1st Platoon, Bravo Company, 2nd Dense Urban Armored Brigade (DUAB). Wed., 0525
Not a single word. Every pair of eyes scanning the buildings. Guns being aimed methodically on every window. The constant engine noise of the car-sized tankette filling the air. No movement.
“Bargain Home, Bargain One.”
“Go ahead, Bargain One.”
“Got any updates? We can’t stay put too long.”
“Almost there, Bargain One. Still running diagnostics. Stand by.”
A female US Army soldier looks over at the sergeant. He shakes his head and resumes scanning the windows.
The radio comes back to life.
“Bargain One! Get away from tankettes! Get away NOW!”
2nd DUAB HQ. Wed., 0528
The loud noise of a four-ship tilt-rotor flight momentarily drowns out all conversation in the headquarters of the 2nd DUAB. It comes and goes like a passing train.
“Sir! Got a visual from one of the drones.”
Everyone standing stares at the large screen in the center of the room. Smoke columns rise from the urban landscape. The silence that followed the tilt-rotor flight is broken by someone’s gasp.
“Status on QRF and medevac?”
“Approaching multiple sites. ETA three minutes.”
Field Hospital, 2nd DUAB. Five days later. Tues., 0930
A young nurse salutes as two Army officers approach, their steps steady and in sync.
“Hi, we would like to talk with two of your patients…”
The Army officer looks down at his standard issue tablet “Private First Class Ernesto Franco and Sergeant Kelly Duboui.”
“Let me call Major Dullan — the Chief Medical Officer,” the nurse says. She looks at the concern on their faces and pauses. “
The most senior officer, a Major, smiles. “That would be great, ma’am. No sugar, please.”
The other, a Captain, shakes his head “No, thanks, ma’am. I don’t drink coffee. But if you have tea…”
The nurse smiles and goes away. After a few moments she returns with the beverages. The two politely thank her and sit on a bench while waiting for the Medical Officer. The younger Captain looks at his tablet. The major, savoring his coffee, peeks over and see the records of the two soldiers they will soon meet. He then looks back at the Captain.
“Hey, Anderson. Easy off and enjoy your tea.”
Captain Thomas Anderson turns to his superior officer and sighs.
“You know, I’ve never been in such big investigation.”
“Come on, relax. Just another medal run. As usual the General just wants to be certain he is doing the right thing.”
Captain Anderson gets closer and whispers “But, sir, this guy is being recommended for a Medal of Honor. No cyber’s ever received one.”
Major Henry McDuling looks straight into Anderson blueish eyes. “I know. That’s exactly why you must treat this as any other assignment. We also have a couple of Purple Hearts, and a Bronze Star. Cool heads must prevail…”
A man in green scrubs approaches the two officers.
“Sorry for making you wait but it looks like you found the coffee. You will only be able to see Private Franco. I discharged Sergeant Duboui yesterday after she insisted on rejoining her unit. Here, I can give you their medical records.”
The doctor gets his tablet and puts it near Captain Anderson’s. Anderson looks at his screen and signs “done” to the doctor as the transfer completes.
“Just follow me, please. Private Franco experienced substantial blood loss, multiple dilacerations from shrapnel, and some second- and third-degree burns. Fortunately, the PJs arrived on scene quickly. He is reacting well to the skin sheets we printed. But we can’t regenerate muscle tissue in this facility, so we will transfer him Stateside soon.” The doctor opens one of the plastic curtains separating patients. “Private Franco, these officers are here to talk about what happened. Gentlemen, I will be back with another stool.”
Private Franco painfully attempts a salute.
Major McDuling shakes his head while seating next to Franco “No need, soldier, at ease. How are you son?”
“Not bad, sir. Guess I could be better… but really not that bad. Doc said they will send me back, but not as fast as I want. Damn short deployment…”
“Private, Captain Anderson and I are investigating what happened. Can you tell us everything you remember about the incident?”
“Sure…well, I’m new to the unit, and It was my first time outside the wire. Sgt. Duboui told me to hang right next to her, just in case it got hot. We were hanging close to one of the tankettes. We were covering all the windows, working the threat. I heard Dee, I mean Sgt. Duboui, on the radio and then we stopped. Something about hacking the tanks. Dee said that happened all the time. But then she said something about the tank sounding strange. Then she screamed to get away and started to run. I turned. I guess a bit too late…”
Cpt. Anderson looks at his tablet. “So, she ran first, and then you got hit.”
