Chapter 1: Prologue: The Cataclysm
It was a good time to be a toy soldier. Although the war still raged, the newly discovered portals had changed everything. They opened a path to an unexplored world, full of amazing technologies and discoveries not even guessed at by plastic scientists.
The original inhabitants of this world, a large "flesh" being, had mysteriously disappeared long before the arrival of plastic-kind. Scientists were already reverse-engineering the "human" technology and creating incredible scientific advances. Lifespan increased, new comfort machines and entertainment became available. The disease "plastrification," a rare side-effect of living too long in the new world, was discovered and cured. Colonists came from every side of the globe, of every color and nationality, to make a new life in the "portal world" or, as it came to be named, "New Plastica."
Intelligent life was even discovered; in large quantity and surprisingly diverse. None were as powerful as the toy soldiers, or as numerous, but many were advanced and acutely knowledgeable of the planet. The most highly-developed were a race called the "Micro Machines." Though diminutive and scarce, they possessed things like hover cars, energy weapons, and the makings of what would eventually become interplanetary starships. Others the army men encountered included the "Legos," a race of dwarves that used plastic building bricks to colonize almost anywhere, and the "Action Figures," an advanced and warlike race that were also solitary and territorial.
However, plastic life was not all the army men found: there was large, though unintelligent, flesh life that thrived in this world and was, often as not, lethal to a toy soldier. There were giant, plastic-eating "ants," there were "dogs" and "birds" and many other things that would sooner digest a Plastican as look at him.
Into this varied world the toy soldiers brought their armies, their colonists, and their war. Both sides turned New Plastica into a new theater of destruction. Terrifying weapons were invented. Mass destruction became a well-known term. Huge, house-like arcologies became the battlegrounds for fierce clashes of the two sides. Colonists lived in perpetual fear of massacre by an invading army.
Many of the other intelligent races eventually became caught up in the conflict, suffering as collateral damage, and began attacking any toy soldiers, regardless of color. Some toy soldiers deserted their country and escaped into the unexplored wilderness to form their own nations or simply to leave the violent war behind them. They became nomadic groups, trying to survive and destroying anything that hampered that goal, or simply disappeared, never to be heard from again.
Several years after the initial discovery of New Plastica a strange, saucer-shaped craft crashed onto Tan-held land. Its passengers were Orange plastic aliens who claimed to be from the Orange Empire, a nation spanning several planets. The Tan commander, General Plastro, negotiated an alliance with these beings and renewed an offensive on the Greens using the superior technology of the Oranges.
However, unbeknownst to Plastro, the Oranges were in a war of their own against a group of light blue, technologically advanced army men called the Galactic Alliance. The Greens were able to secure a treaty with the Galactic troopers and, with their aid, succeeded in destroying the Orange Empire. Soon thereafter a temporary cease-fire was negotiated with the Tans and an unsteady peace settled throughout the war-torn planets.
It appeared as if a golden age was about to begin. Trade with the Galactic Alliance allowed great technological leaps to be made. All plastic life benefitted from the discovery of the new world. Soon more planets were encountered via the mysterious network of portals. Exploration teams came back with strange and wonderful stories; the universe, it seemed was open for the taking.
Then, without warning, or apparent reason, all the portals, everywhere, disappeared.
The portals, the mysterious blue gateways that linked New Plastica with Plastica, the new world with the old, and the many planets of the Galactic Alliance and the conquered Orange Empire, simply ceased to exist. The pulsing blue energy that powered them vanished.
Suddenly, covert deep-strike and exploration teams were left without means of escape, communication and trade with the Galactic Alliance cut off and, most seriously for the armies and colonists on New Plastica, the doorway back to their home closed. The chaos that followed the disappearance of the portals was unmatched.
New nations formed in the new world, it was decided that if they were stuck there, they'd be stuck there on their own terms.
Chapter 2: The Confederation of Elm Street
Hawk sighed, shifting his weight in the uncomfortable chair. He hated this. Hawk had been many things in his life, he had been "Private Hawk," "PFC Hawk," "Sergeant Hawk," he had become "General Hawk" after that affair with the Orange Empire, but " President Hawk?" He could take forced marches, enemy fire, and dangerous covert missions, what he could not take was politics.
"Sarge," as he still liked to be called, had been a devoted soldier all his plastic life, unquestioningly obeying the orders that came down to him from Green High Command. He never thought one day he would be issuing similar orders. Of course, it had never occurred to him that he would be stranded away from the homeland he loved so dear either.
