II. Phantom Forces
The Dead are Raised, and Hell Stalks the Land...
The trouble began as the sun started its ascent.
In those warm early hours, as the cool blue of the night sky gave way to the resplendent blend of deep reds, oranges, and purples, few were ever up quite that early. Even for a military outfit, the only man who found it the optimal time to rise was Commander Martin Archer Douglas. The gray commander was blessed with an appropriate acronym: M.A.D. Though tempestuous at times, the morning ride unwound every point of tension in both mind and body. It was about the best way to meditate given his chosen profession.
He was all dressed for the occasion; his black leather jacket covered by a denim vest, his suede cowboy boots doing the shifting and his leather-and-mesh fingerless gloves revving the bike up to a powerful roar. Astride his monstrous Chief Black Hawk, a blood-red bike that matched her rider’s fire, M.A.D. Dog Douglas was enjoying his customary moment of Zen when he caught a chilling sight coming from the East, well beyond the testing fields and gun ranges.
The dim light revealed a massive cloud of mist enveloping the horizon, only distant mountains peeking beyond the mass. One would easily have mistaken it for any of the innumerable dust storms that blew through the Wastelands with great regularity. But minute details never passed by the watchful gaze of Commander Douglas unnoticed.
He had the eyes of a hawk and the memory of an elephant, the combined spirits making him a force to be reckoned with, both on the battlefield and in common parlance.
One such minuscule detail was the relatively stagnant status of the cloud’s formation. It neither advanced nor retreated; it merely sat there, its amorphous being staring back at the Commander. It certainly wasn’t the kind of dust storm he was accustomed to.
“Whoa Gal,” he called, slamming on the brakes.
His metallic steed slid to a stop, wheels digging into the desert floor. Commander Douglas looked deep into the fog, exerting every sense in his power to detect what lay within the haunting façade. His ears cocked towards the mass, his gaze descending into the ethereal gray cloud. Even his snout took a crack at seeing if there was any scent to be had. His intent observation revealed a force that, once emerged, hit him like a sledgehammer.
“Look’s like we got company.”
His lone clairvoyant utterance was greeted by the visage of a leviathan.
It was a tank roughly the size of one of A.C.E.S’s automated creations. The towering fortresses that advanced with surprising rapidity given its size, but this one came with none of the hallmarks of the modern-day war machines. This was Old World tech, the kind that drove back the forces of the powers of the day. The kind that chewed up and spat out continental Europe thousands of times in the days, weeks, and months of the grand old wars of centuries gone by. Even from the great distance it sat at, its might was palpable.
The Commander whipped out his radio and sent out an emergency call.
“Rise and shine,” Douglas intoned with his Midwestern tenor, “We got a tin can due east, advancing towards the west, and we are right in her way. And she ain’t our average Joe either.”
Knox was the first to respond.
“Rallying the troops now,” he urgently replied, “How many you figure?”
“Old World monsters like her have their weaknesses Pal,” Douglas assessed, “But if this is from who I think it is, she ain’t going down without a fight. Send a large Auto Corp unit, I don’t think my men can nail her open air.”
“Consider it done,” Knox replied.
But no sooner was the order put in, than did the behemoth unleashed her fury. A fury not of flaming green laser fire, but one signaled with a sudden flash of the muzzle, and a cataclysmic round piercing the ground beside the Commander. It was close enough to shock him, but far enough to stave off his complete obliteration. It wasn’t long before tires screamed as rider and ride booked it for the Base.
“She’s packing lead Adam,” he shouted into his radio, leather-bedecked digits clutching the device, “And it packs a punch.”
“That Auto Corp unit you ordered is coming out of the Garage now.”
A rush of motorized might poured from the exit, ride after ride blowing past the incoming Commander. He gave a long salute to the line as he ducked back into the facility.
The matter was in their hands now.
