October 31, 2009

Counter Insurgency



            "Imagine the host's surgically sculpted face close up, his bone-tight skin stretched across his skull, like a torched waxworks head in a shrink-rapped Zip-Lock bag," Porter Hightower told his best friend about the part in his dream the night before just as it was announced he was the all-time Drone-World Idol winner.  It was their favorite television game show.  Contestants scored points based on how many direct hits they racked up. 

            "DWI," Kenmore Westell reflexively offered on queue. 

            "Droning Wile Intoxicated!" Porter Hightower snapped back.  Even though they had done the routine since they were kids they both laughed. 

            Rebel Army leader Hunter Beafheart was in Helena, Montana to give a speech at the fair ground.  The boys snuck in the back way.  Beafheart was well known for his soaring oratory.  Mainstream media dubbed him "Blackheart". 

He began his speech the way he always did:  "Mr. President, I want to be the bullet that goes ripping through your brain!"

Kenmore Westell supposed the man could have promised them all "eternal salvation" and most folks would still remain suspicious of his motives.  Porter Hightower was curious though.  He and his best friend stood amidst the throng gathered to listen to the rebel leader speak with outlaw bandanas tied at the back of their heads to hide their faces from the swarm of government surveillance nanodrones that harassed the gathering.  Everyone heard the telltale buzz of the Predator drone that came in a few minutes after the speech began.  It hovered nearly a mile overhead just about out of sight.  In these parts Hunter Beafheart was no doubt at the top of the Feds most wanted list -- high value target # 1.  Townsfolk weren't idiots.  The otherwise hardened crowd quickly started to disperse.

            The impact of the Hellfire missile knocked Porter Hightower out cold for a couple of seconds.  When he opened his eyes the first thing he saw was the big, hazy sun hanging in the sky.  He sat up and looked himself over.  Everything checked out.  A few feet over his friend was hunched over on his hands and knees, apparently winded.  Hunter Beafheart's convoy looked like something out of Mad Max as it snaked out a side exit.  The boy was surprised the podium and stage were still intact.  They hadn't been touched.  "So where'd the missile hit?" he wondered.  When he turned to see the inferno that raged several blocks away his first thought was, "Not even close."  His second thought was: "Holy shit, that's my house!"

            With all the dead trees destroyed by the plague of pine beetles the town was a tinderbox.  Porter Hightower got to his feet, hopped the fence, and raced down the street as fast as his legs could carry him.  Officer Dollar's Mustang 5.0 Black-and-White was parked at a severe angle in the middle of the street.  The place was ablaze.  "Don't get any closer," the policeman warned.  "My mom and my sister are in there!" the boy yelled back.  Officer Dollar tried to grab him, but he yanked his arm away.  "They're all I got," he chocked back his tears, and tried for the front porch, but the flames were too hot. 

            His friend came up behind him out of breath.  Porter Hightower was bent over with his hands on his knees.  He sobbed uncontrollably.  Kenmore Westell wasn't exactly sure how best to console him and all he could think to do to soothe his best friend was to place his hand on the boy's back.  Officer Dollar worked the CB in his cruiser like he was trying to call in the whole damn army.  The wildfire was out-of-control.  Heavy wind didn't help.  None of them could stay put for too much longer.  Flames engulfed two more houses before the Fire Department showed up. 

            "In Version VII it definitely looks like the young administration is leaning more toward the 'counter-insurgency' strategy espoused by Top Cop Stalker Flogum," the reporter at the scene of the missile strike answered questions posed by the anchor back at the Internet Press Service studio.  "Unlike the past administration they have increasingly abandoned the idea of holding large population areas like major cities in favor of a plan to secure the vastly uninhabited terrain of exurbs and rural areas." 

            "So what's the mood out there like?" the anchorperson prodded.  "How effective do you think the new strategy is?"

            "Well I can tell you I've talked to a number of people," the IPS reporter answered.  "I'm getting mixed signals.  Two best friends I interviewed out here in Helena sum up the problem pretty well.  One of them, a fifteen-year-old boy who just witnessed his family burned alive by the latest drone strike, Porter Hightower, was devastated.  He blamed the attack on the US Government, and vowed to join the rebels.  His best friend, sixteen-year-old Kenmore Westell, on the other hand, blamed the presence of the rebel leader for the attack.  "If Hunter Beafheart wasn't in town," he said, "none of this would have happened."  He told me he wanted to join law-enforcement and put a stop to the insurgents so tragedies like this one would never happen again."

