I grew up doing stuff nobody else would do. Rules were meant for breaking. “Because that’s the way we do it” was never the right answer for me. I wanted to chart new ground. I wanted to make my mark and do things my way. I went to War the same way. I never gave up, no matter how stupid or crazy I was. It’s what we all did. We Cowboys. We were crazy. But if it’s crazy and it works, is it really crazy? Or is it just a tactic no one else really considered?
“They’ve got a mech,” Jasmine said in a resigned tone.
Jack cocked his head and listened for the tell tale sound. There it was. Thud. Thud. Thud. Thud. Chinese mechs were big, bad, ugly, and heavy. Modern ones had gravplating so they could walk quietly at need, but the Chinese believed in psychological warfare. They often ran the mechs heavy just to terrify the guys on the other side. Mechs weren’t really the best war machines out there, of course. Jack would take a tank over a mech any day of the week, but the human shapes of most mechs combined with the inhuman scale to make some truly terrifying weapons of war. And the Chinese were real good at psychological warfare.
“Great,” Jack growled as the ground shook. The mech didn’t scare him. Not much. He had Jasmine on his side. “I think I’ll just hide over here. Can you handle it?”
“It will be my pleasure,” Jasmine said in a confident tone.
Jack couldn’t see anything down in the ditch, but he blinked out a fast rhythm and a display opened up on his helmet showing him her Cerberus from one of the many sensor drones they had in the air. It looked like the mad offspring of a tank and an Xtreme Racing League car. It bristled with weapons like all of them did. Two heavy laser cannons. Several machineguns. A couple missile launchers. It had the works. But the Cerberus was designed for military efficiency rather than looks. It didn’t need to have large curved panels for racing promoting signage. And it didn’t need to look sleek and sexy for the toy car industry.
The Cerberus was a killing machine and the armor plates hanging all over it told that story well. The armor began to move as he watched. It shifted as the forward armored carapace folded down towards the ground. Fenders shifted out of the way and arms unfolded out of them. They lifted the Cerberus off the ground and the rear section split into a pair of legs longer than Jack was tall. The Cerberus took a knee, then stood up tall and began moving towards the ridge with a fluid grace that made exactly zero sound. Jasmine was running the gravplating high to reduce her weight to near zero. The Chinese would never feel her coming.
“Go get ’em, girl,” Jack said in a proud voice as she moved up the artificial ridge.
The Chinese mech thumped up the other side and crested the ridge before her, trusting in its terrifying size to send its enemies running. Jasmine’s Cerberus stopped just below it and Jack heard the gravplating cut out. Her feet sunk almost a meter into the tortured ground, but all that did was anchor her even better for what was to come. She swung her massive battle fists and her first attack ripped an arm off, sending it flying back over the ridge. She pulled back and latched onto a leg with both hands. It came off the ground and the Chinese mech lost its balance. She reached up and tore the other arm off before the mech could fall. Then she shifted her grip and swung the makeshift bat around to hit the mech like she was a major league hitter. It was a home run. The Chinese mech flew back over the ridge and the sound of it rolling and crashing down the other side was easy to hear.
Then a massive boom echoed over the field of battle from the other side and Jasmine’s Cerberus flew back off the ridge. One of her arms disintegrated as Jack watched and she crashed into the ground hard enough to send shockwaves through his feet. Rock and metal screamed as the mech slid across the ground until it stopped on the edge of the drainage ditch Jack hid in. He saw the smoke billowing out of the Cerberus with his own eyes. Armor plates hung in tatters, and some fell off to tumble down the three-meter sides of the drainage ditch. One of them crashed to a stop at his feet and he swallowed. Jasmine had been hit real bad.
“Ow,” Jasmine whispered. “That hurt.”
Jack looked back up to her in wonder. “What was that?”
“They have a tank,” Jasmine reported and her Cerberus began to roll, trying to stand up again. “And that was the type of penetrator that blew out my braincase,” Jasmine added. “Oh. And those were the hackers that took out the AI.”
“What?” Jack asked, but shook the question out of his mind. “APC loads,” he ordered as he came to his feet and reached down to grab his revolvers. The automatic loading system popped the loaded rounds out, reloaded them with Armor Piercing Cybernetic rounds, and Jack pulled both pistols off his leg holsters.
“Wait!” Jasmine shouted, but Jack just didn’t have time to debate this in a committee.
