Scott took marino’s place in the pilot’s seat, their flight suits making soft hissing sounds as they passed. The control stations at Creech were cramped, but Scott knew pilots at other bases, some of them officers, who had to work out of trailers or repurposed shipping containers. He wondered if he’d ever get used to it: suiting up, going over the mission briefing, and then entering a windowless room instead of a cockpit.
“So,” he said, checking instruments and controls, “any action down there?”
“Only if you count a military-age male leaving his compound at 0200,” Marino said, “and then creeping out into the fields.”
“What, we think he had a weapons cache out there?”
The sensor operator, a kid named Walsh, snickered into his coffee. His face pallid from the glow of the monitors, he looked like a smirking ghost.
“Naw,” Marino said, “guy was taking a shit.” He shuffled into the hall and, still chuckling at his joke, closed the door behind him.
Scott brought his focus back to the screens and nudged the flightstick to one side. Two seconds later and a hemisphere away, the Predator obeyed, tracing a broad ellipse over the Khost Valley. It was the dead of night in Afghanistan, but here in the Mojave, the sun was bearing down on flats of bursage and creosote. The Predator, hangared at Kandahar Airfield, had been in the sky for hours. A ground crew handled takeoff and landing, but Scott (or one of the other pilots) took over once the plane was in the air. Scott hated it when politicians or people on the news called them drones. These were remote-piloted aircraft, and they didn’t fly themselves.
Walsh leaned over, one hand cupped to the side of his mouth as if he were about to share some confidence. “Captain,” he said, “I think you should know, that tangy aroma of ass you’re smelling, that ain’t me. That’s one hundred percent Airman Marino.” As Walsh pulled away, his eyes tracked across the bank of screens. Apparently finding nothing of interest there, he returned to the comic book in his lap. Air from one of the vents fluttered the corners of the pages, but it didn’t help with the stink. Bodies sat in these chairs around the clock, men and women both, sweating and smoking and eating and farting for up to twelve hours at a time before they were relieved, replaced by a fresh pilot and a new sensor operator.
As for Walsh, Scott didn’t think much of him. Nineteen, maybe twenty, Walsh was just another kid from the Nellis puppy mill. He’d logged his forty hours of basic flight in a Cessna, and then spent a few months in a shed in the desert spotting targets and launching warheads full of concrete at broken-down tanks. Walsh may have been certified to fly, but he was no pilot.
At forty, Scott was practically an old-timer at Creech and, unlike some others, he’d served in war zones. He’d flown C-130 cargo planes in Iraq, delivering supplies to frontline troops. In places where there were no airstrips, he’d landed the hulking things right on the highways. Later, stationed at Bagram Air Base, he’d evacuated wounded soldiers from the ground.
But he’d talked it over with Laura, and they’d decided; accepting the post at Creech was the best thing. He figured he was still making a difference. But now, when he left the battlefield, he could be home an hour later emptying the dishwasher, or helping his girls with their schoolwork.
And there were other reasons. His marriage had held up to the five- and six-month deployments overseas and the temporary assignments that took him away from Laura even when they lived in the same house. But this last deployment, a full year in Afghanistan, that had nearly put an end to it.
Scott had found himself tuning her out during their video chats, barely able to connect with whatever she was saying about play dates, her weight-loss plan, or her online degree. He’d started resenting the demands for just five or ten more minutes to talk when, really, all he wanted was to get some sleep. Near the end, he would keep another window open on the desktop and watch a dvd with the sound turned off. By then, Laura had stopped trying, too. They could be online at the same time, both their cameras live, and not say more than a few words to each other for ten or fifteen minutes.
When Scott came back, he was quieter than before and less willing to feel things he didn’t have to. Laura had changed, too. She’d gotten used to handling the finances, taking care of the kids, taking care of herself. It wasn’t clear where Scott fit in anymore. They’d both seen the post to Nevada as a chance to start again, maybe their last.
It was hours staring at the screens. The village was asleep, and for a long time the only motion was from a pair of goats that ambled through the alleys between household compounds. Finally, at dawn, groups of men began to gather at the mosque to offer morning prayers. Two boys shoveled fuel into the mouth of a clay oven, and a man with a bucket splashed handfuls of water onto the ground, settling the dust of the main road.
Scott received word that the convoy was on its way. He guided the Predator along an updraft, then pointed the nose, with its cluster of cameras, down at the valley. A line of armored trucks moved like a ragged stitch through the patchwork of gardens and spring wheat.
The vehicles stopped in front of the iron gate that marked the village entrance, and the soldiers took positions.
