"No Free Lunch..."

fiction by Christopher T. Shields

"Here they come!" One Enlisted Miller muttered, looking through his microprocessor adjusted liquid optics at the flaming wreckage on the bridge below.

Televisual echoes of what Miller saw were instantly available to all members of the squad on SquadNet via the SLICS system.  He guessed that they would just have to see if the new ugly marks on their armor, flat black armored blisters housing the latest and most advanced capacity in Combine electronic counter measure technology, worked better than their counterparts equipment did.  Otherwise they were in Delta Sierra.

"The convoy is boxed in, we can work our way up and down it real smooth, by the numbers!" One Enlisted Miller said.

The shockwave passed over his position, a wave he could physically feel within his armor, a ghost passing on, the spirit leaving the twisted wreckage below.

Six meters away, in a carefully prepared over-watch position, Four Corporal Rogers shrugged her shoulders and nodded as best as she could in the ranger suit.  She doubted that the mimetic sensors even picked it up and translated it into a physical response visible exterior wise to her squadmates.

"By the numbers, squad!" she said, lifting her Ibarra on its self-deploying bipod.

She took aim on the sweet spot of the lead Paneuropean light tank which was rapidly slowing, its tracks grinding underneath as it braked.  The sweet spot was just under the main turret, a design flaw that created a bullet trap which the Ibarra could use to chew through the armored hull and wreck havoc within the vehicle.  The Ibarra was painting the target at 200 meters, short range, almost point blank for a weapon like the Ibarra.   Easy shot, thought Rogers.  A cassette of 300 caseless HyVeloc semi-explastic armor penetrating rounds lay next to the weapon, its feed chute locked into another identical 300 round cassette standing on the opposite side.   Slightly in front of the weapon was a third cassette, giving her three types of rounds to choose from, with round selection adjusted on the fly on a shot by shot basis, the computer in the weapon and the suit told the slaved action which port to feed from on a round by round basis, kind of like directing traffic, she thought, through a busy crowded intersection.  Let some of these go, then some of these, one of these, two of these, some more from this one, a couple of more from this side ...

Fluid.  Just like the armor material beneath her rounds had turned, running like wax, flaking like an old scab.

To her left she had a pair of light snakes, their warheads already awake and hungry, she just hadn't let either of their feral acquisition systems see any targets yet.  Their status and anxiousness were comforting.  Her 4mm repeater was still locked to her right leg brace, ready in case any of the Pans tried to rush her position, that and the two Dragonfly AP mines she had planted 5 meters to each side of her and six meters forward, all set for command detonation or failing that, proximity and impact.  She checked the tell-tales on the weapons and bore sited the Ibarra on the enemy armor unit, her fingers slowly caressing the fire actuators within her suit.

SLICS came alive with target information, seamlessly coordinated into her tank and displays.

"Squad!  Hup!  Targets as designated, targets of opportunity as you are able!  Engage and call kills!" she commanded as she squeezed down on the fire actuators.

"Hua!" came a chorus of replies.

The Pans were not coordinating an effective counter offensive very well, their systems were having an ape fit over the new ECM that 4 Corporal Rogers' squad was throwing at them, an absolute ape fit.  She smiled.  Even SquadNet liked it, she noticed.   The Ibarra bucked hard against her suit's frame, but she let the weight of the heavy suit and the solid surface of the ruins beneath and around her absorb the recoil from the barely semi-portable very rapid fire armor eating vehicle busting people wrecking monster that was slaved into her operating system.  HyVelocs began to rain from the prepared positions of the Combine infantry, fiery fingers of destruction and death descending on lurid streams that were washed over the helpless targets, lancing into the confined and very surprised Paneuropean convoy with a finite means to the end.   Twenty five rounds, each at six klicks a second.  Short, controlled bursts, let the suit and the weapon absorb the recoil, let the SLICS and the hardware show her the sweet spots.  She fired again, the action of the Ibarra cycled in a quicksilver motion too fast for the naked eye to see, even if the action had been exposed.   Careful computer controlled round mixture alternated between three cassettes that Rogers had linked into her weapon.  The computer fed the weapon, telling it what to eat and when and in how much quantity.  First a mixture of rounds that could chew through the thick armor, aided by the angle of the sweet spot and the natural tendency of the round performance enhancing attributes of the sweet spot that was the Achilles' hill of the dead in the sights light tank.  Next followed types of rounds that would clear away any debris left by the first rounds and would clean up the biting surface some, offering even better angles and more surface for the follow up armor chewers, and finally a short burst of explastic and plasticeramic splintering fragmentation rounds for the soft stuff behind the armor, stuff like electronics, spare ammunition, and of course, the crew.   All rounds working together as one salvo, one burst, with very deadly results coordinated by her suit and the computer of the weapon she fired.

