Blockbuster

By: Tony Stark

The roar of ChiCom fighters overhead was the first sign that something had gone terribly wrong. The thuds of air-dropped ordnance in the distance were the second. Then the artillery started raining down, the screams of his fellow soldiers ringing in harmony with the screams of the airburst rounds pounding 3rd ID’s position on the 12th parallel. The Rock of the Marne stood strong in the face of overwhelming Chinese firepower. It felt like forever, enduring alternating  salvos of drone swarms and conventional artillery as the PLA probed their fighting positions. The sweat, salt, and sand obscuring his vision while he tried to get a feel for his cratered surroundings. The constant concussion waves knocked most of his AR feeds offline, so he was largely left relying on his own two eyes in the early dawn of the jungle. A dismount squad leader in A co. 3-15 IN out of Ft. Stewart, Sgt Spire wasn’t too fond of sitting out in the open, but that was doctrine. The APS on their IFV’s required a 30m safety distance and sitting, cramped, inside one when taking fire risked losing too much firepower with one lucky hit. His squad’s fortifications were impressive but even with the ample construction time and resources provided, they could only withstand so much. It was around this time that the McMaster MBTs down the line started returning fire, their optics could see out three times as far as Spire’s or his Schwarzkopf IFVs. The jungle terrain was treacherous, but the PLA bombardment had opened up a few lanes of attack that Spire realized almost immediately. He called up what he saw and had his soldiers adjust their fields of fire accordingly, he was tremendously calm under pressure. 

At first, the rhythmic tank fire soothed his nerves, he couldn’t quite see the whole battle but he hoped the lack of return fire meant that the tankers were hitting their targets and repelling the advancing PLA.

Vietnam was not the jungle it had been during the Americans’ first war in the country, decades of economic growth and political opening urbanized the country famous for rural insurgency. Still, miles outside of Cam Ranh Bay, Spire’s soldiers found themselves in incredibly dense jungle that would be considered impassible for armored vehicles by most. But someone, somewhere had remembered the lessons of Vietnam’s former colonizers, and feared infiltration through the jungle that would lead to the encirclement of the city to Spire’s southeast. And with the different environment came different weapons and gear. Spire’s squad was outfitted with equipment mostly conditioned for the harsh jungle climate, or that was what the labels promised. In truth, his electronics and optics still suffered under the incredible heat and humidity, not to mention the damage it did to his most casualty producing weapon: the M15A1 Railgun. The M15A1 was the first generation of railguns that could be assembled, transported, and fired by dismounted infantry. It was, however, incredibly difficult to maintain under fire. The M15A1 fire a tungsten carbide round that required the assistant gunner to wear an exosuit to carry a combat load. Not only was the round heavy but the barrel had to be changed out after every round, and in this climate an AG would also have to carry 3-5 barrels for consistent, effective fire. While Spire’s squad was far enough from the beach for the salt air to be less of an issue, it was a serious problem when his battalion first landed. Spare parts for the exosuits and the guns themselves were in short supply, and the salt air and humidity ate away at the supply long before the battle had begun. New supplies were supposed to arrive with the American fleet, but the PLA arrived first. 

More than anything Spire needed his M15s to stay online for as long as possible, they were his only AT weapon and it could punch through the dense jungle with the force of an elephant at 2000m. At that distance, he had to rely on his two UAV operators to guide his gunners on target. A Javelin couldn’t punch through the jungle canopy but the advanced thermal optics on his reconnaissance drones sure could. The drones’ optics package combined thermal optics with ground-penetrating radar to calculate a firing solution for the gunners who had little more than 200m sight on the clearest days. As the tank volleys continued, Spire’s hopes vanished when reports of enemy movement within 1500m meant that he wouldn’t be able to keep his men out of the fight. At least he held the high ground. 

Before he could order his gunners to engage, Schwarzkopf's to his left and right started firing. Still no machine gun fire though, meaning Spire could feel more confident that what his drone guys saw was what everyone else was seeing: no PLA infantry. The 50mm cannons on the Schwarzkopf would do serious damage against the medium tanks he expected the PLA to field in the jungle. The PLA tanks outranged the Schwarzkopf but performed poorly on when shooting on the move, thus giving the advantage to the dug-in soldiers of 3-15 IN. The challenge would be when the ChiCom infantry moved in. Sure, Spire now had excellent fields of fire for his automatic riflemen thanks to the enemy barrage, but he was now exposed to enemy rifle fire at a distance that he was not comfortable with. The splintered jungle and burned out brush meant the element of surprise for his dismounts was now lost in the hundreds of meters instead of the tens. 

The intensity of cannon fire from the Schwarzkopfs and McMasters died down about an hour after the first reports of the enemy at 1500m. It seemed that 3-15 IN had successfully repelled the PLA’s first attack. Comms were full of overconfident elations, his idiot PL the loudest of them all. He proclaimed them to be the 21st century “300” Spartans against the eastern hordes. Spire wondered if his LT knew how that movie turned out for Leonidas and his men. Still, Spire took the time to have his soldiers switch out on security and get some food and water in them. Spire was less confident than he was worried about the next attack. The first one, despite its length, seemed far less intense than he expected, he confided in his team leaders. He wondered aloud if the “assault” had merely been enemy reconnaissance-in-force. It did seem odd that with the airspace still contested, the PLA would mount an offensive. In all of the previous PLA attacks that Spire had studied, they did not push their main force forward until air superiority at the strategic and tactical levels was achieved. Spire’s drones were still in the air and the F-35s were still flying out of the airbase to the southwest. He wasn’t sure about orbital ISR but he hadn’t seen the sky come crashing down around him yet. 

As the sky grew dim, so did the odds of a peaceful night for Spire. His drones were actively fighting off PLA hacking attacks and the sky roared with PLAAF and USAF engines engaged in combat far above Spire’s position. And as the sun set and the moon rose, Spire decided to break out the stim packets for his entire squad. He couldn’t afford even one sleepy-eyed soldier right now, even if stims were only advised for movement and assaults. The stims kept soldiers alert and focused without the side effects of caffeine, but that didn’t mean they were without their downsides. The reason they were only meant for assaults and movements was that soldiers under the influence of the stims in defensive positions often became too trigger happy, and at night the stims greatly increased the risks and power of autokinesis. Still, he’d rather have trigger happy soldiers than ones that fell asleep while the PLA approached his position.

The other minor benefit of the early morning barrage was Spire had a better view of the world above. He’d always loved stargazing, and war didn’t change that. He was far enough from the city that light pollution didn’t matter and he could marvel at the faint glow of the Milky Way. The only obstruction of his view being the occasional orange arc of some war machine passing overhead, reminding him of the dark reality below. He wondered if some PLA squad leader was doing the same as he on the other side of the battlefield, but quickly shook it off, humanizing the enemy did him no good. He continued to count the stars and satellites in orbit above him. 

***

At some point he was woken up by one of his TLs, helluva time to take a bad stim.  But what he saw when he first opened his eyes struck fear in his heart and kicked his system into overdrive. 


The sky was falling right on top of him. The real attack was about to begin. The all too familiar “burning in the skies” of satellites catching fire in the stratosphere overtook the glow of the Milky Way. Spire wondered if this was what the dinosaurs had seen before their demise. 


Right on cue, his drone operators reported taking fire from enemy quadrotors, the sky lit up with multi-colored tracer fire as the drone operators engaged in dogfights inches above the jungle. The scream of artillery overtook the noisy jungle and the concussive forces of PLA shells once again rocked Spire’s position. His platoon’s tracks started engaging, the cannon fire competing with the bursting shells for what was left of his hearing. With his drones down, the range on his M15s was limited to the no man’s land and the shitty FLIR optics that could see just beyond that. His AR feeds were down again from the artillery bursts and his situational awareness restricted to his own senses. The barrage continued for nearly two hours, followed by a seeker drone swarm that was pushed back by the A co’s cyber team from the HQ platoon. The rest of the night belonged to the tanks, still no enemy infantry in range or even sight. 

