"I make it about ten minutes until we make the crossroads." Private Hewer estimated, his voice tinny in the earphones but clear despite the roar of the engine and the clatter of tracks over wheels. "Probably just as the sun goes down."
From the Turret Major Cromwell watched his screens, looking at the grainy video footage fed through from the targeting computer.
"Pretty overcast, hard to tell if the sun is still up or not."
"I'm not complaining sir, nice murky haze makes us harder to spot."
"True." Cromwell acknowledged. "Makes the enemy harder to spot too. Would it have killed Janssen to give us a jeep or two to scout ahead? A biker even?"
"Guess they're too busy running for the coast for a suicide mission like this." Hewer grunted. "At least we know the lay of the land, we only ran away over it this morning."
"Doesn't tell me if it's been occupied since though." He grimaced. "Halt before we reach the next rise, I'll do my own recon the old fashioned way."
Hewer brought the heavy vehicle to a stop just before the crest of a ridge, the rest of the squadron halting in stages behind them, gun turrets swinging back and forth to look for signs of danger in the farmland around them.
"Wait here for me." Cromwell opened the hatch and climbed out, unhooking his comms wire and taking a set of binoculars. He walked to the edge of the large angled turret and climbed down, half stepping and half jumping off the tank to the hard road beneath. Outside of his armoured home Cromwell felt vulnerable, like a rabbit leaving its warren, encouraging him to dash swiftly over ground towards the brow of the hill his unit was waiting behind. From the top he would have enough elevation to view the crossroads while also enjoying the sun at his back, such as it was, making him slightly harder to spot.
He crawled the last few yards, using a hedgerow by the roadside to help further camouflage his position as he raised the binoculars and examined his path.
His view yielded a depressing sight. The morning's detritus was still there, scores of vehicles and tanks left as silent burnt out wrecks concentrated around the crossroads, the woods, and then scattered across farmland to the North and East. Most were Zeon vehicles, not that it made it any less grisly, but as he scanned his binoculars across the familiar land he spotted a number of new wrecks. Earth Force tanks.
He sighed heavily and withdrew back to his vehicle, the first drops of a new rain storm plinking heavily on the turret roof.
"Looks like rain sir." Hewer announced as he heard the turret hatch clank shut.
"Should we keep going? Is it clear ahead?"
"It's clear ahead." Cromwell confirmed. "Mainly because Zeon already smashed our associates from the second Brigade."
"The other Company?"
"Yeah, the one supposed to join us in the rear guard. Looks like they arrived early and they got shredded."
Hewer exhaled. "Reapers?"
"Reapers." Cromwell confirmed. "Damage patterns match, and there are some jumbo foot prints on the far hillside. Doesn't look like they stuck around though."
"Okay, so do we have a plan sir?"
"We can't ambush them, if they come back it will be with a combined arms force. And we can't fight them in the open, the ground is too soft, with last night's rain and more on the way, we'll get bogged down in the fields. Fish in a barrel, it looks like our reinforcements found that out the hard way."
"Doesn't sound like we have much choice." Hewer spoke darkly. "Do we go home?"
"We can't fight them here, we're at a serious disadvantage. So we fight them somewhere else, a battlefield that suits us."
"The town of Mont Roche, two miles further along the road."
"Two miles inside enemy territory sir."
"Won't be enemy territory when we arrive and kill them all Private." Cromwell countered convincingly. "The brass wants us to buy time, we'll do it by launching a counter offensive."
"With eight tanks?"
"They'll never see it coming."
"There's a very good reason for that sir."
"And it means when the Reapers come we're fighting in an urban environment, solid ground under our tracks and buildings hemming them in. We still won't win, but we can hurt them, then run away."
"Good plan sir."
"Excellent. Alright then, let's get a move on, this rain will be another advantage if we can get there in time. Roll out."
Mont Roche had been abandoned by Earth Forces without contest, judged indefensible they simply walked away and a few hours later the Zeon army claimed it. Most of the population were long gone, expecting a massive firefight in the town that had not actually materialised. At least not when they had been expecting it to. None had yet returned, which as it turned out was particularly fortunate.
The town sat on either side of a river, on one bank stood mainly residential homes, a mix of new and traditional buildings incorporating narrow streets, winding roads and medieval churches. Bad terrain for Mobile suits, but also poor tank country too. The other bank was better, a business park consisting of factories, office blocks and assorted industrial buildings. There was also a railway marshalling yard which logically enough was in the process of being turned into a Zeon forward supply base.
With the front line apparently secure and the nearby Earth Forces running or destroyed, they felt safe, a grave mistake which showed those who understood that the Principality was also beginning to scrape the bottom of its man power reserves, putting troops into the line who weren't thoroughly trained. They were rear echelon troops, supply clerks and mechanics, but it was no excuse for sloppiness.
"Looks like a command platoon." Cromwell watched the movement in the rail yard. "Probably attached to the Zaku company stomping around nearby. Also elements of a supply unit, they're unloading a train full of equipment. Hopefully some ammo."
"Aiming to start the party with a bang sir?" Hewer grinned.
"Nice way to catch some Reaper attention." He confirmed. "Bring them to us."
He mentally placed the enemy units, visualising where the best fire arcs were, whether there were any traps or ambushes likely to be laid, any hidden units nearby.
