war on the rocks

The Fall of Heaven, Episode 5: Forlorn Hope

July 30, 2015

Editor’s note: This is a serialized five-part story for the Atlantic Council’s Art of Future Warfare project.  Read parts onetwothree, and four.

 

The term “Forlorn Hope” is derived from the Dutch verloren hoop, meaning the “lost troops.” It’s an old term, used for the soldiers who take the leading part in an attack, often with the knowledge that it will lead to their death. They are the sacrificial lambs of the war, the debt that has to be written off, the necessary cost. Swarms offered national militaries that solution but without the human cost associated with it.

Being a swarm pilot was crossing the Rubicon. Swarms require near-perfect teamwork, an intuitive understanding of dynamical systems, and the ability to parse large numbers of targets at a time. It is too much for one mind to handle.

Swarm pilots are carefully selected, recruited, and maintained. Their training is quick, intense, and brutal, they have a 90% washout rate. Imagine six months in the Mojave pushing your brain to the limit during the day, and then studying calculus and trigonometry at night. There was no rest and no respite. Then came the implants. They look like two box-shaped bulges over the ears, directly interfacing with your brain and central nervous system. They allowed teams to communicate with each other, sense the other’s thoughts, and share information between them. The AI’s drafted into service early in the war helped control the swarms and to moderate syncing between pilots.

The invention of the Mach drive in 2072 changed swarm warfare substantially. The science was confounding, frankly, and all that I know is that these engines use transmitted microwaves for power and thrust. No fuel, no mess, just microwaves and gravity. With the only limiting factor on large-scale drone warfare essentially removed, both Winter and Summer powers capitalized on swarms. Warfare had already long since adopted transmitted power for exosuits, comms, etc., so it was only natural that we would up the ante with swarms.

I’m in rural Kentucky, in a newly built house. I am sitting at a table drinking sweet tea with lemon and chitchatting with one such drone pilot, a man by the name of Peter Martin, who turned 42 just a few weeks ago. I ask if he is ready, he says yeah and we begin the interview.

Stephen Armitage:  I am Stephen Armitage of the UN’s Data Reclamation Project and I am here with Peter Martin, formerly of the 101st Airborne Division, Winter-Summer War veteran, and swarm pilot. We are recording his recollections of the Wakan-Kush offensive campaign during the war. Good morning Peter.

Peter Martin: Good morning, Stephen, it’s a pleasure to be here.

Stephen Armitage: So if I understand it correctly, you were deployed out to Afghanistan a few months into the push?

Peter Martin:  I got deployed there I think about April 2098, we were two months into the push. Progress had stalled, so they started changing up the tactics and we got moving again.

Stephen Armitage: What was your position in the airborne?

Martin: Well, I was a WASP pilot in the beginning, that’s where I started, Wide Area Swarm Projectiles. Back in the Barrel, that’s what we called the Wakan corridor, we had been out for a few weeks, and then later one of our MOTH operators got shot up and had to be evac’d, so I had to take over the MOTH, and Aurelius had to take over WASP for a while.

Stephen Armitage: Who was Aurelius?

Martin: He was our artificial intelligence embed, called him “Ari.” He was assigned to our unit. Later on I said, “Hey, I like operating the MOTH,” and our sergeant said, “Well if you want it, you got it.” Back then we had a five-man team for each squad in a combined arms battalion. Whenever I operated the MOTH, we always got a lot more action, I was more aggressive than Garcia when it came to engagement. The MOTH, or Military Observation Over the Horizon was a sensor and EW suite. I reconned a bit deeper than most, I think. I don’t think the squad ever liked that, but Sarge was fine, you know, I think she understood that it needed to happen.

Stephen Armitage: Where were you first deployed, what was it like?

