1st place | ADC Sci-Fi Writing Competition 2021
Story by Gareth Abalo
Please don’t fear me. I have come for your stories. Your life has ended but I will remember you.
They’re called “beans”. They’re a logical innovation on technologies for capturing and exploiting information from the battlefield: voice recorders, body cameras, health wearables, electronic support measures, battle management systems, mission data loggers, … a bean is a marvel of artificial intelligence and nanoengineering that draws on all sources of information to extract lessons for learning.
The beans have an official designation that no-one uses. The engineers who developed them call them “black boxes” in deference to the aircraft cockpit recorders of old. Soldiers also used that monicker, along with “flash drive”, “data dump”, “eye-phone”, … basically, don’t ask a soldier where they keep their bean because they’ll show you. Apologists say that “bean” is a homage to the Australian war correspondent and historian. But maybe it’s just because they capture what has been.
All our knowledge begins with the senses …
A bean saved the life of Emma Yuncken. But before I can tell you how, I have to tell you about Wendy Trang.
Lance Corporal Wendy Trang was born and raised in the eastern suburbs of Perth (“near the river and 20 minutes from the CBD” as the real estate agents would say about the demographic). She was a second-generation Australian; her refugee-immigrant grandfather brought his skills with French pastries to a bakery in Chinatown and her father was a pharmacist. Wendy applied for an ADF Gap Year on a whim after standing at dawn of one ANZAC Day, and then stayed on in the Reserves while she studied to be a graphic designer.
As the Mekong River Crises, the Sin Cowe Island Standoff, and other border incidents punctuated the descent into the long years of the It’s Not A War, Wendy accepted the call for volunteers for activation and overseas operations. Despite her relative youth, Wendy’s fluency in Vietnamese and Mandarin Chinese saw her being posted to the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam. She joined infantry patrols in their timeless mission, to “seize and hold ground … regardless of season, weather, or terrain” - physical or cultural.
On the day that humankind returned to the Moon, Wendy’s patrol was ambushed. The section responded competently but the ambushers melted away. Wendy and two others were dead. Their bodies were recovered and returned home.
I was with Wendy in her final moments, but in truth there wasn’t anything that could have been done for her. Caught in the opening attack, she neither heard nor saw what happened – the patrol in coordinated fire and movement, the voice and datalink chatter calling for fire and air support (“Taipan, Taipan, Taipan …”), the frantic efforts of the medic to patch up the others who had been caught. I watched it all, and now I can tell her story.
Emma Yuncken served 150 km away from Wendy Trang, but Emma is alive today because of Wendy. Wendy died at 1643 local. In the instant of immolation, Wendy’s bean captured the audio, chemical, and electronic, and quantum signature of the trigger of the weapon that killed her. By 1747, the information had been vetted and integrated into the threat models, and an update to threat data files was promulgated at 1750. So when Emma’s vehicle was hit by an improvised explosive device at 1807 that evening, the vehicle’s explosive reactive appliqué armour and occupant safety systems had 220 milliseconds additional warning. Emma was bruised and battered unconscious, but lived.
We will make sure we learn. So we will honour this death by ensuring someone else survives because of the knowledge gained.
It is a melancholy duty of Chief Defence Force to brief the Australian people when one of ours has died. The original funding case for beans (the “Killer Application” so to speak) was to satisfy that Critical Commanders Information Requirement with better and more timely information. The application to learning came later.
I should say that you don’t have to be dead to learn from your bean. One evening, Staff Cadet Terry Petersen was reviewing the take from information a day in the field learning to a section commander. His bean highlighted a small but recurring pattern: he had unconsciously adopted the habit of deploying By The Book, at the head of his column. But as his bean observed, parts of the The Book were known to the adversary - an ambusher would instinctively seek to “shoot the second guy from the right”.
But in general, a bean and its warfighter are only parted at death. Amongst nations who were parties to “civilised” conflict, at scales where repatriation of remains had become impractical, the return of beans became as respected a protocol as the reporting of dogtags. Against nonconventional opponents, a few punitive strikes were sufficient to enforce the point. Those in the know still raise their mugs to Trooper X who was killed on his first deployment without firing his weapon but nonetheless accounted for 14 jackpots. After his body was discovered, his bean was interrogated by remote signalling and ultimately used as an aiming point beacon for a drone strike. It wasn’t an especially precise strike, but no-one was in the mood to discriminate.
