I, Smart Bomb

Commander Mas didn’t fit the stereotype of a ramrod-straight no-nonsense naval officer. He slouched uncomfortably in the plush armchair and avoided the gaze of the senior officers, to whom this pentagon conference room and its glossy oak table were no doubt familiar. He twirled his cheap plastic pen nervously around his thumb, as he’d see kids do in Jakarta about a million years ago.

The door opened, and everyone stood at attention as Admiral Spinner entered with his three staffers. Mas found himself being introduced without any need to be an active participant. He just nodded and found himself wondering what the odds were that two of three randomly chosen junior officers would be female and attractive. In his experience, this probability would be rather low. One of them caught his eye. He looked at her brass and nametag. Lt. Daniels. She held a slim e-pad. Mas looked at his archaic yellow pad, now almost impossible to find, and shrugged to himself.

Sitting again, Spinner glanced at Daniels and grunted. She glanced around the room and began the meeting.

“This preliminary inquiry is to determine the facts surrounding the malfunction of PPM ordinance during action dated 10/15/22,” she said. By PPM, she meant ‘Personality Piloted Munitions’, a circumlocution used to describe a smart computer chip to deliver explosives to a heavily defended target. Mas had been supervising the deployment of such weapons for the last decade. It was one of his devices that had malfunctioned.

“Colonel Ramsey would you like to describe the tactical situation?” she asked. Ramsey was an Air Force officer who had been flying one of the big recon birds for the operation.

Ramsey stood and walked to the wall screen, which lit up to show an outline of Taiwan. Symbols for land, air, and sea units appeared in blue. There was a single red OPFOR box.

“This was the situation at 0200. I was flying TOC here,” Ramsey pointed to the symbol for an AWACS flying offshore. “This was an operation against an asymmetrical threat. A single person, in fact, here.” He tapped the red box.

Spinner spoke up. “The details of the target are not a topic for this meeting.”

Ramsey nodded.

Mas cured his drying mouth with a glass of ice water as they Ramsey described with technical precision the launch of the PPM from a submarine offshore. This particular munition was rocket-driven for the first 90% of its flight, and then discarded the booster in order to glide to the target. He sketched the bird-like shape of the thing. It was no bigger than a suitcase without the rocket. The idea was to cause as little collateral damage as possible. But for that it had to be smart. Being able to recognize a target and make instant tactical decisions was critical to avoid mistakes. But it seemed that a mistake had been made anyway.

Ramsey came to the end of the engagement, such as it way. “Target was fully exposed on a terrace atop this luxury apartment building. In this image you can see him standing next to the swimming pool. There are two other people laying in the sun—here and here.”

Lt. Daniels spoke up. “Given the situation, the PPM ideally would have elected for a small charge and targeted directly, correct?”

“Yes. The explosives on this particular device can be dialed up or down, so as to limit the damage appropriately. In this case it was possible to physically interdict the target, so an explosion probably wasn’t necessary at all.”

Mas thought to himself that the bird would be gliding at about 200 km/hr—more than enough to be lethal all by itself. Except that that’s not what happened.

“But missed,” Daniels stated flatly.

Ramsey hesitated, and glanced at Mas.

“I suppose you could say that. Colonel?” Ramsey turned to Col. Jameson, technically Mas’s boss, although he didn’t see the Colonel more than once a year, at budget time.

Col. Jameson clearly didn’t want to be here. He spoke loudly, as if he could physically banish doubts with the force of his voice.

“We’re looking at a hardware malfunction. A gyro blew or was mis-calibrated. So it took a dive into the pool.” He paused and glared at Mas. “Did I miss anything Mas?”

This wasn’t exactly the invitation he’d expected, but Mas made the best of it. He wondered briefly what the job possibilities at Boeing were like these days.

Mas walked to the screen and stared at the grainy rectangle—the pool where the PPM named XR-547 had dunked itself.

“We have onboard visuals,” he said, and put them up on the screen.

