The Youngstown Campaign..Day ??? by Rich
One of the side effects of Ludwig's genetic heritage was the ability to survive on very little sleep. The team had stopped a little before dawn to rest, pulling into a grove of evergreen trees; and it was only an hour after dawn when he awoke. He left the vehicle as quietly as possible, so as not to wake the others, and slipped behind a tree to answer the call of nature.
When he was done, he started back towards the vehicle, and only then did he notice that the ground was covered by six inches of snow. He noted that there were no tracks in the snow, not even his own. That didn't surprise him, since the snow hadn't been there when he'd left. Just like the trees around him hadn't been studded with six-inch spines.
He had just started breakfast when Tamiko and Doreen woke up. He would have preferred to make a fire, but since this was an infiltration mission they had brought self-heating food packs. The snow had already begun to melt, and the spines were retracting into the bark of the trees.
Tamiko remarked, "Well, we were wondering how far the Hellmouth effect extended. I guess now we know. Of course, it would be more useful if we knew where we actually are
Doreen replied, "I think we're somewhere near the Warren airport; before we pulled in here, I saw houses in that directon," She pointed. "But I don't see them now, because of the haze."
Ludmilla climbed down from the vehicle and asked, "What time did the sun come up ?"
"A little over an hour ago, I think", Ludwig replied.
"Then why is it going down again ?" asked Ludmilla. She pointed towards where the sun was dropping down into the mist.
She awoke refreshed, checked in with her officers, then took a quick shower in the bathroom of her appropriated motel room. Then she went downstairs. The Regiment had taken over the restaurant kitchen*, and she could smell coffee from the lobby. A few years ago, a fight like yesterday's would have left her exhausted; but since her "calling", her energy level had returned to what it had been in her twenties. The downside was that her appetite had increased as well, so breakfast was a high priority.
She saw Major Sanchez at one of the restaurant tables, and approached. "That looks delicious, Major," she remarked.
pretty good," the Major replied. "considering that the Gurkhas only learned how to make french toast last week. Help yourself, there's plenty to go around."
Maria got a plate and loaded it up. When she reurned to the table, the Major glanced at the plate, gave a small smile and said "Slayer appetite, right ?"
"Right;" replied Maria. "Has anything happened that I need to know about ?"
"Just patrolling," answered the Major; "light mechs and GEVs - that's pretty much standard procedure now. So far, the patrols haven't located any survivors, and they've had a few skirmishes - nothing big, though. General O'Neill may be sending some more troops to help hold this area; there might be some Bradleys** from an armored cav unit available. He said something about setting up a 'Rally Base Ramada', even though there isn't actually a Ramada Inn at this complex." Seeing the expression on Maria's face, she added "Sorry, that's kind of an in joke."
"Will the Slayers be joining us here ?" Asked Maria. "I've seen them around, but haven't had the chance to actually meet any of them. I'm interested in seeing what I could have become under different circumstances."
"There's a lot
of demand for their services right now." replied Sanchez. "Tamiko and Doreen are on a mission for the Devon Coven, and even the Coven isn't completely sure what that's about. Jenny's team is still assisting the 101st in Youngstown, but may be here later this morning. It depends on whether or not the the 101st still needs them. Their troopers are doing better now that they're being rearmed, but they're still getting up to speed with the new weapons."
"Tamiko's Slayers are around somewhere, most likely training in the parking lot. Want to go watch after we finish eating ?"
"So, to sum up," said Sir Roger, "We think
we know approximately where we are, and we know that the Hellmouth should be in that direction, correct ?" he pointed towards what they assumed was north. "But our compasses don't work, our watches don't agree, we can't actually see any landmarks, and the sun came up twice
this morning ?"
"So far..." replied Tamiko, "and we don't know where we're going, except that it's somewhere near the Hellmouth - and we don't know what 'near' means, exactly. Can somebody remind we why we took this job ?"
"Well, the Coven's seer was rather insistent. He said it was vital that we deliver the package - the exact phrase he used was 'absolutely essential if the universe is to be saved'. Doesn't leave much room for half measures, does it ?" answered Sir Roger.
Tamiko grumbled. "That's another thing," she said. "We don't even know what's in
the package, or how to open it. Whose idea was that ?" The package was a leather briefcase, with some of the strongest wards that Doreen had ever sensed. It was locked, and if Sir Roger had a key he hadn't said anything about it to any of the others.
"According to the seer, the package will open when we've reached the proper place. And for what it's worth, I agree that not telling us what it is appears to be a rather pointless oversight."