Soon the stars went the way of the American ISR in local orbit and disappeared. The blazing tropical sun bearing down on Spire’s squad with an intensity near that of the enemy’s artillery through the night. He was beginning to think about his secondary battle position, and if his idiot PL would ever make the call. He hoped the CO would force it down the fool’s throat. If the CO was even still around. Comms were still acting fucky and Spire had not yet heard word of the unit’s casualties from the bombardment. A few of his men were rattled and a couple had minor shrapnel wounds, but all were fit to fight. He had trained them well, unfortunately the rest of his company had not been so lucky. 

In his later morning meeting with the PL, he was informed that not only was the company reduced to 60% combat effectiveness, but at least two of the platoon’s 50mm guns were in bad enough need of repair that they had to be taken offline. The jungle climate was wreaking havoc on machine and man alike. 

Spire’s squad spent the better part of their day performing the usual tasks like weapons and fortification maintenance, but only so much could be done to secure themselves from the next barrage. What remained unclear was why there was even another barrage to be waited upon. Spire had fully expected to be hit by the main Chinese force last night. All he could hope was that whatever was holding off the ChiComs lasted long enough for the fleet to arrive. 

***

Around 0200 local the American fleet arrived off the coast of Vietnam. The PLA’s coastal missile batteries disabled by American special operations forces. Immediately, the Ford CSG went to work hammering the PLA-occupied coast, the arrival of additional orbital ISR helping guide the American planes and missiles on target. The MEF meant to hit the beaches and encircle the PLA north of the 12th parallel gunned for the coast a few dozen miles north of Sgt Spire and 3-15 IN. Unfortunately, they never made it. 

When the PLAN underwater sensors picked up the American fleet a few days earlier, the Southern Fleet dispatched attack subs from Hainan carrying the new Piranha drones to lay a trap. But it wasn’t until American orbital ISR reserves were flying over the 12th parallel that the trap was sprung. First the sky fell, blinding the American forces from above, enabling the Piranhas to deploy unnoticed and strike the American fleet. The underwater swarm drowned the MEF on its way to the beaches, then sunk the American subs and the Ford aircraft carrier, leaving the quiet PLA diesel-electric subs to feast on the remaining American surface vessels. Thousands dead in a few minutes, with most of the remaining sailors and Marines captured or left to the mercy of Poseidon. With the obliteration of the American fleet, the PLA could now conduct its own amphibious encirclement. 

The only reason Sgt Spire found out about the fleet’s demise was because the BN master gunner owed him a favor and Spire pried the intel out of him when he came to look at his platoon’s damaged 50mm cannons. Sgt Spire saw the despair on his face as soon as the MG came to the line. Battalion and brigade leadership was running around like its hair was on fire, no one knew what to do, and no one wanted to tell the front line companies for fear of what it would do to morale. Spire was in shock, he hadn't expected the fleet to arrive before the main attack but losing the fleet entirely left him at a loss for words. With the American fleet gone, what was the PLA waiting for?

***

Just around dusk, the first concussions of PLA artillery rang throughout the jungle, except they didn’t land on Spire’s position or anywhere near him. No, they landed to the east. And then they crept closer. Spire nightmare continued when he realized what was happening. The Chinese were never going to attack across the 12th parallel line...they went around it just like MacArthur in Korea. His PL refused to believe this, he believed his Spartans would stand fast, and he refused to believe Spire’s story about the fleet. He was just about to knock the PL to the jungle floor when he noticed sporadic tracer fire kicking up about 200m to his northeast, and it was intensifying. He guided the LT’s gunner onto the treeline, there was about a squad sized force running towards the 12th parallel. And...what was this?

They had friendly IR strobes on their shoulders. 

What the fuck?

He immediately hopped on comms and called for the line to hold its fire, and then he confirmed with the other tracks, they too saw the IR strobes.

Again, what the fuck? 

No American forces were supposed to be north of the parallel, and he didn’t recall being briefed on any reconnaissance parties being sent across by higher. 

Then someone new came up on comms. It had to be the unknown friendlies. How the hell did they have their freqs?

The comms were still fucky, so Spire could only make out every few words, but he heard enough to invite them over for tea. 

“... this...Shaw...DA 555...got incoming...commend...hell...Say again...Captain...ODA...run like hell!”

All Spire heard was “run like hell!” and he wasn’t waiting for his PL to make a decision. He hopped out of the track and had his squad pack up and destroy what they couldn’t carry. When the rest of the line saw this, they did the same. They’d all heard the same message. When an ODA tells you to run like hell, you fucking run. 

Before they could disembark the first shells hit their position, catching most of the platoon in the open and knocking Sgt Spire down the hill and into no-man’s-land. 

When he came to, he found a muddied and bloodied brunette standing over him, screaming at him to get on his feet. He grabbed her arm and tried to catch his bearings...his ears were still ringing...then he saw the Captain’s bars and the special forces dudes taking cover behind her. 

He put two and two together. 

Before he could say anything, she threw him on her back and they ran for the treeline, dodging friendly and PLA fire as they escaped no man’s land. 

***

Major Andrew Daniels tossed the AR visor onto his desk in his tiny, windowless Pentagon cubicle. This was his third viewing of the Spire file and he hadn’t gotten any of the answers he wanted, only more depressed and frustrated with each viewing. Spire was by all accounts an excellent NCO, even in the face of overwhelming odds and incompetence. He had performed far better than just about anyone else that Major Daniels had watched in the month since the Battle of Cam Ranh Bay. He’d lived the demise of so many Americans that he now questioned his own life. Most of them inspiring to anyone in uniform for their sacrifice, but the Spire file was something different. It was the only complete documentation of the fall of the 12th parallel. Spire was a phenomenal soldier, he was a hero, but he wasn’t a protagonist. 


No, the mysterious Captain Shaw was the real story. He had to find her. 


Burning in the Skies

The following is the recorded testimony of one Admiral Higgins, the former commander of INDOPACOM, from the leaked Congressional investigation into the Pakistan incident of 2034.

 Your honors,

The blockade of Pakistan began like any other: 5th Fleet and its Indian counterparts cut off any means of escape for even the smallest Pakistani vessels. Nothing in or out. Originally the plan was to keep only military vessels from maneuvering but as the South Asian crisis went even farther South and aid ships were found to be harboring weapons technology from China and Saudi Arabia, it was decided that the Islamic Republic of Pakistan would be totally cut off from the rest of the world.

 

A few years ago, that would be the extent of the blockade and the end of my story. The Indians would keep the Chinese ground aid at bay, and the US and her allies would keep Islamabad from disrupting trade in the Indian Ocean.

 

But things change, and so does warfare.

 

Blockades are no longer a two-dimensional effort. After all, the whole damn crisis began beyond the stratosphere. Unfolding on the subcontinent was a containment plan that had never before been attempted, because it hadn’t been needed. There was no doctrine, no rules, even the technology to support the effort was experimental. All of this made for easy nerves in a campaign against a nuclear-armed nation known for rational statecraft and stable governance.

