Heat smothered the crumbling city like an oppressive blanket. Perched on the sixth floor of a half-built apartment complex, the heat’s shimmering on the horizon was the most interesting thing she’d seen aside from a mangy gray dog slinking between the broken shells of drab buildings below.
The war had not been kind to the people who lived here—or used to live here, she realized. Most of them had long since fled. Tens of thousands of them were now crammed into prefab refugee camps on the border or worse—packed like sardines into giant converted tanker ships out on the advancing Gulf.
Row after row of low, dun-colored buildings stretched out below her toward the mudflats to the southeast. Here and there, a canal of stagnant water cut across ruined neighborhoods. The trash laying everywhere reminded her of a rising tide that lapped against nearly every door.
The buildings were pockmarked with bullet holes and scorch marks or the even uglier scars of tank fire. The yellow wall of the tenement directly across from her had fallen away from its roof, for instance. Two cheap plastic chairs and the twisted remains of a motorcycle stuck out from the rubble where it once stood.
“Sorceress, Mage Three. Comms check.” The voice sounded through her cochlear implant, making it imperceptible to anyone else.
“Loud and clear, Mage Three.” Her headset allowed her to respond via subvocalization; that is, without speaking aloud. It translated the almost imperceptible movements of her larynx into digital code.
“You know me, just enjoying the view. Getting ready to pick up my package and settle in for the night.”
“Copy that. Don’t enjoy yourself too much. You still owe me a beer from Tashkent.”
“Right. I can’t believe we get paid for this.”
“Mage Three out.”
The sky was already reddening in the west. A glance at her watch confirmed it would be dark within an hour. Plenty of time to link with Odin and set up a perimeter. She grabbed the carbine she’d sat against a nearby pillar and headed back downstairs.
The building was eight stories tall, built around a central hollow core with unfinished platforms exposed on all sides. Tarps caught on exposed rebar fluttered in the hot wind. Below, palettes of discarded building materials littered the garbage-strewn construction site. This place would be far too big for her to secure alone, she thought.
Good thing she wasn’t.
She found what she was looking for in the dusty yard—a conspicuous black tarp covering a container half as tall as she was. She didn’t know how it was delivered but it was always there when she needed it, wherever she deployed. She released the straps holding it in place and pulled it off, revealing a thermoplastic polymer storage unit equipped with a biometric scanner.
She pulled off her glove and let it read her fingerprint. After a second, the entire box whirred and the upper portion slid back, revealing what was inside.
Compact, olive green, and marked by numerous scratches and dings, it resembled nothing more than a boxy tarantula with its legs folded back upon itself. Tiny yellow writing on one of its larger ceramic plates contained a serial number and the letters GU-G/NIR, which stood for “Guard Unit – Ground/Net-Integrated Reconnaissance.”
The Mages called it Gungnir—after Odin’s spear. She thought that was pretty dumb. Thing looked like a spider, not a spear. But those geeks loved their mythology. At least it wasn’t named after some Lord of the Rings bullshit.
“Odin, you got me?” She looked up.
Good afternoon, Commander. I’m looking forward to working with you again.”
“When did you learn to look forward to anything?”
There have been several system updates since the last time we interacted. Would you like to see the changelog?
“God, no. Discontinue the chit-chat when you’re interacting with me. Relevant mission data only. Oh, and wake up your pet.” She stepped back.
The robotic tarantula hissed and started to emit soft green light underneath its armor. Its legs began unfolding—eight of them, just like the real thing. They reversed and planted themselves on the ground, allowing it to lift itself up. The bulky torso looked like a miniature tank packed with plug-and-play modules. It had a squat half-spherical “head” housing its sensors. In ready mode, it stood four feet tall.
“Initiate systems check.”
Systems check complete. All operating within designated mission parameters. This unit is on its seventh operational deployment. It is due for lifecycle maintenance in . . .
“Discontinue.” She didn’t have time to listen to Odin run through what amounted to a boot sequence.
“I’m sending you a sketch.” She used her finger to outline an area on the device that hung from her side, marking the edges of the construction yard and specific points of interest on a three-dimensional map. She swiped it in the robot’s direction. “Establish a defensive perimeter.”
