The Crossroads

3rd place | ADC Sci-Fi Writing Competition | International Category
 

Story by Michael Mammay


Our drop ship lurched, slamming me back into my seat. We were fucked. Thirty drops, and I never experienced anything like it--like we smashed into a rock wall. The acrid smoke, the shriek of tearing metal. The lights went out, and I held my breath in the darkness. Not that holding your breath in space would help anything, but when things are falling apart, it’s hard to think straight.

              When the lights came on and I could still breathe, I counted it as a pretty good day. Perspective, you know? The manual said our ship would split in two in an emergency, and for once in my career the manual got it right. Our spherical eight-person landing craft was now a four-person semi-sphere. The four of us looked at each other with huge eyes, but nobody spoke. For a moment, I thought we’d come through okay.

A red flashing light and a warning claxon blew that theory to shit.

Something must have gone wrong with the landing system. I don’t think we ever slowed down. Not enough, anyway. The impact with the ground knocked the breath out of me and things went black for a second. My seat restraints saved my life. The two soldiers on the other side of the ship weren’t so lucky. Their side of the ship hit first and just fucking disintegrated. No way anyone lived through that.

Lufkin unbuckled beside me, and I did the same. Smoke obscured everything and I couldn’t find the door, but it didn’t matter. Blue sky peeked through a wide crack in the hull, and I crawled for it. I wedged myself out feet first and landed on spongy ground. My head spun, but I had to move. I didn’t want to be anywhere near a burning ship. Talk about a beacon for the enemy.

I ran toward a large tree, my lungs aching almost immediately. Sulphur in the atmosphere, I think. I considered kicking on my air filters, but I didn’t need them and I didn’t know when I’d see my next resupply. Best to conserve everything I could.

I scanned the area as I ran. We’d crashed in a huge field of knee-high grass with just the one tree. A worn road ran down the left side, another perpendicular to it maybe four-hundred meters to my front.

It might have been a nice place if not for the enemy bot tank sitting at the crossroads.

            I pressed my back against the tree’s solid trunk and tried to gather myself, sucking air. I needed to slow things down, figure out my location. And why there was a fucking bot tank in my way. It hadn’t spotted me, or I’d be a bloody spot on the ground. Knowing my luck, that wouldn’t last.

            Lufkin dropped like a wet rag beside me and hugged the ground. “I think I’m going to puke.”

            An apt sentiment, but not exactly what I wanted to hear from the only other surviving member of my team. I tapped at my WII—Wrist Information Interface-- and brought up a map. We were nowhere near our drop zone.

            “Fourteen klicks,” I said.

            “What’s that?” Lufkin looked up, dirt smeared on his cheek.  

            “We missed the drop zone by fourteen kilometers.”

            “Oh, that’s not bad. We can hump that.” He pushed himself up to a kneeling position.

            “Did you see the bot tank up there about four hundred meters?” I said.

“Shit. I missed that.”

            “Doesn’t that seem strange to you?” I asked.

            “Not really. This air burns, and I was trying not to hurl.”

            I shook my head. “Not that, dumbass. The bot tank. The Kyrans don’t have bot tanks.”

            “What makes you say that?”

            “The pre-mission intel reports…”

Lufkin scrunched up his face. “Oh. I skipped those. They just get in the way of my natural reactions. I don’t like to over think things.”

            “Not much chance of that,” I said.

            He smiled. “Right. So, the bot tank…we just go around it.”

            “Can’t.” I showed him the map on my WII. “Everything to our left past the road is swamp. That tank sits on the only road that cuts through.”

            “We can’t go through the swamp?”

            I rolled my eyes. “The swamps on this part of Kyra are infested with giant leeches. They  paralyze you, then digest you from the inside out over the next ten days. That was in the intel report, too.”

            “I’m glad I didn’t read that,” he said. “That’s the kind of thing that could keep a guy up at night. Speaking of things that could keep a guy up at night, when are you going to introduce me to your sister?”

            “Fuck you, Luff.”

            “That hurts, Baker.”

            “We’ve got a real problem here,” I said.

            “So we wait it out. Link up with our folks when they come this way.”

            I expanded the map. “The target for the attack is over here, in the opposite direction. They’re not coming this way, and we can’t radio in without alerting every sensor on this side of the planet.”

            “Damn. You’re just full of good news. So what’s the plan?”

            I looked at him.

            His eyes widened. “Don’t you fucking say we have to take out the bot tank.”

            “We have to take out the bot tank.”

            “Oh, Bakes. So young, so stupid. Two soldiers can’t take out a tank unless they’ve got the right equipment.” He fought to contain a smile. The same smile he got when he was holding a good hand of cards.

            “What?” I asked.

            He tapped the weapon on the ground on the other side of him, a rifle with a second, larger barrel underneath. “I grabbed Hernandez’ rocket launcher out of the wreckage.”

            “Luff, I know you don’t hear this often, but you’re a genius!”

            “It’s true. Really, I’m the kind of guy you want dating your sister.”

