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The Weapons of World War Four
U.S. Army TRADOC Science Fiction Writing Contest
Senior Chief Special Warrant Kyle Barristan raised an eyebrow as he watched the Sergeant survey their equipment. Wisely, he asked permission before entering the ACT—Advanced Reactionary Technology—squad tent. Unwisely, the Sergeant seemed to have forgotten his purpose and surveyed the ACT equipment. By necessity the existence of most of the equipment had been declassified, but ACT Squad members—the famed Chrome Caps—still discouraged random curiosity.
The tent offered a great deal to satisfy such random curiosity. Mixed among the Army cots designed in the Vietnam conflict—never fix something that worked—were neat arrays and rows of micro-drones called Skippers and Gnats. Neatly hung to one side were six body armor suits looking like a cross between a wetsuit and a still suit from Dune. Computers and advanced weaponry in a canvas tent—though lined with insulating material—formed a juxtaposition every bit as strange as a smartphone in a World War I trench. Only the six Special Warrant officers—specially trained and selected to use this advanced weaponry—seemed at home both with the technology and without.
The Sergeant who entered the tent didn't look old enough to drink, and he may not be in most states. The silver letter "I" under his stripes indicated he'd entered on a technology rank waiver. He must have at least a bachelor's degree in one of the computer sciences—of which there seemed to be a new one every year—but not a master's yet or he'd be a Staff Sergeant. Since most tech waivers finished most of their college in advanced placement classes in high school, chances were good the Sergeant was twenty or younger.
"Did you need something, Sergeant?" asked Barristan.
"This is BAS, sir," the young man replied.
"What do you want?"
"Top asked me to get a translator."
"Why?" Barristan demanded.
"Some Wadi at the gate spittin' Gibberish," the Sergeant said.
"Then go ask the translator," Barristan said.
"He's in route to Landstuhl," the Sergeant said. "Got hit on patrol last night. I thought you knew."
The six warrants sighed. This only created more work for them. "I'll send someone right out, Sergeant," Barristan said.
Barristan pulled his "chrome cap" from the charging case beneath the bunk. When the eye visor was raised, the assembly vaguely resembled a silver baseball cap with a black bill. Except, of course, that the assembly comprised a helmet rather than a hat. Still, the name "chrome cap" stuck partially due to the choice to wear light-gray berets in uniform.
The front of the mask looked like a cross between a fighter pilot oxygen mask and a chemical protective mask. The goggles, with wearer-selected variable tint, allowed projection of augmented reality (AR) graphics and text alerts. Barriston grew up on classic science fiction, and felt all the helmets needed to look more like a Cylon was a red light running across the eyes.
"We can do that, Senior," said Salish.
Tomms added, "Yeah, you know Liu is the world's greatest conversationalist.
The Chief Special Warrant nodded once without looking away from his book.
Barristan shook his head. "I have to take a piss anyway. This probably isn't good news, so let's get the Skippers and Gnats ready. Check the armor to make sure the batteries are good and the Kevlar is in good shape."
The others nodded and Smith asked, "You actually expecting bad news here?"
"I've never known a local to bring good news," he said.
* * *
The heat outside the tent hit Barristan like a wall. Even at the other end of the one-square-kilometer combat outpost, mirages flowed in the heat. Barristan's uncle used to talk about the heat from his time in Afghanistan. Heat played tricks on the body. At 120 degrees, sweat evaporated so quickly that someone walking from a cooled area into the heat felt a momentary chill. That was thirty-five years and ten degrees earlier. Barristan clipped the pistol belt on and donned his gloves.
Barristan turned the corner toward the gate wearing only his pants, t-shirt, boots, and chrome helmet. The local stepped backwards with wide eyes. A gesture from his left hand turned his translator on. As he lifted the goggles, he held up a hand.
As Barristan spoke English, the speaker outside the mask said in Uzbek, "Don't be afraid. It is only a helmet."
The man looked suspiciously for a moment before nodding. Barristan lowered the visor and activated his millimeter-wave scanner. The AR scanner highlighted items of interest inside the man's pockets. The only item of concern to Barristan was a long, thin, curving item hanging from what appeared to be a chain around his neck. It was clearly a knife, but it could be for religious purposes. Or, it could be for him. Best keep out of arm's length.
