Prologue

Remnants of a silent traffic jam sat on bare rims, their frames peeled of color; repainted humble rust by the artistic hands of time. Blackened, petrified passengers remained still in their seats. Starting down the mainline choked with evacuees, together locked in eternal escape left undisturbed by troubles of the living. A growing beat pervaded the silence. The skull of one body collapsed onto the lap of its caressed passenger as a cracked rearview mirror caught the image of a red giant as it barreled down the road, at last flattening the sedan as it passed.

Quinn sprinted through cluttered streets, every stride crushing another car with the crisp ease that reminded the pilot of crust on a loaf of bread from Barker's bakery, fresh from the oven. So a nuke makes for a spiffy instant-bake city, does it? Damn that was an ambulance! He wasn't trying to treat the corpses like cockroaches; just wasn't easy avoiding the vehicles—piloting an eleven meter tall, humanoid machine, named Cheapjack, Quinn found his partner ill designed for flitting silently through the endless maze of a crumbling city.

The thrum of turbo shafts and chopped air pursued him, followed by the light pings of twenty -maybe thirty- millimeter rounds as they lit up his partner's armored back. For once, Quinn was glad he had Cheapjack deck out with a core that positioned the cockpit up front, within the boxy chest, rather than an aft station model. Not a cheap option compared to many other available designs, hell in fact it was just about the only thing that contradicted the machines name, which was otherwise quit fitting.

An explosion rocked Cheapjack, instigating a cardiograph to jump over Quinn's Heads-Up Display in his helmet. A spitting attempt at cursing his sensor-lined jumpsuit from nagging on about an elevated heart rate went unheard; still the vitals flashed over his field of vision, consuming his already suffocating visor with useless details. Another strike like thunder and raining shower of lead continued to weather his back. Starring past the zigzags, Quinn cast a wary eye onto the rear camera screen located at the uppermost dash of the cockpit and saw the telltale plum of unguided rockets fire from the carriage of two attack helicopters. Still running, he ducked his machine; multiple javelins went streaking past Cheapjack's shoulder, defacing a building in its stead.

Another puff of rocket launches, the biometrics spiked again; Quinn frowned at the very helmet that masked his frustration. Why the hell would someone need to be told they had a sudden rise in adrenaline? It never ceased to amaze Quinn how every facet of a human life had to be intertwined by technological intervention-

"Warning, collision imminent," came the monotone voice of Cheapjack's computer processor; stifling Quinn's inner ramblings.

The road ahead dipped below an overpass. Without giving it a second thought, Quinn operated his machine to climb the slopes leading into the intersection; stumbling towards the low buildings with barley the height adequate for cover. There he immediately spun around for the approaching threat. The sound of tillers told him the sky jocks weren't going to let up their game of cat-and-mouse any time soon. Which was good because Quinn preferred his mice nipping at his tail, made the hunt that much easier. Aimless sparks from the pair's nose guns blazed before they even rounded the corner, likely having spent all their heavier ordnance on those cheap shots back there.

Quinn stuck out his control-wrapped arm and clutched the manipulator stick in his palm. thought with 9. "That really pisses me off," he yelled to no one in particular as he squeezed the switch at his index finger. Simultaneously, Cheapjack lifted its left machinegun toting arm and stuttered off a few rounds. The cockpit of the nearest chopper shattered into a mist of crimson and light catching glass a fraction before the succeeding rounds tore through the length of the fuselage.

The craft rolled on its side, nearly colliding with its wingman as it plummeted in a waning arc. Immediately, Quinn directed Cheapjack to slash the second bogie with the bladed edge of the same, cleaver-esque gun. The butcher as it was so rightfully known -preference to its boring model number- was a popular support weapon among pilots of his tactic, making it worth its weight in metal. Speaking of which.

"Dammit, Jack! What the hell was that back there?" Quinn let out the gnawing thought.

"Command not recognized," came back the synthesized voice. "Cannot execute, please rephrase input or speak more clearly."

Quinn wanted to smack his helmet, but thought better of it; Cheapjack's reciprocation of his movements would barley register the scold as an attack of unknown origin. It'd be denial to not call bullshit on that "borderline Artificial Intelligence" stuff, nothing more than a gimmick slapped onto the latest control processor module. If he made it out alive from this mess, Quinn swore to lay off the cheap hardware for good. No matter how great a deal those travelling ironmongers try to pitch him.

