When times are hardest, we must persevere. When times are hopeless, we must keep the faith. When times are darkest, we must be the light. When casualties rise, we must take our turn at the battlements of freedom. If we do not, then who will? And what universe would we find if we do not? Those of us who can, must, or all will fall. And so I do. I always will. Because I have learned that the cost of freedom is worth it all.
A massive wolf came loping over the hill, ears forward, teeth bared, and all four feet a blur of motion. It was an impressive sight. Jack had watched wolves like this hunting moose in Northern Minnesota all his life, and now one was running right at him. A real dire timberwolf the size of a small pony could send grown men running in terror. Jack would happily ride it into battle. The wolf looked big, mean, and dangerous. Jack liked him at first sight. The American flag on one uniformed shoulder and a Devil Dog patch on the other showed his affiliation, not that there was much of a question. The Chinese didn’t have dire timberwolves in their army. Even the Marines had fewer Devil Dogs in their number than the old nickname suggested, but one Captain Jack Hart was happy to see them whenever he got the chance.
The wolf scrambled to a stop, panting and slobbering all over the ground in front of him. “Oh, thank God,” the wolf growled between taking deep lungfuls of air. “We thought you’d bought the farm.” The wolf paused to look around at the burning fields around them and shrugged. “Literally,” he finished with a wry set to his toothy jaw.
“I’m not into buying farms,” Jack retorted. “Resorts maybe, but no farms for me.” Jack winked at the wolf’s questioning look. “Way too much work, and nowhere near enough time to chase the pretty girls.”
A bark of laughter escaped the wolf’s mouth. Then he set his ears to attention. “Sergeant Buddy, United States of America First Infantry Division.”
Jack knew he was supposed to return with his own name, but the name just completely threw him out of that mindset. He just looked at the giant collection of muscle, fur, and teeth with a dumbstruck look. “You named yourself Buddy?” was the only thing he could think to say.
Another bark of laughter escaped the deadly canine. “My human gave it to me,” he said in a proud tone.
Jack blinked and shook his head. This was just getting weird. “I’m sorry, but…Buddy? You?”
The timberwolf chuckled. “Little Buddy actually.” He gave an impressive imitation of waggling his eyebrows at Jack. “She was five years old when she found me in the woods as a pup. She gave me chocolate,” he added as if that explained everything.
Jack winced. “Isn’t that deadly?”
The wolf waggled his eyebrows again. “Yes. But it’s so worth the bellyaches.”
“Right.” Jack shook his head. He’d heard crazier things somewhere. He was certain he had, though he couldn’t remember them at the moment. “So…Sergeant Little Buddy?”
The timberwolf yipped like it was the funniest thing in all the worlds.
Jack cleared his throat and tried to clear his brain at the same time. “I’m sorry. Captain Jack of Hart Squadron, Republic of Texas Marine Corps Fighter Attack Wing 112.” He saluted the wolf and the sergeant returned the salute with his ears. “Now what’s going on out there?”
The wolf sobered and looked around in an unhappy manner. “Good news or bad news?”
“Let’s cut to the bad news,” Jack said with a sigh.
The wolf let out a long growl and lowered himself into a pouncing stance. “Their main invasion force is digging into the edges of Landing City and we can’t stop them.” The wolf pointed back with his nose in the direction of way more gunfire than most people would consider moving towards.
“Got it.” Jack followed the wolf’s aim with his eyes and considered how difficult this was going to be. “Can you go on back to your regiment and tell them the cavalry is coming?”
The wolf looked at the four Marines very doubtfully. “The four of you? You’re the cavalry?”
Jack chuckled and put a brave smile on. “We’re Cowboys. It wouldn’t be a fair fight if we didn’t spot them a few people.”
The wolf cocked his ears forward in a disbelieving expression. “They have five thousand troops, with mech and tank support.”
Jack winced. He’d been hoping there weren’t that many around. “Then it’s a good thing I don’t believe in fair fights.” And this was going to be nothing like a fair fight if his people got pinned down.
“So what are you going to do?” the timberwolf asked as he frowned back the way he’d come.
Jack set his jaw. “You ever been to International Falls?”
The wolf growled and Jack knew he had. “I was adopted there. Why?”
Jack’s lip twitched. “I grew up there.” The wolf’s eyes opened wide and he nodded once. “Trust me,” Jack continued in a dark tone. “I’ll think of something to do that these guys won’t like.”
