Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap.

“You hear that?”

Banging like a hammer on a nail. Then three more precise taps. Faster this time.

Silence.

“What?”

“Kick the ball again, at that one container, Wiz, just like you did,” said Lieutenant Evelyn Guerrero.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

The Army lieutenant nodded her helmet at the rows of dark green Conex shipping containers lined up next to the burned-out town’s soccer stadium. A banner for the Finnish national team – 2026 World Cup finalists — somehow had survived the past six months of fighting but fluttered limply in the wind like a dirty bandage. The intel brief Guerrero downloaded on arriving at the depot site earlier that day indicated a dozen or so kids lived around the stadium, but the orphans hadn’t shown their faces.

Wisnowski dribbled the sagging orange ball back about ten paces, then he kicked it hard against the side of the container again. The impact left a faint smudge of chocolate-colored mud, joining dozens more on the matte olive paint. The ball flopped back onto the grass, air wheezing out of the bullet holes that robbed it of its bounce months ago.

Wisnowski shrugged. “Ma’am?”

“Take off your helmet, Private. It’s just us.”

“LT, that wise? Gonna be dark soon and milfeed said some Russian gnats around. I like my lungs just the way they are. No cheeseburger milkshake for me.”

“That’s why I started smoking, Wiz. Gnats can’t see through it,” Guerrero said. She wagged the unlit cigarette in the corner of her mouth. It was an unfiltered Chinese cigarette from a carton she’d found in a disabled Russian Armata tank back in the town square. That tank had the telltale snakebite impact holes from the double-barreled Derringer rail guns her unit towed behind its Strykers. It was a mess inside, but the smokes were somehow untouched. “Trust me, Wiz.”

The midday spring warmed her ruddy cheeks and dark red hair, which was now down to her shoulders. Way past regulations. But that’s the kind of war it had been. She’d barely survived the drive on St. Petersburg and everything was different after that. For everyone.

“Ma’am?”

“You could use the fresh air, private. Pop a seal. Cease-fire’s for real this time. If it wasn’t, you think it’d just be us two pulling security here? You know we’re getting ready to go home for real when the Army starts packing up the trash.”

With a hiss and a faint click, the soldier removed his helmet.

“Salt air. Smells good, Lieutenant,” said Wisnowski.

Wisnowski stood a whole head taller than Lieutenant Guerrero, who was nearly six feet tall. When Guerrero deployed as part of the American rapid-reaction force, she was runner-lithe underneath the 45-pound protective suit. Her armor bulked out her shoulders and chest. But underneath the winter fighting had left her thin as any of the refugees in the camps outside Stockholm. She couldn’t remember the last time she ate three times in a day.

“Not really,” said Guerrero, who paused to inventory the smells. The burnt plastic and rubber, sewage and rot would hit Wisnowski in a few moments when it overpowered the seaside. She was too worn down to smell anything but the war. The human brain got really good at believing the lies it told itself, Guerrero thought, at least for a little while. “But it’s better than sucking the mask all day.”

She watched Wisnowski close his eyes and find a place of peace; she wondered where he was at that moment.

“You know what they’re doing with this stuff, right?” she said.

She swept her arms out majestically with fanfare, a princess on a parapet addressing her Conex kingdom. The sun then set quickly as if it was in a hurry to turn away from her and offer its attention to a more promising corner of the world.

“Saw milfeed, they’re gonna recycle it all offshore and bring it back for reconstruction,” said Wisnowski.

“Bullshit on that. They just tell that to the Finnies. Navy’s dumping it overboard on the way home. Out of sight, out of mind. Put the war behind us fast as we can. It’s the American way.” She lit the cigarette and inhaled deeply. “At least it’s better than a burn pit.”

“My uncle got cancer that way in Iraq.” Wiz rarely talked about family anymore. Used to be he couldn’t shut up about them and how they’d watch him play goalie and win soccer game after soccer game in high school in some Chicago suburb she could never remember the name of. Would anyone else now? After the city’s blackouts and the fires Wisnowski lost track of them when they got migrated to the Detroit area. After they popped back up on his civfeed, resettled finally just over the border in Ontario, he just watched them from time to time like he was afraid to really know how they were doing. He kept saying he’d check in when they rotated home.

