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Rolling Hot

Chapter One

The camera light threw the shadow of the Slammers' officer harshly across the berm which the sun had colored bronze a few moments ago as it set. Her hair was black and cut as short as that of a man.


"For instance, Captain Ranson," Dick Suilin said, "here at Camp Progress there are three thousand national troops and less than a hundred of your mercenaries, but—"


shoop  


Ranson's eyes widened, glinting like pale gray marble. Fritzi Dole kept the camera focused tightly on her face. He'd gotten an instinct for a nervous subject in the three years he'd recorded Suilin's probing interviews.


"—the cost to our government—"


shoop-shoop  


"—is greater for your handful of—"


"Incoming!" screamed Captain June Ranson as she dived for the dirt. It wasn't supposed to be happening here—


But for the first instant, you never really believed it could be happening, not even in the sectors where it happened every bleeding night. And when things were bad enough for one side or the other to hire Hammer's Slammers you could be pretty sure that there were no safe sectors.


Camp Progress was on the ass end of Prosperity's inhabited continent—three hundred kilometers north of the coast and the provincial capital, Kohang, but still a thousand kays south of where the real fighting went on in the areas bordering the World Government enclaves. Sure, there'd been reports that the Conservatives were nosing around the neighborhood, but nothing the Yokel troops themselves couldn't handle if they got their thumbs out.


For a change.


Camp Progress was a Yokel—was a National Army—training and administrative center, while for the Slammers it served as a maintenance and replacement facility. In addition to those formal uses, the southern sector gave Hammer a place to post troops who were showing signs of having been at the sharp end a little too long.


People like Junebug Ranson, for instance, who'd frozen with her eyes wide open during a firefight that netted thirty-five Consies killed-in-action.


So Captain Ranson had been temporarily transferred to command the Slammers' guard detachment at Camp Progress, a "company" of six combat cars. There'd been seventeen cars in her line company when it was up to strength; but she couldn't remember a standard day in a war zone that they had been up to strength . . .


And anyway, Ranson knew as well as anybody else that she needed a rest before she got some of her people killed.


shoop  


But she wasn't going to rest here.


The bell was ringing in the Slammers' Tactical Operations Center, a command car in for maintenance. The vehicle's fans had all been pulled, leaving the remainder as immobile as a 30-tonne iridium boulder; but it still had working electronics.


The Yokel garrison had a klaxon which they sounded during practice alerts. It was silent now despite the fact that camp security was supposedly a local responsibility.


Slammers were flattening or sprinting for their vehicles, depending on their personal assessment of the situation. The local reporter gaped at Ranson while his cameraman spun to find out what was going on. The camera light sliced a brilliant swath through the nighted camp.


Ranson's left cheek scraped the gritty soil as she called, "All Red Team personnel, man your blowers and engage targets beyond the berm. Blue Team—" the logistics and maintenance people "—prepare for attack from within the camp."


She wasn't wearing her commo helmet—that was in her combat car—but commands from her mastoid implant would be rebroadcast over her command channel by the base unit in the TOC. With her free hand, the hand that wasn't holding the sub-machinegun she always carried, even here, Ranson grabbed the nearer of the two newsmen by the ankle and jerked him flat.


The Yokel's squawk of protest was smothered by the blast of the first mortar shell hitting the ground.


 


"I said hold it!" bellowed Warrant Leader Ortnahme, his anger multiplied by echoes within the tank's plenum chamber. "Not slide the bloody nacelle all across the bloody baseplate!"


"Yessir," said Tech 2 Simkins. "Yes, Mr. Ortnahme!"


Simkins gripped his lower lip between his prominent front teeth and pushed. The flange on the fan nacelle slid a little farther from the bolt holes in the mounting baseplate. "Ah . . . Mr. Ortnahme?"


It was hot and dry. The breeze curling through the access port and the fan intakes did nothing but drift grit into the eyes of the two men lying on their backs in the plenum chamber. It had been a hard day.


It wasn't getting any easier as it drew to a close.


The lightwand on the ground beneath the baseplate illuminated everything in the scarred, rusty steel cavern—including the flange, until Simkins tried to position the nacelle and his arms shadowed the holes. The young technician looked scared to death. The good Lord knew he had reason to be, because if Simkins screwed up one more time, Ortnahme was going to reverse his multitool and use the welder end of it to—


Ortnahme sighed and let his body relax. He set down the multitool, which held a bolt ready to drive, and picked up the drift punch to realign the cursed holes.


