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Duck (a short story)

Our knobby tires rolled along the single track, each pedal stroke was accompanied by a quiet whir from the electric assist. Cody lead the way, intermittently glancing down at his phone on a handlebar mount. He was following a gps course laid out by previous riders. Aki trailed behind him and I followed along in sweep.

 We had started riding before dawn and now the sun was just starting to creep over the horizon, lighting up the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. I pulled in behind Aki and heard the distinct sound of his dry chain running through the derailer. You know I had chain lube back at base you could have used. He didn’t look back, he just said, I’ve got some with me. And you’re saving it for just the right moment? I asked. Is it bothering you? It’s just noisy. It’s not as noisy as you hassling me about it.


He had a point. I backed off of his wheel and left some more space. It was fun giving him grief, it reminded me of the rides we used to do together before all this shit. I stood up on the pedals and felt the fifty pounds of hardware in my rucksack dragging on my shoulders. Mountain biking was a lot more fun before the war.

Early in the ride we crossed a cratered field bisected with an abandoned trench line, then we spent the next ten miles climbing  a rutted double track. As we neared the front, more evidence of the brutal fighting started to show. Cody rolled up behind a damaged Challenger tank. That thing came all the way from England to die in Colorado.


 Cody laid his bike down on the ground. In a fluid motion he unclipped the small carbine slung across his chest and held it in firing position. The rifle was a stubby M4 variant that had been designed for use by downed pilots. It had proven to also be perfect for ATB recon teams. He peered through the optics and scanned the area ahead of us.

We couldn’t call the bikes mountain bikes any more. They had to be All-Terrain- Bikes. One thing I had learned about military life was the importance of acronyms. We couldn’t be a Mountain Bike Team because MBT already stood for Main Battle Tank. I get it, no one wanted to confuse those two in the heat of the moment. 

They were still mountain bikes though, well e-bike mountain bikes. It’s funny, all three of us swore we would never switch to e-bike. Our perspectives changed rapidly when the war came to Colorado. Now each of us rode bikes that were once top of the line.  All the labels are gone and they have spray can camo paint jobs, but I think mine is an Evo. I took a sip of water and gave my bike a quick look over. I swept my palm along the down tube brushing off dried dirt, then my glove caught on something. I looked closer, a small diamond of sharp metal was stuck hard into the carbon frame. A piece of shrapnel from the last artillery barrage we had to sit out. 

Well sir, I reckon we could get purty good fix from that little ‘ol holler over yonder, Cody pointed up at a hill to the south.

Sounds good partner, Aki answered. I smiled. Cody had transplanted from Texas a decade before the war, like many smart people looking for tech jobs. He addressed everyone as sir and spoke with a little twang. Now Texas was dissolving into chaos with rolling blackouts and hot bulb events every other week. Not to mention that was probably a piece of Texas steel stuck into my bike.

 Cody’s Texas drawl was getting thicker and he kept adding new vocabulary words. It seemed like he was trying to protect his Texan cultural heritage, and we wanted to support him.  He was also our scout, so we had to know the difference between a holler and a draw.

The funny part was hearing Aki with his Japanese accent speak like a Texan. Even better, Japan was providing us with some special forces troops. So Aki might say, gather ‘round ya’ll and then speak Japanese into the comm radio.

But that’s what war is now. It’s not a line of identical black pawns on a chess board facing a line of white pawns. It’s not even blue uniforms clashing into grey. We are just people, who like the same stuff, and we have something to defend. That’s who makes up the Republic of Boulder Defense Force.


At the top of the hill we started setting up. A groan escaped me as I pulled off the heavy pack. All three of us were in our forties, far past the normal average age for soldiers. Staying low, we avoided showing our sillouttes as we pulled gear from our heavy packs. Cody provided overwatch as I unfolded the arms on three quadcopter drones and methodically attached a mortar round to each one. Once each round was attached to the drones, I carefully pulled the safety wires out, arming the high explosive. On one of the mortar rounds someone had written Keep Boulder Weird.

So what are we up to now? I asked. What’s our total?

Cody answered from his post, well sir, I tallied it up yesterday. Counting them two MRAPS we decommisioned out east brings us to 87 million dollars.

I chuckled and said, oh hell yeah. We are piling that shit up! There’s no way they can replace that stuff as fast as we blow it up. And nobody has blown up more than us.

I caught Aki giving me a sideways glance, 

What? I said, what’s that look for?

Aki tried to refrain from giving me the news, well… he started.

Oh no way! 

Cody joined in, You really haven’t heard?

No what? Was it Rambo team?

