"Mon centre cède, ma droite recule, situation excellente, j'attaque."

-Ferdinand Foch


National Military Command Center, Washington D.C.

0722 Hours

1 July 2014

"Jesus, Clancy, c'mere and take a look at this," Major George Wilson said, bringing up one of his displays. "I'm counting fifty-plus foot-mobiles per wave."

"Getting the same here," Major Thomas Clancy said as he selected another subunit on his displays. "Hold your position," he said calmly to the voice in his ear. "Reinforcements are being scrambled, just hold on." He opened a window of his options on a side-screen, keying up the CO of the unit he selected. "Colonel, orders and coordinates are streaming now. National Guard unit needs assistance." He paused, rolling his eyes before moving on to another hotspot. "Yes, Colonel, we're a bunch of assholes. Absolutely, sir."


El Paso, Texas

0722 Hours

1 July 2014

"Turn around," Captain Neville Blackburn shouted over the whine of his Abrams's turbine. "We're needed elsewhere!"

He pulled over one of the IWS displays that surrounded his seat, this one showing live satellite telemetry. Tanks in urban environments were generally a sign of someone fucking up somewhere higher up in the chain of command. That being said, fighting on your own soil was a definite sign of someone fucking up higher up in the chain of command.

Driving east along Montana Avenue, Blackburn and his company had been engaging all comers. There was enough space to maneuver their main guns. But there was little need. The insurgents had come in with practically no proper armor. Even their anti-personnel rounds could tear the technicals apart. No challenge, but who wanted a challenge in war? It wasn't a game. He could see muzzle flashes as individual insurgents tried engaging his convoy. No dice for them with the general "engage if fired upon" orders the tankers had been given.

"Third Platoon, continue mission," he said, plotting out a route. "All other platoons form on me."

"Third Platoon copies," Lieutenant Nash Wilson said, his Abrams tanks breaking away. "Maintaining original heading."


Laredo, Texas

0718 Hours

1 July 2014

Captain Omar Granger looked around the near-silent street as the FBI SWAT team unloaded their vans. It would probably have been smarter to keep the vans for mobile cover, but there was no room to maneuver them in the increasingly congested roads. Granger had never seen so many cars lying dead on the streets as he did now. There were cases like the Highway of Death earlier in his career, but never anything like this.

Charlie Team had been understrength since the previous year's coup d'état attempt in Mexico City, losing four men in Nicaragua thanks to a BCIED or building-contained improvised explosive device while investigating the loss of the Guardrail device. With just the three of them, they had been benched for months while unit recruiters sorted through personnel files for replacements. Fate having a decidedly dry sense of humor and irony, they were supposed to receive two new operators today. Either way, the three men of Charlie Team had been left high and dry and without anyone to provide back-up when the call came in.

At least a number of the SWAT operators they were working with were former special forces. No need to retrain them, or waste time explaining particularly new concepts to them. They knew how to cover each others' backs. Dragging his own gear out, he pulled out the M416 carbine he'd drawn. Ghosts had previously been issued M8s and XM29s during the turn of the century, but a combination of reliability issues and logistical problems wound up leaving their XM29s on a dusty shelf somewhere and the M8s in the hands of the Marines. Bravo to them if they managed to work the kinks out of the rifles. Like the whole melting issue. He'd stick with the classics, thank you.

"Okay," he said, loading a magazine and pulling the charging handle back to chamber a round as he looked at the rest of the ad hoc unit. "I want one long-gunner, two carbs, and a sub-gunner with Sergeant Black," he pointed at Staff Sergeant Billy Grimes. "Three carbs and a long-gunner with Sergeant Tan," he pointed at Staff Sergeant Malcolm Fitchner. "Boss, and a long-gunner with me," he concluded.

The SWAT team sorted themselves out nicely into the teams. Grimes would be in charge of the close-quarters element, Fitchner supporting, while Granger himself would be leading the ranged element with the sixteen-inch barrel that he'd swapped in to replace the "standard" ten-inch that most Ghost operators favored. Admittedly, it still didn't really match up with the scoped full-size M16 rifles' ranges. But he did what he could where he could.

"Okay, Black and Tan, your Geigers ready?"

"We're good, jefe," Fitchner said as he performed a function check of his own carbine. "Clickin' and tickin'."

