The armored JLTV’s diesel engine growled as the transmission downshifted to avoid getting stuck in the rutted, muddy road. The hulking four-wheeled truck’s right front tire splashed into a deep puddle, cascading windshield with brown water and banging the soldiers inside hard against the armored doors.
“Goddamn it, Cisneros, who the fuck taught you how to drive?” growled the truck commander, Sergeant Philby.
Cisneros grinned from the driver’s seat. “You did, Sergeant.”
In the seat behind Sergeant Philby, Specialist Greene chuckled. Cisneros was a good driver, and Philby knew it, even if he did give her shit. It was an old routine, but Philby never seemed to tire of it.
Greene’s left pocket vibrated, making his heart skip a beat. He did not need Sergeant Philby hearing that, not at all. Nobody was supposed to have a phone, on account of geolocation risks, but Greene had managed to buy one off one of an interpreter three weeks ago. Since it was a local phone and rechargeable SIM card, he figured it would be safe, and all he ever did on it was Snapchat with Olivia anyway. He hadn’t even meant to have it in the truck, but it was his bad luck to be about to send a message when Sergeant Philby had busted in his trailer unexpectedly to tell them he’d just gotten handed an unplanned mission. Greene had slid the phone into his pocket just in time for Philby not to see it.
He wanted to talk to Olivia, but now wasn’t the time. He’d already told her if he couldn’t answer it was because he couldn’t get to his phone. Instead, he focused on the gunner’s station.
It was attached to the back of Philby’s seat and wedged uncomfortably against Greene’s knees—a ruggedized keyboard and computer screen, cracked in the lower left corner and flecked with mud, but still functional, and a small joystick. His inputs traveled through the thick cables that snaked up the armored pillar between Philby’s door and Greene’s door and through the armored ring mount on the vehicle’s roof. There, they connected to a pair of cameras—one thermal and one daytime—a laser rangefinder/designator, and a GPS transmitter.
Oh, yeah, and a weapons mount containing the US Army’s longest serving combat veteran, a M2 .50 caliber machinegun, and two hundred rounds of ammunition.
Operation of all this was Greene’s role in the truck, his pride and joy, his contribution to America’s efforts in Whereverthefuckistan, his way of making the world safer for the persecuted ethnic minority or stopping the Russian-backed separatists or whatever the War was supposed to be about. Greene didn’t really understand and he didn’t really care. That shit wasn’t this job.
He was here to be a gunner.
And because at twenty-one his recruiter had sold him on the idea that even though he wasn’t quite good enough to get that COD6 e-sports scholarship to Virginia Tech, there was still a way for video games to pay for college. Eighteen months later, there he was, bouncing down the road in an armored truck between two cities—Gudauta and Likhni—in a disputed territory—Abkhazia—of a country—Georgia—in a part of the world—the Caucasus—that neither he nor 99% of other Americans knew was real or fictional, much less able to find on a map.
But none of that mattered, because as his platoon leader had put it after their first engagement, “Goddamn. Greene can shoot.”
Greene slewed the camera and .50 cal around with his joystick, toggling the screen between thermal and daytime cameras, looking for danger. The sector was mostly quiet this far south, with the worst fighting up further north closer to the Russian border, but there was still danger—just last week a convoy had gotten ambushed on the coastal highway northwest of Gudauta, only a few miles away.
The phone buzzed again, and Green cursed under his breath. He took a quick glance to make sure Philby was still looking out the windshield and not back at him. If he was careful, maybe he could pull it out and silence the ringer without getting caught.
He secreted it from his pocket and glanced at the screen. He’d expected to catch a message from Olivia before cutting it off, but instead the messages were from a number he didn’t recognize: turn around now while you can, followed by running out of time.
His blood ran cold. Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck. He slewed the turret around, toggling more rapidly now, but saw neither the tell-tale white bloom of a hot body laying in ambush nor the disturbed earth that might indicate a buried IED. His pulse raced, but no matter how much he scanned, there was still nothing to see.
In the front, Philby and Cisneros griped about their shared misery as Cowboys fans while Greene sweated out his options—a) ignore the message because it was just some Russians trying to fuck with him, then throw the phone into the burn pit when they got to the outpost at Likhni, b) take the chance that it was a real warning and tell Sergeant Philby and get his ass torn up and probably get an Article-15 and get demoted, but at least maybe not get blown up.
