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Exocorps Last Stand Part I

Page history last edited by rsb 5 years, 12 months ago

 

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A plastic bag blew low across the abandoned airfield from the north, whipping above the hot tarmac as if posessed - acrobatically shrinking, twisting, filling with hot wind, then accellerating.  Almost across the field to the south, it's handle caught on a stubborn piece of grass.  Rapidly deflating, it crashed to a slab of unbroken tarmac, and stuck.  A second later, it had completely melted into the hot, black ground.  

 

Airfield 27 had once been a recharging station for unmanned arial vehicles before it was been abandoned a few years back.  The jungle hardly noticed it anymore.

 

Vines ran across what was left of the old asphalt tarmac.  Grasses sprouted vigourously through wide cracks.  A few young trees had a good foothold.  

 

Late in the afternoon and the heatwaves still rose high.  

 

If not for the smell of the garbage dump a half click to the north in Bombali, you would think the country abandoned.  

 

<Hurry up and wait.>

 

To the south, with magnification, the tops of distant factories peeked above the jungle canopy.  Above the factories, a nasty-looking brown cloud hovered and stretched west.  

 

Makeni.  A new city of industry.  Seventy percent of the worlds production of ultrasteel.  It had put Sierra Leone on the map.  

 

Dave pulled up a detailed overhead city map with region-usage data.

 

From the sky, Makeni reminded Dave of an old silicon wafer.  A circle filled in with a grid, about a hundred short blocks on a side, mostly huge office and residential towers that were nearly identical from above.  The exceptions to complete uniformity were the much larger park and public service blocks scattered strategically throughout the city.

 

To burn time, Dave tried to find paths through the city that contained no residential dwelling units.  Minimizing civilian casualties was a directive Dave [kept on the front of his mind].  He pulled up satellite intel on human occupancy and overlaid it on the city map.  An obvious gap showed up at the western perimiter - four blocks square had almost no known human activity over the last week.  Possibly buildings under robotic construction.  It was almost certain that Cencom would arrange an attack from the west.

 

After a few  minutes of this, Daves exoskeleton crouched lower into the brush.  A silhouette of an ocean wave flashed green in his heads up display.  It had been a long time since he had seen that.  

 

Normally Dave would react fluidly when his exoskeleton started to move - this was the most fundamental skill anyone in a combat exoskeleton had to master.  If you weren't fluid - if you couldn't react with speed and without resistance to the movements of an exoskeleton - then you couldn't work with automation.  That's what the green wave was for - to tell you that the exoskeleton was about to slow down if you didn't become fluid again.  For movements well beyond the human design specifications for speed, automation would help drive with electrostim - but even then you had to be aware enough not to fight it, and to keep track of what was going on.

 

The green wave meant that exoskeleton automation would have to slow down to meet it's goal.  It was the lowest severity level warning the EX1 offered.

 

Dave calmed himself.  He felt moderators kick in.  A breath later, he had his old focus back.  It felt good.  The dance of mind and machine.  He allowed the automation to move him further back into the brush.  The green wave went away.

 

<Thank god for extraskin>, he thought to himself.  

 

Dave was old enough to know what combat was like before extraskin.  He knew that body-hugging-track-suit-of-miracles was kicking-in a cocktail of drugs to keep his vitals and his attitude in line.  Otherwise his sphincter would have been so tight you couldn't drive a needle up it with a sledgehammer.  With extraskin, even a green recruit could stay calm under fire.

 

He checked the on his platoon.

 

-------------

 

Leilas temp was little high, as was his own.  Focus levels for most of the unit were good, but not the best he had seen.  Hugh was borderline unfocused.  

 

Dave guessed that the heat was overwhelming the extraskin, making it difficult for the troops to concentrate.  MKI Extraskin usually kept them cool, but the "albedo" layer was new.  That white albedo stuff had not only been painted on the reactive armor they wore above the extraskin, but it was bonded to every surface of the EXI exoskeletons they were wearing.  The albedo modification had been made hours before their departure, leaving them little time to test it.  Last minute mods made the troops nervous.

 

Dave turned on his squadsense.  He felt a pull on his body in the exact direction of each of his troops.  It was as if a line were drawn between Daves heart and the heart of each of them.  Where each line crossed his skin on his upper body, his extraskin generated a hotspot - reflecting the shape of that troop - it's shadow.  If he focused strongly enough on a shadow, he could pick up the slightest movement that a troop made.  Squadsense was designed primarily as a training tool - it built a strong intuition in each troop as to the relative location of the rest of the squad.  Outside of training, most people kept it off - just another distraction from the job at hand.

 

When squadsense was on, Dave also saw a squadsense communications overlay.  A small three dimensional object appeared in the upper right of his HUDs - a diagram of the relative positions of all his troops, with squadsense communications lines drawn between those with squadsense turned on.  Only three people had squadsense on.  Dave, Hugh, and Leila.  

 

Dave deduced the situation.  

 

When troops were just standing around with squadsense on, the slight swaying movements of each of them were felt like a signature, a fluctuating pattern of heat.  It was probably reassuring to Hugh and Leila to hold hands via squadsense, but it wasn't helping their focus.

 

Dave knew how to reset them.

 

Dave brought up video of Leila from a camera on the back of Hugh's helmet [better word than helmet - this is an integrated armored suit].  Dave removed the tint from her visor and focused the video in on her face.  Leila looked cool as a cucumber - bored, even.  No perspiration.  Even under exoskeleton, armor, and extraskin, you could tell Leila was fit as hell.  She was new corps - and new human.  Mixed race - genetically modified at birth - lots of implants - beautiful - and deadly.  [fixup - corny]

 

Hugh was on point.  Dave brought up composited video of him from cameras on his own armor.  A 3D image of a nine foot tall exocorps soldier resolved, crouched at the edge of the airstrip.  Matte white machinery with a matte black facemask, arms and back studded with heavy weaponry.  Dave rotated and zoomed to visually examine Hughs extraskin, reading sensor data from several components as he did.  He brought them both into a chat.

 

[You feelin' that, Leila?], Dave asked.

[You mean your innapropriate eye-fuckin' or just the heat?]

[I was talking about Hughs hands.  The heat, smartass.], Dave replied.

[All I feel is too many moderators, and a whole lotta lets shoot something.], Leila replied, still sounding bored.

[That's the one disadvantage of walkin' point, y'see?  I donna' even get to lookit 'er ass.  Gunnin' fer yer job, chief.], Hugh said.

[Maybe later I'll stomp your skull into the ground and you can get a view from there.], Leila said.

[Hurry-up-and-wait has you both bored.  I'm going to run an accelleartor test.]

[Clear, sir.], Leila said.

[Clear, sir.], Hugh said.

[Commencing in three, two, one...]

 

Dave picked a clearing a few meters back into the jungle.  The calibration game kicked in for Leila and Hugh as soon as they arrived there.  

A wave appeared on their viewscreens.  They closed their eyes, and although the jungle turned black the wave stayed.  They concentrated on it, and their focus levels skyrocketed.  Simultaneously, automation moved them back into the clearing, away from the others.  They were completely still.  

 

Inbound foes appeared in their field of view, old-school propellor drones painted with numbers.  They responded with "thought controls" - changing their brain waves each time a new one appeared, focusing on one of the 64 EKG Tokens that they were trained to generate by focusing thought alone.  The extraskin noted their pattern of control, and responded with accellerators to aid in the task.  In a few seconds, the internal clock in their brains was running many times faster than normal.  Their reaction times plummeted.

 

Their exoskeleton joints moved slowly at first, and to such a slight degree as to be invisible to the eye.

 

Hugh and Leila responded by moving with the exoskeleton, matching the slight tai-chi-like movements that tested each joint in their exoskeleton, at it's pace, with no conscious thought.  

 

They moved identically.  Their feet stayed planted - feet were not necessary for the exercise.  But their pace of movement increased each second, as did the range of the movement required.  A few slight moves the first second, smooth, small and slow.  Six smooth circular moves the second, slightly larger, and fast.  Twelve strikes each fired from the pair the third second.  A blur of speed and fury the fourth.  Throughout, Hugh and Leila allowed the electrostim to drive their muscles, their conscious minds were engaged only in focusing.  As quickly as it had started, it ended.  Their viewscreens flashed to black, and the blue wave reappeared.  Through their viewscreens, the jungle faded into view.  

 

Pieces of a single leaf, slices tossed above them by the exercise, floated slowly groundward.

 

The moderators - drugs used to keep the accellerators in line - slowly brought them back down.

 

Two perfect scores.  And Leila barely left her baseline energy burn level.  That was unheard of for anyone but her.  Dave was impressed as always.  He noticed that they both had squadsense off.

 

[Perfect.], Dave thought.  

 

[You're good to go], he said. [Keep it that way.  We're on any minute now.] He closed the chat.  Automation brought Hugh and Leila back to their previous positions.

 

Hugh and Leila were the youngsters of the group.  He had trouble not thinking of them as his kids.  

 

<Those two are going to make it.> Dave thought.

 

------------

 

Mission timers popped up on Daves HUDs.  In ninety seconds a probe would begin.  Daves exoskeleton took a couple adjustment steps back.

 

Automation was positioning them and adjusting their electronic countermeasures for best concealment against visual, radio frequency, and heat detection.  Reams of data scrolled by on the top half of Daves viewscreen.  Dave cancelled it all.  It disappeared.  

 

Dave maximized the simple-top-down-view of his unit.  It showed their positions and the surrounding terrain.  Labels with identifiers and condition icons surrounded the troops.  He opened a channel to the unit.

 

Before he could speak, a square video overlay appeared in the upper right quadrant of Daves HUDs.  A message from CenCom.  No audio, just a video shot from behind one small, unarmed flying vehicle, coming in slow and low over dense, lush jungle.  Text below the video read "PROBE: " followed by constantly changing GPSP coordinate numbers.

 

The flyer had the same dull grey-white patina that the albedo suits had.  

 

The jungle terrain ahead of the flier was lush and familiar.  They had taken the same flight path on their way in an hour ago.

 

Apparently, CenCom had decided to show them how well the albedo material worked, before sending them into the city.

 

"I'm feeding you my stream from this probe.", Dave said, "We'll be going in shortly after.  Full automation until link to CenCom drops.  Once that happens, initial-unit-link-L.O.S. is priority one.  Focus."

 

From each of the twelve came back the same response.  "Clear."

 

---------------

 

Three fliers zipped over their heads.  

 

Briefly Dave looked up.  For a moment, he saw the fliers in two places in his field of vision - both in his primary optical display zipping overhead, and in the video stream from Cencom, a top-down view showing friend or foe information scrolling aside the flyers.  

 

The fliers disappeared from primary optical as they sped across the canopy towards Makeni.

 

Dave called up a measurement of the three fliers.  A captured image of their passage showed up, with the drones replaced by their dimensioned wireframes - bright green, see-through outlines of their most important curves.  The drones were small - only a six foot wingspan.  The rear flier was drafting the lead at one meter distance.  A third flier was twenty meters above them and centered on the two.  The video stream came from the rear flier.  

 

In the video stream, deep green jungle canopy streaked beneath the lead flyer.  Ahead of the flyer, the Makeni skyline - miles of grey smokestacks and prefab eight to sixteen story buildings.  

 

---------------

 

The missile launches came from the tops of two business towers.  Four launches.  The first stage of each missile took it to a peak height about a click up - the second stage was an explosion that broke each missile into three, each firing downward at the fliers - invisibly fast.

 

As soon as the second stage explosion occurred, chem lasers struck all the missiles at once - yellow lightning from above - blowing the missiles into a spray of material that fell harmlessly into the jungle.  

 

It all happened faster than the unaided eye could follow.

 

Notably, fire did not rain from the sky to the source of the enemy missile launches.  

 

As with all exocorps missions, mission directives prohibited any offensive strike that was not authorized by an exocorps soldier.  In the short history of the exocorps, no bombing strike had ever been authorized.  The rule was called proximity authorization.  Given the previous history of completely drone-fought wars by the US military, the popularity of the proximity authorization concept with occupied peoples visited by the us military was...impossible to overestimate.

 

The fliers continued.  

 

The higher of the three fliers zoomed ahead of the others.

 

When the fliers were five hundred meters from the city, sixteen more launches originated from city buildings.  These were conventional single stage self-guided missiles.  Their entire flight was like a flash of lightning.  About half of the missiles were intercepted by chem lasers from above.

 

All three fliers took evasive action, maintaining their altitudes.

 

The two that stayed low to the canopy survived - missiles directed at them inevitably hit a bit of highly uneven jungle canopy before hitting a flier, or succumbed to the electronic countermeasure units on board the fliers.

 

The flier at twenty meters above the canopy burst into flame, and disappeared.