Evelyn Blanc was among the hot rodders recruited for the early morning ride, her four-eyed Rebel about as groggy as she was. She had gone into the ring on less sleep, so driving was a piece of cake. Her hands were only hours removed from their arduous training; gauze-covered knuckles gripping the steering wheel with the force of a vice. In the haze, she heard a voice come over her radio.
“Company, halt,” came the General’s command.
The armada of automobiles drew to a stop, Knox and his Hemi ‘Cuda out ahead of the pack. The veteran sat behind the wheel, eyes wide in awe.
“My God,” he said to himself before picking up his radio, “Are you seeing what my eyes are seeing Nic?”
The sound of a camera flash came over his speakers.
“Every inch of it,” replied the darksome baritone of the Chief of Engineering, “She’s a mighty fine piece of work.”
“You think we can move on—”
The General hadn’t time to finish his sentence.
Another flash gave way to a hurtling projectile. The round flew clean over the heads of the entire unit and colliding with part of the fortified wall surrounding the Base on their right. Shrapnel shot inwards towards it, and sparks danced about the gaping wound in their defenses.
Before the General could even shout “Move,” the Tank launched another round, tearing clean through the base wall on the other side of the unit. The electric tendrils thrashed about, only adding to the mounting damage done to the systems powering surveillance and the tall flood lights.
“Gun ‘em,” he ordered without hesitation.
The unit began their charge on the towering menace. Rubber pounded the dusty ground, and the descent of carguns from their holsters sounded off in near-perfect unison. Ride and rider, locked, loaded, and powering along towards the fiendishly armed war machine. Knox meant business, and every soldier behind him was ready to show this intruder exactly what for. Evelyn was on the front line of the unit and flashed a wink to the General. He could only smile. Having Gibson’s gal at his back was a reassuring thought.
From within her 3500-pound steed, she was starting to come alive. She playfully caressed the wheel as she shifted and opened the Rebel Machine up wide.
“Give it to ‘em good, Baby,” she soothed in her husky manner, “Both barrels.”
Her beast roared with delight as she pinned him down and let rip the laser fire. Red beams cut clean through the dawn’s early light. One after the other followed suit, and soon enough, scorching crimson streaks of electric lead cascaded across the field of battle. In spite of the wall of firepower rocketing on through the cloud, much of it striking the Tank on its front, it would only take an instant for their full-on assault to be brought to a grinding halt.
As the sun rose even higher in the sky, the Tank had begun to fall back. A smile flashed across Knox’s face before the resolve hit him again.
“You ain’t getting off that easy, Punk,” he grimaced, his cybernetic hand gripping the wheel.
The unit was halfway between where the Tank once stood when it happened.
The massive armored vehicle, revealed by the morning light to have a coat of grease-soaked silver, was once more obscured by the blanket of fog. In turn, the gray mist began to recede. The fire of the fellow soldiers began to dwindle as they drove on. The General’s determination was unwavering, however, matched only by the incorrigible Evelyn Blanc.
“I said…you. Ain’t. Getting. AWAY,” he growled.
He shifted up and kicked his weather-beaten boot against the throttle, the Cuda’s double-barrels firing wildly into the evaporating mass. Evelyn kept up with her commanding officer, the duo leading the charge. The soldiers were dragged along for the chase, but in the end, it was all to no avail.
In mere seconds, the monolithic cloud dissipated completely, taking the mysterious assailant with it. All Knox’s unit could do was stop, the sounds of a thousand screaming brakes ricocheting off the distant hills, guns retracting. The General sat awestruck by the display, his breath heavy and his gaze haunted.
“Chief Ridgefield,” he said over the radio, “Meet me in my quarters. On the double.”
He turned his attention back to his soldiers.
“Company, fall back and return to base.”
Evelyn Blanc sat outside of Knox’s office. The General had been in there with the Chief of Engineering for an eternity. Heated exchanges rang out like Gatling gunfire. Not heat of anger so much as passion, with the strong rasp of the General and the deep, whiskey-soaked ebony tones of the Chief knocking their heads against one another.
