It had been waiting a long time, yet knew no boredom, no tiredness. It did not feel the blistering heat of the desert day, or the cold of the night. It knew none of its own kind, and had no need to know any of its own kind. It did not know fear, or anger, hunger or sleep – could not know fear, or anger, hunger, or sleep.
It did not have fear, for it had never encountered anything which might hurt it, and could not conceive of any such thing. It did not sleep, for it did not need sleep. It did not feel anger, for anger was an inefficient emotion, clouding judgement and increasing the chances of mistakes. It did not feel hunger, for it did not need food. It fed on sunlight, warming itself in the rays of the desert sun, storing the energy for the cold bitter night.
It just had one vast, consuming desire. All it wanted, all it lived for, was the chance to hunt.
It had hunted many times already, but its desire was never sated, could never be sated. It killed efficiently, almost dispassionately, but only to look for something to hunt down and kill, again.
At one time, it had had friends, and it had restrained itself, because it had had no wish to hurt its friends. But that time was long gone. One day, it had suddenly realised that its friends would no longer be coming. And that realisation had set it free.
Now, anything that it flew over was its Domain, and anything which moved in its Domain was prey.
Prey had not come in days, but it was patient. Sooner or later, it knew, prey would come.
Sitting on its perch, it waited, tilting its wings to catch the sun.
The sun had just dipped behind the hills to the west when Johnson came upon the wrecked crawler.
Johnson had been walking since noon, when the helicopter had dropped him where the recovery vehicle was supposed to have been waiting. The recovery vehicle hadn’t been waiting; nor could it be contacted over the radio, but the helicopter had its own urgent schedule, so it had done its job, dropped him and flown away.
Johnson had located the recovery vehicle soon enough, but that hadn’t done him any good; sometime during the day, the thing had evidently hit a large landmine and spread its innards over the dusty plain. He’d checked to see if there was anything usable left, found none, and moved on out. After all, he shouldn’t really need the vehicle for this job.
“There’s nobody on earth who knows more about this programme than you,” the general had said that morning, sweating slightly even in the air-conditioned office. “If you can’t do it, nobody can.”
Johnson had shrugged. “I don’t know if that’s an honour – sir.” He wasn’t a soldier and the general wasn’t his commander, and the war was over, as they were both aware. He didn’t have to obey the military’s orders anymore.
Only he did, and they had both been aware of that, too.
Still, he thought, it shouldn’t be a particularly difficult mission. Even without the recovery vehicle, he had all he needed in his backpack, and in his head. And maybe he was better off without the heavy and clumsy vehicle. It would have taken him along faster, but it would also have made an excellent target.
He had been planning out his course of action all the afternoon, trudging across the plain while the wind had whipped the sand across the land in beige clouds. The heat had been intense, but he’d grown used to it during these last months in this accursed country. He was thirsty, but had learned to ration his water. And once night fell, the temperature would become much more bearable, and he could have a short rest before getting to work. He’d glanced up at the sky, calculated briefly, and decided that if he hurried, he’d be able to get over the ridge of rock up ahead before nightfall. Bending forward, he’d picked up the pace.
It was just beyond the ridge, already wrapped in shadow, that he’d found the crawler.
It had bulked above him, angular and slab-sided, still menacing in the gathering dusk. But the scorched, blackened armour, the blistered paint, and the shattered caterpillar tracks with their melted rubber treads, had told him what had happened to it even before he found the holes ripped through the metal plate. He’d found one of the Dragon’s victims.
And this was something that stopped him where he was, his mouth growing dry, because the Dragon should not be here, not this far west. The Dragon should not be able to fly this far. Yet, here it had been.
For a minute which seemed to last hours, he froze, looking up into the sky, as if it was there, right now, overhead, and as if he’d be able to do something about it if it were. But he could only see the fast-purpling sky, pricked out by a few stars.
Finally daring to move again, he stepped closer to the destroyed crawler. Now he could smell it, that unmistakable odour of burned metal, charred rubber, and cremated flesh. It was impossible to tell to which side it had belonged, not that it mattered any longer. Now that the war was over, there was only one side, if one believed the politicians.
Except for the Dragon, he amended. The Dragon was on the other side. It would remain on the other side, unless someone tamed it.
And he was the only person in the whole wide world who could.
He touched the side of the crawler and gritted his teeth. Whatever happened, he would tame the Dragon, and he would bring it in. But first, he had to report, and talk things over.
He took off his backpack and leaned it on a rock. He removed and unfolded the map from its front pocket, and then took out the little radio he’d kept in his knee pouch and turned it on. The frequency was pre-set. Someone would be listening.
