The Loneliness Of The Long-Distance Pilot

Jay dreams of dark corridors and screams and bright flashes on video screens, and he wonders if he can ever outrun the memories.

 

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Credits

James Bradley is a novelist and critic. His latest book is “Ghost Species.”

Dawn is still four hours away when Jay noses his car into one of the spaces in the parking station and crosses the PanOps campus toward the Control Center. In his first months on the job he struggled with the hours, the way the time zone here didn’t align with the territory he patrolled. Driving to work through the empty streets, it seemed like he was the only person left alive; emerging into the bright light and hurrying people of the late morning at shift’s end, he felt like a stranger, invisible and unnoticed. At home, Lauren resented his inability to adjust his body clock on the weekends. “How are we supposed to have a normal social life?” she used to complain, at least until she stopped waiting around and started going out without him. Since she left, he has given up even trying. It’s been months since he opened the curtains in the apartment. Instead he sleeps when he can, his circadian rhythms calibrated to the demands of the company rather than any natural cycle.

The Control Room is in mid-changeover when he arrives; lowering his eyes to avoid the other pilots, he makes his way to his assigned booth. On the screen that fills the front wall, views of the Zone are already up, the morning light bright against the bleached buildings, the mountains deep pink and lilac in the distance. 

Picking up his rig, he clips the goggles over his face and pulls up the overlays. The system offers several levels of immersion; Jay tends to opt for the deepest, in which his visual field is replaced by that of the raptor and the data-streams hover in his peripheral vision.

As he works his way through the pre-flight checklist, he can hear Tyler breathing in the booth next to him. Some days Tyler’s breathing is broken up by humming or tuneless singing, but that worries him less than the sounds Tyler makes when he goes in for a kill, the way he makes shooting noises or whispered explosions, like a little kid playing with toy soldiers.

He sometimes wonders how Tyler ended up working here. When Jay applied for the drone program, they gave him a personality test, hundreds of questions with multiple choice answers. Some of the questions were easy: You learn one of your coworkers has a criminal record they haven’t disclosed. Do you (a) do nothing, (b) speak to them and seek assurances they’ll self-report or (c) report them to your supervisor? Some were weird and seemed to be trying to map some side of himself he wasn’t aware of or trip him up in some way: You’re out walking and you find a fish lying on the ground in the sun. Do you (a) think it’s nature’s way and ignore it, (b) kill it to put it out of its misery or (c) take it with you and look for a place to release it? And some were just plain scary, patterns of flashing shapes with questions next to them like, Which one is telling lies about you? And, Which shape is in pain? 

At the end he asked the woman in charge of the tests how he’d done and she smiled and told him she couldn’t give him that information. He thought that meant he’d failed, at least until he got the callback a few days later. But when he turned up for his first day and met the others he couldn’t help but notice how many were a little odd, with a tendency to stare at the ground or laugh slightly off cue. Sometimes he thinks about that test and wonders if it misread him somehow, or whether it just picked up on something about himself he didn’t know was there, whether there is something off in him as well.

The checklist complete, he engages his engines and moves out onto the runway. Once he found the shift into the raptor’s perspective relaxing, like he was being freed somehow. But since the incident his anxiety levels spike as soon as the raptor begins to move, his breath growing shallow and his heart beating faster. Today his agitation is so bad he almost misses the order to take off, engages a second too late, too hard. The raptor lurches. In the top right corner of his feed he sees Anders has already registered the error and noted it in his flight record, but he ignores it and pushes on and up into the air.

His assignment today is surveillance and support for one of the transports from the airport to the Old City. The manifest shows they have been waiting for support for an hour already, so he is not surprised when the commander hails him on the com to ask for an ETA when he is only halfway to the rendezvous. He has worked with this security detail before, and although he and the other pilots are anonymized to prevent bonds forming, he can tell from the way the commander’s tone tightens when he hears Jay’s voice that he remembers him.

The transport is already on the road by the time he reaches the rendezvous, their Humvees crawling along the highway toward the Old City. Silently he passes over them, slowing down to match their speed as he descends.

The highway is closed to everybody except security, but its eight lanes are still a mess of burned-out vehicles and other debris. Part of his role is to sweep the route for IEDs and other potential hazards by checking for signs of recent movement or heat and chemical signatures. Usually he is good at this task, his detection rate higher than almost any of the other operators, but today he is distracted and jumpy, unable to settle.

