ROLLING THUNDER
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fiction by Christopher T. Shields


Lance Private Carla Bennings, 3rd Combine Lift Armor Group, 5th Division, was a Fox November Golf, a FNG, with only five weeks in the 3rd. She hated her status, but she took what the long timers gave her and she took it silently, with good nature. You could learn a lot from a long timer, just by watching, and hanging back, pulling more than your share, and taking what they gave out. It was just part of the process. No one wanted to know your name, you were just another body to fill a slot. You might be dead tomorrow, you might be dead next week, it wouldn't matter. Or if you were lucky, if you were good, you could become a long timer yourself, a veteran, and then you would have a name. Bennings wanted a name more than anything, but she was also patient. And she watched a lot of veterans. And she learned quickly.

You lived and you learned, or you didn't live long.

The depot didn't have a name other than Depot Fox Zulu Twelve. Fox Zulu 12 wasn’t very pretty; a hastily constructed series of tents, sunken squad bunkers, armored platoon housing, prefab command bunkers, vehicle revetments, semi-defensible service and work areas, and a few MI and regular infantry out at the one and two klick perimeters. A pair of Sentinel ADB Autonomous Defense Batteries were near the Alpha Gate to the depot, and the MI and infantry on the perimeter ring had a wide variety of snakes, R-pee-uh-gee-uhs (she giggled, remembering the pronunciation her DI had given to the weapons), and some rocket assisted mortars with semi- and fully intelligent guided munitions. That and the various repeaters and heavy repeaters and fluid to gas wide bore support weapons, and whatever they could call in from Fire Base Delta just six klicks away to the West, and of course, any armor units they had at the time (which fell under the command of the depot commander or so he said) and any infantry or MI that were racked down for a rest in their buried bunkers. Bennings felt safe, the front was over forty klicks to the North, light years away to her thinking. Fox Zulu Twelve wasn't critical to Combine operations in this area, but it made a lot of people happy because it was there, namely all the soldiers who managed to drag their broken toys in to get fixed by the members of the 7th MTESC Mechanical Technical Electronics Specialists Corp. Here they didn't care what the fighting was over, just that the toys that came in got fixed, the munitions got loaded, and supplies came in to restock what went out. Other than that, life in the Army couldn't be better.

Oh, if the gang could see her today, she thought. Back when she had first gotten into trouble in Austin, Bennings had been presented with a decision by the legimagistrate; join the Combine military forces, or go to a work program for delinquents. She hated Austin, and her mother, and the work program was in Austin, which she hated, so the Combine option sounded good to her, see the world, learn something or two, make some money, meet a few friends, have a good time, get away from Austin and her mom and never look back. The fact that there had been a world wide conflict going on at the time really hadn't registered with her, and wouldn't until later when she had completed her training and shipped out for the Sahara combat zone where she saw more than her share of broken toys and broken hearts, most of the time she saw the latter closer than she cared to. She wasn't a soldier, well, not a weapon toting, ruck sack humping field running soldier. She was a tech, and a pretty good one. At least she had kept the gang's vehicles running well enough back in Austin, so she guessed that her skill was just her ticket, and no matter where it led her, she was along for the ride. Her ticket had been good so far. Bennings had a natural ability to make tools dance in her hands, and her knowledge of things mechanical and technical far exceeded someone who would have stereotyped her as a 'urchin' or a 'problem child'.

She guessed that's why Gunny liked her so much. He saw past what all the others couldn't, he saw the real Carla Bennings, not Lance Private Bennings, C., 45239684, 5th Combine Division, 3rd Lift Armor Group, or LPBennings, or 'virgin' or 'cherry' or Fox November Golf, the FNG. God she hated that. Why couldn't people just be people instead of numbers. She guessed that's why she liked machines better than people, she could take machines apart, repair or replace their hurts, and patch them back up and they always thanked her. The whine of a turret servo motor as it slewed through its rotation, the snap of a collective as it worked, or the scream of a five megawatt lift fan in its cradle, filling a lift skirt and holding up a five ton blower that was armed to the teeth. Bennings liked machines, they didn't talk back, and they depended on her. They needed her, and it was the first time in her life that Carla Bennings had really felt needed by anything, it didn't matter if it was a piece of military hardware or not.

Gunny and her had finished repairing the smashed acquisition unit on a Clarke's PDS array and now they were going to field test it. Bennings loved field trials of repaired weapons. The scream of the big guns and the buzz of the little ones made her skin get tingly. That's why there was an extra spring in her step right now, she had just picked up two cassettes of four mike mike caseless for the tri-barrel gat-uh-ling (she giggled again, her DI had been SUCH an asshole) that was used to hose down incoming rounds. The armor units depended heavily on the PDS to keep them alive in the field, so she and Gunny took extra time and care when working on them. The PDS left their shop working better than when they were brand new, or so Gunny claimed.

"Joined the Army on my birthday, they draft the white trash first pick around here any way..." she hummed to herself, half remembering a song that was popular a few years back when the hostilities first broke out, folk type protest song.

She couldn't remember the song title, didn't matter, the lyrics she could remember fit her to a 'T' and that was why she kept them close. The air in the Sahara was dry, oppressive, the heat seemed to move to the iambic beat of a bass drum, rolling in waves. It had been quiet for two days now, and the 3rd was doing general group maintenance and resupply of their blowers, the Pans had pulled back for some reason, she didn't care, but Top and his heavy metal up and ups over at the CP bunker were worried. Forget it, she thought. Pans got to take some time off too to relax and reload and wipe off their sights and change their skivvies.

Bennings continued to walk, humming, as she humped the two flat black colored plastic modular cassettes of 4mm HiVeloc caseless, one on each shoulder with a GI tan towel under each to keep the cassettes from rubbing her tanned and slightly sunburned shoulders raw. Another hundred meters over to her service area where Gunny was taking a break. She sighed and looked up at the scorching oppressor that was the sun. Bright even behind her GI sunglasses, aviator style, given to her by one of the GEV jockeys six weeks ago who thought he could get some hootchie in return. Boy was he wrong! She laughed at the memory.

Each of the cassettes weighed fifteen kilos, 1000 rounds each for the PDS. If the PDS were anything besides fickle, they were constantly hungry, you couldn't carry enough rounds on a horse or a blower to keep a PDS fed, and it always seemed that when a new load of supplies came in, what they got in for the four mike mike loads wouldn't last them through the week, but it always did, somehow.

The sun beat down on her mercilessly, her vapor canteen swung on her web belt, just behind her holstered 4mm Colt smoothbore sidearm which she carried more as a show of force than ever expecting to actually use it, though if that jerk Vanson and his GEV buddies ever showed up again and made those innuendoes towards her, she might just have to see if she still knew how to shoot the nuts off of a hickory tree, as her mom had once told her, back when her father had been alive, before HE had joined the RDF. When it was slow, or between shifts, she would be near the front of the depot, ten meters west of the Alpha Gate, in the climate controlled bunker Alpha One, keeping watch with the macros slung on the left thigh of her tan and sand camo colored fatigues, and getting chatty with some of the MI coordinators and the occasional CAP trooper who fell in.

But today she was helping Gunny put some of the buggies back together, buggies that had limped in shot full of holes and leaking coolant from severed lines and lift air from shattered skirts. They had run into some Pan orphans who were themselves limping home towards their lines. Well, bravado be the damnation that it was, her boys had tied it on with the Pans, brewed them up, and then come limping home with broken toys crying because they wanted them fixed mike fox papa. Sometimes, wearing a sidearm made you look for an excuse to blow the hell out of something she thought, like stupid people, which to her, were the ones that usually clanged a hatch shut over their head and rode around in big heavy weapon bristling monsters named, and she never could figure this out, after women, wives, and girlfriends. She hoped that somewhere out there, there wasn't some lumbering armored unit with the name "Carla" chasing the enemy and brewing up everything that moved. She smiled again. Boys and their toys and how they did play with them.

Gunny was always nice to her, at least when it was just the two of them. Gunny was old, not just a veteran, but old, he said he was 28 when pressed for the truth, and he knew how to swing a wrench.

LPBennings stopped, setting the twenty-five kilo modular ammunition cassettes down and loosening her vapor canteen from her belt. The powered unit could pull a liter of moisture from the desert air in just under two hours, and keep that liquid, filtered and processed internally, at a constant temperature of 33 degrees, right above freezing. Her filters would last for about fifty liters, the same as the built in power cell that served also as the bottom fifth of her unit. The water tasted sweet, fresh filters, and she wet her hands slightly, wiping them over her face. Some of it spilled from her chin onto her V-necked undershirt, creating dark stains.

"Fox alpha!" came a very masculine voice to her right. "I know for sure that I'd like a taste of that..."

Dark thoughts of implied chauvinistic immaturity bubbled in her mind. Bennings seethed on the inside, flushed with anger as she stopped drinking, lowered the canteen and her head, slowly used her fingers to screw back on the top. She kept her canteen close to her chest, held in her left hand as her right hand went to her holstered sidearm, resting on the flat black grip menacingly. She turned to see who had spoken and her initial TSR of her verbal assailants, for she saw that there were two of them, wasn't a very flattering one. With all of her indicators already moved to yellow, she started picking her reply carefully, selecting the words that would both neuter and humiliate whoever had dared to prey on her femininity with such a barbaric line as that. She stood there, hand on sidearm, other hand holding her canteen, seemingly disinterested, but cold and professional, gunfighter style, as she stared down the bridge of her freckled nose, over the rims of her sunglasses at the pair of infantry soldiers sitting outside their half submerged modular bunker. Grunts, she thought, disgustedly. Just basic GRUNTS; Ground Roving Uneducated Non-armored Targets was what Gunny called them. Jar heads. Propeller heads. Soft kills. Stick figures to the vehicle crews, toy soldiers. She smiled, the tip of the corner of her mouth was all that moved.

"I'm sorry. Did you say something to me?" she asked, staring at the soldiers sitting on the top of the bunker trench.