Right beside her sat Gibson, clad in his usual garb, who was about as perplexed as everyone else was.
“I say she’s a big ol’ coward,” Evelyn went off, “That or we’re up to our necks in some really twisted shit. Like if you have all that firepower, you can clobber us without lifting a finger, why the hell wouldn’t ya?”
“Tactics,” Gibson started, “I mean, could be a, I dunno, a shake-and-bake sort of job. Y’know the kind: you come out of nowhere, rattle the enemy, and dip. Guerrilla stuff.”
“But how the hell do you fall back into nothing,” his lover quizzed, “All she had to fall back into was the mountain side at least a thousand miles away. You can’t just fall back into thin air.”
That detail was the one that truly stumped Gibson. The whole affair carried with it a haunting perplexity. The couple stewed on it as they awaited Knox’s emergence. At long last, the door swung open, revealing the gray General and a tall black wolf; Chief of Engineering Nic Ridgefield.
The officer was perhaps one of the most imposing on the Force. He wore a denim vest, ripped jeans, and a pair of white cowboy boots. His flat brown cowboy hat, white right armbrace, and .30-06 bullet belt would’ve been enough to give any soldier a good start. Though the muscular build on full display through the unbuttoned vest certainly added to the imposition.
The leaning tower of man nodded as he gave the General a firm handshake.
“My men and I will pour over every file I got,” he reassured, “It’ll take a while, but we’ll find the culprit.”
“Godspeed Nic,” General Knox replied, “Report back when you’ve made a positive identification.”
Ridgefield stepped out of the office, giving a gentle nod to the couple waiting outside before sauntering away.
Gibson and Evelyn promptly made their way into the General’s quarters. A spacious, renovated, oak-lined principal’s office greeted them.
Another figure was revealed to be in the room as they stepped in: Commander Douglas, sat in the corner behind Knox’s desk. The General took a seat and invited his two soldiers to do so as well. The Commander gave a firm salute as they sat down.
“Thank you both for coming here,” Knox began, “Not just at my behest, but at that of Commander Douglas as well. As if word of the whole damn thing hasn’t spread already, Gibson; we’ve got a rogue tank on the loose. A behemoth that we currently have no idea as to…damn well anything at all really. We can presume A.C.E.S. is behind it, but given how out of leftfield this thing is, assumptions don’t mean a thing. While we’re busy refortifying the Base, some reconnaissance is in order. With Agent Steele still working Haven with Lita, I’m putting you two on the case with Commander Douglas. Anything you’d like to fill them in on Martin?”
“Sure thing General,” M.A.D. Dog said, bellying up to the bar, “You two were chosen on the basis of three merits: first is that I consider Gibson to be one of the best in Moto Corp. Your keen senses will come in handy on this one Pal. Second is your performance this morning, Eve. You didn’t pussy out when the overgrown paper weight made her retreat. Steel that resolve m’dear, you’ll need it. And third is the simple fact the pair of you work well together. Good to have that energy to feed off of.”
“You’ll conduct recon with Ride 17.32,” Knox added, “Any questions?”
The couple shook their heads in unison.
“Good,” he affirmed, “Head out on the double. Commander Douglas has all the requisite equipment in the bag on him. Just…don’t forget to look out for each other, alright?”
Evelyn wrapped Gibson’s arm around her chest.
“Thick as thieves General,” she winked, “Not gonna let him outta my sight.”
Gibson chuckled as he slipped his shades on. Knox flashed a smile in kind, a warmth to his gaze.
“Good luck and Godspeed Team,” he said.
With a round of firm handshakes, the trio set off for the Garage, down the winding corridors of the Base. On the way, Evelyn made a suggestion.
“Tell you what,” she said, “You’ll drive Gibson.”
“You really want me to Teddy,” came the incredulous reply.
“Hey, I figure it’ll do you some good,” she chimed, “You’re not half bad at it. I’d say I taught ya well enough. Besides, last thing we need is me pushing him a little too hard.”
