Testing the Mettle: Part 2

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Testing the Mettle: Part 2

Postby Kaiser1917 » Sat Sep 21, 2013 12:51 pm

Chapter 2

Thomas Galloway lay back in his cockpit with the hatch open. In the distance he could hear the sounds of the TEM units approaching the barricade on C Street. He couldn't see them from his hiding spot. He couldn't see much of anything from inside his camouflage. In a sneaky move, they had lifted the roof right off this small garage, set it back down and put a tarp over the front.
Now his High-leg squatted ready to pounce. He wished he had a machine like the ones the Marines piloted. Hundreds of tons of armor and guns moving confidently through the outskirts of Korinthos. And him sitting here in a modified labor frame.
They had removed both ineffectual arms and replaced them with a pair of dual-barreled high velocity 20mm auto-cannons. He counted himself lucky he had guns at all. On this line, most of the frames just had crude shields made of scrap metal and industrial tools repurposed for combat. A plasma cutter here, a heavy pneumatic hammer there; all of it balanced against the might of the Solar Union's best.
We might not be able to do much to hold the off-worlders here, but they'd damn sure give ‘em hell. We have to. If we can’t slow them down in the delta, there’ll just be the Snomish River between them and downtown Korinthos. We already lost too many good pilots when we lost the dam…
He flicked his map display. Three reassuring green circles glowed on his tactical overlay for the neighborhood. Each represented a different mortar station. Those mortars had each been built from lengths of sewer pipe and basic traversing mechanisms. A few bits of equipment any foreman could find on a jobsite. They shells, he wasn’t entirely sure where Colin had come up with those, but as Akahn hadn’t had a military before now, it probably involved some sort of shady deal with someone on a free colony. All the same, he was glad to have them.
The intersection his unit had blockaded, and the streets leading up to it had been pre-sighted and picked for the dense, sturdy buildings on either side of the street. They had a detailed knowledge of just about every building in Korinthos; after all, they had helped build just about everything in the city.
Hopefully, they could get in, spot the enemy (without getting spotted themselves), deliver a few rounds, and get back out without losing any frames. Hopefully.
A brave volunteer hiding in one of the buildings signaled that the TEM was advancing on the barricade. The pilots in the ST-03s would be readying the disposable rocket tubes they’d gotten along with the mortar rounds.

The roar and boom of rockets shook Thomas out of his thoughts. He punched his control panel and felt the reassuring’ thunk’ of his armored hatch close around him. Grasping a control stick in each hand, he urged the frame up, and forward. The front of the garage lifted up, then collapsed down behind him as his frame stood and took a step forward. He moved swiftly down an alley to the first intersection and spotted a TEM frame. He let out a throaty war-cry as he squeezed the trigger and poured shells into the marine frame. It turned and responded with its own assault rifle, but Thomas was already on the move.
He reached the second intersection and spotted a second target standing at the corner next to Trideo-West. This time he held fire and waited until mortar rounds began dropping on it to let loose with his auto-cannons again. A mortar round blew a great gaping hole in the side of the enemy frame and exposed the complicated workings within. Thomas knew he should continue moving, but he couldn’t just let an opportunity like this go by.
Heavy rattling sounds of ammo drums emptying reverberated through his cockpit as he poured on round-after-round until the other frame brewed up and collapsed. His grim cheer was cut off by the sound of a radar-lock alert. An anti-frame missile plowed into his right set of cannons and assault rifle rounds gouged away at his armor. He lurched his frame backwards, crashing one leg into Henry’s Doughnut Shop.
He wished he had one of the big rockets, but they’d only been able to bring three with the squad, and they’d all gone to the ST-03s out on the barricade line. His auto-cannons barked again, but all sound was drowned out by the tremendous impact on his frontal armor by a heavy shell. The tactical systems displaying his armor flashed red. I cannot stand and slug it out with this heavy an enemy frame.
Pivoting on his left leg, he swung his frame around, taking out a significant chunk of the doughnut shop, and strutted as fast as his frame could go. His rear camera captured an image of the neon sign to Henry’s exploding in a shower of sparks and twisted metal.
He crashed through a tennis court, then a parking lot before he got in good cover behind a 3-story building. Is he going to chase me? Thomas didn’t dare try to get a look around the building. Maybe I can keep the building in-between me and him, then when he comes around, make a break for it and rejoin the others; I’m still plenty mobile. He moved cautiously in a half-circle, trying to keep the building between his damaged frontal armor and right side, and the enemy.
The building erupted in flames beside him and about a third of it collapsed. Sonofabitch is just going to blow up the building to get at me! The now smoking building gave Thomas an idea; in rapid succession he launched all of his smoke canisters to the left and right of the building, then made a break for it. Another shell smashed into the building, sending more smoke and debris flying into the air. He pushed his frame as fast as it would go; past a seedy bar, around a corner into a residential street, past some squat apartment buildings, around to the parking lot of a home-improvement store.
He squatted his frame behind stacks of lumber, powered down his systems, popped the hatch and waited; watched, and waited.