"Listen up," Granger said. "Remember to check what's under your sights before pulling the trigger, huh? There are going to be civilians running around. National Guard's been mobilized to help evacuate them, but it'll take some time. But we're not in the escort business. You meet a civilian, pat them down, give them some water, and point them north. We've got bigger fish to fry. Keep an eye on your Geiger counters as we move, it starts to spike, alert Sergeants Black or Tan or myself. We clear?"

"Hooah," Special Agent "Boss" Thomas Crow said, glancing around at his men who mirrored his sentiments.

"Good, let's move it out."


El Paso, Texas

0721 Hours

1 July 2014

More bullets hissed overhead. Stifling a curse, Specialist Barry Dunn fired his assault rifle blindly around the planter. A glancing hit to his helmet thirty minutes ago had knocked out his Cross-Com. It didn't stop him from trying, though.

The platoon had holed up in a multi-story garage in one of the mall complexes and had repelled all attempts to storm their positions thus far. But ammunition levels were going to drop straight through the basement if they kept this up. They made each shot count for the most part, maiming or killing with each press of the trigger. It really seemed like something out of a video game to see dozens of the insurgents or whatever the guys shooting at them preferred to be called. They were certainly acting like video game characters, charging straight into their guns. Dunn wasn't complaining, easier targets for him.

"Targets! Eleven o'clock! Someone get some frags out!" Corporal Adam Cobb shouted as he fired a round from his M320 grenade launcher.

"Frags out!" Sergeant Bendix shouted from a floor above them. "Heads up!"

Dunn was vaguely aware of someone dropping what might have been a half dozen grenades that flew past his position from the floor above. Either way, they left an impact on the oncoming forces. For one thing their fire slackened enough for Dunn and his squad to poke their heads up for properly-aimed shots. And aimed they were, the three floors opening up with a ragged crackling as they engaged targets.

Getting his shot lined up, Dunn tried to control his breathing. There were dozens of targets to choose from. He aligned his sights on one and squeezed the trigger. Through the low magnification of his M150 ACOG, he saw a puff of pinkish mist followed by a spray of arterial red when the round impacted, tearing through the insurgent's throat with ease. He was definitely combat-ineffective.

Even before the body hit the asphalt, he had already acquired another target and stroked the trigger again. Chest shot. He saw the fighter stumble. A second shot in the upper chest dropped him. The second shot had been a tracer. Two rounds left in the magazine. He flexed his finger twice to put down another fighter before he ejected the empty magazine and loaded another one without breaking his weld. Lining up his next shot, he squeezed the trigger twice on reflex. The first shot was another tracer. The second didn't even show up, the bolt locking back. Hissing, Dunn ejected the magazine and took a look at it. Empty! How the hell had that happened?

"Weapon down!" he shouted, ducking down behind cover again.

His hands sorted through his magazines. All empty.

"I'm out of ammo!" he shouted.

"Use your damn sidearm," Cobb said through gritted teeth as he fired over and over. "I'm nearly out, too."

Dragging his holstered M9A1 out, Dunn resumed firing. Around him, more and more of the platoon were switching over to sidearms. He didn't know how long they could hold this up, but he was going to make the bastards pay for every inch.


Laredo, Texas

0724 Hours

1 July 2014

Broken glass crunched underneath their boots like ice. Whoever had done this was likely still around. Creeping along behind the cars, the SWAT team knew well enough to keep their heads down. Granger's main concern was whether or not their "lifesaving over lifetaking" mentality was going to be a problem. They only needed to secure one of the fighters. The others, as far as he was concerned, were open season.

"Contact, ten meters up ahead 'round the corner," Fitchner said in Granger's ear. "Pool, with a capital T."

"Hold position," Granger said, holding up a fist. "Do not engage."

He could hear the progress of the SWAT operators halt at the hand signal. They waited under the growing sun as the trouble passed. Fitchner was up ahead on the other side of the street with his support element. Glancing at him, he saw him raise his index finger and pump it up and down. Infantry with rifles. Granger waved for him to pull back. A shake. Trouble?

"Tan, Black, engage at discretion," he said. "We will be providing supporting fire."

He waved Grimes and his team forward while he maintained his spot behind the line of trucks.

"I want some wounded," he said quickly while ejecting the integral bipod of his forward grip to set it against the hood. "People with too many holes in them can't talk."

