You never actually heard the rounds that hit closest to you. You definitely felt the change in pressure every time a bullet slapped into the far side of the wall, though. Jack looked back at his squad. They were nervous and holding tight to their cover, but craning their necks around looking for an opportunity to return fire.
Something caught his eye to the right. AN41 was moving their way. She scooted over, dropped to a knee, and popped her visor up. She did not need the augmented-reality display—she was “chipped,” like all other Legionnaires—but she had joked that the visor screened the sun out better than sunglasses. Dust clung to the exterior of her armor. Her exo had been “tuned up,” as the soldiers say: she’d taken rounds on her way across the open ground. The impact points were visible on the shoulder and chest, but she didn’t look fazed. A heavy machine gun started thumping away, and the unmistakable sound of quadcopters could be heard from above. She grinned at Jack and the squad, looked up toward the top of the hill, and said, “Here’s the plan.”
That morning Jack had been sitting with the squad during breakfast when his platoon sergeant called to him from across the room.
“Need you to take 3rd Squad and kit up. Meet by the flagpole in twenty—you are picking up security and reaction force duties for a Legionnaire element going up north.”
Legionnaires on the patrol added a layer of stress for everybody. Higher took a major interest in any operation where general-purpose infantry like 3rd Squad were mingled in with members of the Legion.
Twenty minutes later, the squad was by the flagpole in full kit. It had been “on call” for Legionnaire missions twice before, but never gone forward with them on patrol. This would be different.
It would also be their first trip up north toward the Donovian border.
Jack looked up as a young Army major, in multi-cam with sleeves rolled up at the cuffs and a bright smile on her face, walked over to them. This was a thing with Legionnaires; they were such disgustingly nice people.
“Sergeant Adams, I’m AN41.” Another thing about these guys; Legionnaires only introduced themselves by call sign. This did not help eliminate the image that they were mostly robots.
“But most of my crew calls me Annie.” She smiled and extended her hand. Jack shook it.
“We’ll keep it at Forty-One, ma’am.” He wanted to display the highest professionalism.
“Thanks Sergeant A, appreciate your helping us on this one—we’re not expecting any drama, but once we get up into Otso, never hurts to have the extra help.”
Jack knew these super-soldiers didn’t need his squad as extra help, but he appreciated the gesture. Many years ago, Jack’s brother had been a Legionnaire. Jack himself had gone through the assessment, but it hadn’t worked out. Fewer than 200 Legionnaires existed in the force; the rate of selection was ridiculously low.
But it meant Jack had a pretty good idea of the capabilities and type of people that ended up with the chip. He was looking at three of them right now. Just behind AN41 were the other two Legionnaires on the team; there were always three. And just behind them, he could see the folded legs of three quadrupeds on a trailer being pulled by their support vehicle. He could guess what was inside the housing bumps on the back of each q-ped, and doubted these Legionnaires needed anyone to be watching their back.
“No sweat, ma’am ... We are ready to roll.”
“Sounds good. Split up between the lead and trail truck, and if you can ride up front with me, we can get caught up before we get outside the bubble. We’ll real-time distro the guidance to your team’s internal channel and visors.”
The squad split up, and Jack walked to the lead vehicle. It was built for speed more than for protection—a mashup of a five-ton truck and a dune buggy, with a minimum of armor. AN41 was adjusting her exo and helmet when she looked up without a smile.
“Jack, I apologize ... The MIND just passed me your background. I wanted to let you know your brother was an amazing individual and leader. He put me through the course. It is truly an honor to meet you—he was a hero.”
It had started with driverless cars. The first ones were a novelty, but it was the ability to network them, and the resulting decrease in accidents, that led to the opening. Who doesn’t want their kids to be safer? And if you have a million autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles, wouldn’t you want a powerful AI to help coordinate them? Simple but large-scale AI systems, mandated by governments as a public safety measure, became a natural overlay of the social and political environment.
But the well-intentioned regulations of Western governments also created an impetus to “democratize” AI development, to reduce the risk of any one political power using it as a weapon. And democratization made it free and available for actors who would use the technology for their own agendas.
That created the perfect conditions for what folks now call the Continental Wars between Donovia and Otso. With powerful and free AI crunching numbers, probabilities, and potential strategies instantaneously, a billion regressions on a particular course of action could lead you to some pretty confident and horrible decisions. It was only a matter of time until a weakened state was told by its AI that outcomes could only be changed by acting with violence.
The war came to a stalemate: a long DMZ along the “new” border of Donovia. In the meantime, both sides patrolled, competed, and wrestled in a buffer zone. It was not quite full-on war, but it certainly included plenty of small-unit skirmishes.
