The orange and purple of the sunset was slowly fading in the west over the Rockies. Jake took a puff of his e-cig, and then blew out the smoke. At least he didn’t have to worry about light from e-cig during blackout conditions. It also wasn’t dark enough to allow infrared vision to pick up the heat from the e-cig and the smoke. He inhaled again and regretfully put his e-cig away, it was time to get back to work. He took one more look at the sunset before heading back to the Shack.

The two story building loomed over him in the twilight but he and the rest of the team still called it the Shack, their inside joke about their remote location. During the winter months, the Air Force Personnel had joked about having a shack on the beach of Hawaii and somehow the name had started to refer to their building. In the twilight, he could see the buildings of downtown Denver, but only bits of lights shining out of the windows. With the current alert everyone was under blackout conditions, not just military units like his.  It was not a wise move to leave a light or heat source out in the open, not with enemy drones able to seek and attack at night. Most attacks occurred at night, when it was harder to see the small vessels as they approached a target.

Aircraft flying above US Flag

The door opened as he walked up, sensing his badge and authorization, and he entered into the chamber. The outside door closed behind him and only then did the inside door open up to the light, heat and noise in the central cafeteria. He walked in, adjusting to the noise, warmth, and bright lights after being outside where there was a slight chill.

“Hey Jake, about time, we’ve got some droneskies to catch,” someone called out from one of the tables. Someone else laughed at the old joke and Jake forced a laugh too. The newbies thought they were funny but they would change all too soon. Once they had their first miss, saw the destroyed buildings and the bodies because they didn’t take out the enemy, the jokes would change.

Jake could smell soyburgers and pizza from tonight’s dinner, he cringed at the thought of junk food, again, but knew he needed to eat. At least he would have leave this weekend, he could go into Denver and get some real food instead of this synthetic shit the Air Force served up. Military food hadn’t changed much based on his granddad’s stories, just changed in what and how it was made. Instead of grinding up meat and vegetables, the food was now grown in vats, then textured into the desired type of food. Unfortunately, government contractors provided stuff that was nutritional, easy to store, healthy and had the taste of paste mixed with whatever leftover herbs and spices were at hand. He grabbed a tray and went over in the line for food, looking over the choices. He was pleased to see fresh salads were available, although they were disappearing quickly, he hoped they wouldn’t all disappear.

“Evening sir, you want a burger or pizza?” the server asked him. The server was a contractor hired in so that the young and fit like him were free to run the drones. With the war zone everywhere and yet no where specific, civilians were used as much as possible in order to get better use out of those serving.

“The pizza, with a salad on the side,” Jake answered. He was pleased salads were still there and pleased that he was going to get two tomato slices on his. Nothing like the tomatoes he remembered from his parents garden, but at least something with color and natural flavoring unlike the pizza.

The server slid out two slices of pizza, then pulled out a salad from the refrigerator. The server shoved a tray with the food at him and was already asking the next person “Evening sir, you want a burger or pizza?” A trivial job, an AI robot could have handled but the brass wanted that human touch and something that would work all of the time without the risk of being jammed. The military had vetted, checked and rechecked everyone in this facility to make sure they were clean and possibly mean enough to keep the US safe from all foreign enemies. He suspected that even the server could help in a fight, if needed.

Jake took his tray and sat down at a table in the corner. His shift started in fifteen minutes so he needed to eat quickly. He shoveled in the pizza, saving the salad for last in order to ‘cleanse his palate’ as the old saying went. While he was eating, his captain walked up to his table. Jake prepared to stand up but the captain said “Easy son, just wanted to check in with you before you start your shift.” Jake sat back down, sitting up straight as Captain Siann Frances sat down across from him. She was in charge of his squad and ran a tight unit. She also had the programming and piloting experience to be taken seriously by a bunch of hotshot twenty year olds. The young men and woman in the squad knew they were the best of the best and only respected someone like Captain Frances who had done the same thing, had pioneered some of the techniques they used. Jake was the ‘old man’, at the age of twenty two but the youngsters respect him for his kill rate during missions.

