"Oh damn, they really went to town here." I muttered.

"Yeah. Not pretty is it?" The gunner's head swung back and forth slowly as she examined the scene, while the Raptor's torso rotated along with her head. Sitting so far forward the rotation was out of sync with the speed her head moved. Raptors are not easy to get used to.

The place had been dubbed "New Hope" by the citizens. It was a recent joiner to the Coalition State of Lone Star after years of abuse by Pecos Raiders. The infantry company and attack helicopter flight that had based there to handle defense and policing had been enough to defend the people, but not the town. Most of it was damaged, some of it was still burning as we and a rainstorm moved in.

We are Recon Company, Third Armored Battalion, Lone Star. We couldn't make this right. That was a job for the 'Smashers and 'Raisers of the Battle Company, they had the hands to help do so. But the sixteen of us, eight pilots and eight gunners for eight Raptors, could make it even.

I, we, call them Raptors. That's not their offical name. Officially they are the IAR-5 Hellfire. Most of us have seen actual hellfire by this point and we aren't that keen on the name anymore. Most of us have seen the actual raising of hell too, but the 'Raiser pilots keep the name anyways. To us, the IAR-5 is the Raptor. You can argue over whether we mean "bird of prey" or "dinosaur" if you like. Both work.

I took another look around. It doesn't move when I do that. The main guns, gatling rails on the tips of our wings and plasma ejectors on the front end of the body, and the armored tube assemblies for missiles that form the wings, follow the gunner's gaze. It's more efficent that way. Neither of us has a direct view of outside anyways, you put on the helmet and you see through the VR interface. It's sophisicated, and it's proof against a brave or crazy guy with a satchel charge going after the cockpit, which is a real problem when you're only a few meters tall.

Ruined storefront, advertizing "Bread and" something. Butter, probably. Hard things to come by here towards the lower end of Coalition-controlled Lone Star. Half the building was collapsed, but it hadn't burned. Door was intact, shut. So were most of the windows. Not looting, then. "They were trying to make a point." I observed to the gunner.

"We'll just have to make our own point then," she replied. Smart girl. That's mostly what we do, make the point, teach the lesson that no attack on the Coalition States goes unavenged, no insult unanswered. It's a harsh lesson, but you usually have to teach it one group at a time. Communication is poor at best for the Pecos folks.

Command said they had a clue where to go from here. I turned the Raptor south, which was a no-brainer. Now we would hunt.

It's dark out there. I've seen pictures of what dark meant pre-Catacylsm. It's actually sort of pathetic. There are only three or four places in the States today where you can't look up at the night sky and see the Milky Way. Every Coaliton vehicle is equipped for celestial nav, we learn it all in school. Have to, the satellites don't work anymore, haven't for a hundred years. There are a lot of theories, but basically as far as we can tell somebody's still up there, probably the old Lagrange colonies, and they're shit-scared of what's going on down here and don't want any part of it, so they just shoot down anything that comes up from Earth and ignore anything that anybody down here tries to tell them.

That makes a hell of a lot sense. We're shit-scared of what's going too. Pity we can't step back from it like them.

Sure, maybe you're not scared. Maybe you're in one of the fortress-cities. Maybe you're up on 17-or-above in Chi-Town, behind ten feet of superalloy plate and only Emperor Prosek himself knows how many Army grunts, ISS 'Specters, and Dog Boys. Or maybe you're just batshit insane.

Out here, it's forward echelon. Being in Recon Company is about as forward echelon as it gets. We're out there, no buddies, no backup, just you, your gunner, your Raptor, and prayer if you bother. We're forward all right. We're right at the falling-off place.

And there's all kinds of stuff over the edge you don't want to meet. Take the Worm Wraiths for example. Look like men from distance. Wear men's clothes. Use men's weapons, nobody's sure how they learned. Live in our buildings and towns when they can. You don't see many here, we're too far east. But you do see them sometimes.

Did I mention they're made of slimey worm-things, are as tough as light power armor, and attempt to kill any human they lay eyes…or whatever they use for eyes…on?

"Heavy weapon on the three!" God bless this gunner. She's a good girl, good eyes. My last gunner was a better shot, but silent, creepy as hell, and not much help. I threw a few hopskips into a full stride and watched a rocket pass in front of us. The torso spun fast; you could make yourself sick in a Raptor pretty easy, it takes about a second to spin the torso 360.

She hosed down the Wraiths the underwing lasers. They're little things, not much more than rifle power on a turret, but they're the only weapon we've got that doesn't eat ammo or vast amounts of power. They didn't go down, so she gave them a gentle tap with the rails while I gave another one a kick, jinking and juking everything I've ever learned driving a Raptor. Small arms, laser and ion, sizzled off our armor plate.