The ignition of a TAC missile appeared on her relays.  Five had loosed one of their snakes at the rear Pan heavy that was slowly trying to back track, to let the convoy retreat out the way it had come.   Two was painting the heavy fast and hard, finger pointing and the snake was side winding its way as fast as it could get there.  The Pan track layer continued to reverse, its anti-personnel weapons blazing out staccato bursts seemingly at random.  If it got out of the bottleneck, the rest of the convoy could do the same.  Couldn't have that, Rogers mused, noting that Two and Five had been a second ahead of her in drawing the same conclusion and taken the appropriate action.  She would include that in her report to Top.  Good soldiers, Two and Five.  Competent.

The snake skimmed the ground, hypersonic, NOE, its FATS system hungry for blood and the Pan tracklayer's PDS was having fits hunting the snake...  Control vanes and surfaces clicked as it skimmed up a hill to the port of the heavy tank, skimmed at a meter off the deck, and then hugged the hill, and with a primitive yet somehow erotic move, it cleared the hill and dove straight down into the top of the turret.  The bright flash was dimmed by the suit optics, but the shockwave was represented and enhanced in all modes, beautiful to the eyes.  A confirmation placed the heavy as a kill and the data was logged.   Carried by its own dying momentum, the heavy backtracked another two meters, turned slightly sideways, and halted.  Liquid fire rolled out of its blown hatches and it brewed up nicely as BPC armor bubbled and ran in dripping rivulets.   The wreck stood blazing, blocking any retreat for the panic stricken Pans now.

"Nice, Two!" she said in approval but the Pans were starting to organize.

Two resumed fire with his dual sidearms, sweeping the bugging crews as they tried to bail out of their vehicles, his caseless repeaters cycling in short, controlled bursts that left no sign of life where previously his systems had identified softer targets.  Some of the Pans never cleared their hatches, their shattered, shredded and lifeless bodies falling back into the control compartments to tangle up and land among the still living...  The fog of war must have been viscous, but to the optics and electronics of the suits, there was no indication of anything but crisp clear target images, updated damage assessments, lists of confirmed kills, and the ever present SLICS interface.

Four Corporal Rogers adjusted her drones to better command her squad, moving one out, bringing another closer, and lending her third to Five Enlisted Lee, her second HWOSS.  The TAC drone changed parents seamlessly, integrating itself and adding its capabilities to what Five Enlisted Lee was needing.   Five's heavy Thompson 4TD was visible on her EMS spike, no way to really hide a monster like that when it spoke!   She watched the EMS, eavesdropping with her 'borrowed' drone, still maintaining a tenuous command link to it and a subdirect ownership.   The new ECM was a wall that the Pans couldn't get over!  Their systems were slamming against the SLICS and the new ECM but nothing was getting through.  The Pans were firing blind at hundreds of ghost images, about the only thing that still worked for them was their God given eyes, and with the fog of war that was being produced from the burning hulks, Four Corporal Rogers doubted those were going to be very effective.

Five made short work of a cargo track with the heavy Thompson, his tethered sights working in conjunction with the borrowed tactical drone to offer him nothing but targets for the hungry black mawed fluid to gas injected monster under his control.   Short bursts, tell tale spikes on EMS, the roar of the Thompson was deafening, its projectiles existed for nothing other than smashing armor and wrecking what was protected behind with surgical precision.   She watched with distracted, semi-professional curiosity as her tell-tales counted the rounds left in the Thompson:

45 rounds.  EMS spike!  40 rounds.   EMS spike!  35 rounds.  Long EMS spike.  25 rounds...

The Pans had a lot of broken toys littering the field today.

Half of the convoy was in flames, boiling thick smoke columns into the dusk sky.  It would have been beautiful if it had been a painting, or a still picture, but it wasn't and so there was no time to partake of its violent beauty.  Small arms fire began to land around Roger's position.  She let the Ibarra cool for a long three seconds, watching as the weapon and barrel temperature dropped on one of her displays.   Two Pans were moving behind a hulk, one of them was carrying something that might cause her some grief, a semi-portable repeater.  That is, if it had the ammunition cassette attached, which it didn't.  The second Pan was clutching the cassette to his chest, using it as some form of armor or shield to protect him while the first Pan with the repeater worked to set it up in a prone position and to wrestle the cassette away from the second cowering Pan.   Her drone was using laser listening to pick up the heated discussion between the two, apparently an argument on who was the operator and who would be the simple loader.  Either way, one Pan had something the other wanted, the cassette, the repeater, and neither was willing to accept the other in trade. 


