Battle at Kitee
The Mad Scientist team executed its 2019 Science Fiction Writing Contest to glean insights about the future fight with a near-peer competitor in 2030. We received 77 submissions from both within and outside of the DoD. This story was one of our semi-finalists and features a futuristic look at warfare and its featured technologies.
Staff Sergeant Ayrer stepped off the transport in Kitee, Otso already wearing his gear, or Smashsuit, as the troops called it. Tailor-made to hug Ayrer’s muscular build, the durable, seal-gray battle suit fit him like a second skin, yet able to stop bullets and protect from landmine blasts. Hurt like heck, though. He pulled on the gloves and made fists to activate the super strength capability, only possible if the suit recognized his genetic signature. Donning his helmet, he blinked on the controls which enabled a neurological connection to his mind. He pinged his partner, Droid Ella or D-ella for short, with just a thought and smiled when it pinged back and synced their positions.
Ayrer swung the strap of a rifle-shaped laser gun over his head and across his chest. An elongated pack already lay flush against his back. He peered up into the darkened cloud cover. Flashes of fire power in the distance lit up the sky like some strange fireworks show. Glancing over the data projected on his face-shield, he noted the position and condition of each soldier under his command. His squad contained two autonomous droids, three autonomous vehicles, and five humans. This team stood as a sign of the times, quite normal for a war in 2030.
Jogging out toward the plateau, he eyed the mountains towering just inside the southern border and, to the east, the forests lining the border with Donovia, a country whose technological advancements rivaled that of the United States. Good ole red, white, and blue jumped in to assist Otso, a close ally, when the elites of Donovia dared to invade Otso after months of strained relations.
A distress alert from vehicle alpha alpha three four four, also known as Vehicle Andy or V-andy, flashed up on the face-shield.
He rushed to the edge of the current safe zone. An invisible dome protected the base from enemy fire. Friendlies with a compatible chip in each boot could come and go. Anyone else…zapped on contact. “Sergeant Cole, come in,” he said.
“Cole, do you read me?”
He scanned the horizon and spotted smoke in the distance, northeast. “Della,” as he liked to call his partner droid, “are you critical for the front line?”
“No, Staff Sergeant. The manual droids are holding.”
Operators stationed elsewhere, in buildings accessible only by hidden entrances located in the United States or friendly countries, flew most of the droids, or manuals as they were called. D-ella and others like her maneuvered independent of human intervention due to recently developed artificial intelligent coding, allowing them to train alongside their assigned partners as early as basic training.
“Roger that. What about Sergeant Cole’s droid partner?”
“Down, sir. Hit by incoming.”
Besides being battle ready, D-ella also ensured no damaged droid would be left behind, especially not one that was self-aware. They’d mourn Droid Otto after the fight. In order to avoid any insurgence within the ranks, Army psychologists mandated a few years back that the consciousness of no autonomous tech be uploaded into a newly printed shell. They were to be valued as individuals who, at the risk of ceasing to exist, rushed into the fight to protect a fellow soldier. D-otto would be missed.
“I need assistance.” Ayrer checked Cole’s vital signs. Still alive. “Meet me two clicks northeast of my current location.”
“Just shy of two and a half minutes if I can avoid being blasted to the sun.” The ability to run one kilometer in one minute and twenty seconds in the suit clocked him faster than any human without one.
An image of racing across the grassy plateau flashed through Ayrer’s mind. Electric pulses pumped energy down into his boots which almost floated across the rocky terrain, smashing anything unfortunate enough to lay under his step. He closed in on the rising smoke, the silhouetted trees in his peripheral zooming past.
A buzzing noise warned of incoming. A laser flashed across the sky and intercepted a missile. Although not visually visible, D-ella had arrived. She’d activated her cloaking capability. Shots rang out toward the coordinates from which she fired, but the bullets hit nothing but air. D-ella’d already flown to another location, poised and ready to fire again. Sparks and flame erupted off toward the right. Ayrer ran a zigzagged path to avoid each missile while D-ella destroyed the offending weapons along his trajectory.
The instant he reached the overturned vehicle, his face-shield’s screen showed the droid as hovering overhead even though she remained invisible and silent.
“Surroundings are clear of hostiles, sir.”
The utility vehicle sat on its roof, the windshield and windows curving inward. A new kind of glass that didn’t break. Ayrer glanced at the mutilated trunk area. Movement from inside caught his attention.
