The Obsolete Soldier

 

By: Christopher T. Shields

7346 Words

 

79.06.05 HOURS AGO. Three battalions and a reinforced brace of Pact armored forces made a final, coordinated push against rapidly weakening Combine lines. CENTRAL sent the retreat pulse and surviving Combine units began to regroup at designated rear areas. Casualties are high for the withdrawing forces, softened by the sacrifice of whole units to delay the attack. Several Combine groups are rendered completely ineffective due to combat losses or are scattered and unable to regroup as a cohesive fighting force. Pact hunter / killer units make short work of the disorganized Combine stragglers.

78.55.34 HOURS AGO. CENTRAL finishes recalculating available forces in the theater of operations and reaches the conclusion that the current strength of projected Pact forces is now far in excess of present and operational Combine forces. Several options are reviewed including strategic nuclear saturation strikes. CENTRAL reviews current available area defense units for the Pact forces. It is determined that a quick biological strike will have the highest percentage of success. Strategic initiative will restore tactical advantages.

78.55.33 HOURS AGO. CENTRAL orders a flight of RPVs to deliver a biological tactical strike to Sector 54. Material munitions to be used are based upon known operating sources and their known NBC defense capabilities. The chosen toxin is currently invulnerable to present Pact force NBC countermeasures and defenses. With acceptable saturation dispersion points obtained, CENTRAL notes that it should receive a tactical margin of victory within five minutes.

78.54.33 HOURS AGO. The flight proceeds in NOE subsonic mode employing full terrain masking procedures while using ECM and stealth to evade present Pact area defense units. At a pre-determined coordinate set, each RPV will break away from the flight and follow fail safe orders, delivering its own load of biological material in a pattern that has been determined to be optimal before returning to a regrouping coordinate set and returning to base.

78.52.42 HOURS AGO. A flight of three ADD-54 RPVs deliver a tactical strike of biological materials to sector 54. The enemy is unprepared. Dispersion is through rapid airburst. Prevailing winds and current conditions insure maximum saturation of enemy forces given the precise delivery points of the biological munitions.

78.24.12 HOURS AGO. Enemy communications cease on all local bands. Enemy headquarters repeats request for status. CENTRAL uses another flight of RPVs to deploy a battery of remotely deployed sensors. Upon activation, these RDS units remain operational well beyond their expected tactical life span. CENTRAL calculates that Pact forces have been decimated and recalculates the tactical advantages in the given theater of operations.

78.24.10 HOURS AGO. The half life of the biological material used will allow a armored recon team to enter sector 54 within 78.24.10 hours.

78.23.17 HOURS AGO. No enemy interference to advanced remote recon operations. Initial intelligence reports indicate that the enemy was unprepared for the biological strike and suffered a 99.9% casualty rate. The error for margin is plus or minus 0.01% which is considered acceptable by CENTRAL. Satellite and near orbital sensors still in operation confirm no enemy activity in sector 54. CENTRAL devotes one of its subprocessors to the management of sector 54 and now turns its full attention to other theaters of operations.

78.23.10 HOURS AGO. CENTRAL's 45th subprocessor selects a recon team from its available operational forces and data pulses extensive orders. Supplies and equipment is diverted for this team which will stand ready until given the go ahead to enter Sector 54.

Now.

Barnes looked out at the ruins of the city around him. All the buildings were showing the signs of fighting. When the lightning flashed out on the horizon, the light cast eerie shadows on the ruins. His visor dimmed slightly in the after-flash.

A chill wind cried its wail as it ripped through the upper levels of the metal skeletons of the skyscrapers, building fronts, and Barnes as he stood in a deserted street. His grey and black urban camouflage NBC combat body armor was filtering the air around him, the sound of his breathing and the respirator almost deafening within the confines of his helmet. His equipment pack was shouldered while his hip pack rode a little high to fit him comfortably, still he managed. He shifted the weight of the remote field transceiver that he carried for the team. The long antenna stretching two meters above his head like some kind of puppet wire. The automatic rifle in his hands was a welcome weight and it comforted him.

Marcus appeared behind Barnes, looking in the same direction at the endless destruction. Marcus squinted through the heavy NBC respirator mask and Barnes nodded, adjusting his nylon helmet, and moving the aggravating IR and como gear to a more comfortable position.

"Better tell CENTRAL that we're in. It'll want to hear from us."

Barnes nodded, keying in the RFT.

"CENTRAL, this is Victory Niner. We are at zero one niner zero one one. Request confirmation and status. Copy."

Static.

Barnes repeated his request into the RFT.

"Victory Niner. CENTRAL. Proceed. Copy." Came a voice through the com link.

"Copy CENTRAL. Victory Niner out. Over."

"Damn AI." Barnes muttered.

Marcus, the acting cee-oh for the team, stepped up to Barnes and tapped him on the shoulder, then motioned for the rest of the team to move forward. A soldier took the point, starting forward on down the street, constantly checking the side streets and storefronts.

"Think we'll find anything?" Marcus asked, his voice raspy through the respirator.

"Strain doesn't leave very much alive . . ." Barnes said matter of factly, his voice equally raspy, somewhat subdued, almost bored.

