Wednesday, June 30, 2010

At least for a little while. . .

(Thanks to all of you who helped make this a success! I've no doubt I'll be updating again soon, but I'm ostensibly taking July off to work on other projects. Keep the emails, comments, @replies, and DMs coming, though. I'll still be around.)

"My Name Is No One"

Somewhere in the Great Plains...

This is what they call flyover country. Mile after mile of rolling hills, tilled fields, unceasing wind, and fading towns that didn't likely top more than a couple thousand (or even a couple hundred) in their 20th-century heyday.

Now, in the Year of Our Lord 2029, it's like a magnet for people looking to go off the grid. The local governments can't afford CPF protection in most cases, and the states and feds are stretched too thin to look after any population center with much less than a couple hundred thousand folks to rub together. And let's face it; places like the Dakotas, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma are just names on a map to pretty much everyone who doesn't already live there. So if you're looking to avoid the residual, unwelcome government attention that was the hallmark of the dustup with the Chinese and Nokos, you've found your haven.

Well, it's a haven if you can handle extreme temperatures throughout the year, farm labor, sparse wireless 'Net access in some parts, and know your way around firearms well enough to join a local militia. In other words, it's the last place on Earth that I expected to find Ryan Bell. And yet, this is where his trail ends.

Who is Ryan Bell? He's my best friend. Why did I follow him to the middle of nowhere? I'll tell you, but I'll have to keep it brief. You see, a rather innocent-looking girl of about seven has bulls-eyed my neck with a dart fired from a tranquilizer gun. I fear that I may soon lose consciousness.

* * *

"Cojeme! Half his body is burned off, man!

"I know. But I'm getting a pulse. Not much of one, but still. . . call it in, Ortiz."

"Bet you 20 he don't last until the chopper gets here."

"Come on, man. That's just wrong."

"1-9-7 Kilo, 1-9-7 Kilo, requesting emergency medevac to Grid 4-2 Sierra. Repeat, 1-9-7 Kilo requesting emergency medevac to --"

An explosion, then, and I saw the remains of the M-ATV I'd just crawled out of fly over us, turning in the air and slamming to the earth behind us.

* * *

I was at work when Ryan called. Some overpriveleged, precious young darling had spray-painted "Fuck the Chinks" on the wall of the third-floor bathroom -- while I didn't totally disagree with the sentiment, it was still my job to apply liberal amounts of turpentine to remove the graffiti before Grace Baptist School opened to the rich kids of Dallas in an hour.

The earpiece chirped in my right ear to let me know I had a call. I used to wear it in my left, but that side. . . well, it doesn't work so well anymore. There's still an ear there, technically, but not enough of one to even hold the earpiece.

"Andy Foster, loving life," I grumbled by way of greeting.

"Andy. Hey, it's Ryan."

"Ryan! What the fuck, man? You were supposed to be back, shit, months ago. I heard you called to resign. Lawrence was pissed, brother."

Jim Lawrence was the school administrator -- which was basically rich-person speak for the vice principal. Though I was just the custodial engineer (rich-person speak for janitor, or "he who cleans up shit and vomit") and Ryan was the financial assurance officer (rich-people for "accountant"), Lawrence was in charge of both of us. And he was an asshole, so that's fun.

"Yeah. Um, I was planning to come back to Dallas. Uh, I called to ask you a favor."

"Shoot, man."

"My car -- piece of shit broke down in the middle of fucking nowhere. I tried calling a tow truck or something, but no one comes out this far."

"Where are you?"

"Nebraska. Um, Ormond is the name of the. . . well, I wouldn't really call it a town. Think you can come get me?"

I looked at the slowly melting racial epithet in front of me, soaked in turpentine but not yet scrubbed away. I didn't have any vacation time built up, but. . . yeah, fuck this, I thought.

"Sure. I'm headed home now, and I'll get on my way out there. It'll take a couple of days to get out that far -- where should I pick you up?"

"There's only one motel in town. That's where I am."

"All right, brother. Hang tight."

I walked out of Grace Baptist Academy without saying a word to anyone. Fuck Lawrence. Let him figure it out himself. Not like I had a bunch to leave behind at that job, anyway -- everyone avoided me like the plague, either because I'm so big or because I'm so pretty.

Yeah, about me -- I was in the war. I know, shocking, right? I'm a guy in his 30s, so it was a pretty good guess I served somewhere. What no one wants to talk about, though, is that I was Army Kilo. Convict unit. I don't really want to talk about how I got there, so don't ask.

When we broke into Mongolia -- this was, what, fall of '27 -- my unit came under heavy fire from Chinese units. The M-ATV I was in as a passenger got hit by a rocket from a CDM. Driver got flash-fried when the vehicle exploded, but I was halfway out the side door when it went up. I lived, but not without scars.

A lot of 'em, actually. Doctors told me 48% of my body was covered in third-degree burns. I lost my left eye, three fingers on my left hand, and a good chunk of my left ear.

Like I said, I'm pretty.

Anyway, I walked out of Grace Baptist and right to my car. I didn't really make enough money as a janitor to afford a vehicle, but my wife had one -- she left it to me in her will. It was a 2026 Chevy Ronin, a nice sport-utility with hybrid solar. I drove to my apartment (crappy doesn't even come close to describing it), showered, packed some clothes and a Glock 50 (yeah, don't tell anyone I have that, what with being a reformed felon and all), and loaded the coordinates for Ormond, NE into the Ronin's GPS.

It wasn't an easy drive, or a short one. The Federal Government would have you believe that it's business as usual all over the country, but they haven't put any money into the Interstate system for more than a decade now. Interstates that used to be fine are wrecked -- some by insurgent action during the war, some by car wrecks that were never cleaned up, and some just by overuse and disrepair. I'd often have to find alternate routes, state highways, dirt roads -- a voyage that would have taken a day and a half before the war took me four days and change.

Gave me plenty of time to think, though. I flashed back to the war, but I do that a lot, and chances are you know someone who had it just as bad as I did. I won't bore you. I remembered how I met Ryan, though, a year ago when my record was cleared and they let me out of the Army to go seek employment. Bachelor's degree aside, the only place that would hire an ex-Kilo was Grace Baptist -- where the elite send their snotbag jerk kids to get a pre-college education.

Ryan was a good guy. I mean, initially, he was as reluctant to talk to me as anyone else -- big and pretty worked in my favor again. But one night, after I'd been working there maybe a month, he was staying late doing the end-of-year financials, and I was staying late fighting a losing battle against a clogged toilet.

He left a few minutes before me, but when I got out to the parking lot, he wasn't alone. A couple of punks -- Chinese, looked like -- had him with his back up against his car. One of them had a sawed-off shotgun, and the other one had a big, sick knife to his throat.

"I already gave you my money! Please, just take it and go!"

"Your car, too, you rich motherfucker," the kid with the shotgun said.

"OK. I'm going for my keys -- just stay calm," Ryan stammered.

"Motherfucker, I should just cut your fucking throat right now. I bet you killed a lot of us Chinks in the war, didn't you, motherfucker?"

"Nah. I did, though," I said, cracking my knuckles as I walked up to the scene. "Killed, what, 40 or 50 of you little bastards. Two more ain't gonna make me lose sleep."

The kid with the knife kneed Ryan in the groin -- hard -- then lunged at me. He was young and fast, but he didn't know his way around a blade. I dodged to the side and caught him by the wrist, twisting the knife out of his hand and spinning him around. A half-second later, I had him in a rear-naked choke with the knife to his right eye.

"Drop the shotgun, shitbird, or I'll shove this thing right into your buddy's brain. Wouldn't be the first time I've done it. Hurts like a motherfucker, to," I told the other one, smirking.

"You won't do it," the kid said, raising his shotgun.

"Even if you really think I won't, you're gonna hit your boy and do it for me with that street-sweeper."

The kid considered for a second, then turned and ran. When I couldn't hear his footsteps anymore, I let the other kid go and kicked him solidly in the back.

"Run on home, Skippy."

"My blade, man."

"Mine now. Unless you wanna come take it."

The kid took off, and I helped Ryan to his feet. We've been friends ever since -- mainly because he's one of the only people that talks to me, and I'm one of the only people that talks to him. Lifelong friendships have been formed for less.

I made it to Ormond on a sunny, brutally hot day, and I saw what Ryan meant by it not really being much of a town. There was a diner attached to a gas station, a few streets of houses, a motel, and the city hall. Not much else that I could see. I saw Ryan's car outside the gas station, but the place had a "back in 10 minutes" sign up in the window. I checked the motel -- same sign. Same handwriting, too.

There was a cop car outside the city hall -- a brand-spanking new Ford Interceptor. Really nice vehicle -- the kind actual cities with money had, like L.A. or Dallas. It was gleaming white, spotless, not even a smudge on the windshield. It was parked next to a side door that said "Ormond Sheriff's Department." There was no hand-lettered sign on that door, so I walked in.

"Hey, friend. Welcome to Ormond!" a young guy in a clean, pressed Sheriff's uniform said as soon as I walked in. "How can I help you today?"

"Um, hey," I mumbled. I wasn't used to someone actually talking to me, and especially not used to someone being seemingly happy to do so. "I'm looking for a friend of mine. Called me from here a couple of days ago. Name's Ryan Bell."

"Hmm. We haven't had anyone through here in weeks, friend. Haven't seen him."

"Oh. Uh, you sure? I have a picture if --"

"Nope! Haven't seen him. Anything else I can do for you, you just let me know, OK?"

Ah, the brush-off. That, I was used to. Not a brush-off this cheerful, but still -- I knew what he was getting at.

I hadn't eaten in almost a day, so I walked over to the diner. Though it was attached to the gas station, it had a separate door, and there was no sign on its door. I could see people moving around inside, so I walked in. The place was actually really nice -- spotless and bright. A woman and her two kids, one a little girl and the other a baby, were in one of the booths. A few tables away, a few old-timers were playing cards. There was a waitress behind the counter, talking to a guy in clean, khaki coveralls. I took a seat at the counter, and the waitress walked right over, smiling widely.

"Hi, stranger! What can I get you?"

"Um, cup of coffee to start."

"Sure! Regular, decaf, Sumatran, Ethiopian, or maybe a latte?"

"Um, just regular. Strongest blend you've got."

"Right away!" she smiled, heading over to a gleaming, modern multi-blend machine. She was back with my coffee a moment later, and I showed her Ryan's picture.

"I'm looking for this guy. His name's Ryan Bell. You know him?"

"Sorry. I haven't seen anyone who looks like that."

"Oh, come on! His car's right outside the gas station!"

"That's my station. Found that car about 45 miles down the road and towed it here. No registration in it, no one waiting by it. Figured someone would come looking for it, but no one did," the guy in the coveralls said, turning to me and smiling.

Shit. I figured I'd just order -- which I did -- and figure out my next move while I was eating. It didn't make sense -- Ryan had called saying his car had broken down here. His car was here. But no one would admit to seeing him, and I guess finding his car down the road was believable enough. . . still, something didn't seem right.

I finished my meal -- good, by the way -- and headed out to the parking lot. As I went for the door, I heard the young mom ask her daughter to get the diaper bag from the car -- odd. I'd only seen Ryan's. The little girl shot past me and ran out the door, that mission-oriented run little kids get when they're hyped up on sugar. I walked out to the parking lot about ten seconds later. . .

. . . and that's when the cute little hyper girl shot me in the neck.

