Three men stood outside of the hangar bay and its adjunct building. At the moment, all looked surprisingly cool given that they stood in their dress blue uniforms with full honors while all around them, the desert loomed large. Luckily, the early hour allowed for a cool breeze, the air still crisp and laden with dew from the night before. It was a welcome sensation for those men that stood there, as well as those who worked in the nearby buildings or on the tarmac. All knew that by mid-morning, all traces of moisture would be gone as the sun began to beat down mercilessly from above.
In the distance, they spotted three profiles approaching them. Two females, one male, the woman in front visibly leading the other two. Of the three men standing there, only the senior officer, General Wendell Clarke, knew precisely who they were and what they were doing here. His subordinates, officers of note that he had pulled from their morning duties, merely providing flanking support in case he needed them. He knew their ranks could spare them for the next few hours. And besides, he expected there to be ambushes and surprises as the morning progressed.
“Miss Schroeder. So good to see you on this bright and beautiful morn.”
Clarke watched as the woman in question and her small entourage approached. These days, reporters only ever seemed to need two people on hand with them. One to operate the small portable and another to ensure that everything, be it sound or signal quality, was just right. He could remember with some fondness when they would require a full team to conduct these sorts of “probing interviews” and “exposes”. And their equipment always seemed so heavy and cumbersome.
True to form, her colleagues – the camera man and producer – followed closely behind her, one wearing the camera set on his head and the other monitoring everything on a small hand tab. Compared to the press of old, they were light, and streamlined, and far less clumsy to have around.
Progress, he supposed. And it certainly didn’t make them any less nosy.
“General Wendell Clarke,” she said, putting out her hand and gripping his tightly. “Good to finally meet you. I’ve been looking forward to getting an inside look at your operations for some time.”
“I know,” he said, with just a touch of derision. “Well, as we’ve said repeatedly, transparency is paramount to us. So… shall we begin?”
She nodded and looked to his right, where the other two officers stood. Clarke looked to them and quickly acknowledged them.
“Oh, my apologies. This is Captain Markham and Major Miller, both veteran air force officers who’ve distinguished themselves as pilots and now help to oversee unmanned aerial missions.”
“Charmed,” Schroeder said, extending her hand to both of them. Each took it in turn, awkwardly shaking it and saying hello.
“So… please follow me. First stop on the tour is the C and O complex.”
* * *
The enclosed space had a way of overloading the senses for the initiated. Clarke hoped Schroeder felt as much as they entered the Command and Observation module. Between the many operators manning their stations, the constant relaying of orders and reports, the blinking lights on a dozen terminals, and the buzz of so much hardware, it was very easy to get overstimulated and overwhelmed.
And yet, she didn’t appear to be exhibiting the telltale signs. Even after several minutes of watching the technicians at work, she and her crew seemed focused and alert.
He decided it was time to begin his presentation.
“As you can see, Miss Schroeder, we have video feeds streaming in from every drone in the operational theater. From here, we monitor, coordinate and direct them all, guiding their operators from the field to their targets, then back home again. Scarcely anything taking place within the field happens without our knowing.”
She hummed thoughtfully. He began to hope she might be lost in the many different screens that were broadcasting live info from the field, but she fired off a question in sort order.
“Tell me, General, why doesn’t the air force have fire controllers stationed at this base? The latest breakdown the public received says you coordinate missions from bases such as these, but the fire control is delegated to remote pilots in the field. Why is that?”
He smiled. An anticipated question, and one he was prepared for.
“Effective range, Miss Schroeder, emphasis on the former term. An unmanned aerial vehicle can be commanded by a pilot on the other side of the world, but delays and mechanical problems caused by satellite relays can be most troublesome. Pilots in the field are much more effective, and have far better reaction time when it comes to combat missions.”
“But surely, running a fleet from a central location instead of in the field is safer and more effective,” said Schroeder. “By placing the responsibility with pilots in the field, the enemy has a better chance of knocking out a vehicle’s controller.”
“For single vehicle, perhaps,” Clarke countered. “But as the saying goes, there’s advantages in not putting all your eggs in one basket. By ensuring that many bases have oversight over many airfields, we ensure that no one has the ability to knock our unmanned operations in one go.”
She seemed to accept that, and nodded. For a time, she simply absorbed her surroundings and let her crew film the entire spectacle. An explosion on one of the monitors and all the accompanying noise of com traffic provided a nice diversion as well, which he suspected would last for some time.
He recognized the sight too, a suspected munitions camp just outside Mogadishu. Almost immediately after the missiles hit the camp, secondary explosions went up all around it. Even from a distance, he could tell that they had just accounted for vast caches of IEDs and smaller munitions.