"Except the automatics ..." another soldier said.

Marcus turned to look back.

"Hey, Adson? Anything on the counter?"

Another soldier looked down at a hip slung NBC counter, checked the reading and shook his head.

"Microbe count still in the green. No hot spots." The soldier said. "You'll be safe if you don't pop your suit."

"If you got to itch, don't unzip to scratch it . . ." another soldier added.

"What about the MADD? Any spikes?" Marcus asked.

Marcus nodded as best as he could in the heavy combat armor.

The strain.

High yield, air burst delivered biological bacteria warfare weapon. TBM-35c. Tactical Biological Munition, Model Thirty-Five, Constant. A custom designed killer virus strain. Not one person in twenty-five kilometers survived the initial saturation of microbes from the dense microbe content of the device, and the microbes spread at a geometrical rate, probably out to fifty or sixty klicks before they mutated into something benign.

Benign.

That was a nice word, for a virus that ate the lining of your lungs in less than three minutes. You died drowning in your own blood and it didn't matter if you were in your suit or buttoned up tight in your vehicle. At full strength, the virus could penetrate the filters of the combat suits, pass right through the bacterial screens. After a few hours though, the bacterial density became such that the filters could handle the virus.

Maybe.

The team was supposed to sweep through and make sure. That's what a tactical team did.

Check out the real estate for the computers, give a first hand account of what satellites and remotes already had told the automated defense coordinators.

The streets were filled with debris and rubble. Twice they had to walk around wrecked and abandoned cars blocking the street. The wreck of an old Henry Sportster still had the rotting remains of the driver at the wheel and a smaller rotting child's cadaver in a weathered yellow plastic car seat.

A yellow sign in the broken rear window proclaimed:

Baby on Board

The team proceeded past the grim reminder. They looked out at the rows of shattered store fronts and shops. A pedestrian crosswalk between two buildings dripped rain ten meters down onto the street. The shattered glass of the walkway crunched under their boots. The team marched on past the overhead walkway, its lonely shadow playing over the street.

The march continued, on through the ruins, past congested intersections and ruptured sewers that still spilled onto the asphalt. Once during the march, they had to walk past a large stagnant water filled crater in the road and backtracked several times. There was a huge wall covered in graffiti along the side of the street.

A flash of lightning illuminated the ruins for a brief moment and the clap of thunder brought Barnes' thoughts back to the present as he started to walk ahead of Marcus slowly, the point man dropping back. A yellow rain began to fall hard, and the team had to seek cover and wait out the heavy downpour in the shelter of stores and offices. The rain lessened to a slight drizzle. Barnes gave Marcus the hand signal for moving point and Marcus nodded. Marcus and Barnes took point, each barely three meters from the other, as the fire team moved out, keeping to the sides of the street, using cover when they could.

All the chemical agents that were being delivered in this theatre were getting so thick that they were mixing in the clouds and coming back down again in the rain, making it dangerous to be caught out in a storm without protective gear.

"I'm beginning to hate this . . ." a soldier said from among the ranks, muttering just loud enough for the throat mike to vocalize the comment after having stepped in the water, having the grey murk cling sickeningly to the insulated, fully sealed boot.

Barnes ignored the chatter.

The streets were still wet from the rain and the murky grey water ran down the gutters and into the drains. A chemical haze covered the ruins, wrapping around the various levels of the metal skeletons, reflecting light eerily, the stronger agents that didn't dissolve in the downpour still hung close to the ground, gaseous creepers swirling away at each rubber boot clad footstep.

Barnes adjusted his helmet again. Damn humidity was playing hell with the gear. His intercom was alive with sporadic company chatter and idle talk. Units recovering from the attack three days ago. Units on standby status. The names of units that no longer existed...

He looked back at the advancing team. All in grey camouflage heavy street fighting gear, armored in Kevlar, epoxies, ceramics, and laminated composites, completely sealed against the environment. Each soldier also had broad spectrum anti-radiation and anti-viral antibodies coursing through their systems.

The rusting hulk of an abandoned Pact Gunther H4 tank was silhouetted against the urban images, it had come to a stop near an intersection, half on the street, half on the pedestrian walk. Its right track and bogey assembly was smashed, loose ceramic track lay on the road. The three other independent motor assemblies looked intact. The crew hatches were all open, the turret was traversed and locked at a forty-five degree right angle away from the hull, the twin main guns aimed down the street. Water slowly dripped off the long barrels of the 100mm smoothbore repeaters. Faded white stenciling on the barrel of the gun read 'Listen to the Preacher .'

Rubble around the tank, a water filled crater in the road, loose debris, and the blasted walls of the ruins near the armored vehicle also watched over the burned out hulk of an old National Motors station wagon. The team stopped in the street, between the two vehicles and took a break.

"Adson?" Marcus asked. "We're within seven klicks of the burst site . . ."

The soldier looked at the counter again, wiped rain off the CRT, and let it slip back to rest on his hip.

"Negative. Still in the green . . . Rad and micro count still cool."

"That's what I like to hear." Marcus said boisterously. "That's what I like to hear. What about motion?"