"B Troop, advance along the main road, designated route bravo. Engage any target on the way until you reach the rail yard. Try to save your main gun rounds, this is just the prelude."
There was a series of confirmations.
"A Troop, we'll advance along the rail lines and attack from the south. Again, use your machine guns and your tracks if you can. Doesn't look like there's any armour about, but keep your eyes wide just in case. Let's try get this done in fifteen minutes or less, Happy hunting, now move along."
The two sets of tanks split up and began to move into position, driving swiftly to their agreed start positions as the clouds released their grey cargo onto the land below. In the space of less than a minute the leaden sky turned into a full downpour, the impact of countless droplets on concrete and wood serving to mask the growl of powerful engines.
The radios in the tanks still seemed to be working over short range, powerful enough to cut through the interference so the different branches of the attack could speak to each other, but there was no chance of raising central command many miles away to inform them of their situation. With no uplinks Cromwell could not tell exactly where his second in command was with the other four tanks, but he knew the Lieutenant was skilled enough to stick to his way points without breaking radio silence. That trust would have to be enough.
"We're at the tracks sir." Hewer reported.
"Turn us to face town." Cromwell ordered. "A Troop, arrowhead formation on me."
The tanks bounced across the rails and swivelled, pointing into the town. The tracks curved through the outskirts before reaching the yard and the base within, hopefully conveying a measure of surprise on the steel beasts.
"Time." Cromwell checked his watch. "Advance."
The heavy tank lurched forward as its gears engaged, the tracks tightening around the wheels and grinding over the gravel and sleepers of the railway tracks. Rain was falling on them, lending a reflective sheen to the surfaces of the Earth Force tanks, rivulets of grey water running down weld seams and dripping from the long twin cannons.
"Loading incendiary shells." Cromwell announced. Each tank had two anti infantry incendiary shells, two starshells used to illuminate territory, and the rest were HEAT rounds for engaging armour and fortifications. "Night vision check, how's yours?"
"Clear as day." Hewer replied, his own video screen displaying the rain streaked world in shades of green and grey.
Cromwell activated the coaxial machine guns, the firing mechanism clicking ready, 13mm bullets queued in their feeds ready to be loosed from the twin weapons. They were standard light armour piercing rounds with incendiary cores, used to punch through a vehicle then set it alight. Needless to say their effect on any humans caught in the path was dramatic and invariably fatal.
"Watch the warehouses on each side." The Major reminded a final time. "Go weapons free, no friendlies or civilians in the area, no restrictions. Engage at will."
The tank bounced as Hewer took them around the curved lines, moving beyond the masking buildings and coming into sight of the enemy themselves, the Zeon troopers huddling under corrugated shelters hiding from the rain, waiting for it to pass. The tank was in the open for several seconds before the first soldier noticed it, whelping a warning and pointing open mouthed at the beast gazing hungrily at them down the gun sights. They couldn't have asked for a better target.
Cromwell opened fire, the two machine guns at his command throwing tracers into the huddle of enemy bodies. The results were atrocious, the heavy calibre bullets scything down several men each passing clean through the crowd and thudding into piled logs and planks in the goods yard behind them, throwing up splinters where they ended their journey.
The other tanks of A Troop fell into formation around Cromwell and joined in, two foot long blasts of flame accompanying each bullet, chasing men as the ran and stumbled, smashing crates full of spare weapons and shredding food rations. Meal packs were launched into the air before fluttering down, their contents congealing in the cold rain as the water on the ground gradually turned red with the blood shed.
"Move forward." Cromwell ordered as the activity in the yard diminished. "Next waypoint."
The engine growled, rev counters peaking as Hewer pressed the pedal. The Troop began to gradually advance, spraying bullets as they proceeded effortlessly chewing through the wood and tin buildings of the yard. Several piles of rubble crackled and sizzled as the .50 cal incendiaries set them alight, the chemical fires hissing in the falling rain.
Ahead of them the Zeon troops mostly bolted, fleeing for their lives in the face of the sudden and overwhelming onslaught. As a depot unit they had very little in the way of heavy weapons and even less in terms of the training and willpower to use them, to hold their ground in front of the dark painted battle tanks currently chewing their way through the town. None of the Earth born troops were in much mood for mercy, not in this war, and none had any moral qualms about shooting people in the back as they ran.
An explosion rocked Cromwell's tank, dropping gravel on it thrown up from the rail bedding beside them.
"What was that?" Hewer called.
"RPG." Cromwell replied, sweeping his camera across the battle field. "There, signal tower, two o'clock!"
He swung the turret around to face the raised platform, three Zeon soldiers reloading at the top using the train signal lights for cover.
"Bugger, can't elevate the guns to hit them." The Major snarled. "Too high."
"Shall I open the distance?"
"No time, go for plan B." Cromwell returned. "Ramming speed!"
"I hate Plan B." Hewer exhaled, yanking the control levers and slewing the tank to face the lattice work tower. He aimed the tank like a medieval battering ram, picking up speed as he crunched over gravel and debris, bouncing on the suspension as the tower raced to meet them. The Zeon troops managed a second shot, but without sophisticated guidance the missile struck the ground a yard behind the speeding tank in a brief flash of light and heat. It was a gamble that had failed.
