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For David Drake, who was a good man and my inspiration

Thunder Run

 

J.F. Holmes

 

For David Drake

 

Chapter One

 

“So this here baby puts out enough power to the gun to punch a hole right through an Imperial battle cruiser!” The young tank crewman slapped the side of the engine compartment of his ride for emphasis. “And let me tell you, it’s a goddamned rush to fire it!” On the angular slab sides of the tank a dancing holograph of a dragon breathed flames and the word ‘SMAUG’ was stenciled on the gun tube, with more than a dozen kill rings in front of that.


“Johanson, you haven’t fired at anything outside a training range and you’re our mechtech, not a gunner.” The gravelly voice came from up above the back deck of the M-38 Marauder, the speaker hidden behind a black visor as he used a computer to boresight the main gun. “Besides, missy,” Staff Sergeant Davis continued, addressing the female Irish Brigade private who had been listening to his junior crewmember, “it won’t make his dick any bigger.”


The girl blushed; Eire was a fairly conservative world, very Catholic and though she was a soldier the directness wasn’t really something she was used to yet. She fled with a little wave of her hand at Johanson and a bark of laughter from the tank commander. “Now get back to work, scrub!”


“Damn, Chief, why you gotta do me like that?” The mechtech had a petulant look on his face, especially with the laughter that echoed around the ship’s bay. The twelve tanks of the Drakes were chained down in the hold of the RA Itranu, a Charee heavy haul freighter and four armed furred crewmen hustled around them. Each crew was breaking the tracks open after storage in low pressure atmo and running maintenance checks. Drop was in forty eight hours after three weeks of transit and there was a purposeful sense of energy and anticipation, relieved by the soldiers' rough joking.


“Because we got work to do, scrub. You need to be doing a systems power check on the fire control, not trying to dip your gun barrel. Like as not that girl is going to be dead by next week and I’d rather not be.” He paused and said something down into the turret to Sergeant Wattabim, the gunner, then continued, “and besides, feelings get in the way of fighting.”


“And fucking!” interjected the driver from the other side of the tank.

From ten feet away a high pitched voice called over, “And what would you know about fucking, Corporal Farez?” It was followed by a burst of feminine laughter and cat calls.

“And stay away from the girls on Melusine. You do NOT hit on the women in this unit, got it?” Staff Sergeant Davis shook his head as his mechtech gave him a pained look, turning his attention back to the gun. “Get back to work, scrub!” He had to keep his crew focused, even though they were ahead of schedule on the activation sequence.

The Marauder was almost a twenty year old design, one of the first homemade armored vehicles to hit the production lines in the Terran Union after the Massacre and the start of the Succession Wars. Old plans from before the Conquest were dusted off and integrated with Grausian tech, marrying civilian fusion reactors to a tracked chassis and a heavy duty rail gun. The original guns themselves had come from seized light suborbital patrol craft and the ballistics were a bit tricky, though the coil accelerated round could pretty much punch through anything. Surplus stuff that was proven and worked, though out of date. The tank worked if they had the power to run it and that was the mechtech’s job. If Johanson kept screwing around, he was going to put his boot up his ass. At least the rail gun was gone, replaced by a 130mm smoothbore cartridge firing cannon. Damn thing worked even with the power out.

Grumbling under his breath, Private Johanson climbed up on the back deck and opened the hatch on the side of the engine compartment. His position on the M-38 was a cramped couch outside the turret ring that allowed him direct access to a bank of sensors monitoring the fusion bottle. He was a small guy, under 175 cm; bigger bodies tended to not gravitate to tanks and he was comfortable in his confines. That fact that he was within touching distance of a plasma field hotter than the surface of a star didn’t bother him; if it ever got loose he’d never have time to notice. Plugging in his headset he called, “SYSTEMS TEST WARNING, STANDBY ALL SYSTEMS!”

“Acknowledged, all systems on standby,” came Sergeant Wattabim’s voice, followed by the Chief and then after a moment the driver.

Johanson started flipping switches and then opened up a pocket on his coveralls, pulling out a hibernation container the size of a flat loaf of bread. “Wake up, Wilma, time to rise and shine!” he called and cracked the seal. What sleepily crawled out resembled nothing more than a cross between an iguana and a crow, covered in black feathers with true hands, claws on its feet and a tail for balance. “I need you to standby in case something pops.” The trillium chirped and Johanson nodded. “You know how the wires get in the cold. Let’s get the bottle going first, give the dragon some juice. Batteries are getting about dry.” His assistant nodded and hopped across his shoulders, standing by the main breakers. She would engage them at Johanson’ call and throw them at the instant one of the sensors showed a problem.

“OK, starting the main reactor sequence in three,” he said, running down a checklist. “And coming online, OK, magnets good and ignition. You think maybe some frigging day we can get an antimatter engine in here.”

