Lieutenant Holly Forrestal’s exoarmor gouged the doorframe as she ducked back into the utility room. A burst of RPK fire barked, peppering the window she’d just been peeking from. The ClapBack sensor array displayed the azimuth and elevation of the incoming fire on her HUD. Caliphate regulars were on the top floors across the street, opposite her platoon. The upper floor was mostly rubble, and they were dug in like ticks and taking advantage of the elevation. The number of IEDs and booby traps the Caliphate Regular Army had emplaced slowed second platoon’s advance to a crawl.
“SITREP, Hadley!” she said into the platoon command freq. Her radioman was just down the hall, typing furiously into his TuffBook. ROs had become more than mere radio operators—they were IT techs, comms experts, and internet hackers. Forrestal supposed sooner or later some colonel would give ROs a new acronym of some kind and earn himself a Meritorious Service Medal for his efforts.
“Second platoon is spread out down the block, ma’am, shooting it out with another CRA unit,” Hadley said, sending their positions to her HUD. “Third platoon is still supposed to be on our left.” He DM’d their last known position, but they hadn’t seen the slackers from Third Herd since the enemy made contact.
She had shanghaied Lance Corporal Javon Hadley to be her RO after he was caught selling pirated combat footage inside the battalion. Civilians the world over could livestream combat operations in real time, thanks to the efforts of war pornographers, who worked throughout combat zones under the pretext of “journalism.” Hadley had hacked some popular streams and offered them to his buddies at an extremely reduced rate. Naturally, the first sergeant wanted the young lance corporal to be set on fire, hacked to pieces, and his remains processed into rubber dog crap. Recognizing talent when she saw it, Forrestal had gone to bat for him, earning herself an ass chewing from both the first sergeant and her captain—but also a new RO. She didn’t win any points with the company commander, but she had with the grunts.
“The lieutenant owns your ass now,” her platoon sergeant had growled in Hadley’s ear as she nodded sagely. Staff Sergeant Wallace Mills was a thick-necked brute with GRENDEL tattooed down one beefy forearm. He never disagreed with her in front of the Marines, and he only gave her grief when she screwed something up. She was still a boot lieutenant, so that was pretty much most of the time. But she appreciated it, nonetheless.
“Staff sergeant,” she said into the platoon freq. “You have eyes on Gator?” Soon the battalion would demand to know what the holdup was, and the skipper would begin coordinating an assault. Before she sent her Marines into the meat grinder, though, she wanted to check up on the adjacent platoon.
“Negative, ma’am,” Mills responded. He was on the ground below, personally directing fire teams in an attempt to intercept any squirters trying to get past them through the ratlines. “I’m seeing their last known location on the HUD, but I don’t have line of sight on any of them.”
Forrestal tapped another quick inquiry to the third platoon’s commander, asking him to confirm his status and location, and hit send on the TuffPad strapped under her forearm. Judging by the amount of fire, she assumed Lieutenant “Florida” Gator was a little busy at the moment.
She moved to check her own line again. They would get the call to begin the advance at any moment, but something didn’t feel right. She pinged Mills, who was on her left, and moved right to start with her flanking security teams then work her way back to center. Forrestal messaged the squad leaders for a status report as well. She could have monitored all of this from her TuffPad, but there was nothing like having eyes on your Marines.
Hustling through the building, she crouched and moved to avoid windows and headed toward the steps leading down. The CRA on the building across from them would be eager to claim Marine scalps and would fill a window full of lead if given a shot. Forrestal made short sprints through gaps between cover. Occasionally, the articulated third arm of her exoarmor would bump off a wall. She was still getting used to the stupid thing, but she had lance corporals who moved like simian gymnasts in their rigs. She paused at each fire team for a quick word, an ammo check, or a slap on the back.
She linked up with her platoon HQ. Liam Shannon, the surly, bearded corpsman, was back in an interior room. He fixed a straw to the nozzle of a can of spray-clot and went to work on Lance Corporal Camilla Jimenez, who had caught some shrapnel. Judging by her elaborate Spanglish expletives, she’d be fine.
“Doc, you cleaning that wound with sandpaper or just trying to piss me off?” Jimenez grunted.
“How you gonna go home and tell your family you gave up that booty to the CRA and a sailor all in one day?” Shannon snorted at his own joke. Shannon was perpetually in a bad mood and loved to share the misery. Jimenez responded with a burst of Spanish hinting at the promiscuity of Shannon’s mother.
