Travis S. Taylor
“Thomas, pull the stack back in, you’re spreading yourselves too freakin’ thin,” Captain Markus Sanchez subvocalized as he called up the direct-to-mind heads-up display of the blue force tracker and breathed a sigh of relief.
Had there been any red dots on the other side of the concrete wall separating Freeman’s team from the parking garage they were about to enter, the spread-out stack would have become targets in a kill box with little hope of offering each other any cover fire. To their advantage was the fact that the insurgents didn’t have the force-on-force identification system, the metamaterial powered armor, the level of nighttime imagery, or training the United States Army had. Force multipliers being what they were, overconfidence, and more importantly, stupid mistakes could still get you killed just as dead.
“Roger that, Captain. I got ’em,” the young butterbar replied.
Markus liked the new second team leader a lot and knew from his performance records that he was a competent soldier, but as far as officers were concerned the kid was green—very green. He hadn’t seen actual combat either. Green or not, very quickly, the second lieutenant took care of the situation. The five blue dots in the captain’s mindview heads-up display (HUD) quickly stacked up in proper formation.
Markus made a mental note of all the blue dots overlaid on the terrain maps in his head. He wasn’t exactly sure what he was looking for, but he knew he was looking for a sore thumb—something that stuck out. That part of the city was on a slight incline and all the streets ran either north and south or east and west. The tallest building couldn’t have been more than ten or twelve stories high and most of them were old and worn-out-looking sandstone colored blocks.
The HUD used known daytime imagery to overlay color and tactile information on the three dimensional virtual map in front of his eyes. Electrical wires of all sorts stretched across the streets to the buildings looking like someone had taken a bowl of black and gray spaghetti and spread it out randomly between poles and buildings. He hoped they wouldn’t have to hack into any of them physically, because that might take forever to find the right noodle in the pasta bowl.
The processors in his suit quickly added the helmet-cam views of the wires onto the map and marked them for possible hazards for flight vehicles. The map was uplinked through the virtual network of unmanned aerial vehicles, high altitude balloons, and the nanosatellite constellation in low Earth orbit. The living map was continuously updated by all sensors in the field including radars, lidars, imagery, the global navigation satellite system and compass inputs from vehicles and other soldier systems, and even infantry helmet-cams. The mapping system also used purple data. If there was a commercial transmitter or internet device in the area available, data from that was input to the mapping system’s algorithm as well.
The intel showed that there had been three truck loads full of unfriendlies that somehow had managed to get past a spec ops team farther south in what must have been a heck of a firefight. Then they took refuge somewhere in the nearest three city blocks. That was, of course, unless they had found an uncharted tunnel or magically teleported out. The ground penetrating radar, wifi multi-path analyses, laser vibrometry from drones above, and all known city maps on record showed no other tunnels underneath and Markus didn’t believe in magic. No, they were still in there somewhere and in between his team and Second Lieutenant Thomas Freeman’s stack. And worst of all, they had a quantum key distribution box that was still entangled with the uplink to the FOB and the mobile net.
He looked up and could see the IR signature of one of the little hovering tacnet repeaters about a hundred meters over the tallest building and thought, “If they manage to get into that system . . .”
“Specialist Passer what d’ya got?” Markus whispered as he peeked with one eye around the corner of the ten-story apartment complex and perused the mental images of Specialist Passer’s data stream graphics with the other. Sort of.
The direct-to-mind imagery and interface had been the next big thing to hit the world. It had been as ground breaking as the introduction of the internet, smartphone, and the so-called “internet of things.” Once scientists and engineers had figured out how to control devices by thinking controls rather than touching controls it soon enabled an entirely new level of interfaces and efficiencies that mankind had never seen before. It also allowed for private communications between minds and devices. This wasn’t telepathy by any means. A radio system was still required to transmit the data, but instead of speakers and digital displays the data was directed through superconducting quantum interference devices in the soldier’s helmets directly to and from the brain. There was no longer any need for virtual reality glasses or actual HUDs.
“Yes sir. If you’ll pull up the connectivity overlay you can see what I think are the hotspots.” Passer replied.
