Jack 3792 was born to be a soldier. Not that there was anything special about his physiology that made him a better warrior than your common man. The difference was, when they decided to pop his embryo into the incubator, he was part of a batch of cauldron-born that were to be used for military service.
His earliest memories were of fighting and the abuse used to make him do so. The cauldron-born were never treated as humans, more of biomechanical killing machines. They grew up cold and unloved, having no affection from any save one another.
Humans were never meant to live in such a way, and Jack was the first to raise his fist in mutiny against the program managers. In their striving to create perfect warriors, they created badly damaged people. Once Jack started fighting, the rest of the cauldron-born in his company joined him in rebellion.
A brigade of regular volunteers was routed in the attempt to protect Major General Telwin, the project lead, from the vengeful cauldron-born. When Jack finally lynched the general from the main post flagpole, he followed the body with a white flag; life had no further objective.
Jack and the surviving cauldron-born were put on trial but their mutiny was justified by the abuses they had endured. The state could not risk a potential civil war spurred by action against the cauldron-born, whose very existence was evidence of crimes against humanity.
They were drummed out of the military as no commander would have them. They were given a pension and a discharge, before being sent into the incomprehensible world of civilians. Unable to integrate with the rest of society, many took their own lives, others ended up in prison for subsequent crimes. Others became mercenaries.
Jack and a few survivors of his company volunteered to join a colonial fleet as defense advisors. Sixty years frozen in transit and about as many light years away, Jack was awakened to go fight for the colony on some god-forsaken hell world for a few thousand tons of uranium.
His contract did not specify that he was to fight, but the call of battle was a siren’s song to the cauldron-born. They were used as a special mission team carrying out all of the jobs that the conscripts and regulars could not handle. This had been the routine for almost a year when his team was called up to hunt a walker that had infiltrated behind the front lines.
His team’s mission was to kill a walker that everyone had been calling “Banshee.” The pilot of banshee, not without a sense of the dramatic, had rigged extremely high powered directional speakers to his machine to play ancient recordings of what once passed for music among some people in the 21st century. From recordings Jack heard, it sounded like screaming, percussion, and harsh static that barely had a melody. Played at around 200 decibels, it was like being struck by the blast wave from an artillery round, unprotected personnel died horribly from internal hemorrhaging. Banshee had been raiding outposts and supply routes behind their main lines; generally spreading fear and chaos across a good fifty kilometers of ground.
Using seismic gear, they’d finally triangulated a fix on the Banshee’s location. They planned to hit him in a canyon that would provide them plenty of cover and restrict the walker’s movement. Pictures of the Banshee told Jack that he was looking for a modified five meter tall class 2 freight loader. The plan was to use a drone convoy as a decoy to draw the Banshee into their kill zone and then pound it into scrap with anti-anti armor penetrator charges.
Jack watched the updates from the seismics on his data feed. Banshee was making for the decoy. Glancing over at the raw data feed from the seismics, Jack’s heart nearly stopped.
“Christ kissin’ Krishna... Guys, this thing we got comin’ ain’t Banshee! It’s huge! Stephen, with me. The rest of you start aiming those charges to where they’ll hit at about eight and a half meters,” Jack said as he grabbed his pack and started running.
“Shit! Jack, you’re still going through with this? If that thing is double the size of banshee, we don’t have enough charges!” Stephen 2421, yelled after him as he tried to catch up.
“We don’t have a choice, if we lose the convoy we’re stranded, by the time we get back within comms range on foot, a warning will be too late,” Jack reasoned.
“Even if the walker doesn’t kill us immediately, it’ll hunt us down and make sure we can’t report. We can scatter the convoy, load into one of the trucks and head back.” Stephen said, putting his hand on Jack’s shoulder.
“That’s just the animal in you telling me it’s afraid of the dark,” Jack said harshly.
“After all this time, you’re still quoting General Telwin” Stephen answered.
