“I’m not doing it, Bomber,” Gina Hart said flatly, chest heaving as the argument lost steam. They stood facing each other across the sparsely-furnished living room of their safehouse. Major Hawthorn sat on a table off to one side, playing around on a sheet of electronic paper and pretending not to listen. It would’ve been more convincing if he hadn’t been there the entire time.
     Gina felt her anger simmer down to a slow burn before the stoic, implacable look in Bomber’s eyes. She still wasn’t ready to budge. “I refuse, and that’s final. Next time you ask me, the answer’s still no. I won’t fucking do it.”
     “Just think about it, okay?” Hawthorn interjected, and regretted it. She speared him with a look that said, in no uncertain terms, Stay the Hell out of this.
     It was a new experience for Gina to be in charge among a group of military types. Bomber and Hawthorn were both used to giving orders, but they needed her more than she needed them. They relied on her telepathic abilities and her connection to Gabriel. So, gradually, Gina’s force of personality took over. Now she held the reins for a change, and she wasn’t about to let them go.
     Too bad the boys kept wanting to take risks she really didn’t care for.
     Bomber came forward and took her hands. “Gina, please. No one else can do this.”
     She lowered her eyes and clenched her jaw, hissing, “I’m not Gabriel. If your memory block blows up again, I won’t have a fucking clue what to do. You could be left braindead, or worse!”
     “That’s a chance I’m prepared to take,” he said in tones like hammered iron. “They lobotomised me, Gina. Treated me like some fuckin’ puppet whose mind could be rearranged for convenience. I can feel the memories there, and I keep getting dreams, flashbacks, but none of it makes sense. It’s like my head’s gonna burst.”
     To a telepath, it was obvious what he was going through. The memory block in his head had been his constant companion for fourteen years until Gabriel triggered the panic button. The self-destruct sequence had been stopped and the block had been shored up, but it suffered cracks. Deep ones. It was crumbling bit by bit, spilling chunks of memory at random into Bomber’s mind. She didn’t know what it would do if she knocked it down the rest of the way.
     She said, “I can’t be responsible for what might happen to you . . .”
     “You don’t have a choice. None of us do. Whatever Colonel Obrin has been hiding, it’s in here,” he tapped a finger against the side of his head, “and it needs to come out.”
     Gina grimaced and turned away from him, leaning on the table for support. A shiver rushed through her when Bomber’s arms locked gently around her waist. “You never listen, do you?” she sighed, and folded her fingers over his hands.
     “Guess I don’t hear as well I used to,” he said, smiled, nestled his forehead in her rich red hair. “He won’t let this drop, you know. Gabriel. He won’t let you stay with me, and the way things stand right now, I won’t be able to stop him. What use am I when I can’t even raise a gun at him?”
     Finally, biting her lip, Gina gave in like she knew she would. She couldn’t keep saying no. She was going to try to fix up one man she loved so he could go off to fight the other.
     “Alright.” She shut her eyes even tighter against the throbbing ache in her chest. “Tonight. We’ll do it tonight.”
     His voice rang with relief. “I . . . Thanks, babe.”
     “Don’t,” she snapped. “I’m not doing you a favour, Bomber. It’s not gonna solve anything.”
     Bomber didn’t respond to that, just kissed her on the nape of her neck and let go. Reluctantly, he left to give her some space. Hawthorn followed at his heels and shut the door behind them.
     Sinking onto the inflatable couch, Gina let her frustrations flow out with a sigh. These last few days with Bomber had been happy ones. Gabriel left her alone. The ragged scar inside her, where he’d torn a piece out of her mind, had started to scab over. It still throbbed like an aching tooth, but her growing mental strength and discipline let her ignore it for the most part. Now if she could just stop dwelling on what happened at the airfield . . .
     She should’ve done something when Gabriel was there in front of her, said something, but she couldn’t. The sight of him left her paralysed and white-faced with dread. Her only thought in that moment was of the little child in her womb, hers and Gabriel’s. One moment of weakness changed her life forever. What drove her even more insane was not knowing for sure if he knew. She thought she was an open book, that one glance would’ve told him everything, but he hadn’t read her mind. She would’ve known if he did.
     All he said was, “Keep in touch.”
     She had to wonder if he’d intended this. Was it random chance out of a genuine moment — the one percent out of a hundred that went through her contraception implant — or part of some twisted master plan? Maybe that was painting him as too diabolical, though. She couldn’t imagine how the baby would fit into things. Not for Gabriel, and definitely not for her.
     Did she really want a child with him? Did she want one at all?
     I am not mommy material, she thought acidly. You hear that, Gabriel? Fuck you. This is your fault, I shouldn’t be in this position.
     Then she rushed to the bathroom to empty her stomach again, morning sickness gonging violently through her body.

