Author’s note: This is scene 12 of the current work in progress, Knights of the Lion of Judah. My alpha reader said this would be the best one to put up to give a short feel for the rough draft without giving much away. I just thought I’d throw this up here, to give me incentive to keep doing actual writing! I have a tendency to get bogged down in world-building… It is, I would say, my biggest weakness as a writer, and it ties into my OCD diagnosis, I think. But anyway, I hope someone out there enjoys!
May 3, Year 454 SCC
The main Swarm fleet was up there, somewhere, engaging the Coalition fleet. But Swarm landers had gotten through, and were headed for the planet. Alejandro waited in his Caballero assault mech, hoping none of them were headed for Landing Zone Whiskey One Five and Assault Mech Companies Charlie and Delta of the 4th Mechanized Armor Battalion. He had been through a Swarm invasion before, as a kid, and while the Swarm were supposed to be less vicious and bloodthirsty than the Horde they had been terrifying enough. This time, if they came, however, he would not be helpless in a car by the side of the road.
Alejandro scanned the sky, not wanting to use active sensors, either radar or fold-space. Coming out of a cloud, he saw a cluster of black dots; he swore and triggered his fold-space comm, which couldn’t be detected the way his sensors could. “Hey, we’ve got company!”
He heard the major barking orders. “Remember, those drop pods are armed! Shoot and move!”
Alejandro didn’t aim for the drop pods–he aimed for the ECM-interceptor guarding them from being spotted by the anti-air launchers the mechanized infantry set up on the opposite hill were carrying.
He engaged his targeting computer, but switched it back off almost as quickly; the AI was obviously being thrown off by the decoy-drones swarming around the interceptor. He fired a short burst from the 130mm main gun in the Caballero’s hands, and got a thrill of surprise when it hit. An icon, indicating fold-space sensor jamming, disappeared from his HUD, and he turned on his sensors, and turned them toward the ever-growing interceptor, this time with his targeting on. He fired a shorter burst, saw it hit, and then swore again as he realized he was being targeted because he had not done as the major had commanded. He got his mech into a jog downslope. After about one hundred meters, he stopped and scanned the sky.
At least a third of the dots were now expanding clouds of debris, but they were getting close to landing now and there were a lot of them. He fired at one that was closer to landing than the others and was gratified to see the drop pod tear open and smash into the ground. Moving again, he winced to see he had been too late, as the mech from within the pod hobbled out of the wreckage and returned fire wildly, its laser searing into the hillside. Alejandro, his targeting computer labeling the mech as what the Knights’ analysts called a Maricopa-4, or Marie-Four; the newest of the Swarm’s assault mechs. He aimed for the damaged leg of the vaguely centauroid monstrosity and let off a long burst, moving as he fired. His fire hit the ground around the feebly dancing mechanical figure, until the last round of the burst must have providentially struck directly on the damaged area, as the mech’s leg abruptly gave went out from beneath it.
Taking the opportunity, he fired a longer burst into the body of the Swarm mech as it struggled to right itself, and was gratified to see it go limp–hopefully the pilot was now injured or dead, so that the mech was little better than refuse on the ground.
Alarms went off, and only Alejandro’s fast reflexes saved his cockpit from being skewered by the laser fire of another mech that had landed, standing just inside its drop pod, using the metallo-ceramic wall as cover even as the automated guns on the outside of the miniature shuttle provided backup fire. As it was, a huge chunk of armor was ablated off of his Caballero’s shoulder, and the boulder behind where he had been standing burst as the beam struck it. He returned fire, even as he dodged, trusting to his targeting computer to keep his sight steady in spite of the three dimensional motion of the mech. This time, however, his rounds only punched a couple of holes in the drop pod covering his target, and did not even damage the guns covering the outside.
More of the Maries were landing now, and except for a few staying with their drop pods to provide covering fire, the rest were moving toward the hill on which Alejandro and the rest of the Battalion were moving. The Swarm was somewhat predictable at choosing landing sites, but they were determined and dangerous to any would-be ambushers. And numerous. How could he forget that?
There were at least sixty of the enemies mechs landed now, more than enough to take on the two companies here given their better weapons, and the only chance they had was that the mechanized infantry would be a distraction to weaken them with fire from their rear. Only one of the Maries was facing toward the mechanized infantry on the other hill, while the rest sought shelter and returned the mech companies’ fire.
