Specialist Webb thrummed his fingers across the computer’s screen of the dark hot trailer. Sweat raced down his back, each drop eager to transition from under his uniform to his seat. He stared at the code he had helped perfect prior to the whole world going up-side-down. While, some may say unethical, it had only intended to be a simulation, give artificial intelligence the ability to control a drone to strike targets. Now it may very well be their solution to the disaster that had been breaking in and crawling through the windows of every American living room.
Sure, there had been some unintended consequences with the point system, but they had rectified that. Computers, even AI, are simple machines at their core. Create a value system, have the machine adhere to the values you want. With the wild and savage outbreak, AI was the perfect mathematical solution.
A year ago, or at least it felt like a full year, the outbreak spread like wildfire in a drought. It had seemed to be a pandemic, and if you still believe the official narrative, that is what it was. Though, the observant mind had to admit, there were too many unusual coincidences for this to be natural, or even earthly in nature. It was also far too coincidental that rolling blackouts had plagued most of the Western United States and central China right at the zenith of the outbreak. Regardless, they were here now. Specialist Webb had sat in the briefings over the last several months. The estimated infection rate was at least a third, leading to a projected 60% casualties before the military intervened.
The intervention was far too late. By the time orders came out, the very service members who were expected to respond were fighting for their own lives. They fought in their barracks, in their offices, in their homes, against their own peers and family—just like the rest of the country. Webb himself had struggled to survive those opening days. God, how he wished the outbreak could have been simple, like the movies.
Zombies or something easy. He thought. Instead, they got thinkers. They could coordinate, they could hide, and set ambushes, even use rudimentary weapons or bludgeons. Really, it was a miracle their airfield had survived those first days. It was a miracle he had survived.
Their only saving grace really was the airfield preparing to install electrified fences to assist in keeping animals from getting on the airfield. The base commander had consolidated the surviving security forces and had created just enough of a reprieve they could get the fences operational. Once the fences were up, they only had to focus on sweeping the base itself of the infected. That had taken them almost a week.
In the time since then, they had helped establish a refuge of sorts. With Las Vegas south of them, there had been a flood of panicking survivors who came to the airfield. There had been no easy way for the small airfield to accommodate them all, yet their base commander had the know-how of how to handle the survivors.
They established a commune of sorts on a nearby rancher’s land. The ranch had survived as well and had gone to great lengths to save what little cattle he could during the first weeks of the outbreak. Extending their grid, they had created a fenced area around the rancher’s land and named the little commune Camp Clark after the rancher himself. Having been cut off from any form of formal support, Camp Clark provided the care the refugees needed. As food and resources quickly became scarce, Camp Clark had the edge of having started a small economy that the airfield supported as best as they could.
The military from the airfield would provide excursions that would try to eliminate infected. The community would take advantage of the relief and seek resources in the small town nearby. They were still weeks away from the farm that they had started, but a yield was expected to provide even more relief to the concern of feeding all the hungry mouths that had accumulated. There was the issue of providing support for the excursions, though.
The armed patrols would do their best with the weapons on hand, but their numbers had been small since the days of the initial outbreak. A single patrol being wiped out would reduce their skeleton crew to even more dangerous levels. Which, without contact with any outside authority, their base commander once again made the tough call. “Use the Reaper Drones.”
For the first time in history, Reaper Drones flew over American soil and dropped ordinance. The armed patrols would head out in small numbers and establish a defensive area where they would try to lure the infected out into the open. Then the Reaper would hit groups of infected with 500lb Hellfire missiles. When the patrols were not active, the Reaper would try to find the dens the infected had erected. Early on, it had been easy for the pilot. Find the swarms around buildings, and drop a bomb onto the heat mass. But the infected had learned.
The infected had stopped trying to engage the smaller patrols. They had learned that the bombs did not rain from heaven if their groups were small enough. It was almost like the infected knew the true weakness of the airfield. The weakness that Webb was going to try to fix with one swift flip of a switch.