“Gibson behind the wheel? That’s a new one,” Commander Douglas pondered, “Joining the dark side on me now, are ya Pal?”
“Oh hell,” Gibson guffawed.
With a little more smoothing over from Evelyn, the decision was made, and it would be Gibson’s first day as an honorary Auto Corp member.
When they finally made it to the Garage, Evelyn tossed him the keys; her thank-you being a quick kiss on the head.
It was a bit of a squeeze, but everyone was sat in the front. The Commander wasn’t particularly pleased about being pressed up against the passenger side door, but it wasn’t all that bad. He figured he’d have enough room considering how close Evelyn would get to Gibson. Indeed, his thoughts proved prophetic as Evelyn cozied up to the tan soldier beside her.
With a twist of the key, Gibson turned the engine over and revved up the Rebel Machine.
“Doing good so far,” she teased.
“So far,” repeated Gibson with a wink.
The Rebel Machine backed out with ease and gently rolled up the ramp to the world outside. The clear blue sky carried with it a refreshing quality like no other, one that hit Gibson uniquely as he sat from behind the wheel.
They reached the breached wall, workmen clearing the way for the ride. The three were still shocked by the gashes made, but moved on without too much gawking. Gibson brought the black-and-bronze beast to a halt outside, surveying the scene where the incident took place.
“Due East,” he inquired, looking over to the Commander.
“Due East Pal,” came the reply, “Show me what he’s got.”
The Commander got a playful salute before the soldier dropped his harness boot, and the Rebel Machine took off into the Wastelands. Evelyn could only grin as she saw the smile waltz across Gibson’s face. She leaned up against him as they thundered along. She could tell he was getting his kicks from the whole setup.
Gibson slowed down once they had reached the sight of the Tank a few miles out. The three got out and the Commander gave a frank “hmph” once he saw the tremendous treads of their mysterious foe. The tracks were roughly eight feet wide each, and left a deep impression on the ground, the kind you could trip into.
“She don’t even hover,” he said to himself, “I figure four, that’d make her double tracked, each run about 47 inches or so. And she’s a heavy sonofabitch. But by gum, she don’t hover. Well, ain’t that a…hold up. Hold it all just a minute, whaddawe have here?”
The ever-watchful Commander spotted that, a few yards away, the tracks grew smaller and smaller until there was nothing left. Nothing left except for four points of depressed dry earth and the vaguest impressions of the shrunken tracks. The soldiers under his command followed the lead, and when all three got a look at the four points of contact, it became clear.
“They’re retractable,” Gibson said.
“So, she can roll and hover,” Evelyn realized.
“Looks so,” the Commander replied, “Not sure what advantage there is to gain from it but looks like we’ve got ourselves a prototype of some kind. Someone…ah hell, gots to be A.C.E.S., right?”
“Right,” the soldiers chimed in unison.
“Exactly, who else on God’s good gray Earth would make such a behemoth? The point of kicking it old school don’t make any sense though…no sir, we’re talking the A #1 computing power in the world, and she’s dredging up centuries-old tech…gather samples and data Team, lemme radio this in.”
Gibson and Eve set to work on the double as the Commander talked things over with the General. The duo worked on documenting the evidence of this development, with photographs snapped, samples of the dirt taken for any potential fragmentary materials, and an audio log explicitly describing the discovery and the inferences made on the Commander’s part. After all was said and done, the troop piled into the Rebel to plan the next move.
“Nic and the boys haven’t gotten an ID on the tank just yet, maybe our info will lend ‘em a hand. It looks like it headed either eastward still, or it took all the way off and flew to God knows where.”
“So, the next move,” Gibson asked as he brought the Rebel back to life.
“Eastward still Pal,” he ordered, “There’s enough of a lead to warrant following a rough trajectory. The exhaust impressions within the hover engines’ point West, meaning it was propelled in the opposite directions.”
