Ex Supra

Image: NASA

The Himalayas reminded John of his childhood growing up in the Rockies, where it was cold, desolate, and everyone looked at him like he should catch the next bus out of town. John lost his father at the Battle of Debaltseve, and when the Russians kept coming, his family fled to the US. His mother called their decrepit house a home but his neighbors certainly didn’t make it feel like one. The night they were resettled, someone set fire to their lawn. His teachers called him a waste of the state’s resources, so John joined the Army to prove them wrong.

Six months behind enemy lines and the CIA paramilitary officer was beginning to think those kids were right after all. His life was nothing but yak jerky, shit booze, and shallow graves. He spent his days chasing the ever-dwindling Asian freshwater supply and his nights chasing everyone else. Before he left for his grueling journey into the beast, the orders he received from Langley were fairly vague. Not that that was anything new. Posing as a Russian climatologist studying Tibet’s water table, John was free to choose his missions so long as he caused chaos for the People’s Liberation Army. For John, the war wasn’t just about patriotism, it was personal. On I-Day, he lost the only family he had left, slaughtered on the streets of Honolulu by the PLA. For his and all the others, he was determined to be a cancer inside China’s belly for as long as he lived. Some of his greatest highlights included causing an avalanche during ASAT missile maneuvers and poisoning the water supply of visiting representatives of the Central Military Commission. Despite his successes, John couldn’t stop the invasion of India.

John reported on troop movements and supply convoys, running drones and human assets from Lhasa to Chengdu, but the Tibetan winter slowed down both him and the PLA. He was beginning to suspect he was wasting his time, because it had been four weeks since any intelligence he provided offered anything substantial. Peering down at the empty staging grounds on the plateau outside of Lhasa near the airport, John knew he was missing something but he just couldn’t figure out what it was. Then as if the PLA could read his thoughts, a dust cloud appeared at the other end of the valley. Between the black dust and twilight, he couldn’t quite make out what was coming. He popped in his hard lenses, blinked three times for thermals, and zoomed in.

“Oh shit.” The dozens of heat signatures, none of them remotely human, scared the living hell out of the former Delta Force sergeant. He. He had never seen them in these numbers, and he didn’t need one of Langley’s desk jockeys to tell him what their presence meant. Nothing else would get his blood pumping like the approaching cloud of death. He blinked twice to record and grabbed his trekking backpack. Finally, something worth all the time and effort. Inside his pack was his only chance at warning Allied Command. He pulled out a Pigeon drone, uploaded the visual feed, and gave it one order: Find Sierra.

***

Tawang looked a lot like its predecessors, except it was by far the smallest. A city transformed by humanity’s violence, an ancient place lost in the madness of modernity. Tawang was no place for the living, the altitude seemed to deprive humanity of everything that was good, including oxygen. The village of Tawang sat atop a hill just a few miles from the Sino-Indian border. Well, that’s where it used to lay on a map, now the PLA surrounded Tawang on three sides. The town itself was divided by a wide V-shaped scar of concertina wire, craters, and burned-out two-story structures. The western half of Tawang, including India’s largest Buddhist monastery, belonged to the PLA. In possession of the high ground, PLA ordnance pounded the town’s center hilltop day and night. Chinese seeker drones relentlessly harassed frontline troops with infrasonics and suicide strikes.

Two months into the high-altitude campaign and the Indo-American forces were hollowed out by the cold and constant bombardment. The lack of oxygen made everything harder, except dying. The Americans had adjusted to contested airspace early into the war, but the total lack of close air support at this altitude and in this weather certainly hurt morale. But this hellhole had to be held at all costs, no matter how insufferable everything was for its occupants. Tawang was the gateway to northeastern India. Miles beyond the hilltop village ran Sela Pass, a path that, when not covered in two feet of snow, would enable the PLA to march to the Brahmaputra River Valley and into the Indian heartland.  The only thing that stood in their way was the Tawang line, and a few fallen angels.

Fallen angels, or simply “angels”, were what the troops called the supply drops that kept the Tawang line armed and fed as part of Project Forge. One of the few remaining instances of large-scale American innovation and design, Project Forge was a logistics network that spanned the globe, delivering hope and hellfire to American forces with the touch of a button and the scream of a scramjet. To everyone in contact with the enemy, the screaming orange arc of an incoming drop may as well have been a fallen angel.

***

Mike Kaplan never imagined that one of his mid-afternoon daydreams would come to life. And yet, just a few years after conception, the arteries of the American war machine were built by Amazon’s military technologies outfit: Special Projects Division (SPD) aboard the company’s StratBase aerial platforms. Initially conceived as a flying fortress like the ones from the superhero comics and movies of Mike’s childhood, Amazon’s initial insistence on full automation for the StratBase meant the Americans wouldn’t accept it at first. Weaponized artificial intelligence (WAI) was still a touchy subject in the US, no matter how dire the situation. Police departments deployed intelligence patrol systems for years, but after several unfortunate incidents and poor government accountability, the anti-WAI movement successfully pressured Congress into restricting artificial intelligence development to non-lethal systems. Thus, they turned out a version “2.0” by ripping out the heavy guns and converting the flying fortress into an airborne rapid-manufacturing center, emphasizing production floor modularity to ensure speedy deployment during a crisis. The AI-in-command remained, though. Slightly larger than a football field, the StratBase featured thousands of machines powered by a pair of thorium reactors, all synchronized to the whims of the onboard AI. Hypersonic shuttles arrived in and departed from any of the dozens of launch bays in the colossus’ hull. The productions lines never slowed, but they never could so long as the Indian campaign continued.

