“How can I be substantial if I do not cast a shadow? I must have a dark side also if I am to be whole.” — Carl Jung
RAF WADDINGTON, LINCOLNSHIRE, UK.
Fight Lieutenant Bobbie Matthews wasn’t the kind of woman who scared easily. But that morning, as she walked across the parade ground, she was hit by a sensation of impending dread that shook her to the bone. To her west, the ground control station appeared to take the shape of an over- sized metallic coﬃn, the flat light of dawn falling across its brutal angular shape like a shroud. The image struck her with such force she imagined the earth would swallow the structure whole; ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
The ‘Box’, as it had become known to the Royal Air Force’s Thirteen Squadron, was a former shipping container. Stripped to the bones, it now housed four banks of high-definition monitors, several rows of back-lit switches, and a pair of joysticks that sometimes in her sleep Bobbie would imagine her fingers were still coiled around, as if for those eight hours she missed their satisfying feel in her hand.
The Box, however, required no sleep. All it required was a constant feed of electricity and the low hum of air conditioning to cool the racks of hard drives and communication systems. It was staﬀed 24/7 to accommodate the demands of the United States Joint Special Operations Command at Creech Air Force Base, located in the Nevada desert. Waddington was eight hours ahead and served as an extension of the US Air Force, helping to facilitate round-the-clock surveillance with handovers between Creech and Waddington every twelve hours. The demands of the war on terror, Bobbie had come to learn, were as ceaseless as the war itself.
The day had cast its typical soupiness over Lincolnshire, the sky undecided as to its true intentions, shifting from peaks of blue to murky greyness depending on the wind. To Bobbie’s left, the Air Seeker Annex jutted out sharply from the ground, as if the building were constructed in italic to make some kind of point. To her right, the hangars housing the Sentry, Sentinel, and Shadow aircraft loomed wide, and beyond the hangars, the wide expanse of the airfield butted against the outskirts of the RAF families’ accommodations from where Bobbie had just driven.
She drew her jacket tight over her flying suit as a regiment of cadets jogged past. “Squintos” – a new batch of intelligence oﬃcers in basic training. They’d need the exercise, Bobbie thought, as the dull march of their boots faded to silence. Squintos were expected to stare into computer screens for hours, analysing the constant data flow streaming into the command centre. Bobbie herself had spent twelve months as a squinto. She’d left after a year and enrolled in the RAF’s Unmanned Aircraft Training programme, which had just opened its doors to non-commissioned pilots. She completed her oﬃcer training at RAF Cran- well, then was posted to USAF Creech to complete her formal drone training, graduating with the clunky title of remote piloted aircraft systems (pilot). Six months later she found herself in command of a MQ-9 Reaper Drone as a flight lieu- tenant. She may still have been sitting behind a desk, but that desk connected her to £20 million of weaponry capable of striking a target with surgical accuracy from 50,000 feet. Bobbie had never felt more alive than when she took control of the drone, 700 pounds of explosive racked in the rails, her finger poised to rain a Hellfire missile on a convoy of insurgents.
As she pulled open the station door, a blast of cold air brushed over her face. Typically, she would have begun visualising the day’s mission – slipping herself into the zone – but the same feeling of dread she’d had minutes ago arced through her. She shrugged it oﬀ as pre-mission jitters.
“You’re late,” Oﬃcer Cadet Cole Dawson said, smiling.
Bobbie stood by the doorway and took a deep, meditative breath. The sense of something not being quite right lay heavy on her chest. Settling herself into her chair, she glanced at her watch. “Twenty-three seconds late, Dawson. Seriously?”
“Nah,” he said, adjusting his neck. “Just pulling your leg, blame it on the boredom.”
Bobbie checked her monitors. “If I’d known I was here for your entertainment, I’d have prepared some suitable material.”
Dawson chuckled. Thirty-one years old, with a sickly complexion in need of a long holiday some place sun drenched, Dawson was a sensor operator in command of the Reaper’s high-definition camera and tasked with ensuring they had constant eyes on the high value target (HVT). He also controlled the Reaper’s laser, which was required to be pinpoint accurate before Bobbie pulled the trigger. If the laser was one degree oﬀ azimuth when the missile left the rails, it could mean the diﬀerence between striking a HVT right between the eyes or obliterating the convoy of families travelling with him; a mistake he wasn’t keen to repeat.
