Scratch One UpDown

Fiction Week

By Chris “Junior” Cannon

D1+[23:59]  Kuma pressed his chin in the dirt, continued fumbling with the downlink hardware, and counted off the last legitimate seconds of sanctuary, his thoughts pregnant with the picture of the system’s origami antenna unfolding into full bloom. Only when he reached 40 did Kuma realize that he had been counting in Hindi. The downlink was not cooperating. Some Marines called it the UpDown, others called it the Burpie. “UpDown” wasn’t what the system did; it was receive only. The Group had other methods to send messages out. Kuma called it the downlink because Staff Sergeant Townes called it the downlink. “UpDown” was what you did with it, set it up and tear it down; every hour, on the hour. Plus or minus 45 seconds. Everything was timing. The S36 promised 2 minutes of sanctuary, via technical means that Kuma wasn’t cleared for but fully understood nonetheless. Thirty seconds to erect the downlink, 90 seconds (max) to have it open, 15 seconds to stow the downlink. The math said that, according to standards, from setup, to receipt of messages, to downlink tear-down, 15 seconds of delay was tolerable before Kuma was in danger of incoming missiles.

“I like math,” Kuma thought. “Just not this math.”

He wriggled slowly onto his side. It was a lumbering endeavor with a good resemblance to a bad roll-over accident, maybe an MRAP on its side in a canal. His backpack shifted and tipped over like a swollen cow. Kuma’s worry increased. An unexpected vocal buzz in his ear amped up the feeling.

“Corporal Rajkumar, what’s the ETA on my downlink?”

Staff Sergeant Townes had broken comm discipline. Staff Sergeant could break a lot of things, but in Kuma’s recollection discipline had never been one of them. Kuma made a visual scan, not of the island scenery, but of the over-sized glasses strapped to his head. Just Glass, was what they called it. The Glass was deceptively clear of text. No news is good news, except when you fall out of the communication laser’s line of sight.

“No ETA at this time, Staff Sergeant,” Kuma said. He heard a wobble in his own voice. He attributed it to a compressed chest, a tricky tripod, and a testy Staff Sergeant. Kuma rolled back on his stomach. The backpack righted itself. Kuma couldn’t see the pencil beam illuminating his back, but when the Glass flashed with a dashboard update, he knew that he was back in the right. Kuma minimized his own bio-metrics with a wink. On the left side of the Glass he saw the familiar return of Staff Sergeant Townes’ direct messages, amber text with a burgundy background. The messages were called toastrs, not exactly because of the fires that Townes lit under the Marines, but that could’ve been the reason.

<Corporal Rajkumar, welcome back to the light.>

At times like these, Kuma was reminded of the saying … “Better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool …” He choose not to sub-vocalize any response. The Glass would pick up on his vocal cord vibrations, however silent, and transmit the response. Staff Sergeant’s follow-up came soon enough.

<Corporal Rajkumar, in what manner is my downlink currently kicking your ass?>

Some Marines would engage the Staff Sergeant in toastr sparring, but Kuma saw no value in it. The statement suggested additional downlink-ass-kickings either previously occurring in the past or good prospects of them happening in the future. The Group had been on island 48 hours and the S26 section attempted 48 message retrievals via the downlink. Kuma had been responsible for successful downlink erection in exactly half of those. Zero failures. There had been two communications windows missed, but neither on his watch. There had been two failed downlink set ups. There had also been two Marines fired.

“Corporal Rajkumar, what can I not do while my downlink remains down?” No toastr this time, but an actual audible. Staff Sergeant had chosen to force audio to Kuma’s headset. This was another break in protocol, another out of character event from Staff Sergeant Townes. The voice was not directly over Kuma. It was not seething heavy, hot oppression straight into his ear. It only felt that way. The immediate answer to the question was that with the downlink down, the Group couldn’t receive the broadcast when the communications munition, called the Overhead, was shot. That was the obvious answer, but the Staff Sergeant liked to be called Staff Sergeant Townes, not Staff Sergeant Obvious.

“Eat, Staff Sergeant,” Kuma mouthed with his lips.