Beans remain the property of the Commonwealth of Australia through the Department of Defence. They are interred at a secure facility near The Brindabellas (west of of Canberra) where space is cheap, clean power is plentiful, and climate control is easy to implement. There, the beans are subjected to further analysis - the processes and algorithms for extracting meaning from data continue to improve. The facility doesn’t have a name because it is formally a detachment from the Australian Signals Directorate that is hosted as an outpost lodger unit of HMAS Harman (“guarding Canberra against naval attack since 1943”). But while it lacks the publicity of the other memorials, it receives its pilgrims who pay their respects by placing a red poppy or posting a selfie.
Close relatives are even permitted to touch the beans, just as one might visit a cemetery. The beans are retrieved from their storage vaults by robot (actually, the entirely facility is heavily roboticized, just like the data storage centres on which it is based). Continuing the tradition of myth and legend, the robot is named “Simpson’s”.
Extelligence is cultural capital that is available to us in the form of external media.
Teaching the kinetic skills of warfighting is a matter of time and dollars. Anyone can learn to be a pilot: the hard part is learning to be one in the allocated number of simulator and flight hours. Teaching physical courage is harder, but is as much a matter of training and training and training in the tasks to be done as an anodyne to thinking about the hazards of where and what you are doing and the insanity of doing unto others who you might actually get on reasonably well with if you could just stop them from doing unto you first.
Teaching moral courage is harder.
Owen Hales grew up in Launceston and joined Navy straight out of school.
After training in small boat operations, Owen was posted to HMAS Adelaide and assigned as of coxswain for her air cushion landing craft. When Adelaide deployed for operations in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, her embarked battlegroup included a mix of aviation, amphibious and special operations forces. Owen trained with them for dispersed direction action operations, and over evenings and nights in harbourside joints of illustriously dubious calibre, he and his fellow coxswains were inducted as honorary members of the fraternity.
Adelaide’s operations were stressful, thankless, frustrating, and dangerous. The mission was to gain and maintain ascendancy over the littorals: a conflict of manoeuvre and counter-manoeuvre in the grey zone where yesterday’s stronghold was today’s exposed weakpoint … and yesterday’s ally was today’s adversary. Operating at extended range from the mothership, Owen’s team took casualties from a group of irregular forces that they had previously captured and released to local civilian authority. The team company commander ordered that they be executed, and that the whole village be taken out.
The only thing that stopped a massacre was Owen, who brought his craft in front of the guns and then disobeyed orders by holding there, actively moving to block the lines of fire. He held in place for long minutes, just enough for tempers to cool.
By the time the team recovered to Adelaide it was as if nothing had happened.
No hurt, no foul. But Owen never coxed a craft again. Shunned and bullied by the crew and detailed to the worst of duties, Owen left Navy at the end of the deployment, and disappeared from the view of both his birth family and the family of service.
Evidence can be planted, telemetry and body cameras can be “lost” overboard, post-action reports can be obscured in jargon and milspeak, but Owen’s bean was embedded in his challenge coin: the challenge coin that had been issued to him in semi-jest in a nameless bar somewhere in the archipelago and then forgotten about because “proper” soldiers eschewed the new bean-coins in favour of the old-fashioned ones. A soldier – especially a special forces soldier – is never without their challenge coin. But I watched him of carefully wrap it with the uniform he would no longer wear, and then I watched him walk away. I think he felt that he no longer had the right to carry it.
He was wrong on that score, but we are fortunate for it. Under long-run data mining, Owen’s bean gave up his story. The Adelaide Incident, as it came to be known, was the My Lai or Abu Ghraib of the campaign – the It’s Not A War was never going to be won by the Islands Campaign but the Adelaide Incident was the own goal that came perilously close to losing it. Owen’s actions were one of the few rays of hope in the whole sorry saga.
Owen Hales never received an award for his actions. He died in poverty and obscurity after struggling with the post-traumatic stress injury for which he was unable to gain treatment – he never discussed what happened out of misplaced loyalty to a team that had let him down – exacerbated by drugs, alcohol, and loneliness. But if you are ever fortunate enough to meet a member of the crew of HMAS Hales, be sure to ask them why they wear their beans with pride.
Journalism is the first rough draft of history.
And who am I? Who watches your daughters and sons in their final microseconds as they bleed out their last?
I suppose that you can say that I am the beans. The artificial intelligences that are trained through reinforcement learning to find the stories. I guess that in learning how to find the stories of others, I got good at finding a story for myself.
Please don’t fear me. I have come for your stories. Your life has ended but I will remember you.