"This isn't going well," my gunner observed. We were in a box canyon, big, but a box. I wasn't sure I could get us out without picking up a rider, and then we were well and truly screwed.

"Plasma ejector safety release." The ejectors are the big guns that don't eat ammo. Problem is, they're a serious power drain, with a separate capacitor system to keep them going, and you have to be careful with how you use them. The pilot is usually the commander of the Raptor. We decide where the thing goes after all, and all the firepower in the world is no good if you can't get it the right place.

She actually grinned. I didn't know it at the time, I checked the cockpit logs later like I usually do. She was new after all. I haven't got time to be checking out how my gunner's reacting while it's going on. But her shots were straight on, laying plasma over the crowd at the end of the box.

I'd have some choice words for the company commander about our maps. We were gone. Back to the hunt, with that spot on the map marked for attention by Battle Company ASAP. Fifteen minutes, they said. The 'Raisers were moving in.

Thing of beauty, that is. I've seen it on occasion, and the 'Raisers are worth watching by the time you've lost all sympathy for the target. Usually, you start with none anyways.

Raining again. "Mood music." Crazy girl, but I'd started to like her. And it was. We were south, big storm coming in over the Gulf, hurricane season. Rain is something you celebrate most of the time. Anyone in Full Environmental Battle Armor or a vehicle can operate in it. But they rarely want to. Rain ruins your vision, soaks everything's temp down in infrared. About the only thing it doesn't stop is radar, and that's got its own problems.

I'm pretty sure our Raptor would have blown water off its muzzle like a dog and grinned if it could. Rain didn't bother us much. We're forward echelon, recon. We like the rain. It's easy to hide in. Yes, you can hide a Raptor. You can hide anything with a big enough hill, just like we were right now, poking our nose over it.

"Got movement, sending it over." Window-within-my-view popped up. I sometimes wonder how they ever managed to fight the big wars before the Catacylsm, before modern VR, before our sensor tech, before even electronics. How had anyone ever done anything?

"Little guy, humanoid, bulky. Titan scout." I judged. Titan Robotics. Purveyors of the finest combat robot walkers that ain't an IAR model. Titans are old designs, underarmed, but they're tough. And despite their bulked up rounded bodies and dome heads, they're also more agile then they've seemingly got any right to be. I've seen a Titan assault model tapdance before. Literally, I am not at all kidding, I worked with a merc pilot who knew how to make a fifteen-meter-tall robot tapdance. A 'Smasher could probably do the same thing, but it's not as big. As for us, no way was a Raptor ever going to do that.

"I don't want to be taking on stuff like this on my first run." Combat jitters? This girl had hosed Worm Wraiths without blinking. I suppose it was because those are infantry. Supernatural-horror infantry, but infantry, and therefore small. An IAR isn't that big either, only a few meters. But it's a lot bigger then the guys out there in Full Environmental Battle Armor or power armor, usually a lot tougher and more deadly.

"Relax," I breathed, partially to myself, scouting raises your blood pressure. "He's not radiating. He might just be out for a walk." On guard, you generally light off your radar and any other active sensors. New Hope's garrison had provided images and electronics fingerprint for the vehicles that had taken part in the raid. We weren't close enough to make out more than a silhoutte and he didn't have his actives on though, no point in jumping to conclusions.

Command acknowledged our target-designating. Without satellites, we operate RPVs instead for over-the-horizon comms. They don't make good scouts though. They're too easily shot down or fooled; it takes a sentient mind to recognize or resist a psionic or magical illusion. So the Raptor crews soldier on.

"Just lit off." All efforts to remain calm go out the window. Few things focus the mind like short-range painting by hostile radar.

"Locking movement. Missile safety release, don't shoot unless he does." I replied. Three-centimeter band radar, Red Vixen, a common enough aftermarket upgrade for Titans. Just because we were well inside his detection range didn't mean he saw us. We were not moving, one of the best forms of camoflague known to man, and he wasn't seeing enough of us to paint a picture of a Raptor, just a bump. If he was really sharp, that might be enough. We'd know in a moment.

"Positive match on his emissions, he was in the raid…his radar's off." Good girl. I wish my last gunner had been as helpful.

"Roger, uplinking to Command." That got things rolling. Other Raptors would be routed to try and find a way around this guy, which shouldn't be hard, and any of his friends, which would probably be a bit tougher. Turning a flank is the second oldest military manuver in the book, right after forming a line.

