June, year 0079
A Crossroad was one of those places that since the dawn of civilisation had possessed military value, a place where paths diverged, journeys met, and change happened. For as long as armies needed roads junctions like this would still be necessary and as long as they were necessary people would need to fight for them.
This particular crossroad dated back to the dark ages, perhaps even before. It was a road that had borne Charlemagne and Martel, Louis XIV and Napoleon, Foch and De Gaulle. Yet for every defender of these lands it had also brought along it conquerors too, invading armies valuing its ease of movement every bit as much as the defenders, maybe more so. What one day could be used to rush defensive formations back and forth to pressure points could also be used the following day to provide access to attackers into the heartlands of France. It was both blessing and curse.
Yesterday the road had provided passage to the Fifth Corps of the Earth Federation army, a virtual rabble of men and women that had been torn apart during a month of bitter fighting, driven from Italy into Southern France and now even further. Barely a third of its number was fit to withdraw, crammed in lorries and trucks like so many rags, most of their heavy equipment destroyed or abandoned. Today this road would serve the opposite role, giving the disciplined and highly trained First Army of Zeon a path to its next victory.
At least so they hoped.
According to Earth Forces command the situation was fluid, which essentially meant there was no solid frontline and nothing standing in the path of the Zeon forces. Fresh troops were rallying in Normandy, an entirely new army raised from scratch with brand new equipment, brand new uniforms and brand new soldiers. They were the last chance for Europe, if they couldn't stop the invasion the continent would fall, leaving just the British Isles free, and that likely wouldn't last long.
The war was a living nightmare, at least it was if you happened to be trapped on Earth. It had been a mere five months since combat began, since the cluster of space colonies behind the Moon declared themselves independent, named themselves the Principality of Zeon, and then decided to wage war with Earth to cement their new nationhood.
Their first campaign had involved wiping out those Colonies which declared for Earth, slaughtering the inhabitants of the great steel tubes and then taking one of the billion ton structures and lobbing it at the planet, aimed for Earth Force Command in South America. It missed, instead striking Eastern Australia leaving a crater visible from orbit and throwing up enough dust and ejecta to cause a nuclear winter.
A line of debris traced its fall, gigantic heat radiators and solar panels rising from the ocean like grave stones embedded in the sand and rock beneath the waves, leading to the Sydney crater.
What was left of the Navy responded in force, but found themselves outgunned and outmatched by Zeon forces. A massive battle fought even as the dust of the colony impact spread across the globe resulted in yet more death, several more colonies were lost in the crossfire between fleets, another few billion souls sent to eternity.
In one week half of humanity died. It could not go on and both sides agreed not to use weapons of mass destruction again. Earth had no choice, they were vulnerable and no longer capable of repelling a second Colony drop or orbital strike, for Zeon it was of no consequence, they were winning.
With the space fleet all but gone Earth was defenceless and the rulers of Zeon made their next move. They challenged the armies of the Earth Federation on their own ground, landing an invasion force equipped with the latest wonders of science, highly trained and professional they met an army which was under staffed, under funded and equipped with weapons that were a generation out of date designed for the wrong war.
Three armies landed, one in Asia minor which was currently rolling up Europe, one in the United States establishing foot holds on both coasts, and one in South East Asia busily conquering Polynesia and Australia. In just two and a half months Zeon had a third of the planet under their control and showed no signs of slacking.
Earth Forces were collapsing everywhere. The massive death toll of the war meant there was a much smaller pool of humanity to recruit from, much of the army was built around old men and boys with only pre war formations able to put experienced and mature troops into the field, and even then most of the experience came from exercises and humanitarian relief missions. The vast expansion and constant disaster meant the army would take anyone and basic training had been trimmed to just two weeks.
They didn't have a clue, Earth Force was lucky if it had five or six professionals or competent amateurs per company, the vast bulk of the armies were enthusiastic but woefully unprepared for the realities of war. They would be pitted against the most lethal and mobile fighting force in history, trained to exceptional standards and nearly fanatical in its dedication to victory. They were lambs facing lions and even a numerical superiority couldn't save them.
The Space fleet was gone, the Ocean going Navy obliterated, the Airforce outmatched and driven from the air. Only the army continued to offer resistance, and millions were falling in the lopsided battlefields of the globe.
But fought they did, defeat followed defeat yet they battled on, denying the enemy an easy life, making them pay for every footstep on Earth. This road would not be different.
There was a high pitched splash as the wheels of the scout car dipped into a puddle, a reminder of the rain that had fallen over the night. Dawn had brought a break in the clouds and as the sun rose this morning it was bright and dazzling, up lighting the blanket of clouds which still clung in the air. It came to a gentle stop by the crossroads, the four blue uniformed men inside lazily stepping out and stretching their legs and arms.
They were military police, slightly too old, too fat or too dumb to serve in the frontlines but still required to do their part for victory. That part was directing traffic. They took a few moments to examine the road sign by the crossroads, cross referencing with their map and discussing something among themselves before correctly spotting that the retreating Earth Forces had turned the sign around to try and confuse the invaders. It didn't work.
They took a quick look around at the bright green scenery, long fields of crops to the right and a dense wood to the left filled with birds tweeting and bright flowers. The air was filled with nature's perfume, the dew and open flowers of a spring morning alien to those who had lived only in artificial space. It was still twisted, the rain still tended to be grey as it carried pieces of Australia across the globe and average temperatures remained notably colder, but it was still remarkable.
Their wonder was a fatal mistake, their eagerness to savour the bliss of nature blinding them to the subtle signs of unfolding doom. If they had paid attention they would have noticed there were no birds in the woods closest to the crossroad, that no wildlife lurked in those bushes. If they had moved closer, examined the woods with the training they had been given they might just have spotted some of the shrubs were facades, and behind those false fronts waited several dozen heavily armed soldiers. They may even have noticed the eight suspiciously large mounds of vegetation sitting in the undergrowth were in fact tanks. They did not, and in their lack of focus they failed to warn their comrades of the ambush.
"Overconfident aren't they?"
