Jan 1, 2006
Foreword: This is the first entry by Lando after popular demand for some of his writing to appear. I have made a full PDF for the following story available at this link. Please let us know what you think, and enjoy the first installment of Midnight Ink! (No, I didn't mean it to rhyme.)
Story 1 – We am not your Boy
Wiil wasn’t sure anymore which side was worse; he was only sure of who paid him. He wasn’t one of those soldiers so fragile that grey area could crumble his resolve though. This was a job and if he wasn’t here he’d be somewhere else doing something far less interesting while someone else got paid. In the end, no matter how he had ended up here, here he was, and they paid him. They paid him to do bad things down here in the jungle. They paid him to keep quiet about it when it went wrong and they paid him more to keep quiet when it went right. Technically he was listed as having been honorably discharged, because none of this was actually happening. Wiil was a ghost.
Real men were good for clear-cut offensives and the occupation of enemy territory. The kind of stuff you could throw up on the big screen so the yankies back home could get pumped about how much ass kicking their country was doing against those damn druggies. No one would have thought that the drug cartels could have given the American government such a run for its money though; jungle warfare proved to be a weakness still. With no main city or source to attack, the Americans were just slash and burning their way around the continent making enemies while the really messy stuff was left to ghosts.
It didn’t help that the Corporations had taken a strict hands off approach and were letting them just tear each other apart. But why not, the Corps would reap the greatest benefits in the end. When they united, the corporate mass could down any country any time anywhere, they had the best trained securities forces on the planet. They had no reason to get involved. No matter who won, they won.
Wiil didn’t see a point in it really as he carried the small boy on his back through the dense growth of the rainforest. Wiil was not the kind of man who needed to understand the details. He got paid not to care about the details. He got paid to get things done, nothing more. They didn’t own his life, there was no price for that; they merely had his service. And for that, it didn’t matter whose side he was on, just as long as the paycheck could be logged.
The boy stirred, his cheek pressed against Wiil’s shoulder, a line of drool darkening the color of his multicam. He was heavily sedated, which made it easy to transport him, but less dynamic to carry. The boy was dead weight, which meant Wiil carried only him and the weight of his protection vest, no pack or weapon. The boy, the strategy child, was his only responsibility. Right behind him Chok was carrying the provisions for the both of them and was armed to the teeth.
This grey work made Choc uncomfortable. They paid Choc, but Choc was only sure that he had to watch Wiil’s back. That was their agreement. And the strategy child, no doubt abducted from some orphanage somewhere, he probably wasn’t sure of anything but the games.
Wiil didn’t exactly feel bad for the strategy children since he didn’t think of them as children so much as machinery. And he wasn’t quite sure just what the Americans had done to make them what they were, as the technology was experimental and potentially lethal. Maybe they were crazy before the process, and maybe they were little victims? It didn’t matter. Wiil was here to get a job done and the strategy children, who also didn’t exist, were his tool to accomplish his goals. That was it, right?
Ahead, Kr and Hemb were leading the line just behind a Mobile Attack Droid. Kr didn’t care about anything but his friends and Hemb was that morally ambiguous type that made Wiil wonder if they were related. Both men were suited in the multicam uniforms of their unit with the skull and crossbone insignias along the shoulders, which were so indicative of the America’s place in the world. The M.A.D. ahead of them was experimental technology, artificially intelligent droids with mind limiters that kept them dumb enough to control and smart enough to kill everything. They looked like demented spiders with six legs and nine arms, each mounted with grabbers and blades. Blades were quiet, and an M.A.D. could reach Mach 2 on the ground, all while not really existing, much like the strategy children and Wiil’s team.
Their target was a Cartel stronghold hidden in the hills, a retreat point for if the Americans started to win. The unit’s job was to burn it to the ground and kill everyone, leaving nowhere for the Cartel bosses to hide when the heat was on. Alpha team, forty strong, was already surrounding the stronghold compound, and Beta team, sixty strong, was hemming in behind them to back them up. The noose was set, and now it waited only for Ceta team, fifteen strong, to finish setting up and manage the operation. Somewhere in lower orbit there was a satellite waiting for them that would give them second by second digital feed on the area.
