First Mission ANDR12 [Short Story]
First Mission ANDR12 is a near future speculative fiction short story about the first mission of the Autonomous Networked Dynamic-learning Robots, or ANDRs for short. First Mission is set an unspecified time a decade or two into the future and in a generic counterinsurgency in an unspecified African country, somewhere in the greener belt between Sierra Leone and Kenya.
I’ve written a bit more about the background to the ANDR featured in First Mission over on my military focused blog Hot Blood & Cold Steel.
NB this is a first draft, there may be typos, inconsistencies and bits that don’t really help the narrative. If you are feeling generous please call them out in a comment and I’ll use that when I edit the story.
Otherwise, please enjoy.
First Mission ANDR12
The Merlin lifted imperceptibly and tilted nose down. It dived down off the tower block to rooftop level over the urban sprawl. Smoking chimneys, solar panels and corrugated iron roofs flashed past, with glimpses of vehicles over the roads.
Small arms fire rattled off the bottom and port side as the Merlin zoomed past a shanty town on the outskirts.
“Cheeky fuckers” the door gunner fired two short bursts back at the source of the gunfire.
“Roger.” Flares and smoke shot out either side of the rear of the Merlin.
“Hold tight. Manoeuvring.” The pilot jinked the Merlin left and right, descending and kicking up dust and rubbish from the ground.
The incoming rocket left a trail of sparks coming towards them.
Two more puffs of grey smoke betrayed further launches before the Merlin’s ejected smoke obscured the shanty town behind them.
The helicopter jinked to port, and the first RPG whooshed past. It exploded in a cloud of light grey smoke far ahead of the Merlin.
Two more RPGs streaked out of the smoke, clearly silhouetted against the white background. Both were to starboard of the Merlin. The pilot jinked starboard after they’d passed to bring the Merlin back onto the right course.
Below the ground blurred past, changing from scrubland into ploughed fields, from green to brown. The pilot taking evasive action to avoid the trees and taller bushes. The loadie and the door gunner started tossing six inch cubes out of the open door.
“Drop off in ten. We’re going to make some simulated drops before hand. Also the two ‘rovers will go out before you.” The Loadie spoke over the intercom.
There were two vehicles taking up most of the cargo bay. At the back our small patrol of eight soldiers and two robots watched the flight through our head up displays.
The Merlin had headed out farther than we needed and would drop us off on its way back to the city. The cubes were the fog of war. Small portable mesh networking to allow us to stay in contact on our patrol. We were looking for the overnight stop of an insurgent leader. If we found her we’d take her prisoner and call the cavalry for extraction. If not, we’d walk home next week.
“Change of plan. We’re going out first” Jimmy said.
We unbuckled and secured our bergens and weapons. Jimmy shuffled down the side of the cargo bay, past the vehicles. The crews gave him the thumbs up and smiled. We followed.
“Two minutes to LZ.”
The Loadie stopped passing the fog cubes to the door gunners. She hooked on next to the door controls and opened the rear ramp.
The helicopter slowed noticeably, although it still flew faster than you could drive on the roads in this country.
Our patrol all held onto the interior webbing of the Merlin. Jimmy had his feet on the ramp and crouched to see to the sides. Macie did the same on the other side of the ramp. I was at the back, on Jimmy’s side of the queue. I had one hand on the front bonnet of the forward rover.
The rotors flared, dust obscured the view from the external cameras. I held tighter as the deceleration threatened to throw me back down the cargo space.
Jimmy and Macie ran off the end of the ramp, and jumped. The others followed, including me. I landed still running, the Merlin hadn’t landed or even stopped. As I turned round to look at it the Merlin sped back up, and climbed a few feet.
We’d been landed on what appeared to be a wide stretch of dirt track. It was mostly hard packed ground covered in low grass. Patches of animal dung and tracks leading back to the city suggested it was a drovers’ way. No natives were within sight, on any of the frequencies I could scan with.