The wolf let out a deep growl that reverberated in Jack’s chest. “Roger that.”
“Tell them we’re on the way,” Jack ordered.
“Yes, Sir,” the wolf said, saluting Jack with his ears, and turned to lope away.
“So,” Jack said, turning back to Jesse, Katy, and Natalie. “We’ve got a few thousand bad guys looking to get nailed. Any ideas on how to do that?”
“Punch them hard,” Jesse said.
“Maybe we can bluff them into thinking we can kill them all,” Katy added.
“Or just make a lot of noise out here,” Natalie said. “Maybe we can divert some of them off the remaining defenses.”
“Like what we did to their warships?” Jack asked and began scratching his jaw. It sounded like a good idea, but a few thousand was a lot of people.
“Precisely,” Natalie answered.
“I may have a better idea,” Betty said and her holoform flickered into sight next to him.
Jack raised his eyebrows at her. “Yes?”
“We’re in the middle of a battlefield, right?” Betty asked and opened her arms wide.
Jack looked around at the smoking ruins. “I’m reasonably certain we are, yes..”
“Right.” Betty aimed a quelling look at him. “Well, maybe we can salvage some of this junk and use it.”
Jack looked around again. “You, me, and what technical crew?”
Betty sighed. “You know how the Peloran upgrade kits handle our repairs?”
“The nannies do it,” Jack said with a shrug.
“Yes,” Betty said with a roll of her eyes. “The self-repair nanites.”
“Hang on. Are you saying the nannies can fix this hunk of junk?” Jack asked and kicked the ruined Chinese tank next to them. It looked like it had taken a round clear through and out the other side.
“No,” Betty answered with a shake of her head. “Too badly damaged and not enough nanites. But maybe we can find something that’s only mostly dead.”
“A tank or two in any condition would make for a serious force multiplier,” Katy said.
“True.” Jack made a show of scanning the wreckage around him as he sucked liquid protein from the straw. Any of these vehicles would be a powerful asset. “Okay people, spread out and start looking for something we can salvage. Natalie?”
“Yes?” the cyber asked, halfway through her turn to begin searching.
Jack pointed towards the hill the timberwolf had disappeared over. “Keep watch for the bad guys, please.”
She followed his gesture and nodded. “Will do,” she acknowledged and began walking towards the hill.
Jack returned to scanning the burned remnants of war machines all around them. Scattered shots echoed over the hill and smoke curled from jeeps and tanks alike. The smell of death and burned flesh filled his nose. It looked like a post-apocalyptic scene from a movie. He blinked and smoking buildings appeared for a moment. The two scenes smelled the same, though his memories didn’t include the random gunfire. They hurt a lot more though. Jack closed his eyes and willed the remains of International Falls to fade away.
Then he opened his eyes and he was back in the burning fields. Jack cleared his throat and shook his head. He needed to be clear. His people counted on him. He couldn’t let them down.
“Jack?” Betty asked, concern filling her voice.
“I’m good,” Jack said and smiled at her holoform.
“You are so far from good you couldn’t touch it with a three-meter pole,” Jasmine said from his other side.
He turned to see her worried expression and shrugged. It only a hurt a little to shrug. He was getting better. “Then I’m alive. How about that?”
Betty’s hand touched his shoulder. “That’s closer to accurate.”
“For certain meanings of the word,” Jasmine added.
“Just try not to push it.” Betty’s smile said she was there for him.
“Yeah,” Jack said with another shrug and looked at the ruins again. “Well, those mostly dead tanks and such aren’t going to find themselves.” He clapped his hands together and started walking. “Let’s go find them, shall we?”
“By your command,” Betty and Jasmine said with echoing sly smiles and stepped away to begin their own scans.
Jack shook his head at them, but kept his eyes on the machines around them. There was another tank. It didn’t look Chinese, but it wasn’t Marine either. A display popped open in his helmet and gave him some quick data on the design. It was a local built Serenity design. Cheaper than a Marine or Army tank, but not as strong. He looked around and the helmet highlighted several other examples of the design on his quick scan. They had died in far greater numbers than the Chinese tanks. Not surprising. The Chinese made good tanks.
