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 other finalist entries here and here, and the winning story here.
It was just another truck with a shipping container on the back, a little rusted, with Hamburg Sud stenciled on the side. No one paid any attention when it turned right off the main highway onto a narrow road and into sparse forest. Two miles in, the container was offloaded and placed next to its twin. A third and fourth were opposite. Over the next ten hours, fourscore personnel alighted from passing vehicles or came cross-country from a distant train terminus and walked casually into the clearing. One took a key from his pocket and unlocked each container.
Within two hours, the base camp was fully operational. Camouflage netting augmented the cover from the trees, and jammers were set up. The entire occupied space was less than a quarter acre. Container one housed a fully operational galley with a canvas and Kevlar mess attached. Container two offered ablutions. The third was half workshop, half med bay, equipped for diagnosis, minor surgery, and triage. Only the daleks remained stored in container four, save for a handful positioned on the perimeter. Between the container defenses, twenty tents stood in four neat rows, along with a large canvas marquee, hard-floored and bristling with electronics. Tents and other gear were removed from half of containter four, freeing up space for the command center and office, including one secure laptop.
Major Tom Price read the orders off the screen. His mobile Recon and Engineering Specialist Team was in a wooded area off the main access roads, ten miles from the breach in the Otso border where the Donovians had crossed a week ago. Since then, their troops had poured across, fanning out and taking over rail and river crossings. Another week would see them reach a major industrial city and all its resources. Uncle Sam was doing all the expected things—diplomacy, moving ground troops, increased satellite coverage—but the enemy was matching pace, and so Price had orders to stymie the advance.
The first foray was nothing more exciting than a casual Sunday drive. A male and a female officer each donned mufti and drove into town, had lunch, and drove back. Along the way, they noted the demeanor of civilians in the newly invaded territory, the constraints placed on them, the number of military vehicles, and the direction they traveled. They were stopped once and drivers’ licenses were demanded and scanned. The Donovian officer apparently failed to suspect a shy blonde of dropping micro-drones, the size of a thumb nail, from the car window every half mile. In the marquee, technicians activated the drones and guided them into trees from where they could covertly gather intel that even the sharpest satellite would envy.
The drones’ data fed into the virtual reality program. Within an hour, detected changes in the landscape were added to older satellite map projections. Roads, surrounding landforms, farms and hamlets, the concrete pylons of the expressway, and the twenty-year-old iron rail bridge sprang to vivid life on the computer screen.
Transport was critical. The side that controlled the free movement of men and materiel would be best placed to achieve tactical success.
“Reporting for assignment, sir.”
The pair of skinny kids in front of him were a different kind of soldier. Sure, they’d passed training and the physical, but they would never go in under enemy fire. Not personally.
“Tomorrow, we need to intercept a vehicle on the approach to the rail bridge. Reconnoitre the terrain today and let me know how many units we will need to engage the vehicle for five minutes. You will have a couple of engineering officers to protect. Understood?”
“Yes, sir.” The pair donned their goggles and stood in the center of the hard floor. Their long-sleeved black spandex was dotted with sensors. The technician at the VR terminal watched them carefully for the first five minutes then began adding obstacles into the program. To watch the pair was to imagine Keanu Reeves going up against invisible agents. They ducked their bodies, pointed their arms in a staccato ballet. One stumbled over an impediment that wasn’t there.
Price left them to it and crossed to the shipping container workshop. The entire side of the container lifted up, doubling the available space with sturdy pull out benches. Captain Emma Charles, Army engineer, was screwing closed a sphere the size of a tennis ball, translucent and pale red.
“That’s the delivery device?”
The captain turned, saluted. “Yes, sir. It will take at least an hour for the petrochemicals to eat away at the gelatinous coating. If it releases too early, it will be detected before the tanker is emptied.”
“Who’s doing the delivery?”
“I am, sir. Lieutenant Hunter and I will set the charges to close off the bridge and then wait.”
“We meet in the marquee in one hour to go over placement of units to best facilitate this venture.”
“Thank you, sir. We’ll be ready.”
