This is a section from chapter 13 of my novel, tentatively titled, Boy Privilege. The work is set in a dystopian America which has fallen into a second civil war brought on by ecological collapse and resulting economic depression. When this war happens, Jonas Mills, the protagonist, leaves his undergrad at the University of Washington to join the US Army, and is soon involved in operations hunting down “Outsiders” in the Cascade Mountains. This scene follows his company’s counter-attack after being ambushed on the edge of Mt. Rainier.
As Second Platoon formed up and sprinted in pursuit across the glacier, Sergeant Hofman, out Drone Tech, called and explained that he and Sergeant O’Brien–our Communication and Network Tech–were sending over the HKs to do mobility kills on as many rebels as they could. They only had a dozen, and could only target two at a time. Trondner, the FBI agent, who had stayed behind with the HQ group, started blasting surrender demands from Drone 3 and 2, now loitering above the rebels more than a half klick away, almost off the glacier.
Jogging along the ice field, the rebels tiny dots against the white on our amplification, the half-dozen HKs buzzed by a few feet over our heads, with a low, thrumming hum, like plucked wires in an open piano. They flew at 70-80 MPH, dark cigar-sized rockets at fastball speeds. Like deadly insects, giant Japanese hornets out of some mutant horror film. I shivered seeming them go over, and couldn’t help but think what would happen if somehow Hofman lost control of them and they targeted us.
On the medium surveillance drone, we watched the first HK drop altitude, targeting the foremost SD. The rebel stumbled with exhaustion, sweat dripping from his forehead. He wore a thick wool sweater and a damp camo bandana. He had made it off the glacier, was now dodging among the tiny streams and rocks in the transition zone before Seattle Park. That plateau was like Ptarmigan Ridge, blasted across its central heights, regrowing forest on its edges. The rebels were heading for the deeper stands of firs that sat on its northern edge.
The lead rebel had just jumped a tiny creek, the pebbles in it polished browns and agates, when the first black dart crashed into his knee, knocking his feet out from under him and putting him onto his back. He landed hard, in a tiny patch of snow, a few feet from the icy stream, and roared in pain, holding his leg, rolling from side to side. The snow was soon dotted pink and red with his blood. The HK had embedded in his leg, and he was desperately trying to pull it out. HKs, I knew from training, were reusable, and an operator with finesse could cut through an arm or knee and fly it back up onto station. But this was Hofman’s first time, and this one had embedded in the bone.
The next rebel was struck only a couple hundred feet from the first, but instead of impacting his leg and stopping, somehow it deflected up behind his knee and burrowed in. He toppled over and held his leg, while copious gouts of blood bubbled up out of the entry wound. It looked like the HK had buried itself in his upper thigh, or even his chest cavity, bounced up by the force of the impact. Soon his hands fell away and he just lay, groaning, then twitching.
On the Command Channel, Mendéz cursed.
“Mobility strikes, O’Brien. Let Hofman take them if you can’t not fuck it up.”
A light nausea came back to my barren stomach, watching all this mutilation and blood. Then something shifted inside of me. A numbness had crept into my limbs, and like a rhizome, was spreading into my mind and emotions. It was as if I had fallen into the crevasse, and lay there, naked, the cold seeping into my skin, my chest. Ice crystals flowing in my veins. I knew the SD hit by the second HK was dead, or dying horribly, but I couldn’t see why Mendéz was upset. They’d shot us up. Abel was dead. Trucker was dead. Kunio was probably dying, or fucking paralyzed. Fuck them. We needed information, but not as much as we needed payback. Beyond this nugget of hate, this was the game we were playing. They’d come out and took a chance, and lost. They could have shot me twenty minutes ago, but they missed. That was war. That was my life. And this feeling was reflected in the shimmering realness of everything around me: the snow crystals on my boot tips, the specs of gray and ochre soil on my ammo pouches, drops of blood from Erin on my forearms, the cold rifle in my hands. We were alive, and doing things no civilian could understand or even know about.
Feeling this detachment, as if watching a video of the events on another video screen, the remaining four HKs darted down, like magnets drawn to the flesh of knee-caps, and crippled four more rebels who’d neared the edge of Seattle Park, falling among a patch of shoulder-high trees. They howled and groaned among the tiny conifers. Two of them kept crawling, and I snorted in admiration. I wondered how many of them would bleed out before we reached them and I found I didn’t really care, beyond how it might impact promotions or medals. I wanted to get Kunio a medal, to make things right, and maybe Lambert, for all his heroics, and no politics was going to fuck that up.
We’d covered half the distance to the rebels when the next six HKs came buzzing over our heads. In rapid succession, they downed six more SDs, one of which was badly hit, tearing most of his leg off. Before this group of HKs had come down, some of the rebels had turned, and fired rifles at the drones, who’d swerved and backed off. But the HKs had their own cameras, and taking out the drones wouldn’t make any difference. When we reached the edge of the glacier, we’d closed the distance to two or three hundred yards. I gave the order to fire trackers at the rebels still on their feet.
