Chapter 25 – Children's Crusade
Four A-20 Warthogs clawed their way skyward, desperate to get to their assigned posting as soon as possible. Ahead, the badly damaged Venti arced somewhat gracefully toward its destination, a flat plain at the bottom of a steep-walled but wide crevasse. Just before it would have dashed itself to bits, the engines blasted the Sa'arm destroyer to a survivable terminal velocity – survivable for its organic cargo, if not for the ship itself.
As the tripedal beings inside bailed out of the now permanently immobile spacecraft, the attack aircraft barrelled down to lay severe punishment. Unfortunately the surviving Sa'arm managed to escape the doomed vessel before the bombs started to fall. The Venti was turned into so much scrap, but by that time the only thing organic in the ship were the bodies of a mere handful of already deceased Sa'arm and the contents of the food tanks.
As they struggled down the valley, the Sa'arm discovered two things about this world: it was cold, and it was covered in snow and ice. They had no warm covering for their bodies, and they had no vehicles that could cope with the slippery conditions. Soon they were floundering through the snow on foot, heading to the point where the valley bisected toward the previously detected sources of food and warmth. Their machines were left behind uselessly stuck in the snow.
The Warthogs were quickly back at a Martello some distance away, getting re-armed with fragmentation bombs by a scratch crew of Fleet Auxiliary. At a much closer Martello Captain (Cadet) Hollister was busy preparing the weapons there for the purpose the tower was originally intended for: an artillery fire base.
From the northwest, six enormous turreted vehicles were barrelling on extra-wide tracks across the tundra at impressive speed.
And from the southwest, a shiny white vehicle with gold piping and extra-wide balloon tires raced as fast as it could to the scene of the upcoming battle. A concubine in an ill-fitting, armoured, heated suit at the controls – Sergeant-Major Blondell's Greg being the only person on the entire planet who knew how to drive a stick.
Out in space, the four crewmen aboard the surviving pair of Star Arrows cursed impotently. They were weaponless and, thanks partially to their inexperience and partially to their excitement, had mismanaged their fuel consumption and couldn't make it to the fuel depot without a long period of slow coasting. They were now debating whether to continue coasting, or whether to bail out and head for Thule through the transporter nexuses built into their craft.
Suddenly, a trickle of a voice sounded unexpectedly in their ears. "Out of pickles and low on gas d'er, b'ye?"
"Who?" asked one pilot, but the other hushed him immediately.
"We could use a hand. ID yourself."
Suddenly all four men gave a shout of surprise at once. The silhouette of an Archerfish-class Patrol Combatant flashed dimly and briefly – and was less than 10 metres from the nearest Star Arrow's starboard side, looking long, lean and lethal. In the brief flash of navigational lights before the form rejoined the inky blackness of space, they spotted "PC-022 CSS HALIBUT". "Seein' as you lot needs some gas, yer jes' stays where you're to, side by each d'ere, an' I'll comes where you're at," advised the anonymous Newfoundland-accented voice.
At the primary defence line, a scattering of kids all between 11 and 13 years of age held nervously onto their RLI-1's and tried to aim through the visors of their armoured battle suits as behind them adults frantically dug trenches with ice augers, entrenching tools and literally anything they could get their insulated, heated mitts on. Ensign Greg Andrews fretted and shouted encouragement to the diggers, pausing to look up the valley from whence the enemy would be coming.
A dozen sailors emerged from the Kitten transporters behind the lines, carrying with them strange-looking bundles of metal stakes and bales of long, extra-spiky barbed wire. The stakes had been designed on an old World War I barbed wire fence design someone had uncovered in a history book, and swiftly replicated. The grand plan: to recreate, using ice and snow rather than mud, muck and mire, the trenches of Flanders Fields.
The good news was that the Sa'arm were getting bogged down in the snow and could find no purchase on the ice, delaying them. As digging under the snow either hadn't yet occurred to them or was not an option, they were also still quite visible to their aerial pursuers.
It was not all good news, however. Navy Sergeant Peele had underestimated the level of training required to fly fixed-wing VSTOL aircraft when they were used to flying spacecraft. He had counted on using the same training technique that Orville and Wilbur Wright had used: give it the old college try. That meant that he and his three fellow pilots lacked the requisite amount of skill and practise required to efficiently operate their metal steeds against an enemy that was simultaneously firing back, moving and, at range, incredibly tiny. They'd taken out the remaining wreckage of the Venti and a handful of the Sa'arm, but could do no better without risking too much. They were reduced to taking potshots and providing Samantha with desperately needed aerial reconnaissance.
