Paris burned the day my heart stopped beating. It was the first terrorist attack on the country since the nano virus invaded, spreading its creeping horror over the cities and farmlands of France. My parents and I, like so many other casualties, found ourselves caught in the middle.
We felt immune. I felt immune. Growing up in hot zones around the world numbed and protected me from death in the way a seasoned soldier might feel exempt from bullets or bombs after a few successful tours. But death found us that day.
It started with chocolate. Or the pretense of chocolate. I used the pretense of a trip to a chocolaterie to escape the military installation we called home. The military installation was in support of the medical base, erected solely to treat those who were in the later stages of succumbing to the nano virus. Overall, a pretty miserable scene for any 15 year old. The dessert rations had been entirely depleted since we were nearing the end of our six month tour of France, so I had an opportunity to exploit my father’s fondness for chocolate. I could escape the base without my motivations being suspect.
My father, Gustavo Garza, or “G” to his small stock of friends and family, always kept a chocolate bar hidden somewhere on his person or close at hand. When he worked in the hot labs he kept a little quarantine container with a dark chocolate sea salt caramel bar wrapped in fancy packaging on the counter in eye-sight from where he worked. He wouldn’t take that particular bar with him when he left, instead it remained behind in the hot labs, wherever on the globe the medical base was erected - a symbol of beauty and defiance, nested amongst the deadliest mortal enemies on the planet. A virus truly is the perfect enemy. It doesn’t choose sides. A virus, like a machine, does only as instructed. It writes out the history of its genetic code and only wants one thing, to live. To fulfill its purpose. To kill as efficiently and effectively as possible.
My father was a man of good taste and bad choices.
Both of those things got him killed.
I had finished up school for that day, and headed back to our shared single room. I was relieved to be done with the daily french lessons from an indignant teacher who berated me for not trying hard enough to learn the local language. The rest of my education consisted of computer courses I worked at my own pace, most of which were taught by proxy robots, not actual humans.
The door to our room was ajar and my mother was perched on the chair at our anemic folding table. She was always sitting on the very edge of things, as if afraid to commit her entire body to one thing. This left her agile and able to immediately pivot from one task to the next. She was like a small, dark hummingbird. Studying, observing, manipulating, consuming, creating, and then flitting off to the next thing, her wings beating at a pace too fast for the human eye to discern.
She watched me enter the room out of the corner of her eye, where she always held me lately. Too distrusted and disgraced to keep me fully in her view. She set down the tablet she was tapping on and rose quickly out of the chair. It barely moved and barely made a noise, the legs scraping softly across the hard concrete floor.
“Finished already?” She asked, acknowledging me with a head tilt and then turning her body away, still keeping me in the corner of her vision. “We set up those French lessons for an hour.”
“What can I say, the French do not like me,” I shrug. “Actually - how do I say that in French? Les Français ne me plaisent pas?”
My mother, Julia Garza, let out a troubled sigh and ran a hand through her hair, brushing long, grown-out bangs from her face. Her eyes nervously flicked over to me and then back to the tablet. She reached down and clicked it off with an air of distracted finality.
“Actually, I think that’s pretty close. But not the point. You’re not trying here, Elle. After what happened in Mexico City, I thought, we thought- you need to try harder,” She still avoided direct eye contact and instead moved to perch ever-so-lightly on the lower section of our bunk bed, facing towards the blank wall above the single cabinet shelf that contained all our meager belongings. Her head hung down.
“It’s just a French lesson, Mom,” I replied, plopping down heavily in the chair in front of me. I surveyed the table’s contents with a scowl. A bowl of fruit about to spoil. My mother’s tablet and an empty coffee mug. A few chip crumbs dotting the table next to the mug.
“No, it’s not just a French lesson, Eleni. It’s everything. Every single thing we do now. They are watching and scrutinizing. It’s-” She crossed her arms and sighed heavily.
