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LA run

Copyright 2018 Andrea Zunino

Published by Andrea Zunino at Smashwords

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LA run

The first thing I did right after the burnout was rip off the TCI from the neuro-socket without properly shutting down the link to my weapon. I ran out of the control room and up the metal staircase all the way to the rooftop, four steps at a time, without stopping. Six floors to the roof. I slammed the door open, stammered outside and looked up at the sky. The sky above Djibouti was the colour of a nightclub’s ashtray at 3.00 am in the morning. Grey ash, black char and just a tint of nicotine brown. It was dawn in the horn of Africa.

About eight hundred miles west over two hundred and fifty thousand men and several billions worth of military hardware had just been annihilated in one single instant. I hadn’t, of course, because I was remoting, but some of the waves had travelled back to my front lobes on just the right frequency to cause permanent damage to the pyramidal layer of the cerebral cortex.

Eyes wild shut, tears streaking down my cheeks, I could feel a dull pain throbbing at the back of my head, and a stream of monomers leaking from the damaged entry point of the occipital socket. That was repairable, I would be told afterwards. The neural damage...that would take a while to heal, if it was going to heal at all, that is.

Faint impressions of the distant battle were still vivid in my head.

Operation Jezebel. The Sudanese Front.

The New Jihad...

Towards the end, just before the nuclear blast, the jumpjet had banked sharply, docile to my command, obeying impulses shot directly from my frontal lobes through a laser-based comsat link, and I’d had a glimpse of the entire battle field at JunqaIt. I also had a secondary input stream from the ground units, through a grunt’s BCI retinal implant.

I will never forget what I saw and heard through the link.

The integralists' army singing the Koran to celebrate their imminent deaths, the faithful paramilitary militia units swarming amongst ex-soviet T72 tanks, advancing in compact formation. They'd chewed so much Kat that they probably would have been happy to face a pack of lions only armed with stones and slings. I saw the Feddahin gliders annihilate our 3rd battalion with Napalm bombs strapped to their chest. I heard the roar of the Early Toxin-Detection Tanks amongst the echoes of multiple detonations and above everything, the worst sound of all, the sound of my squadron’s jumpjets darting in the thundering darkness overhead, hammering secret bunkers and toxin factories with Tomahawk and Blizzard missiles. The jumpjets were controlled remotely by us, the elite of the air force, the killer unit, USAF best kept secret. TCI-enhanced ground pilots, capable of faster than MAC4 manoeuvres, thanks to remoting. The glass shard which was supposed to have struck at the core of the enemy’s capabilities and brought swift victory.

Except it didn’t.

Because Djibouti became the worst military disaster the U.S. had seen since Pearl harbour.

Afterwards they said that the bomb was ours, not theirs. Modern media, all sales and revenue, no code. The truth was never actually discovered in the frenzy of a massive cover-up. I suppose it could have been be true with all the different agencies involved, with US and UK and UN troops present in the horn, plus the Afrikaans Contingent, and the African Liberation Front. Not to mention our enemy of course. No to mention our host, CJTF-HOA of USAFRICOM, which allowed us all entry in the first place . What a mess…who knows. The only faction coming out of this better off was, as usual, the weapon industry. Everybody else lost.

The political outcome in the end didn’t make much difference to me, except for the fact that a nuclear blast caused once again a war to stop abruptly, the world waking up sharply to the fact that it was crunch time again. Like almost a century ago in Cuba. Like over a century ago in Japan. It was time to back down again. The spectre of total obliteration was back.

And so it went.

Peace was reached at record speed again. Sure terrorist attacks started again shortly after, but at least we didn’t risk mass oblivion any more. Not for a while.

The global clean-up operation was swift and ruthless. Evidence clean up, mainly, to avoid repeats of Watergate and Iran contras. Several heads rolled, all big wigs for a change, after very embarrassing close door inquests, and high military staff was subjected to very quick turnaround. The projects and the cutting-edge tech which had brought the use of TCI interfaces to the attention of the world, was quickly swept under the carpet and suddenly, almost overnight, there was no use for TCI-enhanced ground pilots.

We became an embarrassment.

For me, that would mean a quick transfer from my East African outpost to a hospital wing somewhere back home.

Then a very uncertain future.

I sat waiting in my underwear on a white plastic chair, clothes neatly folded on the ground only a few feet away.

For the debriefing they’d chosen the Thunder dome at Camp Lemonnier.

I’d spent my first three months at CL.

The new facilities were now a good mile off base, but the old camp resisted dismantling. Mainly for historical reasons. It still served as training camp too.

It was August and the dome was stifling.

No aircon in there, just a battery of debriefing stations, DEBS as we called them, separated by those white semi-transparent dividers you see in ER units. Inside each allocated makeshift cubicle, was a single bare metal frame with biomed input hardware connected through a C-TRX terminal to an overseas data centre. This was the modern response to risk of data capture by enemy forces. Record all info directly through a laser Comsat link and store nothing locally. US military super thin clients.

