Internal dilemma, moral conflict, belief and principals over duty and desire.
The quiet and the darkness surround me. I’m sure someone, somewhere, existing in a neat cubical, processing souls into faceless numbers, Their biggest fear being an overspend on wages, a dressing down from a suit who isn’t even aware of my existence. Are They even aware of what those pennies are achieving? Are They counting the cost against each soul taken, stolen, burnt?
I’m early; overtime will be paid, performance trackers will turn green - it makes me sick to think that someone can earn so much for taking away so much, by doing so little. But the World still turns right? A table still needs food and a roof above it. Nothing is free. Yeah, that’s how we justify it. Just a job right? If only.
I should be concentrating on plans, times, headings. Everything is riding on today, the final assault. If we get this right we bring to an end years of conflict. But for how long? We will be billed as heroes, but at what cost? I’m not even sure who benefits from this.
They’ll be the same people cheering us in just a matter of hours. Two faces, two beating hearts. I crave anonymity, I don’t want Their cheers, Their appreciation, my guilt. How can They possibly thank us for what we are about to do? How can They drag the words from Their mouths knowing the cost of our actions. They’re removed from the horror, the finality of what we achieve.
A door bursts open, momentarily flooding the small room with light. The dull murmur of voices wafts in, briefly bringing me back to the reality I’d give anything to avoid today.
She jumps, suddenly aware that I’m here, her hand hovering by the light switch uncertainly. “You to, huh?”.
She doesn’t need to say any more we both see it in each other’s eyes, feel it in the atmosphere. She drops her hand as she makes her way to her locker. There’s enough light to gather her things, dripping in from the small windows, just below the ceiling. It’s just us two, They at least know that much, to allow us to stay separated from the cocksure young fly boys, devoid of repercussion, only caring where their next kill comes from.
Next kill! The joke is only half of them have seen the inside of a cockpit. Half over have actually taken to the skies, none of Them have taken aim in anger. It’s still a game for Them and yeah, I’m jealous of that. It may as well be the World’s most expensive console game to Them, heroes not executioners.
She is pulling on her gear, I should do the same. It’s no shirt and tie, but it’s still a straight forward enough task, at least, every other day it is. Today it feels like every buckle weighs a ton, my fingers fat and lifeless, unable to process the task at hand. Or simply unwilling. I close the door to my locker. I don’t want to catch my reflection in the mirror. I can’t tell if I’ll like what I see. The pride I felt when I first donned this fierce attire is temporarily misplaced, today it’s fear and the heavy weight of certainty.
Nothing left to do but wait. We sit, surrounded by quiet and darkness. A brief glance, I can’t tell if that’s fear, hatred or excitement in her eyes. I’d like to believe she suffers as I do. Truth is, we made a pact not to discuss anything more than the bare bones. For months we have trained, grafted and drilled for the task now at hand. Endless simulations and briefings removed the pain of the aftermath of our mission. Our numbers whittled down with each test flight, each psych evaluation, each seemingly endless list of numbers and equations until now, in the front glow of a dawning day, the two of us remain.
A tinny voice breaks the silence and thrusts me back into the World. A set of numbers, time, crew, hanger - just noise to anyone else but to me, at least, almost a sentence.
Her eyes meet mine. It’s time. “We’ve got this”.
I step aside to allow her to the doorway first. Through the barracks, now cleared of people. Security dictates that the only people we’ll see now are the most essential of ground crew. Almost as if we are pariahs, exiled to the icy cold blue above.
As we exit onto the tarmac, the morning chill hits me. As we round the corner, the first light of day reflects off of my visor. It holds no warmth, no comfort. Like the last glint of a fading hope.
The enormity of the hanger doors never fails to bring into perspective how small a part of this World I am. As they painfully creak open, each scrape of metal on metal tears at my soul. It seems even this beast of concrete and steel is loathed to unleash the fury it holds inside. But there, bathed in a bright, red glow, emerges our chariot, like a hallowed steed emerging from some hell bound crusade. The striking lines of her hull, the glinting of the glass. She stands tall and proud, She knows neither shame or fear or contempt. She is our shield from damnation, our cloak from judgement. The tool of our grim deliverance.