“I’m never going to learn the language,” I told her, setting my hands up on the table, letting the sleeve of my sweatshirt roll up and reveal the mark of my transgression - the band looped around my wrist. “French is not my thing. Languages are not my thing. Why is it so damn important I learn the local language? We aren’t staying here. We never stay anywhere.”
“You did OK in Mexico,” Mom said, turning her head slightly towards me.
“I had an incentive in Mexico,” I said, swallowing around the lump in throat. “What’s the point of learning French? How much longer are we going to be here, anyway?”
She shook her head and threw her hands up in the air, a gesture of futility.
“A few weeks, a month at the latest,” She said.
“So, again. What’s the point?” I shrugged. “Where are we going next? Do you even know? Is French going to help me there? Or ever?” I could feel my voice raising.
“What’s with all the shouting?” My father’s voice sounded from behind my back. I turned my head and saw his poking in through the door. Scruffy cheeks unshaven, pepper gray hair a little wild, glasses dangling almost off his nose.
“Mom hates me because I suck at French,” I responded, turning back to eye my mother. She was looking up at my father, past me. Through me. I was just a ghost, haunting them with my poor French skills.
“Que mal, mija,” He walked past and ruffled my hair, plopping himself on the bed next to my mother and putting an arm around her shoulders.
“I suck at Spanish too,” I retorted. “So now you probably hate me too.”
He chuckled and squeezed my mother’s arm gently. She leaned into him a bit.
“It’s never too late to learn,” He smiled over at me, but there was a guarded look in his eyes. “You could get better. You’re not half bad, really. When you apply yourself to something. You could do anything you want, Elle. Be anything you want.”
“I know. I’m not a bad kid,” I whispered to them across the expanse. Me, slouched at the flimsy table. Them, huddled together, bodies turned away from me. Turned in towards each other. “So stop hating me.”
In the space of less than a year I had become an interloper, a third wheel crammed into a small space with two people who treated me most days, like a stranger. Not their daughter.
It was exhausting and rapidly heading to a boiling point.
My father’s eyebrows shot up and my mother’s head fell just a fraction lower towards her chest. They thought I was a bad kid.
“No one hates you, Elle. No one thinks that,” My father responded quickly. Too quickly. A rehearsed line we’d practiced over and over again the last few months. “No one thinks you’re a bad kid.”
“Everyone thinks it. No one says it. That’s the difference,” I said, pushing away from the table. “I’m going out.”
“Where are you going?” My mother asked. I could feel her eyes hovering on me, but this time I was the one who avoided eye contact. “It’s not safe out there.”
“It’s not safe anywhere we go. I’m going to get some… chocolate,” I scowled down at the bowl of fruit on the table.
“Chocolate?” My father asked, sliding off the bed and walking towards me. “Well, that changes everything. Come on Julia, we can't say no to chocolate.”
He turned back towards her and she offered him a wavering thin smile in return. All that wordless communication that cut me off from them. It happened all the time. I hated it. I hated them for it. Back when I could, back when I had a choice to hate or not. When I had the luxury of being hated.
“You need some money, Ellie?” He asked, patting his pockets and continuing to bridge the gap between us. His impending proximity made me feel simultaneously panicked and elated.
I felt the sharp sting of tears in my eyes. He stopped right next to me, close enough to brush against my arm. So close I could feel the heat radiating through his hospital scrubs and lab coat. So close I could smell his cologne and deodorant and the very faint odor of the peppermints he sucked on instead of smoking cigarettes. It was hard for him here in Paris, there was temptation on every street corner. Everyone smoked.
“My little Ellie,” He reached out towards me, a crumpled twenty dollar bill clutched in his hand. I bit my lip, bit the tears back, and took the money.
“Who cares about the French lessons,” He said.
I looked up at him, eyes wet and shining. “You and mom care.”
“Nah. French is for suckers. Spanish is the real language of love. Don’t worry so much. That’s our job. Your job is doing your homework and being a kid. Now, go out there and get me something good. Maybe some of those chocolate croissants from the bakery? I mean, no pressure. Whatever you decide, it’ll be OK,” He squeezed my hand extra hard and turned back towards my mother, shoulders sagging. “You’ll be OK.”
