For just a moment, Franklin rubbed his eyes, then continued scanning the village and surrounding terrain for any sign of movement. Had he been staring through the display on his rifle, it would have driven him nuts. Then again, it could have been worse. He was older now, but remembered all too well staring through the scope of that .30 caliber bolt action rifle, waiting for a target.
Once more, he gave thanks for the new energy weapons. His was already old and battered, but still quite functional. It was sort of a cast-off, one of the last few of this early model still intact as the troops had turned them all in for newer versions that were less breakable.
Because of how the pulse rifles worked, the job of sniper was far, far easier now. No more windage and range; there was no leading a moving target calculating for time of flight. It was purely line of sight at the speed of light. If he could see it, he could hit it. No jolt from firing, either, so a light grip was enough. The scope was electronically enhanced, providing the same view day or night. All it took was steady hands, and he was fortunate at his age to still have them.
During daylight he kept it plugged into the solar panels to prevent running down the fuel cell. Next to Franklin was a target sensor, with a small stretchable wire linked to his rifle. The sensor had a downlink from tactical satellites and passing drones. It also had a built-in pulse shooter of its own, but that was even older technology than the rifle. The sensor could see almost anything out there, but nobody trusted it to know when to shoot or how to tune the pulse for different targets. Still, it made a good battle buddy because it could detect targets outside his view, though Franklin preferred gazing at his field of fire with naked eyes and didn’t miss much.
This time he caught it before the sensor did. Down across from the shop that the crawler team had occupied, there just a flicker of movement behind a bush. The village had been evacuated, so there wasn’t supposed to be any other people around. With virtually no wild animals and only a few birds, Franklin was inclined to believe this was human. Something inside of him had tingled this morning, warning there would be action, so he jolted to full awareness at the same moment the sensor sounded it’s barely audible alarm.
With only the smallest of movements, and no further noise, Franklin raised his rifle and sighted through scope. It was a human figure behind the bush. The distance was deceptive; was that an adult?
He saw the figure rise and step from behind the bush. He whispered to himself, “A kid?”
His scope eye kept watch on the boy. The sensor told him via the scope display that an explosive vest was unlikely and he breathed a sigh of relief, only to then be told the boy was hiding something inside his heavy outer shirt. Franklin groaned to think the boy had a grenade, but quickly reached his free hand around to dial down the aperture, and reduce both the duration and frequency on the rifle. No sense killing if he could avoid it. The readout confirmed his shot would be non-fatal.
The lad had his hand inside the outer garment. As he got near the shop, he stopped and stood still for just a moment. Franklin aimed at the center of mass. Suddenly the lad jerked his hand out and cocked back to throw. Without hesitation, Franklin pulled the trigger.
There was a small explosion on the front of the boy’s chest as the pulse struck his clothing. The kid fell backward in a puff of smoke.
Disconnecting his rifle from the power and sensor feed hurriedly, Franklin reached over to switch the sensor to automatic fire. That was in case the boy was not alone. As he rose and descended the stairs from the rooftop of the building, his fingers double-checked to insure his “don’t shoot me” tag was attached and working so the sensor would ignore his presence in the field of fire. It would also still communicate with his rifle by an encrypted radio link from this distance.
One of the technicians came out of the shop and met Franklin on his way to where the boy was still lying, fingering the smoking remains of his clothing. The pulse had been very nearly the lowest setting. By reducing the diameter of the bolt and the power, it wouldn’t make such a big explosion. Reducing the frequency kept it from penetrating the boy’s clothing. Thus, the discharged pulse struck his sweater and scattered the outer surface molecules in a fireball with a rather low concussion.
Still, it had to hurt a lot and the boy was weeping. Franklin lifted him in his arms and tried to soothe him as best he could with a halting attempt to speak in the local language. I know it hurts, my son.
No, no, the boy was distraught. This pain is nothing. The soldiers will torture my mother!
Franklin took a moment to process that. He turned to the tech. “The boy says the rebels are torturing his mother. That’s probably how they forced him to try this stunt.”
They had seen these grenades before. The tech picked it up carefully and placed it inside the doorway of an empty building before rejoining them. Franklin was proud of his ability to pick up the language of the residents in these parts, but it took several minutes to get the whole story while he carried the boy inside the shop for first aid treatment of the burns on his chest. Eventually he worked out that the boy had followed the crawlers back around dawn, then waited awhile in a tiny house on the edge of the village. Having dozed off made him all the more scared that he was taking too long on his mission. He was supposed to find the crawler team and kill them with the grenade, and hopefully destroy some of their equipment.
Inside the shop, the tech hurriedly explained to the team chief. In response to some questions from the chief through Franklin, the boy replied that he had been told to look for the biggest building in the village, because the crawler team always took that for their operations. At that, the chief’s features sagged and his head turned to one side in a sort of “oh-crap” recognition that he failed on operational security. The rebels had discerned an established pattern in his team’s behavior, and it created a needless risk.
Someone found a somewhat too large shirt to replace the burned clothing. With further conversation during a meal they fed him, the boy explained that the rebels would be listening for the explosion, but that he also had to bring back something to prove he had done as ordered and get them to release his mother.
I have to bring back Crusader boots. He started weeping again.
The men looked down at their feet in unison. One of the few things the labor union was good for when they all signed their contracts was successfully demanding they be supplied with with standard military footwear. Everything was high-tech these days, and the boots were a lifesaver out here. Aside from being cushioned and nearly weightless, these low-cut boots could sense when the feet were wobbling on uneven surfaces. The soles, toe caps and heels grew almost hard as steel at such moments. Further, the area around the ankle stiffened, making the boot very solid and protecting the feet and ankles wonderfully.
And the rebels craved them, as well. But nobody on the team was eager to give theirs up, in part because they were accountable like weapons.
“Wait,” the chief stared upward at nothing in particular in obvious deep thought. Turning to one of the other technicians, he asked, “Didn’t we reclaim a stolen pair a couple of weeks ago? We had to go up into the hills after one the crawlers that got trapped in a pit. In the rubble of a structure was a rebel body with those boots, right?”
The other man replied, “Sure, but I’ve already turned them in.”
“Physically?” the chief pressed him.
“Well, no, not yet. I’ll do that when we meet with the supply truck for parts next week. But they have been accounted for, so we can’t just give them away.” The tech spread his hands, palm up for emphasis.
“We’re just loaning them out,” the chief replied. “Besides, if this works out, we’ll get ’em back again.”
Franklin and the tech looked with interest at the chief. All of them were old military veterans, of course, but the chief had recently retired from the service and had seen combat right up until that point. Having reached a senior military rank that helped him land the job as crew chief on the crawler team, he clearly had a plan in mind.