surrendered prisoners were rare. There was also concern; the American battlesuits would have to go into action in terrain that wasn’t suited to their capabilities, but far too dangerous…particularly if there were other plasma weapons around. "Covering fire programs locked…and engaging!"
Tony smiled thinly as the first wave of shells screamed into the city. There would be no more talk, not now; the gas from the shells would already be spreading rapidly through the city. The gas caused unconsciousness in most of the people who breathed it in, but some small percentage of the population were allergic to the gas and would die breathing it in. The battlesuits advanced carefully…and ran into a hail of fire. Tony almost smiled; the Wreckers had anticipated the gas attack and had deployed gas masks of their own, or had they? He stared as a Wrecker fell to the ground in front of him; there was no sign of a mask.
He stared. "What the fuck?"
The fight raged across the entire city…but the outcome was certain…
"No prisoners," Novus said, afterwards. The debriefing was being conducted in the remains of one of the Wrecker buildings, the only one that was half-intact after the battlesuits had minced their way through the city. A handful of Wreckers had tried to escape by running down the sewage pipe…and had run into the Americans stationed at one end of the sewer. They had all been killed when one of their grenades had detonated. "They really didn’t want us to know what was going on here."
Tony glared at him. "One of them breathed in the gas and didn’t fall," he said. "None of them did; what the fuck were they doing here?"
"Classified, I think," Novus said softly. Tony wondered, just for a moment, just where Novus had served as a front-line military officer. "Suffice it to say that it was something dangerous."
Tony drew his own conclusions. The Wreckers had been working on an antidote – no, a vaccine – for the knock-out gas. The endless war might have become much more endless. He looked up as the dead or dying American soldiers were carried out of the city, more bodies for the graves, back in their hometowns. Nearly a billion people had died in the war…
It wasn’t anything like Hollywood.