A swarm of missiles burst forth from the mechanized infantry’s positions, a couple hundred of the things–there were a lot of the little armored infantryman, even if they were fragile and small. Alejandro targeted one of the enemy mechs still making a beeline for cover and fired a long burst, hoping to catch it even as the missiles struck the stragglers of the Swarm’s unit. Ten, count them TEN, of the enemy centauroids disappeared from his threat assessment board, reduced to wreckage and scrap, as well as a couple of dozen of the armed drop pods. That would hurt them!
Friendlies were starting to disappear too. Adolfo Gutierrez and Lucky Alvarez both were not careful or lucky, and wandered too close together. A missile from a shoulder launcher on one of the doomed enemies fired at the last second before the infantry’s missiles destroyed her, and took both of them out. Luckily, the Swarm were usually fairly light on missiles, for some reason unknown to the strategists on the humans’ side. Speaking of: when were the 4th’s heavy weapons going to show up to the party? Certainly with their launchers they could make the trip from the hidden underground base to the landing site more slowly than the rest of them, through all these trees, but surely they were getting close?
Alejandro’s comm came to life. “Alejandro, you’re getting too close to the bottom of the hill! Head back up, stay in the trees, and away from the grass!”
“Aye, sir!” Alejandro pulled his Caballero back, hoping for both the booby traps to arm and the heavy weapons squad to arrive.
A thunderous roar that was audible through the chest armor of his cockpit and which shook the entire mech signalled the beginning of the former. An even dozen of the enemy mechs had the ground underneath them, and their legs, blown skyward as the mines laced about the field finally armed. Alejandro understood why they couldn’t be left armed all the time, since he had walked his mech across that field of grass numerous times, but he did not understand why they took so long to arm. But anti-mech mines were a sight to behold when they went off, especially when they went off underneath a mech rather than at the touch of a distant button, and he was glad for them.
He shot at a centauroid mech that was jerkily trying to raise its weapon as it sat otherwise helpless on the ground, and was glad to see it rocked by secondary explosions as it went dead.
A minor warning popped up on his HUD, but because he was now dodging incoming laser fire, he did not have much attention for anything less critical than that. Abruptly, the enemies’ fire slackened as dozens of their laser weapons turned toward the sky and the missiles now arcing over the hillside behind the Battalion. Alejandro almost cheered, and would have if he had not been busy shooting at one of the Marie-Fours that was still shooting at the hillside.
The major’s voice came over the comm. “Word just coming in–enemy reinforcements incoming, including something bigger than normal. Keep fighting the enemy in front of you, the base is scrambling fighters and engaging with the surface to air batteries they were saving for the second wave. We’ve got them, if only we can demolish what has already landed.”
Alejandro groaned, but kept up the fire, and saw first one, and then two mechs trying to dodge his fire step on mines and disappear in chains of explosions. There were about forty five of the Maricopas still engaging the Battalion, which would have been great news, except for the 4th’s losses; eight of the twenty eight mechs that had deployed from the base to meet the Swarm at Landing Zone Whiskey One Five were down, and nine more were badly damaged, even as they continued to engage the enemy. Another salvo of missiles came arcing over the hill, and Alejandro said a quiet hallelujah that the heavy weapons team were able to tie into the network with the rest of them, and were firing as they moved forward: they represented twelve of the intact mechs on their side, and they would be crucial in repelling any of the second wave that got through the anti-air and fighters.
An enormous beam of light lanced out at the hillside from above, and other flashes, like lightning flashing from cloud to cloud, showed the paths of other shots at targets in the sky. Practically the entire Battalion, and likely every defense planner on the continent, swore as one. The Swarm had brought a gods-forsaken tank to the battlefield–the Swarm only had something like a dozen modern tanks, which were more like miniaturized warships than the old pre-space tanks they shared a name with. Alejandro sent his Caballero to the ground, and he sighed. His mother would miss him, though he knew his father would not. His cousins were all grown, and so should be able to reach one safe place or another as the invasion continued. Hopefully this was the only tank that had come, or the planet would without a doubt fall to the Swarm, likely to never be recaptured unless the Swarm split again. Without the Knights, who were thought to be three days away in hyperspace, or the Coalition fleet here to fight off the enemy tank, his ravaged comrades in the Battalion, his mates and commanders, would be so much dog food. If they could have fielded a full Battalion to focus fire on that tank as it came down, with its vulnerable underside exposed to them, they would have been fine; if there had been another couple of companies on hand to engage the tank as they sought out weaknesses in its defenses… but they didn’t. It was the nine fully functional mechs of the , with now eleven combat-capable damaged units, who were left to do the impossible.
