The third and last exerpt from my new best-selling novel, Burning Earth: Climate Wars. Under Amazon’s rules, I can only publish up to 10 per cent of the book as excerpts, so this is the last instalment on the site, but if you’d like to buy the full novel, you can click the button below.
“As long as money continues to seduce the hungry, the hopeless, the broken, the greedy, and the needy, there will always be war between brothers.” Suzy Kassem
Jamie Grant was happy to hear from his girlfriend Simone … but the timing could have been better. At the time she called, shortly after landing in Ottawa, Jamie was sprinting through a car park in Plattsburgh, New York, a few kilometres from the Plattsburgh Air Force base. The weather was typical for the area in July, hot with humidity up around 90 per cent, and Jamie was sweating like a hog, his usually pale face an alarming shade of red, and his breath coming in big whooping gasps.
When the phone buzzed on silent mode and he saw the caller he skidded to an abrupt halt, and threw himself behind an aging Tesla. As he scrunched in behind the car he commanded his drones: “Hide.”
The AI drones were pretty smart, and very good at hiding. They rapidly split up and descended behind cars and trucks in the car park. Jamie took a couple of deep, cleansing breaths and hit ‘Answer’.
“Hello gorgeous!” he said casually, as if he’d just been interrupted while brewing up some tea. “Are ye back in country, Simone?”
“I am,” answered Simone. “Are you going to be back in Ottawa tonight? Dying to see you … and I’ve got a LOT to tell you.”
Simone sounded excited, and Jamie knew it wasn’t easy getting her blood pressure up so he was curious to hear the story … but he wasn’t dying to hear it.
“I hope so, but I’m having a wee bother at the border,” he said. “This bit o’ mortar fire and the occasional drone strike has got everyone quite excited, so it might be tomorra … and truth to tell, I really really want to talk to ye, but I honestly have to run.” In this case, while Simone couldn’t know it, Jamie meant ‘run’ literally, as in ‘run for your life’.
“Okay,” said Simone, who didn’t like wasting time with long explanations. “Just let me know when you’re on your way. Good luck and stay safe, buddy!”
‘Buddy’. Jamie always felt Simone treated him like they were on the same football team, not as her actual steady boyfriend.
“You too … buddy,” he answered back. “Gotta go now, see you in Ottawa.”
“K,” said Simone. “See ya.”
Jamie raised his head over the Tesla like a periscope and did a quick 360. All clear, but he could hear sirens keening from multiple directions, and off in the distance helicopters and drones cut through the air. How many were looking for him was an open question that he didn’t want to learn the answer to.
Because Jamie knew the footage he and his drones were carrying could be fatal if the Americans found it on his person. It had all happened with the second so-called Canadian drone strike in Plattsburgh. The first strike a couple of days earlier had hit the US Air Force base with Canadian-made StealthFire missiles, but the Americans had shot down a drone that crashed near the downtown core, killing two people in a WalMart parking lot. Photos of the drone were All-Canadian right down to the maple leaf on its carbon fibre body, and President Detwiler lost no time accusing the Canadians of launching an undeclared war on his country.
Jamie saw the first American telecast of the attack, grabbed his gear, and immediately drove straight south, crossing the border south of Ottawa just before it was closed by Homeland Security, and then making his way over to Plattsburgh.
Jamie’s job title was videographer, but in reality he was more like the human hub of a drone fleet that captured high rez video in often extreme situations. The days of a human carrying a camera and wandering into a firefight were long gone; modern journalists for the big outfits were usually sophisticated cyborgs, using neural nets, antennae, virtual reality glasses and a variety of transmission technologies to dispatch and control the camera-carrying drones.
Jamie’s neural tech was top notch, and he’d been using that type of technology since he was 19, serving as a comm-tech in the Scottish Highland Commandos back in his home country. After completing his service his choices seemed to be working for a security company, working as a mercenary, or moving into journalism. Sick of killing, Jamie found the choice an easy one, and as it turned out, the job of combat cameraman was one he excelled at. As Simone liked to say, Jamie “…was good at getting into trouble, and almost as good at getting out of it.”
