The Air Force Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle is the particular darling of the American military and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

Pilot-less "drone" aircraft have had a place in tactical warfare since the first weather balloons and camera-toting platforms were launched. A recent incarnation, the RQ-1 Predator Medium Altitude Endurance Unmanned Aerial Vehicle has found great success in Afghanistan, both as a reconnaissance vehicle (Taliban leader Mullah Omar, you'll recall, was targeted by a Predator early in the war) and—in a mission profile somewhat hastily added—as a platform for the devastating laser-guided Hellfire missile. It was in that configuration early this week that a Predator drone fired upon three alleged members of the Taliban, the tallest of whom was certainly killed, though reports are still sketchy and contradictory concerning a: whether the men were indeed Taliban, and b: whether the tallest of them was Osama Bin Laden himself.

A most promising addition to America's arsenal of unmanned aircraft (see Yurei's fascinating writeup which describes many other models) is Boeing's X-45A demonstration system, which completed low speed taxi tests last November and will commence flight tests by spring at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center in Southern California.

The X-45A system is comprised of the plane itself, a mission control system, and a storage container. The aircraft is stealthy, tailless, and 27 feet long with a 34-foot wingspan. Its empty weight is 8,000 pounds and it can be multiply-configured with a variety of weapons and reconnaissance systems.

Conceptually, the X-45A is designed similarly to the Predator, in that multiple craft are utilized. The first phase of Boeing's test program will demonstrate that two aircraft can perform a coordinated suppression of enemy air defenses. The machines are equipped with pre-programmed objectives and preliminary targeting information by ground-based mission planners. The mission can then be carried out autonomously, but it can also be revised en route by UCAV battle managers, should new objectives or targets present themselves. In its final configuration, an X-45A battle system will comprise up to four aircraft controlled by one person at a reconfigurable mission control station. Both satellite relay and line-of-sight communication links will be utilized.

It is the exploration of the synergy between man and machine that is a key component of the program's objectives.

Upon completion of a mission, the UCAV will be dismantled and placed in a container for shipment or storage for a period up to ten years. The vehicle will be monitored, maintained, and receive software updates while still in its container. It can be reassembled and prepared for combat in an hour.

The UCAV is small, relatively low-cost (at 65 percent less than future fighter aircraft), reusable, easily-stored and doesn't require an expensive, highly-trained, and vulnerable pilot. Its operational costs are expected to be 75 percent less than current systems.

The UCAV demonstration program is conducted under a $191 million, 56-month cost-share agreement awarded to Boeing in March 1999 by DARPA and the United States Air Force.

Upon successful completion of test objectives, the Department of Defense expects to deploy this system by 2008.

DARPA News Release, December 4, 2001
Popular Science Best of What's New.

19 April 2004--a progress report

A Boeing Joint Unmanned Combat Air System X-45 aircraft released an inert GPS-guided bomb Sunday at the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division range in China Lake, Calif.

According to an AP story, the X-45 took off, opened its bomb bay doors, dropped a 250-pound Small Smart Bomb, and landed sucessfully. The bomb apparently hit its target.

“It’s absolutely a huge step forward for us, said Rob Horton, Boeing's chief operator for the mission. "It shows the capability of an unmanned airplane to carry weapons. From the video, you see the weapon going down and a huge cloud of dust and the truck shaking around.”

Horton, sitting 80 miles (130 kilometers) from the target, authorized the drone to drop the bomb, which was released from 35,000 feet (10,670 meters) as the plane flew at 442 mph (700 kilometers per hour).

>So the radar is where now?
“Two clicks to the northeast. Turn 035 true and you should be able to skirt the western edge of the envelope.”
“System’s got it.”
>I see.
>Can you get a type on the NATO code?
“I-band. It’s our buddies again.”
>This is the contact that we saw last week?
>I’m getting some weird Doppler off of that radar.

When the playback comes he only hears the audio, sees the video.
Miranda on the other hand, hears the words reproduced by the machine and can remember at one point not so much hearing them as feeling them roll out. Radiating from some part of consciousness no longer connected to the whole. In the rush of the static and the sound of her own breath she can see the cones of radio frequency energy radiating through the environment, the movement of atmosphere over the wings, the feel of the fluid through each coupling. Just like so, now you bank.

