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The Weapon: Chapter Eight

       Last updated: Monday, July 4, 2005 00:42 EDT



    Nothing happened for three days. Nothing. We moved into our squad bay in the barracks, pinned our ghillies and cloaks up to create privacy screens, swept out the dust left by the last pigs and got moved in. We swapped damaged bunks for good ones on a late night scrounging mission, mostly from empty barracks, but Frank and Tyler couldn’t resist the urge to sneak into an occupied hooch with troops drinking out front, hoist a mattress off a bunk with the sleeping soldier still snoring within the blankets, and swap frames underneath him. He’d wake up with a dry-rotted, squeaky, saggy bed and wonder what the hell had happened. But that was all the excitement we had.

    It was tedious. Our weapons were loaded, our gear was ready, our vehicles maintained and primed. We had provisions, spoke the languages, knew as much as we could know without getting out there to look, and were required to stay where we were until we could have a scheduled briefing.

    I suppose part of that was the fault of the FMF for having the gall to arrive on schedule. Or maybe we were being punished for the sin of being efficient. Either way, we had to wait for a briefing of all the things we already knew: factions, terminology, chain of command (although the briefing officer was under the mistaken impression that we took orders from the UN), emergency procedures, etc. We were told we’d be securing a warm sector against faction activity. Then we were told we’d be holding and reinforcing a secured area.

    Finally, we went out to guard a retail strip plaza.

    No, that is not a typo. They sent us, possibly the most lethal, brutal squad of professional killers in the system, out to guard a strip plaza. All of us. I could handle that job with three. My kids swore, I politely complained, Naumann sarcastically asked if they needed us to pick up any takeout while we were there, but it was a choice of guard the stores or do nothing.

    Okay, it was a bit tougher than I expected. It did, in fact, call for all of us. Or all of any squad. Legion Infantry could have handled it. A squad of reserve Security Patrollers could have handled it. Even our base support personnel were more than adequate to the task. So we took it.

    We did get a map. I did get to meet with the previous officer, a Belgian with good French and adequate English who was honest and forthcoming but seemed a bit frazzled.

    “Mostly ground traffiique, not air” he said. “It was bizzee juring the eevenings, and on weekends, despite the relijious hollidays.”

    “How many people per hour?” I asked. It was a reasonable question.

    “I am not sure.”

    Terrific. An unspecified variable. There were more of those. I took the map, drew up some basic response routes and stations for our vehicles, and drilled everyone on paper and on a comm simulation. I’d play it as it came when we got there.

    Rather than run the half-day shifts from local midnight to local noon and vice versa, so everyone gets some daylight and is only half a day off schedule, the UN has a ridiculous “6 am to 6pm” shift using a variation of Earth’s 24 hour clock adapted to local requirements. It could have been worse; they’d started by using Earth’s clock, which was nearly forty minutes different, so the shifts rotated around the local clock. While that was unpredictable for the locals at first (purely by coincidence), it kept everyone tired and off kilter. So the 6-6 schedule was adapted to the local day, but still meant one shift never saw daylight to speak of and one never saw night. The night shift wasn’t worth much because of that, and even though they had an easier task (the stores were not open after local 10pm for some cultural reason I never really grasped), they were a weak point we didn’t need. We changed to our midnight/noon shifts. It was no big deal as far as scheduling went, because the place had been unguarded the last three days. Yet we were told it was a common hangout for weapons sales and exchanges. How? If there are troops guarding it even sporadically, dealers should move elsewhere.

    I braced my troops and we laughed at the “make every effort to subdue militants with non-lethal weapons before calling for authorization to use lethal force.” As we saw it, if anyone pulled a gun, we’d shoot them twenty times and have Orbital drop a bar on the corpse. Anyway, we didn’t have non-lethal weapons. The UN had apparently forgotten that, or not asked, and we were not going to volunteer the info.