***

Mozilih circled around the outer perimeter of the TEM encampment. Riding a thermal and using the mehshteh's sharp eyes to examine the marine's movements. I am thankful we brought all forms of familiar life with us to this unfamiliar world.
Appearing as a simple biologic had its advantages. The marines below hadn't acclimated to this world yet, and the appearance of a slowly flapping creature was no cause for undue alarm. Similarly, a mehshteh presented a relatively small and uninteresting target should one of the soldiers below get an itchy trigger finger.
A micro-transmitter was beaming information back to one of the satellites they had left in orbit. The location and number of marine frames would be received back at base in real-time. Mozilih had rationalized the increased risk of detection after the ambush which had cost the lives of two members of its family, and left a third badly wounded. It could still hear the cries of the crippled ghanat as they had put it down.
I will just have to be all that more vigilant tracking the marine’s movements.

***
A woman holding a pair of red light-wands guided Steader back as he eased his frame under the cover of the building serving as the company motorpool. He settled the frame on the ground, powered down his systems and climbed out the rear hatch. As he exited, he spied his friend Captain Ritter leaning against a stack of power cells.
Ritter detached himself from the stack of power cells and joined Steader next to his Sabertooth. "While you were out, another TTA ship broke atmosphere," he said.
"What did our esteemed colleagues at the TTA bring us?"
"They brought an expert on the Ijad."
Steader took off his cap and wiped the back of his neck with a rag, "Oh goody. Another high-forehead, in a lab coat who wants to see his theories proven in the field."
A woman's voice spoke somewhere behind them, "Actually I don't wear a lab-coat."
Steader and Ritter turned to toward the woman speaking. She was probably of east-Asian descent, average height, her form-fitting black TTA jumpsuit showed she was fit, but still had curves in the right places. When she shook her head, her ponytail of black hair swished against her back.
"I'm Colonel-Dr. Susan Myong. You're Major Til Steader and Captain Jonathan Ritter, yes?"
Both men snapped to a salute and answered in unison.
"Yes ma’am."
"Good. I've just spoken with Colonel Hoyt, he told me you each engaged the Ijad in the past couple days. I would like to debrief you both as soon as possible. Getting your fresh impressions of the battles is crucial."
Both men slumped a bit.
"Yes ma’am,” replied Steader, “Do I have time to see to my pilot’s getting refits underway? We took a lot of damage…”
She cut him off, "I’m sure your pilots can handle repair and restock. Colonel Hoyt is expecting us, directly."
With a smooth turn, she started off toward the command tent. Both men looked to one another, then followed her. When they arrived, Colonel Hoyt was already seated at a table, reviewing a stack of after-action reports. He looked up as the two company commanders saluted him.
“Gentlemen, am I given to understand one of the Solar Union’s crack units got their asses handed to them by a bunch of bugs and militia?”
Steader cleared his throat, as the senior officer, he responded first.
“Sir, we gave as good as we got.” Said Steader, “The Ijad have abandoned the aluminum plant they were guarding. Third platoon is occupying it now, and Second platoon has secured the town to the south; a landing field of perforated steel planking is already under construction. We’ve pushed the Ijad back more than sixty kilometers and…”
Hoyt held up his hand and said, “I am aware of your company’s progress Major. It may be the shining light on this dismal, wet planet. Even as we speak, Charlie company is heavily engaged on the northernmost edges of the principal city. They are meeting with stiff resistance. Similarly, our operation at the hydro-electric dam met with mixed success.”
The colonel turned to Ritter. “Captain, would care to fill us in on the details of your operation?”
Ritter shifted his stance and began, “Yes sir. We approached the hydro-electric dam from map-north, with second company, totaling 13 frames. Intelligence had estimated about half that many Ijad frames holding the position, supported by a dozen or so colonial frames.”
Ritter shifted his stance again.
“One of our point-frames engaged the enemy at the top of the falls and we were quickly drawn into heavy fighting all along the installation. There were a couple of heavy Ijad frames up top laying down artillery fire, third platoon was tasked with taking them out. First and Second platoons were supposed to flank from either side of the dam and catch the remaining colonial units. We didn’t know they had laid explosives along the approaches to either side and 2 frames were knocked out before they got into the fight. We brought up a Mk. III with explosive sniffing sensors, but that got hit by a concealed sniper, so we had to creep forward using infantry as a screen.”
“And they ended up not having any more explosives hidden along the road leading to the dam?”
“That was the case, yes. But we had to proceed as if they did; we lost a lot of good men and women getting up that road. Our artillery was nowhere near as effective as theirs on the approach.”
“You had said you dispatched a platoon to deal with it?”
“Yes, it turns out the Ijad frames are just as heavily armed and armored as anything we have. Third platoon under Perry engaged them, but they had entrenched positions and made good use of cover. Just breaking through their lines to reach the stations on top of the dam was…harrowing.”
