Lieutenant James Shelley commands a high-tech squad of soldiers in a rural district within the African Sahel. They hunt insurgents each night on a harrowing patrol, guided by three simple goals: protect civilians, kill the enemy, and stay alive—because in a for-profit war manufactured by the defense industry there can be no cause worth dying for. To keep his soldiers safe, Shelley uses every high-tech asset available to him—but his best weapon is a flawless sense of imminent danger . . . as if God is with him, whispering warnings in his ear.
Hazard Notice: contains military grade profanity
LINKED COMBAT SQUAD
EPISODE 1: DARK PATROL
“There needs to be a war going on somewhere, Sergeant Vasquez. It’s a fact of life. Without a conflict of decent size, too many international defense contractors will find themselves out of business. So if no natural war is looming, you can count on the DCs to get together to invent one.”
My orientation lecture is not army-standard. I deliver it in the walled yard of Fort Dassari while my LCS—my linked combat squad—preps for our nightly patrol. Since sunset the temperature has dropped to 95-degrees American, for which we are all grateful, but it’s still goddamn hot, with the clinging humidity of the rainy season. Amber lights cast glistening highlights on the smooth, black, sweat-slick cheeks of Sergeant Jayne Vasquez, who arrived by helicopter along with a week’s worth of provisions just four hours ago.
Like the rest of us, Jaynie Vasquez is wearing a combat uniform, body armor, and the gray titanium bones of her exoskeleton. Her finely shaped eyebrows are set in a skeptical arch as she eyes me from beneath the rim of her brown LCS skullcap. I suspect she’s been warned about me—the notorious Lieutenant James Shelley, United States Army—her new commanding officer here at Fort Dassari.
Not a problem. Knowledge is a good thing.
“So how do the DCs go about inventing a war?” I ask her.
She answers in the practical manner of an experienced non-com: “Above my pay grade, sir.”
“Worth considering all the same. I imagine it goes like this: All the big defense contractors, the DCs we love to hate, get together—not physically, but in a virtual meeting. At first they’re a little cold—that’s the nature of a defense contractor—but then one of the DCs says, ‘Come on, now. We need someone to host the next war. Any volunteers?’”
“Yes, sir,” Specialist Matthew Ransom says with a grin as he presents himself to me for a mandatory equipment check.
“This is serious, Ransom.”
“Sorry, L. T.”
I initiate the check anyway, making an inventory of his gear and confirming that every cinch on his exoskeleton is secure while I pick up the thread of my story:
“‘Any volunteers.’ That’s a joke, see? Because a DC will never allow a war in their own country. Rule one: Don’t kill off your taxpayers. War is what you inflict on other people.”
“That’s the truth, sir,” Jaynie says in a bitter undertone as she initiates an equipment check for Private First Class Yafiah Yeboah.
Maybe I’m getting through to her.
“Anyway, the joke works, the ice is broken, and ideas start getting tossed around until one of the DCs says, ‘Hey, I’ve got it. Let’s do a war in the Sahel. It’s good, open terrain. No nasty jungles. It’s not quite desert, and we’ve already got a figurehead in Ahab Matugo.’ This sounds pretty good to everybody so they agree: the next regional war, the one that will keep them in business for another three or four years, or even a decade if things go well, is right here in Africa’s Sahel, between the equatorial rainforest and the Sahara.”
I reach the last point of inspection, crouched in the mud beside Matt Ransom’s left boot where it’s strapped into the exoskeleton’s floating footplate. Everything looks good, so I slap his thigh strut and tell him, “You’re clear.”
The frame of my own exoskeleton flexes as I stand. There’s a faint sigh from the joints as the struts alongside my legs boost me up with no effort on my part, despite the weight of my eighty-pound backpack. The mechanical joints release a faint, sterile scent of mineral lubricant, barely detectable against the organic reek of mud and dogs.
I turn back to Jaynie. She pauses in her equipment check and asks, “So now the defense contractors have to get the war started, right?”
