Mortality Signal – Brendan Williams-Childs
July 9, 2021
It was a treadmill desk. Program handlers called it the Mech, but there was no robotic body. Only a series of electrodes connected to gloves stabilizing the drone’s movement, a headset allowing him to see through seven cameras, and a treadmill. It was a straightforward question. Drone pilots were stressed. Would they be less so if they were physically active while working? Would Nathan, reconnaissance technician and four-time marathon finisher, like to find out?
He had said yes because it wasn’t a question. There were only commands with question marks. Tomorrow he would obey. Tonight he was in Denver, ostensibly having fun alone in a mostly-empty bar.
With the confidence of someone who once ranked highly, a man sat down next to him. “What’s your grade?” He was handsome, older. One eye green, the other missing. The suggestion of lids remained in the scar tissue extending from nose to ear.
“I don’t think I can tell you.” It was forbidden to speak about work on Cheyenne Mountain. Sometimes civilians tried to look, but a veil was put over their eyes.
“Oh, a Mountaineer. I was, too, until.” He tapped his empty socket. Nathan’s expression betrayed concern, the man’s smile became wry. “You think I’m a spy? You ordered an Oskar beer. I remember that awful Dale’s Pale Ale up there.”
In cans with the flag, the unchanging commissary alcohol at the Mountain was a charity writeoff for the local brewery. The man studied him for a moment. Like the Air Force recruiters years ago — taking stock. “First time in the city?”
Before he was orphaned, before he was recruited, Nathan had come to Denver once to see the zoo. Since then, only for parades and marathons. “Sort of.”
The man slapped a bill down. “I’m closing your tab. Let a fellow Mountaineer show you around.”
Nathan didn’t protest. Out the door, across streets lined with cottonwoods, through a sprawling park, all the way up to 15th street where the neon signage burned a glistening path in the air pointing to the shadow of the Peak. Tom was a tactical map of the city complete with objectives and no room for exploration.
Nathan followed, moving without thinking. As he trailed, he felt the scope of his vision narrowing. He was slipping out of the scene around him, the autumn redgold of the trees darkening. Tom’s voice became a gentle hum and Nathan saw himself back on the Mountain, back in the Mech. The street ahead melted into the glow of the headset, the comfort of a machine miles away responding to him. He felt the rush of the runway from the drone’s perspective — so close to the tarmac he held his breath until flight, then looked up to endless blue. He heard the quickening belt of the treadmill, his heart pounding, settling. Step after step, mile after mile. Nothing but him and the sky. The way he had always dreamed.
And then he was back on the street. He stumbled on the curb, into the moment. Tom was turning the key in a door between a lesbian bar and a donut shop.
“That’s the fucking Space Corps for you.” Tom finished a tirade Nathan hadn’t heard and pushed his shoulder into the door. “I wouldn’t have gone with them anyway.” He stood in the doorway and looked at Nathan. “Well?”
Nathan straightened his shoulders. “Well?”
Tom lowered his head, looked up at Nathan with an unmistakable expression of wanting. There was predictability in that gaze from men like Tom. Men like Nathan. “Well.”
Inside, Nathan waited as Tom opened another door, to a studio reeking of cooking oil, the establishments below faintly audible. Posters of Great War bombers, a milk-crate coffee table, a full-sized fridge and half-sized stovetop, a futon Tom pulled out to reveal a double bed, already made and wrinkled.
He undressed without ceremony, set his clothes with his shoes. “Well,” Nathan said, again, his voice quiet.
No more time wasted, no more words exchanged. A silent set of duties. Like flying, like running, fucking was an exercise in self-control and endurance. Nathan felt his heart race, then calm. Tom, too, pressed under him, fell from frantic to soothed with practiced ease. And like flying or running, Nathan had no sense of how long things had gone on until he was interrupted.
The leather took him by surprise. Tom had slowed and was tapping it into Nathan’s palm. “Here. Use it. You know how, don’t you?”
It was a cheap leather belt. “No,” Nathan admitted, pulled from the moment entirely.
“When I was on the Mountain,” Tom slipped it in a loop around his own neck, “They paid me to be a test subject. Oxygen deprivation. You know the experimental shit they get up to.”
Nathan kept his face impassive. “I don’t.”
