No one else in camp could illuminate the strange silver device's use for Sarge, however, not even the Legos. Though the Black soldier who was with the expedition offered to run some tests on it using his equipment and the boosted radio he had designed. Sarge gave it into his protection, making sure to check in over the Black's long range communication system with Bakelite back in the Capitol, who reported everything normal, before settling down for a restless night of sleep.
Corporal Ester woke him just before dawn. The gray light of early morning filtered in through the tent flap, and the sounds of an army stirring broke the quiet predawn stillness. He adjusted his plastic helmet, slung his rifle over his shoulder, and went to prepare his men to move out.
The tenseness Sarge had felt the previous day was, if anything, magnified as the expedition prepared to actually enter the park. Despite trying to keep a lid on it, rumors of what the Blue scouts and Sarge had discovered in the grass circulated among the men. A quiet hum of low, worried voices and whispers cut off whenever Sarge approached squads around campfires, or knots of plastic troops loading trucks.
He sighed. It couldn't be helped. The men would talk. And maybe they were right to be worried.
At oh-six-thirty, with the sun just starting to poke over the tops of weeds and the tall grass, the column started into the park.
Sarge had always led from the front during his service as an infantry grunt, but his time Ester prevailed on him to travel protected, in the middle of the column. The Corporal had wanted the President to travel buttoned up in the belly of an armored tank, but that was out of the question. Sarge wouldn't be thought a coward who hid to save his own plastic skin. Not in front of the men.
So he and Ester, with an extra detail of two Green bodyguards manning the mounted machine gun, traveled in the same jeep as yesterday, but sandwiched between the protective hulls of the two Green tanks, one in front, one behind. A compromise to ease Ester's worry for his Commander in Chief.
The helicopter, a comforting presence the previous day, lifted off and hovered high above the edge of the park, but did not enter along with the column. It provided what visual reports it could over the radio, and then turned to fly back to the safety of the Confederation, too rare and expensive an asset for the new nation's much-reduced air force to be thrown away on a dangerous mission like this. As the expedition rounded a bend in the path the helicopter was lost from sight.
As before, the Blue scouts ranged ahead of the main force, speeding along the path and reporting any unusual sightings. Slate and the Dusk Fists brought up the rear again, half tracks sweeping their machine guns along the grassline warily. Two Green jeeps led the column, the men in each on high alert, eyes scanning the path ahead while reports from the Blue motorbikes crackled on the radio.
They soon passed the break in the foliage that marked the path Sarge and Bouchard had traveled the previous night to the abandoned Green Willys jeep. Sarge shivered, imagining hidden eyes watching him once more. This jungle could be concealing anything within the dark shadows of gently waving grass.
The sun climbed slowly as the expedition snaked along the bike path, and the light began to soak into the plastic of men and vehicles alike, dispelling the early morning chill. It was going to be a beautiful day. And at this rate the little army would be through the park by the early afternoon. Sarge allowed himself a cautious smile. Hopefully their luck would hold.
The column rounded a bend in the path. Ahead, a massive tree, taller than a skyscraper by toy soldier standards, threw its shadow across the black pavement of the path, where another bend concealed the rest of the road. Sarge remembered there used to be a Green outpost at the base of the tree; built as a fuel depot and defensive position to guard the trade route through the park. It had even had a lift to the highest branches in the tree, where observation posts, snipers, and anti-air emplacements had been situated. He rooted around in the jeep for his binoculars and put them to his eyes.
He sighed. The wooden and earthen walls of the defenses showed gaping holes in several locations, black scorch marks indicating tank or artillery fire. The barbed wire that surrounded them was torn and rusty. The gates were open, and a tattered Green Republic flag lay on the ground just inside them. A search of the branches above found nothing better. Burned and blackened AA positions, a torn length of cable where the lift had been. It was too much to assume a small garrison like this had survived the chaos after the Cataclysm. They had probably been the victims of one of the first wild Tan offensives after the portals vanished.
He returned the binoculars to their place next to his seat, as another report from the Blue scouts crackled in on the short-range radio.
"We 'ave passed zee old Green outpost. Eet eez abandoned. Zere eez nozzing else to report ozzair zan-"
The message cut off abruptly, and Sarge sat up intently, "What happened? Where did Bouchard go?"
Ester frowned next to him, adjusting the radio before replying, "Maybe they're just on the far side of the tree and it's interfering with the signal."
He didn't seem too sure of his own explanation.
"No," Sarge knew something was wrong. The prickling on his neck he'd felt before in the clearing next to the shot-up jeep was back now as a full-fledged alarm signal. He grabbed the radio's microphone, "Everyone halt! Assume defensive positions immediately!"
