< < Crap. Crap on a stick, > > Duo’s voice came over the radio. < < I think we’re going to have to change plans again, Two... > >
“I noticed,” Christy snarled, glaring at one of her screens. The thick haze of jamming broadcasts that blanketed virtually any battlefield had faltered for a moment, giving Hades’s scanners a brief glimpse of what the Theodorians were really doing behind their pretended panic... and it wasn’t good.
Actually, she had to admit it was good. By Theodorian standards it was bloody wonderful, in fact, but that didn’t mean she had to like it.
“That nothos(1) has got a brain, whoever he is,” she muttered under her breath, punching commands into a keyboard and watching as her computers ran a projection. “’He’ meaning ‘person of unknown but still possibly female gender’, of course... We’re going to have to retreat. If we wait for the Serpent suits to get here, the damn Theos’ll have us surrounded.”
< < Hold on now, little missy, > > Henderson protested. < < We’ve only got to hold out another eight minutes or so! > >
< < No, she’s right, > > Duo said, cutting in before Christy could snap back. < < We’re already flanked. We’ll be surrounded in less than two minutes, we’ll spend six minutes being pounded from all sides, and Two and I might be okay but you lot will be right in the shit. Plus we’ll be cut off from our reinforcements when they do get here. > >
“Less talk, more run,” Christy advised. “All Cobra personnel, I want a controlled retreat to the west. Watch your flanks; Deathscythe and Hades will cover your rear.”
Lieutenant Grozny gritted his teeth as the corpsman bandaging his burns jostled him, sending a stab of pain through the drugs that were just starting to take effect. He didn’t take his eyes off his tactical display, though, frowning as the little red dots began to back out of the curve his blue dots were forming.
“Damn... they worked it out,” he muttered, squinting at the small screen. It wasn’t as clear as the large display in Otrepiev’s command track had been, but this vehicle had the huge advantage that it wasn’t nearly as identifiable.
I’ll take survivability over convenience any day, he thought, smiling grimly. And I’m sorry the others didn’t make it out, but damn I’m glad that idiot Otrepiev went up in the fireball!
“Pass the word,” he ordered. “Drop the panicked act and press the attack. The flanking elements are going to have to move further west before they swing in to cut them off, but I don’t want them overextending themselves –- they are not to get beyond support range of the main force, emphasise that.
“Everyone who can range on their rear elements is to concentrate fire on the Gundams,” he went on, eyes narrowing as he watched the two larger red dots slowly begin to follow the others. “Let’s see if we can bag ourselves a big one.”
< < Guess they noticed we aren’t buying it any more, > > Christy said philosophically, sending another volley of rockets at a squad of Theodorian suits that were getting a bit close. < < They’ve stopped acting like fake chickens. > >
< < Good thing most Theos are real chickens, > > somebody snorted, and there was a general rumble of agreement.
“I think the new guy in charge is somewhere over on the left,” Duo told her, laying down covering fire with half his attention while hammering one-handedly on a keyboard. “See this?” He replayed a short video clip from his onboard recorders, transmitting it to Hades.
< < What am I supposed to be looking at, Mort? > >
“Watch,” he said, restarting the clip and freeze-framing it after barely a second. “The change in tactics from panicked chickens to efficient regrouping sort of... ripples out from a point. See?” He restarted the recording, advancing it frame by frame while sketching rough circles on the screen. “It makes sense if the new commander--"
< < --isn't in a command track, and is having to have his orders relayed from squad to squad instead of broadcast to everyone at once, > > Christy finished. < < I think we blew all the command tracks up, anyway. Gotcha. We might be able to use that. > >
“Means we can’t pick him out, though,” Duo shrugged. “Unless you want to concentrate fire on that area and hope someone gets lucky?”
< < Nah. Too chancy, and-- > >
“Hold on, they’re up to something new aga-- WHOAH!”
A new ‘ripple’ moved through the Theodorian forces as they finished regrouping, dropping into new positions and opening fire, actually aiming this time instead of mimicking panicked random shots. And as far as Duo could tell, every single mortar, rocket, beam and bullet in the immediate vicinity was coming straight for Hades and Deathscythe.
Christy had just extended Hades’s rocket pods for a shot at yet another group of over-bold enemy suits-- Damn Theos actually seem to be developing guts, amazingly enough! --when she found herself having to retract the pods, dive-roll sideways, and spin Hades’s scythe to an angle that wouldn’t get it torn out of the Gundam’s hands when it hit the ground, all at the same time. This took considerably more than one hand to accomplish, and when the dust cleared after the several thumping impacts she hadn’t been able to dodge, there was a twinge in her half-healed arm that she had an uncomfortable feeling Dot was going to want to... talk... to her about.
