Josh works in marketing by day and writes fiction in the evening. He lives just outside of Chicago with his wife (who is happy to see him spending his time writing rather than playing Playstation) and their cat, Bella.
COLLATERAL DAMAGE MINIMAL
The dot of light quivering on the ground between them is no bigger than a half-dollar.
Nearly hidden among overlapping grass blades, it seems innocuous, but Sarah Ledonne knows better. Knows it's probably already too late.
She switches to thermal and her daughter's small form burns into existence in front of her, white-hot against the darkness of their backyard.
Where have you been don't you know they see us we've gotta run we've gotta --
A distant, muffled boom somewhere overhead stops her short.
She tries to scream, but it comes out as a yawn.
"Mommy?" Jeannie's eyes are wide beneath her bowl-cut bangs. "Did you hear me?"
Sarah blinks, ripped out of a trance she doesn't remember entering. Color roars back into the world, and suddenly her daughter's eyes are as green as the Bermuda grass stains on her overalls. Behind Jeannie, a desert willow sways in the warm summer breeze, scattering flamingo pink blossoms onto the lawn. Further off, the Vegas skyline burns blood-orange as its towers catch the setting sun.
The dot of light is gone.
"Sorry, Jeannie. Mommy was, uh..." Sarah massages her throbbing temples. "What did you say, honey?"
"Ugh!" Jeannie stamps a foot on the lawn, and the sole of her shoe erupts into an LED-driven frenzy. She turns away from Sarah. "I asked if it hurts them!"
Sarah furrows her brow and takes a closer look at the tree. It takes her a moment to realize Jeannie is talking about a neon green sticky trap hanging from a low branch. Intended for the nefarious wasps who take over their backyard each summer, the trap has performed admirably - it's covered in so many bugs that Sarah can barely tell its victims apart until the wind swings it around.
Near the bottom, Sarah sees a single ladybug pedaling its legs uselessly for a few moments before going still.
"That's so sad," she mutters tonelessly. She looks back at her daughter's impatient expression and smiles. "They're bugs, honey - they don't feel a thing."
"Not them, Mommy! The people you shoot from the sky!"
Sarah's intestines clench as gravity's hold on her suddenly feels very tenuous. "What -- who told you Mommy does that?"
"Grandma said so."
"Grandma doesn't understand what she's talking about sometimes, honey," Sarah says after a few seconds. "Mommy just...Mommy helps the other good guys figure out who the bad guys are, and what to do about it."
"Do you hurt the bad guys when you find them?"
"Sometimes. But only if they're going to hurt other people."
Jeannie considers this for a moment. "I guess that's okay," she finally says. "Does it ever make you sad?"
Sarah opens her mouth to reply, but hesitates as the wind carries a raspy hiss to her ears. She looks out to the desert, where, high above, a vulture rides the thermals up, only to bank back down in slow, lazy turns. She swallows thickly and closes her eyes, reminding herself it's not real, but when she opens them, the scavenger persists in its patrol.
"Sometimes," she repeats, turning back to Jeannie with an effort. "Now come on - it's time for bed."
Jeannie stands on her tippy-toes, reaching up with both hands, and Sarah is only too happy to oblige. She lifts Jeannie up, and in a single fluid motion, the girl wraps her legs around Sarah's waist, interlocking her fingers behind Sarah's neck.
A fresh gust rocks the trap as they walk back toward the house, and the ladybug dances once again.
Once Jeannie's in bed, Sarah heads to the kitchen. Her mother, Betty, is hunched over their small table, filling in the Daily Jumble with a tooth-worn Bic. Her apron is strewn casually across the coffee-stained Formica, its faded Tom's Diner logo folded over on top of itself. A box of menthols and a Bic of a different type peek out of one pocket.
As Sarah puts her lunch together, she goes over the script she's orchestrated in her head one last time. She's halfway through when Betty's pack-a-day rasp cuts into her thoughts.
"Are you going to blow anyone up today?"
The question stops Sarah cold. Her mind goes blank. "What did you say?"
"I asked which Thermos you're taking," Betty glances up from the Jumble, and Sarah can see she's telling the truth. "Green is chicken soup; blue's tomato."
"I don't--" She glances down. "--green. Mom, did you say something to Jeannie about what I do at work?"
