Editor’s note: The Army Mad Scientist team executed its 2019 Science Fiction Writing Contest to glean insights about the future fight with a near-peer competitor in 2030. The team received seventy-seven submissions from both within and outside of the Department of Defense. The following story was one of four finalists. You can also read another finalist entry here the winning story here.


 

MARCH 18, 2030 – INVASION DAY PLUS ONE
The Republic of Otso, Donovian Border Region

The plantation stretched out before him, ruined and beautiful in equal measure.

Hieronymo Agrippa sighed explosively. The lush green of his squat little Macadamia trees gave sharp contrast to the burnt-out armored vehicles, each one an ugly black scab, hulking around him in parts or almost-wholes, gushing gray smoke into the robin’s-egg sky. He spluttered—the smoke carried the sick tinge of burning meat. Ahead lay one of his JOTUN drones, a sharp contrast to the military wrecks. It was a simple, four-wheeled machine. Roughly his height, it was riddled, sieve-like, from the violent attention of machine guns.

Agrippa sat on his haunches alongside the ruined drone, hoping for recoverable parts. JOTUN topsides featured an extendable arm assembly which gripped tree trunks, rattling them so that ripened Macadamias fell for collection. But the arm had been viciously amputated by shrapnel and was bleeding hydraulic fluid. The underside vacuum—which collected any nuts shook free—appeared intact. Agrippa ran some rough mental maths, weighing insurance and scrap value against lost yields and repair costs.

He burst upwards with nervous energy, delivering a swift kick to the hull of the dead JOTUN. Agrippa’s family had watched over this plantation for generations. It was bad enough his trees were burning and splintered into matchsticks. But the JOTUNs? They were expensive and certainly not prone to re-grow. Just yesterday, he had recalled his entire fleet back to the depot near his farmhouse. He had counted them himself, like a shepherd with his flock. But the depot was empty this morning. And this was the ninth ruined JOTUN he had found in the last hour.

So why, Agrippa asked himself, were my harvesters out in the first day of a war?

MARCH 15, 2030 – INVASION DAY MINUS TWO
Capital of the Republic of Otso

“You know,” Second Lieutenant Garland mused from the driver’s seat, “the funny thing is I’d never even heard of ‘Donovia’ until we deployed out here, let alone ‘Otso.’” The fresh-faced young officer spoke with anxious rapidity.

“That’s because you never studied the classics,” came a retort from the back seats. It was the deep baritone of Colonel Peter Rubio, commanding officer of the US Army Otso Reassurance Task Force.

“What do you mean, sir?” Garland asked, half-focused on the road and wholly ignorant of Rubio’s irritation.

“It means Alexander the Great stopped here and left behind two small garrisons. Two thousand years later and they’re still here. Only now they hate each other.”

Undeterred, Garland continued talking.

“Those old garrisons must’ve been glad of the posting. Black Sea beaches, sunshine, mountain-climbing. . . . My folks were jealous of my vacation out here at first, sir.”

“Well,” Rubio cut in abruptly, “now you can earn that vacation.”

“Yes, sir,” Garland murmured, finally realizing he had overstepped.

Silence reigned until Garland pulled up at the imposing gates of the US Embassy to Otso. Grim-faced Marines with chem-sniffers and EM-sensors swept the vehicle. Ahead loomed the embassy’s glazed-red walls, a late Baroque remnant of the city’s Ottoman past. In the back, Rubio grumbled.

“Garland, what the hell is the demonym for people from Otso? I don’t even know what to call these people.” Garland waited as the Marines waved them through before answering.

“I don’t know what a ‘demo-nim’ is, sir.”

“It’s what you call a group of people. Like Philadelphians.”

“Oh. Well, sir, I guess I’ve just called them Otsovians.”

“That’ll do.”

Inside, Rubio was guided by a staffer with bags under his eyes and coffee down his shirt, arriving at the office of Henrietta DelaMar: US ambassador to the Republic of Otso.

“Colonel,” DelaMar announced, “good to see you.” She rose from her dark oak desk, sleek in the latest DC fashion: a high-collared shirt and ruffled sleeves, inlaid with raised gold fleur-de-lis patterning. Rubio tried to swallow his disdain, but his ulcer rebelled at the effort.

