Lt. Carcaso scanned the mountain pass as best she could under the circumstances. The Reade Goggles she’d been issued could pierce the darkness nearly as well as a German Vampir scope, though the image was all in shades of green, but even it was hindered by the heavy, wet snow falling around them. Smoke was still curling up from at least three fortified positions where the USS Savannah had dropped a half-dozen hundred-pounders. The crew of the “Savvy Sav” had a well-deserved reputation for being among the most accurate airship bombers in the Allied Forces, and the fact that a group of slightly crazed irregulars had successfully snuck into the pass to mark the positions with flares had helped.
But the Savannah had moved on to support the Copenhagen Offensive, and the irregulars had warned in advance they were moving on to find some secret underground castle beyond the pass. That left Lt. Carcaso’s weapon platoon to claim the pass itself and hold it until larger units of the Expeditionary Forces caught up to them, or they were ordered to move on to an active front. They’d taken some casualties getting this far, and the situation might have been impossible if the Savannah hadn’t swing by to lend a hand. But her troops still had two big 9kw Tesla tripods, the Browning H2MB, and three BARs. Those would hold a pass against anything short of actual armor units, as long as juice and ammo held.
If they were dug into the pass. Not if they were sitting in the open at one end, staring at it.
Carcaso glanced over her shoulder, and sure enough Gunnery Sgt. Macklin was hovering nearby.
Carcaso had learned he would tell her what he thought whether she asked or not, and asking meant it looked less like he didn’t trust her to know how to fight a war. Sergeants classically didn’t trust lieutenants with as little field experience as she had in any case, and Carcaso had nothing but respect for anyone who had survived the ’44 disaster and won a bronze V doing so. But Macklin was also struggling to adapt to the “Rosie the Rifleman” act of ’47, and it was a struggle he lost as often as he won. She’d never been concerned she’d have to actually draw her pistol on him, unlike a few men in training, but Carcaso had to constantly consider how Macklin would react to any order she gave, and how his reaction would affect the other marines.
To be honest, it was exhausting. She was here to fight the Axis, not the men under her command.
But Macklin was experienced and competent, in purely military matters, and if keeping that experience for the benefit of her platoon meant dancing around his prejudices and limitations that was, after all, the job.
Macklin was tall, well over six-and-a-half feet, but also the thinnest human being Carcaso had ever met. Rumor claimed he’d be a carnival thin man before the war, and as ridiculous as that sounded she could believe it. His neck stuck out of the collar of his uniform like a pencil rattling around in a mug sitting on an desk, and his gnarled adam’s apple fought with the kriegshund-bite scars just below his jaw to draw your eyes into a stare. His face looked just a hint too thin to be normal, and was pockmarked with pits and thin white lines, one of which split his upper lip.
He took one long stride to be next to her, sucked on the right half of his upper lip, and scanned the pass. Carcaso had no idea what he could be looking for, at night, in snow, without optics, but she knew from experience he wasn’t wasting time. She mentally counted down from five, wondering if this would be the magic moment when his timing was different.
As she reached “0,” he spoke.
“I don’t like it, ma’am.”
Carcaso didn’t wince anymore when he forgot female officers were always to be addressed with their rank by those in their command. Lord knew she’d be called worse than ‘ma’am.’
Macklin continued. “Those pillboxes weren’t just dugouts, but they also weren’t hardened at all. Sure, there’s nothing you can do if a Brooklyn-class airship takes a dislike to you, but those didn’t just break, they’re gone. A couple of Garlands, or any heavy walker, could’ve hammered them hard enough to crack without much bother.
“That means the Heinies didn’t expect their fortitifications to be enough to hold the gap from heavy walkers or artillery. But given the state of things, they wouldn’t have hauled in the materials to build full bunkers unless they thought they could hold the pass against any reasonable threat. There’s no way they expected us to grab local air superiority, we sure as shi… shoot didn’t expect it. So they were thinking in terms of armor. And if you have the time and supply lines to haul in munitions and engineers and build actual bunkers, and you don’t expect your guns to stop heavy units…”
Carcaso nodded. “Mines.”
