1st place | ADC Sci-Fi Writing Competition | International Category

 

Story by Ben Plotkin


It was Trác who found the drone. It had crashed in one of the abandoned alleys that snaked away from the polluted Perfume River. The walls of the Hue citadel were barely visible through the opening of the alley. Trác squatted down and studied it. From a distance came the noise of the daily protesters, gathered in front of the Citadel.

Her sister stood a safe distance behind her and slung her bag over her hip in order to be able to move faster if needed. “Don’t touch it!” Nhị tried to control her voice, but she knew she hadn’t been successful and Trác would be able to hear her worry.

“It looks dead,” Trác said.

“It looks pretty intact. It can’t be dead,” said Nhị.

Trác bent over, her long black bangs fell over her face as she stared into the multiform sensors which formed the face of the machine. They were arrayed in a symmetrical bubble appearance that resembled the face of a spider, hence their street name--nhện. It was a hardened military model, multipurpose, and deadly. The Chinese had painted it a geometric blend of bright red and yellow, which leant it even more of a spider-like appearance.

It had been eight years since the end of the 4th Sino-Vietnamese war, if you could call it a war. The conflict had ended almost before it had begun. Since the expulsion of the American Navy from the South China Sea, the establishment of the nine-dash fortifications, and the repatriation of Taiwan, there had been nothing to check the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). The amphibious transports appeared off Hải Phòng, Da Nang, Qui Nhơn, and Vũng Tàu. Hours before, the few Vietnamese frigates at sea had been quickly dispatched by PLAN submarines. The PLAN Marine assault battalions were the bog-standard mix of drone swarms, their AI controller vehicles and a small contingent of armored human soldiers, or at least mostly human given that their implants only occupied a minority of their brains and bodies.

There had been little resistance. Key military cadres had been infiltrated in advance. Satellite, cellular and microwave com-nets, which had all been built and maintained by the Chinese, were quick to switch allegiance. There was no effective counter attack. Military and civilian leaders who refused to cooperate were quickly disappeared and a week later Chinese ‘Peace Keepers’ were patrolling all major cities, ports and industrial areas. It had been a nearly bloodless takeover. Nearly.

Not bloodless for Trác and Nhị. Their father had been the captain of a submarine, one of the old US Navy boats provided to Vietnam under the lend-lease program of the early fifties. Originally the USS New Hampshire, it had been recommissioned as the Hanoi. Rumors buried on chatrooms behind the Great Fire Wall spoke of a battle in which the Hanoi had managed to sneak into a PLAN carrier group and launch four torpedos into a Type 007 carrier.

Trác and Nhị were orphaned at the ages of ten and eight. Trác led her sister onto the streets and spent the next six months avoiding all authority and most adults.

Trác stayed squatting in front of the drone, her head tilted and staring with undivided focus. “It looks like it has been down for awhile. It doesn’t look active. I think it’s safe.”

“They’re never safe, you know that,” said Nhị.

Trác knew. Of course she knew. Had she not preached the same message over and over for the benefit of her younger sister? But what a chance. A chance to get her hands on a fully intact Chinese spider drone. She had spent the last six years avoiding them, turning away, averting her face. She had a whole room of scavenged parts back in the small hideaway she referred to as her workshop. She had built her own knock-off versions, never as good. And now, here was a chance to dissect an intact specimen. Trác wondered why the self-destruct charge had not activated. But that didn’t matter. It was a gift, an opportunity that might not come again.

“What are you doing?” It was a stifled cry from Nhị. But before she could finish, Trác picked up the machine and awkwardly strapped it to her back, folding its articulated appendages around her chest. Trác’s small frame looked as if it were about to become prey for the predator. 

It was lighter than Trác expected, but at the same time its lightness betrayed no inner fragility. On the contrary, it felt unyielding, cold, lethal. Trác was impressed by the solidity and the gracefulness of its construction. Her creatures were more like plastic Frankenstein creations in comparison. Cobbled together with stolen and scavenged parts, with AI brains old and generations obsolete. “Come on, let’s go,” Trác said, as she turned towards Nhị. “We have to get this back.”

“You are not taking that back with us.” Nhị was trembling as she spoke and on the verge of tears.

“Of course we’re taking it back,” Trác said. “Just think what we can do with it. By morning I’ll have it hacked, reprogrammed and commanding our own drone swarms.” Trác grabbed Nhị’s hand and pulled her with her as she sprinted down the smoky alley.

 

 

Home was humble. At least that’s what Clara called it. But it was home. A narrow three-story house in a half-abandoned suburb of Hue. It was Spartan concrete construction. Plain, unadorned but solid, with thick stout walls and small-slit like windows, better suited for a bunker than a house. Trác and Nhị shared a single bedroom with Clara on the top floor. At night they rolled out their mattresses and lay together. During the day they worked in their ground-floor workshop, which hosted a chaotic pile of servers, drone parts and com links. All illegal and forbidden by the Chinese of course, but disguised as a scrap and repair shop that functioned semi-legally for the neighborhood inhabitants.

