The following is an entry for the CIMSEC & Atlantic Council Fiction Contest on Autonomy and Future War. Winners will be announced 7 November.
By Alec Meden
When they came to my door I ran. I didn’t run when out UN aid station started taking mortar fire. I didn’t run when a bunch of old T-14s had assaulted my position in Chechnya. I didn’t run when a piece of shrapnel the size of a dollar bill bit my arm to the bone. I wasn’t even scared when the EAS system blared a year ago, telling us that missiles were coming. But you’d better believe that I ran like hell when I looked through my living room window that day. It was a rout for the history books. I sprinted into the backyard, past all the tomatoes we planted and shitty genehacked cabbage that I told you, I fucking told you, I’d never eat but you bought anyway.
I sat there, right there in the dirt, crouched down like I was attempting stealth, except instead of wearing camo I was wearing that dress you bought me last valentines day, the one that came red but I always reprogrammed to sunflower yellow. There was a silence as they tried the broken doorbell. Then three hard knocks. They sounded like gunshots. They were wearing class A’s, you see. And they looked uncomfortable. That’s why I ran. I ran because I knew you were dead.
The Secretary of the Army regrets to inform you of the loss of your husband, Captain Stephen Wilkes, to enemy action in the North Atlantic. His commitment, initiative and bravery ensured the safety of his unit in a desperate situation. I sincerely wish I could further inform you as to the extraordinary nature of the Captain’s bravery, however the nature of his deployment at the time of his death is highly classified. It is also with great sorrow that I inform you that your husband’s body was irretrievable.
I hope that during this horrible time you can take some solace in the fact that your husband is simply one of the finest soldiers, and men, that I’ve ever worked with.
And that was it. There was no signature. Just an officer with no name telling me that you were a man of honor. Well of course you fucking were. I imagined that you had jumped on a grenade, saving a bunch of SOFtballs. It would be just the kind of thing you’d do. That’s where I made my mistake. Married a damn hero.
The thing that saved my life was probably the PT. I would go out to the hills behind our house and run and try to think about anything else, which would of course circle back to me thinking about you.
When you’ve running hard enough nobody else can tell that the tears aren’t just sweat. I would finish with a sprint along the bone-dry undersides of the old flood canal running through my neighborhood, long since bone dry. We haven’t had sea level rise in years, not since the orbital reflectors went up.
I find that the one good thing about being at war was the social feeds were all down. Nobody figured out I was one of the victims in the attack. I didn’t have to worry about people trying to comfort me. I think if they tried that I would have gone insane.
The bunkers we kept our vehicles in were chilled. I’d just shaved off my hair in preparation for my helmet, and I could feel my hair standing on end.
“All I’m saying is that we’re here for you, you know?”
“Lester, I kinda guessed that when we went to war together.”
My reactor and commo tech, Jacob Lester, put his hands on his waist and looked at me. He was worried about me. His stares were soulful, even though he wasn’t. He’d gotten nicknamed puppydog in Basic for that, as well as a broken nose. I never called him that.
The platoon commander, Sergeant Major O’Keefe, a towering man with a head made bulbous by his neural helmet, stepped past him
“We just need to know if we can…listen, we want to make sure you’re okay, alright?” My face was reflected in the black lenses of his helmet.
“You want to make sure I’m still capable of leading this company.”
“That’s not what I said, Wilkes.”
Adams, the commander of Valkyrie two, put a hand on my shoulder. I hated that ‘We’re all pals’ shit he did. I stood and pulled on my helmet, then picked up the slim haptic gloves off the crate and slipped them on. The helmet was bulky and unwieldy, but it didn’t restrict my eyesight, and that was what mattered. It beeped as I fit the notches on the interior of the helmet with the metal plugs on my head, and the helmet clamped down onto the plugs, beginning communication with my neural implant.
“Wilkes, there’s no need to be standoffish. I’m just asking if there’s anything we can do.” Adams said. The Sergeant Major nodded.
I took a deep breath.
“There’s no reason to be awkward either. I’m not the only one here who’s lost people. I’m not jumping on a funeral pyre anytime soon.” I looked at Lester “You just keep our vehicle from going cherno and give me enough juice for the fans. And Sir,” I looked at the Sergeant Major, “All I need are orders.”