            “Don’t push it.”

            He put a hand up in protest. “Hey, I respect you. I swear I wouldn’t try to do anything depraved with her until at least the third date. Okay, maybe the second.”

            I shook my head, then stood up and edged to the side of the tree, taking off my helmet.  I poked the top of it out so the built-in camera could see the tank, routing the feed to my WII while I stayed behind cover. I held the camera steady until a green ID light flashed on my wrist.

“It’s a Mark 23” I said, reading from my WII. “The reports were right. The Kyrans stopped making them over twenty years ago. Some sort of serious design flaw. Bad enough that they took them all out of service. That tank shouldn’t be there.”

“Well, there you go, that’s our plan,” said Luff.

I looked at him knowing full well he was about to say something stupid, but unable to prevent it. “What’s that?”

“We get a loud speaker, and we tell the tank that it doesn’t exist. When it hears that, it goes into an existential crisis, and we sneak right by.”

“Luff, what color is the sky in your world?”

“What color does the report say?” He winked.

I kept reading. “Huh. It’s not actually a bot tank. It’s semi-sentient, with a crew of one. The tank and the crewman work together. Something about helping pick the correct targets.”

“There’s someone in it?”

I nodded. “That’s what it says.”

“Wait though,” said Lufkin. “If they went out of service twenty-some years ago, that would mean what? That this person has been driving around in the tank for twenty years?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. And it doesn’t really matter. It says there’s a vulnerability in the armor on the side of the tank, between the turret and the hull. If you hit it right, it will pop the top right off. I guess that’s the defect that took it out of service.”

“Great. So all we have to do is get alongside it without it seeing us.” Luff paused. “I don’t suppose it says anything about sensors.”

I scrolled down and groaned. “Motion, IR, thermal. We’re fucked. Wait, it has single target tracking. At least it can’t kill us both at once.”

 “That’s comforting.” He paused. “Okay. I’ve got a plan. I’ll go left and draw its attention. You circle around to the right and flank it. There’s only one rocket, so make it count.”

I stared at him. “You’re going to let the tank shoot at you?”

“Pfft. It’s semi-sentient. That means it’s not very accurate,” he said.

“That is not at all what that means.”

Luff put one hand on each of my shoulders and looked me in the eyes. “Listen. We’re fucked if we stay here, right? We’re fucked if we don’t get back to our unit. At some point a Kyran patrol is going to find us, and I don’t need to read your fucking intel reports to know what they do to prisoners. Uh uh. No thanks. I’d rather take my chances with the tank.”

He had a point. “Okay, but we should flip for who’s the distraction,” I said.

He shook his head. “Nah. I trust you more than I trust myself, Bakes. You take the shot.”

I stood there, unable to speak.

“Besides,” continued Lufkin. “This is the kind of heroic shit that gets a guy an introduction to a certain hot sister.”

I laughed. “You’re a fucking idiot.”

“Your sister doesn’t think so.”

I moved before Luff, crawling through the knee-high grass keeping low and out of sight and hoping a thermal scan wouldn’t pick me up. If it did, this plan would end in an explosive hurry. The Mark 23 had a single targeting array, so in theory once it locked in on Lufkin I’d be safe to move. Thank the Mother for design engineers who were bad at war.

I’d gone maybe a hundred meters when Lufkin fired a single shot. We couldn’t use our radios, so we’d improvised a signal.

A loud whine ripped across the field as the bot tank found Luff. A main gun round. Pulse weapon. Hopefully the tree absorbed it and not Lufkin. I ran in a low crouch, trying to gain more ground. I had to get in position while it still focused on my partner. Another blast tore the air, then silence. I hit the ground.

Crack. It came from behind me, sharp and brutal. Not a gunshot, something else. A series of cracks, until they all blended together into one massive burst.

The big tree. Shit.

 It had to have been more than a hundred years old, but two shots and it was coming down, just like that. I got to my feet and ran, using the falling tree as cover.

The tree slammed down, shaking the ground, and I risked a glance back, but unable to see through the wall of dirt and leaves in the air. I kept running, slightly downhill, stumbling and almost out of control. The staccato snap of a machine gun ripped from my front left and I dove into the lowest spot I could find, burying several centimeters into cold mud.

My breath came in ragged gasps and I wished I could call Luff to see if he was okay.

I slowly raised my head so the tiny camera on top of my helmet could scan the area. The ground under me thrummed with the vibration of the tank’s solar-powered hover-engines.

Forty-eight meters away, according to my WII.

I flipped on my oxygen, trying to slow my breathing. I had to make the most of my one shot.

I checked the functionality of the rocket launcher under the rifle barrel, getting a green light. I put my eye to the rifle sight and punched in my code to zero Hernandez’ weapon to my specs. A rifle wouldn’t do much good against a tank, but you can never be too prepared.

I inched slowly out of my hole, sliding in the mud. My pant legs had soaked through, and the mud started to work its way into my body armor as well. The tank scanned to its front, apparently oblivious to my presence. Did that mean it was still locked on Lufkin? Was it possible he was still alive?