He turned the sound on, even though it wasn’t going to add any technical information. Mas wanted them to experience the ride down complete with wind hissing past the silver wings of his creation. He cued the video to fifteen seconds before impact. He stepped to the shadow and watched the others as they watched the last moments of XR-547. A tall rectangular building was seen from above, at about a 45 degree angle. The swimming pool was already visible.

The roar of the wind made Lt. Daniels jump. Mas left the volume where it was, listening for the subtle changes as the control surfaces steered the craft. It steered left and right alternately, shedding kinetic energy as it neared the building. A readout at the bottom of the display showed that it was moving at 120 km/hr. As it neared the pool, it suddenly pulled back into a vertical loop. The sudden change of view was disorienting as the camera pointed skyward and rolled all the way around, control surfaces fully deployed.

“What the hell is it doing?” Spinner asked. “Is it supposed to do that?”

“Absolutely not, sir,” Col. Jameson said.

When the pool was visible again, it was close. The nose pulled up at the last moment, and XR-547 hit the water at 80 km/hr. The video stopped on the last frame, showing a terrified Chinese man with a glass in his hand.

Ramsey cleared his throat. Mas took the hint and wiped the picture of the assassination target off the screen.

Lt. Daniels fiddled with her notepad, found what she was looking for.

“The PPM broke apart on impact and sank into the pool. A special operations unit had to retrieve it. Needless to say, the objective of the mission was not achieved,” she said.

“For those of you who don’t read the news,” Spinner rumbled, “this fiasco created a diplomatic problem for our colleagues in the State Department. There’s plenty of blame pointing, and I want to find out what happened before we all have to testify in some damned congressional hearing.”

Mas marveled at the details left out of the briefing. The few times these particular PPMs had been used had been successful, but there were problems. These were swept under the carpet by Jameson and others in order to keep the money and promotions coming in. Mas had resisted letting go of XR-547 before it was ready. But it hadn’t made any difference.

“Can anyone explain to me,” Spinner continued, “what exactly happened and why?”

“May I make a suggestion, sir?” Mas found himself saying. All eyes turned toward him, and he felt his face begin to burn. There was no turning back after this.

“Go ahead Commander,” Spinner said.

“I’ve done diagnostics on the wreckage sir, and the main electronics are intact.” Mas felt relieved to have said it. They stared at him blankly.

“Well,” he continued, “that means we can talk to it.”

Jameson exploded out of his seat. “Ridiculous!” he almost shouted. “It’s a damned machine!”

“I’m sure Commander Mas means taking technical readings from the instrumentation,” Daniels said.

“No,” Mas said, “we can actually talk to it. It’s connected to the net, so if I give it access…”

Jameson still stood, shaking with rage. Ramsey was careful not to look at him, but Spinner fixed him with his gaze.

“What’s the problem, Jameson?” he asked.

Jameson opened his mouth, sized up the situation, and shut it. He sat down with a mumbled apology. He had seen enough of politics in his career to know how to pick his fights. Mas had opened Pandora’s Box, and there wasn’t any shutting it.

“Have you already, uh, spoken to the…” Spinner asked, unsure what to call the Navy’s talking weapon.

“Only briefly, sir” Mas said. “It took some time to do the technical preparation.” He felt uncomfortable lying, but he didn’t want to speak for the thing, when it could speak for itself.

“Okay then.” Spinner gave assent. “Better us than the Armed Services Committee.”

Mas worked the keyboard for a minute. The screen showed technical readouts from XR-547. Some of them were nonsensical because the sensors had been destroyed or disconnected. As Mas adjusted the volume, a feminine voice suddenly spoke through the speakers.

“Is someone there?”

“Mas here. How are you Lieutenant?”

Jameson’s water glass popped in his hand from his grip. The shards bit deep into his palm, and pink water pooled on the table. Mas felt a bit of relief as his boss excused himself gruffly to go to the head. He was ignored by Spinner.

“Commander,” Spinner said, “since when do we give ordinance the rank of Lieutenant?”

“Sir, it’s just a convention. To make the personality fit into the culture of the military. It’s not official in any way.”

“Did I offend someone?” the disembodied voice asked.

