By Jacob Silverman
Every night he dreams in infrared. Five, six weeks now, the world a thermal scan of itself. The map becomes the territory. A series of targets and the not-yet-threats in between.
He walks onto the talk-show set. So many stage lights, the Dodgers could play a night game under them. He shakes Leno’s hand and eyes his layer cake of makeup, his second face. He sits down and gives the crotch of his pants a once-over. A 23-year-old casting assistant gave him a sort of laconic handjob in the greenroom. No sign of that now, except the faint tang of laundry detergent and a decent afterglow rubbing up against the two Xanax now working themselves into a cool froth in his temporal lobe. The audience looks like a very lifelike set of animatronics. Incredible work on those.
He appears in a NOH8 ad, for some unaccountable reason, holding a wiggling, bug-eyed Boston Terrier and standing next to an NFL punter, all in the name of some form of “equality” so sweet and inoffensive you could spread it on toast. He meditates on the fact that he’s once again wearing makeup, which he still hasn’t gotten used to.
Someone asks him to write an op-ed about a Middle Eastern civil war. He demurs; he might have to fight there soon. “Not fight fight, you mean?” the editor asks, eyebrows raised. This is a cocktail party after a fundraiser for a heptasyllabic disease suffered by a chemicals magnate’s daughter.
“I don’t fight?”
“No, no, of course, you fight,” he says, suddenly remembering himself. “We appreciate your service.” He searches for a moment before settling on something from his mental to-do list: “How about school reform? Can we get 800 words from you on why high school students should study robotics? There’s that DARPA program? I could hook you up with an excellent ghostwriter.”
He offers the kind of brush-off acceptance he’s lately gotten used to giving: “I’ve got a guy.”
He reads a memo about the need to reduce bug splats. Too much collateral. Yessir.
The more he’s out in the world, the more he misses the Naugahyde Barcalounger, the hours spent hovering over Pakistani villages, the nougaty sweat drifting off of Billingsley in the next chair over, the mix of bullshit and vital intel scrolling through the chat room on his monitor. He watches his targets for days, follows them to prayer, sees their kids playing with a ball of trash bound together with twine. He is their Old Testament God, vengeful and capricious, but paternal above all. Why do they not love him for this? Why don’t they see it’s for their own good?
The flights into McCarran begin to take on a different cast when he realizes that he’s recognized. He begins to feel—he almost laughs, it’s too good—a strange hovering presence. Stared at here and there by other passengers. The faint tug of familiarity, but who? Some young politician? A baseball player?
Occasional tips of the cap and smiles from young women. Once in a while, a middle-aged man, sucking in beer gut and approaching him with a tough-minded solemnity, thanks him for his service. You, too, he says, for no good reason, and the man’s face lights up, as if he’s finally being recognized for something.
One early morning flight from New York, he’s got his sunglasses on and a six-whiskey hangover laughing at him, when, without warning, the PA squawks: “Ladies and gentlemen, I just, uhh . . . we wanted to let you know that you’re flying with a real American hero. Cody Horner, the U.S. Air Force drone pilot you’ve heard so much about. Let’s give him a hand.” They do, and he raises a couple fingers above his seat but doesn’t get up. The pilots take turns coming out of the cockpit—shit’s all autopilot now, they don’t really need to trade off even, but everyone and his brother’s practicing OPSEC now—and pump his fist with patriotic gratitude. The flight attendant who ratted him out sidles up to his seat, effusive as hell. Horner asks for a double whiskey and gets it. Later, disembarking, deplaning, whatever, a pretty young thing in yoga pants gives him her number. “I’ll be in town for two nights,” she says. He smiles and tells her any more than that is too long for Vegas. Laughter. “You’re so right.” By the time he’s pulled into his driveway, he’s lost her number and is a bit angry with himself for it.
He dreams that he’s over his parents’ house, his father a smudge of heat carting groceries from station wagon to door. He’s been watching them for weeks. Somehow he knows that. An order comes down the line: approval from the Disposition Matrix. Full backing of the office of the President and the country’s finest legal minds. His finger gives the trigger a rough kiss, and a couple beats later, Pops and house explode in a wash of solar hues. He doesn’t have much affection for the man, but he wakes up feeling sore about it all. Something in his mouth is tacky, bitter. A squirt of bile surges up from somewhere, before he sucks it back down like a bottom-shelf liquor. He runs to the bathroom and empties his stomach into the toilet.
He brushes his teeth twice. He holds some mouthwash in so long his tongue feels pickled. Still the taste doesn’t go away. He pops two Xanax, one Perc, and soon enough he’s on the couch, feeling as blissed out as some bovine animal in its third hour of grazing.
Two, three dates with a former nude-model–turned-actress / anti-vaccine activist / philanthropist / TV host—that ever-splitting, multi-hyphenated persona that adds up to Famous Person. He realizes he’s coming up in the same business. She’s a good 42 to his 25, which he doesn’t mind, but he makes the mistake of telling her, too soon, that he jerked off to some videos of her when he was in high school. She looks at him like he’s the dumbest piece of meat she’s ever seen.
