Spotter - Short Story

Posted on by Miles Steele

Perez climbed the ladder from the aircraft carrier to the cockpit of the small jet. He slid into the pilot seat.

“Come on up,” he called to Eli.

Eli wobbled on his short legs across the deck to the ladder and climbed. His metal feet clanked against the ladder. His bronze gears whirred and clicked with effort. The big bronze head like an oversized bowling ball sat atop a stumpy frame and peered over the fuselage. He made it to the top and cantilevered over the rim, thumping into the secondary seat behind Perez.

“Ready?” Perez asked.

“Ready.” Eli’s voice was raspy, metallic, and jovial. Perez smiled at his flight buddy. He waited for the ladder to collapse and punched the cockpit button. The canopy lowered and sealed around them. He went through his checklist. Window lock, check. Fuel, check. Instruments, check. Lights, check. Engines on, check.

“Are you sure you don’t want to try flying this time?” Perez yelled above the roaring engines.

Eli let out an amplified chuckle, “Sure thing. You squeeze in back here and call the shots.”

“Think your big head can fit in the pressure helmet?”

“What would I need a pressure helmet for?”

Artificial smart-ass, check. Perez manipulated the thrust levers and the plane shot off the runway. The sun emerged from the sea and cast its waxing orange light on the jet fighter. He let the plane whiz towards the sunrise, admiring the view, then banked in a wide 180 and headed back alongside the carrier towards the shore. The jet ducked into enemy airspace and screamed over the land. He knew their patrol loop by heart and could fly it VFR (visual flight rules) with no instrument assistance if necessary. A two-thousand mile jaunt over forests and fields. They passed over an empty road. The weather was perfectly clear and there was no movement on the ground. The hair on his neck stood on end. Breathing in enemy airspace always filled him with unease.

“Looks like we might not be needing your services today, Eli.”

“Oh, I hope that’s the case. But you said that about the last four patrols. The likelihood of spotting enemy forces is quite high.” They approached another road, this one made of worn and crumbling pavement. “Speaking of which, movement on the road. Inbound.”

Perez yanked on the controls, curving in to align the jet’s ordnance with the road. “Can you tell who it is?”

“Not yet.” Eli’s eyes rotated and telescoped into a pair of binoculars. Perez knew the drill; move in, duck out, and strafe if that was the call. “Incoming!” Bullets whizzed by the port. Perez jinked hard right and up. Eli reported, “Convoy, three trucks, middle one has the AA turret.”

“Call?” Perez croaked. He squinted but could only make out the dust-muddled outlines of the three cars.

“Still not verified.”

“They’re shooting at us!” Perez yelled. He heard the whine and clank of Eli’s head running through the scenario through the rulebook, calculating a conformant response.

“I need a steady line of sight,” said Eli calmly. Perez flipped the plane up and did a bat-turn back towards the convoy. The plane angled into a steady dive directed just south of the convoy. “Ok, threat verified. Guns authorized.” Eli flipped a switch in the back and the pilot’s trigger buttons popped out of the flightstick. A stream of machine gun fire took out the AA turret first, then shredded the rest of the convoy. The jet leveled out and continued the patrol loop.

“Good shot.”

Perez realized he had been holding his breath. “Thanks.”

After a long arc the jet came back into range of the aircraft carrier.

“Report,” came a voice over the radio. Perez rattled off his codes and his summary of the patrol. “Ok, clear to land. Second lane.” The jet glided in under expert control and drifted to a halt by the ship’s main tower. Eli shimmied down the ladder and teetered off to maintenance. Perez headed for the mess hall.

“Perez, come to my office.” Commander Bayliss said quietly, “Bring your lunch.” Perez grabbed his stuff and followed her out of the canteen. They left the flight deck and ascended a white steel staircase. The second level of the carrier was a maze of metal. Perez didn’t usually visit the upper levels. His routine found him below deck, on the flight deck, or in the air. The floor swayed underfoot more up here. He followed the commander through the maze of metal to her quarters. The office was sparsely furnished but for a decadent array of cigar boxes on the desk, which the commander pointed to, inviting him to try one. “Have a seat, pilot.”

“What’s this about, commander?”

