Below is a rough draft of the first chapter of Augmented, my first foray into Military SF. Please bear with me on this as it is a work in progress. I’ll be releasing this book on Amazon in the Fall.
I hope you enjoy the read.
By Steve Abbott
Chapter One – So that happened…
“Whap!” I was flying, soaring really, the grit and dirt of Afghanistan did a slow roll as it fell away beneath me. It rotated out of view and I was blinded by the sun for a moment as it seared across my vision. There was no real sound, and what was getting through was strangely muffled. The bleached tans and grey of the arid Helmand landscape pulled back into view. It was a lot closer now and coming up fast. Too fast. I tried to get my hands in front of me to slow the impact but it was like my arms were stuck in jelly.
“Shit.” I plowed into the earth and it swallowed me whole.
I came to on the metal deck of the rescue bird. There was a bunch of people crowded around me doing God knows what. I did notice a lot of blood soaked gauze in a number of hands. I tried to raise my head to see what they were doing but one of them put his hand on my head and pushed it back down.
“You don’t want to look mate. You’re going to be okay.” Which should have been comforting, I guess but the look on his face said otherwise. I had a good idea I was well and truly fucked but before I was able to ask him how fucked, he nodded to one of the others working on me. Something got stabbed into my thigh and everything faded to black. I hate getting put out like that, you don’t know if you’re just passing out or you’re dying.
* * * * *
I didn’t die. Well not all of me, not all at once. Most of me made it back to the world. Though there’s a large amount of adjustment that goes with being taken from six foot two to four foot eight. I’m not used to looking up at people but when you’ve got fuck all for legs from just above the knees down, it limits your vertical positioning in life. At least I got my hearing back, well most of it. Thirty pounds of high explosive going off beside you has a tendency to perforate the ear drums somewhat and I wouldn’t go clapping your hands round me for a bit as some of me is still pretty fucking jumpy. Still, it could be worse, I didn’t lose my pleasure tackle and I can still play my guitar about as well as I ever did, so no added insult to injury.
The guitar’s been getting played a lot these days. Oh I’m not writing any songs about anything that matters. Mostly I just noodle about and follow one riff to the next and see how deep a chord progression’s rabbit hole goes. I figure I’d better get good with the instrument real quick if I’m going to be parked on a street busking for rent money. The job market being what it is for those of us down on our limb count and all, I just don’t know what I’m going to do with myself from here on out. Getting back at the bastards who knocked my legs off is out of the question as you need a good pair of pins to get about to do the looking and the revenging. I was always a front line sort of bloke. No learning how to fix a truck for me or learning to type. I was a Squaddie to the core. Yep, daft as fuck, with no thought for the future, that’d be me.
The rehab facility’s all right, though physio is shite and painful. PT stands for personal torture as far as I’m concerned. Still, my new reality means I’ve got to develop other muscles to do the job of stuff that’s not there anymore. I’ve got a nice little room all in Army beige with a desk I can roll up to and a laptop connected to the Internet, which I spend a fair bit of time at working my way round the DOD firewalls so I can get to the porn sites. My other hobby when I’m not playing the guitar.
I’ve got a roommate named Baz and he’s a laugh. He’s a lot like me, though he only lost the one leg, so he’s a bit more mobile on his crutches. Between the two of us, the nurses don’t get much rest. Baz’s been trying to talk me into going on a mechanics course with him but I’ve never liked mechanical stuff much outside of my kit and it’s all a bit late in the game to try and give that a go now. I’ve got no family, being a soldier’s been my whole life, I guess I should have read a few more books. But you don’t really care about all of that navel gazing shite, do you. It’s the other stuff that’s got you here. Well why not, I’ve done all right with it. I’ll fill you in.
* * * * *
I’d been in recovery for six months when I got my first visit from Gerald. I didn’t pay him much notice when he walked into the games room as I was deep in the guts of fragging some twelve-year-old super soldier on the room’s Xbox. When the session was over, there he was standing beside me, looking down. Well as much as he could. Gerald was a funny one, he wasn’t much taller than me sitting but he was in perfect proportion. It was like somebody had taken a full grown man and left him in the dryer too long.