“You see that there?” he said, pointing to the monitor. “There’s a good shot for the evening news. An entire stockpile of weapons that would have made it into the hands of terrorists, now destroyed.”
He waited for the camera man to aim his headset at the monitor. A good shot indeed. The man controlling it remained fixed as the feed resolved in and out, the pilot/controller getting a close up and expanded view on the remains of the area. The fires burned white through the IR lens, a series of hot thermal signatures in the shape of men running from the blaze. That’s when more fire rained down on them, slugs from the UCAS’s chain guns.
“Are those thermal signs identified targets?” Schroeder asked, predictably.
“Each and every one,” said the General confidently. “The entire area was scouted and revealed to an enclave of pirates and illegal combatants. Every figure you see there is a potential enemy of this nation and its people.”
“So we shan’t mourn their deaths,” she replied, a statement rather than a question. Clarke waited for her to say more, but was surprised that what was the end of it. For several moments, the camera man and producer simply studied the feeds, watching with apparent interest. It was the producer who spoke next, after typing something in on his pad.
“The pilot there on that mission… Lieutenant Parks?”
“Yes,” said Clarke. “What of him?”
The producer continued to study his pad. “It says here that he was injured on a mission back in twenty-nine. Plane went down shortly after an EMP in his ordinance accidentally went off, nearly killed him.”
“That’s right,” Clarke said, his voice wavering ever so slightly. “Poor boy was in hospital for weeks. Docs were sure he wouldn’t make it. But by the grace of God and our best surgeons, he recovered fully.”
“And now he’s back on duty?” asked Schroeder.
“Back and kicking ass once more,” said Clarke happily. “Pardon my language.”
Schroeder chuckled. “I’ve heard worse, General.”
Another silent moment ensued. Clarke periodically checked to make sure they were still busying themselves with the various feeds and drinking in all the dazzling visual displays. The producer kept typing names in on his pad, no doubt checking on the IDs of the pilots listed on each monitor. He knew in advance what he would find.
Pilots severely injured, restored to active duty some time after as remote pilots. It was hardly abnormal for those disabled by crashes and other injuries suffered in the line of duty to be rotated to remote piloting. Nothing at all to send up red flags.
He was just about to pat himself on the back for dealing with the latest nosy reporter when she asked quite suddenly:
“General, what do you think of the moral implication of using unmanned vehicles as instruments of policy?”
Clarke was a little taken aback by the question. But as soon as he processed it, he emitted a low chuckle. As far as questions went, it was a classic, in that it was both dated and one he was quite practiced in answering.
“‘Unmanning the front-lines’, is our motto, Miss Schroeder. A day when soldiers need not risk their lives to strike at hidden threats in every corner of the world is our goal. Despite ongoing concerns, the UCAS fleet has given us total fire superiority over enemy foes, and its allowed us to do it without risking Coalition lives.”
“Yes,” she said, in a measured tone. “But there is speculation that a number of unmanned combat aerial systems are using specialized intelligences, something which violates the Minsky Protocols.” She paused for emphasis. Clarke became aware of the fact that several heads turned towards her after she said it. “Is this true?”
Clarke cleared his throat. “As you know, Miss Schroeder, the law states that a human operator must be at the helm wherever and whenever life and death decisions are being made. Anything else would be strictly illegal… and unethical.”
“And yet, there are those who claim that is what is being done,” she replied confidently.
Clarke chuckled again, this time more forcibly. “I don’t know where you get your information from, Miss Schroeder, but that’s the most baseless thing I’ve ever heard.”
“I see,” she said plaintively. “General, what is a NIC module?”
Clarke’s face went white. He turned away quickly to hide his expression and to avoid seeming like he was reacting overtly.
“I beg your pardon?” he said.
“General, I have a source that claims that Coalition forces are using some kind of construct-intelligence to guide their UCAS’. These constructs were rumored to be the downloaded neural patterns of deceased pilots. The official term used was an ‘NIC module’, which was said to house said patterns…” She let the words linger, no doubt hoping he might chomp at the bit. When he didn’t, she outright asked. “Care to comment?”
Clarke took a second to compose his face before turning back to look at her. The image he presented her was a careful mix of immovable granite and plain indifference, or so he hoped.
“I’m not sure I’ve ever heard that term used, Miss Schroeder.”
“General,” she said, inching closer to him. Her entourage moved with her, pressing the camera closer to him to record his reactions. “If you were using a construct of some kind, would this not be an attempt to make an end run around the Minsky Protocols?”