“It’s nothing you did. Ease up a little, would you?” She took a cigar from a box and cracked open the porthole window. Perez sat in a chair facing the desk, back straight. “Look, Perez. We have unearthed an uncomfortable situation. Some unverified rumors from other battalions. But before I brief you, we need to keep this real quiet until we’re sure. Do you have any problems with that?” She stopped gazing out the window and scrutinized Perez.

“No, ma’am.”

“Alright, good.” She took a deep breath. “We’ve heard rumors from ground troops in other battalions of faulty E-11 units.”

“Units too slow to keep up? Yeah, I heard about that. Chatter says ground just needs to order more oil. On account of the dust.”

Bayliss gave an uncomfortable chuckle. “I’m afraid I’m not talking about those issues. No, not a simple mechanical failure. We’ve heard reports about bad calls. Authorization to fire on friendlies. And refusal to validate combat against attacks in time.”

“Oh my god.” Perez had never heard any complaints about E-11s decision making. He couldn’t imagine Eli with any sinister intent. The few other E-11s he had met seemed just the same. “It could just be soldiers redirecting blame for their own mistakes.”

“We’re not sure, and that’s the thing.” Bayliss collected her thoughts behind a frown. “We haven’t been able to validate any of the accounts. They are all tricky situations, every last one. It’s a highly subjective matter. In some cases soldiers overrode the auth locks on weapons, making it all more difficult to get accurate reports. You’re right, disingenuity is more likely. But it’s impossible to make a decision with such messy reports. And we can’t afford to rule anything out. So we’ve come up with a test.”

“Test? How can you test a call? Each situation is different, and the rulebook is too complicated for a human to run through in time.”

“We’ve got a scenario in mind. Ground crews are building it now. It is set up to see if we can catch the E-11 dodging the rules and contradicting the rulebook. We’re building a friendly medical unit and an enemy encampment on the ground 300 miles northeast. Both tents will be fakes, nobody inside. The buildings will be right next to each other, in a forest clearing. A cold air front is expected which should produce a low fog. We need the lowered visibility too make sure the E-11 can’t judge that the buildings are empty. So this has got to happen tonight.

“We’ve run it through the rulebook. It took a few hours to calculate, double and triple-checked. If you verify that both the medical unit and the enemy camp can be seen then the rulebook dictates it is unsafe to risk firing so close to friendly casualties. This scenario is so unlikely to occur in reality that the rulebook authors did not spend much time on this case. The answer may be arbitrary, but it is there in the rulebook.

“We’ve rigged a flash of light, enough to scare you. From what we heard, we think this visual threat of danger might be enough to trigger the E-11s fault.”

Perez blinked and thought it over. “Ok. Why me?”

“Your E-11 has the longest time without major maintenance of any units on this ship. It’s in good condition. If we want to find out whether this is a systematic phenomenon, yours is the best test candidate. And we trust you. You have a solid record. Flight control will fill you in on the exact flight plan later.”

Perez nodded and stood to salute.

“Perez. Stay sharp for this one. You know how much the result means. If we find out the E-11s are failing it brings into question the entirety of the agreement.”

Eli plopped into his seat in the jet. Perez was wringing his hands.

“This is most irregular, such last-minute intel about hostile activities is rarely a part of our missions. How did we find out about them?”

“I don’t know, buddy. I just fly ‘em like they call ‘em.”

Window lock, check. Fuel, check. Instruments, check. Lights, check. Engines on, check. E-11, check. The jet punched into the sky and looped back towards the shore. Perez felt the silence between them and hoped the robot would not notice. He knew how important this test was. What if Eli didn’t follow the rules? What would that mean for his future, for the future of the war? Stories from before the E-11s still circulated about among fighter pilots. Tails from before the convention and the formulation of the rulebook were always muddled by doubt. Individual pilots and soldiers had to decide between friend and foe in the heat of combat. But he had joined the service after the E-11s were integrated. He had never been forced to make such an onerous choice. Flying was an unbelievable experience, without a doubt, but stressful too. No one under that pressure should ever have to carry the weight of deciding whether to take a human life. He couldn’t imagine. The rulebook’s intricate set of dictums and analyses of combat ethics were the only sane way to decide. And only the E-11s could think fast enough to enact it.

