Carthage

Fiction Topic Week

By Chris O’Connor

“Anyone sitting here?”

“It’s all yours. Guy just left a few minutes ago to catch a flight.”

“Cool. I like coming to these retro bars; human bartenders, social and facial recognition blocking. My profile is not being constantly scanned… nice to have a little bit of privacy.”

“Yet you are talking to me.”

“Doesn’t mean I’m not going to be personable. Nice arm, by the way.”

“Are you hitting on me?”

“Nope. I’m honestly complementing you on your arm.”

“It’s pretty hard to hide when I am charging it. Even though this is an old-school place, I can charge it on the bar top while it has an OS update. The glowing thumbnail kind of gives it away. Nice face.”

“Thanks. I know, it’s pretty obvious that half of it has been regrown when it doesn’t show any stubble on the right side. My wife wanted me to grow a retirement beard when I got out. Now I am doomed to shave the rest of my life or look like a jigsaw puzzle.”

“At least you have a face.”

“I can hardly complain if you put it that way.”

“I’ll tell you what- I have an hour to burn. You tell the story how you got that face, and I’ll tell you about how I got my arm. Which I technically don’t own, it’s a long-term VA lease from a medtech company.”

“Sure, I have time. My spot on the hyperloop to Denver isn’t for another hour. I think I’ll have the IPA.”

 “An IPA? Are you my Dad?”

“Look, I’m ordering a retro beer in a retro bar. At least I don’t have to pay in cash.”

“What are we, savages?”

 “I’m going to assume we are both former Navy. We are in a bar in San Diego Airport and we are telling tales to each other. My wife says Navy people don’t have conversations, we just take turns with sea stories.”

“A true statement. Former Surface Warfare Officer, you?”

“Expeditionary Supply Chain Officer.”

“Our stories should be pretty different, then. I’m sure they both start when the Curtain dropped.”

 “Indeed. Great. Here’s my beer.”

 


 

Our forward logistics site was hidden among a few on-demand manufacturing sites outside of town in what used to be suburbs. Some of our neighbors were forge sites for large multinationals that you are familiar with; distributors or express logistics companies in the last century that have since blended their services so much that you can’t tell who does what anymore.

The pattern of life at our location was no different than the others. Drop drones of various sizes coming and going on a random basis, manufacturing and movement bots moving between the buildings and the central landing pad. Even the structure configuration was the same as the others, designed with a workflow algorithm for maximum efficiency – north and south storage warehouses, two forges with two build units in each to the northwest and southeast, a landing pad, and personnel housing out of the way of the MM bot flow path to the east.

AA1 Garcia and I were the only humans working there. I never walked around in a mil-standard exosuit, and AA1 wore heavy load-bearing civilian one as part of her role, but nothing out of the ordinary for a forge site. Our suit management AIs and comms were military, but externally there was no difference. Our visors were standard augmented safety glasses. If our pattern of life looked “too military” to the VULCAN logistics AI managing the site, it would tell us to do something random, or hide for a while in the housing when it seemed we were getting too much attention on the nets.

Internally, the forges were different than corporate ones. Most of the manufacturing capabilities were more than what our neighbors would need for order fulfillment. We could build to more specific tolerances, add propellants and explosives to what we built, and integrate electronics better than most other small forges. A micro UAS with graphene skin and a metal-augmented shaped charge is usually not built by Amazon. To make sure our things were built properly, the AIs resident in each of the four units would check each other’s work. This was not the HomeBuild machine you probably have in your garage that does everything except replace its own filament cartridges. Hence the presence of AA1 Garcia. She was Additive Artisan with AI and unmanned systems training. With her coding language pay she had a higher paycheck than I did as an LT.

The Navy called the units Augmented Builders, AB for short. Rumor has it a Marine general wanted to call them Awesome Boxes, and that’s where the “AB” acronym came from, but a more official sounding title had to be created.

As for security, we had a standard razor-wire topped concrete wall. Our gate opened to an access road. Down that road was the industrial park’s gate to the four-lane highway leading to the town miles distant and lined by a sprawl of worn-down concrete structures. Security was a few unarmed dog bots, two C-UAS systems, and a tethered drone that kept aerial watch. The TD scanned traffic patterns on the roads and monitored the EM spectrum in the area. All were civilian versions, not visibly different than our neighbors – corporations had to protect themselves against intrusions and sabotage just like we did.

I guess I expected more warning for when the shooting was going to start. Something from the logistics task force, the Marines nearby, or a threat trend on social media. Maybe some sort of drone activity or unusual traffic pattern outside. 

It was a humid afternoon, after lunch. Every time I think of this day, I can taste that lunch, a tropical-variant microbiome bar. A civilian company had air-delivered a cargo pod filled with containers of build materials; graphene canisters, titanium cartridges, and polymer spools. 

