TAALIA HAD BEEN SITTING in a tiny, dark room watching the bright screen image of a massive door in the side of a mountain in Idaho for twelve hours. Her eyes burned, head ached, and her back, shoulders and legs felt like early onset rigor mortis.
At thirty-one she was the youngest Colonel in the Cascadian Security Forces and she hadn’t achieved it because she was the daughter of a military icon. More was expected of her and she delivered; in education, training, discipline and combat. She had the respect of her fellow officers and the loyalty and admiration of those who served under her.
She hated her new assignment and would have preferred to have stayed in the field commanding troops, but with her promotion to Colonel came new responsibilities and the drone program was a significant one.
The drones were now being employed to do the job she used to do, lead preemptive strikes to disrupt, destroy and discourage border raiders. Drone attacks kept CSF personnel out of harm’s way, but Taalia was uncomfortable conducting war via a computer screen. She questioned the intelligence that motivated the attack and assessed its success afterwards, including collateral damage. Eyes and boots on the ground verified real results.
Intelligence indicated behind the massive door she was watching was an abandoned mine shaft converted into an arms and ammunition depot supplying the raiding parties attacking border communities in the southeast corner of Cascadia.
A call came in on her headset.
“CSF Drone Division, Wolfe here.”
“Any action on the target?”
It was Judith. Taalia gritted her teeth. “That’s restricted information.”
“You know I have security clearance on all drone missions, Colonel Wolfe. I could report your insubordination to your superiors.”
Judith had security clearance because without her Cascadia would have no drones.
The federal government of the United States had a difficult time dealing with these extremists groups who challenged their authority. They couldn’t bomb their own citizens who in order to get the necessities to survive broke the law, yet they had an obligation to protect those who were being robbed and murdered.
They were between a rock and a revolution.
Judith saw an opportunity and had the credibility and the contacts to pull it off. She met with her U.S. government and military officials and suggested if they supplied her company, Wolfe Intelligence and Security Enterprises with the equipment needed to defend Cascadia’s borders from southern raiders, she would go a step further and take out the encampments, support and supply lines of the anti-government militias they identified in the area.
Washington could claim Cascadia was responsible and Cascadia would be more than happy to say hell yes and let that be a warning to those who attack our people and steal their property. Retaliation would be swift, lethal and if Judith had her way, proactive.
Within a year W.I.S.E. had two Reapers, one to support the Pacific Command, the other for the interior.
“Maybe your intel was wrong?” Taalia said.
Suggesting intelligence from W.I.S.E. was not reliable was heresy to Judith. She considered herself the ultimate spymaster.
“I’m losing my patience, Colonel Wolfe.”
Taalia smiled. “Twelve hours and nothing. If we wait long enough, I imagine something might happen.”
“It will, Colonel Wolfe, it will,” Judith said. “And when it does, I hope you have the courage and the sense of duty to take appropriate action.”
“Despite your influence with politicians, General Wolfe, as a retired officer terms of engagement are no longer in your purview.”
“I wouldn’t be so certain, Colonel.”
“I no longer take orders from you, regardless of what you imagine.”
“Maybe not directly, but screw up this mission and I guarantee you’ll be in a shitload of trouble.”
“Like I said, twelve hours and nothing to report.”
“Make sure you let me know when there is.”
“If there is.”
For over a decade Cascadia had been having a problem with well-armed, organized gangs attacking border towns in the southeast corner of the country. They cleaned out the local grocery store, pharmacy and hardware, stole livestock and grain supplies and drained all the fuel now used for farm machinery from the reserve tanks. They murdered anyone who resisted unless they were a person of color. Then they raped the women before murdering the entire family. Black, brown, yellow, it didn’t matter, they didn’t discriminate.
These raiding parties were dispatched by anti U.S. government extremists groups established in Idaho and Montana.
Drought, natural disasters and the rise in sea levels had made millions of American citizens refugees in their own country. These were not people disenchanted with the American dream, they were displaced populations from cities like Miami, Atlantic City, Galveston and New Orleans in critical need of food, clean water, permanent shelters and basic health care.
Desperation made them look for alternatives, for hope, for someone to blame. Extremists groups offered all three, at least their rhetoric did. Tens of thousands had migrated to Idaho, Montana, Nevada and parts of eastern Washington and Oregon looking for a future or the opportunity to fight for one. The movement even appealed to people living a subsistent life in the dust bowl of the Canadian prairies.
These communities were growing rapidly, too rapidly. If their leaders were going fulfill their promises they needed more resources, and they got them by conducting raiding parties outside the territory they controlled including Cascadia.
Once Wolfe Intelligence and Security Enterprises had the drones the Cascadian government gave them a contract to do the work Taalia used to do. She wasn’t happy about it and neither were many of her colleagues.