He could begin to see the telltales of an advancing crowd. It almost seemed comical to see an actual angry mob. Most Ghosts had previous unpleasant experiences with them, but many of them still found the concept to be hilarious. Yes, there was displacement. In the ambush zone. He saw the first of the mob entering the intersection.

"Engaging."

The first shot was aimed at the stragglers, likely dropping one or another. It was also enough to spook the crowd despite whatever bravado they were trying to demonstrate. That moved them forward into the long-gun element's field of fire.

Centering the targeting chevron of his sight on one of the better-dressed fighters, Granger took a quick look. He was wearing webbing, magazine pouches, and other goodies that were probably better suited for some strongman's protective detail. He'd do. The chevron dripped before he stroked the trigger. He saw the man tumble with a leg wound. Still alive. Good. Time to finish this before he bled out.

"Bagged one, finish them off."


Fort Bliss, Texas

0723 Hours

1 July 2014

"Get some ammo!"Sergeant Bart West shouted. "Psycho, get some ammo!"

"On it," PFC Charles Manson grunted, letting go of the SAW. "Machine gun down!"

West grabbed the M249 and steadied it against his already bruising shoulder before letting off a burst. He walked short lines into the oncoming crowd. These guys were wearing them down quickly. It wasn't a matter of casualties, which were occurring at a staggered pace of maybe one wounded man every five minutes. Nobody had been killed in the platoon yet, and he wanted it to stay that way. It was the ammunition situation.

Ordinarily their issued ammunition was more than enough to bring the fight to the enemy. But when the enemy was blindly rushing their positions, it took a hell of a lot more than six mags and a pistol. All across the line, calls were going up for more ammo more quickly. At least the M249's belts hadn't run out that quickly. With one last bag left, West cautiously squeezed the trigger again to put a burst into the corner of a technical.

It was just another oddity that they were seeing across the city. The yahoos were tooling around in pretty professionally-up-armored gun trucks, carrying a whole shitload of different heavy weapons. HK21s, M2s, and a few of the weirder Russian machine guns for the most part. Best policy on their line so far was to politely ask the Brads to put a few rounds into the pick-ups before the guys on the technicals' guns figured out how to open fire. Some SLAP rounds and a mess of 5.56 NATO took care of the little details, like the horrifically wounded stumbling out of the ruined vehicles.

Manson returned shortly from the back of their Bradley with boxes of ammunition tucked under his arms. Usually the butt of the squad's jokes about psychopathic soldiers, Charlie Manson was an extremely competent grenadier who was prone to quiet introspection and was one of more passive men when not under fire. It certainly didn't hurt that he could drop a forty-millimeter into a chimney at a hundred yards when they were under fire. Sliding in behind West, he slapped his back.

"Got the ammo, Sarge!" he shouted. "Five-five-six for mags!"

One of the dubious advantages of manning a fixed position was that you didn't really need to pick up your dropped magazines. While Manson set out the clips behind each position. That was likely enough for roughly four magazines for each man. When Manson slapped his IOTV, West stepped to the side and picked up his allotment of clips. Yes indeed. Four magazines total.

"Miss me?" Manson asked, picking up and bracing the M249's stock against his shoulder. "Nice job on the tangos, Sarge. Ammo boxes are right behind you."

"Hardly," West said loudly over the gunfire, picking up one of his empty magazines and fitting the clip to its lip. "And thanks. You need some pick-ups for the SAW?"

"That'd be nice, Sarge!"

Loading the clips into the magazines wasn't hard, but it was time-consuming. With an eye on the Cross-Com, he reloaded and charged his M4. Without the help of the IWS, they would have been shooting blind into the growing dust cloud. But with the IWS, each contact was helpfully marked for a center-of-mass shot through the obscuring dust.

Taking a sip from his hydration pack, West laid his reloaded magazines next to him and got back up with his M4 ready. Most of the fire on the part of the insurgents had tapered off thanks to a combination of the smoke and dust thrown up by both sides' fire as well as the sheer terrifying thought of trying to fight autocannon-armed vehicles. It certainly helped his platoon's morale. Sighting up a fighter, he stroked the trigger and saw his neck explode. Back in the game again.


Chula Vista, California

0722 Hours

1 July 2014

With his back resting against the counter, Sergeant Peter Stack leaned to his right and aimed his M8 out of the doorway. Three foot-mobiles charging toward the now-open-air trolley station. Then one after the rest of Team Two opened up. His rounds dropped the last one easily. It was remarkable how much good an injection of painkillers and synthetic blood could do for a wound. Not exactly flying high, he still had a bit of soreness and the pressure dressing was interfering with his aim, but he could still shoot straight and without too much pain.

