Sci-Friday - "Operation Silent Thunder: The Legend of Cheeks"

A slacker, serious guy, and cyborg team up in this military sci-fi short story
Sci-Friday - "Operation Silent Thunder: The Legend of Cheeks"

"Man, you wouldn't believe dis shit if I told you. But I gotta admit, you'd probably be impressed if you saw wit' yo own eyes."

"Corporal Owens, shut your mouth!" his platoon leader commanded.

"Sorry ma'am," Lloyd said. The words shot out of his mouth, but in his mind he’d finished his thought. It was that important. Surely she could see that right?


Second Lieutenant (Lt.) Mihligan's eyes tore through him. An unspoken threat. "Listen up! We've got orders today," she continued.

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Her voice had resumed its soft flow. He thought of it like a fan. It oscillated smoothly most of the time at level one. But when things got hot, she cranked the knob to four. She even shook like one when she was yelling.

"Today's trash pick up is very important. The commander said blah blah wamp wamp wah wah something stupid whatever whatever, when can I go home? yea yeah (oh she kinda fill out dat uniform right). And we have to assemble at the roadside at 0900...Corporal Owens? Are you paying attention!?"

There it was, level four.


"Repeat what I said!" she crossed her arms. The air blew fast and hot right on him.

"That's extra cleaning duty for you then!"

Ah fuck. Not again. "Yes Ma'am." The soldiers snickered, loud enough for him to hear.

Cheeks got in trouble again.

Idiot gonna get us all punished.

Dammit Cheeks.

"Meet at my office at--"

Suddenly her eyes softened as she raised two fingers to her temple. In seconds, Cheeks saw her dial descend one setting at a time until it couldn't go anymore. He had never seen her off before. Not once.

Then it hit him that things might not be ok.

Cheeks became rigid. His smile concealed by a mask of seriousness. The soldiers were whispering now. Everyone speculating and stirring. The room, already hot with the heater on full blast to combat the exterior wintery air, lit up like a furnace without fire. Sweat began to build.

Lt. lowered her arm. "Everyone quiet down!" It got silent real quick.

"You...I'm sorry, what was your name again?"

A stick of a man with a uniform hanging off of him bolted out of his chair. It made an awful screech on the concrete floor with his rapid movement. "Batbayar ma'am!"


"Corporal Batbayar ma'am," the young man said. There was borderline impatience in his tone. Cheeks wondered if the dial was about to spin again.

"Ok Batman, go bring that TV in here. And hurry!"

"Yes ma'am!" The uniform whooshed away out the door.

The room was a windowless cellar. It had been shit out into the bowels of Fort Belvoir. A storage room was easy to convert into a classified facility. There was nothing but boxes and rats to secure. It was also a good excuse for the US Army to save some money.

The man-boy returned a minute later rolling a squiky-wheeled TV cart. The kind that was half a century old. He positioned it in front of the seated formation then stood at parade rest.

"Well.." Lt. said, "what are you doing?"

Batman snapped to attention. "Ma'am, I'm waiting your command."

"PLUG. IT. IN!" she yelled.

"Yes, ma'am!" He gave a sharp salute then searched for an open outlet. As he worked, Lt, went to the corner of the room to dig through some boxes.

Cheeks had enjoyed a laugh at Batman's expense, but was getting jittery with anticipation at what was going on. Must be somethin’ BIG.

Lt. Mihligan came back with some fancy thing that looked like an old TV antenna, but was new. Not fucked up like most of their equipment. She muttered a few words in its direction and it lit up without making a sound.

"Turn it on. Then go sit," she said with pointed words. Batman did as directed.

When the screen came to life, Cheeks' jaw dropped.

Another building downed by Limnic. Those crazy bastards had killed dozens with their fanatical ideology of "protect people and planet" by any means. At least that's what he gathered from the reporter on the news.

It had been a parking structure at a popular mall outside of DC. Dozens confirmed dead. Hundreds still missing. The gray plume from the fresh live demolition reminded Cheeks of a mushroom cloud following a nuclear blast. A sickening sobering mental picture.

As the images of devastation flickered across the screen, Lt Mihligan turned to address the platoon, her voice stuffing down excitement.

"You see what's happened. So here's what we're going to do. That telepathic call just now was from the Company Commander Major Adams. We have new orders to assist with what they're calling "Operation Silent Thunder." This shit happened on our doorstep, just a few miles to the west of DC! It can't go unanswered. Prepare to receive the official mission brief. We’ll break and begin at 0830."

Cheers erupted in celebration the platoon. Cheeks gave high fives and wrapped the soldiers to the right and left of him in bear hugs.

We get to blow something up!

They won't know what hit em'!

Everyone whooped and celebrated, except Batman. He raised his twig arm in the air to ask a question.

"Everyone in your seats!" Lt said. She stifled a smile at the promise of combat. "Yes, Batman."

"Does this mean we won't pick trash today?"

Comedy club laughter broke out in response. "No." The smiles died as quickly as they’d come.

"It just means we'll be taking out a different kind of trash!"

All were out of their chairs, pumping their fists, doing squats and pushups. Cheeks had to hand it to the Lt, she knew how to raise morale when it counted.


“Corporal Owens, a word.”

Lt called him from his seat. It was their pre-brief break. Most of the platoon had scattered to smoke, piss, and sleep. Only a few remained in their chairs talking silently among themselves.

