As Above, So Below
The Defense of Vietnam in 2035
In honor of the one year release anniversary of my novel EX SUPRA, I’ve decided to release another chapter as a free standalone.
Admin notes: This week I’ll be publishing an article reviewing the main policy and technological predictions, and how they’re holding up one year later. Think of it as checking my homework. Also, be on the lookout for the EX SUPRA audiobook, coming very soon!
“As Above, So Below” takes place during the first 6 months of the war between the US and China in 2035. The Allies are holding a defensive line against an advancing PLA just north of Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam. Our protagonist is an infantry squad leader with the US Army’s Third Infantry Division, trying to hold his ground and keep his soldiers alive until the sky comes crashing down around him.
“As Above, So Below”
12th PARALLEL, VIETNAM
1020L 11 NOV 2035
The roar of ChiCom fighter jets overhead was the first sign that something had gone terribly wrong. The rapid thuds of air-dropped ordnance in the distance were the second. Then the artillery started raining down, the screams of his fellow soldiers nearly harmonizing with the screams of the airburst rounds pounding 3rd ID’s position on the 12th parallel. The Rock of the Marne stood strong in the face of overwhelming Chinese firepower. The concussions never seemed to end with American soldiers enduring alternating salvos of drone swarms and conventional artillery as the PLA probed their lines. The sweat, salt, and mud obscuring his vision while he tried to get a feel for his cratered surroundings. The constant concussive waves knocked most of his AR feeds offline, so he was largely left relying on his own two eyes in the early dawn of the jungle. A dismount squad leader in Alpha Co. 3-15 IN out of Ft. Stewart, GA, SGT Spire wasn’t too fond of sitting out in the open, but that was doctrine. The Active Protection System (APS) on their Schwarzkopf infantry fighting vehicles (IFV’s) required a 30m safety distance and sitting, cramped, inside one when taking indirect fire risked losing too much firepower with one lucky hit. His squad’s fortifications were impressive but even with the ample construction time and resources provided, they could only withstand so much. Despite literally being the most northern unit in Vietnam, 3-15IN was not yet afforded the infrasonic anti-projectile systems that higher headquarters hoarded for itself. Spire wondered if it wouldn’t benefit everyone if brigade lost a few extra staff officers. A much closer staccato of thuds woke him from his cathartic daydreams: the McMaster MBTs down the line opened fire on some unknown ChiCom probing element. The pride of the Army, the McMaster’s optics could see out three times as far as Spire’s or his platoon’s Schwarzkopf IFVs. The jungle terrain was dense, dark, and treacherous, and it hardly matched the Korean Peninsula terrain for which his unit trained before this war broke out.
At first, the rhythmic tank fire soothed his nerves. He couldn’t quite see the whole battle, but he hoped the lack of accurate return fire meant that the American tankers were hitting their targets and repelling the advancing PLA. While he had some anti-tank weapons of his own, as a flesh and blood infantryman Spire was inherently averse to facing enemy armor head on. Without friendly armor support, he and his soldiers would not make it awfully long against the PLA onslaught that so far rolled over and through American lines in Korea and the Philippines during the first six months of the war. Not that his unit had trained for this fight. Before the war broke out, they were set for another peacetime rotation to Camp Abrams just south of the New DMZ in Pyongyang. Do some good training, drink some soju, enjoy the four-day weekends to Seoul. Unfortunately, the Russians and Chinese had other ideas.
Vietnam was not the jungle it had been during the Americans’ first war in the country, decades of rapid economic growth and urbanization transformed the country famous for rural insurgency. Still, a few miles outside of Cam Ranh Bay, Spire’s soldiers found themselves in incredibly dense jungle that would be considered impassible for armored vehicles by most. But someone, somewhere, had remembered the lessons of Vietnam’s former colonizers, and feared infiltration through the jungle that would lead to the encirclement of the city to Spire’s southeast. With the different environment came different weapons and gear. Spire’s squad was outfitted with equipment mostly conditioned for the harsh jungle climate, at least that was what the labels promised. In truth, his electronics and optics still suffered under the tropical heat and humidity, not to mention the damage the tropics did to his most casualty producing weapon: the M15A1 Railgun. The M15A1 was the first generation of railguns that could be assembled, transported, and fired by dismounted infantry. It was sold to Congress as this century’s Maxim. It was, however, incredibly difficult to maintain under fire. The M15A1 fired a 25mm tungsten carbide round that required the assistant gunner to wear a mechanical exoskeleton to carry a combat load of ammunition. Not only was the round heavy but the barrel had to be changed out after every round and this climate meant an AG carried 3-5 barrels for consistent, effective fire. Consistent and effective being relative doctrinal terms. While Spire’s squad was far enough from the beach for the salt air to be less of an issue, it was a serious problem when his battalion first landed in Vietnam. Spare parts for the exosuits and the guns themselves were in short supply, and the salty mist and humidity ate away at the existing supply long before the battle even began. Rust was as much a threat as the PLA. New supplies were supposed to arrive with the American fleet, but the PLA arrived first.