<Corporal Rajkumar, that is correct. No downlink, no food.>

It was symbolic. If the section failed to erect the downlink, then nobody ate until the next success. The next opportunity to excel was always just one hour away, but it was a reminder of the consequences. If the S26 did not receive the overhead, then The Group might miss the next resupply. Or the next rendezvous with augments. Or worse, a relocate order may go unheeded. In that case, higher would send an urgent relocate message, but maybe they were unable. That would mean The Group would start eating missiles. If there was one thing that annoyed the Staff Sergeant, apart from missing Overhead VULS, it was the possibility of eating missiles. If the downlink stayed down, then nobody in the section ate. The next thing that you might eat just might be an MRE made of missiles.

<Corporal Rajkumar, have I disrespected you?> Back to toastrs.

“Rajkumar,” Kuma whispered his own name aloud “is not my last name, Staff Sergeant.”

<Corporal Rajkumar …>

Kuma read the ellipsis and imagined the Staff Sergeant intoning mock weariness. By Kuma’s count, he’d just entered into the “plus” side of the expected time window. The Overhead could come any moment now and the downlink was not yet up.

<The Group calls you Raj-KUMA-r, I’ma call you Rajkumar.>

“Yes, Staff Sergeant.” Kuma’s hands had not been idle while the burgundy toastr stacked up along the left side of the Glass. Gone were the delicate attempts to coax the tripod legs into place. Now Kuma banged on them with aggressive alacrity.

<Corporal Rajkumar, what is the exact problem?>

“Can’t convince the telescoping rods to telescope, Staff Sergeant.” There was no immediate reply. Kuma checked his positioning, to see if he had inadvertently rolled his pack off again. Nope, seems like the Staff Sergeant did not have a reflexive response. Staff Sergeant was thinking. A thing happened and Staff Sergeant did not know immediately what to do. Kuma’s internal worry meter did a half-needle deflection.

<Corporal Rajkumar, splay the base and raise the antenna as is.>

Kuma rose to a kneel, spread out the tripod legs and flipping the switch that actuated the antenna expansion. This mechanism started a faint whirring that would have easily pleased a sound effects editor. The reflective material spread in a choreographed sequence that was at once reminiscent of a slow-motion capture of a lotus blossom and the wing folding mechanics of fighter aircraft too expensive to operate with the Group or any of the other stand-in forces. Kuma saw the solid propellant missile – the Overhead – begin its long arc toward him before he heard the antenna expansion’s soft whirring sound die. The Overhead passed by obliquely and the down-link’s sole annunciator light illuminated a deep blue. Kuma began breaking down the downlink, methodically counting the number of seconds that sanctuary had been exceeded, his eyes not scanning the sky for a missile that would come in too fast for him to see.

************

D2+[02:37]  “Why me, Staff Sergeant?”  Kuma sub-vocalized the speech and saw his own words appear on the Glass. There had been two VULs since Kuma’s issue with the down-link’s base. Both were successes and both had been done without him. He’d been recalled by a bike messenger. She was a typical messenger Marine, uncommonly small with Olympic thighs. The bike arrived fully charged and she handed it off to him. Kuma pedaled back himself, determined to keep the charge at 100. Dripping in sweat, he stood focused on the short, slight, figure of Staff Sergeant Townes. He waited for a response, which was not immediately forthcoming. Kuma looked in the scene, looking for changes.

The call up to the Distributed Command Post was his first face-time with Townes since the Group had landed on the island. The concept called for the DCP to direct a breadth of operations across the battlespace. Marines in the Group knew that the D in the DCP represented the physical spread of personnel on the post. They were positioned such that no more than two nodes were within the kill radius of a ballistic missile. At least for the conventional warhead radius.

