This was shamelessly stolen and re-written, without the author's permission, from this article in Small Wars Journal , written (before my editing) by SSG Oren Hammerquist.
The monstrous amount of Derp in the original article has been removed for your protection.
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Senior Chief Special Warrant Kyle Barristan raised an eyebrow as he watched the sergeant survey their equipment. Wisely, he asked permission before entering the ART—Advanced Reactionary Technology—squad tent. Unwisely, the sergeant seemed to have forgotten his purpose and surveyed the ART equipment. By necessity the existence of most of the equipment had been declassified, but ART Squad members—the famed Chrome Caps—still discouraged random curiosity.
The tent offered a great deal to satisfy such random curiosity. Mixed among the Army cots designed in the Vietnam conflict—never fix something that worked—were neat arrays and rows of micro-drones called Skippers and Gnats. Neatly hung to one side were six body armor suits looking like a cross between a wetsuit and a still suit from Dune. Computers and advanced weaponry in a canvas tent—though lined with insulating material—formed a juxtaposition every bit as strange as a smartphone in a World War I trench. Only the six Special Warrant officers—specially trained and selected to use this advanced weaponry—seemed at home both with the technology and without.
The Sergeant who entered the tent didn't look old enough to drink, and he may not be in most states. The silver letter "T" under his stripes indicated he'd entered on a technology rank waiver. He must have at least a bachelor's degree in one of the computer sciences—of which there seemed to be a new one every year—but not a master's yet or he'd be a Staff Sergeant. Since most tech waivers finished most of their college in advanced placement classes in high school, chances were good the Sergeant was twenty or younger.
"Did you need something, Sergeant?" asked Barristan.
"This is from Battalion, sir," the young man replied.
"What do you want?"
"Top asked me to get a translator."
"Why?" Barristan demanded.
"Some Wadi at the gate spittin' gibberish," the Sergeant said.
"Then go ask the translator," Barristan said.
"He's in route to Landstuhl," the Sergeant said. "Got hit on patrol last night. I thought you knew."
The six warrants sighed. This only created more work for them. "I'll send someone right out, sergeant," Barristan said.
Barristan pulled his "chrome cap" from the charging case beneath the bunk. When the eye visor was raised, the assembly vaguely resembled a silver baseball cap with a black bill. Except, of course, that the assembly comprised a helmet rather than a hat. Still, the name "chrome cap" stuck partially due to the choice to wear light-gray berets in uniform.
The front of the mask looked like a cross between a fighter pilot oxygen mask and a chemical protective mask. The goggles, with wearer-selected variable tint, allowed projection of augmented reality (AR) graphics and text alerts. Barriston grew up on classic science fiction, and felt all the helmets needed to look more like a Cylon was a red light running across the eyes.
"We can do that, Senior," said Salish.
Tomms added, "Yeah, you know Liu is the world's greatest conversationalist."
The Chief Special Warrant nodded once without looking away from his book.
Barristan shook his head. "I have to take a piss anyway. This probably isn't good news, so let's get the Skippers and Gnats ready. Check the armor to make sure the batteries are good and the Kevlar is in good shape."
The others nodded and Smith asked, "You actually expecting bad news here?"
"I've never known a local to bring good news," he said.
* * *The heat outside the tent hit Barristan like a wall. Even at the other end of the one-square-kilometer combat outpost, mirages flowed in the heat. Barristan's uncle used to talk about the heat from his time in Afghanistan. Heat played tricks on the body. At 120 degrees, sweat evaporated so quickly that someone walking from a cooled area into the heat felt a momentary chill. That was thirty-five years and ten degrees earlier. Barristan clipped the pistol belt on and donned his gloves.
Barristan turned the corner toward the gate wearing only his pants, t-shirt, boots, and chrome helmet. The local stepped backwards with wide eyes. A gesture from his left hand turned his translator on. As he lifted the goggles, he held up a hand.
As Barristan spoke English, the speaker outside the mask said in Uzbek, "Don't be afraid. It is only a helmet."