“Unless I don’t tell her,” she muttered, then reflexively ducked in her seat as another wave of rockets zoomed in to pound at her. “Blyad! Give a girl a break, you sukiny dety! And damn I know I’m rattled when I can only swear like Gredenko does...”
Her eyes narrowed coldly as she rolled Hades to its feet, braced to dodge in whatever direction turned out to be necessary, ready to deal out death and destruction--
Half the lights on one section of her control panel flashed red and amber.
*squeak* *pop* *crackle* *TWANG!* *PSSSSssssssssshhhhh...*
With majestic slowness, Hades gracefully tilted over to one side, paused, and then fell over backwards.
< < Chr-- Two? > > Duo called anxiously. < < What happened? Are you okay? > >
“Um. Well...” Christy surveyed her readouts, now feeling no inclination whatsoever to go Persephone.
< < What?! > >
“I’ve fallen and I can’t get up,” she informed him solemnly.
Duo started to giggle, firing almost at random into the advancing Theodorian forces. The collapse of one of the Gundams facing them seemed to have given them new enthusiasm, but his two-rifle assault and a panicked supporting volley from Cobra 6’s personnel backed them off for a moment. < < Well... shit! > > he yelled, still snickering. < < Suit down! Mechanic! Oh, the humanity! Get a mechevac chopper over here! > >
“Duo... we don’t have mechevac choppers,” she pointed out calmly, eyeing the damage. The armour protecting Hades’s right knee was ripped and twisted into an interesting abstract sculpture, the hydraulics underneath it had taken a direct hit, and there was no way in hell that leg was going to support the suit.
< < Well, I’m going to be talking to Pet about that, > > Duo huffed, jogging Deathscythe over to her. < < Here-- you shoot, I’ll drag, > > he said, dropping his beam rifles onto her chest and locking his Gundam’s hands under Hades’s armpits.
< < Y’need a hand there, little missy? > > Henderson’s voice broke in anxiously as Deathscythe lifted and started to walk backwards, leaving two furrows as Hades’s feet dragged in the sand. < < We c’n come back and pick you up-- the Sentry suits c’n help-- > >
“Noooo, I think we’ve got it under control,” Christy said in a bemused voice, watching the scenery go by at a respectable speed. Duo actually seemed to be matching the pace of the retreating Cobra personnel without too much trouble, so she figured she might as well stop worrying about him and do her part. “At least this is slightly more dignified than a fireman’s carry,” she muttered, rescuing the rifles before they slid out of reach. Hades’s right arm was still under waldo control, so that wasn’t a problem, and a little experimentation proved that she could hook the left arm’s controls into the targeting computer, punching in commands with the fingertips of her left hand and leaving it up to the automatic systems to aim and fire.
< < Would you rather I was carrying you in approved ‘damsel in distress’ style? > > Duo asked, voice still amused despite the rocket barrage landing all around them. < < Because I think that would be just a leetle bit more than my ‘Scythe can manage. At least without waldo control of his arms. Which I would like, by the way. > >
“Is that supposed to be a hint?”
< < I think hints are generally more subtle, but yeah. Oh, and Henderson? Cobra personnel in general? While I don’t want anyone to think I’m not deeply appreciative of the supporting fire that’s doing such a lovely job of putting the Theos off their aim, > > Duo went on sincerely, < < I would also like to point out that maybe some of you should still be keeping an eye out for those flanking attacks we were expecting? > >
< < Boy, > > Henderson said slowly as some of the other APCs swivelled their turrets almost sheepishly back to cover the column’s sides, < < I think you’re gonna fit right in with the little missy and her friends. > >
Grozny’s fists clenched as one of the Gundams went down, but he relaxed and hissed out a disappointed breath as the other Gundam scooped its companion up and continued on almost without missing a beat. The volume and accuracy of the fire still coming from the downed suit indicated that it couldn’t be too badly damaged, either.
“I wonder if they’ve practiced that manoeuvre?” he said quietly, bracing himself as the main gunner fired and the recoil shook his ‘command’ track. “It would make sense; they don’t have that many Gundams even with the new five they’ve come up with, they can’t just abandon one like a crippled sentry suit... well, we’ve stung them at least. Kovac! I want everyone to link up in groups of three or four squads and coordinate their fire. Without a command radio link I can’t manage a coordinated volley from the whole force, but the troops should be able to do it on a small scale. That’ll give the OZies something else to worry about.”
