SATURDAY, JUNE 27
The man they called Skander had come this way. It was over a hundred generations ago, but the watcher on the hill knew the story. Everyone did. The long column, pounding down the dirt, kicking up the dust, had passed through the canyon below. Then he had built the city in the south and named it after himself. Finally, he and his men had gone, as they all eventually do, as these new ones would.
Now the hardpack road below was rutted, studded with rocks, seldom driven. The lead Pajero SUV sent up a cloud of dry sand, which settled back down on the road before the second vehicle came along. They had learned to keep a distance between their vehicles, but not because of the dust clouds. After two hours on the road, the men noticed that the searing sun covered only half of the narrow path. The high, steep walls in the canyon limited full sun to a few hours a day. The two faded Pajeros maneuvered slowly around a boulder where the road turned north.
Then they saw the goats. The animals on the canyon floor were spread around a few stunted trees and a small green pool fed by a stream falling from the rocks above. Scattering the baying goats, passing the pond, the drivers accelerated as the road straightened out for almost a hundred meters. Then the lead driver hit the horn, three short bursts, although he knew the watchers had announced their approach. The flaps in the netting against the canyon wall parted as the vehicle drove toward the gray camouflage. Under the cover, with the engines off, it was cooler, darker, quiet.
The men in the tent welcomed the new arrivals, kissing them on both cheeks, their bushy beards brushing together. Then they showed the guests to the low table on which the roasted goat lay surrounded by piles of its meat, sliced, spiced, shredded. Bowls held the mezza of lentils and pomegranates. Pitchers held cool water and lemons. Seated on the worn rugs with their rifles behind them, the men began to break off pieces of the flat bread, folding it in their right hands into scoops to pick up the meat. Few of the men spoke. Business could not be discussed before the guests accepted the hospitality. It was tradition.
Although the guests were Pakistanis from the big city of Karachi, they were ethnically Pashtuns, as were the Afghan Taliban who now welcomed them. For the Pashtuns, there was no Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The visitors had come, as they often did, to review the reports of poppy production and arrange for shipments. The beautiful red flower grew so easily in Afghanistan and from it came the paste that the men from Pakistan sold throughout the world as heroin. The Afghans and Pakistanis did other business as well. The Pakistani crime cartel, the Qazzanis, helped their Afghan cousins fight the latest invaders and their Afghan stooges, helped in all sorts of ways. The Qazzanis had many friends in Rawalpindi, home of the Pakistan Army, and in Islamabad, where the intelligence agencies had their headquarters.
Mohsin Qazzani finished his meal. As deputy to his older brother, Mohsin was the heir apparent to the vast Qazzani crime empire, but he liked getting out of the city, seeing the operations. He felt safe here, off the road, hidden beneath the new camouflage. It was sad that the Afghans had to live like this, but it was better than being in the open where the killing birds could see you. There were so many of the birds now, and they had killed so many, on both sides of the border. His hosts now brought boys with bowls of water to wash the feet of the guests. They lit aromatic wood in small braziers to honor the guests. More tradition. Business would have to wait a bit longer.
FRIDAY, JUNE 26
GLOBAL COORDINATION CENTER
CREECH AIR FORCE BASE, NEVADA
The room five thousand miles to the east was also cool, dark, quiet. Lit by the glow of the screen in front of him, the red-haired Air Force pilot suddenly sat straight up in his specially designed ergonomic chair. He was one of thirty Air Force pilots in the room, each remotely flying a drone somewhere in the world. Each wore an olive-drab one-piece flight suit emblazoned with colorful unit patches and symbols.
In front of him were two large and six small screens, ten analog dials, and two sticks. The two large screens provided the live image feeds from two of the cameras onboard his drone, one a high-definition televisionlike video, the other an infrared or synthetic aperture radar image for night operations. One stick directed the aircraft, up and down, right and left. Thumb dials on the side of the stick allowed the pilot to precisely control ailerons and wing flaps. The other stick armed weapons, launched them, and guided them to the target. For weapon release a small, red metal cover on the side of the stick had to be lifted and a button physically depressed before the selected missile launched or the chosen bomb dropped. Despite all of the on-screen controls, a hand had to touch metal before the death from above could be unleashed.
Next to the pilot a similar cockpit could be staffed by a noncommissioned officer to assist the pilot when needed on complicated missions, providing a second set of eyes to look at sensors, or perhaps to steer the aircraft while the pilot guided a missile to the target. Today, the second seat was empty. The pilot was on his own.
“Got somethin’ here, boss,” the pilot called out.
Colonel Erik Parsons spun around in his chair above and behind the pilots. Parsons was the squadron commander for the drone pilots at Creech Air Force Base, where there were more Unmanned Aerial Vehicle pilots than at any other of the twelve bases from which Americans directed their worldwide fleet of drones. If pilots were supposed to look like the cartoon hero Steve Canyon, tall and blond, Erik Parsons looked more like a wrestling coach, short, stocky, with closely cropped black hair.