 

<Well...I guess we'll be coming in low.>, Dave thought.

 

--------------

 

A few hundred meters from the city, a haze rose up above the canopy, ahead of the two remaining fliers - a meter or so of black cloud.  Seconds later, it had reached a dozen meters in height.  The cloud hit the lead flier like a ton of bricks.  

 

The rear flier video showed the lead flier as it was engulfed in violent flame.  The camera video shook all over the place, then went black.  

CenCom changed video to a surveillance drone in low earth orbit.  

 

An overhead view of the two drones appeared on Daves HUDs.  The drones were flaming, sparking, and weaving almost uncontrollably.  The surveillance camera zoomed in and followed the lead drone.  

 

The live video stopped, buffered, continued to zoom, then went into slow motion.  

 

The cloud of black resolved itself into a swarm of black dust.  These were the new weapons CenCom had prepared them for - weapons designed in the last few days, probably.  The brief had been sketchy.  Cencom called them "fleas".

 

Based on horrendous accounts from a previous attempt to free the city, the fleas were robotic chemical bombs the size of a ladybug.  They were no speed demons, but they were capable of jumping, flying, gliding, and directing themselves at anything that approached.  Cencom claimed they were filled with a nanomaterial that turned most other materials into a powerful acid.  Usually this acid burned right through to the ground -  although sometimes fleas just plain exploded.  The fleas were spread throughout the jungle canopy around the perimeter of the city.

 

As the fleas beat against the drones, they bounced violently away from the drones albedo layers, burning with an energy that pushed the drones in the air. 

 

Amazingly, the drones emerged from the deadly black cloud into the city - flying a bit wobbly, but aloft, heading straight toward the city center, just above the first rooftops.  The albedo layer was a success.  If just one of those fleas had stuck, the drone it stuck to would likely have had a gaping hole burned through it that would have torn it apart.

 

The drones would probably be out of contact now, on autopilot as they cruised just above the rooftops of Makeni.  The enemy's electronic countermeasures would see to that.

 

A few blocks in, fire spouted from the top floors of two rows of high rise buildings.  

 

This was crossfire of conventional rounds, dozens per second, fired from within the occupied buildings of the city.  Text alerts popped up on Daves view screen noting the locations and types of hostiles doing the firing.

 

The rounds sliced through the drones from side to side, cutting them into pieces.

 

----------------

 

The overhead video zoomed out to include the nine mile highway circling the city, and a few kilometers more, to the edge of the old airfield in which the exocorps unit was currently standing.

 

Two concentric rings were overlaid on the top down video of Makeni, a green ring inside a blue one.  Dave called up the details.  Symbols and numbers sprung into view.

 

The green ring, 957 meters from the city center, showed the effective ECM range of the enemy, inside of which, none of CenComs traditional communications systems could penetrate.  No remote pilots would be able to get them closer than that.

 

The blue ring, 1423 meters out from the city center, was the estimated effective anti-aircraft range of the enemy.

 

That green inner ring was the kicker.  They would want to drop the exocorps immediately inside of it.  From there it was 1 kilometer to the power substation in the center of the city.  The powerstation was their most likely target, and the location of a particularly dangerous anti-aircraft weapon.

 

Dave opened a voice channel to Rodriguez.

 

"Rodriguez.  You want your picture on top of that AA mech?", Dave asked.

"On the wreckage, if we have to take it out.", Rodriguez replied, "Otherwise...I think a nice south facing shot of the Makeni sunset will do."

Dave thought about it for a moment.

"Yeah.  The color will be good.", he said finally.  

 

Dave had taken a picture of Rodriguez, after action, in exoskeleton, on every continent, except Africa.

 

Rodriguez brought up a mission summary for Dave, with references.  Rodriguez always included a risk assesment for Dave, broken down by risk category, including references broken down by standard data quality metrics.

 

"Could CenCom give us less data?", Rodriguez complained.

 

"Hrmph.", Dave said, examining the report.  Mostly due to the last minute nature and modern enemy weaponry, this was statistically the second riskiest mission Rodriguez and Dave had ever been on together. "Cluster.", Dave commented.

 

Dave tried to pull up additional statistics from Cencom.  Cencom cut in with a final report:

 

CENCOM: Exocorps 1st 14th - go for immediate jump.

CENCOM: Likelihood CP will call air burst support from LZ to target - 25% with 5%

CENCOM: Estimated anti-aircraft range accuracy 14% within 42%

CENCOM: Estimated ECM range of primary foe against exocorps transcievers accuracy 77% within 5%

CENCOM: Estimated jump countdown: -60.0s

 

In short, get ready to jump, - war is as uncertain as ever.  

 

------------

 

Dave puzzled at the "air-burst support", and flagged it for clarification.  He then opened an audio channel to his troops. 

 

"Automation will lead us out presently.  As per the mission profile - we'll be going in low, landing fast, and moving fast.  You saw what happens to RC units in there.  We won't have contact to call in strikes and we won't have a cloud of air cav around us as ususal.  We might not release beetles.  We might not even have visual spectrum.  This time it's just us all the way to their ECM unit.  Hugh and Leila will land on point.  I'm marking six LZs - two units apiece.  Defend and move until you can see in the composite.  Rodriguez is rear primary mesh controller.  I'll be lead primary until handoff.", Dave said.

 

Dave took a communications request from Rodriguez.  

 

Rodrigueze' face came up.  He looked old.  Scars covered his forehead.  

 

Dave and he had gone to combat engineer training together twenty years ago.  Rodriguez was top of the class.  Dave was somewhere nearer to the other end.  But they were both careful.  Twenty years of survival and adaptation on both their parts had carried them through battle after battle, paradigm shift after paradigme shift, and had settled them into the jobs they were each best suited to - Dave managed the humans - Rodriguez managed the computers.

 

"I think I know what Cencom is going to come up with.  When they do, we'll lose opticals.", Rodriguez said.

Dave thought about it for a moment.  Asking the exocorps to fight against an enemy with effective ECM was crazy enough.  Fighting without video from suit cameras was tantamount to asking them to fight naked.

"No that I would put CenCom past it, but, are you sure?", he said.

"Well, I've been studying our lense cleaners."

"Our what?"

"The nanobots crawling around your suit, cleaning it right now."

"Ah."

"You do realize your suit is an ecosystem of...ah fuck it.  Listen, whatever CenCom has in mind those fleas will absolutely crush our lense cleaners, and slow down our repair layer.  We've got to at least cover our lenses before that hits."

 

Dave wasn't smart enough to describe how smart Rodriguez was.  So when Rodriguez said they were going to lose opticals during this battle, Dave didn't ask questions he couldn't comprehend the answers to.

 

"...okay.  Suggestions.", Dave asked.

"Add the alert I'm sending you to your combat view.  When it comes in, issue the command it contains...it'll hurt, but it should leave us with most of our opticals, at least some laser comm."

"Send the alert now.", Dave said, but the alert was already in his activity queue.  

 

The script Rodriguez sent was a new command, some code he had never seen before, Rodriguez must have just whipped it up.  Dave didn't understand the code completely, but he got the gist of it.  He added it to his combat-view priority alert list, but excepted Ender from the instruction.

 

"Looks like you're expecting more explosives than I was.", Dave said.

"Among other things.", Rodriguez replied.

"I assume this accounts for altitude and tactical position?", Dave asked.

"Affirmative.", Rodriguez said.

 

Dave brought up Ender on video.  He was the exact opposite of Rodriguez - young, a full head of dark tossled hair under that extraskin.

"Ready to do something nuts?", Dave asked.

"Jesus Christ, I thought you would never ask."

"At some point, I'll be ejecting your faceshield and ordering you into enemy fire.  I won't tell you when."

A moment passed before Ender responded.

"Woohooo!"

"I knew I could count on you.", Dave said.  Ender was one of the few genuinely, verifiably crazy soldiers that Dave had served with. 

 

Dave thought on it, and decided to share Rodriguez script with the entire unit.  "We'll be running this if Rodriguez calls it."

 

Dave visualized the attack plan from launch to finish.  There were a lot of gaps, but they were as ready as they were going to be.

 

-------------

 

As the mission start timer counted down it's final seconds, automation brought the exocorps unit gracefully to life.  Soldier and exoskeleton moved noiselessly - only the crunching of jungle brush belied their advance.  Any observer would find their noise profile an impressive contradiction.  Each soldiers EX-1 exoskeleton consisted of hundreds of pounds of ultra-lightweight robotics and weaponry - layered over a heavyily armored suit and helmet.  

 

A thick, darkened visor seperated each solidier from visual identification.  For all the world it looked as if the US military, after all their failures, had finally built a useful unit of bipedal robotic troops. 

 

They moved through the jungle and formed up on the airfield as one organism, twelve exocorps units against a city.  Cannon, missile launchers, chain guns and grenade launchers cycled rounds into chambers.  

 

10 seconds.

 

Final systems checks showed slightly low max-power on Maggie, Paul, and Enders Xjump capacitors.  Not low enough to effect their performance in the field, but Dave made an adjustment anyway.  

 

Xjump levers could explosively extend from the legs of an exoskeleton, vastly increasing the jumping capability of the E1.  Xjumps stayed deployed when running - they acted as springs, greatly increasing the length and power of each stride, folding back into the legs when the EX1 slowed.  

 

Dave reorganized the unit to move Maggie, Paul, and Ender to the rear.  They acknowledged the change with a simple nod and moved with the automation.

 

5 seconds.

 

He monitored concentration levels.  Focus levels were high.  The unit gracefully reorganized and for a moment was silent.  

 

4...3...2...1

 

Automation crouched them.  The mission timer counted zero.  Asphalt shattered as the xjumps deployed and the unit launched into the air.

 

------------

 

An Intel Update Report registered as an informational alert on the teams Planning View as they jumped.  It didn't vary significanly from the Intel report they received an hour ago.  None of them noticed.

 

Intelligence suggested that the "rebels" had taken the city with four trucks containing less than 50 ground troops.  Raw data from the first phase of their attack was available on the litenet.

 

It was known that the first truck towed a trailer containing two tons of fleas - heretofore unknown weaponry.  The truck probably had an easy time deploying the tiny flea-like robots with a pneumatic sprayer, as Makeni had been rebuilt twenty years ago with a [circumscribed freeway] named after the lead investor in it's redevelopment, "George W. Bush Freeway".

 

A second truck was suspected to have contained a few dozen hexapod anti-aircraft bots - giant walking beasts with chainguns and missiles atop.  That truck had been sighted at the airport.

 

The fifty troops that travelled in the third truck were equipped with the latest personal armor, AK-91 smart rifles and dirty rounds.  City forces of over one thousand conventionally armed police with ancient weaponry were grossly outmatched.  The central makeni police station was overrun in seconds.

 

The fourth and final truck contained a relatively modern (printed and programmed within the last few weeks) electronic counter measure (ECM) system.  When the ECM unit wasn't exploiting every system in Makeni with the latest cracks, it was blasting the airwaves around Makeni with dangerously high levels of microwave radiation.  Effective RF countermeasure, but brutal.    

 

Intelligence suggested, but did not gaurantee, that the ECM unit was located in the center of the city, beneath the #2 power plant, which was the largest nuclear integral fast reactor in Sierra Leone.  It's antennae were a bit of a mystery, as CenCom couldn't get a regular fix on the source.

 

The #2 power plant had been guarded by a Russian T92 anti-aircraft/anti-armor mech - the largest class of mech ever constructed.  That single mech towered five stories over the domes and transformers of the power plant.  The Sierra Leone army was so enamored with it, that they had proudly named it Bai Bombah, after one of the heroes of their independence.

 

When delivered, Bai Bombah was already formidable - capable of filling the Makeni sky with old-school anti-aircraft munitions.  

 

Since delivery, Bai Bombah had become a money pit for neopotistic government contractors.  So much armor and weaponry had been added to Bai Bombah that it could no longer move on it's tank-like tracks.  It squatted on top of the #2 power plant, a testament the flawed design idea that a human might drive a versatile Giant Mecha.  Instead, Bai Bombah had morphed into a massive version of a more successful design, the Anti-Aircraft Platform.  It no longer housed a human.  Control of it's hundreds of weapons was made by hardline to a control room in the nearby police headquarters.  When the controlling police station was overrun, Bai Bombah had been shut down without firing a shot.

 

Control of Bai Bombah was a crucial loss to the city.  Even the exocorps could not risk dropping directly on top of an anti-aircraft platform that could fire hundreds, if not thousands of smart anti-aircraft rounds skyward, not to mention the insane number of cannon and other weapons arrayed on the creature.

 

As far as intelligence knew, the enemy ground troops took captive city hall and the main the police station first, then the two ultrasteel factories, and finally the cities two nuclear power plants.  City officials held at gunpoint instructed residents to remain indoors, an instruction reinforced by news of the horror that those who encountered the ring of fleas around the city befell.  