Four weeks at Creech AFB. He’s a killer again. He’s being followed by a camera crew now. All television is reality television, someone tells him. They shamble around and hold boom mics over his head, while the other pilots eye him a bit jealously, wondering, Why this guy? Why not me? He won’t say shit to them, not about the women or the lunch with the president or the money piling up in numbered Swiss accounts. He’s got a few good Jew lawyers taking care of all that.
The thing about the infrared dreams is how, when he wakes up, he begins to doubt the texture of the world around him. Not its reality, but its … tactility. Like he’s not quite moving through it. Just coasting through on some visitor’s pass, his feet a half inch above the ground. The logical thing would be to start thinking that he’s become a UAV, that he’s the missile-toting bird, circling through the world’s skies at such slow speeds—but sufficient altitudes—to make AQ and their associated forces go nuts, since their limited armory can’t do fuckall against it. But that’s not it. He still hasn’t figured this one out.
He takes a few pills, heads to the gym. He’s getting big now, ego and body inflating in fine proportion. His agent’s hooked him up with what he calls a “mild Mexican steroid,” and it’s doing wonders for his lift. He feels like grabbing a bumper in the parking lot and ripping it off and braining someone. Every set ends with an orgasmic shudder, le petit mort.
SecDef sends him a letter of commendation. There’ll be more medals to come, he says, but first they gotta figure out how to spin it. But pilot recruitment’s up 600 percent. You’re to thank for that. The country owes you. You’re responsible for 1,182 enemy casualties. God’s own avenging angel. Damn it, you are an incredible warrior, the letter says. Horner imagines the old man weeping as he dictates the letter to some baffled major.
They want to start installing cameras in his house. We need to see you at home, the producer says. He refuses. The producer throws up his hands and begins a litany that he seems to know quite well. Situation escalates, punches thrown, etc. He agrees to cameras everywhere but bedroom and bathroom and to pay the producer’s doctor’s bill.
“What kind of night-vision filter ya got on those?” he asks, praying for a certain answer.
1,182. The number begins following him around. Soon enough, he’ll add to it and hold that number in his mind. He’s angry about it. Why did they have to tell him? On the way out of work, some protestors line the road, holding up signs: murderers and such. He slows, rolls down a truck window, and chucks a baseball, aiming for some Vet for Peacenik’s head, having to settle instead for his chest, which is hidden behind a t-shirt emblazoned with “American Citizens Are Not Drone Targets.” The man falls pretty good, and the other protestors are worked up into a fury now. Cody realizes that he’s settled his foot on the brake. He’s at a dead stop, and surely there’s some poor MP in the booth a hundred feet behind him, wondering what the fuck is happening and should he make a call yet. Cody holds his hand out the window, and an odd sort of calm settles over the protestors—there’s barely ten of them—as they wait for him to say something. He flicks his fingers. “The ball, please?” That really gets them, and someone picks it up and launches a strike at his side-view mirror, shattering it. Cody laughs. “Nice throw, pal. A little correction to your nomenclature, though: the proper term is unmanned aerial vehicle. There are no drones; they do not fly themselves. Thank you for your service.” He peels away.
At home he takes a few swigs of some vodka a rapper sent a few cases of. He wants him to be seen drinking it with him at a club, and Cody’s inclined to do it, has to have his assistant in LA work it into his schedule. 1,182. He gets back in the truck, a little woozy now but primed for something. Pulling into the gym with a screech and a bump, he leaves a couple marks on the car next to him; nothing to mourn. He starts his lift. An hour in, he finds a trash can in the bathroom and vomits into its depths. He feels really good. Too good, he knows. He gives the mirror a Joe Louis jab and starts laughing at it. Another hour into his lift and the blood is running down his hand, but no one says anything, not least the cameraman who’s been following him all morning, who nearly gets run over when Cody slams his truck into reverse and, ten minutes later, having somehow beaten the cameraman back home (or maybe he switched bodies with another cameraman; they design these guys to be faceless), nearly gets run over again as Cody decides the lawn is the best place to park his ride.
Cody stands outside his truck, a bit wobbly on his feet. There’s a hot breeze coming across the yard. He shivers. He’s the world’s strongest dandelion. 1,182.
“You get those cameras installed yet?” he asks, and some sunburned nobody shakes his head, more out of confusion than anything else.
The next day, the letters, e-mails, phone calls start—the angry babble of lawyers and merchandisers and producers and too many other people with money on the line. He knows he’s going off-script, violated the rules of engagement or something. He’s on his way back from the framer’s, where he’s gotten SecDef’s letter made all nice and squared off. 1,182. His yard’s covered with cameras, people, an impromptu gathering of the aggrieved and simply interested. No thanks.
He keeps driving. A cell phone rings. His, he realizes. He laughs. Out the window that goes. He’s holding the letter at arm’s length, staring at it and giving an appreciative whistle. Man, they do fine things with bordering these days. He hears another jingle, but it’s just a prescription bottle bouncing up and down in the center console. Pop! the top comes off, and he’s enjoying his medicine. Started on a full tank; he’s gone nearly two hundred miles, and the day fades before everything really comes into focus, as he spies something near that horizon: the world trying on its heat map, adopting a vision to match his own.
Jacob Silverman is a New York book critic and freelance journalist. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Slate, The Los Angeles Times, Bookforum, The New Republic, The Daily Beast, and various others. He has a new book slated for print in 2015.