***

     She took her time setting up the candles, curtains and cushions, assembling each piece of the scene just the way Onounu used to do. Like a proper ceremony. It gave her something to focus on, a way to calm and concentrate her thoughts. She lit her candles one by one until the room was bathed in a soft flickering glow. A stick of cinnamon-scented incense provided the final touch.
     Kneeling on a cushion, she breathed deep and let her mind loose. The world washed away into ripples of mental energy. The bustle of the City at night. She touched the thoughts and emotions of a thousand other people packed like sardines into their huge street-spanning flat blocks.
     It was easy to pick out the unique ripples Bomber made as he waited downstairs, and those of Hawthorn’s people in the basement. She felt the neighbours, who never suspected a thing. People doing what they did, dealing with their worries, living their lives. It cheered Gina up in some unquantifiable way. It was nice to know that normal human existence was still possible in the middle of all this insanity.
     Hawthorn himself was nowhere to be found. She’d banned him from the premises for tonight, with good reason. That man had been all over the place since their failure at Colonel Obrin’s base. He tried to bottle up his emotions all stoic-like, like Bomber, but he simply didn’t have the knack. Beneath that carefully-tended military exterior he was bouncing off the fucking walls. Gina didn’t need the distraction.
     She touched the flat pool that was Bomber’s mind. Empty, like a TV without a signal. He could sit there switched off for hours, thinking about nothing, but alert and ready to explode into action at a moment’s notice. It was such an unnatural state that it made her skin crawl.
     Shuddering, she made herself push through the sensation and gave him a swift kick in the frontal lobes.
     Get up here, she told him. You don’t want to be late for your own party.
     Neurons began to fire again, the dusty mechanisms of his conscious mind grinding back to life like a long-dormant computer, and Bomber soon returned to normal operating parameters. His boots creaked on the old wooden floors as he stood up.
     Gina’s heart throbbed faster, higher in her chest. She’d expected to be afraid, but now that she was committed, fear was the last thing on her mind. Whatever happened, she could handle it. She had the power. It was dangerous and unpredictable, but it was hers.
     Bomber said nothing when he slipped through the bead curtain, barely rustling the wood-effect plastic. His eyes swept the scene like a target gallery. He recognised the recreation of Onounu’s study and, understanding his part, sat down cross-legged in the place Gina had been a few weeks ago. The thick, fragrant smoke made his eyes water.
     “Try to relax,” she told him, though it was a bit like telling a nervous greyhound not to chase after rabbits, and handed him two tablets of Spice. “You can relax, can’t you?”
     The tease seemed to work. Breathing deep, Bomber pushed some of the tension out of his shoulders and let his mouth fall open. It made him look different, smaller somehow, like a relatively normal human being. He tossed the pills down his throat and swallowed them dry.
     Gina nodded approval. She dropped her voice to a slow, husky lilt. “Now, think back, way back. I want you to concentrate on two particular memories from your past. One, the first experience you have from your pilot training. Two, the last thing that happened before you joined the Army.”
     “That was a long time ago, Gina . . .”
     “I’m a telepath. Trust me.”
     Reluctantly he closed his eyes and began to dig deep. Gina rode the memories with him, watched places and people flit past, faces blurred and emotions gone dull with the passing of years. She’d shared enough of Bomber’s flashbacks to recognise the airbase; she’d been Bomber for a few minutes, taking his flight certification test for the first time. That gave her a landmark to navigate by as they went further back in time.
     And as Bomber dredged up the old, disused chunk of history she’d asked for, it pulled them both in like a magnet.

***

     It was a bright day. The sun beat down on a stretch of Florida so humid that his hands left trails in the air when he moved them. The metal Army bus rolled along hour after hour, picking up more and more recruits as it went along, slowly cooking them all in their own sweat. It swung up in a ponderous arc through the Carolinas, too far inland to benefit from the Atlantic breeze, but he stared out passively despite the heat. Not far to go now.
     The base didn’t look like much from a distance, a lump of concrete and corrugated steel squatting on the border between Virginia and North Carolina, and he didn’t really pay it much attention even when the bus rolled through the gates. His eyes were on the sky. There were helicopters circling overhead, big chunky training machines like the ones he’d probably be flying in a few weeks’ time. Once they let him out of the simulators.
     He’d always dreamed of flying, but his grades at school failed to convince either commercial companies or the US Air Force. He’d just about given up on that dream before he enlisted. Now the Army Aviation Branch was giving him a chance when no one else would, and he was going to make it count.
     Someone beside him said something that made the others laugh, but he barely registered it. The buzzing copters held his attention until the driver threw on the handbrake and herded everyone off the bus.

