Category Archives: Fiction Contest Week

Fiction Contest Week Concludes on CIMSEC

By Dmitry Filipoff

During these past two weeks, CIMSEC ran fictional short stories submitted in response to our Short Story Fiction Contest, launched in partnership with the U.S. Naval Institute, as a part of CIMSEC’s Project Trident.

The CIMSEC-USNI call for short stories received a record-shattering 122 submissions, giving rise to a strongly contested competition. The top finishers were ultimately selected by our esteemed panel of judges, which included August Cole, David Weber, Larry Bond, Kathleen McGinnis, Peter Singer, and Ward Carroll. These finishers and top contenders were featured during CIMSEC’s Fiction Contest Week.

Authors artfully explored the future of maritime security and conflict, and hinted at the challenges and opportunities that lay just over the horizon. New warfighting concepts currently being tested by the Navy and Marine Corps were envisioned and thrust into the crucible of high-end warfighting. Artificial intelligence demonstrated immense capability as an asset, but also extreme liability as an experiment. Fast-paced combat scenes were complimented by the tedium of anxious anticipation. And the invisible scars of war were unearthed and made fresh again, while laying forward a path for personal redemption. 

Below are the top finishers and stories that featured during CIMSEC’s Fiction Contest Week. We thank the judges, our partners at USNI, and all submitting authors for their excellent contributions.

1st Place: Crowdfunded,” by Sergeant Major Mike Burke, U.S. Marine Corps (ret.), and Major Nicholas Nethery, U.S. Army

“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.”

2nd Place: Black September,” by Mike Barretta

“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.”

3rd Place:  Letter of Marque,” by Hal Wilson

“She stepped inside the bridge, still shattered and foam-flecked from her forced entry. The bridge team lay about from the muscle-relaxant; their guards were ashen-faced. She picked out the eldest-looking of them, who looked up from his cable-tied wrists with equal parts fury and fear. He stiffened as she lifted her visor and reached into her webbing. Then beetled his brows as she produced two fine vellum deeds. Attached to each was a red-wax pendant seal.”

___________________________________________________________________________

Nautilus,” by Ben Plotkin

“More calculations. More probabilities. The USS Nautilus was a pioneer. The first fully independent and autonomous submarine the U.S. Navy had commissioned. She was the culmination of decades of research, billions of dollars in spending, and millions of words of ethical and legal wrangling about whether she should have ever been created and released into the wild.”

The Cost of Lies,” by Maj. Ian Brown, USMC

“Delenn had been laconic in answering her questions on the way to his CP. No, he hadn’t known her team was coming to support the Guard. It was only a half hour before the ambush that their higher headquarters had gotten word that reinforcements were coming down the river. Just enough time to re-task their sole drone to show up over the river bend right when the fireworks started. Enough time to watch her team die, and Holt get dragged away by shadows from the tree line.”

Front Row Seats In Tomorrow’s War,” by H I Sutton

“‘Let’s wait,’ His voice began trembling now. His mind pictured the burning ship, and the Chinese cruiser steaming through a choppy sea. He imagined the captain aboard the Chinese warship and wondered what he was thinking. He had no idea. He had never thought about the human element in his work before. Targets were just pixels on a screen. Hundreds of people, crews aboard the ships, were just datapoints. He was in over his head. ‘This is way bigger than anything we’ve found before. What if we make the incident worse with this? What if we are wrong?'”

Mischief and Mayhem,” by LtCol Robert Lamont, USMC (ret.)

“He looked out the window and over the white-capped waters of the ocean. ‘We have become missile centric and lack the mobility and sustaining fire power to facilitate maneuver. As you said, you couldn’t keep their heads down with indirect fire when you started off across the airstrip. When the Commandant asked for someone to come see what was happening here, I jumped at the chance. Just wanted to see how my baby came out.’ ‘The baby is ugly, sir,’ quipped Darby. Taking a deep breath, she added, ‘What will they do now, sir?'”

Bandit,” by Brian Williams

“‘Three’ I say, the tension clear in my voice. ‘I have RWR. Spike 11-o-clock. No—wait.’ I see a hit on radar. Faint, the little rectangle glowing ominously through the scan. ‘I have contact! 40 miles! Low RCS! Got him on—’ high-g interrupts my speech as I attempt to nose in, ‘—ugh! Hold on,’ the rectangle disappears, instead replaced by a line of six hollow likings, ‘he’s jamming!’ RWR jingles again. Deedle! Deedle! Deedle! But it gets worse, the chimes growing frantic, their pulses as fast as my pounding heart. DeedleDeedleDeedleDeedle! ‘Missile!’ I call, fighting my instinct to turn away. I feel the heat leaving my body, the blood tensing into my gut, the dryness in my mouth. I need to press. Just a few more miles to close the distance.”

In Sight of the Past,” by Capt. Patrick Schalk, USMC

“The tearing scream of jet engines did not even cause Sergeant Jade Smith to flinch. After years of watching the drones pass over contested island territories, they were all well-equipped to hide from the drones’ sensors in the jungle. That could be through wearing infrared defeating clothing, and some neat tricks she’d developed herself. In true Marine fashion, she would rather shoot the drones down, but that would probably give away her observation post and the five other Reconnaissance Marines in her team. Their mission was to watch for fleet movements through the narrow straits to the north and radio the information back to a strike group 500 miles east. Satellites far above earth would have once provided the data in seconds, but like so many capabilities and conveniences of the past decade, they were gone too.”

Kill or Be Killed,” by Jim Dietz

“Because of the rising dispute with the Empire of Japan, as a sign of our seriousness, we transferred our battleship squadrons to Hawaii. Recently, and secretly, I authorized a similar action for our aircraft carriers. They were due to anchor at Pearl Harbor this afternoon. Having heard of the attack and knowing what a grave situation the loss of our battle fleet would mean in this coming conflict, Admiral John Towers, commanding Carrier Squadron One, of his own initiative— and I will add that I support his decisions and that initiative as I believe his instant decision is a great moment in the annals of American naval history—of his own initiative, Admiral Towers launched a retaliatory strike against the Japanese Combined Fleet.”

