On Tuesdays we run drone combat SIMS from behind the front lines.
My squad mate Rabbit Santiago and I are nestled securely inside a virtual tank, plopped down just outside of a bombed-out desert city. Our objective here is to provide air support by scouting ahead of the troops. The manufactured rubble strewn in front of us reminds me of the Afghanistan landscape and the rusted, broken signs are all scripted in Arabic. The SIM controllers make a habit of never disclosing whether simulations resemble terrorist locations we might infiltrate, but the locations sometimes possess a familiar texture and I often find myself reflecting, "I was here."
We monitor the drones visual feeds on our bands, routing information to the troops and tracking any movement we pick up on the battlefield. Reports are made to Corazon, our squad leader via the mics attached to our helmets, in order to keep chatter off the waves. This is a routine simulation, on a routine Tuesday, at routine Fort Columbia and we’re tucked so far away from the danger of battle I grow bored watching the shapes and colors morph on the virtual in front of me.
“Hold up,” Santiago breaks my musing, nudging with an elbow. “Garza, you see that?” He inquires, awkwardly tilting his band towards me.
Santiago, who stands a foot taller than I do, is folded into the cramped space like a long-limbed paper crane, his beak nose grazing the tank wall in front of us. He barely has room to move without brushing against me and his arm veers dangerously close to touching mine. He doesn’t seem to notice the proximity and somehow that bothers me even more than it should.
It probably shouldn’t bother me at all.
A slash of purple pulses in the bowels of a building in the northeast corner of the map. I blink and the color vanishes, leaving a trace of radiant light bursts in its wake. I slip a hand under my visor, wiping sweat from my brow. The bright colors dissipate, but a high pitched squeal picks up in their stead. I box my ears. The sound stops.
“You alright over there?” Santiago asks.
I shrug and refocus on the map.
“I don’t see it. I did, for a second. I don’t see it anymore,” I say. Our displays show nothing but crumbling skyscrapers and cracking towers. Innocent citizens fleeing before the sting of war. Their blurred images haunting across the screen like ghosts.
“Right here. A weird signature in this building,” Santiago points towards a squat white tenement with stone peeling off the walls.
“Not human?” I squint. Maybe my eye implant is shorting out and feeding me bad information. In two years of perfect operation, this would be a first. I blink hard and press my fingers to the synthetic eyelid to provide a bio reset.
When I blink the eye back open, I catch Santiago staring. He clears his throat, diverting his gaze to the energy signatures I don’t see. It’s not the eye implant he’s drawn to, because Prothero constructed that to look as human as possible. They were eerily exacting in their craftwork. What he’s staring at is the twinkling blue-green data chips and wires woven into the skin at my temple. The scars rumpling the skin on the left side of my face and neck and running down onto my collarbone. That’s what he’s really looking at. What everyone always looks at, and then away from.
“It’s some kind of missile system,” Santiago says, rotating the building image. His drone jet hovers in the air above the building, collecting and transmitting the data. “I’m taking it in for a closer look.”
“Careful,” I admonish.
He lowers the jet, angling it in broken windows, searching in rooms with holes blown in the siding.
“There’s definitely a hot item, but I can’t get a good visual. It’s the same signatures of the missile system we saw two weeks ago in that forest SIM. You remember this deep purple color?”
“Confirmed,” I say. The reality is I can’t read the data on the screen he points to. I can’t see anything inside the building. It’s just grey, ugly wall. “Would you like assistance Raptor Two?”
He cocks his head, suspicion warping his otherwise congenial features.
Here we go.
This behavior stems from my status as the top resident in the Aeronautics specialization. Santiago has played second string since I stepped out of the testing room. But it’s not like my privilege is unearned. I pilot Raptor One, have logged more hours in the flight simulator, and possess the highest grade in our Tech class. I’m smart and focused. I didn’t buy my way into service like Clinton Fuller, son of Senator Edmund Fuller, hailing from the great state of Texas. I didn’t volunteer like Rory “Rabbit” Santiago with his near perfect NEL score.
Whatever the case, Santiago’s never acknowledged our rivalry, though tension existed between us from the moment we met. From the first time we shook hands, a knot of anxiety tightened in my stomach. Now, no matter how much time we spend together, no matter how comfortable the silence ... Santiago makes me nervous. He’s the only one in our Academy specialization who even comes close to presenting as competition.
Maybe it’s just that. Friendly competition. Someone to finally keep pace with the great Eleni Garza. And maybe it’s not just that. Maybe it’s something else. I wouldn’t know the answer to that because Santiago is good at being hard to read.
Like now. Despite his obvious annoyance, he’s reigned all his emotions in and ironed them over, like the tanks wheels grinding through the dirt, boiling everything up under a facade of calm.
