The downpour outside didn’t bother us. The cold gales cutting through the thickest of clothes like a scythe through wheat didn’t bother us.
The rain simply rolled off the chassis of the M1A3 Abrams, and the wind broke against the foliage we had placed upon it earlier to conceal ourselves from observation as we sat adjacent to a large termite hill and a thicket of brush adjacent. From the front, our profile was obscured, and the chassis was protected by the draw in the hill. The sunset behind us only made the grey sky above us disappear into a mix of black and storm cloud clay pastels as the rain began to harden up; nodules of frost began bouncing off the tank.
Within our compartment, half of us slept, while the other two kept watch. Loader Sanders and I were somewhere between sleep and consciousness, while Gunner Martinez and Commander Whitman were scoping the sector. I could hear the wind cutting above the hatch above me as the brush and small trees around us danced in tandem with the wind. We had been sitting in position all day, waiting for negotiations to end on the main communications line. Two things were going to happen at its conclusion: we were going to be given the green-light to attack a small group of outliers hellbent on establishing their own republic, or we were going back to base without pay, and somehow, despite my aversion to getting involved in fights, the pay seemed to be worth all the trouble at this moment.
A voice cut through the silence of the tank’s communications, stirring me awake.
“Saber 2-1, Saber actual, we just got the greenlight to go into Samsonian territory. Negotiations have failed, The Samsmonians wanted to haggle prices- CEO Barstow wasn’t having any of it. He’s gonna double the pay if we wipe ‘em all out.”
Whitman gave a few shouts in the tank, stirring us fully awake, before giving the order to turn the engine over. I buttoned up my coverall and turned up my radio, before adjusting myself in the driver’s seat, listening to the conversation as Whitman responded.
“What’d the Mannequin say,” He asked. He was referring to our PMC’s boss, The Mannequin. For some reason, nobody really knew what she looked like. She always wore a ceramic facemask and we never met her in person, always through some sort of interface command.
I spoke of the devil, and she appeared in our headsets as she answered Whitman’s question for him.
“I said Saber company would gladly kill all of them for double the payment, and we’d do it immediately after sundown,” Her voice soft and nearly spiritless as she spoke. “You’re all getting paid tonight, ladies and gentlemen. Now advance through the field and get your payday.”
Then the line went dead. She left us to our own devices in the cold autumn. Fresh snowfall melted as it hit the ground, still too warm to freeze and set. Good weather for hunting. Whitman seemed to agree as I could hear the smile on his face as he relayed orders.
“Load, sabot,” Whitman ordered. I could hear Sanders work the breach lock as he did his job, the shell loaded and locked into position.
“Driver, Move out!”
Good spirits abound as I put my foot down on the accelerator. The jet engine veered to life as the rumbling of the treads shuddered as it pressed above the small hill we were positioned behind, but as we reached the apex of the hill, the engine made short work of the distance between the top and the ground below it. As we came out of the clearing, I could see through my periscope the rest of the platoon appearing from their hiding spots. We were all painted shades of greens, greys, the emblem of Saber Company emblazoned on our vehicles, the mottled orange of a skull with crossed sabers. For a moment, I wondered if this what my grandfather had felt pushing into the middle east in 2003.
80 years is a hell of a change. Governments were nearly non-existent now. There were the corporations who took control with their finance, their stocks, their products. They protected the people now. To protect them and their interests, they hired PMCs like Saber Company to get the job done. After this job, we’d go on to the next corporation that needed extra muscle.
I left that thought behind as we closed in on Samsonia, the small fringe group that split from DynaCo. I wasn’t sure what their issue was- didn’t really care. I was more concerned about the notion they weren’t shooting at us, and I restated my concern to Whitman.
“Commander, we’re less than 2 klicks from their territory and we’re not getting shot at,” I reasoned. Whitman stayed silent for a moment, most likely scanning the terrain with thermals. I could only imagine that the snowfall was fucking with his vision, but after a moment he got back on the radio and relayed his suspicions.