"Cheapjack," Quinn vocalized, keeping his grinding teeth clamped, "Why the... why didn't I get a warning sooner? We almost lost your arm to those rocks back there."

The buyer's remorse of a computer stalled for a few cycles before answering. "Request recognized, initiating built-in-test."

"Now?" Quinn grew more tempered than he thought possible. "What happened to the continuous diagnostic checks?"

The question went ignored until, finally, Jack responded. "IBIT complete, fault report for KR13-D radar unit reports fault code W3588: Degraded. Recommend primary antenna replacement."

"And where do you think I'm going to get another one of those? Please tell me you can still tell the difference between battle and normal mode. We're not exactly docked in a service hangar you know!"

"…Please rephrase-"

"Shudap!"

"Alert," Cheapjack started as if the conversation was over. "Mission directive at eighty-two percent completion. Thirteen targets remaining."

Quinn dropped his head and inhaled a good fraction of his life support. It was always about the numbers in this career field; even his slow partner could process that much. Kill for credits, kill to survive. Quinn had about given up on pitching that angle to Sophia. Despite putting a spin on the bloodshed as a means to a better future for them both, she still wept for every life his line of work calls quota. Every once in a while, when an Op demanded enough lives to fill a small town, Quinn would omit a detail or two when explaining how a mission went.

As Sophia with her tea, Quinn found generous cubes of white lies helped to dilute the bitter taste of truth.

Today was just another unsavory tale yet to be seasoned and served with a false smile. That's all he'd have to do—just hold a poker face as he debriefed her, all the while returning her gentile stare down. Sis had a way of scouring him with solicitous eyes for deep fissures of stress disorder, post traumatic or otherwise.

As stated in his contract, the mission orders for the location and destruction of a rouge detachment from Crezevia's, now defunct, self-defense army. Defunct being his client's carefully penned word to describe yet another city-state fallen to their economic pressure. Intel on the detachment was sketchy. Apparently the group had fled dismantlement at the hands of their newly placed government, seeking refuge in this rat trap of a forgotten city. Quinn tried to remember its name but just as suddenly shrugged it off, thinking it best to forget the forgotten. The only information pertinent to getting out of dodge with the job legally fulfilled was enemy strength and capabilities.

According to his briefing, this little resistance had escaped with a number of heavy armored vehicles including half a division of tanks, truck-hauled missiles launchers, attack helicopters, a few MTs of few variants, oh and a mobile howitzer. The latter of which had Quinn on edge all morning. Ever vigilant to avoid a nasty shelling he'd been picking at their already thin defenses, slowly witling down the enemies hold on the besieged, albeit abandoned city. There's no shame in hit-and-run tactics, not when you're the only one left to tell the tale of how it all went down anyway. With those last two choppers crossed off, Quinn estimated he had less than a dozen targets to go.

A day's work sweated out to the tune of a half million e-bits. Under normal demands he'd of been crazy not to take up this gig. Right now though, all the bread in the world didn't seem worth the heat constantly on his back. As he had long ago proved to those guards as they tailed him after lifting some grub from that fat baker's hole-in-the-wall bakery, Quinn was good at evasion. However when encased within a multi-hundred ton war machine, sneaking around was next to impossible. Ah hell, it was downright insane expectations to tell the truth. Tensile steel feet really put a hamper on that element of surprise.

Metal on asphalt continued to drum inharmoniously as he kept Cheapjack in what passed for a run for a machine with thighs half as long as the elongated fore legs. It was one of those leverage designs made necessary by the machines sheer size, or something to the tune of that engineering logic. Whatever the reason, it sure made running an awkward ordeal for bipedal model legs. Quinn always wanted to outfit Cheapjack with a hover style propulsion system, replacing the legs with an undercarriage rigged with ground directed jet engines designed to work in tandem to achieve low level flight. Hover legs were the most agile models on the market. However the prohibitive fuel and maintenance costs that accompanied such designs had kept the idea of flying by his foes on a bed of air a wet dream. So normal legs would have to do.

Gut-navigating left or right at every intersection, Quinn took and dished out potshots at more of those pesky helicopters, making sure his main screen read rec. You couldn't be too trusting in today's age. Just in case his client demanded proof of "contract satisfaction" he'd be ready to send them a well backed up video file showing how it all went down. Corporate suits always looked for ways to shave off a few digits from the agreed compensation, citing mundane loopholes like lack of restraint and causing collateral damage, anything that could prove operative's failure to comply with mission parameters. The bigger corporations cared about PR as much as having their competition or thwarters eliminated, it was a fine line for a mercenary to walk; especially when you decide to skip over reading the fine lines of a contract.