A route popped up on my HUD. We moved off the drovers way and picked up speed. The LZ was midway between two villages, neither listed as likely hiding places for our target. We were 34 kilometres from the city, and close to the edge of the settled zone. The villages were every couple of kilometres between us and the city. From here on out they gradually grew further apart, and the bush got closer.
We did just over 2 klicks in 15 minutes, fully laden. Jimmy made the hand signal for all round defence and we flopped down in a circle just off the left of the path we’d followed. Alert and ready to ambush anyone that had followed us.
I probed the fog. Six of the cubes the Merlin had thrown out were in range. Only wildlife showed on their sensors. There were more than just the current mission’s payload. The mapping showed several in each village, the locals got free internet access from them. There were also chains of them across the area that we wanted to search. There were also dark spots, and a few isolated cubes.
“Okay, time to move out. We’ll laager up later until dark.” Jimmy said.
A new route came up, this time with a tactical pace. We would patrol for 10km and take five hours moving stealthily to avoid other people and villages.
As I got up to continue I deployed the solar charger across my bergen to soak up power as we moved.
Each foot was carefully placed, and the full sensor suite scanned before the next one went down. It wouldn’t do to find an IED the hard way.
A couple of hours into crossing drainage ditches, hacking through unmanaged scrub and avoiding ploughed fields we got a ping from the fog. Grace Aduja, our target, had been spotted leaving a village 20km away on foot. There were four people in the party, and they were heading towards the city.
“How long till we catch them?” Jimmy asked.
“Depends on how far they go today.” Macie said.
“Dinna be daft! Wur daein two an a hauf klicks an hoor.” Jock said. “If they stapped the noo we’d be oan them at eight.”
“True. So worth us veering onto them. Make it a short patrol.” Jimmy said. “We’ll laager up a couple of klicks from them and do a CTR before grabbing her in the wee small hours.”
We changed course and picked up the pace. The sighting gave the team renewed vigour. Within ten minutes a high level drone confirmed the sighting. We had a moving target to intercept.
Three hours later we laagered up. It was late afternoon and Aduja was still moving towards us. The drone watched unseen from high above. Even though I knew where it was I couldn’t spot it even with binos.
We were in a small copse in a dip in the ground. The bergens were piled in the middle and half the patrol were sorting out fighting kit while the rest stood guard. We were close enough to hear the conversation.
“OK, the mapping and route Aduja’s on suggest four possible end points, depending on when she wants to stop for the day.” Jimmy said.
“We could pair up for the CTR on all four, then RV.” Hector said.
“Too risky, the villages are about four kays apart.” Macie said.
“The most likely is REDACTED. There isn’t any fog coverage and it’s been seeded six times.” I said.
“Interesting. But not certain.” Jimmy said.
“Aye, bit it’s no far frae two of the ither yins.” Jock said.
“We could do a CTR with a brick on those two and converge on REDACTED if we don’t spot the target.” Hector said. “They’re on the way.”
“Let’s just send a pair each way while the rest of us stay in the middle. The main group will be about three kays away.” Macie said.
“Ah like that.” Jock said.
“Anyone got another point of view?” Jimmy looked around the others. Heads shook.
“OK. That’s the plan. Hector and Marney, you take the left hand village. Mo and Jock, you’ve got the right hand one. Everyone else is with me.”
We left a fog cube behind when we moved off. It was set to activate at 0230 local. We expected to be in place by then, and ready to go if any of the insurgents were watching for more fog appearing. We found a good LZ for extraction and pre-set the homing beacon and the relay. When the fog cubes came online at 0230 it would send a request for an urgent extraction. Until then we maintained full EM silence.
As expected the CTRs on the first two villages were inconclusive, but they planted another couple of fog cubes each with the same 0230 timer. The drone still tracked Aduja and her party, and they were seen entering a house in REDACTED.
