Thirty seconds to impact.
On the video display, Captain Darwin Cole watches black crosshairs quiver on a mud rooftop. He doesn’t budge the stick and rudder. No piloting needed now. All that matters is the missile, which Airman Zach Lewis guides by laser from a seat to Cole’s immediate right.
Ten seconds pass while Cole wiggles his toes, numb from the air-conditioning. No one speaks into their headsets. Even the chatter screen is calm, as if everyone in their viewing audience was holding his breath. It is 3:50 a.m., and Cole’s sense of detachment is so profound that he has to remind himself this is not a game, not a drill. It is death in motion, as real as it gets, and for the moment he is reality’s instrument of choice, the one whose name will go on the dotted line now and forevermore. His kill.
A sobering thought anytime, but especially when you’re sitting in a trailer on the floor of the Nevada desert, drowsy from breathing air that smells like warm electronics. Cole is a grounded fighter jock, as wingless as a plucked housefly, yet here he is about to zap a roomful of bad guys on the other side of the world. The upholstery creaks as he shifts in his seat. Nearly four hours in the saddle. Numb butt, numb toes, numb brain. Zach begins the countdown in a voice edgy with youthful eagerness.
“Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four . . .”
On the screen, sudden movement.
The door of the house opens and a girl appears at the threshold. On Cole’s eighteen-inch monitor she is only three inches high, but the afternoon sunlight paints her vividly—red shawl, white pants, blue scarf. She looks young, ten or eleven, and for a disastrous second she gazes straight at the lens before she darts left, disappearing from the screen just as two small boys run out the door behind her, sandals flopping.
“What the fuck!” Cole says. “Can you—?”
Zach shoves the joystick anyway, but it will take two seconds for his command to reach the missile across seven thousand miles of space and wiring, and by then the whole thing will be over.
Cole is wide awake now, and in the panic flash of this final moment before the explosion he is reminded that all his commands tonight have passed above the schools, rivers, farms, houses, malls, and highways of a sleeping America. Each twitch of his hand flings a signal of war across the nation’s night owls as they make love, make a sandwich, make a mess of things, or click the remote. The signal then hurdles the Atlantic, Europe, and the Middle East before finally reaching the bright blue afternoon of eastern Afghanistan, nine hours into the future, where at this moment his MQ-1 Predator drone gazes down from ten thousand feet upon the stony valley and mud homes of Sandar Khosh, a remote village of farmers and herdsmen.
Cole hopes the girl is running fast. The boys, too.
“Zero,” Zach announces.
The main screen erupts silently in a boiling cloud of fire and dust.
Cole gawks. The job does not allow him to turn away. No one says a word.
Already he feels the moment taking root in a fallow corner of his imagination—a seed of torment, a nascent preoccupation. From experience he knows that during the next few hours, word of this event will filter from the trailer like a noxious gas. By the end of his shift the chaplain will be waiting, along with the shrink who insists on calling himself a medic, as if they were right there on the battlefield with the dead and wounded. As always, Cole will politely decline their offers of counsel, although doom seems to follow him everywhere lately, closing in like a posse that rides only by night.
For the moment there is pressing business to attend to. He speaks into his headset.
“Zoom out, Zach. Where’d those kids go?”
Cole’s mind wants to shriek, but his voice remains calm, a cool Virginia baritone in the reassuring timbre of pilots the world over. It is an intelligent voice of great utility, patient and searching. Only seven hours earlier it was reading a bedtime story to Danny, his youngest, employing the soft cadences needed to make a restless five-year-old fall asleep. Somewhere toward the back of Cole’s brain the book’s rhythmic words still tumble as gently as socks in a dryer:
In the great green room
There was a telephone
And a red balloon . . .
The lens draws back. The wider view reveals three small bodies just to the left of the ruined house. The worst part is that Cole believes he knows these children. Not personally, but in the way of all watchers who grow familiar with their subjects. He has seen them playing cricket in the rocky field by the old shepherd’s house, digging onions with their mother, hauling firewood from the grove of poplars by the stream. He knows these homes and this village, although it is little more than a smudge on their tactical map. How can this be possible? Then he remembers. Zach and he snooped around here only a month ago with their Predator, first by day and then after dark, switching the camera to infrared so they could lurk like an owl in a high pine while, far below, cook fires burned, animals lay down in their stables, and children—these children, he is sure of it now—played in the open air of an October evening. And with that memory comes the realization that those three kids should not have been in that house, not the one that Zach and he have been watching so intently for four hours. He is not sure how he knows this. Something he noticed earlier, perhaps, or during tonight’s stream of chatter, the ongoing cyber-conversation between all the usual interested parties.