Last time it was a supply company that had Quinn playing guard duty for its convoy of refrigerated trucks. They traveled from port anheimer to an inland fortress-city where its taxpayer demand for delicacies from the sea helped drive entire fishing economies for the western pacific.

Apparently the chicken of the sea was a prime resource for many a sushi restaurants, and it didn't matter one bit to these proprietors whom they purchased their fishy money maker from. Case in point, any poor fool down on his luck looking for an easy score to line his pockets with would only require a set of wheels that could run across vast stretches of dessert, armed with little more than a few assault rifles and a big icebox. The dry, grainy world between walled off cites had no shortage of such equipped bandits, and the fishery middlemen knew that.

Quinn had trekked the entire two-hundred plus kilometers of sandy dunes; warding off hordes of combat retrofitted dune buggies and the occasional reclaimed battle tanks while fighting to keep Cheapjack from sinking into the sand with each step. It was a bitch, but Quinn had managed to safeguard the convoy without so much as a blown tire. Yet the client had docked eighty percent from his pay for failure to get the merchandise through under the allotted time. Bastards actually told him their "guaranteed freshly caught quality" had been greatly degraded do to all the stops Quinn had forced the convoy to make along the way.

Stops? If almost tripping up Cheapjack as it put itself between the convoy and the line of fire is what those truck drivers would call an inconvenient reason to hit the damn brakes, then yeah, Quinn stopped those ungrateful wage slaves plenty of times. The adjusted payoff barley covered the costs for equipping Cheapjack's joints with weather tarp and ammo.

Quinn wanted to hawk at the recollection, but instead swallowed his disdain; only thing the satisfying expulsion would accomplish is sloping up his helmet visor, and it was crowded with enough crap as it was.

Shooting down another chopper, the game of live fire tag seemed to go on forever until there was a change in the stomping tune to a metal on screeching metal. Quinn quickly realized his intuition had crapped out on him in that last turn. Three hours of tedious combat, eschewing the enemies focused line of fire for the safety of the fatiguing Cheapjack, wasted. Now with that last stretch he'd ended up in a wide public square, and that other metal he had stepped on was the front end of a battle tank.

Against the shale-grey plaza grounds, a forests worth of camo netting tanks shifted. Each was as plain to the eye as the shades of the red and burnt-orange painted Cheapjack was undoubtedly to them. Poor choice, Quinn knows, but damn it made his partner look cool as shit.

Soldiers, no higher than Jack's reinforced ankles, scattered for cover while the treaded vehicles wasted no time rotating and angling their turrets at their colossal foe.

Quinn was already one massive step ahead of them—sidestepping and dodging their shots as he aimlessly showered the tanks with suppressive fire from his machine gun. Ammo casings belched from the side of the weapon as he backpedaled for a way out; away from the accusing, One-O-Five millimeter fingers littering the plaza. He scored a few hits, tearing into the otherwise well armored tanks as if they were plastic model kits; His rate of fire greatly outmatching their old fire-one-and-reloaded gunnery system.

Amidst his retreat, over on the other side of the square, Quinn spotted a handful of Muscle Tracers rise from their makeshift bunkers. It was surprising to see Intel was spot on, for once. Essentially a tank turret on steroids perched high on reverse jointed hydraulic powered legs, the first generation walkers were only two thirds Cheapjack's height, and much more frail.

Still they boasted greater firepower than the lowly tanks and Quinn didn't like playing against the odds. A burst more from his machine gun and he bolted, digging deeper in the city layout.

Quinn red lined the motors that animated Cheapjack's legs as he cornered street intersections without slowing, leaning into them with sandpaper smoothness. The combined firepower on their asses was enough to convert machine into a heap of scrap, and the flesh sealed within a pile of charred bones. That, of course, was best case scenario.

"Incoming," Cheapjack blared as sizable munitions flashed past the peripheral monitors. Quinn spun, fired off a few aimless rounds with his heavy rifle, spun again and fell back into the rat race. Things got quiet after he put a kilometer between Jack and their pissed off pursuers. Stress indicators from the leg joints began to make themselves persistently blatant. Quinn peeled himself from the latest caution as he reacted to yet another signal from his HUD: Collision. "Fuck!" with a hard reverse of leg work, Cheapjack shredded asphalt, sliding for meters onward before coming to a full stop. The barrel of a thirty millimeter CIWS gun, protruding from Cheapjack's chest, bent against a flopped highway that blocked the road in the form of an eight lane wall. Dead end.

