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Excerpt from my Novel-in-Progress, Task Force Arrow.

Heppp was rendered speechless with a shock that competed fitfully with his rage.  Live images were beamed from the All Seer cruiser to the holo-sphere and he still could not believe the veracity of what he was witnessing.  Hundreds of Protip fighters wiped out in.  One enemy vessel destroyed.  Just one!  The lopsided nature of this contest sent a numbing chill through  every Protip in the Ops Center.  Clearly, Heppp had underestimated these aliens, underestimated their technology.  But how could he have not have underestimated them?  No Protip, regardless of clan, could have conceived of facing a force of such indescribable killing power.  The Toooi’s sweep to dominance over much of the Protip domain had been of unprecedented swiftness, but it was a still hard fought campaign that cost millions of Toooi lives.

            If this enemy could impart such slaughter with just a few ships…Heppp sliced through that line of thought and discarded it like a useless appendage.  This dreary rumination on the aliens’ capabilities was a useless exercise in self-inflicted fear.  He would not allow himself to sink into that morass.  “Task Giver, send more Fangbolts to intercept the enemy in the mountains.  I want Mole bombers to join them.”

            “Site Keeper if I may.”  Itikkk lowered his upper body until his neck was almost touching the floor.

            Allayed by the Task Giver’s humility display, Heppp raised a hand, allowing the latter to submit a suggestion.

            “Thus far, no suborbital craft have been able to stand against the enemy.  Sending more craft, even Moles, would only be a repeat of past dismal results.  We should rely strictly on cruisers from this point on.”

            “The enemy ships are too fast for the cruisers to lock onto,” Heppp protested.  “Even the one they managed to destroy was only a result of luck.”

            “All the more reason why we should deploy additional cruisers against them.  The more firepower they can bring down upon those ships, the better their chances of having more luck.”

            Heppp emitted a faint musk of consideration.  It was actually a reasonable piece of advice.  “Deploy more cruisers.”

            Itikkk acknowledged and passed the order along.

            Heppp turned his attention to a screen displaying a live image of the eight alien ships in space.

            Why were they still there? He wondered.  There was no way the alien transports were getting off this planet intact.  And if they did, the Guardian station was not going to allow them to leave the system.  It made no sense for the alien commander to keep his ships lingering on the edge of Protip space.  No sense at all.

 

            The mountain’s snow capped peak erupted like a volcano.  But it was no geologic process that generated that immensely powerful blast.  The second and third transports in the formation were shoved off course by the resultant shock wave.  The second transport clipped the steep rockface of another mountain before its pilot regained control.  The third shuttle executed a tight incline that brought it within literal inches of scraping that same mountain’s surface.  A thick jet of snow and gravel boiled off the mountain’s summit in the transport’s hyper-velocity wake.

            Massive explosions from successive orbital strikes showered around the transports, turning sections of mountains into steaming spouts of flame and lava.

            The transports dove to a lower altitude, utilizing the deep depressions between the towering, craggy mountains as cover.

            Colonel Goshin wanted to look away, but some odd morbid compulsion kept his gaze tensely fixed on the outside view.  And quite a heart-hammering view it was.  Mountains flew at him.  His stomach coiled and he flinched when the pilot just narrowly avoided a collision with a wall of rock.  Not more than two seconds of clearance elapsed before the transport was on another collision course which the pilot skillfully averted.  All the while, hell from above continued to dog the transports, turning winding passageways into flame-choked, smoke-clogged corridors.

            A deafening crack reverberated like the bellow of an angry god inside the transport.  A piece of a mountain about half the size of the transport smashed against the vessel at a rocketing speed.  The shield easily repelled the contact, but could do little to sooth Goshin’s frayed nerves. 

            “Release EMDs on my mark,” the pilot transmitted to the other transports.

            Three seconds went by.  “Mark!” The pilot toggled a control and  two EMDs dropped from launchers at the bottom of the transport.

            The three other transports released their EMDs simultaneously. 

