My name is Paul Jefferies. Private First Class, or so they tell me. A month in basic training, and then put on a boat and shipped off to fight an American city.
My group was on the south side of the city. We breached the gate without difficulty. We found ourselves in a wide-open square of shops and little restaurants, with a wide street running down the center. We moved into the square, policed the area, and moved on. We could hear distant gunfire, but it didn’t seem to be directed at us.
That’s when everything started going wrong.
They were ready for us. The second we stepped out of the square down the main street, we were greeted by gunfire. Dozens of men with horns fired at us with professional precision. Three of my comrades were cut down in seconds, and I barely managed to dive behind cover with a bullet in my leg.
“Just do whatever you have to do so I can fight,” I told the medic.
He shook his head. “If I do this wrong, it could result in permanent damage. We need to be careful.”
“I don’t care about permanent damage! Just get me on my damned feet!”
There was an explosion. Huge chunks of our wall blew past us. We had built it from tables and chairs thrown into place under covering fire. It wasn’t enough to stand up to anything more than small-arms fire.
“What the hell was that!?” the sergeant yelled.
“No idea, sir!” someone called back. “Must have been some kind of missile!”
He cursed. “Hold that line! And where are my echoes!?”
Another explosion rocked the barricade. A table missed the sergeant by about a foot.
“You and you!” he said, pointing at me and one other man. “Do nothing but watch this hole! Something pokes its head through, shoot it!”
The two of us both nodded and leveraged our rifles at the gap.
I fought down my pounding heart. This wasn’t my first battle. I wouldn’t act like a green little recruit just because I had barely been born a month ago. Okay, it was my first war, but still. I ignored the gunfire, the screams of pain and rage, the roars of challenge from the things on the other side of the wall.
Guard the gap. That was all that mattered.
The man next to me screamed as something dropped on top of him.
I jumped, but shifted my focus over to him. He was flailing around too much, I couldn’t get a clean shot. Maybe I should have just taken it, but my body was acting on autopilot. Working on old bodyguard instincts that didn’t apply any more.
I reached forward and grabbed the thing that was clinging to his back. I ripped it off him by kicking off him for leverage and tossed it onto the street.
It was like something out of a nightmare.
Small, maybe three or four feet tall, with thin and spindly limbs. It had muscles like steel wires, green skin, and needle-like teeth. It hissed at me and leaped, but I punched it in the face mid-flight. It produced a satisfying crunch as its jaw broke. I placed my boot on its chest, pinning it down.
“Sergeant!” I called. “Prisoner!”
He frowned, and I realized my mistake. We couldn’t keep prisoners. Killing an enemy in combat was one thing, but executing one we had captured was another. Half of us had cameras on our helmets, so there was no way we could get away with this.
And our iron-clad morals, of course. Those also stopped us.
Thankfully—for a certain definition of the word—he was spared that decision by the barricade exploding. I was knocked back, more than enough for my captive to escape, but I wasn’t worried about that any more.
Dozens of… I didn’t know what. Demons? Creatures with horns and red skin and tails. They marched forward in perfect formation, firing in a line to drive us back. We were hardly helpless; we fired back, and even managed to take a few down. But they moved to reinforce themselves, not even blinking at the casualties. We were driven back to the gate in a handful of minutes.
Then an echo stepped out of the gate.
Ten feet tall and built new from shining steel, the mechanized suit was halfway between a tank and a suit of armor. Two large legs brought it into the city, and two fully articulate arms carried a gun bigger than I was. The pilot inside the chest cockpit swept a line of fire over the enemy, and their line buckled. They began to retreat. Swiftly and efficiently, while laying down covering fire, but they still retreated.
Then a wall appeared.
I had to look twice, because I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. One second the line was collapsing, the next the echo was reloading. Before it could do anything, a dozen men ran in. They slammed their hands on the ground and a ten-foot tall wall of concrete appeared. It blocked off the entire square. I had no doubt that the enemy soldiers were regrouping behind that wall.
A few more echoes stepped out, ready to fight, but they didn’t shoot yet. Did we even have ordnance heavy enough to breach that wall? The echoes could jump it, but the rest of us couldn’t, and they’d be overwhelmed alone.
