Night On The Town

Image: NASA Archive

This story is a featured entry from the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command Mad Scientist Initiative contest exploring warfare in 2030-2050.


Lieutenant Charlie Navarro was a happier man than he’d expected to be. Halfway through the four-hour journey from Fort Schwarzkopf, outside Kansas City, to their target in South America, he leaned back in his seat and stretched, looking around the pressurized compartment; Jack ‘Doc’ Martin and Mel Kaczynsky were nodding, half asleep, and his other two sergeants, Jackie Cole and Stan Mueller, were busy with some kind of complicated card and dice game. Sue Shaw, his commtech, was fiddling with her kit, while Annie Mayes, the bioware specialist, was writing yet another one of those long letters to her twin brother out in the Middle East somewhere.

The screen in front was showing the wagons in the main bay behind them; inside, the ROCs would be swaying gently in their cradles while the capsule sped silently through the vac tube. It was, he thought, a very civilized way to deploy.

* * *

It hadn’t looked like the day was going to start out so well. The briefing alarm had gone off at 1300, and that was bad news. Navarro was due to start leave the next day, and whatever had hit the fan this time might well end up forcing him to postpone. And that, he thought, will really screw up the weekend I had planned with Alice. Best not to let her down if I want her to stick around! His girlfriend was a pretty, curly-haired blonde, and he still couldn’t quite believe that she’d been interested in a grunt like him.

By the time Captain Andersen strode into the Pit at dead-on 1330, trailed by what looked like a couple of staff weenies, everyone was there, uniforms in the front row, ROC jocks in their sweats filling up the spaces behind. Andersen was a no-nonsense type, not at home with small talk.

“Okay people, listen up! I don’t know if you saw the news last night, but yesterday afternoon there were coordinated terrorist strikes on more than 20 US trade missions and embassy compounds, as well as properties belonging to more than 50 major American corporations, across the whole of South America. In every case, unmanned drones set up as flying shrapnel bombs were flown into civilian buildings. Best guess so far is 128 dead and more than 300 wounded.

“In three cases the drones were intercepted by passive defenses and large fragments were recovered. We’re not making that public, it counts as classified, so keep your mouths shut about it! The on-board systems we pulled out of each one showed they’d all been launched locally, but also contained old GPS data from what was probably systems testing during manufacture – which means the brains have worked out exactly where they were put together.

“We have claims of responsibility online and to the media from the Global Anti-Capitalist Corps. Intel has them as a fringe semi-anarchist group with a wealth redistribution, poverty reduction and anti-corruption platform. They’ve staged riots and thrown Molotovs before, but this a step up for them.

“Orders have come down: this needs an immediate response. The brass want the manufacturing site taken out, and anyone still there rendered back to the US. We’re sending a message, which is that if you mess with us, we’re coming to get you, and we’re coming fast and hard.

“Make no mistake, we absolutely do not want to be making martyrs here, people; we want warm bodies we can put on trial and in front of the cameras as soon as possible. We have got to get the upper hand in the infosphere or they’re gonna roll right over us.

“Okay, these are satellite images of the location – looks like a four-story building in the barrio on the western edge of Nuevo Medellin. There’s no effective local law enforcement or government presence, because the cartels have the area sewn up. To maintain operational security we’re not telling the locals that we’re coming, either, so this is black.

“Kickoff is 1600. You’ll deploy by tube to a freight terminal here, 6 miles to the south east. The owners are expecting a high-value delivery and have no idea that you’re it. Briggs, you’ll take 1st platoon to arrive first, then secure the terminal to guarantee exfil and act as reserve. Navarro, you’ll take 2nd platoon, arriving 10 minutes later, then move out along this route to the target, get the job done and then haul ass back to the exfil point for immediate recall. There’ll be time for questions later, but this is how I want the job done…”

* * *

Fort Schwarzkopf was sited to take advantage of the vac tube interchange between the Shawnee Line from Chicago to San Antonio and the Central from San Francisco to Norfolk. Starting here, specially converted capsules could carry anything the Army needed through the tube network to any major city or base in the continental U.S. within just a couple of hours. Once they were in the system, the capsules were virtually impossible to distinguish from regular freight for anyone, be they friend, foe or journalist, let alone to intercept. Second Platoon was routed down through Dallas, Austin and San Antonio to join the Pan-American Trunk though, which could reach speeds of 1,100 mph, and as they were switched through the network, neither the line operators nor any government agencies had any idea of what was moving through the gathering darkness.