It wasn't as if the title "President" meant anything out here anyway. Not much had meaning in the untamed wilderness of "New Plastica." Besides, President of what? Of a few groups of disparate plastic soldiers who had stopped squabbling amongst themselves long enough to sign a constitution creating the "Confederation of Elm Street?" A nation that spanned a total of eight giant "houses" on either side of a major thoroughfare, a landmass, in toy soldier measurements, of roughly four square miles? Still, he had been elected to lead these plastics, he had a duty to fulfill, no matter how much he missed his Green Country.
"—demand that we be allowed special rights pertaining to the distribution of raw plastic-"
Sarge, exasperated, suddenly cut off the delegate, "Senator, no one's getting special privileges. All parties, the "Wolverines" included, are equal members of the Confederation, with equal rights."
"Then we have no choice but to withdraw our military and the house we control from your "Confederation" Mr. President."
"Razz, you and I both know such a move would do you more harm than good. Without the added military protection and resources the Confederation offers, how long do you think 1619 Elm Street will remain in your hands? Just whose tanks do you think patrol your yard? The very next Raider attack, or insect infestation would overwhelm you, and I can assure you, should you pursue such a course of action, no help would be forthcoming from the other houses and principalities that make up the Confederation. Think about your own future. I'll see you in the Senate chambers." At this obvious dismissal, the delegate, Razz, a Gray, stood up and left Hawk's office.
God I hate politics.
It had all happened so fast. That fateful day he had just returned from a four planet tour of goodwill with Tina Tomorrow; the Green Republic and Galactic Alliance were showing off their two most decorated war heroes. Thinking back on that time caused him a stab of regret, Tina and he had made plans afterwards to do a more "private" trip, away from all the fanfare and intrusive press coverage of their bravery.
It had been mere moments after she disappeared into the portal, promising to return in a week, and leaving a lingering kiss on his battle-scarred plastic face. He was walking to the door of the building that housed the portal, and turned back just in time to see the portal contort. He had watched, fascinated, as the blue energy twisted and writhed, flexing outward and doubling back onto itself. Suddenly it began to shrink, emitting a horrible screeching sound as it began sucking air into itself. A Green technician, unlucky enough to be nearby, was sucked into the collapsing portal. Sarge only escaped a similar fate by grabbing the doorway and holding on for dear life, even as he was lifted almost horizontal by the incredible gravitonic forces centered in the portal.
When it was over, not even the artificial frame constructed around the portal remained.
He soon learned similar incidents all across the known world had occurred, no portal remained, no messages from the other side came through. They were alone. Immediately after the "Cataclysm" as plastics now were wont to call it, all hell broke loose. The Tan forces on New Plastica, assuming some sort of Green conspiracy, used the incident as an excuse to repudiate the tenuous cease-fire, and launched a furious planet-wide offensive against Green forces and colonies. Numerous splinter groups and extremist factions, who before had only been kept in check by the enormous power wielded by the Green Republic and Galactic Alliance, exploited the new power vacuum and made punitive wars of conquest and committed acts of terrorism.
Sarge was quick to recover and analyze the situation. He wasted no time in rallying the still loyal Green forces and consolidating them into an easily defensible, and resource rich territory; the neighborhood around Elm Street. After repelling two Tan attacks on what Sarge still referred to as "Green Command in New Plastica" he began to expand the amount of territory the Greens controlled, assimilating four other factions into the precarious alliance that finally became, officially, The Confederation of Elm Street.
After a full year now of almost constant strife and warfare, struggling to maintain civilization as the waves of barbarism lapped hungrily at the shore, Hawk had almost despaired of ever leaving New Plastica. Of course he devoted every spare resource to researching what went wrong with the portals, and how to reactivate them, but since scarcely anything had been known about them before the Cataclysm, progress proceeded at a maddeningly glacial pace.
Even more maddening, the expansion of the Confederation had been slowed by political infighting. It had all begun with the decision to include the first non-toy soldier political entity in the Confederation, a small nation of "Legos" that controlled a strategic house on the corner of the block. Many of the other factions in the Confederation reacted with xenophobic hatred, deaf to Sarge's arguments that the move made strategic sense, and that new times required new modes of thinking. The Senate had been a figurative battleground over the last week, with delegates from the different factions arguing vehemently for and against the proposal.