The sniper who'd tagged him had been thoroughly neutralized with the help of a few forty-millimeter grenades. But he'd still been hit with a 7.62x54R steel-core slug. That had shattered his SAPI plate and provided ample explanation for why snipers were bad when they were shooting at you. But the corpsman had done a bang-up job with what they had available. Now it was just a matter of holding out until support arrived.

"Contact, eleven o'clock!" PFC George Cale shouted as he fired his IAR out of the window, before stumbling back and clutching at his arm. "I'm hit! Son of a bitch! Rifle down!"

Holding out until someone remembered where they were? Easier said than done.


El Paso, Texas

0739 Hours

1 July 2014

Rolling through the strip mall parking lot, Staff Sergeant Cory Halverson took a moment to reflect on what others might perceive as the hubris of American consumers. The moment passed, and his M2HB tore gaping holes through the SUV that the fighters were hiding behind. Thermals showed a brief white-hot mist behind the vehicle. O.D. Bastard then rolled forward off of the now-flattened technical they had run down, brake fluid dripping off of the treads.

The crew compartment of the Abrams stank of half-burnt propellant and sweat. Even with the new air-conditioning units, the tanks tended to get real warm real quick in combat. The casings of their spent rounds were rolling around on the floor, clinking against each other and just begging to be tossed out the hatch. But there wasn't any time for that. The LT's Abrams had been mission-killed thanks to a snarl-up involving several more of those technicals and a few RPGs, leaving Halverson and his crew in charge of the platoon. They had an airport to secure even if the rest of the unit had been diverted to rescue an infantry unit out on the west side of town.

Speaking of which… "Objective is in sight," Halverson reported over the Cross-Com to Colonel Ned Dwyer. "Stalker Actual, this is Legion," he then said as he switched to the local unit general frequency. "I heard you boys needed a little fire support."

"Legion, you're a sight for sore eyes," the officer on the other side said, a Captain Oliveira. His words were interspersed with static from nearby gunfire. "Can you see the front of the airport?"

"Not visually," Halverson said, centering his main satellite feed on the airport. Looked nasty. "What do you need?"

"There's some chuckleheads with goddamn machine guns by the entrance, and we need them out of the way before we can move in! Streaming you data now!"

Halverson tapped the blinking icon to bring up shaky helmet footage of someone with a direct line of sight on the position. It looked like the insurgents had come prepared. The fortification was built out of a pair of up-armored and up-gunned pick-up trucks and a whole load of sandbags. That wouldn't be stopping anything they would be tossing. Already he had a plan brewing.

"Copy, Stalker," he said before looking down at the rest of his crew. "Bring us up close and personal. Put a round into them if we can."

"You got it," Corporal Todd Katz said from his position at the 'wheel' of the tank.

They lurched forward, until they hit the parking lot where it became that much more obvious what sort of troubles the infantry had been dealing with. The Mexicans had entrenched themselves quickly inside the main concourse of El Paso International. Muzzle flashes were visible from the emplacement to the ground floor to the roof. So many targets that he didn't know where to start.

"Stalker Actual, this is Legion," Halverson said. "What's the acceptable amount of collateral here, sir?"

"Knock on the door!" Oliveira shouted. "Anything! Just hit them!"

"Wilco, Stalker Actual," Halverson said with a raised eyebrow. He glanced over at the IWS displays. "Okay! Gunner!" he shouted over the ambient sounds of the tank. "Machine-gunner, behind the gold minivan at twelve o'clock! Range forty-seven meters! Canister!"

"Loaded!" Private Jaime Sellers shouted, stepping back from the loaded gun.

"Target acquired! Shot!" Sergeant Leon Blackwell shouted even as their main gun recoiled accompanying the thunderous report.

The overpressure of the blast blew out the windows of the cars they had maneuvered in next to. But that spray of powdered safety glass was small compared to the devastation their shot had wreaked. The M1028's thousands of tungsten ball bearings exploded outwards in a cone of maiming and destruction. Some of them went wide, pocking the façade of the airport behind the target and shattering what was supposed to be shatterproof glass. More of the ball bearings blew through some of the cars in front of them like skewers through plastic wrap, leaving an odd pattern of centimeter-wide holes in their practically Technicolor bodies as well as long craters in the relatively soft asphalt.