The man looked suspiciously for a moment before nodding. Barristan lowered the visor and activated his millimeter-wave scanner. The AR scanner highlighted items of interest inside the man's pockets. The only item of concern to Barristan was a long, thin, curving item hanging from what appeared to be a chain around his neck. It was clearly a knife, but it could be for religious purposes. Or, it could be for him. Best keep out of arm's length.
Translator reactivated, Barristan said, "Can I help you?"
The man spoke rapidly in his native tongue as the suit translated to a machine voice inside the headset. Unfortunately, the words initially made little sense:
This man was not local. It raised a red flag.
"Search dialect," he ordered the onboard computer.
As the man continue to speak in partially translated speech, the computer ran text across his visor. Finally, it said, "Northern Uzbek Colloquial 7: 85%."
Immediately, the man's words began to make sense.
"Can you understand me better now?" Barristan asked.
The man again looked surprised. Barristan knew he wanted to ask how the robot-man could switch to a local dialect; the fact that the man did not say this raised the second red flag.
Barristan wouldn't have tried to explain the helmet even if the man had asked anyway—he'd never do that again. As a Special Warrant, he once tried to explain computers to a farmer who didn't even have air conditioning. Thankfully, declaring people witches was a European thing. By the end of his failed explanation, Barristan himself had begun to wonder if he was a wizard of some sort.
Barristan explained in auto-translated, colloquial Uzbek, "I did not understand you at first. Please tell me again what you need."
"I beg you in the name of Allah to help our village. Men came in with IEDs, hand grenades, and many other weapons. Please. Will you help us?"
Barristan asked, "Where is your village?"
The man gave directions up the main road and left at the first "T.” Barristan promised they would consider it and resolved to himself to take any route other than the one given by the supposed villager.
In the tent, Barristan related the cry for help and the dialect issue. Tomms asked, "You think it's a trap?"
"No doubt in my mind," Barristan said.
"We're going to walk into it anyway, aren't we?" Salish asked.
"Isn't that what Rangers do best, Rick?" Barristan asked.
A ten-legged sniffer drone crawled out from under a table and nuzzled Barristan's foot. Despite looking like the bottom half of a foot-long cockroach, the team considered Odie—OD-E or Observation Drone-Explosives—a pet. It was one of seven which the team deployed on missions, but it was the friendliest one. It was therefore the only OD-E called Odie and had a decent rendering of the Garfield sidekick painted on top.
"I signed up for the cool toys," Smith said, offering her own foot to be nuzzled by Odie. "But I'm always up for a fight."
None of the four highly-educated Special Warrants (the four holding one or more PhDs) could explain the personality exhibited by the sniffer drones. "I want to roll in one hour," Barristan said.
"We'll be down one sniffer," Campbell said. "Wallie picked up some debris on the last search."
"Wallie always picks up debris," Smith grumbled.
"Six is plenty," Barristan said. "Tomms, talk to me about the armor."
"Batteries are charged and I see no damage or abrasions," he said. "I'll give it a once over again anyway just to make sure."
"I can help you," Smith offered. "I'll check magnetic alignment on the rigidizing armor."
"That's good," Barristan said. "Salish, I need you to make sure our translation databanks have all the languages we need. That Uzbek dialect required an uplink to our server."
"No problem, Senior," he said. "I'll check the droid-helmets while I'm at it."
"No you won't, Smith. I want eyes on."
"Roger that, Senior", Smith replied, punctuated with a heavy sigh. It meant she'd be deploying earlier than the others, probably with Campbell for back-up, and running the intel mission. The SOP was to use a wing - six to eight, usually - of Dragonflys. More like "super" Gnats, the Dragonflys were UAVs loaded with sensors, and a couple of the Gnats apiece as sub-assemblies. They'd split up and recon the route they weren't taking - down the main road and through the pass - and the overland choices to help decide the one they would take. Smith would have them meet up at the target site and fly wagon wheels overhead. They could see - and hear - from half a mile overhead, while dropping their Gnats to do a much closer recon of the ville from rooftop height. Their Gnats would also listen in on conversations, and relay them to the server for translation, voiceprint analysis, and to make hard-copy data for the warrants and the intel team to go over. They could even perch on ceilings and walls and become literal room bugs. They'd usually deploy to strategic intersections, but if intel or key word analysis indicated possible HVTs - High-Value targets - they'd automatically slip in and set up watch nearby.
