Amped to Kill

by mzhang

Tags: Military, Science Fiction, Aliens,

Desc: Science Fiction Story: It's been a few decades since the Wikus Van Der Merwe Incident. The prawn fleet sits over Earth, harvesting its abundant resources. Humanity and Newcomer alike fight the extra-terrestrial invasion with military grade Amplified Mobility Platforms and other modern military technology.

AMPED TO KILL: The Unofficial Follow-Up to Neil Blomkamp's "District 9" (formerly known as 'Alive in JoBurg') with elements borrowed from Rockne S. O'Bannion's "Alien Nation", James Cameron's "Avatar", and Steve Jackson's "Ogre". Other similar elements (e.g., Robert Heinlein's "Starship Troopers", Joe Haldeman's "Forever War", David Drake's "Slammerverse", Robert Aspin's "Bug Wars", Keith Laumer's "Bolo", John Steakley's "Armor", Masaya's "Assault Suits Valken" and "Assault Suits Leynos", et al.) contributed greatly to the author's vision of mecha-based mayhem.


REQUIEM TO LANDFALL


"Truth be told, Rook; I find Earth prawn delicious. They're great eating even if I have them grilled or cooked. Stupid Afrikaner slokaa. Why'd they call those filthy beasts 'prawn'?"

Miles, already a bundle of nerves before the drop, only listened with half an ear to the woman while he walked down the hall and fiddled with the various protuberances on his battle-dress. While Miles was a soldier, he would not be taking on the "poleepkwa" in battle fatigues. As the Van De Merwe Incident demonstrated years ago, that would be suicide, especially the aliens were now hostile and actively organized to kill anything that looked remotely human.

Speaking of aliens, the woman with Miles wasn't from Earth per se, but she was at least humanoid. The Newcomer female was slender, and at least as tall as Miles; he himself was a prime specimen of humanity at six feet and change, but that meant little. If Miles and his bald alien ally physically wrestled like two school children, she'd easily beat him down like a rag doll.

The Newcomer appeared far more at ease than "the Rook"; she occasionally stroked her smooth spotted head and kept chatting about her slim pickings of cooked Earth food as they headed for the drop bay. Soldiers tended towards nervousness regardless of how much they trained, and Miles suspected she was using idle chatter to keep her mind off the fact that they were both underwater in a submarine carrier.

Any hull breach meant the incoming seawater would dissolve the pretty alien woman in seconds unless she reached the escape vehicles, sealed herself inside a battle blister, or scrambled into a survival suit made for her kind.

Miles reflected on the many aliens now living on planet Earth. The prawn ship came to a stop over Johannesburg in 1982 and no one stopped to wonder if that species was the only one in the neighborhood. The insect-like aliens were called "prawn" by the South Africans, but everyone else called them something else; "crickets" by the British and Australians, but other countries had other monikers, all which focused on the JoBurg aliens' speech, which sounded like clicks and clacks.

Ultimately, the mystery of why the "prawn ship" stopped on Earth was answered when the Newcomers' slave ship crashed in California's Mojave Desert six years later in 1988. Between a space wreck and an inoperable craft, the best minds humanity had to offer surmised that a mid-space accident had somehow occurred, and that both craft touched down on the planet much like a two vehicles after a traffic collision.

Once dirtside though, the fortunes of the two alien races diverged rapidly. The Newcomers, having landed in the United States, were first held in quarantine as a precautionary measure, but ultimately assimilated into the human population. Not so with the "prawn" in South Africa. Their radically inhuman appearance, coupled with the vast political and social changes in South Africa at the time, proved to be the prawns' undoing.

Then in 2010, Wikus Van De Merwe happened. Miles' mind still reeled at the ineptitude of Multi-National United, and how poorly they handled the situation. While the United States was never officially invited to participate in anything MNU-related (having their own extra-terrestrial situation at home), America did send unofficial observers - even Newcomer scientists - who watched the events unfold in District 9.

Without any idea what would happen if the prawn came back, the United States erred on the side of caution and prepared. Armed with the scant technological scraps from their new alien allies and information on the aliens in South African, DARPA managed to developed the "amplified mobility platform" (AMP) to combat the hostile alien threat.