Jack walked past the local tank and kept scanning. To the left he saw a jeep. There was a larger infantry transport on the right, ripped open by thousands of bullets. The ruin still popped, hissed, and radiated heat from all surfaces. The air shimmered above it in endless waves and Jack carefully stepped away from it. He really didn’t want to touch something so recently dead it still radiated heat and who knew what else all over him. Then he looked around at the other wrecks and wondered what they were radiating.
“Yeah, Jack?” Betty’s voice asked in his ear.
“What’s all this stuff radiating?”
“You don’t want to know.”
Jack took another step away from the nearest wreck. “Um, you realize that just makes me want to know more, right?”
Betty’s holoform leaned around another dead tank several meters away and shook her head. “No you don’t. But don’t worry. Your suit is sealed and you’re all safe.” She grimaced and looked around again. “Just…um…don’t get shot.”
“Yeah.” Jack scanned the nearby wrecks with more trepidation. “I’ll keep that in mind.” Then he sucked in a deep breath and began walking again. He soon found himself looking down into a deep drainage ditch on the edge of a field that had once grown corn. Now the field was burned away. The drainage ditch was clogged with burnt crops, dead bodies, and destroyed machines. He was about to turn away when something caught his attention.
“Hello,” he said and looked closer. Yes, that was a United States Marine Corps shuttle at the bottom. The Garm’s ruins would never fly again he was certain, though a quick scan showed no bodies inside. The pilot probably called that a controlled landing. Jack shook his head. But at least she got her Marines down alive. So they were probably on the other side of that hill, fighting the bad guys at this very moment.
“That’s not all,” Katy said as she stepped up on the other lip of the ditch, pointing at something partially buried by thrown debris a few meters from the shuttle.
“Who would leave a Cerberus behind?” Jesse asked over their communications channel and Jack studied the two heavy laser cannons in her nose. Those would be powerful weapons if they could get the girl flying again.
“Hello sweetie,” Betty said and Jack turned. Her holoform stood on the other side of the shuttle, looking down at something else. Jack stepped around the Garm to see a long gun barrel sticking out from under the rubble. A sloped carapace was barely visible in the ruin and Jack whistled.
“They’re both wiped,” Natalie answered quickly and pointed at several holes in their armor. “They took rounds on the way down from the look of that damage. Probably hackers that took out the computers.”
“Touch them so I can take a look,” Jasmine’s voice said in his ear.
“Touch something that’s been hacked?” Jack asked in disbelief.
“Oh, don’t be a baby,” Jasmine returned. “At worst it’s just a Chinese hack.”
“Fine,” Jack said doubtfully, but he moved forward and placed a hand on the downed Cerberus. “Just be careful.”
“Careful’s my middle name,” Jasmine answered. “Now hold still.”
After a few seconds, Jasmine’s holoform appeared outside the shuttle. “Her computer network is fried. She’s got some superficial damage from the fall and getting dumped on,” she reported with a wave at the rubble covering her. “But she looks good. “Her AI is a total loss. Looks like a penetrator blew the backup braincase out. I’ll have to take control if she responds to my commands.”
“Oh, poor you, finally getting to fly a Cerberus,” Jack said with a wry smile.
Jasmine aimed a pointed gesture at the fallen shuttle. “Not very high, I’m not, thank you very much. Eagles getting sucked into jet engines and all that you know.”
“Right. How much time do you need?”
“Probably not long,” she said with a pensive look. Then she turned as Jesse arrived in a ground covering lope. “Fox, can you get over here and help me out?”
“Yes, Ma’am,” Jesse answered and stepped over. “What do you want?”
“Put your hands on the Cerberus so I can borrow your nannies.”
Jesse stepped back, waving his hands back and forth. “Whoa there. That thing’s been hacked!”
“You’re all big babies,” Jasmine growled. Then she pointed at Jack. “He touched it and he’s all right.”
Jesse followed her motion with a doubtful look. “No offense Boss, but I ain’t never said you were all right.”
“None taken,” Jack chuckled back.
Jasmine rolled her eyes. “Cat, go help Betty with that Barghest.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” Katy said without pause and stepped around the shattered shuttle.
“You too, Jack,” Jasmine ordered.
“What about the Cerberus?” Jack asked and Jasmine grinned evilly.
“Don’t worry. Fox will be happy to help me in a few seconds.”
Jack looked towards Jesse who gave him an alarmed look. Well, you had to throw the baby bird out of the nest sometime. “Got it.”