            The anchor was puzzled.  "Counter insurgency is all about winning 'hearts and minds' isn't it?"

            "And that's just the problem.  The success or failure of the current strategy is hugely dependent on who you talk to," the reported went on.  "Opponents of the policy claim with every drone attack gone wrong we are creating thousands of Porter Hightowers who cast their lot in with the rebel army.  Hard-line proponents claim it is a negligible price to pay in order to once-and-for-all exterminate these outlaw factions that threaten the government."

            "Best friends, did you say?" the anchor repeated, "Turned mortal enemies?"

            "That's what I'm seeing," the reported continued to insist.  "I asked the boys:  'If they met each other on the battle field would they hesitate to kill the other?'  I mean these two kids grew up together.  They are like brothers.  And neither one of the two hesitated when I asked.  Both said if it came down to it, neither would waver for a second.  They would kill each other for what they believed."

            "Any light at the end of the tunnel?" the anchor seemed to want to wrap the interview up on a more positive note.

            "Earlier today I talked with government officials who called the strike a resounding success," the reported tried her best to sound a little more upbeat.  "Apparently Helena officials were alerted by executives at the Drone-War Idol Cable Network that someone with a local IP address hacked into the show's leader-board and retrieved the personal information of top contestants.  They quickly passed the intelligence on to the Feds.  The government called it the perfect example of the symbiotic relationship between high-level agencies as they coalesce to face the new threat posed by the renegade rebel armies that are springing up all over the country.  'Rest easy,' Top Cop Stalker Flogum insisted.  He was adamant that the drone-attack was not a failed assassination attempt on Hunter Beafheart, it was only a coincidence that the rebel leader was only several hundred yards from the explosion, and that the mother and daughter who were killed were the real target. 

"The press-core was skeptical: 'Are you saying ten-year-old Jubilee Hightower, Porter Hightower's younger sister was the culprit?' one reporter asked.

"The question seemed to annoy the Top Cop.  'The mission was to take out a top-level rebel insurgent, and that's just what we did -- I don't know how old she was or what her name was,' Stalker Flogum forcefully concluded and stormed out of the press conference.  Word around the cooler was the reporter who asked the question had her government credentials pulled, and she was banned from all future press opportunities with high-ranking officials in the administration."


--Daniel Mendel-Black, copyright 2009

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October 24, 2009




            A nanodrone sat perched on the ceiling lamp of the broadcast booth across the room from Pirate Radio 1.  For the past couple of days the makeshift station, forced to move around quite frequently to avoid detection by the authorities, took up residence on the fifth floor of a bombed out building in downtown Cleveland, Ohio.  At two-and-half-inches in length a single robot like this one could easily hide itself in the shadows of such a dark space.  Its video signal was transmitted to an undisclosed location in a Nevada warehouse where Corporal Spaulding Ruby watched with anxious bated breath.  He wanted to make sure it was really Pirate Radio 1 before he put his fast-food sandwich down and dialed the phone. 

Top Cop Stalker Flogum picked up at the other end.  "We got a nanodrone into the radio station," Corporal Ruby reported, and waited for his orders.  "This time we got her," Flogum harrumphed.  "Upload the coordinates to the Internet."  He took a deep breath and whispered,  "She's dog meat." 

            "After the first shoe dropped," Pirate Radio 1 adjusted her microphone with her usual flair for unwavering vigilance, "Which, by the way, financial experts said would never happen, the economy was described as a kind of biped.  Those same experts were so sure the second shoe would never drop.  How quick they were to change the metaphor after it did fall off.  The US financial system was then re-imagined as some kind of cartoon-like centipede.  'Our economy is the biggest and strongest in the world, another ninety-eight shoes have to drop before we are in any real trouble,' the blowhards said and nervously lit their cigars.  And after the first hundred shoes dropped what did the economists say?  They started to compare the fiscal crisis to a millipede.  Nine hundred more shoes would have to drop and 'by golly,' they frothed, 'it can never happen.'  Well look around you folks.  It stopped raining shoes long ago.  These days the forecast is for Hellfire missiles."

