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by Steven Francis Murphy

part 1 of 2

“Not bad,” Sergeant Vannoy said to herself as she checked over her firing scores from range control. She stood in line for Kellie’s Combat Gut Truck. The yellow expandable catering truck had set up shop in the assembly area just outside Range 18 at the Carnahan Army Training Range. Most of the soldiers from the U.S. Army’s First Sharpshooter Regiment were still on what used to be the fairway of the Augusta National, qualifying with their Berdan-Oakley nanofilament combat weapons.

It excised a small bit of her anger to imagine that each target was someone from The Hague. A member of the media, a prosecutor, activist friends of the court, jihadi witnesses, and so forth.

“I see that vacation to The Hague hasn’t affected your shooting, Sergeant Vannoy,” a voice, dusted with a Latina accent, said.

Vannoy clucked her tongue to clear her shooting scores from her embedded Tactical A.I., or TAI, and turned to face the voice. She looked down a notch to find a stocky First Lieutenant smiling at her. The officer sported several bruises and a small collection of stitches.

“Hey, Santoyo,” Vannoy said, reaching out to hug her friend. “How have you been? What the hell happened to you?”

Lt. Santoyo shrugged. “Some activists from Shout Out were waiting for me down in Augusta. Not very peaceful activists either.”

“You’re getting slow, Maria,” Vannoy smiled. Range control bellowed an order to open fire. The Sharpshooters on the firing line responded, the report of their Berdan-Oakleys filled the air with the sound of angry bumble bees.

“I schooled them,” Santoyo said. “So. How about you? Now that you are back, you planning on a re-up? We’ve already got the party planned out. I picked the strippers myself.”

Vannoy wasn’t so sure she was ready to talk about that, not so soon after the Trial. The Army may have forgiven her and The Hague may have cleared her, but there were other problems. She wasn’t sure she measured up to the Sharpshooter’s amazonian ideal of the female warrior personified. Not after what happened in Damascus.

As if I couldn’t beat myself up enough over that, I’ve got plenty of help, she thought.

Her TAI blinked at her and a pop up window appeared before her in a translucent green box. The TAI’s ECM suite reported an attempted hack. Since the signal strength indicator remained in the green, Vannoy decided not to worry about it. That happened a lot these days. It didn’t mean a pop-up was coming per se.

“It’s Richard, isn’t it?” Santoyo said.

“What?” Vannoy asked, distracted by her TAI for the moment. “No, it’s Julie. She still won’t talk to me.”

Vannoy thought she saw a young boy crawling on his belly, trying to get under Kellie’s truck. Her blood turned to ice water when her ECM block flashed again.

Santoyo muttered something in rapid-fire Spanish. “Your daughter will understand someday. One battle at a time.”

“Six-year olds rarely take it well when they think their mommy is a murderer.”

“Hey! You pogues gonna hold up the line all day?” Kellie, the self-described ‘Airborne Combat Caterer’ shouted from behind her grill. “Holy crap, if it isn’t the Guardian Angel herself, Becca Vannoy. Get in here, girl. I got something special I’ve been working on for you. Did I ever tell you about the time I had to drop in with the 82nd over Tehran with a spatula between my teeth to retrieve a case of General Gibbs’ steaks?”

Santoyo and Vannoy rolled their eyes at each other. It was part of Kellie’s schtick. She never talked about her experience as one of the first Sharpshooters twenty years earlier when the Regiment was reformed as an elite female combat unit on a par with the U.S. Army 75th Ranger Regiment. She told BS-laden fantasies instead.

After The Hague, Vannoy could see why.

Vannoy found something sticky on the steps when she climbed up into the van. She looked down to find blood. Her ECM block turned yellow. The signal strength indicator climbed up a bar.

Not now, she thought. I don’t need this. She didn’t want to set her ECM to active defense. Headquarters would find out about the problem and it would screw up everyone still out on the firing line. A really good TAI hacker might even be able to get a worm into Vannoy’s visual feed. There were more than a few in the Army who’d be thrilled to get another crack at destroying what was left of Vannoy’s career.

“Hey?” Santoyo shoved Vannoy. “Don’t sweat the child support, Becca. The Regiment will handle it. Colonel Kipper said she’d pass the beret around if she had too.”

“I know,” Vannoy said, not so sure. Santoyo was the only one that talked to her since she got back to the Regiment. She hadn’t met their new Colonel yet. More than a few of her peers felt she had folded in Damascus which made her wonder if Colonel Kipper felt the same way. Her gunsight TAI video from the Incident didn’t help matters either.

“Stealth and cunning, Sharpshooter,” Kellie said, greeting Vannoy with the Regimental motto. She saluted with her spatula.

“Always true,” Vannoy replied.

“Thought we’d never see you again. Welcome back to the Regiment,” Kellie said, working on an omelette.

“Thanks,” Vannoy looked up at the menu behind the grey veteran.

The script was in Arabic. A look down to the floor found it covered in sand. The signal strength indicator on her ECM block grew another bar. Georgia’s normally humid summer air went dry and dusty on Vannoy.

“I’ve already got your favorite,” Kellie said, scooping the omelette out of the pan onto a plate. “Didn’t think I’d forget, did you?”

Vannoy replied with a nervous smile, she reached for the plate. “No, of course not, Kellie. Thanks.”

