A hundred kilometers outside of the range of the orbital defense ring, thirty Sherman MkIII remote infantry vehicles, cocooned in their drop capsules but not yet separated for insertion, began the automated process of activating onboard power and generating crypto keys for the local networks using white noise from the auxiliary antennae on each entry vehicle.
Operators on the other side of the world keyed into their stations, bodies going slack with the cocktail of muscle relaxants, mental stimulants, and tuned impulses sent along the jacks and transdermal receivers surgically implanted in each of their bodies.
Soon, the capsules would detach, each entry vehicle arming the onboard payloads to both function as hypersonic ballistics, and to disguise the Shermans as part of the launch debris from such. With any luck, the time it took for the enemy defenses to calculate the yield of the ballistics and conclude that they weren't the expected size would give the incoming Shermans a few seconds of advantage.
Bowed, slumping, even drooling, six oldsters sat in a cloud of whispy grey hair.
Each of them sat completely vacant, their eyes, if they were open at all, glazed over and fixed in the distance a world beyond the tile floors and institutional white walls.
A chime over the building intercom, announcing half past the hour, and the automated window shades opened fully to the afternoon, bathing the unresponsive men and women in clear white sunshine.
An assistant droid had been by recently, and having found nothing of concern, the only signs of its passing were the incrementing of a few logs somewhere. In a few hours, a (human) nurse would be by to fulfill the regulations regarding human oversight.
In the interdiction zone, the two remaining Shermans from their squad sat back to back, fat armored cables linked between the two, with a third cable running to a salvaged power unit that had been pried from the smoking remains of a third Sherman from the squad, the only other to survive the first objective. It had sacrificed itself to provide a distraction while the other two circled behind the concealed enemy fortification that lay between the first and second objectives. They had split the remaining munitions and dragged the power module to a hole-up in a section of bombed-out ruins left by yesterday's ballistic strikes.
"Six minutes until distribution is complete."
The other unit, its tactical beamformer damaged and unable to transmit, flashed an acknowledgement over IR laser, following with a coded message.
ONE UNIT SQUAD FIVE MISSION CAPABLE BREAK ONE UNIT SQUAD THREE WEAPONS CAPABLE ONLY BREAK CALLSIGN 5-3 TO RETRIEVE CALLSIGN 3-1 AND COMBINE HERE OVER
"Copy all, disconnecting in 5+ minutes."
Five minutes and sixteen seconds later, the Shermans separated with a clunk, each moving to stand to its full nine foot height and leaving the ejected power cables in the rubble they had been sheltering in.
The major looked up at the Big Board, hands moving automatically to copy the update from 2-1 and forward it to interested parties. It was not a glamorous job, nor was it in line with the duties typically assigned to someone of his rank and experience, but these make-work positions were a way for officers in other units to familiarize themselves with the Shermans.
2-1 and 2-2 had linked up with 5-3 and 3-1, and were moving to the final target. They were still reporting munitions low, and it was looking increasingly unlikely that there would be time to drop a speedball to them to replenish their supplies before they started the assault on the final objective.
It wasn't his place to criticize, or even offer suggestions, but the endless training and dissection of historical battles was as ingrained in the major as it was in any infantry officer. If it were him in 2-1's shoes, he would have stripped the deaf and dumb 3-1 to refit the rest and used 3-1 as a breaching munition.
2-2 walked behind 3-1 and worked the magazine in and out of the rifle, signalling 3-1 to stop. Squad 3 had been tasked with taking out the reactor facility that supplied power to the local orbital defenses. The assault had proceeded as expected until the assault stick had lined up to breach the exterior door of the reactor containment unit, and then the entire facility had lit up under the blast of an antiair laser hastily rigged as a ground fire unit. In the milliseconds before the laser self-destructed, three of the five Shermans had been converted into plasma. 3-2 had been reduced to a pile of slag, and 3-1, in the shadow of the rest, had the entire exterior surface of its plating ablated away, and almost all of its sensors and signal gear along with it.
The sole remaining sources of input for 3-1 were its weapons status indicators, a temperature sensor, and most of the proprioception receptors in the deeper layers of the machine.
2-2 could relay simple binary signals with the magazine indicator; when it came time to relay more complicated plans, it would use the higher bandwidth of 3-1's joint angles.
As the nurse put eyes directly on the biometric readouts, he noted Colonel Jabar twitching in his chair. He had been doing this long enough to know that some time in the next few days, the technical team would be making adjustments to the Colonel's biofeedback systems. The nurses all knew that it was a losing battle, and so did the patients, but every extra moment was a gift, and until his patients decided it was time to give up, or until they hit the limits of the available technology, everyone would do their very best.
"Is 3-1 good to go?"
"Okay. Split up. Let's fuck this chicken."
5-3 waggled its off hand in the universal wanking gesture, and pivoted off to the Southeast, heading to the only high ground in range of the target.
2-1 and 2-2 sat and waited for 3-1 to launch. Assuming 5-3 was in position to take over guidance, and the sensor blisters on 3-1's short range ballistics hadn't cooked inside the launch tubes of the heavy assault module, 2-1 and 2-2 would already be on the move while the ballistics cruised in, and would breach the perimeter wall as soon as they hit.
The major sat in on the after-action conference thinking quietly to himself. His shift had ended while the combined squad was still moving to their final target, and he'd spent the hour before bed chatting with the liason officer from the wiped out 4th squad about the mission and his projections.
In the front of the room, a briefer continued reading the summary in its characteristically dry language.
"5-2 was able to pick up guidance for 3-1's ballistics midflight and guide them right on top of the assessed droid magazine, severely degrading the automated defense systems. 2-1 and 2-2 cleaned up the remaining forces with minimal expenditure, and with overwatch from 5-2, they were able to destroy the control nodes before fully expending against the response forces. We assess that they destroyed or caused to be expended almost 25% of the enemy's local reserve force before they were destroyed."
The liason officer kicked the Major's boot under the table, shooting him a smirk.
A lieutenant who hadn't bothered reading the single paragraph of the expanded report that answered his question asked, "Did we uh, confirm total expenditure?"
"Yes sir," the briefer said without rolling her eyes, "Direct reporting from all systems except 3-1, with direct eyes from 2-1 confirming 3-1's autodestruct."
As the meeting wrapped up and people began to filter out, the liason officer gave the Major another nudge in the hallway.
"I know what you're thinking," the liason officer said, "You should have thought of that. You get, what, a year here? Those guys have been doing this for fifty."
The automated shutters shifted again, shielding the dining table from the glare of the sunset while the oldsters ate.
"Jesus," Jabar said, "That laser was a good trick."
The rest of them grumbled their assent.
"Hey," one of them said, "You heard they're talking about a block upgrade already? You guys know what that means."
"Fuckin' schoolhouse," Jabar said, a particular venom in the second word. "You know they're gonna say we can't hack the new tech and they're gonna put our asses in the schoolhouse."
"Instructor duty," one of them said. "Fuuuuuuck that."
"Yeah, but what are you gonna do, say no and drive the meat mech for the rest of your life? At least you'll get your minimum hours on the obstacle course."
"Fuck you, Childress, you can drive this meat mech right here," Jabar said, returning Childress' universal gesture from the assault.