Taurian Arms of Odessa, Texas had been the official small arms manufacturer for the Republic of Texas since their reformation. They built everything from small end pistols to Gatling Series belt-fed autocannons. Their Bull Series revolvers, with what the Society of Creative Anachronism still called a .50 caliber barrel, was the traditional backup weapon for the entire Texas Guard.
Jack brought the SCA-termed ten inch barrels up towards Jasmine’s Cerberus and began pulling the triggers as fast as he could. Gouts of flame exploded out the barrels, and even the best recoil suppressors couldn’t stop them from kicking like a stubborn mule. Like a mule was ever anything other than stubborn. Even Jack’s improved muscles had trouble keeping the revolvers on target long enough to finish emptying the cylinders into the Cerberus.
“You shot me!” Jasmine shouted in outrage.
“Just being helpful,” Jack answered with a smile. The very expensive Armor Piercing Cybernetic rounds carried the fully aware shard of a cybernetic intelligence, capable of anything that needed doing once delivered to the target.
“Oh. Right. Thank you,” Jasmine said in a more sheepish tone as Betty’s shards penetrated the mech’s electronic systems and joined her in fighting the Chinese hacker AIs.
“My pleasure. I’ll always be here to shoot you when you need it,” Jack answered and slapped the revolvers back against the holsters again. A very slight hum told him they were holding the revolvers again and he let go.
“Oh, me too,” Jasmine promised, and Jack shuddered. He wasn’t sure he liked that promise.
“So…what shot you?” he asked as he put his hands back on the tank that they were really going to need now.
“A Wang Chung Five,” she spat out and Jack’s heart dropped. He didn’t know what the Chinese called it, but the tank the Alliance called the Wang Chung Five was one of the best out there. They had the guns to fight other tanks, the armor to survive anything short of a HALO bombardment, and the secondary weapons to take infantry units apart.
“You should run now,” Natalie ordered as she stepped up to the edge of the drainage ditch. He could hear the sound of gravplating on the other side of the far ridge, slowly lifting the bulky tank up it.
“Nah,” Jack answered, shaking his head. “If they want us dead, we won’t be able to outrun one of those things. Our best bet is to take it down right here.”
“You and what army, Boss?” Jesse asked, his voice sounding dubious.
“Betty?” Jack asked in hopes of good news.
“Not yet,” Betty answered and dashed his hopes.
Jack scowled. “Well then. If I know my Chinese, they’re feeling awful confident at the moment. They’re gonna come up that ridge, they’re gonna come down that ridge, and then they’re gonna kill us.”
“You do a real good job of summing that up, Boss,” Jesse said, clearing his throat.
“He’s a veritable poet of death,” Katy agreed.
“Thanks,” Jack answered with a dark chuckle. “But you see, I intend to put a crimp in that plan.”
“I like that idea,” Katy said.
“Me too,” Jesse added.
“Girls, open up with everything you got when it comes over the ridge,” Jack ordered, looking back and forth between Natalie and Jasmine.
“That was sorta my plan,” Natalie returned as her shoulder-mounted autocannons whirred above her. She tested the smaller machineguns in her hands too, but shook her head. “Not that I expect it to help much you understand.”
“Ah, but when he comes over that ridge, he’ll be revealing his soft underbelly to us.”
“It’s a Wang Chung Five,” Jasmine growled. “There is no soft underbelly.”
“Relatively speaking,” Jack said with a wince. “Just do what you can. And don’t get killed doing it. You hear me?”
“I hear you,” Natalie answered. Then she lay down with her feet hanging into the drainage ditch, aiming herself and her weapons at the nearby ridge.
“Loud and clear,” Jasmine said and finished bringing her Cerberus back up onto its feet.
Jesse turned to look down at Jack. “Yeah, Boss?”
Jack jerked his head towards the Barghest. “Get down here and help us with this tank.”
Jesse frowned and glanced at Jasmine’s mech. “She’s got most of my nannies already,” he said in a doubtful tone.
“Any bit will help,” Jack returned and motioned towards the tank again.
“Sure thing, Boss,” Jesse finally said and scrambled down into the drainage ditch. He stepped over one of Jasmine’s steaming armored plates and came over to the Barghest. Then he looked up towards the two cybers holding the edge of the ditch. “So what now?”
Jack glanced at the revolvers on Jesse’s and Katy’s hips. “We load up on APC rounds.”
Jasmine’s hologram flickered beside him and she shook her head. “A Wang Chung Five’s armor is too thick for those rounds to penetrate.”
