by Marzio Ombra

Pyŏksŏng, North Korea – 30 May 2041, 03:50 Local Time

From within the hidden recesses of a hardened bunker, a gyro stabilized 155mm autocannon locked onto an incoming Storm King combat transport ship. A sharp command sounded and the cannon thumped a staccato dirge. Round after round of depleted uranium shells streaked downrange, stitching glowing orange holes across the airship’s armored skin. The transport shuddered violently as it screamed over the blasted muck of the battlefield.

The American combat ship died with sudden violence when a round from the autocannon pierced its engine. A blinding flash of brilliant white lit the macabre landscape. An instant later, fiery wreckage smashed into the ground, disappearing in a gout of mud and thick roiling smoke. The dozen marines and pilot on board the ship were ashes before the shattered metal stopped moving.

The autocannon didn’t linger; it brought its sights to bear on the next landing craft. A grizzled North Korean Artillery Chief chewed triumphantly on a toothpick as he depressed the targeting button on his binoculars, painting the next target. He allowed himself a small grin; the so-called mass invasion was becoming what the Americans called a turkey shoot. He swore when his binocs abruptly failed; the screens showed nothing but black. He dropped the electronic sensor array from his eyes and saw the reason for the failure. An angular mass of black steel floated lazily on a cushion of air. The hovertank was less than fifty meters from his bunker. The Gunnery Chief froze, the hovertank’s dual superconducting quench guns were aimed directly at his face.

“Si-bal!” was the last thing the Chief said before the bunker was washed with streams of marble-sized ball bearings, electromagnetically accelerated to hypervelocities in excess of 3,500 meters per second. Everything inside the bunker was shattered to dust instantly.

The M-2130 Berserker hovertank’s turbines screamed a deafening wail as the flat lozenge shaped vehicle launched into a power turn, spraying plumes of mud and debris in its wake. ‘Wr8th’ Romero neither celebrated the kill nor mourned the lost transport. It was combat—kill now, reflect later.

Romero was mentally and physically enmeshed with the hovertank he called “Kate.” Cybernetic implants in his nervous system enabled the linking of man and machine like never before; Romero and Kate were one being. He saw through the tank’s sensory systems, felt the pulse of her systems, experienced the damage she received which although muted, still hurt. The tank’s multi-spectrum sensors granted Romero hyperawareness of the environment. He saw the glowing bunker emplacements, the fuzzy ‘fog’ created by ECM jamming and the distortions created by hypersonic cannon fire.

Through his cybernetic connection, Romero could react with the speed of thought. With the tank becoming a virtual extension of his own mind and body, he could push Kate to the extremes of her design. Together they challenged the boundaries of physics with their maneuvers. The 70-metric ton vehicle skimmed over the wrecked battlefield at nearly 180kph with no more conscious thought than if Romero were running across a field.

Romero locked onto the next artillery emplacement before it could fire upon the flock of Storm King transports attempting to land troops behind enemy lines. With the slightest of thoughts, Romero coolly purged the tank’s heat vents into a trench as he passed overhead; incinerating the enemy troops hunkered in the muddy slit.

The battlefield was a nightmarish echo of a World War I no-man’s landscape. The wreckage of science fiction machines littered the field, mixed with the timeless gore of dead soldiers. As with so many wars before, the current conflict was rooted in failed political posturing and saber-rattling gone catastrophically wrong. The politicos called it an action of “Justifiable Retribution” but Romero and every other combatant knew exactly what it was—the United States of America was extracting a blood debt.

Not two months earlier, the luxury cruise ship Victoria had struck a whale off the coast of North Korea and lost all steering. The crippled ship had drifted into their territorial waters. Despite repeated pleas from the United Nations, North Korea claimed the ship’s disability was a ruse and warned of dire consequences. In a demonstration of their conviction, the North Koreans launched two missiles at the cruise ship as a warning. Due to a miscalculation in the firing solution, instead of passing overhead, one of the missiles struck the Victoria midship. The liner instantly broke apart and sank with all hands. Four thousand souls perished that day—some of them were Americans. For their botched show of ‘strength and resolve’ on the world stage, a country of 26 million people was about to be hammered back into the stone-age.

Romero had just finished destroying his third artillery emplacement when a trio of light recon vehicles appeared on his sensors. The rapidly moving armored cars were spread out behind his position. He swung the Berserker around in place. Without hesitating, Romero triggered the tank’s anti-personnel weapon. The flechette gun shredded the nearest armored car, reducing it to a smoking, jagged heap of perforated metal. He killed the next closest with a quick burst from the quench guns. But as he swung the guns to bear on the third and furthest vehicle he saw a soldier pop up in its open turret, hurriedly bringing a missile launcher up to his shoulder. Romero didn’t aim; there wasn’t time. Just before the recon car exploded, the gunner managed to launch the rocket.