            "You don't know how right you are," Corporal Spaulding Ruby thought.  Even though the low-resolution video stream of Pirate Radio 1 was choppy, he could see her pretty clearly.  Her eyes looked tired, but her lips were still very attractive.  He wiped the grease off his face with his sleeve and dragged his oily fingers across the lap of his pant-legs before typing in the numbers.  The government assassination list was as long as his arm, but they had been hunting Pirate Radio 1 for years now.  Dozens of times they thought they had her in their crosshairs only to learn they had taken out the wrong target.  Hundreds of people had died because of faulty intelligence or due to some other kind of human error, but there she was on the monitor.  Spaulding Ruby sat back in his chair.  It was only a matter of time before a contractor or some kid out there picked up the coordinates.  He fought back the adrenalin rush.  All the Corporal could do after broadcasting the nanodrone's position was sip his coffee and wait. 

            "So what's new in Drone Wars?" Pirate Radio 1 let the sarcasm flow.  "Let's peruse some of the reviews of Version VI.  'Nanodrones!' screams one headline.  'The new unmanned bee-like robots,' writes the author, 'are sure to inflame the imagination of any gamer.'  But that's not it folks.  We also have 'Tankerdrones!'  Automated giant floating beehives.  'Drones won't ever have to land again,' boasts the reviewer.  'The Tankerdrone is like a filling-station in the sky.' 

"So called 'consumer advocates' take a dimmer view.  The new features have definitely inflamed their imaginations and they want the manufacturer to know all about it.  Some of their requests include 'better handling', more 'realistic gore', more 'platform compatibility', and many more 'lethal' robots in their 'pull-down menu item choices'.  Apparently, the Nanodrones aren't deadly enough for them!  I'll spare the listeners the rest of their ghoulish list of shortcomings.  Instead I'll just read from little six-year-old Violet Kneehigh's last several diary entries..."

            Feedback stung the Corporal's ears when he flipped on the shortwave radio, but he was more than willing to suffer through it for a little while longer.  It was a good backup to the video evidence and would leave little doubt about the success or failure of the strike.  "Better safe than sorry," he figured, and besides, it would drown out most of what Pirate Radio 1 said so he wouldn't have to listen to all her depressing gloom-and-doom prognostications. 

            "Most people will probably remember the Kneehighs from the ill-fated, controversial missile strike called in by Cleveland Mayor-For-Life 'Cash' Friendly on his major political rival just before the last election.  Three other families were killed including the Kneehighs.  It was a scandal out here.  The election results were ultimately invalidated, but by that time it was pointless, the city was deemed ungovernable, and the mayor promptly relocated his office to his countryside getaway.

"Like so many other girls her age," Pirate Radio 1 paused for good effect, "Violet was very finicky about what she liked.  'I don't like games,' she writes early on in her diary.  'If you don't win everyone calls you a loser, and if you do win, I don't get it, it's just a dumb game.'  Her description of the siege of Cleveland is heartbreaking.  'Dad can't do anything to stop Mom from crying.'  At first she misses her favorite foods and shows.  'Mom says to eat what she gives me, but I want my cheese-puffs.  This morning she turned on the TV to show me, it wasn't because of her, but there was nothing on.  Mom flipped through the channels, but the screen just fizzed.  We played with the dog which was much better fun.'  In her next entry she writes: 'Each and every night is thunder and lighting even when it doesn't rain.  Dad says they are dropping bombs on us.  I'm scared.  I don't want to get blowed up.'  Only a few weeks later her entry reads: 'Mom says there's no food in the supermarket.  I can hear my stomach growl, I'm so hungry I could even eat eggplant, yuck.'  In one of her last entries she wrote: 'Metal bugs were on my pillow.  I wanted to touch one, but my dad said to get away.  I felt so tired I could hardly keep my eyes open.  He said to go faster but I couldn't.  We had to get out of the apartment right away.  I never heard him yell so loud.'  And then there's Violet's last entry..."

On another monitor Corporal Ruby could see exactly what the remote control operator saw as he or she honed in on the target.  He was genuinely impressed with the pilot's joystick chops.  Along the way the drone skillfully evaded a number of other automated robot planes that tried to take it out, and nimbly avoided the anti aircraft fire that came from the ground on its final approach.  He watched with perverse glee as the drone's rocket shot directly into the fifth floor apartment and exploded.  What was left of the building went up in flames. 