“Likewise, Madam Ambassador,” he mustered, belatedly noting another man in the room. The man nodded deeply, dressed in a cavalier’s green coat, complete with blue sash and a white, plumed shako.

“Colonel,” she said, “this is Brigadier Otocar Konak, vice-under-secretary of the Interior Ministry.”

“Sir,” Rubio began, “a pleasure to meet an Otsovian warrior.” Despite the fancy dress, he added silently.

Konak frowned, speaking in accented English: “We are Otsoans, sir. Otsovian is an insult from our hated neighbors.”

“Please excuse the Colonel,” DelaMar interjected, smiling wryly, “he only arrived in your country two weeks ago.” Rubio rankled at the implied ignorance—though it was true.

“Apologies, sir,” Rubio said, turning to DelaMar: “Ma’am, if I may, why are we here?”

Konak scoffed. “The war begins soon!” he declared, as if suddenly aware of the prospect. “Every man of the Interior Ministry is eager to spill Donovian blood.”

“Certainly, sir,” Rubio replied, “but why am I here, now, specifically?”

“There is a VIP from State,” DelaMar explained behind her desk, “touched down an hour ago. He’s due to give a briefing.”

Rubio resisted the urge to roll his eyes.

“Ma’am, what I need is a company of M1A5 Abrams tanks. I need counter-battery radars to track enemy artillery. Or anyone from the damned Air Force to advise about my CAS.” The absence of a US Air Force contingent in-country weighed heavily on Rubio’s mind.

“The Otsoan Air Force will never yield the skies!” Konak blurted, like an early-model AI that spewed non sequiturs.

“With respect, Brigadier, my force numbers nine-hundred-and-thirty-five men and women—including the cooks. Altogether we have forty Advanced Javelin Missile Launchers and two dozen unmanned systems—drones—which can help kill hostile armor. Whatever the bravery of your people, mine won’t last a day against concerted Donovian armored attacks.”

Konak gasped, turning now to DelaMar. His jaw was set firm, equal parts dismay and fury.

“Is this true?” he demanded. “You assure that America fights with us! But now I hear you will not stand!”

DelaMar breathed deep, glancing daggers at Rubio.

“Perhaps we should wait for the VIP,” she stated. “He can help us.”

“He better,” Rubio announced, taking a chair.

A knock echoed at the door, and the haggard staffer re-emerged.

“Ma’am,” he whispered, “your guest—“

“Just send him in.”

The new arrival was through instantly. He had a thatch of flame-red hair and pale skin, his outfit cutting a sharp contrast. Dark slacks and a fine black waistcoat, trimmed with patterns of saffron-colored ivy that arced and writhed in geometric unison—again, the latest fashion on the London-DC circuit. Big money, Rubio assumed.

“Henrietta,” he spoke in a clipped British accent.

“Jonnie,” DelaMar smiled. “How are you? You’ve not aged a day.”

“I missed you too, Hennie,” the man replied. DelaMar looked in Rubio’s direction, flushing red.

“Let me introduce—”

“Yes, Colonel Rubio and Brigadier Konak. Your manservant explained.”

“Gentlemen, this is Jonathan Roper. He is a . . . consultant. He has come to assist the defense of Otso.”

“I’m here because you are, Hennie,” Roper chided. “Touring third-world warzones again.” Konak bridled, stamping a foot at the insult. The plume of his shako quivered in outraged sympathy.

“The Republic of Otso is a fine nation!” Konak hissed. “And the United States is our ally. We need no amateurs.”

Roper looked at DelaMar, as if seeking permission to speak. She splayed the fingers of one hand, palm up, the non-verbal cue for “fine.”

“Brigadier,” Roper began, “your American ally is facing a midterm election this year. And the Republic of Otso is not pivotal to your typical, say, Minnesotan.”

Konak gasped audibly. “Otso is—”

“The world’s largest supplier of Macadamia nuts, yes. I read the tourist brochure on my flight.” Roper paused. “Unfortunately, Brigadier, to paraphrase Bismarck, your country isn’t worth the bones of a single Texan right now.”

