Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version
In the storeroom below the shopping centre, it is stifling. The Echthros Marines are packed against each other squatting on the floor of the storeroom or sitting on benches with their backs to the concrete wall. They don’t just hear the steam-whistle like screeching and mechanical grinding echoing down into their underground shelter. They feel it. The platoon commander breaks the tense silence, he too is puzzled but is trying to sound confident: “Well they will certainly be surprised” . There are murmurs of assent, but nobody laughs. “Soon”, he says, “Remember, trust the engineers”. As if on cue they feel a shockwave shiver through the concrete and steel around them a distinct moment before the door is shaken by a reverberating blast: several dozen frame charges simultaneously detonating on the level up above them and in the stairwells. He yells: “Okay that’s it, one and two sections go, go, go”.
Several Marines collide in the door in the rush. Impatience meets the clumsiness imposed by numb legs that have squatted for too long. As the men of one section rush across the basement sales floor to the stairwells they can see that the blast has blown the heavy fire door open. When they step inside they can neither breathe nor see in the acrid fumes and fumble upwards holding onto the stair rail. As they reach where the staircase changes direction and look up, the light shining in from the loophole blown in the concrete forms a bright glowing ray in the sparkling concrete dust. Running up through the glow the section commander pushes the door open at ground level, a wave of shrieking grinding sound hits them. He leads his men out into the corridor then stops and points at his ears and looks at each man in turn, confirming they have their earphones sealed beneath their helmets. He swings his arm again, signalling, ‘to your posts’.
Mere seconds later, the Echthros section commander is in the settling dust and swirling black smoke inside the little service room that the detonation of linear cutting charges has turned into an indoor fort. Obliviously kneeling on a carpet of jagged concrete fragments he lifts the protective sandbag aside and plUGV the protected cables into his monitor unit, then connects the firing unit for the claymores. As he waits for the monitor images to resolve he looks around. One of his men already has the belt fed machine gun mounted on the control unit of the remote weapon station. Now he is manipulating the tripod to push it out through the air-conditioning duct into the little chamber where it will have a narrow but lethal view all along the northern wall of the shopping centre. Another Marine has already tipped over a locker to create a platform for his elbows, with his assault rifle poking out beyond the concrete wall and resting on a buckled reinforcing rod that has somehow survived the cutting charge. Every other loophole around the position has been blown cleanly and his men are ready to spring their ambush, but he wonders if the fear that he feels is what every soldier experiences, or is it not knowing what the grinding crunching sound is?
On the ruggedised camera monitor unit, as the marine section commander peers, there is movement in the picture in one quadrant. It is from the camera looking along a corridor inside the front of the shopping centre. The image is strangely furry, but the section commander realises that what he is looking at must be where or what is making the mind-numbing noises. He tries to make some sense of what seems like a torrent of water flowing across the picture. Then the grinding vibrations that are shaking the whole building cease, and for a few moments he sees a machine cross his field-of-view. In that instant he realises that it is some sort of engineering platform. It is making smoke, which swirls enough for him to see other objects following. “Sir, this is North Post” he shouts into his microphone to compete with the screeching. “They have broken in. They have an engineering machine. It is heading to the main hall”. The words of the response are inaudible, but he is satisfied by the clicking indicating acknowledgement.
In Darwin an Australian operator is also looking at a screen. In its main view the cascading series of still thermal images at one second intervals continues to save bandwidth. These pictures from the Stormtrak in the shopping centre show the corridor it is moving along and the shops on either side. No sign of life or threat. Occasionally one of the Spheridrones appears is seen flitting across the screen as they move autonomously around the interior capturing images. An adjacent operator watches the views from the following Varitrak, from both the forward-looking hull camera and the weapon station, which the system is automatically traversing left and right. Other members of their team in the control room do the same for their currently allocated UGV’s, as well as monitoring the virtual map screen and its composite wire-frame virtual representation of the complex. This, like some 3D mosaic puzzle, is quickly being updated with images from the ground. All scan intently, switching between sensor modes and talking softly amongst themselves, reassuring each other that they see nothing.
