Loyalty

Image: UNHCR/Nasar Ali

A.R. Woodle’s short story “Loyalty” was a finalist in the Art of the Future Project’s most recent contest calling for short stories and art exploring the “Third Offset Strategy” through narrative and fiction. Woodle, who received an English Literature degree from Grinnell College, is a freelance writer and editor in the Washington, DC area.

Tracing his finger along the crack in the concrete wall led Vincenz to a small hole at the bottom of the wall next to his cot. He peeked inside, half-expecting a rat to be glaring back, but instead spotted a small bag. Pulling it out and opening it revealed an old, disposable camera, the kind that still used film. Vincenz’s predecessor had been unexpectedly medevac’d out, and he wondered if it had been his. It still had a full roll of film in it, and Vincenz took a minute to read the instructions printed on the back. Pointing it towards his blown-out window where the sun had only just started to poke up above the bombed out high-rise apartments and ruined buildings downtown, he snapped a photo and cranked the film to the next frame. When the soft blue glow of his monitor began blinking red, he returned the camera to its pouch and left it on his bed. A fingertip on the screen opened up the red, pulsing alert indicator, and Vincenz glanced through its contents before sitting down at his console.

“Southern Frontier Services Operator Vincenz, ID 622078,” he spoke for the record, “Automated Area Denial Swarm 22 has indicated one discharge, potentially fatal. As a result of drone coverage being rolled north in support of US Army combat operations, I will be investigating in person. Expected return by 1300 hours, out.”

It felt good to speak, to use his voice, even if it was to leave a digital message that would only be heard if he missed his check-in time. Gathering his gear, Vincenz slid his sidearm into its holster, not that he expected to need it, and pulled on the slim chain around his neck. He ignored his ID tags, but held the small metal disc next to them up to his ear as if he could hear the device’s inner workings before dropping the whole thing back down the front of his shirt. His credentials always reminded Vincenz of a witch doctor’s juju that kept him safe from evil spirits.

It wasn’t necessarily far to AADS-22, but there were a few remotes he should check on his way. Vincenz moved around the outskirts of the open field nearest his position, pausing every now and again to marvel at the stillness. Nothing moved. He crawled over the chunks of concrete and powdered stone where an old shopping mall once stood. The bodies of dismembered mannequins lay strewn about, some partially crushed, others blackened and charred. By now, the sun had climbed higher, and he paused to take a sip from his canteen. He couldn’t believe how hot it was already, not even eight in the morning and his shirt was drenched beneath his flak vest.

Vincenz regretted bringing it, “Not like it’s going to do me any good.”

Standing up with a sigh, he unbuckled it and crossed the street without bothering to look in either direction. He noticed some shadows moving, and looking up spied a handful of crows circling overhead. Birds were about the only thing AADS wouldn’t try to engage. Most of the cats and dogs had left the city not long after the people, or been tagged as trespassers and killed. Vincenz wasn’t sure if AADS didn’t target birds because they were too small, or if it was because they could more easily get away, flying up and out of the swarm’s reach.

Taking a slight detour, Vincenz climbed up two flights of stairs and into what he figured had been a large, studio apartment. The entire exterior wall had crumbled, revealing an inert column of armored vehicles partway across the intersection below. Each of the three personnel carriers had a fist-sized hole punched into the side where the metal had curled in on itself. In the apartment, there was still some furniture in place, a bureau with faded pictures of the family that used to live here. If Vincenz had been the type to look, he might have seen if it still had clothes inside. The table that must have been up against the destroyed wall had been flipped over on its side, and in its place sat a squat, hunched over machine. Most of it was tripod and power pack, but on its top sat two rows of four tubes, stacked one on the other, and above that a small optical device moved left and right, scanning the streets below for movement.

Vincenz pulled a key from a pouch on his belt, inserted it, and then tapped his access code onto the screen after it lit up. He disarmed the weapon and the panning sensor on top slowed to a stop. He checked the tubes first, looking for obstructions or any visible damage; three of them were empty, the other five still had their payload armed and ready. With the bottom of his shirt, he wiped the grime and dust off the optics, and checked the weapon’s battery. Charge was low, below 50 percent, but high enough to engage targets for the next few days, just in case anybody bothered driving down this stretch of road. Vincenz pulled his key out and started moving back downstairs as the screen switched back into power-saving mode, and the weapon system resumed its vigil.