As I hit the ground, my vision started to get blurry, but I saw the old-timers from the diner coming out with zip-ties in their hands. The girl's mother was on her phone, her infant cradled in her left hand.

"Mr. McPherson," I heard her say as I faded out. "We've got a target. Acquired and neutralized, sir."

I saw the little girl skip by me on the pavement, humming happily to herself, the dart gun dropped on the sidewalk behind her. Then everything faded away.

* * *

War flashbacks are a bitch. You're convinced you're back in some shithole in Mongolia, half your skin burned away, desperately trying to flag down an M-ATV full of Navy SEALs with your good arm after your squad leader takes a round to the brain and the rescue chopper sent to get you gets blown out of the air by an RPG.

It's always a relief to wake up and not be there, even if you wake up in a bright, long, white room. Which is where I woke up, or I wouldn't be mentioning it.

As my good eye blinked away the haze -- drugs, most likely -- I saw that I wasn't alone. There were two other men in the room with me, one sitting in a chair, the other standing against the wall behind him. The seated man was older, maybe 60, but solidly built, dressed in a gray business suit and a black shirt. He had close-cropped silver hair and a well-trimmed beard.

The man standing behind him was tall, muscular, and dressed in black fatigue pants and a black hooded shirt. The hood was up, so I couldn't see his face clearly.

"Welcome back, Mr. Foster. Have a nice nap?" the man in the chair asked, winking his left eye at me.

"Fuck you," I groaned, struggling into a sitting position. My hands were bound behind my back with zip-ties. My ankles were zip-tied together, too, so it wasn't easy to sit up -- but I managed.

"Let's watch our manners here," the old man said, smirking as he tilted his head to the other man in the room. "I think we can remove his restraints."

The man in black moved fast for a guy his size -- he covered the room in seconds, quickly and easily snapping the plastic zip-ties with two fingers. Before I could blink, he was back at his boss' side.

"Fine. I'll play. Where am I?" I sighed.

"Oh, you're in the same place you were. Just, lower," the old man said. "Welcome to Ormond, Nebraska, Mr. Foster. I think you've noticed by now that there's more to our little community than first appearances would suggest. I'm Mr. McPherson, and this is my town."

"Look, can we just skip all the speechifying? You wanted me dead, you would've given the creepy seven-year-old a MAC-10 instead of a tranquilizer gun. You want something from me, so why not just spit it out?"

"Quite right. Direct and to the point, soldier. Good man."

McPherson checked a small screen on his sleeve.

"Convict Andrew Foster, Army Kilo. Convicted in 2022 of criminally negligent homicide. Your wife and young daughter, wasn't it?"

I gritted my teeth together as I mentally measured the distance between me and McPherson. With as fast as his henchman had moved before, I had a less than zero chance of bolting across the room and ripping the fucker's throat out before his dog tore me in half. Still, I considered it.

"Sentenced to seven years, let out in six and a half because you were combat ineffective because of," McPherson made a gesture that loosely indicated the left half of his face, "but before that, a veteran of over 150 operational situations. You'd make an excellent candidate."

"Candidate for what?" I growled, still weighing the chances I could take him out before I got killed myself.

"Experimentation," McPherson told me, his face breaking into a wide grin.

I don't care how tough you are -- when someone says they want to experiment on you, your first instinct is to run like hell. The door was on the left, between me and McPherson. I had a better chance of reaching that than I did the old man, so I bolted. I hadn't taken three steps before his goon was in front of me, driving one stone fist into the right side of my jaw.

I hit the floor hard, sliding back a couple of feet and ending up with my spine jammed against the wall.

"I'd suggest not doing that again," McPherson sighed. "You'll want to hear me out, Mr. Foster. I have so much to show you. Now, if you can pick yourself up, we'll take a walk."

The big guy in black was headed towards me again, but I held up a hand and dragged myself to my feet. He stopped dead, not moving as I stood -- I couldn't even be sure he was breathing. As his boss stood, the big guy fell in beside him. McPherson held up two fingers and waggled them, indicating that I was to follow him. I did, and the huge henchman followed me.

McPherson opened the door I hadn't made it to, and the three of us walked out of the long, white room. We were inside a huge warehouse -- as I looked back, I saw the room was nothing more than a box built against the warehouse's back wall. The walls on either side of us were lined with sleek, black pods, each about two meters high and a meter wide.

"Sensory deprivation pods," McPherson answered my unasked question. "Each one contains a single human, undergoing extensive hypnotherapy."

"There are people in there?" I said.

"Of course, young man. Everyone in town has spent some time in these, not that they're aware of it," McPherson told me.

The girl, I realized -- a deadeye one second, skipping along the walk the next. She'd been programmed. Kid didn't have any clue what she'd done. The waitress, the Sheriff's deputy -- all way too polite, because they were programmed to be. I'd heard of the North Koreans using something similar in the war, but I hadn't believed it then. I was starting to believe it now, though.

"Come on, come on. Don't fall behind," McPherson snapped. "More to see."

We walked for a good two hundred yards -- rows of pods on either side of us, stacked three high. I estimated there were easily a couple hundred of them. McPherson opened another door at the other end of the warehouse -- another room built into the wall, this one much bigger than the one I'd woken up in. I followed him inside, and we were in a long, brightly lit corridor with large, windowed rooms on either side. A lab.

Inside the first room, the one on my left, I saw several extremely fit people running on treadmills. They looked like they were running faster than anyone should be able to -- a digital display behind one of the runners read "37 mph." In the room on my right, a man was bench-pressing a cartoonishly large amount of weight, enough that the metal bar in his hands bowed slightly. Neither he nor the runners were even breaking a sweat.

"Enhanced training. With the right amount of suggestion and pharmaceutical help, these people can train 22 hours a day. Just an hour of what they're doing would probably kill an Olympic athlete. We've got recovery time down to almost nothing," McPherson explained, smiling proudly as he led me down the hall.

The next room I saw was an operating room. Two doctors were standing over an unconscious man, one working on his right arm, another working on his head. I could see from a video screen facing the hall that the second doctor was inside the man's brain, placing something silver and shiny in his gray matter.

"Of course, the implants help, too. Nothing so crude as those digits the Army gave you to replace your missing fingers," McPherson said, nodding at the robotic prosthetics on my left hand -- apart from the skin grafts and physical therapy, they were the only attempt the Army had made to fix the damage. "No, our Chinese friends developed these. Some of our people brought them back at the end of the war, and we improved on them."

"You mean the CIA?"

"Oh, no, young man. The CIA couldn't find its ass with satellite recon. We're not. . . affiliated with the U.S. Government. Or any government, to be honest."

"But you had my Army file, my criminal record."

"Hacked. And shockingly easy to do, too."

That bothered me. I was no fan of the government -- after the War, how could I be? Still, I would have felt better somehow if this was in their hands instead of this grinning asshole's.

"So what's the point of all of this?"

"You're a smart boy. You probably have some idea. But I'm afraid I can't tell you -- not yet. Not until you join up."

"Yeah. That's. . . that's not too likely, Chief."

"Really? Your friend Ryan Bell was only too happy to join up. But perhaps I should let him tell you," McPherson smiled.

"Where is he?" I rumbled, taking a step towards McPherson.

"Wrong direction. He's been walking behind you throughout our conversation."

I turned around, but saw only McPherson's grim henchman behind me. At a signal from McPherson, the big guy pulled his hood back.

It kind of looked like Ryan's face. Maybe his younger brother who wasn't overweight, who didn't have bad skin and crippling social problems. And the eyes weren't Ryan's -- the big guy's eyes were cold, dead. Ryan's were expressive -- often too expressive, like the man himself.

Only Ryan didn't have a brother. He was the only child of a smothering mother, the one whose funeral he'd left Dallas to attend. This. . . this person wasn't Ryan. I could see in his eyes that this man didn't have a clue who I was.

"Nice try, McPherson. This guy doesn't even look that much like Ryan Bell," I told him.

"Oh, it's your friend, all right. Honed to the peak of his physical potential, his memories encrypted and submerged. He's programmed to watch my back and silently obey, but I can program him to do anything -- soldier, sleeper agent, janitor. He can be anyone, including. . . well, watch."

McPherson locked eyes with his henchman, then held up one hand with his ring finger bent in.

"Gamma Seven Zero Seven Delta. Command Line: Amsterdam Gold Fourteen. What is your name?" McPherson said.

"My name is Ryan Bell," the man said, blinking rapidly. He looked over at me then, and broke into a huge, goofy smile. Now he looked like Ryan. Almost.

"Andy! How the hell are you, man? What are you doing here?"

"You called me, Ryan. Four days ago."

"I did? I don't remember that. Damn, bro, it's good to see you!"

Ryan reached out and clapped me on the shoulder, and I think I smiled. I know I felt like smiling.

"Yeah, it's good to see you too, man. Jesus, Ry, what the hell have you gotten yourself into here?"

"I'm. . . well, it's tough to explain, man. After my mom died, I thought about coming back to Dallas, but aside from you, there was nothing for me there. There was nothing for me in North Dakota at my mom's, either. There was really nothing for me anywhere. I came this close to just eating a shotgun shell," Ryan sighed.

"Come on, man, it can't be that bad," I said.

"It ain't that good, either. But turns out I didn't even have the balls to kill myself. So I got back in the car and started driving. Met a lady at a bar in Sioux City -- she told me about this place and brought me here, and I joined up."

"Joined up for. . . what, exactly?"

"That's easy, man. We're --"

"Jericho Four One One Seven Foxtrot. Command Line: Beijing Crimson Four Five," McPherson rattled, quickly cutting Ryan off. Ryan went rigid, standing up and staring straight ahead.

"What is your name?" McPherson asked.

"My name is no one."

"Excellent. Resume overwatch, please."

Ryan -- or whatever he was now -- took a step back and stood up to his full height. Gone was the guy who collected action figures and posed them around his crappy little office at Grace Baptist, and back was the vacant-eyed killer who'd knocked me across a room just minutes before.

"Sorry to cut that short, but Ryan isn't cleared to tell you anything more. I won't, either, unless you decide to commit."

"And if I don't commit?" I said, glaring at McPherson.

I hadn't even finished the question before I felt the barrel of a gun -- my own, I think -- pressed to the side of my throat. Ryan had moved faster than I would have believed -- again.

"Right. Well, that's a compelling argument, I suppose," I sighed. "Looks like I'm with you."

"Excellent choice," McPherson said, beaming.

It wasn't the fear of getting shot that made me agree, though. I'd been shot before. Hell, I've been dead before -- for three minutes on a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital table. I did it because. . . well, much as I hate to admit it, there's nothing to go home to. And my one friend in the world was already here. . . at least I'd get to talk to him sometimes.

"So," McPherson said, winking as Ryan lowered the gun, "One eye, eh? How's that working out for you?"



© 2010 Nate Hoppe and Shawn Kupfer

Tuesday, June 29, 2010


"Hey, Captain Lau! How are you today, man?" I asked.

Captain Lau -- Edward -- looked up from the freezer case at the Grand Asia Market. He was a young guy, like 35 years old. Up until about a year ago, he'd been a commercial pilot for Northeastern Airlines -- that was before the company "suggested" he might want to take a leave of absence. I doubt Northeastern would have done so, though, if our office hadn't "suggested" the same for every one of their employees of Chinese or Korean extraction.