At least the missile barrages, guided by the sensors of all the surviving mechs, were eliminating the Maries in short order, if only because the drop pods were now thoroughly destroyed by the infantry and could no longer provide covering fire or countermeasures to take out any of the incoming projectiles. The last ten were retreating back toward the cover of the wreckage of their fallen comrades, but they were triggering mines as the went. Several of them were firing at the ground to try and clear where they were going to step, but that only made it easier to pick them off. Alejandro sniped the head off of a Marie from his prone position, and was beginning to feel less doomed when an enormous explosion threw him around in his cockpit restraints. The explosion seemed to never end, and Alejandro knew his Caballero had been rolled on its side by the the explosive force only from the gyroscopic indicator on his HUD.
When his vision had cleared, fully ten of the 4th’s mechs were gone, as was a decently sized piece of the hillside. Where they had been, hiding behind a series of rocky outcroppings, was a very large crater–deep enough his mech could have stood at the bottom and not seen over the lip. He rose, and then as one, the rest of the Battalion began firing at the tiny dot that was the descending tank, shooting and moving. They ignored the scattered handful of mechs still on the ground, and they ignored the drop pods of the mechs accompanying the tank; they only focused on the biggest danger, which was also the easiest target.
Alejandro watched as the scrambled jets dodged and wove through the formation of drop pods around the tank, firing and leading small clouds of flying drones as they went. Almost every shot, however, was stopped before it even hit the tank. Explosions, from above, below, and every side, spotted the air around that dot, each representing a little piece of their only hope to survive.
“Target hit, good one 4th!” One of the air jockeys came over the comm, just before another of his comrades–or, who knows, perhaps he himself–exploded into a ball of fire and debris as it was struck by one of the beams flying out from the tank.
Laser fire struck at Alejandro’s Caballero, first one shot that grazed him down his back, and then one from one of the survivors from the initial attack that melted a crater in the front armor of his mech. The temperature in the cockpit rose by about ten degrees, and he felt sweat beading up on his real body, even as sensors in the armored skin of his mech sent prickling alerts to his brain, signalling the damage that had been done. He stopped firing long enough to re-aim and then fired off a burst at the drop pod that had hit him from above–it didn’t look like the right shape to be one of the centauroid mechs, meaning it was probably ground infantry. It shredded under his fire, and he glanced at the ammunition gauge of his HUD as the auto-loader fed a new magazine into the rifle in the mech’s arms.
He looked back up. They weren’t going to make it. Even with the SAMs and other installation weapons and the fighters, they had taken down less than a tenth of this much larger, more heavily armed and armored wave. Apparently the teachers back at the Academy had known what they were talking about when they had said the Swarm was prone to picking several landing site, and then reinforcing one of them with everything they had, and it had just been Alejandro’s luck he was at that particular one. He began firing at the tank again, back to moving and shooting, and worrying as another couple of mechs, from among the heavy weapons team, were destroyed. “Damn it,” he whispered.
One of the fighters began to come apart, and at the last second accelerated and veered into the tank’s downward path. The two vehicles collided in a fiery explosion, and Alejandro cheered even as he mourned the poor pilot. Another pilot came on the comms, “Target has sustained damage! Enemy tank’s firepower estimated to have been reduced by a third! Its shields are damaged!”
The sensor readings from that pilot were forwarded to those of them on the ground, and Alejandro wondered why the fly-boys hadn’t been patching them in from the beginning, like the rest of the 4th had been doing for the heavy weapons teams. His computers immediately inputted the new sensor readings into the shot calculations, and he fired again. More of the shots were getting through, now, but the tank was still a major threat, and there wasn’t many of the 4th left–eight effectives, including Alejandro. The fighters were getting a bit ragged as well, with fewer of them remaining at every pass. He didn’t have visuals on them, but he suspected from the way the tank’s fire was focusing off into the distance now that the anti-air installations near the base were being taken out one by one as well. The fight was not going well for the defenders, not that they hadn’t gotten a few good bites into the Swarm’s flesh.
Alejandro was down to about a quarter of his beginning ammunition, which had been significantly increased by a backpack-like aperture on the outside of the cockpit door. Even with the extras, he wasn’t going to be effective at any range for much longer, and the tank was nearing the ground. He fired a long burst at the swelling target, and was gratified to see it hit in the amplified miniature popup on his HUD showing where his shots went. Armor shredded, and his sensors showed the shields of the tank beginning to fail.