“I’m going to drop this building. Condor Five, do you copy? Can we move all friendlies out of the blast area?” Santiago requests.
Corazon’s voice crackles over the speakers built into our helmets, “Do you have Raptor One for backup?”
“Negative. I’m on this.”
“I don’t think so. Garza, monitor the area for enemy combatants. Do you read?”
“Copy that Condor Five, I’m moving into location now.”
Santiago covers his helmet mic and turns, his nose literally brushing against the wall of the tank. “I’ve got this Garza."
I spin the jet around and aim it at the building Raptor Two hovers near.
“Only doing as ordered,” I say.
“Sure. Right,” he uncovers his mic. ”Condor Five, I’ve got Raptor One in-bound. Am I go ahead to deploy?”
“Affirmative. Light it up.”
Santiago grins at the visual projected from his band. The heat mark explodes like a luminous beacon on my read-out. It shudders on the virtual as my drone approaches. A second color blinks to life on the fourth floor of the building, pulsing just below the missile signature.
“Raptor Two, hold your fire,” I say, zooming in on the image. It’s red, a human signature. There are people in the building. “We have a live target.”
Live being a relative term. The SIM civilians aren’t real, but they are considered as such in field exercises. We wouldn’t sacrifice them outside of these doors, so we sacrifice them during an operation. Those are the rules.
“I’m not seeing it Raptor One. I have go ahead. Delivering the package,” Santiago says.
“It’s not all clear. Let me investigate first. There are humans in there!” I urge my drone jet faster.
He scowls, “There’s nothing on my monitor except the explosive. Condor Five, can you confirm human presence in the building?”
“I cannot. Raptor Two, hold your fire. Raptor One, show me what you see. Patch me in.”
I exhale a trembling sigh of relief. Multiple human heat signatures in the building pulse now on my visual. I tap on the band monitor, giving Corazon full access to the scans of my drone. She remains silent for a moment. It’s an uncomfortable, drawn out silence. Then she loudly clears her throat, “Raptor One, no visual confirmation. Garza, you’re seeing things.”
I squint at the screen. The signatures are there, right in front of me, and if I angle the drone correctly, there’s an opening. I’ve gained a full view into the building. Humans are inside. A group huddles against a far wall and a young boy stands at the gaping hole, leaning out. He waves his arms in dreamy arcing motions, leaving traces of color and light trailing in their wake.
“There’s a group of people on my monitor right now, women and children. Condor Five, Raptor Two, are you blind?”
“Raptor One, is this a joke?” Santiago turns, studying my virtual with confusion.
I zoom in closer, hovering so near the building the face of the young man leaning over the gaping expanse swims into startling clarity. It’s a face I’ve sketched on a notepad more than a hundred times. The face belongs to the author of the letters in a tin box I keep in my room, to a boy named Mateo. A freeze takes hold of me. Voices chatter over the headsets, the colors pulse on the monitor, and the faces swim in and out of focus, but I’m unable to will my fingers to move. A faint odor, like the greasy scent of melting plastic, fills my nostrils.
“Condor Five, I’m gonna drop the payload. Can Raptor One backup?” Santiago asks.
“Raptor One, back up. Back up!”
“I- I can’t,” I say. On the screen Mateo’s long hair flaps in the swirling wind from the drone jets. He’s waving out of the opening, mouthing inaudible exclamations. I flick on the targeted audio in the drone. At first, the only sound is the scream and buzz of Raptor Two’s jet engine. I aim the mic in the direction of the building, straight at the opening.
“Help us! Eleni!” The voices call from the radio. “We need you!”
The blood drains from my cheeks. My heart jack-hammers inside my chest.
“Santiago, are you hearing this?” I ask.
This can’t be happening.
My trembling fingers push the signal over our helmets, so the entire squad hears the audio booming in their speakers. The volume is turned up so loud, it’s almost deafening.
“Garza,” Santiago turns to me again, no longer indifferent, “I don’t hear anything. You OK?”
Over the radio Corazon shouts, “Raptor One move now!”
“You look sick,” Santiago says. “Are you gonna be sick?”
He shifts over to grab my shoulders. His comically large hands eclipse my upper arms. How is he even this big? I don’t bother pushing him away. It’s too late to stop him. He’s already hit the sequence on his band to destroy the building.
Santiago’s drone shoots a bunker bomb through a sixth floor window. It explodes on impact. I can’t move. I can’t move my jet.
I leave Mateo hanging out the opening, a group of women and children huddled in the room behind him, screaming for help. Calling for me. Horror grips and paralyzes me as the explosion collapses the building. The ceiling falls in on the group of people, taking my drone down with it. I watch the spiraling crash to the ground and the loss of signal as Raptor One blows apart.
“Garza, what are you doing!?” Corazon shouts over the radio.
