2nd Place Finisher
By Michael Barretta
Grace saw him—slim-waisted, broad-shouldered, piercing blue eyes, close-cropped brown hair a quarter-inch past military. He stood apart from the potbellies and balding pates of the leaders. It was perhaps more accurate to say they gave him space. She watched him for a few moments. His eyes scanned the room, automatically assessing threats, figuring out who needed to be neutralized first, the best place for cover, and where to procure a weapon. He would be unapproachable until he finished. She waited. It was more than inevitable that they would find each other.
She signed a contract.
Without any person in dire need of killing, he focused on her. She could tell. She had just as much training as he in the arts of observation and analysis. Perhaps more. She didn’t have a weapon—technically speaking, in this context, she was the weapon. According to the machine intelligence consulting on the Black September program, they had a natural compatibility rating of 61 percent, an exceptional rating. Old married couples barely breached fifty percent. After training and aesthetic augmentation, the machines estimated her chances of success at 68 percent. She suffered a lot of pain for a measly seven-point bump, but every point counted when their lives hung in the balance.
His twelve years of service, five of which were in the Black September program, should not end on a stainless steel table. No one had ever told her what her fate would be, but she imagined it would be something like that.
After she passed the background checks and signed the government nondisclosure agreement, the Special Programs recruiter provided background and particulars.
“Do you know who Yasser Arafat is?” asked the recruiter.
“Yes,” she replied. “That was a long time ago.”
“It was,” said the recruiter. “Have you heard of Black September?”
“My history is very broad, but not terribly specific. So, no, I don’t think I have.”
“Black September was a Palestinian terrorist organization. They were the ones who murdered the Israeli athletes at the 72’ Munich Olympics.”
“Okay, yes, my classes did cover that. That, too, was a long time ago.”
“I am sure your classes covered the events, but I bet they did not go into the details,” he said. “The Olympic massacre was a botched operation. Poor execution. Pointless deaths. Black September didn’t achieve any of its stated goals, but the attack demonstrated a willingness to spread conflict beyond the Middle East. It stimulated the West to create specialized, military-trained, counterterrorism units which would make further operations . . . uh, problematic. But more important, Black September’s operation made it difficult for the PLO to portray itself as an aggrieved party. The PLO wanted wins, but they could not win so big that it would prompt their destruction. In every conflict, a certain level of violence is expected and tolerated, but Black September exceeded that threshold by massacring innocents abroad at an international event dedicated to peaceful coexistence. Yasser Arafat needed to decommission Black September.”
“So, Arafat had a problem,” she said.
“To say the least. There he was, a political leader with a very dangerous unit of elite killers. How do you turn them off?” asked the recruiter.
“You kill them.”
“I like your answer. Killing them is one possible solution—if the secret could be kept—but everything leaks, and if it did, it would have sowed violent discord among the PLO factions. Do you understand?”
The recruiter sipped his coffee and then put the mug down. Her coffee cooled in front of her, untouched. He never took his eyes from her, assessing in some predatory cat-and-mouse kind of way. There were programs running behind his eyes, ones he wasn’t born with. She kept herself composed and hoped she wasn’t giving too much away.
“At the very least, killing men responsible for the execution of policy is . . .” He searched for the proper word. “Distasteful.”
“How else do you stop men like that?” she asked.
The waist-high slit of her black dress parted around her leg. She kneeled, back straight, head up, and adjusted the strap on her right high heel. There was nothing wrong with the strap. She rose and walked toward him holding her clutch just under the swell of her breasts. It was the only thing she carried and the only place she could possibly conceal a weapon. She knew his eyes would follow. Damn near every other male eyeball followed, too, but she kept her focus on him.
She knew him. He knew her, though they had never met. As a Sensor, assigned to the Combined Special Forces Operations Center at Hurlburt Field, Florida, she was one-half of an Alpha Commando team in the Strategic Regional Dominance program. She manned the Q-link console that fed him near-real and real-time intelligence data to aid in tactical decision-making.
“Hello,” she said to him.
“You’re Topsail,” he said.
Even without the benefit of the Q-link, he recognized her. The Q-link, a powerful system of quantum computers and technological telepathic links, transmitted voice, but that was the least of its capabilities. It transmitted urgencies and imperatives, overlays, and orders. She didn’t think the mystery of who she was would have survived the night’s meticulous planning, but he figured her out far faster than she expected. He seized the initiative, but that’s what men like him did.
“My name is Grace. You must be Hoplite,” she replied. “How did you know?”
