Vale of Ashes by Doctrine Man is a featured entry in the Art of Future Warfare project’s “After the War” short-story contest. It is Doctrine Man’s first work of fiction.
The sandstorm was unforgiving, relentless. It blocked the moon and the stars, casting a menacing pall over the compound below. A solitary figure emerged into the dim corona of the cracked and dust-covered LED panel above the entrance to the Kevlar shipping container. Colonel Alex Skinner activated the biometric access port outside his quarters and slipped in before the sand and dust followed him. He wordlessly shed then racked his EBA – the exoskeleton composite body armor that protected him from the enemy and the elements – and stepped into the sonic shower that offered a welcome, if brief, respite from the harsh desert climate outside his armored shell.
11 NOVEMBER 2040, 2342 HOURS
Another day in paradise.
I remember when we used to say those words to each other in passing. We thought it was pretty damn funny at the time.
Just livin’ the dream.
I don’t remember when it changed from subtle sarcasm to outright cynicism. But it did. No one even says it anymore.
Baghdad in November wasn’t always this way. When a much younger Skinner arrived here from Fort Benning in 2015, the cool fall nights offered a time to sit under the stars and share cigars with his friends, to listen to the war stories of the others who had already tasted the dust and sand of Iraq. He looked back on those days nostalgically. A much different time. A much different place.
Then all Hell broke loose.
The war with the Islamic State changed everything. The central government of Iraq disintegrated quickly, fracturing predictably along sectarian lines. The Kurds withdrew to the north, securing an impenetrable line that ran from Mosul to Tikrit. They were sitting this one out.
For a while, the United States and Russia fought side-by-side, while apocalyptic sectarian violence warped time and men alike as five years of fighting quickly became ten. The war spread like a virus across the Middle East and Southwest Asia, fueled by a malevolent hatred that touches only the truly convicted. By 2027, Moscow was finished: the assassination of the Russian president in a coordinated suicide attack in Red Square saw to that.
Iraq was already dying when the militant hordes attacked across the South China Sea in late 2029. Beijing’s folly was to believe it could contain the threat. The scale and ferocity of violence was unprecedented even for a nation with China’s long history. The proliferation of weapons technology over the previous decades provided the means, the collapse of most of the Middle Eastern nation states revealed the opportunity. This wasn’t a war of access, it was a war of unprecedented vehemence. From China’s man-made islands to the coastal cities and enclaves, the fighting was unforgiving and brutal in a way that hadn’t been witnessed since Nanking.
When the dust finally settled in 2034, a battered and bloody Beijing claimed a pyrrhic victory. Millions dead, wounded, or missing. Hong Kong in ruins. Coastal Vietnam awash in death and debris. Taiwan – a militant stronghold early on – a battered, barren moonscape. But the victory carried more than a human cost, it fundamentally altered the chemistry of the war in the Middle East, and cast much of the planet into decades of darkness.
12 NOVEMBER 2040, 0450 HOURS
I have this recurring dream where I wake up at home in my own bed. My wife at my side, the kids down the hall. It’s a Saturday morning, the morning sun reflecting off the hardwood floor. I can smell fresh coffee.
Then I wake up. I don’t have a wife, anymore. I haven’t talked to my kids in years. There are no windows here. No morning sun.
I’ve been here way too long.
Skinner swung his legs over the side of his sleep platform and stepped onto the corrugated metal at his feet. Warm, the result of the scouring sand and dirt that blew endlessly across the desert floor. He stepped into the latrine vestibule and looked into the polished metal mirror. The face that stared back bore the scars of a quarter-century of fighting, the dark circles of too many nights spent grieving the dead, and the haggard look of a commander who shouldered the burdens of both. He reached for the Skarp razor on the shelf and paused only momentarily to take note of the gray stubble on his sunken cheeks. It didn’t seem that long ago when he endured the jokes about being too young to shave.
Where did all the years go?
He had a family, of sorts. Or did at one time. His marriage had been the first casualty of war, a victim of the constant separations. For a while, they hoped that the children would be the glue that held the marriage together. It didn’t work. Looking back now, he hadn’t really had a conversation with any of them in years. It wasn’t that he didn’t love them. The war drove a wedge between them that couldn’t be healed with a Facebook message or a birthday text. No one in Iraq asked about his family and he never asked about theirs. That was just the way it was.
Clean-shaven, he stepped back into the living chamber and onto the foot pads of his EBA, activating the exoskeleton armor that quickly enveloped his body. No one had called it an “Iron Man” suit in years. Like most things in the military, it was tagged with a standard nomenclature – Body Armor, Exoskeleton – that was quickly shortened to an acronym: EBA. In all things, military efficiency eventually won out.