Translator reactivated, Barristan said, "Can I help you?"
The man spoke rapidly in his native tongue as the suit translated to a machine voice inside the headset. Unfortunately, the words initially made little sense:
This man was not local. It raised a red flag.
"Search dialect," he ordered the onboard computer.
As the man continue to speak in partially translated speech, the computer ran text across his visor. Finally, it said, "Northern Uzbek Colloquial 7: 85%."
Immediately, the man's words began to make sense.
"Can you understand me better now?" Barristan asked.
The man again looked surprised. Barristan knew he wanted to ask how the robot-man could switch to a local dialect; the fact that the man did not say this raised the second red flag.
Barristan wouldn't have tried to explain the helmet even if the man had asked anyway—he'd never do that again. As a Special Warrant, he once tried to explain computers to a farmer who didn't even have air conditioning. Thankfully, declaring people witches was a European thing. By the end of his failed explanation, Barristan himself had begun to wonder if he was a wizard of some sort.
Barristan explained in auto-translated, colloquial Uzbek, "I did not understand you at first. Please tell me again what you need."
"I beg you in the name of Allah to help our village. Men came in with IEDs, hand grenades, and many other weapons. Please. Will you help us?"
Barristan asked, "Where is your village?"
The man gave directions up the main road and left at the first "T.” Barristan promised they would consider it and resolved to himself to take any route other than the one given by the supposed villager.
In the tent, Barristan related the cry for help and the dialect issue. Tomms asked, "You think it's a trap?"
"No doubt in my mind," Barristan said.
"We're going to walk into it anyway, aren't we?" Salish asked.
"Isn't that what Rangers to best, Rick?" Barristan asked.
A ten-legged sniffer drone crawled out from under a table and nuzzled Barristan's foot. Despite looking like the bottom half of a foot-long cockroach, the team considered Odie—OD-E or Observation Drone-Explosives—a pet. It was one of seven which the team deployed on missions, but it was the friendliest one. It was therefore the only OD-E called Odie and had a decent rendering of the Garfield sidekick painted on top.
"I signed up for the cool toys," Smith said, offering her own foot to be nuzzled by Odie. "But I'm always up for a fight."
None of the four highly-educated Special Warrants (four holding one or more PhDs) could explain the personality exhibited by the sniffer drones. "I want to roll in one hour," Barristan said.
"We'll be down one sniffer," Campbell said. "Wallie picked up some debris on the last search."
"Wallie always picks up debris," Smith grumbled.
"Six is plenty," Barristan said. "Tomms, talk to me about the armor."
"Batteries are charged and I see no damage or abrasions," he said. "I'll give it a once over again anyway just to make sure."
"I can help you," Smith offered. "I'll check magnetic alignment on the rigidizing armor."
"That's good," Barristan said. "Salish, I need you to make sure our translation databanks have all the languages we need. That Uzbek dialect required an uplink to our server."
"No problem, Senior," he said. "I'll check the droid-helmets while I'm at it."
Campbell was already hard at work preparing the 106 drones—50 skippers, 50 gnats, and six sniffers—they would use on this mission. Barristan felt she probably liked drones better than people, but he didn't dare say anything aloud. The drones seemed to like her better than most people too.
Forty minutes later, all six team members donned their form-fitting body armor. The flexible material was a tenth of the weight of ceramic plates used in standard body armor. Despite the reduced weight, it was five times less penetrable than ceramic—capable of stopping multiple AK-47 rounds without damage—and twenty times less penetrable than Kevlar alone. Though the Army called it "liquid body armor," it actually had a gel between the layers allowing it to redistribute force from small projectiles across a much larger surface area. The concept was similar to placing an egg in the palm of your hand and squeezing. It won't break because the force is spread out evenly but you could quite easily push a finger through the shell. A straight pin, even easier.
Some stated that being shot felt like being kicked on one entire side of your body at once. It could also reduce the point impact of a bullet traveling at 2700 feet per second to being shot by an over speed paintball. It left bruises occasionally, but it was better than letting the bullet pass through the wearer's body.