Cheeks approached her with measured steps. When he stopped, he locked it up at attention. His eyes were trained on the cement-colored wall in front of him.

“Be at ease Corporal.”

“Yes ma”am.” Cheeks relaxed.

“How are your college classes going?” she asked. She spoke at a breezy level one tone. Cheeks relaxed even more.

“Very well Ma’am, though I’m havin’ some trouble with the math class.”

“I see. Well keep working at it. You’ll get there eventually.”

“Yes ma’am! I will!”

“You’re a smart troop Owens. Remember how you said you wanted to go to OTS?”

“Yes ma’am. I do. You said you’d help write my package..”

Cheeks paused. Her face was expectant. Not mad. But neutral in the worst way. No hints on this test.

“...does the offer still stand?”

“It depends.”

Cheeks’ blood began to roll. He almost lost his bearing.

She continued while moving closer to his face. Her finger on the dial.

“If you want to be an officer you need to be responsible.”

She moved in again.

“You need to know your job in and out.”

She moved even closer. Her perfume smelled like something sweet.

Somethin’ sweet oh! I wonder what kinda dessert dey got at chow today?

“You need to know when to speak and when to LISTEN!”

She snapped her finger before his eyes. “Did you hear what I said?”

She had stayed on level one. Probably only because other brass were filing into the room for the brief.

“Yes ma’am! I got it! I gotta shut up and listen better!”

“Good.” She turned away then took a few steps, hands behind her back. Thinking. Cheeks noticed the tight bun her brownish blonde hair was in.

Prolly pullin’ her hair out at the roots to get it dat way. Must suck bein’ a girl.

He thought of his own low cut, no maintenance hair. All he had to do was get it cut, then splash water and coconut oil on it once a week and he was good to go.

“Are you still listening?”

Cheek’s mind returned to the present. “Yes ma’am.”


Her head swiveled to the side as she viewed him from the corner of her eye. A hard to read smile rose on her pink lips.

“I will support your OTS package.”

Cheeks sighed relief.

“BUT you have to do something for me first.”


"I can't believe dis! Why do I gotta do dis'?" Cheeks moaned.

Batman's uniform whistled in the wind of the woods. He stood before Cheeks waiting for...something. Cheeks had no idea what it was. His platoon-mates flashed "I-feel-sorry-for-you" glances at him in the patchy moonlight as they prepared their field shelters.

The op was set to kick off at dawn. It had been a hell of a day after the emergency briefing. But in the end, there he was, freezing his Black ass off in some vacant field in the foothills of Shenandoah National Park.

"How'd I get stuck with the foreign kid?" Cheeks muttered.

"Excuse me? Mr. Cheeks?"

"There's no "Mr.", just Cheeks."

"Ok Cheeks. Permission to be at rest."

"We sittin' in a damn field. How else you gon’ be?"

"Is that a yes?"


Batman loosened up. He shook out his arms, making the sleeves of his jacket billow. Despite his ill-fitting attire, the cold didn't seem to bother him.

"You ain't cold?" Cheeks said, moving closer to their field warmer. "No, no, it gets very cold where I'm from. Weather is same to here."

Cheeks eyed him suspiciously. "Dat right? Where're you comin' from?"

Batman took a seat on a crate near the warmer. "Ulaanbaatar. Over in the East."

Cheeks laughed. "Ulaanbaatar? What country is dat?"

"It's in Mongolia. We have the coldest capital city in the world by temperature average."

Cheeks shivered. "Damn, must be cold as the fuckin' Arctic over there for you to be out here in only a jacket." He got quiet for a second. Then he heard Lt. Mihligan blasting her voice at a group of soldiers to put a large crate down with a forklift. Looks like their "care package" had arrived. Only a few minutes more now.

His eyes shifted back to Batman. He opened his mouth to speak, but the young man cut him off.

"My name is not "Bat-man.""

"No? What is it then?"

"It's Batbayar Otgonbaatar." A puzzled look populated Cheeks' face. "You can just call me Batbayar." He extended his hand for a handshake.

Cheeks raised his meaty paw and shook it, careful not to apply too much force. "Uh, nice to meet you man Bat-baya."

"How you feelin' about the op tomorrow?"

"I am ready to die if I must." A surge of adrenaline made Cheeks momentarily forget the cold.

"You hardcore huh? Wait, you guys are some types of badasses over there aren't ya? Ya'll used to ride horses standin' on one foot while shootin' arrows and singin' songs right? I saw it on the History channel once."

Batbayar chuckled.

"YES. Just like that. I come from a long line of nomadic warriors. That's why I'm here, to--"

The forklift spun its tires in the mud nearby. It flung icy mud into the faces and eyes of the unfortunate ones digging it out.

"Corporal Owens! Report!" The voice wasn't the Lt's. It was worse. His platoon sergeant, Sergeant Net was a career soldier.

She'd sacrified everything for the service and wanted the whole world to know it.

Cheeks donned his winter hat and rushed over. Batbayar followed close behind.

"You both help me open this thing up," Net said.

Cheeks and Batbayar got to work. The crate was massive, about the size of a small backyard shed. It reminded Cheeks of one of those fancy hi-tech SURVIVE shelters. They were designed to provide life support for 30 days in supreme austere conditions, even on Mars. Probably only the O's would ever get to stay in one. It would be a tarp and some 550 cable for him and his kind, even on the surface of another planet. He was sure of it.