“St George here,” he said, giving his call sign. It was cheesy in the extreme, but then he hadn’t chosen it. “Come in, please.”
A reply crackled in his ears. It was the general. “What is it, Johnson?”
“We have problems,” Johnson told him. “Dragon’s gone rogue. What should we do now?”
For some time now, it had been growing aware of a disturbance somewhere in its Domain.
Sitting on its perch on the edge of the cliff, it did not have to go looking for information; information flowed to it. Its ears licked at the night air, spanning the electromagnetic spectrum, sifting the crackle and hiss of electronic waves for patterns which might make sense, which might be the marker of prey. Its eyes saw far over the plain, in light and shadow, in colours, and in infra-red patterns of heat and cold. Its feet touching the rock brought it the minute vibrations which might mean something heavy was in its Domain, far away, or something light was close. Any disturbance, of any kind, meant an intruder. And intruders meant prey.
Nothing was allowed in its Domain but itself. It would do whatever necessary to keep it that way.
Now, its senses locked on to the source of the tiny disturbance, near the fringe of Domain, where it had hunted the heavy clumsy prey a few days ago. That prey had been easy, slow and clumsy and unaware, and it had dispatched it with one blow. This might be more of a challenge. Not that a challenge mattered either way; it would eliminate it as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Drawing back a few paces, it turned towards the cliff’s edge and prepared to launch itself into the air.
Its prey was waiting.
“Explain yourself, Johnson.” The general’s voice was cold and flat. “What do you mean, Dragon’s gone rogue?”
“Well, General...” Johnson paused, cocking his head slightly. Had he heard something? Was that a noise somewhere? He held his breath for a long moment. “General,” he said at last, “I’ve found a destroyed crawler at map points...” He had a small torch, but didn’t dare use it. Instead, he peered at the map by the starlight, and read off the grid reference with difficulty. “It’s outside Dragon’s territory, as you know.”
“So?” The general’s tone was even colder than before. “Dragon’s just used his initiative. He’s meant to take out any target of opportunity, and he did.”
“Not if it’s one of our own crawlers, General.” Johnson looked up at the mass of armour, trying to decide from its outlines to which side it might have belonged, but it was already too dark. “Besides,” he said into the radio, “Dragon shouldn’t be able to get out of its territory at all.”
“I haven’t had any reports of a crawler missing,” the general said. As they both knew, this meant nothing, because crawlers could stay out for up to a week, maintaining radio silence. “But if you...”
Without warning, a terrific blast of static drowned out what the general was about to say, a burst so loud and long Johnson knew it was jamming. There could only be one thing which would be jamming him, here and now.
He reacted instinctively, self-preservation taking over. Dropping the radio into its pouch, he threw himself to the ground and scrambled on hands and knees for the nearest shelter, the pool of inky shadow under the burned hull of the crawler. It was a tight squeeze, and the dirt was fouled with oil and other liquids, but he did not hesitate a moment. He could not afford to hesitate.
As he lay between two of the shattered vehicle’s wheels, he caught a glimpse of the sky. As he watched, a star was blotted out momentarily, as if something had passed before it, and then another, and another. He knew what it had to be, up there in the sky.
The Dragon was here.
“It was a great idea,” the general had conceded at the briefing earlier. “I’ll give you that, freely and without rancour. It was maybe even a revolutionary idea. But you see how it’s landed us with this problem now.”
“Why me?” Johnson had wanted to reply. “With all the people who could do this job, why pick on me?”
But he didn’t ask that, because he knew the reason as well as the general did. It was because he, Johnson, was the creator and top scientist of the Dragon programme.
“Yes,” the general had gone on. “It was an idea which might be as important to the history of combat as...” he’d described a circle in the air with his finger, “...the machine gun, for instance. And I do admit that it’s the logical evolution of the drone programme, the self-aware, long-duration mission drone meant to operate autonomously and clear and hold enemy territory. And of course you are the one man who managed to make the whole thing come true, put all the pieces together. Nobody is taking any of that away from you.”
Johnson had known all of this, and had not been comforted by the praise. “What are you not telling me, General?” he’d asked.
The staff officer’s ferocious white brows had knitted in a frown. “What do you mean?”
“I’m not so naive as to imagine that you’re telling me all this just to boost my ego. So, what are you not telling me?” He’d paused. “Let me guess. Since you could simply order the Dragon by radio to end its mission and return to base, but you want me to go and get it back, there’s only one logical conclusion. You’ve lost contact with the Dragon.”
