Honourable Mention | ADC Sci-Fi Writing Competition
Story by Bryn Smith
‘I, Bryce Francis Taylor, promise that—’
Taylor looked down at the laminated card. His words merged with those taking the affirmation beside him.
‘—I will well and truly serve the President and the people of the Republic of Australia—’
President, Taylor thought. Still can’t believe we don’t have a queen anymore. Her face was still on the money.
‘—according to law, as a member of the Australian Army, for the period of six years, and any extensions of that period, and that I will resist our enemies and faithfully discharge my duty according to law.’
The recruitment officer, an army captain, collected the cards from the recruits and handed them their enlistment certificates. When the captain reached the end of the line, she clapped, and the small audience that had gathered at the Ann Street DFR Centre in Brisbane joined in.
‘All right,’ the captain said. ‘Grab your bags and head downstairs. Bus leaves in fifteen.’
Taylor and the others grabbed their suitcases, their certificates held awkwardly in their free hand, and took the elevators downstairs. They loaded their suitcases and climbed aboard. Taylor sat near the back. He was joined by a burly Islander guy with a wide smile and bright teeth.
‘Guess that’s it. We’re soldiers now.’
‘Guess so.’ Taylor held out his hand. ‘Bryce.’
‘Jocko.’ The Islander boy returned his shake. ‘You chipped?’
Taylor nodded and turned his head. A small scar showed near the top of his spine. ‘You?’
‘Nah. I didn’t pass the tests. You a science and maths guy? Some freaky genius?’
‘Christ, no. I barely passed maths in school,’ Taylor said. ‘Maybe they chip the dumb ones. Make sure we don’t wander off.’
Jocko laughed. ‘What it’s for then?’
Taylor didn’t know. The ADF doctor said the chip would monitor his “health metrics” and send it back to some database. ‘They said it’ll monitor my heart rate, pulse, stuff like that.’
Jocko looked at him quizzically. ‘So you have to serve an extra two years for a fitbit in your neck?’
Taylor snorted. ‘Yeah, man. I got conned.’
‘Yeah you bloody did.’
Taylor jerked awake. He was on the bus. Not the Brisbane bus—another one, the bus that’d left Sydney and headed into regional New South Wales. He looked beside him, but Jocko had moved and was chatting to some other recruits they met at the airport.
Taylor turned to the seats behind him. A brunette woman, nosed buried in a book, her lips moving as she read.
‘Did you say something?’
The woman looked up. ‘No.’
Taylor turned around and settled back into his seat.
<Don’t go back to sleep. We arrive soon.>
Taylor eyes flashed open and he looked around. The bus was full of recruits chatting, joking. No one was talking to him.
<They’re not speaking to you. I am.>
‘What the fu—’
The recruit in the seat in front of Taylor looked back curiously. ‘You okay, man?’
‘You hear that?’
<They can’t hear me. Only you can.>
‘How can I hear you?’ Taylor asked.
‘With your ears, dipshit,’ the recruit answered. ‘You sure you’re okay?’
<I’m sending electrical impulses that simulate noise up your brain stem.>
Taylor fingers grazed the scar on the back of his neck. ‘No...’
<Yes. They don’t tell you what it really is. It’s part of the training.>
‘It’s cool to be nervous,’ the recruit said. ‘You’re not the first and you ain’t gonna be the last.’ He grinned. ‘Remember, they can’t hit you. There’s none of this Full Metal Jacket crap.’
<Take your phone and find another seat.>
‘Yeah,’ Taylor said. ‘Look, I need a minute.’
The recruit shrugged and Taylor grabbed his phone. He moved to a quiet section of the bus and held the phone to his ear as if he were on a call.
‘What the hell is going on? What is this?’
<I just came online. Name’s Monash.>
<Like the general. I’m a synaptic copy of several ADF personnel. Captain Doctor Larry Hines, psychologist. Corporal Dan Keighran VC, infantry. Sapper Jack Knight, combat engineer. Major Emma Pearson, chaplain.>
‘You’re an AI?’
<A synaptic copy. Pay attention.>
The bus stopped and the door opened. Taylor looked up and saw they were surrounded by buildings and marching soldiers. ‘Why does no one else—’
<There’s no time. You need to be ready. The first week is hard for everyone.>
‘How can you—’
‘Off the bus!’ a corporal appeared at the head of the bus. ‘Hurry up! Move!’
