Caretaker

Caretaker

Michael J. Martineck

U.S. Army TRADOC Science Fiction Writing Contest

A city without lights looked wrong, Echo thought. Like a field gone to seed. A place in need of some attention, which he had come to provide. Starting now.

They called it the lid. A four-rotor drone his team rode over the skyline like a magic carpet. In training, it was fun. Tonight, jumping off and onto a rooftop that had not been prepped, ‘fun’ fell short.  

Echo righted himself, knelt, held his breath and tried to listen through the rush of air. The drone’s electric motors had none of the rumble of a turbine engine. Still, chopping air made noise. So did dropping things.

A thump and crackle to the right. He glanced over, his faceshield clear to let in all the light available. He saw Charlie tucked tight. Barely. A soccer ball, done only in black. Two more thuds. Bravo and Delta hit and rolled. They stopped, heads up and alert, bodies low, the team formed a square, with room in the middle for the last delivery.

‘Invisible, impenetrable, intelligent,’ the mission commander had said. ‘Choose two.’

They had decided hours ago to ditch the first one. Echo said “Clear” and made it official.

The fifth crash to the roof made a crunch, a huff and whoosh, air bags busting on impact. They cushioned the sphere inside, making a racket in the process. Delta rolled to the package, a dull gray ball the size of a beer keg. He checked the seating and the ground. No cracks in the roofing material, no visible sign that it might continue its fall anytime soon. He pumped his arm once.

Echo glanced down to the bottom left of his faceshield. A small rectangle glowed orange. Somewhere out in the Gulf of Guinea a naval vessel pumped power into a Tesla array. The power coursed through the air to the relay on the roof. That gray ball – the keg, the team called it - transmitted power to each of the team-members.

They exchanged thumbs up. Echo turned to the doorway jutting up from the roof. A simple steel slab in a wooden frame, like an outhouse, and exactly what they expected, the entry point they saw in the models during rehearsals. He drew his Trident. A flat black slab with a four-finger hole – an old book shelve the Army dipped in the rubber, he thought the first time he saw it. His new best friend, he thought after an hour of instruction.

Echo turned it sideways and fired into the door lock. A blue laser sliced the cheap steel bolt into small shower of fireworks.

Like on the Mall, in the Capitol, on the Fourth of July, the night a crop duster flew low, spreading a weaponized pesticide onto the thousands gathered. Gagging them, leaving them twisted, treated like weevils unwanted in a field. If the Caliphate of West Africa wanted to solidify a fractured America, they succeeded in one breezy stroke.

General Allison Guin, Deputy Director of Operations, AFRICOM, had been given control of the response initiative. Echo’s first reaction – unspoken and hidden – was a grumble. She’d bomb a couple of warehouses on the docks of Freetown and call it even.

Echo learned he could be happy to be wrong.

* * *

Screens over his nostrils split, letting in the hot night air, whiffs of smoke and that sea-sand scent so ubiquitous in this city. Charlie’s pure black frame came into view. A seamless, lightless skin. The shadow of a woman on the woman herself. She grasped the swinging door and stepped back. Echo peered around the corner and in. He saw nothing. The filters covering his ears opened and took in the shouts, jostling equipment and the flapping of leather soles. He ran towards the sound and heard Charlie following close behind.

* * *

“They are diffuse through the city,” General Guin explained to 32 team leaders standing around a map the size of a pool table. The 3D printer head scooted around the surface, laying down the last of the constructs of the terrain models. “The Caliphate has separated command and control, communications, intelligence and fighting groups. Without a concentrated target, they believe they are safe. They work out of schools, hospitals and clinics, mosques and churches, and apartment buildings, living alongside civilians. Children. They believe this makes them safe. I believe it makes them a cancer, and we are the cure.”

* * *

The narrow hallway barely fit two abreast, and yet three men managed to jam into the first door way. Three assault rifles pointed up the stairs. Three barrels, three meters from Echo. They bloomed. White lilies, Echo thought. White lilies in the hottest of mid-day sun in his mother’s garden.