Jamie certainly hoped that was the case … because it seemed he had half the US army after him, not to mention a fleet of killer drones and most of the cops in Plattsburgh.
His drones had been there, in perfect position to pick up footage of a second attack on the airbase … but then things got weird. Right after the attack, with smoke billowing from hangars and aircraft on the tarmac, the attack drones turned and skimmed low over the nearby Lake Champlain, heading back for Canada, minus two that were hit over the base.
But Jamie was right on the lake, and immediately directed a couple of his drones to “Follow with Stealth.” And what they saw, he knew, had the potential to start or end a war, or alternatively get him killed.
Jamie watched the whole thing from the perspective of one of the drones, using the neural link and projecting the scene onto his VR glasses. As far as anyone else knew, he was just another guy at the beach wearing dark sunglasses, but from Jamie’s perspective it was more like being at the seat of a fighter jet.
When the attack drones came over, Jamie’s drones were perched on tree branches in a marsh not far from the air base. The Canadian drones hissed in quietly, just a few feet over the water, but happened to cross his own drone’s line of sight. Immediately Jamie gave the ‘follow’ command, and four of his tiny stealth drones took off and followed as closely as they could.
As they neared the base the four attack drones suddenly split up, leapt hundreds of feet into the sky, then pointed their noses down and fired two StealthFire missiles each. They then peeled away, each following a different path, twisting and turning to avoid the incoming fire coming sporadically from the ground. Jamie ‘saw’ first one, then two of the attack drones hit. One had a hole punched through it at centre mass, and simply fluttered down out of the sky, while the other belched flame and pinwheeled into a nearby field.
The two surviving drones levelled out just over the ground, and headed for the lake at full speed, far too fast for his own small drones to track … but Jamie had planned this out in advance. He already had another flight of drones lined up at the Canadian border. They had filmed the drones coming in, and now waited to film them coming out … and it worked perfectly.
In fact, too perfectly.
Switching his neural link to the camera drone nearest the attackers’ flight path, he saw and filmed them streaking along the water, with American drones pursuing, but missing widely with their own anti-aircraft missiles and machine guns. The attack drones had a healthy lead, and were weaving through bushes and reeds that made them difficult to track.
At the border the attack drones continued streaking and weaving along the water while the US drones pulled a hard 180 and turned back toward the base … and then the weird thing happened.
The Canadian drones turned around as well.
At first Jamie thought they were just turning to engage the pursuing US drones, but that wasn’t the case. The attackers slowed and went into full stealth mode, and then quietly flew back past his own camera drones at the border, and then past his second flight of drones at the airbase. Again, Jamie switched the neural link so he could follow them all the way. He was also recording the low rez ‘proxy’ footage from all eight drones on a portable drive; the high rez version would have to wait until his drones returned.
Staring with disbelief into his phoney sunglasses, Jamie saw the ‘Canadian’ drones weave their way around inhabited areas of the town and toward the base, where they finally hovered and then landed at a remote corner of the sprawling facility. His own drones caught it all, approaching to within 200 metres to make sure these so-called attack drones could be properly identified.
And that’s when things went to hell.
Jamie was never quite sure how his drones were spotted. It might have been by the other American drones still flitting about, or by a lucky pair of eyes on the ground, or even through the Small Object Lidar Detector (SOLD) units surrounding the base, but suddenly he saw people on the ground pointing in the air, and a couple of drones abruptly spun, focused sharply on his units in an almost human-like way, and sped toward them.
“Oh shit,” said Jamie, and then sent the command, “Evade and Return.”
Seemed like good advice, so he did the same, folding his beach chair and trudging as quickly as possible over the sandy beach to his van.