Pirate Radio 1 continued to read from the little girl's diary unabated.  "The last thing Violet wrote down was: 'Aunt Gloria is not my real aunt.  I hate her.  She has no food.  We haven't eaten for days.  Mom and dad are sad all the time.  Aunt Gloria has metal bugs too.  Mom has already killed three of them.  Last night I even dreamed I took a big bite from a great big frosted cupcake with lots of colorful sprinkles on top, but there was a metal bug inside it.  Gross!  I had to spit it out.'  Only moments later an Amsterdam youth in The Bulldog Cafe let rip the Hellfire missile that took out the Cleveland apartment and instantly vaporized little Violet Kneehigh, her family, and three other families."

Corporal Ruby Spaulding watched in terrified amazement as Pirate Radio 1 got out from behind her consul and walked in the direction of the nanodrone.  She held a small gadget in her hand and waved it in front of the bug's face.  "This little device I'm holding in my hand can detect a nanodrone a mile away.  The red button here," she pointed it out, "scrambles the GPS.  I pressed that one at the top of the hour.  The second," she held the piece of equipment up close to the miniature robot's electric eye, and pressed the blue one, "jams the video signal."

The broadcast booth overexposed, flared white, and tilted erratically on Corporal Spaulding Ruby's monitor.  He heard the buzzing sound of the nanodrone as it took to the air to try and escape, the clippety-clop of what must have been Pirate Radio 1's clogs on the hardwood floor as she chased it, and finally the thwack of what he could only imagine was a rolled up newspaper.  The video feed on his monitor went completely black. 

"The Rebels have a Robin Hood mentality," Top Cop Stalker Flogum dug his heels in.  He was hard-pressed to explain to the pressroom the abject failure of the latest drone strike on Pirate Radio 1.  Twenty-eight more innocent civilians were killed in pursuit of a target that was by-and-large recognized across the country as a grass-roots patriotic hero.  His options were severely limited.  Flogum stubbornly countered the general blowback from reporters with the career-man's last resort -- his hollow sense of pride. "We in the Federal Government and law enforcement," he pathetically stammered, "definitely do not have a Robin Hood mentality."


--Daniel Mendel-Black, copyright 2009

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October 18, 2009

Rebel Attack II



            Civilian wounds ranged from minor cuts and bruises to full on amputations.  There were broken bones, concussions and other head trauma.  Dr. Tulsa Phoenix had burn victims, patients with internal bleeding, lacerations, dislocations, and contusion.  Under the dimly lit medical tent there was nothing but innocent human flesh torn to shreds, exposed organs, compound fractures, blood, blood, and more blood.  The gore of bodies turned inside out by the close impact of drone missiles was beyond gruesome. 

Up there on the border between the United States and Canada, she was hundreds of miles from the nearest metropolitan hospital.  Tulsa Phoenix didn't have much help trying to put everything back the way it was supposed to go.  The doctor ran from patient to patient and did the best she could.  What stung her worst of all were the babies and little children she had to treat. 

            Despite her best efforts not to she locked eyes with a young man about her own age.  He had third-degree burns on his upper arm and an ugly gash on his forearm from the impact of a phosphorus bomb.  Like most of the people she was treating he was not from these parts.  After the release of Version V hoards of dislocated and destitute folks made their way to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to try and escape to Canada.  Refugees from all over the country numbered in the tens-of-thousands and they all had dire stories to tell about cities and towns under siege, or blown to smithereens. 

At first Tulsa Phoenix had frowned upon all these intruders into her quiet world.  No one ever came to The U.P.  The joke was that their little peninsula was left off the map.  So close to the northern border, they were like a forgotten people.  Her family had survived the harsh conditions along Lake Superior for generations.  U.P.ers were tough hard-workers, a bit defensive about their own self-worth, and when the refugees started amassing in the campgrounds outside of town, they were initially greeted with skepticism, disapproval, and sometimes, outright scorn.  In one case involving several drunken rabble-rousers a family of newcomers was even assaulted while they slept in their tent.

            All that changed when the local Commander Claymore Killinger made his first weekly broadcast on Armed Forces Television to announce the new features of Version V.  USPDs, National Guard, and Military drones were sanctioned to treat anyone caught aiding the refugees as "enemy combatants". 