The briefing at 1800 hours consisted of the engineers; Sergeant Smith, the man responsible for the units; the four enlisted men who would operate them; and Hawkins, the chief drone technician.
“Hawkins, has there been much drone activity?”
“Some sir, just recon out here. Midsize and range.”
“Are they likely to overfly us? Are they weaponized?”
“Yes, sir, but the units are loaded with anti-drone nets.”
“Keep an eye skyward then.” Price turned to the engineers. “Have you sufficient charges to drop the trees across the bridge?”
“Yes, sir. We will make it look natural. They won’t immediately suspect that it is anything but an accident.”
“And if they do?” He turned to Corporal Smithers.
“The daleks will give covering fire, sir. They are camouflaged, so they won’t be immediately noticeable. In the event that one of the engineers is spotted, we can get them into the safety of the trees.”
“And the delivery?”
Captain Charles nodded. “In most trains, there are at least five petrol tankers. I will be targeting the last one, but I will have stealthy camo on and will set up a portable mirage. With that shining on me, I will only be visible at close range.”
“Very well.” Price stood. “Once you are back, I want to see a detailed plan for dropping the bridge.”
Just before dawn, a tired and dirty people-mover took the access road before the rail bridge. Every two days a tanker train ran through and pumped its cargo into the newly installed tanks in the occupied section of Otso. It was the main fuel depot at this point, and would remain so until the enemy reached Otveno, the eight-hundred-year-old port city and industrial center that the Donovians were heading towards. Control of the port city would give them the opportunity to move men and materiel, and to resupply. Already ships were on their way from Donovian ports.
Captain Charles jumped from the people-mover as it slowed and crouched in the thick brush beside the rail line. The vehicle stopped beyond the curve of the road and, slowly, three figures emerged, one distinctly human. It wore a baggy jumpsuit and a Kevlar cabbage patch helmet that broke up its outline. The two non-human daleks stood still as sentinels. Hunter joined Charles and the pair set about placing scattered charges against the trunk of an old oak, top heavy and creaking. They took note of the wind direction and moved to a safe distance. One thumb on the toggle set off the charge. Their explosives dropped the tree as neatly as a troop of lumberjacks. It bounced off the rails and settled heavily over them. The trunk was shattered rather than sliced through. Still, it was a pretty impressive coincidence that the tree had chosen that particular morning to fall.
The train arrived an hour later as expected. It slowed as the driver identified the hazard and came to a standstill more than a hundred yards short of the tree. Two men in uniform jumped down from the engine carriage and walked towards the blockage across the line. One carried an assault rifle.
Emma Charles took off in a crouching run, her goal the end of the train. Hunter turned the patterned light on her, and she blended in with the tanker. She quickly scaled the central ladder and lifted the hatch. The stench of petroleum nearly overwhelmed her and she dropped the translucent device in. It disappeared instantly into the roiling depths and began to dissolve. As quickly, she began to descend, and all hell broke loose.
Hunter was still concealed, but Charles was caught in the open. There was a harsh rustling from the tree line. A thin vertical mount, topped with a 360-degree real-time camera, of the sort beloved by athletes, and fitted with heavy artillery on both sides trundled out. Its base was like a broad skirt, made up of sections, and it moved quickly, both rolling and walking. Its right arm fired a continuous spray of bullets from a fifty round magazine, which curved up from the jointed limb like a horn. In a swift movement, the mech weapon had pulled another magazine from the dozen curved horns at its middle and, pushing the old magazine free in one sinuous movement, reloaded. Charles sprinted for the edge of the forest.
The first Donovian was down, not moving. The second was prone on the ground. He pulled his rifle to his chest and fired, but the bullets merely clipped the base of the mech and dinged off its weaponry. He put one finger to the soft spot behind his ear.
“Opposition, human and mech, at the near end of the rail bridge. Send drones.”
“Hell, ma’am!” Lieutenant Hunter grabbed Charles’s arm as she reached him. “He called for drones. Head for the vehicle. We have to go!”
For the next three minutes they ran, one eye on the terrain, the other on the sky. The mechs followed, but at a distance. They were not quite as agile as a human.