    So, just before noon the next day we entered in teams through the narrow, cluttered alley and the broad front, and made a quick sweep from each end of the L shaped facility to the corner. The corner was what I was interested in—they were serving lunch. It was a neat, well-kept little Indonesian place, and smelled great. I walked in the back door with Frank, as Adam and Kit hit the front and we gave it the once over. White, clean, cluttered with utensils, family employees running back and forth with dishes and fairly tight quarters. There was an auto shotgun behind the door, which I ignored; a person has a right to defend his business and it wasn’t a long enough range weapon to pose a real threat to us. I did make sure they knew I’d seen it, and let them ponder how we were different from the Unos, who would have seized it mindlessly, because “guns in private hands are dangerous.” The owner, short and skinny and absolutely cowed by my towering presence, gradually recovered from the shock as we strode through. We checked the kitchen for obvious threats before sliding through the counter and into a booth. We were joined by the rest of First Team shortly, and nearly filled the place; our rucks and gear over the seats made it a very tight fit. I kept two teams out patrolling the corner and rotated everyone through to eat.



    Like many Freeholders, I have Indonesian ancestry. My maternal grandmother was second generation from Kalimantan, and I did recall some of what she taught me, as well as having recordings I’d reacquired to study once I started languages. I never thought I’d need it, and wasn’t very good at understanding it, but I could memorize phrases and my pronunciation was okay. I ordered for everyone by holding up a wad of credits and saying in Indonesian, “Tolong disediakan gulai ayam untuk dua puluh orang dan air jeruk nipis untuk minumannya.” (“Sweet chicken for twenty, lemonade to drink, please.”)

    The owner seemed surprised that I spoke his tongue, and I knew that would go into the stories about us. He said, “Boleh saja, mohon tunggu beberapa menit.” (“Of course, people. It will be a few minutes.”)

    The server was the eldest daughter, probably sixteen Earth years old. She was cute, but lacked the doe-eyed innocence young adults should have. She didn’t look abused, but she’d clearly seen enough violence acted out on the streets to make her tired and worn. We were polite, tipped well and treated her as a lady, not as a peasant wench. She and her family were probably some former Indonesian Muslim sect, similar to some of our founders, and likely as disillusioned by the idiotic squabbles as we were quickly becoming. I made it a point that we’d treat everyone as decent adult human beings unless and until they acted otherwise, in which case we’d deliver justice with large ordnance.

    The food was good. The chicken was tender, juicy and had an untraditional piquant sweetness from some local fruits used in its preparation. The coconut and rice side dish was loaded with plump red peppers that brought tears of joy to my eyes and endorphins charging into my brain for a tactical nuclear engagement. I thanked the owner profusely and said I’d spread the word of his presence to our friends. He was all grins at having guests who appreciated good cooking, paid in real local cash, not Uno scrip or marks, and didn’t hassle his daughter for favors she didn’t want to share, or him about a basic weapon to protect his shop. It would go far toward making the area safe for us, and building neighborhood closeness that would keep factional bickering at a distance. We exchanged bows, I thanked him again and we policed up our own trash as we left. I spoke a note for record for other patrols into my comm.

    After lunch, we resumed our check of the area. We stayed in fire teams, me with Team One, Frank with Team Two, Deni acting as third leader with Team Three (Weapons), as sniping wouldn’t likely be needed, and she had the experience to handle that much authority. She was great at operations, but Frank had a bit more methodology for leadership. Being professionals, we all knew this and didn’t stress over it.

    We wandered around, eyeballing and using sensors on our Jeeves (General Use Vehicles) to spot anything resembling a weapon. It’s harder than it sounds, because anything large and metal or ceramic, or complicated and electronic reads as a potential threat. We were busy.

    Additionally, anything with explosive residue would trigger, including anything that had been near a previous terrorist car bomb. Our vehicles were in a clear area at the center of the parking lot, and we waved away anyone who got to close. If they drove by too slowly, Tyler or Kit would track them with a mean look and an M-23. They kept moving.

    My first event was an attractive middle-aged woman, in a decent quality vehicle. She stopped, got out, and headed for one of the stores. My goggles were coded into the sensor web, and flashed bright red at her purse. I nodded at Neil, our new troop, and reminded him with gestures to let me lead and back me up.

    We were close to her in a few long strides, and I asked, “English? Türkçe? Araybiay?” to get her attention and set us up.