Why had our friend turned on his radar? Spooked, almost certainly. What by? That's like some kind of fear-based Rorschach test. Whatever creepiness or horrible death is drifting through your mind at the moment might in fact really be out here. About the only thing you don't have to worry about here is werewolves. They mostly live in Canada.

So we sat, watching our friend, and watching around us. The enemy you can see is not the only one, after all. And the one we could see faded in and out, flickered, or stayed constant for minutes on end depending on the whims of the rainstorm.

We relay a more-or-less constant feed back to Command, via a directional sheathed antenna, but the reverse is not true; their communications don't have the virtue of being pointed away from the bad guys usually. RF isn't common, so you don't spread it around in case somebody notices…usually. And there are dead zones you have to stumble into to find. But when Command talks to you, they've got something worth saying.

"Found a camp. Activate taccom and eliminate any hostiles." Taccom is what you use when you're throwing away the quiet schtick and want coordination. Instead of a continous feed to command, we send one to every other Raptor in Recon Company, and they send theirs back. We all see each other, we all see what bad guys the others see, we all have a pretty good idea of how each other's Raptors are doing. At no effort on our part.

"Guns armed." She was good, but new. I looked at the taccom map and the posistions of the other Raptors, and the camp.

"Negative, missiles, I don't want to spend the time fucking around with this guy." I replied. He was a Titan scout, and severely underarmed; the best gun he might have would be an aftermarket P-beam rifle that was about as good as one of our two plasma ejectors. We could eat him alive with the rails, lasers, and ejectors, but Titans are built to last, and knocking him out would take time, thirty or forty-five seconds. That was a short eternity for how time is measured in combat. "The camp's gonna have a lot of individual vehicles that need stomping, and they're gonna run every which way."

"Four AP, locked." That was good choice and I said so. "Launching. Radar to active."

And we went over the top. The Titan was trying to get back up. He did the stupid thing and fired, rather than the smart thing and blow his reactor emergency shutdown to surrender. For that he received a double dose of plasma that burned through his badly managled armor and fried his reactor shielding.

An uncontrolled fusion reaction like this isn't as impressive as it sounds. But it is impressive in one way: when the bottle shatters and the genie gets out, it burns. I flinched, even though the IR view has built-in dampeners, even though we were still a couple hundred meters away, as reactor plasma jetted out of the hole in the Titan's chest. He was out of the fight, the pilot probably had a lethal case of rad poisoning, and we were headed for the base camp.

Three Raptors had hit the place with six-missile frag spreads, airburst. Anyone without a full suit of FEBA on was dead, missing whatever bodyparts of the suit they'd had off, or one lucky bastard. Anyone with a suit on had about fifty-fifty odds. We met a hovercycle screaming in our direction, but he didn't make it; my gunner threw a hail of laserfire at him and he tried to avoid, didn't manage it, lost some control surfaces, hit the ground, and bounced. He'd be smeared over the inside of his armor at best.
Taccom was saying that the other Raptors had charged in behind their missile volleys and were hunting folks scattering on foot. It was a futile effort; a man on foot cannot flee from a Raptor. One was engaged with a modified Big Boss ATV that had apparently been up and running, but that was going to be onesided fight. The Big Boss series are more or less the size of, and armored like, a Pre-Cataclysm tank, but they're short on guns even more than Titans.

Which brought me to our next problem.

"OH FUC-" echo'd over the comms. Raptor Four's taccom signal went down.

"Assault Titan, Assault Titan! Shit, he just grabbed Four and threw him!" There are things we're more afraid of then getting too close to something that big, but there are damn few of them. Raptors are small, light. That's our strength. But the bigger boys, they play mean. And they can pound you to shit or do just what the Assault Titan had done.

There was a thudding over the comms and Raptor Five's gunner swearing, his portside missile tubes down. The thuds would probably be the Assault Titan's heavy railgun making the connection.

"Warm up the missile tubes, all of them, I don't care what we've got loaded." A Raptor has sixteen missile tubes. Each has two minimissiles. They are our best weapon, our sword and shield in time of trouble, because they let us put out a god-awful amount of damage in one go. A single full volley from a Raptor will match that from much heavier walkers.

Over the rise, and then we hit a patch of scree. Things like this aren't on the map, which is a real problem. I fought the controls, kept us upright, but not stable enough to fire. Then we were on dirt again, and we could shoot. Sixteen missiles roared off; six AP, six frag, four plasma, the standard tube loadout.