“Don’t leave me alone with her, Boss,” Jesse pleaded.
“Just do what she says,” Jack answered with another chuckle and walked away to help fix the tank. He looked down at the trashed carapace and frowned in worry.
Katy looked up from where her hands were already on it. “Well, come on you big baby,” she said with a smile. “We won’t bite. Much.”
Jack raised one eyebrow at her. “Promises, promises,” he whispered, but sucked in a long breath and went down on one knee to touch the hull. One finger touched it first as a test, and when nothing reached out to smack him he finally placed both hands on it.
“Good boy,” Katy whispered and Jack sighed. Katy winked. “See? Doesn’t hurt a bit.”
Jack glanced to the side where his suit’s display showed most of the nannies leaving. “Yeah, but if we get hurt right now it’s going to be real bad.” There wouldn’t be enough nannies left to repair the suits if they went into combat at the moment.
“Natalie?” Katy asked and Jack glanced over to see Natalie’s location on the map. She was very close but just out of sight, hiding on his side of an artificial ridgeline with perfect sightlines on the Chinese army. It was straight as an arrow, telling Jack that one of their gravitic cannons must have slashed across this area.
“We’re clear for now,” the cyber reported. “Just fix those things up fast. There are a lot of Chinese over there.”
“Looking at us?” Jack asked.
“No. Headed for Landing City. Though it looks like they ran into the mother of all meatgrinders right here. If this is five thousand troops I’ll eat my shirt.”
Jack ground a bad retort out of his mind and kept on target. “You think our Little Buddy was wrong?”
“No.” Natalie shook her head. “I think he was right. But this was one of the positions we shot as we were coming down. There’s thousands of dead Chinese over there. Only hundreds are still kicking if I’m seeing right.”
“How many of our dead down there?” Jack asked.
“Thousands,” Natalie reported in a grim tone. “Easily. Serenity’s army made their last stand right here.”
“Lovely.” Jack grimaced and glanced at his displays. The nannies were still chugging away happily. “Any hint of our Marines out there?”
“Well, I’m picking up a firefight to the west…and another to the north. Nope…the western one just ended.”
Jack frowned and sucked down some more liquid protein from his straw. “Ended good or ended bad?”
“Good, I think.” Natalie paused for a moment as she angled for a better view. “Looks to me like our boys pulled back into cover and exited stage right.”
“Whoa.” Natalie paused as if collecting her thoughts and notes. “I’ve got incoming Chinese. ETA one minute. We need to stop them.”
Jack sighed and “How many?”
“Around fifty troopers. No powered armor. They’ve got good ECM over there though so I’m having trouble locking the number down. They’re coming in and out of view.”
Jack bit down on the straw and glanced at the displays. The tank was nowhere near operational. “Understood. You can’t hold them alone.”
The Cereberus twitched, jerked, and rose up out of the rubble behind Jack. “I don’t think that’s a problem…I’m ready,” Jasmine reported and Jack heard the Cereberus’ gravplating power up. “Oh yeah. I’m good,” Jasmine reported in a pleased tone.
“You should be,” Jesse groused. “You’ve got half my nannies.”
Jack wanted to help deal with the incoming, but the displays showed his nannies kept on having to return to the suit for more power. And they needed the tank if the Chinese had anything left over there other than infantry.
“Fox.” Jack paused and looked into Katy’s eyes, asking if she thought the same thing he did. She nodded in agreement. “You and the girls take them.”
“Roger that Boss,” Jesse acknowledged and turned to meet the incoming threat.
Jack twitched at a status update in his display. “We’ve got mortars.”
Katy smiled at him. “Whatever should we do with them?”
Jack chuckled. “Let me think about that for a bit.”
Katy winked and turned to follow the action.
The newcomers came around the east side of the hill, not wanting to highlight themselves against the sky from the west, but Jesse’s armor picked them out with ease. Jack blinked his eyes in a quick pattern and a display came alive in his helmet, showing him everything Jesse saw. The background became muted and bright outlines highlighted the moving Chinese figures, making their presence as clear as day.
“Open fire,” Jesse ordered and his heavy machinegun lifted up off his shoulder to fire into the group of enemy soldiers. Natalie’s heavier twin autocannons joined in, filling the area with rounds that struck through bodies, bounced off or blew up rocks, and left a whole mess of blood and guts in their wake.