Half an hour out of Nuevo Medellin, 2nd Platoon started to gear up, pulling gel-filled, graphene-based body armor over their chemo-, bio-, rad- and flame-proof nanofiber combat fatigues. They’d opted for the gray and black ‘urban’ OCP; thanks to the nanotech the battledress was color configurable, but there wasn’t much point using standard greens in the middle of a city.

Navarro snapped the visor down on his full-head helmet, and ran through the optics, audio and video recording checks, before moving on to his weapon and making sure the feeds and magazines for both the regular and stun ammo were clear. All good, he thought, ready to rock and roll.

* * *

The capsule came into the freight depot in a gentle glide. They came out on point, because if the area hadn’t already been secured in the 10 minutes since 1st Platoon had arrived, this was when it would get lively. As it was, they were greeted by one of Briggs’ sergeants.

“All ready, sir,” he said, saluting Navarro. “Lieutenant’s regards, he’s locking down the site’s own staff. Perimeter’s secure, so you can go ahead and offload your wagons”.

“Thanks. Okay Shaw, get ’em out.”

The capsule’s main bay doors were already rolling up, and the electric engines of the five vehicles inside were running. Shaw waved, and they moved forward onto the dock, and down into the large, empty square of space in front, between the stacked containers, where 1st platoon’s trucks were already lined up.

From the dock, Navarro could see the angular bodies of 1st Platoon’s inner cordon of Remote Operated Combatants, bipedal metal frames glistening in the damp floodlit air. It was cheaper and quicker to build a ROC than to train an infantryman, and the kids back in Kansas who were piloting them didn’t need to be kept in the peak physical condition of a frontline soldier – they just needed good reflexes and the ability to be plugged into their consoles for 8 hours at a time. With shifts for the pilots, ROCs could be kept going on their internal batteries for 72 hours, didn’t need to stop to eat or sleep, were harder to disable than a flesh-and-blood trooper, and were good for morale back home – after all, they were easily replaceable and kept the body bag count low. The four-armed H-ROC variant was a heavy weapon platform; with the two mid-limbs holding a heavy machine gun and the upper limbs mounting a shotgun/flamethrower and a grenade launcher, they brought some serious firepower to the party.

On the other hand, you still needed people to make the tactical and ethical decisions on the ground and keep things moving, so each of Navarro’s squads was made up of two teams of four ROCs, and an H-ROC, but led by a human sergeant. Right now, each of those sergeants was checking his 6-wheeler combat wagon and the ROCs inside, while Shaw had her bag of tricks out and was running comms checks on every unit.

Mayes had the side of the command wagon open. She was taking out one of her “pets” – it looked suspiciously like a hawk at first glance, but the cable running from the back of its head to her hand-held was enough to show it was bioware. Even plugged in and with silver eyes, they were hard to tell from the real thing, but that was what happened when you grew natural muscle and tissue over a lightweight graphene-based frame.

“What are we going with?” he asked.

“Standard two-up,” she said, meaning the bird would both drop the recon microplatforms and then hover over the target area, acting as overwatch and as a conduit for the satellite link to the ROCs and the team comms. She pointed at the canisters on its legs: “I’ve packaged a Type-Three swarm. Co-ords are in, it’ll be on station in 10. Give me 30 and we’ll have full 3D of the whole building.”

As she spoke, she unplugged the wire and threw the construct into the sky. Its wings blurred and it hovered briefly, before rising smoothly and heading north-west into the darkness.

Navarro flicked on his radio. “Okay people, bird in the air. We move out in 15.”

* * *

Ten minutes later, the hawk drifted silently 8 kilometers away. The canisters on its legs opened, and something like a fine mist dropped towards the ground. The thousands of almost microscopic, insectile drones woke as they fell, aware of each other and the hawk above them, spreading out as their autonomous systems came online. By the time they were at the level of the target building they’d booted up search patterns and were seeking open windows, the gaps beneath doors, ventilation ducts… any way at all to get inside. Micromapping their environment as they went, sharing and merging data, seeking out heat sources, their molecular circuitry was hardened against interference, they neither knew nor cared that when the operation was over a kill command would render them inert, slightly metallic dust.

By the time the wagons had left the almost empty expressway and turned onto the unsurfaced roads of the barrio, the whole team had full three dimensional maps of the target building, with live updates showing sources of body heat. The driver ROCs were using streamed satellite info to get them on site and around any unexpected obstacles.