Jack smiled towards her and then up to Natalie. “Which is why I need you two to do as much damage as you can to that underbelly.”
Jasmine blinked several times and then nodded. “That’s actually a good plan.”
Jack frowned at her. “You don’t have to sound so surprised, do you?”
“I’m surprised,” Katy said.
Jack aimed a finger at her. “Hush, you.”
Katy returned fire with an innocent smile.
Jack anted up with a raised eyebrow.
Katy shrugged and looked away as if there wasn’t a thing to be worried about.
Jack pursed his lips at her. Then he returned his gaze to Jasmine’s holoform. “Stay alive. Do as much damage as you can. Delay that tank as long as you can.”
Jasmine’s holoform looked at the tank. “And if we can’t do all three?”
Jack followed her gaze and sighed. He had to remind himself that he’d put the cybers on the firing line for a reason. “Delay.”
Jasmine’s holoform looked up at her Cerberus with a sad smile. She knew what he meant. “I understand.”
Natalie’s robotic avatar didn’t move, but a holoform flickered into existence beside Jasmine’s. She didn’t look pleased, but she nodded very slowly. “I understand as well. We will delay them as long as possible.” The holoform looked at each of the three Cowboys in turn. “You may need to run though.”
Jack smiled at her. “I have faith in you.”
Natalie turned back to him and shook her head. “You shouldn’t. I failed Louis.”
Jack let out a long breath at the depressing turn in the conversation. He didn’t really want to think about Louis right now. The man was dead. Jack didn’t intend to follow him. But he understood Natalie. It was hard to get over the loss of a loved one. It was pretty much impossible actually. He took one hand off the tank and placed it on her holoform’s shoulder. “A wise man once said ‘It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose.’” Jack squeezed her shoulder almost hard enough to push through the holoform. “You did not fail. It was life.” Then he smiled once more. “You will not fail here either. No matter the outcome.”
“I wish I could believe you,” Natalie whispered.
Jack felt his smile waver. This was really a bad time for a heart to heart. “Do you trust me?”
Natalie blinked several times before nodding. “Yes.”
“Good,” Jack said in an effort to cover his sigh of relief. He didn’t like how long it had taken her to say that. It had been a mistake to push her into battle so soon after Epsilon Reticuli. It had been his mistake. But he couldn’t take it back now. “Then turn yourself around and shoot to kill. We’ll be right behind you.”
Natalie met his gaze and nodded. “Yes, Sir.” Then her holoform flickered out.
Jack shifted his eyes up to her robotic avatar for a moment. She looked ready for battle, but he knew now the thread that readiness rested on. He shifted his gaze to Jasmine and she returned a worried look. He smiled and turned back to the tank. Katy and Jesse met his eyes and the same worry filled their faces.
“Yippie ki-yay,” Jack whispered and placed his hand back on the tank.
“Yippie ki-yay,” they echoed as his displays showed their nannies’ progress.
Jack swallowed. It just wasn’t going to be enough. “Betty?”
Betty’s holoform stepped into his field of vision. “Yeah, Jack?”
Jack let out a long breath. “I think we need some tunes.”
Betty smiled. “I think I’ve got just the thing for you.”
The telltale thump of mortars came from the other side of the ridge and Jack turned to see over a dozen rounds in the air begin arcing back down towards them. Jasmine’s Cerberus fired into the air, point defense systems picking them off one by one. A single small turret next to Jack jerked into action and fired as well. It picked off the final two mortars several meters out and Betty gave an audible sound of approval.
Then the sound of dueling guitars and screaming vocals began to play in the background. Jack knew the song well and smiled.
He took a long breath and nodded again. It was decision time. “Okay, boys and girls. When that tank comes over the ridge, we fill her belly full of everything we have. Then we scatter and run like scared little girls. Maybe it won’t be able to track that many targets going in divergent directions and we can give Betty time to fix this gun.”
“Boss?” Jesse began with a raised hand. “Permission to run like a scared little boy if you don’t mind?” Jack just smiled at him. And then time was up.
The Wang Chung Five lifted above the ridge and Natalie and Jasmine opened up, sending autocannon rounds, streams of machinegun fire, laser beams, and missiles streaking between the combatants. Stray rounds ricocheted off the tank’s armor, flying off into the sky or burning into the dirt.
