This is the third round of The Alphabet Challenge mentioned in THIS post. As a refresher, the Broxson twins, Gary and Perry, and I will each write one story for each letter of the alphabet. Meaning, a story whose title begins with the given letter. For these submissions, it’s the letter “C”.
Readers have until the publication of the next story (about two weeks) to vote for their favorite story in each round. Points will be assigned to each writer based on the voting rank.
For each letter, the story with the most votes gets three points. Second place gets two points, third place gets one point. In the case of a tie, the points for the tied rankings are added and then split equally among the writers who tied. At the end of the year, we tally up and crown the winner with the most points.
Long or short, each story will appear on its own post and the trio will be followed by a fourth post where readers can vote.
Here we go. Presented anonymously, the third of three stories with titles beginning with the letter “C” as submitted by its author.
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Copyright 2020 — (E. J. D’Alise)
(3,634 words – approx. reading time: about 14 minutes based on 265 WPM)
Note: clicking on the links will get you the translation of the linked phrases.
Corporal Noah sat in the prefab bunker, her pad linked to her SquadCOMM. All twelve Robotic Combat Units — RCUs for short — received the same show she was watching. Only five were in the bunker with her, double-checking ammunition and equipment. The other seven RCUs were deployed at the perimeter.
The Corporal was enjoying Out of Gas, her favorite episode from the series Firefly, a short-lived TV show now nearly seven decades old. Through the years, she’d lost count of the number of times she’d watched the episode, and hence the series. She wasn’t sure the RCUs could even comprehend — let alone enjoy — her nightly habit of watching shows or reading novels. RCUs were autonomous up to a point, but only as far as mission parameters would allow. Even so, they were programmed to learn, and Corporal Noah figured a broad education could only help.
Besides, out here, the middle of no and where, there wasn’t much else to do in between infrequent engagements.
So far, they’d been lucky; the few engagements had been hit-and-runs and nothing but small arms fire, the kind the RCU’s armor easily handled.
Corporal Noah was protective of her squad and hated the thought of seeing any of them take serious damage.
The episode was nearly over when the feed was cut short by the WARNING – POSSIBLE ATTACK override. The five RCUs who’d been with her were already heading to the prefabricated firing trenches, the covered and reinforced enclosures protected by smart armor and housing the unit’s long-range mounted rifles. While Noah scrambled into her SmartArmor, her head-up display showed the view from RCU-7’s vantage point.
The infrared and night-vision displays both showed movement on the right flank, and Noah called up the SatFeed for the area. What she saw made her swear aloud.
“Ching-wah TSAO duh liou mahng! Why the heck didn’t we get a warning?”
She swore even louder when the SatFeed blinked out.
Snapping on her mobile Command and Coordinate unit, she connected to HQ.
“Priority message; CoID zero-zero-five-Alpha-one. Repeat, CoID zero-zero-five-Alpha-one. Large force west of our position heading our way. Please advise.”
As she waited, Noah launched the scout drones to patrol an extended perimeter and keep an eye out for other approaches. The enemy wasn’t as technologically advanced, but what they lacked in hardware sophistication, they made up by being sneaky.
Noah had no idea why anyone fought for this particular corner of forsaken land. Or, for whom. Professional outfits like hers went to the highest bidder and in this instance, her orders were to keep enemy combatants from getting past her post and into the canyon that led to the valley beyond. That valley looked the same as the valley ahead of her position and the young mountain chain separating them were too rugged and too exposed to traverse. Air support would make short work of anyone trying, not to mention they’d been seeded with proximity mines. Speaking of air support, she hoped HQ could get a few High Altitude Gunships in position above her. HAGs were very effective at dispersing attacks.
She ordered the outermost perimeter CUs back to the pillboxes as fire support and called up her ammunition inventory. They’d just been resupplied and had a fair amount of smart ammunition and lots of regular ammunition. Regular ammunition fired from RCU-manned weapons wasn’t much different from smart ammunition; relying on three-dimensional targeting with augmentation from the SatFeed, pretty much every one of their shots counted.
The COMM beeped, and a voice spoke into her ear.
“Please be advised of coordinated attach across all fronts. You will not be getting any HAG support at least until morning. Can you hold?”
“Possibly, but my SatFeed just went dead. When will it be back online?” she asked.
“SatFeed was moved to support main engagement. If unable to hold, retreat and expend one or more RCUs to block the canyon. HQ out.”
Had they waited for a second or two longer, they’d have heard her answer.
“Liou coe shway duh biao-tze huh hoe-tze duh ur-tze,” she said, adding a “Sir!” for good measure.
The RCUs could be set to self-destruct, their nuclear fuel giving them an explosive yield of about 0.1 kilotons. A couple of them strategically deployed would certainly plug up the canyon with landslides. Noah noticed RCU-11 looking at her. Not that the unit could know or understand, but she still spoke to it.
