The symbiotes quickly brought us out of the water, using a rolling motion assisted by folded legs and the shorter waldos rather than trying to dig into the mud with fully extended legs. When we reached the water’s edge, roughly half the legs extended fully, with all three segments active. The primary segments, closest to the body of the machine, were powerfully mounted to the chassis with heavy, countersunk joints. The secondary segments were much like the primary, but a little shorter and thinner. The third segment, however, was very different. When fully extended, the final segment was a thinner trunk segment with the last six inches devoted to a heavy spike. About a foot from the end of the spike was a curved blade on one side, and a hammer on the other. The design of the third leg segments was very similar to a medieval poleaxe. Center spike, hammer, and blade. Unlike most of the rest of the objects Frank and Mouse made, the spikes, hammers, and blades were made of a blend of tungsten steel alloy, and carbon nanotubes.
While looking through all the books the prior residents had collected, Frank had discovered mention of Damascus steel from the middle ages, and how modern metallurgists were still unsure how people had managed to create carbon nanotubes in the metal, giving it strength and flexibility comparable to many modern steels. Frank pulled Mouse in on a little engineering session, and they ended up creating a tungsten steel and carbon nanofiber weave, which was heavier than they really liked, but was more flexible than pure carbon, which was an important consideration for an eight ton vehicle, and able to be used as tools as well as weapons. The spikes were strong enough to be walked on and provide incredible traction on almost any surface, and would still be useable as weapons capable of tearing into any known armor when driven by the power of the nanofiber leg muscles. The hammer and blade on either sides were afterthoughts. Protrusions had to be there anyway, it was decided that they would be weapons as well as tools.
The protrusions/weapons on the sides of the third segments allowed the legs that were not directly involved with bearing the weight of the vehicle to push and pull against things with a lot of force, while not using the spike, which had a very small surface area, and was not very useful for pulling things. As we reached the edge of the lake and carefully picked our way through the fiber optic network cabling in shallow water, I watched Jason’s vehicle demonstrate the use of the protrusions on the legs as four of the legs not being used to walk reached up the embankment and hooked onto pine trees there, helping to balance the vessel and pull it up the muddy embankment.
Frank similarly lifted our vehicle over the embankment, then spoke on the shared channel. “[Everything green here. Mouse are you good as well?]
“[Green here. One hundred percent. The convoy is leaving Interstate 65 and coming up Interstate 59 as we speak.]”
“Jason, what do you think? Attempt ambush, or simply hit the highway when they are about halfway here and run them down?”
“Not sure, Bob. Frank or Mouse, do either of you see signs of aerial escort?”
Frank responded. “[Definitely. Two helicopters. Apaches. I’ve seen drones too, but not sure if they are just patrol drones around Birmingham, or part of the governor’s escort. One way or the other, after we engage, they will certainly be repurposed.]”
Mouse broke in. “[Situation update. The governor’s convoy just got heavy reinforcement out of Birmingham. Two more Apaches, Two Patton class heavy tanks, six MacArthur class light tanks, in addition to the standard convoy of four Stryker Infantry carriers. The MacArthurs have launched some of their recon drones.]”
“They must know somehow that we’ve got more firepower now. That’s severe overkill for an escort.”
“Not necessarily.” Jason corrected me. “It’s possible that he’s running from something. His security teams were in disarray. We didn’t see evidence of an attack, but we can’t see everything, just everything on the interstates, and a big circle around the cities. There might have been an assassination attempt, and if it was very well organized, he might be running scared to somewhere. Maybe Chattanooga. Maybe a lot farther. Not having an internet around is painful when it comes to trying to figure out what’s going on.”
I thought about it. That scenario would explain a lot. “Are we seeing anything that supports the assassination theory, Frank or Mouse?”
“[No, nothing to support, nothing that clearly refutes the idea either. No civil unrest. Not picking up anything in the clear on radio or phone networks.]” Mouse replied.
Frank picked up after that. “[No signs of a pursuit by interstate, or by air, as far as I can see.]”
“OK. How is their convoy shaping up?” I asked.
Frank replied “[Four Apaches are holding position around the convoy. Directly ahead, behind, and to either side. The governor’s standard convoy is in the center. Ahead of them are three MacArthurs leading one Patton, and behind is one Patton leading three MacArthurs. It’s a very regular dispersal. They have helicopter overwatch, drones for recon, and are leading with light armor, with heavy armor in position to back up the light armor. All of this protects the standard convoy with four Strykers as an innermost security barrier, surrounding eight armored cars and the governor’s heavy armored transport.]”