 

The ECM unit activated immediately after the warning went out.  Once the rebels had the ECM unit in place and powered on, it effectively shut down communications with the outside world.

 

Almost all that was known about the attack after the ECM system was turned on was what could be seen from the sky.  

 

So as not to interrupt the helpful brown cloud of smog above Makeni (which interefered with any optical communnication system inbound air power might be using) the "rebels" instructed city hall to keep their fully automated factories running at maximum capacity, with reporocessors turned off.

 

After the ECM unit was in place, the rebel anti aircraft bots destroyed the tiny air force of Makeni at the airport, and then dissapeared.

 

The truck carrying the fleas drove a circle around the city outskirts - spreading a deadly barrier from the ground to well above the jungle canopy.  

 

With a few dozen anti-air bots and two tons of fleas spread in a ring around the city, fifty men held captive a population of over one million people against all comers, and halted production of 70% of the worlds ultrasteel.  

 

The Nigerians had attempted to intervene via armor and air incursion from the northwest highway, but they had suffered horrible losses.  The fleas had dissolved their way through armor and men.  Remotely piloted air fell blind inside the ECM ring, and were picked from the sky.

 

No one dared enter the city.

 

But ultrasteel is important to more economies than just that of sierra leone, so the Army Rapid Innovation Division had worked with the Klamath Robotics Lab and the Livermore Military Materials Unit to find a way to clear the city as quickly as possible.  

 

Blowing the nuclear power plants, or otherwise "freeing" the city with missile fire and bombing runs would be a blood bath.  

 

The exocorps was deemed the best chance to avoid that.  They were the first unit the Sierra Leone government requested.

 

The exocorps primary target was the ECM unit.  Shut the ECM unit off and it would be safe to bring in any number of remotely piloted units that could be controlled by remote pilots, kills authorized by exocorps members.

 

The powers that be weren't going to let ultrasteel orders go undelivered much longer.  

 

The exocorps and the Rapid Innovation Division had precious few hours to get ready before the government of Sierra Leone took more drastic measures.

 

The report was not explicit about the outcome of the mission, but it was implied that if the exocorps failed...contract drone armies would be deployed...the bombing would begin.

 

--------------

 

In the air, time slowed for the exocorps unit.  Their entire focus was on a video of themselves leaving the ground, shot from behind.  

 

The video stream was shot from fliers approaching them, a dozen meters above their position, and diving.

 

They saw themselves reach the peak of their jump just above the jungle canopy, and saw their own arms raise above a dozen red graphic lines projected on their bodies from behind.  Every joint of thei exoskeletons, from the top of their head to their toes, locked into drag position.  The video passed them.  Their bodies jerked explosively forward and up.  

 

Dave nearly lost consciousness before the presssure and drugs the extraskin was pumping into him brought him back.  The jump drones were ahead of them now, and their exoskeletons were locked into harnesses that dragged the soldiers through the air, accellerating quickly.  After a few seconds all of their exoskeletons were pressed flat against the bottom of the drones.  Latches reached out to secure them.  The drones adapted their armor and control surfaces to protect the exocorps and make them an integral part of thier areodynamic skin.  They were in head-first "superman" flight.  

 

--------

 

The roar of the jump drone engines was modulated only by the occasional crack of a bit of jungle canopy against daves suit or the drone.  When these pilots came in low, they came in *really* low.

 

Audio implants dulled it all.

 

Video overlay focused the team on their destination within the city rather than the superman-like view.  Daves extrasking was in squad-leader-mode - meta-stimulants adjusted neurotransmitters, which adjusted Daves focus from narrow to wide, and sped up his thought process.

 

Dave surveyed the approaching buildings at the edge of the city.  He voted on a target landing zone two blocks inside George W. Bush freeway [what do you call a freeway that circles a city?] an area of older, sixteen-story buildings.  The pilots at CenCom concurred, and twelve landing targets lit up on top of the buildings in Daves overlay.

 

On Daves video overlay, a simplified overhead map of the area appeared.  The map was overlaid with a wireframe of section of the city - the area between the exocorps likely entry point to the city and the Bai Bombah power substation.  

 

The overlay highlighted their current positions and their ultimate target positions within the city.  The two concentric rings they had seen before were shown as well.  

 

The goal of the jump drone pilots was to evade missile strikes, while minimizing the time spent transporting the exocorps inside the inner ring.

 

Accellerators had Daves mind racing.  As short and fast as the flight was, it seemed eternal.  Unwelcome thoughts crept in.  He was talking to himself:

 

<What are they inventing while we're on our way in?>, he thought.

<We're about to fly through a cloud of fucking fire-hammers at two hundred miles per hour and I have to worry about the next thing?>  

<Welcome to modern warfare, Dave.>

<Focus, Dave.>

 

He put several screens up.  

 

On the left was top-optical view.  

 

Top-optical was currently showing a live, zoomed, overhead video of the two troops flying ahead of him, Hugh and Rodriguez.  

 

Next to that, Dave had simple-radar view, a tracking screen showing green dots flying over a wireframe of the jungle.  Inbound enemy missiles, every one intercepted by air support, appeared as red lines flickering and dissapearing on simple-radar view.  Across the lower half of his HUD, Dave could see the superman view of flight toward the Makeni skyline: front-optical view.  He zoomed-out both the simple-radar view and front facing optical video.  In front-optical, he began to see the symmetry of the quickly approaching city as it rose from the jungle.

 

Then he saw the black cloud.  Rising at the edge of the jungle.  They were right on it.

 

The first indication of contact was jitter in the green dot representing Hugh.  It could have been slightly unsmooth flying by Hughs drone pilot.  It was only a fraction of a second before Rodriguez' drone literally jumped to the right in simple-radar.  Then Hughs drone jumped.

 

Dave heard a fizzling sound of fleas that destroyed themselves in the air after bouncing off albedo material.   

 

Then all hell broke loose.  

 

------------

 

A booming concussion hit Dave.  

 

His front facing video went black and audio cut out.  He felt his drone pushed wildly.  Blind and deaf, concussions started hitting him like machine gun fire.  Each flea that detonated in contact with his exoskeleton slappe Daves drone aside like a giant, fiery hand.  It was as if gods were asserting themselves over the exocorps by playing an angry game of ping pong with them.

 

Daves front-facing view-layers came back, but they displayed only a moving sea of red.  His audio came back, but as a single, constant boom.  The boom was kept manageable by his aural implants, but still drowned out all other sound.  

 

To Dave, it felt like a booming, red, roaring hallucination.

 

Gesture control failed completely.  Every time he tried to clear the view-layers on his HUDs, another concussion hit him, and his gesture went unrecognized.  Subvocal control systems were down, too.  

 

He had pain in his neck and his side.  

 

A blue wave appeared over the sea of red.  His implants, realizing how useless a dull roar was, cut out all outside sound.  Dave still felt the booming in his bones, but all he could really hear was his own breath being knocked out of him again and again.  

 

He realized that the exploding fleas had left a layer of black over his face-shield and some of his optical cameras.  They wouldn't be seeing much of this battle by natural light until they could clean them. [ possible inconsistency with later re-use of front facing opticals ]

 

He tried gesture control again - complete failure.

 

He closed his eyes.  He focused on the pattern of Composite Mental Graph tokens that would clear all his HUD overlays.  

 

He heard audible feedback as each he correctly issued each thought token mentally.  His HUDs were off.

 

He opened his eyes to see the inside of his black facemask viewscreen, shuddering wildly.  

 

<Shit.>

 

The hits kept coming.  Dave closed his eyes and focused a series of thought tokens again.  Audible feedback.  He had raised the default front view layers again - video and composite radar.  

 

He opend his eyes to a sea of red.  

 

<$@*!#!>

 

Dave fought back the temptation to panic.  He kept his eyes open and began again. 

 

He brought up a menu with one thought token, then a second, then he selected friend or foe parameters.  Friend overlay only.  

 

The sea of red dissapeared - replaced by green vector graphics wireframes of three tortured drones ahead of him.  Each was shuddering wildly and swooping dangerously left to right.  Out of nowhere another drone swooped right in front of him, passing no more than a meter ahead.  It's pilot pulled up, then dived below an inbound missile that was arcing wildly through the air.  Then his own drone dove, and he felt a thunderous crack before it quickly rose again.

 

Dave switched to overhead composite radar only.  They were almost through the black cloud.  He heard his breathing stabilize.

 

After a last pounding on Phams drone, the hits stopped coming.

 

Their LZs approached as they zoomed above the George Bush highway.  Dave pulled up status.  His units control system settings were all over the map.  Immediately Dave reset every member of his unit to use his composite radar as primary, and switched their unit-broadcast audio back on.  Dave briefly turned on a view from a high altitude surveillance drone.  The twelve of them looked like tumbling fireballs trailing lines of smoke through a wall of flame.  Chem lasers and anti missile-missiles exploded like flak ahead of them.  The blue ring measured at three seconds distance.  He cancelled the overhead view.

 

Dave made a judgement call.  Their facesheilds were going to take time to clean, if they were repairable.  Their uncovered cameras would eventually self-clean if they weren't too damaged.  They needed a sensor mesh, pronto, gauranteed.  Even if that meant a rough landing and a little more footwork.

 

"We're going to land close.  Mesh in the air.  Resetting a few LZs.  Three squads of four.  Everyones on a rooftop.  Report.  Rodriguez - initiate."

 

While he used gestures to concentrate his units LZs onto the three closest buildings, Dave used thought controls to reedirect his troops audio channels to a text stream.

 

Of the textual status reports scrolling up Daves viewscreen, two were relevant:

 

[TODO - fixup rf tech]

 

Rodriguez: "70db to lead primary mc."

Cencom: "Last comm before RF disconnect:  Clarification on air burst.  Fleas exhibit learning algorithm.  Countermeasures under development by Klamath Robotics Lab via Navy Rapid Reaction Lab - en route."

 

Dave switched the status report view out for a communications-status-view he had prepped before the mission.  A network map graphically displayed the link speed between all members of his unit and all Cencom transcievers.  It colorized the links by frequency.  

 

The exocorps were inside the blue ring.  Outside comm was cut off.

 

<Opticals not even going to work with all the brown shit in the air.>, Dave thought.  

 

The drones accellerated to final approach on autopilot.  

 

The left half of his screen listed four drone control options for after the drop "Return - Land - Control - Intercept"

 

Dave checked again that his LZ was now on the lead building of three, not twelve [consistent with original?], landing sites.  It was.  He chose "Intercept", then brought up mesh-composite-view.

 

No sooner had he had completed that than the jump drones converged.  They dove toward the target landing zones, deployed air breaks and control rockets, then pulled up, unlatching their cargo over 200 meters shy of the intended LZ, at 150 miles per hour.

 

Twelve exocorps marines unlatched at the same instant and flew threw the air.  Taught nanostretch cables streamed out from the bottom of each drone to the marines as they launched towards the rooftops at 150MPH.  In dramatic fashion, all twelve drones instantaneously pulled an Immelman loop that no human could ever handle, heading back the way they came.  This maneuver stretched the cables, ultimately yanking the marines to a near-stop in the air a few meters above their targets.  Each marine would release the cable from their back of their own accord.

 

-----------

 

While the exocorps experienced 150MPH to 15MPH in less than 4 seconds, they had plenty of time to thank the Klamath Robotics Lab for mesh composite radar view.  It was a thing of beauty.  Information gathered from the entire unit, in every spectrum technology could generate energy in, put together in one screen.  In the unlikely case that no one in the unit had the view you wanted, composite radar view would build the view you wanted, interpreted and built by the entire units computing systems.  When you had that kind of HUD info, you never wanted to go back to just human vision.  Composite radar view allowed the unit commander to zoom across the battlefield, through walls and men, to count the beads of sweat on enemies that justly feared the exocorps.

 

Mesh composite radar is a system that utilizes an array of electromagnetic, optical, air vibration, and heat emissions from two or more transmission arrays to feed a three dimensional view of surrounding objects back through the transmission arrays.  In short, it gave the exocorps, who were studded with transmission arrays, a view of the world seldom seen.  

 

Even with face-shields blackened by explosives, and RF communications effectively jammed over any distance larger than a few meters, the energy emissions around them created a clear enough view of the city that their view processors calculated the density, thickness, and strength of the rooftop they were to land on, over 100 meters away.  This data was fitted exactly to a wireframe of the city generated by their suit computers, and displayed as colorized data.  This data was critical to landing mode, which often had to guide them in to an ad-hoc LZ. 

 

Examining the diagram of rooftop integrity overlaid on his LZ, Dave wasn't sure "Intercept" was the right choice for his drone.  Two of the other three marines landing on the same rooftop as Dave had obviously chosen "control" - their drones were vectoring, directing them to sturdier sections of their rooftops.   