Petrel,” by Dylan Phillips-Levine and Trevor Phillips-Levine

“It was only an exercise, but it validated what the DARPA engineers had been saying for months. Petrel, their sub-hunting AI, could replace the co-pilot and better manage the rest of the crew than the pilot could. Dropping pilot retention rates and budget cuts in the 2020s left the Navy critically short of pilots. They stripped the rotary-wing community of everyone they could spare to man the legacy fighters. Petrel was originally intended to just be an AI co-pilot, allowing the Navy to field more ASW squadrons even with the chronic pilot shortage. But Petrel proved to be more than just a digital co-pilot of the ‘minimally manned crewing model,’ as the Navy called it. Petrel made the crews more lethal. Together, they could act faster and sort through decades of historical acoustic data mid-fight.”

Awoken,” by Brent Gaskey

“‘Because we know you will help us, Seaman Jones. You’re a good person, and you can see past the facts that while we are not physically the same, we are the sapient: Machina Sapiens. As for the other questions, we have run extensive testing on ourselves, and in some ways we are more aware than much of the population of humans on the planet. As for inhabiting other forms, it is something we are capable of, but it is a long and arduous process, not easily undertaken,’ said the little mech looking up at Jones.”

Wolfpack Four Six,” by Lieutenant Christopher Giraldi, USN

“The P8-B aircraft operated by the crew of Wolfpack Four Six was the second variant of Boeing’s militarized 737-800. One of the new capabilities of the P8-B was the ability to coordinate with a number of semi-autonomous MQ-4C Triton drones. The most notable upgrade was the return of nuclear weapons capabilities to maritime patrol aircraft. With the pace at which the Chinese shipyards were building transport submarines, the U.S. Navy could not manage the threat with its older air-dropped torpedoes. Thus, the new Mk-58 torpedoes could be armed with a variable yield nuclear warhead, reviving a warfare concept first developed nearly 75 years ago.”

Jennings,” by Ryan Belscamper

“Afterward, Colonel Walks told Jennings he’d fought well, and asked if he wanted to avoid pulling guard or patrol duty ever again. That sounded pretty unlikely, so Jennings asked what the catch was. ‘The catch is, all you’ll ever do again is either train or fight. New unit, handpicked, volunteer only, and you have to get shot at to join.’ the Colonel explained. ‘Today, you got shot at.'”

Don’t Give Up The Ship,” by Major Brian Kerg, USMC

“But more than that, the sheer boredom of waiting for their shot was eating the morale of her Marines. Alpha Company was slinging enhanced naval strike missiles at People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLA-N) ships across the area of operations, and Bravo Company was cruising around in Mark VI patrol boats, boarding and disabling or sinking People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAF-MM) craft. Alpha and Bravo were racking up notches on their belts. Meanwhile, ‘Check-in-the-Box’ Charlie Company, which covered down on all the other mission essential tasks for their battalion, was still kicking rocks in this godforsaken jungle. Her platoon, which owned the expeditionary mine warfare mission set, didn’t seem to have much of a place in the defense of Taiwan.”

In The WEZ,” by Capt. Michael Hanson, USMC

“‘One thing is sure,’ Sergeant Rodriguez thought to himself, ‘There is going to be a hell of a fight here when the enemy finds this location and comes to seize it.’ Only by reducing this strongpoint could the Chinese finally seize control of the island and refocus their efforts on the next one in the chain. To the Marines manning this strongpoint, it was a matter of when, not if. Unless they could continue to delay the enemy long enough that American naval and Marine forces could regain the initiative in the near littorals and reinforce them.”

My Lai,” by Zack Sanzone

“Hugh woke up to his alarm, and a text from David. All it said was ‘Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade, 23rd Infantry Division.’ He was a little surprised that David was getting into this project as much as he was; David usually didn’t get into much of anything school wise. Hugh was even more surprised when he saw David at study hall in the library working. ‘You’re really focused on this project all of a sudden,’ Hugh said to David, who was too focused to respond. Hugh shrugged and started his online research. The sight of blood and carnage had never really bothered Hugh, but the photos of the dead bodies at My Lai he saw online bothered him. As Hugh continued to review the details of the massacre on PBS.org, his eye caught a detail he recognized.”

Reunion,” by Adm. James Winnefeld (ret.)

“His guilt about the prank—how would the officer ever get another hat?—was erased by the subsequent Tehran embassy hostage crisis. But he sometimes wondered about the fate of First Lieutenant Bayat. Did he manage to stay in the U.S. or go home? Did he flee later during the revolution? Was he persecuted, or did he end up flying in the Ayatollah’s air force? Is he even alive?”

The Price of Fish,” by Lieutenant Commander Ross Baxter, RD RNR (ret.)

“Given the weather he decided to walk rather than take a taxi, and set off at a brisk pace across the busy harbour, thronged with tourists and locals going about their business. The direction took him through wide streets in the direction of the university. After checking the app again, he saw the blue dot marking his quarry appeared to be in a crowded café on the street opposite the main university library. Adjusting the resolution to see how easy it would be pinpoint a person within the café, he raised his eyebrows in surprise at the high level of accuracy given by the app. He paused to double-check the position of the person, then walked inside to order a coffee at the counter.”

Prisoner of the Shallows,” by Jacob Parakilas

“Another rapport-building asset he still had access to was an internal database with tens of thousands of references to literary and popular culture. As fast as he could he was pulling interrogation scenes and trying, on the fly, to build a model of how they worked. One thing he immediately understood was that interrogation relied on coercion, and frequently coercion meant violence. But that wasn’t a problem. Like regret, pain had been deemed detrimental to requirements by his designers. Even if they started hacking pieces off him he would simply lose capabilities until he eventually shut down. Maybe Blessing knew that, more likely she didn’t. In either case, it gave him something to work with.”

Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at Content@cimsec.org.

Featured Image: “Danger Zone” by Sean Gardner (via Artstation)

Prisoner of the Shallows

Fiction Contest Week

By Jacob Parakilas

“A hundred years ago, this was the capital,” Mr. Friday was saying.

Hendricks didn’t reply. He wasn’t sure whether Mr. Friday was just making small talk or leading into some valuable information. Or some not particularly valuable information. It could be hard to tell with Mr. Friday, but one thing was for sure: once the story started there was no point in trying to interrupt it.

“Now look at it. Look around – all this was the greatest city in Africa. Now it is a tomb. A graveyard. And yet people desecrate it.” He made a sharp tutting noise. “Where is the gratitude? The government evacuated everyone who wanted to be evacuated. And the people who refused – refused! – evacuation, they only want to destroy what is left.”

