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 the winning entry here.
January 10, 2030
It was a slow day at the Sunnyside Diner so they turned on the news, which was far from sunny. Eve Arnold slouched as she listened, and when she did, the thin edges of her exoskeletal support brace pressed against her ribs. The AI embedded in the brace sent an auto-nag to her phone. “Stop slouching.” She ignored it and finished the dregs of her coffee as Oklahoma Today discussed America’s slow march towards war.
“Masked men with M-124 laser-targeting guns and stolen X4 military drones got past Otso’s security forces on Thursday,” the somber news anchor said. “They seized government buildings in the capital of Otso’s Moldarian region, then barricaded themselves inside and raised the Donovian flag. Police have sealed off access to the buildings. They say the rebellion was led by discontented students.”
“Bullshit,” Eve said to the TV. “If they’ve got M-124s, they’re Donovian military.”
Sharon looked up from the receipts she’d been counting, put a strand of curly cauliflower blue hair behind her ear and said “Eve, hon, you promised to ignore this stuff.”
“That was when the BS was just on the internet,” Eve said “Now it’s everywhere.”
A big guy sitting three seats down with a tractor cap on said, “That Donovian thing? I’m telling you right now, it’s a false flag operation.”
“See what I mean?” Eve said to Sharon.
Tractor Cap snorted. “Skinny little farm girl—what do you know?”
Girl? Eve didn’t know if she should be angry or take it as a compliment. She was pushing forty, but with her pixie haircut, t-shirt and ragged jeans, she was often mistaken for a kid. She was mulling over an appropriate response when Sharon grabbed a rag, scrubbed the already-clean counter so fiercely she nearly knocked Tractor Cap’s coffee over, and told him, “You’re talking to Eve Arnold, the engineer who built those M1-whatever guns. And the drones they flew in on!”
“Huh,” he said, glancing out the window. “Like that one?”
The wide-winged X4 quad rotor quickly grew from a shadow in the sky to a predatory eagle that darkened the whole diner. Tractor Cap said something else, but the shards of Okie red dirt the rotors were blasting onto the windows made it hard to hear.
Eve focused her bio-contacts on the drone and saw the Air Force shield on the side of it. She jumped up. Her exoskeletal support whined with the effort to compensate. With a fingerprint she paid the bill and tip and said, “Sharon, I gotta skedaddle. Mind if I take the back door out?”
Sharon stared wide-eyed at the X4 as it maneuvered to a landing with surprising delicacy. “Who’s in there? Your ex?”
“Worse,” Eve said as she darted through the swinging doors.
Standing over a hissing griddle, Ryan flipped a chia seed patty.
She pointed to the back door.
“Locked,” he said, wiping his hands on his smudged apron. Biometric locks did not work with greasy thumbs.
Heavy footsteps approached. She pressed herself against the kitchen wall and tried not to breathe.
“Eve, who could be worse than—” Sharon shouted through the swinging doors. Then she gasped—”Ohhh . . .”—her voice rising up as she gazed at US Air Force Gen. John “Jay” Underwood, First african-american Space Force commander. First Space Force commander ever. He was a foot taller than Sharon. His wide shoulders, imposing gait, and uniform were intimidating enough, but his real power was in his eyes. He could hypnotize a cobra with his glare.
“You were just talking to Eve Arnold,” he said. Pure Underwood. No questions, only statements.
“I . . . I was giving an order, you know, in diner lingo. Sir,” Sharon said. “Like, you know how two poached eggs are Adam and Eve on a raft? Well, he wanted one.”
“I did?” Tractor Cap said.
“An Eve is one. Egg.”
Underwood sighed, a long, heavy sigh.
“So, what’ll you have?” Sharon said “A cup of joe? Free for all military folks.”
He was not soothed, but coffee was being poured. Ryan unlocked the door, her cue to run.
Binoculars in hand, Eve watched from the bay window as a cloud of dust announced Underwood’s arrival. He’d made the mistake of getting a rental car that wasn’t self-driving, had blasted past her “Keep out / this means you” sign and was speeding and bouncing like crazy on her driveway. He’d grown up on the South Side of Chicago and had no idea how to drive a dirt road.
