Prologue · In The Fever Dreams of Fallen, Frozen Warriors

A Game of Go.

A wind-blown, frost-laden cross rose five feet tall above the frozen mountainside, thirty feet behind the military compound’s concrete exterior blast wall.

The chapped and peeling strips of pine comprising its vertical and horizontal arms were tightly bound at their intersection by spirals of barbed wire. Silver wire had begun to rust a dark red due to the rigors of the elements; ice glistening along the rough-hewn surface splintered the full moon’s light as the cross cast a shadow toward the military outpost a few hundred feet ahead.

Deep within the mountain, a honeycomb of cell-like communications cubicles crammed with electronics systems and information displays converged on a central control room. In one such cubicle, on a small table next to the operator’s console sat a notebook-sized screen simulating a game of Go, the polished ovular black and white stones appearing to gleam against a backlit 19×19 grid illuminated from within.

“You took first move last night, so I’m starting off black this time.” The stones disappeared, and four empty squares comprised the center of the board; with a tap on the screen, a black stone occupied the squares’ central intersection. “Ever since we started playing Go, something’s been bugging me. This is a Japanese warrior strategy game, right? I dig that, but man, I’ve been trying to pronounce ‘Torakanmuri’ ever since I joined this unit. From all the major allied countries, only seven of our ninety-man company are from Japan — remind me why our unit’s name is written in their language?”

Snow-covered rocky soil churned a wide, two-tracked path beneath modular steel plates’ lurching grind. The armoured ambulance nimbly made its way up the incline toward an observation post erected between the two-story blast wall and a perimeter fence of equal height fifty feet away. In the spacious rear compartment of the armored ambulance, a similar game grid reflected in a pair of eyes observing the first move. With a touch, a white stone appeared to the black one’s right. “The entire Golan area is still hot after the invasion. We’ve got Japanese orbital nuclear support priority on high-alert status. That could have something to do with it.”

Aligned below the ceiling of the cubicle, a row of timezone-tagged screens updated their heat maps of global conflict zones as they did once per minute. A glance back down at the grid preceded another black stone’s appearance on the board. “The tactical nukes can be deployed anywhere across the planet, though.”

A white stone countered the move. “True.”

“So in other words, some career-minded NCO with a taste for politics owed somebody else a favor, and now we’ve got a name that I can’t even begin to pronounce.”

“You got it easy. I’m from Hawaii. I might look the part but I definitely don’t speak it. You know how long it takes for ‘real’ Japanese passing through our unit to realize I have no idea what they’re saying? Then they get offended like I pissed on their flag.” The two players shared a laugh. “Now, I just put up three fingers and smile, thinking, ‘it’s World War III, you got the numeral wrong. We’re on the same team this time!’ They think it’s the ‘peace’ sign; every now and then somebody even returns the three-finger salute.” More laughter. “But then, the backwater bumpkins from every country get drafted first, I guess. Or in my case, the beach bums-turned-conscientious objectors.”

“Or the broke kids from the inner city.”

A few minutes passed as the screen filled with simulated Go stones and their enclosed territories.

“Ha. I win again. And it’s Patch Tuesday; time to update the sniper teams’ software. Cardiovascular device drivers need re-calibrating again; they’ve have been acting up recently.” The hardbacked paper-thin screen in hand cast a pale light toward the forward commander’s seat, and beyond that, the driver’s narrow compartment at the front of the armored vehicle. Following behind the improvised torch and climbing into the seat behind the steering yoke, the break lever was released and ignition button pressed, followed by a five-minute wait for the engine to warm up. “Still don’t get why the updates can’t be uploaded wirelessly…”

A news ticker occupied the bottom of a monitor in the communications cell. Up-to-the-minute casualty and troop movement reports scrolled across, detailing an ambush during the ongoing siege of Majdal Shams, a small city eleven miles away. “Wireless can’t be secured to DoD standard. It actually can, but they don’t want to risk it. Same reason that unauthorized devices jacked into the network are automatic fodder for court-martial. Security, security, security.” A console window opened, followed by commands typed in order to retrieve a page-length block of archanely coded output. “We’re good, though. The encryption and firewalls on our VPN are pure black ice with my paranoid homebrew touch; I doubt that anyone who’s not a graduate of the USCYBERCOM advanced course could even see our little two-person subnet, much less crack it with anything below supercomputer-grade processing power.”

“So in something resembling English, our weekly Go game tournaments are almost completely invisible to the outside world?”

The console window disappeared. “…and to the network security nerds in the server room down the hall from me.” The sweeping waves of a radar screen at right took a moment of attention before the pensive scowl returned to the simulated Go board. “Congrats on the win. Feel free to gloat; I’m only juggling communications and dataflows for the entire base over here, you know…”

The medical personnel carrier’s heavy tread turned toward to the ridgeline above the base. “And I’m a combat medic patching up software as often as I repair wounds. My NEC may be HM-8404, but the job description for us Devil Docs is about as techie as yours.”

