Ghost Drones of Cleveland Forest

We began sending drones to theaters of war in the Middle East to wipe out terror leaders in a series of strategic surgical strikes. The George W. Bush Administration sent close to fifty drones to the Middle East. Our subsequent President, Barack Obama, blew that statistic out of the water. He ordered several hundred drone strikes in the same region during his first term. By 2025, his legacy was a single word: drones. 

Our military grew to depend on remotely controlled drones so much that military schools trained soldiers almost exclusively to operate drones remotely from secured locations deep inside military installations. The drones themselves became our force instead of foot soldiers. Local police used drones to snuff out drug lords and gang leaders. Churches used drones to, in their words, 'prevent attacks,' even when none were threatened.

Countless science fiction novels and video games had predicted this future, but up close, there was nothing remotely cool or glamorous or bloodless about this drone war. Things got really scary, really fast, and before long, no one was safe. 

Enemy forces throughout the world took offense at our liberal use of drones. Before we knew it, they sent their own flying buzzards into each others' air space. We soon used our drones to shoot down other drones, and before long, they all did battle high in the skies above Kandahar Province, above Tehran, Pakistan, over Syria, and elsewhere in the region. There seemed no point in troops performing open maneuvers any longer - the flying angels of death swooped down swifter and deadlier than ever. 

These remote sky soldiers started by carrying surveillance equipment, missiles and explosives. Soon thereafter, they carried precise artillery, but it wasn't long before they carried powerful lasers and nuclear weaponry. Their invisible lasers had a reach of several miles and could cut a solid, smooth line through the deepest mountain pass. There were even behemoths carrying nuclear and biological agents, but they were only to be used as a last resort. 

Little did we know how much damage even the basic drones could do. A group of three hundred of our 'buzzers' severed the most opulent structures in Tehran's skyline in minutes - in response to an unsubstantiated report about a Metal Gear-style tank they had developed. Before the Iranian military could even protest or retaliate, a black cloud of buzzing death approached and burned the airfields, and surrounded Iran's capital. We did the same with other countries that protested. We shut them down. 

While all this went on, many other countries secretly developed remote kill drones in tandem with terrorist cells in countries we'd long considered our allies. Our friends hated us because we'd grown too brazen with our drones. Germany, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and South Korea, all countries we'd not bothered to spy on - sent their own remote drones into US airspace and began assassinating our citizens. We found ourselves woefully outnumbered, and we fell.

Soon, every country invaded every other country with its drones. Most of them flew, but a few skidded International waters. Some lurked well under the waves. Others walked liked tanks. The skies went dark with black metal sheathing and the skies were filled with the sounds of rat-tat-tat gunnery or the silent burning from the invisible lasers. There was no escape. The President and most of his staff were killed from deep in an underground bunker. Congress was eviscerated. People walked outside for their newspapers and were burned alive, blown up, or simply beheaded by lasers at random. The drone operators in almost every major country in the world were not out to advance any one political agenda. They were gamers whose Governments had ordered them to kill as many virtual citizens on the view screen as possible. Kids no older than 8 or 9 years commanded huge, swarthy drone-coptors and eviscerated orphanages, schools, and hospitals.

Once the drone wars took off, they escalated so quickly that most of our metropolitan areas crumbled within months. The tallest buildings in the world just slid away like slices of soft bread. Laser drones cut grid patterns in the earth and near military bases, destroying remote drone operation stations. Once a laser even blasted through a drone pilot base in Montana, and with that, a whole battalion of flying MR-740s swirled out of control and crashed near Fengrun in China.

Residents of the big metropolitan cities - London, New York, Atlanta, Mumbai, Beijing and Moscow - all fled for the countryside and tried to wait it out. They re-introduced themselves to the world, so to speak - as farmers, as wood cutters, as masons or just rural drunks. The snow-bit streets of Chicago lay dormant. The humid, palm drenched roads near Miami overran with weeds. Hong Kong's glittering waterfront expanse fell into disrepair. Each time the high pitched squeal of a gunnery drone whined overhead, or the clattering of an explosive drone exploded behind a mass of clouds, or the whirring rotors of the laser drones rose up in the still air of a country farm, people held their heads and wept.

