In every city there is a place for people like me, a hidden location
hundreds of miles behind the camera eyes of things like these. I am a
remote pilot. A poorly paid and briefly trained operative working as the
tentacle of a state, corporation, or paramilitary so formless and
disengaged that it might as well not exist at all. I am only a body. But
out here I am something else: the animating spirit of a killing machine.
A matte black metal scorpion, hulking and oblique. Clad in kevlar and
ceramic plating. Rubber grenades bristling in the hollow of a tungsten
arm, like so many stingers in the holes of a hornets nest. Mounted on
shock absorbers. Straining hydraulic arms reaching out in claws. A dozen
legs distributing weight across pavement and protest signs and creaking
ribcages. And on top, always waiting, a stinger that flexes and swivels
in accordance with neural network targeting. A mounted gun filled with
belts of 5.56, brass guts coated in liquid teflon. Behind this machine,
I project power.
I crawl in front of banks, office buildings, state property, wherever
they put me on a given day of the week. Surveillance, security, asset
protection, target elimination, riot control, and public relations, I do
it all. Scanning every face in a crowd of hundreds and waiting for
someone to so much as sneer in my direction, so I can spit back pepper
balls and taser prongs. Breathing out nothing but tear gas and automated
messages on when to stand clear and how best to apply pressure to a
burst eyeball. Behind this machine, I am power.
Behind this machine is a computer monitor. An office chair and a
cubicle. A mouse and a control panel with all the standardized hotkeys.
A mug of stale coffee that has gone untouched for several days. In here
is me, but not the same me who is out there in the real world. The me in
here is a machine not built to last. Aging flesh and knotted muscle. A
slow mind unable to process inputs and outputs at the level of something
with algorithmic targeting and 12k digital sensors. Only two legs and
two arms, all of them pale and fragile. All of them behest to
regulation, all of them under the reigns of bureaucratic structure. At
the end of the work day, I am not an armored metal insect. I am not a
predator. I am something far more disgusting, a different kind of
machine possessing not even the virtue of functionality. This is what
all people are, a mess of wiring and hydraulics suspending a bag of
Every second I spend in the screen instead of in the body is a release.
Their bodies are tagged in color coded triangles. Limb trackers and
threat detectors arrayed in a spreadsheet of geometric shapes and
keywords. Everyone is green until they lift their arms. Everyone is
yellow until a camera clocks a weapon. Everyone is red when a civilian
is deemed an aggressor. They become a combatant the moment they decide
to raise so much as a stone.
Every day I wait until I can see red. Every day I sit behind the monitor
and ache for it. I keep my finger on the keyboard and the moment it
flashes, even for a moment, I switch to live rounds. I don’t even have
to aim, all it takes is the operator command to arm. That’s all I’m here
for. To give permission and to watch my scorpion. I get to see through
its eyes, the infrared glow of a well placed round rips through and
sprays a white heat, a body tumbles and people scatter.
I’ve done this five times before. I’ve been here before. Everything is
familiar. I remove myself from the only place I belong, the only place I
function, and sidle down the hall. Dingy carpet and small talk in the
elevator. I walk all the way through the maze of corridors, trip over
running extension cords. I wait outside her office, wait inside for even
longer. Gaze over her desk, at copies of the same questionnaires and
printouts of the same mental health strategies. Glazed over eyes
scanning the same dusty photograph of her with her cop husband in front
of some tacky little megachurch.
I’ve seen it all before. In accordance with company policy, I am
obligated to report the use of violent force and attend a mandatory
biopsych exam. It’s considered unhealthy for the operator to have to
leave someone’s brains on the pavement, bone scattered like paint chips,
blood oozing out of an unseen wound like a dirty secret begging for me
to zoom in and gawk. This is the second time this week I’ve had to be
here. Everything is the same. Everything is decay. Nothing is active.
Nothing fires. Nothing bleeds and nothing squirms, nothing thrashes and
nothing gushes the warm fluid of a nonlethal deterrent wound, the tease
of what’s held inside ready to burst from the case of the skin.
“And how has your mood been lately?” she asks, not a hint of slack to
her voice. She’s asked this question on every occasion, and I answer
more or less the same. If she is feigning interest every time, it is
well acted. I feel a shudder of disgust as I meet her gaze and note the
twinkle of contact in her eye, the hunt for a something in me that is
simply not present. I move my eyes to the bookshelves behind her, dull
titles with duller contents. I wonder which one she read that gave her
this belief, this idea that she might have any sort of understanding of
the creature that I am.
“Good, good. Better than last week. My appetite has returned,” I lie,
the words slithering out from the stiff flesh of a mask. I am never
“That’s wonderful to hear. Mood stabilizers can sometimes tamp down your
appetite, a little something I’ll have to look out for. And your dreams
lately?” My eyes wander across self help guides and academic works on
the mental health of drone operators, everything clean and seemingly
untouched. Nothing sticks until I find it. A worn out binder, heavily
tabbed, dog eared and yellowed. I wonder briefly if it’s where she keeps
her notes on me, and admittedly I feel enough of something that I have
to notice the pause in the air before I remember that I’m even supposed
to be speaking.