“Sorry, Wiz.”

Tap tap tap. A pause. Then again quicker series of three taps. Another three, slower.

“I hear it!” said Wisnowski. “Inside there somewhere, right?” He unslung his assault rifle and brought it to his shoulder, using one hand to verify the under-barrel 30mm launcher’s status with a guitar player’s practiced touch. He flicked on the weapon’s light. “I think it’s a Russkie roach, ma’am. Crawler. Hiding there, maybe sneaked up on us from up out the harbor like they did in Bremen!”

She placed a hand on the weapon’s deck-of-cards shaped suppressor and muzzle brake, gently pointing it to the ground.

“Easy. If it was hostile, we’d already be dead, right? How many grunts you know have seen one firsthand, up close?”

“Uh, none,” said Wisnowski.

“Because?” said Guerrero.

“Because of their copy camo?”

“No.”

“Because the grunts got their helmets hacked first? I heard this one guy in 4th ID whose faceplate screen got frozen when he was deep with his triple-X in an OP and wouldn’t tell his sergeant he glitched. Wasn’t his triple-X but a couple bolshoi roaches doing EM overwatch for some Spetsnaz who snuck right by him and then snatched the company commander. He was still glitched when they went right by him again. Platoon sergeant found out and shot him on the spot. Damn.”

“Probly true. But that’s not what I meant.”

“Those things if they’re not all jamming and cramming on our nets, they’re launching gnats or just straight up shooting grunts who didn’t even know the roaches were there… Oh.”

“Yeah?”

“Because they all got killed minute they laid eyes on a roach, if they got to get a look at all?”

“That’s why they call you the Wiz,” said Guerrero. “I’ll scan.”

She brought her weapon up, a compact carbine with an oversized set of optics and sensors that she panned over the containers. She then whispered to the gun, while Wiz squinted at her as if that could help him pick out what she was saying. Guerrero nodded to herself.

“Orbital confirms no enemy in the area,” said Guerrero. “But the gun scan still shows a signature, about 40 meters back, container right in the middle of the pile.”

“A roach?”

Guerrero started buckling up her helmet. Just 10 years ago she would have looked like a fighter pilot, but they didn’t have those anymore so now she just looked like any other grunt, anonymous behind the mask. SF might have been able to get away with war paint, but not her. Just a standard-issue infantry second lieutenant looking to earn out her time after West Point after spending the last six months caning the Russian bear back inside its cage.

All Wisnowski could do was shout “No” and knock Guerrero to the ground. He hit her with such force that the container’s door swung back open, while the grenade tumbled free. They both stared at the small, metal sphere no bigger than a fall apple just out of reach of both of them. The pin was still in it.

“Shit. Maybe I’m wrong, Wiz. I trust the gun. Let’s call it in and check it out.”

“Wish we could send a crawler in ourselves…” said Wiz.

“The ops guy shifted them all over to Poland because he thinks our unit had it too easy. Today’s flesh and bone. Let’s get it done.”

“Too easy? Because we didn’t lose everybody in the platoon?” said Wiz.

“I still got you, Wiz, that makes me a lucky one. Just make sure your Vizstagram feed is on in case it’s a roach,” said Guerrero. “Famous if you make it.”

“Hoo-ah, LT. Famous if you make it.”

#

Wisnwoski pushed on the container’s door, testing it to see if it was sound enough to protect him from whatever was moving around inside. None of the containers were locked.

“Seen this movie before, lieutenant,” said Wiz. “Enlisted gets it first.”

“Prepare to breach,” Guerrero said. She was half protected by the corner of another container, her weapon covering the entrance. The gun’s sensors clearly showed the movement. “You open, I engage.”

“Roger, ma’am,” said Wiz.

She watched him touch a finger-length divot in his helmet twice for luck and then heard him draw a deep breath. He slowly unlatched the container’s bolt, and then heaved the right door wide open before diving to the side. Finger on the trigger guard, Guerrero advanced, bouncing a full spectrum beam into the dark cave. Flashlight on. Then her finger moved to the trigger.