Opening a comm almost unwillingly, Alejandro contacted the base. “Unit Forty-Five to base. Do you see that weakening shield? Enemy tank appears to be increasingly vulnerable.”
“We see it, Forty-Five. Under the current circumstances, Battle Intelligence is advising a tactical nuclear strike on the enemy unit to complete its destruction, as we expect repairs are already underway on its shields. Please be advised Major Abaroa is down. Hold position and continue the pressure to keep it both in place and busy for the incoming strike.”
“Copy.” Alejandro didn’t flinch at hearing he was a dead man, and that it would probably be friendly fire that killed him. The defenders of Nezahualcoyotl didn’t have many nuclear weapons in their arsenal, as the Knights discouraged their being stockpiled or used on-planet, but one of their two or three on-planet warheads and a handful of remaining assault mechs was a great exchange for a tank, and that could well decide the battle to defend the planet until help arrived from the Knights and Sisters. The only surprise was that it would arrive in-time to hit the tank before its shields and active defenses were repaired.
He ran around a boulder in his path as he worked his way down the hillside, moving somewhat on his own internal autopilot, shooting at first the tank and then an interceptor that was trying to shoot down one of the defenders’ fighters, and finally back to the tank again.
The tank’s shields and anti-projectile active defenses were working only intermittently now, blocking some fire completely while letting more shots go through overall from the few defenders left. Alejandro and three others were all that was left of the 4th now. There were 3 fighters left–of the thirty that had scrambled–to harry the attackers from above as they finally made landfall. Any anti-air batteries from the base were useless now, assuming there were any left at all. Drop pods began disgorging infantry and mechs, which began shooting at the few defenders along with the pods they had arrived in, increasing the danger several fold, but Alejandro didn’t care. He took cover in his trusty Caballero behind an earthen mound that provided at least a little bit of cover and shot at the tank again. Armor flaked off his target in bursts, but the volume of fire that turned his way was amazing. It ate through the mound before him in mere seconds, almost as a single explosion despite its many sources, and flung his mech backward–all seventy tons of it. The twenty rounds left in his gun were hit by possibly several shots, and cooked off in a chain that ripped the arm off the Caballero, even as weapons small and large struck it all over.
For a brief moment, the whole world seemed to be fire and screaming metal. After just a moment, however, the enemies shifted fire to somewhere else, and he was left alive for now, though he hardly felt it was worth it. He was bruised all over from being tossed around in his cockpit webbing. A tiny corner of his field of vision told him the internal temperature of the cockpit was a roasting 48° Celsius–the rest of his HUD was black.
He ordered that the webbing be retracted and the immersion helmet powered down. Extricating himself from both, he looked around at the cockpit in the faint red emergency lights that had popped on. He triggered the cockpit door to open, which it did with a snarl and a whine. He climbed out of the little slit behind the mech’s… well behind where the mech’s head had been, because there was nothing remaining of the sensor suit that had been housed there. In fact, there wasn’t much “there” left. The camouflaged armor of the shoulders and chest, which had protected the cockpit, was gone, exposing the lighter metal of the cockpit “egg” at the core. Why, he could even see the remains of the mech’s fusion core, which must have vented–no wonder his cockpit had been hot!
Looking over in the direction of the enemy, he saw the Swarm infantry–all tails and antennae safely tucked out of sight–fanning out and engaging what had to be the remains of the mechanized infantry on the opposite wooded hill. The tank stood as a 300-ton brick, held just a couple of feet aloft by an anti-gravity panel along its underside. It wasn’t truly a hovercraft, and it didn’t handle rough terrain well, but it could move, rather than sinking into the ground and sticking there.
He had no comm, and thus no way of knowing when the bomb was coming, so he set out, sore and sweaty, to try and get to the backside of the hill. There was nothing more he could do here. In theory, there was a backup radio stashed in the cockpit, but he had never trained on it; it had always seemed pointless, since he would never survive lose both of his main comms!
Alejandro got about a kilometer into the walk when he heard an uptick of fire from behind him. He hadn’t made it. Steeling himself, he turned to watch.
The three remaining fighters were rapidly-moving dots high in the sky, likely out of missiles. Just cresting the hill, however, was a cloud of drones–hundreds of the things, all of them moving at fairly high speed. He thought he could guess where the real threat was, but not even he was certain.
His biggest regret was that he couldn’t say goodbye to his grandmother. She had been like a second mother to him, but she did not like living with phones or ‘Net connections in the house, so he hadn’t been able to reach her before they had gone into the field.
When the cloud got above the tank, there was a white flash and then–
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