Small Wars Journal

Something Old, Something New

Tue, 05/09/2017 - 5:24am

Something Old, Something New

Darren Carter

U.S. Army TRADOC Science Fiction Writing Contest

“As we have seen, the power of artificial intelligence has transformed the "art" of war.  The mere thought of moving troops, tanks and artillery across a battlefield is as outdated as cavalry on horseback.  Since the Galadine Conflict of 2027, it has been clear that large-scale war would be fought by technology -- by armies of bots and droids orchestrated by tactical AI operations systems, working relentlessly to fulfill the strategic objectives of their human masters.  But not all conflicts are war.  In fact, most are not.  Many of the most hostile threats operate on the micro, as opposed to the macro, level.  Small groups of individuals, acting with highly erratic ideologies that defy even the most sophisticated AI analysis.  Experience has shown time and again that the fewer variables involved, the less accurate AI predictive reasoning is.  And when the variables are a single man, or a small, rogue band of individuals, AI analysis breaks down completely. The algorithms that are so successful on the battlefield struggle when dealing with individual human action.  For this reason, the realm of the strike team -- highly trained men and women, armed with sophisticated technology, but wielding the power of the human mind -- will remain a foremost resource of the United States Army.”

-- Brigadier General Susan Mosley, speaking at the Fourth Global Conference on North
       American Defense, April 19-24, 2035

“Wars may be fought with weapons, but they are won by men.”

-- General George S. Patton

At 0200 hours, 128 gigajoules of energy surged into the electromagnetic rails lining a reinforced concrete tunnel beneath the ground at Fort Benning, and the Type-4 Reentry Pod accelerated from standstill to Mach 4 in 3.7 seconds.  TheT4RP (“TARP” in official Army lingo; or “coffin” as the grunts referred to them) screamed into the sky, hurtling towards the lower atmosphere. 

Inside the TARP, the supine form of First Lieutenant Javier Nuygen lay unconscious, suspended in thick yellow shock gel.  With a TARP takeoff generating over 60 g's of acceleration, no living organism could survive the compression unaided.

After a 118-minute trip through the cold silence of near-space, stabilization fins slid out from the pod’s surface, and its internal computers began guiding the craft towards the desert plains of Kuristan.  At 300 meters, a paper-thin nanocarbon chute deployed, arresting the pod’s decent with alarming effectiveness.  Thirty seconds later, the pod touched down on the rocky soil, sending a small plume of debris into the air.  In the night sky the pale moon gleamed dully off of the pod's slate-gray skin, the moonlight dancing across the pod's scorching surface in violent waves.

As the pod settled, vents opened and the shock gel began draining.  At the same time, Lt. Nuygen’s  ExoSuit began pumping his body with amphetamines.  Consciousness came to the lieutenant, and he lifted himself out of the pod on wobbly legs.  A wave of nausea rippled through his midsection as he began sloughing the gel off with his hands.  A TARP was unequaled in terms of its effectiveness -- it could deliver Army assets anywhere in the world in less than two hours.  But providing a pleasant ride for its cargo was not part of the deal. 

Taking a couple of steps, Nuygen made a quick survey of his surroundings.  The pod was stealthed but you could never tell if an unfriendly sensor had managed to penetrate the camouflage and register his descent.  Sensing nothing unexpected, Nuygen activated his E-Shadow.  The E-Shadow was a sophisticated piece of AI software that ran over the lieutenant's neural net, a delicate web of metallic hydrogen filaments laced through his brain.  The E-Shadow gave Nuygen powerful augmentation:  enhanced memory, in-vision iconography, the ability to interface with almost any network within range; and, of course, access to highly encrypted military communications channels.