Crappy instinct be damned, Quinn didn't give it a second thought and cornered the nearby hotel building, leaning Cheapjack's protruding back on its majestic facade. He could feel the grenade launcher -a weapon piggybacking his mechanical partner on a hinged armature- sink and print itself onto the white brick. With the joints still cooling, this hiding nook would have to do.

Of the myriad of screens cascading the walls of the cramped cockpit, Quinn cast an eye over a notebook sized monitor to his upper left and examined his inventory status with hopes for the best. The launcher itself, a gun so large that when inactive the smoothbore barrel folded back over its firing mechanism for portability, had only one shell left in its six stock revolver; gripped in Cheapjack's left hand, the submachine gun -named so for its relatively small 110mm caliber- had a heart sinking count of less than a half clip, with no spare; and always firm in his right, the trusty mid-range heavy rifle had enough HEAT rounds to handle a trip to hell and back. Thank God he splurged on a high capacity box magazine.

For the moment, the abandoned civilian vehicles strewn about at his feet, coupled with the pure silence that was the withering city's zilch population, made the mercenary feel oddly at peace. He was about to spend the respite glossing over a photo in his breast pocket when his radar monitor blinked back to life, bringing a red dot with it. First one blip, over 215 meters at his five o'clock. Then another appeared, and three more on the next street over. Their pace and pause by each intersection were a telltale sign of a search party. Even the damaged auditory system, vented on Cheapjack's wedge boxed head, could catch the hum of helicopters and faint lumbering footfalls of what had to be those MTs.

By head count, Quinn guessed these guys where were some of the last targets left. He had to give them credit, down on forces and still up to his game of hide-and-seek.

The narrow roadway would help thin out their flanks, but he'd have to silence the group before they could radio that annoying howitzer on his position. A quick glance at the diagnostics screen rendering a spinning, three-dimensional wire frame silhouette of Cheapjack revealed the condition of key systems. Status colors would highlight major components and armor from green, indicating full operational condition and represented ware to catastrophic failure in a yellow, orange, and red scheme. Yellow was a light warning; normal mechanical stress or overheating, such was the current bright shade coloring the knee and hip joints. While red meant… well you wouldn't want red.

Quinn brought up Cheapjack's left arm to view. A shiver ran up the pilot's spine with the sight of his partner's inner workings, exposed due to a missing greave of armor. Courtesy of a shrapnel storm from a crawler's near miss howitzer shot. Not the smoothest way to enter a combat zone, but hey, at least he had dodged most of the blast. Barring the trigger, Quinn played with the finger controls and watched as the actuators within Cheapjack's forearm extend and receded like steel sinews. The diagnostics screen recognized the skinning; highlighting the arm's surface a deep red while leaving the intricate systems within a pulsing yellow. So long as structural damage remained at a minimum, he could still us the arm. Armor was just a luxury anyhow.

Time to push the luck.

Quinn freed one arm from the caging control and began punching in a set of commands on a small but packed keypad, typing: Eq_+_Ext_+_Act_=_Max. Hovering his hand over the Enter key, he checked his radar only to see it refresh and plot three more blips merging with the rest. At their current speed they'd be on top of him in thirty seconds.

Quinn parted a smile as far over his teeth as his lips could go, matching the rictus decaled over the mouth piece of his helmet. He really shouldn't do it, thought twice about it too. Quinn flipped the external speakers switch to on; he couldn't hold back anymore. "Outta my way boys, big brothers gotta get paid today!" A jab of the Enter button set a timer to run over the HUD, reading 15sec. Equipped outwardly from Cheapjack's steel-clad shoulders, a set of jagged devices blossomed with metal fins, instantly flaring with erratic electrical arcs. As if it activating with it, Quinn felt a rush, a familiar cold flood of energy sweep through his body. Suddenly the seconds running before his vision began to slow. It was go time.

Deep within Cheapjack's torso, the cockpit reverberated as Quinn directed his servo crimped leg to a side step immediately followed by a forward kick of the other—the robotic giant mimicked and jumped from the cover of the hotel, pointing a fright container sized rifle at the welcoming committee. Peekaboo, bitches!