Aki answered, Yeah Rambo team got a HIMARS two days ago. Worth 3.5 that plus the Abrams they got puts them over a hundred mil.

I shook my head in disgust. That is so not fair, we’re out here grinding out everyday blowing up everything they send our way. Rambo comes along and cherrypicks only the highest value targets.

Aki said, Bro, you gotta let it go. Rambo was sent directly to that HIMARS. Satellites had been watching it ever since it was unloaded from a train in Albuquerque, same with the Abrams.

Cody chimed in, he was scanning the horizon with binoculars. Sir, we’re not  competing with Rambo. They are specifically used for tactical strikes against enemy assets. Our job is more…demoralizing.

While I looked over the three attack drones, Aki had turned on a small laptop in a durable case and plugged a short folding antenna into the USB port. His fingers danced across the keys as he started a sweep for radio waves. 

An hour later the sun had crept directly overhead. Cody never stopped scanning for targets visually, Aki continued his search electronically, and I just sat there fiddling with my FPV goggles looking bored. Way back when the Ukraine war started I saw the importance of drone pilots so I started practicing. I didn’t actually buy a drone, but I started using a simulator on my kid's Xbox. Every morning before work I would spend an hour flying an imaginary drone and using it to pop imaginary balloons on the screen. I guess my practice paid off. Now we were a drone team feared across the front line. Our use of ATB’s allowed us unparalleled mobility. The enemy had not adopted the use of bikes, they drove everywhere they went.

Ok boys, we got somethin’. Cody said. I looked in the direction he was pointing the binoculars, I couldn’t see anything. We used to fly a recon drone to assist with targeting, it helped to know what we were up against. But they also gave away the surprise, and it was one more thing to carry. Now instead of a recon drone we carried one more suicide drone.

I’ve got one vehicle approaching three clicks southeast. I glanced over at Cody, he had a blade of grass sticking out of his mouth. You can’t tell what it is? No, sir, I do not recognise that profile, it’s staying hidden in some thick brush.

Well, whatever it is it can’t be good. I pulled the boxy FPV goggles onto my head, then I looked down at my three little guided missiles. I selected Keep Boulder Weird and switched the power on. How we looking on the sweep? I asked Aki. So far all clear, whatever it is it doesn’t appear to have a jamming system, or at least it’s not using it. 

No jammer? That’s a bit odd wouldn’t you say, sir? Cody pondered from his position.

I thought about it, and said, maybe they’ve run out? Aki said, you know that’s not true.

Look, something has been taking pot shots at our wind turbines, maybe this is it. 

Aki asked, and your decision to engage has nothing to do with Rambo team’s talley, correct?

I gave a dismissive phhhht, no, of course not. Not really.

Cody chimed in again, It does sort of look like it has rocket tubes, whatever it is.

I pulled the virtual reality goggles down over my eyes, my view became that of the drone’s camera. Aki held the drone up and I could see myself crouching  a few feet away. I placed my thumbs on the two controller sticks. A sniper kills with one index finger, for me it takes both thumbs. With a whir the drone lifted off.


The outside world faded away and all I focused on was what the drone could see. I took it in low and fast, it was barely out of sight and one of the battery bars had already faded out. Damn these mortars were heavy. I found a dry river bed running in that direction so I dropped into it. In my simulator game a red trail flowed out in front of you as a guide. I missed having a guide to follow, now I just had crosshairs centered in my view.

I closed in on the target and was stunned by what I saw. It was a lifted pickup truck with a rocket system mounted in the bed. Dismounted infantry stood around it as it slowly rolled though the brush. The drone battery was down to two bars. The infantry heard the incoming drone and started looking in my direction. I could see they held rifles but none of them tried to shoot the drone. One dropped his rifle and tried waving me off. I lined up the rig and gave it full throttle, the driver jumped out of the truck as I closed the gap. My feed cut off in static.

Boom! Aki said quietly. I tipped my goggles up, he was looking out into the distance at the explosion over two miles away.

No secondaries, Cody stated as he viewed through the binocs. Yeah that was messed up, I said. 

When did they start building technicals? It was like a Dodge Ram with rocket tubes. Something isn't right.

I put the goggles into replay mode and started rewatching the last moments of the drone strike. I clicked backwards from the point I lost feed one frame at a time. The drone flew right into the side of the Dodge before exploding. I paused on a still that showed the rocket tubes, they were camo on the outside, but this frame showed the interior of each tube was clearly white. Fuck. It’s a decoy, those are just PVC pipes. I quickly cycled the view farther out, why didn’t anyone try to shoot the drone. A sick feeling crept into my heart as I rapidly clicked through frames. A soldier came into view, he held up his hands frozen in frame waving away the drone. A rifle hung on a sling, it didn’t have a magazine in it.