In the distant shopping centre the earthshaking vibration and hammering roar begins again, adding to the mind piercing scream of the air horn. This time it is happening only 20 m from the Echthros section commander and his men in their little fort, and the dust fragments and smoke are pouring into the loopholes. The breaching platform is beginning to cut another wall in the main hall between him and two section. The Marines, their faces covered with rags, keep taking quick squinting glances through the apertures, but see nothing. The commander continues to peer at his monitor, desperately trying to discern targets and make sense of what is on the screen. When the smoke and dust drifts he occasionally clearly sees the cutting machine and he thinks there is another smaller machine. He knows his commander’s intent is to ambush the infantry, but where are they? They must be just behind, staying back from the smoke and dust. Okay, he thinks I will let the machine move on through its hole and fire the claymores then. He looks around at his Marines who are all looking in at him and shows them the initiator device in his hand. One of them nods furiously, impatient to act and not understanding. Seconds drag as the machine bores away. Momentarily it runs faster and seems to break free – perhaps the moment has come, but then vibration resumes as the spinning blades cut upwards. Then it does finish. The sound levels drop to a mere piercing scream as the UGV disappears into the hole it has made. The commander signals to his men to crouch down, then he presses the firing button.
The engineers have been thorough. The four Claymore mines each have their own electrical detonator on the same circuit, but they are also all connected with detonating cord. In a few thousandths of a second they all initiate. These are not paperback book sized American Claymore mines, these are MON200, something altogether bigger, the size and shape of a hubcap from a big truck. The explosive effect of each is equivalent to a medium Artillery round. Though the closest mine to the section position is 25 m away from their ‘bunker’ and on the far side of a block wall the explosion is immense. While only a tiny fraction of the blast wave enters through the firing ports, it reflects inside and the sensation is of being slapped all over and punched in the head. Fracture lines appear across the wall in front of them and looking up they notice, dust being drawn out of the portholes by the suction phase, as they hear heavy structures falling beyond the wall that protects them. The infuriating sound of the horn continues, but as they peer out they can only see drifting black smoke mixing with white, hanging cables and falling plaster.
In the storeroom a level below, the platoon commander in his assault section have been waiting with increasing consternation, listening to the roaring and vibrating above them. Like the section commanders, he had struggled to make sense of the images from the cameras. The firing of the mines was cathartic. Now they are in the stairwell welcoming the anti-adrenaline effect of racing upwards, and relieved to be moving away from the penetrating sound of the air horn as they climb and the UGV moves deeper into the complex. The commander is leading and when they step out of the stairwell onto the landing of the loft area they look down over the edge towards the main hall below. Black smoke and dust is swirling freely and thickly up to 8 m high and reaching the tangled aluminium frames where there was once a suspended ceiling. His hand motions for the Marines to stay still and listen. Not silence, for the air horn still blowing below, but not a single moan or cry of pain. Victory? Or danger? The commander keeps his hand up and walks forward slowly to check the footbridge-like walkway is still intact. As soon he steps onto it he recognises the engineers chose it because it is strong and concrete lined, probably something to do with fire safety. A thumbs up brings the dozen Marines to the middle of the walkway, crouching down low alongside each other, taking care not to expose themselves, pulling small black golfball sized grenades from their pouches. A nod, and twelve pins are twisted and pulled. When the last man has finished fumbling there is a silent exchange of glances from senior to juniors along the line and hands are extended out over the lip of the walkway. Another nod and twelve hands release, twelve levers spring free and twelve caps are struck, popping like firecrackers as they drop into the dust below, bouncing and clattering off hard surfaces as they fall. The detonations merge, as the roof above them shakes and is peppered with fragments.
The Marines are up and moving. The commander reaches the stairwell fire door first, pulls it open and leads on downwards, signalling to those behind him slow down, be quiet and space out. The fire door at ground level is shattered and pushed in, filling the space with acrid smoke. He listens carefully resisting the impulse to cough. Only the receding air horn and the screech of timber on concrete as he tries to open the fire door wider. Rifle poised, covered by the man behind him, he steps into the debris and the smoke and looks around. Devastation. Walls collapsed, partitions and ceiling panels strewn around, surviving walls and tiled floors flecked with the impacts of thousands of ballbearings. A single tracked machine lies broken beneath a pile of rubble. Is there anything else other than the engineering machine that is still screeching somewhere beyond the rubble? Did we kill them all? How many? One hand signal is all it takes and the Marines are fanning out from stairwell, weapons in the shoulder, spreading out to either side of the wrecked corridor, working as a slick team to cover each other and their arcs inwards, upwards forwards and back.
