The first kill is unexpected; almost flippant majesty in the burning afternoon. Distant shapes collect around the barrier fence, signs and placards of their outrage muddled indistinct by heat haze from this range. I squint at them through surplus binoculars, watching the flat expanse of tarmac beyond them. Empty. Safe.
The model rocket is a meter tall, constructed in my basement of images taken from fusty and disused fiction, disapproved by government these long years. Strakes and weapon pods blister from its skin, colors bright with lost hope and a future denied. I scan the still-clear sky once more, huddled beneath a draped poncho in a forlorn bid for anonymity from overhead imagery. The key is in my box, the LED glows; turn, once, and-
-forgotten hope of flight and fantasy, denied us in these days of blunder. Solid fuel, (SIX MONTH MINIMUM SENTENCE, POSSESSION) pressed into a cardboard tube; ancient instamatic camera embedded in the nosecone (SENTENCING VARIABLE FOR HOMELAND SECURITY IMAGING VIOLATIONS) and small radiosonde in the module to call for help on landing (FCC VIOLATION TWO MONTH SENTENCE, MINIMUM).
Up it goes.
The blue of sky and white of clouds call to it, for just a second and then a second more as the craft reaches for a thousand meters (shutter height) and then there is a shadowed thunder from behind me, lethal shape reaching for the runway visible past the crowd of protestors. Fuselage blackened from friction and from weapons fire, the UCAV settles past me with its nose cribbed slightly to the south, correcting for ground winds, angling for home from its secret and illegal war across the waters.
There is no sound; rather, there is a sudden lack of sound, coupled with a flare of orange-white light, swiftly fading into dirty reds and black as the engine belches FOD out the rear. The shape, so lethal a moment earlier, staggers in the sky, then with a scream of throttles tries to claw its way onto safe home ground but instead falls from grace with the peculiar curving path of a craft gone past the limits of its control law.
The cheering from the distant crowd is barely audible when the harsher noise of metal and carbon aromatics settles into the desert heat.
Ten days of huddling in fear and worry. Not daring to leave the safety of routine and familiar paths, seeing vans and helicopters mumble their searching song to the legions of uniformed grim-faced men who quarter the neighborhood. Not even the plaintive peep of the beacon, heard in my earphones through the makeshift directional receiver, stirs me forth; not until the eleventh day when some fey whim snaps the bonds and I trudge out across the highway median with a trashbag in my hand. The small shape is barely recognizable in the scrub, but I pick it up anyway, walking slowly back to my beater van and gathering random aluminum cans for verisimilitude.
One image is pulled, in dripping flatform birth, from the film cartridge buried in the metal cylinder. One shot, showing the spiderwebbed flaming heart of a turbine intake mere fractions of a second before impact.
I'm not sure how long it takes for the truth to sink in, but some weeks later I find myself lying on a rooftop off past the end of the runway underneath a carefully arranged tarpaulin topped with scrap wood and iron. I can see out a narrow slit, directly down the centerline of the distant field, through a ten-power scope that I found in the basement which rests atop a match-grade Remington .22 long rifle.
The sound announces vision, the dark and blurry mass turning onto the runway's end some three miles away. It swims from side to side in my scope's eye, before the visible lengthening of the ejecta plume and the angled shape leaps down the centerline towards me. Still on the ground, no good. I wait, and wait, and just before I feel in my bones that the unmanned fighter is about to leap upwards I stroke the trigger.
One small metal-jacketed sting, sent caressingly off downrange. The last three times I tried this there was no discernable result, the bullet likely burying itself in the sand or tarmac with nary a puff to show its passing. This time, however, the prediction is spot on, and as the UCAV lifts its nose to the sky my bullet finds its open throat.
There is no effect for long seconds, the aircraft leaving the runway with its wheels folding into its undercarriage in one-two tango time, then suddenly there is a dirtying of the air behind it. Smudge of smoke and debris, metal cascade from the front to the back, tiny featherweight turbine blades snapped through by jacketed lead adding their mass to the cacophony of destruction as the jet engine scours its own innards out in a shriek of freed rotational energy. The UCAV staggers in its flight, then with an air of weary resignation lowers its nose to the tarmac and disappears into a cloud of smoke, flame and disturbed dust.
I lie beneath my tarp for seven hours as the rotor blades steep in the darkening night air.
Fuck you and your war. Fuck you and your robot whores.
Time the third I find myself sitting behind a window, looking not down the runway's length but out at its end. Along the roadway past the barrier lights, the empty soda cans strewn over five days of commuting. I wait and watch the small mirror on the windowsill, and when I see the rushing shape start down the tarmac I give it just enough time to reach V2, go/no go, no abort, the limits of adhesion, and then I press the button on my LED-strewn stereo remote control. X10 signals flood the highway's edge, amplified from my handheld by a horn some three blocks off, and at their touch the hundred cans awaken with small puffs of dust and light. Metallized balloonets, forcibly inflated by the small canisters around which they lay (FEDERAL AIRGUNS VIOLATION, TWO MONTHS SENTENCE MINIMUM) rise suddenly into the air. A wall of bright pink, purple and red shapes, trailing foil tinsel beneath.
For a flying killer that sees in microwaves, in the narrow visual slices of LIDAR, it is as though a wall has suddenly begun to grow at the end of the runway, moving upwards at some meters per second. I am on my feet at the window, now, able to see the final third of the runway directly; I can almost feel the dispassionate agony of the robot as it considers in a fraction of a second whether it can turn (no) or outclimb the wall (no) and finally decides to take the least damaging course of action and slams itself back onto the runway at takeoff speed without the time to lower gear.
By so doing, it stops before the fence, battered and broken beyond repair.
The crowd, made of protestors angry at the war, the waste, the government, anything at all, cheers thunderously as the crash trucks converge. I let myself out of the small apartment to walk briskly in the other direction, thinking of my next meeting with the adversary and wondering at the fact that my life (so useless) has a purpose now.