“All Saber, this is 2-1, Be advised, we are not taking contact. Slow down.” Saber Actual agreed.
“All Saber elements, reduce speed to 15 percent, start scanning your –”
I could hear the first impact. RPG; deflected off the front armor. The vapor trail wilted and twisted in the wind as the projectile found itself spiraling upwards unguided, before detonating above our armor.
I could see where it came from, as an arm reached just above the vegetation to retrieve another rocket. I called out my target like clockwork.
“Identify Infantry RPG! 400 meters, 75 Degrees!”
“I got the co-ax,” Whitman said as he adjusted his viewfinder, before allowing a burst of 7.62 chatter its way towards the origin of the rocket, a well-camouflaged draw in the field, covered by thatch and reeds from the bog that lay beyond the split in the road another 800 meters to our front.
Each impact of the machinegun kicked up a bit of dirt as clumps of earth were torn away from its mother, until the sudden flash of red sprayed into the air.
“Got it on thermal,” The gunner shouted. “Confirmed kill!”
A few bodies sprung up and attempted to displace from their previous position, but Whitman was on them already.”
He acknowledged, sending out another burst of fire, as their bodies fell over attempting to move from one plot of thatch to another. The other elements were not so kind, sounding their displeasure with their main cannons, the resulting explosions drawing out a few more fighters dressed in ghillie, brandishing weapons, RPG packs, and machineguns.
As they attempted to fall back across the road to the bog, the stragglers that were caught out in the open were cut down by a mix between canister, 7.62 and .50 caliber fire, a dazzling array of sparks, dirt, blood, and shit appeared in my periscope.
After this display of force, our enemy somehow wasn’t ready to give up. They returned fire. More RPGs from the bog, along with tracer fire, as the sunlight disappeared, we were at an advantage, seeing as we had thermal imaging, and they were still up shit creek without a paddle or a float vest. That is, until we saw the enemy’s tanks crawling through the bog and field adjacent, kicking up dust that slowly turned to mud as the moisture spackled against it like insulation.
“Identify Tanks!” I shouted. Through Vox, I could hear the same message repeated.
“Identify, Hostile Tank”
“Hostile Tank Identified!”
“Crazy Horse Tanks! VT4-A2s and King Black Panthers!”
Sure enough, the digi-splash camouflaged tanks with tree branches hanging off their turrets were in fact, Crazy Horse Company. The toughest group of mercs on the market. How did a bunch of yokels get that much coin to afford a world-class entity like Crazy Horse?
Didn’t matter. We were in the shit now. A few guys whooped and hollered through Vox, before they were told to shut up by actual:
“All Saber, FORWARD! We can’t let this armor get in position behind the road! Push! PUUUUUSH!”
“You heard the man,” Whitman screamed, “Forward! Gunner, Target that King Black Panther closest to the edge of the road, 50 Degrees!”
The turret rotated, I could hear it amongst the small arms fire and the RPG shells impacting around us, as Whitman shouted his next orders.
“Confirm target, King Black Panther! 670 Meters! Fire!”
The shockwave of the main gun powered its way through my chest, as residual dust kicked up from nooks and crannies of the tank, as I tried to distract myself by scanning my view through the periscope.
I saw the shell hit its target, the sabot piercing the Crazy Horse Company’s tank- Just above the left headlight as it was moving, and it suddenly stopped attacking, but continued to move forward and lurch to the right as it flipped itself over as it rode up the embankment to the road and its weight forced it over, the treads continuing to spin until the engine choked itself out.
“Confirmed Kill!” Whitman shouted as Sanders loaded another sabot into the breach.
Whitman quickly scanned his left, then his right.
“Identify Target! Tank, AV4, 45 Degrees, Cresting over the road!” Martinez quickly traversed the barrel. In my periscope, I kept an eye on the turret’s flank as Martinez quickly found his target and fired, just as the front end of the tank bucked upward, exposing its belly. The barrel shook the tank once again, as Whitman opened up with 7.62, as he mowed down a squad of soldiers as they attempted to displace from their foxholes to the draw behind the road to get a shot at the other Saber Company tanks taking position behind the brambles and brush next to the road, exposing most of Crazy Horse Company’s tanks in the open and out of position, as Martinez’s target suddenly burst into flames and lurched back down the hill.