The E-Shadow began running a comprehensive diagnostic on Nuygen and his ExoSuit.  The DynalIndustries Series V suit was the absolute pinnacle of bioengineering technology.  Powered by a micropile thorium reactor (affectionately called a "Coke can" by the grunts), the ExoSuit was a fully weaponized exo-skeleton of chromium-magnesium alloy that gave a soldier like Nuygen a massive boost in terms of strength, endurance and firepower. When fully engaged, the E-Shadow interfaced so smoothly with the ExoSuit that Nuygen really couldn't distinguish where his abilities ended and the suit's began.

After a few moments, a dull green icon appeared in Nuygen's vision, letting him know that his E-Shadow had completed its diagnostics and everything was in order.  The lieutenant immediately sent an encrypted microburst transmission to one of the GBaND military command satellites that hurled across space in LEO orbit.  Two seconds later, a reply transmission was received:  there were no changes to the target or the objective; the mission as-planned was a "go."  Activating his ExoSuit's midrange sensors, Nuygen surveyed the desolate plains and plateaus that covered the 41 kilometers to Kyrat.  On any given day, Kyrat was a rather unremarkable mid-sized industrial city of four million inhabitants that eked out a living copying and trading last-gen technologies.  Today, however, Kyrat also happened to house the single largest biological threat to humanity.

In the year 2049, the largest threats to civilization were not the ones you could see.  Rather, they lurked beneath the surface, gestating in the crowded barrios and industrial complexes of the Earth's 12 billion inhabitants.  Technology was researched, developed, commercialized, stolen, copied and cloned with incredible speed.  The hurdles for motivated groups of people to assemble the requisite components to produce sophisticated biological or nuclear weapons were not high.  Pshperic, an extremely advanced military AI system rumored to be quasi-sentient, had seen something that alarmed it -- and resulted in Nuygen being ferretted to Kyrat on six hours notice.

After re-confirming the mission parameters with the GBaND, Nuygen killed the comm link.  His E-Shadow sent an order the inert TARP pod and with a series of clicks, an Auxiliary Support Pack detached itself from the rear of the craft.  Current military strategy called for three types of support bots for a soldier on the ground.  As the Pack's various hatches began to open, the bots spilled out. 

First came the Swarm, a collective hive of what looked like miniature metallic dragonflies.  With amazing agility and speed, the Swarm was primarily responsible for maintaining the lieutenant's intelligence grid.  Constantly monitoring the environment and both actively and passively scanning for threats, the Swarm provided real-time situational awareness to the E-Shadow.

Following the Swarm were the Snakes, scurrying out from the Pack like something from a horror movie.  Each one-meter in length, the Snakes moved through a peristaltic motion that mimicked their namesake with eerie accuracy.  With an optically inert coating, the Snakes were difficult to see when moving, and practically invisible when stationary.  They were excellent at infrastructure sabotage; they could also deliver a range of incapacitation toxins to human targets. 

Bringing up the rear, a pair of Crabs emerged.  Each about the size of a pony, they picked their way cautiously out of the Pack, bristling with an array of hardware.  Strictly offensive, each Crab carried enough munitions to level a small town.  Calling upon the Crabs for help was a likely indication that a plan was going awry.

Nuygen's E-Shadow began sending commands to the bots.  With subdued shuffles and hums, they spread out, forming a web of surveillance and defense around him.  The Snakes and the Swarm dissolved into the night, and the Crabs scurried close to the ground, hiding in the shadows.  The bots began feeding visual, thermal, seismic and dozens of other types of data to his E-Shadow, that in turn began scrubbing the data, running scenario analyses and piping summaries and recommendations into Nuygen’s vision.  Satisfied that his support was in order, the lieutenant flexed his ExoSuit-assisted legs and began trotting at 20 kph towards Kyrat.

This far from the city, the land was empty and deserted.  Setting his E-Shadow into a semi-autonomous mode, the lieutenant relinquished control of his legs and felt the AI take over his ExoSuit.  With the grace of a dancer, the E-Shadow sped him forward, avoiding the myriad crags and outcrops with almost thoughtless ease.