“Not to bust your bubble, Mr. Conscientious ‘G.I.-Just-Say-No’, but who do you think lovingly hand-crafts those software patches to automate the seven-hour calibration process down to six minutes?”

Resuscitation for the Recently Departed.

“Touche… they don’t call you ‘the best REMF in the Middle East’ for nothing, do they? I mean, there’s a medal for that, right?”

“Who you calling a Rear-Echelon MotherFucker? Man, you’re sitting pretty — tending snake bites for the sniper team, dosing up sleepy night patrols on extra StayAlert, field-dressing paper cuts and injecting rabies booster for the K-10 team. R-E-M F-you!”

“Keep your panties on, Dorothy. I’ll go easy on you next time. Besides, once you get past the taste, Stay Alert’s best chewing gum out there. Hundred milligrams of caffeine per stick, better than the strongest cup of coffee. Just wait till you try the spicy Perky Jerky.” One hand on the steering yoke guided the medical personnel carrier across the rough, uneven ground; the other hand’s index finger pressed ‘reset’ on the game. “Best two out of three?”

“Sure. Just don’t start cursing in Hawaiian when I beat your ass all the way back to Honolulu. First move is yours; I’m black this time.”

The game of Go began again, dividing the driver’s attention between the LED headlamp-illuminated earth ahead and the strategic placement of stones on the backlight screen. A white stone appeared near the center of the board. “Your move.”

In an unusual tactic, a black stone appeared half the board’s distance away from its white counterpart. “Forget war, man, I’m looking to go back to school after this is all over. Foxholes and the ‘hood ain’t no place for me…”

Arriving at the foot of the elevated observation outpost, the medical personnel carrier came to a halt. “Wouldn’t mind going back home, myself… nothing wrong with the beach, sun, girls and waves…” Laughter on both sides. “But there’s got to be more to life than hanging out at home or getting shot at abroad, you know?” Shutting off the engine, the driver crouched to exit the cramped driver’s seat, scooting past the commander’s station and walking back to enter the more-spacious rear compartment. “After the last recession, there’s practically no jobs left on the Big Island. My dad’s a teacher, but that barely puts food on the table. Half my family can’t find fulltime work. Some cousins moved to the mainland, but the situation there isn’t much better.”

In the cell-like communications room deep in the mountain, the location of the personnel carrier on the embankment above and behind the base camp was shown in a perimeter-monitoring screen above and to the right. “Life is just a long march, man. Another day, another dollar. And at some point, another war. Tell Anshar I said ‘hi’.”

Taken from a cargo pocket on the uniform’s left thigh, a small earbud nestled into the left ear, leading to a strawlike microphone positioned at the jawline. The headset’s skin-contacting surface was designed using the same type of powerful, non-stick adhesive that enabled long-extinct tropical geckos to climb and cling to walls. “Roger. Will do.” Inlaid into a powered ramp comprising the back face of the vehicle, a rear door unlocked and opened outward to the frigid night air. The tactical medical bag slung from one shoulder offered little protection from periodically gusting winds on the way to the observation outpost twenty feet uphill.

The two-story tall outpost stood fifteen feet from the rear blast wall winding down and around the fortified compound. Snow-camouflage boots bounded up the two flights of stairs; a fist covered by a thick winter glove knocked on the locked door. No response from inside. The right hand’s glove was removed in order to more easily unbutton a breast pocket on the heavy parka. Above the door handle, a cylindrical tumbler lock accepted the correct key from among several strung along a chain retrieved from the pocket. A moment’s wait with right hand wrapped around the handle prompted a red light above the cylinder to turn green. The door opened with a twist and firm push.

In the observation post’s single moonlit room, the sniper sat facing the window at the opposite wall. A sleek black rifle sat on a table abutting the wall, muzzle pointing out across the mountainous landscape from behind the thick glass pane.

“Did you forget the thermostat, soldier? It’s fifteen degrees below outside…” No answer from the seated figure. “Anshar?” After locking the door and crossing the room, a hand at the shoulder of the soldier disturbed the seated posture. The body slumped sideways and fell to the floor.

Spoken into the wireless headset’s mouthpiece: “Sniper one is down. No apparent entry wounds or signs of foul play. Scene is safe. Initiating assessment.”