Old Trustee's scope fed back an image to a dedicated screen as the Fire-Control System began framing the closest MT with the graphics of three, wide spread arcs. Cheapjack's arm automatically made minor adjustments to center the capture, for that last measure of mechanical precision. The bowed icons followed suit, closing the gap to form a complete circle as the FCS processed video, radar and laser range finder input data, slaving to its number crunching duties in order to grant a single lock.

"Come on," Quinn barked as traces of blind revolt whizzed past him. It had all only been about three seconds when the beeps issuing targeting progress finally changed tune to a long tone. "fuckin' A, finally." Wouldn't have been the first time a refurbished piece of hardware hung his life by a chafed string. With more pressure than necessary, Quinn squeezed the index switch; Cheapjack pulled the trigger, sending a rod-nosed HEAT round flying down street. The rifle's report echoed off the surrounding buildings, mocking the shot a hundredfold, seemingly from every direction. All it took was one though, and it hit its mark. The shaped charge burnt a sizable hole at the base of the MT's snubbed canon, a heartbeat later the enemy walker swelled in a puss of metal bits and ballooning flames; splashing an unlucky chopper with debris. Quinn hooted in victory and, in a fit of awareness, began focusing for another savoring shot.

11sec.

With only the thought of it, Quinn's intentions were detected by the brain-computer interface lining his helmet, instantly translating a concentrated thought into burst commands. Intake vents embedded in the peripherals of Cheapjack's stocky abdomen opened and began funneling air with famine. The sudden intake preceded an intense burst of thrust streaming from rocket engines grafted into Cheapjack's lower back and calves, launching the running machine into a dash that shattered what few windows remained on the surrounding buildings.

The move propelled Cheapjack with enough momentum for its anxious pilot to concentrate a second maneuver; tongues of flame spat outward from opposing corners in Cheapjack's shoulders, sending Quinn and partner performing a half spin where he slashed through a squadron of helicopters with the cleaver edge of his sub, resulting in a much desired butchery. Ending the flash waltz to the enemies' unprotected backs, Quinn glanced at the timer just long enough to register.

8sec.

Unwilling to skip a beat he fired off both weapons into the squad of MTs, unaided by the sluggish FCS. Quinn managed to hole up a few with little fuss while another made a show of erupting into a fountain of fire with to a well-placed shot to its dated gas-electric generator, integrated in its poorly armored pelvis.

One by one the enemy fell as Old Trustee did what it does best. With their feet planted, the remaining MTs spun their heads around and lined their shots. It was too late. Swatting down the last of the annoying choppers, Quinn again displaced himself within the pack and let the remainder of his hungry sub rounds chew up the surroundings, tanks and all. By the time the last shot cleared the muzzle, he had ended a blazing twirl in a crept stance. Quinn could hear was his own breathing over the indicator noise produced by the inventory screen.

The last unit toppled over, its joints buckling from bleeding hydraulics. Quinn's HUD played a red text of 00sec. As designed, the shouldered, flower-like devices had wilted from dried out batteries. Even so he hadn't paid attention to the timer during the last seconds of the battle. Did the jammers silence them before a distress signal could get out? Quinn stared the felled machines, examining their equipment. As scouts model MTs, they all carried bulky comm packs to the back of the hulls. The crews might have been too busy worrying where their quick enemy was killing them from to have bothered making a report over the radio. At least that's what Quinn was trying to force himself to believe.

Again the silence of the city drifted through like a muting fog, as if coaxing Quinn to believe the battle that had just taken place were a figment of his imagination. Six MTs destroyed, that's twelve crewmembers at least, not including the sky jockeys and three souls per tank he practically squashed. It's always the moments of peace that are anything but. These men were grouped here in rebellion to a dictator dressed in a business suit. Kicked out to the streets by a government that owed too much to a corporation that had come to collect. And Quinn... Quinn was the hired gun sent in by that crooked company to exterminate any and all possible troublemakers.

A sonic whistle cut the tense air, snapping the merc out from a dark place in his mind, but not before the disembodied sound manifested into an explosion right in front of him. Cheapjack shuttered back; Quinn's head didn't stop as it whipped and slammed against the headrest, a rather unpadded headrest. He grinned with it, keeping a wincing eye on the main screen and he struggled to keep Cheapjack from falling on his ass.