As the six Rommels dashed through the snow to the battle zone, Samantha received a call from orbit announcing the arrival of a tiny scratch fleet that Admiral Van De Graaf had dispatched from Hesperusat. The fleet consisted of a handful of corvettes, the PC CSS Halibut and the cruiser CSS Ajax. The conversation was brief, and from Samantha's end, biting.
"Thank God, Captain. How many Marines have you got?"
Samantha blinked. "What kind of shore bombardment can you give us?"
"If we could at least get some of the concubines off, that would help. What transports do you have?"
"How many of your men can use the RLI-1 blaster?"
"I doubt if anyone's even seen it from closer than 10 metres. Probably none."
Dammit, she thought, this Captain is far too fond of the word "none". "Can any of you fuck counter-clockwise?" she growled, her patience absolutely gone.
"No- what? What?"
"Never mind. You can't bombard the Swarm from space, you can't come down here and shoot, you can't even get more than a few of us off. You're more use to me in space, keeping these dickheads from getting reinforcements. Send a message back to Hesperus – we need at least a company of fully-trained, armed and equipped Marines right fucking now. Not now. Not right now. Right fucking now. Got it?"
"Aye, aye, Sir." The voice that snapped back was rich with respect for someone they knew to be both so young and yet so determined.
As she broke the connection, she muttered angrily to the unnamed captain, "Keep it up. I've got a bet on ya." She then added with considerable venom, "Hoser." Her tank crew chuckled.
At that point, her tanks crested the last hill, to find themselves on the top of the valley wall, where the slope was gentle enough that they'd enjoy a clear field of fire. "AI," she requested, "broadcast for all combatants."
"All combatants are on circuit, Optio Redburn."
"OK, the tanks are in position." She heard a general cheering. "We still have some time to prepare. They're not in sight yet. We're going to prepare a killing zone just up the valley from here. Hollister, start zeroing in your artillery on that flat spot of valley floor about 2,000 metres east of our present position."
"Aye aye, Optio Redburn."
She pointed to the cadet commanding the second tank troop with her pace stick. "Take your three tanks over to the far side of the valley. Get them dug in hull down and fire a ranging shot or two into the kill zone – then cease fire and wait for my word."
"Aye aye, Optio Redburn."
"Everyone, we're going to try what's called a time-on-target. When I give the word, we let fly timed so that our cannon and tank shots all arrive at the target at the exact same time. AI, what I need from you is a delay that means that when each gun fires, its round reaches the target at the same time as every other gun does. You won't be firing – you'll be inhibiting firing."
"That is within my limitations, Optio Redburn."
At that moment, a Kitten swooped in and landed gracefully behind Samantha's Rommel. Six Fleet Auxiliary barrelled out of the transporter nexus and frantically began digging foxholes. As soon as the rough holes had been scratched out of the packed snow, they raced back to the Kitten – but were only gone long enough to bring back with them six tripods and six RLA-20 belt-fed laser machine guns. They were followed by six diminutive cadets bearing the heavy load of a canister of belt-linked crystals each. The six big adults dashed back to the nexus and returned again seconds later, bearing another pair of canisters each. All six guns now had 3,000 rounds of ammunition apiece. The cadets then proceeded to give a brief, hurried lesson to the adults in how to handle the belt-feed of an RLA-20.
Four puffs of smoke rose from the heart of the killing zone. The first of the three Martellos had its shots ranged.
"Swarm approaching kill zone," reported Navy Sergeant Howard Peele from his perch in the clouds.
The ranging shots came from the second Martello, then from Samantha's trio of tanks. On target.
Samantha checked: there were six other RLA-20 machine guns scattered between the tanks on the opposite ridge, which was now firing its ranging shots.
"Fifteen minutes to kill zone. Swarm moving slowly."
The final Martello fired its ranging shots. Ready for the big show.
At three fire-bases, Navy gunners slammed rounds into the breeches of twelve cannon and brought up additional ammunition, preparing to reload. A cadet nervously held each firing lanyard. At the Martellos' command centres, Hollister and two other cadets double-checked their calculations.
At Scott Base, the nervous concubines took their cue from Diana and her phalanx of officers' straw bosses. Penny had sent every one she thought she could spare, to back up her beloved daughter. Not all the straw bosses were women – the men were Penny's first choice, but there were only a handful of them. Each was dressed in the uniform of a senior Sergeant in the Civil Service, not that the Civil Service actually had anyone who officially held any sort of enlisted rank. Diana herself had the nanites paint a Civil Service uniform on her, complete with gunnery sergeant's stripes. A grey kepi and black boots completed the outfit. Most of the naval concubines, their minds fixed elsewhere, failed to realize the "uniform" was a nanite paint job, or that the sergeants the young "Gunny" commanded were themselves concubines.