As they spoke silently only two small groups were within earshot. One Marine was giving a period of instruction by showing, not telling, two others how to operate the F-Tool, a 3-wheeled vehicle with four digging arms. This instructor clearly had a gift for American Sign Language, including a broad vocabulary for obscenities. Kuma had not previously associated the F-tool’s excavating functions with human reproductive functions, at least until today he hadn’t. The other group was two Marines whispering loudly to a third who had just disembarked from a category IV UAV. Shortly after the UAV lifted off, whisper quiet for such a large piece of gear, they transitioned into ASL. Kuma disagreed with the idea of landing UAVs at the DCP, let alone a cat IV, but exactly nobody had asked him. Some Marines didn’t like to bike. Their signing was accompanied by the aggressive percussion from the slapping of hands, mistakes that all but negated the supposed silence.

Kuma focused on the task at hand, he had been reassigned from Lead UpDown Technician. Marines had a special name for Staff NCOs who held that position. He was once again glad that he wasn’t one. Kuma didn’t think that he had been fired, but he wasn’t sure. The downlink had received all messages, but Staff Sergeant never allowed you to fail twice at something, she fired you after the first time. Sometimes she wouldn’t even allow you to fail once.

His new position was Special Projects NCO. In garrison, “Special Projects” meant do whatever the Lieutenant told you to do. Deployed, this invariably involved escorting an augment to the unit and schooling them in all things advanced and expeditionary about basing. The augment was typically a Captain who, despite never observing a single downlink erection, had been selected to command a future Group. It was from these facts that the Marines termed the duty and the “Special Projects” NCO as the C2B2 – Crappy Captain Body-guarding and Babysitting. Kuma’s virtual silence was broken by Staff Sergeant’s toastrs filling his Glass.

<Corporal Rajkumar, perhaps I’m putting you on C2B2 because I just don’t like you very much.> 

As Kuma read, he watched the Staff Sergeant’s fingers, typing rapidly on virtual keyboards at her side. He could never get over how archaic that seemed. Deployable Marines were supposed to pick up ASL. Anyone of the Glass Class quickly learned sub-vocalization. Only Marines of a certain age resorted to the full typing method. Keyboard Turners the Marines like to call them. Townes typed on.

<Or maybe, just possibly because you’re the best that I’ve got. Which do you think it is?>  Kuma knew the Staff Sergeant. Staff Sergeant Townes did not partake in rhetorical questions. She wanted answers. Everything was always being evaluated.

“I’d say both parts in equal measure, Staff Sergeant,” Kuma sub-vocalized.

<Corporal Rajkumar do you ever wonder why, an individual as intelligent as yourself, remains in the IRR after their commitment is up?>

“No, Staff Sergeant.”

<Neither does the Lieutenant. But I do Corporal Rajkumar. I do. Have the Captain back in 12 hours, mark it now.>

“Aye, Staff Sergeant.”

This heart-to-heart broke up abruptly with a healthy slap that landed center square on the Corporal’s back. Kuma spun around and saw the new Marine, freshly delivered via UAV. The newcomer spoke, not with signs or signals that showed up in Kuma’s Glass, but in actual words said aloud.

“Corporal, it’s good to meet you,” the Marine said in a half-hearted attempt to whisper. Kuma imagined eyebrows raising all around the DCP node. “I’m Captain Holcomb. I hear you’re my C2B2.”

Kuma immediately lead Captain Holcomb away from the DCP. He took a direct route down a draw that disappeared underneath canopy, not bothering to zig zag at all. After about a quarter mile, the Captain caught Kuma by the shoulder.

“Shouldn’t we have normally zig zagged twice by now?”  Holcomb asked. Kuma signed an answer. The Captain made no signal of understanding. Kuma repeated the sign and received the same response. Kuma made a sign that might charitably have been considered as an invitation for the Captain to evacuate his cranial unit from his rear unit. The Captain just shrugged. Kuma couldn’t tell if it was ignorance or apathy at work.

“Normally we would have represented silence too, sir,” Kuma said in the slightest of audible tones. He walked past the Captain and made a follow me gesture. Kuma had taken a few steps and soon found himself overtaken by the Captain, who marched past in the general course Kuma was following.

“Where we going Corporal?” Holcomb asked.

“FOB Village, sir,” Kuma said again, barely aloud. “Plenty of sloppy talkers there anyway.”