While the others went off to do the CTR the main group took turns on guard and analysing the mapping and drone feed of the village Aduja had last been seen in. It was built on the southern side of a river ford on the drovers’ way we’d landed on. There were eight larger buildings that looked like multi-room houses, one of which sported a sign telling us it was a cafe. Another ten were one room shacks, some showed infrared signatures of livestock on the drone feed, a couple were obviously outdoor earth closets. Others were too thick to be certain of. The buildings were mostly thick mud walls, with excellent insulation, so we couldn’t see inside. The roofs were thatched, but covered with solar cells.
There were several guards mounted, we could see them round the outskirts as the drone flew round. Over the course of a couple of hours they didn’t move, although they did get relieved on a staggered cycle. We counted a minimum of four guard positions, with up to 12 guards, although some of these could have been the same people coming back out for a second time.
“Right, get into fighting order, we’ll leave all the heavy stuff under cam here.” Jimmy said. “Orders in ten.”
A quiet flurry ensued, everyone took a handful of things out of their bergens and stuffed them in pockets, mostly food and ammo. Bergens were stacked in a couple of shell scrapes we’d dug while waiting for the CTR teams to return.
“Orders.” Jimmy had built a model of the village with some ration items and ribbon.
“Ground. We’re to the South East of the village. You’ve all seen the footage, and your displays will help you. The village is surrounded by open grazing for about two hundred metres. It’s bounded by the river to the North and has a fence around the rest of it.”
“Situation. Enemy forces. There are a minimum of 14 identified insurgents, suggesting a platoon in total. Aduja is in building four. The enemy are using building eight as their guard house. They have four identified sentry points, two to the North on the river line and two near the main gate to the South of the village.”
“Friendly forces are just the ten of us. We’ve all got blue trackers, and if it gets noisy we’ll go active.”
“Mission. To capture Grace Ajuda alive so that she can stand trial.” Jimmy paused. “Mission. To capture Grace Ajuda alive so that she can stand trial.”
“Execution. We’ll do this in two parts. A quiet phase and a noisy phase. In the quiet phase we’ll establish a fire base that can engage both Southern sentry points and the guard house. We’ll also neutralise the sentries on the Western side of the village. Once that is complete a snatch squad will move in through the gate closest to building four and snatch Aduja. It will then extract back through its entry point and return behind the fire group to the LZ.
“I expect that things will get noisy, and when it does the fire group will ensure that the enemy do not stop the exfiltration by bringing everything they’ve got down on building eight and anywhere else that fires at us.”
“Tasks. Macie, you’re responsible for the sentry on the North West of the village. Hector, you’ve got the South West sentry.”
“The Anders will lead the snatch squad, they can both pass for natives in the dark. Me and Jock will follow.”
“Marney, you’re IC the fire team. Everyone else is with you. Hector and Macie will join you as soon as they’ve sorted out the sentries.”
“Service support. Weapons in the snatch squad will be suppressed. The fire team will employ LAWs to neutralise the enemy in building eight if required.”
“Command and signals. We’re on our own out here. The fog will come on at 0245. Maintain EM silence until then, unless it goes noisy beforehand. If it becomes clear that we cannot achieve the objective, or we sustain two or more serious casualties, we will withdraw in good order and RV at the LZ. I will issue the withdrawal order via HUD, if I am incapacitated then we go in zap order.” Jimmy paused to look round at the team. “Any questions?”
“What do we mean by noisy?” Marney asked.
“Good question. Either multiple gunshots directed at us, or a general alarm not involving gunshots while we have people inside the compound.” Jimmy said.
“So basically once they know we’re here and resisting us?” Marney said.
“Yes.” Jimmy looked at the rest of the team for more questions. Heads shook as his gaze passed around.
“OK, let’s get into position.”
The group broke up, Macie and Hector lead off towards the village. I followed close behind them, with Jimmy just behind me. There was a gap and the main body followed. We walked in a single file at a slow tactical pace. Eyes scanned the dark for signs of movement, or ambushers lying in wait. We crossed the drovers’ way a kilometre South of the village, and passed Westwards into a wood before turning North so that we came to the village from the Western edge of the grazing that surrounded it. Macie carried on North inside the wood when we turned East to the woodline. She intended to slip into the river and work up to the sentry position under cover of the bank.
