“Valdez, you need to slow down,” Karin Larsen warned, each syllable crisply pronounced into a mic. “Stay behind the seekers. If you overrun them, you’re going to walk into a booby trap.”
Five thousand miles away from Karin’s control station, Second Lieutenant Valdez was jacked up on adrenaline and in a defiant mood. “Negative!” she said, her voice arriving over Karin’s headphones. “Delphi, we’ve got personnel down and need to move fast. This route scans clear. I am not waiting for the seekers to clear it again.”
The battleground was an ancient desert city. Beginning at sunset, firefights had flared up all across its tangled neighborhoods and Valdez was right that her squad needed to advance—but not so fast that they ran into a trap.
“The route is not clear,” Karin insisted. “The last overflight to scan this alley was forty minutes ago. Anything could have happened since then.”
Karin’s worksite was an elevated chair within a little room inside a secure building. She faced a curved monitor a meter-and-a-half high, set an easy reach away. Windows checkered its screen, grouped by color-codes representing different clients. The windows could slide, change sequence, and overlap, but they could never completely hide one another; the system wouldn’t allow it. This was Karin’s interface to the war.
Presently centered onscreen were two gold-rimmed windows, each displaying a video feed captured by an aerial seeker: palm-sized drones equipped with camera eyes, audio pickups, and chemical sensors. The seekers flew ahead of Valdez and her urban infantry squad, one at eye level and the other at an elevation of six meters, scouting a route between brick-and-stucco tenements. They flew too slowly for Valdez.
The lieutenant was out of sight of the seekers’ camera eyes, but Karin could hear the soft patter of her boot plates as she advanced at a hurried trot, and the tread of the rest of the squad trailing behind her. Echoing off the buildings, there came the pepper of distant rifle fire and a heavier caliber weapon answering.
Onscreen, positioned above the two video feeds, was a third window that held the squad map—a display actively tracking the position and status of each soldier.
Outfitted in bulletproof vests and rigged in the titanium struts of light-infantry exoskeletons—“armor and bones”—the squad advanced through the alley at a mandated ten-meter interval, a regulation that reduced the odds of multiple casualties if they encountered an IED or a grenade. Only Lieutenant Valdez failed to maintain the proper distance, crowding within two meters of the seekers in her rush to answer the call for backup.
“Valdez, this is not a simple firefight. It’s a widespread, well-planned insurgent offensive. Every kid with a grudge—”
“No lectures, Delphi. Just get these seekers moving faster.”
Any faster, and the little drones could miss something critical.
Local time was past midnight and no lights shone in the alley, but in nightvision the walls of the buildings and the trash-strewn brick pavement gleamed in crisp, green detail. Karin wasn’t the only one monitoring the seekers’ feeds; a battle AI watched them too. It generated an ongoing report, displayed alongside the windows. She glanced at it and saw an alert for trace scents of explosives—but with a battle in progress that didn’t mean anything. Otherwise the report was good: no suspicious heat signatures or whispering voices or inexplicable motion within the apartments.
Her gaze shifted back to the video feed. A faint gleam caught her attention; a hair-thin line close to the ground that justified her caution. “Tripwire,” she announced. She reached out to the screen; dragged her finger across the line. The gesture created a fleeting highlight on the display screen of Valdez’s visor, clearly marking the tripwire’s position. “Six meters ahead.”
“Shit.” Valdez pulled up sharply. A faint background tone sounded as she switched her audio to gen-com. “Tripwire,” she said, addressing her squad. “Move back.”
The tone dropped out, and Valdez was talking again solely to Karin. “Ambush?”
“Searching.” It was a good bet someone was monitoring the tripwire.
A set of windows bordered in blue glided to the center of Karin’s screen: Lieutenant Deng’s color code. The insurgent offensive had erupted all along the northern border, striking hard at Deng’s rural district. At approximately 2200 she’d been lured into an ambush. The resulting firefight had left one of her soldiers seriously wounded.
Distance did not mute the impatience—or the frustration—in Deng’s voice as she spoke over the headphones, “Delphi, where’s my medevac helicopter?”
