This story is a featured entry from the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command Mad Scientist Initiative contest exploring warfare in 2030-2050.
Ksenia Davidovna Kalomenskaya cracked her knuckles. It was 11pm Eastern Time, which meant time to deploy her favorite exploit.
Unlike some of her fellows within the New Troll Plant in Petrograd, Ksenia enjoyed this particular weapon out of more than grim humor. Since hostilities had begun three months before, she’d had few opportunities to tuck Simon in at night; her mother had spirited the boy away to a dacha in the Urals for safe-keeping. This was one way she got to feel close to him.
She clicked her mouse once, and leaned back to enjoy her handiwork.
Across the world, dozens of baby monitors crackled to life.
“Tili-tili-bom, zakroj glaza skoree, kto-to khodit z’oknom, i stuchitsta v dveri.”
Ksenia sang her son’s favorite song to infants in American military families, quietly coaxing some of them awake. A few children stirred.
Juniper Alvarez-Doyle, a thirteen-month-old sprawled in a crib in Springfield, VA, began to whimper.
Had her mother been there, instead of deployed to the Ukrainian front, she might have ignored the noise, hoping to train June to sleep through the night. With her gone, Patrick Doyle was struggling to sleep, and heard the singing. Bleary-eyed, he shuffled into his daughter’s room to turn off what he assumed was an irritating toy given to him by an overindulgent grandparent. Instead, he arrived in time to hear Ksenia’s follow-on speech.
“This is a message from the mothers of Russia to American military families. We are begging you to think of our children, and of your own. More fighting will bring more orphans, and no child should live without a parent.”
Horrified, Patrick hit the off switch, and immediately called his boss, then his wife.
In Petrograd, Ksenia enjoyed the God’s-eye-view her position in information operations gave her. Noting that one of the monitors had tripped, she focused on the IP address, and pulled up all related devices. Spiraling from devices, Ksenia traced other access at that location, including unencrypted transmissions and geo-tagged photos.
A couple, smiling in uniform. A chubby baby girl in a bubble bath. Two months ago, deployment orders and unit assignments. In Isabel Alvarez, Ksenia found a kindred spirit- a devoted patriot in information operations, a student of Russian poetry, and a mother of a small child. Let the games begin.
Patrick dropped Juniper off at the Child Development Center, still a little shaky from the night before. He headed into the Pred Pit, a small office building full of screens, computers and joysticks. He poured a cup of coffee, tossed a ball to Molly (who’d been working double time as the unit’s companion dog for the past ten weeks) and set himself behind his pilot and gunner.
“Doctor, Doctor,” Pat greeted his team. “We see anything exciting and new yet today?”
“More dirt. More trees. Super exciting.” CPT Kao was in a mood. He hadn’t seen anything worth painting red in a good week, and tended to get grumpy when his destructive impulses weren’t channeled.
“Cool, cool.” Pat narrowed his eyes, and pointed. “What’s that?”
Kao shrugged. “Sparrow Flock. You never see one fly this high up before?”
He hadn’t. “They look like ants all the way down there.”
Kao cracked a grin, finally. “Dude, they’re tiny, but I’d hate to have one poke me in an engine.”
East of Mariupol, Isabel “Duffle” Alvarez was making her last checks on her Sparrow Flock. The handsized drones seemed to preen and coo as she uploaded the next batch of orders. Their synthetic feathers and lightweight skeletons concealed a surprising sturdiness. She liked working with Sparrows; they reminder her of the pigeons she grew up with . Much like the pigeons, Sparrows were capable of carrying vital messages.
With the task complete, Duffle handed the Sparrows over to her flight crew for launch. The flock took off without a hitch, and spread out wide. Duffle, the flight chief (Pups) and the maintenance chief (Crisco) took their seats in the mobile TOU, and began their real work.
Today’s goal was infiltration and exploitation. With two dozen Sparrows in the air, the probability of at least one getting through to a Greater Russian unit was pretty good. While the Russians had taken a page out of the Dutch play book a few years ago, they didn’t have enough trained birds of prey to kill every small drone. Moreover, trying to hit a Sparrow with a traditional surface-to-air missile was akin to trying to kill a cockroach with a falling refrigerator. Plenty of noise would crash and lights would flash, and the Sparrow would bounce right off.