The body was laid supine in the middle of the room. Listening for breath at the the level of the nose, fingertips pressed for a few seconds at the side of the throat while unzipping the tactical medical bag with the other hand. “No signs of respiration or pulse.” Opening the sniper’s right eyelid and shining a small flashlight: “No pupil response. No visible injury, signs of cardiovascular distress, hypercarbic response or cyanosis. Conducting pinprick analysis.” A tiny hemisphere of blood appeared at the sniper’s index finger after the tap of a disposable needletip attached to a small boxy beige handheld.

In the earbud, consternation was evident. “Strange. Last radio contact was just seventeen minutes ago.”

Recounting the readout on the handheld: “Preliminary hemoanalysis shows no unusual sign of central nervous system depressants, intoxicants or other foreign substances. Almost like someone turned down the dial until she slowly fell asleep and stopped breathing.” Pausing to think. “I’ve been remote-monitoring the sniper team’s vitals for the past two hours; thermals, hydration, metabolic, environment, cognitive and medical measures are all steady, regular, unremarkable. And alive.”

Ten Minutes of Terror.

“…hold on, report from a half-mile beyond the wire. Patrol is reporting enemy contact.”

The snowy landscape beyond the window offered no clues. “This sector is supposed to be secure.”

“Wide-area drone surveillance is only receiving a few enemy heat signatures out there. Switching to HD capture for visual confirmation… enemy head count confirmed. Returning to thermal imaging. Patrol is engaging the enemy with small arms fire… wait… that’s not possible.”

“Not possible? Coming from you, that can’t be a good sign.” After opening the sniper’s field jacket, flattened palms aligned at the midline of the chest, one hand directly laid over the other. “Initiating CPR, beginning chest compressions.”

After thirty seconds, the voice returned. “Scrambling all mobile infantry units. One other medic is on patrol; notify Jenkins to prep the infirmary and expect casualties coming back.”

Without pausing the chest compressions: “Roger. Estimate of enemy numbers?”

“At least one-hundred-fifty, with a platoon of HULC2 mechanized armors. They couldn’t have just appeared from nowhere. It’s impossible.”

The voice-controlled headset switched channels to dial the infirmary, then lodge a request medical support for the sniper at the observation outpost and begin preparations for wounded coming back from the front lines.

Upon switching back to the encrypted channel, the voice at the command center asked: “you’re near the rifle mount?”

The sniper rifle sat waiting, cradled by its tripod sitting on the desk. Four metallic feet squeaked on the linoleum as the chair resumed its place in front of the rifle. “Affirmative.”

“Hold for a moment… okay — place your hand on the rifle’s grip, align your right eye to the sight, and then tap — not squeeze — the trigger once.”

Compliance with the instructions led the rifle to boot up, calibrating to its new user’s fingerprint and retina. The rifle’s sight came to life as its magnified machine vision displayed the terrain straight ahead. Mobile infantry vehicles streamed out of the compound through the blast wall and perimeter fence, heading toward the battlefield. The road snaked around the foot of a lesser mountain, down a steep hill and into the shallow valley below, where an intense firefight was taking place. “It’s real dynamic out there. The patrol doesn’t stand a chance — are you getting the video feed from this rifle?”

“Roger. I see what you see. You have clear line-of-sight for multiple targets. Authorized to fire.”

Re-positioning the gun stock at the shoulder while squeezing the left eye shut: “I’m a corpsman, not a marksman. How the hell do I operate this thing?”

An easy confidence came across the line. “Precision guidance — sight your target and it’ll appear tagged with a red dot once the riflescope calculates displacement for gravity, drag, parallax and crosswinds. Pull the trigger, hold steady, and the rifle does the rest. On a clear night like this with no precip, low humidity and calm winds, you practically can’t miss.”

A moment’s decision weighed the options between two sides engaged in ferocious combat, and the sniper lying motionless on the floor. “Negative. I’ve already got my hands full here.”

Layers of fabric fell away from a sharp-toothed pair of shears retrieved from the tactical medical bag. Adhesive defibrillation patches placed at the left chest region and right ribs connected via thin wires to a blue and white portable defibrillator on the floor. Programming the defibrillator to administer three shocks, a touch of a button marked “Charge” was followed by depression of a red “Start” button. Over the next thirty seconds, the shocks were administered silently and without movement on the part of the downed sniper.

The voice in the earpiece noted that “I re-radioed all snipers on duty a minute ago. They all ‘rogered’ back… including Sniper One.”

“Well, from a medical perspective, I can guarantee you that she’s not talking. At least, not to me.” After the three electrical pulses were complete, a hard white case yielded a needle and vial. Held up to the moonlight, the filled needle spurted to remove air bubbles. “Curse or cure?” Squinting skeptically: “Now’s definitely not the time for debate…” Leaning to gently push the needle’s tip below the skin, the medication found its way into the bloodstream before being sealed with a temporary dressing. Three more rounds of chest compressions ensued in an attempt at re-circulating the infused blood, and the defibrillator’s three-shock sequence was repeated.