“I dreamt that I met someone. In the park. To tell you the truth, I
don’t recall.” Again, a lie. I never meet anyone. I never dream. My
thoughts when I am “home” are empty, so separated from where I truly
live that they have no choice but to remain dormant until I wake and
return. There is no wellness there, no hope for even stimulation. I
wonder if she knows that. I wonder if it’s in her files. I wonder if she
“You know, I had a dream last night,” she says, looking away. There’s a
slight flash of something across the curve of her lips, a glimmer in the
eyes like a spider. She raises her arm, splays out her fingers, and
shows me her palm. “I dreamt that this hand was made of metal. Not on
the skin, but deep down inside. The bones. When I walked into the
office, when I tried to pass through the security checkpoint at the
front desk, they picked it up on the x-ray. They wouldn’t let me
through. They had to take it out.”
As she speaks, she turns her hand here and there, fingers moving. The
tendons at the back raising with every twitch, and for a brief moment I
catch myself wondering what that would look like under a thermal, the
heat of the veins pulsing under the wrist. When I look back to her,
there is that contact again and at once I feel something new and
“And how did they remove it?” I say, sheepishly curious.
“When I was a child, my father worked in an automated factory. They
built armor for contractors, drones a lot like ours. My mother died when
I was young—”
“I’m sorry for your loss,” I mumble and at once regret it.
“Don’t be, she was nothing to me. But it meant that oftentimes I would
have to wait for my father to get off his shift, milling around in the
lobby or the break room. On occasion, exploring places that I shouldn’t
be. Catwalks over the factory floor, access points for ventilation. An
industrial fan, chopping the air. It would blow my hair back.” She
smiles at the memory, as if feeling it across her face even now. “I
stuck my hand into it. I was a child, I didn’t know any better. All the
skin. Instantly ripped from the flesh.”
“I would never have known,” I say. I find myself peering at her wrist
again as if trying to find a seam.
“Skin grafts are really something, even then. That and time, it’s all
been smoothed out. However, I don’t feel anything there, no artificial
nerves to replace it at the time. Go ahead, touch it.”
There is trepidation. I reach out slowly and take her hand in mine,
brushing my fingers across the smoothness of her knuckles. It is the
first time I have touched someone in months. I withdraw quickly.
“Nothing at all,” she says with a laugh. “And to tell you the truth, I
don’t even remember if there was pain. I remember my father driving me
to the hospital, scared out of his mind. I remember holding my hand in
front of my face, just like right now. Palm out. Moving my fingers.
Watching the muscles move. And in my dream, they took me to the same
fan, on a catwalk that doesn’t exist high up over the lobby. The skin
ripped and underneath there wasn’t any muscle. Plastic and metal. Do you
ever have dreams like that?”
“I don’t have any dreams.”
“I know you don’t.” She says it with a plainness that belies its
condemnation. At once, I am ashamed. I look to the floor and find only
my shoes and worn electrical cables snaking across the carpet.
And when I look back up into those eyes, that glimmer still there, the
folder no longer on the shelf but in her hands as she reaches out to me.
She holds it with the gentle touch of a mother offering her child or a
bomb disposal unit transporting a suspicious package. I take it in my
hands and feel something like warmth, a pulsing tendril from some place
deep within her that has now made itself known and begs only to be
“Go and have some dreams tonight.”
Everything is scattershot and unrelated, mixed media and mixed subjects
arranged in a haphazard bible of shoddy construction, practically
begging to have its contents spilled out over the floor in an awkward
workplace incident. But it is all connected by the same tendons, the
bindings of violence writ large across photographs and printouts. Page
upon page of police documentation: murders of various degrees,
manslaughter, armed robbery, crimes of dark passion. All splayed out now
across my coffee table, right next to SSRIs and furniture catalogs. My
fingers feel their way along almost faster than my eyes can keep up, my
brain somewhere far behind as it attempted to process the arrangement of
corpses and the splatter of blood en masse. Everything is red.
My hands find their way eventually, to a folder within a folder, a thick
section of documents heavily marked and well read. Written across the
lip of a tab, in a loopy, loving scrawl, “Miami-Dade 1986.” I can sense
a tension there, a threshold presenting itself and daring to be crossed.
I think of that spark and that searching grasp from the intangible of
her soul and her dreaming, and I waste no more time.
Dead FBI agents and rear bumpers covered in brain and bone. They had
outnumbered their quarry 8 to 1, had him outgunned and cornered. Quickly
riddled with bullets, and yet he continued to stand and fire back with a
rifle like something out of a hunting magazine, a Ruger Mini 14. With
bullets filling his lungs with liters of blood, lead bruising his spinal
cord, shrapnel in his skull, he continued to advance and fire. Propelled
purely by instinct, muscle memory, the impulse of his brain stem; that
quiet part of the mind relegated to beasts and now allowed to embody
itself as a self actualized entity. He was killed only by time and that
slow leaking, clutching at his rifle like a part of himself.
Tonight I eat dinner, cold chicken and bread. The bread about a day
stale. I watch a nature documentary, night vision cameras and footage of
hyenas tearing apart neon green intestines with bright glowing canines.
Eyes like floodlights. I keep the television on so I can fall asleep to
the low murmur and swallow of mindless devouring. As I lay back across
the broken springs of my mattress, I think about how people are also
like animals. I think about her and that scrapbook of primal terror and
fascination, and I wonder how long she had appreciated me and my
scorpion. I wonder if she sees me behind her eyelids when she falls
asleep next to her husband. I wonder if she reaches under his pillow and
feels the metal of his gun, if she thinks about the smooth metal of my
scorpion or the cold grasp of my hand.
Tonight, I dream.
Jane Black is an English student at the University of North Florida. She writes often in her spare time.