“Go ahead and eat, you need to relieve Lieutenant Drake before she drops. Nothing new tonight, the usual drone and zone attack, your contact Brian in Dallas for Charlie Delta will give you the latest. You’ll be monitoring Memphis, our reports show an attack is expected on MLGW and the Memphis Police HQ. Brian will provide you with the details, your drones are loaded up and ready at Little Rock so finish up and keep Memphis safe.”

“Yes ma’am,” Jake said before taking another bite of the salad. The Captain stood up and went back to the situation room while Jake finished up. He trotted over to dump his tray, and then trotted out to the corridor that led to his control room. Five minutes, plenty of time to get to the drone control room. After a quick jog around the corner he sprinted to his room, reached his door and entered his code, then pressed his card to the reader. There was a pause as the cameras also scanned him, then the door opened and he stepped into his control room. His crew was already seated and again he felt like was walking on a spaceship bridge just like the old sci-fi series that showed in reruns. The front wall had a central monitor with smaller monitors positioned around it. He had a chair with controls, and VR set ready for him which could swivel around and allow him to assess all of the data shown. A map on a screen the left wall showed detail of Memphis from the monitoring drones. His navigator Zach was watching the map on the wall and the HUD in front of him for his drone set. Lieutenant Drake stood up, ready to turn over the control room to him. Her team lined up and was ready to leave after turn over, all of them looking exhausted.

“Lt. Drake, what’s the situation?” Jake asked as he stood in front of the main chair.

“Situation is quiet right now, we had activity about four hours ago, a battle over Memphis, but they finally disengaged once we brought in the killer drones. No casualties on the ground but some collateral damage and civilian injuries during the engagement.  Enemy drones did not achieve their objective, it looked like they were doing recon and looking for opportunities to blow stuff up and cause chaos. The rest of the watch was quiet, NSA monitor is in place and ready to report.”

“Thank you Lt, I relieve you. Enjoy your leave,” Jake said.

“Thank you Lt, I plan to. Team, let’s go!” Lt. Drake said. Her team said “Yes ma’am and followed her out of the control room. Jake had already turned toward the main screen while he sat down and adjusted the seat. With the political convention scheduled for next week it was probably going to be a long shift. The US was ready for the disruptions of other nations, corporations, and terrorist groups tried to carry out but it was hard work. The Trusted Network was gradually helping out, but there was still a lot more to implement. Key cities, like DC, Denver, Chicago, Seattle and San Diego had been secured first, but until the entire US was secure his team would have plenty of work. The cities that weren’t secure, like Memphis, weren’t able to jam the drones and all of their computer networks and electronics were open to probes and attacks. The US still had force to keep the peace but in their own country it was too easy for enemies to cause confusion and division despite lessons learned and educational videos about the dangers.

“Sir, what are your orders,” Zach asked, interrupting Jake’s thoughts. He had grown up in this world and was used to it but he wondered what it had been to grow up in a world where it wasn’t so easy to wreak havoc remotely. He hoped he would find out once the government fully deployed the Trusted Network.

Jake said “Zach, Open up the comm channel to Charlie Delta.”

“Channel open to sir,” Zach replied. A video stream opened up on the screen at the front, he could see Brian, wearing his old style plastic frame glasses, black hair graying, peering intently at the camera. He could also thought he saw new lines around his bloodshot eyes, sometimes camera resolution was too good. He had heard that Brian also had extra stress with his wife’s illness, Jake hoped Brian didn’t crack up, he was one of the best at tracking and stopping cyber probes and attacks.

“Charlie Delta, Delta HQ here, are you ready to rock and roll?” Jake asked

A voice came out of the speaker on the panel in front of Jake and said, “Yes Delta HQ, we’re ready, network monitoring up and ready, Wi-Fi signal strong, we are good here.” The screen showed Brian talking to the camera while glancing at something on his screen. There were more screens behind Brian and he swiveled around to take a look.

“Good to go, Lewenda, are the drones ready to go?”

“Yes sir, Little Rock drones are in the air approaching Memphis with backup ready to deploy at Tullahoma,” Lewenda answered on the right side of the room. She was monitoring camera feeds from a drone pack and tweaking the signal strength while testing the electronics. The monitors showed infrared cameras that highlighted the landscape in shadowy green shapes.

“Alright, we are ready for a lot of boredom, I hope. Lewenda, let’s send a drone up to take a look at MLGW and then at downtown. Charlie Delta, any activity on the ‘net on MLGW, they might decide to go for digital instead of an analog attack.”