The silent fog had just parted like the obliterated building before him. Quinn kicked out his legs and Cheapjack leapt back, barley avoiding burial beneath a mass of steel and concrete. Suddenly, another thick whistle pierced the air. Not this time. The servo braces strapped to Quinn's legs whirled with a mechanical buzz as he crunched up and stomped the deck while thinking a command for max thrust. This time Cheapjack leapt and accelerated into the sky.

Just below, where pilot and machine had stood not a second ago, the entire block lit up into a hellish inferno.

The concussion chased him, rocking the airborne machine off balance. "Fuck, come on Jack!" Quinn flicked a series of toggle switches on an overhead panel. Slipping his arm back in, he pulled both hand controls back while leveraging his legs out as far as the cockpit interior would allow. Cheapjack began to level off by degrees, but had traded altitude in the process. On groaning shocks, Cheapjack came down atop a wide building; a metal pop instantly reverberated throughout its chassis.

"Ah, gimme a break," Quinn moaned as he eyed the diagnostics: a pulsating red outline begged for attention to Cheapjack's left shock absorber that ran the length of the leg from heel to knee. Ferromagnetic fluid pressure dropped-no scratch that-it was limping faster than a hard-on dunked in ice water. Cheapjack sagged like it had a gimpy leg, listing left as a puddle off grey liquid formed at its foot. "Come on buddy, quit pissing yourself," growled Quinn. He leaned Cheapjack's weight over and let the overwhelmed spring return the piston within to normal extension. He then quickly accessed a litany of dropdown menus on a touchscreen, cursing as he fumbled with tab after tab until finally finding the lockup option he'd been looking for. Activated.

Carefully he set Cheapjack back on both feet. The level indicator in the main console read straight with the horizon, or straight enough at least. The leg would feel stiff from here on out, but it beat the hell out of hobbling for cover.

With its flat roof still intact, the building they landed on seemed to be holding Jack's weight without signs of giving. Quinn panned the cockpit of its semi-encircling screens, Cheapjack reciprocated; turning its cycloptic camera head. It was too hot to use thermal optics-every building in the city had absorbed the midday sun like cold, homeless hands over a barrel fire. Good old times. Regardless, Quinn knew what he was looking for.

The finicky radar hunkered on Cheapjack's back -opposite of the grenade launcher- was too insensitive to detect where the threat had come from. Its low-def coverage couldn't give Quinn eyes further than ten blocks and to that only if the target was moving. He knew he should have purchased a quality model. Even a pre-used, hi-def model pulled from a scrape pile would be more of a boon than this piece of junk.

Just as he sulked in buyer's remorse, one of the IR sensors dotting the back of Cheapjack's head and forehead picked up on a few high altitude objects heading straight for him at high speeds. Infrared sensors just kept an eye out for thermal signatures from rocket motors, so it couldn't have been another salvo from the howitzer. Turning to get a visual, Quinn's pupils dilated to the sight of arrows fit for an archer of Cheapjack's scale.

Missile alert blared, but Quinn was already ahead of the delayed lifesaver, peeking over the building's edge as his mind raced in the guesswork whether or not he was too high up for a free fall landing-the boosters still needed to cool from that last move so a cushy fall was out of the question. Ask for a straight jump, recent bust notwithstanding, Cheapjack's legs needed to be overhauled… about four months ago. The spilt second of musing past and the missiles were mere seconds off. If he didn't get moving, Quinn feared a mechanics bill would be the least of his troubles. He had to get creative.

Backing his lemon partner over the edge, away from the missile swarm, Quinn stabbed his bladed machinegun and pronged toes through the buildings face and made a controlled drop; gouging every floor on his way to the bottom. Just above, the office building erupted in stabs of fire. Screw this. Opting for gravities unobstructed help, Quinn dislodged from the building and let Cheapjack chance the last few stories. Quinn's heart scurried up to his throat for a weightless moment, then, with a slight absorption, the remaining shock survived the short impact; bearing the total force like a champ.

Quinn jeered, as much to himself as towards his partner. "That's what I'm talking about Jack, yeah!"

A second tracking from the missile warning system cut the party short and Quinn had Cheapjack moving again. The close-in weapons system that was the bent machine gun up front the core was a key component of the ordinance counter measures package, tasked with hailing a torrent of hot lead and trashing a delicate missile, moments before impact. With that earlier run in with the highway that came out of nowhere that option was clearly out, and this time there was no building to take the hit for him.

Four spindly objects lanced the sky, arcing inexorably at Cheapjack.