Macklin grimaced. “They’d have to be set up so the weight of the snow won’t trigger them. We might be able to move troops over them safely, but the Teslas… “
Carcaso shook her head firmly.
“Too great a risk. And we have other options. Send some scouts to extend our perimeter, Gunney, and get the Teslas set up. If we have contact with anything too dangerous, we’ll open up with the lightning guns along the ground toward the pass’s mouth. HQ says that should detonate any mine the Krauts have access to, but we all know HQ can be wrong. If no one rushes us, we’ll let Ford handle it. And if there’s still something nasty in the pass, the Teslas can offer him cover fire.”
Macklin nodded, turned, and started barking orders. It was, Carcaso admitted to herself, something he was very good at. As long as someone told him what to do, or there was a fight raging and no time to think, Macklin was an amazing leader. It was only when decisions had to be made in the long silence, when there was ample opportunity to second-guess himself, that Macklin became too hidebound to adapt to a situation.
One of the sergeant’s barked orders caught the attention of the only member of Carcaso’s platoon taller than Macklin himself. The figure jerked to its feet, its head turning until it was centered on the lieutenant, then it marched toward her in even, if stilted, strides.
The metal man was slightly over seven feet tall, and painted in surprisingly bright green, though in several places the dull gray of his chassis showed through the paint’s chips and scratches. A “Big Tommy” .50 cal was slung over his left shoulder, leather and canvas pouches were strapped to his chest and legs, and a transport pack was mounted on his back, though instead of a blanket roll it had a chain wrapped around the top like a horseshoe. A single red shield device on the center of his chest had “R.U.R.” written in large letters, and “4D-4RS1T” in smaller type stamped beneath that.
He marched at a constant pace to stand exactly three feet from Carcaso, then stopped with a jerk.
“Re. Por. Ting. As. Ore. Derd. Lew. Ten. Ant.”
As always, Ford’s voice was flat, emotionless, and choppy. It has taken her nearly a week to consistently be able to understand him but now it was second nature to her. As was the more crucial task of giving him orders he wouldn’t reject as violations of his core commands.
“Ford, we have reason to believe the approach to the pass, and possibly the pass itself, are mined. These areas are now your current field of operation. Examine the field with normal caution, superseding secondary and tertiary duties. Any detected mine should be eliminated with maximum combined safety and expediency. If no acceptable parameters allow for this, mark the mine or return for consultation. If a primary duty interrupts the operation, return for confirmation of this operation after fulfilling the primary duty. Analyze operational parameters and suspend for adjustment if any violation of core commands is detected.”
Ford stood, motionless, and Carcaso was convinced she could hear a faint hum coming from his chest. Then his arms bent backwards and unhooked the chain from his transport pack, coiling it in a loop in his right arm. He lifted the Big Tommy and without looking hooked it behind his head onto pegs where the chain had just been. Once that was done he marched in the same quick but stilted gait toward the pass.
As soon as he reached the last “clear” flag at the edge of their position, he stopped. His body bent down, and he jabbed his left hand into the snow. Carcaso was too far away to hear or feel it, but she knew he’d just sent a ping into the frozen earth beneath the snowpack. He remained crouched for fifteen seconds, then stood, took five swift, stilted steps, and repeated the process.
When she’d signed up for officer school, Carcaso has been repeatedly told she be in command of a mixed-gender unit. Women were needed now as pilots, mechanics, and specialists in front-line roles, and US Command wanted very much for all front-line female military personnel to be assigned in large groups and always with a woman in the command structure. Carcaso hadn’t cared, but given how often her instructors had told her that was absolutely happening, it was what she’d come to expect.
But nothing is certain in war or politics. Edvard Beneš, resigned president of the First Czechoslovak Republic and now a visiting professor at the University of Chicago, had convinced someone in the US military to smuggle Alquist Fabry out of Czechoslovakia with the only copies of the full plans for constructing Rossum’s Universal Robots. With Rossum dead, his early research in Nazi hands, and his lone factory destroyed, it had been determined at the highest levels that the US could not allow an automaton technology gap between the Axis and the Allies. Early American-manufactured R.U.R. models, Ford included, had been tested in the same facilities where Carcaso was trained.