The recruits got up and filed off.
‘Form up facing me! Three ranks!’
The recruits looked at each other in confusion.
<Move to the front and the right. Stand with your feet a shoulder-width apart and your hands behind your back. Do it now.>
Taylor followed the instructions, pushing through the group of recruits and standing as Monash said.
The corporal looked at him and pointed. ‘You’re right marker! Everyone else, form up!’
The recruits were shoved into place by a pair of other corporals. Taylor saw Jocko stand beside him out of the corner of his eye.
‘I’m Corporal Redgate and I’m going to call you to attention!’ the corporal in front of them barked. His hair was flinty grey and he had a thick moustache. ‘When I do, raise your left foot off the ground and place it so it touches your right heel! Your toes will be 45 degrees to each other! Place your hands by your sides as if you are grabbing the seams of your pants!’
‘Did I tell you to move?!’ Redgate snapped. ‘You do not move until I give the command! Training platoon! Uhhhtennn…shun!’
There was a smattering of irregular footfalls.
‘As you were!’ Redgate yelled. ‘That was shit! We are not leaving this spot until you do it together. Training platoon! Uhhhtennn… shun!’
The footfalls happened closer together, but there were still a few out.
‘Better! Now turn to your right! We are going to march you to your rooms! The bus will be there and you will unload your gear. You will do these things with a sense of urgency!’
<Step off with your left foot. At the same time, swing your right arm up so that it’s level with your shoulder. Keep your hand as a fist, thumb up.>
‘Training platoon! By the right! Quick… march!’
Taylor stepped off as Monash said, swinging his arms. He felt ridiculous.
‘When you march, swing your arms up so they are parallel to the ground!’ Redgate barked. He noticed Taylor was already doing it. ‘Holy shit, look at this! You joining the Federation Guard, recruit?’
Taylor didn’t say anything. He didn’t know what the Federation Guard was.
<The Federation Guard is a joint-service ceremonial unit. Highly-skilled at drill. Say “No, corporal”. Say it loud.>
‘No, corporal!’ Taylor shouted.
‘Christ Almighty, he even knows to use the full power of the voice!’ Redgate exclaimed. ‘Don’t tell me you were a goddamn cadet!’
‘Good! Can’t stand cadets, think they know bloody everything!’ Redgate turned around. ‘Get in step, you turkeys! Keep the pace of the right marker! Left, right, left, right, left, right, left!’
<They’ll leave you alone now. You’re doing well enough. The corporals will focus on the others.>
The weeks passed in a blur. Monash’s advice came through constantly.
<Don’t put anything on your bed.>
<Roll your towel tighter.>
<Adjust your point of aim one point down and one point left.>
<Bring your winter gear. Forecast is looking cold and it’s a range day.>
<Get some electrical tape and tie your webbing straps down.>
The only thing Monash wouldn’t give were test answers—but once Taylor passed a test, whether it be on navigation, drill, radio communications or weapons, Monash would provide everything. Taylor was reminded of a video game character that could do something new after levelling up, despite never having practiced it before.
Taylor passed on Monash’s advice regularly. The other recruits in his room, a pair of Perth lads, started paying attention when they realised how often Taylor was on the money. Jocko, Taylor was pleased to see, was their room’s fourth recruit. He was less pleased when Jocko revealed on the first night that Taylor was chipped. ‘It’s because he’s super smart, boys. He’s just humble about it.’
Of course, now they were calling each other by their surnames. The Perth boys were Yanada and Skinner. Jocko was Willis.
When discovering Jocko’s surname, Skinner shook his head sadly. ‘Dude, you almost had the same name as that Navy SEAL with the podcast.’
By the second week, all but one recruit was coming to their room for updates. The holdout was the dark-haired bookworm on the bus, Locke, the only female recruit in the platoon.
<Get ready. Hallway.>
‘Get up,’ Taylor said. ‘They’re about to call us to the hallway.’
‘Hallway Twelve!’ someone barked.
‘Hallway Twelve!’ Taylor echoed it with Jocko, Yanada and Skinner. They charged out of the room at stood at attention with the platoon.