All of that would be received at base, and by Campbell and Smith, both en route, and eventually on station in overwatch before the rest of the team moved up. No one wanted a small-scale repeat of Little Big Horn, and eyes-on made that highly unlikely.
What Smith (and Campbell, though she didn't say it much) didn't like as much was always being the intel and recon section. The senior's answer to that, when he once bothered to give her one, had been logical and succinct:
"1) You need back-up, Smith.
2) You two're the best on the team with the hardware, and Campbell is even better than you at sneaking and peeking.
3) Neither one of you ladies can keep up with the boys overland. Biology still wins. But if you leave early, we can catch up to you.
4) I'm not walking 100 years of post-grad education into a meeting engagement at some Dirtville in Trashcanistan blind, deaf, and stupid.
5) Because we need an overwatch and comms relay to main, no matter what.
6) Because you know I'm right about the assignment.
7) Because I'm the team leader.
So qwitcherbitchin', troop, and get on it."
Smith had made the mistake a second time, and gotten just the last item re-emphasized. She hadn't questioned the senior on the point since. She didn't like it, she just had to do it.
Campbell was already hard at work preparing the 106 drones—50 skippers, 50 gnats, and six sniffers—they would use on this mission. Barristan felt she probably liked drones better than people, but he didn't dare say anything aloud. The drones seemed to like her better than most people too.
Forty minutes later, all six team members donned their form-fitting body armor. The flexible material was a tenth of the weight of ceramic plates used in standard body armor. Despite the reduced weight, it was five times less penetrable than ceramic—capable of stopping multiple AK-47 rounds without damage—and twenty times less penetrable than Kevlar alone. Though the Army called it "liquid body armor," it actually had a gel between the layers allowing it to redistribute force from small projectiles across a much larger surface area. The concept was similar to placing an egg in the palm of your hand and squeezing. It won't break because the force is spread out evenly but you could quite easily push a finger through the shell. A straight pin, even easier.
Some stated that being shot felt like being kicked on one entire side of your body at once. It could also reduce the point impact of a bullet traveling at 2700 feet per second to being shot by an over speed paintball. It left bruises occasionally, but it was better than letting the bullet pass through the wearer's body.
To make the armor even stronger, a layer of fabric filled with metal fibers in mesh weave covered the entire body. When power was applied, this layer became instantly as harder than steel. The most important element of the sensors was the ability to sense explosions and rigidize the entire body. Because the suit must assume only one shape, it pulled the body into a modified fetal position in the event of an explosion.
Smith and Campbell sent the Dragonflys aloft on programmed routes, and struck out behind them towards a good overwatch position selected from terrain maps, while the drones fed a steady stream of all-spectrum intel back to them, and relayed it the team and HQ in real time.
The AR-capable goggles imposed a path on the landscape as they walked. Though this mission used the path (marked in green today) primarily for situational awareness, the suit computers were accurate enough to plot a safe walking path through a known minefield. Every member of the team had tested that system in school; though those mines were filled with paint, they also gave a minor electric shock to remind ACT trainees not to stray from paths marked red.
About twenty minutes behind their recon element, the rest of the team formed up.
"Okay, Salish, turn the sniffers loose," Barristan said.
Though "turning the drones loose" involved choosing the "random" setting, there seemed to be nothing random about the way the drones assembled. As expected, Odie took charge. For some reason, Odie always took charge, which none of the ACT members could explain. Immediately, Race, Drone 6 of 6, sent a message warning of partially degraded operations. Another ghost in the machine, Race always acted as a communications hub.
"What's that mean?" Barristan asked.
"The drones are complaining that Wallie isn't with them,” Liu explained.
The drones had already fallen into an M-shaped formation with Race in the center and rear to aid communications. The legs of the formation pulsed slightly with terrain and search patterns, but they maintained a surprisingly consistent pattern.