            Within a second of their deployments, the drones emitted a series of potent omni-directional bursts…

 

            Heppp jerked forward as if he had been struck from behind.  His eyes raced across the holo-sphere, searching in vain for enemy blips that simply…vanished.  He slithered through the Ops Center, glancing from screen to screen.  “What happened to them?  Where are they?”

            Itikkk went to the comm and established contact with an All Seer.  “We’ve lost visual and sensor contact with the enemy. Do you have them on your screens?”

            “No, Task Giver,” the cruiser captain replied.  “We have lost contact as well.”

            “You must have destroyed them,” Heppp speculated optimistically.

            “Unlikely,” returned the voice of the captain.  “Our engagement computers have verified no neutralizations.”

            “Nonsense!”  Heppp’s head bobbed with catatonic fury.  “Check your engagement computers AGAIN!”

            “It is possible, Site Keeper that the enemy ships are jamming us,” Itikkk ventured.  “If we can cut through it…”

            “Waste of time.”  Heppp snapped a command to the cruiser captain.  “Direct fire on the length and breadth of the mountain range, saturate it with orbitals.”  He looked at Itikkk.  “Contact every strategic missile base on this planet. I want fusion ballistics launched against those mountains.  If we have to flatten the entire range to destroy four blood-pissing ships then that is exactly what we will do!”

 

            The executive officer entered the bridge level conference room to find Commander Greggory intently studying probe-fed holo-feeds.

            “The transports have released EMDs,” Lian reported, coming around the table.

            “I know,” said Greggory.  “We have a good probe-track on them.”  He pointed to a projection of four icons moving across a realistic rendering of a mountainscape.  “They’re slowing down.  There’s a deep depression here.  The EMD pulses will throw off their pursuers.  The nature of the terrain will make it even more difficult for the Protips to find them.”

            “It’ll buy time.” Lian perched on the edge of the table, her lips pressed tightly in a troubled look.  “But what happens when the pulses subside and we still haven’t cracked the station’s network.  What then?”

            Greggory clasped his hands on top of the table, closed his eyes for a few seconds, then opened them.  He looked up, meeting Lian’s eyes with a steadfast optimism.  “That network will be cracked. I won’t permit myself to think otherwise.  I can’t.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

            Mushroom clouds oozed into the sky from a thousand fusion missile impacts.  The mountain range birthed a thousand more, layering pristine white peaks beneath a sooty blanket of fallout.  Six All Seer cruisers hovered above at the lowest possible orbit.  Lightning streaks of energy bolts blazed from their emitters stabbing downward in random strokes.  Bombardment missiles contributed to the storm, delivering fiery vengeance.  Perpetual explosions from an endless rain of ground and orbital launched projectiles bathed large sections of the mountain range in a thick, ashy haze.  Temperature levels elevated.  The spike in heat clashed with the frigid cold of high altitude to generate ferocious wind gusts that melded into a deadly tempest. 

 

            The transports rested at a low patch of rocky ground dividing two massive mountains.  A fusion missile struck the other side of one of those behemoths, causing enough breakage to initiate a rock slide.  Tons of dislodged rock drenched the stationary vessels.

            Colonel Goshin stared out the window, but couldn’t see a thing.  Visibility was nil, but  enhanced optics lit the way, cutting through the fog of devastation to present a clear picture of the outside.  Protip ballistics, launched from every silo across the planet, continued to pepper the range.  The orbital attacks were similarly endless. 

            “EMD pulse is holding,” said the pilot, checking console readings.

            Goshin slouched in his seat.  “That’s good to know.  Although, I think I’d feel better if we were on the move.”

            The pilot looked back, putting on a wry, confident smile.  “Moving only increases our odds of being hit or caught in a nasty blast swell.”

            “That could happen to us standing still.”

            “It could, but the odds of that being the case is less.”

            “Well if you’re not worried about it then I won’t be.”

            The pilot gave a thumbs up.  “That’s the spirit, Colonel.”

            A triple beam barrage raked the rockface several thousands yards up from where Goshin’s transport was idling.  An ionic blast front slammed into the vessel, buffeting it within an angry, scorching hot eddy.  Repulsor units flared from all sides of the transport, holding it steady until the driving effects of the explosion subsided.