To make the armor even stronger, a layer of fabric filled with metal fibers in mesh weave covered the entire body. When power was applied, this layer became instantly as harder than steel. The most important element of the sensors was the ability to sense explosions and rigidize the entire body. Because the suit must assume only one shape, it pulled the body into a modified fetal position in the event of an explosion.
The AR-capable goggles imposed a path on the landscape as they walked. Though this mission used the path (marked in green today) primarily for situational awareness, the suit computers were accurate enough to plot a safe walking path through a known minefield. Every member of the team had tested that system in school; though those mines were filled with paint, they also gave a minor electric shock to remind ACT trainees not to stray from paths marked red.
"Okay, Campbell, turn the sniffers loose," Barristan said.
Though "turning the drones loose" involved choosing the "random" setting, there seemed to be nothing random about the way the drones assembled. As expected, Odie took charge. For some reason, Odie always took charge, which none of the ACT members could explain. Immediately, Race, Drone 6 of 6, sent a message warning of partially degraded operations. Another ghost in the machine, Race always acted as a communications.
"What's that mean?" Barristan asked.
"The drones are complaining that Wallie isn't with them,” Campbell explained.
The drones had already fallen into an M-shaped formation with Race in the center and rear to aid communications. The legs of the formation pulsed slightly with terrain and search patterns, but they maintained a surprisingly consistent pattern.
Knowing they were likely walking into a trap, the six were understandably quiet. Though whoever had moved into the village expected them to come through the main road—a choke point with plenty of elevated firing positions—they might also have backup plans for the entire perimeter.
Apparently, the silence had become too oppressive for Salish. "So I'm delayed on my dissertation, but I'm getting close again," Salish explained.
"Cut the chatter," Barristan said.
The two apologized in unison, but the silence became oppressive again. Barristan said, "Okay, go to hyper. Use radio for mission updates."
"Hyper" was a special capability only ACT droid-helmets possessed. In addition to anti-jam radio capabilities, the ACT could turn on hypersonic voice transmitters to translate speech from inside the helmet to sound waves above the human range of hearing.
This system of sound transmissions had several benefits over radio transmissions. First, radio waves could not travel through solid objects like sound waves. Second, the sound transmitter/receiver assembly took a third of the power required for a radio. Third, the sonic system could listen and transmit simultaneously unlike radio.
"I was complete with all my research and I was starting to compile it when someone over at MIT released almost the exact same study on machine language," Salish said. “His study was better. Mine became irrelevant."
A warning from one of the drones, Mr. Crabs this time, interrupted. Barristan turned to see an arrow floating above the landscape in his visor. Mr. Crabs, true to his name, scuttled sideways as it found the perimeter of the buried explosives. AR lines formed on the ground as the drone relayed, through Race, its findings. The boundary of the superimposed-graphic took shape.
"Weapons cache," Barristan said. "Let's mark it so regulars can take care of it. Our mission is onward."
At 100 meters from the village, a single crack rang out and Liu staggered backwards a step. All six AR goggles registered small-arms fire and placed an arrow on the land to indicate the general direction.
"You okay, Liu?" Barristan asked over radio as they all lay in cover.
"I'm fine, Senior."
The suit-mounted detectors only gave a general direction and that only when the bullet would strike or nearly strike the target. It was exceedingly clear what direction the shots came from without the technology. Unfortunately, the shooters held excellent positions in heavy cover.
"Skippers and Gnats," Barristan ordered.
"Skippers" were small bots about the size and shape of a ping-pong ball. Two metal flanges could retract and extend to make them roll and “skip” forward. The bots were "dumb bots" with no artificial intelligence. They had three purposes in life: move forward, stay between 1.99 and 2.01 meters from all other Skippers, and transmit to a correlation server. The "gnats" were little more than flying versions of the Skippers.
A "ready" status blinked in visors and the six checked their arm displays showing the overview of the battlefield. Barristan drew two routes on his pad for the main assault force and flanking force. The other five nodded and prepared to move on his command.
"Give me smoke," Barristan ordered. The six sniffer drones released their smoke, obscuring the battlefield from the shooters. Even completely obscured, the visors provided outlines of buildings in AR to the ACT team and laid the path on the ground. The position of the shooters also showed red through the smoke.