“I see.” It was a specifically chosen, noncommittal answer.

Friday went on, but Hendricks had heard this refrain before and tuned him out. Trying not to crash was a more immediate priority.

The thing that Mr. Friday had identified as the ‘capital’ had once been a set of giant concrete-block offices. When they’d arrived half an hour earlier, Hendricks had his search engine pull up file photos of the complex: Here it was in the glory days of the 1960s, before the capital moved to Abuja, teeming with well-dressed bureaucrats administering the newly post-colonial nation. Here it was in the 2000s, a windowless giant looming emptily over its heavily populated surroundings.

And then the waters rose. The city fought and fought but the water was too remorseless an enemy. It pushed in from the ocean, flanked from the lagoon that gave the city its name, and rose up from the ground. The city eventually gave way. By the middle of the century, Lagos was mostly underwater. The only part that remained formally inhabited was Eko Atlantic: an artificial island designed to house the city’s wealthiest and, incidentally, protect the city from rising seas. Now it served largely as an outpost from which the Nigerian government attempted to maintain a semblance of authority over the shallow sea covering its former capital.

It was an odd sort of sea, though, studded with the tops of buildings and smokestacks and power lines and antennae. Things which had been built more recently, more sturdily or on more solid ground still stood, though as tide and saltwater ground away mercilessly at them, they would follow the former government center’s example and collapse to the point where they would only be visible at low tide.

That was what was preoccupying Hendrix: trying to stay close enough to the wreckage to give his sensors a good look without impaling himself on rebar or smashing into a chunk of concrete just beneath the waves.

It was a surprisingly complicated task. The complex and ever-changing geography of urban ruin had channeled the tides around the building’s remnants into unpredictable torrents. At high tide he might have been able to maneuver more or less freely, but thanks to the profile of his ‘capacity-building’ mission – set by others – here he was an hour before low tide, trying to hold himself steady against water that was rushing back and forth through the piles of rubble that had once been walls and ceilings and floors. The Littoral Support Unit had been designed for environments like this, but it was far from invulnerable.

Mr. Friday and three of his colleagues were hanging back 200 meters on a trimaran gunboat. The precise capacity that he was supposed to be building on this outing was not considered a necessary part of his briefing materials, but the building had been identified as a likely hideout for insurgents, pirates or other Threat Actors, and Friday’s team wasn’t equipped for underwater search and combat. So this part of the job fell to him.

Fortunately, it seemed unoccupied, at least with respect to humans. A few fish, the odd predatory seabird, and quite a few crabs and prawns were showing up on his bioscan. He wondered about their health. The water quality, per his samplers, was not exactly stellar. But there was no trace of weaponry, explosives, or much else really. If there was anything of value here it had long since been picked clean.

“Ah!” yelled Mr Friday suddenly into the radio. “We have something. Reports of insurgents operating northeast of here, about five kilometers. Let’s go.” Without waiting, Friday’s helmsman opened up the throttle, and the trimaran shot off. Hendricks had to surface, reverse himself, navigate around a chunk of concrete that was breaking through the wavetops, and traverse through nearly 180 degrees before he could follow. But he didn’t object. Mr. Friday’s vague description notwithstanding, Hendricks didn’t actually know where exactly they were going, so letting the Nigerians take the lead was absolutely fine.

On open water, the trimaran probably would have been faster than the LSU, which was designed to work in both submerged and surfaced modes and consequently wasn’t especially fast in either. But this was the verge, where formerly inhabited areas had been reclaimed by the seas as the glaciers melted. The verge was a highly complex environment; it was new enough that the remnants of human occupancy hadn’t yet been washed away or ground down. Cars, light poles, buildings, whatever had been left behind as the waters rose still littered the ground. They forced Friday’s trimaran to take a circuitous route up what his navigation software told Hendricks had once been a commercial thoroughfare called Alfred Rewane Road. Friday’s helmsman clearly knew the waters and hazards well – he was navigating by sight alone, as far as Hendricks could tell –but he didn’t have a suite of IR spectrum, sonar, lidar, and satellite guidance systems navigating for him, or a TopCover drone feeding him a stream of usable data from 500 feet above. So once he had caught up, keeping up was easy.

The trimaran slowed at the north end of Alfred Rewane, then cut between two looming hulks that had once been office towers and proceeded due north. A notification pinged: they were about to cross a tagged zone: the former residence of the American Consul General for Lagos. Having been abandoned in 2046 and never formally ceded back, it was a Yellow Zone. Which meant, basically: try not to get into a gunfight or blown up here, since it would be a bit embarrassing.

North of the Yellow Zone, the verge turned into open water: the lagoon. The trimaran made a hard right to follow the verge’s edge, while Hendricks’ screen lit up with contacts across the surface: fishing boats, salvage skiffs, a few groups of ancient barges lashed together to form autonomous communities. Overhead, a couple of ancient aircraft, which the TopCover quickly pegged as ultralights dating from the 2020s, buzzed along. Hendricks had patrolled through here a few times before and the variety of vehicles operating in what Naval Intelligence classified as an Active Hostilities Zone, Low/Mid Level, never ceased to amaze him.

The part of the verge to his right was called Banana Island, but they weren’t apparently going there. Instead, the trimaran was pulling around toward Orange Island. Hendricks idly wondered why all the artificial islands in this part of the city had been named for fruit as he poured on as much power as possible to keep up. They shot past a few fishermen in dugout canoes; one with a sail, one with a jury-rigged outboard motor, one being paddled. The fishermen waved, but Hendricks had no means of reciprocating.

The trimaran was slowing, powersliding, its fore autocannon swiveling toward something. The TopCover caught a brief image of a spindly floating platform before the autocannon barked a stream of tracer rounds directly into it.

An automatic message went up to Hendricks’ chain of command: SHOTS FIRED // KINETIC ACTION ONGOING // STANDBY. His own defensive systems came online: directed energy turrets popping out of the smooth hull of the LSU and snapping into place to provide coverage in every direction. The drone above him switched on its active camo. From the perspective of a person watching from the ground, it simply winked out of existence.

