by Craig York and Steve Jackson
In the near-freezing water at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean, three great shapes churned up clouds of silt as they neared the Siberian coast. They spoke to one another in numbers, their whole conversation lasting milliseconds. "Icepick Leader, this is Icepick Two. We are within projected range of enemy motion sensors."
"Contact definite, Icepick Two. I just rolled over one. We can expect underwater anti-commando squads at any time now."
"Icepick Leader, this is Icepick Three. I have multiple contacts to the east at a range of 6000 meters. Readings consistent with marine battlesuits."
"Icepick Two, do you have any contacts yet?"
"Negative, Icepick Leader."
"Nor do I. Icepick Three, break off and proceed east. Stay under the ice as long as possible. Go for the eastern shore battery. Icepick Two, take the lead and proceed north."
The grade grew steeper as they neared the shore, and the meager sun of early May filtered weakly through the breaking ice.
"Icepick Two, we have incoming fire."
Nuclear explosions wiped away the covering ice and sought the machines beneath. Through flame and steam, the Ogres rolled on.
"Report status, Icepick Two."
The major's afternoon walk was interrupted by the signal buzz of his radio. He pressed the respond button and spoke into the mike. "Makharov here. Go ahead, station."
"Major, this is Colonel Androvitch. What is your location?" The colonel sounded worried.
"I'm six kilometers north of the station, just west of the road on the south bank of the Iesta. What's going on?"
"You will proceed back to the station immediately. Androvitch out."
"But I'm on foot . . ." Makharov responded, even as contact was broken. His consternation eased somewhat as he heard the familiar whine of a ground effect vehicle approach. Then the hairs on the back of his neck stood straight up as he recognized an equally familiar, but totally unexpected, sound. The shore batteries were firing.
The major studied the young hovercraft pilot who had picked him up. He hadn't seen her before. From a German unit, by her shoulder patch. And the name badge over the breast: Zahn. "Lieutenant Ulrike Zahn?"
"I am she, Comrade Major." Formal, thought Makharov. Definitely German.
"You must have just gotten off the plane. I wasn't expecting you for two more days."
"Comrade Major, have you not been informed? We are under attack."
"By what, Major. Cybertanks."
"More than one?"
"Two, according to the infantry report."
"And their type?" He almost whispered.
"Either Mark III or a modified Mark II. The observers were uncertain."
"Merciful God. We can't handle two Mark IIIs."
"But we have a very good chance if they are Mark II units. Especially since the addition of Battery Rudolf. The Mark II is underarmored."
"You are surprisingly well-informed for a lieutenant. You are a Party member, I assume?"
"Comrade Major, I did not mean to . . . "
"Answer the question."
"Yes, Comrade Major. I am a Party member."
"Good. I would not want to die under an Ogre's guns without the blessing of St. Lenin. Now turn this machine around. And acknowledge no further transmissions from Station Andropov until I tell you otherwise. I haven't time to waste debating strategy with the Colonel."
That ought to put a boil on her party hide, Makharov thought. Instead, she grinned like a cat and threw the hovercraft into a tighter turn than any Makharov had seen in some time. It's a good thing I skipped lunch, he reflected.
"You're a pretty good pilot, Lieutenant . . . for a party member. Tell me, have you ever faced cybertanks before?"
"I was at Gibraltar, Comrade Major." She said nothing else, and Makharov began to check the guns.
"Icepick Leader, this is Icepick Three. I eliminated the gun, but lost treads and a secondary. How shall I proceed?"
"Icepick Three, are you still capable of rated speed?"
"Affirmative, Icepick Leader."
"Proceed due south. The briefing showed a bridge about six kilometers down the road. Cross it and hold station among the buildings if attacked; otherwise proceed directly against the installation."
"Icepick Leader, this is Icepick Two. Have broken surface. Briefing was in error; I am taking fire from at least one shore battery other than the one on the pier. Minor tread damage. Instructions?"
"Attack the pier, Icepick Two."
" . . . hit it as it came out of the surf! Major, the pier is completely gone."
"What about the infantry?"
"Third and fourth squads are right behind them, sir. Sixth was on the pier with Battery Nadia. Others are making best speed this way. Sir, we are getting a call from Group Lansky; they're coming in off the ice, about two klicks out."
"Group Lansky, this is Major Makharov. Do you read?"
"Group Captain Bledenev, Major. We have targets in sight. One is definitely a Mark II, but the other one is bigger. Shall we proceed?"
"Do what you can in one pass, Captain, then proceed east at speed. There's another one on Gorky Road; it took out Olga and is heading for the station. Catch it on the bridge and drop it into the swamp if you can. Makharov out." With the perfect vision of hindsight, Makharov regretted his failure to insist that the bridges be mined.
