This story by Alec Medén was a finalist in the Atlantic Council Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security Global Trends 2035 creative contest that called for writers to explore the technologies, trends and themes that will shape the world two decades from now. Alec is a past winner of the project’s “Space” war-art challenge with “From A Remove,” a story that envisioned the future of space conflict during the last decade of the 21st Century. Alec is majoring in screenwriting and creative writing at Chapman University in Southern California. He can be found on Twitter @alecmeden.
When I was a child I dreamed that I would create something extraordinary. I would run into the woods outside my house and imagine that I would find something. Or build something. Some kind of adventure, some kind of achievement. And when I came back, the people at my house would have to concede my skill and daring. I’d have a superpower, just like the heroes in the movies.
I built forts. In reality they were lean-tos against the trees, nothing more. When I finally pulled my mother out to see them she tiredly congratulated me, put out her cigarette in the loamy ground, and walked back to finish her paperwork. I kicked dirt on the embers so that they didn’t spread.
It was only when I hunted that I understood. My uncle taught me how to walk quietly in the tight underbrush, how to avoid the leaves, and how to breathe carefully. He told me about how beautiful the snowy mountain peaks had been in Afghanistan, and how afraid he’d been of them. He told me that the brave and true thing was to be afraid. He said that if you weren’t honestly afraid, then whatever you were doing probably wasn’t worthwhile. And if it wasn’t worthwhile you’d better not be doing it. He complained that we had become afraid of our fear. He never defined we, but I figured he meant the nation. He claimed that fear used to make us do great things, like reach for the stars. Now fear makes us small, timid. He always claimed that we fell on ourselves like rats on a shipwreck. But I never noticed. None of that was on the morning cartoons.
I didn’t care for the killing. But I was good at it. And people were impressed when I showed them the antlers in my room, when I brought in food. It was something the other kids in school only did in Cabela’sÔ Extreme Hunts Simulator. If I made a mistake, nobody was there to reprimand me, or patronize me. Not even the deer. The woods were a good teacher because they were silent.
Cinder changed everything for me. The National Guard set up on the highway. Even though I told her the road was blocked my mother tried to leave for work the next day. I don’t know what happened, but she must have gotten close to them. At most five feet away. That was the deadly distance.
I was on the second floor of the house when the car arrived. my mother nearly fell on the way to the door. She yelled up to me what happened. She thought she was tired, or in shock from the soldiers pointing their guns at her. I knew better. I had heard the news, and knew how CNDR-22 worked. I stayed more than five feet away from her as I went to my room and grabbed my uncle’s rifle. I told her I was going out hunting, but at that point she was already stumbling, and beginning to understand what was happening to her.
She begged me to come help her up as I ran down the steps from my room She tried to reach out to me as I sprinted out to the porch. It was midday, and the birds sang loudly as she stumbled out of the front door and began to run after me. I aimed my rifle at her. I told her to stop. I believe I told her to stop twice. She did not stop. I warned her, but she did not listen to me. She had never listened to me.
I ran. Not from guilt, but because her blood would carry cinder. Cerebral Neural-Degenerative Reaction, variant 22 or 21. Cinder, they called it. The 21 reaction killed most of the people due to the 12-day incubation period. She must have had 22 because its effects were nearly immediate. Years later I learned that it was a prion cooked up in a portable cellular manufactory by a retired college biology professor in Wisconsin. He said he did it because he wanted to kill the lizard people who ruled the world.
I know what you are thinking right now. Certain words, written down, give you the power of a psychic. But know this. I didn’t enjoy what I did. Never have. But I didn’t feel bad about it either. I guess that’s my superpower.
I walked for a long time after my mother died. I grew to love the emptiness. There were dangers on the road. They weren’t a problem for me, though. I never even fired my gun. I just sat still, and waited. It was the silence that mattered.
After I joined the Army they took me to California. To Los Angeles. While landing I thought it must be some mistake. I thought that the pilots had taken me to the wrong city. Los Angeles was supposed to be so bright, to have so many people. The movies all say so. But that isn’t the way it is anymore. Nowhere is the way it was. Most of the buildings were abandoned, and the wind sang through the shattered windows of empty skyscrapers.
I sat on a bench in the dull concrete interior of the facility. I’d heard they built this place out of an underground parking garage after cinder, to escape the scorching heat of the new climate. This was where they cut soldiers’ heads open. They were excited about it. You got a bonus if you let them do surgery on you. Everybody in the unit got one except me. I talked to the project head, a kind man who always carried a tablet made obsolete by his computerized glasses. He was quiet, and I enjoyed that.