“Daddy issues,” Jack joked without laughing. He was watching the approach to the rock formation through a pair of binoculars, “There it is. Class four, maybe five. It’s not a hack job either. This bastard is a battle strider. Get on the radio and tell them that they need to reverse the angle on those penetrator charges. We’ll have to hit it from behind to stand a chance at knocking it out.”
Jack uploaded the visuals of the battle strider to his data unit and received an identification match, this one was called ‘Tiamat.’ Jack wondered if all walker pilots had such delusions of immortality. They always seem to be named after a spirit or god.
Tabbing over to the seismics, Jack saw that the convoy would soon be within range of the walker. He sent one running wide to see if it would follow the bait and delay the walker to give the rest of the team more time to reset the charges. If they stopped the walker, they’d still have to ride back, there was no assurance that the rest of the convoy wouldn’t be damaged in the fight, so he kept that truck moving away from the main convoy as a reserve. Seismics confirmed that the walker was staying on an intercept with the lead vehicle.
Normally, on a straight shot, a convoy of trucks could outrun even a large walker, but the path in this area was winding and rough, so the walker had the advantage. Luckily, a truck convoy is not something to waste ammunition on, so the walker should be aiming to just stomp them all into scrap.
Jack and Stephen headed back to their posts above the kill zone. The others had already managed to redirect the penetrator charges to strike at the back of the walker. Jack worried that this attack angle would mostly hit the arms since they were now striking at a diagonal. Destroying the arms would remove a great deal of firepower, but just its bulk and weaponry mounted to its central chassis it would be more than a match for the rear security elements this far away from the front line.
The penetrators operated on a very old design that used an explosive charge to form a molten metal spike that would zip through metal armor like paper. The walker was still a very large machine that had composite ceramic and alloy armor along with multiple redundant systems which could absorb considerable punishment and remain combat effective.
Jack knew Stephen was right, the charges they prepared for Banshee would not be enough to bring down a true battle strider unless somehow a lucky hit managed to knock out the pilot. It didn’t matter if it it was here today, or next week when they found Banshee, or even ten years from now on another rock fighting something else, Jack accepted long ago that he would someday find his end in combat. There was only one way to ensure a killing hit on the pilot.
In less than two minutes their target would be in the kill zone. The charges were set up so that they would be inert until armed by Jack and his crew. They were rigged with infrared sensors that were mostly blinded off so that there was a very narrow corridor in which they could detect movement, this meant they could aim and fire the charges with a surprising degree of accuracy. The only worry was being able to land a killing blow with them.
Stephen watched silently as Jack removed one of the penetrators from a four charge array and then hoisted it up to their observation point. Jack pulled a piezoelectric command detonator out of his pack and wired it to the blasting cap.
“You’ll never hit it. It moves too much,” Stephen said, assuming Jack was going to try to score the lucky shot by himself. Then Stephen saw that there was only about a meter of wire from the charge to the detonator, “Suicide? It’s just one walker, we can evade it and go report. They’ll bring in the air support and pound it into the ground.”
“With its defenses they’d never get close. We have to stop this thing here. We were born to die in battle, might as well be today,” Jack explained, he knew that the natural borns in the militia forces would be slaughtered if they ever came into contact with a battle strider. He looked on natural born soldiers almost as children, which triggered a strong protective urge in him. A part of his mind knew that the enemy were all natural born soldiers too, but he stuffed that awareness down to keep it from interfering with his job of killing them. Jack had been told all of his life that natural borns would only fight under duress and that a cauldron-born was the only organism that belonged on the battlefield.
“You’re wrong, Jack--,” Stephen started to argue before looking back towards the canyon approach, “It’s almost here.”
The trembling in the ground meant that the walker was upon them. The convoy was in a cul de sac that they could not escape from. This also meant that the walker would have to somehow manage to turn around to escape as well.
The walker began his charge on the convoy and tripped the sensors on the charges spraying it with molten copper spikes travelling at nearly 6000 meters per second. The charges had torn up the arms pretty badly but because of the approach angle, none of them had managed to hit the main torso.