She knew he’d see the laser beam crossing the road, and he would know that it would cue her to launch her security drones—small, wide-winged, quad-rotor-embedded copies of the X4—to action. But he’d miss the beams she’d embedded in the rocks nearby. He didn’t look surprised when her auto-defense drones rose above the horizon but he did jump when the drones behind him slapped a stream of rainbow paint on his back window.
But he still had lightning-fast reaction time. He leaned out the window, M-124 in hand (probably her prototype). With a beam of light and a stream of bullets, he brought all the drones down.
Unfortunately, he’d forgotten the first rule of driving: look where you’re going. “Son of a . . .” she cried, then leaped behind the couch as his car careened towards her house. It skidded to a stop. The door opened and he stormed up the steps. Her front door flew open. Dusty gold light settled all around her.
“The hell is wrong with you, Arnold? You knew it was me.”
She peered up from behind the couch, then slowly stood up. “I knew. That’s why I replaced the railgun pellets with paintballs.”
“I am not going to re-up,” she said as she tried to lift the broken drone. Even with the exoskeleton, lifting it was a strain on her back. “You know how I am. Once I get started, I obsess, I work around the clock, I never sleep. Then, accidents happen.”
Underwood dusted off his uniform off. “We need you. No one else thinks like you do.” He glanced at the dog-shaped scarecrow, its robotic tail swishing multicolored bee-drones towards the garden. “You’re not just an engineer. You’re an artist.” He gripped the edges of the broken drone, scooped the seventy-pound machine off the ground like it was a paper plate, then strode towards the barn.
“You’re the one who said I should retire!” she said, running behind him to keep up. “You said I was reckless, took too many chances. If I was a man, you’d call me a maverick. But instead, you called me—ditsy.”
“You weren’t complaining about my toxic masculinity when I pulled you out of that flaming wreck.”
She took a guilty look at his scarred hand. “Without the exo-skel, I’d be in a wheelchair. I’m no good in a combat situation, and, in the thick of it, combat is unavoidable.” She opened the hangar door, revealing shelves full of drones, all miniature copies of the X4. “I just want to play with my toys.”
He put the wounded drone down on her table and turned to the black, spidery figures floating above the shelves. Their wispy legs quivered in the breeze.
“What the hell are those?”
“Didn’t you ever see Babylon 5? They’re Shadow Fighters—the balloon version. I’m bringing them to my friend Nancy’s science class next Tuesday.” She touched their shimmering skin. He backed away. “The body is soft robotic polymer, and they’re filled halfway with helium. Each leg has a small thruster at the end of it to steer as it floats.”
“I hate spiders.”
“But—they’re fascinating. Spiders are real aviators, and they never get credit for it. They sense electric fields and use them to fly through the air, miles above the earth’s surface—thousands of miles out to sea.”
“Cover them up.”
“Don’t be such a baby.”
She hung a tarp over them.
“Look, Eve,” he said. “The situation with Donovia is a critical threat. They’re at the same level as us, on land, sea, and in the air. They’ve got quantum cryptography, exoskeletal and internal cyber-enhancements, and, most importantly, our same level of communication.”
Eve turned to her damaged drone. “Hand me the Allen wrench.”
“You’ve seen the news, you know where the situation in Otso is going. We’re headed for war, and it won’t be another turkey shoot like with that numchuck, Saddam. This is real war, against an enemy who is every bit as dangerous as us. And we haven’t been keeping up.”
She wiped the dirt from the bullet holes. “Well, the War on Terror helped us develop some useful tech. Like the suicide bomber shrink-wrap net.”
“Yeah, Kevlar and Graphene. I remember when they wrapped that bomber in Kabul. He thought he’d blow up a whole cafe. When they netted him, he just popped and sizzled.”
“I remember the old ladies, sipping their tea as they watched him burn.”
“Tough people . . . but still, we’ve fallen way behind. Our carriers are vulnerable to the new, longer range missiles—and this.” He pulled his phone from his pocket “The RG-52. Donovia updated their RG bombers to cruise at a height where they can launch all the missiles they want and our anti-aircraft systems can’t reach them. They call them ‘Carrier Killers.'”
“We knew about them, but couldn’t get a good look until our cameras caught this flight test. See here—the plane falters, then takes a dive. Rudder problems as far as we could tell.”