When caught pickpocketing, Quinn thought, take off like your rocketing. Corny yeah, but with that childhood idiom in mind he concentrated a command to his main booster. At the center of Cheapjack's upper back, a single engine nozzle protruded from its parting enclosure. With a loud whirling the booster quickly became enveloped by motes of brilliant particles suddenly erupting into a guesser of ionized propellant. Cheapjack shot forward, pressing a sudden load of G's against Quinn's chest. Would have blacked out if not for his G-suit-the tight bodysuit constricted his abdomen, arms and legs with its synthetic muscles; restricting blood from rushing into his extremities and keeping it in his head, where he needed it.

Even so, steering Cheapjack was a challenge. Buildings passed by in blurs, testifying to the HUD speedometer as it shot to well near a thousand KPH. Over the rear camera screen, Quinn spotted the four -damn- five missiles homing in on him. Tricky things, they fly about at low speeds when tracking a target, however once they identify a positive lock? Well, that's why Quinn was moving like he had stolen something.

Another sensor decided to get in on the freeform bebop of caution and warning alarms as the dwindling fuel gauge made itself known with a unique whine. Quinn needed a new plan, and fast.

Up ahead the road ended with another building. He won't be able to turn Cheapjack sharply enough to negotiate a turn.

Sucking on fumes, the sputtering rocket engines strained for altitude, quickly jettisoning the fuel tanks that conformed to the cores back and hung like excessive armor on each side of Cheapjack's hip. Quinn crossed his partner's arms before its core. Missile alarm rate rapidly picked up; in stark rhythm to the drum pounding his chest. The edifice fast approached, suddenly the synthetic muscles of Quinn's G-suit tightened. In all the stunts he'd ever pulled as a pilot, never before had he done anything to get that safety feature to activate. He forgot what he paid for the getup and hoped it wasn't where he had haggled for Cheapjack's current main processor.

Impact: 1.8 sec-The violent tremble of impact decelerated the suicidal machine with a tumult of pulverized concrete and screaming steel. There was a deeper sound of shearing steel from within the hull. Something big broke, Quinn knew, and hoped it wasn't anything that could ruin the bank this time. The magic trick ended with Cheapjack clearing the other side of the solid wall. Smothered by an overprotective suit, Quinn could only watch as Cheapjack barreled out headfirst and face planted the ground, gouging a street and thicket of crisp, blackened trees as his partner did a little city park landscaping.

The image of a park bench came up the main screen. Cheapjack halted with a plow of dirt it pushed up settling at the foot of the lone seat. The G-suit relaxed its grip and Quinn limped, starring curiously at the fearless furniture for a few seconds before remembering a little something.

He tried lifting Cheapjack off its stomach and realized the left arm was missing at the elbow. Pushing off with the right he got his partner to roll over to its back, rifle arm stretched and ready to shoot down the dogging warheads. But there was no need; the hollowed building collapsed into itself just in time to deny another unwelcome intruder, taking the brunt of the low-evasive missiles in the second eruptive display of fiery concrete Quinn had witness in less than a minute.

The pilot relaxed his aim and gasped a breath he'd been reserving for a war cry. The musical performance of the many distress signals through the cockpit played a silent encore, leaving the troubles in the form of failure massages that scrolled over his HUD. Quinn blankly watched the list steam over his vision; more busted hyper-hydro lines than he'd care to stomach, seized motors and dozens of little things that were bound to coalesce into a serious bill from his mechanic. Quinn cursed allowed, even though the rest of the thought it stemmed from remained just that. That's right; the mission wasn't over yet.

A discerning tune blew through the air. Cheapjack shriveled into a fetal position, covering its head just before another explosion felled a nearby building to its foundations. Quinn then reflexively willed Cheapjack back to his feet, a stuttering motion filed with creaks and groans as they turned to face the direction of those adrenaline pumping whistles. And there it was. The howitzer; the crux of the mission. Take this one out and its payday.

Dug in beneath an arching tower and at over a kilometers distance did nothing to diminish just how formidable the target was. Quinn called up the data his employers left him with and a schematic of the quadruped pulled up over his HUD. As the name crawler suggested, the twin 800mm cannon the stubby legged vehicle sported slowed it to a crawling pace. And with Cheapjack's depleted fuel there would be no way for Quinn to close the gap before the beast unleashed a volley of artillery shells on his sorry-ass. He didn't like it, but he had to make his stand, quite literally, where he stood.

