Artwork by Joey Hi-Fi

Drone Commander Tidek

Chapter 2

Drone Commander Tidek is a novelette by Eduard F. Vinyamata. Check out Chapter 1 here.

Tidek shifted her weight left again and brought her wrists up a bit, and her drones turned left and pitched slightly, losing altitude. Her next waypoint was only a few meters above the sea. It’d be much more efficient to let the drones plot a course there by just wishing it, but the point of today’s drill was precisely to fly manual. Or as manual as it was gonna get. As far as Tidek knew, there were at least fifty-four bots — or zombies, as she preferred to call them — assisting her and her dear drones. The zombies continuously crunched data estimations and control algorithms, allowing her drones to not only follow her orders but also to autonomously adapt to environmental factors and events. Over fifty devices was a lot of computational power. In fact way more power than would be enough in normal circumstances. But these were not normal circumstances.

Internet data streams were being constantly monitored, and that made a direct connection between her and her drones out of the question. Even an encrypted direct connection would be dangerous. Specialized analysis programs had become outstanding at recognizing patterns in encrypted streams of data — even streams filled with fluff and empty bites — and flagging them as suspicious.

Alternet might have the bandwidth for drone flight, but it certainly didn’t have the stability. It had been imagined decades ago by the Chaos Computer Club as a completely new Internet: serverless and nearly impossible to censor or monitor. It was designed as an ecosystem of hundreds of picosatellites: small and cheap enough to be launched by hobbyists into low orbit. On the ground, DIY relay stations were used to track the satellites and encrypt and route traffic.

Alternet became illegal the day after the first swarm of satellites went live. Some relay stations were publicly confiscated and destroyed, but the Chaos Computer Club had anticipated that. Both satellites and relay stations were made to cost under a hundred euros each in parts. For each station lost, ten more were added to Alternet. The network itself was designed to withstand the constant loss and addition of relay stations. The only unavoidable drawback of this setup was that Alternet offered a shaky connection at best. Still, nowadays Alternet served as the backbone of all uncensored, unmonitored communications. It was the last bastion of privacy and freedom of information. Dedicating it to drone flight training was a waste of bandwidth, and perhaps not even possible.

So the solution to flying long-distance drones had to be found on the Internet, after all. To avoid standing out, Avionics and Artificial Intelligence data streams had to be encrypted, of course, but also split and distributed. Encrypted, low-data-volume feeds coming from zombie devices spread all around the world were much harder to flag. Two zombie devices — anything from a thermostat to a phone — were used per drone. None of the zombies knew they were infected and assisting far away drones while running menial duties to their clueless owners. Tidek knew that for her drones there would be about twenty-four more zombies working redundantly as a backup, one zombie dedicated to the exchange of data with her assigned SwiftEye, one to keep her in touch with Ops, a couple more to encrypt everything, and two more to piece all of the streams together. About fifty-four devices in total. Eluard taught me this…, she reminded herself, feeling instantly sad.

Tidek neared her next waypoint, the sea was getting closer. What she would give to be able to turn off her training-mode DCI and take her drones close enough to the water for the rotors’ downwash to be visible! Instead, she pushed both of her palms down and forward, as if pushing something away. Her drones responded by lowering their rear rotors against the original vector of movement. A hard stop.

Hovering in the air without moving, the humming of her twelve drones seemed to become fainter. Flashes of her childhood came to Tidek’s mind as she heard the ocean surf, blurred beneath her drones’ humming. She turned her head left. The DCI understood what she wanted and the camera on drone one — Kanda, as she had come to call it — panned left, mirroring her head movement.

Santo Domingo, her other home, was less than one klick away. Yet so far away. From such low altitude and from the sea, Santo Domingo looked like most Caribbean coastal cities: drowned. About fifty meters of land had been lost to the sea, drowning beaches, palm-tree-lined avenues and… apparently an obelisk. Tidek took a step to the side, making her whole body face left. Her drones turned too. She took a longer look at the city on her flight feed, projected at the forefront of her view. The clothes drawer in her room appeared dimly in the background. On one side of the partially drowned obelisk there was an odd, crumbling building. Perhaps an abandoned desalination plant? Tidek gently moved the palms of her hands downward, as if pushing something down, and her drones gained altitude. She turned around to face her bed and the door once again, and her next waypoint. Lowering her head a bit, as if nodding, she thought her drones forward once more, toward Santo Domingo’s old port.

Her next waypoint made Tidek smile: it took her inland. Flying over a city was an unexpected treat, only possible in selected low-security areas. As her flight route unfolded she saw she would be flying along the brown, dusty vein that divided Santo Domingo in two and that in years past was known as the Ozama River. Following protocol, Tidek pressed her palms down and back again, and her drones gained even more altitude.

When her altimeter indicator reached 150 meters, she crossed both her arms in front of her. The DCI emitted the familiar change-formation confirmation beep. What to do, what to do? Tidek pointed both her arms forward, thumb, index and ring fingers pointing in front of her.

“Double trail,” said the DCI’s sexy voice. Tidek’s drones divided in two groups of six, flying side by side in two straight lines.

Decrepit highways escorted Tidek on both sides of the dead riverbed as she shifted her weight and moved her palms slightly, leaning, following the Ozama’s twists and turns. Decaying old road bridges crossed her path. Soon, however, the roads at her sides ended and the slums took over. They invaded the riverbed itself in a sea of brown and grey roofs, all cramped into each other in a mess of dirty alleys and rusting metal. It appeared that every little hovel had their own Photoflow solar panel, gathering rainwater and possibly feeding solar energy to a router. Being offline was a divide not even the poorest could afford.

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Eduard F. Vinyamata is a Catalan writer in development. He was made in Barcelona and educated in the US. He lives with his dog Trutx, who is a big time foodie like him. Eduard is a traveler, a bon vivant, a geek and taller than you.

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