SHIFT TENSE – Sample Chapter

Working my way through the next Eshu International installment, I figured I’d post random scenes for your enjoyment and feedback in the meantime. Please remember everything is subject to a final edit. The lads are landing north of Somaliland at the start of the mission. Bit of geek-speak in this one. Enjoy.


Gulf of Aden. Ten kilometers off the coast of Djibouti

An M-106 Stiletto boat is a thirty-five foot, M-keel spear head of carbon composites and smoked armorglass. Open up the two, three hundred horsepower engines, and twelve thousand pounds skips across water like grease on a hot plate doing one hundred and forty kpm. We added a stealth package and lost a few knots with added weight, but the photo-mimetics mirrored the ocean so perfectly it looked like the boat’s surface was heaving with moon-silvered slate and shadow waves. Stare at it long enough and you’d swear dream winds were bearing you naked over open seas. It was mesmerizing and eerie as hell.

The seven of us were crouched below the gunwales as the boat sliced through the night. Poet9, the Triplets and I were up front. Tam and Curro were double-checking our gear in the stern. Above us the sky was alive with stars, diamond chips scattered in ink. Ahead, the charcoal smudge of the Djibouti coast was fast approaching.

Mission up: Somaliland. Another episode of gross and improbable mischief.

Poet9 was tapping something on a keypad, green-screen glow on his face. “So far so good. No coastal surveillance grid. Worst case is a boat patrol, but even then, with a war on, everybody’s got their hands full. So probably not. We’ll be on the beach duty-free in twelve minutes.”

“Not to mention most sane people are trying to get out of Africa right now.” I said. “You validate those IFF tags Hester gave us? Things’ll be sketchy enough without D-H ‘bots shooting at us.”

“He says they work. I ran ’em through diagnostics. But the only way to know for sure is when we’re staring down the barrel of one.”

I looked over at him, raised an eyebrow.

“No worries,” he winked. “I scripted a Nuke code. Little bastard will crisp any network it touches.”

“We start glassing tac-nets, we’ll attract all kinds of unwanted attention.”

He shook his head. “It’s a one-time use, so we need to be in full panic mode before I push that button.”

“Sure as hell better not come to that.”

The little Mexican threw me a grin. “Relax… this job’s a walk in the park. Or, in this case, a stroll through the lion preserve.”

“Barrel of laughs, you are. Hester say how many other outfits have been contracted?”

“His guess-timate was a couple dozen. Hefty chunk of that military drop-outs from the ‘Stans. They work cheap. Some of them might have a few notches on the handle from pacification duty in Krasnodar or Tbilisi, but my guess is they’re coming to be vodka-soaked meat shields for the veteran crews.”

“Like us.”

“Like us,” he agreed.

“Everybody’s gotta start somewhere,” I said. “Earn as you learn.”

“Hell of a lot better than pay as you go.” Poet9 shrugged.

I kept eyes on the horizon, chewing on my next question. “Any word on Oryol or Alpha Group?” I finally asked.

“I can neither confirm nor deny. That’s another ‘wait and see’. I sure as hell hope not.”

I had nothing to say to that. Poet went back to his screen.

I was scanning the horizon for the twentieth time when Curro’s voice came over com-link in my helmet . “Seven minutes to landfall.”

“You sure of that, Gunga Din?” I asked back.

“Sure I’m sure. I’m watching the 3D mapper. And don’t call me ‘Gunga Din’. Do I get a rifle now?”

“No,” Tam cut in. “Jace, you ready up front?”

“Yes, Mom. We’re smart and strapped.” I thumbed over to a private channel. “He going to be alright? This is quite the field trip.” I whispered.

“Couldn’t talk him out of it.” Tam said. “Poet9 will stick to him like underwear. You, me and the Triplets will be doing the shooting. We’re at the sharp end. They’re strictly tech support.”

“You going to tell Alejo and Carmen? They’re here in Somaliland, you know.”