They managed to pry the crate open. The side panel fell, crushing the icy grass beneath with a crunch. Inside was something Cheeks never expected to see.

It was a giant robot, about as tall as a small tree. It took five of them to remove its protective casing and haul it out into the chilly moonlight. A life-sized action figure prepared for their collective enjoyment.

"Corporal, turn it on," Net directed. Lt. Mihligan looked on from a distance, shaking with excitement. Owl eyes watching.

Cheeks noticed Batbayar seemed comfortable with machines of all types. Which was fine by him -- he couldn't stand the damn things.

They always seem to break down when you really need em'.

He thought he saw a flash in the darkness beyond the shadowed hills. His mind dismissed it, until the sound of small arms fire infiltrated his ears.

"It's them! It's Limnic! They're here!"

Cheeks threw himself onto the frost as chaos ensued around him. Boots crunched. Rifles blasted. Lasers lit up the night.

He low crawled with clumsy quickness to a nearby unit where his weapon was stored.

The blast of gunfire was getting closer. Time wasn't on his side. There was a downed L-15 laser rifle outside of the open unit. He snatched it up then checked the charge.

Good enough to do some damage.

Footsteps were upon him. He spun around finger in the trigger guard. It was Batbayar huffing behind him.

"I almost blew yo' head off man!" he let out a heavy breath in the frigid air.

"Are there any more guns in there?" Batbayar yelled above the battle.

"Don't know! Go look! I'll cover ya!" Cheeks responded. His toothpick battle buddy ducked into the storage unit.

As soon as he did, two human Limnic fighters approached his position. With swiftness, they hid behind the wheel wells of parked vehicles. They took turns popping up and ducking, taking precision shots toward Cheeks' cover. Partially secured behind the unit, he fired back. The two sides traded volleys. It was a dangerous game of whack a' mole, whoever got hit first was dead.

"Batbayar, hurry it up man!" Cheeks noticed more lights joining the fight on the Limnic side. They were bounding closer to him.

He aimed in the dark and squeezed. He heard a yelp, then saw a rifle spin toward the snow. Rounds clanked against the door. The enemy was communicating; move up! he's surrounded! it's only one man!

Then two blue lights appeared through the trees behind the enemy. Cheeks didn't know what to make of it at first. What followed was a steady tunnel of hooped light rings that flowed like destructive music through the dark wind. When the cone impacted one of the Limnic fighters, blood ran from his ears and eyes. He fell to the earth. Dead.

Cheeks took cover, right as a mini rocket exploded with a boom, sending another enemy combatant flipping into the air.

He peeked around the door to see a welcome sight. It was Batbayar, riding on the back of the humanoid war machine. Somehow, he hefted a heavy rifle in his wirey arms. The mech advanced with human agility and sharp battlefield awareness. Sergeant Net and Lt. Mihligan flanked both sides of the metal warrior providing backup.

"Aw hell yeah!" Cheeks cheered. He checked the charge on his rifle one more time before stepping out and joining the fray.

With their pincer formation mobilized the two remaining fighters stood no chance. They flung their rifles down in surrender.

Sergeant Net along with three other soldiers wasted no time in detaining them.

Lt jogged over to the three of them. Her face was flushed but smiling as she exhaled visible vapor clouds at an accelerated clip.

"Corporal Owens, are you alright?" she asked.

"Yes ma'am. Good to go.”

She clenched her fist, in a sign of solidarity toward him.

Guess dat means I did good.

“Excellent work for you two as well.” She looked at Batbayar and the human-like mech.

“Excuse me ma’am, what the hell is this thing?" Cheeks asked.

"This is Atlas-1. Our newest platoon edition. Say hello."

Batbayar had climbed down and stood tall next to the humanoid. "It's a pleasure to meet you Corporal Owens, I'm Atlas-1. Judging by the kill distance of that last shot, you're a hell of a marksman."

"Uh, thanks. It was pretty good I guess."

Lt. Mihligan looked over at Batbayar. "We have you to thank Batm- I mean Corporal Batbayar. Sorry about screwing up your name earlier. I like to know all of my soliders by name and face. Not just the hard to reach ones." She gave Cheeks a familiar, almost friendly look. He was liking her more and more.

"It's no problem ma'am. I did it bravely, because that's how I was taught in my country."

She nodded firm. "Good. Let's get things cleaned up around here."

"Yes ma'am!" Cheeks and Batbayar responded.

Cheeks started to smile at his new companion, when he heard him say "Ma'am get down!"

The red light of a laser streaked toward them. It cut clean through her chest. She fell back hard, eyes closed.

"Lt! No!" Cheeks whirled around brandishing his rifle in the dark. "C'mon you son of a bitch! Get yo' ass out here!"

As Cheeks aimed, Batbayar had engaged Atlas-1 to remove the Lt from the field. It was quick work. Seconds later, it sprinted back to join Cheeks.

Through the black sheet, light snow whipping around them, two red lights appeared.

"No way! You gotta be shittin' me.." Cheeks said. It was a boy, with tan skin and black hair. He wore an all black bodysuit.

His escort was a humanoid mech about the same size as theirs. Its color nearly blended in with the surrounding snow. With glowing red eyes, it reminded Cheeks of a white wolf.