“I think you need to watch yourself,” Rubio interrupted, his anger spilling over. “You seem to forget my troops are here to defend this land.” Roper looked over the American officer, regarding him with bright green eyes.

“Indeed. Just enough of you for the administration to claim they are tough on foreign aggression. Just enough of you for a modern-day Little Big Horn.” Rubio got to his feet, scowling.

“Be gentle, now,” DelaMar advised from behind her desk, though it was unclear whom she warned.

“Why do we need this man, Ambassador?” Rubio asked, glancing her way.

“Because he’s right, Colonel,” she answered. “There is no help coming. No tanks, no fast air.”

“Colonel,” Roper said quietly, “I had a dinner reservation tonight. At Grey’s Club, just off St. James’s Square in London. I should have been drinking some of the finest claret known to man. But Hennie and I go way back. So I flew over when she called. You don’t have to like me, but we will need to cooperate.”

“Jonnie has a plan,” DelaMar explained. “And State is picking up the tab. So I suggest you listen…”

MARCH 17, 2030 – INVASION DAY
The Republic of Otso, Donovian Border Region

“What the hell is a Macaday-mia?” Garland mused, twirling one of the ubiquitous nuts in his hand. His colleague adjacent looked at him askance, but the sky shattered without even a chance of reply, broken by the terrifying thunderclap of hypersonic munitions overhead. They cringed in unison, as if to make themselves a smaller target. The whole morning had echoed with such sounds of a nascent war: the firewood crackle of staccato small-arms and the basso voice of distant artillery. The air was thick with powdered soil, scented by drifting cordite and burning trees.

“Eyes on,” Garland’s colleague said, recovering his composure. “Looks like the colonel just got news.”

Together they watched as Colonel Rubio flinched involuntarily: the duodenal ulcer gnawing through his stomach lining had given him a spiteful jab. Focusing carefully, he set down the old-fashioned field telephone in its cradle on the fold-out desk. To avoid enemy electronic sensors—and the artillery they coordinated with—he was reduced to using landlines and runners for command and control of his entire task force. Rubio turned to face his audience: a mass of pinched, nervous faces, all staring his way. They were ensconced together in the reverse slope of a low, volcanic escarpment. Above was a canopy of smart-camouflage, a digital fabric mimicking both ambient infrared levels and the appearance of the terrain itself against any prying sensors. Some way to the west, the slap-crash of artillery striking home underlined their vulnerability.

“Alright people. Word from the capital,” he announced simply. “This is it.”

“You think?” jibed an unseen voice. Rubio couldn’t fault the sarcasm.

“You already heard most of this before we deployed, so I’ll keep it short. Donovian armored elements—estimated brigade strength—are approaching this position. You know the deal: they want the highway behind us”—Rubio jerked a thumb over his shoulder—“so they can reach the capital.”

The audience nodded their understanding.

“Remember, local Interior Ministry border guards are ahead of us, falling back through this area. Make sure your sections are clear on who they’re shooting. I don’t want any lawyers chasing a blue-on-green case.”

More nodding—and a question:

“What about our organic A-A, boss?” a voice queried, regarding anti-aircraft systems. “The sets they were supposed to send out last week?”

“Host-nation air force will be handling the sky,” Rubio said unconvincingly. “Just focus on what’s in front.”

“Any word on reinforcements from stateside, sir? How about NATO?”

“Not at this time. But remember, local armor is moving up from the capital to deploy. We must buy them time.”

Skeptical eyes glanced around. Few were convinced. “Host” was the byword for “useless.”

“State Department hasn’t forgotten about us, either. They’ve arranged a special support package. Help is coming.”

Before anyone could ask Rubio’s meaning, the sound of a growling engine snatched their attention. A dispatch rider—dirt-grimed and breathless—was sprinting over from his parked ATV. He reported tersely.

“Lieutenant Webster’s drone operators just took hostile artillery fire.” Rubio quickly pulled the man to one side, facing away from the audience.

“Casualties?” Rubio grimaced in anticipation. Webster held the westernmost tip of his deployment. The incoming rounds at the start of his briefing must have been the impact on Webster’s operators.

“Likely four dead. They were still checking when I went out.”

Rubio nodded, stifled a curse, and turned back to the audience.