And there were still questions. I didn’t care what kind of magical bio-tech you had, people couldn’t make a wall just by… by what? By thinking it? I had no idea what they had even done.
“Sir,” I said to the sergeant, who happened to be nearby. “I—”
“No, I don’t know either,” he interrupted with a growl. “Right now, we need to fortify right here. We underestimated them. We’re not going to make that mistake twice.”
“…okay. Actually, I was going to ask where you want me. With the echoes, or watching the wall?”
He looked surprised, but thought for a second. “The wall. They’ll send scouts over soon.”
Before I could do more than nod, a gunshot so loud it seemed to shake the world resounded around the square.
A moment later, one of the echoes toppled, a massive hole in the cockpit.
The sergeant cursed. “Sniper! Find him!”
I glanced over the ridiculously high rooftops. “What is he even using?”
“Something anti-materiel,” the sergeant muttered. “Maybe even a railgun.”
I struggled to remember my advanced weapons training. “Don’t those burn out after like three shots?”
“Yes, but three dead echoes is three too many. We need to—”
“There!” someone shouted, firing at one of the lower rooftops nearby. I wasn’t sure he actually got his shots within a mile of the sniper, but it was enough to scare him off, at least.
“Someone clean out that echo!” the sergeant yelled. “And be ready! They’ll try a push any second!”
They seemed to take that as their cue.
We were expecting them to jump over the wall. That was our first mistake.
The wall disappeared. A solid wall of asphalt and concrete molded back into the ground as if it were soft clay shaped by invisible hands. The demon soldiers opened fire immediately, cutting through us like wheat. Dozens of men fell, and one echo stumbled, as a rain of fire managed to pierce the cockpit and kill the pilot inside. The demons must be using some sort of armor piercing rounds. The suits were strong, but they weren’t tanks.
Next to me, the sergeant hid behind an overturned table. He yelled into his radio, demanding an artillery barrage from the ships. I could hear the calm voice of mission control denying him, but promising more reinforcements.
A wave of men rushed through the gate, pushing the demons back again. They retreated again, laying down covering fire. Those strange men and women from before stepped forward. It took me a minute to realize most of them didn’t have horns or weird skin colors. Did that mean anything? They interrupted my thoughts by raising another wall of stone.
I looked around. Dozens of dead, too few of them enemies. The only reason we hadn’t lost more was because we hadn’t had more. When the next rush came, they’d kill us all, reinforcements or no. Especially since all three of our echo pilots were dead. We had more on the ships, but they wouldn’t want to risk them.
I rushed forward, shoving aside one of the men who seemed to be in shock. I slipped into the open cockpit of one of the echoes. It was the one that the sniper had taken out. There was a giant hole in the top of the shielding, but the body had been removed. I could ignore the blood splashed everywhere.
I slipped into the seat and pressed the green start button. The hatch swung closed, and the screen on the inside booted up. Of course, the big hole, about the size of a fist, made things a little confusing. But other than that the HUD showed a perfect representation of the outside world. There was even an overlay identifying friendlies and so on.
I slipped my arms into the metal sleeves at my side and flexed my fingers. The machine echoed my movements perfectly. I could even feel resistance in the controls from where one of the hands was stuck under some rubble. I shook it off, and put my feet on the pedals. The echo slipped similar sleeves around my legs, and I was soon able to awkwardly stand.
I grinned. I was driving an echo. Sure, someone was going to kill me in about ten seconds, but I didn’t have long to live anyway. I had always wanted to drive one of these things.
From my higher vantage point, I could almost see over the wall. Not quite, but enough to see the horns of some of the taller things on the other side. Glancing around, I found one of the echo’s discarded guns. It synced up with my HUD, showing me how much ammo I had left. Seemed like I had a full clip. Good, because I wasn’t sure how to reload.
The wall came down.
Acting on instinct, I opened fire. I think I killed a dozen men on my first pass, then another dozen on the second. The gun didn’t shoot bullets so much as giant lead spikes. They cut through infantry like water.