He held out his hand. “Gerald Long.”
“Harry Taft.” I shook his hand and waited for the other shoe to drop. Small of stature, he might have been but there was a touch of the officer class about him.
He looked around the room. “Is there somewhere we can talk in a more private setting Sergeant?”
Whoever he was he had the stuff to pull my records. Some of the lads had warned me about this sort of thing. “If this is about my disability pay out, you can fuck off now mate. I’ve got my own counsel lined up for the toe to toe.”
“I’m not a lawyer mister Taft and I’m not here to talk about your injuries. Well not in that way anyway.”
I leaned back in my chair and threw my best intimidating stare at him. “Well then what are you.”
It didn’t do much good on him. “I work for a large company looking for certain men with combat skills and no family ties.”
“I’m in fairly shit shape to be going on the circuit.” I offered, “Unless you’ve got a tank with hand controls.” I looked over at the TV screen, I’d missed going in to the next session. I put the controller down and turned off the Xbox. “Ah, fuck it. Okay, I’ll have a listen. Follow me.” And off we rolled.
There was a glass walled meeting room on the second floor of my wing I visited for discussing my recovery plan. Gerald followed me inside and closed the door behind him. He then drew all of the curtains in the room closed. He hadn’t said a word on the way up and waited for me to park myself at the conference table before sitting down across from me.
I tried to make like I wasn’t all that interested but truth was, things were pretty boring in rehab and even a sales pitch from some guy in a suit broke things up a bit. “All right, fill me in.” I said.
Gerald pulled a small box from his coat pocket in to which he plugged in his smart phone. He aimed one end of the box at the wall. “Samson, five eight four two. Project Moralltach.” The end of the box pointing at the wall lit up and a line drawing something out of a video game appeared on the wall.
“You want my opinion on your next game release?”
“Oh, Moralltach isn’t from a game. She’s real.”
He just gave me a small smile. “Next frame.” The image shifted and there was a photo of a big metal suit of armor standing there.
I’ll admit, they’d done a good job of it. Even the background looked good. “So you’re good at photo shop.”
To his credit Gerald kept a straight face. “Run video five seven.”
Another shift in the image. This time it was video of the armor suit knocking four flavors of shit out of a bunch of stationary targets.
“Are those grenade rounds.”
“Forty millimeter. We’ve been working with an Australian company to adapt a stacked round launcher they developed. The weapon on the right arm is the same round used in the .50 caliber M2.
“And this thing is real and operational.”
“Real yes, operational? Well we have a bit to go there I’m afraid.”
“I doubt I’m cleared for this.”
“Did you sign the National Secrets Act?”
“First week of basic.”
“Then you’re cleared. Anything you reveal about this project will be considered a contravention of the act. At best you’ll be jailed at worst you’d be quietly disappeared.”
This was not at all what I was expecting. Though to tell the truth I had no idea what I’d been expecting. “I’m still confused why you want to show this thing to a broken squaddie like me?”
He just gave me a smile. “If you would indulge my company for a few hours, I’d be happy to go over my firm’s predicament.”
It wasn’t as long of a drive as I’d have expected. He’d even shown up with a van equipped for wheelchair transport, which seemed a bit odd to me at the time but now I know they had a team of shrinks who could put together a report on how a legless wonder like myself would jump, so to speak, three days before I’d even considered having a go at lifting my arse.
I watched the landscape slide by outside my window. This was my first trip in anything other than an ambulance since I’d gotten back. I guess my world had shrunk a bit since getting back. The thought gave me a bit of pause. Broken as I was, I didn’t want my life to be nothing but physical therapy and gobbing on about how I felt about how things had turned out for me.