The drones were not far away, they could almost get there as fast as he could, and with any luck he could get them to just fly right in the back and take off before anyone put van and drones together.
Unfortunately, that plan did not quite work out. Jamie’s drones were fast for their size, but they definitely couldn’t outrun the faster military drones, especially the ones with hydrogen jet engines. Jamie sat near the van, controlling the drone that filmed the landing of the fake attacker while ordering the others to run interference. At the same time his other drones from further north were coming in straight and fast, since they’d never been spotted.
On his VR glasses the ground sped past as he dove down to ground level, so low he had to skip up over fences and cars and down below tree branches or power lines. Off in the distance he could hear the stutter of machine gun fire, and on his glasses saw rounds smashing into the ground all around the drone.
His live feed indicated one drone had been hit and the indicator went suddenly dark, then 30 seconds later another abruptly lost contact as well. Jamie reacted like a fighter pilot, heeling his surviving drones hard left, then right, throwing off the pursuers for a precious minute, enough time to direct them right into the downtown core.
In his glasses Jamie could see people’s mouths open in startled shouts and screams as two drones whizzed literally through the cars and the crowds of downtown workers and shoppers, but now the military drones had picked up their track again. He brought up a top-down map of the town in one corner of his view, and quickly found what he wanted.
The drones took a hard right into an alleyway, losing the faster winged pursuers, but three of four pursuing rotor drones managed to follow, the other smashing through a shop window while pedestrians screamed and hit the ground around it.
Jamie weaved his two drones through the alley, turned another hard right into a short deadend and then sent both into hard reverse, and then added power straight up. Below them the faster military drones rocketed past and smashed right into the building at the end of the lane. Just as his drones cleared the roof a sizeable explosion rocked the little craft, and a searing white light blinded Jamie as the cameras overloaded.
A sonorous boom rocked the town as the drones’ missiles went up, and Jamie whipped off his glasses to look quickly at the town, where a fireball briefly lit up the sky, followed by a burst of black smoke.
Worse, Jamie saw several men dressed in uniform also turn and look at the explosion, but when they turned back they all looked at him. A family decked out in beach attire were all staring at him as well, a woman pointing right at him.
“Oh bugger,” thought Jamie, and got up for a quick saunter back to the van.
Looking over his shoulder, he saw the men had picked up their pace; when one started to break into a jog Jamie just said “fuck it,” dropped all pretences, and ran like hell.
While Jamie was in a bad fix, outnumbered and alone in a foreign country filled with hostile soldiers, he had one advantage his pursuers weren’t counting on.
As a member of Scotland’s elite commandos, Jamie had been given and had taken the option of extending his physical abilities through cybernetic enhancements. These included not only his military grade neural net, but also silicone enhanced musculature in his arms, shoulders, pelvis and legs, and a variety of enhancements that increased his ability to survive injuries. After two tours in war zones, the Scottish military was legally bound to keep his hardware and firmware updated so that he would never be crippled by breakdowns in his cybernetic gear.
In other words, Jamie was fast, very fast, and could jump like an athletic kangaroo. That, coupled with the adrenalin surging through his veins, allowed Jamie to take off like he’d been fired out of a cannon. He left the beach at a sprint, arms pumping, and crossed the street to jump directly over a fence into a private property. Jamie had been chased before, and he knew that unless his pursuers included some US Special Forces, there was no way they could keep up to him as he leapt over fences like a horse through a steeplechase course. At the same time he brought up his look-down map and saw he was little over a kilometre away from a shopping mall with a multi-storey carpark. Jamie kept running, but diverted some of his attention to his robotic gear, directing both his remaining drones and his self-driving Honda van to meet him on the third floor of the parking lot.
Turning into a school zone Jamie could hear cursing and swearing and a sudden cry of pain from behind him. He grinned, picturing the uniformed soldiers falling on their asses as they struggled over the fences he had just leapt over.