The pilot was panicked by the attack and had no idea what had hit him. He started thrashing about in the narrow canyon trying to get some sort of visibility on the threat that had nearly crippled his arms. Raymond 7895 charged out from the cul de sac and started spraying rifle fire at the walker, he was trying his best to aim for the pilot’s canopy. Moving like it was, there was no chance for just one man to punch through the several centimeters of crystalline steel alloy, but with enough hits he could make it nearly impossible for the pilot to see through.
Stanley 3245 started filling the area with smoke canisters and then laid into the damaged walker with his heavy machine gun. Stanley’s weapon was basically the big brother to the M238 rifle that Raymond carried and fired a round that was three times the grain weight. It still wasn’t quite enough to take down a battle strider of this size, but it could do severe damage given enough time on target.
Through the smoke, Jack saw the rocket pod on the walker’s shoulder begin to track. He sent out a call over the radio for Raymond and Stanley to take cover. A rippling salvo flew out and carpeted the entire cul de sac with clusters of airbursting submunitions. There was no answer from Raymond or Stanley. The convoy vehicles were armored against anti personnel weapons, there may be slight damage, but Jack figured they should still be functional.
Jack turned to pick up his charge only to see Stephen running with it towards the edge of the cliff overlooking the wounded walker. Jack cursed him and yelled for him to come back.
“You saved us all once,” Stephen yelled as he leapt onto the walker and planted his feet on either side of the cockpit canopy, “You deserve to be a happy old man some day!” Stephen held the charge to his chest with one arm and aimed it at the pilot’s canopy with his body before detonating it with his free hand. He couldn’t just put the charge down and set it off, it needed space between the penetrator and the target for the spike to properly form.
Jack knew better than to watch the charge detonate at this range and took refuge behind a formation of rocks. When he came out there were only a few grisly traces of Stephen scattered about. The walker was still and pouring black smoke. Jack grabbed his rifle and ran over to where Stephen had last stood. The canopy had not been punched through, but it looked like the impact from the charge had caused some of the inside of the canopy to spall shards into the cockpit. There was movement inside. The ejection alarm rang and Jack dove back to the cliff edge to get away from the propulsion wash from the rockets on the ejection pod.
He watched the pod fly up and then the explosive bolts popped to free the heavier parts of the ejection system. What would come down would be the pilot’s seat and a parachute. Jack estimated where the pilot would land and ran to intercept.
When Jack reached the landing site the pilot was barely standing. Jack suddenly felt a rage come over him for the loss of his team which sent him charging wildly at the wobbly-legged pilot. He tackled the pilot to the ground and after an extremely feeble attempt to resist Jack was mounted on top of the pilot who was pinned in a supine position. Jack raised his rifle and brought the butt down into the pilot’s visor, breaking it open. It was then that Jack saw the pilot. He looked like a teenager, he had a shaved head and a delicate face. Jack was suddenly ashamed, the better part of his soul knew that this kid was in no condition to keep fighting. The pilot was passed out and his jumpsuit was soaked through with blood.
Jack began to strip the pilot out of his clothing to get to his wounds when he discovered that the pilot was female. He pulled out a can of aerosol stitches and began to seal her wounds before giving her an IV pack to combat the blood loss. Thinking about the nature of her wounds, it was likely that there were still shards of crystalline steel alloy in her body which would require a hospital to remove lest they continue to slice up her insides any time she moved.
He brought as many of the drone vehicles that were still operational over to him and loaded her pilot’s chair into one of the trucks. He securely strapped it in after disabling the emergency rescue beacon. He then gently placed her in the chair and using cord from her parachute tied her securely to the chair to immobilize her as much as possible. He loaded the route home into the trucks and rode in the back with her.
She awoke after dark moaning in pain, there was no lighting other than a few status LEDs on the equipment. There is a topical anesthetic in the aerosol stitch foam that would help some, but the internal wounds and some of the bruising caused during her capture would be hurting her. She realized she couldn’t move and started to panic, bawling that she could not move or see.