It was widely known that each country kept secret installations commanding its drones. No one knew where these installations were kept, but they were obviously shielded with technology protecting it from laser or explosive attacks. Meanwhile, country borders slowly dissolved. Cultural identities shifted, and before long, people either identified themselves as drone operators or drone victims.

I was born on a remote island somewhere in the South Pacific, by parents who lived through the worst of the drone invasion. They saw friends and family targeted from miles away and severed right in front of them. Years before I was born, my grandfather died the most horrible death right in front of my father. As my dad told the story, a distant buzzer over San Diego mistook Grandpa for an enemy target and sliced his head in half, from ear to ear, as he stood outside their condo enjoying a sandwich.

When I was older, my father lamented that he'd never forget the awful sight of that cauterized, thrashing tongue lolling atop a severed jaw once belonging to grandpa, and spilled brains on the sidewalk in front of the body.

"That's when your mom and I decided we had to get out." he said. "By then, she carried you inside. I had access to a special boat. We just left."

"How did you get past the buzzers?"

"I've told you before son, this was a special boat. It put out a false signal. The drones ignored us, but we still had to hide below deck every time they flew or swam past us."

"Were you scared, Dad?"

"Scared as I ever was. But don't worry about that now. We're safe here. We'll never leave. This is the life."

And it was, for the most part. The island was too small even for the latest maps, and the natives were mostly from outlying regions. We were the only Americans to be welcomed there. We assimilated well. We swore that we hated drones, and they believed us. Dad rigged up an alarm system, and every time a swath of drones appeared like cloud of static on the horizon, the alarm presented itself as a series of vibrating tubes deep in the ground. We felt the alarm - no strobes or sounds to alert the oncoming drones - and we hid in terror, until the buzzers and gunners swirled past overhead, or ran past on the water, toward their victims.

My dad taught me how to pilot the boat, and he taught me about engineering and electronics. He made sure to do it out of sight of the natives, who generally shunned the use of technology other than Dad's alarm.

A decade passed, and the incidents of drone flyovers and swim-bys ceased. We heard and saw nothing after a time. A few more years went by, and both of my parents died peacefully. I grew restless and sad. My guess was that the drones had simply stopped. I had trouble sleeping because I could not stop thinking about this country, this place called America.

One night, I simply left with the boat. I said goodbye to no one. I'd become an expert at my father's radar installation and anti-drone cloaking. Within within a few weeks, a broad, dark coastline loomed off in the distance. It looked deserted. The water lapped impatiently against the shore, and the docks were infested with garbage. I peered closer and saw the bobbing items in the ocean were downed drones. They had all been felled from the sky.

I moored the boat in a cove and killed some local game and set out. This was America. Hunks of metal lay everywhere. Downed four legged tanks, crushed spheres spilling their wires like guts, hovercrafts with machine gun attachments. Nothing worked and nothing moved. Occasionally, I saw a spark out of the corner of my eye, but no other movement. No other people. Tall turrets like crooked fingers all pointed to the sky. Some of them were snapped in two and gazed forlornly at the ruined earth. I wondered how long it had been  since they'd been used.

Once I moved away from the nondescript urban areas and into the regions to the east, I began to see shapes and forms in the ground. I passed a sign, riddled in bullet holes, reading 'Cleveland National Forest.' Sun-bleached bone peered from dark loam. Other shapes pushed up under bushes, out from between roots. Old bodies covered the ground. Pieces of arms, legs, heads, hands lay scattered everywhere. Other bodies were whole but dark and roasted. They'd all fled to the mountains and the woods and the deserts, but it never mattered. None of them stood a chance. Their limbs served as gravestones in their eternal slumber.