 

Composite radar view showed red lines where inbound conventional rifle fire began to come in.  Several red lines were near misses.  Many others were hits.  

 

The hits were all AK-91 rounds so far - smart little missiles - probably fired by riflemen or AA bots on the rooftops they were approaching.

 

It would take dozens of hits to overwhelm the EX1 reactive-generative-armor, but it wouldn't too many hits before bones began to break.  

 

Dave was more worried about the landing.

 

-------

 

As the AK-91 rounds struck the marines, they hit EX-1 reactive-generative-armor (RGA), a thick, multilayer armor bonded to the entire suit.

 

Unlike most conventional rounds, the AK-91 rounds were energetic enough to penetrate the first layer of the RGA, a thin layer of conventional armor.  They then passed into the inches-thick non-newtonian layer, which reacted to the impact by hardening along force-lines that distributed the impact across as much of the RGA as possible.

 

The AK-91 rounds, having nowhere near enough energy to crush the suit, stayed in the non-newtonian layer, but flexed the armor.

 

Below the non-newtonian layer, the RGA pressed hard on the piezo-impact layer, thick layer of conventional armor and circuitry.  

 

The compression of the piezo-impact layer caused an electrical charge to be built.  

 

Below the piezo layer, the entire RGA was bonded to critical members of the EX1, and only a thin climate control layer insulated the RGA from the marines extraskin.  

 

As the piezo-impact layer decompressed, the electrical energy so produced was returned to the suits ultracapacitors.   As the non-newtonian layer relaxed, it ripped the bullets into pieces, suspending them in the non-newtonian fluid.

 

Any marine who experienced the armor in battle agreed it was the best small arms defense invented to date.  But it didn't make them invulnerable.  If one AK-91 round hit, the net effect to a marine in an EX-1 was like sissy punch.  If a few rounds hit at once in different locations, the suits mobility would be diminished - a full on sprint might turn into a faceplant.  And if enough rounds hit the same spot in rapid succession, the flex would stop, and the later blows would be felt like hammers, bruising or even breaking bones.

 

----------

 

Extraskin and exoskeleton computers were radically affecting Daves mind and body, pumping accellerators and moderators through his bloodstream while electrically stimulating his nervous system.  Overall they kept him focused on the task at hand, dulled his pain, filled his body with energy, and accellerated his pace of thought.  But as enemy fire came closer, and the rooftops approached at speed, the limits and imperfections of the moderator-accellerator system were glaringly apparent.  Moments of surprise and a deep undercurrent of fear slipped through.  Daves concentration was far from perfect.  Training and automation made up the difference.

 

From a head-first dive toward the rooftops, the exocorps troops raised their arms and pulled in their legs.  Their bodies rotated to a feet first position.  The orientation of their head and body made no difference to LZ-view.  LZ-view looked the same no matter their orientation - a crosshairs on a quickly approaching concrete rooftop half the size of a football field - a colorized heat map showing variations in the strength of the LZ material that were pertinent to their landing - red lines showing enemy fire zipping by or striking them.

 

Dave allowed automation to take over the landing - it adjusted his arms and legs to redirect him in flight towards the best part of a bad LZ.  With automation in full control and extraskin cranking Daves mind up to full speed, time slowed.  

 

These rooftops were crap LZs - weak spots were everywhere.  Right before the landing, automation extended Daves legs partway, and extended his xjumps.  

 

Daves left leg and xjump compressed as he hit the building, absorbing shock and storing energy as intended.  Daves right leg ripped through the concrete and plastic rooftop, spraying simcrete and causing Dave to spin violently, crash to his back, bounce, slide, and crash back through a particularly weak portion of the roof to the floor below, into an unfinished open-plan office.  He bounced and slid to a stop staring up at a long hole he had ripped in the roof.

 

As Dave fell, combat-view replaced LZ-view for him.  

 

------

 

Combat-view gave Dave an initial situational scan without an order.  On his left, a top-down video-game-like view of the area surrounding the buildings the exocorps had landed on.  On his right, front facing optical view - his cameras had survived.

 

He saw his postion on the left.  One floor down from the rooftop of the most forward building in the landing area.  Only a few feet from a window.  That window faced a sixteen story drop.  

 

Out as far as one hundred meters, Dave could see red outlines of enemy troops against green building wireframes.  A dozen AA bots roamed within 100 meters - ready and firing - forming up a line of attack in this block and the next.  A few hostile soldiers with AK-91s were still standing as well.

 

Dave could feel his own troops as well - he saw green outlines, and felt a strong electrostim pull on the part of his body closest to each of them.  He pushed himself up.  Automation ducked him almost immediately, rolled him on his back, and aimed his weapons at a red outline - a twelve-foot-wide spider-like AA-robot that was crashing through a wall towards him at speed, having climed up from a floor from below.

 

Daves mind could not help do what it was trained to do, evaluate the use of deadly force.  He approved.  

 

Implants in Daves brain read his evaluation and fired two bursts from two of his machine guns - automation chose the appropriate rounds.  Over one hundred blades of spinning nanosteel discs no more than a dozen molecules thick fired forth, followed immediately two explosive rounds.   

 

Three legs in mid-motion were cut from the charging robot, but continued along their path of travel.  The torso, however, began to torque grotesquely as it's internal systems seperated from one another.  

 

As soon as the rounds were off, Dave rolled and fired his xjumps, launching himself out the window into the air, spinning in space.  

 

An explosion containing robot parts blasted out behind him.

 

No sooner was Dave out the window than Rodriguez and Leila opened audio channels - his troops had their eye on him - and felt him in the air.

 

Rodriguez: cable ready!

Leila: cable ready!

Dave fired back immediately: negative!

 

Dave had two good reasons to cancel their initial impulse to fire rescue cables into him.  First, that didn't usually turn out well.  Second, it was obvious to Dave that he was going to cross the thirty or so feet to the next building, even though combat view wasn't showing him a trajectory.  Dave estimated he would impact half dozen floors down - nothing an EX1 couldn't handle.  

 

He would be vulnerable in the new position, but it would give the unit a better view of the critical next block.  An improvement in position.  With composite radar, you wanted as many angles as you could get on the world around you for the best view - having someone halfway down the buildings would give the unit details they could use.  He could rely on the kids to take care of him.

 

Dave deployed crampons in the air - eight huge, curved spikes per hand and sixteen per foot - perfect for ice and rock - or just getting to know your enemy.  

 

Dave slammed both hands straight through the simcrete wall of the building across the street.  His feet followed suit before his head and torso slammed into the wall.  The world flickered, then came back to life for Dave.  He looked up.  Hanging from the wall, he saw a sky full of green lines.  The building he clung to was displayed completely in wireframe.  Leila and Hugh were already on top of the building he was hanging from, having jumped ahead from their orignal LZ, and had already fired several shots down into it, straight through several floors and through the enemy troops within.  Dave smashed a hole in the wall and pulled himself onto the eighth floor.  No incoming fire.  The inhabitants of the building now had exocorps above, below, ahead and behind them.  And ideal situation for composite-radar - the exocorps could zoom in on beads of sweat on faces if they wanted to.

 

Dave assessed the situation.  In the buildings behind him, three AA mechs were unrecognizable red jumbles.  In the building he was standing in, he saw a half dozen dead enemy troops, none alive.  Dozens of unarmed humans were shown as yellow outlines, mostly cowering on the floors below him.

 

[Might want to change that distribution to match map ->] His troops were spread across six buildings now.  Three groups of two formed the front line, three mopped up and provided cover behind.  Dave, Hugh, and Leila made up the left flank.

 

Looking through the wireframes of the buildings ahead Dave saw three more AA bots in the central building alone.  Dozens of AK-91 signatures were moving within this block and the next.  The enemy had chosen this spot to make a stand.

 

The sky abruptly changed in the center building of the exocorps line.  The three AA mechs were firing.  Green fire almost came to a halt as the exocorps took cover and red fire flashed across the block to the exocorps line.  Two enemy troops with AK-91s were also lighting up the exocorps building in the center of their line.  The exocorps on that rooftop were completely pinned down to a rapidly deterioriating building.

 

Leila ran to the corner of her rooftop that was closest to the enemy troops.  She exposed herself for an open shot on the AA mechs.  Before firing, she flattened herself to the rooftop.  No sooner did Dave ask himself why than the situation became clear.  

 

The two drones on intercept shot by overhead, buzzing the rooftop Leila was flattened to.  They exploded halfway across the block as they absorbed missile strikes - the shrapnel continued onward like [that stuff they fired out of cannon that was all nails and bits of metal and shit].  The sky was momentarily empty of fire.

 

That was the opportunity they needed.  Leila jumped as the drones passed, Hugh barely missed getting sliced by her xjumps as he took up position where she formerly stood.  As Leila flew through the air, and the cloud of shrapnel began to impact the AA bots, mesh-composite-view of the building that Leila was about to land on became more detailed.  There were no civilians on the floor with the AA bots, but there were 47 civilians on the floor below.  

 

Dave quickly applied fire restrictions.  Hughs cannon to glasers.  All exocorps - conventional rounds to range-detonate.  Hughs massive suit rocked from side to side as he fired three cannon rounds from each arm into the floor containing the AA bots.

 

The cannon rounds dissapeared through the window and exploded.  A blue mist shot out the window.  Inside, sticky blue balls glued themselves to everything within line of site.  

Hugh immediately ducked after firing, narrowly missed by return fire from the AA bots.  Missiles shot over his head and took out most of the rooftop he was clinging to.  The explosion on his rooftoop smashed him into its corner, which he clung to with both arms as the support gave out benath his feet.  The explosion blew fire and simcrete over his head and against his armor.

 

The glasers took almost a second communicate, then orient themselves as shape charges pointed toward the center of each AA bot and enemy soldier.  Then they blew.  

 

Dave watched in anticipation as he ran across the floor to a position in which he could offer supporting fire.  A loud crack was heard from the floor with the three AA bots when the glasers went off.  Dave saw the AA bots outlines slump and the red lines of their fire fell silent.  Hugh peeked up, then deactivated the remaining glasers before pressing up to the wall and jumping across the street to join Leila.

 

--------

 

Both Ender and Hugh were in the air at the same time when Leila broadcast a halt.   Hugh landed just feet behind Liela, managed to crash to his hands and knees without much sliding, and took a step back to the edge of the rooftop.  Ender landed a few meters from him in similar style.  They both broadcast a halt as well.  

 

Leila, "I can't see through this building.  Someone get on the ground!"

 

While Dave examined the situation through his troops camearas, he found an old steel supporting beam on the floor he was on, tied a nanosteel cable to it, set it to auto-belay, and ran to the window.  

 

As he ran, Dave brought up Leilas cameras in an array.  Red flashing dots covered the rooftop she was on.  Leilas left foot had barely missed stepping on them.  He switched to Enders cameras.  Ender was surrounded by mines as well.  It was a miracle that he hadn't set any off.

 

As Dave jumped out the window.  He ordered Paul, who had been taking up the rear, to the ground as well.

 

Dave touched the ground and detached his cable, running across the street to the building Leila and Hugh were atop.  He jumped through a plate glass window while focusing on the AK-91s across in the next block.  They were winding their way to the top of the building.  Probably a couple seconds before they lobbed grenades onto the rooftop his troops were trapped on.  Looking up through the building, Dave saw that every floor had at least a few mines strewn about.  

 

This entire line of buildings was a trap.

 

Rodriguez messaged : {RF Surge.  12 o'clock.  No visual. Moving fast.}

 

Dave switched to RF-view from Rodriguez's perspective.  He saw his troops, the building wireframes, and the RF spectrum rendered as colorized clouds.  Ahead of their position a massive grey cloud emanated from the center of the city.  Daves troops were blasting much weaker RF through everything around them in technicolor.  Behind his troops, coming from the jungle, a sea of Red approached.  Dave saw Rodriguez turn to face it.  Dave zoomed out to an overhead RF-view, and saw all of the troops in the rear line turn to see the approaching cloud.

 

Rodriguez: {NOW!}

 

As the alert popped up that Rodriguez had warned Dave about, Dave saw Rodriguez' outline violently flattened to the building he was on.  The rest of the rear line were flattened as the red cloud overtook them.

 

The fleas had followed them.

 

Dave hesitated over the large blue command button that Rodriguez wanted him to hit - and held off.

 

Dave messaged the entire unit: {Rear Line: Descend!  Front line - Advance!  Jump!}

 

Dave gestured troop control and grabbed Enders suit.  He popped Enders face-shield and messaged Ender:{Now! Cover us! Keep LOS to as many of us as you can.}

 

As Hugh, Ender, and Leila jumped forward, the rooftops they were on blew in spectacular fashion.  All three of them were spun in the air - out of control.  