Romero felt the Mafeng anti-tank missile lock on, the sensation not unlike that of a snakebite. The flechette gun was in its reloading cycle. Romero needed to buy time if only a second or two. Romero willed the nuclear-powered turbines to peak capacity. The giddy sensation of one hundred megajoules of harnessed energy surged through Romero’s body, eliciting an involuntary reaper’s grin. The tank surged forward, its speed cresting over 220kph. The flattened, angular shape of the huge tank slewed violently; the red-lined thrusters sent huge sprays of muck high in the air with every wild, careening turn. The minigun was taking its sweet time reloading–time Romero did not have.

The hungry missile closed rapidly; thick black smoke swirled behind it as it homed in on the swerving hovertank. Desperate, Romero tried ECM/ECCM jamming though he knew it would fail. The Chinese provided tank-killers were state of the art.

So am I, thought Romero. Not today, motherfuckers! The wired human grit his teeth as he forced the nose of the behemoth hovertank around sharply, the heavy G’s punishing him as he accelerated through the 180-degree turn.

“Come on Katie, you can do it.” He growled aloud as the tank protested with a metallic scream during the improbably tight maneuver. A statuette of a hula girl stuck incongruously upon the glowing console, rocked crazily as the craft tilted sharply.

Romero’s head rang with the shrill warnings of the incoming missile alarms. He shut them down with a thought. “I know for fuck’s sake!” he swore angrily. It was a long shot, but maybe he could pull off the impossible and shoot down the missile with his main guns. It was the only chance he had.

Through Kate’s sensors, Romero perceived the thin, diminishing infrared trails of the quench guns’ high-density slugs shimmering in the cool night air as he desperately sought to burn down the evading missile. For all the millions of dollars invested in both man and machine, a missile built for less than a thousandth of the cost was prevailing.

The Mafeng’s AI confidently ignited its afterburners, closing in on its prey. The powerful missile was completely locked in on target; it was coming in for the kill. Romero winced in anticipation — this was going to hurt.

Suddenly, he felt the humming thrill of the flechette gun spinning up to speed. It had finally finished reloading! The elated young soldier thought ‘Fire!’ The missile disintegrated harmlessly as a hailstorm of titanium needles ripped it to pieces mid-air only twenty meters from its target. Romero heard and felt the remains of the Mafeng strike Kate’s skin as if it was his own skin being pelted by windblown debris.

“Good girl!” Romero said aloud, “That was a close one.” He subconsciously stroked the console with the same gentleness as if it were the breast of a lover. In a way, the hovertank was his lover. Linking his mind to the hovertank’s artificial intelligence via cybernetic implants was in many ways a greater intimacy than any human lover might share.

Cybernetically enhanced soldiers were nothing new on the battlefields. For decades, the arms race of hardware and software ruled modern warfare. Non-enhanced soldiers still existed in abundance primarily because cybernetics were prohibitively expensive even for the US military. Only elite servicemen and women were ‘gifted’ with the boon of implanted electronics. Some of the most advanced systems were provided pilots because, in addition to the extreme cost of their wiring, they also commanded state of the art vehicles.

In the early twenty-first century, a top of the line Main Battle Tank required a crew of four highly trained non-enhanced humans to cooperate effectively as a team. Later, robotic, unmanned vehicles rose to prominence but proved unable to adapt to rapidly changing combat situations, and they were prone to being hacked. Now, a single wired pilot became the tank, merging his mind with the machine, assisted by a series of robotic systems and an integrated, yet limited vehicle AI. In essence, they became a lethal new life form that dominated the modern battlefields.

Since the earliest test phases, cybernetic pilots reported that their vehicles possessed their own ‘personalities’ or ‘characters.’ Scientists, engineers, and programmers repeatedly verified that every vehicle was virtually identical and that the programmed AI was exactly the same code. Yet every pilot, time after time, swore their vehicles were somehow alive. Failing to find any concrete explanation for the phenomena, the book was closed with a simple, final verdict—cybernetic pilots were an odd breed.

It was true that they were a quirky bunch indeed. Wr8th Romero for example, had a habit of bonding with his vehicles, claiming that if he listened carefully, on his initial linkup, it would tell him ‘her name.’ Other wired soldiers had rituals that made Romero’s naming habit seem quaint by comparison.

Often teased, sometimes harassed, for their seemingly perverse machine love, it seemed as if the only people who really understood cybernetic pilots were other cybernetic pilots. Thus, they began to consort only with their own kind, forming a subculture isolated from the non-enhanced troopers. Despite their extraordinary combat performance, prejudice within the service remained high. The slander that wired pilots preferred linking with their machines more than intercourse with other humans became a widespread belief. The epithet ‘Cogs,’ arose, inspired by the phrase “Cogs in the Machine.” The term was meant as an insult, but instead, the phrase was embraced by the strange community of cyborgs.