Erik got out of his chair and walked purposefully, quickly down the row of pilot cubicles toward the pilot who had called out, Major Bruce Dougherty.
“Whatchya got there, Carrot Top?”
“Goats, boss. I got goats. But I don’t have goat herders. Water, but no people.”
“Bruce, there is water all over the world without people nearby.”
“Yes, sir, but not in these arid mountains in the summer. Besides, that was just the tell. I made a second pass with the synthetic aperture radar imager turned on and … presto … two SUVs sitting under a camo tarp about a football field up the road from the water. Three more and a couple of pickups under netting farther up the canyon. Now, with the infrared on you can see a whole complex of shit nestled up against the canyon wall, hiding from view under the netting. Or so they thought.”
Erik Parsons leaned over the pilot for a better look at the screen. “Throw it up on the Big Board, Bruce.” As a series of green blobs flashed onto the main video screen, covering two hundred square feet on the front wall, Parsons picked up a red handset. “Sandy, we got any HVIs likely to be up in grid square A-08? I think I got a live one.”
In the glass-walled room behind the pilots’ cubicles, Sandra Vittonelli consulted her own small screen. “Maybe. We lost signals from a guy guarding a High Value Individual almost three hours ago in sector A-17. That’s not too far away, he could be in A-08 by now. But that’s hardly reason enough to get excited.”
“Well, Sandy, even without a named target on screen, I am looking at enough suspicious activity here to designate this a signature-based strike. I think we got us a terrorist camp.” As Erik Parsons spoke he patted Bruce Dougherty’s shoulder.
Sandra Vittonelli stood and squinted through the glass at the Big Board in the next room. “I’ll be right out to the floor.”
Since she was far away from Washington, Sandra wore jeans, but in deference to standards she had learned at Headquarters over the years, she also wore a blue blazer. It helped to make clear the authority relationships. Sexism was officially taboo, but some of these jocks needed reminders sometimes. They were not all used to taking orders from a short, civilian woman in blue jeans. Although she was a CIA employee, as Director of the Joint Global Coordination Center for the program, she owned the pilots. There had been a single, integrated drone program for both the Pentagon and the Agency planes now for three months. When Erik had asked her about the blazer once, she had told him that she wore it because the air-conditioning was set too low in the Center and, moreover, the jacket also gave her lots of pockets for her “stuff.” Then she had changed the subject to why the pilots felt the need to wear jumpsuits when their airplanes were thousands of miles away.
As she stood at Bruce’s cubicle, she was aware that all the other pilots were watching her and not focusing on the video feeds from their aircraft. “I gotta admit, it does fit a signature,” she told Eric and Bruce, “but how long you been looking at it?”
Bruce looked at the digital elapse clock running in his console. “I’ve been loitering for seventy-three minutes now. I’ve run electro-optical, infrared, and synthetic aperture radar passes. This is one of the new birds with all three types of sensors. The analysis software has located thirty-two human life-forms, identified all of them as adults. Except for seven guys on the hills, all of them are under the camouflage. No signatures of women or kids.”
She looked at Erik, who shook his head in affirmation. “It’s a good one, Sandy.”
Vittonelli put on her poker face. “Let’s loiter some more. And pull up any imagery of the place from past missions. Somebody must have passed over it before en route to somewhere else.” Then she picked up the handset of a red phone. “This is the Director, GCC. Let’s wake up the boys and girls in DC. I’m initiating a Kill Call.”
SATURDAY, JUNE 27
ABOVE PAKTIKA PROVINCE
The mechanical extension of Major Bruce Dougherty, the thing that moved in the air when Bruce’s hand made adjustments with the joystick in his cubicle, was pressing ahead at only eighty-five miles per hour against the cold wind two miles above the canyon. Up there the sound of the propeller at the rear of the plane, twenty-seven feet from the nose, might have seemed loud, but there was no space on board for a human, nobody up there to hear the constant buzzing. No one was there to notice that the bottom of its fuselage and its forty-eight-foot-long main wings were a light blue like the sky above it, while the top of the aircraft was a dark gray. There was no one to see the three mechanical eyes of the sensors twisting, adjusting, focusing. The pump quietly kept the fuel flowing steadily to the little engine. The seven onboard computers hummed softly. The blister antenna, inside the bump on the top of the plane, moved silently to keep pointed at the satellite, while sending a steady stream of data up to space and capturing the constant flow coming down.
In response to Bruce’s slight pressure to the control, the bird now banked, its left wing moving up, causing the aircraft to move to the right, back toward the men below the nets.
In the canyon, shadows now covered all of the road and much of the rock wall. Some goats were still in the sun, higher up, near the watcher, hunting for grass and little stubbly shrubs among the rocks. The air had been still, but then the wind shifted and the watcher heard buzzing. His eyes darted back and forth, scanning the bright sky. He saw just the blue, nothing else, the blue. Then the buzzing came again, louder, closer. He unbuckled the radio from his belt and hit the push-to-talk panel. “Drone.”