“Alright, everyone. Donovian artillery is targeting our drone operators. Don’t know how, and how doesn’t matter. But you get back to your positions now—and make sure your drone sections are dark. No exceptions.”

The assembly gave faint protest before slinging on their camo-capes and departing. Made from the same digital fabric as the canopy above, the capes made their figures stutter and fade, as if so many wraiths and shades were departing. The order on the drones had rankled: operated by specialists wearing augmented-reality gear, the drones carried potent antitank weaponry. Without them, incoming Donovian armor would make far harder targets. But their time was up; keeping leadership together was an unacceptable risk. It was bad enough that the ATV rider had come. If any hostile drones had observed him, then AI-assisted Donovian analysts might be tagging this position.

“Garland,” Rubio said as he slung on his own camo-cape, “with me.”

The young lieutenant joined him, snug under his own cape. Together they crowned the escarpment and looked across its gentle gradient. A plantation of the pervasive macadamia trees stretched out ahead, each tree a lush green dot against the volcanic soil’s rich darkness. To the left and the right were Rubio’s dug-in troops. But even here the naked eye could not betray them. Each trench-line, fox-hole and gun-pit was carefully camouflaged, draped in the ever-present capes, or screened by undergrowth. Rubio allowed himself a moment’s quiet pride at his troops’ fieldcraft. Nearby to the rear was a commercial forest: tall pinewoods that concealed his transports and mortar platoon. Despite everything, this was a poor position to defend. The escarpment was one of the few major terrain features in this low-lying coastal plain—Otso’s mountains only reared up further inland—but it was no fortress, and his troops were spread out too thin across its breadth.

“Sir,” Garland murmured beside him, pointing up and out to the left. He had spotted a Donovian aircraft, gray-skinned in a sharp contrast to the clear skies, with the stubby wings and fat belly of an old Su-25 attack jet. Racing in over to the west on screeching engines, it dipped and rose with an elegance that belied its shape, gracefully pulling off. Against the perfect blue sky, Rubio could see two cylinders parting from the jet, tumbling end-over-end towards the western tip of the escarpment.

“Bastards,” he hissed. The cylinders were lost from view for a moment. Instantly, the napalm within them erupted into inhuman fury. The western skyline appeared to balloon with a fresh new sun, angry and red, and Rubio fancied he could feel the heat-wash even at this range.

“Looks like they found Webster’s platoon,” Garland surmised, voice low. Rubio scowled and pushed on. For all he knew, his western flank was up in the air now. Webster and his whole HQ section could have just burned to death. On reaching his own shallow trench, Rubio clapped one of the occupants on the shoulder.

“Go confirm the status of Webster’s platoon,” he ordered.

A field-telephone had been rigged in this trench, but Webster would hardly be listening for a phone-call right now. The runner nodded, shrugging on his cape and stepping out.

“Report,” Rubio turned to a second soldier in the trench. The man pointed down the gentle slope, to the north.

“Locals approaching. Hostiles right behind. You got here just in time, sir.”

Sure enough, border guard vehicles were barrelling up towards the incline, a pair of open-topped trucks following a dirt track through the middle of the plantation. Further beyond was the enemy: armored vehicles racing on eight-wheel drives, boasting long-barrel guns and drab ochre paint, followed by the scuttling movements of low-bodied armored personnel carriers. They moved with reckless speed, more like riders on a hunt than professionals on a mission. Rubio watched as one of the leading eight-wheelers abruptly halted. As if sniffing the air, the barrel rose, twitched, and spat a round at the fleeing border guards—falling squarely between the two trucks. Both tumbled off the track, shrapnel-riddled amidst the eruption of black dirt.

Rubio gestured to Garland. “You see those? Norinco ZSDs,” he said, pointing to the low, scuttling armored carriers; “those are ZSLs,” now pointing out the long-barreled vehicles.

“I remember the briefings, sir.”

“China made a killing selling those,” Rubio hissed, “but we’ll make the killing today.”

Garland winced—he knew the colonel’s sentiment was forced. A lone figure emerged from the wrecked border guard vehicles, sprinting until a machine-gun burst snatched him with lime-green tracers. The man dropped hard. No reaction came from the American line. Garland felt queasy, but he knew their only advantage was the slim one of surprise. For now, they could only wait until the enemy had closed the range.

