“You never really know your friends from
your enemies until the ice breaks.”

– Inuit Proverb


Somewhere west of the Lomonosov Ridge, October 2039

Bitterly cold wind howled, blowing dry snow and causing the tent’s walls to undulate like it was alive. Inside shadows danced as a blue chemical lamp swiveled from the ceiling. Two men wrapped in layers of clothing and tactical gear squatted over a corpse with two neat bullet holes in its forehead.

One of them cradled the dead man’s head the way one might examine a melon and used a handheld device to scan its eyes. After collecting the readings he grunted in satisfaction.

“Hurry up, Dávved,” the other man said as he stood, hooking his rifle to his chest rack. An ice-caked red beard was the only part of his face not obscured by a furry hood and goggles. He touched his earpiece, listening. “The weather is clearing; we need to move.”

The colloquial term was “scalping”—a macabre but apt metaphor. Modern scalping involved taking someone’s biometric identifiers and digital signatures. Sometimes, there was something like literal scalping if the person had certain facial implants that masked or otherwise confused biometrics scanners. It was not the purpose of their mission, but a little looting didn’t hurt.

“Отвали—I’m done, Pyotr.” Dávved responded, standing as he stowed the scanner in a utility pouch on his vest. “Harry Liu,” he said, scrolling through the dead man’s digital profile via ocular implants that augmented reality in a way visible only to him. “Thirty-seven, Shanghai. Biomechanical engineer with PRIC.”

An employee of the Polar Research Institute of China—that wasn’t surprising, given the organization’s role at the forefront of advancing China’s interests in the Arctic. It also wasn’t surprising how quickly Dávved could learn almost everything about the now-dead Liu. The digital and the biological had so completely fused that a digital twin followed someone from the moment they were born, and was essentially immortal when they died. Identities trading—scalping—on the Dark Web was a booming business. Scalps were used for millions of illicit transactions every day, for one thing. They had other uses, too. They could be used as “skins” by AIs impersonating living persons, or by intelligence services to create cover identities for their operatives—similar to the twentieth-century practice of using dead infants’ birth certificates.

Harry Liu would soon join that dismal cohort.

“You’re a long way from home, Harry,” Pyotr said, nudging the body with his boot. “I guess you should have stayed there. Come on, grab his arms.”

Together they lifted the corpse and carried it outside to where a third man had used a thermal bore to carve a shoulder-width hole through two meters of ice. Without fanfare they trundled Harry Liu’s body over and slipped it feet first into the hole as they had four of his companions only minutes before.

Dávved paused to catch his breath. The iridescent sky was now eerily calm. A thousand stars spread languidly across the expansive sky, glittering against the verdigris curtains of the aurora. That was bad because they liked to move under the cover of wind, snow, and, when possible, the electromagnetic interference that all but blinded the ubiquitous eyes in the sky.

A few meters beyond the tent, three soft green orbs of light hovered about three meters off the ice. The drones bobbed, loitering more or less where they had been told. Dávved whistled and they whirred softly over. He muttered a few words and just like that they lifted into the sky, disappearing into the aurora. They would do their best to scout ahead as the team returned to camp.

Two rovers—which resembled a hybrid of lunar explorers and infantry fighting vehicles—idled quietly nearby, green halogen headlamps lighting up the ice ahead of them. The rest of their twelve-man team had already mounted and were waiting on Pyotr and Dávved to join them for the long drive back to their camp.

They were more than a thousand miles further north than Iceland. They were several hundred miles further north than Nagurskoye, somewhere to the west of the Lomonosov Ridge—a sunken mountain range that ran for a thousand miles under the ice, connecting Canada and the recently independent Greenland to Russia. The waters adjacent to Lomonosov held something like a quarter of the earth’s remaining fossil fuel resources. On its Russian side, the Kara and Barents Seas were practically the Persian Gulf of the polar region.

Mapping and reconnaissance were difficult here, to say the least. Even in this age of on-demand smallsat imagery, Arctic terrain could be transfigured in hours as temperatures fluctuated and ice floes collided, rendering any satellite reconnaissance more than twelve hours old of dubious value. Visibility could be an even more pressing challenge, with whiteout conditions often disorienting even the most experienced guides.

Heavy vehicles were consigned to relatively narrow lanes of confidently solid ice or risked getting stuck—or worse, hitting a new or unmapped thin spot and slipping into the inky water forever. Closer to the main settlements, drone swarms regularly updated the principal lanes and marked them with digital strobes that were visible to a rover’s onboard sensors, but out here beyond the frontier there were no such updates.

Dávved climbed the ramp of the second rover, sat down, and flipped open a ruggedized datapad. Normally, his scans of the dead Chinese engineers would have been shared across the network instantaneously, but atmospheric conditions hindered connectivity. Instead, he plugged in his portable scanner and began pouring through the data as the vehicles roared to life and started moving.

Harry Liu had the most interesting digital trail. Dávved scanned through 3D projections of his social media as the rovers rumbled through the Arctic twilight. Coworkers at a party. Sightseeing in Macau. A little girl with chipmunk cheeks no more than five years old.

“He had a kid,” Dávved said with a hint of remorse.

“He knew the risks,” Pyotr called back from the front-right passenger seat, his voice amplified via onboard speakers. Pyotr was older, had been doing this sort of thing for years, and was less prone to even the minor stirrings of a guilty conscience that he considered childish.

Dávved, who had just turned nineteen, couldn’t understand why this educated, wealthy man with a family had decided to travel thousands of miles away from his home to the cold, dark north to steal the resources of a people alien to him. Pyotr was right—муда́к got what he deserved.

It reminded him of a Sámi saying: for the wolf, enough is never enough.