The very presence of the repeater was enough to seal both of their fates, she couldn't allow a weapon of that power to be within this close a range of her or her squad.   She cycled through her inputs and keyed both thermal images and enhanced outlines of the Pans into her weapons memory for immediate engagement.  The Ibarra informed the cowering Pans of her determination in not letting anybody ruin her day.  It chewed through the side of the hulk in a short precisely calculated burst of fiery cyan bolts, the heavy rounds eating through the side of the hulk, through the rear deck and engine compartment bulkhead (already weakened by fire from Four's T4D), and right into the two very surprised Pans.  She walked the barrel back and forth once, modulating the rate of fire carefully by adjusting the speed of the action and the receiver through her software link.  Four rounds in the first burst to clear away anything protecting the two Pans and their heavy projector, two rounds apiece blowing them apart in great bloody chunks, and finally four rounds walked along the side of the repeater, sending jagged pieces of the enemy crew served weapon scattering out in a wide arc. Twelve rounds passed on the counter, maybe a little overkill, but she had to make sure about that semi-portable projector that her optics had tagged, had to make sure it was rendered november fox mike fox papa.

Dark spots and pieces scattered over meter wide, 10cm deep craters in the ground, sprinkled with bits of armor from the hulk where Rogers had sawed her way towards her targets.  One quick pulse and she added her own charlie kilos to the tag lists.   She had silenced the two Pans and removed the semi-portable repeater from this operation totally and finally.

More small arms fire, sporadic, and none of it really aimed, landing near her position by chance alone, but a lucky round was still a deadly round in her book, whether it was aimed with purpose or in sheer panic.  The surviving PANs, mostly the unarmored crews of disabled or already destroyed vehicles were carrying snubmachineguns and hand squibs, nothing her suit couldn't handle at this range and in large volume, typical sidearms and man-portable stuff, not stuff designed to crack the hard nut she called home for days on end.  Still...  If they did get lucky, they'd only be flattening their rounds against her armor to the lovely tune that she so cherished and understood.  The sound reminded her of raindrops on metal roofs back home in the humid summer afternoon showers that frequented the Deep South.  Without any electronics, and the stuff that the Pans were carrying wasn't even registering on her threatometers, they were just wasting ammo.  She really didn't have to worry as long as they didn't get a lot closer or mass up on her, and they wouldn't, if she had anything to say about it.  There were some heavier Pan units operating in this sector, but her squad had planted some erasers for good measure, and the erasers had blanketed the convoy in a dome of deafness when the first T5 had detonated.  These Pans weren't going to be screaming to anyone for help.  Not even to the two Pan MI squads just six klicks away to the North, Cerberus equipped squads or so TACNet was telling her.  Now those would be some challenging targets.   Three and Five were previous sniper slotted to individual Wraith teams.  Four Corporal Rogers had already seen demonstrations of what three and five could do while using the big Thompsons as sniper systems.  If they had the ammo left, she might authorize a little safari to pick up the Pan hardsuits.   She felt a warm rush.   Going one on one with professionals was one thrill and rush, brewing up a convoy who had been stupid enough to enter a bottleneck piece of terrain without an infantry screen up front was another thing entirely.

Child’s play, butcher's work.

Four Corporal Rogers was actually looking forward to sanitizing the area and moving to engage the Cerberus units.  The new ECM systems were not going to get a thorough field trial until it was in what she and her squad saw in day to day use, in their line of work, and that meant direct infantry engagements.  She outlined her plans and fed them to the SquadNet.  Small HUA! icons appeared rapidly.  Her squad was hungry for some real work as well.  Three and Five, she saw, already began initiating their CYCLOPS sniper systems to stand by mode.   Three proposed that they lift the erasers and let the convoy attract the attention of the two Pan hard suits operating in the area.  Not a bad idea, the Pan tin men would come running, right into another ambush.  Four Corporal Rogers gave her approval and Three began to paint post engagement setup positions for the squad.   Three was quick, efficient, and well trained.  Rogers watched with cold, professionalism as Three arranged the demise of thirty armored enemy troops on her virtual displays in her tank.  His calculations gave the engagement a length of four minutes, tops.

Four Corporal Rogers made a few changes to the basic plan and approved it.   Three uploaded it to SquadNet as each suit and soldier prepared for post op repositioning of their systems and equipment.  They were going to make this milk run work for them with some real world payoff.  There was going to be many much broken tin men littering this hex before nightfall.  If they were lucky, they might be able to do some post ambush salvage and bring home some toys for the tango charlies to play with.  Intel had been wanting a working copy of the Pan's latest squad integration subroutines.  She added that to the squad objectives, try for a few soft kills and leave the hardware relatively intact for post op salvage and transport to CP Papa Seven.

She off bore sighted a trio of Pans taking up position behind an slight rise 50 meters north of Two's current position.  A fifteen round burst chewed through the hill and the enemy, passing one meter directly over Two's position in a hail of flat trajectory cyan bolts.  Two didn't even flinch or offer comment.  He was too busy using precise bursts from his sidearm to put down stragglers...

It was going to prove to be a very bad day for members of the Paneuropean 65th Supply Unit... and after that, for the members of the 412th Paneuropean Infantry Division, Squads 32 and 89 especially.  Four Corporal Jill "Jolly" Rogers and her squad of Combine 5th to the 1st RDF "Black Knights" Rangers were going to make sure of that.