CFXS Preview 3

Grenzmark C - color

Following the unanimously positive response to the first and second excerpts from my hit mecha thriller Combat Frame XSeed, I'm pleased to present the third and final preview to further whet your appetite.

“Ritter!” Schwarze barked from the dirt path at the combat frame’s feet. “Quit tinkering and prep that Grenzie for action. We’re moving out.”
Tod Ritter, soldier of the Black Reichswehr, closed the access panel in his prized Grenzmark C’s cockpit and poked his head out into the sultry African morning. Exotic birds and insects filled the air with song. He took in the lush green carpet of jungle rolling away from the hill where the freedom fighters’ CFs were parked before lowering his eyes to Schwarze’s scrawny figure.
“Already?” asked Ritter. “Is General Kopp sending us into a real battle this time?”
A scowl pinched Schwarze’s gaunt face. “Are you questioning the general’s command decisions?”
Ritter hopped down from the cockpit, using the Grenzie’s olive drab knee and foot as stepping stones to reach the muddy ground. He fixed his brown eyes on Schwarze’s beady, slate gray irises and said, “I’m questioning how raiding African settlements and caravans is supposed to help us restore Neue Deutschland!”
“Have some patience for once,” said Schwarze. “It took a hundred and fifty years to drive the Caliphate from our lands. The Socs and their lickspittles on earth only conquered us three years ago. Marshaling a proper resistance takes time.”
“What’s the target, then?”
“There’s a small village nearby. The general believes they have a cache of parts, fuel, grain, and ammunition.”
Fury welled in Ritter’s chest. “I joined up to liberate my homeland from the Socs, not to terrorize innocent villagers!”
The way Schwarze’s travel-stained fatigues hung from his lank frame often deceived people into assuming he was weak. Ritter was reminded that Kopp’s toady was made of lean ropy muscle when Schwarze’s hands darted out and grabbed Ritter by his frayed green collar.
“You should know,” Schwarze spat in Ritter’s face, “that the caravan leader you urged us to spare sold out this village. The battlefield is no place for sentiment, boy! It will get you killed. Personally, I’m inclined to do the job myself before you take anyone else down with you.”
Ritter grunted as Schwarze’s tightening grip constricted his throat. He cocked back his arm to strike his superior, but his punch smacked into a firm gloved hand.
“Stand down,” said an even, male voice. Ritter glanced to his right and saw the new recruit, known only a Blondie for his wild golden hair, gripping his balled fist.
Scwharze inclined his head to the newcomer. “Here to help me enforce military discipline, Private?”
“I was talking to both of you,” Blondie said as he released Ritter’s hand.
Schwarze’s brow furrowed. He shoved Ritter down and rounded on the private. “I don’t care if you did bring your own combat frame,” Schwarze told Blondie. “That’s the sort of contribution we’re all obliged to make for the Fatherland. It doesn’t earn you extra privileges, and it sure as hell doesn’t justify you giving me orders.”
Ritter sprang to his feet and jabbed a finger at Schwarze. “It’s two against one. That’s all the justification we need.”
“Schwarze is right,” said Blondie.
Ritter’s jaw dropped. “But you’re the one who convinced them not to slaughter the caravan. Now they want to massacre a whole village!”
Blondie removed his aviator sunglasses and fixed his gaze on the younger soldier. On closer inspection, he was only a year or so older than Ritter. But his sky blue eyes held more loss and sorrow than most men saw in a lifetime. “Everyone in an outfit like this has two choices: fight or run. What’s yours?”
Ritter clenched his teeth to contain the cry of frustration that threatened to burst from his mouth. His white-knuckled fists fell to his sides.
“I’ll take silence for assent,” said Schwarze, mussing Ritter’s shaggy dark hair. “Be ready to roll out in ten minutes.” He turned and strolled down the dirt path. After ten paces he looked back over his shoulder. “I was talking to both of you.”