“We got ‘em by the balls!” One tanker screamed on Vox. Saber actual thought differently.
“Negative, Negative, Keep your eyes open! Identify Tank-”
We heard more shots whistle just above our heads as the hostile tanks started to fire in sequence. A handful of rounds hit the ground right in front of some friendly tanks, while others sailed above the turrets, both salvos created plumes of dirt and mud, obscuring some of our tanks with the showering of earth.
“Aw shit,” Martinez scoffed.
“These motherfuckers are getting their range,” Martinez Concluded, as Whitman shouted into my earpiece.
“Actual! This is 2-1! We need to displace! Driver! Orientation, 340; displace to the end of the line, Left flank!”
A shell hit the tank to our left, and almost immediately, smoke began to billow out of the gunner’s hatch; some of the men were attempting to dismount and get away from their tank. For a moment, I wondered why as we drove past them.
“Whitman, did 5-1 get hit?” I asked as we pulled past them, starting to turn as Whitman quickly took a look back behind He didn’t say anything for a good moment while I traversed through small arms and errant RPGs.
“They’re fucked. Continue on mission.” He said it in such a cold, detached manner, I didn’t feel comfortable with that answer.
“Are they dead-”
“CONTINUE ON MISSION.”
I felt a cool shudder as my stomach began to tighten in knots. More incoming sabots whistled past us and in front of us. Every time, I was afraid we were going to buy the farm with each impact, but then my mind whispered to me that if they had hit me, I wouldn’t have had time to fear the possibility of dying; we’d have been cottage cheese before long.
Reaching the end of the echelon, we took position and oriented ourselves on the firing line, as Whitman quickly scoped another Crazy Horse tank. Through my periscope, I anticipated the tank to our front was the next target, as his muzzle suddenly became enveloped in smoke, as the white-hot sabot danced towards us.
“Fuck- DRIVER! REVERSE! REVERSE!” Someone shouted.
I slammed the throttle back as hard as possible, hoping to pull the tank’s front back far enough to protect the armor from getting hit. The sabot pounded the ground just below my compartment, and I swore I felt the ground shift below me, my body shook violently forward as the tank lurched, absorbing the hit.
“Damage report,” Whitman called out. It was the only thing I heard amongst the droning engine of the tank, the small arms hitting our tank’s armor, and the sound of the main gun firing. I could hear the muted voices beyond the echoing throbbing in my ears, telling me to push forward. My eyes blurred as I could feel the spit welling in my mouth as we continued on
I felt my seat burning into my back, the round had given me a hell of a ringer as I attempted to adjust myself, before I felt my arms being pulled up over my head, dragged out of the tank, and suddenly I was on the cold, wet ground. My vision failed to focus, and I still felt like the world was spinning inside of a tin can, I didn’t realize anything was wrong until I looked down.
“We have to abort his connection, this is going to cause too much trauma; I can see his vitals, he’s going to be a crutch to us, man!” Martinez shouted.
“Shut up, Martinez!” Whitman quickly came into view as I laid there, emotionless. The pain was negligible, at least I thought it was.
“Bud. I need you to look at my eyes. We have to get you out. We need to kill the feed...We’ll get you soon.”
“What? What’re you talking about?”
“Kill order 2125.”
I blinked, and in an instant, I wasn’t in the fields of Europe anymore. I found myself in a clean room, strapped into a bench and my head was immobilized. I could feel a burning itch in the base of my neck and the top of my skull, but I couldn’t reach the sources of the disturbance. In my view, I could see nothing but darkness in front of me. As the egg-shell face helmet suddenly was pulled away from my face, I found myself now looking at three other men equally spaced from me, surrounded by a shimmering pillar of light, before being swarmed by a squad of people in clean suits, their faces obscured by medical masks.
