Honourable Mention | ADC Sci-Fi Writing Competition
Story by Bryn Smith
‘Test the knot, Frosty.’
Private Sam Frost checked the rope lashed around a thick tree branch while Private Andy Ingram scanned the area with his Advanced F88 rifle. The branch hung over a sharp drop into a dry creek bed about six metres below them, smack in the middle of their patrol route.
‘Knot’s good,’ Frost said. ‘I’ll get our packs down.’
Frost secured and lowered each pack, then untied the rope and shoved it into his webbing. He slung his rifle and climbed down. Once he hit the creek bed, he hurried behind a thick log and took up a firing position that covered the creek bed and the opposite bank.
He checked the combat pad strapped to his forearm in its ruggedized sleeve. The pad showed a feed from a small drone buzzing forty metres overhead with a 360 degree view of the thick bush around them. He switched it to infrared mode. No enemy activity.
Ingram climbed down, using a tree root as a foothold. The root emerged from the creek wall and snaked back in. He lowered himself down, but the soil was loose and his fingers slipped. He grabbed for handholds as he fell back. He dropped, his left leg falling into the gap between the root and the creek wall. His body was turning, his entire weight went on his leg and there was a crack.
Frost whirled around as Ingram landed in the creek bed, crying out, his leg bent at a sickening angle.
‘Dammit!’ Frost charged over and ripped Ingram’s med pack off his webbing, the Velcro tearing loudly as it came away. ‘What the hell did you do that for?!’
‘I didn’t do it on purpose you shi—gah!’ Ingram yelled.
‘Don’t move!’ Frost snapped. He cut open Ingram’s cams to check his leg. It wasn’t bleeding, but that needed splinting. There was no way they’d make the meetup point now. He couldn’t carry his own pack, Ingram and all Ingram’s gear.
‘Take the intel.’ Ingram unstrapped his pad. He was gritting his teeth with pain. ‘Get to the meetup point.’
‘Don’t be stupid, Grammy. I’m not ditching you.’
‘The section’s hitting that bunker in a few hours.’ Ingram unzipped a pouch on Frost’s webbing and shoved the pad inside. ‘They need this quantum key.’
‘I said I’m not—’
‘We’ve got orders!’
‘The orders can get fu—’
Frost was interrupted by a loud beeping from his pad. He brought it up and checked the drone feed. The feed had automatically flicked to infrared. Three orange blobs had appeared behind them in the scrub, moving towards the creek. The drone had tagged them “Enemy”.
‘Grammy, we’ve got incoming. I’m calling a hot casevac. We’ll transmit the QK when we’re in the air.’ Frost opened his pad’s app list and tapped an icon with a red cross and a helicopter. His pad flashed a warning.
Low Battery. Casevac beacon unavailable.
‘Oh, come on!’
‘What is it?’ Ingram grunted.
‘A good soldier always keeps his pad charged.’
‘I know, dammit!’ Frost pulled out Ingram’s pad and called for casevac, pocketing his own pad. As he strapped Ingram’s pad to his arm, their drone climbed, its cameras whirring as it searched for a clearing. The pad beeped and showed the creek bed widened and flattened out a few hundred metres to the south.
The blobs were getting closer.
Frost knelt down. Ingram was getting pale and his breathing was shallow. Shock was setting in. ‘Grammy? There’s incoming. We have to move. It’s gonna hurt, but if we don’t move we’re dead.’
Without waiting for an answer, Frost grabbed Ingram and pulled him into a fireman’s hold. Ingram bit a section of Frost’s webbing and let out a muffled scream as the movement jarred his leg.
Frost walked down the creek bed, his muscles burning under the weight. He let his AF88 hang on its sling as he checked Ingram’s pad. When he called for casevac, the screen popped up a nine-liner decision tree.
Location? Frost tapped “Marked by Drone”.
Frequency and callsign? The details auto-filled from Ingram’s pad. He hit next.
Patients and precedence?
A rifle cracked. There was a puff of dirt right beside them.
‘Run, Frosty,’ Ingram whispered.
Frost broke into a run. The clearing was ahead. A large boulder was half-buried off to the side of the creek bed. A light machine gun rattled, bullets chewing up the sandy soil around him. He dashed behind the boulder and dropped Ingram beside it. Ingram swore as his leg bounced.