“Can we take them in a direct assault?”
Mouse took this answer. “[Those Pattons have firepower I really don’t want to test. From what Jason’s told me, their coilguns accelerate a one kilo projectile up to ten kilometers per second. They are very accurate too. They won’t miss us much if they get a good sight picture. We should survive a couple rounds if they don’t manage a center mass hit. At one kilometer range, we will have one tenth of a second to react to the incoming projectile. That will be enough time to adjust waldos and the shield to deflect away from the main body of our vehicle, but deflecting a round like that will severely degrade the shields. One shot safely deflected per shield. Two shields. The diamond shields won’t do squat against those rounds. But if the MacArthurs activate their lasers before the Pattons fire, it opens up possibilities.]”
“What do you think, Jason? Circle around them, take out the Apaches and drones, then one of us feints in and out to attract the fire of the Pattons. The other comes in from a different direction and rushes to get into close combat with them? What’s the cycle time on their firing?”
“About five seconds between rounds from what I saw in the field.” Jason said.
“Ouch I was hoping for more time.” I did some mental calculations. “Should be enough though.”
“You want to do the decoy, Bob? I think I might be a bit better at mixing it up with ranged weapons than you, and more familiar with what these vehicles can do.”
“That’s what I was thinking too, Jason. Do we want to take out a bridge before or after them?”
“Not necessary. They can’t run from us unless we get so shot up we would be better off running from them.”
“Gotta love these oh-so-detailed plans with backups and contingencies, right Jason?”
I could see the smile in Jason’s voice. “Sure thing Bob. Remember, you are in, then out, fast as you can. Once they engage me, you can return.”
I looked at Jason’s vehicle as we started moving towards the interstate to begin the engagement. Jason and I had described something in our sketches that looked a lot like a lobster. Frank and Mouse had turned the idea into something that looked more like a sea urchin. The body of the vehicle was about ten feet in diameter and spherical, with hundreds of thin, two-foot-long waldos which carried the four small coilguns and the four shields, which were literally that, shields. Not much different from what a medieval fighter might carry into melee in shape. In composition, however, the four shields were nothing like the wood, iron, or steel of ancient days. Two of the shields were pure diamond, designed to counter lasers using internal reflection. The other two were composite tungsten steel and carbon nanofiber and graphene. The waldos would carry the shields and coilguns to wherever they were needed around the vehicle for ranged offense or defense. The coilguns were limited in where they could go by their power tethers, but the power tethers themselves could be attached in several places, allowing repositioning anywhere, it would just take more time. The waldos themselves could be used for defense as a last resort, positioning themselves so that they intersected incoming attacks.
The walking limbs were arranged around the entire surface of the sphere, evenly distributed. Anywhere from four to ten could be used for movement at any given time. Sometimes more if there were things that were off the ground which could be used for movement, like the trees we had used to pull our vehicles up over the soft embankment. If the ground was too soft and the softness too deep for the walking legs to move the vehicle, there was an alternate locomotion method. The vehicles could drop their spherical bodies to the ground, and their waldos would adjust themselves into something like a carpet effect under the sphere, significantly increasing surface area that the vehicle’s weight rested on. Then the walking legs sticking out to the sides could be used like oars.
All in all, the number of moving parts on the vehicle that needed to be directly controlled to get the most out of the machine in combat were insane. Especially when you consider that the vehicle actually had the capacity to defend indefinitely against almost anything short of the main gun of a Patton class tank. If we could take out those two Pattons without taking much damage, we would walk over everything else.
Still, despite being such impressive vehicles, it seemed absurd to be going into combat in a vehicle that looked like a sea urchin. It was even more absurd to see something that looked like a sea urchin moving at highway traffic speeds, tearing up huge divots of grass and dirt as it partly rolled, partly ran with its legs. When we needed to move side to side to go around something, the vehicle would keep all of its forward momentum, merely using a couple legs to kick it to one side or the other, rolling a bit before stopping its sideways motion. This was why we had fourteen point harnesses, because Jason and I were inside a combat vehicle that could roll into any position and still be effective. And we fully expected to be rolling a lot.