The Russians had committed their share of crimes in Soviet times—including forcibly relocating the Sámi population—but the Chinese were particularly hungry wolves, whose appetites were growing as they consumed.

Since China’s reunification with Taiwan, it had moved aggressively—over vociferous Russian protest—to brand the newly opened transpolar route as the lynchpin of its Polar Silk Road. Suborning the European Arctic Council states into cooperation with lavish investments, it practically bought the creation of a Polar International Zone, which it moved into in force, sailing massive nuclear-powered icebreakers and mobile fortress-like platforms that dominated air and sea access, creating facts on the ground much as it had in the South China Sea.

The Arctic spanned more than five million square miles—larger than the continental United States—but was inhabited by less than four million people. For thousands of years it had been a very lonely place but was now quickly becoming crowded.

China’s opening of the polar route and the flood of foreigners it brought had been devastating to dozens of indigenous cultures, not unlike the arrival of Europeans in the Americas centuries earlier.

When Dávved was a boy in Lovozero, there were still those who made their living by the natural rhythm of the reindeer herds. It had now been a decade since a herd had been sighted, and the only reindeer left were on private hunting refuges.

Now, the majority of his people had moved into shantytowns on the rocks revealed by receding ice or into multinational corporate enclaves where they worked the oil rigs—or worse, the mines, where nickel, copper, zinc, and increasingly, freshwater, were extracted in grueling, often dangerous conditions.

Here on the frozen frontier of great power competition, a new Great Game was unfolding. But the players in this game weren’t armies. No, they were groups like Pyotr’s. They were called by many names. Auxiliaries, militias, security consultants, private military companies. But they were also patriots. They were here, like the Cossacks who beat Napoleon and who conquered Siberia. Now, they were defending the top of the world from a foreign invasion.

Russia was a great and ancient power but treacherously weakened by decades of international sanctions. With its own population sick and aging, any Russian growth at all had become dependent on Chinese investment, particularly in the Far East.

Russia could not defeat China. But it could make life in the Arctic even more difficult for the Chinese. In time, China would realize that maintaining their presence was more trouble than it was worth. Dávved’s people had been here for thousands of years—they would outlast the Chinese.

His father had fought in Syria and Ukraine, which historians considered the first “modern” wars of the century. They had featured the staples of contemporary combat—drones, robots, loitering weapons, offensive social media operations. Moreover, they were fought primarily by militias and PMCs.

The only difference was that here, the very air you breathed wanted to kill you. Here, exposed skin froze in minutes; teeth could literally shatter inside your mouth after a few hours. Here, survival itself was the priority, anything else was a bonus.

Dávved’s reverie was broken by a low whirring sound that rose in pitch sharply, then, wham! —a concussive shockwave hit him and the world spun violently before he blacked out.

*  *  *

mission time: 12:54:01 altitude: 18819m AGL. kinetic solution validation protocol: validate weapon release = positive. target impact = marginal. likelihood of target survival = 23.01897%. additional solution recommended.

*  *  *

“First target destroyed. Second target . . . struck,” Wei reported.

“Damage assessment?” the lieutenant asked.

“Standby.” He moved his fingers inside a glove-like sheath within his terminal, the biodigital interface moving screens of data and video feeds around the holographic display before them. The sleek lens he wore allowed him to communicate with the drone orbiting the engagement area.

“The weapon wants to take another pass to make sure.”

“We’ve been chasing these guys for weeks,” the lieutenant reasoned. “Authorized.”

*  *  *

mission time: 12:55:58 altitude: 18815m AGL. kinetic solution authorization = positive. target acquisition. searching… searching. target acquired. establishing optimal solution vector. established. weapon release.

*  *  *

Dávved blearily opened his eyes and realized that he was still strapped in and hanging upside down. Acrid smoke was filling the rover’s cabin. A holographic projection of the little girl from Harry Liu’s social media feed flickered in and out of existence in front of him, its face distorted and pixelated.

He retrieved a short knife from his kit and coughed as he frantically sawed through the straps and then fell crashing out of his seat. Hunched over, he stumbled over the bodies of his companions who either hadn’t strapped in or whose seats hadn’t remained bolted to the floor. He didn’t see Pyotr.

The rear door was dislodged and he was able to shoulder it open enough to fall through the gap onto the snow. Something sparked brightly and loudly within the cabin and the smoke began to billow rapidly out of the opening. He stumbled forward several meters into the dark, his vision blurry because his implants weren’t working for some reason.

Looking back, he could make out the rover glowing against the dark backdrop. It had flipped over and slid across the ice. He saw no sign of the other vehicle.

Suddenly, as he contemplated the destructive scene in front of him, night became day with a brilliant flash of light. He was lifted and flung backwards as a shockwave much stronger than the first hit, shattering his tympanic membranes and rupturing his lungs. An immense wave of heat then washed over him, searing his flesh where it was exposed.

He lay on his back, staring up at the starfield behind the green waves of the aurora. His eyes were moist, and wiping them showed they were bleeding. All he could hear was his own staggering breathing, echoed loudly within his own head. It didn’t sound very good.

*  *  *

mission time: 12:58:08 altitude: 18835m AGL. kinetic solution validation protocol: validate weapon release = positive. target impact = optimal. likelihood of target survival = 7.00013%. mission status = complete.

*  *  *

“Second target destroyed,” Wei updated the lieutenant. “Still reading one biosignature in the vicinity.”

“Let him freeze,” the lieutenant replied coolly. “Send update to command. Two militant vehicles destroyed; twelve terrorists killed.”


Zachery Tyson Brown is a strategic intelligence analyst and US Army veteran who consults for the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He is a member of the Military Writers Guild and his writing has appeared at The Strategy Bridge, War on the Rocks, Defense One, and West Point’s Modern War Institute. He can be found on Twitter @ZaknafienDC.