Henk Ortnahme was tired and sweaty, besides being a lot older and fatter than he liked to remember . . . but he was also the Slammers' maintenance chief at Camp Progress, which meant it was his business to get the job done instead of throwing tantrums.


"No problem, Simkins," he said mildly. "But let's get it right this time, huh? So that we can knock off."


The tank, Herman's Whore, had been squarely over the blast of a hundred-kilogram mine. The explosion lifted the tank's 170-tonne mass, stunning both crewmen and damaging the blades of five of the six fans working at the time.


By themselves, bent blades were a field repair job—but because the crew'd been knocked silly, nobody shut down the system before the fans skewed the shafts . . . which froze the bearings . . . which cooked the drive motors in showers of sparks that must've been real bloody impressive.


Not only did the entire fan nacelles have to be replaced now—a rear echelon job by anybody's standards—but three of the cursed things had managed to weld their upper brackets to the hull, so the brackets had to be replaced also.


It was late. Ortnahme'd kept his assistant at it for fourteen hours, so he couldn't rightly blame Simkins for being punchy . . . and the warrant leader knew his own skills and judgment weren't maybe all they bloody oughta be, just at the moment. They should've quit an hour before; but when this last nacelle was set, they were done with the cursed job.


"I got it, kid," he said calmly.


Simkins hesitated, then released the nacelle and watched nervously as his superior balanced the weight on his left palm. The upper bracket was bolted solidly, but there was enough play in the suspension to do real harm if the old bastard dropped—


A bell rang outside in the company area—rang and kept on ringing. Simkins straightened in terrified surmise and banged his head on the tank's belly armor. He stared at Ortnahme through tear-blinded eyes.


The warrant leader didn't move at all for a moment. Then his left biceps, covered with grit sticking to the sweat, bunched. The nacelle slid a centimeter and the drift punch shot through the realigned holes.


"Kid," Ortnahme said in a voice made tight by the tension of holding the fan nacelle, "I want you to get into the driver's seat and light her up, but don't—"


White light like the flash of a fuse blowing flickered through the intakes. The blam! of the mortar shell detonating was almost lost in the echoing clang of shrapnel against the skirts of the tank. Two more rounds went off almost simultaneously, but neither was quite as close.


Ortnahme swallowed. "But don't spin the fans till I tell you, right? I'll finish up with this myself."


"S—" Simkins began. Ortnahme had let the drift punch slide down and was groping for the multitool again. His arm muscles, rigid under their covering of fat, held the unit in place.


Simkins set the multitool in his superior's palm, bolt dispenser forward, and scuttled for the open access plate. "Yessir," he called back over his shoulder.


The multitool whirred, spinning the bolt home without a shade of difficulty.


Simkins' boots banged on the skirts as the technician thrust through the access port in the steel wall. It was a tight enough fit even for a young kid like him, and as for Ortnahme—Ortnahme had half considered cutting a double-sized opening and welding the cover back in place when he was done with this cursed job.


Just as well he hadn't done that. With a hole that big venting the plenum chamber, the tank woulda been anchored until it was fixed.


Tribarrels fired, the thump of expanding air preceded minutely by the hiss of the energy discharge that heated a track to the target. Another salvo of mortar shells landed, and an earthshock warned of something more substantial hitting in the near distance.


Not a time to be standing around outside, welding a patch on a tank's skirts.


With the first bolt in place, the second was a snap. Or maybe Herman's Whore had just decided to quit fighting him now that the shooting had started. The bitch was Slammers' equipment, after all.


The tank shuddered. It was just Simkins hitting the main switch, firing up the containment/compression lasers in the fusion bottle that powered the vehicle, but for a moment Ortnahme thought the fan he held was live.


And about to slice the top half of his body into pastrami as it jiggled around in its mounting.


Shrapnel glanced from the thick iridium of the hull. It made a sharp sound that didn't echo the way pieces did when they rang on the cavernous steel plenum chamber. Ortnahme found the last hole with the nose of a bolt and triggered the multitool. The fastener spun and stopped—too soon. Not home, not aligned.


Another earthshock, much closer than the first. Herman's Whore shuddered again, and the bolt whirred the last centimeter to seat itself properly.


Warrant Leader Henk Ortnahme, wheezing with more than exertion, squirmed on his belly toward the access port. He ignored the way the soil scraped his chest raw.


He started to lift himself through the access port—carefully: the mine had stripped half the bolts holding down the cover plate, so there was sharp metal as well as a bloody tight fit.


