Scott Cheney-Peters is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve and founder and president of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC). He is a graduate of Georgetown University and the U.S. Naval War College, a member of the Truman National Security Project, and a CNAS Next-Generation National Security Fellow. He can be followed on Twitter at @scheneypeters.
Allison Ross shoved the phone in her pocket. She had neither the time nor the stomach for another depressing story on the war’s northward progress. Seoul lay in ruins, victim to the opening rounds, and her little sister Lauren’s Marine Raider unit was fighting somewhere north of the 38th parallel. She swiveled on the stool, hunching on her elbows and staring at the screen. It was a habit she’d developed in moments of anticipation, trying to dissipate the nervous energy. This Sunday she was ready to pounce.
“Hey,” said Nadi as he strode towards the table at the center of the facility. The savory smells of the next-door pizza joint followed him through the door. Tossing his bag, it careened into a stool next to Allison with a thud, just short of toppling it.
“Wow, uh, careful?” said Allison. She was mostly surprised his short, thin frame could carry anything to make that sort of impact.
“Sorry,” replied Nadi with the hint of a grin, “next week’s homework.”
“You know, I actually remember the days of real books.” Allison scooped up the bag in a motion that made it seem as light as Nadi’s made it heavy. “I bet you’ve never even seen…”
“Damn,” interrupted Nadi. He was looking up at the digital leader board against the far wall. “How…” he trailed off and shook his head. “We’re out of the top 10? I knew last week was brutal. But, I guess I hadn’t fully … calculated the consequences.”
“Well, you little turd, that’s what happens when you run off in a huff.” Allison pointed at the names on the board. “The Blue Hawaiians moved up with some points from prototype success. I think GE’s getting their money’s worth with the water filtration system they designed.” GE – along with Google, Apple, Tesla, and Microsoft’s Elsevier division – was one of the five members of the GATE Consortium. Each corporate member took turns setting the objectives and prize money of green-light design and engineering challenges in exchange for potential breakthrough intellectual property for the commercial market. “The Jersey Dumps also got a few points helping verify another team’s work,” Allison continued, attention back at the computer. “You know, points we could have used.”
“What? From what challenge? A classified one? You never told me about it.”
“Oh–don’t worry–about it,” said Allison, lingering on the vowels as her eyes flitted across the messages on the screen. She turned to Nadi. “I’m not being fair. It was from the, uh, transistor improvement red-light challenge for the Air Force a few months back. So, yeah, classified work, but I coulda cleared out the space for a few hours we’d need.”
He nodded and his brows unfurled.
“Well, after last week’s disaster with Vikram I didn’t think we’d want to pick at that scab so soon with anything electrical. So, I didn’t bother you or Mike about it. Speaking of which, have you heard from him?”
“He’s coming. At least I think so. I saw him Friday, at school.”
Allison had noticed a new tension since Nadi intruded upon the high school senior’s social sphere. That the awkward freshman was simply trying to continue a friendship forged when he had been a safely-out-of-sight middle schooler saddened Allison a bit if she thought about it. At other times it amused her how much the high schoolers reminded her of her fellow post-docs at the Soudan Underground Laboratory on the shores of a northern Minnesota lake. There her mechanical engineering prowess was appreciated but rarely utilized. But as team captain of the North Star Neutrinos Allison had overseen their start in the regional leagues, and more rewardingly, she could tap into a steady stream of challenges. She’d wanted to host the team at the lab, but the fact that it was located in a former mine wasn’t quite in keeping with the “open and accessible” precondition of the gear donation from DARPA. The town library, with plenty of space accumulated since strict paper publishing and recycling laws were enacted back in the early ‘20s, was only too happy to step in.
That was three years ago, before the sponsorship deals brought them the cash to rent and run the facility where they now sat. Their promotion to the GATE Premier League last year brought the top-of-the-line 3D printers, mini microchip foundries, laser cutters, and the other assorted gear surrounding them.
Allison and Nadi turned at the sound of the door to the maker space opening.
“Hey,” said Nadi, welcoming Mike Holth, the lanky third core member of the Neutrinos.
“Turd,” he acknowledged.
“You’re late,” said Allison, voice flat, attention back at the screen. “We’re about to get the parameters. You know today’s a red-light challenge.”
“I know, no one’s gonna see me make my moves,” replied Mike, explaining his disheveled appearance and tardiness in the same breath. During the unclassified green-light challenges sponsored by the Consortium a mix of talent scouts, facility members, and fans often crowded the spaces. But during the weeks the league faced a DOD-sponsored classified “red-light challenge,” named for the colored warning lights at the entrance to the main room, they had the facility to themselves.