Hewer didn't hit the tower head on, instead he aimed for the left side of the structure, smashing into the edge and snapping two of the four supporting legs, the speed and weight of the tank uprooting the civilian grade construction without particular trouble. It wobbled like a tree in a storm before slowly pitching over, falling with a screech of metal and flattening itself in a pile of broken girders on the wet ground.
"Alright, resume original course." Cromwell kept his breathing steady, trying to keep a clear head as adrenaline filled him with energy, the tank acting much like a prison for his frantic desire to get out there and do some damage. Hewer fell into formation again with the rest of the unit, driving out of the rail yard and into the warehouses adjoining it, crushing boxes, crates and light vehicles under their tracks along the way.
"Target ahead." He announced. "Watch out for B Troop, they should be entering from the west."
The four tanks broke into a court yard, crushing a poorly raised barricade of scrap iron and loading trucks and proceeding to mow down remaining groups of Zeon soldiers. Most ran for an office building directly opposite, a damp flag hanging over the door suggesting it was a command post. Streams of tracer fire lashed the advancing tanks, all of it entirely without point.
"This is Alpha Three." Cromwell's radio crackled. "Bravo Troop in sight."
"Understood, watch your targets people, friendlies in the battle space."
Hewer rode up over a Zeon communications truck, the metal panels enclosing the various consoles and computer cores folding and bulging like rubber under the weight of the tank. He crashed down on the other side, grinding several tables under his tracks in the process laid for dinner under a grey tarpaulin, the rain proof covering fluttering down in slow motion between the two battling forces.
The office building which was now serving as the last stronghold of the invaders was transformed into a hail of flying glass and masonry, punched by hails of high calibre bullets. Each of the tanks had sophisticated audio sensors to try and make up for the lack of EM systems in the new battle environments, and each cry and scream elicited from the trapped enemy within the building came through with crystal clarity. It was chilling, but Cromwell remained entirely unmoved, his emotions too numbed to care for the suffering of people who had brought it on themselves anyway.
Cornered as they were the Zeon forces still made an effort to hit back, two streaks of white smoke billowing at the windows as a pair of missiles launched, one smashing into the frontal armour of a Type 61. Fortunately shoulder launched missiles were only a problem if they caught the back of the tank, the frontal armour was impervious to anything that could be carried by hand.
"Enough of this." Cromwell tracked the turret, depressing the main guns. "Incendiary loaded, firing."
He put two rounds into the building, one on the ground floor and one on the fourth, the Zeon troops concentrated between them. The entire lower half of the building dissolved in massive gouts of flame, the highly volatile condensed chemicals producing a miniature firestorm fierce enough to dry the rain soaked ground for a hundred yards around. The fireball was hot enough to melt steel and would likely bring the building down in a couple of minutes, for those inside it would have been over in an instant.
"Check for stragglers." The Major ordered. "I think we've accounted for them all but make sure."
"They'll see that fireball for miles around." Hewer warned. You wanted to attract company sir, I think you'll get your wish."
"Then we have some work to do."
There wasn't much they could do to prepare the way for the Mobile Suits, not without a company of combat engineers and several truckloads of explosives. Mines had proved to be a good tactic, but pitfalls and ditches turned out to be irrelevant thanks to the rocket packs the enemy had attached to the metal humanoids. It had left Earth Forces with few options beyond direct combat, and it left Major Cromwell with even less.
"Alright, last one." He gestured to two of his men, stood on top of their tanks dragging a cable up around a pair of lamp posts. "Tighten it up and then we're done."
The cable had belonged to one of the tanks, a basic tow line made of very high tensile steel. They had tied it to two lamp posts strung across the street several feet off the ground, pulling it through its own ratchets and using the gigantic wrenches designed for adjusting track suspension on their vehicles.
Each tank had two cables and all of them had now been used, set up on a dozen streets in the same manner. The theory behind the idea was good, if they could trip the enemy mechs it would take several moments for them to stand back up, time enough for a point blank gun shot to a weak point. It just wasn't going to work.
"Excuse me, sir." Private Hewer cleared his throat.
"Question?" Cromwell looked aside.
"These cables sir, they aren't going to work?"
"No sir. They're good and strong by themselves, but you're anchoring them to lamp posts. If the Reapers come charging through they'll just uproot the posts."
"Quite correct, we'd need concreted in plugs as anchors. Which we don't have." Cromwell said. "But they aren't meant to trip them, they are meant to look like booby traps, triggers. If something walks through them and pulls them over it would set off half a ton of high explosives hidden in a building nearby."
Hewer frowned. "But we haven't rigged any explosives."
"I know that, and you know that." Cromwell grinned. "But our space friends don't know that, and they won't take the risk without infantry to double check first."
"So it's a trick?"
"Just a trick." Cromwell nodded. "Cutting off certain roads, focusing them into the centre of town, into the office district. Lot of tall buildings by the riverside, blocks their fields of fire and impedes their mobility. It should give us at least a fighting chance."
"Another fifty tanks would give us a fighting chance." Hewer exhaled. "Still, ours is not to reason why."
"We have surprise and terrain on our side." Cromwell reminded. "We have a chance, and we must take it."
"Major!" One of the two tank commanders called down. "Signal from Bravo, enemy in sight!"
Cromwell didn't hesitate, he needed to act decisively and quickly, any hint that he was unsure would be fatal to the confidence his men had in him, and in turn lead to disaster.