“It would,” Clarke replied flatly. “If such a thing were really being done.”
A tense moment ensued. Clarke became aware of the fact that many heads were looking in their direction now, and both the cameraman and producer seemed to watching him too. Again, he turned away to monitor the various display screens in the room and allowed himself to wonder the obvious.
Who the hell has she been talking to? And just as importantly, how much does she know?
He cleared his throat again. “Shall we continue, Miss Schroeder? There are several other spots on the base I’m sure you’d like to see. Plus I know there are a batch of pilots just waiting to give their take on our ongoing efforts.”
Schroeder smiled, a look of barely concealed mischief on her face. “I’m sure it will be illuminating.”
* * *
“Careful with that thing!” yelled Wash. The grunts who were handling the device seemed to be doing it all rather carelessly. Somehow, the term “sensitive equipment” didn’t seem to register in their vocabulary. Surprising, seeing as how they were so used to handling munitions and aircraft components.
How to explain to them without breaching half a dozen security regulations that the life of a pilot – such as it was – depended on the successful transition of the equipment from the drone to its capsule?
“Your jobs depend on that thing making it home in one piece!” That seemed to work. Despite its weight and clumsy dimensions, they began to hoist it with more care. It came from of the UCAS’s access hatch and hung there for a moment, half a dozen electrodes extending from it into the electronics below.
“Now… carefully remove each and every one of those, please. And make sure you do so in quick order. We need to get that into this slot before too long.”
He indicated the waiting cart, where another access hatch lay open revealing a series of electronics components and slots very similar to the one housed inside the drone.
“This thing is heavy,” complained the grunt. “What’s in it?”
“That,” said Wash, “is a command module. Gives the drones the ability to identify targets at long range so our controllers can sort out their targets. You’re not supposed to know that.”
The grunts smirked at him and proceeded to transport it to the waiting cart. Wash jumped in to make sure it was placed securely into its specialized cradle. The module landed in place, and a loud click indicated that it was hooked up to the series of electrodes and connections that permeated the cart.
“Hey,” asked the other grunt. “What’s with all those electronics in there?”
“Never you mind,” Wash said, listening to make sure all the hums and whirrs coming from the cart sounded normal. He checked the readouts to make sure everything was in the green as well. If even a single connection was off, the construct’s continuity would suffer, and the consequences of that were… uncertain.
With the module securely inside, Wash closed the terminal, hiding the module and the cart’s internal assembly away.
“Alright, let’s move. We got to get this back into the bunker with the rest.” The grunts obliged him and took up position on either end of the cart and began wheeling it away. He followed along, making sure they didn’t it any bumps or obstructions along the way. Nothing that might disturb the connections or rattle the construct held inside.
“Sir?” the one asked as they made their way out of the hangar. “How come each module needs its own cart?”
“Yeah,” agreed the other. “Why not plug them into one terminal? I mean, they can’t need so much juice that they each need their own hookup right?”
Wash grumbled to himself. Why did the help always have so many questions? He dismissed it as easily as he could.
“Are either of you electrical engineers? Do you have any idea how complex a semi-autonomous working system is?” Neither grunt bothered to respond. “Of course you don’t. So please don’t ask questions you won’t understand the answer to.”
It was a few minutes later that Wash and their cart was parked into the shady, cool bunker at the edge of the base. He eyed all four, arranged one next to the other, and sighed happily. Another day done, another successful removal and transfer. He nodded to his assistants at the door and sent them on their way.
“Thank you, gentlemen. That’ll be all. Be sure to seal the door on your way out.”
They nodded to him and left, closing the large metal hatch on their way out. Wash waited a few minutes before going back to the last of their carts and fiddling with the terminal again. No sooner had it opened that he got a buzzing coming from his pocket. He reached inside to fetch his mobile and saw he had a new message, text only.
Interview went well. Surprised the hell out of him. Same time tonight?
Barb’s signature was at the bottom, the funny umlaut over the o in her last name. He chuckled to himself at the odd little ideosyncrisy, but nodded happily as well.
“Good girl,” he said. “Way to follow the clues Miss Schroeder…”
Looking back inside the open terminal, he spotted the black box and touched it gently. Soon enough, the world would know. They would all know, and perhaps then some degree of justice would come from it. No more living lies and keeping them all in false realities that required an incredible amount of electricity and computer power to generate. It was hard to say what would be next for the once venerated aviators, but it had to better than this…
“Rest easy, Parks.” He looked to the other carts and spoke their names off in turn. “Hoyne, Rodriguez, Saul. Rest easy… all of you.”