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Ragnarok: A Cautious Tale of American Hubris
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.
The City of Esor, Osto – September 25, 2030
The street is empty. The subtle glow of the moon casts long shadows across the front of the concrete and glass buildings. The neon shop signs are all dark; they’ve been that way for a while now. In the darkness they sit menacingly overhead like modern gargoyles. Above the buildings I notice a pulsating, orange glow followed by the familiar staccato of machine gun fire and the low buzz of attack drones. It sounds like they found another squad. The battle dies down after only a few seconds and then the night is quiet again. It probably didn’t go well for our boys. Pushing away the thought, I lean further around the corner and focus on the street ahead of me, keeping an eye out for any movement.
Rod whispers from behind, “Sergeant, we got the door open.”
I whisper back, “Good. Grab Lee and get inside as fast as you can.”
As Rod trots off, I slip back into the alleyway. I can see Corporal Gehlert covering the opposite end of the narrow alley while Private Moran kneels a few feet away, eyes towards the sky. Gehlert looks back over his shoulder and I signal to him to rally on me. He nods and taps Mo’s shoulder as he passes by. I stand in the open doorway, covering their six as they move inside. Just as they pass me, Rod and Lee come trotting from around the far corner. As the last of my squad enters the building, I ease the door shut.
We’re inside a wide corridor that connects employee entrances to several shops. About fifty meters ahead of us the hall veers to the right, likely leading into the shopping mall’s main foyer. Everyone instinctively covers a door or the hallway.
In a low voice, I call out the to the group, “Mo, take point. Rod, right behind him. We head straight for the basement level. G, you pull up the rear.”
They nod and we make our way down the dark hallway.
My nods light up the hallway in shades of gray. They’re ultra-light optics that use advanced Nano-tech materials to enable multi-spectrum vision. From the outside, they look like a pair of snowboarding goggles, except someone spray painted over the lenses with matte paint. But on the inside, the nods illuminate the darkness and an augmented reality (AR) heads-up display (HUD) passes along information piped in from higher headquarters.
It’s been two days since we’ve heard from anyone else.
Part I – Road to War
After months of saber rattling, war finally broke out between Otso and Donovia. It started about three weeks ago when ‘glitches’ in Otso’s exchanges wiped out billions of dollars in market shares. Before anyone could wrap their heads around what happened, the banks were hit next. Overnight, millions of people woke up to find their bank accounts were emptied. Within another few short hours, cities went dark as power plants experienced catastrophic generator failures. For days, riots broke out across the country as misinformation campaigns stirred up public sentiment and blamed the government for failing its citizens. The local police and fire departments were struggling to keep order, and then all hell really broke loose. Air and ground strikes on city centers crippled the fragile Otso government within minutes. Donovian ground forces moved in quickly, easily overtaking the paltry defenses the Otso Army could muster. Donovia had full control of three major cities along the border in less than two days. It seemed like no one could stop them from hitting the capital. No one but the U.S. would even try.
For years, Donovia has been using back channels to coerce or undercut American allies while simultaneously building up their military. Historical partnerships have faltered in recent years and a once strong alliance of nations is now nothing more than a paper army. The U.S., always prepared for a big fight, is one of only a small handful of countries with enough advanced weaponry to consider a fight against Donovia. My career with the Army has been spent studying Donovia, and the 502nd is geared specifically to counter their ground forces. We considered Donovia such a formidable foe that we fought against them in every training scenario. Ranges, AR field ops, computer simulations; every day we’d take turns beating up “Donny”, running sims over and over and over. We always won.
I never felt satisfied that we did enough to train; to prepare ourselves for the real fight. My father would tell me the stories of his days in the Marine Corps, of Fallujah, Ramadi, and Marjha. No amount of simulation could replicate the things he saw, even if our sims were the best in the world. He often told me, “It’s the smell they won’t get right. How could they? What scientist wants to smell piss, shit, and dead men?” In spite of this, I confident we’d give it our all. There were seven of us altogether: myself, Corporal Malone, Corporal Rodriguez, Corporal Gehlert, Specialist Lee, Private Martinez, and Private Moran.