Quinn set Cheapjack to crouch on his bad knee, splaying the good leg aft for balance. Thumbing a stiff switch on the right arm control stick initiated the secondary weapons system. The arm drooped as the large cannon on Cheapjack's back pivoted over its shoulder where the folded barrel automatically swung forward and aligned with the receiver. In a spilt second of mental combat, Quinn faced off against a shadowy monster of doubt and fear, beat the crap out of it and exiled it to a neglected corner of his mind where it can huddle with his conscience.

The canon was his only hope of making out of this in one piece. An armored core could be repaired, sure, but there were no off-the-rack replacement parts waiting for Quinn's body back home. Ah hell, least if he had to buy it out here he was sure to go out in a bang.

The merc checked his ammo status again as if this time around would give him a different count. Still, one shell remained. One chance to earn his bread.

The crawler was beyond Quinn's FCS range, typical and expected. Luckily, according to intel given to him by his client, the crawler had been under some control software upgrade when it had been hastily commandeered by the defense force and never received its activation codes when their new government shut down all military networks. In other words, the battle had just turned into a game of estimation and whatever luck the opposing sides could summon.

Quinn referred to his tiny keyboard once again, programing the shell's characteristic mode and set it to a delayed detonation, for maximum damage. Via Old Trustee's re-occupied targeting screen he lined the cannons telemetry reticle downrange, ran a little math in his head and elevated it thirty degrees. Second guessing had him play with the control stick, adding and decreasing to the guns angle by a few notches. The main monitor showed the crawler doing the same. Those ridiculously large-bore guns that could easily stuff a small car into each barrel were busy shifting to the enemy crew's own input of math and luck. With no spotters to relay Cheapjack's exact position on the map, the crew would have to fill in the variables themselves. So there was a chance they could fuc-

The little voice of hope inside Quinn's head bit his proverbial tongue the instant the crawler rocked back with a flash of fire and smoke belching from the muzzle, clouding the entire vehicle.

Quinn's mind went blank, not even the curse laced phrase his puckered butthole found befitting his current situation went spoken. They got him, this was it! An gentle face came to mind, filling the void and his chilled body with tender warmth. In murmuring prayer, Quinn gave the trigger a thoughtful squeeze. Though Cheapjack's core was baffled by five inches of titanium alloy, the thunderous boom from the cannon was deafening. The recoil sent the canon reeling back over its armature sled where it continued as the return to battery spring failed, pulling Cheapjack back onto its steel keister.

Just then two objects whistled by and the earth tens of meters behind erupted, showering the air and Cheapjack with chunks of dark earth and asphalt. Someone was holding a tuning fork to Quinn's ear as he shook the multiple visions of his own hand back into one. How long before they got another shot off? He rolled himself up in time to see, through cracked monitors, his two ton fin-stabilized shell hit the Crawler smack on its gun—the machine dipped as if stepped on by a godly foot. A blink later a ripple of distorted air rushed out just before a sky reaching cloud of fire split the mobile howitzer into bit sized little pieces. The architecturally sheik structure it hid under came crashing down in a way that made it seem constructed entirely of dust, settling an obelisk tombstone over the menace.

Quinn laid there, crumpled up very much uncomfortably against the cockpit, vigilant as he made sure what had just happened wasn't a desperate hallucination. Cheapjack's remaining arm, supporting the leaning machine, gave at the elbow and brought the unit crashing to its side. The suit didn't save him this time around and Quinn struck the side of the cockpit full force. "Okay, okay." Quinn groaned. "We're even now, no more flying through buildings, I promise."

He gave the forward panel an ata boy pat. "Rest up buddy. We'll go pickup our check in a bit." It had been a long day. A physically taxing mission for both man and machine. Quinn relieved himself of his stifling helmet and shook his sweat drenched hair. Flipping the air filters to high the mercenary reached into his jumpsuits only pocket for a pack of paper rolled and filtered vanity. Lighting the cigarette with a memento Zippo, Quinn reached back into the pocket, fishing out a worn photo of his other guilty pleasure in life. The man studied the pearl smile on the young girl's lean face; too lean, she really should eat more, but she's as stubborn a teen as she was a child.

Realizing Cheapjack's legs had run their last marathon, Quinn flipped a switch activating a beacon for his heavy lift pickup, and settled in for what was going to be a long ride back home. Before filling his lungs with a sweet drag of celebration, Quinn whispered to himself, "Made it through another mission, sis. I'm coming home. And I didn't forget the bread."