Backing Sarge's proposed alliance were the senators of the Green faction, by far the largest voting bloc in the Confederation, constituting nearly sixty percent of the nation's population, and the senators from the FreeWorld faction, a group consisting of a mixture of Green, Blue, Gray, Red, and Black toy soldiers committed to maintaining political liberty at all costs.
Arrayed against him were the three newest factions to be included in the Confederation; the Gray mercenary group "The Wolverines" of which Razz was a delegate, the infocratic Blue state of "NueBleu," and the Green splinter faction "Rogue."
Unfortunately, each of the five factions was accorded an equal vote in the senate, a decision Hawk now regretted making, and so if the Confederation was to keep expanding, and not fade into oblivion, Hawk needed the vote of the delegates from at least one more faction.
He glanced at his watch and stood up with a sigh. Time to face the music.
The Senate was located at 1614 Elm Street, in the capitol house of the Confederation. The basement had been designated the seat of government for the fledgling nation, as it could survive sustained bombardment by all but the most deadly weapons and, with only one way in, it was easily defensible. The capitol city, illuminated by the artificial suns of the fluorescent bulbs above, was an untidy sprawl of half-finished and hastily erected buildings, mostly cardboard, but with some newer wood and brick buildings here and there. The cacophony of construction and debris clearing continued day and night; the basement was a hive of activity, with raw materials coming down the stairs and cranes and helicopters lifting stone, wood and cardboard into place.
It was a short walk from the Green House, the official residence of the president, to the Senate chambers located in the Capitol building, and Sarge used the time to collect his thoughts. Trailed by two ever-present security guards, he mulled over his proposed course of action. It would be dangerous, and convincing the other Green representatives to go along with his plan hadn't been easy. But he had no other choice! If he couldn't get the fledgling Confederation to recognize the importance of unity, all they had worked for would be lost, and the next catastrophe or invasion would return this outpost of Plastican civilization to the abyss of barbarity, genocide, and a brutish fight for bare survival.
Sarge was stopped outside the half-finished capitol building by a stern-faced green guard. Despite his easily recognizable visage, Sarge had insisted that all visitors be checked thoroughly before being granted entry; one can never have too many precautions. Sarge showed the guard his papers and was waved through the barbed wire barrier and onto the steps of the capitol. When it was finished, the capitol building would be an imposing and grand structure. Already it dominated the basement and the Lilliputian scattering of buildings surrounding it. Modeled after the capitol building of Green City, back on Plastica, it would soon boast a magnificent dome, topped with a golden flagpole and the standard of the Confederation, a green, blue and grey flag with a snarling "dog" and the motto, "A Light in the Darkness" inscribed beneath it.
Sarge entered the building and turned right to go to the temporary Senate Chambers, an unprepossessing room used by the lawmakers until the main Chambers and their magnificent dome were completed. He could already tell by the level of noise emanating from behind the closed door that it was going to be a long session. As he walked into the Chambers the level of noise remained, and he observed several of the hundred or so senators out of their seats and gesticulating wildly at each other. He ascended the steps to the Speaker's podium and, when the shouting and speaking continued, brought the gavel down on the wooden surface hard.
No one noticed. "Gentleman! Senators, please!" he struggled to be heard above the uproar. This was too much, he gazed at the gathered politicians with mounting anger. Couldn't they at least be civil? He tried once more to get their attention with the gavel, but everyone ignored him, continuing their vehement arguments. Alright, he thought, enough. He slowly unholstered his standard issue sidearm, aimed it at the ceiling, and fired off three shots in quick succession. The booms of the pistol reports filled the enclosed space like thunder.
As the echoes of the shots died away, the Chambers became deathly silent and the stunned lawmakers turned towards Sarge. He smiled sardonically, "Gentleman, I hereby call this fourth session of the Confederation Congress to order."
Chapter 3: Parliamentary Procedures
Sarge didn't really have that much of a plan. Certainly had he presented it to any sort of sophisticated politician like the ones that populated the Green Senate back on Old Plastica he would have been laughed right out of the Senator's opulent office. But this wasn't Old Plastica, this was New Plastica and the plastic men in the room before him were hardly sophisticated politicians. They were a rough combination of hard military men, flinty settlers, and coarse mercenaries, and none of them had opulent offices. They were lucky to have a ten by ten space in one of the recently constructed cardboard buildings of the capital city. Many of the delegates even slept in these "offices" during the times the Senate was in session and they were away from their home factions. New Plastica was still very much a wild frontier; now more than ever, with supplies from Plastica cut off. This unsettled world was hardly the place for sophisticated politicians. Besides, Sarge didn't have to convince all of the Confederation Senators with his plan, just one more faction.
