Dust

By N.T. Narbutovskih

It was everywhere. It permeated the fabric sections of her armor. It ate away at the carefully machined joints of her exo. She tasted it with every bite of food and every breath. It coated her hab in a thin layer of ever-present dirt, the first steps of the planet trying to take back the little piece of territory her unit had carved out of the austere landscape. It was in her eyes, it chafed at her armpits and the attachment points of her gear. But she had learned to deal with this, to eat dirt and sleep in the dirt, and even made her peace with dying in the dirt. But right now, the dirt was screwing with her optics and she was pissed.

She took one gloved hand and wiped away the layer of encrusted earth and sweat and who knew what else that covered the side of her HUD. All told, the air guys weren’t that bad. A passing hunter-killer had given her a heads up on the common band about the incoming artillery so she’d managed to dive for cover before the shells dropped their deadly payload of bomblets. There were even a few left alive on the ground, their stubby limbs mostly burned away by the blasts of their neighbors as they detonated. Her countermeasures had been pretty successful, the combination of chaff and high-frequency pulses tricking the simple sensors on the bomblets into thinking they had landed on a target before they actually touched down.

But she couldn’t stop to thank the pilot—the gently pulsing priority directive from HQ commanded her attention as she focused on clearing her faceplate and scanning the new orders.

“Enemy locations updated. Engage and destroy, ALR Medium.” As orders went, it was actually pretty specific given the usual general nature of commands they received in the field. The Force was a new animal—her old man had served in the Middle East from 9/11 through the end of it in the late teens. His stories about how they used to operate, receiving detailed commands while huddled around a satellite radio set as some distant voice told them how to die—those stories she didn’t really believe. Everything was always harder for the older generation—food full of maggots and uphill in the snow both ways. Orders couldn’t have been that detailed. Her entire mission for the last month had been, “Move North, weapons free, standard ROE.”

She keyed her team channel and radioed her troop chief. “Jones, set security and get us some recce. New orders, pushing to tac space in five.”

The quick “click-click” in response was all she needed. Jones had been with her outfit for years and was probably in a situation requiring stealth. His specialty was long-range reconnaissance and sometimes he liked to see how close he could get to the enemy positions without alerting them. Kind of crazy, but he’d brought back some useful intel a few times, so she generally let it pass. Standard operating procedures were more guidelines than actual rules anyway.

Checking her link, she saw the other teams of the 10th Brigade strung out along a loose line, a few green icons showing friendly forces farther north than the others, but generally keeping to formation. As she dug a quick hole, she prepped the rest of her troop chiefs for the coming tac space. A minute before it was time, she saw a nearby airborne special reconnaissance unit answer her flare. One of the lightly armed aircraft moved to take up station over her line, its available sensor feeds showing in her HUD as shining threads from the sky. She opened the wide spectrum picture in a sub-window and settled down into the relative safety of the hole she had just dug, keying her display over to full opaque. As the world around her faded, the icons that represented her unit came into sharper focus, and on down the line, the battlespace leaping into full sharp relief as her faceplate showed her all available traffic. She selected the layers she was most interested in from HQ—deep recce of enemy positions, and assessed order of battle. Mostly she wanted the intel troops’ best guess at force disposition, posture, and likely courses of action for the next few days. As she saw the icons representing her troop chiefs pop up in the bottom of the visor, she rotated the battlespace and took a close look at the nearest enemy position. Heavily fortified, yes, but most of the enemy gun positions were fixed south and were not redundant. A single hypersonic round from the destroyers could punch a hole big enough to get her team through.

As she mentally outlined the plan she started to task out her team. Kent would handle the spectrum control and keep the laser links up with the other units, Smith and Thompson would run counter-cyber to keep the nasty bugs out of their system, and Jones and his team would provide some much-needed demo. The enemy gun emplacement was probably AI-controlled, and the bunker holding the brain was almost guaranteed to be heavily fortified. He’d probably complain about the lack of long gun time, but so be it. The action was going to be mostly inside the gun position anyway. After a little back and forth with the team, she hung the plan up on the link and noted her min force. It only took about an hour for the requirements to be filled. She even got a gunship to sign on for the op. Guess someone thought there was a high probability of shooting something. They were probably right. The USS Saratoga was going to provide their initial hypersonic rounds, the same recce that was overhead now was going get them the feed, and she saw a fresh unit of CH-67s was going to get them into the target. Perfect. Combat Uber at its finest. She chuckled under her breath at the moment of irony, then mentally reset herself to the finer details of the coming mission.