I suppose we should start with the collapse of the Outer Space Treaty in the early 2020s. I don’t recall quite when we all decided to tear up that particular treaty, it’s just mixed in with all the others in my memories. I do remember being on the liaison team for SPACECOM when it all started. Their heads were in their asses before I could even respond to the first panicked email chain. SPACECOM wasn’t supposed to be a lethal force, there was no funding for it. They were supposed to act in support of the lethal branches. Lethality was all the rage those days…

But I digress, the treaty itself never really mattered as much as the fact that once the orbital arms race began, it never really faced anything that could stop it. Mind you, this was before the DISKO (Distributed Interspatial Sight and Kill in Orbit) laser tests or even Moscow’s now-bankrupt “Rods from God” project. No, our problems began with a pesky little startup in Silicon Valley. Someone, and I won’t name any names, but they were very high up in the Pentagon at the time, decided that we needed a testing lab for Weaponized AI. This was of course long before the anti-WAI legislation was even drafted, but nevertheless there was some concern in the Pentagon that while WAI would be incredibly difficult to handle, it would somehow be safe if we tested it in LEO (Low-Earth Orbit). I swear half of our headaches could be prevented if the policy folks just watched more science fiction.

Right, sorry, I’ll stay on track.

Anyways, we covertly, ya know aside from the big rocket launch for an orbital platform that was very thinly disguised as an astrobiology research station…we “covertly” established Project Pegasus…really it should have been called Project Icarus…sigh…but that’s for another day. Anyways, we put some researchers and a few robots in a tin can in LEO with the purpose of probing how far we could go in combining the bloodiest edge of robotics, machine learning, and quantum tech far away from our secure systems and the public eye. Lest we incite a Skynet panic. What we found was that we were actually pretty good at building killer learning machines. What we didn’t learn until it was too late was that you’d have to be pretty crazy as far as humans go to agree to such a mission. And so, after that little twerp from Cal Tech spaced his fellow researchers, he hijacked the Pegasus platform and tried to fly it into the ISS. Apparently he had a crush on one of our astronauts after some tech conference and was quite angry that she ignored all of his attempts to sleep with her…Fortunately for her and the ISS crew, he missed but now we had a psychopath and a collection of killer robots wildly swinging around the earth in an orbit that was anything but controlled. There was a brief time where we hoped that he would just slingshot himself out of orbit but uh, yeah that didn’t happen.

Well soon enough, Beijing caught on to our little “Andromeda” conundrum. Naturally, we refused to comment on the operation. They didn’t exactly buy our astrobiology cover and with each orbit, Pegasus came closer and closer to hitting Tiangong-3. Eventually they got fed up with us and took matters into their own hands, lest they lose the orbital link between Earth and ChiCom lunar operations.

Turns out, Tiangong-3 wasn’t just a support station for space exploration. It was armed to the fuckin’ teeth. And so, in the blink of an eye, Tiangong-3 fired up their charged particle cannon, ya know, what every peaceful space mission needs, and incinerated Pegasus over the Hindu Kush.

In space, no one can hear you start an arms race, but on the ground, it was the shot heard round the fuckin’ world.

Fast forward a decade or so and here I was at the head of INDOPACOM. The Saudis had been flooding Pakistan with tech as their axis with Beijing grew in strength. The Indians were losing their minds but what could we do? Half of the world still needed Saudi oil and what they lost in revenue they poured into arms development to sell to everyone that we or the Russians wouldn’t. Riyadh focused on disruptive projects, the kind that every middle state wanted but that every great power sure as hell didn’t want to leave on the open market. The relationship between Riyadh and Islamabad went back decades, and until Pakistan actually did something that threatened global security, no one had the stomach to do anything.

In that sense, ya gotta love coups.

The ISI-backed coup that toppled the regime in Islamabad was in many ways a mirror of Riyadh’s politics. The same meddlesome groups in Riyadh joined up with the meddlesome groups in the ISI, again, and took power for themselves. It was in the middle of this chaos that we first picked up chatter of Beijing’s intentions in the Pacific, but when we lost our source, we seemingly forgot everything. That, however, is for the attention of another committee and not my area of expertise.

Where was I? Oh yes, all of the appropriate assets were in place for the Pakistan blockade…on the ground. In the skies up above, as I sat on the USS Ford in the North Indian, SPACECOM began deploying its first real forces. The President wanted a total blackout from the Stratosphere on up, and he was about to get one. Just not the one he wanted. Pakistan’s ballistic missile program was the first priority, we knew we couldn’t stop all of the nukes if war broke out but we wanted to contain them to theatre level launches. Then there was the matter of their ASAT program and their strategic comms. Most of those comms satellites were relays for Riyadh but we didn’t exactly care. We wanted Pakistan in a dome, totally shut off and contained from the outside world, like my daughter when she gets mad and locks herself in her room. Perhaps in our planning we didn’t quite consider how being shut off from the world might trigger a country renowned for its paranoia. In retrospect, yeah, that was definitely one of our biggest fuck ups.

Anyhow, SPACECOM’s UMBRELLA network, don’t ask me to spell out the acronym, they just really wanted to spell UMBRELLA. Anyways, the network was as you know a collection of microsatellites using distributed quantum computing operations to place an electronic blanket over Pakistan while dually acting as an advanced warning and targeting system for our DISKO network in case someone fired an ICBM. Awfully big task for satellites the size of my torso but they got the job done in every simulation we ever ran. Of course, those were simulations. The goal was simply to keep Pakistan contained, to stop the ASAT tests that had ruined a significant portion of LEO for operations both scientific and military in nature. We had wanted to stop Pakistan for awhile but could never make diplomatic headway because the American people just didn’t care, and neither did congress. What got us into this whole mess was that damn coup, suddenly those psychopaths in Islamabad felt SpaceX’s Mars flotillas were appropriate targets for ASAT tests. Overnight we had thousands of dead colonists, many of whom were American, and debris blocking a third of ideal LEO orbital paths.

For a while, we thought we had it all under control. UMBRELLA was working, and so was the blockade on earth. What happened next, well for obvious reasons we’re still not sure how it happened, but it did. Pakistan fired off a few of its ICBMS, paranoia is a bitch, I guess. Except, they didn’t race for Delhi or our fleet like we expected them to, no, they went straight up into orbit.

They detonated before DISKO could get a lock, hard to kill something so quickly that wasn’t along any of the pre-planned flight paths. How exactly Pakistan knew about UMBRELLA we’ll probably never know. Because shortly after we lost UMBRELLA, those damn Indians wiped half of Pakistan off the fucking map. It took every shred of effort by Secretary Adams to convince the Chinese and Russians not to jump to a hair trigger. There was an overflow of information on the Ford while we tried to figure out what the hell had happened. From the superstructure all I could see was…burning in the skies. Millions of people and billions of dollars’ worth of hardware destroyed in orbit and on the ground. And we didn’t just lose UMBRELLA that day, we lost most of our LEO assets tasked from other commands to Pakistan. We were so confident, just like with Pegasus, that we could control everything. But the truth is, our hubris blinded us. Every time I try to sleep, your honors, all I can see is that burning in the skies…and so long as we’re blind up above and down below…the fire will spread.

The truth is that weaponizing space has cost us so much and won us very little. We are playing with tactical weapons whose destruction or abuse can cost us on the strategic level. We must contain our wars to the earth if we want to grow as a species and as a nation. But I fear things will only get worse. I don’t care who you blame for Pakistan, because at the end of the day we’re all responsible. I supposed Pegasus opened Pandora’s box, but that cannon on Tiangong-3 was going to be fired someday anyhow. I just wish instead of an arms race we had tried to talk everyone down. Maybe Pakistan will change that, but I think that’s a little too optimistic. The fire’s not done spreading and I fear where it will go next.

Thank you, that concludes my testimony.