"At work?" Betty flashes a wry smile. "You talk like you're going to an office, not that awful shipping container out in the desert."
"For the hundredth time: Ground. Control. Station." Sarah rubs her forehead. "Seriously - did you say something to her?"
Betty rolls her eyes. "She was supposed to write a paragraph about your job and read it to the class. She had been putting it off and forgot about it, then remembered it the morning of." She shrugs. "You weren't home from your shift, so I helped."
"Mom! What the hell is wrong with you? There are other Air Force kids in her class -- what if something gets back to Creech or Nellis? I could get stuck with a psych eval if anyone thinks--"
"I didn't tell her anything you couldn't find online," Betty interrupts. "Did you really think I'd tell her about your nightmares?"
Betty sits forward. She's barely twenty years older than Sarah, but under the light she looks twice that: the wrinkles and cracks and crevices in her face run as deep as any of the dry riverbeds crisscrossing Al Jazira. "I found you passed out right here--" she taps her pen against the table "--with a handle of Skol. Dreams don't make people do that."
"That's not -- look, the Air Force takes this stuff seriously." She shoves two small bags of Flamin' Hot Cheetos into her lunch pack. "And I don't want Jeannie getting the wrong impression of what I do. I'm a Sensor Operator, not a pilot. I just guide the--"
"I know, I know. We don't need to go over it again." Betty studies the Jumble for a moment, then scrawls an answer. "Never thought I'd see the day where I actually missed you talking about motocross."
"Yeah?" Sarah stands up a little straighter. "The bike's not that busted up, you know. When I make Staff Sergeant, maybe I could..."
She trails off as Betty shoots her a glare that would wilt a Saguaro.
"Uh...leave it just the way it is, and start thinking about an apartment for me and Jeannie," she continues, trying her best not to make it sound like a question. "Besides - with all these plates and screws in my crotch, riding the rhythm section just wouldn't be the same, you know?"
"Mhm." Her mother sets down the Jumble. "Did you say when you make Staff Sergeant?"
Sarah chews her lip, bringing her thumb and forefinger up to her eye. She can barely see Betty through the gap. "I'm this close. But I'd have to re-enlist."
"Are you joking, Sarah? You'd really consider another four years of this?"
"Four years isn't that long."
Betty's quiet for a moment. "You know, we're still looking for someone to replace Sharon at the diner," she finally says. "With tips it'd pay enough for a decent apartment - why don't you let me see what I can do?"
"Because then I'd be working at the diner." Sarah zips her lunch bag closed and rams it into her backpack. It fits snugly against her bulletproof laptop. She slings the backpack over her shoulder. "I gotta go, Mom."
Betty's shaking her head as she picks the Jumble back up. "Love you."
"Roger that." Sarah pushes the screen door wide open, stepping out into a pool of light that's much brighter than the one in the kitchen. By the time the door clicks shut, she's halfway to the garage, where a lonely Suzuki hangs pegged on the back wall.
She absently calculates the cost to repair the grotesquely bent front fork and install a new set of shocks, and for a moment, things feel a little simpler.
Tucked away on a far corner of Creech Air Force Base, the Ground Control Station - which does indeed look like a steel shipping container - holds some of the most advanced and sensitive technology available to the United States Air Force.
Most of the light inside the GCS comes from the twin drone control consoles set up against the far wall, but the soft-blue LEDs overhead are bright enough that Sarah can fish one of the Cheetos bags out of her backpack without too much effort.
She leans back in her oversized leather chair, popping one of the crunchy pieces into her mouth. Next to her, in an identical oversized leather chair, Captain Hunter adjusts his big, football-player hands on the controls. The LEDs gleam off his bald head, but his muscular frame fills the flight suit nicely, which is appropriate, considering he used to wear it in the cockpit of an F-16.
Sarah has never worn hers in anything that moves faster than her Silverado. She feels slightly ridiculous every time she puts it on - even moreso when it inevitably rides up - but protocol is protocol.
Their MQ-9 Reaper drone is currently orbiting the outskirts of Al Makan, a small town along the Iraqi-Syrian border. Over the past couple weeks, she's spent enough time staring at the town that she knows it at least as well as she knows Vegas, if not Spring Valley. Even the town's residents have taken on a strange, voyeuristic familiarity.
"Looking like a slow day in the Mak," Hunter says. "Let's head a little further up country."