 

Dave kept running forward, smashing through walls and windows to get out of the booby trapped building as floor after floor rapidly blew above him.  

 

There was nothing else to do now.  Halfway across the street, Dave hit Rodriguezs command button.  

 

[THIS is the time to explain Rodriguez' script - after giving the reader some time to formulate their own problems and solutions]

 

{SUIT LOCKED - COVER} Flashed across his HUDs.  Dave fell on his face and slid to an awkward stop  in the street.  The command had curled his limbs up - his knees were locked to his chest, and his elbows were at his ears, his hands behind his shoulders.  In suit-lock, weapons and armor of the EX-1 formed a maximally seamless ball of armor - instant, maximal cover, no mobility. [More about the armor?]

 

AK-91 rounds started to impact Daves armor, overwhelming it's absorbtion capacity, then damaging his exoskeleton and breaking bones beneath.  Fortunately for Dave, the building behind him had completely lost integrity.  The dust and rubble flying from the falling building blasted out windows that enemy troops were firing from.  The falling rubble caught up to Dave quickly.  He was buried. 

 

-----

 

Ender was upside-down and rotating in the air when his face-sheild popped.  The beauty of composite radar view was replaced by the pandemonium and heat of the natural world.  He saw Hugh and Leila curl into balls in the air and smash through the rooftop to the floor below. 

 

Ender used gesture command to deploy crampons and brought his legs around before he hit the rooftop.

 

A door to the rooftop opened immediately after Ender landed.  Enemy troops began to appear as Ender rolled to his feet.  

 

Without HUDs to ask for kill confirmation, Ender acted without automation.  This was old school warfare.

 

Before the first of them could raise a rifle, Ender had crossed the distance between them in two steps and planted a foot in him - the first of several negative health events for the soldier.  If the impact of Enders foot didn't kill, him, the crampon did, and it didn't help that the soldier behind him fired wildly as the body of his compatriot forced them both violently back down the stairs they were climbing.  

 

Nor did it help that Ender kept his forward momentum and stomped over the bodies of both soldiers on his way to the floor below, where three enemy soldiers were preparing to dispatch the curled up Hugh and Leila with charges.  Ender grabbed one by the head and threw him out the window, while deploying an x-jump through the chest of another.  The third got a burst off into Enders midsection, crushing several ribs and knocking him down next to Hugh.  But Ender was in the zone, and Hugh was just a five hundred pound object to Ender, which he threw into the enemy soldier before tossing the enemy soldier out the window after his compatriot.

 

Ender was alone in the room with Hugh and Leila when he heard thunderous explosions above.  Greetings from cencom.

 

Ender focused his mind to recall where he had seen AK-91 signatures on composite-radar only a minute earlier.  He wished he had HUDs to replay it.  

 

"Fuck it.", Ender said, pulled in one hand crampon and took an AK-91 from the floor.  He descended the stairs.  

 

A second later white foam rained down from the sky, and kept falling.  The thunder of exploding fleas stopped.  By then Ender was too busy to notice.

 

--------

 

Dave was completely out of contact.  Buried and with no connection with his troops, he could see the pre-generated wireframe of the city, and from first person view he could see a representation of the density and heat of the materials around him.  His breath was labored.  The red wave appeared.  His life was in the hands of Rodriguez' script now.  

<Note to self:  If we get out of this, kill Rodriguez.>

 

Dave heard small weapons fire.  Then explosions.  Loud ones.  Either more mines or fleas were going off, finishing of his troops, or air power had come through with something.  Only Dave, Hugh, Leila, and Ender were ahead of the fleas.  And of them, he knew only Ender was fighting now.

 

Dave cycled through every view he had for more information.  Views he hadn't checked since training.  Nothing changed.  More small weapons fire.

 

Then he saw something.  Spectrum analysis view indicated the density of the ground above him was changing.  It consistently got thicker.  Seconds passed. 

 

{SUIT FREE} flashed across his HUDs.  

 

Dave moved his arms and legs, fighting with the rubble.  Pain came and went as extraskin fought to keep him focused without completely fuzzing out his mind with pain killers.  

 

Dave tried to move more slightly.  The extraskin decided that a high level of pain was unavoidable.  

 

Dave pulled up his own medical eval before trying to get out of that position.  It took a few seconds for the scan to complete.  He had broken ribs, clavicle, ankle, and a couple fingers.  Most of those were already largely cybernetic replacements, but that didn't make it easier.  His blood pressure and heartbeat were strong and steady, and brainwaves were normal, under the circumstances.  The suggested treatment appeared on his screen.  The plain english explanation preceded the technical explanation.  The plain english explanation was to splint the broken zones - lock the exoskeleton ankle joint flat, broken fingers straight, and one shoulder back.

 

Below the explanatory text, icons denoted that the extraskin had already applied medicine to Daves bloodstream as applicable.  The actual technical terminology was gibberish to Dave.  He accepted the treatment and almost passed out as it was applied.

 

Seconds later, Dave worked his way out of the rubble.  Many of his optical sensors were miraculously in-tact and had self-cleaned.

 

From where he stood, it looked like two feet of snow had fallen on the city in the last few minutes.   The odd white stuff had hardened and crunched underfoot.  He pulled up a system damage report.

 

His weapons were limited.  He had lost his cannon, all his explosives, and one rifle.  He a single rifle, about a thousand conventional rounds, his xjumps, and one infantry spike.  He overlaid both optical and composite-radar-view.  His heart dropped as he examined them.  It added almost no detail to the city wireframe outside of the building he was in.  And it showed only one peer - Ender. 

 

Ender didn't have HUDs, but Dave could still reach him via audio.  

 

"Ender: Report."

 

Dave heard small arms fire over his audio implants.  "Got a couple more floors to clear.  Leila and 74 were suit-locked on floor seventeen.  They were alive when I left them.", Ender said.  More small arms fire echoed in the background.  "What the fuck happened?"

 

"Our air intervened.  Kept the fleas from pounding us to death.  Dropped a heavy layer of something harsh.  I'm clearing on the way up.  Get to a rooftop.  Now.  We need line of sight."

 

"Roger.", Ender said.  More small weapons fire echoed in the background.

 

<That boy needs management.>, Dave thought.

 

Dave monitored comm-view as he made his way up the nearest staircase.  He stumbled from the pain and the awkward position of his body.  

 

Dave stopped on the fourth floor and focused on comm-view.  One by one he saw faint link come up with four of his troops.  RF link with Ender, then Hugh and Leila, then Paul.  Paul was two blocks behind them.  So at least one of the rear guard had survived the fleas.

 

On his way up Dave glanced out shattered windows and saw the devastation that the mines had left a block behind him.  The two sixteen story buildings were now about eight stories tall.  Their top eight floors having partially collapsed down through the bottom eight floors.  It was obvious where nanosteel was used and where it wasn't - the nanosteel was still standing strong up to floor eight, above which cheaper, lighter materials were used in construction.

 

Dave met no resistance in the three minutes it took him to climb the building stairwell, giving him some time to get used to his hobbled exoskeleton.  His spirits rose as his troops began to register on comm-view.  It helped that the extraskin had found a better cocktail of pain relievers for him, and had stabilized him at a "normal" level of pain.

 

His only encounter on his way to the roof was an unfortunate security bot on a stairwell platform.  Humanoid in form, it probably scared the crap out of unaugmented humans.  It tried to say something, but Dave just slapped it down the stairs with a strong backhand as he passed by.

 

--------

ADVANCE

--------

 

When Dave reached the rooftop he saw Hugh and Leila crouched in offensive positions at the northern edge, weapons aimed toward the next block.  He breathed a sigh of relief, then turned and saw Ender standing at the south edge, spattered in blood and black powder, a smiling face shining through his exoskeleton.  Ender saluted.

 

Dave returned the salute and called a report.

 

[Lets do an audio report here from Dave <-> troops]

 

Only Hugh and Leila, and Ender had escaped unscathed from the debacle.  The two squads in the rear had taken a lot of damage.  Only about half of them had fully working xjumps.  But they all had comm and they all had HUDs.  Weapons systems were all over the board, but no one was completely unarmed or completely immobile.  Rodriguez's plan had saved every optical transciever in the unit from destruction in the foam.

 

Dave reformed the squads, and sent the squad without xjumps to ground level.  He opened an audio channel.

 

"Dave->All: Converging on primary target together...I'll lead the high squads.  Marked on your HUDs."

"Dave->All: Marines, we just came out of a pretty good ambush without a casualty."

"Dave->All: We've seen their hand, lets show them ours." 

 

As the first member of the ground squad hit the street, Dave ran forward in his one-sided stride, and at the edge of the rooftop, deployed his xjumps.  Seven exocorps members took to the air after him.

 

------------

REGROUP

------------

 

Resistance for the next ten blocks was weak.  The ground team quickly dispatched the few remaining [sheesh, can we come up with a better name than enemy troops? these guys need a name] fleeing from the ambush.  Hugh and Leila, who quickly passed Dave to take point, took pride in eliminating any enemy troops encountered above ground level as a team.

 

Rodriguez pointed out that the radiation levels were dangerously high, even for someone in an EX-1.  Dave didn't mention the reports of smoking bodies lying in the streets from other members of the unit.

 

Composite-radar-view went low-res as they got closer to the city center.  Optical and UV radio links were their primary data links - bouncing off each other and the brown cloud above them.  Rooftop landings got tricky without detailed data.  Several times the exocorps had to crash through walls or climb to make it past increasingly tall buildings.  In minutes, they saw Bai Bombah and power plant #2 towering ahead, 100 meters to the north.  [Describe Bai Bombah] [Draw a map]

 

Dave called a halt.

 

The central police station, assumed to be the control center for Bai Bombah, could be seen two blocks to the west.

 

Dave->Rodriguez: "It's too quiet.  It's another ambush.  They know we have to move fast."

Rodriguez->Dave: "I estimate we took out 38 out of 50-75 total enemy units on our way in.  What isn't dead is probably in that power plant or at the airport, or running."

Rodriguez->Dave: "I like your paranoia, though.  As usual."

Dave-Rodriguez: "You would love my paranoid theory as to how they set that ambush up."

Rodriguez->Dave: "Later."

 

Dave flipped through every sensor and view he had.

Dave: "That ECM is killing us.  I'm getting shit for energy signatures.  It's all low-res fuzz."

Rodriguez: "We still have some opticals - cleaning has my faceshield darn-near like-new."

Dave: "The quicker we can get that ECM out and get armed air power in here, the happier I'll be."

Dave: "That place has got to be wired to blow, and surrounded by enemy units.  Ideas?"

 

Rodriguez was quiet.

Rodriguez: "Dave, ECM is not at the power station."

Rodriguez->Dave:Offer <Pull up custom-RF-view>

 

Dave accepted Rodriguez's offer.  

 

Rodriguez had put together a view that showed the city wireframe from above, limited to a 1km circle around them.  The view was overlaid with the locations of the exocorps and standard 3D RF spectrum analysis.  

 

The RF spectrum analysis showed a cloud of grey over the entire area.  Just west of power station #2 a white-hot RF source slowly moved.

 

Dave, "How's that possible?"

Rodriguez, "Look down."

 

Another layer showed up on the Rodriguez's RF-view: A grainy line that Rodriguez had plotted in a square around the city center.  Rodriguez had dropped some text next to the line that said: "electrified rail".

 

Dave filled half his HUDs with maxed optical on Hughs forward cameras, aimed past the power station.  Sure enough, through an alley, he caught a glimpse of rail along the street, past the power station, two hundred meters away.  They had put the ECM device on the old electrified rail system, and kept it moving.

 

Rodriguez, "Might be why Cencom intel was so vague on this target.  Now look up."

 

Dave panned Hughs cameras up.  

 

Dave shared Rodriguez' view with the entire unit.  It showed dozens of antenna on the line of towers to the east of the power plant.

 

Dave:All: "NO ONE is going into that power plant.  We will circumvent it to the north and south."

 

"Rodriguez will take Pham and Jones as squad 3 to the west.  Traverse north two blocks.  Squad 3 will hit the rail line to the north of the power plant.  Break the rail and any cable you find laying around.  ECM units are on rail cars - or something like rail cars.  Take them out.  Shut off power to that rail line."  

 

<Message: Rodriguez->Dave: electrified - radiation>

 

"Paul will take Liza and Jack as squad 2 south west to the rail line.  Recommend one unit high and two low.  Book it.  Put a few holes in the police station on your way."  

 

"I'm splitting squad 1 up and will lead them directly."

 

"Hugh and Leila will find their way to the top of the central building I'm marking.  They will take out the antenna towers on the four blocks along the line.  Expect defenses on those rooftops.  The ground units should finish up well ahead of the high units.  So find a vantage point to provide them some cover."