But of course he knew. But discussing that was allowed only on a scale of 1 to 5 twice a day. At 4 AM and 6 PM, Nathan answered a series of questions about sleep, stress level, mood. How did he feel, compared to previous drone experiences? Was he less distressed? Was he more effective?
Yes, Nathan said each session. Nostrils dry from the oxygen, heart beating in his throat from running, fingers numb from the electric discharges of the connective wires, outline of the landscapes he had decimated still lingering in his eyes, he felt perfect. 5 on a 1 to 5. Would he select an image that appealed to him most? Without fail he selected a field of tulips. An image, he imagined, reflecting inner calm. He wanted to be calm here, too.
Tom rolled his good eye and settled back under Nathan, wrapped their hands together around the long end of the makeshift noose, began to tighten. “If you don’t know, you’re lucky.” He pulled Nathan’s hand the length of his arm. “Anyway I got a taste for it. All that ‘dark room, choking before a flight’ shit.”
“You’re not about to fly.” The belt had transformed Tom, under Nathan, into a breakable object. No longer the map but the target, laid out awaiting destruction.
Tom pulled their hands further out. “I was good at it. It’s easier to kill when you’re a little dizzy.” His heart was racing again. Nathan felt it in his thighs. “Then the fucking program closed.” Nathan remained still. He saw the room, the Mech, the glow of the headset burning his eyes. He was moving the drone with his hand, steering it starboard. Tom’s voice, desperate. “Come on, don’t let me down.”
How could he refuse an order? He watched his tendons rise taut without feeling. Tom shuddered under him, wild green eye focused on the ceiling. Beyond the ceiling. Above the Mountain, so high the world below became fake. So far up nothing could hurt him. Desperate, driving deeper, Nathan wanted to follow.
On the day of the tactical strike, the room where the Mech awaited Nathan was unchanged. There was the command center, the familiar trifecta of monitors. There was the treadmill to which they all connected, the wired gloves, the apparatuses suggesting a hospital room, the canisters of oxygen. Their gentle breeze smelled the same as it had before Nathan’s mother’s passing, when she placed her mask on his face and they laughed until she couldn’t anymore.
What changed in the Mech during the tactical strike was everything else. In three hours, consciousness was split between his physical form and the drone the Mech controlled, he began to understand why the Lieutenant who had placed him on the mission had apologized for keeping him recon. Before, he had been a tactical cartographer — photographing buildings. He had never seen a corpse up close. In the Mech he saw dozens.
They were variously familiar, the dead. Some beyond recognition, most not. At one angle human, another nothing but paste. It was those angles he was tasked with recording. His hands shook as he stabilized the drone, hovering, under the bright sun somewhere far away. An office in a verdant jungle had existed there once.
The lead in his ears, a voice he couldn’t place. “Got that. Can you get a clear visual on the documents?”
A shift of hand, a turn of Nathan’s drone eye, brought him to papers strewn under the ballistics’ wake. 60 megapixels in seven discreet lenses, the crisp photos, would provide the next target. Another technician would fly another drone over another building in another jungle, select another strike. Allow Nathan another chance to be here again, with the bodies and the sky.
He tried to stay close to the documents, zooming in on letters he couldn’t read. But in the corner of his eye he saw a hand. Half-flattened, it fluttered closer, moth-like, encroaching into the frame. Thumb missing, two fingers long and flat, the bones a sticky pulp oozing from the tips, two fingers intact, curling and uncurling. Come here, come here. Nathan’s pulse spiked, his skin chilled.
The project handler’s voice broke through. “Slow down. You’ll hurt yourself.”
He didn’t know how to obey. If he ran fast, faster, he could outpace the beckoning corpse. Could leave it behind with all the other things he’d left, could be a blur in the landscape and not part of it, just passing through. A breeze, a bird, part of the blue.
Nathan knew, intellectually, the corpses were miles away. Hundreds, maybe thousands. They were products of a map, confined by topography, there to be observed for tactical purposes. The drone saw them, preserved them. They were under review the way that Nathan once reviewed DB-130 satellite stills. Mission after mission, death after death. Two drones brought destruction and one, always Nathan, documented. Did the corpses reveal as much as the landscapes had?