The man stared into his tablet.
“You don’t need the operation.”
“Have I flunked out?”
He shook his head “No. You just don’t need it.”
“You already have the… atypical neural features that the implants are designed to temporarily foster. You… uh…”
“I’m already a psychopath.”
He looked up from his tablet and nodded.
“Welcome to the LeMay Project, Mr. Reed.”
It was terrifying, him knowing who I was. What I was. So I knew it was worthwhile.
He reached out and shook my hand, and sent me to Idaho.
The drones grew like flowers. We just stuck the bulbs in the soil, wired them up, and they grew. First their solar cells poked out like clusters of delicate black leaves. Then the tentative stems of the target sensors rose from the center of the cells and shone a pale white in the Idaho sun. Dark knobs at the top sucked in data on the nearby environment. Wires slid out of the soil to devour fuel, composites and silicates, tripping the new workers and interns.
Moscow, Idaho was a dismal place. The small community had been larger before cinder raged through it. Now it was a ghost down. Dusty residential houses, abandoned schools. They find bodies sometimes, tucked in attics. Nobody was around to smell them in the months after they died. It used to be an agricultural center. I suppose it still is, in a way. Just doesn’t grow food crops.
I lived in town, but I didn’t grow the drones. My house was behind the walls of the military installation that dominated the north side. My windows looked out on hills made glistening and alien by rows of white stems and dark leaves. I would eat with the technicians in a grimy bar that reeked of cigarettes and the clogged drain in the restroom. They told me about their work.
“It’s beautiful when they fly. Makes this shithole worth it. It’s a shame they’re weapons. They’re too pretty for that,” said one woman who had a tan in the shape of the protective goggles she wore in the field.
“I’m just glad they aren’t testing them here. Willie Pete doesn’t have an off switch. With all that grass… they’d set the whole state on fire,” mused a man who studied dirt for a living.
“Don’t you want to see them in action?” I asked.
The scientists all agreed that they did not. I asked them why.
“They’re beautiful, right now. They won’t be when you see them work. They… you don’t want to see them do their job.”
I didn’t tell them, but I did. I really did.
On a Wednesday in the third month, the hill outside my house sprouted into motion, and I knew the war was coming. The ground shifted like a mirage. White wings and oblong dark bodies pulled themselves out of the dirt with strangely animal motion. Their skin was both flexible and crystalline. They shimmied into view, clumps of the dry soil falling down. Wires came loose from the dark bodies. Their sensor stems waved about like metronomes. Their wings shook violently, and then began to flap. Collectively, the drones leapt up from the ground, their wings slowing from a shake to a languid flap, and they rose into the air, soaring downward and eventually gliding over the roof of my home. I ran out to watch them, the pale underbellies sliding over my head without a sound, by the hundred, the thousand. The drones don’t last forever, and they’re hard to maintain, so if they had woken so many, it had to mean they were going to be used. It meant war.
I helped feed them. First with the silicate mulch that they grew on. Then the white phosphorous. They scooped the chalky white material into themselves with great speed. They were gluttonous for the stuff. I was told that the material would burn right through a person, all the way down to the ground. As I lay in my bed in a house surrounded by abandoned, dead homes, I imagined perhaps it would keep on burning to the center of the Earth, and somehow set the world aflame.
One year later, my unit slowly crossed the Pacific. Even as I puked my guts out over the guardrails I still had to appreciate the genius of the design. Water around the solar-plated ovals of the MHD troop carriers boiled with little subsurface sweepers and autonomous patrol boats, occasionally returning to the carriers to charge. The Swallows weren’t here. They would spread out and chart their own path. It was slow, but it was beautiful.
This beauty was enhanced when cubes all around each ship suddenly launched black strips of fluttering material into the air. I watched the confetti launchers with surprise. A sailor yelled “Party time!” with a tone of high pitched panic and pushed me to the ground, vomit soaked uniform and all.
The missiles slammed into the thick “confetti” and lit up like supernovas as the metal shards coated with high explosive gel adhered to incoming missiles and detonated. My ears rang and pieces of shrapnel banged and clattered through some of the lower decks. There was a scream from somewhere on the ship.
The Navy man gave me a hand, and then looked at my uniform.
“Stay below deck! Use the head to throw up if you have to. The party favors might stop the missiles, but—”
The scream echoed over the ship again.
“It’s always a bit close.”
We invaded them with rowboats, not troop carriers. It was at night, but the black liquid they dropped into my eyes before we left let me see fine. The air was cold and wet, and woke me from the groggy depths of sleep that had still clutched me when I stumbled onto the deck of the USS Pennsylvania at 0200. We took turns with the fiberglass oars.