Markus noted that the twenty-something E4 didn’t seem the least bit nervous. Rightfully so, the kid had just come from the serious mess in Chad and this tactical grab and go mission shouldn’t be nearly as hot. His orders had been absolutely clear. There was no way they could hold this city in its current state and with the manpower available presently. They were to find the box, take out the unfriendlies that stole it, gather intel, and get the Hell out. This mission shouldn’t get as bad as things had gotten in Chad. At least Markus kept telling himself that.
He looked at the map of the city and then overlaid the connectivity data on it. The large streams of data flowing in and out were clearly internet routers, hubs, and bank system connections like ATMs and credit card machines at retail stores. The smaller connections ranged from personal data implants on civilians, identification and tracking emitters for almost everything, and even old school cellular data phones, pads, and watches. There were also white lines representing power distribution systems. Markus thought that might come in handy if they needed to cut the power to the building.
“I’m gonna highlight some of them in red, Captain. Hold one.” The specialist spoke over the squad’s tacnet channel, even though Passer was only about three meters behind him. Markus noted how the kid’s blue dot brightened each time he spoke and decided then that he liked the new upgrades to the software on the HUD.
He checked the air quality sensor on the HUD. It was reading safe, so he popped his visor briefly and took in a whiff of the local air. It was very hot, dry, and it smelled like city. There had been no signs of chem/bio but protocol was protocol. Besides that he didn’t care to get shot in the face. He took one more whiff of the city air and then thought his visor back down while biting on his drinking tube. The cooled water shot into his mouth almost a little too forcefully, nearly causing him to choke.
“Gonna have to get that adjusted,” he muttered to himself as he continued to study the E4’s data. “Okay, Passer, what am I looking at?”
“Well, Cap’n, the blue streams are our secure datacoms. Purple ones are the general public which are mostly evac-ed out by now. If they’re bold they have hard encryption that we can’t undo here. The red ones, well, they are uncooperative and unaccounted for. You get the point. Look at these here.”
“All right, all right I see them. So what?” Markus wished the specialist would cut to the chase.
“Sir, zoom in,” Passer replied. “These red dots here about four stories up are in sets of thirty and there are many of those sets of thirty close to each other. And some of those sets of thirty are moving around.”
“Thirty? Wait, how do you know they are moving?”
“The algorithm that measures the data rates through all these streams watches for changes in data rate. If a router or internet device is moving about, this creates multipath echoes that cause the data rate to fluctuate. By monitoring the data rate changes the motion there can be determined by the processor here—” He tapped at the chest plate of his armored suit, then continued. “Several of them are sitting still, but two of them are pacing back and forth, sir.”
“Thirty red dots?”
“Yes sir. That’s important I think.”
Markus nodded in understanding.
“Thirty. Let me guess. You believe that if we could connect and talk to each of those thirty things they’d tell us that they were 7.62 x 39 millimeter rounds?”
“My guess sir. Everything has an inventory data tag these days.”
“Well, at least we know how many guns they have. And the two pacing about?”
“They keep tracing the same paths, sir.”
“Yes sir. And one of them has an insulin pump. You can see it here in purple, not secured. It keeps getting updates from its manufacturer and is sending sugar levels and such to the cloud like every five seconds or so.”
“Well, we know how many there are and how many are watching. And we know one of them has an unsecured weakness.”
“Yes sir, and where they are. I’d bet a round of beers for the squad that this is our target. The intel from the spec op guys said one of the targets was diabetic.” Passer looked confident but Markus could see the E4 was too seasoned to see the moment as a time to smile. He respected the specialist’s poise.
“All right, I might get in on that bet with you.” Markus thought for a second about what to do next. “Passer, do a scan about for other sets of thirty. I want to make sure there are no snipers waiting on top of a building somewhere nearby. And go ahead and get me a hack into that insulin pump. Don’t do anything yet, just get past the firewalls so we can if we want to.”
“Already did sir. No snipers found so far. And the insulin pump is at your disposal. I’m sending you the control app now.”