Peter Martin: Well, the first few missions I was expecting, you know, to be bombarded constantly, they teach you that in training. My implants were still new, they had to hurry us through. They hurt like a bitch constantly. They don’t tell you about the headache they cause the first time. It was out in wastern Afghanistan where I was first deployed, out to the front lines. I could see the battlefield just fine, but back then we stayed out deployed for weeks with the rest of the platoon.

I was expecting, you know, like in swarm school, sensing targets and setting layered defensive perimeters over the forward guys, you know, the specops spooks and loitering for a while.

In training it was cut and dry. You had a squad of five guys, an embedded AI, and an operator, all sync’d up with implants, shared images, thoughts, transferred data. Simple and easy.

WASPs were agile, flying guns with smart bullets. But they could just as easily be missiles if you were out of options. These guys were about as big as a foot, had Mach drives with adjustable nozzles on either side around a central axis, below that hung two barrels of a gun with about 300 rounds of ammunition. We’d carry them around in these huge canisters on our exosuits, with about 600 per canister.

MOTHs could see for miles if you flew it right. Were about the size of a pig, with these two big pods on the top and below. Its nozzles were further below its body.

Ari always controlled our LCST, Helios laser defense, and rear artillery support. Later on we got slugthrowers, or what you’d call a raildriver, but that was later.

The ROACH drone, which I don’t think stood for anything … that thing was a godsend. We called it the “screamin’ Mimi” — big, large, made a good target. Swarms would go after that in a second, if they didn’t … well then they had a few hundred cluster bombs to deal with.

We had “Mayflies,” too. We’d put them up a few miles and loiter ‘em for a little bit, send them down on the enemy’s rear FQs or radars. One-way drones, we called them. I think they got their name because they may fly over here, they may fly over there, who knows? Depended on how we could use them. Mayflies cruised around, they were simple triangles … they were old, real old, ran off of regular fuel. They looked like big triangles with a pointy, bulbous nose. They just sat up there and sniffed around until they were needed.

Stephen Armitage: What was fighting like out there, out in the Barrel?

Peter Martin:  The first few weeks were fine, I dropped to the unit and stayed behind with the reserve platoons to learn for a few weeks. I was still green. It was boring, I’d talk to one of the engineers, I think his name was Butler, yeah, Dave Butler and say “The damn Chicoms are scared of us, we haven’t met anything yet.”

He laughed and said, “Don’t be too anxious, Martin, they’ll be plenty to come, just make sure you’re ready if we have to deploy these things” and patted the WASP transport. About a week later I got dropped to 3rd platoon and got put under Sergeant Rivera, with the Forlorn Hope. That’s what we called ourselves, we painted it on our launchers, it was a sick joke, but we didn’t mind. Let me see, we had Sergeant Rivera, O’meara, me, Doherty, Chang, and Garcia, and, you know, Ari. Cyber Forces would always send a different operator each time, so we never really got close to any of them.

Stephen Armitage: How was the unit? Did you get along well with the guys?

Peter Martin: Yeah, I did, they were a good group of guys, and Sergeant Rivera, well she was tough. She expected a lot of us, which was fine because she expected more from herself. When the drones started coming back when we were in the rear, you could see the guys getting jittery, you know especially me and Doherty, we were the youngest ones, like 18 or 19 at the time.

Sarge didn’t talk much, but we’d start talking about sweethearts back home, girl or boys, you know … old flames, video games, books we wanted to see, movies that were coming out, she’d join in. That, I think was our favorite thing to do, talk about things that were coming out soon, making plans. Sometimes the guys from the other platoons would join in, we’d be in our cammies, days old, no shower, propped up against the trucks and shooting the shit.

They’d talk about plans for the future. The guys were ambitious, Doherty wanted to start a business, Chang wanted to get into politics … I think he did eventually, I don’t know. O’meara was a sonuvabitch, constantly bullshitting around. He wanted to be an actor, of all things. We lost touch after the war, I never heard from him again. He never came to the reunions, never responded to letters, he just fell off the grid. Garcia just wanted to have children, be a father, he was just married before he deployed, some girl back in LA. Sometimes when we’d sync we’d see flashes of her when he was worried. Ari’d try to filter those out, but they get through sometimes.

