The Battle of Copper Flats
Now, I gotta set one thing straight because the story's been blown up beyond any similarity to actual events. I never would've ejected if it wouldn't've made a difference. I'm not a sucker for lost causes. I'm lucky I didn't get waxed, and even luckier Felix1 didn't either. It was the right decision, but it breaks all the rules, and I'm lucky to be writing this.
Nine hundred ninety nine times of a thousand, ejecting in the middle of battle is the wrong move. Your mech, on top of carrying a load of delightful incendiaries and enough sensors to overwhelm most launch pad mission controllers, is heavily armored and equipped with a load of life support gear that'd sustain a small spaceship crew. I don't recommend stepping into a hostile environment without one.
Copper Flats was somewhere between "the Zsondári desert" and "nuke blast zone" on the hostile environment scale. The whole operation went sideways right at the start. Anti-spacecraft batteries opened fire as soon as we dropped into orbit; the outfit responsible for disarming them never even showed up. Collected their checks and were never heard from again.
This forced the pilots to do some 'creative navigating' to get us to the drop zones. Accounts after the fact agree that the stick jockeys were only moderately successful at pulling that stunt. I don't blame them a bit. I can't imagine it — making calculations to get us boots across unfathomable miles of vacuum without plowing through some random asteroid and scattering our atoms across two light years of space — only to drop out of plus2 in a hail of bullets that weren't supposed to be there. Not the sort of surprise I enjoy when showing up to the office. Naw, I blame the hosers who didn't do the job they were paid for.
We hit dirt more than a few klicks out of position, which prevented the unit leaders from contacting each other and coordinating things. Before you could cough twice, it was every company for itself and our single concern became survival rather than causing a little contractual mayhem.
Survival was going to be tough if the lifeboats couldn't get to us, and our recovery location happened to be defended by a mag shield that was still operating. There's a lot of metal in a lifeboat and the pilot'd be a tad miffed if he came swooping in to save the day only to get bounced over a mountain range off that shield. So that's what I told sarge.
Except he never answered. If I'd been paying attention to the HUD I would have known he wasn't there; his glowy dot was nowhere to be found. Neither was the LT. Or the Cap. Of the 200 or so boots I dropped into the flats with, my HUD was only picking up 75, and none of my superiors were in the group. The radio squawked non-stop with calls from hysterical boots to officers who never made it to the ground. Terrified kids asking for instructions, endangering their lives by making a pile of noise and standing still.
I jumped into the next radio pause. "All ya'll who plan on dying, just keep on bleating like a flock of panicked lambs. The rest of you, shut your maws." The silence that followed betrayed the training these boots'd had; when given a direct order they obeyed. "We're a bunch of strangers to each other at the moment, but our survival depends on working together. The lifeboat'll be here in the neighborhood of 18 minutes, and her destination is currently underneath a mag. If we want to get home we gotta get that shield down and set up a defensive perimeter around the recovery zone."
Another pause. Good, they were listening. Time to get deployed. We'd each been parked on the same bit of dirt we landed on for over two minutes, and every second not moving was a chance for our hosts to get a bead. A mech might be armored, but a ground artillery crew's got enough fireworks at its disposal to send any boot home in a box.
I got on the horn again. "The RZ3 is a meadow next to the stream on the west side of the town we were supposed to flatten. The shield generator is somewhere in town, along with a battery or two of ground artillery. We'll have to take them all out to even have a chance of getting off this rock, so let's do this in three teams. One to take out the shield generator, and two to hunt down whatever batteries are hiding in town."
I made a circle around one-third of the dots on my HUD. "I'll take this group from the north and start looking for batteries." Making a circle around the other two groups I said, "I need a volunteer to lead each of these."
The volunteer for the east section piped up before there was even a pause, "I'll get the mag, Cap. Name's Tasha Ito."
"I'm not a captain, but thanks, Ito. Shouldn't be too hard to find. Mag that size drinks a lot of power, so there's likely to be a sizable sub-station nearby. Let us know when you find it, it's liable to have folk parked nearby to keep strangers like us from poking about. You'll be Green Group. Still needing someone to lead the other half of our capture-the-flag team."
One of the southern dots squawked, "I'll head that up and meet you in the center of town, Cap. Can we be red? I always liked red."
"Go get, 'em Red, but I'm no captain."
"Looks like that's probably changed." It was a flattering remark, the pondering of which was liable to get me killed wasting time in self-adulation. Mechs move. That's a big part of how we generate so much confusion. And stay alive. So I got back on the radio, "We got jobs to do, let's hop. My group's Black." Eleven minutes left.
Red Group's volunteer leader was called Hank and he spoke with a drawl. We coordinated a house-to-house search for any missile battery that could give our rescue boat trouble. I would've loved to hire him after the Flats;4 he was good. Quick on his feet, and did a good job with the sweep. Only lost seven guys, which was fantastic considering the circumstances (I lost nine). The missile campers had a head start on us. Their ironic disadvantage was being weighed down by missiles; they couldn't move fast and gave up their position with every launch. Once we had them dialed in, it was just a matter of closing the distance before they could get a shot off and rabbit away. Shame it cost us sixteen guys.