    She turned, looked frightened, and said, “I speak Turkish and I’m Sufi, sir, is there a problem?”

    Neil moved around about three hundred mils, a safe five meters away. We now had good position to take her down, and no, I wasn’t assuming a middle-aged mother in a Mercedes was harmless. From over my shoulder, Tyler had her covered with the heavy, if I threw myself flat. Actually, Tyler was good enough to shoot over my shoulder, and I trusted her that much.

    “I need to see your purse, ma’am,” I said as I took it from her with a firm grasp. She didn’t have any wires or triggers to either my eye or the sensors, and wasn’t clutching at it in fear, nor was her hand inside. It most likely wasn’t a bomb, and I didn’t want to waste time or personnel by jacking every threat spread-eagle on the pavement, so I took the risk of getting close.

    She yielded reluctantly, holding onto the strap until I clutched at my Merrill with my right hand. At that point, she let me have it, and her face started working in what was likely fear of our reaction. I stepped back slightly as Neil took a low stance, ready to bear and shoot. The black leather purse was unfastened, and I opened it carefully. There was the usual civilian female junk, a sizeable but unsuspicious roll of currency and what looked like a Taurus snub 6mm pistol. Nothing else.

    From my research, the Unos would consider the pistol a “military-style weapon” and seize it, plus likely loot the cash. They wouldn’t harass or rape her in public, but such incidences were not unknown. Some of their national units are pretty savage. “What’s with the pistol?” I asked.

    She looked nervous and replied, “Uh, I carry cash for our business, sir. Please, just take it and don’t hurt me.” She’d obviously been rolled before.



    “What business?”

    “We’re vehicle dealers, or my husband is,” she replied.

    Nodding, I handed it back. “Please don’t take it out around our troops. If you see a threat, yell. It’s safer if we have only the bad guys to worry about.”

    “Yes, sir!” she said, looking surprised and confused.

    “Of course, if we’re not around, do what you have to. Have a good day.”

    “Teşekkür, sőr,” she thanked me, eyes wide. Neil dropped guard and walked off, I nodded, and she smiled dazedly and continued on her way.

    For those of you confused, let me explain: as a legitimate businessperson, she needed to be able to defend herself against punks. Actually, everyone does. She was a prime target, however, with a nice vehicle and cash. Had I taken it, she’d just get another one in a few days, and do without food if need be to get one. When safety is a priority, other things must suffer. That would be no good for her family, wouldn’t “get the weapon off the street” or any similar shitheadedness, since they were coming in by the transport load, and it wouldn’t make us any safer. A pistol was unlikely to be used as a weapon against troops other than for assassinating clients of “hookers” (a derogatory term for sex industry workers used by those repressed enough to need them but pretending to disapprove of the idea), who should be more alert anyway, and which profile she didn’t fit. Our body armor would stop such a round so well it wouldn’t be noticed. And I’d hate to hear about her or her kids being robbed, raped, or shot or hijacked for the vehicle (which the factions did whenever they wanted fresh transport). Why bother taking it?

    This was our routine for several days. It was boring most of the time, tense a few moments here and there, and we got decent food while making the locals happy with our presence. That corner plaza was safe. No one was getting robbed for gear, looted by those troops supposed to be “protecting” them, or shot or bombed by terrorists. We were actually accomplishing what the UN had promised and failed to deliver, by thinking rather than following text like mindless Uno automatons.

    Then we hit local Friday. It got very interesting for a while.

    First, we had a ground vehicle drive by that just lit the sensors. We quivered quietly alert, and waited to see what happened. I called a warning in case we needed air support, and we got into good positions without bunching up. It could be hard on a few private vehicles, should trouble materialize, but that was not my concern.

    The vehicle was a ten year old Zil, rough looking but intact. It was occupied by a driver, male, twentyish, and two other males and a female, also twentyish, young, lean, unremarkably dressed but with beards on them and a head scarf on her. Shia Muslim. Pardon the stereotype, but with the all the red on the vehicle’s image, I pegged them as terrorists. Stereotypes exist because they are often true. It’s a bad idea to rely on them, but a good idea to be advised by them.

    Then they turned into the apron.