Freed from having to watch his step, Nuygen pulled up the original threat assessment compiled by Pshperic.  Pshperic’s logic was said to be beyond human understanding -- after all, it had been programmed by a computer.  And that computer, of course, had been programmed by a computer, that was programmed by a computer, etc.  Human experts had lost the ability to comprehend the billions of line of machine code that powered modern AIs.  As Nuygen poured over the report scrolling through his vision, he was drawn to the three seemingly unrelated facts had piqued Pshperic's interest:

1. A graduate student at UCSD majoring biochemistry went on sabbatical, ostensibly to begin work on his dissertation regarding apoptosis; he was currently overdue to return to his university, and checks of his colleagues' email traffic showed they did not know where he was or why he was missing;

2. A distributed hacker network penetrated the firewall of a Chinese pharmaceutical research facility, stealing four terabytes of data related to rDNA derivatives of the solanum-3 virus; and

3. A nondescript warehouse in an industrial district in Kyrat was consuming 9.3% more power than normal.

While no one knew exactly what data sources Pspheric could access, or what other AI’s it communicated with, its abilities were universally regarded as vast and deep.  Scanning through the rest of the report, Nuygen saw that the AI had tracked down copies of birth certificates linking the grad student’s family to Kuristan, emails expressing sympathy towards counter-government groups, a flurry of logistical records tracking gene sequencers and nucleotide enzymes through various ports and shell legal entities to wind up in Kyrat.  After painting the target, Pspheric had honed in, accessing 8mm satellite imagery and global facial recognition databases to track everyone and everything entering or exiting the suspect warehouse.  Seventy-two hours later, Pspheric computed an 86.3% probability that the resources in Kyrat were being used to manufacture a Stage 7 viral weapon with pan-global destructive capabilities.

A flashing yellow icon pulled Nuygen's attention from the report.  The barren landscape was showing signs of population: farms, rudimentary irrigation systems, packed-gravel roads.  The Swarm was picking up contact points as the presence of technology began to grow.

The initial contacts were unsecured local nets connecting small agricultural cooperatives to other local industries.  Slow, latency-ridden and unintelligent, the Swarm did little beyond post their existence to the E-Shadow as they were encountered.  A rainstorm would represent a greater threat than these primitive networks.

But Nuygen knew that would evolve rapidly.  His eyes scanned the yellow icons popping up and fading with faint afterimages as the Swarm encountered and dismissed a growing number of contacts.

Suddenly, a red diamond flashed before his eyes.  The data tumbling from the diamond showed it to be a carrier-class deep wave scanner.  Nuygen saw the Swarm converge on the scanner, a blizzard of small white icons burying the red symbol.  But their jamming power was limited and Nuygen’s own sensors lit up, indicating the scanner had penetrated his cloaking.

On his screen he saw half a dozen Snakes scream towards the scanner.  At the same time the Crabs closed rank, positioning themselves to unleash destruction if Nuygen were compromised.  Anyone with the resources to deploy carrier-class surveillance undoubtedly had formidable firepower in the area backing it up.  Watching the screen, Nuygen felt powerless as the electrical battle waged, the scanner seeking to confirm his presence, the Snakes and Swarm clouding the air with a storm of electrical warfare. 

Suddenly, there was a flash across his screen, and the red diamond threat disappeared.  Reading the data, it looked like a Snake was able to penetrate the scanner’s hardened bunker and self-detonate, taking the scanner offline.  Nuygen held his breath, waiting for some form of retaliation.  It did not come; the scanner had been disabled before it could raise the alarm.  Whoever was running the scanner was sure to be aware of its “malfunction,” but the time needed to investigate would be measured in incremental minutes not hours.  Sending a microburst signal to the GBaND satellite, he alerted command to the heightened risk of detection.  The GBaND immediately told him to proceed as rapidly as possible.