Ayrer pressed his palm against the side, rocking the vehicle to gain momentum. Without breaking a sweat, he pushed up and over, setting V-andy back on its wheels. What was left of them anyway. He reached for the latch on the bent door and pulled, the gloves making removal of the door child’s play.
“Alive, sir. Comms down.”
“What happened? Where’s your vehicle partner?”
“Victor got blown up a few clicks back. He rammed me out of the way when the hostiles shot a missile at me.” Cole unclicked the seatbelt, “Then, we hit a landmine. Took out the rear.” She pushed out of the cabin and scuffed her boot. “Managed some reconnaissance.” She grabbed her gun and backpack.
She faced him. “Already uplinked. Birds and boats all have it.” That’s Cole-speak for jets, helos, and ships.
Ayrer scanned Cole’s forest green camouflaged uniform. A sown in bullet proof vest protected her core, but, otherwise, she remained vulnerable to battle artillery. “Your suit?”
Cole glanced toward the V-ictor’s rear-end. “Blasted.” An inactivated Smashsuit lacked the capability to survive a direct hit.
“Gotta get you back to base or Major Sergeant Martin will have my head.”
“Martin might have my father’s consciousness, but he’s not my dad.”
The human Major Sergeant Martin fell ill at the first signs that Donovia displayed aggressive tactics toward Otso. The doctor doubted he’d survive a weakening heart. With Martin’s permission, his battle critical knowledge had been uploaded into a one-of-a-kind autonomous biped who looked, spoke, and smelled like the late Major Sergeant.
“Doesn’t stop him from doting over you.”
“He won’t like that I lost two troops.”
Ayrer shook his head. “They were doing their duty by protecting a fellow soldier and sacrificed themselves so you can live to fight another day.”
“Two robotic hostiles approaching from the forest,” D-ella said.
Ayrer accessed menus that pushed out two levers from his legs for Cole’s boot and two from his shoulders for Cole to hold on to. “I’ll carry you.”
Cole turned to her vehicle. “Alpha alpha three four four. Self-destruct.”
“Code, please,” V-andy said.
“Five four three two.”
Nanites exited a small box on the dashboard and began to consume the vehicle. No way the hostiles get their hands on American tech.
“Bye, buddy,” Cole said.
Sergeant Cole climbed up on Ayrer’s back, fitting her hands and boots on the levers.
“Hold on tight.”
“Roger that, sir.”
Shots fired into Ayrer’s left boot, but he ignored the sudden jolt of pain and kept running. With the extra weight and an adjusted center of gravity, his return to the safe zone lagged a bit. He’d just traversed a kilometer when more hostiles exited the forest, blocking the most direct way back. He sent out an S.O.S. and veered west. D-ella shot and disabled a dozen robots, but the horde kept coming.
When the upper panel on his face-shield flashed red, Ayrer yelled, “Take cover.”
Sergeant Cole jumped to the ground and assumed a fetal position. Ayrer formed a tent over Cole as a missile exploded overhead. His suit absorbed the energy and heat from the blast. He waited until the remnants of the missile settled on the ground before standing.
“You good?” Ayer asked and extended an arm toward her.
He pulled Cole to her feet and gestured for her to return to the levers, but, lacking the time to mount, she stood her ground and readied her weapon. One of the silver metallic robots sprinted toward them, but D-ella zapped it before Cole got off a shot. The muscles in Ayrer’s neck tensed when robots attempted to pen him and Cole in. Relief washed over him at the sight of friendly forest green camouflaged robots rushing to engage the platoon of hostiles who’d intercepted them.
“Stay behind me,” he said to Cole.
“I can fight.”
“Run and shoot. I’ll cover your six.”
Ayrer made a horizontal sweep of his laser gun, slicing a half-dozen enemy robots with guns mounted on their shoulders. He followed Cole and glanced back often to prevent a surprise attack.
“Sir,” D-ella said. “The manual droids at the other front are losing airspace.”
“Go. We’ll manage.”
His partner droid flew back to the swarm to rally the other autonomous droids and take back the advantage they’d lost. Manual droids lacked the ability to cloak, a capability only U.S. and allied self-aware droids possessed.
The instant she flew away, Ayrer hailed home base. “Send the helos. The robots are taking a major hit.”
“They’re almost there.”
