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A Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2015
Reality TV and advanced technology make for high drama in this political thriller that combines the military action of Zero Dark Thirty with the classic science fiction of The Forever War.
Lieutenant James Shelley, who has an uncanny knack for premeditating danger, leads a squad of advanced US Army military tasked with enforcing the peace around a conflict in sub-Saharan Africa. The squad members are linked wirelessly 24/7 to themselves and a central intelligence that guides them via drone relay--and unbeknownst to Shelley and his team, they are being recorded for a reality TV show.
When an airstrike almost destroys their outpost, a plot begins to unravel that's worthy of Crichton and Clancy's best. The conflict soon involves rogue defense contractors, corrupt US politicians, and homegrown terrorists who possess nuclear bombs. Soon Shelley must accept that the helpful warnings in his head could be AI. But what is the cost of serving its agenda?
Release date: June 30, 2015
Publisher: Gallery / Saga Press
Print pages: 417
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“THERE NEEDS TO BE A WAR going on somewhere, Sergeant Vasquez. It’s a fact of life. Without a conflict of decent size, too many international defense contractors will find themselves out of business. So if no natural war is looming, you can count on the DCs to get together to invent one.”
My orientation lecture is not army standard. I deliver it in the walled yard of Fort Dassari while my LCS—my linked combat squad—preps for our nightly patrol. Since sunset the temperature has dropped to ninety-five degrees American, for which we are all grateful, but it’s still goddamn hot, with the clinging humidity of the rainy season. Amber lights cast glistening highlights on the smooth, black, sweat-slick cheeks of Sergeant Jayne Vasquez, who arrived by helicopter, along with a week’s worth of provisions, just four hours ago.
Like the rest of us, Jaynie Vasquez is wearing a combat uniform, body armor, and the gray titanium bones of her exoskeleton. Her finely shaped eyebrows are set in a skeptical arch as she eyes me from beneath the rim of her brown LCS skullcap. I suspect she’s been warned about me—the notorious Lieutenant James Shelley, United States Army—her new commanding officer here at Fort Dassari.
Not a problem. Knowledge is a good thing.
“So how do the DCs go about inventing a war?” I ask her.
She answers in the practical manner of an experienced non-com: “Above my pay grade, sir.”
“Worth considering all the same. I imagine it goes like this: All the big defense contractors, the DCs we love to hate, get together—not physically, but in a virtual meeting. At first they’re a little cold—that’s the nature of a defense contractor—but then one of the DCs says, ‘Come on, now. We need someone to host the next war. Any volunteers?’”
“Yes, sir,” Specialist Matthew Ransom says with a grin as he presents himself to me for a mandatory equipment check.
“This is serious, Ransom.”
I initiate the check anyway, making an inventory of his gear and confirming that every cinch on his exoskeleton is secure while I pick up the thread of my story.
“‘Any volunteers.’ That’s a joke, see? Because a DC will never allow a war in their own country. Rule one: Don’t kill off your taxpayers. War is what you inflict on other people.”
“That’s the truth, sir,” Jaynie says in a bitter undertone as she initiates an equipment check for Private First Class Yafiah Yeboah.
Maybe I’m getting through to her.
“Anyway, the joke works, the ice is broken, and ideas start getting tossed around until one of the DCs says, ‘Hey, I’ve got it. Let’s do a war in the Sahel. It’s good, open terrain. No nasty jungles. It’s not quite desert, and we’ve already got a figurehead in Ahab Matugo.’ This sounds pretty good to everybody, so they agree: The next regional war, the one that will keep them in business for another three or four years, or even a decade if things go well, is right here in Africa’s Sahel, between the equatorial rain forest and the Sahara.”
I reach the last point of inspection, crouched in the mud beside Matt Ransom’s left boot where it’s strapped into the exoskeleton’s floating footplate. Everything looks good, so I slap his thigh strut and tell him, “You’re clear.”
The frame of my own exoskeleton flexes as I stand. There’s a faint sigh from the joints as the struts alongside my legs boost me up with no effort on my part, despite the weight of my eighty-pound backpack. The mechanical joints release a faint, sterile scent of mineral lubricant, barely detectable against the organic reek of mud and dogs.