"Hey, Mark. I'm getting pretty goddamn sick of Chinese food, I can tell you that," Edward said, trying to force a grin and almost succeeding -- but not quite.

"You and me both, man," I said back, shaking my head.

I'm Mark, by the way. Edward Lau and everyone else in this neighborhood knows me as Marcus Tung. My name is actually Agent Marcus Jackson, Department of Homeland Security. Yeah, I know what you're thinking -- and I'm ashamed of myself, too, sometimes.

"You know what I really want?" Edward said, eying the meats on offer with disgust and finally picking up a shrink-wrapped package of chicken gizzards. "Fatburger. A fucking Kingburger, Chili-Cheese Fat Fries, and a Maui-Banana fucking shake. I would murder for that right about now."

I sympathized with him. The Grand Asia Market was one of the few grocery stores in Chinatown, and (as I well knew) it was under heavy DHS surveillance. Just like the rest of this *homologous neighborhood.*

Yeah, I say that with sarcasm, but that's one of the euphemisms that's been floated for these areas. Nomenclature's very important at the DHS. The main thing, though, is to never, ever refer to them as "internment areas." Not even in private conversations. Brother will lose his job for pulling that shit.

Whatever you want to call 'em, though, there are about ten of these areas throughout the country. Chinatown in Los Angeles is just one -- the Chinatown in San Francisco, Redickville in North Florida, Tyson Corner in Colorado -- there are a bunch, and they're all pretty huge.

And the Department of Homeland Security has rats in each and every one of them. Guys like me, mostly -- dad was half-Chinese (that's where the Jackson comes from -- granddad was as white as they get), mom was from Taiwan, so I look pretty much like any other guy in here. Difference is, I've got an ID beacon implanted in my right forearm that allows me to leave anytime I want. No one else in here is so lucky.

Well, that, and I draw a paycheck from the U.S. Government. That's a difference, too.

"You know what I could go for? El Pollo Loco," I told Edward.

"Ooh, yeah, man. That'd be good, too. And a fucking Rockstar or a Red Bull. I used to drink that shit by the gallon back when I was still working."

"Yeah, but look -- tea! Because all us Chinese drink nothing but tea, right?" I groaned, nodding my head at a large rack displaying several types of green tea.

"I heard about a guy -- Mexican dude, some gangbanger. He'll take orders for shit by cell phone and bring it to the outskirts of the neighborhood. It's expensive, but man, I'm considering it more and more every day."

Shit. That was gonna get him arrested for sure -- the "Mexican gangbanger" was a plant. It was a stooge we set up to see if anyone inside the neighborhood was trying to lay hands on anything they shouldn't -- guns, ammo, bombmaking parts, intel. Anyone contacts that guy, they get flagged. They make an exchange, they get thrown in a hole worse than this one and leaned on until they give us something, whether they've got something to give us or not.

I couldn't let Edward get jacked for something like a damn burger. He was a good guy, and he'd been shit on enough in the last year. Bad news was, I was wired. My boss Stan back at the office could hear everything through a mic in my necklace, and see everything through a micro-camera in the bridge of my sunglasses. I couldn't warn him off without my bosses knowing, and then I'd be the one to end up in the hole.

But they wouldn't pull him for some fast food, would they? I'd seen Edward Lau's file. He was disgruntled, sure, but he was clean. Since he'd been moved into Chinatown, he'd kept his head down, mostly. Organized a baseball team with some other folks laid off from the airline. Bitched about the grocery situation -- nothing that should get him flagged. Not until now, anyway.

"Well, anyway, man. Keep your head up, yeah?" Edward said, heading toward the cash register with his basket full of groceries.

"Yeah. You too, man," was all I could think to say as he walked away.

* * *

"So this guy, Lau -- how's he hit you?" my boss, Stan Morrow, asked as he walked into my office that night.

"Quiet. Frustrated at the conditions in Chinatown. My guess is not a threat."

"Yeah, that's my feeling, too. Look, I'm gonna have our plant blow him off -- say that kind of errand isn't what he does. No reason this guy should get yanked for some Fatburger -- though those are some damn tasty burgers," Stan said.

"Thanks, Stan."

"Hey, I can sell it to the bosses. No reason to waste resources on this guy, right?"

"Right. So, have you seen the new billboard that went up in Chinatown? The one the DoD put there?"

Stan shook his head.

"Oh, man. It's propaganda like you wouldn't believe. Hang on, it should be on my camera feed somewhere."

I clicked the mouse a couple of times and brought up the image on my computer -- I'd looked right at it with my sunglasses on earlier in the day.

The billboard was all digital camo, and showed some half-Chinese Marine Officer -- Captain, I think -- with a Special Forces badge and an M4. The picture didn't look posed, or anything -- it looks like someone snapped it while this guy was in an operational situation. He was looking at the camera, though, and it looked like he was yelling at someone. His M4 was pointed downrange, and the photographer had timed it just perfectly to catch the M4's muzzle flash.

Below this picture, it said: "Thousands of young men just like you are answering the call and serving their country." Then, below that, in even bigger letters: "DO YOU HAVE WHAT IT TAKES?" And below that, in smaller letters, was the address of the Armed Forces Recruiting Center in Chinatown, a one-room office in an almost-abandoned block of stores.

"Huh," was all Stan said.

"Yeah," I said, holding in a chuckle. "That poor bastard. You think he knows what they're doing with his likeness over here?"

"He's just doing his part to help this country, Mark. Just like us."

"Oh, come on, Stan. They probably just photoshopped some poor Chinese dude's head onto some Virgina Farm Boy's body for that shot."

"No, they didn't. That's Captain Nick Morrow, 47 Echo SRF. He's my younger brother."

Well, shit. I really managed to step in it there. I backpedaled like mad and apologized for all I was worth, and Stan said it was OK -- anyone could have made the same mistake, blah blah blah. But I could see in his eyes that I'd pissed him off, and that was something I didn't want to do. At all.

I left the office about an hour later, and it was dark out when I started up my car. I was originally planning to just head back to my apartment and get some much-needed sleep -- these 12- to 15-hour shifts were starting to catch up with me.

Instead, I drove to Fatburger. I wasn't hungry -- I actually dig Chinese food, and I'd had dinner in a little place called Ping's in Chinatown before heading back to the office. Instead, I got a Kingburger, Chili-Cheese Fat Fries, and a Maui-Banana shake. I stopped by a Hess station and picked up a couple of Rockstars, then headed back into Chinatown and left them on Captain Lau's doorstep.

* * *

Five months later, Edward Lau was shot and killed during the Chinatown riots, which I'm sure you saw on the news. The same news which called him "one of the instigators of the uprising," which, as near as our data can determine, was true. I guess he'd finally just had enough of the conditions, and helped pull together the riot under our noses.

I was the one who pulled the trigger, and it kills me. Uprising or no, Edward Lau was a hell of a guy, and there's not a day that goes by that I'm not bothered by having to shoot him. That blew my cover, incidentally, so I've been pulled off of human intelligence and moved back into electronic surveillance -- which is good, because if I'd had to stay in Chinatown much longer, I might have started a fucking riot of my own.


In which sir would like to inform you that a book deal has been reached.

So, I was in the elevator the other day (Wednesday, June 9), coming back up to the office after having a cigarette. (I know, I know. I need to quit.) My cell rang once, then went to voicemail. As I bitched and mumbled about Sprint (I mean, is it totally unrealistic to expect one's phone to work perfectly inside a metal box?), I headed back to my office and checked the voicemail.

The message was from Angela James, the Executive Editor and Lord of the Universe over at Carina Press. Her message was at first a little cryptic -- she wanted to talk to me about "47 Echo," which I'd sent them, but since she hadn't caught me on the phone, she'd follow up via email soon. I shrugged and figured it had been less than a minute since she'd called, so I double-tapped the "talk" button on my Blackberry and called her back.

Holy shit. They wanted to publish "47 Echo." I nodded and mumbled something as she ran through who they were and the deal they were offering -- she must have thought I was bored or possibly half-asleep, but shock had set in. By the end of the short call, we'd agreed that "47 Echo" would very much like to come out in Carina's digital-first format. Yes please.

I got and signed the contracts on Friday, and dropped them in the mail over the weekend, which prompted my wife to take a horrible picture of me where I look like Richard Milhouse Nixon (it's on her Facebook page -- I won't be sharing it here, because I do not like looking like Richard Milhouse Nixon, though I do like to say "Milhouse."). On Monday, I confirmed permission to announce it, which I did on Facebook and Twitter last night. Thanks for all of the wonderful responses, by the way.

So here's the breakdown -- January 2011, you'll be able to buy your very own copy of "47 Echo" for your Kindle, Nook, iPad, or whatever e-reader-y goodness floats your boat. I'll be doing a bunch of fun, interesting stuff to promote it in the lead-up to the release, but suffice it to say -- I'm as giddy now as I was on the day I got the call.

Thanks so much to all of you for reading, giving me feedback, and being there with me thoughout the journey.

Friday, June 25, 2010


Specialist Max MacGregor couldn't shake the feeling he was going to die.

Of course, that was a silly thing to say. It was war, and his unit was only about 25 miles from the Chinese and Russian Rebel forces massing at what used to be Area November. From the intel they'd recieved that morning from Captain Yarborough, their CO, an attack on Firebase Comanche (located in the woods just southeast of Sokolovo) was almost guaranteed in the next few days. Of course he had a good chance of getting killed.

But even before the briefing that morning. Max had the same feeling. He'd had it for weeks now, and it just got worse every day. When he'd joined the Army -- knowing full well that there was a war on and wanting to serve his country -- he'd not felt this way. He'd felt like he could take on the world, and knew that he would come back home as soon as the war was over.

Something had changed, though, and it wasn't because of the fall of Area November, or the Battle at Neryugn. Both stories had instilled a little more respect for the Chinese and Russian forces, sure, but they hadn't convinced him he was about to die.

"You know how people say 'I didn't just wake up one morning feeling this way?'" Max asked his buddy Seth as the two of them walked their guard shift just outside Firebase Comanche.

"Sure. Hear that all the time," Corporal Seth Adkins answered, spitting out a piece of gum he'd been chewing and putting in a new piece.

"Well, I did just wake up feeling this way. One morning, a couple of weeks back. I woke up in my bunk and just knew I was going to die soon."

"You're freaking me out, brother," Seth said, shaking his head. "Bad enough we're waiting on Big Red and Little Red to steamroll through here like they did November. Now I gotta worry about your premonitions of impending doom, too."

"Well, to be fair, I don't think you're gonna die. Just me," Max said, managing a smirk.

"Oh, just you? That's all right, then," Seth grinned. "Come on, man. Our watch is almost up. Time for some horrible food and not enough rack time."

"Yeah, I suppose," Max said, slinging his M249 SAW over his shoulder and following Seth back to the front gates. When they got there, they saw the base was jumping.

"What's going on, Private?" Seth asked Felicia Kaling, a rifleman in their unit.

"We're loading up, Corporal. UAVs picked up 20 CDMs and 50 T-90s heading this way," Kaling told them. "Our armor's getting ready to roll out and meet them -- 1st ID is going to hold the gates in case some of 'em get through."

"Right. Looks like dinner is on hold, then," Max sighed, unslinging his SAW and checking his ammo.

"Hey, at least there's good news," Seth said, following Felicia to join the rest of their 1st Infantry Division unit. "At least now, you'll probably get your wish."

