fiction by Christopher T. Shields


The crisp winter air and the fresh packed snow of the Neuropean plains would have been, just yesterday afternoon, the perfect subject of either a family vacation or a picturesque post card available from a variety of online tourist resources.  This morning, however, that same scene was an image taken from the devil's own backyard.  The rising morning sun on the horizon cast its orange and yellow glow on the seemingly randomly strewn fiery wreckage and black soot stained hard pack snow of the battlefield.  The crackle of burning materials, roar of the flames, the screams of the wounded, and the silence of the dead were just physical echoes of the invisible and unheard electromagnetic energies that waxed strong through the region, blanketing everything across the electromagnetic spectrum with a smothering embrace.

Snow flew in a blurry white rooster tail from the spinning treads of a Combine Grizzly M12A4 super heavy tank, Sword Seven, as it raced across the Neuropean plain.  Sword Seven and its crew were looking for the enemy but Sword Seven had a problem; the enemy didn't want to be found!  The driver of Sword Seven, Brent Parks, had the throttles jammed to their full military stops, the compact nuclear plant that was the heart of the armored beast was at optimum output, enough power fed to the high capacity electric drive assemblies to roll the armor unit to a top speed of nearly sixty-five klicks an hour.  Anything faster in this rugged terrain and the weight of the vehicle itself would tear up the drive train, but if it came down to the line, Parks had long ago installed a manual override with the help of one of his buddies back at the depot.  He knew his VCO probably knew about the deregulator, but while against regs and safety protocols, it might just save their lives and keep Sword Seven off the enemy's charlie kilo list.  If he threw the deregulator, he could throw enough power at the tracks to spin them right off their rollers but before that happened, Sword Seven would learn how to fly! 

Inside, every bump, piece of debris, and obstacle was felt resoundingly by the crew, who were bounced around roughly despite their cushioned station couches and harnesses. Parks watched as a pair of fuzzy dice bounced in front of him, his own bit of personalization of their unit, the dice were from the rear view mirror of his '48 AGM Tornado which he had made into a hot rod by dropping in a two point eight megawatt output capacitor drive assembly and yanking the weak oh point eight five megawatt model.  The new motor and feed had come right out of a '57 AGM Road Cruiser... the Tornado had a third of the mass of the Road Cruiser, and now had the same power plant.  Pretty much like he had done to old Seven here.  The deregulator wasn't his only modification to the power train.

He slewed the heavy tank around again, dodging a burning stump and what was left of a splintered, flaming trunk of a tree.  The dice swung to the side, and bunched up against the bulkhead.  They came up five and two.  Seven.  Good omen, thought Parks.

"Mother of God, Parks!  I swear your driving is going to kill us before the Pans get a chance to even try!" Bradford, the VCO, said calmly, amused at their progress and the fact that they were still alive when more than half of his unit was already listed on his charlie kilo feed.

They had stepped into it pretty deep in what was supposed to be an otherwise routine probing mission.  Find the enemy, beat them up some, chase them further back, fall back under the heavy guns, let the howitzers work over any fools who tried to follow them, regroup, and do it all over again tomorrow.  Only this time, the enemy had been waiting, refreshed, not low on supplies like Intel had said, not fatigued, and certainly not running.  The Pans had been in hastily prepared positions, that much was obvious, they had a few cards up their sleeves and not a few reinforcements that had joined up from the stragglers that 6th Lift Armor had been taking pot shots at all week along the border to the next sector over.

"Why don't you come down here if you think you can do any better?" Parks said nonchalantly.  He was too busy looking for some hard cover to put Seven behind to take the time to argue with his VCO, even if it was all in jest.

"Naw.  I don't want to embarrass you in front of Patch..." Bradford replied sarcastically.

"Your mama." Parks said flatly in reply.

Sword Seven reduced speed to its port track drive assembly and the huge vehicle slid in the hard pack, using power and traction supplied from its starboard drive track assembly, steering around a Pan light tank that was being consumed in its own fiery funeral pyre.  Sword Seven rode hard over the smashed remains of the Pan's automated turret that had been fully lifted from the hull by the force of the two Combine Type 34C Wolf Spider PGMs and their VHRIR follow up 'piggy back' rounds which had november foxed the enemy unit six and a half seconds ago according to the onboard TACNet pulse.  Wolf Spider rounds that had been fired by Sword Seven's main battery.

"Charlie Kilo logged, one Pan light track layer.  I lost that heavy we were pinging in this soup.  If you see him, let me know mike fox papa!  She looked like no one had busted her cherry and I want a piece of her!"  Patch said rather unenthusiastically.