Tulsa Phoenix tied the tourniquet tighter around the young man's arm and bit off the last suture.  He looked up at her with a kind of bewildered gratitude.  "The wound in my arm reminded me of the exposed cavity of a feathered and gutted raw chicken's puckered ass," he told her in an obvious state of shock and delirium.  His name, she learned, was Roman Forester, and he had driven all the way up from Atlanta with some friends after it got too dangerous to stay there.

            "Serviceable Intelligence?" Dr. Tulsa Phoenix mocked Major General Killinger's words.  "My derriere!"  The Field Commander gave his weekly litany of veiled and no so veiled threats.  Everyone -- doctors, nurses, and patients alike -- sort of laughed with guarded amusement when he announced he had "eyes and ears all over the world."  When he growled, "Anything moves out there, you name it, we can hit it with the most destructive and deadly weapons ever created," the medical tent erupted with angry hecklers.  Already back in September the National Guard began to load their drones with anything they could get their hands on.  Rumor was they started to dig up old munitions dumps to find weapons to drop on peoples' heads.  The phosphorous bombs were just the latest atrocity. 

            She couldn't put her finger on what exactly it was about the young man, but something attracted Dr. Tulsa Phoenix to Roman Forester, something about his energy that made him seem more present to her than anyone she had ever met before, a quality he seemed totally unaware of.  At the end of her shift she stopped by his bed and helped him to his feet.  Despite her advice to take it easy, he wanted to get back to his VW van.  "The gang will be worried," he explained.

And there was something else.  "Noticed anything different lately?"  Roman Forester asked.  They were standing in the high grass outside the medical tent by the lakeshore.  Above them the twilight sky was big and bowl-shaped.  Tulsa Phoenix's eyes scanned the horizon.  "Dog fights," she said.  It struck her that more often than not the automated robot drones looked like they were locked in mortal combat.  In fact, the morning before she had run from her house when it became abundantly clear to her an incoming remote control aircraft had her place pegged for a high-value target, only to see another unexpectedly fly in under it and chase the thing up into the sun. 

            Some likeminded soul had dumped several bundles of posters advertising the second Version Five Upgrade in a trashcan at the campground rest stop.  They fluttered in the cold autumn breeze that came off the water.  "Word spread quickly over the Internet and pirate radio that a subversive gangland outfit in Manhattan's Alphabet City figured out how to jailbreak the drones," Roman Forester read aloud as they walked down the narrow path.  Dr. Tulsa Phoenix shuddered and zipped her fleece jacket all the way up to the top of her neck.  "The government was forced to farm out the drones to private military contractors."  With a passionate flare she hadn't recognized in him before he balled the poster up and added, "What a load of bull!" 

The upshot was from the ground it was pretty much impossible to tell who flew which drone anymore.  A kid in Dublin might be chasing a war profiteer into a thunderhead, or a for-hire mercenary might be trying to protect some high-priority government infrastructure from a pimple-faced adolescent brat on a sugar-high in Tokyo.  And, if that wasn't bad enough, in a frantic attempt to protect their own front yard from the madness the US policy had unleashed, the Canadians were reluctantly dragged into the drone game.  Their automated robots manically buzzed overhead among the others. 

A flying robot arced wildly out of the sky in hot pursuit of another automated plane.  Roman Forester and Tulsa Phoenix had fun trying to guess which was whose.  They watched as the first remote-control aircraft dove straight down, threw its engine thrusters into reverse at the last minute, performed a daredevil spiral maneuver about 100 ft. above the face of the lake, and shot directly out of sight. 

            The "gang" as he so eloquently put it, looked more to her like a merry band of fashionable pranksters.  They all sat around with their laptops in their tangle of spaghetti wire, consoles, and mini-satellite dishes, like they were broadcasting some minor sporting event on the old network television, but somehow Dr. Tulsa Phoenix was pretty darn sure that's not what they were up to. 

"This is the good doctor that stitched me back together," he bashfully told them.  Introductions went all around.  After the formalities were over a pretty girl with long flaxen hair stood up and asked: "What should we do about the Canadian drones?  My initial analysis shows they're taking out about as many National Guard bots as we are."  Roman Forester thought about it for a short moment and casually concluded: "For now let's let them keep up the good fight."  Tulsa Phoenix couldn't help herself but give him a little smile.  As the sun came up she let him take her hand into his. 