The three UGV operators sitting in adjacent consoles back in Darwin are looking at the same poor-quality images, the only ones now coming out of the shopping centre, the ones from the Stormtrak. The images of skylights blasting upwards right across the shopping centre meant they hadn’t needed to consult the acoustic sensors to figure out they’d been hit with a pretty big explosive ambush. It looked as if only the Stormtrak had been tough enough to survive. No signal at all from the three other UGV and two UAS. The corporal speaks: “I think we might lose signal completely. Andrew’s machine is right inside what is almost a ferroconcrete faraday cage, the signal tethers are sure to have been cut, so the only way we can be seeing that is it one of the other machines in there is still sharing mesh, and if we can’t get a signal that’s probably not going to last much longer. Andrew initiate hot smoke, it in a fairly small room and if you do that I don’t think there’s much chance of anyone wanting to get anywhere near it. Then I want you to bring up a couple of Xtraks and put them just inside tucked in the crap. I don’t care what they can see I just want them to be able to mesh. That will let the crazy footballs go and do their job……… Whoa, what’s that….bloody hell it’s a Cyclops?.” He reaches over to enlarge the image from the 360° camera that is somehow transmitting from the middle of the shopping centre. “There’s somebody or something alive in there”. The image from the fisheye lens is distorted, and it is pretty furry as well, but there is an unmistakable silhouette of a fighter slowly moving towards the camera with his weapon at the alert. “Bingo, Andrew, switch it to anti-disturbance now but let’s wait a moment and see if we can get a couple more with this one.”
The lead Marine moves cautiously, scanning his arcs over the top of his rifle and feeling with his feet as he puts them down. Smoke is beginning to thin and he can see more, but he knows he could equally be seen. Then he feels a throb from his glove, the haptic equivalent of hiss of warning from someone behind him. He turns to seek the eye of the soldier behind him who is staring at something 5 m away close to the wall. He follows the gaze. A grey can-shaped object, strangely shiny at the top with wires radiating at the base. Something deep in his memory, some image from history, yes, the Soviets. Then horror and adrenaline surges through his body: a mine. His last thought as the Cyclops detonates……….
That’s strange, thinks the Marine platoon commander, ‘why is the ceiling in front of me? Oh, I’m lying on my back. There is a ringing in my ears. Why is that? I must be dreaming. But there are footballs floating on the ceiling. That’s very strange too………. Then the movement beside him cuts through his daze. Okay self check. Move and feel head, yes. Left arm, yes. Right arm, yes. Legs, yes. Have rifle, yes. Something else it’s important…….. Oh yes mine drill.’ He slowly rolls to a half sitting position and looks around. Those Marines are lying at in very strange positions. How do they get their legs bent like that? They are very still. What about the other two over there? They seem to be moving. Oh, there is three section commander with his back to the wall. He seems to saying something important. Why are his lips are moving? Its all very quiet. What’s going on behind me? My Marines seem to be lying in the rubble and they are all pointing their weapons at the big hole in the wall. I think that might be the one which the machine came through? That’s funny, there are empty cases coming out of their rifles? Oh, something else is coming. It’s very little for a tank. Maybe it is a giant tortoise? Maybe I should go back to sleep? Maybe not. I think I have something important to do but I can’t remember what it is? Maybe I should work out why all these big holes are appearing in the wall over there? That’s a thick concrete wall. Must be a very big hammer. Oh, fireworks. I like fireworks, but these seem a bit close……………………….’
Dr Charles Knight developed this narrative as part of concept development and design activity with EOS Defence Systems to inform current and future Australian autonomous and remote operations technology development. Many of the concepts covered in this narrative are being actively pursued by EOS Defence and numerous other Australian industry players.
Images by James Wilson-Knight