HUGO AWARD-WINNING SCIENCE FICTION & FANTASY MAGAZINE
A Militant Peace
I am not only a pacifist but a militant pacifist.
I am willing to fight for peace.
For Nong Mai Thuy, a Vietnamese sergeant in the Marine Police, the invasion of North Korea starts with the parachute-snapping violence of a High Altitude, Low Opening jump deep in the middle of the inky black North Korean airspace at night. Here the air is the stillest, bleakest black. The bleakness of a world where electricity trickles only to the few in Pyongyang.
This is good for Mai. The synthetic-ballistic faceshield displaying heads-up information has a host of visual add-ons, including night-vision. She flicks it on, and the familiar gray-green of a landscape below rushes up to smack into her.
When she thuds into the ground the specialized, carefully fitted, motorized armor hisses slightly as it adjusts to the impact.
"I am safe," her partner responds in her ear over the faint distortion of high-end crypto. In the upper right of her HUD, a beacon glows softly, and she turns around. Duc's smashed his way through several hefty tree limbs before hitting ground. But he's already packing his chute.
They are officially on the ground.
Beyond the darkness are some nine and a half million North Korean forces that aren't going to respond well to what has just happened.
And Mai wonders: how many of them are already on the way to try and kill her right now?
Three minutes before Mai and Duc hit the ground, heavy machinery in stealth-wrapped containers had parachuted in, invisible to prying electronic eyes, and touched down.
Mai and Duc fan out to establish a perimeter and protect it, even as hundreds more hit the ground, roll, and come up ready to follow orders beamed at them from commanders still up in the sky, watching from live satellite feeds.
A portable airstrip gets rolled out across the grassy meadow. Within the hour the thorium nuclear power plant airdrops in and gets buried into the ground, then shielded with an artillery-proof cap.
Once power is on, Camp Nike takes shape. The ballistic-vest wearing civilian Chinese contractors have built whole skyscrapers within forty-eight hours. Here they only need to get four or five stories high for the main downtown area. They get a bonus for each extra geodesic dome fully prepped by the morning. The outer wall of the camp is airlifted in. It's been constructed in pieces in Australia ahead of time, and the pieces slam down into the ground via guided parachutes. No one glances up; this part of the invasion has been practiced over and over again in Western Australia so much that it's old news.
Twenty minutes before sunrise, two large transports land and the civilians rush them. The field is cleared of non-combatants soon after, leaving the ghost city behind it.
It is dawn when what looks like a hastily organized contingent of the North Korean Army crests the hills. Thirty soldiers here to scout out what the hell just happened, Mai imagines.
Mai ends up outside the perimeter, guardian to the north gate.
"Welcome to Camp Nike," Duc mutters.
Someone is riding shotgun through their helmet cameras and jumps into the conversation. It sounds like Captain Nguyen, Mai thinks. "Make a slight bow to the commanding officer, wave encouragingly at the group."
Mai's hand rests on her hip, where a sidearm would usually be.
"No threatening gestures, keep your arms out and forward," her helmet whispers to her. Aggressive body-posture detected and reported by her own suit. It feels slightly like betrayal. Old habits die hard: Mai can't help but reach for her hip.
She is, after all, still a soldier.
The small group of men all have AKS-74s — which the North Koreans call a Type 88 — but they're slung over their shoulders, even though they can see Mai and Duc in full armor.
"I have a bad feeling about this," Mai mutters.
"Hold your positions," command whispers to them.
It isn't right. Standing here, unarmed, holding her hands up in the air as if she's the one surrendering, placating an enemy. When there are men standing just thirty feet away with rifles.
One of them steps forward, his hands in the air, and she realizes he's nervous.
Mai points to a signpost near the gates.
UNITED NATIONS SPONSORED
ALTERNATIVE SETTLEMENT ZONE
NO WEAPONS ALLOWED
PLACE ALL WEAPONS IN THE
MARKED BINS FOR DESTRUCTION
The sign's in Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese and English, and also emblazoned with the internationally recognizable logos of all the camp's primary private-sector sponsors.
There'll be more of that when people get inside. Shoes and clothing by Nike. Dinners by ConAgra. TV by Samsung. Computers by Dell.
The men read the sign, and start shaking their heads.
This, Mai thinks, is a moment of balance, where the world around her could swing one way or another.
Duc takes initiative, to her surprise, and waves at the men cheerily. He flips his faceplate open, so they can see his expression, while Mai curses him silently and fights the urge to grab him and yank him to safety.
All it'll take is one well-aimed shot from a sniper somewhere out there to kill him, now. Or for one of these men with an AKS-74 to spook.
He might as well not even wear the armor, she thinks, absently reaching for her hip again.
There is no gun, though. There never will be.