Adson returned the counter to the rest position on his web gear, he stopped and cradled his rifle in his right hand, holding the weapon upright, holding the motion tracker in his left hand. The CRT of the little device showed the current reading from the scanner head. The CRT showed all clear as it beeped in the ear piece of Adson's helmet. A strong senser pulse went out and returned with nothing to show but the team.

"Negative on . . ."

The report of a high velocity round echoed out from among the towering metal skeletons of ancient skyscrapers. The soldier standing next to Adson jerked to the left and backward suddenly. The round drilled through armor, flesh, cranium, and brain matter with ease, opening up a fist sized hole in the back of the soldier's head in a spray. The body continued to walk forward another few steps and then collapsed in a heap, jerking, dead nerves spasm in protest as the rest of the team sprinted for cover.

"Snipe . . . !" Shouted another soldier before she jerked and fell to the ground with a large blood gushing hole in what was left of her throat, nearly decapitated by the shot.

Grey shapes dove for cover as another soldier fell victim to the sniper. The echoes of the sniper's weapon reverberated off and through the surrounding buildings strangely. Barnes and Marcus sprinted to cover behind the wreck of an overturned Allied Motors sedan.

A round ricocheted off the car frame and screamed on into the night as Marcus began to order the squad to sit tight and not to move from cover. Team members began to panic fire in all directions. The clamor of automatic weapons and the sharp contrast of bright muzzle flashes played crazy shadows in the night.

"Go to infrared! Look sharp! Look sharp, damn it! Find the bastard!" Marcus shouted over the com net as he flipped his helmets vision enhancing snooper down.

"Pop smoke! Cover your ass!" Barnes shouted.

He reached up to his web gear and grasped a gray smoke canister, jerking it roughly from his belt as his other hand pulled the arming pin. Three other soldiers armed smoke canisters and tossed them from behind cover. There was a loud pop, followed by three more pops in rapid succession as thick yellow smoke billowed out of the canisters, covering the street and obscuring the team from view.

Hot smoke, it fucked up the enemy's IR optics real bad.

"Cease fire! Cease fire! You're just busting caps. Pick your targets, check your lines of fire." Marcus shouted.

The street grew still.

"This really sucks!" Shouted Drew, the team specialist, his voice being drawn out by the respirator of his combat armor.

"Secure the crap . . ." Marcus commanded.

Drew flipped the accessory visor of his helmet down and the streets lit up in red detail, microprocessor controlled and adjusted images formed on his visor. Data and range figures jumped into perspective. The thermal image showed each rapidly cooling body laying in the street. Starlight optics took the available light and intensified it a thousand times to viewable levels while a microprocessor carefully adjusted the image for clarity and imposed vector graphics and digital readouts in easy to see green in head up display fashion on the visor.

His helmet head up display couldn't find a target anywhere on the street, the target pulse from the sensor suite built into his helmet came back negative. There was nothing moving out there on the street.

"Stay tight . . ." said a soldier crouched down beside him, hunkering down in the ruined front of an old Hudson Smith department store.

"Screw that, there's got to be some out there . . ." Drew said, getting itchy.

He looked out from cover behind the abandoned tank and stared at the ruins. He squatted, swinging his heavy 5mm WM-40 around, the nylon sling jingling with the caseless ammunition slide that fed from a weather proof hip pack. Drew edged closer into cover behind the tank, putting his face in his gloved hand, as he moved his helmet back and forth, scratching an itch on his hairline that he couldn't remove his respirator to get at.

"Nothing can live through a 'phage bomb. The scientists say . . ." came a voice across the com.

"Screw the scientists!" Said Drew disgustedly into his throat mike, as he situated his helmet.

"Damn bottle eyes don't have to go through this crap and they don't have to worry about getting blown away . . ."

"Secure that right now! That's an order!" Marcus shouted into the com net. "Drew, get your ass into cover! I can see you from here."

There was static on the other end.

"I said get in some cover!"

"What do you think I'm in? Styrofoam?" Drew shouted back through the com. "They can't see me."

"That's an order. Do it."

"Shiiii!" Drew said.

He motioned the soldier next to him to slide over further, giving him more room. Drew carefully duck walked backwards on his haunches, leveling his weapon and searching the street in front of him and to each side as he moved. He bumped into the other soldier and stopped, his eyes darting across the images on his helmet visor and head up display. He sat on his haunches behind the wall, the top of his helmet and the upper back of his head was the only exposed part as he squatted down as far as he could, peering at the street.

Nothing.

The rest of the team fidgeted about nervously. There hadn't been a shot in what seemed a long time. Drew motioned toward Marcus, using sign language, that he was chancing a look. Marcus conferred with Barnes and then gave Drew an affirmative sign followed by a warning to do it quick and to be careful about it. Drew didn't reply as he slowly turned and raised himself up on his leg haunches, inching up to where he could just see over the tank behind him.

