Most of us have dreamed about controlling giant, computerized armor suits like Iron Man does. But what would it really be like to fight inside and alongside these futuristic machines? Or to use them for something other than warfare? Those are the questions posed by the writers collected in John Joseph Adams' latest anthology, Armored. Full of ass-kickery and smart speculation, this is one of the most interesting SF anthologies to come along in a while. And we've got a special exclusive short story from the collection.
Art from the cover of Armored is by Kurt Miller.
By David Klecha & Tobias S. Buckell
"Chinese metal? What does he mean?" Dan Stilwill asked.
Corporal Faisal Jabar eyed the thick Colombian jungle around the gravel road, an old smuggler's route that ran down into Venezuala, and took a deep, humid breath. Who said that no plan survived contact with the enemy? The origin of the quote escaped him, but it was really hitting home right now. So far, their routine patrol was failing to survive contact with today.
His squad, detached fragments of a full weapons platoon, started the morning on its usual babysitting routine: escorting their State Department chump, Dan Stilwill, on his daily nature walk through the ass ends of Colombia that Camp Bell sat in.
Stilwill was a specialist in convincing drug growers to switch to vege-plastic biomass crops, and he was, apparently, great at his job. Everyone had their niche, Jabar supposed. But neither Stilwill nor Jabar was inhabiting their own proper niche right this second.
"What does he mean?" Stilwill demanded. An officious note crept into his voice as Jabar continued to scan the jungle thoughtfully.
"Lance Corporal Rader knows his armor silhouettes backwards and forwards," Jabar said. "It means what it means. I'd recommend you stay low and stay put while I give out orders, Mr. Stilwill. You're not going to be making your next speaking appointment."
When Jabar glanced back, Dan Stilwill was crouched in the bush, his face half-obscured by foliage, his bright yellow Packers cap sticking out above it.
A few minutes later, Jabar moved down the line, crouch-running from Marine to Marine placed in the dense jungle foliage alongside the road. "Keep your heads down," he called out. "Tell me when you see anything. Private Van Duine, everything good?"
"Locked and cocked, Corporal," Van Duine replied, a little louder than absolutely necessary.
"Not what I asked, Van Duine," Jabar said, sliding in to kneel beside the private. Van Duine had his shoulder pressed into the stock of a medium machine gun, the silver-gray tips of armor-piercing ammo visible on the feed tray.
"We're good, Corporal," he said. "Could use some air-conditioning, though."
"Yeah, we all could, brother," Jabar said. His men hadn't expected to be grubbing through the dirt here in the jungle. When they'd first arrived in the transport airships from Florida and started unpacking, they'd figured they'd be stomping around in full, mechanized armor with fluid coolant packs running to pull the sweaty heat away from their bodies and keep them in tip-top comfort as they operated the mechanized suits his platoon was trained to fight in.
That's what they'd trained for in Florida. But the jungle out here had been brutal to their first attempts to patrol in it. Rather than invincible metal giants, the moisture wreaked quick havoc on their delicate electronics, and green, wet wood sprung back with surprising velocity at soldiers trying to push their way through. Creepers and vines could tangle legs, and soft earth could give way with no warning.
Their first day trying the armor out in the jungle, one of his Marines had sunk to his waist in quicksand, and another had gotten his leg stuck deep in an ant colony-and Ko had an aversion to the crawly buggers ever since.
They'd figured pretty quickly that for bog-standard patrols of the nearby grower villages, helping the Colombians hunt the last, most dug-in border drug lords left, it was more effective to dismount and be an old-fashioned Marine on the ground, in the flesh.
Jabar had sympathized with the flicker of disappointment in Stilwill's eyes when Jabar had explained that to the man on their first patrol with him a couple weeks back. Now being in the flesh was going to cause problems. Somewhere out there was at least a pair of Chinese walkers, according to Rader.
That is…a lot of metal for us to face down, Jabar thought.
"Was it this hot where you grew up, Corporal?" Van Duine asked.
Jabar glanced down, confused. "What? No, I grew up in Toledo."
It was Van Duine's turn to look confused. "You grew up in Spain? How come you said you can't speak to the locals here?"
"Ohio," Jabar said. "Toledo, Ohio."
Van Duine had the good grace to look embarrassed. Jabar, though, had other things on his mind, and inched back away from where his Weapons Platoon Marines were positioned. A few meters along, he ran into 2nd Squad-"Sloppy Seconds"-who were on hand to back up Jabar's Marines with their heavy rifles and grenade launchers.
Sgt. Arliss, 2nd's squad leader, had deployed them in a nice, hasty zig-zag, using the terrain for cover and positioning them so they could offer supporting fire if needed. Someone remembered their dismount training from the School of Infantry. If only all the Marines remembered how to fight as well outside their armor.
Staff Sergeant Demeter had joined Stilwill in the bush, but stood upright despite the threat of Chinese powered armor out in the jungle. Jabar couldn't decide if that was from some misplaced senior-Marine bravado or if Demeter had gone soft in the head after four years pulling Embassy duty in the plush urban surroundings of Bogota.
"Everything tight up front?" he asked Jabar.
"Everything's good, Staff Sergeant. We're dispersed for two hundred meters along the jungle track-machine guns out to the flanks, anti-armor assault in the center. It's a good position for what we've got."
"Excellent work, Jabar," he replied. "We've got Third Squad backing us up on the hill to our south in case we need to fall back."