The guys were older than me, but I think we needed those nights where we’d stay up talking. They’d calm us down, they calmed me down. I just wanted to get through the war, maybe see some movies, stick around long enough to have kids, get a good job. Whatever. Ari’d play us music over the sync, the type you can feel and we had our favorites. Mostly old hymns, made us feel like we were back in the country. Sarge would never say she liked it, but I could tell she did …

We got close in the few weeks before the first action.

Peter clears his throat, he stares off for a few seconds. He runs his fingers over the soft suede of the chair, takes a deep breath and continues.

But yeah. The Barrel, the Eastern front in Afghanistan. Guys would go in thinking it was a piece of cake, no sweat on ‘em and just picking off enemy operators. Like shooting fish in a barrel. Wasn’t a barrel of monkeys either, I don’t know why they called it the Barrel, honestly. We didn’t know what we were in for.

Stephen Armitage: So what were you guys doing out there? I heard it was called the barrel because you guys were the fish, that you made easy targets.

Peter Martin:  Yeah, I guess I could see that. I still set off metal detectors, to be honest. I got my fair share of lead.

Our job was simple: We had to clear out ground-based missiles, laser defenses, swarms, etc. so that we could secure air and space. The Summer powers had the space elevator, so they effectively controlled most of near-earth orbit.

The Wakan-Kush offensive was a large three-dimensional pincer movement. At the same time we were advancing into Western China on the ground, we had our guys way up above clearing out sub and transorbital space … that’s the line between our atmosphere and space orbit. They would advance quickly into Summer power space, raid stations and forces, establish a temporary space superiority. While that all went on, we’d surge ground forces like us to clear out defenses enough so we could fly hypersonic carriers up into suborbital space to conduct orbital bombardment … drop, I don’t know, about 30 to 60 pillar-like tungsten poles onto the Hindu Kush and Western China. Straight down on enemy encampments, taking out vast swaths of territory. They couldn’t be intercepted, were devastating … packing all the power of a tactical nuke but without the fallout or risk of intercept.

We called the damn thing “Judgment.” It was swift and merciless.

Then we would advance. It took us years to figure that out, and most of it was back in Estonia at the beginning of the war. Europe had a field day with the Russians over there, but we learned.

I know this from conversations and what I read since then. Above my head at the time, no pun intended.

Stephen Armitage: What was the Barrel like?

Peter Martin: It was tedious and nerve-racking, the Barrel, cold most of the time … windy and ugly. The nights were freezing and we were bored most of the time. Our company would spread out over miles along the lines, moving slowly. The specops guys would be behind enemy lines, clearing nuke mines or other booby traps. We’d set a forward contested zone, layer defenses for a few weeks, running swarm patrols to root out the enemy, and then you know, advance slowly. We had to secure ground-based missile batteries, air and space defense lasers, and FQ sites and call in an orbital bombardment if we got it clear enough.

Once it was secured, the rest of the battalion would advance with the armor and troop transports, we’d rotate to the rear with the sappers, you know the combat engineers, resupply our drones, repair, print what we were missing and rested up while another platoon took our place. Until we were rotated back out we manned the rear swarms and were in charge of drone resupply for the sister platoon.

My first action was about two weeks into our first mission. Our sister platoons would be coming out with us. We had to move forward, leapfrogging and clearing a path forward further into the corridor. About 30 klicks northeast and 25 klicks southeast we got word there was an enemy encampment, swarm canisters, FQs, missile batteries, slugthrower nests. The Chicoms loved point defense, layered everything together.

We had been moving spot to spot for about two weeks, tired, stressed out. We were out in the barrel and had found a good spot with a nice shallow space in a rocky outcropping in the middle of nowhere. We pretty much had three sides around, putting us in a good defensive position. We secured our equipment and made camp. Ari operated a few MOTHs at low altitude with two ROACH escorts, slowly, as a patrol. The encampments were still a few miles away.