Eventually the bottom of the boat crunched against the sand, and we jumped out, water chilling our teeth through water resistant boots. I was used to a heavy rucksack, so our light combat load felt like nothing. Each of us carried a carbon fiber composite crossbow, a quiver of seventy slim graphene bolts. An obsidian knife. One chemical warfare mask. Our clothing could be sealed (somewhat) airtight at will. Finally, laser target designators, little grey cubes with optics at one end that were attached to the gas mask. Those were the most dangerous objects to carry, since they held metal, and could release EM radiation, a double no-no. But they were mission essential and heavily shielded.
We didn’t stick together. We split up. It was the antithesis of all my years of training. I could practically hear my hoarse drill sergeant yelling to me about team building and communication in a dynamic environment, quoting some operations manual written before cinder. But some environments were too dynamic for teams. Some were too dynamic for regular people. That’s why they’d sent us.
The woods should have been comforting, except for the fact that they were hunting me. I was five minutes in when I spotted the first electromagnetic sensor adhered to bark, a dull black piece of metal visible only because the user had forgotten to pull off a red warning label. If I had been sending any transmissions whatsoever, it would have detected me. From then on I moved as if underwater, and saw everything. I waded through the brush past cameras set in tiny tripods in the grass, carefully avoiding their motion sensor triggers. I stepped so slowly, with the gait that the scientists had claimed the pressure plates and seismic sensors would not recognize as human or robotic. I had no detectable metal on me, so I walked past the sensors without fear. It was taxing, carefully planning each step. My eyes roved over the dark brush, and when the breeze brought movement to the branches I swayed slightly with it.
The fence yielded to the five-nanometer width of my obsidian knife. The electricity flowing through the fence didn’t conduct through the blade, and it felt eerie to be so close to something that could kill me so easily and yet not detect a single sign that it could do so. I had expected the thing to hum at the very least.
They were waiting for us, up there, but they were waiting for shock and awe. For missiles overwhelming their defenses and planes tearing up the sky, for amphibious APCs and the great treads of tank drones. They weren’t going to get that. They didn’t know how desperate we were. Cinder, or something like it, changes a country. It changes the way you think. Before cinder we wouldn’t have done any of this. Now we would do all of it.
The woman in front of the house did not expect the graphene shaft in her throat. She did not seem to believe I was there when I stepped close to her and pulled it back out, returning it to my quiver, leaving her gasping and thumping her head against the dirty ground. I stepped past her body and into the bushes that surrounded her house. I did not know whether she was an off duty officer or an officer’s wife. She had heard a noise. That was reason enough for me. I lowered her into the bushes while her hazel eyes, still wide and alight with human pain and fear, bore into mine.
I had sidestepped around the main defense batteries and the heavy cannons and missile emplacements. They were of no concern. I knew that all the others of my number had made it as well. None of the alarms had gone off. I crept through the predawn neighborhood, past houses with the names of officers on them.
There was one guard at the checkpoint. I did not kill him, though as I crept through the low bushes I kept the crossbow leveled at him while he chain-smoked cigarettes. The smell reminded me of home. I felt like I should kill him, I didn’t want some marine to have to deal with him later. The problem was his uniform had a telltale wire leading into his vest, and I knew that if I stopped his heart the other units would register it.
I crept up behind the man. I covered his mouth with my left hand and jabbed the white plastic cylinder into his neck with my right. The needle slid out and into his carotenoid like the stinger of a jellyfish. He struggled for a moment, and then was silent. The enhanced Turbocurarine shut down his muscle movement. I slipped him into his kiosk, shut the door, and left him. Unlike the curare poisons from which it had been derived, this poison would paralyze the man for life.
But his heart rate would hardly change. I did not kill him.
I reached the motor pool and slinked under a truck as a patrol of flashlight wielding soldiers walked by, talking. I did not speak their language. My mission did not include interfacing with the locals. I crawled through the trucks and tanks for many minutes. The headquarters was separated by another fence from the motor pool, as well as razor wire, several guards, and too many cameras. All of that to protect what looked like an old office building. I waited, lying between the treads of an outdated T-90, and listened.
The sounds of the first explosions jolted me, but they were a relief. It was only a moment later that the laser and microwave emplacements on the roof of the command structure in front of me went up in blinding flames. The fragile electromagnetic weapons were scrap in seconds.
The Swallow drones had the flight profiles of birds, with flapping wings and even the appearance of a large heron from a distance. The first few flying in had been mistaken as such, until they’d dropped payloads on nearly every dedicated anti-drone defense the base had.