We’d left the trauma center in Birmingham and eventually ended up in a nondescript industrial park in West Bromwich about an hour away just off the M5 Motorway. The front of the building was all mirrored glass with just the building’s street address on its top corner. No name was evident. We skipped the front parking lot and Gerald pulled the van round the back and went in through a large roll up door he activated with a button in the van. His bunch must have owned the whole block because the motor pool we pulled into had a full inventory of vehicles including a tracked Warthog fully kitted out for combat in the Sandpit or the Rock Pile and a big six axle lorry with a pretty specialized looking cradle on the back of it.
Gerald left me to unclip my chair from the van’s restraints and wheel myself to the vehicle’s lift. He met me round the handicap transport’s side and pointed to a long ramp that ran up to a set of security doors. “Our whole facility is wheel chair accessible.”
“Good for you, it’s the law these days though isn’t it?”
“Yes, I suppose it is but our company has always tried to be a bit more forward thinking in matters of accessibility regardless of the physical handicap.”
“I thought you were government.”
“Government? No but we do a lot of work for them.”
“I didn’t see a name on the building.”
“You wouldn’t, we like to keep a very low profile it cuts down on our security costs.” He pointed up the ramp to the security doors. If you’ll meet me up there I’ll clear you through security and we’ll give you a good look at the Moralltach. Of course you’ll have to sign some paperwork.”
I wheeled myself over to the ramp and started up it. “Sure, no problem.”
Barry at the security desk was a big bloke with lots of anchor tattoos. I figured him for ex Royal Marines. He looked quite tucked in behind his big desk with its bank of monitors. Gerald and his lot were serious about the security of the place. Barry had a nice little MP5 submachine gun slid into a quick clip by his right hand, you know one of the really stubby ones the bullet catchers carry under their overcoats. Not much cop for distance but close up it’s like throwing a chainsaw going full tilt into a room. I’m willing to bet it had one in the spout already. There were probably a few more Barry’s stationed about the facility.
There was about an inch-thick pile of paper I had to work my way through before Barry with a nod from Gerald slid a purple edged security badge with my picture on it across to me. I clipped it to my top pocket.
“Right, this way then.” Gerald took off down the hallway which was heavy on the off walls white leaning towards grey with large dark red tiles it’s whole length. I wheeled after him and tried to keep up.
The door to the Moralltach storage area was another heavy security door set into the left hand side of the hallway. An ocular and fingerprint scanner set into the wall was the only real difference. I did notice there were two units. One at regular height the other set low enough on the wall so somebody in my situation could access it. Gerald put his face in the reader cradle and his hand on the fingerprint scanner. Seconds later there was a series of soft clicks and the door swung inward.
The lights came up in the room as soon as we entered and in the center of the room about fifteen feet tall and seven feet wide at the shoulders stood a big metal robot armed to the teeth with weapon tubes and what I figured must be sensor nodes all in a sort of gun metal grey. It was dead sexy.
“Fuck me,” I said.
Gerald had walked up behind me. “She is something, isn’t she?”
“Can I take a closer look?”
Gerald gave a sweep of his arm towards the suit. “Please, have a good look round her.”
I wheeled myself closer. It just kept getting bigger with every turn of my wheels. I could imagine the psychological impact this thing would have on anybody facing it. Probably the same as when Hannibal rolled out his elephants or tanks appeared through the smoke and mud of the Somme in the first world war.
“It looks heavy.”
Gerald nodded. “Not as heavy as you’d think. We’ve managed to keep the weight to just over three tons.”
“Six thousand pounds? I guess you won’t be walking it across swampy ground any time soon.”
“Not this particular model but we’ve got something on the books to work in that terrain. Think of it as a two legged light tank. You wouldn’t take it any further than you would any other heavy vehicle.”
“What’s the power source?”
Gerald smiled, “At this time, that information is classified.”
“I’m cleared for Top Secret.”
“Well in that case, it’s still classified.”
I wheeled up to the right leg. The armor cover looked almost medieval but with much sharper edges. I rapped my knuckle against it and got a hollow sound. “It’s not metal?”