Jabar concealed a sigh of exasperation in a cough. 3rd Squad-"Third Herd"-was good enough at what they did, but dismounted operations were not their forte. He'd be lucky if his detachment of Marines survived Third Herd's "covering" fire. He hoped it wouldn't come to that.
"We're a stone's throw from the border," Demeter said, possibly picking up on something in Jabar's body language that he wasn't hiding as well as he thought he was. "It's probably just a patrol gone bad. Nav equipment off. Someone lost. Or just a test of the Colombian response. I doubt this'll end up being a full-on firefight."
Jabar nodded agreement and hoped that Demeter was right.
From his position behind the bush, Stilwill interrupted. "I still didn't get any memos about Chinese troops being in Venezuela. You'd think that'd be news."
Demeter looked over at Jabar, and the two shared a "Is this guy for real?" glance. Jabar, not for the first time, wondered if Stilwill's colleagues sent him out here hoping he'd step on a landmine.
"There probably aren't Chinese drivers in the armor, sir," Jabar explained patiently. "The Chinese sell their walkers and their exo-skins to at least ten other nations, including Peru. They have a presence in South America."
"We're on the wrong side of the country from Peru…" Stilwill said, looking off to the west as though he could see the Pacific coast nation through the hundreds of miles jungle and mountain that separated them.
"But Venezuela is right there," Jabar said, and pointed at the smuggler's track.
"They're under an arms embargo; China agreed in the UN Council to abide by this. They're hungry for buyers, but not enough to risk the black mark," Stilwill muttered.
A set of snapping branches and motion in the deeper jungle interrupted him. Jabar crouched, shoving Stilwill's head further down into the bush, and Demeter even dropped to one knee.
"Hey, don't shoot, it's Reynaldo," a heavily Colombian-accented voice said.
Jabar lowered his rifle as their guide stepped out to join them. Reynaldo had been ghosting his way through these jungles hunting FARC rebels from back when they were still considered revolutionaries by some and controlled at least a third of Colombia's territory. He'd been picking off drug lords, some of them well intertwined with FARC, long before Camp Bell had been set up by US and Colombian forces working together for the final push back of Colombia's fringe areas, where the drug lords were dug in the hardest and being funded by the Venezuelans.
"You see anything, Reynaldo?" Jabar asked.
"No. And to answer Mr. Stilwill: the Venezuelans got around the embargo by giving most of their reserves directly to a Chinese corporation that makes the heavy metal. Oil for weapons." He shook his head. "And not much of it left. Caracas is ready to riot, the lights are going out all over the country. It's desperate over there."
Desperate enough to do something stupid, like attack Colombia? Jabar wondered. That seemed beyond the pale.
But he glanced down the road, a chill running down his back despite the moist heat.
"What I do," a drunk Stilwill had told Jabar, barely a day after being helicoptered out, "is show these peasant farmers how first-world farming works."
"Where did you get that?" Jabar had asked. "Alcohol's prohibited on base."
"It's not about equipment, or technology. You'd think it was. You'd be wrong. It's really about the guarantee." Stilwill gulped the amber-colored, peaty-smelling scotch in his hand like he'd stumbled into an oasis after a week of crossing the desert. "That's modern farming. All about the subsidies. No one really wants to fess up to it, but guarantee a farmer a minimum price on his crop, so that he knows his family won't suffer, and he's willing to take a risk on what is a professional field with a shrinking user base. We talk a good talk about markets; in fact, in order to enter into trade agreements with us, you have to agree not to subsidize your farmers. But at the end of the day, that's how first-world farming works."
"Sir, you can't just sit out here on the edge of camp with a flask of scotch…"
"There was an African country which decided to stop using ‘the market' and subsidize its farmers. Lost all US aid, but within two years, they had a stable local agro-economy and could feed themselves. So we have that dilemma facing us as we look out at these little guys sitting out there," Stilwill waved his hand at the jungle. "You're a farmer: you're offered your chance of two crops. One pays a few bucks an acre. Another pays ten times that. What do you plant?"
"Sir," Jabar insisted.
"You plant the more expensive! Problem is, until me, that's always been cocoa. Colombia needs stability, and crops. They can't subsidize their farmers or they lose agricultural assistance from the US. They can't afford all out war out here. We, on the other hand, want less drug production and are desperate for more land to grow crops for bio-plastics as oil prices hit the stratosphere. So the State Department works with foreign aid, and suddenly Monsanto is here to offer farmers a minimum crop price guarantee if they grow what the bio-plastics industry needs. Just as back home, Monsanto somehow sits in the middle of it all. Everyone's happy. Except me, because I'm in the middle. Of. Fucking. Nowhere."
"Sir, the reason you can't sit here with that is because we occasionally come under sniper fire," Jabar said.
Stilwill paled. He shoved the flask into Jabar's hands and scurried back for the safety of the sandbagged walls.
Jabar turned the flask over thoughtfully.
"That's what they look like?" Amir asked, twisting the holographic image of Jabar's rig this way and that, three months prior to his big brother's deployment to Colombia. He poked at the angular shape, freestanding but cracked open for maintenance. "What's the armor?"
"The plate armor is a poly-metal synthetic, gray with your camo painted over top. Green for jungle, sand for desert. Once you have it all strapped on, you look just like one of those videogame characters," Jabar told him.
"And you'll jump twenty feet into the air with a leap, because of the joint motors inside, right?"
"After lots and lots of training," Jabar grinned. "Do that your first day you're liable to land and break every bone in your body. The armor's tougher than you are."