Each step up draws on my wavering strength. This is it, there’s no way back now. The only consolation is the near mother like hold of the quiet and the darkness inside the cabin. Though this but a temporary relief.
Our gear is stowed, our seats taken. I can’t tell if it’s the security or the restraint that I feel with each click of the harness, as it closes around me, gripping me to my throne of destruction. The next time I stand, will I be able to live with myself?
The banality of the pre flight checks relieve some of the tension. I allow myself to be lost in the unfeeling procedures that dull my mind of thought. Routine takes over and I drift away in the endless lists and checks that slowly bring our vessel to life. With each step comes a new sound, a fresh spark of light that triggers thoughts and reactions and distances me from my worries. Finally, with a small click, the mighty engines roar into life and our mighty Beast breathes again. Her life-blood coursing through her innards and igniting into furious flame and heat.
For the briefest of moments, my imagination pulls forth the screaming faces of the women and children, mortally scorched by that fire...
A voice intrudes into my conscious, we are given clearance. I gently feather the throttle and our steed lurches forward, softly, emerging from the hanger and into the blood red dawn light. The sun has broken the horizon and challenges us for the race to the sky. Ever so slowly, the light spills over, setting ablaze the world before us. A slight warmth touches my skin through my flight suit and I feel the briefest connection time the world again.
Slowly, we taxi towards our runway, the power driving us on muted, restrained. The subtle bumps of the tarmac beneath our wheels are the last corporeal interactions of a planet unaware of what lies ahead. Slowly, I turn the nose towards the runway, as we come to a stop, Destiny seemingly halted as we await our final clearance.
Again, that Voice, so minute, so inconsequential and distant, rings through my head and the last barrier to our fate is removed. I take the controls firmly, pulling the throttle. She catches my eyes briefly, the tranquility of her smile spurring me on. The roar of the engines and the power of the thrust as we bolt forward, building speed at a staggering rate the world becomes a blur or fiery red and orange and disappears as the ascent to the heavens begins.
As the wheels leave the ground, the tether to our worldly selves is broken. Detached from the World below, unseen and unheard. In minutes we arrive at our cruising altitude, seemingly skimming the barrier between Earth and Soace. The World we know has been reduced to inconsequential size, marred by the occasional white-gold whisp of cloud.
Checks are completed and the auto pilot is engaged. She gives me the thumbs up and now we are back to waiting. We stare through the glass that protects us from the freezing atmosphere. Now the weight of the mission has given way to the awe of the sky. We are thousands of feet away from the nearest person. Not even a distant airliner interrupts our view. This part never grows old, the fascination with our ethereal surroundings comes fresh with every flight. The carpet of screen below us spreads far and wide, the specks of life clustered here and there, now to small to be more than an indeterminate smudge of grey.
A small correction on the yoke and we turn towards our heading. The green eventually gives way to the deepest and most awe inspiring field of sapphire and diamond, the strengthening morning light glinting on the peaks of the waves as they permeate the deep blue sea. Even from up here, the might of the vast ocean is still apparent, our lofty heights doing nothing to diminish the vastness of the ocean below.
The first leg of our journey is a simple, uneventful one. We continue on our course, nothing but minor corrections and the spectacle of our surrounds to break up the onward journey, burning out our fuel as we press onwards.
Time passes, She chats idly about family and the day to day. We talk of the chores that await us when we return to Earth. For now, life is still simple. We live, we work. Just ordinary people soon to face an extraordinary task.
A warning light sparks into life and alerts us to the approaching sky tanker. The first contact with the outside world since our departure from terra firma springs from the headset. A cheerful voice, friendly without judgement, for they knew not our task.
She manoeuvres us in behind the tanker, aligning our bird with the approaching attachment. Connection is made and we take on vital fuel. After a brief wait, we disconnect, thank and bid farewell to the voice from the tanker. If all goes to plan, that was our last contact with the outside world until...
From here on in, the silence hangs heavy between us. Not long now until our final approach on an unknowing target. We don’t look at each other, we don’t need to. We are a finely honed team, two implements operating as one.