"Sandstorm's brewing out west," Sarah cautions.
"We won't go too far out." The world on their camera feeds suddenly turns vertical as he banks the drone into a wide turn. Hunter grins. "I just want to see what Kartman's up to."
"You mean besides shuffling goats around his ranch?"
"Come on now, don't do him like that!" Hunter's grin widens. "I got fifty bucks that says today's the day we find him scooting around on that thing."
"You have yourself a bet, sir."
As they leave Al Makan behind, their conversation drifts back to more pressing matters in Las Vegas, and Sarah recounts her discussion with Jeannie.
"I wouldn't worry too much," Hunter says. "Kids are going to find out sooner or later. At least it came from Betty."
Sarah nods. "Thanks, Captain."
"You betcha. Hell, I'm a regular encyclopedia of parental wisdom, as long as you don't ask Emily."
"Uh oh. You guys still haven't figured out the right balance for Charlie?"
Hunter grimaces, shaking his head. "I gave up my Falcon and reconfigured my whole AFSC to get this gig so I could spend more time with the boy. Don't get me wrong - I'm glad he's getting some exercise, but driving around to eight hundred practices a week is not my idea of quality family time."
"No arguments here." Sarah gnaws on a Cheeto for a moment. "You ever miss flying? Like, really flying?"
"What do you think? 'Course I do. There was something about it -- not like you want to get killed, but out there, your ass is on the line. In here?" Hunter lets go of the controls, and the drone flies on, undisturbed. "We're the Finger of God. Our most dangerous enemies are carpal tunnel and boredom." He grips the controls once more. "Speaking of which, you never really answered me the other day. You gonna re-up or what?"
"Probably." Sarah grasps for more Cheetos, but the bag is empty. She glances inside just to make sure. "Four years will go by pretty quick, right?"
"Hell of a lot quicker here than in a diner - no offense to Betty. Besides, Staff Sergeant is just over the horizon."
"Oh, I know." Sarah smiles, and so does Hunter.
"Eyes on the prize! I like your attitude, Ledonne! I like it. Commander recommended you?"
She nods. "Already got my 5-level. I hear the exams are tough, though."
"You should be fine. Any standout performance reports in your file, though? Might help round things out just in case."
"Nothing recent." Sarah sits forward as an unusual bit of foliage catches her eye on the screen. It zooms by too quickly to form a clear image, but somehow she knows it's a desert willow.
Kartman's house is a squat, flat-roofed building situated just off the main road to Al Makan. It backs up to an expansive, fenced-in section of desert, where a rusty go-kart sits in its usual spot - tucked away behind a disused pickup.
Some distance away from the building, two forms tend to a herd of goats.
"You can pay me in cash or cash," Sarah says.
Hunter groans. "Alright, alright. You called it. Let's hang around for a minute - maybe they'll spend some quality time on the roof again."
"That's fucked up, Captain. Besides, the sandstorm -- hold on." Sarah points to a part of the screen where a small plume of desert dust obscures the road. "Check it out."
Hunter sits forward. "Is that a guy on a dirt bike?"
Sarah's already adjusting the zoom. "Honda," she says. "Looks like a CRF450 - Dungey down there's got taste."
"What's your point?"
"Not exactly a cheap ride, even Stateside."
Hunter looks at the feed for a minute. "Did you catch where he left from?"
"No, but he can't be too far from home with that thing's range." She leans forward. "That a weapon on his back? I can't tell from this angle."
"I'll bring our bird around."
The rider pulls off the main road and zips toward Kartman's house. Out back, one of the forms - a lanky, bearded man - pulls away from the goats and heads towards the structure.
"Kartman's on the move," Hunter says. "Can you zoom on the front door when I come around? Better start tossing whatever you capture into the relay chat, too."
"You got it," Sarah says. She does so just as the rider parks, capturing stills for upload to the IRC - their direct link with US intelligence and military assets around the globe.
Kartman emerges and shakes Dungey's hand, then motions for the rider to enter his home.
"Looks like an AK on his back," Sarah says.
"Roger that. Anyone got something on this guy?"
Sarah glances at the IRC, then shakes her head. As the two men emerge into the backyard, the rider is talking into a cell phone.
Hunter points, but Sarah's fingers are already flying across the keyboard.
"I'm on it, I'm on it!"
*Unk. male on phone. Coords. attached - get signal?