After 10 or 12 miles the highway reaches the outskirts of the city. When the road was constructed, the old government directed it through the poorer districts, razing buildings and slicing communities in half, so the buildings are built hard up against the side of its elevated path. In the wealthier parts of the city the traditional architecture has been supplanted by new blocks of apartments and walled compounds, but here the buildings it passes through are more traditional, the pale buildings piled one on top of the other, their flat roofs covered with a jumble of mats and tables and rugs arrayed beneath makeshift tents of ragged fabric. 

In his first months inside the rig Jay used to spend a lot of time cruising these streets and watching the local people go about their lives. The raptors are equipped with light-scattering paint, making them almost invisible, and their engines are so quiet one can hover only yards away and not be audible. A lot of the other pilots enjoy the power that grants, talking openly of using their invisibility to spy on women and girls and couples, sharing videos and photos when they can. But for Jay it was never about the power. Instead, the glimpses of domestic normality — parents playing with children, families seated around tables, kids leaning over homework — amid so much violence and disorder felt like he was being entrusted with something he did not quite know how to describe.

There is no time for quiet observation today. Instead he turns his attention to the structures beside the highway. In recent months there have been attacks from the buildings, shooters positioned on roofs, explosive devices thrown out of windows onto the highway below. His infrared means he can see bodies moving behind the walls, but thankfully he sees nothing that raises concerns. Then, a mile or so from the Green Zone, he hears the distant thump of an explosion. 

“Did you get that?” says the commander.

“On it,” Jay says, already ascending. As he clears the line of the rooftops he sees black smoke billowing upward a few miles to the west.

“Report,” demands the commander.

“Bomb,” Jay says, scanning the chatter on the feeds. “A big one. Looks like it’s in the market district.”

“Roger that.” Jay can hear the relief in the commander’s voice. 

Once the patrol has reached the Green Zone, he signs off. For a minute or so he watches the transport snake away down the highway. Then he leans back and sends the raptor shooting heavenward, his breath coming easier as the horizon dips away, the haze of the plain giving way to the mountains beyond and the deepening colorlessness of the sky. The moon is visible, and in the pale space below it the distant shape of a plane and its contrail. Suspended between is a long V of geese, their wings beating steadily as they ride the wind bound somewhere far away. Sometimes he sees media reports about the territory out here in the Zone, people calling it barren or a moonscape, but it isn’t. There is beauty in its starkness, its inhuman emptiness. 

For a few seconds he hovers, letting the silence enfold him, wondering how long he could stay here before a query from Anders or the oversight systems. Then he sets a course back to the base and begins to descend. 

As he reaches the edge of the Zone he gets a ping, and an order to turn around. He stiffens, the rig heavy on his head, the moment stretching on until finally he inhales and turns. The coordinates are in the Exclusion Area along the border, which probably means people attempting an unauthorized crossing, and as he draws closer he picks up movement. 

Two people are running toward the riverbed, a man and a woman; the woman holds a child, the man carries a backpack. They move quickly, zigzagging between the twisted bushes and rocks, dust rising behind them. Soon he can make out their faces: The man has thick black hair and wears glasses; the woman is young and wears a length of yellow cloth bound around her head. The child is a girl of three or four. The parents look exhausted and terrified.

“What have you got?” asks Anders from the Control Booth. “Unauthorized border crossing?”

“Looks like it.”

“Copy that. Seeking authorization for appropriate action.”

There is a brief silence while Anders passes the request up the chain. Jay hovers, watching the couple. Where the old riverbank drops away there is a sheer drop of a couple of yards; the pair stop at it and glance up and down. Seemingly reassured, the man drops the backpack over the side, its weight throwing up clouds of dust as it slides down into the dried riverbed, then turns and slips down after it. Skidding to a stop, he steadies himself and reaches up to motion to the woman to pass the child down.

“Okay D9, that’s a go,” says Anders. “Action authorized.”

Jay hesitates. His heart is pounding and he can feel the sweat on his palms. The rules of engagement demand he confirm the order, but his throat seems to have closed over.

“D9?”

Jay’s finger trembles on the firing button.

“D9, confirm the order, please.”

