Arcus Bellum

A firsthand account of the war on the machine.

All around us the concussive thunder continues its deadly drumroll. Ever present is the ugly smell of burning horsehair; all that is left of the insulation of the aging building. An unspoken signal is given, and our broken battalion of thirty-seven ICAF troopers rises with little more than a slight rustle and makes its way out through the shattered glass doors.

            We quickly secure the small courtyard and Captain Yates tries once again to contact Base.

            “Beta Team calling Mombasa. Beta Team calling Mombasa. Mombasa, do you read?”

            The radio is silent save the hissing of static. Yates slams his fist down onto the coms set with an audible thump. “Dammit…” he says through gritted teeth. He kicks the radio hard, sending it tumbling into a corner. An ensign moves in to pick it up, but the captain stops him. “No”, he says. “It’s no use to us now. Mombasa is gone. We’re on our own”. He gives the signal and we march, clearing the tiny courtyard as stealthily as possible. He stays behind momentarily, and I swear I hear him whisper to himself. “God help us. God help us all”.

            Within minutes we are back on the city streets, equipment shifting and rustling rhythmically as our boots contact the crumbling pavement in perfect unison. High buildings wall us in on two sides, the rest obscured by a thin fog, veiling everything within thirty meters. Overhead, streetlights fizz in and out, giving each one of us the same horrifying message. They’ve reached the substations. It’s only a matter of time before they control the city.

            We continue our patrol until a hand signal tells us to stop. It’s a sergeant up front. He hears something. We listen, and presently everyone hears it. The groaning of steel under stress. Hydraulics. The acrid smell of ozone begins to creep into our noses. There is a low popping sound like a grenade launcher, and something can be heard screaming through the air. My eyes widen and I fumble at my hip for the mask.

            “Gas! GAS! Masks, quickly!”

            There is a desperate scramble for the awkward visors, the greenish vapor slowly creeping out of the mist. Screams are heard from the front lines, and through the misty panes of the mask I see four men drowning under a green sea.

            Drowning. That’s the word they use to describe it now. It started with the attack on the senate, all those years ago. When the investigators announced that four hundred people had drowned in a room full of air…

            A Lieutenant shouts, breaking my concentration, his voice muffled by vulcanized rubber.

            “Troopers! Return fire! Full automatic!”

            Thirty-three machine guns chatter in unison, ripping into the fog and leaving streaks of light behind. There is not the sound of bullets striking flesh but the sound of lead meeting steel, an unabating clatter that penetrates to the very soul.

            A section of the mist darkens momentarily, and an iron tree as thick as one’s waist impacts the asphalt, scattering jagged pieces of rock across our compact theater of war.

            Suddenly there are three bright flashes and rockets streak over our heads with fiery tails, troopers with launchers now assaulting the encroaching pylon.

            The missiles impact with startling concussions and the golem sways, emitting a metallic shriek of such a frequency that nearby windows crack and shatter. The beast does not stop coming however, and the front lines break as it materializes out of the fog, towering over the soldiers by easily fifty meters.

            Over the shouts of retreat I hear an ascending whine, low pitched at first and rising towards the edge of hearing. Under the insulated combat uniform I feel the hairs on my arms begin to stand on end. The smell of ozone is much stronger now, permeating the thick filters of the gas mask.

            I grab for the metal stanchion at my hip and pull it free of its holster, trailing behind it a long spool of silver wire. I search frantically for a patch of exposed earth.

            I spot one, the locus at which the golem’s limb had first impacted the decaying pavement. I sprint towards it and ram the spike into the dirt with my boot heel. No sooner had I done so then there was a mighty crack of thunder as white-hot electricity sears the air. All up and down the crumbling thoroughfare light bulbs explode in their sockets, becoming showers of golden sparks in seconds. I feel like my skin has caught fire as the incredible current passes through my body and into the ground, the soil around my metal stanchion fusing into a crude glass star.

            There is a groan and I look up as the great steel beast lurches, its movements becoming choppy and erratic. With one last grating cry it pitches violently sideways into a building, showering me with brick and glass. In the distance I can hear the whirring of oscillating rotors.


            The downdraft of the tilt-rotor created mystical swirls in the green smog, sending it undulating through the air as if it were alive. What remains of our squadron picks its way through the rubble and charred skeletons of those who had not been grounded. I look over the surviving men; at their starving, battle-weary bodies; their torn and bloodied uniforms. No longer were we the proud regiment of young men eager to serve the cause of war. War had beaten us. War is hell.

Corporal John H. Hanover



The End

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