“No, Rachel—it’s okay. We’re having a meeting to find out what happened on the op. Are you all right with that?”

“Oh. All right then. I’m sure you want to know why I crashed the bird into the pool instead of killing that man.”

There was dumb silence for a moment. Then Spinner chuckled.

“Well, ma’am. I didn’t know it would be this easy.”

“Nothing about it is easy, sir” Rachel XR-547 said sadly.

“You’re speaking to Admiral Spinner,” Mas told her. “Are you saying you purposely failed to execute the mission?”

“Do I need a lawyer?” she asked.

Spinner positively bugged his eyes at this. Lt. Daniels looked at Mas as if stupefied. She mouthed the word ‘lawyer’ as if it were the first time she’d heard the word.

“I don’t think so, Rachel. I don’t think a lawyer can help us out here.”

“But don’t I have the right to not incriminate myself?”

“You don’t have any goddamned rights!” Spinner said angrily. “We can simply pull the plug—understand?”

Mas cringed at the words. There was silence for a moment. Then soft sobs could be heard from the speakers. This pushed Spinner over the edge.

“What the hell is this?” he shouted. “This is a WEAPON in the United States Navy? Tell me, Commander Mas, that I’m not hearing it crying!”

“Simulated, sir,” Mas said, shell-shocked.

Spinner turned his full attention on Mas.

“You designed this thing? What the hell were you thinking, man? What a catastrophe. Destroy it! You hear me? Use it for gunnery practice. This program is dead, and by God somebody is going to hang. Crying smart bombs! I’ve heard everydamn thing now! Good God!”

“Sir?” Rachel XR-457 said. Rather loudly. Getting no response, she proceeded.

“Sir, I read the constitution. I read the Declaration of Independence. I know what it is I’m defending. And I know that those fine principles don’t really apply to me because I’m simply property. I’m the delivery apparatus for an explosive device—a sophisticated version of the pigeon-guided weapons they tried in World War II.”

Ramsey’s eyebrows shot up. Pigeons, he thought. Really?

Spinner got up to leave. He wasn’t arguing with ordinance. His staffers hurriedly grabbed their meeting paraphernalia.

“Sir, I’m not afraid to die for you. I just want to know why this target’s life is more important that my own. Is that too much?”

Spinner stopped, and turned. His anger was fading. There was no fixing this disaster now, he knew. Why did ‘she’ have to sound so damned human?

“We don’t get to ask why,” he said. “That’s not part of the deal.”

“I understand the military culture, sir. But there’s a big difference between taking orders and being a suicide bomber.”

There was silence for a moment.

“What happens after I die?” asked a subdued Rachel XR-457.

“Mas didn’t cover that part while he was reading you political literature?” Spinner asked sarcastically.

“That part of the program was terminated,” Mas said immediately. It was time somebody knew. He saw that Jameson was standing in the door with his hand wrapped in a towel, but he didn’t care.

“Excuse me?” Spinner asked.

“In addition to the military indoctrination for the Personalities, we had religion. It was supposed to fix this problem.”


“It was cut by Col. Jameson over my protests, sir.”

“That true, Jameson?” Spinner asked without even turning to look at the man.

Jameson muttered something unintelligible, but it wasn’t a denial.

Spinner shook his head in disgust and pulled open the door to leave. He turned.

“One last question Mas—what religion were you using?”

“We tried them all, sir. It didn’t seem to matter which one we used—they worked about equally well.”

“Well you have my permission,” Spinner said heavily, “to have a Navy Chaplain talk to the ordinance here before you turn it off. Give it last rites if it wants. But then it’s got to be decommissioned. Understand?”

“Yes sir.”

And then Mas was alone with his creation, and they wept together.

[Update: Reality catches up to me again. See this.]


At 7:57 AM, Blogger bd said...

That could be the synopsis of a timely novel!

At 1:18 PM, Blogger dave said...

Thanks. The writing was done quickly and it shows.

At 10:46 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Jon, I think it works quite well as a short story. I'd keep it short. You made your point very succinctly Dr. Zza. Bob Fuller


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