< < Okay, now-- ow! --now this is getting ridiculous, > > Christy said in a disgusted voice as the third massed rocket volley crashed down around them, knocking the two Gundams sideways and forcing Duo to drop Hades.
“Well, excuse me for not having superglued you to my hands,” Duo replied mock-sarcastically, resetting Deathscythe’s grip and starting to haul again.
< < No, no, not you, > > Christy explained crossly, starting to fire again. Duo didn’t think it was a coincidence that most of her next shots were aimed at the squads that had just fired at them. < < I mean the Theos. > >
“They don’t seem to be doing too badly to me,” he said dubiously.
< < Exactly! That’s what’s ridiculous! > > she exclaimed. < < Theos do not grow spines! They do not think on their feet! They do not improvise! They have a defined command structure, and if you pop the commander, the rest of them fall apart! They do not, ever, show initiative! Especially not enough initiative to recover from disaster, devise a new plan, fake panic, and multitask! He’s gotta be female! > >
< < Whoever’s taken over command over there has to be female, > > she insisted. < < Not only can she multitask, she can get an entire pack of bloody Theos to multitask. Not to mention-- > >
“I can multitask,” Duo protested.
< < Yes, dear, but you’re gay, > > she said without hesitation. < < Not to mention the fact that Theos in general can’t manage a proper massed volley even if you wire all their weapons to the same trigger, and these ones are not only managing massed volleys without a command radio link, their aim is getting better! > > she snarled as the next volley came in.
“I’m not sure I agree with your logic,” Duo muttered, “but-- OW! --you're right about their aim. I still say he doesn’t have to be a girl, though!”
< < Wanna bet? > > Christy enquired politely, dropping the bent remains of one of the beam rifles and reaching for another as Henderson’s APC made a U-turn and accelerated back to deliver it. < < ‘Cause I’ve got fifty credits that says the commander over there has no Y chromosome. > >
< < Right! > >
Duo glanced down at his cockpit speakers for a moment, one eyebrow rising. Christy had sounded way too enthusiastic there, and now he could hear quiet beeps and clicks as she punched buttons on one of her control panels...
“That APC is carrying spare weapons for the Gundams,” Grozny snapped, highlighting it on his display. “I want it designated as a primary target, and--"
About to transmit the lieutenant’s orders to the nearest squad leaders, the track commander yelped and grabbed at his headphones, then scrabbled at his board to turn the volume down. Grozny’s borrowed headset was set lower, but he still stiffened as a crackle of static announced that a nearby transmitter was putting out enough energy to swamp the channel, blotting out the squad chatter he’d been hearing. Jamming? he wondered, reaching over to flick through several other channels and finding the same crackle on all of them. The short-range inter-squad radio is supposed to be jamming-proof, damn it!
< < I hate to interrupt this delightful battle, but my partner and I have a bet on, > > a voice echoed in his earphones. It was slightly distorted and electronically processed, enough to make it unrecognisable, but not enough to disguise the fact that it was probably female... and far too cheerful. < < It’s pretty obvious that you lot have a new commander, since we shot the last one, and it’s also obvious that whoever has taken over is much better than the idiot you were originally stuck with, but that’s where we stop agreeing. My partner says your new commander has balls. I say that your new commander has metaphorical balls, but doesn’t have ‘em physically. In other words, I say he’s a she, because anybody with that much organisational skill has got to be at least a woman and probably a mother. Would any of you care to settle the question? > >
There was a brief lull in the shooting. Grozny wasn’t surprised.
“Ah... are you going to reply, sir?”
“Am I-- of course not!” Grozny almost sputtered, staring incredulously at the track commander. “I have no reason to give them any information at all, no matter how inconsequential! Besides,” he added, rather spoiling the effect, “non-command tracks only have short-range transmitters, remember? I couldn’t contact them from here even if I wanted to.”
“You could have your reply relayed...” The track commander risked a grin.
“Don’t tempt me. I could always make you hand-deliver a letter.”
“I have a white shirt in my ditty bag, sir, I could use that and one of the spare antennae from the repair kit to make a white flag!”
“Why are we even discussing this?!”
“Two darling,” Duo asked politely, “is Four a transmitter as well as a receiver?”
< < Not that I know of, > > came the mildly puzzled reply. < < If she was, we’d be using her differently. Why? > >
“Because that was a very Four way of putting that. I think she’s rubbing off on you.”