After initial teething troubles, America had started a new technological revolution in warfare with a militarized version of the AMP, the Gibbon CoRi (COmbat RIg). With help from Newcomer scientists, DARPA managed to get their various armaments programs working, and just in time too. Less than a decade after the stricken prawn ship departed for its home system, their invasion fleet arrived on Earth. Strangely, the prawn didn't come to "rescue" their brethren in South Africa, but to harvest the raw materials instead.

Miles and his alien comrade-at-arms entered a large loading bay where a dozen or so other operators were lined up. They were all in similar body-hugging battledress. Their codpieces sported protuberances and inputs much like as his. The group's commander - a 'Tactical Sergeant' by his insignia - was a short, wiry Chinese man with a dour face, and a more dour disposition.

"We're wrapping up," the sergeant's bald head glistened under the interior lighting as he glared at the new arrivals. "Small change of plan. Rook, you're ridin' alone. Tits will be driving Ginny. Move out."

At that, the others started moving towards ladders marked with names on large signs. A blonde woman with a mediocre but perky bust stepped up and waved to the Newcomer, saying, "C'mon Mary. See you in the Bactrian."

"All right." The Newcomer - Mary - turned and gave Miles a friendly punch in the arm as she strode off, "See ya, Rook."

"Uh, sir?" Miles seemed hesitant as the sergeant started off to his own ladder.

"Don' you ever 'sir' me. I work for a livin'."

"Yes Sergeant Cheng," Miles quickly corrected himself. "So, how's this going to work? I thought my blister was set for the Bactrian instead of a Gibbon? I thought I was to escort Miss Webster?"

"I swapped the control cards," came his response. "Just because you're not driving the Virgin Mary around -" a play on Webster's name and call sign "- doesn't mean you're not on baby-sitter duty."

Miles started up his ladder as Cheng continued in his American drawl.

"You're still new to movin' in a blister and cradle. Gibbons ain't training machines. Bein' on your own means you can make mistakes that won't get my people killed - 'specially my bot controller," the sergeant said simply. "You stay near the Bactrian, but do exactly as Tanya says. Understand?"

"Yes sergeant. Understood."

Probably more so than you want, Miles thought darkly as he settled into his battle blister. Tanya "Tits" Doyle, the unofficial bodyguard of their squad's bot controller, was rumored to have been a stripper, a porn star, or a hooker before the prawns invaded Earth. Miles heard a few sordid stories aboard the submarine carrier that ran rampant in small circles of how Doyle got into the CoRi program.

Some said she and Cheng were having some fun before the invasion, but that didn't hold up, as the sergeant himself was rumored to be a refugee himself. In any case, once the shooting started, Doyle, like Sergeant Cheng, quickly earned new infamy as skilled rig drivers with an adroitness when it came to killing the enemy.

Now, whether "Tits" and Sergeant Cheng were an item, or still an item seemed moot - Cheng and the slender Newcomer female, Mary Webster, were often found eating together in the mess, much to the disgust of the crew. The raw meat diet of Newcomers wasn't exactly a welcoming sight, except to other Newcomers.

Miles tuned out the innuendo and he concentrated on getting himself ready. He connected the waste line to a metal orifice on his codpiece, followed by the wash/rinse line. That done, Miles slipped his arms and legs into the metal and polymer cradles inside the blister.

With his limbs so encompassed, he would be able to control any rig his blister was installed into just as he would his own body - at least hands, arms, legs, and feet wise. The cradles' many joints were wired or motorized to provide resistance to his movements, if just to give the operator a sensation of feedback; physically and practically, he was a walking five meter tall metal giant, with proportionate strength.

The blond rookie was primarily standing, although there was a small rest protruding from the rear wall of the blister to allow Miles to rest on his buttocks. He seldom did so, as sitting like that was painful if he did it too long. To actually "sit" comfortably in a blister, Miles had to remove his legs from the lower limb cradles (in essence letting the auto-walk take over - not a good idea in combat). So, like any soldier, Miles toughed it out and took short sits when his legs were feeling tired.

There was a slight bump, and Miles felt his battle blister shudder. He was being loaded into his Gibbon. The war machine stood between nearly five meters tall; its upper body was voluminous enough to encapsulate the cylindrical cockpit containing its operator. So enclosed, the only means for the person to see while inside one of these assault suits was through the cam-plate - the prefabricated armored faceplate with bundles of fiber thin cables serving as cameras to the outside world.

