Amber breathed on her fingers and set her paper coffee cup on the side desk of her cubicle. She found the desk more by muscle memory than by sight. The armory was always kept dim so the screens could be visible, but without the sunlight filtering through the shaded windows it was downright dark. It was six on a snowy morning in Rochester, New York.
Amber pressed eight of her frozen fingers between her neck and her scarf before she unwound it. The effect was like ice cubes against her throat and sent a wracking shiver down her back. But now she was more awake and her fingers were sensible enough to log into her computer.
She took a drag from her coffee and opened her boss's daily email. Today it contained a photo of a man in a black turban with a dark beard and the natural kind of middle eastern eyeliner.
He was Mirza ul-Mulk. He was thirty two years old and "ongoing high priority." Today she was going to watch for him around the local mosque. The email didn't say what city, more less what country. Her supervisor wouldn't even know that much. It didn't matter. Her R-UAVS would be there.
Amber stretched both arms back over her chair and tried to care enough to stay awake. This is keeping everybody safe, or whatever, she told herself.
A hollow thump came as someone fumbled around in the cubicle next to hers. It was still rather dark. She heard a squeak from David's office chair followed by a resigned sigh.
"You're late again, David," Amber teased him over the cubicle wall.
"I didn't have time to get a coffee," he moaned back.
"That Anthropology essay?" she asked him.
Amber and David had a Monday, Wednesday, Friday class together at the university. The armory had become a good place to commiserate about teachers and compare progress. David's cubicle lit up as he logged into his computer.
Amber entered the codes that appeared on the bottom of her supervisor's email. This logged her into the day's specific aircraft. Today it was a two decade old Global Hawk.
It was cruising at thirty five thousand feet with twenty eight hours of fuel left. Amber only ever operated Global Hawks and two types of Predators.
She pulled up the notes from whoever had piloted the thing last, some guy in New Mexico. He had signed off at four AM and there was only a two hour time difference between New Mexico and New York, so six AM his time. She pitied the night shifters.
He had noted some of the weepers weren't working too well. There had been ice buildup on the left wing. Amber checked the sensors but there was no ice now. She didn't dismiss the memo, just added to it. The maintenance guys in Djibouti would want to know.
She called its information up on all screens.
Her top screen was a fifty inch. It showed a yellowed landscape crawling by. The occasional dirt road meandered across her view like a thin brown thread. The sparse buildings showed up like square shaped shadows.
Her second screen was an old one, only a forty five inch. It could show a zoomed in picture, or an infrared one if it were night, or a radar one if it were foggy. She didn't have any reason to zoom in yet so she left up the window with weather, wind speed, her mission, and the local time.
The small screen slightly above eye level to her right showed an outline of her Global Hawk. In small letters beside it were posted altitude, weight, fuel, and etcetera. Out of all of them this was the most useful screen.
"I'm in Tunisia," called David. "Gotta be Tunisia." He couldn't know where he was, of course. But he always tried to guess. "The local time is 11:15 AM."
"That could be Sudan, too," she pointed out. "The Vice President was on TV just last night saying we weren't in Tunisia anymore."
"Ppppfffhhht," was all David answered.
Amber didn't worry about it as much as David, but one always wondered. She couldn't help looking for clues. Her screen said the local time was 12:17.
Wherever she was, it was summer there. The noon sunlight seemed to permeate everything. She thought Libya might be more dessert-like than this, but she wasn't sure. The grass she flew over had grown long and thick but was dry now. It spread, golden and unbroken into every corner of her screen. It was her favorite part of the work to see a breeze blow and watch so many miles of flat grassland ripple all in unison. A ribbon of white would roll its way over the gold, then another until they were out of view or broke on a city. The specs and fleas that were bushes and goats would somehow remain immovable as the waves of light washed around them.
Remotely Piloted Aircrafts never cast shadows over the ground. They were too high in the sky to even be seen from below with the naked eye. Still, it always struck Amber as odd that she couldn't even see a shadow.
Amber yawned and shivered, suddenly cold and back at home. Dawn wouldn't come here for another hour. The small screen said the Global Hawk wouldn't get to its target area for another half an hour. She peaked outside of her cubicle to see who else had arrived.
Danielle was in her cubicle. Her brunet pony-tail cascaded down the back of a new turquoise cashmere sweater. She was lazily toggling her I-GNAT's cameras
around. "Counting cows, I swear," she muttered under her breath.
A "Whoop!" came from down the room. Ryan Wormsly was the only person who came to the armory at six every morning enjoying his civic duty. He was a paid employee of the CIA, but it was because he liked his job, not the other way around.