    The sensors were starting to sort out the images as four probable rifles and a strong hint of explosives over a kilo. That was enough for me, and I wasn’t waiting any longer. I said, “Go” into my mic and we rolled.

    Neil and I sprinted across the lot, mindful of traffic, and took up positions ahead and to either side of the vehicle, so as to have clear shots at the occupants while being hard to run down. Geoff brought the second GUV over at high speed in low gear for maneuverability, and pulled up nose to nose as Tyler swung the heavy toward them, grinning a rictus that said, “I’d just love to splatter someone today, please make a threatening move, or any move at all, it doesn’t matter to me.”

    Jay, Forest, Russell and Frank Number 2 from Second Team brought up the rear and the sides, leaving Frank and the second vehicle to cover us from the outer corner by the intersection, and the weapons team to cover both of us. It was a secure arrangement, and we had them pegged down. And damn, did they look scared about it.

    Neil spoke better Arabic than I, as well as Hebrew, German, French, Mandarin, Aramaic and Sanskrit, of all things. He spoke clearly, precisely, and with all the force of a viper about to strike. “Get out of the car and lie face down on the ground. Make any sudden moves and you die.”

    I was worried about that explosive. They might have had it wired to go on a suicide switch. But it hadn’t triggered on our remote detonator, which was designed to set such things off as soon as it could induce current in the arming circuits or hit the frequency used on a radio-armed device. And it wasn’t a large mass, so it probably wasn’t a car bomb, they had plenty small arms, so it probably wasn’t a suicide mission, although they might try that as a “fuck you” gesture.

    Luckily, they got out, slowly, and lay down. The fire was right out of them and we might have caught them on their first mission.

    Carefully, we went through the car front to rear. We found four rifles, of which one was an FN WC. I find them overrated. Two were H&K Mod 96A1s and one was an ArmTech F-6. ArmTechs weren’t common, but were a fascinating historical piece and well-made. I would keep that as a souvenir. There were three pistols, all S&W junk cheapies, and a Sufi military demolition block in the trunk which looked to be set up for use inside the plaza or some similar area. They’d violated Rule One: don’t take unnecessary weapons that might give you away. They had no need of rifles to plant a charge. Or were they planning to shoot as well?



    Neil questioned them one at a time, his hand occasionally straying to his belt, to caress the broad-bladed Viking style axe he favored in lieu of a sword. That dull gray chopper made them more nervous than the guns did. I stuck to the far side, listening for any whispers that might yield intel, since they didn’t know I was fluent in the language also. No luck. The MO and dialect made them Shiits by my estimate, but they weren’t talking.

    We had instructions to be respectful of local religions. To that end, I let the woman keep her headscarf and had Tyler search her. I still had them stripped. When they started to fuss about the sin of being naked, Neil asked them about the sin of blowing up merchants and noncombatants. They steamed and kept quiet, except for the dainty feminine flower of Islam, who accused us of bestiality, compound incest and everything in between. I finally spoke, saying “Mohamed yunikku khinaaziir,” (“Mohamed fucks pigs.” Ungrammatical, I know.) while prodding her hard in the neck with a rifle muzzle. I was in no mood to be nice.

    The search was needful. We found two more pistols and three grenades. Our chaste Muslim lady had a grenade hidden in a most unchaste fashion. I quelled the urge to make the obvious Freudian jokes, and we tossed clothes at them while calling for evac.

    Would you believe the UN gave us a rash of shit over it? The arriving Intel Orificer shouted at me for “violating their rights” and “degrading them” by stripping them. We should not have laid hands on the woman. We should have shackled them and waited for “experts.” He wanted the weapons for “Evidence,” and then they’d be destroyed.

    I didn’t need his attitude. I have one of my own and it’s quite enough. I shouldn’t have argued back and made a scene in public, but I did. “Let me clue you in, Lieutenant,” I said, a bit too loudly. “This is my op, and I make the rules here. Once they’re signed over to you, you can interrogate them, or play pattycake, or watch pornos, or whatever the hell you want. But here, I—” I prodded him in the chest, hard, “am in,” prod, “charge. You don’t have to like it, but you can go screw a ripper for all the good it will do you to whine. I searched them, I found the weapons. You can keep the junk, I’m keeping the Armtech and the grenades for use.”