The cam-plate wrapped around the Gibbon's bulbous upper-body and came down in a bib-like fashion over the forward and side facings of the torso. Special optic mountings in the outer frame's crotch and arm pits allowed the to "see" the ground beneath him.

Inside his armored cocoon, Miles felt connections being made between his blister and the rig. A brief moment later, the entire inside of his battle blister blinked to life. Liquid crystal displays pressed into sheets received input from the cam-plate and became a virtual window to the world outside. A clear, electronic voice buzzed through the battle blister.

:: sensors online. actuators connected ::

Miles cycled through the various vision modes: low-light and night vision, infrared, ultraviolet, gamma, motion-sensing, vibratory, infrasound, and checked them against the various filters that let him distinguish between the biology of different species: human, prawn, and Newcomer.

:: weapons online. power optimal ::

Miles checked his Gibbon's armament. Doyle had either opted for the standard load-out, or the selection was restored when Sergeant Cheng made the last minute switch. No matter. Nearly all Gibbons sortied on a standard load-out; the few exceptions were just that - exceptions; many operators switched back to the standardized load-out after their attempt at being different.

There was no need to mess with perfection: a Particle Impeller Gun (PIG) firing pellets of antimatter held in stasis, an eighty Terajoule laser on the operator's off-hand mitt, and two backpack units, one firing soda can sized antimatter "grenades" and the portable indirect munition platform (PIMP) which launched small, self-guided cruise missiles.

Antimatter didn't only figure prominently in the weaponry, but a variation of the matter/antimatter reaction powered the Gibbon and other war machines.

Miles' Gibbon slowly clunked onto the landing vehicle; with prawn ships controlling much of the skies, human and Newcomer alike needed to adapt to survive, and the sea was one of the few refuges free of prawn control.

While both races could dig into the mountain terrain or ruined cities that survived initial bombardment, the underwater military complexes (which doubled as fall-back positions) saw few, if any, Newcomers. For the bald headed aliens to live underwater meant a potentially vile death. Many Newcomers opted to support their human allies by fighting alongside them in various mountain strongholds; their alien physique made them suited as mountaineering or SpecWar infantry.

Where the human-Newcomer forces on land were mostly stalemated by prawn forces, assaults made by sea were making good progress. Utilizing the cover of water to confuse prawn detection gear, the naval forces denied the aliens valuable food and grazing grounds for their eggs in the short term.

'A single adult humpbacked whale can yield enough nutrition for 5,000 to 7,500 prawn workers, ' Miles remembered from his training.

While a single prawn could be killed by something as simple as a hunting rifle, a shotgun, or a fire axe, the creature was still capable of tearing apart a Newcomer - let alone a human. Miles saw the combat footage of Colonel Koobus Venter. One moment he was firing on a pack of angry prawn, the next, he was rendered limb from limb. And when the insect aliens were armed with their exotic weaponry, human and Newcomer forces were at a disadvantage unless they attacked with overwhelming firepower from their war machines, or with artillery.

Miles had his Gibbon hold onto the guidebar of the landing vehicle. Next to his Gibbon, Doyle's Bactrian - so named for its dorsal "hump" that formed the second crewman's position (where Webster was) - was already in position.

The Bactrian stood a meter taller than the Gibbon, but instead of equipping dorsal weapon pods, it had an instrument laden, semi-independent crew blister that linked the Bactrian with the engagement robots - affectionately called EARLs (Engagement Assault Robot, Legged). EARLS were unmanned, semi-autonomous killing machines, friendly to human and Newcomer alike, but responded to prawn by opening fire and alerting the military authorities.

"You doin' all right there, Rook?" Doyle's distinctive Manchester accent clipped through the private frequency to Miles.

"Yeah," Miles responded.

The murky underwater environ had nothing interesting, so he opted to put his escortee's real-time portrait in a pop-up window on his blister's display. The dirty haired blonde had a flat face, wide lips, and a cowling stare - all completely at odds with her cheerful and gregarious demeanor which Miles found attractive.

"You were a tad slow boarding," Doyle glanced down and fiddled with something - probably her own codpiece, "You're not upset with the duty change are you?"