But nothing happened. His order was met with silence as the column rumbled on. He tried again and again nothing happened.
Ester pointed to the dark light on the dashboard, "The radio's out."
Sarge cursed and stood up in the still-moving jeep, waving to the tank behind them to halt. It did, and the long column of troops and vehicles behind it did likewise. But Sarge noticed a conspicuous absence at the very rear of the column: Slate's company of Grays was gone. They must have disappeared as the rest of the expedition rounded the recent bend in the path.
Suspicion flared in Sarge's brain. Only now did he remember his conversation with Slate the night before, the old Gray's confusing question about the position of the Dusk Fists in the column. His apparent satisfaction when Sarge had told him they'd be at the very rear.
Was this Razz's endgame? Had he betrayed Sarge somehow? Lured him and the Confederation's troops into a trap?
As these thoughts raced through his brain the Green jeeps and tank in front, having not seen the order to halt, continued forward down the path. They hadn't yet noticed no one was following them.
Sarge turned frantically to Ester, "Drive us in front, we have to get their atten—"
Before he could even finish speaking a thunderous explosion pierced the air and he looked back in time to see one of the jeeps shoot skyward, its passengers flung like rag dolls from the vehicle as its fuel ignited. Chunks of burned and melted plastic rained down from the blue sky.
Then everything happened at once.
The second jeep ahead swerved sharply to the right, even as another explosion struck it on the wheel and flipped it on its side, sending the passengers sprawling to the pavement. Mines . The tank behind it ground to a halt, the turret traversing slowly, looking for targets. Then out of the thick grass to either side of the column came a storm of rifle fire. Bullets whizzed angrily past Sarge's head and tore chunks off the lightly-armored plastic of his jeep.
The tank behind him roared and a geyser of dirt erupted in the grass on one side. The rest of the column roused sluggishly to action, men scrambled out of trucks, some staggering and falling as they were hit, others hunkering behind tires and doors to return fire. Blue energy bolts sizzled into the brush from the Legos, firing through weapon holes in their armored transport.
The worst thing to do in an ambush, Sarge knew, was stay in the kill zone.
"Turn this thing around!" Sarge shouted over the cracking gunfire.
But even as he said it, he saw it was too late. His men were pinned down, already outside of their transports, firing desperately into the grass on either side at the half-hidden shapes and muzzle flashes of their mysterious attackers. And behind them, rounding the corner along the pathway now came, not Slate's Gray rearguard, but a sinister line of massed infantry that immediately opened fire on the back of the beleaguered column.
Despite the severity of the situation, Sarge stared motionless, shocked, at the attacking enemy soldiers. They were a mix of colors, Green, Blue, Gray and, he could hardly believe it, Tan . Sarge had never known the Tan to work with other colors as equals. Sure, they'd hired Gray mercenaries or Blue spies to do their dirty work for them, but there'd always been an implicit hierarchy in the relationship, with the self-professed "Supreme Color" at the top. They certainly never marched shoulder-to-shoulder into battle with their inferiors.
Almost as if his hands had a mind of their own, heedless of the bullets zipping by like vicious wasps around him, he pulled his binoculars to his eyes. The strange enemy soldiers' movements were jerky, like the Mad Gray Doctor's zombies, but without the uncoordinated randomness of those horrors. These things moved with an eery, synchronized gait, rifles snapping to shoulders with such unified precision that even Sarge's old drill master, Master Sergeant Grizzle, would have been unable to find fault. And that hard-bitten plastic warrior had been able to spot a single speck of dust on an otherwise immaculately polished plastic combat boot from a hundred paces away.
He thought he caught a flash of silver among them as more rifle fire poured from their ranks. But as he tried to focus his binoculars on what he'd seen, Ester tackled him to the ground. The binoculars went skittering along the cracked pavement, and Sarge hit the concrete with a painful thud.
The blow served to bring him back to his senses and, as if waking from a dream, he looked around. The thunder and fury of the battle raging around him intruded again on his hearing. Ester's panicked face filled his vision as the two plastic soldiers huddled in the scant cover of the jeep's shadow. Above, the jeep's machine gun began thundering as one of the Green bodyguards raked the grass line to their left with fire. The second bodyguard leapt out to put himself between Sarge and the other grass line, kneeling and firing indiscriminately into the jungle-like weeds.
Sarge gritted his teeth, nodded reassurance to Ester and, pushing himself up to a crouch, retrieved his rifle from the jeep's seat behind him. He checked that the safety was off before signaling the corporal to follow him. They had to get the column moving again.