The tank’s nose crossed the ridge, came down as the whole tank oriented to fire down the ridge, and the guns began to return fire. Machineguns and lasers streaked back at the cybers and the drainage ditch’s rim exploded. Dust and explosions filled the air and obscured vision. Even Jack’s armor had trouble seeing into the manmade hell of that firestorm and Jack squinted, hoping to see something the Hellhound’s sensors missed.
Then Natalie’s body flew backwards and fell into the ditch. Smoke rose from a dozen holes in her arms and torso. Her head was just gone and sparks emanated from the shattered body. Jasmine’s Cerberus followed a second later and her landing shook the ground around them. Both her arms were gone now and several holes went straight through the armored chest. Jack swallowed and nodded towards Jesse. It was just about time.
“Gentleman,” Jack said with a nod towards Jesse as the tank’s gravplating maneuvered it towards the drainage ditch. “Ladies.” He smiled towards Katy and the cybernetic holoforms flickering around them. “It has been an honor and a pleasure.”
“Roger that, Boss,” Katy returned.
“I’ve got your back, Boss,” Jesse added.
Wind whipped the dust away and sensors picked up the tank again as it moved forward with effortless grace.
Natalie’s robotic body shifted and a holographic head appeared atop it. “That hurt,” Natalie growled and pointed her one last working machinegun up towards where the tank would appear.
Then Jasmine’s Cerberus sat up to aim what was left of her weapons at the drainage ditch’s rim as well. Her holoform gave Jack a wry smile. “Let’s finish this.”
Jack nodded and pulled his hands from the tank. He stood up and brought his revolvers around as T&J sang defiance against their enemies. He held his stance, waiting for the tank to come, and then he saw it with his own eyes.
It was large. It was far larger than the Barghest. Armor plates heavier than cars protected its flanks, its nose could withstand nuclear explosions, and its upper armor could take orbital bombardments. It was the largest and most powerful land based machine of war Jack had ever seen in action. And its nose came over the lip of the drainage ditch like a promise. It would crush everything before it.
“Yippie ki-yay!” Jack screamed in defiance and began pulling the triggers as fast as he could put the barrels back on target. Thunder echoed off the sides of the drainage ditch and machinegun tracers bounced off the tank’s armor in a steady stream of useless fire. A heavy laser beam struck the underside and burned into it. Missiles flashed up into the tank and overpressure from the explosions washed over Jack. If not for the Hellhound armor so many explosions at such short range probably would have knocked him out. A shockwave unlike any other roared through the drainage ditch and Jack’s eyeballs vibrated in his skull. His eardrums rang and his teeth chattered. Tears flowed from his eyes.
Hammers locked back on empty cylinders and Jack, Katy, and Jesse didn’t move a muscle as the wreckage between the Barghest and the Wang Chung Five erupted in flames and thunder. The tank’s gravplating died, a gout of flame tore into the sky, and the tank fell hard, sliding down the side of the drainage ditch and creating a miniature avalanche of loose rock and dirt. It crashed into the ground in front of the Barghest and the ground rumbled around them.
“Yes!” Natalie and Jasmine shouted in triumph.
“No!” Betty shouted in distress and Jack turned to see the Barghest’s main cannon smoking. “No, no, no, no, no!” Betty repeated and Jack let out the first of many breaths he’d thought he just might never have again. “I burned out the capacitors with that shot.”
Jack looked back and forth between the two tanks. If that Wang Chung Five started moving again, it wasn’t going to be fun. “Can you fix them?”
“Not a chance. I’m dead in the water now. Even gravplating is out.” A bank of mortars shifted and rotated to face towards the Chinese tank. “Well. Except for these. I can fire these until I run out of ammo.”
Jack spared a moment to study the Chinese tank. He’d never stood so close to a real one before, and now he understood why they were so feared. The main turret carried a barrel longer than he was tall, but it was ruined now, smoke pouring out of a hole riven through the turret. Dozens of smaller turrets hung off the sides and front of the tank, and he could see a canted missile battery on the rear of the tank. Mortar launchers on either side of it just added even more fun to the mix.
Nothing was moving.
Betty’s holoform walked up to him and smiled. “Its dead. I got a shot off through the soft underbelly. Shock blew out most of the computer and power systems. APC rounds got penetration too. We’ve hacked her surviving computers.” Then several mortar launchers twitched. “Oooh. We’ve got control,” Betty said before Jack could jump out of his skin at the unexpected movement. “Main guns are out, but I think we’ve got missiles too.” The missile doors opened. “Yup. Got missiles too. We can bring the pain.”
