Authors: Mat Nastos
Tags: #cyberpunk, #Science Fiction, #action, #Adventure
“Good times,” he thought to himself.
Two more revolutionaries dropped, split from crotch to sternum, bleeding out in a shivering pile of cooling meat. The liquidations did little to slow down the bionic soldier. Another guerrilla fell. And another. At each turn there seemed to be another armed rebel, unaware of the shadow of death slowly stretching out across the courtyard towards them.
An itch began to tickle the back of Brazier’s mind. It increased in intensity over the ten seconds that followed as he bore witness to four more uncontested slayings by Cestus.
Letting his gaze trail up from the bright computer screen in his hand, the engineer watched Sergeant Height’s men struggle with their equipment. The large fifty-caliber machine guns the group had lugged across the desert flatland from their initial rallying point gave them the most trouble.
And yet…inside things were going so well.
It was all so easy.
It was all too easy…
“Something’s wrong here,” murmured Brazier, eyes scanning the area at maximum zoom. “This isn’t right.” Even with the sort of efficiency Designate Cestus had become legendary for demonstrating, things shouldn’t have been playing out as easily as they were. Guards fell, one after another, like dominoes placed in Cestus’s path. It was almost as if someone knew the exact route the super-soldier would be taking and had stationed men in the most likely, most obvious positions. Like a video game…
It was a set-up! Someone must have tipped off the Afghanis and warned them of the mission. They were sacrificing men like pawns to lead Designate Cestus into a trap. All moisture evaporated from Brazier’s mouth as he watched his assignment disappear into the only building left unexplored so far, a warehouse made of thin corrugated metal in the compound’s center.
“Say again, Agent Brazier,” said Talborg over the tiny mechanical bud jammed into Brazier’s ear.
Brazier popped up out of the pool of darkness hiding him and the band of marines sent to protect him. The wiry muscles of his legs pumped up and down even as he dropped as much of the sixty pounds of gear strapped to his back as he could. The movement, quick and sudden as it was, caught Sergeant Height and his men flat-footed.
“Stand down, Cestus, it’s a trap!” Brazier screamed over the opened comm-unit connecting him to the cyborg soldier he’d been sent to oversee. “Pull out!”
Without warning, fire, heat, and the hammer of thunder accentuated Brazier’s scream. The force of the unexpected blast took the feet out from under the running engineer…his decision to bolt from the position chosen by the marines was the only thing that saved him from their fate.
“We’re under fire!” screamed Height, moving up behind Brazier with his massive fifty-caliber machine gun unslung and ready to be brought to bear on whatever had attacked them.
The scream of a rocket announced the threat of a second eruption a split second before the world went white for Brazier. Shattered stone and a tsunami of dirt slammed into the slight body of the engineer, launching him head first into the ground. Dirt caked his eyes and every crease of his body as Brazier tried to reoriented himself enough to get out of the way of the third attack he knew had to be coming but the cold grip of fear closed over his heart, making any real movement impossible. Only the firm hand of the giant Sergeant Height finding him in the midst of the chaos kept the rattled man from collapsing into a worthless heap of shuddering, boneless flesh.
Moans of dying men cut through the oily smoke surrounding Brazier and Height. The explosion had taken everyone by surprise.
“What…what happened?” The words Brazier produced were barely coherent.
“Situation’s gone FUBAR, son,” said the large Gunnery Sergeant as he laid down cover fire for what was left of his unit. “I don’t know who is firing on us!”
“Where is it coming from?” asked Brazier, confused. He ducked down as low as possible and began to belly crawl at top speed toward the large aluminum-sided building Cestus had disappeared into moments before pandemonium had erupted.
“Get down!’” growled Height. The bulky marine pushed his way through the dense fog, trying to locate any member of his unit who had survived the bombardment. His heavy automatic weapon swung left to right finding only burned and blistered corpses. “Pull back to rally point one! We need to call in a dust-off!”
Height hefted the gargantuan fifty-kilogram M2A1 machine gun and let loose with a hail of rounds that were belt-fed from a case strapped to his side. A normal man wouldn’t have been able to hold the gun upright without help, let alone fire it on full auto. The sound was like a train slamming into Brazier’s head.
