Around noon the translator jogged out from the central mud brick house, wove past the scorched and burning APC wreck blocking the hamlet’s eastern entrance and stopped twenty feet away from the foot of the mobile suit that cast no shadow.
The chest split open in two parts. The secondary lip panel slid down and outwards and the broader, pockmarked breastplate, the ten inches of reinforced alloy shielding the suit’s pilot from all the violence and elements of the outside world, popped loose of its restraining bolts and slid up into the upper torso with the grinding sound of servo motors.
The translator cupped grimy hands to his mouth. “Lieutenant Mosca, the elders want to know if it’s for truth that you spacenoids’ leotards have air conditioners built inside of them!”
Mosca crawled from the dark crèche of twice-rebuilt electronics they had told him was a cockpit, stepped out onto the protruding lip and hooked his left foot into the stabilizing rung welded on there. The rungs were there for zero-g use – a ground type’s redundancy bred out of the MS-09F/trop’s chaotic and painfully brief development period – but he used them all the time Earthside all the same. Mosca, a spacenoid patriot through-and-through who had enlisted the day after the Battle of Loum and shed a sincere tear or two at General Garma’s state funeral, liked to say he’d never gotten used to the vulgar pull of true-blue terran gravity.
“If that were true, then why would I dress like this?” The lieutenant said. He gestured at the normal suit he’d faithfully worn since very first deployment, now folded down to the trouser line and tied around his waist in a sweat-fouled crumple. The Dom Tropen itself hardly had anything approaching an atmosphere re-circulator, another ground type “innovation.” But his suit?
It was all bullshit as far as a veteran like 2nd Lieutenant August Mosca was concerned. The colony hopping campaign had been the way it should be, quick as beam salvo. The brass said the Earth campaign would be much the same, briefing the brigade and platoon-level officers via video screen piped direct from their armchairs on the bridge down to the guts of the Murai where there officers’ quarters nestled. “Liberators.”
Some months later, Mosca lost track of how many, he finds himself and the last two men in his unit left behind to garrison several thousand square kilometers of rocks, sand and camel shit while the rest of the Caracal Corps stumbled northward through the ambush labyrinth of Central Asia. He’d come here to win continents, not hearts and minds. He’d spend the nights he wasn’t digging his eyes into the clammy mouth of the thermal scope cursing out Minovsky and the most advanced radio equipment the Principality had to offer, now useless for doing anything besides harassing pirate radio operators in the outskirts of Kabul. Caracal could have re-stationed to Luna for all he knew.
The MS-06J closest to Mosca came to life in a thundering of several dozen un-oiled gears grinding on gears. Spending as much time as a pilot did in the sensorial autism of the cockpit and/or the unfeeling vacuum of space, he always forgot how damn loud the suits were. The broad olive drab torso, such an inviting target silhouette terrestrially, turned thirty-five degrees to face the northward stretch of the highway the three mobile suits roadblocked.
The narrow two-lane of tarmac was at least a hundred years old, the territory’s sole ground vehicle artery feeding lifeblood from ex-Federation seaports in the Punjab up north to Kabul in a saline-drip trickle. It had been child’s play to clip off that lifeline. But that was back when shit made sense. Caracal Corps’ engineers had repaved the entire decayed thread as part of the hearts and minds campaign. Provincial elders made throaty sounds and nodded their withered prune-like heads. The Zeon-greased figurehead sitting in an armchair in Kabul stood and clapped his hands on the few video screens still in working order across the territory. A week later the first guerilla incursions started along the smoothed jet-black pavement. A week after that most of the corps of engineers’ pride lay in similar state to the shredded shards of tarmac and civilian vehicle husks that Mosca’s detachment proudly blockaded.
Mosca crouched back into his nest and put on the earmuffs and mic. “Talk to me, Shilka.”
“One four wheeler headed this direction, 45 kilometers an hour, no visible exteriors.” Meaning no mounted recoilless rifles or high-velocity machineguns lashed to the top of the thing.
Mosca looked right and saw Sergeant Karls doing what he was supposed to, as usual. The other Zaku II knelt on the opposite side of the highway with one knee dug into the sand and ZMP-50D machinegun at the ready. Karls’ Cyclops camera tracked the civvie and the tall column of powdered tarmac and dust rising behind it. “Sergeant, the standard two,” Mosca said.