Yeah, she was going to be ok.
Hadley was there, refreshing his special RO TuffBook as he monitored comms chatter and internet traffic. Sometimes, the CRA would livestream its own ops or make boasts on social media platforms, so it could be an occasional source of good real-time intel. The RO’s rig was the only one in any platoon with wifi capability—the Marine Corps long ago realized if every jarhead in the field had wifi, bandwidth would quickly be consumed by porn. Then drones would be falling from the sky. Hadley had even jerry-rigged his own wifi antenna to his shoulder. The company first sergeant would no doubt disapprove of this bit of “illegal maintenance,” but this sort of thing was precisely why Forrestal had kept Hadley around. He flashed her a lip-packed grin before spitting a stream of dip onto the dusty floor beside him.
Forrestal made her way back up the stairs, frog-walking and moving carefully. Marine exoarmor was pretty hardy, but it was no reason to create bad habits. As she came up behind Mills, she heard a series of loud explosions, crumping and banging off to their right. It sounded to her like small, precision-guided impacts, but in the odd acoustic labyrinth of Oran’s downtown, it was hard to be certain.
“What was that?” she yelled, pounding Mills’ shoulder. They shared an anxious glance as the internal platoon net started crackling. The roar of gunfire was quickly dampened by the ear-pro in her helmet. Someone called for a corpsman over the net.
“Ma’am,” said Mills. “I’ll grab Shannon and see what’s up. Don’t let any of them get past us.” He leapt down the stairs a flight at a time, his armor absorbing the shock of each landing.
Judging by the comms chatter, a large CRA force just materialized to their front and laid down a large amount of fire. The Marines responded with overwhelming violence, as was their tradition.
How had they gotten so close undetected? Forrestal wondered. Her squad and fire team leaders were responding satisfactorily. She couldn’t detect any panic, so she decided to monitor comms and stay off the net and out of their way.
“Ma’am,” Mills said over the command net. “These clowns aren’t waiting around. They’re assaulting us!” He paused. “I got three confirmed enemy dead and probably more underneath. Looks like they came in through tunnels.” The CRA had popped up through hatches in an attempt to ambush her far left squad. Apparently, Sergeant Stephanie Kim’s squad noticed them before the attackers could coordinate. Too bad for the CRA, engaging up-armored Marines at close quarters was a great way to get your arms and legs yanked clean out.
Doc Shannon reported the wounded Marine, Lance Corporal Kanji Palmer, was a bit scuffed up, but his exoarmor had prevented any serious injury. Both Marine and equipment were functional. Palmer’s suit had absorbed the blast of a grenade. He’d gotten his bell rung—again—but he’d be okay.
“Kim’s squad assaulted through to the tunnel mouth, and she filled it with about a metric crap ton of riot foam,” Mills reported. “I’m en route to your 20.”
Riot foam was a nonlethal adhesive sticky foam deployed in canisters roughly the size of a coffee can. A single canister could produce several cubic meters of quick-hardening goop, which was often used to temporarily deny roads and alleys, and was handy in stopping vehicle-borne IEDs. Law enforcement had been using it in the antigovernment race riots in the States for years. Asphyxiating enemy combatants in underground tunnel networks might not have been its intended purpose. She had Hadley send an updated sitrep to company HQ—not mentioning the riot foam. Forrestal didn’t need to start fielding a bunch of questions she didn’t have answers to while rounds were snapping around her. At the moment, their CRA ambushers had no rat holes to flee into.
Enemy troops on the rooftops began increasing their fire, pouring rounds and grenades onto the advancing Marines. The Marines stalled, as Forrestal’s troops slugged it out with the CRA on the ground while ducking overhead fire from above. They could rush the building, but Forrestal was loathe to engage in a frontal assault. Nightmare visions of a documentary she had watched about the 1968 Battle of Huế flashed through her mind.
“We’re going to have to make a move, ma’am,” prompted Mills. Then he dropped his voice, “Listen, ma’am.”
Mills’ tone made Forrestal pause, there was something else.
“I got a good look at one of the CRA downstairs,” he said. “The ones in the tunnel that Kim’s guys foamed. . . . Ma’am, he’s a Gennie.”
