To build a better Ratte-trap

By "Brithound"

Stumpy the little Sturmpanzer II had a problem. It was not that his cannon only covered half the map, or that his vehicle was so open-topped that his crew got wet in the rain – those were just the facts of life for a humble Tier Three artillery. If his howitzer had a few degrees more gun depression, it would have relieved a lot of crew depression when forced into tank-destroyer mode – but again, that was not the problem. He was living in Interesting Times – and according to one of the new Chinese tanks he had met (who looked startlingly like a 1930's French export model for some strange reason) that had originally been a curse.

"May you live in Interesting Times, get exactly what you asked for, and attract the attention of those in power," he quoted the full curse as he sat in the non-premium account garage, just back from a terrifying and painfully brief urban dust-up on the mean streets of Himmelsdorf. "I asked the Developers for more ammunition – and I got it. But I attracted their attention. And that's the problem."

"So you said." In the next garage slot sat Mark Seven Tetrarch, the lend-lease British light tank. "You met this Seraphael vehicle, an arty you can't even describe, who's immune to any game rules. Nobody else's ever met him. I think you must have refuelled with a batch of bad synthetic petrol – you're hallucinating."

"I wish." Stumpy looked around the garage. It was late at night. In the end slot Ronson the stock petrol-engined Sherman reincarnated, needing heavy repairs and his fire-extinguishers replenished as usual. The lights began to go down in the garage as the crews headed off to the barracks next door, where Ronson's crew had big technical pin-ups on the wall of wet ammunition storage, fuel tanks filled with CO2 and reliable automatic fire-extinguishers. They would stand and stare hopefully at them for hours.

The garage quieted down after the last game was played, and the tanks and crews fell asleep. Sometime in the middle of the night, Stumpy woke up – he was in an unfamiliar garage, looking even better and more up-to-date than the rare occasions he had seen one using a Premium account.

He turned in his tracks, and with an inward groan spotted the mysterious artillery piece Seraphael. The vehicle was always factory-fresh and his paint unscratched; somehow he seemed to glow in a way that never compromised his camouflage bonus.

"I am the spirit of Christmas (and Other) Patches yet to come…" Seraphael intoned in a deep voice. He looked at Stumpy critically. "Oh, you're no fun. The last six tanks I said that to, dumped their oil sumps when they heard it."

"But I've been on one of your little trips before." Stumpy steeled himself for another horrifying look at the future. "Things aren't going to get better, are they? Not for people who honestly grind their way up the tech trees, without paying gold for everything?"

"Working as intended." Seraphael winked a headlight. "Come on – let's see the shape of things to come."

"Do I have a choice in the matter?" Stumpy thought longingly of his oil-stained, home-like garage where he should be fast asleep.

"No." Seraphael grinned cheerfully.

"Working as intended, then." Stumpy quoted, as he felt the familiar sensation of being picked for a game.

They materialised on a map he had never seen before, a 40 x 60 grid that stretched clear to the horizon. "The Pittsburg front, 1949", Stumpy looked at the map header. "It's full of Dora railguns on each side hosing each other full auto… meaning two rounds an hour?"

"Not today. But there is one of the latest Tier Ten VVS premium vehicles in play. You might be interested." Seraphael cast a headlight beam on the landscape. "They're gold-only to buy. And just a little expensive."

"How expensive?" Stumpy demanded.

"It's hard to say exactly. The player traded us three Caspian Sea oil wells and the English first-division football club he'd just bought, We haven't had them priced exactly yet." Seraphael looked up innocently. "But he got plenty for his money."

Stumpy strained his binoculars to scan the horizon. Suddenly a piece of what looked like a mountainside moved – resolving itself into what looked more like a battleship with tracks.

"P 1500 "Ratte", a thousand tonne Landcruiser… well, in theory. You know how it goes. They wanted to use all steel, but some bits had to be concrete instead which put the weight up… it finished up as about eighteen hundred, not counting ammunition or the crew's consumable chocolate bars," Seraphael waved his howitzer at the staggering sight. "Let's go into Developer mode and see what's going on in there."

"Bwaa-ha-ha!" Ratte looked down upon the landscape, and saw that it was good. "More mere tin cans to crush beneath my tracks – for no ammunition costs!" Eight squashed metallic roadkill already littered his course from the spawn area.

