Small Wars Journal

Pick-Up Team

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Pick-Up Team

Chris O’Connor

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.

There was a brief sensation of weightlessness as they fell away from the carrier plane. The kick of the rocket motors knocked the wind out of Doc’s lungs and dimmed his vision momentarily. Unable to move his head in the G-forces, he cued his visor feed to the rear camera as a strange plane with a long set of wings and two fuselages rapidly fell behind. The larger mothership shrank and finally disappeared as the spaceplane accelerated up and away towards the higher atmosphere.

After what seemed to be an eternity, their engines cut off, sending them on a ballistic trajectory deep into Donovia.

“That’s quite a kick. People pay money for that? I’m surprised hasn’t killed millionaire or two.” It took a little effort to for Doc to speak though the mask covering his face, but he was getting used to it.

“They don’t need this kind of engine for a tourist flight.” The figure next to him turned her helmeted head to him as she spoke. Her words appeared in the bottom of his vision for good measure. “This is a different kind of trip for you.”

“Most certainly didn’t pay for this, Major,” Doc grunted, wiggling his legs and butt in the jump seat, trying to get comfortable. “Can’t afford a space tourism on a virologist’s salary, but aren’t I supposed to get a cool custom suit so I can show it off to my friends as a souvenir?”

“You are wearing a modified HALO combat wingsuit. And you didn’t even have to go through BUD/S to earn it, like that wuss Vespa in the front row.”

Two rows ahead of them a gloved middle finger extended over another helmet. “Pack sand, Major,” another voice said. “Not everyone can be as cool or awesome as me.”

Laughter erupted over the comms.

“Net discipline everyone.” The Major said sternly. “Ok, Doc, let’s go through this… we have about 40 minutes until the drop zone.”

Doc knew exactly how much time he had. There was a countdown clock on his visor, along with the status of the plane; altitude, speed and the like. Even though there were no windows, he could look virtually through the plane and see the coast of the United States recede below him. The atmosphere was thinning, allowing for more and more of the blackness of space to be seen. He would be fascinated if he wasn’t so terrified.              

“You probably never expected to be part of St. Paddy’s War, but here we are. I apologize for grabbing you off the street in with no warning, but you were the best candidate for this mission that we could find on short notice.”

St. Paddy’s War. Doc thought. Sounds better than World War III, but I guess historians will call it that later. It has only been a few weeks, but the news came back to him. A massive tropical system slammed into Osto’s coastline. Massive flooding and power were knocked out to millions. Osto asked for help from the United States and the UN, leery of any involvement by their Donovian neighbors.  Donovia decided to “help” anyway. It was suspected that when dangerous storm was forecast, they took the opportunity to prepare their forces for an aid mission to their wayward neighbors. Then they triggered the hidden viruses they had implanted in the Ostoian SCADA networks, causing the power outages to be far worse than was caused by the storm.

Despite the best efforts of the Americans and Europeans, along with other nations leery of Donovian aggression, the Ostoian military could not afford high end AI-controlled systems to defend themselves against the threat. Their spirit was willing, but their exchequer was weak. For that reason, Donovians wasted few hypersonic missiles in their efforts to “save” Otso from the cyclone. Conventional cruise and ballistic missiles arrived in waves, destroying known Otsoian air defenses. Donovian UCAVs then methodically went after any Ostoian targets they could find, destroying vehicles trapped by floodwaters and any other targets of opportunity on the ground. The remaining air defense sites in the beleaguered country fought valiantly but were crippled by pervasive jamming and cyberattacks.  

Then waves of helicopters and tiltrotors entered Ostoian territory, inserting air assault troops into bases in Eastern Osto and setting up aid points for the local populace. Strategic airlift followed shortly after, dropping relief supplies mixed with light weapons. Within hours, a majority of the Ostoian military was neutered, and the Eastern half of the country was a patchwork of Donovian controlled territory, with the added benefit of plenty of human shields at the new aid points.  Under heavy cyber intrusion, all the Ostoian government social media accounts were either shut down or were now claiming that their neighbors were welcome to help, aided by troll accounts that lauded the great nation of Donovia’ s efforts.