Headset off, Nathan still saw the glow, still saw them in his periphery. A woman gazed at him with empty sockets, face melted in the blast heat. A man sprawled, leaking, steaming. And that crushed hand, those fingers, beckoned endlessly. Do you want to see beyond the coordinates? Do you want to turn your head an inch more, out of the field of your target? There’s more. Come and see, come and see.
His handler was patting his shoulder. “Again, I don’t recommend ending with a thirty-minute sprint. Keep your shins safe.”
He was underground in a small room. Not the jungle or the sky. The dead man in the residual glow of the Mech couldn’t be there and so wasn’t. “Yes, ma’am.”
The handler turned the monitors off. “To Dr. Paulsen with you, then.”
Nathan stood still for a moment, gathering his breath, quieting his stomach, ignoring the pain in his shins, watching the handler tidy up his connection to a dozen dead. He was afraid, though he knew it was irrational, that the blood he had seen would trickle in from the ports and wires of the Mech.
In the psychiatrist’s office he marked his mood “greatly improved.” When the images of landscapes were presented, he faltered. The windmill was out of order. Where it should have been was a tropical jungle. At the base of the tree was — Nothing. Not a man whose entrails formed a gelatinous puddle around him. No. The windmill was simply one above where it normally was. Nathan selected it.
Did the other technicians feel the same? Were others having nightmares so severe they no longer felt rested except when locked into the Mech, were others one moment at lunch and the next sitting amidst the destruction of their latest victory, were others worried the images, their missions, were decontextualized? Did they need to look beyond the map without knowing what they would find?
Tom, at least, didn’t suggest positive thinking. Reliably pragmatic. “I can sell you something if you know your schedule for drug tests.”
“You really are in some kind of experimental shit, huh?” Tom, reclined, smiling, on the pull-out bed and ran his fingers over the bruises on his neck while Nathan dressed. “How’s your bonus?”
Sparks of pain flew through Nathan’s shins as he tied his shoes. “It makes a difference.”
“You need to start thinking about when you want to tap out.” Tom reached for his boxers, the scar tissue of his shoulder sleek in the setting sun. “Because you will tap out one way or another.”
Below them, the lesbian bar was hosting kareoke night. A woman was singing a Springsteen song. “When did you?”
“When I crashed.” Tom closed his eye. “I was solo in a T-38. Wrecked it so fucking bad they couldn’t use it for scrap. Got 25k out of it.” He tapped his scarred socket. “25k is good.”
“Of course. Nightmares? That’s nothing.” He leaned into his age and his rough countenance. “Whatever got you into that room will get you out and go with you for the rest of your life.”
What had that been, Nathan wondered, as he felt Tom’s hands on his waist, felt himself pulled back. What had brought him to the room under the Mountain when all he had ever wanted was the sky?
One foot after another. In the chill of the Mountain, under nautical dawn, Nathan ran. The fall air hinted at winter, the dry cold ready to crack the lining of his nostrils open. The track curved ahead of him, an endless loop, a temporary relief.
Untethered, in the open, he could be free of the transportive nightmares the Mech supplied. The only corpses he thought about in these pre-light 10ks were his parents, his siblings. Corpses he had never seen, who could appear to him lifelike, still, as uncannily perfect as wax dummies. His mother and sisters could sit in the bleachers, ghosts of kindness, uncharred. No cancer, no gas leak, no fire — so large it consumed the house — visible on their bodies. Someone else had seen them, of course. Someone else had discovered them in the wreckage the way that Nathan discovered mothers and sisters.
Someone had discovered his father, too. Nathan had once taken this for granted but it occurred to him again: Nathan’s father had fallen. 348 feet from the wind turbine to the rocky plains, 5 seconds to impact. Crushed. As flat as the first man in the first mission, insides forced out, two intact fingers that suggested something more, something beyond Nathan’s view, something beyond the Mech, curling again and again.
What got him in would get him out. He clung to Tom’s words. A shooting pain passed through the top of Nathan’s foot to his knee as he resumed his run, furiously fast now. What got him in was wanting to be close to the sky, constantly chasing the horizon. The Mech gave him that — the perfect view of the air his father must have seen for those five seconds of falling. The space beyond human form, where anything was possible.