* * *

"1-4 Cav, on me!" Captain Ruez yelled, and a sea of dark green ACUs flowed toward him, Max, Seth, and Felicia among them.

"Listen up! Our Strykers, M1s, and Razors are keeping the enemy armor busy, but a large number of ground forces have managed to punch through," Ruez told them. "I need first and second teams to line the perimeter with Claymores. Third and fouth teams will cover your backs. Clear?"

"Clear, sir!" a chorus of voices yelled back.

"First team always gets the fun jobs," Seth sighed, grabbing one of the packs filled with Claymore mines and slinging it over his shoulder.

"Hey, man. Better back here fighting man-on-man -- no offense, Felicia -- than out their getting our asses shredded by CDMs," Max said, lifting his own bag of mines.

"None taken, Specialist. And I agree with you."

"So let's go out there and set up some traps," Max said.

"You ever use these things before, man?" Seth asked as they double-timed through the front gates.

"Yeah, sure. In training. Never live-fire, though."

"OK, so how do you set 'em?" Felicia asked.

"Simple. Look at one of your mines, Private," Max said, trying to hold in a smirk.

"Oh. Yeah. Printed right there on the mine, isn't it?"

It took Max only five minutes to empty his bag and set up all of his mines -- he set them about 50 meters apart, all facing away from the base. Once they saw the enemy coming, he figured they'd trigger first team's mines, then second team's as the next wave came through. It would definitely cut down on the number of enemy soldiers they'd have to engage -- when he'd detonated the mines in training, he'd been surprised at just how much power came from such little devices.

Max checked on Felicia to his left and Seth to his right -- both were still setting their mines. He walked out past the line he'd just established with his own Claymores and unslung his SAW from his shoulder -- he knew third and fourth teams were watching their backs, but still, it wouldn't hurt for him to give his buddies some cover fire if the enemy showed up right that second -- and the SAW was a hell of a weapon for doing just that.

He could hear the American and enemy armor beating on each other a few miles in front of him -- the high-pitched whine of the CDMs' front-mounted gatlings, the loud, echoing booms of the M1s' massive front cannons. He heard exploding rockets, but he couldn't tell by sound alone if they came from the Razors or the CDMs. Probably both, he figured.

As he scanned the treeline, he saw movement coming through and dropped to one knee, sighting his SAW on the rustling leaves in front of him.

"You got something, Max?" he heard Seth call from behind him, but he stuck one hand up in a "stop" motion.

Time seemed to slow down for Max McGregor then -- he knew, logically, only a couple of seconds could have passed, but it felt like ages. For some reason, he flashed back to his childhood in Arlington Heights, Illinois -- when he was playing hide and seek with some of the neighborhood kids, and he knew his friend Billy was hiding in the bushes because of the way the leaves moved.

He saw the helmet first, covered in dark green camo like the US used in the 80s. Chinese regular Army. It was one man, staying low to the ground, with a QCQ-05 held in front of him. The Chinese soldier hadn't seen Max yet, and the Rules of Engagement were clear -- shoot hostiles on sight. Max opened up with the SAW, shredding the young soldier almost in half. He felt Seth drop into a crouch at his side and sight his M4 on the treeline, and that's when everything went sideways.

One second, there was trees and a fallen Chinese soldier. The next, there was nothing but Chinese soldiers, more than a thousand of them, pouring out of the woods and headed right for the three soldiers.

"Fall back!" Seth yelled over the din of automatic weapons fire. He kept his front side -- and the thickest part of his body armor -- toward the advancing horde as he quick-stepped backwards, firing off bursts from his M4 as he went. Max did the same, trying to throw as many bullets as he could, staying in front of Felicia and Seth as the three of them retreated behind the first line of Claymores.

"Firing! Firing! Firing!" Max faintly heard his squad leader, Staff Sergeant Levinson, yelling.

The first line of Claymores exploded, each of them sending 700 ball bearings flying at the advancing enemy line.

"Run! Back to the base!" Felicia yelled, and Max turned and ran. He tried to fire the SAW from his hip as he sprinted, but he was out of ammo. He made the mistake of looking down at his weapon for a half-second and lost his footing, sprawling on the ground.

"Firing! Firing! Firing!" he heard SFC Grimes -- second team's squad leader -- yell. He pushed himself up and tried to get to his feet -- but right in front of his face, he saw the last three words he'd ever read on this planet.

The 700 ball bearings, coupled with the explosive force of the mine, ripped through anything resembling Specialist Max McGregor in less than half a second. He didn't have time to process what was going on before he was virtually vaporized by his own unit's mine.

The last thought that Max McGregor had were those three words he'd just read, hardly a fitting epitaph to his short life:

"Front toward enemy."

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

"The Las Vegas Hilton"

Wyatt Nathan had known what he wanted to do with his life since he was a freshman in high school. That was when he'd started cutting his hair short, wearing combat boots every day, and working out. Ask anyone from Central High School in Omaha, and they'd tell you -- Wyatt was a Marine long before he'd joined the Corps.

From the moment he decided, everything became about the Marines to him. JROTC, daily physical training, drill team, mixed martial arts. On graduation day, he had full-ride scholarship offers from all five service academies, but it was never a question -- he was going to go Marine. After four years at the Naval academy, the powers that be gave him a choice -- Marine aviator or Special Operations. Again, there was no question -- Special Operations all the way.

He'd always been the best at everything -- first in his class, first in Ranger school, first in combatives competitions. When his unit had shipped into Firebase Zulu from Magadan, Colonel Ross of the JSOC had asked for a volunteer for a high-risk mission -- Wyatt had been first there, too. He and his unit had rolled into North Korea in two stealth Razors and commandeered an office building without firing a shot. They'd then waited. And waited. And waited.

And some fucking convict unit had gone into Pyongyang, accomplished the mission, and gotten all the fucking glory. And Wyatt and his team stayed at the office building, waiting for orders.

"No worries, boss," his second-in-command, Gunnery Sergeant Mendel told him after 47 Echo had pulled off the mission. "We won't be here long. They're not gonna waste highly trained Devil Dogs sitting on a listening post."

"Hoo-rah," Wyatt said, smirking.

Three days later, another stealth Razor showed up, driven and crewed by four convict Deltas. Rather than a relief crew, it was filled with MREs and bottled water, as well as orders from Colonel Ross -- hold down the building, and keep eyes on the North Korean frontier.

"Well, shit," Wyatt sighed as he had his men move the supplies to their makeshift barracks on the second floor. "Looks like we're gonna be at the Vegas Hilton for a while, after all."

"What're our orders?" Gunny Mendel asked.

"Listening post. Daily reports -- I expect North Korean tanks to come rolling our way any day now. If that happens, we're to report, then stop 'em if we can."

"Oh, and we can. Day watch/night watch?"

"Sixteen hour shifts. I'll take day, you take night?"

"Roger that, sir."

North Korean tanks didn't roll across the border in a matter of days -- or even a matter of weeks. Two months after the destruction of the lab in Pyongyang, Wyatt and his detachment of the 2nd MSOB were still sitting in that abandoned office building, watching the frontier, and waiting. They hadn't seen another soul since the Deltas got back in their Razor and headed for Firebase Zulu.

In fact, they hadn't seen anything move on their scopes except for the wind.

Wyatt hoped that after nine weeks of the same report (sent from a Razor running under full steath in the parking complex under the building), a report of no movement, that Colonel Ross would pull his unit out and put them somewhere where they'd see some action. But every day, the same response came back: "Acknowledged. Carry on."

From 0800 to 1200, both the Day and Night watches were up, and he and Gunny Mendel had breakfast together and went over Mendel's report from night watch. From 2000 to 0000, they were both up again, and Wyatt would fill Mendel in on what happened during the day. After the first four weeks, their exchanges went exactly the same.

"You see anything?" Wyatt would ask in the morning.


"Didn't think so."

The same exchange would repeat twelve hours later, with Gunny Mendel asking the question and Wyatt answering. Boredom set in quickly. The men were all Marines, and all elite -- they weren't meant to be running guard duty on a dead post. They were meant to be out there, on the front lines. They were meant to get some.

Keeping his men sharp was tough. There was no room to run drills, and they had to stay away from windows. A few weeks in, Wyatt and Mendel decided to institute twice-daily Razor patrols under full stealth -- the solar collectors kept the Razors topped off, so they didn't use any solid fuel driving ten miles from the Vegas Hilton in every direction. After seven weeks, Wyatt was bored enough to join the patrols himself. Still, they never saw another soul moving.

At the beginning of the tenth week, Wyatt had just filed his report before sacking out for the night. He'd decided to give it one more week before he took the next step, a step that was almost unthinkable -- requesting that Colonel Ross pull him and his men out. It was tatamount to questioning the orders of a superior officer, behavior that years of training had hardwired him against, but he felt he had no choice. He and his men were wasted here -- and worse, they were getting dull.

"Sackin' out, boss?" Gunny Mendel asked as Wyatt stepped out of the Razor.

"That's the plan. You see anything at all, come get me."

"Shit, boss. If I see anything at all, I'm declaring it a national fucking holiday," Mendel said, grinning.

Wyatt went up to the second floor, to the office that had been converted to his quarters, and set his M4 by his bed. He stretched out on his cot and was asleep five minutes later.

"Boss!" he heard, and jolted awake. Gunny Mendel was at the door, lit only by the chemical glowstick he held in his left hand. The power had been off in the building since they arrived -- if they got raided, Wyatt had left orders to switch the power on.

"What's up, Gunny?"

"Movement, boss. Got it on the scopes up on four."

"On my way," Wyatt said, slinging his M4 over his shoulder and grabbing his body armor and helmet as he stood. He and Mendel took the stairs to the fourth floor two at a time, then crept up to the windows where Private First Class Walker had his scopes set up.

"What do we have, Walker?"

"Vehicles, sir. A lot of 'em. Headed right this way."

"Let me take a look," Wyatt said, and Walker moved away from the scope.

As he looked through the optics, Wyatt saw lights -- red and white running lights -- crawling over the hill a few miles away. He swept the scope around and took a quick count -- thirty vehicles, at least.

"That look to you what it looks like to me, Gunny?" Wyatt said, moving away from the scope.

"Yes, sir," Mendel said, squinting as he looked around. "Chinese Death Machines. I'd estimate 35 to 45 of 'em."

"CDMs? Just one of those things wiped out the entire Alpha Stryker Company," Walker said.

"Yeah. And it looks like they're rolling for our boys on the front lines. Gunny Mendel -- I want you to rouse the Day watch, then take your boys and load up in a Razor. Get going for Zulu and let them know what's up. We'll follow behind in a few minutes and cover your ass."

"Roger that, sir."

"Mendel was off and running down the stairs seconds later.

"Go with the Gunny and load up, Walker. I'll keep an eye on those CDMs until my day watch gets up here."

"Yes, sir."

Wyatt kept his eyes glued to the scopes, even as he heard his day watch assemble behind him. The CDMs didn't seem to be in any particular hurry.

"I'll take over the scopes, sir," he heard Lance Corporal Lewis say softly next to him.

"Good man. We estimate upwards of 35 CDMs. Keep eyes on 'em and let me know what they're doing," Wyatt said, clearing the scope and turning to face his men.

"What's up, boss?" Corporal Parker asked.

"CDMs inbound. A fuckton of 'em. They don't seem to be heading for us, specifically, but they are headed this way. I've ordered Gunny Mendel to take the night watch and one of the Razors and flat-out for Zulu."