Dream On

“Thirty seconds to drop!” The jumpmaster screamed into the comm, fighting for airtime with the crescendo of Chinese flak and the roar of the rickety transport plane’s engines. The 82nd Airborne hadn’t made a jump this hot since the last world war and Allied Command expected casualties to be just as high. Still, they would take whomever survived first contact with the enemy, the situation was that dire. The remaining Allied forces from throughout Southeast Asia were digging in around Kuala Lumpur, and were the only thing that stood between the Chinese and the crown jewel of Singapore. On the run since Vietnam, the Allies were preparing for a fight to the last man. This was their last stand against an enemy that had routed them at every turn. It was last call for American Order in the Pacific, but for the paratroopers of the All American, the party was just about to start. John was their plus one.

“Light’s green, Godspeed ladies and gentlemen!” John anxiously waited his turn to shuffle to the door, it had been years since his last static jump. What could go wrong? He was just about to jump into hell on earth with only a rifle and a grudge. I’ve done worse, right?

My turn. John took his leap of faith, with bloodshot eyes widening as he took in the scope of the battle below. Tracers and artillery lit up the night as far as he could see. Hell on earth was an understatement. The virtual reality intelligence reports had not done Kuala Lumpur justice. Some things never change.

The paratroopers before him were already taking fire before they hit the ground, and so was John. Fuck, Fuck, Fuck. John pulled his chute hard to the right, narrowly escaping contact with an incoming SAM. He looked up, the C-17 that flew him in took a direct hit and was now racing him for the battle-scarred earth below. How many lives did he have left? He took a deep breath and steered for what appeared to be an open field, the voice from his AR headset whispering time to impact. “Five…four…three…two…”

***

Son of a…fucking fuck! No matter how hard he tried the nightmare of Kuala Lumpur kept bleeding back into reality. He just couldn’t kick it, most days it felt like he never left. He was only on temporary leave, but he wondered how they could ever let him back into the field in his condition. Every man needed. Every man counts. Wasn’t that what his mentor said when the war broke out?

Endlessly wandering the streets of DC was not what John had in mind when Langley’s doctors told him he’d be able to walk again. Losing your legs was, quite literally, not something you were supposed to walk away from. Pulled from the rubble of Kuala Lumpur as PLA forces closed in, John should not have been alive. Nor should he have been this healthy. He imagined himself stumbling through the halls of the Northern Virginia hospital, writhing in agony as memories of Kuala Lumpur flooded his brain. After all, that’s what he’d seen in the movies, and what he’d seen his own mother go through after the death of his father at Debaltseve. She was screaming, barely able to fight gravity, let alone reality, upon hearing of Colonel Yuri Petrov’s demise at the hands of Russian paratroopers. His orders were to defend Debaltseve to the last man, and he did, because by all accounts he was the last Ukrainian left standing in that damned city, felled by a hail of bullets as he charged the advancing Russian forces one last time.

John didn’t think about his father much these days, but his death marked the beginning of John’s life. A life with filled with death and destruction for the refugee-turned-warrior, his service with the Agency the latest pitstop in the Valley of Death. With the 101st, he’d seen service in both Afghanistan and Kurdistan, earning his first Silver Star on the outskirts of Kirkuk for clearing an IRGC-occupied house single-handedly. With a knack for violence and languages, it wasn’t long before US Army Sgt. John Petrov found himself earning the legendary green beret, landing with 1st SF out of Okinawa. His first assignment involved cutting through dense jungle and Islamic State fighters on Mindanao. But while he was busy waging another battle in a centuries old war, the shadows of a sleeping giant followed him wherever he went. Weapons, cash, tactics, all flowing one way or another from People’s Republic of China. For years, Beijing quietly undermined every US military effort from Mogadishu to Manila. And we just fucking watched.

***

John once again awoke from his daydreams to the sound of church bells. The Potomac waterfront where he spent his morning was gone and the gates of his alma mater now appeared before him. Another fucking nightmare. Truthfully, Georgetown was one of John’s happier memories. He enjoyed the classroom for the first time. Outside of his studies, he devoured the works of everyone from Kissinger and Machiavelli to Clancy and Cole. He really did love his work, he just despised everyone around him. It was nothing personal, it was just how he treated most people. Well, she was an exception. As a refugee, he never quite found himself at home. Sure, his fellow soldiers were his brothers but holding onto people was hard for the man who once dropkicked an IRGC colonel off the Mosul Dam. The death of his father and his cold reception in America would prove to be lasting scars. The move to Colorado had been hard on him, but it was harder on his sister and mother. His sister Sasha was strong-willed, but she kept searching for rock bottom. While John was away in Kurdistan, Sasha, like a lot of rural America, got hooked on opiates and nearly died of an overdose, just 3 days into John’s tour. John loved his family, but the loss of his father forced him to accept that family was something he would have to do without. John’s name wasn’t even John. He had adopted it when he came to the US, taking after the American volunteer who fought alongside his father and sacrificed his life so John and his family could get out of the city. The death of his father felt like his own, and in order to survive he had to forget his homeland. His birthname was Dmitri Yurievich Petrov, he was the son of a dead man in a foreign country and a refugee of a lost war in a forgotten part of the world. For a long time, that was all John thought of himself. Just a dead man in purgatory, waiting for final judgement. Then he joined the Army.

***

John forced himself back into the present, fighting the flashbacks with every ounce of his will. The coma had been three months of hell, but now he had control. Not now, not ever. Dmitri is dead, John is what’s left. He found himself perched on top of the old student lounge, staring out into the Arlington skyline, unconsciously counting the number of patrols on the Potomac and AA defenses on its river banks, ever the spook. John thought about going home, but his house in Alexandria just didn’t feel like home since I-Day. He couldn’t bear to see or touch the remnants of his family and friends. They were all gone. When will it be my turn to see them? Turning his gaze back to the campus below, he held back the tears of the past for the hazy landscape of the present.

Georgetown University was more than 200 years old but in the decade or so since John last attended it, the campus had become almost unrecognizable. Gone were the days of students running around with AR headsets and e-pills through the campus at all hours. Occupying the student lounge was the Georgetown Rare-Earth Victory Fund. Just about every section of every city across the country had one. Georgetown established the first chapter of the Victory Fund, just mere days after the events of I-Day. They would have started sooner, but the Chinese information disruption operations delayed even DC’s response to the war.

The days of student protests against the American government and its overseas adventures were gone, the relative peace and ignorant bliss of the Georgetown student’s coming of age story transformed into a war epic. In an age of altered realities, blood was still all too real. Wandering from the student lounge to the Chapel, John was reminded of exactly why it was a different war for these kids. The charred, makeshift memorial to the victims of I-Day occupied most of the courtyard. It was here that the war came home, on the very first day.

***

On I-day, the People’s Republic of China didn’t restrain its operations to the South China Sea or even East Asia. They hit everything. Swarms of suicide drones blocked out the sun over San Francisco, leaving the Naval Station McCain and neighboring Silicon Valley in ruins. American infrastructure collapsed under a wave of virtual and physical sabotage. It was at Georgetown that SECDEF was lost to a radicalized undergraduate student’s suicide bombing. The student wasn’t even a real Chinese operative, just a grieving pawn of months of coordinated mind games and information operations by Beijing to undermine and divide an already fragile America. The student was convinced that the Secretary of Defense Kampo had facilitated a massacre of indigenous people in Latin America on the behalf of an American multi-national corporation. The same indigenous group with whom the student had spent a semester abroad. A support group run by Ministry of State Security operatives helped foster her rage. They encouraged her and others to take action and provided them with material support for their vendetta. The attack killed dozens of staffers and students alike. The first casualty in war is the truth, but war is never as honest as when it kills the friend standing next to you.