Back again toward center to find balance, level out now just before the waypoint. A vast array of data streaming in that becomes ideas, thoughts, and mental pictures of the flight’s course. The trees come as dots in the distance and then run together as a blur just before the edge of your field of vision. Miranda is a three-eyed harlequin, one eye infra-red, another amplified illumination with EM spectral overlay and a final the overall view that God enjoys sitting on high.

Together they are sixty-five thousand pounds of composite and milled titanium death ripping over the ground at just over nine hundred knots indicated airspeed toward a target just now coming into view. They would fly faster if not for the near max gross payload weight bearing down in Miranda’s belly like a full bowel and the relatively dense atmosphere on this world.

In memory there is no awareness of anything other than the wholeness, the unity of the two halves and the end product of what the manuals call developmental machine consciousness. They were not cooperating there as much as being one another simultaneously.

In the present, Miranda can see him reaching toward the small pad on the playback controls that will stop the recording. He watches what she sees on a monitor on the wall, seemingly oblivious to the enormous bundle of cable radiating out from the connectors at the base of her spine, to the floor and into a small alcove in the wall. A trio of smaller cables resembling black spaghetti rise in a smaller bundle from the grouping to the back of Miranda’s right ear, providing all of the visual cues directly to her visual cortex.

If she opens her eyes she will see the table and the room and the investigator. If she closes them they are still together, she is still alive. Silently begging, Miranda watches the finger travel the distance over the table to stop the recording.

C’mon, just a few more seconds of together. Please. You can’t stop here.


“So this is the point at which you lost contact with…the aircraft.” The words come from the investigator’s mouth as though they are poisoned. This man sits in a freshly pressed uniform across the table from a woman in a crumpled flight suit now staring blankly across the table at the investigator’s chest.

The transition back and forth is so harsh as to stun her for several seconds after being disconnected. Going back to the recording is like falling into a warm bath, familiar and comfortable. Coming out on the other hand is jarring to an extreme, for a few moments it is as though Miranda does not know where any part of her could be. Your head feels as though it might just fly off, your arms are somewhere else entirely and is that urine dribbling down your leg or just a residual from the hydraulic leak?

She knows why it is that he has such a bias toward her and the rest of the pilots, a pair of polished wings rides on the khaki fabric above a row of neatly mounted ribbons and campaign devices. This one is not only a pilot, but also a damned war hero at that. They always hate her; that is the pilots always hate her.

It is not just a phenomena limited to Miranda, but to all of the others like her onboard the station. Although she has not had contact with anyone else outside of her own community, Miranda believes that the actual aircraft and ship pilots hate all of the UCAV pilots in the Navy. Whether they are from drop ships, long-range survey craft, endoatmospheric fighters, or the rabble of other craft used. So long as they have a cockpit and not a plug, they hate the UCAV pilots.

“Not quite.” Muttering is a kind of defense, to shield her from the building storm that this man will bring crashing down on her ears. He wants to sleep with her, she knows this and that fact merely serves to ferment the whole mixture.
“So it was after…when?” He asks. Miranda can tell that he knows, he has watched the tape before and knows that there is at least another thirty seconds of data, including monaural audio. “Miranda. You can tell me, talk to me. More than that, you can help me.”
“Wally. I told you.” Emptiness. Pain. Solitude. This horizon to forever in all directions and the wind blowing across the cracked desert sands, knowing that there will never be another to replace her. “Don’t use…that as leverage.”
“I know this is hard on you. All you need to do is just, tell me what happened.” This in a voice so bright it makes Miranda think of yellow daisies in the sun and childhood. “Now, we’re just going to go through the end of the tape and we’re all done.”
Wally.” Weeping now, praying for him not to send her back there only to take it all away again and again. “Don’t push the button. I wanna go back to my cabin and chill for a while and get my head together. Then we can do the rest of this okay?”
“Emmy.” Wally’s eyes say more than his voice ever will in milliseconds. “Look, I can’t be…friendly…right now. You’re going to have to buck up and be what the Navy and the United Nations need you to be right now, which is a good Petty Officer, understood?
“Fuck you.”
Excuse me?
“Fuck you, sir.