The Major nodded “Then let’s get to work. It’ll be long ride.”
Any response I might have drowned out by the round of turbofans roaring. I slid on my ear protection and walked past Lester. There was no point in further conversation. I buckled up my helmet and slid down the optics. Cam feeds from the front of my vehicle were suddenly fed into my optical nerve. I saw my own face, half hidden behind them helmet. Chameleon effect, they called it. Made me throw up the first couple times I tried it. It’s hard to wrap your mind around seeing from multiple viewpoints at once. But like most things, if you’re forced to do it enough, you can become pretty skilled. The sounds of the turbofans began to vibrate in my sternum as I approached my vehicle: Valkyrie three. A Jackal.
The Kzinti Aerospace ACACGE (Assault Craft/Air Cushion/Ground Effect) Jackal is a monster. Mine was about 40 tons when I lifted off in it, but you could load it up to 60 depending on armor load and ammo. The machine took on the shape of a long rectangular void, its darker than dark vantablack scales making it almost impossible to resolve as an object with features. On close observation you can see the sharp edges of stealth tech. If I chose to, the vehicle could flip the Vantablack scales over to reveal interlocking plates of metamaterial that made our vehicles look like a heavily distorted version of our background. The sides reached all the way to the ground, forming the air cushion skirt within which were the louvers that vented thrust in the direction we needed. Beneath the coating, carbon nanotube/graphene composite chobham armor protected the interior, with an active electric dispersion system to disrupt chemical penetrators. Most engine parts were constructed out of synthetic diamond. Two stubby delta wings were currently folded over the fuselage.
My gunner, Harvey Stahl, was wiping off some rocket residue from the stubby muzzle of the 150mm rocket tube that adorned the front of the Jackal. He moved aside for me.
As I climbed up the disk, avoiding the metal mesh covering the six supersonic turbofan thruster intakes. Stahl yelled over the cacophony:
“Good to see you, Ma’am.”
“Harvey, how many times do I have to tell you not to polish your cannon in public?”
Stahl grinned, “Understood. So, Sergeant, what’s the intel?!”
” Go forth and murder things. Didn’t you read the briefing?”
“What briefing? Base commander just pulled us in here!”
“You’ll have plenty of time to read it during transit. We’re going to Iceland!” I climbed up the small divot steps onto the turret of the vehicle, a round nub on 360-degree bearings.
“You’re kidding me! It’s still there?”
“Not when we’re done with it!”
I climbed up into the hatch, past the cake-shaped centrifugal cannon. Just next to it was Harvey’s baby, a 150 mm multi-purpose tube capable of firing wire guided or self-guided missiles, unguided rockets, or even conventional fin-stabilized rounds if you rose up the recoil-less cannon assembly at the rear of the barrel.
Stahl’s seat was above mine, set up in the top of the turret, to be closer to the weapons that he serviced. I went in after him, down to the cramped commander’s seat in the center of the vehicle. Lester awkwardly clambered over me into his seat, set below mine next to the shielding of the supercritical CO-2 turbine that powered the vehicle. Behind that was his real responsibility: the refrigerator sized molten salt reactor that powered the craft.
Down below my feet, my driver Tristan Nylund had his hands on the joysticks, operating the thrusters. A Jackal was a persnickety thing to fly, and Nylund had more in common with a chopper pilot than a fixed wing pilot, let alone the tanks that our vehicles were meant to replace.
“How you doing down there, Ny?”
“Hopin’ we don’t get nuked, ma’am. I heard they moved hypersonics into Spain.”
“We’ll be fine in this hunk of junk.”
“Yeah, but my girlfriend doesn’t have a tank to hide in.” I tried to defuse the awkward pause by setting up the situational awareness controls.
“They won’t have time to push any buttons. We’ll turning them into pancakes before they even try.”
Lester cut in, fortuitously.
“Sergeant, power is green, full generation, and we just got a new dose of fluoride salts while you were outta the mix.”
O’Keefe’s voice came through the radio.
“All callsigns Valkyrie, this is Valkyrie actual. Let’s transition to air cushion. It’s going to be a straight run through the Passage, so have your shifts prepared. We’ll be using the canal route, just like we practiced. Calling caution.”
“Tristan, cushion, now.”