Holstering his pistol in a slow, exaggerated motion, Sarge began to speak. "Now I ain't big on formality, but should this august senatorial body feel the need to become as disrespectful again, I will not hesitate to restore order with Bertha here" he patted the firearm, "And I can't promise I'll point it away from you gentlemen next time."
A thin blue figure from the back of the room spoke, "Meestair Prezident, I must protest your unorthodox and highly dangerouz uze of weapons insi-"
"Can it, Jaques!" (Sarge pronounced it "Jack") "We have several important issues to discuss today and," he smiled pointedly at the ruffled blue Senator, "I think you'll like what I have to say this time."
At this the senators all perked up their ears. Sarge went on, in that gravelly voice of his, "For the last year The Confederation has barely survived. I don't need to tell you how precarious, even now, our situation is. Though we managed to drive off the initial Tan offensive, survived the exodus to this new neighborhood, and action figure terrorism has stalled for the time being, we're still dealing with a large, unknown, dangerous world. When our long range communications went down we lost contact with every Green outpost, military base and civilian colony outside this neighborhood, and without the portals the Galactic Alliance's ships won't be able to reach us for years." He paused for dramatic effect, "Gentlemen, we are well and truly alone here. And we don't know what's out there, waiting for us. We don't know what, or who, is behind the destruction of the portals, and we don't know when the next blow will fall. We need allies." Sarge was gripping the podium now, his green knuckles standing out as he clenched the wooden surface tightly, "Now, more than ever, a faction of natives, like the Legos, who have been on this world a long time, who know its dangers and geography, and who can contribute to our common defense and knowl-"
The rest of his speech was drowned out by the voices of a hundred angry senators.
"How can we trust—?"
"So short and disgust— "
"—not like us!"
"Probably not even real plastic!"
He had hoped one last appeal to reason would work, would save him from having to resort to his "plan." He should have known better.
He waited for the tumult to die down again, gesturing meaningfully at his sidearm until there was quiet once more. "I'm calling this matter to a vote, but before I do, I'd like to make an announcement." The multi-colored plastic faces in the crowd all looked at him expectantly, their exteriors shiny in the electric light. Sarge felt oddly calm, at least this way I can get back to doing real work . He'd already talked it over with Lieutenant Bakelite, the acting operational commander of the Green forces of the Confederation, and the young Plastican had agreed this was only a last-resort plan. His displeasure at the idea was written all over his smooth features.
"It's been almost a year since the Cataclysm, but our Confederation is still only a few months old. We haven't yet had time for an election to determine a Vice President to serve under me, and to serve as acting President should anything happen to yours truly. As I am President, I have the power to appoint a temporary Vice President to fill this role. Now," here it comes , "I am going to exercise this authority for the following reason: I will be personally commanding an expedition to re-establish contact with the colony of Nova Greenia. I will leave within the week."
There were audible gasps from the politicians around the table, and a slow buzz of voices and whispers filled the air like the idling engine purr of a combat jeep.
Sarge spoke over the excited murmurs, "Naturally I will appoint someone from a faction I trust, someone who sees eye-to-eye with me on important issues, someone who has the guts to think of the Confederation first, and their own goals second. And I will be making my decision after the vote on the inclusion of 1622 Elm Street, controlled by the Lego freehold, into the Confederation." The implication was clear.
There was a moment of silence after Sarge finished speaking, then an energetic murmur as senators split into their respective factions and began conferring in hurried whispers. He'd planned to give them ten minutes to make up their minds. He only needed five.
Razz walked smiling up to the podium, flanked by two other Gray senators. He leaned in conspiratorially, "I am happy to announce, Mr. President, that you have our vote on the issue of 1622 Elm Street and," his smile grew wider, "we would also like to commit a full company of our troops to your expedition. The Dusk Fists."
This was unexpected .
As if as an aside, the Gray continued, "We hope, of course, to share in any discoveries and wealth resulting in the mission."
Ah, there it was .
The Gray faction of the Confederation, like all the factions, was required by the constitution they'd signed to provide fifty percent of their soldiers to the official Confederation army, to be under the central command of Lieutenant Bakelite. But the other half could be used at their discretion, whether to defend their own house, help another faction, or as labor to build defenses and mine raw plastic. The Gray leaders, like the Gray mercenary captains of Old Plastica, maintained their own retinues of elite guards to defend what wealth they could seize. That Razz was offering up his own personal guard for the expedition was a highly unusual honor.