There was a rasp of leather as Walsh leaned forward in his chair. “Squirters,” he said, “Three of em.” On the other side of the village, Scott could make out three figures fleeing down a footpath. The sensor switched to infrared and instantly the heat from the men’s bodies, gleaming white against the black of the landscape, gave them away. Scott got on the radio with the commander on the ground and relayed the runners’ position: thirty meters from the rear gate, lying prone in a ditch.
For the rest of the morning, the soldiers went from house to house. Scott and Walsh scanned the hills for Taliban or Haqqani fighters while the riflemen of Icarus company, first platoon, gathered every man or boy who could shoulder a rifle and stood them in a line by the roadside. They patted the men down, checking their long tunics for weapons, and then led them to the mosque in the center of town. There they scanned each one, fingertips and iris.
Walsh clasped both hands behind his head, yawned louder than he needed to, and stretched. “Biometrics,” he said. “Bad guys can run, but they can’t hide.” Scott had the urge to seize the kid in a full nelson and pin him, wriggling, to the floor. Instead, he reached over to Walsh’s side of the dash and took a mini-donut out of the open package. He bit into it, and then spat the crumbs and a rind of stale frosting into his palm.
“Jesus, Walsh, how can you eat those things?” He wrapped the mess in a napkin and tossed it in the trash.
By the time the soldiers had collected all the data, Scott had barely an hour left in his shift. He put his hands to his eyes and tried to rub the heaviness out of them. Just a little while longer, he caught himself thinking, and he’d be on the couch with a cold beer and a game controller. Embarrassed at his selfishness, he turned away from the thought and worked to put all of his attention back on the soldiers, men who wanted to be at home—deserved to be—more than he did.
The soldiers clamored back into their trucks, and Scott flew the Predator ahead of the convoy. He peered down at what passed for a road: a twisting trail of rutted earth broken by stones and smothered in a fine dust like spent gunpowder. For grid after grid, there was nothing but the buzz of the air conditioning and the dull sepia of sand.
“Can you come around on that?” Walsh said, straightening in his chair.
Walsh fed him the coordinates, and Scott coaxed the airframe into position. The craft descended in a gentle spiral, an eye-stippled spider dropping from the hub of its web. Its cameras were fixed on the ground, a spot where the road pinched through a dry, high-walled gulch. But the screens only showed a pixelated patch of mud, cracked by the sun and half-buried in silt.
“Okay,” Walsh said after a long time, toggling between day-tv and infrared. “It’s nothing.”
Before he knew why, Scott’s heart was slamming against his ribs. The first truck had passed through the ravine, but the second wasn’t on his display anymore. In its place was a plume of sand and gray-white smoke. The monitors snapped to ir, and Scott could see the flames, white-hot, consuming the vehicle and the men inside.
His headset crackled with the voices of radio operators and the shouts of the other men. “God damn! ied, truck two—Back of my head, it’s fucking hurting—It’s on. Go. Can you hear?”
“Speck Three-Two copies all,” he said. “We’ll find them.”
Scott pulled back on the stick and counted—one onethousand, two one-thousand—through the excruciating delay. The Predator began to climb, showing not just the convoy, but the surrounding mountains and farms. The shooting will start now.
“I think they’re behind that ridge. Motherfuckers—He’s hurt bad—I need somebody with eyes on!”
“Roger, Icarus. Working on it.”
The front of the second truck had been sheared off and the engine block was yards away, smoldering in the brush. The first truck raced ahead, out of the killzone, but the others were jammed up behind.
Help them, Lord.
The steppes were still and empty. There were no technicals on the road, no mortar teams in the scrub of the cliff tops, no men with rifles and rpgs scrambling out of ditches.
The village, plenty of places to hide.
An old woman swept dust from the threshold of a mud house. In a wooden stall, a shopkeeper butchered a goat. The fields, maybe they’re in the fields. A figure was crouching, concealed in a patch of green.
“There,” he said.
But no. It was just a farmer stooped over stalks of wheat, studying their flowering heads. Text flashed across the chatroom monitor: king cobra is mary in five mikes. Marine helicopters were spinning up in Rocket City. They’d be inbound in minutes, but Scott couldn’t find anything for them to shoot at.
“Where are they, Speck?” a voice said over the radio. “Where the hell are they?”
“No enemy contacts, Icarus.”
These were his men. He’d watched them set up a net in the desert and play volleyball, had guided them through the snarled streets of Kabul. Once, when a Humvee broke down on a long patrol, he’d kept watch over them as they made camp, maintained a vigil through the night so they could sleep. They’d been grateful for that; they’d thanked him.