“I’ve seen the specs for earlier RG models. Rudder controls get wonky over sixty thousand feet. And the automatic safety systems can’t compensate.”
“The pilot crashed right into the hangar, which set fire to the other RG’s. Our one lucky break.”
“Well then,” she said as she restarted the drone’s motor. “You don’t need me.”
“Yes we do. Our main point of vulnerability now is our satellites. Quantum cryptography made our computers hack proof, so they’re doing it the old-fashioned way, by blowing up our data. Without communication, we’re back to stone knives and bearskins.”
“But ground-based anti-satellite weapons were outlawed by the ’25 Kashmir Treaty. ”
“They’ve got autonomous drones. In space.”
“What? No one has used weaponized autonomous bots since the Cleveland Black Friday disaster.”
“Arnold, pay attention! They’re throwing all the old rules out the window. This isn’t another diplomatic dance, it’s a showdown. They’ve got space-based lasers, fully autonomous robotic drones.”
“How did they get away with that?”
“The same way everyone else did—the great space-junk cleanup. Right after the Kashmir Treaty was signed, the international community developed an obsession with cleaning up our mess in space. The Europeans built a robotic harpoon, the Donovians got lasers, all to take out the so-called space junk. It was all just a dodge around the treaty. The war down here is just an extension of the war that’s been going on up there, a game of blowing sats out of the sky. The Euros have already lost that battle, and now the Donovians are gunning for us. If the ground war heats up, they’ll go for their real target—”
“The satellite manufacturing facilities in the O’Neill Space Station. There are over a hundred people up there.”
“If they take out our sats and O’Neill, you can say goodbye to our communications. And to Western civilization.” He put his phone on the table and scrolled to the specs. “The Donovian LS laser.”
She glanced at the video of a large, lumbering cigar-shaped ship. “Looks slow,” she said.
“Slow like an 800 pound gorilla. Goes wherever it damn well pleases and shoves everything out of its way. They’ve got ten of these things up there, and we have nothing to counter them.” He put his phone down. “So you see, the time for playing with toys is over.”
“Maybe not.” She slid the door to her workroom open. “My toy.”
He gave the low winged single-seater plane the once over and said “huh” without enthusiasm.
“Do you know what this is?”
“A light sport plane.”
“Yeah, a rocket-powered light sport plane that takes off like a bat out of hell. Her max climb rate is 2,150 feet per minute, and she goes up to 60,000 feet. If I could launch her from O’Neill, she wouldn’t be a sport plane—she’d be a space plane.” Eve ran her fingers along the front edge of the right wing, recently painted a shimmering white-blue. “The design’s a combination of a Spitfire and Rutan’s SpaceShipOne. I call her Starfire. Look—hybrid rocket propulsion for zero grav. And look at this . . .”
“What is it?” he asked, still not impressed.
“It’s a feather-wing configuration—lets her coast to a landing in standard atmosphere.”
“It only fits one pilot. It wouldn’t be any good in a dogfight, there’s nobody to keep a lookout.”
“She’s got cameras on the front, right, left, and rear flank, belly and top. With augmented-reality or VR glasses, you’d get a 360-degree view. ”
“She’s not cute! She could fly rings around the LS.”
“You can’t be serious. Human pilots are no match for robotics. They think and act faster than we can. One blast from the LS will fry your little Starfire.”
“But if the LS misses, it’ll take forever to recharge. Lasers are impressive as a threat, but in reality they’re hugely inefficient because they create more heat than they discharge. The only way they can dump heat up there is radiation. If I put a pellet shooter alongside the cameras on the Starfire, enable it to laser-target and fire a stream of bullets, I could send the LS for a loop.
“Hmmm . . .”
“And when we get rid of the LS, we go for their satellites.”
“You’re getting ahead of yourself here. The LS thinks faster than you do. It only needs one shot to wipe the sky with you.”
She thought about it. “The reason autonomous security robots failed is they’re relentless, single-minded. And stupid. In the wrong configuration, they’ll shoot anything that moves. Remember, in the old days, how we used flak to mess with heat-seeking weapons?” She pulled the sheet away from her Shadow balloons. “These are big enough to be a distraction. They’ll fool the LS.”