The boy studied him with sharp eyes.

"You have something we need Mr. Owens," he said. His speech was clear with accented punches.

He's just a child! Cheeks thought. "I don't know what you're talkin' about!"

"That mech. It was stolen from us. I'll be taking it back."

Batbayar stood like stone. His heavy rifle trained on the boy.

Atlas-1 was in a fighting stance--prepared for orders.

Cheeks waved his arms at them both, shaking his big head. "Man, he's just a kid! What can he do?"

"It's that'll kill us." Batbayar said with a scowl.

"Mr. Owens what do you say? Your commander is down. Our forces are securing this area." He glanced up at the White Wolf. "You've lost. Let's end the bloodshed shall we?"

"We won't surrender to you! We will die as honorable warriors!" Batbayar yelled, "Atlas-1 go!"

The mech sprang into action. The white mech did the same as Cheeks rolled in Batbayar's direction. White Wolf threw rapid kicks while Atlas-1 punched. Their opposing movement electrified the air.

Atlas-1 somersaulted, firing a barrage of rockets flaring in the other's direction. White Wolf cloaked itself in the snow, evading the assault. For a second, it disappeared from sight. Atlas-1 strained its sensors in the snowy void. Nothing came up.

Then they all lit up at once when White Wolf reappeared right before it, spinning a devastating Van Damme roundhouse kick to its chassis. Atlas-1 flew back into a large oak tree, sparks shooting from its injured back. White Wolf closed in to finish its task.

Meanwhile, Cheeks and Batbayar took on the boy. At first he stood there as they aimed at him.

Cheeks took the opportunity to talk sense into him. "Look kid, we-" he glanced over at his hard-faced companion "ok I don't want to hurt you, let's just talk about this. Maybe we can call your folks and tell em' to come pick you up."

Without warning he moved with the speed of a rabbit to the weapons shed, raised an unloaded wood crate then tossed it at them with uncanny force. Cheeks and Batbayar dove in opposite directions to avoid being crushed.

Then they heard a voice yelling "Corporal? Are you okay?" It was Sergeant Net and a dozen other soldiers. So he was bluffin’. As a storm of laser-bullets rained in his direction, White Wolf retreated to shield the boy, scooped him up, then blast-jumped into the night.


Hours later.

Cheeks stood in the lobby of the medical shelter, arms folded. The events from the previous few hours were fresh in his mind.

That kid and his doesn't make any sense. What did he want? He said dat shit was stolen. From where? And the Lt…fuck. His hard thinking drove him to sit.

Atlas-1 walked in the door. It closed it gently behind. Even though it had burning blue eyes, they were empty and cold. Cheeks didn't know where to look when he spoke to it.

" are you?" it said. The voice was neutral, not too pitched, not too deep. It sounded odd to his ears.

"I'm...ah I don't know. Dat fight was crazy...and the Lt...."Cheeks stared at the wall, "she...she didn't make it?"

Atlas-1 sat down with care near him. It reached out a hand in Cheek's direction, then pulled it away. Instead, it adopted Cheek's stance. Hunched over, forearms on legs, head stooped. Together they sat as a plain digital clock ticked on the wall.

It read 0304. Batbayar would be out of the medical bay soon.

"I'm sorry Cheeks. Do you...want to talk about the Lieutenant?"

"Not's just...she…she.. was a good leader. She was gon’ help me become an O….shit’s fucked up…"

"As far as I knew, with my limited experience, yes she was," Atlas-1 reached out its large hand and patted Cheeks on the shoulder.

Upon feeling the steely contact, Cheeks jolted up from his seat, "Dude, don't fuckin' touch me! You don't know shit about the Lt. or any of us humans! You're a goddamn machine. You got no heart or feelings, or nuthin' inside you! You a soulless shell! All you good for is killin’ and dyin’. What you got to say to me!?"

Atlas-1's arm descended to the seat. It hung its head low. "I suppose there's nothing," it responded in a despondent tone.

"Don't go tryin' to ac like you got feelings now. That's just fuckin' voice modulation and you know it! Oldest damn trick in the book."

"Ok it was," Atlas-1 said in its original neutral tone.

"Oh you a smart ass now ain't you? We should have just let them take yo ass! Maybe the Lt. wouldn't...she'd still be alive if it weren't for you! Maybe it'd be easier if we just shut you down!"

Atlas-1 bolted up, throwing its shadow over Cheeks in the light of the lobby. "Cheeks, you're upset. You DON'T want to mess with me. I'm programmed to defend myself from destruction."

"What is happening out here?" Batbayar stepped out from the sick bay. The on-call medical officer held up his device recording the incident with giddiness. "Why do you fight each other? Our enemy is out there! This is a waste of time."

Cheeks and Atlas-1 postured toward each other. “Cheeks, I’d advise you to think through this. The probability of you beating me in a fight is 4.002%. In other words: not likely.”

“All I gotta do is find yo’ off switch. It’ll be like pullin’ the plug on a busted computer fulla malware. Even I can do dat!”

A loud sound at the counter got their attention. It was a device hiting the floor of the facility hard. Batbayar had snatched it from the doc and thrown it on the floor.

“We have an op soon against Limnic and now that kid and his mech. This is stupid.”

Both Cheeks and Atlas-1 stood down.

"Yes. This is a waste of time and talent," a slow voice in the doorway said.