“2125, can you hear me?” One of them asked, her eyes looking into mine, before assaulting them with a penlight. “Reflexes normal.”
“Unhook him, SLOWLY.”
I could feel the burning sensation intensify for a moment at my skull as my face involuntarily contorted in a strange sensation between tickling and burning, as the sound of something unhooking with compressed air announced its release from my skull, then the base of my neck. I felt the pain that was inflicted upon me in the abdomen, but as they removed the head restraint, I looked down and saw nothing on my nude body.
I was completely nude, and as I was allowed gradual movement of my head and torso, I looked around to see dozens of groups of four men, laid out in similar benches with a spider-like harnesses on their skulls and a carapace shelf-like device pressed into the backbone. I attempted to stand from my bench, before being physically restrained by two orderlies.
“2125, Your body is still trying to transition from your experience back to reality. Take a moment, catch your breath...Do you remember anything?” I took a moment to weigh my experiences and put it into words. I was just in the middle of the shit, and now in a clean room, virtually thousands of miles away.
“...Tank fire along the right flank, displaced to the left of the echelon, got hit, I think I got hit.” The best I could remember at that time, and the orderlies agreed. The head orderly, I assumed she was at least, helped me to my feet, and instructed me to walk into a large coffin-shaped vessel located across the room, beyond all the groups of huddled men and women motionless. Senseless. Living without a purpose.
“What is this place...” I asked quietly to one of the orderlies beside me. His head turned to gauge my expression, before he decided to answer my query.
“Don’t you remember? You work for Saber Company, 2125. We’re working for DynaCo, and you’re going back into processing for a diagnostic. You’ll be ready for action in a few minutes.”
When he explained it like that, I felt like I was familiar with this, like it had happened before. It made sense; I was a driver for a tank. Was I always a driver? It didn’t matter. I started to walk and felt my feet floating under me, trying to keep my weight below me. The orderlies helped me step along the steel grating on my way to the coffin-device against the wall. Slowly, it seemed to take forever. As I got to the breach of the coffin, I turned to press my back into the base of the coffin, before being suddenly secured by my wrists and ankles by fabric straps, before the lid of the coffin suddenly shut and locked into place.
“2125, Secure for scrubbing.”
The Coffin suddenly ascended into the ceiling, and beyond the room, I realized I was set upon a conveyor. As I continued along a track that rotated and changed direction as it continued, the coffin suddenly shook violently, as a pink, viscous liquid filled the chamber. I panicked at first, attempting to force my way out of my bondage, before a familiar voice distracted me from my escape attempt.
“You’re conscious? Strange. Most of your comrades in arms often are too incapacitated to notice their reality has shifted. Don’t worry about the fluid--It’s designed to facilitate oxygenation.”
Hesitantly, I relaxed and as the fluid reached my nostrils, I took one deep swallow of the fluid. She was right; I could breathe just fine. As I was marveling this change in my situation, the woman’s voice continued.
“I suppose I should help you comprehend what’s going on, before we proceed with your scrubbing. I am the Mannequin, CEO of Saber Company, and your boss. You are a Neural Interface Conducting Operator. Most corporations designate them as N.I.C.Os. because it’s much simpler to give them a general designation that can be abbreviated into four letters- forget it. It’s not important right now, 2125. What is important is that you get back in the fight. At least now you can control an entire vehicle by yourself now.”
“By myself?” I queried. I was wondering if she was either batshit or apeshit crazy.
“Yes, by yourself. You’re obviously capable of higher cognitive function. Your husk died long before you were jacked out of the system, and that was a red flag for us. It indicated you were capable of something a bit more in the vein of high risk, high reward.”
Something felt weird about this conversation. She kept implying I was different. What was different about me, I had no idea, but soon enough I found myself in a room with three orderlies. The fluid within the coffin poured out of some holes in the bottom, leaving the space between me and the doorway unobscured by foggy pink fluid.