Jay opens his mouth to try to speak, but before he can the man stops and looks up. He should not be able to see the raptor hovering there, but perhaps some movement or trick of the light has alerted him to its presence, because he suddenly freezes, and stands there staring for a moment. Then he swings around and frantically shoves the child back up the bank toward the woman, shouting something Jay cannot hear. Grabbing the child the woman clutches her to her chest and looks up for half a second, before turning and running back the way they came. As she flees the man grabs the bag and swings it back up onto the bank before grabbing a protruding branch and hauling himself up after her.

“Is there a problem, D9?” says Anders, his voice tight.

“Targets are falling back,” Jay says.

“Doesn’t matter,” says Anders. “The kill has been sanctioned. Take the shot.”

Jay ignores him. A couple of hundred yards ahead of the woman stands the shell of a concrete building; the man shouts and gesticulates in its direction and the woman heads toward it, the child still in her arms, the man a few yards behind her. Jay watches them disappear into its shelter.

“They’ve moved inside a structure,” he says.

“Are there other individuals in the area?”

“Unclear.”

Jay waits while Anders advises their superiors about the new conditions. It is possible he will be ordered to fire anyway, to destroy the building, but when Anders speaks again his voice is flat, emotionless.

“Stand down and return to base, D9.”

“Affirmative,” Jay says.

Once he is back on the ground Jay runs his post-flight checks and pulls his rig off. He knows he should hurry, that Anders will want to speak to him, but he is too tired to care. He is almost at the door when Anders intercepts him. 

“What the hell was that?” Anders demands.

Jay shrugs. “I couldn’t get a clear shot.”

“Bullshit, Jay. You didn’t want to take it.” He hesitates. “Pull this crap again and I’ll have you reassigned. You’re affecting the entire unit’s performance.”

Jay nods. “Sure,” he says, unable to keep an edge of anger out of his voice. “I’ll bear that in mind.”

Outside, the campus is busy, the winter sun bright. The bustle is jarring after his hours in the raptor. For a few minutes Jay walks fast, trying to leave the tension behind. Soon he reaches a small grassy area, a place set aside for staff to reconnect with the natural world. Stopping in the shade of the tree, he stares into the middle distance until finally his breathing slows and his frustration is replaced by a sick, jangled feeling. Closing his eyes, he rubs his face and slumps down on a bench.

Ordinarily he would be wary of spending too long sitting here: Although the company provides these spaces for rest and recuperation, they track their use and analyze the data to identify employees who are performing below capacity or are at risk of some kind of emotional crisis in case someone needs to be terminated before they require expensive counseling or rehabilitation. Jay knows he is already on notice — his credits have been cut several times in the past few months — but for now at least he doesn’t care.

It is early afternoon by the time he gets back to the apartment, the warmth of the day already draining away. He parks his car and plugs it in, then climbs the stairs to the third level, his footsteps echoing against concrete walls. PanOps has nicer housing complexes, places that have better heating or are in more desirable locations, but they are only available to employees with higher credit ratings. The door of his apartment opens into a silent space; he still has not bought furniture to replace the stuff Lauren took when she moved out. Idly he considers calling her, but he knows she will be annoyed if he does. It has been three months since she left, and he heard through friends she has been seeing somebody. 

He doesn’t turn the heat on, just flops down on the sofa and flicks on his goggles. He used to play the full-immersion games, but these days he prefers the older ones with their blocky geometry and endless passages underground or aboard alien spaceships. There is something calming about the rhythm of their constant motion, about the way he can lose himself in it. Sometimes in the night he realizes he has been dreaming of the corridors, his sleeping self moving down them, over and over; in those moments he is never certain whether he is awake or dreaming, or whether there is a difference anymore.

The next day he is on the late shift, but because it’s Thursday he has his appointment with Bachmann. Although he knows it goes on his record, he makes sure he arrives a few minutes late, knocking on the door and smiling to see the way Bachmann purses his lips, his eyes traveling to the clock on his desk.

“You’re late,” he says. Jay smiles but does not apologize.

Bachmann is in his thirties but looks like he’s been bald since he was 19 and has been wearing a beard ever since to compensate. The other guys don’t like him because they don’t like management in general. Jay, who has had a chance to get to know him up close, doesn’t like him because he thinks he’s a slimy, sleazy piece of shit.

“So, last time you were here we were talking about your interactions with Anders, and his view that you’ve been displaying inappropriate aggression.” Bachmann pauses, looking at Jay as if waiting for him to reply.