“I can’t believe you just folded like that,” Ritter shouted at Blondie when Schwarze had disappeared around the curve of the hill. “Are you bloodthirsty or just a coward?”
Blondie weathered the verbal assault. “There’s a difference between surrender and picking your battles. Like I said, we all have a choice. Choose well.” He replaced his shades, stuffed his hands in the pockets of his red and black jacket, and strode down the path toward his Grenzie.
“The only battle I want to fight is for my homeland,” Ritter said to himself.

“This village is under the protection of the Black Reichswehr,” General Kopp announced over his Grenzmark II’s PA. “You have no need of weapons. Surrender your arms, along with your food, fuel, and equipment stores in tribute.” The mostly Chinese villagers ignored his gruff German words and continued their shrieking flight through the muddy roads between hovels.
Schwarze’s Grenzmark I, with its pointier bullet-shaped head and earth tone desert paint scheme, pulled up alongside Kopp. “We’re wasting time,” he broadcast on the reichswehr’s channel. His CF raised its machine gun. “Let’s clear this place out.”
Ritter urged his Grenzie forward from the tree line to confront his superiors at the settlement’s edge. “They don’t understand us. Gunning them down would be murder!”
The grill covering Schwarze’s sensor array swiveled toward Ritter’s CF. “Do you speak Mandarin?”
Frustration burned Ritter’s blood. “No. But if we just kill these people and take their property, we’ll be just like the Socs.”
“The Coalition took Deutschland,” said Kopp. The domed head of his Grento, a backswept antenna mounted on its forehead, never turned from the village. “We have the same objective. Why shouldn’t we emulate their methods?”
“Well said, Sir.” Schwarze’s Grenzmark I took an earthshaking step into the village and angled its gun barrel toward the street. Like a school of fish, the panicked mob retreated as one from the steel giant.
“That’s a language they understand,” said Blondie, who advanced his standard olive drab Grenzie from the jungle to join his squadmates. The CF’s metal hand pointed to each side of the roughly square settlement. “If we position one CF at each side of the perimeter and have them all move in toward the center, we can herd the villagers into that building there.”
Ritter studied the long, warehouse style structure Blondie indicated. Made of whitewashed steel walls running east to west under a peaked wooden roof, the building dominated the prefabricated huts and plywood shacks surrounding it. Colorfully painted panes filled the small windows. Two simple beams intersecting at right angles hung over the double door. It’s a church.
Kopp took only a moment to decide. “Schwarze, keep driving them from the south.” His CF’s left arm swept in a westerly arc, taking in the reichswehr’s other Grenzmark I. “Heinz, move in from the left. Blondie, the right. Ritter, circle around and herd our sheep from the north. I’ll deal with any stragglers.”
Ritter breathed a sigh of relief. As the Black Reichswehr members broke off to fulfill their assigned roles, Ritter’s Grenzie snapped a salute at Blondie’s, which crisply returned it. Intimidating the frightened villagers into taking refuge in their church pricked his conscience, but it beat the alternative. He flinched whenever Kopp’s 110mm machine gun thundered from the surrounding woods.
“That’s most of them,” Schwarze reported when the Black Reichswehr reconvened in the small unpaved square in front of the packed church. “Or at least enough to let us search this shithole at our leisure.”
“Star searching, then,” said Kopp. “Don’t be bashful. Blondie, Ritter: You stand guard here. If any of these church mice so much as set foot outside, don’t hesitate to make an example.”
Kopp, Schwarze, and Heinz set to their task with gusto, tearing down rickety dwellings and sifting through the wreckage.
Ritter opened his cockpit to the humid, reeking air and turned his CF to face Blondie, who did the same. “Thanks,” Ritter said over the racket of his squadmates ransacking the village.
Blondie nodded. His face was unreadable behind his tinted silver-rimmed glasses.
“You’re a hard guy to figure out,” said Ritter. “Why are you with this third-rate outfit, anyway?”