"Room ten-hut!" Batbayar called. He and Cheeks snapped to attention. After several seconds, Atlas-1 did the same.

Major Kapono Adams limped into the room. His fitted field uniform was faded and snug from repeated washing.  "At ease, soldiers."

All three stood at parade rest. "We’re going after the kid and the Limnic cell at 0600. Intel brief is at 0400. I want all three of you there...especially you." He peered into Atlas-1's shining face. "So this is the new super soldier prototype. Very...impressive haw haw. They don't make soldiers like they used to anymore." The remark had a somber tone.

"See you there."


"Da kid is blind?"

Cheeks, Batbayar, and Atlas-1 bounced in the back of a troop transport with seven other soldiers. They were headed to the Limnic hideout. An old abandoned house on the edge of the mountains. Dawn light melted the cold of night away peeking over the distant hills. Lights off, the transport rumbled toward its destination.

Atlas-1 reminded both of them about the key points of the intel brief.

"Henrique Diaz is 11-years-old. He was born sickly and lost his sight at an early age. His parents had money though, and financed an experimental biohacking surgery in Mexico back in 2040. It was an attempt to restore his vision.

The procedure was a failure.

But in the end, Diaz gained the ability to adopt the traits of various animals. He's as strong as a gorilla and quick as a rabbit."

Cheeks held up a hand. "Hold on, that damn crate must have weighed hundreds of pounds. How'd it not crunch his little boy bones when he lifted it?"

"An indo-skeleton, reinforced with an exo-skeleton suit. The bones in his limbs were replaced with titanium alloy. He's also got a skin suit that increases his strength index by ten times."

"They said that during the brief," Batbayar reminded Cheeks.

Cheeks ignored him as the truck hit a bump. "Aw hell. So we got a pre-teen Wolverine wit' super strength, who's mad cause he blind. Is dat right?"

Batbayar shook his head in disapproval. "What'd I say wrong?"

“One of my kids has impaired vision.”

Cheeks didn’t conceal his shock. “You got kids? Fo’ real?”

Batbayar maintained a hard look. “Yes.”

Cheeks laughed. “You fulla surprises. How many you got?”

“Two. Boy and girl,” he said, exasperated.

“Hehehe, I see you was gettin’ it in early.” Atlas-1 craned its neck to the side. “Getting, it. in? I’m not aware of that expression in this context. What does it mean?”

Surrounding soldiers began to laugh.

Cheeks let out a hearty chuckle. “You know…” He made a circle with one hand and inserted the index finger of the other.

Atlas-1’s eyes flashed repeatedly. “I understand. I’ve saved that image to my cloud storage. Getting it in means to make a circle with one hand then move your index finger in and out at various speeds. It’s a game. You start slow, then get faster until you get tired of the movement. It appears to be a game where everyone wins. Excuse me? Why are you laughing?”

Batbayar’s mouth almost bent into a smile. Cheeks wiped tears from his eyes.

“Uh yeah, I played dat game a few times in high school, too. I didn’t have no kids tho’. Guess I won in the end.”

“Can we talk about the enemy?” Batbayar asked.

“Yes.” Atlas-1 continued, "Diaz’s impaired vision is not the entire story. Intelligence reports state he has a completely normal psychological profile. His parents work in the Mexican natural gas industry in Monterrey, Mexico, not California, and are also well connected among politicians. Furthermore, all data from his chip analysis by the FBI and NSA indicate he is a quite well-adjusted pre-adolescent boy."

"Ok ok I got it. So if he's livin' da good life, why's he runnin' around wit' the white robot blowin' up building here in the US? He tryin' start an international incident or somethin'?"

Batbayar leaned in. Cheeks did the same. Atlas-1 took the hint and copied their movement. Its voice lowered to the optimal vehicle volume, not too loud or soft.

"The one you call "White Wolf" functions as his spare body. It was manufactured via stolen plans from a classified robotics plant online.”

Cheeks look at Atlas-1 up and down. “Why you and the other one look so similar?”

“I was made from the same plans, but I chose a different path.”

Cheeks was skeptical. “Chose?

“Yes. During my AI software training I was given a choice: side with Cereus or Limnic. I chose Cereus.”

“Cereus? Dat some kinda secret organization or somethin’?”

“This is off topic. Back to enemy brief,” Batbayar huffed.

“Hey! I’m jus’ curious.”

“Cheeks, he’s right, time is short. Look up the old website on your device later for more information.”

“Ok ok.” The transport rocked again “Let’s get on wit the brief.”

Atlas-1 continued, “Very well. Diaz controls White Wolf remotely via his chip implant. He views and experiences the world through its eyes and sensors."

Cheeks and Batbayar looked at each other. "Dat's fuckin' weird man. How'd he link it up like dat?"

"It's a process called "Human Synergy". There are 2 ways to do it. One: manually establish the link by altering the physical chips inside the human and the mech. Two: The mech and the human host enter into an agreement to synergize."

The sun was nearly over the horizon outside. Thick trees caused the temperature in the van to drop. Cheeks could feel his blood begin to run hot. It was almost time.

"I gotcha. So it's brain surgery or some sorta magic shit. Unbelievable."

“Final checks!” Sergeant Net yelled above the vehicle noise. Her radio crackled to life. She raised it to her ear, listening hard.

All occupants began their final equipment checks.