I had set up my FOF designator when I suddenly felt a grip on my leg. I leapt up, banging my head against the underside of the tank. I was dragged out from under the vehicle, and heard an audible crack from my leg accompanied by a searing burst of pain.
A barely visible face peered at me from behind smoky glass. I hung upside down, my ankle gripped by the claw of a soldier ensconced in a mobile armor suit, all pneumatic joints and black sensors. My muscles burning, and my vision starting to swim, I raised my flimsy crossbow, waiting for him to pulp me. I closed my eyes as I pulled the trigger, and thought about the smell of Douglas fir.
Instead, a searing heat lit my face, and I was released, falling to the ground.
I rolled back instinctively from the painful heat and opened my eyes.
A drone had landed on the armored soldier. As I watched, it flapped away from the flaming, flailing trooper. It was beautiful in the flash of burning phosphorous. White underbelly, matte black scales atop it. It used the updraft of the flames to its advantage and soared over to the headquarters, flying through a window and immolating itself somewhere inside. The flashes of destruction lit up every window in the building. The man rushed away from me, beating at his suit with superhuman strength as the phosphorous burned through chinks in his armor and set him alight. A thin, reedy scream came out muffled through his helmet, and then he slumped against an APC when his suit’s power cells failed and smoked.
Flames scorched my skin. I felt an ache where my eyebrows had once been. I eventually stood, and limped forward. I felt sure that none of this was truly occurring. I raised the puny laser designator at a group of soldiers running towards a building, and I pulled the trigger. One of the drones swooped low and gracefully dropped its payload on them, and they danced away into the night, stumbling and jumping and slapping themselves frantically.
People became truly alive when the white phosphorous fell on them. Where before they stumbled in a shocked fugue, they became fast, juddering and vital when set aflame, leaving human afterimages in my eyes as they past, voices keening like sirens. It was unreal, and I knew then why the other soldiers had had their conscience taken away from them for this.
The drones were effective on their own, but I was their guide. The laser designator was my superpower. I would place it on a target, and the target would die in a white flash. Guard posts, vehicles, buildings. Everything fell when I so much as looked at it. The drones were so numerous that I could hear, even among the flames, the sound of their wingbeats, and when I looked up they were white outlines zooming like angels descending into hell.
A desperate man grabbed me, pulled at my mask, yelling things I didn’t understand. I held him at arm’s length and slowly lowered him to the ground. I pulled the obsidian knife from his throat. I think I apologized under my breath. As I walked away, one of the drones landed on him, its sensor stalk hovering carefully over his face. Once it was sure he was dead, the drone opened up its belly, which minutes before had no doubt been filled with explosive compounds. I saw the sharp-clawed appendages that I had only ever seen snapping up the silicate growth chow we fed them in Idaho. Now I saw them complete their purpose: resupplying the drone with energy in the field. I looked away as the drone began pulling parts of the man out of his uniform.
I cherished each of the four hours of blessed silence before the regulars arrived. I think if I hadn’t had that time, I may have gone insane. When they finally caught up, they almost shot me. I had to raise my hands high and show them the crossbow before they understood. Our clothes, you see, had been designed to look identical to the enemy chemical warfare suits. It was the best armor I could have asked for.
The Marines eventually took their fingers off the trigger. But as they looked from me, to the drones, to the dead, their faces grew even uglier than when they had thought I was an enemy. They were looking at their replacement. And it was terrifying.
Maybe I’ll have a replacement someday. Perhaps one day the things the scientists build will outshoot even the keenest soldier, and wars will just be scientists fighting each other. But not while I’m alive, because as long as the killing is happening, I’ll be there. That’s my superpower.
When I came back home, a general gave me a medal. He smiles a coffee-stained smile, and his eyes glimmered with pride behind his wire rim glasses. I accepted the medal, as all the other members of my unit had. At least, the ones who’d survived. An audience clapped, and I didn’t know who the fuck they were but they probably ran the country. Afterward, the general asked me what I thought of the Swallows.
“Well sir, I’m afraid of them.”
“Understandable.” he smiled at a nonexistent joke “I’d be afraid of a malfunction too.”
“No sir. I’m not afraid they’ll malfunction. I’m afraid because Willie Pete has no off switch, sir. We started those fires down there, and I expect they’re still burning. They were still burning when I left. One day those fires will light up the whole continent, and they’ll make their way across the ocean, no doubt. And we’ll all burn.”
The general smiled, shook his head, and left me in silence.