“I’m monitoring the station and subsystems, there has been some port scanning but nothing overt yet. I have seen some activity on the police net, scanning and probes but nothing has gotten through yet. However, the probes look like they are of nation-state strength, I’ve notified Homeland Security so they can add resources for monitoring.”

“Good, it will be a lot easier for us if the bad guys just go digital. A lot less wear and tear on the civilians.” Jake leaned back in his chair, reminding himself to breathe and slow down. He had another eight hours of monitoring, it wouldn’t be a good idea to surge through things because of an adrenalin rush and lose the battle later on. His eyes swept the room and he noticed others on his team also easing up and letting go of the tension. Zach and Lewenda were in charge of others, they were also checking in with their teams to make sure information was flowing and the drones were flying. He nodded in satisfaction, his team was experienced enough to know the real action would take place later on.

“Alright, keep an eye on the situation, maybe we’ll get lucky and things will stay quiet.”

“Yeah, and I should’ve bought a lottery ticket if that happens,” Zach said as he zoomed in on a power substation.

“Lottery ticket, why get that, we’ve got everything we need here. Why would anyone want more than this paradise?” Lewenda said, hands moving over her controls but Jake could almost hear an eye roll as she answered Zach.

Jake listened to the banter of his team, glad to hear them relaxed but alert. He scanned the monitors and reports, all quiet so far. He hoped it would stay that way.

* * *

The clock showed 00:17 MDT at the start of the attack.

Jake heard “Delta HQ, Charlie Delta here, probes starting on Memphis Police Net, looks like they are trying to send out emergency message for a Cat 5 Tornado.” Lewenda reported immediately after this “Drones coming in for power subsystem at the convention center.”

Brian at Charlie Delta said, “National Weather Service confirms area is clear, with some thunderstorms, the alert would trigger evacuations, working to stop.”

“Heads up, this is it. Zach, any incoming? Charlie Delta, are the defender bots holding against the emergency alert probe? Lewenda, take in two drones to the convention center and the city hall complex, I want to keep an eye on the big picture for right now.” Jake watched his screen in front of him, using his controls to select which drone feeds he wanted. Zach had put up a feed of activity against the probe, he could see that Charlie Delta was dealing with a swarm of bots on the probe based on the IP addresses.  Lewenda had adjusted the drones flight, he scanned the various video feeds on the large screens on the right of the room.”

Two jets flying across clear sky with jet trail

“Drones away sir, cameras for the convention center and city hall comples on screen four and five.” The screens in front of Jake’s lit up with the night scene as the drones left their default circling pattern of the city. The monitor software showed, the fuel tanks were half-full and the Wi-Fi signal was clear for communications. He looked at the other screen of the cyberattack and asked “Charlie Delta, report, is the alert getting blocked? And any activity in our area for the drone channels?”

“The protector bots are massing and overcoming the attack bots, but they are still coming in. So far, the probe hasn’t succeeded in obtaining its target. Hmm, I don’t see anything in your area, will set up monitoring to make sure things stay quiet,” Brian responded. New patches of red showed up on the network monitoring for the drones, which quickly arrayed into a ‘wall’ to protect the drone feeds. The alert probe protector bots were continuing to hold and so far no additional enemy bots had come on-line.

“Good, keep it up, we are protecting the convention center perimeter from enemy drones.” Jake looked over at the front screens and the drone feeds, then looked at the screens on the right for the standard monitor patterns. While watching the right screen, he spotted something from the cameras  of a circling drone, number eight.

“Lewenda, zoom on eight’s camera and number fourteen, I think I caught something on them. Keep an eye on the convention center while I check out the bogey.”

The camera view from eight and fourteen moved to screens four and five, zooming in on the views. The drones were circling around the Mississippi River Park and the Mud River Park entrance, not far from the convention center. As they passed over the Harbor, he caught a flash of movement by the park area. He adjusted his controls and said “Lewenda, give me control of fourteen, I’m going to check something out. Bring in backup to the area, I’m going in.”