Shit, shit, SHIT. I said, this is a trap. That’s a decoy truck and those were our POW’s standing with it.

And, there’s the ping. Aki said. A jammer just came online. He incrementally turned his antenna array and watched his screen. There, north of the hit. Cody see anything?

Cody scanned, no sir, they must be dug in like a tick.

Ok I’m going for it, maybe it will let those guys escape. I connected my goggles to the next drone and Aki gently tossed it in the air. I flew this drone in higher, skimming over the gnarled juniper trees that covered the area. Cody said, it looks like there’s a dry wash over by that cottonwood, could be a good hiding spot. As I raced my drone in that direction I saw a black blur shoot past me going the other way. Look alive guys we got an incoming recon drone heading this way.

My eyes strained to catch anything that stood out, there! A dark boxy shape. I flew past it and had to swing my drone around. A Bradley fighting vehicle was dug into a dry river bed and strung with camo netting. My view blurred with distortion, fuzzy lines cut horizontally across the goggle screen and the drone faultered.

 Aki, I said. I heard his fingers typing furiously, I’m on it, he responded.  I fought to gain altitude with the drone. My view went fully distorted, nothing but waving lines. Then it cut back in and the ground was quickly closing in. I pushed the left stick all the way up and pulled back on the right the drone corrected. I aimed it at the Bradley and started to close the gap. Then I saw a puff of smoke from the side of the fighting vehicle and my feed went to static.

SHIT!, countermeasures got me. Oh this is bad.

Don’t get yer panties in a bunch. Cody said calmly, that recon drone is looking for us way over there. I’ll let you know when it heads this way.

I cycled the goggle channel until I connected with the last drone. Aki launched it and I took it way up high. As I worked the controller I said. OK I’m gonna dead drop onto that Brad, Cody keep eyes on that DJ if you can, Aki start packing up I won’t need jam for this, and I think things are gonna get hot real quick.

Aki said, oh you think?

I brought my drone high in the air centered over the Brad, then sent it straight down like a lawn dart. The jammer cut my feed before it hit but gravity did it’s job. I flipped up my goggles to see the fiery explosion way out in the scrub. Bullseye.

Cody announced, recon drone is finished with that draw and it’s coming this way. Here we go fellas, time to hunker down.

I squeezed into the fetal position between some rocks, my partners did the same and we braced for the incoming artillery barrage. Every time this happened I ran through the lessons that had been drilled into me by Fedir our Ukrainian combat instructor. Fedir had worked at a building supply store before Russia invaded his country. Like your Home Depot he would explain, always pronouncing a hard T at the end of depot. For six years he fought to push out the Russian invaders, then he came to help us push out ours.

Stay clear of trees, he would tell us, Trees are for bird. Artillery shells will detonate when they hit a tree branch and create an air burst above you. This is far worse than shell hitting the ground. Trees are for bird.

I thought of his other advice, words that kept him alive for six years. Once you hear spotter drone, start saying alphabet, one breath one letter. This helps calm your breathing for what comes next. If you get to zed and no shelling, you get the fack out of there because they are sending FPV’s at you.

The hum of the drone became audible, Cody you count. I called over to the scout. Yes sir. 

I pulled the goggles back over my eyes and started flicking through the replay looking for anything I could have missed. I found a frame with the view centered high above the targeted Brad. At the time I had been solely focused on aiming the crosshairs, now I could view the rest of the surroundings and I could see the other two Brads hidden under better camouflage. Brads full of FPV’s and pilots.

Guys I don’t think artillery is incoming. Cody agreed, me either. 

Let’s ditch everything and GTFO.

Aki opened the laptop and made a few quick keystrokes, closed the computer and tossed it on the ground. It hissed and a small puff of smoke escaped out the side. Cody quickly piled the rucksacks against a rock and repositioned the M4 onto his back. Aki pulled a small plastic butterfly mine from his hip pack, he armed it and placed it under the pile of jettisoned gear. We ran for the bikes.

Cody got to the bikes first and pulled off the branches we had laid over them. He picked up his bike and straddled the frame. The spotter drone hummed somewhere overhead scanning for us. Cody pulled his Oakley glasses off and cleaned them on the edge of his shirt while he looked up into the sky trying to pinpoint the noise. 