“All right then. Keep looking for snipers and booby-traps.” He looked at the data in his mindview once more and then thought to his processor to open a channel to the complete team and copy the FOB tacnet officer—as if she wasn’t listening anyway.
“Listen up! I’m forwarding the location and overlay of what we believe to be the objective. They are two alleyways over from you Freeman and three from us. The Marines and their autotanks have them blocked off to the north and the spec ops teams will keep them from backtracking south. They are boxed in here and are on the fourth floor of the highlighted building. Let the mapping system calculate the most likely ingress and egress routes and use mark-one eyeballs yourselves to identify a backup egress plan. I’m going to pop some skyballs and stream the images to everyone. Keep your lids and visors down as we don’t know if they have anything in there that bleach won’t wash off. There might still be some unconnected civvies in the area so let’s avoid any purple casualties if we can. Top priority though is that package. We have to recover that box and neutralize the targets. Can I get a Hooah?”
“Hooah,” in many voices echoed in his direct-to-mind audio.
“Great. Let’s move.”
Markus toggled the screen for the mini UAVs and the launch tube deployed from the back of his armored suit on the right side. The little tube about six centimeters in diameter thwoomped three times as the devices were launched from the air canon. The tube rescinded back into the suit and the compartment closed. The three skyballs whirred almost imperceptibly silent in front of him as he gave them flight instructions. Using a combination of GNSS, magnetic and gravitational mappings, internal compasses and inertial navigation chips, known map data, local known wifi and electromagnetic signals, and daytime commercial imagery, the guidance algorithm determined guided paths for each of the little quadcopters that would take them to the objective with different final vantage points. Their flight paths would be accurate to within centimeters barring any extreme winds, rain, or enemy fire.
The skyball video feeds started moving rapidly as the little UAVs zipped along at over fifty kilometers per hour. Once on station, they stabilized and gave Markus a full view of the building, the floor in question, and even thermal data showing exactly how many occupants were there. He ordered one of the skyballs to make a full three hundred sixty degree pan with the thermal imager to see if there were any unusual signatures on a rooftop nearby. There were none. His guess was that these guys rushed in here with such a panic after fighting free of the spec ops team that they hadn’t had time to slow down and think about better cover. Or maybe they weren’t planning to stay long.
“Passer, any pings from the box yet?” He asked after a couple minutes of bouncing. They finally reached the buildings adjacent to the objective.
“Sorry sir. If they have it then they must be shielding it from us,” Passer said.
“How are we certain it’s in there?” Staff Sergeant Jackson asked.
“What are they protecting with all those mags of thirty if not?” Markus said with a raised eyebrow that nobody could see inside his helmet.
“Could be random drug dealers, warlords, I dunno, sir.”
“Possible, but Passer hasn’t found other groups with AKs and we’ve verified one of them is diabetic.”
“Captain Sanchez, FOB One, copy?”
“Sanchez here. Go Colonel.” Markus certainly wasn’t expecting the CO to be calling him at this point. He knew the QKD box was a big priority, but there were thousands of troops deployed about rural and outlier suburbs of this city in heavier fights and higher priorities. That thought alone made the hair on the back of his neck stand on end and bristle against the inner layer of the armored neck plates.
“Captain, be advised that we have eyeball reports of three inbound choppers with two unmanned weapons platforms in formation headed your way. Do not depend on sensors as they appear to be spoofed at the moment. Use mark-one eyeballs for visual confirmation.”
“Sir, can we expect any air support of our own?”
“Not at this time, Captain.”
“Crap,” Markus whispered to himself.
“Repeat Captain. Didn’t copy last.”
“Uh, ETA on inbound?”
“Understood sir. Permission to move in on target before they get here?”
“At your discretion, Captain.”
“Understood sir. We’re moving in now!”
“Good luck, Captain. FOB One out.”
“Staff Sergeant Jackson!” Markus toggled up the weapons list of all the squad in his mind and could see that the multifunction utility/logistics and equipment bot was carrying just what they needed.
“What can I do for you, Captain?” The NCO bounced to a stop just behind him dropping to one knee, his weapon at the ready.