Ari and his brother AI’s picked up the encampments. We manned the exosuits, sync’d implants, and brought up the battlefield HUD, Ari in our heads the entire time, shuffling around and filtering data between us. We could see the whole battlefield, ahead, saw the two encampments, Sarge dropped her link and she was out of sync with us for a few moments, talking with Ari privately about the battle plan.

O’meara looks over at me, “Hey Martin, you ready? You’ve been waiting to get some. Just watch me and you’ll see how it’s done.”

I “surged” him for a second, “Yeah, okay.”

Stephen Armitage: Surged him?

Peter Martin:  Yeah, It’s kinda like a bolt of concentration out of the blue. That’s how we’d mess with each other. When you’re sync’d you really don’t talk through the implants, it’s easier and clearer just to send raw data, you know, impressions, images, things like that. They teach you that in training, everybody processes words different so sending it over the sync was a little bit like slapping someone, you know, like roughhousing. Overwhelms you for a second. Ari’d usually translate between us, or talk between us directly. But mostly we’d just use voice comms. It was simple enough and got it done.

Anyway, O’meara surged back, then Chang joined in … Sarge sync’d back up and surged us “Cut the SHIT!” It hurt like hell, we heard each other over the voice comms groaning.

Sarge said, “Alright, O’meara, I need a three-ROACH patrol low to the encampments.”

We could see and feel the lines on the HUD battlefront where the ROACHs would go. The ROACHs were long, bulbous-looking bomb transports with big jets on the back and two adjustable Mach-drive nozzles on either side. They could go fast and they could stop on a dime, we sent them out for advanced scouting if we were expecting heavy resistance, their underbelly was full of cluster bombs.

“Chang, get the MOTHs spread out, sync sensors up with 1st and 2nd platoon so we can get a field of vision.” 1st was North and 2nd was South.

We could see 1st and 2nd platoon pop up on the HUD with their swarm lines dancing around the encampments.

“Doherty, Garcia, I want you manning the clusterbomb launchers and Mayflies.” She nodded over to their launchers.

“Ari, cover down on Arty, LCST, and the rearguard weapons. Get ready to talk to Liberty to call down judgment if we need it.”

We all felt Ari, “Roger that, Sarge.”

She knew it was gonna get hot. I think she told the operator to share duty on the MOTH, I don’t know. She couldn’t remember his name, I don’t remember it either. That was the last time I saw him, whatever his name was.

She told me to man the WASPs after we made a final pass with the MOTHs and ROACHs, just to check out the area, you know. They got back, recon gave us nothing new. We could see in the HUD she had pushed out the two ROACHs towards the encampment, GNATs from above, we’d say.

I start launching the WASPs from the canisters. And felt them filling the sky. I kept them in travel configuration to get to the target. Predictably, as we got closer we saw enemy swarms deploying. The ROACHs went off the HUD, but didn’t deploy any bombs, we didn’t think the swarms were that thick. The ROACHs never made it.

Ari sent ”Updating threat sources, look alive.”

Ari threw the swarms onto the HUD, but the mass was a lot thicker than expected, at first I thought they doubled-up canisters, or sent more drones with each sortie. They didn’t have AI, so they couldn’t actively operate as many as we could. But I looked closer, concentrating on the two encampments.

But it wasn’t two bases of swarms, it was five.

They liked to tunnel, the Chinese, or burrow. For all of our technology, it was the simplest counter. Like bugs. Three of the goddamn encampments were underground. Five sets of swarms, at least, were on top of us.