Working with Robots in the field proved difficult, but Carcaso had a knack for it. She and Ford consistently performed in the top 5% when teamed together, and hadn’t had a single pitchfork incident. Given how few Robots were available for the Expeditionary Force, it had made sense to assign Ford to her weapon platoon.
However, fearing some kind of horrible incident that would somehow sap the will of America to fight, Congress had decided no Robot would be assigned to any unit including enlisted women. So rather than be the officer of a mixed gender unit, Carcaso was put in charge of a veteran squad of 28 men who had never served with a woman, much less been commanded by one, and one Robot.
Ford paused, nearly a hundred feet away now, and stayed in a crouch for a full minute. Then he uncoiled the chain around his right arm. Gripping the last 3 links in his hand, he lashed the chain forward at an angle, swinging the hundred pounds of metal with ease. Where the very end of the chain slammed into the ground, an explosion shot up instantly. Snow, smoke, dirt, and shrapnel were flung out in all directions. Some fell on Ford, but did nothing more than scratch his paint. He began to re-coil the somewhat shorter chain.
Carcaso allowed herself a smile. Ford was worth dozens of human fighting men or women, and she was proud of their work together. There had been some unpleasantness early in her command, and she knew there’d be more in the future. But if it meant unleashing the full power of Ford on the enemy, it was worth it.
Besides, the Robot never forgot to call her by her rank.
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I continue to slowly modify and assemble models and figures for my Diesel Pulp headcannon setting. Obviously there’s priming and basing and painting yet to me done, these are all works in progress.
From L to R, a Garland Heavy Walker, a Free Corps Light Infantry demolitions expert, a Tumbleweed Light Mech (in back), a Heavy Infantry armor suit, a Mulholland Medium Walker, and a Free Corps Light Infantry soldier.
Allied Diesel Pulp Forces
L to R: A Gardland Heavy Walker (with three of the most famous Irregulars: Sky King, All-American Girl, and The Yankee), three Free Corps mercenaries, a British “Tory” gun carrier (the famous interwar ‘Walking Pillbox’), three Heavy Infantry Armor Suits, three Medium Infantry (front) and a Gun Carrier (back), a Self-Motivated Mortar with three Yowling Yahoos (light infantry commandos), a Tumbleweed Light Mech, and a Mulholland Medium Walker (“torchie” variant).
Soviet Diesel Pulp
In back, TS-1 and K-34 Medium Walkers. Along the front three “Night Ogres,” the Soviet attempt at Heavy Infantry that were too large and heavily armed and armored for anyone else to call them infantry (generally categorized as Gun Carriers by other nations). Both the walkers and the gun carriers show the distinctive sloped armor the Soviets had developed to good effect in the FT Fast Walker designs in the Interwar Period. The K-34 and leftmost Night Ogre also sport “Iron Claws,” one of the Soviet answers to their constant lack of munitions and high percentage of urban fighting (also resulting in the distinctive red-and-gray “Brickhouse” cammo patterns.
Also present two Commissars (currently sans-humpanzee troops) and a military seer (in back near the TS-1).
Though the mystery of where Nazi Germany was getting dinosaurs wasn’t solved until very late in the war, in most theaters of combat the occasional unit of “Thunder Cavalry” had little enough impact that Allied planners did not consider them a major threat.
However, in Africa the dreaded Wüstedrachen were a major part of how Rommel managed to hold a large portion of the continent long after the Allies successfully cut off most routes of supply and reinforcement from the continent. The beasts were capable of outrunning and outlasting horses, camels, and even jeeps, could allow expert troops to carry significant material and even anti-tank weapons, and the higher portion of light troops without armor support made their close combat abilities more relevant.
Here three Wüstedrachen are seen alongside two interwar Italian C3/33 Mechettes. While Mechettes saw only limited use in Europe, Rommel made good use of what Italian forces he had, and employed them effectively as scouting and infantry support, often in conjunction with Wüstedrachen or Medium Infantry.
This is fairly typical of the kind of worldbuilding I do for fun, when I am not so overloaded with work that all my writing MUST be on-task and on-schedule.