Romero eased Kate back down to within standard parameters, skewing across the battlefield to swiftly eliminate the last two remaining bunkers. On cue, a swarm of cog-piloted Storm Kings blazed overhead safely, en route to Pyongyang where they would deliver their cargo of Marines to assault the capital city. Monitoring the radio chatter, Romero learned that only one of the Storm King VTOLs, the lead bird, had been lost. It had been piloted by a cog named Talmadge.

Romero slowed the tank, allowing himself a brief moment of peace before continuing. He sighed angrily as he replayed the battle stats. He liked Talmadge; she was competent and cute — he had tumbled with her on more than one occasion. Blond, petite and bouncy, she’d had a devil’s smile. She’d brought her Storm King in too fast, allowing the North Koreans’ bunkered artillery systems to take her down before Romero’s slower hovertank had been able to open a lane. Talmadge had been too aggressive, and it had cost her and her passengers everything. Even though her death hadn’t been his fault, Romero felt the dull pang of regret in his stomach. He hated losing people.

“Rest in peace, Midge.” He said softly as he guided his tank towards the capitol to assist with the assault. Soon the smoking ruins of the shattered defensive line faded into the black of night. One hundred kilometers ahead, the Pyongyang skyline was lit by hellish explosions. The US Army was exercising violent diplomacy.

The hovertank skimmed easily over ruined farmlands until the cratered fields began to give way to the outskirts of an industrial sector. Wrecked buildings began to dot the landscape. Heavily damaged warehouses and abandoned factories rose up around the tank. It was dark, silent, long abandoned in the wake of the bombings that had softened the approach to the heavily fortified city. The angular tank slowed as it glided along smashed roadways. There was no sign of anything on the wide spectrum scans, yet Romero remained wary.

Romero screamed in agony and anger when the tank’s skin was penetrated by a swarm of armor piercing rounds that tore white hot holes through Kate’s skin. A thought activated Kate’s damage control system as he accelerated the massive tank. The Berserker lunged forward, smashing through a cinder-block walled warehouse where he brought the wounded hovertank to a lurching halt. He scanned the spectrums again but saw nothing.

Cursing violently, Romero hit replay. His mind sifted the data, seeking the attack’s trajectories. He found them and triangulated the vector the rounds had taken. The fire had come from three separate locations, marked by an ‘absence’ in the spectra, like blank spots on a Jackson Pollack painting. Stealth tanks! The “Vampire” stealth hovertanks were an older generation of the current hovertanks used by the Chinese. The Chinese had sold a few dozen of the narrow-hulled tank hunters to North Korea about a year before. The tanks were designed to counter the huge American juggernauts with swarm tactics. Small, mounted with 40mm autocannons loaded with armor piercing sabot rounds, Vampires moved fast and could out-turn almost any other hovertank in the world. This fight was the armored equivalent of a bear versus wolves.

“Fucking Vamps!” swore Romero as he jolted Kate out of the ruined warehouse into the debris-strewn streets. Another sweep of the systems confirmed that the region was clear except for the three dead spots that surrounded the Chinese tanks. The Chinese tech might be superior, but the Korean pilots were poorly trained. They had left their ECM systems on maximum, not realizing they could be tracked by the blank spots their jammers created. Out in the open, their numbers held the advantage, Romero knew he had to take the fight to the heart of the industrial zone where the building would confine their maneuvers. There it would be less about the technology and more about piloting skills. It was in close quarters where he would get payback.

Romero’s pride was stung — he should have seen the ambush coming. The North Koreans had caught him while he had been reflecting on the loss of Midge and her VTOL. Kate swerved sharply around a corner, narrowly missing the wall of a building as Romero brought her around in a slewing turn. The Chinese tanks were stalking him; two were flanking him, the other was racing ahead to ambush him at the far end of the service road. He should have called down air support, but wounded pride demanded a more personal response. The Vampires were closing in on his position. Romero gunned Kate’s turbines and shot forward, skating about five feet above the broken streets. The steel behemoth flew through the canyons of shattered buildings, swerving and spinning tightly through the bombed-out thoroughfares.

Sharp, hammering pain ripped through Romero when a dozen rounds smashed into the slanted hull of the Berserker. The ambushing Vampire had timed his attack perfectly. But, this time, Romero had a surprise; he activated the hovertank’s flood lights filling the area with intense white light and sharp shadows. Sometimes the simplest and most primitive tactics still worked best. The sleek black hovertank was visually exposed.

