fiction by Christopher T. Shields
Three days ago
General Nadine Harrison had been surprised by a concentrated Pan rush from the North in sector 340. A reinforced company of Paneuropean armor with the support of more than half a division of lift capable mobile infantry had swept around her forward hunt groups and rolled toward her command post, smashing the side elements of her initial probe and going for her heart. Calling in five of her hunt groups worth of armor and infantry, and bracing it with a pair of Mark IV OGREs, she had saved her CP, but took a hell of a bruising in the process, to both her theater strength and to her pride. Harrison wasnt the kind of officer to let bygones be bygones or set around and lick her wounds. She had immediately put out a scout screen of light armor and blowers to find out where the Pans had concentrated their forces and where they had supplied them for such a push into her controlled sector.
Two days ago
The 5th Lift Scout group had made tentative perimeter contact with a Pan convoy heading towards a forward staging area some sixteen klicks behind the front lines and were shadowing the enemy force. Harrison watched the movement of the convoy on her holo-tank at command as she and her command staff studied the data that the scout group was pulsing back. Harrison gave the order for the scouts to brew up the convoy and interrogate any survivors. All of the information that they could assimilate was sent to Central via encrypted pulse and courier drone. Harrison ordered the 13th and the 85th Lift Scout groups to join the 5th in providing rear echelon harassment of enemy logistics.
Thirty six hours ago
Harrison used her combined forces to punch some sunshine in Pans frontal line and she managed to insert a Mark IV Sierra OGRE beyond the breach in order to raise hell behind the enemy lines. The Pans were having to stretch themselves thin to handle the load that the Mark IV was throwing at their tender spots.
Harrison had called in Lt. Mitch Carey and his troop along with a couple of squads of MI and given them their orders: find the Pan forward staging depot that was reinforcing the harassment forces plaguing her campaign and blow it to hell. The only problem that Carey could see with that was that his troop was down for combat maintenance after Harrisons last push. He had two LGEVs still on the fan and he sent those out past the lines, deep penetration, to find what Harrison knew was out there. Ten hours later, his scout group found what Harrison was looking for; a Pan supply and repair depot, thirty-six klicks behind the lines, heavily fortified, and busy working to get a large group of armor back into service. That night, Carey, Harrison, her staff, and the local MI top kick all stood around a tactical holo display and compared databases.
Pan had taken up residence in an old strongpoint dating back to the first tentative police actions in the theater, it was well defended but had no emplaced artillery support, at least none that the scouts could detect. The strongpoint had once been used as a Pan forward command bunker, three months ago, until some of Harrisons MI had overrun it and cleared out the Pan command staff in there up close and personal. Once the lines became fluid again, Pan had moved back in, but this time, they had set the area up as a refurbishment depot for fast raider units. Close enough to the front line to get units in and out quickly, far enough back to be warned of any approaching counter attack. Intel from the two scouts had painted elements of the 15th Pan Heavy Armor division present, as well as elements of the 421st Light Armor Brigade, and confirmed that the 23rd Lift Infantry was assigned to protect the real estate. One of Harrisons command staff, a twenty-three year old red headed kid whose uniform looked way out of place on him, called up his TI-PDA and accessed TACNET on the units and what Central knew. He keyed the info hotlink to all of our TI-PDAs.
"The 15th and the 421st are both licking their wounds " he said, scanning the data on his TI-PDA. "General Gibson tangled with both of those two weeks ago, that was when we lost the core of the 12th Lift Calvary "
Harrison nodded, adjusting the holo display to read from a different angle of attack. She moved her pointer to selected spots on the display, highlighting them and requesting data.
"The command bunker has taken heavy structural damage, so theyll be using that as anything but. It wont survive a coordinated attack or more than a few seconds of concentrated fire. My guess is that theyve set it up as temporary barracks for the maintenance personnel." The kid said.
His name tag read "McAfee". By his bars, he outranked me. Thats what a college education did for you. And OCS. Me? I took the hard way, right out of basic education and into the service. The blowers were calling to me and I had to answer. Had my own blower just six months into my tour of duty, when my CO and his blower were shot up at Dunica. I had my own command group three months later. Still have it today, though I can count on one hand the number of people still with me who started out with me. Attrition was hell, on both personnel and equipment. This war was an indiscriminate grinder and the key to staying alive was to keep one step out of the maw. However, the way things looked tonight, Harrison was preparing to lay down a red carpet right into the mouth of the damn thing for us. The odds didnt look good, not to me, and not to my second in command.
"Recon drones spotted revetments here, here, here, and here." Another staffer said, pointing out the positions which Harrison had already highlighted, but this time adding a lot more detail through computer enhancements, AI extrapolation, and thermal imagery.
"We see that the revetments are filled to capacity, elements of the 15th and the 421st undergoing field repairs. Gibson gave them hell, so theyll be there for a few days more. The 16th Lift Calvary is doing some rear echelon raiding, and reports that they brewed up two convoys that were headed towards the front. Our best intelligence says these convoys were headed for this depot. That means that theyre still waiting on some parts, and most if not all of the armor present is going to be down and out. Thats why, we feel, that the Pans have the 23rd Lift Infantry group there, to guard the maintenance depot. The Pans have committed all of their functional armor to reinforcing the front, and if this additional armor gets mobile again, we could be in for a spot of trouble in some of our softer flanks."
"How much armor are we talking about?" Stephens asked, glancing up from his TI-PDA.