Mai's not close enough for her translation software to help her understand what the group of men is arguing over. But Duc has gotten close enough to be surrounded.
"They want to see the food," he reports.
"They want to make sure they're not being tricked into a prison camp. They won't disarm until they see that what they were told about the camps was true."
One of the men holds up a cheap, black smartphone and points at it.
Six months ago these things were dumped into North Korea by the millions. Each phone disguises its texting and data traffic as background static, and otherwise functions as a basic, jamming-hardened satphone. Between the satellite routing and peer-to-peer whisper comms, they created a "darknet" outside of Pyongyang's official control.
The Beloved Leader decreed death for anyone caught with one, but the experiment succeeded. Well enough to spirit out video and pictures of starving children, of brutal crackdowns on attempts to protest Pyongyang by desperate, starving peasants, and all the other atrocities that had built the case for international intervention.
It has been through these phones that messages explaining the camps and invasion had been sent twenty-four hours ago.
Promising food and safety.
These soldiers are defecting, and can see the walls. Now they want to see the food.
It's all about the food.
"Three of you, leave your weapons in the bin," Duc says, "go in and come back out to report what you see."
It is a reasonable compromise. Duc and Mai let the three unarmed men pass through, and five minutes later they're back, excited and shouting at their comrades.
One of the men whistles back toward the crest of the hill. As if melting out of the countryside, a river of people carrying what possessions they had come trickling down the hillside, and out of the distant scrub where they'd been hiding.
The first two hundred new citizens of Camp Nike stream in through the gates, and once they're through, all that is left are the full bins of AKS-74s waiting to be destroyed.
"Were you worried?" Duc asks as they watch the North Koreans line up at refugee registration booths.
"Yes," she replies. "I think we'd be foolish not to worry when people with guns walk up to us."
Duc thumps his chest. "With these on? We're invincible here."
Maybe, Mai thinks. She looks back at the small city inside the walls. But we aren't the only ones here, now, are we?
For forty-eight hours the stream of humanity continues. A thousand. Five thousand. Ten thousand. The Korean People's Army is too busy chasing ghosts to notice right now: false reports about touchdowns. Jammed communications. Domination of their airspace.
Satellite telescopes, early warning systems, and spyware pinpoints the point of origin of several missile launches. They die while still boosting up into the air, struck from above by high-powered lasers.
Electromagnetic pulses rain down from heavy stealth aircraft drones, leaving any unshielded North Korean advanced military tech, which is far more than anyone realized, useless metal junk.
By the time the North Koreans managed to haul out their ancient, analog Cold War-era artillery, Mai is on her way to the barracks to bunk down for her first real night of sleep.
The shelling begins in earnest. A distant crumping sound, but without the accompanying whistle of the rounds falling.
The Point Defense Array pops up. Green light flickers and sparks from the top of the almost floral-looking tower in the center of Camp Nike. Lines shimmer into the night sky as they track incoming artillery rounds.
They'd been told during training that the green lasers were doing nothing more than "painting" the individual targets before the x-ray lasers slagged the incoming shells into nothing more than a slight metal mist.
Mai watches the light show build in intensity for a few moments, just as awed by its beauty as she had been when she'd first seen it demonstrated.
The bursts light up the undersides of the clouds. And not a single shell gets through.
She wonders if she would still have the reflexes to get to cover if she ever hears the telltale whistle of an incoming round again, after living like this.
There might be thousands of Captain Nguyens in the Vietnamese military, Mai knows. But here at Camp Nike, there is only one. She is the sort of woman who straightens spines at a glance. They call her the Warrior of Binh Phuoc, and it's rumored that she single-handedly kept that border region safe for years during the Cambodian Unrest.
Nguyen's been hopping in and out of helmet cameras all week long, moving them around like pawns on a chessboard.
Now it's time for Mai to face the chess master.
Mai joins Trong Min Hoai, a member of her team, as they hop over a row of Japanese-donated grooming 'bots, rolling up the main street of Camp Nike sweeping up litter. They're both in full PeaceKeeping armor, servos whining as they work around her limbs to amplify her tiniest motions.
In an already carefully-cultivated and manicured gaming park over to their right, a group of South Korean volunteers are combining literacy lessons with one of the role-playing games popular in the South.
All it would take, Mai thinks, glancing up at the snap and crack of green Point Defense activity in the distance, is one artillery shell to sneak through and hit that park.
But no one's looking up. After a week, even the civilians are taking it for granted.
Inside the ground floor of the temporary headquarters building, a nondescript ten-story instant skyscraper, Captain Nguyen stands in front of a podium and surveys the twenty fully power-armored members she's called in.
"LOCKDOWN," declares an electronic system, and the doors thud shut. A soft blue glow indicates that the room is nominally clean of electronic surveillance.