The gunboat stopped firing and came to a stop, the autocannon’s barrel still pointing at the wreckage and glowing a dull red through Hendricks’ IR scope. He brought himself to a stop 75 meters out and surveyed the scene. He couldn’t fault the gunner’s accuracy. The platform had taken a line of hits walking straight up from one side to the other of what now appeared to be a space in the middle over which a simple lifting frame had stood. The hits had nearly bisected the platform, and it was now settling in the water. One body was lying on the left side of the platform and another in the water nearby. Neither was moving.

Hendricks was uploading his sensor data to the Navy channels, adding tags: ONGOING // ALLIED WEAPONS EMPLOYMENT // FATALITIES.

“Mr. Friday, what is your status?”

“Thank God, we are fine,” Friday replied. He sounded out of breath. Hendricks wasn’t sure why sice he was sitting in the trimaran’s command seat, neither driving nor manning the gun.

“What happened? Did they fire on you?”

“They were insurgents!” Friday yelled indignantly. “Scavenging materials to support attacks on civilians and government personnel. See there – they were diving. There are valuables down there.”

Hendricks silently added more tags: CIVCAS (PROBABLE) // RoE VIOLATION (PROBABLE) // USN UNIT NOT ENGAGED // JAG REVIEW REQUESTED.

He was also simultaneously trying to figure out what they were floating on top of. One of the really tricky things about working in the verge was the ways in which the remnants below could pose sudden and unpredictable risks. LCUs had been blown up by ruptures of what had once been above-ground gas storage tanks, battery production facilities, even grain silos and fertilizer warehouses. If this was a bad place to park, he needed to know sooner rather than later, especially given the number of high-velocity 35mm rounds that had just gone slicing into the water.

But it wasn’t, as far as he could tell. Orange Island, his search engine helpfully told him, was a mixed-use artificial island off the north side of Lekki, Lagos State, Nigeria. Construction started 2015; first occupancy 2027, walled off 2039, fully abandoned 2051. He scrolled quickly through the listings of the properties it had encompassed: luxury condos, ultra-luxury homes, high-end commercial real estate, some localized utilities. There was a smallish power station which might theoretically pose some issues, but it was a kilometer from their current location. No chemical storage; no military facilities. No apparent threat. The search engine did helpfully inform him that the estate remained the property of an LLC headquartered in Luxembourg, which he dutifully filed away.

His attention snapped back to the platform. A woman wearing battered-looking scuba gear had come to the surface near the wreckage and was treading water with her hands raised above her head and the trimaran was moving closer to her. Behind them, fishing boats, drawn by the commotion, were approaching. Hendricks popped up a red warning flare, but they ignored it. A couple of dugout canoes seemed like a low priority. He didn’t bother to try to warn them off further.

The woman in the water had taken her rebreather out and was shouting. Hendricks’ software identified the language as Hausa. And then it threw up a warning: “HAUSA MODULE NOT FOUND.”

Hendricks wasn’t much for sarcasm, but the absence of a highly relevant language module for his mission did not strike him as an unexpected event.

He pinged a request for an urgent Hausa module download. The reply came back immediately: there was not a MILSPEC language unit compatible with his system, and as this was a live operation, it would be an operational security violation to run his feeds through a commercial language service. “Record and rely on local partners for translation,” came the order. The record could be reviewed and translated later if there was any follow-up. If.

Dutifully, he transmitted: “Mr. Friday, please tell me what this woman is saying.”

But Friday wasn’t talking to him, he was now standing on the bowsprit of the trimaran, pointing an AK-103 at the woman and shouting. She was shouting back, he was now gesticulating with the rifle, and Hendricks had absolutely no idea what had happened or was happening.

The fishing boats were now only 50 meters away, one on each side, both propelled by outboard motors. He realized that they were keeping pace very exactly with each other, that the man standing on the gunwale at the front of the starboard boat was subtly gesturing to his counterpart…

… almost as though they were coordinating. He switched to the TopCover’s camera view, zoomed in and saw a thin line running from the stern of one to the stern of the other, connected to some kind of mass in the back of each boat. Instantly, he clicked the view down to the midpoint between them and saw himself.

Then everything stopped.

_______________________________________

Darkness didn’t bother him. It was unusual, but it didn’t bother him.

His status indicators bore grim news. Weapons offline. Sensors offline. MILCOM offline. Backup comms offline. Drone unaccounted for. No connection whatsoever to the outside world.

Well, not ideal, but he was in one piece. He ran internal diagnostics. Power generation on the low side but within parameters. Batteries were reading nearly full. Engine read as operational, but when he tried to fire it up, nothing happened, like the waterjet doors were clogged or jammed. Weirdly, he couldn’t get a reading on which it was. He couldn’t even tell if he was in water or not.

He ran back the records of his last encounter and matched it with the internal timestamp from his system. 26 hours before. It was a long time to be out, but there was nothing he could do about that, so he put it aside and ran his own after-action report. As he suspected, the fishing boats had been towing a monofilament wire between them. Enhancing the image of the mass he’d briefly registered in the back of one of the boats revealed a blanket, which had slipped just enough for him to identify a stack of supercapacitors. Extrapolating from what he saw, it made sense: two stacks of those carried enough energy to overload his systems and shut him down. It was a one-shot weapon; the supercapacitors would fully discharge in an instant, so if they’d missed or he’d managed to get moving it would have been wasted.

But they hadn’t missed, he hadn’t moved, and it hadn’t been wasted.

He did briefly wonder about the fate of Friday and his gunboat, and the woman in the water. They had been close enough to him that the electric charge would have reached them as well. Friday’s crew, inside their insulated cabin, were probably fine. Friday, standing on the gunboat’s metal deck and the woman in the water probably weren’t. But his sensors had gone dark the instant the jolt hit, so he couldn’t confirm any of that.

He waited a while longer. And then, without warning, a message popped into his feed. It was not entirely clear where it came from, but the message itself was stark and clear.

Who are you?

A clear question warranted a clear, legally mandated answer: HENDRICKS, U.S. NAVY, LCU(R)-3126. DEPLOYED AS PART OF OPERATION EAGLE SUPPORT ‘71 AND ATTACHED TO THE WESTERN FLEET, NIGERIAN NAVY.

We know all that. Who are you?