Several of the command staff looked at their TI-PDAs, then to the display. One made a few notations on her TI-PDA, requested a refresh, and the display started listing known armor types and the amount present. It wasnt pretty. At least twenty-five separate armor units had been identified by the recon drones in their last pass. The types ranged from light tanks to heavy tanks to missile tanks and at least six unconfirmeds which could have been super heavies or even support elements like mobile howitzers. With the exception of five units which appeared to be on some form of impromptu patrol, the rest were in carefully constructed maintenance revetments. Each revetment was composed of three thick walls with an open front, no roof to speak of except a thin covering of stealth-reflec and some camo netting that was so threadbare that it hadnt fooled the sophisticated Gen-9 sensors of the recon drones at all. Twenty-five armor units and at least a company of mobile infantry and half that many light infantry; the place was crawling with thermal images, some big, some small, some moving fast, others slow, some stationary. Stephens whistled before I think he really understood what we were fixing to be asked to do by General Harrison. When the implication of what the display was showing us sank in a second later, Stephen was quiet as a ready-made corpse.
Harrison turned to me, leaning on the display to where some of the projected green lines traced themselves on her upper chest and face. She looked old. I doubted she had seen 30 yet but combat has a way of aging you, from the inside out.
"Lt. Carey? What units can you have operational by oh seven hundred this time tomorrow?"
I looked at my TI-PDA, linked to my troop, checked the maintenance logs, and gave a worst case guesstimate.
"I can have six blowers and four lights field ready, General." I replied, looking at the MI top kick. "Im afraid I dont have any blower taxis. If the knights are going to come along to play, theyll have to find their own rides."
The General looked over at the MI topkick. Her eyebrow arched forming an unspoken question, the same one she had asked me. We both waited on his answer, hoping it would be a good one.
"I can have thirty troopers, thats six squads. If I work on it, I can get another four squads of orphans that are being resolved to my command. There is a pool of blower taxis over at Proxima. I can have them here by oh five hundred this time tomorrow with full squad integration and diagnostics by oh six hundred. My people will be ready to go, but ten squads is all I have. I hope it will do." He said in a voice that carried more confidence than it should have.
"It will have to do." Harrison said.
"Ten squads against fifteen of their squads?" Stephens whispered.
The topkick didnt reply, merely nodded solemnly. He understood about the grinder, and the first to go into the grinder were the poor infantry, only they had the dubious honor of walking into it where we got to ride bouncing and shrieking turbofans.
"Begging your pardon, General." Stephens began.
"Go." Harrison acknowledged.
"With that much infantry present, cant we reroute one of the Reapers from the 6th Division? They have three of them in Sector seven and "
The General shook her head, rubbed her eyes, and stood back.
"No. No. That would be the ideal thing to do, but Intel has shown the 43rd, 45th, and 57th Lift Infantry groups massing in Sector six. Intel believes they are going to spearhead a probing action into that sector. Since General Gibson is still trying to marshal his forces to solidify the sector, Intel believes that a massed Pan infantry assault is inevitable. I need those Reapers there to break up that assault. That and the fact that Pan is monitoring all of our CLAWS movements, because right now, we have more big toys than they do and that is what is giving us our momentum. If I were to detach one of the Reapers and send it toward that depot, Pan would know it a lot sooner than they would see a bunch of blowers sneaking their way."
Sneaking? The word was strange to me. Blowers didnt sneak, they screamed. There was nothing silent about blowers, their roar was a trademark of the modern battlefield, as easily recognizable as the whine of a HyVeloc ricocheting off of sloped armor or burning up at the end of its trajectory. I began to think Stephens idea had been a good one, but maybe he approached it the wrong way. He was thinking too big, using assets that we didnt have access to. We needed dedicated anti-personnel support but a Reaper was out of the question and tracks couldnt keep up with the schedule we were going to have to keep which meant that in theory, only an Alpha Papa model blower was going to do the trick. I didnt have any in my troop but Harrison had to have some in her theater of operations. I looked at my TI-PDA and called up a status on the troops and equipment left at Proxima, the unofficial home of orphans for this theater; units and survivors of heavily battered groups waiting to be reassigned or sucked up by those who needed fresh replacements or a specific piece of equipment. The query cursor blinked for an uncomfortable amount of time as my portable talked to the base system and to the networked theater system, searching for the units I needed and checking their operational and availability status. I smiled as the data I had requested flashed on my readout display. The equipment I needed was there, all right, and all I needed was Harrison to assign it to me.
"General " I began, double checking my data and keying it out to those present.
"Proxima has a brace of the anti-personnel blowers. Looks like two camel back models from the 45th Lift Cavalry and a light alpha papa model from the 63rd Lift Cavalry. Id like to take the orphans into my troop, with your permission. We could use the alpha papa ordinance and Im sure that the commander here "
I nodded to the MI top kick.
" Would like some widow makers along to provide close in support for his people."
"Commander?" the General asked, looking at the MI topkick. "Your call "
"I officially request that Lt. Carey requisition the alpha papa blowers for this mission. My soldiers are going to need all the help that they can get if Intel is right about this one. Those alpha papas could operate close in while supporting my soldiers. Were going to need that level of dedicated support if this is going to be effective as a mission."
"Approved. Lt. Carey, assign the alpha papas to your troop, upon my authority, and tell them to get here as fast as they can jet. Youre going to have to brief your crews, and having three new blowers is going to put a strain on your group with regard to integration. Youll have to integrate them into your operations, as well as the infantry and you two gentlemen dont have long to do it either."
