Drone Wars

Jim turned down the alley towing his dog when the machine buzz-sawed out of the sky. Jim’s legs concreted. The beast spun four blades in clover formation, package dangling from stomach jaws. A red eye blinked.

The package and machine beelined Jim’s face. Adrenaline bade Jim duck while he raised an arm. The box struck Jim’s elbow harder than he would have imagined and careened off. The machine bobbed like a dingy, recovering, and hoisted its package down the street.

Jim squatted in the gravel, controlling himself through the breathing techniques his nurse-husband, Phong, had taught him. He keeled over, hugged his knees, Shih Tzu Marx stand-ing by, head askew. Jim’s already pale skin bleached. The oak branches had been low, that’s the problem. The flying machine couldn’t pass over, so it had gone under. A mistake, a simple haz-ardous encounter. A few deep breaths and life would go on.

As he stood, he heard the mechanical trickle as the beast wound out of the neighbor-hood. The leaves swirled around Jim in a tornado of Ohio fall. His lithe frame, wrapped in sweats and headband, felt a cold wind like the touch of metal.

It was a decent existence, in this industrialized university town, on the banks of a river that had once caught fire. Jim crunched bank accounts, and Phong labored as a surgical tech, spending most odd hours marathon training. They had jobs, were talking about children, or, rather, Phong was: scouring adoption sites. Jim worried how their family would function. It had taken him much to realize his current life after the claustrophobia of Tulsa. To rise above the expectation of lifelong misery.

Jim commuted. Tuesday, wheeling to work, Buddy Holly glasses and his Navy blazer, one of five he owned, adorned like battle gear, fountain pen standing attention in left pocket. He was the bank greeter who accosted customers in two languages, his teaching in Venezuela paying dividends.

He had his travel mug hanging by a thumb on the steering hand and was going to pop a quick text when a helicopter dropped from the sky. Jim pumped the brakes, coffee rocketing to the dashboard and exploding across the windshield. The drone seemed to swivel and mock him with its red beacon. Jim leaned back and hyperventilated.

Which was how he had felt the first time Phong mentioned a baby. The din of squeals filling his imagination at odd hours, picturing another consciousness besides his that he was responsible for (even Marx had been a leap).

They lived in a better place than where Jim had been reared, the strangulation of Tulsa pre-modernity. Better than Phong’s atheist but somehow weirdly controlling parents in Atlanta. They’d met at an East Coast university den. Falling in love and living with Phong more exer-cise than Jim had had in his life. His body felt dynamic, not panic-attacked at confrontations. Phong’s nursing-fueled advice on controlling attacks was life-altering; now Jim was finally able to interview, walk into managers’ offices.

Their life had meaning, the pinnacle of what they’d escaped, the trial to keep together, to not let anything invade their sanctuary. Why let anything in?

The third time a metal beast surprised him, Jim was forced to change out of another cof-fee-stained shirt. The drone sped by with a morning package, and Jim wondered if his life were under attack. If he could be assaulted by levitating henchmen of corporate America, what next? Jim had survived Oklahoma Bible-tapping bullshitters, the accusing looks of customers when they saw Phong’s picture on his desk. Now, these new beings raiding out of the sky?

“You just have to watch where you’re going,” Phong said, dicing kale for a post-run smoothie. Phong was never one to let worry grab the upper hand.

“I can’t help it. Those things terrify me,” Jim said, pointing at his throat, which had constricted.

“There ought to be a law against these things," Phong said, firing up the blender.

“There was a law,” Jim muttered. “They killed it. They wanted to please Amer-icans with detergent and cleavage on their doorstep.”

Phong laughed at the outburst. Sipped the blender’s results, marked the calendar. His phone beeped with a message from a parenting service.

Even when talking, Phong was elsewhere, disrupting their binary unit.

The neighborhood was the most sparkling Jim had ever lived in. Each lawn verdant, un-dust-strewn. People parked Audis, walked dogs at night. And they ordered packages all day.

At first, it wasn’t premeditated. Jim was emptying Marx when a drone hummed. They do actually “drone,” Jim thought. With their relentless noise, they were like lawnmowers taking to the air, trimming the joy off of his life.

He palmed a smooth rock from an ornamental garden and chucked it at the blades. Jim must have bullseyed a vulnerable organ because the machine sputtered and coasted to the side-walk, dropping the package about three feet off the ground. The box crashed with a broke-glass tinkle. The drone died on the lawn of a 66-year-old man who owned a terrier.

Jim cocktail-mixed with euphoria. He then remembered the eye. Had it recognized him? He left Marx tied to a fence and covered his face with a warmup sleeve. One of the machine’s blades was spinning wildly, two were dead and one twirled as if it had nothing to do. The red eye swiveled, and just before it made contact, Jim smashed it with his shoe.

He had to remember the company would hunt their machine’s killer. Had the red eye captured a line of sight? Jim waited for cops to arrive at his home. In the meantime, he stopped checking adoption pages. Phong kept him updated. Jim nodded along, trying to let his lungs set-tle.