I turn back to Jaynie. She pauses in her equipment check and asks, “So now the defense contractors have to get the war started, right?”
“First they have to choose sides, but a coin toss will do it. China winds up as primary backer of Ahab Matugo, and an Arab alliance takes the status quo—”
“LT,” Ransom interrupts, “you want me to clear you?”
“Yeah. Go ahead.” I run my gloved hand over my skullcap as he begins tugging on cinches and checking power levels. I’m remembering the buildup to this war, watching it happen while I served my first combat tour at the tail end of Bolivia. I try hard to keep my voice calm. “So we Americans . . . we don’t jump in right away. We have another war to wind up first, so we promise to intervene when humanitarian issues demand it—but we don’t discuss what side to come in on because it doesn’t fucking matter. Everyone knows we don’t understand the local politics and we don’t give a shit anyway. There’s nothing in this region we want. The only reason we’re jumping in is so that our defense contractors can keep their shareholders happy. The American taxpayers will listen to their hoo-rah propaganda media outlets and pony up the money, blaming the liberals for the bad economy while brain-draining the underclass into the army because hey, it’s a job, and even the DCs can’t convince Congress to spend ten million dollars each on a combat robot when you can get a fully qualified flesh-and-blood high-IQ soldier for two hundred and fifty thousand.”
Ransom steps back. “You’re clear, sir.”
I ignore him. “And that, Sergeant, is the reason we are here at Fort Dassari, squatting in a country where we’re not wanted and we don’t belong, and it’s why we get to go on a hike tonight and every night through hostile terrain, giving other people who also don’t belong here a chance to kill us. We are not here for glory—there isn’t any—and there’s nothing at stake. Our goals are to stay alive, to avoid civilian casualties, and to kill anyone with an interest in killing us. In nine months, no soldier has died under my command and I’d like to keep it that way. Is that understood?”
Jaynie keeps her face carefully neutral. “Yes, sir, that is understood.” And then, because she’s not about to be intimidated by a male lieutenant five years her junior and with a quarter of her combat experience, she adds, “Guidance described you as a crazy motherfucker, sir—”
Behind Jaynie, Yafiah claps a hand to her mouth, stifling a snort of laughter.
“—but they promised me, no matter how much of an asshole you are, they won’t walk us into an ambush.”
I smile pleasantly. “They’ve come close a few times.”
As the most northeastern in a line of remote border forts, we are more exposed than most. The fort itself is our shelter, our base of operations. Its fifteen-foot-high walls enclose the housing unit and a yard just big enough to park two tanks—not that we have tanks, but we do have three ATVs stored under an accordion canopy.
Our mission lies outside the walls. We do interdiction—hunting for insurgents filtering down from the north, while the insurgents go hunting for us. Guidance doesn’t always spot them in time, which is one reason we keep a pack of five dogs. They’re not official army issue, but the motto of the linked combat squads is Innovation, Coordination, Inspiration . . . meaning as an LCS we get leeway to come up with our own strategies.
“One more thing, sir,” Jaynie says as I turn away. “Is it true you’re cyborged?”
“It’s just an ocular overlay.” I touch my gloved finger to the corner of my eye. “Like built-in contact lenses, but they receive and display data.”
The gold line tattooed along the curve of my jaw is an antenna, and tiny audio buds are embedded in my ears, but I don’t mention those.
“You’re not linked to the outside world, are you?”
“From a war zone? Not a chance. The only link I’m allowed is to Guidance.”
“So you’re hooked into Guidance even when you’re not wearing the helmet?”
“You got it. Everything I see, everything I hear, gets piped straight upstairs.”
“Why is that, sir?”
Not a discussion I want to get into right now, so I turn my attention to the last of our little crew. Private First Class Dubey Lin is standing on the catwalk, nine feet above the ground, peering through a machine-gun port at the surrounding trees. Dubey over-relies on organic sight, but he’s always ready to go on time and he never argues. Actually, he never says much of anything at all. “Dubey!” I shout. “Get down here.”