The smart play would have been to dart away for cover. The North Korean pilot wasn’t smart. Instead, he continued firing, surging towards Kate.

Romero shook his head in disbelief, it an obvious ploy intended to drive him back into the killzone of the flanking stalkers. Romero sluiced Kate sideways in a curving arc while the Berserker’s twin quench guns pumped hundreds of steel bearings into the small black tank. For a moment, the Chinese assault tank seemed to hang motionless in the brilliant light while the stream of hyper-accelerated projectiles shredded it like buckshot through butter. Then without warning, superheated metal pierced its ammo bay. The perforated tank exploded violently. Romero cut off Kate’s lights; the other two Vampires were still around somewhere.

The Korean pilots learned quickly. The two Vampires switched off their ECM as they moved out of view behind a row of factory storage sheds. Romero scanned the spectra, but the enemy pilots pulsed their jammers every time he tried to get a lock on them, dancing away in opposite directions. Romero grinned despite himself; the bastards were on their toes.

He willed Kate back towards the outskirts, away from the battle for Pyongyang. He listened to the spectra, scanning every frequency and was surprised when he overheard the North Korean hovertank pilots talking on unsecured analog radio frequencies. Incredible, Romero thought.

In his first week of Tank Combat School, the instructor had taught them to use all of their senses. Romero remembered Master Sergeant Smithson’s favorite tirade, “All that high-tech mumbledy junk ain’t worth tits on a mule if’n y’all you don’t use your fuckin’ brains, even if they are shit! NEVER ASSUME YOU CAN’T BE FOUND!” Apparently, there wasn’t a North Korean equivalent of Master Sergeant Smithson.

Kate flew low and fast, her thrusters kicking up a debris cloud as she passed over the devastated terrain. Romero guided the hovertank into a huge crater, the muddy water splashed out as the heavy tank settled down low. It was a classic tank defensive position, going hull down. Romero then cranked his ECCM up to maximum and waited. Sure enough, the Koreans had once again gone into stealth mode, but the storm of electronic interference from Kate’s ECCM flowed around them. Romero ‘saw’ the voids in the chaotic noise of the invisible blizzard of random signals.

Romero didn’t hesitate; he willed Kate’s cannons to wash the nearest ‘void’ with dual bursts of his quench guns. He was rewarded with a brilliant flash of destruction. The American tank paid for its victory when the remaining Vampire unloaded a hundred rounds of armor piercing sabots her way. Most struck the berm of the crater, showering the tank with muck and concrete rubble. A good dozen or so shells found their mark punching through the Berserker’s laminated ceramic and steel armor.

Through the pain, Romero smelled the acrid smoke of burning wires. He kicked Kate’s thrusters into high gear, effectively popping the huge tank up and out of the crater. The remaining Vampire driver was no fool; he immediately took off towards Pyongyang, accelerating the swift hovertank to its limits.

Romero urged Kate forward, but the shells had inflicted significant damage. She growled and groaned in protest, but responded, hurtling forward after the fleeing smaller tank. Her linked electromagnetic quench cannons spewed twin streams of death along darkened streets, illuminating them with their fiery glow.

The Vampire managed to put almost a full kilometer between itself and Romero before the streams of superheated metal balls seared into its engine compartment. The crippled tank smashed into a broken building and began to burn fiercely. It shattered convulsively as its ammo stores cooked off, each round exploding in the tight interior ripping it apart from the inside.

The American hovertank kept going, though her damage was severe. A thin trail of smoke swirled in her wake as she glided through the abandoned factory zone. Fifty kilometers ahead the city of Pyongyang was dying in continuous explosions of hellfire.

Romero jumped when a voice crackled in his head. “Wr8th, that you over there playing in the rubble?”

He knew the voice; it was the new kid, Ajax. He was a fresh recruit, newly wired and on his second combat mission. The rookie was a pretty good pilot, but odd even by cog standards. A quiet, clean-cut kid from Maine, he never drank, smoked or swore. Even went to chapel every Sunday. He was squeaky clean, thus his nickname.

“Hey, Ajax. Yeah, it’s me. Had a dustup with some Vamps but it’s all clear now. What’s your status?”

“Calm, cool, and collected. Sent some sinners to their Judgment, may God have mercy on their souls. Hang on, buddy, I’m coming up on your six, we can tandem to the capitol.”

Romero could hear the excitement in his voice, though the kid was trying to play it cool. Ajax was loving every minute of this war. Romero had to admit; he too had once loved the rush of combat. At first, he’d felt the rollercoaster feelings of victory and despair when he killed enemies. Now, there was no more emotion involved than he had when digging slit trenches. War made killing people a mundane task.