Nuygen ordered his ExoSuit to increase power, and the lieutenant went blazing over the rocky soil at 45 kph.  At such a speed, his ability to remain unnoticed was significantly compromised, but he knew the encounter with the scanner would bring an array of unfriendly attention his way.  Kyrat was coming closer by the minute, and his E-Shawdow reoriented his bots, ignoring all but the most pronounced threats as he flew by.  Nuygen knew his cover would be blown, but he was hopeful that he could reestablish it within the city itself.   

Pushing his ExoSuit to its limit, the lieutenant screamed the last two kilometers into the shelter of the city.  The rabbit warren of Kyrat's tangled buildings and infrastructure enveloped Nuygen like a forest, and he slid into the comforting gloom of winding alleyway.

Nuygen's bots melted into the urban background with him, slowing down and mimicking his own move to ground.  Within Kyrat, the prevalence of surveillance and detection assets – civilian, government and military – made avoiding detection futile if he was being actively sought.  However, Nuygen believed he still had some time on his side, and a decent chance to make it to the warehouse unmolested.  The sky was still dark, but with local time registering 0430, life would come to the streets in short order. 

He moved quickly but quietly through a maze of alleys and side streets, his E-Shadow guiding him away from the denser concentrations of surveillance.  Kyrat was like any other industrial town, with block after block of low, dusty office buildings and industrial parks, unadorned and unremarkable.  With the twin benefits of a dark sky and his ExoSuit’s stealth coatings, he made good progress towards his target undetected.

Five hundred meters away, the lieutenant paused in a recessed garage and ordered his Swarm and Snakes forward.  The bots were in a passive mode, not wanting to trip any alarms with active interrogation pings.  As the bots stationed themselves around the building, the E-Shadow began constructing a detailed, multispectral visual feed for Nuygen to study.

The feed confirmed much of what the detailed satellite imagery had shown during the mission briefing.  But with this degree of proximity, new details emerged to Nuygen’s trained eyes.  Efforts had clearly been made to make the building look no different than any other industrial warehouse in the area.  But a careful inspection showed Falkniven-reinforcement along load-bearing walls, series of well-concealed balistraria that could deliver defensive measures against intruders and, most interestingly, a pair of 3PH isolation transformers capable of managing power in the gigavolt-amp range.  There was no way to confirm how many people were inside, but prior satellite surveillance estimated a rotating force of three dozen, one-third scientific staff, two-thirds security. 

With a faint glow starting to lighten the eastern sky, Nuygen knew his time was running out.  He ordered his Swarm and Snakes forward, sacrificing some level of stealth for better positioning and speed.  His Crabs naturally flanked him as he began traversing the final distance to the target.  The ExoSuit pumped a light dose of levoamphetamine into his blood, increasing his alertness and quickening his reflexes.

Three hundred meters.  Two hundred.  One hundred.  Nuygen's attention darted back and forth from the E-Shadow feed showing him and his bots closing on the target to the target itself, looking for any sign that he had been spotted.  That he had gotten this close without triggering an alarm seemed almost too good to be true.  It turned out that it was.

A high-pitched crack sounded and resonated in the air, and a dozen alarms flashed in Nuygen's vision from his ExoSuit.  The massive electromagnetic pulse explained the powerful transformers at the building.  Seventy percent of his Swarm was lost immediately, their circuitry fried by the pulse.  One-third of the Snakes were disabled as well.  The shape of the damage wave showed fairly advanced magnetic pulse-forming technology at play, focusing the EMP on Nuygen and preventing damage elsewhere.

After several shaky seconds, the lieutenant's E-Shadow managed to run a rudimentary diagnostic.  The ExoSuit's hardened circuits and redundancies had held up reasonably well, with the suit maintaining 84% effectiveness.  The Crabs, as well, were more or less intact, their design built to endure just such an electronic attack. 