Hector, Jimmy, Jock, Ander and I crawled up to the woodline to watch the village. It was 0148 when we got into position. The sky was cloudless and starlight illuminated the village. The fence was slightly taller than a human and made of thick sticks bound together. The outline of the huts could be seen between the slats of the fence. Passive scanning showed heat signatures where we expected the sentries to be. Smoke curled faintly out of the chimney on the cafe, the metre high sign was clearly visible above the fence, facing us. It was a pale background with ‘CAFE’ painted in dark letters. Nothing moved.
A couple of minutes past two the door of the cafe opened, spilling light out. A local man came out, he wore a combat helmet, vest and carried an assault rifle loosely by his side. He stood in the doorway for a moment, clearly silhouetted against the brightness within. Sound travelled, he was speaking to someone inside. The door banged shut, cracking like a gunshot.
I watched the heat signature move from the doorway to the sentry point. More discussion, but indistinct, we were over 100 metres away. Relieved, the original sentry went back to the cafe, and his noisy companion took his place.
The HUD tracked the sentries and marked up the village. Each of the huts had its outline and the assigned number superimposed through the fence. Our designated entry point was outlined in green, the positions of the others would be blue if I looked away from the village to where I knew they were. The Sentries glowed red, as did the cafe where the other sentry had gone.
At 0212 the cafe door opened again, another sentry came out, this one shorter and slimmer than the previous two we’d seen. The helmet jutted out over their body, and the combat vest hung loosely on them. It looked like a child in adult clothes. They carried an assault weapon, and held it close across their body, with the stock in their shoulder. They didn’t spend long exiting the cafe, and they disappeared northwards into the village.
Ten minutes later another sentry came from the northern part of the village and returned into the cafe. This was the trigger for a third sentry to come out and replace the sentry at the gate nearest us. As soon as the third sentry had been relieved and returned to the cafe a fourth came out and walked through the middle of the village to relieve the sentry on the riverbank. Somewhere up there Macie was lurking in the shadows. Hector was just to my right, his rifle steadied by a bipod and fitted with a suppressor. It coughed. I heard the sentry by the gate collapse against it.
The fourth sentry wandered back along the inside edge of the fence. They weren’t going directly back to the cafe, instead they were heading for the gate.
It was 0238, seven minutes before we’d be in contact with the outside world.
The sentry stopped next.
Hector wriggled into a new firing position, adjusting the angle of his rifle.
The heat signature blooms against the tree and a puddle forms at the sentry’s feet. He’s stopped for a pee.
The cafe door opened, another enemy silhouetted in the doorway. Someone shouted.
The sentry ran towards the cafe, feet pounding on the earth, and equipment slapping against them. I could hear the rattle of the metal buckle on their sling against the rifle stock.
Booted feet thudded on wooden steps, and the cafe door closed.
My HUD fizzes with colour, we’re connected to the fog. The drone is still up there, watching. The red flags over the gate and the river turn black. I’m still on passive EM, but I’m getting low power sharing from the fog, the drone and the rest of the team.
Jimmy strides ahead of me heading for the previously unguarded gate between the two sentry positions. I push up off the ground and follow, tucking my weapon into a ready position against my shoulder. Ander and Jock follow soundlessly. We’re just over a hundred metres from the treeline to the fence. The ground has been extensively grazed by the village animals. Some of it is bare earth with goat and cattle tracks, the remainder has close cropped grass and the odd small bush. There’s absolutely no cover.
As we approach the gate Jimmy takes up a kneeling firing position and waves to me to go first. I pause at the gate to allow Ander and Jock to also take up firing positions. The wood is solid, hardwood dried out in the African sun. The gate has a metal chain and padlock on the inside, but the hinges are simple loops on a vertical pin. I lift the gate and once it is free of the pins I pivot it, using the chained padlock as the hinge and prop it on the inside of the fence.