On nights like this, a big part of Karin’s job was triage. Deng’s situation was no longer “hot.” The insurgents had fled, and the helicopter had already been requested. Determining an ETA would not get it there faster. So she told Deng, “Stand by.”
Then she swiped the blue windows out of the way and returned her attention to the feeds from the seekers, directing one to fly higher. The angle of view shifted, and Karin spied a figure crouched on the sloping, clay-tiled roof of a low building not far ahead. She drew a highlight around it. “Valdez, see that?”
A glance at the squad map showed that Valdez had retreated a few meters from the tripwire. One specialist remained with her, while the rest of the squad had dropped back under the supervision of a sergeant.
“I see him,” Valdez said. “Target confirmed?”
“Negative. Twenty seconds.”
Karin sent a seeker buzzing toward the figure on the rooftop and then she switched her focus back to Deng’s blue-coded windows, fanning them open so she could see the one that tracked the status of the medevac helicopter. The offensive was unprecedented and air support was in high demand. Deng’s wounded soldier was third on the list for pickup. “Deng, ETA on the medevac is forty-plus minutes,” Karin warned; that was assuming the helicopter stayed in the air. She slid the blue windows away again, switching back to Valdez.
Wind soughing between the buildings veiled the soft buzz of the seeker so that the figure on the roof didn’t hear it coming. Details emerged as the little drone got closer. One of those details was a rifle—aimed at Valdez. “Target confirmed,” Karin said without hesitation. “Shoot to kill.”
Valdez was watching the same feed. “That’s a kid!”
It was a kid. The battle AI estimated a male, fourteen years old. It didn’t matter. The boy was targeting Valdez and that made him the enemy.
“Take the shot.”
The boy fired first. He missed, but he squeezed the trigger again. His second shot caught Valdez in the shoulder, spinning her into the wall. “Fuck.”
“Valdez, get down!”
The lieutenant dropped to a crouch. The specialist was already hunkered down behind her. He aimed over her shoulder and shot—but too late. The kid had opened a roof-access door, retreating inside the building.
Karin checked Valdez’s biometrics: high stress, but no indication that the slug had penetrated. Her armor had protected her.
“A biometric ID on the shooter is in the system,” Karin told her. “You can hunt him down later.”
“Right. I’m going to drop back, rejoin the squad, and go around.”
While Valdez reorganized, Karin switched to her third client, Lieutenant Holder. The set of windows monitoring his squad was coded orange. Holder was assigned to a district just outside the city. Tonight his squad waited in ambush for a suspected small-arms shipment coming in from the west. She checked his status: nominal. Checked the squad: noted all seven soldiers in position on either side of an asphalt road. Checked the wide-field view from the infrared camera on the squad’s surveillance drone and noted the suspect truck, still at almost five kilometers away.
There was time.
Karin sighed, took a sip of chilled water from a bottle stashed in a pouch at the side of her chair, and for just a moment she squeezed her dry eyes shut. She’d already been six hours on-shift, with only one ten-minute break and that was two hours ago. There would be hours more before she could rest. Most shifts went on until her clients were out of harm’s way—that’s just how it was, how it needed to be. She’d learned that early.
Karin had trained as a handler for the usual reason: money. She’d needed to pay off a student loan. Two years so far, with a fat savings account to show for it. The money was good, no argument, but the lifestyle? Some handlers joked that the job was like a video game—one so intense it left you shaking and exhausted at the end of every shift—but for her it had never been a game. The lives she handled were real. Slip up, and she could put a soldier in the grave. That was her nightmare. She’d had soldiers grievously wounded, but so far none had died on her shift. Lately, she’d started thinking that maybe she should quit before it happened. On a night like tonight, that thought was close to the surface.
The blue windows slid to center again. Karin popped the bottle back into its pouch as an irate Deng spoke through her headphones. “Delphi, I can’t wait forty minutes for the medevac. I’ve got six enemy at-large. They have their own wounded to worry about, but once they get organized, they’re going to move on the settlement. If we don’t get there first, there are going to be reprisals. I need approval from Command to split the squad.”