Forrestal frowned in disbelief. G2 had reported there were rumblings of genetically enhanced enemy troops being processed in Iranian and Syrian labs run by scientists with funding from a particular peer competitor. But intel had insisted that any gen-modified soldiers—Gennies—were in other sectors, if they even existed at all.
“You sure?” she asked.
In reply, Mills tapped his TuffPad and sent her Palmer’s chest cam footage. She watched for a full 20 seconds as unarmored “slick” CRA emerged from the tunnel and fought her Marines in close quarters. It was like a bad kung fu movie. They moved like parkour Olympians, with unnatural timing and speed. In the video, a grenade detonated nearby, probably saving Palmer’s life and allowing the Marines to finish the fight. Forrestal closed the video with a gesture. She could suddenly taste her breakfast MRE.
“Have Hadley package it and send the video to Battalion,” she said.
“Ma’am, is that smart?” asked Mills.
“If the 2 wants to argue in their air-conditioned Manticore, they can argue with the video,” she said. “Send it.”
“Roger, ma’am!” said Hadley. “Sending now.”
He was moving and typing away on his TuffPad as the articulated third arm of his exoarmor aimed his weapon around a gap and fired. He crouch-walked to a new position.
“What now, ma’am?” Hadley asked. Boot or not, Forrestal knew sitting around on your brains was a death sentence. Almost any decision was better than none at all.
Forrestal looked at Hadley as if he were the dumbest Marine alive.
“We attack, numbnuts!”
Mills nodded with approval as he inserted a fresh magazine and ordered the platoon head shed to rally upstairs.
“Corporal Cholico, get your squad up here to my pos,” Forrestal said on the comms as she and the HQ element began to head toward the uncovered roof of the second floor. When Cholico joined her, she indicated the enemy-held building a couple dozen feet away.
“Think we can make the jump?” she asked.
“Hell yes, ma’am!” Cholico seemed to like where this was headed.
“Hadley, suppress the roof with drones. We’re going over.” She nodded to Mills. He would bring over the rest of the platoon in trace of her assault.
Loitering munition drones began detonating overhead as Forrestal and two of Cholico’s fire teams sprinted across the roof. In addition, her platoon had expedient suicide drones made from fast-pressed components from the 3D printers constantly humming in the back of the S4’s ACMV. Assembled in moments as needed by the HQ section, the drones were tiny quadcopters with wifi cameras and the brain of a cell phone. Normally they were just for observation and target acquisition. But add in a tiny bit of C4 from the Army EOD team attached to her company, and they made deadly little suicide bots. For some reason, expedient drone weaponization was streng verboten by the brass at Echelons Above Reality. Only Air Force drones were supposed to be weaponized like that, but needs must. If she got hauled into a Senate select committee over it, at least she’d get hauled in alive. Hell, she was already going to have to answer for the riot foam as it was. In for a penny. . . she thought.
Boosted by the augmented strength of the exoarmor, they leapt from the second-story roof, across the street, to the third-floor windows . . .
Forrestal barely heard the muffled sounds all around her as she hurtled across the empty space, three stories above the killing spree below. Just like training. Breathe. The window she had targeted drifted closer in agonizingly slow motion.
She had misjudged her jump. She was going to miss. Reality suddenly sped up.
She crunched into the wall beside the window, grabbing blindly at an ornate crenellation and ignoring the blood suddenly running from her nose. Her exoarmor’s third arm snapped impotently, not sure what it wanted her to do. Forrestal just managed to heave herself sideways and hook a boot over the lip of the window. A CRA fighter, moving impossibly fast, darted into the room and cranked a few angry rounds in her direction. Her armor painfully absorbed the kinetic impact of two hits, and she nearly lost her grip on the windowsill. As the fighter continued to close, she thrust her third arm into the room and clamped down on his lead hand. He yelped as she yanked him violently out of the window and into the street below.
Using her suit, Forrestal awkwardly hauled herself into the building. She gasped as her suit autoinjected a cocktail of stimulants and pain meds into her system. Mills was going to rake her over the coals later. Cholico and Hadley entered the room.
“Chico, you’re leading the way from here!”
Cholico grinned—she’d used his nickname. He turned and began barking orders to his Marines. As they cleared their way to the roof, a series of detonations like exploding popcorn erupted into a crescendo outside. Forrestal realized that the streams of snaps and bangs, a few every second, were CRA and Marine drones dueling it out above.