The Americans, and a handful of allies insisted that Donovia desist the aggression and gave them a two-day deadline. When that passed, an exchange of hypersonic weapons began, followed by bruising air and sea battles. Doc didn’t know how they turned out but burned into his memory was the news VRcast of a US aircraft carrier, limping back into port with holes blown in its island and flight deck.  The DoD media releases reported that the Donovians were being held at bay by coalition light ground forces with swarms of warbots, but it was hard to get news of the front line at home from any other source. There was a barrage of Donovian misinformation, and the US government spent a lot of effort countering it.  One news VRcast claimed that both sides had depleted their arsenals of frontline missiles, so it had become a shorter range, grueling melee war, as cyber-attacks did all the long-range damage.

“I guess being a part of this is a vote of confidence. Couldn’t you grab someone from CDC?” Asked Doc. “There are dozens of better scientists in my field in the US.”

“In your shape, with military experience, a short drive from the Mojave spaceport? Not really.” To prove her point, the Major pushed a map of southern California to his visor, along with the results of the hasty health scan they did before shoehorning him into the exosuit. “Your cardiovascular and musculoskeletal systems can handle the stress, but your gut bugs could really do with a better-balanced diet.”

“I’ll get to a biome check if I survive.”

“I need you to at least live long enough to help me with this.” She opened the shared data file. The vRNA sequence of a virus seemed to float inches in front of his face. He used his eye cueing to pivot it, dissect it. He had only reviewed this file once before, but he was already well acquainted with its odd, haphazard features. It had the earmarks of human manufacture, like the stiches Dr. Frankenstein left in his creation. The caption A/Chicago/1/2030 (H5N1) floated underneath it.

“I am well acquainted with the flu designed to kill Americans.” Doc said, coldly.

“And we now have a pretty good idea of where it came from. There is no chance of eavesdropping enroute, so it’s a good time to go over the mission again. I know you had a chance to review some of this in the controlled access ‘shades we loaned you in the car.”

“We couldn’t have talked about this while you were fitting this suit on me?”

“Nope, the riggers weren’t read in. As far as they know, this is a test flight,” the Major added. “Where do you want to start?”

“Who are we?” Doc asked. “I know you are a Major in the Army; I saw that before you removed your insignia. Who else is in the team?”

“That reminds me.” The Major said, before pushing some personnel files to Doc’s AI. “Here’s our info... we have a pick-up team of operators. Can’t even call us half an ODA. We’ve only worked together for a few weeks, developing the CONOPs for the plane you are riding in- and we have no tours together before this. I’m the OIC of this mission, an Army Special Operations Officer. The Navy guys are riding up front by the drop-drones, a Vespa, a Chief, and US1 Walsh.”

[Navy Unmanned Systems Technician, first class] Doc’s AI anticipated the question he was going to ask.

“Immediately in front of me is the token Space Force puke, our JTAAC, Tech Sargent Deschane. Beside her is a the only other Army Long Tabber. Sargent Garcia. And then there’s a really new Navy Lieutenant.” The Major said, gesturing to Doc. “Thanks for signing up, Uncle Sam needed you.”

“Didn’t seem too voluntary. By the way, why I am I an O-3 Medical Service Corps Officer in the Navy? I had one enlistment in the Army as 74D before I went to college.”

“Mid-career quotas, I guess. Above my paygrade. The fact that you were a CBRN tech explains a lot, though. And you liked that stuff so much you got a PhD in it? You guys are weirdos.”

 “What’s weird is being a Lieutenant as an O-3. I never liked the Navy.”

“Nor did I.” Said the SEAL a few seats up.

“Seriously Vespa, shut up.” Groaned the Major.

“Do I need to be on the ground? Couldn’t you just stream your sensor feeds back to the US, where a dozen SMEs could give you all the insight you need?”

“We don’t have assured comms anymore. Can’t trust any of our satellites or drone feeds with this mission, and we are on a deep penetration mission into hostile territory. The only way we could be sure was to bring the expertise with us.”

“What happened to our satellites?” Doc asked.

“The war in space started before the shots fired down here,” interjected Deschene.  “As soon as Donovian forces entered Otso, birds would drop off the net, locally hijacked by another satellite nearby or with a suspected parasite micro-sat taking control. In some cases, we don’t know if they were simply told to shut down by their new masters, or if they are now part of the somebody else’s network. It’s hard to say if it is Donovia or somebody else doing it because they see an opportunity. As we tried to recapture some of them, they committed suicide by purposely deorbiting or frying their own hardware. Of greatest concern is the fact that an uncertain number of satellites are being spoofed.