In the command vehicle, Navarro looked over Mayes’ shoulder at the incoming data and nodded.

~ “This is Alpha One to all units. We’re showing nothing on the roof, probable six hostiles to secure. We’ll go with entry plan one, repeat, entry plan one. Mission is to detain and exfiltrate all present, to detain and exfiltrate all present. Red squad, entry top floor left, LOE top and roof, leave heavy with Blue One. Acknowledge.”

~ “Red One, acknowledge, top left entry and roof, heavy to Blue One.”

~ “Green squad, entry third floor right, leave heavy with Blue One, acknowledge.”

~ “Green One, acknowledge, third right entry, heavy to Blue One.”

~ “Blue squad, secure the vehicles and main entrance, acknowledge.”

~ “Blue One, acknowledge, perimeter and main entrance with the extra heavies.”

~ “Gold squad with Alpha One, entry level, LOE ground and second floors, acknowledge”.

~ “Gold One, acknowledge, with Alpha One, entry and second levels.”

~ “Alpha One, 30 seconds… Go! Go! Go!”

The five wagons came to a sharp halt on the road in front of the building, spewing ROCs and men. Navarro hit the ground running, and found himself flat against the wall by the glass entrance doors, next to “Doc” Martin. He was vaguely aware of a couple of kids, maybe 10 years old, scooting off the street and up an alleyway. Too smart to get caught in anything, he thought, and who can blame them?

He took a breath and held up his fingers – three, two, one… and in! The ROCs smashed the glass and were through. At the corners of the building more ROCs were climbing, ribs on their hands and feet creating localized vacuums that let them race up the walls like geckos for entry through upper windows. Two of them had squad sergeants on their backs.

The pair of “guards” asleep in the soft chairs of the lobby were hardly even moving before they were immobilized; the stun rounds’ sabots hadn’t even reached the floor before the zappers hit them, electricity arcing briefly between the metal buttons on their shirts.

Gold squad were already moving towards the stairwell while Navarro put the restrainers on the unconscious sentries and stripped them of their handguns and automatic rifles. Well, he thought, the longs pretty much prove they aren’t law abiding citizens, anyway!

Martin’s H-ROC had settled in the middle of the lobby facing the door, although the chances of anything getting past Blue squad and the extra H-ROCs outside was pretty minimal. From upstairs he heard the sound of doors slamming, and a single gunshot; then silence. Navarro wasn’t overly worried – the breathers had the floor plans on their HUDs, and faint augmented reality overlay lines based on the recon data traced all the walls, doors and windows for them. They even knew where the charlies were. Who needed night vision when a swarm of multiple wavelength eyes could show you everything more clearly anyway?

~ “Gold One, second floor secure, bringing three charlies down.”

~ “Alpha One, acknowledged. Everything OK?”

~ “Yeah one of them got a shot off, chipped the paint on Gold Three. No biggie.”

~ “Roger that. Bring ’em down Doc, all clear here.”

~ “Red One, top floor and roof secure. El-Tee, you’re going to want to come up and look at this, probably bring an H-ROC with you.”

~ “Copy Red One, hold there, I’ll bring Gold 10 up with me when Doc’s got his team in the lobby.”

~ “Green One, third floor clear, one charlie detained. Green Five’s bringing him down the stairwell. We got an assembly area here, some drones on workbenches and explosives.”

~ “Roger Green One, make sure your recordings are clean. We’ll want the evidence, Jackie. Hold there for now.”

At Fort Schwarzkopf, Bobbi-Jo Jones listened to the radio chatter and sighed in her cubicle. The jock for H-ROC Blue 10, she was bored; after all, all she’d had to do so far was get her ’bot on a truck, do a comm check, jump off the truck, and then stand around looking up and down the street. She’d been a champion combat gamer before being recruited, and then spent two years working up from the regular ROCs to her own heavy. Hours in VR harness doing sims had honed already fast reflexes, but at times like this she wondered if the job was really all it was cracked up to be.

Navarro looked at his watch. Four minutes to secure the building. Not bad, not bad at all! Now just got to check on Jackie’s workshop, make sure we take some bits and pieces with us for the spooks and the press, then see whatever Mel’s come up with on the top floor. And why the heck does he want me haul an H-ROC up there?

Less than 10 minutes later, he found out. The whole of the open plan, top floor had been converted into a grow lab, with rows of planters holding stubby blue plants beneath UV lights and a sprinkler system.

“Ah hell, is that what I think it is, Mel?”