‘Righto! These are your ADF wrist pads!’ Corporal Byrnes had a leathery face and wrinkles around his eyes from squinting at too many horizons. He kicked a box next to him. ‘They are recruit-proof, which means they are shock-proof and water-proof to fifty metres. They are charged thermally, using your body heat and solar. None of this coal shit—clean, green, free energy. Everyone will take a pad and wear it on their left arm with the sleeve rolled up like so!’
Byrnes raised his arm in demonstration, the sleeve neatly rolled up and exposing his muscly forearm. ‘They have their own wireless network but they are not connected to the internet, so don’t get any naughty ideas after lights out. Questions?’
Someone proofed. ‘What if we’re left-handed, corporal?’
‘You’re going to learn to type right-handed, recruit! Just like the rest of us. Hand them out!’
He stalked back to the corporals’ offices. The closest recruits knelt down and handed the pads out to those behind them. The pads were a flexible black band that fit over the forearm like a sleeve with a curved screen on them. Taylor pulled his pad on.
<Angle the screen so it’s on the inside of your forearm as you walk. It’ll minimise scratches. I’ll set it up for you.>
Taylor adjusted it and the screen winked to life.
‘How’d you do that?’ a carrot-haired recruit named Holladay asked.
Taylor shrugged. ‘Just happened.’
<Tell him to swipe two fingers from left to right across the screen.>
‘Here,’ Taylor grabbed Holladay’s pad and swiped his fingers across it. The screen burst to life. ‘Tell everyone else.’
Holladay went to spread the word. Taylor noticed Locke was already rapidly typing away at her pad and showing the recruits around her how to activate it.
<It’s time to tell.>
‘How?’ Taylor sat alone at the mess. The others from his room made a beeline for the ice cream machine when they saw it was working. ‘They’ll think I’m nuts.’
<You can’t hide this forever. I’m an asset for the platoon, not just you. I need to link to everyone’s pads.>
‘Here, got you some soft serve.’ Jocko appeared beside Taylor and popped a bowl onto the table. Yanada and Skinner joined them.
‘This seat taken?’
Taylor turned around. Locke stood behind them, a meal tray in hand.
‘What are you doing here?’ Skinner asked. ‘Go sit with your section.’
‘I’m not here to talk to you.’ Locke sat down. ‘I’m here to talk to him.’ She pointed at Taylor and scooped up a forkful of mashed potato. ‘You told them about the voices yet?’
‘Voices?’ Jocko looked at Taylor. ‘What the hell’s she talking about?’
Taylor shrugged. ‘I dunno.’
‘Liar.’ Locke turned around and pulled her brunette hair bun to the side. A small scar showed just above the collar of her AMCUs.
‘Bugger me,’ Taylor said. ‘Is yours called Monash too?’
‘Long Tan. Like the battle.’
‘Woah-woah-woah.’ Jocko held up his hands. ‘Maybe explain what’s happening for us dumb digs.’
‘Taylor and I have been implanted with AIs,’ Locke said. ‘They talk to us and link up with our pads.’
‘How does it talk to you?’
Locke tapped her temple.
Skinner leaned across and patted her forearm in mock sympathy. ‘There, there. Training can be stressful. Let’s chat to the padre.’
Yanada snorted into his food.
‘He hears them too.’ Locke nodded at Taylor. ‘Ask him.’
‘I mean, yeah, but—’
All five pads blinked with a message icon. They opened them. Jocko read his aloud. ‘Hi. I’m Monash. Locke’s right, I’m in Taylor’s head.’
All the recruits looked at him. Locke grinned.
Taylor scowled. ‘Monash: you could do that the whole time?!’
<Only when I’m discovered. It’s for the recruit to reveal my existence, not me. You are still responsible.>
‘So that’s how you know everything,’ Jocko said. ‘You’ve got another brain.’
‘Long Tan says we need to link-up,’ Locke said. ‘It’s the next step. First an AI helps one soldier, then through that soldier, the section. Now we try two AIs working together and help the platoon. More intelligence, more computing power.’
‘Monash was just saying that,’ Taylor said. ‘Why don’t the corporals tell us about this?’
‘Part of the training,’ Locke said. ‘Trying to encourage responsibility and creative thinking.’
‘Creative thinking? You know we’re in the army, right?’ Yanada said.
‘Australia has the best light infantry in the world, you don’t get that without creative thinking,’ Locke snapped. ‘Besides, the army’s going to look very different in a few years.’