Colonel-Dr Myong typed something into her tablet. “And you felt a single platoon was sufficient to size the stations on top of the dam?”
Ritter looked over to her. “The recon images all pointed to the bulk of the defensive works being at the base of the dam. We found they had constructed block-houses around their stations there. They had the controls for regulating water flow, power transfer, etc; all in structures located at the base of the dam.”
Myong made a note on her tablet. “And it didn’t occur to you that they might have moved their control stations?”
“It occurred to me, yes. It also occurred to me that they might just blow the dam, rather than let us have it. That was a factor in my decision to split my forces and attack from the top and sides.”
“Your attack at the top of the dam was successful.”
“Yes, it succeeded. But half the Ijad units slipped away into the surrounding woodlands while we were securing the stations and trying to give support to the other two platoons on the ground. Those blockhouses down below were a nightmare.”
“How so?”
“The colonials deliberately made them too narrow for our quadruped frames to enter, so those were relegated to a purely artillery support role. The Mk. IIs and IVs we could get in were badly outnumbered. Even if we still had the advantage of superior fire power. Trying to fight in those narrow spaces, especially the tunnels adjacent to the dam, was impossible. If a frame was knocked out, we had no alternative to dragging it all the way back to the entrance before another of our frames could fit in.”
“What would be your over-all summary of the battle then, Captain?”
“The enemy used the terrain to his advantage. Frame-to-frame I think we still hold the edge, but in a defensive fight like that, they kept us bottlenecked. We’re lucky we didn’t lose more pilots than we did.”
“You believe your pilots could out-match the Ijad pilots given the technological leaps they’ve taken in developing frame technology over the past twenty years?”
“Yes. The Ijad seem proficient in designing and building frames, even at operating or deploying them, but in combat, they make rookie mistakes.”
“In your opinion then, these particular Ijad have not had much in the way of contact with humans; that is, they haven’t been learning from conflict with us prior to our engagements here?”
“I would agree with that assessment, ma’am.”
“Thank you Captain.” She turned her gaze to Steader. "Major, I'm given to understand we failed to take any captives after the fighting in your sector, can you account for this?"
The room’s main console displayed an image of the scrambler Steader had crippled. Steader coughed once.
"The fire fight was not...civil. When we knocked out an Ijad frame, it brewed up."
"One of the Ijad frames was disabled, but the cockpit was found to be intact; and vacant."
Steader cleared his throat and thought back to the girl he’d spared after the fight.
"That one, that frame charged our line. I thought it was completely out of the fight and advanced past it to help our units pursue the fleeing Ijad frames. I assumed infantry and engineers would take care of it."
Myong made another note in her tablet.
"That was careless, Major, it could have cost you and your men your lives."
The Major took a moment to gather his thoughts.
"In hindsight, I was pretty focused on pursuing the bigger Ijad frames. At the time I supposed, whoever was piloting that thing would be too shaken up to keep up the fight; that is, if they were still alive."
Myong eyed him suspiciously. “Whoever, Major? Most people consider the Ijad more of a what, than a who.” She switched off the display image of the battered Ijad frame. "I would very much have liked to capture one of the Ijad pilots alive. Of the destroyed frames we took possession of after the fighting, only one had an intact cockpit with a pilot inside, and then the pilot itself had expired. We can't force the parasites to bond with someone, and without a host they die in short order. A very difficult enemy to study you see."
She stood and smoothed the front of her jumpsuit.
"In the future, I would greatly appreciate it if you could take care to secure and police any living Ijad who fall into our hands."
Both men took their cue to stand at attention and salute.
"The Ijad may have brought more of the parasites with them from home, in hopes that they could convert a few of the colonists. It may be possible that some of the colonial pilots you've faced who displayed unusual skill and discipline were benefiting from the experience and wisdom of a little alien mentor.”
The men glanced at one another as Myong walked past them, out of the conference room. Colonel Hoyt stood and addressed them.
"Gentelmen, In any case, it's good to have you back. Let's try to keep the rampant speculation under wraps for now, shall we?"
In unison: "Yes sir."
"Good. Now return to your duties, this fight's nowhere near over."
The officers saluted again, then hurried out of the command tent together.
"What do you think Til? Are we fighting little alien body snatchers?"
Steader scratched his chin.
"It would certainly complicate things. I don't think Ijad had frames to pilot or wars to fight until a few years ago, so I wouldn't put all my eggs into one basket imagining they're the ones training and directing the colonists in this fight. But experience goes both ways. It follows that whatever the person they're attached to knows, they know."
Ritter grimaced at that.
"If that's the truth, we might be fighting the best tacticians and leaders in the UMFL, TEM and Free Colonies; all at once."
"That's a frightening thought. Let's hope the little bastards haven't gotten into anybody's brains that was tough enough to beat us."