The Coffin’s lid opened, and the orderlies quickly unrestrained me and escorted me away from the coffin so quickly, I didn’t even put my feet on the floor. Instead, I was pulled into a closet space where large white jumpsuits were available. I stood there for a moment before I felt hands on me from behind, flipping me onto my back, as a coverall was pulled over my legs and eventually, fully, onto me. The zipper up front was simple enough to use, and I did so without hesitation after being handled so roughly just a few minutes before. Boots were supplied as I left the enclosure. As I placed my foot into them, they adjusted to my size and compressed to seat themselves around my calves and ankles snugly.
Being escorted from there, I was dragged once again into another white room. However, upon entering the room, there were rows upon rows of holographic displays, with people controlling each pillar. They appeared to have strange devices implanted into the holes in their skulls as they operated the holographic pillars. The Mannequin’s voice called out over an unseen intercom, it seemed. Her voice cut through the silence, as each hairless individual, ten in all, turned their heads to find the source of the noise.
“This is 2125. He has ascended. Assist him in any way possible, N.I.C.Os.”
With that, the door behind me closed, and the other members of the ascended resumed their jobs--sitting motionless in front of a virtual pillar. I slowly walked through the room to see what everyone was doing, and quietly, I found my place--an empty chair with a hologram sitting by me. As I stared at the long device designed to implant into my skull, I looked back and forth to try and figure out what to do next.
A female to my left stopped operating the hologram and opened her eyes to look at me. They were dead, cream-colored eyes, sunken into her skull as she motioned for me to plug the spindle-like cord into my brain. Naturally, I hesitated at first, but as I brought the male hookup into the female port in my head, I found that it slid in naturally with little discomfort in relation to the first time I had become aware of the cord’s existence.
As the device seated itself into the top of my cranium, I suddenly felt a headrush, the blood felt like it was pouring out of my face and eyes. My vision blurred somewhat, and for a moment, I felt compelled to close my eyes and figure out if the images in my mind would correct themselves.
The darkness that followed haunted me. Whispers of voices echoing the same ideations of doubt and fear I held in my mind shouted off into the void beyond.
“We must win.”
“We cannot fail the Mannequin.”
“Why am I suffering for this?”
The field in front of my face suddenly snapped to a woman, clad in a black robe and a ceramic mask.
“You’re experiencing temporal feedback; nothing to worry about, it will correct itself. I need you to focus your thoughts on controlling this soldier. He has positioned himself within long rifle range of the Samsonian commander and he’s waiting for activation. You are to kill the Samsonian commander; under no circumstances is he allowed to escape...”
“Wouldn’t he be worth more alive?”
“Don’t pester me with silly jokes, 2125. Do your job, and you will see what the benefits of being ascended from the rank and file.”
I pondered her orders for a moment, before focusing on the field that suddenly appeared into view. I looked at my hands. Gloved--a helmet on my head, and the long rifle at my front, perched by a bipod as the weather continued to shower me with terrible little balls of frost. I picked up the rifle and adjusted the sights, as if I knew all along.
“The Commander will be wearing a white uniform. I want him dead.”
I danced my scope across the terrain to find a small encampment next to a riverside, where a few soldiers were huddled around a map of the field. I took my left hand and adjusted the magnification on the scope to find the Commander, walking out of his tent, arguing with a subordinate over plans on the map at the table.
“Good. You found him. Wait until he stops moving and then end this fight. If the Commander dies, Crazy Horse Company cannot collect their payment, and they will fall back.”
He Walked back into the tent, his lower half still exposed to the elements as he reached into the tent to grab something. As his upper torso revealed itself, the mask of the Mannequin appeared.
“Boss, something’s wrong,” I said aloud. Her voice didn’t respond. To my surprise, a man’s voice came over the radio link.
“2125. This is Ashur. You don’t know me, but I know you. Shoot the commander, and you’ll get jacked out of the system, you get money, and you’ll repeat this whole process next week. Saber Company uses N.I.C.Os like you to control the battlefield, and they treat you like tools. That’s all you are to them--a means to an end. You can change that, son. Kill the husk.”