Behind me, another of the echoes rose, then the third. Someone had taken my idea and run with it. The sergeant? Maybe. Didn’t matter.
I didn’t get any orders over the radio. Maybe it was busted, or maybe they knew I knew what I was doing. With no other option, I advanced, firing carefully and effectively. The other two echoes mimicked on either side. For a moment, we were gods. No one could touch us.
Then I ran out of ammo.
Remembering what happened last time an echo tried to reload, I didn’t even bother. I threw the gun with all my strength, punching a hole through the enemy line with a sickening crunch. The other two echoes continued firing, but they wouldn’t last long.
The demons started to retreat.
Oh no. I knew this game. I wasn’t doing it again. With a grunt, I dashed forward, charging with my shoulder. I didn’t aim for the demons, but for the weird people making the walls, hiding behind them.
They yelped in surprise and tried to run, but too late. I kicked one a good twenty feet into the closest building. I grabbed another with a mechanical hand, slamming him into the ground twice. I tossed his broken body aside and grabbed for the next.
But they were wise to my tricks now. Their initial panic had faded, and they retreated out of my range. They were planning something, but I couldn’t tell what. All I knew was that I had to do something, and quick.
The strange men and women were swept away, cleared from the street as if by a broom.
I turned to see one of the other echoes, without any obvious damage, standing next to me. It was wielding a sign pole that had clearly been ripped straight out of the concrete. The sign itself was now covered in blood where it had cut through the enemy like a blade.
I nodded in thanks and continued forward. I hoped to take out the rest of the stone-makers before they had a chance to recover.
Before I could, though, I heard screeches to my side. I turned back to see the pole-wielding echo covered in those small, multicolored demons. They had dropped down from the sky, and were crawling over his back, looking for weaknesses. He struggled and flailed, but couldn’t get a good angle at any of them.
I cursed and stomped over, knowing full well this was a distraction to give the demons time to retreat. I just didn’t have any choice; the echo was too valuable.
I grabbed a few of the little ones and threw them away as hard as I could, but I wasn’t sure I actually killed any of them. In just a few moments, the rest of them scrambled off. They ran off and clambered up the sides of the buildings before I could even blink.
I looked over the echo to make sure there were no bombs or other surprises left behind, then gave a thumbs-up to the pilot. The entire cockpit bobbed a little. It was the closest we could come to a nod in these things. He picked up the fallen street sign and twirled it like a quarterstaff.
“Jefferies!” the sergeant yelled as he walked up. “Good job!”
I guess my radio was out after all. “Thank you, sir!”
“We got that sniper, so you don’t have to worry about that any more! Just be careful, and give ’em hell! We’re bringing in reinforcements as we speak.”
I nodded, relieved. The rules on echoes were still weird. Technically, he should make me give up the seat to a trained pilot. But the whole point of the ghost-movement system meant that you didn’t have to be trained to pilot one of these things. As long as I did well, no one would mind.
Besides, what were they gonna do? Execute me a week before my artificial body fell apart like so much trash?
“Help us make a barricade again!” the sergeant continued. “These things aren’t going to be gone for long.”
I nodded again, and all three of us moved to help. The third echo had been in the back, shooting while we kept the enemy distracted up close. Maybe he had been the one who took out the sniper. I hadn’t been paying attention.
A drum sounded.
I turned to the other echoes. Had they heard it too?
The drum came again, a few more beats this time.
Then again, and again.
I recognized the sound. Not the exact tune, but I recognized the sound, the feel.
It was a war drum.
Something walked out from behind the shattered barricade we had set up earlier, where the demons had retreated past. The thing was eight feet tall and covered in crudely forged steel, made to look like some sort of barbarian scavenger armor. There were spikes and breaks, patches of metal on metal on metal. Two great horns, also metal but shaped like a wild buck’s, rose from its forehead.
It carried a sword over one shoulder.
The sword was six feet long and a good handspan or more wide. It had a battered edge that looked like it had been attacked with a hammer—or maybe it had attacked the hammer. It was solid steel and must have weighed a good hundred pounds. The thing carried it as easily as a baseball bat.