            “I retract my last statement,” said Goshin.

 

 

            “Site Keeper.  The Clan Lord wishes to speak to you.”

            Heppp twisted around to face Itikkk.  “What does he want?”  The Site Keeper withdrew the question as rapidly as he’d posed it.  “Nevermind…nevermind.  Monitor the situation.”  Heppp slithered to the rear of the Ops Center and entered a private communication alcove. He tapped the receive panel and an image of a Protip adorned with silver head gear and a brilliantly matching star shaped pendant draped his around his neck, appeared on the alcove’s circular screen.

            Heppp lowered his body to near total floor level.  “Clan Lord Oppal.  I honor you.”

            The Clan Lord skipped the formalities.  “What is happening on my planet, Site Keeper?”

            “Nothing that I am incapable of handling,” Heppp replied with an edge that skirted dangerously close to insubordination.  “We are merely dealing with alien bandits who attacked us, unprovoked.  We have them under siege in the Lilk Mountains.  If they are not dead already, they soon will be.”

            “Unprovoked?”  Oppal let the word linger on his palette as if sampling a fine delicacy.  “It would seem the definition of that term has changed.  From my understanding, you ordered a number of these bandits killed before they in turn, attacked you.  How does their present assault against you qualify as…unprovoked?”

            A surging chill raised Heppp’s back bristles.  The Site Keeper suppressed a rising annoyance at his own fear. He loathed this intolerable position he was in.  He loathed those treacherous aliens who had succeeded in making him look like a bumbling fool.  Most of all, he loathed with all the passion and energy he could muster, the smug, arrogant face staring at him from the comm. screen.

            “Semantics, Honorable Clan Lord.  The situation as it stands now is that the aliens on the planet will die.  The ones in space will not dare cross our boundary.  The station holds them at bay.  The situation is contained.”

            “At the cost of thousands of lives thus far,” Oppal added with infuriating dryness.

            Heppp stiffened.  “They are more powerful than we anticipated…”

            “And this treasure you took from them,” the Clan Lord continued over Heppp’s attempt at an explanation.  “Were you going to report this to me, or withhold that bit of information as you withheld the fact that you are under attack?”

            “Clan Lord…I,”  Heppp had to calm himself.  “Clan Lord, the implication in your question is deeply, deeply troubling.  Of course I was going to report the treasure.  I was preparing a freighter to deliver your share.  Rest assured…”

            “That is the trouble, Site Keeper.  I cannot rest assured.  Not when the Toooi domain is under assault by a force unknown, with enemy clans lurking close by like expectant vermin waiting for us to expose a vulnerability so they can exploit it.  I put you on that planet because I thought in the very least you could guard our farthest frontier with some degree of competency.  Was I wrong in my thinking, Site Keeper?”

            Heppp dipped his body sharply, displaying outward gratitude even as the corrosive acid of humiliation burned inside him.  “No, Clan Lord. Of course not .  I am most thankful to you for assigning me to this post, but you must understand, these aliens come from beyond Protip space.  Their capabilities were unknown to us. But when we have destroyed them, we can comb through the wreckage of their vessels, unlock the secret of their power.  With that power the Toooi will be stronger than it has ever been and all enemy clans will either submit to our might or be smashed by it.”  Emboldened by his grandiose claim, Heppp rose to a height that suggested but did not overtly advertise equal status with the Clan Lord.  “You will be the most powerful Protip that has ever lived.” 

            It was the Clan Lord’s turn to feel the not so subtle brush of an implication. The thought of obtaining alien technology and using it to bring all of Protip space under Toooi dominance encapsulated him in a pleasing aura of intoxication.  That he would have Heppp to thank for this unexpected fortune…Oppal’s chin sagged at the thought.

            “You need not send a freighter to me, Site Keeper.  I will be arriving soon to personally retrieve my share.  I trust by the time of my arrival you will have resolved your alien problem?”

            Heppp was caught off guard by the prospect of a visitation by the Clan Lord.  He very masterfully concealed his displeasure.  “Of course, Clan Lord.”