Once he had control, he turned the drone towards the flash and sped up in order to catch up with it. As he moved in, he could see another drone, flying just above the river, sealed up to prevent heat leakage and painted to blend in with the dark night. The covering wasn’t tight enough, he had caught a flash of heat as it moved along the river, gliding like a predator moving in for its kill. The drone zigged and zagged along the Mississippi and Jake followed with his drone, staying out of the range of its camera.

“Charlie Delta, there is a drone, there may be others, I’m following to see if force is required. How’s it going with the alert probe?” Jake continued to steer the drone, following the other and keeping an eye out for any other enemy craft. So far, nothing that he could see.

“We are holding off the probe here, will update if anything changes. No activity on the drone frequencies either,” Brian responded back.

Zach said “The map shows there is a levee in front of its current path that a drone that size could take out, be careful, it might be loaded.” He thumbed up the map and he could see the possible target up ahead. He decided to move closer to see if this drone had a payload. As he got closer, he cursed, it did have a load, a small charge but enough of one to put a hole in the levee or destroy something else if it landed wrong. He would have to be careful or the enemy might decide to blow it in a random spot in order to wreak havoc.

“Lewenda, bring in drones sixteen and twelve, once they get within range I’ll take them over. Anything else I should be worried about?”

“All quiet sir,” Zach reported. “Nothing here sir,” Lewenda added.

“We are holding ground here, but I’m bringing in Homeland security for this probe. Something feels off, I want to stay open for something else popping up,” Brian answered over the speaker.

“Roger, I’ll have my hands full up here. The bandit is armed, repeat, the bandit is armed, will be pursuing for termination,” Jake reported while watching the screens. He now had three views to monitor, all showing a greenish view of downtown Memphis. He brought sixteen in and put it on autopilot, set to track the enemy drone. The path was set to ‘Corral: Right’ which would keep it a set distance and speed in pursuit of the enemy. He set drone fourteen to ‘Corral: Left’  and was pleased to see the video feeds update with two views of the enemy. He switched his focuse to drone twelve, confident the other two drones would provide backup if he needed it. He increased speed and started moving closer to the enemy. Weapons were loaded and armed, now he just needed to lock in and fire to take the drone out without also taking out a chunk of Memphis.

The nighttime scene flew by as he moved closer and closer. The other drones were also  moving in closer and he was ready to switch controls if the enemy decided to turn. However, it kept on a straight path, heading for the levee. This seemed too easy, and his thought was confirmed when Lewenda reported “New drone approaching, looks like it’s the new model, it’s coming to your position fast. Adding feed to your monitor from drones four, six and seven.”

A new video popped up on the screen, showing a drone hurtling across the sky. Jake whistled, that sucker was big and moving fast! He looked over the radar map and saw it was moving in on his drone team and would arrive in seconds.

“Lewenda, does it look armed?” If it doesn’t see if you can distract it, I’ve got to get this one before it hits,”

After a pause, Lewenda said, “Enemy drone two does not appear to be armed, implementing ‘Shiny Object’, attempting to distract,” she replied. Jake continued to focus on his enemy bandit but part of him noted the sparkle of light from the three monitor drones that Lewenda was operating. They looked like mirrors as they started weaving across the sky in front of the other enemy drone. The larger drone slowed, hovered, than took the bait. The bait drones took off and the enemy drone went after one, switched to another, following the heat pattern and light. It was a new distraction technique, wouldn’t work for many encounters but it was a help here.

Jake focused on the original enemy drone and goosed the control. He was running out of time and safe space, to finish this encounter. The map showed an empty field and abandoned building in the flight path, he decided to move in for the kill. He gunned his drone and started firing at the enemy, trying to hit the payload before it could turn. The burst of fire and flame on the screen over the field let him know that he had succeeded.

“Yes! Got him, Lewenda, where’s the big daddy, I’ll go after him now.”

“The big daddy is heading straight up, elevation 2,000 feet and rising. Still clear in the rest of the area.”

“This is too easy, Zach, take a look at the drone streams, make sure we aren’t missing anything.”

“Yes sir, monitoring streams,” Zach replied. Jake had sent drones sixteen and fourteen back into monitor status while he started climbing with drone twelve. This didn’t seem right, he was waiting for the other shoe to drop.

“Delta HQ…do…copy…distraction…help…”, was crackling on the speaker from Charlie Delta.