"What about the big ones, Faisal? The walkers?"
Jabar flicked over to some pictures he'd taken of one of the big boys, a M-19 Mattis, out at 29 Palms. "These guys? That's more like driving a car or something. The driver sits up in the cockpit here, between the big weapons pods on the shoulders. The legs can put him up to twenty feet off the ground, and a good driver can get those legs moving like a sprinter."
Just after he had taken the picture, Jabar had watched them lope across the Mojave Desert like so many gazelle, running and bounding and chewing up distance with breathtaking speed. He'd felt like a turtle in his own armor for weeks after that.
"Can I drive one?" Amir asked, looking up at him.
Jabar rubbed the top of his brother's head. In another year, he'd be eighteen and free to enlist. "You like to tinker, maybe you can fix them, and test drive them, or something. They always need more mechanics."
"But not fight in them?"
"What I do is dangerous enough for both of us, little brother."
The chatter of a dozen heavy rifles broke the jungle's wet silence. Jabar snapped his own rifle up, and Demeter and Reynaldo both dropped into crouches.
It wasn't Weapons or Second, Jabar realized. He glanced back up the small hill where Third had set up their covering position.
"Contact front!" the platoon's comm net crackled. "Three walkers, two thousand meters!"
"Jesus Christ, what the hell do they think they're doing?" Demeter muttered.
"Giving away their damn position," Jabar replied. Stupid fucking buttplates, he thought, carefully censoring himself. Only Weapons used that term, and not in a complimentary fashion.
It was Stilwill who verbalized the changed atmosphere. "This isn't a lost border patrol; this is an attack."
Jabar and Demeter-who'd both switched from anticipating the worst (while hoping for the best) and accepted the reality that a firefight had just broken out-glanced at him. "It's a thrust of some sort, yes sir," Jabar confirmed. He looked at Demeter. "Victor's gonna light Third up with tracking software and return rocket fire."
Demeter was on the comm net already, thinking the same thing. "Disengage, disengage!" he ordered. "Fall back to Rally-Delta."
It was too late. Third was lobbing grenades out in a high arc from their hill as explosions dotted their position. It was hard to miss them.
Demeter and Jabar looked at each other. "Pull your squad back, Corporal, we can't sit here anymore," Demeter said. Third had blown their pretty little road ambush. "Keep Stilwill safe and close."
Under attack by an unspecified number of possibly Venezeulan walkers and Jabar was still on babysitting duty.
"Stay low," Jabar ordered, and rushed forward to where his squad was parked, muttering obscenities under his breath the whole way. His teams should have been on that goddamn hill, not Third Herd, but Demeter had wanted the big guns out front to act as a screen and Jabar had given in because he didn't have the nuts to stand up to a Staff Sergeant yet, even one as semi-hopeless as Demeter. He came down to the edge of the track, not far from where Rader lay in the prone, scanning left and right with his rifle.
"I don't see any-"
"Doesn't matter. Third got some, and now they're going to roll us up if we don't boogie." Rader looked appropriately annoyed at the FUBARed situation. "Fall back to Delta now. You remember the way?"
"Good, you've got point. Hustle us back there and don't wait for the buttplates to get their shit together."
With a mumbled "Aye," Rader was up and moving, falling back into the jungle, dragging the rest of Assault section with him. Jabar dared to jump out into the rough road that they had been beside and ran to their southern flank first, toward where Third was still firing sporadically. Stilwill followed behind, panting and out of breath from the effort of keeping up.
"Get up, get up, go," Jabar yelled at the machine gun team there, "fall in behind Assault, go!" Then he ran back to the north and got that gun team moving. He plunged into the jungle at the very tail end of the line, urging his Marines onward. As they passed SSgt. Demeter's former command position, he could hear trees at the smuggler's track starting to crack and splinter under high velocity fire. He put himself between the sounds and Stilwill, whom he kept shoving in front of him.
He still had yet to lay eyes on any enemy metal, but it was quite clear they were in the middle of a firefight.
For the first time in a month, Jabar thanked Allah for the thickness of the jungle. He even permitted himself a tiny smile, wondering if the Venezuelans had had any time to practice operating armor in the jungle. Judging by the crashing sounds and slow progress, he was willing to bet they hadn't.
"Dropkick Red, moving to Rally Delta. We have ambulatory casualties."
Jabar urged Stilwill to run faster. "Red" was Third Herd's callsign, and if they were coming down the hill with walking wounded, they would be moving slow. Hopefully the withdraw and rally path, which was little more than a foot trail that went through dense jungle, would keep the Venezuelans from rolling Third Herd up in a neat bunch. The walkers would have a bitch of a time, while Jabar and Stilwill were able to thread past the thick jungle quickly enough on the footpath.
He came up on one of the machine gunners struggling a little under the weight of the ammo he was carrying. In a training situation, he probably would have just walked alongside, berating the boot for not being in better condition-hell, he might have done it out here in the jungle if it weren't for death lurking in the trees somewhere behind them. Today, instead, he just grabbed one of the two slung panniers, draped it across his own back, and hustled on. He caught up to Rader just as his scout reached the edge of the small clearing that was Delta. They entered to find Sloppy Second, breathing hard in the thick jungle air, forming themselves into a defensive circle.
They'd made it back to Rally Delta. Stilwill was in one piece. So the mission has that going for it, at least, Jabar thought. The man they'd been ordered to escort and protect was still alive. Kneeling at the point where trail met clearing, Jabar counted off Marines and pointed them into position around the clearing, backing up Sloppy Second.