The engineers had covered about a third of a mile when the first drone appeared over the trees. Detecting their body heat, it spun its weapons right at them.
The mech bringing up the rear lanced the sky with bullets and tracer rounds, clipping a rotor and sending the drone off course. But another came into sight, and another.
“Heatshield!” Hunter pulled a thin blanket from his backpack. It glowed with a dull metallic sheen. He and Charles fell to the ground and pulled it over their heads. The foliage from the forest canopy reflected off the blanket, making them less visible to the naked eye, and it was no longer possible for their thermal signature to be identified. Their body heat was now trapped under the blanket.
The second and third drones swivelled in the sky. The front mech turned to face the airborne threat.
At the portable base ten miles away, Corporal Toby Smithers stood in the center of the marquee. He turned, twisting his body around to stare up at something visible only through his VR headset. Corporal Nat Cummings, five feet away and scanning the distant battleground through an identical headset, had successfully taken down the first drone, but the two remaining were close together.
Around the two corporals were Price and half the base, watching the events live through the projected feed from the cams. Smithers and Cummings were the only two not watching. Courtesy of their VR, they were part of the action.
Cummings responded to the order, tilting his arm skyward. On the screens, the forward dalek launched a canister. A net exploded from it, entangling the two drones.
“How far to the van?”
“Four hundred yards.”
“There may be other assets on the way. Charles, get out now!”
The company watched Charles and Hunter on the screens as they pulled off the heatshield, bundled it, and ran. A mech moved smoothly behind them. Another drone appeared in the top corner of the screen, but this time it was in front of the running officers.
Cummings pivoted and pointed up, clenching his fist. Ten miles away the dalek let fly a stream of tiny missiles.
The drone laid down a thin trail of bullets, which exploded as they hit the ground.
Hunter yelled and clapped a hand to his arm as one of the dalek’s missiles struck the drone, turning it into a firework.
From the marquee, the doctor assessed the impact and the blood on Hunter’s arm. “There are bandages in the van. You don’t need a specialist drone for that.”
Price nodded. “Emma, get to the drop-off and take care you aren’t followed, then return here.”
She nodded at the order.
The vehicle was parked unobtrusively on the edge of the forest. They got in, and Charles gave a command to the nav computer before turning to cut off Hunter’s sleeve. The car sped off-screen.
Price turned to Smithers and Cummings. “Right, corporals. Have the mechs go to ground. Leave them scanning—we can get good data. One of you on duty at all times until we see if they investigate.”
Unable to salute, their hands deadly weapons, they walked forward. On the screen, the first dalek disappeared into the edge of the forest.
Thirty minutes later Captain Charles helped Hunter out of the people-mover. Doctor Leonard hauled him off to get checked and bandaged. Charles reported to Major Price who was contemplating the augmented satellite map on a large screen.
“They retrieved the train, brought in a new driver and collected the bodies.”
Charles grinned. “How long ago, sir?”
“Ten minutes after you left. They found the small charge you put on the rail tracks and congratulated themselves, cleared the tree, and then left. The mechs have been shut down for the meantime, but we have single-track drones going over the Donovian base at five-minute intervals. How long will the supergelator take?”
She paused. “The capsule would have dissolved, but the nanites will have just started. The Donovians will be pumping the new fuel into their holding tank now. Give it twelve hours and every gallon of fuel in there will be jello string.”
“There’s no stopping it?”
“None sir. It’s self-replicating—designed to manage oil spills.”
“So in twenty-four to forty-eight hours their fuel loss will be beginning to bite.” He looked over at the screen. “Good work, Emma. Our next task is to drop both the rail and the road bridges to prevent any further reinforcement of the area. We will place road blocks and detachments of mechs on minor roads, but only if the main thoroughfares are closed. We will use crossroads, run the barrier half a mile each way and intersect the main roads. The micro-drones we planted yesterday”—he zoomed the map so that the smaller road networks were clear—“show that ninety percent of the road transport is along the main artery, but these key routes are also used.”
“We are to deny them access?”