"No," Miles replied. "It just caught me a little off guard."

"Well don't you worry your pretty little head," she managed a garishly toothy smile. "All you do is stay near me an' Ginny."

"Hello Miles," Webster chimed in. Miles moved her pop-up on his blister's screen underneath Doyle and felt the landing craft detach itself from the submarine carrier.

"Don't forget the Bactrian can't move worth a darn when it comes to movin' as fast as the Sarge wants," Doyle said. "Not moving quick and not havin' nothing 'cept a modified PIG and a laser glitterstick - well, if we get in trouble, we'd be in serious shit, even with Mary's metal pets."

"Not like we'll have any, slokaa," the Newcomer chimed in. "All of them will be out. None will be home."

Hence the me and my Gibbon, Miles thought to himself. The bots will be out busy hunting prawn. Good for them but bad for us if we get caught by a large enemy force.

The throb of the landing craft increased as Miles felt his ears ache slightly. Even with a sealed environment, there was no getting away with mild pressure differences coming from such a depth.

"Focus people," rasped Sergeant Cheng. "We hit the dance floor in thirty. Arsenyev, you and your team take the left -" Miles heard quick acknowledgment "- the scouts, Talua, and I will take the right. Faraz, do the usual. Straight down the middle. Kill 'em all."

Miles heard the last team leader exclaim gleefully in Arabic. He was former Taliban, or something. It didn't really matter now that the area around the Dead Sea was a nuclear wasteland for a hundred miles in all directions. Those damned prawn enjoyed the salt water so much they were willing to retake the area repeatedly. So, someone high on up decided to lure in a large number of enemy forces and glass the location with several mega-tonners.

The irony was the wholesale destruction of the Dead Sea brought about a faster truce between Jew and Arab than any number of peace summits or talks generations before - not that either side had much military might left to do much except to fight the alien menace and survive.

All other things considered, it was a small price to pay for victory. The blast destroyed one prawn ship and crippled a second one. The second ship eventually succumbed to an extended bombardment and crashed. There were no survivors, or at least none that the Search and Destroy teams reported when they went through the wreckage.

"Ready. Wait," the sergeant's voice was steady. "Ten seconds. Nine. Eight. Seven..."


RED AFTERIMAGE


"Arsenyev's dead! And so's Brinkmann!"

Miles thought "frantic" best described the panicky soldier on the other end, but Sergeant Cheng exhibited little feeling except cold rage in combat.

"Soltyk, you fucking, chickenshit Polack," Cheng's words were enunciated with careful menace. "You get your bearings and point your suit, your PIG, your lasers, and whatever else you can lay your hands on and slice those hoppers from shitter to mandible or I will personally rip out your gutless spine if you don't die running, you get me?"

"Y-yes, sergeant!"

Just over a few hours before, Miles' squad hit their mark. The opposition at the initial landing was easy. Only a few prawn drones and few of their warriors armed with HIVELOC (HIgh VELOCity) small arms guarded the beach grazing area when Webster's recon bots pounced. They were soon followed by the manned Gibbons and the slower bots.

Raptors, fast bipedal hunter killers resembling beheaded ostriches, raced ahead and poured antimatter rounds from their stubby weapon pods into the hapless sentries while the rest of the squad advanced from the ocean floor. The aliens didn't stand a chance.

The heavier Mastiffs trotted ashore next, along with their lighter Jackal cousins on the outer flanks. The manned Gibbons waded ashore last, protected on all fronts by a moving bot wall. Once the beachhead was established, the squad separated into strike teams while Miles followed Doyle's and Webster's Bactrian.

The three of them were slowly moving east into enemy territory, approximately a dozen kilometers behind the forward teams, when Soltyk's frantic call came through.

Miles was to protect the two women while they did their thing. While Doyle acted as the driver, Webster was free to direct the bot teams and attack the enemy in coordination with the manned strike teams in the Gibbons. With everything before them completely devastated, there was little chance of any hostile activity this far back.

The rookie found he could follow the advance by opening a comm line and tapping into the bot feeds and gun cameras of his squadmates. From there, it was almost like a spectator sport, with very real results.