It made Sarge suspicious.
Either Razz and his faction wanted the Vice Presidency more than he knew, or something else was at work behind the scenes. Sarge, not for the first time, wished he were a better politician, skilled at peeling back the layers and machinations of adversaries to reveal the true motives underneath. But he was a straightforward, plastic military man, and his mind operated in bright primary colors; Green, and Tan, not shades of Gray. If Razz was planning something, there wasn't anything Sarge could do about it.
Besides, the Grays had their own code of honor, alien as it was to Sarge's own sense of moral duty to plastic and country. Back on the old world they'd allied with the Tans more often than not, but mainly because of how uptight Green High Command was about using mercenaries. Didn't play right for the folks back home, to see other colors fighting their war. Or some such nonsense.
But just because Sarge had fought Grays, didn't mean he didn't respect them. Sure, they fought for money, but they honored their contracts. At the siege of Verdure City he'd once watched a whole platoon cut down to a man rather than surrender if it meant going against the terms under which they'd been hired. And they were some of the best damn guerrilla and irregular fighters Sarge had ever seen.
So, maybe Razz was planning something. Or maybe he just wanted a share of the loot, and first pickings among the ruins of Nova Greenia, if they ever reached it. Either way, Sarge was glad to put off thinking about it until the future. For now, he had the one additional faction vote he needed.
He tried to smile, worried it came out as a grimace instead, stopped, and held his hand out to Razz, "Glad to have you with us, Mr. Vice President."
Chapter 4: Around the Block
The expedition would be a reconnaissance in force. Enough troops and firepower to hopefully dissuade all but the most determined attackers. Just as much of the Confederation's military might as the fledgling nation could spare without stretching the remaining defense forces too thin.
Sarge had made sure it was a mixed color force, like the Confederation itself. A core contingent of one hundred Green infantry with two tanks, six jeeps, and four trucks was joined by ten Blue scouts, each riding a nimble motorbike, two Reds and a Black manning a boosted comms system of their own design, Razz's Gray company of fifty troops, four halftracks, and two light artillery pieces and, after the successful vote to include them in the Confederation, a squad of ten, dwarf-like Legos, riding in a tracked vehicle and brandishing rifles and mysterious energy weapons.
The force would be escorted to the edge of the neighborhood by one of the Confederation's few remaining helicopters, but it would turn back at the park and the ground expedition would finish the journey on its own. If all went well, they would reach their destination in under a week.
It was at least five blocks to the park, which they'd have to cross, and then another ten blocks to the main site of Nova Greenia. The colony had been the capital city of the Green territory on New Plastica, the first house to be colonized, and the biggest population center in the new world.
It had gone silent after the Cataclysm. After all the portals simultaneously shrieked and died. No attempt to reach the city by radio had been successful. No planes or helicopters sent to investigate ever came back. The single ground patrol Sarge sent in their wake, ten men in two fast-moving Willys jeeps, was never heard from again.
Sarge had always meant to send an expedition to reestablish contact with the city, but with Tan attacks, insect infestations, and the work of creating the Confederation, he'd had no time. If Razz hadn't forced his hand Sarge would have liked to wait just a little bit longer, to consolidate the defensive positions of the Confederation. Despite his own personal hunger to find out what had happened and reconnect with a superior officer, he realized the security of the Confederation and his men came first.
But all that big picture stuff was out of his hands now. At least for a little while all Sarge would have to focus on was good, clean soldiering. No politics for the next week.
He smiled unconsciously as he checked his rifle for the hundredth time, absentmindedly running through the familiar motions of tapping magazines, clearing the receiver, and locking the bolt. The service rifle was as familiar to him as his own arm, and he hadn't realized how much he'd missed it these last few weeks until his fingers finally touched the smooth, hard plastic again. His sidearm was one thing, but nothing compared to the connection between a plastic soldier and his combat rifle.
"I still don't like this." The concern was etched all over Lieutenant Bakelite's smooth features.
Sarge looked up from his rifle, and set it on the hood of the jeep as he replied, "It's only for a week, son. Two weeks, tops. And I'll be in radio communication the whole time."
"Won't be able to get up to too much mischief in so short a time, even as acting President of the Confederation," Sarge cut off the junior officer with an upraised hand. "Besides, he has to abide by the Articles of the Constitution, and if he doesn't, you and the rest of the Green army here can legally unseat him and lock him up until I get back."