 

"I'm hopping one building over with Ender.  Ender will liberate that police station.  I'll keep the high ground, provide an optical link, cover Ender, and our rear."  

 

"Ender, I want good guys in control of that Mech.  That thing is a monster."

 

"And one more thing - Squads 3 and 2 - watch the rail tracks - cheif warrant officer Rodriguez reminds us they will be electrified.  Ender, you are not to go further than the police station.  Radiation levels are way beyond safe."

 

"This is going down fast.  Five minutes from now, ECM will be down, we'll have the power station surrounded, each of us will have a dozen skyhawks hovering within sight and in our control.  This city will be ours.  I'll turn it over to CenCom and S.O.P. from there on out.  Understood?"

 

All: "Clear!"

 

Dave: "Move out."

 

---------

 

As squad 2 passed by the police station at pace, three of the four exocorps members leapt into the air to fire a doorbuster either into the roof or the street facing wall.  The rounds boomed as they made contact, blowing holes in the structure.  The fourth member leapt three times, taking video through the exposed sections of the police station as he went.  

 

Ender had no HUDs, so Dave reviewed the video as Ender descended the side of the building Dave stood on.  He leaned over and had optical with Ender, and gave him a verbal rundown of the situation.  "Looks too empty.  Signs of a scuffle.  Cells are in the north end.  Pretty interesting hole in the roof.  Server room back there.  Poke some more holes near that one.  I'll get you more data.  There is going to be a control room for the defense mech.  We want to clear that first if we can."

 

"Affirmative.", Ender replied.

 

From his vantage point, Dave still had optical data comm with squad 3, but he had lost squad 2 as they rounded the power plant to the west, and Hugh and Leila were likewise out of sight.  He set comm-view to link-alert mode and dismissed it.  He then brought up composite-radar-view, but it was a depressing grey cloud over the city wireframe, showing only himself, ender, and squad 2 approaching the rail tracks.  

 

When Ender reached the third floor, he leaped from the tower he was descending, x-jumps extended.  Hitting the street, his x-jumps compressed, and he bounded immediately off the street toward the roof of the police station.  He fired a half dozen charges onto the two-story police station roof before landing on it.  In five steps he bounded across the fifty meter roof.  He blew the charges as he launched himself into the parking lot behind the station, and took cover behind a police vehicle in sight of Dave.

 

Return fire came through one of the holes in the roof just south of the server room.  AK-91 rounds buzzed and curved through the air above the roof looking for targets before crashing into random objects.  One of them pounded through the roof of the vehicle Ender was hiding behind.  

 

Dave fired a camera round back in.  Dozens of tiny cameras pasted themselves to the inside of the room.  ECM made them useless.  Dave got nothing but fuzz.  <Damn.  Got to find that control room!>, Dave thought. 

 

At high speed, Dave replayed a recording of the last thirty seconds from the suit cameras he had focused on that room.  He clearly saw at least two armed men pass in within his line of sight, and what looked like an old-school ultrasteel container in the background.

 

"Ender.  Room of interest is below the hole in the roof closest to your position.  Contains at least two bad guys with AK-91s, maybe more.  Some control systems in there, probably inside an armored container on the east side of the room.  I'll keep you up to date.  Anything you can get me a clean shot on, I'll take out."

 

"Hold your fire, boss.  It's going to be messy.", Ender replied.  He fired his xjumps, swung himself onto the roof, and dissapeared into the police station in a flash.

 

Ender chose to enter through the server room.  

 

Dave heard the server room door blow open.  He caught flashes of fire and bodies moving quickly in and out of focus, but nothing paused long enough to identify.

 

--------

 

Dave kept his ears peeled for communications from squads 2 and 3, but dutifully covered the police station rooftop with his one remaining ranged weapon.  

 

Link came up on Leila first.  She was on the sixth floor of the Epi-Machinika financial building, tower [one of two towers in the makeni fidi with antennas on it - did I explain this?], climbing the wall at a sprint.  Davd had visual of her over Bai Bombah and the giant power distribution towers that circled the beast.  Hugh came online next.  Climbing the same tower.  A few floors behind Leila.  They would be up there in seconds.

 

Dave Hugh and Leila chose to climb walls rather than stairs way too often - potentially faster in an exoskeleton.  Riskier.

 

<These two aren't going to make it if they don't stay alive.>, Dave thought.

 

Dave knew Hugh and Leila already had link-alert on their HUDs, but decided a human voice might be nice to hear during that climb.  

 

"I have visual on both of you.  Squads 2 and 3 should be taking position shortly.  Climb safe."

 

"Roger.", Leila replied.

 

"Is Ender having fun yet?", Hugh asked.

 

Dave looked down and saw dust and smoke rising from the holes in the roof of the police station, and the occasional muzzle flash.

 

"Hard to tell with Ender.", Dave said.

 

Hugh sighed and said, "Let him know it's gonna cost him to bail his ass outa'gin!"

 

---------------

 

Link came up on squad 3, with an immediate request.  Three floors up, First Lt. Pham Nguyen had busted out a window to get a strong optical link with Dave.  He and Chief Warrant Officer Jones were climbing tower one the old fashioned way, by the stairs.  Dave accepted the link.  Pham was transferring video from the last five minutes, but chose to comment via audio.

 

"Sir, significant civilian presence in this tower.  Advise leaving a transciever on this floor.", Pham said.

Dave brought up visual, zoomed to life-size and saw Pham looking back at him through the window as if he were three feet away.

"Acknowledged.  Enable audio on that. I'll try to keep the civies heads down.", Dave said.

"Jones has it set up.", Pham said.

 

Bits of building material showered in front of Phams image, as Jones, just out of view of Pham, was installing something on the side of the window they had busted out.

 

The transciever was probably useless.  Dave brought up Phams health report.  Colorized biometric stats overlaid phams image.  This was Phams first real action.  He had taken half a dozen rounds and nearly been crushed in a building cave-in.  He was probably running on as much anasthetics as Dave was himself.

 

"I'm sending over an update as well.  Good work.  Get up that tower.", Dave said.  He sent over troop positions and health stats.  

 

"On our way." Pham said, and turned to ascend the stairwell after Jones.

 

Sometimes it just took data to calm the troops down.

 

---------------

 

Hugh and Leila didn't detect the AA mechs on top of tower 2 until they were five meters from the roof, outside the top floor.  The Friend or Foe alert was blazing in their ears and on their viewscreens.  They came to a halt simultaneously.

 

They communicated in text:

Hugh:"That was close."

Leila:"We should have made them ten meters back.  I assume they made us."

Hugh:"Perhaps they won't fire out of self-preservation - they would destroy the roof."

Leila:"Not buying it.  Maybe their systems are as beat up as ours.  The ECM is screwing with them."

Hugh: "Or they know they can't take us out with cannon, but their missiles will chop us in two, and they've seen what happens to these roofs when their missiles strike."

 

Leila:"We've got civilians one floor down."

 

Leila brought up a first-person building-analysis-view.  Her viewscreen showed a green wireframe of herself, attached to the side of the building wireframe.  Fuzzy shapes of humans could be seen huddled in a central room on the floor she was on.  She flew virtually through the top two floors of the building.  Dozens of civilians.  Locked in internal conference rooms, bathrooms, sleeping under desks.  She carefully examined the construction of the two floors.  The central posts could withstand anything she could throw at them, but the flooring didn't have the density for a firefight.  

 

She flew through the roof and looked down.  Two incomplete red wireframes of the spider-like AA-mechs were there, waiting at either edge of the roof, crouched as low as they could be, the top of their frame just below a meter high concrete barrier that ran the perimiter of the roof.  Data scrolled by next to the images of the AA bots, identifying their model, weaponry and capabilities along with statistical confidence on each point.  Leila dived through the roof and down through the floors of the building.  Civilian objects, certain at first, appeared fuzzier and fewer, with statistical annotations to match.  She cancelled the view.

 

Leila:"Got glasers?"

Hugh:"I'm out.  I've got cutters, standards, three XP for the cannon, and charges."

Leila:"And two cables.  I see your inventory now.  I've got standards, charges, three cables, and an idea."

Hugh:"So do I.  Clear the civilians out of this floor, put a couple charges beneath these buggers, or just toss some charges on the roof and hope for the best."

Leila:"My idea keeps the floor in-tact.  Not sure our charges will take these guys out through the floor.  They only need to get one missile off.  I want to stay out of their line of fire, and get a charge pressed against them."

Hugh:"It goes without saying that your ideas frighten me, luv - but go ahead."

 

Leila set a rendevous point at the central ultrasteel pillar inside the top floor of the building.  It appeared on Hughs screen.  He entered the window gracelessly and tossed aside a desk on his way to meeting her there.  Their viewscreens went transparent and they spoke face to face.

 

"Listen, we can't get a charge to stick to these bots if we throw it, but we can get an auto-hook to stick.", Leila said.

"Which will piss them off.", Hugh said.

"If we can get one cable with an auto-hook on them we can get a charge on them with a second cable.", Leila said.

"Not sure we'll get an auto-hook on them.  And if we miss them with an auto-hook, they'll move on us.  Maybe they'll even fit down the stairwell.", Hugh said.

"It'll work.", Leila said, and gave Hugh a face that said she had made up her mind.

Hugh gave her a face that said, "I don't know about this.", but pulled two charges from his pack.

 

They shortened two rescue cables to the length Leila calculated to be optimal, and attached them together.  They wrapped that cable once around the central ultrasteel pillar on the top floor.  Hugh and Leila each took one end of the resulting cable, and walked to the window directly below each AA bot, on opposite sides of the floor - knocking furniture aside as needed to keep the line straight. 

 

Hugh ran a test on the auto-hook in his hand by pressing it's sides.  The three prongs spun and grabbed wildly at the air, extending and extracting hairlike spikes, before returned to a steady, still state.  Hugh poked his head out the window, looked up at the roof, and back at Leila.

 

"Don't give me that look.", Liela said, seeing his movements on her HUDs.

 

Hugh sighed and physically shook his head, then tied a bight his end of the long cable they had made, a few inches from the hook.  He then pulled a second cable from his chest, passed it's hooked end through the eye of the bight, and attached it to a charge, which he magnetically stuck to his chest.  Leila did the same.

 

The wind whipped against their suits as they hung halfway out the windows.  Leila analyzed the poor data they had on the AA bots.  Their suits were sharing data, but all they had were fuzzy images of a non-moving spider-like objects just above them.  She measured the exact amount of cable she estimated each of them should let out, the trajectory each hook should take to whip over the AA bots, and fed that data to Hugh.

 

Hugh just gave her another look, shaking his head.

 

"It's going to work!", Leila said.  "Throw on three, two, one.  Throw!"

 

Hugh accepted three commands from Leilas suit, one setting the timer on his charge, one setting the movement of his arm to throw the hook, and a third highlighting the cable as a highlighted object in his current view.  The cables and hooks were suddenly bright yellow in his viewscreen.

 

Hugh let automation throw the hook.  The EX-1 reached his right arm out as far as it could go and tossed the cable.  The second cable, attached to the charge on his chest, spooled out with it through the bight in the first.  The wind pushed it into significant overshoot, which Dave tried to correct by grabbing the cable with his left arm, mid-flight, taking in a foot or so.  He felt the cable catch.  The hook had caught the bot!  It was working!  His left arm was immediately slammed against the wall, trapped under the cable he had thrown. 

 

On the roof, both AA bots had responded to the hook by retreating a few feet as fast as they could.  As they were now attached to one another by the long cable Hugh and Leila had wrapped around the buildings central pillar, they were unkowingly pulling hard against each others back legs.  This caused them to retreat further until they were stopped by the cable, which had the effect, as intended, of snapping the cable tight.  Not intended: Hughs unfortunate left arm trapped underneath the cable.

 

Leila and Hugh could hear the bots legs crunching on the roof, pulling harder.

 

Hugh struggled to free his left arm.

 

"Hugh!  We have to blow these things!", Leila shouted.

 

"Wait one!", Hugh shouted back.

 

Using only his right arm, he detached the charge from his chest, and began yanking and grabbing at the cable attached to the charge, slowly and awkwardly raising the charge cable through the bight in the cable attached to the AA bot. 

 

Leila analyzed the imagery on the roof.  The walkers had figured out that the cable was the issue.  Their trapped legs were raising, folding back on themselves.  In a few seconds, either would release, or the pincers at the end of their legs would be able to grab the cable.  But the charges would blow first.  Leilas charge was already pressed against the bot on her side of the building.  Hughs charge was nowhere to be seen.

 

"Hugh!  You're out of time!", Leila shouted.

 

Hugh looked back at the central post.  He looked up at the charge.  