Everyone's links to the outside die. Soldiers remove their helmets and let them hang from dummy straps on the back of their armor.
It's strange to see all these faces.
Most relax in place, Mai's one of the few who grits her teeth at that. She comes from Vietnam's elite Marine Police, suffused with discipline and duty. Other soldiers have traveled in from less formal corners of Vietnam.
Mai's tempted to say it's Western influence, but she comes from a family that has quietly welcomed the easing of the Party's influence over the long years.
Her grandfather served in the Republic of Vietnam Army in 1975. He melted back into civilian life when Saigon fell. Unlike various Hmong or other American allies he had not been lucky enough to secure a trip to the United States. Instead he endured, raised a family, and placidly waited for the wheel to turn. As it had in Europe or Russia.
That came almost without their noticing. Now Vietnam jostles with South Korea and Japan for economic strength.
Which is what got her here.
South Korea is playing down its role in this humanitarian incursion of sovereign national borders. Japan knows better than to stick any of its troops on foreign soil anywhere the Pacific Ocean touches land, even if it's a peacekeeping mission.
No one wants American soldiers involved in this.
The UN has pushed hard to get Vietnamese forces to lead this. They believe they're in the best position, historically and culturally.
Behind-the-scenes promises and paybacks in the form of infrastructure, debt forgiveness from creditor nations, and military upgrades have been fairly epic.
And if all goes well, Vietnam becomes a real world player, able to use this as a bargaining chip to leverage itself up onto the table with the world's most powerful nations.
If all goes well.
The hopes of many Vietnamese politicians ride with the twenty armored soldiers in the room.
"There's been a change of plans," Nguyen announces.
Nguyen casts full three-dimensional images of the camp from an overhead position up on the wall for them to see.
"Due to the initial success of the disinformation campaign and disabling of North Korean military machinery, we grew this camp faster than anyone could have anticipated. We are bringing in more power: one of those airships that's been helping blanket the area with wireless networks will soon be relaying a microwave laser from an Indian power satellite, which will let us expand the Point Defense Array's zone of coverage and move our walls outward.
"We need more living space, and more farmland. The UN is calling our mission a success, and the other camps are moving timetables forward as a result as well."
Mai glances around. Everyone looks excited, a bit anticipatory.
This has been the goal, hasn't it? Establish a secure base. Bring in refugees. Feed and educate, build a different civil and economic society on the fly, and with success, expand the borders of these safe zones.
Within a decade, the camps could become cities in their own right: self-sustaining and continuing to grow. Tiny petri dishes of democracy, trade and world capitalism, their walls expanding outwards further and further until they were all of the country they'd been set up in.
It beat decades-long war.
Online massively multiplayer simulations indicated that it was also far, far cheaper. After just a few years, the citizens of the camps plug into global trade and currency, paying their own way. Becoming customers for large defense manufacturers. Full citizens of the peaceful, trading world at large.
That's the plan.
And now they're accelerating the timetable. Which will mean what? Mai swallows her worries and pays attention.
Captain Nguyen continues with the briefing. "We've been coming under more frequent artillery attack from the North Korean Army over the last seventy-two hours. The shells have yet to penetrate the laser array, but we can't afford to rely on that working one hundred percent of the time.
"Thanks to our American friends in charge of the array, we've identified the location of the artillery battery firing on us. We intend to end these bombardments during wall extension operations. You are the team that will do this."
Nguyen looks at them all, then seems to pause for a beat as she looks at Mai.
Did that really happen? Is she being singled out? Or does everyone else in the room feel that Nguyen is talking to just them?
"There will be no North Korean deaths," Nguyen states flatly, "or any bodily harm as a direct result of your actions. You are there to disable the weaponry, not engage. Remember: I will be watching. So will the rest of the world."
And that is all.
Captain Nguyen physically leads the "attack."
Forty armored figures in UN pale blue trot out of the camp, double file, following her. Half of them are a mish-mash of other units from Eastern Europe and Africa, the other half are Nguyen's warriors. They plunge into the tree line to the west of the camp, cutting new paths through the undergrowth.
They cover the six miles to the North Korean firebase in about half an hour, and spread out into a skirmish line as they approach the elevated artillery base.
The moment they begin to walk up the slope, the North Koreans open fire on them from a sandbagged bunker at the crest of the low hill.
Mai flinches at the chatter and fury. Her instinct to seek cover screams from somewhere deep in her. A round thuds into her midsection, but the armor does its job, sloughing off energy and dissipating mass.
Her stride isn't even affected.
"Keep the line straight, hold out your arms," Nguyen mutters to them all via helmet communications. "Show them we're not armed."
They've been shot at in training. But these rounds are meant to kill them, not get them used to the impact.
This is the real thing. Those people out there are trying to kill Mai.