Team A (the assault force consisting of Liu, Tomms, and Campbell) bounded forward out of the smoke into cover, firing on the move. They continued to lay down suppressing fire of their 9mm MP5 SMG on full auto. Immediately, Team B (the flanking force with Baristan, Salish, and Smith) moved to the right within the smoke to a side street revealed by the Skippers. Team A emptied their first magazine (100 rounds each) and dropped again into full cover. Team B rushed forward into the city streets as the four enemy jumped out of cover and began to fire.
AR goggles superimposed the live feed of the four shooters through walls as well as friendlies. No chance of shooting one’s own. Silently and without firing a shot, Team B moved behind the shooters and within 100 yards. The weapons contained a toggle switch on the foregrip allowing the team to select targets as their own.
Barristan ordered, "Go." And three weapons fired simultaneously. "Moving in," Barristan said.
Two of the four (Salish's two) were dead. After scanning the bodies with millimeter-wave scanners, Salish and Smith rendered aid.
Team A moved forward to sweep past the flanking team in case there were more shooters. The computer added Team B from the Gnat and Skipper feeds to the AR display.
"Senior, we'll need a MEDEVAC for this guy," Salish said.
"Same here," Smith said. "He's priority."
"Campbell, are we clear?" Barristan asked over the radio.
"Okay, call 'em back," ordered Barristan ordered, referring to the "callback" function of the Skippers and Gnats. They could all be turned off instantly if necessary—letting the Gnats fall from the sky—but there was no reason to risk damaging the drones despite how cheap they were. "Have the Sniffers check around too just in case. Smith call a chopper if they have it. Tomms and Liu, let's find someone in charge."
* * *
The windows and alleys along the streets began to swarm with half-seen civilians. Barristan expected this. In towns like this, built of mud walls with wooden supports, the team often inspired fear. The villagers probably lacked the words to even describe what they saw. Barristan walked directly up do one of the men and switched his suit to translation.
"Take me to your leader," he ordered, and the ultrasonic decoder registered laughter from Tomms. Liu never laughed at this joke—and Barristan made it every mission. Then again, the villagers didn't either. Some things did not translate.
Helicopters picked up the two wounded prisoners, Campbell gathered and redistributed the Skippers and Gnats, and the Sniffers finished a sweep of the town perimeter. Now the six gathered in the center of town waiting the leader.
People slowly crept forward now. They would come up and touch what they had been afraid of earlier. Though it still unnerved Barristan, it happened everywhere. Even Soldiers sometimes reacted by hiding first and touching second. Curiosity was perhaps the most human of all reactions.
An elderly man hobbled forward and Barristan stepped forward. "I wish you peace, sir," he said.
The old man shook his head. "Leave us."
Barristan assumed the remark was directed to one of the younger men beside him and continued, "There were four terrorists here. We have removed them and we will remove any other explosives and weapons you do not wish to remain here after them."
"No," the man said. "We wish you to leave. Leave our village. Now."
"Ungrateful sons of bitches," Salish noted. Barristan frowned, but the visor hid this from his subordinate and the ultrasonic hid Salish's words from the villagers.
"We removed dangerous men from your village," Barristan insisted.
"You are devils and you brought evil with you."
"Those men we killed, they were devils," Barristan argued. "If they come back, will you let us know?"
"When you come, they come," the old man said. "They were here because you were here. You will leave us forever or there will be more."
"What? Is he up for re-election?" Smith joked.
Tomms added, "Maybe for lead jackass."
"Cut the chatter," Barristan said. Maybe the villagers couldn't hear it, but it distracted him.
Barristan said, "They asked us to come here and then shot at us. Why?"
The look of anger on the old man's face said either Barristan had said the wrong thing or the computer translated it incorrectly.
“They will not come if you go,” the man insisted. “Go now.”
The crowd now formed a tight circle around the team. The other five began asking the villagers to back away, not interested in being touched. Their pleas had no effect, and Barristan had a bad feeling in the pit of his stomach.
“We must look around your village,” Barristan explained. “We found several places that might still hold weapons, and—“
“Fuck!” screamed Smith.
