The Magpie

The magpie swooped down on the shiny metal object and picked it up in its claws. Like all magpies, it couldn't resist a "shiny", and had already collected several coins, some silver paper and an earing. But, this round shiny cylinder would be the pride of his collection.

A shadowy man had dropped it outside of the telephone booth and wouldn't miss it for another thirty minutes. Then the chaos would begin… the magpie now controlled the nation's satellite network.

The spy who had stolen the coding transponder had just been offered upwards of a billion dollars for it, but now his body floated face down under a bridge. The anger in the sunglassed consulate man was just tempering, moving to worry, questioning whether his fate would soon be the same after the Taliban gangsters caught up with him.

At about the same time, the new communications officer coming on shift realized he no longer had the code key to insert into the console and the red "timeout" lamp was already blinking. There was no way to explain it… he had it a minute ago just before he visited the compound's latrine. Could he have been pick-pocketed by the officer in the next cubicle? He had seemed too talkative and had some kind of accent. As he pressed the alert mushroom button, he was imagining the briefing with the duty commander and there would be consequences.

A magpie is a curious bird and enjoyed seeing its reflection in the smooth metal surface. It pecked at the bird it saw there hoping to show it's superiority. The round metal eyes it saw looked like the perfect attack points and it repeatedly pecked at them, dissapointed at the other bird's apparent invulnerability. The metal box's electronics didn't care who was pressing the buttons… the code time was correct and the random code was transmitted to the network, un-decodeable by any computer, for the bird's beak had been quick on the buttons.

The trouble with a secure code is that the following codes depend on the one previous to it. The chain was now broken…the new code just sent to the satellite network was designed as an emergency interception block. As of this moment no base computer had a valid decryption code. Since communication with all the satellites had failed at the same time, the scenario predicted hostile takeover and the nation's condition was now at emergency status. It would be a further two hours until the computers generated a follow up code and re-synchronized the network.

The new surface effect warship ready for launch now had it's orders. Though the captain frowned at the obviously wrong GPS time, which apparently was 20 minutes out, the orders had all the looks of yet another live fire exercise. Already the computers were acquiring aerial targets which were apparently invading their airspace. Suddenly the time and location of normal air traffic as detected by radar returns no longer matched the predicted norms, and the computer tags updated to "probable hostile". As programmed to do during advanced alert conditions in the presence of hostile targets, the computers engaged the chemical feedpumps to the OI laser turret. The crew on the surface effects ship was just a little bit busy at the time.

The code sent from the key in the magpie's nest was unreadable but the fact that it had been sent and the approximate location from where, were not undetected. The resources dispatched instantly were staggering. Agents were scrambled into the city known to be the signal hotspot. A terrorist organization was suspected and every person flagged in intelligence files immediately had a government "visit". The search was complete and thorough, but in 20 minutes it was evident that perhaps the terrorists had more resources than expected. Even though no exact position could be pinned down, the code key was now apparently"in the air" and moving at high speeds. Worst yet, they were moving with amazing precision and obviously had stealth technology too. Helicopter gunships, EVAC teams, plainclothes, and specialists were now all over the "site".

All magpies have competitors in life and for this magpie, the fight was on. The "shiny" was now an object of conquest. Our bird was slowed down considerably by the heavy cylinder, but it was still holding its own against the aggressive newcomer. The bird winged through trees and around buildings, chased relentlessly, until at last in a desparate dive to avoid a powerline, a 2 G turn wrenched the code key out of the bird's beak. Falling to the ground, it broke in two. The most shiny part with the buttons contained the key's EEPROM memory and controls, and it was immediately salvaged by the aggressor. The other part, containing the radio transponder was snatched up by the first bird… maybe not quite as shiny but nice and round; still very attractive to a potential mate.

By now the recovery teams had directional antennas up and were tracking the bird. It didn't take long to find and capture it, but of course what they really needed was the memory part of the key to recover the code. The agents now had a very good idea of what happened to it and were scouring the trees. Time was drawing short.

Back on the ship, the shear number of tagged hostiles was worrying the command deck crew. By now this exercise had turned into the real thing, the "no communications" protocol having been implemented. It was necessary to verify each target as a friendly, before it could be de-tagged. Not all ships responded quickly, and aircraft appeared to think this was a joke. Time was running out and it was obvious that some tags would not be confirmed in time. Orders are orders, at DEFCON 1 all hostiles not responding would be fired upon. The scene was set for a major friendly fire event. With the technology being as it was, the target may even be out of sight or over the horizon. With no communications, confirmation was not possible and speeds and positions were being mis-reported.

The recovery men were obviously having a difficult time. There was the bird, and shooting it down was not an option if they wanted the unit intact. The chase was on! The net launchers succeeded in catching only trees and the bird wasn't going for the food yet. The motor glider crashed in a gust of wind and the poor guy wit the jet pack was still in the fountain. The specialists had decoy birds up in the trees, but the bird wasn't fooled.

Out in rough waters, a motorboat had just seen a red distress flare and was rushing over to help the other boat. As they drew nearer, it appeared that the hapless fishing boat had lost her drive on a reef and was foundering dangerously close to the rocks. As the family aboard the pleasure craft threw over a line to them for a tow, the pirates aboard the the not at all damaged fishing boat prepared to board and rob the pleaseboat. The pirates, of course, had not bothered to answer the official sounding announcement on the radio.

Suddenly the air around the pirate's fishing boat crackled with heat as the infrared laser beam cut the fishing boat in half lengthwise. The family on the pleasure craft watched in horror as the ship they were trying to safe burst into flames, beyond all help now. Even as the pleasure craft pulled away never aware they had narrowly escaped being killed by pirates, the laser command computers now were targetting a much larger vessel. The laser mirrors were re-shaping for the next shot, a supertanker.

The magpie was thirsty. It laid down the "shiny" on top of what looked like one of those places humans put food on they couldn't eat and went to drink at the pond. Instantly the trash can sprang to life as the agent inside made a grab for the code key. The magpie made a mad dash for it, squawking loudly, but too late. The best thing the magpie could do was give the man a good peck on the head and fly off.

The captain of the tanker was worried. He had replied to the radio message 4 times already, but still the call came to "identify yourself or be fired upon". His worry turned to panic as he saw the red laser target appear on the bridge structure. He and the bridge crew rushed down to the main deck, expecting incineration at any moment. Just for a brief flash, the main laser fired and then just as quickly extinguished, leaving a 12 inch slot where the captain had stood moments before. On board the warship, all targets that had been red were now green, and the command deck sighed a breath of relief… it had been an exercise after all. That decoy target had been a worry though.

At last! The transponder code… the agent quickly plugged the code key into his portable console. He would be in for a promotion this year for "duties as assigned". Immediately all links to the satellite network re-opened and re-synchronized.

The man at the combat station supercomputer noticed the display of red figures and icons turn green. He too breathed a sigh of relief. He glanced over at the elapsed time display, seeing that there were still 43 minutes to go before the new code generation sequence would be complete… a long time in the world of battle.

The End

by Mike Voûte, June 2003