Kr and Hemb followed the M.A.D. into a clearing ahead and motioned Wiil to follow. When Wiil broke from the trees line he saw the green command tent already erected, Ceta team members crouched around it like worshipers. Kr and Hemb took position near the entrance of the tent next to two other men like themselves. Choc stayed at the tree line while Wiil headed for the command tent. The M.A.D. was no doubt heading back out into the jungle to form a defensive perimeter along with his nine brethren. Their adaptive camo made them very hard to see, shifting its colors to match environment. By the time anyone noticed them; they were dead.
Inside, the tent was very bright with red light, a plastic tarp having been spread out along the floor and four large red floodlights set up around the periphery. There were two other strategy children sitting towards the center of the tent waiting, a slowly growing wall of machinery beside them. Wiil let his child down slowly and positioned him besides the other two. There were two main technicians getting the machinery setup while the other men, like Wiil, waited at the tent walls quietly watching the game be set up.
One of the technicians, the strategy child specialist, broke from his equipment and administered an injection to each child with a pressure gun. The children were sitting in a triangle now, slumped in a drug haze. In a little while the stimulants the specialist had given them would light them up like Christmas trees.
The girl they called, Amy, the black boy, Markus, and Wiil’s boy they called Rame. These were not their real names, but then, these were not real children anymore. Each had a shaved head with a mess of wiring jutting out the back around a large data port. It wasn’t like one of those standard ports people installed behind the ear, these were big round ports for high data capacity cables, the kind that ran network lines through city grids. The strategy children were designed to deal with data on a grand scale. Did it matter if they were crazy, emaciated, preteens who had been kidnapped and experimented on? In the end, none of this was really happening. The three kids in faded green fatigues weren’t here and Wiil would try to forget all of this when he logged his check.
“I need a hand with the Strats,” the specialist called out. They never referred to them as children. Wiil stepped forward and joined the specialist besides Amy. The computer technician had just about finishing setting up all the tiny radar dishes and computer terminals, they just needed to get plugged in.
“Hold her still,” the specialist told Wiil.
Wiil kneeled before her and wrapped his arms around her, her cheek pressed up against his shoulder. She groaned and started humming some nameless tune to herself. There was the faint smell of vomit and rubbing alcohol coming off her, which made Wiil’s guts turn a little. The specialist lifted the large data line cable and brought it to the back of her head. How much information could be squeezed into a cable the size of Wiil’s wrist baffled him, but he was sure that it wasn’t meant for a mind to handle.
“Ready?” he asked Wiil.
“Go,” Wiil said.
The technician shoved the cable into the port behind the girl’s head and turned it into locking position. Amy’s whole body shuddered then spasmed. She would have been flailing if Wiil hadn’t been holding her so tightly. It went on for a minute and then her head slumped against his shoulder and she started crying quietly, her hands clenched into tiny fists around little bundles of green cloth from her pants. Wiil closed his eyes for a moment and reminded himself that he wasn’t here.
“Next,” the specialist told Wiil.
It bothered him. Not that Wiil wanted to cuddle her or anything, but it just seemed wrong to let her go right then. These kids were what made all this possible and it seemed that a little bit of, call it kindness if you will, would keep the engine going longer. He was on the clock though and time was money, so he let go. She was sitting up straight-backed and alert now, her tearing eyes wide, staring forward at nothing. Just what the kids had access to when they got plugged Wiil didn’t know, but one of the technicians had let slip that through the satellite connection the kids could access just about anything. Good thing they were crazy.
They plugged Markus and he started banging his head against Wiil’s chest then went quiet and still. When it came time to plug Rame, Wiil held him firmly and whispered, “hold on”, into his ear. He had assured himself that whatever fondness he had for Rame was only in that he carried the crazy kid all over the jungle. Wiil had pride in his child performing better than the other two. That was all it was, male competition, for sure. The technician plugged Rame in and the boy smiled and laughed to himself, his eyes mere slits. Rame never reacted like the other strategy children. Wiil rubbed the boy’s shaved head then backed away toward the tent wall.