She turned to the MI topkick.
"Commander, see that your squad leaders meet with Lt. Carey and integrate their SLICS and PLEIADES systems with his blowers ware. I want this operation and all units to go as smoothly as possible. Weve only got one chance, and damn few units to hit them with, but if we can take out this forward depot, we knock a few inches off of one of Pans legs, and people, its hard to stand tall when youre off balance. Lt. Carey, you are in charge of this operation, infantry reports to their respectives, but final call is Careys. I want status reports on the hour, and team leaders meet with me and my staff at oh four hundred for final briefing. Dismissed!"
My tech crews werent going to be getting any sleep any time soon. I keyed my orders to the group on the portable and sent them an alert. By the time Stephens and I got back to the maintenance bunker, the techs would already be crawling over our blowers making the necessary changes.
The hot night air was a sharp contrast to the air conditioned cool and the electronic hum that was the CP. Stephens and I walked back toward the maintenance area, where our blowers were revetted against pourcrete and shaped stone walls. We could see the maintenance crews from here, and every now and then, the blue white arc of a plasma torch. White spots were hung where they were needed, illuminating the bays like midday. The closer we got, the louder the sound of work became. A few techs passed us going both ways, carrying ammunition cassettes, gas cannisters for the torches, and other materials that would be consumed by the techs and mechs who were getting their latest queue of units back into the field. The whine of an electric motor behind us signaled the approach of a small flat bed utility mule and its driver.
"Give you a lift?" the maintenance driver asked, slowing as he approached us.
"Id appreciate it." I said as I hopped on the flatbed carrier, making room for Stephens beside me.
The little electric mule was used to haul supplies around the base. A fuel cell drove two wheels with the option to drive all four. Solid rubber tires with deep all terrain treads gave it sure footing and the controls were simple enough that anyone could operate it. It sure beat walking though the whine of the electric fuel cell driving two of the four motors was nowhere near as sweet as the hundred thousand RPM plus scream of the blowers that he knew and loved. Three minutes later and the two of us were pulling into the revetment where our blower was parked. We waved thanks to the mule driver and hopped off. Three maintenance personnel were working on our GEV, as evidenced by the many service panels open and the diagnostic leads running to the field test systems. Stephens climbed up the service ladder towards the top hatch and the cockpit underneath. I went to patch my TI-PDA into the GEVs ground uplink and sighed as I studied the readouts. We still had a lot of work to do, and a short time to do it in.
"Stumps, give me that number eighteen there, will you " I told my crew chief.
Stumps handed me a spanner from a collection of similar tools and I began to remove the retaining bolts on an access panel to the power system.
Somehow, we managed to bring the three alpha papa blowers into our unit, integrate all of the software, and coordinate with the MI that were along for the ride in their blower taxis. Stephens called the GEV-PCs "hearses", as the stylized coffins which the MI rode in on each side and the rear looked like their namesake. It was a little past 0500 when I gave the command to lift. On my word, sixteen ground effect vehicles comprising five different types of fighting variants all screamed to life and lifted from their staging areas. A couple of signalers waved flags to direct the blowers out of the staging areas amid all of the other traffic, coordinating individual units through headset communications. Our tech crews sat on the revetments, cheering us on as we roared past. I gave Stumps a thumbs up sign out the top crew hatch as my blower passed. It was a running joke between Stumps and I, the condition of my blower, which he often thought of as his blower instead and a piece of equipment which he merely let me borrow, much against his better judgement. Every time I went out, I promised him I would bring the blower back in one piece and every time I came back, he would curse my combat skills and claim that if it werent for me and my lack of driving capacity, hed be out of a job in the corps.
I brought the turbines up to speed and puffed our skirt, filling the lift chamber almost evenly. There was a slight dip in our profile as the rear lifted higher than our bow but I compensated and soon the levels were all centered. The electronics fine tuned our envelope and made up for any hamfisted yoke jerks I couldnt compensate for. The scream of the blowers heart spilled in past the open hatch above me, music to my soul. I pulled the top hatch closed and locked it, checking the pressure seals and the tell-tales that signaled that my compartment was environmentally isolated and that the NBC filters were online. The vents of the climate control system began to force pressurized air into the compartment, cool, carefully humidity controlled so as not to futz up the onboard electronics. I brought my viewer boards and displays up to speed, synced them with the rest of my command elements, and edged the blower out past the flaggers.
I glanced over at the displays, Stephens hatch was still open. I double tapped my throat mike and saw that his hatch tell-tale turned from red to green. Good man. It took five minutes to clear the sixteen blowers through the staging areas and into a formation speeding away on the open plains of Neurope. I ran through the MI comm traffic, the grunts were having a field day. Blowers were faster than lift packs, and any time the poor bloody infantry didnt have to hump it double time in the field, they were happy. Listening in on some of the infantry chatter, I began to realize how lucky I was to have a blower. Comm traffic, secure via line of sight beamers, was of a better mood than I expected. I adjusted my helmet and harness straps and settled in, letting my hands guide the armored hovercraft as it danced across the ground at better than 150 klicks an hour. The air cushion that our lift fans was generating absorbed most of the inconsistencies of the terrain, the rest, well, you had to enjoy your job if you were a blower driver. You got used to being tender and sore after a long bounce in the field. I wouldnt trade it for anything in the world
The early Summer morning calm was shattered by the passage of two Combine M24C LGEVS racing across the country side at better than eighty klicks an hour. The LGEVs were taking the lead, providing point for a larger follow up group of armed hovercraft. Two klicks behind the pair of forward point scouts roared six Combine M64D GEVs giving cover to six M48D GEV-PCs and their power armor suited infantry riders. Battered camouflage paint schemes might fool the naked eye but wouldnt fool the sophisticated electronics that Pan was deploying. The still cool morning air was mechanically soothing to the forced harpshead turbine that was the heart of the twenty ton armored hovercraft. The dense air was being drawn into the triple filtered plenum chamber from an armored cowling amidship and directed by a battery of eight dedicated high performance turbofans that fed the ground effect cushion. The front and rear pair of fans were on gimbals that could rotate through pitch and yaw, providing improved directional thrust in addition to that supplied by the twin General Electric "One Niner" turbofans that provided both forward and motive thrust through a series of thermally shielded vectored thrust nozzles in the aft section.