It was within 30 seconds after deploying the swarm in about a 5-mile area our swarms started getting peppered from all five of them, I could see them coming in in their bombing groups about 200 feet below the WASP swarms, stretched out in a crescent pattern with the bow headed towards us. Ari threw out a ROACH that activated behind them about two minutes in, trying to divert a few enemy drones. We had started losing about 50 percent of our WASP swarm and I started targeting the enemy drones with the WASPs and surged ahead far into enemy territory to clear out room for ROACH. We were able to bombard with GNAT bombs towards two of the encampments. The two that we sent ahead didn’t do much, took out a few operators, but the swarms kept coming. We were inundated.

Peter shifts in his seat. He stares off into space, takes a deep breath. He clears his throat. He shakes his head, and absentmindedly his hand finds its way to where his implants used to be. He rubs the spot as if he has a phantom pain shooting through him. The implants were more than anything experimental and although they were very successful, they came with a cost. Phantom pains, seizures, migraines, those were the echoes of the mind-machine integration. Peter takes another deep breath.

My implant was pounding but it was still working. With those, you could see everything, I used to tell Sarge I felt like a god, she’d always reply “There aint no God but the one.” Fair enough, I suppose. When you see an area of 100 square miles in either direction, no … feel an area of 100 square miles, you feel like a god no matter what. You did not want it to fail, you were out, alone, and up a creek without it.

The MOTH was able to see the FQ encampment, Ari called in LCST and artillery support, and sent out a second salvo of reinforcement WASPs from the sapper camp in the rear. It took them WASPs about, I don’t know, maybe about seven minutes to get to the front, which doesn’t sound like much right? Wasn’t like in training. Seven minutes was an eternity, we were getting pelted and the swarms were coming in stronger and stronger tides.

By that time, I was throwing up all over myself and my head had been pounding. We had sent out probably about two dozen GNATs to keep their one-way UAVs off of us, but they kept coming and we were running out. There was only so much the MOTHs and GNATs could do.

Sarge was commanding, she was old to us. Was maybe about 28 or 29, the old lady in the company.  She was tough as nails, been in for 10 as a volunteer. Refused a commission out of her ROTC, I later found out that before the war she had graduated law school, but wanted to fly drones, they wouldn’t let her as an officer, so she enlisted. After the war she passed the bar, now she’s up in New York as a prosecutor, in a suit. Wears a suit every day, I can’t even imagine. Married a sweet girl from Maine, from what I understand, she seems happy …

I remember looking over at her with my sick all over my face. She called in Ari, told him to take over the WASPs, I could feel Ari in my head “Roger that, Sarge.” I fell to the ground, I’m not gonna lie, pissed myself right there. One of the other guys had been grazed in his foxhole, it was O’meara, took one in the leg and the head, he got grazed somewhere, he was bleeding. He was still upright, his exosuit gave him enough strength to stand.

We had sent out the last cluster bombs, we only had local jamming left to protect us. That was the last resort, trying to just pump power into the enemy swarms to see if it would disrupt them. I couldn’t feel Doherty and Garcia anymore, they either lost sync or lost consciousness. Garcia’s wife’s picture would usually flash over the sync when he was scared, but I couldn’t feel either of them on the sync anymore. I looked over toward them, they were still standing in their exosuits, slumped over, I couldn’t see them moving. In my heart I knew what happened to them, I felt trapped, scared. They were 9-foot-tall silhouettes, not moving.

I had to be in shock, yeah. I felt numb. I couldn’t believe what was happening. This sort of thing, it’s unimaginable. You didn’t know what to do, in that situation, you always tell yourself that you would be strong and that you would know what to do. Then people start dying, all these dead guys, buddies. To see death, I don’t know, it’s inconceivable, pure oblivion? You think you are tough? Go-gettem attitude? Not in war. I didn’t know what being a soldier was until then. You don’t know, you have no idea … and they don’t prepare you for it.

Peter’s eyes glass over a bit, and his speech gets more pointed, harder and staccato. He furrows his brow and jabs his finger towards me while he describes war, it’s hard to tell if he’s in pain or he’s angry. His cheeks flush red and his eyes water a bit.

I look at him as he finishes. I take a breath and he stares at me.