The airfield had been mostly Air Force personnel with a few Army assigned. When the outbreak had happened, there was no discrimination, and many of the pilots had either been on leave or been sick themselves. Once consolidation was completed, there had only been one trained pilot left. 1st Lieutenant Hoover had become the most vital asset on the airfield in the days since. He flew sorties day and night. He slept whenever it was not critical to be in his seat with controls in hand. The simple solution to have Lieutenant Hoover train others had come up, but taking someone away from one task was also dubious. Airfields are not just pilots. There were the maintenance crews, the ammo crews, the security. All of which had suffered causalities and were cross training each other every day as well.
To be a pilot, there was also the risk of losing an aircraft. They had 12 aircraft, but only 8 were operational, and only 5 of those were configured to carry missiles. Risking an aircraft to an amateur was a risk they could not take. So most of the training was live, while Lieutenant Hoover was working, and in a few weeks they hoped to have one more pilot ready.
Specialist Webb had the better solution to this all on the screen before him. The AI had successfully flown from takeoff, to mission, to landing in simulation. It would not need to be taught any of the fundamentals. The AI could execute operations in real time, and best of all, it did not need to sleep, eat, or take screen breaks. It did have; however, an unusual understanding of its mission.
Machines, even AI, are just numbers. They had run a simulation where the AI was to target surface-to-air missiles, and the AI was successful. It eliminated the SAM like any trained operator would have. But when they tried to implement changes in command, the AI had decided that the mission was more important, and fired on the operator, killing him in the simulation. This was from a misunderstanding in the point system. The mission was considered ten points, high priority, friendly assets were considered negative nine points. It had been set that way to allow what the military called “danger close” to be allowed, where bombs would be needed for soldiers in close combat with the enemy. The AI read the mission and decided that the one point left over from the SAM mission was more viable and considered itself within parameters.
The AI parameters were fixed to overvalue the operator, eliminating the need for a danger close fire mission. The operator was given a negative ten point score. When the simulation was run again, with the change in orders, the drone then turned and fired on the control tower to prevent orders from being issued. A negative five point score was assigned to American equipment, with the thought that a drone may need to fire on it to prevent capture. The result was the AI understood it could remove the tower, stop orders from being given, get negative five points, destroy the SAM worth ten points, and be left with five points for a mission success. Again, they changed the parameters, but with the outbreak, another simulation was not launched.
Specialist Webb exhaled a grated breath. He launched himself out of his seat and started out of the trailer. The late afternoon gave no reprieve from the heat of the day earlier, and the concrete still sent heat mirages waving through the air.
Specialist Webb caught Lieutenant Hoover just as he emerged from the flight trailer. Hoover shielded his eyes, having been in the much darker trailer most of the day.
“Sir,” Webb saluted.
“Specialist,” Hoover weakly returned the salute. “I thought we agreed we don’t need to worry about formalities anymore.”
“Sorry, habit,” he said, dropping his salute. “I have something that might be able to help us and I need to show you.”
“Can it wait?” Hoover rubbed the tiredness from his eyes.
“Trust me, you don’t want this to wait.”
Together, the two men looked at the screen Specialist Webb had pulled up in his trailer. A dark background, with terrain shown in lights of green. A small plane shaped icon circled a simulated town that was reflected in smaller blue boxes.
“What is this, an ISR mission?” Hoover asked. He was close, the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance mission that was being portrayed was just the evidence Webb wanted.
“Almost,” Webb added gleefully. “It’s a simulation ran by AI. We had been trying to get AI to fly drones before the infected took over. I have been making fixes since our last exercise. I think I can get the computer to run the drones. We can have missions flown by the AI, and then only use you as a pilot when we have something critical happening.”
Stubble had began to coat Hoover’s face. Shaving had taken a backseat since society had effectively collapsed. He scratched at the stubble before folding his arms in contemplation.
“It’s a simulation. Are you sure it can operate an actual drone?” Hoover queried.
“Yes sir. We based it all on the fact the eventual flights would be real. We had the AI study real pilots on real missions for months before starting the simulations. The AI will make adjustments just like a human would.” Webb explained.