Aki dropped his hands down to the pistol on each hip checking each lock strap. One holster held the standard issue semiautomatic pistol the other held a large revolver. He pulled his bike off the ground, held the thumb lever with one hand and pushed the dropper seat down with the other. Then he mounted up.

I unconsciously reached my hand up and tugged the chin strap on my helmet, then I glanced down and confirmed both laces were tied, a preride routine I’d been doing since my earliest days on a bike. Patting the grenades on my harness was a new addition to the checklist.


The hum got closer, Cody pointed up into the sky. The FPV’s would be here any minute. Aki pressed the smartphone on his handlebars, bringing up a map. He looked at Cody, Trail 286 down that western flank right? Cody said, that’s what we’re shooting for, rendezvous at way point Tango Seven if we get split up.

The drone in the sky stopped moving and hovered, it found us. Aki took off like a bmx racer pumping the pedals with full electric assist. He shot across a rocky meadow making for a forest of pinyon pines. Cody and I watched the drone, it sat in the sky waiting for us, so we followed after Aki. 

The bikes moved quickly across the hard dirt. We formed into a rough triangle as we bushwacked through the forest. Aki stayed out in front and Cody and I rode about fifty feet apart from each other.  Then I heard it, the first wave of attack drones was dropping onto our position. I kept up my speed as my bike clattered across loose rocks, kicking up dirt. I looked back over my shoulder and caught a glimpse of a drone behind us. The quadcopter darted in between trees closing the gap on Cody. He pedaled faster and faster trying to evade the drone, but every second it gained ground. 


The drone lined up and raced towards him. He tried to cut tight around a tree but the end of his handlebar caught the trunk. His front wheel cocked and dug into the dirt. The back wheel rose up as Cody pitched over the bars and slammed hard onto the ground. His bike tomahawked end over end and crashed into him as he lay on the ground with the wind knocked out of his lungs.

The drone shot past him then the rotor blades screamed as the operator pitched the copter up and reversed direction. The drone flew backwards right into a tree branch. We heard a thwack, thwack, thwack as plastic rotor blades snapped off and the machine fell to the pine needles, spasming as it tried to right itself like a fly with one wing torn off.

I pedaled to where Cody lay on the ground. Then I unclipped a grenade from my harness, pulled the pin and dropped it next to him. Purple smoke billowed out into a thick cloud around us. I dismounted and crouched next to him. He looked up at me with a silly grin. I asked if he was ok, he held up one finger and lightly shook it at me. He closed his eyes in pain and made a low wheezing sound trying to suck in air. Mountain bikers know you don’t try to talk when you’ve had the wind knocked out of you. Gradually he pulled in a full breath of air as a loud whirring sound came closer, obscured by the smoke. 

I reached to my side and slid the big revolver from it’s holster. The Niner was built in Colorado as a close-quarters anti-drone sidearm. Officially it was the NR20, I forget what the N stood for but the R was for revolver and 20 was for the 20 gauge shotgun shells it fired. The shells were a special load of aluminum balls strung together on kevlar string. It would only piss off a human, but it could take out a drone.

I saw the smoke swirling 15 feet to our left and aimed the gun with both hands. As soon as it came into view I fired and sheared the rotors off one side. The drone dropped to the ground and the explosive charge went off showering us with dirt. Cody got up and untangled his bike, the bars had spun all the way around pulling the cables taunt. He unwound the bar and the rear brake line snapped spitting fluid onto his hand. He pushed it a few steps and hopped onto the seat. I followed as we left the safety of the purple cloud. Another drone was getting close.

 Cody started getting back in the flow and we were getting closer to the downhill. A drone was on us closing in from behind. I heard a sharp whistle cut through the trees and Cody looked up, spotted the source and looked back for me to follow him. He gave the bike a few hard cranks and sprinted towards some thick bushy trees. I could hear the drone behind me as it throttled up. Cody raced past the tree and I followed his line. I  spotted Aki’s bike on the ground up ahead. I kept pedaling with the drone on my tail, I shot past the tree and Aki was hidden behind it, Go, he hissed. With perfect timing he let go of the big pine branch and it swatted into the whirring drone. The impact set off the charge and hot metal sprayed into the tree trunk as Aki tried to shield himself from the blast. I braked and looked back at the orange fireball surrounding my teammate. 

Aki had his back to the tree and had tucked his head between his knees. Then he stood up next to the tree as half of it was licked with flames.  He grabbed his bike and we started downhill again. We chugged down a rock garden and across an open saddle. Between the trees I saw the spotter drone hovering like a black star in the blue sky. Cody was waiting for us just inside the shadow of some tree cover. We pulled up to him, Cody saw Aki and his eyes widened, Aki’s face was black with soot and blood dripped out of his shirt cuff. My ears are ringing, he said, louder than he intended. Cody pointed at his phone and gave Aki a thumbs up.

