Hunter-Killer over Gem StateRed Harris kafka-esque war dystopian anti-colonialism
Heavy moon full and fat shines bright in the pre-dawn, stars surrounding it made dull by its splendor. No light pollution, no cities nearby to blast photons skyward and ruin the illusion of pristine wilderness. Deciduous trees stand vigilant and block peripherals like porous walls. It is the moon, it is the night, it is the forest, the unseasonable warmth for autumn is expected. In the summer it is unbearable, in the winter it is uncanny, but right now it feels natural. Adaptation takes its course as do all things.
I hide, and I listen. My ears search for the tell-tale hollow hissing of an MQ-33 Executioner drone, no doubt circling overhead. The MQ-33 is equipped with thermographic scanners, topology-attuned radar, and a series of high-precision cameras, designed for detection and targeting with unparalleled accuracy. I have to rely on fallible senses. I make dashes under the treeline as quick as I can manage, stay under the branch covering. Executioner spots me. Just for a moment. It spits off a burst of fire that slams thunk-thunk-thunk-thunk-thunk into the bark of a fir tree three yards to my left. A warning shot. The operator is toying with me.
Consider for a moment the fact that the manufacturers, technicians, and of course, the operator of the Executioner had been what one could call, at least in years prior, if not neighbors, at least countrymen.
Of course, that is the nature of civil conflict. You find out who your real friends are.
A complex chain of bureaucratic and logistical facilitators has brought the Executioner drone down here, upon me, overhead, coiled and waiting to strike like an aerial rattlesnake, listless and shifting, and I can sense the operator’s itch, the hand that kills, seeking release. We do a dance, a cold and metallic dalliance that has been practiced around the world since the dawn of this century, and I wonder how young the operator is, where he’s from, how he ended up at the joystick of something so designed for violence. A single missile could easily solve this issue for him. Allow him to go on break, talk to a shrink if he needs it but of course he won’t, pray or sleep or eat whatever the cafeteria’s serving. No; it’s never that simple. Current federal armed forces regulations prevent the use of incendiaries and explosives outside active urban combat zones. To let the flames devour, but only where they can be tamed.
They still care enough about this land to not burn it all down. Rounds strike the tree I’m hiding behind, ripping branches from the trunk, showering me in pine needles and bark shreds. There’s a cache nearby, I can tell from my position relative to the hills and valleys and trickling stream meandering its way through the geography. Familiar, so familiar, don’t think too hard about being here before with others, that’s war, people die. The wind whistles, the trees tremble, the autumnal constellations shimmer overhead in waning glory.
There was a time when I lived in Boise, Idaho, and I was comfortable, before I knew what drones sounded like, before I knew what a monstrous thing a government can be. Now I cannot stand the memory of city living, it’s all turned necrotic. I think city and I think flat terrain and structural vulnerability, I think about the piles of bodies owing their terminus to pathogen or starvation or heatstroke, about the debt we are now paying for the Faustian abundance of fossil industrialism; the ravenous hunger of flames, ash and smoke blotting out the sky, empty semi-trucks slowly rusting in abandoned depots, a city is not made for this world, not anymore, and if thinking too hard about Boise gets me this way, I don’t want to know about those poor souls in Phoenix.
Can you blame this country for falling apart?
The pre-dawn horizon begins to line the eastern sky with faint indigo. Sight becomes a double-edged sword. The Executioner is not built for this, it is a nocturnal hunter, it is not optimized for defending itself while seen. It hovers low and steady, heat exhaust no doubt distorting the air around it like an apparition, a warped ballistic phantom, prowling with all the malice of the dying beast that is the military-industrial complex. The cache is within sight, I can almost taste a fighting chance. It’s buried there, only slightly, under camouflage tarp and assorted leaves. The first slivers of a molten iron sun surface, melting the morning meridian, and if I cared enough to look for the damn thing, I could probably see the Executioner hovering near, dark harbinger of shrapnel and death.
Think, for a second, about how much more personable a helicopter gunship would be; names like Cheyenne and Apache and Comanche. But drones! Reaper and Predator and Executioner! America may name its helicopters for the peoples it destroyed, but it names its drones for the people it yearns to be.
I dive — into the pile of earth and dirt and leaves, on the forest floor beneath the watchful eyes of the trees, the arcing sun bursting forth rays and the Executioner smells blood, moves into range like a tiger shark — scramble to uncover the crate beneath, hoping whoever buried it is still alive out there somewhere so I can buy him a beer if this whole mess ever ends, because god is it good to have friends, especially ones with access to ordinance; open it up, inside it’s a gift, a gift more expensive than money, because it’s worth an entire life, my life, and it’s something I can lift onto my shoulders like Atlas —
Idaho is a beautiful state, it really is, you haven’t really lived until you’ve seen it yourself. Windswept desert dunes and abyssal glacier-formed lakes and endless rolling hills of verdant forests and stark gray mountains that appear to scrape against the sky; there are long barren stretches where there’s nothing but highway in front of you and highway behind you and everywhere to the sides might as well be the surface of the moon. It’s a very lonely state, yes, but in the age of fragmentation there are millions of states of America, a state for every person, and this one I belong to, the boreal mountain is my home.
— reach weary hands like lightning rods to heaven in the closest thing to a clearing, Stinger launcher carried with the business end facing the warform, and I know that the Executioner sights me now, I wonder if the operator on the other end sees my face in color or if he’s just using thermals. It banks right, and as it skips about the treeline I see it in brief, faraway glimpses. Sleek and bare and raw, curves and edges in all the wrong places. Sunlight grasps and slips off the charcoal-hued boron-carbide exterior. Old Glory slapped on a tailfin, just in case you forget who’s killing you. When we let them fly across the world, did we really not expect them to come home to roost?
Stinger whines with desperation, singing its lock, high-pitched tinny yearning. Executioner is done with the chase, the game, the dance, it moves above the line to get a clear sight with its antipersonnel machine gun. Trigger click and stinger lets fly, smoke and fire like primordial rage from the earth to the heavens, target so close projectile so quick that the explosion is almost immediate, the light comes so fast and strong that it outshines the sun for a half-instant blinding-blinding-blinding before the Executioner crumbles mid-air to collide with the ground in hundreds of fragments, hunter-killer becomes hunted-killed.
Sun divorces from horizon and only now do I realize that the pillar of black smoke rising from the wreckage like a shambolic poltergeist poses a threat in and of itself. No sense being spotted again. It’s time to melt away, retreat into the woods, regroup and find others scraping out an existence in an empire tearing itself apart. But then I think about the Executioner, smoldering remains picking up embers and breeze beginning to nurture them to new fury, and the way it behaved when it was still alive, and I wonder: Operator, did you want to kill me? Or did you just want to make it look that way? You could have if you wanted to, you know, you had me in your sights and everything —
But the dancing dervish has been shot down, and the morning has come, I’m cold and alone, and I have to leave.