Gungnir hummed and took a few steps forward. It was remarkably quiet for its size. Two small black orbs detached themselves and rose from somewhere within it. They hovered above the robot for a moment and seemed to blink at one another before rising into the sky.
Huginn and Muninn—more mythological bullshit—were full-spectrum point aerial surveillance drones. Working with Odin’s space-based platforms, they’d give her a decisive edge over anyone who might want to mess with her while she was working tonight. They could see through walls and around corners—hell, they could even “see” communications links as packets of data bounced through the air.
Gungnir crawled off to secure the perimeter. In the brief time it had been “awake,” it would have already accessed every available piece of information about the property, from blueprints to ubiquitous smallsat imagery. It would scutter around for the next hour or so emplacing proximity mines that were coded to her biometric signature and deploying tiny acoustic sensors to augment the overhead coverage provided by the drones. It would then take up an overwatch position, like a faithful guard dog—or spider.
When the sun set, hunting season would begin.
Darkness should have brought a reprieve from the heat, but it only made the blanket seem to cling more closely. She grabbed her binoculars and approached the ledge of her hide site, pulling the hood of a curious brown cloak over her face as she did. Woven from heat-masking materials, it rendered her invisible to anyone—or anything—equipped with thermal optics.
The mission was straightforward. Saad Ubaid, a notorious terrorist commander, was passing through the city tonight. Saad was a heavy hitter who’d made a name for himself livecasting mass executions across the border, and used the inevitable donations sent his way to build an impressive little army. He reportedly commanded a contingent of more than five hundred fighters from all over the world and had access to some serious military kit. He’d made the city a jewel in the little fiefdom he’d carved for himself after its abandonment by both of the major combatants in the war. Her job was to kill the son of a bitch before sunrise, along with as many of his acolytes as possible.
In the past, these missions were accomplished by manned aircraft dropping old-fashioned gravity bombs that they used to think were “smart.” Human pilots and falling bombs didn’t stand a chance against modern air defense grids, though. Unbelievably accurate short-range quantum radars and AI-enabled point defense systems rendered traditional air operations impractical, if not impossible. As unlikely as it was that a high-end system would be in operation here, similar knockoffs were widely available on the black market since the global financial collapse, and, as mentioned—Saad was a heavy hitter.
Her benign-sounding job title—Operational Systems Integrator—might make it seem like she worked in an IT division (which is absolutely what she let her parents think). The truth, though, was that she had more firepower at her fingertips than entire battalions of the old-style military formations. She was practically the angel of death incarnate.
The first wave of autonomous weapons had some considerable drawbacks, as the crisis in Mauritania and the massacre at Kyiv demonstrated. Since then, most militaries had adopted a human-machine teaming concept, placing special operations officers like herself in charge of a hive of lethal AIs. Given the pervasive threat of communications jamming and potential loss of contact with command at any time, these operators were given wide operational latitude to designate targets and customize kill solutions. They were essentially command and control, forward observer, and fighter pilot all in one.
In other words, she chose the plays and called the shots for a “team” that was for now lurking near the upper limits of the troposphere just waiting for her to put them in the game.
Commander, several unidentified heat signatures are approaching from the southeast.
She shifted and raised the binoculars again. “How many, how fast, and what kinds?”
There are approximately forty unique signatures. Atmospheric conditions prevent me from providing you with a more accurate number but they are moving at approximately forty kilometers per hour. Their configuration is consistent with a vehicular convoy.
She panned left to right with the binoculars, switching between thermal and low-light modes but couldn’t find them. Her digital pad showed a column of yellowish blobs moving north on highway six. It must be Saad. Still, she had to be sure before releasing the hounds.
Nonetheless, she placed the first tranche of weapons on alert. Immediately, a half dozen of them would begin screaming through the atmosphere at an almost vertical angle and arrive on station within a minute to loiter above the targets and wait for the final command to strike.
She heard the convoy several minutes before she saw it. The vanguard of Saad’s little parade announced itself by the unmistakable buzz of dirt bikes. She picked up one on her thermal scan as it crawled over a low rise where the highway turned. About a dozen more followed behind, their engines reverberating loudly through the empty shells of abandoned buildings.
Commander, I have a situation update.
There are forty-eight vehicles altogether, forty-two of which match target parameters.