"Right, finish up here then get into position. We'll lead them into the town, isolate them, and destroy them one at a time. Get gone."
They finished working on the cable and hopped into their tanks, hoping the deception would work. The growled away as Cromwell mounted his own tank, the eight vehicles setting up in pairs and assuming pre set locations among the buildings, waiting to pounce on the mobile suits.
"Bravo this is Alpha, report." The Major spoke into his headset, the vehicle shaking briefly as Hewer engaged the ignition.
"Alpha, I have six lights on the hillside, estimate four minutes to contact." His subordinate reported. "Match for Reaper eye cameras."
"Understood, take up position and standby. Good hunting Bravo team."
"Here we go then." His driver accepted. "We're all in order, anytime you're ready sir."
"Lets get going then, head for the train yard." Cromwell ordered. "We'll have a little game of hide and seek."
"Did I mention this is a pretty bad idea sir?"
"Often, it's also the only idea. Just pray we don't throw a track."
"I'm not optimistic. Still, at least we get to wreck stuff in the process, hooray for vandalism."
They had only just pulled into position, hiding behind a line of parked railway freight cars when the first of the Zakus arrived, the Zeon forces advancing in a loose line proceeding cautiously, heading towards the burning ruins of their former command centre. Even through the suspension of the tank Cromwell could feel the ground tremble with each step, carefully watching them from the gaps between the cars.
"Six of them alright, and one is blue." He observed. "Great, a blue one, know what that means?"
"Someone with a name." Hewer answered. "Someone famous enough to be able to pick their own colour."
"An ace." The Major clarified. "This is going to take some careful timing."
"Or we're about to find out what being a charcoal brickette feels like."
"Call it a learning experience." Cromwell offered with veiled humour. "Everyone should be in position by now. We all know the drill."
"Training and teamwork versus overwhelming technological superiority." Hewer spelled it out. "I hate this plan."
"We just need to fight smart." Cromwell took several deep breaths, letting the closest Zaku march into position, stepping into the rail yard and scanning with its gleaming illuminated eye the destruction Cromwell's tanks had wrought.
"He's standing right over the target." Hewer stated flatly. "I guess this is it."
"You guess right." Cromwell replied flatly, emotionlessly, his attitude now that of a machine. From this moment on he was just part of the tank. "Show time."
The Zaku mkII was a formidable war machine, eighteen meters tall built of a new form of high tensile metal allowing it to operate on land or space. It was resistant to most heavy gunfire though a precise hit or multiple strikes could bring one down, though most of the time an opponent didn't have the time or opportunity to try. They could outrun most vehicles, or if desired use their rocket boosters to jump several miles at a time, and from their elevated position could rain down shells on the weaker upper surfaces of enemy units and buildings. These particular machines were armed with 120mm machine guns, extremely nasty weapons that could kill a Type 61 with a single hit if the struck anywhere except nose on. Their rate of fire allowed one Zaku to kill an entire tank platoon in seconds, something Cromwell had seen in the early days of the war far too often.
They didn't consider the EF tanks much of a challenge, breeding a culture of arrogance that Cromwell was hoping to exploit. A giant could be felled by a single well placed stone, and his Troop of tanks had a lot of stones to throw.
Hewer drove the tank forward, swinging it around to cross between waiting trains and emerge into the open, clear under the glowing eye of the towering Cyclops. It spotted them, the camera flashing demonically as it changed focus, the visual targeting system locking onto the tank even as Cromwell brought his own turret around, aiming not at the Reaper but at the freight train it was standing over, the freight train filled with ammunition.
Cromwell put his second and final incendiary round clean through the train, parting the metal cars with ease and triggering a flash fire that melted warheads and cooked propellant. Several tons of high explosives detonated at once and even from a few hundred yards away the force nearly flipped the tank, lifting them off one track for a few seconds. The Zaku was annihilated, the sheer force of the blast picking it up and flinging pieces of it across a wide distance, limbs and hydraulics showering down with puffs of dust and dirt across the town and landscape. The pillar of fire was huge, and of course did not go unnoticed by the remaining five units.
"Bloody hell." Hewer managed to exclaim. "Well if nothing else that made the night worth while."
"One down." Cromwell confirmed. "And one on the way, get us moving, back into the town!"
Hewer changed gears and accelerated, rocking the tank on its suspension as it gripped the wet uneven stones beneath it, spraying gravel as it spun and headed for the cover of the warehouses. From behind them the next Zaku in line changed course and began to bound over, weaving between structures and firing a few rounds from the hip, the shaped charge shells exploding close to Cromwell's tank as it withdrew.
"Keep going!" He ordered, changing the channel on his radio as pebbles rattled on the hull. "Alpha two, three and four, stand by! I'm heading your way with a crasher in tow!"
Hewer swung a hard left turn and ducked behind a warehouse, the building shattering in dust and smoke as several shells shattered the poorly made structure. They left the gravel of the rail yard and sped along paved roads offering much better grip. The tank was able to use its surprisingly impressive acceleration to great effect, but turning tight corners was still a trick which turned several hairs white in the vehicle.
"He's gaining." Cromwell tracked the turret. "Good, come on Reaper, come see what I have for you."
