Author:
Rich Morris

The Jamie Cullens Writing Competition 2020 - Short Stories Winner

Category 3: Short Stories

Lieutenant Commander Rich Morris, RAN

The icicles crunched under the Colonel’s feet as he settled his boot on the fire step. He hauled himself upwards, ignoring his protesting knees, and stood tall above the parapet.

The position occupied the high-ground, from which he could observe the valley beneath. A bleak, frosted tundra. Nestled in its depths, between criss-crossing dark ravines, lay an ancient village held captive by the last vestiges of their adversary. The Colonel’s Battalion held the front. The mountains towered over them both like cloud capped cathedrals, guarding the flanks.

The Colonel lit a cigarette and took a long drag. Beside him, his soldiers stood to, dusting off a night’s snowfall from their heavy winter overcoats, their breaths steaming in the harsh mountain air. Each chambered a round in their bolt-action rifles and turned with solemn resolve towards the village below. Their cracked, scarred faces, weathered by months of fighting, veiled their youth.

The Colonel watched as the early glimpses of dawn reflected in brilliant phantom white on the snow-covered peaks. He had always honoured the mountains. No matter how many summits they conquered, they remained guests in the dwellings of the gods.

Across from one peak, movement caught his eye. An eagle. Four of them. A rare sighting, this late in winter. He suspected it was a Golden Eagle. A powerful raptor. Magnificent. There was no game to hunt in this cold, which was peculiar. Then he remembered the banquet before him—the dead.

The Colonel looked ahead to the five snow covered bodies fifty metres from their position. The infiltrators came in the night. Smothered in ice. The archaic tactic defeated their infra-red systems. In the critical moment, a sentry’s instincts provided life saving forewarning. He ordered the traditional greeting—his men lit up the night sky with tracer-fire, cutting them down.

They had come and would again, with fatalistic courage. For them there was no way out but forward. An anarchist cult whose bloodlust for slaughter had almost forced his young nation to its knees. Backed into a corner like a wounded, rabid wolf, they sought sanctuary—as many a fanatical militancy had done before them—in the mountains. Away from the prying eyes of technology. At an elevation where their helicopters could not reach, in a village of such historical and cultural importance that conventional military operations were unfeasible.

Cabinet decided that the Army had sacrificed enough. Too many missing boys and countless civilians caught in the firestorm. The operating limit for casualties—both his soldiers and civilians—was zero. To the Colonel and his contemporaries, it was outrageous. A typical oversimplification from suit wearing career administrators who knew nothing of genuine sacrifice. With a ballot in less than a month, the real motive for such arbitrary limitations was unmistakable.

This limitation, like others before it, had arrived with the guarantee of stronger support. A new, mysterious weapon. They sought his leave from the frontier to oversee its employment. An insult. He would not abandon his brothers. Not on the precipice of victory.

‘S-Sir.’

A noise below him drew his mind from the field. He turned and inspected the fellow that Cabinet had delivered to him instead. A bookish technician carrying a briefcase.

‘Can we go someplace more discreet?’ The technician inquired, battered about in the trench by soldiers changing watch. ‘Where is your Command Post?’

The Colonel flicked some ash from his cigarette into the snow.  

‘You’re looking at it.’ He replied.

‘Ok.’ The technician said. With the awkward gait of a man who had never looked at a pull-up bar, let alone used one, he dragged himself up on the fire step and placed the suitcase on the sandbags.

‘What I am about to disclose to you,’ he began, catching his breath and placing his horn-rimmed glasses on, ‘is a compartmentalised weapons system. It is active right now. Today we will use it to defeat the insurgents in the town. We are running out of time before mission execution, so I need to do this now.’ He opened the suitcase. It was a digital workstation.

The Colonel looked around, confused

‘Your new weapon is invisible?’ He proposed, amused.

‘No.’ The technician pressed a switch on his workstation, as movement in the sky caught the Colonel’s eye. One eagle turned and hurtled towards the earth with unnatural precision. In a flash, it flared its wings and landed not three feet from them, sprinkling them in a plume of powdered snow. There was a faint hiss as the Colonel’s cigarette fell into the snow from his open mouth.

This was no Eagle.

‘This,’ the technician said, ‘is your weapons system. A military-civilian venture tasked with designing a low observable, persistent intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and precision kill drone swarm.’