He jumps to the ground, letting the shocks of his exoskeleton take the impact and startling the dogs, who are so wound up in anticipation of the night’s patrol that they lunge at one another. Vicious growls erupt as they spin around in play fights. Ransom gets in on it, launching a few kung fu kicks and chops in Dubey’s direction, flexing his exoskeleton’s leg and arm struts, but Dubey ignores him, as always.
In the LCS ranks, we’ve nicknamed the exoskeletons our “dead sisters” because all the parts except the floating footplates look a lot like human bones. Shocked struts with knee articulation run up the outside of the legs to the hips. Across the back, the rig takes an hourglass shape to minimize profile, ending in a shoulder-spanning arch that easily supports both the weight of a field pack and the leverage that can be generated by the slender arm struts.
Packets of microprocessors detect a soldier’s movements, translating them to the rig in customized motion algorithms. A soldier in an exoskeleton can get shot dead and never fall down. I saw that in Bolivia. And if there’s enough power left in the dead sister, it can walk the body back to a safe zone for recovery. I’ve seen that too. Sometimes the dead just keep walking, right through my dreams. Not that I’d ever admit that to Guidance.
Jaynie pushes me a little harder. “So if Guidance is listening in on everything you say, sir, why do you keep talking shit?”
“We have to play the game, Sergeant. We don’t have to like it. Now, helmets on!”
We all disappear behind full-face visors tuned to an opaque black.
Tiny fans vent cool air across my face as I watch an array of icons come up on my visor’s display. They assure me I’m fully linked: to my skullcap; to my M-CL1a assault rifle; to each one of my soldiers; to my angel, soaring invisibly high in the night sky; and to my handler at Guidance. “Delphi, you there?”
Her familiar voice answers, “Gotcha, Shelley.”
They don’t call us a linked combat squad for nothing.
I use my gaze to shuffle through the displays of each soldier in my LCS, confirming that they’re linked too.
Technically, every linked combat squad should have nine pairs of boots on the ground, but at Dassari we’ve never had more than six, and due to personnel transfers, we were down to four before Jaynie got here. The army likes to brag that every LCS soldier is an elite soldier, meeting strict physical and intellectual requirements, with a demonstrated ability to adapt to new systems and circumstances. Translated, this means we’re chronically shorthanded, and no one gets a night off.
“Let’s all stay awake,” I say over gen-com. “It’s been too quiet these past few nights. We’re due.”
“Yes, sir!” Ransom answers like this is good news. Yafiah swears softly. Dubey kicks at the ground in frustration. Only Jaynie doesn’t get it.
“You know something we don’t?” she asks over gen-com.
“Just a feeling.”
Ransom says, “Sometimes God whispers in his ear.”
“LT,” Yafiah pleads. She knows what’s coming, and so do I, but I don’t try to rein him in. Ransom is my favorite redneck of all time. He loves everyone, but he’ll still kill anybody I tell him to without hesitation. His way of explaining the world may be nonstandard, but his enthusiasms have kept us both alive.
“Ma’am, this here is King David,” he informs the sergeant. “Saul don’t dare touch a hair of the man’s head and Goliath can’t get his bullets to fly straight when the lieutenant’s around, because James Shelley is beloved of God. Do what LT tells you and you might live long enough to see Frankfurt one more time.”
Ransom is six three. He has a hundred pounds of muscle over Yafiah and a year more experience, but as far as she’s concerned, he’s the dumb little brother. She turns the blank black face of her visor toward Jaynie and says, “Don’t worry none about Ransom, ma’am. He’s kind of crazy, but he’s good in the field.”
Jaynie sounds honestly puzzled when she asks me, “How can you be King David, LT? Because I would have sworn that we were Goliath.”
“Goliath,” I murmur, using my gaze to select the encyclopedia icon from my overlay, because the truth is, I don’t really know the Bible story.
But before I can listen to the abstract of the Goliath entry, Dubey surprises us all by actually speaking. “King David played his own game,” he says, his shy voice amplified over gen-com. “And he didn’t lose.”