"Why not just radio 'em?" Parker asked.

Ah, Parker. Good kid, but not too bright.

"Channel 1-9 Victor is secure, but it's low-power. To further confuse our Asian and Russian friends, we've been bouncing our reports off a bunch of satellites and relay stations all over the world. The Razor can get into direct radio range faster," Wyatt said. "Now, here's the fun part. Day watch is taking the other Razor to follow behind and cover their escape. That's us, gentlemen."

"Hoo-rah, sir," Parker nodded.

"Can't risk a Nighthawk. It's small, but they might pick it up," Lewis said from the scopes.

Wyatt nodded. The tiny, flexible UAV was designed to be launched from the Razor's rear cannon.

"We'll have to do this without overflight. Cameras and night-vision optics in the Razor will have to do," Wyatt said.

"Request permission to stay behind on the scopes, sir. I can give you an overwatch until they get a mile or so on the other side of the Hilton, here," Lewis said.

"Negative, Lance Corporal. A mile either way won't make a hell of a lot of difference. I'll need you on cameras in the Razor. Appreciate the willingness, though. Load up. We roll in zero five minutes."

His men scattered and headed back down the stairs -- all except for Lewis.

"You too, Lance Corporal."

"Sir. I can stay up here while you load up. Keep an eye on the CDMs. I can be down in the Razor in 45 seconds when you're ready to leave."

"Good man. You don't come down when I tell you, though, and I'm coming up to get you. You don't want that, clear?"


As Wyatt headed for the stairway, Mendel's voice crackled in his headset.

"Rolling out now, sir. See you back at Zulu."

"Roger that. Good luck, Gunny. Pedal to the metal, yeah?"


Wyatt shrugged into his body armor and helmet as he ran down the stairs to the parking level. When he got there, he found his men loading the last of their equipment into the Razor.
Wyatt helped Parker load in the last crate of 5.56 ammo, then strapped himself into the passenger seat next to First Sergeant Sikes.

"Ready to road-trip, Sikes?"

"Ready, sir."

"Right. Power up, full stealth, gentlemen," Wyatt yelled, bringing up the missile station on the screen in front of him. His radio crackled on.

"Lieutenant! CDMs are increasing speed! Think they made us!" Lewis radioed.

"Roger that, Lewis. We're out the door -- get down here."

"Coming down n --" Lewis' voice cut off in mid sentence as the building shook and rattled. Concrete started to fall down around them.

"Lewis! Lewis!" Wyatt yelled into the radio, but all he got back was static.

"Gotta go now, sir! Whole place is coming down!" Sikes yelled.

"Floor it, Sergeant."

The Razor zoomed out of the parking structure, narrowly avoiding a large slab of concrete that fell from the ceiling as the building shook again. They zoomed out into the night -- rockets and 25mm gatling rounds slammed into the ground and buildings around them.

"Sir! Something on the rear feed!" Parker yelled.

"What do you have, Corporal?" Wyatt said, jumping out of his seat to join Parker at the camera station. He saw a lone marine -- Lewis -- on his feet and running from the rapidly collapsing Vegas Hilton.

"Shit. Sikes, all stop!"

The Razor stopped dead, and Wyatt grabbed an M4 and headed for the back hatch.

"Put it in reverse and zigzag back towards my locator as soon as I clear the vehicle," Sikes. We're coming in through the passenger door, then we're all getting the fuck out of here."

"Sir, I don't --" Sikes started, but Wyatt cut him off.

"You don't get to have an opinion, Sergeant. Follow your orders, Marine."

"Hoo-rah, sir."

Wyatt took one last look at the monitors -- Lewis was still up and running towards them, even with bullets chewing up the street on all sides of him. Wyatt held his breath, opened the back hatch, and jumped out -- he heard it close behind him, but he was already running. He could see Lewis -- the young Marine was only a hundred yards away. Lewis saw his commanding officer and started running towards him when a CDM's rocket exploded right in front of him.

Wyatt kept running, slamming the side of his helmet to activate his night-vision visor. He saw Lewis' form on the ground, twitching. When he got to the fallen Marine, he could see that the young man's right leg was gone below the knee.

"Lewis? You conscious?" Wyatt yelled.

"Barely, sir."

"Give me your hand. We're getting out of here."

Lewis reached up his right hand, and Wyatt took it, turned around, and ran as hard as he could. He saw a quick white light flash just in front of him, then saw a door open out of nowhere -- the Razor. [P]"Pull him in!" Wyatt yelled, lifting Lewis' twitching body up to the door. Parker and Private Richards grabbed his arms and pulled the young Marine into the vehicle, then Wyatt climbed in after him.

"See what you can do for him!" Wyatt yelled as he strapped himself in.

"Pedal to the metal, sir?" Sikes asked.

"Fuck yes. Richards, Cohane, get on the 50s and throw as many bullets behind us as you can!" Wyatt yelled as Sikes zoomed the Razor towards Zulu.

"What do you think our chances are, sir?" Sikes asked.

"You don't want to know," Wyatt said, grinning as he brought up the missile targeting system and looked for a CDM to shoot.


Saturday, June 19, 2010

"Lights, Vehicle, Action, Part 2"

The police chopper overhead has onboard news cameras. They share fuel and maintenance expenses and the footage from the cameras goes out with a 3 second delay to anyone who subscribes to The Chase Channel at home, online, or via mobile. The broadcasts are monitored by two police tech teams ready to cut the feeds at any moment in case something questionable starts to go down. The regular battery is draining as it assists the engine with the small caps kicking in at computer derived optimum timing. At this rate, I'll be buggered in minutes.

The turbos spool up to a demonic whine for that beautiful unleashing of horsepower and torque. Electric assist has me up to 120 and 140 and climbing, but I'm forced to slow down as I almost clip a minivan that hadn't received its GTFO alert. Fantastic, I'm even outrunning the freeway police notification system.

A distant speck in the rearview feed slowly grows into a sleek black Camaro, a Pursuit Special. It's firing off its negative strobes as it catches up behind me. I squeeze my eyes shut and make a blind stab to opaque the rear plasti-glass and disable the cameras before I puke or become completely disoriented and crash.

Now I can't see any of what they're doing. Pucking Ferpect-o.

I juke right, because now that the traffic's been cleared by the freeway monitors, I have some room to play.


I hear a sickening crunch from the rear of the car. Shit! I've been 'pooned! Ever see the old trashy car movie 2Fast2Furious? Yeah, the harpoon lets police transmit a burst of electricity to fry a vehicle's electrical system. Looks like I'm at the end of my run.



The dash displays flickering psychedelic colors at me, the interior LEDs all sizzle and fry. But somehow I'm still running! Maybe they somehow hit the charging line, or the solar clear coat channeled the charge to the system! I'm still running, and-- the capacitors are showing some charge now, like they had an hours' snack time on my mega-high-voltage home charging system.

Brilliant! Plus I know those high-speed pursuit specials can only pack ONE charge; I did an article on them.

I need an idea of what's going on, so I stab the clear button, but the back window only clears enough for me to make out vague shapes behind me as I'm thrown forward hard into my harness. My tires screech and I start swerving back and forth, fighting for control! The prick still has me hooked, and he is panic braking behind me trying to slow me down or wreck me! I thumb the pad again and pray the transfer works. I slow down a lot as the engine takes all the strain of trying to keep me moving forward. I keep moving but the straps are cutting into me each time that prick stands on the stop pedal. Large Caps are ready for one more go, and I have one last idea.

Surging from his panic stops, once, and then twice, and-- NOW! Large Caps cut in right on cue with what seems like all the torque in the world, just after his last panic stop attempt broke his traction. My tires bite as resistors modulate the immense voltage being dumped to the faithful motors. I swerve right and left, and left and right and whip him into a wide arc behind me, and...

He catches the water barrels broadside at the Los Angeles Street Exit, exploding them spectacularly and surely caving in the entire passenger side of his million-dollar plus high-speed pursuit vehicle.

Oh, I'm going to catch a hell of a beating for that.

The harpoon unit pulled out of its mounting and is skipping down the lanes behind me, throwing sparks. I can see it in the side-view dumb mirror, thankful for the design redundancy this time.

The party ends shortly. I can see the blockade just around the bend, and a half-dozen more Interceptor units have joined the chase behind me. Time for one final, tasteless "fuck you."

I cue up Bad Religion and put it on repeat.

Slamming on the brakes and tapping the auto down button for the windows, I skid to a halt sideways in front of the row of police cars and commandeered heavy equipment blocking the freeway. The Interceptors screech to a halt behind me, blocking off the way I'd come.

I double tap for "Max Volume."

I reach down and turn the car off slowly, removing the keys, and very carefully hold them up in a non-threatening manner. I drop the keys past my legs onto the floor. Then I place my wrists on the wheel, palms on the dash and close my eyes.

"Los Angeles is Burning" plays at full volume until I'm yanked from the car and a pissed off officer puts three bullets into the entertainment stack.

I'm sure they've cut the news feed by now, I thought, as the first blows began to land.


"The Senator will see you now." she said as she pertly swiveled around, accentuating the turn with a swish of her hips, and led me into the man's office.

"There's no need to waste those hips on me, sugar." I whispered as I walked past her, further into the room and she followed to stand by his desk in case he needed anything.

"SENATOR!" I bellowed, "How's your favorite Son-In-Law?.... I'm great! Thanks for asking!" I said jovially as his scowl deepened.

"You may go, Vanessa. We will not be require refreshments, and please be certain to interrupt us with anything that comes up, no matter how trivial it might seem."

She strutted all the way back though the door giving her rear an extra waggle before closing the door behind her.

"New secretary," he stated.

"You say that like she's a new car you just can't wait to show off," I said.

"Well, brunettes are in this season, you know," he quipped nonchalantly. "Enough small talk,"

He tried to stare me down, but this was old-hat. I rolled my eyes.

"Fine. I want you to make me a Convict."

He raised his eyebrow at me, and I continued.

"You have the connections and the clout to make this happen. To get me placed in a Conscript unit."


"Because we can't afford yet another war. North Korea, China, The Russian Civil War, AND the War for Public Opinion? No one disputes the L.A. attack started this chain of events, but I'm as much a student of history as you are. The longer a conflict continues, the more organized and supported the opposition to it grows."

"Why not just enlist?" he said gruffly. "Or approach one of the Branches to become an embedded reporter?"

"I've never much liked the taste of bullshit, Sir," I said sarcastically, "Embedding is a joke, has been since the first Gulf Conflict. If I wanted to report merely the stories I was told to the way I was ordered, I would be working for FAIR News. I want the truth, the real story of the war, and the mechos are that story. Ones that haven't been pre-screened or notified of my press affiliation. Some of the mechos may be coming back alive, and they deserve a chance at real reintegration, that is, if the Government holds up their end of the bargain."

"And you want to be the one to tell their stories, eh?"

"You thought it was presumptuous of me to ask for your daughter's hand at the time as well. No, I don't want simple stories, I want to make a difference, to do something that matters."

"You still have fire, boy. I'll do it, and with no conditions."

"What? No catches even?"

"Only the one catch, boy, and that's Catch-22. You came to me without my daughter accompanying you. Which means she doesn't know squat about this cockamamie plan of yours, nor would she approve. You set this in motion, without asking your wife's permission, and THAT damned-fool decision may cost you your marriage, even if you don't manage to come back dead."


