The room was bathed in dirty, yellow light. The dim light bulb directly above him flickered and emitted a buzz that could be heard over the hums and beeps of the many grey, boxy machines that stood around him. The room had no windows and lacked a proper ventilation system. The only door stood a few feet behind him but, despite the stuffiness, he was not authorised to open it until his shift was over.
Brandon glanced at his watch. There was a little over an hour left. He also stole a glance at the bouquet of lilies that lay on his desk. He had made a reservation at Eastern Flame for later than night where he and his girlfriend would finally get to try the Peking duck everyone had been raving about lately.
No, he told himself, stopping his train of thought in its tracks. He readjusted his headphones. The senior sensor operator had warned his subordinates of the dangers of letting one’s work mix with their daily life. A barrier had to be maintained between the two at all times and any breaches could have dire consequences. Everyone had heard about Roger Gray and how distant and aloof he had become to his children, unable to make the daily transition between being a soccer dad and a drone pilot.
Brandon took a deep breath and returned his attention to the screen in front of him. He was hovering thousands of feet above a rocky valley nestled between the jagged, barren peaks of Western Waziristan. The colours on his screen were the feverish hues of infrared. An hour ago he had positioned the crosshairs on his screen towards the centre of a mud hut that throbbed a bright orange. Now all he had to do was watch. And wait.
The waiting was the worst part for him. With no other orders, he was always left to wonder what he was supposed to be watching out for. He focused on the mud hut, trying not to imagine the look on Julia’s face when he surprised her with the flowers and told her to dress fancy because they were going out, trying not to think about the sweet, crispy duck wraps that were waiting for him. No.
His headphones crackled to life. “Operator Bryant,” a gruff voice said to him. “This strike has been authorised. You have orders to fire at will.” And then there was silence again – and the humming.
Brandon flicked open the safety latch on the red button and pressed it in one fluid motion. The console screen started displaying a sixteen second countdown sequence.
Eleven. He wondered if those he was going to vaporise that evening would be leaving any family behind.
Seven. What would he do if a loved one was blown to bits?
Three. There was an orange-green blob moving towards the mud hut. It looked like –
The screen went yellow.
The other man in the room got off his console and thumped him on the shoulder.
Brandon drove to Julia’s apartment in a daze. He was glassy-eyed when he gave her the lilies and barely heard anything she said to him during the drive to the restaurant. He had been staring at the wontons floating like pickled foetuses in his soup when Julia asked him if something was wrong. He shook his head. No. He didn’t understand. He’d taken lives before, more lives than he could count, especially because he was doing so from so far away. Why, then, did he feel so sick?
“Brandon?” Julia asked, concern in her voice.
Brandon looked up but could only see the infrared screen that showed the hut reduced to rubble. A smudge, now green, was smeared on the ground nearby. The bugsplat, as it was called, was too small to belong to a grown man.