He touched the pad next to the egress port and stepped out into the pre-dawn darkness. Even through his armor, he could feel the pressure of the wind and hear the rush of the sand. The suit automatically adjusted for the wind velocity and the integrated atmospheric filtration system ensured that he was breathing clean air. The HUD – heads-up display – in his visor generated a three-dimensional image of the surrounding terrain that allowed him to see both through the sandstorm and in the darkness. Not that it mattered, really, since the EBA’s navigation system still functioned perfectly in close quarters.
But Skinner was old school, and even though the environment forced him to wear his EBA, he instinctively preferred to find his own way. The DFAC – dining facility – operated around the clock, and that included the familiar “truck stop” coffee he craved in the early morning hours. He traversed the 300 meters in a matter of minutes, the actuators on his suit effortlessly countering the effects of the 45 kilometer-per-hour winds. A biometric access panel similar to the one on his quarters granted him access to the DFAC, and he stepped into the outer airlock as the entrance sealed itself behind him. He waited as the system ran a decontamination sequence, then stepped through the electronically-shielded threshold into the dining facility, tapping his wrist panel and retracting his visor and helmet. Other than the droids performing mess duties, the DFAC was empty.
But the coffee was hot.
Skinner found a biodegradable drink container and filled it with steaming black coffee. He added two packets of artificial sweetener – relics of a bygone era he salvaged from an abandoned war reserve stocks warehouse outside Old Kuwait City. Part of the Defense Department’s war on anything that seemed remotely unhealthy.
The spoils of war.
He took a seat on a solitary bench and watched as the droids prepared the morning meal with effortless, robotic precision. Soon enough, they would be dynamically repurposed to support other redeployment tasks: medical processing, equipment maintenance, or cargo handling. Droids were utilitarian, separated from a completely different use by only a software update and system reboot.
12 NOVEMBER 2040, 0530 HOURS
Coffee. Of all the things banned over the years, at least we still have coffee. One thing the Army got right.
I need to make a mental note to remind the -3 to relook the redeployment order and confirm that we set priorities for repurposing the droids. It would be a shame to come this far only to wait another week while we unscrewed ourselves from the ceiling because we forgot to prioritize load out.
Hurry up and wait. It’s the Army way, right? Wouldn’t want to mess that up.
Skinner exited from the opposite end of the DFAC, through another airlock and out into the early morning light. The HUD in his visor showed an external temperature of 43 degrees Celsius. The sun was up, even if the sand and dust in the air blocked it from his view. As he stepped onto the gravel road that ran through the center of the FOB – forward operating base – a line of robotic cargo transfer units passed by in unison, loaded with individual equipment bound for the staging area on the far end of the compound.
The environmental controls in his EBA automatically adjusted for the heat of the coming day, maintaining the suit’s internal temperature at a comfortable 22 degrees. He remembered a time when the morning sun was welcome, when a day in Baghdad might begin with a brisk run. But those days were gone. A distant memory from another time.
By 2030, the encroachment of the western desert reached the outskirts of Baghdad, bringing with it mass human migration on a biblical scale portending imminent desolation. The Euphrates was already dead, a victim of staggering levels of salinity and human and industrial waste that stretched from Turkey to the Arabian Gulf. The Tigris, already a stagnant, infected cesspool, was soon a dry riverbed. By 2035, Iraq was a vast wasteland, a lifeless desert that rivaled the inhabitability of the Empty Quarter. Where cities once stood, ruins crumbled under the shifting sands and relentless winds. Nothing lived here. Except the military.
People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men – and women – stand ready to do violence on their behalf.
Skinner walked down the gravel road and turned toward the squat cinderblock structure that served as the headquarters for his brigade combat team. The entrance offered some shelter from the elements, and he passed through the access port and into the small foyer that welcomed the rare visitor to his remote outpost. He paused momentarily to retract his visor and helmet, glancing at the pictures that had long been ubiquitous in every headquarters: an organizational chart of glossy holo-images, from the President down to Skinner himself, a reflection of a younger man from better times. He shook his head humorlessly as he removed his gloves and stepped toward the operations center, where an eager young battle captain waited to provide his morning update.
Preparation for redeployment was proceeding according to plan, the captain explained. The last of the CPs – combat outposts – would be shuttered in the coming days and transport pods dispatched to return the troops and equipment. Drones were still conducting reconnaissance across the brigade area of operations, but all reports were negative. Satellite communications were still spotty – not unexpected – and intelligence updates were still in the process of being downloaded. All in all, an uneventful night.
Skinner retreated to his personal office, a small, unremarkable space where a battered old stainless steel mug waited, already filled with hot coffee. After nearly two years in the heart of this God-forsaken land, his people knew him well. He tapped the pad on his desk and activated the ultra-high definition holographic screen that served as his link to the outside world. No messages. He absentmindedly picked up the old lensatic compass from its perch on the burl wood humidor, turning it over in his hand and studying its contours.
