Author: David Barber

The morning Ethics Officer Summer flew in for duty aboard the USS Grover Cleveland, a pair of ancient Tornados jinked in at sea-level, heading for the task force on Golf-Bravo Station. They were still twenty miles out when they were brought down in balls of flame.

“Most excitement we’ve had all month,” Lieutenant Commander Hightower said.

The carrier was ploughing through heavy seas and Summer steadied himself. “I suppose those planes had human pilots.”

“I suppose they did.”

Hightower could not conceal his dislike of the young man. “What with this, and the South China Sea, we’re in overstretch. The Cleveland was brought out of mothballs, and we’re flying old F35’s retrofitted with AI pilots, so there’s no remoting. You’ll have a seat on missions.”

Hightower had been a Navy flyer during the Iran conflict, now he baby-sat someone with a philosophy degree pretending to be an officer.

“You know you won’t be popular round here.” Shame if the new guy fell down a ladder, seemed a popular opinion.

“Daniel in the lion’s den.”

“They see it as interference. Just don’t…” Just don’t be so righteous, he wanted to say.

Summer was woken by the bang and roar of planes being flung into the sky from the deck above. AI pilots needed no rest, no downtime, and night was same as day to their avionics. But he fell asleep again, reassured that humans were back in the loop.

His first mission launched at dawn. He sat in a cockpit stripped bare of manual controls.

Welcome Officer Summer. This autonomic pilot has been reconfigured for human oversight. I currently have 96% mission success rate and hope together we can do even better.

This was the problem he was here to address.

They crossed the coast near a bombed-out naval base, the glittering water dotted with wrecks. Summer was comforted by the steady whine of the engine. Below him the green land lay idle. Target One was an arms dump.

“It’s a church,” said Summer. Its tall, square tower had stood since the Middle Ages.

Munitions are stored inside.

“And when they’re moved, we can hit them in the open.”

Target Two, a mobile radar array, was too close to a school.

They sited it there, the AI protested.

After landing, Hightower was waiting for him. The AI had already registered a complaint. “They love their mission stats.”

“Every decision was within guidelines,” Summer maintained. He spoke with utter certainty.

Mostly they returned with their weapons load unused. Risk of collateral damage. Poor Intel. Once they safely destroyed a bridge. Climbing down from the cockpit, deck crews greeted him with ironic cheers.

Summer had aborted a strike on a convoy winding through narrow streets, when warnings sounded in his earphones.

Small arms fire. Critical systems damage. You should eject before I lose control.

He hesitated, and the plane yawed and pitched violently. He reached for the handle between his feet and was blasted into the sky.

Summer tried to tell his captors about the churches he’d saved, the targets next to playgrounds he vetoed, all the civilians unharmed because of him, but the rage of those bombed and strafed daily by robots could not be satisfied by kicking the wreckage of downed drones.

In a war-crimes trial they might have let him read out a statement, but he saw it would not come to that. The soldiers stood aside and let the mob have him.

His last thoughts were of multicoloured fields spread below his chute, and his plane receding into the distance as it headed back to Golf-Bravo Station.