    “They aren’t issue to your unit,” he argued.

    “Which is none of your business and how the hell would you know? The F-6 has an effective range of twelve hundred, twenty-three meters, muzzle energy of thirty-two sixty Newton-meters and a drop at three hundred meters of eighty-three millimeters. I like it. I’m keeping it. We can never have enough grenades. You have photos, you have my report, now take my prisoners and do your job. You may go now.” From practical considerations and from relative chains of command, I outranked him, not that I gave a damn. He was wearing a _starched, tailored,_ uniform, aftershave and a personal little pin on his collar proclaiming his support for the Equality Party in the upcoming European Federal Union election. I had no time for this clown.

    He squawked and left and I knew we’d hear more about it later. I really had tried to be diplomatic. I was still young and cocky.

    But first, we’d get a response from the clowns we’d tagged. I was partly expecting it, being suspicious about that possibility (any commander not suspicious about such issues doesn’t deserve to command, or to live, and likely won’t do either for long). I didn’t expect the response we got.

    Less than a day later, Saturday lunchtime, we got hit. We were taking turns munching sandwiches and watching, and I had Neil helping us with our Arabic. He suddenly cut off in mid sentence with a hollow gasp and a wide-eyed expression.

    Then my brain noted the crack of hypersonic bullets. I said “Sniper!” loudly enough to be heard, without overdoing it—I’d be heard by my troops by ear and mic and wouldn’t sound panicky. Then I dropped my sandwich and Boosted. It was less than half a second since the last of the shots and we were moving. Rather than dive for cover, we scattered in twenty, well, nineteen different directions.

    I pulled up residual images on my visor, including a likely trajectory based on how Neil had been hit. It flashed probables to me in yellow, tagged the worst in red, and my eyeballs picked them out. Two gunmen, rooftop of the plaza.

    Geoff informed me that he was driving around back, Kit on the gun, ready to support. Tyler was already on target and waiting for my orders, as I and others were between her and the targets. “Adam, treat Neil. Tyler, stand by. Barto and Bryce around Grid Four and join Geoff. Team Two, stand to. Rest, rooftops.”

    I used first names, not tasks. I gave grid coordinates, not, “Around the south of the building.” We knew who we were and where to go and I wasn’t about to clue the enemy in more than I had to. So far, the response was great, but I was kicking myself for not having anticipated better. Still, we’d do what we could in response.

    My vision steadied as my Combat NeuroStimulant Boost reached full force. I was flushed, sweaty, quivering with power, and running high from it, as well as normal adrenaline and endorphin response. A thought kept cycling through my head: “You dogfuckers are mine!” It was a strange, euphoric experience.

    Then I reached the overhang of the plaza. The snipers had run off after a single shot each, and only one had hit. Rank amateurs, and I was keeping tabs on them as I could. Amateurs can be unpredictably dangerous, but will normally respond with basic human reactions once pinned. I’d been safe the entire run, and knew the risk would be greatest as I reached the roof.



    The pillars supporting the overhang were polymer-concrete extrusions, with decorative six-centimeter wide grooves running their length. I grabbed two of the protrusions between grooves, and heaved, then got my feet splayed out, too. A second heave, fingers almost slipping despite my gloves, brought me to the top, and left me a meter of smooth sheeting to cross to reach the roof. I twisted and threw my body up, pushing off with my right foot, caught the bare ledge that existed between the pillar and the start of the roof, and arched again. I got my left boot toe over, then my left fingers, and drew myself up, rolling over.

    There I was, lying on my right side, on top of my slung weapon, the hot, sticky roof compound gumming everything, bright Io or Sun or whatever they called it here disrupting my vision and glaring off my visor, and there was Sniper Number Two charging me. He’d seen he was blocked at the back, and was trying to find a hatch to go down and through a store, and here I was in front of him.

    All I saw, however, was his rifle rising up toward me. I was scrabbling to my feet, still on my abraded and burned right side, glove stuck so tight to itself with the tarlike stuff that I wouldn’t be able to shoot, and he was nearly on top of me. And that amateur move on his part saved my life.