Several chirps in a trilling language from Wilma. “Yeah, I know,” he answered, flipping another switch. “Too damn expensive and big kaboom if the containment system goes. Maybe if I get in with the Marines …”

His thoughts were cut short by the appearance of a Charee face inches above his, screaming at him through the hatch with a bunch of what he knew were expletives. The spacer crewman wore Bosuns’ rank and he had a mean attitude, reaching down and trying to hit the main containment unit shutdown. The alien switched over to broken Common and started screaming, “YOU NO START ABOARD SHIP YOU STUPID HUMAN PIECE OF SHIT!”

The private was startled and his first reaction was to shrink back into his couch. The spacer reached in with his powerful arms and one handed the tanker up and out of the hatch, throwing him bodily on the deck, screeching at him.

Staff Sergeant Davis descended on the ship’s crewman like a thunderbolt from atop the turret, knocking the smaller Charee down and trying to grab him. The two melted into an indistinguishable mass of hairy arms and thrown punches as other soldiers from the tank unit and the ship's crew ran towards them.

 

*****

 

“Well, this is a fine start,” grumbled the Irish expeditionary commander, who had overall responsibility for the mercenary force. The burn scars on her face were pale under the red anger that flushed her skin. Ships’ captain or no, Major Iona Keely took an ass chewing like that from very few people, especially a Charee, but she admitted that the freighter captain had a big responsibility.

The Drake’s company commander laughed. “If it’s the worst thing we face in the next few days, I can deal with it. Besides, how the hell was that kid supposed to know about the ship aux power systems if none of the monkeys told him about it?”

“Good point. Just …” and she sighed. “Mother Mary watch over me and my temper. I almost punched him, Andre.”

Captain Deveraux put a hand on her shoulder and squeezed, a friendly gesture, nothing more. “Let me get you a cup of that swill they call coffee and we can talk about how to keep everyone from killing each other over the next two days.”

“If I must,” she smiled back at him. “At least at the assembly area on Holcomb they had decent brew, if you can deal with some dust.”


 

Chapter Two

 

At first the cold nothing of space, or the edge of it. About 27 millibars of pressure, little more than three percent of the sea level atmosphere. No sound, of course, at first. Just the curved rim of Maritaneus spreading out below. Their objective was obvious, a series of circular landing pads to one side of the triangle of landing strips. More specifically the Air Defense battery controllers that sat in the middle of the triangle. With them in operation neither the landing craft of the Irish Brigade or the cargo box that contained the Drakes could land.

Now the wind started, at first a thin whistling that quickly grew to a roar. Forty thousand feet and the buffeting started, the heat building up. Their suits were shedding material, the porous hardened radar scattering foam slowly coming loose until the ten human men and women (no xenos, of course, it was after all 2 Para) could hit the spray cans on their shoulders that melted the last away. Then drag ribbons to slow their descent, streamers that eventually broke off. Then the wing suits. In the Legions they had used inertial dampeners and anti-grav, but here a power cell would earn a quick burst from a particle beam.

One failed to deploy her wings, falling gracefully in a spin. Later it was determined, after the body had been recovered, that the Master Sergeant had been dead long before she hit the ground. A tear in her foam shielding had cooked a hole through her guts somewhere around sixty thousand and it was straight in from there. That was their first casualty and the second came when someone finally glanced up and saw the silent shapes descending against the semi-twilight of early morning on Maritaneus. The Grausian patrol leader had been taking a piss and she whipped up her rifle, took aim and fired without pulling up her pants. The round punched a hole through the corporal carrying twenty kilos of plastic explosive and he dissolved into a pink mist. Before she could get off another shot the figures swooped over a hill away from her and disappeared. She cursed as a directed EMP burst fried her radio, the sparks snapping at her face, and the sergeant ordered her people to move out in the direction of the attackers. She had no idea that they gracefully turned and headed away, ninety degrees off their assumed course.

The 2 Para officer cursed to himself as the wind whistled in his ears. The casualties had been expected and planned for, though not welcome. The patrol that had fired on them had been more than five hundred meters away and heading back towards the far end of the spacefield, pure bad luck in the darkness. It compromised their timeline though, again, planned for but not welcome. He also whispered a curse at the treaty Navy ships who sat far above and prevented an orbital bombardment, letting the inhabitants of this world sort things out in the Empire’s fall. Then again, he mused, it gave his unit a contract. He deployed his chute a hundred meters up and flared to a landing, quickly stripping it away and unstrapping his gear. Then he set off on a dead run, detailing one fire team to cover the direction of the Grausian squad.

A hundred meters out and his sniper flopped down, adjusted her scope and fired. There was a soft PHUT and the Grausian kneeling outside the fire control building, peering into the darkness, dropped like a rock, the sniper round exiting out of the back of her crest in a spray of hot blood on the thermals. The team raced forward and spilled through the doorway, only the scuff of boots and the soft POP POP POP of suppressed carbines. The anti-ship missile and plasma beam operators weren’t front line troops, a mix of older male and female Grausians, and none even got to move.