On day seven of the war, one of the supposedly unmolested multispectral imagery sats began to provide imagery of country that conflicted with nearby HALE drones and ELINT assets. Its telemetry and network data was never interrupted, nor was it approached in orbit by another object. So USSF hit it with a directed energy beam of a specific wavelength that should have washed out some of video feeds. The satellite continued to broadcast imagery as if nothing happened.”

“I assume we are doing this to them,” Doc said.

“Of course,” stated Deschane, glee creeping into her voice, “the fog of war is just as thick as it is for them as it is for us. But it does mean that I don’t have as many fun orbital assets to employ as the JTAAC. The extra “A” now stands for Aerospace, after all.”

“Lame!” Walsh coughed. It showed up as all caps in their visors. LAME.

“We are obviously a tight-knit team.” The Major chuckled. “Back to the topic at hand, Doc. Let’s go over the layout of the target.  The rest of us have had a full briefing, but you didn’t get that luxury.”

The AI in Doc’s suit brought up a high-altitude image of a compound of two-story buildings surrounded by fields. He scrolled around them with his glove and eye cues. With multispectral views, he could see that there were many varietals of crops in the fields around the buildings, in neat rows, set apart by tracks for ag-bots. The largest building to the south of the compound was exhausting a lot of heat, with one side bracketed by a muddy corral with cattle in it.

“I really wish I could have brought my research AIssistant with me- this would have been a lot easier to analyze.”

“We don’t have the comms bandwidth, and it’s just another thing to interrogate about you and your life if you get caught or killed. You get the best stand-alone AI we could get on short notice from Sandia.”

That explains the little Thunderbird symbol that pops up in my visor every once in a while, Doc thought. “So, it’s an agricultural school, with dorms, classrooms, and labs. Fields to test crops, and… a combined protein meat plant?”

“That’s what it’s supposed to look like. The big windowless building hemorrhaging heat has the layout of one of those plants- one side a slaughterhouse, one a burgerfarm, and in the middle, the refrigeration and packing facility. The reefers alone could justify all the heat exchange but…”

“It could also be cover for a server farm.”

“Exactly. We don’t have any pre-war coverage of this location… we have some satellite passes, but it wasn’t a high interest site. From what we have pre-war, there was normal refrigerated truck traffic, and the trucks even went to restaurants, grocery stores, the like. But we have lost a lot of the images we captured since the early stages of the fight, since we had the worms in our systems that deleted the videos and pictures that were geo-hashed to any point within Donovia.

But we have new stuff since the war started, taken from a high-altitude UAV. And if you run them through some imagery AIs, we noticed a lot of really lucky cows.”

A series of videos ran past Doc’s vison, different daylight conditions and angles, but enough to zoom in on the patterns on some of the individual cow’s hides, and they all, save one, were the same over a nine-day period. Some we even seen going into the slaughterhouse to reappear the next day, intact and alive.

“They could just be shipping out vat meat in the trucks during this timeframe.” Doc said.

“True, it is grown meat is far less expensive to produce and package, but in a country with food riots, the life expectancy of perfectly good cattle shouldn’t be this long. And why would they act like they were finishing the cattle, only to put them back in the corral?” The Major added.

“What was it assessed to be? A quantum computing center?”

“Probably not, we’re pretty sure we knew were all of those were, and they didn’t last two days once the balloon went up. But for the purposes of CRISPR design of bioweapons and food gene editing, a pant load of old-school digital processors is all you need.”

“Why are we going in again? Couldn’t a rail strike put so much metal into this site that they could open an iron mine there?” Garcia interjected.

“Garcia, by now you should know that we don’t use iron in our railguns.” The Major calmly said, facing the helmet in the seat in front of Doc.  “And if levelled the place based just based off old IP addresses and some imagery, we could miss our chance to figure out what is going on down there. And blowing up a food production facility for no reason is not exactly a good humanitarian move.”

 “We need to put eyes on the compound and assess the threat. Not a single defense system, military or otherwise, has appeared on imagery or the nets.” She continued. “We don’t know if it is one person doing this on her own, a team that is sponsored by the government, or some sort of Pandora AI.”

“Never heard of that kind of AI.” Doc stated.

“During the Cold War, there was talk about a Dead Hand, a computer system that would launch nukes if it lost comms with its command center, to automatically retaliate against a successful first strike. A Pandora is just the AI version of it. If left to its devices, it will open a Pandora’s box on its adversaries- cyberattacks and the like. Or a cyber bioweapon, in this case. Maybe someone is getting desperate. We need whatever it is from doing something even worse.”