    Amateurs like to pose with weapons rather than use them. It’s an icon, a symbol, an artificial penis. Professionals shoot and are done. Amateurs wave them around and chant, shoot into the air on camera with precisely the same naughty thrill as if masturbating, and this pathetic, illiterate corpse-to-be was trying to get as close as possible to intimidate me, scare me, thrill himself, and then wait a few seconds to shoot. His natural inferiority to everything with more self-esteem than a cockroach demanded that he see me cower in fear, and the overwhelming force facing him was forgotten.

    I reached over my left shoulder, where my Eaves wakizashi was worn like a machete, and snapped it out of the breakaway scabbard. I swung it across, chopping off two of his left fingers as I chipped the fore end of that encroaching rifle and deflected it. He started to have that nauseous-pained look of someone who knows he’s a victim, and I followed up. I heard shots toward the corner, and made note of that for later; there was nothing I could do about it now.

    With the muzzle no longer pointing at me, I was able to take a fraction of a second to correct my grip, and my second swing caught him across the right forearm, nearly severing it. It wasn’t cut totally, and flopped down like a broken branch as he started to scream. My backswing caught him above the hip, ended below the ribs, and he started spilling his guts, literally. I shimmied aside to avoid the roping gray snakes of his intestines, leaned to a sitting position and caught him by the collar as he bent forward, screaming. I rolled and threw and his body tumbled off the parapet, trailing entrails. It made the same sound as a splatting egg as it hit the pavement and splashed an outline.

    I staggered upright, saw more movement and went to unsling my carbine as I sought cover. The tar was still gumming my gloves and was stuck to the trigger and guard. I’d be stripping it later to clear the gunk off. I identified the movement as Andut, our host for lunch these many days. His torso protruded from a hatch, his shotgun was at his shoulder and a third sniper, who hadn’t fired and I hadn’t seen, was dead behind Deni, who had the second one dead in front of her. Her spotter, Joel, had also dropped a few rounds into that third idiot. He was well dead. All being clear, I finished what I’d initially intended to do, which was to lean over the edge still only a meter from me, and put a bullet through my target’s skull. It splattered again. Good. I hate the idea of “dead” people shooting at me, and this would make sure that didn’t happen. It’s called an “insurance shot,” and I’d learned it when hunting jackalopes back home.

    Right then, a VG-9 Taranis vertol gunship dropped down, ready to give fire support, and four more of my kids came up in different locations. That was fast. I quickly waved them back to cover positions, not wanting any eager gunners to think Andut was one of the bad guys. He’d done a great job. Whether or not we could have handled the third one—he and Joel shot just about simultaneously—his response was quick, competent, and bespoke trust in us and a contempt for the factional killings. I wished I could find a proper way to thank him.

    It came to me as I descended the ladder to his place, CNS fading in an afterglow not unlike sex, that I’d made my first kill, and done it hand-to-hand. It was a strange combination of power and loathing, backed up by chemical enhancement, that would be with me for some time.

    We each thanked Andut for his support, and gratefully accepted the proffered pitchers of pineapple juice, which we downed straight, no glasses. I later did find a way to thank him as he deserved, by quietly spreading the word again about his place. Every Freeholder who could, and even a few of the UN troops, made it a point to eat there until they could handle no more of the broad variety of cuisine. He had holiday level sales for about a hundred local days, troops crammed into every corner, out the door, and even around back. Even now, he’s a popular host with the remaining UN force, and has made a small fortune. He deserves it. People like him prevent terrorism and factional stupidity by their presence, and it takes more balls than most people have to stand up like that. He’d increased the odds of the factions targeting him.

    With a fading pulse thrumming in my skull, I dictated a report while a squad of Mob arrived to back us up. A Bison vertol equipped for medevac had Neil, and he was stable and fine. The bullet had been high enough power to breach his armor, and had missed his heart by three centimeters, but it had missed. He was stabilized, the hole in his lung temporarily cauterized, and was expected to be healed in a few days.