Following a humiliating defeat to Islamic State forces in the Battle of Taipei in 2032, China unleashed the full ferocity of its military might on the unrelenting militant horde. Anti-access weapons designed to keep American aircraft carriers from transiting the Strait of Malacca were launched with impunity at any vessel within a thousand-kilometer radius of China’s shoreline. Advanced fuel-air explosives were used so frequently and with such disregard that the stench of burning human flesh hung over the South China Sea like a blanket of death. But it was the war in space that would have the most lasting impact on humanity.
When Beijing launched a salvo of low-orbit missiles against the satellites commandeered for the Islamic State by Pakistan’s intelligence services, the resulting destruction triggered a debris cloud more lethal than anything a weapons designer could have engineered. By the time the cloud drifted into high orbit, nearly every space platform circling the Earth was either destroyed outright or damaged beyond practical repair. Cellular communications were all but gone. Satellite networks were a distant memory. The space stations were obliterated and everyone aboard them killed. And the GPS – Global Positioning System – grid vaporized.
The lensatic compass Skinner held had been a gift of sorts, from a mentor whose own career had spanned from a time before GPS to a day when every vehicle was guided by the technology. When the grid collapsed, something as simple as an old compass – and the knowledge of how to use it – was often the difference between life and death. It had been at least 20 years since people had trained using a compass and map – and it showed. No one joked about lieutenants with compasses, anymore. Too many had died relearning a skill their predecessors knew all too well.
A sharp ping resonated from the soundbar mounted under the surface of his desk, and the holographic screen sprang back to life. A message. Skinner tapped the screen projection and opened the message. The technology was similar to Snapchat, using compressed data packages to encrypt and send messages. The network was still years from regaining the bandwidth the armed forces once took for granted, and military communications now relied on something as simple as a text app used by hormonal teenagers a generation ago.
Unpacking and decrypting the message took only moments, and Skinner read through the text quickly:
Congress failed to pass the budget. Automatic provisions of sequestration are in effect. All finance actions are frozen, personnel moves halted, and redeployment activities terminated. Congress is on recess until December, at which time budget talks will continue. — CoS
12 NOVEMBER 2040, 0624 HOURS
Bad news travels fast. Just received a message from the Chief of Staff that Congress screwed the pooch on the budget again. It’s bad enough that no one will be paid, but now our redeployment is in a holding pattern, too. That’s not going to go over well.
But it’s not like we have anywhere to go. We’ve got that going for us.
Frankly, we can use the time to tighten up our shot group going into the redeployment. No one will be happy about the news, but they’re a solid group. Time to step up and be a leader.
At five minutes to seven, Skinner stepped out of his office and into the operations center, taking his place at the command console. When the digital readout on the main screen read 0700, the operations officer, or S-3, stood and addressed the group. Good morning, this is the Daily Update Brief, 12 November 2040. There was no script, the product of nearly two years of leading the “DUB-step” as they called it. The S-3 looked up at Skinner and asked if the brigade commander had any opening comments.
Skinner took a deep breath and launched into an explanation of the message he’d received from the Division Chief of Staff, what it meant to the brigade, and the leadership challenge it represented so late in their deployment. They would rise to the challenge, he told them. This was when leaders proved their mettle. They loved a good football metaphor, so he gave them one: they were on the goal line, and now it was time to take the ball into the end zone. Let’s get this done.
The staff moved through the rest of the update on autopilot. The shock would wear off soon enough, and people would regain their momentum. It was the kind of sucker punch a fighter knew lurked in the late rounds of a fight, but was never truly prepared for. The kind that knocked just enough wind out of you to put you on your knees, but not knock you out completely. You saw stars for a few minutes, then the fog cleared and you got back to fighting.
The threat of sequester should have ended over a decade ago, but even the specter of a third world war could not stir Congress to action. Federal spending continued to spin out of control, the debt ceiling exploded, and the economy nearly collapsed when the sky fell eight years ago. But still Congress failed to act decisively. The only things they agreed on were annual raises and recesses. Everything else seemed to die in committee. Meanwhile, a war raged on thousands of miles from the warmth of their comfortable brownstones, and troops fought and died while politicians cut their pay, mortgaged their benefits, and left them to piece their lives back together on their own.
As the staff shuffled back to their offices, Skinner called the S-3 into his own. Keep your head in the game, he told the young major. There was a lot of work left to do and, regardless of the official word out of Washington, the brigade needed to be ready to depart at a moment’s notice. He needed to review the reprogramming priorities for the droids, validate the loadout schedule, and ensure the formations falling in on the FOB were adequately quartered and processed for redeployment. Finally, he should begin the process of retrograding the drone swarms – slowly and deliberately, in the event that any enemy forces had somehow survived.