“Shunt PRI HYD secondary.”
>Shunting. We’re losing altitude.
“I see that.”
>Breaking right.
>Nice flying.
“That was too close.”
>I have good lase on target.
“Bay doors coming open.”
> Number three hyd’s goona take a shit.
“I see it.”
>Pickle is hot.
>Weapon away.
“I see it. Radar signature.”
>They’re launching.
“Break left. Chaff times two. Go active ECM.”
>They're still tracking.
“Deploy ram air turbine."
"You still there?”
>Not feeling so hot Miranda.
“Yeah, we’re leaking.”
>Jammed. Try it again.
>We got a big problem here.
>You watch the systems, I'll watch that battery.
"Avpack's on the way out."
>Breaking left. Bearing information would be nice.
>Goddamn non self-healing systems.
"Be nice."
>I am. You see that 40mm emplacement radar?
"No. I think they're manually steering the gun."
>Ow. They're doing a good job too.
>That's going to do it for us.
"We've lost the avionics package."
>Trying reboot. See if I can reset from here.
"Don't bother. Just start looking for a ditch point."
"Told you. How about the lee side of that ridgeline?"
>Yeah, we'll aim for that.
"You set?"
>We're getting there. Calling the SAR.
>Miranda. You take care now.
"They're waiting. Get lined up, level off and we're out of there."
>Going to miss you.
"Don't say that shit. We're getting you back."
"Screw this. We're punching out now. You copy?"
>.it*&* _____(!& __^^^
"Eject eject eject. I'm getting garbage down here so if you copy punch out."
> ^@$
“Eject. Fucking eject ALREADY.”
>>Miranda? More missiles Miranda. Missiles.
> %n â â â
Á 0 0 )(*&UOIJN$RE(&*0
ª 0 Sequen(&*)OUsd(*&!#@%#WDKNce
â ª
0 z 0 ª

“Shit no.”
“Hula six zero seven down at mission time zero two, five four, twelve decimal seven seven.”
“Mission tasking incomplete.”
Hernandadiaz, Miranda PIC at time of loss.”
AI module not ejected.”


“So it was there.” This seems to cause the investigator some reason for excitement. His voice rising toward the end of the statement, it goes from being a question to being a statement of facts. Suddenly Miranda realizes that this is just another interrogation for him and her innocence is immaterial.
“Yeah Wally.” She slowly draws a pack of cigarettes from the shoulder pocket of a sweat-stained flight suit. The small room that they are in already reeks of cigarette smoke and the inevitable background stench from the closed-loop ventilation system. The place is really nothing more than just another closet on the orbiting station. "End of the flight, end of the tape. Big huge mystery there. Don't got to go to far with that one to figure it out, do you?"
"Your input is duly noted." He speaks, chiding her for overtly mocking him. The recordings could go beyond the station, calling his interviewing methods into question is something that Wally would like to avoid.

The station hangs above the planet’s surface at a distance of 200 miles. Far enough that the space-borne occupants can smash the occasional projectile lobbed their way before it can rip through the delicate skin of the station. Close enough that they can launch strikes on the non-compliant citizens below on an almost daily basis, thereby reminding them that you do not dick with the oh-so fickle wants and needs of the United Nations.

Miranda lights another cigarette and pushes the ashtray back into place on the table’s Velcro center. No need for the small self-sealing sphere to float off somewhere inaccessible when the station’s gravity decides to go on the fritz.

This leads her to wonder how it is that you can set something spinning in space for the ‘benefit’ of those above, but not keep it going. The constant slowing of the ring-shaped station is supposedly to aid with “external maintenance.” During all of the flights they have flown (or were flying,) from the station Miranda did not once see someone out fixing anything.
The low gravity is probably just a drill like everything else. Yet another psychological tactic to help them keep their edge and cooked up by an admiral a few million-jillion astronomical units away.