"I believe the words you are looking for are 'Oh,' and 'Shit.'"


"Honey, you feel the same way I do about the Conscription Act! Why would you object to my doing something that has a chance of changing it!?"

She looked me in the eyes, then looked away. I could barely make out what she said next.

"You can't ask me to give you up. I won't even be able to reach you." She raised her voice, "I won't know if you're dead or alive."

"Hon', I'll have a cell phone with spare power cells to last six months. It's data only, with a voice to text program. It won't accept texts, but I will be able to email! I will be in contact, but there's no way of knowing how often.

She crossed her arms, clearly not accepting any of my proffered arguments.

"Think of all the innocent people who may have been sent over to fight against their will. How hard must that be on their families? Hell, you could almost argue that Judges are giving more severe sentences just to provide the Army more conscripted soldiers! Our courts weren't quite a shining beacon of integrity and justice before the Act."

"If you go," she said, arms dropping to her sides, "how soon will it be?" she whispered.

"I don't know," I said, taking a step forward, and another, wrapping her in my arms, "but I can promise you this: I will hold you in my arms this tightly every night before I go, and every night I can after I come home." [END]


© 2010 Nicholas Cincinat (@SexCPotatoes)

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

"Lights, Vehicle, Action, Part 1"

"This is reporting that's worth being done, honey! Can't you see that?!? I know you're scared--I'm scared too, but this is a chance to get the truth about what the war is like for the Mechos out to the people! The kind of journalism they tried to train out of us after college when we hired in to our shiny media jobs!"

"I don't want you to go!" she fired back.

"Well, your father does," I tried on a smirk as she looked away, "he sees it as his chance to get rid of me." I let it drop as she whirled back.

"You and my father... you can both go to HELL!"

"Look, I have no idea when they are going to take me. This could very well be the last chance we have to be together for a long time... do you really want this fight to be how we leave things?"

"You have no training, no experience, and you'll be out of contact for who knows how long; maybe even dead! You can't just drop this on me and expect me to be okay with it. I know you want to make a difference, that's part of what made me fall madly in love with you, but this is too much!"

"Of course it's big, maybe the biggest story of my career. But the conscripts don't have any training or experience either. There are rumors that they are seriously ill-equipped as well! These people have been drafted, no matter what illusions of voluntary service the State produces.


On the way home from work. Take a detour through the ghost town south of Downtown.

38.79% of LA's population (at last count) moved away after the attack. Whole swaths of the city abandoned due to dangerous levels of fallout, or collapsed buildings. They just recently got the streets all cleared of debris.

This is where I do my heavy thinking. On the street, cruising where almost no one but the most deranged squatters will live. Thank the gods for free anti-rad supplements.




"Your car has been tagged as 'stolen.'" said the voice on the other end of my cell.

"Is that why the helicopter seems to be following me?"

"Put on a show. You're a multiple murderer already 'scripted into the Mechos. Escaped three days ago during a transfer. Your name is Stephen Patrick Conley; and don't let the cameras get a clear view of your face."


Well, I never expected to use this on monitored streets.

I reach under the dash and flip the hidden toggle switch, an old-school touch I'd insisted on. Sometimes a button just doesn't do it for you, know what I mean? The car started her unrestricted growl. A few things can unlock a newer car for performance. Being a licensed member of the SCCA, an amateur and professional racing league, I have legal access to gear that black market Tunerz get busted for every year. From weekend track-days and autocrossing events, to rally or drag races, these are the few sanctioned events that remain for gear-heads and speed freaks to get their thrills these days.

I stopped short of the full 'White Box' replacement ECU, as those are strictly regulated and legal for dedicated race vehicles only. Plus they are impossible to mask or explain away when the Bureau of Motor vehicles does their random yearly tech inspection. The best way to unlock your vehicle's potential is expensive, but well worth every penny. No replaced ECU for my car, but I have some custom boxes that allow some driving excitement. No more banging on the GPS rev-limiter. Your vehicle's Global Position is cross referenced these days with local speed limit databases, and your electrical motor output and combustion engine RPMs as well as your available gear selections are electronically limited to prevent speeding or dangerous maneuvers. About the only places you can legally hoon it up anymore is on the unmonitored roads (no longer listed on maps, privately or maintained, for profit, or abandoned). The only exception is the entire Great Free State of Montana.

For those of us who want some vehicular freedom on everyday roads, we choose our colors.

The easiest setup to get is a "Blue Box." Buy yourself an off-service, former law enforcement vehicle, and get the proper hacked activation software, and a damned good masking program. Voila, full power and capabilities whenever you need an asphalt freedom fix.

Ambulances and Fire Department vehicles (including volunteers) have "Red Boxes," which are useful, but only for point-to-point unlocking.

Mine is a "Green Box," the most sophisticated you can run, one step below the "White Box." This one unlocks the limits by constantly swapping in false GPS input data at random intervals to fool your car's stock ECU into believing you actually are on a race track or at some legally sanctioned event.

None of the boxes are worth a damn without a companion "Brown Box." This is the one that helps CYA by routing the real GPS data to your car's Event Data Recorder, or "Black Box," as it is generally called.

These are ordinary software mods that anyone can get, if they know the right lawbreakers. But the cherry on this hot-car-sundae is that my Hybrid systems have been upgraded and customized. A full solar-web clear coat was the second most expensive aftermarket option to have installed, the first: next-gen tri-mode miniature electric motors.

These babies can run off the battery packs in the car exactly like the old electrics did, but they can also run off the circular banks of capacitors that are arrayed around the motor, taking up all the space saved by the miniaturization of the in-wheel motors. In my case, I chose a system involving two sizes of caps. The large Caps store 1.5x the power of the conventional battery storage, and the smalls have a combined rating of 3x the capacity of the battery. What's more, the Cap charges can be transferred up and down the line, so if energy expensive maneuvers are required, empty large Caps can take the energy needed from the small, or you can transfer the large charge down to the smaller ones. The small caps even have the ability to transfer their charge to the vehicle's stock battery system over time. An elegant system using the newest tech hardly anyone has seen, yet.

Suddenly the sirens of two Interceptors shake me from my technological reverie. Tires screeching, sirens blaring, the cars come out sideways from East 15th, a block behind me. I know I'm sure to regret this, but I'm grinning like an idiot. The only thing I'd need to complete that mental picture is some drool.

I take an immediate right on Olympic from South Santa Fe Ave, using all 4 lanes, going into a slight power-slide. I thumb the pad on the steering wheel which quickly accepts my print and vein signature, enabling the large Caps. Take the pedal to peg-town and my stomach protests as someone sits on my chest, growing the distance between the Interceptors and I.


Chopper rotors sound above me, back and to the left. As if to smugly remind me that I'm not going to be getting away that easily.

I pull my hat down lower, let go of the wheel, and flip them the double-bird for a half second.

I'm almost to the LA River when Reds and Blues appear from around a corner across the bridge. Three more cruisers, coming across the River. The Big Caps are spent, I'm not going to make it past before they can block me off. There's no way I can take or give a hit at this speed, especially from a heavy beast like the Interceptor. So I key in the rear-view feed in the dash, and almost double-take at the space they're leaving me.

This may not be my smartest move, but I yank the E-brake anyway, and convince the steering components that yes, I really do want to go *that* direction now; and at this speed. The tires howl in protest and I stripe the pavement as smoke begins pouring from my wheel-wells as motors fight momentum and I execute the classic J-turn (or "bootlegger's turn," if you prefer). All that practice paid off, but I'm forced to use the thoughtfully provided sidewalk to avoid the two units trailing me, and traction control spits and fights the double hop of the curbs.

Back up Olympic to hang a fast right on Matteo, then all the way up to a right on East 8th, one last right and then I'm climbing the ramp to the 10. Screw the cliché, Freeway it is then. Let's burn some complex hydrocarbons, fellas.

I hope I'm not getting the viewers at home too hopeful.



© 2010 Nicholas Cincinat (@SexCPotatoes)

Saturday, June 12, 2010

"X-Ray Alpha"

By now, we all know how the war started. North Korean extremists, masterminded by the son of a public official, set off a nuclear device in downtown Los Angeles. America sent in the big boys with the big guns, but they fucked up and got caught. North Korea attacked Inchon Air Base with Chinese Air support. Complacency to war in about a month and a half. Nice and neat, wasn't it?

Except this -- where was the evidence against the North Korean terror cell? You ever see any? Or did you just do like every other American I know, and start blaming 'em as soon as President Crozier said "It was the North Koreans."

And this -- why'd the Chinese get involved? Sure, they're Communist, and North Korea's Communist, but why'd that Chinese fighter wing help destroy Inchon and overrun South Korea? What did they have to gain from that?

I know I'm not the only one to have these kinds of questions. I think a lot of Americans do. Unlike a lot of Americans, though, I have several of the answers.

This is the point where I tell you my name, right, and explain everything to you? Yeah. About that. . .

Name. Don't really have one of those, not anymore. I could tell you the name my momma gave me, the name I was born under -- and if you searched it, you'd find an 83-year-old Vietnam War vet in Coral Gables, Florida (not me) and a race car driver in Canada (also not me). I wasn't born in the U.S., but I was born an American citizen. I say "was" because I don't really consider myself a citizen of anywhere anymore.

It's really easy to "accidentally" misfile a birth certificate if you're the government. Still, I suppose you have to call me something. My radio code if I'm in a hot zone and need bailing out is X-Ray Alpha 661. The letters and the numbers don't mean anything, but if the military enters them, they get a hit for a covert foreign operative in the CIA (also not me). I guess X-Ray Alpha 661 is as good a name as any.

Explanation. I do have those, plenty of 'em, but I can't give them directly to you. I joined the Army at 19. By 22, I was working for an organization that didn't -- and still doesn't -- even have a name. I'm not with the organization now -- at least, I don't think I am -- but though I'm off the grid, I'm sure they can find me, so I'll have to be a little vague with the info I give out. Sorry about that, but you're a smart bunch. You'll figure it out.

So, let's go back in time a bit -- a big bit, actually. 1997. I'd been working for my employer for just over a year, and was posted to Hong Kong. Myself and another worker -- a Navy SEAL named Morrow -- were there to extract a Chinese national with intelligence data after Hong Kong went back into Chinese hands. Morrow was a big white guy, and I'm black, so we didn't exactly pass for locals, but we didn't have to -- there were plenty of tourists and expatriate Brits around. I was there because I knew the intelligence asset, and Morrow was there in case anything went pear-shaped -- he was a Death Dealer, and as a bonus, he spoke perfect Chinese. He told me his wife was from Hong Kong, and he'd learned it while they were dating.

"You ever been to Hong Kong before, man?" Morrow asked. We were sitting at an outdoor cafe having tea.

"Nope," I lied. I'd been there four times before the changeover and once since.

"We wrap this shit up early, I know a place with good German beer and passable barbecue," Morrow said, sipping his tea.

"Love to, man. But I'm on a direct flight after the job."

"Shit. They got me flying commercial, then space-A back to Los Angeles. Pays to work for the shadow people, I guess."

The job went pear-shaped -- badly so. The Chinese found out who the defector was, grabbed him and pulled him out of Hong Kong. We went after him -- I don't want to say "we killed our way through mainland China," but me not wanting to say it doesn't mean it's not accurate. We racked up four bodies, but we got the asset and both Morrow and I went home. Never saw him again -- hear of his kid from time to time.