Hadley reported that he and other cyber geeks were attempting to hack enemy drone feeds. Exactly what the enemy is doing back to us, Forrestal thought.
“Hopefully we can disrupt their feed or get them to suicide back on their controllers,” said Hadley.
“Well, I hear you talking. Shut up and make it happen!” said Forrestal.
“The drones think faster than I do, Ma’am.”
She stifled a reply and moved into the corridor in the wake of Cholico’s squad. Her earpiece buzzed, and she glanced down at her TuffPad.
“Ma’am,” Hadley said. “COC says Battalion is asking how do you know those CRA are Gennies?”
“Oh, come on!” she exclaimed, keying Mills on the platoon command net.
“You called it, Ma’am,” he said.
“Hadley, tell them because an entire platoon of Olympians just ran through our battle space like villains out of Assassins Creed!” She suddenly hated the entire Intel community. At least the CRA had the balls to come out and fight. “If we’d reported an enemy soft serve ice cream machine, those POGs would’ve been out here so—”
“Ma’am, I don’t give a rat’s ass what kind of denial is going on back there, but Gennies or not, we need to stay on mission,” Mills broke in. “Clear that building and the rest of us can advance.”
Forrestal shook herself and lurched forward, heading to catch up with Chico. Her platoon sergeant was right. They could argue with higher later about how she wasn’t “qualified” to determine if enemy troops were gen-mods or not.
“Rooftop clear!” Cholico reported. They began to work their way down, forcing CRA holdouts to retreat to the ground floor and out the other side of the building. Once outside, Marine drones continued to harass them as they retreated across an open square. Forrestal watched on her video screen as Mills brought the rest of the platoon forward. Theysmoothly took positions up and down the block adjacent to them. Third squad maintained rear security.
Forrestal looked out of window to watch Kim’s squad begin to bound across the square in pursuit of the fleeing CRA. A deafening roar erupted across the battlefield. She watched in horror as two of her Marines suddenly flew backward as if yanked by a tether.
A third Marine was hit. His armor ruptured, and his left arm tumbled away in the air. The rest of the squad was hugging the ground, struggling to crawl to their wounded comrades. In the darkness of a parking structure Forrestal could see the massive muzzle flash of the monster that was going to chop her platoon to pieces.
“It’s a ZU-23 or something, mounted on a flatbed!” reported Kim. The four barrels of the 23-mm antiaircraft gun were punching holes through Marines as if they were made of paper.
“Contact rear!” Her third squad leader, Corporal Walter O’Keefe, reported.
“Ma’am, we’ve got Gennies at our rear!” said Mills. “They used the tunnels just like before.”
Forrestal monitored the cam footage and saw how the Gennies moved and shot. These guys were trained. They didn’t just sit and die in place like good CRA soldiers usually did. A thunderclap was followed by a large explosion.
“Recoilless rifles!” said O’Keefe. After a pause, he added, “We’re okay right now.”
“Damn you, Carl Gustav,” said Mills.
“We’re getting the worst of it in the sky,” said Hadley referring to the dueling drones overhead. “There seems to be a mobile drone unit operating out of the back of three pickup trucks behind the parking structure.”
“We need to bring that building down,” Forrestal replied. She designated the building on her TuffPad. “Call for fire.”
“Got it, Ma’am,” Mills said, and dropped off the net. She stayed with Chico’s squad and attempted to provide some cover fire for Sergeant Kim’s pinned down Marines. Within a minute, Mills was back on the net, furious.
“Battalion said no-go on the strike,” he said, adding some colorful phrases about the ancestry of battalion staff and the fidelity of their mothers. “This area is some kind of cultural site. A Roman fort or something. There’s even a museum and a gift shop.”
“Roman?!” Forrestal asked, bewildered. “There’s no way. Did they bother to tell anyone before they sent a platoon of grunts to shoot up the place?”
“I don’t know, Ma’am. What I know about history could fill a thimble. But we aren’t getting the airstrike.”
“This is—” Forrestal stopped, as the ZU raked the front her building. Cholico’s squad chatter filled the net, but she muted them. She could still hear them yelling as she tried to think. The CRA was trying to assassinate her platoon and quite possibly roll up the entire company’s left flank. In the meantime, those cowards in the rear were dismissing her reports and denying her request for fire support.