Karin captured a voice clip of Deng’s request and sent it to the Command queue, flagged highest priority. But before she could slide the blue windows aside, someone opened an emergency channel, an act that overrode the communications of every handler on-shift. “I need support!” a shrill voice yelled through Karin’s headphones. She flinched, even as she recognized Sarno, another handler. The panic in his voice told her that he had made a mistake. A critical mistake, maybe a fatal one. “I need support! Now. I just can’t—”
His transmission cut out. The shift supervisor’s voice came on—calm, crisp, alert: the way handlers were trained to speak. “I’m on it.”
Karin’s hands shook. Sarno worked a chair just a few doors down from her. He was new, and new handlers sometimes got overwhelmed, but panic was always the wrong response. At the end of the shift, every handler got to go home, smoke a joint, collapse in a bed with soft sheets, get laid if they wanted to. Their clients didn’t have that option. Sarno needed to remember that. Sarno needed to remember that however rough it got in the control room, no one was trying to end his life.
Right now the supervisor would be assisting him, coaching him, getting him back on track. Karin refocused, striving to put the incident out of her mind.
Dragging the gold-rimmed windows to center, she checked on Valdez, confirming the lieutenant had safely exited the alley. There were no alerts from the battle AI, so Karin switched to Deng’s window-set. Rigged in armor and bones, the squad had formed a perimeter to protect their wounded soldier. Around them, dry grass rustled beneath spindly trees, and the stars glowed green in nightvision. Karin switched to Holder. He was still hunkered down with his squad alongside the road. An infrared feed from Holder’s surveillance drone showed the target vehicle only a klick-and-a-half away, approaching fast without headlights.
Just as Karin brought her attention back to Valdez, the shift supervisor spoke.
“Karin, we’ve got an emergency situation. I need to transfer another client to you.”
“No way, Michael.”
“No. I’ve got three active operations and I can barely stay on top of them. If you give me one more client, I’m going to resign.”
“Fine, Karin! Resign. But just finish this shift first. I need you. Sarno walked. He fucking walked out and left his clients.”
Sarno walked? Karin lost track of her windows as she tried to make sense of it. How could he walk out? What they did here was not a video game. There was no pause button on this war. Every handler was responsible for the lives of real people.
Michael took her hesitation as agreement. “I’m splitting the load. You only have to take one. Incoming now.”
Her throat aching, she took another sip of water, a three-second interval when her mind could rove . . . this time back to the kickboxing session that started her day, every day: a fierce routine that involved every muscle—strike, strike, strike—defiantly physical, because a handler had to be in top form to do this kind of work, and Karin hated to make mistakes.
As she looked up again, a glowing green dot expanded into a new set of windows, with the client’s bio floating to the top. Shelley, James. A lieutenant with a stellar field rating. Good, Karin thought. Less work for me.
As she fanned the windows, the live feed opened with the triple concussion of three grenades going off one after another. She bit down on her lip, anxious to engage, but she needed an overview of the situation first. Locating the squad map, she scanned the terrain and the positions of each soldier. There were five personnel besides Shelley: a sergeant, two specialists, and two privates. The map also showed the enemy’s positions and their weaponry—field intelligence automatically compiled from helmet cams and the squad’s surveillance drone.
The map showed that Shelley’s squad was outnumbered and outgunned.
With little shelter in a flat rural landscape of dusty red-dirt pastures and drought-stricken tree farms, they protected themselves by continuously shifting position in a fight to hold a defensive line north of the village that was surely the target of this raid. The insurgents’ ATVs had already been eliminated, but two pickup trucks remained, one rigged with a heavy machine gun and the other with a rocket-launcher pod, probably stripped off a downed helicopter. The rockets it used would have a range to four kilometers. Shelley needed to take the rocket-launcher out before it targeted the village and before his squad burned through their inventory of grenades.
The sound of the firefight dropped out as her get-acquainted session was overridden by Deng’s windows sliding to the center. A communication had come in from Command. Deng’s request to split the squad had been approved. Karin forwarded the order, following up with a verbal link. “Deng, your request has been approved. Orders specify two personnel remain with the wounded; four proceed to the settlement.”