Above the battlefield, the crew of the recce aircraft sifted through the ground force’s plan, noting the hot gun-target line from the ship and the time the rounds would be delivered. With the available fuel, they would have to push off right as things were getting interesting, so they put up a fuel request for immediate air refueling. Tankers being somewhat scarce, they had to wait a full hour, but eventually topped up with a passing KC-47. The big planes patrolled back from the leading edges of the fight, massive whales full of fuel usually followed by flocks or sometimes swarms of thirsty combat aircraft. Everything from the big bombers to the small low-observable reconnaissance craft needed fuel, and the range of craft lined up for gas could be overwhelming.

Based on the target location, they would be deep into the enemy air defense network and would need some cover. The local SEAD unit was happy to oblige, and the recce crew worked with one of the cyber units they found to execute a power brownout in time with the decoy launches. And just to put the cherry on top, the air superiority guys had some availability and gave the whole operation a four-hour CAP. Looked like all that time spent in the communal simulators back before this cooked off was paying some dividends. “Conductor… of a combat orchestra,” she thought to herself, but without any sense of irony this time.

Three hours after the plan had gone up, the first helicopter went skids down and the team clipped up to the cargo rails. A fully armed and armored trooper was close to 500 pounds, and it was more efficient to sling load them than try to stuff them into the cargo compartment. Made getting off pretty easy too—hover and drop.

Back in HQ, the brass all gathered around the big tank. Every trooper, every aircraft, every asset in the theater was displayed in real-time, layer upon layer of intelligence reports, CONOPS, resupply requests, contact reports, and every other detail making the terrain barely visible beneath the swarming mass of glyphs and icons.

“Huh,” grunted Col. Morales. “Looks like your unit’s first to the fight again,” his long finger stabbing into an icon. The CONOP was sound and already had min force assets signed up to it. “LT Christopherson seems to know her job. Let’s see how this goes and she might be ready for a little more.”

“She’s always been eager,” responded the tall Marine to his right. LTC Stephens had been keeping an eye on Christopherson’s unit ever since they had coordinated the first successful thrust off the beach and into enemy territory. He just hoped she didn’t get cocky and overreach.

Stephens’ reverie was interrupted by a gentle but insistent tone. A unit at the front of the holo tank was pulsing amber. Morales looked at Stephens and raised an eyebrow. “That our boy again?”

Stephens grunted in response. Unlike Christopherson, LT Davies seemed to need his hand held along every step of the way. His unit had a decent record, average casualty rate, and successes a little below the mean, but nothing excessive. Largely unremarkable. The only reason his name was known at command level was the sheer volume of command guidance he requested.

“Was this dude not at Strategy Indoc? It was a relatively new school when I went through but the meat of it can’t have changed that much since ‘25.” Morales’ gravelly tone was chiding, but Stephens knew that under the gentle ribbing was a real directive that he had better set his trooper straight or the COL might have to get involved. “I’ll take it, sir, he’s probably just asking about plugging into the probability AI again.”

As Lt Col Stephens walked back from the main tank, Morales clasped his hands behind his back and surveyed the rest of the line. A few other CONOPS had been sent up as the troopers absorbed the new guidance. The tiny diamonds representing plans flashed yellow in the display when enough assets had signed up to meet minimum force, green when all requested assets had signed up. It looked like Christopherson’s unit had all its available slots filled and they’d be heading into the grey zone first. Stephens briefly slid his eyes over the other CONOPS, checking for any major anomalies.