Under the sniper’s knit cap, a wireless earpiece and microphone began to emit a buzzing static. Resting the needle back in its case, the earbud popped easily from the sniper’s ear and reached eye level. Listening intently, the static continued, then stopped. A sound began, far away at first, then more loudly and clearly. It was rhythmic, a male voice, but not quite words. As the voice became louder and clearer, the sound finally became unmistakable. The sound was a low, hollow, mocking laughter.

The rest of the room was empty and silent. Peering down at the restful-looking face, the two earpieces were brought within a hair’s breadth of each other. “Are you hearing what I’m hearing?”

“Either we’re both hallucinating or something is going very wrong here. Scope it for yourself.”

Returning to the rifle, the scope only confirmed the disembodied laughter’s sinister implications. Where both sides had begun the battle firing upon each other, the mechanized armored units of friend and foe now indiscriminately turned their weapons on themselves and their fellows. Their movements were disjointed and stiff, as if controlled by an invisible hand that was unconcerned with grace or even the strictures of natural human range of motion. Arms bent and jerked at unnatural angles as their rifles and sidearms turned and fired, clearly beyond the will of the mechanized bodysuits’ operators.

Unblinking for minutes while taking in the grim spectacle at the center of the battlefield, the sound of ghostly laughter continued, interrupted periodically by static. “I don’t believe it… what the hell…” The death toll steadily climbed as the moments passed, quickly becoming a self-inflicted massacre rather than a mutually contested battle.

The defibrillator beeped in rapid succession as the ultrasound monitor’s doppler waveforms signaled a revival of electrical activity in the sniper’s heart.

The chair squealed on the linoleum as its occupant dropped the wireless headset and leapt to the floor, kneeling in front of the sniper and quickly recalibrating the machine to “monitor” mode.

“She’s back… Anshar’s alive. Do you copy?”

“Roger. Sniper One is back online?”

“Cardioversion with Synthephrin adrenergic administration was successful. Make that two ‘impossibles’ in one night…” A slight, nearly disbelieving smile arose at the sight of the sniper’s restful face illuminated by the moon’s diffuse light outside the window. Selection of “Ultrasonic cardiac massage” set the defibrillator to assist the heart’s electrical system when needed.

Back at the sniper rifle’s sight, magnification brought into focus the first vehicles of the mobile infantry unit as they approached the battlefield. The blast wall and barbed wire fence quickly closed behind them.

Triage.

In the earpiece: “She’ll owe you drinks for life. Calling in tactical nuclear support from Tokyo. Anunnaku ballistic missile payload ETA to enemy target coordinates and triangulated base camp location is two point five hours.”

The silver aluminized thermal casualty blanket retrieved from the tactical medical bag gently floated down to provide warm cover for the sniper. “No radio contact from medic on patrol despite repeated attempts. I’ve got to get down there.”

“Negative. The zone is too hot. Orders from command are to wait for further tactical assessment and reinforcements.”

“All our troops could be dead by then. I can’t just sit here and watch on the sidelines.” The needle, vial and shears found their places in the bag, zippers and clasps shut and all other materials accounted for. “The medical team will be here for Anshar any moment now. If what I saw through the scope earlier is any indication, our side is going to need all the help they can get.”

The voice on the other end of the line was taut and matter-of-fact. “If you do that, you’ll be on your own. Medevac and attack drone support is out of the question until their onboard systems and networking are scanned and swept clean. And you’ll need a driver if you want to navigate a battlefield like this in the middle of winter. Automatic drive’s evasive maneuver algorithms can’t compensate for snow, ice and extreme terrain.”

A sharp intake of breath followed the first freezing step out of the observation post’s door, with a light gesture to the medical personnel carrier twenty feet down the steep hill. “You forget that this ambulance is actually a modified tank without the turret. Besides, I know how to drive this bus; I’ll be fine. Before I forget” — while carefully navigating the icy stairs — “Anshar’s brother Kishar is a HULC2 operator. Anshar is still at death’s door and will be until she’s stabilised in hospital. Kishar’s mind will be clearer and morale held higher if the news of her critical condition is left until after tonight. Is it possible to keep mention of Sniper One off the official channels until then?”

“Roger. I’ll do what I can.”

Entering the medical personnel carrier and shutting the door, the internal lighting system came to life, revealing a miniature field hospital in the rear compartment. Once in the driver’s seat, brake released and engine gunning to life, there was no time to wait before driving through the rear blast wall’s open gate, across the grounds of the military compound and heading straight for the front wall with a perfunctory nod to the snow-blown makeshift statue of the cross.