And all she's going to do is hold out her hands and walk forward.
The implacable pale blue line keeps moving up the hill.
Mai feels round after round, entire bursts, carom off her armor like birdshot before she's halfway up the hill. And then, finally, the North Korean gunners break and make a run for it.
"Duc, Mai, disable the bunker," Nguyen orders.
Mai leaps free of the line with an exultant grunt, clearing fifteen feet of ground in a half-restrained hop that has her slamming down in front of the bunker's still-steaming gun in a second.
Duc's right by her.
"No one's inside. No heat signatures," Duc reports. He rips the bunker apart, pulling the sandbags out and kicking the walls in.
Mai yanks the roof's timbers free, dropping the sandbags they'd supported down into a warren of cots and radio equipment. The crunching sounds from all this are distant and suppressed to her, like she's turned the volume down on a Hollywood action movie.
In three full breaths, they've reduced the fortified position to sandy rubble.
Mai strips the machine gun down to its individual components, then grabs both ends of the barrel and twists it into uselessness. She repeats that with the spare barrel, then looks over at the ammunition.
"The Ploughshares team can take care of the ammo," Duc says. "They'll catch up soon enough."
Something kicks her in the back, jostling her. Mai spins around and knocks away the gun of a scared soldier who has managed to sneak up on her.
He stands there, stupefied, holding his hand, waiting for whatever comes next.
"Mai!" Duc shouts.
She has her fist in the air, ready to bring it down and crack his skull, but freezes in place. Her heart is hammering, her mouth dry. She can't escape the adrenaline-pounding certainty that she almost died.
But of course, she hasn't. The man is no threat.
"Leave," she shouts into her helmet, and the translation booms out at the soldier.
He rabbits away.
"Mai?" Duc asks.
"I am fine," she tells him.
Mai glances back. There's activity in the air: ten heavy lift airships ponderously moving more wall segments in, to be dropped in place to secure the territory they are clearing.
Soon the huge, articulated Ploughshares trucks will be along to gather up everything here for recycling.
Duc tosses down seven mangled AKS-74s. "Then let's go," he says, and they're on the move again, loping in long, impossible strides to catch up to the advancing line.
As they catch up, Mai notices that Nguyen's entire right side is blackened. She must have absorbed a large explosion of some kind while Mai'd been destroying the bunker. Other soldiers show signs of absorbing more fire, but the rate of it is fading. The North Koreans are mostly retreating into the woods on the west side of the hill.
One enterprising gun crew is trying to bring their huge 152mm cannon to bear on the advancing line.
For the first time Mai sees Nguyen's calm crack, and she hastily orders another pair of Peacekeepers to disable the cannon.
The two armored soldiers snap into motion, and then calmly shepherd the North Koreans away from the weapon with shooing motions, ignoring the small arms fire. Once the North Koreans are clear, they smash the aiming mechanism, then get to work on the tube itself.
A North Korean officer runs up to the two blue armored soldiers, pistol high, screaming at them. His face is red, and he looks almost ready to cry with frustration and rage.
The distant pop of his pistol as he empties his entire clip into the backplate of the nearest Peacekeeper's armor is accentuated by Mai's translation software.
"Stand and fight, cowards! Face me like real soldiers," the artificial voice keeps murmuring.
Mai feels sympathy for him.
This isn't a proper war.
None of them have trained for this.
It makes little sense, to either that officer or her, on some deep level.
Part of her craves a fight. A real fight. A test of skill, courage, and arms.
"Here's the artillery," Nguyen murmurs to them all. "On me. Destroy it all."
Mai and Duc move through the firebase with the rest of the team, dismantling the twelve big artillery guns and countless small arms and machine guns.
Most of the machinery is in ill repair. Only five of the twelve look like they are actually firing, and a small bunker off to one side has been stacked with dud rounds. Which Mai figured Ploughshares could deal with. Suit or not, she didn't want to be playing with those.
There's been one casualty, and Nguyen is not pleased with this. The wounded Korean is on a pod-like stretcher, hooked up to emergency life-saving equipment while a medic they brought along treats him.
"This could be a public relations disaster," Nguyen tells Mai.
"What happened?" Mai asks.
"He threw a grenade, but it bounced back at him," Nguyen says, shaking her head. She's removed her helmet and holds it tucked under an arm. "We were too aggressive. I fought against the new timetable, but was overruled. UN headquarters are emboldened by all this success. Now look at this, all people are going to see is this idiot on their late-night television, wounded."
Mai looks over the wounded man. "He might live."
Nguyen cocks her head. "You're smarter than that. You know it's the image of him right now, wounded, that will play out across the world. Polling is going to show lowered support for the mission. Are you okay, Sergeant Nong? My command software flagged one of your actions."
