Chapter 4

Canton Downs, Ridderkirk

"Let's go, General," I muttered. An SLDF division—why the locals insisted on calling them 'Regimental Combat Teams' I had no idea—would have long since boarded their droppers and headed for orbit.. Unfortunately that wasn't the case here.

I had kept my squadron moving, maintaining light contact, and so far the woofies had matched me. Canton Downs had been left behind as we broke off to the east. We were now moving through a vast network of river gorges and glacial deposits that formed a north-south running network, and preparing to wheel north. They weren't so steep that we couldn't go over them, but at the same time their composition was nearly impervious to mech-mounted sensors, which was why Apache was laying down networks of remote sensors—actually range instrumentation packs intended for training, but right now I'd take what I could get—as it scouted ahead of us (or behind us, depending on how you looked at it). Keeping in the terrain features would go a long way towards reducing the woofies' range advantage, and hopefully we'd be able to stay mobile.

A mech we hadn't gotten around to coming up with a designation for yet, stuck its front end around a corner and I lit it up with energy weapons. Between the lasers and light PPCs Durandal normally carried, I had packed another two light PPCs into the right torso and a rack of heat sinks into the left. The weapon bays really called for a missile battery or perhaps another ballistic weapon, but space and mass weren't the biggest constraints.

The gyro would tolerate no more than a two-ton differential between the two positions, including ammunition expenditures. This alone would be sufficient to keep one torso bay from being loaded exclusively with ammunition pallets. Of course, such a load was impossible in any case for there were no provisions for cross-connecting the two bays. The only good news was at least the designer had realized that someone might want to carry more ammunition for the rail guns so there were, at least, transfer tubes out to the arms. As for the rail guns themselves, they were proving to be just as...difficult as the original testers had said.

Theoretically a gauss rifle was an adjustable weapon. By pumping more power to the electromagnets and tinkering with the on/off timing sequence a projectile could be accelerated faster or slower, with benefits to damage and range going one way and accuracy going the other along with their corresponding penalties. In practice this kind of fine adjustment had proven too much for a mech-jock in the heat of battle, too finicky for most DIs, increased the likelihood of an unlucky hit knocking the electromagnets out of alignment, and frankly made the whole thing less robust than a weapon with a 'locked' configuration. Some units, mostly those that specialized in long-range sniping attacks, still practiced with it to give themselves an edge if they end up in close combat, but for most the electromagnets were locked down.

A rail gun, however, didn't use multiple electromagnets to accelerate a round. Instead each ceramic projectile was set in a metallic electricity-conducting sabot that fitted the two bars that ran the length of the barrel. By applying an electric charge to the bars, the sabot (and projectile) was accelerated down the barrel using the same principles as the 'Jacob's Ladder' found in most high school introductory-physics labs.

On the surface it was a very attractive weapon. It didn't need to store a charge since it drew power directly from the fusion plant and the projectiles were non-explosive. As a result, the possibility of the weapon—or its ammo—exploding under enemy fire wasn't a worry as was the case with a gauss rifle or autocannon. As the weapon took a feed directly from the power plant 'fine tuning' the weapon was far more practical than was the case with the gauss rifle. And compared to a gauss rifle, laser, or particle cannon, the weapon was simple, which meant it could be made more cheaply, more robustly, and more easy to repair.

Theoretically and relatively speaking, of course. In practice the conducting bars were the most expensive piece in the weapon, and they were not inexpensive.

But unlike the magnets of a gauss rifle, the twin rails that cared the charge were subject to friction. In fact, rail-wear had been one of the primary factors that had kept a practical rail-gun from being developed for centuries—a millennium at this point. New alloys made possible by the new superconductors had made a practical rail-gun possible, but the rails still had a distressing failure rate that was made worse by 'over-charging' a round or by rapid-firing 'under-charged' rounds. This was only partially compensated for by having three sets of rails in each gun, one set of spares above and below the primary. When one pair wore out or, and more commonly, broke, the spent rails would be ejected out the muzzle while another pair locked into place. Replacing them was difficult, in fact, only the center set could be replaced without entirely dismounting the weapon, but having the spares did add a measure of redundancy.

Armor shattered, and I watched one laser dug in deep, but I didn't stick around to find out if I had inflicted any serious damage. Trees ignited as I hit the jets and rode a tail of fusion plasma up and over one of the rock-sided, tree-crowned hills.

"Have you finished recalculating the heat profiles for the rail-guns yet?" I asked as I touched down. Only a handful of units had used rail-guns in field trials, and all had reported that accurate heat-profiles were specific to individual mechs or vehicles, and they needed to be recalculated every time a weapon was mounted. Durandal had had its railguns mounted for more than a decade, but heat profiles had never been worked up.