“Yeehaa, the calvary’s here,” said a voice Ayrer recognized. Big Bob. He held the rank of Sergeant First Class and entered the air space guns blazing with his Helo wingman, Helovashot, flanking his right side.
Helicopters, both human flown and autonomous, glided over the throng and began picking off the hostiles. Although smaller than a standard helo, the sleek autohelos packed a mean punch to any hostile mob.
“How?” Ayrer asked.
“Sweet Della sent out a request. Said you had your hands full.”
“Half dozen. The others went to help Della. Jets coming, too.”
“Jet Fast Dog?”
“You bet, right after he finishes off at Tohmajärvi.”
Lasers from Big Bob’s helo destroyed robots to the left while Helovashot sliced up a few to the right while performing aerial cartwheels. Helovashot was one mean autobot and the perfect pairing for a Texan pilot.
“All clear there,” Big Bob continued. “Hostiles didn’t stand a chance. Now both of you git back to base. We got this.”
Cole continued on foot while Ayrer kept watch for any enemy troops who slipped through the laser firepower. They’d jogged a few paces away from the fight when Cole froze. Ayrer spotted two red eyes staring back at them through the thigh high grass, the Donovian ensign etched on the forehead of a giant robo-pet.
The monstrosity took a step toward them and tilted its head toward Ayrer and then back to Cole, as if deciding who to take out first. Cole raised her weapon and took aim. Ayrer also readied his gun and slowed his breathing.
Settling its reddish glare on Cole, the robo-hound jumped, lunging at Cole. Bullets from Cole’s automatic rifle brought the chunk of metal and bolts to the ground. It slid toward her, toppling overgrown grass in its wake, and stopped mere inches from her boots.
Ayrer, about to cut off the head of the animal robot, spotted movement to his left a split second before a mass crashed into him, flinging him across the plateau. With a quick thought stream to his Smashsuit, he landed on his feet with a thud.
The metallic animal rushed toward Ayer who raised both hands to grab hold of the beasts head. The bear-sized robot pushed him back, the suit constantly recalculating the strength needed to enable him to stand his ground. Rounds of shots boomed out nearby, but he dared not lose focus. Twisting, Ayrer smashed his opponent to the ground and tore its jaws apart. Glancing around to defend against other attacks, he found Cole staring at him with three more of the creatures littering the plateau.
“You’ve been busy,” he said to Cole.
“Yes, sir,” she said with a curt nod. She’d always been one of the toughest soldiers he’d ever put through basic training.
“We’ve got to study these…things. Let’s take one of them back,” he said.
“Grab one of mine. You kinda destroyed yours,” she said with a smirk.
Stepping up to her in a faceoff, he leaned to the side and curled his gloved hand around an ankle. He shook his head, amazed at her tenacity, and dragged the robo-hound behind him. This time, Cole watched his six. She’d earned it.
Upon arrival, Ayrer dropped his special delivery just outside the protective dome. He refused to risk the thing exploding in the safe space. Six specialists in white lab coats rushed over with two soldiers in Smashsuits ready to assist once they’d determined the robot was disarmed.
Ayrer headed over to the edge of the forest, a section guarded by two navy blue camouflaged robots.
“You may enter, Staff Sergeant Ayrer and Sergeant Cole,” said Kick-bot.
With a nod, Ayrer led the way through a leaf-covered door and down two flights of stairs. He walked through the cylinder-shaped enclosure which granted access to command stations, medical facilities, and a enough bunks for half the troops at Kitee to get some shut eye while the other half kept the enemy from advancing any further into Otso. Ayrer noted the high sliding ceiling where droid swarms could return for maintenance.
Now safe inside, Ayrer checked his display. Two autonomous vehicles and one autonomous droid lost. One human, Colonel Jones, injured. Ayrer turned down the hall that led to medical, but Major Sergeant Martin blocked his path. Martin’s human partner Major Sergeant Whitaker stood off to the right.
Ayrer raised up his hand to salute. “Sir, excuse me, sir.”
“At ease, Staff Sergeant. What’s your assessment?”
Dropping his hand to his side, Ayrer sucked in a quick breath. “We now have two fronts out there. The enemy has begun to send troops through the forest, but assistance from helos and fighter jets are helping to turn the tide.”
“We’ll need an air tanker here. Two are flying over Otso’s western border now.”
“And the droid swarms will need a swap out.”
