The Sky Has No Flag

Summary: The skies are dominated by automated fleets of aerial battleships, attacking cities and settlements beneath. A handful of rural communities band together to take them down in a daring attack.

The last days of the old order saw the rise of clanking replicators, robots able to make copies of themselves from available materials. Defense contractors weaponized it by fusing it increasingly ungainly aircraft and autonomous drones that defined that era's warfare. They envisioned automated, self-sufficient fleets able to dominate entire continents, turning them into self-controlled killing fields for dissidents and would-be rebels. In that way, they succeeded.

The armadas were centered around airborne motherships that kept aloft as vacuum airships, comprised of novel composite materials that withstood atmospheric pressure and their own weight. From these, they manufactured smaller craft for scouting, salvage, and attack. Without the radar signatures of conventional aircraft and their position high in the mesosphere, most conventional weapons could not reach them. Those that could were easily spoofed or misdirected. As such, they overtook the nations that built them.

The armadas were programmed to actively seek out and destroy enemy troop masses and restive populations. In time, this came to mean the overcrowded cities of corrupt, collapsing countries. A Kessler collapse of satellites rendered low-earth orbit unusable for decades, giving the aerial battleships the undisputed high ground. Refugees streamed out for rural areas, building underground like bunkers. In time, the armadas and their patrol routes became the only relevant legacies of long-dead governments.

While dire decades past, a new generation grew up under their shadow. Communicating over ancient ham radios and foot messengers, they came to realize the armadas possessed vulnerabilities. The airships relied on automated salvaging stations and surface mines for materials, often offshore or on old landfills. They possessed point defenses, but primarily intended for the fighter planes of prior generations. Slowly, a plan came to bring one down.

Among the rolling hills of the Ohio Valley, a dozen small towns and half-subterranean villages pooled their resources. They constructed a small squadron of rocket-powered aircraft, piloted fighters with mounted machineguns and unguided explosive rockets. They knew an armada periodically resupplied nearby, and they planned to intercept the mothership as it approached. The pilots would need to glide or bail out after a single pass, but the greatest risk was failure. If their plan failed, the armada would develop countermeasures.

As the Ohio Armada came in over the Great Lakes, the First Interceptor Squadron launched. From converted barns, abandoned mines, and underground factories, a dozen craft flew into the air like Space Age stilettos. The bravest citizens sat at the helm of each aircraft, coordinating with small, low power lasers the enemy could not intercept. Breaking through the clouds, they saw it.

The flying battleship was a great, rectangular mass with the dimensions of a dreadnaught. It bristled with guns, weapon hardpoints, and sensors more sophisticated then their own. It was deploying its own automated interceptors, which took out the first of them. Undaunted, they targeted its main engines. The fatal ballet began in the skies above.

Ground Control feared the worst after radio contact was lost. The Ohio Armada deployed white noise generators to preclude enemy communications and radar, so their own communications were hampered. It was not until a flaming hulk of twisted metal came crashing down on an abandoned industrial town that they realized they'd won. The sky filled with the parachutes of the six surviving pilots, drifting safely to the Earth below.

So began the first of many victories against the automated armadas. Similar attempts in Kenya, Romania, Jeju, and Dunedin brought down the skyborne warships. However, some survived, but only because they'd been hacked. In time, some governments and even criminal syndicates came to retrofit the hacked craft, but they never posed the threat they once had. In their wake, the world was reminded that the sky has no flag.