“Hold that thought,” Jack said as he saw Natalie standing back up. Her robotic avatar was riddled with holes, and her head was still just totally gone. Holofields did wonderful things to make her look closer to normal, but he could tell where reality and holo met. She smiled at him and he nodded back. Then he turned to Jesse and Katy. There was an important problem he had to take care of. “Fox? Cat?”
“Yeah, Boss?” Jesse and Katy answered in unison.
“I distinctly remember ordering you two to run for it.”
“See, I sorta thought if I stayed behind to slow them down, you two might get away,” Katy said, her tone chastened.
“Me too,” Jesse added in a matching tone.
“Right,” Jack growled, trying not to show just how much their loyalty meant to him. Even if it would have completely destroyed his plan to slow the Chinese down for them. “I’ll remember your insubordination in the future.”
“Didn’t figure you’d forget, Boss,” Katy whispered.
“Sorry, Boss,” Jesse said in a tone that put the lie to his words.
“Right.” The sound of metal grinding on rock caught his attention and Jack turned to see Jasmine’s Cerberus rolling over. She used her legs to rotate the mech to the tipping point, since her arms were gone, and then she began to transform. Gears ground, warped armor snapped and pinged off nearby wreckage. Jack ducked as a piece of shrapnel whizzed by overhead. And then the mech fell to the ground again as its chest rotated back up to form the craft’s nose. Legs folded into the rear section, but huge gaps in the armor showed where the arms were supposed to be. The nose was savaged too, and more holes shown clear through. But one laser cannon, a machinegun, and her missile launchers looked like they could still fire.
The Cerberus lay on the ground for several seconds as Jack watched, and then a slight gravitic hum set his teeth on edge. The gravplating was horribly out of tune but the Cerberus lifted off the ground and held position. Jasmine still had a working war machine. For certain values of working.
Jack shook his head and licked his lips. “So, now that we have two busted up tanks, one busted up mech, and one busted up android, what are we going to do about the rest of the Chinese?”
“That was their last tank,” Jasmine said. “We can take the rest of them.”
Jack considered that for a moment. They had three working Hellhounds at least. Add the busted up stuff against everything the Chinese had left. Along with whatever else was still fighting out there. It was a real good thing Jack didn’t believe in fair fights. “Diamond formation.”
“I’ll take point,” Natalie stated with a determination that dared anyone to disagree.
Jack opened his mouth and she frowned at him. “But you’re damaged!”
“And I’m still faster, stronger, and more damage resistant than you,” Natalie said.
Jack raised both hands in surrender and nodded for her to begin.
“After me,” Natalie ordered and turned.
“No. After me,” Jasmine countered and began floating her damaged Cerberus towards the hill.
Jack smiled at Natalie, daring her to disagree.
“Don’t gloat,” was her only answer as she turned to follow Jasmine.
“Continuous fire, random vectors, all mortars, now,” Jack ordered and stepped in behind her as Jesse and Katy held his flanks.
“Roger that,” the cybers echoed and mortars began flying into the air.
“I’ve got you, Boss,” Jesse said from his left.
“I’ll protect you, Boss,” Katy added from his other side with a wry smile.
Jack chuckled and picked up his pace to keep up with the two cybers.
Mortar rounds filled the air accompanied by dueling guitars and screaming vocals as the Cerberus crested the ridge. Machineguns chattered, a laser cannon crackled through the air, and missiles screamed towards the Chinese as the mortars rained down. Explosions rocked the world and Jack followed Natalie over the ridge to look at a scene straight out of Hell. The shattered hulks of tanks, jeeps, and other machines of war stretched as far as the eye could see. Fire rained down, tracers bounced off armor or tore through flesh, and men stumbled between the wreckage as they tried to find cover.
Jack’s shoulder-mounted machinegun came to life, searching out targets in the distance. He brought his arms up and swung their much smaller machineguns across the Chinese. The Cowboys echoed his motions and death walked through the Chinese ranks. More streams of death opened up from the north, west, and south as Jack’s systems began to log status reports of other Alliance soldiers no longer hiding from that tank. Soon dozens of soldiers added their bullets, lasers, or mortars to the assault. Then hundreds. Then Jack’s little force began to walk down into the manmade Hell, preceded by mortar and missile fire, and death reigned over everything.
It was a sight one Captain Jack Hart would never forget as long as he lived.