"Are we going to call Camp for armor?" Jabar asked, prodding Demeter.
Demeter glanced back through the jungle. "Too late for that now."
"Maybe, but you do realize we're going to be the first platoon ever to face down enemy metal in an actual firefight, and we're naked?" The walkers and power armor had only been developed in the last decade, most of it in the hands of nations rich enough to deploy it…and rich enough to have no vested interest in fighting each other.
There'd been metal up against flesh, though. Richer nations against less-equipped nations. Normally that didn't end so well for flesh.
"Let's see what shape Third is in," Demeter said. "We could just have spooked a patrol. We need to make sure we understand what's happening before we start calling in armor or airstrikes."
He was being cautious. And trying to cover his ass. Because ultimately it was Demeter who made the call to go out into the bush without powered armor. If this mission shit the bed then it was going to be Demeter's ass on the line. But an excess of caution would send things down the same chute, get them just as dead. There was a reason the Corps prized aggressiveness.
"Let's get some eyes in the sky," Jabar suggested. "We'll know for sure what we're looking at if we unpack the moth."
Demeter thought about it for a split second and nodded. "Okay. Unpack the drone, and tell me what you see."
Stilwill was shaking his head. "Colombia's not a narco-state anymore, Bogota's got better public transportation than my home city, and Cartagena's a vacation spot. But they're still struggling with the rural areas. If this goes south, it undoes decades of growth in the area, growth we were hoping would check the Venezuela problem."
The moth was a tiny collapsible radio controlled drone with memory metal wings. It took half a minute to unpack, fold the wings into place, and throw into the air. Jabar controlled it with a joystick and goggles.
He spiraled it up just over the tree canopy, and then slowly flew out well away from their position. After a few minutes of that, he jerked it up into the air and spiraled up for altitude.
The jungle jerked and stuttered and spun as he climbed, and then leveled out.
A mat of jungle top stretched for miles, emerald green, sliced by the smuggler's road they'd double-timed away from to Rally Point Delta. And all along the road stretching back into Venezuela: a long convoy of heavy, metal-clad humanoid shapes stutter-walking along, interspersed with the two legged walkers, canopies glinting in the sun.
Further back, supply trucks and older tanks ground along, following the spearhead of powered armor.
One of the suits paused, and a gauntleted, metal-clad arm rose and pointed, the finger flashing as energy stabbed out at the tiny drone.
"Sir…" Jabar's video feed exploded in static. He ripped the goggles off and looked up to see a cloud of debris slowly falling. "It's no patrol."
It was a goddamn invasion force.
The sound of Third Herd preceded the Marines themselves by less than a minute, and a few of them were still shooting somewhere to their rear as they moved into the clearing.
Two had clearly been wounded. One, Cpl. Barney, leaned against their squad corpsman, HM3 Danks, a blood-soaked bandage at Barney's neck. Jabar frowned when he saw that; Barney was one of the better NCOs in Third-probably the best-and they would be struggling without his influence.
"How far back are they?" Demeter asked as Third Herd's squad leader, Sgt. Maly, came into the clearing.
He glanced back. "I think we scared 'em a bit. Certainly haven't gotten past the worst of the bush back there."
"Good," Demeter said. "Good work getting your men out of there in good order."
Demeter, evidently, had a different standard of "good order," but again Jabar kept his mouth shut. His Marines would have been wounded-or killed-if he had been any slower getting them to Delta. Third Herd's "fighting withdrawal" had looked more like a half-directed clusterfuck, and they had been spraying ordnance all over the jungle. They were hopeless without their own armor's target systems. He hoped that the fact that they made it to the rally point at all boded well for the platoon as a whole.
"Dropkick White, Dropkick White, this is Dropkick Five, over." Jabar looked over to see Demeter hold his right hand against his ear, pressing the thin boom mic closer to his face.
"Five, this is White, go ahead."
"Start getting the armor warmed up." Demeter glanced back at Jabar. "We're going to need it."
"Five, this is Dropkick Six, what's going on out there?"
"Hostile armor in the vicinity, sir. Minimum company strength, possibly the tip for a larger force."
"Jesus. Get back here, soon as you can make it. We'll get armored up and out there ASAP."
Those who were on comms-the squad leaders and dedicated radiomen-brightened up a bit at the sound of their platoon commander on the net, promising to get their armor ready to go. The trick, Jabar knew, was to make it back to them in the first place. The patrol base they had been operating out of lay a half day's walk through the jungle and across a high, steep ridge. They had come across the ridge along an east-west road that continued on down into Venezuela, crossing the north-south smuggler's track along the way, and Jabar figured that's the path the armor would naturally gravitate to, once they had spent some time getting badly bogged down in the trees and brush.
"Jabar, you got a headcount?" Demeter asked, snapping him out of his tactical review reverie.
"All present and accounted for, Staff Sergeant."
Demeter nodded and turned back to Maly and Arliss, kneeling in the center of the clearing with Reynaldo the guide. Jabar swore softly to himself. He scrambled over to them, keeping low, holding his rifle muzzle out of the dirt as he moved. They were planning the next move, and they were doing it without him again, without input from Weapons on how best to deploy the platoon's heavier guns. Typical, not consulting with him because he was just a corporal, or because he was just a Weapons NCO. Or both.