“A transport just arrived with a new batch. Remote pilots are already assigned to take over at dawn.” Martin glanced over toward Cole. “We got your intel.”
“Was it helpful, sir?”
“Yes, but I’m still deciding whether it would have been worth losing you.”
“I’m fine, sir.”
Martin nodded. “Yes, you are for which I’m grateful. Follow me to the War Room.”
No one spoke until Whitaker closed the door behind them. “Martin deciphered a pattern.”
“Yes,” Martin began as he strolled over to a map displayed on a digital table, “Donovia is attacking in waves. Droids, then biped robots. Looks like they’re readying their pilots for the next wave.”
“And they’ve got robot animals.”
“Other fronts have mentioned them, too. We’ve lost too many troops to them. How did you stop it?”
“She downed four of them, sir.”
Martin raised his graying brows. “How?”
“I shot nano bullets right at the Donovian ensign between its demon eyes. No doubt the nanos disabled whatever makes it tick. Shooting at the body and legs don’t take them out fast enough. The forehead is the only spot that works.”
Martin turned to Whitaker. “Send that intel to the other front right now.”
“Roger that,” Whitaker said and walked over a tablet on a desk in the corner of the room.
“Wonder what other surprises they have for us? Anything else?” Martin asked.
“No, sir,” Ayrer and Cole said at the same time.
“Request permission to be excused. One of my squad was taken to medical,” Ayrer said.
“By all means. Let me know if anything else comes to mind.”
“Sure thing, Major Sergeant,” Ayrer said and saluted before turning to leave the room.
Ayrer and Cole headed back to atrium space and veered left toward the medical rooms. He checked the names on the door until he found the one he wanted—Colonel Jones. He pushed the door open just in time to see a robot arm fitting a leg onto the colonel’s stump. Jones glanced up and smiled.
“Had it rough out there, huh, soldier,” Ayrer asked.
“Leg got ripped off by one of those animal bots. Lucky shot to its head saved my life.”
“With the Smashsuit?”
“Naw. Had to leave it behind for repairs. Shorted out when I activated the strength capability. Could have sure used it today.”
“Can’t believe you’re smiling. Doesn’t it hurt?” Ayer said with a nod toward the sown up area.
“Now? Naw, but you must’ve heard me screaming when that thing took a hold of me. I was cryin’ like a baby until they gave me what I’m calling my happy juice. Works wonders while the nano tech in my stump does its magic.”
“Heading home, then?”
“No, sir, not if this prosthetic leg works the way it’s supposed to. Doc’s checking the measurements for a new limb. They’ll give me a week to heal up before attaching it. One week of physical therapy and I should be good to go.”
“The miracles of modern medicine,” Cole said.
“I want you paired up with me your first time out,” Ayrer said.
“Sure thing, Staff Sergeant.”
“My pleasure to hand him off to you, Jones. He’s something in the field.” Cole smirked.
“What? You don’t like the company?” Ayrer asked.
“It’s the mothering I could do without.”
“I see.” Ayrer chuckled. “You did great out there, Cole.”
Ayrer and Cole hung out with Jones until Ayrer received a message on his face-shield’s display that the remainder of his squad got relief from other squadrons.
At the end of the fourth watch, D-ella, V-inny, Colonial Stone, Colonial Malone, and Sergeant Thompson entered the large atrium. Ayrer removed his helmet and nodded at each one of them in turn.
“Let’s meet up for a sec before we all go to the mess hall.”
Everyone gathered around with D-ella hovering overhead and V-inny rolling up next to Cole.
“Super job out there. We had our butts kicked around a bit with Jones getting fitted for a new leg. We lost Dotto, Victor, and Vandy during the fight and, although we’ll receive new troops, those three will always hold a special place for us.”
Ayrer paused to assess the mood of his squad before continuing.
“Cole and her partners deserve a special accolade for gathering intel and also for Cole figuring out how to disable the animal bots. Hooah!”
“Hooah!” repeated the squad.
“Without that knowledge, we’d be in for a heck of a fight. At least now we can keep the enemy from advancing further into Otso. Any questions?”
“No, sir,” said the squad in unison.
“This battle has been won, soldiers, but the war isn’t over. Rest up to fight another day.”
The views expressed in this article are the author's alone, and do not imply endorsement by the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government. This piece is a work of speculative fiction, meant to be thought-provoking, and does not reflect the current position of the U.S. Army.