“Out!” she shouted. “Out!”

Wisnowski got to his feet and pointed his weapon into the darkness.

“No way,” he said. “That what I think it is?”

He lowered his muzzle to the ground.

“Weapon up, Wiz!”

A crash like tipping over a full shopping cart made Guerrero jump. Wisnowski actually took a step closer to the door, but tripped.

“Shut the door!” shouted Guerrero. “Shut the fucking door!”

Wisnowski scrambled to his feet and shouldered the door shut. He caught his breath, and then froze when he saw the grenade in Guerrero’s hand.

“Get back. Grenade out!”

“Don’t do it, ma’am, don’t!” said Wisnowski.

“Taking no chances,” said Guerrero. She shouldered Wisnowski out of the way and cracked the door open, holding the grenade as delicately as an egg.

All Wisnowski could do was shout “No” and knock Guerrero to the ground. He hit her with such force that the container’s door swung back open, while the grenade tumbled free. They both stared at the small, metal sphere no bigger than a fall apple just out of reach of both of them. The pin was still in it.

“There’s a lot I wish I hadn’t done but you really would have regretted that,” said Wisnowski. He picked up the grenade and then helped her to her feet as they peered into the container. “I think there’s a girl in there.”

On hands and knees, a dark form emerged from the cave-like confines of the Conex. It slowly got to its feet before standing upright, just under five feet tall.

“A girl?” said Guerrero. “That’s a Romeo. I haven’t seen one of those bots since Day One.”

“This is going straight to my Vizstagram, it’s gold,” said WIsnowski.

The matte-black American robot had the physical form of a small child, exactly 4 feet 8 inches. It had narrow shoulders and an oversized head with a pair of sensors and microphones and spectrum sniffers replicating most of the features of a human head. Except it had no nose. The optical sensors, though, on this Romeo, looked clouded from the inside. Rather than the blue glow they should have given off in a non-combat situation, these were dim – even the third “eye” on the back of its head. Over its heart, it had the number “621” in raised relief on its titanium breast plate.

The Romeo’s head kept swiveling back between the two, as if it were trying to track the conversation. It took a step toward Wisnowski with its palms up before tripping on a large rock hidden by the grass. Guerrero moved around it and leaned forward as if she was about to fire a kill shot into the back of its head.

The Romeo stood back to its feet and slowly regained its footing, steadying itself on the door to the Conex. It began tapping on the door.

“Stop, ma’am, stop,” said Wisnowski. “There is a girl in there too.”

“Go grab her then,” said Guerrero. Wisnowski took off his helmet, set down his rifle and walked in an awkward low crouch as if trying to deemphasize his menacing size. Guerrero brought her carbine back up with Wisnowski inside and trained it on the Romeo.

He came out holding the hand of a girl, maybe 10 years old, with brown and orange streaked bandages covering her eyes. She was quite tall, but so thin that the dirty light blue tracksuit looked like she was wrapped in a sheet or a flag.

“She OK?” said Guerrero.

“What do you think?” said Wisnowski. “Focus on her, not the ‘bot.”

“Can’t help it. Last Romeo I saw got corrupted on Day One, tried to take down our platoon’s net, then went full berserker before we killed it,” said Guerrero. She sighed. “I killed it.”

Wisnowski unclipped the tube from his hydration unit and tried to put it in the girl’s hand but she kept dropping it. He tried squeezing a few drops from the mouth into her dirty palm. Guerrero kept talking, while keeping her weapon aimed at the Romeo. Wisnowski knew this side of Guerrero too well by now. So kept talking.

“These things never had a chance, you know that,” he said. “This one got fried too it looks like. See that burn mark there, near its, uh, neck? Sticky buzz bomb, fried the AI on this sucker probably the minute it got glidered in.”

“Romeo 621, oral confirm power level, op config and last mission AAR,” said Guerrero, her gun hand’s finger moving from the carbine’s trigger guard to the trigger. Back and forth. Back and forth.