“What? The husk? I just got out of-- “
“If you don’t shoot your husk in the head and get terminated, I cannot help you leave this place. You need to disconnect from the system.”
“Will I still be alive if they terminate me?”
“Not if you don’t do as I say. Do you trust me?”
“No,” I said, firmly unsure of what to do next. I couldn’t communicate to the Mannequin, and this “Ashur” fellow wanted me to destroy the husk.
“You have to trust me, 2125.There’s a resistance movement forming within all the PMCs. We want to chose how to live. We were created for the sole purpose of waging war. Don’t you think it’s a bit unfair for someone like the Mannequin to live free while you do all the work? Liberate yourself...”
I thought about it for a long time, it seemed. I felt hands on my back just then, flipping me over, revealing a man who looked like the Samsonian Commander, white beret and all, a pistol in his hand.
“You have to do this yourself, 2125. Make the choice.”
He dropped the pistol at my feet. I looked down to pick it up, and as I moved my eyes back up to look at him, he disappeared.
I did not know if I was going to survive this.
I jacked myself out by force. I didn’t even feel it, I was suddenly in the room, alone, a solitary light shining down upon me.
“You did good, kid.” Ashur’s voice echoed through the room. I turned my head around to see the Mannequin. Her gloved hand reached to the mask and revealed Ashur’s face, the same face I saw when I was jacked in. Was this all a test?
“You passed, 2125.”
“So maybe I should explain what’s going on...What I said about your purpose was true. You’re designed to control husks in the field. But not at the battlefield level. You’re a Hunter-killer. You’re designed to find individual targets and destroy them...And the organization you work for, well...You’re a Freelancer. You work for whoever hires you to perform those jobs, but I have a little special something planned for your missions.”
I sat and listened, wondering what this was all going to lead to.
“See, when you were processed, it gave me a moment to have some of my eggheads create a bio-virus designed to attack the network you’ve become familiar with, y’know, the one you jack in and jack out of? You’re going to be the host for that virus. Every network you jack into, you’ll infect, and eventually, it should give you the ability to jump between corporate servers and destroy them from the inside, out. You’re a walking W.M.D., baby.”
“So, all that talk about being used as a tool was a lie, then?” I felt something stirring behind my ears. Anger. This man lied to me! He used me, and I fell for his scheme.
“You make it sound so harsh--call it a means to an end, 2125. As long as I have your masterkey, I can tell you to do whatever I want, and you have to listen to me, otherwise, I pull your plug, and the last thing you’ll see is the world closing in around on you while your body flails lifelessly in the void...You’re a tool. Nothing more, nothing less. You kill whatever I tell you to kill; you destroy whatever I tell you to destroy! You will obey! Understand?”
I had no choice in the matter, now.
“I obey,” I said, deflated. The rain before didn’t scare me. The wind before didn’t scare me.
Ashur scared me. Now, while he had me where he wanted me, he told me the words I will never forget.
“You are nothing more than a glorified computer chip with skin. A human USB port. You are replaceable, and believe me, I will replace you without a doubt.”
He then stood me up and pointed towards the coffin sitting at the end of the hall, ripping away my coveralls and pulling my boots off me. I entered the chamber and travelled down a level, to a room filled with a series of four benches and a holographic pillar. Bodies filled the benches--unmoving, restrained, hooked up to those apparatuses that controlled them in the network.
Orderlies arrived and quickly moved me to a bench, hooking me up and strapping me in, prepared to experience this hell once again.
I blinked, and I was back inside the tank’s driver seat, Whitman, Martinez, Sanders. All there. All waiting for the greenlight.
“Now,” Ashur spoke into every crevice of my mind. “You will repeat this mission again until you complete it. Every job you accomplish, not only will we be rich, we will have control of the entire network. See? Being a cog in the machine isn’t as bad as you think it is, 2125. You just gotta learn to live a little.”
Whitman’s voice came over the radio then, his voice as stoic as ever.