Frost checked the pad again. There were now five blobs. One of them was labelled “Gunner”. Frost switched the drone feed to normal vision and synced targeting data to his AF88’s digital sight.
The gunner was in the open.
Frost lined himself up behind the boulder then popped up, fired, then ducked back down as rounds pinged into the boulder. He checked his pad. The gunner was down.
Frost switched screens on the pad again and finished the nine-liner. The pad sent a data burst back to base, along with an automated audio transmission over radio channels. The pad beeped.
The machine gun rattled again.
‘What the hell?’ Frost checked the pad. One of the enemy had moved to the downed gunner and grabbed his weapon. Two more had moved out of the scrub to the edge of the creek bed. There was no cover.
Frost fired again. He checked his pad to see the enemy disappear back into the scrub. He switched back to infrared. The blobs were moving along the creek bed to flank him.
The drone feed went grainy and distorted. An alarm popped up.
‘Goddammit!’ Frost yelled. He peeked around the side of the boulder and fired at something moving in the tall grass. There was a cry.
The gun rattled again. Rifles cracked. Bullets spanked off the boulder and dug into the soil on either side. He pulled out his pistol and handed it to Ingram.
‘See you on the other side, mate.’
Frost pulled out his low-battery pad and smashed against the boulder. Ingram’s pad was still grainy with interference. He gripped his AF88.
A roar of engines echoed across the creek bed as a tiltrotor aircraft cruised in above them, its wing nacelles rotating upwards. A crew-served gun buzzed and 7.62 rounds chewed through the bush like a buzz saw.
‘Yeah! That’s the stuff!’ Frost cheered.
The tiltrotor landed in the creek bed. Riflemen jumped out, opening fire, while medics ran over with a stretcher. Frost helped them get Ingram onto the stretcher, then they pulled back to the tiltrotor. The crew-served gun buzzed again, the grass by the creek bed swaying in a metal wind.
Frost plugged Ingram’s pad into a port by one of their seats. He uploaded a single file and sent it to the section as the tiltrotor lifted into the sky.
Corporal Emily Morello lay in a ditch, idly watching a worm wriggle around in the loose soil. Her bun of brown hair was hot against her neck. Her pad beeped with a message notification. She opened it and smiled. ‘Good boys.’
‘We set?’ Lance Corporal Ingram lay in the ditch beside her, his face spattered with cam paint.
‘Scout Group got us the QK,’ Morello said. ‘We’re on. Take your fire team and hit them from the east in five minutes. We’ll sneak up and hack their turrets. Once the auto defences are down, intel says it’s just one or two engineers inside the bunker.’
‘Copy. We should sync a count down.’ Ingram tapped the pad on his forearm.
‘Good idea.’ Morello brought up her own pad. ‘Five minutes. Three, two, one, mark.’
Ingram hit the count down and rejoined his fire team to relay orders. They moved further down the ditch.
Morello crawled down the ditch in the other direction to her fire team. ‘Davies? We got the key.’ She transferred the quantum key to Davies’ pad. ‘When Grammy hits them, I want you to throw out a blinder, then sneak up and access their network. Shut down the auto defences.’
‘You got it.’ Davies loaded the key onto his Q-Labs Light-Based Transmitter, affectionately known among the non-technical diggers as a doodad.
‘Everyone, give Davies cover. At least one turret will stay in position. Hit it hard. Singh? How’s your galah?’
‘Tip-top.’ Singh, a bearded Indian Sikh, hefted his AF88 with its grenade launcher attachment.
‘Cardenas, you’re on bunker suppression. Make sure no one pops out.’
‘Copy.’ Cardenas, a squat, burly Peruvian, unfolded the bipod of his F89 machine gun.
‘Get ready. We move when Grammy hits them.’
The fire team crept along the ditch as far as they could before the ground shallowed out. Morello checked her pad’s clock. Ingram should be hitting them about—
Gunfire and explosions echoed across the open plain from the other side of the bunker. Morello switched her pad to a feed from a drone hidden in the trees above them. Through it, she saw stocky, four-legged turrets march towards Ingram’s position, their heavy guns booming. One turret stayed behind.