“Or give it the willies.”
March 3, 2030
When Eve first came to the O’Neill Station, she couldn’t get over how beautiful it was. The crisp, white, octagonal hallways that glowed with LED light, the neat green squares that lined every surface, windows to the hydroponic gardens that grew between the walls of the ship and outer hull. Even after spending weeks on the station it was still a trip to step into the intersection joining the counter-rotating cylinders—the dizzy moment gravity slipped away, then returned. It was like living in that Kubrick movie, 2001. The place was so cool and mod she felt like she should be bouffanting her hair.
But that wouldn’t match her dowdy workwear, coveralls and a cap. The O’Neill had been built as a tourist attraction, a floating hotel in space, but was turned into a full satellite and drone manufacturing facility when it became obvious that events in Otso were leading to war.
Down on the ground, the Donovians had attempted to pull off a secret invasion like they’d done in Cormola, but Otso was wise to that ploy. They used social media to expose the fact that the “student militias” were composed of forty-year-old Donovian reservists. That was when Donovia dropped all pretenses and began manufacturing tanks and updating their carriers in earnest. Since the United States was a close ally of Otso, they were compelled to intervene. Eve and her team were working round the clock building, sanding, inspecting, and testing her Starfires. Some days, she could barely drag herself out of bed.
She was headed back to the factory, about to put the finishing touches on the tenth Starfire when Underwood pinged. “Dock 5.” No hello, no note to let her know he was coming. She sighed, switched her exoskeleton to “active” and started to jog to the docks. She pinged transport. “Is Underwood inside yet?”
“No, his ship has a hard connection, pressurization is complete, but he has to wait until someone can guide him in, and . . . oh crap, he’s not waiting.”
She got to inbound just as they were helping him out of his suit, which was seriously tight around his waist. “I haven’t gained a pound.” He said. “It’s just that your body stretches out in zero gravity.”
“It does!” he said as the assistant tried to pull his tight boots off. “I hate space.” When the boots were finally off, he stood in his stockinged feet and said. “Show me what we’ve got.”
“You’re supposed to take some time to adjust.”
“You know what the situation is. I don’t have time.”
She led him through the glowing white halls. “I’ve made some changes to Starfire. First, I gave them a new paint job with carbon nanotube black paint, which actually absorbs laser beams”
“That’s not going to knock out the LS.”
“No, but it’ll hurt their precision targeting.” She pressed her fingertip against the screen by the door. The lab’s hatch doors swished open to reveal a row of flight suits.
“Those look like scuba suits.”
“We’re getting rid of the old big balloon design. They use a weave of self-repairing fabric and heavy cords to maintain pressure, so small punctures are not such a big problem. It repairs small tears and it adjusts for—what did you call it? Space stretching.”
“That is a thing.”
“Each helmet has an augmented-reality viewscreen that can switch between real-life views and augmented virtual display. The augmented display mode is hands free—the pilot has a 360-degree view of everything happening around him, in real time. He can control the hydraulics and the thrusters by swipes. Three swipes can also reverse thrust for rapid deceleration.”
“Good. And how are our creepy spiders?”
They stepped into the next hatch, the zero-grav pod. The automatic lights revealed a room full of spiders. Swollen bellies and tendril legs floated dark above them.
“Ugh,” he said.
Eve pushed off the edge of the wall, enjoying a few anti-grav moments, relief from the constant dull pain of her back. “I think they’re beautiful.” She floated among the bobbling spiders and pulled one towards herself. “Each leg has a pea shooter at the end of it, and a targeting beam. The LS won’t know what hit it.”
March 17, 2030
Eve’s pilots, seven men and three women, were lined up in front of her. They’d done the flight tests, got comfortable with the Starfire ships. They even did some target practice with space junk. But this was the first real engagement with something that could fire back.
She thought she should say some encouraging words, and remembered the conversation she’d had with Underwood the night before he left, at the Kubrick bar. She asked him, “If you don’t like space, why did you base your whole career on it?”