My mother’s eyes flickered over to mine and met briefly. She flashed a fleeting, tight-lipped smile. There was no real warmth in it.
“I’ll be back soon,” I promised, heading towards the door.
“Oh, before you go,” My father said, turning back and whisking a needle out of his lab coat. “Just a quick sample?” He asked, tapping on the empty syringe.
I roll my eyes. “You know, some of the french kids think I’m a drug addict,” I said, rolling up my sleeve perfunctorily. I chose the right arm for the insertion, since the left arm was utilized just a few days prior. “Look at all these track marks marring my perfect skin. This is like, the third stabbing this week. What exactly are you looking for again?”
I offered up the pit of my elbow and looked away as my father plunged the needle in deftly, using his surgical precision to find a viable vein and extract my blood quickly and rather painlessly, for all my complaining.
“We just want to be sure you’re safe. Virus free,” My father murmured, emptying the contents from the syringe into a vial of blood that appeared from his pocket like magic.
“Right. That’s me - virus free Eleni,” I muttered, pressing down on the insertion point to stem the blood flow while my father attached the bandage. “Now can I go?”
“Yes, go. Be free,” My father waved me towards the door. “Be young and free. And don’t forget the chocolate.”
“It’s a fair trade. Blood for chocolate,” I say, smoothing out the bandage. “I’ll be back soon.”
“Don’t talk to any strange boys,” My father said, as I closed the door softly behind me. “Or any strange girls. Just, don’t talk to anyone. Especially in French.”
“I can’t speak French,” I shouted through the door, a small smile lighting up my face.
“I don’t really see the problem,” My father said with a laugh. I could hear my mother chuckle in response.
It was easier to talk when we didn’t have to look at one another, I suppose. It was easier to talk through closed doors.
I sent my parents a wave with the GPS coordinates of the chocolaterie, and scurried off base, scanning out with the armed guards at the front gates. They exchanged a look as I walked past them. “Careful out there,” The younger guard admonished.
I shrugged him off and stepped through the barrier into the Paris streets, wincing at the clang of the metal door behind me.
I never did get the chocolate. I got close. It was the last item on my itinerary. The chocolaterie was only four blocks from the base, so I planned to pick up the chocolate on the way back from running my other errands. Unfortunately, my quick trip had lapsed into two hours. I hadn’t communicated such a long stretch of time to my parents, so it wasn’t unreasonable that they were worried. They just wanted to know where I was and if I was safe.
The problem is that I swapped the band tracking my whereabouts with someone else, missing their frantic texts.
I should have known something terrible was brewing. This wasn’t my first time in a warzone. There are certain signs you become wary of… that seem harmless individually but become ominous when looked at as a whole. The restless natives. The overcrowding of the medical camps around the temporary military installation. The shuttered windows and hastily boarded doors. The huddled locals who turn suspiciously quiet when you enter a shop.
I could have been reading the warning signs but instead I was reading a handwritten letter, the main purpose for my charade that day.
The band I wore after sneaking off base, was not my own. I traded tracking bands with the chocolaterie owners son. His name was Anselme. He was attractive enough, slim with dark features and just a smattering of acne. A little mustache on his upper lip that tickled my cheek when he whispered in my ear. He spoke limited English and I spoke limited French, but we were fluent in the international language of love. We swapped bands sometimes and then we swapped spit. I liked how both his hands cupped my cheeks when we kissed, as if he were holding something precious. He always smelled like chocolate, but tasted like cigarettes. It was not an unpleasant combination.
I would come around to the back of the shop and knock on the delivery doors. His father opened the doors the first couple times, so I would smile benignly and ask after his progeny. He would waggle his brows and shout back into the shop, “the young lady is here to corrupt you.” Anselme would slink into view, an embarrassed, pleased smirk on his face.