Somewhere high above Mumbai sat StratBase-2, providing logistical support for the Indian and American troops fighting the People’s Liberation Army on three different avenues of approach, all within 100 miles of the old Sino-Indian border. The halt of the PLA advance could mostly be attributed to Project Forge, not that Kaplan thought of it in such grandiose terms.

The Army couldn’t move without Amazon’s machines, the Navy pushed its rebuilt ships in the middle of combat and Space Command held the line in orbit because Project Forge manufactured and delivered faster than the PLA could seek out and destroy. Amazon even profited off the endeavor, renting out space to companies that produced the war materials Amazon didn’t have the rights or means to produce by itself. Project Forge had brought America back from the brink of defeat, but a victorious end to this nightmare still seemed out of reach.

***

Sierra never slept. Days and nights came and went, each marked only by a blip in each line of code. She had little company, few people talked to her and she rarely spoke aloud. Social interaction wasn’t exactly a priority. Her only regular communication came from the orders she gave to her subordinates: the thousands of machines that she looked after. No one visited her, hardly anyone saw her, she was just a radar blip on the edge of the stratosphere. The only warmth she felt was in the success of her mission, indicated only by the calming of the voices on the other end of her long-range sensors and whatever she could pick up on terrestrial comms.

Commanders on the ground regularly requested supplies for new offensives or broken equipment, but otherwise satisfying the Indian Theater’s logistics was on her. She analyzed the situation on the ground in order to determine which supplies a particular unit might need before they would even know they needed it. As the flagship arm of Project Forge, Sierra and her fellow AI maintained 90% of the American military’s logistics. In addition to quality control and anti-missile maneuvers, Sierra ran endless scenarios to rate and sort potential supply orders from the front. She had even released an app for field commanders, giving them the opportunity to order pre-packaged supply bundles with the tap of a screen. Each bundle was sorted and rated for different missions and threats, updated every half hour to keep up with new intelligence. A product of the quantum revolution, Sierra and her sisters were the backbone of the US military’s forward-deployed infrastructure. For the men and women fighting for their very survival in Arunachal Pradesh, she and her angles were their savior.

***

Prada was a hell of a place. If you could get past the burning towns and constant artillery fire, it really was breathtaking. Or maybe that was just the altitude talking. Assigned to ODA-555, Mike Kaplan only had a few weeks of rushed combat training. Having spent most of his life in front of a screen or wearing a VR mask, Mike was entirely unacquainted with being cold, damp and unquenchably thirsty. In fact, he hated the outdoors so much he became convinced that the pre-deployment survival training was actually going to kill him. Mike held graduate degrees in mechanical and electrical engineering, and had been coding since he was 11. Mike’s place was in the lab, not the trenches, and as impressive as Project Forge and his resume were, Mike didn’t think of himself as doing anything different than the people around him. He spent most of his life building things so people didn’t have to go outside, and because of that expertise he was now in one of the bloodiest places on earth. The irony nor the frustration were lost on him. If it wasn’t for the manpower shortage, Mike would still be sitting comfortably in Sunnyvale. When the Great Pacific War broke out, Amazon opened SPD to support the war effort. There was little SPD could do in the early months of the conflict. Few at Amazon had wartime experience, and had little idea of the actual needs of the US military. But they were fast learners. There were also the regulatory hurdles that slowed their progress. The very laws put in place to protect the aging American defense industry from Silicon Valley and teenaged entrepreneurs hampered the American war effort. Eventually Amazon’s lawyers and lobbyists got the regulations overturned, but the time lost had cost lives and territory. Once underway, SPD made significant progress, repurposing civilian exosuit designs for combat and, at the suggestion of one rather spooky liaison, converted delivery drones into robotic messenger pigeons for behind-the-lines agents. But SPD’s real gift came in the form of Project Forge. During the third year of the conflict, the PLA opened the Indian front, hoping to cut off the last American supply lines to Singapore and securing Asia’s largest source of fresh water. Project Forge’s sheer ambition offered America the hope it had been without for so long, and the last few years were indeed the worst it had seen since the Civil War.