Good enough for me.
I whistle at the dogs. The fort’s gate swings open. We head out into moonlight, the five of us, Dassari LCS. The fort will defend itself while we’re away.
• • • •
We spread out so we can cover more territory, and so one bomb blast, one rocket, won’t take out all of us. The primary weapon we carry is the M-CL1a, also known as the Harkin Integrated Tactical Rifle, yielding an acronym only a gamer could love. The HITR uses AI sights to fire both a 7.62-millimeter round, accurate to five hundred meters, and programmable grenades from the underslung launcher. We’re also armed with a handy assortment of hand grenades—frag, flash-bang, smoke. Subtlety is not our talent. We’re rigged to hit fast and hard. Powered by the dead sisters, with photomultiplier-based night vision to see where we’re going, we’re able to make a sweep through the entire district on most nights.
Near the fort the land is flat, and much of it is cultivated, marked off by tall fences that protect sorghum fields and tree farms from roving goats and wandering cattle. But after a couple of kilometers, the farms end. Then it’s mostly scattered trees that look a lot like the mesquite I saw in Texas. We’re well into the rainy season, so all the trees are leafed out and where there used to be bare red ground between them, wild grass is growing almost head-high. The dogs run through it, hunting for rogue soldiers.
A light wind sighs past, setting the grass swaying around me. I know it’s rustling, but my helmet’s audio pickups are set to filter out white noise, so I can barely hear it, while more distinct sounds reach me clearly: the panting of the dogs, the lowing of cattle, a bird’s piping call.
With the grass so tall I can’t see very far, but I keep a map overlaid on my visor with the position of each one of my soldiers marked. The map is constantly updated with data gathered by my angel—a toy drone with a three-foot wingspan, piloted by a semiautonomous AI. The angel watches over us. Everything within range of its camera eyes is recorded, and the raw video is boosted to Guidance. In offices in Frankfurt, Charleston, and Sacramento, our handlers scan the raw feed, while Intelligence teams run analytical programs to pick up any bogeys human eyes might miss.
There’s always something to see. This is the Old World. People have made their homes here since the beginning of time and they’ll probably still be here come the last day—which might not be as far off as we’d like to think.
Yeah, apocalyptic thoughts come a little too easily these days.
Anyway, it doesn’t matter how empty this land looks; it is inhabited. People live here, raising their children and their livestock, most of them pretending there isn’t a war in progress. We don’t want to shoot them.
So with the angel’s help we’ve developed a census. We know the name of everyone living within twenty-five kilometers of the fort. We know their facial details, along with their height, weight, gender, posture, and age. We know where they live, what they do for a living, and how they’re related to the people around them. Using the census, the angel can ID an individual in low light, with his back turned, from over a kilometer away, and once we’ve got an ID we go on our way. It’s rare that the people here even see us, unless we’re on the road.
But if the angel turns up someone who’s not in our census? Then we move in.
Not every stranger is an enemy. Smugglers pass through, and so long as they’re not carrying weapons or proscribed tech, we let them go. Same for the refugees wandering south out of the Sahara. We talk to them all and add them to our records.
But it’s the insurgents we really need to find, before they find us. It’s a game of hide-and-seek, and the better the angel gets at spotting people, the better the enemy gets at looking like nothing at all.
So when I get a sudden premonition of danger—a heart-pounding, muscle-tensing certainty that something seriously bad is very near—I visualize a red light. My skullcap picks up the image and displays it on the visors of everyone in my squad. They freeze. Jaynie and Dubey tap into my visual feed right away like they’re supposed to. Yafiah and Ransom take a little longer, but within a few seconds we’re all looking ahead toward one of our district’s rare rocky outcroppings. It’s an anomaly in the flat landscape: a wide, irregular formation that rises only a little higher than the low trees around it. I’m pretty sure it’s natural, but it looks like it could be the remnant of an ancient pyramid, reduced to a shapeless lump after thousands of seasons of rain.