“Son of a bitch!” she said.
“I have a really terrible idea,” said Hadley into the command net. “Why don’t we hire it done?”
“Hadley, are you on your . . . one of your websites?” Mills asked.
“My websites?” Hadley said with cultivated innocence.
“You know what he means,” Forrestal said. “Can you get us some ordnance?”
“Ma’am,” Mills broke in, immediately seeing where this was headed. “We can’t do that.”
“Here’s an outfit that’ll support us,” Hadley said as he sent her a link.
A webpage popped up on her TuffPad with an imposing-looking Black Sea Solutions logo. All she had to do was provide coordinates, sat image, and wire the money.
“This is a PMC,” Forrestal said.
“Yes Ma’am, a PMC with a drone available for the next 30 minutes. They’re out of Belarus and provide maritime security to various shipping companies, primarily in the form of UAV support platforms.”
There was silence on the line. “Hadley. How much to buy a JDAM?”
“Thousands,” said Mills. “Tens of thousands. This isn’t like buying a crate of black-market grenades. Are we seriously having this conversation?”
“You’re not gonna like it, Ma’am,” Hadley said.
“We can’t—absolutely cannot do this,” Mills interjected.
“Hadley, how much?” Forrestal asked again.
“Uh. . . . It says 93 grand. I can message their FSR and ask about a negotiation.”
“And how are we supposed to pay for this fine mercenary support?”
“I’ve already set up an account on a crowdfunding site and posted about in on some mil-vet boards,” said Hadley.
“I mean, everything’s ready to set up. I can do a quick crowdsource hit on Warjumper. That might get us the cash.” Hadley was lying his ass off, and she knew it. The sneaky little genius was way ahead of her.
Another concussive boom sounded from their rear, and then O’Keefe was on the net, calling for the corpsman.
“Do it,” she said.
“Ma’am, you realize we’re all going to Leavenworth over this, right?” said Mills.
“Dead Marines is worse than prison,” said Forrestal. “Go see how O’Keefe is doing.”
“On it,” said Mills. “But I get the bottom bunk if we end up sharing a cell.”
“Are we going to offer any stretch goals?” said Hadley.
“Incentives for them to donate more money. Like we offer them 30 or more extra seconds of footage of the mission.”
“I don’t know,” she said. “Offer them platoon t-shirts, for all I care.”
“Ma’am, you could send them an autographed picture!”
“Hadley, I will kick you dead in the—”
“The sergeant major is going to tear my colon clean out of me,” said Mills to no one in particular.
“In the meantime, Hadley,” said Forrestal. “I want you to pull some of the drones into reserve.”
“We’re already in a hurt locker, Ma’am.”
“I have a plan, make it happen.”
Mills sent out an all-hands on the company net as he leapt down the stairs half a flight at a time, using his third arm to slow his descent by grabbing the railings and walls.
“Someone nail down that squad of Gennies!” he snarled. “We’re going to give them the good news while the Ma’am flattens that ZU.” They at least needed to buy her time while she wrestled with her conscience about it.
O’Keefe reported two fire teams spread throughout the first deck and a team in the basement below. He didn’t want any surprises like Kim’s squad had gotten.
Two recoilless rifles boomed from the platoon’s rear, the rounds pulverizing the surrounding building as the Marines tried to take cover. This time the enemy fire was accompanied by a crumpling explosion they felt beneath them.
“Gennies in the basement! Contact northwest corner!” Lance Corporal Xander Vandever said over the comms. Shouts and small arms fire accented his words as his squad slugged it out in the background.
“Keep ’em there, Van. I’m en route,” Mills sent.
“Roger th—” Vandever sent, and then his voice was drowned out by another series of dread-inducing booms from below their feet and dead ahead. Mills’ heart jumped up into his throat. He bolted down the hall past two Marines.
“You two, on me!”
“Report, Van!” he sent between breaths. He could see down the stairway to the lowest level. Vandever’s team might be dead or dying down there. The two Marines he’d collected—Szumigala and Bartos?—were right on his six. Snatches of shouts came over the net but kept snapping off again. It sounded like the fighting was close quarters, knife close. No report was coming.