* * *

“My father is a cancer survivor,” General Guin had said. She wore her camo duty uniform, with one star on her collar. Six inches shorter than him, and not much older, she could have passed herself off as a private if she wanted. If she didn’t speak. When she opened her mouth, she couldn’t contain the authority.

“My father was not saved by nuclear radiation or repeated salvos of chemicals. Nobody flew over him and dropped in the right medicine. He was injected with an oncolytic virus. The virus fought the cancer from inside him. From every angle. And it won.

“’Virus’ is one of those odd words in the English language. We treat it like one thing, even though it’s made of many, many components acting as one. Like soldiers in an army. Like us. For this operation, we’re going viral.”

* * *

The first bullet struck Echo’s left leg just below the knee. The second shot missed. Seriously? At three meters? The third round hit him square in his chest, over his heart.

A weave of fine ceramic blunted the bullets. An interwoven mesh of hollow carbon fibers collapsed, dispersing the energy through its microscopic ducts. A nano-jet near the small of his back ordered power from the Tesla, spun up and forced air back through the fibers. They bounced back to full size, ready for the next assault. Two pancakes fell to the concrete steps.

The impact knocked Echo back against the stairs. He didn’t fight it. He lay flat. Charlie understood. They’d practiced for this. Three snakes of brilliant blue shot past and over him. Silent. His faceshield darkened as he closed his eyes. He heard a scream from the bottom of the stairs. It may have been three voices in unison. He couldn’t tell from the second-long sample.

Two taps on his head gear. Echo leapt up. Trident out. Three bodies half in, half out of the door way, each, in some way, half of what they use to be. Half a torso, half a chest, half a head. Echo didn’t let his eyes linger. The men were no longer a threat. He entered the hall ready for the threats to come.

* * *

“The Personal Passive Prophylactic Panoply makes the wearer highly resistant to mechanical energy impact.” The civilian stood behind a desk, next to a mannequin in what seemed like a full-body wet-suit. The civilian wore khaki pants and shirt like they had been supplied by a wardrobe department. His beard looked like the first hairs he’d grown. “The P4 makes small arms very nearly useless,” the guy continued. “That brings us to the next advancement.”

“Something better than not getting shot up?” Charlie quipped.

The civilian smiled. “Something new. If small arms are no longer an effective option for the enemy, they don’t need to be the foremost option for you. Carrying 60 pounds of gear into battle? Not a thing. Continuous re-supply of ammunition? Nope. Jams, miss-fires and other failures? Ancient history.”

Echo took pride in his professionalism, but he couldn’t help himself. His eyebrows jutted out and the left-side of his lip curled. The U.S. Army had carried rifles into battle since before it was the U.S. Army. He crossed his arms as the young man in khaki bent to pick up something from behind his desk.

He emerged with a carbon-black plank, eight inches by 16, he guessed. It had an egg-shaped hole a quarter of the way in. Echo could envision slipping his fingers through, pointing the end of the plank at something. Kind of.

“This is the Trident 12,” the civilian said.

“Trident?” Charlie chirped. “Is this Navy crap?”

“Everyone’s going to want one,” the civilian replied. “A multi-purpose high-energy laser tool. Three lasers actually, hence the name. Depress the trigger and one laser measures your target, a second laser determines air quality between you and the target and helps the tool guess at the density of the target material, that information is provided the third laser. The one with the kick. In excess of a kilowatt, if that’s what the system – or you – determine. We are not talking about a bolt or a beam. The high-energy laser fans. It cuts across while cutting through. Think of it as a saw you can use from 600 yards out. If your saw could cut at close to the speed of light.”

“Man,” Charlie started. “We going to be strapping like 50-pounds of batteries on our backs?”

“Nope,” the civilian answered. “We will send you the power you need as you need it.”