In this case, I have a never-slated-for-professional-publication Diesel Pulp setting that I buy and modify models to fit into. My first concern is aesthetics of these mystery men and weird war machines… but in time the world begins to form a cohesive whole that demands exploration in prose.
This is the same sort of exploration I did in the short fiction piece ’49, which is designed to be part of the same world.
While the fact that Martian Tripods had been so effective during the First and Second War of the Worlds could easily have been attributed to their advanced metuallurgy, heat rays, broadcast power, and compression gears, it nevertheless cemented in most nation’s military planners that a walker design of some kind was clearly superior to wheeled or tracked vehicles. Thus, rather than test walkers on a level playing field, most designers first theorized on why legged armor units were superior to other options, and then drew up tests to prove their theories.
One common theory in the early 1930s was that walkers had significant advantages over wheeled or tracked vehicles due to increased stability, and thus an improved ability to fire a cannon while moving with some degree of accuracy. The concept behind this idea was simple – the position of a walker was always entirely determined by the position of its articulate legs, driven by compression gears, and thus stabilizing cams could be built to read compression gear feedback. These cams where supposed to predict how the movement of articulated parts would affect articulated weapons, and automatically adjust the weapon’s position to compensate.
The reality of walker stability and predictability consistently failed to live up to theoretical models. For some reason, tripping, sliding, and even falling were never considered to be regular occurrences by military planners, and thus were ignored in tests run on articulated prediction cams. In battlefield conditions, walkers often ended up on uneven footing (debris, mud, soft earth, and even walker traps designed to limit their mobility), so assuming a given position of the legs always equaled what it should on a hard, level, stable surface often failed to give accurate adjustments to weapons.
The Nazi walkers favored heavy armor and heavy weapons, and a rapid reload time. The need to couple these with prediction cams inevitably lead to designs that placed a walker’s main weapons in articulated outboard platforms, called “Gewehrfaust” or Gun-Arms. These were normally mounted on either side of the main fuselage, and were connected by heavily armored gearing systems. As a result, any such weapons had to be auto-loading and have self-contained ammunition magazines. This gave main cannons impressive rate-of-fire and full cam stabilization… but the stabilization systems never worked well and the rate-of-fire only lasted until the magazine was depleted. A German Wotan or Donar walker armed with a Rheinmetall-Borsig 7.5 cm KwK 42 (L/70) carried twelve rounds in the magazine, and 48 more in the main body, but reloading the magazine required the walker to be at a dead stop and expose its crew for nearly thirty minutes. Worse, thought the gun could fire APCBC, HE, and APCR rounds (though that last was always in short supply), the integral magazine meant the ratio of such rounds had to be decided in advance. The gunner could dial up any round in the magazine, but if HE rounds were all that was left in the magazine, and APCR was a better choice, there was no practical way of loading the desired shell even if it was in-stock.
This lead to the advancement of more Lightning Guns and Thunder Cannons in variant designs, but Nazi Germany could rarely produce enough such weapons to meet demand. Flamethrowers, heavy flack guns, and rocket pods were more often used where LGs and TCs were called for.
Russian walkers also generally used outboard weapon platforms, and could rarely manage multiple main guns on a walker in any case, but used gyroscopic stabilization rather than feedback cams hooked to compression gears. While accuracy was never as high on the move compared to stationary fire, Russian walkers on the move could depend on hitting more than missing when shooting at targets that were in close range or that were themselves stationary. Additionally, since Russian walkers were always in short ammo supply, they were less likely to have multiple shells as an option, and might only have enough ammo to fill a single magazine in any case, minimizing the real impact of that design choice.
Americans also used gyroscopic stabilization, the only other nation to do so. However, their designs always placed a walker’s main armament inside the body of a walker. In the case of early six-legged Mulholland walker and later 8-legged Garland walkers, a single turret was used to house primary armament. The stability of the multileg suspension, coupled with gyrostabilization, gave these tanks and their variants the greatest moving fire accuracy of any Medium or Heavy walker of the war. However, the weight of the additional legs required these walkers to be more lightly armored than typical for their tonnage, and their guns were manually loaded, resulting in a much lower ROF for short engagements. This was partially compensated for by the ability to continue fire (a standard load was 55 rounds) without stopping or exposing crew, and for each shot to be loaded with the preferred shell type. Additionally, these walkers were constructed in vast numbers. A Mulholland might not be an even match for a Wotan, but three Mulhollands certainly were.