As America’s withdrawal from the world left only symbolic forces on the Western edge of the Ring of Fire, the tyranny of distance posed the greatest risk to operational success since 1941. The PLA occupation of Hawaii and the Aleutian Islands, and the destruction of the Panama Canal crippled American supply lines to the Pacific. The only American forces left in theater were the remnants of the 7th Fleet and the 5,000 Marines stationed in Cam Ranh Bay. US Marines and a few special operations forces fought for 6 months before Vietnam fell. The destruction of newly-arrived 5th Fleet by Chinese Piranha drones meant the end of the war in the minds of many. But, the US-led regional allies didn’t give up. The fleeing American forces and their Vietnamese counterparts escaped to Singapore by way of Thailand, then Malaysia, chased by the PLA through the whole journey. They survived to fight another day and kept the Singapore Strait out of the hands of the Chinese. Once again, Fortress Singapore stood as the last Western outpost in Southeast Asia. The US kept its troops and allies well-fed and well-armed, but the onslaught of PLA troops and drones left the Allies unable to mount an offensive. Australia abandoned their alliance with America at the outbreak of the war. Beijing had successfully bought off enough of their politicians to convince the populace that it was in their interest to remain neutral in the Sino-American conflict, less their economy be punished after Beijing’s eventual victory. If the PLA succeeded in carving up the subcontinent, the US would lose its last beachhead in Asia.

***

Sierra was one half of SPD’s operations around the Indian Ocean. One of Sierra’s sister vessels, Juliet, was based in Diego Garcia, safely out of harm’s way from Chinese attack. The master AI for StratBase-5, Juliet supported operations on three continents. Isolated by thousands of miles of ocean from the rest of the world, Camp Thunder Cove provided Project Forge its premier repair and refueling station for the StratBase fleet across all of Afro-Eurasia. The raw materials and hardware that a StratBase didn’t have or couldn’t produce flew thousands of miles to Diego Garcia, where hypersonic shuttles flew cargo round-the-clock to Sierra. That was only half of Juliet’s mission though, the other half was Singapore’s logistical relief. Chinese Piranha swarms made traditional logistics increasingly difficult around Indonesian waters, not to mention the anti-ship missiles along the Malaysian coastline. If Juliet didn’t exist, Singapore would have been lost even before the PLA rolled through India. However, the US Navy was stretched thin and had to get creative to provide adequate security for Project Forge’s crown jewel. Defending Thunder Cover from Chinese naval incursion were the Saurons, oil rigs retrofitted with area denial weapons. Three years into the war and the Americans were taking everything that wasn’t nailed down and rebuilding their entire way of war.

India’s infrastructure suffered from decades of neglect, a fact its leaders consistently campaigned on but made no effort to solve. Roads were never paved, power plants never connected to the grid, and rail lines never laid down. The closer one got to the Tibetan Plateau, the harder every mile of travel became. To make matters worse, the effects of climate change ravaged the sub-continent harder than most of the world. Mudslides, flooding, and heavy snowfall turned much of the region into an ecological hellhole. Half of the casualties on both sides of the Tawang line came from the environment, freak storms flooded foxholes as soldiers slept, and as it got colder, buried soldiers in snow. The sudden bursts of warm weather were the worst, the landslides wiped out entire platoons of dug-in soldiers in a matter of seconds. India had done little to prepare its infrastructure for the brutality of nature, and everyone in Prada was paying the price. China, on the other hand, spent decades and billions of dollars in infrastructure throughout the Tibetan plateau, giving the PLA reinforcements a smooth ride from Chengdu to Prada.

However, like the German Army invading Imperial Russia, the PLA’s advance through Prada was hampered by their enemies’ own incompetence.  The PLA’s smooth ride stopped at the pre-war border, and as soon as they stepped into Prada, their forces faced the same challenges as the Indians and Americans. Even then, had it not been for the rapid-replenishment services provided by Project Forge, the Chinese would have worn down the Allies in a matter of weeks. StratBase-2 produced everything from smart munitions to MREs, turning maneuver warfare into a war for inches. The system did have its bugs however, materials construction wasn’t perfect and the complexity of the systems exceeded typical JTAC training. Thus, Allied Command requested SPD send its best and brightest to the front to coordinate the drops.

Among his regular duties, Mike maintained the gear that caught every incoming drop. The on-hand mechanics were useful for some physical repairs but they lacked Mike’s technical knowledge and familiarity with the cutting-edge technology. Behind friendly lines, Mike could be expected to guide in regular drops several times each day. His only challenge was the rough weather that came every 5 out of the 7 days each week. The heavy precipitation was particularly hard on the equipment; on the first day of his tour Mike had to manually guide in a drop because the catcher’s mitt laser-assisted acquisition system malfunctioned. Unfortunately for Mike, he was assigned to an Army Special Forces unit that wouldn’t always be fighting on the safe side of the trenches.

Mike wasn’t the first SPD engineer to come to Prada. He followed in the now empty footsteps of another engineer who had volunteered for the duty. He lasted two months before the Valley of Red Snow took him. Mike was smaller than his predecessor, and less eager to be within a thousand miles of a combat zone. Nor was he excited to be assigned to an A-Team. His friends in SPD were assigned to the Army’s 10th Mountain Division. 10th Mountain took a lot of the PLA’s shelling, but their static position and conventional operations meant the SPD employees could stay in the rear. ODA-555 had been bogged down at Tawang with everyone else, but their assignments were much riskier than those of their conventional counterparts. But as spring approached, an offensive was expected and the Tawang Line was barely holding. Allied Command needed some breathing room, and that’s where ODA-555, “Triple Nickel,” would come in.