Spire needed his M15s to stay online for as long as possible; they were the only effective anti-tank weapons afforded to his squad. Unlike their old Javelins, the railguns could punch through the dense jungle with the force of an elephant at 2000m. At that distance, however, he had to rely on his two UAV operators to guide his gunners on target. A Javelin couldn’t target and punch through the jungle canopy but the advanced optics on his reconnaissance “Mosquito” drones sure could do the job. The little quadrotor drones’ optics package combined thermal cameras with foliage-penetrating radar to calculate a firing solution for the gunners who had little more than 200m sight on the clearest days. Unlike their flimsy fixed-wing predecessor, the Raven, the Mosquitos were stable, all-weather craft that could take off and land anywhere. Whatever he couldn’t see with his own eyes, his 11U’s (US Army code for an infantryman that specialized in drones) would identify for his gunners. Spire hoped this long-range firepower would keep the enemy out of rifle range and his soldiers relatively safe. As the tank volleys echoed in the distance, however, Spire’s hopes vanished with reports of enemy infiltration within 1500 meters. At least we have the high ground.
What the US military so far failed to understand, however, was that the high ground meant more than the simple height of a hill. It meant more than controlling the skies. It meant controlling local orbit and working your way down through each layer of defense. A ground commander had three flanks: left, right, and up. Move too far forward without a security element covering each direction and you were exposing yourself on the ground and in orbit. Just as armies of the past had to contend with overstretched supply lines or lack of air cover, now they had to factor in a flank that they often couldn’t even see with the naked eye until it was too late. Given the speed and persistence of orbital operations, measuring in hundreds of miles per second, the ultimate high ground could change hands several times before ground commanders could even react appropriately. As a lowly squad leader this was above Spire’s pay grade, but it didn’t make him any less nervous. Incoming! Enemy 105mm high-explosive rounds slammed into the hillside right in front of Spire.
Before he could order his gunners to engage, Schwarzkopfs to his left and right started firing. Still no machine gun fire, meaning Spire could feel more confident that what his drone guys saw was what the IFV gunners were seeing: no PLA infantry.
The 50mm cannons on the Schwarzkopf dealt serious damage against the medium tanks the PLA fielded for jungle, urban, and mountain operations. The PLA tanks outranged the Schwarzkopf’s guns but according to intelligence reports the Type 05 Sparrow performed poorly when shooting on the move, thus giving the advantage to the dug-in soldiers of 3-15 IN. The challenge would come when the ChiCom infantry moved in for the close fight. Sure, Spire now had excellent fields of fire for his automatic riflemen thanks to the enemy foliage-clearing artillery barrage, but those clearings also exposed him to rifle fire at a distance that he was not comfortable with if he was to face crack PLA troops. If the enemy closed in, it would get bloody fast and would likely end in brutal hand-to-hand fighting. He reflexively felt around for his knife just at the thought of staring into the whites of the enemy’s eyes. The splintered jungle and burned-out brush meant the element of surprise for his dismounts was now lost in the last hundred meters instead of the tens. The enemy might have lost foliage for the element of surprise up close but now targeting the Americans would be even easier for the PLA.