But no enemy had survived.
And recalling the drones wasn’t really a complicated process, just a series of instructions sent out as burst data packages. Much had changed since the early days of drone warfare. Modern drones ranged in size from a mosquito-like surveillance drone to attack drones that looked more like horseflies than aircraft. The drones swarmed like bees and shared a hive mind fueled by a revolution in artificial intelligence that allowed them learn and adapt constantly during a mission. They were also solar powered, and advanced battery technology allowed them to stay fueled and aloft indefinitely. Which they usually were.
The fielding of the drone swarms in 2037 profoundly altered the character, if not the momentum, of the war. From that day forward, the forces of the Islamic State fought looking over their shoulders, never quite sure where and when death would come. It was no longer possible to mass for an attack, secure lines of communication, or even conduct planning. The drone swarms were everywhere: they saw everything, they heard everything, and they understood everything. Within a year, the Islamic State was relegated to lone wolf operations, most of them desperate suicide attacks that ended before they began. It might not be possible to kill an idea, but technology found a way to eradicate one from the face of the Earth.
12 NOVEMBER 2040, 1117 HOURS
Headaches again. The Motrin isn’t working, anymore. Can’t see Doc, he’ll evac me. Need to find a quiet place to lie down for a while.
Skinner rose from his desk and exited his headquarters through a rarely used egress port behind his office, making a roundabout path back to his quarters that avoided unnecessary human contact. Inside, he turned the centerplate on his EBA and stepped off the footpads as the suit retracted and began the recharging process. He dropped onto the sleeping platform and stuffed his pillow underneath his neck. The headaches were a common symptom of too many blasts over too many years. Even though the EBA’s internal dampers softened the worst of those blasts, the suit itself provided the wearer with a false sense of security, a feeling of immortality that led to a tendency to accept more risk, more frequently.
Years of minor concussions took their toll. He didn’t have the memory problems suffered by so many, but the headaches were not much better. They left him increasingly short-tempered, and the impatience and anger seethed just below the surface. At times, the dividing line was almost indistinguishable between the effects of his brain injuries and post-traumatic stress. Bent, not broken. But pretty damned close.
He closed his eyes.
Skinner awoke after what seemed only moments. The headache had passed. He donned his EBA and made his way to the DFAC for a quick lunch. He had a craving for a bacon cheeseburger and French fries, but instinctively knew that what waited would be both healthy and repulsive. Meals today were perfectly balanced to the physiological needs of the body – not quite Soylent Green, but not quite food, either. He would have settled for a bowl of macaroni and cheese. Instead, he slumped over a container of highly nutritious food paste intended to taste like barbecued chicken but was probably closer to the flavor of char-broiled squirrel. Not that I’d know the difference. He washed it all down with a protein shake that might have tasted like chocolate, if anyone actually remembered what that was.
He had barely cleared the airlock when the HUD in his visor flashed an incoming message icon. He blinked twice, activating the message portal, then moved his eyes slightly from left to right to move the dispatch into his direct field of view:
Exec branch override on budget. Sequester avoided. Initiate redeployment sequence. You’re coming home. — CoS
Beneath his visor, Skinner smiled wryly and let slip a quiet chuckle. The President knew a public relations disaster when she saw one. Leaving a brigade stranded in the Iraqi badlands was about as popular as abandoning an astronaut on Mars.
Word spread quickly across the desert outpost. RUMINT, they called it – rumor intelligence – and it was as much a part of soldiering as complaining. But in this case, it was more intelligence than rumor, and the effect on the brigade combat team was electric. Raw energy surged through every task. Droids worked day and night and soldiers saw their own eagerness to return home in the mechanical movements of the silent machines. It was human nature – stay far enough ahead of the power curve and good things would happen. Every single soldier wanted to be ready and waiting when the transport pods arrived from Erbil.
19 NOVEMBER 2040, 0400 HOURS
This is it. The transport pods began docking about 30 minutes ago, and we start manifesting at 0600. How does the old song go?
My bags are packed and I’m ready to go…
It’s GO time.
Skinner stepped across the electronic threshold of his quarters and into the morning sun. Even as the actuators in his EBA adjusted for the blowing wind, he saw the first drops of rain splash against his visor. No mission is complete without rain. He walked out into the gravel road and made his way toward the brigade staging area in the motor pool. As he approached the waiting transport pods, the rain fell in a deluge, pounding the hulls of the massive hovercraft. Undaunted by the coming storm, a young sergeant turned toward him and saluted.
“Another day in paradise, sir!”
Skinner smiled and returned the salute.
“Just livin’ the dream.”