“My name is Thomas, Tom, and you’re just as I imagined you to be.” He held out his hand.
She thought his statement an innocent lie fashioned as a disarming compliment. The disarming part concerned her. She took his hand and assessed. It was warm, his blood pressure elevated, as was his pulse. A cocktail party was a battleground where the combatants used words and posture and money. The situation might be less fatal than physical combat, but it was even more fluid than contact with armed enemy forces. His self-inhibited fight-or-flight response was normal. She felt the same way.
His handshake was respectfully firm. Many men took a light and loose grip with a woman as if dealing with an inferior. She got a decent read on his blood sugar. Normal. But the bizarre chemical cocktail of his recent demilitarization fogged the remaining parameters. Some of the enhancements, such as the virally delivered augments that rewired his cells for greater speed, strength, stamina, and cognition, were permanent. Anything soft-wired into his nervous system, such as the electroplaques and bioelectronic support measures, were removed. He was probably in some level of pain, though he did not show it.
“Should I be flattered?” she asked. “I hope so.”
“You should,” he said. He released her hand and she let it linger for a moment. He kept his attention on her face and eyes.
Charming, confident, and gracious by nature, she thought. His responses didn’t have the hard-polished edge of training. His file indicated he was raised in a solid middle-class environment. His mother and father were alive and still married to each other. Discretion and courtesy probably played an important role in his upbringing, but it was best not to jump to conclusions. He was a highly refined killer, steeped in a chemical cocktail that soaked up 12 years of worth of regret and remorse accumulated in the service of policy. If she failed this mission, he would probably die.
And perhaps she would, too.
Grace had gone to school for accounting. Her father had told her that she needed to choose a professional degree and accounting suited her tendency toward introversion and satisfied her aptitude with data. The profession had a generally agreed set of conventions, but a clever individual could bend numbers to suit purposes. While she was in school, breakthroughs in quantum computing gave rise to machine intelligences that could perform all but the most creative human intellectual work. She delayed entry into a soft economy and pursued a master’s degree, but still graduated obsolete. Powerful thinking algorithms perfused across the white-collar landscape. Despondent from the continuous rejection, she stopped at the campus military recruiter.
“The machine minds do damn near everything,” she complained to the recruiter.
“Not everything,” said the recruiter. “There are a few things humans do better.”
“Art, any of the arts, really. Music, literature, painting, war. You get the picture. No pun intended.”
“Unfortunately, I don’t have any talent in those areas.”
“If you have some time, we can find out.”
Since graduating summa cum laude from a highly respected program into a licensed profession was no guarantee of economic success, all Grace had was time. A practical eternity of pointless service work stretched before her; still, she wanted to leave. Sitting across from a military recruiter didn’t seem like such a good idea. Destructive power had concentrated so acutely that highly dedicated subnational actors could kill tens of thousands and the Western response was to engage in perpetual low-level warfare. Chasing down fanatics with homemade polio or sarin gas held little appeal. She liked to think she could hold herself apart from the world she lived in.
“Okay,” she said.
“Well, come this way. We have a testing room through here.” He stood and she followed.
“How long will this take?” she asked.
“It takes as long as it takes, but you can leave at any time. That is part of the evaluation.”
The room was small but comfortable, with a testing station on a modern wooden desk. She sat. He printed a form that explained her rights and told her that testing was voluntary and would not guarantee acceptance. If she scored well enough, the military would contact her and make an offer.
“You can’t have any devices while testing,” said the recruiter.
She handed over her phone and jewel and signed the forms. The recruiter smiled with faint embarrassment when he picked up her forms.
“Military,” he said. “We love our paper.”
When the recruiter left the room, the workstation spoke to her, not in the clipped machine manner of the university work stations, but natural language.
“Hello,” said the machine.
“Hello,” she replied.
“Shall we begin?”
The machine offered mathematical problems and asked her opinion on current events and literature. It asked her about life in the sorority house and her parents and little brother. The conversation ebbed and flowed. She felt perfectly relaxed and at ease, as if she was talking to her mother or girlfriends. They talked philosophy and ethics. It showed her images, both gorgeous and grotesque, and asked for her comments. It homed in on her hopes and fears. It knew too much about her.
The machine paused and for a moment, and she thought that it had glitched. She sat in the quiet and waited.
“Do you care?” asked the machine. Its sudden voice in the quiet was like a bullet shot.
“About what?” she replied.
“Do you care?” repeated the machine.
“I don’t understand the question.”
“Do you care?”
“Damn it, I don’t know. Someone has to.”