“In Greek legend, Pandora had a jar, by the way. But a that’s a clever name- Pandora was an artificial lifeform made by the gods.” Deschene interjected.

“You actually contributed something interesting, Tech Sargent.” The Major replied. “Any updates on our CAS when we get there?”

“Not yet. Net Overwatch is sending me updates, but for now, we have what we are bringing with us. The two Queen Bees up by Vespa and Walsh and our standard suit systems. We’ll get priority for fires for anything within range as soon as we drop.”

“Alright. Hopefully we get something better tasked to us soon… but we might show our hand early if anything shows up overhead before we do.” The Major said.

“What suit systems do I have?” Doc asked.

“Just the active protection drone that will launch as soon as your airspeed allows for separation. You get a pistol. That’s it, Doc. The rest of us have 6.8mm combined effect rifles. If you have to pull the trigger, a lot has gone wrong.

The Queen Bees will be monitor you from above and assign some Killer Bee LAMs for your protection.  

[Loitering Aerial Munition] Doc’s AI translated. An image of a 6-foot drone with ducted tiltfans appeared in his visor, captioned with Queen Bee. It showed smaller drones with unfolding wings falling from it and flying in overlapping orbits that it labelled as Killer Bees.

Garcia private messaged Doc. If you are dumb enough to pull out that pistol on this mission, I will, out of deference for your rank, RESPECTFULLY make you eat it.

“Just follow my lead on the ground- we’ll give you direction to your exo’s nav system. And listen to the CYBERCOM Overwatch. Their updates will come as blue font. Our comms are only one-way with them. They can broadcast through far more means than we can. They talk to us through refrigerators, floor cleaning bots, smoke alarms- if it is on the network, they will use it.”

“We’ll rely on you on the ground to figure out what is important. We know little about labs or the Reaper Flu. Since we have a few minutes, give us a brain dump on the Reaper Flu. Three hours ago, we didn’t know we were all going on a combat mission into Donovia to go after the source of a WMD cyber-attack.”  

“Yes Ma’am,” replied Doc. “I’ll attempt to do it justice. As some of you know, we are calling this a cyber bioweapon. The term is up for debate. But it is the first incidence of a cyber intrusion creating a human viral outbreak. I didn’t know all the background until the briefing I just received, but it was attempted in five universities that had virology labs, and only in Chicago was it successful. In other places, humans intervened, or the schools had better network AIs that detected unusual activity and proactively shut it down.”

“Not a lot of video evidence has survived- the hackers were good at covering their tracks. Video and robot logs are either missing or fake. If you haven’t seen the videos, you can pull them from the mission files. The first is a series of lab bots that should be in separate rooms working in the same place, using equipment that they have never been tasked to use. They have been given specific instruction how to build the virus and are hard at work.”

“No one noticed this?” Deschane asked.

“This footage was a sprint to the finish. One of the bots had been working for a better part of a week by itself before it brought the others in. The scary video is the second one. We’re glad we were able to find it.  In it you can see a lab bot swapping the cleaning canisters on a janitorial system. Afterward, we realized that deodorizers and hand soap in seven bathrooms and one kitchen had live viruses in it. That was done the night before the school had a conference of medical device engineers come in. The rest is the news you know.”

“I hear it killed ninety percent of those it infected, worse than any other flu in history, by a long shot,” said the Major.

“It earned the name Reaper flu. Luckily it killed about 4,000 people before we could stop it. The saving graces were that it was only distributed in one location, it was very stable, so we were able to come up with a vaccine quickly, and ironically, other cyber-attacks slowed it down.”

“The NextGen hack.” Deschane stated.

“Exactly. Between GPS being messed up and the air transportation system being down, commercial traffic came to a halt pretty much the same day. People were not able to travel before so many of them were overcome by the symptoms. If this had spread to the passengers of even one plane, we would be in huge trouble. Regardless, the CDC is so busy in Chicago and the sites of the other attempts that I’m apparently the only one that can go on this mission.”

“What makes this flu worse than any other?” Asked Garcia.

“It is a virus that could never occur in nature, optimized to attack people in the US health system. We think it started as an H5N1 Influenza A, which is a scary enough virus. With a few mutations could allow for airborne transmission, which had been our fear up to this point; that could have been “Spanish Flu 2.” But this wasn’t a natural antigenic drift. It had been purposely modified to resist all previous vaccines on purpose and goes after the unique weaknesses in the immune systems of Americans that have been caused by our diet, the medicines that we use, and learned T-cell behavior from previous infections. To top it off, most antivirals are not as effective as they should be. What gives it away as a weapon is that it has some vRNA in common with the Isavirus.”