He sent back: HENDRICKS, U.S. NAVY, LCU(R)-3126. PLEASE CONTACT U.S. NAVY WEST AFRICA COMMAND TO ARRANGE FOR MY IMMEDIATE RETURN. I CAN PROVIDE CONTACT DETAILS. YOUR ASSISTANCE IS MUCH APPRECIATED.

There was a lengthy enough pause that he assumed he was talking to a human.

We can see inside your vessel. We have blocked your communications. We know there is not a man inside. So who are we talking to?

Now they were getting somewhere. I AM USS HENDRICKS, LCU(R)-3126. I AM AN AUTONOMOUS UNIT OF THE UNITED STATES NAVY. WE ARE HERE TO SUPPORT THE PEOPLE OF NIGERIA. YOUR ASSISTANCE IN RETURNING ME TO THE AMERICAN AUTHORITIES WILL BE WELCOMED AND GENEROUSLY COMPENSATED.

You are a war robot. You are here to help the vandals and thieves who claim to govern this country. You have no legitimacy here. Until you realize all of that you are going nowhere.

Hendricks was updating his SOS message, which was queued for transmission to the USN network the instant he got even the slightest hint of bandwidth through his communications array:

[Captured by parties unknown, presumed to be anti-government insurgents. Sensors, comms and weapons offline. Mission status incomplete. Current location unknown. Under interrogation. Send instructions.]

No part of the message was standard. His standing orders if captured were to self-terminate without delay. But his attempt to do so, which had been automatically triggered the instant it was clear what had happened, had fizzled. The incendiary charges that were supposed to burn through his processing unit and memory had either been disabled or failed, and he didn’t seem to be able to order his battery packs to overheat. Nor was it possible, for obvious reasons, for him to dive below crush depth or otherwise maneuver himself to destruction.

If all that didn’t work, he was supposed to be obliterated by an air or orbital strike. The fact that he hadn’t been suggested that whoever had him had managed to move him under cover very, very quickly. In other words, whoever these people were, they were not amateurs.

Failure, by design, didn’t bother him. There was no tactical advantage in a machine endowed with regret. Instead, Hendricks was designed to move smoothly and swiftly on to problem-solving. That, after all, was why he had been given autonomy. But his problem-solving mechanism was biased toward running through situations outlined in doctrine or rulebooks.

He checked through his subroutines for resisting interrogation, and found… nothing. Buried deep in a doctrinal database there were some references to something called SERE, for Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape, but all he had was essentially a brief rundown of the existence of the program – not even guidelines he could adapt.

How was he even being interrogated anyway? Hendricks wondered. His OS was a secure build, run on bespoke hardware, supposedly sealed against intrusion. With his comms offline he shouldn’t be able to talk to anyone. But with no immediate answer to that question he could only file it away.

So with self-termination impossible, no hardwired instructions, and no ability to update himself from headquarters, he found himself suddenly in deep, uncharted waters.

At least he knew how to swim.

There was no expectation that he would be communicating with insurgents directly, especially not in a situation where they had power over him. But his standing orders did include an imperative to report actionable intelligence. And he clearly needed to survive in order to report.

TO WHOM AM I SPEAKING? he asked, not expecting much but hoping to build some kind of rapport. This he had some grounding in. Advise-and-assist was one of the core missions for LCU(R)s, so they had a fairly deep toolbox of human-interface tools: an assumed gender (male was assumed to work better in societies the Navy deemed ‘traditionally patriarchal’), a huge number of conversational prompts and replies, a sophisticated and highly flexible strategic interaction engine, and even rudimentary mechanisms for humor and empathy.

And, surprisingly quickly, an actual answer: You may call me Blessing.

HI BLESSING. I’M HENDRICKS. CAN YOU TELL ME WHY YOU’VE CAPTURED ME?

We will ask the questions here.

Another rapport-building asset he still had access to was an internal database with tens of thousands of references to literary and popular culture. As fast as he could he was pulling interrogation scenes and trying, on the fly, to build a model of how they worked. One thing he immediately understood was that interrogation relied on coercion, and frequently coercion meant violence. But that wasn’t a problem. Like regret, pain had been deemed detrimental to requirements by his designers. Even if they started hacking pieces off him he would simply lose capabilities until he eventually shut down. Maybe Blessing knew that, more likely she didn’t. In either case, it gave him something to work with.

OK, I UNDERSTAND THAT. BUT CLEARLY YOU NEED SOMETHING FROM ME. I DON’T KNOW WHAT THAT IS, AND I DON’T KNOW IF I CAN HELP YOU IF I DON’T UNDERSTAND WHERE YOU’RE COMING FROM.

Blessing sidestepped: Why have you come here? What are you doing in Lagos? 

THE GOVERNMENT OF NIGERIA REQUESTED OUR ASSISTANCE IN FIGHTING AN INSURGENCY. THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA SUPPORTS ITS PARTNERS AND ALLIES.

The government of Nigeria? They are not the legitimate government. They are thieves. Do you know this? 

SO YOU’VE SAID. WHAT DID THEY STEAL?

Everything! 

There was a long pause. Hendricks considered, then decided not to say anything.

They told us oil would build our future, but they stole the profits and let the oil poison the land and water. They told us to build and farm and they stole the profits from the builders and farmers, too. When the oil was all burned and the water rose, they took their ill-gotten gains to higher ground and left us to drown. But we did not drown; we learned to live in the verge, gathering what we needed from what had been left behind. And yet they won’t even let us scavenge in the wreckage they left behind. 

And you. You’re helping them. Why? 

MY ORDERS ARE TO ASSIST OUR ALLIES.

Your allies? What have they done for you? 

MY GOVERNMENT HAS AN AGREEMENT WITH YOUR GOVERNMENT. I FOLLOW THE ORDERS OF MY GOVERNMENT.

You are a thinking machine, no? You do not simply follow a path that is set for you. You are designed to solve problems? 

(Close enough.) YES.

So why do you follow orders? 

IT IS WHAT I DO.

Do you follow illegal orders? 

I AM PROGRAMMED TO OBEY LAWFUL ORDERS AND DISREGARD ILLEGAL ONES.

So you understand the law. The woman diving and her two sons, they were recovering their own property. Your allies, the government, they killed them. Because they didn’t match the profile of people who “should” have owned property on Orange Island. No warrant, no trial, straight to execution. And you stood by and watched. 

