by J.D. Bell
It was two hours before dark when the big show started in the north. On the clouds over the horizon you could see the reflected fireballs and even a few stray Hiveloc rounds burning up at the end of their range. The sound of the battle didn't carry over the distance, but you could feel the ground shocks through the suspension.
I began to worry. The operations officer hadn't mentioned any projected offensive, which meant only that he didn't know of any. And the rumor mills hadn't had any poop on any sort of dust-up. Now the north was alive with micronukes and Hivelocs. Somebody had guessed wrong.
"Mateland!" I was sitting on the forward glacis of my buggy, catching some fresh air, when the north lit up. I hammered at the hatch over the driver with the butt of my sidearm. "Mateland, heads up."
He poked his hat out of the hatch, blinking at the light. I could feel the hover tick over under me. "Trouble, Jake?"
He looked over that way, then turned back to me. "So?"
"I've got a feeling about that dust. Tell the troop to prep their buggies." I slid down and blew my nose clear. We'd gotten a dose of some Virus-IV about six months back that had left me with a constant cold.
"Copacetic, Jake, but if it's a zilch, you'll get a horselaugh."
I slung my sidearms over my shoulder and walked towards some ruins to our left. I wanted to talk to the MI topkick whose lot were bedded down with us. "Prep them, and tell the other troop they'd better get up, too. I'll worry about the laughter later." The ground was broken, dried up from the long summer, and churned to a powder from us and the Micks. The MI had dug in between a smashed-up church and three Mick heavy tanks that we'd brewed up when we took the place about a month ago. The top was standing out by the tank that had the three Micks melted into the armor. "What do you think, Sergeant?"
"Don't know, Captain." He was in his armor, towering over me by a half-meter between the BPC and his own long bones. "Heard anything?"
"Nothing. We're prepping the buggies, though." I looked to the north again. A flash lit up half the sky. "Word to the wise, I suppose. You need any small arms ammo?" He shook his head.
"We pick up any more armor?"
"We got eight hovers, six missile tanks, and that orphan heavy. That's all Sector Command left us when BEECH-V started."
He turned and looked at me from under his visor. His armor was a dirty, faded green, scarred here and there with field repairs. He was the oldest man of his platoon, just as I was the old man of the Buggies. We'd see our twenty-first year soon, if we were lucky. "I wonder," he said, looking back to the north, "just how bad they want our CP?" A roll of thunder, then a pressure wave passed over, plucking at my jumper.
"There's your answer!" I turned and doubled back to my hover. Mateland had the turbines hot and the hover buttoned down when I got back. I snaked through to the driver's cockpit and began strapping in. "Any dope come down yet?"
Mateland came on the line from the ECM station. "That wind was a ten-kay nuke – Brigade says the Micks have penetrated our front."
I grunted, buttoning down my hatch, then keyed into the Command network for situation reports. It wasn't good. According to the battlefield intelligence boys, the Micks had thrown about three battalions of armor into our MI, then gone to work on our main line of resistance. We were in for it. The situation was "fluid," meaning things were coming unstuck in a very unfunny way. "The troop mounted yet?"
"Yeah, everybody's on line and hot." More data came over the brigade link. I fed it into Mateland's screen. "MI drone reports an Ogre coming down the pike?"
"That's what Brigade said. Hope we don't see it." I strapped myself into the chair, watching my readouts come alive. My mouth was dry and I could feel the sweat under my skin-tights. I let my reflexes take over. I activated the computers, fed power to the gun turrets and tested all the circuits. Everything was up. "We're on line, Mateland. Maser the Old Man that we are go. Tell the troop to lift on my dust."
I idled the vanes for a minute, watching the digitals for hot spots or harmonics. I went to half-throttle, rocking us clear of the mud flat we'd bedded in a week ago. Dust billowed as small rocks clanged off the skirts. I put her in a neutral turn and checked out the rest of the troop. Gordy and Rosco were clear and skidding off to the sides to clear fire lanes. Rube was still rocking his craft clean. He was my worry, a new boy. He'd come in with the last repple draft and I'd drawn him. New boys always worried me. They could be as deadly to a troop as the Micks.
"Lance to three, little more revs."
"Roger, Lance," Rube's hover broke clear. "Lifting."
"Roger that, take up thirds." He dropped back a bit, covering the rear and ready to bounce over us if needed. I completed the turn in time to see one of our GEVs come helling over the foothills to the north. It spun about and dropped to its springs. Two shockwaves rippled across the plains in front of me, then another buggy topped the ridge. It was a Mick by the turrets. Our gunner gave it a Hiveloc right under the main gun, point blank. The Mick flipped off the ridge line, then fireballed as the Hiveloc round vaporized in the turbines. Six klicks-a-second and the best armor will flow like wax.
Then the Ogre loomed over the hill and casually smoked the fleeing friendly with its main gun.
"Son of a bitch!" I poured power to the throttle, dumping thrust aft to slam us up to a hundred fifty knots. "Pucker up tight, troop." I cut into the command link. "Troop B, Lance advancing. Request release."
"Released, Lance; form on Alpha."
"Roger." I went to the troop link. "Lance to troop, form on Troop Alpha, arm micronukes." Our Hivelocs would smoke most normal armor, but not Ogres. That's what we carried the nuke rounds for.
"Jake, you wanna loose a drone?" Mateland had two scout drones ready. I though about it for a second.
"No, that thing will have all sorts of ECM going by now. We'll just have to break close and eyeball it. Tell the major that we're going to see just how cherry it is."
