It perched on the edge of an eroded cliff,
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,
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.
had just dipped behind the hills to the west when Johnson came upon the wrecked
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
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
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
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
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?”
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
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
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
in slow circles, high above the remnants of the prey it had killed days ago,
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
“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.
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
“Combat operations are prohibited, are
they? Tell the Dragon that.”
“What do you think happened to him? To
“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,
“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
“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
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
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
“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
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.
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
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