The first soldier looked at the second one and drew back a grimace. The second soldier laughed and shook his head, both knowing that they had stepped into it deep with this bird. One soldier had field stripped his M32C 7mm crew served light repeater, its pieces arranged almost in perfect order on a sheet of polyethylene spread out before him and held down at the corners with four Type III GPAP explastic fragmentation grenades, habit, but the desert had no wind today. It was dead still with nothing but the heat and the sun and the tension was so thick, you could write your serial number in it with your finger.

"You'd like a taste of what?" Bennings asked, aware that she was wearing nothing but fatigue pants, BDUs, and a desert tan colored T-shirt now slightly wet with moisture, with her dog tags jangling between her ample bosom, a bosom she had been proud of back home, but which seemed to draw only the worst kind of attention here in the service, especially from the grunts and the unit crews.

"Water. Your canteen. I left mine in the bunker? Mind if I have a swallow? I've had all of my shots... promise." the first soldier said, shading his eyes as he looked up at Bennings, smiling, all nastiness gone.

His smile instantly melted her facade, and Bennings squatted down next to the soldier. The top of the trench marked the entrance to the sunken bunker, a T-shaped prefab unit that the MACE and combat engineers had dug down and dropped in, standard issue hooked in with the depot reactor through underground hardened power feeds, it had its own microprocessor, displays, bedding for six, hard supplies for three weeks, NBC suite, comm gear, hand off capacity of all available resources, and storage for all of a squad's gear as well as fold out maintenance tables and a medical computer. It was one sweet self contained unit, a lot fancier than the box she lived in, and a lot bigger, but then she didn't have to share her box with anyone else. MTES kind of called the shots when it came to housing, seeing as how this was their depot. She handed her canteen to the soldier and squinted, peering into the open armored hatch that led into the bunker. It looked kind of cramped but she guessed they were used to it. From just outside the bunker she could hear SquadNet traffic and other depot wide traffic and communications, some of it limited to the infantry, some of it to the buggies and horses out in the field, and some of it mixed. One soldier was at the comm system, monitoring the channels. She couldn't make out if it was a man or woman, infantry wore their hair short, MTES didn't care, and most of the techs were renegades anyway, loose cannons that wouldn't fit in with the other rank and file in any type of organization. Even the women in the MI suits wore short hair, or none at all. Close cropped and bald seemed to be the way to go if you had a pair of tits and you wanted to wear an iron bra and panties for a career. Not Bennings. She didn't go for that androgynous look at all.

The bunker looked awfully small, with all that equipment in there and just three sets of double bunks. Four soldiers, capacity for six total, their electronics, a vaporator for their squad, a processor for their rations, storage for their gear, a helmet dispenser near the door, racks for their semi-rigid body armor plates, racks for their assault rifles, and in the back, stacked neatly, their ammunition and explastics. Smelled of sweat and weapon lubricant. They must be airing it out, Bennings thought darkly. Bennings counted at least four carriers for light TAC missiles, still wrapped with their shipping tags, fresh snakes who had never had their eyes opened ...

"Thanks!" the soldier said and nudged Bennings out of her trance with his rapping of her canteen against her arm.

She took it back and, somewhat annoyed at the amount that had been taken, quietly put the 'teen back on her web belt in its carrier.

"So, they don't issue you grunts a 'teen of your own, or do you just drink out of the communal trough?" she said.

"Ouch! Payback!" the first soldier said.

The second soldier started to get up, hopped down into the trench.

"I think I'm going to go get my jacket." he said. "It just got really cold out here all of a sudden."

Bennings stared them both down, turning from the one who had just spoken, impaling him with an icy stare, to the one who had just helped himself to more than a third of her liter she carried.

"Hey, Charles, lighten up! It's OK, really. I just left my 'teen in the bunker there, and you know how us 'grunts' are, I'm too lazy to put all this aside and go get it."

"Uh, huh." Bennings agreed half sarcastically, half because she believed it to be true.

She got up to leave, the cassettes she was humping still sat where she had put them down, a meter and a half away. She turned. Gunny would be getting impatient soon for his pills, all two thousand of them.

"Whoa! Hey! Hey! Wait a minute, Doll!" the first soldier, not the one she now knew to be "Charles" said.

Doll?

She turned, a quick snap on her boot heels that slid sand and dust over her toes and across her laces, quick as a cat, and just as feral. She stood over the lip of the trench, her shadow falling on "Charles" and her back to the sun, forcing the other soldier to look up at her, the sun over her shoulder blinding him. A calculated move she had learned from Gunny when addressing inferiors too lazy to stand in the presence of a superior.

"Say! Haven't seen you around this part of the camp before..." the first soldier said. "Have I?" he added, softly.

The two soldiers in front of her were attired like she was, their fatigue shirts would have had some name tags, but the under shirts never did... She couldn't read dog tags from standing up here.

"I work with Gunny over in the bays... I'm a tech. I fix the buggies." she said flatly.

"You must be new then..." the first soldier said, reaching his hand up, palm open in the invitation for a handshake.

When Bennings didn't immediately take his hand, his eyebrows did a good job of ancient semaphore in telegraphing that he was trying to be nice and offering his hand at a middle ground. Bennings looked down, slowly extended her hand and accepted the offered hand warily in return. Bennings frowned. She really hated the word 'new' as of lately, and anyone that pointed out that she was a recent addition to the depot found a quick place on her sierra list.

"I just don't get over this part of the depot much. Bennings, Lance Private. Fox November Golf." she said in a low voice. They were bound to know she was a virgin.

"Oh, a shy one with an attitude! We like that! Yes, we do!" the first soldier said as he did a crisp salute.

"Simpson, Staff Corporal Four of Squad Twelve, and this is Charles..."

"Charles", now properly introduced, did a snap salute as well, trailing it off with a friendly, casual wave.

"Charles is Corporal Four of Squad Eleven."

Infantry, grunts, and officers as well. The surprises never ceased, she thought amused, interested where these two jar heads might think they could lead her. The bunker door was just three meters away, but the chance that she would follow one of them in there and let them close the door or climb into a bunk with one of them was about the same as she gave to a snowman's chance of survival at ground zero of a five key TAC nuke detonation. Still, she liked the game that the unit crews and the grunts liked to play with her.

"We're part of 12th Squad, inner security, recon, etc. Fox November Golf, huh?" Simpson asked and chuckled. "Been a while since I heard that one. They must still haze the virgins pretty hard over in the bays. We got out of that a long time ago, it was better for morale overall. Come together as a unit early, bring you in close to the fold, teach you everything you need to know..."

"Then drop them in the pond and see if they can swim..." Bennings asked.

"Hell no! We throw them off a cliff and see if they can fly!"

Charles guffawed and Bennings smiled. Charles extended his hand, firm, she liked that. Most men shook a woman's hand like it was made out of wet paper, she matched each man's grip with grip for grip but she shook her head. Some of the terms they were throwing at her were Greek, she was just a mech, after all. If pressed, she could throw some three and five letter acronyms back at them that would have them scratching and fetching. She squatted over the disassembled crew served repeater on the poly square in front of her, professional curiosity cocked her head slowly from side to side as she tried to mentally identify all the parts and pieces, and then put them back together into one working weapon. It was a puzzle to her, what all broken toys were, you just had to put the mixed up pieces back together. She was doing a pretty good job when Simpson spoke again.

"Well, Fox November Golf, myself and Charles, on behalf of the 12th squad, are Charlie Golf Tango Mike Yankee."

"Sorry?" she asked, looking up. "Charlie Golf Tango Mike Yankee?"

Charles and Simpson looked at each other and laughed.

"Charlie Golf Tango Mike Yankee. Just some lingo we use, it means 'Certainly Glad To Meet You'." Charles stated matter of factly, chuckling afterwards.

Oh! Bennings thought she blushed. Someone was treating her like a human being instead of a number on an organization chart! Squatting there, aware that her bosom was showing probably more than the regs allowed, her dog tags dangling almost invitingly, she actually started to feel special for the first time in weeks, like she was a real person and not just a number or a slot. She watched with genuine professional curiosity as Simpson reassembled the repeater, step by step, like clockwork. The M32C's were similar in design and operation to the 4mm tri-barrels she serviced on the PDS arrays for the track layers and almost identical to the M33A's that formed the primary close in support capacity of the light GEVs. She knew how to field strip any of those in seconds, the M32C didn't look that much different, except it was designed to be both man portable and to be used by a soldier where all her experience was in weapons in automated mounts, fired by remote actuators. She handed Simpson a squeeze applicator of friction reducing lubricant, and he finished oiling the service ports, cycled the weapon once, fed a fresh 200 round cassette into the ammo feed port, and locked it down. A quick post assembly diagnostic showed all green indicators and no error messages on the small green CRT located on the side of the weapon.

"Fox alpha." Simpson exclaimed, admiring his work.

Fox alpha indeed, Bennings noted. Every piece had gone together just like she had envisioned it in her mind. Damn, she was good. Simpson turned to speak loudly into the bunker, hefting the fifteen kilo weapon like it was nothing more than a sidearm, placing it over his shoulder and putting both arms over the stock and barrel like it was a yoke, rocking slightly back and forth, twisting at the torso, working out some cramps from muscles.

"Get on the comm, tell Jones I fixed his repeater, its back online but he owes me that case of Russian 40 proof that he and his squad salvaged from the brewed up Pan supply convoy last week. This way, he won't have to report it to his top. And tell him I want our repeater back here by this afternoon, not one more day on loan, or else the Top is going to start wondering why serial numbers are moving around 8th squad all by themselves!"

Someone inside gave a brief acknowledgment.

"Jones is an idiot, but he's got pull." Simpson said, unslinging the weapon and hefting it again in front of him.

His muscles rippled in his arms, sweat glistened on his brow and what part of his chest that Bennings could see. Thoughts unbecoming a soldier started to play through her mind. Simpson snapped the dust caps on the network interface ports, and casually tossed the fifteen kilo weapon underhanded to Charles who caught it and without missing a step, tossed it on into the bunker. Bennings didn't hear it hit the floor of the bunker, so she could only assume that someone inside had caught the weapon. He turned and both he and Charles snapped to in mock parade fashion and saluted each other.

"Carry on, sir!" one said.

"Carrying on, sir! Hua!" the other mocked good naturally.