While most of the data would transmit back to Duffle’s team via satellite, select information beamed simultaneously to NATO basing in Poland. There, the American Sparrow flocks sensor data would meld with overhead imagery, FISINT, and pre-existing GEOINT to provide NATO forces with probable locations of Russian forces.
Janek Harma, a scruffy Estonian statistician, was one of the leading minds behind Project Streetlamp, the artificial intelligence responsible for the estimates.
Unfortunately for his colleagues, Janek was busy thumping the monitor and swearing loudly. “Perkele! Piece of bloody pointless brainless piece of…”
His Polish counterpart snatched her coffee mug off the long table before it could fall.
“Janek, the mainframe is sitting next door, yes? He cannot hear you here. Go next door to shout.”
“He’s confused. Something is wrong. Either all of the Russians have not moved in the past six hours, or Streetlamp is broken.”
Aga knew the Russians as well as anyone in Krakow. Unless a siege was underway, there was only one possibility. She adjusted her glasses. “The sats are fine. Uplinks?”
Janek nodded to the trio of enlisted Germans busy at the neighboring screen. The senior NCO, Lukas threw a thumbs up. “All is good. Flocks Bravo, Charlie and Kilo all broadcasting clear out of Donbass.”
Janek puzzled over this. If they were fine, and the sats were fine, the problem must be coming from elsewhere. Aga disagreed. “Call the operators. They will know.”t
Back in Donbass, Duffle’s comms beeped until she picked up. “Kilo Flock Nest.”
A thick German accent greeted her. “Kilo Flock Nest, this is Krakow Base. Confirm status of Kilo Flock.”
Crisco confirmed the maintenance status. Twenty-four of twenty-four Sparrows were still flying strong, ten hours in.
Duffle started to relay this to Lukas in Krakow, but stopped short. “Chief, does that seem right to you?”
Crisco shrugged. “It’s lucky.”
Pups leaned back. “It’s weird. Weather like this? Normally we’d be down at least three by now.”
Duffle brought up visual feeds, cycling from bird to bird. They all seemed to be flying free, but something wasn’t right.
“Krakow Base, we’ve got a problem. Kilo Flock is reporting perfect system status, ten hours in. I repeat, perfect system status.”
In Krakow, it was Aga’s turn to swear. “Janek, disregard all reporting from Kilo Flock.”
With a copy of clicks, Streetlamp filtered all sensor data from the anomalous flock. The area of probable location expanded. The Russian troops had definitely moved; the real question was where.
Pups and Duffle were nervous. “Time to return to base, you think?” asked the flight chief.
Twenty-one of the Sparrows landed within a half hour. Two more circled lazily overhead a few minutes later. The telltale high-pitched buzz drew the crew’s attention.
“Chief, does that seem normal to you?”
Crisco shook his head. “Think we should run?”
The Sparrows made the choice for them. They dove, metal claws out, synthetic feathers flattening as they hurtled for the three fleeing Americans. Two meters above the ground, they detonated.
The final Sparrow took aim for a Predator hovering far above the tent.
“Pat, we have an engine flameout.” Kao, like most pilots, knew how to run through the checklist for a crashing Pred. Unlike most pilots, Kao was a four-time reverse ace, who seemed to take a perverse joy in watching the final flight. “Mind if I grab some popcorn? This could take a while.”
“Take 5. It’s close enough to our side. No need to worry about recovery yet.” While Kao hit up the microwave, Pat called it in, warning the local recovery team about the impending crash.
Coming back into the SCIF, Kao knocked the back of Pat’s chair. “Man, you wanna say some words for our doomed buddy?”
“Nah. You do it.”
“Pat, that rustbucket can glide for-freakin’-ever. I can write a bunch of limericks between now and crash landing it. I figure you should do the honors. This is your first Valkyrie flight? You gotta do it or you get no respect from me ever again.”
“Fine. There once was a filthy rustbucket/whose pilot we all told to suck it. No cause for alarm/ no real proof of harm/ crashed five times? Why not? Just say ‘fuck it.’”
“Ouch. You wound me.”
“Not as bad as you wounded my drone, dumbass.”
Flight instruments indicated a slow descent. Kao gently guided the drone west. A hush fell over the room as other teams noticed the doomed flight. The last five minutes of the Predator’s service life passed in near total silence.