Nuygen knew he was firmly in the scope of the enemy, and he did the only thing he could do -- he attacked.  He sent the remaining Swarm bots raining onto the transformers, jamming any signals coming to or from them, and self-destructing themselves by wedging their conductive bodies into electrical nodes, trying to force the cooling grid to overheat.  The Snakes threw themselves against the building, wedging themselves inside through any path they could find.  Most fell to the array of countermeasures pouring from the balistaria, a mélange killbots with varying weaponry.  But the Snakes that did make it inside were effective, attacking any humans they encountered with dart-delivered incapacitation toxins, and wrecking havoc with the building's electronics.

Nuygen crouched behind a small service shed as the Crabs sprinted ahead.  They stepped in front of a reinforced loading bay door, and launched a pair of depleted uranium rockets that blew the thick steel apart.  As he was rising to sprint towards the opening, an electrolaser blew one of the Crabs to pieces.  Straining to see though the smoke and debris, Nuygen saw the weapon mounted on a platform inside.  It was Chinese, a Xisushan Model 7, about as sophisticated a weapon that existed, and not something the Chinese military would have parted with willingly. 

Instinctively, Nuygen sent frantic orders to the remaining Crab.  The bot launched itself into the space, a blizzard of munitions converging on the electrolaser just as it refocused and reduced the Crab to subatomic particles.  Praying that the damage the Crab managed to inflict was enough, Nuygen sprinted into the building. 

As he came, his ExoSuit charged a pair of 12GHz plasma rifles built into the suit's arms.  Nuygen immediately sent two superheated plasma streams into the wreckage of the electrolaser, just in case the damage the Crab inflicted was not enough. 

Charging through the smoke, Nuygen unleashed a rain of destruction, his ExoSuit sending munitions against anything the E-Shadow could conceivably view as a threat. While the building's technological security was formidable, the human component was much less so.  Upon seeing Nuygen in his Series V ExoSuit, they scrambled for an exit, knowing their own last-gen hardware was close to useless.  Ignoring the fleeing men, Nuygen flew through the building, pouring destruction on the technological forces trying to stop him.  Towards the back of the building, he screeched to a halt in front of what he was seeking:  the sequencing lab.

With transparent, triple-pane bulletproof glass walls, the lab loomed before him like a giant cube.  The gene sequencers inside were self-contained, operated by specialized robots locked inside with them.  Of their human masters, no trace remained, but a half-full cup of tea near the control panel suggested Nuygen had just missed them.

Approaching the panel, Nuygen sent a communication probe into the universal data port, and his E-Shadow took over.  With sophisticated hacking programs, the E-Shadow was able to drain the lab's systems in less than a minute.  The data showed that the sequencing was in its final phase.  In twenty-four hours, the racks of light blue fluid inside the cube would be fully weaponized, suspended in an aerosol that could be deployed across cities.  Preliminary death tolls were estimated in the 250 million area.

Staring grimly at the data, Nuygen deployed a series of P9 charges, surrounding the cube.  The combined firepower was a lot, on the order of 0.15 kilotons.  Overkill, perhaps, but Nuygen could not take any chances of the lab or its partially-sequenced virus surviving.

He was sending armament codes to the charges when out of nowhere a RPG rammed directly into him.  Impacting his ExoSuit at nearly the speed of sound, the kinetic force blasted Nuygen off of his feet while an explosive concussion engulfed him. 

The suit acted instinctively, sealing itself tight against the blast.  But the impact had penetrated its armor, ripping into Nuygen's left quadriceps and severing his femoral vein.  The ExoSuit sensed his injury, and constricted violently around the lieutenant's leg.  Blood clotting agents and pain blockers flooded the lieutenant's system as the suit tried to stem the bleeding.  Instinctively, Nuygen began reaching down towards the damaged area when the suit suddenly froze. 

Desperately, the lieutenant struggled as the E-Shadow sent a blizzard of commands to the inert suit.  His eyes scanning around him, Nuygen saw the cause of the suit's malfunction.  A traction web generator, secreted in a ceiling nook, had locked onto his suit and frozen it.  Somehow its presence had not been registered by his E-Shadow and now Nuygen was paying the price.