But there was nothing he could do for them now, nothing but watch. Fire reached the magazine for the truck’s fifty cal and started cooking off the ammo. A shower of pale sparks filled one corner of the monitor. “Hang in there,” Scott said. “Cobra is inbound.” It was just past 2300 hours in Nevada when the choppers landed. Then someone tapped him on the shoulder, and his shift was over.
Scott filled up at the Shell station across from the base. Its highway sign was busted, the plastic casing torn away so that the fluorescents shone bare white. It was grimy and disordered inside, with empty patches on the shelves and boxes of stock heaped in one corner. Waiting for the cashier to ring him up for the gas and a twelve pack, Scott eyed the PowerBall display. Laura liked to play, and sometimes they made an event out of it, eating popcorn on the couch and letting the girls stay up an extra hour to watch the drawing. But tonight it seemed wrong somehow, and reckless, to invite fortune into their lives like that.
Scott returned to his truck and pulled out onto Ninety-Four South. There were no cars on the road, and past the station and the roadside casino, it was twenty miles of speechless desert before the first billboard. He rolled down his window, and the sharp scent of pinyon pine blew in from the Spring Mountains. His high beams took in the scrub of the roadside but climbed only partway up the utility poles. Their tops indistinct, the rank of bare spars resembled a stand of birches stripped and blackened by a culling fire. The foothills were hunched silhouettes at his right, while, further off, the towers of High Desert Prison hung in the air like smoke.
Las Vegas flickered at his left and then unfurled itself: a sweep of golden points, pixel-prickly in the arid dark. Above the hotels and casinos, the beacons of helicopters fluttered like blowing embers. The Luxor, a mountain of black glass, remained tucked away beneath the horizon. Still, Scott could make out the beam from the pyramid’s enormous spotlight, a shaft of silver-white stabbing up at the sky.
He wouldn’t tell Laura about the bomb or the men who’d been killed. So much of what he did was classified, and there were regulations, even about spouses. But it was more than that. He’d learned early on, they all had, to take whatever happened at the base, in that other desert, and stuff it in a footlocker. A forty minute drive gave you time to secure things, to lock them down tight so they didn’t bleed into your other life.
He thought about a class he’d taken in college, an introduction to logic. The professor had said this thing about non-contradiction: how A couldn’t be B and not-B at the same time. But Scott knew that wasn’t true—you could be here and over there, deployed and safe from harm. Maybe he was remembering it wrong, or maybe the world just didn’t make that kind of sense anymore. Distracted, he missed the turn for the beltway and home.
He took the exit for downtown instead and pulled into the garage at the Golden Gate. After he parked, he took out his phone and called Laura. She didn’t pick up right away, and her voice was coarse from waking.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “but I have to stick around here a bit longer.”
“What, why? Is everything alright?”
“Sure. Yeah. It’s just paperwork, this new intelligence officer. He says he needs this report tonight, that it can’t wait until tomorrow, which is complete—”
“It’s okay,” she said, her voice flat. There was a long pause, and he wondered if she might have fallen back to sleep.
“I saw another one of those spiders in the kitchen tonight, the brown ones. Actually Clara saw it. Rachel screamed and shut herself in her room. I was going to smash it, but it hid under the refrigerator.” She yawned. “Did you remember to call Terminix?”
“Shit. No, it slipped my mind.”
“Don’t worry about it.” She sounded resigned, as if she hadn’t expected him to remember.
“I’ll take care of it.”
“No, really. I’ll call them first thing tomorrow.” There was another silence and Scott listened for the sound of her breathing. There were still times—when she came home flush and glowing from a run, or when she laughed playing some silly game with Clara—flashes that pierced through the dullness and allowed him to feel something like grace, as if, despite his not deserving it, God had entrusted him with something precious. It wasn’t too late to talk to her, if he was willing to try. Maybe he’d decided—and stuff the regulations—to tell her what had happened.
“Okay,” she said. “I’m turning in. Don’t let them keep you too late.”
“I love you,” he said.
“Love you, too.”
For blocks, the corridor of Fremont Street was canopied by a vault of led screens, like the triumphal arch of some gaudy empire. The monitors displayed a kaleidoscope of designs swirling against a psychedelic background: pulsing yin yangs and pinwheeling flowers, peace symbols and clip-art lips. The whole corridor vibrated with the force of the speakers. It was a song Scott knew, but couldn’t remember the name of: “What’s your name / who’s your daddy / Is he rich? / Is he rich like me?” His gaze passed over the souvenir shops and casinos, but lingered on a neon sign: a reclining cowgirl kicking up one of her white-booted heels.