            Oppal’s face vanished and Heppp slapped his tail against the floor in frustration.  Itikkk.  Slavishly loyal Itikkk.  Of course it was no surprise that the Task Giver would have blabbed to the Clan Lord about Heppp’s predicament.  And now that pompous twit was coming here!

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M.I.N.D. Strike

Abdul Walid found himself somewhere in Afghanistan not knowing how he got there, when he arrived or how long he’d been in the country. From the backpack he wore and the AK 47 strapped over his right shoulder, he had obviously been on a journey. Aches and pains from the rigors of that journey wrapped his body in a throbbing shawl of fatigue. He needed to rest. By the will of Allah, he desperately needed rest.
The landscape was a bleak sprawl of rugged hills as far as his eye could travel. Hills coated in every conceivable shade of gray, like everything else in this jagged, devilish corner of existence…including the people.
This backward nation was not exactly Walid’s choice of venue for doing Allah’s work. Nonetheless, his superiors assigned him here for that very purpose.
Walid plopped down on a patch of hard ground close to the summit of a hill he was negotiating. He had already walked himself ragged and for the life of him he could not remember anything recent beyond the past two minutes. It was if he had been asleep on his feet and just woke up. Of course he knew who he was and why he was in Afghanistan to begin with. He remembered every other aspect of his life. He knew his family, his friends…

Abdul awoke to darkness. A bitterly chill wind accosted him like a slap to the face. He realized he was walking and stopped. How could this be? He turned in place, squinting his eyes to adjust them to pitch-blackness. Bright stars speckled a clear night sky. On any other occasion he would have been dazzled by their radiance. Instead, he stood motionless, dumbfounded by the surrounding night, when his last cogent memory was of him resting on a hilltop during midday. I don’t understand. Abdul lowered to his knees, more tired than he was hours earlier…however many hours had passed. His lungs felt seared from his exertion, his legs heavy as blocks of concrete. He would rest just long enough to rejuvenate…drink water from the plastic bottle in his pack…snack on rations…prayer…he didn’t remember doing his evening prayer. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t.
When in doubt.
Walid set his food aside, looking every which way to get his bearings. He needed to face East. Had he been any good at reading the stars.

Daytime. Wahid averted his eyes from a sun that suddenly appeared out of nowhere…or seemed to. He staggered sideways before balancing himself, his head swimming in disorientation. He must have blacked out again. From his labored breathing and aching feet, he concluded he had been sleepwalking, just like the previous occasions. How else could he explain the distance he covered?
He was walking on flatter terrain. A mountain range loomed before him. Abdul spotted a familiar sight, and his apprehension regarding these mysterious memory lapses gave way to calm. A small village nestled at the foot of one of those rocky peaks. He quickened his pace.
A group of children ran to greet Wahid. He recognized their eager faces and laughed and played with them as he neared the village. He walked past mud brick structures. Men in keffiyeh head wraps loitered about. Some greeted him with silent nods; others simply stared, not bothering to hide their disdain of the foreigner in their midst, even if that foreigner was Muslim.
He noticed a pair of Burkha-clad women drawing water from a well. His entourage of youngsters melted away now that the excitement of his presence had dwindled. Wahid grinned endearingly. Who could blame the little ones?
“Abdul!”
Wahid turned to the sound of that familiar voice to see an equally familiar face emerging from the nearest brick hut. A heavily bearded man in dark sunglasses, dressed in olive green military fatigues. Malik.
Happy and relieved to see a comrade, Wahid beamed a broad smile.
Malik did not reciprocate. He approached Wahid hesitantly, looking for all the world as if he was seeing a ghost. “Wahid…what are you doing here? You’re supposed to be in America. You’re supposed to be in Chicago!”
Wahid formed his mouth to speak, but could think of nothing to say. He was supposed to be in America? Well, that was certainly another major detail left out of his memory.
Malik glanced up at the sky before gripping Wahid’s elbow. “Come, let’s get to a secure location. I don’t want an American drone to spot us.”