Each vehicle in the bunker roared a short klaxon as the power to the turbofan’s increased. The four hefty vehicles rose above the ground by several centimeters, their turbofan’s filling the cushion beneath them with pressurized air.
“Why are we going all the way around through the Passage? Why not just move overland?”
“They want us moving at top speed, and they want us to do it while crushing as few civvies or civvie vehicles as possible.”
“Hey, to make an omelet…”
I smiled, despite the situation, despite anything. “Tristan, give me the sticks. I need to get reacquainted with this girl.”
“Transferring in three, two, one.”
Flying a Jackal isn’t easy, but I’d take it over a plane or helicopter any day. Let alone the old tracked tanks. I really wish you could have ridden with me, at least once. But the Expeditionary gets a little feisty when it comes to nuclear powered vehicles, very hands off. With two joysticks and the additional input from your neural implant, you can move the vehicle’s air cushioned fuselage over nearly any type of terrain, raising the vehicle up to a meter on air cushion and up to three on Ground Effect. Small obstacles disappear, and large ones can be pirouetted around in style as long as you have the skill and know how to work the louvers. I glided the vehicle over the base’s old runway. It was cracked, with grass poking through.
“Release wings, prepare for GE.”
Tristan nodded “Understood, preparing for ground effect.” There was a thump “You have your wings, ma’am.”
I could see from the myriad camera views being jammed into my visual cortex that the wings had indeed come down and fixed. The chameleon effect made me nauseous for a moment as I became away that I could see four fields of vision simultaneously. Best thing to do is to not think about it, and just accept the fact that you have eyes in the back of your head.
What did you think about my links? You never mentioned them. Did it ever disturb you? That I had small metal pieces nubs coming out of my head? Or the permanent short haircut as soon as I went into training? You never complained. But were you thinking it?
I increased the throttle, and began shifting the angle of the turbofans. As the angle increased, nearly vertical, they rose out of their housings on the fuselage and began to suck air from in front of the vehicle. We were accelerating to 120 KPH now, and getting ever faster. The wings were beginning to raise us just on ground effect. The air pressure beneath the vehicle was now increasing as the louvers that normally stayed horizontal while the vehicle was in air cushion mode began to turn, creating a flat surface on the bottom and projecting any thrust still falling into the plenum chamber from the now horizontal turbofans backwards. We were now a kind of low altitude plane. Ground effect flight is a lot easier that air cushion flight, so as we shifted down into the canals from the airfield (they’d opened the gate for us in advance, nice of then, since otherwise we’d have to bash it down) I began to relax slightly.
There was too much time to think on the way there. You know I have one picture of you on deployment. Just one. The picture has been blacked out entirely except for your body, and your birthday gift. It was the hydro-reactive cake with “My favorite speedbump” written on it in red frosting. I got some interesting looks at supermarket ordering that up. Did you really enjoy it? I know you said you did but of course you’d say that. Knowing you, your probably tried it without remembering to add water, lost a tooth trying to get at it.
Sometimes I keyed in my civilian commo gear and listened to your message as I tried to sleep. The one message that got through the jamming.
“Hey Beth. I just got your shirt. My favorite speedbump, huh? Well I guess I can’t complain. I’m doing well here. The food’s good, you know how big a deal that is for me. And we’re doing well. The usual hurry up and wait, which suits me just fine. The whole situation’s de-escalating. We’re hardly ever engaged. Some people are saying we’ll be back in time for Christmas, but I know how that movie ends.”
I knew you were smiling, then. It was audio only, but I could see it perfectly.
“It’s good to hear that your mother’s doing better. Glad that turned out alright. Hope you’re telling the crew that they’re a bunch of bastards for me. Anyway, I uh, I miss you. A hell of a lot.”
You laughed again, mostly out of embarrassment.
” Don’t flip a tank or anything. I’d be disappointed. I’ll see you as soon as I can. So uhh, yeah, I’ll get this war squared away as soon as I can and get back to the serious business, like that god awful pain scheme you showed me on the house. I love you. More than anything. I hope this reaches you well. Stay safe, Beth.
I tried to focus on your voice. I really did. But all I could think about was that blank black space in place of your commanding officer’s name, and you body, somewhere under the Atlantic. Where I was going.