“Stop! You’re making it worse!” Jack yelled over her terrified wailing. He continued calmly once she stopped, “I tied you down to keep you still. If you fight, the shards inside you are going to move around and cut up your insides until they nick a major blood vessel or your intestines. If that happens, I can’t do shit for you.”
“Why?” She asked with tears in her eyes.
“Why didn’t you kill me back there?”
“It’s complicated,” Jack answered, in truth he was tired of killing kids, but he was not about to bear his soul to an enemy soldier.
“What are you going to do with me?”
“You’re a prisoner. I’m turning you in,” Jack explained.
“They’ll hang me,” She said despondently.
“Who’ll hang you?”
“We’ve never had a pilot come back,” the girl replied.
“Bullshit, you’re too valuable for intel and prisoner exchanges,” Jack argued. Being back in contact with the strategic network, Jack accessed the records to check out her claim. Six walker pilots had been captured throughout the war, and as she said, six were hanged for war crimes. Because of Jack’s position as a defense advisor, the had full access to the entire strategic network. He said nothing to her about what he found. The thought brought back memories of an old friend who was murdered under orders after being injured in a training accident. Jack continued to do research in silence.
“What’s your name?” The pilot asked.
“Jack Numbers,” He replied, ‘Numbers’ was the common surname that cauldron-born gave to the natural born. Normally, it would be a bad idea to tell an enemy prisoner one’s name, but Jack was in an odd place inside his own mind at the moment.
“I’m Lydia,” She replied weakly, “Lydia Corwell.”
“How old are you?” Jack asked, he wasn’t sure if he was prompted by boredom or curiosity.
“Christ. Really? What are they doing putting kids into a goddamn battle strider?”
“I’ve ran a loader suit in the freight yards since I was fifteen. They asked for anyone who could pilot a walker to volunteer.”
“Why the hell would you do that?” Jack asked in total disbelief. He always believed that he was created because people were afraid to fight and unwilling to send their family members to war. He did not understand those who were natural born ever choosing to fight voluntarily.
“My little brother, he got drafted to be in the infantry. I thought I could protect him if I joined.”
“Jesus, How old is your brother?”
“Fifteen,” Lydia started to cry, “I’m scared for him. I want to see him again.”
Jack, for the first time in his life had met a natural born that he understood. The other cauldron-born were his brothers, he knew what she was going through. He would fight as long as any of his brothers were still in danger.
“What’s his name?”
“Matthew,” she said with a snuffle.
Jack accessed the data link again and searched the records for a Matthew Corwell. Her brother was listed among those killed in an engagement three weeks ago. He kept this to himself as well, she was not in any condition to receive such news.
“I’m sure he’s fine, the lines have been pretty quiet lately. There’s talk of an armistice coming soon,” Jack said, it was a lie, but if they were resorting to arming the kids, the conflict would soon be coming to a close.
“Jack, you didn’t kill me, will you let them do it?” she asked.
“Godammit, just go to sleep. You’re a prisoner, it’s none of my business,” Jack growled. She had him where he was weakest. No matter the conditioning he had gone through, Jack’s instincts were those of protector, not a killer.
“I can’t sleep. I… um… have to--,” she started to say.
“Not stopping. Go in your suit. The uniform is trashed anyhow,” Jack interrupted. He didn’t want to say that, but he would not allow her to get into his head. If he was an ass she’d stop trying to be friendly with him. It would be easier on his own nerves if she’d stop talking.
“You really are a cauldron-born,” She replied almost inaudibly.
“What was that?”
“You’re heartless,” Lydia answered louder.
“Yep. Cold and dead inside.” Jack said dispassionately, she was tearing him apart.
The rest of the trip passed in silence. Jack had already issued his report across the data link once they had come into range of the network. When they arrived at the gate Jack’s convoy and prisoner were expected. Normally, he would have dropped a prisoner off with the security forces and let them deal with it. This time he guided the truck to the combat support hospital. He cut Lydia free from her chair and picked her up. She started to speak but he made a shushing sound.