Cole sometimes has to remind himself of what part of the world he’s watching. It might be any dry and rocky valley here in Nevada. It could be the vacant lot behind his daughter’s school. The picture is unaccompanied by smell or soundtrack. When characters move their mouths, it seems almost possible that they’re speaking his language, and when he departs at the end of the day their images accompany him home, a silent movie unspooling in his head during the long drive to the ’burbs of Vegas—shot after shot of hobbled lives in their slow progress, with Cole as the omnipotent eye above; a kindly uncle with a camera, perhaps, making home movies for the world at large. Until you fired a missile.
“We’ve got activity,” Zach says.
On the screen, two adults emerge from a neighboring house, where the door has been blown off its hinges. They stagger as if dazed or wounded, Chaplinesque in their movements.
A fresh line of dialogue pops up on Cole’s chat’s screen, gold letters on a black background:
(FORT1) Nice shooting. Check the truck.
The truck, a white Toyota, is a key piece of the scene. Its arrival moments earlier was their cue for action, the agreed-upon signal that the targeted bad guys had moved into place and were now present and accounted for.
Fort1 is the mission’s J-TAC, or joint terminal attack controller. He has directed much of the action tonight, the stage manager of this drama. Cole knows him only from his call sign, assuming Fort1 is even a he. Cole’s CO, Lieutenant Colonel Scott Sturdivant, mentioned Fort1 only cursorily during the pre-mission briefing, a tipoff that Fort1 is from the intelligence side. He could be in Washington—the Pentagon, the CIA, even the White House—or he could be on the ground at the scene, posted on a nearby hill. Theoretically he could even be here at Creech Air Force Base, a bustling little place tucked against barren mountains, a mere forty miles from Vegas. He could be anywhere his laptop will travel, as long as he has the correct passwords and encryptions.
Wherever he is, Fort1 seems unduly satisfied with what they’ve just accomplished. Cole restrains himself from typing a snarky reply. Everything he says and does tonight will become part of the official record. His “What the fuck!” from a moment ago already weighs against him, so now he must be doubly careful. Swallowing hard, he masters his tone, and then says to Zach without turning his head, “Our J-TAC wants a look at the truck.”
Zach eases the camera right. A white shape emerges from the smoke and dust.
“Here it comes,” Zach says, a slight tremor in his voice. “I’ll zoom it.”
Zach Lewis is only twenty-two. A year ago he was an image analyst, examining satellite photos in quiet rooms. After six months here he still seems to be acclimating to this life on a battlefront where the aftermath must always be studied, evaluated, autopsied.
The truck’s crumpled roof is visible beneath a collapsed wall. Little else of it is recognizable except some orange markings on the hood and a Toyota logo on the tailgate.
(FORT1) Now the house.
So far, not a peep from Colonel Sturdivant. Cole wonders if Sturdy and Fort1 have ever met, or spoken by phone. The ways of such relationships are a mystery to him. By design, of course. For his protection, they tell him.
Cole relays the request. Zach shifts the camera.
Sometimes Cole is overwhelmed by all there is to keep track of at his cramped workstation. He has two keyboards—one for typing flight commands, the other for chat. Occasionally he reaches for the wrong one. Apart from the screens for video and chat, four others display maps, flight telemetry, and masses of other information that change by the second—readouts for velocity, altitude, fuel levels, oil pressure, wind speed and direction, missile paths, air traffic, weather conditions, terrain. It is a neural nightmare, a bit like trying to conduct five trains at once as they careen toward the same station.
The ruins of the house swing into view.
“Holy shit,” Zach mutters.
“Easy as she goes,” Cole says, hoping to soothe him.
The damage is complete. Roof collapsed, everything in a heap. The floor plan, roughly thirty by forty feet, was big enough to hold a lot of people, and here and there Cole spots arms and legs, bright clothing, smears of blood, the fleshy blur of faces with fixed and open eyes. In the calamitous jumble it is impossible to say whether the bodies are male or female, adult or child.