 We had made it to the waypoint. Another team had cut a rudimentary trail down the hillside that started here. Cody dropped in with no back brake, Aki followed with his wounded arm. I saw three FPV’s drop down below the treetops and head straight at us, I knew they had to be hitting the limits of their range. I lowered my seat and clicked down several gears.


The trail was mostly a straight shot down the fall line. Someone had been told to make a hidden trail from A to B so they did as little as possible. We made three jagged turns and the drones followed. Then we got to the first feature, an old road cut that the mountain was healing over. The intent of the trail was to roll down the steep bank onto the dirt road and down the other side, but we were going way too fast to roll it.

All I could see was the back of Aki and I saw him throw three big pedal strokes in, so I did four. We came out of the trees and off the top edge of the road cut. I watched Aki just barely clear the gap and touch down on the far side of the double track. I popped off the edge pulling the bike into my attack position. The bars were slightly tweaked, knees pinched against the frame.

Jumping blind, I looked out into the landing area, but shade hid any details. I was aware of the double track sailing by underneath me, then I was aware of the landing transition going past. My back wheel came down hard and my suspension bottomed out with a knock. Both of my feet slipped off my pedals and my legs straddled the back wheel. The tire caught the crotch of my BDU’s and pulled fabric and body parts in between the tire and chainstay. Pain blossomed in my core as the tire became so jammed up it stopped spinning and started to skid. I rode like superman hanging off my bike as it careened off the trail into a fallen pine tree. 

I grabbed the back wheel and forced it backwards pulling out my pants with a shiny burn mark on the fly. I heard a drone come closer and I looked around. I saw Cody farther down the trail running back up to his bike laying in a cloud of dust with wheels spinning. Then I turned and saw Aki, he had stuck the landing and carried his speed in a long runout into some thinner trees. Two drones crossed the road gap and started coming down towards us. FPV  drones are built to look forward, anything below the line of sight is in a blind spot. The first drone paused and hovered in the air, then the sound of the rotors changed as it tipped forward trying to find us.


I heard a shotgun blast and the drone broke apart and fell to the pine needles. Aki stood holding the big revolver with both hands, a ribbon of smoke drifted from the barrel. Another drone pitched forward and lined up on him. It raced straight at him as he fired once, twice, the drone was closing fast. He aimed and fired and the drone detonated in front of him. Supersonic ball bearings peppered the area, several caught Aki in his chest armor knocking him backwards. Another piece of shrapnel cut a slice across his cheek.

We scrambled to our bikes and kept racing down the mountain. The suicide drones couldn’t reach us anymore and the spotter eventually left the area. The jenky trail wound its way down to a dirt road in the bottom of the valley. We got out on the dirt road and started heading back, hoping a friendly patrol might pick us up.

Cody pedaled along on a flat rear tire, his front brake was just metal dragging against metal and his bars were knocked a few degrees off. Aki’s bike made an awful scraping sound from the electric assist motor, acrid smoke trickled out of the frame and if he hit a bump something arced and spit sparks out of the bottom bracket. My bike sagged on a blown out suspension, we went over some washboards and spurts of black shock oil dripped on the ground. 

Cody’s breathing was labored, Aki had put a tourniquet on his arm and blood ran down his blackened face. Cody said, I’m fairly certain I broke some ribs. Aki said, yeah well I got blown up twice. I said, you guys don't even know, I nutted myself so bad, it still really hurts. They both looked at me, their eyes spoke volumes.

We kept riding, the sun was dropping over the ridge. Aki said, this reminds me of a joke I heard.

Oh man, don’t make me laugh, I could puncture a lung, Cody said with a wince.

Don’t worry it’s not funny,

I veered a little closer to hear the joke.

Aki began, So the best weapons developers in the world worked together to build the ultimate ai drone. Everyone gathered in the lab and they powered it on. The drone asked, What is my purpose? The head of the project said, “We want you to kill people who are evil.” So the drone blew up.


DISCLAIMER:

This story is completely unrealistic, I kinda knew that when I started. I finished it on May 5 on May 10th the Russian army launched an offensive on the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. The Russians rode motorcycles in some instances, and the Ukrainians used FPV drones to run them down.

I like the idea of drone vs mountain bike but it's like sword vs watermelon.
Also the explosive payload I described is way way too small, I won't link to that.

                           



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