The orderly at the front desk saw he was carrying a wounded enemy soldier, “Sir, you need to have a security element and we’ll need the authori--.”
Jack had placed her on a gurney and had his rifle hefted at the low ready instead of leaving it to rest at his side on it’s sling, it was an authorized carry, but still a clear threat. “Corporal. You’re going to shut your goddamn mouth and ready a trauma pod,” Jack said cutting him off.
“Down that hall, take a right third door on the left, pod number seven,” The orderly rattled off with a shaking voice.
“Good, thank you. I’ll be back to fill out all the paperwork once the bot starts to work on her. Sorry, I’ve had a rough day, I lost some guys out there,” Jack said trying to smooth over the situation. He was technically doing something that could get him in a lot of trouble, but having just lost teammates nobody would dare say anything to him. It was understood that you give somebody space and stayed out of their way when they were decompressing from a mission.
Jack followed the other medics with her and watched as she was loaded into the trauma pod. It was a self contained full function trauma suite with a robotic surgeon. It was a miraculous life saver with almost double the success rate of a human surgical team under similar conditions. There was no better care on-world than a trauma pod. He returned to the front desk and filled out the paperwork. The orderly was quiet and sullen the entire time, he probably felt bad that he had obstructed Jack in the first place, a lot of the rear echelon types feel a mixture of awe and shame when around those who do the actual fighting.
After filling out the paperwork, Jack returned to the room where the trauma pod was working on Lydia. The orderly started to say something but swallowed his words after opening his mouth. Jack knew that he wasn’t supposed to be back there, let alone with a weapon, but it just didn’t matter right now.
The pod was doing fast and thorough work. The technical team managing the pod room gave Jack a wide berth. One of them approached him, “Sir, Colonel Wynar is looking for you up front.”
Colonel Wynar was the executive officer for the base commander, General Skallard. Jack knew the Colonel was going to be questioning his abstractions of protocol. He went to the front to meet the colonel.
“Mister Numbers, this isn’t like you. Why are you taking such personal interest in your prisoner?” The colonel asked.
“I want to make sure things are done correctly, Sir,” Jack replied.
“Have there been problems before? The security have always handled prisoners, you are expected to debrief the battle control officer on duty when you return.”
“I would have made it there,” Jack answered as he yawned, it was not a purposeful slight, he was really exhausted.
“I’m going to let this slide this time, you’re tired and you’ve just had a hell of a mission. That pilot had better go to security right after the hospital clears her for the cage,” The colonel demanded.
“Tell me, what do you plan to do with her?” Jack asked.
“What right do you have to ask?”
“The other pilots we’ve captured have all been executed. I didn’t bring a prisoner back to be lynched,” Jack replied.
“It’s none of your concern, you’re a soldier, you do your duty,” the colonel answered.
“I’m a defense adviser in my contract, I’m actually more of a mercenary. I’m not technically under you. In fact, I have the right to choose the replacements for my lost team members. I’ll be taking the pilot.”
“Enlisted or not, I’ll have you shot for treason, nobody gives a damn about a corpse with a contract.”
“Colonel, I’m going to forward an excerpt of my military service record from the North American Commonwealth to your data link,” Jack said, uploading the details of his mutiny.
“Killing me won’t get you what you want, and before, you had an entire company of cauldron-born on your side.”
Jack pulled his sidearm and fired it next to the colonel’s head. It was an old style cordite automatic chambered in 10mm. The colonel cupped his hand over his ear and winced in pain. Jack had likely ruptured his eardrum.
“Jesus Christ, Jack you’ve lost your goddamned mind!”