The cave entrance was less than a forth of a mile from the village.
Wahid had been to this tucked away redoubt so many times, he almost considered it a second home. Two Afghan sentries were posted at the mouth of the cave. Two more stood guard twenty yards further in.
Wahid and Malik passed the guards in silence, following a curving halogen-illumined pathway. The cave’s natural features starkly gave way to man-made renovation.
The pair entered a large, brightly lit room replete with computers, printers, fax machines, internet routers, and a large flat screen TV suspended from the ceiling. Smaller TVs rested on desks lined along the wall. Two of the TVs showed an Al-Jazeera news station, the remaining three, BBC, Fox News, and CNN.
A map of Chicago’s downtown area covered one wall. Next to it, a photograph of the city’s tallest skyscraper, the Willis Tower. Next to the picture, were posted interior and exterior schematics of the building.
Eleven men occupied this busy space. All eleven paused with comically gape-mouthed expressions at the sight of Wahid.
Like Malik, none of these men were Afghan. Most were from the Gulf States. There were a couple of Egyptians a Pakistani, even an Indonesian. Different nationalities, all united in their commitment to Allah. All united under the banner of Jihad.
Walid’s heart stirred with pride.
Sheikh Mahmud, the leader, a PhD engineer in his mid fifties, stepped forward. “What is this?” His puzzled gray eyes darted between Malik and Walid, before settling with finality upon the latter. “Why are you here?”
“The operation was compromised,” Walid said. “Khalid and Fodio were picked up by the authorities. I barely managed to get away. I made my way to the Mexican border and slipped out of the country.” Walid’s lips seemed to move of their own accord as he recounted events he had absolutely no memory of.
“Khalid and Fodio…arrested?” Hamza, the youngest Jihadi in the group, shook his head, his face creasing with skepticism. “We heard nothing about this! It would have been on the news!”
“Unless, the Americans are keeping a lid on this, as they say,” Malik speculated.
Khalid was a white European from Germany, Fodio a northern Nigerian.
The two were specially trained to talk, walk and dress like Americans. And because they resembled typical Americans, they were less likely to fall under the type of scrutiny Middle Eastern looking men tended to encounter. The planners in this room had counted on the would-be martyrs’ ability to blend in for this operation. The group’s disappointment was palpable.
“Why would they keep this secret?” Abdullah, a master bomb maker, ridiculed. “They never hesitate to trumpet the arrests of so-called terror suspects across their media outlets!”
As the planners debated, discussed and lamented, a curious sense of detachment fell over Walid. He panned the room with a blank face, taking in every detail. Then he studied his fellow Jihadis…

On the other side of the world in a DARPA (Defense Advance Research Projects Agency) facility somewhere in Northwest Nevada, another group of men gathered in a different room, observing live feed of terrorists through the eyes of a terrorist.
Four of the men were military officers, the remaining three, civilians.
One of the civilians, Dr. Jerome Williams, sat, focused on a 32 inch monitor in front of him. Williams was a Howard University robotics professor, currently consulting for DARPA.
Facial recognition indicators buzzed each time a terrorist was featured on the screen. Every one of the men in that distant cave ranked high on more than one government most-wanted list. .
General Allen Murphy blew out an amazed whistle. “I never thought he would’ve made it that far.”
Deputy Secretary of Defense, Jeremy Skelton, turned to the general. He was new to this affair and his bewilderment showed. “Alright, how did you manage to get this man inside so easily? Infiltrating terror cells is no walk in the park. You can’t just make someone like an Abdul Walid cooperate.” He leaned closer to the monitor. “What kind of hidden camera is he wearing?”
“In this case, inducing cooperation from our subject was no problem at all,” Dr. Williams answered cheerfully. “And he’s not wearing a cam.”
Skelton grinned dubiously and looked to CIA Station Chief Thomas Perkins for elaboration. “Ok, I’m all ears.”
“Abdul Walid was arrested several weeks ago, along with two other terrorists,” Perkins explained. “Walid’s companions, a German and a Nigerian were going to blow themselves up in the Willis Tower observation deck, while Walid detonated a truck bomb at a downtown park festival. Two devastating, simultaneous attacks, typical of an al Qaeda operation.”
“Walid wasn’t going to suicide himself,” said General Murphy. His weathered features twisted in a sarcastic sneer. “Apparently he’s too valuable a planner to enter Paradise so soon.”
“Anyway,” Perkins continued. “Walid’s task was to coordinate the attack, make sure everything went according to plan. That’s why we chose him for our special project.”
Skelton’s brow crinkled. “Special project?”
“I’ll let Dr. Williams take over from here.”
Dr. Williams swiveled toward the deputy secretary. “Shortly after his arrest and subsequent interrogation, Walid was turned over to my lab. There, doctors, under my supervision, replaced a portion of his brain with a memory restrictive cybernetic implant. The implant makes Walid deeply susceptible to suggestion.”
“In other words,” Perkins cut in, “Walid is a living breathing puppet, and the good professor here pulls the strings.”
“The implant is connected to his visual cortex, allowing us to see what he sees,” Williams pointed out. “Thus eliminating the need to hide a camera on his person.”
“Skelton paled. “You mean to tell me that…you…turned a human being into some sort of zombie cyborg?”
Williams chuckled lightly. “No Mr. Deputy Secretary. I wouldn’t go that far. He does have awareness, but it’s limited to what I allot him. He knows he suffers from memory loss but can’t attribute its cause. He knows his actions are not his own but can’t pinpoint the reason. Other than those lapses, he behaves no differently from the average human.”
“And with this thing in his head…”
“Mental Interdictive Neural Determinant,” Williams interrupted with a hint of pride. “M.I.N.D. for short.”
The deputy secretary raised a brow. “Clever. With this…M.I.N.D. in his head, you’ve gotten our subject back to his cave. Now what? What’s the end game?”
Williams held up a finger and spun back to his console. He began typing on his keyboard.