The green hued Zaku was crunching the road, leaving cracked foot prints in its wake as it maintained an ungainly running pace, awkward like a toddler but still fairly effective. It entered the warehouse district and fired a few more rounds, its accuracy reduced by the bounce of its gait. Cromwell in turn fired a pair of his own shells, likewise with limited accuracy.
"Hard right turn!" Hewer warned. "Hang on!"
It took all his skill to make the turn without losing much speed, the bulky battle tank not known for its ease of handling. The left side suspension took the strain, the wheels squealing as they were pressed by the axles, the two crew members pushed hard to the side for a long moment before straightening out.
"We're in position, leading the Reaper down the kill zone!" The Major called down the Radio. "Alpha team, start moving!"
The Zaku was close behind, failing to make the turn as gracefully as Hewer and shoving a mechanical foot through the side of a factory. Cromwell put a shell into its chest as it fought to extricate itself from the tangle of rafters knocking it back, but not killing the monster, just inspiring greater rage. It began pounding after Cromwell again, charging down a narrow road between a long line of factories, chugging bullets from its over sized gun, each explosion nearer the darting tank.
"Any time Alpha team!" Cromwell pressed. "If I get blown up it'll look poor on your final reports!"
Almost before he finished speaking the other three tanks of his Troop arrived, smashing through steel shutters and emerging from their hiding places in the factories, a trick the large mobile suits would be hard pressed to copy. Alpha's two and three rushed at full speed side by side for the Zaku, both putting two shots each into the back of its ankles. The mechanism was well armoured but at such close range the 155mm shells managed to burn through and wreak havoc, unbalancing the monster.
Without need of further command the two tanks swung their guns around, pointing the twin barrels at each other to protect them from phase two of the plan. With the Zaku unbalanced it was now necessary to bring it down. Before it could recover itself the two extremely heavy tanks rammed the ankles, their tracks churning ruts in the tarmac as they pushed the mech's feet out from under it, toppling it backwards to fall on its back in the middle of the road.
The two tanks, scuffed and battered at the front but still operational drove on, linking up with Cromwell in front of the fallen Zaku. The final act was left to Alpha four, trailing behind the other tanks and now with a clean shot at the relatively thin armour enclosing the head of the suit. With extreme relish the gunner emptied both barrels into the metal head, smashing the vital systems within and triggering secondary explosions that immolated the insides of the now helpless machine.
"Two down!" Cromwell jeered. "Bravo team, report!"
"Bravo leader, we have two Reapers in sight near the river, location of the other two is unknown."
"Roger that, we're on our way." Cromwell responded. "Alpha Troop, relocate, battle point Foxtrot, go!"
The four tanks quickly linked up and sped for their brethren, following the wide roads towards the office district. It seemed the Reapers had broken into two pairs, and the fake tripwires were keeping them a distance apart, the tall buildings making it hard for them to see each other and provide long range fire support. All they had to do was keep the enemy separated and overwhelm each one in turn.
Before back up could arrive there was the repetitive thud of a Zaku gun, the rapid fire heavy calibre gun like the chant of death.
"Bravo two is gone!"
"Go evasive!" Cromwell ordered. "Hold together!"
The four tanks of Alpha troop skidded to a stop in a plaza, the belting rain splashing in an ornamental fountain standing in front of a thirty storey office block. It was a basic glass and concrete building, standing dark and unused in the night.
"Bravo leader, what is your position?"
"Crossing battle point foxtrot now! Reaper is right on me!"
Cromwell glared through his turret mounted camera. "Come on, where are you?"
"I can feel him coming." Hewer announced. "Vibrations coming up from the ground."
"Alpha team, stand by to concentrate fire." The Major ordered. "Bring them to me Jacque."
There was a sudden blur of movement, a Type 61 flashing out from behind the tower block and swerving hard to try and reach the plaza. He didn't make it, the driver misjudged the distance and collided with a building on the corner, burying half the tank in the structure and coming to a dead stop.
"He's behind the building!" The stranded tanker yelled through the radio. "Quick!"
"Alpha team, fire through the building!" Cromwell ordered. "Eight rounds rapid!"
The four tanks thundered in unison, a sound and burst of yellow fire mirrored by a crack of lightning overhead. The lower two floors of the office block were consumed by explosions as the powerful rounds smashed support pillars and flung glass and rubble out in all directions. A few rounds passed clean through, hitting the building behind and two striking the very surprised Zaku, but it was only enough to slow it down. Luckily that was enough.
With most of its lower supports compromised by the hail of artillery fire the office block began to topple, thousands of tons of metal and concrete crashing down on the bemused mobile suit, pummelling it furiously and hammering it into the ground, kicking up a storm of dust and particles that were rapidly turned to paste by the heavy rain.
"Three down!" Someone called.
"Make sure of it!" Cromwell ordered. "Bravo lead, can you see it?"
"I see it, it's still moving!" His second in command replied. "I can make a headshot!"
"Take it." Cromwell ordered. "Everyone else look for the other ones!"
There was a twin crack as the third Zaku met its end, the pilot either unconscious or already dead from the impact unable to do anything, his suit mostly buried in rubble anyway.
"This is Bravo lead, target destroyed, moving to…"
He was cut off by sudden blast of fire that pelted rain and shards of metal across the street, and entire 155mm cartwheeling across the plaza to jam like a spear in a second office block.