Ramos looks down and takes a deep breath “Shit. Sorry, sir. No, sir, not like that. Dee waited, that’s why she got hit too. I screwed up. I had to be glued to Dee. But when she said the noise from the tank was off, I didn’t get it. So, I tried to pay attention to the sound. Then, it happened so fast. She said something, but I don’t even remember what it was. When I figured out what the hell was going on, she was running, looked back and stopped to see where I’d gone. That was the worst. I realized I let her down. I screwed up, sir. Then I tried to run, but the tank just blew up…”
2nd DUAB HQ. Tue., 1043
Maj. Henry McDuling and Capt. Thomas Anderson stand rigid despite their fatigue and give their best salute. Colonel Saito Kimura returns it casually, then runs a hand through his thin, grey hair.
“Sir! We’re from …”
“Gentlemen, sit down. I know who you are. I got the message. Messages, actually. Good to see higher is considering it. I gotta tell you, that cyber kid is a damn hero in my book. Come here.”
The two men walked to a large table screen. The map of the cityscape had multiple unit symbols overlaid in different layers.
Col. Kimura points to a particularly colorful cluster of symbols on the map. “Have any idea how many people are still left in the city? Even after the massive evacuation? Millions! It’s a mess. Damn hard to distinguish a baddie from some poor civilian trying to scrounge some clean water. See? Every single unit deployed. No reserves. A clusterfuck if you ask me. I don’t speak nerd, but that day the chicoms tried to hack all our tankettes to blow them up. Standard deployment means we have usually two or three of our soldiers with each tankette, so usually we run three to four tankettes to a rifle squad. We are talking about nearly an entire company nearly wiped out if the kid didn’t sound the alarm. Instead we had just 15 KIA and three wounded. It was a close thing.”
Major McDuling walks slightly away from the map. “Sir, we need to talk with Lt. Edward Saint privately,” Capt. Anderson adds as a matter of fact “And Sgt. Duboui too, sir.”
“Well, Duboui is back with her unit. Tough soldier, great leader. Now, I have no idea where Saint is. After those sons of bitches tried to take our tankettes we delivered a custom patch. It’s under test back in the States, but I won’t take risks. We deployed all cybers with each unit at the front, so if the shit hits the fan they can punch back and fix it right away.” A pause, as if considering the severity of the situation. “Captain Chen over there may help you with Saint. He’s our cyber and helped deploy them.”
Both officers salute the colonel and walk over to Captain Eric Chen. Chen stands up and formally salute the newcomers.
“Hi, Major McDuling. Can you tell me where we can find Lt. Edward Saint?”
“Yes, sir!” Capt. Chen sits browses through a series of menus. “Let’s see, I put him with his buddies at 1st Platoon, Bravo. Here.” He points at a blue circle on the 3-D map, “I’ll transfer their location to you and arrange transport. Sir, I must say he did good. You know, none of us knew what the hell they were doing until Saint shouted out.”
Capt. Anderson syncs the information to his table. “Why’s that?”
Capt. Chen turns towards Anderson and gets his large mug of coffee before speaking further. “You see, the chicoms had been trying to hack our tanks pretty much every day. They hide these nasty digi-mines pretty much in every building…”
Major McDuling grabs a coffee. “Digi-mines?”