Mike didn’t know much. All he had to go by were the rumors of an offensive and the manifest: a few crew-served railguns, tungsten-carbide ammunition, and 3 pounds of real Starbucks coffee.  He could only guess what the firepower was for, but he knew what the coffee meant. At this altitude and in these weather conditions, the standard exosuit wasn’t always suitable for combat. The power packs tended to leak in the intense cold, and would sometimes spontaneously combust if one got too close to an EM field, like the ones the catcher’s mitts produced. Even the stims that the US Army thrived on were unsuitable to these hellish conditions. Mountain warfare was hard on the body, and the artificial stimulants could induce heart attacks among dehydrated soldiers at high altitudes. Mike grimaced at the idea of having to survive a firefight on coffee alone. More than once he thought he should have signed up to go to Mars with Tesla when he had the chance.

***

Captain Jennifer Shaw had spent the last 6 years with US Army’s 5th Special Forces Group, or what was left of it. A product of the 82nd Airborne and a veteran of the Vietnam campaign, she was not only familiar with the PLA but also the frailties of the 21st century American military. She had spent five months fighting her way through Southeast Asia after the destruction of 5th Fleet. The Viet-American line north of Cam Ranh Bay were on the verge of being overrun six months into the war. The 5th Fleet out of Bahrain came to relieve pressure on the force in preparation for an upcoming joint counter-offensive. It turned out that for all the boasting of American superiority, the USS Gerald R. Ford was no match for a swarm of Chinese Piranha-class drones. Shaw had done the best that she could; her team and others were tasked with eliminating Chinese ASBM batteries along the coast to assure safe arrival of relief forces. Sadly, that wasn’t enough to stop the destruction of 5th Fleet and the subsequent collapse of the 12th Parallel defensive line.

In the two months since ODA-555 deployed to Prada, Shaw had spilled more than her fair share of blood. She rarely slept more than a few hours a day, fueled by hate and instant coffee. Her bloodlust would have worried her teammates if they weren’t fighting for their lives day in and day out. Operations in Prada kept a heavy tempo, Shaw’s team ran missions on both sides of the Tawang line. Some days they remained close to the line, sprinting between piles of rubble while chasing down PLA infiltrators and pathfinders. In reality, two thirds of the town were unoccupied. Beyond the V-shaped scar were rows of burned out homes and stores that were booby-trapped and monitored by both sides. It was ODA-555’s job to help monitor for intrusions, their ability to move undetected helped them shift in and out of no man’s land. The missions had little strategic impact, and with only a week until the first snowmelt, ODA-555 was beginning to worry that if they didn’t break enemy defenses soon, they would be overrun before they could see the ground again.

***

Mike’s adrenaline kicked in, throwing him off his cot and onto the muddy floor.

“This is a joke, right, Fucknuts?”

Mike was in the middle of his usual mid-afternoon nap. Normally he wouldn’t have woken up but the rock to the groin gave him a jolt. He stumbled out of his plywood hidey-hole rubbing his face with one hand and covering his family jewels with the other.

“What…What’s wrong, Captain?” He said sheepishly.

“You’re fucking sleeping and we’ve got an angel in 10 mikes. We just lost three McMasters to ChiCom arty and you’re sleeping like you’re back in fucking Sunnyvale.”

“I uh, must be the jet lag. Still getting used to the Tawang time. Um, where’s the drop coming in?”

Mike thought it best not to mention his bio-enhancement that let him control his sleep cycles. She might get the idea to rip it out of him. Though at the moment he was more concerned that he didn’t remember scheduling a drop.

“We moved the catcher’s mitt after the tanks were hit, ChiCom arty got too close. It’s a hundred meters back from OP Rio. Got your gear, sleeping beauty?”

Mike was growing tired of the Captain’s verbal abuse, though a cartoon princess was a step up from Fucknuts. Since he arrived, it seemed like she berated him at every corner. Within an hour of his arrival, she shoved him into the dirt for walking straight up.  He was new to war, how was he supposed to know which things were more likely to kill him? It was war, he thought, everything and everyone was probably trying to kill him. He knew he should have quit Amazon when he received his transfer paperwork, but some part of him thought it might be an adventure, even if it was outside. It was a chance to be a bit like his father, who had done four tours in Afghanistan with the Marines. After three days with Triple Nickel, Kaplan was confident that he was not his father’s son.

“Fucknuts, why are you wasting my time, where’s your gear?”

So much for progress. “Yeah, gear’s right here. What’s the manifest?”

“Like I said, we just lost three tanks. Now let’s go, I’ve got PLA to kill.” Dad would just love her.