“Could be they declassify and air this one,” said Nadi. “Besides, I thought you already committed to Penn,”
“You know they haven’t done that since the war’s start. And I did, but a guy’s gotta think about his sponsors,” Mike winked, and indicated a recessed overhead camera with his eyebrows. During green-light challenges his contributions were aired on C-ESPAN, a partnership nowhere near as popular as its sports parent. But during broadcasts of the competitions it pulled in three times the viewers of the public affairs network.
“You mean our sponsors,” said Allison. “In any case we’re working for the people today.” She had in mind only one person, half a world away, and the dangers facing her. The distraction helped Allison put off thinking about what she’d do when Mike graduated and joined one of the Penn teams, possibly competition. The leagues had developed in separate high school, university, and doctoral levels. But these distinctions dissolved with the creation of the regional system and Premiere League that pulled in top competitors from grade-schoolers to Nobel Prize winners. A 5th-grade programming whiz in Texas was the youngest on a team to win a challenge, helping design a slinky that could go up a staircase. That had been one of the more frivolous contests, from before the war.
Allison herself had played at Maryland, going east when her little sister went west to San Diego and the Marines. But it was Terps basketball that had paid her way. She told herself the free ride, paycheck, and reputation would be enough to satisfy her with benchwarming. Yet when a fellow Mech-E major introduced her to the challenges, what started as a hobby quickly engrossed her. The shock of her teammates when she quit one team for another was surpassed only by how rewarding Allison, the life-long jock, found it.
Allison glanced at Mike as he teased Nadi. He was going to be damned hard to replace. She doubted they’d find someone local with half his innate computer engineering and robotics acumen, skills that helped them place in the last two green-light challenges. Based on the parameters a Consortium member set – commercially minded but since the war mostly focused on humanitarian assistance – they had come up with a rubble-searching centipede drone and a system for distributing the rechargeable batteries for used by emergency personnel exoskeletons. At least Mike’s replacement would likely have an easier time making it through the League-mandated background check than the fun they had clearing Nadifo “Nadi” Abshir, who arrived in the country as a 4-year-old immigrant from Somalia.
“Hey! Here we go,” Allison said, beckoning back her teammates. Mike and Nadi had wandered over to the 3D printing stations, drawn to the discarded scraps receptacle. The light by the door flicked on and competed with the overhead white LED strips and succeeded in bathing the high-top area in the center of the facility in a soft red glow. A government-issued printer stuttered to life next to the Neutrinos and spit out three copies of GATE Premiere League Classified Challenge 2344. Allison entered a command at her computer and a digital clock by the leader board started counting down eight hours.
“Shit,” said Mike, looking over the requirements. “We’re gonna need electrical.”
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Allison said. She walked to the white board and pressed the print-out to it with one hand, letting the static field take hold of the paper, while she grabbed a dry erase with the other. “Alright. What’ve we got?”
“Well Turd’s gonna like this one. We need a means of ‘low-altitude, high-speed, individual advance with minimal IR signature,’” Mike repeated from the sheet in his hand.
“What, like a jetpack?”
Mike snorted. Nadi was their programming and coding guru but his affection for igniting propellants was well known.
“C’mon guys, you know the drill. What’re the parameters?” Allison asked Mike. Over the years his rattling off the parameters while she and Nadi listened had become part of the Neutrinos’ ritual. Allison chalked it up to different learning styles, and it played well for the cameras. It was also another tradition that needed updating when Mike left.
“Min in-flight payload weight, three-fifty pounds. Min range, fifty miles. Min sustainable speed, twenty-five knots. All operating conditions. If on battery, minimum time to max charge, eight hours. Max weight, twenty-five pounds. Max dimensions, fifteen inches by fifteen inches by four inches. The usual pro-rated point bonuses for exceeding the max/mins with priority on the payload weight. Requirement for compatibility for transport with either a standard pack through internal or external connectors, or within a Marine Corps Lower Body Exoskeleton cargo hold.”
“Well I guess we know who it’s for,” said Nadi as he moved to a locked cabinet near the welding stations where the team kept military equipment for compatibility testing.
“Yep,” said Allison, forcing herself to not dwell on the unintended reference. “Also means we’re going to have more competition. Mike, I know you’re still smarting over that second-place finish to the boys down at Quantico on that chameleon camo. There’s no way the warfighting lab’s going to pass up a crack at this.”
“What, are you saying this is my ‘chance for redemption’?”
“No, you don’t go for those sappy storylines. At least while there’s no chance of cable coverage.” It was Nadi’s turn to snort as Mike glared at him.
“Anyway, this is where I say we’re going to need electrical. I’m thinking solar – only chance we’ll have to get around the power density limitations, keep the load airborne, avoid an IR signature, right?”
Allison, facing the board, turned the idea and implications over in her head as she wrote ‘Solar’ with the dry erase. “Turd?” she asked over her shoulder.