Jason and I moved on an intercept course to the convoy, about one kilometer apart. I would hit the road about a kilometer ahead of the lead, light armored vehicles, and as I was passing over the road, I would take out all four Apaches and any drones that were visible. This should get the attention of the entire convoy focused on me, and Jason would come up, over the embankment, and take out the first Patton simply by destroying its weapon. He would then take cover from the second Patton behind the governor’s vehicle, while tearing it apart to get to the governor. I would return to combat, flanking the second Patton as it was firing at Jason through the governor’s vehicle, or trying to maneuver to fire at Jason. If the second Patton fired on the governor’s vehicle while trying to shoot Jason, oh darn, we would be so disappointed. We would simply be pretty much ignoring the MacArthurs – their lasers would only be powering the steam generators.
We were about three kilometers away from the convoy when, of course, our luck ran out. One of the Apache pilots was on the ball and picked up our thermal signature under the trees, and didn’t spend any time figuring out what they had seen, they just hit the panic button. That’s one benefit to there being no vehicles other than farming automatons with IFF’s anywhere except in cities, on interstates, or on railways. The pilot saw a big hotspot and bam. Game on.
Mouse called out “[We’ve been spotted. Transmissions of encoded voice data are now constant. All four Helicopters are on intercept with us. The ground vehicles have accelerated to the best speed of a Patton, 120km/hour. The MacArthurs have emptied their drone racks, sending some drones ahead to follow the highway, and the rest are circling the convoy at mixed altitude. ]”
Frank spoke. “[Increasing to maximum acceleration in this terrain. We need to end this fast.]”
Mouse continued with tactical data from the road network. “[The Pattons and MacArthurs are moving into new formations. They are synchronized movements. Humans are not controlling them.]”
“Frank, no kid gloves this time around. Sounds like the military has managed to put together some sort of intelligent networking for ground vehicles. If that also includes data from aerial vehicles, we need them down ASAP. If you get a good tail rotor shot, take it, but otherwise just put them down however you can.”
“[Recalculating approach now. We’ll break cover in seven seconds and be on pavement in ten seconds.]”
“Mouse. Jason. You guys with us?”
“Right behind you, Bob.”
We broke cover and the four helicopters fired a total of sixteen missiles and sixteen anti-armor lasers. Mouse and Frank ignored the lasers and used the coilguns to take down eight missiles in the first volley and seven in the second. One of the currently unused legs of our vehicle speared out and drove its spike through the incoming missile, detonating it when it was twenty or so feet from us, causing us to roll a few degrees. Frank activated different legs while shaking the wreckage of the last missile off the leg spike. Then he started cursing at some sort of electronic countermeasures that the Apaches were putting out to spoof his targeting that caused him to miss a missile. The Apaches were trying to use something like that same interference to hide themselves, but it didn’t work very well. They were clearly broadcasting their positions with the lasers that the carbon fiber components of our vehicles were absorbing and transferring into steam energy. Frank fired four coil gun shots based on where the lasers were coming from, which led to four Apaches hitting the ground. I couldn’t tell if there might be survivors. They had been hovering, and not too terribly high up. I couldn’t think about that now. We had a chase coming up.
“Mouse, how does their formation look ahead?”
“[Both Pattons and all six MacArthurs are trailing the rest. Each Patton is in the trailing position, closest to us. The MacArthurs are in a pattern around the Pattons, one to the right, one to the left, one in front of each Patton. Each Patton is cabled to the three closest MacArthurs.]”
“A double-diamond formation sacrificing the firepower of at least one MacArthur?”
“No, a MacArthur with laser turret can fire over the top of a Patton, they are taller. Might cut an antennae or something but probably not even that if the antennae is tied down, like most tankers do.”
“Ah OK. Not really worried about the lasers anyway. Frank and Mouse. Water levels still good?”
“[Frank here. Ninety-five percent remaining.]”
“[Mouse here. Ninety-three percent remaining.]”
We started rapidly accelerating after the fleeing convoy, tearing massive gashes in the roadbed with the leg spikes as the vehicles kept accelerating. We hit almost two hundred fifty kilometers per hour before Frank and Mouse had to stop accelerating because they couldn’t keep us on the road around the curves. A bit better than twice the speed of the Pattons. We started seeing recon drones, but they were hard to pick off. More of the countermeasures. Frank and Mouse were working on counter-countermeasures while they continued to fire. Slowly but surely, they knocked the drones down as we narrowed the gap of several kilometers.