A brace of five 4 meter long whip antennae arced over the top hulls of the GEVs, curved back under the airflow, probing the air for tactical information packets, keeping the crews in constant communication with each other, and the computer systems for each combat hovercraft. Passive and active laser communications systems spun on their gimbals in their armored mounts. Aboard the lead GEV, the HUD changed slightly, new information was displayed with corresponding items of interest being cued by the onboard in different colors or as different modes of graphics. Lt. Mitch Carey frowned and rubbed his stubble-covered chin. His crew compartment was isolated from his gunners compartment by a component armored bulkhead and was designed to explosively eject in the event of catastrophic damage to the vehicle. Dull green displays and holographic visuals illuminated his tank. Ergonomically placed vents blew cold, filtered air into the fighting compartment, carried on a soft hum that fought the main fans in their armored nacelles for auditory rights. Five days in the blowers and no relief, they get some down time to rebuild and repair, and then the General throws them on a sneak and break mission with a whole bunch of integrated orphans. If what Central was squirting out to them was accurate, it would be that many more days before they got some relief. TACOM was presenting the latest datapulse, Carey hotlinked his status display to the other GEVs in his group, sharing the information. The Pans had hit the Fourth Armored pretty hard, throwing in the equivalent of two reinforced armor companies and an infantry battalion. The 4A had been lucky; they had a Mark IV Ogre on a leash in the sector and as such, the 4A wasnt taking too much of a beating, but they were leaving a lot of broken hearts and widows all over the field.
"Coming up on nav point Gamma " Stephens, his CSIO stated flatly.
Carey nodded and trimmed the collectives a little, feeling the vibration of the fans through the frame of the hovercraft as they gave up RPM and adjusted to the new throttle settings. He watched in his display as his inertial compass slowly moved over to the new heading. A retractable nipple gave him cool water to drink, laced with a flavor of cherry and enough included supplements to keep him alert and active. The cherry stuff was okay by him, but he hated the orange flavored drink. That orange stuff tasted like it was designed to kill bacteria in public pools
"On course. Thirty seconds to Gamma. Four minutes until next mark. Were clear. No contacts, not even a stray drone." Stephens said, adjusting his boards.
Careys gloved hand reached forward, fingers tapping his tactical displays for command sequences that were transmitted via encoded infra-red laser pulse on LOS to the other three GEVS. Instantly he got three green [ACK] indicators and the other three hovercraft widened their formation. Their target was fourteen klicks ahead, a Pan FAD Forward Area Depot, a quick and dirty field maintenance and rearming station that the Pans had set up after their last big push. General Harrisons counteroffensive three weeks ago had returned the front lines first to their previous location, and then ten klicks back in a surprise upset that left the Pan survivors reeling and retreating. Harrison had six Ogres operating in the area, two Mark IIIs, a Mark IV, a Mark V, and a God awful big Mark VI, all playing cat and mouse with the fragmented Pan forces, and from the latest datapulse, the OGREs were winning the game. Now, with the Front moved ten klicks back towards the Pans, Harrison had moved up some of the big guns and given them over to the mobile hunt groups as dedicated assets. Protected under an umbrella of heavily defended howitzer positions, Harrison was kicking the Pans as far back as fast as she could.
"Gamma reached, bring us around for plus two zero for next nav, skipper." Stephens said.
The hovercraft bounced once and settled on its air cushion. Carey trimmed the vanes mechanically, using vectored thrust and control surfaces to alter course for the new heading, bleeding lift from the skirt to maintain speed. As his blower was command forward in the group, the formation followed his input and lead. He ran his boards down, checking the status of his blower in all aspects. He noticed the Stephens was running test subroutines to the combat systems, ordered, then random, then ad-hoc. Both men knew their jobs, both did their jobs well. All of his tests were coming back as passing. The mechs at Four Zero had done a good job refitting the buggies with the new electronics that Command had delivered, even though the blister packs marred the otherwise smooth hulls of the hovercraft like so many ugly scabs. Four days in the bays and his blower had gone from the older "C" designation to the improved "D" model. That included not only a complete electronics module replacement, but the addition of a new FiConSys, a slight update to the GUI for better target acquisition, a hotter painting laser, and a modification to the feed mechanism for the main battery. Supposedly the "D" series was the hot ticket in blowers. Sixth Forward had been bragging about their "D" blowers for a month now and Carey had been itching to get his blowers reconfigured to the hotter model. He got his wish two days ago and because a lot of the construction of the Combines military vehicles were modular, most of the new series of equipment was plug and fight.