“Not gonna happen,” she said.
Pulling up the topological map and overlaying it to the last SatFeed, she calculated the triangulation necessary to help the accuracy of the RCUs. Diverting a couple of the scout drones to spotting duty, she deployed them as wide as possible and set them down. Her fingers furiously typed as she voiced other commands.
“Deploy mini-swarms 300 yards out, load up e-Mortars, activate the Auto-targeting units with smart ammunition at a 200 yards field of fire,” she said almost on automatic. As she spoke, she set up the parameters for the coming fight. Disable or destroy any Mechs, wound any biological as long as mech units didn’t breach the 200 yards perimeter. Once 200 yards breeched, shoot to kill. That was superfluous for the Auto-guns; they were only used as last resort — usually to cover a retreat — and killed indiscriminately.
She had another look at RCU-7’s feed. The enemy line was about a half-mile out. Corporal Noah could make out the Mechs, both wheeled and tracked. With some irony, she recognized units sold to “insurgents” when the Corporation was funding the revolution some fifteen years earlier. The good news was they were slow. The bad news, they were heavily armored.
“RCU Directive; upload Mech-15B1 and Mech-1700 schematics and weak points. Target wheels and tracks, optical element, left ammunition feed tube. Check, confirm.”
All twelve RCUs flashed the check sign. Just then, something impacted the bunker. From a half-mile away, that had to be a sniper unit.
“They might have a sniper unit. Three, be ready to take them out.”
She fired up the bunker’s damage sensors to examine the impact zone. Based on the projectile, angle of entry, and depth of penetration, she could calculate the position of the sniper unit and fed it to RCU-3.
RCU-3 reported ready. She could see it on the monitor, prone behind the firing wall and manning the big sniper rail-rifle. Immediately, Noah got a warning that RCU-3 had been hit, its status light blinking red. Shielded by the firing wall, Three being hit was either an incredibly unlucky thing or incredible shooting by the enemy. She rushed to exit the bunker but was pushed back by RCU-5.
“Taking fire,” it said. “Not safe.”
Noah wanted to override, but her getting shot would doom the unit.
“Bring me Three,” she ordered as she got the emergency repair kit.
Another impact registered on the bunker and she heard what had to be RCU-5 returning fire.
“What’s it shooting at?” she thought as she ran diagnostics on the two impacts to locate the sniper.
“Stupid machine!” she said. The computer showed the first shot had come from 600 yards in the air and the second from 500 yards in the air.
Just then, RCU-5 registered a hit to its left weapons mount, a few seconds before it came into the bunker half-carrying RCU-3.
“Did you calculate the origin of the shot?” Noah asked.
“450 yards elevation, 23deg West,” it replied.
“Shiong mao niao,” Noah yelled. “That can’t be. They don’t have flying platforms. If they did, I’d have a radar signature.”
RCU-5 just stared back at her. Before it could stop her, she took a peek outside, pulling her head back in very quickly as three bullets impacted where her head had been a moment before.
“Gao yang jong duh goo yang! Hot air balloons!” she said as she hit the keyboard. She disabled the false echo feature, and the radar now showed six balloons slowly coming over the ridge to the left of their position. She didn’t want to risk the RCUs because they would be sitting ducks outside the firing trenches and she had no air defenses, but doing nothing meant the balloons would be on her position and possibly drop ordinance in addition to keeping them pinned down.
Looking at the advancing enemy Mechs, now at 1,000 yards she authorized targeted firing by the remaining RCUs and at the same time lifted one of the mini-swarms. Leaving only two mini-swarm in place left her vulnerable to rocket fire, but the balloons were the first priority.
Manually directing the swarm, she flew them into the balloon’s formation. The mini-drones had titanium blades and bodies meant to impact incoming missiles; they worked wonders on the balloons, shredding them to pieces in no time. A few drones were lost to gummed up props, but the majority of the drones were still operational. All but one of the balloons were falling away from the outpost as the drones returned to their position. The remaining balloon was dropping almost directly atop their position. Guessing the occupants — Mechs or bios — would be too busy to shoot back, she diverted RCU-2 and RCU-12 to shred them before they came down. The last thing she needed was close-quarter fighting.
Checking back on the status of the advancing Mechs, she deployed RCU-11 to replace RCU-3 at sniper duty at the rail gun and directed it and the other RCUs to concentrate sustained fire on the wheels and threads of the front-line units. If they could disable enough of the units, they would impede the advance of the rear units. To help that along, she fired a volley of e-Mortar rounds aiming for just behind the front lines. Any Mechs within a fifty-yard radius of each impact would be incapacitated, their electronics fried.
“Missile launch,” the control board’s mechanical voice said. “Drones deployed.”