************

D2+[04:55] “Kuma!”  A young, weathered Marine shouted. He was naked to the waist, but hastily pulled on a FROG shirt as he caught sight of the newcomers. “Heard you made a miracle of an UpDown happen today.”

“Not me,” Kuma said in a hushed tone. He removed his Glass, which had gone inactive anyway about a kilometer away from the DCP. “Just got fired.” Captain Holcomb continued to march down the slope. Kuma had to grab him by the arm. “Sir, where are you headed?”

“You can stay here and do Corporal-chat,” Holcomb said. “I’m going to FOB Village.”

“Sir, this is FOB Village,” Kuma said. “Captain Holcomb, allow me to introduce Sergeant Alba, camp commandant of FOB village.”  Sergeant Alba snapped his heels together, rolled his eyes as if contemplating rendering a more formal greeting, and simply finished tucking in his shirt instead.

“Corporal,” Holcomb said. “You weren’t off your training wheels when we furled the flag at Leatherneck, but every Marine knows what a FOB looks like. This ain’t a FOB.”

“Kuma,” Alba said. “Does Townes know you’re on C2B2?”

“Put me on this herself,” Kuma said.

“Corporal, FOBs have control points,” Holcomb said. “FOBs have security, ECPs for protection, HESCO. You can finish your little game and take me to FOB.”

“You’re right sir, follow me,” Alba said and started marching down the path. Holcomb followed, speeding up to overtake him, while looking back at Kuma with disdain. Alba marched five steps and stopped abruptly. Holcomb ran into his back and stumbled.

“Alright sir,” Alba said. “Here we are, FOB Village.”  They had not moved far at all, but Alba has positioned them in the terrain to where they could see about 25 meters in any direction. Spread out along a draw were two-person holes that had been hastily dug. Alba extended his arm and wept it across the scene, pointing at each position.

“This here is FOB Hades, just like any other FOB in the Village, it’s home to two Marines, one Greek and one non-Greek,” Alba said. “Over here we have FOB Citadel, apropos of both its occupants spending a year at the Citadel. Then we have FOB Mystery.”

“Let me guess,” Holcomb said, “the name is a mystery?”

“No sir,” Alba said. “Twins from California live in there. They wanted FOB Winchester, but EAB 72 beat us to the name. At the TS level sir, they’re out of missiles already.”

“We’re shooting?” Holcomb said. “That’s outstanding, any hits?”

“No shooting, sir,” Kuma said. “They’re just out of action.”

“I don’t understand,” Holcomb said. “If they’re not shooting, then how are they out of missiles?”

“That’s above TS,” Alba said. “With respect, sir.”

“Well how come you know why and I don’t?” Holcomb asked.

“Sir, because he’s staying and you’re not,” Kuma said.

“Just out of sight from Mystery we have FOB Yinzer,” Alba continued. “Marines from the ‘burgh. Past Yinzer, kind of on point is FOB Albuquerque. Marine there, her dad was from Albuquerque. Next one over is FOB TexMex–”

“I know, I know,” Holcomb said, “because those Marines are from Mexico and Texic-, uh Texas.”  

“No, sir,” Alba said. “Our Army augment and the Corpsman. The Specialist is from Virginia and Doc’s Italian, but he can make any MRE taste like TexMex. Except the ham-slice. Back where we came from is FOB Angel. That’s my FOB with Kuma. Next to that is FOB Vegas–”

“Because what happens in Vegas,” Holcomb said.

“Good one, sir,” Alba said. “Up the terrain and securing the other side is Yale and H-”

“Harvard and Yale?” Holcomb said. “You have some enlisted Ivy League Marines, Sergeant?”

“No sir,” Alba said. “That’s FOB Haerter next to FOB Yale.”

Kuma and Alba glanced at Holcomb. The look of recognition did not cross the Captain’s face. Sergeant Alba pointed briefly to a half-pallet of MREs, a box containing a downlink labeled “This Side Up” with an arrow, and a set of three e-bikes.

“Right here we got the commissary, the supply depot, and the motor-pool,” Alba said. “Any questions sir?”

“Where’s the Exchange?” Holcomb asked.