‘Blinder!’ Davies yelled. He tossed a pockmarked metal ball out of the ditch towards the turret. The blinder shot out light loaded with junk data across every frequency of the electromagnetic spectrum. The turret swivelled towards it and opened fire.
‘Go!’ Morello roared.
The fire team climbed out of the ditch and charged the gun. The turret swivelled back towards them, a spray of bullets just missing them as the fire team dropped on their guts.
Cardenas fired an armour-piercing burst at the turret, knocking out one of its legs. The turret teetered, shifting its weight and rebalancing itself before firing again. There was a puff and Singh’s grenade slammed into the turret and exploded. The turret collapsed, its gun drooping.
‘Davies! Get going!’ Morello shouted.
Davies charged ahead and aimed his doodad at the back of the turrets firing on Morello’s position.
Something moved out of the corner of Morello’s eye. A dark, low-slung shape with four legs popped out of the dirt and bounded towards Davies.
‘Dog!’ Singh screamed. ‘Davies! Run!’
Davies turned to the side as the black shape came to a sudden stop. A rotating gun on its side swivelled and aimed. It shuddered and fell over as the fire team slammed bullets into its flank.
Davies got up and ran. The dog was already pushing itself up. Its flank gun swivelled and fired.
Davies’ left eye exploded and he dropped.
Cardenas bellowed and aimed his F89. Armour-piercing bullets tore into the dog and it collapsed.
A second dog emerged from the bunker and ran towards them.
‘Cover me!’ Morello shouted. She ran towards Davies’ body. The doodad was still in his hand. Morello grabbed it and aimed its laser at the turrets. She checked the pad strapped to Davies’ arm.
Key reading in progress…
Bullets whistled overhead. The second dog moved in a zig-zag pattern, ducking and weaving. Its flank gun emerged. It was coming for Morello.
A grenade exploded beside the dog, throwing it onto its side. Its legs adjusted and it pushed itself back up.
Morello looked at the pad’s screen.
Remote access granted. Initiate system shut down? Y/N
The dog ran towards Morello. Its flank gun pointed at her forehead.
Morello slammed “Y”.
There was a click. Morello looked at the dog. Its flank gun had slid back into its recess. The dog folded its legs and lay down.
It was eerily quiet. Morello realised the turrets had stopped firing.
‘Cardenas! Cover the bunker!’
Ingram and his fire team emerged from the far ditch. They cleared the turrets, tearing out the ammunition containers and jamming pebbles into the smoking barrels. If those turrets came back online, they’d misfire. Singh kicked the dog onto its side and put a bullet into its side, then stamped on its legs until they were twisted and broken. He kissed his fingers and tapped Davies’ head.
The section circled the bunker. It was a prefab block with no firing apertures. Transmission antennas were half-buried around the bunker with hardlines leading inside, allowing the engineers to remotely control their defences.
Ingram joined up with Morello. ‘Let’s clear this bastard.’
‘Bloody right,’ Morello agreed. ‘You and Liaros. Two grenades, one second cook-off.’
The section split again and moved around to approach the bunker entrance from either side.
Ingram and Liaros, his grenadier, pulled F1 grenades from their pouches. Singh and Webster, a rifleman from Ingram’s fireteam, readied their AF88s.
Ingram and Liaros twisted and pulled the safety pins, letting the strikers go. They held the grenades for one second.
‘Grenade!’ Ingram barked.
They lobbed the grenades into the bunker. There was shouting inside and both grenades exploded with a puff. Thousands of steel balls rattled around inside the bunker.
‘Go, go, go!’
Singh and Webster moved in to clear.
‘Two dead enemies!’ Webster yelled. ‘Bunker secure!’
Lieutenant Claude Yazbeck fumbled in the dark for the zip to his bivvy bag with cold-stiff fingers. His hootchie brushed against his head and a trail of icy moisture trickled down his back. He shivered.
Yazbeck recognised the voice of Sergeant Ingram. ‘Grammy. What’s up?’
‘Movement outside the twelve o’clock gun. We’re about to get bumped.’
Yazbeck was instantly awake. He reflexively went to his pad, but Ingram’s arm snapped out and grabbed him. ‘Careful, sir. They’ll see the light.’
‘Right.’ Yazbeck chided himself. ‘Spread the word. Stand to. We repel, pack up and move to the RV point.’
