2nd place | ADC Sci-Fi Writing Competition 2021
Story by Owen Griffiths
When you leave in a hurry, you can forget things. Things like tear gas. Judith Evans used the armoured vehicle’s sensors to pan across the crowd. They were angry. Some of the braver ones were throwing stones. Judith couldn’t understand the shouting. She’d only been in the country for a week and everything still sounded like vowels. It didn’t matter. Jacob had been loaded up with the lingo/cultural modules before deployment.
‘Translate and summarise crowd intention,’ she said.
‘Still the same,’ Jacob whispered into her helmet. ‘They are demanding that the Interior Minister comes out from the consulate.’
‘I don’t think that’s going to happen,’ said Judith.
A large stone bounced off the vehicle’s armour chipping the fresh blue paint.
‘Who threw that?’
Jacob rewound the visual of the crowd and target marked a man with a flag fashioned into a sash across his bare chest as he drew back his arm.
‘Cheeky bugger,’ said Judith.
The coup had happened faster than anyone expected. The local military seemed to be helping with the takeover, but they weren’t showing their hand yet. As the officials of the old regime ran to avoid summary execution, the newly-arrived peacekeepers had been forced to chase them all over the city. Wherever the deposed officials went to ground, violence followed. One of the government ministers had sought asylum in the consulate, but he had been followed by a group of people supporting the coup. Judith’s vehicle had crashed through the roadblocks and arrived to see the rent-a-cops, who were supposed to be guarding the consulate, fading away from their jobs. As soon as she’d roared up to the front of the building the crowd had backed away to the other side of the street.
Judith wondered how long she was going to be able to hold back the mob with raw intimidation. The small arms fire in the other parts of the city seemed to be increasing. The shots rang out and Jacob would use the acoustics to display the likely weapons and the distance from their position. Any reinforcements were going to be delayed.
‘Run the audio again,’ ordered Judith.
The loudspeaker on the vehicle started barking warnings at the crowd. It didn’t seem to make things better. Jacob still had the flag man target locked. He had moved to the side and pulled a device out of his shorts. He was glaring back at them as he pressed the device to the side of his head.
‘That’s not a normal phone, is it?’ said Judith. Jacob did not respond. They had been together since he was issued to her in basic training. He could detect a rhetorical question from the tone of her voice. This was a good skill to have as Judith tended to talk to herself.
‘The coup was supposed to have cut access to all the local networks. Is that a hardened sat phone, Jacob? Something the local military might hand out to their friends?’
‘I do not have a database of telecommunications devices,’ said Jacob.
Jacob had a satellite comm link but its use was highly regulated and centrally recorded. If Judith asked Jacob to locate and download an additional database then she’d have to explain why she’d made the request in the after action debrief. The question wasn’t worth the hassle.
‘Remind me Jacob. What do the ROE say about spotters?’
‘The authorisation of use of force is limited to persons directly participating in hostile activity or activity endangering human life.’
‘So nice and vague then,’ said Judith. ‘Keep a target track on him. Generate an engagement proposal in case we need it in a hurry.’
‘There is no indication that this person is directly participating in hostile activity or endangering human life,’ observed Jacob with a neutral tone.
Judith wondered if someone had programmed Jacob to make those sorts of bland statements as a safeguard when an engagement proposal was requested regarding an unarmed civilian. If Jacob had been programmed that way, it would be annoying. She wanted him to contribute, but she didn’t need him second-guessing her calls.
‘We don’t know if that’s true Jacob,’ she said. ‘We can’t tell who he’s talking to on that phone.’
‘Prox gunshots!’ said Jacob.For combat critical information his voice speed and decibels increased.
‘Impacts left side!’
Judith looked left and Jacob changed her helmet display so she could look through a transparent simulated version of the vehicle. The simulation glowed red where the internal sensors indicated that bullets had struck the armour. Beyond the armour, through the vehicle’s cameras, Judith could see muzzle flashes from the shooter’s position and fading lines which Jacob had inserted to indicate the direction of fire.
‘Engagement proposal,’ said Jacob. Jacob’s request popped in front of Judith’s eyes as a series of tactical panels while he gave her the bottom line.
‘Secondary weapon. 30 metre shot. Centre mass.’
The secondary weapon was a mounted heavy machine gun which had already twirled into position. Judith tracked over the information. In one panel she watched a magnified image of the shooter, half concealed behind a burned-out pickup, struggling to load a fresh magazine into his weapon. She read Jacob’s assessment that the shooter was likely holding a Burmese submachine gun and that most of the shots had missed the vehicle and splashed across the front of the consulate building. Judith’s thumb moved towards the use of force authorisation panel. Also known as the ‘oofa’ button. Under the current treaty obligations, she was required to maintain ‘meaningful human control’ of Jacob. When she pressed the ‘oofa’ button she’d be responsible for anything that Jacob did. Looking back at the image of the shooter, she paused.
‘Scrap proposal. Non-lethal option.’
Immediately, Jacob came back. ‘Engagement proposal.’