“Right over there, sir,” Alba said, pointing at an empty aluminum pallet on the other side of the bikes.

“Okay then,” Holcomb said. “What FOB should I ground my gear in?”

“FOB Muppet,” Alba said, without missing a beat.

“Where’s FOB Muppet?” Holcomb asked.

“I don’t know, sir,” Alba said. “But wherever you are, sir, I’m sure that’s where it’ll be.”

A dim flash gave the canopy above a silhouette of weak amber. Too late, a whooshing chorus of light screams followed an unheralded arrival. It was a complete cacophony, banshees of different pitches all warming up at once. After the whoosh came the sonic booms, followed by an underwhelming explosion a few seconds later. Holcomb crouched down belatedly. Kuma and Alba marched to the sound of the boom.

“Ballistic?” Holcomb asked.

“Sir, only a hypersonic would scream like that,” Kuma said. “No re-entry and tracked across the sky. Sergeant, got a bike?”

“Just one I can spare,” Alba said. “I’ll drive, hop on the pegs.” Kuma shook his head.

“Staff Sergeant is pretty insistent about the first B in C2B2,” Kuma said. Some color drained from Alba’s face.

“You’re taking the Captain?” Alba said.

“Got to,” Kuma said. He inspected the e-bikes and grabbed the one with the least charge. “I’ll drive sir, if you would ride the pegs.” Kuma got on the bike. Holcomb obeyed, putting his boots on the steel pegs protruding from the back wheel. He grabbed Kuma’s shoulders for balance.

“Okay,” Holcomb said. “But when we get back to the DCP I’m asking Staff Sergeant Townes why EAB 72’s strike missiles are out of battery.”

“Sir, we’re not going to the DCP,” Kuma said.

“Where are you taking me then?” Holcomb said.

“The leeward UpDown sites,” Kuma said. “That’s where the missile hit.”

************

D2+[06:37]  Kuma’s Glass went active again as he crossed the crest of the main ridge overlooking a series of fingers. There were six of them, which made the area well situated for split-site operations. The Group kept two down-links active. Kuma had managed the downlink on the other side of the DCP, higher up on the ridge. The prevailing wind blew down the slope, and Kuma’s sites came to be called the windward side. This was true of the Group’s first 48-hours on the island, and the pattern had held true after the Group’s first move. In the new leeward location, each of the six sites would host two downlink erections during a 24-hour period. That was the plan at least, before this downlink got hit. They hadn’t even used all six new sites to cover a VUL. Kuma had time to think this through ten times as they rode over, the Captain’s hands clamped down on his shoulders like meaty vices.

“Here come some Marines,” Holcomb said from the pegs. Kuma brought the bike to a stop and also held up a closed fist, the universal symbol for ‘STOP.’  He tapped his own Glass and pointed to the Captain. Kuma had to wait for Holcomb to dismount, which he did, slowly and deliberately. From their spot of concealment they could see a break in the vegetation, a relatively bald spot on the slope. The spot was scorched and charred, but also adorned with the remains of a downlink. The blackened, angular outline of some recognizable pieces of the tripod was all that was left.

<Captain Holcomb, Lance Corporals Wood and Nicks> Kuma sub-vocalized, his words appearing as toastrs in Holcomb Glass. Kuma then turned to the Marines, neither of which were equipped with Glass. He signed to them, while also sub-vocalizing for Holcomb’s benefit. <Who was on the downlink?>

Wood made the sign for ‘Nobody,’ holding up both hands and shaking them. Kuma provided the rest of the translation. <He says Staff Sergeant Townes ripped up the UpDown instructions. New TTP. Marine sets it up and then gets clear. F-tool retrieves it, dragging it back.>

“That can’t be gentle,” Holcomb said. “Doesn’t that bust the antenna?”

Wood made another sign, putting his palm to his face and rotating his wrist. Kuma understood it to mean ‘Sloppy.’ The Captain didn’t. Wood made a few more signs, some of them suggesting things physically impractical, most of them disrespectful, and all of them obscene. “What’s he saying?” Holcomb asked.