Once the bouncer had patted him down, the hostess led him to a stool at a long oval counter that doubled as a catwalk. He ordered two Jack and Cokes and stared at the runway, which was padded with red felt and fitted with a colonnade of steel poles. The dj announced the next dancer and the first licks of “She Shook Me All Night Long” growled out of the speakers. As soon as the drums kicked in, a woman in a G-string strutted on stage and whipped her hair in time with the beat.
Scott had come in looking for distraction, but he kept returning to that patch of road in the other valley. What right did he have to be in this place and not that one, to sit there, bulletproof in his leather pilot’s seat? He finished the second drink and tried to put it out of his mind. Annoyed and unwilling to wait for the server to come around again, he went to the bar himself.
What he did in that room, he knew it wasn’t valorous. But let some F-16 pilot call him a “cubicle jockey” or a “PlayStation warrior”—Scott would shut his goddam face for him. He’d killed, just the same as them, except he didn’t drop a bomb from forty thousand feet and then rocket off into the sunset. When he launched a missile, he saw it hit. In the harsh monochrome of ir, he watched as the body parts flew into the air. He knew what it meant to wait for the heat to drain from a broken body, to watch a man, a person, writhe in the dirt, and then darken until he was the same gray-black as the ground. He knew what it meant to be the cause of it.
“Hey, fella,” someone said, “what’s with the blank stare?” The voice belonged to a pretty Asian girl. She wore a thin blazer, the sleeves rolled to the elbows, and her breasts, the size of clementines, were banded by the wide straps of a suspender skirt. She held his gaze and took a slow sip from a straw that stuck out from her can of Red Bull.
“Just a bad day at work is all.”
“Want to buy me a drink and tell me all about it?” she said. And then, when he hesitated, “It’s just a drink.”
“Yeah,” he said, “sure.” He followed her to one of the leather couches. The corner was dark, lit only by the red glow of Chinese lanterns. The booth’s scalloped back hung over them like a carapace.
“Scott.” Frankie seemed to struggle with her blazer, an invitation for him to help her out of it, and they made awkward small talk until the waitress arrived with their drinks.
“So,” he asked, “where are you from?”
“San Jose,” she said, smiling.
“I mean, you know, originally?”
“San Jose.” She crinkled her nose, but the smile didn’t leave her face. “My parents, though, they immigrated from Thailand during the revolution. It wasn’t safe there.”
“Huh,” he said. He could find Thailand on a map, but all he knew of the country were the stories a navy buddy had told him about “happy endings” and “Ping-Pong shows” in Bangkok. He decided to change the subject. “You don’t seem like the other girls in here. I bet you’re putting yourself through school or something like that, right?”
“Aw, you’re sweet. I’m almost done with my bachelor’s. I’m majoring in American history and international studies.”
Scott let out a long whistle. “That’s impressive. A double major, huh?” She laughed again.
“Yeah, well, I’m not as smart as some of the others, but I work hard. Besides, there’s a lot of overlap. With American history, you know, so much of it happens somewhere else.”
“Rachel, my oldest, she loves history. Me, though, I’ve always been more of a math and science type.”
“Oh, you have a daughter? Do you have pictures?”
For a while they talked about his girls and Frankie’s younger brother, who was learning to program video games at a technical college. Scott started to relax. It felt good to talk to a beautiful woman and know that it was safe. He could say whatever he wanted and she wouldn’t reject him. She was also a stripper, not a woman in a nightclub or a hotel bar. There was no chance that things would go too far, that he would cheat.
“I don’t usually meet guys like you,” she said, taking his arm and leaning against him. “And Scott, I wish I could stay, but unless you want to buy a dance, I have to go. Textbooks aren’t cheap, you know?”
Scott knew the things strippers said to make a customer feel special. He knew too that if he’d asked her about making rent instead of taking classes, she would have given him the hard luck story. But really, none of that mattered. He was just where he wanted to be. He knew too much to be suckered, but not so much that it ruined the fantasy.
He took thirty dollars out of his wallet. “What if I paid you for a dance and we just talked a little more?”
“I’d like that.” She kissed him on the cheek, then took the bills and slipped them into her tiny purse. “Hey. I don’t even know what you do for a living. Wait! Let me guess—you’re an engineer.”
He shook his head. “Nope, I’m a foreman, like at a construction site. That’s actually why I came here tonight, because of something that happened at work today.” She seemed so interested, so open, and she’d been so nice to him. He felt that he could talk to her. “Two guys on the site. Well, there was an accident, and they died. I was supposed to keep them safe and, there was just nothing I could do about it.” He stared down at the table. “It was my fault.”