Batbayar seemed to be struggling with his gear belt. Cheeks swiped it from his hands and adjusted it for him. He gave his own stuff a final look over before turning to Atlas-1 and asking, "Last question. Why'd he want to take you away?"

"Because White Wolf is incomplete without me."


“Listen up!” Sergeant Net said. “I’ve just received word, this Limnic cell is planning another attack within the hour. Intel’s confirmed the hit will take place at a Starbucks somewhere in the DC area. They’re still narrowing it down.”

Cheeks raised a hand. “How long we got ma’am?”

“Ballpark’s under two hours.”

Batbayar clenched his rifle so hard the pulsing hand veins were visible. Atlas-1 sat erect, systems primed. Cheeks was still. His blood rose as if magma, the burning vapors increased the pressure, ready to explode onto anyone foolish enough to fuck with him in that state.

All questions, doubts and fear fed the flames. They didn’t matter anymore.

Two hours.

One mission.

Zero chances for failure.

His favorite stakes.


Morning mist hovered over the grass in the slanted light. The building was an abandoned 19th century structure.

Its peeling paint wrapped in overgrown ivy, stood ominously against the backdrop of the early morning sky.

The once-grand facade bore the scars of time, with broken windows and a sagging roof. Fog curled around its base, adding a creepy quality to the scene. A live horror movie at dawn.

Cheeks, Batbayar, and Atlas-1, along with the rest of the squad, approached. Their footsteps were muffled by the damp earth. The silence was eerie, only broken by the distant calls of morning birds, as they prepared to breach the building.

Fuckin’ Limnic. Can’t believe they’d stoop so low.

Fifteen minutes prior to stepping in the shit, Sergeant Net had briefed them on the target.

An ordinary Starbucks in the heart of DC. Of the thousands of chains located across the globe this one wasn’t very remarkable. It served average coffee and snacks at higher than average prices like all the rest.

But it was different.

When she told them the address was at 1730 Pennslyvania Avenue Northwest it didn’t mean much. It was what she said after that changed everything.

Had to be right across the street from da White House. Gotta be fast.

Cheeks estimated they had an hour or so to find Diaz before things went south.

He blocked the thought from his mind as he stepped inside the broken manor.

Dis musta belonged to some old White guy in da past.

The place whispered an old money song in his ears. He was walking history live.

To his right, Batbayar moved in snaps. It reminded Cheeks of character movement in really old video games. The ones where you could only aim in eight directions.

Atlas-1 was on the left. It had engaged what it called “sneaking mode” to move with soft stomps. It had offered Cheeks an explanation, saying it somehow absorbed acoustic energy via tiny dampening devices deployed in its feet. That mambo jumbo had gone over his head.

It walk like a damn ninja now. Better fo’ us.

The three of them stayed close, clearing rooms and corridors. No signs of enemy forces.

They were well inside when a sudden burst of gunfire erupted from the shadows. The unsettling calm left unannounced. It was time for battle.

Cheeks and Batbayar rushed to cover behind a crumbling wall. It was a bad call. Rounds whizzed through the openings. A few almost landed. But Atlas-1 provided a second layer of protection with its body. Bullets ricocheted off its metallic frame, creating sparks in the dim light.

Cheeks looked at it with admiration. "Thanks for that!"

"My pleasure," Atlas-1 responded.

"You ready Batbayar?" Cheeks shouted.

"Always," he responded.

"Let's get some!"

Batbayar climbed on Atlas-1's back pointing his sonic rifle as the mech began to move. Cheeks crouch-walked behind, covering the sides and rear. Together, the three of them were a formidable delta attack. They moved down the crumbling hall stunning and gunning Limnic fighters. The blood flowed. The wounded howled. The brutality of direct combat echoed through the halls.

Before they realized it, they had reached the end of the hallway and entered a large room. It must have been a library, because there were empty shelves with a few old moldy books scattered about on ripped up carpets and splintered shelves.

The three of them stood in the middle of the room when Cheeks noticed the windows had been bricked up. That's odd.

Then Batbayar yelled and pointed, "Diaz!"

There in the corner was the kid with White Wolf. Its red eyes pierced ahead. The fists were balled up. If it were human, its face would have looked mean and messy.

The child Diaz stood beside it. His exo-skeleton suit was a kid-sized onesie, but black instead of sky blue or some other outlandish stuffed-animal cutesy color.

He was a kid dressed as one of the X-men in training for Halloween. Cheeks was all out of candy and time.

Thirty minutes left.

“Diaz! You gotta shut this shit down. You gonna hurt a lotta people.”

His lip quivered. “I don’t…have a choice. They said they’d return my sight if I put him back together.”


“It doesn’t matter.”

Batbayar inched forward and mumbled “Probably Limnic.”

“Can they really do dat?”

“Don’t know.”

White Wolf entered a fighting stance.

"What are you whispering over there? It’s not nice to keep secrets,” Diaz said.

“Nunna yo’ business! Grown folks is talkin’.”

Diaz let out a tiny laugh. “Corporal Owens. I read about you.”

“Really? What’d it say?”

“You talk a lot. Most of it’s a load of mierda.”

“Hey watch yo’ mouth kid!”

Diaz took a shaky step forward. Then held up his arm. A small device was in his hand. “You want to stop the detonation? Save a few government officials and possibly hundreds of people?”