When the order came down, our mission was straightforward. Stop Donny’s push, prevent further casualties, and assist the Otso Army in driving out the aggressors. With all the latest and greatest tech money could buy, we were confident. AR simulators ensured every grunt got a thousand mission rehearsals before stepping foot on foreign soil. We fought in smaller squads than our fathers did, but every squad could bring down the rain. This was mostly thanks to our squad AI system; the smartest computer ever fielded on the battlefield. The Squad Intelligent Battlefield Assistant, or SIBA, was carried by every squad leader. SIBA was a small box that could crunch some serious numbers and give us feedback on everything from the squad’s bio monitors to likely enemy maneuvers. SIBA could link up with other AI’s and coordinate airstrikes, resupplies, and assist units thousands of miles apart, all within nanoseconds. The neural network that linked it all together was rumored to be a quantum super computer sitting in a dark hole somewhere in Utah. On top of all this was every smart weapon you can think of. Unmanned machines like fighter drones, tank brigades, and artillery were faster, more durable, and expendable when compared to older systems or humans. Twenty autonomous systems were fielded to every one soldier on the battlefield, all linked by the tactical AI network. We thought our odds against Donny were pretty good.
Fucking hell, were we wrong.
Part II – A Bumpy Ride
Three days ago, we launched from Navy boats about 300 miles offshore; riding in helicopter drones under the cover of darkness. They flew low over water, moving quickly and darting back and forth to help avoid detection. We’d done this drill hundreds of times before, but this time my bird didn’t even make it to the landing zone. Our drone’s engines sputtered just as we passed over the shoreline. An emotionless voice came over the loudspeaker, the drone’s AI pilot.
“WARNING. WARNING. SYSTEM FAULT IDENTIFIED. ENGINE CONTROL OFFLINE.”, it calmly relayed to us with a slight British accent.
“PREPARE FOR EMERGENCY LANDING. INITIATING RECOVERY PROTOCOL.”
The drone began a steep dive, and everything felt weightless for a second. It was a moment of pure terror but, fortunately for us, the drone managed to recover just before we hit the ground. Hard. We got out in one piece, bruised but living. The rest of Bravo company wasn’t so lucky. Of the fifteen birds, I could see about half of them just drop out of the sky. Most fell too fast for the drones to recover. The rest were torn to pieces by Donny’s anti-air missiles. They were probably fired from a nearby town; the launchers would be gone before we could get to them. Barely two hours into the op, and it’s already a shit show.
Shortly after the crash, my squad rallied up with survivors from second platoon. After recovering what we could we made our way to the assembly area, an abandoned industrial park. The situation was far worse than I could have imagined. Comms were dead with higher headquarters. Not surprising; we expected to go dark and relay SITREPS in bursts whenever a clear signal could make it through. The area was saturated with electromagnetic jamming; however, comms should have been good this far out from Donny’s main body. To make matters worse, SIBA went dark, too. Unlike first gen AI, SIBA didn’t need a constant link to a server room back in the states, or any outside connection for that matter. Every AI could operate independently; hence why it was extremely concerning no one’s SIBA worked now that we landed in Otso.
The senior officer on deck, Charlie Company’s XO, Lt O’Reilly, sized up the situation and passed out her orders to the remaining squads. A handful of vehicles managed to survive the carnage, and scouts were able to confirm that most of Delta Company landed safely. We would push on to our objective as planned and establish a foothold on the edge of Esor, a city about the size of Houston. Afterward, we would need to link up with either Otso forces or any other U.S. ground teams that managed to make it through. She wished us luck, and we were off.
Part III – First Contact
The roads were still choked with abandoned vehicles from earlier evacuations, most were disabled from malware deployed in the lead up to the fighting. Sunlight began to slowly fill the sky and covered the ground with an ominous red glow. The familiar crackle of gunfire echoed just beyond the tops of the low buildings. Every so often civilians could be seen seeking shelter in the empty buildings or walking away from the city center, their life’s possessions carried on their shoulders. My squad weaved its way through the streets, every block a little tighter as we approached the city. In the distance I could hear a familiar ‘FWOOOOMP’ followed by the roar of a jet engine. Hypersonic artillery strikes. The sound of hyper arty always throws you off the first time you hear it; the rounds are moving so fast that the explosion is heard a full two seconds before the sound of the projectile in flight. At this range, however, I couldn’t tell if it was our artillery or Donny’s.