Carey had liked the woman who worked in the depot there, but he couldnt remember her name and was glad now that he didnt. Four Zero had been hit hard six hours ago, wiped out by a Pan uberpanzer that had probably crawled out of some hole in the ground, passed over in Rettigs first push and his haste. Four Zero. Two hundred and sixty-five soldiers and techs. KIAs, MIAs, and WIAs. He didnt have the full sitrep on Four Zero yet, but it was going to be ugly and Harrison was going to have Rettigs ass for missing that uber-panzer. The loss of Four Zero made Careys mission all the more critical because Harrison had just been dealt a crap hand at the table and the stakes were high.
Carey thought back to the young woman who had worked on his blower and he was glad he didnt know the womans name. If he had, he might have caught himself looking through the list of KIAs and MIAs out of more than just morbid curiosity. This war was anything but about emotions. He preferred to keep his emotions bottled up, to not get close. If you kept people at a distance, you had a lot fewer good-byes to say in the long run. He felt he had a duty as a soldier to perform his function, without a lot of second guessing. Thinking twice could get you killed quick in this war, reflexes kept you alive. Reflexes and technology.
"Targets." Stephens said, breaking Carey out of his morbid swirl, but none of Stephens boards went to more than [READY] status.
The drones they had loosed at the start were also doing their job, finding anything artificial in nature, alive or dead, out to their maximum range. Carey checked his drones status, four of them, operating at a klick out each, maintaining a passive presence. Stephens was just confirming what the LGEV point team and their own drones a klick ahead had already squirted back on the slimline. Carey adjusted and checked his boards, made a configuration change, and locked his display.
"INTCOM paints them as hulks from three days ago. One and Three say their thermal shows ambient with no spikes. Smith says theyre dead cold. EMS is black, nothing but background. Logging."
Carey didnt even flinch. The two LGEVs up ahead were earning their pay, finding the quickest route through the pockets of fighting that still defined this sector, marking the way for the main group of hovercraft. Each LGEV had three recon drones loosed, ranging far and wide to update the sweep net and relay that information to the main group. Carey and his team had seven recon drones of their own out; two port, two starboard, and three aft, all keeping station about three klicks out and looking for any sign of trouble. Ten klicks to the northeast some Pan tin soldiers were mixing it up with a company of MI from the eighth lift group. It looked a bit one sided, since the Pans had already brewed up the 8ths GEV-PC and two of the lighter GEV escorts, but a brace of GEVs from the Sixth was enroute to assist and should arrive in time to pull the MI from the grinder. Eighteen klicks to the west and a brace of Combine missile tanks were raining on some Pan heavies that were trying to use ruins as cover. The missile tanks infantry screen was taking a walk up the river bottom and trying to enter the ruins from behind. Sporadic EMS signatures within the ruins, and from the surviving recon drones suggested that the Pans might have a few MI of their own moving through the ruins.
No one was paying attention to the speeding hovercraft and that is just what Carey wanted. Carey switched his visuals to real time and watched as they were passing through a new graveyard, disturbing nothing but the recently ghosted. The main group of GEVS rushed past the gutted hulks of several heavy armor units, adjusting their throttles and collectives to maneuver around the wreckage. Pieces were strewn around the real estate where the heavy guns had chewed on one another. Every now and then, a charred corpse or a piece of a soldier was just barely visible among the hulks or sprawled on the ground nearby in the scorched grass. You had to chew through the tough outer layer to get to the softer stuff inside A lot of broken toys and smashed tin soldiers. From the mix of types and configurations being painted on his helmets visor by the blowers tactical onboard, it looked like it had been a small battle, maybe a brace of Combine armor, some infantry, and possibly a support group. The Pans looked to have fielded a similar force. Judging by the layout of the wrecks, it looked like a pinwheel movement. Both sides had started out trying to outflank each other, taking casualties as they closed in tighter and tighter, until they met in this lightly wooded plain. Then it became a knife fight at close range and a damn bloody one by the looks of all of the broken toys. The survivors, if any, had grabbed what they could salvage and retreated, probably under the guns of enemy reinforcements. Three days ago, the Front had been nothing but fluid, constantly changing on the HUDs and display tanks of the crews, of concern only to those well behind the lines viewing it in the holo-tanks.
"Coming up on Epsilon. Hold course. Four minutes." Stephens said. "Target ten klicks ahead. Better get them hot."
"Confirm." Carey replied, switching his boards to combat status.
"All units. All units. This is Lead. Target ten kay ahead. Prep all weapons and hold fire. Wait for my signal. Papa Charlies will move to unload point and follow the MI in at support range. Alphas Papas move to support and link online with your assigned squads. Limas will fall back and assist where needed. All units free fire upon my command. Pick your targets, hit the moving ones first, and the tin soldiers. After that, its all just mopping up. Lets do it just the way we planned, people."
The hovercraft bounced over an irregularity, the ground effect cushion smoothed out and Carey adjusted his controls. Ten klicks and closing. At the speed that the hovercraft were pushing, they would be there in about four minutes. The first wave of drones had already crossed the proposed skirmish line, screaming at one meter off the deck past startled enemy infantry. The tracers in their passing never connected with their intended targets.
"I think we caught them napping." Stephens said, watching the displays from the drones.