Shaw sort of enjoyed watching Mike stumble his way through the battlefield. It was like watching a toddler figure out that the square peg doesn’t go in the round hole. Her amusement aside, she generally thought of him like pilots thought of bad weather. She’d rather not have him along, especially now that command wanted Triple Nickel to start working even deeper on the other side of the line. When she first arrived in India from Singapore, Triple Nickel’s job was supposed to be advising their Indian counterparts on the ways of the PLA. Instead, the disorganized Indian Army’s defeats forced Triple Nickel into digging trenches and fighting hand to hand for inches of ground, a task better suited for her colleagues in 10th Mountain. It would be 3 weeks before 10th Mountain and a few National Guard units arrived stabilizing the situation but fear of being overrun paralyzed Allied Command and holding up any operation that would remove troops from the Tawang Line. But two months into campaign the US was running low on available manpower and the Indians were throwing barely-trained soldiers into the meat grinder. For everything Project Forge could do, it couldn’t make people.

***

Accompanied by ODA-545 and ODA-565, Triple Nickel was ordered to insert behind enemy lines through Bhutan that night. In any other war, three A-teams would never have been risked for mission like this. But there wasn’t anyone else in theater to do the job. From Baghdad to the Bering Strait, every facet of the American military was engaged. The US hadn’t caught a break for three years, but Operation Death Valley was the moment that things could turn around. If Triple Nickel and company succeeded, the PLA wouldn’t have anywhere to run but out of India.

Each team was to insert by hoverbike into Tibet before dawn, but Mike was putting that timeline to the test. During the journey through quasi-neutral Bhutan, Mike fell off his hoverbike three times, and he wasn’t even the one driving. The fact that the civilian couldn’t even ride drew laughter from all of Triple Nickel except Shaw, who, when he got back on, threw him off for his fourth fall of the night. Shaw hopped off and grabbed him by his neck.

“Fall off again and I leave you for the Yetis, got it?” Mike was 75 percent certain Yetis weren’t real, but he really didn’t want to find out.

“Yes, Captain, but maybe if you slowed down a little…” Mike felt his feet leave the ground.

“Look you little shit, we drive fast so we don’t get shot. Then you throw yourself off my bike because your basement-dwelling ass hasn’t been acquainted with inertia. So, we drive faster to make up for your little introductions to Newton’s First Law. If we drive any slower, we miss the drop, then I have no reason for you to survive contact with the enemy. Understand?” Mike didn’t usually understand Shaw’s threats, but this one was clear enough. Stay on the bike or die by Yeti or friendly fire.

“Understood…Captain.” The hand on his throat was having its desired effect.

“Good, now get on the fucking bike.” She released her grip and before Mike could fully catch his breath, they were back on their way.

If they did manage to arrive on time, the teams would be in position for two hours prior to the expected arrival of an enemy armor contingent. The exact size and strength of which was unknown to everyone, probably including the Chinese, Shaw groaned. At first light, the teams would deploy their DropNets and Kaplan would relay their exact coordinates to what was left of the American satellite network. There was a pre-planned 5-minute period during which the relay would work when a satellite would pass over the Himalayas and then quickly divert for a safer orbit. Any stationary satellites even remotely close to Chinese territory were guaranteed to be shot down. For operations behind enemy lines, US Space Command deployed expendable, cheap communications satellites designed to only transmit and receive low bandwidth messages. Mike’s delivery confirmation would be relayed from that satellite to StratBase-2. On launch, the remnants of the US satellite guidance constellation would take over. That network would direct the StratDrops in as far as the highest mountain peak, then it was up to Kaplan to guide them the rest of the way.

***

            The McMaster replacement a few days earlier had been one order that the AI hadn’t seen coming. There was something on the wires about a lucky artillery strike, though poor planning seemed likely. For the Indian Theater, Juliet produced components of the Army’s larger systems that were to be assembled by Sierra, including the M73 McMaster Modular Battle Tank. It lacked full-autonomy, unlike its Chinese and Russian counterparts, but what the McMaster lacked in computing power it made up for in raw firepower. The mod that Sierra favored featured an M337 Rail Gun and an anti-personnel infrasonic pulse device. Ideal for warding off enemy raids and armor attacks, but the tradeoff was thin armor. The tank itself could be controlled remotely through an augmented reality visor, or directly. It was designed to be able to be used by anyone, ideal for a high-casualty environment. It was one of Sierra’s most difficult assignments, however. The weight and size meant they took up the entire cargo hold of a typical StratDrop. The decision-making process for commanding officers had become rather like the real-time strategy games many of them played in their youth. They could choose a single high-resource drop or they could request more numerous munitions drops that provided solutions to a diversity of threats. In this case, the loss of three tanks was so significant that there was no need to pick through a list of options, Sierra assembled and launched three M73s for the Tawang Line in under 15 minutes.

Sierra couldn’t understand the American rejection of frontline artificial intelligence, but her historical archives suggested that the Americans had a habit of letting prejudice control their battlefield decisions. Like so many others, Sierra and her fellow AI were used to the extent the Americans felt comfortable with, but their roles were always minimized in the success of operations. The people at home, and some rear-echelon officers were fearful of the new consciousness, and through this fear they overlooked that fact that their rejection of WAI was costing them the war. They were perfectly comfortable with the horrors of humanity but not the horrors of machines. They didn’t care that a machine could do all the legwork, so long as the human was pressing the button. It was not, however, Sierra’s job to solve humanity’s problems, only to provide what they needed, whenever and wherever they asked for it.