That was strike one against China. I wish I could say it was the only one, but in my career, let's just say I struck out several innings. They had plenty of reason to be pissed at us, not just the trillion or so dollars we borrowed and never gave back. That should shed some light on one of the questions I asked earlier.

Now, the other one, the North Korean thing. I'm sure you remember the incident a couple of years back at the American Embassy in South Korea. You know, the one where North Korean snipers opened fire? And the Marine, Master Sergeant what's-her-name, cute chick who got thrown in jail because of it? After Iraq and Afghanistan, they issued a lot of the Marines nonlethal weapons, but she broke into the old-school stuff in the embassy basement -- M-16s and M-79 grenade launchers. I agree with her call, there -- not like the snipers were using nonlethal ammo. Anyway, the government likes to point to that as the flashpoint for the North Korean terrorist movement.

What if I told you it was all bullshit? That MSgt Chica wasn't arrested for pulling out the real guns?

See, that's what they fed the public, and you guys all bought it. Hell, if I didn't know any better -- if I hadn't been there -- I would've bought it too. It made sense. She disobeyed a direct order and got court-martialed. Seven years in Leavenworth and a dishonorable discharge.

A year later, you wouldn't find her at Leavenworth, and it's not because of the convict conscript act. . . but I digress. She got grabbed and locked down because she and her right-hand man went out and found the snipers' bodies, and they were about as Asian as I am. One of 'em was from Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, and drew a paycheck from your taxes. He hadn't gone rogue, either.

Then we get to the bomb in Los Angeles. That was, originally, a terrorist plot -- that my agency stopped. Couple of guys from Montana managed to put a bomb together, they had some effed-up white-power agenda. Stupid. Their bomb probably wouldn't have even detonated, but someone who also pulled his paychecks from taxpayer cash fixed it right up. Enough evidence was left around for the LAPD, FBI, and DHS to suspect a North Korean splinter group, and boom -- SEALs, Delta, and Rangers roll into North Korea and start a war that was 20-some years in the making.

So why frame up North Korea? Sorry, that's one I can't tell you. I've said too much already -- my lifespan is probably measurable in hours now, anyway. But there's a point where you see what's happened -- a lot of it because of your own actions -- and you just have to set the record straight. You realize you've spent the bulk of your career making the American public look one way while you did some nasty shit in the other direction, and it sickens you. So much that you move to an unstable Central African nation and start typing up your thoughts to send to a reporter at the New York Times Network you met ten years ago. I'm at that point now, I guess.

Time to burn this computer, start moving, and try to confuse the shadow people one more time. If I get a chance, I'll contact you again.

Want me to really break your brain? Next time, I'll tell you how the Russians got convinced to tear their country apart.

[Note: Received by New York Times Editor Jacen Gray on 27 December 2022. No substantiation found -- filed away as conspiracy theory -- never published.]


Wednesday, June 9, 2010


To: "Jason Davidson" []
From: "Jennifer Foley" []
Subject: Dealing with Post Traumatic Stress
Sent: 24 August 2029, 11:43 a.m.

Dear Jason:

Captain Keller asked me to write to you, as your wife is due to return from the War later this week, and he's diagnosed her with severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. My husband Roger went through the same thing when he came back a few months ago, and apparently (at least in Captain Keller's mind), I did a good job of helping him readjust. We've never met, if you were wondering, but both of our spouses were in the Fourth Infantry (though Roger was on Team Striker, and I understand your wife was part of Team Warhorse).

Just to get this out of the way up front -- I'm probably not the best person in the world to talk to you about this kind of thing. I don't like to operate in the world of heavy emotions. I mostly find them distasteful, so it's kind of up in the air if anything I can say will help you and your wife Kylie. Yeah, I know that's kind of messed up, but I've never been much of a people person. I think my general lack of attachment to strong emotion has probably helped out in the situation with me and Roger.

I'm not sure any of the methods I've used to help Roger readjust will be of any use to you, but if there's the chance that something I say here can help, I suppose it's worth a shot.

First of all, be ready to not exist for a while. Or, sure, you'll be there physically, and your spouse will acknowledge you -- but you're not really there. Or, I guess, more accurately, your spouse won't be there. She'll still be back in the war most of the time, back in The Incident.

And let's be clear about this -- there is The Incident. No matter what kind of shit Kylie saw over there, there's going to be one thing -- one day, one event, one attack -- that's going to be on her mind more than others. The thing is, you can't ever ask about the incident, can't force her to tell you what happened. And even though you won't know what The Incident is for a long time, every conversation you have will probably work its way back to The Incident for quite a whole.

It'll be frustrating, talking about something when you have no clue what it is you're talking about. More frustrating still as anything you say will be the wrong thing. Nothing you say will seem to help, but you've gotta say it anyway. Even when you do find out what The Incident was -- and you will, sooner or later -- anything you say won't help. You'll try to be logical about what happened, but logic won't fix anything. Logic does very little to penetrate that kind of emotional barrier.

And your problems? The shit you've been going through while she's been gone, much less the stress of dealing with a wife who's physically around but mentally still fighting a war 10,000 miles away? You'll have to keep that to yourself for quite a while. It's not that Kylie doesn't care, it's just that it doesn't enter her mind that other people have problems, too. Her issues -- The Incident and all that it entails -- are going to take up all of her waking thoughts and even her dreams for quite some time. The only advice I have here is just hang in there, and deal as best you can. You've already been dealing for quite some time without her to lean on -- you're just going to have to do it a little longer.

Don't try to force Kylie back into the same patterns, the same activities the two of you used to have before the war. If she wants to go out, sure. But don't expect it to be much fun. Don't be surprised when you're in the middle of a conversation and she drifts off and stops talking.

Dealing with a spouse with PTSD is a little like fighting a war must be. You'll make progress -- little gains here and there that can be destroyed in an instant for no discernible reason. Advance, drop back. Attack, retreat. Do what you can to keep an even keel, and just keep listening.

She'll probably be resistant to seeing the Army psychiatrist, but suggest that she go anyway. Note I said suggest -- don't try to make her go. No ultimatums, no "do this for me"s. Just try to influence her to go, but support her decision no matter what.

I don't know if the two of you have kids, but that can be a whole other mess. We don't have them, so I'm afraid I'm not much help in that area -- I've been told you really want to keep an eye on your spouse around your children, and I can see that. Make sure you''re around when your wife is with your kids -- I'm not saying she'll do anything to them, but she'll be distracted, as I said above. You're going to have to keep an eye on them just like you did while she was away.

Oh, and get a dog if you don't already have one. Black Labs are good, as they tend to be affectionate as all hell and love unconditionally. That kind of positive energy is good to have around, and chances are it won't be coming from you or your wife for a while.

That's about it, I think. Just keep in mind that while it's going to be tough, eventually it will get better. You might never get things back to the way they were, but you and Kylie can live a pretty normal life again.

Feel free to keep in touch, and ask if you need anything.


Jennifer Foley
Army Wife, Team Striker, 4th Infantry Division

Sunday, June 6, 2010


Greetings to you, my American friends. My name is Sergei Odoshevny, and despite the boyish good looks you see before you, I assure you I am 41 years old. Hard to believe, I know, but it is the truth.

If I look familiar to you, it is probably because you saw me on your TV last year, when I stood behind my boss, Russian Federation Ambassador Aleksandr Chadov, as he asked your President Crozier for aid with the civil unrest in the south of our country.

I wasn't always in politics, though. In fact, I'd only been working for the Ambassador for a few days when I appeared with him on television. I spent some time in your wonderful country -- in 1995, I came over as an exchange student and did my senior year of high school in the state of Nebraska. I didn't speak much English when I arrived, but I was almost fluent when I left -- fluent enough to go to college in England, then to go to work for Boeing as the liaison with the American home office.

After 18 years with Boeing, my nation called on me to serve Mother Russia. I was asked to work with our military, with a Colonel Pavel Ivanov, in an exchange and cooperation program with the U.S. Special Forces. A lot of Ivanov's men didn't speak English very well, and my job was to again act as a liaison with the Americans. My work in the defense industry and twenty-three year fluency with the language made me a natural fit, and the pay was good, so I accepted the position.

I enjoyed my job -- talking with Army Green Berets, Spetsnaz, and units on both sides that didn't have names. There was a great feeling of cooperation and mutual respect that never would have happened when I was a child, back when America and the Soviet Union despised and feared each other. Our military learned plenty from the Americans, and I like to think that we taught them a thing or two.

The program was wrapping up, and I was about to be out of a job within days when we got the news that the North Koreans had attacked Inchon Air Base in South Korea. Hundreds of American Servicemen were killed, and the soldiers at our base were understandably shaken. And by "shaken," I mean "filled with murderous rage."

"It's gonna be war for sure," a young Army Ranger named Aaron Carson said as we watched the news. He was cracking his knuckles and eyeing Lieutenant Dyuzhev's cigarettes on the table in front of us. Dyuzhev nodded and slid the pack towards him.

"Help yourself, Sergeant," Dyuzhev said in his heavily accented English. I'd been teaching him, but he wasn't fluent yet.

"Thanks, sir."

"You may call me Vasily."

Sergeant Carson nodded and grabbed a cigarette from the pack. He lit it, inhaled, and coughed out.

"I expect you're correct, Sergeant," I said, declining the pack Dyuzhev tipped toward me, "Though I hope it doesn't come to that."

"The intelligence reports are saying that the North Koreans were backed with Chinese Air Support," Dyuzhev said, reading from his netbook.

"How reliable is that Intel?" Carson asked.

"Very. We have many agents in China. This is a first-hand report."

"Shit. That's all kinds of not good. Just North Korea, we'd beat 'em down easy. China's a whole different story."

I didn't expect my country to be pulled into the war, as well -- but it happened before the U.S. declared war on China two weeks later.

The Chinese hacked several of our Web sites, including several government and military ones, implanting messages that we should join them in their impending struggle against the Americans. Laughable, I thought. It was like when the German Luftwaffe dropped leaflets on American soldiers in World War II urging them to turn against their own nation. Did they really expect that to work? A little propaganda to make a man turn against his country, his brothers in arms?

It turned out I was wrong. I, myself, loved living in capitalist Russia. I remembered the days of Communism, of the Cold War. I had been a child at the time, but it seemed as though we never had enough food, enough heat, enough money. Once the Soviet Union broke up, things changed -- slowly, but they changed. They got worse for a little while, but as we found more and more oil money, my country gradually became a nice place to live. International corporations set up shop, and most everyone I knew was solidly middle-class or better.

It seemed a fair amount of my countrymen disagreed with me -- and a large number of those were in the Army. Just four days after the attack on Inchon (and the day after my American Military friends had been called home), Chinese tanks and planes roared across the border at the Manzhouli Sino-Russian Inter-Trade Tourist Area, but they were not alone. They were met, then escorted, by three armored divisions formerly of the Russian Ground Forces.

Some of our Army stayed loyal, and moved to repel the invasion -- but we were outnumbered and outgunned. The force we sent to stop the incursion didn't last long. In the midst of all of this, I received a call on my personal cell line directly from Ambassador Chadov, asking me to join him as he requested aid from the Americans. We left that night.

All told, roughly 45% of our armed forces decided to join the Communist Chinese invasion. America declared war just one day after we requested military aid -- the bombing of Los Angeles, the attack on Inchon, and finally the invasion of Russia had convinced them there was no other choice. China had to be stopped. President Grachev pledged all of our remaining military to assist the Americans not only in stabilizing our own nation, but in fighting the Chinese back into their own borders.

