Getting used to sleeping while your body moves is the hardest thing about exoskeletal operations. Right now, I’m tail-end Charlie in a forty-man column accompanying a trio of Big Dogs lugging the payloads for tonight’s test. Above us, a pair of Nighthawk drones sweep from flank to flank. From higher overhead, a Condor watch drone has our perimeter locked down tight.
We’re running two-and-one awakes with the remaining thirty-seven sleeping. The early all-sleeper tactics were subject to path manipulation techniques that fooled our flock behaviour guidance routines. The worst case was a pair of twenty-man teams jogging for hours into a moonless Sahara night, taking their drone support and any chance of a victory with ‘em.
“You asleep back there?”
Point Alpha, Captain Zim.
“No ma’am. Just enjoying the ride.”
There’s a guttural laugh from Sergeant Khal: Point Beta.
“Good enough, Pimsloff. Rotate in ten.”
Point and tail awakes rotate through the column every two hours. Gets a lot of ‘efficient sleeping’ done. Studies show it’s good for muscle tone but grim for joint problems. Even if you think you’re hale, a few nights of exorunning will reveal any joint weaknesses with agonising thoroughness. If that happens, you’ll quickly be transferred to a line post that suits your experience prior to ExoSkOps.
My rear-range pings quietly. I spin about, flick my suit into ‘runbackward’, take a moment to adjust to the gait, and cast about for what upset the vigilant Condor. It doesn’t take long to find it.
“Captain, we have a posse on our tail. Their point just crossed our perimeter.”
“Pimsloff, call it.”
“They’ll be single file along that last ridge in four minutes. I call skittles.”
The Big Dogs swing back and crouch, their handlers behind, targeting views synchronised and patched through to everybody’s HUD1: the upper-left display in our visors.
On the knife-edged ridge half a kilometre away, our pursuers are moving carefully, aware we’ve stopped and worried because they don’t know why.
Railgun technology is changing the dynamics of the battlefield now it’s finally shrunk to manageable sizes. The night briefly lights with fire and a chunk of metal, travelling at over eight times the speed of sound, rips across the intervening distance and tears through the lead elements of the opposition.
The survivors crouch and then get a hustle on, looking to clear the ridge before what they think is our only railgun can wind up for another shot. Their slight variances in pace string them out again. The projectile from the second railgun punishes them brutally. I see limbs spinning away into the night.
Afterwards, they take a while to regroup, avoiding the ridgeline. Which, unfortunately, is their mistake. We have three railguns because the two ‘stubbies’ – helical railguns – are here to protect the prototype. What shoots from that is a bright fireball of near-fully ionised gas. We recoil from its heatwave and see plants puff into ash as it passes. Distant, hideous screams echo as a ball of man-made hellfire disintegrates the survivors of the first two strikes, along with the topsoil they stand on.
“Fuck’s sake.” Corporal Kane has the right of it. Please gods never let me have to face off against one of these.
“Mount up, kids. Condor and the Nighthawks-”
“Should be the name of a band, Sarge.”
Levity lifts us from dwelling on the horror meted out.
“Shut it, Mackie. We have enough data. This op’s a success. Time to bug out.”
Just like that. Three shots, twenty kills, mission accomplished. We’ll be home for breakfast.