The Paras were in and the handler sergeant slipped a pack off her back, removing the gelatinous creature from its container. The construct slid into the fire control system, extending pseudopods like tendrils to mate with the bio-nerve control. The handler nodded after twenty seconds, seeing the animal flush red, knowing that nerve impulses were running wild throughout the plasma cannons and missile launchers of the battery. She felt a little sorrow as the hacker slowly turned black, dying as it completed its mission of disabling the systems, but that was life.

“KING,” was the only word the team leader had spoken so far into his radio, giving the code word for success. That cleared the way for the shuttles to drop, bringing the Irish Brigades’ Second Battalion and the rest of Task Force Dragon to the surface.

“Right, lads,” he told his people. “Time to do some mischief.” They melted back out into the twilight, leaving behind explosives set to detonate when anyone else entered the building. Probably that squad who had taken a shot at them, which would be good payback. Now it was off to secure the LZ for the first shuttle.

 


 

Chapter Three

 

“Don’t feel bad for us, kid, at least we’ve got inertial dampeners and antigrav to keep the buffeting down. Feel bad for the poor 2 Para guys who had to drop from sub-orbit in wing suits onto an active combat zone.” The words of comfort didn’t help the mechtech. Johanson had never even been to space before he signed on with the Drakes, reporting to basic training at Quatra on his home world of Alpha Prime and then one lift to Holcomb for assembly. The drop there had been via a shuttle that transitioned slowly from orbit to winged flight and then landed on a runway. Right now they were strapped into their tanks, chained to the deck of a bulk hauler that used a combination of technologies to get them to the ground, more or less in one piece, but it made for a lot of low and heavy G bounces.

“So explain to me why tracks are better fans, scrub,” growled Staff Sergeant Davis. He was tapping out a letter to his daughter on his comset, or pretending to. Truth was he hated reentry as much as the next man and his daughter hadn’t answered anything from him in more than ten years.

Johanson knew his chief was trying to distract him and he was grateful. “Well, fans are more expensive to maintain and you try and fight in a city, you blow up some concrete dust, sensors are blind, plus it clogs the shit out of the filters. Throw a track and your crew can re-lay one, throw a fan you need a wrecker to lift it. Get a hole punched in your plenum chamber by a penetrator round and you lose air pressure plus your fan. Lose a road wheel and the crew can replace it.”

“Good, scrub,” said Davis. “And why a chemical gun instead of a rail gun like the Terran Marines or Impy plasma guns?”

Johanson sighed. His interest was in high tech, especially adapting Grausian systems, not old school crap. “We run a 130mm kinetic energy weapons system for several reasons. Reliability, simplicity of operation, ease of maintenance and cost of manufacture. Now if we were a Terran Marine Expeditionary unit, I’d have tri-barrel plasma cannon or a coil gun for the ammo capacity. But we’d need a complete direct support maintenance unit and we’re just a merc company.”

“Damn, scrub, you sound like a textbook!” interjected Sergeant Wattabim. There was laughter over the intercom system and Private Karl Johanson from Friesland was glad they weren’t on the platoon push, or worse, the company net. The nickname of ‘scrub’ was generic for a new guy, but sure as shit he hoped that he would get something better than that when he did get a nickname.

“Nah, sarge,” he replied to the gunner, “I just want to know how to do my job when the shit hits the fan.” He flicked off the IC and reached over to scratch Wilma between the ears. “Das ist good, ja?” The trillium nodded; she understood the thoughts behind the vocalization and didn’t need to know the language. He flipped it back on again, to get caught flipping off coms was a cardinal sin.

“- keep the heat on, scrub,” he caught the track commander saying. “Maritaneus is a cold world and I hate freezing my ass off. Best thing about being in tanks is the excess heat.”

It was banter to cover up the nervousness that all of them were feeling, even Staff Sergeant Davis. In less than three hours they might all be dead, punched through by a war surplus Grausian plasma blower or a red paste from some buried shaped charge. Corporal Farez, Sergeant Wattabim and Sergeant Davis had all seen the combat, either in the War or as a merc, so their fears were memories and ghosts that sat on their shoulders. For Johanson, they were imagined but just as real, tinged with a fear of letting down the crew or worse, being a coward. Looking like a fool in front of that girl from the Irish Brigade. He didn’t know that at that very moment she was feeling the same doubts as she crouched down behind a wall, crying her eyes out. Her squad leader stared at her with one dead eye, the other a gory mess. At her feet was a puddle of vomit and a Lance Corporal was emptying a full magazine right next to her ear.

“Drakes,” came Captain Deveraux’s voice over the company push, overriding their own internal coms, “looks like the Irish are having a hard time at the LZ. Be prepared for offensive actions rolling hot from the deck. Priority targets are being loaded; support assigned Irish units.”

