A Choir of Crickets
Make it stop, I thought. Please make it stop. But that made no difference.
Content warning: violence.
Like any other evening, I took the vanpool to Creech Air Force Base with eight other airmen from my squadron. It pissed me off because it was the second night in a row that the driver chose to put on country music. Forty-five minutes of listening to some asshole, who has probably never driven a tractor in his life, singing about drunken off-roading and girls in ripped flannels. All while strumming a banjo.
The desolate base was plagued by screaming crickets. When we arrived, I walked into the break room to grab a cup of cheap Folgers coffee. A whiff of jalapeno popcorn from the molded Cuisinart cleared my sinuses. The coffee was terrible as always, but you don’t have enough cognitive energy to be critical about taste when you’re working from midnight to 8AM. Plus the caffeine did its job.
I walked outside and entered the dark cockpit trailer. The lights from ten different display screens hovering in the lonesome black box made my eyes flicker. Even inside, I could still hear the muffled scream of the crickets.
The copilot I was relieving had his chair leaned all the way back.
“What are we looking at here?” I asked him as my eyes adjusted.
He stabbed his index finger against the screen so hard that the tip turned white. His crosshairs were covering a three-story mansion in Miramshah, Pakistan. “That.”
He stood up and I sat down. Next to me, my pilot conducted her changeout as well. We were tasked with surveilling a ‘Person of Interest,’ although the boss didn’t tell us much about him or why he was important. Like any other shift, we focused on the POI’s house and watched him go outside in his backyard to take his occasional shit. I kept the camera on infrared because his backyard was masked by the shadow of his mansion.
“How’s the divorce coming along?” I asked my co-pilot.
“We’re still living together. Still having sex. The only people more confused than me about the situation are the kids.” The dark circles under her eyes weren’t just from the night shifts.
“Well, maybe we’ll see something exciting tonight. Take your mind off it. Maybe we’ll see a shootout or a raid.”
“I won’t hold my breath,” she yawned.
Staring at the infrared camera feed for too long played tricks on my brain. Sometimes I dozed off, and when I woke back up, the buildings looked like they were upside down. Attempting to put the buildings back in place, I was momentarily delayed by the ringing of the crickets. The POI stepped out from the shadows towards his driveway. I switched to a normal camera source to ID him. He wore a red headdress and a white robe, and walked through the dirt with a slight limp.
From 22,000ft above, people just look like hollow figures of themselves.
He entered his car and drove off. His white sedan was hard to follow; everyone in Miramshah drove one. He left the city and entered a dirt road, veering off into the middle of the desert. He stopped fifteen miles outside the city and waited for about two hours. I was able to get a quick piss break before three more white sedans arrived.
We lowered to 16,000ft for better quality of detail and watched ten individuals exit their respective vehicles. It was a miracle they didn’t notice us loitering above them, a big chunk of plastic flying over their heads. Three of them were dressed like the POI. The other six had on tan khakis, blue t-shirts, and were carrying AK-47s. The last person was a little girl who could not have been older than ten years old. Beneath her black hair and light red hijab, the girl’s head kept moving left and right, as though she were confused.
One of the armed acolytes was setting up a long camera tripod. After he was done, the men formed a straight-line, standing side by side with the POI. The girl stood right in front of them. The POI took out a small knife, showed it to the camera as if he was trying to sell it, and instead turned around and used it on the girl.
My pilot looked down towards the floor. The dark walls of the cockpit caved in on us with the only light emanating from the pixeled execution. I watched the girl’s mouth open in a scream, but all I could hear was the choir of crickets swarming the cockpit. Make it stop, I thought. Please make it stop. But that made no difference. From the hovering chunk of plastic, I couldn’t stop any of it.
As the sun went down in Mariamshah, I switched the camera to infrared. The girl’s body turned white and grey as she laid in a pool of black.
“Are you alright?” I asked my pilot. Staring back at the screen, she was unresponsive, emotionless. I could no longer feel my grip on the joystick as I joined her in despair.
My changeout arrived.
“What am I looking at tonight?” he asked.
I stabbed my finger against the pool of black displayed on the screen. “Her.”
I exited the cockpit. The crickets were louder now. I gathered my things with hollowed hands and made my way to the vanpool. On the way home, the driver played country music again.
✽ ✽ ✽
Sam Nahins served in the United States Air Force from 2011 to 2017 as an unmanned sensor operator having flown 3,000 combat hours in the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper. Currently, he is an undergraduate at Columbia University majoring in Creative Writing.