Mai thinks back to the moment where she raised her fist, and opens her mouth to answer, but another soldier runs up. "Captain, you need to come with us."
The North Koreans have withdrawn from the firebase, and the defense array is fully extended to its new circumference, bringing the area under its anti-ballistic umbrella. The airships are placing the new walls around them. Nonetheless, Mai and Nguyen pull their helmets back on and lope after the messenger.
There's a trail leading back to the woods, and off to the side is a hastily dug pit. A fresh, earthy scar in the grass.
Lying in it are bodies. Thin. Ribs showing. Hollow-eyed.
"Civilians," Nguyen's voice crackles.
They've been dragged and stacked in this shallow grave. Just old men, women, children, trying to sneak their way around to a better life.
Mai rips her helmet off to take a deep breath of air, then regrets the decision. The air is ripe with the stench of decay.
"This is our fault. They're trying to get into our camp," she says. She does not replace her helmet, just yet. Something about the smell of death grounds her, reminds her of what is at stake, who has the most to lose, the most to fear.
Nguyen raises her visor. "They're dying trying to escape north to China right now, or slowly in their own homes. Don't forget that."
Mai swallows and nods.
But it doesn't stop her from feeling personally responsible in some small way.
Mai catches a ride back to the core camp center on a Ploughshares truck, exhausted and nerves frayed. A Chinese engineer sitting on the back of the flatbed is curious.
"I didn't think you could get tired in those suits," he says to her in careful English.
"That is a misconception," Mai tells him. "Your body is still moving, all day. Muscles still do much of the work. They are just amplified."
"What about getting shot at?" he asks. He's staring at the scars in her outer armor.
"It becomes normal," Mai says, offering a salty fatalism she does not yet feel. She's looking down at the helmet in her hands. There's a dimple right in the forehead, and a coating of copper and lead that has dripped onto the faceplate.
That dimple suggests at least some level of vulnerability.
Mai shakes that away and looks around. The fleet of recycling trucks are covered in advertising logos. "Does everything have advertising built into it?" she asks the engineer, looking to change the subject.
He shrugs. "Why not? If all goes well, what will the refugees see every day? Logos for Ford and Nissan, McDonald's and Dannon, Apple and Samsung. What better advertisement than being the ones who brought them peace and prosperity?"
And if it doesn't work, Mai figures, these people will never see the logos again. The sponsors lose some trucks, cash, and some shipments of last year's shoes and tracksuits.
These companies will write these off as charitable donations and somehow, come out ahead.
They always do. Tails you lose, heads I win.
The minds from which this evolved, despite their ramrod-organized military world, are the children of non-violent protestors and emergent, technologically-enabled regime overthrow. They are the nieces and nephews of two generations of UN sorties, which are derided by the major powers, but have a history of quiet, incremental improvements and painfully slow progress.
They are the process of gamified solutions, market testing, and the Western fear of bad publicity.
What did it mean that this was war? At boot camp Mai practiced for bloody hand-to-hand combat, and learned group movement. Thinking as part of a squad. Reaching the overall goals of a mission.
Armies want fast-thinking, creative problem solvers able to deploy violence for the nation they serve.
Now Mai is wondering how she ended up being a robotic creature, following the exact letter of the law to not so much as harm a hair on her enemy.
Even when they are slaughtering the innocent.
"It's not the mission," Nguyen explained at training in Australia. "It violates the mandate of the mission. Fail it, and we are just another invading force."
"It doesn't seem... right," someone objected.
"Right has a new meaning when wearing this armor. It changes the equation. You are a supreme force unto yourself."
"With technological superiority like this, we couldn't possibly lose," Mai added.
"Depends on what you mean by lose. Westerners certainly learned the limits of simple technological superiority when your grandfather was just a young man." Nguyen stared her down, and Mai had wondered if Nguyen had accessed those files about Mai's family background. "A nation is a fiction of consent, and North Korea has built a mythology and controlled fiction unsurpassed in the world, aided by extreme isolation. People starve and thank their rulers for a handful of rice, or thank them for permission to visit a Western Red Cross station. In order to reshape the fiction, we need to reshape the narrative that the world sees, that North Koreans see, and that we engage. Force is one narrative. But we are not limited to it."
Captain Nguyen walked around, looking at her recruits.
"These methods are not effective enough when implemented by oily-faced teenagers, the unemployed, and the uneducated. What they need are the iron-hard wills and command structure of a military mindset. The kind that understands that one might have to run into a hail of gunfire and die to protect the mother country. The kind that can follow orders intelligently. No nation has ever seen an invasion force like this."