In the case of the American mech hunter Bunyan design, the main cannon was built into the center of the main body. Though also gyrostabilized, the Bunyan’s 2-leg design and antitank mission made moving fire both less accurate and less desirable. If a mech hunter could not outrange another walker, standard tactics were for it to move after every shot, to compensate for its lower average armor thickness.
Jenkins kept his M1941a rifle trained on the shivering family—centered on the oldest boy, who he thought more likely than the father to do something stupid—and wished again he’d taken his gloves off before they’d rushed the building. To prevent accidentally hating himself forever his finger was beside the rifle’s trigger guard, not on the trigger. But the stolen leather gloves he wore were just thick enough he was suddenly afraid that if he did have to shoot one of them, or even try a warning shot, he wouldn’t be able to jam his gloved finger into the trigger guard fast enough to keep control of the situation. He’d kept the gloves on to make sure his finger wasn’t numb from cold, but now…
As always, Lt. Morgan’s voice was calm and clear. Jenkins glanced over his shoulder for just a second to see if Corporal Flores would nod, as she sometimes did, rather than answer verbally. He saw her inhale, and immediately locked his gaze back on the two adults, one teen, and three children in nightshirts. The older boy had shifted his weight when Jenkins looked away, and now froze again. He resolved not to give the lanky teen any more room to make life-ending decisions.
Jenkins always expected Flores to sound breathy and demure, and she never did. He supposed it was because the tech was the only woman he saw anymore, and before she got assigned on TF-Day his only regular exposure to femininity for six years had been taxi dancers and radio broadcasts. But Flores’ voice had an edge behind it, and if it wavered at all that was only because she hadn’t slept for three days. She was always light sleeper, as might be expected of a woman bunking in the rough with an 12-man rifle squad. But for days she’d been using a hand-held antenna she’s cobbled together—the men thought of it as Flores’ Curler—to find a radio signal from a short-wave transceiver… or something like that. Once Flores started talking about single sidebands and killer-hurts, Jenkins got lost.
“Yep Lieu, something, but nothing much good.” Jenkins’ quick glance had showed him that Flores had one cup of her field-headset over her left ear, with her badly banged up field radio hooked by wires to a bigger set they’d found in the family’s small electronics shop. She’d clearly gotten the whole rig working, another miracle to be noted when she was brought up for sainthood. Jenkins assumed she waved Lt. Morgan over to listen to the other end of the headset, since the lieutenant crossed the room to stand next to her. For several long moments no one spoke, and Jenkins could hear the hiss of snow outside and the muffled squawk of voices over the radio.
“We not… tysk?”
The trembling voice of the woman in the nightshirt did sound like Jenkin’s theoretical radio-girl, except for the heavy Norwegian accent. He was startled enough he lowered his rifle from center-mass to a sloppy leg shot and spat out “What, sweetheart?”
“We…,” the woman gestured to her whole family, “not tysk. Not soldat.”
Jenkins got over his surprise at her English, broken as it was, and caught on.
“We know.” He tried to keep it simple. Her English was going to be better than his Norwegian. “We will not harm. We go, soon.”
The mother bit her lip. She was pretty, in a slightly matronly way, and Jenkins was annoyed at himself for noticing. She was pale and had no make-up, having been rousted a few hours before dawn, but her eyes were crisp green, and her hair a glowing long blond braid. She was also, he realized, moving to stand between himself and the tallest of her two daughters.
“That! Can you make that stronger?” Clearly the lieu was talking to Flores about something he heard. Or hoped he heard.
“Not with this crap.”
It always shocked Jenkins when Flores cussed.
“I’m amazed we’re getting as much as we are. Some of it must be bouncing off the snow clouds. We can’t broadcast on any of our channels either, and they just don’t have what I need for a full repair. It wouldn’t be coded anyway, the babel is totally shot, and we’d never decode any reply.”