"…ambush along here, which we think is their most likely axis of advance." Demeter was dragging his finger along an unrolled map flimsy, drawing a bright blue line on the softly lit surface. His finger described an arc cutting across the Venezuela road where it snaked like an S around a cluster of tiny rocky upthrusts, embryonic cousins to the Andes far to the west. Someday they'd be mountains, he figured, but for now they were barely enough cover for the Marines to set in a good position and shoot at the Venezuelans without getting chewed up themselves. Maybe.
"And if they flank us?" Arliss was asking.
"They won't," Demeter said. "The jungle is too thick for them. They'll funnel up this road, and they'll just want to get over the ridge and down the other side to take out Camp Bell. We hit 'em, fuck 'em up, and withdraw in good order back to the pass. That should keep them busy long enough to give everyone at camp time to reach us and unleash some hell. By then we'll be getting orders from higher up the chain."
"Sounds like a plan," Maly said.
"Glad you agree, Sergeant. Corporal Jabar, you and Weapons take point. I want you at the tip of the spear in case we stumble across any of them too soon."
"Aye, Staff Sergeant," Jabar replied, and gritted his teeth. That wasn't how they were supposed to be used, but he didn't have time to argue the point. The man had obviously not paid attention at the advanced infantry course, much less remembered his initial schooling. Now was not the time to teach him the finer points of ambush.
"Leave Stilwill here," Demeter ordered as Jabar moved out.
"Guys," Stilwill said, sounding scared. "Don't give me some bullshit about the size of the fight in the dog versus the size of the dog. That's enemy powered armor out there, and you guys are just-"
"Just what?" Jabar asked. "Just Marines?"
Stilwill opened his mouth to say something, but saw something in Jabar's eyes and shut his mouth.
Jabar turned away. It was time to make this happen.
Flesh against armor. Stop them from getting closer to camp, hold them down until back up arrived.
He tried not to think about the long line of armor stretched down the smuggler's road.
End of the day, none of them were really cut out for hard combat operations outside of the suits anymore. But there was no denying that they would need to be ready, and beyond ready even, if they were going to survive for much longer. Outside of their suits, they could engage the Venezuelans, maybe even keep them at bay for a short time, but if the Chinese had supplied them with armor in quantity, the Marines were going to need armor to match them.
Hopefully Demeter wasn't too gung-ho to realize that. Seemed like he understood, radioing back for First Squad to get the suits warmed up, but the ambush tactic smelled like a shot at glory. Jabar wasn't keen on glory. Glory got Marines killed.
But Jabar had to admit, he had no more combat experience than Demeter. They had both fired their first rounds in this jungle, chasing after drug lords suddenly fallen on hard times and trying to stake a claim on a fractured and unsettled Colombia. Demeter made himself out to be wiser and more worldly, after his four years in embassies-a shtick that had worked well in Bogota, when they had had some time to walk around on liberty. He had even busted out some Spanish well enough to impress Curazon, the machine gunner who had come from Colombia when he was a little kid, fleeing the drug violence.
Out in the field, though… There, Demeter had lost Jabar's respect. The staff NCO was all thumbs, obviously rusty when it came to the operations side of things. Though no one had said as much, Jabar knew that he was the reason half of 1st Squad was laid up back at Camp Bell, nursing a variety of minor wounds after a run-in with an exceptionally well-equipped former drug lord. A terrible assault plan had left 1st strung out and trying an end-run around the drug lord's position, and the squad had gotten chewed up.
And as bad as that had been, Jabar worried that the new situation was too far beyond Demeter's meager abilities. As an armored infantry platoon, they trained for these kinds of fights all the time, but this was far from the ideal training situation. They had to ambush the Venezuelans with arms much more suited for soft targets, and there was no chance that the Marines would be able to absorb much punishment from the heavy weapons.
"Dropkick Green, hold up, hold up, circle back. We've lost contact with you."
Jabar turned his head and growled, looking back along his line. It was a short line, just fourteen Marines, and they were keeping tight together so as not to lose each other in the jungle. But somehow, the rest of the platoon had gotten separated.
"Rader! Curl right!" he shouted, and the point scout obediently changed his path, coming around in a broad arc, back to the northeast, toward Rally-Delta. Jabar jogged in place for a moment as his squad curled around him and hustled back the way they had come.
A moment later, he heard, "Shit!" And then the jungle was alive with the sound of automatic weapons. Marines peeled out of the tight line they had been moving in and hit the deck hard.
Jabar watched, almost in slow-motion, as a burst of plasma from a Chinese high-energy weapon sliced through the air to hit a tree a meter or two above his head and just off to his left. He dove into the stinking, ant-infested brush as a wave of heat and charred splinters pattered his softly-armored back.
"Fuck-shit-fuck," he cried, and then his curses were lost in long, cacophonous bursts from his squad's machine guns. Licks of flame brightened the dim jungle, and then he could see the dancing, juddering figure of a lone, exo-skinned enemy as fire from the platoon converged on him.
Even as he fell, another exo seemed to appear through the maze of trees, and the Marines did not have to shift their aim far to converge on the second armored figure. Jabar moved to the kneeling position, propped himself against a tree trunk, and began jerking the trigger on his rifle. Illuminated bursts of high-velocity rounds crawled up the enemy armor, and Jabar could swear he saw his rounds impact the glassy faceshield.
Then the second figure was down, and no more appeared. Jabar hollered for cease fire, and the call was taken up along their ragged line. He got to his feet and hustled forward, passing through the line and shouting for his Marines to stay down. The two armored scouts lay where they had fallen, twisted grotesquely. One of them had obviously suffered some kind of servo failure, and broken his own back when he tried to twist and catch himself when he fell.