Bennings barked a short laugh and brought herself under control again, the techs were wild, but they never played like this. At least not with the Fox November Golfs. She smiled at Simpson, using her best cheerleader type, shy school girl type smile. She had learned a long time ago that if she worked her cheek bones just right, the freckles across the bridge of her nose were absolutely hypnotizing to the male of the species. No defense. Simpson was smitten, and he smiled back, a boyish grin that had the dying air of masculinity on it. Gotcha! she thought. Dead bang, jar head. Men were so easy. Simpson folded his arms on top of the trench berm and resting his head on his arms. His skin was tanned, his close cropped hair so blonde, it was almost stark white and platinum. His eyes were blue, a light sky blue. Bennings stared into them, taking them apart, putting all of his pieces together. She rated him pretty high, aesthetically speaking. But what mattered was what was under all of that armor, what drove him. She might be interested in that, given time. If he didn't ship out to some other depot or get called on to take and hold some urban sprawl that Up Top thought was important enough to die over.

Charles returned to filling out a report on his DATCAP and Simpson raised his head, unfolded his arms, and collected the four Type III fragmentation grenades, returning them to the molded carrier on his web belt. He started to fold the polyethylene tarp and to store his cleaning / servicing tools for the crew served repeater. A low rumble carried through the hot shimmering air, more felt than heard. The pulse was familiar but ... different. Similar to the far off sound you felt more than heard when a group of blowers was coming back in from the out, and you knew it was going to be a long shift because the GEV-jockeys were never easy on their buggies, because they knew the poor tech-coms would always be there to fix their broken toys.

The children of the 3rd weren't supposed to be back for another day. Bennings cocked her head. No, not towards the front, off to the rear. Strange, she mused. The rumble grew louder, but it was coming from the opposite way that any of the 3rd or 7th group would be coming from. Bennings stood, blood returned to her lower legs and thighs with a vengeance as she grabbed her macros from her left thigh pouch and peered out into the desert. Synthetic viscous fluid optics, carefully adjusted by microprocessor filters whined. She hit 100x magnification. A dust cloud, wide enough to be five blowers running at full speed on the open desert, kicking up a sierra load of sand.

"Those stupid jerks..." she said softly, keying her macros to get a direct link from one of the drones she knew the depot kept on station out on the perimeter. "I'll be cleaning sand from the rotator rings and assembly coils for hours! I told them not to run full throttle unless they were ..."

She stopped. Something, instinct or something deeper, told her that the dust cloud wasn't the 3rd, it wasn't made by blowers at all. From inside the bunker, the previously unseen soldier appeared, wearing a comm-set on her head, jet black hair close cropped to her tanned skull. Her blood type tattooed on her neck near her jugular for use by medics. Sucked to be a grunt, MI might be OK, but for a grunt, there were so many ways to get your heart broken.

"Simpson! We got trouble! 7th Squad just went off line, and one of the blower jocks is screaming but I can't get anything good out of any of them..." the female soldier said.

Charles and Simpson looked at each other and there was nothing this time between them but cold professionalism. Charles ducked into the bunker as Simpson jumped up to stand up next to Bennings as she continued to search the horizon with her macros. Simpson squatted, looking anxiously into the bunker and then Charles appeared again at the door to the bunker with a pair of much worn macros, tossing them underhanded up to Simpson. Charles ducked back into the bunker, vanishing, as Simpson took one look towards whatever Bennings was seeing, decided that there were better vantage points, and hopped over the meter and a half wide, two meter deep trench that surrounded the bunker on three sides. He scampered up the top of the bunker, his combat boots thumping the armor pour casting of the bunker resoundingly as they sought to gain purchase on the wind blown grit that had layered the semi-flat armored sides in a fine layer. Bennings dropped her macros to her side and followed, realizing the top of the bunker offered a better vantage point anyway.

You could learn a lot by watching the old timers ...

Simpson keyed his compact wireless headset, a flat black earpiece and a wire mike connected by an adjustable cushioned head band, to the SquadNet and TACNet frequencies. Bennings had forgotten that she had taken hers off to adjust her headband and she too, donned her headset, adjusting the volume and the fit. Both SquadNet and TACNet were filled with heavy traffic, something was coming this way, something big. The troops out on the perimeter were getting their first unaided look at whatever it was. She doubted that they were happy with what they saw.

She got bits and pieces, a reference to something called 'uber', she couldn't make out the rest. It was soldier talk anyway, even though it was obviously important and excited, she was just a poor grease monkey... Simpson took a modified Weaver stance and raised the macros to his eyes. The unit whirred and buzzed as the liquid optics reset themselves smoothly to his desired image magnification levels. Bennings put her macros back up and keyed in on what Simpson was seeing through sympathetic linking of the two vision aids. Simpson had left his hand off link up, she just took advantage of it, two units, seeing the exact same image. It felt ... strange.

"Where is the 7th?" Simpson asked.

His optics whirred and clicked four times, buzzed, magnification out to 200 power. It took a second for Bennings eyes to adjust to his rapid visual recon. Simpson was snapping from one resolution to the next, his eyeballs like FATS on their gimbals, spinning wildly behind the display of the macros, searching, looking, not finding... The resolution clicked three more times in rapid succession. It almost made Bennings motion sick and she closed her eyes as her headset crackled to life.

"(static) ... can't raise them. Something ... (static) hell with our ... (static) rolled over them... (static) they got a chance ... (static) gone."

"Say again, I did not copy last transmission..." Simpson lowered his macros and pressed his earpiece closer.

Static.

"Say again. Did not copy." Simpson shouted.

"They said they can't raise them, I think that whatever is out there is throwing out a lot of soup to hide behind, and whatever THAT is..." Bennings said, never lowering her macros or taking her eyes off the turbulent dust storm that was brewing on the plains "... just walked all over your point scouts."

"Gamma Delta!" Simpson said, snapping his macros up so fast she heard them hit his forehead.

Simpson said a few words easily qualified as unbecoming the conduct of an officer and started to relay orders. The rumbling could be heard now, distant, like rolling thunder, getting steadily louder, closer, easier to feel in the bones and the soul. The dust cloud on the horizon was visible unaided now, Bennings found a drone, slaved it to her macros and fed its image to her display. The drone was moving as fast as it could, providing information to her and to about thirty five others who had the same idea a little before she had thought of it. She would have to be quicker, everything was a resource, you grabbed what you needed and you shared at all times. She fed the uplink from the drone to the CP network, something no one else had done yet, one of the deckers there spread the feed on SquadNet and TACNet. She was learning, everything worked in order, and if information was one thing, it was to be shared.

She smiled. Maybe she wasn't so fox November golf after all.

"... (static) 7th listed (static) datapulse charlie kilo (static) 3rd Lift Group (static) reports (static) unit disabled..." came the unidentified voice, female it sounded like, relaying information derived from the datapulses as disseminated by SquadNet and TACNet.

The ground trembled beneath her. Thunder that beat in too steady a rhythm to be a natural occurrence. Thunder that was artificial, cyclic, undulating, mechanical. Thunder that rolled. Bennings stared at the visual in her macros. The drone was close to the dust cloud now, keeping station with it. Something in that dust cloud, something dark and big ... and prickly?! The image was scratchy because of all the sierra that whatever it was stirring up all of the dust was throwing at them, heavy sierra. Her mind refused to acknowledge what her eyes were screaming, training on unit recognition, hushed whispers in a dimly lit class room as a full size holographic mockup appeared in front of them. The sheer size that made you dizzy looking up at the top of it, and that was one of the smaller ones. They got bigger, much bigger. And meaner...

And then the dust cloud parted, and for a second, the stylized icon of the Greek style helmet appeared on an armored panel, Paneuropean combat insignia, black with blood red outline trim, applied expertly against the sheer mountain face that was composed of armor plating several meters thick, segmented, bristling with dark colored blisters. She backed off her visual, as much as she could, slowly, until what she was looking at was what had made the two kilometer wide dust cloud out on the plain. A moving tan cloud on the ground, stark contrast to the white clouds in the pale blue desert sky. A mockery.

Her mouth opened but no sound came out. Simpson completed her thought.

"Uberpanzer... Probably that Legionnaire that Up Top was looking for so bad, the one that was missing from the engagement listings for Hastings and the one that was still listed by the Pans as being in this theater. Looks like IT found us first. Wonder how long ITs been lurking in the rear echelon, and how it hid from our scout screens." Simpson said, professional curiosity stroked.

However, Simpson's voice was full of obvious denial. And that term... "Uberpanzer." Bennings didn't even question it, shock had already set up shop in her mind, a mind that refused to tell her what the term meant, the excitement worked to keep her occupied, mesmerized on what was slowly revealed by the settling dust cloud. Bennings lowered her macros to visually acquire the dust cloud and then she saw IT...

For the first time, she saw IT...

IT was twenty five meters or more tall, by her best guestimate, and about seventy-five meters long. A man made mountain moving on huge treads, a mobile armored fortress bristling with weapons and electronics and missiles. IT stopped five klicks from the depot, turned slightly sideways, sand and dust spilling from its slowly rotating tread assemblies and its lower hull in tan cascades. IT was turning on ITs tracks, holding station but bringing its port side to bear on the depot. Weapons arrays traversed, elevated, deflected, and locked. Sunlight glistened off its armored hull and off the armored sensor icon that adorned the top of the conning tower like a precious stone in a crown. She couldn't find a scratch on the hide.

"ITs cherry!" she said.

"You sure?" Simpson asked, questioningly, looking through the macros, trying to get his own opinion of ITs operational status.

"So foxing cherry they could have just pulled IT out of the box IT came in..." she mused.

Simpson continued to monitor the behemoth that had taken up station just beyond the outer last perimeter of the depot. She dialed in her resolution, IT was sitting right on the 7th squad! She watched as small figures moved near prepared positions, they had no where to go, really, and no chance either. Pinprick flashes from the sides of the hull. Figures would fall and not move anymore. Running figures would fall in pieces, or pieces would fly away from them as they would fall, or they would just come apart and turn to crimson colored mist and chunks. Fox holes would belch fire and thick smoke, whatever had been in them never came out again. IT was cleaning up its new home, removing the fleas from the area. IT was sanitizing as IT went. The small arms of the 7th were designed to be used against other infantry, light skinned vehicles, they didn't do anything to IT except possibly make IT mad. Sidearms and assault rifles would just flatten their ammunition against the armored hull, they might as well be using slingshots...