Knowing they were likely walking into a trap, the team were understandably quiet. Though whoever had moved into the village expected them to come through the main road—a choke point with plenty of elevated firing positions—they might also have backup plans for the entire perimeter.
Apparently, the silence had become too oppressive for Salish. "So I'm delayed on my dissertation, but I'm getting close again," Salish explained.
"Cut the chatter," Barristan said.
Salish apologized, but the silence became oppressive again. Barristan said, "Okay, go to hyper. Use radio for mission updates."
"Hyper" was a special capability only ACT droid-helmets possessed. In addition to anti-jam radio capabilities, the ACT could turn on hypersonic voice transmitters to translate speech from inside the helmet to sound waves above the human range of hearing.
This system of sound transmissions had several benefits over radio transmissions. First, radio waves could not travel through solid objects like sound waves. Second, the sound transmitter/receiver assembly took a third of the power required for a radio. Third, the sonic system could listen and transmit simultaneously unlike radio.
"I was complete with all my research and I was starting to compile it when someone over at MIT released almost the exact same study on machine language," Salish said. “His study was better. Mine became irrelevant."
A warning from one of the drones, Mr. Crabs this time, interrupted. Barristan turned to see an arrow floating above the landscape in his visor. Mr. Crabs, true to his name, scuttled sideways as it found the perimeter of the buried explosives. AR lines formed on the ground as the drone relayed, through Race, its findings. The boundary of the superimposed-graphic took shape.
"Weapons cache," Barristan said. "Let's mark it so regulars can take care of it. Our mission is onward."
"Senior, good call on the alternate route. We've got about a squad of locals in ambush positions in the pass 3 klicks east of you. Higher is sending us some UAVs for CAS in about two minutes. You want to take them out?"
"Affirm" answered Barrish. "We'll use the CAS attack as cover to enter from the west side of the village."
At just over 300 meters from the village, the team took cover along a wadi.
"Skippers and Gnats," Barristan ordered.
"Skippers" were small bots about the size and shape of a ping-pong ball. Two metal flanges could retract and extend to make them roll and “skip” forward. The bots were "dumb bots" with no artificial intelligence. They had three purposes in life: move forward, stay between 1.99 and 2.01 meters from all other Skippers, and transmit to a correlation server. The "gnats" were little more than flying versions of the Skippers.
A "ready" status blinked in visors and the six checked their arm displays showing the overview of the battlefield. Barristan drew two routes on his pad for the main assault force and flanking force. The other three nodded and prepared to move on his command.
The CAS drones showed up, and started launching heat-seeking rockets at the targets GPS-designated to their IR homing sensors. It was comically one-sided. A dozen fighters were mopped up in the first volley, most with a surprised look that would be on their faces for eternity. One had unwittingly used a large boulder to avoid the initial kill shot, then found a second for another close call as he tried to flee, but the third shot blew him in half when he was caught in the open.
"13 KIA, Senior", noted Smith. "We're clear there. Overwatch on the village is all up."
The radio call arrived at the village a second or two ahead of the sound waves of the explosions.
"Give me smoke," Barristan ordered. The six sniffer drones released their smoke, obscuring the battlefield from potential shooters. Even completely obscured, the visors provided outlines of buildings in AR to the ART team and laid the path on the ground. When a couple of shots were fired through the smoke, the position of the shooters also showed red through the smoke in the team's visor displays.
Team A (the assault force consisting of Liu and Salish) bounded forward out of the smoke into cover, firing on the move. They laid down suppressing fire with 30mm DP grenades set on airburst over the unfriendly positions. The rounds would go over and airburst, or through cover, and really ruin someone's day if they hit anywhere close. If not, they'd keep heads down. Immediately, Team B (the flanking force with Baristan and Tomms) moved to the right within the smoke to a side street revealed by the Skippers. Team A emptied their first magazine (10 rounds each alternating at one second intervals) and dropped again into full cover. Team B rushed forward into the city streets as the four enemy shooters moved out of cover and began to fire.