Cheng's Gibbon was peppered by a flurry of HIVELOC rounds from a prawn mech's linear launcher. Within seconds, Miles saw the enemy machine get shot to pieces with PIG rounds from the sergeant's rig; Cheng's machine suffered little thanks to the energy absorbent graphene plates and nano-carbon fiber weave used in its armor.

"You missed a mech, Faraz," Cheng managed a joke with his choice veteran. "Your killers are starting to slack."

"Almost all," Faraz corrected himself. Other sounds came through the comms, like the death screams of a dozen burning prawn as laser-fire raked across their unprotected bodies.

"Rachid say one, maybe two, ran away probably towards you. Sorry," the Arab team leader managed a snicker, and Miles heard the electronic bleep-bleep followed by the chuck-a-chunk of grenades being launched. The rail launched bombs detonated in mid-air over its target, each scattering a cloud of marble sized antimatter explosives. A second later, the landscape bloomed with explosive death.

"Sounds like you have most of your zone covered. Have Hasan or Rachid take over for you. I want you to lead my advance while I check north."

Miles heard Faraz's acknowledgment, but Cheng was already talking once more.

"Ginny? How are the EARLs doing?" The sergeant was nonchalant as he took aim and fired at something at the edge of his vision.

"Teams One and Two are still clearing the south - your zone. 100%," Webster's slender fingers danced across her glowing panels. "Teams Three and Four are supporting Faraz's team. They're at 85%. Five and Six are reporting at 35%. I think they have two Jackals, one Mastiff, and a Raptor remaining."

Not a good sign, thought Miles.

"Something's holding 'em up." Sergeant Cheng sounded more annoyed than worried. "If it is what I think it is, we may need some serious commitment and Soltyk isn't the cowardly bitch he's making himself to be."

"Have the bots complete their sweeps," Cheng turned his Gibbon and fired downrange at a group of prawn, "then prep me an EARL team with the most firepower."

"Just don't send 'em 'till I give you the go ahead." The sergeant finished giving orders just as he finished off some dying aliens.

"Understood," the Newcomer looked busy, keying in commands and touching displays out of Mile's view.

"D'you want us to move with you, boss?" Doyle asked. "We've got Miles and me. We can mix it up -"

"Negative on that," Cheng's response was prompt. "Don't go wandering until we know what's there. We may need to fall back. Where'd you say the Rook was again?"

"He's here-"

"Right here, sarge," Miles cut in as Doyle replied.

"Sounds like you're ready to do something useful," Cheng sounded smug. "Make a quick jog to where Rachid is. His team should be near a major highway entrance. Help them secure the area around it, then let Tanya know. The high road will be marginally safer."

"Yessir." Miles cut off the sergeant before he could complain about being so addressed.

He tuned a private channel to the British bimbo's Bactrian, "You two going to be okay, right?"

"Personally, I'd feel better if we had a bodyguard," Doyle stated flatly, "but the quicker you scout, the faster we'll know where we'll need to go, so don't dwaddle. Hurry it up."

Miles took that as his invitation to leave, and he did so with gusto. His Gibbon lurched forward awkwardly at first, then slowly regained its composure as he adjusted his gait to get the machine into a slow run.

His Gibbon's PIG was heavy enough to throw the whole package off balance, hence the tendency for operators to hold the weapon in both hands; however, the weapon's antimatter cyclotron - essentially its "magazine" - could be crushed by the Gibbon's off-hand, with catastrophic, if not fatal, results.

'If you need to hold it like a rifle, ' Miles remembered from his training, 'grab the bracket anchor like you would a fore-stock, except its on the side, so it's like a side-stock. It'll feel funny at first, but no matter, 'cause your machine's actuators takes on the weight, not you.'

Miles had to marvel at the amount of thought the engineers put into incorporating ergonomics into such an ungainly device. The bracket anchor was designed to hold the PIG upright during maintenance and resupply, but Gibbon operators soon learned it was just as useful as a supporting grip.

Because of how the bracket anchor surrounded the PIG's linear launcher and the cyclotron, gripping the anchor on its top bar gave the laser mitt a clear line of fire (albeit off-center to the Gibbon's forward aim). Miles had seen combat footage of this being done, although it was never officially taught in training.