“You heard the man,” said Staff Sergeant Davis. “We’ve got Bravo Company, call sign Exile.”

“Is that the one commanded by that rich Impy, Sarlone or Sarlene something?” asked Farez. Behind him in the background Johanson could hear clicks and beeps as the driver applied power to the drivetrain. He kept his eyes on his own gauges as they went from red to orange to green. One fluctuated and Wilma reached over to jiggle a wire. It popped up to green.

“Thal An-Selene,” said the gunner. Sergeant Wattabim was a voracious reader of tabloids and had spent her time at the Holcomb unit assembly playing fangirl over the Grausian. It was a running joke in the unit about inter-species sex but no one knew if she was embarrassed; her coal black skin gave nothing away.

 “It’s just kind of weird that we’re going to kick some Impy ass and one of the company CO’s is a Grausian,” said Farez. “I mean, I know everything has changed in the last twenty years, but …”

“I don’t give a shit, as long as he fights and we get paid,” said Staff Sergeant Davis and there was general agreement. It was, after all, why they were there in the first place.

“Chief, I’ve got a temp spike on the reactor, nothing serious, same thing from the Field Exercise.” Johanson lowered the fuel input a small percentage and the temp subsided. He wasn’t worried; if the coolant let go, never mind the actual reactor, they would be parboiled in an instant and not feel a thing. If the reactor … well, best not even think about that. Of course there were safeties, but …

“Roger. Just keep an eye on it and our six. This is urban fighting and a rocket from a second floor in the back deck is going to kill you and immobilize us, which means we're dead. Remember, you’ve got control of the Interceptor system AND the rear machine gun.”

“No pressure on the new kid …” he muttered and Wilma chirped.

There was a thud and a blaring claxon that came through the seals on the hatch. “Smaug rolling hot,” called Farez and the fifty ton tank whined forward into the screams and hell of 27th century combat.


 

Chapter Four

 

Anchor was a city under siege and Task Force Dragon was there to break it. It was a human city of two hundred thousand on a world that was home to millions of Grausian, close to the heart of the Old Empire. The mercs didn’t care, at least not officially, who was in the city as long as they got paid. Unofficially, well, the majority of the soldiers were humans from the Terran Union worlds and a lot of them felt a little bit more excitement about settling old scores. Especially ex legionnaires like Davis.

“Banshee, execute Bravo,” called Captain Deveraux over the radio, Staff Sergeant Davis catching his voice on the Task Force freq. He had one ear tuned to the Task Force command net and the other to the Company net, switching down to platoon or tank as he needed to and issuing commands.

“Farez, find us a hull down position and then plan an assault route to that HQ. Watti, you’re weapons free to engage points of resistance designated by Exile. Scrub, keep the power coming and watch our six.” Davis’s voice was calm and collected, not betraying the anxiety he felt. That would pass as soon as ….

WAP! And the entire track shook as a reactive armor block blew, dissipating the oblique plasma charge before it could burn through the hull. “BLOWER!” shouted the driver, “ELEVEN!” even as he jinxed the tank sideways, throwing an unprepared Johanson against his seat restraints.

“ON THE WAY!” yelled Sergeant Wattabim in the ancient gunners’ cry as the cannon rocked backwards. The problem with a plasma blower is that an untrained crew would reload instead of displacing and it lit up the firing point like a roman candle. That was the attackers’ problem; the tank crews’ problem was that if the blower team adjusted aim and got their second round off, or worse were operating by SOP and had two teams, well, a center mass shot that hit at the right angle would go in one end of Smaug and out the other.

“Fight the tank, I got shit to do,” said Staff Sergeant Davis, flipping over to the platoon net. He was the senior NCO in the platoon and they had no officer; personnel resources hadn’t hired anyone to replace the last damn fool. He disappeared off the interior coms, barking orders at Melusine, Pythios and Panlong, the other three tanks in their section.

 

*****

 

The first reactive charge that blew wasn’t what shook Johanson and made him realize that he was in combat for real. Instead it was as he scanned the rear mounted cameras around, searching for threats while keeping one eye on the engine readouts. They were set on auto, panning around to cover the 180 degrees in the back. It was redundant, pulse radar would pick up any incoming missiles, but the Terran Marines had found out the hard way that relying too much on new computer systems wasn’t always a good thing. He slapped the camera stop and zoomed on three bodies scattered at the foot of a wall, wearing Irish black and gray winter camo. The pools of red blood were shockingly violent against the snow but even worse was the sight of the girl he had been talking to in the hangar bay. She sat on the ground, leaning up against the wall, rifle at her feet, hands over her ears, screaming silently. A fireteam of her comrades bounded past with a heavy machine gun, ignoring her. She was a casualty just as sure as the two lifeless bodies on the ground in front of her.

“SCRUB, IS THERE A THREAT? WHY IS THE CAMERA STOPPED?” Staff Sergeant Davis’s voice boomed in his headset, shocking him back to life.