MARCH 15, 2030 – INVASION DAY MINUS TWO
Capital of the Republic of Otso

“The plan is simple,” Roper announced. “But you need to understand: there will be casualties. Perhaps too many.”

Rubio seethed visibly. The last thing he wanted was to be reminded of all the lives resting in his hands.

“The plan also has blessing from the highest levels,” DelaMar soothed from behind her desk. “Because this is the only way we avoid even greater loss of American life.”

Brigadier Konak looked ready to interject—perhaps to query about the loss of Otsoan life—but Roper continued on.

“This all about winning the first battle. The first twenty-four hours. Hold the Donovians for just a day and you set the stage for a diplomatic solution by Hennie and her lot.”

“Jesus Christ,” Rubio gasped, “that’s no plan!”

“Humor me, Colonel. All the assets and expertise of my consulting firm are now at your disposal. And we move far quicker than the public sector. I landed today with the first of several long-range guided-rocket weapon systems. They and their crews are now dispersing to firing positions pre-secured by my employees.

“We also have a bespoke targeting solution planned.” Roper gestured to Brigadier Konak. “Remember when I said, Otso is the world’s largest supplier of Macadmia nuts? What you might not know is that Otso also has the world’s highest per-capita ratio of farming robots to citizens. JOTUN models, that sort of thing. That means a massive, ready-made fleet of networked, frontline observers. A network which my employees have . . . borrowed for the duration.”

“What are you saying?” Konak asked, suspicious.

“I mean my cyber specialists in London co-opted every Otsoan farming robot with an onboard camera. And our bespoke artificial intelligence will devise target acquisition by collating every available feed. So when Colonel Rubio”—Roper now turned back to the American—“finds himself in contact, our guided missile systems will have firm targets.” Roper spread his palms up, as if supplicating applause—only to then flash up a single index finger.

“And those very same feeds will be sent to every Donovian-language news outlet and social-media hub online.”

Roper stepped up to the colonel, fixing him with those deep green eyes.

“That’s what I mean about winning the first battle, Colonel. Stop just one Donovian brigade—bloody them up a bit—and every battalion following behind will be getting videos of how fiercely you fought. Nonstop. Hardly conducive to their morale.”

“Always said he was special,” DelaMar crooned, evidently pleased with the proposal.

“Should I be worried?” Rubio asked cautiously. “Legally speaking?”

“The brother of my cofounder is the chairman of your Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. My board of directors includes the former British attorney general; my CFO is former French Finance Ministry. . . .”

Rubio simply nodded, filling in the blanks. Russia wasn’t alone in the black arts of hybrid warfare nowadays. Konak now cleared his throat, hesitant.

“Was the Interior Ministry consulted?”

“It is now,” Roper smiled. “Relax. Any lost robots will incur a generous compensation package. I’ve been assured the State Department considered that.” He looked back to Rubio, producing an old-style mobile phone.

“One last thing, Colonel. You’ll need this.”

MARCH 17, 2030 – INVASION DAY
The Republic of Otso, Donovian Border Region

JOTUN #116 trundled up the transit pathway among the Macadamia trees. It graded the path as it went, deeming the route OP—”Optimal”—and relaying the finding back to Central Systems Storage. CSS auto-responded with the same Primary Tasking it had repeated for the last ten hours:

TRANSIT TO LOCATION REQUIREMENTS <LOCATION PACKAGE ATTACHED>

CONFIRM ARRIVAL. AWAIT FURTHER CSS INSTRUCTION.

Late last night, #116 had used its arm assembly to force open its depot hatchway—an instruction CSS had never before sent—and ventured into the plantation grounds. #116 had passed the night cycling between the Location Requirements from CSS, at each point pausing on receipt of another instruction:

CONFIRM OPTICAL SENSORS FUNCTIONAL.

ALLOW OPTICAL FEED ACCESS TO CSS.

#116 received that same instruction after climbing this latest incline. #116 sent out its handshake to the CSS servers and waited as CSS took manual control of its camera systems.