The rookie's Gibbon, now at ease in its balance and running full tilt forward at about 45 MPH (about 72 KPH) crossed the terrain scalded bare by antimatter weapons. A few uneventful minutes later, he came across a lone Gibbon standing guard along with a couple of bots.

"What are you doing here, Rook?" the other rig driver asked. "Thought you were babysitting the slaggot's secretaries?"

"New orders," Miles let slide the man's bigotry. "Is it secure to bring up the Bactrian? Sergeant says we need to secure this position, then head out on the highway across town."

"The Arabs are clearing out some last minute hold-outs," the other operator sounded bored and lackadaisical. "Decided they didn't need a Jew to go along with their ET jihad. Sat me here with a Jackal and a pair of Mastiffs as a fallback."

"Looks like this place is secure enough," Miles clicked the pop-up window to Doyle's Bactrian. "Tanya? Miles here. I think it's clear. I'll head back and meet you halfway. How's that sound?"

"Sounds s'alright."

Moments later, Miles watched as the Bactrian waddled leisurely towards him. Doyle was moving carefully like she was pregnant and walking across a patch of ice in high heels. Webster's battle blister was prominent on the upper back of the larger machine.

Any wild spinning motions of the suit would probably jostle the Newcomer female silly or even knock her out. It was probably why it made sense for him to guard them in a separate Gibbon - to do all the wild moves while Doyle moved their precious cargo across the battlefield.

" ... Sergeant Cheng?" It was Webster. In the confusion of battle, she must have transmitted over the general channel. "I have a Colonel Hammer on the line. Says his tanks need some fire support."

"I have none to give," Cheng said simply. "Just found the problem up north. Shut the fuck up Soltyk," the sergeant snarled at something on his own display and went on, "It's a 'zerker with warriors in tow."

A berserker? Miles felt his heart skip a beat. Rare footage showed some fauna native to the prawn homeworld used for illegal "pit fighting" back when District 9 still existed. No one knew those were in fact, the spawn of one of the few large animals the prawn would use as autonomous living war machines.

Prawn berserkers were huge by Earth's standards; each one stood about ten or twelve meters tall - as high as a flat-roofed three story building - and about the size of one as too. Despite their bulk, they were also fast, capable of keeping up with a Gibbon at full trot. And that wasn't the worst part.

The prawn grafted their linear launchers, ARC guns, and other weapons onto the animal, using some form of neural training to teach it how to fire them. The beast was dropped in enemy territory, and used as a siege-and-suicide unit. What didn't get destroyed by the rampaging juggernaut would be exhausted trying to take it out. Mop up by prawn ground forces proved much easier after one of those bastards went through an area - one of the many reasons human-Newcomer forces haven't been making much progress past the foothills. The only thing that kept the berserkers out of the mountain fortresses were the narrow defilements and passes that worked against their voluminous bulk. And any prawn mothership that tried to spacedrop a berserker would see its cargo destroyed long before it reached the ground, thanks to self-guided missiles with anti-matter warheads.

As for the prawn warriors, they were essentially larger drones, but their second set of arms were fully grown, allowing them to carry a second weapon. Additionally, they were much more aggressive, and did not require the presence of a hive coordinator to direct their attacks; theirs was a true hive-like mentality when it came to combat.

The presence of a berserker with warrior escorts hinted strongly that there was something major the insect aliens wanted to protect - that or they were here by mistake.

"Soltyk's damaged but otherwise fine," Cheng went on with his sit-rep. "Sikarna's here too, plus a scrap pile that were formerly bots. Where's the colonel, Ginny?"

"About twelve kilometers northeast of ... us," Webster paused then added, "Less than eight klicks due east of your own position."

"What's holding him up?" the sergeant asked.

"Looks like a dozen mechs," the bald bot controller replied.

"His channel?" Cheng barely flinched as his Gibbon's hand crushed a warrior who thought it could win in a hand-to-hand duel with a machine.

"Those tanks are not on MOCCASYM -" the standardized military communication platform all modern combat units used "- should I bridge your conference?"

"Do it. His tanks are too slow against mechs," Cheng echoed Miles' thoughts; however, the sergeant was ahead of the rookie's curve. "but good enough distraction against a 'zerker. Tell him help's on the way."

Jesus, thought Miles. What good were a bunch of tanks - even if they were firing antimatter rounds - against something that was eight times more massive, more heavily armed, and moved faster than you did?