He put the camera back in motion and babbled, “No … no sarge, negative, just thought I saw something! Just some Irish, had to ID them!” he called back in a panicked voice. There was no answer except for the tank rocking from the cannon slamming again. The crew was too busy fighting the battle. Best he get his head back in the job or he’d be lying out there in the snow himself.

The tank suddenly surged forward at the same time he heard Davis call, “Farez, put us on that hill up there, overwatch on White as they push through the road. Sector left.”

Johanson watched the readouts as power demand spiked and he was thrown around in his seat. Farez pretty much had two speeds; stop and go, which he supposed was a good thing. Then he felt the tank tilt upwards and level out. A quick switch to the front camera showed a wide river valley with camouflage tents showing IR signatures. To the right the four tanks of Third Platoon were deliberately moving forward with infantry following at a run down the road. He switched back to the rear camera just as Wattabim fired another round, causing the view to jump.

 

*****

 

Staff Sergeant Davis grunted in satisfaction as Wattabim slowly rotated the turret back and forth, scanning for targets. His platoon, call sign Red, was spread out on a low hill, watching for threats while Second Platoon, call sign White, was spread out in defilade just behind the crest of a hill, watching for enemy anti tank teams or armor threat. Intel had said they were concentrated in the siege lines, ten kilometers away from this HQ site, but Davis hadn’t stayed alive all through the Succession War by trusting intel.

“DRIVER REVERSE!” he screamed as movement caught the corner of his eye, overriding Wattabim’s controls and slewing the turret left where Panlong was supposed to be watching their flank. The coil gun round spat out by the Grausian anti-tank armored vehicle struck as the tracks sprayed dirt and penetrated the side hull of Panlong, a sparking TING sound that echoed over the roar of battle. Davis knew better than to ask over the radio if the tank was OK; the penetrator round had entered right at the crew compartment level and the commander and gunner were probably toast after it had finished ricocheting around inside. Maybe the mechtech in back and the driver might make it, but for now they were on their own. He did wish the track commander would hurry up and die; his wet raspy breathing could be heard over a stuck open microphone on the platoon net.

“CONTACT LEFT!” he yelled again and screamed into the turret, “FROM MY POSITION, ON THE WAY!” Smaug jumped backwards and the tank destroyer erupted in a ball of flame. Simultaneously its second shot hit Smaug on the edge of the turret, throwing up sparks and leaving a gleaning scar in the armor.

“TARGET, ANTI-TANK,” screamed Wattabim, catching sight of the Grausians’ wingman. She fired and the round went high as the fleeing wedge of metal crashed into a stone wall. A round from Melusine hit the rear hatch and it stopped dead, smoke billowing out of the chassis. The crew bailed out, running in their strange double joined way until coax plasma fire cut them down. After a long minute where no other threats showed in any wavelength Davis breathed a sigh of relief.

“Black, move out after White, Red on overwatch, Look out for friendlies on the road, over!” came Drake Six on the company net. Staff Sergeant Davis relayed the order to his platoon as Panlong started to burn, a brilliant torch that shot out of the open commander’s hatch. The gurgling rasp on the platoon net stopped abruptly as first Melusine, followed by Pythios and then Smaug pulled out of line. As they fell behind the crest of the hill each trained their turret in the direction of the shattered tank destroyer, watching for more threats. A squad of infantry ran past to replace them and hastily started digging their own crew served weapons in to guard their flank.

 

*****

 

The remaining three tanks of First Platoon fell in behind Second, quickly getting covered in the mud of the torn up road. It was a cold world and winter had set in but sixty tons of tank will break through a crust of ice and churn up the dirt beneath it. That and their exhaust heat was like a furnace, melting the snow. Behind them the light infantry of the Irish Brigade rode on large 6 x 6 ATV’s that allowed them to keep up with the tanks, though not too close. Their job was to assault the HQ area after the tanks had softened it up. Meaning after the Drakes had charged full speed through the area, but the approach was still at a medium pace.

The road emerged from the hills about a kilometer from the enemy’s lager and Staff Sergeant Davis watched through his commander’s sight. The thermals against the snow made the distant camp look like an anthill that had been hit with a stick. Trucks were revving up and some of the rear area troops were actually trying to break down tents and shelters, hastily cramming them into the back of transports. “You poor bastards,” he muttered, “that’s what you get for sitting in the rear with the gear, trying to get the glory without the risk.” Then he thought of the crew of Panlong and steeled himself. It was going to be slaughter, but they were only Impys.

 

*****

 

“Scrub, make sure we’re ready, gonna kick it in a minute,” came Davis’s voice over the intercom. Before Johanson could reply the Track Commander was already issuing orders to the rest of the crew.

“Don’t tell me how to do my job, you ape,” muttered the mechtech, forgetting that the channel was open.