“What about the other six?” The last thing she needed was for this dude’s wives or kids to be with him.
Unknown? That was a new one. “Elaborate.”
There are four thermal signatures that I cannot identify.
She should have known better than to ask an AI to elaborate on an unknown. She’d just see for herself when they came over the ridge.
More than a dozen SUVs appeared next. They moved at a leisurely pace, though whether that was due to confidence or caution she couldn’t tell. Most were armored, some were equipped with electronic countermeasures or other modifications that Odin was very good at picking up and pointing out visually on her display pad.
Commander, I have identified the primary target.
She placed six more weapons on alert and another six on standby. She decided to wait for the last SUV to crest the ridgeline to better box them in. “Odin: you are now authorized to service the designated targets.”
Long seconds passed. The new moon meant it was almost completely dark. A warm wind gently tossed her cloak. Somewhere, a pack of feral dogs howled, as if in anticipation.
Six simultaneous explosions lit the night, sending shockwaves that kicked up dust from windowsills and caused loose tiles to fall from battered rooftops.
Knowing what to expect, she had averted her eyes to shield them from the flash. Looking back, she saw fires burning where just a moment before six armored vehicles had been.
The motorcycle drivers who hadn’t crashed from the shockwaves scattered. The remaining SUVs had accelerated and were now barreling down the highway to escape the kill zone she’d put them in. Odin was on them in an instant. The rear vehicle erupted in a ball of fire, launching it several meters into the air. The leading vehicle turned off-road abandoning the highway, before it too disappeared in a bright yellow flash.
“What is it?”
One of the unidentified heat signatures is crossing the ridge.
She switched to thermal and looked. She couldn’t believe it, but there it was. Crawling over the rise in the highway was the unmistakable silhouette of an antiquated Russian tank. She couldn’t be certain in the darkness, but the boxy exhaust port meant it was likely turn of the century, maybe even older.
Still, Odin should have no problem identifying one of the most common tracked vehicles in the world. Something wasn’t right.
“Mage Three, Sorceress.” No response.
More explosions rocked the highway as Odin picked off the remaining SUVs. The staccato rhythm of gunfire sounded in between the larger blasts; Saad’s men who weren’t running were aimlessly shooting into the sky. Down the street, a building groaned as its foundations gave way, collapsing upon itself in a dull roar and sending up a cloud of debris. She glanced at her pad; the third set of weapons was descending from the troposphere and would be on station momentarily.
She was about to call Mage Three again when something caught her eye, the realization of what it was making her mouth go dry. In the glow of burning vehicles, she saw a small figure—what could only be a child—dart across the street from where that building had just collapsed. Jesus, she thought, there were people still living here. Who knew how many?
She backed away from the hide in a crouch. “Odin, abort!”
Commander, are you sure—
“Goddammit, I said abort!”
A row of six white orbs like a string of pearls briefly flashed in the night sky as Odin’s drones detonated harmlessly overhead.
“Mage Three, this is Sorceress. How do you read?”
She thought she could hear some kind of feedback in the commlink. It was barely perceptible, but it was there. This wasn’t good. Not only was something not right; something was wrong.
The gunfire had quieted but now she heard shouting instead. That was bad. Nervous, frightened enemies shooting into the sky was one thing. Coordinating enemy fighters were something else.
Normally she would have Odin translate their speech, but fear was beginning to tighten in her stomach like a knot being pulled. Just then, the whir of a drone gliding by the building caught her attention. Hers wouldn’t do that, which meant—
The building shook, knocking her off her feet. Years’ worth of dust fell from the rafters. There was a loud clanging as a steel beam crashed to the floor.
Commander, you are under attack.
No shit, she thought before quickly telling herself to get it together. “Odin, kill those fucking tanks!” She snatched her carbine and retreated toward the stairwell in the center of the platform. Pulling up the pad, she swiped a few options, changing the parameters of Gungnir’s defense protocols.
I cannot identify any vehicles with the characteristics of a tank.
Two quick blasts hit the building, one seemingly right above her—they must think she was on the roof. Curtains of dust hung in the air and clouded her vision.
“Those unidentified heat signatures, genius. Those are the tanks currently lighting my ass up.” She felt for the handrail and looked straight down; six flights of stairs bathed in darkness.