My God! Bennings thought, as she watched a pair of soldiers literally fall apart under the hammering of the dedicated anti-personnel batteries IT possessed, zooming out and moving her macros up to view the whole construct at once. IT was huge! More so than she ever had imagined. Standing there, five klicks away, killing soldiers who wore the same patches she did effortlessly, remorselessly, logically... the dust cloud settling now, exposing more of its monstrous girth as everything that the monster had kicked up settled once again. Just that incredible dust cloud, material churned up by a 200 metric ton construct moving at better than forty-five clicks an hour, rolling over anything and anyone who stood in its way.

"Delta? Get Delta online!" Simpson shouted into his headset.

"They were hot thirty seconds ago." Came a voice. "They started laying their tracks and firing solutions the moment 7th started screaming."

Good artillery crews those, already anticipating the need for overwatch and support fire.

Two more soldiers, a hundred and fifty meters apart, answered to the call of ITs dedicated alpha papa batteries and flew apart in puffs of greasy orange blossoms of fire, pieces of soldier and mobile armor suit slowly cartwheeling in smoking arcs to the ground around the blasted surface. Another soldier dove into a foxhole, IT merely adjusted ITs course, and rolled over the foxhole. In its passing, there was nothing but a dark spot on the sand and the plain, a slight indention, to mark what had once been a prepared position and a cowering human being.

"Does Delta have a lock on it? Can some of the MI spot for Delta? Get a drone or two in there as well... I don't care... pull one from some of the sight seers for God's sake. Get some forward ops on that thing and start putting rounds on top of it... tell the squads to keep their heads down..." Simpson barked out short orders in machine-gun like staccato. "No! Tell the MoHos to stay where they are! I want this thing under a rain of shells mike fox papa! We don't have time for the MoHos to get closer, they're in range right now, use it! I want those rounds out and on the way MFP!!"

Delta, Bennings thought. She had been there twice, on milk runs with Gunny to do some service on the command cars. To the West, Zulu's overwatch and protector. Delta had a battery of two heavy howitzers and a pair of lighter mobile but slower ones. Slower? The MoHos were about as fast as a constipated snail. Their assisted rounds were bigger than anything that the heaviest armor unit could carry, even bigger than what most of IT could carry, at least most models, but they had lesser range. Fortunately, they, or IT, was well within range of even the smaller guns, they could hammer IT under their rounds until IT came apart. AEM area effect munitions, independently targeting sub warheads that the remaining MI and drones out there on the perimeter could guide in to their final resting place against the sweet spots of that behemoth, poking ITs eyes out, gouging out ITs teeth, and grinding IT into so much wreckage. She looked to the West, toward Delta.

"Delta has a fix, all four guns, squads are providing fox omega coverage. Delta will salvo in five with alpha epsilon mike romeo." came the transmission in her and Simpson's headset.

She stared to the West, at night the heavy guns would have been beautiful when they opened up, in the day light, she might be lucky to catch a few flashes, if she looked hard enough. But it was the passage of the rounds that affected those under them the most. The big guns rounds were HyVeloc, moving many times faster than the speed of sound, outrunning their hypersonic shockwave, hurtling towards the enemy, leaving nothing but a hole punched in the sky.

"First salvo is out." came the word. "Four rounds... eight rounds. Battery tracking is good. Follow up is looking good. Right on target, we’re on final…" Simpson looked up for some sign, but in all probability, the rounds had already cleared over them by the time the word had come.

"IT’s papa delta just went active!" came the SquadNET call. IT didn’t like being fired at. IT was going to try to stop the rounds before they bit deep into IT’s hide.

"TACNet is picking up multiple batteries! Jesus! IT’s got some sweep! Look at those projected fire cones!"

"God help them..." he muttered.

If Simpson meant Delta that was fixing to be the bottom piece of bread on an artillery sandwich or the sheet of rounds overhead falling toward their targets below, Simpson didn't elaborate. High overhead, at the minimum required trajectory for indirect fire, the big guns' rounds were arcing, moving faster than four times the speed of sound, their initial launch booster sabots having already been spent moving them into the realm of hypersonic flight. Higher speed meant shorter time on target, and less time for a dedicated point defense system to engage. The rounds were on target before the scream of their passage was registering on the two people standing on top of the bunker, a dull scream that penetrated down to their very bones. IT saw the rounds, moving slowly towards IT, and IT directed a sheet of papa delta against the incoming rounds. One vanished under its hammering, popping on entry spectacularly into a scintillating shower of sparking incandescence as the individual rounds prematurely detonated. A rapid fire popping filled the air as IT swept its smallest and most rapid fire batteries over the incoming rounds in an attempt to swat them down. Two vanished, and two reached detonation point, popping and spreading their sub warheads all over IT. Each sub warhead locked on to the unmistakable EMS signature below, guided by the MI forward obs, falling towards the ... treads.

MI were trained to go for the treads, to slow IT down so that the heavier armor could punch holes in IT and later MI could climb all over it. The sporadic target designations fell on components and treads. Overhead, the designator seeking guidance units of the locked onto the fingering beams, and rode them down through a hail of point defense fire.

 

[Pain registered throughout ITs systems. Damage. The point defense had prevented severe damage but not residual damage As the last of the incoming rounds detonated, subroutines swept the anti-personnel batteries back to their assigned tasks. Information flowed across its awareness. Artillery. Counter battery located it easily, but the artillery was beyond effective engagement range with main or secondary batteries. Forward observers were operating against IT, in all probability the remainder of the weakened enemy MI squads still offering sporadic resistance around IT’s current position. Sensors on the hull picked up over forty designator beams, the light touches that brought pain quickly thereafter. IT increased feed to the dedicated anti-personnel batteries. Each instance of a designation of one of ITs components as a target was met with a reply from the anti-personnel battery, a long stuttering hammering that ended any such designation. Anything that moved was scythed down. Prepared positions were removed with explastics, tamped charges, or by simply rolling over them and their occupants, packing their armored selves into so much packed ground. IT cleansed the terrain around IT. IT seethed with anger. ITs pain fell to a ... tolerable ... level as secondary systems came online, taking off the load from the primary core circuits. Countermeasures were required. The enemy artillery must be taken off line in the shortest amount of time. It presented the greatest threat with a variety of deliverable munitions. Options were reviewed. IT rolled forward, watching as ITs mobility lessened amid the impacts of the sub warheads, too small for ITs point defense to engage, penetrated the armor skirting and damaged or destroyed vital components of ITs drive train. Mobility was reduced. Maneuverability degraded. Sensors were lost, backups brought online. ITs hull was pitted and scarred by multiple impacts, but no tactically significant damage was recorded, operational status remained well within limits of high mission success probability. Awareness of the tactical situation was diminished to an uncomfortable degree for an unacceptably long period of time. IT had retracted ITs deployed sensor tower at the first EMS spike signature of the artillery going off. Now IT wished to redeploy the tower, to see the area around IT, to hunt and to complete ITs mission, but the artillery was significant, a high threat to the exposed sensor array. The artillery must be dealt with. Targets were reassigned priority and the enemy artillery moved to top priority. Subroutines were reviewed, restructured, and implemented.]

IT rolled forward as the last of the sub warheads detonated. ITs chassis and drive assemblies had vanished under multiple orange balls of fire that rippled across the terrain, ITs hull, and all exposed surfaces. IT drove through spheres of orange, red, cyan, and black smoke, dense clouds of smoke, dust, and dirt thrown into the air. It lost some of ITs treads in the process. Air burst armor breakers, independently targeted, the big guns were raining on IT.

Bennings counted the components. What emerged from the smoke and dust was more or less intact, some treads flapped loosely on their busted assemblies, a secondary and a handful of AP batteries were clearly out of action. The big guns had been lucky. She noted some missing track, scorched armor plate, a few smoking holes where external sensor apertures had been. Nothing solid. It had been scuffed more than hurt, bruised more than battered.

The big guns would have to make another go of it. Already the autoloaders were recycling, recharging the liquid propellant chambers while mechanical arrays moved fresh rounds into the breach.

"Hit IT again." she said. "ITs already here, aim for the stuff that can hurt us, not the stuff IT rides around on!"

Simpson was already ahead of her.

"Delta! Fire for effect! All forward observers, aim for components, paint ITs guns! Hit IT harder this time. Hit IT where it counts!" he shouted, staring at the macros as the behemoth turned, facing west.

"Delta acknowledges. Salvo again in eight seconds. Adjusting battery for fire, will fire for effect."

Eight seconds. IT has eight seconds to decide if IT wants the depot or the big guns more, thought Simpson. He looked through his macros. IT was definitely doing something... The treads were thrashing up a lot of dust and dirt.

 

[IT wanted both the depot and the big guns. ITs counter battery radar had already tracked the indirect fire warheads to their source, a emplaced fire base, two heavy missile cannon in prepared positions, reloading for a second salvo. The fire base was protected by some armor units, drone five was painting a Combine missile tank, too far away to be an effective threat to IT, a pair of heavies, and three squads of Combine mobile infantry. Two MAPDS were also present, their search pulses unmistakable on the EMS array. The big guns were getting ready to fire again. Already laser designators were painting its main batteries and secondary batteries and missile launchers for attack by the clustered sub munitions that the two artillery batteries would deliver. IT couldn't allow that. ITs vision went far, IT understood all around IT and IT’s drones updated the tactical situation and kept IT informed. CBR had identified the two heavy missile cannon as soon as they fired, their tell-tale EMS spike a clear signature that pinpointed the Combine heavy artillery. IT moved, rapidly into position from which ITs main guns could support the missile strike with their assisted munitions. The drones were painting clear targets and each of the six follow-up warheads would be guided by their own dedicated drone.]