“Charlie Delta, we didn’t get all of your last message, repeat,” Jake snapped out. Interference on a secure channel was bad, he cursed under his breath.

“Delta…target…daily news…refocusing…,” came crackling out.

“Lewenda, get that channel back in the clear, Zach, find the newspaper office, I need to check for additional force on the scene,” Jake said while assessing what drones were where in the city. Zach pulled up the map with the newspaper location marked and drone positions displayed. Drone nineteen was the closest, he switched and set the others on patrol around the original targets. “Lewenda, take over twelve and take out that big daddy, it will be high enough to not affect the civilians. I’ll start heading for the Daily News.”

“Channel should be clear now, there was a swarm on the link, holding them off but I don’t know how long it will last.”

“Charlie Delta, repeat last message, we had a swarm on the channel.”

“Delta HQ, the probe and drones are distractions, the main probe is for the newspaper and municipal city employees credit union. Homeland Security personnel are involved in an attack on Sacramento so we are the only ones responding. We need help on our end, incoming drones spotted for our location and we don’t have anyone to help defend, need cover,” Brian responded back.

“Crap, alright Charlie Delta, we’ll cover you. Lewenda, let Carswell know, we need backup.”

Lewenda spoke into her microphone and then said “Carswell is busy, they are handling an attack in Grand Prairie. They do have spare drones in the air they can turn over control to us.”

“Great! Do that, let me know when they are on-line. Charlie Delta, we are on our way,” Jake said while watching for the new drones. Within a few seconds drones 25 through thirty were shown on his display and he switched control to them while Lewenda took auto control of the Memphis set. He increased speed and started moving to Charlie Delta’s location on the east side of the Dallas area.

“Delta HQ, drones sighted on our scopes, will be here within …minutes…do…you… copy?” crackled out again.

“Damnit, Lewenda, can’t you get rid of that swarm? I need to be in touch with Charlie Delta, I need to know direction of the attack.”

“Sorry sir, a second swarm showed up, activating defenses. They are switching in and out, this is a new type of attack.”

“Well, so much for a quiet shift. Charlie Delta, we are on our way, where are they coming from?” As Lewenda quietly spoke into her microphone, the static started to clear on the speaker. A new video feed showed the attack, two large swarms targeting the secure channel. New protector bots came on-line but the strain showing for CPU and memory resources for the attackers. At least the big daddy was almost done, it was at 3,000 feet but the other two drones would catch up soon.

Helicopters flying above tree

“They are coming from the north, all nonessential gear is off to buy us some more time but reports of the enemy drones circling our location,” Brian reported from Charlie Delta.

“We’ve got new problems here, two swarms attacking the channel, can you aid?”

“I’ll see what I can do, I’ve still got a few tricks up my sleeve,” Brian replied back. The video feed for Brian was dark now, even the monitors had been dimmed so the enemy drones would have less light and heat to search for. A slight glint on the glasses showed as Brian turned to a screen, then back again to his main screen and keyboard.

“Good, we need the help. My drone team is rapidly approaching and there, yep, I can see them now, only five, I’ll knock these out quickly,” Jake said. He scanned the video stream, at least Charlie Delta was in the countryside so he didn’t have to worry about collateral damage. He brought in his set of drones and set them to autopilot track and destroy for the enemy. As they opened fire, the enemy drones broke off but only one got away.

“Charlie Delta, targets are destroyed, are you having success on your end?” Jake asked.

“Copy that Delta HQ, we are beating back the attacks, it appears that the bots and swarms are pulling back,” Brian answered.

Jake sighed in relief, it looked like they had gotten through another attack set with no damage to civilian structures or personnel. Everyone in the service remembered the arch incident in St. Louis, when the enemy bots and drones had been stopped but at the price of damage to the Arch and the breaking of levees on the Mississippi. The news fallout had been almost as bad as it would have been if the attack had been successful, so pilot’s were extra cautious.

“Delta HQ, thanks for the help, going back to surveillance,” Brian said.

“Copy that Charlie Delta, we are also returning to surveillance,” Jake replied. He went back to watching the video streams, glad that he wouldn’t be reading about his action in the papers tomorrow. He stretched, looked at the clock and grimaced when he saw it read 12:47. Another three hours of this, he’d be glad when his leave started and he could take a break.

Pictures by J.T. Harpster