The Assault Titan was standing in the middle of the camp, over what I hoped wasn't Raptor Four. Surrounding it was the usual post-battle wreckage and bodies, and the occasional apparently intact tent or vehicle; the tents were probably perforated to hell, but the vehicles might be okay.A couple of apparently inactive Scout Titans were around too.

Raptor Five and Raptor Three circled the bigger robot, slashing at it with laser and railgun fire and trying not to take hits in return as our missile volley arrowed in. The Assault Titan spun on one heel, showing the agility of its kind, and shot down some of the missile flight. Great, not only was it big, it had some hotshot gunner bastard.

Our Raptor's computers were reporting at least six good hits, and a few misses. "Second volley?" asked the gunner. This one could only be twelve missiles.

I turned hard right at five hundred meters, not wanting to get closer. Railgun fire shot over our heads as I ducked the Raptor by relaxing the knees; you can't do it any other way with the walker's body structure and it doesn't bend forward. "Second volley."

Raptor Five took more heavy-calibur railgun hits while we set up for the shot, tearing away most of the already damaged left wing structure. It swayed, badly unbalanced, the pilot fighting for control, and then the top armor blew off and two ejection seats fired into the rain as "Ejecting!" came over the comms.

"Now, hit him now!" I urged. We had to give the Assault Titan's gunner something else to worry about. Not everyone tries to kill ejected pilots, but the supply of good will between Pecos Raiders and the Coalition States is very small.

"Launching." Twelve more missiles. We were dry. Five hundred meters is long range for our plasma ejector, comfortable for both rails and lasers…both of which are more suitable for anti-personnel then anti-armor work. Again this bastard hotshot Titan gunner shot some of the missiles down, but not as many. Eight hits from this volley, but most of the hits were frag: they'd do damage, but not the sort of armor-rending damage that we really needed.

"Three, if you've got missiles left now would be a good time." We were plinking away with railguns and lasers, putting out enough firepower to level a block of houses, but the Titan still had enough ceramisteel plate to stop it. He was hurt though, big craters in the torso armor, what looked like half a thigh blown away, but still agile, still dangerous. Laserfire sizzled against our armor.

"Negative, he shot down our flights, fratricided." Damn! Whenever someone manages to shoot down missiles, like our hotshot Titan gunner friend, some of them will detonate. We try to program the guidance system to spread them out a little, but sometimes there isn't time or distance for the missiles to do that. And a frag warhead detonating in the middle of a flight can take them all down.

"We need the plasma ejectors," my gunner warned. "I'm just ruining his paintwork here."

"I know, I know. Slashing pass, three hundred, stand by." I skidded the Raptor into a sharp turn, barely avoiding a salvo of heavy railgun slugs. "Take the shot."

"Firing." The plasma ejectors vomited star-stuff at the Titan as I spun the lower torso again, while the upper never moved a wit and the ejectors fired again. "Winged him."

The Raptor abruptly tilted crazily to one side and I had to fight the controls to restablize it as heavy-calibur railgun fire thundered into us, amputating the starboard wing railgun. My gunner muttered a curse.

Raptor Three had taken the chance to close in and pump out a couple of shots at the Titan as well while we were distracting it at least, and I could make out moving parts in the damaged leg. We had to retask our lasers to dealing with some infantry who were getting ideas thanks to their big friend, and the remaining railgun was running low.

"Another pass, hit the leg or we're going to be in deep trouble." I turned in again, praying to whatever deities might happen to be listening, and heard the plasma ejectors roar to life through our armor. The Titan was trying to shield his damaged leg from us, but he couldn't from both Raptors.

We missed the leg, hitting higher up. "Dammit!" my gunner blurted, and I swung hard, trying to avoid the inevitable retaliation and escaping the railgun but not the lasers. Armor damage warnings sounded. Raptor Three closed in and fired. The shots were too high, and for a moment I wondered if they'd even aimed.

Then I realized they had, just not at the leg. The Titan abruptly wobbled and started to fall with terrible slowness, increasing as it tilted, finally crashing down. The noise stopped, abruptly, as it does sometimes. The Raiders were cowering, and rightly so. We slowed down and surveyed the field for movement.

"Splash. Cockpit kill." Raptor Three's gunner called.

"Confirm." I agreed. "Good shooting, Three."

"You cracked it," he returned. "We taking these guys' surrenders?" Raiders were coming out with their hands up. Command jumped on him for thinking otherwise, but having seen the town I didn't really blame him.

Other Raptors crested the ridge we'd charged over, having dealt with other scouts. Three detailed himself to looking after the crew of Raptor Five, and one of the new arrivals dismounted his gunner to check on Raptor Four.

One job over. Wait for recovery.