“Screw that,” murmured Brazier under his breath.
Ignoring Height’s commanding bellows, tunnel-vision took over Brazier’s mind. He didn’t have time to get back to the rally point. No. He had to get inside to help Cestus. They were a team…a unit. The engineer needed to get inside and warn the cyborg before whoever had lured them in sprung the rest of their trap. The explosions had torn a six-foot gash in the concrete barricade, a more reasonable entry point for the slight human than climbing over the way Cestus had.
Hot, jagged rocks cut into Brazier’s hands, causing him to stumble and fall, tearing the thick cloth covering his knees and the flesh covering his palms. None of it mattered to the stubborn little man. He was on a mission and no amount of blood or torn skin was going to stop him.
Still, he thought, best to call that bitch Talborg for back-up. It was the least she and Gauss could do after throwing Brazier and the others to the wolves. The pair was probably sitting back and having a good laugh while they watched the fireworks.
“Alpha team taking fire! We need assistance!”
Touching the side of his headset resulted in an ear full of static.
“Agent Talborg, are you there?” he asked, hopeful. “Grace?”
His helmet radio was down…damaged in the bomb-blast? A glance down at his computer screen answered his question. No. Even the satellite link back to the May brothers back at Project Hardwired refused to respond. Swearing to himself, Brazier allowed a baseball slide to take him down to the ground near the corner of the compound’s center-most building. Figuring he’d use the cover provided by the shadow of the tall structure, Brazier set about trying to get reconnected to the world beyond.
There was no way he was going to die on his first field mission, especially not in some forsaken hell-hole like Kabul.
“No way in hell!”
Blood splattered and sprayed with each impact of shaking fingers on the virtual computer keyboard. The surface became slicker and slicker, covered in a translucent red glaze. Periodically, Brazier would send his forearm sliding across the front of the tablet, trying to wipe as much of the crimson liquid as he could. It should have been easy enough for the computer genius. Reroute every erg of computing power in the system to send out a single pulse to any one of the hundred comm-sats in low Earth orbit. Bounce the signal back to the Abraxas Array mainframe and get some help. Easy.
Smearing a band of red war paint across his forehead in an effort to get rid of some of the sweat pooling at his brow, Brazier swore to himself.
In spite of his best attempts to rectify the situation, all communications were down. Every frequency, every channel, every link Brazier attempted was a ‘no go.’ And it was as deliberate an attack as the explosives outside had been. Something or someone was disrupting the equipment. The only active connection the panicked engineer could maintain was the one he had to Designate Cestus. He could still see everything the cyborg did.
Maybe he could still hear Brazier over the comm-link.
“Brazier to Cestus…abort mission. Team under fire.”
Static. Whatever was interfering with the signals seemed to be keeping his tether to the cyborg a non-interactive one. It made no logical sense to the engineer. As far as he knew, the encryption Project Hardwired used for its comm-signals was unbreakable. There was no way a group of terrorists hiding out in the middle of the desert in Afghanistan should be able to jam it. Nothing short of a concentrated electromagnetic pulse would impede the signal, and even then it would have to be a continual EM field—a single EMP would do nothing more than cause minor interference in the hardened electronics employed by the Brazier and his team. And Designate Gauss would have been aware of anything like that and able to counteract the effects.
What the hell had they stumbled into?
Staccato bursts of automatic gunfire ripped Brazier from his contemplation. Somewhere in the distance he could hear Sergeant Height’s booming voice calling for assistance. Another explosion rocked the ground hard enough to drive Brazier down hard onto his right knee, nearly dislocating it. Whatever was going on, he needed to get out of the line of fire and find some cover.
With one eye locked on the image of Cestus inside the building, Brazier stumbled over to the half-opened doorway of the warehouse the cyborg had disappeared into moments early. The door resisted a probing push, seemingly barred from the inside. Setting his shoulder into the door, Brazier leaned into it with all his might, fighting back against the pain radiating up from his leg. The door swung wide suddenly, sending the engineer tumbling down hard. His bloodshot, bruised eyes looked up from the cracked stone floor to gaze into the sightless orbs of a corpse, stealing the breath from Brazier’s lungs.