Saleen "Patch" Williams, Sword Seven's VWSO.  Eight months in the armor, and competent to a fault.  She had used to surf off the Pacific Coast, before her tour, lived out of the Long Beach Domes area.  Her main guns had reloaded six seconds ago, the RAILS was quick.  Most of their fighting today was hard and fast, close in knife work and for that she preferred the T34C rounds.  If the fight moved to longer range, she would recycle the T34Cs and go with a pair of T42A "Far Lance" KEAPERs.  She had a variety of ammunition to play with, but she was a professional, she liked to choose her load to best match her prey.  You needed the T42As for the thick skinned BUFFs, but the T34Cs were just fined for the SLUFs they had met so far.  Multiple yellow indicators on her tank made her frown and chew her lower lip, made all the more hard by the fact that she liked to wear her helmet tight, with the chin strap cinched to its max.  It was a false sense of security she knew, but it was hers and hers alone.

"Still can't get my board to reset.  How do your tanks look?  Are they as foxed up as mine?" Patch asked her other two crewmembers, the only living things aboard the speeding Combine behemoth.

She slapped her console.  Twice.  Hard.  Frustrated.  It did nothing to alleviate the situation, but it made her feel a little better.  The other two crewmembers, Bradford the VCO, and Parks their VSO or 'driver', both signaled negative.  Whatever the Pans had loaded up with this morning, it was thicker than the crew of Sword Seven were used to and that was bad trouble with a capital bravo and tango.

Sword Seven's crew needed a new pulse, but the EMS soup the Pans were blanketing them with was playing hell with the TACNet and they were not getting their TSR updates each second.  The last update was over eight seconds old, obsolete.  Yesterday's news.  Sword Group's MI screen was also reporting heavy casualties from direct and overrun engagements, especially since they tripped over some Pan prepared positions in the tree line and just over the ridge of Hill 429.  Apparently the Pan tin soldiers were holding aces up their sleeves this morning as well, and the friendly knights were finding out that little fact the hard way, bleeding all over the place and leaving broken toys behind.  MI electronics weren't as powerful as the dedicated modulated units carried by the heavier armored vehicles, and if the Pans were integrating their countermeasures not only through their armor, but through their infantry screens as well, then hell, it was definitely not a good morning at all to be jumping around in iron pajamas, thought Bradford.  Not a good morning at all.  He pitied the infantry.  They were getting their BPC plated asses kicked this morning, and their noses bloodied by the same Pans they had been chasing and crawling all over just two days ago.

"All's fair in love and war..." he mused to himself, turning to his displays and fine tuning his ranger.

"We got pulse!"  Patch said, excitedly, updating her tanks and finishing a level III diagnostic on her FiConSys.

Her mood did a one eighty once the dire implication of the latest information packet set in.

"Damn!  We are in delta sierra now!  We lost two more!  Five and Nine are charlie kilos!"

Sword Five and Sword Nine were now listed as charlie kilos.  No pulses from their crews either.  So much for their port and starboard armor screen, both flanks were wide open.  Bradford got a static filled visual from one of Seven's drones, a image of a heavy burning against a tree line, track laying flat in the snow, fire rolling out of three shattered holes in her port side.  He saw what looked like a scarecrow, wreathed in rings of fire, crawl weakly from the crew access hatch only to fall into the snow beside the shattered burning vehicle.  Whatever, no, Bradford thought, whoever it had been didn't get up, but they remained burning next to their vehicle, both fallen there in the snow.  He shuddered and then his drone was past the carnage, skimming NOE trying to overcome the soup that the enemy was pouring over them.  He tried to think of the names for the crew of Sword Nine, who it might have been that he had seen, but mercifully, that part of his brain refused to work at this time.

"Harris owed me money too..." Patch said flatly.  "Guess I won't collect on that bet now."

And instantly the blackened, struggling, fire wreathed figure that Bradford had seen in his display had a name, a name that came screaming up from the darkest kind of memory.  He closed his eyes and tried to swallow but couldn't.

"Where's the 12th and the 63rd?" Parks asked, referring to the two squads of iron men that were supposed to be screening Sword Seven.