The debriefing station also had a specialist consultant and a liaison officer remotely connected and surveying the progress. Often, they were the same person. In my case there two, plus an air force psychiatrist.

‘Unit 53’ the disembodied voice of the biomed unit suddenly spoke to me from the metal frame. I jumped up. Then sat down again. My nerves were still raw.

‘Debriefing commencing at 10.37 am. State name and rank.’

Flies kept landing on my forehead and I kept brushing them off.

I complied.

Told name and rank.

The system clicked and hummed as data instantly travelled to an off-base air force med facility somewhere in New Jersey. Four robotic arms came up to place the trodes on the main contact points for all biomed readings. Cold metal fingers capped with rubber fingertips, smeared cool gel on my forehead, ankles, wrists and chest. The gel was a relief in the heat. It would have been well over 100 Fahrenheit. Multiple needles sank into the same area of my inner right elbow and the back of my left hand for a series of standard blood tests.

As my DEBS finished placing all trodes and the recording started, I could hear troopers and marines giving way to the next battery for debriefing, their boots squelching on the polyurethane coating of the ancient basketball court.

The dome had doubled as a R&R centre for the troops at some point, and even then maintenance had been scarce, but then came more budget cuts. Interest shifted towards weapon technology, not so much on collaterals. And that’s when things went from bad to worse for CL.

Now, in many places the polyurethane coating had been stripped away by countless games played by nervy rookies trying to calm down before going to battle. The layer of vinyl and glass fibres underneath wasn’t in much better shape either.

I must have been the only air force officer there today. Not many left after Jezebel.

After the basic med checks were over with, the questioning was curt.

‘Lieutenant. We read your signed statement. All seems in order. Is there anything you would like to add before discharge?’

‘No.’ I said after a pause.

‘Lieutenant. Margaret Dubcek here.’ A round but otherwise pleasant face filled a fourth screen on the right, replacing sigmoid waves coming from my encephalon ‘I interviewed you right after the incident.’

‘I remember.’

‘I would like to wish you good luck Lieutenant. In my professional opinion you are now ready to leave the air force.’

‘Thank you.’

Another woman a lot thinner and with limp grey hair spoke from the next screen. ‘Lieutenant, Jean Spok, attending liaison officer for Special Operations: despite your discharge today, you are of course still bound to secrecy about the special programme you participated in. Should any information leak, the US government will consider immediate disciplinary…’ beat ‘Pardon: legal action against you. Do you understand?’

‘Sure ma’am.’

‘Is there anything else you would like to add to the initial interview or now?”

‘No ma’am.’

‘Is there anything you do not agree with about the course and mode of your dismissal?’

‘No ma’am.’

‘Good’, Spok said without showing any emotion ‘Then it’s good-bye Lieutenant Castaneda.’

The woman made her way through my new plants of Datura. Despite the high heels, under her dark suit, she proceeded with a certain agility.

‘Victor?’ she called from a distance.

I simply looked up but said nothing.

‘Lieutenant Victor C. Castaneda?’ she smiled when she stopped in front of me. ‘I got your name from the US Force Liaison Office. My name is…’

I waved her away with what I hoped would be very hieratic and dignified gesture, trying to assume the stance and look of the old brujos who had taught me in the past year.

‘No me interesa.’ I said ‘No se que quieras, pero no me importa nada.’ I had a pretty good idea what a woman like that was doing in a place like this. Best case scenario she was from USAF and knew of my past. Worst case scenario, she knew of my past but was not from USAF. So, best to make my intentions very clear right away.

‘Porque no?’ she replied in Spanish.

I looked up at her properly then, bright green eyes suddenly exploding from behind mirror lenses like a pair of aquamarines on fire, as she lowered her sunglasses. The harsh sun of the mesa made them burn with wild intensity. She wasn’t really my kind of girl, too damn thin, and arms as long as a monkey’s, I thought. But eyes like that seemed to have been forged in the depths of earth itself, under immense pressures and at temperatures which made stone fluid as water. And then time had done the rest. Eons must have passed to produce that result. Cold and solid and solemn chrysoberyl, as green as chlorophyll, but its crystal form if it existed. Haunting and sacred, I found myself thinking. I should have known then that El Diablo was visiting me personally, knocking on my door with a proposal I could not refuse.

But I am a very stubborn man.

I didn’t want to falter ‘Not interested.’ I said again in English after a long pause ‘In anything you may have to offer me.’

‘Really?’ she said smiling. ‘Just into plants these days then? And into those TC games which make you feel a little bit less lost?

She consulted a slick digital pad quickly ‘Animal Logic Flight Simulators?’ she read.

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