I pushed up onto my elbows to get a better shot. That’s a flaw with the rifle mounted rocket. The second trigger--the one that fired the rocket--sat below my rifle, which meant I had to expose myself more to take the shot.

The screech of the tank’s laser cannon put me on my face in the dirt. My helmet cancelled some of the noise, but my ears still rang and sound went dull. Lufkin must have still been alive. Or he was a second ago. I forced myself back up, steadying myself on shaky arms. I sighted in on the weak spot highlighted on the schematic, right between the turret and the hull, and pulled the trigger.

The rocket whooshed away. A split second later a wave of force and an ear splitting explosion knocked me backward, my right hand flying from my rifle and burying deep in the mud. I hit it! I scrambled to my feet and ran toward the bot tank, obscured now by a cloud of acrid, gray smoke.

As the air cleared, the tank came into view. A black scorch mark marred the side, steam or smoke still coming from it.

The tank turret swiveled toward me, unaffected.

Shit.

I threw the mud in my hand at it. No idea why. While I’d like to say it was some last ditch statement about the futility of war, I probably just panicked. I hit the ground just before the main gun fired. The heat singed my back, the noise this time totally overwhelming my equipment’s ability to compensate, stunning me. A rock dug into my face.

Pain. That meant I was still alive.

But so was the tank.

A beeping in my helmet warned me of a possible concussion. I didn’t need technology to tell me that, since my vision swam. I had to run. I couldn’t think of anything else.

Stumbling to my feet, I started in the wrong direction, toward the tank instead of away. Why wasn’t it firing? It couldn’t miss me again. I paused, trying to figure it out, or maybe too dazed to do anything else.

What happened? Why wasn’t I dead?

The mud I’d thrown stuck dead in the center of the front sensor array on the turret.

 The tank couldn’t see.

A mechanical hum radiated from the turret, and the top popped open. A man’s head appeared, struggling to extricate himself from the hatch. He had something in his hand—a rag. He had to clean off the mud. I almost laughed.

Instinct kicked in. I raised my rifle and shot him in the face. His head snapped back, bounced off the hatch, then he slumped forward his face hitting the top of the turret with a splat.

The Mark 23 hovered there, unmoving, a dead man hanging half way out of the cupola.

I don’t know how long I stood there before I could move again. I scanned for Lufkin, but didn’t see him. Maybe he’d found cover. I pulled myself up onto the chassis of the tank. The powerful engine rumbled under my feet, and I kept a hand on a grip to keep my balance. The man’s body sat wedged in the hatch so I pulled it the rest of the way out, and then pushed it over the side. It hit the ground with a dull thud.

“Hey, what are you doing up there?”

I almost jumped in surprise. “Holy shit! Lufkin! You made it!”

“Yeah. Hell of a thing. Your sister’s a lucky woman.”

I laughed. “I’m going to take the tank.”

His eyes went wide. “Dude. Why?”

“Dude, it’s fourteen klicks to the drop zone, and that’s if they haven’t left us yet. If we’ve got a tank, nobody will mess with us on the way.”

“Good idea. I wouldn’t mind a ride.”

I wiped some of the blood off the turret, leaving a sticky, dark smear, cleaned the mud off the sensors, then climbed down inside. I’d never driven a tank before, but it was semi-sentient. How hard could it be? Just tell it to go and it would go.

I took off my helmet and replaced it with the driver’s rig. It fit a little snug against my skull, but it would work. I settled into the seat and put my arms into the control sleeves.

“Mark 23, operate,” I said.

A jolt grabbed my body, ripping into my skull and arms, constricting my chest with the violence of it. I tried to pull away but I couldn’t move, caught by the current. Data crammed into my brain, firing solutions and targets and status reports and damage estimates, so fast that I couldn’t comprehend it.

I gritted my teeth and sucked air through them, struggled to speak. “Mark 23, we need to move. West, down the road.”

A voice cut in, overpowering, but not through my ears. It spoke directly into my brain. Mark 23 mission, guard crossroads against all enemy traffic.

I tried to think a command, direct a new mission. Anything to get the tank to move. But it slipped through my mind like water through open fingers.

A voice came through, muffled and distant. “What’s going on? Baker? Baker! Let’s go!”

I didn’t recognize my own voice when I spoke. It was louder, more mechanical. “You go on without me. I have to guard the crossroads.”

“What? No way! I’m going to drag you out of there.”

The turret slewed to face Lufkin, and a red light flashed indicating a hostile target. I fought against it, pain slamming through my skull as I tried to hold back the fire command. “Luff! Run!”

“I’m not leaving without you.” He stared into the cannon pointed directly at his face.

“You…have…to…go. Please.”

Something in my voice, what used to be my voice, must have gotten through to him. He turned and walked away down the road. I continued to fight the targeting computer, but it backed off a little, perhaps seeing him as less of a threat. He reached the woodline and turned back one last time.

“Dude. I’m sorry. But I’m still calling your sister.”