He flipped through his updates, matching overlays and assembling fragments as best as he could.  What he saw wasn't pretty.  12th squad was showing four / fifths combat losses, certified combat losses to the 413th Pan infantry.  The last straggler from the 12th, slot two, their EO, Kelly was the name tag assigned to the slow moving dot, was trying to sync up with the 63rd squad which was still showing full strength but getting low on PGMs.  It would be another two minutes before the straggler could sync up.  Until then, Sword Seven was operating without little friends to cover its back.

"Be another couple of minutes before our screen regroups and pulls in to cover our flanks.  They had some problems..." Parks said.

"Really?" Bradford asked half-heartedly and totally sarcastically.  "Do tell."

Bradford reviewed his tank and nodded at what his display was telling him.  The infantry were getting beaten all over this sector.  He only hoped he had a few hard legs left to cover his own ass by the end of the day.  He keyed the link to SquadNet and ordered the 63rd to pull in closer, and promised he could lend them whatever covering fire they could request.  Besides the BUFF lurking out there in the soup, Bradford was worried about the Pan tin men lurking in the tree line and scattered among the battlefield wreckage.  Those were very hard to see unless you got real close and by then, it could be over.  Something small like a MI suit didn't put out a lot of feed on the EMS bands, a soldier could hide near or in a wreck and mask their EMS signatures down to almost nothing.  It wasn't until you got the EMS spike from a target acquisition attempt or the light off of one of their weapon packs that you knew where they were and sometimes even that was too late.

"Targets?" Bradford choked out, swallowed, found that his mouth and throat had gone dry.

He turned his head to port and sucked hard on his liquid dispenser nipple mounted to the feed on the bulkhead wall.  Electrolytes and some other stuff that Sword Seven's onboard was probably trying to get into the crew.  Some stimulants had been injected into the air supply when the first engagement had been recorded, the smell of the laced sky was unmistakable nor the slight tingly buzz they all got when they plowed into the thick of it with Sword Seven's onboard doing the rallying.  No, what he swished around in his mouth and finally swallowed was the long term stable stuff, the stuff that kept you on your toes for greater periods of time than the quick jump stuff which worked to save your ass and get you FiShoK.  The fluid in his mouth tasted like strawberry flavored dog piss, but it was wet.  Sure beat that mocha flavor drip that he swore was taken directly from the biowastemass storage capsules that Sword Seven called 'bowels'.

"Anyone got targets?  Really good targets that we can engage?" he asked sarcastically, using his tongue to wet his lips.  "Anyone got anyone out there who really needs to be killed and soon?"

The Pan ECM was making ghosts rise up everywhere on the battlefield.  Despite the near freezing outside temperature, and the constantly computer controlled interior climate system, Bradford felt cold, like someone was standing on his grave.  He shuddered again and rubbed his hands together, reaching up and touching a wooden crucifix with a ceramic Christ impaled upon it, hung on a silver chain from a recessed bolt in his compartment.  The crucifix dangled up and down with each bump, and it swung, like a pendulum in hard turns.  Bradford had once tried to draw a set of degrees in grease pencil on the bulkhead behind it, just so he could tell how hard Parks was turning his track by the swing of Jesus along the hash marks...  He smiled.

God this war was crazy...

His tell tales lit off and screamed at him.  Cats clawed their way up his spine and his soul visibly dimmed.

"Someone's painting us!" Parks shouted.  "Got to be that Buff that we lost!  That's a Pan heavy pinging us!  Check your signals!  The EMS spikes match the profile five by five."

Each Paneuropean armor or fighting unit had a unique signal attached to it so that the crews of Combine armored vehicles and suits would know what was tracking them when.  The sound that identified a Paneuropean heavy tank was eerie, unmistakable, an undulating wail entwined with a demonic growl.  The dice swung wildly as Parks swerved in an effort to shake the painting unit's aim to little avail.  The other crew groaned but didn't complain, the combat couches were better than they deserved, pneumatically and hydraulically inflating with air and ballistic gelatin to ease the stress of hard turns and sudden pivots.  Their lives could very well depend on Parks' driving ability right now.  The dice came up as six and four.  Ten.

"No go.  I can't shake her.  Drone can't find her either.  She's getting lock!"

"Tell us something we don't know!" Patch replied sarcastically, moving her couch around on its pivots, locking it into a new position and incline.

"Where are you...?" she thought as she mouthed the words in a whisper, scanning her boards and trying to find what was hunting them.