From an operational point of view he supposes that the most important consideration, perhaps the only one, is that their HVT—high-value target—is now dead, along with whoever came to meet him. A nasty gathering, according to Colonel Sturdivant at the briefing. A worthy target. But that’s what they always said, or why bother to shoot?
(FORT1) Move closer.
What could Fort1 be searching for in this mess? Lewis zooms to the camera’s limit, but there is little more to see. Cole finds himself scanning for toys. Seeing none, he is relieved, until he recalls that these children almost never possess anything beyond a slingshot, a cricket bat, and the clothes on their backs. During their earlier reconnaissance of Sandar Khosh his overriding impression was that of a quiet hamlet of farmers, armed only with the occasional stray Kalashnikov, which are as common as pitchforks in these hills. No one even carried a grenade launcher. By local standards the village is as quaintly pacifist as an Amish homestead. Dirt farmers, in other words—their slang for the jetsam of the countryside. Sandar Khosh, the land that both time and terrorism forgot, no American soldiers within miles.
Yet here they were with their Predator for the second time in a month.
Not his job to ask, nor Sturdy’s to answer.
One of Cole’s occupational hazards is that he has begun to wonder what it would be like to lead a life in which every action was observed from on high for hours at a time. How would he function under those conditions? What must it be like to become an image lodged in the memory of some secret database, your digital signature retrievable by anyone with the proper clearance? More than ever before in his life, Cole now notices all the cameras that seem to be mounted almost everywhere he looks—at stoplights and in convenience stores, in school hallways and Walmarts, shopping malls and parking decks. At toll plazas, the ATM, the branch library. In elevators and hotel lobbies. There is even one installed in the top rim of the screen of his wife’s laptop, right there on the kitchen table, open to the world. Here at Creech, cameras are everywhere. No escape except the desert, and even there you’re an easy mark for the satellites, especially at night, when a man shows up as a throb of thermal brightness marooned on an empty cooling sea. Zach told him all about it.
The chat screen blips.
(FORT1) Any squirters?
Escapees, he means. So called because on infrared they display as squibs of light, streaming from the action like raindrops across a windshield. Before Cole can respond, the screen flashes again.
(FORT1) Check out back. Someone couldve gone out window.
Cole counts to three, then relays the order in his steadiest bedtime story voice. . . . And a quiet old lady who was whispering hush . . . Zach moves the camera. No one is behind the house, but a pair of legs in green pants protrudes from beneath the fallen rear wall.
(FORT1) Hold her there.
Why does this body interest him more than the others? Is this the HVT? Zach holds the close-up for several seconds, then, on his own initiative, pans back toward the front of the house. Cole braces himself as the three small bodies slide back into view. His eyes are drawn to the girl.
Incredibly, her body twitches.
She is alive.
(FORT1) Check the house again.
Fuck that. Did Cole say that or just think it? Zach stays on the girl. Her right arm is severed and lies a foot from her shoulder, with blood pooling in the gap. She struggles to rise, trying to prop herself on her left elbow. Cole watches but says nothing. Zach is also silent. The girl slowly raises her head.
(FORT1) I said the house.
The man is obsessed, either with death or with rubble. Cole opts for life and continues to ignore him, despite a growing sense that there will be consequences—for himself, for Zach, for everyone involved.
An old woman crosses onto the screen from the left. Reaching the girl she bends stiffly to the ground. Her mouth opens wide, and so does the girl’s. Cole’s imagination supplies the soundtrack—two voices in awful harmony, a cry that is keening and forlorn, as if someone had torn open a tender and damaged part of the earth and this is the unbearable sound that issues from within.
The time signature at the bottom of the screen flashes to 04:00, but his mind is still lodged at 3:50, the moment of impact.
Cole blinks. In four hours his shift will end. He will exit the trailer, dodge the chaplain, brush aside the shrink. Then he will drive home on an empty highway with only these images for company. After thirty miles or so he will ease into the dense weave of Vegas traffic and take the exit for his suburban refuge. He will click the remote to open the garage and enter the kitchen door with a smile for his wife. Then, while cartoons blare and the neighbor starts his mower, he will eat Saturday pancakes with his children.
No one but him will know what has happened.
(FORT1) Still need more from the house. Don’t we all,
thinks Cole, mesmerized.
Excerpted from Unmanned by Dan Fesperman. Copyright © 2014 by Dan Fesperman. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.