The checkpoint was moving slowly. It was a gray day, overcast, but the heat and humidity were inconsistent with the shade. The inversion layer kept everything bottled up. A violent thunderstorm could be on them in a moment, turning the dry road into a quagmire in minutes.
Major Armstrong was sitting on the fender of an armored personnel carrier, reclined back with his cap pulled low over his eyes, kicking one leg lazily over the dust-caked treads; for all the world to see, just a bored officer stuck with drek duty, wiling away the day. Why was he here? He knew they were thinking, when they gave him any thought at all. These groups usually had a SNCO in charge not a commissioned officer, and certainly not a Major.
The soldiers twenty feet away at the barricade, which looked more like several bike racks that someone had wound razorwire around, paid him little mind, busy with their own duties. They were in two groups of three. The six of them had set up two lines to try and get more people through quicker but the lines blurred together into one big clot after a hundred feet.
One checked IDs. Another scanned luggage and clothes with a hand-held metal detector and explosives sniffer. The third, a specialist, administered a quick blood test for the worst communicable diseases going around; sliding the samples into a desktop scanner, which was balanced precariously on what looked like an old card table. The results, about 30 seconds later, were accompanied by a chirruping that culminated in a musical tone. High pitch, you can proceed. Low pitch, you turn back or move to the side while a corpsman re-checked your vitals and paperwork but it was generally for naught. Disease could spread like smoke on the wind and nobody wanted to be responsible for another outbreak in the refugee camp down the road. They’d dug enough graves in this conflict already.
A pair of dogs, a burly Alsatian and a sleek Doberman pulled at their leashes straining to taste the array of foreign scents. Their handlers kept firm hold and were mindful to look where the dogs looked and took note of bulky packages or irregular body silhouettes. Behind them four more soldiers stood with their rifles held across their bodies or at waist level. Two had regulation assault rifles, the third a salvaged enemy weapon, some kind of AK judging by the “banana clip” and wooden stock, and the fourth a nasty-looking shotgun, matte-black with a full-length tubular magazine and underslung flashlight with IR filter.
The people trying to get through were at once varied and depressingly the same. All races and classes were represented but they all had the same worn look to them on their clothes and their faces. And their souls… Armstrong added mentally, then rebuffed himself for romanticizing the situation. Just another POS day in another POS country. What was it even called? It had more letters than he had patience and its pronunciation varied from dialect to dialect (of which there were at least 20 that he knew of). He pursed his lips in annoyance. This was no life for a soldier. Peacekeeper, he thought derisively, over armed bureaucrats is more like it. These people just want out; to get to the camp and away from the hell that their homeland had become.
They’d been at this for almost a month. Processing refugees was arguably one of the most boring duties and your mind could wander very easily if you were not careful. Jarek had begun to string the disjointed tones of the medical scanner into some kind of abstract musical work, when a low tone he had not heard in several years, snapped him to full awareness.
Barely moving his head, his eyes scanned over to where the specialist with the medical scanner was seated. He was arguing with a man in worn, ill-fitting fatigues; lots of soldiers had thrown down their weapons and joined the refugees, so this in and of itself was not unusual. Jarek took stock of the man’s appearance. He was lean and well-muscled, though he was trying to hide that with his baggy jacket. He had a healthy cast to his handsome face unlike the other refugees whose faces were drawn with despair and malnutrition. The fire in his eyes was one of indignation, not desperation.
“Run the test again! I have not been sick a day in my life!” the man said imperiously in heavily-accented English. Jarek’s eyes narrowed.
“Sir, please step over to the corpsman and he’ll get you sorted out. You are holding up the line and we have a lot of people left to process today.” The corpsman had joined the specialist at the scanner and managed a benign, if tired, smile at the upset man. “This way, sir, if you please,” he gestured off to the side.”We’ll get this figured out and get you on your way,” he finished in a placating tone.
“Don’t you patronize me, you simpering fool! Run the test again!” The man stuck out his hand. The corpsman nodded to the specialist, who swabbed the man’s finger with alcohol and readministered the test. The same ugly, low tone resulted. “Outrageous!” bellowed the man, throwing up his hands. One of the soldiers who had taken note of the disturbance, moved slowly over to where the others were standing, his shotgun held low in a non-threatening but readied posture.