The combat CONOP system worked very well, with the ultimate operators being the judge of an effective plan. Like all systems though, a smart person could trick it. If troopers set the required experience threshold for their requested assets too low, they might get all their forces but they’d all be so green the risk to the mission was off the charts. The system flagged most of these risks up to command but sometimes the threshold was just under the automatics. Morales liked to check anything close to the line and make sure his forces were getting what they needed. A new wingman here or there was fine, but he couldn’t let a force package that was made up of fresh-from-training operators take on a deep strike or reconnaissance mission unless there truly was no one else. They weren’t down to the bottom of the barrel quite yet. Besides, the grey zone was starting to fade back as the coordinated intelligence AI fused the disparate pictures from across the force, and the picture didn’t show any time-sensitive targeting priorities. Better to stay conservative.

The grey zone was another product of conflict that had needed a name made up when this whole thing started. The closer to the enemy jamming you got, the less connectivity you had, until finally when you were actually engaging you had to rely on line-of-sight comm lasers and stealthed relay drones to get any data between individual troopers. If a unit needed support from the big naval guns or just wanted to keep some comm open, they had to leave a spool of fiber optic behind them or launch a single-message mortar back towards the friendly lines. Any word of what was actually out there or how the operation went wouldn’t make it to command until the squad had joined friendly lines once again. Or not, which was its own report.

Davies’ voice was tinny in Stephens’ ear. The request had come through voice and still frame only due to the proximity to enemy lines. Bandwidth was limited and the network needed to stay open for the real important traffic between the front line units.

“Sir, requesting command authorization to post this CONOP to the battle net.” A graphic of Davies’ unit’s plan began to display in the LTC’s view as the LT stepped him through the plan. Stephens suppressed a sigh as Jones explained the finer nuances of his plan. It was almost a carbon copy of a case study from the Military Design course back at the academy. Stephens was old, but he at least remembered the case studies. Apparently, he remembered the message that had come with them better than the younger officer—each plan, once enacted, changes the battlespace and the system of conflict, and as such a new plan is required for each set of unique circumstances.

“Davies,” he interrupted, “this is quite literally exactly what you were taught in basic Design. Explain to me exactly why you want to use it again?”

“Yes, sir. When you break it down, the situation is pretty close regarding capabilities and forces, as well as centers of gravity. This plan was highly effective in the Gulf of Tonkin in ‘23 against the Chinese and I believe that with the additional fire support I am requesting from our suborbital assets, there is a high probability of successful destruction of the enemy depot that we have uncovered.”

“You believe. So does everyone on the planet. That operation is used as a case study for a reason. What intel are you acting on here that makes you think this plan will work again? We haven’t been able to get visual, radar, or even reliable hyperspectral since Donovia buttoned up this mountain range. You know how good their jammers are.”

“Sir, we have been feeding the spiders into the area for several days. One of them finally made it back out uncorrupted and we got a good laydown of the area. We can’t tell what they have in the depot exactly, but there’s no mistake—it’s heavily fortified but manageable.”

Stephens watched the data come in with Jones’ words, chewing on his lip as he considered the options. He wasn’t out there on the line, so he didn’t have the full picture that Jones did. On the other hand, losing every spider and then one of them finally wandering back out, conveniently with its mapping data intact, seemed too good to be true. If it was a depot though, it might be the one thing that opened up the line to the rest of the force.

“Do it. But I’m not giving you a command endorsement. You put it up to the net yourself just like everyone else. How good your plan is will be judged by your peers, not by me.” Command almost never endorsed plans that populated on the net. Try as they might to shake off the burden of the past, the Force was still a military organization and there was the implicit special emphasis on any plan that had the command seal attached to it. Hard lessons from the beginning of the war had quickly given rise to the current thinking—the best judges of a good plan were those who were going to have to go out and do it. Compelling forces to act usually resulted in them trying to make a terrible plan better, instead of calling it ugly and re-starting from scratch. CONOPs that came from the front lines historically had the best success rates. Getting them all to go in the same direction was the Commander’s job.

“Yes, sir. Thank you for your time.” Jones waited for a moment and Lt Col Stephens severed the link.