Miss Ito was dealing with a troop of mechs who had a lot more creativity at their disposal. Once Hank and I'd mopped up the missile campers we headed her direction, at which point she promptly disappeared from the HUD. Couldn't raise her on the radio either. That meant one of two things: one, she'd eaten a missile, or two, she'd been hit by a demp5. Lifeboat was due in six minutes.
"Green Group," I said, "someone fill me in." The response came from some panicked boot.
"Ito's froze. We got too many rabbits here to get a bead on and the rescue boat is gonna be here and we can't get the shield down. Why did they bring a demp, let alone use it? And..."
"OK, got it." I cut him off. Little lamb was bleating his heart out. The demp shook him up pretty good. Probably standing out in the open too, perfect missile bait. "Black and Red'll be there in a minute, help you root out the rabbits. Keep your head, get some cover and you'll get home."
It took ninety seconds for Hank and I to bring our teams to the substation. The little lamb was worm food6 by the time we got there. "Any of you greens got a 20 on Ito?" None of them did, so I asked Felix to overlay my map with a gradient of the relative densities of carbon fiber in the area. Ito was lit up in the middle of a road like a Christmas tree. So I hustled my way over there, laid Felix spread-eagle on the dirt and hopped out.
Usually that's not necessary. A mech's robotic arms and hands can have just as light a touch as its pilot's; its internal sensors do an incredible job of mimicking the guy inside. But a cockpit's exterior release is usually in a recessed panel too small for a mech's fingers to get into. I could've carried Ito's rig to the RZ with her inside, but that would've taken longer and time was getting scarce; recovery was in three minutes and we still needed to get the mag shield down. It wasn't some heroic gesture. And I didn't know there was still excitement to be had.
As I ran across the dirt, a couple locals started taking pot-shots at me from a nearby window with rinky-dink projectile weapons. They missed; having just been the unwilling hosts to a mech battle they were probably more amped on adrenalin than they'd ever been in their lives. It took me a while to find the lever, but when her cockpit cracked open Ito evacuated like a kid on the last day of school. While I'd been occupied with Ito's manual release, the locals figured they'd try and make off with Felix, so Ito and I exchanged words with them about that. And punches. In the end they agreed they'd made a poor choice and would like to keep living, so we shooed them off. That's when Ito and I got triangulated by the other side's rabbits.
Or rather, our empty mechs did. We heard the other guys approaching and dove in the open door of an empty house. Three mechs, puzzled by our pair of abandoned rides, gathered and looked back and forth between the two pilot-less tanks. They wouldn't pay attention to two puny skinjobs wandering about, so for the time being we were safe. And then an idea occurred to me which I blurted to Ito.
"Without our rides, we could probably walk right up to the power sub-station and every mech on this rock will ignore us." Ito agreed, so I continued, "You seen anything ferrous laying around here? Anything long as a man's arm?"
"There was a hunk of chain around the back side of that building," she pointed, "across the street."
"That's perfect," I replied. We were about to test my theory about mechs ignoring skin jobs on the three who were still trying to figure out what to do with our rides. Taking a deep breath I strode out of the building and started crossing the street. Ito joined me. The building she'd marked was 40 yards directly ahead of us, the opposing mechs maybe the same distance away to the west. I was in the middle of trying to decide if I should play it cool and stroll when my nerve broke; I just sprinted across. I hoped Ito couldn't tell I'd just chickened out.
I picked up the chain. It was perfect for what I had in mind, as long as Ito knew where the sub-station was. Maybe I should have asked earlier. "You ever get a 20 on that station?"
"About three blocks that way," she pointed again. We had about two minutes and change left and a 500 yard dash before we could climb back in our mechs and high-tail it back to the RZ. So we ran. Hard. Ito asked me what the plan was. I couldn't answer her without losing speed and didn't want to risk it. So I just pointed the same direction she just did and prayed that I was right about the mechs.
Luckily, I was. The fence surrounding the power sub-station was tall and topped with razor wire. There was no time to find a way inside, so it was do-or-die time. With another prayer I tossed the chain over the fence and once again someone heard me. Before the chain could land across the high-voltage cables, a blinding arc leaped from one cable up to the chain and down to the parallel one. The arc continued for a moment or two, and ended with an explosion. "Hope that did the trick," I muttered and started running back to our rides.
The mechs who'd previously didn't know what to do about our tanks hustled to check out the commotion; we passed them on our way back. Which left me free to crawl back into Felix and get a move-on. And with 40 seconds left I scooped up Ito and busted my way to the RZ. "Shield's down. Everyone pray the boat decides to show up." I was apparently brimming with religious fervor that day. And with 8 seconds to spare Ito and I made it back to the RZ.
- My mech.↑
- Plus-lightspeed. Faster than 2.99×108m ⁄ s↑
- Recovery Zone↑
- Mini drone had his name, got him right before the rescue boat sounded the callback.↑
- Directed Electromagnetic Pulse. These have the nasty effect of rendering inert every piece of electronics they hit. For a mech pilot that means your ride is stuck in whatever position the pulse found you in and you're powerless to do anything about it. Except maybe wait for the missile with your name on it or get forgotten and die slowly of exposure. A mech's worst nightmare is getting locked inside his own ride like that.↑
- Or would have been if there was anything left to bury, high-speed meetings with missiles being what they are. Mechs move.↑