     
     Sudden break, rewind.
     
     He stood outside, watching the creek bubble down the thickly-forested valley. Mississippi wasn’t far short of jungle this time of year, but his ancestors had worked hard to keep one side of the valley clear to farm their tobacco. All that remained of those days were the river and the big timber farmhouse, meeting at the end of a thin stretch of paved road that led back to civilisation. He’d already boarded up the windows and locked the doors. Now all he had to do to was leave.
     A musty smell permeated everything, the smell of vegetation and wet earth. Underneath it was the faint plastic tang of his brand-new dress uniform. It still felt strange. It was one of those things people did, though, when they wanted to run away from everything. You either signed on a merchant ship or you joined the military, and he hated boats.
     He checked his watch again. So far, they were three minutes late, and he had to wonder why they’d told him to wait at home. Sending a car to pick you up from your own doorstep didn’t seem like the regular way of doing things. Not that he was an expert . . . The black Lincoln town car finally crested the hill, seeming real enough, and pretty soon he could see the guys driving it. Two buzzcuts in Marine dress blues. Another odd thing. Why Marines?
     They stopped and got out with a curt salute, took his kitbag and flung it into the back. Then they invited him to take the back seat and he bent down to get in.
     He barely felt the needle pushing into his carotid artery, and by then it was much too late to struggle. Consciousness spun away from him.

     
     And suddenly she found it. It had no visual aspect, but to Gina’s third eye the hypnotic lock felt slippery, shadowy, squatting between chunks of memory that felt both real and manufactured at the same time. A lot of work had been done here. However, the edges of the lock were starting to fade, and she sensed the years that had been kept hidden from Bomber for so long. A few were close enough to the surface that she could almost touch them, might be able to pry them out with just a small push . . .
     “Wait a second,” said Bomber, confused. “I don’t remember bein’ hit with a needle. That wasn’t there before.”
     “Hush, I’m gonna try to trigger another flashback,” she whispered back. “Don’t force anything. Let the memories flow naturally into your mind.”
     She reached in and . . .
     
     He was in a well-lit concrete room, somewhere underground, and a moustachioed man stood surveying the platoon moments before the briefing. He clapped his hands to get people’s attention, though it wasn’t easy to take his mind off the fresh red inflammations spread across his body, where the implants had gone in. Everything itched.
     “You’ll be on antibiotics for a few days until your body adjusts to the new chemical balance,” said the man. “The implants you’ve received are largely experimental, and I’m not at liberty tell you much. Suffice it to say that you will be getting flyers explaining everything you need to know about the care and usage of all your enhancements. Be careful with them, and that means with yourself.
     “My name is Obrin,” he continued, gesturing at his Colonel’s stripes, “and I’m your Commanding Officer for this assignment. I’ll be managing your training and fielding any questions that can’t be answered by your squad leaders. I’m sure we’ll all get to know each other pretty well.”
     One of the women raised her hand. “Pardon, Sir, but what exactly is this assignment?”
     “That’s as classified as classified can be, Private,” Obrin replied smoothly. “In a nutshell, we are prototyping the next generation of infantry technology, in every sense of the term. Training, equipment and implantation. Due to the level of secrecy involved, virtually all your training will take place in a simulator. Off-base passes are restricted until further notice.”
     He expected some sounds of unhappiness at that, but they didn’t materialise. He began to understand. This platoon was probably hand-picked because of their lack of ties to the outside world. Nobody to miss them, nobody to care.

     
     The briefing faded away, replaced by a series of quick flashes like a film cutting randomly backwards and forwards through time.
     He was running through a thick forest with a rifle in his hands. He woke up in a tank of fluid, and as his helmet came off he remembered that it was all virtual reality. His scalp tingled where the electrodes had zapped their signals into his brain. Then he sat relaxing in the rec room, watching TV, and pondered how none of the channels ever showed the news.
     Then . . .