Amber had overheard Ryan claiming he had been especially drafted at a game con, which Amber didn't believe since the draft applied to him just as much to anyone else. But he did more than recon; that was for certain
He had a state-wide high score in Call of Duty 9, upon which the RPA control systems were based in large part. He could stare at a screen for hours and still flick a toggle at a split second's notice with the most delicate accuracy. He was just good at this stuff.
She didn't particularly enjoy his company but his "whoop" had piqued her curiosity.
For a moment she slurped at her now cold coffee and watched scrubby, sun scorched brush, but she couldn't resist for long. She glanced once more for ice on her wings and left to see what Ryan was up to.
Amber hadn't been the only one curious. Ben and Tasha were crowded around inside Ryan's cubicle. Ryan liked an audience. He was bouncing around in his chair like a child. Potato chips were expressly forbidden at the control panel, but that didn't stop him. Crumbs cascaded from his baggy T-shirt as he reached for his joystick. He zoomed his field of vision further down, milked it for pixels.
"Ohhhhh, yeah. That's him," he crowed. Five blurry figures in white flowing clothes were clustering around a truck. Even with the grainy resolution you could tell they were all men, that two of them held rifles. Three of them got into the truck.
Ryan put on his headset and dialed the supervisor. "I've got him," he said, "patch me through!"
This could only mean he had permission to launch missiles. You only needed to contact Operation Base if you were going to use lethal force on a specific target. Extra eyes on the screen were needed to confirm just how likely it was that the guy was actually dead.
"Beginning launch sequence," he recited into his mouthpiece as skeletal arms reached
deftly over his control panel.
Amber returned to check her own RPA as Ryan went down the check list for the ten-minute warm-up sequence. Still no ice on the wings. The vista on the screen had changed slightly. The grasses seemed slightly less dry now, the roads a bit wider and straighter.
"Are you guys going to come and watch?" she asked David and Danielle on her way back down the hall.
"Man, I've got supply vans to scout for," said David, not even turning his plump head away from his screen. "Gotta make sure our friends down in Somewhere get their juice boxes and Lunchables." Over his head Amber could see his screens. He was covering the planned route of a convoy in an urban area. She didn't envy him.
"I'm counting cows," snapped Daniellele. "I'm buzzing circles over a shed in the middle of nowhere. So far it's been approached by three cows. That's what my report is going to say: Three ugly cows. Send missiles." If she missed a detail that was caught by people reviewing the footage she would have to pay a fine, or owe Uncle Sam a couple more hours of "RPA time."
"Good luck," Amber wished the two of them and pattered back down the hall. The crowd in Ryan's cubicle had grown. Now Amber had to stand in the back and crane her neck to see over the shoulders of the two men on either side of Ryan.
The truck he was covering was on the street now, moving. Amber had never seen an attack operation on a car before. It was impossible to see into the dark windows of the vehicle from that altitude. Presumably Ryan's primary target was riding in there. The men with guns braced themselves in the back and tried not to squint into the sun.
Ryan pulled out just a bit. The screen showed about a mile of space now, the truck in the middle. He was uncharacteristically quiet as he waited for it to pull away from other traffic. Was it harder to do when the target was moving?
"I'm going to get that tree. Watch me."
The truck wasn't near any trees yet. Still Ryan's back straightened and his shoulders tensed.
"Firing," he announced, "in three, two, one." His hands moved so little and so fluidly it was difficult to see. The truck continued on, nearing a leafy tree. Ryan breathed a sigh and leaned back. "Contact in three, two, one."
The truck stopped moving. A cloud of smoke puffed out of it, creating a small dark spot where it had been on the road like the smudge on the pavement left when you squish an ant. The other vehicles on the road slowed as they approached and pulled away from it. Soon the road was empty and motionless as an abandoned Hot Wheels track.
"Check out the tree!" cried Ryan, closing his mouthpiece in a fist. There was no tree left. The missile must have traveled straight through the truck to the tree, perfectly positioned on the other side. "One missile expended," he stated into his mouthpiece with the air of someone delivering the moon on a silver platter.
Amber fled before she could be exposed to any more of Ryan's self-exultation.
"Draft" used to be a dirty word, like back during Vietnam when people used to go off to fight people. Back when there were wars. The world had sure come a long way. Amber had been drafted, like every other healthy American, two years after high school.
Now CIA service was more like an extra class or a part time job. You put in about 40 hours a week, 840 all together, preferably before you graduated from college. The training was free and you could get good jobs with the skills you learned.