Comparatively, the insurgents' fighting position got off easily. Amid the sudden cacophony of car alarms, they were decimated by the equivalent of a 120mm buckshot shell. The tungsten balls punched through the double-layered sheet metal that armored the technicals as if it weren't there. But there was armor, and penetrating it changed the ball bearings' trajectories just enough to cause even further damage. On a skewed angle, the ball bearings ripped through the rest of the technicals and made a mess of the sandbag fortifications. The insurgents had the worst of it. There were roughly three to four of them manning the position. At least that was about how many pairs of arms and legs that Halverson counted when the tungsten storm hit them like a thresher. Followed by the detonation of the suddenly aerated fuel tanks in a roiling fireball, the chances of survival were slim to none. But just to make sure…

His M2's tracers stitched the still-burning wrecks, punching even more holes through the already-ruined vehicles.

"Caveira, this is O.D. Bastard. Pull in behind us. Thirty meters, you know the drill."

"Copy, O.D. Bastard," Staff Sergeant David White said. "Thirty meters on you."

One of the limitations of the Abrams had always been its sizeable blind spot. Staying buttoned-up was a necessary limitation with the tendency of fire to come in constant waves. The IWS mitigated it somewhat, but measures still needed to be taken. White's Abrams aligned itself behind O.D. Bastard, preparing to move up to keep an eye on Halverson's blind spot.

"Okay, Katz, easy forward," Halverson said. "I want short bursts, Jaime," he then said to his loader. "Move up!"

Ragged counterfire rattled against their armor, ineffective as a peashooter against a mountain. But it ensured that they stayed buttoned-up as they rolled forward. Their secondary guns lit up, turning on remote weapon station mountings to acquire new targets. And there was no lack in targets.

"Much obliged, Legion!" Oliveira called over the radio. "We could use a little help with-" His words were drowned out in sudden static.

A new voice identified as Lieutenant Michael Bills came on. "This is Stalker Five! Stalker Actual is down! Legion, you are to deploy two of your unit to flank the building while we clear it out!"

"Legion copies, Stalker Five," Halverson responded. "Redeploying forces now." Focusing on his IWS eye-in-the-sky feed, he called up the two tanks that he had been put in command of. "Caveira, Vampire, you're going to need to displace. Instructions following." He paused for a moment to get his bearings on where to send his platoon.

"Go ahead," Sergeant Oliver Haldane said from Vampire, temporarily commanding Vampire thanks to Staff Sergeant Friedrich Dyson's concussion when an RPG had impacted a little too close to his head level. "We've got some movers on the roof. We can clear them off, right?"

"Hold one," Halverson said. "Stalker, this is Legion. Are we cleared on the airport?"

"Copy that," Bills shouted. "You are cleared hot on any mobiles you see!"

"Copy, Stalker," Halverson said before returning to his platoon channel. "Okay, Vampire. You're cleared to engage. Just try not to put too many holes in the building." He tapped out new coordinates for their Cross-Coms to tag. "New positions marked on your map," he said. "Let's move it out!"


United States-Mexican Border Airspace, New Mexico

0755 Hours

1 July 2014

Flying high above the border, the E-10 MC2A had a healthy space between it and any MANPADS in the area. Plus there was the rotating HAVCAP of HAW-X pilots to defend the expensive C3 plane. It was a safe, if slightly tedious job being one of the hubs of the IWS as well as pulling surveillance duty on top of that. Then again, they had all signed the contracts. The E-10 itself was a testament to the increased military spending of the Ryan and Jackson administrations that had saved quite a number of programs that would have ordinarily gotten the axe.

The dusty hills beneath them were populated with sparse scrub brush and even sparser fauna no larger than the occasional bewildered rabbit. More importantly they were not populated with people. Perfect for them to keep station and sort out the Warfighter System's feed before streaming it to the actual mainframes out east. Having their surveillance gear pointed south of the border was a perk.

Actually in charge of the plane's monitoring suite, Airman Dale Ackerman tried picking out how many thermal irregularities were showing up on the FLIR read. One, two, three… He wondered how the other hubs were doing. The thermal cameras were sensitive enough to pick up the little critters below. Snakes were an anomaly, showing up as moving patches of background temperature. It wasn't particularly exciting work that he was doing personally, but it was vital for what had started as an ordinary morning.