“I know,” he answered, and that was all he said.

I let that moment sit. “He getting a rifle?” I finally asked.

“Nice little Kriss Super V. Sexy optics. He’ll love it.”

“Good. Full-auto forty-five leaves a mark. Devante will watch him.”

“I know,” he said again.

Curro called over the throb of the motors. “You guys are talking about me. I can tell. Five minutes.”

Tam, Poet and I chuckled. The Triplets burst out laughing.

Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail sat in the bow, their broad pale faces covered in camo-grease and Oakley Elite Quad Eight visors. Billed as ‘Variable Condition Optical Systems’, Quad Eights are capable of four by magnification, night vision and thermal enhancement with digital micro-displays for the built-in laser range finder and windage meter. Oakley V-COS are the ultimate in tactical ninja-vision.

The three of them were running final weapon checks. They had their regular G-46s slung across their backs. The German assault rifles were almost like teddy bears; the Triplets practically fell asleep snuggling the damn things, but the chunky Pelican crates meant they had brought some of their big toys along for this trip. Flopsy and Mopsy were both unpacking General Electric XM214 miniguns. Capable of 4,000 rounds per minute, you could cut down small forests with them. I watched Cottontail secure a rack of HEDP rounds for an M2GC 84mm recoilless rifle. Big lads with big guns.

I leaned over. “You guys expecting trouble?”

“Victory loves preparation,” Cottontail quoted quite seriously.

“OK, but you preparing to arm your own militia?”

The three of them looked at their crates. I could see the wheels turning as they considered the question. “We could supply four –” Cottontail began.

“I’m kidding,” I interjected. “I’m wondering about the firepower. The SPLM doesn’t have a Jane’s Recognition Book, but I’m sure they have plenty of gear kicking about. Why come so heavy?”

Mopsy was gently folding belts of 5.56 ammo into a rigid-frame backpack. “This is the first time we’ve been back to Africa since Mr. Alejo and Mrs. Carmen rescued us in their boat. We thought we should be prepared.”

I suddenly felt like shit. These three were the last of their kind: illegal combat clones known as Series Sevens.

Developed a decade earlier as shock troops for then-President of Zimbabwe and megalomaniac sociopath, N’Kosa Mambi, his army of Sevens blew through the plankton-standard grunts of the Zambian and Mozambique military like linebackers at kindergarten recess. UN Rapid Response troops fared little better.

Mambi’s delusions of empire were finally quenched ten months later by a massive overkill of UN and Corporate forces in pitched, six-day battle with the Series Seven main contingent at Victoria Falls on the Zambezi River.

By then, humiliated field commanders had convinced their bosses the clones were so lethal and unpredictable their existence was prohibited by a unanimous United Nation mandate. The in vitro labs were razed, the surviving science team divvied up among the Corporates, and the gene-template destroyed. Extermination orders were issued. Even harboring a Seven was an international felony.

Tam and I had just founded Eshu International. One of our first contracts was as a protection detail for a small, mom and pop maritime transport firm out of Barcelona.

The four of us – me, Tam, Alejo and Carmen – had found the Triplets starving, shocked, and near-death in Eritrea. After a couple hair-trigger moments, we snubbed the bounty and smuggled them to safety in the hold of Al’s boat, the Balius. The Triplets weren’t pets. Or property. They were friends, and they’ve been half of Eshu International Private Security for eight years now.

This, though, was a major screw-up. Tam and I were so used to our Killer Bunnies being silent, loyal, and deferential that we never considered to ask them, let alone thought about what it would be like for them to go back to where they had been bred, fed into a meat-grinder of a war, then hunted like animals. A real brain-dead move.

The three of them were looking at me with a simple confidence. I crumpled a little bit. I mustered a bit of false cheer, and mumbled a few words congratulating them on forward thinking. “No worries. A little rumble in the jungle, and we’ll be back home in no time.

“We’re not worried,” Cottontail said. “Where you go, we go. Where you die, we die.”