“Yes sir,” came the curt reply.
The muscled machine tore away once more. The terrain was smooth for the most part, the day looking brighter still than it had started, and Gibson found himself cruising like a pro once the needle hit 90. Evelyn and the Commander set about sending the information back to Base via the data module built into the Rebel’s glove compartment. The foldout mini computer forwarded the fruits of their first stop in the blink of an eye.
It was in the quietest hour of the journey that everything came together in terrifying clarity.
Gibson was white-knuckling the hot rod as they continued their tailing. He looked upon the horizon with great intent. It was mostly the power trip that made him so conscious of the road ahead, a sort of conquering sensation, each mile claimed by the tracks of the Rebel as he soldiered ahead. His intentness was what allowed him to see danger careening towards them.
In a split second, the tan wolf slammed on the brake and clutch, swinging the ride hard to the left before gunning him back up to speed, jolting everyone about the ride with the grace of a toddler handling a rag doll. The rest of his team hadn’t time to glower at their driver when a shell detonated but a few yards away, dust and what little debris remained pelting the automobile.
Gibson brought the car to a full stop, the trio setting about catching their breath.
“So, she’s here,” the Commander gravely intoned as he recomposed himself.
“Where on Earth could she—”
The rest of Evelyn’s words were useless.
Whether it was of the hills or miles ahead, two gray clouds bloomed on the horizon. Not just out of thin air, for it was clear that something was producing the mist that grew and grew. Once the blanket of fog had reached full flower, it revealed itself.
The Tank, in all its cold glory, rolled out of the mists, barrel held aloft…aiming for the Rebel.
“We stand and fight,” Gibson asked, “Or do we tuck tail?”
“Throw him in reverse and let me snap a shot,” the Commander said.
The Rebel rocketed backwards as the M.A.D. Dog leaned out of the window to get the shot, the tightest closeup possible. He didn’t hesitate in sending it through the data module. Teddy gave Gibson the thumbs up to whip the Rebel around and speed back to Base. The Tank, however, sought engagement.
A live round went off right behind the car, the force lifting the back up for a second. Gibson paid it no mind.
“She advancing,” he asked the Commander.
“She hasn’t moved an inch.”
Gibson’s eyes widened.
“How far you figure she’s away from us?”
“If the data on the photo’s correct,” Evelyn said, “At least 105 miles away.”
“Teddy,” Gibson said, “Call up HQ, ask them for an update on what this thing might be.”
“On it Babe,” she replied.
She was mid-call when another shot came a hair too close to the driver’s side, the force sending the Rebel onto its two right wheels. Gibson held the Rebel steady best he could, the machine riding out the stunt on a stable clip. Once the left wheels returned to Earth, he pounced on the brakes and whipped the Rebel around, to face the Tank. Behind his blackened shades was a raging fire. Was it foolhardy? You bet your ass it was, but the last thing that Gibson was, was a pushover. And he sure as hell wouldn’t let the machine best him.
“Alright, you wanna play ball,” he seethed, “We’ll play damn ball.”
Evelyn tried to bring her lover out of his enraged trance, but Gibson dug in with all his mental might. He flicked the top of the gear lever open and jammed down hard on the red button. In seconds, the floor trigger was operational and the carguns were out in the open. He revved the Rebel up to full roar.
“We’re gonna take him down MY way,” he shouted.
“GIBSON,” barked the Commander, “ATTENTION!”
“SIR,” he saluted, spine straightened in seconds.
He didn’t tip his hand, but a terrible tension began to stir within Gibson. He was a dead man driving as far as he knew. No one commandeered a mission from M.A.D. Dog Douglas. No subordinate on the planet ever had the nerve. And in the heat of his rage, he had just broken that tremendous taboo.
“You mealy-mouthed motherfucker. You think you’re taking command of this mission, you’re gonna supplant the structure we got going around here. If you think you’re just gonna go screaming into battle without authorization from your superior, think again asshole. Get your maggot-addled brain together Pal, and listen up real fucking good. YOU HEAR ME SOLDIER?”