Iceland. In other words, hell. We were going to be forward deployed to the Eskifjörður Naval Forward Operating Base. I wondered if this was where you’d been deployed before they killed you. I pasted the photo of you on my console. I saw Harvey notice it. He quickly went back to checking the barrel of his launcher. I remember how worried I was when I heard you were getting deployed there. And I knew the risks. Hell, I’d been doing tank busting myself in the Kamchatka crisis. But the North Atlantic was something else.
I knew the stories, but I got my first hint when we saw the largest wreck on the Icelandic coast. I remembered the news when it had gotten struck, but it still hit me. It was like visiting Pearl Harbor, but more immediate, because Pearl Harbor didn’t fill me with fear. We saw the Reagan.
The aircraft carrier’s skeleton was rusting against the steep edges of a fjord. The massive blackened holes where the long-range missiles and loitering torpedoes had hit it were like gaping mouths.
“Shit.” Nylund whispered. I couldn’t disagree with him. Did you lie to me when you said the fighting was dying down? Or did you just not know?
“Lester? What’s the word on temperature?” A couple hours after seeing the Reagan and I had noticed that it had been getting progressively warmer, despite the fact that we were in the winter in the North Atlantic.
“We’re still well within acceptable levels, but the 50 hours on ground effect through the Northwest Passage is starting to heat ‘er up. We’re getting up to a thousand in the core area, and the graphite barriers aren’t doing so hot. So to speak.”
“Alright. Lester, let the commander know.”
“This is Valkyrie three, we’re experiencing some high engine temp. We’re at about a thousand Fahrenheit.”
“Uh, three, roger that, you can land for active cooling. All Valkyrie units hold and circle on Banshee’s position in ground effect. We’ll provide overwatch while they cool down. We’re still in allied territory, but I don’t trust this place. Maintain radio discipline. I don’t want any of you catching malware right before a patrol.”
“Lester, prep to drop the heat sinks.”
“Ny, you heard the man.”
“Roger, touching down. Hold on.”
We crashed against the water, sloshing down until the hyper buoyant chambers in our wings and in the fuselage kept us afloat. I’d never figured out how to stop my head from slamming against my instrument panel when this happened, but luckily the helmet did its job.
“Ma’am, we’re getting a hail.”
“Allied forces interrogative, it seems like. Digital. Its got a US FOF code, but several months old. It’s saying it’s…Task Force 240?”
O’Keefe cut in over radio “Just received a hail from an unverified frequency. Maintain radio silence, tight beams only.”
“He’s right. Anybody could have the FOF that by now. We’d be asking for an ambush if we responded. I’ve never heard of 240 anyway.”
We’d been getting anomalous calls for hours. Enemy drones and buoys repeated US encrypted comms, parroting codes they couldn’t break in hope of luring in an unsuspecting naval vessel.
Lester activated the system that lowered rods of metal that collected heat from the core. The rods plunged into the icy Atlantic water. Steam blasted from the turbofan apertures, eventually spinning the inactive turbofans in reverse. I opened the hatch of the cabin. Cold air whipped through the opening, and tiny raindrops speckled my visor. It was foggy outside. I leaned against the padded back edge of the hatch and took in my surroundings. Our vantablack hull looked like a hole in water, sheathed in a cloud of steam even thicker than the mist that obscured the Icelandic coast and brought the horizon to only fifty feet away. While I couldn’t see them I could hear the other Jackals racing around us. I took a deep breath, inhaling a little bit of the steam that was rising from below the vehicle.
“Lester, give me an ETA. I don’t want to stay in the water any longer than we have to.”
“Temps are plunging fast ma’am, I’d say we have just a couple minutes before we get back into acceptable ranges.”
“Keep me posted. We’re holding the whole gang up.”
“All Valkyrie units this is Valkyrie two, we, uh, I think we’re picking up RF noise.”
“Jamming?” O’Keefe asked.
“No, It’s something else. Kinda muffled but-”
A flash lit the misty seas. The noise echoed through the water. I swore as the shockwave blasted me back against the edge of the hatch.
“Two respond! Respond! Valkyrie units, we have enemy contact.”
“I’m seeing something!”
I pulled the hatch closed and hunched down in my seat.
“Harvey, launch a D25 and load a penetrator round. Lester, get us moving.”
“It’s going to take a minute, Sergeant.”
“Make it thirty seconds.”