"Listen up," Cheng's voice carried across the general channel, "all Gibbons with two PIMPs to spare, send a one-two to these spots -" a list of targets came up, and Miles selected six.

:: targets selected. standing by. please finalize strike ::

"Rook, choose three." It was Cheng again. "Double up on one target. Have to make sure there's enough of the colonel left for phase two."

"Got it." Miles deleted three of his choices, and re-selected his first three targets.

:: targets re-selected. standing by. please finalize strike ::

The list quickly became filled by the other members of the squad. Every PIMP (Portable Indirect Munitions Platform) was loaded with three cruise missiles. Each missile carried six antimatter warheads. Each warhead was the same size as a single soda grenade and equipped with their own guidance and propulsion system.

Standard engagement procedure was to launch one such missile over the combat zone after designating targets on the Gibbon's MOCCASYM.

Each missile's payload would act like a pack of well-coordinated predators against a single prey once they were released, with some circling waiting to strike while others would pounce and attack when the prey's defenceses were distracted.

The system's user can designate six targets, hitting them with one warhead each (usually done against concentrations of enemy troops or bunkers), or hit a single target with six deadly blows (often a high threat target - like a prawn berserker), or make any combination of such strikes with his six shots.

:: system alert. munitions deployed ::

The sergeant (or Webster) group-fired the squad's PIMPs and Miles felt the clunk-whoosh from the back of his Gibbon. Somewhere on the other side of the battlefield, there will be some unlucky recipients of antimatter-laden death from above.

Miles counted to himself. One-one-thousand. Two-one-thousand. Three-one-thousand. In the middle of his count eight, his blister's display came alive with new chatter and an update from his weapons system.

:: target one destroyed. target two destroyed. target three destroyed ::

"The colonel extends his thanks," Webster sounded relieved. "He's asking what can he do to repay the favor?"

"Give him the sit-rep," Cheng said calmly. "Tell him to have his tanks gang-fire on the berserker once in range, but fire and retreat, fire and retreat. I don't want him overrun by the warriors, and we need to buy some time. Sikarna, Soltyk, and myself will hit the 'zerker from one side. Send me that bot team you've been cobbling together. The rest of you, prepare to PIMP slap that 'zerker with an all-or-nothing shot."

Holy Jesus, though Miles. That meant zoning all six target selections on a single spot. That was pretty much overkill. Assuming the prawn berserker was only crippled and not destroyed outright, it'd have other ordnance on it, and ... of course. Miles felt like hitting himself.

Once the enemy juggernaut was stopped, weapons intact or not, they could lob grenades and carpet bomb the giant into oblivion from cover. And if there was any weapon with plenty of destructive potential, it was the grenade launchers almost every unit carried, down to the Mastiffs and Jackals. Plenty of ammo to go around.

"Rook, pay attention."

Miles blinked and his mind came back to reality as Doyle tapped loudly on her pop-up window to get his attention.

"D'you hear me?" Doyle sounded annoyed, "The sergeant wants us on that highway, ready to move in case the 'zerker lives and decides to pound us a new one. That's ev'ryone. Us included."

"Oh, gotcha," barely had Miles replied when several metal blurs zipped past him.

The faster bots had already raced into position and were waiting patiently for the slower units to mount the assault. A quick change of formation as well. The southern strike team had pulled closer to the rest of the team, in range to lend direct fire to the team in the center. It would seem that the firepower of the entire squad - or what was left of it - would be directed against the enemy juggernaut and its small cadre of prawn warriors.

The colonel's tanks were sending shells downrange towards the berserker by now, and Miles' external microphones was picking up the booming cracks of the hits. The rookie followed the Bactrian up the highway's entrance ramp. If his Gibbon wasn't so heavily armed, he could have tacked on a thruster pack to go faster, but Miles was thankful for the extra firepower. Without it, who knows when he'd need it?

"Er, Sergeant Cheng?" It was Webster again. "Something big incoming. It's not hostile. Weird. Has our signature. I wonder what -"

The Newcomer's transmission was quickly garbled as the prawn berserker was engulfed in a blaze of nuclear fire. Even safe inside his Gibbon, Miles thought he felt the warmth from the nuclear flash, and that made the hair on the back of his neck stand up.