He said “I don’t like the journey, but I love the destination. When I was a kid, I had this book, called Strange Creatures of the Deep Sea. And I figured, if these beasts could live in the dark, breathing methane and all kinds of crap, who knows what’s under the surface of other planets. We think we’re all alone in space, but maybe there are other beasts out there feeling the same way we do. People aren’t good for much, but one thing we all do is communicate. You invent a faster spaceship, most people don’t care. But invent a better phone and you’re a billionaire. I think that’s what the future of the human race will be, what we’re all made for—to be a bridge between different worlds.”
“Why Underwood, that’s downright philosophical.”
He laughed, and shouted. “Let’s all sing some motherf**ing Kumbaya!”
They ducked the barrage of wadded-up bar napkins.
She was about tell them this story when the announcement came. Donovian tanks were a couple of klicks from Otso territory and their carriers were moving in. First shots had been fired. Underwood’s team was going to be in the thick of it.
“I was going to try to give an encouraging speech, but, we don’t have time. So, like, I think you guys are great. You’ll be—great.”
Her second-in-command, Ivanak, gave a wry smile. He was a recent Donovian immigrant who left the country when they began persecuting gays in the military. Eve went through a huge effort to bring him on board, knowing that his language skills would be invaluable. She wished he would show some enthusiasm. But that wasn’t the Donovian way. She raised an eyebrow in his direction.
“Great.” he said.
Everything went according to plan. She knew something must be wrong.
They’d programmed the Shadow spider drones to generate brownian movements, follow paths that mimicked a human-steered ship in distress. Each LS fired its one laser shot, took out the Spider drones and then sat, slowly re-charging. The Starfires focused their shots on them, sending them spinning like sticks thrown into the air, head over heels towards the sun.
Then they went after the Donovian satellites. They got as many as they could with the ammo that was left.
“Try to upload their information before hitting them,” she told Ivanak. “See what you can hear.”
“Roger that,” he said, his favorite Yankee expression.
There were a couple of hitches. Fiorino’s steering went out, but she remembered her training and fired off a couple of rounds to steer back to O’Neill, then one shot to steer into dock.
They ran out of ammo a lot faster than Eve expected. It could have been a glitch in the firing mechanism, she didn’t have enough time to do enough tests. She was the only one with anything left.
As they turned towards base, Eve wondered why it all had been so easy. And why it hadn’t worked. According to the newsfeed, the Donovian attack hadn’t slowed. They should have noticed some drop in communications by now.
As she prepared to dock, Ivanak pinged her. At first, his voice was pure static. She switched to comm. 3 for better reception. “Ivanak. What do you see?”
“Nothing good.” he said. “Two Donovian RG-52s, just a few thousand feet below me. They’re leaving a trail of geostationary balloon sats behind themselves, like big albatrosses dropping cotton turds.”
“But, the RGs were destroyed—in the test flight.”
“I caught one of their transmissions. There was no accident. It was a holographic show for our benefit.”
“Damn! That’s why it was so easy. We just followed their lies, and fell for it all! Shit!” she shouted, before realizing she was still transmitting. “Sorry.”
“Where are the RGs headed?”
“Where else? The Otso border.”
“I’m the only one with ammo.” she said. “I’ll . . . umm . . . distract them.”
“No idea. Ivanak, get everyone back to O’Neill.”
“You can’t take them on by yourself!”
She punched in the coordinates. “I know their strengths and their weaknesses. Know your enemy, know yourself. Basic Sun Tzu.”
“They’re ten times bigger than you, and loaded for the bear.”
Fiorino chimed in. “Eve, don’t do this. It’s crazy.”
“Come on, guys, do what you’re told. Ivanak, you’re in charge,” she said, as if she was handing off the controls of a plane.
Good pilot that he was, he confirmed. “I’m in charge.”
Her eyes were bleary from stress and lack of sleep. She was doing it again, taking it too far, heading for a fall. If she’d only had more sleep, she could remember more about the specs for the RG.
The gleaming silver birds came into view. The RGs, tilting down, were getting ready for a diving turn. Going in for the kill. Their rudders caught the sun’s light. Then she remembered. The rudder—the RG’s weak spot. It wouldn’t be a problem at 100,000 feet because they’d be relying on thrusters, but as they descended it would be. And they didn’t have Starfire’s 360 view.