Chen sips “Yes, sir. ICWs. You see, since that nasty Vietnam hack the gen-one of IntCog are everywhere. The chicoms add this first-generation artificial intelligence to a receiver and transmitter, and these improvised cyber weapons do all sorts of nasty stuff to try to infiltrate our channels. Anyway, it looked like yet another day the suckers were trying to hack us. Many of us noticed the tankette telemetry looking messed up. But you know, that’s normal during an attack. Software goes bad, needs to reset, and hardware goes crazy for a bit. All typical. We noticed the active cooling was misbehaving so we issued a stop command for all tanks. The troops don’t like to stay put, but you know, better that than have the tankettes overheat and do an emergency shut down. Or worse, fry the engine. Anyway, we were still trying to figure out what was the deal with this particular attack. Then Latte, I mean, Lt. Saint, sent an urgent message. He figured out the chicoms were trying to overheat the tanks, turning the whole thing into one big anti-personnel bomb. It took me a minute to get it, but the telemetry matched the scenario. I almost pissed my pants when I realized how serious it was. I started to override all units and force full shutdown. I got most of them. But it was too late for the tankettes of Third Platoon, Alpha, so I ordered them to move away from all tankettes. Ended up with two soldiers injured. Everyone else got away. Nowhere near what would happen if all of them blew up. And if Latte hadn’t figured it out, who knows how many body bags we would had filled that day…”
3rd Platoon, Alpha Company, 2nd DUAB. Tue. 1223
Two soldiers wave to the dusty four-door Army pickup to slow down. One soldier has a rifle, the other a shoulder-fired laser. They approach easily while a shoebox sized tracked bot scans the car for explosives, talk a bit with the two officers riding in the back seat. The soldiers gesture to an area behind them. Fighting positions sit among a curated collection of wrecked cars, debris piles, and even what seems to be pieces of a lightpost. From within the position, the barrels of a tankette turret’s high-velocity 90 mm auto-loading gun and 25-mm autocannon tracks the pickup. The low profile, high-angle armor on the pyramid-shaped turret blends in amidst the wreckage. A spherical eye-like laser dome protrudes aft of guns. Four independent triangular shaped tracks make the tankette look like a lethal car-sized insect ready to scuttle off amidst the rubble.
The two passengers, officers, walk toward the area where a group soldier gather. The stone walls of one of the buildings was knocked down. Pieces of glass and dismembered mannequins indicate the place used to be a clothing store. Most of the soldiers are sitting on the floor close to the road, eating and heating inside. A smell of cooked fish smell carries farand clearly not everyone is pleased with it. The scent mixes with a chicken dish with local spices being shared in a large pan.
When they see the two coming officers on the road one of the soldiers turns to them and springs to his feet. “Sir! Uh, no saluting here in the open and we don’t say sir either. Chicoms are always watching and listening with drones to try to tag the officers …”
Capt. Anderson instinctively looks up and, a bit uneasily, asks “Soldier, we’re looking for Sgt. Kelly Duboui.”
“One sec,” he turns to another group. “DEE!!! Somebody looking for you…”
A petite brunette woman near one of the tankettes stands up, grabs her helmet and rifle and head to the two newcomers.
“Duboui here. Can I help?”
“This won’t take long. We’re getting statements about the incident with the tankettes a few days ago…”
Sgt. Duboui smiles. “Ah, you are shuffling paper to give Chen a medal? About time! I gotta say the nerds pulled it off this time and saved our asses!”
Major McDuling and Capt. Anderson exchange glances. “Something like that, sergeant, we are mainly checking if Lt. Edward Saint…”
Duboui smile fades “Latte?!? Why? I don’t get it…”
Major McDuling intervenes. “Well, you see, Saint is the one that informed Capt. Chen …”
An explosion of laughter comes from nearby amid a group of soldiers suddenly quiet, eavesdropping as they are eating. “I knew it! I knew it! That mofo was way too quiet yesterday!”
Sgt. Duboui’s fair skin turned red beneath the dust on her cheeks “Check that mouth, Chad!” Then, slightly confused, she explains “We thought it was Chen who figured it out, and…”
Private Chad’s laughing grows even louder. “You GOTTA tell me how the date of the mofo and your sis goes! That’s too funny!”
“SHUT THE FUCK UP, CHAD. IT’S A FUCKING ORDER!” Duboui now is blushing so badly that her cheeks are even brighter red “Sorry… sir,” she whispers. “Chen digs my sister, so I, ahem… that message saved pretty much all my unit…”
Captain Anderson looks confused. “Wait, the whole unit? I thought you were only putting a few soldiers with each tankette …”
“We did that before the Hellbuzzers…”
“I’ve heard of them. Bad news.”
“Yeah, the chicoms get drones, pack them up with a punch, invert the sensors and now instead of avoiding people it goes straight to the biggest group. Nasty fuckers… They come so fast that is pretty damn hard to fry them before someone gets hurt. But you see that?” Duboui points to the round dome on one of the tankette turrets “The tanks are stupid, don’t fire unless the threat is close, but when they do fire, it is pretty damn accurate.”
