Jerry had left his intercom line open again. It was a bad habit he had but today’s circumstances made it worse. With every step Jerry’s `mech took Charlie could hear the whump sound of the footfall inside his own helmet. That wasn’t so bad, but each thud was followed by a moan, a groan, or a virulent curse. This mantra of suffering grated on Charlie’s already raw nerves.
Finally Charlie had had enough. “Jackrabbit Four, this Jackrabbit Two! Either shut your intercom line or shut your mouth!”
“Bloody Hell, Charlie. Stop yelling!!” Whump. “AARG!!!”
“Jackrabbit Four. Comply with radio discipline for all transmissions!”
“Come on Charlie. There’s nobody listening to us out here.” Whump. “Damn! Anyway, it’s your fault I’m in this condition and on this patrol.” Whump. “Holy Hell.”
Charlie’s head reverberated with each step of his own `mech. His Naginata was definitely not light on its feet. “Come on yourself, Jerry,” Charlie said forgetting his own admonition about radio discipline. “I’m as hung-over as you are. Besides, I didn’t hold your nose and pour that stuff down your throat.”
Charlie and Jerry had gotten roaring drunk the night before, which wouldn’t have landed them in trouble if it hadn’t been for the other thing. Charlie came up with the bright idea that the commanding officer should have a pet. The C.O. had been so much on edge lately that everyone in the company was ready to request a transfer. Since the unit’s call sign was Jackrabbit, after an animal that was native to this forsaken planet, they seemed like the perfect solution.
The native animal wasn’t a true jackrabbit, but shared many outward traits in common with its terrestrial namesake. It had big rear legs, extremely long ears, hopped to get from place to place, had a luxuriant fur coat and was very friendly and tame. Charlie and Jerry borrowed a hover jeep from the motor pool and rounded up six wild jackrabbits. It wasn’t hard since the animals were so tame, which was fortunate considering the shape the two men were in at the time. They had started visiting the local bars around ten o’clock in the morning to make sure that these establishments were still serving beverages of a high enough quality to meet their standards. They had failed to find any drink in any bar that did not measure up to those standards, and they were very diligent in their search. At about eleven o’clock that night they had dropped the half a dozen animals in the C.O.’s office and shut the door. With their mission of mercy successfully completed, they staggered back to the barracks and collapsed into their bunks.
Unfortunately the native jackrabbits shared one other trait with the Earthly variety. They had very long teeth and loved to gnaw. Two of the animals started in on the commander’s chair. One decided to munch on the bookcase. The other three chose the commander’s elaborately carved desk. After a couple of hours the chair was no longer recognizable, so those two decided to help out the one attempting to devour the bookcase. Once the front of the case had been eaten away it collapsed with a crash. After that, the desk didn’t stand a chance. The first to go were the long legs. This caused the desk to tumble over on its side dumping the commander’s computer on the floor. It shattered. All the commander’s papers and personal mementoes scattered across the floor, drawing the attention of a couple of the jackrabbits. The only items that were safe were the pictures on the walls. By six o’clock in the morning the office looked like someone had tossed in a couple of grenades.
To add insult to the injury, there was the problem of the insect repellant. The Colonel had just had his entire office and all furniture treated with a repellant to protect it from the local version of termites. For some perverse reason, the jackrabbits found the flavor of this chemical irresistible. While the repellant didn’t have a long-term, negative effect on the jackrabbits, it did however act like a potent laxative. When the Colonel walked into his office the next morning, he was standing ankle deep in the same thing that Charlie and Jerry found themselves up to their necks in.
For over two hours the C.O. heaped loud, verbal abuse on Charlie and Jerry, which contained language that Charlie had never heard in spite of his eight years in the military. Considering the condition the two miscreants were in, the yelling and screaming was almost as bad as a physical beating. When the Colonel finally ran down, the sentence was pronounced. Two months on Picket Line Delta, to begin immediately with an option for renewal for another two months, or maybe another thirty-six. So that’s how Charlie and Jerry found themselves in their battlemechs at 0900 hours, with severe hangovers, on their way to Picket Line Delta.
“At lease he didn’t make us shovel it out by hand, Jerry.”
“Charlie, that was only because he didn’t want to wait that long to get back into his office.” Whump. “Oh gawd!! I can still hear the scream of those industrial strength vacuum cleaners. They made my teeth hurt!!”