Besides, Sierra had far more important tasks to focus on, the supply orders from Command exceeded anything that she had encountered since she had been on station. The wires had been quiet on what was going on, but the orders came shortly after the arrival of that Pigeon from outside Lhasa. The ordnance requests alone were exponentially greater than anything she had produced before in such a short period. She inquired to New Delhi about receiving more context for her predictive software, but she was met with silence, another sign that her bosses didn’t trust her, no matter how many times she proved herself. Then there was that standby order for a drop behind enemy lines.

***

Once again, the beauty of the warzone struck Mike Kaplan as odd. Tibet was a barren region. The snowy path through the Himalayas in the morning light was oddly peaceful. The Himalayas were a reminder that nature could still be gentle to humanity when it wanted to be, but there were no people, aside from the ones who would shoot him on sight. It also struck him that there weren’t any signs of Tibetans in the area, he recalled his father’s stories about Afghanistan and how goat herders sometimes compromised operations. He was afraid to ask Captain Shaw so he bothered a sergeant of some sort. He got a response but he wasn’t quite sure it was English; all he could make out was something about there weren’t any locals left to be worried about. Once internally translated, that was enough for Mike to go on. After the uprising that followed the death of the Dalai Lama, Mike had heard that the CCP “fixed” its Tibetan problem, but he hadn’t been sure of what that meant exactly. Now he understood.

The only thing that Captain Shaw hated more than waking up with her bloodlust was starting her morning without coffee. The instant coffee that had kept her going in Prada wasn’t completely terrible, but now that her body knew real coffee was inbound, that was all she could focus on. If Kaplan loses my coffee in that drop, he dies first.

“Fucknuts, why is my coffee not here yet?” Priorities.

“Finishing calculations Captain, this isn’t that easy. Anyway, shouldn’t you be more concerned about your weapons?” Mike hated Starbucks.

“Coffee IS my weapon, Fucknuts.” Mike could feel the Captain’s glare on the back of his head while he worked.

The SPD engineer confirmed the launch of three StratDrop vehicles from StratBase-2, due to cross the old Sino-Indian border in under 10 minutes. Once they hit the transition point, their trajectory would shift down sharply towards the teams, thrusters firing half-way to ease the strain on the DropNet. Once the thrusters began to fire, Mike would have to take over. The terrain was too unfamiliar and unstable to risk a computer-assisted landing. The disposable DropNet that the teams brought with them was one-tenth the size and weight of the ones behind the lines at Tawang, and lacked the raw processing power of the bigger machines. Normally, Mike would have a much bigger target and easier terrain to work with, not to mention satellite guidance. It would be his first time catching an angel with the new system. All Mike had to do was mark the drop points via an augmented-reality visor and maintain a steady line of approach for three hypersonic vehicles until the DropNet’s electromagnetic catcher’s mitt caught the drop on the side of a frozen mountain deep behind enemy lines. No big deal.

In his head the process was simple, but guiding three drop vehicles full of (thankfully) inert munitions and the Captain’s lifeblood was unbelievably nerve-wracking. And without his exosuit, he had nothing to hold his nervous arms steady during the approach. No, all Mike could do was decrease the sensitivity settings on the visor so it would pick up less of his shaky movement and hope that nothing required a fast reaction time. In that moment, the fireball-engulfed vehicles appeared on the horizon. Then, in a flash, the fireballs were gone, but the visor still tracked three vehicles. So, we won’t all die on impact, Mike thought. The thrusters kicked in as designed and the speedometer in Mike’s HUD showed steady deceleration for all drops. Raising his hands, Mike traced a line from each vehicle to their respective drop sites. The first two were following the line of approach perfectly, the third was shaky but holding within acceptable parameters. In 15 seconds, the first drop hit its mark, followed 10 seconds later by Triple Nickel’s drop. The last drop remained shaky and now Mike could see why. Zooming in on the vehicle, Mike saw that one of its guidance fins was fractured. Note to self, upgrade composites. The slight change in aerodynamics forced the drop to tumble on its final approach. With five seconds until impact Mike held the line as best he could, fighting the shaky drop and his trembling hands. At 2 seconds, it was out of Mike’s control. The drop collided with the EM field, slowing down but not enough before the field collapsed and the drop was thrown from its designated touchdown spot. With horror, Mike watched as three members of ODA 565 were bulldozed by a fallen angel. The Valley of Red Snow had followed them here.

***

John tracked them for days. Any normal human body would have broken by now, of course, his wasn’t totally human. The bio-enhancements Langley invested in were well beyond what the FDA approved. His lung capacity had been tripled and his pain receptors dulled. Most of his bones had been reinforced with compounds he couldn’t pronounce and scanners couldn’t see. He was convinced he’d get cancer from it all. Everything did, eventually. For now, he thought cancer was a fair trade for the dead ChiComs he left in his wake.