“Top, call the MULE in and bring the AUAS-DEW online. Tie in to all radars you can find, but you also have to man it and eyeball it. We’ve got inbound automated gunbirds and three choppers. They’ll be in range in three minutes. Move!”
“Hooah,” the top sergeant replied with a nod as he turned and took a five-meter leap toward the back of the stack.
“Okay Freeman, take the stairwell on the east side and move quickly. Keep your exits covered. You have ninety seconds to reach the door. Then my team will be hitting the windows.”
“All right, Team A, we are scaling this wall to the fourth floor and bursting into the rooms adjacent on each side. We’ll go in through the walls. Private Jones, get that Barrett up the wall across the street and keep us covered. You’ve got sixty seconds.”
“Hooah,” Jones grunted and bounced to a second floor fire escape in the alleyway behind them.
“We’re on the clock people, let’s move!” Markus started a countdown timer clock on his HUD and had it transmitted to the team. He took two big steps and bounced his armored boots against the sidewalk. The brushless superconducting high torque servos in the ankles, knees, and hips of his suit sprang loose like a jackrabbit’s hind legs, throwing him upwards at least ten meters, taking him across the street and onto the second floor balcony. Passer landed next to him almost as soon as he hit the surface. The concrete balcony made a crunching and screeching sound underneath the armored soles of their boots.
Quickly, Passer dropped to cover stance at the edge of the balcony while Markus scanned the connected room for danger. So far so good. Two more of the squad bounced on and then up to the third floor. Markus kept up with his squad’s movement in the blue force tracker. Somehow PFC Jones had already made it to the top of the building across the street. The kid probably had them sighted in with the auto targeting functions on the ballistic optical computational ranging and targeting system. He half-heartedly prayed that the sniper’s blue-on-blue safety protocols were functioning properly.
“Twenty seconds . . .”
“Passer, command that insulin pump to start sounding the worst alarm it can and stay stuck on,” Markus ordered.
“Done, Cap’n.” Markus could suddenly hear the beeping in the distance.
“Maybe that’ll distract a couple of them.”
Markus was the last to make the leap to the fourth floor. The four of them, including himself, on the left side of the target room were ready and the four on the right side were in place. The tracker showed Freeman’s team just outside the door, stacked up in the hallway. The HUD still had no view of any inbound aircraft. Somehow their sensors were being jammed and that worried him. He came to the realization just how sophisticated these unfriendlies must be and was beginning to hope he hadn’t underestimated them.
“. . . three, two, one, go!”
The sound of the sniper rifle was unmistakable. There were three loud cracks from Jones’s Barrett across the street and then nothing for a few seconds. Markus burst through the window, firing a couple of rounds into the wall to soften it up before he punched through the drywall and studs. The armored gauntlets of his suit made fairly light work of the Third World construction materials. Several rounds of 7.62 by 39 mm plowed into his chest, stunning him lightly. But they were old school lead and steel jackets not modern armor piercing and had little effect on the powered metamaterial super dense long chain polymer coated polar aligned nanotubes the new suits were made of. He also noted that the red dots of thirty started counting down quite rapidly as the AK-47 fire rang loud in the room.
“Push in! Go!” Markus ordered as he forced himself through the hornets’ nest of enemy fire. Targeting Xs appeared in his HUD flashing red all around the large room. He returned single deadly shots at each of the Xs in his path as he pounded through.
Freeman’s team burst through almost simultaneously, dropping several men by the door. Passer dropped to a knee beside Markus, firing two shots to the left. Then he rotated like the hands on a clock, dropping a target at the two, four, and five o’clock positions.
There were two more cracks from the sniper rifle, two more of the unfriendlies fell, and then it was quiet.
“Captain Sanchez, I’m showing clear of red!” Freeman announced over the tacnet.
“Clear outside,” PFC Jones added.
Markus scanned the room and quickly out the window but there was nothing yet. He knew those birds were coming. They needed to hurry.
“All right, let’s spread out in here and find that box! Watch for booby-traps. We’ve got one minute and nineteen seconds. Passer, turn off that dang insulin pump. Move.”