During the conflict’s decisive action phase, the United States learned the hard way about the strengths and weaknesses of AI-networked systems. The US built the world’s most powerful AI entity, referred to as the MIND. The MIND had to represent the best of the values of the American Republic. The US knew humans were always the weakest and slowest point of decision-making, but they could not just turn over power to machines. So it created the Legion.
The concept was simple. The best way to ensure the MIND did not become a tool for efforts fundamentally incompatible with human values was to embed and meld the MIND with humans themselves. Soldiers made the ideal first candidates for incorporation of the MIND. The American people generally had more confidence in the military than in other political institutions, and you needed a group of young, willing humans to actually execute the concept.
A specially selected set of individuals would take on this responsibility and ensure that the power of the MIND was kept out of the hands of the wrong people. It would be a military organization made up of the best leaders, with exceptional character. The candidates could come from anywhere—college, the State Department, nonprofits, or within the armed services—and were chosen in a selection process that forced hard decisions under stress. The system was designed to allow an individual’s moral and essential values to bubble to the top. Legionnaires had networked devices implanted into them, and the two forces—man and machine—balanced out as one. Near-omniscience from access to the MIND, and an ethical code that prevented purely mathematical decision-making: this was the Legion.
The chipping process required months of surgery. Small scars around all of the Legionnaires’ ears indicated augmentation for their hearing; Jack had heard they now had an enhanced sense of smell too. But the technological game-changer was the integration directly with the human brain.
Of course, you had to hope the selection process picked individuals with the right core values. The chance of selecting the wrong person was always present. So a failsafe was built in: only three living Legionnaires, acting in concert, could access the resources of the MIND. This tactical check-and-balance theoretically reduced the risk of any single Legionnaire becoming compromised by the power or becoming an unwitting servant of the MIND.
The vehicles bounced down the road, but active suspension eliminated the jouncing. Everyone still instinctively leaned left and right when the vehicle mounted difficult terrain, even though the crew compartment barely moved at all.
AN41 turned to look at Jack. She didn’t need to drive—or at least she wasn’t looking at the road. Jack didn’t understand how, but he knew the MIND guided the vehicle and would alert AN41 to certain parameters or environmental changes that required her to return her eyes to the road.
In fact, Jack wasn’t even sure how much she needed her human eyes. The vehicle was packed with sensors of all varieties: visual, electromagnetic, short-range radar. All were constantly analyzed and integrated through the MIND, which alerted human attention to anything above a certain suspicion threshold.
“Sergeant Adams, let’s lay out the plan here,” AN41 said. “We are headed north, just inside the contested area of Otso.” She pulled over a map board and highlighted a location in the valley.
“We know there is an ongoing effort to disrupt the current ceasefire by our adversary. We also know that somehow this valley, this town in particular”—she pointed at the map again for emphasis—“is a major focus for their recce efforts.”
Legionnaires commonly said things like this: “We know.” It meant the MIND had run the sims, billions of regressions, and identified a place on the map like this town, with a population of fewer than 7,500 people, that might be identified as crucial to the outcome of something.
“We’ll run a multi-day patrol there, identify the methods the adversary is using to influence the population, stop them if possible, but also bolster confidence in the community that the coalition can protect them and ensure basic security and governance.”
Jack nodded and made notes he could pass on to the squad. Everything she said was being piped into his soldiers’ helmet comms two vehicles back, but the squad had two brand-new privates, and there was no technology solution to prevent soldiers from falling asleep immediately upon seating themselves inside a vehicle.
“The surrounding area is heavily contested,” AN41 said.
This was Legionnaire-speak for high-intensity conflict and violence. The Continental War itself had been incredibly lethal: new weapons, new technology, employed at speed. But it had also been quick. In the current political stalemate, the “heavily contested” areas could go to high-end lethality almost instantly. AN41 meant this could get sporty, but not a small-arms gun fight. She was saying they could get thumped by rockets and high-end killer quadcopters.
“We’ll stay along this route until just outside the main population center in the valley. Then we’ll dismount the q-peds and move up separate from the vehicle and isolate from the high ground. Once set, we’ll go into the village and see what we can sort out.”
Jack nodded and looked to her for more guidance, but her eyes glazed over. Something coming across the network was chewing up her human bandwidth.
Jack toggled his screen to a rear-facing view and observed the rest of the patrol. Three crew vehicles, with the rearmost one pulling the q-ped trailer. He noted quadcopters landing on the center vehicle, taking on a battery reload, and then lifting off again to resume station some distance away from the convoy. At any given time, four quadcopters were in the air running a diamond pattern. At least two were armed with direct-fire systems or short-range missiles.
He was seeing their video feeds on his screens and in his AR visor, but he knew AN41 could use her chip to sort of see the feeds in her brain. He also knew she wasn’t dedicating much time or focus to it, because the MIND would monitor the feed and spot trouble in the quads’ integrated sensor data.