We were making good time to our objective rally point and should have made it there in another two hours. That was before Donny had his vote. On our left stood the burned out remains of a hotel, its parking lot filled with cars and debris. Just beyond the hotel and to our front was a highway overpass. Portions of the overpass collapsed onto the road below but didn’t completely block our path. Corporal Malone was on point for the squad. Just as he cleared the far edge of the hotel, a deafening crack like a bull whip filled the air. In a split second, Malone was ripped to shreds as hundreds of micro flechette darts passed through his body like he was paper.
“CONTACT RIGHT!!” shouted Lee, as he raised up his rifle towards the foe.
It was a Donovian spider tank. A four-legged, autonomous robot that’s slightly bigger than an SUV. They could be configured for different missions like anti-armor, casualty collection, or comms relay. This particular spider tank carried a dual-barreled 30mm flechette gun and drone pods. This was an anti-personnel configuration: a manhunter.
Rod managed to squeeze off three bursts before the second salvo hit us. Sparks flew up as flechettes bounced and ripped across the parking lot. I could feel the auto-stim needle pierce the skin on my chest. When certain bio markers are triggered, our battle rigs inject us with a special cocktail to help regulate adrenaline and keep us focused when under fire. Another salvo split the air and this time it found its target. Private Martinez caught a dozen flechettes with his face and collapsed to his knees, his last breath gurgling up through his open throat. I didn’t need SIBA to tell me we were in a bad spot.
“GET INSIDE THE FUCKING BUILDING! NOW!” I shouted.
Instinctively, the squad began to peel off and bolt towards the building. Each soldier held his position and laid down tightly grouped bursts until his squad mate signaled he was clear. We bounded between whatever cover we could. Out the corner of my eye, I saw another manhunter moving along the overpass; it moved low, just behind a row of cars. The squad made it inside before the second manhunter could bear down on us.
I barked out my orders quickly, “Lee, take point. Keep away from the windows and get us further inside.”
“Aye, Sergeant.” Lee responds, and the squad broke contact to follow him deeper into the charred halls of the hotel.
“What’s the plan, Sergeant?” Rod called out.
“Gehlert has two anti-armor rounds left for the Gustav. We take out at least one of those bastards and then make a move for a better position.”
“They’ll hit us with those anti-personnel drones when they realize they can’t reach us. And if we’re out in the open when they’re airborne, we’re dead.”
“I know. They’ve only got a dozen flyers each. This place looks solid enough; we can fend them off in here and then make our move. Assuming, of course, they haven’t called in for artillery already.”
Without warning, an explosive shockwave threw everyone to the ground and the walls heaved around us. The room became dark as dust and debris filled the space. And then it went black.
After the explosion, I must have blacked out for a few minutes. We were fortunate the floor above us held strong while the rest of the building collapsed. Luck, it would seem, was finally on our side. Aside from some scrapes and bruises, we were all in one piece. Dust hung thick in the air and I could hear a fire roaring not far from us. Good. The fire, dust, and rubble would help obscure our movement from the manhunter’s sensors if they’re still outside. I signaled to Gehlert to take point, and we scurried through the debris to escape.
The manhunters had moved on; likely searching for other targets or resupply. In any case we were left alive and had to continue our mission. We kept pushing further into the city, moving from building to building to avoid detection. It took a day and a half to make it to the shopping mall.
Part IV – Observe, Orient, Decide, Act
We cut across the wide, open floors and find a stairwell to the basement level. Here there are no shops; just utility rooms and management offices. It’s the best spot to hole up because above ground sensors have difficulty penetrating this deep.
“This one looks good.”, whispers Gehlert.
We quickly move into the small office and Mo shuts the door behind us. He posts for security at the door while Rod pulls out a Ladybug; a small, collapsible quadcopter about the size of a pack of cigarettes.
“She’s got about twenty minutes of flight time left. If she can find a good broadcast spot fast, we’ll have about a ten-minute window for comms.” he says.
“That’ll have to do.” I whisper.
Mo opens the door just wide enough for Rod to toss out the Ladybug. Its rotors quickly kick in and with a muffled whir it hovers briefly, orienting its position, before zipping off to find a good vantage point. About three minutes later, Rod nods to me that it’s in position.
As the Ladybug begins relaying encoded bursts, my AR HUD comes to life, and reports from all over begin to flood the corner of my vision. The overall situation is not good. Donny managed to sneak his way into just about everything we owned. SIBA, aircraft, the tactical network, and anything else with a processor chip. The cyber teams managed to root out most of Donny’s malicious code, but not before it took its toll. To make matters worse, the cyberattack delayed air and ground supply deliveries from dropping caches. We’ll have to scavenge what we can until the drones are online again.