The twin reports rattled the lieutenant’s teeth in his skull and rattled every piece of loose instrumentation in the Dom Tropen cockpit. He saw two fireballs hurtle over the car in a shallow arc and explode into the earth fifty-five meters behind it, shredding ever more Zeon-laid tar and gravel. The ozone-and-melted plastic reek flooded Mosca’s cockpit before the expended casings even struck the pavement. The civvie kept coming towards them.
“He’s accelerating.” Sergeant Shilka’s Zaku II wielded a more compact 90mm “submachinegun” with an aerodynamic, beetle-like design that was dwarfed in the suit’s hands. She trained it directly on the approaching sedan.
Mosca heard a tinny, nasal sound under the mobile suits’ internals, the smoking casings and the civilian engine giving its dehydrated all less than fifteen hundred meters away now. He flicked on one of the Dom’s secondary leg cameras. On a side monitor in grainy black and white he saw the translator standing on top of the old four-foot-tall ammo case he’d repurposed as his pedestal. He shouted the routine cease-and-desist warning in the local dialect into the bullhorn he’d taken to tying around his neck with bootlaces. In his other hand he waved the threadbare Zeon desert/tropical infantry blouse he received as a handout but never actually wore (“I don’t want to get my fucking head chopped off.”)
“Nine hundred meters. Accelerating.”
Fuck it. Mosca pulled the knife switch on the side of his pilot’s seat, closing the breastplate panels. The primary monitor hummed back to life in front of him. “Light him up!” With the cockpit again sealed off the 90mm’s three-round burst was only a distant thud and a camera’s white flash on the monitors. On the secondary he could see the translator off the top of the crate with the blouse at his feet and his fingers in his ears. His expression was one of indifference, after so many no-stoppers, who cared?
Mosca had given up attempting to understand Earthnoids at this point, or never tried in the first place. Especially in this ass end of the mud ball. A civilian auto refusing to turn around in the face of a Zeon roadblock of three heavily armed 17-meter-tall mobile suits could either be a tactical packed with scavenged artillery explosives and driven by a suicidal Federation sympathizer insurgent, or a family of refugees fleeing at breakneck speed somewhere, anywhere, refusing to head back from where they came for fear of being executed by Federation commissars or local warlords using the absence of any real civil order to reestablish their insular theocratic duchies in the desert. Thermal profiles couldn’t differentiate them; all the civilian models here mounted obsolete, dangerous, heat-spewing fission engines, rendering them all angry red blots in a field of simmering orange and lavender.
Nevertheless, he had seen a Federation insurgent’s work before. The combined energy from the plastic explosives rolled into the van’s aluminum frame and the compromised engine had been enough to carve a flaming black chunk out of the nearest Zaku’s leg. Internal gyros going incoherent from the abrupt, irrational shift of weight, the mobile suit had crumpled clear onto its face, the worst kind of spill in a gravity well. When they turned him over later and pried open the cockpit the pilot had been impaled on half of the protruding instrumentation there. Mosca wouldn’t let shit like that happen again as long as he had command in this field.
A tribute to Caracal marksmanship training: only one of Shilka’s shots went wide. The second tore the top off the sedan and anyone who happened to be inside. The third punched the bonnet through the nose and bisected the engine block, killing the car dead in its tracks and peeling the torn remnants of the hood and fenders back and outward like the leaves of an exploding gag cigar. The momentum of the shell’s impact popped the four hubcaps from the wheels and sent them flying in four directions at speeds that could decapitate. Flames spat from the ragged wound rendered in dirty fiberglass and fatigued aluminum.
“Looks dead to me,” Karls said, grunting in what could have been either approval or disgust.
Secondary explosions popped off on both sides of the killed car, pushing the wreck a bit to the side of the pavement as if in deference to the superior firepower. They could have been improvised explosives and small arms meant to maim and kill Mosca’s squad and the residents of the unnamed hamlet, or they could have been the fuel line and remnants of the engine. The wreck cast no shadow.
“Fuck this place.”