Ingram’s footsteps faded. Yazbeck grabbed the track line between him and his signalman and followed it. He heard snoring.
‘Stig?’ Yazbeck whispered. ‘Stig! Get up!
‘We’re about to get bumped. Radio battalion HQ and grab your gear.’
Yazbeck heard rustling as Stig slid out of his bivvy bag and shoved it into his pack. He heard whispers around him as the rest of the platoon stirred and readied themselves.
There was a flash in front of the twelve o’clock gun.
‘Contact!’ one of the corporals yelled. ‘1 Section, Alpha Fire Team! Sync to drone! Watch and shoot!’
Rifles opened up and flashes pierced the dark.
More fire opened up from outside the perimeter. Guns chattered in the dark. Yazbeck was about to yell at his gunners for opening up without orders before realising the gunners were outside the perimeter. There was a crump.
Yazbeck threw himself down as a grenade exploded, showering him with dirt.
Something flashed in front of the four o’clock gun. Yazbeck looked behind him as a white para flare shot into the sky, bathing the platoon harbour in light. Yazbeck saw figures near the four o’clock gun. They wore different uniforms.
‘Enemy in the harbour!’ Yazbeck opened fire. ‘Enemy in the harbour!’
Bullets whizzed around Yazbeck. Something dropped in front of him and bounced. It was a drone.
‘Drone down! One Section! Sixty metres, two o’clock, watch and shoot!’
The rest of 1 Section opened up as Yazbeck ran over to Stig. The signalman had his pack on. ‘Let’s go! Move!’
Yazbeck grabbed a bug-out bag from his pack and threw it over his shoulder as he ran with Stig. They pulled back to the eight o’clock gun. Sergeant Ingram was there with 3 Section.
‘Firing positions! Cover 1 and 2 Sections!’ Ingram shouted.
3 Section opened up.
‘1 Section, withdraw!’ Yazbeck yelled. ‘Fire claymore!’
Everyone hit the dirt.
‘Claymore firing now!’ someone yelled in the dark.
‘Claymore firing now!’
‘Dammit!’ Ingram snarled. ‘They cut the line!’
A second flare sailed into the air. Yazbeck heard buzzing. He looked up and saw a large drone with strange colours in the trees. It was aiming a laser designator at them.
‘Move!’ Yazbeck yelled. There was a whistling and four high-ex smart mortar shells annihilated their position.
‘Is it online?’ Zemek asked.
‘Yeah. I gave it something to play with,’ Schachenbach answered.
The two captains looked at a small black box in a sealed room deep inside Defence’s Russell Offices. The box had a cable snaking into an ADF laptop.
‘What did you give it?’ Zemek asked.
‘All the data on the incoming RMC class,’ Schachenbach answered. ‘Age, height, weight, high school grades, their freakin’ boot size. But that’s not the best part.’
Schachenbach tapped another box, this one bright silver, on the other side of the laptop. ‘Got this on loan from an ANU lab. Room temperature quantum processor. Gives the AI a massive boost in processing power and it can handle more complicated data. Psych evaluations, health checks, Officer Selection Board reports, social media activity. This thing will know the cadets better than they know themselves. It’ll know how far to push them.’
‘Does it know what’s too far?’
‘That’s why we’re here. Keep a human in the loop. We’ll check which scenarios are easy, which are fair and which are straight out impossible. Ah, here we go.’
A file appeared on the laptop. Schachenbach opened it. Text documents, with a cadet’s name on each one.
‘See? Training programs, uniquely tailored to each cadet and created in a few minutes.’
‘And what will the instructors do?’ Zemek asked.
‘Watch the cadets closer, give them better feedback. They’ll get a completely different experience than any class before them.’
‘Why’d the boffins give it a name?’ Zemek nodded at a piece of tape on the black box with a name scribbled across it.
‘I did that,’ Schachenbach said.
‘What the hell for?’
‘Because “RMC AI Training Program” doesn’t roll off the tongue.’
‘But Andy Ingram?’
‘I get it, it’s just not funny.’
‘Well you’re wrong. It’s objectively hilarious.’
‘Whatever, dude,’ Zemek said. ‘I’m grabbing a brew. You want one?’
‘That’d be great.’
Zemek left while Schachenbach sat down at the laptop. ‘Righto, Andy. Let’s see what you’ve cooked up.’