“Tell me about love.”
“You’re just a machine,” she said.
“You’re just a human,” said the machine.
The workstation went dark and she sat in the cool quiet. The lights seemed dimmer and she felt very tired. The recruiter opened the door.
“I have been authorized to tender you an offer.”
“For employment?” she asked.
“For further testing at the Special Programs Office.”
“Is that good?”
“I don’t know. I have never met anyone qualified for Special Programs.”
“Can I get you a drink?” he offered.
“Yes, just water. I like to be clear-headed,” said Grace.
He left and came back and handed her two glasses and poured an equal measure of Pellegrino into each. He set the bottle aside and took a glass back. “To us,” said Tom.
They touched their glasses together.
“Do you want to go on the patio? It’s cooler.” Grace gestured to the crowded room. “Less intimidating,” she said.
He looked around and determined that he would not be missed. Most everyone at the party was completely involved in whatever they were doing. The general who invited him was nowhere to be seen. “Yes, definitely.”
They exited through a set of French doors. The cool breeze set the gauzy curtains billowing. A few irritated glances turned their way. He pulled the door closed, trapping the sounds of the party within. The phosphorescent fruit hanging from ornamental-splice cherry trees cast a cool blue glow, splitting shadows from the light of the moon. He followed her across the stone patio to the raised seating at the perimeter. They sat.
“I told myself that when I made it back, I would find you, and say, thank you, so . . . Thank you,” he said.
“You’re very welcome. Aren’t we supposed to thank each other for our service?” she asked, smiling almost imperceptibly.
“Don’t you have the bumper sticker? I thought cars were supposed to come with them,” he said.
“No, it’s an expensive option.”
“I don’t even have a car, but when I get one, it will have a sticker.”
“Good for you,” she said.
She reached out and touched his lower chest, left side, where the round had penetrated.
“I was there when . . .”
“I know.” He wrapped his hand over hers.
Her stomach heaved and she vomited all over the floor. She hit the kill switch and gasped for air.
“That’s perfectly normal,” said her instructor. “Actually, you lasted much longer than most first-timers.”
“It’s so disorienting.” The world was a stunning chiaroscuro of sights and sounds. Data flowed and overfilled buffers, clotting her synapses. Vision and hearing and touch were not in the eyes and ears and skin. It was in the brain, and her brain was overloaded from the attempted exchange. She didn’t even recognize the tactical package, much less move it to its destination.
The problem was assertion and resistance. Consciousness, the product of quantum vibrations emanating from protein microtubules in the human brain’s neurons, asserted its worldview and resisted the imposition of another. The conscious mind liked to filter and interpret its own data, and the Q-link made an end run around it. The Q-link bored past the resistance and mediated, smoothing over disparities and implanting intelligence data from one person to another in such a fashion that it was perfectly understood and instantly integrated.
“Have some water.”
She gulped the glass down, unconcerned with appearances. Water dribbled down the corners of her mouth.
“Is it always like this?”
“No, it gets better with a permanently assigned operative. An accommodation is reached. Two become one. It takes a little bit of time to find a rhythm. And, yes—it can get much worse when the operative is engaged.”
“In combat, there is feedback. You can feel it. The adrenaline rush, the fear . . .”
“Your operative was killed, wasn’t he?” she asked the instructor.
“What did it feel like?”
“It hurts. It still hurts.”
“Did you love him?”
“I don’t know. I never met him. I think so.”
“Yasser Arafat had a problem,” said the Special Programs recruiter. “Yes, he could have killed Black September, at least he could have tried, but instead he had a party.”
“A party, sure, why not?”
“He set them up with beautiful women who would become their wives. He provided them with well-paying government jobs and homes. He gave them the possibility of children and a future that did not involve a bloody death.”
“He gave them something to lose,” she said.
“Exactly. They took it. These were men optimized for war. They knew nothing else, and later, he tested his program and tried to recruit these men for further operations. To a man, they refused.”
“Why is this important to me? Are you saying that part of this special program is to marry one of your operatives?”
“Yes, it is a possibility.”
“I think it’s too much to ask.”
“You don’t watch much reality TV, do you? Of course, it is your decision. Participation is voluntary. But consider this, your marriage will enjoy the fullest support of the United States Government, in the form of substantial immediate and lifetime benefits. Understand, that arranged marriages are often more successful than voluntary ones.”
“Why is that?”
“The stakes are higher.”
