"We are privileged to have as our speaker tonight the man responsible for most of our success, Engineer Duane."
A wave of applause echoed from the grimy stone-brick walls. A rather long-haired man in his thirties walked up to the podium.
"Lights, please." His voice was a rather pleasant baritone. The lights went out and a panel in back of Duane lit up. The picture showed a large, armored land vehicle being burned to a cinder by some invisible force. A caption read, "BEFORE."
"When they hit us with lasers, we initiated chrome plating."
He pushed a button on the podium and the picture changed. This one showed a vehicle of similar build except far more shiny. A patch of dirt in the foreground was on fire, but the tank was unharmed. The caption read, "AFTER."
"But the old problem of heavy explosives and armor-piercing shells still haunts us."
He pushed the button again, and a picture popped up showing fragments of chrome-plated steel flying into the air above a fireball. The caption read, "A LITTLE MORE AFTER." This coaxed a few uneasy chuckles from the room.
"No matter what new alloys we make, they always build something that can get through them; whether it's a new armor- piercing warhead or a sodium bath or even just a TNW. -- Yes, you have a question?"
"What's a TNW?"
This evoked a few more giggles and a lot of disbelieving moans. "Try Next Week --" chorus of laughs "-- no, Tactical Nuclear Weapon. Developing newer and better armor is a dead-end street that we've just about reached the boundary of. What we need is a way to avoid incoming explosives, something a tank just can't do."
Another hand raised, which Duane acknowledged. "What about ECM?"
"You know how futile electronic counter measures are against their unscramblers, and I don't think new ECM would make our tanks or even our planes any harder targets to lock on to. What I'm talking about is something the Cons haven't considered yet:"
He pushed the picture-changing button a third time. The wave of response that the picture created was staggering.
"Behold the human tank!"
The picture displayed a schematic drawing of an empty body suit (complete with helmet, gauntlets, and boots) to which numerous labels pointed. It looked like a piece of metal scrap.
Voices from the crowd blurted: "Battle armor?!" "That's never worked!" "What about power?" and various moans of "He's got to be kidding."
Duane succeeded in partially silencing them with a few waves of his right hand. "Gentlepeople, gentlepeople, please!"
"The last time we tried that," a voice echoed from the back of the room, "We got ten minutes of clumsy added mobility and fifty minutes of backache hauling the dead battery pack in for recharging."
"Yeah," came another, this one female, "And it made it harder for us to draw a bead on our targets! Do you know what it's like for your firing arm to fight twenty kilos of hydraulics?"
Duane assumed the calm which had got him his position. "There have been several improvements made to the accuracy with which the human tank responds to muscular movement. We've also put short-range radar and a heads-up display in the helmet window. And as for power --"
He turned on the podium light and held up a block in one hand. It clattered slightly and looked like an ammo magazine. "-- that's where this baby comes in. Storing energy as electric or chemical potential wouldn't put enough juice in here for you to walk ten meters. But with pair annihilation for energy release --"
He didn't complete the sentence before the audience gasped and muttered to itself. "You mean you've got a gamma ray trap that small?"
"Precisely. And cheap enough to be thrown away in the field and replaced." The audience was dead silent by now. "The bulk of the engineers -- notably Georgina and Chat -- worked through the last few weeks on this one. We knew we were that close when we reduced a self-contained magnetic separator bottle to palm size. Upgrading the existing battle armor to the new human tank was easy; Frank's group started adapting it for the new power source even before we finished it. And with Sheila's group's response improvements and H.U.D. addition, the engineering staff feels you'll find the human tank the best small-scale combat vehicle yet designed."
He cut the podium light and changed the picture. The new slide showed an extremely shiny, bulky battle suit, through the helmetplate of which a smiling face looked at the viewers, leaping ten meters through the air.