Bakelite still didn't look happy, "Yes sir."
Sarge could understand the young soldier's misgivings, but the prospect of another mission, of finally getting into the field again, overwhelmed any sympathy the veteran should have felt. Or any concern of his own past an abstract, detached worry. He didn't dwell on it, hefting his rifle instead and turning towards an approaching Gray figure.
"Gunnery Sergeant Slate," he nodded.
The Gray grunted in acknowledgment, stopping before the two Greens and adopting a practiced at ease stance.
When Razz had first introduced the grizzled commander of the Dusk Fists, Slate had only grudgingly shook Sarge's hand. The taciturn Gray soldier bore a series of deep scars across his plastic body, and a row of them, parallel gouges, down one side of his face. It made his unsmiling demeanor even more menacing. Sarge didn't think he'd heard Slate say a single full sentence since they'd met. He'd liked him immediately.
"Fists're ready," growled the Gray.
"Thank you, Gunnery Sergeant. As soon as the rest of the fuel is loaded we'll leave. I'll give the order on the radio."
Slate snapped off a surprisingly crisp salute, turned on his heel, and marched back the way he'd come, down the column of tanks and trucks and jeeps, toward the Gray contingent making up the rear near the garage door.
The two Greens stood in silence, watching him go, the bustle of the column all around them. As soon as he was out of earshot Bakelite turned again to Sarge.
"I know," Sarge cut him off before he could speak, "You still don't like it."
The other nodded glumly.
Sarge leaned in, his voice low, "Just remember the other precautions I've put in place, if things really go to hell."
Another silent nod of acknowledgement, and Sarge clapped the other soldier on the back, his enthusiasm for the mission again overriding his subordinate's worry.
"Now get back to your post, so you boys can give us a proper send off!"
Bakelite saluted and marched off towards the perimeter defenses, disappearing a moment later into the makeshift elevator running up the mailbox pole. As the door closed it ascended, entering the armored observation post through a hatch cut into the bottom of the mailbox. As the hatch closed, the Confederation flag raised over the tower to flutter limply in the light breeze above.
A young Green corporal came running up to Sarge's side, snapped off a quick salute, and reported, "Fuel's all loaded sir. All elements report combat readiness."
"Thank you, Corporal Ester. And the command jeep?"
The young soldier smiled, breaking his professional composure momentarily before replying, "Sir, the command vehicle has been outfitted as you requested, and is also at full readiness."
"Well good, then let's get this show on the road, Recruit."
"Sir," the corporal smiled again and saluted, walking to the driver's side of the jeep and taking up position behind the wheel. He hadn't been a "recruit" for years, since the start of the Greeno-Tannic wars, but he'd served with Sarge since that time, and old nicknames died hard.
Sarge climbed into the passenger seat beside Ester, laying his rifle across his legs as he shut the door.
He grabbed the radio from the dash, twisted in his seat to survey the long column of troops, tanks, and trucks behind him, and raised an arm as he brought the radio to his mouth, "Confederation force Swift Lightning," he let the arm fall, "Move out!"
Ester put the jeep into gear as Sarge settled back in his seat, the roar of several dozen engines split the calm morning air. The "whump-whump" of rotors cut through the other sounds as the helicopter spun up, lifting gracefully from the concrete of the driveway. Greens and Blues hurriedly moved the barbed-wire barricades at the end of the drive and, slowly, the column started forward.
"Hit it, Recruit."
Hiding another smile, Ester flicked a switch on the dashboard, activating the recently installed loudspeakers on the outside of the jeep. As the force of toy soldiers surged forward, uncoiling like the sinewy muscles of an awakening predator, the first high chords of the music pierced the morning.
The stirring guitar riffs of AG/DG's "Back in Green" wafted over the column, and with the cheers of his men echoing in his ears, Sarge's jeep passed the perimeter defenses, leaving the relative safety of Confederation territory and entering into the untamed and barbarous wastes beyond.
Chapter 5: There Goes the Neighborhood
The journey to the edge of the park was as uneventful as Sarge could have hoped for. The column, traveling along the white concrete gutter area, next to the looming wall of the curb, was sheltered from prying eyes as much as possible. The solid curb on one side, and the gently sloping black tar of the massive roadway on the other, provided a basic level of cover for the wary troops.