His head cleared the track of the tank as he peered out over the top hull. There was a crack, and Drew's head detonated in a hot spray of bone, fluids turned to steam, and brain material spattered onto the soldier next to him. Drew's body staggered on his haunches, and collapsed. The soldier near Drew looked at the body of Drew in the street and quickly turned to look away from the mess that had once been a man's head. A Kevlar helmet with a huge hole in the back rolled slowly past, the back of the helmet was bent outwards like a metal imitation of a blooming flower. The helmet rolled around the street, teetered loudly, and came to a rest near a storefront, still smoking and dripping.

A retching sound replaced the static on the comlink channel.

"Aw damn it! They can see right through the smoke! We're dead, man! We're dead . . ." came a voice over the com.

"Smith! Shut up now!" Marcus shouted.

It took direct orders from Barnes to convince them that it was only one sniper and not a larger force of the enemy. He hoped it was just that. Three casualties so far in less than that amount of minutes and still no sign of where the hostile fire was coming from.

Barnes took out a pair of macro binoculars from his hip pack and began to scan the buildings for the sniper, the lens zooming as the infra-red and thermal images were aided by amplified light, carefully adjusted by the microchip. Barnes looked around the Taurus at the others, making sure that they were in cover.

Barnes keyed in the RFT.

"CENTRAL. This is Victory Niner. We have enemy contact. We are defensive and have three KIA confirmed. Fire is coming from possible elevation and unknown direction. Advise."

Static.

He shook the RFT, checking the link and the antenna.

'What the . . ." Barnes asked, trying to tune the RFT frequency.

Static.

"Damn piece of . . ." he said, hunkering back into cover as tight against the wrecked car as he could.

He clicked channels on his helmet comlink, looking at the two bodies in the street, each lay in a red pool that was slowly loosing color, mixing with the dirty water. Blood diluting in polluted water, washed away by the drizzle.

"Adson. Do you copy?"

Static.

"Adson? Sound off."

"Here, Sir."

"You have anything on the tracker."

Adson checked the tracker. The scanner pulse went out a klick and a half, bouncing off anything that moved. The pulse came back clean. Adson adjusted the sensitivity of the device until he could see the dots that represented the team on the little CRT.

"Negative. There ain't nothing out there! Whoever they are, they're stationary. I'm not getting a reading from anything but us."

Marcus ducked as another round ricocheted off the frame and screamed on into the night. Barnes made out another man shot down in the street. The soldier tried to get up, crying out at the wound to his leg and trying to crawl to cover but a second round found the man between the shoulder blades and ended his screaming with a hoarse gurgling sound and a hollow whump that sent a small geyser of red arcing away from the body.

Marcus continued to scan the surrounding buildings for the sniper.

All they needed was a muzzle flash or a glint of moonlight on a gun barrel to tell them where the enemy was- but so far nothing. Marcus leaned out of cover just enough to use the binoculars. There was the crack of a high velocity round and a smacking of metal into flesh followed by a hollow THUMP next to Barnes that made him roll and ball up behind the frame of the car. A wet spray splattered on the right side of his visor and his armor. Marcus' body slumped down and lay over him. He didn't need to look to know what color the spray was. He slowly turned his head.

Blood was splashed back over Marcus's shoulders from the gaping hole in the middle of his head, most of the back of his head had exploded outwards. That put Barnes in command as he realized his assumed role and swore out loud. He left the dead body lay atop him, possibly giving him cover, keying in the com link in his helmet. You used any cover that you had. Maybe with a dead body on top he wouldn't show up on infra-red as much. They taught you that in Comprehensive.

Barnes relayed the new change in command to the squad. They weren't happy with the situation and neither was Barnes. He was used to taking orders, not giving them. Orders for him were to be obeyed, not given. He was just a grunt.

"Sir." Said a voice in his helmet comlink.

Barnes recognized the caller and acknowledged the call.

"Yeah, Adson. I copy."

Adson was crouched down behind a store front and Barnes saw the man's silhouette, cradling his automatic rifle and looking around nervously.

"Sir, the sniper's in the top floor of that second building on the right, the Brewster Lynch Office Complex on Third Street. Fifteenth floor I believe. I thought I saw a muzzle flash on my snooper . . ."

Static.

Another shot, another reverberating echo along the streets and buildings had sounded. Adson did a sudden jerk to the left, a trail of red mist and blood streaming from a hole drilled in the side of his helmet. His combat helmet somersaulted twice in the air before clattering to the ground. The body slumped to the ground next to the helmet as a pool of red began to form.

They were in the hurt locker now.

Barnes looked up at the building and looked sharp. He saw the flash and ducked fast, falling to the side and away from the wreck. Another round whined off the frame leaving him gasping for air, his quick breathing and the mechanical sound of the respirator laboring to supply his filtered air drowned out all other sounds for a few seconds. That had been close, he thought as he lay there against the rusty car door like that for awhile, thinking.

That had been close.

There had to be a way to get into the building and he thought he had just what he needed. He needed some heavy covering fire.

"Stevenson! Adams! Form on me. We're going to move in."

"We're going to what?" Asked Stevenson.

"Screw that!" Said a voice over the com. Adams.

"What did you say, soldier?" Asked Barnes.

"Screw that, sir!"

"You're going to follow us or I'm going to do you myself! Is that understood?"