Tribarrels ripped outward, across the berm. To the south flares and tracers—mostly aimed high, way too high—from the Yokel lines brightened the sky.


Ortnahme was halfway through the access port when, despite the crash and roar of gunfire, he heard the whisper of more incoming mortar shells.


The 20cm main gun of another tank fired, blotting every other sight and sound from the night with its thunderous cyan flash.


 


When Ranson hit the deck, Dick Suilin's first reaction was that the woman officer was having convulsions. He turned to call for help, blinking because Fritzi's light had flared across him as the cameraman spun to record a new subject: half-clad soldiers sprinting or sprawling all across the detachment area. Somebody was ringing a raucous bell that—


Ranson, flat on the ground, grabbed Suilin's right ankle and jerked forward.


"Hey!" the reporter shouted, trying to pull away.


Standing straight, the woman didn't even come up to his collarbone, but she had a grip like a wire snare. Suilin overbalanced, flailing his arms until his butt hit the coarse soil and slammed all the air out of his lungs.


There was a white flash, a bang, and—about an inch above Suilin's head—something that sounded like a bandsaw hitting a pineknot. Fritzi grunted and flung his camera in the opposite direction. Its floodlights went out.


"Fritzi, what are you—" Suilin shouted, stopping when his words were punctuated by two more blasts.


They were being shelled for God's sake! Not two hours' ride from Kohang!


The Slammers' captain had disappeared somewhere, but when Suilin started to get up to run for cover, Fritzi Dole fell across him and knocked him flat again.


Suilin started to curse, but before he got the first word out a nearby combat car lighted the darkness with a stream of bolts from a tribarrel.


The chunk of shrapnel which grated past Suilin a moment before had chopped off the back of his cameraman's skull. Fritzi's blood and brains splashed Suilin's chest.


Dick Suilin had seen death before; he'd covered his share of road accidents and nursing home fires as a junior reporter. Even so, he'd been on the political beat for years now. This was a political story; the waste of money on foreign mercenaries when the same sums spent on the National Army would give ten times the result.


And anyway, covering the result of a tavern brawl wasn't the same as feeling Fritzi's warm remains leak over the neat uniform in which Suilin had outfitted himself for this assignment.


He tried to push the body away from him, but it was heavy and as flexible as warm bread dough. He thought he heard the cameraman mumbling, but he didn't want to think that anyone so horribly wounded wouldn't have died instantly. Half of Fritzi's brains were gone, but he moaned as the reporter thrust him aside in a fit of revulsion.


Suilin rolled so that his back was toward the body.


The ground which he'd chosen for his interview was bare of cover, but a tank was parked against the berm twenty meters from him. He poised to scuttle toward the almost astronomical solidity of the vehicle and cower under the tarpaulin strung like a lean-to from its flank.


Before the reporter's legs obeyed his brain's decision, a man in the Slammers' dull khaki ran past. The mercenary was doubled over by the weight of equipment in his arms and fear of shrapnel.


He was the only figure visible in what had been a languorously busy encampment. Suilin ran after him, toward the combat car almost as close as the tank, though to the opposite side.


The reporter needed companionship now more than he needed the greater bulk of steel and iridium close to his yielding flesh.


The combat car's driver spun its fans to life. Dust lifted, scattering the light of the tribarrel firing from the vehicle.


Three more mortar shells struck. Through the corner of his eye, Suilin saw the tarp plastered against the side of the tank.


The cloth was shredded by the blast that had flung it there.


 


"Hey, snake," said DJ Bell, smiling like he always had, though he'd been dead three months. "How they hangin'?"


Sergeant Birdie Sparrow moaned softly in his sleep. "Go away, DJ," his dream-self murmured. "I don't need this."


"Via, Birdie," said the dead trooper. "You need all the friends you can get. We—"


The short, smiling man started to change, the way he did in this dream.


"—all do."


Birdie didn't sleep well in the daytime, but with a tarp shading him, it was OK, even with the heat.


He couldn't sleep at all after dark, not since DJ bought it but kept coming back to see him.


DJ Bell was a little guy with freckles and red hair. He kept his helmet visor at ninety degrees as an eyeshade when he rode with his head and shoulders out of the commander's hatch of his tank, but his nose was usually peeling with sunburn anyways.


He'd had a bit of an attitude, DJ did; little-guy stuff. Wanted to prove he was as tough as anybody alive, which he was; and that he could drink anybody under the table—which he couldn't, he just didn't have the body weight, but he kept trying.