Major McDuling shakes his head. “So you stick everybody close to force the tankettes to fire at the incoming drone.”
Duboui smiles “You got it. All of us do that at the front nowadays…”
Captain Anderson jaw drops “That means the casualties that day could be…”
The officer is interrupted by Sgt. Duboui’s communicator worn on her forearm. “Big Dog Three Actual, Big Dog One Actual. Come in.” Duboui’s voice and attitude transforms. “Big Dog Three Actual. Go ahead.”
“Fried a bug.”
Duboui sighs loudly “Copy that, Big Dog Three. Size?”
“Small but juicy. Sending you location and threat profile now. Be advised, both chicoms and civs are going to fight you for this one.”
“Got it, Big Dog One. We’re rolling. Big Dog Three Actual, out.”
Duboui straps on her helmet and pulls down her faceplate that veils her face. She checks her forearm screen, then her weapon. “Listen up! Small drone down three blocks north. Chicoms moving to recover, so we gotta get it first. Chad, fire up the tanks, you have our rear. Kay, tell Chen to stay on top of the telemetry, because we’re moving NOW! Sam, your tankette on point. Pushing updated ROE to your weapons; there’s civilians moving in on the area.”
Sgt Duboui looks back to the officers. “With all due respect, you need to be out of here like five minutes ago.”
Maj. McDuling nods. “Good luck. And sergeant… Latte might have figured things out, but it was Capt. Chen that warned …”
Duboui smiles. “Yeah, right…” Then she laughs and lifts up her visor to shout: “DID YOU FUCKING HEAR THAT, CHAD?”
1st Platoon, Bravo Company, 2nd DUAB. Tue., 1745
The front is quiet as the sun begins to set. Quiet for now. A soldier guides both Major McDuling and Capt. Anderson to the platoon’s temporary home in an old school . The soldier points to a hunched-over soldier sitting on the corner of a table, glued to his tablet. The two officers approach the lieutenant, waiting for his hands to slow down their frantic inputs into the screen. As they watch him, they see he looks older than they expected.
Capt. Anderson speaks first. “Lieutenant Saint? Edward Saint?”
Without looking up from the screen, Saint replies, “Yep.” One of the sergeants says aloud,“Yo, Latte…” The lieutenant finally looks up to see the two officers and jumps to his feet. He adds a sharp,“Sir!”
Major McDuling takes a good look at the man in front of him. He is more like someone that you would call to fix a broken computer than a person being considered for a Medal of Honor. The light hazel brown eyes give a bit of contrast to a thin coal black beard, a sign that he didn’t shave during the last few days. The oval face, narrow shoulders, and slight build make him more like some general secretary than an infantry soldier able to carry a comrade on his shoulders out of harm’s way. The lines around his eyes reveal he is in his late thirties, which is a stark contrast to the youthful faces at the front.
“Son, we’re from command and we need to talk to you about … ”
Lt. Edward Saint quickly puts the tablet aside. He lowers his head and says in a barely audible voice, “Sir, am I under arrest?”
Capt. Anderson recoils at the question. “What? No! You’re being considered for a commendation regarding the cyber engagement with the tankettes last week. Actually, it’s not just any medal… ”
Lt. Saint looks at the two with a look of confusion. “What? You got to be mistaken. That makes no sense. I fucked up. Impossible. I… I fucked up… I…”
Capt. Anderson is about to speak when Maj. McDuling intervenes. “Lieutenant, we need to hear from you about the day the tanks blew up. Just walk us through what happened, that’s all you need to do today.”
Lt. Saint looks to the two of them, as if he still does not trust them. Then he takes a deep breath and just nods. As he speaks, Saint fixes his eyes to a spot on the ground about six inches in front of Capt. Anderson’s right foot. “Well, it was a standard op at the start and I was monitoring the tankettes closely because the chicoms are trying to hack them pretty much every time we go out. The entire brigade was advancing. Everything looks cool. And then it wasn’t. The tank telemetry started to go nuts. Now, that’s common when someone tries to mess with them. So I said to myself ‘Fuck, here we go again’ and checked and rechecked the systems: the active heat sinks, big badass fans. It all appears OK, but the temperature was fluctuating. We saw that before. It happens sometimes when they try to breach some of the sub-systems.”