Back on the ground level of the building sat another machine, with a similar scanning optic. This one was hooked up to a few dozen tubes, each much smaller than the anti-tank tubes just a couple of floors above. Only a handful were still primed, and Vincenz checked this system as well. Unlike the more sophisticated AADS weapon systems, these remotes weren’t sending encrypted updates to his console and their maintenance made up most of his day-to-day work. This one had fired off a few rounds yesterday, and Vincenz peered out across the field it covered. He didn’t see anything out there, just some knee-high grass. He climbed over the low section of wall the turret sat behind, and walked out into the field. He could smell it before he found it, the mangled remains of some kind of dog or maybe a coyote. He pulled up his bandana, covering his nose and mouth and looked around. Several plastic bags had blown up against a segment of fence nearby, and he grabbed one for each hand, using them to keep his hands clean as he dragged the dead animal to the edge of the field and into a ditch. He wondered if the guy before him had dug this hole, or if it had just been fortuitously located. There were a couple of other dead animals stacked in it, at least Vincenz thought they were animals. The systems checked out, the field now cleared. Vincenz tossed his makeshift gloves into the ditch and resumed his route.

When he had first been assigned to this sector, Vincenz would never have crossed the heavily damaged steel bridge that spanned the fast-moving river west of the city. For one, it was exposed, so anyone who wanted a clear shot had it, but he hadn’t seen another person in weeks, and she had been one of the other Systems Operators with Southern Frontier Services. The other reason was because it had been hit by some kind of bomb or missile in the opening salvo of the conflict. The blast had stripped the asphalt and concrete off the surface, revealing the metallic skeleton below. There was really only one place to cross, a single steel beam that had clearly partially melted, but somehow stayed in place long enough to cool down. Vincenz tried not to look down, put his arms out for balance, and carefully walked across. Safe on the other side he peered over the edge, into the water. It looked refreshing, but Vincenz knew better.

In his first week, he had looked into that same river and watched as dead fish floated down, pushed along by the current, killed by the chemicals that had leached into the water after a battle upriver had leveled parts of the industrial sector of the city. There were no dead fish to see now because there were no fish left at all. He spit and tried to watch it until it hit the water, some 50 feet below, but didn’t see it land. Vincenz pulled out his PDA and pressed his thumbprint to it before entering his passcode. Double-checking his map, he saw his location and that of AADS-22’s registered discharge. Orientated, he put his PDA back into its pouch, and walked down the center of the road. There were other armed remotes all around, hidden in buildings and bushes, he figured more than a few must have already queried his credentials and let him pass, but it didn’t bother him.

There was some kind of warehouse, just off the road. Ivy covered the red, corrugated metal sheets it had for walls, the whole place surrounded by chain-link fence. The gate had been padlocked tight, and the length of the barrier topped in barbed wire. A sign warned of the danger of electrocution, but there were a few strands of filament on it. They had been part of the initial air campaign here, the metallic strands got caught in wires and transformers, shorting everything out and generally being a real hassle to clean up. Not that Vincenz felt like clambering over barbed wire anyway. Instead, he started walking along the fence, looking for a way inside. He found one just a few hundred feet later, a place where the bottom corner of a section of fence had been pulled up, and he managed to squeak through, even after he got caught on the chain-links a few times. He wasn’t too worried about it, the way the fence was bent would make it easier to get out anyway.

The warehouse was locked up tightly as well, at least the doors on this side, but he knew he was close to where AADS-22 had reported the incident. He pushed through some bushes, and found himself staring at the back an armored exoskeleton. It stood about seven feet high and was covered in reactive armor. He froze, as if that would hide him from the armor’s multi-spectrum scanners, then almost broke into a run when the caw of a crow shattered the silence and his nerves. He didn’t run, but the armor didn’t move either, even after he jumped and pulled out his pistol. Like the pop gun would do him any good.

“Hello?” he called out, then regretted it. He couldn’t identify the make or model, and couldn’t see any identifying insignia. Nothing moved, not artificial fingers wrapped around the grip of the machine gun, not the leaves or grass in the wind, not even the crows lined up on the roof of the building on the other side of the armor. It was only then that he noticed the small, chrome dragonflies sitting in between the birds. That was the closest analogue Vincenz could think of, although it fell short. They were small silver tubes with four wiry wings and a small black plastic box towards the back that housed the electronics. For every dozen or so of the little ones, there would be a larger one, still chrome and sporting enlarged versions of the wings, but essentially identical. Those were about the size of an eagle and carried an anti-tank charge. The smaller ones were people killers.

That none of the swarm was actively engaging the suit was good; it meant it wasn’t a threat. Which meant that it had either been carrying the appropriate credentials, or had already been disabled. That would explain the reported discharge. Vincenz was currently out of AADS’ engagement range, but they were probably monitoring him. He stepped out of the bushes and into the clearing, moving closer to the suit.