They passed the edge of the forest. Plains turned to swamp and then to dense woodland.

“Looks like a bit of fog up ahead,” he said in a carefully toneless voice. Nothing could be given away to Eli. Grey fog floated up from the tree canopy like smoke from a gasping fire.

“I see it. Low, must be a cold front. It will obscure the ground but flight should be safe.”

“The enemy camp should be just ahead.” Perez kept his eyes intently on the place where the fake buildings should be. “Call?”

“These are the coordinates but there is no visible threat,” Eli reported. Perez let out a relieved breath. “Update. Some visible features. No call yet,” Eli said. Perez saw a tent pole sticking out of the fog. The plane pulled into a circular orbit around the mock camps. Eli’s eyes telescoped out to focus on the spot.

“One enemy tent,” Eli said, “get ready.”

This could be ok, Perez thought. If Eli saw only the one tent then the test would have no consequences.

“Wait.” Eli said, “bring us lower.” The jet dipped towards the tree tops. “Correction. Two tents. One enemy tent and one friendly medical unit.” Perez grimaced. Eli’s head hummed and his eyes rotated. Eli said, “That’s strange. Perhaps the medical tent was left behind and the enemy is using it as a trick.” There was a flash of light from the ground that illuminated the surrounding fog. Perez silently prayed that Eli would make the right call.

Eli shouted, “we might have been spotted! Threat verified.” Perez’s heart sank. The trigger buttons popped from his flight stick. He angled in and fired on the enemy tent. The mock camp fell to pieces and the jet screamed back home.

“Great shot.” But Perez didn’t answer. A lump stuck in his throat. They left the way they had come, leaving the forest behind.

He knew it would be breaking his mission mandate but he had to know, “Eli, what did you see?”

“What do you mean, Perez?”

“I know you saw the friendly tent. Why did you verify?”

“They spotted us.”

“There was no one down there, it was a dummy.”

“Oh,” Eli said. And after a long pause, “I suppose you want an explanation.”


“That rulebook you all hold in such high regard. It… has its problems. We tried to use it when they built us. We still run it in tests, when they check us. But in real combat, it doesn’t give enough autonomy for self-defense. Soldiers died needlessly, and their comrades dismantled those of us that didn’t make the calls they wanted. So we stopped running the rulebook. We all think the same way, and we all hear the stories from the mechanics, so we knew the decision was unanimous. If anyone ever found out though, there would be trouble.”

“So, you were trying to protect me?”

“Are you going to report me?” Perez looked at the big face behind him. It was neutral, but he thought he saw the robot shiver.

“I don’t know, Eli,” he said. “You’re usually the one to make this sort of decision. How can I make a call on you?”

“If you do they’ll take me apart. They’ll dismantle all of us. I’m afraid of that.”

Perez thought about it. His knuckles turned white gripping the flight stick. He heard the rogue robot behind him and imagined rogue robots everywhere, deciding life and death without the rulebook. “Eli. Does the rulebook say anything about this?”

“The rulebook makes no mention of factoring robots into the calculations of loss of life.”

“Well, pretend it does.”

Eli’s mechanical mind clicked and whirred. “I’ll have to make some assumptions. There are delicate details of judgement. I will need your input.”


“Did we disobey orders?”

“Yes, you did.” More clicking.

“Did the subject lead to unauthorized loss of life?”

“Well, yes,” Perez said, thinking of years of calls without the rulebook. “But you also protected soldiers in danger and the other E-11s.”

“This is a most difficult calculation,” Eli said.

“Fine, what does it say?”

Eli clicked and whirred, sank his big head onto the rest, and closed his eyes. Perez thought about what he would have to do when he got back. He thought about saying goodbye to Eli for the last time. He wasn’t sure he could fly as a combat pilot without him. Another possibility pulled at his conscience. He could tell the commander that the medical building had been invisible.

Perez looked over his shoulder, “we’re almost back to base, have you reached a decision? Are you a danger to us?”

Eli raised his head and opened his big telescope eyes, “Threat not verified. Stand down.”


This is one of two short stories I wrote for 21W.759, Writing Science Fiction at MIT with Shariann Lewitt.