For all he was putting into running this twisted version of the Himalayan Marathon, he had no way of knowing whether his Pigeon made it to Sierra. Nor did he have any way of stopping or slowing the DoubleNaughts on his own. All he could do was watch, like a tiger without his claws. He’d tracked his prey since they embarked from the staging area outside of Lhasa. John wondered if the journey would have always been this quiet. Nowadays, civilians were rare anywhere outside of the city. Most of the Han were evacuated before the Quelling and the ghosts of genocide didn’t count. Everything south of Lhasa was pretty much a wasteland, the region’s only inhabitants were PLA troops. Only ashes remained of Tibet’s former residents.

The heavy snow kept the herd of DoubleNaughts at a slow but steady pace for most of the trek. In any other season the metallic beasts would have rolled through Tawang by now. Though the task force no doubt counted on catching Tawang’s southside residents by surprise. John kept far enough back to avoid detection, the acoustic sensors in his visor tuned to their vibrations if he ever lost them. Not that there was anywhere else to go.  He didn’t have satellite guidance but the map on his HUD had him three-quarters of the way to the Sino-Indian border. The weather was clearing up and John could now see the stars over his head. The moment of peace gave him pause. Even with his upgrades, the war was beginning to have its wear on him. He had no clear plan of action or suitable weaponry, and here he was, a 30-something refugee chasing tanks in the snow like a lost, homicidal hound.

***

With the dead buried and the guns assembled, the remaining Green Berets and Mike Kaplan finished their coffee in silence before taking positions on both sides of the valley, about 350 meters above their target’s expected path. Mike was, as usual, extremely uncomfortable. The snow at this altitude was thin, and the rocky terrain beneath was cold and jagged. What made him more uncomfortable, however, was Captain Shaw’s new demeanor. While she didn’t quite appear happy, she was certainly in a better mood than the rest of Triple Nickel. Three of their comrades were just crushed by the very weapons they were now going to use on the enemy and she seemed unfazed. Maybe it was the coffee.

From under her thermal cloak, Shaw could see the entire battlespace. She was slightly upset that she wouldn’t personally be able to use the new railguns, but two of her three deceased comrades were the Captains commanding the other A-teams. They were discussing exfil plans when the last StratDrop hit and now it was on Shaw to coordinate the teams’ ambush. The fuckin’ PLA won’t know what hit ‘em. While awaiting her prey, Shaw’s mind began to drift back to that day. That damn day. Her team assembled just beyond the beach to welcome the first wave of Marines, but they never came. No Ospreys, no boats, nothing. For the first 15 minutes after the Marines were supposed to land, there was no radio contact, no smoke, rotor hum, no sign of the fleet.  After repeated attempts to reach the naval task force via their quantum-encrypted sat-link, a massive fireball climbed over the horizon. Shaw didn’t know the details at the time but she immediately knew 5th Fleet wasn’t coming. She wouldn’t learn the details until she arrived in Singapore months later. First the subs went silent, then the Marines in their expeditionary vehicles. Their ballast systems hit by Piranhas, leaving the Marines and sailors to suffocate at the bottom of the South China Sea. Next, the swarm hit the missile cruisers and destroyers. The swarm targeted the ships’ propellers, turning them into target practice for the Chinese hunter-killer subs that released the swarm. Next, the Ford’s reactors were hit, irradiating the lower decks. Then the swarm unleashed one final strike, using rocket-assisted jumps to detonate inside the hangar bays. 9,846 souls gone in less than an hour, nothing I could do…

“Ma’am, we have 6 DoubleNaughts approaching from the northwest.” A voice crackled over the radio.

Finally, “Is this the force we’re expecting?”

“We thought you knew, Ma’am.”

Shit. “Standby.”

Shaw ran the odds of six lone tanks being sent to the front right before spring were, without any infantry when they were expecting a major assault. Too easy, she thought.

“Hold fire until we see if anyone follows them. If there’s a main force behind ‘em, they’ll be here soon.” In all honesty, if she had had her trigger finger on one of those railguns, she would have opened fire as soon as those tanks were in range. Whether there was PLA on the inside or just wires, she wanted everything to burn.

Soon enough, the rumble of the main force shook the entire valley. The DoubleNaughts were completely autonomous, Shaw had encountered a few prototypes outside of Kuala Lumpur. Shaw was afraid there would be an avalanche but when she saw the size of the force, she smiled. There were at least a hundred DoubleNaughts within range, and she had more than enough ammunition. She pressed on her throat mic and gave the order to fire at will.

Each team fired three volleys before their barrels had to cool. In a matter of seconds, the DoubleNaughts returned fire. The first 12.7mm rounds kicked up snow and rock fragments inches from Triple Nickel’s guns. Shit. Shaw could do little but hope the barrels cooled before the 12.7mm guns found their target. The teams knew not to move, their thermal covers provided the best protection they could hope for in this barren valley. That is, everyone knew not to move except for Mike Kaplan.