That stuff only mattered during stand-downs, and not even then once you got to know DJ. Birdie'd known DJ for five years. Been his friend, trusted him so completely that he never had to think about it when things dropped in the pot. DJ'd covered Birdie's ass a hundred times. They were the kind of friends you only had when you were at the sharp end, when your life was on the line every minute, every day.


It'd been a routine sweep, G Company's combat cars had pushed down a ridgeline while the tanks of M Company's 3rd Platoon held a blocking position to see what the cars flushed. One tank was deadlined with problems in its main-gun loading mechanism, and Lieutenant Hemmings had come down with the rolling crud, so Birdie Sparrow was in charge of the platoon's three remaining tanks.


Being short a tank didn't matter; G Company blew a couple of deserted bunkers, but they couldn't find any sign of Consies fresher than a month old. The combat cars laagered for the night on the ridge, while the tanks headed back for Firebase Red.


They were in line abreast. Birdie'd placed his own Deathdealer on the right flank, while DJ's Widowmaker howled along forty meters away in the center of the short line. They were riding over fields that'd been abandoned years before when the National Government cleared the area of civilians in an admission that they could no longer defend it from Conservative guerrillas slipping across the enclave borders.


All three tank commanders were head-and-shoulders out of their cupolas, enjoying the late afternoon sun. DJ turned and waved at Birdie, calling something that wasn't meant to be heard over the sound of the fans.


The motion sensor pinged a warning in Birdie's helmet, but it was too late by then.


Later—there was plenty of time later to figure out what had happened—they decided that the stand-off mine had been set almost three years before. It'd been intended to hit the lightly-armored vehicles the Yokels had been using in the region back then, so its high-sensitivity fuze detonated the charge 200 meters from the oncoming tanks.


Birdie's tanks didn't have—none of the Hammer's tanks had—its detection apparatus set to sweep that far ahead, because at that range the mine's self-forging projectile couldn't penetrate the armor even of a combat car. What the motion sensor had caught was the warhead shifting slightly to center on its target.


The mine was at the apex of an almost perfect isosceles triangle, with the two tanks forming the other corners. It rotated toward Widowmaker instead of Deathdealer.


Both tank commanders' minds were reacting to the dirty, yellow-white blast they saw in the corner of their eyes, but there hadn't been time for muscles to shift enough to wipe away DJ's grin when the projectile clanged against Widowmaker's sloping turret and glanced upward. It was a bolt of almost-molten copper, forged from a plate into a spearpoint by the explosive that drove it toward its target.


DJ wore ceramic body armor. It shattered as the projectile coursed through the trooper's chest and head.


As Birdie Sparrow hosed the countryside with both his tribarrel and main gun, trying to blast an enemy who'd been gone for years, all he could think was, Thank the Lord it was him and not me. 


"Look, y' know it's gonna happen, Birdie," said DJ's ghost earnestly. "It don't mean nothin'."


His voice was normal, but his chest was a gaping cavity and his face had started to splash—the way Birdie'd seen it happen three months before; only slowly, very slowly.


DJ had a metal filling in one of his molars. It glittered as it spun out through his cheek.


"DJ, you gotta stop doin' this," Birdie whimpered. His body was shivering and he wanted to wake up.


"Yeah, well, you better get movin', snake," DJ said with a shrug of his shoulders almost separated from what was left of his chest. The figure was fading from Birdie's consciousness. "It's starting again, y'know."


shoop  


Birdie was out of his shelter and climbing the recessed steps to Deathdealer's turret before he knew for sure he was awake. He was wearing his boots—he hadn't taken them off for more than a few minutes at a time in three months—and his trousers.


Most troopers kept their body armor near their bunks. Birdie didn't bother with that stuff anymore.


Despite the ringing alarm bell, there were people still standing around in the middle of the company area; but that was their problem, not Birdie Sparrow's.


He was diving feet-first through the hatch when the first mortar shell went off, hurling a figure away from its blast.


The body looked like DJ Bell waving goodbye.


 


When the third mortar shell went off, June Ranson rolled into a crouch and sprinted toward her combat car. The Consies used 100mm automatic mortars that fired from a three-round clip. It was a bloody good weapon—a lot like the mortar in Hammer's infantry platoons, and much more effective than the locally-made tube the National Army used.


The automatic mortar fired three shots fast, but the weight of a fresh clip stretched the gap between rounds three and four out longer than it would have been from a manually-loaded weapon.


Of course, if the Consies had a pair of mortars targeted on Ranson's detachment area, she was right outta luck.


