Ferret Squad

It seemed an unlikely place for a battle.
Sunlight shone down between the green needle laden branches of northern pines, casting beams of light on the forest floor. A few birds and forest creatures moved through the woods and for the most part their sounds and that of the wind were all that could be heard. The only discordant note was a rumble of thunder at regular intervals, which was at odds with the sunlight streaming through the trees. It was almost idyllic. Almost. A low grumble came from the distance, growing like an approaching windstorm. Confused, many creatures sought shelter in their burrows and bowers, fearful of what was coming.
Suddenly, a roar erupted overhead, louder than a waterfall, drowning the thunder in the distance. It approached the forest scene, coming closer over the trees. Branches whipped in a sudden downdraft, steam and smoke stripping needles from the trees and stirring the forest floor. Animals fled as titans crashed down from above, proceeded by fire and smoke, heralded by the hurricane's howl. They fell to the ground, arms and legs flexing to absorb shock and maintain balance. Cast in the crude shape of men, they were made of metal, their outlines broken by a mix of different forest colors. Steam drifted from large nozzles low on their backs and their limbs hummed as they strode through the forest towards the thunder.
Sergeant Ryan McNichols watched his displays as his squad moved through the trees. Somewhere ahead of them, a Panzer Grenadiers platoon from the 110th Panzer battalion guarded a battery of artillery that was shelling the main line of battle outside of Toronto. Or, where Toronto had been once. The forces of the German Shuttoral Empire were attempting to impose their rule on the colonists who had returned to the mother world from colonies among the stars, now that the radiation and environmental damage from the Last World War had subsided. The Krauts were not welcome, and Australian forces were prominent in the battle for freedom.
Three hundred meters behind McNichols was the reason for his squad to be here: an unarmed Raccoon reconnaissance suit. The 'Coon's pilot, a female private named Helen Ellington was here to spot the Shuttoral battery and call down counter fire on it. McNichols and his squad were along to guard her from the Jerrys.
The troopers wore the latest in battlefield equipment: the Special Armored Fighting Suit, Mark II. A crude metal golem, its torso swelled up into wide, circular shoulders, topped with a low dome. It looked somewhat like an egg with limbs. Thick, armored arms and legs protected the pilot's limbs and moved in synchrony with his motions. Its left arm ended in the muzzle aperture of a high powered laser and the right a crude, but strong, mechanical hand. Tanks for fuel and nozzles for its rocket liftpack jutted from its back. It was the culmination of an idea born over 800 years before: a suit of armor, powered by electromechanical muscles mimicking its wearer's motion, able to fly and carrying weapons fit to burn through the armored hide of a tank.
The S.A.F.S. Mk II wasn't the first of its kind, but it was the best. It could fly for short distances and had a feature no other style of powered armor suit had: a fully enclosed canopy. The head of the S.A.F.S. was an unbroken shell. The pilot wore a pair of high definition video goggles linked to an electronic periscope, with instrumentation displays superimposed over a view of the world. The suit's vision systems tracked the pilot's head movements and swiveled the periscope to match. It was a vast improvement over earlier models, but it was not without detractors. Critics had pointed out that a power failure would leave the pilot totally blind. Supporters had retorted that if you were hit that hard, they might as well bury what was left of you in the suit.
McNichol's squad moved across the dead needles. One of the heavy-metal ogres moved ahead of the rest, stopping behind a bush on the edge of the woods. Cloaked in camouflage, leaves and shadows, the point man gazed out across what had been a lush meadow.
Now, it was a churned field of mud. The treads of heavy armor units and the feet of armored suits and larger combat walkers had ground the grass under. On the far side, an eruption of earth marked the revetments thrown up by engineers around the emplaced artillery and their defiladed defenders. The black painted turrets of a couple of tanks in hull-down positions showed around the edges of the firebase. Gouts of smoke burst from the heavy guns as they flung shells into the sky, accompanied by thunder.
"Lead to Squad, move forward." McNichols ordered his squad up to flank the point. Branches crunched beneath armored feet as the suits spread into a line just back from the forest edge. Satisfied, he keyed in to his circuit for the artillery post to alert them that his team was in position.
"Ferret Lead to Delta Control, over"
"Delta battery to Ferret, report status". Miles away, the fire control officer at the artillery firebase responded.
"In position, ready to designate"
"Ferret, rounds are on the way in twenty seconds, designate target in one minute."
"Roger Delta, Ferret out" McNichols turned his head in his suit, picking out Ellington's Raccoon next to a tree. "OK Ellington, move up and prepare to designate."
"Roger Sarge" she replied as her suit walked closer. The Raccoon was a variant unit, without the internal laser on the right arm. But on the left shoulder was a gyro stabilized targeting laser, designed to illuminate a target with a pulsed laser beam. Incoming artillery shells would be able to home in on the reflected laser light for more accuracy.
Ellington knelt in a tangle of thorn brushes, the designator already swiveling to follow her eyes to the target. "Ready"
"Designate in 6..5..4..3.." Before McNichols could finish his countdown, an alarm pinged in his armor. Red warning diamonds had appeared around enemy tanks at the edge of the german camp. Threat data next to the diamonds spelled out a warning in blood: the tanks were older Pzkfw 182s and they were sweeping the area with millimeter wave radar, designed to pick up small objects, even a short distance underground. Or under cover. The troopers under McNichols had the same equipment and hit the dirt, trying for cover against incoming fire. Ignoring the alarm, Ellington continued to aim her designator, hoping to complete her mission before the enemy completed his.