"You think ?" said Tamiko. "This guy is asking us to take an awful lot on blind faith here."
Ludmilla shyly raised her hand, to everyone's surprise. "Perhaps," she said, "that is the point ?" Judging from the look on Sir Roger's face, Doreen suspected that he hadn't realized that Ludmilla could speak. She continued, "In the fairy tales I heard as a girl, faith was always very important - the magic wouldn't work unless you believed
that it would work."
"You know," Doreen said, "that could be. There are a lot of spells like that. You have to have the right intention, and the right attitude. Any doubt, and the spell fails. Maybe 'blind faith' is needed for this to succeed."
"I suppose it's possible," said Sir Roger.
"Well, that sucks," said Tamiko, "but if faith is what it takes, I'll give it a shot. But that still doesn't tell us where to go next."
"Well," said Doreen, "We talked about this before we started, remember ? We knew that something like this could happen. The only reliable indicator we have, if it is reliable, is the "Slayer sense". So, all we can do at this point is go towards the Hellmouth, or go away
from the Hellmouth - and if we wanted to go away, we wouldn't have come this far. So let's just saddle up and go, OK ?"
They all thought for a few seconds, but eventually everyone nodded. They loaded their gear back in the truck, then climbed aboard and headed out. Doreen sat up front with Ludwig, so she could watch how he handled the vehicle. The controls were a little different from those she knew, and she might need to know how to drive this thing at some point.
Behind them, the trees began to wither.
For the last several days, each Slayer had worked with a team of Gurkhas, and usually one or two of Calvert's recon troopers. That made Tamiko's "team" more of a small platoon, and they were beginning to look like one. Each group had borrowed from the others. The Slayers generally wore the Rangers' trademark utility vests, and by now some of the Gurkhas were wearing them too. Also, the Slayers and some of the recon troopers had kukris in their belts, and most of the Slayers had picked up some body armor, or jumpbelts, or both. They looked like a unit, even if it wasn't clear what kind
of unit they were.
She could see it in the training. She and Maria had watched the Slayers lead the whole group in Tai Chi, and a few of the mechpilots had wandered over and joined in. After about twenty minutes of this they'd switched to hand-to-hand combat. That almost turned into a brawl, but the Slayers had laid down the law, with the help of a senior havildar - and surprisingly, of Maria, who demonstrated some rather impressive moves of her own. It wasn't exactly like any military exercise the Major had ever witnessed, but everyone got a good workout and a few people actually seemed to learn something. What struck her, however, was that the soldiers seemed to treat the Slayers the same way they treated their own NCOs.
She made a note to give the Slayers a quick course in forward air control procedures when she got the chance.
She'd unloaded her monocycle from the "Apocalypse", and was scouting ahead through rocky terrain that looked like it belonged in southern Utah instead of northern Ohio. She was on high alert because they hadn't seen any demons at all since last night, and she knew that they had to be around somewhere. The double layer of glamour spells might make them invisible to demons; it wasn't supposed to make the demons invisible to them. This area should be crawling with monsters, and it wasn't.
They'd been riding for miles - in fact, they'd ridden for too many
miles, if the map was right. In addition to warping terrain and time, the Hellmouth effect seemed to warp space as well. The area effected was like the Wizard's tent in the Harry Potter books; it was bigger on the inside than on the outside. Not only could they not be sure of direction, they couldn't accurately judge distance.
'For all we know,' she thought, 'we could be in Canada by now, or maybe we've been traveling in circles and we haven't gone anywhere at all.' The only thing she did know was that the Hellmouth was still ahead; assuming that the 'mouth hadn't screwed up her Slayer sense like it apparently screwed up everything else.
She crested a rise and stopped dead, gazing over the low lying terrain to their front. Unless the truck was amphibious, they had a serious problem; because she was looking at a swamp that was straight out of "Jurassic Park".
She got out her binoculars to take a closer look. There were trees that looked like the Sequoias she'd seen in California, and lots of ferns and fungi, all growing out of sickly yellowish mud. She saw dragonflies the size of cats and spiderwebs big enough to trap an SUV. As she watched, a striped alligator with gills and at least ten legs slid of off a fallen log and into the bog.
She didn't remember any creatures in that film that were anywhere near as big as the ones grazing in that muck - and grazing was the appropriate word, because it looked like they were being herded. The "Grazers" were greenish in color, and nearly the size, and roughly the shape, of aircraft hangers. Their legs (if they actually had any) were hidden by the mire; their heads were tiny by comparison, seemed to be eyeless, and had many long tubes at the front, which seemed to suck up everything in front of them - including ferns, fungi, dragonflies, and anything else that got in the way.
