SHIFT TENSE – Chapter Ten

CHAPTER TEN – TWO OUT OF THREE

Djibouti. South-east border.

Morning ignited the skies over the Gulf of Aden like a blow torch, coloring the landscape in burnt ochres and withered greens. By 0800, the ATV’s metal handle bars were hot to the touch, while sweat ran freely down my back, tickling under my body armor. The seven of us were cruising through the hill country about ten kilometers from the Triple Point; the junction of the Somaliland, Djbouti, Ethopian borders. The black broken teeth of the Guban Mountains sawed clouds in front of us, and I caught the molten-wink of a distant river threading the savanna below.

Tam and I rode abreast, the ATV motors purring loudly. Poet9 and Curro lagged a few meters back, riding double on a six-wheeler that was loaded with most of our gear. The Triplets had spread out in a wedge formation fifty meters ahead of us, watching for patrols or recon drones. So far, the meanest thing we’d stirred up was a pair of bony zebras.

Tam radioed the Triplets to hold and the seven of us stopped for water in the shade of some damal trees.

Curro slid off his Polaris, started stretching his legs. “How much farther?”

“Rumor is the big SPLM camp is somewhere south of Biye K’obe, Ethopia,” Tam answered. “The Professor himself is supposed to be there. We’re to follow the border southwest another hundred klicks to a set of GPS coordinates near a river, the togga Silil. Guides will bring us the rest of the way.”

“You trust a gaggle of kalashes to lead us to a secret rebel base deep in the jungle? Where am I, in a comic book?” Poet9 demanded.

Tam shrugged. “Like it’s going to show up on GoogleEarth. You got another idea?”

“No. But what’s to keep the little punks from pawning us off to their cousins in the Somaliland National Army for a little baksheesh?”

“Well… we do have guns,” Curro noted. “And the Triplets.”

The three clones were next to me, straddling their four-wheelers as if they were kid’s toys. In the heat and humidity, they had stripped down to camo fatigues and combat vests, having muted their pale skin with liberal applications of grease paint and sun block. They looked fresh, perfectly content in the heat and humidity. They had been made for places like this. I counted half a dozen weapons hanging from their each of their vests: knives, pistols, grenades… Cottontail had a machete long enough to qualify as a sword strapped across his back. I smiled; our Killer Bunnies. They saw me, grinned back.

“Yeah. They’re handy in a tight spot,” I said.

Tam took a pull on his canteen. “We got them, and we’ll keep our Falcos up. Speaking of which… any sign of our neighbors from last night?”

Poet9 shook his head. “Tracked ’em for three hours. Whoever it was, they’re good in the woods. They landed, angled east toward Saylac city on the coast and disappeared. I’ve kept that bird on our left the whole time. My guess is they were another hired crew with a different itinerary.”

“No sign of anybody else?”

“Nada.”

“Good. I like a war zone where I can work in peace,” I noted dryly.

Tam swigged, spit. “Fine by me too. Let’s move.”

Motors hummed and we took off through the trees, down into the vast sun-bleached grasslands.

***

The Triplets spotted the kid four hours later.

Tucked in the low split of an acacia tree, he must have been hiding from the noon heat because his bright red shirt stuck out like a ripe fruit in the fern-like leaves. He was dozing, hugging an AK-74 to his chest, oblivious to the world. Cottontail kept an eye on him while Flopsy and Mospy reconned the area. He was all alone.

“That our guide?” Curro asked, peering through binoculars.

“No,” Tam said. “We’re still a ways away from the coordinates. He’s a tripwire. SNA gets close, his shots will warn the real guides. We show up, he can bring us to them. ”

“That’s cold. He’s like, ten years old.” Curro said. “How can they give him a rifle?”

Tam took the binoculars. “He’s probably a bit older. Malnourishment has a way of stunting your growth. AK’s and kids like him are cheaper than dirt in these parts. Why send a soldier when you’re tripping over war-orphans?”

“We can go wide and be on our merry. No need to disturb his beauty sleep.” I said.

“No. Have the Triplets mug him, bring him over.”

A couple words in my throat mike and five minutes later the boy was dumped on the ground in front of us. Flopsy and Mospy loomed over him. Cottontail was holding his rifle and a lime-green chest pouch. The boy knelt there, zip-cuffed and trembling, red shirt smudged with camo grease. Torn shorts and flip-flops completed his uniform. A dark stain spread around his crotch. The seven of us stood and glared down at him.

“Speak English?” Tam snapped.

He nodded quickly.

“You have a name?”

The boy nodded again. Gulped. “Abdi.”

Tam slipped his Kershaw out of his shoulder sheath and knelt down. “You a spy for the SPLM, Abdi?”

The boy shook his head.

“Yes, you are. You’re a rebel spy. A traitor. Where did you get the rifle?”