When the 2nd Battlemech Battalion had been assigned to this remote planet, they had taken up residence in Terwilliger, the largest and only remotely modern city. The Colonel had laid out three concentric defensive circles. These were manned on a continuous rotating basis. Beyond these circles were far flung Picket Lines. Picket Lines were trip-wire locations to provide early warning to the rear units. Some were over a hundred miles long covering vast areas of plain and wilderness. Others were only one or two miles long covering mountain passes, major river crossings, and valley choke points. Mostly these Picket Lines were covered by light and fast medium `mechs. Because of the need for speed and mobility, it was almost unheard of for a battlemech as large as a Naginata to be assigned to Picket Line duty. Depending on the remoteness of any particular picket line the personnel assigned there were rotated out after having completed anywhere between three to six weeks “on the line”. Picket Line Delta was so remote and in such a desolate area that rotations were usually at one-week intervals.
It wouldn’t have been a bad trip if they could have ridden in the DropShip used to rotate replacements in and out of the various picket lines, but the Colonel told them it had been grounded for repairs. And he had smiled when he said it. It had taken hours and hours to march their machines to Picket Line Delta. Charlie radioed the line commander to report in as he and Jerry approached for their new assignment. He was hoping for a few hours to “sleep it off”. He was sorely disappointed.
The Picket Line Delta commander delivered the bad news, “Sorry Charlie. The old man called in about an hour ago and said to have you two take up positions in the line immediately. You guys head out to locations Three-Two Delta and Three-Three Delta. I’m squawking the coordinates to you now. You’ll be relieving Sarah and Ralph and they’ll appreciate it. Have fun, boys.”
Charlie looked at the locations on his heads up display and sighed. Jerry moaned like a lost soul. In spite of the fact that their posts were next to each other on the map, their actual physical locations were so far apart that they couldn’t see each other even with enhanced visuals. Even though Charlie could see the IFF transponder beacons of every `mech on Picket Line Delta, it was still like solitary confinement. The reason for stretching resources so thinly on this particular Picket Line was that this was the one area no force commander in his right mind would choose as a jumping off point for an assault. It was to far away from Terwilliger and there was no cover of any kind to allow a force to form up in secrecy. That having been said . . .
It was their third day on the line and Charlie was daydreaming about the gorgeous redhead at the Lion’s Paw Pub. They were very nice daydreams, but after he finished his two months out here she’d probably be married! Oh well, there was still the blond in . . .
“Werewolves! Werewolves! Werewolves! Three-Four Delta has twelve, repeat twelve werewolves!” Three-Four Delta was Gary Headson. He was one station down line from Jerry.
“Vampires! Vampires! Vampires! Three-Three Delta has six, say again six vampires!” Three-Three Delta was Jerry.
“Three-Four Delta. godzillas with the werewolves! I have eight, make that twelve; I say again twelve godzillas with the werewolves! I am falling back!”
Charlie’s blood ran cold. Vampires, werewolves and godzillas were the 2nd Battalion’s code names for enemy units. Werewolves were ground units like hovercraft and tanks. Godzillas were battlemechs, and vampires were aerospace fighters.
“Three-Four Delta, this Zero-Zero Delta. Hold your position and confirm your report!” Zero-Zero Delta was Picket Line Delta’s command center and they obviously thought Three-Four Delta was suffering from isolation sickness and hallucinating.
“This Three-Four Delta, confirming twelve werewolves and twelve godzillas!! Got that Zero-Zero? Hell’s Bells they’ve opened up on me. I’m taking incoming fire!! How much more confirmation do you need?”
“Zero-Zero Delta to all Delta units. Fall back. Repeat, fall back to position Delta Nine-Nine!” Zero-Zero Delta had made the right decision. Delta Nine-Nine was the rendezvous point for the Delta `mechs to meet and reform. From there they could await DropShip pickup or withdraw in an orderly manner to the outermost, defensive perimeter and reinforce it. If the Colonel hadn’t ever expected to face an incursion from this territory, it was a safe bet that the enemy commander hadn’t expected to run into a picket line this far out either. The `mechs of Picket Line Delta were never meant to go up against a large invasion force. They were the trip-wire. They were there to raise the alarm and they had done their job. The element of surprise was blown for the enemy force and now it was time to leave. Charlie could hear Delta command relaying the information back to Terwilliger.
All `mechs on the line confirmed the fall back order and began to make for Delta Nine-Nine at high speed. It only took a couple of minutes for Charlie to realize that he and Jerry had a big problem. Their prank was really coming back to haunt them. In their big `mechs they were being left behind in the withdrawal. The light and medium machines where well on their way to Delta Nine-Nine. Charlie and Jerry would have never been on picket duty in their larger `mechs if it weren’t for the jackrabbits.