Sword Seven, in an effort to shake the enemy that was looking at the Combine unit for blood, took matters into her own hands.  Dispensers on the hull flashed, and countermeasures arced away from Sword Seven.  Encapsulated micropulsers that screamed out vulgar obscenities across the entire EMS but the enemy was having none of that.  Their sniffers were smelling right through the tricks that Seven was pulling.  The target tone grew stronger, approaching lock despite all the wild dancing that Parks and Seven were doing.  As Parks worked his controls, Patch was just as busy.  She skewed the automated turret a meter and a half above her compartment on its rotational collar.  The high torque electric drive motors whined as they traversed the armored weapons platform at better than 180 degrees a second.  She stabbed her FiConSys to search for something, anything, she probed and raked the EMS up and down to no avail.  Her boards were clear.  Someone was lighting them up good and clear, but with all the soup over them, she couldn't find the op force unit that had them dead bang.  She slammed her palm against the side of her compartment, a dull thud that carried over to the other two compartments audibly.  Patch could out curse any man Bradford knew except one and with the destruction of Sword Nine and the loss of its crew, it looked like Patch got the title by simple runner up elimination default.  He wondered if she recognized the fact yet...?

"Look sharp, people!" Bradford said into his comlink.  "We're getting prepped for the kill!  Find her first!"

Patch launched a flurry of obscenities that blended an expert understanding of blasphemy and a surprisingly complex association of thermal dynamics, orthodox Christian theology, and a obscure reference to to the fecal matter of some vague animal that Bradford didn't quite catch but was more than positive was extinct.

"I think I got her!" Parks called out.  "Painting a BUFF, 450 meters bearing two two niner.  Looks like its our girl, the one we were looking for.  Man, she is coming on fast.  Must like what she sees..."

"That's because she can see us and we can't see her..."

Parks keyed his drone input to the net, updating all of their boards.  No sooner did Park's drone relay the info than it went off line.  A flash of light from the enemy track layer, cyan tracers arcing toward the drone, relayed in real time display at 20,000 frames per second, seventy-five mega pixel microprocessor adjusted filtration, and Parks saw first hand the BUFF poke his eyes out with one of its smaller guns.

"What the ...!?" Parks said.  "That bitch just swatted my drone down!  Did you get the hand off?  God!  Tell me you got the hand off, Patch!"

"Got it!" Patch said, bringing her FiConSys to bear on the BUFF and readjusting her console.

She stared at the enemy armor unit on her screen.  It wasn't much, way smaller spike than what a Pan BUFF should be generating but it was there, as tenuous as it could be, and Patch was holding onto it for all her and her crew's life, constantly adjusting her rangers and estimators, fine tuning as the onboard sensors and scanners of Sword Seven reached out, feeling, touching, finding, trying to lock onto.  Ahead of her and slightly below, Parks launched another drone from Seven's rack, slaved it to his consoles, and initialized its operation to his tank.  It would take five seconds for the drone to come online and start transmitting.  Five long seconds, enough time to kill them five times over.  HyVelocs crossed a lot of distance in five seconds.  The drone flitted away from Seven and began to take highly imaginative evasive maneuvers.  Compact ducted turbofans, driven by a rechargeable fuel cell, carried the quick almost whisper silent drone across the snow, ranging out from Sword Seven on the port side, and moving forward to act as point.

"Drone up.  Three seconds until sync!" Parks said, feeling blind without his external input from the drone.

Three long seconds.  He cycled through the last datapulse, found the remains of Sword Five, and headed for that.  Enemy positions and friendly positions could change wildly between datapulses, but the location of broken toys always remained the same.  The drone synced into the network and Parks felt as if blinders had been taken off of his eyes.

And he saw the flash from the BUFF, port side, where the Pans mounted their TAC missile launcher.  He didn't know what came first, the flash of light as the snake lit off from the BUFF or the scream of the tell-tales updating the crew that they were about to be joining their comrades on the charlie kilo list.  Twelve seconds and closing.  The snake had already dropped its second stage booster but was barely supersonic before the flash of its ignition had registered on the crew of Seven's displays.  That meant the snake was heavy...

"Its a slow snake!" Patch said, keying her displays and tagging the enemy missile to the PDS system as ENGAGE:NOW.

The Pans had their own versions of the T34C warheads for their direct and indirect rounds and for their snakeheads.  This war was becoming so generic, sometimes she wondered why they even waved flags with different banners anymore.  The PDS acknowledged the human input, but only as a secondary reply.  Sword Seven was, as always, many many steps ahead of its human crew.  The remote turret that housed the PDS had already deployed from its armored sheath-like blister atop the turret, and was tracking the inbound snake, smelling, feeling, looking, reaching out to grab hold of the enemy missile and put it down hard.  The tri-barrel spun, counterspun, and ammo found itself sitting in the chamber, hot, ready to blaze out and touch the snake in a mutual embrace of assured destruction.