The house’s simple appearance was camouflage. Amongst other defenses, it was shielded against electromagnetic attack and acted as a functional Faraday cage. Simulated emissions projected an anonymous and docile appearance, masking the fact that the entire building was a void to all sensors.

Clara looked sternly and disapprovingly at the appearance of Trác and Nhị. Trác tried to look innocent and sheepish at the same time. It didn’t work.

“Past curfew,” said Clara, looking at the analog clock hanging above the counter.

“By 5 minutes,” said Trác with a tinge of defiance.

“Do you think that excuse will work with a control drone?”

“It would work with a policeman, if I smiled,” said Trác.

“You will do no such thing,” said Clara, and then turning to Nhị said, “And you should be more responsible. I expect you to know better.”

“But she’s older,” said Nhị.

“Excuse,” grunted Clara and then resumed working on the microbot clamped in the vice.

Trác shared a look with Nhị, which easily conveyed their shared surprise that Clara had berated them for being late, but had not even raised an eyebrow at the high-tech piece of Chinese military kit they had just dragged home.

Clara was retired US Marine. A veteran of the Battle of Senkaku, for which she was the recipient of a Silver Star and a new right arm. An arm she thought was a marked upgrade on the old. Stronger, more dexterous and certainly more lethal. She had taken her retirement and thought to spend it quietly on a scenic beach. Her retirement plan was interrupted by the Chinese invasion and the subsequent expulsions. Clara was stubborn. She was not going to leave because of Chinese threats and she was certainly not going to allow herself to be placed in an internment camp. She had made her way to Hue and led a quiet life putting her Marine training to good use. Now instead of using her cybernetic implants to control a platoon of unmanned Marine strike craft, she repurposed commercial drones and bots for domestic uses. Her implants allowed her to control, and reprogram most machines faster and more naturally than any coder. Jacked directly into the primitive AI matrices of her machines, she could simply re-direct their neural pathways with natural thought implanted into their silicone brains. What used to take thousands of lines of code and months of debugging was reduced to simple natural language thought patterns. These were simple creatures, not like the semi-sentient military craft she had learned to control in the Marines. Those had been much more complex and took longer to master. She had to learn to deal with the idiosyncrasies of each machine. Over time, each developed an independent personality. She was surprised to learn that just like people, some machines were not cut out to be Marines. Some AI personalities became incompatible with the missions assigned to them; some became outright insubordinate. In either case, their brains were erased, rebuilt and re-trained. This was a time-consuming process and only done as a last resort. It took a special sort of person to interact with the machines, to teach them, to train them. Clara thought at times that it was almost like being a parent. She had never had kids, at least until Trác and Nhị had shown up.

Clara had seen them lurking around the neighborhood for a few weeks, half-starved, dirty and trying their best to avoid all unwanted attention—which was all attention, and not just from the drones and peace keepers. Trác and Nhị had been scared little girls back then, and it had taken Clara some work to convince them to let her help. Now they were family.

Trác put the spider drone on her workshop table. In minutes she had jacked into its control portal via her augmented reality interface and was immersed in exploring its innards.

Nhị made a pot of tea and watched Trác and Clara work, both immersed in their own digital bubble, oblivious to the physical world around their small space. Nhị put her head down on the counter and slept.

 

 

Nhị awoke to a steady stream of staccato cursing. Trác was still jacked into her augmented reality rig, her hands frantically scrolling and fingers flashing as they controlled an unseen entity.  Under her breath she continued a long string of frantic deprecations.

Clara was gone.

The spider drone was gone.

A dim blue and green electronic glow bathed the darkened room.

“What are you doing?” Nhị asked.

Trác’s frantic motions continued. “I screwed up,” she said.

Through Trác’s headset she had an aerial view of the river. Autonomous barges slowly moved in a long streams of blinking lights. One exploded in a cloud of wood, plastic and flame. Trác cursed again and heaved her body to the side. Her view changed to match her pitch and the horizon line went nearly vertical.

Trác sent her drone abruptly away from the course of the river and dropped the altitude to tree top level, skimming above a broad open street. The quad turrets of a mechanized dozer UGV swiveled to target Trác’s drone as soon as it came into view. In an instant, thousands of flechette rounds filled the sky with a spray of hot metal that shattered at least a dozen of the smaller drones trailing Trác’s repurposed spider drone. She had dissected away the loyalty programing, while still maintaining its lethality and survivability cores, a process she likened to botomizing a bot. The repurposed drone’s reactions were faster than hers and mini-thrusters rocketed it vertically out of the stream of fire before Trác had even seen the needle guns of the dozer.