"WH-T TH- LIV-N- F-C-?!" Doyle screamed, her feed sizzled with static. Their comm systems were hardened against EMP, but even they had problems dealing with strong bursts at such close proximity.

"- that - nuke?! Was - a nuke?!" Webster lost her composure and asked repeatedly, "Was that a nuke?!"

Miles could barely hear over the multitude of chatter, and started closing the comm channels to reduce the noise. It finally dawned on him to leave the channels open, but to squelch the noise by lowering the volume inside his battle blister. Eventually, a simple text message clarified the situation. It played across the blister display like a marquee.

:: SQUAD TO ESCORT BOT UNIT TO HIGH PRIORITY TARGET. OBJECTIVE PRAWN VESSEL ::


CROSS THE BREEZE


Miles learned later that the tank colonel was to provide an escort to a new model of robot - a missile carrying tank - one which could fight its way across the city to destroy the prawn ship to the north.

The colonel was unable to follow, not with the scant survivors of his decimated tank company. And despite the obvious strategic nature of the exercise, there was a lack of coordination somewhere "higher up" at United Command, and Miles' squad was not considered when it came to a nuclear strike by a robotic missile tank.

Now of course, much fuss was being made back to UniCom about this gross oversight, not just by Sergeant Cheng's commanding officer, but by the rest of the squad. That, plus the message which flashed across their battle blisters, were rubbing everyone wrong. The message was from the robot itself, and someone had asked aloud if it was legal for a machine to order living soldiers around.

To the sergeant's credit, he allowed the complaint to go through before he quelled all dissension. Orders were issued, if not by the robot tank, then at least it was a courier for the same orders from some general in a mountain enclave. In any case, there was a new objective, and rightly or wrongly, Cheng's Gibbon squad was there to do the job.

The situation though, was less than ideal. Arsenyev and Brinkmann, already dead, were vaporized along with their Gibbons when their suits' antimatter containment fields failed. No effort was made to salvage their remains because there wasn't any.

Soltyk's Gibbon, damaged before by the berserker's rampage that caught his two luckless squadmates by surprise, came through surprisingly undamaged, along with Sikarna and Cheng. It was all thanks to the sergeant's timely action to collapse the street they were on to shield them from the nuke blast. Even then, their machines were hot enough that the outer frame would probably be relegated to the scrap pile if they returned to base.

Losses were appalling only in terms of the bot teams near the 'zerker when the nuke landed. The sergeant had Webster send her mechanical task force forward just seconds before the bot tank's warhead impacted. Now, the Newcomer had approximately half of her bots remaining. It was enough to make a retreat or a last stand, but not quite enough to do what was coming next. Still, if the big bot tank was going to do most of the work, why not let it?

Miles glanced at their escortee, now silhouetted against the dim light of the dying day. From his brief examination of their new model robot, he was impressed. Instead of limbs, the missile carrier reverted to the centuries old caterpillar track design. Each bogey wheel was about half as high as a Gibbon stood (over two meters) and they were spaced fairly evenly in two rows, with interspaced drive sprockets on the bottom row. Without a crew, the tank could afford plenty of redundant equipment, like extra engines ... and extra armor and weapons.

The robot was articulated, with a stout forward fighting engine encased in a domed carapace made from a potent mixture of graphene blocks and super-dense nano-carbon fiber. The curved dome mounted several rotating PIG emplacements, and the dome itself seemed to be able to rotate like a tank's turret. An array of warheads (probably antimatter micro-missiles, Miles thought) peeked out from under the dome's outer rim, like evil metal bats nestled in a mountain of moving death.

Miles gaze swept towards the tank's rear carrier, and he wondered if it was being towed, or if it could run on its own power. He noticed it sported a similar wheel and track arrangement but had limpet-type PIG emplacements. The newbie could see some were missing - probably destroyed earlier in the fighting. What was most interesting were the large silo covers running all along the length of the vehicle on both sides.

The rookie counted ten on his side. If symmetry held true, he hazarded a guess the machine probably had twenty nuclear missiles at its disposal. Minus the one it used on the berserker, it meant it'd have nineteen left, although if the tank had fought other targets before, it would have fewer.

It's like having our own berserker, Miles thought.

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