On any other day, the PDS would have done the snake three seconds ago, but the soup the Pans were serving today was giving the PDS so many targets to sort through...  So many...

"Does that snake have ATG or is it a beam rider?" Bradford asked.

"ATG!" Patch said. "Why?"

"That snake will hit us hard two seconds out with its ATG.  When it does, the PDS should be able to acquire that spike.  Set the filters!"

Eight seconds.

Bradford saw Patch slap the counters that did just what he had ordered.  It was a long shot, but it was their only chance left.

"That snake is getting too close!" Parks shouted through the hatchway in the armored bulkhead that separated the self contained armored driver's compartment from the main fighting compartment.

The dice slammed into the starboard side of the compartment as Parks slung the tank around on its center of gravity.  The dice came up doubles, ones, snake eyes!  Parks' blood ran cold.  The tell-tales were painting the snake, closing fast.  Impact in nine seconds and counting.  The PDS was having fits trying to acquire the snake which was closing in on them.

"Lock that hatch now!" Bradford commanded flatly, studying the tell-tales and the PDS array.

Parks grumbled something too low to be picked up by either the throat mike or the mastoid implant as he hit the button to seal his compartment.  His grumbling was cut off by the clang of the heavy armored automatic hatch assembly sealing shut and locking.  Standard protocol, during combat each compartment was isolated and sealed off from the others in case of a hull breach.  Not that it mattered with what the Pans were fielding these days, still ...

Five seconds.  Still a chance...

Patch had started to pray which was not a good sign.

"Get the snake, girl!  Get that snake!" Bradford said excitedly.

He tensed his body for an impact that he probably wouldn't even feel, for the shock wave and the rolling sheet of liquid flame that would follow the white hot blast that would incinerate him before he could even feel the first tinge of pain.  Make it quick, he begged, if it is to be, make it quick.

The snake got close, too close, and it activated its active terminal guidance, satisfied that it had no chance to be stopped by the PDS.  It rode in on its ducted fans, sensing victory, ecstatic release...  It spread its guidance pulses out, embraced the tank, and too late, found the point defense array looking for just that sort of signal.  The last microsecond of the snake's existence was one of extreme disappointment and bitter resentment aimed toward the Combine unit.  The PDS gave a triumphant audio pitch and finally acquired the snake with a positive lock.  4mm caseless HiVelocs streamed in calculated bursts from the rotary tri-barrel then played out in a cyan whip towards the ground hugging snake.  A muted explosion and a rapidly expanding white ghost ring shockwave, felt more than heard, sixty-three meters off the bow brought a nod of relief from not only the crew of Sword Seven, but also it almost seemed, from the tank itself.  Two quick succeeding explosions were the piggy back infra-red follow up rounds being detonated by the stream of HiVeloc four mike mike caseless that the point defense system of the heavy tank was hosing at locked targets.  Inside the command blister, to the rear of the main hull and below the main RAILS mechanisms for the automated turret above him, Bradford  winked at no one but the tank, patting the side of his armored self contained fighting compartment almost lovingly, thankfully, his lips moving in a silent 'amen'.  The PDS somewhere above him and behind him in the turret had finished off the snake and its load of rattlers that the stupid Pans had sic'ed on him and his heavy.  The tri-barrel spun to a stop, each barrel within the armored housing smoking in the cold Neuropean morning air.

The premature detonation of the Pan TAC missile and its self tamping armor melting warheads had sent a rapidly expanding cloud of broken missile, sharp fragments and high velocity splinters over the sleek hull of the Grizzly-M12A4 main battle tank, a cloud that sounded like rain drops to the romantic but did nothing more than scratch the company regulated camo paint.  Lipstick and rouge, Bradford thought, nothing more.  His girl might not be the prettiest on the field today, but she was damn near one of the best and she was still one of the most dangerous.  The multiple kill emblems he had painted himself on the inside of his fighting compartment proved just that.  Twelve in the last month alone.  People were beginning to talk like he might live another year in the seat... it wouldn't be right to prove them wrong today.