Jarek Armstrong had spent most of the 90s in this or that shadow war; dirty little secrets that the government felt John and Jane Q. Public were happier not knowing about. He hadn’t made many friends, explaining his current assignment, but that experience gave him knowledge these soldiers didn’t have. Like how that innocuous little blood test also checked for certain genetic markers. Markers that weren’t supposed to exist anymore…not outside of the cryolabs in the CDC and NIH. He couldn’t believe they’d found one here of all places.
The angry man backhanded the corpsman, sending him flying. He lunged forward with astonishing speed, snatching the shotgun from the nearby soldier, flipping it around and unloading a blast into the soldier’s chest. The specialist came quickly to his feet with his sidearm drawn but was subdued with a spinning kick to his temple; he collapsed in a heap. In just under three seconds, three men were down, possibly dead.
“Augment!” Jarek screamed, then realized that term didn’t mean a whole lot to most people as the man fired two shots into the air, roaring at the top of his lungs, whipping the crowd into a frenzy. “Uber!” he corrected, “Uber!” gambling that the slang terminology might get the desired response.
The checkpoint erupted in chaos, people running this way and that with panicked screams. The other three man team was swept away with the crowd. The two dogs were loosed. The Doberman went for the throat, the Alsatian decidedly lower. The augment brought the barrel of the shotgun down, knocking the Doberman away but losing his grip on the weapon, while he brutally kicked the Alsatian away. The handlers brought up their sidearms but dared not fire into the crowd.
Jarek had been off the AFV’s fender and running as the third soldier had fallen. He shoved past a man in a crumpled and mud-stained business suit but was almost knocked down by a crazed woman swinging her suitcase in a bid to escape the crowd.
He could not make the man out in the flurry of the crowd. The other soldiers had their rifles at their shoulders and Jarek knew that he was about to lose control of the situation. “No! No! Do not fire until you have a clear shot! That is an order!” he barked. If one of them fired, they all would and things would turn into bloodbath. He knew this was what the augment wanted. In the confusion, he would slip into the camp and lose himself among the thousands there. This had to be stopped now.
“That’s right! Run away, freak! I laugh at your so-called superiority!” bellowed Jarek. Play on his ego, wound his pride. That’s as much a part of them as their strength or speed. He didn’t have long to wait.
He saw the man’s head rise from the crowd, like a lion rising from the tall grass on the savannah. He was looking right at Jarek. Heard me with those perfect ears of his, no doubt.
With a fluidity that belied the bulk of his frame the man knifed through the rapidly-thinning crowd towards Jarek. He was on him in a moment and swung a backhanded fist at his head. Jarek dove under the strike toward the man, tackling him at the waist. He would have knocked most opponents to the ground with that move, but he only staggered the augment, who dug his heels into the ground and then brought a knee painfully up into Jarek’s chest. He grabbed the front of Jarek’s uniform and pulled him up to eye level, head-butting him.
Jarek flailed his arms to get free and staggered back, drawing his pistol. The augment narrowed his eyes as Jarek's finger tightened on the trigger. He was suddenly in front of Jarek and knocked the pistol from his hand with a casual blow. Jarek’s whole arm was numb with the impact. Sensing he was off-balance, the other man stepped halfway past Jarek, placed him hand on Jarek’s chest and pushed hard while simultaneously sweeping his leg backwards. Jarek was thrown to the ground hard and his breath left him explosively.
“Finally, you are in your proper place. At my feet,” the augment said with a look of contempt on his face.
The next thing Jarek heard was the roar of automatic gunfire as the augment was thrown back. He fell to the ground and did not move. Several soldiers moved past Jarek and surrounded the augment on the ground; one nudged the augment’s leg with his boot. Another soldier moved into his field of vision, “We got him, sir. You kept him tied up long enough for the crowd to disperse, then we had our shot. Helluva risk you took there!” The darkness closed on him then.
“Thank you, Mister Armstrong,” the instructor said, making a notation on his PADD, “a most interesting insight into the chaotic events of the early 21st century. Top marks!” Applause filled the room, punctuated by a few cheers. The instructor motioned for silence. “Next up we have…”