***

Rain pelted down on Kestra’s frame. Technically, the Q-type Ghanat wasn’t Kestra’s frame. It sported a larger high-impact quad-laser turret. The Stinger pulse laser on her own Ghanat seemed like a far more elegant weapon, smooth, compact and light. This weapon was almost four times the size.
To complicate matters, this cockpit had originally been outfitted to suit the needs of an Ijadih riding a Ghanat. The quick welds and bare metal plate which covered the damaged portions of the hull served as grim reminder as to the dangers she and the other Ijad had undertaken when their families agreed to help the colonists of Akahn.
An initial scout report identified a TEM squad mostly consisting of ‘Little Boy’ frames. The smaller biped frames the marines had brought with them weren’t much more powerful or sophisticated than what the colonists had been able to build or modify on their own. The larger bipeds, and the quadruped frames were a more imposing proposition.
The quadrupeds, with their squat, flat tops and scuttling legs covered all over in thick armor reminded them of a Manihd. And if they caught you, they certainly could pinch. Somewhere in the back of her mind, Kestra could feel Tenih’s instinctual fear of the voracious crustaceans. Kestra hoped sincerely that such a creature was not crouched, waiting for them.
As it was, the planned raid on Pepperburg was daunting. The TEM had been moving supplies through the little community since they’d moved up past the marshes, and while the front line had moved closer toward the capitol city, the Ijad were still able to move about the country side, largely unchecked. Now the surviving members of Kestra’s small combat squad were camouflaged and in sight of the town. If they could disrupt the marine’s supply lines, even for a day, it would go a long way to keeping Akahn free of the SU’s dominion.