The phone buzzed again and Greene pried his eyes off the gun camera to check the message: no more warning, dustin greene, bye bye.
It was the fact that they mentioned his name—his name—that made his decision.
“If we don’t re-sign Wallace then I don’t—” Cisneros was saying.
“Stop! Cisneros, stop!” Greene shouted.
She slammed the brakes, jerking the JLTV to a halt.
“Talk to me, Greene,” Sergeant Philby barked, his voice razor sharp. “Whatcha’ see, man? Where is it?”
“I don’t see shit,” Greene answered. “But I got a, a—”
“A message. On my phone.”
“Your fucking phone?” Philby exploded. “Nobody’s supposed to have a phone! I will tear your ass into little—”
“It says we’re gonna get hit if we don’t turn around,” Greene interrupted. He passed the phone to Philby, who snatched it from him with a look of fury. He read the messages, then looked back at Greene again.
“Fuck!” He shook his head, then banged his fist into the door. “Fuck! Goddamnit, Greene! Now what the fuck am I supposed to do? What if they want us to turn around? What if they’re behind us?”
“I’ve been scanning, Sergeant. I haven’t seen anything or anybody, though,” Greene answered weakly.
“I can pull us forward, up off the road and up on that little ridge there and we can launch our quadcopter,” Cisneros suggested, pointing ahead and just off to her left, and referring to the vehicle’s integrated scouting drone. “We should be able to check out the area, see if there’s anything in—”
“Go for it,” Philby agreed, grabbing the radio handmic.
“Hammer X-Ray, this is Hammer 2-5, I got a—”
The world exploded.
When Greene came to, strong arms were dragging him from the truck. His ears rang, the smell of burning rubber and diesel and metal stung his nostrils, and his mouth tasted of dust and blood. He vision was too blurry to make anything out, and pain shot up his right leg, but he could talk, at least.
“Ser-Sergeant Philby? Cisneros? You okay, Cisneros?”
He didn’t recognize the voice that answered, and the words didn’t make any sense. Something that sounded like gibberish. Etot zhivoy, maybe? What did that mean? What the fuck was going on?
Whoever had dragged him out of the truck laid him on the ground. Greene blinked his eyes again and the world suddenly shifted suddenly back into focus.
Just a few feet away from him lay Sergeant Philby, both his legs gone at the thighs, and his uniform below his vest tattered, burned, and drenched in blood. His mouth was moving, but no words came out. Cisneros was next, dropped unceremoniously between Greene and Philby. Her eyes open but empty and unfocused, and she wasn’t breathing.
“Help,” Greene rasped. “Help them.”
A shadow passed over him as a man in unmarked green fatigues and a plate carrier festooned with magazine pouches stepped over the bodies. He had a pistol in a quick-draw tactical holster on his hip and an AK on a one point sling clipped to his body armor. He wrenched open Cisneros’s body armor with the screech of protesting velcro, then her uniform top. He put his hand down her shirt and yanked Cisneros’s dog tags free of her neck hard enough to break the chain. Greene wanted to do something—why weren’t they getting her help?—but his legs and arms didn’t seem to respond to his command. Next, the man reached for Greene’s body armor.
Greene managed to move his right arm to try to fend him off, but in a single motion the man drew his pistol, and Greene found himself staring down the barrel.
“Nyet,” the man warned. For good measure, he kicked Greene in the side, sending a spasm of pain through his ribcage. Greene didn’t try to fight him when he opened his vest and took his dogtags.
Greene lay there, stunned but finally comprehending—these men weren’t American, and they weren’t Georgian. They were Russian, probably a Spetsnaz team. He should have realized it earlier, but his injuries and shock had prevented the realization from making its way out of the foggy recesses of his mind.
Voices said something in Russian, a radio crackled, and rough hands grabbed Greene and yanked him to his feet. He had just enough time to see another Spetsnaz reach for Sergeant Philby’s dog tags before one of them slipped a hood over Greene’s head, plunging him into darkness.
Philby moaned, followed by the crack of a pistol shot.
“Come. Is time to go,” his captor muttered to him in accented English as they dragged him away.
The pickup truck rumbled to life just as they shoved Greene into the bed.