My handler, Delphi, hasn’t said a word since we linked up at the fort, but the moment I break routine she speaks. “What have you got, Shelley?”
I focus on the words “A feeling.” It’s a phrase I’ve practiced, so the skullcap picks it up easily and translates it for Delphi.
She tells me what I already know: “The angel’s got nothing. I’m bringing it in for a closer look.”
“They’re in the high ground,” I say in the softest of whispers, letting the helmet mic compensate for lack of volume.
Delphi doesn’t like my “feelings” because she can’t explain them, but she’s been with me twice when I’ve sensed an imminent ambush, so she doesn’t argue.
I tap into the angel’s infrared feed as it soars on silent wings high above the outcrop. I’m looking for bright points of heat, but I only see our soldiers and our dogs, scattered in an arc on the east side of the mound.
One of our dogs, the cream-colored female we call Pearl, is two meters in front of me. Alerted by my posture, she’s standing still, testing the air with her nose. I hiss at her, urging her to move ahead. She trots forward willingly, but then she freezes just short of the mound. My helmet audio enhances her low growl.
“Fuck,” Yafiah whispers over gen-com. “I want to launch a grenade up there.”
So do I, but we can’t do it. If it’s just a farm kid out on a lark, we could all wind up in prison—and the only reason I’m in this uniform is because I desperately do not want to be in prison.
“Easy,” I warn Yafiah.
I wish I could put skullcaps on the dogs. Then I might be able to get an image of what they’re sensing. But the defense contractors refuse to outfit strays. They don’t want to get fined if the equipment gives false results, so they’ll only cap a dog if it’s specially bred and trained—and that kind of dog costs twice as much as a soldier. Our LCS isn’t authorized.
I hiss at Pearl again, but she lowers her head and looks back at me, refusing to advance any farther.
We’ll have to go in ourselves.
I visualize an approach path: me and Yafiah moving directly in, Ransom circling around the back, and Dubey and Jaynie providing cover from opposite sides. Ransom picks it up and takes off fast, staying well back from the mound as he circles around it. Yafiah and I move in, until we have only thirty meters between us as we cautiously advance.
“There it is, Shelley,” Delphi says in her businesslike voice. She sends me a still image, with a red circle around a faint heat signature she’s spotted in the rocks at the top of the mound.
It’s just a gray spot. Its shape doesn’t tell me anything, but the thermal signature is a clue to the presence of a ghost soldier, partly camouflaged from the angel’s infrared sight by a hooded suit with a thermal coating.
I shift back to angel sight. The heat signature is so repressed I can barely see it until the AI in the angel enhances the image. Then I can see it as a cocked arm, death clutched in its right hand.
“Yafiah!” I shout. “Fall back!”
Powered by her dead sister, she jumps backward four meters, dropping flat in a dense stand of tall grass. The dog, Pearl, whirls around and flees past me as I take aim with my M-CL1a. A glowing, golden point is moving across the screen of my visor. There’s no way I could see the grenade on my own, but my tactical AI, using data from the angel and from the helmet cams, has plotted its path for me. An open circle marks my aim. I align the circle with the point, fire a short burst, and drop flat as a concussion booms over my head and lightning flashes. I’m up again as soon as it passes. From the top of the mound an assault rifle chatters and then, his voice low and happy, Ransom says over gen-com, “That’s two for me, LT.”
We’re not done yet.
Delphi finds another ghost about twelve meters away from me, near the bottom of the mound. This one’s a gleaming, shapeless blur, much easier to see—probably just someone crouched under a worn-out thermal blanket.
I close the distance, using my dead sister to bound in a crazy zigzag, the joints muttering and my pack creaking against the frame as I go. My target sees me coming. Maybe he panics. Maybe he’s just cocky. But he drops his thermal cover and shows himself. I’m all of twenty-three, but in the green glow of night vision he looks to me like a skinny teenage kid as he sights down the barrel of his assault rifle and starts firing.