A few moments later, a response flashes across the IRC.
**Signal identified; confirmed mention of high-value target: Barracuda. Target possibly en route. Maintain position; continue surveillance.
"Hunter," Sarah says. "I think Barracuda might be coming to the farm."
"Get the fuck out." But it's not disbelief Sarah hears in his voice. It sounds more like hunger.
She dismisses the notion as she realizes her flight suit is riding up.
Before long, Dungey, Kartman and his wife head inside. Sarah watches the shadows of scraggly trees and bushes creep along the dust and dirt: knobby, grasping fingers that almost have the farm in their clutches. She loses count of how many times they orbit the site. The sandstorm is out west is roiling, covering more ground each time they circle the farm.
"Looks nasty out there," she says.
"Tell me about it." The camera feed pixelates briefly as a particularly rough gust rattles the drone. Hunter banks through another turn and the signal settles down. "These crosswinds are a real bitch. We can't hang around all day."
"We might not have to," Sarah says, scanning incoming text on the IRC. "Our backup spotted a potential match on Barracuda leaving Al Makan in a Land Rover."
"Backup's sticking around Al Makan though, right?" Hunter glances over.
"Looks like it."
"Good," Hunter says, his lips pulling into a tight smile. "Got him all to ourselves."
Sarah says nothing. Before long, a new dust cloud appears on the horizon. "There!" She zooms in and captures their first image of the truck just as its driver tosses a cigarette out the window.
Hunter's eyes are fixed on Sarah's monitor. Gone is the family man, her genial compatriot in this dark box. Someone else is sitting next to her now.
"Game time," he says. "You ready?"
"That's what I like to hear, Ledonne." Hunter sucks in a deep breath of recirculated air. "Nothing like going fangs out."
Fangs out. The notion always awakens some small, secret part of Sarah, shortening her breath and rushing a shameful heat to her groin.
She usually showers twice after a strike shift.
The Land Rover begins making its way down the dirt path, coming to a stop in front of the house. Shifting winds carry the dust plume from behind it forward and over the dwelling, masking the men as they exit the vehicle.
"Four unidentified males," Sarah says. "Can't get a good look, though. Switching to thermal." The dust cloud vanishes as the infrared scope renders the world below in grayscale. The four men by the Range Rover look like cheap special effects ghosts; their heat signatures leave milky trails each time they move. "I can't see their faces. Can you get us another angle?"
She keeps the camera pinned to the men as the drone banks, but on Hunter's screen she can see that the sandstorm's already advanced another mile toward the farm. Maybe two.
Hunter catches her gaze. "Don't say it," he growls. "Don't even think it. Just get the pictures."
As they come out of the turn, Sarah sees Dungey standing on the porch with Kartman. The latter is excitedly waving the group in. Saliva thickens in Sarah's mouth as she captures stills for the IRC. Even with the infrared on, the camera captures images with high enough resolution to make facial recognition possible. She doesn't know most of the men, but one is a dead ringer for the files she's seen on Barracuda. Kartman shakes this man's hand, then bows slightly to the rest of his entourage as they walk past. A moment later, he and Dungey follow them in.
Sarah exhales softly. "Got 'em." She packages the images and requests permission to strike.
"What do you think?" Hunter asks.
"I think you're the officer here," Sarah says, watching the IRC feed as the strike request makes its way up the chain.
"Don't give me that shit. I want to know - what do you think?"
"It's him. Kartman shook his hand."
It doesn't take long for the approval to come back down.
**Barracuda and his personnel are valid targets. Minimize collateral damage.
Sarah relays this to Hunter.
"Took long enough," Hunter mutters. The sandstorm is closer than ever now, savaging the drone with relentless gusts. "Signal's gonna break up if we stay out much longer, so as soon as Barracuda leaves that house, I wanna nail him. Understood?"
Sarah bites her lip. Next to her, the IRC lights up with a new message, and she glances over.
**Does it ever make you sad?
"Huh?" She glances at Hunter, then back to the IRC.
"I--" Sarah swallows, but it feels like there's a cholla digging its spines into her throat. "Copy, Captain."
Hunter studies her for a moment. "If you've got a problem, I need to you tell me. Now."