Romero slowed his hovertank’s progress, turning onto the remains of a highway. Ajax’s Berserker, Becky Sue, slid up alongside Kate. The two hovertanks rushed towards the combat in Pyongyang in tandem, a few dozen or so meters apart. The highway had been thoroughly shelled; only a levitating vehicle could find it navigable. They both traveled in silence, each locked in their own minds, listening to the chatter of the violence ahead of them.

The North Koreans had been busy during the last few years, buying up as much Chinese war tech as they could. The Chinese had steadfastly maintained the flimsy charade of ‘non-interference’, circumventing outright conflict with the US by selling only their ‘surplus’ weapons systems to a ‘friendly neighbor.’

The North Koreans were fighting for their lives and were putting up a ferocious defense. Threaded through the various commands and combat chatter, a rumor began surfacing that the North Koreans had nuked Seoul. The situation was getting uglier by the minute.

“Do you think those heathens really did it?” asked Ajax, the fearful wonder evident in his tone.

Romero thought long and hard before answering. It was certainly within the North Koreans ability and willpower to do so. Certainly, Seoul was no sitting duck. It had been encircled with one of the most sophisticated missile defense systems on the planet. Piercing that ring of anti-missile platforms would have been taken a miracle. Unless it hadn’t been a missile. For years it had been rumored that North Korean operatives had smuggled nuclear components into Seoul, waiting for the call to destroy it from the inside. Then again, Seoul was vigilant and well-supported with American anti-nuclear tech.

Just as Romero started to reply, it felt as if every wire in his body had caught fire and was burning its way through his flesh. Romero screamed in absolute agony, and the 70-ton tank slammed down onto the road with a crash, her systems shut down. Just as quickly the agonizing sensation was gone. Romero’s anti-pulse shielding had kicked in before his cybernetics had gone critical.

“EMP!!! Fucking shit!” Romero shouted as his senses reeled, he frantically rebooted Kate. Somewhere nearby an incredibly powerful burst of electromagnetic energy had pulsed. Unshielded electronics would have fried instantly. At first, Romero thought they had been nuked, but as Kate’s sensors flickered back to stable life, he saw no radiation spikes in the area. A thrill of fear washed through his spine—the sheer power of that pulse approached the nuclear level. If it hadn’t been a nuke, there was only one other device capable of emitting a burst that powerful. Romero felt his blood turn cold.

He quickly scanned the spectra in desperation. There! Above the tanks, about half a click away, he saw it on the visual scans. Romero’s heart skipped a beat. It was a Shrike. The Chinese anti-tank VTOL was hideous in form, terrifying in function. It seemed absurdly assembled, almost asymmetrical. It was bulky, almost box-like. Its nickname among the US armed forces was the Flying Brick. The Shrike was China’s most advanced anti-tank system, designed for one purpose and one purpose only, to kill American Berserkers.

Romero tried to contact Ajax before he realized with a sinking feeling he wouldn’t connect. Ajax hadn’t been one of the few lucky tankers to get the latest EMP shielding bonded into their rigs before they departed for this shitstorm. Only a handful of the bleeding edge protective tech had been available. Romero had been lucky to be selected for the upgrade—literally weeks before the invasion. It had just saved his life.

Ajax had not been so fortunate. Romero swore in sympathy as he thought of the kid in the disabled Berserker next to him. He knew from his classes what the nineteen-year-old from Maine would be experiencing. The kid would be paralyzed as his wiring melted inside him. His neurogenic links would be misfiring sending a maelstrom of meaningless signals into his brain. He would be conscious and fully aware of every sensation as his nervous system burned out during the next agonizing eternal minutes. Meanwhile, the Shrike would be closing in for the kill.

Shrikes were outfitted with an EMP burst emitter capable of sending out a pulse of electromagnetic waves as powerful as a 100-megaton nuclear device—enough to disable a Berserker for thirty seconds. It was more than enough time for the VTOL to close in and use its second weapon, the Laser Lance. The Lance was a laser cannon designed to fire a single concentrated burst of intense energy. The beam was potent enough to pierce through a Berserker’s skin as easily as a pin through a butterfly. The Shrike’s tactics were surgically simple—drop down from on high, stun the tank with EMP, close in, then pierce its nuclear power plant with the Lance.

Romero urged Kate to hurry finishing her startup sequence. The Shrike was in range, and there was a fifty-fifty chance it would be Kate that the pilot selected as his first kill. Romero was relieved when he heard and felt the explosion of Becky Sue’s death. He had a chance! Besides its very short-range attack zone, the other downside of the Shrike was that it took a while to recharge its weapons.

The nearly panicked cog laughed as Kate’s turbines roared to life, lifting the damaged tank from the road. Romero didn’t hesitate; he immediately accelerated away until Kate was redlined. She was hurt but still had plenty of life left in her.