One of the Western advisors was there. He chipped in. "It took the army to develop one hundred percent non-fossil fuel mobility while civilians dicked around with political initiatives, wasted subsidies and lots of arguing. We just did it. We built the Internet, our ICBMs took people to space. It takes the hard, organizational capacity and raw willpower of an army to do this type of mission right. Sometimes assholes need to be shot. The rest of the time, we will wield a different sort of weapon for a different world. That weapon today will be you: the execution of a well-controlled non-violent incursive force. Because you're an army, and you will execute this and well, because if you don't, you'll be spending some 'personal' time with Captain Nguyen."
And then Mai and her fellow recruits learned how to get shot at, attacked, and beaten, without once displaying or reacting with aggression.
She wrestles with a fleck of shame, having failed that training to a small degree on the firebase. The fear in that soldier's eyes lingers in her mind the rest of the way back.
The hardest part of Mai's day is hearing the distant, occasional pop of a handgun from somewhere in the forests. Her amped-up acoustics in the full-on armor pick it up every time. Software calibrates, offers up information on where the shot came from, and shows it in her heads-up display.
Every single time a gunshot goes off, she has to stare at the damn red marker telling her where it has happened.
Each pop makes her flinch with the knowledge that it is the execution of a desperate, captured civilian.
"Someone should put eyes on that," she tells Captain Nguyen in a staff meeting. "We could use it to turn opinion against them."
"Opinion is already against them. Sympathetic members of the military are uploading video of the executions. Our job is to protect the camp. Stay put. Patrol the walls, Sergeant. Do your job."
Eventually Mai transfers to the south wall and dampens the acoustics with help from a technician.
But even the threat of death doesn't stop the trickle of refugees. They risk everything to get through the North Korean emplacements, and make a desperate run to the safety of the camp. The camp constantly grows.
After another one of her long patrols, Mai runs into Duc near the mess hall on the north wall.
"How are you?" she asks quietly. He's been a bit withdrawn ever since they first found the open graves.
"I've now been shot one hundred and thirty-seven times," he tells her, a note of wonder in his voice. "The armor works. But I think... it's..."
Duc looks away, then back at her. He opens his mouth to continue, and it seems as if he's screaming. A demonic sound fills the air, rising in pitch, higher and higher until Mai can barely even comprehend it.
When Duc shuts his mouth, the sound doesn't stop.
They're out of the mess hall and through the doors in an instant, yanking helmets on and looking around, and then finally: up.
A shimmering, hard red slash of light cuts the sky above the camp in half. It stabs upward into the sky, and originates from somewhere to the south, where intel thinks the North Korean Army has established a new firebase.
"What is it?" Duc asks.
Information scrolls across their helmets. It's a laser. High energy, tightly focused. Most of the red slash she's "seeing" is actually interpolation from her suit's sensors.
Mai follows the path of the beam, and sees that it intersects neatly with the icon that represents the dirigible floating thirty kilometers overhead.
"They're going after our power," Duc says.
The icon wavers and blinks out.
All around them lights flicker, then go dark. Mai spins around and looks at the tower at the heart of their refugee city. The lights on the outside of the Point Defense Array flicker and go dark.
Satellite communications links to the armor go live, and their helmets kick on automatic recording mode: 60fps video streaming directly back to operations centers in Hanoi, Beijing, and Geneva. All local bandwidth is reserved for encrypted inter-team communications.
That results in everyone having a thumbnail of Captain Nguyen's face in the upper right corner of their visors, spitting orders and soliciting updates.
Mai and Duc are deployed to the south gate, and they sprint through the streets to get there, leaping over a small one-story refugee processing building in their way.
In the background of it all, emergency sirens wail. Citizens are, no doubt, being ushered away from windows and into the cores of skyscrapers. But if a full-on assault comes, there's little protection. The camp is vulnerable without the Point Defense Array.
Slightly out of breath, Mai scans the woods and hills beyond the border of the camp. "We should have rerouted all power from the reactor by now," she says to Duc.
And as if answering her directly, Captain Nguyen speaks up. "I've just learned that several of the power cables leading out from the reactor have been sabotaged. We are unable to power up the array fully. As a result it's in a fuel-cell powered self-defense mode right now, only targeting any rounds that might hit its tower. The engineers report that it will take as long as ten minutes to get power back up. You know your orders. Prevent any North Koreans from getting past the gate. And hold your position. Contact is imminent. Forces are building up for an assault."
Mai can see via thermal imaging that bodies are flitting through the trees.
"There hasn't been any satellite imagery showing that the rest of their army has shown up," Duc says. "It's just this battalion. We can handle that, even without the array, right?"
"Of course," Mai agrees.
Even as she opens her mouth to reassure Duc further, a brief flash flickers from behind the trees, followed by the quiet thump of sound catching up to light.
"Mortar-fire," Mai shouts, broadcasting to the entire open channel. Her helmet projects a path and warning insignia blare at her to MOVE.