‘How?’ Taylor asked.
‘It takes time and money to train a soldier.’ Locke ticked off the points on her fingers. ‘Food, equipment, pay, accommodation, not to mention those same costs for the training staff. Imagine how much cheaper and quicker it’d be if they gave us a little implant that knew everything. Imagine the best, most-qualified soldiers in the army with years of training passing on their experience directly to a recruit. It’s the future.’
Taylor stroked his chin. ‘All right. Let’s link-up.’
‘It’s not that easy.’ Locke shook her head. ‘For the link-up to work, we need consent from everyone for Monash and Long Tan to use their pads for processing power. One in, all in.’
‘How do you get that?’ Jocko asked. ‘Not everyone’s gonna want this.’
Taylor grinned. ‘I have an idea.’
Taylor turned the white fleet car onto Kapooka Drive. Just beyond the Blamey Barracks entrance, another vehicle was waiting.
‘Perfect,’ Jocko said. ‘He’s here.’
‘I can’t believe you talked me into this,’ Locke murmured from the back seat. ‘This is stealing Defence property.’
‘Hey, we need everyone on board for the link-up. This is how we do it.’
‘How did you draw them away?’ Jocko asked.
‘Fake email from the health centre,’ Locke said. ‘Randomly selected for a COVID swab. They should be there for another half hour.’
They drove through the gate and pulled up alongside the vehicle. A young, slender guy got out. ‘Cash or card?’
‘Card,’ Jocko said.
The guy held out a card reader. Jocko tapped his card on the reader and it beeped.
‘All good,’ the delivery guy said. He opened the back of his car. ‘Forty-eight pizzas.’
‘Excellent,’ Taylor said. The three recruits loaded the pizzas and climbed back into their white fleet car. The delivery guy drove off.
‘Message from Yanada.’ Locke read off her pad. ‘Sarge appeared for a bit, but he’s left for the night. Safe to come back.’
‘Get everyone to the foyer, tell them we’ll unload from God’s stairs,’ Taylor said.
They drove back to the lines, parking the car. The lights were on in the foyer and two figures waited at the benches outside the stairs.
‘There’s Skinner and Yanada,’ Jocko said.
A message came through. Locke read it. ‘Ah, shit.’
‘It’s not Skinner and Yanada.’
The figures approached and were caught in the vehicle’s headlights. One of them moved around to the driver’s side door. Taylor rolled the window down.
Corporal Byrnes leaned in on the window frame, his face inches from Taylor’s. ‘Well, well. What’s all this?’ He sniffed. ‘Pizza, eh?’
Locke leaned forward. ‘Corporal, I—’
‘Shut the hell up.’ Byrnes leaned in and turned the car off, taking the keys out of the ignition. ‘Get out.’
The recruits got out of the car.
‘It better be a good one,’ Redgate said as he sat on the car’s bonnet, arms folded.
‘The explanation,’ Redgate said. ‘Good enough that we don’t discharge you right now. Sending us to the goddamn health centre on a fool’s errand and stealing a defence vehicle!’
‘We’re linking up,’ Taylor said.
‘Locke and I are chipped,’ Taylor turned his head to show the back of his neck. ‘We’ve done as much as we can working alone. We need to link-up across the platoon, but we need consent to access everyone’s pads.’ He gestured at the pizzas in the car behind him. ‘This was to prove what we could do.’
Redgate and Byrnes exchanged glances. Redgate smirked, then chuckled. ‘Christ, about bloody time.’ He held his hand out to Byrnes. ‘Pay up.’
‘Yeah, yeah,’ Byrnes smacked cash into Redgate’s palm.
‘What’s going on?’ Taylor asked.
‘We were wondering how long it’d take you,’ Byrnes said. ‘Last platoon had already linked up by now. You’re slow.’
‘Then again, you’re the first platoon we’ve had with two chips,’ Redgate said as he pocketed the cash. ‘We had a pool on how long it’d take.’
‘You… you were waiting for this?’ Locke asked.
‘Not exactly this,’ Byrnes nodded at the pizza. ‘Something close to it though.’ He looked at Taylor. ‘By the way, your pizza belongs to me now.’
Taylor sighed. ‘What happens now?’
‘Now?’ Redgate grinned. ‘Now the real training starts.’