 

"I got this.", Hugh said.

 

He gripped hard at the cable pinning his left arm, and initiated his suit winch.

 

Immediately he was yanked out the window as the charge caught on the bight, stuck to the robot, and yanked Hughs chest upward.  Before he could pass the roofline, the charges blew.  Fire and shrapnel blew just over Hughs head.  He twisted in free-fall until he slammed against the building.  He looked up.  He was two floors down from the roof, and holding.  The hulking wreckage of an AA bot was slumped over the edge of the roof just above him.  

 

Deploying crampons, he slammed one hand crampon into the wall after the other and dug his feet in right after that.

 

Leila poked her upper body out the window, staring down at him.  She presented a cable in her left hand, the one she had caught him with.

 

"I got this?", she asked.

 

"Duck, luv.", Hugh said.  

 

Leila disappeared back into the building just as a good-sized chunk of the AA bot fell from the roof past her.  Hugh hugged the building and it barely scraped him as it fell past.  

 

Leila popped her head back out.

 

"Fun plan.", Hugh said.  

 

They shared a smile and climbed to the roof.

 

-------------

 

Pauls team was running at the speed of their slowest member, him.  Pauls xjumps were dead, as were Ivans.  Liza and Jack took up the rear with xjumps retracted, to keep formation.

 

Their HUDs were on pure optical, their visors clear - their only useful overlays being views from their own suit cams.

 

They traversed north as soon as they passed the power plant, and one block from their objective, turned west.  

 

They rounded the corner at 20kph, tearing up concrete, and caught a glimpse of a rail car passing between two blocks in front of them.  It was travelling along the rail perpendicular to their trajectory, disappearing behind a building to the north.

 

<Jack, Liza - Cut it off.  Stop it!>, Paul shouted.

 

Jack and Liza burst forward as their xjumps deployed, disapearing around the corner ahead in two two nearly instantaneous strides.  

 

The rail car was lumbering along at half their speed, when Liza and Jack caught up to it.  Liza jumped across the tracks as she ran so that they could flank it.

 

They aimed weapons into the rail car as they overtook it.  

 

The train was filled with unrecognizable, bulky electronic equipment.  It contained only one occupant, in the front car, apparently wearing a protective suit and helmet of some kind.  The occupant appeared panicked as Jack and Liza slowed to his speed, their cannon aimed at his head from either side of the car.

 

Jack and Liza heard a loud buzzing in their headset as they approached.

 

<Jack, you got spraycrete?>, Liza said?

 

<Gotcha.  Cover this guy.> Jack replied.

 

<What's that noise?>, Liza asked.

 

Jack didn't reply immediately.  He burst ahead two blocks before taking a knee.  He reached one hand behind his back as he gave [mental commands - come up with a cool word for those] - and a metal box the size of a briefcase ejected into his gauntlet.  He slapped it on the ground in front of him and it split in half.  

 

<I hear it, too.  No idea.>, Jack said.

 

Grabbing a small cylinder from the case, he pointed it at the tracks as the train approached.  From the cylinder shot forth a black substance that hit the ground between the tracks.  A shimmering, moving black rock quickly grew there.  The ground fizzled and smoked as the rock merged with the rails and the roadway below.

 

<Covering north.>, Jack said, and turned away from the approaching train, sighting on the rooftops, unconcerned about the approaching ten ton vehicle.

 

The panicked operator slammed at the controls and the train slowed as it approached the rapidly rising black blob.  Emergency breaks screeched.  

 

Paul and Ivan caught up and stood behind the train as it ground to a halt.  

 

Paul scanned the buildings in the direction the train had come.

 

<Covering south.>, he broadcast.  Then, <What is that noise!?>

 

A loud cracking sound came from the train as it pulled to a stop.

 

<Out of the train!  Move!> Liza yelled through her suit speakers.

 

The train had stopped just inches before ramming into the boulder of spraycrete, which had grown two meters on a side.

 

Ivan had taken a knee and was activating charges he had pulled from his pack.  They didn't power up.

 

[NOTE: the idea of a briefcase-sized "pack" is something that I could play with.  Janet could get one in the future.  Odd standardization of the military that mechas get the same case that executives get.  They could be disliked or ridiculed or whatever, but they are useful.  "Fucking Pack! is something that everyone in the book can agree on"]

 

<Charges are dead.>, Ivan said.

<Set them to contact - this ECM is probably killing them.>

<I did.  They won't power up.>

Paul kept covering then from the south, but he took a knee and ejected his pack.

<Fuck it.  Take mine.  We gotta blow this thing.>, 

Paul took a knee and ejected his pack, which Ivan walked over and grabbed.

While he did so, he overlaid Lizas front camera view.  An older African woman in a silver suit and huge goggles was struggling to push her way out the door between piles of cables and electronic equipment. 

<Liza, what's that idiot wearing?>

<Don't know boss.  She's complying.  Unarmed.  Kind of stuck.>

 

Liza ripped open the door and the woman fell forward.  Paul calmly walked three steps toward the lead car, drew a bead on the woman, and fired. 

 

Rather than the blast of a cannon, round, it made a loud pop.  A brown sphere hit her center mass.  The woman looked shocked, and grabbed at her stomach.  

 

Her gloved hands stuck to the brown substance.  The substance quickly oozed along every available surgface covering a good portion of her upper body.  Liza fired a round at her left foot, and gently pushed her right foot over to touch it.  The womans feet stuck together immediately, and the substance evenly spread itself around them.  The woman, resigned, gently laid back on the ground, mumbling something.  

 

<Charges placed.> Ivan said.

 

<Bring her.> Paul said.

 

<Just got optical link on Rodriguez' squad>, Ivan broadcast.  He waved south to two exocorps members who had taken up positions four blocks away, where the tracks turned east.  <I see Phu and Chuck down there.>, Ivan said.

 

Paul greeted them.  <Welcome.  ECM train to blow as soon as we're clear.>, he broadcast.

 

<Likewise for the tracks at this end.>, Phu replied.

 

Daves voice came across the channel to all: <ECM is already down. Bring up composite-radar-view.>

 

Paul complied.  His mask went black, and the world of data returned.  He chose an overhead view of the city.  A flood of relief came over him.  It was clear as day.  All twelve exocorps members showed up.  The locations of known mines and weaponry signatures throughout the city were again displayed.  

 

<Should we still blow this shit!?>, Paul asked.  

 

<Safely.  Yes.  I'm raising cencom.  Squads two and three get rooftops.>, Dave replied.

 

<Sir, we've got a captive.>, Liza said, pulling her backpack out, <A techie.>

 

<I can see that.  She's unarmed so backpack her.  Lets hold her in the police station with Ender.>  

 

<Already on it, sir!>, Liza said, pulling a box from her now open pack on the ground in front of her.  

 

Dave broadcast to the unit.

 

<Ender and Liza aside, I want you all up on a roof ASAP.  Birds should be inbound presently.  I've already lit up the rooftops I'm recommending.>

 

<Good work, exocorps!>

 

A cheer went up from the entire unit on broadcast audio.

 

-----------

 

Liza pulled a round, sticky tab from one end of the small box she had removed from her pack.  A cable extended as she pulled the tab.  She stuck the sticky tab to the top of her captives head.  Then she did the same with another tab that she extended from the other end of the box to her captives feet.

 

Before activating the splint, Liza ripped off her captives rebreather and recorded her rights.  "You're a prisoner of war.  You will be held according to the UCMJ and international law in Makeni police headquarters to await trial."

 

Her victim said something frantically in a language that Liza couldn't understand.

 

"And you look medically o.k. to me, so it's up you go!", Liza replied.

 

Liza turned her attention back to the splint.  On her huds, Liza saw an image of her captive encapsulated in a bright orange compression splint.  With her finger, she drew a circle on the image, around her captives eyes, nose, and mouth.  She saw the image of her captives compression splint change in her HUDs.  Approving, Liza issued a thought token.

 

The small box broke open and four black metal spiders crawled over the captive, trailing cables, arranging their position as they went.  Liza lifted her captive slightly so the spiders could get underneath her.  When they finished, they waited patiently by the box.

 

Then the splint inflated [chemical expansion of a foam goop is not called inflation - what is that called? spray foam does it].  

 

Viscous, moving, growing orange material poured out of the box.  It ran along the lines of the cables, and also oozed out to cover the patient, filling in every available space with a layer of pressurized goop, leaving bare the small circle open on the patients face that liza had excluded from coverage, lifting the patient off the ground as the goop expanded.  Lizas patient was mummified.  The pressurized goop hardened with an audible crackle.  It all took just a few seconds.  

 

Liza returned her backpack and lifted her now immobilized captive over her head.  The spiders ran circles through eight eyelets in the rear of Lizas exoskeleton as Liza lifted her captive like a backpack.  The spiders continued their frenetic run, tightening the cables before locking themselves in place.  The patient wasn't going anywhere, but Liza reached back and pressed on the splint to make sure before heading back to the police station.

 

----------

 

Dave flipped through his communications settings before calling Rodriguez.

 

"We have a problem.", Dave said.

"I know.", Rodriguez answered.

"What's up with Alpha channel?", Dave asked.

"Working on it.", Rodriguez shot back. "We're not receiving from Cencom on any official channel.  In some cases we can tell they aren't receiving as well.  Exploring alternatives."

 

Dave scanned position and status of the troops.  Ender was keeping busy patching up cops.  Liza was entering the police station.  Rodriguez, Hugh and Leila were on rooftops.  Most of the rest of the unit were climbing.  

 

Dave brought up activity logs for Hugh, Rodriguez, and Leila.  

 

Rodriguez had been probing his own equipment and computers, and every other computer he was in contact with, writing scripts Dave couldn't begin to understand.  

 

Hugh had his pack out, and was attempting to effect repairs to his exoskeleton and weaponry, and, whistling, apparently.

 

Leila was focusing on optical scans of her surroundings, marking images.  At the same time, she was hijacking a tiny freenet mesh network in Makeni - the only network she could get packets through - and madly requesting help from Rodriguez with it - to no avail.  Rodriguez, she found, was busy.

 

Dave brought up the last hundred or so images Leila had examined.  Too far for the eye to see, they were grainy magnifications of dots in the distance - everything in the air that her equipment could detect.  She was trying to answer the question on everyone's mind.  Where the hell is the cavalry?  One image set in particular had her full attention - a line of small fliers on the horizon - heading in from the south.  When Dave ran friend or foe on the images, the software had no idea what to make of them.  They were probably too far out to identify.

 

"Leila, got a feeling on that line of UFOs?", Dave asked.

"Yeah.", Leila said, "Bad."

"Get any comm?"

"Only with freenet.", Leila replied, "trying to get audio through to Klamath, but I'm talking to a machine over voice."

"Keep working on it."

"I'm on it."

"Understood.", Dave said.

 

Dave noted Rodriguez had turned off all comm with the unit.

Dave sent a priority override message.

"Rodriguez?!?"

"Working!", Rodriguez replied.

"Something on the horizon, Rodriguez.  Maybe Cencom is flying a mesh net, stretching it out to us."

"They would be higher.  A line of fliers reaching straight down from LEO.", Rodriguez said.

 

Dave could feel the hairs raising on the back of his neck.  He marked the incoming fliers in Leilas optical view and opened a channel to the unit.

 

"Cencom is not broadcasting.  At least not to us.  Rodriguez is working on it.  We have incoming fliers at the positions I'm marking.  Assumed hostile until proven otherwise.  Fire from high cover.", Dave said, then opened a channel to Ender and Liza.

 

-----------

 

Dave turned his focus to the police station.

 

"Ender, Liza, why the hell haven't the cops got ambulances running?", Dave asked, pulling up live video streams from both their cameras, and detailed health information.

 

They didn't answer right away, so dave pulled up a status report on each of them, and checked out their optical and audio views.

 

Enders suit had obviously taken some damage.  He might have overheated his armor.  There was no status information from his extraskin - but his suit reported his vitals were in line.

 

Liza was tip-top.  Upon her arrival at the police station, she had unceremoniously dumped her captive on the floor and joined Ender in emergency medical response, ripping a medscanner and patchset from her medical kit.  

 

They were working on a dozen cops with bullet and schrapnel wounds, lined up on the floor.  Ender had already applied patches to most of them.  The screams of the injured were overwhelming.

 

"Look at imagery and med scans from the last five minutes.", Ender said, "Half these guys are bleeding.  The other half are trying to get that monster to wake up.  Communications systems here are fucked."

 

Dave specifically did not look at med scans and imagery from enders sensors over the last five minutes.  He pulled only the faces of Ender, Liza, and himself onto their primary views, dismissing everything else.  Ender, without a faceshield, could not see Dave or Liza, but he could hear them.

 

Daves face looked drawn.  "Ender, Liza, you will immediately cease treatment of those civilians.", Dave said.