On the fourth floor of a dingy, nondescript office tower in Moscow, the cubicle farm was quiet save the gentle whoosh of the air conditioning and the hammer-tap of keystrokes. From the breakroom down the hall, the smell of coffee tempted Irina, but she’d already had one cup this shift, and too much caffeine would give her the jitters.
“Irina, got a few that look like they might be perfect for you. You busy?” Boris called from his cubicle, two in front of hers.
“Not too much. Send it to me,” Irina said, picking at a spot of dried ketchup on her Levis. She frowned. How long had that been there?
“On the way,” Boris said, and a second later, her computer dinged with the sound of an incoming email.
The email had several attachments, and Irina opened them all, spreading them out between her three monitors.
The first two were cell phone pictures of a pair of dead American soldiers—well, it was hard to say whether one of them was dead or just wounded, but if the team on the ground sent a picture saying they were dead, they’d certainly make sure it was true. The faces were clearly visible, along with the nametapes on the uniform: Cisneros and Philby. The next three were pictures of three sets of dog tags: Cisneros, Maria; Philby, James and Greene, Dustin. She furrowed her brow. Why didn’t she have a picture of Greene’s body? How many times had she had to tell them that the body was key. They had to have a picture of—
The next attachment answered her question. There was an American soldier—alive—in the back of a pickup truck, sitting next to two presumably smiling Spetsnaz soldiers. She could only presume because they’d taken the precaution of blurring out their faces before sending her the picture—they were animals, but they could learn, apparently—but the American’s face was clearly visible. So was the Greene on his nametape.
The final attachment was even better: a cellphone video of a seated Greene, zip cuffed and shaken but otherwise apparently in good health. In the video, which lasted only twenty seconds, Greene gave his name, US Department of Defense identification number, unit, and the date and time. When Irina heard it, her eyes widened.
“Jesus Christ!” she exclaimed. This was the break she’d been wanting for months.
“Something good?” Boris asked.
“Did you watch the video?” Irina asked, her fingers already dancing across the keyboard as she called up her scripts.
“Not yet. What’s up?”
“It’s today, Boris. Only two hours ago! This is the fastest they’ve ever turned one around. And he’s alive.”
Boris laughed. “That’s why I sent it to you. Work some magic for me.”
She already was. She fed the program Sergei had built the names, birthdays, and social security numbers off the dog tags. It began returning hits as it scanned through its 2,119 databases, and when it finished, she exported those results into another program—this one was Boris and Mikhail’s—and added the photos to the search parameters.
It worked its way through a different set of databases for five long minutes before she got results. She combed through them, discarding the ones that were obviously wrong, then settled on a few that looked promising. She ran those results into another program that ran through contacts in a bunch of fake and compromised profiles and—
Philby’s was first. One of Irina’s Facebook profiles was a friend of a friend of someone the program was pretty sure was Philby’s wife: Jenna Philby. She frowned. It looked like Jenna had tried to make the account private about ten months ago. On a hunch, Irina did a Google search for the unit name Greene had mentioned in the video and found a local news story from Fort Hood about the unit’s deployment to Georgia. That only confirmed Irina’s suspicion. She shook her head. It looked like the Americans were trying for some measure of operational security, but they really weren’t cut out for it.
She called up her organization’s custom version of what the Americans called “the Wayback Machine,” an archived version of the web as it looked in times past. She set the clock back eleven months and—boom—there was Jenna’s Facebook page as she wanted to see it, photos and all. It took Irina ten seconds of looking through photos before finding one of Jenna and the dead American sergeant at Myrtle Beach the previous summer. Loving our time together before we have to spend some time apart! was the caption. Irina checked her picture from the field again, just to be sure, even though she didn’t really have any doubt.
Irina scrolled through the list of Facebook profiles available to her, but dismissed the one the program recommended. Boris and Sergei and Mikhail were all brilliant, clever programmers, but they were boy’s boys who fit the American stereotype of a Russian hacker almost to perfection. Irina could write a few lines of code here and there, but she’d never claim to be a hacker—well, not of computers, anyway.
But computers weren’t why they had her.