***

     “This week’s meeting is going to be a little different than the ones you’ve gotten used to,” the Colonel said, standing at the little metal podium that was the only accession to furniture in the meeting room. “All of you have done turns as squad leaders during the last few months of training. Some of you have excelled at these roles, and performance has been noticed by command. I have here a list of names of people who have done particularly well, and I’m going to read them to you.”
     Obrin produced a writing pad and held it out in front of him, staring at its contents like a schoolteacher in front of his class. If he’d had glasses he would have adjusted them.
     “Mary Sweeney. Mark E. Smith. Iwetel Fahlan. Michael Fairbanks. Garos Mladowic. Victoria MacDonald. All named are hereby promoted to Corporal. Congratulations.”
     Surprise. Confusion. Noise rippled through the assembled soldiers, hissed questions and exclamations. Was this a joke? Could it really be that easy, no paperwork, nothing? It remained in whispers, though; they could be put on report for raising their voices out of turn.
     The Colonel went on as if nothing happened. “Caroline Yang. Tim Dujardin. Jacob Dusther. You are now Sergeants for the platoon. Your permanent team divisions will be posted on the rec room door in two hours, from which you may appoint squad leaders as you will. There will be no opportunities for transfer and no exchanging of team members.”
     This time, dead silence dropped into their midst. Mouths hung open but didn’t speak. They’d all been there in the sims, under and alongside their newly-minted NCOs, and nobody could deny that some people had a talent for command. It was just that not everyone agreed exactly where the talent lay.
     Jacob Dusther looked around, but the news didn’t really sink in until the group was dismissed, filing back to the barracks under a cloud of mixed feelings. A kind of distance emerged almost naturally between ranks and officers, and Jacob soon found himself alone at the front of the crowd, driven together with the other sergeants and corporals by the flow of bodies.
     Then they reached the barracks, and found their new bunking arrangements.
     The entire hall had been restructured, cramping in three tiny private rooms walled off with plastic sheeting and lockable doors — mounted with plaques bearing the new sergeants’ names. The corporals, too, could look forward to more spacious beds closer to the door, while everyone else had been downgraded from two-tier bunk beds to three. That wasn’t going to go down well.
     “This is a joke, right?” said Sweeney. The tiny blonde woman looked like an angry mother bear as she let her eyes pan across the room. “Tell me this is a joke.”
     Fahlan shook his head. “It’s military psychology. Privilege of rank, they’re setting us apart from the other troops. Somebody’ll get upped to lieutenant soon.” He rested a hand each on Jacob and Yang’s shoulders. “Better you than me, guys. Have fun with the angry mob.”

     
     “Jesus, my head,” Bomber groaned, his concentration shattered. He kept his eyes screwed shut as he massaged his temples. Gina snapped back to her body and, recovering from the sudden shift, touched his arm for comfort. It seemed to help. She could feel the chaos in his brain, as hundreds of twittering neurons pulsed out signals which conflicted and contradicted each other. There wasn’t much more she could do for him.
     Bomber swallowed thickly. “It’s so weird . . . I don’t know these people, but I do. I ain’t there, but I am. It’s not me.”
     “It’s like you said. They changed you, altered your memory and even your thought patterns. You became a different person the minute they put that shit in your brain.”
     “Keep goin’,” he said through the pain. “We can get more, I know it!”
     “Then you’d better focus, Bomber,” Gina retorted. “You gotta dig deep.”
     He nodded, pushed himself back upright and set his jaw in bitter determination. Closing his eyes, he dove back into the past, and Gina followed on his metaphorical heels.