Taalia processed what Judith had said. Her mother was the personification of self-discipline. Emotion never factored into her decision making, a quality Taalia attributed to Shyloh’s influence. The only exception was with her daughter. As a child, if Taalia was defiant it sent Judith into a cold rage. Until she regained her composure, the distance between mother and daughter increased. Taalia found this painful, but sometimes it was worth it. During the times when her mother momentarily lost control she’d divulge information in the form of sarcastic or hurtful remarks as punishment. As she grew older Taalia found she could use this technique to find out what was going on.
Like today. Judith and the hawks she was aligned with in government were under pressure. They needed a kill to prove the effectiveness of the program and justify its expense and expansion.
“Hey, you guys, any action yet?” Mei-ling was replacing Jordan at the other identical terminal next to Taalia. Two pilots were always on duty for technical and tactical as well as moral support.
“Nothing,” Taalia said.
Jordan stood and stretched. “Good hunting.” He signed out, opened the door and stepped into the night.
The rush of fresh air was sweet and tantalizing. Taalia had another half hour confined to the box as shifts overlapped so the transition would be seamless. She hoped it would end without incident.
“The guards have changed out front, but the door’s stayed closed,” Taalia said. “Maybe intelligence got the day wrong.”
“Or made it up. How’s our bird doing?”
“Still good for another nine hours before we have to bring her home.”
“We’ve got movement,” Mei-Ling said.
“Shit.” Taalia was the senior officer, it would be her call. “What are the coordinates?”
“On the approach, sector four, southwest.”
Taalia zoomed in. A convoy of six trucks approached from the south; in the pitch black they travelled with lights out and at a crawl, negotiating the ruts in the logging road.
The images from the thermographic camera were distinct considering the Reaper was twenty thousand feet above and four miles away from target.
“The guards are leaving their stations and approaching the vehicles,” Mei-Ling said.
“Copy. We wait until the doors open.” Their orders were to deploy two GBU-12 Paveway II laser-guided bombs into the interior of the mine shaft.
Slowly the doors opened and as they did, the trucks moved forward up the slope toward the entrance, except for the last truck. People were climbing out of the back, some smaller than others.
“Those aren’t combatants.” Mei-Ling said.”
Taalia didn’t have to be told. Thousands of hours of video hunting and tracking had made her familiar with the human thermal image.
“Lock on target.”
“Locked on,” Mei-Ling said.
“On my mark.”
“Roger, Colonel. On your mark.”
The second of the five trucks was now inside the tunnel. The non-combatants were milling around below the ramp. Still too close not to become collateral damage. Taalia remembered the report of eight Cascadians slaughtered in the past two weeks, three had been children.
“Three, two—abort, abort. “
“Mission aborted. Target disengaged.”
Taalia watched as the trucks entered the mine shaft, the gates closed and the crowd dispersed.
“Can you bring her home, Mei-Ling?” Taalia got up from her station. “I need some air.”
Outside Taalia took deep breaths. She had no idea how many people she would have just killed, but she was sure at least nine would have been children.
The world had become a barbarous place, maybe it always had been, but now it was on Cascadia’s borders. Society had collapsed in many places including areas of the United States. The rule of the gun had replaced the rule of law. There were still some bastions of civilization, but the only way to sustain them was with military force. Governments needed to protect their own; their own land, own resources, own culture, own people. Sharing wasn’t an option, there just wasn’t enough of anything to go around anymore and it was getting worse.
Taalia was a new age warrior and without her and people like her protecting Cascadia’s borders and punishing those who violated them the country would be overrun. Despite believing this, knowing it to be true and having the evidence of raped and murdered fellow citizens to prove it she still found her new assignment difficult. From a great distance with no risk to her, dozens of human beings could be vaporized on her order.
She’d killed in combat, and at close range, had seen the bullets she fired rip through human flesh. She didn’t enjoy it, but the person she killed had been a combatant, someone trained at war, someone who understood the consequences of picking up a weapon.
In the past she’d trusted the intelligence, but since it had been contracted out to W.I.S.E. there had been discrepancies and the rationalizations. For Taalia, the benefit of the doubt and the greater good, had given way to guilt and self-loathing.
Judith had warned there’d be consequences for today, but she didn’t care. Nine children. She couldn’t do it anymore.
She needed to talk, not to a colleague who could be compromised and not to her mother who would consider her weak and likely report her as unfit for duty.
She had three days off starting tomorrow. She’d pay Shyloh a visit. He was a family friend since forever, and a friend to her, and even though old enough to be her father they had a connection. He was objective, non-judgmental, practical and had credibility and experience. She trusted him and had always felt he had her best interest in his heart. He also had top security clearance so what she told him wouldn’t be considered treason.
She went back in the box to await her relief.
“How’s it going?”
“I’ve handed it off the ground team to bring her home.”
“Great, thanks Mei-Ling.”
“Taalia, what are we going to say in the report?”
“Mission aborted because of faulty intelligence. Non-combatants present.”
“You’re sure? We usually consider non-combatants acceptable collateral damage.”
“I’m commanding officer and it was my call.”
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