“Don’t you know the party doesn’t start until I get here?” Bobbie said, adjusting the chair to accommodate her slender, five-feet-nine-inch frame, though in her flying suit she looked shorter, more vulnerable than she wanted to appear.
“They didn’t mention that in the mission briefing.” “You don’t have it tattooed on your arse by now?”
He smiled and tilted the camera, revealing miles of dirt- brown desert fifty-thousand feet below. “Bobbie’s way, or the highway?”
“I respect a man who knows his place.” Bobbie secured her headset and adjusted her comms. The voice of the 89th Attack Squadron Reaper pilot broke through the static; Lieutenant Colonel Benton Lowell. She’d trained with Benton back at Creech.
“All’s good in the free world, Dazzle’s in the Box,” Benton said, his voice oozing an easy American confidence. Bobbie had earned the moniker Dazzle when she began customising her headset with imitation gems she bought at a cheap craft store oﬀ the Las Vegas strip. At the time, she imagined the gems were some nod to her femininity, but later she began to wonder if she were just trying to infuse a jolt of colour to the drab sandy beige of war.
“Are we clear to match eyes?” Bobbie said, studying the barren desert topography.
“Straight down to it, huh?” Benton said. “You see what I’m seeing?”
Dawson gave Bobbie the thumbs up and rotated the camera. “Brown terrain. Lots of it.”
“Yeah, diﬀerent day, same shit.” “Recon details?”
Dawson slid her a document. “Red card holder approved,” he confirmed, pointing at the Base Commander’s signature, the final word in authorising kill strikes.
Benton spoke. “We’ve been tracking a convoy of technicals driving south from Mosul since zero hundred hours, but we’ve had bugs on the windshield for the past ninety minutes.”
“The goddam mother of. Visibility’s returning to situation normal, but the weather geeks predict an encore by sundown.”
“Roger that,” Bobbie said, scribbling on her notepad. “Any additional intel you lot need to brief us on?”
“You lot?” Benton laughed. “You mean the guys who trained your sorry asses?”
“Correct.” If Bobbie had eyes on Benton, he’d no doubt be making a gesture that included lifting one, or both, of his middle fingers to the screen.
“Yeah, we got your intel. Technicals are axle-heavy with metal. Check out the trailer we made earlier.” Benton chuckled as he replayed the footage of a convoy of trucks reversing into a narrow entrance to the right of a high-walled compound. “That’s some real Mister Bean parking shit, right there,” he said, as the trucks took several attempts to reverse into position. “Now, watch this,” he added, as a group of men jumped from the trucks and stood in a chain formation at the entrance.
“Anti-aircraft?” Bobbie asked, as the men passed large items of weaponry to each other and onto the truck’s flatbeds.
“Fifty-millimetre, standard Russian Army issue, captured from their shitshow in Afghanistan. We counted six weapons stacked like they were heading to holy freakin’ war.”
“Why didn’t you strike before they left the compound?” “CIVACS,” Benton confirmed. “Women and children in the
vicinity. We began tracking as soon as they stepped on the gas.” “Copy that,” Bobbie said.
“FYI, we’re keeping safety eyes on another convoy travelling three kilometres behind,” Benton said.
“Unconfirmed, but we scrambled an F15 to keep eyes on them.”
“Can you patch me into their comms?”
“Negative. We’ve got signal blockers along the route. If they’re friendlies, let’s hope they’ve got enough smarts to keep their distance when you rain down the shit-parade. If they’re with the HVT, then send the other Hellfire their way, compliments of the US of A.”
“Roger that. Assuming control of Reaper in fifteen,” she said, folding her fingers gently around the joystick.
“You ready to save the world?” “Always. Assuming control in ten.”
“Don’t fuck up our good work now, ya’ hear?” “Good pep talk, Benton.”
Dawson nodded at Bobbie. “It’s all yours.” “Confirm. I have control of Reaper Craft.” “Have a nice day blowing shit up, Dazzle. Out.”