Outside and to the rear of the main turret, the smaller remote electric drive turret that housed the PDS whined as it rotated back to its zero start position.  Balanced on frictionless bearings, almost a blur in its speed, its dedicated sensors continued searching...  Ready.  Searching.  Ready.  Deep within the armored hull, the PDS display acknowledged a confirmation of the kill to all crew stations, and pulsed zero contacts within its kill radius.  It went back to standby mode, searching for anything which threatened it.  Searching, micro pulsed sensor emissions playing out, several thousand times a second.  Anything bigger than your fist moving faster than a brisk walk would get hosed with 4mm caseless dual purpose high explosive and high explosive armor piercing long before it got anyway near, if they were lucky.

"What did you make of THAT, Patch?" Bradford asked, wiping his brow on the back of his fatigue sleeve, more than genuinely interested in his VWSO's appraisal.

He untensed his body and realized he had been trying to absorb the seat cushion through his rectum.  He relaxed and breathed deeply, sighing.  A mood he almost felt echoed in the tank itself.

"PDS almost didn't see that snake.  No difference in EMS, I pegged it post intercept as a Type II booster, standard Farber TEAP warhead with sub standard VHRIR follow up capacity..."

"Uh huh, what my tank showed..." Bradford said.  "Substandard or not, it almost charlie kiloed us!"

"It would have been a slow death too, we might have lived long enough to have actually felt some of that."

Patch shrugged, not that anyone could see her do so isolated there in her compartment.

"But, we were picking those things off almost as soon as the Pans could light them three weeks ago!  Remember that MI squad we brewed up with their own missiles when we felt them in the tree line and hosed them down just as they got target lock?"

Bradford nodded, the memory was still fresh.  The stupid Pans had seen Bradford's Grizzly a few seconds too late.  Once they were on-line, his own FATS saw the EMS spike and had hosed the knights down at the tree line.  Their own missiles detonated before they could launch them, brewing up the squad nicely and setting that part of the forest to blaze, reducing it to smashed timber and smoking black clumps of dirt.  He had saved a copy of the visual record, it was popular and good for a few drinks at the canteen.

"So, why didn't we see it sooner THIS time?" Brian asked from up forward.

"I'd guess they have better electronics now..." Patch replied softly, trying to adjust her sensors and scanners to copy the profile of the last attack and look for any similar spikes.

"Only reason I can see why they are kicking our asses and we aren't kicking theirs..."

"Great." Bradford said.  "Where's our MI screen now?"

Two seconds later, he got the latest datapulse.  The 63rd was still a good ways out, over a klick and a half, but they were double timing it, closing the distance, jumping and humping.  He needed them to help him find that BUFF!  A MI suit slaved into the TACNet was better than any drone, and MI had drones of their own.  He could spiderweb this real estate and hunt that BUFF into the ground.  Patch was doing her own work.  She found one consistency, uploaded the data, set all of their tanks and readers for the update, updated the three tactical drones orbiting around the Grizzly, and fed her calcs to Bradford for approval.  Good soldier, Patch, thought Bradford.  Five months in the tread and already he wouldn't trade her for another brand new tank.  Even if she was ugly as home made sin.  How she would look in a two piece on a body board, he didn't bother thinking about.

The Pans had brought out a few surprises... this time.  Apparently they had updated their EW systems again, the PDS almost hadn't picked that snake up which was definitely cause for alarm.  No wonder they were taking so many losses today, they were fighting uphill electronically!  Bradford made a note of the increased ECM and ECCM of the OP Forces and uploaded it to TACNet.  Others were coming to the same conclusion based on a huge input of EMS monitored data assessment.  CP Sigma, 30 klicks away, wasn't happy with the prospect.  Old top Cooper was probably chewing his 'Rican cigar in half at the information that was flowing across his DAPCAT.


If the PDS hadn't just recycled its target cache and picked up the ground hugging snake, Sword Seven of the Combine 21st Armored Division might not be anything more than a blasted hulk boiling flame and greasy black smoke into the sky. Like a cat with the hackles, the Combine heavy tank turned sideways, shifting traction and RPM in percentage from one set of heavy treads to the other set, its momentum sliding it some as the treads sought purchase, throwing clumps of ground and grass into the air behind it in a rooster tail of uprooted soil.  The scream of the drive train, powered the liquid plasma heart deep within its hull, was like that of a wild animal.  Seething.  Angry.  Prowling.  Something had spit at it, and after swatting down the attack, the onboard was looking to engage fulfilling one of the most primitive instincts that the programmers had ever managed to successfully translate from living to machine form; revenge.

