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We were flying at the shuttle’s top speed, which was, scientifically speaking, ridiculously fast. I have instructed the ship to approach the Arabella and hold as far as it was practical for its optical sensors to resolve enough detail, so we could see if they are getting any drones ready. 

My brilliant idea was to dive underwater far enough so we are not detected in infra-red. Then we could sneak in undetected, suddenly emerge and try to shove the drones overboard or disable them as fast as we could then break away before the Iranians had the time to detonate the bomb. If we get that far, we could see what we could do about the ship itself. Possibly to submerge again and disable a propeller or something. Most likely that would be a good time to call Israeli air force for a strike. They would have no problem believing us at that point, after what happened close to the US east coast. Most likely they would be on high alert already. But on the off-chance the terrorists weren’t aware of the other team’s fiasco yet, we should try to keep the surprise factor working for us.

It was a good plan, as such things go, but utterly irrelevant. When we flew in close enough to see the ship on the shuttle’s screens, we could see four construction drones in various stages of readiness, standing in a row on top an improvised deck of several levels of cargo containers. The first drone was already spinning its four propellers, clearly ready to fly any moment now. The second one right behind it looked just as ready to fly, and the other two were being in the final stages of assembly: four arms unfolded and bolted to the fuselage, props attached and locked in place. Two people were performing what looked like some last-moment tweaking and rushed pre-flight checks on them. They looked very agitated and were definitely trying to finish whatever they had to do as soon as humanly possible.

Every one of the four drones was hugging a nondescript shipping container under its belly with their hydraulic arms. The containers fit snugly in their steel embrace, as if the drones were built for that. Which, in fact, they were: such drones routinely carry all kind of standard container-sized cargo: temporary housing, industrial generators, small-scale micro nuclear power generation modules, solar energy battery banks, and other such things. Any one or possibly two of them may contain a nuclear device. 

It depended on how convinced the terrorists were that their part of the plan was blown. Even if they were told of what happened to their brethren off the American coast, they still could not be sure that it wasn’t a fluke, a local counter-intelligence operation or an accidental discovery. If that was the case, I would bet only one container had a live bomb in it, and the other three were the decoys, but there was no way to check my hypothesis, and all four drones could take off at any moment.

I was struggling with the situation, feeling a trickle of cold sweat running down my spine from the sickening sensation of time irreversibly running out and a desperate me, not being able to come up with a feasible plan of action. The air got more and more tense and silence was so deafening that it screamed at me, and I didn’t know what to do. 

Only in Hollywood blockbusters heroes often risk certain death without thinking twice. I knew that I would have to decide to act within minutes if not seconds, and if I decide to try and ram the drones with my ship, there was a very real possibility of the remote detonation of the device by the terrorists, and while my death would be quick and painless, it was absolutely inevitable. 

The Iranians had a sort of an extra weird MAD doctrine working against us, although unlike the Cold War times, Mutually Assured Destruction would not work as a deterrent with an enemy who is perfectly willing to die for the cause. I knew that if I ram them I could die, and I knew that with a high degree of probability. The problem with that was that I very much wanted to live, preferably a long and fulfilling life. Yes, I know. It may sound meek to confess that, when millions of lives were at stake, but I was not prepared to give my insignificant life away, even if I would be immortalized in poems, songs and motion pictures. My existence may not matter much in the grand scheme of things, but I was rather attached to it. I would much prefer to be a living geek rather than a dead hero. But I could not live with myself if I end up being a coward, failing to stop a preventable terrorist attack. I was standing there, torn, frozen and unable to think rationally. 

Think rationally. These very words were floating on top of my mind, like a life preserver thrown to a drowning man. I desperately tried to calm down and force myself to analyze the problem the way I always do. 

Define the problem, split it into manageable chunks, separate facts from emotions and unfounded assumptions, and find solutions for those sub-problems. Then start implementing them and work up to solving the main problem, which usually looks much less intimidating at that point. This approach had never failed me yet. Well, with possible exception of trying to endear that girl last year. I absolutely refuse to disclose the embarrassing details of that fiasco, nor would they be particularly interesting, but let’s just say that my problem-solving approach fails miserably when applied to women and relationships. Women’s mind is a sort of a black box: data goes in, some logic is applied to it, conclusions are made and acted upon. There is definitely logic there, possibly the logic of a higher order that I’m capable of,  I just can’t figure it out no matter how hard I try. The only glimmer of reason is in itself irrational: it seems to me that when facing problems, women in general do not want solutions – they want compassion instead. That clashes with my worldview and I have realized it too late to save that relationship from a flaming wreck it ended up with. Tia was the first girl whose logic I could understand. There was something special there. 

But I digress now, just as my mind was stalling and procrastinating from making a life-critical decision then. Thinking about a systematic problem-solving routine did calm me down though, and I finally started thinking rationally. These were the facts I had to confront: 

One: The drones were going to take off very soon. Any moment now.

Two: I wanted to live, therefore ramming the drones and risking to die in a nuclear explosion was to be avoided at all costs. 

Three: I had to stop them. All four of the drones, plus the ship. Failing to do that was simply not an option. 

Four: I did not have any large-caliber long range weapons to disable the drones, while keeping my distance, which is what I needed to do.

So, the problem seemed unsolvable, but there must have been a solution, I just had to think outside of the box. Hmm. I didn’t have a weapon. But what if I had one? I did have a ship that could be a weapon. But I didn’t want to die with the ship. So was there anything else that could become a weapon lacking the unfortunate side-effect of having me inside?

“Ship! Those are not military drones – they are construction equipment. So their radio comms are not hardened. Can you hack the remote control protocol?”