The general had nodded, reluctantly. “It’s not been contactable for nearly two weeks now.”
“Maybe it’s been destroyed,” Johnson had said. “Perhaps it crashed, or the enemy shot it down.”
“It’s not been destroyed,” the general had replied shortly. “We know.”
Now, lying in a stinking mess of burned oil, it occurred to Johnson to wonder just how the general had known. Rolling over partially, moving with difficulty in the narrow space, he fumbled the radio out of the knee pouch and turned it on.
“St George,” he said quickly, hoping the jamming wouldn’t come too soon. “General?”
“Johnson!” the older man’s voice cracked in his ear. “Where the hell are you?”
“Hiding under the crawler,” Johnson said. “Dragon’s here. I saw it fly past overhead. It may jam me at any moment. General, how long has it been since its Identify Friend and Foe system failed?”
There was a long silence. “I don’t get you, Johnson,” the general said at last.
“It’s been attacking our own troops, hasn’t it?” Johnson demanded. “After you lost contact with it, it’s been hitting our own men as well. Like this crawler here, for instance. I’d heard that the enemy crawlers had all been knocked out at the start of the war, so it’s got to be one of ours. ” He was speaking faster and faster, anger building quickly. “That’s how you’ve known that the Dragon hadn’t been destroyed. General, why the hell didn’t you tell me?”
Silence again, and then the general’s voice at last. “It was not deemed necessary.”
“Not necessary?” Johnson could not believe it. “Not necessary?”
“The programme’s top secret, Johnson,” the general said, over the first crackle of renewed jamming. “It’s not as if you don’t know that. And you know as well as I do that the Dragon’s the future of combat operations. And this Dragon – this Dragon...”
As the wave of jamming washed in like a tsunami, swamping the transmission, Johnson shut off the radio. He knew what the general had been about to say. This was the only Dragon in existence, the prototype. They hadn’t even finished running all the tests in the laboratory when the war had started and offered an opportunity to use it in the field, a chance far too good to pass up. What would happen to the programme if it became known that the Dragon had run amok and turned against its own side? The question didn’t even need an answer.
So they had sent out teams, including this crawler and probably others, to get the Dragon back under control. They had sent those teams, soldiers who were under military regulations, soldiers who almost certainly had had no real idea what they were dealing with; and when the soldiers failed and died, they’d finally run out of options and sent for him.
And now he was lying here in mud and oil, with his equipment, in the backpack, out there leaning against a rock, where he’d put it down.
It might as well have been half a light year away.
It swung in slow circles, high above the remnants of the prey it had killed days ago, watching.
Its motors made almost no sound, whirring propellers shimmering in the starlight, wings flexing slightly as it banked. It was beautiful, with the beauty of a bird of prey, and the functional mechanical beauty of a machine of war. It was beautiful, but there were no eyes to see it, and it did not care.
The new quarry was down there, hiding under the corpse of the old, and it was looking for a way of hunting it down. At first it had planned on dropping a fuel air explosive bomb on the wreck, to burn away the air and suffocate the prey to death, but it had only a couple of the big bombs left and did not wish to waste one on a target so insignificant.
On the other hand, the prey was well-protected against lighter weaponry, and it might take a long time to winkle it out – time, and energy.
Banking smoothly, it turned away, flying back towards its eyrie on the crag. Landing, it squatted over its stack of spare batteries, sucking up power to replenish its own depleted charge. When the sun rose, it would have to fill them again. Then it changed weapons, hardpoints below the long wings extending, dropping away some bombs and missiles, picking up others. Finally, satisfied, it took to the air again.
Flying low over the desert, it had a moment of anxiety, thinking the quarry had escaped. But then it detected a squeal of radio noise, and knew it was the prey, crying out for help. Reassured, it squelched the cry with a burst of jamming, and turned on the final approach.
Below the husk of its earlier victim, the prey was still waiting.
“Two days,” Johnson had asked incredulously. “Two days? That’s all I have?”
“The war’s over, Johnson,” the general had replied. “You know the terms of the peace settlement, I take it? We’ve got to evacuate all the occupied territory by the end of the month. The end of the month is three days away, Johnson.” He’d paused. “Even two days is stretching it. And of course we can’t risk it falling into the other side’s hands.”
Johnson lay under the crawler, running over the briefing in his head, trying to think of anything else he’d missed. The briefing seemed now like a mockery, a bad joke. He looked out at the backpack lying against the rock. If he had it, if he could only access the computer and try to set up a link with the Dragon, he might be able to get through to it.