    After a while, I was able to be objective again, and decided we’d had enough acclimation. My people had responded flawlessly to the attack, we’d taken out the punks and even kept the perimeter secure while we did so. It was time to move on. I brought it up to Naumann.

    “Oh, I agree,” he said. “If I ran this, you’d be hunting these rabble across the globe until they wet their pants at a mention of your name. But the UN won’t let us out of this area, and until they thin their numbers, there isn’t anywhere convenient to relocate and get any fire, so we’re stuck here.”

    “Dammit, Commander, we can handle this!” I complained. “They sit there and follow a book written by some bureaucrat on Earth, annoy people, accomplish nothing and get killed! In a week I’ve made my area so safe that business has doubled, killed three terrorists, captured four, seized seven small arms, a case of grenades, explosives, documents and a vehicle. That’s better than some UN _companies_ manage in a month of alleged patrolling, including the pistols and knives they claim as ‘military’ weapons.”

    “I know, Ken,” he said. “I’m on your side, remember? But we can’t. If I could, we would, but it’s not just political, it’s a reality. Until we can move the UN, nothing is going to change.”

    I decided to escalate things myself, if that’s what it took. I would provoke these assholes into attacking us, so I’d have an excuse to squash them like shit beetles. In a red-tinged huff, I stormed over to the clinic. Neil was awake from surgery, and I was told he would be fine. I went in to see him, accompanied by a nurse.

    “How’re you doing, big guy?” I asked.

    His voice was better than a croak, but not it’s usual soft baritone. “Could be better,” he said. “I’ll be okay.”

    The nurse spoke up, “The projectile was slowed to subsonic by his body armor, thus minimizing the wound channel. It missed the liver, heart and inferior vena cava, and there is little additional hemorrhaging. The pleura and lung were punctured cleanly, and sealed at once, minimizing pneumothorax. With a few days of bed rest, he should be fine for limited duty.”

    “Thank you, Leon,” I said. Medics like to use first names, to develop rapport with their charges. It makes sense, and I go along with it. Especially as “Warrant Jester” sounds ridiculous.

    Neil nodded and said, “There you go, boss. Can you manage without me for a few days?”

    “That depends,” I said. “We’re going to be hunting. You’re going to miss it.”

    “Well,” he said, “I’ll get out of here as soon as I can. I don’t like watching vid and I don’t want to miss any action.”

    “I’ll talk to the doc,” I said. “Rest up. You did a good job.”

    He snorted. “I got shot and laid down. You guys did the work.”

    I didn’t talk to the doc. I talked to Naumann. Naumann talked to Neil and the doc. The doc screamed. We pulled “Best needs of the forces” on him.

    The next morning, we drove to our area, following yet another randomly generated route to minimize attack, and relieved the night shift from 3rd Mob. Neil was atop one of our GUVs, manning the gun.

    The regular staff and patrons of the plaza were shocked. Less than a day ago, he’d been carried out in a basket, wired and tubed and with full medical support. Now he was back, standing and crewing a heavy machinegun. They didn’t need to know that he was under orders not to fire unless ordered to do so because he was doped to the teeth with painkillers and shock stabilizers. The doctor wasn’t happy, but Naumann had agreed with me, and Neil was only too happy to get out of bed. The psych warfare value was too much to let go. Shoot us and die. We won’t even take notice.

    The corpse of my target was still on the apron roadway, well-bloated and stinking. No one had dared touch it, lest they annoy us. That was one indication of how well we were doing: their religious need to bury the body had been overcome by fear of us. Good. It was almost shift change before a man came over, abjectly meek and with downcast eyes. He was dressed in local style in an absolutely unremarkable business jelaba. “Please,” he said in Arabic, barely meeting my eyes, “I would beg permission to remove the body. The family would like to see that he is buried in proper fashion.” He was obviously afraid of being nabbed and interrogated himself, just for mentioning a link to the sniper.

    So I changed the rules yet again. “You may remove the body. Be sure to leave any non-personal gear behind. I pray he will find the peace in death he couldn’t find in life.” I would not interrogate him, I decided. We were the good guys. We existed only to stop violence and were harmless to honest people. That was the effect we wanted.

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