“The goal is to delay and tag. We will have caches of micro-drones along these routes. Once they break through—and thirty mechs plus instawall will only hold for so long—we fall back and radio ahead.”
“What happens then?”
The major shrugged. “There is another R.E.S.T. unit to the west, and one at the port, defending against maritime penetration. The Donovians have several divisions in the country at the moment, half are gaining territory and half are consolidating. We are here to prevent consolidation.”
“When do we go out to set up the barriers, sir?”
“We will collect the truck carrying the instawall at 0230 hours. We will have two people-movers to transport the mechs, twelve at each site. Then there are the corporals with drones.”
“Any enemy presence at the road or rail bridges?”
“Four men at each, along with intermittent overhead surveillance. The mechs can take care of those at the rail bridge. Hawkins believes we can take out those on the expressway bridge with drones.”
“Very well, sir. We will be ready.”
“I’m sorry to wake you, Major.” An enlisted man stood at the door, dour and nervous. “Lieutenant Hunter is dead, sir.”
Price swung his legs over the bunk and rubbed a hand over his face. “What time is it?”
“0145 hours, sir. I went to wake Hunter to go with the sortie. The doc says he’s been dead for an hour.”
Price crossed the still camp and entered the engineers’ tent. Doc Leonard was still kneeling beside the body. “Not natural causes I take it?”
Leonard shook his head. “The wound was slight. No major damage. And look here.” He raised the diagnostic scanner with its bright LED light. “See the way his face has slumped?”
“So, something from the drone. I’d like the engineers to have a look at anything you recovered from the round in his arm. Let me know what you find.”
Price bowed his head and left. He had to let the other engineers know—and the mech drivers. Disabling drones just became a priority.
Emma Charles was heading out to the highway overpass. Her strategy was simple—target the supporting pillars and gravity would do the rest. The seven-seater family vehicle was ubiquitous, and she waited until she and Cooper alighted before putting on her yellow roadworker vest.
There were four Donovians on duty—two on the bridge itself, two on the roadway down below—and no more than one car passed every two or three minutes. Invasion was bad for business. She pressed her finger to the soft spot behind her ear where the transmitter was.
“Two on top. Send in the drone.”
She stopped the van, and the two guards below turned towards her. The door slid back and there were two silent flashes. The men dropped. A second later another body fell with an ugly splat from the road above. The drone had arrived.
Cooper flipped down the ramp on their vehicle, and the mech rolled down.
“Never thought daleks would be the good guys.”
“You know they can hear you, Dave. Don’t piss’ em off or they’ll shoot you next.” She pressed her ear again. “Major, keep the drone circling please. We don’t know what will happen if they don’t report in, and we will have no warning.”
Cooper unpacked and switched on two delivery drones, each the size of a small coffee table. Each one had a payload diameter of a twenty-pound dinner plate. Looking up, he calculated the size of the overpass pillars.
“Damn. I’ll have to recompute the explosives. We need maybe twenty-five percent more.”
“That’s why we’re here, instead of doing it all by remote.”
They set up a small screen and loaded the first package, slathering it with contact adhesive.
Cooper nodded. “Ok, put it in the vee where the strut meets the pylon.”
The drone took off, guided by Hawkins back at base camp.
They prepped the second drone and secured explosives to the base of the pillars. The first drone returned and the second took off.
“Same position, opposite pillar,” Cooper ordered.
An irritating sound that would have gone unnoticed in normal traffic hummed in the still night air like an angry beehive. Emma pressed her communicator. “Their drone is back, sir.”
“Yes, I can see. The mech is tracking it. How much do you have left to do?”
“Two more pylons. About ten minutes, if someone can give Hawkins a hand. Both drones are loaded.”
“Very well. See if you can evade detection and complete the mission. If it approaches or looks threatening, the mech will bring it down. But that will give away your position.”
“Crap!” Cooper looked up anxiously. “Captain Charles, the other body is lying on the roadway, in full view of the drone.” They had laid their own dead under the bridge. The drone slewed right and began circling.
“Sir, they know we are here.”
“Take it down.”
Without warning, the mech shot a canister skyward. The pale grey net spread out and ensnared the drone. It plummeted.