“Jay?”

“Sure,” Jay says.

“And do you think those interactions have improved since then?”

“I’ve been very careful to abide by company policy,” Jay says.

Bachmann looks at him over the top of his glasses. Not for the first time Jay wonders if he has kids, and if he does whether they’re superior little shits like their father or — and this gives him a brief shiver of pleasure — they think their father is as big a cock as Jay does.

“That’s good to hear. But I think there’s a learning experience here for us, don’t you?”

“Me,” Jay corrects him.

“I’m sorry?” Bachmann says.

“A learning experience for me. I’m pretty sure you already know all this stuff.”

Bachmann looks at him for a moment, then makes a quick note.

“I’m sorry to hear that note of aggression in your voice, Jay,” he says. “But if you’d rather do it that way, we can do it that way. I think there’s a learning experience here for you.”

Jay nods. “Sure,” he says.

“Perhaps you could tell me what that is?”

“Acting out aggression not only doesn’t help resolve conflicts, it actively inhibits their resolution.”

Bachmann stares at Jay for a moment. Jay smiles blandly.

“That’s right, he says. “Now, I wondered whether we could talk about yesterday. Apparently you refused to carry out an authorized termination.”

Jay doesn’t respond. 

“Perhaps you could tell me what happened?”

Jay looks up at the roof and sighs. “The targets escaped into a structure. I was worried there might be non-combatants in the building.”

“I’ve seen the incident report. You hesitated before that as well.”

Jay shrugs. “I guess.”

“Do you think your hesitation might be connected to the incident that led to you coming here in the first place?”

Jay snorts. “The incident? You mean the murder of a dozen innocent people?”

“Please don’t use that language, Jay.”

Jay stops himself from telling Bachman to not use his name. “What word? Murder?”

Bachman takes off his glasses and rubs his eyes. “We’ve been through this. The incident was regrettable, but it happened under the auspices of our contract with the governing authority and after appropriate clearances, so it was legally sanctioned.”

Jay nods. “Sure.”

“You understand that if you continue to disregard orders or miss quotas you’ll be reassigned or dismissed?” Bachman leans forward. “Jay, you need to take this seriously. Your credits are dangerously low. More antisocial behavior could have serious consequences.’

Jay stares at him. Finally he smiles and nods. “Of course,” he says.

Lauren always said he needed to open up. She used to try to find ways to get him to talk, peppering him with questions and then growing frustrated when he couldn’t find the words to respond. She always seemed to take it personally, as if his inability to express himself was deliberate, something he was choosing to do to her rather than the result of the fact he didn’t know how. She came from a big family and talked to her mother and sisters most days; in her view, his problems stemmed from his lack of the same. “Your parents didn’t have much emotional intelligence,” she said, putting air quotes around “intelligence.” “Growing up like that, alone, it’s not surprising you ended up so emotionally inarticulate.”

It wasn’t true, of course. The few times Lauren met his parents before they died she’d been running at full-throttle, talking over them about herself, making jokes. After, she’d wanted him to emote, to talk about how much he missed them, but when he tried to she immediately assumed the look of performative sympathy Jay had come to hate. Looking back, he wished he’d tried harder: Few people remembered his parents, so talking about them with another person felt like bringing them fleetingly back.

In those final weeks before she left, she started to tell him she didn’t care, she was sick of trying so hard, that perhaps they just weren’t compatible; he wished he could find the words to explain why it was so hard, but instead he’d found himself pulling back even more, afraid that if he showed her what was inside him he’d break, that she’d see the darkness for what it is.

Anders is down on the Control Room floor when he gets back from Bachman’s office. When Jay enters he walks toward him.

“You’re late,” he says.

Jay nods. “I had to see Bachmann.”

“You should have notified us.”

Jay doesn’t reply.

Anders shakes his head. “Time lost to counseling is at the employee’s expense.”

Jay nods. “Fine,” he says. “Whatever.”

Tyler is already hooked in; he glances at Jay but jerks away, unwilling to look at him. Jay ignores him, pulls on his rig. As he reads the instructions he is surprised to see he is on patrol support again. He notifies the commander he is ready and moves into position.