Stephen Armitage: What happened next?

Enemy drones got closer and closer to target. Sarge was ripped up, I was yelling and trying to access my swarm, nervousness was death. They did all sorts of studies on the brain back in the day, you can’t access information well when you’re scared or nervous. I started to lose control. The enemy had started breaking through our WASPs, which were almost gone.

I could feel Ari in my head, I could feel his anxiety. He shed weight the bullet magazines from the reinforcing WASPs to increase speed, they were nearly there, they rocketed forward. They were going to be missiles without bullets. He had pushed forward artillery to try to hit the enemy operators, but they were too far out of range. We needed time. Sarge screamed “Martin, goddamn local defense, get on your ass, NOW! Grab your fucking rifle! Ari, help him out, give me the WASPs and call in Judgment, NOW!”

Sarge, the area is too hot. Unlikely Judgment will complete an ascent and successfully execute a bombardment.”

Sarge yelled, “We’ll worry about that, just CALL. IT. IN”

Roger that, Sarge,” I felt.

“Chang, the rest of you, pilot the mayflies and ROACHs or whatever we got left. We have to take out some of those missile and laser batteries. If you’re not flying, you are shooting.” She was angry.

I could feel Ari in my head and opened my eyes, looking up. I could see every vector, every bullet trajectory. It was beautiful, like math made easy, like warfare geometry for the soldier. My arms moved to my rifle and I watched as it pointed toward the enemy drones. Shrapnel fell all around me as drone after drone exploded. My arms burned holding the bucking rifle, I watched as my fingers squeezed the trigger. My head split open in pain. I started hyperventilating. Finally I could feel the WASPs coming from the West, a heavy feeling like your arm going numb, I felt them en masse. That’s what it felt like, honestly. You could always feel the swarms, you know? It felt different for everyone, for me, it felt like a numbness in my regular arms … like my mind was switching feeling over to just a different appendage. My arms dropped and my rifle fell to the ground, my legs gave way and my exosuit responded in kind, falling down onto the armored knees. My breath was coming in ragged gasps, I could feel a panic attack. I could feel the swarms, but my connection to their control was loosening, I was getting farther and farther away as my body became starved of oxygen. My vision started dimming, I could hear Sarge shouting but I couldn’t make out what she was saying. Everything started becoming a tunnel, it got darker and darker and I felt Ari “Wake up and die right, soldier.” My eyes snapped open and the battlefield snapped into focus, a little blurry at first but then it got clearer.

I was on my hands and knees, spitting blood. And I had the worst headache you can imagine … the noise they make, the drones, it’s like a shrill shrieking. I could see our WASPs overtaking enemy drones, a fresh supply of clusterbombs from our Northern platoon had taken out an entire swarm that was about to flank us. The Southern platoon was left to “local defense” as a last resort, but no reinforcements, they were getting hailed upon with shrapnel and hellfire. We split the swarm Southwest with two ROACHs to relieve them. Then I heard the thunder.

Stephen Armitage: Thunder? You’re talking about Judgment?

Peter Martin: Yeah, Judgment. By that point we had broken off and had a good shot at their drone launchers, the Chicoms weren’t the pilots we were. I had put down my rifle and looked up. You know I had never heard it, we all knew about it from swarm school, we knew about Judgment. Nothing prepares you for the first time.

I was crying, but I could hear and feel the thunder in the ground. The implants could sync with a greater view of the battlefield, especially if you were you know, waiting on an orbital bombardment to save your ass. That was Judgment. Molten metal from the sky, delivered at ten times the speed of sound.

America.

Judgment was streaking across the sky from the West, the hypersonic carrier. Twelve “Seraph” missile escorts were going with it. Fast or not, the sonuvabitch needed protection. Sarge had pushed mayflies, ROACH’s, WASPs and whatever else we could muster up to the encampments. The WASPs, without bullets, started kamikaze’ing the missile launchers, lasers, and other defenses.