--Daniel Mendel-Black, copyright 2009

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October 11, 2009

Rebel Attack



            Foreign NGOs rolled into Boulder with the first snow.  They had rice and water.  Manchild Elkhart sat in his truck at the back of the line.  The US Military hadn't let relief organizations in since the leaves turned.  Folks were desperate.  Most he recognized were rail thin.  Fights broke out sporadically ahead of him as friends and neighbors struggled over the meager handouts.  The days of the Jon-Benet Ramsey murder mystery case and sprawling golf course McMansions were ancient history.  "Bad times hit the city hard after the military blockade" the billboard tagline for Version IV boasted.  Manchild Elkhart adjusted his earphones and patiently waited his turn.  He was listening to pirate radio, and every once in a while, as his truck neared the front of the food line, he couldn't help himself but let out an incongruous giggle at the host's never-ending apocalyptic rant. 

            Pirate Radio 1 was having a field day at the young President's expense.  "It's like he's trying to ace some exam, but he's so damn sure the American people aren't the ones grading the test."  The radio personality let the words roll off her tongue slowly for full effect.  "Big business, corporate interests, tycoons, the military industrial complex.  You name it, anyone but the average Jane!"

            Three sacks of rice hit the bed of his pickup with a thud.  There was another 50 gallons of water stacked and tied against the back of the cab.  It wasn't enough to last through the winter, but the government wasn't about to let another NGO into the area till after the ice melted, so for a while it was all there was.  Manchild Elkhart knew what they would say when he pulled up to the mountaintop encampment with his pathetic haul.  They would rib the hell out of him is what they would do, because they all had him pegged for a soft touch.  It was all in good fun though because no one up there really expected the run into town to bring back very much.  The whole thing was kind of like a prank on him.  "Another winter of squirrel meat," he heard the rest of the gang joke.  Nobody put much stock in the NGOs.  Venison and quail were plentiful and the hothouse garden they worked through the winter months produced piles of vegetables.  More, in fact, than they knew what to do with. 

As his truck climbed higher and higher into the Rockies, Pirate Radio 1 was the only thing that kept his spirits up.  "According to Marshal 'Army' Archer's press statement after the Oval Office meeting 'I might as well have been telling the President Sloppy Joes were on the days lunch menu' was how the dyed-in-the-wool conservative put it."  Pirate Radio 1 escalated her rhetoric.  "The President can't tell his ass from his elbow."  Below him the city looked smaller and smaller.  On the final ascent the tires of his truck spun on the black ice as he tried to round a corner.  Eventually his four-wheel-drive bit into the asphalt and propelled him up the few hundred remaining feet to the top of the peak.  "Maybe if he could," she vented without mercy, "he could find his head, because I'm telling you it's not up his elbow!"

            "Not worth the gas for the trip," his older brother Jodhpur Elkhart dryly ribbed him.  The seven others went back to what they were doing.  They had manned the mountaintop guns for close to a year now.  All but Jodhpur were in History Class together when the first automated robot flew in low over the grassland behind the football field and interrupted the day's lecture with a blast of gunfire.  Students at Mountain High ducked under their desks to avoid the incoming rounds.  The whole thing was beyond insane.  Manchild Elkhart remembered the impact of the large caliber munitions as they smashed through the windows -- lots of his classmates got cut by the flying glass.  When his older brother got wind of the situation he piled everyone he could get his hands on into the back of his Jeep and raced over to their dad's sporting goods store.  No one knew what was going on.  All they knew was they were under attack, but by whom no one was sure.  Maybe the Communists, or the Anarchists, or some global Terrorist conspiracy was all anyone could figure. 

            For the first couple of months they watched in disbelief from their vantage point high atop the mountain as drones blew the living shit out of their town.  At the time it was simply inconceivable our own government would wage war on its own people, never mind that they could take the most extraordinary measures and farm their drones out to anyone with a high-speed Internet connection.  After the truth sunk in nobody really knew what to do, but everyone agreed that the drone attacks simply couldn't continue unchecked.  Their dad was eventually able to smuggle in some major firepower from friends out-of-state and town-members unanimously agreed the boys and their friends should do their best to shoot the damn things out of the sky.  And by all accounts for the last six months they had done a serviceable job.  Only one in three automated robot planes got past them.  It wasn't perfect, but folks on the ground had a better chance of saving their homes and businesses from the bombardment than they otherwise would. 