The intensity of cannon fire from the Schwarzkopfs and McMasters died down about an hour after the first reports of the enemy within 1500m. It seemed that 3-15 IN had successfully repelled the PLA’s first attack. Maybe it was just a reconnaissance-in-force. Comms were full of overconfident elations, his idiot LT the loudest of them all. He proclaimed them to be the 21st century “300” Spartans standing strong against the Eastern Hordes. Spire wondered if the dumbass knew how that movie turned out for Leonidas and his men. Still, Spire took the downtime to have his soldiers switch out on security, repair weapons, and get some food and water in them. The fight might not be over but any break in the action had to be exploited. Spire was less confident in his unit’s success than he was worried about the next attack. The first attack was far less intense than he expected, and he expressed his doubts of victory to his team leaders. He wondered aloud if the “assault” had merely been enemy probing, raising the ire of his platoon leader. It did seem odd that with the airspace still contested, the PLA would mount an offensive. In all the previous PLA attacks that Spire had studied, they never launched their main assault until vertical superiority at the strategic and tactical levels was achieved. Spire’s drones were still in the air and the F-35s were still flying out of the airbase to the southwest. He wasn’t sure about orbital ISR (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance) elements but he hadn’t seen the sky come crashing down around him just yet.
As the sky grew dim, so did the odds of a peaceful night for Spire. His drones were actively fighting off PLA hacking attacks and the sky roared with PLAAF and USAF engines dogfighting high above Spire’s position. As the sun set and the moon rose, Spire decided to break out the stim packets for his entire squad. He couldn’t afford even one sleepy-eyed soldier right now, even if stims were only advised for movement and maneuver. The stims kept soldiers alert and focused without the side effects of caffeine, but that didn’t mean they were without their downsides. The reason they were only meant for assaults and movements was that soldiers under the influence of the stims in defensive positions often became too trigger happy, and at night the stims greatly increased the likelihood and risks of autokinesis. Every infantryman is warned about the “shadow people” in basic training: the hallucinations that haunt soldiers as a result of sleep deprivation and low light settings. “The shadow people are your friends, Privates.” Spire recalled the senior drill sergeant warning his platoon as they marched deeper into the woods of Georgia under a moon just like the one that lit the sky above him tonight. Upon reflection, he’d still rather have trigger-happy privates than ones that fell asleep while the PLA closed in on his position.
A minor perk of the PLA’s morning artillery barrage was that Spire now had a magnificent view of the heavens above. He’d always loved stargazing and the misery of war didn’t change that one bit. As a kid, he would take his sisters on weekend camping trips in upstate New York. His parents were always drunk or high, so they never missed the kids. Some years later, here he was stargazing in Vietnam like his grandfather had likely done before him at Khe Sanh. On the precipice of disaster, Spire could still marvel at the faint glow of the Milky Way in all its majesty. The only obstruction of his wartime observatory was the occasional orange arc of some war machine screaming up above, reminding him of the dark reality which surrounded him down below. He wondered if some PLA squad leader was doing the same as he on the other side of the battlefield. Spire quickly shook it off, humanizing the enemy did him no good. He carried on counting the stars and satellites in orbit above him, drowning out the war below with memories of a slightly more peaceful existence.
A few hours later, Spire found himself slapped awake by one of his team leaders, the corporal pointing at the sky and barely able to put together coherent sentences. Helluva time to take a bad stim. The adrenaline kicked in as his vision focused on the night sky. Oh shit. Oh fuck. Oh shit. What he saw in the heavens kicked his system into overdrive. He scrambled over the jungle mud, gripped his rifle and his comm link tight, cranking up the volume as the net lit up with confusion and terror from the whole platoon.
The sky was falling right on top of him. The real attack about to begin. The Milky Way’s majesty drowned out by burning skies. Fireballs flew in every direction as debris from the orbital battle reentered the atmosphere. Spire wondered if this was what the dinosaurs had seen before their demise.
Right on cue, his 11U’s reported taking fire from enemy quadrotors, the sky lit up with a rainbow of tracers as the drone operators engaged in aerial knife fights inches above the jungle. The scream of artillery split the ears of every soldier and the concussive forces of PLA shells once again rocked the American lines. The Schwarzkopfs returned fire, the slow-firing 50mm cannons competing with the bursting shells for what was left of his hearing. Thud. Thud. Thud.
“Sarnt! Sky’s blind! ChiComs got us in the canopy.” Fuck.