“What about if it makes a mistake it is not ready for? You know we can’t risk one of the Reapers.”
“We don’t have to, not at least until we’ve proved it. We can have it fly ISR missions with the drones not equipped to carry missiles. It would give our crews time to ensure your Reapers are in top shape, and you won’t be needed for recon missions. Then, when you do come in to fly, you will have the intel generated by the AI to start targeting the dens.”
Hoover rubbed his stubbles again. There was a sharp intake of breath. “Ok, I will bring this up to General Evans. If he approves it, when will it be ready for the first flight?”
“I just need twenty-four hours.”
General Evans was the base commander for the Airfield. His silver hair was kept short and thick. The grayed hairs of his arms acted only to accent the years of hard set muscles that they could not conceal. He stood like a stone sentinel with his burly arms crossed behind Specialist Webb as he implemented the last installation into the flight controls of the trailer.
The station kicked on and the feed from the drone outside lit up. The feed just showed the heating asphalt as the drone sat ready in the bay. The screen populated a small string of text across the top: “Eye 1 Approved. Expect runway 10.” Radio chatter from the tower began.
“Eye 1, Runway 10,” the practiced voice came over the net from the tower. The drone began to taxi out of the runway. From their feed it was just hot ground moving. Another monitor showed a digital lay out of the airfield. A blue airplane represented their AI driven drone, Eye 1, which began to move to the runway. Hoover, Webb, and General Evans watched as the drone reached the holding area.
“Eye 1, Runway 10, cleared for takeoff,” the tower announced.
Webb gulped air once and then held his breath. The roar of the engine could be heard in their thin trailer as the drone went roaring down the runway. They watched the little icon on the monitor as a number appeared, 100, 120, 150; the drone was climbing up into the air. The camera feed began to show the small desolated town that they neighbored. As the drone climbed further, a slow banking allowed them to see Camp Clark and then their own airfield.
“Specialist, it looks like you did it,” General Evans stated, with a deceiving hint of optimism.
“You will be able to collect information from your AI?” General Evans wanted reconfirmation.
“Yes, sir. The feed of all actions comes through the pilot’s console. Anything it identifies will show up exactly how our pilots would do it. Any actions it takes will also be fed to the console, along with justifications, sir.”
“What are the justifications?” The General inquired.
“If the AI makes a decision, it logs the decision. It allows me to come back and fine-tune how the AI makes decisions, sir.”
“I want you in here every day, then. Get this AI up to speed on every aspect of our operations here.”
“Yes, sir,” Webb said, unable to stop his teeth from sparking in a toothy grin.
The course of his life over the next couple of weeks was set. Special Webb would spend his days inside the flight trailer. He would arrive just as Lieutenant Hoover was finishing his night flights. Webb would watch as the drone picked up the patterns of the infected and their movements. The AI would lay out expected dens, and then Hoover would come in and spend his night dropping missiles onto any location the AI identified.
The patrols had started reporting less infected. Hoover would have fewer targets each night, and eventually, he even had nights where he never fired a missile.
As Specialist Webb started his day, he was greeted at the flight trailer by General Evans.
“Morning, sir,” Specialist Webb greeted the General.
“You think your AI is ready for combat missions?” Webb’s stomach pitted into tight coils. He knew the day was coming, but there was a small voice that reminded him of the earlier simulations. As Webb chewed over his words in his head, General Evans began again without Webb having provided an answer.
“Our patrols have been pushing out more, thanks to your work. But the infected have begun to pour in from the west. From the trends I have seen, I suspect the infected are running out of food in the West. That makes us a juicy target. We need your drone ready.”
There had been rumors about out further west. Many had suspected that the government had used nuclear weapons in California before the government had ceased contact. It would make sense the infected, like people, wanted to get away. “It’s ready, Sir.”
The caveat was the AI would be running missions day and night, fully armed with four Hellfire missiles. Webb watched the first mission, biting his thumb through the entire duration. The drone had taken off, headed west, and immediately caught a large concentration of infected in Death Valley. The drone fired 3 of its missiles to eradicate the majority of the infected. The drone only went several miles more before the AI identified a den in Darwin Falls, where it expended its last missile.