‘Aluminium?’ The Colonel inquired, leaning in closer as metal bird spread its black wings.

‘Carbon Fibre.’ He answered.

‘Endurance?’

‘Three weeks.’

The Colonel raised his eyebrows in incredulity.

‘They are the result of a re-purposed environmental program which intended to better understand the dynamics of predatory birds.’ The technician explained. ‘The original prototype was a cyborg —a bird with mechanical augmentation. It was vital in generating the algorithm of aerodynamics, which drives the synthetic system that you see here. We call them Sinbagi.’

The Colonel brought a hand to his face, processing the information. Sinbagi. An obscure and unusual name, considering the robot’s eagle likeness. Sinbagi was a gigantic bird of prey that lurked in the mountains. Its call, loud and shrill, sounded like a human scream. It was a bogyman—folklore passed down through the generations. He had never heard one, let alone seen one. The villagers, however, were insistent. They considered its presence a dark omen. A harbinger of immanent death.

‘Is it battle tested?’ The Colonel asked, trying to get out of his own head.

‘I-I am not authorised to respond.’ The technician replied, clearing his throat.

The Colonel took a heavy breath, blinking in scepticism.  

‘So it operates like an eagle, one to which we have trained?’ He asked.

‘It’s best described as a drone which has leveraged nature to maximise its lethality.’

The Colonel inspected the Sinbagi. It was slender, constructed of wire-thin metal and copper circuitry. In its near translucent abdomen resided a small ball-camera. Its mechanical beak was akin to the head of a power drill.

‘How does it?’                                                                                                                 

An inch-long bolt flashed out from the Sinbagi’s snub nose at lightning speed, concurrent with another touch of the technician’s keypad.

‘Spring loaded.’ He added. ‘Very efficient. Armour piercing. Reusable.’

The Colonel’s eyes widened. He blinked, processing the information.

‘My god.’ The Colonel scoffed in a moment of illumination. ‘You expect me to endorse the use of this unproven monstrosity? You expect you can take on the Lion’s den—over a thousand armed barbarians, through the use of,’ he glanced to the sky, ‘four little robot birds?’

‘No Sir.’ The technician replied. ‘The decision to use the system has been made by the War Cabinet.’ He pressed a button, and the bird took off again, re-joining the others. ‘They task you with overseeing its usage under international law—and four hundred are at your disposal.’

The Colonel leaned forward, placing both hands on the parapet to steady himself, considering the additional weight of responsibility.

‘How am I only learning of this now?’ He asked.

‘We regard this weapons system amongst our closest guarded national secrets. Not even your own Command is briefed-in.’

‘Where are they?’ The Colonel asked. ‘The four hundred?’

‘Beyond the valley.’ He replied. ‘Above the clouds.’

‘How do I control it? Is it fully autonomous?’

‘It can be, but it is best employed through the manipulation of its engagement protocol. The swarm is authorised to target all military age males carrying firearms in a pre-designated closure area. The limits of the village.’ The technician gestured to the digital map.

‘You may choose to either expand or reduce the targeting limitations by either geography or target type.’ He continued. ‘For example, you may direct them to engage certain targets at will, or only engage those in a specific area. I control all of these functions through this terminal. Cabinet has directed me to adhere to your every command.’

‘It sounds too simple.’ The Colonel said.

‘Creating something complex is straightforward. The challenge, with autonomous systems, is simplification.’ The technician replied.

‘Sir,’ he persevered. ‘Cabinet has authorised the use of this weapons system, but it must occur now.’

The Colonel sighed.

‘Bloody outrageous.’ He growled under his breath.

‘Colonel.’ The technician began, and then paused. He was going off-script. ‘You are not the first Commander I have guided through this process.’

The Colonel nodded, respecting the transparency. It had always been easy to keep secrets in the mountains.

‘Very well.’ He said. Now was no time for doubt. ‘Do it.’

The technician pointed to the east.

‘The swarm is now transitioning to its pre-strike locations.’ He said.

The Colonel followed the technician’s gesture towards the space between two mighty peaks. The first thing he noticed were the rippling shadows. He altered his gaze upwards, then saw them.  A black swarm, sweeping over the ridges like water down a rapid. His brain grappled with his senses. They had an uncanny likeness to the eagles, pulsing and dispersing with an irrefutable beauty. The black swarm spilled out over the village, then circling to form a thick, contorted black halo.