The campus began to fade and with it so did the war, his older life and the Potomac bike path coming into view. He’d always been a soldier, but before this war he’d always thought of himself as the loudest bump in the night. Now, he wasn’t so sure. Years of hunting terrorists made his legend, but it took the PLA just weeks to make him the hunted. When he was dropped into Malaysia…Fucking shit! Shaw! Get the fuck down! He didn’t know if those screams were real or just in his head. The roar of a transport jet on final approach to Reagan National triggered a rush of memories from KL. The blood, the rubble, the crunch of tank treads over American bodies. The hum of seeker drones driving soldiers mad. The mangled corpses that littered the streets and the stench of burnt flesh that made Kirkuk smell like a perfume shop. Then the slow turn of a Type-00’s main gun to his position. Fuck! John stumbled, his right leg shooting off a bolt of pain. The ghosts of war possessing a new body. The former CAG sergeant caught himself against the side of the Arlington Memorial Bridge. His face already well over the edge, John puked up the hospital food gels and, guessing from the colors, his pain meds as well. Well, they were clearly working. Stomach empty and mind cluttered, he pulled himself back from the ledge and continued his stroll to Arlington National Cemetery across the river. He wondered how long he could keep this up.

Essentially raised by death, John didn’t make a habit of attending funerals. He felt like death though, so he figured a cemetery wasn’t the worst place for him to rest. For all the battles he’d fought and all the people he’d lost, there was only one grave John wanted to visit. She was a casualty of a war America had not yet begun to fight. It was a war she and John had fought for most of their adult lives, going as far back as Afghanistan. America had been at war with China for only a couple years, but the two rivals were fighting on the edges of the earth for decades. John and his dead friend were part of that crew of wayward soldiers, fighting in the night to keep peace in the day.

John desperately missed his old battle buddy. She was one of the first women to serve with the 75th and one of the fiercest hand to hand fighters he had ever encountered. He’d seen her take down Russians twice her size….and that was just in the bars back home! John chuckled at the memory of her throwing some prick across the room in that dive bar on U Street. Her tombstone said little of the life she lived, though. Her birth and death years were listed, both falsified. Her name was an alias John had never heard her use. The only truth to the bleak monument was an epitaph John had inscribed himself. It read:

“In hell, but I’ve got plenty of company.”

While the rest of the team secured and evacuated their HVT from Baku, she and John held off the Spetsnaz team in hot pursuit. While searching for a way out of the city they got separated, and those were the last words of hers that crackled over his comm. The whole mission was bungled from the start, and while Langley considered it a success with the loss of only one American operative, the loss of his best friend drove John into a rage he had not felt since childhood. The furniture on the 7th Floor was ugly, anyway. He rested his hand on the very top of the marker, closing his eyes, trying to remember her. Talk to me, you know I can always hear you. The wind kicked up, the brisk fall air catching him by surprise. He felt another jolt of pain from his new legs. Is that you? Can you hear me? The wind did not reply. Scolding himself for getting emotional, John turned his gaze to the never-ending plots of identical grave markers that seemed to never end. Only a few rows from where John knelt was the start of the present war’s graves. That marker was only a technicality, as he knew plenty of others whose blood Beijing had on its hands.

In less than 3 years of war, some 70,000 Americans fell to Chinese steel and silicon. Tens of thousands more were taken prisoner or wounded. It did not occur to John until now that he was among those statistics. He stood, shook off the sense of frailty and practiced working each of his toes before his walk back to the cityAN overly-developed awareness of his own mortality was just as dangerous as a sense of invulnerability in his line of work. Self-preservation will get you killed, John.

So many of the bodies buried beneath him at Arlington hadn’t survived more than five minutes with the enemy, whereas John had more than five wars under his belt. For most, war is a temporary endeavor. An endeavor to see new worlds and die in the mud, to fall for the flag or raise it in glory. War is an experience. For most people, it should not be a lifestyle.

***

From the gates of Arlington, John could hear the tell-tale whop-whop of rotors along the river. Before he could react, there was a red flash across John’s eyes. He fell to his knees as the fall scenery faded from his vision…Fuck. No, no, no, no. Not again. I have control now, this shouldn’t be happening. Remember your training Dmitri, no fuck you, it’s John…John felt his adrenaline spike as his senses synced with the battlespace…Shaw, get the fuck down Shaw! Everybody get the fuck down! Chinese jets roared overhead and the pockmarked-hotel across the boulevard from John disappeared in a fireball. Shaw and her team were pinned down in the building next to it. Tracers lit up the night and the hum of seeker drones rang like a chorus of heavily-armed crickets. Artillery of unknown origin pounded the next block over. John felt the warm blood dripping down his arm and onto his rifle. Shit. Shit. Shit. This is not happening. Breathe. Breathe…Breathe. John was losing control, it was as if time was collapsing in on itself. Am I waking up or passing out?

The pain from his legs was suddenly excruciating, shooting out into every corner of his body. His arm was suddenly heavy, what felt like blood dripped down his torso. The air turned heavy and humid, choking John with the smell of rot and cordite. Someone was screaming over his comm link. Shaw!

“John, what the fuck are you doing, it’s locked onto you! Get out of there, you stupid son of a bitch!” Huh? He turned, the Type-00’s barrel was staring back at him less than 100 feet from where he stood. He thought about running. Everything is so heavy. He heard another voice in his head…it was his targeting assistant.

“Five…”

What the hell was going on? John was paralyzed. Is this what dad felt like right before he went?

“Four…”

Will I get to see him again? Will I get to see all of them again? Would he finally be at peace?

“Three…”

No, there’s no peace in this hell. I won’t go down. Not like this. Dad didn’t die so you could die too, John! Get up and fight! The thought of his father’s sacrifice being in vain shocked his system. Every nerve ending lit up and his muscles were on fire. Shaw’s voice came back to him. His eyes frantically searched for cover. Nowhere to run.

“Two…”

Unless… John pulled the last EMP grenade from his vest and started running…for the tank.

“One…”

The beast didn’t break lock and neither did John. He stared right down the barrel as let the grenade fly.

“Impact.”

21st Century Breakdown

I-Day: 0907 hours

“Put the gun down, Mr. President.”

Carrie tried as hard as she could to keep from shouting and upsetting POTUS more than he already was. As if hostage situations weren’t strenuous enough normally, things got a little more complicated when the hostage taker was the fucking Commander-in-Chief.

“If you Deep State goons want me dead, you’ll have to go through your precious leader!” Rolling his eyes with a .45 pointed at his head was the Secretary of State, still dumbfounded as to how his boss could think he was leading a coup. He was set to retire in a month and had absolutely no interest in taking on the most demanding job in the country, plus his husband threatened to divorce him if he kept working like he did. Of course, none of that mattered now. The President of the United States had a gun in his face and not a marble left in his head. A few minutes earlier, Felix had arrived at the West Wing for a one on one with POTUS, just like he did every Wednesday. But eggs benedict was apparently too much to ask for today because as soon as he stepped into the Oval, President Faroe’s eyes lit up like a wild dog’s under a full moon. The next thing he knew his longtime personal assistant Christine was bleeding out on the presidential seal and the White House was on lockdown. His eyes falling on the western window of the Oval Office, SECSTATE noticed smoke billowing from the northwest section of the District. America could be under attack, but the President didn’t seem to give a damn.