* * *

Echo felt the pull to go forward, down the hall. Command didn’t bother with words or signals, they just sent him the urge. A door on the left. Kick. An apartment, lights out, no occupants. Echo backed out and crossed to the door on the right. Another kick, another entry, another apartment. A mass of loose sheets quivered in the far corner. He could discern knees, shoulders and heads beneath from the bumps and swells.

“Lower the sheet,” he ordered. “Abaixe a folha,” came out of the speaker on his throat.

He felt an incoming message from Command. Not a good time. They didn’t force it, so he ignored it.

“Lower the sheet,” he ordered with more force. “Abaixe a folha!” came out of the speaker on his throat with more volume and bite.

The white bed sheet dipped. Another kind of flower, Echo thought. One of those kinds that opened in the moonlight. It revealed a young woman and two very young children, clinging so close he couldn’t tell where one ended and another began.

He backed out of the room.

“Control, Team 9 Echo,” he said softly. “I’ll take that message now.”

“9 Echo, Control.” The voice of Command. “Value up to 62 percent. Thought you’d want to know.”

“Roger,” Echo returned.

“Hugs and kisses,” Charlie added.

They moved quickly to the far stairwell. The change in numbers wasn’t enough to change their plans. Command had an artificial intelligence. The Monster. With it, they had selected 32 targets in the city, each with close to an equal chance of containing high-ranking Caliphate officials. Intel monitored human activity: bandwidth usage, water usage, food and supply deliveries, the number of times young men came and went compared to the intra-city migrations. And anything else they could glean. They pumped all the data into a model and extracted the targets.

As Echo understood things, Intel kept the model live and open. Data streamed out of him, and Charlie, and the other assets, back into the model, reassessing the targets as the engagement unfolded. Command’s message meant the odds that Charlie and Echo were in a high-quality location were rising. The probability had reached 62 percent. He could take from that whatever he wanted.

They surprised four more armed men in the stairwell. Blue bursts spread out from their Tridents. Narrow triangles, quiet until the fat ends sliced into their assailants, crackling through cotton, skin, muscle and bone, scorching the walls behind them. Burnt, black, bubbled flesh. Three of the men were cut clear in half. The other dove out of the way. Not faster than a laser, though. Nothing was. Echo’s Trident dragged across him. He’d been told a good shot would sever the spinal cord in a 100th of one second, greatly reducing the pain.

Pain for the enemies, anyway. He wasn’t so sure about the net effect. Physical pain was not the only kind.

No, it was like pruning a bush, right?

They cleared the fourth floor, then the third. Women and children, bleary-eyed, startled, pollenated with fear.

Not enough men of fighting age, Echo knew. He didn’t bother saying it out loud to Command or Charlie. They knew too. The Monster counted everything. When studying the 3D-construct of the building, they’d written off the first floor. Too open, too many windows, too transparent to be of any use to the Caliphate. After searching floors five through three, they were left with floor number two.

* * *

“Tridents and armor,” the General said, arms behind her back, stars and stripes on the wall behind her. “That is the future of the American fighting force. I know what you’re thinking. That sounds like ancient history. Like gladiators. Truth is, those tools let us go back even further. Before swords, before spears, before rocks and clubs. We are going to infect this city like germs. We are going to hit it everywhere at once. Outside and in. We are going to overcome it, like a sickness overwhelms the body. Then we are going to spread. Humans have never defeated the common cold. We are going to take a lesson from that. No collection of humans is going to defeat us.”

* * *

Command sent Echo an urge to pause. He stood before the door to the second floor. Charlie pressed a hand to his back. Without looking, he knew she’d turned. They stood back to back.

“Con, 9 Echo,” he said with minimal volume.

“9 Echo, Con,” he heard Control through the gear.

“Numbers?”

“You’ve got a 92-percent probability of high level targets in that room.”

“Command and Control?”

“The Monster says hold and monitor, we want to send in a full squad.”

The big computer thought Team 9 hit the big time. Maybe the Caliphate’s central control. The commanders. And maybe those commanders were evacuating right now, rushing out some rat tunnel into the night. Escaping. He, and Charlie, should hold back. They had done their jobs. Mostly, he thought.