At 15 m above sea level, the onboard camera cut out, and Pat fist-bumped Kao. “Bro, we’re gonna pour out a 40 for him tonight, right?”
“Only if you’re down to sing ‘Arms of the Angels.’”
“Damn skippy I am.”
With the formalities handled, Pat checked back through the data feeds. “Can we pull up left wing footage from the flame out?”
Together, they watched a speck hurtle upwards and into the intake. It wasn’t a bird, or a missile, though it shared attributes of both.
“How the hell’d a Sparrow pull a stunt like that?” asked Kao. He pulled up a chat window, and sent the question to other pilots online.
“Screw how. We saw it happen. Why’d it happen?”
In Petrograd, Ksenia’s day was beginning again. It being a Thursday, the Trolls gathered outside the big office for their weekly update to the Colonel. Each team provided separate updates to keep information segregated.
After Ksenia provided the list of targeted American troops and a brief overview of the information operations in which her small team had engaged, she padded back down the stairs to her desk.
The Colonel stayed put, and heard more. An attack in Germany, targeting rail networks. Boring but useful hacks of American and FVEY networks both classified and not. Manipulation of shipping details, to guarantee that the wrong resources would reach precisely the wrong troops. A charming tweak of American micro-drones that caused their batteries to overheat to the point of explosion when ordered to return to base.
Sometimes the kids responsible for the fancier hacks made the Colonel nervous, but the latest group just made him smile. Their unbridled enthusiasm for pranks reminded him of himself as a cadet. Besides, this particular attack wasn’t as nasty as a typical artillery attack. It almost felt merciful.
Duffle came to behind a pile of sandbags. Her ears were still ringing, and she definitely could taste gravel and copper, but she could still make out Pups’ voice. The chief was crouching over Crisco, holding C-Spine while a corpsman checked the rest of his vitals, eventually giving up.
The little drone had some serious bang to it. The small explosion managed to fry a couple of the more vulnerable electronics in the tent, but the nigh-indestructible flash-drive computers were still running. After shaking herself awake and checking in with Pups), Duffle ran a couple of spools of cable out to a remote antenna and set comms back up. HQ had noticed the explosion, but wouldn’t be able to do proper BDA until the next overhead pass without drone involvement. Duffle wanted to make sure they knew that most of the team was still alive and to check on incoming orders. While she was able to receive messages, she was frustrated to discover that her attempted uploads continued to fail. For the second time today, technology was failing her. She flagged a passing corporal to carry a message up the lines the old-fashioned way- via handwritten note. “Adapt and overcome,” the corporal agreed. “I’ll let ‘em know ASAP.”
With nothing left to do, Duffle hobbled over to the remnants of her field office and started picking up the pieces. In a few months, she knew she’d be rotating back home to her family. Until then, she’d keep on keeping on.
That evening, Kao and Pat toasted their broken bird. In the front yard, Juniper staggered behind a push-toy shaped like a fire engine, babbling incoherently.
In a few days, they’d both be assigned to a new team- still in the same office, but working separately for the first time in months. For now, they were still teammates.
Janek and Aga wrapped up their shift with Streetlamp, and handed off to the next group of military mathematicians. Aga picked up her phone and checked her messages. A few dozen emails from friends, family and colleagues- the usual for anyone step out of a secured facility. Janek did the same, and started typing out his answers as they waited for the shuttle to take them back to their quarters.
Aga sorted through the messages, responding to her father about a family event, an old friend about dinner, and then stopped.
Janek was still staring at his phone, but hadn’t moved or typed anything for several moments.
“You are alright?”
He shook his head, and proffered the screen.
“Janek, I don’t read Estonian.”
He shook his head again, this time to clear it. “My mother- she’s telling me my brother is dead.”
Their work was so removed from the violence and grime of the warfare of their parents and grandparents. Day in and day out, it was easy for them to ignore what it really meant, but all the precision targeting and machine learning in the world couldn’t stop reality from intruding.
War still hurt.
Jenny Oberholtzer is a defense analyst and an erstwhile Persian/Spanish linguist. She is a graduate of the Defense Intelligence Scholars Program, best known for her work on cyber security and her red teaming in war-games.