The patrol is uneventful, the only excitement an encounter with two men the patrol commander suspects of contacts with insurgents. For a while several of the soldiers play soccer with a group of boys under floodlights beneath the ruins of the bridge, shouting and kicking the ball between the thin-limbed kids while Jay hovers in the sky, watching. It is growing light by the time the shift is over, the sky to the west pink and blue, the light uncannily clear in the dry air as he heads back toward base, an approaching morning so real that when he uncouples and steps back out onto the campus he is confused to find it is deep night. 

Back in his apartment he pulls on his rig, flicks through the feeds. Fires in Turkey, Brazil, the Arctic, a hurricane in Mozambique, the oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico still burning. In China a subway has flooded, the water filling the carriages, rising to the roof, the phones of the drowned glowing beneath the surface like fish in the depths of the ocean. And when it is too much he switches the game on and begins to play.

He is midway through the handover procedure the next day when a series of messages ping in from Adam. He looks at the notifications in surprise. He and Adam have not spoken since before Lauren left. 

Hey man …

Having a few beers. Thought you might want to come over.

See the new toys. 

Jay stares at the screen. He and Adam joined the company at the same time and ended up doing orientation training together. Adam had come straight out of college and had an electronic engineering degree, but he wasn’t like any other engineer Jay had ever met. He wore his dark hair long and seemed unable to take anything seriously, although he was always top of the list anytime the supervisors analyzed performance. For the first couple of days, Jay watched him across the room, marveling at the way the others gravitated toward him, but the two of them didn’t speak until they were paired up for a management training exercise. 

The exercise was the sort of thing Jay was getting used to, a simulated spaceship with an unfixable oxygen leak, and it was up to them to get home to Earth. As usual it was difficult to know what they were being asked to decide: Who were they supposed to throw out? Non-essential crew? The refugees in the hold? The pregnant stowaway who had somehow snuck aboard? The underperforming technician? 

But Adam just looked at it and snorted. “It’s all bullshit,” he said.

When Jay looked startled, Adam laughed.

“There’s no right answer. There can’t be. It won’t matter who we push out. All they want to know is that we’re prepared to make decisions.” He started selecting people at random and pushing them into space. Jay watched the air supply rise until finally it ticked into the green. But Adam didn’t stop. Instead he pushed a few more into space, only stopping when the column of green was well above zero. Then he turned to Jay and smiled.

“We can tell them those savings are blue sky earnings we can apply to future innovation.”

Jay began to object but before he had time to say anything the interface chimed and delivered their score. They’d been rated at close to 100. He broke into a grin. Adam smiled back.

“You see?” he said, nodding to the other pairs huddled anxiously over their consoles, trying to puzzle out what the exercise wanted of them. “All bullshit.”

After that they became friends, sort of, sitting next to each other in presentations, swapping information. Once they were assigned to different divisions they kept in contact, at least until Jay met Lauren. The couple of times Jay invited Adam out with them, Lauren was rigid with disapproval. 

“He doesn’t take anything seriously,” she said at one point. “Everything’s a joke to him.”

Jay tried to tell her she’d misunderstood, but Lauren held up her hand to silence him.

“Don’t defend him. You think he’s your friend, but he’s not. He only cares about himself.”

After that Jay and Adam caught up alone, meeting for a coffee or a beer now and then, but it wasn’t the same. Adam had been promoted and was now managing a research lab, but although he’d cut his hair and acquired a tendency to quote the Management Mantras, he did it in a way that implied he thought they were nonsense, which meant Jay still didn’t quite know how to take him.

Why, though, had he gotten back in touch now? Had he heard about Lauren? Or had somebody told him about the incident? For several seconds Jay sits and stares at the messages, then he taps out a reply.

Sure. Sounds great.

Later he steps through the security doors into Adam’s lab. The area is a jumble of cables and mechanical and electronic components. At the far end of the space, a small group stands with their backs to him, beers in hands, watching something. Adam turns.

“Jay, man!” he says, lifting an arm and ushering him in. Jay flinches away from the sweet smell of Adam’s breath. Adam doesn’t notice. Plucking a beer from the top of a console he hands it to Jay, and a cheer goes up.

The space in front of them has been set up as a sort of staging area, with boxes and other objects spread across it. In the middle a machine crouches; Jay recognizes it as one of the hundbots Adam’s lab has been working on, although even crouched down this one is bigger than earlier models, its body maybe five feet long and almost as high as Jay’s waist. Its legs are articulated like a dog’s, cables and tensioned springs twisting around like a diagram of a body flayed of skin, but it is ungainly, a massive, hulking hunk of steel, its tail end narrow and low, like the hindquarters of a hyena, its front end disconcertingly blunt and headless. Three prehensile arms snake around it: two at the front, a third at the back, like Cerberus’s tail, with a claw closed around a beer bottle.

