The Swarm Wrangler

Summary: Maria Suarez and her sister Juana work as drone swarm wranglers for a military contractor in a brushfire war. When her sister departs for a special assignment, her job takes a grim turn.

Juana and I joined up to show up our brother Marco, who'd always brag he was better at that drone-controlling game. After we got a two-year contract with Phaeacian Uncrewed Solutions, the look on his face was almost worth the stress that followed. They shipped us off for training the following weekend, and our ranking on the e-sports circuits made us high priority candidates. We got the star treatment from Day One, and it only got better from there.

When most people think of Phaeacian products, they think of those driverless truck convoys in the US and Australian road trains hauling ore. The medical supply carts driving around hospitals and security swarms policing airports and sensitive facilities are other popular ones as well. Despite the controversial military use of their products, they started off in consumer robotics. The videogame my family grew up obsessed with, Swarmlord, was designed by their media branch. That was why Juana and I thought the military drones would be the most intuitive to our "experience."

My earliest memories of computers were playing the first version of Swarmlord on Dad's computer. Juana figured out how to get a pirated version running on Mom's laptop, and we played while our parents were at work. We then began playing online, where our custom drone swarms shredded AI bots and plenty of obnoxious teenagers, profanity-spewing basement dwellers just a few years older than us. When Dad finally caught us, he was honestly more impressed than intimidated. We got our first robotics kits that Christmas, and the rest was history. When Marco got into it, we had to work to keep our place once more. He'd learned from us, after all.

The job I got assigned to was comfortable enough. Aside from going through two security gates to get to the office, it could've passed for any other cubicle job. The difference is that once I arrived at my standing desk, I controlled swarms of killer robots in a brushfire war in a country I am not at liberty to disclose. Most of what I controlled were fixed wing drones for long-range surveillance, and quadrotors that carried modular weapons used for ambushes. We'd plant them along routes the guerrillas used, like those derivative tower defense games we played.

I took a perverse pride in my job, because I never saw my targets as human. To avoid the problems that plagued original drone operators, my employer made the drone interfaces look exactly like the game. They even had the letter grade rating system my siblings and I used to compare our performances against each other. The miracle of GUI design precluded me from seeing foreign guerrillas as anything but animated figures on a screen.

It honestly became a chore after the second month. I saw less and less and Juana, as she was on a different shift. The pay and perks were good enough for both of us, but Juana got approached for a special assignment one day. Due to some staffing difficulties, our manager was willing to pay her to control drones from a forward post, right across the border from the country we were operating in. She'd be well guarded by both human and robotic security, so she wasn't too concerned. The demand was immediate and the money was excellent. I had my reservations, but I trusted her judgment.

Two weeks later, I finished a day like any other. I'd gotten used to Juana's absence, but I always assumed normalcy would return at the end of the month. The following day, everyone in the office stared blankly at me. My manager never was good at keeping her mouth closed, so I feared the worst when I was called into her office. She cut the small talk, which was never a good sign. I half expected to be fired, but something worse happened.

She explained that the situation in the war got worse. The rebels learned how to flip the IFF on our drones, turning friend into foe on our sensors. We were suspending operations after an unspecified event forced the company to perform a security audit. When I asked about Juana, all I got was an empty stare. That was enough to send me storming out of the office, and asking the branch manager what happened. He grimly handed me a report, stating if anyone asked, it didn't come from him.

Juana Suarez was in a well-guarded convoy near the border, when enemy hackers flagged the company transports as enemy targets. Our rapid response drone team deployed a very thorough ambush that left none of them alive. The report stated an onsite manager was lax with operational security, blathering about the highly skilled swarm wrangler onsite. Thus, she became a high priority target for the guerrillas. They'd already released a propaganda video of their fighters picking over the convoy's remains. I should know there were no survivors, since I was the one who placed the killer robots.

I stormed out of the office, unsure whether to scream or cry. A wave of fury came over me, blaming different parties for Juana's death. I blamed the company for concealing it. I blamed the guerrillas that hacked it. I blamed the annoying manager that undoubtedly blabbed it to all my coworkers, as though the death of a colleague was the latest morsel of morning gossip. I momentarily wondered if I should head back to my computer, and kill as many of the guerrilla bastards as I could, in some ill-conceived quest to avenge Juana. I blamed myself in that mess, too.

I quit shortly afterwards, a move I'd considered best. The other drone wrangler companies were eager to try to hire me, but I invented some bull about a non-competition clause I'd signed with Phaeacian. I moved back home for a bit, and I even tried to bury myself in Swarmlord again. Instead, I lost all interest in that game, and I fell into depression.

It's only now that I have the urge to open up about it. What happened to Juana is what happened to countless people in warzones across the world. I know trying to ban these combat drones is as fruitless as trying to ban bullets or rockets, but I feel I have to do something. I've began designing open-source drone countermeasures, which have already been a great success. There's a lawsuit pending, but I at least feel vindicated. At least I still have the last laugh over Marco.