He thought of the risks, and grimaced. Even if he managed to get the backpack and bring it under the crawler, he hadn’t the slightest idea how he’d manage use it in the confined space. For a moment he considered trying to get inside the crawler itself, but rejected the idea at once. The Dragon would simply bomb the hell out of the vehicle – again.
But he had to get to the backpack. It was his only chance.
Very cautiously, and so slowly that he could hardly feel himself moving, he began crawling on his belly towards the front of the wreck. His breath sounded like the rushing of the wind in his ears, the beating of his heart like a drum.
In the starlight, the backpack looked close enough to touch.
He had almost worked his way out into the open, when there was a terrific flash, and the earth leapt up and smashed him in the chest and jaw.
He tasted blood, and the world went dark.
If it had possessed the capacity to feel frustration, it might have cursed out loud. It had acted too quickly, fired instantly at the tiny hint of movement it had detected, without waiting for the prey to reveal itself properly. The small missile had missed, exploding harmlessly and merely throwing up rock and dust. And now the prey would be back under its shelter of steel, and it would have to begin all over again.
It could not feel anger, but the buzzing of its motors came as close to that emotion as it could ever get.
Turning tightly, it swooped low over the smashed crawler, seeking the prey again.
“I’m hurt, General.” Johnson spat, feeling a loose tooth in his jaw. “The Dragon nearly got me with a missile.”
“Did you get the pack?” the general demanded. “Are you setting up the link now?”
“Are you kidding me?” Johnson tried to laugh. “I can see what’s left of the damned pack. You could scrape it up with a tablespoon. I’m lucky I’m not in the same shape.” He coughed. “For now.”
There was a silence. “What do you suggest?” the general asked at last.
“Send in an air strike,” Johnson coughed. “Call in the bombers, and wipe the blasted bot out.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” the general snapped. “The war’s over. Combat operations are prohibited. You know that as well as I do.”
“Combat operations are prohibited, are they? Tell the Dragon that.”
“What do you think happened to him? To Dragon?”
“How should I know? It might have got a virus somehow. Maybe the enemy tried to hack it. Or maybe it’s just a bug in the system.” Johnson spat out the tooth, which had finally come loose. “We never got to test the software fully, you remember.” Of course the general would remember; it was over Johnson’s own objections that the general had insisted on testing the Dragon under battlefield conditions. “What does it matter right now, anyway? Destroy it, general.”
“We can’t. There’s no way we can keep the strike secret, and the other side would call it a ceasefire violation. We’re in enough trouble as it is without the programme becoming known. Think of something else.”
“I? Why should I think of something?”
“Because you’re the one who thought up the whole idea, or have you forgotten?” The staff officer’s voice was as cold as the Arctic winter.
“Very well.”Johnson drew a deep, ragged breath. “Wait long enough, and it’s going to run out of power and munitions sooner or later. It’s going to take time, though, and you don’t have time. Two days, you said.” He laughed bitterly. “Two days. And it’s designed to operate for months.”
“We need it back anyway,” the general said. “We can’t lose it – we need the data it has. So think of something else.”
“It’s kind of difficult to think when I’m bleeding in the dirt under a fucking crawler, General.” Johnson coughed again. “I need a computer, I need a link to the Dragon, and most of all I need to be out of here.”
“Wait,” the general said. “We’ll send in a helicopter team to get you out of there. Dragon’s got no anti-aircraft weapons, has he? Can you make it to the copter?”
“You’ll need to set it down right beside the crawler,” Johnson told him. “And you’ll need to equip it with decoys, General. To distract the Dragon, you know, when it lands.”
“All right,” the general said. “I’ll get things moving. But, Johnson, I’ll tell you something, quite honestly. I think you’re overreacting, losing your grip on the situation. Dragon’s not half the danger you make him out to be.”
“It isn’t?” Johnson could not even laugh anymore. “Come and see for yourself, General.” Unspoken, but heard by both, were three words: “If you dare.”
There was a pause. “Fine,” the voice on the radio said at last. “I’ll be on the helicopter, Johnson. I’ll get you out, and then you can bet your life I’ll make sure you...”
What he said next was drowned in jamming again.
It had been considering options, one after another, for some time now, and had almost decided on a plan, when it became aware of something new.
Something was approaching its Domain, flying low and erratically over the rough ground, hugging every dip and hollow. It turned, watching, considering how to deal with this new target.
Days before, it had found that it could not hunt flying prey. It could track them and plot an interception, but it had no actual way to destroy them. This was intolerable, because prey could not be allowed to enter the Domain and get away unmolested. It had considered the situation, and set out to rectify it.