In orbit, the impotent Fleet could only look and cheer and sweat.
And all the while a message missile continued winging its way to Hesperus, bearing a situation report and a personal message from Samantha to the Colonel and Admiral begging for ground troops.
"Ten minutes to kill zone." The Warthogs continued to orbit the target, occasionally drawing fire from the still-aggressive Sa'arm.
At the main defence line, a Marine dropped a bag beside one of the RLA-20 emplacements. The gun was placed to fire in an arc that intersected with another gun about a quarter of the way down the line.
"What are these?" the lad manning the gun wanted to know.
"Caltrops." The Marine picked a four-pointed metal device out of the bag. "See? It's ancient technology, from medieval sieges, but it still works. Any way you throw it, it always lands with one point sticking up. If the Swarm escape the killing zone, we'll throw these in front of the barbed wire as yet another obstacle for the dickheads to overcome." He took two more sacks with him, to stash at other convenient locations along the line.
A white vehicle slowed and stopped just behind the main defence line. In addition to the driver, two young cadets manned the monitor mounted on its top, far more exposed on the 1928 nuclear-powered fire truck than they would have been in the turret of any armoured machine in the Confederacy's inventory.
"Five minutes to kill zone."
At the Scott Reserve Defence Line, Sergeant (Cadet) Bachelor checked his platoon's readiness for the umpteenth time and squinted down the valley, even though he would not be able to see anything. As the ranking cadet on the line, he was feeling the responsibility greatly. As the very last line of defence between the Swarm and the girl he loved, he was feeling terrified, and determined, and very, very lonely.
"Lead elements entering kill zone," reported Sergeant Peale.
"Hold your fire, everyone," Samantha ordered to the tankers and artillery units. "When I say 'shoot', we let loose. Every tank and every gun gives me ten rounds rapid. For those of you still new to this, that means every gun fires as quickly as you can reload, don't wait for orders or spotting or shit, just shove the next round in the breech, close the breech, bang it shoots, reload, reload, reload, as quick as you can ten times. Understood? Everyone ready? Check in, please."
One by one the tanks and Martellos confirmed: ready to commence fire. Around the rear of the Martellos' cannons, the Navy gunners lovingly cradled nine rounds ready for instant use.
"Trailing elements now entering kill zone."
Samantha pushed down on the firing button – and was almost disappointed. The AI was obediently holding her weapon back from firing until the cannons at the Martellos had engaged. She counted, "One... two... three..." and suddenly her world erupted into a fury of noise and vibrations and unleashed power.
"RELOAD! KEEP FIRING! TEN ROUNDS!"
She held the firing button down as the Navy gunner slammed round after round into the breech. As soon as the breech closed, the gun fired, and the gunner repeated the exercise. In the snow around her and her fellow tankers, laser machine guns opened up. They contributed little to the carnage, but they did at least let the machine gun crews feel like they were contributing.
In the killing zone, rounds from the Martellos' cannons and the Rommels' big guns arrived simultaneously. The snow boiled into steam as shrapnel and lasers tore through the bodies of the Sa'arm. By the time the last round had exited the last gun, the last Sa'arm had fallen, with those not yet slain at least heavily wounded, ichor fatally dripping from large wounds.
"All guns, cease fire!" Samantha drew her binoculars to her visor and scanned for signs of life. There were some, but how much was Swarm and how much was snow sublimating due to the sudden and violent input of heat could not be determined at that distance. Some of the bodies were clearly burning, though.
"We're going to have to go in among them, I'm afraid. First Defence Line, prepare to advance. Scott and Shackleton Defence Lines, advance to the First Defence Line. As soon as both Scott and Shackleton Lines merge at the First Defence Line, the First Defence Line will advance."
When the First Defence Line came up to the blasted kill zone, they found only a handful of Sa'arm still alive, and those had lost so many of their other hive members and were suffering so badly from exposure that the cold-blooded creatures really were unable to access cogent thought. The fire truck sprayed down the area with a thick coating of "foam", and the buckyballs that made up the foam quickly drew any remaining heat from both the fires and survivors.
The Second Defence Line came up and took over from the First Line at the kill zone. The First Line then advanced to the Venti class destroyer's landing zone, looking for any sign of survivors, for any tracks leading away from the mass that they'd just destroyed, or any evidence of tunnelling. They found nothing.
The Thule Children's Crusade was over.
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