"Yes, sir. Thank you bunches, sir, but I'm not going. That damn sniper is too accurate. My ass is staying planted right here."

Barnes looked around and then sighed. Hydro lock. Adams wouldn't come out of shock even if Barnes shot him. He needed someone else.

"One more. Who's coming?" He asked.

"I'm with you, Sarge."

Gray.

"Then you go ahead and buy the block. Not me!" Adams stammered.

"I'll cover you." Smith said.

"Not me . . ." Adams said.

"Shut up. Clear the channel. That's an order!" Barnes shouted into his comlink.

The silence over the comlink was almost deafening after his shout. Barnes found his mouth dry and he swallowed twice, finding that his throat was also dry. He turned his head and took a sip from the water nipple in his helmet, three quick pulls, swallowing, before he keyed in the comlink again.

"Rodge that. Gray, Stevenson. Form on me. The rest of you, start chucking lead at that mother. I want you to bust caps until we're inside. Controlled bursts, stay in cover, don't give them a target."

Barnes signaled for the two others to follow him. He sprinted toward the building in a low crouch, and following him were Stevenson and Gray. Behind them, the other two soldiers opened up with a chorus of automatic weapons fire. Smith firing five round bursts from her rifle followed by Adams with bursts from his rifle. Bright muzzle flashes illuminated the night as tracers leapt from the barrels of the automatic rifles and arced upwards. The side of the building erupted in small spurts of powdered masonry and building material wherever a round hit.

The three soldiers headed for the building and ducked from cover to cover where it was available, dodging the falling debris and skirting through the dust.

Barnes looked over at Stevenson as she reached the building and the shattered front awning. They figured that they were below the sniper's elevation. Barnes hoped that the sniper couldn't shoot straight down into them. He peered around the corner through the broken glass and bent doors, checked the interior, and then moved on inside carefully. Crouching and searching, Stevenson followed, covering him. Gray brought up the rear.

It was dark and they switched to the HRIR high resolution infra-red filters built into their helmets. Visors lowered and the image was clear. Vector graphics and microchip adjusted television images of red showed only the background cool color amid amplified grid images and digital displays of range and direction with magnification and other status displays from the sensor suite in each helmet.

The lobby was filled with broken furniture, debris, and torn walls. They checked their snoopers, all cold, unliving. Gray moved further in, covering the lobby with his automatic rifle.

Barnes motioned for him to take the point and he moved out, crouched forward, his rifle covering his front. The carrying strap of the rifle bounced silently and the heavy duty coiled black cable that fed from the rifle ballistic computer to the HUD and the computer in the suit snaked back and forth with each step. He stopped past the main desk, standing quickly and pushing his rifle over the top of the desk, bringing it to bear on anyone hiding there, finger tight on the trigger.

Nothing but cold images in his IR display.

Silence. Only the sound of rubble crunching under combat boots was picked up by the exterior audio of the armor. Gray searched, crouched back down again, and moved forward slowly, motioning for the other two to follow. He stepped forward and there was a hollow click under his foot. He managed to look down and see the debris covered pressure plate, his eyes wide with realization.

Mine!

A flash illuminated the whole lobby, followed by a hollow WHUMP that sounded in front of Barnes and Stevenson. The two soldiers dove forwards, hitting the floor hard as the shockwave from the mine tumbled over them, sweeping through the enclosed area like a giant hammer scattering debris and sending up a dust cloud that billowed out the front of the building and into the street. Most of Gray was somersaulted three meters up and through the air to land in a smoking, bloody, broken shape that twitched twice and lay still. One of his severed legs landed somewhere behind him with a thud. The floor still smoked and loose debris rained down around the body from the shredded ceiling.

"Sarge . . .! Status?" Came Smith's voice over the comlink.

"Report. Booby-trap. Gray bought the block . . ." Barnes whispered into his helmet comlink.

He looked over at Stevenson. She nodded okay and slowly started to rise, her rifle covering her front.

"We're going on in . . ."

"Acknowledge, Sarge." Came the voice of Smith, softer than normal.

"Go for definition scan . . ." Barnes said to Stevenson, subvocalizing so that his voice wouldn't key in the team wide channel.

Stevenson nodded, reaching up to her helmet and adjusting the sensor unit there, keying in for high resolution, high definition scan. The images on her visor instantly got crisper, clearer, but her field of vision was reduced to a forty five degree wide 'window'.

The two proceeded on inward cautiously and found the stairs. Fifteen floors to go as Barnes swore to himself at the task ahead and ordered the team to keep in contact but stay out of the open.

Barnes motioned to Stevenson and pointed to the packet on the arm of his armor. She nodded as he reached over to the packet on his armor and pressed the patch of biostimulator tabs. He mashed down hard with his fingers and a small needle fitted to a red ampoule punched out of the aluminum packaging it was contained in and he pushed the ampoule/needle into his arm effortlessly. The needle penetrated a specified area of his armor, directly against his flesh and he slapped the disposable injector hard, feeling the sting of the needle.