< < Ew! Oh, dear Anubis, please, no! > >
< < I’ve met Four, > > Henderson’s voice rumbled over the link. < < Boy’s right. > >
< < Henderson, when we get back to base, you are SO toast. > >
< < You’ll have to catch me first, missy, and I hear you’re a tad slowed down right now. > >
< < Ohhhh no, Oh-two’s the one who’s got a bum leg, not me, and I can get you just fine with only one arm... > >
Duo snickered. “A little more attention on our jobs, maybe, people?”
< < Ha! I thought you said you could multitask? > >
< < She’s got you there, boy. > >
“Whose side are you on, Henderson?!”
< < I have to be on her side. She’s scarier than you are. > >
< < Oh, now he admits it. > >
“I beg your pardon!” Duo’s eyes flicked to an alert box popping up on one of his screens, and he tapped a key to send the alert to Christy, banter running on autopilot now. “You just don’t know me as well as you know her. Believe me, I’m way scary. I’d tell you who you could ask for testimonials, but they’re all dead.”
< < See now, that’s why Two’s scarier than you. She leaves some of her enemies just wishing she’d killed them... > >
< < Pffft. That means she’s leaving enemies alive. Sloppy, > > the young male voice retorted.
Grozny stared incredulously at the readings on the communications board that showed how much interference the inter-squad radios were fighting. The levels were hovering over eighty percent, and it wasn’t even a purpose-designed interference wave; it was that one damn Gundam, retransmitting its pilot’s private conversation and blanketing all the Theodorian channels!
< < But they’re way too scared to ever come after me again, and they tell other people how über I am and scare them off too. Two birds with one stone, I win in the scary stakes. > >
< < Since when did this become a competition? And you’re still sounding like Four. > >
< < Am not! > >
< < Are too! > >
< < Am not am not am not! > >
“...These are the terrible Gundam pilots that have been holding us back for years?!”
Text messages were flashing back and forth between the two Gundams.
[Do you think this inane babble has distracted them enough? Can I STOP now?!]
[A bit longer. Their north flanking group has started to shift out of formation. The longer we keep their main force from noticing, the better.]
[Besides, it’s blocking their communications.]
[So would playing music. I know you have disks. Hell, I have disks!]
[Then it’d be obvious that we’re trying to jam them. Random kiddy squabbling keeps them listening.]
[Just put your mouth on autopilot. It’s easy! I do it all the time.]
[My verbal autopilot sounds totally different.]
[*grin* So do it anyway. It should be interesting.]
Grozny had been watching the track commander try to filter out the Gundam’s transmission, ignoring the taunting voices as much as he could, but the change in one voice dragged his attention back.
< < You do too sound like Four. Want to call up the others and ask their opinion? > >
< < I don’t think that will be necessary. > >
“...Brrr!” one of the crewmen said in a hushed voice. “Now that is scary!”
Secretly, the lieutenant had to agree. The female voice had suddenly shifted tone, from childish to... ‘stone cold killer’ was the only description he could think of.
< < Ooh, you’re right. You don’t sound like Four any more, > > the male voice continued undaunted. < < Now you sound like Three! > >
< < And you sound like One. > >
< < No way! Number one, I don’t have his accent. Number two, I’m not the one who’s trying to have a relationship with a psychotic paranoid killer! > >
< < Oh? > > The female voice managed to seem amused without warming at all. < < I thought you were already sleeping with a psychotic paranoid killer? > >
< < Hey! He’s only slightly paranoid now. He’s mellowed! Regular sex will do that, you know, maybe you ought to try it. > >
< < Are you volunteering? > >
< < Nuh-uh, I don’t swing that way. You’d probably eat me alive anyway. How about your stalker? He seems determined and faithful enough. ...To tell you the truth, I don’t know why he hasn’t given up and run away long ago. > >
< < Because he’s a stalker. They don’t admit defeat. Besides, he’s never seen me fight. > >
< < Yeah, I suppose that would explain it... > >
Shifting patterns of red and blue on the tactical display caught Grozny’s eye, and he turned to look at them, half his attention still on the radio.
< < ...lack of information rather than lack of intelligence, you don’t have to worry about your children’s IQ being... > >
“Hold on,” Grozny muttered, eyes narrowing. “The north flanking force is out of position. What’s going on?”
“Eh?” The track commander shifted to peer over the lieutenant’s shoulder, frowning. “Hm. There isn’t anything in the terrain to explain it, is there?” He jabbed at a couple of buttons, changing the display. “No, that’s not it...”