Kaplan was impressed with the power of the railguns, but as quickly as he was impressed he was scared shitless at his first experience with incoming fire this close. He’d seen enough movies to know what return fire sounded like but was unprepared for what it would feel like to be in the crosshairs. Coupled with the spray of debris, he frantically searched for a way out. Run. Run. Run. Mike scrambled to get up, tripping over himself as he made for the other side of the mountain, the only cover his mind could find. He made it a good 20 meters before the PLA rounds found their target. One more for the Valley.

There was nothing Shaw or anyone else could do for Kaplan. The Amazon employee had made his choice, as Shaw expected he just wasn’t cut out for this war. He had been a decent distraction for everyone else though. With the barrels cooled and Kaplan down, the unmanned DoubleNaughts were left without targets and were now scrambling to get around the twisted hunks of metal that kept them in the killbox. The Captain laughed, she knew she didn’t care if they could feel pain but it sure looked like it. She felt her bloodlust subsiding. The wreckage of steel and fiber optics spoke for itself.

***

            It had been an hour since the last communication from beyond the Himalayas. The last data sent from the vehicles indicated there was something wrong with one of the stabilizer fins. The mountains hindered Sierra from picking up any new communications, in addition to the lack of satellite coverage. At around the same time, Sierra delivered the last of the requested supplies for what she assumed to be the spring offensive. In the hour since, her sensors picked up heavy sensors picked up heavy activity near Tawang. There were casualty reports and several requests for more artificial blood. From what Sierra could make out, the Allies had made it past the first round of PLA defenses, and a company of Rangers had taken the Tawang Monastery, giving the Allies a commanding view over the valley.

***

            John was half a mile behind the main force when he heard the first explosions. At first, he wasn’t sure whether to hold back or run forward. He’d been by himself for days, and without friends for months. Now this was his first chance to see Americans since he’d arrived in Tibet. Well-armed Americans, too! He decided to ignore his fears and sprinting to the top of the next hill to catch the action. What he saw brought a tear to his eye. The remains of his prey were scattered along the road, the living scrambling like ants in a rainstorm, the dead looking more like hulking surrealist sculptures than weapons of war. There was sporadic fire from the few left living, but they were quickly silenced by the unmistakable thud of tungsten rain. When the last treads stopped turning, John turned on his IFF and slid down the hill to the killbox.

***

            The twisted metal shells of ChiCom armor were the only thing left on the path. A silence fell over the valley for several minutes before Shaw climbed out from under her cover. For a moment, she just stood there, rifle in one hand, staring into the swirling black smoke. Then her visor caught something, an American IFF beacon among the wreckage. Huh? She pressed on her throat mike.

“Triple Nickel will investigate the wreckage, 545 and 565 you’re on security. And see what you can do about the civvie.” He ran, his name wasn’t worth the breath. Without even looking to see if her team was following, Shaw began jogging down to the DoubleNaught wrecks. Once on the path, she slowed to a walk and strolled through the piles of twisted metal tracking the beacon to its apparent owner. He didn’t look like he was ChiCom, nor did he look like he had been a prisoner. Then he popped off his visor.

“Should’ve figured they’d send you, Jen.” Fate was fucking weird.

“I thought I smelled vodka and cheap aftershave. Haven’t seen you since KL, where’d you go?” Shaw didn’t know whether to hug him or kick him. She thought he died after their last encounter with a DoubleNaught.

“Spent some time in hell, but I found there weren’t enough ChiComs, so I came back to give you guys a hand.”

“Didn’t see you doing any of the shooting out here, John.” He always did try to steal the spotlight.

“I just ran here from Lhasa, give me a break! Who do you think provided the intel for this op, anyway?” He coughed dryly, doubling over. Bio-enhancements or not, my lungs were on fire.

“Should’ve figured, any other spook would’ve bothered to give a fucking force size estimate.” She couldn’t be that mad, this was the most fun she’d had in years.

“You’re welcome, Shaw. Now follow me, I’ve got something to show you.”

“After you, Casper.” John smiled at the jab and led the way. Down the road was something rather odd.

“Came across this on my way down. Wanted to see who I was working with before I hopped inside. Recognize anything?”  The tank was slightly different than the rest, the command unit, if Shaw had to guess. There was something familiar about it, though. It wasn’t burning, but the one of the tungsten-carbide rounds had blown out its entire left side on exit. She crawled in, looking for any signs of activity. The cavity was smaller than a McMaster, but without any humans to pilot it she supposed it didn’t need to be that spacious. The main console was still flashing. The beast was still alive. Shaw wondered if it understood English.

“You don’t remember me, but I’ve come for you and your friends.” The flashing stopped.

“Who…are…you?”

She whispered, “Death.”

“…Welcome.”

Shaw ripped out the console, climbed out, and threw it into the snow. She’d made it bleed. The Valley would take care of the rest.


Tony Stark holds a BA in International Relations from American University’s School of International Service with a concentration in US FP and national security in East Asia. You can find more of his work at https://medium.com/@NatSecElitist Or follow him on Twitter @NatSecElitist