Carey checked the slimline from the forward scouts. The FAD looked like it was sleeping but that wouldnt be for long. Even though the blowers were coming in from an irregular angle, one that made use of the enemy not planting many drones or sensors, still the presence of sixteen hovercraft not matching IFF was sure to get some attention. The skirmish line approached, outlined in red on his green display tank. The formation of the blowers looked right, and Intel had painted the enemy positions near enough that he could work his people with the data given. The blowers spread out, preparing to penetrate the skirmish line at their given coordinates. A klick behind him, the Papa Charlies were slowing down just enough for the MIs to jet off on the bounce. Suddenly he saw the squads deploy, almost in sequence, and move forward but God, infantry were slow. The number of friendly units displayed on his tank almost doubled, even though almost half were now registering as MI friendly IFF contacts. The MI started moving forward, bouncing from cover to cover. Power armor was slower than fans, but the MIs were relentless and they could go places the blowers couldnt....
"Pan tin men moving to dig in." Stephens said, checking his boards and the latest datapulse from the slimline of the Limas operating forward.
"Three squads reporting contact with our lead elements."
Units appeared and were identified along the skirmish line. The enemy had about five squads of infantry suited up and dug in, spread out thin but their support was mutual. One drone spotted what looked like a Pan armor unit changing course, swinging around from a lazy patrol to a direct intercept with some of the lead blowers but the blowers speeds were too great. If the Pan armor unit was lucky, it might get a snap shot at the slower Papa Charlies.
If it was lucky.
Blower Two and Blower Five were already about to scream past the skirmish line, and the Pan armor unit was a target of opportunity too good to pass up. No doubt the other Pan infantry were even now rolling out of their bunks and suiting up but that would take time, and time was one thing that Pan did not have a lot of right now, not facing Careys blowers. Blowers were fast, blowers screamed, and speed was life on the battlefield. Stephens started calling out sit-tac reports again.
"Lima One is painting a Pan heavy moving to intercept. Getting some EMS spikes from the target. I think they know were coming now. Im getting a lot of frequency spikes. Theyre excited."
Carey nodded, checking his displays. "No, theyre pissed, but I think we got the jump on them. Pick your targets. Kill the live stuff first!" Carey said, then hit the key which linked him to the other blowers.
"Limas pull back to support the lead groups, Pan knows were coming so stay sharp out there. All units fall into formation and begin your runs. Put as many drones out as you can and start throwing out the ECM. Lets see if we can baffle them and finish this off quick. I dont want Pan calling for help. Kill the stuff that is moving first, well worry about mopping up afterwards. Clear for live fire. Engage at will and good hunting!"
"Getting some EMS spikes. Looks to be a few armor units trying to power up." Stephens said flatly.
"We caught them napping." Carey said. "Those crews are going to take a few minutes to warm up those heavies. Lets hit them before they get mobile. Well worry about the MI in the bunkers later, or our troops can just bust in and go one on one with them."
"Im sure they rather we stand off and pound them from a distance " Stephens commented dryly.
The hovercraft broke formation then, each group moving off to their pre-assigned attack vector. The Limas pulled back to support the D models and a line of six fast blowers swept past two Pan heavies, brewing them up in the process. The main and secondary batteries of the blowers chattered, throwing HyVelocs in long arcs to lace into the enemy armor, stitching it dead. The boiling hulks cast shadows on the horizon as the hovercraft roared away from the wreckage, turrets and weapons seeking live targets, computers and automated systems trying to compensate. The skirmish line was defined both by physical placement of two enemy pillboxes and several hardened infantry positions. The depot itself was a klick behind this skirmish line, and consisted of a pair of maintenance strips housing revetments and parked armor units, a few MI bunkers, a strongpoint used as the command nucleus for this operation, and other assorted supply and munitions storage areas.
The Combine groups drones were already all over the base, ranging in and out, feeding back tactical data that was updated on their monitors constantly. Carey trimmed his craft to attack speed, swung it around on its lift envelope, found a group of Pan tin men moving from cover to cover, caught them out in the open, and hosed them with 20mm HyVelocs from his port side secondary battery, the tracers stitching them to the ground. One enemy suit fell apart under the hammering and another exploded in multiple orange blossoms. He swung his turret to what looked like an enemy MI TAC missile launcher, and put a short burst into it. He was rewarded with a satisfying explosion that silhouetted two broken MI in the orange and black blossom as the wreckage fell into the smoking crater. Stephens was busy with the main battery, a Norinco 75mm caseless repeater, using it to put bursts of three shells apiece into enemy armor. Two explosions framed themselves against a parked Pan heavy lifting the turret from the chassis. The crew inside was vaporized instantly in the orange and black fireball that devoured the interior of the enemy armor unit, melting through bulkheads and flowing through each compartment in a liquid cascade. Two klicks behind him, the Combine MI began to overrun the enemy MI located on the skirmish line. One full squad managed to break into one of the pillboxes and dismantle it from the inside out. Another MI squad fell apart under the hammering of the anti-personnel batteries of the second pillbox before two other MI squads simultaneously put a pair of TAC missiles into the enemy structure and it collapsed upon itself in a gout of earth and fire.
The Papa Charlies had unloaded the MIs and the little friendlies were moving up fast, supported by the Alpha Papas and the Papa Charlies. They met an advancing line of enemy infantry that was moving to reinforce the skirmish line and went through them, leaving broken toys on both sides but a gaping hole in the line, a hole that the friendly MIs and Papa Charlies exploited, reinforcing it with support fire from the Alpha Papas where needed. The butchers bill started to come in, what Carey referred to as the final cost of any operation. So far it was limited to only infantry casualties but one Lima flagged itself as disabled. Carey was about to slimline them for a status and damage estimate when the Lima vanished off their screens. A squad of enemy infantry had climbed all over it and took it and its pilot apart at close range with small arms. A Lima Alpha Papa broke over a ridge and hosed the enemy infantry unit with its anti-personnel batteries, hammering them to pieces before speeding off into another group of enemy infantry trying to make it to cover in some light woods. A second Lima joined the first, and together they caught the enemy infantry in the open and cut them apart in a cross fire of 15mm HyVeloc rounds, leaving burning vegetation, shattered pieces and broken bodies scattered in their fields of fire.