Her ECM block flashed again, turning red.

“Something wrong, honey?” Kellie asked.

There was a charred infant’s head in the omelette skillet. Kellie was gone, replaced by a white-robed figure who was clean-shaven. His eyes sparkled at Vannoy as he held up a cylinder in his left hand. A series of wires trailed from the cylinder into his sleeve.

Just a pop-up, Vannoy, she told herself. Stay calm. Take a deep breath and it will pass.

“Becca!” Santoyo shook Vannoy.

Vannoy turned to find a black-clad man with a weapon trained on her.

She dropped her omelette and lunged at Santoyo.

Allah akbar,” the robed figure said.

He squeezed the cylinder and everything faded to black.

Two Years Earlier:

Vannoy heard the same song over and over in her head.

A, B, C, D, E, F, G, tugged at her fatigued awareness as she stalked down the wet hallway. Her daughter’s cheerful voice echoed with pride as she moved forward. Brass casings mingled with broken crayons on the dirt-smeared floor. Ink-smeared writing tablets, book bags, soccer balls and shattered desks littered the hallways. Vannoy’s adaptive camouflage struggled to match their surroundings, sporting splotches of pastel mingled in a tie-dye chaos with black brown scorch marks, cement grey bullet holes and the stain of dried, crusty brown red.

Her four-year old daughter soldiered on with her ABCs in her mother’s mind. Vannoy looked at the pock-marked, faded cartoon animals on the walls, blaming them for her misery.

Stop it, she told herself. Do the job.

On top of that, Vannoy could hear someone singing ‘We Shall Overcome’. Her ECM block to the bottom left of her vision blinked constantly. The signal indicator was at maximum strength.

Vannoy, collapsed

Julie’s bubbling smile pushed forward in Vannoy’s mind. Her raven-haired daughter continued singing. She squeezed the bridge of her nose. Vannoy could feel the heat of her hot, sleepy eyes calling on her to pull the lead heavy lids closed. Rubber weakness saturated her bones, dragging her down and making her punchy.

W, X, Y and Z. Now I know my ABC’s...

Vannoy thumped her helmet twice and shook her head. She took a deep breath of the dry, cold Syrian air, pushing her fogging exhaust around her black, cortical text messenger mouthpiece.

Her embedded Tactical A.I. allowed her to see the billowing white sensor filaments. The molecule-thin strands pushed through her adaptive fatigues from her augmatic body undersuit, surrounding her with a visual, omnidirectional perspective. A green line of text floated at arm’s length in front of her left eye, reporting what the tactical A.I. had found.

One sensor filament probed a soaked rag doll. You never knew where a Jihadi might hide an IED.

T.A.I.: Object negative.

Another thread brushed over a battered toy fire truck.

T.A.I.: Object negative.

I can’t wait to go home, Vannoy thought. I’m tired of not spending time with my Julie and Richard, Vannoy thought. I should have given in to my husband and got out of the Army last year.

TAI: Pop-up alert. Active counter measures advised.

“You should be ashamed of yourself, soldier,” a grey-haired, American woman said to her from where she appeared to be standing. She wore a white, hooded sweater with a peace symbol and the organization’s name, Virtual Witness.

She shook her head. The jihadis were using GPS trackers hooked into the net, and if she went to active ECM, Virtual Witness could locate her. It wouldn’t take anything for them to find her location on the Virtual Witness Net Avatar. Vannoy walked through the woman instead.

T.A.I.: Chamber, Immediate North, exposed to exterior.

Dammit, Vannoy cursed at herself. She hadn’t been paying attention and almost walked into the doorway. The Sharpshooter took a knee by the doorway to her left, drawing her sensor filaments back into her augmatic body suit. No sense in getting them tangled if I can help it, she thought, leaning against the wall.

The hallway was filled with more Virtual Witness activists holding a die-in.

Stealth and cunning are my weapons, Vannoy repeated to herself over and over, ignoring the singing activists. Her ECM block flashed in yellow.

She brought up her Berdan and poked the long sniping barrel, the nine-iron, around the door frame into the classroom. Traversing the weapon in a left to right to left arc, she watched the translucent gun sight video in front of her right eye. There were a number of overturned desks covered with crusty smears of dried blood. More streaks stretched out from the room into the hallway. A small, sandal sat in the middle of one of the streaks.

There isn’t anything in here, Vannoy told herself. Definitely an artillery shell, maybe a tank round. It could be Julie’s classroom.

A small black girl in a public school uniform stood in the middle of the classroom, pointing at her. “You are a bad person,” she said. “You murder people.”

Cut it out, she told herself, thumping her helmet again.

T.A.I.: Movement. Multiple contacts. Range: zero-four-zero meters. The image over her left highlighted the advancing figures in a shifting rocky tan. She could see them leapfrogging each other along the shattered, shell-shocked buildings outside. Weapons at the ready with trigger fingers stretched along the housing, their fatigues shifted with the grey-green urban ruins, splotched with mud.

T.A.I.: Contact identified. The TAI generated a translucent map of Damascus with Vannoy’s position and a marker for third platoon, Bravo Company, First of the Sixteenth Infantry. She had met her husband when they were both in that unit, Vannoy recalled, thinking of better times.

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2006 by Steven Francis Murphy

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