The drones were industrial-grade and worth about $1,500, he estimated. His neighbor-hood did a few hundred dollars weekly in shipped goods. Other costs calculated in, Jim figured if he malfunctioned two drones a month, it would stop being economical for the Everything Store to keep harassing. If they had insurance on the drones, their rates should skyrocket. The federal Post Office couldn’t investigate since this was private shipping.

Numbers comforted Jim. Numbers didn’t pick on him or cry for anything. They simply were, like some distant sun you could marvel at from afar or examine with a fine instrument. They never invaded your home unless you let that happen.

Drones, Jim knew, weren’t mere machines. They were extensions, the fingers of corpo-rate Scrooge. And he’d had enough of bullies. He’d vanquished his classmates by growing me-dium-rich. His family by marrying and never visiting. Oklahoma by never going back. There was no room for ham-fisted antagonists in the life Jim had forged. No place left for any aggres-sor.

He savored the electric thrill that whipped through him when he rock-smashed the sec-ond drone. There was something Cro-Magnon about destroying a flying machine with a stone, an ironic revenge story. Jim felt he was protecting the neighborhood from its evolution.

Months later, Phong and Jim again arguing. How to raise a child in this world of flying instruments hair-clipping citizens, Phong wanted the baby, and Jim thought they weren’t ready, not with the neighborhood under attack.

There was part of Jim, he recognized, that saw the baby as The End. Not just to his life but to their relationship. The Sunday morning brunches. The Korean bakery and espresso. Pop-corn at the movies. Movies. But Phong was Jim’s world, and it was either a baby or separation, an impossible choice air-dropped into his life.

He was smothered with contraptions that delivered cardboard and toothpaste and best-sellers and knee braces and laundry detergent, a stork that delivered only the lifeless. Machines that thundered down the streets like Black Hawks. A suburban occupation.

The machines followed a route: a leaf-lined thoroughfare boarded by fences and syca-mores. This road fed the neighborhood like an artery. The metal bugs followed the street, never flying over houses. Jim wore a Goodwill jacket, black-striped crimson and grey, a balaclava, and driving gloves. He carried a brick from the decaying fence of his house’s west side. Ten minutes surfing his phone, hidden behind a spruce, and he heard the dreadful whining. A hun-dred cicadas in a barrel.

Now it excited him, adrenaline-churning. He noticed the absence of traffic and stepped out, lofting the brick up at the machine overhand as it floated by. A miss; the brick broke in half on landing. The machine floated unfazed around a corner, suspending a toaster-sized pack-age.

Jim hadn’t expected to fail so feebly, and he wondered if he should flee. Sweat broke over him. The whining was distant and then more distant, faint. Then it grew louder, the engine returning. He picked up both pieces of brick and stood in the road. No cars. Just masked Jim and his enemy. The invader which rounded a house and faced Jim down. Jim sensed the ma-chine’s tiny motor revving, stirring up curtains of street debris.

Jim crouched, ready with the right hand. As the drone neared, the machine tilted down-ward, blades showing in murderous, eye-straining revolutions. As the aircraft hovered above, Jim lofted the brick half, granny-shooting. The red clay rose up and connected with the spin-ning wheel of the creature’s right paw.

The machine swung into a tailspin. It careened and crashed into a square of sidewalk. Jim bounced over to the winged instrument and let himself have the satisfaction of crushing the red eye camera with the heel of his army boot, the light dying beneath him. But right before he did, Jim thought he detected a crackle emanate from the beast, something that sounded a lot like “Please, stop.”

He told Phong. Chilled Sam Adams in hand.

Phong smiled, then stared at him. He was drinking rum, phone kindled in hand. Phong realized Jim wasn’t kidding, and his eyes Goliathed out of his skull. “You’re going to risk our lives because of some stupid machines?”

Jim tried to justify: it was the intrusion.

“So are you going to shoot planes out of the sky now? Helicopters?”

Phong lay a hand on the table, stroking the fake, striped vinyl, eyes watering. Jim was not good with upset Phong. Phong was the stable, stoney-center. And when he wasn’t, Jim would elevate his tone to match. “How can we have a kid in a world where flying machines whip through the suburbs?”

Phong's mouth hung open. “This isn’t about the kid. This is about your lack of sanity.”

“Why, because I want to defend my home?”

The fight fell downhill. Jim slept on an air mattress.

Clearing his skull a few days later, Jim strolled, guzzling from a squeeze water bottle. The night was crisp, the sensation in the air like the precipice of snow.

Jim traced the ark of a hovercraft as it angled towards his home. His chest iced when the drone floated to the foyer. There rested the welcome mat he himself had purchased. And the potted plant he never remembered to water. And he watched a man, one he’d known and loved, greet the machine as stomach jaws released their bounty.

Jim walked up. “You. Let that thing. Come here.” His hand squeezed and un-squeezed around the water bottle like an erratic heartbeat.

Phong stammered, “I-I ordered some toothpaste. I didn’t know they’d send it this way.”

“Did you request same-day shipping?”

Phong’s face crimsoned. “I thought they would send it some other way. The mail?”

Jim turned to leave the room. “Who the fuck uses the mail?”