Duc spins away, and Mai is leaping clear as the world erupts in orange and black. She sees stars wheel overhead, the world tumbling around her, and she turns her tumble into a roll.
She lands on her feet, legs bent, taking the force of her impact. Her left hand drags, fingertips furrowing the ground as she slides backwards on her boots and comes to a stop.
He's facedown. The entire back of his suit is blackened. She rushes over to him.
There's a groan over the helmet radio. The status report shows that he's just been dazed. Duc sits up as Mai scans the tree line, waiting for the next launch or the inevitable rush of bodies.
The next mortar launch arrows well overhead, and Mai frowns as she follows the trajectory over the wall. The refugee-processing building explodes in a mess of compressed fiberboard and electronics.
Mai stands up.
The next mortar round walks further into the camp.
"They're not going to try a direct attack," Mai reports to Captain Nguyen, somewhat stunned. "They're just going after civilians."
More rounds now slam into the skyscrapers at the center of the camp. Broken glass twinkles as it rains down into the streets.
The open channel fills with medics responding. Ten wounded. No deaths. But another ten minutes of this, and it was going to get bad.
"Stand your ground Sergeant. It could be a trap to lure some of us out, before the charge. Do not leave your post. Listen to me, there are three million live watchers, this conflict is being streamed everywhere, as it happens, to satisfy mission backers and advertisers. We keep our course."
But Mai's already stopped paying attention. "Duc, what is that?"
Her visor has caught the sound of tracks.
"No." For a brief moment, two kilometers away and only visible by the helmet's advanced computational lenses, she's seen the outline of a self-propelled howitzer, trundling through the brush between Nike and the new Korean firebase.
KOKSAN, her visor identifies it. 170MM of death on wheels.
It must have been driven up to stand in for the artillery Mai and her team already destroyed.
Mai is already moving forward before she really understands it.
"Mai! Hold your position," Nguyen orders.
"Duc, stay here," Mai says, and then before he can reply she turns off communications.
She's across the open ground and into the woods before she's drawn even two full breaths, kicking through underbrush. It's like running in sand, and she's leaving a trail of broken tree limbs and shattered logs behind her.
There are attackers, of course. Gunshots ping off her armor from every direction, and she's veering this way and that to get around uniforms that pop up in her way.
She's still broadcasting video live. She can't turn that off. The whole world is watching this, probably. She can't afford to harm anyone.
But Mai has to stop that howitzer.
Because it's going to be so much louder than those little execution pops she's been hearing in the distance.
It's going to be a bang. It's going to wipe out lives in an instant. And it's going to keep doing it for as long as the Point Defense Array is down.
And she can stop it.
She can rip it apart with her augmented hands.
Gravel crunches and pops under her feet as she bursts out into open terrain, accelerating down a road.
The firepower aimed at her kicks up an order of magnitude. The popping sound has gone from occasional plinks to a hailstorm. There are soldiers taking cover behind small boulders and shooting at her. Mai covers the last kilometer in giant lopes, leaping over heads and vehicles and hastily dug fighting positions.
But she's too late. She can see the howitzer. It is basically a large tank with an obscenely larger artillery gun bolted on top. It looks unbalanced, like it should tip forward.
The long barrel is raised just slightly, and on target. It will fire like a tank, at this range, the round arcing just over her head, at the very low end of the Point Defense Array's envelope. If it's even operational yet.
Six soldiers are scurrying around the platform. Unlike most of the world's current self-propelled artillery, the operators are not encased in tank armor.
When Mai reaches the unit, she will be able to disable it and move the soldiers away.
But one of them is already shutting the breech and stepping back.
Another is pointing her way and shouting.
She will not make it there before they fire.
Mai slows and rips a three-foot wide boulder up out of the ground and throws it as hard as she can. Two soldiers dive clear of the vehicle, but the two near fire control have nowhere to go.
Blood spatters the railings around the vehicle. Brain matter drips from the barrel of the howitzer.
Seconds later Mai reaches it and slams her fist into the breech, disabling it.
For a long moment she stands on top, too stunned to move.
Then something loops over her head from behind, wrapping around her neck. The armor stops it from choking her, but the loop is strong. Possibly braided cable.
Mai tries to jump free, but the cable yanks her back down. The ground meets her back hard, and despite all the protection, Mai gasps for breath and her vision blurs.
They drag her across the ground as she fights to breathe again, her body bouncing as the armor scrapes along the ground. She can hear the rumble of an old truck, accelerating, dragging her farther away.
She reaches up to the noose, trying to get purchase, but she's being bounced around by the uneven terrain.
If they can drag her far enough away, she'll be just one person in armor. Far from camp. Far from backup.
Mai screams with rage, and then suddenly, she's free, tumbling along the side of the muddy road. On shaky arms she pushes herself up. First to her knees, then to her feet, every twitch and tremor amplified by the armor.