I’m keenly aware of Santiago touching me, his giant hand pressed tentatively against my shoulder. I sense the uncomfortable proximity of his face to mine. The concern etched into his features. I shove him away and jump to my feet, ripping my helmet off and tossing it to the tank floor. I push the hatch of the tank open and clamber outside, gasping for air. The interior is stifling, I can’t breathe. My false lung is malfunctioning. I stumble off the edge of the tank, collapsing on the ground. My head spins.
Santiago exits the hatch and joins me on the ground. “What’s going on?”
I turn towards him, my vision blurring. “I saw people. I saw people in there.”
“Yeah. You said that. Hey, you’re- you’re bleeding,” he informs me. His finger touches beneath my nose, bumping against my top lip. Red smears across the tawny hue of his finger. That’s not good.
I touch my nose, fingers coming away bloody. Santiago blinks, studying me. He probably thinks I’m taking performance enhancing drugs, like Flash. I sniff some of the fluid back into my nose, rubbing at the rest staining my upper lip. I’m not taking Flash. Only idiots take Flash. My weakness is Salt. But drugs are not my problem right now. Drugs are the least of my problems today.
“It’s only blood,” I say.
“We’re not supposed to bleed in here. It’s a SIM.”
“People get hurt all the time,” I counter. “Luis broke three of his fingers a month ago. And Clinton always-”
“Idiots who aren’t paying attention. You’re not an idiot.”
Corazon arrives, her impossibly short legs hammering against the SIM terrain like engine pistons. A red sprig of braided hair pokes out of the bottom of her helmet. Our squadmates Clinton Fuller and Luis Kang saunter up behind her, smirking.
“Out,” Corazon orders, pointing towards the SIM entrance.
“I didn’t mean to wreck the jet. I saw people. I heard voices.”
“No, you didn’t. Get out,” Corazon repeats, another strand of her braided red hair slipping loose from the bottom of her helmet.
“There were people in the building.” I pinch the bridge of my nose in a futile attempt to stem the crimson trickle.
“Out! Before I remove you.” Corazon stalks closer. “Make me physically remove you. I would love to.”
There’s no more arguing. Not with Corazon. I pick myself up and hobble away, unsteady on my feet. I’m almost to the door when Santiago jogs up holding my helmet. He pushes it into my open palm, his expression caught between discomfort and sympathy.
“You really didn’t see those signatures? Those people?” I ask.
He shakes his head.
“I believe you saw something.” The corners of his lips twitch into a brief, fleeting smile. “And it spooked you. Ghosts in the machine? You seeing ghosts?”
“Not ghosts. I saw someone, Santiago,” I confirm. “Why won’t you believe me?”
"Garza," He says, hesitating. His slightly too bushy brows are knit together with genuine concern. Like Corazon, a stray piece of his curling hair slips out from his helmet. Unlike Corazon, he pushes it off his forehead carelessly. We stand together in a long, drawn out silence while hot fluid drains from my nostrils and drips down over my chin. I’m bleeding and really should get out of the SIM before Corazon makes good on her promise. But Santiago’s gesture of kindness sprouts like roots from the ground, knitting me to this spot.
"Rabbit, you coming or what?" Clinton’s voice crackles over our helmets.
Fuller is his best friend. The great Clinton Fuller. And here’s Rabbit Santiago, trapped in the middle. Caught between us. It’s been like this for awhile now. Santiago barreling through National Service, dragging wealthy Fuller along fluttering in his coat-tails. The only truly great thing about Fuller is how he’s managed to survive this long in National Service without being booted due to his constant failing grades. It probably helps that Edmund Fuller has deep pockets and is a healthy contributor to the Fort Columbia Endowment Fund.
Santiago sighs, his shoulders falling. I’ve never seen him fail to respond when Fuller calls. It’s almost Pavlovian.
“You should get your nose checked out, you’re bleeding everywhere,” Santiago mutters before jogging back towards the EMP tank.
I shoulder through the main SIM door into a dimly lit metal corridor colored with dull amber light. Phosphorescent rays of silver dash over me, scanning my limbs and the SIM suit, verifying I’m not smuggling out any unregistered tech. Making sure whatever exists in the SIM stays there.
A clipped female voice shivers out of the walls. “All clear Eleni Garza.”
A row of lockers rolls down from the ceiling and I remove the individual pieces of gear from the haptic suit - the chest plate, the pads, the heavy boots, the helmet and the slick blue one piece that zips from my neck to the bottom of my torso. Extracting these clothes is so cumbersome, a small pool of the blood dripping from my nose builds at my feet.
I’m staring at my own reflection in the blood pool when the door next to me clicks open and blinding silver rays brighten the hall. The hulking form of Clinton, followed by the tall, reedy body of Santiago emerge from the lights and enter into the locker room.