I never saw my American Military friends again, though I did hear that Dyuzhev -- now a Captain -- joined the US Army Ranger Unit Sergeant Carson had been reassigned to after both units sustained heavy losses in battle. He became second-in-command of that unit, though I have no doubt he still allowed Sergeant Carson to call him by his first name.

Such a thing -- a combined Ranger/Spetsnaz fighting force -- would have been unimaginable to me when I was a child, or even when I was a mid-level liaison at Boeing after college. We had been raised to hate and fear the Americans, and to love the Communist Ideal of the CCCP -- which, I suppose, is why so many of my countrymen joined the Chinese and North Korean forces. When an ideal is programmed into a person at such a young age, sometimes it is hard to rise above that programming.

These days, I still work as a liaison for the Russian military. I live in Tampa, Florida, and coordinate between the commanders on the ground in Russia -- what's left of it -- and the American forces run out of CENTCOM. The statisticians say we have no chance of winning, but I disagree -- the British finally joined us after the fall of New York last month, and more nations are sure to follow.

I have no doubt we will take back our homeland, but I only hope it will happen while I am still young enough to retire and enjoy it. From the way things have gone so far, we may be in this war for a long, long time -- and I am not as young as I used to be.


Thursday, June 3, 2010


Tommy Harrigan had a mission, and it was one he'd volunteered for. They'd finished a mission not two hours before, pushing a Chinese unit back further into southeastern Russia. When he'd reported back in, he was informed that one member of his unit -- 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit -- was unaccounted for. Not KIA, not wounded; just missing.

Tommy was the leader of his squad, and one of the few uninjured. The missing soldier -- Lance Corporal Elizabeth Vargas -- was a member of his squad, so Tommy was the first to step forward to go find her. There were others, of course, mostly from Tommy's squad, but they were all injured and tired. Tommy figured he'd be better on his own -- though they'd won the battle, there were still bound to be Chinese elements still wandering around out there, and they would certainly be angry.

"You sure you don't want me to tag along, Gunnery Sergeant?" Corporal Davis Rogers asked, scratching at the bandage on his upper arm. "Corpsman says I'm good to go. Bullet passed right through."

"No, D. You stay here. Keep an eye on the unit. It's going to be a long night, and you know the Chinese are going to try to take back the ground we grabbed tonight."

"You think she's still alive out there?" Davis asked.

"Probably not. But we need to know one way or another, don't we?"

Davis nodded grimly and cracked his knuckles.

"I'll keep an ear on 1-9 Victor. You get in a corner, Gunny, we'll be ready to roll a Cougar out to you at a second's notice."

"Appreciate it. I'll keep you apprised as much as I can," Tommy said, slinging an M4 over his body armor and strapping his helmet on tightly.

He left his squad's tent and headed out towards the just-erected front gate -- if they could hold onto this territory, they'd need to give it a name soon enough, but for now it was called Grid-118 South. Tommy suspected it had been farmland before the war, but now it was nothing but a Marine encampment and several hundred acres of scorched earth.

As he neared the front gates, he saw the remnants of the ten Convict Charlie units from the operation putting up their own tents. Charlie had taken some heavy losses -- Tommy wondered if they'd be able to even make five full units now. One of them, a lean young black man, nodded and smirked at Tommy as he passed. Tommy nodded back.

"Gunny. Can't say I envy you going back out there," one of the MPs said as he opened the front gate.

"Gotta be done," Tommy sighed.

"Try to come back alive, yeah, Gunny? We've lost enough people tonight," the other MP said, waving Tommy through.

He'd made the decision to move on foot, carrying only his weapon, some extra ammo, and a medical kit so as not to draw any attention he didn't have to. Vargas couldn't have gotten too far, if she was alive -- the battle had been fought for two straight days, but in an area less than three square miles. With the night-vision visor on his helmet and data from an Aero UAV overflight, he should be able to cover the entire battlefield up to the Chinese lines a mile and a half away before the sun came up.

Tommy thought he heard the Aero pass over him, but it was most likely running on stealth mode, so he couldn't be sure. Still, its data started coming through on the left side of his visor as he walked away from 118 South, letting him know of a heat signature about a kilometer to the West. He headed in that direction, his head on a swivel for any movement, his M4 up and in front of him.

"Who thought volunteering to walk around a hot zone in the dark would be a good idea, anyway?" Tommy mumbled under his breath. "Oh, right. Same idiot who thought it'd be a good idea to enlist in the Marines during wartime."

As he walked, he noticed a flare in the visor's night-vision display -- a fire, he guessed. That had probably been the heat signature the Aero had picked up. Tommy headed for the flare -- it was a cold night already, and if Vargas was still alive, she might have lit a fire to keep warm. If it was just some ordinance that was still burning, Tommy figured he wouldn't lose anything by checking it out. The visor estimated the range at just over a thousand meters -- Tommy moved quickly and quietly and covered the distance in a few minutes.

He found Vargas. She was sitting crosslegged in front of the fire, stripped down to her BDU pants and T-shirt. She was covered in blood, but Tommy couldn't tell how much of it was hers and how much of it belonged to the several corpses around her. He could see that she held a Ka-bar knife in each hand.

Tommy thought he was moving silently, but apparently he wasn't. Vargas sprang to her feet and spun, both knives up and at the ready.

"Marine!" Tommy hissed.

"Yeah? What unit?" she growled.

"Yours. It's Gunny Harrigan, Lance Corporal."

"Gunny. You out here lookin' for me?"

"I am. How are you hurt, Vargas?"

"Oh, I'm not, Gunny. I'm five by five."

"You're soaked in blood, Vargas."

"Ain't mine. It's theirs," she shrugged, pointing one blood-smeared blade at the pile of corpses around the fire. "I been burning 'em as fast as I can, but there sure are a lot of the bastards."

Tommy raised the visor on his helmet and looked into the fire. What he had thought was logs or scrap wood was actually the bodies of three Chinese soldiers.

"You killed them all?" Tommy asked, lowering his M4.

"Fuckin' A right I did, Gunny. They all huddled here when the fighting started. Cowered here is more like it. They never saw me coming, Gunny."

"Where's your weapon, Vargas?"

"Don't know, sir. Didn't need it," Vargas replied calmly, picking at her teeth with the point of one of her Ka-bars.

"They didn't fire on you?"

"Didn't give 'em the chance, Gunny."

Tommy looked closer at the bodies stacked next to the fire -- there were five of them, plus the three burning. He noticed the insignia on their sleeves -- all of them were medics.

"They were medics, Corporal. They didn't fire because they didn't expect to be attacked."

"They were Chinese is all I know, Gunny."

"Come on. Let's get you back to base. We can sort it out there," Tommy said, trying not to watch as the Chinese medics burned.

"Nothing to sort out, Gunny. They were hostiles, and I eliminate hostiles."

"Sure. Sure. Come on, Vargas. Let's get back and get some rest, yeah? I'm sure we have plenty to do in the morning."

"Hold up a second, Gunny. How do I know you're not a hostile? Never saw you fire a shot out here tonight, and we all know the Chinks have brainwashing methods," Vargas said, staring hard at Tommy, her grip on her knives tightening.

"I fired my fair share of rounds tonight, Vargas. Believe that. Now lock yourself down and come with me back to base. That's an order, Lance Corporal."

"Not a scratch on you, Gunny. But that makes sense. Chinks wouldn't want to hurt one of their own agents, now, would they?"

"Lance Corporal, stand down now," Tommy growled, raising his M4 as Vargas stalked towards him.

"I don't take orders from the enemy, Gunny," Vargas hissed, lunging at him with one of her knives.

Tommy stepped back, and the knife sliced only the air in front of his face. Quickly, he swung the butt of his rifle, catching Vargas in the side of her head. She dropped, and Tommy kicked the knives away from her.

He activated the radio in his helmet.

"1-5 MEU to 118-South."

"We copy, Gunny."

"D, roll out with that Cougar now. And bring restraints."

* * *

Blood. The bodies burning on the bonfire. Vargas absentmindedly picking her teeth with the blood-smeared Ka-bar. The look in her eyes when she lunged.

These were the images that popped into Tommy's head every time he closed his eyes for the next three nights. They managed to hold the Grid and push the Chinese forces back another couple of miles, but Tommy was feeling his lack of sleep. He hadn't caught but a few hours here and there since the night he'd found Vargas out in the dark.

When the stimulants stopped working, Tommy figured he'd better talk to a medic. See if they could prescribe him something to keep him up or to help him sleep. The medical tent was just a few over from his squad's, so, during a five-hour break when his men were sleeping, Tommy walked over and poked his head in.

"Hey, Gunny. What can I do for you?" a young Air Force officer said. He was a Captain, though he was probably only 26 or 27 years old. That meant he was an actual doctor, Tommy guessed.

"Oh, hi, sir. I was just having some trouble sleeping. Nothing to bother you with," Tommy muttered, turning to leave.

"No bother, Gunny. Come on in. Sit down a minute."

So Tommy walked into the tent and sat down. He and the Captain -- Dr. Eckmann, as he introduced himself -- talked for the better part of an hour. Tommy told him about what he'd seen, the sleeping problem he'd been having. Eckmann was a good listener, and nodded along as Tommy spoke. At the end of the conversation, Eckmann stood and grabbed a vial from his medicine cabinet.

"I'm going to give you something to knock you out for a bit, Gunny. Now, it's no substitute for natural sleep, but you need some sort of rest. I'll keep you here for the night and keep an eye on you, and we'll figure out a way to get you to sleep normally in the morning, OK?"

Tommy just nodded, and Eckmann gave him an injection. Tommy laid down on a cot and his eyes closed. Thankfully, he didn't see blood, fire, or Vargas immediately.

He could still hear, though. He was sure he heard Eckmann talking with Major Barnes, 15th MEU's commanding officer.

"He's in bad shape, sir. He's seen shit that'll require a lot of therapy to fix," he heard Eckmann say.

"Looks like he's sleeping now," Barnes said.

"Well, he's unconscious, anyway. But he needs to get out of combat, sir. He needs to go home."

"Go home? What do you think this is, Captain? Day camp? No one gets to go home."

"He's a medical risk, sir. If his situation gets any worse, he's going to be a liability on the battlefield."

"How long can you keep him going with the drugs?"

"A week. Maybe two at the outside. But I'd prefer not to do that, sir."

"We all get to do a lot of things we'd rather not out here, Captain. Gunny Harrigan is an experienced squad leader, and we need him. Patch him up as best you can, but get him combat effective immediately."

"I don't know if I can do that, Major."

"You're going to have to. It's either that, or he fucks up on the battlefield and gets himself and his squad killed. Do what you can."

Tommy wasn't sure if he'd actually heard the conversation or dreamt it, but the next morning when he woke up, Eckmann didn't look happy.

"Hey, Gunny. Get some rest?"

"I think so, sir. Feeling a little better, anyway."

"Well, that's good. Look, here's what we're going to do -- I want you to report back here at the end of your duty shift every day. We're going to see what we can do to get you to sleep, but I'm afraid I can't get you pulled out and sent back to Justice or anything like that."

"I understand, sir."

"In the meantime, take it easy on the amphetamines, all right? They're just going to make my job harder."

"Understood, sir."

As Tommy walked out of the medical tent, he heard Eckmann sigh and swear under his breath.