“You okay, buddy?” he called out, not wanting to startle the soldier inside. Again, silence. So, he crossed the clearing and when he stepped across the invisible boundary of AADS, a pair buzzed him. They whirred and whipped around him, zipping close by and circling him at a frantic pace. One of the birds cawed and flapped its wings, even as it remained perched on top of a sheet of metal. The crows must have been excited at the prospect of a fresh meal, and had probably been following the swarm, expecting just that. Vincenz wasn’t worried. They queried his credentials, buzzed about for another few seconds, and returned to their perches on the rooftop. The crows, disgusted that nothing had happened, flew off, in search of fresher fare.

Satisfied he wasn’t going to get a shaped charge to the brain, Vincenz circled around the suit, and understood why it hadn’t moved. It was empty. The cockpit had been cracked open, whoever had been inside had gotten out. He still couldn’t find any distinguishing markings, and decided to try and access the onboard computer. Pulling a wire from his PDA, he plugged it into a port inside the cockpit, and waited. After watching a blank screen for several seconds, a low power icon appeared briefly before disappearing.

“What are you doing way out here?” he asked, not expecting an answer.

Looking around, Vincenz noticed some boot marks in the soft ground near the armor, leading into the warehouse. The door was unlocked and Vincenz pulled his sidearm before walking inside. The place had clearly been abandoned for a long time, probably from before the war reached the city. There were a couple of wooden crates marked in Spanish here and there, but mostly it was empty. He tried to pop the lid on one, but gave up after he realized they were nailed shut. A table had been set up on one end of the room, where a partially dismantled heavy machine gun sat waiting.

“Anybody home?” Vincenz called out, pausing for a response, but he didn’t get one.

He tried to open a door at the back of the room, but something on the other side was blocking it from opening more than just a couple of inches. He gave it a shove and felt something move, another shove and he could peek his head inside. There was a body on the floor, clad in fatigues and face-down.

A few more shoves and Vincenz squeezed in through the door, and stepped over the body. There was an enormous hole in the dead man’s chest, and Vincenz looked around. There was a small window, up near the ceiling, that let in just enough light to see. The glass was shattered, leaving a bird-sized hole sized. A sickening feeling found its way into in his stomach and Vincenz searched the floor. Sure enough, he discovered a piece of wiry, burnt wing up off the ceramic tiled floor. Rolling the body over, Vincenz checked the soldier’s neck for his ID tags, and found them right where they belonged, alongside the disc carrying his credentials.

The dead man’s name was Staff Sergeant Jim Singer, and Vincenz snapped the ID tag in half, activating the GPS locator inside and alerting somebody behind a desk somewhere within SOUTHCOM of the man’s death. He took a look at the man’s credentials, the totem that was supposed to protect him from a shaped charge through the heart. They had black soot on them, presumably from the blast, but appeared otherwise intact. His credentials could have been damaged before AADS blew him apart. There had always been rumors about AADS’ finicky IFF technology, but Vincenz personally had never had a problem with it. Maybe the Staff Sergeant’s credentials hadn’t been updated recently, or hadn’t received the codes for this area, maybe he had walked too close to a giant magnet. Anything was possible.

Closing the door, he went outside to inspect the armor again. He hadn’t seen a charging station inside, so even if he could move it there was no place for him to take it. No way he was getting it back to his position. He thought about slagging it, but the Army would probably want it intact, it still looked like it worked and even they would want to try to salvage a multi-million dollar piece of hardware. On his PDA he noted the armor’s location, when he got back he would adjust AADS-22’s patrol zone, center it on the armor and make it smaller. That would leave some gaps, but he could adjust 23 and 21’s zones a bit to make up the coverage. Maybe his company would throw him some kind of recovery bonus.

When he got back to his hideout, he pulled the dead man’s credentials out and scanned them into his console. All the codes looked legit, nothing had been corrupted or damaged. That’s when he saw it, a small piece of code that didn’t belong. Somebody somewhere must have been monitoring his computer, because he received a call from an actual human being.

“Operator 622078?” the woman asked. He could see her on his display, she might have been attractive, but he had been out here on his own for a long time and knew it was affecting his judgment. She was wearing a simple white blouse and a black suit jacket, and pushed the glasses on the bridge of her nose back with a single, manicured nail.

“Who are you?” he asked, and waited several seconds for the response, there was some lag time, due to spotty satellite coverage.

“That is immaterial,” she replied, “How did you gain access to Staff Sergeant Singer’s credentials?”