With his drones down, the range on his M15s was limited to the no man’s land and the shitty FLIR optics that could see just beyond the dense jungle tree line. His AR feeds were down again as the artillery rained; his situational awareness restricted to his already overloaded biological senses. The barrage continued for nearly two hours, followed by a seeker drone swarm that while terrifying, was successfully pushed back by the battalion’s electronic warfare team without incident. The tanks owned the rest of the night as bursts of cannon fire erupted across the jungle. Still no enemy infantry in sight. Spire remained more target than shooter.
Soon the stars went the way of the American ISR in local orbit and the sun rose once again over the battlefield. The blazing tropical heat bore down on Spire’s squad with an intensity akin to that of the enemy’s artillery throughout the night. He was beginning to think about his secondary battle position, and if his idiot PL would ever make the call to retreat to a less exposed location. He hoped the CO would force it down the fool’s throat. If the CO was even still around. Comms were still acting fucky and Spire had not yet heard word of the unit’s casualties from the bombardment. A few of his men were rattled and a couple had minor shrapnel wounds, but all were fit to fight. He had trained them well; the rest of his company was not nearly as lucky.
In his morning sync with the LT, he was informed that not only was the company reduced to 60% combat effectiveness, but at least two of the platoon’s 50mm guns were in bad enough need of repair that they had to be taken offline. That meant that two of the Schwarzkopf’s were reduced to little more than hulking machine gun turrets. The jungle climate continued to wreak havoc on machine and man alike.
Spire’s squad spent the better part of their day performing the usual tasks like weapons and fortification maintenance, but only so much could be done to secure themselves from the next barrage. Only so much rock and dirt could be carved out and only so many trees could be chopped down for cover in one location without taking away from another team. What remained unclear was why there was even another barrage to be waited on. Spire fully expected to be hit by the main Chinese force last night and his informal discussions with the rest of the platoon’s enlisted leadership confirmed that they expected the same. All he could hope was that whatever was holding off the ChiCom attack lasted long enough for the fleet to arrive before PLA armor broke through the American lines.
At around 0200 local, the American fleet arrived off the coast of Vietnam. With the PLA’s coastal missile batteries disabled by American special operations forces, the fleet gathered just beyond the horizon of the beautiful, blood-stained Vietnamese beaches. As soon as it arrived on station, the Ford Carrier Strike Group went to work hammering the PLA-occupied northern coast, the arrival of additional orbital ISR guiding the American planes and missiles on target. The Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) meant to hit the beaches and help encircle the PLA north of the 12th parallel gunned for the coast a few dozen miles north of SGT Spire and 3-15 IN’s lines. Unfortunately, they never made it.
When the PLAN’s underwater quantum mapping network sensors picked up the American fleet a few days earlier, Southern Fleet HQ dispatched attack subs from Hainan carrying the PLAN’s new Piranha drones for a trap. As the American ships began to populate outside of Cam Ranh Bay, PLAN activity grew silent. It wasn’t until American orbital ISR reserves were flying over the 12th parallel that the trap was sprung. The ChiComs didn’t want to afford the Americans any chance at breaking off from the ambush. When the whole fleet was confirmed to be set in just off the coast, the attack began. First the sky fell, blinding the American forces from above and jamming their local sensors and comms, enabling the Piranhas to deploy undetected. The underwater swarm drowned the MEF on its way to the beaches, then sunk the American attack subs and the Ford itself, leaving the quiet PLAN diesel-electric subs to feast on the remaining American surface vessels. Thousands were dead in just a few minutes, with the remaining sailors and Marines captured or left to the mercy of Poseidon. As the American fleet burned, the PLA initiated its own amphibious encirclement.
The only reason SGT Spire found out about the fleet’s demise was because the battalion master gunner was a close friend and Spire pried the intel out of him when the crusty old NCO came by to check out his platoon’s damaged 50mm cannons. He never made it to the Schwarzkopfs. SGT Spire saw the despair on his friend’s face as soon as the Mike Golf, as master gunners are colloquially known, came forward to the line. Spire grabbed his old friend’s arm and pulled him aside, staring at him intently until the combat veteran broke down. There is no hope. No one is coming to save us. Battalion and brigade leadership were running around like their hair was on fire, no one knew what to do, and no one wanted to tell the frontline units for fear of what it might do to morale. He gave his old friend a hug and thanked him for the honesty, a tear in the old man’s eye telling the story of a soldier who’d seen the walking dead of battle more than once. Spire was in shock; he hadn't expected the fleet to arrive before the main attack but losing the fleet entirely left him at a loss for words. With our fleet gone, what was the PLA waiting for?