One of the fields immediately adjacent to the town had been reinforced with perforated steel planking and was serving as a landing pad for drop ships ferrying supplies between the ground forces and the orbiting battle carrier. As Kestra watched through the augmented sensors of her Ghanat, a tiny light appeared in the sky gradually getting larger and closer.
The drop ship itself didn’t look like much. A dull metal box with a pod at one end and a series of 8 thrusters arrayed around its hull to provided control and stability during flight. Those thrusters glowed bright in her sensor system’s infra-red displays. Much smaller blots of color in the form of light transport vehicles rolled out from tents set up adjacent to the landing field.
Word came through from the small combat squad leader: advance using the settlement’s buildings as cover. Avoid unnecessary damage to the colonist buildings where possible. Their frame was already moving and flashes of light on the other side of the settlement meant it had engaged a target.
Kestra brought her frame up in line with Siqueih, and moved forward quickly. A ‘Little Boy’ opened fire with its assault rifle and Kestra returned fire with her beams. The light shield it carried fell apart in a clump of smoking debris. The pulse lasers from Siqueih’s Ghanat sliced the arm supporting the Marine frame’s weapon system right off. A ‘Fat Man’ frame leaned around a building and launched a rocket at Kestra, the shot went wide and exploded in the mud fifty meters back. She targeted the corner of the building and seared away a large chunk of its cover. Siqueih followed up with its own pulse laser barrage and the ‘Fat Man’ recoiled back.
Tac-ops display showed the small combat squad leader and its partner moving around the buildings to Kestra’s right. She called in the last place she’d spotted the ‘Fat Man’ and continued moving cautiously around the periphery of the settlement. Bright flashes of light followed by an explosion heralded the destruction of the ‘Fat Man’ by the other pair of Ijad frames.
She cleared the last building on the row and had a full view of the landing field. The ‘Little Boy’ she and Siqueih had crippled earlier was grappling with a rocket launcher with its good arm. She shouted a warning over the comm and fired her own lasers, a second too late. It launched a rocket at the same time Kestra’s beams tore through its body and crippled its remaining systems. The rocket homed true on the heat blossoming off the small combat squad leader’s frame and exploded. Its turret sagged, then rolled off the hull.

Tense seconds followed as the small combat squad waited to learn their leader’s fate. In her mind, Kestra could hear Tenih’s reassuring words that everything was alright, but even her symbiote could not quiet her fears. Eventually the comm crackled with the guttural sounds of a Ghanatih announcing it was alright and directing them to carry on with the mission. They moved up, taking control of the shuttle refueling station and loads of supplies.
A few marines stubbornly continued to fire small arms at the Ghanats, but as Kestra swung her turret around pointed directly at the lander, they gave up and ran. Her quad lasers punched great holes through the ship, and for a moment she thought it might just sit there, a drafty metal hulk, but a severed wire must have sparked off some fuel and sent the whole thing up in a tremendous fireball.
Siqueih’s Ghanat launched a series of small timed-explosive charges into the tents where the marines had stowed their supplies, Ejalih did the same to the landing field. When they signaled all was ready the small combat group commander ordered a withdrawal.
The squad had made significant progress into the forest south of town when they sound of the supply depot going up echoed through the trees. If only the war was going this well everywhere. She thought.
"Too close for missiles; I'm switching to guns!"
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