Our orders remain the same: Seize the midtown power relay station from Donny. Getting the station would allow us to restore power to the southern portion of Esor. Without an operational comm network, coordinating an attack with so few forces in the area was now a herculean task. We expected the fighting to get chaotic, so our backup plan was far simpler: make life hell for Donny and strike at targets of opportunity until a coordinated effort could be made.
I wave my hands across the AR screen and search for updates on nearby units. No specific grid locations are ever provided as a precaution against enemy signals intelligence. Instead, unit locations are represented on the map display with wide circles, the colors representing how long since a unit last reported its status and the circumference representing its effective reach. Using this method lets squad leaders quickly synchronize effects without needing to worry about the exact location of a supporting unit. Unfortunately, no one is close by or reported within the last several hours.
“New plan, gents. There’s a subway station not from here. We follow the rail until we hit this utility tunnel.” As I brief my order, the same map view is brought up on everyone else’s AR HUD with a red arrow to indicate where I’m pointing at.
“We can follow that tunnel until we’re close enough to link up with Delta 2/2. It’s a light tank section. They reported yellow across the board about two hours ago. My guess is they’re in the same boat as us and could use some support. We’ll get close enough to sync up and figure out our next steps from there. If they aren’t beat up too bad, we should be able to make a move on the relay station.”
“That’s if we make it that far.”, Mo mutters under his breath.
I look him straight in the eyes, “Let me worry about that. You just keep your head on a swivel.”
He nods and stares ahead at the door. I can tell he’s at his limit even without knowing his bio-stats. Unfortunately, we can’t stop for long. Donny has sensors all over; stay in one spot for too long and he is bound to find you. I signal to Rod and he preps an encrypted relay for the rover. We stack up by the door and Rod nods that he’s ready.
“Send it.”, I tell him.
Rod beams a situation report to the Ladybug. As soon as it receives the message, it’ll move to a new spot before broadcasting to HQ. By moving away from us before broadcasting, it makes it harder to narrow down our location. The dangerous part is when we send the signal to the rover. As soon as the message is sent, any number of nearby passive sensors can pick up on the transmission. It’s a small amount of data, but the signal is just strong enough to get a fix on us.
The message is broadcast to the Ladybug and Rod signals to move. Mo quickly makes his way through the doorway and down the hall, rifle at the ready. The squad follows closely behind him, every rifle aimed at a potential avenue of approach as we move in a single column down the corridor. The squad maintains a steady pace, keeping extra vigilant for any signs that Donny picked up our signal.
Part V – Ambush
After leaving the mall, it took about an hour for us to reach the subway station. Surprisingly, several families are using the terminal as a shelter. Once the fighting started, families unable to evacuate were caught in the crossfire between Otso and Donovia. Most of the civilians that stayed behind are just trying to survive now, foraging for food and water in the middle of an urban jungle. A small percentage support Donny and, like insurgencies before them, have answered the call to fight. We have to be cautious as we make our way through terminal.
The tent city fills out an open shopping space with most of the tents clustered close to the walls and vacant shops. I can see the turnstiles ahead of us and the stairs leading to the loading platform. As we make our through, I halt the squad briefly to speak with one of the men watching us pass. He tells me his name is Stanis; he and his wife are traveling with their two teenage sons. Their apartment was destroyed by a blaze started by an artillery bombardment and they hoped to find a way out of the city. Unfortunately, manhunters are not good at distinguishing between civilian and military targets. Stanis says he witnessed many innocents cut down indiscriminately by their weapons. At this point in his story he pauses, lowering his head slightly. I could tell he was trying to hold back tears. Behind him his wife is kneeling in front of their makeshift tent, sobbing silently and clutching a small doll. The bloodstains on the doll told me the rest of the story.
“Daughter?” I ask.
“Yes... She was only five... I couldn’t save her.”, he replies.
I tell him I am sorry to hear of his loss and offer him the last of my rations. He smiles and thanks me. He says they have not seen Donny pass through this area, or any other American forces. I thank him and wish him luck. He turns away to console his wife and I signal the squad to move out.