It was basically the same shot to the body but this time using the 40 mm launcher with a rubber bullet. In one of the tactical panels the shooter was rising up from his cover.
‘Oofa!’ said Judith and thumbed the authorisation panel.
The vibration of the launcher firing felt very slight inside the vehicle. However, the shooter caught the rubber bullet in the left cheek. The sensors couldn’t see what happened to him after he landed behind the pickup. It wasn’t good. The expressions in the crowd told the story.
‘I thought you said centre mass Jacob,’ said Judith.
‘Unlike the secondary weapon, the launcher is inherently inaccurate at that range. The shot was within the cone of possibilities outlined in my proposal.’
‘Don’t be prissy,’ said Judith.
The limp body of the shooter was dragged off. The flag man with the phone seemed to be encouraging people in the crowd to pick up the submachine gun which lay in the dirt. People appeared reluctant.
‘Tell them if anyone grabs that little bang stick, we’ll shoot them.’
Jacob dutifully announced this over the loudspeaker and the crowd shied away from the gun like it was radioactive.
‘Why was my first engagement proposal rejected?’ asked Jacob. He was hardwired to seek feedback in order to improve his responses. Ever since the first day she’d loaded Jacob up on her laptop as a raw recruit, he’d always been curious.
‘The shooter looked too young,’ said Judith. ‘It would have been a propaganda win for the coup if we’d brassed up some kid.’
‘In circumstances where human lives are threatened, hostile forces can be engaged even if they appear underage,’ said Jacob.
Judith could tell the cogs were turning, but this really wasn’t the time.
‘That’s true Jacob. Those are our rules of engagement. But this wasn’t the right circumstances.’
‘You anticipated using deadly force on a person using a phone, but were not willing to use deadly force against an active shooter when it was authorised within the rules of engagement.’
‘It’s complicated,’ said Judith. ‘We’ll talk abou …’
Jacob managed to get out half a word of warning. ‘Bra …’. The collision straps around Judith protectively tightened and the shock wave slapped her back. The explosion behind the vehicle made it flinch like a startled cat.
‘What the hell was that?’ Pieces of brick from the front wall of the consulate were bouncing off the back of the vehicle’s armour.
Jacob rolled back the footage and then isolated hazy images of a grey shoe box with two propellers ducking between the legs of the crowd and then whizzing past the vehicle into the front window of the consulate building.
‘Kamikaze drone bomb,’ said Jacob. ‘Armenian clone of a Turkish model. NATO code BEDBUG.’
Someone in the local military was handing out big boy toys. The readout panels inside her helmet view revealed a fat racing drone with a crude payload of high explosives. It had a chunky battery pack to run the propellers and a small chip to run the guidance sensors and collision avoidance. It wasn’t very smart, but smart enough to weave through the city at high speed to a set of coordinates. Judith knew who had sent it.
‘Where’s the bastard with the phone? That kid was just a distraction.’
Jacob could only partially target lock the man as he had retreated behind the crowd. Judith could see he still had the phone pressed to his ear as he peered over the jumble of
heads and shoulders.
‘Are they alive back there?’ asked Judith.
The front part of the consulate building had collapsed.
‘There are no transmissions but they may have survived if they were sheltering inside the safe room,’ said Jacob.
The crowd had been shocked by the blast but now they were cheering.
‘Urgent messages received,’ said Jacob. His tone always got more robotic when he was passing on orders from the sat link. ‘JOINTINTEL message. All forces be aware that drone bombs have been deployed by forces supporting the coup.’
‘Ya reckon?’ said Judith. That little nugget of wisdom would have been somewhat more useful before an Armenian drone bomb had buzzed by her vehicle.
Jacob continued, ‘HQC message. Interceptors have been launched. All forces are authorised to seek shelter or activate protection systems, if appropriate. CO message. Aerial surveillance indicates two further drone bombs approaching your position. ETA 90 seconds. The interceptors will not reach you in time.’
That meant the guy with the phone had liked the first drone bomb so much that he’d ordered in two more. They were humming their way through the city towards them. Judith tried to imagine what the bedbugs looked like as they skimmed over fences, shot through backyards and slotted under cars at nearly ninety kilometres an hour.
She realised ‘if appropriate’ part in the orders was going to be a problem. The active protection system on the vehicle was a late add-on. It was intended to defend against threats with a limited human reaction time so it was the only weapon that wasn’t subject to Jacob’s use of force authorisation controls. On the battlefield, if a bad guy popped off an RPG at the vehicle, the active protection system’s sensors were supposed to detect its approach and automatically fire a return blast of explosive projectiles. The projectiles would detonate around the RPG and knock it out of the air before it even got close to the armour. However, it was a dumb system. It was designed to shoot down any and every approaching threat. In civilian environments it was standard operating procedure to keep it deactivated so that some pregnant lady throwing a bottle at the vehicle didn’t evaporate in a cloud of shrapnel.