“Tell me about the vehicle again.” Wally says after taking notes for several moments. Miranda looks at him and finds the interrogator blithely smiling while watching the smoke slowly swirl through the shaft of light emanating from the ceiling, totally absorbed in the moment.
“Yes, six oh seven or whatever.”
“Sir, do you know how the link works?” She asks, tentatively.

“Don’t give me that pair bonding crap. There’s NOTHING.” To emphasize the point he slams his hand into the table hard enough to rattle the hardware holding it fixed to the floor. Startled, she reaches down and pulls herself down into the chair after drifting upwards for two or three seconds. He pauses long enough to regain his composure. “As I was saying, there’s nothing to support the vague and incomprehensible theory concocted by some psychotherapists that pair bonding exists. They’re machines Petty Officer Hernandadiaz, they're not alive. Unacceptable. All you people are doing is reading into the situation what you want to see.”

“Yes sir.” She knows that Wally is another non-believer. He is another of the men who come here and do not understand that when they laid down the circuits in her brain and they started her on a journey. One that began with first trusting, then knowing and then finally understanding what it was on the other end of the data stream.

How it was they could feel the wind running past the rivets, how they could see with the radar and the sensors.

How it was that the machines questioned the wisdom of bombing targets when more valuable strike packages were so close. Targets that would have helped win, or at least help to facilitate the amorphous ending to it all.

These people just did not understand that once the process began that there was a life there. None of them can understand that even now nerve ends are buzzing in pain from the sudden interruption.

“The mass of static, right there at the end. Tell me about that.”
“Yes sir.” Miranda tries to slump farther into her chair only to find her progress being blocked by the safety restraints for the connectors. Wishing for a couch like they have in the mission bays, she reaches inside of herself and pulls off the most splendid lie that she has conceived in her lifetime. “I don’t know what that was.”
“There was data, Emmy.” She flinches and then squints at him momentarily, knowing that the change in tactics has been calculated. He was planning to drop this bomb; it explains the insipid smile when she came back from the link. “Don’t bullshit me. We’ve got valid bi-directional telemetry, but it’s got too many anomalies for the standard recorders to figure it out. We’d need the actual AI box for us to know what was going on here.”
“I don’t know Wally. It was probably garbage data from the crash.” Sniffing while boring a hole in the table with her eyes, Miranda flicks ash from her cigarette toward the tray in the center of the table in a sudden blur of motion.
“You’re sure?” Hiking an eyebrow, he gestures toward the rear wall of the small interrogation room. “I can see if we can get another dummy out of storage, have you run a few in the sims and then come back up here? The investigation can’t proceed unless.”
“Sir.” Interrupting, Miranda reaches around the chair with one arm and begins to disconnect the cables holding her in place. “Wally. Whatever. I’m going to unplug and then I’m going to the bar. I’m then going to proceed to get fucking loaded.”
See you there, Emmy.” With that Wally practically shoots from his chair and out of the room, leaving Miranda in silence to finish disconnecting the umbilical cables.

“You want to tell me about it?” Chief Grayson is sitting at the end of the bar near Miranda with an ugly expression on his face. This has more to do with the fact that he has yet another pilot losing her mind than with the usual complaint of having to drink beer from a plastic pouch certified for microgravity. "Tell me he at least wasn't being a fucking prick like usual."

“I don't know, Chief. Don't know if I want to talk about it, right?”

“You go see doc yet?”
“What did she say?”
“Gave me something for the headache. Said she’ll be here later.”
You okay? Your head bothering you?”
“It will be tomorrow morning.” Miranda says, waggling her own plastic pouch at the Chief with a broad smile.