            But the fact of the matter was it wasn't nearly good enough.  The city was still suffering a major hurt.  Even with the reduced number of what the government boasted as "surgical strikes" both younger Elkharts knew full well Boulder was on the verge of extinction if they couldn't do any better. 

"Dude," Jodhpur Elkhart showed Manchild the two game stations he had set up in the field office while his younger brother was away on the supply run.  "Check it out!"  When the screen lit up Manchild was amazed to learn he was guiding some kind of aircraft over a city that was the virtual double of his hometown.  "Don't hold back," his older brother yelled over his shoulder.  "Go in like you want to take out one of the targets on the screen."  Manchild leaned back and gave his older brother a quizzical look, but was not immune to a sibling rivalry challenge when he got one.  He grabbed the joystick and aimed for the first target that he saw highlighted on the grid as a major priority insurgent hotbed -- their dad's shop.  The boy nosed the plane down and started to dive over the store when his left wing and thruster unexpectedly flamed out and ripped to shreds. 

"Busted," he heard his brother behind him yell out just before his screen went black.  "I just shot your butt out of the sky with another drone!"  Jodhpur exclaimed.  "Can you imagine the possibilities?"  The rest of the gang crowded into the small room where the brothers were sitting.  "No freaking way," Manchild was letting the full gravity of the discovery set in.  "We can fly these robots against each other?"  The revelation was incredible to all of them.  "What are we waiting for.  Let's go!"  The two of them adjusted their headsets and pivoted their joysticks with anxious anticipation. 

Pirate Radio 1 ratcheted up the level of rhetoric a couple of more notches.  "Not that Marshal 'Army' Archer is any kind of American hero," she sputtered.  "The traitor should get hung in the public square upside down by his balls!" 

With those words Manchild Elkhart eased himself forward in his chair, and tightened his grip on the trigger.  His brother did the same.  Both of their monitors flickered back to life.  Together they turned their automated planes around and flew them in the opposite direction back towards where they came from.  Any flying robot tin can they passed along the way they shot out of the sky.  The air-wars were on!  "Look out folks," Manchild said blasting away.  "Coming Through!"

The two of them circled the city a couple of times more, and confident they had cleared the area for the time being and had shot down all the other unmanned military aircraft, they turned on each other and blew their respective National Guard drones out of the sky.  Manchild fell over backwards in his chair he was so giddy with pleasure over his older brother's discovery that they could control the aerial government robots from their laptops.  The others hooted and hollered cheers of victory.  Face up on the floor Manchild couldn't remember when he had ever felt so happy before.


-- Daniel Mendel-Black, copyright 2009

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October 04, 2009

Manhattan Burns

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            Level Three was timed for the holiday rush.  The promotional material explained that the NYPD was desperate to police a "lawless" city.  Incredibly undermanned and under funded as the department was, they were forced to take the same drastic measures as a number of other major metropolitan cities had already done, and join ranks with the National Guard to make their crime-fighting drones available on the Internet.  New features included a floating city in the mouth of the East River called New Brooklyn that was as long and wide as two-dozen aircraft carriers and twice as tall.  "Except for a number of suspected insurgent strongholds," Smalls Hawkins read, "Manhattan is a Ghost Town!"  His expression soured into a tight smile when he read the coy hints of a number of other added features that were sure to make it the most "challenging" version ever.

            Chicago was fresh on his mind.  His nephew told him what happened there.  The city was nearly burned to the ground.  It wasn't like he had to imagine it.  Some kids from Berlin had already hacked the NYPD drones a couple of days earlier and they were having a field day over Midtown.  The Chrysler Building was taking monster hits -- with each new run great big chunks of glass and steel were carved off the building and the debris rained down on the street like the crashing walls of melting glaciers.  He folded the leaflet up, shoved it into his pants pocket, and put on his coat.  A drone had gone down by the Flatiron Building and they wanted him to check it out. 