***

     There was a flash of scenery going past, a car, a woman talking. She said, “I think the Army did something to you, Simon. If I’m right, two years of memories have gone missing inside that head of yours, and you’ve been conditioned to never realise they were even gone.”
     The woman disappeared but the sense of motion remained. He shuffled into a silent room with the other two sergeants, and sat down in front of a projection that meant nothing to him. The stripes on his shoulder seemed to itch even now, months after his promotion. As ridiculous as it seemed he had to stop his hands from moving to scratch it. He made himself wait patiently and occupied the time with wild guesses about the images on the screen. As far as Jacob could tell, they might’ve been anything from piss-poor satellite imagery to gruesome photos of chopped-up ocelot intestines. He really wasn’t sure what he was supposed to learn from it.
     Finally, Colonel Obrin appeared carrying a tray of styrofoam coffee cups, and personally handed them out to everyone. Then he dismissed the confused-looking private standing guard inside the door. Jacob stared at the steaming cup in his hands, and tentatively began to sip.
     The Colonel’s reasoning became a little clearer when they got a look at his face. There were deep blue bags under his eyes, and the veins on his throat stood out like purple lightning, elevated blood pressure caused by military stimulants. He didn’t even speak before his own cup was dry.
     “We got a problem,” he began, breaking the uncomfortable silence. “This unit was supposed to be training only, experimental, under the radar. However, the needs of the country seem to have superseded our directives.”
     The sergeants sat and waited attentively. On the inside, Jacob wondered what the Hell could be going on.
     “In a nutshell, people, our unit has been ordered to attach to SOCOM and step up to active status. I’ve been fighting this for weeks, but it’s out of my hands now. The decision’s been made. There’s been hints of a terror plot which needs more of a response than SOCOM alone can provide.”
     “SOCOM, Sir?” Jacob wondered aloud. “I know we’re supposed to be next-gen infantry, but is there really anything we can add that they ain’t already got?”
     Obrin let out a deep sigh, his shoulders slumping. “I’m going to tell you some things that you’re not supposed to know, Sergeant. You understand the importance of keeping your mouth shut about anything that goes on in this room, yes?” His eyes searched everybody, and they all nodded, Yang and Dujardin and Jacob Dusther. “Good. You see . . . Round about every decade or so, the Army starts up a new super-soldier program. Lots of money gets thrown at it. The eggheads play around with the idea for a while, and then come back and say they can’t do it. Then it goes quiet for five or six years before they hire the same bunch to do it all over again.
     “Only this time, circumstances were a little different. This time they gave the project to me. My team has been developing technology like nothing that’s ever come before, and this unit is carrying the prototypes. You are the proof of concept. That’s why I think it’s a fucking terrible call to put you at risk like this, but orders are orders.”
     Suddenly, Yang leaned forward and said, coolly, “We can handle any mission, Sir. We’ll show SOCOM a thing or two. Just give us the low-down.”
     The ghost of a smile creased the corners of Obrin’s mouth. He moved to his map and pointed to an area that snapped into focus as a satellite map of the west coast of Africa. “As we know, much of Africa is still dependent on fossil fuels and old-style nuclear fission for power. Uranium piles remain common and there are several uranium mines and refineries still operating in Nigeria and Namibia.” He tapped the appropriate countries with a fingernail. “We’ve received word of a planned raid on these refineries by a previously-unknown terrorist organisation, so secretive that nobody in intelligence suspected they were out there. We don’t even know their name yet.
     “On a good day, the refineries contain about three ICBMs worth of enriched uranium and waste. On a bad day, they’ll also be storing some plutonium they make on the sly, in contravention of nuclear disarmament. Intel says our aggressors already have detonators, delivery systems, everything they need to make a working bomb. What they intend to use it for is . . . Well, I guess you’d describe it as a coup attempt.”
     “You’re joking, right, Sir?” Tim Dujardin laughed nervously. Reading the Colonel’s body language, though, Jacob wasn’t so sure about that. Dujardin pressed on, “A foreign entity seizing power here? Respectfully, Sir, nobody’s had a chance since the Soviets.”
     The Colonel gave him a stern look. “It doesn’t matter what you think or whether I agree with you, soldier. SOCOM doesn’t agree with you and, more importantly, the President of the United States doesn’t agree with you. That’s why we’re launching an interception with your unit as the head of the spear.”
     In that instant, a stab of cold panic hit Jacob’s bloodstream. He would’ve blurted something out if the Colonel hadn’t interrupted him.
     “You have three hours,” rumbled the Colonel, bushy eyebrows dipped into a frown. “Equipment and transport’s being arranged. Get your people briefed, and make damn sure there are no mistakes.”

     
     Gina pulled them out of the memory, reeling. Her heart hammered in her chest and a trembling hand covered her mouth. “Holy shit,” she whispered. “Holy shit. He . . . He was talking about the Federation, wasn’t he?”
     The look in Bomber’s eyes could have cut steel. His mind had gone calm again, flat and sharp as a knife, and his blood pumped cold in his veins as he swayed back upright.
     “We can’t be sure of that,” he said. He didn’t sound as if he believed it. “But if it’s true, that means we failed. I failed.”
     Gina was still lost in open-mouthed horror when Bomber swept through the curtain and left the room under a blanket of terrible silence.

One Response to “PRECOGNITION: Part 42”

  1. Michael says:

    I’ve been loving this! Great read that I’ve already recommended to friends. Thanks so much for creating this world and this wonderfully crafted story. I can’t wait for more! Seriously, I’m going to need to buy this so you keep writing! Cheers.

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