“You killed.” Nathan watched Tom pull his shirt off. The light of the street cast shadows in the gaps between the hard ridges where his spine pressed to his skin. “You told me.”
“Yeah.” Tom shrugged with his non-scarred shoulder. He had changed his sheets, gone from maroon to navy blue. A new EcoPass sat on the countertop of the kitchenette. Nathan debated asking where Tom was working now but decided against it. Sharing the Mountain was enough. “Why?”
“I keep waiting to.” Nathan untied his shoes, wincing. “They won’t take me off recon.”
Tom nodded, “Tough. That’s no fun.”
“Is the alternative fun?”
“Shit, not really.” Tom laughed, came to stand over Nathan, still sitting on the crate. Nathan unbuckled his belt. “Better than recon, though. But like I said, I was fucked up. They’re not fucking you up, are they?”
He could have laughed, as well. “No. No drugs, no oxygen deprivation. It’s… they want us to be less stressed.”
“Do you think you’d be less stressed if you killed someone?”
Nathan considered the question. The answer he wanted to provide was that he would be less stressed if he didn’t have to see the dead, if he didn’t have to answer questions asking him if he was stressed, if he quit. Instead, he shrugged. “Maybe.”
Tom knelt to him, their knees touching. “I doubt it.” He took Nathan by the collar, pulled him close. “Just cut your losses.”
He didn’t understand. Nathan closed his eyes when Tom kissed him, let himself be undressed and maneuvered. His voice sounded far away when he spoke. “I don’t know if I’ll ever pilot anything again, if I cut my losses.”
Tom touched his face. At once, Nathan was where he was. In the city, in the room, in the bed. All his nerves alert, all his mind together. It was crisp, then too crisp, as though through the DB-130 lenses, magnified a thousand times. His eyes burned, his legs spasmed. Every pain he believed he had run through was still in him.
“Sure you will. Maybe even a real fighter. Not just some drone.” Tom ran his fingers over the velvet of Nathan’s buzzcut. “Just remember why you signed up in the first place.”
He didn’t want to remember anything. What good would it do to break it down into words? There had been the horizon, the freedom, the money, the thrill, the escape. All of those things combined. All now at risk because they couldn’t outweigh the reality — that under the sky that held him close there was an earth that would have swallowed him, had every right to for what he had seen, what he had assisted with, what he had, after all, signed up to do. What a dumbass choice. He sank his teeth into Tom’s shoulder, hand on the belt around Tom’s neck, trying to escape death in the fucking airforce.
Car headlights cast a white glow into the room and when Nathan pulled back, the taste of Tom’s sweat on his lips, he was transported. He saw the sky, began to rise. How would it be to be the one to drop the bomb? How would it be to be the one who didn’t have to witness? The crushed hand beckoned relentlessly. Come and see. He pulled harder, his legs shaking. How would it be to be fast, clean, gone?
He was bleeding. Ballistics detonated in his vision and Nathan realized Tom had punched him, was shouting. “Sonofabitch! I was safewording like a motherfucker!”
Nathan pressed his hands to his face, stunned. “I didn’t realize.”
“Do you fucking feel better now?” Tom’s voice was thick with phlegm. He tossed Nathan’s clothes at him, opened the freezer and wrapped a bag of frozen strawberries around the circle of violet on his neck.
Nathan wanted to stay, to apologize again, and explain that it was a mistake. It was all a mistake, he was so, so sorry.
Down the hall to the room where the Mech lay waiting, he tried to relax into the sensation, imagined himself shredded by the phantom shapes that lurked in his periphery.
The handler stood amongst them, her white teeth mirroring the monitors. She couldn’t see them, the flesh, the blood. “Ready?”
“Yes.” Nathan stepped onto the treadmill belt, stretched his shoulders. His knees ached, tendons of his legs wound so tightly he wondered if they could snap. Could he break through if he, too, was willing to break? The little room was too full, overflowing at every angle. All eyes, white and clouded, watch him with detached interest. The handler placed the mask on his head, the gloves on his fingers. The dead unified, shifted towards him in a massive slide but he was already moving.
The drone was airborne. Nathan saw the sky. Blue, endless, ever brilliant. His feet hit the tread. The dead extended their hands, reaching, pulling, trying to prevent the ascent but it was too late. He was going. Up, up, up — far away and fast.