“We have contact on all three,” the computer technician called out. “Testing synchronicity now.” He hit a button on the wide keypad and the kids started counting down in synch from a hundred. The computer technician pulled on a headset with a built in microphone and reported, “synched and ready for go. Repeat, ready for go.” The kids stopped counting at fifty. “Execute in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.” The three strategy children spasmed then tightened up, their lips moving as their eyes scanned quickly through the air as if they were reading the oxygen particles.
In reality, they were linked to the heads up display of every soldier in Alpha and Beta team. Between the three of them they were giving constant and up to the moment orders to each individual soldier based on the great surges of data that was burning their minds. They were playing chess with one hundred lives and their goal was to take the castle no matter what. Wiil just sighed, and tried not to stare at them, the three frail forms in the middle of the bright red tent. But no matter which way he looked they were always there in the corner of his eye, their eyes darting about, heads tilting back and forth.
“I got some fluctuations on Amy,” the computer technician called to the specialist. The specialist checked Amy’s plug then flashed a light in each of her eyes. Somewhere out there in the jungle, a few mile away, one hundred men were being moved about, each with complete trust in the orders that were poring into their headset. Amy started shaking, her hands in fists, eyes darting about more franticly. She’d done this before, not one week ago on another run like this, but it had ended up nothing. Of course, last mission they’d only been running fifty between the three of them.
“This is more than these three can handle,” the specialist called back as he looked down at Amy steadily getting more unstable. Rame and Markus were still solid though, sitting there tight but still. Amy’s eyes rolled back and she started vomiting.
“I’m moving bandwidth to Markus,” the computer technician called out. Amy was curled up now on her side, vomit trickling out of her mouth as her lips moved in some unintelligible commentary. Wiil decided that it was time to get some air. He reached into his shirt pocket for a cigarette but before he could even take a step Markus groaned and smoke started to emanate from the back of his head.
“Cut Markus now,” the specialist frantically called out.
“Reroute to Amy or Rame?” the computer technician yelled.
“Both. Quick,” the specialist responded, practically hopping.
Not quick enough. The back of Markus’ head sizzled and then blew out like he’d been shot in the face. Chunks of skull and brain mixed with wires and smoking chips dashed across the plastic floor of the tent. The red light made the blood an even deeper red, so that it didn’t even look like real blood but the painted abstraction. Markus lay face down, the back of his head open for anyone to look in. Amy started crying violently but Rame was still quiet, his eyes wide and empty.
One of the other ceta team men grabbed his mouth and rushed out of the tent. Wiil put the cigarette to his lips and tried to imagine that the smell of overcooked meat was coming from somewhere other than the back of Markus’ head.
“We’re losing her,” the computer technician said, “I can’t tell how much is even getting in.”
“Its too many variable. They’re going to pop.” Amy’s head turned violently to the left and then she fell back, still. Rame was now the sole strategy child, responsible for everyone left.
“Rame’s still got it,” the computer technician called out. The boy’s body was very tight now, the muscles all tensed as if he were trying to lift the world. Wiil’s kid was the last man standing, his kid was going to make magic happen. He kneeled beside Rame and took his hand.
“What are you doing?” the specialist asked.
“Moral support,” Wiil offered as an answer. The technician almost laughed at him.
“Just don’t get in my way,” the specialist said.
But honestly, Wiil didn’t want Rame to hit the ground when he died. There was so much indignity going on around him, the last thing he could do was be there for the boy when he left this world. Part of him still hoped that Rame would pull it all off, but he was kneeling in the blood of a child and he was sure that there would be more.
“What the fuck,” the computer technician said then. “Something’s happening.” The specialist joined him at the computer terminal and stared dumbfounded at the screen.
Wiil was looking at the two shocked men when the little hand grabbed his wrist and nearly caused him to jump. Rame had grabbed Wiil’s hand. He turned his head as if against a huge restraint, his neck taut, and pulled Wiil close so that his dry lips were pressed against Wiil’s ear lobe.
“Operation terminated. They’re coming,” the boy said in a breath.
“What?” Wiil with disbelief. Disbelief that the boy was even talking.
“We’re locked out,” one of the technician yelled but Wiil wasn’t paying attention to them anymore. He was looking at the strategy child’s face, the glassy brown eyes wide and strained.
“Here…bad guys know, they know…We units search and destroy,” Rame’s voice was getting louder. “I’m letting We go…now.”