She dove on the tail of the lead, swiped the throttles and prop pitch forward and closed in as fast as she could, targeted it and opened fire. It would take all the ammo she had, but it was now or never.
Her gun’s rat-a-tat echoed in her head as she watched the lead continue its diving turn.
It never got out of that turn, just pirouetted down and down to the sea.
“Ha!” she cried, but she was so busy congratulating herself she didn’t notice the other RG right behind her. The 360 viewer did, though, and it sounded the alarm as the RG peppered her right wing.
“I’m hit!” she cried. The right wing was stuck and swiping wasn’t doing anything so she switched it to manual, slamming her left foot on the rudder—and it slipped. She looked down. “Oh my God!” Her whole left leg and foot were covered with blood. There was a pool of blood on the floor. She must have been hit by a bullet or shrapnel. Why couldn’t she feel it? Was the exoskeleton hit too? Was she paralyzed?
But then she realized—it wasn’t blood. It was hydraulic fluid. Ok, so she wasn’t dying. Yet. But the controls were definitely going to get kludgy.
The RG was roaring up behind her. She had no weapons left, but reverse thrust was still working. She could do a 180 in the sky. She still had enough altitude to get away with that, didn’t she? Now was the time to find out. She hit the button and held her breath as the RG roared overhead, then she braced for the vortex turbulence. Her teeth rattled as it fell around her.
She could swear she saw the RG pilot, glancing back at her like she was a bug, not worth his time to swat. He turned back around, slow and steady, and headed for the Otso borderlands below.
She had only one weapon left. Herself. She could do what she often did driving in DC—play a game of chicken. It didn’t matter what size the other guy was, all that mattered was how reckless and determined you were. Hands trembling, giving herself no time to think, she pushed the throttle. The comm static crackled.
“That’s your plan? Kamikaze?”
“In Donovia, we don’t play chicken. We play Kamikaze. Nobody wins.”
“I told you to go back to base.”
“I’m in charge,” he said. “And I brought friends.”
A cloud of Spiders trailed behind him, pulled by a laser guide string. The RG pilot wasn’t giving way, but he saw the spiders and was wavering, in confusion or terror, she couldn’t tell. But he was so close, she could see his bulging eyes. “Pull up!” she cried, but Ivanak was way ahead of her. She pushed her thrusters, whispering “2,150 feet per minute” over and over like a chant.
Below her, the RG, knocked off course and covered with a splatter of black spiders, careened down in a cloud of oily smoke. On the horizon, the pilot wobbled under his chute.
“Wow!” Ivanak shouted. “What a rush!”
She was going to chide him for that, but she had to admit, she was smiling too.
“Meet you back at O’Neill.”
“I can’t. My hydraulics are out. I’ll have to land on the surface.”
“But you won’t be able to feather for re-entry.”
“If I skid it in, I can get the same effect.”
“That’s never been tested.”
“No time like the present.”
September 28, 2030
At the Sunnyside Diner, the weather was awful but the news was pretty damned sunny. Sharon turned it up so everyone could hear.
“As he arrived in Otso’s capital city today, the Donovian ambassador told the assembly that ‘a stalemate is not a loss.’”
“Good. You keep thinking that,” Sharon said as she switched the channel to a video that had been filmed a week ago—groundbreaking ceremonies for the Musk/Arnold Manufacturing Facility at the newly re-opened Oklahoma Spaceport.
Eve frowned as her image came into view. She was squinting in the sunlight and looking at the wrong camera. And the marketing team had worked so hard to get their new CTO camera-ready. Beside her, Underwood, the former US Space Force commander and current presidential candidate stood proud. He was also looking at the right camera and smiling. He said. “This is just the beginning of our quest. This war has taught us that we cannot be complacent. We must leave the comparative safety of near Earth orbit and explore the worlds beyond. Let’s all reach further, try harder, and aim for the stars!”
Mary P. Madigan’s fictional stories about the near and distant future are inspired by her former job, writing about real-life foreign policy and counterterrorism. Her short stories have been published in Lillicat Publishers’ Visions anthologies, Liberty Island magazine and in 47 – 16: ShortFiction and Poetry Inspired by David Bowie, Vol. II. She spends too much time online @marypmadigan.
Image credit: WILL POWER