Ryan, for example, would almost surely get a job with the army after this and fly RPAs in combat zones, or maybe with the FBI or some surveying company to fly RPAs at home. Maybe Danielle, too. Amber wouldn't. She wasn't good enough. Besides, the only RPA jobs she'd ever been interested in were the summer jobs monitoring fire scouts used over Colorado and California and the like. Those had been fully automated the year before and didn't need human interference to firefight anymore.
Amber was just trying to get it over with.
She returned to her cubicle as the landscape under her Global Hawk was becoming urban. Soon the streets were paved. Grey-white multi-story buildings clustered together like wasp combs and rose up the hill of the city.
Amber wondered what the city sounded like. During her year at the armory she'd seen others like it, but her cameras couldn't tell her what they sounded like or what they smelled like. She imagined they couldn't be too similar to the cities she knew in person, the ones in New York.
Amber preferred watching the cities to the country side. She too had been a victim of "cow counting." But her RPA didn't stop over the city. It cruised on, Amber watching helplessly, until the ground grew yellow again instead of grey and the roads turned again to dirt.
One road in particular snaked its way in and out of her view. At its end a small town appeared, resembling one of the many rocky hills. The buildings here were only one story tall but the roads were paved, overlooked by palm trees, power lines, and two water towers. It looked like a good place to live.
It wasn't hard to find the mosque. Amber had gotten good at it. It was small, made of sun-bleached cement and had the traditional high walls and rounded dome of larger mosques. Those were to point heaven-ward Amber guessed.
She located the doors. After that it was just watching and making notes of each of the men coming and going who could be Mirza ul-Mulk.
Tuesday morning Amber clawed her way out of bed an hour early to begin her own Anthropology paper. It was due online at midnight and she had another class after her RPA shift.
The campus library was deserted. She spent most of the extra hour her effort had bought her absentmindedly doodling the long wings and tail end propellers of a Predator into the old table beside her computer. She gave up and arrived at the armory a little early.
Ryan was the only other person in the building. "Hey, what's-your…" he called as she walked in. "Amber! Come down here." Amber pursed her lips to herself, but she was low on ways to kill time until six. She floated like a ghost down the dark office space to his cubicle, still in her hat and mittens.
"I just got a whole meeting of them," he said.
"Of who?" she asked. He shrugged his boney shoulders.
On Ryan's screen there was a burning building. No, Amber realized, it wasn't burning. Just smoking. There was a gaping hole in its front, where the door used to be, as if the missile had tried to enter through conventional means. The roof hung suspended in midair like the cartoon characters before the notice they've run off a cliff.
Ryan watched the screen, uncharacteristically silent. They watched the smoke rise, the neighbors begin to sweep up the shattered glass of their own windows.
"I don't understand," said Amber after a moment. "Why are there no ambulances or police or anything? You would think someone would come to help clean up if nothing else."
"The Taliban won't allow it, or the local militant group, or even the government probably. Used to you be you could just wait half an hour and come back and kill more bad guys."
"Like, as they were trying to help?"
"Yeah, digging through wreckage for victims and stuff… Don't look at me like that, it was before my time. Not like I came up with it. But of course people wised up after a while. Now they just let it sit until the RPAs go away, give it two hours maybe."
The silence relapsed. Amber clutched her coffee in her cotton covered fingertips. She felt like she was searching the screen for something, for what had just happened. At the same time she couldn't image a situation more simple and final.
"Look at that kid," Ryan said quietly. Among the neighbors was a boy. Unlike those around him he did not pretend to do anything but stare. He was younger than sixteen, so not considered a possible combatant. Maybe fourteen.
"He's looking at that house," Ryan said, "and saying to himself 'I'm going to stop this.' That's what I'd be saying, wouldn't you? 'I'm going to join the Taliban and stop this. Until America's gone or I am.'
But that's okay, because my kid brother will be here in three years to stop him. And if he has any kids, my kids will be there to stop them. See how it works perfectly?" He laughed. Amber couldn't tell if he was laughing because he really thought it was funny or because he didn't.
Amber left for her own cubicle.
"I think I'm in Pakistan," called David fifteen minutes later. Amber sat in her chair staring at the empty screen. She hadn't logged in yet.
"What's your thesis for your Anthro paper?"
"I don't have one yet," she muttered.
There was a sharp intake of breath drawn through teeth. "Oh," he said understandingly.
Amber logged into her computer. The email contained the same picture of Mirza ul-Mulk. His designation still read "ongoing high priority," but now her mission heading said "Target Acquisition." It had never said that before.