Noah heard the explosion as the first wave and second wave as the drones intercepted the missiles, but as she watched the radar, she saw at least one missile from the third wave get through, its trajectory automatically fed to the RCUs. The missile impacted the firing trench RCU-4 and RCU-1 had occupied just a split second earlier. The reactive armor directed most of the blast outward, but the status screen showed RCU-1 was incapacitated by the impact. Still sending telemetry, but unable to move.
Angry, she called up the trajectory calculations and adjusted her e-Mortars accordingly. She fired three volleys laying down a field of fire that hopefully took out all the missile units. That left her only a few e-rounds and she fired those at the advancing line which — although slowing — was now at 500 yards.
She activated the Auto-targeting guns and repositioned the field of fire to 400 yards. At this point, she no longer cared if she killed bio units or not, regardless of the standing orders to prevent as much loss of life as possible. The enemy was obviously not playing by the same rules.
Her nine remaining RCUs kept up constant fire and she checked on ammunition. It sure seemed like they had enough when they started, but they were now three-quarters of the way toward empty. There was nothing to do as the RCUs were already shooting as accurately and effectively as possible. No, wait.
“Hold fire,” she ordered.
A quiet descended on the compound and she watched the feed from her scout drones. When the advancing Mechs were at exactly 400 yards, the three Auto-guns opened up, sending depleted uranium smart bullets toward any moving target. While they were shooting, she instructed the RCUs to wait and only engage if anything slipped through.
The front line was breaking up and she directed the airborne scouts to a higher elevation. She didn’t have SatFeed but maybe she could see what else was coming her way.
“Wuh duh ma huh tah duh fong kwong duh wai shung,” she spoke in barely a whisper. Behind the line that was getting chewed up by the Auto-guns came at least ten MUK -15s heavy armor carriers, each followed by more light armor infantry. Where the hell had they been sitting? The last SatFeed hadn’t shown any such equipment near her position. Was the enemy attempting a rear approach to the main engagement by way of the canyon? Given the valley they’d have to cross on the other side, as a plan, it seemed strategically flawed.
She checked on RCU-3 and broke open the repair kit. It would have to be a quick patch job just to make it mobile.
“Three and Five, you’ll carry One. Four, you’ll take lead on evac route 2. The rest of you, grab all the ammo you can carry. We’re leaving now!”
She spoke as she replaced a couple of damaged control boards and shunted the power to get RCU-3 mobile. When finished, she checked the screen. The Auto-guns would buy them maybe ten minutes, tops, before they ran out of ammo. Once they went down, the heavy armor would roll through the outpost unopposed.
One last look at RCU-4 to make sure its telemetry was still sending, and then she set the self-destruct of the compound and Auto-Guns to twelve minutes and activated the memory data wipe.
Grabbing her sidearm and portable C&C unit, she gave the order.
“We roll,” she said.
They set out at a comfortable trot for the RCUs but she struggled on the uneven ground. Then RCU-7 did something unusual and not in its programming. RCU-9 took its pack and RCU-7 squatted low, its back to Noah.
“I carry,” it said.
A hundred questions crossed her mind, but the compound going up in a ball of fire behind them had her set any questions aside for another time. She put her arms and legs around the back of RCU-7 and held on as it stood. They took off at near full speed, Noah doing all she could to hold on.
They had gone two miles when her COMM chirped and a voice spoke in her ear.
“CoID Zero-zero-five-Alpha-one, come in. CoID Zero-zero-five-Alpha-one, respond.”
Noah gave the halt command and dismounted RCU-7, ignoring the pain from the bruising on her arms and legs. Luckily, her body armor had spared most of her soft tissue and major bones from banging against Seven’s armor.
” Zero-zero-five-alpha-one here,” she replied.
“We got the self-destruct signal from the outpost. Is the canyon blocked?”
“Negative,” she replied. “Heavy armor and support units overran the outpost. We’re falling back.”
“Deploy the RCU units to take them out. We’ll send an extraction team for you on the other end of the canyon.”
Corporal Noah looked at her squad. Five and Three had put One down and stepped forward. As damaged units and mobile, they were the logical choice for the self-destruct mission.
“Negative. I’m evacuating my squad,” Noah replied.
There was silence at the other end. Then, a familiar voice.
“Corporal Noah, what are you doing? This is a direct order.”
General T. J. Harper was a family friend as well as in charge of the military operations in this theater.
“I’m bringing my men out, sir,” she replied. “All of them.”
She heard Harper ask for privacy, and a few seconds later, his voice was softer but concerned.
“Joan, they’re not men. They are machines of war. ”
Harper and her Dad had served together in the Arctic Circle Conflict of 2042. Her Dad had saved Harper by carrying him from behind enemy lines for four miles before a scout unit found them and brought them both back.
“They are my charges, sir. We either all make it or none of us will.” It sounded as stupid as she felt saying it . . . but it also sounded right.