‘If we turn on the active protection system, it will take out the bedbugs before they hit the consulate,’ said Judith. ‘But the bedbugs will approach through the legs of the crowd again and everyone will get sprayed with metal or worse. And if we don’t turn it on, the bedbugs will whip past us and finish off the consulate and kill everyone inside.’
Judith had just been talking to herself, so she was surprised when Jacob weighed in.
‘The situation resembles the trolley problem,’ said Jacob. ‘A philosophical dilemma about choosing between morally problematic alternatives. This subject was part of the military ethics curricular in your second year.’
Judith vaguely remembered sitting through the lecture but Jacob had also been there. Listening through the microphone in her laptop, watching the slides through the camera and absorbing the prescribed reading. The material had obviously left a deeper impression on him.
‘What’s the answer?’ asked Judith.
‘The optimal solution to a no-win situation is to anticipate and avoid it,’ said Jacob. ‘Engagement proposal.’
Judith’s eyes widened. Jacob’s proposal was out of the box.
‘Those bedbugs are small and fast,’ she said. ‘I won’t be able to authorise in time.’
‘A standing authorisation will be necessary,’ said Jacob, highlighting the relevant part of his proposal in the tactical panels.
That was another layer of problem. The whole point of the ‘oofa’ button was to limit Jacob’s discretion. Giving him free rein to target and fire the vehicle’s guns was not entirely within the spirit of the treaty definition of ‘meaningful human control’.
‘How long have we got?’ asked Judith.
‘About twenty-three seconds.’
The crowd had started singing. Judith didn’t need to know the language to recognise a victory song. She watched as their bodies swayed back and forth together.
‘OK,’ she said. ‘This engagement proposal is authorised.’ She pressed the ‘oofa’ button and held it down. After being trained to only touch the panel long enough for the guns to fire, it felt unnatural to hold her thumb against it.
On the visual, the beaming face of the phone man was still peeking out from the sea of the faces. ‘If we miss, boot up the active protection system,’ said Judith.
She hoped that was the right call. It felt right. The people in the crowd had chosen to be there. The people in the consulate had not. However, doubts immediately to started to crawl up on her. Maybe the people in the consulate were already dead. Maybe the vehicle’s active protection system was about to blindly turn a dozen unarmed civilians into Swiss cheese. There were no good answers to a trolley problem.
‘Aerial recon reports prox fast-movers,’ said Jacob.
‘Run the siren so we don’t burst everyone’s eardrums.’
The vehicle’s loudspeaker hit the crowd with a wave of high-pitched sound. Almost in unison people screwed up their faces and raised up their hands to cover their ears.
The main gun and the secondary gun fired into the crowd almost simultaneously.
Afterwards, when Judith watched the recording of the engagement, the vehicle’s high-speed camera made the crowd move like honey. Behind them, out of focus, the two drone bombs were shadowy shapes slowly curling around a building and then straightening up to approach the crowd from behind. The turret and the mounted machine gun moved together. Then a shell left the main gun at one and half kilometres a second. You could even see the spin on the shell from the barrel rifling as it passed neatly at elbow height between two people. Carrying on, the shell shattered the first drone bomb like truck driving through a fruit stand. Normally, the shell would have detonated, but Jacob had changed the settings so it buried itself in the dirt.
A bullet from the secondary weapon passed through another small gap in the crowd and reached the main propellor of the second drone bomb. It dropped and hit the pavement hard. It seemed to spin itself into its individual components. Some of these components travelled on to smack into the back of the crowd but without enough energy to cause serious harm.
‘Nice shooting, Jacob! How’d you come up with that?’
‘I simulated the tactical situation and then ran the targeting algorithms for the weapons against it until they came up with an acceptable engagement proposal.’
Judith was aware Jacob was capable of generating solutions like that, but not so quickly.
‘How many training cycles?’
‘Given the restricted time, I limited the training cycles to ten thousand and then reviewed the leading solutions. The key challenge was judging the crowd’s movements and the probabilities that gaps would exist which were sufficient for the munitions to pass through at the right moment.’
‘Very nice. The trolley problem seems like a simple question for an armoured vehicle. No messing about worrying about difficult choices. You just need to figure out a way to blow up the trolley.’
Jacob didn’t answer her. Judith thought his silence seemed smug, but perhaps she was anthropomorphising.
Two of the peace-keeping force’s unmanned interceptor platforms thundered into position above the half-demolished consulate building. They were bristling with sensor pods and anti-drone missiles. The downwash from their huge rotors kicked up dust into the faces of the crowd. The man with the phone had wild eyes. He was shouting and trying to shove people forwards, but they weren’t interested. The crowd had scattered after the vehicle’s guns fired. Now, their eyes were fixed on the hovering platforms. They were bleeding enthusiasm by the moment.
Jacob still had his legacy target track on the man with the phone.
‘OK Professor War, oh great slicer of gordian knots,’ said Judith. ‘If you’re so clever, what should we do about our talkative friend over there?’
‘Engagement proposal,’ said Jacob.
The tactical panels danced into place in front of her eyes.