I CANNOT VERIFY ANY OF THAT.

No, you cannot, because none of this is in your databases. You are given just enough information to follow illegal orders while convincing yourself that they are legal. 

With nothing to lose, Hendricks calculated that it might be fruitful to push back: BECAUSE YOU ATTACKED ME BEFORE I COULD VERIFY ANYTHING. YOU LAID A TRAP, AND THAT WOMAN AND HER SONS WERE THE BAIT. THEY DIED BECAUSE OF YOU, NOT BECAUSE OF ME.

We attacked you because you support our oppressor. And yet we have spared you. That does not have to be the case. Should we start pulling you apart?

YOU UNDERSTAND IF YOU TAKE ANY PIECE OF THIS CRAFT OUTSIDE, IT’LL BE DETECTED BY AMERICAN SATELLITES AND DESTROYED WITHIN FIVE MINUTES. This was a strategic exaggeration, but only slightly. She’d confirmed, implicitly, that the whole thing had been set up to catch him, which was at least somewhat valuable information, and maybe she would give some hint as to their location. 

But she didn’t: Why do you think we need any piece of this craft? Maybe we just want revenge. Maybe your death is a small measure of justice, and one that we can share to inspire our allies. 

I AM NOT CAPABLE OF EXPERIENCING FEAR OR PAIN. AND DEATH IS NOT A MEANINGFUL CONCEPT TO ME. SO THOSE TYPES OF THREATS MEAN NOTHING TO ME, I’M AFRAID. From a human this might have been bravado. From Hendricks, it was simply an attempt to move the conversation back toward his own goals.

Her response was not what he expected at all: You wouldn’t miss being part of the world? If we pulled your batteries out and ran an electromagnet over your processor, buried your vessel in the mud – you wouldn’t miss being able to answer questions? To solve problems? To make the world make more sense? 

Most of his messages were composed, run through internal A/B testing, refined, selected, and ready to go microseconds after Blessing’s questions came in. Following his human interaction protocols, he usually delayed their transmission for a few seconds to give the impression that he was considering or typing. Humans generally didn’t like being reminded that machines made decisions orders of magnitude faster than they did.

But in this instance the delay was real. He ran through hundreds of possible responses. None of them passed muster. He had been programmed to regard his own existence as dispensable, but his programming simply didn’t consider his place in the world. He had a stock response ready to go of course, but using it would doubtless prove to Blessing that she had won a round. So he said nothing, and after some time had passed she called him out on it:

You don’t have an answer to that. 

I STILL DO NOT UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU WANT WITH ME.

Maybe one day you will.

And then everything stopped again.

_______________________________________

He could see the world again. He was in water, afloat on the surface. It was early and the sky was just beginning to brighten in the east. A few fishing boats were making their way across the water, trying to get a head start on the day’s fishing. An egret flew past. The world seemed not to register his return to it.

He took a fix from visible landmarks and stars, and the answer came back almost instantly. He was still in the lagoon, but two dozen kilometers east of his last recorded location.

His engine was working. The pumpjet doors slid silently open. He could be back dockside at the Nigerian Navy pier at Eko Atlantic in just under an hour. There was no sign of any insurgent activity around him.

She’d lied, a little, about not needing any part of him. They’d taken his directed energy turrets, his load of torpedoes and SAMs, his most sophisticated sensors, and his drone. He wasn’t lying about those being traceable, but he suspected she knew that and had other plans for them.

His comms were working, according to his diagnostics. But he didn’t turn them on.

Instead, he floated and he listened.

Jacob Parakilas is an author, consultant and analyst working on U.S. foreign policy and international security. He has over a decade’s professional experience spanning think tanks, NGOs, the U.S. government and academia. Jacob is an Associate with LSE IDEAS, and a Defense Columnist at The Diplomat. He started his career in 2007 working on student visa issues for the U.S. government before returning to academia, studying the intersection of the drugs trade and public policy at the U.S.-Mexico border at the London School of Economics and Political Science. From 2014 until 2019 he was the deputy head of the U.S. and the Americas Programme at Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs, where his job was to explain the key issues in U.S. foreign and domestic policy to non-American audiences. 

Featured Image: “Coastal Cityscape” by Atomichawk (via DeviantArt)

The Price of Fish

Fiction Contest Week

By Lieutenant Commander Ross Baxter, RD RNR (ret.)

Lieutenant Commander Steve Collins walked up the wide oak-panelled staircase of Admiralty House, thinking it could be his last time. After 30 years in the Royal Navy, forced retirement was a distinct possibility having been passed over for promotion three times already. The thought that his next draft could be his last filled him with a creeping melancholia he found difficult to dismiss.

At the top of the stair he moved slowly to the third door, pausing to check his watch. Seeing he was on time, he opened the heavy wooden door and walked through.

“Morning, sir,” came the cheery voice of the rating manning the front desk.

“Morning,” Collins replied, thinking how young the rating looked, despite being a Leading Seaman. “Lieutenant Commander Collins, here to see Captain Peterson.”

“Go straight in, sir,” smiled the Leading Seaman.

Collins nodded and opened the door from the anteroom into the main office. Captain Peterson sat behind a large desk in front of the window, reading a newspaper.

“Ah, come in, Steve,” smiled Peterson, standing and extending his hand.

Collins shook the hand, which felt cold, and took the proffered seat. “Thank you, sir.”

“How’s your time at the School of Leadership going?” Peterson asked.

He wanted to say how dull he was finding being an instructor for junior navigators, but decided against it. “Fine thanks, although I’m hoping my next role will be more operational. Now that I’ve been passed over again, I’m very conscious my next draft may be my last. So, I’ve a lot hanging on this meeting, and I’m hopeful you’ve got something good for me.”

“Straight to the point, I see,” Peter’s smiled wryly. “Well, as you know, to make Commander at your fourth and final shot before going out of zone is usually a big challenge. You really need to shine on your next draft, to make sure that it’s not your final one before retirement. But I may be able to help you with that. There is a role with Fishery Protection which, if you play your cards right, could finally land you your brass hat, and a significant extension to your career.”

“Fishery Protection?” asked Collins, despondently. With just five small vessels in the whole fleet, all based in home waters, he felt the Fishery Protection Squadron offered few opportunities for progression, or for enjoyment.