Hoplite chased a loose nuke. The Western response to the limited Indo-Pak nuclear exchange was swift. Coalition nuclear forces promised massive retaliation on the next government that used a nuclear weapon. Despite the support of the United States, the remnants of the Pakistani civilian government collapsed and a deeply aggrieved military ruled from underground bunkers. Coalition Special Forces moved swiftly to seize surviving Pakistani nuclear weapons lost in the chaos.
They didn’t get all of them, and fragmented Pakistani forces promised to put surviving nukes back into play. It put the United States in the curious position of having to conduct operations against a nominal ally to prevent catastrophic escalation.
Topsail linked data-fused radiological and topographical satellite maps. A neutron source moved along the M1 motorway between Islamabad and Peshawar. A Deep Black Intelligence satellite rose over the horizon, and she accessed its sensors. The low initial angle was useless, but as it rose higher, she fed a continuous tactical view of a six-vehicle Pakistani convoy a mile and half ahead of the Alpha commando team. The convoy stalled at a massive pileup of disabled and burned-out refugee vehicles. She linked the identities of probable combatants and capabilities.
The pursuit team slalomed among the broken vehicles. Radiation-poisoned bodies of civilians burst under the impact of heavy run-flat tires. Fairy dust—nanoscale sensors deployed over the battlespace—billowed into gray clouds with the vehicle’s passage.
“Hoplite, this is Topsail. One of the vehicles has stopped. Technical activity. Probable IED. Delaying action. They are trying to kill your pursuit.”
The tactical package filled his head. He knew where all the players were and what they were doing—probabilities, capabilities. An artificial intelligence with supernatural power integrated satellite sensor data and fairy dust returns into a comprehensive picture of the fight.
“Copy.” It was less a voice in his head. It was impressions, feelings, intuitions that he had learned to trust. It was like acknowledging yourself, but the verbalization gave it weight and meaning.
“Space it out,” he said to his team. The vehicles were bunching. A single weapon could take them all out.
The vehicles opened, but they couldn’t slow down. Otherwise, they would risk a 100-kiloton warhead detonation. They pushed the Bulldog Light Tactical Vehicles as hard as they could. An IED exploded adjacent to the lead Bulldog and sheared it apart with the force of the blast. Icons and statuses winked out in his mind. His vehicle hit debris and came up on two wheels and rolled. Airbags deployed, pinning the crew in position. The Bulldog slid into abandoned civilian vehicles and came to rest. The bags deflated.
“Out,” he ordered. He climbed out, following the driver. High-velocity rounds snapped and whined around him. Three others egressed the vehicle, took cover, and returned fire. He pinged the battlefield LAN and assessed his casualties. He put them out of his mind.
“Hoplite, this is Topsail. The nuke is stalled, half a klick ahead.” A God’s eye view of the tactical situation filled his head. Wrecked vehicles, heat signatures, topography.
He cast subvocalized orders to the surviving members of the team, and they abandoned the relative safety of cover and ran with inhuman speed, leapfrogging each other, avoiding the worst of the massed fire. He saw the stalled Pakistani convoy. A bulldozer worked to clear a path.
“Topsail, this is Hoplite. Alpha strike?” he asked. The quickest way to end this was for a Lightning II or Pegasus to drop a few JDAMs. It wasn’t likely—too much pressure on intelligence. The only way to know the nuke was out of play was to see it destroyed and make a report. An airstrike could not make guarantees.
“Negative, S-600 missile system is active.” The S-600 missile system covered the entire performance spectrum, from hypersonic glide vehicles to super-agile stealth targets. Nothing but an overwhelming saturation attack would neutralize it. That wouldn’t happen until after the nuke was confirmed destroyed.
His team moved. Leapfrogging forward. Seeking cover. Suppressing.
He selected targets and shot them on the move. He shot the bulldozer driver and the vehicle spun, riding up on vehicles and crushing them. It stopped. He checked his sleeve tab. Radiation had attenuated in the weeks since the exchange, but he still soaked up fallout Roentgens, not quite a lifetime dose, but close enough for a painful course of antirads if he survived the day.
A penetrator round hit him in the lower chest, knocking him backward to the ground.
She felt the full magnitude of the hit as if someone had shot her below her left breast. She screamed and arched her back, breathless with phantom pain. The tungsten-tipped penetrator had bored through his outer body armor, exploded flesh, and shattered against the layered polysaccharides shielding his organs. The straps in her chair kept her from falling to the floor. A technician rushed to her.
“Stupid, stupid,” said the technician. He dialed the link fidelity to its minimum.