There is a whirr and a clunk, and all at once the hundbot rises to its feet, the movement disconcertingly fluid, as if its suspension is suddenly inflating, the beer in its tail grip remaining perfectly steady.

Jay takes a step back, but Adam tightens his grip, holding him where he is.

“What do you think?” he asks. “It’s for crowd control.”

Jay opens his mouth to reply but nothing comes out. The idea of several of these things moving through a crowd is terrifying.

The guy beside him taps the tablet he is holding. The hundbot swings around and heads toward the opposite wall, moving faster now, gliding over obstacles with a stealthy hiss, sinuous despite its clumsy appearance, before turning around and heading back toward them. Next to Jay Adam swears quietly, and Jay, wanting to be part of whatever is happening here lifts his beer and says, “Fuck yeah!” but the words come out wrong somehow, and the guys on either side of him glance at him.

The hundbot comes to a halt just in front of Jay and Adam and falls still. Adam grins and takes the tablet from the guy next to him.

“Watch this,” he says, and taps the screen. There is a sudden whine and the hundbot swivels toward Jay. For a deeply disconcerting moment Jay is seized by the certainty that it is looking at him, as if some presence inhabits it, a cold, watchful thing that is all focus like a shark or some other predator. He hesitates, aware something is happening, something he does not quite understand. Then in a sudden blur of motion the hundbot lunges toward him, its movement no longer ungainly but shockingly, terrifyingly fast, its proximity triggering some sudden atavistic impulse to flee. Jay cries out in shock, a high-pitched sound, and stumbles back, crashing to the ground. Before he can recover himself the hundbot is standing over him, the blunt space where its head should be barely an inch from his face. He lies frozen, waiting for it to strike. The moment stretches on until with a hiss and a whirr the machine steps back and away. 

Jay doesn’t move; he lies there, shaking. He is dimly aware of dampness on his legs; glancing down he sees his beer has spilled across his pants, its yeasty soak dark on his crotch and leg.

Above him, Adam and the others are laughing. 

“Oh man!” Adam says. “You went down hard.”

Jay stares up at him, and Adam wipes his eyes.

“I’m sorry,” he says, extending a hand to help Jay to his feet. “But you have to admit, that was classic.”

Jay waves Adam’s hand away and climbs to his feet. His elbow and leg hurt from the fall, and he can feel the beer soaking through his underwear. Behind Adam one of the others reenacts Jay’s collapse, scrabbling his hands in front of himself and shrieking; the others cackle. Jay forces himself to nod and smile.

“Sure,” he says. “Total classic.”

Adam slaps him on the back and turns away. Jay watches him walk away and imagines slamming his head into the wall.

The beer on his chinos has dried to a stain by the time he arrives home; the smell lingers, sickly sweet. He takes them off and throws them in the basket in his bedroom. Standing in his underwear he feels childlike, ridiculous, naked legs pale beneath his polo shirt. Lauren used to tease him when he lay around in his underwear, saying he looked like a beached whale; if he acted hurt she would lie next to him and put her arms around him and pretend it was a joke. 

Going back through to the living room he flops down in his chair and fires up his game; allowing himself to be drawn into the strobing light on the screen, the rectangle of the television like a moving window in the semi-darkness, the recoil of the controller as the bullets hit the aliens, the splatter of their green blood. What should he have said to Adam? How could he understand? Lauren couldn’t. They would have thought he was a monster. He clenches his fist around the controller, forces himself on down the tunnels. But he cannot run fast enough. No matter how hard he tries to forget he is always there, that early dawn, the patrol chasing the man down the alley, into the house. He hears the commander’s shouts, the demands to fire.

“Take it out!’

Then his own voice querying the order, his protests so pathetic and weak he hates himself for them. More shouts. “Do it now!” 

And then the feel of the trigger against his finger and the building disappearing in a blaze of light — but not before the infrared kicks in and he sees the shapes of the children through the wall. 

He clenches his eyes closed but he cannot make the image disappear, cannot do anything except keep moving, down the corridors, onward and onward, faster and faster, hoping it is possible to keep running forever.