He never had to open his suit to get the edge. Combat drugs, battle pharmaceuticals they called them. He withdrew the needle, sliding a new one into place in the shoulder pocket. A surge of artificial chemical induced pseudo noradrenalin hit him like a fist as he looked at the stairs, motioning to Stevenson to follow. He had just gotten his second wind.

Dust rained down on the two soldiers as they stood there in their Kevlar body armor. Barnes and Stevenson took positions on each side of the stairs, ready to take them two steps at a time.

There was no resistance.

They made it all the way to the top with no resistance. Another shot echoed down the stairway. Barnes dropped and froze, breathing in carefully controlled breaths. The chemicals in his system wouldn't last for much longer, temporary induced combat high. Rapid fatigue chemical designed to give an unprecedented amount of physical activity over a very short a hell of a hangover afterward.

There came the sound of frantic cries over the comlink.

"Smith! Status!" Barnes whispered into his comlink.

Static on the other end.

Out in the street there was a loud crack from above. Another soldier moving quickly between cover had caught a round in the stomach, dropping him in mid-stride. The man screamed, falling and skidding to a halt on his knees. Smith looked on as Adams grabbed at his stomach and the loops of intestine that threatened to flow out between his clutching fingers. His torso began to fall forward.

Another round to the heart finished his cry off as his chest caved in and the remains of his lung, heart, rib and spinal splinters blew out from the huge gaping hole in his back.

Adams.

Barnes swore and whispered into his comlink for Smith to stay under cover. There was ready agreement from the street. Only three of them left from the whole damn team. Seven KIAs in fifteen minutes.

The two proceed on more cautiously, checking each floor thoroughly before advancing to the next floor. They eventually reached the thirteenth floor. The stairs had collapsed and the way was filled with the rubble of the stairs. The debris make for unsure footing. The two soldiers moved carefully through the rubble. Barnes stuck his arm out quickly and stopped Stevenson, pointing down at the rubble.

His sensor unit illuminated an area in front of them, painting on their visors an area disguised among the rubble and beneath that another pressure plate. Barnes managed to spot the rust around the edges and the fine contact wire trailing from the plate was readily illuminated in green vector graphics on his visor. He squatted and followed the wire with his gloved finger, carefully moving several pieces of debris and fanning away dust. A meter and a half away the contact wire terminated at the base of an old PM-29 anti-personnel 'hopper' mine. If the plate or the wire had been subject to weight, the mine would have sprung up into the air about a meter and detonated. Three thousand ceramic pellets each with a velocity measured in hundreds of meters per second in an enclosed radius. Barnes removed the contact wire, disarming the mine.

"Smith . . ." Barnes asked softly, over the comlink.

Static.

"Smith, sound off."

"I'm here." Came the com from the soldier on the street, whispering.

"You staying put?" Barnes asked.

"You crazy, man? I am not moving. I am a piece of this real estate." Smith answered back.

"What about the sniper."

"Haven't heard anything since he wasted Adams."

He? Barnes thought. Maybe.

"Keep me posted. Any change in situation or at three minute intervals. Copy?" Barnes said.

"Confirm. Sitchange or three. Over."

It took another ten minutes for the two to find footholds and climb to the next floor. Barnes peered over the top of the landing. Nothing. He crawled over the top and then edged up against the wall, inching his way on up the next flight of stairs, covering the hall with his rifle as Stevenson climbed up. Stevenson was right behind him, backing him up, covering the rear.

They moved down the hall by bounding over watch. Stevenson would hustle up to the next room under Barnes' watching and covering rifle. She would then position herself so that she could cover the hall as Barnes moved up and past her to repeat the process. They checked each room along the way, making sure that no one was left behind them.

The floor was vacant.

Even the sensors were telling them that.

Maybe Adson had been wrong.

The current level was filled with debris and smoke and the acidic smell of spent propellant that the respirators couldn't filter enough. The sensor in Barne's helmet suddenly gave a silent alert, displaying the icon on his visor. There were large amounts of spent projectile propellant present in the air sample that the suit took during the normal background bio check. That meant that whoever was sniping at them was on this level, if the sensors could already detect spent propellant in the air.

Barnes moved closer to Stevenson and tapped the front of his helmet where his nose would normally be. Stevenson checked her air composition analysis and nodded. She had seen the warning also. Barnes pointed toward the end of the hall.

The two moved on in a diligent search of the level, silently, being careful not to make any undue sounds by stepping on debris underfoot where it could be avoided.

Stevenson signaled Barnes with hand signals and tactical body language. Barnes acknowledged the woman's signals and looked to the far room on the right. There was another shot, registering audibly and on the acoustical sinks in the helmet. The sensor pinpointed the location of the fire on the visor. Barnes noted the room at the end of the hall. The muzzle flash of the sniper's weapon briefly lit the darkened hall through the crack in the door. Just long enough to show up brightly on a high resolution infra-red snooper.

The room on the corner of the hall, the window on the edge of the building.

(add part of second automatic gun here, covering the hallway)

 

The door was ajar and he edged up to it slowly.