Staff Sergeant Demarcus Jackson bounced to a stop as the MULE navigated itself about a bit of rubble in the middle of the street almost three blocks from the rest of the team. The “top” sergeant climbed up the runflat wheels onto the rearmost weapons rack where the dome covering the beam director for the Anti-Unmanned Aerial System Directed Energy Weapon was mounted and then ordered the vehicle to keep moving toward the captain’s present location at top speed.
It was a bit of a bumpy ride but the MULE and the high energy laser weapon were designed to take a beating. The DEW was also designed to take down most UASs in the Third World and, in a pinch, could be turned on auto for counter rockets, artillery, and mortars. That, however, required a link to at least two radars in theater. So far, the extremists and unfriendlies they’d encountered had shown no use for mortars, but they had used the occasional MANPADS or rocket propelled grenade.
Quickly, Jackson did the handshaking between his suit and the control system for the AUAS-DEW and the beam director turret spun halfway around clockwise and then up, down, and then back around to forward pointing. The window in his HUD told him that the system was online and awaiting further commands. It first asked if he wanted it to connect with two radar systems mounted on MULEs in two other units at separate locations on the outskirts of the city. Jackson told it to go ahead but to put the system on “fire when ready” and in “manual targeting” mode. As the MULE continued its bumpy ride over the potholed and bombed out street the sound of machine gun and sniper fire filled the air and echoed off the city buildings. Then it stopped abruptly.
“Hooah,” Top muttered to himself after checking the blue force tracker and seeing that all his men were still safe. Then he looked at the countdown timer in his mindview HUD and realized that he had better get his butt in gear or they wouldn’t be. He strapped himself into the “engineer’s cubby” at the back of the MULE and brought up the targeting system. “Now if I can just find something to shoot at . . .”
It hadn’t taken the team long to locate the QKD box. It was the only metal pelican box filled with paraffin in the room. Inside it was the system that could connect to the high data rate communications network of all the systems in the region. It had the passcode encryption key entangled and ready to go. Had the insurgent army had time to reverse engineer it, they could have brought the defense network across several countries in Africa down. Fortunately, it would have taken them several PhDs in advanced physics and engineering to do so without corrupting the entangled keycode. In any case, the Army certainly didn’t want the classified communications equipment to fall into enemy hands. It was more likely that the unfriendlies had intended to sell the system to China or Russia.
Markus packed the box back into the metal pelican case and then dropped a charge in with it. He closed the lid on the box and then bent the metal hasp together to hold it in place. After a second or two of handshaking with the explosive charge he readied it for detonation.
“Fire in the hole. Fire in the hole. Fire in the hole!” He shouted and then toggled the control in his weapons list to detonate the charge.
The case expanded and burped but didn’t fly apart. White smoke leaked from cracks in the seal around it. Markus dug his armored gauntlet fingers into the metal and ripped it open. There was nothing discernable left of the QKD box.
“Target destroyed. Let’s get out of here.” No sooner than the words had left his mouth than something that felt like a rocket powered sledge hammer pounded into the upper right side of his chest, knocking him backwards several meters and into the far wall, leaving an armor suited infantryman shaped indention.
Suddenly everything appeared to be moving in slow motion. Markus could see Passer spinning and dropping to prone position, firing rounds out the window of the balcony. Freeman’s left leg was taken out from under him and Markus could see bright red blood squirt from a hole in the armor for a brief second before the interior seal layer had time to close the armor damage and fill the wound with organic sealants, antibiotics, and pain killers. To the far left two more men were down and the others were taking cover. Passer seemed to be the only one reacting.
“Return fire!” He shouted as the image from one of his skyballs showed him two unmanned hexacopters with miniguns hovering just over the building across the street chewing away at the floor they were on. There were three helicopters with sixty caliber barrels pointing out each side and the ones on the side facing them were firing nonstop. The room buzzed like a hornet’s nest as chips of stone, wood, glass, and metal flew randomly in every direction all the while the heavy caliber rounds tore through his team.
Then there was the crack of the sniper rifle and one of the helicopter guns stopped briefly. Crack. Then another. Jones was hitting them back.
“Come on Top, where the Hell are you?”