“I will use my ape hands and squeeze your head until it pops like a grape, Scrub. AFTER you do your job,” said Davis.

Johanson flipped the switch to ‘listen’ and cursed under his breath. Wilma chirped in laughter and he made a mock swat at her. The diminutive alien mech disappeared into the back of the fusion plant. He felt Farez kick it into gear and the transmission engaged, sending the tank forward. Scanning the readouts he adjusted the fuel flow and dialing in more coolant. He loved the machinery, but it had seen some hard use since it rolled off the assembly line on Nova Laredo and his job was a lot more complicated than it should be.

Chapter Five

 

The four tanks of element White split, two each to the flanks to cover the attack. The other seven formed a line abreast as the road opened up onto the snow covered field. The HQ was a kilometer ahead and the tanks threw up a rooster tail as they accelerated. The key to the success of a blitzkrieg is to get inside the enemies’ decision making cycle, have them react to you instead of you to them. Once you disrupt that by attack and destruction you need to keep pressing so they can’t gather their resources and stop you.

Plan Bravo was a straight through attack by the tanks while the infantry laid down suppressing fire. Once they were through they would climb the next ridge and start firing at the division laying siege to the city. The besieged forces were to attack from the other side and hopefully the Grausians would break. What happened after that wasn’t the mercenaries’ problem, it was the politicians.

The tanks never slowed as they went through the tents and trucks, firing indiscriminately from their machine guns and saving the main gun rounds for any armor that might show up. They turned the entire camp into an inferno and shot the Grausians that broke and ran. Others fell under the treads of the tanks, coming out the other side as a flat, bloody paste mixed with the mud. Then they were through the other side, the only damage on Smaug a splash mark where a rocket propelled grenade had set off one of the reactive armor plates.

Johanson looked in horror at the destruction they had left in their wake. The infantry had remounted their ATV’s and followed them in, shooting anyone that even hinted at resisting. He caught a glimpse of the girl from the landing bay, no longer crying, instead shooting down a tall Grausian woman wearing an officers’ silver armor plate, standing with her hands up. The mechtech kept the camera scanning while his brain reset some circuit breakers.

“INCOMING INCOMING INCOMING,” started wailing over the tank’s speakers and Johanson felt his gut tighten. A smart artillery round could drop a forged penetrator right through their top armor and he immediately hit the switch for the millimeter radar jammer, feeling Farez start the weaving across the field. Ten seconds into the spine jolting ride he felt rather than heard a BANG and the tank slewed violently to the right then came to a jerking halt.

“Chief, we got a broken track!” Johanson called into the intercom, then flicked the switch and said it again, feeling stupid, scared and hyper.

“No shit, Scrub, get out and fix it! Wattabim, you too and watch out for toe poppers!” the NCO immediately shot back.

“On it!” he called, unjacking the headset and hitting his seat release. It slid back, putting the hatch in line with his head. He undogged it, told Wilma to watch the gauges and swung the hatch sideways. Climbing out onto the back deck he stepped out into a world of smoke and hell, closing the hatch behind him.

The track lay behind them, twisted up like a snake. They had run over a FASCAM, a mine delivered by artillery. There were half a dozen scattered around behind them but their way forward looked clear. The gunner was already out of her hatch and climbing down the side of the turret, one hand on the tank at all times so she didn’t lose her balance. As soon as she was down the turret started spinning, scanning off to the left.

“Watch for anti personnel, mon!” the sergeant said as Johanson dropped off the deck.

He froze as his boot landed three inches from a baseball sized object that had four trip wires extending from it. He gingerly stepped away and looked around for more. “Uh, what do we do when we find one?” he called out.

“Mark it with a flag for EOD and done’ step on it,” she said, “just remember your training, Scrub.”

He did, quickly grabbing the marker kit from one of the side compartments, noticing that there were heavy caliber bullet craters running down the side of the armored skirt. He broke out a flag and pushed it in the ground more than a foot from the AP mine, slowly working his way back to the broken track. He found two more mines as Sergeant Wattabim paralleled him, checking the path of the tank. They would have to slowly move it backwards onto the track after they fixed the damage.

Johanson started to feel cold as they worked, replacing shattered track pads and laying it out flat at the back of the tank. It was heavy, an alloy of aluminum and steel with synthrubber pads. The next fifteen minutes were both the fastest and slowest in his life. It was just like a training exercise except that every now and then Smaug’s main gun belched fire, a CRACK that hammered at his lungs. As they worked a column of Irish mercs made their way through the minefield, accompanied by an EOD team deactivating the anti-personnel bomblets by freezing the triggers off with liquid nitrogen. They made a path through and then a company of the black and white camo figures hustled past at a double time. The tanker didn’t even bother to look for ‘his’ girl, focusing on the task at hand.