"I have an accurate profile for primary-mode fire," Durandal said. "Calculating a profile for rapid and over-charged modes will require further data to be gathered."

A ping announced the presence of rash-red-highlighted battle armor. I twisted to the right and flicked to railguns. The targeting ring flashed red and I stroked the triggers. Two tell-tales winked out.

"Damn it, Arthur, where are you?" I said. Big Horn troop was supposed to be playing rear-guard.

"Artillery," Durandal noted. A remote sensor had picked up the launch, more than a klick and a half away from my current location.

"Regulator, counter-battery fire!"

"Missile-defense is active," Durandal noted.

"Snap-fire, two rounds," I heard my arty command order over the open comm. until Durandal closed it.

The new improved Thumper artillery pieces could each put up to four rounds into the air on different ballistic paths so all struck the ground at the same time. There would be a delay after while the reloader shuffled ammunition, but each piece was rated for six rounds a minute at ten-second intervals. This could be violated—the possible max was around nine rounds per minute—but only at greatly increased wear on the tube.

"Missile count…twenty missiles in flight," Durandal reported. "Re-flagging two of the enemy lances as artillery."

I was turning back to the battle armor when a wave of LRMs washed over them. Howie Arnett's King Crab thumped down beside me—jumped down from one of the cliffs since it didn't have jets. It straightened and ruby laser beams briefly connected it to clustered battle armor before it opened up with its twin OmniX-20 autocannons. "Apache, Mahler, circle around, find that arty and put it out of commission."

"Got you!" Eugene Mahler gloated. If the woofies had any air support so far it hadn't shown itself, and his long end-around had taken him squarely into their rear areas. Not that the woofies had a whole lot of rear area, but if this turned into a long pounding match, which seemed likely unless someone did something, he was firmly astride their supply line and they didn't even know it. As it was, someone was about to do something. He was, and he was pretty sure that they weren't going to like it at all.

"Regulator, Apache, request fire mission, over." The remote deployed sensor/communications packs relayed this through a series of com-lasers until it reached the main force, thus denying the woofies even the remote possibility of detecting a micro-burst transmission.

"Apache, Regulator, send." This was accompanied by a rather dramatic sigh.

Eugene flipped to a reference grid and flicked it over the tactical map. Regulator already knew where they were, roughly speaking. That was good enough for infantry and other unarmored or lightly armored targets, or if they had the rounds to spare to saturate the area, but they had neither. With someone scouting for the arty they could put a round within fifty meters of a specific point, or illuminate a point-target with a targeting laser for a laser-guided round. Which was where Apache troop came in.

"Apache, Ten enemy artillery mechs. Five each, spread sixty meters from grid A6203 H5483 and J3924 O9262 in a pentagon formation." A command program on the flight in had created a grid-map two-hundred and fifty klicks on a side, with grid-spacing accurate to thirty meters. The alphanumeric designations were completely random to prevent giving any information away should the transmission be intercepted.

"Regulator, ten mechs, five each within sixty meters grids A6203 H5483 and J3924 O9262."

"Apache, Request TOT barrage and guided on command mechs."

"Regulator, TOT barrage. 18 dumb rounds, 6 guided, HE, no delay, dispersed 90 meters."

"Apache, roger, hold, over."

"Regulator, hold, over."

Eugene touched the control that brought up the command circuit and turned to his lance commanders. "Addy," he said, starting with Adrienne Hensly, "take first lance towards the southern group and have Corporal Schmidt light up the lance leader. Matt, third lance will accompany the command element against the north. You'll have to cover the First Sergeant while he designates that command-mech.

"Glenn I need you to take second lance south-west. I plan for us to come straight through that pass fast enough for them to follow, then make a high-speed run south and east to circle all the way around their main force. Talk with Regulator about setting up a barrage. I want them hammered if they decide to follow us.

"Questions? None? Outstanding. Get moving, you have five minutes.

"Regulator, Apache."

"Regulator,Go Apache."

"Apache, five minutes."

"Regulator, copy, out."

"You do realize that such elaborate radio procedures are superfluous with my capabilities," Blue Max noted.

Eugene knew this quite well, actually. With the technical and computational support available old-school radio procedures were largely unnecessary. In the case of calling for an arty-barrage they were cumbersome and took badly needed seconds, hence the sigh from Regulator. And, admittedly, if the threat had been a bit more…immediate, Eugene would have skipped the formulaic call-response cycle. Still…

"You can take the MechWarrior out of the forward observers, but you can't take the forward observer out of the MechWarrior," Eugene commented to the DI.