AR goggles superimposed the live feed of the four shooters through walls as well as friendlies. No chance of shooting one’s own. Silently and without firing a shot, Team B moved behind the shooters and within 100 yards. The weapons contained a toggle switch on the foregrip allowing the team to select targets as their own.
Barristan ordered, "Go." And four weapons fired simultaneously. "Moving in," Barristan said.
Two of the four (Barristan's two) were dead. After scanning the bodies with millimeter-wave scanners, Salish and Tomms rendered aid.
Liu moved forward to sweep past the flanking team in case there were more shooters. The computer added team locations from the Gnat and Skipper feeds to the AR display.
"Senior, we'll need a MEDEVAC for this guy," Salish said.
"Same here," Tomms said. "He's priority."
"Campbell, are we clear?" Barristan asked over the radio.
"Okay, set up a perimeter with the swarm," ordered Barristan. "Have the Sniffers check around too, just in case. Smith, call a chopper if they have it. Tomms and Liu, let's find someone in charge."
* * *The windows and alleys along the streets began to fill with half-seen civilians. Barristan expected this. In towns like this, built of mud walls with wooden supports, the team often inspired fear. The villagers probably lacked the words to even describe what they saw. Barristan walked directly up do one of the men and switched his suit to translation.
"Take me to your leader," he ordered, and the ultrasonic decoder registered laughter from Tomms. Liu never laughed at this joke—and Barristan made it every mission. Then again, the villagers didn't either. Some things did not translate.
Helicopters picked up the two wounded prisoners, Campbell redistributed the Skippers' and Gnats' deployment, and the Sniffers finished a sweep of the town perimeter. Now the four gathered in the center of town waiting for the village leader. Overhead the Dragonflies continued their circuit, forming a tech umbrella under which such a small team could operate far beyond the abilities of larger teams with less organic tech support.
People slowly crept forward now. They would come up and touch what they had been afraid of earlier. Though it still unnerved Barristan, it happened everywhere. Even soldiers sometimes reacted by hiding first and touching second. Curiosity was perhaps the most human of all reactions.
An elderly man hobbled forward and Barristan stepped forward. "I wish you peace, sir," he said.
The old man shook his head. "Leave us."
Barristan assumed the remark was directed to one of the younger men beside him and continued, "There were four terrorists here. There was another squad in the hills to the east. We have removed them and we will remove any other explosives and weapons you do not wish to remain here after them."
"No," the man said. "We wish you to leave. Leave our village. Now."
"Ungrateful sons of bitches," Salish noted. Barristan frowned, but the visor hid this from his subordinate and the ultrasonic hid Salish's words from the villagers.
"We removed dangerous men from your village," Barristan insisted.
"You are devils and you brought evil with you."
"Those men we killed, they were devils," Barristan argued. "If they come back, will you let us know?"
"When you come, they come," the old man said. "They were here because you were here. You will leave us forever or there will be more."
"What? Is he up for re-election?" Liu joked.
Tomms added, "Maybe for lead jackass."
"Cut the chatter," Barristan said. Maybe the villagers couldn't hear it, but it distracted him.
Barristan said, "They asked us to come here and then shot at us. Why?"
The look of anger on the old man's face said either Barristan had said the wrong thing or the computer translated it incorrectly.
“They will not come if you go,” the man insisted. “Go now.”
The crowd now formed a tight circle around the team. The other three began asking the villagers to back away, not interested in being touched. Their pleas had no effect, and Barristan had a bad feeling in the pit of his stomach.
“We must look around your village,” Barristan explained. “We found several places that might still hold weapons, and we must remove them if any are found.“
"We've got a hit!" Smith called in. "92% positive ID facial recognition on a wanted HVT. The woman behind the leader."
Barristan turned to see the woman. As he pointed at her, she pulled and raised a knife in her hand.
On reflex, Barristan drew his M1911 and shot the woman in the head. Now, the crowd scattered. For a moment, the streets were silent. Salish, Liu, and Tomms assumed a four point 360-degree watch.
“Let’s move to cover,” Barristan ordered.