Mouse spoke. “[We’re going to be in a bad spot shortly. There’s a long downhill straightaway coming up. The Pattons will be able to accelerate some. We will too, but they will have line of sight on us for a long way.]”
“Frank, Mouse, I want you two to stay as close to one another as you can, please, during the descent. I have an idea. Someone speak up if they see a problem.”
I explained my idea. Jason said it was insane but if Frank and Mouse thought it would work, he’d sign off on it. Frank and Mouse discussed the physics of it and thought it would work.
As we topped the rise into full visibility of the accelerating Pattons, they started to fire. The first shot overshot us. Two seconds later, the second shot undershot us, spraying road into the air, which we sped through at nearly three hundred kilometers per hour. Frank and Mouse were pushing the speed hard.
“Holy crap, Frank, I thought they could only fire at five second intervals?”
“[The Pattons are cabled to the MacArthurs. I bet the MacArthurs are feeding them power. The MacArthurs are not firing their lasers. All four of each group is slowing by a couple kilometers per hour each time they fire, I bet they are also using regenerative braking for a power source as well. Somebody up there knows what they are doing.]”
“[You ready Frank? Over, then under, they have probably never shot at anything as fast as us, but they won’t keep missing.]”
“[Ready here, Mouse. Synching leg patterns. Jason, Bob, we won’t be talking much for a minute. It’s going to get scary. Turning off your inner ear equilibrium nerves now, Bob.]”
“[Yours as well Jason.]” Mouse echoed.
I crossed my fingers. It’s awful nice to have all your fingers when something important like crossing your fingers comes up. One of the first things Frank ever did for me.
“Good Luck Frank.” I said. He didn’t answer.
At that instant there was a huge acceleration upward, followed by a huge acceleration downward. I nearly blacked out both times, and I could feel severe bruising under all the straps of my harness. The sound pattern of our vehicle’s legs smashing into the road continued.
Well, the idea seemed to work. Rather than each individual vehicle being responsible for its own dodging, they had helped each other. Frank and Mouse had interlocked several of their unused legs, and when the Pattons fired, Mouse had thrown us into the air at the same time that Frank jumped. Immediately afterward, Frank had pulled up on Mouse’s jumping vehicle by their still connected legs when we were in the air. Both rounds missed, but we would have to block the next rounds, as quickly as we were closing on them, there wouldn’t be time for us to dodge the next rounds.
Frank and Mouse prepared the shields and lined us up, accelerating even more, I think. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know how fast we were moving at that point.
Two seconds later, I was screaming in pain. The shield hadn’t stopped the tungsten penetrator from the Patton shooting at us. Frank deadened the pain but I couldn’t see anything. I could hear the shrill whistle of air passing through a gash in the armor. I could smell something burning. I knew that smell. I didn’t want to think what it meant for me to be smelling it again.
Jason spoke over the net. “You OK over there Bob?”
“No. Blind. Can’t feel anything. Mouse talking to you?”
“Yes. Frank’s not talking to Mouse. You aren’t adjusting your second shield for the next incoming shot.”
“FRANK!” I shouted into my head. “Stop trying to fix me, protect us from the next round!”
“Understood. Trying.” Frank’s voice. Private. I started seeing strange icons and images against the backdrop of my blindness.
I spoke again, “Jason, Mouse. Change in plans. Role swap. We’re not going in, you are. We’ll try to defend ourselves from the next round. We’re both hurting over here. Not sure if we can keep the next round from coring us. We’ll try to do your part if we make it through.”
“Roger that, Frank.” Jason responded. Frank? I’m not Frank. Even Jason has combat nerves I guess.
I spoke internally to Frank “Frank I don’t know how bad I am. I don’t know how bad you are, but we need you to stop that next round. Then we need to switch roles with Jason and Mouse, we aren’t capable of doing our part of the plan at this point.”
“Understood. Trying.” His voice was even slow.
The next round hit us again. I knew because I stopped being able to hear and could smell different things burning.
The com net was still operational though. Jason congratulated Frank for a good throw, and told us to get to cover.
I could still smell burning. Blind, no feeling, no hearing. I could taste blood though. Was that a good sign?
“Frank we’re burning, can you get us to water? If not, can we get out?”
“Water. Yes. Out. No.”
I couldn’t tell how much later it was when the smell of burning finally stopped and the feeling of drowning started, accompanied by more bright flashes of light with strange icons, and then darkness.