“Charlie, I can’t shake these guys!” Jerry just couldn’t follow radio discipline. Of course, it could have been something else. Charlie thought he caught a hint of panic in Jerry’s voice.
“Three-Three Delta, give me a sit-rep!”
“Yeah, yeah, right! A sit-rep! Four vampires inbound to Delta Nine-Nine. I’m still engaging two vampires this location. All six of them worked me over pretty good for a couple of minutes, then four bugged out leavin’ these two to finish me off. Armor is down 70 to 80 percent. Reactor shielding damaged. They’re to damn fast, Charlie. They’re eating me alive.”
“Hang on Jerry. I’m on my way!” Charlie had already pushed the Naginata to its top speed. He couldn’t do anything about the four aircraft heading for the rendezvous point except repeat the warning to Zero-Zero Delta, but maybe he could reach Jerry in time. “ETA four minutes!”
“Make it two, Charlie. Please make it two.”
Once again, Jerry forgot to turn off his intercom, so while Charlie desperately tried to wring every ounce of speed out of his `mech, he got to listen to the ongoing battle. It wasn’t going good at all until Jerry yelled, “Got’cha you son of a bitch!!! Vampire down! Scratch one vampire!”
“Too soon to celebrate, Jerry. Stay focused!” Charlie was fast approaching the battle. He could see Jerry’s `mech trying to spin and dance to keep his weapons trained on the remaining fighter. He wasn’t doing a very good job. The battlemech showed heavy damage even at this distance. It looked like a drunken man trying to swat a mosquito; a very fast, deadly mosquito. Charlie was almost bending the throttles in the effort to urge his `mech on. He was close enough to make out the fighter. It was one of the deadly, new Taipans. It was designed specifically as a mechbuster with a huge rotary gun in the nose. Charlie realized that Jerry was lucky to still be standing after taking on six of those killers.
One of Jerry’s small lasers lashed out at the Taipan and connected with an engine pod that began to belch dark smoke. Jerry whooped with victory and yelled, “Got’em, got'em, got’em!!!!” But the Taipan pilot was good, very good. He rolled his plane up on one wing and used the VTOL fans in both wings to push his craft sideways in behind Jerry’s machine.
For Charlie, time slowed to crawl and everything seemed to happen at once. The pilot fired his main gun. Charlie fired all his weapons together at the Taipan. Depleted uranium shells from the fighter ripped through the ravaged rear armor of Jerry’s battlemech. Jerry’s reactor shielding collapsed under the onslaught of enemy fire and the reactor went critical. Charlie’s PPC bathed the nose and cockpit of the Taipan in deadly light. The automated ejection system registered the reactor breach and fired the ejection rockets under Jerry’s seat. Charlie’s missiles began to impact on the Taipan’s fuselage and wings tearing huge holes in the aircraft everywhere they hit. The reactor began to explode in a glowing, yellow sphere that tore Jerry’s battlemech to shreds. The Taipan began to come apart in midair. It disintegrated mingling its wreckage with that of the battlemech it had just destroyed.
Suddenly everything snapped back to normal. Charlie felt and heard shrapnel from the two exploding war machines thudding and pinging against his Naginata. It might scratch the paint or leave a couple of dents, but it wouldn’t do any real damage. He bought his machine to a halt and surveyed the area. There was a huge, black scorch mark on the ground where Jerry’s `mech had once been. Miraculously one leg was still standing upright at a weird angle. There was battle debris scattered for hundreds of meters in all directions, but there was no sign of the Taipan pilot.
Lastly, there was Jerry up in the sky dangling under his escape parachute. The wind was pushing him farther away from the scene of the battle. It looked like Jerry would land about a mile off at this rate. Charlie took a last look around and started off after Jerry. They still had that invading strike force to deal with. Who were they and where did they come from? How did they get on planet without being noticed? The answers would come later, but Charlie knew he and Jerry would be needed in the up coming fight.
As Charlie drew closer to Jerry’s landing sight, he began to get annoyed that Jerry hadn’t begun to walk toward the approaching `mech to make for a quicker pickup. Then he began to worry. Maybe Jerry was hurt. Maybe he was hurt badly since he apparently wasn’t even able to get up out of this ejection seat harness.
When Charlie reached the seat, he didn’t know whether to be relieved or furious. There was even a momentary temptation to stomp on the seat with one of the Naginata’s gigantic feet! For there sat an unharmed Jerry in that ejection seat, smiling serenely, petting a jackrabbit.