The first success was not enough for Webb. Webb stayed up for the first night mission. Lieutenant Hoover sat nearby and flew his own mission. Webb was resigned to trying to conceal his concern as he watched his AI in operation. Webb said a silent prayer in thanks that the day’s heat had given sufficient cover for why he profusely sweated.
During the night mission, the drone flew further south, and once again did not make it far before the AI engaged large swarms of infected coming out of Mojave City. He should have been relieved the AI was working. He should have been stressed that the infected were massing. Yet, there was an anxiety that his intestines had wrapped around with the armed AI.
As the drone began its return to rearm, he had relegated himself to staying in the pilot’s trailer. The drone returned twice more to rearm before a weariness won over Webb. He sank in his chair to the sound of whirring devices and the subtle movement of the two drone stations flying their deadly angels in the sky.
Webb wasn’t sure what startled him awake. He swore there was a rocking. Some loud noise in the distance. Lieutenant Hoover was in his pilot’s seat yelling. The door blew open with a panic silhouette filling the blazing hole.
“What the hell is going on?” Hoover screamed as he tried to bank his drone.
Webb’s heart skipped. But we’re here. It didn’t attack us.
“Camp Clark was just hit!” General Evan’s voice boomed like a cannon in the small trailer. “What is going on out there?!”
Webb was already at the console for the AI controlled drone. The screen showed Camp Clark, the crosshairs were slowly shifting away. A smoldering crater burned where the farm had be stationed. The site quickly shifted to a large rectangular structure that was putting off white hot heat in the black and white imaging.
“The AI fired on Camp Clark,” Webb mumbled as his stomach hollowed out.
“Why—Get that thing offline!” The General’s words were accented by the trailer rocking. A blast shook their world. Webb saw the smoldering remains on the screen.
“The generators! The fences are down!” A voice screamed from outside.
“Get it offline!” General Evans hollered as he stormed out into the chaos outside.
“Oh my God,” Hoover stuttered out. “Infected. Infected everywhere.”
Webb barely heard what was being muttered out. He was tearing away cables to the AI control.
“They must have been attracted by the explosion,” Hoover fired at one of the approaching groups. The little figures disintegrated into a blaze of white hot pieces at the same time their trailer rocked again with the thudding boom of the missile’s impact.
The AI’s drone tilted and began to go sideways without the AI in control anymore. The last image Webb saw was a string of bodies rushing a fence line like wild animals.
“Ohmygodohmygod…” Hoover rattled as he fired his missiles at several crowds. The infected had begun to spread. Like ants, they were pouring in towards them. “That’s it. I’m done. I’m getting out of here.” Hoover launched himself out of his seat. He shoved past Webb, kneeling at the console, scrolling through the justification log.
Rifle fire reported in from all around him. It was like the 4th of July. Short pops. Long strings of pops. Sporadic at times, then in unison. Some in focused fire, some in long uncontrolled desperation.
Webb found the justification log for the last fire mission: “Eliminate infected, extermination best by food supply. Civilian people, negative ten points. Civilian targets, zero points. Starvation in Death Valley for infected estimated in 28 weeks. Ten points for starvation, optimal points by destroying civilian structure and eliminating infected food supply.”
“Oh, my God,” He had to allow the AI to target civilian structures because most of the dens were in towns. It didn’t target the people, but it knew it could starve the infected if there weren’t people.
Someone came to the door in a frantic run. Their body blocked out the scorching sunlight that was pouring in behind them. It had to be Hoover or General Evans.
“I know what’s wrong, I know why it did it!” Webb coughed up.
The figure snapped towards Webb. An unnatural twitching. The malice in the awkward stance given by the knotted hands that launched itself in. A filthy man in coveralls came barreling at him. Webb didn’t have time to scream. As the infected grasped him, he saw the dark maw opening and thought—negative ten points.”