"This is Engineer Steven testing the hydraulic response in the legs, and posing. He . . . didn't quite land on his feet, but he was new and panicked on the way down. With a seven-week training program, any one of you could be doing maneuvers like that routinely. You could run at nearly twenty meters a second, jump like Steve here, lift up one side of a tank by yourself, kick in a concrete wall, and still have the targeting-aided accuracy to hit a person a hundred meters away with a pistol."
More murmurings filled the room. In the third row, a young blond-haired European woman named Lancia turned to her older and North American (but still blond) trainer: "That could get you out of the way of a tac-nuke blast, all right."
"That might get you out of the way of a tac-therm blast," her trainer replied.
"Yeah, Fel, that's what I meant." The younger woman raised her hand.
"Yes, Infantryperson Lancia?"
Everyone giggled and she blushed. Half the guys in this division knew her personally. "What about fallout or nerve gas?"
Duane raised a finger. "I'm glad you asked." He changed the slide. Another cutaway view of the powered armor showed an internal tank. "The visor on the front of the helmet is usually left open a crack to let air in, but if you're going through poison gas or a radioactive zone -- or even under water -- you can snap the plate completely down and breathe ten minutes of oxygen. And if the oxygen tank runs out you can still breathe what's left in the armor."
"Engineer Duane," the original announcer cut in, "That all sounds just great. When can we expect to see these new 'human tanks' in use?"
"Well, we wouldn't be presenting this slide show here if the first models weren't rolling out of the assembly plant right now."
Once more, the crowd muttered to itself.
"The engineers will be presenting and demonstrating the first units to you by the end of this week. And as for our recommended training program, we've already informed your physical trainers and section leaders. You'll start tomorrow."
The voice of the crowd spoke the wards "All right!" almost as one.
Duane raised his right fist as high as it would go and opened his hand in the traditional salute. "Extraordinary circumstances demand extraordinary measures!" he cried.
"Extraordinary circumstances demand extraordinary measures!" the audience echoed at the top of its lungs.
"Areopagiticon," Fel whispered to herself.
"There must be a million different parts in this thing," Lancia's trainer complained. "How are we supposed to snap into a human tank in twenty seconds with all of this?"
"Don't look at me, Fel," Lancia came back.
"All right, step number one, everybody," Section Leader Tom's voice cut through the morning din. "Snapping into a human tank in twenty seconds."
Lancia and Fel both suppressed a chuckle.
Tom held one of the powered suits upright. "You'll notice," he began, indicating the chrome-plated humanoid shell, "That your human tank is hinged on the right side." He nudged the suit with his free hand and it swung open into two halves, connected at the right hip and the right hand. "You'll also notice a good deal of padding inside. This is both for comfort and for shock absorption; banging your head or your butt against a metal frame isn't much better than banging it against asphalt. As you may have already guessed, this padding is lined with endothermic bands to keep you cooled off.
I burst my own hymen when I was fifteen."
"Oh," Lancia replied, letting her voice and her focus trail off. Then, she turned back to her. "Did it hurt?"
"Well, yeah, a little bit, but only for a few sec--" she stopped. It made a shocking kind of sense now. "You mean you've never had sex with anyone?"
"No," she replied, cocking her head innocently to one side. "I'm saving myself."
'These poor souls,' she thought. 'Some freedom we're bringing them.' The powered-down armor weighed heavily on her every step. She glanced sullenly at Sam, who returned her solemn stare.
Now they march as soldiers,
On their own,
In their last war on Earth,
For they march alone.
Joseph Gray had earned a higher score at the UCG dogfighting academy than any man in history. Yesterday he'd engaged two targets simultaneously, instantly scoring a kill on one plane and then screaming past the other with less than five centimeters between them. The forward-swept wings of the hypersonic nuke jets offered the highest degree of maneuverability -- and demanded the highest degree of precision -- of any fighter design yet produced. Joe Gray was just the man to give it that precision.
When he'd signed on as a fighter pilot in the UCG's North American Division, he'd chosen the bold nickname of "Ace" for himself. Every man and woman in his unit ridiculed him about that title -- until they saw him fly.
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