Stevenson hefted her automatic rifle and stood behind Barnes. Barnes made sure that the automatic rifle he held was ready and removed the safety with a slight click. The display in his helmet showed him that the rifle was ready, safety disengaged, selector set for full automatic fire, and that the magazine contained seventy five rounds of four millimeter high explosive ammunition with a tracer round every fifth round.

Half load was what his helmet HUD was telling him, interfaced with his weapon.

Stevenson nodded and Barnes reared back on one leg, turned, and kicked the door off its hinges with a grunt, ducking back out of the way and falling into a hunched squat away from the opening. The old door splintered at the hinges and fell forward with a loud crash, scattering debris and dust in the wake. No hail of bullets greeted them and Barnes nodded and Stevenson darted around the remains of the door frame. The two soldiers stepped through the debris and into the room before the debris had settled to rest on the floor.

There was a large caliber automated rifle with muzzle brake and flash suppressor supported on a automated tripod near the open window, an automatic aiming and firing system was attached to the weapons action and trigger mechanism. an infra-red targeting system with an infra-red laser designator was also part of the weapon, slung under the huge barrel of the weapon. Twelve and a half, maybe thirteen centimeter rifled bore was Barne's guess, accurate to almost two klicks. A mechanical loading device with a complex servo arm and a box containing ammunition clips was on the floor near the tripod.

Heavy cables linked the weapon to a portable computer resting on the floor and to a heavy duty battery capacitor system. A pair of solar panels lay on the floor, in the path that sunlight would strike them through the broken window. There was a video camera covering the room from a similar tripod in the far corner, and another video camera covering the street below from a tripod near the window. Two empty magazines littered the floor next to the weapon, spent brass lying around the base of the tripod mounted system.

The weapon moved, a mechanical hum of servos and power motors. The system was again taking aim, the weapon moving in unison with the camera on the tripod at the window, back and forth, searching. Methodically. Barnes ducked behind Stevenson. The weapon locked on and fired, the muzzle flash illuminated the room. The action cycled and a still smoking spent plastic shell fell to the floor. There was a click as the now empty magazine fell from the weapon, clattering on the floor next to the other two. A red light began to flash on the servo arm assembly. After five seconds the light stopped blinking and remained lit. The servo arm whined, quickly extracting itself and expertly withdrawing a loaded magazine from the munitions box on the floor. The arm moved back to the action of the weapon, rotated, flipped the mechanical imitation of a hand upside down, and forcefully inserted the loaded magazine with a resounding click. The arm returned to its position and the weapon started to traverse the street below, searching for targets.

The lit red light on the servo arm assembly went off.

"Smith?" Barnes asked as Stevenson looked over at him.

"Yeah. Near miss. He knows where I am, he just can't get to me."

"It, not he." Barnes said.

"What?" Smith's voice came back over the channel.

"Standby. Sitrep coming. Don't move."

Barnes stepped forward, failing to notice the sensor plate mounted in the floor near the entrance of the room. Barnes next steps into the room activated the sensors under the plate and there was an audible click from the automated weapon. The weapon system shut down, as best as it could in its mechanical grace, the weapon seemed to just go limp.

Stevenson lowered her automatic rifle at the sight of the unmanned sniper system, looking on in uncertain understanding. There was a click from the computer. Barnes and Stevenson raised their rifles in unison as the external CD- ROM unit accessed with a whir.

The CRT lit up in detail, data scrolled onto the CRT. Just useless numbers and symbols in a non-stop flow.

"What the . . ." Stevenson asked, raising her rifle and pointing at the video camera turned to regard the two soldiers standing in the room.

"It's a damn computer . . ." Barnes stated as the video unit turned to regard him.

He turned his rifle to face the camera, his finger on the trigger.

"It's a what?" Stevenson asked.

"A computer. Some type of automatic combat system. Just like CENTRAL . . ." Barnes said, his finger tightening on the trigger, ready for any surprises.

The reflection of his armored self was visible in the lens of the camera and the screen of the CRT nearby.

"Yeah, a computer. I had one when I was young . . . My parents got it for me for Christmas one year." Stevenson said, nodding her head slowly.

There came a mechanical voice from a voder near the unit that accompanied the text on the CRT.

LOAD.
PRODUCT INFORMATION.
TYPE FOUR-MODEL SERIES 1200 WITH FIBER OPTIC BACKUPS.
HARDENED AGAINST RADIATION.
COMPLETELY SEALED.
AUTOMATED.
SELF REPAIRING.
INDEPENDENT.
SELF SUFFICIENT.
PRODUCED BY THE TELEDYNE RAND CORPORATION, MILITARY DIVISION.
HOLD.
DAILY LOG LOADED.
ACCESS.
CURRENT DATA.
SIGNIFICANT IMPORTANCE.
CONTACT WITH THE ENEMY.
EFFICIENCY IN THIS ENGAGEMENT HAS BEEN SATISFACTORY.
LEVEL OF PERFORMANCE TO FOLLOW.
SENSOR ANALYSIS OF ENGAGEMENT.
ACHIEVEMENT OF COST EFFECTIVENESS RATIO OF FIVE TO ONE OVER.
THE ENEMY.
FURTHER INSTRUCTIONS TO FOLLOW:
HARD LOAD.
ROM INITIATED.
HOLD.