No answer.

“Who gave you the gun, Abdi?” Tam stabbed the knife into the dirt near the boy’s knee.

Abdi flinched, squeaked out. “My cousin. Ghedi.”

“Why does your cousin want you to shoot us? He’s SPLM too, isn’t he?”

The boy shook his head again.

Tam slowly waved the long gray blade in front of the child’s face. “You know what General Dhul-Fiqaar does to traitors and liars, Abdi?”

The boy’s shoulders quivered. No answer.

“I asked you a question.” The knife point traced small circles in the air.

Panting. Tears dripping off smooth brown cheeks.

“Answer me, boy!” Tam roared, his knife sunk to the hilt this time.

Abdi shrieked. We flinched. “I know, I know!” he screamed. “My mother, my father, my family all dead. They raped, lit my sister on fire. I know what he does, and I hate him. I hate the General. Do you hear?” His little body shook. He glared at Tam, weeping, face blazing with rage.

Tam stared back.

Then, without a word, Tam stood and stepped around behind the kneeling boy. Abdi sagged, defiance spent. The trembling started again. Tam shifted his grip on the knife. We stayed silent, watching.

Tam cut the zip cuffs. “Stand up.” He helped Abdi gently, turned him around. The boy wobbled, uncomprehending. “We’re here to help the Professor. Hired guns. You understand? Pro-SPLM.”

Abdi blinked, cuffed away tears and snot. Finally he nodded.

“Good.” Tam pointed at Curro. “My man will help you. When you’re clean, you can lead us to the soldiers by the river.” Tam looked at Cottontail. “Give him back his rifle when we move out.”

When they were out of earshot, Poet9 and I approached Tam. “The hell…?” I asked.

“Yeah. Little rough on the pequeño, weren’t you?” Poet9 accused. “I thought you were going to slot him.”

Tam seated the Kershaw back in its sheath. “I had to be sure he wasn’t a dupe.”

“Did that for sure,” I said.

Poet9 scoffed. “Can’t fake hatred like that.”

“No,” Tam said softly. “No, you can’t.”

***

Two kilometers out from the rendezvous, we caught the sound of a firefight carried on the wind; the stutter of automatic weapons, the thump, thump, thump of grenades. I heard rifles reply, brief and scattered, then the roar of an explosion drown them out. Smoke bloomed over the trees ahead of us. Someone was catching hell.

“Echelon left. Advance to contact.” Tam shouted. “Poet9, keep Curro and Abdi here. Get a Falco overhead RFN.”

The Triplets roared ahead on my right, disappearing up and over the hump of a small hill. Last thing I saw was Mopsy yanking his minigun from the back, one handed.

Tam and I swung our rifles around, Tavor TAR 28s with integral 40mm grenade launchers, and sped after them. We crested the same rise and slammed to a halt. The scene on the veldt in front of us was straight war pig lunacy.

A rutted dirt track cut through the tangles of scrub brush and stunted trees. A kilometer away, two ancient Russian GAZ 66 trucks lay on their sides, burning fiercely, oily coils of black smoke slithering into the sky. I could see a dozen bodies torn open around them, scattered wet and ripe in the dusty grass. A handful of survivors in mismatch fatigues – Somaliland militia – cowered on the road and were firing blindly across the plain at their attackers.

Advancing on them wasn’t a platoon of Army regulars or a clutch of jeeps with heavy machine guns; it was three pods of Gladiator TUGVs – Tactical Unmanned Ground Vehicles. The remote-controlled mini-tanks looked fresh off the showroom floor: crisp, desert tan paint jobs, clean black tracks and shiny sensor suites. About the size of our ATVs, a dozen of the squat little bastards were trundling over the broken ground, machine guns and launcher tubes firing non-stop. Twelve machine guns, one hundred twenty launcher tubes; there were about ten thousand bits of metal down there flying around at high speed looking for a home. The noise alone was hellacious.

Tam and I slid to the ground fast. No sign of the Triplets. For big men, they could vanish like ghosts. Suddenly Cottontail’s voice came over my headset. “Requesting target.”

“Hold fire. Hold positions,” Tam answered. “Poet, where’s my God-view? I got a dozen Wallys bearing down on what’s left of our escort. I need to know if there are more hostiles in the neighborhood.”

“Fast as I can,” Poet9 answered.

“Another minute, there’s not going to be anybody left.”

“Heard you the first time. It’s coming.”

The militia’s return fire died down to nothing. The Gladiators had halted a hundred yards out and were raking the road on full auto like a shooting gallery. The two burning trucks started disintegrating. One of the militia popped up, tried to sprint away. Four of the Gladiators targeted him, swiveled their M60s. A dozen steps, and the ground around him erupted. He came apart in chunks.

Never try to outrun bullets.