“Good news is I hacked the spider, reprogramed it, and gave it a new loyalty designation,” Trác said as she quickly raised her forearm to wipe a rivulet of sweat from her cheek. “In other good news, I destroyed a pod lander.”

“You what?!” said Nhị.

“Scratch one lander.”

“You destroyed a lander? Why?”

The Chinese pod landers were slow, lumbering transports used to ferry large groups of men and material around the city environs. They commonly transported police platoons, and mobile tribunal services. Their appearance was never a good sign.

Nhị had turned on the external display monitors and could now see what Trác was experiencing through her visor.  Trác’s hacked spider drone was jilting through the streets of Hue. Its AI brain making constant jerky adjustments to prevent it from slamming into the myriad of wires, ladders and laundry lines that crisscrossed its path. Behind it trailed a small army of hundreds of smaller devices, each trying its best to keep up with the command spider drone. The spider drone was fast, faster than Trác had known and she was enjoying pushing it to its limits.

“You took out a lander with the drone?” Nhị was both impressed and slightly terrified. She had known the spider drones to be deadly machines, but she hadn’t known it had the firepower to destroy something as large as an armored landing craft.

“Troop drop ship,” Trác said. Her clipped voice clearly mostly focused on evading her pursuers. “It was offloading a riot platoon. Reinforcements. There was a protest outside the gates and police had already shot a few protesters by the time I showed up. If it had landed those troops, it would have been a massacre.”

“You don’t think it’s going to be a massacre now? Do you think you killed any of them?”

Trác simply nodded.

Two unmanned assault hover pods lifted into view above the skyline, their bulky bulbous bodies flanked the motley armada of approaching machines.

The spider drone launched a trio of rockets at the one on the left, while the smaller drone swarm split apart and encircled the one on the right, temporarily confusing its targeting sensors.

The rockets slammed into the assault pod exploding in a synchronous burst of flame, smoke and debris.

A small kamikaze shrike drone rammed its spike into the other assault pod and its casing buckled and crumpled as the injected jelly superheated and liquefied the innards.

“Are you just going to watch?” said Trác, her voice trying to stay calm. “Or help?”

“Right” Nhị said. She may have only been fourteen, but she had been trained by a US Marine. The discipline that had been drilled into her took over and in a moment she was strapping on her own augmented reality rig and checking the status of her drone fleet which was clamped, docked and otherwise hidden around the exterior of the house. 

Two Chinese spider drones were now giving chase to Trác’s renegade spider and its slowly dwindling retinue. A shrapnel charge detonated amongst the swarm shattering and splintering the last of the shrike drones and a slower trailing charging bot.

“Damn it!” said Trác. “I was going to kamikaze him at the right moment.” She swung her spider drone around to face its two pursuing cousins. Without an IFF chip there was no hesitation within their AI brains, and a stream of rockets and flechette rounds bracketed Trác’s drone. A few of the smaller of Trác’s swarm flew into the stream in an attempt to shield their commander, but their sacrifice was not enough. One of the rockets exploded just below Trác’s spider drone and instantly it spiraled towards a roof top. It bought itself down in a semi-controlled crash beneath a satellite dish and waited. The remaining smaller drones splintered into individual targets and dispersed on their own escape routes. 

One of the loyal spider drones came in for a closer look at its downed foe. As it approached, Trác fired two airburst mortar rounds from the drone’s dorsal surface. They shot into the air, one detonated in the belly of the Chinese drone. It broke apart in jagged chunks, its fragments showering the roof top.

“I think that’s about all she has left in her,” Trác said. “Are you up yet?” Trác triggered the destruct device in the drone, and switched her attention to assessing the positions of her scattered swarm.

“Yes, but we have another problem,” Nhị said.

Trác elevated her augmented reality rig to give her eyes a rest and looked over at the display screens as Nhị jacked into her own rig. “What’s wrong? You’ve got all yours up right?”

“They’re up and blending in with the civilian traffic, but there’s a high-altitude sensor blimp just above us. Literally just above us. I think it’s locked onto our periscope.”

The periscope was a slim tube that mimicked a ventilation shaft and allowed a pipe of electronic communication from inside to escape the shielded structure. A detector array positioned directly above it was in a perfect position to track the torrent of emissions straight back to their house. It would take some fancier computing power and a few low-grade AIs to trace the disguised control emissions from Trác’s drone swarm, but it was possible and the behemoth sensor blimps that floated above were like small cities, bristling with every conceivable detector. They were captained by a semi-sentient AI brain and could stay aloft for years. Coated with stealth panels, they operated at thirty thousand feet, vulnerable only to an aircraft that accidentally crashed into it thinking it was simply a cirrocumulus formation, or a lucky targeting lock from an American Deimos strike satellite.   