At dusk the first concussions of PLA artillery rang throughout the jungle, except the shells didn’t land on Spire’s position or anywhere near him. No, they landed to the east. And then they crept closer. Spire’s heart skipped a beat when he realized what was unfolding around him. The Chinese never planned to attack across the 12th parallel line...they hopped around the American lines just like MacArthur in Korea some 85 years earlier. His heart now racing, Spire ran to inform his leadership, hoping there was some way they could escape certain doom. His LT refused to believe him, he believed his Spartans would stand strong and he refused to believe Spire’s story about the fleet. Infuriated at the LT’s blatant stupidity and arrogance, Spire was just about to knock the prick to the jungle floor when he caught sight of sporadic tracer fire kicking up about 200m northeast of their position. He shouted into the LT’s Schwarzkopf and guided the gunner onto the tree line. The gunner identified a squad-sized element running towards the 12th parallel. And... what was this?
They had friendly IR strobes on their shoulders.
What the fuck?
Spire immediately hopped on the net and called for the line to hold its fire. Then he confirmed with the other tracks, they too saw the IR strobes.
Again, what the fuck?
No American forces were supposed to be north of the parallel, and he didn’t recall being briefed on any reconnaissance parties sent across the line by higher headquarters. There’d been zero coordination. Then someone new came up on the net. It had to be the unknown friendlies. How the hell did they have our frequencies?
The comms were still fucky, so Spire could only make out every few words, but he heard enough.
“...this...Shaw...DA5…5…5...got…incoming...commend...hell...Say again...Captain...ODA...run like hell!”
All Spire heard was “run like hell!” and he wasn’t waiting for his LT to make a decision. He hopped out of the track and ordered his squad to pack up and destroy what they couldn’t carry. The rest of the company line followed suit as word spread. They’d all heard the same message. When an ODA tells you to run like hell, you fucking run like hell.
Before they could step off, PLA shells slammed into their position, catching most of the platoon in the open and knocking SGT Spire down the hill and into no-man’s-land. The force of the blast made Spire black out.
When he came to, he found a muddied and bloodied brunette standing over him, screaming at him to get on his feet. Or at least that’s what he thought her lips were saying, his ears were still ringing from the blast. He reached out and grabbed for her arm, trying to find his bearings in the process...the ringing wasn’t letting up...then he saw the Captain’s bars and the hulked-out Special Forces dudes taking cover behind her.
He put two and two together.
Before he could say anything, she threw him on her back and made a break for the tree line, dodging friendly and PLA fire as they escaped no man’s land and the collapse of the 12th parallel.
Major Andrew Daniels tossed the AR visor onto his desk in his tiny, windowless Pentagon cubicle. This was his third viewing of the Spire file, and he hadn’t gotten any of the answers he wanted, only more depressed and frustrated with each viewing. Spire was by all accounts an excellent NCO, even in the face of overwhelming odds and incompetence. He had performed far better than just about anyone else that Major Daniels watched in the month since the Battle of Cam Ranh Bay. He’d lived the demise of so many Americans that he now questioned his own life. Most of them inspiring to anyone in uniform for their sacrifice, but the Spire file was something different. It was the only complete documentation of the fall of the 12th parallel. Spire was a phenomenal soldier, he was a hero, but he wasn’t a protagonist.
No, the mysterious Captain Shaw was the real story.
If you enjoyed this story, check out the rest of the novel, EX SUPRA. It’s the story about the war after the next war. From the first combat jump on Mars to the climate change-ravaged jungles of Southeast Asia, EX SUPRA blends the bleeding edge of technology and the bloody reality of combat. In EX SUPRA, the super soldiers are only as strong as their own wills, reality is malleable, and hope only arrives with hellfire. Follow John Petrov, a refugee turned CIA paramilitary officer, Captain Jennifer Shaw, a Green Beret consumed by bloodlust, and many more, as they face off against Chinese warbots, Russian assassins, and their own demons in the war for the future of humanity.
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