Though traveling on the smooth asphalt of the roadway would have been faster, lacking, as it did, the calf-high culverts bisecting the otherwise straight path of the gutter, its subtle convex curve would have exposed the entire column to enemy fire from the elevated sidewalks on both sides of the roadway. It was a hard lesson, learned early on by several unlucky plastic commanders in the new world.
Sarge had ordered the Blue motorbike scouts to screen the advancing force, and they'd sped up the length of the column, fanning out as they ranged ahead of the leading elements. Two had taken to the sidewalks on each side, while the remaining six covered the breadth of the road in front. Sarge's jeep radio crackled with their intermittent reports. All clear ahead. No signs of ambush.
The helicopter, too, called down reports to the Green leader, at one point peeling off from above the column to scare away a large, inquisitive squirrel. Slate's Gray halftracks brought up the rear of the force. Their machine guns swiveled slowly back-and-forth, watching the area behind the column for any sign of pursuit or attack. There was none.
The going was slow in the drainage gutter, but without encountering any resistance or attacks on the column, they reached the edge of the park by mid-day. Sarge hadn't expected any attacks, but the ease of the journey still unsettled him. He felt tense, like he was just waiting for the hammer to fall. From the nervous look on Ester's face, and the brittle, clipped status reports on the radio, Sarge knew the same tension was telling on his men. Whatever had happened to the earlier expeditions, he wanted to get it over with soon. This interminable waiting was worse than whatever might attack them.
But, of course, all the previous expeditions had made it this far without incident, too. Both the helicopter flights, and the men in the Willys jeep patrol had been in full radio contact up to the edge of the park, and for some unknown distance within it. It wasn't until they entered that they had disappeared, never to be heard from again.
The edge of the park was a forbidding, overgrown mess of thick grass and wild plants, gone to seed in their neglect. Midway along its length a wide opening yawned, a break in the jungle-like undergrowth that had once been a well-maintained bike path. Towering dandelions and other weeds now grew in patches through its cracked pavement. It was to be the expedition's highway through the park.
Sarge ordered the column to make camp on the sidewalk where the bike path started. He wanted a full day's worth of sunlight for their journey through the park. With any luck they'd be able to push through the entire area tomorrow and not have to spend a single night among the stifling overgrowth.
Tanks and trucks arranged themselves to form a protective perimeter around the campsite, and plastic troops began pitching tents, building fires, and stacking weapons. Ester saw to the posting of sentries, some along the lip of the sidewalk, others right up against the foliage of the park. Sarge watched the preparations from beside his command jeep until, satisfied by the purposeful flurry of activity, he shouldered his rifle and marched off to find the troop of Blue scouts.
They were mustered on the edge of the camp nearest the bike path, motorcycles arranged neatly beside the hulking shelter of a Green tank. The tank's commander, seeing Sarge approach, saluted him crisply from inside the cupola atop the turret. The Blues also saluted, but with less élan . They were performing maintenance on their shining Blue motorcycles, he saw, cleaning and oiling parts and refilling gasoline tanks from the supplies aboard a nearby Green truck.
Their commanding officer, Capitaine Émil Bouchard (Sarge pronounced it "Booshard"), stood up reluctantly, wiping his blue hands with a dirty rag before saluting Sarge.
"At ease, Capitaine ," Sarge nodded, overlooking the minor breach in etiquette, "How soon can you and your men be ready for a patrol?"
"Wee air ahlwaise reahdy Monsieur Prezident," came the haughty reply.
Sarge bit back a withering response. In a coalition army like this one it didn't pay to antagonize your allies. He'd learned that the hard way when founding the Confederation, after several houses threatened to pull out over what they saw as his draconian enforcement of Green military order across all the contingents in the Confederation Army. He'd never been one for tact, but he'd learned. A little.
"Good," he growled, "Then mount up. I have a mission for you."
After he gave them their orders, the Blue scout troop sped noisily out a gap in the camp perimeter, cut left, and tore down the old bike path. Sarge waited while the sound of their engines faded, then, walking back to his parked jeep, grabbed the radio and ordered the Green helicopter on standby, to provide some low altitude air cover if the Blues needed it.
He switched the radio off and turned to see Gunnery Sergeant Slate standing behind him. The Gray was silent as a shadow. No telling how long he'd been waiting there. The early evening sunlight caught the edges of the scars on his face, casting them in dark, alternating ribbons, almost like tiger stripes.
"Where're we marching tomorrow," he paused, "Sir."
Sarge cocked his head, "You know that Slate; through the park."
"No, sir. Where're the Fists marching tomorrow?"