They had her because she had the soft skills the boys lacked. She knew how to be a thousand different people online, a skill she’d nurtured ever since logging into her first chatroom twenty years ago when she was only twelve. She could be the concerned friend of a friend, the alluring mysterious Russian vixen, the skeptical housewife, the conservative crackpot or the bleeding-heart liberal. They had her because she could hack people. She’d been to New York twice, California once, and spent a month in Atlanta. She watched and read God-only knew how many hours of American television, movies, and news in her free time, and not just because it was her job.
She actually kind of liked Americans, if she was being honest.
But her personal feelings, just like those of the dead soldiers whose pictures occupied her left monitor, didn’t really play into things right now.
Irina chose the Facebook profile she thought would work, one that purported to belong to the fifty-two-year-old wife of a former Marine. It had been a useful information gathering tool over the past few months, and it was a shame she’d have to burn this one, but she could always make another one.
Facebook was free, after all.
She looked up at the clock on the wall and made a quick mental calculation—1642 Moscow time was 0942 East Coast time, which made it… 0842 in Texas, right? Perfect.
She messaged Jenna, using the name of the friend of a friend to smooth the introduction, betting Philby’s wife wouldn’t verify all the particular details of who was friends with who before answering: Hey, I’m friends with Emily and Sarah, and they mentioned your husband is deployed. I know how hard that is. My husband deployed to Iraq 25 years ago, and it was tough. I’m not in the area, but is there anything I can help you with?
Irina’s gut tightened a bit while she waited. It was always like that, some mixture of the tension between hoping the target would reply and Irina knowing she was about to have to reveal, if not who she really was, at least that she wasn’t who she said she was. The first time she’d been through it, eight months ago, Irina had almost cried at her desk when she’d sent the boyfriend the video of the RPG shot that had demolished the tower she’d been standing guard in, but it had grown easier since then. Now, strangely, what bothered her so much wasn’t the actual details she was going to deliver but the betrayal of trust.
Little dots appeared in the chat window.
He is. I don’t know if you can help or not, but I appreciate the offer. You said your husband deployed. Is he still in?
Irina sighed. There was no point in dragging it out, not in this scenario.
“Sorry, Jenna,” she whispered as she dragged the picture of the now-dead Sergeant Philby and the one of his dog tags to the chat window. She dropped them in, then typed her reply: So sorry for your loss. American soldiers aren’t at fault, but as long as the US Government interferes in the brave struggle for Abkhazian independence, more like your husband will die. Leave of Abkhazia now. This is a message from the Abkhazian Hackers’ Collective. Free Abkhazia!
Strictly speaking, none of what she’d typed was true. Irina certainly didn’t believe any of this had anything to do with Abkhazian “independence,” whatever the hell that meant, since the fighting was being done by Russian-backed separatists who wanted to join Russia. Also, Philby had hardly been engaged in a brave struggle with any Abkhazians, since he’d been killed by a Russian Spetsnaz team operating covertly. And of course, the idea of some collection of Abkhazian hackers conducting the kind of info operations she was doing was laughable.
Irina was sorry for Jenna’s loss, though. This was just how the game was played now.
She hit reply and closed the window. She didn’t want to see the response, and Facebook would lock and delete the profile in a few minutes anyway.
Finding Cisneros’s loved ones didn’t take much longer than Philby’s had, even though part of her family seemed to do most of their business on social media in Spanish, which wasn’t a language Irina felt comfortable operating in. Irina could have waited for Vasily, the team’s resident Spanish speaker, but he was off until tomorrow, so she settled on notifying one of Cisneros’s brothers who only tweeted in English.
She moved on to her real target: Greene’s family. This task would be far easier than the other two, since the database returned that he owned a phone—object 2238591A in the database—that had already been hacked by someone on the military side of the fence, probably the Army electronic warfare unit in Sochi. She wondered if that’s how they’d set up the ambush. She knew the Army’s special units sometimes tracked cellphones and even sent chilling warnings to their targets to let them know that even if they lived through the attack or rocket barrage, they couldn’t hide.
She clicked on the link in the database and was not disappointed. She had access to his full device use history which consisted of Snapchat use and internet searches for porn. She read several of the messages and nodded. This was something she could use.
Still, she combed through the rest of his social media profile. No Facebook account—not surprising, given his age—but in addition to Snapchat, he had a never-used Twitter account, a TikTok account that hadn’t had seen a post since he deployed, an Instagram account that went dark around the same time, and a RocketGhost account that he seemed to have abandoned for Snapchat, the old reliable.