‘Sir,’ the technician continued, snapping the Colonel out from his daze ‘the law of armed conflict dictates that the human interface must continue at all times, unless there is a threat to which there was no alternative option but to operate the swarm in autonomous defensive posture.’

‘I have directed the observer groups to identify military aged males carrying firearms within the geographic bounds of the village, as you can see.’ He said, gesturing towards the terminal. ‘They have identified six. I expect this engagement will stimulate a response from the village, leading to more targets.’

The Colonel examined the white-hot illuminations of men carrying weapons. They were the enemy’s sentries.

‘Request per—’

‘Approved. Take them.’ He said.

The Colonel watched as several dozen birds in the circling swarm turned and dived into the town. He caught the silhouette of one of the enemy sentries in his lens just in time to see him collapse like a marionette that had its strings severed. A staccato volley of automatic gunfire sounded. Then, silence.

There had been no blast. No plume of black ash. No lingering incense of battle. Six men killed.

‘Targets eliminated.’ The technician reported. ‘Five, wait—’ he squinted at the monitor ‘eight new targets now. All meet engagement protocol.’

Three more bursts of automatic gunfire resounded in the valley.

‘One target with a weapon is a female.’ The technician said. ‘Request permission to expand engagement protocol.’

He glanced over at the screen to see the black outline of a woman with a pistol, clutching a bundle in her hands.

‘Sir, I need a—‘

‘Approved.’

The technician pressed another button, and he watched more Sinbagi depart the halo to careen down into the village.

After a moment, the technician looked up from the monitor.

‘Targets eliminated.’ He said, with the clinical detachment of a surgeon excising a cancer. His brow furrowed as he eyed a new development on his screen.

‘Sir, the enemy has sought refuge in buildings, request permission to deploy the swarm in search and destroy mode. Each kill will still require your authorisation.’

‘Where will they go?’

‘The birds will deploy into the buildings at close range,’ he explained, ‘and identify the targets.’

The Colonel brought the glasses to his eyes. He saw no further movement beyond the black mass.

‘Do it.’

The Colonel watched as the swarm warped, arching into the crescendo of a breaking wave. At the top of its climb, each bird in the swarm slowed, stalled, then folded in, diving into the town at high velocity. He watched with morbid fascination as the raptors smashed through glass windows and poured through chimneys. An element withdrew, arcing into the air before re-attacking with rhythmic precision, each crescendo finding new entry-points into the buildings in the village.

‘Sir, ten targets requiring immediate approval.’

He turned to see the blurry outlines of infra-red figures, large in the digital terminal’s screens now.

‘Fifteen, Twenty, Fifty targets now. Five Sinbagi destroyed. Eight destroyed. They have dropped their firearms.’

‘What are they using?’

‘Some are using clubs Sir, others knives. Most are just fighting back with their bare hands.’

‘How do we kn—’

‘Twenty Sinbagi down now, Sir. Request permission to expand engagement protocol.’

He watched the Sinbagi numbers continue to dwindle. They were fighting back against the swarm.

‘I must approve each kill.’ The Colonel insisted.

‘Yes. Sir, we have to act!’

‘Approved, expand the targeting protocol. Target military age persons who are resisting in the buildings.’

‘Sir, three hundred and four targets identified, request permission to engage.’

‘Three hundred?’ He scoffed. ‘Let me see. Rotate through them.’

‘All three hundred?’

‘Yes.’ He looked over his shoulder to examine a grainy infra-red image of a young man with a machete swiping at the sky. He looked old enough to be one of them.

‘I approve this target.’

He flicked to another, a young woman brandishing a broom.

‘I do not approve this target.’ He said.

‘Sir, fifty Sinbagi down.’ The technician reported. ‘The Swarm is under threat! Request permission to switch to defensive, automated mode.’

He glanced at the woman, then towards the town. There had been no sound of further gunfire.

‘I only want military-aged individuals to be engaged.’ He said.

‘Yes Sir, three hundred and eight now. Seventy Sinbagi’s down now, Sir! I need a decision’

Three hundred souls in a single word. Ghastly. He turned to his right to see his soldiers watching the swarm with morbid fascination. Some were cheering, others praying, whilst a few turned away, as if ashamed.