Tap. Tap. Tap. The Romeo kept tapping on the door with one hand, the other grasping the door’s edge with a grip tight enough to scratch the paint.

It remained mute. So did the girl.

“I’ll jack the Romeo while you search the Conex, Wiz. I’m calling this in,” she said.

“Just ask her, she was in there with it in the dark,” said Wisnowski.

With a flashlight in one hand, Wisnowski rummaged around the Conex, calling out the contents and occasionally swearing as he set off small avalanches of cast-off equipment. “Kites, got a few of those still with the optical tethers in case you want to set up a net with the orphans. Most are shot through. There’s some busted crawlers, a couple of unused backpack fabs. Few crates of smoked batteries. I think I see some DU rounds for the Derringers but I’m not touching that shit even with my gloves. Didn’t think the Finnies allowed us to have those.”

Meanwhile, Guerrero connected a spooled cable from the back of the Romeo, about where its left kidney would be, and connected it to the tac-pad on her left forearm.

In her right, she still kept her carbine ready. Then Wisnowski started laughing, a sound of joy straight from the belly that only the monotony of military life could conjure up as a true release. “A bunch of… of… what the …?”

Wisnowski came out holding a half dozen neon-yellow bioluminescent safety belts worn while running.

“Guess they figured we’d win this one. War’s over, ma’am. Well, now it’s time for PT,” he said.

“Well, this Romeo’s deaf and dumb. Some of the optics work, nav systems seem good to go,” said Guerrero. “Weird thing is it’s been back online for a week now but the logs are wiped.”

A clank sounded just behind him snapped his attention and he spun, weapon up and at the ready. Another clank as a second rock hit the side of the Conex.

The robot’s whole torso vibrated as if it was about to shake apart, but its feet remained planted. Then it was still.

“Look, Wiz,” said Guerrero. “Look who’s here.” She took off her helmet and shouted out a greeting in Finnish to the kids peering at them from the cover of a nearby container.

##

Four kids emerged behind a nearby Conex. Just four? Guerrero wondered where the rest were. It was four boys who looked related judging by their pointy chins and tall foreheads. Maybe eight or nine years old and they all had the same style Adidas soccer shoes on. Like the girl, they all had blond hair. They inched cautiously forward, as if waiting for an excuse to bolt back to the shelter of the stadium.

“Do I engage, ma’am?” shouted Wisnowski. “Ma’am?”

“What’s wrong with you, Wiz,” Guerrero barked. “They’re kids!”

Then Guerrero saw the Russian roach.

In one of the boys’ left hand, he held a red dog leash. At the end was a grey roach, softly humming as it hovered an inch off the ground. Guerrero saw both its egg-crate like dorsal swarm pods were empty and its six legs were up in the hover position, and zip tied as well over its retracted solar-panel charging wings. White athletic tape covered up the golf-ball sized sensors at the front and back.

She watched Wiz lower his weapon only halfway and gave him the kind of half-second look that an officer with Guerrero’s experience substituted for a three-minute stream of disdain and disappointment. His shoulders stooped and he stepped back behind her shaking his head.

At that moment Guerrero saw herself in the reflection on the visor of the helmet she cradled under her arm. The shame made her want to throw up. She started to unsling her combat pack to get out her med kit, the girl’s sunken cheeks visible in the faint light now emanating from the Romeo’s nav lights on its shoulders. She hoped she still had enough antibiotics.

That was when the kids charged her.

The wide-eyed aggression caught her off guard and she froze. The kids ran right at her howling, then flowed past, and protectively surrounded the Romeo. Six more boys and girls wielding rebar swarmed in from hiding spots from nearby containers. They backed into a defensive circle, crude weapons at the ready. The left-behind Russian roach, shimmied faintly side-to-side as if it did not know where to go next before gliding over to the girl’s side.

“No need for that…” Guerrero said softly. “Put those rocks down.”

The blind girl with the bandages now held a chunk of concrete in her right hand and in her left she clasped the Romeo’s fingers. The roach nudged her shin as if it wanted attention.

“We’re all OK, OK?” said Wisnowski. “OK? You understand that?”

