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1: Lubumbashi

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Walden hefted the SCAR to his shoulder and gently switched the safety off. He hated using this thing. The spray of bullets was deafening, the recoil was a beast, and you couldn't really see what you were doing. But urban warfare required it. If you couldn't lay down a carpet of bullets as soon as you went through a door, you and your buddies were dead.

They were still two days away from the target. Walden was already far more tired than he'd ever been. Basic training was bad enough, and he thought the special forces training would wring the life from him. But his muscles were as limp as rags, aching with every movement, and for the last three hours his mind was flickering on and off as he marched, literally snatching sleep between steps. Two weeks ago they were dropped in the suburbs of Lubumbashi with no backup, no guide, no long-range communications, and almost no rations... And barely any mission other than "take out such-and-such command post; here are the coordinates."

They'd arrived at this suburb yesterday evening. A friendly family had taken them in, given them some food, let them camp in the yard. Red was on watch, but he must have fallen asleep or something. They never saw him again. They were awakened in the early morning hours by the ambush, and managed to fight their way to cover without losing anyone else. Then the attackers disappeared.

The rest of the day they'd seen no one. Block by block they advanced, sending drones to scout ahead and soften any resistance, but the suburb had emptied out. They'd made it almost to the edge of town before they were ambushed again: sudden gunfire from the alleys and windows on either side of the street. They still didn't know how their drones had failed to detect the defenders.

The evening sun was low, and the air was thick and sweet and hot. Clouds encircled the horizon, refusing to rain. They crouched behind an overturned truck, listening to the gunfire, the bullets ripping the leaves off the trees overhead, dropping them gently onto their shoulders.

The guns eventually stopped. Everything fell quiet.

"They're lying in wait for us now," said Max. Max was tall, and his Hispanic ancestry gave him thick black hair and eyebrows. He was built like a tank.

"Yeah, well, we've got time," said Emir. Emir was Max's opposite: short, wiry, and dark-skinned, completely bald and clean-shaven. "Won't be long till dark. Then we'll send in the drones, and after that we can go in and mop up. In the meantime, rest. I'll watch."

Walden switched on his safety and eased himself back into the shade. Rest would be good. After a silent meal of oily water and jerky, Walden fell right asleep. It was an essential skill he'd picked up early in his training.

He was wakened after dark by the dronefire. It came suddenly, a sound like no other: an unholy mixture of hailing bullets, thundering explosions, and the low whine of the drone engines.

Emir was frowning at the tablet display.

"What's up?" said Max.

"Our drones still aren't seeing any defenders," said Emir. "No heat signatures, anyway. Except - looks like there's one, maybe two, a couple of blocks away. My guess is, all this gunfire we've been up against is just automatic defenses. Almost all the people have already left town; but they set up a bunch of booby traps to slow us down."

"You said there are a couple of people left? Why haven't our drones taken them out?"

"They're showing as inaccessible."

"Who could they be? Why haven't they gone with the others?"

"You ask too many questions, Wally. They're probably just enemy drone operators. We'll have to go flush them ourselves. - I'm setting our drones to give us covering fire. Wally, Max, you're with me."

The night goggles showed the empty suburban street in faded pastels, as if it were just before dawn. The friendly drones had quieted their guns, humming softly as they zipped from house to house, looking, looking. Emir led Walden and Max on a quick jog down one street, around one corner, and then another. Walden forced himself not to scan the sky for enemy drones - it would be a waste of time. Drones killed you long before you could see them. A soldier could only pray that the friendly drones would provide enough air cover.

The target house was a low one-story with a whitewashed stone fence and a small weedy yard. An old Chinese car was in the driveway. There were no lights on.

They crouched behind the fence.

"Any better resolution on who's in that house?" asked Max.

"The drones are saying two inside," said Emir. "And no one else for miles around. Probably those two were directing drones that fired on us today. But I think we'd better be safe. I'll do an orbit around the house perimeter and make sure no one's there. Wally, you and Max get inside and take out those operators. Good? - Go!"

People think that when you're under stress, you can perform at extraordinary levels. That might be true with mild stress. But under extraordinary stress, you perform at the level of your training. Your body and mind fall back on trusted, conservative motions, instinctively repeating patterns that have kept you alive again and again, betting that they will work today, too. So you make sure your instincts are to move silent, act fast, and think quick. You train hard.

Walden clicked the SCAR's safety off, swung himself over the fence and jogged to the front door. Max joined him, and they paused, listening. Nothing. They waited.

Emir's voice in his earbud: "All clear." Walden glanced at Max, and he nodded back. Ready. In one motion Walden lowered the gun, opened the door, and stepped in. He -

There was a girl there, maybe six years old, standing in the hallway, her light blue dress blazing in his night goggles, her face dark except for her huge white eyes.

Her face cracked into a huge toothy smile. She spoke, her voice a soft whisper. The translator in his ear crackled: "Papa said you would come. This is for you."

He noticed then that her hands were behind her back. She was pulling something out, something in her hand. His instincts screamed to pull the trigger. So many children were part of this war, so many dead and deadly innocents -

He held back. He couldn't do it. He hadn't killed a child yet, and he couldn't do it now.

She wasn't holding a gun. She was holding a flower: an orange flower, maybe a small chrysanthemum. Her face, her smile, her dress, and the flower, and the dark hallway, all branded in his memory.

He smiled back, and took the flower. "Shukrani", he said, stumbling over the Swahili. Thanks. He stuck it in his helmet.

And that was when the door at the end of the hall slammed open, and a man's voice was shouting, and this time he couldn't stop his reflexes. Before he made any conscious decisions at all, the gun was up and aimed and firing over the girl's head, and she threw herself to the floor at his feet. Max screamed for him to stop, way too late. The recoil from the SCAR seemed to jar him awake. He stopped firing and dropped the gun. But the man was dead, and the girl was screaming and crying, and the translator was crackling: "Papa, papa, don't kill papa."


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