<He’s asking if you have to talk.> Kuma improvised and sub-vocalized. <Says he’s got a wife and kids at home. Dragging left the downlink damaged, but still serviceable,> Kuma translated. The Marine looked down-slope at the charred remains of the downlink. <At least it used to be serviceable. Sir, we need to get going.>

“Too hot here?”  Holcomb said. “What about reporting all this?  Shouldn’t we head towards the DCP?”

<Nicks will send a Raven.>

“We’re still using Ravens?”  Holcomb said.

<RQ-11D’s sir. Looks a lot different from what you’re used to.>

“Where are we going?”  Holcomb said.

<The downlink received its message before it was hit, sir.>  Kuma’s response flashed across Holcomb’s Glass. <There’s a new resupply scheduled, we need to help out.>

“I want to see the strike missiles,” Holcomb said, but he climbed back on the bike’s pegs.

<Sir, I’m not allowed to see the strike missiles.>  Kuma sub-vocalized. <I’ve got to hit that resupply.>

“New orders come from the Lieutenant?” Holcomb said.

<No sir, the Lieutenant’s in EMCON.>

“From Staff Sergeant Townes, then?”

<No sir, she wouldn’t risk our position by lasing us after the downlink was hit.>

“You’re just acting on your own then?” Holcomb said.

<Standing orders, sir. Downlink messages have priority.>

“So what’s in the resupply?” Holcomb asked. “Missiles?”

<Class I confirmed, sir. Probably->

“Chow?”  Holcomb exclaimed, his meaty hands dug into the hollows above Kuma’s collarbones. Woods and Nicks had disappeared while they talked, but a fixed wing UAV flew by. Nicks had launched the Raven. “I’m missing out on the launchers because you’re hungry.”

<Probably Class IX too. Higher saw the downlink hit, they’ll be sending a spare. Class I now means an interval before the next resupply.>

“What do you do if you run out of food?”

<Same as now sir.> Kuma sub-vocalized, and set the bike in motion. <We forage.>

It was another hour of riding before Kuma stopped pedaling. The time passed in silence and he was glad for it. The talking had not been louder than the soft sounds of the bike, crashing through the forest, but it only encouraged Captain Holcomb to be loud when they stopped. They had ridden downhill and were now just 100 meters from shore. Kuma’s Glass had been void of new information since they’d left Wood and Nicks. Completely clear except for his own toastrs displaying his chat to Holcomb. They had arrived at the 8 digit-grid passed in the downlink message. Now a new 10 digit-grid flashed across the Glass. Kuma put the bike in electric mode, quieter that way, and navigated to a closer approach to the water line. Then he stopped the bike, shrugged off Holcomb, and ran across the beach.

“Where are you going?” Holcomb whispered hoarsely.

“You gotta jump in to swim,” Kuma yelled. He waded in 20 meters and found what he was looking for, a small grey buoy floating on the surface. Kuma rotated a selector on the buoy, pressed a button, and waited. Slowly, an oblong box became visible in the depth of water. When it reached the surface, Kuma guided it back towards Holcomb’s position as a pair of small impellers on the front end of the box provided most of the thrust. Captain Holcomb got in up to his knees to help retrieve the payload when it was out of the water.

************

D2+[10:03]  “Corporal, I don’t understand why you’re out on supply runs, instead of helping the Group shoot back,” Holcomb said.

<Sir, shoot back at what exactly?>

“Well, whatever launched the hypersonic would be a good start.”

<Hypersonic was air launched, sir.>

“What about those drones?”

<Sir, the drones were air launched, too. Need authorization to fire the strike missiles on anything, sir.>

“What about self defense?”

<Strike missiles are offensive, sir.>

“Well, how are you going to get authorization?”

<From the downlink, sir.>

“From the downlink?” Holcomb said. “You’ll have to explain that whole thing to me. Why don’t we just keep the antenna up? And what’s the business with message via artillery shell? SATCOM broken?”

<Rocket shell, sir, not artillery. SATCOM works just fine, sir, but turns out our crypto doesn’t.>

“So they’ve cracked all of our messages?”