What was left of enemy lasers and FQ’s pelted the seraphs. The Chinese lasers hit Judgment with everything they had, its ablative armor fell off piecemeal. It was meant to be hit and withstand punishment, but not too much. That’s why we were there, after all. Sarge called it in frankly hoping that we had done enough, and that the guys up in space had got enough resistance cleared to make it happen.

It crept up into the sky farther and farther, it was almost there. I lay back, Ari was tense, I could feel him in my head, my muscles were aching. My face was wet, dirty from flying soil, and my trousers were soaked.

Missile after missile climbed towards judgment as it fell closer and closer to earth.

T-birds in the atmosphere fought off enemy fighters, we could see the battle erupting above. Explosions in the dimming sky, if I concentrated I could feel them, like a pulse in my foot. I squeezed my eyes shut and concentrated.

Judgment only worked if we controlled either air or space, preferably both, but we would take what we could get. The T-birds and the Seraphs had the fight, and they had to win, otherwise it was a fool’s errand. Our fate was in the hands of the pilots on the edge of the world.

I could feel Judgment coming closer and closer to the top of the world. The last of the seraph escorts had smoked out defending it.

Four missiles arched from the East, headed toward the top of the sky. Gleaming in silver, Judgment was naked. It glided over the atmosphere. I didn’t think we were going to make it. It was a “Hail Mary.”

Steel rained down around the squad, our WASPs were splattered into pieces as wave after wave of drone came upon the reinforcements. O’meara was lying still in his foxhole, shockwaves shook him, he was unconscious. Southern platoon wasn’t responding.

Sarge’s exosuit servos got hit, she was dragging her left leg towards cover, her rifle still pointed at the sky, the auto-rifle on the suit pointing with her. She was yelling, I could hear her in my head, but farther and farther away.

The missiles got closer and closer. You could see our birds taking fire in orbit, Chinese K-80’s, their “space superiority fighter,” regrouped with a fresh round of reinforcements from Tianti. Their missiles hurtled towards the hypersonic carrier … Judgment stopped, and hesitated.

I felt it then. For the first time, but not the last, I felt an AI scream, Ari was using my brain as a processor, sending torrents of data through the sky. I would never forget the feeling. It’s like your head is exploding, concentrated thoughts like a javelin into your brain.

Every nerve in my body was on fire, every synapse pulsed and I felt it: “DROP NOW, DROP NOW, DROP NOW, BRIMSTONE, BRIMSTONE, BRIMSTONE” I started convulsing. It was too much to handle. My body was shrieking in pain. It was too much thought, my mind tried to adapt by increasing blood flow, you know, to try to handle all the information, we learned in training they call it the “rush” … caused a severe headache, then tremors, then seizures … if gone on too long it would cause a cerebral hemorrhage. Like a balloon busting in your head. I don’t even want to think about how they figured that one out. I looked up in the dimming sky and through blurred eyes to see the starbursts in the atmosphere. I felt the thunder of its voice as it exploded, it shook me. The four enemy missiles collided with its body and there was nothing but smoke. Judgment got hit.

Out of the cloud, I felt it, with slowing recognition. 60 tungsten rods came plunging through the atmosphere. I felt them like fingers, hurtling towards their targets in the East.

It was beautiful.

Great Vengeance and Furious Anger. Immediately, I felt Ari ease up. The enemy drones turned around and circled back, we could feel them racing through the sky to intercept.

My vision got narrower. My thoughts became dim and slowly turned to black, I tried to stay conscious. My head was splitting, Sarge had grabbed my exosuit and were dragging me away.

“Martin, you okay? Martin, you okay?”

I can’t remember what I mumbled. My head was pounding, my hands were shaking and I could feel my body starting to seize … I was going numb.

I couldn’t feel my body and I faded to nothing.

Stephen Armitage: What happened?