“Watch for non-mechanized enemy that may still be operational on the field. AIFV clearance granted. Your vehicle is now cleared to exit the compound.”

Massive gears and levers pulled the front blast wall’s nearly impregnable tonnage apart on either side. Armed sentries stood at fortified emplacements above with high-caliber assault rifles at the ready as the personnel carrier’s diesel hydrocell engine rumbled through. The barbed perimeter fence also withdrew, only to close quickly behind the speeding personnel carrier.

The view ahead was blocked by the foot of the lesser mountain that forced the roadway to curve leftward before returning right and diving down into the shallow valley basin below.

Over the half-mile crossing through inhospitable mountainous terrain, automatic drive functionality allowed the ambulance to maintain its mapped course along the highway to the battlefield without need of driver intervention. This allowed for final diagnostic checks of all needed equipment in the rear compartment.

The ambulance’s navigation systems issued a warning that the battlefield was imminent. Taking the yoke and deactivating automatic drive before turning offroad, expectations could not have prepared even the most hardened combat veteran for the scene that unveiled itself from behind the cover of snow dunes and rock formations up ahead.

All was quiet at the outskirts of the battlefield. Only the sound of the wind stirring low grasses and snow drifts filtered through the sparse covering of pine trees. The hardbacked paper-thin screen slid into a ruggedized encasement and snapped into place, and was placed into a tray-like compartment on the front of the tactical vest above a holstered service pistol. The tray shut into its ‘up’ position where it blended with the vest’s front, and all was concealed under a heavy white winter parka.

One deep breath did little to change the premonitory anticipation of what was to come. Retrieving a helmet and pair of field binoculars from the ambulance’s dashboard, the well-oiled commander’s hatch in the ceiling behind the driver’s seat opened smoothly. Standing at waist-height in the circular opening, the binoculars’ viewfinder swept across the battlefield, revealing no activity from the enemy side.

Speaking into the jawline microphone: “Onsite visual confirmation — all HULC2 armors and warfighters in-field are down and presumed nonfunctional.”

The commander’s hatch swung shut, and the ambulance edged forward onto the field. On the ruggedized screen, emergency beacons of downed soldiers shown along with available vital statistics regarding their status. Of over seventy beacons, only seventeen showed signs of life, and all were either in critical condition, near it, or showed indication of grievous injury. “Emergency beacon readings show eight-six percent probable fatalities and of those remaining, sixty-two percent are critical.” The ambulance rolled to a stop ten feet from the first living biosignature.

Coarse padded straps of an advanced life support rucksack unhooked from the storage space below a row of seats along the wall of the ambulance. The backpack distributed sixtyfive pounds evenly across its wearer’s back, shoulder straps cinched snugly to maximize the body-conforming shape.

Upon exiting the rear of the ambulance, cold and blustering wind carried an odor that threatened to overwhelm the senses. It was a mixture of charred metal, burning plastic, explosive residue and human flesh. The snow underfoot could not be trod for more than ten feet without reaching a patch soaked in slick machine oil or the dark arterial stain of freshly spilled blood. Wreckage from the mechanized infantry unit formed a skeletal junkyard of smoking, twisted steel-alloy remains.

The vest’s front compartment lowered to ‘down’ position, unfolding along the axis of a hinge at the bottom of the compartment, backlit screen pinpointing the first biosignature only a few feet away. The hard-packed snow became wet and soft as heat from the HULC2 mechanized armor radiated into the space around it. The jet-black chitinous exoskeleton’s articulated, spring-loaded lower limbs added twelve inches to the height of the wearer. At the knees, hips, elbows and shoulders, augmented joint structures allowed the wearer to bear loads that would otherwise require up to thirty times his or her natural strength. Electrical currents on the skin were detected via peripheral nervous system processing units distributed throughout the flexible nanotube “musculature” of the suit, translating into a near-infinite combination of movements limited only by the human body itself.

The tradeoff of such tight human-machine integration was twofold. The body’s natural heat dissipation was handled entirely through active cooling and exhaust ventilation throughout the suit. Use of bioelectrical impedance to create seamless kinesthetic power required that the suit be “wired” to the skin via electrodes. Those electrodes could also carry a backflow of current and a risk of electrocution if the machine’s nanotube muscle fibers became overloaded for an inordinate period.

The armored soldier lying on the ground a few feet away appeared unconscious. One screen-tap brought up the soldier’s vitals as channeled through the suit. A heading labeled “DCAP-BTLS” revealed that hydration was dangerously low due to third-degree, full-thickness electrical burns; numerous broken bones, bullet wounds and a deep visceral laceration contributed to excessive blood loss resulting in the onset of shock. The soldier’s blood pressure readings were falling by the second.