The robotic centerpiece to Legionnaire operations was the q-ped. They were about as big as a Clydesdale horse or a medium-size camel. Each carried a coffin-like box on its back with large, hinged bay doors. These folded down to reveal a variety of payloads: anything from additional quadcopters to short-range-missile racks to medical and treatment capabilities. Jack had no idea how many variants existed, but he knew they were rumored to have hauled small tactical nukes during the decisive-action phase against Donovia.
The three q-peds were behind Jack now, all riding on the trailer with their legs tucked under them like sleeping canines, no observable markings on the mission package boxes on their backs.
He dozed, lulled by the almost imperceptible swaying of the crew compartment, but woke up when he heard the chimes.
“Jack, toggle to QC-1 feed,” AN41 said. She was staring blankly ahead, lost in whatever info the MIND was pushing her. He toggled to the quadcopter feed so he could see what she was seeing.
The scene before them looked pretty rough. Ahead, Jack counted the remnants of several houses and at least three vehicles that had been hit with some type of explosive weapon. An Eastern European–looking station wagon was on fire. Multiple Otsoian bodies were strewn about, and most were heavily burned.
“We’ve got movement on the north side of the burned-out wagon. You have contact with my pointer?” Jack saw the infrared dot she was beaming out of QC-1. It was on his screen, hovering on a moving human just north of the truck.
“Contact pointer,” Jack responded.
“Let’s dismount your squad and move ... here.” She moved the red dot farther to the north along a wooded area that would be the natural avenue of escape if this individual wanted to split.
“Got it. Moving.” Jack spoke the words into his helmet mic while bailing out the side of the vehicle and jogging back toward the rest of the squad. He did a quick press check on his rifle and signaled his squad to rally and follow him. He headed toward the northern wood line.
The whine of the quadcopters died away as they picked up a larger orbit around the patrol. AN41 had pushed them out to distance. She was experienced, and this smelled like trouble. She dismounted, and one of the q-peds immediately stood up from the trailer and trotted over to her left shoulder. AN41 was about five foot five on a good day. The eight-foot-tall q-ped towered over her.
The other two Legionnaires were nowhere to be seen, but the other two q-peds had disappeared from the trailer.
AN41 didn’t appear to be taking any great tactical precautions as she moved up on the last known location of the person they had seen from the air. A door burst open from the one of the houses, and a child flopped out to the ground at her feet.
The boy looked to be about nine years old and in tremendous distress. AN41 crouched down next to him, her exoskeleton’s knee actuators making a soft whine as she did so. The boy was covered in grime and sweat. He held his left arm up in a half-hearted defensive gesture as AN41 spoke quietly to him.
Jack noticed that the boy’s clothes and hair were matted with the fine dust that you see settle after buildings are pulverized with high explosives, or after a massive earthquake.
The boy shivered and spoke in a language unrecognizable to Jack but clearly processed by AN41’s chip; she nodded and pointed around the scene in conjunction with the boy’s murmurs.
Her connection to the MIND gave her access to a translation and behavioral gesture application that put previous versions to shame. The MIND would ingest the boy’s statements and provide AN41 with the most appropriate response, based on what it judged the best course of action for the mission. AN41 was still a human, though, and she could choose to adjust the strategy on the fly by instinct, and the MIND would adapt.
And right now, her body language said something didn’t fit.
The boy continued to talk and pointed up the slope, to another set of villas and compounds about half a klick away, built directly into the mountainside. He held up two fingers, pointed at himself and at them. Parents? Sisters? He pointed again to the middle compound on the slope and stood up. He tugged on the right forearm of AN41’s exoskeleton armor, which contained her close-combat and backup weapon, a 40-caliber single-barrel direct-fire system. The boy started walking up the slope.
“Team, this is AN41. Deploy for contact. We are going to move up and check this out.”
Even as she moved, Jack knew, her connection to the MIND was adjusting the strategy and feeding new recommendations into her chip.
“Jack, can we get some overwatch on the two smaller compounds to the east?” AN41’s voice came over helmet comms, but he was watching her face. She was “speaking,” but her mouth never moved; the voice was computer--generated to sound just like her. Jack called up his B Team leader and sent the team to a small, low wall about a quarter of the way up the slope that offered some frontal cover and good sight lines across the entire eastern side of the compound.
The other two Legionnaires had reappeared, and now they started going up the slope on opposite sides. Each had a q-ped in close proximity. Neither was looking at AN41 as she made her way up the middle, behind the boy.
Jack was trying to figure out why the Legionnaires had chosen to take this detour when he heard a computer-generated alert in his comms. “Take cover. Take cover.”