The other had, in fact, been shot in the face, and the cheap faceshield had shattered. He lay on his side, blood pooling under the armored head. Jabar looked quickly, and otherwise wasted no time with their first confirmed kills. Where these guys were, more would be following. Both wore blue and red flags on their right shoulders.
"Dropkick Five, this is Green, confirmed contact with Venezuelan-flagged armor. Where are you?"
"Green, this is Five. We're south east of you. New plan. You make for the pass and hold it, we're going to harass, then draw back to your pos and meet White coming up."
"Roger that, Five. Green on the move." Jabar hustled back to the line now, shouting for Weapons to get to their feet. This was more like their standard use-take and hold the high ground, support the buttplates from up there. "Let's go, let's go. Double time to the pass, move!"
The entire dictionary of colorful Marine curses followed the orders, but everyone obeyed. Jabar paused to get his headcount-two minor wounds from a shredded tree, but otherwise all on their feet-and fell in at the back of the line. Every third step he glanced back over his shoulder, convinced that some of the exos were running up behind them. But the jungle remained enemy-free, and blessedly noisy with the protests of birds and other jungle critters expressing their dismay at the fireworks.
They reached the road about a thousand meters short of the pass. To the west, the ground sloped up steeply, jungle trees clinging to a rocky slope that would be hell to climb with or without mechanical assistance. Jabar smiled and looked east down the road toward Venezuela. So far, nothing. The track had been paved, once upon a time, but had no doubt fallen into ruin as gasoline grew harder to come by, especially in poor rural zones like this one. The former pavement now more closely resembled gravel, which would make it ideal for laying in some remote detonated devices.
"Curazon, Ko, get up into the pass and find some nice spots for your machine guns. Double-time, go." Jabar watched them set off-and counted the lumbering machine gunners as they went, weighted down under the heavy weapons and the even heavier pile of ammunition. Then he turned back to his Assault Marines, who were already unlimbering their demo packs and opening tins of explosives.
"Save the directional mines for closer in," Jabar said. "We'll place those at two hundred meters from the machine guns. Everything else, staggered pattern up the road, get 'em down in the gravel."
One of his Marines, DesJardins, ran to the far side of the road and set up in the trees with his anti-armor rocket propped up on his shoulder. He squinted into the sights, then settled in, a disposable rocket tube twisted into the backside of the reusable launcher. The others started taping together bricks of plastic explosive and pressing in remote detonators.
They moved up the road, fifty meters at a time, each stop setting in another improvised landmine and making note of existing landmarks adjacent to the mines' positions. DesJardins moved after they did, only picking up and hurrying back when Jabar shouted for him to move.
The sounds of gunfire and explosions began to filter up through the jungle as Second and Third started their mission of harassment. The distinct crump of a Marine hand grenade was as welcome as the bass thudding of a Chinese heavy cannon was not.
They were badly outmatched here. As well-prepared as they thought they had been that morning-setting out to sweep a section of the jungle for drug lords, and watch Stilwill cajole the locals into the US-Colombian plastics program-they were not well prepared for this. The machine guns were the only ones with true armor-piercing ammo, and they only brought that because they never got issued anything else. The rest of their weapons were strictly for soft targets, and only the somewhat lucky hit on that Venezuelan's faceplate had given their small arms any utility at all in this fight.
The Assault teams were another matter, but they had used up everything but their four rockets in setting the improvised mines along the road. Once those were blown, and the rockets expended, they just had the machine gunners to help keep the enemy at bay. That, and an earnest prayer for 1st Squad to have their armor warmed up and ready to move in time.
"All right! DesJardins, bring it back!" Jabar shouted as he reached one of the rocky perches Machine Guns had chosen.
"Just a sec!" the junior Marine shouted back. The rocket leapt from his launcher and streaked downrange, a series of small pops trailing after it as the maneuvering rockets adjusted its course. Within a second of the rocket leaving the tube, DesJardins was down, then up again, hustling across the road, then up the last hundred meters to the pass.
An explosion sent a dark, sparkling cloud of dirt and debris back along the road, and then they heard the sound of something toppling into the trees. Secondary explosions followed as poorly-cushioned rockets knocked against the sides of their reload pods and detonated in the walker.
Jabar smiled as DesJardins hustled up the broken road, unscrewing and discarding the spent tube.
"It was a K-47, one of the Froggers," DesJardins said.
"Bad knee joints," Jabar said, laughing.
"Very bad," DesJardins said, then took another tube from his partner and fitted into the back of the launcher. Now they were down to three rockets, but at least they had taken down a walker and maybe obstructed the road a bit.
Jabar had to imagine it was chaos down there now, with Marines to the north harassing the armor along the road, trying to get some more lucky shots in, exploiting the weaknesses of the Chinese armor. The armor itself would be having a tough time among the trees, just like his own men had struggled in the jungle with their own powered armor.
The Venezuelans could not possibly be faring any better. They could not have had the Chinese armor for very long without a lot of people noticing, especially since they must have mortgaged the entire country just to buy a hundred exos and a handful of walkers. Oil was close to a thousand dollars a barrel, but from what Reynaldo had been telling them, they were having more and more trouble just extracting it from their oil fields.
So now maybe they were making a play for the profitable vege-plastics farms Monsanto was setting up, or hoping to force some sort of geo-political issue.