The supplies had come from a nearby MALS det. The Marines there always had a sense of humor, and had taped a note that said, “DEER NAVEE, MAK THIS INTOO FUN THINGZ. LUV, MARINZ” to one of the containers. They were so committed to the joke that the writing was in purple crayon.

AA1 and the MMs had just offloaded the cargo pod when the Curtain dropped. Our ‘shades went dark, no AR or VR feeds. No comms at all. VULCAN’s feeds went offline, never to return. We didn’t hear a peep from JANUS, and when the cybernetwork AI is silent, it’s a bad sign. My suit shut down, but I was still able to move my arms, so I clenched my fists behind my back to restart everything. I saw AA1 do the same over by the landing pad. The TD fell from the sky like a box of rocks, narrowly missing its base station, but smashing two of its lift fans. The security dogs stopped in their tracks, as did the MMs.

“What the hell?” AA1 mouthed. The words appeared in my shades.

“We need to get the bots and the security systems up.” I mouthed back.

AA1 restarted the MMs. They were not receiving any VULCAN instruction anymore, so she took local control and sent them to turn the dogs and the anti-drone systems back on. I slapped two new fans on the TD and sent it back up. The site security system was completely off the net. The dog bots and C-UAS couldn’t be revived. My stomach dropped. Their programming was completely erased.

On our visors, a black cloud of attack drones appeared over downtown to our south, rising from rooftops, back gardens, and parking lots. Thousands of them. The ones that look like crabs, definitely more than were in the enemy’s arsenal. I changed modes of the TD’s sensors – they all said the same thing.

“Don’t trust the TD any more. Suit up!” I shouted, running towards the south storage building. My suit took the hint and began assisting my legs, moving me faster than I could on my own. AA1 ran to the north warehouse. One of the walk-in lockers in the warehouse was a go-to-war or, GTW, locker. It opened after scanning my retina and testing my breath. I had practiced for this occasion, so I had the armor panels on my suit and helmet on my head in no time. In the back of the locker was a weapons release panel. I hit the energizing switch and grabbed my rifle on the way out.   

After suiting up, Garcia’s heavier suit had the same level of armor, but had a larger battery pack and could last longer in high-intensity situations. Either way, we were not in exos even close to what the SEALs or Marines had. We lacked heavy armor, EW systems, auto-injectors, and heavy weapons.

We used the entrance doors of the north warehouse for cover so we could see what was approaching from the south while not being in the open. Hopefully, there could be nothing on its way and our video was just being spoofed.

When they did get to us, it was not what we expected. It seemed that every household, toy, and hobby drone in a five-mile radius was co-opted to attack us. Two large ones shaped like a starship collided with the TD, knocking it from the sky. It was surreal to see flying Hello Kitties and unicorns ram the dog bots and MMs until they were a pile of components. 

As this happened, the smaller members of the swarm set upon on us. We raised our rifles and pulled the triggers. The weapons chose based off of our targets how to fire. Some of the drones only got short EM bursts from us, others burst-fused 6.8mm rounds. There was too many of them, even though we had a good lane of fire. The smaller family cambots and airnannies would probably not hurt us in a collision, but they could distract us until a larger drone rammed into us. I had no intention of going out by being impaled by a 5-foot Star Destroyer, so I unleashed the PD guns. Until then they were hidden in the roof of the storage warehouses, but AA1 and I had activated them with the release panel in the GTW locker. 

Up to this point, we could have been a PMC or security company, but the guns were obviously military. 20mm single-barrel point defense systems with laser and high-power microwave. The swarm of civilian drones was sent to bring out our true colors. Communicating with our suits’ sensors and each other, the PDs made quick work of the swarm. It was a sight to see. After a few minutes, the ground was littered with small commercial package drones, toy combat planes, and the like. Some with fried electronics, others with smoldering laser damage. The PDs had refrained from using the 20mm to avoid collateral damage.

I personally took out one of those stupidly-expensive VR broadcasters. I’m glad the bad guys couldn’t get access our suits with one of those, since they were designed to send a reality skin to an entire crowd. Fighting off zombies, dragons, or aliens is fun in my spare time, but it would have been a waste of ammunition shooting at false targets.

For good measure, PDs then fried any surveillance drone within range, even over the neighboring manufacturing sites. I’m sure that really pissed off our neighbors. Couldn’t be certain if the enemy was using their feeds. No host nation security or military UAS were to be seen. Strange in its own right, but it meant we didn’t have to worry about making the decision to neutralize them for protection.