In an age of networked sensors and weapons systems, everything happened at a speed humans were not built to manage. There was no bright, hot light from the high explosive. There was no whine from quadcopters, and no bark from machine guns. There was just a feeling of overpressure and the sound of air being split by a projectile.
Behind them, one of their vehicles exploded. Jack was diving toward a large rock to his right as multiple things began to swirl around him. Each of the housings on the back of the q-peds had opened up. AN41’s q-ped began flinging countermeasures into the air with a sound like a child’s scream. Less than three seconds had passed.
The easternmost q-ped put three short-range missiles in the air while the westernmost one revealed a monster 25mm direct-fire system under its housing and began blasting through a window more than 300 meters up the slope with incredible accuracy.
Jack hit the dirt. Now seven seconds in.
More overpressure. AN41’s q-ped exploded.
Jack suspected he knew the system they were up against. It was exceptionally rare to bump into a mobile railgun that accurate, that small, and with that rate of fire. They had stumbled into some trouble here.
Five more seconds had passed. Now came the barking report of a machine gun and the shrieking of a short-range-missile swarm. These could loiter, swarm, even chase if needed. There must have been three dozen in the air—Jack didn’t know if they were his side’s or the enemy’s.
The westernmost q-ped broke station and headed down to cover AN41 as she moved toward the low wall where Jack’s B Team was cowering. He crawled over to join them and pulled himself up behind the wall as she came and took a knee next to him. Machine-gun rounds pinged off the q-ped with no visible effect, but making a tremendous racket.
AN41 popped her visor up. Dust clung to her armor. The impact points from the rounds were visible on her exo’s shoulder and chest. She grinned. “Here’s the plan.”
She was interrupted, amid the din of missiles and machine-gun rounds, by a very human scream. The boy, almost forgotten about, had been a little farther up the slope from them when the shooting had started. Now it sounded like he’d been hit. As his screams continued, AN41 jumped the wall and moved toward him. She hesitated as she closed on the boy. The moment’s delay was enough.
AN41 dropped as if someone had flipped off her light switch. The other two Legionnaires reacted instinctively when she was hit and broke cover for just an instant. Both were immediately dropped. Suddenly, all fire from the top of the hill shifted to the low wall.
“Jack. This is Annie.”
“Moving your way, 41.” He motioned for Team B to cover him as he prepared to leave the shelter of the low wall.
“Jack.” Her voice on his internal audio was calm and steady, but insistent. “I want you to hold what you’ve got.”
Jack was breathing heavily; the stress of being under fire, combined with the exertion, had his ears ringing and heart pounding.
“Jack, you know what it wants. It needs to take all three of us alive. It will kill the rest of your squad and then come down here and collect us.”
Three more enemy quadcopters began to move lower on the horizon. Another q-ped exploded from a railgun shot. The last q-ped’s active suppression was going crazy, flinging small projectiles into the air at an unsustainable pace.
“Jack.” This one was firm; she sounded different. “I’m offline with my team. They may be unconscious.”
“I’m also paralyzed,” she continued.
“Jack, we’ve got about 90 seconds here. The Q is down to projectile countermeasures, and those quadcopters are going to chew you all up once it runs out. This was a damn good trap. And I walked us right into it.”
“41, we’ll have fast movers up here ... Just keep hanging on.”
“Jack, CAS is 20 minutes out. We don’t have much time to discuss. I need you to do what you have to do—what someone did for your brother.”
Jack momentarily flashed back to the man in uniform handing a US flag to his mother. He had heard the stories, but he hadn’t wanted to believe Ben had gone down like this. He had been too good.
The quadcopters were screaming in now.
Annie had her helmet off and her eyes closed. Her mouth wasn’t moving, but Jack still heard her in his ears.
“Jack. Thirty seconds. Make it count.”
“Can’t do this, 41. Not in me.”
“No time for that, Jack, this is bigger than you. This is why your squads come out with us. The MIND can’t do this for us, but you can.”
The last two quadcopters were spitting fire now, but Jack couldn’t hear it. Time was slowing down.
You never really hear the rounds. You just feel the pressure as they impact around you. Jack rolled to a nearby opening in the low wall, his optic integrated with the visor. He fired twice and rolled back, but not before catching a glimpse of the boy, clearly unhurt, running up the slope toward the compound. He must have been chipped too, Jack realized—the only way he could have played his part so perfectly in an otherwise entirely automated ambush.
Immediately after Jack shot Annie, the firing stopped. The swarm of missiles dropped to the earth, dead lumps of metal. The quadcopters turned and flew off, their buzzing echoing down the valley as it faded.
Colonel Jasper Jeffers is an infantry officer who has been deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. This story won the 2019 Science Fiction Writing Contest run by the Army Mad Scientist Laboratory, a US Army initiative that discusses warfare with academia, industry and government. A longer version was first published by the Modern War Institute on its website.