 

Enders face became an angry grimace, but he didn't even pause in his frantic work.

 

"Ender, you are going to wake that fucking AA monster!  Liza, you will get their ambulances flying.  Now!"

 

"Not sure Ender can hear you over the screams, sir.", Liza said, injecting an injured cop with a pain killer. "He thinks he's supposed to minimize civilian casualties."

 

Dave switched to Liza only.  Their faces appeared in one anothers primary view.  

 

"Liza!  I'm confiding in you.  This operation is as bad as it feels.  We have two buildings completely down, several city blocks riddled with bullets, and it looks like the main attack is inbound.  Every one of the rest of us has to get on defense stat.  If you don't get those ambulances in play, the world will not forgive the exocorps.  And right now, our defense is zilch."

 

Liza stopped what she was doing and became distant.

 

"I know you can do this.", Dave said.

 

"I read you.", Liza said.  "I'm going to shut the screamers up...to convince Ender."

 

Liza began systematically injecting each of the cops lined up on the floor with a dose of imnol sufficient to end their screams.

 

"I'll be in touch.", Dave said, and turned his focus to Pham's unit.

 

---------------

 

Rodriguez had been cracking every network in the city to get a link out.  Where he could, he got to the hardware level, and collected statistics.  He found memory access and thermal abberations everywhere - at every turn there were anomolies.  Processors didn't have the right heat signature for the instructions they had processed.  Sensors that should have used energy, hadn't.  Someone had been here before him.  Someone better than him.  The best he could do is run the data through anomoly analysis, to find patterns.

 

Rodriguez' only reliable network was the old ham radio operators - he knew them well, worldwide.  They opened up encrypted packet radio systems to him.  Bots crawled through the ham radio nets, and along the global Byzantium nets for Rodriguez, enlisting help.  Rodriguez didn't like to involve civilians in military operations, but he was desperate.

 

In a minute that seemed like an eternity, he called in favors on the freenet.  He went into a fortunes worth of debt on Ethereum credit-net-alpha.  And he got results.  A detailed report: traffic pattern analysis, log analysis, some electronic signatures, and a summary.  A single network had cracked nearly all of west africa, and parts of north africa and the middle east, and now it was performing a massive DDoS on Cencom.  The summary in the report gave a strong warning.  The network attacking CenCom called themselves the Arcane.  Listed as a relatively new decision network.  They had a reputation for violent action that couldn't be assigned a well-adjusted motivation - like dropping planes from the sky to prove they could do it.  The were mostly automation - no known cracks in over a year - they might be nice guys on an individual level, but together, they were a violent, egomaniacal psychopath.  

 

He borrowed until his ethereum credit-alpha was maxed, and then borrowed some more from friend-line-of-credit.  He fired off a contract to anyone who could clear the skies over Makeni with a Predator 77 or newer in the next thirty minutes.  It was a long shot, and he would never get out of debt if someone actually delivered on that contract, but the 77 was the only thing he trusted to take out new tech.  It was what cencom should have delivered, en masse, but hadn't.

 

Then his own suit monitoring blared a siren in his ear.  They had detected his HF bursts, and were trying transmitting bad packets with his ID.  Probing him.

 

It all came together for him.  He had seen this behavior before.

 

[Fuck.  Not *this* network.  Not again.], Rodriguez thought.

 

Rodriguez knew he had to do two things.  

 

First, he frantically worked to cover his tracks.  He cut off communications, then began changing frequencies and communicating with repeaters and stations that responded automatically.  Anything to throw the Arcane off of his friends.  

 

Second, he took the output of anomoly pattern analysis, and wrote a filter that cut off communications to an EX-1 if processor heat signature anomolies of the pattern he had seen were also seen in the EX-1.  He sent it to the entire unit.  Dave accepted it without delay.  They all had the filters running.

 

The attacker immediately hopped on the repeaters that Rodriguez communicated with, and called out to Rodriguez over audio and packet radio, using the call sign Rodriguez used in Ham radio for years.

 

Rodriguez stopped working.  He had done all he could.  He opened an audio channel to the Arcane, but said nothing.

 

"Say Hi, Rodriguez."

 

"How about fuck off."  

 

"We *let* you run those filters."

 

"Sure you did.  How about I left your channel open to me only.  You won't get anywhere else."

 

"We want to test some hardware today.  Here are the specs.  Your unit is doing some QA for us, prior to decomissioning.  Make yourself easy to capture, and all anyone will know is that you were captured."

 

The Arcane began sending him binary data over the HAM net.  Rodriguez captured it.

 

He fired up a virtual machine with a homespun kernel, and pulled the data in.  It was an old-school database of blobs, some images, some text.  He brought them up sequentially and flipped through them in the virt.  Then he caught eye of a short video, about ten seconds in length.  He played it in a corner of his viewscreen.  It was a video of the fliers that were inbound from the south.  He had never seen anything like it.

 

"We've been through this.  I'm not interested in your war."

 

"Our war is interested in you.  You are the only person here we can use, and the only person who will listen.  You've seen what we can do to you?"

 

"You couldn't pay me enough."

 

"We're offering one thousand years of life."

 

"Yeah, well, already got eternal life.  Found it twenty years ago.  And a job.  Besides.  I don't think you're good for it."

 

"You have a story.  We have reality.  We are the closest thing to a god you will ever meet."

 

"Yeah.  Until you meet a bigger one.  My story saved me from addiction and gave me compassion for all living things.  What did your story do for you?  It made you a maniac."

 

"16:23:27 CenCom time, we will test your story.  If you want to try ours, get out of your EX-1 by then, and we will direct you to safety."

 

Rodriguez didn't answer.  He was too busy analyzing the rest of the data from The Arcane.

 

"Read the specs, Rodriguez."

 

Indeed Rodriguez was scanning as quickly as he could, packaging the specs, and preparing them for archival.  He couldn't transfer them to the team - government issue software probably wasn't safe playing with this data.

 

"You can kill a few humans.  But it doesn't end here."

 

"You can live a thousand years, or a thousand seconds. Last chance at 16:23:27, Rodriguez.  

 

"Think long and hard about my story, friends, before you write another word of yours.", Rodriguez said.  Then he cut off communication with The Arcane, and opened a priority alert to Dave.

 

He intended to make those seconds count.

 

----------------

 

"C'mon Pham.  C'mon Jones.  Get that wrecker up.", Dave said to himself.

 

Dave could see that Pham had taken a knee behind a planter box on the roof of tower one, aiming his weapons and sensors at the inbound fliers.

 

Jones had both their packs on the ground.  

 

Pham and Jones carried packs that were significantly heavier than the packs of the rest of the unit.  They contained components and ammunition for the M819 "Wrecker" Heavy Assault Launcher.  Also arrayed on the ground were a number of components from Jones and Phams EX-1 exoskeletons themselves, which had been removed in preparation for the build.

 

Jones was moving fast.  He had tossed a number of outdoor tables and lawn chairs aside, knocked down the giant umbrellas that had shaded them, and shattered a wooden bar and tiki hut on the southern end of the rooftop.  He was an old hand with the M819, and he was picky about his working environment.

 

The base of the M819 was already in place, a heavy-duty tripod with it's own reactive armor covering.  Jones bolted it to the rooftop, pausing after each bolt was driven to allow the auto-tool to weld it in place.

 

The components ripped from his and Phams EX-1 exoskeletons were assembled with the M819 parts and used to build the weapon itself, a large semi-spherical device on top of the tripod.

 

Jones then ran thick, armored cables from the sphere down the inside legs of the tripods, and connected them to both his and Phams suits.  Finally, Jones snapped the ultracaps from both his and Phams suits into place inside the tripod legs.

 

Jones and Pham would server as sensor units for the M819 now - the eyes and ears, and conscience of a master of destruction.

 

The finished M819 itself was sleek, dark, and dangerous looking.  Angular black armor covered a tripod that looked like it could support a tank.  The weapons module, a half-sphere atop the tripod, just looked like more badassery covered in the same dark armor.  As Jones ran a self-test, the weapons module rotated and changed direction at blinding speed.

 

But it was the ammunition itself that made the M819 special.  VW3 missiles were the smartest, most maneuverable missiles in the US arsenal.  Spheres within their warheads rotated in anticipation of explosion.  When triggered, the spheres blew small, sharp, high-explosive rounds in precise directions, to great distances, at incredible speeds.

 

Pham left his position once Jones connected him to the M819, and moved to help Jones load the sphere.  They loaded the rounds by the pack of twenty, carefully activating a section of the sphere, pressing the missile pack into it's tubes, and waiting for the missiles to light up, and the sphere to close over them.  One thousand missiles in all.  The ammunition could not only communicate with Pham and Jones, but with every other piece of ammunition in the sphere.  Each missile had it's own tube.  The spherical design allowed any number of the weapons to be fired simultaneously - all of them at once - if needed.

 

Finally, Pham and Jones had both taken up position, attached by the ankle to the wrecker, weapons and sensors aimed at inbound flyers now nearly visible to the human eye.

 

Dave saw a notification flash in red at the top of his viewscreen "MAJOR CALLAHAN, YOU ARE MEMBER 7 OF WRECKER SENSORY NET ALPHA."

 

"Hell. Yes." Dave said to himself.  He could feel his breath calming as the wrecker armed itself.  "Hell yes."

 

Just then, Dave got priority alerts from Rodriguez and Leila simultaneously.

 

---------------

 

Dave brought Leila and Rodriguez into a call.

 

Dave -> Leila, Rodriguez: "Report."

 

Two reports scrolled up on Daves viewscreen.  He requested a verbal summary from Leila first.

 

Leila: "You can see I've been on Freenet.", Leila reported.  "It's not common knowledge, but CenCom is under DDos.  They have bots falling out of the sky right now.  Including some sent our way.  They've got some manned units making bombing runs over fibre in the middle east.  Looks like they'll have it under control soon."

 

Dave: "Leila, see if you can engage with neighboring resources.  Rodriguez."

 

Rodriguez: "Got in touch with the network running these inbound fliers.  They're new tech.  New materials.  Hard.  Self-healing.  Dangerous up close.  Not sure the wrecker will take care of it."

 

Dave: "Rodriguez, what can we hit these assholes with?"

 

Rodriguez: "HE, basically.  Or ECM.  They're new tech.  Bucket Of Parts.  Conventional rounds chip away at them."

 

Dave paused for a second.  He brought up the unit inventory.  As a unit, they were dangerously low on HE rounds.  

 

Dave: "It'll comfort you to know, then, that the wrecker is up."

 

Rodriguez and Leila were silent.  Dave felt the hairs stick up on the back of his neck. 

 

Rodriguez finally said, "That might not be enough HE."

 

Dave looked up in primary optical and scanned the skyline.  He saw the tiny figure of Rodriguez standing alone at the top of Tower 2, looking back at him.  Other troops were crouched or working away on Towers 1 and 3.  Bai Bombah sat atop the power plant, weapons lowered, a dark outline.

 

Dave: "If it's HE we need, it's HE we'll get.  Leave that to me.  See what you can do about ECM.  Stay on your toes."

 

Leila and Rodriguez both responded: "Clear."

 

Rodriguez messaged Dave privately: "How about taking that picture *before* the shit hits the fan this time."

 

Dave momentarily redirected all his cameras.  Put them on manual.  He zoomed in on Rodriguez.  Then zoomed out.  It was a good one.  The final picture would be beautiful at any zoom level.  Rodriguez had one leg up on the [structure surrounding the roof] of the tower, looking up into the distance.  The sun was beginning to set in the background.  An orange sky streaked with clouds in the distance.  Somehow the slight brown haze seemed to add to it all.  He sent the image to Rodriguez.

 

Rodriguez opened a private audio channel to Dave.

 

"That makes every continent.", Rodriguez said.  Dave could hear the smile on his face.

 

"Now you can retire - vain bastard.", Dave said.

 

"One more mission to complete, my good friend." Rodriguez said. 

 

Dave laughed.  "There's always one more mission.  Get to work."

 

"Wait one.", Rodriguez said.

 

Dave paused.  He zoomed in on Rodriguez, and saw that he was still posing, just staring into the sunset.

 

"Rodriguez.  We gotta work.", Dave said.

 

"I know.", Rodriguez said. "I've spoken to these pinche incoming bastards before.  I'm going to send you something.  If you make it back and I don't..."

 

"Send it.  When we both make it back I'll be sure to give you shit about being a pussy.", Dave said.

 

"There's a piece missing from this network, Dave.", Rodriguez said.

 

"There's gonna be a lot of pieces missing, Rodriguez, before we're done with them."

 

Dave accepted the data from Rodriguez and encrypted it.  When he looked away, Rodriguez was still staring at the sunset.

 

 

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