With the Reaper under her command, Bobbie rested the joystick in her palm, her muscle memory kicking in. She sensed herself falling into the zone – the critical mind-space where her mind bonded with the pitch and roll of the Reaper – as it cleaved through the atmosphere 3000 miles away. Lost in the motion, she barely heard her overseer, Flight Commander James Flynt, step in and take position at the rear of the Box. Flynt had a reputation for making swift decisions concerning kill strikes; the more the merrier seemed to be his default setting.
“Ready to show those Johnny Jihadis some of our Yorkshire mettle, Flight Lieutenant Matthews?”
“I’m from Wales, sir, but yes, I’m briefed and strike- prepared.”
“Christ, not the sentimental Welsh type, are you? Cry at the sight of a leek or a bloody daﬀodil?”
“No, no sentiment at all, sir, just here to do my job,” she confirmed, keeping her focus steely eyed; unblinking.
Flynt swiped the 9-line approval document from the desk. “Estimated strike time?”
Bobbie confirmed the convoy’s co-ordinates. “Two miles south there’s an open stretch of road, should be a safe strike zone.”
Dawson checked his instruments. “Significant cloud cover, I could lose altitude, but the HVT might spot the craft.”
“Drop thirty angels,” Flynt said, as the convoy throttled fast over the dust-ridden road. “At this speed, they’ve got one eye on the road, the other on those seventy-two virgin maidens they’ve been promised.”
Bobbie pushed forward on the joystick, felt herself sinking into the chair as the drone dropped 22,000 feet in seconds.
Flynt jabbed Dawson in the shoulder. “Keep that laser clear of the windows. If they see that little red dot, they’re squirting out of there faster than ten pints and a vindaloo.”
“Nice image, sir,” Dawson said, tracking the laser as it traced past the trucks and to the roadside to avoid any reflections.
“What’s our strike azimuth?” Bobbie asked, rolling the joystick left and right so Dawson could match the roll of gyroscopic camera ball with the Reaper’s pitch.
“Two degrees. Once they hear the sonic boom, it’s bye-bye time.”
“Like shooting shopping trolleys in the Manchester Ship Canal,” Flynt said, stretching out his back.
Bobbie focused on the laser as it swept ahead of the convoy. “Releasing Hellfire in twenty,” she said, bracing herself. A hush fell over the station. “Releasing in ten. Standby.”
As he ran his index finger along the rib of the tracker, Dawson turned. “What the…?” he asked, rotating the camera and directing the lens towards a large mass on a collision course with the convoy.
“Shit!” Bobbie said, her eyes scanning across the monitors. “Creech alerted us of sandstorms in the vicinity.”
Flynt huﬀed, “Not going to let a bit of sand fuck up our mission, are we, Matthews?”
“No, sir. I’ll drop angels, pull down past the cloud cover.”
Dawson swung the camera around. “I’m losing eyes on the laser track,” he said. “We’re fighting a forty-five-knot crosswind from the sandstorm, and it’s increasing.”
“No time like the present, Matthews. You’re Red Card Holder approved, make the strike.”
Bobbie hesitated. “Sir… I don’t think–”
“Right,” Flynt interrupted. “You don’t think. You carry out the orders as presented. Flight Lieutenant, take the strike.”
“Shit!” Dawson said, his voice a pitch higher. He swivelled the camera. “There’s another convoy following behind.”
“Identification?” “Visibility’s gone to shit.”
“More Johnny bloody Jihadis. One stone, two birds, I’d count that as a good day in the Box. Now take the strike,” Flynt said.
Bobbie wiped the sweat from her brow. “You don’t have all the intel. Creech thinks we have friendlies tailing the convoy.”
“Christ!” Flynt said, flinging the document onto the desk. “Make comms contact, find out who they are and what the fucking high-hell they’re doing in our strike zone.”
“Negative. US Forces planted signal blockers along the route.”
“Oh, it just gets better and better,” Flynt said, leaning over Bobbie’s shoulder. “Dawson, how close are they?”
He surveyed the bank of monitors. “Less than two kilometres, but the HVT’s decreasing speed because of the storm.”
“What’s the blast radius of the Hellfire, Dawson?”
“Fifteen-metre kill radius. Wounding radius twenty metres.” Flynt slapped the back of Dawson’s chair. “Then we strike.
They’ll see the fireworks but they’re clear of the kill radius If they’re friendlies they can assist with the battle damage assessment, if not, we’ll send them the other Hellfire with our compliments.”