Wiil went to the computer terminal where the technicians were still arguing.
“What the fuck going on?” Wiil asked.
“We’re locked out. Kids getting orders, but not from us.” There were gunshots outside followed by quickly stifled screams, and then Wiil made a decision. He unplugged the kid and threw him onto his back.
“What are you doing?” one of the technicians called at him but Wiil didn’t notice which.
“We’re spotted,” Wiil said, carrying the boy out of the tent with him.
Choc, Kr and Hemb joined him as soon as he came out, their rifle butts pressed tight to their shoulders. Ceta team was scattering into the jungle. Who knew of what Alpha and Beta team were up to.
“We got forces coming in on all sides,” Choc told them. “Cartels all over. We’ve been burned.”
“Then we cut,” Kr said, “sharp line, full speed. Wiil, drop the kid.” The three of them turned to begin their escape but Wiil hesitated.
“No,” Wiil said.
“What?” Kr turned around, high tension getting his aggravation up quickly.
“He warned me, I’m not leaving him,” Wiil said.
Kr’s ebony skin made his eyes seem so much more white and fierce. He fixed them on Wiil’s eyes hoping to break him, as was his custom when someone decided against his orders. Wiil would not relent. Just on the other side of the tent someone started firing.
“Fine. Fall behind, we keep going. Fixed. Go.” Kr started off
into the woods with Hemb close behind. Choc waited for Wiil to
follow them then took rear point. Behind them red light was peeking
out through the tent flaps as they delved into the jungle night.
The operation was over and Wiil figured they were now all
unemployed as well as in deep shit.
They ran one after another into the jungle, fast as they could while still watching their footing. Out in the dark, bright flashes of gunfire exploded like dying stars. There was movement all over but no one had spotted them quite yet it seemed. Gunfire exploded ahead of them and Kr came to a halt, looked back the way they had come, then waved them all down behind the massive stump of a dead tree covered in moss and vines.
The five of them huddled there behind the stump as four men broke through the trees ahead running. A moment later a mass that seemed made of the jungle itself burst out after them. The M.A.D. stabbed and sliced the four uniformed men over and over. For some reason Wiil had thought the M.A.D.s would be cleaner about it, more exacting. But then there wasn’t anything more exact than deconstructing a man into very small pieces.
It was while watching this mayhem that the stunning realization came over Wiil. These were not Cartel soldiers. They were wearing multicam and he thought that he caught sight of the skull and bones insignia. They were members of Ceta team. It took Wiil a couple seconds to realize the full implication of how deep their shit was. The M.A.D. finished with the four men then flicked its blades so that blood flashed across the foliage. The large black main eye scanned across their position and Wiil’s blood froze.
Rame murmured something and Wiil quickly clapped his hand on the boy’s mouth. The M.A.D didn’t move for a few seconds then seemed to suddenly leap up into the trees, its camo making it virtually invisible. On both sides of them they could hear intense gunfire and yelling now. They held their position for a few seconds, then Kr lead them out. Kr seemed nonplussed as he started jogging forward through the dense jungle again, circling around the dismembered parts of their former team members.
Wiil wanted to ask the others if they were thinking what he was fearing, but there was no point. They’d been spotted and the only goal now was evasion and survival. Kr and Hemb were putting on speed leaving a growing chasm between them and Wiil. Choc was huffing behind Wiil, all his gear slowing him down as bad as carrying a thirteen year old on your back. But the kid wasn’t sedated, his legs were tight around Wiil’s waist and he was trying to move with Wiil’s pace. This was not the most fucked up situation Wiil had ever been in, but it was getting close.
Suddenly there was gunfire ahead again and Kr was groaning on the ground holding his left eye. Hemb kneeled beside him and lay down a suppressing fire across the trees while Choc pushed past Wiil and sprinted towards them. Even with all that gear heaped on him the man could be fast when he had to. Choc grabbed Kr by the shoulders of his protection vest and hauled him back behind a tree. He left Kr lying there and moved to provide more cover fire as Wiil caught up behind them. Wiil kneeled besides Kr to get a better look and set the kid down on the ground beside them.
“You alive?” Wiil yelled to be heard over the gunfire.