The PDs could protect us from the air, at least for a short while, but a ground attack was another matter, and we had no idea what was moving out there. Since the Curtain dropped, we had no feeds to any assets outside our gates – cameras or other sensors, the town’s traffic system or even civilian mapping apps. Luckily, the ABs built just what we needed. We had just made some deliveries, so most of our stock was gone, but we had six discontinued quadcopters that we hadn’t retrograded. Garcia found them in the north warehouse and sent them airborne. Their sensors weren’t as good as the TD, but at least we had eyes again. 

The real coup was the half-dozen Bulldog LAMs we had in the southwest forge building. We were in the middle of fulfilling an order to a nearby Warbot company when the Curtain dropped. The AIs in the AB units came back up, but were not trusting any of their design files, which could be corrupted after the network attack. We couldn’t build anything else.

I had only used Loitering Aerial Munitions in sims. Luckily for us, AA1 was deployed during the Malay insurgency and had experience with them. She grabbed the 300-pound case of munitions and put them on the ground beside the forge. She got to work checking their programming and giving them combat decision guidelines. There was a lot of mumbling and gesticulating with her hands. 

While she was engrossed in that, I took in what our new eyes were observing. The road traffic was at a standstill. All of the cars out there were shut off. There were a lot of annoyed people milling around the four-lane between us and town. Unwilling to sit in their hot cars, but unable to go anywhere.

Then some of the cars started to move. Starting at a defunct charging stop halfway between us and town, they began to part. Down the middle, like an invisible zipper opening the two center lanes, heading our direction. This was not with their passengers’ or drivers’ permission, mind you. They were caught by surprise. Some trapped in moving cars, the others hit by cars that moved with no regard for humans.

There was something driving down the center that our quadcopters could not see. The people could see it and were shouting at it. The irony is if I was looking at it with unaided binoculars, I would be able to see it plain as day.

“Garcia, how are the Bulldogs?” I mouthed. “Something’s coming.”

“What do you mean ‘something?’ ” She said aloud, still occupied in prepping the munitions. “Can’t see it?”

“Either our new drones are now compromised, or there is a vehicle out there that is proximity hacking cars… I’m guessing it has adversarial network skin.”

“Oh, shit.” She said, seeing the feed. “Good thing Bulldogs can use their transfer cases as launchers.”

She stepped back as all six Bulldogs kicked themselves into the air from the case and began orbiting. Immediately they began talking to each other and our suit information AIs. But the Bulldogs still couldn’t see what was opening up the highway. You could see them trying their multimode sensors for a target lock. A pair of vehicle tracks appeared in the multispectral light mode, driving up the center of the road, pushing the cars aside.

Based off shape and depth of the tracks, the Bulldogs classified it as a Scarab fighting vehicle. This was the first time Scarabs had been encountered in combat, so we had to learn about them as we went… and they were wicked.

After given permission from AA1, one of the Bulldogs dived onto the moving head of the tracks. And then disappeared. There was no shot fired from the invisible vehicle, no active armor response. It was disarmed by the Scarab somehow.

I saw Garcia modify the fuse settings on another Bulldog. She set it for antipersonnel shrapnel burst, turned off its seeker head, and set an aimpoint on the road in the path of the Scarab, about a half mile from the main gate to the industrial park. At this point, the people on the road had run away in panic, so there were not a lot of civilians there.

“Let’s see how thick this skin is.” She mouthed.

The Bulldog detonated above the Scarab. Instantly, the vehicle appeared in our visor feed. It lived up to its name. It looked like a beetle, low to the ground, with protrusions for weapons and sensors. The skin appeared to be flashing randomly, part of an AN pattern that was now incomplete in patches. AA1 released another Bulldog at it. As it dove, its warhead fused into a dual-charge skeet that punched through the top of the armored vehicle, stopping it in its tracks and setting it alight.

“If they have Scarabs out there, they could have attacked us with guided mortars from the beginning. They want the ABs intact. And we don’t have enough Bulldogs to keep this up!” I shouted.

As if on cue, a pack of four autonomous semis, two in a line in each cleared lane, pulled out into the highway and picked up speed.

“Carthage, Carthage, Carthage.” I said aloud. AA1 and I each sprinted to the forges. The AB AIs refused to believe my destruct command over the net, so we had to do it locally.

The local command panel verified my identity the same way as the GTW lockers. Then a door behind the power terminal opened. The button was red, but sadly not large enough to smash dramatically. It clicked quietly as I pushed it.

This action overrode the AB AIs. The first thing that happened in the sequence was a massive EM discharge in the server banks- wiping out the AIs and all memory inside. I was already out and running to the south warehouse for cover, so my suit’s systems were spared. Then an excessive amount of metal build powder was pumped into the AB’s main chamber. When it got to the right concentration, the electron beam was turned on for the last time. The suicidal explosions leveled the forge buildings.  