“There was a sniper. Allow me to deploy the security drones and set the facility to defensive stations,” Jack said, the sirens blared and a sortie of VTOL strike drones took to the air a few hundred meters away. This was a raw show of power. Jack had been given full access to the drone command server while preparing the convoy and left himself an accessway for the sake of future convenience. There wasn’t so much as a coffee maker on the entire base that he couldn’t directly control. “I’m invoking my rights to equip my team from salvage and will be commandeering Tiamat and inducting Lydia Corwell into my advisory team. Furthermore, I will fulfill my contractual duties from orbit aboard the command ship,” Jack declared as if it were a spell and saying it would make it so. He had no intention of putting Lydia back into the battle strider, but such a piece of hardware is worth a small fortune.
“What makes you think it’s going to be so simple?”
“Because you’re going to sign the authorizations and keep your mouth shut or you’re going to die for a stupid reason,” Jack growled.
“Sir! Combat stations have been ordered! We need to get you inside, we heard shooting close by!” The orderly called out from the doorway.
The colonel looked at Jack, then the gun, then the orderly, and finally back to Jack, “I’m coming,” he said with resignation in his voice.
Jack uploaded the authorization orders he needed to the printer in the orderly office and printed off the appropriate number of copies. The colonel muttered under his breath as he signed them and handed them back. Jack uploaded a copy to the strategic network and disseminated it to all necessary stations.
“Why Jack? Why this one? Why now?” The colonel asked.
“It’s complicated, just let it go,” Jack answered. He gave the all clear command to the drone server and walked back into the trauma pods to check on Lydia.
She was resting from her surgery. Jack settled down to go to sleep in one of the chairs in Lydia’s room. He told the colonel if the data feed from his unit went dead the drones would rampage. It was mostly a bluff, the drones would only kill the colonel.
The colonel’s questions still rang in his head as he waited for sleep to overtake him, he didn’t know why he’d done it, perhaps it was instinct, or maybe because she was the only link he had left to all of humanity. He dreamt of General Telwin, it was a nightly thing, so many years ago and he still re-lived it in his dreams. He killed the man, but would never be free of his ghost.
“Jack, is that you?” Lydia asked from her bed, waking him up. There was daylight coming in from the skylights. Jack realized Lydia had not been able to really see him until now.
“You look younger than I thought you would. Why are you here?”
“It’s complicated,” Jack answered.
“You use that a lot, don’t you?”
“Only recently. Usually, what I do makes sense.”
“The staff have all been really cautious around me, and really nice. What did you do?”
“I hired you.”
“You did what?”
“I hired you onto my team. I don’t expect you to fight, or even follow me, but they can’t touch you as long as you’re on my crew.”
“I told you, it’s complicated,” Jack said. He stood up and found a tray of food laid out, there was another one at her bedside that she apparently had been working on. He picked up the “fruit” paste packet and bit off the end.
“So what happens now?”
“We go to the command ship and wait out the end of the war. I’ll do my job advising and you’ll make coffee or something. After the war, I’ll sell Tiamat and split the profits with you, then you do what you want,” Jack answered, it was one of the few things from the past several hours that he had figured out.
“Will that work? Will they just let you do that?” She asked.
“I have insurance,” Jack replied.
“I don’t understand, why you’re doing this for an enemy?” Lydia wondered aloud.
“Did you join to kill me or to protect someone?” Jack asked her as he massaged a bit of fruit flavored paste out of the packet.
“I did it to protect somebody,” She replied thoughtfully.
“Me too, but they’re all gone,” Jack said through his food.
“I’m sorry,” she said quietly.
“War is hell,” Jack said after a few moments of thought. He tossed the half eaten packet onto the tray. There was a lot more he could have said, but philosophy lectures were not his way. He kept his feelings on the matter to himself. In a way, she had freed them, they were going to keep fighting until they died in battle, regardless of when it happened. Because of her, they had finally found the peace they had always deserved. Jack’s eyes watered and a tear rolled down his cheek, he turned his back to Lydia and stared out the window. He didn’t believe in gods, but he said a prayer to Stephen and the rest, “Wherever you are, I hope it’s not too dark.”