Saint takes a deep breath and looks at the two officers. “It seemed like a dumber attack than before. Which didn’t make a lot sense. I mean, their AIs are dumb, but not that dumb. So, I re-checked everything and checked in with the unit’s other cybers. My own AI saw the pattern too. The heat sinks seemed under attack. I thought to myself, well, that was stupid. You’re just going to slow down the tankettes, but not stop them by simply halting the fans. Then the order came for us to stop the tankettes, just in case.
“But something really was off. I checked the temperature monitor and the core temperature kept rising. But the fans registered everything as OK and they weren’t turning on. It made no sense. I went ahead and downloaded the whole raw cache memory. Then I saw it. The heat sensors regularly log the temperature of the components in an internal cache, where it was then read by the fan daemon, the values averaged out and then it decided if fans should turn on or off. The cache is that piece of memory that’s shared between every temp sensor, the fan sensors, the log daemon, memory manager, and who the hell knows what else. The chicoms figured that out and inserted a virtual sensor that was writing with the same sigs as the real ones, but with perfectly normal temperatures. The stupid parser of the fan daemon didn’t handle the data conflict well and just picked the last record with the same header per sensor, which was almost always from the noisy fucking malware. The average always looked normal or close to it. I guess the coders back home never thought about a rogue virtual sensor…”
Captain Anderson stares blankly at Saint while Major McDuling finally verbalizes his lack of understanding. “Lieutenant, English please.”
Lt. Saint slowly shakes his head. “Right, sir.”
Saint searches the for words, twisting his hands and fingers. “The stuff the chicoms inserted was lying to the fans of the core, and making the fans not start even when the core was getting red hot.”
Saint takes off his helmet and slowly scratches his dark black hair. “My company was getting nervous about staying put. I got an offline call from my buddy John. But I had no answers. Stuff was still churning in my head. I asked them to stand by. There are enough safeguards to shut the whole system down if something overheats. But the core is mil-spec tough, it can function without fans. The location onboard the tankette – it’s right near where the gun magazines are located, which makes sense as it’s far from the engine for any real lasting damage from heat. Still didn’t make sense. Then I realized. They weren’t trying to control the tanks. They also weren’t trying to break them. They were trying to cook off the ammunition. Never seen this before, using an ICW to turn the tankette into an IED…”
Lt. Saint, for the first time, stares right at the two officers. “If I didn’t tell everyone what I found out, it would be bad, really fucking bad. I opened a clear channel to command. I explained as fast I could, I pushed everything my AI collected to the other cybers. And then I sent a flash message to my unit that there was no time to shut tanks down. I called them direct on the comms and told them to get away from the tankettes.”
Capt. Anderson glances at the casualty list in his tablet. Ten out of fifteen killed in action are from Bravo Company. He looks back at Saint and sees a tear failing from his face, carving a track in the dirt caked around his eyes.
“I heard the explosions and rushed to their location. I… fucked up. You know, John P. had this funny Southern accent. Something went clean thru his neck…” Another tear falls. “Fuck, he was a cool guy, you know.” His dust covered hand creates a brownish spot in Saint’s face as he tries to wipe the tears “Lisa… she… her mom made the best damn cornbread… always sent a vac-box full of it. She always shared it, you know? I…I…didn’t notice it was her next to John… Fuck, so much blood… Shit… You need to know, I fucked up. I could have been faster to connect the dots. I think I could…Fuck…”
Lt. Saint lowers his head again to stare at the floor. Maj. McDuling reaches out to put a hand on Lt. Saint’s shoulder. “Son, listen to me. Son, look at me. Shit happens. All the time, all the fucking time. Listen to me. You did the right thing, something nobody else could and that saved a lot of soldiers’ lives. That makes you a hero.”
Lt. Saint takes a deep breath. He stares blankly as if the Major was speaking in another language. The major gently taps his back.
“I think we got everything we need, Lieutenant.”
By day, Ed dos Santos Jr. is a senior security engineer, pilot, father. By night, he is a white-hat, war historian, story teller. He can be reached on Twitter @EdGSantosJr