Karin switched to Holder. His ambush would go off in seconds. She did a quick scan of the terrain around him, located no additional threats, and then switched focus to Valdez. Cities were the worst. Too many places for snipers to hide. Too many alleys to booby trap. Karin requested an extra surveillance drone to watch the surrounding buildings as Valdez trotted with her squad through the dark streets. She’d feel more secure if she could study the feed from the seekers, but there was no time—because it was her new client who faced the most immediate hazard.
Lieutenant Shelley was on the move, weaving between enemy positions, letting two of his soldiers draw the enemy’s attention while he closed on the rocket launcher. The truck that carried the weapon was being backed into the ruins of a still-smoldering, blown-out farmhouse. The roof of the house was gone along with the southern wall, but three stout brick walls remained, thick enough to shelter the rocket crew from enemy fire. Once they had the truck in place, it would be only a minute or two before the bombardment started.
Not a great time to switch handlers.
Karin mentally braced herself, and then she opened a link to Shelley. The sounds of the firefight hammered through her headphones: staccato bursts from assault rifles and then the bone-shaking boom of another grenade launched by the insurgents. A distant, keening scream of agony made her hair stand on end, but a status check showed green so she knew it wasn’t one of hers. “Lieutenant Shelley,” she said, speaking quickly before he could protest her intrusion. “My codename is Delphi. You’ve been transferred to my oversight. I’ll be your handler tonight.”
His biometrics, already juiced from the ongoing operation, surged even higher. “What the Hell?” he whispered. “Did you people get rid of Hawkeye in the middle of an action?”
“Hawkeye took himself out, Lieutenant.”
Karin remembered her earlier assessment of Sarno’s breakdown. He had made a mistake. What that mistake was, she didn’t know and there was no time to work it out. “I’ve got an overview of the situation and I will stay with you.”
“What’d you say your name was?”
“Delphi, you see where I’m going?”
He scuttled, hunched over to lower his profile, crossing bare ground between leafless thickets. Shooting was almost constant, from one side or another, but so far he’d gone unnoticed and none of it was directed at him.
Karin studied the terrain that remained to be crossed. “You’re going to run out of cover.”
A wide swath of open ground that probably served as a pasture in the rainy season lay between Shelley and the shattered farmhouse. He needed to advance a hundred meters across it to be within the effective range of his grenade launcher. There were no defenders in that no-man’s-land, but there were at least eight insurgents sheltering within the remains of the farmhouse—and the second truck, the one with the machine gun, was just out of sight on the other side of the ruins.
She fanned the windows just as the lieutenant dropped to his belly at the edge of the brush. Bringing Shelley’s details to the top, she checked his supplies. “You have two programmable grenades confirmed inside your weapon. Ten percent of your ammo load remaining. Lieutenant, that’s not enough.”
Karin shook her head. Shelley couldn’t see it; it was a gesture meant only for herself. There weren’t enough soldiers in his squad to keep him out of trouble once the enemy knew where he was.
Would it be tonight then? she wondered. Would this be the night she lost someone?
“I advise you to retreat.”
“Can’t do it, Delphi.”
It was the expected answer, but she’d had to try.
Nervous tension reduced her to repeating the basics. “Expect them to underestimate how fast you can move and maneuver in your exoskeleton. You can take advantage of that.”
The shooting subsided. In the respite, audio pickups caught and enhanced the sound of a tense argument taking place at the distant farmhouse. Then a revving engine overrode the voices.
Karin said, “The other truck, with the machine gun, it’s on the move.”
“I see it.”
A check of his setup confirmed he had the feed from the surveillance drone posted on the periphery of his visor display.
He used gen-com to speak to his squad. “It’s now. Don’t let me get killed, okay?”
They answered, their voices tense, intermingled: “We got you . . . watch over you . . .”
Valdez’s window-set centered, cutting off their replies. “Delphi, you there?”
Her voice was calm, so Karin said, “Stand by,” and swiped her window-set aside.
“. . . kick ass, L. T.”
Shelley’s window-set was still fanned, with the live feed from the surveillance drone on one end of the array. Motion in that window caught Karin’s eye, even before the battle AI highlighted it. “Shelley, the machine-gun truck is coming around the north side of the ruins. Everybody on those walls is going to be looking at it.”