Anselme asked where I'd go after I passed off the band to him. I never gave him a straight answer. After a few months of trying, he just gave up.
There were plenty of other ways to occupy our time. We kissed behind the shop, in the narrow cobblestone alleyway, pressed up against the brick wall. We kissed in the kitchen next to hot pans of cooling chocolate. It smelled like heaven. We kissed on top of his scooter, so passionately we both lost our balance and toppled over, the scooter muting our fall. His side mirror broke. I tried to give him money to replace it but he wouldn't accept it. He shrugged and said something like, “it's a small price to pay for love.”
I wish he would have taken the money. I didn't love him. It doesn't matter now… he died that day, too.
The chocolaterie is where my parents finally caught up with me. In front of the shop with the faded gold letters on the window and the giant chocolate frog on a rotating display, next to truffles and butterscotch cakes. Paris during the initial onset of the nano virus was best summarized by a giant chocolate frog rotating in a window display. Opulent and decadent and completely ridiculously tantalizing. The sun glinted off the glass, and I shielded my eyes to look across the street at my parents, confused by their sudden appearance. They waved frantically, shouting across the street at me. My father was dressed in his lab coat, and my mother was wearing her ratty pink slippers. Their clothes, their obvious distress, further added to my confusion.
“Eleni!” I think they shouted my name.
The chocolaterie windows blew out from the force of a bomb exploding a block away. Glass splintered and rained down on me. I raised an arm to shield my face, feeling the sting of the glass slivers entering my skin. I staggered away from the building, my center of gravity falling and my legs going wobbly. Inside the chocolaterie, Anselme and his father stared out at me in shock. We made eye contact - Anselme’s eyes wide and terrified. His father grabbed the collar of his shirt and drug him to the back of the shop, towards the kitchen. That’s the last time I saw him. His hand briefly reached out towards me and I thought he said my name, but it was impossible to tell. The deafening silence sucked up all the air and oxygen, leaving only a sharp ringing in my ears.
I glanced back across the street. My parents had paused in horror. But another explosion, closer than the last, sent a shower of concrete and dust barreling towards us. A flight response roared up through my body and I took off from the sidewalk with all the force I could muster.
I sprinted towards my parents. They grabbed me up greedily, wrapping themselves around my cowed, shaking body and shoving me forward. Buildings exploded around us as we raced back towards the base. I felt the concussive forces in my chest and in the soles of my feet. My ears no longer registered sounds properly - there was a vague, muted wash of sirens wailing and possibly anguished screams. All I could really hear was the ragged pant of my breath. All I could see was my mother’s impossible pink slippers slapping against the pavement as she ran ahead of me. All I could feel was the strong grip of my father’s hands against my lower back and upper arm - shoving hard, urging us forward.
The base was in sight. At least, what we could see through the thick, billowing clouds of concrete dust and debris raining down on our heads. We ran through a fog of smoke, across narrow, cobbled streets. Sound came back in a scattered wave. I heard the screams of strangers in the buildings above us, shouting curses in garbled French as we passed, their cries lost in the ringing chambers of my ears.
We'd just turned down the last side street. The front gates were a thousand feet away, when the reverberation from an exploding artillery shell tripped me, catching my foot on an ancient sidewalk crack. I fell forward with no time to splay out my arms, hitting the ground hard and fracturing my skull. I lay stunned on the pavement. My parents dove on top of me, shouting my name. They formed a protective shield around my inert body, hiding me from the gravelly sprays of former Parisian buildings. Blood spilled from my head, pooling on the ground, seeping into my left eye and blurring my vision.
A bomb went off next to us. The impact shook us like ragdolls. The concussion thudded through our chests, hurtling us in the air. My eyes squeezed shut and I lost track of my parents, their arms ripped from me by the force of the blast. The left side of my body convulsed, rippling with a white hot pain that plunged me into darkness.
My heart stopped beating.
Our field exercise unit is in the SIM today, scouting ahead of the troops with drone jets, secure behind the front lines of a bombed out city in a desert setting.