Harvey pulled a trigger “D25 launched!”
The centrifugal cannon above my head launched a D25 surveillance sphere, a small single rotor surrounded by a wire frame with a miniaturized camera, the same size as the 50 caliber steel spheres the cannon fired. The feed was plugged into my feed immediately. I saw the grainy image from the little flyer as it buzzed towards the area that the acoustic sensors had registered Valkyrie’s last position.
After a moment it came into view. The black vehicle was sinking, quickly. The reactor was spraying superheated seawater steam. Half of the vantablack tiles had flipped to their metamaterial side, and were glittering orange, reflecting the flames.
“Valkyrie two is down! I have a sensor on target! We’re under attack.”
“Negative, negative, this is Valkyrie two! False alarm, I repeat, we have not been hit! Something just exploded next to us!
It was the voice of Adams, the sergeant for that vehicle. I tried to reconcile the burning vehicle in front of me with the voice I heard.
“Then who’s been hit? All units sound off!”
“Valkyrie two here.”
“Valkyrie three green.” Lester said.
“Valk four all good.” The final vehicle called out.
“I’m routing the picture I’m seeing to your all. Look at this shit!”
“Negative, three.” O’Keefe responded, “Opsec requires audio only comms out here.”
“Lester! Kill the drone feed!” I switched to group comms.
“Sir, I saw a downed Jackal right in front of my position.”
I looked through the scope, and saw only a slight thermal bloom. Whatever I’d seen it had sank. I couldn’t see the other two Jackals in the distance, their thermal cloaking abilities making them invisible from this angle. Jackals vent most of their heat down, into the air beneath their skirts, and away from prying eyes.
Valkyrie two came on.
“I’m right here. We didn’t get hit.”
“Then why did you cut comms?”
“False alarm, something just exploded next to us!”
Something was wrong. I couldn’t pinpoint it but I was disquieted by that radio call. It was at this point that I noticed that Harvey was shifting in his seat, scanning for targets. Something that I should have been doing. I spoke into the radio.
“Valkyrie two, what’s your current heading?”
“Negative, do not respond. That’s an opsec breach.”
I couldn’t contain my anger anymore. This was insane. I broadcasted again.
“This is Valkyrie three, I’m telling you, we lost a bird out there, I saw it!”
“Sergeant Wilkes, with all due respect, we all just responded on comms.”
I sighed, “Did you at least see it, Harvey?”
“I wasn’t looking at the feed, ma’am. I was scanning for targets.”
“Shit. You have a read on any of the other Jackals?”
“There’s a thermal bloom up ahead.”
O’Keefe spoke again “Sergeant, what’s the status on your reactor? We should move out of this fog.”
“Commander, my gunner is picking up a heat bloom near where I thought-where I saw the explosion. Can you send one of us to verify the detonation?”
“It’s on my left.” I switched off comms “Lester, the reactor?”
I keyed in-group comms:
“This is Sergeant Wilkes. We have contact!”
“Sergeant Wilkes?” That was the voice of Valkyrie two. The voice of the man whose vehicle I just saw and felt explode.
“Sergeant Stephen Wilkes?” The voice asked.
So that was when a dead man said your name. I didn’t have much time to think about it. Stahl called out:
“Something’s coming out of the water, 100 meters!”
“Fire at will.”
There was a jolt as the rocket tube spat out its hypersonic kinetic penetrator round. Harvey went for unguided, and the rocket shot true, blasting into something rising from the sea. The telltale sparks of metal striking metal revealed the truth: there was mechanical in the water.
“Pull up the heat sink!” Lester didn’t argue or cite temperature dangers. He pulled up the heat sink and pushed up the efficiency of the reactor, deftly working a complex serious of controls.
“This is Valkyrie 4, we just got hit. Damage to our plenum chamber!”
“This is Valkyrie 1, we’re taking fire, no effect yet. I want close formation on my position.”
“Ny, get us moving, switch to GE as soon as you can.”
I started scanning the four viewpoints being crammed into my visual cortex through my helmet for movement. I could see the other Jackals as distant dots on thermal. Suddenly something flared up from the water. A missile.