“God I love my job!,” he thought goofily, passing a couple of slow-moving cars in the school zone and waving at a bug-eyed volunteer crossing guard. The carpark wasn’t much further and after leaving the school Jamie could see he was out of sight of his pursuers. He changed direction, taking alleyways on a more direct path toward the carpark, and within 90 seconds entered the mall itself.
Here he slowed right down and tried hard not to look like a fugitive while still walking quickly toward the carpark. Unfortunately, Jamie was prone to sweating and despite all he could do to look ‘normal’, he could see a couple of security guards giving him the once over as he passed by. He ignored it, hoped they wouldn’t talk to the military guys who were sure to come through sooner or later, and then ran up the stairs three stories to where his van, hopefully, would be waiting for him.
Just then, his phone rang. “Hello gorgeous!,” he said casually.
Funnily enough, the short conversation with his girlfriend calmed Jamie right down. It was as if that contact with normality wiped the panic out of his mind, and Jamie took a quick second to take stock.
He could hear a vehicle coming up the curving ramps, and looking over the old Tesla he saw his van coming into view from one direction, while four more of his drones flew in through the open walls of the carpark.
“Welcome home, boys and girls,” he said, and calmly stepped into the van.
Like Jamie himself, the van had been altered significantly to better serve the role of a combat camera crew. It was lightly armoured with carbon nanotube plate, and the back was heavily modified to act as both a storage unit and repair shop for the drones. The drones literally flew into the van and stored themselves, but Jamie took the one drone with the most important footage and downloaded that footage into his own drive before letting it rest. He stuck the drive into an inside pocket in his pants, just in case he got separated from the drones or the van.
Clambering into the back, Jamie opened a set of drawers lining the passenger side wall. These contained a wide variety of handy gizmos, but also stored a variety of items used as a disguise. Within minutes Jamie had transformed from a highly visible and very fit looking red-headed Scotsman into a very ordinary middle-aged man with brown hair, decidedly ugly sunglasses, and a middle-aged paunch. Slouching a bit behind the wheel, Jamie examined the map of Plattsburgh and the route to the Canadian border. He knew the border would be closed and all routes heavily guarded, but he had one trick up his sleeve he was pretty sure the Americans wouldn’t expect.
He was also pretty sure he had little time to waste. Sirens were wailing across the city, and Jamie knew that if he gave his opponents enough time they would eventually lock the entire area down tight. He had to move before that happened, and camouflage himself among the citizens of the town. All he had to do was make it through a short, quick drive back to Lake Champlain, and he’d be fine.
Instructing the van to drive slowly, Jamie curled the van back down the exit ramps, paid the parking fee with the chip embedded in his wrist, and then went back into manual driving mode for the rest of the trip. He didn’t want to be messing about with buttons if his pursuers spotted him.
Driving like his nanny on the way to church, Jamie made his way out of the downtown and back toward the lake, but heading further north. He wanted to get to within two or three kilometres of the border before leaving the van, or his plan just wouldn’t work.
But for all his careful planning, Jamie had neglected one thing. The men chasing him had seen his van, and they had seen his distinctive, retro-looking VR sunglasses. And he found that out the hard way at a stoplight as he panned around, and looked directly into the eyes of one of the same soldiers who had chased him earlier.
He was gratified to see the man had a large rip in his uniform trousers, but considerably less happy to see the soldier shout “There he is,” and pull out a large pistol.
He flipped the soldier his middle finger and stepped on the accelerator, hard. The van didn’t look like much, but would do 0 to 100 kmh in three seconds flat. Jamie’s head snapped back as he heard shots and the ping and whine of bullets ricocheting off the rear doors, the screech of tires as self-driving cars and trucks intelligently hit the brakes and smartly evaded his van. He whizzed through the red light and took evasive action, turning left against traffic and sending more vehicles skidding around him, then right and another left before flooring it and letting the van unwind on a main street that led roughly toward his destination of Allen’s Bay, a marsh area where he hoped to hide until all the fuss died down.