She entered the code for the RPA. There must have been no Predators or Global Hawks available. Today she had been assigned a Reaper. She had never operated one of these before. That didn't matter too much, it didn't need her help to fly or navigate. She just needed to be familiar with the information gathering systems.
She filled every screen with information. It looked similar to a Predator. It was half the size of a Global Hawk, a fraction of the weight. It couldn't carry the fuel to stay up as long, but it could fly even higher.
The camera systems were similar. The picture was a bit more monochrome but the zoom was sharper. Amber liked it.
That's when she noticed the notes from the previous operators. These didn't refer to the RPA itself. These were about the mission! A thrill passed through Amber's veins into her back, arms and neck.
One note was from an actual Intelligence Analyst in DC. It said one of the men she had seen yesterday was indeed Mirza ul-Mulk. Attached was the video taken at three PM yesterday local time that she had marked "possible target." It had been a short man who arrived with three others in a car that stayed nearby while he was in the mosque and had left quickly when he came out.
Another note was from a Friday shifter in Washington State. Mirza's family compound had been located.
Notes from another Tues-Thurs shifter in Louisiana dated back two months. She must have been watching this compound for a while. There were extensive notes on each person who lived there, their schedules if not their names.
The weekend people confirmed all of it. It was noon on Tuesday. Mirza should be there somewhere.
"David! Danielle! I always thought we were just throwing time into a black hole. They're actually going to get this guy!"
Danielle came in and peered silently at the house on two screens and the notes on the other. David came in behind her.
"Wow. Yeah, you've got him. What's your mission?"
"Just to watch him, I guess. And make really, really detailed notes."
Amber zoomed into the compound. A group of boys played soccer in the field beside the house, running with all their might in the heat. A woman was washing clothes outside one of the doors, wrapped in a flowing blue headscarf.
"I hate this country," said Danielle.
"Libya?" asked Amber.
"No. The United States. Look at us spying on people in their homes!"
"Spy on them? We're going to bomb their house. I'm sure they're grateful we spy first," said David.
"Everything about this is so inconvenient," said Danielle as she crossed the hall to her own screens.
"She'd rather be asleep right now is all," snorted David as he returned to his cubicle too.
Amber studied the houses. There were supposed to be twelve children living here, five women, three men. From 40,000 feet it was impossible to tell which of the kids were Mirza's and which were nieces and nephews. Amber couldn't even pick out which woman was supposed to be his wife.
She could find all but four of the kids, assuming none of those playing soccer were neighbors. She saw two women plus the elderly couple that must have been Mirza ul-Mulk's parents. Including the old man Amber saw two men, but neither were Mirza.
"Hey, David?" Amber asked after a couple of hours. "How do they know this guy is Taliban?
These people could be talking about the stock market for all I know. I can't read lips, and I can't speak Arabic. And how do they decide he's so dangerous that we have to drop out of the sky and bomb his house?"
David giggled. She knew he would like this question. "Nobody knows," he answered mysteriously. "I mean, you have to assume they have informants and stuff. But all the decisions are made in a closed room in the White House. It's the CIA, so the military's got nothing to do with it. Congress certainly doesn't. International law either. It's all very top secret. But somehow, they produce a list of names to find and kill, and us little grunts do their bidding. That's why we can all sleep snuggly and safe in our beddy-bys at night."
"But it's got to be secret, doesn't it? Or else we would never find them."
"I dunno," was all he said.
On Amber's screen a young woman carried a toddler in a turquoise dress across a courtyard.
Thursday morning Amber was disappointed to see Mirza's picture again in her email. She had been hoping her assignment would change to something with fewer familiar faces. The mission designation was "hunt/kill."
The body of the email actually contained a message from her supervisor. When you find him, it said, call me. Amber sat and stared at the screen.
"I've got a question for you" called David, somewhere behind her wall. "How come they never show any of these strikes on the news?"
"Because no one has reporters in any of the three houses in Goatville, Yemen?" she answered without any real enthusiasm.
"Don't you think it's strange, though? That there is NEVER footage of an RPA strike?"
"These places don't let press in. It's too Freedom of Speech for them."
"Okay, but these guys can pick up a camera. Say you were the Taliban. Say you were Iran, even. You hate the idea of free press, but your high ranking secret militant bases keep getting bombed. Don't you think you would show SOMETHING to the news? Just one bombed wedding or child's corpse on the Western seven o'clock news would make a serious dent in your enemy's ability to attack you. There would be some kind of outcry. Why wouldn't you do it?"
"Because I'm stubborn?"
"What if it's not their media that's doing the censuring? That's all I'm saying."