Paralyzed, the lieutenant struggled uselessly against the suit's inert mass.  Hopeless.  He could not so much as rollover, let alone arm the charges and destroy the lab.  His E-Shadow made a concurrent assessment of his predicament, and a small orange icon began slowly blinking in Nuygen's vision.  A Strategic Defense Platform was coming over the horizon, and in 114 seconds would be able to target Kyrat.

Heavily cloaked, an SDP was an orbiting platform, the existence of which was vehemently denied by the government.  Representing the ultimate weaponization of space, an SDP carried a catalog of extreme possibilities.  From orbit, it could rain strategic nuclear munitions, HEIR lasers, thermal flechettes, and sterilization fogs upon a target.  Using one brought a heavy cost -- in this case, his E-Shadow estimated 250,000 Kyrat civilian deaths.  But the pandemic threat represented by the viral agents in the warehouse tipped the balance.

Nuygen stared at the blinking orange icon, his mind searching frantically for an option, for a choice.  He knew his mission, his duty; he knew what was at stake and he would do what he must.  But he was so close -- there must be some other option, some altern --

His pistol, Nuygen's mind screamed at him.  His Beretta M9 semiautomatic 9mm sidearm.  The exact sidearm carried by his grandfather during the Iraq War.  The weapon given to Nuygen by the old man when he completed basic training.  The sidearm Nuygen had carried with him on every one of his missions as a good luck charm. 

The Beretta was a purely mechanical weapon, utilizing a chemical explosive to launch a ballistic round.  There were no electronics to jam, no electronics to fail.  The traction web would not affect it.

Gritting his teeth against the pain, Nuygen twisted his right wrist harshly toward his forearm.  On the third try, he managed to grasp the emergency release switch and freed his arm from the exoskeleton.  Pushing awkwardly against the suit's weight, the lieutenant reached towards a storage chamber in the ExoSuit and pulled out the Beretta.  With an awkward twisting of his torso, Nuygen drew the best bead he could on the web generator.  Focusing on a dull concave indentation that should house the central CPU, he exhaled slowly and pulled the trigger.

Nine grams of lead exited the barrel of the Beretta at 400 meters per second and slammed into the generator's CPU like a sledgehammer.  Instantly the web generator failed and Nuygen felt his ExoSuit come roaring back to life.  Rising from the ground, his injured leg sending torrents of pain up his side, Nuygen finishing arming the charges and initiated a 20 second fuse delay.  Then he began running as fast as the impaired suit and his impaired leg could move him.

He was sixty meters from the warehouse, flying down a narrow twisting alley when he felt the ground shake as the charges detonated.  The sequencing lab and its contents were engulfed in a 2,000 degree Celsius blast of roaring heat and destruction.

Without breaking stride, Nuygen charged towards the edge of Kyrat, pinging the GBaND for an extraction solution as he left.  The GBaND was silent, presumably waiting for satellite confirmation that the target had been destroyed.  After a nerve-wracking two minutes, an encrypted set of coordinates was received by the E-Shadow.  Sighing, the lieutenant gritted himself for the 120 kilometer jaunt to the pick-up point, and ordered another dose of painkillers from his ExoSuit. 

As he ran, he kept his Beretta clinched tightly in his fist.  It was ancient, it was outdated.  It was an antique.  And it had saved his life, as well as the civilian lives that would have been sacrificed if the SDP were called into service.  Call him superstitious, but Nuygen liked the feel of the gun in his hand, and he was not going to release it until he was on a transport back home.

About the Author(s)

Darren Carter holds degrees from Texas A&M University and the University of Southern California.  He has spent the last twenty years working on Wall Street where he focuses on technology, media, and telecommunications companies.  An avid reader, Darren became hooked on science fiction when he read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series as a youth.  He currently lives in New York with his family.