Bodies and pools of congealing plasma seemed to cover every inch of the warehouse floor. Men and guns were torn to shreds. Off to one side, a desert-camouflaged tarp lay with a third of its length partially covering the mammoth BM-21 rocket launch vehicle that had been stolen from the Russians. Brazier gave the series of crates stacked nearby marked with bio-hazard symbols his vote for containing the SARS chemical agents the team had been sent to recover. It was all here, laid out exactly as intel had promised it would be.
On a silver platter.
But where was Designate Cestus and why hadn’t he responded to the attacks outside.
A noise, the sound of metal scraping on stone, nearly voided Brazier’s bladder. The delicate pale yellow hair on the back of his neck stood on end, goosebumps riddled every inch of exposed flesh on his arms. He wasn’t alone. Something was alive and moving out in the predawn shadows of the building. The only light in the abyssal space of the room emanated from the electronic device clutched with white-knuckled claws and pressed against his chest.
“Cestus?” was what Brazier intended to call out but all that emerged was a squeak understandable only by canines.
The hard soled combat boots he’d been given scraped across the floor, making enough noise to worry the terrified computer tech, ushering him slowly towards where his monitor had shown Cestus’s own quest take him.
“Cestus?” Brazier called out in the harsh approximation of a whisper. His query was greeted only by the creak of a door opening in the dark. A sound echoed back to him from the dime-sized speakers mounted in the sides of his flat-screened computer, drawing his attention back to its surface.
Shining up from the screen of the tiny computer tablet, Cestus stepped through the final door and caught sight of something in the rear of the room that caught his attention. From his position, Brazier watched as the cyborg moved stiffly to the center of the hard concrete floor, covered in grime and old motor oil, and stop. The program monitoring every aspect of Cestus’s systems…everything from his heart rate and pulse, to blood pressure, eye movements, and reaction time…showed the cybernetic killer was completely at easy. He had gone into an almost rest-like state.
“I am here,” Brazier heard the super soldier’s voice ring out calmly over his radio headset.
Thinking the man was speaking to him, Brazier almost responded, but something held his tongue. After a beat, Cestus continued.
“Unit ready to receive further instructions.”
“‘Further instructions?’ What the hell is going on here,” Brazier asked himself. Whoever Cestus was having the conversation with was someone the engineer couldn’t see and was someone the cyborg had been expecting to meet. How was it possible?
A coded transmission blasted across Brazier’s monitor and headset simultaneously. For a second, the burst was a garbled mess of static and white noise that threatened to rupture the engineer’s eardrums with its intensity. Then, slowly, a voice began to push through the sonic cacophony. The voice of an old, tired man.
“This is the way the world ends…”
The voice stopped Brazier, just on the opposite side of the door leading into the cramped office containing Cestus. Fear locked every joint in his body.
A beep and the green flickering light of an active connection forced him to swing his head down in search of the source.
For a microsecond, the link to the communications satellite Project Hardwired had monitoring in geosynchronous orbit twenty-two thousand miles overhead was wide open, allowing Brazier to get a lock on the transmissions source. In that microsecond everything crystallized for the Project Hardwired technician in a way that scared him to the core of his being.
Los Angeles. The signal was from Los Angeles.
Project Hardwired headquarters.
Brazier was stunned. If his readings were correct, the transmission was coming from the Abraxas Array itself. The coded signal, whatever it was, came from somewhere deep within the heart of the artificial intelligence that ran nearly every aspect of the top secret government organization. It made no sense.
A black kernel began to grow in the back of the mid-westerner’s mind. A thought that could very much get him killed if it turned out to be true. Was someone at Project Hardwired responsible or…
“Good, God,” thought Brazier, eyes going wide. Could the entire situation, the entire operation, have been fabricated by Abraxas-1? To what end, though? None of it made any sense.
The engineer needed to get communications back up and running so he could confirm his findings with someone at headquarters. He needed to tell someone.