Romero debated for a microsecond before deciding to turn away from the American forces in Pyongyang, streaking instead towards the ruins of the factory town he had just left. In the open fields between the industrial park and the suburbs of Pyongyang, the Shrike had the advantage. Back among the ruined buildings of the industrial complex, he had half a chance. Half a chance was better than none.

The Shrike made no effort to follow; instead, it rose upwards, disappearing from visual, cloaking itself in ECM and becoming invisible. Romero knew better than to falsely hope the pilot had headed off to hunt elsewhere. The Shrike would be following him from on high, waiting for its EMP and Lance to fully charge.

As Kate sped into the canyons of wrecked concrete buildings, Romero redirected her energy from the quench cannons to maximize Kate’s anti-EMP shielding. Doing so would disable the main guns and drain her fuel cells faster than a coed doing shots of tequila, but he had no choice. He doubted the pilot would allow him a clear shot and one more burst of EMP might overwhelm the already damaged systems — new shielding or not.

It was clear; this wasn’t a battle, it was a foxhunt and Romero was the fox. Sometimes the fox escapes, he thought with grim optimism though deep down he knew his chances were nearly non-existent. Romero looked for a place to run, to hide; anything to get rid of the horrible feeling that at any moment he would personally experience what one hundred million watts of light felt like as it vaporized human tissue and ceramite alloy armor.

Romero flew without direction, trying to be as random as he could until he could find something, anything, he could use to his advantage. His heart leaped into his throat when Kate’s alarms sounded. The Shrike was dropping, fast. Too late, no place to run or hide, Romero played a desperate hand. He diverted all power to Kate’s shields in anticipation of —


Romero screamed through grit teeth, spasming in pure agony as his wiring burned for a split second. Then, mercifully, his shielding kicked in again. Kate’s protection held, and she withstood the burst — barely. Though his mind was rocked with fiery pain, he managed to drop Kate onto the ground, acting as if she had been shut down.

Romero waited and watched on visual channels, sweat running down his face as the Shrike dropped to lancing range. He couldn’t tear his eyes away from the long glassteel tube that jutted out from the brick. It glowed with a most beautiful, intense blue light as it began to build up energy before firing. Romero grit back his fear and waited until the very last second then redirected all Kate’s power to her thrusters.

The Berserker surged forward like a stuck pig. Behind her, the Laser Lance instantly burnt a perfect smoking hole deep into the ground where the tank had been a moment ago.

Romero had bought himself time with his trick, but he knew the pilot wouldn’t be fooled a second time. This was no half-trained North Korean cog with last generation gear. There was no way the Chinese would sell a Shrike to the North Koreans — ‘friendly neighbor’ or not. No, this pilot was Chinese — elite and wired with the best tech. If Shrikes were here, China was no longer an ‘interested party’ but a main player. This punitive action was about to become an all-out war between superpowers.

Romero drove blindly, on the razor’s edge of panic. Adrenalin coursed through his veins bringing with it heightened awareness and reflexes. He was nearing the far edge of the complex when he saw it — a river tunnel cut through a rocky hump of foothills that bordered the edge of the city. A plan formed. It would be a long shot — in fact, it was more than likely Romero would kill himself rather than the Shrike, but it was his only chance.

He scanned the skies, and sure enough, the Shrike was following. The brick-like VTOL was flying low, slow, and obvious — no more by-the-book tactics. The PRC pilot wanted the American tanker to know he was being hunted. Romero smiled, he was counting on it. He eased Kate sideways until she was lined up with the tunnel. The Shrike began to maneuver, seeking to interdict the fleeing hovertank — exactly as Romero gambled he would. Romero made his move. He urged the hovertank forward, accelerating so hard he was thrown back into his seat as if he had been catapulted. The huge tank shot forward, past the VTOL, streaking towards the wide black tunnel mouth.

Romero laughed like a maniac as the pilot fell for the ruse. The recharging VTOL went into stealth before it flew past overhead, seeking to cut off Romero on the far side of the tunnel. Romero heard the VTOL’s jets on his audio pickups as the Shrike passed. Apparently, there was no PRC version of Master Sergeant Smithson either.

As soon as the Shrike had passed over the rise above the tunnel, Romero willed every last watt of Kate’s power into her thrusters. The gaping maw of the river channel opening loomed, but instead of entering, at the very last second, he redirected all her power into her propulsion systems. Suddenly, her thrusters screamed and blasted the ground with full force, violently launching the tank upward. The speeding hovertank was vaulted high into the air towards the rocky ridgeline just above the tunnel archway.