David Cromwell offered a brief murmur of agreement, his gaze fixed on the video screen in front of him fixed in the turret of the tank. He watched the four invaders chatting with each other, looking and acting just like normal men, like people they could have met in the street last year. They didn't act evil, and that only made him hate them more.
"They aren't even looking through their binoculars, they're just gossiping." Private Mark Hewer shook his head, also watching the small gathering from his driving seat. "You'd think they believe they've already won."
"Maybe they do." Cromwell remarked absently. "They're wrong."
They didn't have to wait any longer, the ground began to rumble, the vibrations riding up the suspension of their vehicle and rocking the two man crew. Cromwell took a few moments to make sure all his systems were green, then resolved himself to action.
"Command to Team, standby to engage. Hammer group engage LAV's, Rake group handle infantry, Paladin group engage armour. A Troop fire left to right as they cross, B troop right to left and meet in the middle."
The four Zeon police fumbled in their scout car for a set of flags and a schedule, quickly checking which units would go straight on and which would be redirected. The force coming down the road was the vanguard of the Zeon army itself, a reconnaissance in force to contact the broken Fifth Corps and prevent them from regrouping to delay the main advance. It was expected to be at least Brigade sized, two thousand men and a minimum of thirty tanks with thousands more a couple of hours behind.
Cromwell's board showed ready, his eight tanks and hundred infantry prepared for what was coming, even if most were ignorant of the danger due to inexperience. Cromwell knew what was coming, and he knew their chances of survival were not exactly fantastic.
"Fire on my command only."
The first vehicles began to roll into view, a trio of Light Armoured Vehicles moving slowly across the road on their six wheels, commanders sitting blissfully unaware high in their turrets feeling the breeze. Behind them rolled a quartet of Magella tanks, high turreted vehicles that sacrificed a low profile for better visibility on the battlefield, a trade off Cromwell thought was a big mistake. Behind them came troop transports, some of them armoured but most just trucks filled with Zeon soldiers and their equipment.
The column snaked along the reinforced road, the police officers waving it through, letting it pass by and begin its travel along the road north, under the guns of Cromwell's team.
They listened to the engines, the clank of tracks, the chatter of soldiers in the trucks. They were a few hundred yards distant, close enough to see faces grinning and laughing. Machine guns swung to follow them from cover, the turrets of the hidden tanks rotating slowly to follow their enemies driving past still unaware of the impending chaos heading their way.
He waited until the furthest enemy tank was level with his furthest deployed vehicle, and then finally gave his order.
"Paladin Group, open fire!"
The eight dispersed tanks made their shots count, dug in and hull down only their turrets protruded above their earthen parapets, crowned in foliage, entire bushes, even flowers they were unsuspected until the last second. Within a blink the foliage vanished, blasted from the metal structure by the shockwave of the guns exposing the green and black vehicle beneath. Leaves were stripped from trees and despite being well outside the field of fire the infantry had to lay flat to avoid injury.
All eight vehicles were M61A5 Main Battle Tanks, the latest incarnations of the venerable Type 61 that had served Earth for eighteen years. They were beasts, massively armoured yet capable of remarkable speed and agility in the right hands thanks to their potent engines. Each turret mounted a pair of monstrous 155mm smoothbore cannons more than capable of punching through heavy armour, a vital requirement in a battlefield which had been beginning to see land battleships entering service. The dual guns helped maintain a high rate of fire, very useful for engaging land battleships and for fulfilling its secondary role as makeshift field artillery lobbing hundred pound high explosive shells in support of infantry.
At this moment however the tanks were firing sabot rounds, high density armour piercing darts which cored through their targets without fail, the larger Zeon tanks proving no match for such firepower.
The convoy halted, its path suddenly blocked by several burning wrecks, tall flames and black smoke leaking into the blue sky. The Zeon infantry began to at once dismount, rapidly jumping from their vulnerable transports while LAV's and tanks from further down the line broke off and began to advance at speed, firing a few rounds into the woods.
"Blow the charges."
Cromwell had predicted this situation, indeed he had done all he could to engineer it. Both sides of the road in front of the wood were lined in improvised explosive charges, from demolition packs to grenade clusters and artillery shells surrounded by fragments of debris or thickened fuel mixtures. On his word they were all detonated, catching the Zeon soldiers as they dismounted and showering them with shrapnel and burning fuel.
The effects were simple and devastating, turning a couple of hundred metres of road into a fiery scene from hell, lakes of liquid fire gathering as hundreds of invaders fell or tried to fleet, the mixture sticking to them as they ran. There was no escape.
"Spy-ball to Paladin, movement across the fields." A husky voice informed Cromwell. "Enemy armour breaking left and right, either side of the road."
"Understood." He answered. "Paladin group, move forward. Hammer group, secure this side of the road and hold this wood."
The eight tanks growled into life, gears engaging and lurching the heavy vehicles forward, climbing over their pits and trundling over the undergrowth with a constant crackle of snapping twigs and branches. Gunfire began to snap and whiz as the defenders opened up, spraying automatic fire at any surviving infantry. The ambush had shaken the Zeon forces, halted them, but they still vastly outnumbered the EF troops and if they regrouped and counter attacked in force the battle would be theirs. It was up to Cromwell to prevent that from happening, to keep up the pressure and turn confusion into panic.
"Over the road Paladins." He spoke calmly into his radio, his voice crackling through the unit. "Fire on the move."
The tanks emerged from the wood bluntly, running down fallen trees and picking up speed. They sprinted for the road, a river of fire, black smoke and wrecked vehicles that roared and radiated white heat, incandescent in the cloudy dawn. Behind them the woods were being shredded, tank shells, autocannon rounds and machine gun bullets smashing and splintering their way across the scene, ripping leaves from the plants and igniting several fires.