The order came too late. Barristan turned his head just in time to see a black object strike his visor. The glass did not shatter. The polycarbonate outer layer stopped the pebble before it could do any real damage. It took him several seconds to associate the damage with the rock that fell on his foot. Just as he recognized the source, a salvo of pebbles hit the team.
Liu was the only one to name the problem, “Fucking slingshots. Inside the houses.”
The rocks travelled at 60-100 miles per hour: too slow to set off defensive sensors but fast enough to hurt. The scuff on his left side visor reminded him that the relatively slow-moving rocks could still cause damage to their equipment.
The team hurried to the still marked path Team B used to flank. Salish took point. When they came between buildings, the salvo began to include heavier rocks dropped from above.
"They've got a couple of groups ahead on the rooftops", called Campbell from overwatch. "Take the next gap left."
One hundred meters from the edge of the city, Barristan felt hopeful, but his optimism was too early.
"Odie's got a sniff of explosives, direct front! Everyone down!"
The team members suddenly crumpled into the fetal position against their will. The acoustic and infrared sensors processed the explosion before the team even knew it had happened and took actions to protect the team. Mercifully, the automated rigidizing of their suits caused the pebbles to bounce away as if striking steel. The relief was short-lived as the explosion, designed to topple a wall, sent a ton of rock across the alley down which the team would have been travelling in a few seconds.
Barristan used voice commands to switch from translation mode to infrasonic. This would travel through the rubble better than the ultrasonic frequencies.
“Tomms okay for now.”
“Senior, this is Liu. Engaging det team."
Liu snapped off half a dozen grenades through the wall were the millimeter-wave radar traced the wires from the failed blast ambush. Half a dozen staccato bass beats marked the moment the DP grenades shredded the man holding the detonator.
“Liu, can you raise the other sniffers?” Campbell asked. “I'm out of range."
Several seconds felt like an hour. “I got Race,” Liu said. “Apparently Odie left thirty seconds after the explosion. They have arrayed themselves in a perimeter around the ville."
Smith called in: "I've got CAS online if you need it, Senior. Campbell is flanking to the north of my pos; she's got a number of unarmed civvies - men, women, and kids, piling out the northwest side, getting out of Dodge."
“Good work, you two”, Barristan said.
“I didn’t do it,” Liu said honestly. “I wish I had.”
“Odie did it,” Campbell said. Barristan knew she said this on faith alone. Regardless, he didn’t question the assumption.
“We live through this,” Tomms said, “I’m painting a medal on top of that cockroach. To hell with regulation.”
“We live through this,” Salish added, “I’m going to cite him in my dissertation.”
Only three team members laughed.
“We live through this,” Tomms said, “I’m going to slaughter everyone in this shithole village.”
“No you won’t,” Barristan said. “That’s an order.”
“You know what Albert Einstein said?” Barristan asked. “He said that whatever world war three looked like, world war four would be fought with sticks and stones.”
* * *The Sniffer relay system began giving thirty-second updates to the team.
The swarm had cleared the village, and conventional units were moving to surround the refugees and separate sheep from goats. “If you see anyone with a slingshot, shoot to kill!” sent Barrish.
The drones had catalogued any sites needing further investigation: voids in walls or floors, weapons, explosives, and electronic gear like radios or laptops. A follow-on search team was bagging and tagging it all now.
One site, apparently booby-trapped, was blown in place.
The return chopper was already landing outside, and the ART Special Warrants climbed aboard as they arrived. Smith and Campbell had moved up to join the team, and sent the Dragonflies to recon the chopper's likely track home.
The rest of the bots, Gnats, Skippers, and the Sniffers, had been gathered up, distributed, and carefully packed before loading onboard.
They'd taken out a large team here, snuffed at least one HVT, and bagged a truckload of arms and intel, which MI could sort out at their leisure.
The bad guys hadn't seen them coming - this time. But they kept getting more clever each time.
"We can't keep doing this forever" said Barrish to no one in particular. "One day they're going to get lucky. Next time, we wait until dark, and go in with night on our side too."
-- * -- * --
I like my version better, but I'm biased.
It was easier to add and subtract, than to laboriously fisk the derp out of an otherwise decent effort.