"Contact! Reaper to the North! He killed Jacque!" A sharp voice shouted "It's the blue one, enemy ace is…"
There was another explosion as the blue Reaper claimed another mark, reducing Cromwell to five tanks.
"What the hell?" Bravo four yelled. "He's right on me!"
"Do not panic!" Cromwell snarled back. "Hold it together! Get your arse into the Plaza, now!"
"Alpha team, ambush positions!"
Cromwell parked himself at the far end of the Plaza, opposite the expected entry point of the commanding enemy suit, Alpha four trundling around the back of the plaza while Two and Three took position on either side of the entry road ready to hit the back of the blue Zaku's legs and trip him, same as they had earlier.
The didn't have long to wait, the terrified Bravo Four bouncing over the curbs, smashing down a lamppost and roaring across the Plaza, the buildings on either side shattering in smoke as the Blue Zaku hurled rounds at his fleeing target.
"Keep going!" Cromwell yelled. "Do not stop moving!"
It was too late, the fleeing tank just wasn't fast enough and a single round ripped its turret off in a puff of black smoke, the hull of the vehicle smashing the ornamental fountain before colliding with the debris of the demolished office block. With a growl of anger Cromwell fired from across the Plaza, his two shells barely missing the Blue Zaku, showering it with debris from the tall buildings on either side of it.
"Come on you son of a bitch, fight someone your own age!"
Hewer gunned the engine again, dashing to the left as the Zaku tore up the ground behind them with its cannon, thumping into the Plaza as it chased the commanding tank. Exactly on cue Alpha Two and Three made their move, his two best trained crews grinding forward and accelerating, slicing rounds into the ankles of the charging Zaku as it bounced pass. Again it wobbled, but this pilot was better than his predecessor, his reactions faster.
He burned his back pack engines, launching off the ground in a roar of rocket engines, the two battle tanks passing under the uprated suit just an instant two late. The superior pilot didn't waste his opportunity, looking down at the upper rear hulls of the Earth Force tanks he sprayed them with bullets, blasting both vehicles to pieces of burning scrap in a heart beat.
Cromwell roared down the radio, cursing everything not made on Earth as the auto loader put two more shells in the chamber. He was down to just two tanks, this one suit alone almost effortlessly wiping out five of his colleagues.
"Alpha four, double back!" He didn't bother disguising his hatred and anger. "He's coming down by the river! Sandwich the big blue bastard and pour on fire!"
The Blue Zaku landed heavily a couple of hundred yards away on a road by the river at the edge of the office district, near a multi storey carpark and a supermarket. It wobbled a little as it landed, its ankle joints damaged by Alpha two before he could evade. Cromwell was not about to give it time to recover.
"Alpha four, position?"
"Ten seconds out!"
Hewer skidded onto the road, barely avoiding a head long dunk in the river which would have been the last think either of them did. Before the tank stopped rocking Cromwell fired, striking the chest and cannon of the enemy suit, the weapon spinning away in two pieces as the suit stumbled.
"Come on! Faster!" He yelled at the auto loader as if it made a difference, two more fat rounds clanking into place.
"Alpha Four, target in sight!"
"Hit his knees!" The Major shouted. "Fire!"
The other tank did as instructed, halting behind the wobbling and unarmed ace and shooting one of its knees, forcing it off balance. Before the pilot could activate his rockets to escape Cromwell raised his cannons and fired again, forcing the pilot to defend himself first, swinging his shield round to absorb the hits. The combination of raising his shield and the two impacts exploding against it, coupled with the leg damage proved just too much. The suit lost its balance and fell into the deep river, throwing a geyser of brown water into the air as it vanished under the ripples, leaving just the lower parts of its legs breaking the surface.
"Four down!" Hewer beamed. "Unless they can swim?"
"No, they can't swim." Cromwell responded with a satisfied grunt. "Two left! Alpha Four, with me!"
The remaining pair of tanks advanced down the road, skirting the edge of the large open supermarket carpark, with the building itself on the right and the multi storey park on their left. Both tanks preferred to avoid the open space if possible, clinging to the safety of the buildings instead.
"There, far side of the carpark!" Alpha Four called. "Engaging!"
Both tanks swung over their turrets and spitting fire, large explosions bracketing the Reaper which ducked behind the multi level car park for cover.
"We're going to have to go over there and get him." The Major sneered, not happy at the idea. "Alright, form on me, echelon left, and watch for the last one!"
They turned in the sloshing rain and sped across the open ground, using the supermarket for cover and laying down suppressive fire on their target, blasting great chunks of rubble from the tall building. They had only just made the turn when a volley of rounds tore up the ground in front of them, the two tanks bouncing hard over the craters.
The last Zaku came down with a small earth quake, dropping from the sky after using his rocket pack to quickly come to the aid of his pinned comrade. With his arrival the other Zaku leaned around his building and opened fire himself, churning up more ground.
"They're boxing us in, double back, get into cover!"
One round exploded mere feet from Cromwell, crackling his electronics and bumping the tank.
"Popping smoke!" Alpha Four called, but a fraction too late. Before he could do anything three rounds caught his tank and brought it to a smoking halt.
"Dammit Hans!" Cromwell yelled. "That Reaper is right on us!"