The Zeon troops were reacting well, clearing the EF killzone and rushing forward to assault the ambush positions, instinctively charging into action to route the defenders and push them away. But this time, unlike countless ambushes before, these EF troops were not entirely green recruits but included the final scrapings of a veteran unit. They had positioned themselves well, the woods around them breaking up enemy formations, slowing down vehicles and giving the defenders lots of cover and concealment. Machine gun fire would scythe a few bursts from behind a fallen log or cluster of shrubs, and then relocate before return fire could affect them. It left the Zeon forces with no idea how many soldiers were in the woods, hundreds or thousands.
The left side of the Zeon counter attack began to grind to a halt, the infantry pinned down by gunfire while those vehicles brave enough to try and enter the woods were met by Regina wire guided missiles, the bulky devices easily penetrating the armoured vehicles. The right flank was doing better, crossing the farmland on the far side of the road with the intention of swinging across and engaging from the opposite direction, a classic pincer move. They would also cut off Cromwell's line of retreat, an unacceptable situation for the small EF unit.
The Zeon force was deployed to cover its flanks, the armour advancing with guns trained towards the flaming road and the wood beyond, but they were expecting to fire on dug in positions, they weren't ready for an assault themselves. It gave Cromwell a few seconds grace, a couple of moments where the enemy were reacting to him, where he had the initiative and could dictate events. The Earth Forces exploited it mercilessly.
The Type 61s bounced across the road, blitzing through the flames and grinding the wrecked trucks under their tracks, the squealing crash of folding metal briefly sounding louder than gunfire as they barged into action, emerging from the flames and black smoke like demonic chariots. The steel beasts hunted their targets, turrets adjusting as laser rangefinders marked their enemy, each tank finding a different threatening opponent. They fired as the Zeon units were still tracking their own guns in response.
The twin cannons allowed the EF tanks to punch over their weight, blasting their first target before swiftly turning their guns and taking out the second an instant later. The sudden shock and impact of the attack punched a hole in the right wing of the Zeon assault, a gap the EF tanks swiftly occupied.
"B Troop, finish off stragglers to the North." Cromwell ordered. "A troop, form line right, assume overwatch."
The eight tanks split into two equal groups, churning up the moist farmland and dislodging sticky clumps of soil that hurled up into the air and down like meteors. B troop made swift work of the small number of vehicles left by the attack, mostly LAV's whose autocannons bounced off the green and black tanks with noisy ineffectiveness. Meanwhile A troop spread out and halted near a stone wall topped by a hedge surrounding the farmers field. It offered little protection or obscurement but it was useful enough to stop a missile or explosive round.
"Additional forces moving up." The unit scout called in quietly. "Right side of the road, moving across open ground heading your way."
"Understood." Cromwell replied. "Evacuate yourself Sky ball, it's going to get hairy."
B Troop arrived on the left of Cromwell's emplaced tanks, coming to a halt themselves to provide a more accurate gun platform. Recoil from the offset guns made aiming a little difficult, while the first shot tended to be on target the second shot required a moment for the onboard computers to adjust the traverse and elevation to compensate. It still gave them reliable accuracy, and let them put two shots on target for every single shot the enemy could manage though they were limited over longer ranges. It was considered an acceptable trade off.
"Here they come." Cromwell kept a hawk eye on his video screen, the flickering image of enemy vehicles unmistakable, the tall Magella class tanks grinding over the ploughed fields slowly, their greater bulk and ground pressure miring them in the soft earth. Perfect.
"Fire in depth, watch your kill zones." He commanded. "Shoot!"
The tanks rocked on their suspension, guns crashing back on their cradles with a concussive thunder that was still deafening in the vehicle, even the latest soundproofing showing it was useless to the task. The rounds burned away in a vast cloud of flame, the jet of light blasting out twenty feet from the muzzle with all the subtlety of a fog horn in a library. 155mm sabot rounds crossed the field in a long streak of orange, the tracer in its tail leaving a wisp of fire briefly glimpsed as it ate up the range, invariably connecting with an enemy tank. Cromwell's shot was on target, claiming a Magella with a brief point of light showing the impact against the hull, expanding a second later into a series of explosions that ripped the upper hull from the enemy tank to fiery pieces.
Paladin group was firing steadily, alternating between A and B guns to maintain a rapid and precise withering fire. The autoloaders serviced the guns, clanking a fresh round into the breach as the alternate gun tracked and fired. Smoking cartridges were ditched on the floor under the turret, smoking slightly and filling the boxy turret with a scent of burning chemicals.
Cromwell was shaken in his seat as a Zeon round glanced off the side of his turret, a loud ding echoing but thankfully failing to penetrate. The Zeon tanks had an even more nasty 175mm gun as their main armament, an atrociously powerful weapon that would have little trouble with the armour on a Type 61 if it scored a clean hit. Fortunately the EF troops had the virtue of a superior position dominating the wide flat ground the Zeon troops had to move across, picking off tanks at will. With the forest on their right flank and clear firing lines to the left the EF tanks indulged themselves.
Within a few minutes a hundred Zeon vehicles were burning, a hundred plumes of smoke rising from the damp fields from twisted wrecks. More smoke rose from the woods where the EF infantry had hammered the other Zeon wing while the road itself still burned fiercely, lined with skeletal trucks. In the space of ten minutes the adorably brilliant morning had become a smoke choked blood slick graveyard., and for a change it was the Zeon troops that were suffering this time, not Earth Forces.
"This is Reynard, enemy forces at the woods are withdrawing!"
Cromwell checked through the vision blocks of his tank, the clear armoured glass still an excellent method of quickly gauging his surroundings. He spotted enemy soldiers fleeing in panic, a sight he had seen countless times with EF forces now finally displayed by Zeon. Maybe they were only humans after all.
"Confirmed Captain." He replied. "They seem to be giving up on this flank too, we must have made them think we were a whole brigade hidden in the woods!"
"Good thing sir, I've got three missiles left."
"And I'm down to six rounds." He grunted. The only major downside to mounting such huge guns was the size of the rounds made it impossible to carry more than forty, despite the hefty size of the Type 61.
"Time to go I think." Cromwell concluded. "Bound back to point Hotdog, we'll regroup there and head home."
He gave the battlefield one last scan, then switched over to long range communications, boosting the power to his radio transmitter.