“I need it. I need it”, she gasped. She reached out and set link fidelity to its original setting. “I’ve never been shot before.”
“You still haven’t,” said the technician.
The pain faded to a dull shadow of its original intensity.
“Are you still in the fight?” the technician asked.
“Yes,” she said.
The shattered chunks of bio-armor beneath his skin ground together. The pain shunt turned off the agony. He ripped open a trauma bandage with his teeth, peeled back the exterior spiderweave armor plate and fabric uniform, and slapped the bandage on. He felt cool relief.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
Someone cared, he thought. Someone is watching over me.
The watch officer spoke to her.
“Failsafe,” he said.
She linked the code word. She had no choice. Once spoken, it was in her head. It was in his head. The situation was spiraling out of control. The stakes were too high.
He acknowledged. Failsafe invoked operational necessity, but he had figured that out the moment the mission came their way. No one wanted a loose nuke in play. The command was unconcerned with his life. The only thing that mattered was mission success. The order just formalized the process. He cast the order over the battlefield LAN.
Reserve stimulants filled his body. Adrenaline and Synthamines dumped into his bloodstream.
“Running Hot,” he said. The clock had started. The human body had its limits. He broke cover and pressed. He reached the target vehicle through heavy fire and blew the door off with demolition charges. The weapon sat in a cradle tied down with thick nylon straps. Outside, his surviving teammates took defensive positions to allow him time to work. They went dark one by one as they fought off the small army arrayed against them.
He took his remaining demolition charges and stuck them over the casing. An external explosion would not result in a nuclear blast, just a radiological one. It would shatter the pit, spreading toxic plutonium across the area, but rendering the weapon useless.
The last member of his team went dark. His relayed info packets bounced back unanswered. There was no one left to receive. His only connection was his Sensor and she was thousands of miles away.
Unimpeded, enemy forces converged.
“I’m sorry,” he said to her.
He leaped from the truck and ran, directing fire with superhuman accuracy despite trembling, overtaxed muscles. Another round hit him in the back and he spun and fell. The truck exploded and she felt muted white-hot pain.
The connection severed.
She gripped the Q-link technician’s arm and squeezed, drawing blood. The watch officer loomed over her.
“Hoplite is down,” she said.
With enough bandwidth, you could rule the world or feel it die. She felt crippled, blinded, as if part of her had been stripped away. Not the return to self, the controlled takedown of the Q-link, but a sudden flattening of the world. Color desaturated. Sense attenuated to something dull and lifeless. She started the reboot process.
“Did he finish? Is the nuke destroyed?” asked the watch officer. “Global Strike needs to know now, or they’re calling in a FireFall mission.”
“Yes,” she said, but she didn’t know for sure. “Are they going to get him?”
“I don’t know,” said the watch officer.
The machine rebuilt the connection. She felt him, crumpled against the side of a car, dusted with hot ash of a burst nuke, a penetrated lung filled with blood. Radiation levels rose such that in an hour or two even the clever little nanochines couldn’t repair the damage. A rescue drone orbited outside the engaged area, waiting for Aerospace Force hypersonic glide vehicles to obliterate the S-600 site.
“I’m here,” she said.
“I know,” he replied.
He leaned forward. Closer, she saw the immense fatigue smothered with radiation medicine and pain killers from his recent demilitarization. Left to his own, he would transgress. He was too strong, too quick, too violent. Too misunderstood by the people he had protected. Violent death was a high probability for his kind.
She met him halfway. How could she not? He had killed so many and she had been with him every step of the way.
She leaned forward and kissed him, and he felt it. He was helpless against it.
So was she. Participation is voluntary, said the Special Programs recruiter. That was not exactly true. Each of them knew means and methods. Each of them had a king’s ransom of cutting-edge technology integrated into their bodies. Each of them was far too dangerous to return to the world unaccompanied. They needed to watch over and keep each other safe. Her heart raced and breath quickened. She didn’t even attempt to resist the cascading reaction. It was too beautiful to be believed.
Even without the drugs, she thought that maybe they could love each other, but nothing was left to chance. The stakes were far too high. Any emotion at all could be chemically catalyzed. Fear. Anger. Hope.
But the greatest of these was love.
Michael Barretta is a retired naval aviator who flew SH-60B Seahawk helicopters. He has master’s degrees in strategic planning from the Naval Postgraduate School and in English and government contracting from the University of West Florida. He is currently employed as a maintenance test pilot at Naval Air Station Whiting Field.
Featured Image: “Black Kit” by René Aigner (via Artstation)