They had rolled the tank back on the track and were snaking the broken ends over the drive wheels when Staff Sergeant Davis, who had been scanning the area with the turret, yelled “INCOMING” at the top of his voice and dropped down, slamming his hatch shut.

“What -” said Johanson, who was half under the lifted side skirt. He pulled his head out and saw the infantry column scatter into whatever cover they could find. Wattabim grabbed his arm and pulled him down onto the ground, snaking her way around to the front of the tank. He started to follow her and the world exploded around him.

During the First World War on Old Terra men had been driven mad by the constant shelling of artillery. Even hidden in bunkers and protected in dugouts the constant pounding had killed men's souls just as much as it had their bodies. Johanson only experienced two ragged volleys that were badly aimed by a panicked, under fire artillery battery. Most were swept from the sky by the combined fire of Smaug’s interceptor gatling and a lone Irish Brigade air defense laser that had set up at the edge of the destroyed HQ site. Those two volleys, though, were the most terrifying things he had ever experienced in his short life. The last 150mm round detonated fifty meters directly over the tank’s position, showering it with white hot shrapnel. It washed over a circular area, catching some of the infantry who were on the edge of the impact area. The tank itself was scoured, stripping antennas off and shredding the bags of personal equipment strapped to the back deck.

Johanson lay there, completely exposed and deafened. All he could see with his face buried sideways on the ground was a jagged piece of still smoking steel, dug deep into the ground less than two inches from his face. Beyond was the silent screaming face of Sergeant Wattabim, holding onto her leg above the knee. Below it her calf muscle was nothing more than stringy meat and sharp white bone.

A pair of boots thudded into the ground in front of him and he was roughly hauled to his feet. Corporal Farez said something to him as Staff Sergeant Davis pulled Wattabim out from under the tank, but the only thing Johanson could hear was a loud ringing in his ears. He reached up and touched his ear, hand coming away with blood. Farez looked at it, then gave him a thumbs up. Then he took a marker out of his pocket and wrote on the dull brown paint of the tank, “FIX THE TRACK”.

Johanson, still stunned and looking at the gunner having her leg worked on by an Irish medic, eagerly grabbed onto the task. It was something training allowed him to do by rote, without thinking. When they rammed the last pin into the track, linking the ends together, he was astonished to see that the infantry had moved on and the gunner was gone.

Ignoring the scattered equipment, he climbed back in through the hatch and slid into his seat. He put the headset on and turned the volume all the way up, barely hearing Staff Sergeant Davis. “Say again, Chief, my ears are fucked up.”

“I said to get the goddamned fusion bottle popping and give me max power. We’ve got a war to fight, Lucky!”

“On it, Chief,” and he was. Strapped into the warm and secure cocoon of his engine compartment, sheltered from the hell outside. Wilma came over and started wiping the blood off his head with a rag but he ignored her as he made sure all the readouts were in the green. He keyed the unit to green and the tracks spun as Smaug raced to catch up with the battle.

Chapter Six

 

One of the greatest dangers to an armored vehicle is to silhouette itself on a ridgeline or above an enemy. On the other hand, it’s impossible to bring your weapons system into play without a direct line of sight, so Davis played a tricky game of edging along the backside until he came to an oblique angle, shielded by the burning corpse of one of Black platoon’s tanks. He didn’t know and didn’t care right now which of his friends were dead in there, bodies roasted to a cinder. He was angry that his gunner was wounded and glad that the mechtech wasn’t. He could fight the tank without a gunner but an engine problem would leave them dead in the water.

“DRIVER STOP!” he ordered and raised the commander’s seat, sticking his head out of the hatch and getting some eyes on, scanning the plain His radio suddenly crackled, the Irish breaking in on the company net.

“Stand by for targeting info,” came the voice of the Irish Brigade intel officer. Davis dropped back down into the turret as a screen flashed into life, slaving itself to his gunsight. It flickered and the tank commander slapped the side of the screen, bringing it back to focus, an overhead shot of the enemy siege lines from genemoded hawk or eagle. It shifted and the view changed to orderly rows of dozens of armored vehicles.

“Yeah, that’s it, you genie freak.” He knew that the view was being provided by some kind of flying creature that was linked to an intel soldier. In turn the soldier was plugged into a bio computer interface. Whatever, he would take what he could get as long as he didn’t have to stick his fingers into some kind of animal’s spinal cord.

“Sequential fire, from right to left, sweep and zone. Pick your targets, Dragon Six out.” That was fine by Davis and he directed his element to do the same in the left third of the armor vehicles. He tapped a vehicle on the screen and the gun swiveled, elevated and fired. He tapped another target before the round even hit, laughing and cursing at the same time.

 

*****

 

“Well this is boring as shit, Wilma,” said Johanson. He had come down off the high of the hair’s breadth escape from death and was feeling exhausted. Every few seconds the tank rocked backwards with the roaring THUD of the gun but his hearing was slowly returning. He watched dispassionately on the screen as the Irish dug in on the ridge in front of them on the military crest, slowly searching for the pretty girl. He finally found her, struggling up the hill with belts of ammunition draped over her shoulders, looking miserable and cold.