Movement on the road. I flipped down my Oakley’s visor, tapped the magnification; one of the surviving militia was crawling towards a body.

He rifled through bloody pockets. I thought he was frantic for a grenade. Smoke, phosphorus, or something exotic like an EMP; any kind of hardware to help him get the hell out of there.

He pulled out a whistle.

What the hell? That would do about as much good as a pair of ruby slippers.

Two blasts, shrill and long. He kept blowing them over and over until the sound carried above the din of gunfire.

Tam and I looked at each other.

Then, far out on the plain past the Gladiators and the trucks, I saw a flash of foil like silver leaves swept aside, and children rose up out of the grass.
Children with guns.

Maybe twenty of them. They’d been hiding under emergency blankets, masking their body heat. Most had AKs, but it looked like the littlest ones were armed with nothing but pistols and machetes. I saw one lanky kid wobble forward with an RPG as tall as he was. He got his footing and sent the rocket whistling into the side of the nearest robot. It lurched, venting smoke. Stopped shooting. Rifle rounds sparked off armor plate and several of the Gladiators stopped, turned to face the new threat.

Then the children charged.

“Shit,” Tam said. “Cottontail, engage the Wallys. Poet…”

“Engaging.” There was a prompt rasp of mini-guns, the bell ring of a Carl G, and the Gladiator nearest to us exploded.

Poet9’s voice in my headset. “Falco on station.”

Tam and I jumped back on our ATVs. “Find me the MCP. Abdi’s pals are out there.”

“I make a probable Mobile Command Post three point two k to the west. Uploading GPS to your tac-maps now. No sign of other hostiles.”

“On it.”

As Tam and I rode, I used my Oakleys again.

I tapped the UAV feed button and a small window popped up in the lower right of the visor lens. It showed the countryside around us from three thousand meters up; a grainy top-down mini-map of the battlefield. The burning trucks were white shimmering blobs, the scared militia identifiable only when they popped up and ripped off a burst. Best count I could make was five survivors.

The Gladiators appeared as a line of fat beetles darting tongues of flame as they fired. The children were a mob of mites surging towards the remotes’ position, their little bodies blinking in and out of sight under the flapping thermal blankets. Several Gladiators turned and started firing on them.

This was like some twisted cyber-version of a Grimm’s fairy tale.

The GPS coordinates blinked in the lower left of my visor, and as Tam and I raced through the brush, my anxiety and the firefight rumble blended into a heavy background hammering. The mini-map in the right window scrolled as we drove. Three minutes later, a red dot appeared ahead of our position: the Mobile Command Post.

You’ve got three option fighting remotes: wreck the machine, kill the operators, or cut the leash. Trouble with the first is Drone Developers hate it when their toys get smashed, so their creations are buffed with ceramic composites and solid defensive systems. Military-grade killing machines extremely lethal and notoriously tough to kill.

Problem with killing the operators is they’re nowhere near the battlefield. That’s the ‘remote’ part. Operators are on the other end of a long electronic leash, siccing their state-of-the-art killing machines on whomever is in their sights. Most aerial drone kills are committed by pilots hundreds of kilometers away. Sometimes halfway around the world.

The final option is to cut the leash, by “jam or slam”, as Poet9 always says. Either block the controlling signal with viral code or interference, or put a HE round into the side of the transmitter. Either works. The length and strength of the leash is dependent on the technology of the deploying army. Mega-corp or nation-state meant encrypted satellite links to controllers in another time zone. Entry level GUTVs for a third-world despot meant a mobile command post in a truck with a massive transmitter and signal relay.

We found the MCP in the dip between two rocky hills. Three civilian flatbed trucks were parked in a rough triangle around the control vehicle; an old, boxy American M577 command track. Bottom-of-the-barrel surplus, no one had even bothered to paint over the speckled gray Taiwan Army urban multi-cam or the big ROC ident-markings. No one was on guard; all the Somaliland soldiers were clustered at the back door, shouting encouragement at their buddies at the control work stations. They were laughing, pointing at the screens, slapping each other on the back. I saw money change hands. It was a game for them.

The tall white and blue, bullet shaped “R2” relay unit sat humming outside the perimeter in a clump of tall grass. I lased it, got the range, then thumbed my Tavor’s grenade launcher on. Tam whispered in the radio to Poet9. “Got ’em. Give us five minutes. Then you and Curro take Abdi, and see if anyone’s left who can get us to the SPLM camp. We need to be there by nightfall.”

Four minutes, three rifle magazines and two grenades later, Tam and I had not only cut the leash but had eliminated the operators as well.

Some days, two out of three isn’t bad at all.

3 Comments on “SHIFT TENSE – Chapter Ten

  1. Pingback: Another Illustrated Excerpt | Hot Space Station Justice

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