Three combat tours and eight years with the Secret Service made Carrie no stranger to violence and mentally unstable fanatics. They just usually weren’t her boss. She was trained to protect the leader of the free world, and now she was standing outside the Oval Office, HK 45 at the ready, praying to God that she wouldn’t have to use it. This was insanity. She dealt with a million possible threats every week against POTUS and now she was the greatest threat to his life. Well, it really was on him but he sure as hell didn’t see it that way. And as if the president taking a cabinet secretary hostage wasn’t enough, MPD Overwatch just reported an explosion at Georgetown University. Wasn’t SECDEF visiting campus today? Shit. Carrie tried reaching out to her colleagues tasked to SECDEF as her teammates set up a sonic breaching charge on the eastern side of the Oval. No luck. What the hell was going on? The President had finally lost his mind and was about to execute the Secretary of State for treason and now the Secretary of Defense was possibly blown to pieces a few blocks away. How the hell did it get to this?

I-Day minus 3: 0935 hours

There was little doubt in President Faroe’s mind that members of his cabinet disliked him. They talked over him in his cabinet meetings and refused to praise him in front of the media like he regularly requested of them when his poll numbers were low. He knew they talked bad about him behind his back, just like the kids in college did. Just like the media did every hour of every day. He knew this because even when he couldn’t see it for himself, his feeds told him everything. He knew the weather in Silicon Valley, the price of a good steak in New York, the details of every juicy rumor in DC. He’d become particularly fond of a group of “life reporters”, as vloggers had come to be called by the new generation, known as the Classy Tigers. The Tigers reported on everything the President was interested in, and somehow, they always knew exactly what he wanted to know. They were telling him the truth, the truth that he knew and everyone else was either too PC or too cowardly to admit. So, when the Tigers started dropping hints of organized dissent within the President’s inner circle, Faroe became locked in to every update like an addict camping out on a street corner for his next fix.

The latest intelligence pointed to Secretary of State Adams. They often disagreed about how vocal to be over China’s human rights abuses, particularly towards the LGBT community and internet censorship. Adams had been an opponent of his during the primaries and refused to praise him on the Sunday talk shows that President Faroe so loved to mock. Adams was a beta male and a terrible diplomat, always wanting to talk and engage with the Europeans and causing trouble for the President’s friends in Beijing and Moscow. America had a reputation to keep, and Faroe couldn’t protect it so long as Adams was around. Last week, Adams publicly announced his intention to retire next month, but the Tigers said he really had other plans. They spoke to their sources within the government and told the President that this announcement was a distraction to keep the Faroe unaware of the daggers being drawn around him. He knew the government elitists were unhappy with his policies. They liked their money and their friends and couldn’t grasp how bad their greed had been for the country. To the government he ran, he was the enemy. Not the terrorists in Africa or the communists in France, but the very man who had been elected by a majority of the minority who voted. These public servants were supposed to serve the people, and he was the people’s representative. Not that that mattered to the DC elitists conspiring against him.

The cabinet meeting was as dull as ever. SECDEF was going off about funds for some stupid weapons program that wouldn’t help kill the terrorists, so Faroe turned his attention to his media feeds. The stocks he wasn’t supposed to have in his portfolio were up again. Overseas, the Chinese market had soared overnight on news that the CCP would leave economic policy to artificial intelligence systems instead of Marxist dogma. Why couldn’t we do that? It would certainly leave a lot more time in the President’s day for golf and drinks. Sure, the press was still up in arms over a few AI-related deaths, but it wasn’t like the market could hurt anybody, right?

There was a new report by the Tigers as well. Masked to hide their faces from the government goons who hunted them, the Tigers announced that despite their best efforts, the Deep State was making moves against Faroe. SECSTATE Adams, with the backing of the banking industry, had bought out the Secret Service and established a detention center on a Caribbean island for the President and his supporters. If Faroe wanted to survive, he’d have to make a move soon.

The President looked as though the Cabinet meeting was putting him to sleep. SECDEF was putting his heart and soul into an argument for increased funding for the Defense Innovation Unit program in the face of Chinese and Russian technological advances. The same programs that for the last 6 years running had put their weapons systems well ahead of anything the US kept in its aging arsenal. Just about everyone in the cabinet agreed with SECDEF, except the president, who didn’t care for anything that wasn’t matte black and used to breach huts in Africa. Knowing how this debate would end, Adams pulled up a live feed of his recently purchased retirement villa in the Caribbean. Construction was moving faster than he expected, the builder bots certainly moved at a steadier pace than the trade unionists he’d hired to construct his ranch in the Valley after he’d left DC the first time. Just a few more weeks and he’d be far away from the President and his insanity, enjoying his golden years with Tom and the pups.

Kelly Vargas was a rising star at Georgetown University. A junior at the Walsh School of Foreign Service, she was remarkably passionate about the oppressed peoples of the world, like every other IR student in DC. She’d spent her past summer in Bolivia working with an indigenous tribe. Together, they fought an American mining company’s attempts to destroy the tribe’s sacred burial grounds and thousands of years of endangered culture with it.

Kelly was incredibly proud of her work and considered the group to be her new family, the one she never had growing up. She loved them, and she couldn’t wait to go back after her junior year. That is, she would have returned if the mining company hadn’t slaughtered the entire village with the help of those goons from JSOC. Her family was gone and not a damn person cared or believed her. The media remained totally quiet while an entire tribe, the last of their kind, was wiped off the map in a single night. If it hadn’t been for a group of independent journalists who had reached out to Kelly after seeing her profile in the Washington Post, she would never have known what had happened to her family.

While she was in country, she had been very successful in organizing a peaceful resistance against the corrupt Bolivian government. Her presence there made the outside world care as only a charming American college student could. But Kelly was the only foreigner in the village, so once she left for DC, the mining company paid off the US Secretary of Defense and hired JSOC to eliminate the “Chinese-backed separatists” that threatened the remnants of the American imperial stranglehold on South America. Distraught from the news, Kelly wanted revenge. But what could she do about it? Kelly Vargas felt powerless against the American empire and its corporate interests. She spent weeks pouring her heart out to the journalists online, they listened and encouraged her discontent, putting her in contact with others like her who had their loved ones ripped from their arms by the brutality of Amerikkka. But what could she do? No matter how much she wept and screamed, nothing would change the fact that the ones she cared about, the ones that made her feel whole, were dead. Then one of her fellow aggrieved pen pals suggested that they trade blood for blood. But how? Kelly inquired. They weren’t exactly soldiers. Her new friends suggested that they make a political statement, one that the media couldn’t hide from the public. They would go after the man responsible for so much suffering, the US Secretary of Defense. Kelly remained skeptical, she’d always believed in nonviolence, but then where had that gotten her in the face of such depravity? Still, what exactly could she do? The bastard was locked up in that fascist five-sided building of blood and steel. Not always, replied one anonymous friend, the warmonger was due to visit Georgetown to speak to those knuckle-dragging, rapist ROTC cadets this week. And another anonymous friend even knew some comrades with just the right materials to get the job done.

SECDEF had ignored the calls of the mining lobbyists for months. He’d never been much for believing in the old left-wing Cold War conspiracy theories but the more these fuckheads in ten-thousand-dollar suits kept showing up to his office asking about JSOC the more he started to wonder if maybe there was something there. Sure, the mining companies provided rare-earth minerals to US tech companies and therefore provided a service to national security, but they just as readily provided materials to the Chinese and SECDEF Robbins wouldn’t stand for that. He owed them nothing, no matter how much they gave to the President. The Department of Defense was not about to do the bidding of multinational corporations under his watch. Besides, a single mine in Bolivia wasn’t about to change the balance of power in the Pacific. If anything, the US needed Bolivia’s people on its side in the battle against Chinese influence in Latin America. Any signs of imperial greed on behalf of the United States would set diplomatic efforts back years. They’d already lost the Chileans to Beijing because of a massacre at a mining site and several other nations were teetering back and forth between two Pacific powers. Now was not the time for banana republic shenanigans.