I stand in the gloom wearing nothing but a sports bra and underwear, a silver metal necklace bearing an ornate coin dangling between my breasts. Santiago clears his throat and averts his gaze. Clinton stares at me lasciviously, offering an approving nod.
“Nice panties Garza,” he chuckles, elbowing Santiago.
"You wanna borrow them?" I ask. “They’re probably your size.”
Santiago chokes out a laugh like dry leaves rustling, and heads to his locker on the other side of the hall. He always dresses with his back to the room, a bizarre form of modesty on a military base where no such thing exists.
“You’re still bleeding,” Clinton accuses from two doors down, jamming his helmet into the top rack with an unnecessary display of force.
“I’ll get it checked out,” I mutter, retrieving my off-duty green cargo pants, black shirt and hooded jacket from the locker. I step into the pants, pulling and zipping them up as quickly as possible. I want to get out of here. I’m not used to being in the locker room with only two male residents.
“So, did you go crazy in there or what?” Clinton asks, shedding his elbow pads. “Are you cracking up?”
Clinton bends down to unlace his boots. I contemplate delivering a swift kick to his head, putting a decisive end to his crude interrogation. I decide against it. Fuller needs what little brain cells he has intact and fully operational.
“I’m fine," my voice wavers, betraying me. “Everything is fine.”
“You’re cracking up. What about you Rabbit? You think Garza’s cracking up? You think she can’t handle the pressure?” Clinton asks, gazing up at me from his perch. The light shadows his face and bared teeth, giving him a feral appearance.
“I don’t know. She seems upset,” Santiago says, not turning.
"Why are you guys out here anyway?" I ask, pulling the hooded sweatshirt over my head with a mental sigh of relief.
Nude and vulnerable with Fuller around is not my preferred state. Nude and vulnerable with Santiago? Makes me nervous in an entirely different way. I’m grateful his back is to the room.
"Rabbit couldn’t concentrate after your mental breakdown. He bombed the wrong target and almost wrecked his drone. Corazon was so pissed. Said her pilots are a bunch of fuck ups and ordered Rabbit out. I left in solidarity," Clinton stands six feet away, naked except for boxers, studying me with bemusement. Santiago says nothing. “You two need to get your shit together.”
"You alright?" I direct my question to Santiago’s back.
He pivots his neck slightly, like some kind of prehistoric bird, brows raised in surprise.
"Yeah. I’m fine.”
“You seem fine,” I assess, lifting the corner of my mouth. “Aside from hanging out with Fuller, you’re mostly normal.”
“Mostly,” he agrees, pivoting to face us. He’s pulled on a tight white shirt, exposing the half sleeve tattoo on his left arm. An inky black phoenix bird chasing a rabbit to the moon, the whole image curling up and around his bicep. My gaze moves to his face. The corner of his mouth lifts to mirror mine.
“Take care of yourself, Garza. We need good pilots.”
The metal heart in my chest constricts, as it does from time to time, and I suck in my breath a little too sharply. The corner lift of his mouth deepens. His nose crinkles. I’ve been staring at him longer than is socially acceptable, especially since he’s not wearing pants.
I whirl away from him, slamming my locker door shut and hitting a soft key button on my wristband to connect with the SIM security system. Silver light pours into the hallway, casting an eerie pallor over us.
Behind me, Fuller says, "I’m a good pilot.”
A swollen silence passes in which neither Santiago or I respond to Fuller. The sudden emptiness of words crackles between us. I hesitate at the door, waiting for someone else to speak. Waiting for Santiago to speak.
"Not better than Garza," Santiago says.
Another prolonged silence, another cascading moment where the hairs on my arm tingle and rub hot against the fabric of my hoody. Ozone scent climbs into my nostrils. I breathe it in deeply. Not better than Garza. I want to crawl inside those words and live in them. Santiago thinks I’m good. I know I’m good, but it’s different when someone else says it.
"Neither are you," Fuller says. “You’re not better than Garza.”
One more moment. I can only linger one more moment in the locker room without being too obvious. I just need to hear the last thing Santiago says before I go. He thinks he’s better than me. Doesn’t he?
“Nobody’s better than Garza,” Santiago says, his tone irritatingly neutral.
The crisp feminine voice reports, “No Prothero SIM technology detected. You may exit.”
With a cushiony exhalation of air and a wash of green flickering in the dark corners of the hall, the far wall slides open. The floor beneath my feet shifts and rolls forward, dumping me out into the raw, blustering January air. The door seals tightly shut behind me. Winter rain splashes down, mixing with the blood trickling over my chin.
I pause for a moment and draw in a sharp painful breath.
I haven’t seen Mateo Alvarez in four years. And I just killed him.