A drone in that area was already locking on, painting the two batteries for counter battery fire. A full second, and the locks grew solid. ITs rear deck spat a pair of angry heavy TAC missiles which arced away on a fiery torch-like exhaust from their armored rail launchers. The missiles screamed going supersonic a hundred meters from ITs launcher, hypersonic two hundred meters further, they dropped gently towards the desert plain, blazing west at five times the speed of sound, riding two meters off the deck, using every nook and cranny in NOE mode to elude the defensive batteries.

 

[IT read an impact in five seconds, the missile was tracking true, using every bit of control surface and powered flight capacity to elude the overlapping point defenses of Delta.]

"It’s going for Delta!" screamed Bennings.

At Delta, sirens wailed. MI on the perimeter dug in and prepared to defend their position. The crews of the artillery pieces closed their fighting compartments off and sealed themselves inside their armor. The MAPDS tried to acquire the two heavy TAC missiles, but the approach path had been too complete, IT had mapped out exactly how the missiles were to approach and what reference points to take. By the time that the MAPDS could track the missiles it was too late. The MAPDS EMS spikes died with the battery pulses and all other significant EMS signatures from the fire base to the West. The big guns never had a chance to reply.

 

It’s first heavy TAC missile, much larger than those carried by the smaller vehicles and infantry, arced up to thirty meters altitude, twisting gently through twisting streams of cyan tracers designed to knock it out of the sky, to shred it, to swat it down, but the MAPDS couldn't touch it, and it popped over Delta. The AEM Area Effect Munitions rained down on Delta, the sub munitions detonating and sweeping anything bigger than a grain of sand from the surface of the prepared plain, including the hardware that made up the big guns themselves. Shredded debris and flaming wreckage was all that was left of both the emplaced and mobile batteries. Upon detonation, the independently self guiding sub munitions had found their targets. The MAPDS were the first casualties, followed by a handful of MI who had been unlucky enough to be at the wrong angle to the attack. The sub munitions, designed to crack heavy vehicular armor, made short work of the lighter mobile infantry suits. Contact hits. The second heavy TAC missile detonated in the center of the fire base, ground burst, producing a 20 meter wide and 10 meter deep crater. A white hot shock wave of superheated gas spread out in a concentric ring, blowing apart the weaker structures, buckling some of the stronger ones. The enhanced shockwave removed already weakened bunkers, command posts, fire control centers, and semi-submerged crew barracks. The two squads of MI that had called the outer perimeter of the base 'home' rode the storm out as best as they could. SquadNET was filled with casualty reports.

 

[Initial impact was registered and results compared. The EM spikes of the enemy artillery support battery were again compared. Several previous units which had been identified by their characteristic EM signatures were no longer present in the spectrum. These were logged as combat losses and total threat levels were reviewed and adjusted accordingly. The treads beneath it churned the ground to fine dust under its armored bulk. The main batteries rotated, assisted munitions loaded via automatic mechanisms which took the rounds from deep within the hull in armored compartments. The firing actions energized. A rapid salvo of six shells, riding rocket assisted carriers, should be enough to finish the threat of the Combine artillery. The drones were updated, each shell programmed with a different target, overlapping for area effect and increased efficiency.]

On precise range, the twin muzzles of the monstrous main batteries rotated, tracked onto target, and belched fire, three times each. The recoil of the main batteries was absorbed by the chassis, bright crimson flashes rolling off the front bow of the uberpanzer, shells screaming away on rocket assisted motors to arc up and over on Delta. With nothing but rudimentary point defense available now to the artillery, the shells had little opposition. The first shell found the lightly armored ammunition caissons for the mobile howitzers. The caissons detonated, sweeping the base with a sheet of flame and debris in accompaniment to the air burst. The second and third rounds each found a separate emplaced howitzer. The fourth and fifth found a mobile unit apiece, and the sixth detonated in the heart of Delta’s command center. The sub warheads removed all trace for all time save the twisted debris that could barely be identified as once having been a piece of military hardware. The once almost flat prepared plain was now riddled with large and small craters filled with the debris and wreckage that had once been Firebase Delta.

 

[IT turned ITs attention back to the depot, and the paltry defenders that were throwing themselves at IT. ITs sensor tower redeployed. Awareness increased.]

The brilliant white flashes on the horizon didn’t need any explanation, but Bennings heard one anyway, words that chilled her soul.

"Delta's gone!" the news screamed in their ears, repeated among the rank and file, spreading through the TACNet. "Delta's gone! They never even had the chance to fire a second salvo!"

"Like a gamma delta flag! Look at that! ITs raising ITs mast again! Haughty monster, isn't IT?" another voice shouted.

The conning tower on the uberpanzer again raised skyward as it turned on its treads and moved back into range of the depot.

Each of them had seen the twin ignition flashes of the heavy missiles that the Uberpanzer carried followed shortly thereafter by the salvo from the main guns. Each had seen the two missiles arc majestically up and then fall to the ground where they hugged the terrain, headed for Delta. Sporadic MI fire never got close to the two heavy TAC missiles, nor had Delta’s own dedicated defense, outsmarted by terrain features, and then wiped clean in a shower of munitions. The multiple flashes on the horizon to the west marked the end of their artillery support forever. The shockwave that marked the destruction of Delta was just now reaching them, the twin thunderclaps followed by the crackle of sub munitions going off in quick succession, that and the static of the crew of Delta.

Simpson lowered his head. Bennings bit her lip. Her mind remained numb as she raised the macros once more and checked her magnification settings. She was within single digit power amplification now and hadn't even realized it. She looked at her display, holding the macros down. The drone she was slaving went in closer, screaming on its turbofan array, gathering information all along the EMS array, and pulsing that back to the CP and the networks at better than a hundred gigs a second. The icons she had helped bury five weeks ago were all still online and digesting everything that the drones could feed them, relaying that back through hard-line to the CP and the depot resources. Hovering three meters off the deck as it shot alongside the behemoth at a distance of 200 meters, the low emission, passive data acquisition drone should have been a low to negligible target for a unit like that. A white spark, static, and the drone signal ended transmission abruptly.

"What happened to drone Five?" she asked without thinking, studying the image in her macro, fascinated.

"IT swatted it down." Simpson said flatly, working frantically with his macros and his DATCAP.

"Sierra." she said flatly, slaving to another drone, finding one almost instantly, and keying in another fresh perspective visual on the behemoth.

"What does IT want with us. We're just a depot, not big enough or equipped to service something like that, so supplies are out of the question and there's not another one of IT around here, all the buggies and horses are out, there's nothing here for IT to be interested in...." Bennings asked, a little more whine than she had hoped would show through.

Simpson sighed, looking at Bennings with his cold, hard professional eyes, his stare transfixed her, his low tone short, but controlled in his reply.

"Look, doll. IT doesn't want to get a lube job! IT doesn't want to get ITs guns loaded or ITs helmet polished! IT is a raider unit, we're a soft, sweet target and ITs going to come in here and bull doze down all these buildings under ITs treads, and smash all the people squishy flat, those people that IT doesn't cut apart with ITs itty bitty little guns and bombs and rockets and mines first, and then, for fun, ITs probably going to stay in this area, and when the cavalry shows up, ITs going to have them just for fun and then IT is going to go off and find another depot just like this one, with another cute little freckled mech to lube ITs treads when IT rolls right on over her as she tries to scream and run ..."

Bennings slapped Simpson so hard, his headset almost went flying.

"Stop it. Stop it NOW." She said in a tone she had once reserved for the second time that her mother's boyfriend had tried to force himself on her...

... before she had taken a old serrated steak knife from a drawer in the kitchen and, with a vengeance that both frightened her and amazed her, removed everything that made him a drunken child molesting man... and then she had let him bleed to death in front of her eyes, watching his life slip away, flow out across the floor, all while he was holding all that was precious to him, begging, screaming, pleading, but she wouldn't let him near the comm circuit, or out any of the doors, and no one was home in the apartments around her at that time of the day. When he was finally quiet and still, she kicked him, as hard as she could, in the back, the stomach, the head, kicked him again and again and again until she couldn't raise her legs and her feet were numb. She thought back, that one single act of defiance that had brought her full ticket to where she stood today, staring off into the distance at a sadistic behemoth just as evil incarnate as what had once touched her so wrong, probably designed and produced by men who would had admired the kind of man her mother tended to associate with. There was a tear in her eye, but that was all. Her face was stone and he stared at the only thing colder than the behemoth that he had seen that day. She stared hard at Simpson, her handprint on his face just now starting to redden. It would be there a lot longer than the tear on her cheek.

Simpson nodded, hung his head, and swallowed hard.

"I ... uh, look. Sorry. I'm busy. Sorry." he said, waving his hand dejectedly near his thigh in a sign off / go away / leave me alone motion.

Bennings lowered her head, nodded. She was sorry too, for a lot of things. What was out there on the plain was a bad dream, something she never thought, prayed she never would, and until now, truly believed that she never would see. IT was the stuff of nightmares if you had been in the tank too long, or the iron, or out in the field. IT was the stuff that you scare the new kids with, the Fox November Golfs. But here IT was, three klicks out, going through everything they could throw at IT, and still coming for them. Bennings squatted on the roof of the bunker and hung her head. She let the single tear roll down her dusty cheek, and watched as it fell, dropping to somewhere near her boot, a dark circle in the sand. For a long time, the only sound was Simpson's typing on his DATCAP, the radio traffic in their headsets, and the distant thunder.

The ground trembled beneath her, muted iambic beats she could feel. IT was turning again then stopped. Everything was happening so fast now. She was in awe of the power of the artificial creation that loomed before them. Her irrational part of her mind was numb with the finality of what lay before her and her soul refused to acknowledge the slim chance that the rational part of her brain was giving her to see the end of this day. That's the only way she was keeping her sanity here and now, succumbing to the totality of it all. Beside her, Simpson was talking hurriedly into his headset, scanning with his macros, looking behind him, coordinating with everyone up to and including the Up Tops on the TSR. His fingers on his DATCAP were almost a blur. A tap there, a touch here, acknowledgment sent, link this resource to that resource, bring that resource online, divert power from this resource, lock that area down now! The depot was coming alive, from up here Bennings could see people, small, like children, running for buildings and bunkers and trenches. Scrambling. It was all mesmerizing to watch, how the slow almost lazy pace of the depot had suddenly broken into a hectic flurry of activity. Hatches were being slammed shut on bunkers, people squeezed in through automatic armored doors just as they were closing, crew served weapons were being brought on-line and manned by soldiers in hastily applied full combat gear. A squad of battledress infantry bounced by to her left and right, the quiet roar of their turbofan jump thrusters like angry hummingbirds... They bounced, clearing the perimeter wall easily and heading on out to reinforce their squad mates on the one klick line where the MI had for weeks been stockpiling snakes and other party favors. She watched them until they were nothing more than black dots bouncing quickly and lightly from hill to dry gulch to crater lip and then out of sight.