“Delta, Bravo, this is Echo. Report status, over.”

“Delta’s green.”

“Bravo’s green,” Bravo added from his position on the roof. “The keg’s secure.”

“Charlie,” Echo said. “I need to peek.”

“Didn’t come here just to leave.” She pushed her back against his.

Echo fried the door bolt and kicked.

The room laid out long and wide. Not separated into apartments like the other floors. It had desks and chairs, couches and pillows, nothing matching or in any quickly identifiable kind of order. The windows were covered with rugs or paper. It had more video monitors than Echo could count before the bullets flew.

Two guards facing the door. Automatic weapons. Echo and Charlie darted to either side of the door. A hammer blow to his left shoulder. It spun him, but that was all. He checked the readouts in the faceshield. No troubles, except for the bullets flooding the open space.

He didn’t know if Command got what it needed from his brief look. They weren’t going to tell him, either. They wouldn’t break his concentration in a firefight.

One magazine emptied. The other continued. The guards staggered their fire. Good training. This would not be easy. Charlie crouched down and pivoted into the doorway. Echo stayed upright. Charlie took the left, Echo the right. No discussion, no fully conscious thought. They just did it. Blue pulses. Six-inch slashes in the guard’s chests, through the heart-muscles, through the spines and spinal cords, into the screams and stumbling and chaos behind them.

Echo stood for a full second, letting Command read the images coming through his faceshield, and listen to the cacophony caught in the microphones he wore. The mess. Men, in various states of dress, stretching, gaping, grabbing, leaping, yelling, stuffing themselves into a wriggling mass of shoves and noise. Several had turned to face Echo and Charlie, pistols and assault rifles out. Like body guards.

“Control?” Echo kind of yelled.

“Jackpot,” the voice of Control returned. “Backup is six minutes out.”

Six minutes, Echo repeated in his head. He used to do six-minute miles back when he cared about timing his runs. He didn’t think these guys could make it a mile, but they could disappear. Dissolve into the city. They could reform and fight another day.

Command sent the urge to pull back.

“Charlie?”

“I’m in.”

Bullets from the other end of room arrived. Charlie slammed backwards into the wall. Echo felt a punch in the center of his stomach. Another off his faceshield. He hated those. They jerked your head. Broke your focus, if only for a moment.

The room lit up again. Twin blue bolts of very mean, very determined lighting. They didn’t zig and zag across a night sky. They went straighter than anything humans have ever made. And they cut.

* * *

“You can speak freely,” the General said. “Tell me what you think.”

They had their team debriefing. Echo had not been prepared to sit alone with her for an informal chat, but if he couldn’t handle surprises he wouldn’t be sitting here in the first place.

“I don’t have an issue, ma’am.” Echo said.

“The Monster wanted you to wait. Control sent you an urge to hold and monitor.”

“We chose to disregard,” Echo continued. “I think it was the right call. We took five high-ranking Caliphate officials off the battlefield and destroyed their current command structure.”

“Yes,” the General said. “That was a major success. The Caliphate was not the Monster’s only concern, though. The machine takes a lot into account. What’s the enemy doing and what are we doing? How are we holding up?”

“I believe our vitals were reporting normal, ma’am.”

“There’s more to it,” the General said. “Our algorithms watch you, the person. As you swept the target, you and your partner engaged seven fighters. Then you entered a room with 17 armed men. I’ll be blunt. That is a lot of close-quartered killing. Soldier, Monster was a little worried about you.”

Echo let that sink in. This was the third time the General had surprised him. He never cared much for surprises. Even as a kid. He cared for other things.

“I used to help my mother in her garden,” Echo said. “Though she didn’t call it her garden. She always said the garden. She said none of us really owned land so much as looked over it for a spell. She never used pesticides because of that. Sprays were careless but we were careful. We weeded that garden by hand, every weekend. In that room, General. It was like that.”

General Guin’s headed nodded ever so slightly. Echo was put in the mind of a bluebell in a soft breeze.

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