Clara came banging down the narrow stairway, dressed partially in her powered body armor. “Heads up girls, we’re about to have company,” she said.

Trác looked at her, her face filled with worry, she started to say something but Clara cut her off. “It’s not your fault. Bad luck with the blimp. You gave them a good run. Now get everything you have up and ready. This is not going to be pretty.”

It didn't take long. As Clara activated the roof top defenses and Trác and Nhị distributed orders to their autonomous platoons, the Chinese forces began their approach.

A trio of mechanized carriers was first to arrive. They blocked the end of the street and disgorged an infantry squad. Each soldier wore a powered armored suit bristling with a spiked array of sensors and weapons.

A rocket slammed into the exterior. Chunks of concrete sheared off and the building shook. Clara looked up as she finished arming herself. “Going to take more than a few rockets,” she said. “You girls know the drill, get your forces in position and don’t delay. Hit ‘em before they get organized.”

“On the way,” said Nhị. Her drone army was already circling around the armored infantry approaching in standard staggered formation hugging the walls of the narrow street. Three synchronous waves of sparrow-sized drones dove towards the assault squad. Each drone aimed for the neck. It was the least shielded area. No armament the small drones carried could penetrate the armor, but a direct hit with an explosive charge in the neck might work, at least that had been Nhị’s theory.

The mini-air defense systems mounted on the troopers backs managed to shoot down most of Nhị’s kamikaze swarm, but three hit their targets and detonated. One blew the head off a soldier, and the other two crumpled wounded and struggling as their suits attempted to cauterize wounds and inject Exocrit.

Trác’s depleted forces were doing no better. The small scorpion-like ground drones were mainly for surveillance and designed to keep intruders away. They were no match for fully armored infantry and they were quickly brushed aside. She did manage to direct one of her burrowers to surface beneath an armored mechanized carrier and detonate. The destruction of the vehicle was short-lived satisfaction. A Chinese UGV trundled down the alley and let loose with a stream of napalm jelly that covered the ground floors.

The thick concrete walls held, but both Trác and Nhị could feel the temperature increase uncomfortably.

From the roof, a self-targeting mini-gun let off a short burst. The rounds tore into an advancing soldier’s armor at the junction of arm and torso, nearly severing his arm.

Clara alternated between prepared firing spots on the roof, shooting guided explosive sniper rounds. Each head shot diminished the attacker numbers and she rarely missed. Above her Trác’s falcon drones tried to keep the airspace clear as a gathering storm of Chinese craft darkened the sky.

Rockets, mortar and heavy caliber machine gun rounds peppered the walls of the building in incessant waves, slowly chipping away at structural integrity.

Through her monocle, Clara monitored the array of sensor devices for situational awareness. It looked grim. As a flippant thought, she directed a small drone to spray big black letters on the front of the building.

“What did she have that drone paint?” Trác asked, more concerned with other tasks.

Nhị trained an owl drone’s sensor array onto the wall and saw the big black letters that now adorned the side of the building. ‘ALAMO’.

“What’s an Alamo?” Nhị asked.

“Beats me,” said Trác. More rockets slammed against the building’s walls, just as a guided shell dropped from the blimp impacted. The roof and second story disintegrated in a cloud of dust and rubble. A large chunk of ceiling crashed down on top of Trác and she disappeared in a grey dust.

Nhị screamed, pulled off her rig and raced to the pile of concrete and twisted metal burying Trác.

With tremendous effort, she pulled Trác’s limp body from the debris and then stopped to glance at the few intact monitors showing the outside battle. The battering had abated. The sounds of explosions and machine gun firing hadn’t stop, it just seemed as if their fortress was no longer a prime target.

Trác's face was ashen with dust and streaked with oozing blood, but she managed to open her eyes. Nhị flipped her visor back down. What she saw was amazing. A motley swarm was overwhelming the Chinese forces. Machines of every kind: transports and delivery bots, hijacked scouts, anything that could fly, climb or roll was massing towards their location engaging everything in their paths.

Nhị had been live streaming the assault to the world, on every channel she could think of, her feeds bypassing the Great Fire Wall and resonating across all of social media. It had inspired an uprising. Hackers, citizens and rogue soldiers from all over the world had decided to fight back and had taken control of anything they could, commercial drones, weakly secured Chinese military vehicles—even some of the hardened military AI proved vulnerable once Trác had upload the details of the spider drone. The vulnerabilities had been disseminated faster and more easily than any could have imagined, and were exploited immediately.

The cacophony of machines, explosions and destruction rippled away in concentric waves from the center of the Alamo. The rebellion had begun.