“First they have to choose sides, but a coin toss will do it. China winds up as primary backer of Ahab Matugo, and an Arab alliance takes the status quo—”
“L. T.,” Ransom interrupts, “you want me to clear you?”
“Yeah. Go ahead.” I run my gloved hand over my skullcap as he begins tugging on cinches and checking power levels. I’m remembering the buildup to this war, watching it happen while I served my first combat tour at the tail-end of Bolivia. I try hard to keep my voice calm. “So we Americans… we don’t jump in right away. We have another war to wind up first, so we promise to intervene when humanitarian issues demand it—but we don’t discuss what side to come in on because it doesn’t fucking matter. Everyone knows we don’t understand the local politics and we don’t give a shit anyway. There’s nothing in this region we want. The only reason we’re jumping in is so that our defense contractors can keep their shareholders happy. The American taxpayers will listen to their hoo-rah propaganda media outlets and pony up the money, blaming the libruls for the bad economy, while brain-draining the underclass into the army because hey, it’s a job, and even the DCs can’t convince Congress to spend ten-million dollars each on a combat robot when you can get a fully qualified flesh-and-blood high-IQ soldier for two hundred and fifty thousand.”
Ransom steps back. “You’re clear, sir.”
I ignore him. “And that, Sergeant, is the reason we are here at Fort Dassari, squatting in a country where we’re not wanted and we don’t belong, and it’s why we get to go on a hike tonight and every night through hostile terrain, giving other people who also don’t belong here a chance to kill us. We are not here for glory—there isn’t any—and there’s nothing at stake. Our goals are to stay alive, to avoid civilian casualties, and to kill anyone with an interest in killing us. In nine months, no soldier has died under my command and I’d like to keep it that way. Is that understood?”
Jaynie keeps her face carefully neutral. “Yes, sir, that is understood.” And then, because she’s not about to be intimidated by a male lieutenant five years her junior and with a quarter of her combat experience, she adds, “Guidance described you as a crazy motherfucker, sir—”
Behind Jaynie, Yafiah claps a hand to her mouth, stifling a snort of laughter.
“—but they promised me, no matter how much of an asshole you are, they won’t walk us into an ambush.”
I smile pleasantly. “They’ve come close a few times.”
As the most north-eastern in a line of remote border forts, we are more exposed than most. The fort itself is our shelter, our base of operations. Its fifteen-foot-high walls enclose the housing unit and a yard just big enough to park two tanks—not that we have tanks—but we do have three ATVs stored under an accordion canopy.
Our mission lies outside the walls. We do interdiction—hunting for insurgents filtering down from the north—while the insurgents go hunting for us. Guidance doesn’t always spot them in time, which is one reason we keep a pack of five dogs. They’re not official army issue, but the motto of the linked combat squads is Innovation – Coordination – Inspiration… meaning as an LCS we get leeway to come up with our own strategies.
“One more thing, sir,” Jaynie says as I turn away. “Is it true you’re cyborged?”
“It’s just an ocular overlay.” I touch my gloved finger to the corner of my eye. “Like built-in contact lenses, but they receive and display data.”
The gold line tattooed along the curve of my jaw is an antenna, and tiny audio buds are embedded in my ears, but I don’t mention those.
“You’re not linked to the outside world, are you?”
“From a war zone? Not a chance. The only link I’m allowed is to Guidance.”
“So you’re hooked into Guidance even when you’re not wearing the helmet?”
“You got it. Everything I see, everything I hear, gets piped straight upstairs.”
“Why is that, sir?”
Not a discussion I want to get into right now, so I turn my attention to the last of our little crew. Private First Class Dubey Lin is standing on the catwalk, nine feet above the ground, peering through a machine-gun port at the surrounding trees. Dubey over-relies on organic sight, but he’s always ready to go on time and he never argues. Actually, he never says much of anything at all. “Dubey!” I shout. “Get down here.”
He jumps to the ground, letting the shocks of his exoskeleton take the impact and startling the dogs, who are so wound up in anticipation of the night’s patrol that they lunge at each other. Vicious growls erupt as they spin around in play fights. Ransom gets in on it, launching a few kung-fu kicks and chops in Dubey’s direction, flexing his exoskeleton’s leg and arm struts, but Dubey ignores him, as always.