We continue deeper into the terminal until we find the loading platform. A subway train had been abandoned at the station and I can see that several people are using the subway cars for shelter. With Mo in lead, we make our way along a maintenance walkway, staying close to the wall as we travel deeper into the subway tunnel. It doesn’t take long before we lose sight of the subway terminal. Enveloped by darkness, every sound reverberates gently off the tunnel walls. I listen past my heavy breathing, trying to pick out any indications of enemy activity.
Then I hear it. It’s a quick whirring noise that lasts less than a second. Mo heard it, too. He immediately froze in place and the rest of squad followed suite in an instant. I force myself to take slow, deep breathes as I strain to listen for the sound again.
Rod looks back at me. He heard it, too.
The next sound I hear makes my heart sink. It was the whir of small, electric motors and wheels moving over gravel. I know immediately we’re in trouble, but before the words leave my mouth a flash bang detonates above us. More surprised than stunned, I quickly recover and see the first of them making its way down the tunnel towards us. It’s a Scram Bot; a small, wheeled rover that’s used to patrol subterranean and urban environments. About the size of a typical RC hobby truck, Scram Bots are always sent out in packs. Each one carries a different payload; most payloads are for reconnaissance and mapping while others are more lethal. The first one heading towards us is running a screen play. From the top of the bot billows thick, acrid smoke specially designed to obscure vision on multiple spectrums. Mo fires at the lead bot, but it darts up and over the tracks faster than he could get a bead on it. Before I know it, the damn thing gets past us, leaving behind a smothering blanket.
“CONTACT FRONT!!” Lee shouts.
I hear the rest of them before I see them. Even with our nods, I could barely make out the shapes darting across the ground. Flashes from our rifles and theirs light up the tunnel like a fireworks display. I can’t hear a damn thing, even with my noise cancelling headset. My eyes tear up from the smoke and my lungs are on fire. I count at least ten Scram Bots; I can’t be sure. We destroyed at least three, nevertheless more keep coming. I look back in time to see Gehlert knock one down after it put three rounds into his femur, but another put a burst into his side. Another fires a burst just past me; I feel the sting of concrete and metal shrapnel pepper my face. Blood trickles into my eyes and I blinked hard to clear what’s left of my sight. Rod buckles over and falls onto the tracks, his body limp and motionless. Then I hear Gehlert call out from behind me, “FUCK!! KILL BOTS FROM THE REAR!!”
The Kill Bot is a special variant of the Scram Bot. Its payload was either a directional fragmentation mine for anti-personnel missions, or an explosively formed penetrator for anti-vehicle. Kill Bots rely on other bots in a swarm to guide them onto a target because the Kill Bot has no use for a suite of advanced sensors. It just needs to get close enough to detonate its payload.
As I turn around, two Kill Bots are making their way down the maintenance walkway from behind us. Gehlert tries desperately to stop them, but they close the distance before his rounds find their mark. Two blasts go off in rapid succession and Gehlert disappears from my view. The shockwave, amplified by the walls of the tunnel, knock me to my knees. My nods flash multiple bio warnings, likely because one of my lungs is collapsed but it doesn’t matter. Semi-conscious, I try to get up, but my legs give out and I fall to my back. I can taste blood slowly pooling in my mouth.
Part VI – The Halls of Valhalla
It’s been a month since the tunnel ambush. After the Kill Bots hit Gehlert, a handful of rovers were hit by shrapnel. Apparently, they didn’t account for proper dispersion when in a tunnel. Lee and Mo managed to fend off the rest of them. I was unconscious but alive. They dragged me along to the utility tunnel and linked up with Delta 2/2. The situation on the ground had improved, and HQ could send medical evacuation drones to recover the dead and wounded. I was evacuated for treatment to a military hospital not far from the border.
As I recovered, I spent my days watching the latest news feeds. Donny spent good money on tech we didn’t know he had. He wormed his way into our networks, unleashed more drones than us, and violated at least three international treaties on the use of autonomous weapon systems. None of that mattered however. Donovia’s information campaign had succeeded in convincing most in Otso that they were liberators, not conquerors. Every day new videos were released that showed Donovian soldiers handing out supplies or U.S. service members committing atrocities. It didn’t matter that most of the videos were fake; the real ones of U.S. soldiers lying dead on foreign soil was enough to stir up public resentment at home. The few politicians alive in Otso wanted to broker a deal with Donovia. The court of public opinion made its mind. Donovia won, despite the heavy losses we eventually caused them. In the end, we assumed U.S. might and technology would prepare us for the big fight. We thought we were invincible. We were wrong.