I pressed on, aware that I had to replenish my food supply or risk starvation. A steady, acrid rain fell on the forest as night fell. The trees protected me from the vigilant skies, but the darkness was as far from the bright sun of the island as I could imagine. I regretted ever leaving such a peaceful life for these rotted lands, but something inside urged me on.

A far off siren call broke the patter of the rain on trees. It was a high pitched whine, oscillating in a slow, smooth arc. It was like the call of a bird, only deeper, and more resonant. Lights flickered far overhead, and the clattering of multiple engines. I recognized the steady cycling noise of the buzzers. A question returned to me, one I'd asked my father and he was unable to answer. Who controlled the remaining drones, and why?

A twig snapped and a hand clumsily brushed my arm. I drew back, weaponless and panicked. It was a heavy-set man, with dull, cloudy eyes. One of his arms was missing. He looked as if he was in a strange state of delirium. It was too dark to see him. I heard my father's voice in my head. Run, he said. Run, my boy. Do not look back. This is not a man.

Something upset me about the strange man. In the darkness, he was an amorphous shape and a fat, ghostly face. I begged for him to speak, but he said nothing. Lights blinked under his skin, just under his cloudy eyes. Under his coat, I caught a flash of red. I walked backward, almost tripping over unseen roots. He lit up and I could see his large coat. It hung over him like a blanket over a sphere. Dead arms hung at his side. The cloak dropped away. It was a spherical drone, and topped with a disembodied head attached with wires. The dead arms, too, were attached with wires. The left arm was thick and burly, while the right arm was slender and smooth. The sphere walked atop spindly tubes.

The man's head opened its mouth, ruined eyes swirly and clouded.

"Gaaaaah!" it wailed. The voice was not human, but like a speaker emanating up through its head. A siren - a loud wailing siren coming out through the head, this head now dead and animated through wires.

"Gaaaaaah!! Gaaaaaah!!" it cried, lurching forward on metal legs. This once-human, once-drone monstrosity made for me, quicker than I thought it could.

I turned and ran. Strobes of white light tracked along the forest floor, beaming down through wide spaces in the trees. Several foreign voices echoed high overhead. I didn't understand the voices; their echoes distorted the words. Perhaps they were multiple languages all spilling out together, but the source of these voices was clear to me. Flying drones broadcast them, just above me, and the light they shone sought me out.

A machine-like sound - the whirring of turrets - started off in the distance, and a quick, popping rat-tat-tat rang out several hundred meters back. Behind me, wood exploded and splintered.

My untested limbs burned as I ran. I never ran on the island. I was not ready for this.

My ankle collided with a low branch, and I felt forward into a ravine, I heard a smattering of alarms all across the ridge, and as the world spun out of control, I saw a frenzy of red tracking lasers streaking across the darkness of the forest. Something crunched in my right shoulder. I lost my breath and rolled out of control until water's cold soaked my clothes.  I tried not to breathe.  I lay on my back, watching grid patterns of lights repelling across a clear sky. If the tracking lasers infiltrated the forest, the invisible lasers - cutting through wood, flesh and bone - would not be far behind.

"Don't let them track you, if they find you, son." my father once told me. "If the light hits you, just try to close your eyes and go peacefully."

This much was clear: I was utterly alone, and surrounded by drones. I rolled into a muddy bank and lay still, smelling pungent wood smoke and watching fire streak through the woods above. The drones had finished cutting through the forest and were now lasering its content, trying to smoke me out and cut me down.

The sirens got louder and the voices high above more insistent. Some kind of intelligent drone? After everything father told me about the history of the drone program, about the people who controlled the drones, how could anyone here in 'America' be left alive? These machines seemed, at least to me, to be acting on their own.

How had this happened? Red tracking laser patterns dancing on the backs of my eyelids, a nightmarish imprint I could not remove. I would not stand. My ankle was fractured, at very least. I could only wait for the sounds of metal rotors descend around me. Soon enough, they did.


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