<It’s worse than that sir, they can send to us via SATCOM and from here we can’t tell if the message is real or fake.>

“Yeah, explain that whole thing, like from the start.”

<USS Hughes is in the task force sir. The HUGs deploys an unmanned undersea vessel. The HUGs sends a message to the UUV.>

“And how is that secure?”

<The UUV is tethered to receive messages, sir. The UUV surfaces, fires artillery over the island, then it submerges, and goes away.>

“And those are the rounds we setup the downlink for every hour?”

<Correct ,sir.>

“So what’s stopping the adversary from shooting their own rounds, with their own spoofed messages?”

<They’ve tried it, sir. They’re multiple factors to the rocket rounds. They can’t fake our spin for one.>

“Okay, when you do get authorization to fire. Then what, pass the mission how, with a Raven? The info is an hour old by then. What kind of target is that good for?”

<Maritime targets, sir. They can’t go far in an hour.>

“Why am I just learning about all of this just now?”  Holcomb asked.

<To be honest, sir, I would’ve thought you were fully briefed before they sent you.>

“Well I have a lot of questions when I get back,” Holcomb said.

<Let’s get you to your cat IV, sir.>

************

D2+[14:14] Kuma rode past FOB Village without heeding Alba’s attempt to flag him down. He headed towards the DCP, with Holcomb still riding the pegs. The last half mile they were overtaken by the cat IV, flying low and slow just over the treetops. Kuma’s Glass failed to come alive as he neared the post. That was one thing odd. Kuma dropped Holcomb off at the cat IV, which had landed and was still turning. Another thing was off, he noticed a Marine departing Staff Sergeant Townes’ hole. The Marine had stopped and saluted before he left. The wind went out of Kuma before he caught sight of Townes. Townes and her collar devices. Where she had worn chevrons over a rocker early in the day, there were now golden bars.

<The Lieutenant?> Kuma signed something non-standard that included a thumbs-up.

<I’m the Lieutenant.> Townes signed. <You’ve missed some downlink messages.>

<How?> Kuma signed.

Townes’ reply was two words. “Dead” and “drones.”

<Drones?> Kuma signed. <I didn’t hear them.>

<Neither did we.> Townes’ toaster flashed across Kuma’s Glass. <Neither did the Lieutenant. They tracked one of our Ravens. The one inbound from the downlink. The Lieutenant received the Raven and the drones. He never had a chance.>

Kuma turned to see that Captain Holcomb had followed him over to Townes’ position. 

“Corporal, I heard about the Lieutenant,” Holcomb said. “Who’s the senior Marine present?” 

<Staff Sergeant Townes, sir.>  Kuma signed as well as sub-vocalized, pantomiming the chevrons and rocker on his own arm to indicate the rank.

“Well then I guess you Marines got it,” Holcomb said. The Captain scrambled back over to the cat IV, with more haste than was necessary. Kuma took the occasion to spit on the ground.

<Have a safe flight, sir.> Kuma flipped the friction switch on the bike and stepped down hard on the pedal, charging the battery. Seniority meant that Staff Sergeant Townes would assume command of the Group, with Sergeant Alba stepping up, which would put Kuma in charge of FOB Village. He glanced not once at the sky as he pedaled. The cat IV UAV was out of mind before it was out of sight.

LtCol Cannon is a reservist with the MAGTF Staff Training Program and as a contractor supports AI/Machine Learning (ML) projects sponsored by the Office of Naval Research. The content of this article does not necessarily reflect the position or policy of the U.S. government and no official endorsement should be inferred.

Featured Image: “Tropical Rain” by Wadim Kashin via Artstation

2 thoughts on “Scratch One UpDown”

  1. Nice story, full of imagery and humor, both subtle and not-so-subtle.
    It’s written in the Tom Clancy style of using Military jargon and slang,without explaining every esoteric term (which readers might deduce from context) — which adds to it’s authenticity.
    It paints a futuristic military operation in which some current-day processes have been made obsolete by new capabilities of the enemy — something that has happened repeatedly in the past, but somehow we fail to anticipate.
    The story is also full of surprises.
    This might even be the seed for a full-length movie.

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