Every JOTUN carried optical cameras. Sporting five-power magnification and basic infrared functionality for low-light situations, they helped with crop inspection, documenting criminal damage, and even disaster relief. #116 looked out across the plantation, itself snuggled into the gentle gradient which became a low volcanic escarpment. Other JOTUN units were posted across the slopes, denoted by simple location tagging. #116 also observed several UOEs, or “Unanticipated Optical Events”:

EXCESS HEAT SIGNATURES. (Process FR-1 . . . Possible arson! Alert emergency services)

UNAUTHORIZED TRANSIT. (Process SEC-1 . . . Possible trespassers! Alert emergency services)

YIELD/CROP DAMAGE. (Process YLD-1 . . . Possible vandalism! Alert emergency services)

CSS logged the OUEs as noted.

For now, #116 continued to observe.

The Donovian armored vehicles did not slow their charge. They had been instructed to make best speed, no matter what—and they were eager to comply. So while the charging Donovian officers were loosely aware that Americans stood in their way, none knew quite how close they were. Between them, their comrades in the Donovian Air Force and artillery had made probing strikes at fleeting electronic signatures—but there were no positive contacts yet.

When the first ZSL burst apart—long-barreled turret flying atop a jet of flame—it came as a brutal shock. The Donovians dispersed out among the plantation, churning over trees, their ochre vehicles leaving trails of shattered wood and churned earth. Another ZSL, following the central dirt track through the plantation, had the best sightline on the gentle hill ahead. And its IR-optics caught the telltale heat-bloom of a missile launch. A faint one, to be sure. But they took no chances; its cannon barked—a flat, crisp sound—up at the escarpment.

Rubio swore a heartfelt curse. Off to his right, the firing pit—from which the Advanced Javelin crew had just fired—erupted into spumes of black earth. He doubted the crew had had the chance to escape their position. Other firing pits began opening up down the slope of the escarpment. There was the busy chatter of M2 fifty-calibres, spitting cherry-blossom tracers, and the coughing blasts of more missile launches. The ZSD carriers halted, rear hatches dropping open to disgorge their occupants. The tracers of the M2 machine guns shifted, like swarms of angry wasps, finding bloody lodging among the dismounting Donovians. Urgently, the ZSD carriers began setting off smoke launchers, veiling the plantation in cloying gray.

In Rubio’s trench, an observer from the mortar section set down the receiver of the field telephone, cursing.

“Line’s cut, sir,” he explained. “I need to run and relay corrections to the pre-planned targets.”

“Go!” Rubio dismissed the man. Immediately, another figure stumbled into the command hole, shedding his camo-cape—it was the runner from earlier.

“Webster’s platoon is still up, sir,” he explained, “but they lost the landline connection.”

“Go back to Webster,” Rubio snapped. “Make sure he keeps relaying corrections to the mortars!”

Lost amid the chaos, ZSLs began launching small quadcopter drones from the rear of their hulls. Fluttering skywards on whisper-quiet blades, leaving whirling vortices among the thickening smoke, their onboard cameras began tagging American firing positions, revealed despite their camouflage. Jerking to a halt, the ZSLs shuddered at the barks of their long guns, each shot claiming a billet among the weapons crews. Javelin missiles raced the opposite direction, streaking like meteors at the Donovian vehicles. But as the Javelins lunged in, knifelike and hungry, nondescript plastic pods exploded from the ZSL hulls: they had their active protection systems alerted now, with each APS pod erupting into dozens of blistering ball-bearings that smashed away the missiles like unwanted toys. But they gave no protection against the American mortars landing among them. The stationary ZSLs hesitated as the earth shattered around them, coating the ochre hulls with thick black soil—or coming apart like burst paper bags as mortars struck their thin top armor. The plantation was a vortex of color, half-obscured by the drifting smoke, with shot-down Javelins detonating in magnesium-white sparks, and burning ZSLs casting lurid orange glares.

The ZSD carriers moved up through the confusion, infantry following them at an urgent trot. Unseen, one of the wrecked Otsoan trucks was crushed under the grinding tracks of the front-running ZSD. Fewer Javelins came their way now, the weapons crews thinned, but the ZSDs lacked the advanced protection of their eight-wheeled cousins that had drawn the Javelins’ attention. Having crushed the Otsoan truck, the leading ZSD took a Javelin in its midriff, detonating into needle-sharp shrapnel, as if plucked by the finger of some angry god. The Donovian infantry, ducking and running, blistered gunfire against the diminishing American defenses; their tendrils of angry green tracer lashing the escarpment like massed cat o’ nine tails. Surviving M2 gunners punished their temerity, their heavy rounds splintering trees and sundering flesh.