There was a thirty-second pause before another voice came on.
“We’re deploying HAGs to cover your retreat. Your mobile COMM unit will guide you to the recovery site. HQ out.”
They resumed their pace. Twenty minutes later, they heard the familiar roar of HAGs laying waste to something some miles back. There wouldn’t be any shelter for the enemy in the canyon, and none would make it out of there.
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Corporal Noah and her squad awaited their fate at the Base’s RCU training and repair facility. The major push by the enemy had been contained but both sides were now in negotiations. War is expensive, and all were ready for a breather, working on terms each side could live with. Noah briefly wondered why that hadn’t been Plan A, but she knew: as long as one side thought it had an advantage, there was no reason to negotiate.
She spent the time tending to her squad. Per the maintenance directives, RCU-1 was too badly hurt for repairs and should be scrapped. Except, Noah had come up with an idea. She made a list of all the parts she needed and then assigned fictitious damage to each of her other units. It was kind of stupid, but while she couldn’t order all the parts to repair a single unit with extensive damage, she could order the same parts as long as they were supposedly spread among multiple units.
She had no illusions about retaining her squad. Disobeying a direct order was not something the military tolerated. At best, she would be discharged after serving some jail time. She expected MPs to come for her soon.
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Standing at attention in front of her Company’s Captain, Corporal Noah wondered why she was still on active duty. She didn’t speak as she watched Captain Nova page through her reader. Likely, the Captain was reviewing the field report and comparing it with records from the RCU’s memory banks.
The woman was career military and had served in almost every conflict in the last twenty years. It was rumored she turned down promotions so she could remain on the field. Noah didn’t like her much.
“Firefly, eh?” Captain Nova asked. “What’s your favorite episode?”
This caught Noah off-guard, and she stammered out an answer.
“. . . er . . . Out of Gas, Ma’am,” she replied.
“Hmm, I see. I’m more of an Ariel fan myself,” Nova answered as she tossed the pad on the desk. “At ease, Corporal,” she added.
“I’m offering you Article 15 for your Article 92 offense. You can decline and opt for a court-martial, but I can guarantee that route will not go well for you,” Nova said.
“You’re, of course, free to consult with a lawyer. Also, before you assume anything, know that this has nothing to do with your family of their friendship with General Harper.”
Nova opened a desk drawer and took out a bottle of pale yellow liquid and two glasses.
“Do you drink, Corporal?”
“Join me; you’ll like this. It’s a local brew that’s as mild on the taste buds as it is potent,” Nova said as she poured two drinks. The Captain grabbed both glasses, stood, and walked around the desk to hand one to Noah. They toasted, and after taking a sip, Captain Nova walked to the window and looked out at the grounds outside. After a moment, she spoke in a softer voice.
“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother.”
“William Shakespeare, Ma’am, from Henry V,” Noah said.
“Very good, Corporal. Can you also tell me how it applies to you?”
It hit Noah hard, the realization so obvious that it mystified her how it had escaped her attention.
“The . . . my squad is my band of brothers,” Noah answered.
Captain Nova turned and took the glass from Noah’s hand and put both glasses next to the bottle before sitting back down behind the desk.
“Robotic Combats Units were designed specifically to limit human casualties. Truly expendable soldiers,” Nova said. “Except, they aren’t. I mean, they are, but nearly every squad leader bonds with their charges to a level where they will sacrifice their safety and do as much to ensure the RCU’s survival as they do to ensure their own survival. Sometimes, more.”
“We saw the same thing in the canine units,” the Captain continued, “and before that, with horse and mule handlers in the last century. For a long time, it was chalked up to empathy with another life form, but RCUs aren’t alive. The behavior has nothing to do with empathy and everything to do with the bonds formed in combat.”
Captain Nova watched the interplay of emotions on Corporal Noah’s features.
“I’m sorry, Ma’am. I can try . . .” Noah started, but the Captain held up her hand.
“Here’s the thing Corporal. RCU squads with that kind of bond are more effective and better fighters than units where RCUs are considered mere equipment. Military branches are still trying to come to grips with it, but they recognize the value of the response.”
The Captain stood and snapped to attention, Corporal Noah doing the same.
“Corporal Noah, you are hereby reprimanded; you will forfeit one week of pay, and assigned to the Repair Facility for fourteen days. Apparently, you have some facility with circumventing certain rules I don’t agree with. Dismissed.” Captain Nova spoke the last words as she poured another glass and went to stand by the window, staring at the distant mountains.
“Yes Ma’am! Thank you, Ma’am!” Corporal Noah executed a half turn to her right and left the office.
Later that evening, Noah and her squad enjoyed The Message before lights-out.
“When you can’t run, you crawl and when you can’t crawl, you– when you can’t do that– You find someone to carry you.”
That’s it. This post has ended . . . except for the stuff below.
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