The oldest boy took a tiny sideways step. Jenkins locked eyes with him, brought the rifle back up to aim at the teen’s chest, and shook his head slowly. The father put one huge hand firmly on the wayward youth’s elbow, and squeezed hard. The gangly teen stopped moving, and looked at the ground. Jenkins prayed that was a sign of acquiescence, and not building determination.
Flores was still talking.
“This is good as that’s going to get, but it sure sounds real, and it sounds close. I can’t say for sure how far my box can pick things up with their big antennae, but it can’t be more than ten miles or so. I’m sure it’s south. Probably pretty close to Sweden.”
Lt. Morgan paused before speaking. “Can the Tumbleweed make it that far?”
“Maybe, just, if we get lucky on terrain. She’s got a bunch of bad fins, and one gyro is totally shot. Our best chance is if it’s just me inside driving, since I’m the lightest.”
Lt. Morgan walked to Jenkins’ side and turned his back to the family so they couldn’t see him softly speaking.
“Sergeant, what are the chances we can safely stay here a night or two?”
Jenkins shook his head, but didn’t take his eyes off the family. “None, sir. I don’t think they’re Skaugies, but I don’t think they’re resistance either. What they mostly are is worried and afraid. If we push our uninvited stopover, the younger kid is definitely going to get a case of stupid.”
Lt. Morgan removed his glassed and pinched the bridge of his nose, and said nothing. As the silence grew, so did Jenkins’ concern. When the lieu stayed in that position for several seconds, the sergeant cleared his throat.
“Sir, we can’t stay here without locking these folks in a cellar or something. It sounds like you didn’t pick up any clear signal from command or any of the units we hoped to link up with?”
Lt. Morgan dropped his hand, and replaced his glasses as he shook his head.
“No, it sounds like everyone had as terrible an arrival as we did, and no one is in position. It’s skirmishes and falling back and calls for support. Not a repeat of ’44, but bad enough. It may take weeks for a firm beachhead to be established, if one ever is, and we don’t have that kind of time. We need to find someplace we can either repair or scuttle the Tumbleweed, and if possible we need to link up with someone. Flores has a signal that sounds like a friendly force, but…”
“Not, I take it, Expeditionary troops, sir?”
“No, sergeant. Night Ogres, if the signal is genuine. At least two, maybe more.”
Jenkins felt himself give a heavy sigh. Any Expeditionary unit could be counted on to be reasonably dependable and professional. Night Ogres were Russian, and he was never clear if they were considered heavy infantry or light walkers. That was better than dealing with Free Corps, but maybe not by a lot. On the other hand, any heavy infantry was likely to have a mechanic and supply officers, or something similar. And Russian forces might still have a working supply line, or at least a known rendezvous point. If there was any shot of getting the Tumbleweed back to full fighting rotation, especially if they were going to have to fight their way back to some distant position, it was worth the risk.
Even as Jenkins decided he needed to recommend joining up with the Night Ogres, Lt. Morgan nodded to himself and clasped Jenkins’ shoulder. Jenkins had no idea why that made him feel better, but it always did. The lieu’s voice held no hint of doubt.
“Flores, grab what you can that might help keep us in contact. Get Kovac and Spencer as pack mules if you need them, and tell them to get their gear out of Joe-Louis. They’re walking. Jenkins, keep the locals calm and controlled until I give you the word, then we’ll back out. They may raise a ruckus, but if the father is building crystal sets for a living he’s a smart man. I think we can trust to know if he can see us we can also see, and shoot, him. I don’t think they’ll raise an alarm until we’re out of site, and by then the storm will give us cover.”
Jenkins nodded, and let the muzzle of his rifle drop an inch or so. He hoped that made him look like he felt it was less likely he’d have to shoot them. Nazis he was ready to shoot, and Skaugum collaborators were just tall Nazis. Heck, in six years of fighting he’d shot kriegshunds, jotuns, ghuls, kyries, and automats without batting an eye or losing a wink. Set a few on fire too, and blown up an unknown number.
But even to keep his brothers- (and sister-) in-arms safe, he wasn’t sure he could shoot a family in cold blood, just because they’d owned a radio.
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