The Grizzly began to rush the Pan BUFF, giving cues to its crew on how best to do the engagement, pointed emphasis being placed.  Each crew member studied their part of the engagement, and made modifications as appropriate.  The Grizzly took its orders and carried them out, handling the myriad of tasks that were not the realm of the human crew with cold, calculating precision.  Deep inside, Bradford didn't mind one bit.  The 21 was bleeding all over this real estate today, and his tag list was full of broken toys and broken hearts.  He usually let his Heavy fight for itself, only occasionally stepping in.  He didn't tell the crew that, but he figured they kind of knew.  The Heavy, known only to the crew and Bradford as "Seven".  It was a good unit.

"Patch!  We still painting that BUFF to our west..." Sgt. Bradford ordered.

"Barely, but I still see her.  PDS just took out her last snake.  Last pulse came back negative on any more snakes she can spit at us, looks like we do it the old fashioned way now, with guns.  They can still hurt us bad.  And their infantry screen is closer than ours."

Not good.  Combined arms still beat orphans any day.

"Parks, get us as close as you can, put Seven against what's left of Nine, try to get the best angle you can so that Patch can punch daylight into her!"

Parks acknowledged with a AFFIRM icon only, no voice.  Seven responded to his less than ham-fisted ministrations.  Parks, if he could do anything, he could drive.

"Patch, brew that bitch up!" Bradford shouted.  "Forget the T34Cs, you might not make a good kill against their armor!"

Patch gritted her teeth.

"Don't tell me how to do my job, will ya?" she growled into her mike.

Bradford backed off, not wanting to ride his crew, they knew their jobs.  He instead turned to watch the screen of Pan infantry that was closing.  It was going to be a close race between the Pan tin men and his own, too close.  He keyed in direct control of the DAPS to his station, and felt better, as if he had just set a big gun in his lap, which, essentially, he had.  He smiled and flicked the twin DAPS systems to LIVE, and started passively painting targets among the Pan 218th.  The last datapulse had said that the Pan knights had no snakes left, but maybe they had picked up a straggler or two that TACNet wasn't aware of.  Maybe the 218th would have a snake or two or they could pick up a dedicated launcher from one of their trashed squads which were distributed pretty thick among the tree line.  For as the wrecks of the armor units littered the plains and the tree line, the deep woods were going to be haunted by the shattered ghosts of MI troopers on both sides tonight.  The forest floor was littered with shattered battledress and power suits and gear and supplies and ...

A lot of pain.  He closed his eyes, longer than a blink, but not much.

"T34Cs unloaded.  T42As recycled.  Far Lances hot and guns online." Patch reported as her guns readiness indicators went from yellow to green.

Her fingers squeezed down softly on the fire toggle actuator for the heavy smooth bore repeaters as Parks slid Sword Seven up behind the still burning hulk of all that was left of Sword Nine.  Next to the burning hulk, the thermal signature of the Grizzly would be partially obscured, its image broken up.  Patch slewed the turret around, and her big guns tracked the Pan BUFF that was coming on fast, head on.  It cleared the lip of a hill 400 meters away, and began to roll downwards, snow and dirt and debris thrown up behind its charging advance as its treads blurred at speed.  At this range, both units PDS would be useless, each required a small amount of time to track and intercept incoming rounds.  At this range, the rounds fired by the big guns of the armor units would be moving at too high a velocity for the PDS to engage.

"Come on and kiss eternity ..." Patch whispered, settling for the best target lock she could achieve.

350 meters.  She slewed the guns a little more and locked them in.  They adjusted in their mounts for elevation, deflection, and traverse, carefully adjusting to keep their bore sites and the warheads of their loaded munitions right on the center of the Pan heavy tank.  The Pan must have realized what the Grizzly was trying to do because it slowed rapidly, or it had misjudged the explosion to have softened up the Combine armor unit and Park's impact against the remains of Sword Nine to be a uncontrolled impact rather than a move to provide cover.  The Pan's just hadn't thought out Seven's tactics or they had become over confident, thinking that their ECCM advantage was complete.  The main guns of Seven tracked its prey, laying down a fire solution as the Pan advanced, the Pan's chassis lurched forward with the diminishing momentum of its braking.  And then it ... turned, and Seven's visual sensors painted the outline perfectly, and it started to reverse, slinging its turret to track Seven.

Patch let out an elated whoop and slammed her fingers down on the firing actuators, closing the circuits.

"You stupid amateurs!" she shouted at the enemy.