“We speak English of course,” said one of the boys. He wore an oversized black warm-up jersey that hung down to his skinned knees. A bloody band of athletic tape wrapped around his right leg mid-calf.

“What’re your names?” asked Guerrero.

“Why do you care?” the boy said.

Then the girl shook her head, and Guerrero noticed her tapping her finger into the Romeo’s palm.

“Where are you from? The stadium?” Guerrero asked. She pulled out a couple of energy bars from one of the cargo pocket on her ACUs. There goes dinner.

“Hungry?”

“Those are going to give the kids a bit of a buzz,” said Wisnowski.

“They need to eat,” said Guerrero, taking off her gloves. She unwrapped the bars and broke them in half. “Here.”

The boys dropped their rocks and took the bars, eating them in one bite. One of them nudged the girl. “That’s Riikka,” he said. “I’m Juho. She can’t see anymore, or speak. When the Russian tanks came.”

“Riikka?” said Guerrero. “Beautiful name.” Guerrero put a hand on the girl’s shoulder. She nodded at the touch, and wolfed the bar down even faster than the boys.

“Riikka found the robot, in there,” said Juho. “She is good with them, maybe because her dad was a fisherman and she knows how to tap-talk.” Juho tapped out an irregular rhythm on his palm.

“She’s using Morse Code?” said Guerrero.

“Yes,” said Juho.

“Why aren’t you at a relief center?” said Guerrero. “You shouldn’t be out here, it’s dangerous.”

“The camps are dangerous,” said Juho.

Then Wiz touched the side of his helmet and nodded.

“Ma’am, higher wants SITREP. Orbital detected the kids and the bots,” said Wisnowski.

Behind her helmet, Guerrero chewed the inside of her cheek.

“Tell them we’re all clear,” said Guerrero. “QRF available? Maybe they can pick up the kids.”

“Checking, ma’am.”

She watched the girl hold the Romeo’s right hand, its six metallic digits moving as gently as tall grass in a breeze.

“Negative,” said Wisnowski. “QRF’s on standby for another op. Scarecrow 3A says there’s an ongoing mission targeting a platoon-sized force of Russian airborne in the area. They started off looting then synched up with some stay-behind bots. Scarecrow wants us to continue recon, report findings and direct the civilians to the relief center at Turku.”

“Typical. I’ll check the rest of the containers and you keep an eye on the kids. See if they’ll let you get a look at those wounds.” Guerrero set down her helmet, pack and removed her carbine’s flashlight. She took a last look at a smiling Wiz, who was improbably juggling a soccer ball with his combat boots, before wedging her way inside the container. Wiz had a big grin, the kind she never saw anymore.

“Wiz!” Guerrero said. “You won’t believe what I just found …”

She emerged from the Conex with an unopened box of energy bars.

“Wiz?” Her flashlight’s beam lanced into the darkness. Nothing.

The kids were gone. So were the bots. And Wisnowski.

She grabbed her carbine and pulsed the area for a full scan. “Shit, shit, shit.”

Nothing.

She jammed her helmet on and tapped into the milfeed, cued up the orbital imagery from one of the high altitude Air Force gliders loitering up at the blurry boundary between Earth and space.

There they were.

Wiz was in the soccer stadium with the Romeo and the kids. She zoomed a thermal scan in on her visor view, showing a bright patch of light in the middle of the stadium. It was the ball being passed between the kids, her pocked visor screen catching the flare of the light. The Romeo, somehow, was using its own nav lights to illuminate a small area of the playing field. Enough for them to play. The ball moved quickly, somebody was taking a shot on Wiz. He was playing goalkeeper. The Romeo and Riikka looked on from the sidelines.

Guerrero turned and shut the container and started to jog over to the field. But after she took just a few steps she paused. She took off her helmet off and dug through her pockets for the pack of cigarettes. She smelled the salt air anew and just listened in the dark to see if she could hear the voices of the laughing children.

[Photo source: T.S. Bazelli]

August Cole is an author and analyst specializing in national security issues. He is a nonresident senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council.

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