The rubble reminds me of the Afghanistan landscape and the rusted, broken signs are all in Arabic. The SIM controllers make a habit of never disclosing whether simulations resemble terrorist locations we might attempt to infiltrate. But the locations sometimes possess a familiar texture and I often find myself reflecting, "I've been here."
I’ve been assigned to the same unit since August - the longest I’ve worked on a functional team with anyone in my entire life. I’m paired with Rabbit Santiago, Luis Kang, Clinton Fuller and Corazon Ortega. The three guys are all friends and Corazon is our unit lead. She's field experienced and the best at making tactical decisions. We take our orders from her. She’s a short stocky hispanic woman with curling red hair she keeps in small tight braids against her scalp. Her severe personality more than makes up for a lack of physical intimidation. When Corazon says jump we say how high and better already know in what direction.
Clinton, Luis and Corazon scout ahead on foot, and I’m behind them with Rabbit Santiago. We are the two residents in the unit with enough amassed Aeronautics credit to pilot. Clinton is in our specialization, but he’s failed drone simulation testing and tech class three times now. They continue letting him back into the courses, hoping one time it will stick, averting their gaze from his failure, to the money endowed by Fuller’s rich parents. Money will only get you so far - and I get the sense from his increasing desperation on the battlefield and in our academics, he is running out of chances to prove himself.
Santiago, who I spend the most time with out of anyone on base aside from my friends, carries himself with a professional, business-like demeanor when we work together, hardly regarding me unless required to. We bear a begrudging respect for one another when we run simulations. I mean, we have to cover one another. We have to work together in here to protect ourselves and our squad mates.
The two of us, Santiago and I, sit nestled snugly inside an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) tank while our drones run vertical tracks up and down the landscape. It’s a bit uncomfortable for Santiago, who stands a foot and a half taller than I do, making him over six feet. He’s folded into the cramped space, his long, beak-like nose nearly touching the tank wall in front of us. I’m about a foot shorter, so the tank nevers feels too cramped.
We are bundled in the SIM armor, a higher tech variation of what we’d wear on an actual battlefield. The increased tech is to provide the needed haptic feedback in the simulations. The suit is a navy blue protective exoskeleton of malleable plastic and hemp cloth, similar to kevlar but more flexible, and embedded with nanos. The nanos provide an extra thick shield, mostly impenetrable by bullets. The material is thicker in the areas where our bodies are the weakest - knees, elbows, shoulders. A thin glass read out folds down from our helmets and a virtual display can be projected from a console in our chests.
My face catches in the glass and I sink into the reflection. A team of doctors saved my life after the Paris bombing. I have them to thank for turning me into half a robot. They implanted a metal arm, a metal heart, an iron lung, a plastic ear, leaving behind a barrage of scars and green glowing wires that run up from the base of my neck, over my cheek, past my temple and up to my hairline. They even replaced my left eye with a robotic one that almost looks the same. The other half of my face is normal. Dark brown eyes, full lips, flat nose, a mole on my cheek and even a little dimple when I smile.
It took months to wake up from these operations and years to fully recuperate and my body to accept the implants. Now I’m on a steady diet of nano suppressants and pain killers for the migraines. And for some reason, after all that time and money invested, Prothero dumped me off in National Service to repay my debt to society. Millions of dollars in medical debt plague me now and there is no way I will repay that in my lifetime. So here I am, in a tank, in a simulated warzone, an ugly reminder that my parents failed to stop the virus and died in the process.
I look up from my reflected musings to catch Rabbit Santiago staring at me from his side of the tank, a curious expression on his face. He has these dark eyes that seem to catch everything but reveal nothing. When our eyes meet, he drops his head back to his display.
We monitor the drones visual feeds on our bands, routing information to the troops and tracking any movement we pick up on the battlefield. Reports are made to Corazon via the mics attached to our helmets in order to keep chatter off the waves. This is a routine simulation and we’re tucked far away from the danger of battle and the ground troops. I’m bored watching the shapes and colors morph on the virtual in front of me.