“Damn straight. Fresh grown Dewspice, all ready to be cropped and processed.”

Dewspice was one of the newer, incredibly potent, highly addictive hallucinogens, created by biografting and genetically modifying cannabis plants; the dealers loved it because it was impossible to overdose with, as the body just got rid of anything it couldn’t process. The haul here would be worth several hundred thousand dollars on the street, even locally. And a hell of a lot more if they ship north of the Rio Grande!

Navarro swore softly. “OK, got your helmet sealed Mel? Gold Ten, roast ’em – low burn, don’t want the whole building in flames.”

“Yes sir!” said the synthesized voice, and as the H-ROC started playing its flamethrower up and down the rows of tables Navarro began to think.

This was probably how they paid for all the gear they used in their attacks. But they’d have to be in bed with the local cartel, wouldn’t they, or they’d have been run out. Or worse. So why weren’t there more guards? Then he realized: Those kids outside! They were cartel spotters! But in that case…

The commnet crackled to life, Mayes’ voice sounding urgent.

~ “Alpha Three, I have contacts on the roof south-west of target, possibly armed.”

~ “Blue Two, I have around a dozen contacts incoming from the west, moving tactically down the sides of the street.”

~ “Blue Three, movement in upper windows south-west.”

And then all hell broke loose.

The RPG was fired from the nearby roof at Gold squad’s wagon, with a flight distance of just 55 meters. Even so, the sensors on the two closest wagons picked it up on launch, and the directed energy pulses from both hit the projectile just three meters from the vehicles. The explosion tossed the nearest ROCs back on their butts, but the trucks were hardly scratched.

Upstairs, the windows all shattered at once, and it was only their body armor that stopped Navarro and Kaczynsky from being shredded by the flying glass. They were both thrown hard to the ground as a chatter of automatic weapon fire started up in the street below.

~ “Alpha One, code red! Code red! Return fire!”

Back in Kansas City, Bobbi-Jo Jones saw the huge flash, and saw the damage indicators flickering from green to yellow. Mayes’ warning about the roof had had her looking that way before the RPG launched, and when Navarro’s command came in, reflex took over. Her unit raised an upper arm, and as she squeezed the trigger on her VR handset 3,000 miles away, three powered grenades vaporized the source of the incoming fire. Now this was more like it!

~ “Blue Ten, contacts on roof neutralized.”

The lieutenant pushed himself up and crawled to the window sill. He felt rather than saw Kaczynsky coming up further down the room, but then he saw motion and the two of them were sending live fire into the upper windows of one of the neighboring buildings on the other side of the street. The movement stopped.

Gold’s ROCs were spreading out from the front doors, and taking down the hostiles who’d been coming down the road. Blue’s ROCs were back on their feet and returning fire. Being almost immune to small arms, ROCs could be more cavalier about coming out of cover, and not being there physically tended to make the jocks a little more… enthusiastic than their officers anyway.

It was over within three minutes; the cartel had obviously not expected to be running into anything more serious than a local police unit, and had been completely outclassed by what they’d really come up against. It was nothing short of a massacre.

~ “Alpha One, Gold One get the charlies loaded, one per wagon, two in the command truck. Blue squad, anything moves, down it!”

~ “Alpha Three, confirm kill for swarm please One.”

~ “Alpha One confirms.”

All over the building the nanodrones went dead as power surged through their delicate circuits, turning them into tiny lumps of fused circuitry. The augmented overlays in the HUDs went out.

~ “Alpha One, let’s mount up and get going before we get more visitors. Time to go home, folks.”

* * *

Less than 90 minutes on the ground in South America, and the platoon was back in the vac tube. By 3 am the prisoners had been handed over and the debriefs began. By 9 am, Lt. Charlie Navarro was sitting with his girlfriend in their favorite diner, ordering breakfast.

“Charlie, you looked wrecked. What have you been doing with yourself?”

“Oh you know, the usual,” he replied with a smile.

“Riiiiight,” she said, eyes sparkling. “Out on the town on a Friday night without me again huh?”

He laughed.

“Yeah, something like that!”


Alastair Millar graduated from the UCL Institute of Archaeology in London, and works as a specialist translator in the field of cultural heritage. A British expatriate with dual Czech citizenship, he has lived in Central Europe for over 20 years, allowing him to indulge his interest in geopolitics and current affairs from up close. Married with two adult children, he is a political independent who believes that travel broadens the mind, and wishes that more people would learn to think for themselves.