“SIR YES SIR!”
Gibson braced for the final blow.
“If you don’t pulverize that putrid pile of spare parts from that digital dyke out West, I will break you five ways ‘til Sunday next year. And that’s a goddamn order Soldier. DO YOU UNDERSTAND?”
Gibson, stunned, turned to look at the Commander. He merely looked dead ahead. The most reassurance the soldier got was the flashing of a grin, the Commander content with the grilling he just put his ally through. A smile of his own returned to Gibson’s face.
“SIR YES SIR!”
In an instant, Gibson shifted up and kicked the throttle down with all his might. The Tank had sought engagement, and Gibson was about to give her everything he and the Rebel had.
“Get me that last batch of files!”
The scene in Chief Ridgefield’s war room was that of controlled chaos. Spreadsheets, textbooks, hard drives, and every resource at his disposal was splayed wide open, the room bathed in the warm glow of desk lamps and the crisp neon red of the many computer towers lined along the walls.
Every morsel of information sat laid before his crack team of white-coated wolves. His resident desk jockey, the white Lance, was working the main data module, the one that was receiving the transmitted data from the field research. When the photo came through, the inveterate operator rolled back from the monitor.
“Holy Mother of God,” came his shell-shocked utterance, “Ridgefield, you ain’t gonna believe this.”
When he saw the photo of the tank in broad daylight, Nic’s mind kicked into full-blown overdrive. It was the most dastardly, tremendous, stunning thing he’d ever seen.
She was gorgeous.
“Well got-damned,” he whooped, “That’s what I was missing.”
He turned and called out to his unit working through the texts.
“Boys, get me Army Prototypes, 1940-49. We got some living history on our claws right now.”
In a flash, a brown-furred tech swung into the shelves, rifled through, and picked up the leather-bound tome.
In his hurry, he winged the book towards the Chief. Nic’s reflexes kicked in and he clamped down on the book, the pads of his hands firmly pressed against the covers. The spine just graced the Chief’s snout. He was stunned for but a second, long enough to give the young techie a heart attack.
“You’ll be the first to test that new round of grenades, right David?”
The tech blushed as Nic diffused the tension with a smile, threw open the book, and thumbed his way through. He scoured through the scores of images of experimental guns and vehicles, before landing on his one-for-one match.
“Ladies, gents, and bastards of all ages, we got our gal!”
The deafening cacophony of hollers and relieved sighs erupted from the room. Nic opened the book for all to see.
“Meet the Super Heavy Tank T28, T95 if you prefer. Made in the year of our Lord, nineteen-hundred-and-forty-five. Now back and bigger than ever.”
Nic turned back to Lance’s terminal and held up a diagram printed on the page to the photograph. His mind feverishly performed the conversions to graft the design onto the Tank. And once every piece clicked into place, the flaws of the beast came into focus.
“A.C.E.S., you dumb sonofa,” he spat out, “She broke the shell and gave her the U1 turret! Unmodified, untouched.”
“So the turret ring,” Lance inferred, “Oughta be the weak spot still.”
“You bet your bottom dollar Man,” came the reply, “She’s got more cover because she carved out the rounded portion up front here, so the armor on the side should give the back protection. Says here armor’s a foot thick on these bastards. Given the doubled-up dimensions, best make that two. Alright, gemme the radio!”
The gray gal to Lance’s right tossed him the unit.
“B. Frank to GW, come in.”
Violent static coursed through the speakers as the Commander’s voice rang out, cutting through the noise with the force of a dagger.
“GW to B. Frank, reading you loud and clear. Give it to me straight Nic.”
“Good news,” Nic said, “We think we got the Achilles heel on her. She’s A.C.E.S’s baby for sure. She’s got the U1 turret system. That turret ring is as good as toast if you guys can land some blows on her.”