He thought the “Launch drones” command through his neural net, and didn’t bother looking back as his six remaining drones buzzed into life, and exited through a skylight that opened in the back of the van. “Watch for pursuers,” he commanded next.
By now all of the drones would have downloaded their high res footage into the van’s storage drive, so he didn’t need them anymore. Instead, he had them feed data on possible roadblocks or pursuing vehicles, and in a few seconds that information flooded the map on his Heads Up Display.
Jamie was now heading north on Margaret Road, which turned into Highway 9 north to the border, but he took the interchange onto the 314, and punched it hard on the straightaway through Cumberland Bay Park.
The HUD showed one roadblock about a half-kilometre ahead, and others off to his left on Highway 9… but there was a park and some empty land off the road to his left. The drones also picked up fast moving vehicles behind, and a screen where a rearview mirror would have been showed a cop car with flashing lights and some sort of armoured car speeding along behind him.
They also picked up some drones far off in the distance, vectoring in from the area around Plattsburgh air base.
Jamie figured he’d be pretty safe from gunfire right in the middle of town … and then thought twice about that as the armoured car opened up with a roof mounted machine gun.
This time only some of the rounds pinged off the van’s armour; the others punched right through and some ventilated the passenger seat while two bounced off the bulletproof windscreen and just about took his head off.
Jamie screamed, all that calm now gone, and wrenched the wheel to the right. He punched a button on the Honda’s dash and shouted “Siri, Offroad mode!,” and felt the van bounce up a few inches. Jamie drove the van across the oncoming lane, scattering some self-driving cars, then leapt the van off the road and into the park, sailing 20 metres through the air before hitting the ground hard and slewing around onto a bicycle path that ran past a marshy pond. He hit the accelerator hard again, and held on tight while the overpowered van skidded crazily down the path sending cyclists and pedestrians scattering like frightened chickens.
Jamie risked a quick glance into his rearview screen and then wished he hadn’t.
The cop car had overturned behind him in the park, but it was followed by several others and the armoured car was right behind, not fazed at all by the drop off the road. And about a kilometre back he could see a couple of rotor drones gaining fast. A helicopter pulled up alongside with a human at the controls and a guy with a large mounted machine gun pointing at him through an open side door.
It seemed like a bit of overkill for one reporter in a Honda.
Jamie got to the end of the park and smashed the van through a chainlink fence leading to some empty fields.
The rough ground rocked the van like a pair of maracas and Jamie’s teeth rattled painfully in his head. The map said he had less than a kilometre to go, but the drones were almost on to him and the armoured car was well within firing range. Jamie realized then that no one was shooting, and the map showed why. He had literally driven himself into a corner. There was no way to drive the van out of here, other then back the way he’d come, and that route was covered by cop cars and drones and soldiers and helicopters.
The cops and the military didn’t plan to shoot him anymore. They planned to capture him. And that, he was pretty sure, would be much worse. Jamie realized he had probably been a little optimistic telling Simone he would see her again in Ottawa. He felt bad about that, but there was no way he was going to let these bastards take him alive. He’d seen what torture looked like first hand, and if he was going to die, he’d rather do it quickly.
Jamie looked ahead and saw his only way to avoid capture, and sighing, decided to take it. “Self destruct,” he told his drones, and didn’t have to look to know they were smashing themselves into the lake or the ground.
He pushed the accelerator all the way down and simultaneously opened the windows. The van rocketed forward and bounced its way hard onto a large concrete slab, likely the foundation for a long-abandoned warehouse. Jamie braced himself for the impact and then drove the van directly off the slab and into the lake where it stopped dead with a monstrous splash. The airbags and the windshield smashed into his face at the same time a rush of water punched in from the window knocking Jamie senseless.
The van rolled, then sank quickly. By the time the soldiers and cops had rolled to a stop the van was completely under the water. Drones circled the area scanning for movement or signs of life, and found nothing.
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