The Alpha Papas and the Papa Charlies were leaving broken hearts all over the depot. The enemy infantry was meeting the attacking infantry head on in brutal overruns that were leaving casualties on both sides, but the Alpha Papa models and their dedicated support was beginning to tell. The Pans were losing units faster than Careys force, especially infantry trying to go up against the Alpha Papa models. The fast camel back blowers could close rapidly, and their dual anti-personnel batteries were firing so fast that the barrel tips were glowing red. Alpha Papa Two was already showing that they were down to thirty three percent magazine capacity in one battery and forty-five percent in their second battery. The other Alpha Papa units were reporting similar, the anti-personnel batteries were designed to provide maximum firepower for a short duration, even with munition management in effect. The Lima Alpha Papas were choosing now to support the Alpha Papas, lending their fire to mop up any stragglers that the heavier Alpha Papas might have missed in their first past. The Papa Charlies were waltzing in and out of the line, using their speed to break past the slower infantry, and then hammer them well outside of the infantrys ability to crawl all over the blowers.
"Lets take a run down main street " Carey said as he jinked the blower towards the line of revetments.
Stephens nodded solemnly, crouching over his gunnery displays, searching for targets on his boards. Enemy armor was stacked neatly along the revetments that made up the maintenance lines of the depot. The maintenance crews and vehicle crews were scrambling all over their vehicles, trying to get them started but that took time. It was a shooting gallery and Stephens did the butchers work. Carey roared his blower down the maintenance area, fanning the blowers fans and sluing the hovercraft from side to side at better than ninety degree angles, whip snapping the blower back on course with expert manipulation of the gimbaled fan assemblies. This allowed Stephens to bring all of their guns to bear in the frontal arc on targets to their side as needed. It was a macabre dance, being played out on the opposite side of the depot by Blowers Five and Three. Soldiers and machines fell apart under the hammering guns of the Combine blowers as they roared through the area at combat speed. Small arms fire, isolated as it was, rang against the armor plates of Careys blower, but was too small in caliber to do more than flatten the rounds against the armored hull. He usually answered with the top turret guns. He never got a reply.
An enemy power suited infantryman jumped on top of one of the revetments, took aim, and lit off a snake. Too close, the missile broke apart and shattered when it hit the frontal glacis of the armor, never having time to even arm its warhead. The infantryman brought up a personal repeater and sent a stream toward the blower as he bounced away on ducted lift fans. Stephen hosed the jumping infantryman down with converging line of tracers from the two side guns, cutting the soldier in half with a giant pair of will-o-the-wisp scissors closing until they met and passed. Carey used the guns under his control to hose a vehicle crew climbing into a Pan missile tank. The access hatches were open, and he scythed down the fleeing crew before pouring fire into the openings, switching between KEAP and KEAPER rounds. The missile tank buckled in the middle, rose up on its chassis, and flew apart in a massive explosion that shattered the revetment it was housed in. A flaming piece of debris clanged against the port side of the blower as they sped past.
"Careful of the spall, Skipper." Stephens said. Carey knew he was joking.
On the far side of the depot, Lima One and Blower Two were strafing the old command post. They had the rest of the base personnel bottled up inside but response to their strafing runs were limited to small arms fire and a few crew served repeaters, and that was sporadic at best. Half of the strongpoint was on fire, thick flames boiled out of craters in the walls and access ports. A few power suited infantry had boosted away, some getting cut down in mid jump by the converging fire of the two blowers, the rest were trying to regroup. More were stuck inside. Carey looked at the butchers bill again, it wasnt pretty. He had lost three blowers including one of the Alpha Papas, one of the Papa Charlies, and one of the Limas. He was also down on tin soldiers, having only four effective squads left and some stragglers who were on the edge of the battle, working their way in as best as they could. The loss of more infantry than blowers meant that none of the tin-men would be walking home. He still had more seats than bodies to fill them
His drones were down to just two, with another showing it was disabled. An enemy infantry soldier took care of his disabled drone for him before he could get a fix on the soldier. That left him with just two drones left active. He put them on defensive orbit and slaved into the TACNet. The hover rocked hard to port, righted itself, and started limping along. A HyVeloc shell had creased the self sealing lift skirt for an instant, spilling thrust before it cut a glowing white line across the BPC armored chassis, narrowly missing a bank of lift fans.
"Pan Lima Tango. Bearing niney-six!" Carey shouted into his comm system, but Stephens was already on the enemy light tank.
"Where did THAT come from?!" Carey asked.
"Who cares?! Just get me a clear shot and we wont have to worry about that!"