Guns were firing throughout the encampment now, and the Yokels had finally switched on their warning klaxon. A machinegun sent a stream of bright-orange Consie tracers snapping through the air several meters above Ranson's head. One tracer hit a pebble in the earthen berm and ricocheted upward at a crazy angle.


A strip charge wheezed in the night, a nasty, intermittent sound like a cat throwing up. A drive rocket was uncoiling the charge through the wire and minefields on which the Yokels depended for protection.


The charge went off, hammering the ground and blasting a corridor through the defenses. It ignited the western sky with a momentary red flash like the sunset's afterthought.


Ranson caught the rear hand-hold of her combat car, Warmonger—Tootsie One-three—and swung herself into the fighting compartment. The fans were live, and both wing guns were firing.


Beside the vehicle were the scattered beginnings of an evening meal: a catalytic cooker, open ration packets, and three bottles of local beer spilled to stain the dust. Warmonger's crew had been together for better than two years. They did everything as a team, so Ranson could be nearly certain her command vehicle would be up to speed in an emergency.


She was odd man out: apart from necessary business, the crewmen hadn't addressed a dozen words to her in the month and a half since she took over the detachment.


Ranson didn't much care. She'd seen too many people die herself to want to get to know any others closely.


Hot plastic empties ejecting from Stolley's left-wing gun spattered over her. One of the half-molten disks clung to the hair on the back of her wrist for long enough to burn.


Ranson grabbed her helmet, slapped the visor down over her face, and thumbed it from optical to thermal so that she could see details again. That dickheaded Yokel reporter had picked a great time to blind her with his camera light. . . .


A mortar shell burst; then everything paused at the overwhelming crash of a tank's main gun. At least one of the panzers sent to Camp Progress for maintenance was up and running.


Figures, fuzzy and a bilious yellow-green, leaped from concealment less than a hundred meters from the berm. Two of them intersected the vivid thermal track of Stolley's tribarrel. The third flopped down and disappeared as suddenly as he'd risen.


A cubical multi-function display, only thirty centimeters on a side and still an awkward addition to the clutter filling the blower's fighting compartment, was mounted on the front bulkhead next to Ranson's tribarrel. She switched it on and picked up her back-and-breast armor.


"Janacek!" She ordered her right gunner over the pulsing thump-hiss of the tribarrels to either side of her. "Help me on!"


The stocky, spike-haired crewman turned from the spade grips of his gun and took the weight of Ranson's ceramic armor. She shrugged into the clamshell and latched it down her right side.


All six blowers in the guard detachment were beads of light in the multi-function display. Their fusion bottles were pressurized, though that didn't mean they had full crews.


"Now your own!" she said, handing the compartment's other suit to Janacek.


"Screw it!" the gunner snarled as he turned to his tribarrel.


"Now, trooper!" Ranson shouted in his ear.


Janacek swore and took the armor.


Two bullets clanged against the underside of the splinter shield, a steel plate a meter above the coaming of the fighting compartment. One of the Consie rounds howled off across the encampment while the other disintegrated in red sparks that prickled all three of the Slammers.


Stolley triggered a long burst, then a single round. "My trick, sucker!" he shouted.


The air was queasy with the bolts' ionized tracks and the sullen, petrochemical stink of the empty cases.


The blowers of the guard detachment were spaced more or less evenly around the 500-meter arc of the Slammers' area, because they were the only vehicles Ranson could depend on being combat ready. Two tanks were in Camp Progress for maintenance, and a third one—brand new—had been delivered here for shake-down before being sent on to a line company.


All three of the panzers might be able to provide at least fire support. If they could, it'd make a lot of difference.


Maybe the difference between life and death.


Ranson poked the control to give her all units with live fusion powerplants in a half-kilometer area. She prayed she'd see three more lights in her display—


Somebody who at least said he was Colonel Banyussuf, the camp commander, was bleating for help on the general channel. ". . . are overrunning headquarters! They're downstairs now!" 


Likely enough, from the crossfire inside the berm at the other end of the camp. And Banyussuf's own bloody problem until Ranson had her lot sorted out.


There were ten blips: she'd forgotten the self-propelled howitzer in because of a traversing problem. Somebody'd brought it up, too.


Ranson switched on her own tribarrel. A blurred figure rose from where the two Consies Stolley'd killed were cooling in her visor's image. She ripped the new target with a stream of bolts that flung his arm and head in the air as his torso crumpled to the ground.


They were Hammer's Slammers. They'd been brought to Prosperity to kick ass, and that's just what they were going to do.


 


 


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