Dropping the medical tactical bag on the ground, a tap of the “Request Unlock Code” from the righthand navigation menu opened a dialog box bearing an hourglass and the word “Sending fingerprint authentication…” This was replaced three seconds later by the message “Connecting to operator. Enter authentication code:” above a blank text box. The command center’s familiar voice in the earpiece requested spoken verification of the HULC2 suit’s serial number as displayed on the screen. Once the string of six alphanumeric symbols was read back, the voice responded by speaking the authentication code which was then manually entered into the blank text box. Upon entry of the code’s final symbol, the soldier’s armor emitted a high-pitched beep for two seconds.

Glowing white seams appeared along the front of the exoskeleton’s neck below the chin, along the collarbone, to the shoulder and down the inner arm to encircle the wrist at its narrowest point. The white lines also traced down from collarbone to midsternum and down the torso to outline the circumference of the waist, then split in two down to the inseam of either thigh, knee and on to the ankle. Along the suit’s seams at each joint, the armored panels audibly clicked open slightly as would the bonnet of an unlocked car.

Steamy heat hissed out from under the armored panels into the cold air, unleashing the stench of the soldier’s charred skin beneath the suit’s burnt-out electrode contacts. A quick look at the screen revealed probable injury sites as reflected by disruptions in the armor’s continuity. Guided by the three-dimensional visualization on the screen, lifting an armor panel at the lower left quadrant of the abdomen revealed a gaping evisceration that was bleeding heavily. Sterile gauze, adhesive tape and and a small bottle of saline solution sat in the compartments of the tactical medical bag, ready for use. Removing both heavy winter gloves for improved dexterity and squirting saline solution over the exposed intestines, the muttered words “glad you’re not awake to feel this…” fell mute at the sound of medical tape noisily torn from the roll. Four lengths of tape secured all sides of the sterile gauze over the wound site as it quickly soaked in blood and saline solution. After placing an extra gauze pad over the dressing for compression of the wound site, the panel of the armor was placed back along its seams and closed. The seven more superficial bullet wounds, lacerations and as much burn coverage as possible were then addressed. No head trauma was indicated by the armor’s self-scanning output on the screen; the soldier’s full helmet and face-covering visor were therefore left in place.

The soldier’s blood pressure began to stabilize, though still falling. Once the last of the injuries were treated, each panel of the armor was quickly re-aligned with its seams and closed to help prevent heat loss, except for the two upper forearm panels. The top compartment of the rucksack contained a liquid-filled, coral blue container large enough to lie flat across the soldier’s armored thighs. A length of surgical tubing attached to the right side of the device was unspooled and brought to the soldier’s right wrist. At the end of the tubing, a needle tip quickly entered the soldier’s vein at the elbow juncture just below the bicep; on the left side, another tube was similarly placed. Short lengths of sterile tape kept the needles from moving. A firm press of the white “On” button started a centrifuge in the center of the machine spinning. The centrifuge changed from coral blue to bright red as the machine began to process the soldier’s blood; the display on the container soon reported blood oxygenation, circulation and temperature levels. A second press of the white button resulted in a humming sound and vibrations within the machine as the centrifuge increased the speed of its revolutions. The left tube’s red blood flow into the machine became accompanied by an outflow of emerald green fluid mixture from the right tube and into the soldier’s arm.

The fold-out screen on the vest flashed. All biosignatures were previously stationary or moving in a small radius; this signature appeared to be thirtyfive feet away at the outskirts of the battlefield and fast approaching from behind. Watching the flashing dot on the screen coming closer: “three… two… one…”

In one motion of the hand, the service pistol’s holster at vest-front came unbuttoned, firearm drawn and aimed in the direction of the approaching footsteps. Standing with index finger in the triggerguard and ready to pull while turning toward at the target, the words “Don’t shoot!” were immediately recognizable as belonging to the medic deployed with the decimated patrol.

“A medic in the killing fields; will wonders never cease,” lowering the weapon, the dry quip masked a racing pulse. “No response when I radioed you earlier. Explain your breach of protocol, soldier.”

Stammering, the junior-grade medic offered a first-hand account of the HULC2 armors turning on each other, some moving as if tasked specifically with destroying the patrol’s transport vehicles. Faced with the terror of the situation, the junior medic ran and hid behind a tree, not daring to venture farther for fear of being spotted and murdered by the rampaging mechanized armors. The medic’s headset had fallen in the snow and was lost during the battle.

“Alright. Help me find any possible living members of your patrol.” “They’re all dead; I watched them kill themselves and each other one by one. All the transports are destroyed as well.”

“Members of the mechanized infantry unit aren’t all dead, according to my computer.” “But what if there are non-mechanized forces on the enemy side waiting to ambush us?”