Much later his phone rings in the darkness, jolts him awake.

Groping blindly he closes his hand around its cool surface and flicks it on. Anders’ face fills the screen.

“Yes?”

“We need you to come in.”

“Now? What time is it?” Jay fumbles for his watch.

“Just after one.”

Jay rubs his face. His contract is flexible, meaning he can be required to work at any time, without breaks or layovers. But that usually means long hours, not callouts in the early morning. 

“Sure. I’ll be there soon.”

The building is almost deserted as he makes his way through the corridors toward the Control Center, its quiet spaces seeming to hum with emptiness. Anders is waiting, arms folded and eyes fixed on the feeds from the operators in the field on the main screen. 

“You made it,” he says, not turning around.

“Of course,” Jay says, suddenly uncomfortably aware of the yeasty smell that clings to him from the night before. 

“We’ve got a patrol that needs support.”

Something in Anders’ expression makes Jay hesitate. He glances around, aware of people looking his way. “Is something going on?”

Anders shakes his head but a grin spreads across his face. “No,” he says. “Why would you say that?”

Unsettled, Jay heads for his booth. Once he is in his seat he fires up the rig and slips into the raptor. It is near dawn, the cloudless air lavender and mauve. As he descends he sees the patrol below, moving through sleeping streets, their heat signatures fanned out in formation.

“Support online,” he says.

“Roger that,” replies the commander.

Jay closes his eyes, tries to steady himself. He understands now why Anders was smiling, why they called him out like this. This is the district where it happened, the same time of day.

“We’ve had reports of insurgent activity in the area,” says the commander. “Chatter about bombs.’

Jay doesn’t reply. The patrol moves around a corner, slipping past each other down a street. Near the end an alley runs off to one side. At its end is a half-demolished building. Jay’s feeds tell him this is the target. 

“I’ve got the target in sight,” he says.

“Any movement?” asks the commander.

“Negative.”

“Okay,” says the commander. “Moving in.”

Jay watches the team move down the alley toward the building.

“Anything?” asks the commander.

“Negative,” says Jay again. But then he sees a flicker of movement out of the corner of his eye. 

“Wait, I’ve got something,” he says. 

But before he can finish the commander’s voice breaks over his. “Look out!” 

Jay swings around, scrambling to understand what is going on. And then he sees. A boy is crouched behind a wall just ahead of the patrol. He is small, skinny, no more than nine or 10, and wears some kind of backpack across his chest, its red nylon bright against the white of his tunic.

“Take him!” shouts the commander. 

Jay hesitates. Flicking on the infrared overlay he looks for a sign the boy is carrying weapons, but there is nothing.

“I don’t see any sign of weapons.”

“He’s got some kind of parcel.” 

“I’m not getting chemical traces. It could be nothing.” 

“We’re not taking that risk! Shoot him!” hisses the commander. 

Jay tenses, one finger on the trigger. The boy isn’t moving; he cowers in the same spot, swaying slightly from side to side.

“Now!”

Jay opens his mouth to speak but nothing comes out. Everything seems far away, unreal. What if the backpack is empty? What if it’s not? His breath comes fast, shallow. Then, as if it is happening somewhere else or to somebody else, he sees movement, the boy stepping out into the open and his hand coming up. The commander begins to raise his rifle and shout, “N —,” but before he can fire there is a flash, the glare searing itself into Jay’s retinas before the screen collapses into static, then reshapes into smoke and fire. For a second or two everything is still, a moment that seems to go on for minutes, hours, and then everything is chaos, shots ringing out, people screaming. Anders appears at his shoulder, shouting at him, demanding to know what happened.

Jay shakes his head. He cannot find the words.

“Jesus,” spits Anders, and picking up a rig, overrides Jay’s command of the drone.

“Tyler,” he shouts. “You take over.”

The view goes black, leaving Jay sitting in the cubicle. He can hear shouting all around him, see people running here and there. In the next cubicle Tyler is humming. After what might be a few seconds or a few hours he stands up and stumbles toward the door. Nobody tries to stop him. Outside it is still dark, the air cool. It feels unreal, as if he is watching it on a screen. Without thinking he walks back toward his apartment, goes in, closes the door behind himself and lies down in the darkness. And closing his eyes he is there again, zeroing in, zeroing in.