"Let's see if we can get a solid signal this time." He grumbled. "We could use a satellite about now, or a drone to bounce the signal off, we were supposed to have one up."
Hewer chuckled. "When have we ever had full support?"
"Point." Cromwell admitted. "Thumper, Thumper, this is Paladin actual, respond, over."
He waited a few moments before repeating his message, to no success.
"Typical." Hewer commented from the lower hull. "Either we're jammed or Igor is sleeping on the job. Again."
"Screw this." Cromwell snapped, unlocking his hatch with a clunk of heavy bolts retracting. "We'll do it the old fashioned way. Get ready to back out three hundred yards, then turn and run for it."
He pushed open the hatch and stood up, taking a flare gun from the inside of the turret and loading a green cartridge. As soon as he raised himself out of the air conditioned machine he was attacked by thick cloying smoke, the roaring crackle of flames distinctly audible even from a few hundred yards away. His small force had inflicted heavy losses on the enemy, using position, surprise, aggression and enemy overconfidence to claw back a small sliver of honour from this utter debacle of a war.
Despite the scene of carnage, the death and destruction delivered to his fellow man, Cromwell was gleeful. After all they had done the Zeon dogs had it coming, this and much, much more besides.
He fired the green flare high into the sky, burning brightly despite the sunlight, then gave the order to begin the withdrawal.
There was no immediate enemy contact, the mauled Zeon forces pulling out of sight to regroup. They would not leave it at this, within minutes they would counter attack in force, advancing deliberately, carefully, and inevitably. Cromwell couldn't win a pitched battle, not against these odds, so he ran until the next crossroad, or pass, or fold in the ground gave him his next opportunity.
"Paladins, form echelon right." He ordered. "Nice and easy, keep pace with the infantry."
The tanks adopted their new formation quickly, watching the front and left flank for signs of attack while the infantry components began to leave the forest and rush for their trucks waiting further up the road. Once they were on the move the tanks would spin about, exchange the muddy field for the solid road, and open their throttles before Zeon discovered how weak they were.
The flare was the final piece of the equation. It was the signal to a battery of guns and mortars a few miles away to let go with a heavy barrage, a mix of explosives and smoke to cover the retreat and hopefully hit a few hostiles as they reformed. After firing twenty rounds they too would pack up and run, all of them eventually linking up at the forward base. In the absence of radio communication Cromwell had two flares, red and green, to designate fire on either green grid in front of the wood or red grid adjacent the wood, where his tanks were right now. The Type 61s could easily survive hits by their EF allies if somebody screwed up, but it didn't ease Cromwell's mind much. A broken tread could make life rather interesting.
Several puffs exploded beside the crossroads, thick clouds of grey and white smoke suddenly pouring from canisters and fluffing out to cover the retreat. They were joined soon after by the mighty drum rolls of heavy artillery, shells rushing overhead to impact the countryside in throaty booms that hurled dirt and often wreckage up in splashes of material.
"Igor's actually hitting Green grid." Hewer exclaimed from up front. "I owe you a fiver."
"About bloody time he learned to shoot without GPS." Cromwell sneered. "He's usually too eager to limber up and bugger off to actually aim on target."
Without warning the tank was suddenly lifted off the ground on its right side, the inside ringing like thunder. It seemed to balance at forty degrees for an instant, then slammed back hard into the mud.
Cromwell cursed for a good five seconds before regaining some composure. "Tell me we still have mobility!"
"We're still moving, tracks are good!" Hewer confirmed. "Are we under fire?"
"Yeah, and guess bloody who." The Major snarled. "That was an artillery shell, sodding Igor failing to actually understand orders again!"
"What do we do?"
"No choice, reverse faster, clear the fire zone." Cromwell ordered. "I'll have that stupid bastard's bars for this."
The tanks sped up, churning the ground further as shells fell randomly everywhere, among the Type 61s, among the Zeon troops, in between the two, and most horrifyingly in the woods Reynard was pulling his infantry from. While the tanks were protected the infantry were another matter, having to crawl through the bombardment, trees snapping like twigs and being tossed casually aside by the blast of explosion after explosion. A pair of six wheeled trucks were utterly smashed by a shell falling short, scattering almost a full platoon of irreplaceable veterans in pieces.
"Reynard, get out of there now!" Cromwell yelled. "Forget bounding, just go!"
He flinched as a mortar bomb exploded on the turret, causing no damage but ringing the tank like a bell.
"Go now!" He shouted a second time, not knowing if his voice could be heard, or even if there was anyone to hear it. "Reynard, just run!"
By the time the tanks reached the road several trucks were already moving, the final trio bouncing over the rough ground and away with the 61s joining them, turrets pointing backwards in case of pursuit. None was forthcoming, and as the black and white smoke mixed to obscure the woods and the crossroad Cromwell saw no further movement, friend or foe.
Cromwell didn't say a single word for the entire journey home. Nobody did, their success tinged by the spectacular failure of their comrades. Heads were going to roll.
The forward base was a humble title, yet it proved entirely too grand and pretentious for the assortment of tents, sand bags and battered vehicles gathered in a couple of fields here in the greenery of central France. The dirt track into the base had been turned into two deep muddy ruts by the passage of heavy vehicles, machine gun nests set up on either side along with a handful of tanks scattered around the perimeter hull down, those incapable of moving but still with functional guns.
It was in every respect a temporary base, designed to be packed up and driven away in under an hour, a clear sign that command did not expect to hold this region for much longer. It was a practical measure, but failed to instil any confidence in the personnel who passed through, their morale already dragging in the mud behind them.
The trucks of Cromwell's force arrived first, their beds packed with dirty and wounded men and women, covered in crime and blood with several bandaged up in each truckload. Most made their way strait to the field surgery, dozens of nurses and orderlies mobbing the vehicles to take in the casualties. Some were taken straight in, others laid on stretchers outside the medical tent. The ones left outside were the ones for whom surgery was a waste of effort, either because they were not too badly hurt, or because they were too far gone to help. For those people the only option was a strong concoction of drugs and a little quiet for the hour or two necessary for nature to take its course.