“Have you ever failed in your responsibilities, Ritter?” His stony expression never changed as he looked up past Ritter’s Grenzie to the cloudless sky. “Did you ever let someone important to you down?”
Shame warmed Ritter’s face. “I was sixteen when the Socs overran my town. More than old enough to fight back. My father said it was best to do nothing; that if we kept our heads down, it would all sort itself out in the morning. I listened to him. Now I’m the only member of my family left alive.”
Blondie’s deep but airy voice softened. “I bet you’d do anything to make up for that mistake.”
“Nothing!” Schwarze’s Grenzmark I came stomping toward the church. “We leveled this flyspeck to the ground, and we’ve nothing to show for it.”
“Serves us right for terrorizing innocent people,” Ritter said.
“You’re so na├»ve it’s a wonder you’re still breathing,” said Schwarze. “If these people are innocent, I’m Tesla Browning. They’re holding out on us, and by process of elimination, there’s only one place they can be hiding their stash.”
Ritter sealed his cockpit and imposed his Grenzie between Schwarze and the church. “These people have suffered enough. This church is all they have left. I won’t let you destroy it!”
“Does anyone else hear that?” asked Blondie. “It sounds like a jet, but I’m not getting anything on radar.”
The Grenzmark I lunged. Its armored shoulder slammed into the Grenzie’s chest and sent it reeling backwards. A jolt stabbed up Ritter’s spine as his CF landed in a sitting position against the church doors.
Scwharze drew the curved axe from his Grenzmark I’s hip. The air around its blade wavered with steel-melting heat. “Looks like I’ll have to cut through you to crush that church and everyone inside. The smell of your charred corpse will add savor to the work.”
Rhythmic tremors coursed through the ground as the other Grenzmark I and the Grento tromped into the square. “We’ve coddled these peasants enough,” said Kopp. Heinz, Blondie: Take down that church.”
Not good, thought Ritter. His Grenzie’s early warning system chirped an instant before he heard the roar of jet engines approaching from the west.
“This is Captain Maximus Darving of the Earth Governments in Exile,” a mellow tenor with a flippant edge announced over the radio. “Move away from the building, exit your combat frames, and surrender.”
Ritter rotated his CF’s head to scan the sky behind him. A white, hard-edged plane with white markings on its forward-swept wings screamed toward the village. He couldn’t visually identify the aircraft, and there was no match in the Grenzie’s admittedly outdated CSC database.
Kopp pointed his oversized machine gun at the sky. “Shoot down that plane!”
Heinz obliged. His gun joined Kopp’s in splitting the air with bullets as big as milk cans. The jet rolled between both streams of fire and answered in kind with the twin Vulcans mounted in its nose. Kopp’s Grento danced aside from the double row of divots spraying out of the ground, but the rotary cannons’ fire chewed up Heinz’s CF like aluminum foil. The perforated Grenzmark I crashed backwards into the ruined village and lay smoldering.
Kopp’s Grento steadied itself, took aim, and fired a controlled burst as the jet flew overhead. Smoke trailed from the aircraft’s port wing.
Ritter used the distraction to haul his Grenzie to its feet. He drew his own heat axe and swung at the still functioning Grenzmark I’s head. But his target’s grill swiveled toward the incoming axe, and Schwarze’s superheated blade intercepted Ritter’s with a ringing clash. The Grenzie’s axe went flipping from its hand to disappear in the wreckage.
“Still too weak, boy!” gloated Schwarze as he raised his CF’s heat axe for a killing blow to Ritter’s cockpit. A staccato burst of thunder punctuated his last word as a volley of 110mm slugs reduced his Grenzmark I to jagged scrap.
Ritter swept his main camera to the left. Blondie’s Grenzmark C stood; smoke streaming from its rifle’s barrel, over the burning remains of Schwarze’s CF. “Thanks, Blondie,” said Ritter between heaving breaths. “Better late than never.”
