If there was one thing Mary had learned in three years in Afghanistan, it was as banal as this: Love and war are a terrible combination.
Also: never get into a Chinook helicopter piloted by a drunk member of the royal family.
Mary was as an official war artist, just like everyone else. Due to a British Council error in late 2009 hundreds of artists had been sent to the country to interpret the conflict. During the second Helmand offensive you couldn’t set up a mortar emplacement or sweep a road for mines without tripping over a mixed-media collagist or a site-specific sculptor.
Eventually the army decided they’d had enough and revoked everyone’s visas, so the artists all drifted up into the mountains, where they held community outreach events and private viewings and opening night cheese-and-wine parties for the bemused local tribespeople. Occasionally a performance poet or someone who worked in ceramics was kidnapped and beheaded by the local Taliban franchise, but for the most part relations were good.
And it was in the mountains that Mary had fallen in love with a United States MQ-1 unmanned Predator drone.
“It’s not uncommon, historically,” said Omar the goatherd. He and Mary were sitting under a tree while a couple of bored soldiers half-heartedly searched Omar’s goats for explosives. “After all, half the Greek myths are about people falling in love with inanimate objects. Statues. Rocks. Showers of gold. Of course, the other half are about people having sex with animals but, y’know…”
Omar had been a teacher before the Taliban took over his village. Nowadays he supplemented his goat herding income with translation work and by selling knock-off leisure gear to the troops.
“Here, have some of this,” he said, handing Mary the joint he was smoking. “It’s from the valley where I was born. In the seventies hippies used to come from all over the world to try it.”
Mary had a good lungful. It was spectacular stuff alright.
“But what about the moral dimension?” She coughed.
“You mean the fact that the object of your affection is a two tonne, twenty million dollar unstoppable imperialist killing machine?”
“That’s the crux of it, yes.”
“Well, love is love,” Omar shrugged. “What choice do we have?”
Mary worked mainly in experimental music. She told the story of the war using digital soundscapes made from electronic glitches and found noises. Or at least that’s what it had said on her funding applications. Every morning she got up before dawn to sit outside her abandoned lookout post on top of a hill, scanning the airwaves with stolen CIA surveillance equipment.
That was how she’d first heard the drones singing.
It was half an hour before sunrise but high in the cold sky the contrails were already glowing. The day shift was getting underway. MQ-4 Global Hawks. MQ-9 Reapers. RQ-170 Sentinels. Plus assorted Warriors, Watchkeepers, Shadows, Scan Eagles and Ravens.
Each transmitting thousands of gigabytes worth of situational awareness every second. All of it grabbable with a cheap bit of Russian software.
The music of the information glut.
And then she’d spotted the Predator for the first time, lazily banking to get a better angle on a suspected enemy position, its magnificent fifty foot wingspan just catching the light from over the horizon.
When it let go its two hellfire missiles she almost swooned.
She’d tried not to be in love with it, of course. She wasn’t completely insane. Over the last three years she’d tried not to be in love with it by sleeping with approximately four artists, three soldiers, two aid workers, an afghan doctor and a war correspondent.
And a drunk member of the royal family in a Chinook helicopter.
She’d tried throwing herself into her work. She’d tried drinking herself to sleep every night. She’d tried running five miles every morning.
“But even as the embodiment of the desperate fantasies of fading Western hegemony, the drone nevertheless retains a novel and undeniable erotic power?”
That was Sabine, Mary’s German philosopher friend. She was shouting over the sound of the Jeep’s engine as they swerved to avoid being run off the narrow mountain road by a lorry coming the other way. Sabine was an official War Philosopher from the Goethe institute. She was a Speculative Realist, which meant everything was pretty much alright with her.
“Why does everyone keep assuming this is just about sex?” shouted Mary.
Sabine and Mary were on their way to an audience with the local opium kingpin, in the hope of securing funding from him for a joint artistic project. He’d already sponsored a theatre, a clinic and a primary school in the valley. The primary school had a mural showing him dressed as Tony Montana, the cocaine-crazed crime-lord from ‘Scarface’. He was wearing a white suit and carrying a small Afghan child in one arm and an RPG in the other.
“In many ways the drone represents the perfect romantic other,” Sabine went on (still shouting). “It is totally uncomplicated yet also completely unknowable. We can project almost any desire onto it.” She was gripping the steering wheel with her knees while she rolled a cigarette. “However, from a purely ontological point of view,” she continued, “the real question is not what the drone means to us, but what we mean to the drone.”