Sure, it was a risk, but there was a war on and they needed a win. The stalemate at the ridgeline had lasted for nearly a month—an eternity when getting off the beach had taken an hour and the march inland only a few days. The modern power-armor was pretty impressive stuff, fully articulated and capable of deflecting everything up to anti-aircraft rounds. The articulated suits let the troopers move up to 35 miles an hour without any vehicle support. The smooth-edged plates overlapped and flexed past each other like a living thing. Word was the engineers didn’t manufacture the stuff so much as grow it in a tank. Having grown up in the era of ceramic plates and Kevlar, Stephens was glad of the extra protection for his troops but if he was being honest, the new stuff made his skin crawl. Seeing a company move through terrain with the naked eye was like watching a swarm of insects flowing over a door sill—nightmare fuel.

The mountain range knifed up out of the desert, tops as bare as the ground below with the thick belt of green trees the only signs of natural life. The team had made it, agonizingly slowly, up to the edge of the small bowl holding the enemy gun position. They were arranged in a loose wedge, optics trained down to the LT’s position. Christopherson inspected the little robot her team had trapped. It had been relatively easy for her network AI to isolate it from the rest of its fellows and they had emplaced a simple override on its motor functions to keep it from moving. Donovian tech was cheap. The warhead on it, however, was just as deadly as anything we had. Low-yield, sure, but ten kilotons was still enough bang to worry her.

“Jones, find out how many of these little bastards there are out there. I don’t want any more surprises.” She turned to Smith, the name tag in her HUD and the specialized antenna the only thing distinguishing his armor from the others. “I thought our recce bug showed this place clear of radiological ordnance. Look at the data again. We aren’t moving until we know what we’re up against.”  The rest of her team took their cues from her implicit order, spreading out and keeping their laser links open. Smith didn’t take long to find the splice.

“Shit. You’re right, LT. This is some subtle coding but they put this whole packet in here and let it go. The basic outline of where our recce bot went is accurate but the rest of this is pure garbage. Could be anything out there.”

Christopherson nodded. She needed to know what they were walking into. Time to call up their air cover. “Rico—get the buoy ready. Single burst, recce request and don’t screw up the relay coordinate this time. I want that sensor feed to actually get to us.”

Rico grunted his assent and kneeled, the mortar tube on the back of his armor moving out and aiming straight up. The buoy system had been another fast acquisition after the start of the war. With the level of jamming they got close to enemy lines there was no way to talk directly to the air cover unless they could see them, and that kind of negated the whole stealth concept. So the buoy would launch up and the aircraft would see it, get a laser handshake, and the buoy would tell them where to look for a ground laser. In this case, the team had placed one on a hillside with good coverage of the valley and the enemy gun positions. They had to hurry with this—the hypersonics were due in ten minutes and after that, the Donovian positions would be expecting an assault.

The buoy went up, barely visible to the enhanced optics of the team visors with its stealth coating and matte deep purple finish, and a moment later the team heard a new voice on their laser net.

“Sickle, Draco, established two-six-zero echo seven, checking in as fragged, 6+50 station time.”

The light recce platform had the latest in sensors that the skunkworks had been able to cobble on to it, and along with the voice channel the troopers saw an option to subscribe to the feeds appear in the corner of each HUD. Signals, imagery, IR and electronic intel filled the air between the trooper’s positions, each one’s reality augmented with the feed from the orbiting aircraft. They filtered and selected the layers they wanted to see, radar overlay and IR ghosted over the feed from their own suit sensors. Heat and movement sources leaped out and solid terrain became translucent as the overhead feed revealed the entirety of the local battlespace. The enemy gun positions were as expected, but laced with a faintly glowing web of nano-bots, their stealth coating engaged but positions revealed by the unavoidable EM field of active electronics. From the look of it, they were a fairly low-grade explosive payload variety—a few of them posed no real threat to an armored trooper. But there were so many. As the aircrew overhead tuned their sensors to the electronic signature of the small robots, more and more resolved and tagged. It looked more like a diffuse cloud than a few well-placed defensive positions.