Lasers are normally invisible. The only way the can be seen is if they reflect from particles suspended in the air. The Raccoon's laser was not visible as it beamed across the sunlit field. The forest, on the other hand, was a different case. The first shot from the enemy came as a brilliant violet line the color of a summer thunderstorm's lightning. It glowed above them for a moment, the beam visible as a minute fraction scattered from dust, water vapor and even insects in its path. It swung in a short arc until it contacted a tree, which exploded in a flash of blue-white light and a storm of wood fragments. A shockwave of superheated steam from the tree swept across the armored troops. Even Ellington flinched and went face down in the rich dirt of the forest floor. The tank's gunner continued to pulse laser fire into the forest. Several other trees shattered when touched by the violet beams, glowing in the debris filled air. Whole canopies of leaves and branches crashed to the ground, burning fragments scattering to start secondary fires.
Over the crack of severed trees, a howling came from behind. It reached a crescendo overhead and dissolved in the thunderous reports of artillery shells bursting in air. A ripping canvas roar of an automatic cannon came from the firebase as an air defense vehicle blasted shells from the sky. A few survived to land off target.
"Ferret, this is Delta, are we on?" called the fire direction center, asking for confirmation of their shots.
Ellington raised her dirt stained suit to its knees and parted the bushes before her. "Delta, this is Ferret Spotter, shift right 150 meters and you'll be…" Ellington was cut off as her suit exploded in a flash of violet light. Fragments of white hot metal hurtled away as the laser burned through, vaporizing Helen's upper body. While the first tank had raked the forest, the second had traversed its gun to cover the area. When Ellington had popped back up, the gunner's computer had highlighted the motion.
"Ferret, this is Delta, come in Ferr…"
"Delta, this is Ferret Lead" McNichols' ears rang from a piece of the Raccoon which had ricocheted from his armor. "We've lost our spotter! They've got some heavy armor and an air defense gun, put some tank killer rounds up the spout. We're pinned down and most of your rounds didn't make it through. They're off target anyway, shift 150 meters right!!"
"Roger Ferret Lead, stand by"
"Ferret leader to Ferrets, let's try and get out of here, everyone fire a chaff round and get ready to run on my command. Fire chaff…now!" From the backs of each unit, a small mortar hurled a grenade sized projectile forward towards the forest edge. The rounds exploded in a blizzard of foil coated mylar strips, spreading and falling to form a radar blocking cloud.
"Ferret leader, this is Beta Battery command" crackled a woman's voice in McNichols' earphones. "We're ready for your tank killer mission, over" McNichols eyes flicked to the threat displays his suit projected in his field of view below the highlighted target, tiny numerals spelling out threat type, bearing and range.
"Beta, aimpoint is 37-24-01 by 100-15-23, offset 900 meters bearing 015 degrees true" McNichols sent, giving the coordinates from his suit's navigation system and an offset bearing to the nearest tank.
"Roger Ferret, on the way. Delta is resuming fire also"
The mylar cloud from the chaff had drifted down and the threat displays began to flicker as the chaff blocked the enemy's radar pulses. "Ferret, this is Lead, haul ass!!" The metal figures thrust themselves to their feet and turned and lumbered off into the forest. Corporal O'Reilly, Ferret's point man and the closest survivor to the enemy actually fired his jets in a forty meter bound forward. His arc took him above the cloud and a flicker of violet death passed above him as a tank's gunner tried for the quickly fleeing target.
Ferret escaped from the immediate area, but the Australian forces hadn't forgotten about the battery. The german captain commanding the Shuttoral artillery decided that things had gotten too hot, time to look for a new home. A pair of tanks, followed by engineer vehicles and personnel carriers, began to roll out of camp. Then the follow-up salvoes from Beta and Delta batteries arrived.
Six tank killer shells burst high above the ground, each scattering three antitank bomblets, which began scanning the ground for tanks or other vehicles. The air defense gun's computer detected them, but assigned a lower priority to them than the first salvo from Delta battery which was smack on target. The bomblets spread out in a cone and several found worthy targets. Five of them detonated, slamming penetrators down through the decks of two tanks, two artillery vehicles and the air defense vehicle. The two tanks were disabled, but had survivors as their laser armaments were safe from secondary explosions. The artillery and air defense vehicles vanished in earth-rocking explosions as their ready ammunition supplies gang fired.
And now, the unopposed shells from Delta battery rained down upon the camp. One struck an ammunition hauler, a thin-skinned tracked truck, loaded with shells and propellant charges. An explosion to dwarf the previous ones ripped apart the camp and destroyed two more mobile guns. The battery commander was torn from the open hatch of his vehicle and thrown to the ground outside the camp. Stunned, one leg broken, he lay on the muddy ground, staring up at the sky as the final group of shells pounded the lifeless firebase. After the last round had exploded, throwing dirt and fragments of his men and vehicles upon him, the captain concentrated very hard on remembering how many days he had left before he could go home and leave Earth to those who wanted it.

An image of the S.A.F.S., Mark II