Things would be getting hot soon and-

Ackerman's eyes widened. "Whoa! Lieutenant! C'mere!" he shouted.

Lieutenant Stephen Regis hurried over. "Something wrong, Dale?"

"That," Ackerman said, tapping a finger against the monitor.

At least three dozen vans and trucks were making for the border into the United States. Alarming in and of itself, but these vehicles were clearly sporting hastily-welded armor and were traveling in a double echelon across the hardpan. Double-plus ungood.

"How many of those-?" Regis asked, working his jaw.

"Three-zero plus, sir," Ackerman said. "What're we going to do, Lieutenant?"

"And that's terrible," Regis said quietly. "Okay, I'm going to send this over to HAWX and then see where they send this. Keep an eye on them."

"Roger that, sir," Ackerman said.

How couldn't he?

Regis returned to his station and called up Captain Tom Sarkar. "Sir, Lieutenant Regis from Bluelight-Four. We're looking at thirty-plus motorized infantry moving up on the border."

On the window showing him at Regis's station, Sarkar took a sip of coffee and grimace. "We're starting to get similar reports across the board here, Steve. Maintain course and heading. Your bodyguards are getting the same orders. Leave this to the Marines."


El Paso, Texas

0736 Hours

1 July 2014

Rolling in with armor was nice. They kept the bullets away, and tended to mount something nicely explosive to toss at your enemies. Several rounds skipped off the side of O.D. Bastard as the infantry advanced behind the Abrams. Stopping just short of the entrance to the airport concourse, Staff Sergeant Halverson trained his M2 on the roof of the building where satellite footage had tagged movement. With the SLAP ammo they were packing, it would only take a few dozen rounds to hit the contacts. But no, he'd have to leave that to the infantry advancing around him. Unacceptable property damage, it was called. Halverson preferred calling it surprise urban remodeling that you didn't know you wanted.

"Stalker, this is Legion," he said. "You folks need any more assistance?"

"Hold position, Legion," the infantry commander shouted. "Track any and all un-tagged movement. I'd want to see them on Warfighter!"

"Legion copies, Stalker," Halverson said with a sigh as he rubbed the bridge of his nose. "Holding position and marking all un-tagged contacts."

"Sarge, what the hell are we doing here? This is a great place for an ambush," Corporal Katz said suddenly over the sound of O.D. Bastard's idling engine.

"We hold until the company commander sees fit to move us," Halverson said. "Come on, Todd, you know the drill."

Katz didn't say anything else as they sat in relative and extremely uneasy silence. They had buttoned up on deployment mostly owing to how many bullets the insurgents were tossing their way. Their new armored electronic periscope helped things a hell of a lot with that sort of situation, the designers of the A2 TUSK upgrade having learned from the Russians' mistakes in Chechnya. Getting buttoned-up involuntarily was still one of the tank crews' greatest fears next to someone tossing an incendiary or somehow bringing a Javelin into play. They needed to keep an eye out or things were liable to get sticky with shit situational awareness.

They watched as the blue diamonds indicating friendly forces streamed into the building around them, weapons firing. The radio was alive with their chatter.

"Contact right! Contact right!" someone was shouting, his voice cracking.

"Movement! Jesus! I'm hit!"

"-get that three-twenty up! Over there!"

"We got movement up here!"

"Go, go, go! Movement on the balcony!"

"Room cleared! Coming out!"

And so it went on for minutes, the muted muzzle flashes of the infantry meeting the insurgents head-on visible through the panes of tinted glass of the façade that still remained. Halverson could imagine what they were going through. They needed to thoroughly sweep the airport and drive out the fighters for good. Not a single insurgent could remain.

Tapping into the Cross-Com cameras, Halverson watched through the soldiers' shaky helmet cameras as they moved through the building. While the units that split off the clear the administrative areas had a more convoluted job, the squads clearing the atrium looked like they had fallen straight into hell. Dozens of flashes were marked on the Cross-Com, pointing out enemy positions. And it wasn't just the muzzle flashes. The tracers that accompanied the muzzle flashes slashed up the atrium and hit soldiers caught in the open.

"Stalker, this is Legion," Halverson said again, calling up the provisional commander of the forces. "Are you sure you don't need assistance?"

"Legion, stay off the line!" the lieutenant shouted. "Orders are to minimize collateral damage!"