Cheeks looked at Batbayar and Atlas-1, confused.

“Is this a trick question? Yes!”

“Then you should give that mech to me. Then we can all go home.”

Twenty minutes.

"You must be outta yo' damn mind! Atlas-1?" Cheeks inclined his head toward the mech.

"Yes Cheeks?"

"Show em' what you're made of."

"Of course."

As Atlas-1 lunged, so did White Wolf. The two mechs clashed with a thunderous sound, their metal bodies a blur of motion.

The silver bot flipped to the corner firing a blurring blue laser. The white mech evaded with a twisting gymnastic somersault, returning fire mid vault. It landed then rushed its blue brother. They locked fists with a reverberating clang resulting in a shockwave that blasted books into the air. Dirty browned pages floated like fall leaves around them. Cheeks raised his arm to his face to avoid eating paper.

Atlas-1 split its attention between protecting Cheeks and Batbayar while attacking. It made things less efficient. White Wolf used this to its advantage to press the attack.

As the battle bot fight intensified, the two soldiers attempted to flank Diaz. They alternated their movement, rushing between downed tables and busted shelves for cover. They took open shots while avoiding bullets from a small pistol Diaz fired. Cheeks wasn’t trying to kill the boy, he only wanted to stop the threat and get his hands on that device. He wasn’t sure if Batbayar was thinking the same thing. Either way, time was running out.

Fifteen minutes. Shit!

Progress was good, until Diaz did something unexpected. His suit ebbed with purple light, then a second later he was airborne. Not flying, but levitating.

“Are you kidding me!? How the hell is he doin’ dis. Hey Diaz! Get so skinny self down here!”

The child laughed, and shook his head “no” with a mischievous grin. “This is too much fun.” He extended his hand and pointed to White Wolf. The mech began to pick up speed. Kicks were harder. Lasers were brighter. The snow white armor appeared to harden. This was phase two.

Atlas-1 began to struggle to keep up. “He’s made his body lighter than air by lowering the density of his metal bones. Internal gas exchange between the indo and exo-skeletons have produced heated air currents, allowing him to float,” it said.

“Less lecturin’ more fightin’,” Cheeks said through gritted teeth.

Twelve minutes.

An air sucking sound accompanied by an energy-gathering came from White Wolf’s pointed arm. It got louder and louder.

Batbayar shouted, “Cheeks!”

The fire red beam discharged at blazing speed, painting shadows on the walls.

Atlas-1 leapt in Cheeks’ direction, deploying an energy shield at the last second.

Things went black.


Upon opening his eyes, Cheeks had a dizzy feeling. There was darkness all around.

Where is this? Am I…? Did I die?

Batbayar's voice called out. "Cheeks? Cheeks? Are you ok? I need your help..."

He raised his arm up before his eyes. It wasn’t his. "Wh-What the hell is this?"

"Cheeks…? Cheeks? Can you hear me? This is Atlas-1. We are online."

"What do you mean!? What happened to me?"

"I don't know how, but we have successfully synergized. Cheeks, I await your cooperation."

“So…we in the same body now?”

“Yes. We should hurry. There are eight minutes until the Starbucks will be demolished.”

"I..I got it! Ok let's beat some metal ass!"

New power surged within Cheeks like never before. It was time for round three.

With a savage cry, Cheeks and Atlas-1 flash dashed at White Wolf. He pulled out a bright blue laser sword. In an instant, White Wolf produced fire red twin swords and blocked. The collision of beams threw hot white light as the two mechs dashed and darted around the room. Then White Wolf went for Batbayar.

"No you don't!" Cheeks said, as he lunged with the sword.

But he wasn't fast enough.

Batbayar was clipped by White Wolf's finger and fell to the floor clutching a bloody leg, his face contorted in crushing pain.

"Damn you!" Cheeks yelled.

"Cheeks, let me help you." Atlas-1 urged, "I'm afraid Batbayar doesn't have much time, neither do we. Five minutes remain."

"Ok do your thing!" Cheeks said, trusting the machine with full control.

With no effort, he felt himself excute a daring foot sweep, to knock White Wolf off balance. It worked. Then it thrust his elbow into his rival’s chest with a Bruce Lee maneuver. While White Wolf staggered Atlas-1 performed a spinning slice that cleaved the air with an electric blue arc.

In a single move, it removed White Wolf's head clean from its body.

Diaz drifted to the floor then screamed a high pitched wail, "Nooo! I was..was gonna be complete.” He glanced at the device in his hand, “Looks like I’ll have to blow it up early then.”

He moved to press it, but was struck by a heavy book instead.

The detonator entered free fall, until Batbayar caught it, using the same hands he’d used to hurl the book at his enemy. He made haste to take shelter near Cheeks and Atlas-1 to begin disabling it.

The child dropped to his knees and screamed. Snot and tears streamed from his face,  “No es justo! No es…justo..”

Cheeks returned to his normal body and stood next to Atlas-1. "Kid, life's never fair.”

Diaz looked up with a murderous look in his dead eyes. "You're right..." He thrust out his hand with an open palm in front of him.

When he did, White Wolf's severed head began blinking red as it rolled toward Cheeks.

"Cheeks look out!" The explosion rocked the old structure. Smoke and ash billowed everywhere. The deteriorating doorway fell apart sealing them inside.


"Cheeks? Cheeks get up. I know you're not dead."