The hum of distant highway traffic. The crunching brakes. Predatory sirens. The city had never seemed so alive, like a squealing, howling rain forest. Real jungles, Jim knew, breathed and nourished many lifeforms. And in Darwinian survival, the prey learned to out-smart or out-combat the predators that clawed their way close.

A backpack of bricks tonight. He’d scouted the neighborhood months ago when he be-gan targeting drones, knew he wasn’t going to encounter neighbors this late, just as he hadn’t the previous three nights. The dark was easier to slip into, and though the machines less com-mon, they always came, chasing late-night clicks.

He caught scent of a roaring flittering through the neighborhood. A rumble. He set his bag down and unzipped a brick. Blades fanned around a corner. One fan, then another. Four, six, dozens.

A drone, as long as a van, sixteen motors a side. A box the shape of a coffin suspended. A fly-ing fortress of machine and packaging buzzing down the street. Stupefying awe shot through Jim as he laughed at the sight like that of a parade balloon. Somebody must have ordered a Christmas tree, too lazy for even this once-in-a-year shopping. He thrilled at the cost the com-pany must have taken on creating this behemoth, maybe the only of its kind.

The mothership, he realized.

His first brick shattered a motor on its right. The monstrous, mechanical eye swiveled from its perch near the front of the beast and targeted him, Jim readied another brick. While he was reaching into his back, the coffin-box dropped from the drone with a snowy crash. When it hit the street, the lid sprung open.

A hive exploded from the cardboard, creatures emerging. The egg sack hatching. They rose, serpentinely, twelve glittery eyes scanning his direction. Motor whines careened off the houses and assaulted Jim with sound. He was goop for a moment, the army rising from the ground, tornados of dust funneling from the package.

He fisted his backpack strap and sprinted away. The camera-guided raptors followed. His escape was backyards. He knew they couldn’t hover over property. He glanced back, notic-ing that six drones had broken off pursuit, floating up the road. He held a brick in his hand and threw it at the first drone approaching. The brick shattered the drone’s eye, the beast crashing to a yard.

Jim could almost feel the fan blades on his collar as he vaulted a fence. The yard was well-mowed, house lights dark. Many neighbors didn’t seem to live in their homes, using them for a season, or owning them inexplicably to own them, leaving only a shell, like a memory of a life that once had been.

He kicked over a yard chimney and went sprawling in the grass. A beam cut across his face. A drone flashlight-searched him, blinded him. He skidded across the yard and vaulted a second fence, now in an alley. A machine, accompanied by four others, rose and followed. He sprinted past dumpsters and broken trees, knowing the police could be moments away. Ahead came another awful whirl and daggering crimson eye. He kicked up alley sand as he bolted away. Yet slicing towards him from the alley’s other direction was another sky beast, followed by two more.

In a micro-second’s time, Jim was flooded with too many emotions for him to make sense of. Later, he would pick apart the sensations, the general cauldron of panic, the fear he would become a media pariah. And resting in the back, a tiny mumble of relief because he would never again have the child conversation with Phong, though this would indeed end all conversations.

Jim climbed another fence. Inside the yard was a snarling husky and a drone hovering fifteen just outside the fence. The drone confused the dog, so it only made a quick nip at Jim’s calf, needling him with fangs, before turning to roar at the machine and its light.

Jim lifted himself into another property, his arms, chest already burning. Was there a way to escape each little beast? There stood a pile of corded wood, leading to the house’s roof. He scrambled the steeply pitched shingles, and unshouldered his backpack, retrieving a brick.

“Hey!” he called to the drone nearest and launched a brick but missed. “Damn you for invading my life,” he said. Another brick for another drone. This one connected, shorted out, the instrument gliding to the ground.

“My life was great!” The drones were circling, in the alley, and in the street, including the mega-drone, the one with 32, now 31 motors. He heaved bricks towards them all. Prehistor-ic stones lofting into the bright moon only to crash down like failed shuttle launches.

“I worked so hard,” he screamed. The big drone approached; behind the titanic whirl of its gyres, Jim could hear sirens too, and a screech of tires. “Stop this,” a radio from the giant drone crackled. “Stop harming our drones.”

Jim paused mid-throw, staring at the giant drone’s swiveling eye. The voice had been human, a young man’s voice filled with concern. “The police are on their way,” the voice con-tinued.

The man was likely squatting miles away, blubbering into a mic. “We’re doing you a service,” the voice said. Jim could detect the soft, parental concern in the tremors, for Jim hav-ing harmed his mechanical children.

Jim paused, but only briefly. Out of bricks, he descended shingles for the wood. Jim climbed back up the roof with an armful of logs that he set across the chimney. He chucked them at the megadrone, shorting out two more motors.

“Stop this!” The voice pleaded. “We only bring people what they ask for. You asked for this!”

“Nobody actually wants anything that falls from the sky!” Jim yelled back. He threw more wood at the creature. And as a police cruiser screeched around the corner, Jim launched himself with the biggest log between his two hands, stabbing downward at the mothership, the wood smashing the machine’s midsection, the blades rising to meet Jim, spinning like waves within the womb-like-crush of a great sea.  

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