Just as well, with the loading time on these, Loader #87 grumbled. On the modified battleship turret on the top deck, the twenty-tonne breech closed on the second of the 280mm battleship guns. All ready to fire. Awaiting orders. He looked round carefully, and took a swig from a bottle of Firing Solution.

"Excellent! I really want to play Dragon Ridge – so I can practice one-shotting." Ratte ground forward gleefully.

What, one-shotting Tier Ten Heavies? Gunner #25 loked up from the plotting table.

"No … Dragon Ridge. I want to one-shot Dragon Ridge. Blow it clean off the map." Ratte was currently flattening a large swathe of Mega-Malinovka, but with the Ratte's patented binoculars he could see four maps in all directions.

Aye-aye, Sir. Full speed ahead! His day-shift Commander saluted briskly.

"Now… target ahead! I see a village. Looks like the kind of place the enemy might hide in. Gunner! Both barrels, I want a firing solution."

Aye-aye, Sir. The #54 gunner was on liaison duty on the bridge that day; he set the big Zuse ballistic computer (5000 gold credits, 100 seconds mean endurance till the first expected radio valve failure) in motion, and sighed with relief when the result came through before any of the brightly glowing valves burned out. Replacement valves were a hundred gold apiece. Relaying firing orders now.

"Urban renewal – starts today! Fire!" Ratte laughed maniacally. The landscape shook as both cannon roared out, and in a few minutes pieces of the village began to land on adjacent maps.

Village is toast, Sir – but it was empty. The Commander looked up at the unchanged threat board. Five Tier Ones are still around somewhere.

"Well, there's nothing they can do, is there? It's not worth a shell on them – that'd be like using V2s to burst bubble-wrap." Ratte's inner lights shone brightly as an idea hit him. "Radio Operator – take this down. Dear Developers – how about a V-1 launch ramp or two on the top deck? There's plenty of room up there."

Just then, alarm sirens began to sound on the bridge. Ratte winced, feeling unexpected pains. "What's this? Radio module destroyed. Radio operators #15 to #26 killed. Engine damaged. Ten, twelve loaders killed. We're on fire!" He looked around wildly for the threat, but there was nothing to be seen on the whole wide landscape. "This can't be… I've a metre of Wotan Hard Steel armour on the front – and it's all still intact! There's not a hole in it big enough to fire a pistol through!" On the big screen, module after module lost hit points and died alongside its crews, but the main structure had not lost a single hit point apart from the fires.

"Fuel tanks on fire... flames spreading to the ammunition... and no surviving crew to put it out." Ratte looked up at the big board in despair, imagining the repair bills. He would just have to sell another oil well. "We're being wiped out – but how?"

From a safe ten squares away, Stumpy watched pieces start to fall off the burning Super-Main-battle tank. "I can't see what got him. I mean, that front plate looks like it'd bounce a shell from that "Atomic Annie" artillery that my Sherman pal worships." Ronson had a religious poster of the great American Fire(power) goddess on the wall opposite his garage slot.

"Atomic Annie? She won't be turning up till the next patch. We're having to radiation-proof the server first." Seraphael looked on at the towering smoke plume. "Really, Ratte should have elited his vehicles first before asking us for that V-1 launcher. If he had, he'd have researched and bought the Large Padlock Mark 8, it's only 20,000 gold. A bargain."

"How is paying that much for a simple padlock a bargain?" Stumpy watched the flames spread.

"Watch." Out of the flames, a tight platoon of five lightly toasted Tier One Ltractors suddenly came shooting out of a huge door and down a ramp in the back of the Ratte, where they had been roaming the inner corridors and hosing down the innards with their 37mm cannon. They just managed to get clear before the ammunition racks blew and large chunks of ersatz armour began to fall on neighbouring maps.

Seraphael winked a headlight, as Stumpy felt himself fading out and returning to his cosy garage. "The padlock goes on the loading bay doors – it's so that doesn't happen."

Stumpy felt his trunnions quake. "And you're not telling him about that beforehand?"

Seraphael gave an angelic grin – after all, even fallen angels were angelic once. "Working as intended…"

The End

"The world will beat a path to the door of the man who builds a better mouse-trap" – Emerson.