I’m moving fast. His first bullets don’t get anywhere near me, but he shifts his aim and closes the gap while I fire back. I aim from the hip, using the bead in my visor to get the right line. The trigger drops away from my finger as my tactical AI takes over. A single shot, and the kid flies backward, spinning half around before hitting the slope behind him.
“Slam!” Ransom bellows over gen-com.
“Check it out,” I warn him.
“Don’t worry, LT, there’s no one left up top.”
“Approaching,” Jaynie says.
I spot her on my map. “Gotcha.”
She walks out of the tall grass, her weapon aimed at the body of the kid, lying facedown, the back of his head blown out.
“Signs?” I ask.
“No. He’s dead.”
She crouches beside the body and uses her arm hook to flip it over. There’s a bullet hole right between his eyes. “Shit, your AI is good.”
I can’t feel it directly, but I know my skullcap is working, stimulating my brain to produce a soothing little cocktail, a mix of all-natural brain chemicals that puts an emotional distance between me and what just happened.
I suck fortified water from a tube hooked to a bladder in my pack, while Jaynie searches the body. We’re particularly interested in written orders and data sticks. Up above, Ransom searches the two that he killed. I watch the feed from his helmet cam. Both are kids; only one has a thermal suit. That’s not a piece of equipment we want to leave lying around, so I send Dubey to help collect it, along with the weapons.
Kids like these are not fighting for Ahab Matugo. He’s a modern, secular leader, and they hate him for it. They hate us too, of course. And they hate the people of this district, because those people put up with us. They’ve been indoctrinated in hate and it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that some DC is behind it, encouraging it, financing it, to make sure soldiers like us have something to do. Rumor is, Intelligence broke a similar scheme in Bolivia, but that investigation was iced to save corporate reputations.
I call Yafiah. We whistle for the dogs, and together we make a sweep of the mound, confirming that no one’s still hiding.
• • • •
After we distribute the captured weapons between us, we move out, resuming the night’s assigned route. Just a few minutes later, the angel picks up a new presence. This one is riding a moped and isn’t trying to hide, so we get a quick ID.
“Jalal the gravedigger,” Delphi says.
“Did you call him?”
“Checking . . . No. No notification was made. He’s come on his own initiative.”
“I don’t like that much initiative.”
Jalal is a local contractor. The army pays him to handle enemy bodies, but he receives notification of a job only after we are away from the vicinity.
“Delphi, how does Jalal know we’re not the ones lying dead on the ground?”
“He knows your rep, Shelley. But you’re authorized to conduct a field interview.”
With a thought, I switch to gen-com. “Converge on my location. Leash the dogs on your way in.”
Already I can hear the whine of his moped. Maybe he’s following the smell of gunpowder, or maybe he just reasoned from the direction of our gunfire that the mound was the most likely site of the battle.
We take up positions in the grass, eight meters apart, crouched to reduce our profiles—because I don’t want to find out too late that Jalal has changed sides. The dogs lie quiet. They’re loyal to us. They know where their next meal is coming from.
I watch with angel sight as the moped draws near. Jalal is driving in the dark. Without using any lights, he’s weaving around trees and skirting the brush, pushing the moped at a fast clip. I don’t see any weapons on him, and the angel doesn’t indicate any, but he has a backpack.
I creep through the trees, putting myself in a position to intercept him.
The crunch of the tires is louder than the electric engine. When he’s almost on me, I step into the open. My HITR targets his face.
He’s so startled he jerks the front tire of the moped. The bike skids and almost goes over. “Shelley! Goddamn!”
Jalal’s eyes are veiled by the narrow, gleaming band of his farsights. It’s an easy guess that they’re capable of night vision, so I’m not surprised he can see me in the dark—but he can’t see through my visor, so how the hell does he know it’s me?
Shit. I bet he’s got his own height and weight profiles.
I say, “You got here quick.”
He answers in a local dialect, which my helmet translates in its usual creative fashion. “I am going to the city. Leaving before sunrise. Need to do the job soonest. Right?”
I eye his backpack. It could hold grenades or explosives. It’s more likely, though, that it holds shrouds.
“You can’t take three bodies on that bike.”
He blinks. Th
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