"I'm worried about Kartman." She blurts the words before she can stop herself. "We don't know how or if he's involved with Barracuda. I mean - Jesus Christ, Hunter, we've never seen him anywhere but this fucking farm!" She looks to Hunter, but his expression is impassive.
"They told us to minimize collateral damage, and we will," he finally says. "But I'm not missing my shot at Barracuda. Do you read me?"
Sarah tries to picture what would happen if she said no, and her mind takes her back to the kitchen.
This time, it's her filling out the Jumble.
"Yes, sir," she says.
A furious gust from the sandstorm jolts the drone, and for a brief moment, the anxiety crushing Sarah's lungs releases its grip. Relief surges through her body.
We're going to have to abort. We'll head back to base and our backup--
"Movement out back," Hunter says.
Fuck. Sarah repositions the camera and adjusts the zoom, placing the targeting reticule on the six men leaving the house. The infrared scope makes it look like the figures are gliding across the sand toward where the goats are milling around.
"Targets have reached minimum safe distance from house," Hunter says. "Adjusting launch angle; twenty degrees off azimuth."
"Roger." Kartman, if you can hear me, after the boom you'll have two point five seconds to run as fast as you possibly can. It won't be long enough, but still.
Kartman and Dungey line up with Barracuda and his escorts, forming a half-circle around the goat herd.
Sarah keeps the reticule pointed at the center of the group.
One of the men motions towards a goat, but Barracuda waves him off and points at another. Kartman shakes his head, then points to two of the other goats.
Barracuda strokes his beard for a moment, then extends a hand. Kartman shakes it.
Smoke and gouts of flame obscure Sarah's screen.
"Hellfire is off rails." Hunter's voice fills the GCS and a knot of excitement forms unbidden in Sarah's belly. She wants desperately to look away, to shut off the monitor, to guide the missile into the mountains beyond. Instead, she leans forward ever so slightly.
The men look up as one, then scatter as the missile screams towards Earth. Sarah inches the reticule away from Kartman.
The infrared feed darkens as a white-hot plume of fire curls up out of the desert. The shifting winds do their work, and soon all that's left on the screen is a ragged crater, yawning amid glowing pieces of men and goats. They gradually darken to match the ebony sand.
Sarah tells herself that all she did was guide the missile Hunter fired, that they'd neutralized a major extremist leader and saved innocent lives in the process, that they'd followed procedure and gotten all the appropriate approvals, that they didn't leave much for the vultures.
All of this is true, and for about three seconds, it does help her feel better.
Then Kartman's wife sprints into the frame.
Her jilbāb is stark black even against the IR-darkened ground. The wind whips the garment as she runs, breaking up her form until she looks more like a banshee than a human.
She falls to her knees at the edge of the crater, and Sarah's stomach turns. Hunter's voice comes to her from somewhere that seems very far away.
"Great work today, Ledonne. Major target eliminated based on intel you sussed out?" He whistles. "Hell of a good look for your file. Staff Sergeant might be closer than you think."
She hears the words, but the 1080p nightmare unfolding in front of her is the only thing she can process. She forces herself to look at the IRC. The strike recording is already being dissected and reviewed, but even so, her text log will be an important part of the official record.
Her fingers shake as she types.
*I think we killed an innocent goat farmer today.
She blinks and finds a different set of words staring back at her.
*Barracuda and cohorts neutralized. Collateral damage minimal.
Back on the screen, Sarah can see people from surrounding farms making their way towards the crater. Some are crying. Others try to comfort the woman wailing at the edge of the pit, but she shoves them away.
Sarah pans the camera and begins to catalog the mourners as the drone makes its last pass over the farm.
By the time Sarah pulls back into Betty's driveway, the first touches of morning light have filled the sky behind the mountaintops. A fresh trap hangs from the willow branch.
Inside the garage, her Suzuki still looks lonely on its pegs. She wonders what's going to happen to Dungey's CRF450, because if she allows herself to spend another second thinking about Kartman's wife she will have a psychotic episode.
She doesn't remember entering the house, but before long she's standing in the doorway of the bedroom she shares with Jeannie. She kicks off her boots and lays along the edge of the bed.
"Four years will go by pretty quick, right, honey?" she whispers.
Jeannie murmurs something, but doesn't quite wake up. Instead, she worms her way into her mother's arms.
Sarah squeezes her tight, and before long her mind starts to drift.
In the restless sleep that follows, she dreams in infrared.