We don't run a ton of military-themed future fiction here, partly because it seems that few fiction writers have a deep enough well of experience to project a credible vision of the future of warfare. Today's story comes from Sean Patrick Hazlett, an Army veteran living in the Bay Area, who, needless to say, has that and more; an eye to create a harrowing, adrenaline-boosting, and plausible portrait of the brutal conflicts of tomorrow. Enjoy -the Ed.
The Russians were coming. They had Captain Roland Skaskiw’s Special Forces team pinned down in a forested valley just outside Avdiivka, an industrial town north of Russian-occupied Donetsk. With only three survivors from his original complement of twelve, Skaskiw had been fighting a running battle against Russia’s 37th Motorized Infantry Brigade for over a week.
Wearied not by cold, hunger, or lack of sleep, Skaskiw felt something darker weighing on his soul. His three-year-old daughter, Anna. He frowned at a memory of her squeezing his finger and staring up at him with those innocent emerald eyes; that would haunt him until the day he died.
From the east, a muzzle flash heralded a piercing whine that echoed through the valley. Yet no explosion followed. Skaskiw turned to Perez, his short and stocky weapons sergeant, a powder keg of a man with a short fuse. “The hell was that?”
“Sounds like a 152-millimeter howitzer. Ordnance unknown.”
Skaskiw shrugged. “Hang tight. Extraction’s in one hour.”
Over the past year, the Kremlin had been launching cyber attacks against critical infrastructure, subverting European elections, and using the Black Sea Fleet to aggressively patrol the Eastern Mediterranean. A Neo-Cold War was on the precipice of boiling over into a hot one.
From his cargo pocket, Skaskiw pulled out a ragged photo. He gazed at Anna’s faded image. He kissed her picture and said a silent prayer before banishing the memory once more for the task at hand.
To the west, dozens of white and black specks peppered the gray sky, resolving into coal-black cannonballs swaying from white parachutes.
Skaskiw took a deep breath. The only thing worse than walking into a minefield was having one walk into you.
Short for Scatterable Wide-Area Autonomous Robotic Mines, these sadistic little mamas scared the piss out of Skaskiw. The first time he’d faced them, they’d wiped out three quarters of his team.
Having flared on and off for a decade since Putin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, the Russo-Ukrainian War was heating up again. Skaskiw had come here to collect evidence of Russian violations of the Palo Alto Accords, which had banned offensive autonomous weapons systems. But mission creep had quickly thrust Skaskiw’s soldiers into direct conflict with the Russians. Given NATO’s official policy of non-intervention, Skaskiw’s operation was supposed to be covert. Surrender wasn’t an option.
Skaskiw needed a plan—fast.
Half a klick to the north, he spotted a redbrick schoolhouse. From there, he could blunt the Russian advance long enough to make his escape. Several meters further north, oak and pine trees lined both sides of a paved road stretching from east to west.
The SWARM began touching down behind him, cutting off his western escape route. Skaskiw frowned, then faced his comms sergeant, a lanky, straw-haired Minnesotan. “Talk to me, Jorgensen.”
Jorgensen flipped down his ARTEMIS goggles. The Augmented Reality Targeting and Engagement Mapping Integration System consolidated imaging data from scores of solar-powered centimeter-length autonomous micro-drones loitering overhead.
“Contact! BMPs! Three o’clock. Two klicks out,” hollered Jorgensen. Eight wedge-shaped armored vehicles closed in from the east.
Skaskiw spun toward Perez. “How many SAMs you got left?”
A SAM, or Semiautonomous Attachment Mine, could be preprogrammed to latch onto a specific target and detonate on command.
Skaskiw gestured toward the tree line. “I want SAMs there ASAP.”
Perez popped open a black briefcase and removed eight racquetball-sized SAMs.
Skaskiw pointed at the schoolhouse. “We deploy the SAMs, then hole up and fight from there.”
Perez fastened four small counter-rotating blades on each SAM, then gave Jorgensen a thumbs-up. Jorgensen remotely engaged the SAMs with his goggles. The rotors swirled, lifting the SAMs thirty meters above the ground before they swooped toward the road and veered sharply to either side in equal numbers. Then they disengaged their rotors, launched spring-loaded, retractable spikes on metal wires, and latched onto the trees at chest level.
In the schoolhouse, Skaskiw stumbled upon five scrawny children squatting in darkness. Their slate-blue eyes stared from soot-smothered faces. And in one little girl, he saw Anna.
“We can’t stay,” Perez said.
Perez was right. If they hunkered down here, the children would get caught in the crossfire.
“Mines three hundred meters and closing!” warned Jorgensen.
Perez wiped his brow. “Now what?”
Skaskiw grinned. “Have faith. Here’s the plan: we detonate the SAMs the instant the bulk of the BMP column is in the kill zone, then attack.”
The little girl toddled up to Skaskiw and hugged him. Seconds later, an explosion rocked the building, shaking up flakes of paint and dust.
“Now!” Skaskiw yelled.
Jorgensen detonated the SAMs. Skaskiw kicked open the school door, raising his rifle as he advanced on the unscathed lead BMP. Seven other vehicles lay pinned beneath fallen and splintered trees.
Skaskiw hesitated, second-guessing his decision to leave the children behind.
Two soldiers stumbled from the lead BMP’s rear troop compartment, snapping Skaskiw out of his trance. He shot them, then glanced over his shoulder. Two hundred meters out, mines scurried toward him on mechanical spider legs.
Bullets zipped by. The Russian survivors rallied from beneath the toppled trees, pinning down the Americans behind the BMP.
Perez and Jorgensen raided the BMP’s troop compartment, making quick work of the dazed men inside. Climbing into the turret, Perez gunned down the driver. Then he and Jorgensen tossed the bloody body from the vehicle. Perez slipped into the driver’s hole, Jorgensen commandeered the gunner’s station, and Skaskiw took control of the turret.
Perez aimed the BMP at the advancing minefield. From the gunner’s station, Jorgensen swiveled the turret one hundred eighty degrees and destroyed the seven trapped BMPs to the east. Then he rotated the turret forward again, training its 30-millimeter cannon on the crawling minefield.
“Don’t shoot the SWARM!” Skaskiw had a hunch the mines wouldn’t attack Russian vehicles unless provoked.
The mines maneuvered with uncanny grace, dodging debris and leaping over obstacles like lions, stalking anything that moved.
Suddenly, the children ran out of the schoolhouse and right into the SWARM’s path.
Skaskiw shouted, “Gun it!”
The BMP surged forward. The SWARM advanced. The children froze. A mine exploded.
Skaskiw screamed, “Faster!”
The gap between the SWARM and the children was closing fast.
“Hard right!” Skaskiw ordered.
Perez wedged the BMP between the children and the SWARM. The vehicle squealed to a halt. Skaskiw and Jorgensen scrambled to pull the children aboard; the SWARM, now only meters away.
The little girl stumbled.
Against every instinct, Skaskiw leapt from the BMP and raced to her rescue. As he carried her to the vehicle, a mine clung to his leg. Skaskiw pushed forward, weighed down by the metallic anchor. Jorgensen clutched the girl’s arm and pulled her onto the BMP. More mines grasped Skaskiw, dragging him away.
“Go!” Skaskiw yelled.
Before the mines detonated, Skaskiw watched in satisfaction as the seven lives he’d saved sped toward safety. As the little girl reached out to him, Skaskiw thought of Anna and smiled. He’d failed to save his own daughter. At least he could save someone else’s.