“Could we use internal heat sinks to disguise the signature?” Nadi deposited a Marine expeditionary backpack and headed back to the closet for the exoskeleton. “I mean, even if we don’t, what would it look like? An extremely slow missile?”
“Gotta work within the parameters,” Mike sighed.
“Well then solar makes sense. Shit. Do we have to use Vikram again? Allison, I don’t suppose you found anyone since last week?”
She hadn’t. She’d looked, but despite last week’s failure to even submit the outlines of a prototype concept she couldn’t find anyone with Vikram’s abilities.
“Nope,” she said. “But let’s set electrical aside for the moment. What else are we gonna need? What’s the big picture these requirements paint?”
“I’m thinking hang-glider with solar-panels for the wing,” said Mike.
“Okay, but how does it get airborne if we’re not jumping off mountain tops?”
“Right, so not really a glider, but keeping its shape and aerodynamic properties. Propeller to create enough thrust to provide lift.”
“So. How’s this look?” Allison had listed on the board “Electrical Engineer, Materials Scientist, Aerospace Engineer.”
“Makes sense to me,” said Nadi. Mike nodded his consent.
Allison used a computer to pull up the files of potential collaborators for rounding out the team on this challenge. First, they confirmed their go-to aerospace engineer was available, a drone designer one state over in Grand Forks. With a tap, Allison brought Kelsey Anderson’s image to life on a screen next to the board for video conferencing. Next, she scrolled down, past biochemists and epidemiologists, past linguists and logisticians, to their materials scientists. They chose Richard Koh, a specialist in solar cells based at Stanford, and Allison brought his screen online under the first. They’d saved the uncomfortable call for last.
“Vik. Long time, huh?” said Allison. Vikram’s broad smile filled the bottom screen to the right of the white board. She didn’t know whether it was due to limited options for camera placement in his lab or a lack of visual feedback but he always managed to lop off the top of his balding head and his body from the chin down during their collaborations.
“Dr. Ross! I have to admit, I wasn’t sure I’d be getting a call from you again.” While the cheerfulness of his voice reflected his smile, Allison could see a pain tinging his eyes. “But I answered, so, obviously I was hoping.”
“Well, you are the best. And we need you,” she said. Vikram stared back. “Look, let’s just put last week behind us – I’m sending you over the challenge parameters. I think you’re in for a treat.”
Vikram looked down at the data coming in on another screen, providing the Neutrinos a close-up of his receding hairline. After a pause that felt longer than it was, his gaze returned to the camera. “Deal,” he said, his beaming eyes matching his smile.
The breaking point came after lunch. Mike and Nadi were arguing by the tables where Mike taught beginners after-school robotics classes.
“It’s. Not. Going. To. Work!” said Nadi, punctuating each word with a jerk of the mock-up. “It’s too heavy.” They estimated the final device would weigh eight pounds over the limit, but the light weight of the 3D-printed mock-up served to subtly undermine Nadi’s point. It was in its compact, folded form for transport. When expanded, its wing shape reminded Allison of something out of the latest Batman reboot jerry-rigged to a propeller. Once uttered by Mike, the nickname ‘Batwing’ had stuck.
“If we can get the weight down through more miniaturization it shouldn’t be an issue, right? And we’ve got nothing else, right? Clock’s ticking,” said Mike.
Nadi turned to Allison, pleading with his eyes. She bristled whenever she felt they viewed her as a mother figure, having spent enough years in that role for her sister when their own mom died. The mess she’d made of it had kept the communication between her and Lauren to a minimum ever since. A mother hen she was not. At the same time, she reminded herself how hard it would be to determine exactly what kind of an authority figure the other Neutrinos saw her as. A raised eyebrow was the only response she gave Nadi. She wanted to see where the conversation went.
“Nadi,” said Mike. “If we can get Vikram and Allison to re-work some of the drivetrain we can shave off some weight and have Kelsey run the models to make sure we don’t lose anything on the load-bearing end, right?”
“You know,” Nadi cut in over the end of Mike’s explanation. “Every time you say ‘right?’ it’s an obnoxious presumption of agreement, right? And I don’t. I don’t agree! I don’t think we’ll make this thing any lighter, and worrying about the weight of the device when it’s so much easier to boost the payload weight capacity – it doesn’t make sense.”
“Turd,” Allison interjected, ready to de-escalate the situation with a term of endearment. “Remember this morning when you came in with your bag? Just think how it would feel carrying five times that load, all day, for weeks on end, over hellish terrain, and then when you finally reach the end you’re expected to fight. That’s why reducing the weight is so important.”
“Fine!” said Nadi, hands thrown up in surrender. “I guess I’ll just work on optimizing something.” He walked off to a wall listing the several-dozen facility members’ ongoing projects and opportunities for collaboration.
“Dr. Ross, if I may make a suggestion,” Vikram spoke up from his screen. “The only way we’ll get that kind of weight reduction is ditching the separate battery. Are you familiar with nantennas?”