Romero thought he had miscalculated as the sheer rock face the stone hill loomed. Then he was shaken hard, lurching so violently that his head smacked hard into the console and he was nearly disconnected. Kate bounced upward over the top of the rocks above the tunnel, sending a rockslide tumbling down as the straining thrusters knocked boulders loose. The hovertank hung crazily suspended above the tunnel at an angle that would have made the tank’s design team cringe had they witnessed it. Dazed and bleeding from a gash across his forehead, Romero managed to switch the power back and forth quickly between the lift thrusters and steering repulsors. His desperate effort paid off, sending the abused hovertank bounding up and forward in zig-zagging spurts. He was dimly aware of mad cackling in the cockpit before realizing it was his own laughter.

Romero had jumped his hovertank onto the hill above the river tunnel — an impossible, crazy move that no sane pilot would ever contemplate. Not one of Kate’s designers would have considered the maneuver possible. It was the thought of certain death that inspired Romero to even attempt it. There was no conceivable way the Chinese pilot could have anticipated Romero’s move. Not in a million years of guessing.

The giddy cog looked at the wildly gyrating hula-girl, grinning madly at her. The Chinese pilot was in for a very rude surprise. If Romero’s suspicion was correct, the Shrike was laying-in-wait on the opposite side of the tunnel for the Berserker’s exit. Romero intended to ambush the ambusher by attacking from the slope above the tunnel mouth. He began to charge up his quench cannons as Kate bounced and slewed over the steep, rocky terrain.

“SHIT!” he swore aloud when a new alarm sounded. Kate’s energy reserves were nearly drained. Not enough power to move and fire. He had used up almost all her power in that frantic death-defying leap. The cog’s brain swirled chaotically as plans were quickly hatched and discarded. Finally, he selected another long shot tactic. He shut down the main guns in favor of movement. “Fuck it — no guts, no glory.” He grinned as blood flowed down his face.

Surging across the rise, the tunnel exit approached. Romero expected the VTOL to be waiting but because it was cloaked there was no way he could pinpoint exactly where. He needed a visual or audio lock on it. Romero took a calculated guess, figuring where he would set-up if their roles had been reversed. Had he been religious, he might have prayed, but as it was, Romero simply steered the speeding tank towards where he hoped the Shrike was waiting to pounce.

Floating just outside and slightly above the tunnel mouth, the Shrike was lined up for an easy kill shot down the aqueduct.  Everything was almost exactly as he had hoped. Romero sent Kate flying over the edge of the cliff.  He was off target for ramming, but close enough for second option.  As the 70-ton tank soared through the air, scant meters past the hovering VTOL, Romero fired the flechette gun while howling, “Fuck youuu!”

The shocked Chinese pilot instinctively jerked his vehicle sharply away from the ludicrous attack, smashing the side of the VTOL into the tunnel arch. The Shrike’s pilot struggled to avoid crashing. The unbalanced craft finally slammed down hard onto the tracks with a loud bang.

Kate sailed crazily forward in an arc for a hundred meters with the last of her momentum. Romero expended the last of Kate’s energy on the thrusters in last ditch effort to soften the landing. The damaged tank slammed down hard, bounced out of the concrete channel, then skidded for a few dozen meters more, ripping up the ground in a screeching spray of sparks and smoke. Drained and dead, Kate came to rest against a heavily bunkered small building.

The flat, damaged building had had its roof shorn off during the bombing runs earlier that evening, but was otherwise intact. Its heavy walls still held strongly despite hundreds of gouges and missing chunks from the earlier bombing. The smoking hulk of the hovertank rested up against the side of the building at an odd angle, as if she’d been parked by a drunk driver. Given enough time, Kate would regenerate enough energy to move again, but it would be an hour at least. Romero had maybe a minute before the Shrike would be on him if he was lucky.

Romero unplugged himself and popped Kate’s hatch, snatching the hula-girl in his bloodied fist before he crawled out of the vehicle. Blood poured from a gash on his forehead; he was dizzy, shaking with the aftereffects of his adrenalin rush. Time was running out; he had to get away.

There was a whining scream of powerful turbines behind him in the distance. The Chinese pilot had recovered. The Shrike was lifting upwards slowly in a cloud of dust and debris. It began to swing around towards the motionless wreck of the American tank. The VTOL would be within striking distance all too quickly. Romero sprinted towards a hole in the side of the building, hoping the reinforced walls had enough strength to shield him from the explosion of Kate’s impending death as he ran.

That’s when Romero saw them. A middle-aged Korean man was huddled inside the building, with a terrified teenage girl and a prepubescent boy clinging to him. It was immediately evident that the family had taken cover from the raids in the fortified office. Now, they were in danger of being destroyed along with the American tank and its pilot.