“Bring it back with you and get out of there. Leave the drones to finish the mission—Hawkins can do it from here.”
Cooper ran out and picked up the netted drone, whipped off his hat and dropped it over the camera. A minute later they had the mech back in the van and were driving off.
“Switch cars and return to base. You will be pleased to know that your colleagues completed their mission without a hitch.”
“Captain Charles prefers the excitement, sir.” Cooper’s voice was deadpan.
There was a hiss, and everything went dark.
Emma Charles woke up. She was being carried to the med bay in container three. Doc Leonard was walking beside her, his mediscan at her wrist taking her pulse and blood oxygen count.
“How did I get back? Coop?”
“Cooper is right behind you. The drone discharged a gas that knocked you both out. Fortunately, the car went to its preprogrammed destination. You have been out forty minutes.”
“Came down like a concrete avalanche. Major Price set them both off early. Donovians were prepping a bomb disposal bot.”
She lay back with a sigh. “Thank God.”
“Indeed. They’ve kicked off the operation to prevent reinforcements from getting through. There is a traffic jam to rival the interstate at Thanksgiving.”
“Can I watch?”
“Once I’ve done tests on your blood and lungs, you can go to the marquee. How do you feel?”
“Like I’ve eaten a bowl of charred oatmeal. I’ll be fine.”
“I’ll decide if you’re fine, Captain Charles.”
Ten minutes was an eternity, but Emma was on her feet quickly. She still felt groggy, but she wasn’t telling the doc that.
In the marquee, there were two lines of corporals, all in headsets, all moving to a rhythm only they could see. The screens made things clearer. The feed was from the mechs’ point of view, and the audience in the marquee could see the blocked roads, the trucks and troop tracks. Two Donovians hopped down from their track and set up a small mortar, pointing it at the mechs and the barrier behind them. A mech swivelled and sent a small rocket into it. One of the men rolled away, covered in blood.
Emma sat down next to Hawkins.
“Thanks for the assist earlier.”
“No worries.” He was busy and had two corporals working with him.
“What are you doing?”
“Micro-drones. We are letting them fly from tiny caches to attach themselves to the exhaust of vehicles. Once they reach the undercarriage, they just cling and go dormant.”
“Are they homers?”
“Mm-hmm.” He turned for a microsecond. “That drone you tried to bring home—it had an elaborate homing system. If you had brought it back, we would have been swarmed in under an hour.”
“You’re not wrong. The tech dismantled it when you arrived at the rendezvous. He took out the ammo that killed Lieutenant Hunter and gave it to the doc. Sorry by the way.”
“Thanks.” Emma rose and went to wait by the screens.
There were only half as many enlisted men in the lines now and they were sweating heavily in their long black sensor-suits. Tom, third from the end, took three steps forward and slapped his hand to his chest. There was a brilliant flash on the screens and another vehicle blew. They weren’t able to retreat. It was like shooting fish in a barrel. Tom took off his goggles and slumped like a spent marathoner. One of the others ran up with a cup of Gatorade.
Major Price looked over at Hawkins who raised his thumb in the air. “Ok, men. Let’s peel off.”
The mech operators formed two lines and moved slowly to the edges of the marquee floor. On the screen, the battered daleks could be seen, shot half to pieces. Others were smoking ruins—they had run out of ammo and self-destructed. The Donovians had taken the brunt however.
The camera on top of the foremost mech caught something new. From the back of the convoy, a large metal sphere the size of a VW beetle rolled off a low flatbed. Eight long metal legs extended from it all at once, and it rose into the air.
Emma stared. “What the hell is that, sir?”
“I’ve heard they call it Shelob.” Price studied the screen intently.
It was fast, much faster than anything they had seen before. The legs, thin, ungainly and twelve feet long, were nonetheless capable of perfect balance. It stepped gingerly across the convoy of vehicles. A mech fired at it, but the projectiles skittered off the bright silver orb. On the forward side of the enormous mech was a flamethrower, but it was useless against the daleks. The buzzsaw wasn’t—it cut through their weaponry and spines like a katana.