The tanks of Paladin squadron were the last to arrive, all eight returning to base without casualties, a rare event lately. They were caked in mud, some still clinging to foliage from their period of hiding, but all moved with purpose. The roar of their engines and weight was still an inspiring sight, even if they were rather obsolete in the new era of beam cannons and Minovsky reactors.
Most of the tanks headed straight for the motor pool, an assortment of mechanics ready to give them a check over and restock their consumables. The vehicles themselves were extremely reliable most of the time, but had also been in the field for months without respite. Sooner or later things broke, snapped or wore out even in the most rugged machines.
One tank did not join them, suddenly slewing to the left and driving for a gathering of soldiers lounging around a set of green tents. It rushed towards the men, causing them to scatter and run before the clanking behemoth which only applied brakes at the last possible second, generating cat calls and a barrage of foul language.
"Wait here." Major Cromwell opened the hatch, ignoring the calls.
"With all due respect sir, you aren't going to do anything dumb are you?" Driver Hewer asked just in case.
"Of course not." Cromwell replied unconvincingly. "I won't be long."
He clambered onto the turret, noting he was indeed in the right place, the stacked mortars and self propelled artillery lined up nearby looking pristine, a far cry from his own beat up unit.
The artillery crews backed off a little when they saw his rank, his headphones resting at his neck and a black beret crammed over his fair hair. Expertly he jumped down onto the hull, then the ground itself, absorbing the shock with his knees as he hit the grassy floor. He said nothing, made no expression, just looked around for his target.
Cromwell turned and spotted Lieutenant Igor Romanski peering around the front of his vehicle, tin cup inevitably in his hand. He still said nothing, aware now that more of his men were doubling back, leaving their tanks to come and see what their officer was doing. The artillerymen were also a bit hesitant, unsure of this new circumstance.
"How was it Major? Gave those space born dogs a good hiding eh?"
Cromwell still didn't answer, walking along his tank and opening the stowage box on the front fender, dropping the metal door and reaching inside.
"We gave them a good barrage, no?"
Cromwell removed his hand from the box, bringing with it a shovel. Finally he spoke.
With a single swift move he swung the shovel at the Lieutenant, catching him at the side of the head with an almost comedic prang, the amusing effect somewhat lost by the eruption of blood. Igor dropped like a stone, but Cromwell didn't stop, striking him at least three more times before an artilleryman tackled him, launching him sideways and dropping him to the ground.
"Get off him!" Hewer pushed through the shocked and angry gunners, several other tankers lending support. "Major?"
"Last time he'll fire short." Cromwell grinned from the floor. "Is he dead?"
"He doesn't look healthy." Hewer admitted as Igor was picked up and rushed to the field hospital. "This isn't going to end well."
"Better take me in then." Cromwell stood, half the base staring at him in open mouthed shock. "Stockade is over there, if you can call a tent a stockade."
"Okay." He stood aside. "I don't believe you did that."
"Someone had to." Cromwell shrugged and started walking. "And he had it coming."
Cromwell found himself in the stockade for less than three minutes before the furious face of Colonel Janssen stormed in, the blue eyes surrounded by a furious crimson face.
"Everybody out!" Janssen ordered, his anger boiling to the surface. "Now!"
The guards quickly left, content to eavesdrop through the canvas walls.
"Is he dead then sir?" Cromwell asked calmly.
"Lucky for you, no." The older man fumed. "But he's probably got brain damage!"
"I could have told you that weeks ago."
"This is not a joke!" Janssen bellowed. "You deprived me of an experienced officer in the middle of a nightmare war!"
"His only experience was covering his own arse and locating Vodka." Cromwell retorted. "That stupid son of a bitch hasn't hit his target in a fortnight. This time he pushed it too far."
"He is the only artillery officer we have!"
"I lost eighteen men today to enemy action." Cromwell spat. "And thirty four to him!"
"That is not…"
"You want to talk experience?" Cromwell snapped back at the superior officer. "Those men have fought since day one of this war! They were the only ones in this entire bloody Corps who knew what they were doing! Now you've got forty of them left, and that's assuming they recover their wits enough to fight!"
Janssen exhaled a long breath, shaking his head. "You're supposed to say sir at the end you know."
"I guessed I wasn't in the army anymore." Cromwell replied.
"You don't get away that easy." The Colonel stated with a grunt. "You are supposed to be an officer, a Major at that! People expect a good example from you! Attempting to murder fellow officers is not exactly the example I had in mind!"
"Killing the dumb ones might have an effect sir."
"Shut up David." Janssen winced. "What the hell were you thinking?"
"I stopped thinking a month ago. I've been on instinct ever since."
"You need better instincts, you can't go around beating people to death. Well, at least not those in the same uniform. Bad for discipline."
"Discipline isn't going to last much longer anyway." Cromwell shook his head. "Two weeks training for new recruits? Come on sir, how the hell are you supposed to make soldiers in two weeks? They just teach them to use a gun and then drop them in action."
"We exist in desperate times Major."
"And we aren't making them any better." He replied. "At least my action removes an obstacle."
And in so doing you create a precedent I have to punish." Janssen looked down for a moment. "Under military law I could execute you for this."
"I know." Cromwell accepted. "But my life and his add up to two, he's already killed three dozen of our best, now he won't hurt any others."
"I thought you enjoyed life too much to give it away?"
Cromwell shrugged. "Things change."
Janssen allowed a look of understanding to cross his face. "The war. Hard not to be affected by it."
"I'm lucky, my home nation hasn't been attacked yet, but it's only a matter of time." Cromwell stated darkly. "You look at what they did to the other Colonies that didn't support them, to Australia, I mean how many died? Do they even know? Six or seven billion so far? What the hell happened here to allow this? What made someone think this was the way to fight a war?"
"That's why we must win, our enemies have the most blood on their hands, they claim they fight for independence, but how is this helping? They'll be the only humans left alive at this rate!"
"I suppose it would make them independent." Cromwell remarked darkly. "So what are you going to do?"