For a moment a wild fantasy came to him of cracking the hatch and inviting her into share the warmth and who knew what that would lead to. He was brought back to reality by Wilma chirping in his ear, bringing attention to a readout. He almost hit his head in shock; the plasma containment field was fluctuating wildly all over the place and power output was dropping. It was a continuous drive transmission and they either had power to the turret and electric drive wheels or they didn’t, and that moment was approaching.

“Chief, we gotta pull back! I’ve got a problem with the containment field, might be a crack in the mag bottle!” He ignored the answer, slapping switches and yelling at the computer. The Terran Union worlds had many restrictions placed on technology by the Empire and the first run programming after the Massacre had been rudimentary at best; it showed now. There was little he could do outside the standard controls to deal with an emergency.

“SHUTTING DOWN!” he yelled into the intercom. It wouldn’t be anything like an antimatter explosion if the containment let go, but the venting of plasma through a shattered containment core would fry everything in the engine compartment at least. ‘At least’ included him and Wilma, at a minimum. He tripped the main breaker just as the container went critical and the plasma vented out of the back of the tank in a white hot jet of flame. Then he started the lengthy reset procedure, frantically typing in commands to work around a faulty magnet that might have been more of a code problem than an actual system failure. It was a design fault that there weren’t any batteries to power the tracks until they restarted, but … Wilma started slapping at the start switch for the emergency generator trying to at least get them something.

“GODDAMMIT JOHANSON I NEED POWE-” he heard Davis yell over the intercom, a yell cut short by a blood curdling scream. There was a tremendous simultaneous CRACK that was louder than his damaged ears could handle and the mechtech felt the entire fifty ton tank lurch sideways. Every electrical component shorted out in a shower of sparks and he was plunged into darkness. The battery powered red emergency lights flickered on and then started to shine. At the far end of the cramped compartment a matching glow started and he realized that the paint on the wall was blistering. The glow came from the metal behind it.

With a panicked curse he grabbed at the latches for his hatch. They grated and he tried to push it aside but it moved less than a foot. “JESUS FUCKING CHRIST!” he yelled as the compartment started to heat up. He started banging on it and screaming then stopped as Wilma chittered in his ear.

“YES! GET HELP!” he screamed and she flew out of the small opening. Johanson grabbed at the supplemental oxygen mask and pulled the fire suppression manual override handle. Foam flooded into the compartment, coating him, but the heat continued to grow. He pulled himself up as close to the hatch as he could, stuck his hand out and pulled desperately at the edge.

“HANG ON BROTHER, GONNA GET YOU OUT! MOVE YOUR HAND!” The voice was female but hoarse from yelling. “GONNA CUT THE HATCH!”

Johanson pulled his hand back in, hyperventilating inside the mask as his boots began to smoke and his vision started to go black. There was a bright jet of flame over his head and then the hatch fell away, rough hands grabbing him by the deadman’s strap on his coveralls and yanking him bodily out of the compartment. The woman and another soldier dumped him over the back deck to land on the ground with a bone cracking thud, pain shooting up his left arm. He cried out as they grabbed him by the shoulders and half carried, half ran him onto the back of the flatbed ATV that already contained two other wounded.

As the Medevac vehicle skittered away across the snow and down the mountain and Wilma chittered on his shoulder, the mechtech looked back at Smaug. Flame was shooting out of the top of the turret and his own hatch. There was no sign of Staff Sergeant Davis or Corporal Farez. Then the ammunition cooked off and the turret leapt high in the air, flipping over and cartwheeling through the sky.

“Damn, you’re one lucky son of a bitch!” said the woman. “Lucky … Johanson,” she scribbled on a notepad and then shot him with some painkiller. “That’s a hell of a nickname to have …” and the world faded out.

 

Epilogue

 

“Lucky, huh?” said the Irish girl.

Johanson gave her another kiss. “Ja, Lucky.”

“Better than Crybaby, I guess, but … I mean, I got my shit together, but just seeing Sergeant Calhoun dead like that…” and she started to shake with the memory.

The tanker wrapped his arm around her shoulders, took his hand and wiped away a tear from her freckled face. “Hey, it’s OK, I heard you did good afterward. Fought like a demon, they said!”

“I did OK, I guess. I … I killed an Impy. One at least and I’m still alive, but, I’m going to resign my enlistment. I can’t do this anymore.” She seemed defeated, but then she leaned in to give him a kiss herself.

“Well, we’ve got time before the shuttles lift. Let’s use it wisely, shall we?” he asked. She smiled at that and started kissing his neck.

Well, Lucky is better than Scrub, any day of the week, thought the veteran. He tried to enjoy the moment, but the faces of Smaug’s crew kept staring back at him.



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