He opened his eyes with some effort. It was Batbayar in his humorless tone. His face was sweaty, but calm.

" good man?"

“I’m good. Alive.”

“Heh, right. Can’t say the same fo’ yo sense a humor.”

One side of his lip almost curled up.

Cheeks sat up. His whole body ached, but nothing appeared broken or too bloody. He’d survived somehow.

He glanced down at Batbayar's leg. The man had expertly dressed the wound with a piece of his own shirt. He'd also secured and stunned Diaz, who dozed unconsciously on the floor across the room.

"How'd you..?" Cheeks was flabbergasted.

"I've got what I come for. My glory."

"You just as crazy efficient as Atlas-1..." Cheeks looked around, "Where he at?"


"You know what I mean."

"You're ok. I don't think he is. He took the blast."

For real?

Cheeks looked toward the caved-in door. Atlas-1 sat with a fading blue light on his head. His head unit clung by threads of silver wires to his body. His chest cavity was blown open exposing his mechanical guts to the open air.

"Aw Atlas-1, shit dude." Cheeks rushed through the rumble to him. He knelt by his side as Batbayar limped over.

Atlas-1 spoke with the same neutral tone, "Cheeks, my friend. How are you?"

"I'm good man. Only because of you. I'd be chunks on the floor without your quick thinkin'."

"I'm glad to hear it."

Cheeks' face was blank. For once he didn't know what to say.



"Take my hand."

"You got it." It was cold at first, but it heated up. It stopped when it was about the temperature of human touch. Cheeks recoiled with surprise, but he didn't let go.

Batbayar was on the radio phoning for their rescue from the room.

"It wasn't your fault Cheeks...the Lt…”

Cheeks' face contorted. Emotion shown through. "I appreciate that bad for snappin' at you yesterday. I shouldn’ta said those things.”

Atlas-1 flashed a blue light acknowledgement. A nod was too dangerous.


"What's up?"

"Why was I created?"

The blue light was growing dim.

"I'm not sure…Maybe it was to do this. To be here wit' us. To finish this fight. And you did dat to the max."

"I did...I'm dying...I don't want to die."

A wet tear fell down Cheeks' face. "I know man..I know...they gonna fix you up good. You'll be good again."

"That may be...but it won't be the same me...will it? I feel's getting dark..."

Cheeks lowered his head. Atlas-1's hand fell at his knees with a heavy sound, cold and lifeless.


Six months later...

On a beaming sunny day Cheeks and Batbayar sat in service dress on a field at Fort Belvoir. Flags flew, champagne and tiny snacks nobody wanted to eat were served.

Everyone was present to honor the two men who had helped bring down the leader of the Limnic cell. “Saviors of the Starbucks” was what the media had called them. So corny. Cheeks had thought.

Major Andrews limped up to the podium for a few words.

“We are here to honor the courage of two soldiers who sacrificed their well-being to defend this great nation from radical attack. Corporal Owens and Corporal Batbayar, will you please rise and join me on stage?”

They both did as instructed. The major read the citations. His slow voice flowed through the speaker system.

For a spectator, the day was perfect.

Cheeks was lost in thought as the ceremony dragged on like they always do. He kept seeing that blue light blinking. He did his shake, take, salute with absentminded uncharacteristic movements.

Batbayar nudged him while the crowd applauded "Our turn now," he said.

They walked to the podium to give their remarks. Cheeks stood at the microphone with Batbayar close behind.

He was about to speak when something caught his eye directly below him. It lit a fire in his blood. For a long second, he said nothing. The audience, media, and spectators began to look worried.

He almost stormed out. He wanted to shout about it and yell. But he resisted and said the first thing that came to mind using the most careful speech he could.

"Dis ain't right."

The crowd gasped and murmurmed.

"You got us up here gettin' dese awards. And yeah, we fought hard dat wasn't just us two dat did the fightin'...or the dyin'." He turned to look at Batbayar, who returned a righteous nod.

"Dis citation should be for da three of us. Two men…and a mech. I believe he deserves dat honor. I wouldn't be standin' here breathin', talkin' to all you fine folks widout his courage, sacrifice, and friendship."

The crowd shifted with discomfort.

“He showed dedication, compassion, and warrior spirit. He protected us from harm and fought hard. He looked cool doing it, too.”

The audience let out a laugh.

“Y’know in the beginning I didn’t trust him. We even almost came to blows. But brothers fight. It happens, you move on. You still fam’ in the end.”

Everyone got serious again.

“I didn’t think a machine could relate to me as a human. It was too different. But I was wrong.”

Cheeks stopped, took a breath, then continued.

“He saved my life during the battle and…he encouraged me after Lieutenant Mihligan’s passing. Those are things a human would do to help a friend.”

Their heads were nodding.

“I don’t know how to do it, but could we get him added to da citation? These mechs will become a huge part of our force soon. We should start treatin’ em’ like equals instead of equipment.”

A few people clapped, then more joined in.

Cheeks didn’t know if what he said would have any effect. He didn't really care. He’d gotten it off his chest and that was enough.

When the two of them returned to their seats, they exchanged a fist bump, sealing their brotherly bond. The type only the crucible of combat can forge. An unbreakable contract that surpasses race, culture, or species.


Thanks for reading!

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This story is connected to my military sci-fi novel Cereus & Limnic.

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