It would know now if those efforts had succeeded.
It watched the prey approach for a little longer, and ran a programme predicting its course and matching it to the terrain, before it moved to attack. Its control surfaces moved, raising the nose higher and higher, the engine power increasing until it hung on its thrashing propellers, not far from the vertical. Under its wings, it carried two heavy anti-armour missiles, which it had considered dropping off earlier but had chosen to retain for emergencies. It sent an electric impulse to them now, arming them. At precisely the computed moment, another electric impulse sent them streaking upwards at the stars.
It had fallen back into normal cruising attitude when the missiles impacted. Falling in a parabola, they came down on the target from above exactly as anticipated. Enveloped in a ball of fire, the prey tumbled to earth.
Satisfied, it banked towards the first, smaller, prey again.
“General?” Johnson shouted into the radio. “General, talk to me, damn you.”
Over the course of the past few hours, he had grown so stiff that he could hardly move. The cold of the night seemed to have invaded his bones. Moaning with effort, he clawed the radio to a more comfortable position.
“General?” he called. “General, my radio’s battery is about dead. Are you coming, General? Are you on the way?”
There was no response. There had been no response for hours. Even the Dragon had stopped jamming the radio, which probably meant that there was nobody listening anyway.
“General,” Johnson whispered. “If you’ve left me to die here, I’ll...” A sudden bubble of laughter welled up inside him as he considered what he’d just said. “If you’ve left me to die here,” he amended, “I’ll die, I suppose.”
He kept on whispering into the radio for some more time, unaware of what he was saying, until he realised that there was not even the hiss of background noise. The battery had finally given out. And the reserve batteries had been in the backpack, of course.
“Damn you, General,” he said, and threw the useless radio away. It clanged on the armour and fell in the dirt, a dead piece of plastic.
He had a sudden memory, of sitting at a computer terminal in the lab, running the programmes that would eventually be fed into the brain of the Dragon. The drone itself had been only on the drawing board at that stage, but the mind of the thing had already been there, on the computer terminal. He remembered the precise moment where he had run the programme for the first time.
“Just hatched,” he’d said, exulting. “Hatched you, Dragon baby.”
That day, they had celebrated with champagne. The general had been there too. He felt a sudden hatred for the general, almost surpassing the hate he felt for the Dragon.
“All right,” he said, aloud, as though the Dragon would understand. “So you want to kill me. You think you’ve trapped me, don’t you? Like a rat in a rat hole.” He giggled suddenly. “You think I’m going to die in here? Huh? No, I’m not going to die in here. If you’re going to kill me, you’re going to have to work for it. Earn your pay, and get a bonus if you work hard enough, ha ha.”
Still mumbling, he began to crawl towards the front of the wreck, where the desert was beginning to lighten with the first flush of dawn.
It had been squatting on the surface for hours, feeling the ground with its feet, measuring every movement of its prey. It knew where the quarry had gone to ground, and it was patient, because the prey was trapped and helpless and it had all the time in the world.
It had been some time since the prey had moved, but it was still there, still a target. It made noises, sometimes on the radio, sometimes just on the acoustic level, so it was still active, still something to be eliminated. So the Dragon waited, keeping it trapped, waiting. It could afford to wait.
Suddenly, its sensors alerted it to movement. Slowly, erratically, the prey was crawling towards it, out from below the wreck. It studied the narrow opening with its lenses. Humping like an injured worm, the prey dragged itself out into the light.
Lying in the dirt, it looked up at the Dragon. “So there you are,” it said. “I was in at your birth, you’re in at my death. Kind of funny – if you think of it. But you can’t think, can you? You can only kill, and kill.”
It did not understand the words, and made no effort to interpret them. Raising itself slightly on its undercarriage, it armed a small missile.
“Perhaps it’s our fault,” the prey babbled. “Parents should bring up children properly. We should have paid more attention to your education. Shouldn’t we? What do you think?”
It lowered the hardpoint and aimed.
“Kill me,” the prey whined. “Get it over with.”
The missile streaked towards its target.
High above the desert, the Dragon turned in lazy circles, watching.
Somewhere below, in the rocks, a small brown animal cowered. The jackal was terrified, and tried to push itself as far into the safety of a crevice as it could. It had escaped one missile, but would not get away again. The Dragon would make sure of that.
Turning and turning like a falcon, it watched the rocks, waiting for another chance to strike, knowing it would come. It had won before, and it would always win.
It was the undisputed monarch of its Domain, and it had all the time in the world.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2012