The first two autonomous semis pushed the burning Scarab out of the way and kept plowing to the front gate, giving a clear path for the follow-on two. They smashed into that gate at 100 miles per hour and collided with our gate, running out of inertia as they punched through, too damaged to continue.

A Scarab charged through after them, skin flashing to my naked eye, but invisible to the drones. Two Bulldogs knew what to do, a frag burst followed by shaped charge. At least our gate was now blocked by a burning armored vehicle.

Almost immediately, the remaining Bulldog was blasted out of the sky by the south PD. The scarab had got to the gun. I took manual control of the north PD and took the south one out with a burst of 20mm, even though I was still in the warehouse below it. Shrapnel punched through the thin roof and pelted my armor, which held. It was the ammo cooking off that got me. The blast knocked me off my feet and scorched the right side of my body. Only the right side of my partially uncovered face was burned. Nothing on the right side of my suit worked anymore. I could still get visual feeds my left eye.

It goes without saying that I was in a lot of pain. I laid on my back, immobile, waiting for the explosive materiel lockers to go up and finish me off. It seemed to be an eternity passed when I was lifted up into the air. AA1 threw me over her shoulder like a rag doll. Her suit could easily sling a 280-pound man and suit combo around. She ran to a low ditch near the housing and threw me in it with little ceremony.

The enemy knew now that the ABs were gone, and decided it was time to finish us off. Our remaining eyes in the sky winked out. Back on auto engage, the remaining PD stopped waves of incoming projectiles and drones, but it was going to run out of ammo soon. When I could open my left eye through the pain, I saw the ammo status steadily dropping. Garcia still had her rifle attached to her suit, but it wasn’t going to help in this onslaught.

Just as the PD ammo status reached less than 10 percent, a Wasp titfan in the armed recon configuration made a low pass overhead, firing at targets to the south. Text appeared in our visors: “CARGO POD. MOVE IT OR LOSE IT. LUV, MARINZ.” It was the first communications we had received from the outside world since the Curtain. The cargo pod, still sitting on the pad, unmolested save a few shrapnel holes, was going to be our way out.

“Let’s go LT.” AA1 said as she slung me over her shoulder again and charged to the pad. A Wasp cleared the north wall by inches and landed on the cargo pod. 

AA1 threw me in and climbed in after me. We sat in the cargo case cradles and grabbed onto whatever we could. Garcia wrapped my right arm and leg in cargo straps. The Wasp linked with our suits and immediately began feeding us aircraft information. It let us look through its optical sensors, giving us the ability to see “through” the aircraft.

Just as we were lifting off, a Scarab blew a hole in the west wall and charged in, patterns flashing across its skin. Our north PD slewed toward our Wasp – it was no longer friendly. The Wasp gunned it, but we were still an easy target. I held my breath, ready to be shot out of the sky, when a finger of God landed on the north warehouse. It was an incoming railgun round, the first of many. Within seconds, our logistics site and everything in it was gone. The Wasp struggled to stay in the air as the shockwaves from the rail rounds threw us around inside the pod. I slammed headfirst into the roof and blacked out.

When I woke, I was in the medical space of a frigate, the Rochester. I had a ringing headache, and my mouth felt like it was filled with metal shavings. I reached up and touched my face. Its right side, eye included, was encased in hardened burn foam.

Garcia was sitting next to me, annoyingly uninjured from our ordeal.

“How?” I managed.

“The Wasp was told to take us here…,” she said

“Rail strike?” I choked.

“The higher ups thought we were goners. In place of a Carthage destruct, they called in a fire mission from the LBJ. The nearby Marines detected our activity and sent the Wasps.”

I attempted to show relief on my face.

“How are you feeling?” She added, cheerily. “Are you hungry? It’s Taco Tuesday!”

 


 

“That’s right! They did start the war on Taco Tuesday, didn’t they? The bastards.”

“So that was it. About fifteen minutes of action, followed by months of rehab while I got used to a newly grown face. Your story now.”

“Sure, I could do with another drink, anyway. I prefer being sedated when I take suborbital flights.”

 


 

I was the CO of a Lake-class corvette flotilla. There were four of us and a few Fiberclad USVs, spread out and trying to hide in the margin clutter of a Seafarm. It was a massive operation – kelp and mussels. Solar buoys as far as the eye could see. I was onboard the USS Wayne P. Hughes. They have to name at least one ship in a class after a person, right?

Just after the Curtain dropped, the Seneca was snapped in half by an underwater explosion. She was in autonomous mode. Hughes was the only ship of the four with live bodies on it. We went Empty Quiver –it was obvious the bad guys knew where we were, but we had a bead on them, too. We had tapped into the data feed of the farm…”

Chris O’Connor is a Supply Corps officer in the United States Navy and a member of the CIMSEC Board of Directors. 

Featured Image: “Drone arriving at base” by Karl Thiart

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