In the LCS ranks, we’ve nicknamed the exoskeletons our “dead sisters” because all the parts except the floating footplates look a lot like human bones. Shocked struts with knee articulation run up the outside of the legs to the hips. Across the back, the rig takes an hourglass shape to minimize profile, ending in a shoulder-spanning arch that easily supports both the weight of a field pack and the leverage that can be generated by the slender arm struts.
Packets of microprocessors detect a soldier’s movements, translating them to the rig in customized motion algorithms. A soldier in an exoskeleton can get shot dead and never fall down. I saw that in Bolivia. And if there’s enough power left in the dead sister, it can walk the body back to a safe zone for recovery. I’ve seen that too. Sometimes the dead just keep walking, right through my dreams. Not that I’d ever admit that to Guidance.
Jaynie pushes me a little harder. “So if Guidance is listening in on everything you say, sir, why do you keep talking shit?”
“We have to play the game, Sergeant. We don’t have to like it. Now, helmets on!”
We all disappear behind full-face visors tuned to an opaque black.
Tiny fans vent cool air across my face as I watch an array of icons come up on my visor’s display. They assure me I’m fully linked: to my skullcap, to my M-CL1a assault rifle, to each one of my soldiers, to my angel, soaring invisibly high in the night sky, and to my handler at Guidance. “Delphi, you there?”
Her familiar voice answers, “Gotcha, Shelley.”
They don’t call us a linked combat squad for nothing.
I use my gaze to shuffle through the displays of each soldier in my LCS, confirming that they’re linked too.
Technically, every linked combat squad should have nine pairs of boots on the ground, but at Dassari we’ve never had more than six and, due to personnel transfers, we were down to four before Jaynie got here. The army likes to brag that every LCS soldier is an elite soldier, meeting strict physical and intellectual requirements, with a demonstrated ability to adapt to new systems and circumstances. Translated, this means we’re chronically shorthanded, and no one gets a night off.
“Let’s all stay awake,” I say over gen-com. “It’s been too quiet these past few nights. We’re due.”
“Yes, sir!” Ransom answers like this is good news. Yafiah swears softly. Dubey kicks at the ground in frustration. Only Jaynie doesn’t get it.
“You know something we don’t?” she asks over gen-com.
“Just a feeling.”
Ransom says, “Sometimes God whispers in his ear.”
“L. T.,” Yafiah pleads. She knows what’s coming, and so do I, but I don’t try to rein him in. Ransom is my favorite redneck of all time. He loves everyone, but he’ll still kill anybody I tell him to without hesitation. His way of explaining the world may be non-standard, but his enthusiasms have kept us both alive.
“Ma’am, this here is King David,” he informs the sergeant. “Saul don’t dare touch a hair of the man’s head and Goliath can’t get his bullets to fly straight when the lieutenant’s around, because James Shelley is beloved of God. Do what L. T. tells you and you might live long enough to see Frankfurt one more time.”
Ransom is six-three. He has a hundred pounds of muscle over Yafiah and a year more experience, but as far as she’s concerned, he’s the dumb little brother. She turns the blank black face of her visor toward Jaynie and says, “Don’t worry none about Ransom, ma’am. He’s kind of crazy, but he’s good in the field.”
Jaynie sounds honestly puzzled when she asks me, “How can you be King David, L. T.? Because I would have sworn that we were Goliath.”
“Goliath,” I murmur, using my gaze to select the encyclopedia icon from my overlay, because the truth is, I don’t really know the Bible story.
But before I can listen to the abstract of the Goliath entry, Dubey surprises us all by actually speaking. “King David played his own game,” he says, his shy voice amplified over gen-com. “And he didn’t lose.”
Good enough for me.
I whistle at the dogs. The fort’s gate swings open. We head out into moonlight, the five of us, Dassari LCS. The fort will defend itself while we’re away.
We hope you have enjoyed this free sample of
The Red: First Light, by Linda Nagata