Hissing with exasperation, service pistol still in hand: “soldier, if you want to desert your post and make a run for the mountains, I’ll give you a five-second head start. Considering that I had you dead to rights before even sighting you a moment ago, you’ll want to choose wisely. Know that I was first trained as a marksman before becoming a medic.” The lie came across with the authority of a four-star general, an empty bluff inflated to the level of undeniable fact with the strength of all possible bravado.

Faced with the prospect of evading a well-aimed bullet, the junior medic assented.

The service pistol slid back to into its holster and buttoned shut. “Nuclear support will be arriving in two hours, so we have an hour and forty minutes before evacuating the area. With any luck, reinforcements will be here to collect our men in time. Until then, we triage the field. We have to share supplies, so we stay in the same area in case one needs the other’s assistance.” “Yes, sir!”

A gust of wind brought the realization that the heavy winter gloves lay on the ground near the tactical medical bag and rucksack. Flexing and extending the fingers had already become difficult due to the subzero freezing temperatures. Disregarding the prickling discomfort, a look down at the touchscreen showed three wounded, but possibly living HULC2 operators deeper in the battlefield and closer to enemy lines. Taking the tactical medical bag and rucksack with them, the two medics headed for the medical transport carrier.

Over the next hour and twenty minutes, they worked feverishly to save the few remaining soldiers whom they found alive. Intricate work frequently required the removal of the heavy winter gloves; due to previous extended exposure, gusting winds and subzero temperatures, frostbite started to set in at the exposed fingertips. Eventually, creeping numbness rendered movements requiring any level of dexterity almost unmanageable.

Into the Fire.

Only eight minutes left; the vest-mounted screen pinged a possible living soldier nearby. The display showed bullet impacts to the shoulder and neck, as well as critical structural integrity breach of the exoskeleton at the left leg. Arrival at the fallen HULC2 armor’s side made real the extent of the damage: the left leg was gone from the knee down; a dark pool of blood had gathered in the snow at the side of the neck and shoulder. A shout rang out immediately, alerting the junior medic to come and assist with treatment.

The impassive black visor offered no movement or expression. “Soldier! Can you hear me?” “Yes,” the voice returned weakly. “Can you wiggle your toes and clench your fists for me?” Fists clenched and the right leg moved slightly. The junior medic arrived and placed the tactical medical bag down next to the HULC2 armor.

“Assess the left lower extremity and prepare treatment in case of rapid decompensation once the armor is unlocked.” “Yes, sir!”

High above, the moon was obscured by heavy clouds and the battlefield became enshrouded in deep shadow.

A tap of the “Request Unlock Code” button and fingerprint authentication brought the familiar voice to the earpiece. Instead of requesting the serial number, however, a warning came across the line. “Non-mechanized troop movement has been detected across enemy lines; reinforcements are en route from Majdal Shams. Get out of there.” From across the enemy lines, flashes became visible. Seconds later, the snow twenty feet away kicked up in tufts of white. “We’re taking fire!” the junior medic cried. A glare steadied the panic with a single command. “Continue treatment, soldier.” The miserably conflicted junior medic anxiously did as ordered. “This is our last case to tackle before returning to base. Patient is alert and responsive; we’ll evacuate after status is fully assessed and triage completed.” Looking down at the serial number displayed on the screen, the alphanumeric sequence was spoken into the jawline microphone.

“Three lives or one, the choice is yours.” With that terse reply, the seams of the powered armor glowed white and unlocked, enabling the helmet’s visor to be lifted. Small-arms fire from across the enemy lines began kicking up snow and dirt closer to their location.

Moving to the HULC2 armor’s head and stabilizing the helmet between both knees, an attempt at lifting the visor without undue movement of the soldier’s cervical spine quickly proved to be too skilled a task for frostbitten fingers. The junior medic, seeing the predicament, quickly assisted in removing the visor.

Kishar’s eyes opened slowly, unfocused and wandering as the visor was removed.

The junior medic wrapped a tourniquet around the left thigh, but was unable to stop the arterial bleeding; the severed jugular vein at the neck oozed with every slowing beat of Kishar’s heart.

“Hey, doc,” Kishar mumbled. “How am I doing? I can feel the right leg, but the left one’s not so hot.”

“You’re doing fine. Reinforcements are coming and we’ll be out of here in no time.” Bullets dug into the snow only a few feet away as the enemy small-arms fire edged closer.

“You never were a good liar, doc..” Kishar said, barely audible. “How’s Anshar? Is she out here, too?” Kishar blinked slowly, eyes staying closed for a long time before opening again.

“No, she’s safe, back on watch at the base. Your sister wanted me to tell you that…” Kishar’s breathing became laboured. The gunfire was almost upon them.

