|I admit, I'm a little intimidated by this story – it seems like you've done something amazing, and the recognition this work has been given shows that. Still, besides the usual idiom, they do say that the devil's in the details, and I have one sitting on my shoulder (keyboard?) as I type this. While I do have some high praises, there were quite a few nitpicks to point out as well. After all, it seems like “Drones” is a work that is too big for 1,283 words constrain. Well, that's the setback of daily challenges – we often get to touch upon the idea within a strict time limit and don't always return and explore it to a full extent.
Still, these are just my impressions, and they might not align with your intentions/focus or other readers' experiences. So, as always, feel free to read the review, take from it what you think is worth taking and cast the rest aside.
I think my biggest positive impression about this short story comes from the way you have addressed the given prompt. The line inspires an idea of monsters – or to be more precise, something organic – acting as the main threat towards the characters. Well... this one has huge teeth as well, but the military weapon stands as the base of the drone's design. I certainly don't think they were talking about bees... or were they? The obscurity of these creatures adds a lot to the tension.
It's interesting to see how downplaying a warning worked when setting up the anticipation. Perhaps I've gotten used to reading your stories where everything is bound to go south eventually, and that has added to the feeling... But I was quick to mutter, “You fool” while reading the introductory part of the story. We know that the General's decisions will come to bite him, and the wait makes the reader pay close attention to every detail, even when you ease into the action with a rather relaxed evening. No wonder they always warn you not to underestimate your opponent, even if you are almost certain they're weaker than yourself.
Yet, while I can't help but praise the idea and the approach to it, I can't say I was too fond of the presentation. I will be harsh this time – I have high expectations for you, and the higher they are, the less forgiving I am. Some bits are based purely on personal preference, of course, while some might be a bit more objective. Get that trash bin where you dump the nagging comments in and a small box of possibly worthy advice. You've some sorting to do now.
• The first bit of the story, to me personally, felt lackluster. It has one purpose – foreshadowing. But with the focus purely only on that, we end up with a dialogue suspended in the void. Nothing helps the reader imagine (and consequently get invested in) the General or even the setting. We mostly hear the dialogue without any visuals of the outer world or presentation of the inner one. You have set a great opportunity to introduce your character and make his further experiences more personal, however, we get the bare facts [enemy has a new weapon. It doesn't seem dangerous so there's some bombing], not circumstances or motivations.
In addition, “asked General Azazel. // said the General, [annoyance creeping into his tone.] // said the General, [incredulous].” ─ the rather repetitive way of illustrating the man's speech didn't add a lot to it. Instead of truly experiencing the story, your reader finds idle emotion “labels” that feel more like parentheses than a natural interaction with the deputy director or the surroundings.
• Now, I'd like to move on to the way you introduce the scene of the family relaxing by the TV. Here, too, I felt the lack of visuals that would help set the tone. See, you write, “His wife, Ilene, smiled at the playful banter between her husband and daughter.” but what we have seen is:
“Okay, kiddo, it’s time to go to sleep!”
“Do I have to…?”
“Yes, you do. That’s an order!”
To me, that sounds like the man is shouting orders at his daughter in a harsh tone (would it be surprising from a man who was happy with 'only' six civilian casualties?). The girl answers with reluctance and the lack of confidence, hence the use of the ellipsis. There's nothing in their body language or other details to debunk the impression. And once it's set, we are given the correction that it should be playful. In consequence, I end up backtracking and rewiring the whole scene in my head.
• I'll have to move on to something more technical as well. There's one habit you're close to getting that I'd like to warn you about: “George’s eyes looked to his daughter as she made a catching motion and grinned.” There are expressions such as “his legs carried him...” that can be added to the story while showing certain emotional state. It creates the impression that the character is unreceptive and is walking by 'autopilot'. But let's turn to the other uses such as “his yes looked to”. You create an impression of sentient eyes. It's not the ears that listen or the nose that smells but the person that does such actions.
• It seems like you're still working on limiting the pronoun-focused sentences. "Uneasy, he followed his wife and child to his daughter’s room, where she was about to go to sleep. He turned off the hallway light as he entered the bedroom, again hearing that faint rustling sound, though it was louder this time. He placed both hands on the door frame and stuck his head into the hallway once more. He turned in each direction, eyes scanning the hall, but he saw nothing but blackness." ─ don't forget that not everything has to be emphasized as your character's experience. "Again, that faint rustling sound drifted from behind..." etc. could add more variation to the way you present the events.
• There are a couple of lines that made me feel the narrative distance as well. I can't fully explain... perhaps it is because you introduce a certain circumstance that gets pushed aside a bit too abruptly. I read the fact, but the impact it has left feels close to nonexistent. Let me pinpoint a couple of such instances:
[abbreviated:] ...a pitch black shape suddenly grabbed her from the side. A half dozen other shadows, some large, some small, pounced on the rest of her body, tearing chunks of flesh and bone apart in less than a second until there was nothing left of her. The General’s knees gave out, and he plopped to the bed, wide-eyed, horrified. His daughter shot upright and screamed. Immediately as his backside hit the bed, the General hustled back to his feet. He needed to protect what was left of his family! ─ that's a quick dismissal of the wife... There's nothing left, true, but... is it his military experience that helps him go through this without much of an emotional impact? There's not a seed of thought lingering later on.
But it wasn’t the shadow that was knocked backward--it was him! // His eyes grew wide in disbelief as he watched blood squirting out of the stump. His hand! It was gone! ─ I think I'm just not fond of exclamation marks... they create a slightly comical tone somehow. I wish I could see what kind of physical impact these attacks have rather than this. The general later acts while “ignoring the pain in his arm and foot to give her a comforting smile.” and even “jumped backward toward the candle at his daughter’s bedside.” And so besides the shock value, I can't see the impact the attacks leave to the characters. The pain is mentioned as the general screamed in pain and then ignored, the movements don't seem to be hindered, his daughter doesn't seem to acknowledge his missing limbs or her mother's death (besides the initial scream) either...
And so, the events that take place feel presented only to shock the reader but not to affect the characters in the world you have created.
This isn't the case all the time. The beloved candle that has been burned so many times that it's about to go out, the recollection of the people the General allowed to die – there were nice callbacks that connected in satisfying ways. So I know – you can polish this work to perfection if you get more time after meeting the contest deadlines. The story holds promise, but it's still a diamond in the rough.