Amber let the conversation finally die and logged into her RPA. It was a Reaper again.
Like the Predators, Reapers carried hellfire missiles. Unlike Predators they're weapons systems were extremely autonomous. They aimed themselves if you just pointed and clicked. She was technically qualified to operate the weapons systems on a Reaper.
Maybe she wouldn't find Mirza today. She hadn't seen him on Tuesday. But Megan from Washington said he had come home last night and was probably sleeping, certainly was in the house. The analyst from D.C. said "ul-Mulk is expected to leave the compound today at approximately 1400 hours."
Amber marked the building where Mirza was sleeping. Then, slowly, painstakingly, she began to account for all twenty members of the household.
One whole family was at the market. They had left half an hour before Amber's shift.
That was a Mirza's brother, his wife, and at least three children, so five. Four of the boys would be at school until four PM local time. Two were infants that would be wherever their mothers were. That was eleven people accounted for. The grandparents usually took naps around this time, always in their own rooms. That left seven. Two of the women were visible in other areas of the compound, one beating a rug in the yard and one drying laundry on the rooftop. She had a young daughter helping her while a toddler bounced on the floor nearby. That left three.
Amber didn't have any visual evidence of her own that Mirza was present. The last report was from two AM local time. That was twelve hours ago. It wasn't enough to move on.
Probably, she would just have to watch the compound all day like she had Tuesday.
Then something white moved at the bottom of the screen. Amber adjusted the view. It was Mirza. He left the door of his house and leaned against a tree. He was looking down the dirt road.
Amber put on her headset and called her supervisor.
"This is Amber Macintire. I've eyes on my target."
"Macintire…" he was pulling up her information. "Miraz ul-Mulk. 'On going high priority.'
I'll patch you through to Operation Base at… This one's in Nevada. Hold on."
Amber repeated the information to the woman in Nevada. "Your operation is still a go," she confirmed. "Your view is on-screen and being recorded for post execution assessment. I will walk you through the warm-up to launch sequence."
"I haven't accounted for all the people in the house, yet," said Amber. She wanted to be cool but it couldn't have been more evident from her voice that this was her first time.
Danielle was peeking at her from across the hall.
"After the launch sequence has completed you may judge when the target is clear and choose when to fire."
On the screen something was moving fast. A little boy in a white shirt had careened out of one of the buildings adjacent to Mirza's and onto the grass, away from the compound. A young woman came out after him. That left only one person. Amber breathed a sigh of relief.
"Okay, I'm ready," she said into her head set.
Mirza wandered back inside.
The ten minute sequence flew by. Amber helped the Reaper place three different crosshairs on the building hiding Mirza. They accounted for altitude, wind speed, everything. They were accurate to within seven feet.
"You're all set. Good luck," said the lady in Nevada. Then the headset went dead.
Amber's hands were quivering around the joystick. She withdrew them. The trigger button seemed so fragile.
She became aware of the people packed into her cubicle. David held his chin thoughtfully at her left elbow. Danielle peeked around him. Ryan leaned a hand on her desk to her left.
"You got him?" he asked.
"Good," he said and watched the screen expectantly.
"He's in that building?" asked David.
"Yeah," said Amber. She looked away from the building. She glanced around the compound. She couldn't find the boy that had run out onto the grass.
"Did you guys see a child and a woman down here?" she asked, pointing to the bottom of the screen.
"No," said David. Danielle and Ryan shook their heads. Amber toggled the camera around, then out, but couldn't find them.
"They must have gone back inside," said David.
"Check behind the targeted building. They'll end up toast if they're there," added Ryan. She checked. No one was there. They must have gone back where they came from.
Amber focused on the building again.
"Well? You gonna shoot?" asked Ryan impatiently.
Amber hesitated. She couldn't help it. She knew Mirza ul-Mulk was a dangerous man. But she didn't want to do this anymore.
"What if that kid is in there, and that woman?" she asked.
"What if they're not? So what?"
"So I can't do it if people might be in there."
"What about the woman and kid at MY house? If that guy sends someone to bomb the bus station or someplace because you were too chicken to blow him up and protect us, I swear
I'll hunt you down myself."
"Well, how can we really know that that's what he's doing if we're not there in person?"
"I know," said Ryan rolling his eyes. "Let's wait until he makes a crater in Times Square. Then we'll have him."
"I'm kind of really glad I'm not there in person," understated David.
"I'll press the button for you, if you want," offered Danielle quietly.
"No," said Amber angrily. "I'm fine."
She squeezed the button.
Speculative Fiction. You would be surprised how much of this I didn't make up.