The laws of armed conflict require positive identification of legitimate targets—
“Override all protocols; officer in extremis—authorization Commander Alicia Barnes, United States Navy, call sign Sorceress.” Another blast shook her as she felt her way down.
Stand by. Acknowledged. Protocols overridden.
“Light them up—now!”
She moved in darkness down two flights as quickly as she dared, her ears ringing, the taste of copper on her lips. Another high-explosive round detonated above, this one striking the central tube frame, sending a wave of hot air rushing down and causing shards of crumbled cinderblock to rain on her head.
Stand by, Odin announced calmly.
The bright flash of an explosion mere meters away in the building’s courtyard momentarily blinded her. The shockwave then knocked her off her feet and sent the carbine flying out of her hands. One of the tanks had been practically right on top of her without her even knowing it.
When she came to, the air was thick with the acrid smell of burning hot metal and burning fuel. When the ringing in her ears went away, she heard the popping sound of ammunition cooking off in the yard. Crawling to the edge of the platform, she saw an old Russian T-90 burning fiercely. No wonder Odin hadn’t been able to identify it: the chassis was painted with a weird pattern designed to confuse machine vision. To Odin, it would have looked like nothing at all.
Blood matted her hair and ran down her forehead. She wiped it away and started to look for her rifle, but just then another, more muffled explosion sounded from somewhere nearby.
Something had set off one of the proximity mines.
“Shit,” she groaned. “Odin, what was that?”
Seven—correction, six—dismounted personnel have broken the perimeter and are approaching the building.
Back on her feet, if a bit wobbly, she drew her sidearm and glanced up and down, weighing her options.
“Odin, what happened to the rest of the convoy?”
Twenty-six out of forty-eight vehicles were destroyed by a direct strike or otherwise by sympathetic detonations. Ten motorcycles and six sport utility vehicles have left the vicinity. Five others are immobilized and appear abandoned. One sport utility vehicle remains at the edge of the perimeter.
“Do you see any other dismounts?”
Outside, she heard the report of heavy machine-gun fire. “Tell me that’s Gungnir,” she said, thinking out loud.
Affirmative, defensive measures have been initiated.
At least there’s that, she thought. She decided the high ground was the safest bet now that the tanks had been eliminated, and headed back upstairs. Everything hurt, so her movements were slow. She had to step carefully over the rubble that lay everywhere.
Outside, she heard intermittent gunfire: the pop-pop-pop of rifles accompanied by Gungnir’s heavier reply. She saw only flashes outside; it was hard to tell where anyone was against the glare of the burning tank in the blackness of night. Then more shouting, followed by an explosion and a loud hissing noise as sparks showered the yard.
So much for Odin’s spear.
Commander, you are about to be in contact.
She heard shouting and the clatter of fighters moving into the building. It sounded like maybe three or four of them remained and were now making their way upstairs. She knew one thing: she would not let them capture her.
Watching the stairwell, she released her pistol’s magazine and slammed a new one into place, made sure a round was chambered, and wondered what the Navy would tell her parents. “Odin,” she said, realizing what she had to do. “Are protocols still disabled?”
“Then place a weapon on standby, and target my location.”
High above the carnage of the crumbling city, it was calm. Here, above the weather, the earth curved eastward toward dawn and made all the faraway things below seem insignificantly small.
One of Odin’s sleek black drones received new instructions. The drone knew a lot about what had transpired that evening—both in the crumbling city and in several other locations. It had been watching the movements and tracking the status of every participant because it knew that at any moment, it might be chosen. And if it could want anything—which of course, it couldn’t—being chosen would be what it wanted above all. And now, it had been.
It guided itself gently away from the pack, drifting for a moment in the jet stream before dropping into approach vector. It fell from the sky like an avenging angel, quickly reaching supersonic speed. It dropped to five thousand feet in barely a minute and leveled off, settling into a tight orbit around the coordinates it had received.
Zachery Tyson Brown is a strategic futurist working at the intersection of disruptive technology, organizational design, and national security. A United States Army veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, Zach is now a Security Fellow at the Truman National Security Project, a proclaimed US Army Futures Command “Mad Scientist,” and a Military Writers Guild Board Member.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Freedom House (adapted by MWI)