"Major, we are in position, awaiting orders." It was the Frenchman, Captain Blanchard. He had arrived the week before with a dozen factory-fresh light tanks. Staff had ordered a field test in Arctic conditions. They'd get it. He only hoped Blanchard lived to make the report.
"Captain, you are to encircle the enemy. Under no circumstances attempt to close with them; leave that to the hovers. Get between them and the sea. Order your men to concentrate fire on the lead vehicle's weapons. I will lead Group Iestagrad on its companion."
"Understood. Blanchard out." At least his Russian was good, thought the major.
"Major, the station reports taking severe damage."
"Admin building. No damage to the lasers or the reactor. Sir . . . the colonel was there."
"So it goes . . . There's Group Lansky. Take us in on the big one, Lieutenant."
Battery Rudolf, the surviving howitzer, finally ranged the trailing Ogre. A direct hit shattered the right rear tread housing. The Ogre paused, then lurched forward again, trailing pieces of its suspension. The Ogre's remaining missile swivelled to the rear, but even as it lifted from the monster's back, tracer fire danced over the missile, deflecting it to the ground well short of its intended target. It did not explode.
Amid the smoke and ash, Group Lansky roared by the leading attacker, right under its guns. Three of the group's number sped past it and away; the fourth was caught beneath the treads as the Ogre suddenly veered to the right.
The trailing Ogre filled the windscreen ahead, and Makharov concentrated his fire on the main gun, even as Battery Rudolf scored again, smashing more treads. Behind him, Group Iestagrad came in, while Lieutenant Zahn threw the GEV around like a sport-hover as they circled for an other pass. They sped back at the Ogre, passing Shermayev coming out of his run. Kropotkin hadn't made it, nor did Shermayev get much further.
Makharov's eyes widened. Blanchard was ignoring orders; his light tanks were charging like cossacks. Three of the small tanks were hit, and the rest broke in every direction. Well, that's one way to encircle it, thought Makharov. Then he noticed that the Mark III's main gun was drooping brokenly. One of Blanchard's men had gotten it, but three of the secondaries were still spitting fire.
Suddenly, the leading cybertank – the Mark II – was silhouetted in a fireball. Battery Rudolf had changed targets and scored again. They were earning their rations today. "Battery Rudolf, this is Makharov. Go back to your original target. The leading one is scrap."
"Icepick Leader, this is Icepick Three. My treads have been disabled by laser fire. I am immobile, 1700 meters from the target installation."
"Icepick Three, what is your weapon status?"
"Icepick Leader, I have a secondary battery and three AP guns. Wait. Correction: I no longer have a secondary battery."
"Icepick Three, what is installation status?"
"Icepick Leader, the laser tower is located at 0403. I fired on it but did no evident damage. A complex of office buildings at 0404 has been eliminated. Two hovercraft from the force that engaged me are proceeding in your direction."
"Icepick Leader, this is Icepick Two. I am now immobile. If you survive to return to Base, it is suggested that you point out that Icepick Three and I were needlessly expended due to faulty intelligence work. Forces here were fifty percent greater than anticipated. It would have been . . . "
The smaller Ogre's analysis ended in a crackle of static. Icepick Leader would have to complete the mission alone.
"Major, Battery Rudolf reports that the big cyber has moved out of range." We're on our own, thought Makharov. The station was barely seven klicks ahead, and the surviving Ogre was making excellent time down the road, even with its damaged treads. Fifteen minutes, and it would be in range of the tower. Twenty minutes, and it wouldn't even need guns. It could walk right over the base. Just like Gibraltar, he thought. He had no time to dwell on this, however, as Zahn spun them and headed in again. Like a ballerina, thought Makharov, as he began firing.
Icepick Leader counted the meters to the laser tower. Its gun barrels were tilted at a perfect 45-degree angle, ensuring the greatest possible trajectory. The instant a hit became possible, the Ogre's targeting laser painted a spot at the base of the mushroom-shaped tower. The main battery fired; the tower quivered. The big gun spoke again and again, the Ogre ignoring the tiny enemies swarming about its treads. Then, as the range closed, the Ogre's surviving secondary joined in. Abruptly, the tower's hundred-meter bulk dissolved into shards of steel and concrete. The Ogre scanned for the reactor building just before it died in a hail of tac-nukes and bomb drones. The infantry had arrived, but it was a little late.
Makharov surveyed the remains of the big Ogre and of the installation beyond. The Combine would probably be launching a test missile at them any time, to check their robots' handiwork. He thought of the flask in his pocket, forgotten since the interruption of his stroll. Only the barest trace of the day remained, and he considered taking a last walk on the tundra before the missile came in. Why not have a quiet drink with the lieutenant and wait for the end? He put that thought away in disgust. Robots throw their lives away, and so do men, he reflected. But not without purpose. "Lieutenant! Order all units to regroup and rendezvous outside Iestagrad. We have an evacuation to organize, and not enough time." Pocketing his flask, he climbed into the already-moving hovercraft.