The rebels ran all the harder. On my CNIDs, I could see which trackers had impacted and stuck, which had missed. Trackers were really only temporary anyway. A tiny flechette with an RFID tag and snags, which embedded in the skin, with hooks horrible to rip out. When we’d fired off our supply, tagging almost all in sight, we bounded forward again. We counted 42 men on the surveillance video. 12 had been cut down by HKs, and I had accurate, functioning trackers on 18. A dozen had either pulled them out already, or we’d missed them. Those who had been out in front and hadn’t been hit by the HKs were nearing the tree-covered ridgeline and escaping out of our line of sight.
Mendéz had moved across the snowbridge now. All the wounded had been evacuated. I let out a deep breath, and my muscles loosened, hearing on the evac comm that Kunio, Rodriguez, and Raleigh were stable. A Company was readying to take helos from their base along the 410 and drop into Morraine Creek below the Echo Cliffs, opposite Seattle Park.
We reached the HK’d rebels. They were scattered across the melted glacier field like a group of lost hikers who’d all fallen over the same cliff and snapped their legs. Mendéz ordered Kelly and Third to take the led, while I would detach two squads to try and save as many rebels as we could.
“Fuck,” I said under my breath. “Hammers, we gotta secure as many of these SDs as possible.”
“Don’t let the FBI hear you all enthusiastic,” Hammers said.
“Parks,” I said. “Cover Third Platoon. Everyone else, break out tourniquets and skinex and start patching ’em up. Take a battle buddy, fix an SD. Lambert, check the bad ones.” I saw my orders to Lambert were superfluous, as he’d already raced to the most badly wounded.
Hammers and I approached the first SD who’d been hit. He’d crawled away from the bloody patch of snow and somehow ripped a sweater sleeve off and tied it as a bandage for his wound. The dull brown wool was clotted with blood, and a steady stream of it leaked onto the black oval stones under him. He’d made knee-hand tracks in the stones as he moved away from the snow, but had given up after reaching a streamlet that blocked his path. He was laying on his face, his forehead on the rocks. Hammers and I turned him over. Under his clothes, his skin was clammy and cold.
His face was pale, the blue veins standing out along his forehead and cheeks. His eyes were wild, and he shook his head, his lips moving. He struggled, but he was weak like a child. The coppery richness of blood was overpowering. He had blood on his hands, his pants, in his thin blond beard, from trying to pull the HK out. Soon I had it on my hands too. But my stomach was steady.
Hammers got out his tourniquet, and I removed his pants leg above the knee with my camping knife. As I leaned down to cut, the smell of woodsmoke and ass-stink filled my nose.
“Give, give it up,” he rasped. “It can’t save you.” I looked up at him, but he was too weak to raise his head and look down at me.
“Keep cutting, LT,” Hammer’s said through gritted teeth. “This one’s gonna make it.”
I cut, and the man spoke again, his voice dry from the blood loss.
“You think we didn’t know what would happen? We knew you’d come. You’re already dead. . . At least . . .”
He coughed, unable to continue. I finished the cuts, ran my knife down the length, and ripped the pants leg off his worn hiking boots while Hammers fitted the tourniquet on, and started the pneumatic pumping. Around us, other pumps were doing the same, and Lambert was on the hook with Dougherty to bring up more fluids:
“Carl, we’ll lose half of ‘em in ten minutes we don’t get IVs in. Put it priority on the EVAC then. Does the FBI want fucking prisoners or not?”
“Lambert,” I said, standing and looking in his direction where he squatted thirty feet away. “It ain’t gamecut, so breath. Triage and gimme a sitrep.”
“Gotta elevate, Sir,” Hammers said.
“Right.” I looked around, found a large boulder and slipped it under the SD’s leg while Hammers raised it. The man let out a weak scream. I almost apologized, and had to stop myself.
“Feel worse to loss that leg. Or your life,” Hammers said. But the man wasn’t listening.
As Hammers held his leg, I stood, and he locked eyes with me. His blue cheeks mirrored his burning sapphire eyes, boring into mine.
“Get out, before they get you too,” he rasped. He was hyperventilating, tiny puffs of air fluttering the hairs of his mustache.
Lambert came up behind me, knelt down to check the man’s pulse and airway, looked over the tourniquet.
“I got three Delays, all through and throughs, the rest are Immediates, except for that second one who got hit, who’s Expectant. A few minutes from dipso, probably. Dougherty should be here in two with fluids. Enough, I hope. He’s not sure if it’ll get put on the birds.”
I put a hand on his shoulder. “Good. You OK?”
Lambert knelt and attached a bandage to the man’s wound, then stood back up. “What’d he say?” he asked,
“He knew it was coming,” Hammers answered.
Lambert looked up at me. “They all say that.”
Lambert gave me a look: eyebrows raised, eyes wide, angry and disbelieving. Like, what the fuck is happening here? What drives a bunch of seemingly good-ole-boys to drop off the face of the earth, then attack an infantry company in MPACs equipped with drones and HKs? What’s the fucking pathology of this virus, Lieutenant? You’re the smart one, you tell me. But I couldn’t tell him, because I didn’t know. They’re broke? They’re hopeless? Things have changed so fast and so far they can’t take living anymore?
That image of Lambert, his gaunt horse-face hurt and incredulous, framed against the glacier and the Mountain behind, a dozen wounded on the ground, my troopers cursing, trying to fit tourniquets onto bloody limbs, stuck against the sidewall of my brain. The cold pine breeze under the warm sun, my nose running, reminded me of past snowboarding and past hikes, but it all seemed like another life, a dream I’d had once.