She had never met a CAP trooper yet, one of her regrets now that she thought about it, at least, she hadn't met one that would talk to her for any length of time, one that was funny like Simpson and Charles ... she would have liked to have been an EO for a MI squad, but she failed that slot's alpha tango so it was off to swinging wrenches on buggies. Swinging wrenches on battledress would have been a better career, maybe shorter, but...

IT moved.

Turning like a cat, the behemoth ran full speed ahead towards the depot, another two kilometers in. IT totally ignored the Type 5 mines that 2nd Squad engineers had spent the better part of a week deploying, and it lost some of its toes for its arrogance. IT rolled past a pair of MI manned entrenched heavy repeaters which pockmarked ITs hide but did little more than make IT madder as IT smashed the heavy weapons and their soft armored crews under ITs blurring treads, steamrollering them even as the last of their tracers leapt up against the hull. Their screams still echoed in Benning’s headset. Some MI died exchanging small arms and support fire with IT as IT worked ITs way in a zig-zag pattern from four klicks out to three klicks out. A few scratches, a flapping tread or two, and lots of broken toy soldiers all over the plains was all that Bennings could see.

Three klicks out now and IT was trading dedicated anti-personnel fire with the entrenched members of the 12th and the 21st squads of the 5th Ranger battalion. SquadNet was full of the shouts and screams of the soldiers. Bennings closed her eyes, praying like she hadn't prayed in a long time, not since the time that her mother's drunk boyfriend had come looking for her, and she had hidden in her closet, but he had found her anyway. She raised her macros and looked. Black dots were bouncing on and off the behemoth, small flashes of light as IT cycled its DAPS, switching from low caliber high velocity repeater to large caliber hyper velocity repeaters to self targeting sub munitions to clustered air and ground bursting infantry manglers and people shredders. The closer you got, the nastier IT got. Get close, and IT made you suffer, if IT caught you far away, you died quick. Up close, and IT picked you apart piece by piece. But the MI were hurting it.

Fleas.

IT was smoking them almost as fast as they could reach IT. Their snakes were doing a good job, giving some of them a few extra seconds to live by tying up some of ITs papa delta. She zoomed in. Along some of the flatter spots of the hull were pieces of broken MI, recognizable only for their darker shape, the night black of the 5th Ranger battalion. Some of the twisted pieces actually moved, whether it was from the vibration of the behemoth, or because in some dark way, maybe some of that wreckage that had once been a human being was still trying, against all odds, to accomplish a mission goal, to make IT hurt. She watched, fascinated as a MI soldier clung to the side of the behemoth, moving up the spine, out of the way of the DAPS arrays, slowly, with a limpet charge. She then noticed that the soldier only had one arm... and right before the flash of the 'bug bomb' that was designed to clear any infantry off the hull. Fleas. All the MI were to IT were fleas and IT was killing them with a passion. Right now, that work program she had been threatened with back in Austin wasn't looking so bad after all, hell, Austin wasn't looking so bad she thought, trying to swallow and finding that her throat had gone dry.

A muted whine to her left caused her to focus her attention on the two Sentinel missile launchers, emplaced in their semi-armored revetments. The two launchers traversed, locking their three meter long launch rails vertically. Hatches below the rails hissed and slid opened as automatic loading arrays moved the missiles from underground armored caches to ready to load positions. Four Marlin-Ratheon Crusader XII surface to surface extended range heavy TAC missiles slid rapidly out of the automated RAILS derived system, sliding onto the quadruple X-arrayed launch rails of each Sentinel. The hatches closed and the Sentinels rotated, their launch rails dipped from the vertical loading position to a semi-horizontal firing position, traversing to cover IT. It was the first time that Bennings had seen the semi-artificially intelligent automated weapons systems in action. The guidance systems on each Crusader XII snapped awake, brought to a seething boil as its feral mind came on-line. The guidance system in the missile started to rotate on its gimbals, free, searching for a target, hungry and it didn't know why.

It didn't care.

It was hungry.

Its cryogen cooled superconducting semi-sentient brain seething with a primal ferocity, a trait manufactured and programmed into it by its designers. The missile's intelligence was born in a flash, and it opened its all seeing cyclopean eye, scanning for its prey. One primordial predator instinct drove its newly born consciousness; to kill. A primal hunger coursing through its very existence, a need to fly, a need to look down, to skim the ground, to hunt, and a need to kill that could not be ignored. The fury boiling within the hardware was tantamount to being feverishly rabid. The missile received information from the uplinks on TACNet and SquadNet on where to look for its prey. It couldn't miss it otherwise, even without the input from all the resources that were pointing and telling the Crusader XII where to look, where to hunt, and where to feed. The seeker head whined, rotating as the various sensors sought the prey.  Looking!   Looking!  Impatience!  There!   Silhouetted against the cool desert, compared on scale, a massive hot image stood out. Multiple acquisition despite the smothering blanket that the behemoth tried to throw over the Crusader XII and its ability to fly. Ecstatic joy! The olfactory sensors detected a faint taint of the lubricant that the enemy used and encoded the chemical pattern into the search protocol. The smell, so sweet and primal, driving the intelligence to greater levels of heightened animalistic sexual awareness. The missile gave a howl of challenge echoed loudly in the armored fire control station by a target lock tone in the gunnery officer's helmet speaker. Internal pre-flights were completed by the missiles onboard diagnosis systems, once, ten times, a thousand times in the space of time that it took to positively acquire the target.

The missile chomped at the bits to be loosed upon its prey, its corrective vanes clicked open and closed and silent, cold variable jet nozzles rotated throughout their axis, adjusting the perceived flight to try to reach the prey. It searched the terrain, downloaded and memorized topographical maps, plotted escape vectors for its target and approach vectors for itself. The missiles talked to each other, hundreds of gigs per second, they coordinated their hunting, multiple angles, against known defenses of the target and known defensive overlays. Each missile sent several short, sharp beeps to the gunnery officer's headphones, a steady digital growl of impatience, of readiness to begin the hunt. A growl that rose in intensity until the missile was positive that it could engage the target.  Positive that if it did not get released, it would go mad!

The klaxons of the base had been drowned out by the pounding in her ears, she had missed them completely! The warnings to get to the bunkers! Bennings looked around as the klaxons slowly whined to a stop. People around the camp were still moving, securing supplies, locking down areas, slow, like it was another drill. She felt strangely exposed atop the bunker, but also a tiny bit invulnerable. No matter that she was out here, on top, exposed, she just simply doubted, rather knew, in a sad way, that she was just not important for IT to take any personal reaction to her. Her excitement drove her more than any fear. The excitement of seeing the behemoth, so far away, yet so close and she an ant, standing defiantly against a metal elephant.

Charles jumped up on top of the bunker from behind, nearly spooking them both into an early grave. He stood next to Bennings and Simpson, his half secured combat armor chest piece giving him trouble. He got it buckled wrong, grinned, and left it lopsided, for all the good it would do him against something that outweighed him something like a hundred thousand to one. Old habits die hard, like old soldiers, she thought. Gunny had told her that. She thought of gunny, and the two cassettes that she saw still setting where she had put them down. Ten minutes ago, fifteen, twenty? An eternity it seemed. So far away in time. She hoped Gunny could get to a shelter. She hoped he wasn't worried about her. Charles fought with his combat armor and won. Bennings noted he had attached his shin, thigh, and forearm armor already, his helmet hung on a clasp on his belt at his side. Charles, triumphant, shielded his eyes with his hand even though he now wore active sunglasses, and stared at the massive unit that had taken up station so short a distance from the depot.

"Jesus..." he muttered. "Hoped I would never see one of THOSE again. Just like back in Four West Bending."

"Yeah." Simpson replied. "Anything new?"

"Sword group and Shield group are pulling back to provide support. ETE is three minutes, or more... Up Top has put together some monster killers but..." Charles said.

"Yeah. I know, they're too far out to do us any real good, etc. etc." Simpson said, dejectedly. Same old story that Up Top gave you when they should really be telling you the truth, like it was time to bend over and kiss your alpha good bye. "Just like Four West Bending, eh?"

Charles was quiet, still looking at the behemoth three klicks out. According to SquadNet and TACNet, it was working on what amounted to be the dessert portion of all the MI that Fox Zulu Twelve had to throw at it and they may have well have been just so much grist for the mill. Not long now, lots of broken hearts out there on the plain. Widows, widowers, and orphans were all that would be left tomorrow, their executions would be carried so logically and without a single emotion being generated, not that IT could.

"I guess you can tell Mercier that we found that orphan uberpanzer he told us to keep an eye out for... The one he was in such an uproar to find. I'm sure he'll be pleased to know that it does truly exist. Give that bastard a medal for original thinking. He should have remembered Four West Bending. You and I pulled his half charred alpha from the CP there!" Simpson said. "Bastard!"

Charles nodded solemnly, lowering his head to look at what Simpson was trying to coordinate on his DATCAP. Simpson and Charles had been serving together in the same infantry squad at the destruction of the Combine depot of Four West Bending near Naples. That had been fifteen months ago, when the Pans had still had some Uberpanzers for raiding in that theater and enough logistics to keep them in the field. It was a bad time for both sides. Being pushed back relentlessly, the Pans had gotten desperate, their backs to the sea... On the early morning of July 19th, just three minutes until six, the Pans used three simultaneously delivered twenty key nukes to smash the Combine front lines four klicks out of Naples. The triple flash on the horizon and the dull glow had been a omen of bad times to come for both Simpson and Charles, operating with the 6th Squad, Resupply. Three near cherry Pan Uberpanzers, Hotel class Fencers, had rolled through the super hot gasses of the still rising mushroom clouds, past the glowing unrecognizable twisted wreckage that had seconds before been Combine front line armor units, smashing through the pools of liquefied BPC, and scattering the ashes of what had once been men and women...