From the corner of his eye, Ritter caught a blur of motion as Kopp’s Grento spun at the waist and leveled its gun at Blondie’s CF. Ritter fired his Grenzie’s rifle from the hip. The jungle ate most of the volley, but one round grazed the Grento’s arm. Kopp’s burst flew wide of its target.
Blondie couched his gun’s stock against his Grenzie’s pauldron, aligned the sights with the CF’s sensor grill, and squeezed the trigger. Six rounds punched through the Grento’s chest in a pattern confined to the general’s cockpit door. The idle Grenzmark II remained standing with a ragged hole drilled straight through its torso.
“I didn’t expect pay you back that soon,” said Ritter.
“We’re not even yet,” Blondie reminded him. “You still owe me one.”
Ritter’s proximity alarm pinged again. This time a beat passed before the whirring of what sounded like a giant weed trimmer echoed over the western horizon.
Blondie moved his Grenzie up against the church’s front wall and propped his gun up on the long roof, aiming at the sky. He motioned for Ritter to join him.
“Inbound helo,” Blondie told Ritter when both men had positioned their CFs facing the church’s east wall with their cockpits open. “She’s coming in hot and heavy. Gunship, probably.”
“No problem,” said Ritter. “Kopp sent that jet packing. We can take a chopper down, easy.”
“That helicopter is more maneuverable at low altitude, is probably carrying an arsenal of anti-armor ordnance, and has a team of gunners that can scatter us across the surface of a smoking crater faster than we can react. Just calm down, stay alert, and don’t do or say anything till I give the word.”
The gunship hovered over the jungle canopy like an overfed green and brown hornet. A pair of tiered transparent blisters swelled from its nose. Ritter counted three Vulcans and a 120mm cannon mounted on turrets at the front of the fuselage. A pair of missile pods dangled from its stubby wings.
Ritter shut his cockpit against the lashing wind and piercing whine of the rotors. A higher register male voice with a Received English accent spoke over the radio. “This is Major Alan Collins of the EGE. Exit your combat frames and surrender.”
“That’s what the guy in the jet said,” Ritter replied. “Didn’t turn out too well for him.”
Blondie groaned.
“The guy in the jet is still on this channel and combat-capable,” said the more laid-back, American English speaker whom Ritter recalled as Captain Darving. “And trust me; you want to do what the Major says. He’s way less gentle than me.”
  “I repeat,” said Major Collins. “Exit the combat frames. I won’t warn you again.”
Blondie kept his Grenzie’s rifle trained on the chopper. “Negative. Your weapons are still locked on to us. Tell your gunners to stand down, and we’ll accept your terms.”
“I’m not blind,” said Collins. “Or daft. My gunners won’t stand down while you’re pointing a 110mm autocannon at my aircraft. And it’s no good using that warehouse as cover. I will shoot your cockpit right through it unless you stand down.”
“This is a church,” said Ritter. “It’s full of people!”
“I know,” the Major said flatly.
“Collins!” said Darving. “Have you gone apeshit? You’re not firing on a church.”
“I will use any means necessary to protect the men and equipment in my command, Captain,” said Collins. “Contradict me again, and I’ll have you in the brig for insubordination. Is that clear?”
The gunship was close enough for Ritter’s main camera to get a good shot of Collins’ face. The Major looked to be in his mid-twenties with short brown hair and green eyes with a scar bisecting his left eyebrow. He wore a bulky headset and a khaki uniform. Nothing in his demeanor hinted that he was a man used to bluffing.
“Listen,” said Blondie. “I can respect your devotion to your crew, but I’m on an important errand that can’t wait. My friend and I didn’t destroy this village. We helped take down the cretins who did. Why don’t we end this standoff and go our separate ways?
“I don’t give a toss about your itinerary,” Collins snapped. “Whether or not you took part in the carnage here is for a military tribunal to decide. Now put down your guns and exit your bloody CFs!”

Ritter’s screen flashed red, indicating a missile lock on his Grenzie. He’s serious!

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