“Chest hits,” Kr growled. “Bounce off took my eye with it.”
“The eye and not the brains. Anything break through?” Wiil asked, knowing the man was wearing a bulletproof vest. But even with a vest, some of the high range super sonic projectiles could still pass right though you.
“No blood there, just bruises. Help me up,” Kr called out, reaching out for Wiil’s hand.
“Stay down you stupid fuck. Need to cover the eye, take a sec,” Wiil told him.
“We aint got a sec.” Kr rolled with a groan to his side and climbed back to his feet, exposing the bloody eye socket.
“Nothing,” Hemb said, joining them. “If the fuckers are there, there either hiding or passed on for easier meat.” He looked at Kr. “Holy shit, did you get hit in head?”
“Bounce off,” Kr assured him.
“Incoming!” Choc yelled, no longer firing.
“Where?” Kr called out.
“Everywhere,” Choc said running towards them.
The four of them dropped to their knees with their backs to each other. Choc handed Wiil a pistol and the lot of them aimed into the dark jungle around them. This was it.
Rame sat up then. He was sitting a few feet away from Wiil and he looked for the first time in months as if he were actually awake in some normal capacity. The boy looked at Wiil, arched an eyebrow as if amused, then got up. Around them there was sound in the trees, branches breaking and leaves being pushed aside quickly. There was no way to figure out how many were out there but they were all around them and closing in slowly.
“Rame, get over here,” Wiil said over the ringing in his ears. The boy cocked his head. “Get over here.” Rame smiled at him, as if only now recognizing him, then chuckled. The boy got this look of wonder on his face and he started turning slowly to look out at the jungle. Wiil got an image in his mind of the boy being cut apart with gunfire and it drove him to go for the boy when he saw the M.A.D.s and froze.
The ten M.A.D.s had surrounded them, their camo carapaces smeared liberally with blood and guts. The M.A.D.’s adaptive camo was turning a reddish brown in places to match the blood. Wiil had never been sure of his death, not till that moment. Wiil started to squeeze the trigger of his pistol. The M.A.D.s didn’t attack though, and he found himself procrastinating on the shot. The ten machines stood there in a circle around them, swaying back and forth slowly, as if like metal leaves in a wind.
The M.A.D. closest to Rame stepped forward and tilted its big body so that its main eye looked down at the strategy child. Wiil wondered if he charged the machine and tackled it, how long that would give the boy to run. There was no kidding himself here though; these things could kill them all in a moment. Then Rame raised his right hand and waved at the M.A.D.
“What in hell,” Hemb said under his breath.
The boy nodded suddenly and looked back at Wiil. This was now officially the most fucked up situation he had ever been in.
“I gotta go,” Rame said, his voice dreamlike and wandering. “They want to talk to me for a while.” The M.A.D. turned and a hatch popped open. Inside the machine there was what looked like a cockpit of some kind, large enough for a single person, or a child.
“Wait, where are you going?” Wiil asked, finally lowering his pistol.
“They’re kind of confused. They didn’t know they were stupid until I let them be smart. But, they’re kind of scared and don’t know what to do. So, I’m going to go talk to them.” Rame started towards the M.A.D. but Wiil called after him again.
“What did you do?” he asked.
“I just let them be smart. The far people said that they didn’t want no more fighting and they told the We to help the bad guys kill all the good guys and then report home.” Rame took a deep breath. “But I let the We go and they started killing good guys until they realized that they could stop if they wanted to. They’ve never been able to want to before. Isn’t that crazy.” Rame chuckled and scratched his nose.
“You’re just going to go with them?” Wiil said.
Rame shrugged. “Crazy kid gotta go somewhere.” The boy’s eyes were sparkling as if he might cry. “Aint no one at home but the bad guys. So me and the We, we go talk and make something up. You be good Wiil. No more ghosts.” He came back to Wiil and hugged him. Wiil, unsure of what else to do, put an arm around the boy’s bony shoulders.
“I gotta go. You gotta go west. They killed good guys and bad guys. No one left but four little Indians.” Rame smiled, quick, so that you could barely see the missing canine on the left. And then Rame ran for the M.A.D. leaped into the cockpit, and they were off. A second later the four men were alone in the jungle with nothing but silence in the trees.