I clapped him on his bowling-ball shoulder and felt even more shitty.

I was about to radio Tam again when the three of them snapped their weapons up, their heads swiveling like laser-targeters to port.

“Contact left. A thousand meters,” Poet9 murmured half a second later. “Surface vessel on parallel course.” He looked up at me. “Coming early to the party. Looks like someone had the same idea as us.”

Tam’s voice. “They being loud and rude?”

“If they’re stupid.” Curro interrupted “How come you’re not giving me a weapon?”

“Gimme, gimme never gets…” Poet sang. “They’re running sneaky-devious like us, but I’ll have one of our Falcos keep an eye on them. We’ll know if they wander into our yard.”

The Falco Evo UAV was an old Italian-made aerial drone we had bought from a Pakistani connection. Kashmiri separatists and Indian military incursions had made the Pak military wild for robots a few years back. Guess they got tired of foot patrols in the Himalayas. At the time, Finmeccanica robotics were all the rage, and Rome had flooded the international arms market with thousands of military drones. Now the Pakistani Armed Forces were addicted to robo-tech, dumping old gear at bargain prices every eighteen months, fiending for the latest, shiniest model. We had a dozen of the things in storage back in Belfast. Poet9 called it ‘Mafia-surplus’. No matter, that kind of gear was perfect for this mission. Old, rugged, nothing fancy enough to arouse suspicion.

Poet9 tapped his screen. “The pair can only stay on station another five hours and then they have to land at Ji Jiga.”

“Turn-around time?” Tam asked.

“Twenty-four hours.”

“A full day?” I exclaimed. “A day without God-view is like a day without sunshine. What the hell? Ji Jiga is just over the Ethiopian border.”

He shrugged. “Be happy we got them down to twenty-four hours. That was another ten grand.”

“Snake charmers and cattle thieves,” I muttered.

Our big motors cut to trolling speed about two hundred meters from the beach. I could hear waves now. We fell silent, flipped on our Oakleys and crouched even lower. Tam and I scrutinized landward, paying special attention to the scrub line that ran along the stretch of dunes above the beach. Curro and Poet9 scanned for sensors, robots, mines, good old fashioned human beings. The Triplets had weapons up and ready for the slightest twitch of hostility from the other boat.
We waited the obligatory five minutes, then brought the Stiletto forward in little squirts, waiting and watching every few meters to see we had stirred anything up. Another twenty minutes of that, then the hull rasped on gravel.

Tam and I waded ashore. Poet9, Curro and the Triplets started off-loading our gear.

Forty minutes later, five little Polaris four-wheelers were lined up on the shingle, chunky with gear and weapons. We were ready. I signaled to Stiletto to autopilot to a new position: ten klicks out from Berbera. It would power-down and ride a sea anchor waiting for a call. Its solar arrays would keep its systems charged and if our little misadventure went south, it was our taxi out of a bad neighborhood.

Curro sat on the back seat of one of the ATVs fondling the submachine gun Tam finally gave him. I spied Poet9 slipping his Walther 10mm into a shoulder holster. Gold winked at me. I looked again. “What did you do to Grace?”

“Ooooh. I thought you’d never ask. Feast your eyes on her now.”

He handed me the big black gun, only it wasn’t all black any more. Someone had engraved the flat metal of the pistol’s slide, covering the top and sides with a delicate tracery of computer circuitry, then inlaid it with gold. If that wasn’t bad enough, the bright razor-thin lines twisted into two tiny angels whose robotic wings enfolded the muzzle.

“Jealous, huh?” he grinned.

“I’m speechless.”

“Esse, Life’s too short to shoot an ugly gun.”

He took it back, wiped it gently with his sleeve before tucking it in under his arm.

“We’re good to go.” Tam called out. ” Let’s get to the rendez-vous before the other ship off loads and this clam bake gets too crowded.” Motors purred, and the seven of us climbed the dunes south east toward the Somaliland border.

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