Peter Martin:  Well … hard to say. I woke up about two weeks later, I think. I was in a field hospital in India. I don’t remember much of those first few weeks, you know. O’meara and Sarge came to visit a few times, but I don’t really remember them, nurses told me afterward … we lost Doherty and Garcia and the operator. I think O’meara took it pretty hard. He didn’t really smile or joke around as much after that. And he had a huge scar right across his face, right here (Peter points to a spot right below his left ear down to right above his chin). Didn’t hear him talk about acting after that, I’m sad to say. Of course there were surgeries you could do, but I don’t know. I think he was broken of that. Still a good guy though.

Sarge wouldn’t show anything even if she felt it, but I think she took it harder than we thought. She spent a lot more time with us after that, spent more time talking, more time shooting the shit with us. She had been in Estonia, but got there after the tide had turned … and didn’t lead troops until the Barrel. It was her first time really losing her people.

She was our den-mother, I think after that battle she understood that … I’m not saying she molly-coddled us, she wasn’t a babysitter or nanny, she was a leader and she cared about us. Thankfully, the rest of the war wasn’t as bad as my first time in the Barrel.

I got scratched up a bit along with O’meara and Sarge, but they printed some skin and tissue for them and got them patched up, Chang was the only one that made it out pretty much unscathed.

They sent Garcia and Doherty’s bodies home in the next few weeks. I had the pleasure of meeting Garcia’s wife after the war at the unit’s first reunion, she was a fantastic woman. I told her stories about Garcia and how great of a soldier I thought he was. She seemed happy. They uh, you know, saved some of Garcia before the war, you know, and she did the in vitro thing, had a baby, had his baby. So I guess Garcia ended up being a father after all. A boy, if I recall. The doctors said I was overloaded, you’re not supposed to shoulder an AI for as long as I did. I just narrowly missed a hemorrhage, they had to do surgery to fix the engorged arteries, so they printed more of those, I swear. But my hardware was fried. I got replacement sync implants, upgraded software … felt better. Felt really good. The orbital bombardment took out the five encampments, particular the ones that were underground, and had damaged anti-orbit, anti-air, and anti-swarm defenses. We were able to fly in Judgment after Judgment, and bombarded the Kush and the Barrel. Armor could move closer to the border, and a broad swatch of aerospace was secured and protected. We finally had an established foothold in the mountain near the border, and we were not letting up. We were one step closer to Tianti, but it came with a cost.

The southern platoon was wiped out completely, if Judgment hadn’t come soon we were about to be flanked, it was only a matter of minutes. I found out later that we lost two squadrons of T-birds in orbit, there wasn’t anything we could really do. They cleared the path, they knew the odds, so did we. They knew the risks, so did we. They went willingly, I heard, like sacrificial lambs. It was a debt, collateral … we changed our squad name afterwards. Didn’t feel right after we heard about the T-Birds that were lost, they were the real forlorn hope.

The human mind likes to play god, if there is one. But here’s the thing: Sarge was right, there aint no god but the one, there is only so much a human mind can handle. We are made of this stuff, you know, regular matter. We’re meat. Ari gets it because he was born in data, that’s all he is. We try to stand in both worlds and never really measure up in either.

If he exists, God must be sad to see the loss, the totality of it, sacrifice for the greater good, you know? Painful to see the waste, the futility of it. In our HUD, seeing the drones drop, your squad and other squads go off-line, your sync being emptied as your buddies either die or drop. The sense of loss is just … It’s a lot to deal with, too much. We weren’t meant to be that aware. I certainly paid for it.

I spent a few more days in the hospital and then left.

They didn’t tell me I could, but I did. I hitched a helo and got back to the squad right before they were heading out. I checked out an exosuit, attached two WASP canisters and fell in with them. We sync’d up and I felt Sarge surge, “Good to have you back, try not to piss yourself this time.”

 

Stephen Armitage is a researcher for the United Nations, journalist, and war correspondent.  He can be reached at archivesofthefuture@gmail.com.