“Didya say anthing?” The Chief asks. They have been drinking for three hours now and are both bathed in a fuzzy blanket of intoxication. Music blares through the dark space from a corner jukebox, blasting out propaganda songs with lyrics of victory and righteousness.
“Say anything?” Miranda giggles.
“Oh yeah.” Lin asks. The brunette flight surgeon is famous for playing bartender in her off hours. This serves a dual purpose: one, she can make sure that people get drunk enough to forget and two she can make sure that people who need to keep going don’t get drunk and stay that way. “Did you tell him?
“About?” Miranda’s asking of this question sends the Chief’s eyes rolling in a mock approximation of anger.
“C’mon Miranda, you know.” He says, this time a hardened and serious edge in his voice. Something cutting through the liquor like a white-hot scalpel.
“No. I didn’t tell him about the…them.” Whispering, Miranda squeezes and then releases the plastic pouch in her hands. The motion causes a succession of creaking noises to issue from the plastic that she finds somehow therapeutic. “I mean I tried.”
“Miranda.” Reaching across from the stool bolted to the floor next to hers, Grayson slowly rubs his hand across the back of Miranda’s flight suit in small circles. “It’s okay. She never felt a thing.”
“She was still there. I heard her calling me.” Tears spill from the corner of eyes now shut and then run to the hollows in her neckline. Choking back a sob, Miranda manages to finish the next sentence before collapsing into a sudden howl of sorrow. “There was something wrong with the ejection system. I tried. I mean I kept trying to eject and just couldn’t.”
“It’s okay.” Grayson leans over and pulls Miranda into his chest while dragging her feet toward the bar to curl up in a ball while still shuddering. “It’s just residual.”
“No. Chief.” At this point Miranda has become essentially inconsolable, the sobs wracking her body have begun to draw the attention of several other pilots in the bar. For those who have lost the bond is almost instant, they begin to stir to their feet and move slowly toward their fallen comrade. “I felt her go. I swear it. Oh my fucking god I was there when she."
"Miranda." Trying not to show the horror, Lin finds herself silent and watching her lover from across the bar.
"I felt her die Chief. I felt me die.” The words pour out in a rush until she finally breaks, then sobbing quietly and begging for forgiveness.
“Shh.” Horrified, Grayson tightens his arms around the shattered mass of humanity quivering in his arms, instinctively trying to exorcise the demons. “She’s gone now, just let go.”


“Gah.” The clock on the wall reads 02:35:05. Miranda watches the dark blue digits cycle by for several seconds after having awoken sitting bolt upright.

“Hey.” Lin’s form stirs beneath the blankets in the near silence of Miranda’s cabin. “I, uh, you okay?”

I don’t know.” Between the lingering effects of the alcohol wearing off and the pill she took coming on, reality is being twisted in opposite directions. Miranda quickly pins the blame for her disorientation on the booze and flops backwards into Lin’s hair draped across her pillow. This is warm and smells of sleep and perhaps something else, safety. There is no fire, no howling engine on the verge of a catastrophic compressor failure.
“You were dreaming.”
“Mmm.” Miranda rolls onto her side facing away from the other woman only to feel her move closer and nuzzle into the back of her neck. “Lin. I.”

“Miranda.” Lin’s voice comes after a moment, shattering the pregnant silence.
“Hmm.” The voice is heavy with something other than sleep, Lin chooses not to say anything to her this time that the narcotics could react poorly with the cocktail of other medicines used to optimize the operator’s connection to the aircraft. Miranda has been taking the drugs to help with adjusting to the new module and the post-traumatic stress that had come as a result of the crash six weeks prior. “What?”
“I looked at your link throughput statistics.”

“And?” Stirring, Miranda stretches and then latches on to the implied subject. “You mean the rates from the crash.”

“I think you’re right.”

“So I did.” Rolling over, Miranda turns to face Lin in the darkness while cradling her jaw with her hands. Fresh tears begin to form at the sides of her eyes and then roll slowly toward the coarse white bed sheet. “I did. I didn’t leave her?”

“No.” Lin knows that this is a mixed blessing, something that is simultaneously damnation and salvation. “She knew you were there.


An afterword you may or may not find useful:
I normally don't like doing sequels to things, however I attended a briefing given by DARPA some weeks ago concerning some of the grittier details covered in riverrun's above excellent w/u, and this is the result of that. The actual source of this story comes from the program manager responsible for the DARPA Intelligent UCAV project and a rather interesting statement that he made during the briefing:

"We will, by that time of course, have a metric by which we can judge the mental task loading of an individual, and shunt more complicated processes to other, less burdened individuals connected to the system."

Great. William fucking Gibson here we come.

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