There was no choice. The more he delayed, the less effective the weapon.

‘Take them.’ He said.

He watched as the targets fell away on his digital display. Two Hundred. One hundred and seventy. One hundred and twenty.

There was an unmistakable crack of a round passing over his head. The soldiers beside him stooped instinctively but the Colonel remained standing, glassing the hillside. He saw the faint puff of disturbed snow. An enemy sniper element.

‘Receiving fire!’ One of his soldiers cried.

‘Stand down!’ The Colonel demanded, enraged. ‘Stand down, damn it. Do not fire.’

He re-directed his rage towards the technician, cowering in the trench.

‘Why are they not attacking them?’ He demanded.

‘T-The limit, Colonel, I have directed the swarm to stay within the village.’ The technician replied

‘I want them to destroy those savages.’

‘But Sir—’

Another round cracked over their heads, impacting a sandbag three metres from the technician. He shrieked in terror, quivering.

‘Engagement authorised.’ The Colonel barked. ‘Make it happen. Direct them to those snipers.’

The technician settled the glasses on his nose and, through trembling fingers, punched a few commands into the terminal.

‘It’s done!’ He cried.

The Colonel turned and lifted the glasses to his eyes as a group of birds turned towards the fighters, who sent a volley of automatic fire towards them. It was ineffective. He watched one fighter bat the raptor away only to invite another three. They were all dead in four seconds.

‘Targets eliminated.’ The Colonel chimed, echoing the technician’s verbiage, lowering his glasses.

The technician clicked a few buttons, then looked over the edge of his screen towards the village, his eyes widening, his mouth agape.

‘What is it?’ The Colonel asked. ‘Did we eliminate them all?’

Then he saw. Thousands of them—men sprinting, women carrying babies, livestock charging through the crowd. Some were naked and barefoot, others fully clothed. Young and old. Running for their lives.  The entire village was in rout, fighters and civilians alike spilling out of the buildings, choking the narrow streets. Above them, the swarm dove on the fleeing crowd like gannets on a school of fish. Each dive accompanied by a high-pitched wail. A noise cut short as the raptors found their terminal mark with cold precision.

My God.’ The Colonel breathed. The noise was human screams.

He snapped back into action.

‘Turn them back!’ He cried, turning to the Technician. ‘They are engaging civilians. Turn them—’

A faint gust of wind against his cheek startled him. The Colonel spun around, only to see a soldier beside him fall face-first into the snow, unmoving.

The technician, frozen in fear, locked eyes with the Colonel. At the very moment the technician’s eyes registered his monstrous error they glazed over, as another drone made its fatal impact. The Colonel watched it arc away, the plume of dark red blood gleaming in the snow where it had made its mark.

The Colonel turned to the workstation. A soldier in his way smashed a bird with his rifle’s butt stock only have his life-switch flicked by another diving assailant. The lifeless man fell into him, his dead weight knocking the Colonel over. He pulled himself to his feet as another bird narrowly missed him, grasping the terminal. Locked. The buttons indiscernible to him. The screen displayed a rolling information feed.

Units: 325
Mission: Search and Destroy
Engagement Authority: Persons-- Military Age-- (All)
Operational Limit: (XXXXXXXN-XXXXXXE) No Limit Set
Endurance: 429Hrs 12 mins
Kills: 1025

At the bottom of the screen, the swarm reporting populated with machine-generated efficiency. The blurry black-hot figures enlarging in the camera display as the birds approached, then fading.

Tracking———Target Identified---Target Eliminated---Tracking———Target Identified---Target Eliminated--- Tracking———Target Identified---Target Eliminated--- Tracking———Target Identified---Target Eliminated--- Tracking———Target Identified---Target Eliminated--- Tracking———Target Identified

The Colonel recognised his own silhouette, enlarging with frightening speed. He closed his eyes and asked the Gods to forgive him. With his final breath, on the precipice of oblivion, he screamed to the heavens.

It was the call of the Sinbagi.

Target Eliminated

Tracking———Target Identified---Target Eliminated---Tracking———Target Identified---Target Eliminated--- Tracking———Target Identified---Target Eliminated--- Tracking———Target Identified---Target Eliminated--- Tracking———Target Identified---Target Eliminated--- Tracking———