"And we have a supermarket ahead, making the turn!"
"No! Keep going!" The Major ordered.
Hewer winced. "I hope we don't get the bill for tonight."
"The supermarket had been abandoned, but it was still well stocked and powered, its programmed schedule keeping the lights on and a gentle selection of music playing over the internal speakers. It would have survived the war if not for the dirt streaked battle tank that suddenly exploded through the glass wall and proceeded to crunch its way across the tinned food section in a roar of over stressed engine and worn out tracks.
The roof offered concealment but it was still just thin metal and offered no protection, the chasing Zaku halting and firing into the building, its rounds going clean through the roof and sprouting explosions inside the food store, trying to catch the frantically swerving tank.
"I can see its legs!" Cromwell half screamed, sighting the Reaper through the glass walls. "Throw on the brakes!"
Hewer skidded to a stop, the flanks of the vehicle now smeared with yoghurt as much as mud, the long guns lifting to aim for a knee joint. Both guns fired at once, rocking the tank and blasting a path through the supermarket, the muzzle blast levelling several aisles worth of products. One round made contact, severing the hydraulics and causing the knee to give way, pitching the Zaku over.
In slow motion it tumbled, spinning as it fell into the supermarket, crashing through the roof in a tangle of rafters and roof plates. It banged heavily into the floor, its hands grasping for a hold, its head looking left and right with its illuminated camera seeking a way up. Instead it found itself staring down the double barrels of the last Type 61.
"Clumsy bugger." Cromwell grinned, then blasted the head of the machine with both barrels, taking it out of the fight.
"Five." Hewer acknowledged. "What do we do about the last one?"
"Kill it." Cromwell answered simply. "Question is how without getting ourselves…"
He was cut of as another part of the roof collapsed, a heavy black orb settling into a crater it had just made in the floor tiles.
"Grenade!" the Commander shouted in warning. "Go!"
The mecha sized bomb contained a hefty amount of the latest explosives, equivalent to ten times its mass in old fashioned TNT. Hewer didn't hang around, pushing the accelerator flat down he rode the engine for all it was worth, leaving the falling Zaku and bursting through a large glass window as the explosive device went off, demolishing the supermarket and evaporating a few seconds worth of rainfall in the process.
"Target, two o'clock!" Cromwell called out. "He's got us in the open! Launching smoke!"
He tapped a control and popped the smoke dischargers on the turret sides, the phosphorous based charges rapidly covering the entire carpark in a band of thick white smoke. The last Zaku fired into it randomly, but it was just wasting bullets.
"Where to?" Hewer asked quickly.
"Straight on, the multi storey carpark." Cromwell ordered. "Get us on eye level with that thing."
"I don't think it was built with tanks in mind sir, I don't think its going to take our weight."
"Now's the time to find out. Do it."
They ignored the gateway, crumbling a low wall and flattening an abandoned car as they made their own entrance, rushing across the building between pillars as quick as they could, before they were noticed.
"There's the ramp." Cromwell spotted. "We need to be on at least the fifth floor."
"Pretty narrow squeeze sir, this is going to hurt the paint work."
He took the ramp as fast as he dared, Cromwell dipping the guns and adjusting the turret as the tank rose to prevent the long gun barrels becoming snagged. The paving beneath them cracked and split, but it held, taking the immense weight of the Type 61. One floor after another Hewer directed the tank, driving on both sides of the roadway and smashing any bollards in his way as the Zaku moved through the smoke, seeking its prey.
The tank slid a little, one of its tracks almost leaving the ramp as Hewer corrected.
"Steady." Cromwell reminded. "The smoke is clearing, but don't rush."
Suddenly, on a whim the Zaku peered into the car park, its blazing eye flashing as it locked onto the tank.
"Okay, ignore my last comment, rush!"
The Reaper stepped back and raised its gun, unable to bring it high enough to shoot cleanly at the tank the pilot instead decided to shoot through the floor. Explosions perforated the ground, a belly hit even through concrete would probably be enough to end this little game.
"Almost there!" Hewer called. "Last few inches."
"Make it fast, I can't move the guns on this ramp!"
Hewer gunned the engine for all it was worth, the famously reliable power plant straining a last few extra points of power to hurl them up the ramp, bouncing them onto level ground as concrete dust showered them.
"Drive for the edge! The floor is giving way!"
The impact of the Zaku cannon was weakening the carpark, a fact not helped by the heavy tank throwing itself around either. Sections began to collapse, folding in on themselves and crashing onto lower levels in thunders of dust and concrete blocks. Hewer aimed the tank for the edge, the head of the Zaku peering at them through the open side of the park, it's pilot desperately changing his aim as the tank came about to face him.
"Too slow." Major Cromwell gloated, then pulled his triggers.
Both rounds hit the neck of the suit, severing the head and sending it flying off in a pall of smoke and fire, smashing down several dozen yards away.
"We did it!" Hewer cheered loudly. "Six down!"
As the head dropped the body of the Zaku lost balance, falling in towards the carpark, smashing through the lower floors and cutting the support pillars as it did so. The floor in front of the stranded tank collapsed in sequence, like a wave getting ever closer to the heavy vehicle.
"Just one." Cromwell answered. "Seatbelts."