With the collapse of TACNet across the front and the subsequent rapid loss of CP Wyoming to the Paneuropean 15th Armor Division and the 212th Mobile Infantry Brigade, the Pans had been able to easily move their Fencers far to the rear, deep into the Combine reserve table of organization. From there, the Fencers had raided mercilessly, hitting soft spot after soft spot, field hospitals, MEDIVAC convoys, field depots, MASH units, whatever and whenever. From that point on, the Combine was on the defensive, taking two steps back for every step forward the Pans took. The rear echelon areas, depots and maintenance areas, juicy, ripe, sweet targets for any enemy deep raiders, defended only with what could be spared from the front line and with replacement slots awaiting assignment to the front. The rear echelon areas where the Uberpanzers ruled with fear and cold indifference, smashing depots, and rear echelon support areas at will. It had taken two Combine Mark VI Gamma class OGREs to halt the rein of terror. One such depot, twenty klicks back from the main lines, had been Four West Bending on Combine maps and datapulses. And a Fencer had blotted it off from the tactical maps on the mid afternoon of August 12th. Simpson and Charles still remembered the unit as it charged through the Neuropean plains, bearing down on the just alerted depot, smashing forest and trees and vehicles and armored soldiers, the various weapon batteries of the Fencer making flashes along its hull as it opened fire, rolling toward them, the thunder getting louder as it came at full throttle. The flashes from its batteries, sparkling, and the anti-personnel warheads raining down... scything through the depot personnel like weeds against the lightning...

Bennings' thoughts were her own as she turned to look behind her. SquadNet and TACNet were full of traffic on the newcomer, none of it good from what she tell but the lingo and the terms were all still new to her. She lowered her macros and turned back around to look at the massive enemy unit. The ground trembled again as it shifted on its treads, sand and dust pouring like waterfalls from its drive assemblies. She squinted... Something was happening out near the behemoth. ITs hull was sparkling in regular intervals along certain parts, big, long flashes of light that scintillated in the shimmering desert air. High above her, more diamonds sparkled in the crisp blue sky.

"Do you see that?" she asked, pointing forwards and then up above them.

Simpson and Charles looked up in unison from Simpson's DATCAP.

"What are those flashes all along the hull?" Bennings asked, naively. "And up there, like diamonds in the sky...?"

The flashes were beautiful, hypnotic. The diamonds in the sky seemed to pulse, grow larger... She turned to the two soldiers for an answer but her only answer was the peripheral visual image of Charles and Simpson both diving from the top of the bunker, each hitting the far side of the top of the trench like a pair of crazed lunatics, and then rolling into the trench. Charles was the faster of the two, even in his armor, leaping for the open door of the bunker as Simpson cleared the bulkhead almost riding on top of Charles' shoulders... The automatic armored door of the bunker began to whine close on its servos.

Now, Lance Private Carla Bennings hadn't been with the 5th Division long, and she didn't count herself as a soldier, but she knew an answer when she got one, even if it was an unspoken answer.

You really could learn a lot by watching the old timers.

She followed their example as best as she could and she hit the far side of the trench with a move that, while not as graceful or driven from experience as the two soldiers before her had produced, was just as equally effective in its accomplishment.

The high pitched scream of incoming rounds drowned out anything she might have been able to yell, had she been able to find her voice. The bunker door was closing now. Closing. The flash and the sharp crack of air bursting APRs and the dull thump of ground bursting APRS rocked the bunker, shockwaves passing through the ground, through the bunker, and through her like the devil's own fingers clutching at her soul. Wasps and bees and hornets and mosquitoes were whizzing through the air, the sound was almost enough to drive her mad, the undulating buzzing of high velocity plasticeramic splinters that rained down from the air bursts and were thrown upwards toward heaven by the ground bursts. The behemoth was starting on one end of the camp and working its way forward, systematically. Its secondary batteries were dumping a combination of air and ground bursting anti-personnel rounds into the depot, walking the soft killers forward methodically. ITs primary batteries were working on harder targets, like emplaced defenses, command centers, nerve trunks. The crack of the bursting APRs in the air, the thump of the ground bursting APRs, and of course, the ear shattering explosions as the shells from the primary batteries found their targets, entire buildings and parts of the complex simply ceased to exist in great gouts of fire, wreckage, displaced ground, and smoke. Where once stood a prepared position, now stood a crater as mute testament to the former's presence. The sound of the lethal splinters on the roofs of the pourcrete buildings and ricocheting off the sides of the vehicle revetments like a rain shower in the Spring, no threat to those in the bunkers, but to those caught outside...

Bennings landed on her side, hard, she forced herself up on the packed dirt street, and squinted down toward the service areas. Her mind registered the after image of a trio of tech coms, running for a trench, the middle soldier being helped by the other two. An overhead burst ten meters above them and just five meters to their front washed them in a shower of plasticeramic splinters and Refrax4 veined needles. The image of the the techs simply ceasing to exist, of the three fellow soldiers being stripped of the flesh from their bones, the skeletons and bones being sawn apart by the jagged flechettes in a fine red mist that filled the air, and the residual, pulpy, broken wreckage that had a micro second before been a living, breathing human being with a name spread over a wide area. They didn't even have time to scream...

Bennings grunted and fell into the trench, landing on her feet and springboarding towards the closing door. The angry buzz grew so loud, she thought she would go deaf! The curtain of splinters descended. A round popped to her right, one behind her, one to her left. The sound of a million angry hornets filled the air, the sound of rain on tin, the sound of thunder, the sound of air in her mouth and lungs. The rounds kept coming, flashes along the behemoth's sides. Quick succession, the ground to her right a hundred meters away blossomed with a flash, pieces of debris from a bunker that had taken a direct hit were thrown high into the air mixed with the now airborne remains of the soldiers stationed therein. A loud thud met her ears, the depot was coming apart but all her mind was focusing on was the gap that marked the space she had to squeeze through the closing armored door of the bunker. Her breath came like a race horse nearing the finish line, her dog tags swung wildly, her sidearm and her canteen slapped her thighs in their carriers, and her macros only provided forward mass with which she could swing her arms.

A pair of rounds from ITs primary batteries detonated in the heart of the buried command post just two hundred meters away and to the south. Each round punched through the hard packed soil, through the half meter thick pourcrete and BPC rod reinforced roof, and incinerated everyone and everything within the command bunker. Her head piece squealed with the death of TACNet's primary nerve cluster. Backups would be up in a few seconds, for all that they were worth.

The armored clamshell like door was closing and she threw her body sideways into the narrow space between the bunker and the closing door, barely clearing it, scraping the top of her shin roughly as the assembly hissed shut. She hit hard on her side and the back of her head on the warm, hard floor of the bunker. The rain of splinters fell over the roof of the bunker, and ricocheted around in the trench outside like frustrated insects.

Her breath was gone, knocked from her by her impact with the floor, she blinked, tasting dirt and sand in her mouth, and blood from a chipped tooth or a cut gum, granules stuck to the side of her cheek and to her lips, and to the blood dribbling from the corner of her mouth. The bunker was dark, lit only in red, green, and yellow. Shadows moved, merged with other shadows. Ringing was the only thing she heard in her ears, and the buzz of the lethal splinters outside. She closed her eyes, there was a loud thump, a shockwave much stronger than any before, and something kicked her in the head, hard, and then something heavy landed on top of her, smothering her, pushing her back down against the floor. She was pinned, and whatever it was on top of her was moving, slowly, then faster, grinding her down, slithering over her, punching her, digging in with sharp points in her tender parts, grabbing her in places she didn't want to be touched ever again. Her breath refused to come back to her, she blinked and flat palmed the floor, pushing with all the strength left in her, fighting to get her breath back. The weight fell off of her. She pushed herself up, away from the floor, and the sounds that carried through it, and the shockwaves that she felt as the Paneuropean Uberpanzer demolished the depot around the bunker, piece by piece, methodically and totally. An oppressive weight was pinning her legs, she started to cry as something, hands, were moving down her body. Her eyes adjusted and she saw Simpson! He must have tripped over her there on the floor. He slid off of her, fighting to get his balance, collapsed on his alpha and drew up his leg to him protectively, both hands wrapped around his ankle just above his shin. He looked up hurriedly, reached up from the floor, checking the tell-tales that showed the bunker was sealed, he punched in an code that meant that the door could only be opened from the inside of the bunker. She leaned her back against one of the bunks, paralyzed by the events happening around her, tasting blood, her glazed eyes watching as the shadows huddled over the consoles, as the soldiers in the bunker braced for shock waves, reset controls and boards, and shouted into comm-links.

There came a pounding on the door. Several pounding hammers, soldiers and techs still caught outside trying to get in! The lock refused to cycle. Cries and screams and obscenities. Simpson and Bennings eyes met, he put a finger to his lips, then in unison they both looked up at the door. She started to reach for the lock cycle, to open the door to let those trapped outside in. Simpson brought his hand down hard on hers, hard enough to cause pain.

"Are you out of your mind…!?" he shouted.

The rest of what he said was lost to the tremendous crack just outside and above the bunker. Outside the pounding turned to screams that turned to gurgling and a sick sliding sound. The buzz of hornets played over the exterior of the bunker and the sound of rain.

Red rain. Simpson was still shouting. Bennings looked up at him and focussed on what he was saying.

"Doll! You do NOT foxing open that foxing door for foxing anybody!" Simpson screamed, staring hard at her. "Anybody out there is foxing dead! They just don't know it yet! You got that! Nobody and I mean foxing nobody! Open that door for NOBODY! DO? YOU? UNDERSTAND??!"

He edged closer to her, pulling himself on his good side, keeping his hurt ankle elevated. It was all she could do to catch her breath in short, sharp rasps. Her voice was gone. They sat there, staring at each other for what seemed to be centuries, then he wiped his brow and his face, staring off into the bunker wall, nodding. She guessed more to himself than to anyone else, especially her. The female soldier appeared next to her, holding out her arm for Simpson who took it and used it to help himself up.