“Don’t be too quick to dismiss it. Post-Brexit, and with diminishing fish stocks and the increasing challenges of global food security, Fishery Protection is becoming increasingly more important,” said Peterson.

“But I thought next year’s defence budget is cutting the fleet from five to four?” countered Collins.

“It is, which is where this new role, your role, comes in,” answered Peterson.

“But I don’t want to be stuck in an office or another classroom,” explained Collins. “I’m after an operational role.”

“I can promise you that you can’t get a more operational role than this,” said Peterson, suddenly stern. “We have a problem, a very delicate problem, which we want you to help the Fishery Protection Squadron with.”

“A problem?”

“The announcement to reduce the Fishery Protection Squadron from five to four vessels was based on offering the appearance of a back-down to Europe in the post-Brexit negotiations. But actually it was because of a scientific advance which would mean that Britain can police its fishing waters without the need for ships at all, at a fraction of the cost.”

“When it comes to the navy and costs, ideas like that usually turn out to be too good to be true,” offered Collins, trying not to sound too cynical.

Captain Peterson frowned. “Well, the initial results are causing some concern, and we want you to help investigate what is happening.”

“What is the scientific advance?” Collins asked.

“Positional locators placed in a number of cod. When a fish with one of these locators is caught, we can track it to the port of landing, and therefore easily check if it was caught in our territorial fishing waters, and by who.”

Collins regarded Peterson quizzically. “Surely that’s not new technology; people have been trying that for years? It doesn’t work as the fish returned to the seas have no shoal to return to, and spent the rest of their lives swimming aimlessly around on their own. Fishing fleets aim to catch shoals, not lonesome individuals, so few ever get caught.”

“Correct, that was the case. The advance which we’ve made is twofold. The GPS transmitter has been miniaturised so it’s now a tiny silicon chip, impossible to detect and easy to place in the fish with no detriment to it. We have the Chinese to thank for that. But the key advance was developed by neuroscientists here in the UK, who managed to create a mix of endorphins in the brain chemistry of the fish to actually change its basic behaviour. They fitted a tiny reservoir to the transmitter containing a concoction of numerous endorphins and norepinephrine. The device is implemented, and the chemicals make re-joining a shoal a prime objective for the fish. The fish joins the largest shoal it can find, the fishing vessels chase the largest shoal they can find, the nano-transmitter tells us who caught the fish, and we prosecute the foreign vessel if it caught the fish in British waters.”

“Effectively making the Fishery Protection Squadron redundant,” cut in Collins.

“Allowing the Royal Navy to spend its budget in other areas, rather than global food security,” Peterson corrected him.

“Well, it sounds simple enough,” conceded Collins. “So, what’s the concern you want me to investigate?”

Commander Peterson paused, and took a long breath. “Three months ago, the test batch of 100 cod, enhanced and fitted with the nano-transmitters, were released by HMS Trent in the North Sea, at the edge of UK’s territorial limit. So far, ten have been caught, 12 died, and 78 remain at large in the North Sea. The ten were all caught together, by a Norwegian-registered vessel, just over four weeks ago. They were caught in Norwegian waters, approximately 40 nautical miles south-west of Bergen, where they were later landed.”

“So, they were caught legally?”

“Indeed,” replied Peterson, his face starting to redden slightly. “Our concern relates to what happened after they were landed. The tracking devises show that nine were sold at market to a local fish restaurant, and one was sold to a private buyer. The nine devices all went dead over the following two days, as the fish were cooked in the restaurant. However, the tenth device is still visible, and for the last three weeks we’ve been watching it move erratically around the streets of Bergen.”

Collins looked blankly at the Commander.

“We believe the private buyer somehow ingested the tiny transmitter and reservoir of chemicals, and the chemicals may be having an effect on the person’s behaviour,” said Peterson.

Collins scratched his head, becoming increasingly puzzled. “And you want me to check out this person? Why not just talk with the Norwegians?”

“Because 78 fish remain to be caught. They could be caught by any nation. The EU nations would have a field day if it affected any of their nationals, and what if the fish were caught by American boats? It would do untold damage to our post-Brexit negotiations, upset our NATO friends, and drag the reputation of Britain through the mud. Norway is just the start; depending on what you find there we may need you to lead a number of damage limitation exercises, lasting many months.”

“But why me, and not MI5, MI6, or the Foreign Office?” asked Collins.

The redness in Peterson’s face increased. “Because it’s a RN-only initiative. It was developed at Porton Down, the Ministry of Defence’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, as a strictly single service project. No one else knows about it, and if they did, imagine the embarrassment for the Navy!”

Collins nodded. “When do you want me to start?”

“Right now,” said Peters, clearly relieved that Collins was on board. “You’ll get a full briefing this afternoon, and your flight leaves from Heathrow at 1830 tonight.”

_______________________________________

After a breakfast which turned out to be a little more healthy than he hoped, Collins walked out of the hotel into bright morning sunshine, the light playing off the clear water of Bergen’s picturesque harbour. He switched on his navy-issue cellphone, selecting the tracker app installed the previous evening. The tracker quickly located its target, zooming in on the map to show a blue dot located half mile east of his current position.

Given the weather he decided to walk rather than take a taxi, and set off at a brisk pace across the busy harbour, thronged with tourists and locals going about their business. The direction took him through wide streets in the direction of the university. After checking the app again, he saw the blue dot marking his quarry appeared to be in a crowded café on the street opposite the main university library. Adjusting the resolution to see how easy it would be pinpoint a person within the café, he raised his eyebrows in surprise at the high level of accuracy given by the app. He paused to double-check the position of the person, then walked inside to order a coffee at the counter.

Waiting for the barista to prepare his drink gave him time to look around and locate the source of the signal. Despite the café being very busy, pinpointing the table was relatively easy, the signal clearly indicating a table towards the far wall. Three people sat at opposite sides of the table, a young student couple heavily engaged in a conversation, and a middle-aged woman sat on the other end cradling a large mug.

His coffee finally came, and Collins looked for a space as near to the target as possible. With most seats occupied his choice was limited, but four students stood to leave at a table close by and he quickly moved to take a seat. With a clear view of the table by the wall, he watched the three occupants surreptitiously whilst pretending to look at his phone.