Whatever it was, it was way above Jabar's paygrade.
The sound of Marine heavy rifles seemed to be dying away, and Jabar had not heard a hand grenade go off in some time.
"Eyes open," he said as he got to his feet again, and moved across the road. "Keep an eye out for Marines coming back up through the jungle. Let's not have any blue-on-blue, dig?"
"Roger that," a couple of Marines muttered. But mostly they crouched over their weapons, half-hidden by the rocks and trees, waiting for enemy armor to fill their sights.
"Dropkick White, this is Green. What's the status on our armor?"
"Green, this is Six. White is suiting up. We're going to bring your armor up first. Blue and Red to follow."
That was good news. Bad news was that he had not heard anything from the other squads over the net since being ordered into position.
"Green, this is Six. We also have Green-Three setting up their tubes. Do you have a fire mission for them?"
Jabar resisted the urge to cheer. The mortar section had been on a food drop off to some villagers far to the west of Camp Bell when they stepped off that morning. They usually had little enough to do when everyone else went on patrol, unless they wanted to tag along. And, as everyone in the platoon said, Mortars had the sharpest skates; they could avoid boring, heavy patrols like nothing else. But now they were back, and setting up their 81mm tubes.
Jabar hustled over to the northern machine gun position and hunkered down behind a rock. The map flimsy in his pocket was pre-marked with firing locations that Mortars had marked out of habit and practice when they had set up Camp Bell. His finger trailed over the map and stabbed a spot along the road.
"Are they zeroed still, Six?"
"Negative. The tubes got packed up last week. But they're setting them in on the same positions they started with."
"Have them lay in Fire Mission One on Phase Line Candace," Jabar said, his finger dancing over the map, lips moving silently as he did the math, "then shift right twenty, drop two. We'll call for fire when we need it and adjust them manually. Fire Mission Two is ‘danger close,' final protective fire. Phase Line Dora, plus twenty." The ridge itself was Dora, and Fire Mission Two would probably pepper them with shrapnel, if they were still alive to call it in.
If Six acknowledged, the words were washed out in a long burst from the machine gun right in front of Jabar. The other one picked up as soon as the first dropped off, and soon they were chattering back and forth in a system the gunners called "talking guns." In theory, it helped disguise the number of machine guns, though Jabar had no doubt that the Chinese armor could pick out the individual muzzle flashes of the two weapons.
He threw himself down, then picked his head up to look over the lip of their fighting position. Trees shook off to the south; enemy armor was trying to flank them. A flash of azure plasma burst up into the trees and dissipated in sparks and splinters. The guns cut off as their targets vanished, the individual team leaders shouting for the Marines to conserve their ammunition.
Jabar grunted and checked his own magazines. He had yet to reload, so he still carried a full complement of rounds, minus the dozen or so he had fired off already.
"Keep your heads down!" he shouted, covering the whole, thin line of Marines. Assault was positioned in the middle, laying flat at the road's crest between the two machine gun positions, ready to detonate their explosives or bring their rockets down on anything coming up the road. "Keep your heads down!" he repeated. "Fire on hard targets only. First 'n' Worst is coming up with our armor and more ammo."
The radio buzzed in his ear: "Green, this is Blue. Green, this is Blue. We are cut off from your pos. We are going Alamo at Rally-Mike."
"Sit tight, Blue," Jabar said, swallowing on a dry throat, "we'll come get you soon."
"Roger, Green." If Arliss had heard Jabar's voice crack, he gave no indication.
Merciful Allah, he thought to himself. What the fuck am I doing? He had six months to go in his first enlistment and here he was, with thirteen other Marines, trying to stave off an armored ground invasion. The thought nearly overwhelmed him and he dipped his head, not wanting anyone else to see tears at the corners of his eyes. He shook his head, and the moment ebbed away, leaving only echoes of doubt. He had thought he could do this better than Demeter, and now he was being put to the test.
Allah had a sense of humor, after all.
A walker crunched into view, fifteen hundred meters down the road. It looked like a toy at that range, a blocky thing with a tapering nose and two box-like shoulders. Squat legs lifted and fell on the crumbling road, kicking up dust as it further pulverized the old pavement.
"Team One!" he shouted, looking back at Assault. "Target!"
PFC Krantz popped up to one knee, a rocket already loaded in the launcher. The Marine leaned forward a little, squinting down the optics, and then yanked the trigger. The rocket popped and fluttered along the road, jinking left and right on its own to avoid potential countermeasures and to paint its target from multiple angles. Krantz was already flat again when the walker responded, its right shoulder bursting in a fusillade of unguided rockets. The Marine's shot seemed to hit square in the walker's nose, making it stagger then topple forward. A second fusillade launched as it fell, spraying up a screen of dust, debris, and glowing shrapnel.
The first impacted a second later, rippling into the road and jungle fifty meters forward of their position. The shockwaves buffeted them, and another screen of cloying dust kicked up, drifting over them and coating everything in a layer of powdered concrete.
"Keep your eyes open!" Jabar shouted.
"Corpsman up!" came a call in the next moment from the machine gun team to the south.
Doc Hurley leapt to his feet from where he had been crouching with the Assault section and hustled over to the southern machine gun nest. A moment later he was dragging Van Duine back over the crest of the road and onto the reverse slope by the strap on the back of his body armor. The Marine looked to be cursing and kicking, but one of his arms dragged uselessly along the crumbled pavement. Jabar tore his eyes away and scanned the road as the dust started to clear.