“PD!” I yelled over the general line, not that it mattered. My voice and reaction time couldn’t outrun a missile. The point defense laser mounted on Jackal four fired on the object. It kept flying for another fraction of a second before detonating right in front of one of the other Jackals. I counted the Jackals soaring in front of me as we rose up to our max ground effect speed of 150 MPH.
“Stephen Wilkes, We are waiting for acknowledgement.” It was Valkyrie 2’s voice. Suddenly, I realized what this must be. I made a decision, Stephen. I made a choice that could have gotten my crew killed. I didn’t even have time to wonder if I was hallucinating. I pulled out my personal comm lenses. I looked at the little user interface screen on the side and flicked to audio files, and to your message. I played through it. Lester staring up at me with that focused shocked gaze of his.
“Ma’am, what are you doing? We’re engaged!”
Harvey yelled “Target!” Something was swooping through the air, about the size of a small car. Harvey auto selected it and fired, just as it launched a rocket at us. We bucked as the rocket struck the water just behind us. The flying drone exploded as our penetrator blasted through it.
“That was a fucking Cormorant! This is U.S. shit!”
I knew I was right then. I played up to the right tow seconds of the audio file to the right moment.
“Wilkes, are you crazy?!”
I pushed the lenses right up to my commo microphone, and pressed play for just a moment.
“de-escalati-“ you said.
O’Keefe butted in “Who the hell is that?”
The voice of the dead man on the radio answered “Query: cease aggressive action?”
Harvey yelled: “More Cormorants! Oh fuck, what is that?”
I looked up, and the cameras showed me that above us something like a pterodactyl was soaring through the mist. Its long, tapered wings were loaded with the stubby heads of missiles, one of which it fired as I watched. Our centrifugal cannon fired at the incoming munition, shredding under a precise barrage of metal spheres, but another came right behind it and detonated on our rear armor.
Another Cormorant was rising out of the water ahead of us, its rotors spinning faster and faster as they rose above the surface. Harvey fired another rocket, blasting the machine back into the water. There was a bump as we crunched its wreckage into the water beneath our fuselage.
I sped forward through the message.
“Please respond.” said the dead man’s voice on the comms. I found the right moment in your recording and played it over the microphone.
“Affirmative?” The voice asked.
“Ceasing hostile action. Switching to idle/defensive mode.”
“Hold fire!” I yelled on the team channel.
The Cormorants settled back into the water. The long winged drone slid straight into the water behind us, it’s wings folding behind itself as it dived.
Sergeant Major O’Keefe spoke up “All units sound off!”
Silence. I spoke up.
“This is three. We’re good. Lightly damaged.”
“This is four, we’re good.”
“Two? Respond. I repeat, Valkyrie two, respond!”
I keyed in general comms.
“Sir. They’re gone. They were gone the whole time.”
“Who the fuck was answering comms?”
“The drones, sir. I think…I think this was Stephen’s unit.”
So your unit tried to kill me. Probably on your final orders, before the Spanish rebels hit you with railgun round. Yeah, they told me. It’s hard to keep your secret squirrel drone program secret when it kills a load of American service members. So that’s how you saved your unit. You ordered your drones to hide in the face of overwhelming force, instead of defending you.
You hid them. So well that the navy couldn’t even figure out where to find them. You did your duty, and made sure that your unit could fight another day. Never mind the one they’d be fighting turned out to be us. I don’t blame you for that. No way you could have known some American unit would come bumbling in, refusing to acknowledge your drones’ interrogatives.
I’m not angry that your machines tried to kill me. Plenty of things have tried that. I’m angry that you didn’t fight back. Maybe there’s no way you could have won. Maybe you were right to sacrifice yourself and save millions of dollars of American machinery in the middle of a global war. But those machines didn’t have anyone at home waiting for them. But I trusted you. You promised you’d come back to me. But you didn’t.
Alec Meden is a senior studying Screenwriting and Creative Writing at Chapman University in Southern California. He has an abiding interest in military affairs, strategy, science fiction, and fantasy. He is a previous winner of the Atlantic Council’s space war art challenge with “From A Remove” and was featured in the Atlantic Council’s “Global Trends 2035” challenge with “Willie Pete Has No Off Switch.” He can be found on Twitter at @AlecMeden.
Featured Image: RQ-4 Block 20 Global Hawk unmanned reconnaissance system at Farnborough 2010 (Anguskirk via Flickr)