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By: D. Booyer

Greg Kinsey stalked through the evening light of a densely forested region of what had once, long ago, been known as North America. It still was, he supposed, although it was only referred to as such in the antique history books his wife liked to collect. Why she collected the thick, bulky things he had no idea. They were mostly made of pressed wood pulp, and were so old they would crumble if not handled carefully. The dusty tomes called the area Greg was in North America, but more recently it was called the American Union, or AU for short. Well, it had been until the war started, at any rate. Now it was nothing but a killing field. The citizens of the AU were forced underground by the Eastern Confederacy, a group of European nations that had first expanded into Asia and then set their sights on the lands overseas. Over the last seven centuries the AU had dug and tunneled, expanding downward as they increased their numbers. The AU continued fighting small skirmishes and raids against the much larger Con-fed army. No one really knew why the war had started, what had caused the Con-feds to start the war. No one really cared. After so many centuries the why was no longer important. Greg supposed that the Confeds knew the reason, but they weren't sharing any information. They weren't even communicating with the AU at all. Any attempt at communication was met with open hostility, making diplomacy completely out of the question. Stay alert, Three, the voice of Greg's commanding officer crackled over his suit's communications system. Captain Jason Anderson was a seasoned commander. Greg felt honored to have served with the man for many years. Their squad had survived many skirmishes together. Most of them had at least. There had been losses, of course. There always

were in war. Yessir, Greg replied. There was no need for a reason, and no time for excuses. Being alert kept you alive out here. After years of service, Greg knew better than to allow his mind to drift, but it had been happening with increasing frequency of late. Note, Greg said, causing the suit's internal computer to rout the audio to internal memory. Schedule psych eval next rotation. Can't seem to keep my focus. Solders were deployed for five months in the field and one month home. That was the way it had to be. There were no civilians, not in the AU. There was Just the military and military contractors who were, of course, controlled and staffed by the military. Greg's steps were silent, kept so by years of experience and the kinetic shield that protected him from enemy fire. His movement was slow and cautious, his body tense and alert, and the butt of his KE-72 assault rifle rested against his shoulder ready to fire the moment the enemy came into view. The other four members of Greg's squad were spread out to the north and south of him at hundred-foot intervals. They were far enough apart to increase the chance of the squad going unnoticed, but close enough to assist one another if they ran into trouble. Greg carefully scanned the terrain around him, his eyes instinctively searching the foliage for any sign of movement. He secretly enjoyed his time on the surface with its fresh, crisp air and lush forests that had long ago swallowed the remains of the great cities that had once sprawled haphazardly over the land. Nature, it seemed, had reclaimed what mankind had stolen from her and painted the surface with vivid colors that could not be found in the underground cities that they had all been forced to live in by this damned war. Greg shook his head in a vain attempt to keep his mind from wandering to thoughts of home and his wife Judy, who

was really his only reason to return to that hole they lived in. It was standard practice for married couples to serve on the same rotation schedule, which meant that it had been two months since he had seen her last. They communicated sometimes over the camp's wireless, but that just was not the same. Greg had met Judy in the field. They had both been stationed at... Focus, damn it, he muttered angrily. Please repeat command, came his wife's sweet voice from the helmet's computer system. The voice mod had been an anniversary gift meant to remind him of his wife while they were apart. Disregard, he said flatly. Greg tried to keep his mind on his surroundings, he had to focus if he wanted to make it back to Judy in one piece. Through the branches ahead and to his left Greg noticed a faint glimmer of light reflecting off something metallic. At this distance and with the dense foliage, it was hard to tell for sure what it was, but it was always good to be cautious. All. Possible contact at eleven, thirty-two, fourteen by one, forty-four, eleven relative, distance unknown, Greg's communications system routed the message to all of his squad members. The series of numbers represented the reflection's position relative to his own. They were represented by positions on two clock faces sitting on two intersecting planes, one vertical and one horizontal. This was often followed by an approximate distance when one could be provided. The Suit's computer took the point-of-view reference and added it to his current position, which was determined by pinging four stationary positioning beacons located in the area surrounding their camp. The time that it took for the signal to reach each beacon allowed the computer to accurately calculate his exact position. For security reasons, the position of the camp was offset from its true position. Each soldier could access the