The light tank was pumping out the ECCM, trying to burn through what Careys blower was pouring on top of it to defeat its electronics and target acquisition systems. A light repeater on the turret opened up, sending a hose of streamers towards the blower, a hose the Carey skillfully evaded with deft manipulations of the collective, letting the lurid tracers sail off majestically down range. The light tank was spinning its treads as it turned in pursuit of the hovercraft, churning up the ground. Carey spun the GEV on its axis, dumping thrust and speed for a tighter turning radius, he almost bottomed the lift skirt. A second and third HyVeloc shell burned their way through the space the GEV had occupied a half second before. The turret of the Pan light tank was tracking to acquire the blower, but not as fast as Carey could swing his blower and its guns onto the light tank. Stephens opened up at less than half a klick, the big NORINCO caseless repeater chewing out half meter wide chunks from the armor of the light tank, follow up bursts tearing through the weakened armor to the softer parts inside. Carey switched to high explastic rounds, and fed a few bursts through the holes he had chewed in the armor. The light tank exploded, the turret sinking into the shattered chassis. Carey fed power to the fans and reversed their course as the Pan armor unit burned, occasionally rocked by another internal explosion, one he noticed rolled the port side tread off of its track. Sporadic small arms fire hammered and ricocheted off of the hull of the hovercraft.
"Heading back. Second run through and then well join Lima One and Blower Two on the depot HQ."
"Roger that." Stephens said, monitoring the automatic switching of his weapons feed cassettes.
The maintenance area of the enemy depot was an inferno. Anything that could burn was on fire, the stuff that was lighter had already gone out and was smoldering ash. The return run through the maintenance area wasnt really necessary as it showed nothing but broken flaming wrecks and smoldering bodies. Nothing was intact, not even the few pathetic silhouettes limping and crawling among the flames. The few survivors that they passed were buffeted aside by the force of the fans and the ground effect cushion, and were clearly not in any capacity to offer resistance. Stephens ignored them completely, letting his sights pass over them cautiously while his thumb firing toggles never fell to LIVE.
The backwash from the speeding blower fanned the flames into swirling vortexes of orange and black, scattering lighter debris in the wake. To port and starboard, shattered revetments lay, each housing a smashed and burning enemy armor unit. Carey sped out of the maintenance area, taking small arms fire from a pair of enemy infantry. The heavier portable repeaters were dimpling his armor pretty heavy, eating away four centimeter deep chips with each shot. He casually swung the side guns to respond but Blower Three cut the two soldiers apart under its secondary guns before it sped over their still flaming bodies, scattering loose pieces in the down wash of its lift cushion.
"Thanks, Three." Carey relayed. He got a green [ACK] indicator back on the com.
Careys blower and Blower Three roared off toward the opposite side of the depot. Carey brought up his strategic display showing the area around his group for thirty klicks. Intel was painting no reinforcements for Pan, which was good. Not only had Carey and his group caught them napping, but also had muffled them. The skirmish line was broken, all emplacements and entrenchments had been overrun and eliminated. The remaining forces of Careys, mostly MI and their hearses, were now moving up to finish off any stragglers. Let them handle what was left, he thought as he swung around towards the munitions area.
"Three? Sync up with me. Lets take out the groceries."
Carey watched as Blower Three moved to engage the northern supply cache and Carey turned his own blower to the eastern cache. A few depot personnel fired ineffectual hand weapons at the approaching blower and Stephens hosed streams of HyVelocs through them from the secondary batteries of the blower. Switching to KEAPER rounds on the feed to the big NORINCO, he started walking bursts across the stored supply crates and boxes, letting the secondary explosions assist him in his demolition of the cache. A underground explosion rippled the surface, creating a shock wave that expanded and lifted the blower slightly in its passing.
"Damn! Underground storage!" Stephens said, studying his boards. "That will be burning for a while "
And then it was over. The thundering response of the blowers guns fell silent as no more targets presented themselves for Carey and Stephens. Carey looked at his boards, no active enemy units within 20 klicks. He checked the butchers bill and sighed. Out of sixteen blowers and ten infantry squads, he was down to seven blowers and just two infantry squads with a few stragglers. One Papa Charlie and one Alpha Papa were signaling disabled, and the crews slimlined that they thought they could limp the blowers home instead of combat lossing them. The target assessment list included twenty-five enemy armor units and fifteen squads of enemy infantry. Non-combat personnel was nearly a hundred. Carey ordered his troop to form up and lick their wounds. He brought the blower to a stop, rotated it on its cushion and then settled into place, letting it sink on its lift skirts. He keyed down the turbines and breathed a sigh of relief, punching his last two drones to recon status on a wide orbit.
"Want to unbutton?" He asked Stephens.
His reply was the sound of Stephens combat harness buckles unlocking and the top hatch of the gunners compartment cycling open. Both men stood in their seats, arms crossed atop the upper armor of the hatch and roof of the blower. Carey reached over and used his gloved hand to brush off some debris, listening as it clinked as it fell from the vehicle. They stared down into the flaming wreckage and the burning ruins. Friendly units moved among the wreckage, making sure that their objectives were complete. The tin-men were busy collecting trophies.
Carey keyed up his helmet mike.
"Central this is Carey. Objectives complete. Transmitting datapulse now. Standing down and awaiting further instruction."
"Acknowledge. Stand by."
Carey turned to Stephens as the man took a long swig from a canteen, handing it to his Skipper who accepted it. The water inside was fresh and cool.
"I still say a damn OGRE could have done all of this " he muttered, looking at the flames and debris of what once had been a sprawling enemy repair depot.
Carey nodded. Harrison had her enemy depot removed from the map, but it had cost her dearly. Correction, it had cost Carey dearly. Harrison dealt in numbers, but Carey dealt in people. He lost some good people here today. Harrison wouldnt remember them this time next week, but Carey would.