Frankie put her hand on his thigh. “I’m sure it wasn’t your fault,” she said. “You’re a good man. I can tell.” He put his hand over hers, and for a minute or so they just sat there like that, not saying anything. He took a deep breath and let it out.
“Thanks,” he said, taking his hand away and then rubbing the back of his neck, “like I was saying, just a really bad day.” They talked for a while longer, about her classes and his hobbies. When their time was up, she gave him a hug and kissed him on the cheek.
“Hey, Scott,” she said, drawing away and looking him in the eyes, “I want to tell you something. What I said before. My family’s not really from Thailand. They came here from Vietnam.” She shrugged. “It’s just that some guys, you know, they have some bad associations, so when they ask, I say Thailand. It’s easier.”
He said goodnight and walked back out into the strobing noise of Fremont Street. In the truck, he checked his face in the rearview, wetted his finger, and wiped it clean of any hint of lipstick. What she’d told him, was it because she’d felt something for him—not desire, maybe, but something she hadn’t wanted to mar with a lie? Or was it just a lure, a souvenir of self-disclosure with the promise of more on some other night? Sincere or not, it had stirred him.
Scott turned into the subdivision, an outpost of single-story homes with tile roofs and stucco walls stained the pale beige of old telephones. His house was dark, and Laura had drawn the blinds over the windows that faced the street. The house was all right, definitely a step up from the family quarters at Hill afb, and nicer even than their place in Fairbanks had been. But the yard was an eyesore, a grassless plane of gray-brown gravel. At first they’d talked about adding some flowering cacti and a hedge of sage bushes. Scott had wanted to do the work himself, but Laura had insisted on a landscape company. They’d fought about it for a week and then finally just dropped it and left things the way they were.
Not wanting to set off the garage’s security lights, Scott pulled alongside the curb and cut the engine. There was a low rumble like a distant explosion—the redeye to Hawaii, most likely—and then it was quiet. He took the twelve-pack from the passenger seat, stepped down from the cab and, listening for the soft click of the latch, gently shut the driver’s side door. He moved like a shadow along the side of the house and slipped in through the back door.
He’d just started down the hall, intent on a shower to get rid of the club smells and maybe a swig of mouthwash to mask the whiskey, when Laura padded out of the darkened bedroom. It was like the dreams he had some nights of being an intruder in his own home. Except those dreams were in infrared, the bodies of his sleeping daughters transformed into fluorescent bundles that spun white light through the translucent walls.
At the doorway to the bathroom, Laura stopped and looked over her shoulder. Scott caught his breath and stood completely still, praying she wouldn’t see him. He couldn’t stand for her to see him now, a feckless soldier who’d failed to protect his brothers, a deserter who’d left them alone in that other valley. A man who no longer went to his wife for counsel or comfort, but instead paid some strange girl to tell him lies. For a moment, Laura squinted into the dark. Then, either seeing nothing or choosing not to see, she turned and went into the bathroom.
His eyes on the door and feeling along the wall with one hand, Scott took a few steps back before turning the corner and stepping into the kitchen. He waited several minutes after the toilet flushed, then switched on the light. He took the beers from the counter where he’d left them and moved things around in the fridge to make some room. He was closing the door when a tawny blur twitched at the edge of his vision. The thing scuttled a few inches across the counter, and then stiffened. Laura had left a wineglass in the sink, a few purplish dregs still stuck to the bottom. Scott seized it by the stem and brought it down, trapping the creature in a clear, vaulted cage.
The spider, its woolly fangs and convulsing limbs, disgusted him. But he willed himself to lean close and peer down into glass. The spider’s abdomen was the size of a nickel, sandy brown, and covered with fine, short hairs. A dark mark, like a brand in the shape of a fiddle, covered its head and back. Not a daddy-long-legs, then, or a garden spider, but a recluse.
The thing was revolting, but he wasn’t sure that he wanted to kill it. It didn’t belong here, of course, and he couldn’t allow it to stay. Still, he thought about slipping a sheet of paper under the glass and putting the thing outside, letting it go. He wanted, maybe this once, to be merciful.
But if it got back in somehow, if it bit Laura or one of the girls … he couldn’t take the chance. He searched through the drawers until he found the long-necked lighter, the one he used for the grill. He tipped the glass up just enough to slide the tip of the lighter beneath it. The recluse ran to the nozzle and began to climb over it, probing the vents with its slender legs. When Scott pulled the trigger, the creature jerked away from the spout of flame with such force that it tore off one of its limbs. It curled the other legs against its body and laid still, a whitish mess blown out of its side.
The severed limb jerked senselessly around the scorched spot on the countertop. Something caught in his throat watching it. He pulled the trigger again and held it until there was nothing more to see.