When she and Boris had talked over this scenario before, one of a live captive rather than just pictures of dead soldiers, they’d planned out how they might post it to Abkhazian Hackers’ Collective-adjacent burner social media profiles, then repost and retweet it from the Collective profiles, hoping to avoid an outright ban from the Western social media platforms. The Collective account was too valuable a propaganda and recruiting asset to have go down for long, so they’d have to be careful, but if the burner accounts got banned, they could live with that. The idea had been to get the hostage video out on TikTok, up on YouTube, and into the Twitter ecosystem before the bans started happening. Once it was out there, it would live forever on LiveLeak and half a dozen other sites, and their work embarrassing and undermining the US involvement in Abkhazia would be complete.
But something nagged at Irina as she logged into the accounts and prepared to set the wheels in motion. What if there was opportunity for something else, something bigger? Something in her gut told her not to post, not yet. Boris would have probably dismissed and laughed at her for it, but that was why Boris spent his time compiling code and why she did real work.
She looked up Greene’s girlfriend, Olivia DeWalt, in her databases and trolled around for anything useful. Greene was from Virginia, Olivia from California. She was three years his senior and college educated—dual engineering and marketing degrees from San Diego State, impressive—whereas he’d never been to university. She currently lived in Wisconsin. Where was Wisconsin again? Irina looked it up.
How did this pretty, blonde California girl wind up in Wisconsin, dating a soldier from Virginia stationed in Texas? Irina wondered absently. A party somewhere? Spring break? Work? But Greene was in the American Army, and Olivia very much was not. Where would they have met?
She knew she’d be able to find out, if she did enough digging, but Olivia’s social media profile was unusually sparse. No Facebook—again, probably generational—a Twitter account dormant since college, no TikTok, no RocketGhost. Irina drummed her fingers on her desk. Unusual, unless…
Irina went to her influencer account on LinkedIn and typed in Olivia DeWalt. The tenth displayed result brought a smile to her face.
Olivia DeWalt, Joint Light Tactical Vehicle Testing and Fielding Lead, Central Team, Oshkosh Corporation, Defense Division. Irina put the whole story together in her head. The smart, sexy, driven, field team lead. The clever, smartass soldier who’d drawn her eye, even though she knew better. A bar in Austin. An exchange of phone numbers. A night together before she went back to Wisconsin. Flights to and from Texas since then.
Irina Googled Oshkosh Defense. They built the JLTV, which was old news. Russia had plenty of information on it already. But that wasn’t all. According to press releases, Oshkosh’s Defense Division’s new Tracked Survivable Infantry Vehicle seemed to be the leading contender to replace the US Army’s aging fleet of Bradley Fighting Vehicles. That was a possibility worth exploring.
“Boris,” Irina said, trying to keep her excitement from creeping into her voice, “can you come here for a minute? I’ve got something here, and I’ve got an idea, but I think we’re going to need approval from across the street.” She nodded in the direction of GRU headquarters a block away.
“Come on, Irina,” Boris complained from his desk. “We don’t go across the street unless it’s something big, you know that. That’s the whole point. They’re there and we’re here. Separate.”
“This is big. I think I might have an asset,” she said.
She grinned at the sound of Boris’s chair being pushed back from his desk.
Olivia stepped out of her meeting and back to her cubicle, hoping to catch a quick bite to eat before the next planning session. Corporate wanted her Central Team to field the JLTV block three to two more National Guard brigades before the end of the year, but without extra manpower, she just didn’t see how that would be possible. Now, if only she could make them see it.
On her desk, her purse buzzed. Her heart leapt—Dustin! He’d promised to Snap her when he got done with his mission. But when she opened the app, it wasn’t his message waiting for her.
I have good news and bad news. Bad news-Dustin belongs to us now. Good news-he is not hurt. If you want to keep him that way, follow the link below at your home computer for further instructions. Do not do it at work or on a work phone. This is a message from the Abkhazian Hackers’ Collective. Free Abkhazia!
Attached to the message was a twenty second video.
About the author: David Dixon is a combat veteran who has served in the U.S. Army in both the active and reserve components. He can be found on Twitter @DixonDaver. His novel The Damsel will be published by Dark Brew Press in June 2021.