“I have studied the schematics and programming of those construction drones,” the ship replied the moment I have finished asking the question, “They are modular and are designed to easily mate with any radio control from the same brand. Communication encryption is weak, and all the drone needs to mate with the radio transmitter is to have their serial number and activation code entered into the remote controller. I have the serial numbers from the cargo manifest, and I have just hacked the DJI servers and obtained the activation codes for those serial numbers. That’s the good news. I’m afraid I do have some bad news for you as well.” 

The ship was sounding more and more like a person. Using idioms and all. It was a bit unsettling but that was the last of my problems at the moment. I will take “A bit unsettling” over “quick fiery death in a nuclear apocalypse” any day.

“What’s the bad news?” Tia interjected. Her voice was tense as a well-tuned string and she was clearly impatient, visibly forcing herself not to lose control. She would clearly prefer a dense and information-rich military speak than a banter of a retired university professor, riddled with idioms and clever long words.

“The first drone is already mated with its radio transmitter and  cannot be remotely disconnected. However I can emulate a radio remote controller and take full control over the other three drones. Would it help?”

That was it. My solution.

“Do it now!” I screamed, just as the first drone was taking off. I was scared shitless that it was too late and the ship won’t be able to take over with all its talking. The possibility was too good to be true, and if it worked, I would feel in control and finally, for once, doing what I knew well how to do, instead of feeling like a kid forced to do a grown-up’s job.

“Control frequencies jammed… Tight beam projected… Control emulation initiated… Receiver and transmitter mated successfully. Receiving telemetry and visual. Routing to neural interface. You have full control. Awaiting further instructions.”

I grabbed my wrinkled red baseball cap, and shoving it on my head. At that moment a panoramic window had materialized in front of me, showing the view from the drone’s camera. The window was following my head movements, giving me full 360 degrees field of view. And I could still see the joystick and the rest of the ship above and below the drone’s view. It was way better than any VR goggles I have ever piloted my drones with. The resolution was still plain old 4K, nothing close to the alien recordings, as it was limited to the drone’s camera. But the field of view and overall feel was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The telemetry data was overlaid on top of the video, indicating airspeed, radar altimeter, ultrasonic collision sensors, battery charge and other less important info. Above the main video there was a window with the satellite image showing our annotated locations, and distance to shore, with helpfully colored lethal blast zones. We were getting frighteningly close to the yellow zone. I didn’t have time to try and decipher what the yellow zone meant, but I bet it was nothing good. And the red zone wasn’t far behind. I quickly familiarized myself with the interface and felt hope creeping back into my mind.

“Now we’re talking!” I said triumphantly. “Disengage shuttle’s manual controls, keep us at a safe distance in case of detonation, and map control functions for the second drone to my joystick. Slave third and fourth drone controls to the second, with the delay of two seconds. Disable collision avoidance systems for the second drone, if you can.” 

The collision sensor readings have gone red and started blinking. Everything else was reading green all over the board. Good.

I mentally tied a Hachimaki around my head, with a red sun disc on the front, surrounded by kami and kaze hieroglyphics on its sides. After all, leaving aside not actually being in the cockpit, or rather being in the wrong cockpit, that is what I had become.

A “divine wind”. A kamikaze pilot.

4 Comments
  • Konstantin
    Posted at 09:02h, 14 November Reply

    Just an idea.
    Dummy container should have different weight. Three drones flying according to the same instructions should behave differently. It should be possible to determine which of them has the head.

    By the way.
    It is interesting idea on the detonation of nearby nuclear missile heads if one of them detonates.
    Modern heads have boosters. They are not only detonated by explosives that squeeze the plutonium ball, but also a beam of neutrons is initiated by small accelerator to increase the power.
    Therefore if an explosion gives enough neutrons it can detonate the heads around even without compression.
    Though timing is important.

    • roman
      Posted at 02:55h, 27 December Reply

      Advanced drones interpret control movements not exactly as throttle, pitch, roll and yaw incremental changes but as a pilot intended orientation. The difference is somewhat like Boeing 737 classic vs Airbus A320 or 737 Max controls. In other wirds, fly-by-wire computer-assisted vs direct manual control: autopilot does what needs to be done to get the response and position you are indicating. For example (I’m simplifying here) if you tilt the pitch control 5% forward it is not interpreted as “keep increasing pitch slowly until stick is released”, but as “increase pitch by 5% degrees and hold until stick position is changed”. Therefore the drone will behave almost exactly the same way. Autopilot would compensate for the weight difference by more agressive throttle changes and so on.

      From what I read detonation still needs perfect timing. All missile interceptors rely on destroying the missile or warhead without worrying about nuclear detonation.

  • KONSTANTIN
    Posted at 21:32h, 01 January Reply

    What if I ask a drone to change altitude from 100m to 150m and back. Will the empty and loaded react the same way? The response time should be different even with any autopilot.

    • roman
      Posted at 16:24h, 29 April Reply

      It depends on many factors, but if we assume that a construction drone would have a large power reserve to carry loads much heavier than itself, so they would have a built-in limiter in order to avoint too sudden altitude changes. Then the difference would be negligible. Autopilot in an airplane like 737 is typically programmed to descent or ascent with a specific vertical speed (pilot can set it on the autopilot panel), which it tries to achieve fast and maintain contantly until it reaches pre-set altitude. So heavier drone might initially accelerate slower, but with ample power reserve it will be almost identical. Ascent or descent speed would be fixed in a construction machine. The algorythms regulating vertical speed would be internal and not user-adjustable, to avoid user error.

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