“Alright,” came the reply, “Let’s take it to her.”
Commander Douglas hung up the radio as the Rebel roared towards the Tank. Lugged out from the backseat was the veteran’s rifle of choice, his trusty Garand.
“Patton’s best,” he chuckled to himself, “Now give me yours.”
The gun was loaded in the blink of an eye, in no time, the M.A.D. Dog had swung himself out the passenger side window and joined in his soldiers’ firefight.
The scene within the steeled warrior was about as surreal as that of Nic’s war room. Evelyn had crawled into the back, behind the ammo racks, and was firing both of her Berettas out her driver’s side window. Gibson kept one hand on the wheel, the other on one of his Colt Peacemakers, the Rebel left on the redline. All three of the lovers’ barrels were now aimed squarely at the turret ring of the Tank, and with the Commander involved now, their firepower had grown exponentially.
The desert plain they fought on was riddled with craters, the points of impact made by the tremendous shells dispensed by the Tank. Their leviathan opponent, still stewed in her misty aura, had taken on the character of a canon. The towering, titanium-plated behemoth lobbed each round with increasing precision.
It took a lot of stiff-arming to keep the Rebel from meeting an explosive end, but Gibson was proving rather adept at the age-old tactic of bobbing and weaving. Doing it all with his foot welded to the floor proved something of a challenge, but one the tan wolf was comporting himself admirably to. Gibson took to using the larger of the blows to launch the car off of, the carguns line of fire rising with each impromptu ramp. As the muscle car bounded over the sand, Commander Douglas would make a daring suggestion.
“Get me good and close Pal,” the Commander ordered, “I’m talking under the gun. We’ve worked the ring over good. All she needs is that itty-bitty little push.”
Gibson’s eyes shot wide open, but returned to his composed glower. He wanted to engage, so he was going engage. All or nothing. He just had one question.
“You think we’re good to take swipes at her, Teddy?”
“Baby,” she said, coming back in for a moment, “He’s just like me. You knock him down, he comes back for seconds.”
“Raised him good,” he quipped.
The reassurance was all he needed to take the hot rod all the way. As the trio drew near to the Tank, the scale of their adversary came into focus. It was tantamount to charging on a skyscraper. With each mile, each yard, she grew and grew. There wasn’t time for awe or fear, however, for the Tank had begun its own advance. Her tracks dug their impressive ruts with every turn of each wheel. With their trajectories colliding, it was up to Gibson to stave off impact. The tan soldier spoke a soft prayer, and with a swift kiss of his cross, he swung the car into the path of the Beast.
“Sic ‘er” he shouted.
The Commander fired with everything the rifle had in its laser cartridge. Streaks of flaming hot blue flew from the barrel, cutting away, deeper and deeper into the turret. The Rebel made pass after pass, working the wire act of maintaining range for the Commander and evading a grisly demise under the great war machine’s weight. Suddenly
With sudden zap and a crack, the Tank had begun to unravel before the soldiers.
“Take us out Gibson,” cried the Commander, “Last thing I need is the shrapnel cutting us down.”
The tan wolf complied without hesitation. He withdrew the carguns, and once secured, leaned on the Rebel something fierce. In his haste, the thought of being fired on slipped his mind.
It hadn’t slipped M.A.D. Dog’s however.
With his final shot, he saw a wealth of sparks explode from beneath the turret, his momentary joy shattered by the last shell rocketing from the barrel of the Tank. As the flames grew about the ghostly menace, the Commander swung back inside the car.
Both soldiers heeded the command. Evelyn clambered back between the men and all three buckled up, bracing themselves. Gibson gunned the Rebel and swerved about, doing his best to evade the oncoming shell.
The last of the Tank’s ammunition went off just under the trunk.
The Rebel was sent spinning in the air. The hot rod tumbled across the desert, rolling over and over, metal slamming against the rocks and stones. The glass cracked, the steeled warrior groaning in its throes. As the momentum dwindled, it was anyone’s guess which way the car would land.