“Hold up,” Santiago breaks my musing, nudging with an elbow. “You see that?” He inquires, tilting his band towards me. A slash of purple pulses in the bowels of a building in the northeast corner of the map. I blink and the color vanishes, leaving a trace of radiant light bursts in its wake. I slip a hand under my visor and wipe sweat from my brow. The bright colors dissipate, but a high pitched squeal picks up in its stead. I box my ears. The sound stops abruptly.
“You alright over there?” Santiago asks, concerned.
I shrug and focus in on the map again.
“I don’t see it. I did, for a second. I don’t see it anymore,” I answer brusquely. Our displays show nothing but crumbling skyscrapers and cracking towers. Innocent citizens fleeing before the sting of war reaches them. Their images are ghostly, haunting.
“It’s right here. There’s a weird signature in this building,” Santiago nods, pointing towards a squat white tenement with stone peeling off the walls. Santiago possesses notoriously good vision, so I trust his judgment in this case.
“Not human?” I ask, squinting. I’m growing concerned my false eye is shorting out and giving me bad information. In two years of perfect operation, this would be a first.
“It’s some kind of missile system,” He murmurs, rotating the image. His drone jet hovers in the air above the building, collecting and transmitting the data. “I’m taking it in for a closer look.”
“Careful,” I admonish.
He lowers the jet, angling it in broken windows, searching in areas where holes have been blown in the siding.
“There’s definitely a hot item in there, but I can’t get a good visual. It looks like the same signatures of the missile system we saw two weeks ago in that forest SIM. You remember this deep purple color?”
“Confirmed,” I reply, sounding more confident and assured than is true. I can’t read the data on the screen he points to. I can't see anything inside the building. It’s just grey, ugly wall. “Would you like assistance Raptor Two?”
He cocks his head over at me, a suspicious glaze falling over his face.
Here we go.
This behavior stems from my status as the top resident in the Aeronautics specialization. Santiago has played second fiddle since I stepped out of the testing room. But it’s not like my privilege is unearned. I pilot Raptor One, have logged more hours in the flight simulator, and possess the highest grade in our Tech class. I’m smart and focused. I didn’t buy my way into service like Clinton Fuller, son of Senator Edmund Fuller, hailing from the great state of Texas. I didn’t volunteer like Rory “Rabbit” Santiago with his near perfect NEL score. Most people don’t volunteer. It’s rare. Volunteers are pretty much only white people like Clinton looking for some kind of political angle.
Santiago and Fuller share several Aero classes and spend most of their off duty hours together too. But I have a hard time believing Santiago is angling for a political position. He is not charismatic or charming. He isn't even articulate.
Whatever the case, Santiago’s never acknowledged our rivalry, though tension existed between us from the moment we met. From the first time we shook hands, a knot of anxiety tightened in my stomach. No matter how much time we spend together, no matter how comfortable the silence... Santiago makes me nervous in a way I’ve never experienced. He makes me defensive, I guess. He’s the only one in our Academy specialization who even comes close to presenting as competition.
It’s not just that.
No one else on the base gets under my skin, because everyone else ignores my presence. Santiago... notices things. He doesn't comment on them, but he notices. And he’s always poised to take over if I slip up in the slightest. Like right now.
“No. Thanks. I’m going to drop this building. Condor Five, do you copy? Can we move all friendlies out of the blast area?” He requests of Corazon.
She responds crisply over the speakers built into our helmets, “Do you have Raptor One for backup?”
“Negative. I’m on this,” Santiago answers.
“I don’t think so. Garza, monitor the area for enemy combatants. Do you read?”
“Copy that Condor Five, I’m moving into location now.”
Santiago covers his helmet mic and turns slightly, glowering in my direction. “I’ve got this Garza."
His irritation stings. I’m only doing what Corazon told me. What Prothero built me for, what they chose for me. It's nothing personal.