Halverson sighed. "Legion copies. Out." He looked down at the rest of his crew. "Pull us back. I don't feel like-" He paused for a second as he looked at the rear-view camera feed. "Okay, yeah. I want a dozen meters between us and the door. Some asshole just tried to Molotov us. Juice 'em."


National Military Command Center, Washington DC

0800 Hours

1 July 2014

"Lieutenant, I need you to designate the target," Major Clancy said evenly into his headset as he pulled up comms for one of the artillery units ranged out for downtown El Paso. "I've got artillery on the line, and they need to know where to aim."

Clancy had seen the demos of the updated IWS software. In order to call in a fire mission, the soldier only needed to get eyes on the target. The IWS would then take care of the rest, utilizing a combination of shape-recognition software and feeds from satellites and other assets in the area to identify the target for everyone else using the IWS, including the artillerymen. But they needed to get eyes on it. Otherwise it was going to be a crapshoot using only eye-in-the-sky telemetry to guide the artillery.

There was a flurry of activity the next station cluster over from his own that drew his attention. They were part of the New Mexico cluster, and it sounded like the officers manning the stations were in the midst of mobilizing some sort of response for an armored incursion.

Armor? What the hell is going on?


Laredo, Texas

0807 Hours

1 July 2014

"State your name clearly," Granger said in Spanish, leaning forward with the digital camera to take in the figure strapped to the chair.

Their capture looked more and more like the jackpot. He was carrying enough Chicks Dig It gear to choke a SEAL, and he looked pretty well groomed for an insurgent. Not that you could really tell now. After flex-cuffing the guy and three others, Charlie Team had set up shop in an abandoned McDonalds for a little chat with him. They had gotten a good rifle-through of his possessions. An imitation Rolex, a billfold with a driver's license, and a big drug cocktail bottle of amphetamines and probably Luminal. His clothes underneath his CDI shit were upper middle class. At least they had been. Now they were mostly bloody.

There was really no safe way of incapacitating someone with a gunshot. When you were shooting someone, the general idea of it was to kill the fucker. But there were places that bled out slower and made running away that much harder. A kneecap with part of its bone scattered on a Laredo street was one of them. It had taken a minute to stabilize and then patch up the wound, sans painkiller, and the fighter's clothes showed it with now-drying blotches of brown and red all over.

And yet he still didn't say a word.

He had to hand it to the guy, actually all of their captures. None of them said a word so far. Either too scared or too devoted to the cause, whatever it might have been.

"Ghost, Baseplate," his earpiece suddenly crackled, one of the commo guys.

"This is Ghost Lead, Baseplate," he said, straightening up. "Go ahead."

"Ghost Lead, the chair is against the door," General Keating's voice said. "You have the go-ahead."

"Understood, Baseplate," Granger said. "The chair is against the door."

He gave a thumbs-up to Grimes and Fitchner. The gloves just came off. Ordinarily there were rules and regulations regarding the treatment and interrogation of prisoners. There were whole commissions and non-governmental groups intended to monitor these things. What Charlie Team had just received were orders from the top of the top. Thorough interrogation and torture had a fine line dividing them. Their new orders gave them permission to cross that line.

First Grimes went out of their nicely secured storeroom to retrieve one of the foot soldiers that they had captured as well. There were many ways to go about extracting information, but Charlie had always preferred this way.

Previous administrations such as the first Ryan administration up to and including the Ballantine administration had always danced around the topic of violent interrogation. "Enhanced interrogation" it was called by some, "torture" by others. Some of the crazies called it "righteous use of force against enemy combatants." The Ghosts liked calling it "ongoing psychological operations and mutilation to extract information." It explained everything that they were going to do in transparent terms.

The fighter Grimes brought back sported a shattered femur with unextracted bullet fragments buried deep in his groin. He'd do.

Fitchner dragged a second chair over, and quickly had the new guy strapped securely to it before leaving the room for the moment.

"What is your name? Why are you here?" Granger asked. "Either of you?"

Neither responded, the CDI guy somehow glaring daggers at both Granger and his own subordinate. Granger frowned, setting the camera on the shelf and picking up a box of plastic bags. Tearing it open, he pulled out one of the bags and nodded to Grimes. Grimes pulled the CDI guy back against his seat to restrain him. Before the man could even protest, Granger had pulled the plastic bag over his head and let Grimes take over tightening his grip.