"With the rest—" understanding dawned on Sarge, "Oh. At the rear of the column again, Gunnery Sergeant," he raised an eyebrow, "Unless there are any objections?"
"Rear's fine," Slate saluted and Sarge nodded to dismiss him, returning the salute. The Gray stalked off back to his side of the encampment.
Sarge shook his head. The taciturn Gray was a mystery to him. Slate's face betrayed nothing of his thoughts. His words betrayed less.
"Sir." Ester coughed beside him, "Radio report from Bouchard, I think you'll want to hear this."
Sarge took the proffered radio from Corporal Ester's hand, "Thank you Corporal. This is Hawk. Report."
The radio crackled as the Blue commander replied, " Monsieur le Prezident, we 'ave found somezing."
"Our missing patrols?"
"Not exactly. Pehr'eps you should see eet for yourzelf."
It was a short helicopter ride to the Blues' position, marked by the scouts from the ground with a column of blue smoke. The smoke curled in dark whorls in the downwash from the 'copter's blades as it descended, landing lightly on a stretch of open pavement next to a break in the flora of the park.
Sarge hopped out, unslinging his rifle from his back and ducking his head to avoid the still spinning rotors. Two Green troopers, a bodyguard detail assigned by Ester, dropped down behind him, rifles also at the ready. Three Blues awaited them at the edge of the bike path's black pavement; what was left of the signaling smoke swirled about them.
"Theez way, Monsieur Prezident," Bouchard shouted over the sound of the helicopter, beckoning with his arm into a clear break in the towering grass and weeds behind him.
The light was starting to fade as the six plastic soldiers picked their way through the vegetation, but even so Sarge could see they were moving along a definite path. It was rough, to be sure, but tire tracks showed in the dirt, and the grass and thick dandelion stalks had all been flattened down along the route, as if something big had barreled through them. Sarge bent down; the tracks were too large to have been made by Bouchard's men with their bikes. And too old.
"Eet eez through 'ere," the Capitaine held aside some broken stalks of grass for Sarge, who walked past him and emerged into a little clearing.
The rest of the Blue scout troop was here, their motorbikes arrayed around the clearing with the troopers themselves standing watch behind them, rifles pointed outward into the thick, dark grass. But what stopped Sarge's plastic heart cold was the Willys jeep sitting unmoving in the center of the clearing. Even in the dusk light he could tell it was Green.
He approached it warily, as if afraid it might bite him. With a sinking feeling he read the vehicle's serial number on the hood. It was one of the two from the earlier expedition he'd ordered to link up with Nova Greenia. And in its side there were bullet holes.
"Ve 'ave found no sign of zee passengers," Bouchard said from behind Sarge, answering his question even before he asked it, "Or off zee ozzair jeep," he added.
Damn , thought Sarge. Finding the lost jeep like this created more questions than it answered. Where had his men gone, and who had they been running from?
He felt a prickling on the back of his neck. Was some unknown enemy even now watching them from the thick cover of the dark grass? He gripped his rifle tighter.
Night was falling fast now, and Sarge was suddenly acutely aware of their vulnerable position, far ahead of the expedition's campsite and able to easily be cut off and surrounded in the jungle-like foliage. He made a snap decision.
"We can't learn anything else here tonight. Back to camp at the double!"
"You 'ehrd zee Prezident, alons-y !" Repeated the Blue capitaine , making a circling motion with his hand.
The sound of ten motorcycle engines cut through the still evening air, and half the scout troop zoomed off, bumping down the rough path towards the blacktop and camp. The other half waited, their engines idling, as Sarge and his two bodyguards exited the clearing. Something glinted on the ground in the reflected light of one of their headlamps. Frowning, Sarge stopped to pick it up.
It was plastic, from the feel of it, but of a silver color he'd never seen before. He turned it over in his hands. The object was a roughly rectangular shape, almost like a radio, though somehow sleeker-looking, and smaller. At one end it tapered to a rounded point, and at the wider end, its base, Sarge traced a jagged break, like the object had been a part of something larger and been wrenched off.
Or shot off , Sarge thought, remembering the bullet holes in the Willys jeep. It looked alien, but also strangely familiar; not like anything the Orange Empire or the Galactic Alliance had ever used. He passed it to one of his bodyguards as he resumed his walk back to the waiting helicopter.
"Hold on to this until we get back to camp, son."
Maybe someone there can tell me what the hell it is.
Chapter 6: A Walk in the Park
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.