“And that is a big deal because…?” asked Vespa.

“Isavirus only infects Atlantic salmon. The only way for it to share traits with another flu naturally is if it infected the same cell. Which makes it an impossible hybrid. We still don’t know why exactly that was done. Maybe we’ll get a chance to ask someone down there.”

 “The other silver lining with the NextGen hack is that there was a mothership ready and waiting for our mission, since none of the tourists are showing up. I wonder how much that British billionaire is going to charge the government for the ride.” Said the Major. “You are sitting in the results of a DARPA project that was not supposed to be ready for a few years, until the war sped things up.”

Doc could see the Donovia coastline passing beneath the plane on his multispectral video feed. It was night in this part of the world. Off to the east, he could see the war zone, a morass of smoke, fire and explosions. Under the plane passed the coastal network of Donovian cities and their interconnected transportation links. As he watched, the lights of an entire metropolitan area winked out.  

It looks like they are getting what they gave to us, Doc thought. Cities in the US were constantly losing power under Donovian attacks, and the occasional freelance hacker would take advantage of their anonymity to cause further disruption. He even heard that there were city governments in the US that hired people to hack back on their behalf, not exactly a legal use of taxpayer dollars. But there was no real front in this war.

“Why aren’t they shooting us down?” Asked Doc.

“We don’t look like a missile or an air breathing plane, to start off, but we also have a lot of help from Overwatch to keep their defenses busy. Not to mention they are avoiding unmasking their SAM and DE systems in case they get taken out. We are not on a trajectory anywhere near their major bases or metropolitan areas. Our flight plan is that of an aborted tourist space trip, which won’t hold up to much scrutiny, but will hopefully buy us some time.”

Network activity spike in target area, appeared in blue font. Working countermeasures. Can’t keep this up for much longer.

“Good thing we are almost there.” The Major said. “Remember, everyone. We have to protect Doc while he figures this facility out. We need samples and evidence, and do not treat people as hostile until I tell you to. If the target is determined to be the source of the WMD attack on US soil, we will grab everything we can, attach our hack drives to whatever hardware we see, get out, and then we will call fire on site.”

A clock ticking down from 60 appeared in Doc’s visor.

“Egress will be one of the delivery trucks. Walsh has all the proximity control programs for that. Depending on the reaction when we hit the dirt, we might be able to meet up with another team for extract. Otherwise we head to Donovia’s neutral neighbors to the west. Wipe all of the memory in your exos. No mission or history files leave this plane.” The Major said.

The plane began to shake as its nose tipped upward. “We’re aerobraking. Prepare to drop.” The Major shouted over the noise. Wasn’t really necessary since her words were captioned by his visor.

The clock reached 30

 “How many times have you done this?” Doc shouted.

“This is our first drop. You’re riding in our only manned prototype!”

“What?”

“Don’t worry, it’ll be ok should have enough airspeed and altitude to glide to a friendly runway.”

“That’s not what I was worried about!”

There was gasping over the net as the other members of the team attempted to laugh through the rocking and shaking.

20. Something pinched Doc in the arm. The exo’s auto-injector. His sight suddenly became sharper, his vision clearer.

Remember, you are the first out, because you don’t the least amount of gear and it will be easier for separation. The Major gave up on shouting over the noise.

Doc gave a thumbs up.

The plane began to roll upside down. The clock hit 10.

And you are ejecting while the plane is upside down. The airflow is better inverted.

“You didn’t tell me that!” Doc shouted.

Didn’t want you to panic.  Remember. Don’t fight the suit. It will get you to where you need to go. And no comms on the way down.

Lights inside the plane turned green as the it finished the aileron roll. Doc’s head was pointing earthward.

0. Doc’s suit and seat stretched him upright and pinned his arms to his side. A square of dark and noisy night appeared in the roof over his head.

See you on the ground.

Doc swore out loud as the plane hurled him into the void.

Categories: Mad Scientist

About the Author(s)

LCDR Chris O’Connor is a Navy Supply Corps Officer. He currently serves as the Fleet Services Officer, US Fleet Forces Command, and has previous tours at the CNO Strategic Studies Group and CNO Rapid Innovation Cell. This is his fourth fiction work on the future of warfare.