“Is that thing VR, like our mechs?” Emma turned.
“Nah. Judging by the size, I think it has an operator.” Tom wiped the sweat from his brow.
The huge silver body came close to a mech, which fired point-blank into the body but didn’t leave a scratch. The orb’s buzzsaw sliced through the mech in seconds.
“Time to blow,” Price called.
As one, the remaining mech operators slapped their palms to their chests. The screens all flared and went black.
“That the last of our mechs?” Emma asked.
“We have a few left.” Tom grinned politely. “Once this engagement is over, we’ve got orders to redeploy.”
“It’s over now, isn’t it?”
Price looked at her and shook his head slowly. “Watch and learn. Hawkins, have you got the drone feed yet?”
Within seconds, the screens flashed back to technicolor life, but this time from a different angle. Rather than viewing the scene from a mech’s vantage point, they now had a drone’s eye view. There was a mile-long line of vehicles on the road. Cars, trucks, flatbeds, and tankers—all the paraphernalia of an invading army.
Shelob, the huge buzzsaw on legs, went ahead. She sliced through the instawall—the only thing that could. It would resist blunt force and explosives, mortars and shrapnel weapons, but not the diamond-tipped triple blade.
Slowly the convoy moved forward.
In the marquee, the assembled specialists and enlisted men watched in silence as the Donovian army advanced into Otso. The tiny drones in the trees and those circling at altitude let them see it in all its repellent glory.
Doc Leonard came in and tapped Price on the shoulder. “Major, I need you to put a warning through to the command centre. I’ve worked out what happened to Lieutenant Hunter.”
“What was it, Doc?”
“He had a stroke.”
Price stared. “You are surely not telling me it was natural causes?”
“No way in hell.” The doc put out his hand. He held three of the rounds that Hawkins had pulled from the downed drone. “These are thin slugs, frangible. A lot of their mass is pressed powder. When they enter flesh, the powder contains nanites that pass into the bloodstream. They replicate, but most importantly, they migrate along the blood vessels. When there are enough of them, they block the blood vessels, causing massive clotting—in this case, a stroke.”
Price stared at him. “Bastards.”
“Indeed. A wound doesn’t need to be immediately fatal, or even debilitating. It’s like a slow acting poison, any trace of nanites in the wound and you will be infected. Death is almost inevitable.”
The major nodded. “You’ve written up your report?”
“I have. You can attach it to your message, but it needs to go now, before any of the troops out there see action.” The doc handed over his memory chip and without another word Price plugged it into his phone. His thumbs danced over the touchpad.
“Done. And they’ve ordered that you should leave Lieutenant Hunter’s body here when we bug out, along with the rounds. Their docs will look him over before he is returned to his family.”
Leonard nodded. “How much longer?”
The masses of invading vehicles were moving freely now into territory the Otsovians had evacuated a few days ago.
Price received another message. “They’ve launched. Light ‘em up Hawkins.”
Hawkins flipped a switch and tweaked a few dials. The transmitters of all the tiny micro-drones on the tailpipes of a hundred vehicles started transmitting their signals. They all watched, white knuckled, as the vehicles lumbered on for several minutes, unaware.
Then they stopped, and the screen turned searing white.
“And that’s all she wrote. One targeted strike is all you need if you know where to find them.”
“Bring the drone down, sir?”
“Hand over control to the beta team. We will be shutting up shop. Pack everything away, lock the containers. Only carry your personal gear. We leave in two hours.”
Seventy-nine people slipped silently into the woods over the space of half an hour, dispersing like cotton seed, blown on the wind. All that remained was a large patch of flattened grass and four unprepossessing shipping containers.
Melanie Page is a teacher and author. She has undergraduate degrees in Education and the Arts from the University of Queensland, and a Masters in Learning Innovation from the Queensland University of Technology. Her military knowledge is achieved vicariously from military thrillers and science fiction, of which she is a voracious reader. She is also indebted to her father for the stories of his service with the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers during the Korean Conflict. Her interest in the modern warfare scenario was stimulated by her son’s engagement with VR technology.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.