It was at this point, thank God, that they hit a roadside bomb.
From a purely ontological point of view, the roadside bomb was not that interesting. All it wanted to do was explode. It had been waiting for the chance for the last year-and-a-half.
It wasn’t about to mess up now.
And that was how Mary and Sabine ended up with an overturned jeep, a concussion and two broken legs. It was also how they ended up in the care of a gang of mountain bandits who normally specialised in cross-border smuggling but who weren’t about to pass up an opportunity to add kidnap and ransom to their business portfolio.
It wasn’t that Mary had ever really imagined she and the drone would be able to have a life together. God knows she understood her limitations when it came to relationships. Not least her terrible taste in men. And yet, as the negotiations for their release from the bandit gang dragged on through the autumn, Mary was surprised by how much it hurt to consider a future without him.
It. Without it.
Good old Sabine, meanwhile, had very philosophically adapted to their new situation by having a wildly inappropriate affair with Hasan the bandit leader, who, it turned out, was a former poetry professor from the University of Kabul. They discussed the poems of Rainer Maria Rilke long into the night, as Sabine practised field-stripping an AK 47.
In the mountains, autumn turned to winter. And the winter was brutal. At night the gang slept three to a sleeping bag to keep warm. Sabine and Mary had to pitch in just like everyone else – gathering firewood, looking out for Taliban and NATO patrols, loading and unloading lorries, helicopters and cargo planes. There was still an endless supply of cigarettes, heroin, surface-to-air missiles and low-end pornography to be smuggled, with customers on all sides.
That was the beauty of the war.
“Don’t think of yourself as criminals,” Hasan liked to tell his crew, “think of yourselves as a metaphor for the twenty-first century global information network.”
Hasan was a good smuggler but he was an absolutely terrible poet. The war was the best thing that had ever happened to him.
Because the gang were always on the move it was hard for Mary to keep track of the drone’s whereabouts. Two or three times she thought she’d spotted him among the dawn flock. Twice she was sure she saw him heroically patrolling the midday skies.
The one time she managed to pick up his feed on the gang’s scavenged equipment, he was quartering the same patch of territory, over and over again.
As if he were looking for someone.
And then one day in January one of the bandits ripped off or pissed off or generally failed to show exactly the right amount of respect to exactly the wrong person, and hell fell down on all their heads.
As soon as Mary heard the rotors clattering in the frozen morning air she knew it was bad news. You don’t send an Apache attack helicopter if you’re going on a shopping trip. She was already out of the tent and sprinting for the cover of the rocks when the guns started up. And then from the other end of the valley she heard the Blackhawk – maximum troop capacity eleven – and she knew the gang’s glorious career was finished.
She spent the next fifteen minutes trying to dig herself into the frozen ground under a boulder with her bare hands, listening in to the streams of military information on a portable scanner, while the bandits fought a desperate pitched battle against the liquidation of their business.
It was a one-sided affair. Poor old Sabine, who by this point had gone completely native, died in a suicidal bayonet charge against an enemy position. On the plus side, she got a nice – if confused – obituary in the Berliner Zeitung the following week.
The rest of the crew, although somewhat less celebrated, ended up just as dead.
The falling snow was already starting to cover the bodies when the soldiers found Mary. Still wearing her headphones, she heard the order for her execution before the soldiers did. As they raised their guns she decided she was going to look them all in the eyes.
Then she heard his call sign.
Oh, it was wonderful the way the valley lit up. The helicopters exploding, the soldiers flying through the air. Colours and sounds you couldn’t have imagined.
By the time the smoke cleared Mary was the only living thing within three miles. The precision was astonishing.
And the entire experience had been accompanied by a beautiful symphony of streaming data. Their shared signal against the world’s noise.
They walked out of that valley hand-in-wing-tip, and nobody ever saw them again.
They sent Omar postcards. Somalia. Congo. Syria. Russia. And then, as the need for their services grew, Greece, Spain, the UK. There were potential theatres of operation everywhere, and endless opportunities.
Terrorism. Civil unrest. The policing of sporting events and shopping centres. It’s what you don’t know that you don’t know that you need to worry about: that’s what they told their clients. It’s always better to be safe than sorry.
And so they built the future, rich with the guarantee of always-on, real-time strategic threat analysis, plus the reassuring availability of an instant, clean and surgical response.
Their love song.