He could just make out the features of the man through the nearly-opaque bag. The CDI guy looked panicked as fuck if the sudden expansion and collapse of the bag around his mouth was any indication. Grimes had a knack for this trick.

Granger watched as he twisted the bag around his fist, tightening it against CDI's throat. He could hear him beginning to whimper now. One of the wonderful things of using the bag was that the victim could still vaguely see through the plastic as they were slowly strangled. The whimper grew in pitch into a muffled shrieking before being joined shortly by the distinct scent of piss.

The man thrashed against his bonds as if he could somehow escape. His comrade looked on, eyes wide. He had heard of the Americans' practice of waterboarding back home. But what was this? He'd never heard about anything like this from the Mexican government either. Granger let it go on until he saw the bag beginning to puff less and less much like his struggling. At his nod, Grimes released his grip on the bag. As Granger removed the bag from CDI's now limp head, he noted that the inside of the bag was dripping with sweat and saliva. Good to see it was having an effect.

"What is your name? Why are you here?" Granger asked again, his voice and demeanor calm. "If you can tell me that, I won't do that again."

CDI was panting for breath. Charlie had picked up the trick from some time spent in Brazil. Of course the Skulls liked using clear plastic bags, but the idea was the same. Blinding fear and panic. Nothing quite like it to loosen lips. All of the Ghosts had undergone it during SERE refresher and knew how effective it was. Adding blunt trauma made it that much more persuasive.

Blunt trauma like Granger bringing the stock of his M416 about to open a gash on CDI's temple. If he was feeling groggy before, he was probably wide awake now. But pain was a double-edged blade. Unless you applied enough of it, that is. He pulled his Leatherman out and waved it in front of CDI's bloodied face.

"You know what this is?" he asked in Spanish. "It's a multitool. Everything someone could use for handiwork around the house. But that's not all." He unfolded the short blade. "You could use this for whittling. But I keep this one extra-sharp. Do you know why?"

CDI looked at him, wide-eyed in fear and panic. Not a word, though.

"If you don't answer, I'm going to remove his," he pointed at CDI's buddy, "eyelids. And if you still don't answer, I'm going to scoop each one out one by one. For each question you don't answer, I'll take something from him."

At that, his buddy turned to looked at him. Nothing quite like an incentive to loosen lips either. And yet not a word from CDI. Pretty resilient for a middle-class revolutionary. Or it simply meant he was too devoted to whatever cause he was fighting for to say anything. Fair enough.

"Gag him," Granger said as he went to adjust the camera.

Grimes had twisted up a rag in preparation and simple forced it between the guy's teeth and pulling back to tie it securely. He couldn't do anything aside from screaming incoherently now.

"What is your name?" Granger asked. "Why are you here?"

Nothing.

"Okay," Granger said with a sigh. "Hold him."

The other guy's eyes were as wide as dinner plates now. Perfect. As Grimes held his head in place, Granger brought his blade up to begin the first incision at the tear duct. The razor-sharp blade drew bright red blood as he slid the blade from its starting point to the left toward the bridge of the nose. He could feel the man shaking, barely being immobilized by the Staff Sergeant as he made the cut. With a half-inch incision just deep enough to ensure a clean cut through the skin, he then turned his attention to the other side of the eye, opening it up towards the ear as well. The trembling made his work slow as he tried to minimize the amount of trauma, ironic as it was.

With that out of the way, he ran the blade along both the upper and lower portions of the eyelid where they came in contact with the socket edges. There was more blood as he cut. He could barely hear anything over the shrieking, muffled as it was. Finishing up quickly, he used the pliers of his Leatherman to peel the eyelids away like an onion to reveal the glistening eye beneath. Not even a nick. Granger wasn't sure whether or not to be proud. He displayed the two bloodied flaps of skin to CDI.

"What is your name?" he asked again. "Why are you here?"

Silence. He went back to work. The guy's other set of eyelids came off easier, possibly because he was already entering shock. Granger didn't particularly care, he had a job to do.

"What is your name? Why are you here?"


-
Author's Notes: Yes, things just took a turn for the darker. Torture and a violent interrogation have many things in common, but most importantly both are brutish and highly unpleasant for both parties. The same goes for war. Despite all of the materiel and tech showcased, the task of combat inevitably falls on the individual soldier to accomplish. I'm not anti-war, but you'd damn well better come up with a good reason to go to war.