Allison nodded. “Only superficially. I know they can be used to capture IR energy in addition to visible light…I think see where you’re going. We can harvest the heat absorbed by the earth and radiated back out after dark. But will there be enough still radiating by sunrise?”
“Richard’s sending a design he’s been working on so you can print out some prototype sheets on your roll-to-roll processor. Play around with them for best surface area config on the Wing Ding, or whatever the hell it is you’re calling this. We think it’ll generate enough energy to power the propeller day or night, sunny or cloudy, and it should make it to morning.”
Even without turning around Allison imagined she could feel the team’s tension on her skin as they awaited her decision. She stole a glance at the digital display ticking down the remaining three hours and twelve minutes. It was the second week in a row they’d be making a big gamble halfway through the challenge. She needed to decide but thoughts of Lauren intruded. From the corner of her eye she could see Mike rummaging through something and smiling. Nadi’s backpack.
“What’s…” she started in surprise.
“You made a comment once,” said Mike. “How back at college mentally focusing on these challenges helped you clear up some other issues without even really thinking about it, right? Well, last week you had a bit of meltdown.”
“Hey, that was Vik who couldn’t…”
“No, you did,” Mike cut her off. “You froze. Yes, Vikram gave us crap, but only after we spun our wheels for an hour not making a decision. Or rather, making a decision then reversing it, then reversing it again.”
He was right.
“So I asked Nadi to bring in our old collection of puzzles. I thought if you had a little moment’s distraction it might help clear your head a bit. So we head down the right path from the get-go.”
He pulled a mess of word games, crosswords, and Sudoku out of the bag. “Just give it a try.”
Allison exhaled loudly and slowly. “Alright.”
After a few minutes and several answers into her crossword puzzle, she spoke up. “Let’s do it,” she said, the confidence back in her voice.
Two and a half hours later the sun had set in the world beyond the Neutrinos’ red-light challenge blackout curtains and the team was at its most agitated state of the day. It was a good thing. The models all showed that the prototype design would fall within the parameters for payload weight, sustainable speed, and range. It would be tight in some areas – they were still cutting it close with the Batwing’s weight – but Allison could see Nadi and Mike working feverishly. Not out of desperation, but to pad their margins. She knew their three partners for this challenge were doing likewise. She waited until they were down to their final ten minutes before sending in the team’s design, giving everyone a chance to delay the submission if they were on the verge of a substantive boost. No one was. Allison wondered how many times this scene was being replicated in facilities around the country, and of their several dozen competitors how many had come up with nothing.
As was custom Allison thanked the Neutrinos’ collaborators first and promised to keep them posted on the initial evaluation of the teams’ submissions. After David and Kelsey signed off she turned to Vikram.
“You really came through for us today. Thank you,” she said.
“Dr. Ross. Was my pleasure. Thank you, for the chance.”
“Hey, any time you wanna let us steal your ideas, we’ll be happy to take ‘em off your hands.”
“Oh no, I expect I will be well compensated from this endeavor,” he said with a wink, and ended the connection. Vikram had made a respectable amount from follow-up consultant work on their green-light challenge submissions.
The submission was just the first step. From here Allison knew initial testing of the designs would take a few days before preliminary points would be awarded to teams, including recognizing the winner of the challenge, followed by the opportunity for bonus points for helping validate a design – or if the winner was successful and lucky, even more points for the prototype serving as the basis for operational testing and usage.
Allison swiveled on her stool to the other two core Neutrino members. “Well. I’m ready to turn this place back over to the people. Seeya next week?”
“Yeah, if you’re not coming in for anything fun in the meantime,” said Mike. “I’m thinking of getting some training on that roll-to-roll processor now I know Nadi’s got the leg up on me there. There’s also some guys coming in Tuesday from the library to discuss the potential future of book clubs. Sounded interesting. Different, at least.”
“I got school work to catch up,” Nadi broke in. “Just let me know, and actually let me know, if there’s validation points for the taking.”
“Wait, did I miss something?” asked Mike. Allison managed an embarrassed smile.
“C’mon,” Nadi said. “I’ll tell you about it over a slice while I wait for my mom.”
Allison stared after her teammates as Nadi’s words lingered.
She balled up the classified parameters sheets from the table, lined up her elbow for the shots, released, and watched as one after the other arced gracefully through the air across the room. She went two-for-three through the hoop and into the portable laser-incinerator across the room, marked off by danger tape on the floor.
“This one’s for you, sis,” she whispered before moving to pick up the stray crumpled paper as the red light by the door winked off.
Seven weeks later, under a moonless night, eighty human-sized shapes advanced above the treetops at thirty-two knots towards their targets near Koksan, the soft hum of several dozen electric motors the only hint of the Marines overhead.