Barristan turned to see a woman with a bloody knife in her hand. Blood seeped through the Smith’s fingers on her abdomen. Always a trade-off, what stopped edged weapons did not stop bullets and vice versa. Had she seen it coming, Smith might have activated the instant-rigidizing steel armor.
Reflex, Barristan drew his M1911 and shot the woman in the head. Now, the crowd scattered. For a moment, the streets were silent. Campbell and Tomms supported Smith.
“Let’s move to cover,” Barristan ordered, forgetting to take his translation matrix offline.
The order came too late. Barristan turned his head just in time to see a black object strike his visor. The glass did not shatter but spider-webbed. It took him several seconds to associate the damage with the rock that fell on his foot. Just as he recognized the source, a salvo of pebbles hit the team.
Liu was the only one to name the problem, “Fucking slingshots.”
The rocks travelled at 60-100 miles per hour: too slow to set off defensive sensors but fast enough to hurt. The limited vision on his left side reminded him that the relatively slow-moving rocks could still cause significant damage to their equipment.
The team hurried to the still marked path Team B used to flank. Salish took point as Barristan could not see the path on his AR any longer. When they came between buildings, the Salvo began to include heavier rocks dropped from above. Had the Gnats still been in the air, the team—except Barristan—could have seen the position and possibly fought back. Instead the team, slowed by the bleeding Smith, had no choice but endure the stoning.
One hundred meters from the edge of the city, Barristan felt hopeful, but his optimism was too early. The team members suddenly crumpled into the fetal position against their will. The acoustic and infrared sensors processed the explosion before the team even knew it had happened and took actions to protect the team. Mercifully, the automated rigidizing of their suits caused the pebbles to bounce away as if striking steel. The relief was short-lived as the explosion, designed to topple a wall, buried the team beneath a ton of rock.
The suits had a slightly higher tensile strength than steel in this position, but they would only hold so long. They had become boulders at the base of this rubble; eventually, the batteries on the armor would fail, the suits would return to fabric weight, and they would all be crushed. With an already broken display, Barristan could not see statuses of his team. He used voice commands to switch from translation mode to infrasonic. This would travel through the rubble better than the ultrasonic frequencies.
“Tomms okay for now.”
“Campbell… my helmet is dented, but I think I’ll be okay.”
“Smith… Doesn’t look good. I wasn’t able to seal the wound.”
“Senior, this is Liu. I think I’m near the rear of the pile. I can see some daylight.”
“Just hold on a moment,” Barristan said.
“Let me deactivate my suit and push up,” Liu offered.
“No!” Barristan said. “Do not disengage. You have no idea how much weight is over you.”
Barristan felt his suit begin to compress. It was far too early for his battery to get low. This meant that the rocks must have damaged the power source. Frankly, he was shocked it hadn’t happed to the entire team.
“Liu, can you raise the sniffers?” Campbell asked. “I can’t see anything but spiderwebs and black.”
Several seconds felt like an hour. “I got Race,” Liu said. “Apparently Odie left thirty seconds after the explosion. They have arrayed themselves in a line to act as relay stations to the base.”
“Good thinking, Liu,” Barristan said. He had to bite his lip to keep from screaming; the armor in his leg began to buckle and turn to fabric.
“I didn’t do it,” Liu said honestly. “I wish I had.”
“Odie did it,” Campbell said. Barristan knew she said this on faith alone—her display was likely worse than his. Regardless, he didn’t question the assumption.
“We live through this,” Tomms said, “I’m painting a medal on top of that cockroach. To hell with regulation.”
“We live through this,” Salish added, “I’m going to cite him in my dissertation.”
Only three team members laughed. Barristan felt his leg slowly compressed beneath the tons of rock.
Barristan took a deep breath. “How long?”
The team was too silent and he knew why. There was no good reason for Barristan to ask this. He knew the speed of the Sniffers, the distance to the camp, and the reaction time of the quick reaction force. Barristan should have been able to do the math in his head while playing chess. Barristan and his failing power source had become the elephant in the room. They knew something was wrong. “Dammit, how long?”