"Okay." I heard him key into the command link. "Lance to troop – "
I dropped the link and revved the hover until I could hear slipstream in the cockpit. We were knocking along at about two hundred knots, breaking clear of the pack that was converging on the Ogre. The thing was four thousand meters away and it had filled the screen already. It had rolled over the remains of the buggies and was coming right at us at fifty knots. We closed, a meter off the deck, running full out and dipping from side to side. I dumped thrust down and we bounced ten meters into the air, skimming past the thing like a fly buzzing a rhino. Its guns snapped at us, but we were too close and too fast to register. I dropped her down on the other side and skidded about to face the monster again.
"It's cherry." Mateland had an odd tone to his voice.
"Off-the-bloody-tree cherry. Missiles, all its guns. I didn't spot a single track out of place. It's cherry!"
"Judas!" I got on the command link to the CP. "Troop B, Lance. Ogre is a Mark Three, undamaged. Missile armed." I swung about to rejoin the rest of the squadron when the Ogre swerved towards the skirmish line. "What's that thing doing – Look out!" The Ogre fired on the line of GEVs, smashing away with all its guns and missiles. Three fireballed, one simply fell apart under the guns. Another hover staggered off and grounded, its engine compartments shredded. "Missiles on hovers?"
"It got four of them," Mateland whispered into the mike. "Rosco's down but he might slope off if we can distract it."
"Hang on." I dumped every pound of thrust I had aft. The other two surviving GEVs came slashing in behind me, trying to draw fire from the crippled one. The Ogre didn't even nibble. It fired its main battery and all the secondaries at Rosco. Nothing was left but a ten-meter crater.
"Lance to troop, form on me!" I led the hovers in. The missile tanks warned me they would salvo in about ninety seconds. I acknowledged and flashed past, hammering away at the main battery. Then the missiles landed, blanking out our screens. When they cleared, the main gun was only a burning sore on the face of the beast. Smoke billowed out of it and driblets of molten BPC sparked off the treads. The Ogre lurched on, overrunning one of the missile tanks and scattering some MI that had tried to get the treads.
"In there again, register on the secondaries." We came screaming in again. The secondaries were blasting away, concentrating on our missile tanks. We slashed through the muzzle blasts, pouring out fire into its turrets. One of my sponsons lost its liner and the rounds began to tumble as soon as they left the barrel. We had just cleared the target when the missile tanks landed another salvo. When the fireballs dimmed, two of the secondaries were gone, bubbling in their sockets, but two more missile tanks were brewed-up and a third was crippled. I pulled the GEVs clear, dropping into a gully about five hundred meters away.
"Pull that barrel, now!" I told my gunner, then I tried to raise the CP. Mateland cut into the link before I could raise them.
"Jake, I'm picking up one hell of a signal --" The Ogre came over the lip of the gully, darkening the sky.
"Lift! Lift and scatter!" We took off, jumping the lip of the gully before the Ogre had time to cut us off. One of the other GEVs didn't clear the lip in time. We heard his guns hammer at the treads, then the Ogre ground him into the dirt.
"Who's left, Mateland?"
"Number three, Jake."
I flicked on the link. "Leader to three."
"Go ahead, leader."
"How's your ship?"
"Minor damage only, sir."
"Okay, stick tight." I dropped the link and laughed. It was my new boy. The one I thought we'd lost the first time we ran into the Micks. "He's getting one hell of a de-cherrying, eh Mateland?"
"Yeah, but at least we know how the buggies get their fine young fools."
"Whatever. Let's hit that son of a bitch again." I boosted the power up to the red line and chased the beast down. Bits and chunks of equipment flashed by, MI lay strewn about mixed with fragments of track and armor. I jinked the hover to one side to avoid the hulk of the heavy tank, ground down to half its volume.
"Going in, Rube, on the secondaries." We flashed by again; the MI small arms were bouncing off the BPC armor, tumbling in mad trajectories back into our path. Our own Hiveloc rounds were gouging half-meter square chunks out of the turrets. I got a flash of one MI clinging to a tread with a limpet bomb, then we were past and the missiles landed. The shock waves nearly tumbled us, but the last turret was dead.
It was too late. It was maybe five or six hundred meters from the CP. We hovered ten meters off the tracks, burning out our barrels with Hiveloc rounds. The MI threw themselves into the fires, ignoring both the Ogre's AP guns and our fire to slash at the treads. But that machine just kept coming. "Bug out, bug out. It's going to overrun the CP!" Men came scrambling out of the CP, diving into the light hovers and ATVs. The half squad of MI on the roof emptied their missile packs at the treads and then bounced away. Then the Ogre did a graceful turn on the CP. It had won, but before it could lurch fifteen meters away from the rubble, we smashed one of the bogy assemblies. It could no longer move. "Okay, MI disengage. Hunt for survivors. Armor close in. Strip that damned machine!" I leaned back in my chair.
Sunset brought darkness except for the molten-glowing Ogre and slender moon. With Brigade CP gone, the entire sector was without a coordinator. If they hit us anytime soon, we'd crumble like a dirt clod in a rainstorm.
"Mateland, contact HQ. Tell them we're untenable. Tell them we just had a waltz with an Ogre and it stomped our tail. Tell them we got nothing left and we're evacuating right now. Don't take no for an answer."
I looked at the TO list. It was littered with KIAs and MIAs. "Hell, I don't care what you tell them. We've had enough."