Something inside Romero twinged at the sight of the frightened villagers. Romero caught the look in the old man’s eyes. They were wide with the horror and failure from the realization that instead of saving his family he had doomed them. Romero froze, unable to react. He owed them nothing. Innocents died in war. They were the enemy. Somehow, he couldn’t justify leaving them to their fate.

“Fuck me,” said Romero as he heard the VTOL approaching. He had to act and do so quickly, or they would all die when Kate was destroyed. Romero ran at the villagers, screaming at them, waving his arms, “Get the FUCK out of here NOW!” The girl shrieked in fear and bolted for the door; the old man followed to stop her from leaving, the boy stared at the American oddly then ran after his family. Romero followed them, chasing them out into the open, not stopping his raving until they were running for their lives away from the building, the incapacitated tank, and the crazy American.

Romero’s internal audio sensors automatically dampened the sound of the Shrike’s turbojets. He knew it was behind him and in range, yet he didn’t turn around until he saw the family was away from the blast radius of Kate’s impending demise. The boy turned just once as if to take one last look at the insane American tanker. Romero smiled waving at them, willing them to flee to safety, hoping the Chinese pilot could see the fleeing civilians and delay his victory for a moment. The family ducked into another building disappearing from view. Only then did Romero turn to face his death.

The Shrike hovered about fifty or so meters away. Romero inhaled deeply. Only had a few breaths remained in his life and he intended to enjoy them. He watched the Lance powering up. The length of the semi-transparent gun barrel was glowing with a steady, intense cobalt blue light. The beauty of it was mesmerizing.

Adrejan ‘Wr8th’ Romero decided that if he was going to die, he would do so with dignity. As he braced to meet eternity, he straightened and faced the unseen pilot squarely; his chin lifted high. Then the unexpected happened, the glow faded. The American watched with confused disbelief as the Lance powered down, turning dark. Romero stood still, dumbfounded by the unfolding events.

Romero forgot to breathe as the enemy VTOL rose up and disappeared into the starry blackness of the night sky. He stood there for a long time, in silence, watching the stars twinkle above, while the low growling thunder of the distant firefight in Pyongyang rumbled unceasingly.

Alone and bloodied, Romero walked back to the hovertank and sat down on her turret and waited for Kate’s power plants to restart. As he sat, he contemplated the night’s events. Midge and the soldiers in her VTOL had died, and the invasion had progressed as if they had never existed. Ajax had died horribly, and the war still went on. If he had died, nothing would have mattered or changed. I really am just a cog in the machine, easily replaced. The thought shook him to his core, sickening him.

He thought hard, searching for something positive, something to give him hope. Saving the lives of that family had meant something. He recalled the odd look on the boy’s face. It hadn’t been one of recrimination, hate, or fear. It had been confused gratitude. Had the Chinese pilot seen that? Was that why he had been spared? A random, spontaneous act of honor and respect between enemies?

Then a realization struck Romero like a bolt of lightning. He was done with killing.

He’d never found satisfaction in bloodshed. Ever since he was a kid, all he’d ever wanted to was to go fast. Romero enlisted only as a way of avoiding jail for grand theft auto. The only reason he volunteered for the Cybernetic Program was that the procedure opened up a world of cutting-edge vehicles to drive. Killing was a cost he no longer wanted to pay.

Romero rolled his options around in his head. He was still obligated to the Army for a little more than a year of service. With the newborn war with China, there was no way the Army would allow him to discharge on time. Nor would they allow him to withhold his talents. He was stuck.

He wiped his face with his hand. It came away wet with his blood. There was the answer he sought. Relief washed through Romero.  As soon as he returned to base, he would resign his commission as a tanker and request reassignment to the medevac team. His exemplary record and extraordinary piloting skills would make his request impossible to deny.  He smiled and nodded to himself; it was the right solution, he could feel it in his bones. From this point onward, if he was going to risk his life, it would be to save others.

There was another reason for this shift in his career and, if he was going to be honest with himself, he had to accept that truth as well. He’d enjoyed the rush of playing the fox more than any other sensation he had ever felt. It was a thrill he had never experienced as the hunter. He laughed out loud. No one had ever made a hovertank fly. No one would ever know the feeling he had when he had defied death and escaped the inescapable. No one except perhaps an enemy pilot who had inexplicably given him back his life.

Romero shrugged, whether the decision stemmed from the idea of being a lifesaver or the thrill of being the fox didn’t matter. “Fuck it,” he hopped off the turret and shouted to the stars, “From now I on I am going to live the hell out of my life. On my terms and no one else’s!”

Adrejan ‘Wr8th’ Romero climbed into the cockpit of the Berserker hovertank with a new sense of purpose in his life.

Tonight, he had died and been reborn.