The surviving Chinese were quick. Jack had to give them that. They returned fire without pausing to crap their pants in shock first. Rounds pinged off Jesse’s armor at a worrying rate until he dropped down behind cover.
“I think I got their attention, Boss,” Jesse transmitted in a breathless voice as more rounds punched small volcanoes in the ground around him. The “thump, thump, thump” of mortars came before the shells rose up into the air and dove down into the drainage ditch. Machine guns rose up and fired into the incoming rounds, picking them off long before they could explode.
“Well, that’s rude,” Jesse said in a tone suggesting no worries at all. “Mortars. Now.” Jesse and Natalie braced as the mortars on their Hellhounds’ backs deployed into firing position and began returning fire. Jasmine’s Cerberus popped panels and two mortar launchers deployed to send their own shells into the air. The shells flew up, dropped down, and Chinese point defense tore them from the sky before they could explode.
Jack smiled as his displays lit up with the Chinese positions, updated by backtracking their point defense. They were just on the other side of the ridge and he waggled his eyebrows at Katy.
She smiled back. “They’ll never know what hit them, Boss.”
“Mortars. Shallow arc. Fire,” Jack ordered and his armor shuddered. The mortar launcher attached to his back deployed and emitted a dull “thump, thump, thump,” sending shells flying into the air. Katy’s armor joined in the assault and their shells missed the edge of the drainage ditch by centimeters and shot towards the artificial ridge at maximum speed. They passed over the ridge, exploded before the Chinese point defense could see them, and screams of pain echoed over the ridge.
“All mortars. Again,” Jack ordered, and six mortars fired their shells at the ridge. More screams answered the explosions, but not as many as before. Jack frowned in suspicion. “Again.” The mortars spoke once more, but no screams came from the other side. Frak. “Cease fire. They’re falling back.”
“Or they’re dead,” Jesse said, his tone cocky after the one-sided victory.
“Don’t count on it.” Jack retorted as he glared at Katy.
She frowned at him, but nodded in agreement. She was feeling it too.
“We surprised them, but they’ll be back,” Jack predicted. “And they’ll be bringing reinforcements. Betty?”
“I’m doing the best I can,” the cyber answered curtly. “They really tore this girl apart on her way down. And the crash didn’t do her any good, either.”
“Got it,” Jack said and kept his hands on the downed tank. The nannies were going to need all the help they could get to finish the job. No. They weren’t going to have time to finish it. Something was coming. He felt that certainty settle into his bones and let out a long breath. He turned to Katy and she nodded very slowly. She felt it too. “Just get the weapons up.”
“Jack?” Betty’s question came slowly, as if she was considering whether or not to ask it.
“Just a feeling,” he said. “We’ll need the guns.”
“For once I’d like to get a good feeling,” Katy muttered under her breath.
“I think they were trying to flank friendly positions to the south,” Betty said, her holoform nodding that way. “I don’t like the way it’s sounding over there. Like somebody’s running low on ammo.”
“Well, the good news is that we should be pulling some pressure off them,” Jesse said.
“How is that good news for us?” Katy asked in a dour tone.
Jesse chuckled. “I didn’t say it was.”
Jack focused on the south, ignoring their banter to listen for the clues Betty had mentioned. She was right. They weren’t firing many bullets anymore. “Maybe they’re running out of bodies to pull triggers.”
“That’s a cheery thought,” Katy said.
“Well, they wouldn’t need the Cowboys to help out on a milk run, would they?”
“Can I request one next time?” Jesse growled
Jack chuckled. “One can always ask.”
“It’s getting the answer that’s questionable, right?” Katy asked.
Jesse stepped up to the drainage ditch’s lip and looked down at Jack. “So what do we do now, Boss?”
“We have to stop them somehow,” Jack said with as shrug. “As long as they’re reacting to us, they aren’t pushing through to Landing City. That’s a win in my book.”
“I’d kinda like to live to see the win,” Katy retorted.
Jack chuckled. “I feel yah. Betty?”
“Still working on it, Jack. I got no promises.”
“We’ve got incoming,” Natalie announced and Jack sighed.
Jesse spun back towards the incoming enemy and sighed. “But we just chased them off. Why don’t they just give up?”
“Because they’re Chinese,” Jack said with a wan smile and scanned the ruins once more. They were out of time.