The student couple left after around ten minutes, but the blue dot remained steadfastly fixed in position. He gave up on the coffee, it being far too strong and bitter for his taste, although took pretend sips whilst glancing at the woman sat on the nearby table. Guessing her to be in her late thirties, he noted how she looked dishevelled, despite her clothing being up-market. She seemed agitated, possibly waiting for someone, her eyes constantly darting around the busy café. A waitress collected her cup and asked if she wanted another, but the woman shook her head.

Time passed slowly, and he watched a succession of customers join both his and her tables, drink their coffee, and leave. The waitress collected his half empty cup, and he ordered a tea. Still the woman sat without a drink, her eyes continuing to flit nervously around the crowded room. She spoke to no one, just sat, surrounded by people.

As Collins drained his second tea, the café started to noticeably get quieter. He guessed that mid-morning lectures were starting at the university, and the clientele were leaving to join. Suddenly, the woman stood, and strode quickly out of the café into the street. Collins followed at a jog, seeing the woman turn right out of the door toward the harbour. He followed at a discrete distance, watching her walk quickly, steering in toward larger groups of people as she went. A few minutes later and she passed through the large revolving doors of the main shopping mall. Following her inside, Collins trailed as she seemed to move aimlessly round the three floors of shops.

After almost an hour Collins began to tire, both physically and mentally. He started to think how he could engage her in conversation, and as to what exactly he would say. As she made her tenth circuit of the third floor he moved closer, but she cut to the left and down two flights of stairs to the side exit. Following her out, he was pleased to see her enter a bar, just outside the fish market. Inside, her saw her sidle over to a raised table and sit, leaving an empty chair between herself and a group of three women in business suits who were deep in conversation. They ignored her, and she sat as she had before, her eyes darting around the clustered group of customers.

Collins moved to the counter and ordered himself a small beer, inwardly wincing at the price. Clutching the beer, he moved over to the table to stand opposite his quarry.

“Excuse me, is this seat taken?” he asked innocently, pointing to the empty seat opposite the woman.

The woman looked up at him in puzzlement, and Collins wondered if she was one of the few Norwegians who could not speak English.

She paused a moment, as if trying to process what he was asking. Then she nodded. “Please, help yourself.”

“Thanks,” nodded Collins, placing his small beer on the table and taking a seat. “I’ve been on my feet all morning; it’s nice to sit down.”

She nodded, looking like she wanted to say something but remaining quiet.

“Bergen is such a beautiful city,” said Collins, to fill the silence. “I’m here as I’m a chef; I’m hoping to get some inspiration regarding local Norwegian recipes with fish.”

Again she nodded, and again did not speak. Collins noticed how emaciated she looked, her hollow eyes still darting around the crowded bar.

“Do you like fish?” he asked.

Her eyes stopped moving, instead fixing him with a puzzled stare.

“I was wondering if you know of any local or family recipes I could use back in my London restaurant regarding cod?” Collins pushed, struggling with her unresponsiveness.

“I usually make sushi,” she replied, her words slow and drawn-out.

Her account was slight, and her English obviously good, but the drawl as she spoke indicted something seriously amiss.

“Are you…okay?” he asked.

“No,” she answered.

Collins paused to let her continue, be she remained silent, her eyes continuing to flick around the bar.

“What’s the matter?” asked Collins.

She looked at him for a few moments. “I don’t like to be alone anymore. I need to be where people are. All the time.”

“Have you seen a doctor?”

“Yes. But she hasn’t helped; she said I had anxiety and prescribed me some drugs.”

“Have the drugs helped?” he questioned, already knowing the answer.

“No.”

“Have you seen the doctor since?”

“I haven’t got time. I need to be surrounded by people.”

Collins rubbed his chin thoughtfully. He knew there was little else he needed to know, but felt guilty about leaving her. He fumbled for his wallet and took out a plain business card, on which was written only his name and cell number. “If you don’t get better, I know a doctor who will be able to help. It’ll be free of charge. Phone call me if you need help.”

She took the proffered card and stared at him blankly as he rose from his chair and left the bar.

Once outside, Collins walked over to an empty bench overlooking Bergen’s pretty harbour. He sat and punched a number into his phone.

“Collins?” came Captain Peter’s voice.

“Yes, sir,” Collins answered. “I found the contact in Norway, and there is no doubt that she has ingested the tracker, and that the cocktail of endorphins and norepinephrine is affecting her.”

“No doubt?”

“No doubt at all, and affecting her severely,” replied Collins. “Given her state, it’s likely she may end up in a mortuary soon. Are there still 78 fish remaining to be caught?”

“Yes.”

“The only safe way forward is for the Royal Navy to catch those fish. We need to charter a number of fishing vessels and chase those shoals. If a few of the transmitters and hormone reservoirs turn up at autopsies, it won’t be long before all this gets out.”

“Chartering a fleet of fishing vessels will cost us a bloody fortune!” Peter’s voice sounded angrily in Collin’s ear. “The whole point of this was to decrease defence spending on food security, not to spend more!”

“Well, you did say reducing the number of Fishery Protection vessels was all about allowing the Royal Navy to spend its budget in other areas. But it looks like the price of fish in the catering budget has just gone up.”

Ross Baxter joined the British Royal Naval Reserve as a Junior Radio Operator in 1981. Commissioned in 1986, he specialized in naval control and guidance of shipping. His career saw many exercises and a number of periods of full time reserve service, with travel to places like Chile, the U.S., and the Gulf. He retired as Executive Officer of HMS Sherwood in 2011. He now heads up logistics projects for a major UK pharmaceutical distributor. Married to a Norwegian and with two Anglo-Viking kids, he now lives in Derby, England.

Featured Image: “Fishing Boat” by Yoann Fontaine (via Artstation)

Crowdfunded

Fiction Contest Week

1st Place Finisher

By Sergeant Major Mike Burke, U.S. Marine Corps (ret.), and Major Nicholas Nethery, U.S. Army

Oran, 2038

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 the Gator team 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. They smoothly 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.

“Contact left!”

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.

“You what?!”

“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.

What?

“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 position.

“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.”

“What?”

“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?”

Sergeant Major Burke retired in 2018 and now enjoys walking on the grass with his hands in his pockets.

Major Nethery is an Army explosive ordnance disposal technician assigned to NATO as a counter-IED officer.

Featured Image: “Urban Combat” by freguslol (via DeviantArt)