Mills chanced a quick peek over the edge of the stairwell. With Van’s fireteam down there, grenades were out of the question. It was only 20 or so feet down. Mills dropped over the side like a scuba diver.
He landed awkwardly but the servo joints absorbed most of the impact as he went right into a rolling break-fall. He was immediately tackled by what felt like a professional linebacker. The brute’s attack pinned Mill’s rifle to his chest. The Gennie reached for Mills’ throat with one hand, hammering fist blows down on Mills’ face with the other. Mills drew his combat knife in a reverse grip, as he palmed the top of the Gennie’s skull with his third arm. He managed to pull the freak off his chest far enough to plunge the blade into an eye. Mills wrenched the knife free and tossed the body aside, struggling to rise. Another enhanced CRA fighter filled his vision and the muzzle of his weapon looked as wide black as a mineshaft.
The Gennie disappeared under the weight of Bartos’ exoarmor as the Marine landed directly on him. The lance corporal aimed his rifle at the Gennie’s temple but checked his fire. This one wasn’t getting up again.
“Szumi, I’m in. You’re clear,” Mills heard Bartos over the comms.
Szumigala landed in a wet crunch. That Gennie definitely wasn’t getting up again.
“You could’a warned me, jackass,” Szumi said as he shook the gen-mod blood off his boots. He took up a position on their left.
Mills stared at the remains, his knife still held out, the third arm pivoting slightly. Bartos stomped up to Mills and yanked him to his feet. Mills nodded at him and Suzumi.
“Staff Sarn’t,” Bartos said. “Look at that big fella, we got him good.” He was chewing an enormous hunk of bubble gum and grinning.
“Van’s team,” Mills replied. He started to jog down the hall back past the basement landing. As they neared the smoky large room at the end of the corridor, it sounded as if a riot had broken out in a biker bar.
Mills glided in weapon up, Suzumi and Bartos beside him. It was a two-to-one brawl, as Vandever’s fireteam slugged it out with a squad of Gennies in the rubble of a tunnel mouth newly formed by CRA sappers. Knives, rebar, and articulated third arms were the weapons of the moment. The gene-enhanced numbers of CRA were getting the better of it. The three arriving Marines cleanly pressed their triggers, delivering two to the torso and one to the head of the nearest gen-mods. The tide quickly turned, and the rest of the Gennies fell to the bone-twisting strength of Marine exoarmor—or a Ka-Bar to the kidney.
Van’s team looked pretty scuffed up. Vandever himself peered from beneath a body and lifted his chin at them. Lying in a corner, he pushed the corpse off, revealing a leg bent at a bad angle. The initial blast had been a doozy.
“Foam the tunnel,” said Mills.
Szumi and Barto grabbed some cans of riot foam off Vandever’s gear and went to work while Mills tried to figure out who was still ambulatory.
Bartos glanced around at the battered Marines and let out a whistle. “You gals look like you been rode hard and put up wet.”
Mills was about to tell him to shut up when two massive explosions punched the air overhead. Everyone dove to the ground and was covered in a fine coating of dust that settled over them.
“What have the CRA thrown at us now?” someone asked.
“Nah,” Vandever said, wincing as he turned to look at them. “That hit across the street.”
“Oh, hell,” said Mills and left O’Keefe and Vandever to organize first aid and get everyone topside. As he nearly flew up flights of stairs, he keyed his mic to let Forrestal know he was moving to her pos.
“How did we manage to buy two strikes?” asked Mills over the command freq.
“Black Sea gave us a break on the price, and we ended up going with Hellfires,” said Hadley. “The guy on ChatWomb told me they’re looking to expand into the North African theater, and this will be good for the brand. The backers on Veterati responded right away. We might even be able to buy everyone’s ball tickets this year.”
“Kill me,” said Mills as he appeared in the doorway. “And how did we meet our funding goal so quickly?”
“Oh,” said Forrestal. “I added a stretch goal to encourage our backers to meet the deadline.”
“I promised them a date to this year’s ball,” she said, lifting her eyebrow at him.
Her platoon sergeant looked puzzled. Then launched into a litany of expletives that began to peel what little paint there was off the wall. She noted that Mills may have been one of the most prolifically profane Marines she’d met since Officer Candidates School.
“Seriously Ma’am! We’re already going to catch all kinds of….” He paused then turned to look her directly in the eyes. “Wait, are you taking them to the ball, or am I?”