“This is a disaster.” Sheikh Mahmud paced across the room, wringing his hands. A vision he cherished of the Willis Tower crowned in a blazing wreath, infidels flailing to their deaths, would yet remain unconsummated by reality.
“There are other targets,” Malik assured the cell leader. “There are always other targets. We will simply lick our wounds and God willing, move on to plan our next action.”
Walid paid no attention to the discussion around him. A compulsion he could not override moved his hand into his pocket. He pulled out an object resembling a bicycle handle grip with a red button on top.
Inwardly, Walid panicked at his action, knowing he could not arrest it no matter how hard he tried.
Hamza noticed first the detonator in Walid’s hand, then the backpack, which the latter never removed.
The bomb maker’s jaw unhinged. “Brother…what are you doing?”
A tear gleamed in the corner of Walid’s right eye, the only sign of distress on an otherwise emotionless face.
One by one the cell members spotted the detonator and their eyes widened in alarm.
Walid raise the device to chest level.
Forgive me, Brothers…his thumb unwillingly pressed the button.

Static instantly filled Dr. Williams’ screen.
Another monitor displayed real-time satellite footage of smoke boiling out of a cave in Eastern Afghanistan.
An over watch drone recorded the same event at a much lower altitude.
A blanket of grim silence settled over the room.
Dr. Williams stretched his neck and turned to the deputy secretary. “Thirteen terrorists down.”
Skelton could barely keep his eyes off the snowy screen. Unsettled, he cleared his throat. “I’m at a loss for words. A part of me is not particularly comfortable with mind control.”
“This might make you feel a little better, Mr. Deputy Secretary,” Perkins stated. “Drones have done an admirable job of killing terrorists. The downside is, too many civilians have perished in drone strikes. A M.I.N.D.-implanted subject can pinpoint targets with much greater precision and eliminate those targets with minimal to zero risk of civilian casualties. As you’ve just seen.”
Perkins’ argument seemed to have sunk in. Skelton nodded in realization. “Do you have more of these M.I.N.D. devices, Dr. Williams?”
“I have an improved version on the drawing board,” Williams gestured toward the static-filled screen “Walid just ‘tested’ the prototype. Once I iron out the kinks, I expect M.I.N.D.s to be in full production within a month. That should give you some time to line up more candidates for future operations.” The professor flicked a switch shutting down the screen.
Skelton regarded the CIA operative. “I think the president will be interested in this new technology.” A smile slowly parted his lips. “Very interested.”