The two big guns of Sword Seven spoke with sequential fire.  Once.  Twice.  The port battery recoiled, spitting its round toward the BUFF.  Then the starboard battery.  The RAILS slammed fresh rounds home into the breach, drawing its charge from the armored cache deep in the guts of Seven.  The port battery fired again.  And the starboard battery spoke a final time.  Four rounds in two seconds, the chassis of Seven rocked with each recoil.  The Pan didn't have much of a chance, 300 meters was point blank range for Sword Seven's main batteries and the Pan, silhouetted as it was against the background, presented a perfect visual target for the backup FiConSys to engage.  Even if the Pans were pouring the soup out thick and heavy, you could still do things the old fashioned way.  Seven rocked again sharply, a loud sound of metal on metal, they were all thrown to the side roughly in their couches.

"What the hell?" Patch asked.

"She got off a shot!" Parks screamed, checking his displays.

"Damage?" Bradford asked, checking his displays, everything was green on his tanks.

Parks started laughing like a madman.

"She just took out Nine!  Again!  That stupid Pan killed an old target!"

Patch joined in laughing as the multiple shock waves passed through Nine and into Seven, a ghost of Nine dying again for the second time today.  The four follow up rounds just carved more of Nine away, sending flaming sheets of hot air turned to plasma rolling over the deck of Seven, and littering her hull with jagged pieces of all that was left of Nine, blanketing her in the pieces of her stable mate.  Their EMS signature was even more shrouded, the crew noted as Patch checked her displays.  She and Seven  had walked their four rounds across the bow, mid section, turret, and fighting compartment of the Pan heavy.  Each round had impacted with a white hot flash and a expanding spherical ghost ring that was the shock wave, pushing hardpack and dirt away from the dying heavy like the hand of God.  The BUFF's PDS didn't have time to compensate, such was the velocity of the T42As at this close range and the armor of the BUFF notwithstanding, the Pan vanished in four large thick orange and black blossoms each over 3500 degrees Celsius.  Man made flowers of beautiful and deadly destruction that illuminated the terrain briefly brighter than the morning sun, and the scattering of armor plate and pieces of smashed equipment was equally as impressive as it landed around the burning hulk.

The T42As were deadly at close range, their penetrators were spiral wound with a Refrax4 vein around a plasticeramic core and they hit at better than seven klicks a second, unassisted, delivering all of their massive kinetic force into a penetration area measured in millimeters, turning the BPC armor under their impact to molten liquid and scabbing off the exterior armor through fracture veining.  Once the penetrators punched through the armor of the Pan BUFF, their high explosive detonated well within the fighting compartment, and releasing a shower of jagged high velocity plasticeramic splinters.  The Pans were dead before their vehicle's onboards even knew they were.  The BUFF rolled backwards uncontrolled, flame licking from the wounds, rolling towards heaven, presenting nothing but thick black oily smoke as the BUFF slowly teetered on the lip of a hill, then tilted backwards and stopped with some of its tracks not even touching the ground.  A secondary explosion lifted the heavy armored turret over five meters into the air, detonating it with a brace of secondary explosions and splaying out a spider web of burning fragments that slowly fell to the ground.  Patch's rounds had found the onboard ammo cache on the far side of the armor and had a picnic ...

"Fox alpha!" Patch screamed.  "Logging that charlie kilo now!"

"Everyone OK?" Bradford asked.  "Parks, how are the tracks?  Can we get out of here?"

Parks checked his displays, everything was giving him a green light.  Seven still had its magic. 

"Aye, sir.  Want me to make for a fresh hulk?" Parks asked, feeding some power to the treads and ready to put Seven into gear.  "Four looks like its mostly intact and its near a crater... drone says I can get us down into the crater with Four giving us complete cover from 240 through 336."

Bradford checked Parks information, confirmed it, and tagged it as nav point beta.  Parks set up a series of maneuvers that under full speed could get Seven under cover in twelve seconds.  He thought about it, ran a simulation of their EMS signature in current state and in moving and ducking and found it to be less in their present location.

"Negative.  Hold station." Bradford said.  "This is a good spot, and we just got covered up pretty good by the Pan.  The Pans are getting cocky, that can work for us now.  I think we'll wait on the children right here."

And the plains were once again quiet, if far from picturesque, at dawn where only the muted growl of the power plant of Sword Seven could be heard idling in the cool morning air.  The early morning sun created daggers and rays of light through the shifting columns of smoke as the 63rd moved in and took up defensive position around Sword Seven.  To the North West, a furball was still waxing strong, but for Sword Seven and the survivors of her infantry screen, a armored Grizzly and her six cubs, both the war and the enemy was far away, at least for a little while.