Ander and Jock run past me into the compound, the HUD tells me that they’re securing the far entrance to hut four. They disappear round the northern edge of the hut.
Jimmy closes up to the back door of hut four. I’ve slung my rifle across my back for the gate, and I leave it there so that I have my hands free to open the door. It’s a rough wooden door, with a keyhole next to the metal handle. I check round the frame for tripwires, sensors or anything that might make a noise. It isn’t locked. I kneel and ease it open slowly, mainly to give Ander and Jock a chance to secure the front.
I turn on my active scanning as soon as the door is ajar. I roll a scanner through the gap as soon as it is wide enough. It’s too dark for the video to help, but there’s no movement detected on the lidar or heat signatures. I check the door again for wires and sensors now that its ajar. Nothing. So I open it wide and move inside.
The room looks like a kitchen, there are pots and pans hanging up and a range. There’s one other door into the rest of the house. Jimmy motions for me to take it.
Before I get to it the door opens.
There’s a woman in the doorway, someone else behind her. It’s Aduja. I’m empty handed.
She levels a pistol at me.
I hold my hands up, palms out. “Easy now.” I say, looking her in the eye. She looks back at me, anger burning in her eyes.
“Who are you?” Ajuda speaks in heavily accented English. “Why are you in my home?”
“Put the gun down and we can talk.”
The HUD shows me Jimmy has the person behind Ajuda in his sights. I’m looking down the barrel of her pistol a metre in front of my face, I can almost see the lands spiralling. Her finger is on the trigger.
“Why you with wahala? You shud be free.” Ajuda stares me down. Her pistol steady at my left eye. She looks puzzled. “You brave, or much dof.”
I lean towards her. My hands still open and facing her. If she isn’t fast I might be able to grab her before she fires.
As I work the odds, I sense her tense.
I brace to lunge at her.
Her finger squeezes, I hear the hammer strike.
My vision fills with orange, and I feel the impact I was braced for. I’m forced to take a couple of steps back. I can’t see out of my left eye. I’ve lost some audio as well. The HUD is damaged but still working.
Ajuda fires at me again, but misses as I rush her. I grab the pistol by the barrel, twisting it out of her grip.
Jimmy fires a single suppressed shot.
“DEMONS!” Ajuda shouts.
I clamp my hand over her mouth and swipe her legs from under her to put her on the floor.
She bites me and struggles to get free. I’m a lot heavier than her.
Jimmy stands over us watching the inside door, weapon ready.
I grab the anaesthetic spray from my belt, and spray it in her face.
She holds her breath, and her skin darkens.
I spray more at her in short bursts.
Her struggles lessen, and she relaxes under me. I let go of her mouth. She doesn’t shout or scream. She still has a pulse, and she’s breathing.
I cuff her and hood her before throwing her over my shoulder to carry her out of the village.
Jock and Ander are outside, covering any approach from the cafe. The enemy seem not to have noticed the gunshots. I leave directly for the open gate as fast as I can go silently. Jimmy follows me, and then Jock. I’m aware that Ander is putting the gate back on through the HUD updates.
The exfiltration route appears in my HUD and I follow it without stopping. We go back a different way than we came in, more directly to the LZ. Only when we get there do I stop and put Ajuda down.
“OK, all round defence, we’ve got twenty minutes until evac.” Jimmy orders. “Ander 12, do you need help?”
“Minor damage. I have spares in my bergen. I can self-repair if you can spare me.” I say.
“Ten minutes, we’re modular.”
I find the bergen and open it. I slip off the HUD plate and detach it, then the face mask and the side plate. The wrecked eye comes out, the pistol bullet still embedded in it. I put it in an evidence bag, along with my left audio module.
The replacements slide in, and as they connect I regain vision and audio pick-ups. I can hear the helo approach as I slot the side plate back on. I put the face mask on, noting that it needs replacing too because the powder has burnt it, but it’s cosmetic and so I don’t carry a spare.
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