The machine guns opened up immediately, zeroing on exo-skins moving up either side of the road. Assault fired another rocket, and the team leaders and ammo bearers started plinking at guys with their rifles. The improvised explosives burst, shattering individuals and sending clusters of armored Venezuelans spinning off to either side of the road. The concussive force threatened to knock Jabar off his knees.
"Green, this is Six. Two hundred meters out."
The fourth rocket fired and whipped past a walker, spiraling off into the distance.
"Rounds complete!" DesJardins shouted.
Jabar struggled to his feet, leaning against the steep, rocky outcropping that defined the northern side of the pass. He pressed his hand to his ear, pushing the radio earpiece in tighter.
"Green-Three, Green-Three, this is Green Actual. Fire Mission One."
"Fire Mission One, roger. Splash out."
"Inbound!" he screamed, "Inbound!" But he doubted anyone could hear him. His ears had to be bleeding from the noise, but he felt himself almost adrift on a calm little island. Strangely, he could hear the mortar rounds, cutting the air overhead with that distinctive zzzzzzzzzzzip. A bolt of plasma burst over his head, melting rock and showering him with fragments. The mortars burst at head-height, five hundred meters up the road. Armored Venezuelans toppled as the pulse of detonation overwhelmed their armor. One stood up again just in time to catch a dud in the chest-the velocity and weight of the projectile punched a hole in the armor and almost turned it inside out.
A hand fell on Jabar's shoulder and he spun, bringing his rifle butt up and smashing it across the masked face behind him. The armored figure didn't flinch.
"At ease, Corporal."
"Jesus, sir, it's you." The mottled green armor was pure Marine Corps, decorated only with slim black bars on the shoulders, indicating that the suit contained Lieutenant Hogarth.
Hogarth and 1st Squad, meanwhile, moved forward into the pass, screening Weapons as they engaged the Venezuelans for the first time.
It was now metal versus metal ripping the jungle apart as giants smashed through trees and unleashed unholy amounts of firepower against each other. The sound of combat moved away from Jabar and his men, and was soon only visible as the tops of trees snapped and fell, distant explosions thudded, and bursts of tracers zipped up into the air as armor fell.
And then the jungle fell silent.
Jabar sat next to a small table on a sealed trunk he'd dragged out near the perimeter of the camp, looking out at the jungle. He poured a finger of scotch from the flask he'd confiscated what seemed like an eternity ago.
When he held the small glass up to the sun, the light flickered with amber shadows.
"I thought you were Muslim," Stilwill said, interrupting the moment.
Jabar sighed silently. "I am."
"But you're drinking," Stilwill observed unnecessarily.
"We are all sinners in the eyes of Allah," Jabar said, and raised the glass to his lips. He breathed out mellow, expensive scotch fumes. "And that was some incredibly good scotch."
"Thirty year old Macallan," Stilwill said. "There aren't really snipers out here, are there?"
"There used to be," Jabar said. "When we first built the camp."
Stilwill laughed. "You're right to be out here celebrating," he said. "What you guys did today, that was fucking epic. You realize they're going to be talking about you, no, teaching what you did, today? Unarmored marines versus enemy power armor, and you took them out!"
"Some of them," Jabar pointed out.
"It's a first. It's huge! Awesome!" Stilwill was floating on the air, Jabar saw. "We now know for sure that flesh and blood Marines can fight effectively against powered armor. And we sent the Venezuelans packing!"
"We got caught naked. It wasn't awesome, it was a firefight. And there's always a price. A billion dollars worth of armor, or some drones, or blood. To be honest, I would have preferred not to have found out how well flesh and blood does against armor. I would have rather we paid the price in scrap metal."
That got through. Stilwill realized that people here had lost friends. That wrecked armor was scattered around the motor pool being worked on.
"I'm sorry," he said. "Enjoy the scotch."
After he left, Jabar stood up, leaned over, and opened the trunk. Inside sat the components of his powered armor.
Piece by piece he took it out and set it on the table, and in between sips of the expensive scotch Stilwill had donated, set to cleaning it and checking the diagnostic software.
We hope you've enjoyed this exclusive io9 preview of Armored, edited by John Joseph Adams. For more information about the anthology, please visit the official book site, which features other free reads from the anthology and interviews with the authors. You can order the book via Amazon.
About the authors:
David Klecha is a science fiction writer living in West Michigan with his wife, three children, and no cats. After graduating from university, he skillfully parleyed his degree in History and fuzzy mastery of Russian into an enlistment in the Marine Corps and a series of entry-level IT jobs. A deployment to Iraq brought the opportunity to start a milblog, and when Dave returned home he began writing professionally, as well as climbing the IT ladder, putting his combat experience to good use. Now Dave works as a Network Administrator for a global oral care products manufacturer you've never heard of and mixes his science fiction writing with online how-to articles and sporadic blogging. His short fiction has appeared in Subterranean Magazine.
Tobias S. Buckell is a Caribbean born SF/F author who now lives in Ohio. He is the New York Times bestselling author of Halo: The Cole Protocol, as well as Crystal Rain, Ragamuffin, and Sly Mongoose. His fifty or so stories-many of which have been collected in the volume Tides From the New Worlds-have been published in various magazines and anthologies, including other John Joseph Adams anthologies such as Under the Moons of Mars, Brave New Worlds, Wastelands, and Seeds of Change. His next novel, Arctic Rising, is due out from Tor in early 2012.