“Sniffers move up to 60 kph,” Campbell said. “It’s 4.6 clicks to the outpost. It will take probably fifteen minutes for the tech guys to figure out how to talk to Odie. Thirty for QRF. Ten to get here. I say 62 minutes.”
“Best case,” Liu said. “Could be up to 90 if they can’t figure out what Odie wants.”
“What’s wrong, Senior?” Salish asked.
“Rocks damaged my battery pack.”
“How much power to you have? Salish asked.
“My screen is completely busted,” Barristan said. “There’s a reddish glow in the top right. So not long.”
“For fuck’s sake, stop transmitting,” Tomms said. “Save the power!”
Barristan’s leg shattered and the other began to compress. His body now began to compress and he had trouble breathing. He used every ounce of strength to keep from screaming.
“Too late for that.”
“We’re getting you out,” Liu promised. “Just hang in there.”
“No. There’s nothing you can do,” Barristan said. No one spoke, but he knew five highly educated minds had reached the same conclusion he had and refused to admit it. “Trust me.”
Liu spoke up, taking command as he should, “Smith, what about you?”
“Cold. Not good.”
“We live through this,” Tomms said, “I’m going to slaughter everyone in this shithole village.”
“No you won’t,” Barristan said. “That’s an order.”
“You know what Albert Einstein said?” Barristan asked, barely forcing the air out. “He said that whatever world war three looked like, world war four would be fought with sticks and stones.”
Had it gone out? The red light on his visor was gone now. He felt the suit relax suddenly and there was a moment of calm before the rocks gave in to gravity. In that split second, he said a prayer, said a second prayer for Smith, said a third for the team, and saw the world go black.
* * *
The Sniffer relay system began giving thirty-second updates to Liu. The engineer drones had been ordered to stop filling baskets and go move the boulders. They were powerful and slow; Liu was closer to accurate with his 90-minute guess. Would there be time to save Smith? She stopped talking ten minutes ago. Hopefully, the loss of blood would slow the bleeding. If she was still alive.
The rocks began to shift, and Liu found himself suddenly unencumbered. The AR was useless now—drones all crushed in the explosion and the route blocked by rocks. Liu wrenched his helmet off and shouted to the security team, “If you see anyone with a slingshot, shoot to kill!” With a second thought, he put the helmet back on and shouted this warning again through the translation matrix.
Liu grabbed ineffectively at rocks, trying to get where he had last seen Smith. Two people grabbed him from behind and pulled. A third was required before they could remove him from the pile. Engineer drones moved in and freed Tomms and Campbell next: the two who had been carrying Smith. They too began clawing at boulders, but the engineer drones understood their actions now. One robot lifted them gently from the pile and set them beside Liu. Liu placed a hand on their shoulders and they stood watching.
“We need a medic now!” Liu yelled.
Two medics rushed forward and lifted the still fetal Smith from the rubble. Aside from the blood at the gash, she might be a rock herself. She had not deactivated her armor; it was a very bad sign. Liu rushed forward and used the arm band computer to turn the function off. Smith collapsed like a rag doll and the medics sliced through the liquid Kevlar like the knife that might have killed her.
Salish was finally free and the other three team members held him from rushing to her side. Their rifles had all been lost in the explosion and magazines likely destroyed. It was probably for the best, Liu reflected. It probably prevented a massacre.
The lifeless body of Barristan came out last—after the inoperable rifles—and seemed fluid rather than solid. The four still standing removed their caps and saluted their commander.
“She’s alive,” the medic announced, “but we’ve got to move her now.”
The MEDEVAC chopper was already landing outside, and the four Special Warrants pushed the medics away from the litter and sprinted toward the helicopter. The medics—still wearing ceramic-plated body armor—couldn’t keep the pace. They climbed breathless into the chopper a second before Liu waved it off.
They carried second litter, covered by an emergency blanket from someone’s kit, back to the base. The four ignored all questions from the regular Army Soldiers and let them provide security for the slow walk back carrying their dead commander. The sniffer drones formed a procession behind the four, and Race informed them all seven were present. So Wallie had come to pay his respects; Liu would never understand where these bots learned loyalty. Nor could he ever be thankful enough.