“Not totally, we had to save on weight so it’s a Titanium wire and Nano carbon fiber weave. We had to develop a high heat epoxy to bond it. It’s one hundred times lighter than steel and about thirty times stronger. It also has some ability to flex which makes it much harder to get through with some of the anti-tank weapons available to our opponents on the battlefield.”
“Impressive.” I wheeled around to face Gerald. “So, why am I here?”
“We need a pilot or if you prefer an operator.”
“What sit in some cubicle and run this thing like I’m in the world’s biggest video game? You can hire any twelve-year-old off the street for that kind of nonsense and they’ll be better at it in five minutes than I’ll ever be in five years.”
“I suppose you’re right. Though there aren’t too many twelve year olds equipped to deal emotionally with the rigors of combat and however laudable your suggestion is Moralltach is not a drone.”
“It’s true, we initially set this up as a drone program and yes, our initial idea was to use wounded warriors such as yourself to control the units. Your combat experience, training and knowledge of the battlefield would multiply Moralltach’s effectiveness four fold in the field and allow you to seamlessly integrate within the battlefield command structure but we ran into a bit of a snag.”
“Your signal can be hijacked can’t it.”
“I’m impressed Sergeant.” Though Gerald’s face showed more frustration with the situation. “We ran a white hat exercise to see if there was a possibility that control could be taken from us and it turns out the answer is yes. No matter how secure the communications link, there is a possibility the unit can be hacked and hijacked by an outside source and the last thing we’d want is one of these stomping around in our lines being controlled by an enemy.” Gerald walked over to the unit. He ran a hand over the surface of the leg armor. “We’ve spent well over one hundred million pounds on this prototype alone. We had to develop entirely new systems for power and propulsion. Just getting it to be able to walk across an uneven surface was a three-year struggle. Every step in Moralltach’s development brought new challenges, which we solved.
“But there was more than your test that changed your minds. What happened?”
Gerald banged the side of Moralltach’s leg with the edge of his fist. “Three months ago a US stealth drone was intercepted over Southern Iran. The Americans claim it was a navigation error but the Iranians are saying they hacked into its flight control computer and took it over. I’d like to believe the Americans but they tend to be a bit cagey when it comes to their high tech stuff going awry.” Gerald turned to me his face pained. “It confirmed our worst fears. If this unit can’t be deployed as a trusted addition into the theater it’s deployed, all of it, our research, the new manufacturing processes we’ve developed, the money we’ve spent, will be for nothing. I doubt we’ll survive the backlash from the investors. As it is, we’re propping up this project with the returns from all of our other product lines. It’s simple really, we can’t redesign the entire unit to take a human operator. The new height and weight increases would put us back years.”
“And a human operator is the only solution to your problems.”
What do you do when you’ve got a box that’s made for just one thing? How do you turn it into a different kind of box? And then it hit me. I rolled back from the mech doing the math in my head as I took a good long hard look at the thing. You’ve got to hand it to engineers, they’re practical. I could see where their practical thinking had led them. It was a bit of a sick joke, brilliant but still pretty sick. The kind you tell your mates after a firefight when you’re just trying to wind things down a bit. Cause it’s that or you’re going to stumble away heaving from the stress of it all.
“How much did you have to modify to make what you want to do work?”
Gerald saw I’d figured it out and like the straight shooter I knew in my gut he was, he just out and told me.
“Just the chest cavity. We were able to redistribute, miniaturize or relocate most of the equipment in there to other void spaces in the chassis. It makes the network cables a bit longer but nothing much as far as the speed of light cares.”
“Just so you can get a man inside.”
Gerald to his credit looked a bit embarrassed before he came out with the final bit of why they were talking to me. “Well not quite a whole man.”
I think I surprised him by laughing.
Thanks for reading this. Comments that aren’t, “It’s complete shit…” are welcome. If you’d like to check out some of my other work, my thrillers Devil’s Gambit and Reliance are available in print and for Kindle on Amazon.