“Got it. I’m going.”
“Negative! Hold your position. On my mark . . .” She identified the soldier positioned a hundred-fifty meters away on Shelley’s west flank. Overriding protocol, she opened a link to him, and popped a still image of the truck onto the periphery of his visor. “Hammer it as soon as you have it in sight.” The truck fishtailed around the brick walls and Karin told Shelley, “Now.”
He took off in giant strides powered by his exoskeleton, zigzagging across the bare ground. There was a shout from the truck, just as the requested assault rifle opened up. The truck’s windshield shattered. More covering fire came from the northwest. From the farmhouse voices cried out in fury and alarm. Karin held her breath while Shelley covered another twenty meters and then she told him, “Drop and target!”
He accepted her judgment and slammed to the ground, taking the impact on the arm struts of his exoskeleton as the racing pickup braked in a cloud of dust. Shelley didn’t turn to look. The feed from his helmet cams remained fixed on the truck parked between the ruined walls as he set up his shot. The battle AI calculated the angle, and when his weapon was properly aligned, the AI pulled the trigger.
A grenade launched on a low trajectory, transiting the open ground and disappearing under the truck, where it exploded with a deep whump!, enfolding the vehicle in a fireball that initiated a thunderous roar of secondary explosions as the rocket propellant ignited. The farmhouse became an incandescent inferno. Nightvision switched off on all devices as white light washed across the open ground.
Karin shifted screens. The feed from the surveillance drone showed a figure still moving in the bed of the surviving truck. An enemy soldier—wounded maybe, but still determined—clawing his way up to the mounted machine gun. “Target to the northwest,” she said.
The audio in Shelley’s helmet enhanced her voice so that he heard her even over the roar of burning munitions. He rolled and fired. The figure in the truck went over backward, hitting the dusty ground with an ugly bounce.
Karin scanned the squad map. “No indication of surviving enemy, but shrapnel from those rockets—”
“Fall back!” Shelley ordered on gen-com. Powered by his exoskeleton, he sprang to his feet and took off. “Fall back! All speed!”
Karin watched until he put a hundred meters behind him; then she switched to Holder, confirmed his ambush had gone off as planned; switched to Deng who was driving an ATV, racing to cut off her own insurgent incursion; switched to Valdez, who had finally joined up with another squad to quell a street battle in an ancient desert city.
• • •
“Delphi, you there?” Shelley asked.
“I’m here.” Her voice hoarse, worn by use.
Dawn had come. All along the northern border the surviving enemy were in retreat, stopping their exodus only when hunting gunships passed nearby. Then they would huddle out of sight beneath camouflage blankets until the threat moved on. The incursion had gained no territory, but the insurgents had won all the same by instilling fear among the villages and the towns.
Karin had already seen Valdez and Holder and Deng back to their shelters. Now Shelley’s squad was finally returning to their little fort.
“Is Hawkeye done?” he asked her.
She sighed, too tired to really think about it. “I don’t know. Maybe.”
“I never liked him much.”
Karin didn’t answer. It wasn’t appropriate to discuss another handler.
“You still there?”
“You want to tell me if this was a one-night-stand? Or are you going to be back tonight?”
Exhaustion clawed at her and she wanted to tell him no. No, I will not be back. There wasn’t enough money in the world to make this a good way to spend her life.
Then she wondered: When had it ceased to be about the money?
The war was five thousand miles away, but it was inside her head too; it was inside her dreams and her nightmares.
In her worst nightmares, she lost voice contact. That’s when she could see the enemy waiting in ambush, when she knew his position, his weaponry, his range . . . when she knew her clients were in trouble, but she couldn’t warn them.
“You want me to put in a formal request for your services?” Shelley pressed. “I can do that, if you need me to.”
It wasn’t money that kept Karin at her control station. As the nightmare of the war played on before her eyes, it was knowing that the advice and the warnings that she spoke could save her soldiers’ lives.
“It’s best if you make a formal request,” Karin agreed. “But don’t worry—I’ll be here.”