Ignoring yet another greasy lobbyist at his doorstep and his conscience clear, Robbins continued to work on the final draft of his speech for the Hoya Battalion. He usually hated giving speeches, but he was once a member of the same battalion through American University and therefore he looked forward to providing some wise words on leadership and morality to the Army’s future leaders. Plus, he figured being around some youth would liven his old soul, prematurely aged by too many years of DC politics.

Social media AI had come a long way since the first chat bots of the early naughts. The Ministry of State Security tested their virtual puppeteers for years on their own people, keeping potential dissidents in line and compliant while rooting out those who could not be turned back from their counterrevolutionary activities. The Chinese dream had no room for dissidents, compliance was mandatory, but most of the time the government didn’t even have to lift a finger. Humans could be so easily manipulated. Their emotions made them sin and think too hard about things they had no business worrying about. The AI deployed by the MSS basically drugged the population with words, giving them what they needed before they demanded it from the government. And when they couldn’t get what they needed, the machines manipulated the lives of such social hazards until they either changed their ways or perished. The AI may as well have been playing God. But not the kind of God people pray to, the kind of God that people credit for accidents and lucky fortunes alike. The system worked so well that the CCP leadership felt safe enough to turn their focuses from internal security to external adventures. And before their guns moved across the Pacific, their electronic puppeteers would have to make a few corrections in the West.

The president laid awake and uncomfortable in his own bed. He couldn’t sleep knowing his plotters were so close and he with no plan of action. Without the knowledge of his Secret Service minders, he had kept his personal Glock 21 from his time before the presidency in a secret compartment under his bed. Well, he did. Now he kept it under his pillow or tucked under his arm, his massive frame hiding the slight bulge from his watchers. He knew he couldn’t hold off an onslaught of elitist hitmen, but he also figured they wanted him alive if they were building a black site to hold him. Maybe a firefight would rally his supporters against his enemies. He’d never been in a firefight before, but he’d put in plenty of time in at the range. His informants with the Tigers had been silent for hours, leaving the childless widower of a President to stew in his bedroom as he awaited what might be his last sunrise. Just then, an alert from the Tigers went off and he threw his feed onto the far wall. The masked Tigers appeared before him, announcing their latest discovery. Tomorrow morning, the Secretary of State would arrive to ask for Faroe’s peaceful surrender, after which the Vice-President, Speaker of the House, and President Pro-Tempore of the Senate would refuse the presidency so that Adams could assume power. If the President refused to comply, the Secret Service would take action. The Tigers expressed hope that the President would make a final stand for the people, that he would take the blood of the elitists. For the good of the people, he should not let himself be held hostage by the establishment.

It was just after midnight when Kelly finished her final review of her plan of attack. After the Secretary of Defense made his speech, he was to tour the grounds of the school. As he crossed the chapel courtyard, Kelly would emerge from the chapel and detonate. And then it would be over. She would get her revenge for her adopted family and join them in the afterlife. There was no technological chance for a remote detonation, and Kelly decided that she wouldn’t be able to live with herself if any innocents were killed. Not that any of these fascists were really innocent. Still, her anonymous friends encouraged her not to suffer anymore than she already had, so drag the SECDEF to hell with her she would. In just a few hours, the evil empire would finally begin to suffer.

I-Day: 1000 hours

“Mr President, it’s good to see you as always. Have you been briefed on what we’ll be discussing?” Adams saw the animal-like look in the President’s eye and took a small step forward, hand outstretched. To his surprise, the President flashed a smile and pulled his hand out from behind the Resolute desk. Suddenly, the SECSTATE’s ears were ringing. What the fuck just happened? He looked to his left, Christine lay dead on the ground, her face frozen in an eager smile with a single bullet wound in her forehead. The blood pooled around her and the grey matter on the blue carpet. Before Adams could scream, the White House security alarms sounded as the security systems processed the echo of a .45 on White House grounds. Adams turned to face her assailant, the President of the United States, steely, bloodshot eyes locked on SECSTATE, finger still on the trigger. “If you want this office, you’re gonna have to pry it from my cold, dead hands.”

I-Day: 1010 hours

The crater was 2 meters deep and about 15 meters wide. Half of the chapel was missing and so were about 120 human bodies. The plastic explosive was a Chinese prototype and now that the war had kicked off, Beijing cared little for subtlety or deception. A reckoning that was centuries in the making had finally arrived, starting right in the heart of the American empire. Ash and black smoke billowed over the old brick townhouses and across the DC skyline. Most of the dead were cadets, reporters, and the Secretary and his entourage. But Kelly also detonated at the height of student transit between classes, killing dozens of her civilian classmates in addition to her main target. She had no idea what she had just done.

I-Day: 1023 hours

“One last chance Mr. President, put your weapon down, turn over Secretary Adams, and we can end this peacefully.” Carrie had no idea what to do, but after the confirmation of the bombing at Georgetown she had to make due on her own. Government resources were stretched thin as every security service in DC locked down their charges. FBI HRT was due to arrive soon, but they were still 15 minutes out and Carrie was pretty sure the notoriously impatient POTUS wasn’t about to wait that long. The sonic device was in place, and her team, once charged with guarding the President, was stacked up and ready to breach as soon as she gave the word. The charge would not only breach the Oval Office wall but also send infrasonic waves throughout the room, incapacitating anyone inside. Of course, that didn’t mean the President wouldn’t pull trigger, they just had to hope it threw off his aim.

“What are you gonna do Alex? Shoot me? Hold me hostage for a ransom? Make public demands for political change? You’re the goddamn President!” SECSTATE still couldn’t believe what was happening. He always knew the President was a little paranoid, but who wasn’t in politics? To think he was leading a coup on behalf of some secret cabal of DC elitists was insane. What about DC made him think anyone could work together AND keep it secret from the public? The President’s hand was shaking and so was the Glock, with his finger still on the trigger. Nothing Adams said seemed to even change Faroe’s demeanor in the slightest. All he could hope for now was that the Secret Service really was on his side like the President alleged and that Tom heard him say “I love you” one last time as he left the house.

The blast hit Adams before he went deaf from it, the infrasonic waves overloading his nervous system as well as the President’s. He felt something hit his shoulder and then everything went black.

I-Day: 1930 hours

When Secretary Adams came to, he found himself in a world quite unfamiliar to the one he had woken up to that morning. The Hawaiian and Aleutian Islands were under Chinese and Russian occupation, respectively. The entirety of Pacific Command had gone silent. The Panama Canal and McCain Naval Base were nothing but rubble. DC was basically a chicken with its head cut off, not just because of the loss of a President but because many of his inept cronies were still in charge. The new President was clueless, and the Pentagon was incredibly unprepared for such a rapid reversal of its strategic fortunes. Things looked incredibly bleak for America.

And this was just day one.

Who's Next?

Her patience grew shorter with each revolution of the light above. The room was hot, humid, and smelled like the rest of urban Pakistan. The last she could remember, the date was July 30, but the blackouts in between beatings had taken their toll on her sense of time. Her face took most of the damage, which wasn’t all bad, she still had total use of her limbs and she could still see out of one eye. But it was Pakistan. Women weren’t exactly well regarded in this part of the world, particularly after the latest coup, the worst would come sooner or later. Her interrogator spoke English, barely. He was typical mid-level ISI, entitled, annoying, and bearing a mustache which his paper-thin frame did not support. Nothing a knife couldn’t fix, she cracked her swollen lips as she grinned. She took another look around the room, there wasn’t much to see wherever the light touched. Blood-spattered concrete walls, blood-spattered floor (some of it hers), nothing that was going to aid her in her escape. She’d have to use whatever toys her hosts brought to the party. At least the ropes were loose.