I spin the jet around and aim it at the building Raptor Two hovers near.
“Only doing as ordered,” I remind him.
“Sure. Right. Whatever,” He says, uncovering his mic, ”Condor Five, I’ve got Raptor One in-bound. Am I go ahead to deploy?”
“Affirmative. Light it up,” Corazon says.
Santiago grins and I furrow my brows at the visual projected from his band. The heat mark explodes like a luminous beacon on my read-out. It shudders on the virtual as my drone approaches. I notice a second color pulsing just below the missile signature, on the fourth floor of the building.
“Raptor Two, hold your fire,” I say, zooming in on the image. It’s red - a human signature. There are people in the building. “We have a live target.”
Live being a relative term. The SIM civilians aren’t real, but they are considered as such in field exercises. We wouldn’t sacrifice them outside of these doors, so we don’t during an operation. Those are the rules.
“I’m not seeing it Raptor One. I have go ahead. Delivering the package,” He reports.
“Santiago, it’s not all clear. Let me investigate first. There are humans in there!” I shout, urging my drone jet faster.
He scowls, “There’s nothing on my monitor except the explosive. Condor Five, can you confirm human presence in the building?”
“I cannot. Raptor Two, hold your fire. Raptor One, I need to see what you see. Patch me in.”
I sigh with a stilted, trembling relief. I can see multiple human heat signatures clearly on my visual. I would prefer not to add casualties to my near perfect combat score today. I tap on the band monitor, giving Corazon full access to the scans of my drone. She remains silent for a moment. It’s an eerie, drawn out silence. She loudly clears her throat, “Raptor One, no visual confirmation. Garza, you’re seeing things.”
I squint at the screen. The signatures are there, right in front of me, and if I angle the drone correctly, there’s an opening. I’ve gained a full view into the building. Humans are inside. A group huddles against a far wall and a young boy stands at the gaping hole, leaning out. He waves his arms in dreamy arcing motions, leaving traces of color and light trailing in their wake.
“There’s a group of people on my monitor right now, women and children. Condor Five, Raptor Two - are you blind?” My voice becomes high pitched.
“Raptor One, is this a joke?” Santiago turns and studies my virtual with confusion.
I zoom in closer, hovering so near the building I can see a face, one I remember as well as my own. I’ve drawn it from memory a hundred times. This face belongs to the author of the letters in my tin box, to a young man named Mateo. I’m completely immobile, frozen in place. Able to hear the chatter happening around me, unable to will my fingers to move.
“Condor Five, I’m gonna drop the payload. Can you request Raptor One backs up?” Santiago questions, irritated.
“Raptor One, back up. Back up!” Corazon shouts, frustration leeching into her calm demeanor.
“I, I can’t,” I murmur, transfixed at the image on my screen. Mateo’s long hair flaps in the swirling wind from the drone jets. He’s waving out of the opening, mouthing inaudible exclamations. I turn on the targeted audio in the drone. At first, the only sound is the scream and buzz of Raptor Two’s jet engine. I aim the mic in the direction of the building, straight at the opening.
“Help us! Eleni!” Is what I hear over the radio.
All the blood drains from my cheeks. My heart jack-hammers inside my chest.
“Santiago, are you hearing this?” I inquire in a small voice. It rises up from a well of confusion and a tangle of conflicting emotions. This can’t be happening. I cannot be seeing and hearing this.
My trembling fingers push the signal over our helmets, so the entire squad can hear the audio booming in their speakers.
“Garza,” Santiago turns to me again, the indifference vanished from his demeanor, “I don’t hear anything. You OK?”
Over the radio Corazon shouts, “Raptor One move now!”
“You look sick,” Santiago says. “Are you gonna be sick?”
He shifts over to grab my shoulders. I don’t bother pushing him away. It’s too late to stop him. He’s already hit the sequence on his band to destroy the building. Santiago’s drone shoots a bunker bomb through a sixth floor window. It explodes on impact. I can’t move. I can’t move my jet.