“They aren’t just slowing down,” Grozny snapped. “Now they’re starting to fall back. Something’s wrong! --Give me that!” Swivelling his seat to reach the communications board, he batted the commander’s hands away from the controls and started flicking through channels, listening intently for other voices behind the Gundam’s transmission.
< < ...talking about sex means you... > >
< < ...more like One. > >
< < I... > >
< < ...more delicately. > >
< < Like hell you... > >
< < ...You’re jussszzzzOZ reinzzzsssd as him. > >
“This channel!” Grozny exclaimed. “Try to clear this channel!”
Crouching over the board next to him, the track commander started delicately shifting controls, straining to hear the faint Theodorian-accented voices behind static and banter.
< < ...am not! I’zzzsssrpent ssszz more refined and delicssssbout sevvvaan him. More conssssszzre than we csssther’s feelings. > >
< < You mean zzzsssall backkkssszz more subtle about ssssdamn jammmmmzzznn the knife? > >
< < *sniff* I call that cruel, Two. Cruzzzsssswarn the main forrrzzzzss uncalled for! > >
< < I call it honest. > >
< < There’s a diffffssssvve to retrearrrzzzssnn honesty and bluntness, you know. > >
The commander’s fingers twitched a dial around one more millimetre, and suddenly a voice burst through clearly, repeating the same words over and over in a dogged determination to be heard.
< < --reinforcements! OZ reinforcements! Serpent suits! Initial count about seventy! Serpent suits! Initial count-- > >
The track shook as its main gun fired again, and Grozny bit back a curse as the transmission dissolved into static. “Cease fire! Hold position!” he yelled, managing not to say anything more harsh as he watched the commander trying to get the transmission back.
< < --n’t hold! Fall back! Fall back! Warn the main force! We have to retreat! OZ reinforcements! OZ-- > >
“That’s clear enough,” he said grimly, pushing himself up out of his chair with a grunt of effort. “Serpent suits are bigger and better than any of ours. After the damage we took when the Gundams first showed up, seventy of them should be able to roll us up like a rug if we don’t consolidate and retreat now.”
“If we use this channel--” the commander started, then swore as he lost the repeating transmission again. He worked at the dials a moment longer, then slapped the panel in disgust. “The Gundam must have shifted frequencies slightly, they’re blocking that channel properly now.”
“And if we wait until you find another clear band, it’ll be too late.” Grozny nodded decisively, yanking open a red-banded storage compartment and grabbing for its contents, ignoring the blood beginning to seep through the bandages on his shoulder. “Open the main hatch. Driver!” he went on, opening an ammunition case and slotting the first bulky shell into the wide-muzzled gun he was holding. “As soon as I fire the third shell, get us moving. I don’t care where, so long as it’s got some sort of cover and we get there fast, dodging all the way. I’m about to make us the biggest target on this field.”
“Got you, sir,” the driver called back, eyeing the emergency flare gun dubiously. Turning back to his controls, he muttered to the gunner, “D’you think everyone’ll remember the signals?”
“Enough of them will,” the gunner assured him.
“You sure? Hell, I sure don’t remember them! Nobody ever expects to have to use that damn thing, so you learn them for your final exams and then you forget them!”
“Yeah,” the gunner grinned blackly, “and we’ve lost how many men in the last year under that idiot Otrepiev?”
“Too many. What’s that got to do with anything?!”
“We’ve been getting all our replacements straight out of training camp. They haven’t had time to forget the damn emergency signals.”
Grozny’s mouth quirked into a bitter smile as he settled himself on the ladder to the main hatch, head and shoulders poking out. The gunner was right, though he’d probably be horrified if he realised the lieutenant had overheard him.
Damned if I thought I’d ever be grateful for Otrepiev’s bungling, he thought, settling the next two shells carefully on the track’s armour and raising the flare gun to his unburned shoulder. And I’m not grateful, not really. It’s just that the number of grass-green recruits we’ve got -- replacements for men Otrepiev got killed -- means that I might actually be able to get the rest of these men out of here alive.
He pulled the trigger and grunted in pain as the recoil kicked him back against the hatch coaming, jolting his burns. Setting his teeth, he reached for the next shell, reloaded, and fired again. Reloaded, and fired, and almost fell down the hatch as the driver took him at his word and took off in a mad, twisting race towards a small ridge.
Behind him, the last shell flared into life, drifting down slowly after the first two, sending a message he prayed would be understood.
Red flare. ‘Break contact with enemy immediately.’
Blue flare. ‘Retreat.’
White flare, shifting slowly to a rich golden yellow. ‘Move north-east.’
End of Warped Mirrors
 nothos: bastard (Greek/Theran)
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