The express was the fastest way to get cross-town.  Watching the local stations flash by he tried to remember before things had got so ugly.  There was the time when he ran into Allan Ginsburg chanting in Tompkins Square Park.  The man made no sense whatsoever.  He was just making sounds like singing music without words.  There was the first time he had gone to the Cat Club down by Canal and had fallen in love with the dancer there, the flee-bag hotel on the Bowery he had holed up in when he moved out of the house after graduation.  But mostly all he could think of were the hard times after things got bad.  Budget cuts, layoffs, evictions, fewer and fewer services available to more and more people who needed them, riots, and finally the desperate and severe measures taken by city officials to try and regain control over the situation.  He got off at Union Station with a heavy heart and trudged up to street level.   

            A young man in plain clothes directed him through the cordon of blue uniforms to the downed drone.  "What do you make of it?" he asked after Smalls Hawkins had given it a once over.  The unmanned remote control plane was shouldered into the side of the building clearly damaged by the impact of the crash landing.  It was obvious to any rookie it had been hit by several rounds of anti aircraft artillery in the mid-section and tail, but none of the investigators believed that was what had downed the plane.  NYPD already knew people out there were shooting back with some pretty sophisticated firepower, but the tin can in question wasn't even hit that bad.  "We've seen plenty worse make it back okay," the young officer said.  There had to be another explanation and he clearly was clueless.  "How does one of these buckets go down?" he wanted to know "without someone shooting it out of the sky?" 

            Another officer Smalls Hawkins recognized from his days on the force stepped under the array of incandescent lights they had trained on the fuselage of the drone.  Both had worked a case together way back when in Spanish Harlem.  The man's name was Alejandro Chomsky.  "I checked with PD all over the country, with National Guard, and Military.  None of them has seen anything like this before," the snub-nosed Chomsky said flatly without any notable emotion. 

            "Most of the kids flying these drones don't even have a driver's license," Smalls Hawkins replied.  "The rest are probably high on drugs or liquor."  He turned to face the officer in charge and pulled out the wrinkled advertisement he had pocketed earlier.  "Read it," he said.  "Pay close attention to the last bullet point.  Where it says how the software developers promise a new twist."  He pointed to the bottom line.  "Frankly, I'm amazed it doesn't happen more often," he added.  The new specs boasted more targets than ever before.  "Think about it, Chomsky," he said and turned to walk away.  "This isn't a few neighborhood insurgents fighting back with peashooters, anymore.  You tell me what that last line means.  I'm guessing the hire-ups in the department have to sign off on the advertising campaign.  What are these new features?"

            The walk home was glum.  Smalls Hawkins knew full well what the last line in the brochure meant.  Someone out there had figured out how to jailbreak the drones from their prescribed flight paths.  The question was: What did Chomsky know?  And if he did have a sneaking suspicion Hawkins was somehow involved, why did he pretend not to?  "Was it some kind of test?" he wondered.  "Was the department playing him?  Did they know he knew a lot more than he was letting on?"  Ten blocks south the NYU campus was taking it hard.  A NYPD drone put a hole in the side of the Math and Science Quad.  Another came in afterwards.  Then another.  They could blow the shit out of the university for all he cared.  As far as he was concerned the place was nothing but an abandoned eyesore.  Did his old colleagues still keep tabs on him?  He wondered.  Probably.  Why not?  The department never threw out a file that didn't incriminate them.  He tried to figure every angle, turned it around in his head, but came up empty.  Even if they had a tail on him, there was no way they could know he was the one who scuttled the drone.

Hawkins got off the elevator, threw his coat on the couch, riffled through the mail, fed the cat, and sat down in front of the computer.  His office window looked out over the expanse of New Brooklyn.  The steel ramparts of the floating city glinted in the moonlight.  As he stared out the window watching gulls circling over a heap of garbage washed up on the opposite shore his father's favorite admonition came to mind: "Deeds not words." At the present rate drones would blow the city to rubble by the following week.  He knew once he pressed the button there was no turning back. He would initiate a set of reactions he could not take back. It was obviously not an easy decision. He weighed the pros and cons. No sense in waiting for the release date, he decided. Better to stop these aerial attacks before the kids got tired of blowing up the Village and Midtown. After a while he turned back to his monitor, took a deep breath, blew on his hands and gingerly brought his fingers down on the keyboard.     


-- Daniel Mendel-Black, copyright 2009

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