The "Herders" looked something like armored jellyfish (which was a contradiction in terms if she'd ever heard one), and they rode on creatures that resembled giant preying mantises. When one of the Grazers strayed too far to the left, one of the mantises charged it, and the jellyfish lashed out with a tentacle. The Grazer honked and got back into line.
She didn't know if the jellyfish were using the mantises or vice versa, or if the Grazers were using both (that one didn't seem very likely), but this had to be a coordinated effort of some kind - even if she couldn't guess the purpose. This was not
a good sign; these creatures were organized, and that suggested an intelligence which they hadn't seen up to now. She needed to report back to the others, and they needed to divert around the swamp.
She keyed her communicator, and of course
it didn't work. She spun her monocycle and headed down her own backtrail to the truck.
Her war with Clan Jade Falcon had been a guerilla campaign, because it couldn't be anything else. In the beginning, her only weapon had been a kitchen knife, and even at their strongest her little band had possessed only three mechs. Pitched battles were not an option, because they'd never be able to win one. They had relied on ambush and hit-and-run raids, with "run" as the operative word.
Later, when she commanded the militia, she remembered the lesson. Her world didn't have the resources to repel a serious invasion. What they could
do was make life hell for any invader after they landed. She'd built a unit armed and trained for that kind of war; one that didn't need a lot of supplies, and whose tactics would be based on speed rather than power. Her choice of mechs reflected that strategy. The Rangers were a small regiment, but they had a respectable force of Heavies and Assaults. Ian Youngblood had built a force designed to destroy the enemy in a decisive battle; hers
was built to hit hard and fast, and then get out in a hurry.
She'd transferred her Piranhas to the Rangers for the duration of the campaign, with the stipulation that they be part of Captain Zhukov's recon lance. The Colonel had accepted that condition readily, since that was what he wanted to do with them anyway. She'd also agreed to attach her Heavies and Assaults to the Regiment's heavy wing. But the fast Mediums would remain under her command, as a separate element. She objected to the name suggested by Captain Crook, but was outvoted; so "Strike Force Seydlitz" it was.
Roger Fitzpatrick's POV:
They'd bypassed the swamp on the right, with a brief delay while Sir Roger took notes on the Grazers and their Herdsmen. They followed a course which the map said took them into the suburbs of Cleveland, which was obviously wrong. They were now in the foothills of a mountain range which couldn't possibly exist, preparing a meal which (depending on whose watch they used) was either lunch, dinner, or possibly tomorrow's breakfast. The sun had set again, in the east, and come up again almost immediately in the south.
As they ate, Ludwig spoke; which was a rare enough occurrence to make Roger take note.
"These things we're seeing, sir," the big man said, "are they real ?"
"That's a rather tricky question." Roger replied. The others turned their heads; evidently they were wondering about the subject too. "Think of... well, concrete might be a good example. When it sets, it's rigid and strong. But when it's first poured, it's soft and easily reshaped. I think what we're seeing is like that - the Hellmouth is reshaping reality, but the new reality hasn't set yet; it's still 'pliable'. So the answer to your question would be that these things are real in a sense, but they're not permanent; they can change at any time. The situation is still fluid."
Doreen spoke up. "We've already seen that for ourselves. Any guesses to how long it will be before things do 'set' ?"
Tamiko snorted. "How could we guess how much time something will take, when we don't have a reliable way to measure time ? We don't even know what time it is now
. I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm getting a bit confused."
"Aren't you always a bit confused ?" asked Doreen.
Tamiko replied, "Very
funny, witchgirl," but she was smiling when she said it. Then she threw a wadded-up napkin at Doreen, who snagged it out of the air faster than Fitzpatrick could blink.
Sir Roger was startled. Until now, he hadn't realized that Doreen was a Slayer as well as a witch.
The patrols had moved west to the Meander Creek Reservoir. The Rangers' light wing had turned north to Meander Creek Dam, while Maria's Strike Force moved south along the shoreline. Meanwhile, U.S. forces were coming up from the south, and pressing inward from the east. The city of Youngstown was now encircled, even if the encircling forces were spread a bit thinner than anyone liked.
The Youngstown campaign was far from over. There were still a lot of demons in the city, but they'd been cut off from reinforcements. It would take days - possibly weeks - to kill them all, but at least there weren't going to be any more of them. Assuming, of course, that the line could hold.
* There are several motels around that intersection, but I have no idea if any of them actually have restaurants.
** A lot of armored cavalry units have converted to "Stryker Brigades", but in 2004 they still used the Bradley ICV.