Inside, the pressure is mounting. I can’t help but recall cheesey CGI graphics of fire engulfing the pained faces from films I’ve seen. It was nothing but entertainment then, almost laughable at how badly composed the scenes were. But now - now I know it won’t be computer effects. It won’t be forced acting and make believe sweat. Now I reap the souls of thousands, millions and for what? Some dirty liquid that has lain undiscovered for thousands of years? For the cowardice and misplaced ego of impotent old entitled men, far from the site of the destruction they order me to unleash? Far from the screams, the devastation. Removed from the stains on the soul, the torment I must feel, I must suffer for all eternity, not even coming close to atonement for this ultimate sin. Is there even any absolution for me? Forgiveness seems a long withdrawn concept for someone committing the atrocity that I’m about to commit.
“We’re nearing drop site”. The words tear through me, inspiring a finality I’ve never before felt. Am I really about to do this? Can I unleash a burning fire upon an unknowing civilisation? Scorching the very atmosphere, releasing a power even the most depraved inhabitants of hell would look upon with fear and admiration.
We make our final turn. Drone through the preparations. I flick a switch and somewhere behind us, the bump and low whine of the bay doors opening reaches through the cockpit.
Now just seconds to go.
We descend slightly, I was praying for a heavy cloud cover to relieve me of the sight of the world we were about to end. But fitting that such a beautiful day should allow me the punishment of facing my actions. Thankfully we were still too high to see people. I pictured the cars creeping along the far away roadways as parts of a machine, cigs turning in a soulless creation.
It didn’t help.
“Target in 5, 4, 3”...
Millions are counting on us, yet millions are blissfully unaware that their brief spark of existence is about to be wiped out. Can I really do this?
Every fibre of my soul is screaming to abort, to grab the yoke and send us home. Failures, abandoning duty in the face of personal fear. I wouldn’t care. I’d face the shame, I’d look my children in the eye knowing that I took the better path. I realise I’ve yet to take a breath, sweat pouring down my back, my heart seemingly slowing to the point of death, each beat thundering through my chest.
“1. Release payload”.
I didn’t even think. The countless repetitions of this scenario, safely locked away in a simulator, devoid of feeling, of consequence, have now taken over. I pulled a trigger. A quiet click. A slight shudder. She pulled on the yoke and our magnificent angel swung wide and swooped into the sky, taking us away from the travesty, the devastation we had just let fly.
It seemed like a lifetime. As if time had frozen. I wish it had. Anything to echo state me from the... the... is that exhilaration I feel? Is that a feint glimmer of excitement, of anticipation? A wave of nausea passes over me. I clench my stomach to try and avoid spilling it’s contents. Did I really just feel that feeling of almost, pleasure? Power? I grab a bag as yet another wave rips through my being. I deserve this. I deserve to empty the bike from me. To pour forth the evil of human kind. My body gives in and draws a deep breath, the stench of what I’ve done invading my lungs, as suddenly the brightest light swallows all of existence. For what seems like eternity, the present is gone. I hope maybe I have been brought before my judge, wrath and damnation the last things for my burnt soul to endure. An eternity of pain to atone for the lives I have taken.
The light fades, the cockpit steadies. I’m alive but it m numb. I daren’t breathe, I daren’t move.
I glance across at Her. A tear falls from her eye, yet she says nothing. She doesn’t have to.
I reach for my harness, releasing it. It does nothing for the overwhelming pressure against my chest.
I picture the face of my daughter. Innocent, free of the evils of mankind. Unstained by the cruelties of the world. One day she will have to know. One day I’ll have to tell her.
My hand drops to my side. She sees. A look of fear spreads across her face.
As my hand brushes over the handle, I wonder, haven’t I taken enough today? Am I to destroy two more lives?
She desperately tries to reach me, still grasped by her own harness.
I look down. The letters stare back at me. E J E C T. She doesn’t deserve this. But maybe She feels the suffering and turmoil I do? Perhaps it’ll be a release for Her.
I take another look, the sky now scorched, the wave of destruction spreading out ahead of us along the ground.
My hand tightens...