The unit remained silent afterward.

"A computer." Stevenson said, shaking her head slowly in the heavy NBC gear.

She stepped forward and used the butt of her rifle to knock the weapon system over. It clattered to the floor loudly, stirring up dust and debris. The voder started up again, its mechanical, unaltering voice carrying over the audio pickups in their helmets.

PROGRAMMING CONSISTS OF THE FOLLOWING:
IDENTIFYING TARGETS WITHIN ABILITIES AND ASSIGNED DISTRICT.
TARGETS IN RANGE NOT ANSWERING TO IFF CODES LISTED.
ASSIGNING PRIORITIES TO TARGETS IDENTIFIED AND ACQUIRED.
PROSECUTING ACQUIRED HOSTILE TARGETS.
FAILSAFE COUNTERMEASURES-
THIS UNIT IS EQUIPPED TO HANDLE THE EVENT OF PRIMARY MISSION BEING COMPROMISED.
UNIT EQUIPPED TO PREVENT INTEGRAL COMPONENTS FROM FALLING INTO ENEMY HANDS.
HARD LOAD.
ROM.
INTERNAL.
HOLD.

"Shit . . ." Stevenson said as she went over to the window, keying in her comlink, looking past the disabled automatic gun to the street below.

"We got the son of a bitch. It's just an automated gun system they left behind. There's nobody up here. The bomb got 'em all . . ."

The soldier down on the street acknowledged the news with a wave. Barnes looked down at the small light beam units near his feet, realization coming to him. There was a loud click from the unit.

IMPLEMENTING FINAL PROGRAMMING PARAMETERS.
ACCESSING CD/ROM HARD LOAD.
HOLD.

"What the hell is it saying now?" Stevenson asked, turning back around and looking at the CRT.

"It's booby trapped! Hit cover!" Barnes shouted, turning to move.

RUN COMPLETED.
END PROGRAM.

Barnes twisted and dove for the open hallway headfirst. Stevenson wasn't quite as quick. The crimson flash filled the room as a deafening explosion consumed Stevenson. The fireball blew out the outer wall and belched black smoke, masonry, and flaming debris out into the night air.

Barnes was blasted by a wave of shrapnel and was thrown out into the hall by the concussion where he landed amid rubble. Debris rained down on him and the ceiling creaked dangerously as though it might also join in the concert of destruction. The flash and roar of the explosion faded down the hall and corridor as the smoke and flames rolled out the hole in the office wall. Dust, smoke, and flame still tried to do him in and he rolled over. He couldn't feel his left arm, his chest was on fire, and blood had started to clot in his eyes from a cut on his forehead where shrapnel had opened up his armor. All he could think about was the little strip of plastic that he wore on his armor. It would turn from green to red if heavy chemical contamination was present, a color change that read 'lethal' to a soldier.

Purple splotches danced on his retinas and his ears rang as more blood pooled around his fragment riddled body. The room was on fire now and more debris fell as thick smoke rolled out of the shattered doorframe.

The blackness closed in. He managed to turn his head painfully and looked around at the still smoldering remains of Stevenson and then at the smoking wreckage around him, trying to crawl to a sitting position. He sighed and coughed from the chemicals and microbes he was inhaling, even through the respirator.

Barnes' fatigues were torn open at the chest, his armor stripped off and lacerations and punctures adorned his body. His face still had a respirator over it, for all the good it would do now.

Somehow, he remembered that someone had once said: 'to the Victor go the spoils.' He wished that he could punch the damn son of a bitch in the mouth now.

There was the sounds of heavy boots on the rubble. Smith, the last member of the team managed to reach him after nearly a half hour. Barnes must have passed out. When he woke up, his vision was fuzzy but he could tell that Smith was applying patches and bandages to Barnes, injecting him with the brace of anti-infectives that was standard practice to wounded but the red tell-tale of the chemical counter told him that Smith was wasting his and her time.

Barnes tapped his counter weakly and Smith nodded grimly, covering Barnes as best as she could, making him comfortable. She had brought the RFT with her, lugging it up the stairs.

"Victory Niner." (Static) "This is CENTRAL. Status and . . ." (static) "report." Came the mechanical voice from the RFT.

Silence.

The message repeated itself.

Barnes ignored it, reached up and grabbed Smith's hand, the woman returned the grip. Barnes slowly, laboriously removed his respirator, taking in the biting hot chemical laced air whose poisonous taint had already condemned him. His bare skin and wounds had already taken in a fatal dose.

"Hell of a way to fight a damn war . . . Using machines." Smith said disgustedly, slowly, shaking her head as she looked up at the debris strewn hall and the remains of the room.

Smith cradled Barnes in her arms, pulling the dying man up to her. Barnes sounded a thick raspy sound for breath even without the respirator. His grip grew weak, his body started to grow numb.

"Machines are going to make us grunts obsolete . . ."

"Maybe . . . we already . . . are." Barnes said, drawing in labored breaths each more difficult than the last.

Smith nodded but didn't say anything.

Both knew that it was only a matter of time now.

 

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