"I can't let you get away with this." The Colonel shook his head. "You're a good officer but you went beyond the line. This is still an Army, might not look much like one but it is."
"Of course at the same time we're so short on bodies a skilled officer is too valuable to throw away, even if he is out of control." Janssen exhaled. "So I'm going to ask you to volunteer for a special mission."
Cromwell raised an eyebrow. "You mean suicide mission don't you?"
"Special mission." Janssen repeated blandly. "A rearguard, volunteer only."
"And if you can't volunteers?"
"Then I'll make it an order." The Colonel intoned. "But if you volunteer it will reflect favourably at your Court Martial."
"What's the mission exactly then Colonel?"
"We're withdrawing north, the division is assigning two companies of tanks to watch our back as we move. One company from each brigade."
Cromwell shook his head sombrely. "You only have eight tanks left in the whole brigade. My squadron."
"Very true." Janssen replied. "So you see my position. I need troops for a rearguard, and I will order them if necessary. I'd prefer it if your unit volunteered, it looks better on reports, helps morale."
"We already bloodied their vanguard, that should have bought us enough time."
"I imagined so, but the enemy have brought up Mobile units."
"Mobile Suits?" Cromwell hissed. "I thought they were deployed north of here?"
"Apparently not." Janssen said. "So I need your tanks to help stop them."
"We're all going to die."
"Come on Major, twenty tanks against six Mobile suits. It's been done before."
"It's been done with well trained crews, air support and favourable terrain." Cromwell corrected. "And even then we took heavy losses. Zaku type Mobile suits laugh at our tanks, they are more agile, faster, and can target our weak upper armour while we have a hell of a time elevating our guns enough to hit something critical. Even then the bastards are stupidly well armoured. Wonders of modern technology eh?"
"They're not invincible." Janseen countered. "You can ambush them, hide in cover. Not many places you can hide an eighteen meter robot, and no way they can sneak up on you."
"They don't have to, they can just walk right through us." Cromwell grunted. "There's a good reason guys call them Reapers. Death incarnate."
"They can be stopped, and they must be stopped. We can't allow them to attack while we are withdrawing, they would massacre our convoys. We have hundreds of unarmed trucks pulling back to Normandy, six Zaku's would turn them to scrap in an evening. You're going to stop them."
"And if I say no it becomes an order." Cromwell sneered. "And if I refuse an order in the field, then what? Summary execution?"
"If you volunteer and live you'll probably be acquitted of what you did to Igor. If you don't, well…"
"I'm probably dead either way." The Major guessed. "Not much of a choice."
"We have sixteen crews for eight tanks." Janseen said. "Volunteers will receive a transfer to training units back home. They'll never see action again, free ticket out of this war."
"Not a bad incentive." Cromwell allowed. "If they live."
"If they live."
"And if we have homes to go back to."
"I'd assume they'd be the first to volunteer. Little revenge is a good motivator."
"If you get me eight crews, I'll lead them." Cromwell agreed. "Not much choice in the matter."
"It's a gamble, but at least you have odds of walking out this way."
Cromwell smiled. "We both know that isn't true."
"No, probably not." Janssen was forced to admit. "Good luck anyway Major."
"Death or Glory." Cromwell stood, raising a salute.
"Send those Reapers back to hell Major. Dismiss."
Cromwell walked out of the tent without issue, several soldiers giving him a wide berth as he strolled through the base towards his unit. A number of trucks were already leaving, heading north with the wounded or with vital supplies before night fell. The base was in the process of packing up, but it would still take time for them to reach the embrace of the Northern Army along a long and exposed road. If the enemy caught them it would indeed be a massacre.
Cromwell expected it probably would be anyway, rear guard or not, they were facing an entire division in this sector and even if they did beat these six Zakus there were always more waiting.
His tanks were parked in a circular pattern, standard defensive formation for when the enemy was nearby. In the middle of the circle a couple of repair vehicles stood open, mechanics searching for the parts necessary to keep the squadron moving. In the end they'd probably need to cannibalise one of the immobilised tanks near the base entrance, spares were becoming an increasing rarity.
Also in the centre were four cargo trucks piled with crates, reinforced steel boxes with stencilled warnings prominent on every surface. Ammunition trucks.
"They let you out?"
His driver froze beside the Major, looking almost incredulous.
"That they did Private Hewer." Cromwell nodded. "The Colonel didn't want to waste a bullet on me, not when Zeon has so many to spare for the task."
"The Colonel already asked for volunteers." Hewer stated. "Rearguard operation, then a transfer home."
"Anyone fall for it?"
"No." He chuckled. "But a lot of the boys and girls volunteered anyway. Some want payback, others are just fed up of running."
"We have enough for all eight tanks?"
"Yes sir, not all our own squadron, some are from other units, but they all seem to know which end of a tank is which."
"It's a start." Cromwell allowed. "How's the supplying?"
"Plenty of fuel to go around." Hewer said. "I also noticed we're replacing Sabot rounds with Shaped Charge rounds. That means Reapers doesn't it?"
"Yeah, Reapers." Cromwell nodded. "Whatever they're made off they can take several hits from sabot rounds pretty well. Can't handle the effects of a HEAT round though, something to do with thermal properties versus tension. Just a complicated way of saying the boffins don't really know."
"We still need a weak spot though."
"Yeah, joints, mechanical linkages, head or weapon." Cromwell recalled. "All while trying to avoid return fire."
"Suppose it's what they pay us for." Hewer slapped his hands together, trying to cheer up. "Wanna see the scar we picked up?"
They walked over to their tank, the green and black beast sat with its hatches open while a supply team removed its sabot ammunition and prepared to load HEAT. The Sabot rounds were no more than dense metal darts that relied on speed and weight to destroy enemies, pure kinetic energy. They worked well against tanks but were less effective against the revolutionary principles of Mobile Suits, though a decent hit could still bring one down.