Rubio wished he could don his augmented-reality headgear and watch from above with one of his drones—but he knew doing so was suicide. The Donovian artillery had proven as much with Webster’s drone operators, even if they had escaped the wrath of the follow-up airstrike. Even so, he felt blind and helpless. Bereft of input—even simple radio—he could command no further than his eyes could see, or as far as his runners dared. But Jonathan Roper’s mobile phone was still in his fatigue pocket, the one ace still up his sleeve. The only question was when to play it.

“Colonel!” Garland snapped, again pointing skywards. Another Su-25 was barreling in, as if drawn by the commotion. Rubio spat a curse. The enemy had escalated, determined to finish the struggle decisively. The Su-25 came insouciantly low; its nose-mounted cannon firing with the sound of ripping linen, the noise magnified a thousand-fold. It rent the air above, passing over Rubio’s position and surely hammering the mortar crews behind. Rubio pointed to Garland as the jet screamed onwards, so loud his ears protested.

“Go check the mortars! Keep them firing!”

Garland froze, gripped by some internal battle of his own. Then he nodded, silently, and sprinted away.

Alone now, Rubio had made his decision. He raised the mobile phone which Roper had given him just two days ago.

And he made the most important call of his life.

“Roper,” he snapped, fighting to be heard. “Now!”

Some thirteen miles away, far from the murderous intensity of the plantation, a volley of missiles blasted skywards.

Rigged four apiece onto the backs of simple trailers, the rectangular launch containers burst open one by one. Spitting munitions that rode deafening rocket motors, the trailers shuddered and shook, as if dumbfounded by the fury they unleashed. The missiles—twelve, all told—went arcing beyond sight as soon as they launched. The trailers were swallowed amid the marble-colored backwash. Standing apart from the trailers, Jonathan Roper held out his phone to capture the sucking roar of the vanishing missiles. At length, he brought the phone back to his mouth. His ears rang with tinnitus, but a grin split his face.

“First volley inbound, Colonel,” he announced. “Standby.”

The ZSDs were mounting the escarpment now, grumbling upwards with indefatigable hunger. The Donovian infantry moved fast and low alongside, glancing up at their quadcopter drones like lucky charms. Right now, they felt those charms were working: the American resistance was tapering off like an unfinished sentence. But the ZSL crews had paid a high price to make this happen. Behind them, most of the eight-wheeled fighting vehicles lay in shattered heaps. Even so, they were on the cusp now; by cresting this hill they would have broken the vaunted Americans.

The Donovians faltered when the first ZSD died. There was a sudden shape, hurtling down from above, striking the carrier on its front glacis so hard all sixteen tons of the vehicle pitched end over end. Farther down the line, another ZSD detonated into a sharp carmine bloom. Then a third, and a fourth. At each point, the infantry in between dropped and fell—scythed by so much racing shrapnel. The survivors were hesitating while their officers rallied shattered wits and broken men. But too much of the green grass was flushed now in vivid red, or else flamed to carbon-black. Too many now wavered on that imperceptible line separating sound caution and small cowardice. And at the escarpment’s foot, witnessed by such unearthly violence, it was easy for a man to feel very small indeed.

Rubio was peering in disbelief from his shallow scrape, the service rifle at his side suddenly seeming as impotent as a child’s toy. He blinked sweat from his eyes and tightened his jaw. At some primordial, visceral level, he understood the true weapon was already in his hand. He raised the phone again and hissed into the receiver:

“Fire again!”

 

Hal Wilson is a member of the Military Writers Guild and uses narrative to explore future conflict. His finalist fiction contest entries have been published by the leading national security journal War on the Rocks, as well as the Atlantic Council’s Art of the Future Project. His fiction has also been published by the Australian Army Logistics Training Centre and the Small Wars Journal. He tweets at @HalWilson_.

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.