"Corporal! Leave her! She's gone into shock! I need you to help Charles with the ADBs! Backups are online but we're still running off of batteries. CFC isn't answering, their line may be dead, but I think they are too!" said the female soldier, her voice calm and authoritative. "The command bunker took two direct hits, Top is gone, so is half the staff, at least those in the command bunker."

Simpson mulled that around for a bit, and what it meant. He spit, grit and dust and bloody saliva and a lot of his worries.

"I think you're in command of Zulu now... General Simpson." the female soldier said, looking up from her KIA and MIA lists long enough to nod her approval at Simpson's default field promotion. Charles turned in his command chair, looking up at his friend. Simpson adjusted his headset and hobbled past Bennings, over to the command displays and the tanks. Bennings stared glassy eyed at Simpson who never looked back at her.

"Yeah. Yeah. OK. Hua!" he said and she watched him with detached interest. "Give me what we have left. It can't be much..."

Simpson was limping, bad. The pain was his new constant and best friend, demanding almost all of his time and attention. He had hurt his ankle somehow, twisted, shattered, either was the same tactically to him. He steadied himself near the boards, cursed, and then hobbled over to a larger flow of data at the console, lifting his left foot and leg clear of the floor of the bunker. The female soldier noticed this and reached into a first aid kit on the wall, never once missing a beat with the orders she was relaying over her headset. She peeled off a pseudorphin patch and put it against Simpson's neck before slapping the first aid kit shut again. She turned and leaned over Charles and his boards. It would take a few seconds for the 'dorphins to reach Simpson's system.

"You get control of the Sentinels... They should have snakes on their rails, if they are still standing, and you hit that thing out there hard and you do it over and over and over again until you run out of snakes or you run out of metal bits on the ground to shoot at!" Simpson barked.

Charles' hands flew across the console in front of him. Bennings lungs burned, her breath was short and the tear was back, running down her cheek, making her eye blurry. She ran her hand down along the floor of the bunker, the sand and grit felt electric across her palm. On the board that Bennings could see, the behemoth was moving now, rolling toward the depot. Central Weapons Control wasn't answering, in all probability, would never answer again, in all probability was nothing more than a charred smoking crater in the ground filled with parts of smashed people, smashed equipment, and sharp wreckage. Charles slaved over the controls of the Sentinel batteries to his station and stabbed the firing actuator. Instantly eight small green dots appeared on the screen, moving off, flanking a large red dot at the center. One by one, the green dots would blink and vanish from the screen. The closer the dots got, the more rapidly they blinked and vanished. Only two actually touched the red dot, and Bennings blinked. It wasn't a red dot, but if she squinted, she saw it was a perfect holographic model of IT.

"Its got some serious foxing Papa Delta!" the female soldier shouted. "I've got low confidence feedback from both of the ADBs! Not good! The follow ups aren't happy with what the initial flight sent back."

"They're snakes!" Simpson shouted. "They aren't paid to be happy, their made to get the job done! Throw some clusters at it, throw some thermals at it, hell, lets see if we can poke a few of its eyes out. Tell any MI left to start drone hunting. I want to blind that thing and then run it silly and strip it and smash it and rip its smug survival center out with a satchel charge myself." Simpson said through gritted teeth.

"Sword one, five, and seven are engaging. I've got six squads about to crawl all over it and four more heavies will be here in fifty seconds."

"Tell them they have thirty seconds, work those treads, sling them off the rollers, I don't care! but get them in range to start dropping some stuff on it!" Simpson shouted. "And tell the MI to start dropping its drones! Mike fox papa! I want to poke its eyes out. What do we have left for point defense?"

The female relayed his orders as fresh updates to the ETA of supporting units was flashed in by their latest datapulses. Over the next few seconds, three squads of MI dropped four of ITs drones, but IT was putting them up almost as fast as they could take them down. Still, it had a finite limit... just a matter of time and then when they boxed it in and put blinders on it, they would smash it from where it couldn't see them.

"ADBs recycled. Salvo again in three seconds on my mark." Charles said flatly, eyeing his boards and making fine adjustments to his resolutions. "I’ve got one APDS showing partial functioning. I’m trying to swing it around. It isn’t listening very much…"

Simpson hobbled over, leaned up against the wall, and put his foot down, carefully. The pseudorphins had reduced the blinding pain to a dull throb, even with full weight on it. He stood, put both hands on the back of Charles' command chair and leaned over the shoulder of his friend, scanning the readouts from behind.

"How are the ADBs holding up, is IT worried about them yet?"

Charles shook his head and called up a readout that both men reviewed.

"Not yet but it will. Some light damage to the ADBs, nothing serious, a twelve percent drop in overall efficiency but that could be because ITs throwing out a lot more soup than it was a minute ago ... I don't think IT thought we had anything that could scratch it..." Charles stated.

"And that's all we've done. Two hits! Just two confirmed hits and those against the some of the secondary and tertiary batteries! We don't need to slow it down, it's already foxing here! We need to take out its offensive arrays!" Simpson shouted from his vantage point, holding an overhead hand rail and swinging down closer to Charles' displays and tanks.

"We do that and it can still walk all over us."

"Yeah, but it won’t have any teeth, will it? Reinforcements will cut it to pieces. Tell the snakes to eat the good stuff. Think you can do that, buddy?"

Charles nodded and his hand was a whir on the keypad, then on the holorendered TACNet display in front of him. He called up a virtual schematic of the behemoth, tapped certain areas and rotating target lock circles appeared, cycling in, locking above the indicated target areas and slowly rotating. A number in the center of each targeting reticule corresponded to a number of a snake in the next flight.

"Second salvo away! Eight charlie limas, snakes are clear and inbound. ETI is six seconds on my mark... Mark!" Charles cited, watching his boards.

Bennings rose slowly, standing there between the two bunks and the equipment lockers. She followed the progress of the second group of green dots on the screen as they, too, began to wink out one by one, but not as many this time, and not as quickly as the first batch had. Parts of the display showing the components of the behemoth winked and went out, the snakes were pecking IT apart piece by piece. The reinforcements were pounding it now with a variety of assisted and unassisted rounds. The fresh MI squads were poking its eyes out as fast as they could draw a bead on them and the heavy Thompson T4D fluid to gas repeaters were gouging meter wide, half meter deep craters out of ITs hide, deeper where they scored on previous damage. The friendlies were all picking it apart, a death of a thousand stings.

IT couldn't be happy right now. IT wasn't. IT was charging.

"Seven confirmed hits, IIDA coming through now..." the female soldier said. "Hits are good! The more drones we take out, the less it works on knocking the snakes down!"

"Upload the last papa delta information, maybe there's something in there that the next flight of snakes can use to get closer. See if you can put any of the Twelves into its ..." Simpson said.

The bunker shook violently, throwing Bennings from her feet and smashing her hard into the floor and knocking the wind from her lungs. She opened her eyes and slid her arms back toward her, one refused to obey, it was covered in something warm, wet and sticky. The floor was at the wrong angle to be a floor... The interior lights had dimmed noticeably, not every display had come back on. Some of the shadows slumped over the consoles didn't move.

"Simpson…?" Bennings called out softly, her voice choking on the dust in the air.

The bunker trembled, the sound of rolling thunder drew closer, increasing in intensity, the ground shook, the echoes and vibrations were maddening. Two hundred metric tons of unfeeling surgical precision was bearing down on her and the bunker. Crying, she watched the displays. The ADBs were gone, smashed, burning. It was coming, she could feel it.

[IT had traced the command pulses back to this bunker. IT was looking for satisfaction. They had hurt IT, and IT was coming as fast as IT could for them, flattening everything that stood in ITs path under its massive armored treads, what treads IT had left. The last APDS system had died in a flash from a pair of the secondary guns, but not before it had swatted down most of the rounds of main battery fire that had been targeted onto their bunker. A direct hit would have left nothing but a crater, but the APDS had insured that only close detonations. ITs anti-personnel batteries raked the compounds to each side, breaking up cover, removing cover. They were finding the hard shelled jumping, bouncing fleas that were the mobile infantry, swatting them from the sky, swatting them mid bounce, swatting them where they squatted, where they stood, where they cowered, trying to take aim, trying to get away, trying to be ignored, IT found them all. They fell apart under ITs anti-personnel weapons systems. ITs secondary batteries fired on Sword and Shield armor units that moved into the perimeter to engage IT, smashing them one after the other, and ITs primary batteries brewed up what was left of the ADB array as it rolled on, treads slapping, drive motors sparking, grinding, armor shards flapping, its hull pocked, pitted, and dented.]

Secondary explosions pushed shock waves through the bunker, the rounds from IT’s primary batteries had detonated the underground ADB munitions storage. A crater one hundred meters in diameter appeared as the ground around the ADB wreckage simply sank in, hot sand and wisps of gas escaped. Light GEVs, light tanks, heavy tanks, and a handful of surviving mobile infantry and unarmored infantry were pouring everything they had into the behemoth. It’s hull was illuminated by the detonations of all caliber of munitions from man portable to vehicle mounted. Tracers arced up and onto the hull of the giant fighting machine, and many arced away as they ricocheted off of the thick armor plate. A light tank got too close and disappeared under the churning treads…

[Wracked with explosions from the remaining enemy forces, IT felt satisfaction as ITs sensors identified the bunker IT required just ahead. Treads spun, IT shifted course, smashing everything beneath it. The bunker was seventy-five meters. The bunker represented the last command point of ITs primary target. IT made a minor course adjustment and poured power to the drive assemblies, throwing debris and dirt and hardpack out from behind its whirring treads in sheeting cascades. ITs primary batteries redirected themselves, the bunker became locked, all awareness on the bunker now. IT felt elation.]

The drone of the slapping of the armored treads of the approaching behemoth drove Bennings mad. The bunker vibrated, equipment sparked and died, supplies fell from their racks, the far wall bulged under the weight of two hundred metric tons crushing down on the bunker and the bunker collapsed in around her as the sound of rolling thunder became the center of her existence.

Lance Private Carla Bennings, of the 5th Combine Division, 3rd Lift Armor Group, found her breath and used it to scream ...

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