High Explosive Anti Tank rounds however were different, using shaped explosives to direct a jet of liquid metal into a target and melt through armour, then incinerate whatever lay behind. They were more effective against Mobile Suits and were used by both tanks and Regina Missile teams. Unfortunately even then the armour of the enemy machines was tough enough so that only a precise hit would work. Killing a Zaku without an airstrike was incredibly difficult, and usually fatal.
Neither type of ammunition offered a guarantee, but the blast from a HEAT round could disorientate or unbalance a Zaku even if it missed, making it the best choice in Cromwell's opinion. The large cartridges were fed in through the interior of the tank through its rear clamshell doors, opening up the entire back of the hull for easy access to the auto loader.
"There, on the turret." Hewer pointed out a long groove on the side of the tank. "One of those Magellas got a near miss. Couple of inches closer and we'd be dead."
"Lovely." Cromwell huffed. "Better hope our fortune lasts the night."
The Type 61 was out of its depth, even the latest A5 model had been designed for a different kind of war against a different kind of enemy. The philosophy had been simple, the Earth Federation's experience of war came from counter insurgency, putting down rebellions and terror groups within its borders. Their main enemies were a rag tag group of rebels with hand held missiles and maybe, if they were well funded, some obsolete tanks and armoured vehicles.
The Type 61 was built to fight these people, and in that respect it was an effective design. It was based on a combination of Israeli and former NATO experiences against similar enemies, with the prototype vehicles bearing a strong resemblance to Israeli Merkava series tanks from a century before. They were low slung, mounted their engines at the front and were well armoured on all sides to help them in the event of ambush. At the rear the tank had doors like an infantry transport and could carry a small squad of four soldiers in the back, a further influence from Israel. The addition of a troop compartment allowed the tank to either provide its own infantry support for urban combat or rescue allies pinned down in battle.
The designers built the tank for urban combat, installing bulldozer blades on the front for clearing obstacles, heavy side skirts to protect the tracks, remote controlled anti infantry weapon emplacements on the turret, and active missile defence systems designed to shoot down incoming projectiles. In terms of protection they were unrivalled, and thanks to engine advancements they were also extremely fast for their immense bulk.
Armament however had been a point of debate. The Type 61 had to be capable of defeating any other tank that had gone before it and that could be used against it, yet at the same time it had to be able to support infantry in low level conflicts. The tanks of the mid twenty first century had been massively powerful, but lacked versatility, being optimised mainly toward killing each other. The Type 61 would be different.
The solution was to simply give the tank an immense 155mm gun, a weapon so huge it could destroy any hostile tank through brute force alone. The gun was designed to fire several types of ammunition, but special consideration was given to its role in supporting infantry. The tank could fire ammo usually used by field artillery, making it a superb assault gun to destroy bunkers and strong points, but the cost was a much reduced muzzle velocity making it less effective at piercing armour.
At first nobody cared as the gun was still capable of killing anything else on the battlefield, but the lack of armour piercing power had come to be sorely missed when they were faced with a massive invasion by equal or better enemy tanks and vehicles.
The twin guns were also added mainly as part of its role supporting infantry, giving the tank a high rate of fire and letting a lone platoon or troop of Type 61's deliver more firepower than a full artillery barrage.
The tank also used the most sophisticated computers and uplinks ever made. Each vehicle was part of a network, linked together from individual infantry to space battleships. The tanks could literally fire blind, using information from any source to target their guns and fire with pinpoint precision. Their radar and visual targeting were all but perfect, the battle computers using a vast array of data to make sure their rounds never missed. There had never been an incident of friendly fire in the eighteen years Type 61s had been in service so far, and when they were first introduced it was boasted they would never miss. They became famous for scoring the first hit with the first shot, every single time.
The technology reduced the crew to two, driver and Commander. The driver's role was simple enough, while the Commander was responsible for picking targets which the Type 61 computer then automatically engaged. Simply a case of point to what you wanted to go away and the tank did the rest. Higher level commanders could direct formations over the data links, updated real time by satellites, recon drones and their own soldiers to ensure they were never surprised. In theory they would never even see their enemy in person, using the data links to fire from miles away, often shooting through forests and buildings to destroy opponents completely unawares.
As designed the tank was perfect, just what the Earth Federation ordered, but it was already doomed. In the same year as the first units rolled out tensions with the Colonies at Side Three, now declaring themselves the Principality of Zeon, began to build towards the current war.
It wasn't mobile suits which rendered the Type 61 obsolete, even with their huge leap forward in technology the principles of command, control, communication and information that were part of the Federation way of war could still have tipped the balance, still have allowed the numerically superior Earth Forces to just smother the enemy in precision fire. The death knell sounded in the form of the Minovsky effect.
At about the same time as the tank was entering production a brilliant scientist named Yuri Minovsky discovered a new method of creating energy, a light weight fusion type reactor that produced large amounts of relatively clean energy. It had revolutionised space craft and found obvious military applications allowing relatively small units to carry firepower capable of melting through the heaviest warships.
What hadn't been planned but which was arguable more dramatic in changing the face of war was the creation of the Minovsky particle from this new form of reaction, a highly electrically charged particle which acted almost like a constant sustained EMP effect, greatly disrupting radio communications, radar and microwave signals, and interfering with laser and infra red devices.
Virtually overnight the long range ultra precise weapons of the Earth Federation became hopelessly out of date. The extremely advanced smart missiles of the Navy found their computers fried by lingering EMP thanks to the Minovsky effect, the space fleet was forced to adopt a new gun heavy force to compensate, but worst hit was the army which found its brand new tanks unable to function as designed.
As the Principality of Zeon gradually built up their strength the Earth Federation realised war was brewing, even the most obstinate could see the horizon darkening as totalitarians seized power on the dark side of the Moon. The defence budget was increased massively, though most of this went into a massive warship construction programme, the Federation gambling that a strong Navy would make the Army redundant anyway.