“…she expects you in mess hall tomorrow morning, and…” Grimacing in pain, Kishar’s eyes opened and stared intensely upward toward the moonless sky, breath coming in ragged gasps. Bullets began to sing through the air as well as impacting the ground nearby.

“…and that she loves you very much.” One last agonal breath escaped Kishar’s lips, chest heaving in the struggle to take in one more, and finally collapsing, releasing all tension. Seeming to hear the last part of the sentence, Kishar’s eyes gently closed, face relaxing into a faint smile. Even in the depth of darkness, the young face, having barely entered adulthood, slackened in final repose and attained a restful quality strongly resemblant of his sister.

The voice in the earpiece, garbled: “worse than we thought –” Then static. A far away sound entered the line. The static continued, then stopped. A sound began, far away at first, then more loudly and clearly. It was rhythmic, a male voice, but not quite words. As the voice became louder and clearer, the sound finally became unmistakable. The sound was a low, hollow, mocking laughter. “Compromised — almost –” More static. “Quarantine” — a burst that resembled a bolt of lightning in digital form was followed by a muffled scream, then the line went silent.

“Alright medic, it’s time to get the…” Eyes traveling upward from Kishar’s restful face were met by the sight of the junior medic sitting slouched in the snow with chin to chest, helmet cocked oddly to one side and a trickle of blood slowly descending from one eye.

“…hell out of here.” Bullets began to fall like hail around them, zipping and thudding into the ground inches away. Leaving the equipment behind and heading for the medical personnel carrier only forty feet ahead, the vehicle seemed farther away than a rush-hour highway crossing would have been to a snail with only the shell on its back for protection. The distance was crossed at a full sprint, crouching with bullets nipping at heels and buzzing furiously through the frigid night air.

The rear door of the personnel carrier arrived within arm’s reach. Two steps away, right hand desperately outstretched toward the door handle, a cluster of bullets hit the alloyed door and three impacted the fingers and hand itself, instantly smashing the small bones and avulsing the flesh. With a shout and an instinctive cradling of the injured hand, a detour was made around the medical personnel carrier to the front the vehicle facing allied lines in order to take shelter from the enemy small-arms fire.

Seconds later, sniper rounds from behind allied lines dispatched the enemy small-arms targets with inhuman accuracy. After less than a minute, all was quiet again.

Partially frozen, the nearly inoperable left hand fumbled to unzip the heavy winter parka and retrieve the service pistol from its holster on the tactical vest. Staying flat against the ambulance to reduce any visible profile, the angular side of the armored vehicle made for less-than-ideal cover while edging along to reach the rear door. A silvery glint of metal behind enemy lines provoked a volley of shots from the service pistol; the required movement served as a distraction from maintaining a low profile against the side of the ambulance. At that moment, from behind and above in the direction of the base, a sniper round hit and penetrated the heavy parka obliquely on the upper right back, the force of its velocity acting as a hard shove against the side of the vehicle.

In confusion and with increasingly sharp pain at every inhaled breath, the rear door of the medical personnel carrier was flung open, then shut and locked as quickly as possible from the inside.

Cold Slumber.

The pain only grew more intense during attempts to focus for long enough to retrieve a first-aid kit and coral blue container from a shelf in the rear compartment of the carrier. Coughing precipitated the unwelcome but expected taste of blood. Sitting heavily, a packet of QuikClot coagulant powder from the kit doused the wounded right hand and fingers. Water molecules agitated by the sandy substance’s active chemical agent generated enough heat to create an excruciating burning sensation as the wound edges cauterized and blood vessels narrowed. The left hand clumsily bandaged the wound as well as possible.

Armor-piercing rounds hammered and ricocheted against the hull of ambulance one after the other, causing it to rock gently from side to side as the conductive-reactive electromagnetic composite armor panels absorbed and diffused the impact.

Battle fatigue and the beginnings of shock began to set in while clumsy tingling fingers struggled to retrieve the needle-tipped tubes from the coral blue container and insert them into the veins on either arm. After numerous failures, the left and right arms were successfully prepared. A press of the “On” button began the blood-replacement centrifuge spinning, and a second press began the final process in motion. The humming sound of the machine and its vibrations on the bench a few inches away were oddly soothing as consciousness began to fade; the left tube’s red blood flow into the machine became accompanied by an outflow of emerald green fluid mixture into the right tube. “Cryogenation 5% complete. Time remaining: 55 seconds”, the display showed.

A hazy recollection of the impending tactical nuclear strike came too late for any further action as the sterile confines of the medical personnel carrier rocked from side to side, and the pain of breathing gave way to a numbly cold, dream-filled sleep.

Note: first posted 2013.08.11. Revised 2013.08.14.

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