Sweat oozed from Bobbie’s palms as she tightened her grip and dragged her index finger hesitantly along the trigger.
“Matthews, do I have to jump in that seat myself?”
“No, sir!” she said, shaking her head as if she were dislodging the fragments of doubts lodged in there.
Flynt leant close, his mouth inches from Bobbie’s ear. “You said you weren’t the sentimental type,” he said. “Prove it.”
Rebelling against everything her body and mind seemed to be telegraphing, she drew back the trigger.
“Three… two… one.”
Bobbie’s eyes were focused tight on the monitors as the missile sliced eﬀortlessly through the clouds towards its target.
“Rifle, rifle. Hellfire has left the rails,” she confirmed.
Silence fell over the Box, all eyes focused on the centre monitor as the ground approached at supersonic speed.
“Contact in ten,” Dawson said. “Nine, eight, seven.”
Fine. It was all going to be fine. Just another day in the Box, Bobbie mouthed silently.
“Three, two, one…”
The missile ploughed into the heart of the convoy just as the rolling dirt cloud of the sandstorm did the same. A momentary flash of bright white saturated the screens. Bobbie sighed with relief as the trailing convoy came to a stop. Whoever they were, they were safe.
She was about to drop the Reaper to conduct a routine battle damage assessment when the screen seemed to implode in a bleach-white flash. The staﬀ reeled back, as if they could feel the blast from the secondary explosion sear their faces.
It seemed to take an eternity for the screen to clear. When it finally did, Bobbie blinked several times to allow the scene to sink in. Below them, a tangle of metal was strewn across the ground. Smoke drifted in thick, black billows, the desert black and scorched as if a huge blow torch had been taken to the earth.
“BDA, now!” Flynt barked.
As the camera swooped over the wreckage, the collateral damage was undeniable. Spirals of metal tossed in every direction; human limbs scattered across the road like discarded doll parts. Battle damage assessment: it was the worst part of the job for a Reaper pilot. Maybe the Reaper drone was named for that very reason; you were required to reap what you sowed.
“What the bloody hell just happened?” Flynt said. “There’s no way our missile caused that cluster fuck.”
A solemn shaking of heads was followed by silence as the camera conducted a secondary recon over the devastation.
“We must have hit the second convoy,” Dawson said.
“No. Can’t have, we didn’t have the firepower,” Flynt said.
Dawson directed the cameras high to scour the scene; an apocalypse broadcast in 1080p high definition.
Bobbie sat bolt upright. “Zoom in, there,” she said, gesturing to the lower third of the screen.
Dawson focused on a truck door flung several metres from the road, smoke rising from the steel. The camera lingered over a dust-baked cartoon image painted on the side of the door. “Road Runner? Someone’s got a sick sense of humour,” he said.
A cold slab of stone settled in Bobbie’s stomach – the aftershock from the feeling of dread that had overcome her an hour earlier.
“Matthews?” Dawson said, noticing her thousand-yard stare. Bobbie’s words scraped dry over her throat. “It’s Danvir–” she said, her voice barely a cracked whisper. “Danvir’s regiment.”
Dawson glanced at the 6x4 photograph taped to the hard drive closest to Bobbie. “Shit,” he said, looking over the snapshot: Six uniformed oﬃcers assigned to the RAF Medical Services Branch kneeling by a truck with a Road Runner cartoon painted onto the door.
“You don’t even know–”
“A wife knows,” she interrupted. She stared down at the joystick; it was slick with sweat. She wanted to wrench it from its foundations, crush it until it was nothing but dust.
“Was he even–” Dawson began.
“Trust me,” she said, standing, though her legs felt as if they might betray her at any moment. She pushed away her chair and walked towards the station door.
“Matthews!” Flynt said. “You require your commanding oﬃcer’s permission to leave this station.”
Bobbie wasn’t listening. His voice was background noise as she shut the steel door behind her.
She walked to her car, steadied herself, then bent over, hands on knees, and retched. Raising her head, she looked over to the ground control station and wondered if maybe it had all been a bad dream, a nightmare she would soon wake from.
The tears pooling in her eyes and the blackness gathering deep inside her told her otherwise. A wife knew. A wife always knew.