offset coordinates once each day using a pass code set by the base commander. This made sure that an enemy combatant could not use a dead soldier's helmet to locate their camp. A small map in the upper left-hand corner of his HUD showed his and his squad mates' positions as well as a line that represented the direction of the possible contact. Greg changed direction, keeping his eyes on the area where he had seen the reflection. He continued stalking in a crouch, trying to remain unnoticed. He spotted the reflection a second time. This time it was accompanied by a flash that spider-webbed its way across his visor as his K-Shield absorbed the kinetic energy from a bullet that had been meant to hit him in the right eye. The shield converted the energy and stored it in a series of energy cells on the back of his suit for later use. Greg's assault rifle would use the energy to propel projectiles by converting the stored energy back into kinetic energy. An indicator on his HUD jumped as the energy was stored in the energy cells. The conversion was not a perfect balance. For some reason Greg couldn't understand it took more energy to propel a projectile than was received when the shield was impacted. Something, perhaps, to do with the methods used to convert the energy to and from the different types. If the weapon was discharged too often the shield would fail, leaving the user unprotected until the cells could be either charged or replaced. This could be done by simply exchanging one of the dead cells with another soldier's live cell (one reason that the units used multiple cells), or by hooking one to a small solar unit at camp. On the other side of the coin, if the cells were charged beyond a certain point they would explode, killing the soldier wearing them and anyone unfortunate enough to be standing within ten feet. As a safety precaution, the shield would shut down once the cells got to a certain level until enough energy could be expended to safely reactivate it. It

took months of training to learn how to maintain the proper balance, but it was well worth the effort. As soon as he was hit, Greg dropped to the ground and rolled behind a fallen log for cover. He relayed the PVR data to the rest of the squad along with the calculated distance. Greg hoped that the sniper had not noticed the flash from his shield, but a bright flash and a sizzling sound put a bitter end to that idea. Shit, Greg cursed in disgust as his body tingled with the aftermath of the near miss. All. Son of a bitch has an ion discharge rifle. Copy that, Three, came Jason's reply. He most likely has an EM tracker as well. All. Confirming EM tracker, Greg said as another flash and crackle from the other side of the fallen log confirmed his commander's suspicions. I have a visual on four targets, a young woman's voice crackled over the communications system. Carolyn Vasquez was new to their unit, a replacement for a fallen friend. She was only sixteen, fresh out of boot. Take cover, Five. They can spot you with the tracker, Jason warned. His words were punctuated by a whitish blue line streaking toward her position. I'm hit. Carolyn's voiced was pained and the transmission full of static from the impact of the ion discharge. I can't move. It'll pass, five. everyone stay under cover. Let them waste their energy, came Jason's voice. How are you holding up four? ...ot me...inned down... I think the...ave a...cking gen...or. He had obviously taken a direct hit. Their communications system was shielded, but years of use and a shortage of replacement parts made the shielding unreliable. How about you, Two, anything to report? Jason was

beginning to sound worried, and the flashes from the ion discharge rifles continued to light up the underbrush. I'm in a good position, Gloria Stephens' husky voice replied. I can't get a shot, but it looks like there are four of those bastards up there holed up behind a rock formation on the side of the hill up ahead. If you got any ideas, now is the time, Jason said. One. Roger that, I think I have one forming. Just leave me to it. Go for it, old man, Jason replied. One. Just don't get nervous if you can't reach me for a bit. Greg took a deep breath and relaxed for a moment. He did have an idea. It just wasn't the most sane thing to do under the circumstances. System. Full emergency shutdown on my mark, override code seven seven one alpha. Confirmed, the computer responded. I can't believe I'm doing this, Greg muttered to himself as he pointed the barrel of his rifle in the rough direction of the enemy. Mark, he cried and squeezed off a shot. As he had hoped, the responding flash and sizzle came immediately, just as his HUD winked out. He waved a hand experimentally over the log. Nothing; that was good. Greg slung his now powerless rifle on his back and circled wide in a crouch. He came up behind Carolyn's position, checking to make sure she was safely under cover. Her eyes widened in shock behind her visor as she signaled his mimed inquiry with a thumbs-up gesture. Greg saw her lips move as she communicated with the rest of the squad. Something to the effect of, Crazy son of a bitch shut his suit down. Greg smiled as he continued circling, making his way up the side of the hill. He took cover behind a large rock overlooking his target where he was sure to get a clear shot at them. Greg risked a look around the side of the rock. Four men in black armor were elbowing one another playfully as

they fired, almost randomly, down the hill. The arrogant sons of bitches were taking pot shots at his squad while a fifth relayed their positions to them as he looked through the EM tracker. Greg knew his weapon would be useless against their K-shields, but their generator lay not far behind them, and there was no sign of a shield module on it. It was just like the Confeds to forget something so important. Greg unstrapped his rifle and reached behind him to remove one of his suit's energy cells. The cell was made to snap into the butt of the assault rifle in case of an emergency. He took careful aim at the generator's power converter. One of the black-suited solders noticed him as he squeezed the trigger. Pain laced through his muscles as an ion discharge took him in the shoulder, just before the generator exploded. Greg's vision blurred, and the world went black. He came to briefly to see a dark form standing over him. A flash of light outlined the figure as its K-shield was disabled. Greg, he heard Jason's voice say as he drifted off once more, you really are one crazy son of a bitch.