She pulls the cable up toward her until she comes to the cut edge, then looks around.
A cluster of blue-armored figures are walking down the road at her.
Mai turns her communications back on.
"Nong Mai Thuy?"
"Yes, Captain Nguyen?"
"We have some things to discuss."
"Are you ready to go home?" Nguyen asked.
"No," Mai replies. But she knows her preferences do not matter.
She's standing in front of Nguyen's desk wearing her old Marine Police uniform. Everything's crisp and tight. Ribbons for bravery and accomplishment no longer feel like things to be proud of, but strange, non-functional baubles.
She should be in armor, not in this uniform.
"I guess the true question is... how do you move on?" Nguyen says. "I have two courses for you to consider."
"Two? I don't understand."
"You killed two human beings, Nong Mai Thuy. All the while under orders to not leave your position."
"I saved many lives," Mai protests.
Nguyen flashes a smile. It isn't a pretty thing. It's an expectant one. Like a predator watching prey fall for a trap.
"Yes. The inhabitants of the camp call you a hero. But you may have killed many more than you would have saved down the road. It's a moral dilemma. Academics sometimes ask you to ponder: would you push a man in front of a train to save everyone on the train? It seems like a silly question, yes? But here we are: soldiers. We often shove people in front of trains to serve a greater good. You just faced one of your own moral dilemmas, Mai. I can't blame you for what you did. But we cannot succeed if we answer violence with violence here. Our duty is to weather these storms and stand between danger and our charges. And doing so, calmly, allows us the unfettered world permission to continue our mission here. You jeopardized the larger mission. The North Koreans will claim they were unjustly abused by a technologically superior invading army, no matter how ridiculous the claim. You put this entire mission in danger of failing. It is unacceptable."
Mai considers the strangeness of this. The famous Captain Nguyen, who could be wearing three times as many medals as Mai if she chooses, who tasted violence on the Cambodian border, had eaten it for supper, is lecturing Mai about violence.
"So what is to become of me?" Mai asks.
"The Hague wants to court martial you and send you to jail." Nguyen taps the desk. "Personally, I think the court of world opinion would side with you, and you will not go to jail. You are the hero of Camp Nike, after all. But this will drag out in public and focus the attention in all the wrong places. The advertisers, the people who run this, and the Generals back at the Hague, this will tarnish their images."
Mai shrinks back without thinking. The subject of world attention. Media circuses. It sounds alien and horrific to someone who prefers their privacy.
Nguyen shoves a piece of paper forward. "If you think these people are worth protecting, if you think what the camps are trying to do is a good thing, then I suggest you take the second course."
"And that is?" Mai asks.
"An honorable discharge. It is hardly your fault, really, that this happened. I should have seen the signs, your aggressive stance. A high need for justice. I ignored them because you were a good person with a good heart. I will not be making that mistake again. Sign these, and you can leave, but without any trouble to you, or trouble that makes our soldiers or country look bad. Go back to your family's business. Go live a good life."
Mai stares at the papers for a long moment, then signs them, struggling to keep any emotion from her face as Nguyen watches.
"Well done, Citizen Nong Mai Thuy," Captain Nguyen says. "Well done."
The next flight out of Camp Nike is in the pre-dawn morning. Mai sits alone in an aisle, looking out of the window as the plane passes up through the flittering green of the Point Defense Array. The North Koreans are busy probing its limits once again.
An extra reactor will be flown out to meet the needs of the camp soon. For now it is getting by on rolling blackouts for all non-essential power needs. Rumor is that a Californian solar panel corporation is going to ship enough panels next week for most civilian domestic needs, but the advertising details are still being negotiated. When they're installed, it should help the camp come up to full power.
And she won't be there to see any of that.
The aircraft continues its tight spiral up and up, always staying within Camp Nike airspace as it climbs. Eventually, once up to the right ceiling, out of range of all missiles and without the grounded North Korean Air Force to worry about, they will break out of their constant turn and head out for Hanoi.
"Miss Nong?" an airman asks. He crouches at the edge of the aisle holding a small wooden box in his hands.
"Some of the refugees at the airstrip asked me to give this to the 'hero of Camp Nike,'" the airman says, and hands her the box.
She opens it to find a small bracelet held together with monofilament, decorated with charms made from recently recycled brass casings.
When she looks back through the window, the camp is lost under the clouds.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
David Klecha is a writer and Marine combat veteran currently living in West Michigan with his family and assorted computer junk. He works in IT to pay the bills, like so many other beginning writers and artists.
Tobias S. Buckell
Tobias S. Buckell is a Caribbean-born writer and NYT Bestseller who grew up in Grenada, the British Virgin Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. His latest novel is Arctic Rising.
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