“Trap.” Thompson was never one to wax poetic, but even his normally taciturn voice carried a tense undertone. They all knew that the only reason they weren’t dead was because they hadn’t been detected yet.

“Hunker down.” Christopherson’s voice carried the calm weight of authority. The squad dug in where they were, their armor blending into the surroundings, powering down non-essential systems to keep their electronic profile as low as possible. Comms equipment was the most likely thing to alert the enemy to their presence, and the squad switched to text-only on the laser network.

DRACO, SICKLE, RELAY TO USS SARATOGA, EM ROUNDS REQUESTED

Christopherson saw the acknowledgment from the recce crew and glanced down through her visor to the old, battered watch on her wrist. It had been her mother’s, and she wore it more for sentimentality than actual necessity but now it was the only thing she had to tell her when the rounds would come down.

SICKLE, DRACO, ROUNDS AWAY, 45 SECONDS

The text flashed in her HUD long enough to read then faded.

TROOPERS FULL POWERDOWN

She sent the last message and shut all her systems down, feeling the weight of the armor sag against her position. She kept her thumbs over the emergency release and waited. The longest forty-five seconds of her life went by, dark and effectively blind in the jungle with her merely human senses. Overhead there was the impression of a flash that barely registered before the blast wave hit. Her helmet sheltered her hearing from the worst of it. The trees around her, however, sagged and swayed and she felt the concussion in her bones as the rounds hit. A feeling like standing on a zipper as the earth shuddered with the impacts.

She quickly rebooted her suit. The Donovians probably knew something was about to happen, but she was banking on them not expecting her squad being quite as close as they were. As her suit powered up she saw the rest of her squad come online. She opened up the link full wide, unleashing her onboard AI’s offensive electronics and active sensors. The forest roared to life around her, her augmented hearing picking out every crack of broken wood and the keening of the local wildlife. It was a much different environment than the dust of the valley floor. Her radar penetrated the canopy around her and painted the ground in waves of false color.

“Check in.” Christopherson’s voice was calm as she began to move, seeing her squad spread out and take her movement as cue.

Each replied with a terse, “Up.”

The sensors of their suits knit together a detailed picture of their environment, with Smith and Thompson filtering and feeding the cyber overlay to keep them from being overwhelmed with the vast flood of data. They had been noticed now for sure, and even as they covered the ground and sprinted up valley their systems were assaulted by enemy jamming across the spectrum, hostile AI trying to blind them or infect their systems with virus and malware.

“Now we see who bought the best robots,” Smith chuckled across the comms. He had always had a weirdly familiar relationship with their own combat AIs, treating them more like friendly puppies than purpose-grown and trained killing software. He watched the writhing snakes and shields of the electronic combat in his own HUD as he covered the ground.

As far as AI matches went, the Donovians were actually pretty sharp. Years of reverse-engineering and outright theft had given them an edge in a field they hadn’t pioneered, and the silent virtual battle between AIs for control of both the troopers’ suits and the enemy defensive position’s systems was testament to how closely the AIs were matched. Smith’s first priority was finding the enemy AI core and isolating it. The rest of the squad would secure the physical spaces, and he had a sector to cover as well, but every moment they left the enemy AI operational was another in which they might die. He’d seen troopers whose armor was hijacked, sealed in their own coffins while the AI drove them around like marionettes, until the final rally point where it sent the suit batteries critical or cooked off all the ammunition at once. Entire platoons wiped out, aircraft lost. The grunts had taken to calling them zombies, and that’s where the emergency escape function had come from. It was better to manually scrap the whole suit and try to survive the battlefield unaugmented than walk around in compromised armor.

The squad closed in on the enemy position, carefully sweeping the wreckage of the fixed gun emplacement for any remaining signs of life. It looked like a fully automated position. The Donovians relied on their people more for a manufacturing base than employing them as front line soldiers, hoping to gain the advantage in sheer numbers using automated and remote systems rather than flesh and bone. As a result, these automated positions were fairly common, with an AI core controlling the local operations.