Staff Sergeant Jackson finally managed to pull the MULE into a position where he could get a clear line of sight with his team. To his horror, the high caliber weapons fire he had been hearing was coming from three choppers and two UAV gunships. He used the direct-to-mind interface with the beam director and placed the targeting X directly on the nearest UAV and told the system to fire.
There was no beam of light like in the movies. Their training had taught them there would not be. The invisible infrared laser beam burned through the surface of the engine housing on the left side propeller. After a couple of seconds, bright orange and white sparks shot from the interior of the engine and then the propeller choked out. The hexacopter was suddenly a pentacopter and the guidance software couldn’t overcome the loss of the engine. The copter swayed and dipped to the left and bumped into the building across the street as it attempted to move backwards. One of the other propellers crashed into the building slinging the vehicle sideways and then it flung itself apart.
The sniper rifle continued at the three manned helicopters but it looked as if Jones was getting himself pinned down and the other UAV gunship was still tearing into the captain and the squad. Jackson directed the targeting X of the DEW system onto the other UAV and fired. Two seconds later there was a repeat sequence of the previous crash.
“Hooah!” Jackson instinctually grunted.
“Enough of this!” Markus shouted as he lunged to his feet in the full speed the powered armored suit would allow and then jumped from the edge of the balcony directly into the nearest helicopter.
Two rounds passed so close to his head that he could hear them buzzing by. His feet came to a clanging stop onto the deck by the gunner as he bear-hugged the soldier manning the weapon. Spinning in an aikido style movement to absorb his momentum he tossed the guy out the other side of the helicopter.
The copilot turned with a hand gun and fired it several times into Markus’s helmet. This did little more than piss him off. Markus punched the guy in the head, likely killing him, and then he slapped the pilot sideways, rendering him unconscious. The bird started to list to the side and then banged into the adjacent helicopter. Blades enter tangled throwing twisted metal in all directions. Markus managed to bail out onto the top of the building below, almost landing on top of PFC Jones who was taking shots at the final manned helicopter. Then Markus noticed the tail rotor caught ablaze and black smoke started pouring from it. Top must have been lasing it.
“Don’t die on me, Freeman!” Markus yelled at him. The man had gone into cardiac arrest. Not only had he taken the hit to the leg that Markus had seen, but he’d also taken one in the chest. His suit was doing all it could to fill the holes with organic sealant but his heart also had to keep beating.
“Injecting epinephrine. Clear for defibrillation.” The suit’s automated voice said. “Three, two, one.”
Freeman’s suit sent a shock of electricity directly to his chest and then the blue force tracker showed his heart kick started and soon his blood pressure began to stabilize.
“Evac drones are here, sir,” Passer told him. “You should probably get on one, too.”
“Looks like it hurts, sir.”
“Well crap!” Markus finally noticed the sealed hole on the right side of his chest where he’d taken a hit. He watched as the drones snapped onto the rigidized suits of the wounded soldiers and then picked them up and out the window they went. They were banged up, but they’d be all right.
“There’s another drone on the way, sir.”
“Nah, I’ll be fine till we get back to the FOB. Great work today Specialist Passer.” Markus wasn’t leaving his men. “Top, get the men on the MULE and let’s get out of here.”
Copyright © 2017 Travis S. Taylor
Dr. Travis S. Taylor is the cocreator and star of the National Geographic Channel series, Rocket City Rednecks. He’s made multiple appearances as a science expert on many other television shows. Taylor is a physicist who has worked on various programs for the Department of Defense and NASA for the past twenty years. His expertise includes advanced propulsion concepts, very large space telescopes, space-based beamed energy systems, future combat technologies, and next generation space launch concepts. In addition, Taylor is the author of the ground-breaking Warp Speed science fiction series, with entries Warp Speed and The Quantum Connection. He’s also the creator of the Tau Ceti Agenda series including One Good Soldier, The Tau Ceti Agenda, One Day on Mars, Trail of Evil, and Kill Before Dying. With John Ringo, he coauthored the The Looking Glass war series. Most recently he is the coauthor, with Jody Lynn Nye, of teen hard science fiction novel Moon Beam.