The tank was dropped nose first twenty feet, thankfully falling at a slow rate as the floor supported it fractionally longer on its descent. It landed on the back of the fallen Zaku, jolting its two crew members violently as it came to a rest on top of the defeated metal war machine, pieces of carpark bouncing from its upper surfaces and ringing the hull like a bell but not penetrating. It seemed like an eternity, but eventually the noises stopped.
"That was bracing." Cromwell exhaled. "Still with me down there?"
"Still here." Hewer wheezed. "Did we just go carpark surfing in a tank?"
"I don't think it'll catch on as a sport." The Major winced. "How are we doing?"
"The engine cut out, I'll give it a minute to cool down then try start it up again."
"Be nice to drive home, especially in our old girl." Cromwell affirmed. "Looks like rubble took out the main camera, I'm off topside to clear the dust from the vision blocks. Looks like we're doing it the old fashioned way."
He unlocked the top hatch and pushed, having to put some weight behind it to shove some accumulated debris out of the way. It was still raining and the cool rain was a welcome sensation after such a tense experience, one that almost got him killed. He was savouring it so much he almost missed the Blue metal hand shooting out of the river beside the carpark, smashing down and digging its fingers into the ground.
"Bloody hell, Big Blue is back!" Cromwell snapped, dropping in and closing that hatch. "Start her up!"
"I thought you said it can't swim!" Hewer accused, connecting the engine starter feeds.
"We'll argue about right and wrong when we're not dead!"
The engine turned over, the starter motor straining to engage the power plant, trying to coax the hard pressed heart of the beast to beat once more.
"Come on girl, come on, you've never let us down yet." Hewer closed his eyes. "You've still got it."
The tank shuddered as the engine kicked in, roaring like a Lion challenging an opponent with no sign of weariness.
"That's my girl!" The driver yelled in glee. "We've got power!"
With the engine online the auto loader clanked into action, picking up two more rounds and slamming them into the guns. It wasn't a second too soon, the Blue Zaku had seen them, dragging itself over, its left leg dragging behind like a crippled man as it advanced on the tank.
"Get us moving!" Cromwell commanded. "We better end him before he picks up a gun!"
Hewer pushed the steering levers, but the tank only moved a few feet, the sudden halt accompanied by a screech of metal sliding on metal.
"Now is a good time!" Cromwell demanded, swinging the turret. "He's on top of us!"
"We're grounded on that dead Reaper! The tracks have nothing to grip on!"
The Blue Zaku lunged for them just as the guns aligned, Cromwell pulling one trigger just a second too late, the round scraping past the head of the machine. Then it was on them, grabbing the gun barrels in its left hand and pushing them aside, the right hand clenching in a fist and slamming down on the turret roof.
"We need to move!" The Major shouted, trying to free the turret from the Reaper's grip with no luck, the mechanisms in the suits arms were far stronger than those used to rotate the tank turret.
"Working on it!" Hewer threw his levers in all directions, trying to improve the grip under the vehicle and find something to under them to work with.
The Zaku changed tactics, instead of beating the tank flat it grabbed a gun in both hands and lifted, causing a loud creak of stressed metal in the gun bearings.
"He's trying to lift the turret off!" Cromwell yelled. "I have a plan, it involves driving away from here!"
"If he keeps pushing I'll be able to grip! Just a bit more!"
"We won't have a turret in just a bit more!"
The left gun broke free, twisting aside and falling towards the floor of the tank. He still had the right gun and it was still loaded, but it was facing noting but sky.
At exactly the right moment the tank moved, finally finding something to push against. It didn't move much, sliding a few feet, but the sudden and rapid change of position threw the damaged Zaku off for a moment, it lost its grip and the tank slid back. It gave Cromwell a tiny window of opportunity and he seized it, raising his last gun so it pressed into the waist of the Blue Zaku, pointing upwards.
He was smiling widely as he fired, the muzzle pressed against the mech's belly. The round punched through the joint, travelled up inside the chest cavity and only then exploded opening up the torso of the mobile suit like a burst balloon. Unfortunately it also knocked the damaged gun from its mount, the recoil jolting it loose and filling the inside of the tank with black smoke.
"Out!" The Major ordered. "Time to go!"
Both men opened the hatches and fell out coughing, the fumes from the gun filling the tank and pouring from the open hatches. The stumbled down into the rain, getting clear in case something went catastrophically wrong with the tank, and skidded down the rubble of the carpark they were still mounted on.
The two men stood, instantly soaked by the rain, and looked back over their handiwork, the ruined mobile suits on either side of their battered tank.
"Now we got all six." Cromwell nodded proudly. "And a forward supply depot as a bonus."
"I'm frankly shocked we aren't dead." Hewer commented. "Though we are now very wet sir."
"There is that." Cromwell agreed.
"Do you have a plan sir?"
"Wait for the fumes to clear, then drive our girl home." He replied. "If we can't do that, we steal… I mean requisition a truck or something from the town. I saw some abandoned mail vans in a warehouse which might be still standing."
Hewer smiled. "As far as last battles go, this was a pretty good one."
"Had its moments." Cromwell agreed. "Of course this means we'll end up teaching conscripts who don't know a tank from an ice cream van."
"I guess that'll be lesson one then." Hewer chuckled. "Ready to go sir?"
"Yeah, lets get out of here." He nodded with a smile. "Take our slayer home."