The troopers spread throughout the warren of connecting tunnels in the hillside, dropping small repeater drones at intersections to keep the laser network up. With the enemy AI still online, easily detectable radio comms were too risky. Finally they found it, near the bottom of the enemy gun facility, behind a thick steel door and several layers of concrete. Initial tactics from the African Wars had been to try to cut the AI off from power, and troopers had severed as many cables and hard lines as they could find. Unfortunately, the terrain of this conflict allowed the enemy to grow geothermal plants with their nanotech, the tiny bots creating deep wells and conductors to draw power from beneath the mountain range. The only way to truly stop an AI was to isolate its core physically and box it up in a lead-lined coffin. That or blow it to hell. But command liked to get intact cores to feed to the cyber intel geeks, so, getting it out alive was the first try. They could blow it to hell if anything went wrong.

Jones had just finished laying the initial shaped charges and hotwire to make a hole in the AI bunker when the LT arrived. Christopherson keyed her visor clear so they could talk face to face.

“Jones, how’s it coming? I want to wrap it up here as quickly as we can.”

“No problem, LT, we are almost set. Just waiting for go-ahead.”

“Roger, just give us the countdown. You’re approved, det.”

Jones nodded in acknowledgment and his faceplate went dark. Christopherson moved back around the corner and Jones took up position opposite her.

“FIRE IN THE HOLE!” Jones yelled and the dull WHUMP of the explosives shuddered the bedrock. So much for a countdown.

As the dust cleared, Christopherson swept inside the gaping hole with her radar, the ghostly image coming back with a small pedestal set in the middle of the room, the slim cooling blades spread around it like some sort of exotic deep-sea coral. The dust cleared and she got a look at it, the oily black surface of the quantum cells refracting dully in the light from her suit lamp.

“OK, looks like a standard core. Smith, you’re up.” Smith grunted in assent and a moment later the dull thudding of his footsteps grew louder and he emerged from the corridor, exchanging a nod with Jones as they traded places. No reason to have more bodies in the bunker than necessary. Even without physical controls, AI cores were dangerous. Physical contact was enough to let them penetrate a trooper’s defenses almost immediately. What happened after that was anyone’s guess—no one had survived to tell that story.

Smith moved slowly and deliberately around the AI core, using his wrist laser to sever connections to power and transmitters first, careful to keep from touching it. Finally, he reached down to cut it loose from the cooling vanes. As he extended his arm to aim, the black surface seemed to vibrate, waves forming on its surface, then dissipating. His focus on the base, Smith didn’t see it. Christopherson did.

She moved almost without thinking, lunging forward and opening her mouth to speak. It was too late. The surface of the AI core surged and flowed out, like viscous black tar, enveloping Smith’s head in quantum foam. His suit went rigid, the laser winking out, and Christopherson skidded to a halt a few feet back from the core, now wrapped sickeningly around Smith’s helmet and head. She heard static in her comms and grimaced, the volume of the sound an assault on her hearing. Then it stopped.

“Stop. Will kill. Go away.” Smith’s voice. But stilted. Wrong. Chopped together from the recordings in his suit. The Donovian AI had found a voice, knew it was in danger, and taken a hostage.

Morales saw the priority request from Lt. Christopherson’s unit flash red. He saw the feed from her suit and immediately authorized the release of the Prometheus AI to her local space. He just hoped that the connection had enough bandwidth to allow it to crush the Donovian AI quickly and keep the hostage trooper alive. His attention shifted to the other units as they pushed into the Grey Zone and more reports of hostile contact came in. It looked like the advance had started in earnest.

This story was originally published in the June, 2020 issues of Over The Horizon.
Edited by Steve Hovland / Melody Friedenthal

N.T. Narbutovskih lives wherever the United States Government deems appropriate and spends the majority of his time engaged in the business of national security. He writes compulsively over lunch breaks and late at night, and reads a lot more than is entirely healthy. His work has appeared in Metastellar, Air and Space Power Journal and Over the Horizon Journal for both fiction and non-fiction, and he has spoken on leadership and geopolitics at the USAF Squadron Officer School and NavyCON. Come join the conversation at Narbutov.com.