Driver’s Side. Top. Passenger’s. Bottom. Driver’s. Top. Passenger’s. Bottom. Driver’s…Top…Passenger’s…
With a final groan, the Rebel came back down on all fours. Ride and riders, shaken as they were, emerged battered, bloodied, but unbeaten. Gibson and Evelyn embraced, holding one another as close as they possibly could, the adrenaline coursing through them giving way to a passionate display of affection. Commander Douglas ran his fingers through his fur, his pads gracing small spots of blood on his head and arms. He wiped his hands clean and straightened his jacket, as if nothing had happened.
They were all just in time to see, through the cracked display of the rearview mirrors, the Tank erupt into arcs of bright electric streaks and dark blue flames. The destruction eventually gave way to a warmly-colored bonfire, the industrial shriek of A.C.E.S’s creation echoing across the land. The Commander, with a crack of his neck, casually picked up the radio.
“GW to HQ, come in.”
For a moment, there was only silence. The soldiers looked to one another, worried. Then, the reassuring tones of the operator rang out.
“HQ to GW, reading you loud and clear.”
A sigh of relief came from all three within the ride.
“Threat’s neutralized. We’re about halfway there ourselves. Ride 17.32’s still rolling under his own power though. Make sure Sickbay’s clear to see us three, get the boys in the shop ready to see 17.32, and send Salvage out here, on the double. Sending coordinates…now.”
“And that’s about the long and short of the retractable tracks. Impressive engineering for sure, but in the end, I think we’re seeing what desperation looks like in an automated system like A.C.E.S.”
The deep ebony tones of Chief Ridgefield had been rattling off the incalculable details of the veiled assailant for the past hour. It was the first time the Force’s engineering guru had been seen with a shirt on under his vest in what seemed like an eon. The many captains and commanders of the Infantry were in attendance in General Knox’s meeting room, all listening with tremendous intent.
Seated next to the General were the intrepid research team. Gibson, Evelyn, and Commander Douglas all sat in stoic composure, discreetly bandaged up, and clad in their best denim and leather.
General Knox rose and stood alongside Chief Ridgefield.
“So it seems, in the heat of entropy,” the General began, “She’s taken to experimentation. Luckily, this prototype, for all its psychological and industrious qualities, was surmountable. The next may not be so...conquerable. We’ve always had a give-and-take with her, all the way back to General Godred’s days. I’ve had the fortune, whether it was good or bad is still up for debate, to have seen her deploy these powerful forces from both sides of this war.
“We now know that A.C.E.S. is using everything within her resources to forge these stealth-oriented monstrosities, and we’ve got to double down. I’m not just talking about improved armaments or body modifications. We need bigger, stronger war machines. I’d be lying if I said there was a chance in Heaven or Hell of us besting her on the scale she’s set, but we must have something that can amplify our firepower. There is, of course, the sign of hope that it only took a quick morning siege and three of our finest to…exorcise our specter.”
Knox gave a gentle nod in the direction of the laid-up troupe, who bowed in turn to a round of gentlemanly applause from the top brass.
“I’ve spoken about this with Nic at length,” the General continued, “And I believe it is time to make an announcement about something we’ve been planning for a while now. Leslie and Joan, if you please.”
Two of Ridgefield’s techs, a red wolf and a black, carried in a large, cloaked canvas. Knox shook hands with the young assistants before inviting Ridgefield to do the honors. The tall dark officer gracefully drew the cloak, and revealed a most astonishing sight. Knox, arms folded, smiled approvingly as the jaws of the Resistance’s officers plummeted to the floor.
“Ladies and Gentleman, I give you the next member of our fleet. Bound not by two wheels or four, but by two engines, and two wings. She’s an A-37 Dragonfly, light attack by design, but being modified for today’s stopping power and technology. Project’s code name? Operation: Bomber. If A.C.E.S. can hover, we shall soar.”
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