Another hour passed before the door unlocked, maybe it was two hours. Two guards entered first, sporting Sigs and worn fatigues, followed by someone new. He was stockier than her last interrogator, no Pakistani fatigues either. She couldn’t see the details of his face through her one good eye and the swinging light. For a few minutes, he just stood there. She wasn’t sure what was killing her faster, the light, the dehydration, or the anticipation to see this new asshole. On each revolution, she could see the glimmer of a Captain’s rank, the PLA camouflage was unmistakable. China was popular in Islamabad, as popular as any infidels could be, but she didn’t expect PLA officers working with the ISI, not in front of an American. Before she could speak, he did.

“It’s been too long Sarah, I was beginning to think I’d never see you again.” The posh accent was unmistakable.

“Oh I agree, I haven’t kicked your ass in years.” She threw in a bloodied smirk. How the fuck did HE get here?

“Hmm…I was simply being nice to a chio bu. You could have done so much more with that face. As I recall, beauty pays in the District.” Well, time in uniform certainly hadn’t deterred his confidence.

“Careful now, motherfucker. Keep dropping that Singlish and your ChiCom friends will start to remember that you’re not a real boy.” She was honestly surprised one of Xi’s purges hadn’t cost him his limbs. Roaches survive.

“Oh, don’t you worry your pretty little head. By this time next year, there won’t be much of a difference between Singapore and Shanghai.” It really is amazing who you meet in college, isn’t it?

“Is that because I’ll have dumped parts of you in both cities?” Like with the heat and the light, her patience was growing thin with this conversation. “What do you want, Zhao?”

“Why Sarah, why so intolerant? I’m merely here as a friend, to pay my respects… and to offer you a chance to join the winning team.” His arrogance made her want to puke even more than smell of the rotting grey matter in the corner did.

She laughed, spitting out a tooth in the process. “Now Zhao, you and I both know I’m already on the winning team. Always have been.”

“Sarah, the 21st belongs to China, just as every century before the 19th did. America is on the decline, there’s no point for bloodshed to messy the process of hegemonic transition.” Oh, how she loathed IR theory. “I don’t want you or anyone else to die for something that is inevitable. I want us to be friends again.”

Ugh. “Alright. First off motherfucker, we were never friends. You dated one of my friends, and you beat on her because your daddy didn’t hug you enough. Second, you’re pretty cocky for someone who knows how pissed America gets when you break her shit.

Tsk tsk, Sarah. You should know by now, you’ve seen our successes. And you’ve seen America’s failures. We have a mandate, just like our ancestors. We have restored the Middle Kingdom, and now the world will bow down. That includes America. You’re losing friends left and right and you’re destroying yourselves from the inside out. What exactly makes you think you have any more a right to the world than we do?”

Oh, how she regretted not killing him years ago, this was the worst torture she’d ever endured. His death would’ve been justified, too. “Okay Confucius, where do I begin? Your precious CCP killed millions of its own people because it couldn’t figure out birds were important to the ecosystem. You ran down your own people with tanks because they wanted to be treated like people.You murder and torture dissidents because they challenge your leaders. You’re choking your own people with your factories, condemning millions of children to grow up without clear skies or clear lungs. For decades, you were too stupid to invent your own shit so you stole it from people who actually worked for it. Then again, that’s your whole philosophy, isn’t it? Some animals are more equal than others? Treat everyone below you like shit and just hope no one comes knocking with a bigger gun? Oh yeah, you’ve got a mandate alright, but it sure as shit isn’t from heaven.” Right hook, there goes another molar. She spat it up on the table into a puddle of blood and puss.

“You Americans are so ignorant of your own reality. I’ve seen your country, read your history. You are the only state to ever drop the bomb, twice. You eradicated an entire continent’s worth of people just so you could have a bigger backyard. Your people are murdered in the streets by their fellow citizens and your culture celebrates it. Your politicians are owned by a media run by corporations bent on destroying the working classes. Your children throw orgies in their academic institutions and burden their families with insurmountable debt in exchange for cheap alcohol and cheaper lovers.”

“I don’t recall you complaining about the booze and orgies at Georgetown while you were there.” Left hook.

“You abandoned your friends. You let those drunk bastards in Moscow run over Eastern Europe. The biggest American joke going is ‘Never again.’ It’d be funny if it wasn’t so sad to see how you squandered hegemony. Freedom and prosperity. HA. You left your throne with half the world in chaos and the other half begging to burn your country to the ground.” Right hook, again.

“Because Beijing has been so much better to its friends? Tell me what happened to the Vietnamese, or the Soviets, or how about the North Koreans? You know what, since you’re so fond of Pakistan now, why don’t you tell me what you’re planning on doing with your buddies once you’re done here? It’s not exactly like anyone can find out about this meeting.” No punches, just a quiet laugh. The men at the door started to pay attention.

Glancing over his shoulder, he switched to their mutual French, “Well I certainly wasn’t going to let them live.”

She smirked, turning her stare to the guard on the right side of the door. “Funny, I wasn’t going to either.” The hint had the desired effect, the swinging light showed the guard’s hand a bit closer to his holster. Not wanting to die immediately, Zhao dismissed the guards. Self-preservation will get you killed, Zhao.

“So, tell me Zhao, how exactly did you end up in that ridiculous marching band uniform? Was there a signing bonus for guys with experience in losing fights to Americans? Lose too much in Macao and daddy sent you away to learn some responsibility, did he? And how the hell did you end up in this shithole anyway? Just enough danger to get laid back home but far enough from combat that you’d never have to fight someone on a level playing field, huh?”

“I volunteered actually, but you were right, father did help out. They wanted to send me off to the rocket forces, and if there’s one thing that America and China have in common, it’s that no one wants that job.”

“Shit, can’t argue with you there. That’s why I joined the Army.”

“But you’re not with the Army now, are you Sarah?”

“Shit no, pay sucks, and they didn’t let me kill impotent wife beaters like you often enough.” Uppercut, the Agency better pay for the plastic surgery.

“Why would you want to kill me? I can offer you the world, just come to our side.”

Killing him is gonna feel so damn good. “And what? Bow down before the dear leader, betray the country that gave me everything so I can help the shithole that acts like a spoiled child, that thinks the world owes it everything? Go fuck yourself Zhao and fuck the whole Middle Kingdom.”

His face was red with rage, “You little bitch, you never knew respect in college and you don’t know it now. Fuck the deal, I’m gonna enjoy watching you die.” It worked. He pushed the blood-stained table out of the way and went in for the kill. At that moment, Sarah swung herself onto the floor, dislocating her shoulder and wrist but breaking free of the ropes in the process. She rolled over and charged Zhao, slamming him into the blood-stained wall. She unleashed a flurry of hooks and crosses, breaking ribs and knocking out teeth. She threw him on the floor, his shattered body lying in Sarah’s blood. Writhing in agony, Zhao couldn’t get up. The last image he saw was Sarah standing over him, bare foot on his throat. She pressed down on his larynx. Goodnight.

She grabbed the QSZ-92 from his holster, checked the mag, and chambered a round. Stumbling to the door, she grinned, her old friend would be proud. Sarah reached for the doorknob…shit. She almost forgot to relocate her shoulder. Pop…fuck. Right before she left, she took one last look at Zhao.

“You know, it’s a shame we never got to finish our philosophy debate, but then again, me alive and you dead…that kinda speaks for itself, don’t it?”

She turned and opened the door, pistol leading the way. Outside were the two guards from before, shocked at the bloodied and swollen face staring back at them.

“So boys, he lost round one, who’s next?”