“I pulled them from his body. AADS got him, must have malfunctioned,” he finished speaking and began waiting for a reply.

It took longer than it had before for her mouth to start moving, and even then the sound didn’t quite sync, “You are to wipe his credentials, then return them to his body.”

“Look, ma’am, there’s something wrong with them, I think they’ve been tampered with.”

“And?”

“You don’t think we should tell anyone that the IFF credentials have been compromised, that someone somewhere out there can alter them?”

“No. We can patch the exploit. If word got out our system was hackable there would be a significant morale problem.”

He wanted to tell her off, tell her American GI’s getting holes blown out of them by their own weapons would cause a morale problem, but he didn’t. Instead, Vincenz considered that he was sitting way out in the middle of nowhere, alone, surrounded by hundreds of automated machines designed and built to kill. If she wanted it, he would be dead.

“Tell you what,” he said, “I’ll wipe them and put them back, but I think that is worth a little extra to you.”

“Fine,” she answered and despite the communications lag he could tell she had agreed as soon as she had heard it, “I’ll make sure your next paycheck reflects the value of your efforts.”

She hung up without another word, or waiting for him to reply. Vincenz picked up Singer’s credentials and looked at them. Covering up a death caused by some malicious virus in AADS held little appeal, but Vincenz didn’t expect that woman, whoever she was, would take too kindly to a whistleblower and he didn’t see any way of getting that information out of country. Singer’s credentials were still on the screen, and Vincenz didn’t doubt that his every keystroke was being watched, monitored and logged to ensure he complied. Vincenz began to wonder what exactly had happened to the man he had replaced, and didn’t like where the line of thought led him.

Vincenz stood up and ran his fingers through his hair. He walked over to his cot and picked up the small bag he had found this morning, pulling out the disposable camera. Enlarging the screen with the altered code on it, he snapped half a dozen pics of it, winding the camera each time, from a couple different angles to make it harder to allege the whole thing had been digitally manipulated. He did this for the several screens that made up the information on Singer’s credentials, taking both wide shots and zooming in on the parts he thought had been tampered with. Once he had photographed everything, he formatted Singer’s credentials, completely erasing everything on them. He finished winding the camera, and put it back into its bag and underneath his sleeping bag and placed the credentials in his front pocket before setting back out to Singer’s body.

He tried to move quickly, hoping to get there before he lost his nerve. He crossed the intersection under the unblinking eye of an anti-tank missile launcher, carefully walked across the partially melted steel strut, and ducked under the damaged fence. It was only when he was pushing through the bushes near Singer’s armor that something occurred to him. The dead Sergeant had had the proper codes, had been carrying them on his person, and still gotten a hole punched into his chest. Only now did Vincenz realize they might turn on him too, and even that assumed that the frigid woman on the video call hadn’t revoked his credentials.

He watched, carefully out of range, as the AADS swarm sat perched along the roof, collecting sunlight and monitoring for intruders. If he had been half as clever as he thought he was, Vincenz would have moved them away from the building with his terminal, but even that might send up a flare to the desk jockey watching his keystrokes. Maybe it hadn’t been an accident, maybe it had been a test. And for the life of him, Vincenz could not figure out what Singer had been doing way out here on his own. Was he under observation, did the Army suspect something? The silvery winged creatures mostly sat motionless, but the crows had returned, their heads tilting this way and back. The birds looked hungry.

“Now you sound paranoid,” Vincenz said to himself, and he stepped out into the clearing, walking past the abandoned suit of armor. A crow cawed at him and AADS exploded into frenetic activity, the gilded cloud of drones swallowing him and buzzing all around him. He reflexively swatted at the insect-like machines, but they were too nimble, able to anticipate and avoid his clumsy movements. In his stomach, he wondered if this had been what it had been like for Singer, right before he was killed. The cacophony of the crows reached an excited crescendo, and then the swarm was gone, the black birds following close behind. AADS must have detected something somewhere farther along. Vincenz remained perfectly still while he waited for his heart to leave his throat, for his breathing to get somewhere back down close to normal. He moved into the warehouse and put the credentials on the chain around Singer’s neck. In the heat, the body was starting to smell.

He was glad that AADS-22 wasn’t outside when he left, and Vincenz was very careful as he picked his route back. He avoided the other swarms, the anti-tank weapons, the anti-personnel emplacements and all the rest of the semi-smart weapons that had been deployed to safeguard the abandoned city. For the first time since he had gotten here, Vincenz didn’t feel very safe.

Sitting down on his bunk, Vincenz picked up the camera bag and said to Singer, “Don’t worry, Staff Sergeant, I’ll make sure people know what really happened to you.”