The DI considered this. Decision trees indicated that at this juncture some form of response was clearly indicated. Lacking sufficient information to formulate a coherent response the logical thing to do was gather more information. "I don't understand."

"The Brave Rifles recruited me during the Terra campaign."

"You were assigned to me shortly before the Battle of Chicago."

"That's right," Eugene said distractedly as he negotiated the mech up an embankment. "Before that I was a forward observer for first brigade's artillery in the 328th Royal. You can make things simpler, easier, and if we're under fire that's a good thing. But if you're not in a hurry, going through the steps can be fun."

"I do not understand…fun."

"Damn it."

The explosion hadn't been very big, a bit less than half a kiloton, and the terrain created blast shadows and funneled most of it away from us, but the local ecology was going to be years, likely decades, in recovering. Most standard mech-scale fusion plants do not go super-critical no matter what you read in books. Part of it is because the shielding built into the core that absorbs the free-neutrons also tends to do a good job of cooling and slow down the fusion reaction before it breaches the containment vessel. A bigger part of it is because the energy needs of a mech are miniscule compared to what a proper high-density fusion generator is capable of cranking out. As a result—and because it keeps the generals from having to worry that if one battle-damaged mech decides to explode it'll blast a kilometers-wide hole in their lines—the fusion engines used by mechs (and armor, etc) use low-pressure systems. Since the engine feeds are usually the first thing cut when engine damage approaches that kind of level, most explosions just aren't that big.

Warships, on the other hand, are energy hogs and do use high-density fusion plants, but they also have hundreds or even thousands of tons of armor.

The use of helium-3 in our plants only partially explains our machines performance. Since helium-3 uses a higher fusing temp/pressure setting than straight hydrogen, we get more power for a given plant size and our plants are lighter too boot. Of course, with the higher pressure and without the neutron-absorbing shielding layers, super-critical fusion events are somewhat more common for us.

"Mahler, report!"

"I'm down three mechs," came the snarled response. "You've seen Apache-Three-Two, yes?"

Three-Two must be the mushroom cloud.

"I see it," I said.

"The other two mechs have been destroyed with energy fire to prevent sensitive material from falling into enemy hands," he continued. "Two pilots recovered, Three-Two never made it out of his mech. Lance Three survived, but they have critical damage and are falling off to the south-west and will need to be recovered. I'm down to eight effectives and all of us have heavy damage. On the up side I think we've taken out their artillery. I've got five confirmed kills including both lance commanders. The rest are damaged…plus whatever Three-Two took with him."

"Good," I said. It wasn't good about the losses, but he knew that and knew that I knew that. "Big Horn, head east. Hide and prepare to fall on their rear as they come past. Comanche, begin to fall off to the north."

The 7th had finally landed to the north-east and were heading down the gorges towards us. It was a combined arms regiment with a very fluid company/troop system that allowed them to swap around sub-units with great ease. In addition to the regimental HQ, there were three battalion HQs (the regiment HQ would command the fourth when they broke into squadrons), two companies of hover armor, two companies of mounted (mechanized) infantry, four companies of tracked armor, and four companies of mechs, plus two arty batteries and an ADA section. In this terrain, unable to get up to speed, the hover-tracks were just so many sitting targets, and in close without maneuver room the tracks were just as bad off. To further complicate matters they were just as hard up for ammunition as we were.

"General Steiner."

A portion of the holographic 'sky' in my cockpit opened and General Steiner peered through it.

"How much longer, General?" I asked.

"Hours, maybe days," he said grimly, "that may be overly pessimistic on my part, but it's equally likely that it's wishful thinking. They weren't even on full-alert. I could speed it up by leaving everything short of light-arms, but entirely refitting an RCT would take long enough to make them practically worthless. We need to load at least the mechs, armor, and arty—the fighters at least can dock on the leg out—and make preparations to render the supplies left behind worthless. It's going to take a while just to rig all the ammo bunkers to blow."

I wasn't sure if that last point was worth the time or effort. The woofies far outclassed the Lyrans—which was why we were fighting a delaying action. The chances of their ammunition or spare parts being just the material the woofies needed to keep on rolling were slim to none. But I had learned something about invading someone else's home and then I had learned some more stuff about kicking someone out of your home once he's invaded. In those terms, blowing up your supplies rather than leaving them behind to be turned against you—regardless of whether or not they actually can be turned against you—made all kinds of sense.

"Understood," I said, turning back to my map. The hills were denying the woofies the full advantage of the longer effective-range of their energy weapons for now, but if General Steiner's estimates were right I was going to run out of them before we could lift.