The army was forced to soldier on with its tanks, stripping out the now useless data linking and sophisticated targeting systems and replacing them with a new visual targeting computer and reintroducing ranging machine guns to help aim the main guns, something unseen since the earliest decades of tank design. Unfortunately the biggest problem turned out to be the two man crew. With all the labour saving devices gone the workload on the tank commander increased heavily, requiring him to find targets, manually adjust the sights to help the chances of hitting something, fire the guns, direct the vehicle and in the case of senior officers command an entire platoon or company of other tanks too. Even the most skilled veterans often found it too much, requiring drivers to take on more than their share of decision making to keep the tank effective.
When war became inevitable new projects were announced, a new breed of tank armed with beam cannons that would obliterate any feasible target, even rumours of a direct counter to the new Zeon Mobile Suits. None of it was in effect when combat began, and it still wasn't in service five months later.
Earth's gamble had failed, the Navy was gone and the Army was now at breaking point trying to stop the seemingly inevitable victory of the invading hordes. Poorly trained, poorly equipped and poorly motivated the men and women of the Earth Federation Ground Forces fought for every scrap of land. Bravery was rarely a failing, but bravery without skill had led to massacre after massacre. They didn't have much left in them.
"We're due to head out at Nineteen hundred." Cromwell informed dourly. "Ambush enemy forces at dawn tomorrow as they move forward."
"You think they'll be dumb enough to just walk down the main road after the slapping we gave them today?"
"No, they'll hit it with heavy armour, which is why we need to be ready for Reapers."
"And the great master plan is for us to just sit there and wait to die?" Hewer wondered. "Certainly a new take on the idea of tactics."
"Ideally I'd like to live through the night so they can shoot me somewhere else." Cromwell uttered. "Just to be awkward."
"So how do we take on Reapers?"
"There is a plan." Cromwell reassured. "I just have to work on finishing it."
"How much have you got so far sir?"
"Actually just a name. Operation we're all going to die."
"And accurate." The Major agreed. "We're talking about six Zaku's, one of them possibly an ace."
"Yeah, we're gonna die."
"Still want to come along?"
"Well they're giving us condemned man's dinner. Real food, so yeah. Be rude to eat so well and then not go through with this suicide job."
"Go on then, tuck in." Cromwell granted. "Meanwhile I'll try find a way for us not to die or be shot for desertion."
The hours passed like minutes, Cromwell spending them by the perimeter, passing on dinner. He could hear the unit laughing and joking, downing their hearty meals liberated from nearby farms and served up by the cooks. Real steak and a complimentary glass of wine. They were at least getting quite a send of.
None of them saw it that way of course, such thoughts of doom were kept firmly out of their consciousness. It was a god meal, a hard night's work, then a free ticket home, if home was still there. Either way no more fighting, no more retreating, no more hopeless battles. Not after this one. It was a nice dream to cling to.
It was still a few hours until sunset but the air was becoming chilly, the light dimming thanks to particulates in the air. The countryside was still untouched, rolling fields and clusters of fat trees standing as they had for centuries. Sunken country roads wound through the farm yards surrounded by walls and hedgerows, the grass having that yellow leeched tinge characteristic of summer. It was a world apart, offering no hint of the ruin just a few miles away, of any taste of things to come.
The world was orange hued, rich and almost autumnal despite the time of year. Glorious as it appeared the reason was far more grim, involving light filtering through the dust thrown high into the sky by the Colony drop a few months earlier. It had created some spectacularly coloured sunrises, reds, purples, on some days even green, but the price was nowhere near worth the spectacle.
He watched it with mixed feelings, dwelling on a past that was long gone and unable to return, a life that he had once led but no more. He still breathed, still walked and talked, but his life was over, torn away when that lump of metal fell from the sky. He was not from Australia, but all he knew and loved had been there. He couldn't help but imagine what those moments had been like, the summer sun being eclipsed by the monstrous colony cylinder, glowing with friction, trailing black smoke in its wake as it rose over the horizon and then plummeted down.
When he saw the sunset, he saw what he had lost sparkling in the atmosphere, so beautiful but always out of his reach, a glittering reminder of an atrocity beyond imagining. All that remained of that life was a photograph he kept in his pocket, the ring on his finger, and the glitter in the sky at sunset.
He glanced at his watch, the hands moving closer to their assigned numerals, each move chopping away more of the time remaining. Cromwell was ready for it, he wasn't keen on dying, not when there were still enemies to blow up, but he didn't mind that much either. He left it to fate and fate alone.
With a last look at the sky he stood and turned back into the camp, covering over his personal thoughts and adjusting for the matter at hand.
"First Squadron, Seventeenth Lancers!" He bellowed. "Time's up! Now you earn your pay for the week! Mount up and prepare to roll out!"
The tankers climbed up onto their vehicles, some more reluctantly than others, dropping into their seats and turning on various switches. Video screens gleamed into life, the heavily shielded computers booting up with a whirr before the starter motors charged the main power plant. The air filled with the noise of chugging before one after another the eight tanks growled into life, roaring like a pride of Lions as the drivers gunned their engines and checked the throttles.
"All in order Private?" Cromwell descended into his vehicle, settling into his chair in the turret.
"She's fully fuelled and armed." Hewer responded. "And so am I."
"Makes a nice change." The Major grinned. "It's at times like these we need a recording of Gary Owen. We did have one."
"Yes sir, I regret to inform you it was accidentally crushed under a tank. Several actually. Several dozen."
"You people have no taste."
"Opinion is divided sir." Hewer mused. "With you on one side and the entire Brigade on the other."
"I'll just have to whistle then." He stood up, rising out of the hatch to look around, noting each of his tanks straining to go, a small crowd gathering to watch them go. Suicide mission or not he wasn't going to show hesitation.
"First Squadron." He spoke into his headset, raising his arm and pointing it forward. "Move out!"
The line of tanks started forward, heading one way while everyone else prepared to head the opposite direction. They displayed no fear, no hesitation, each Commander stood straight in his turret head and shoulders out of the hatch in the dying sun. Several of the gathered soldiers saluted as they left, bidding farewell and passing on their respects, a gesture the Commanders returned honourably.
Whatever the result Cromwell would accept fate's judgement, and with an ancient cavalry tune in his ears he led his tanks to meet death's Reapers.