A mech. They had a mech. An American echo, I would assume, but it could have been the Soviet or Chinese model. It was clearly heavily modified, as it was more humanoid than mine. It actually had a head, for one, a cold steel mask like a helmet.
How had they gotten their hands on it? Militaries kept close watch on their mechs. How had they kept it working for so long in the salty air?
It didn’t matter. None of it mattered. It was just something to fight.
The demons followed behind their champion, leaving a good twenty feet of open space. They marched in perfect rhythm to the drum beats, quick but not hurried. They didn’t even have their guns raised.
The mech stopped. The drumbeats stopped with him, the last beat echoing with his last step.
“Ich bin der Erlkönig, der Jäger,” he said, his voice loud and carrying. It didn’t even have the scratchy quality of a radio. “Kriegsherr der kobolde, Pförtner des Spirac, Fünfte Tor der Hölle.” He lifted that massive sword off his shoulder and pointed it me. “Who are you, machine-walker, who stand against me and my city?” He had a thick German accent, and I was guessing that was the language he was speaking.
Don’t stand out…
Way too late for that.
I didn’t say anything. Couldn’t think of anything, and with the radio busted no one could hear me anyway. I elbowed the echo with the sign. He nodded, charging forward, ground shaking under his feet, improvised weapon at the ready. I followed just a few steps behind, ready to grab the enemy mech and rip his arm off if I had to.
He moved like lightning.
One second he was standing there calmly, sword resting. The next there was a mechanical arm on the ground, severed at the shoulder.
The echo with the sign didn’t let that stop him. It helped that echoes didn’t have pain feedback. He swung the pole at the enemy mech with one hand. There was still enough force that even a tank would have to sit up and take notice.
The barbarian mech parried the blow with his sword and kicked out, sending my ally reeling onto his back. Echoes weren’t good at getting up from that position. With only one arm he was a sitting duck as the enemy stepped forward, sword raised to plunge straight into the cockpit.
I tackled the barbarian at a full run, half a ton of metal slamming into him at maybe sixty miles per hour. We both went flying, rolling across the street, and his sword wheeled off into the distance.
Everything was happening too fast, my damaged HUD couldn’t keep up. The mech was punching me even as we rolled, but he couldn’t get enough leverage to do real damage. We hit the wall, and I was on top. Using my better position, I punched him in the face, hoping that’s where his sensors were located. If I could blind him—
He kicked me off, sending me sprawling, but I managed to scramble to my feet. Maybe not in the most dignified way possible, but I did it. I closed my hand into a fist, ready for another fight, but frowned as there was some resistance. I glanced down at the hand and saw that I had managed to get the mech’s mask at some point. Good. That meant I would be able to see all the delicate machinery—
I blinked, and looked again.
My enemy was walking forward, slowly and purposefully. He had lost his sword, and most of his helmet was gone. I had the mask, but the rest was scattered across the street in scraps of twisted metal.
Under the mask was a face. A human face. Yes, it was green, but it was still a living human face. Twinkling eyes and a grinning mouth full of far too many sharp teeth.
It… what? It wasn’t a mech? How was that even possible? How could anyone fight a mech in hand to hand? I didn’t care if you were eight feet tall, humans just were not strong enough to do that.
“What the hell is going on in this city?” I whispered.
My opponent had better hearing than I thought. “Hell?” he said with a laugh. “You walked right into Hell, machine-walker. My goblins watch the skies.” He waved at the soldiers behind him. “Sargeras’ hellions patrol the streets. The Satanists and the bulezau and all the others stand ready and waiting. While you fight me.” His grin seemed wide enough to split his face right in half. “Hell is what is going on in this city, outsider.”
I gritted my teeth and rushed forward to punch him.
He caught my metal first in one hand.
“See you on the other side,” he said. He thrust his hand through the armored cockpit, crushing my neck with a single sharp squeeze.
Behind the Scenes (scene 280)
Echoes are one of the things I was worried about, but I think they’re coming off well. They sit somewhere between tanks and heavy infantry, and their ability to ghost the movements of their pilots means that minimal training is required to use them. This makes them very useful, but they’re still far from invincible.