As he spoke the word, which meant the same thing in Pashtu as it did in English, the watcher on the hill was bowled over by the blast from the first of the four Hellfire missiles hitting the canyon floor below. The missiles hit ten meters apart in a tight pattern, each puncturing camouflage netting and canvas, bursting into orange-yellow balls of flame and then into black plumes of fast climbing, churning, thick smoke. Sections of the rock wall broke off and fell to the canyon floor, kicking up brown clouds of dust. The concussive sound rolled down the canyon, overwhelming and persistent. The goats on the hill tripped and faltered as they ran higher up. Over a mile above them, the blue-tinted drone nosed up and banked right into a tight turn.
Another watcher on the road near the big boulder to the south saw the flashes in the distance before he heard the sound. Then it took him almost twenty minutes to climb higher, enough out of the canyon so that the satellite phone could pick up a signal. He knew the call could only last thirty seconds so he thought of what he would say before he hit Call. “Mohsin Qazzani. Droned.”
The unmanned aircraft circled for a few minutes more, recording the BDA, the Bomb Damage Assessment, waiting to see if others would arrive to help the injured. If others showed up, they could be hit by the two Hellfire missiles left on the Predators.
No one came.
SATURDAY, JUNE 27
GLOBAL COORDINATION CENTER
CREECH AFB, NEVADA
Erik Parsons pointed to Bruce Dougherty, “Okay, bring the bird home.”
Standing next to him, Sandra Vittonelli turned toward the two men in flight suits and read aloud the message on her secure iPad. “NCTC reports Mohsin Qazzani was at the camp. He’s the younger brother and chief deputy to the head of the Qazzani clan, the Pakistani drug cartel and designated terrorist group. Righteous shoot. Big Kill.”
“Way to go, Brucey,” Erik high-fived his pilot.
“Righteous kill, man! That’s what I’m talkin’ ’bout,” the Major called out as he stood in his cubicle. A ripple of hoots and applause arose in the darkened room. On the Big Board the image from the drone showed the smoldering fire in the blackened mounds on the canyon floor. Then the image jerked and shifted to the tops of mountains, beautiful in the early afternoon sun, set against the cloudless blue.
But when he later left the room full of pilots and walked into the fresh air, Erik Parsons found himself in a place where it was still dark, hours before the dawn. He stretched and sucked in the air, stared at the stars, then walked to the car parked in the Squadron Commander’s space.
Erik turned on the radio in his black Camaro as he drove past the guards at the gate, moving out into what the pilots called “Civilian World.” He passed Indian Springs and headed south on 95 toward the city.
“It’s all-you-can-eat at Las Vegas’s best Fancy Seafood night at the Galaxy Club Wednesday with Maine lobster, Alaska King Crab, and Louisiana crawfish.…”
He switched the Bose sound system from the local FM radio station to Sirius satellite radio and ’90s Pop Hits. Although it was four in the morning the lights from the Strip glared on the horizon from the billion-dollar casinos, the re-creations of Manhattan, Paris, Venice, ancient Rome, and even more ancient Egypt. As incongruous as it all was, he loved it, the dancing fountains, the erupting volcano, the clashing pirate ships. Leave it to the Air Force, he thought, to put a complex of air bases in the desert outside of Las Vegas, Creech Air Force Base to the northwest for special operations and the huge Nellis Air Force Base to the east where they flew the fighter-plane contests, force on force.
He hit “Home” on the Camaro’s communications screen and he heard her voice after two rings.
“Hey, hon. You on your way home already?” Jennifer Parsons was a night owl who preferred to see her patients after dark and then stayed up writing her reports until Erik came home near dawn. In nocturnal Vegas, it didn’t seem that odd.
“Five minutes out. It’s been a good night.” Erik accelerated the car at the thought of seeing his wife. “Meet you in the pool?” He pushed the speedometer past ninety as he headed down route 95 toward their North Las Vegas housing development.
“I’m beginning to see some advantages to this whole Empty Nest syndrome,” she replied. “I’ll bring the brewskies, Flyboy.” With that, Dr. Jennifer Parsons rose from her desk, unbuttoned Erik’s old shirt, let it drop to the floor of her home office, and then walked naked down the hall to the kitchen. She slid back the glass door to the patio and, beers in hand, stepped from the barbecue area down to the pool and the hot tub. She did three laps before she heard his car and finished the fourth while watching him climb out of his flight suit and dive toward her.
Fifteen minutes later they got around to the Heinekens in the hot tub. Erik looked again at the stars. “He was a big one, Jen. Well hidden. Bruce found him. Another guy would have missed it.”
“Good, Bruce needed a lift.”
“We’re finding them, Jen. We’re winning.” Erik threw his two arms up in the air, mimicking a monster, moving across the hot tub toward his wife. “We’re gonna get them all, ha, ha, ha.”
Jennifer Parsons ran her fingers through the thinning black hair on his head and then through the graying hair on his still firm pecs. He kissed her breast, then moved his head lower. She threw her head back. She thought the sky in the east seemed pink; maybe daybreak was approaching. Or maybe it was the glow from the Strip, maybe just a false dawn. She had lost all track of time.
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