Rita wore her helmet to the ceremony. They all did. Anonymity was part of the job; they didn’t even know each other. They sat in a row at a high table like the wedding party at a reception. They could not eat any of the magnificent food due to the helmet, so they were not served, nor could they drink any of the wine, though this was not missed. Pilots maintained complete sobriety.
The other guests ate the food and occasionally approached the table to thank the pilots for their service or take a picture with them. The men wore suits and ties. The women wore suits and necklaces. They wanted to see what they were getting for their contributions. They wanted to know they were doing something important. Rita wondered if any of the other pilots smiled under their helmets as they spoke with the guests, as they posed for their pictures.
“They look so severe, don’t they?”
“Sharp. They look sharp.”
“You don’t have to shower in that thing, do you?”
“It’s an honor. It really is.”
The emcee was the CEO of the company that designed the Liberator series which Rita and the others piloted. She addressed the room with pie charts and impressive numbers. She bragged about a technology that allowed us—the room? the country?—to bloodlessly neutralize threats, though even “bloodlessly” was too gratuitous a word for the presentation. “War is irrelevant, or at least, it soon will be. Imagine that—a CEO telling you she wants to innovate herself out of a job. But that is the goal. That is our mission. And you are the ones making it happen. You are the peacemakers.”
Bloodless was used frequently in the trainings Rita received. As was humane. As was instantaneous. The targets were identified, officially, as enemy combatants, threats, assignments. In casual speak among pilots, in the chat, they were referred to as terrorists, commies, gangbangers, ugly motherfuckers, shitholes, shitbags, unlucky sons, and most often, a reference to their post-neutralized states, splats, be it a slight misnomer. Splat made it sound as though the targets were crushed, but they simply collapsed—at the push of a button, their brains fritzed out; they went dark. Still, pilots counted splats as they would bugs on a windshield. Rita never engaged in this kind of talk. She preferred the official terminology.
After the CEO’s speech, a big screen was rolled down. A popular film began—a superhero movie, but the superhero’s sidekick was a pilot who may or may not have powers of her own. The actor who played the superhero wasn’t present. He’d pre-taped a message to the guests that would play after the film. The actress who played the pilot, whose helmet was off for most of the film, was seated at a special table with the actor who played the villain. The actress was the only woman in the room who didn’t wear a suit. She wore draped glitter. Though Rita felt superior to the propaganda, her focus nonetheless went to the actress throughout the evening, and when the actress came to her high table—shouldn’t it have been the other way around?—and when she reached up to hold Rita’s gloved hands in her bare, polished ones, Rita’s heart pumped. Her breath filled her helmet. “What I do is nothing,” the actress said. “But what you do. What you do.”
Rita had a hard time watching the film. For one, the helmet made seeing and hearing a challenge. But mostly, it was terribly inaccurate. The actress—somehow not as radiant on screen—was on the front lines. She infiltrated terrorist hideouts to identify targets, and she carried a console—it was strapped to the leg of her tight uniform—with which she neutralized the enemies, usually in the nick of time, and which was comically dropped and tossed about the room during hand-to-hand fight scenes.
Rita’s day-to-day was far different. The console was not strapped to her person; it was a laptop. She logged in from her apartment—a quagmire of access codes, refreshed daily. She performed her sobriety test—essentially an eye scan. She spoke with her team via chat. The squad leader issued her assignments. There was no video, no images of terrorists, no bad-guy profiles. There were only codes. Rita drank her coffee, listened to music, entered codes, and ignored the more ridiculous chats of her fellow pilots. To further distance them from the battle, or rather the execution, not every code was valid. At least, that is what they were told. Most were drills. Pilots weren’t to know which were the real deal. They were not to think of the lethal effects of their duty. They were to receive and process. That didn’t prevent the fantasies of her teammates, which were not discouraged by their squad leader.
That one was a splat. I could feel it.
Oh yeah. How could you feel it?
Get hard when it’s a splat.
They all had code names. Rita’s was Ringo Kid.
When on the screen the movie star pilot fell into the arms of the superhero and they almost but didn’t kiss, Rita decided she needed some air. She descended the high table. While everyone was enthralled with the screen, she found an exit. The guards there saluted her as she passed, as did the guards at the end of the hall, and the guards at the building’s entrance. Rita walked the empty block. She found an alley, where she looked all directions before removing the helmet. The night air cooled her face and chilled the sweat at her neck. Amazing, she thought, autumn. Seasons drifted. So did the codes. She squinted against the buzz of neon.
The pilots were to receive awards after the movie. Though she couldn’t tell anyone, Rita had been looking forward to it, hadn’t she? In the shower, she’d pictured the moment, practiced speeches, though they wouldn’t be permitted a speech. She’d heard applause instead of clapping water. She’d seen her mother in the audience.
A small sound startled her. She reflexively pulled the helmet back on. A skidding piece of glass? Had someone kicked it? Scanning, she saw no evidence. She shouldn’t be here. Out in the open, she was vulnerable. Unlike the film’s presentation, pilots were not trained in hand-to-hand combat, and they did not carry weapons. She was surprised there hadn’t been protesters outside the convention center. Then again, protesters weren’t their main concern. The three pilots who’d been assassinated so far had been taken out by loners. Conspiracy theories abounded. Her fellow pilots debated responsible parties, their biggest fear and hope that various targets were beginning to unify.
It’s coming. Just you wait.
Heard they’re developing their own tech.
Nah. Those three weren’t virtual.
One of ’em was a knife. Pilot was stabbed like twenty times.
Hey, Ringo, why so quiet?
When Rita saw news of a pilot killing, she did not go to conspiracies. Shakespearean vendettas came more easily to mind. It was rare, but sometimes the family member of an assignment made his or her way into the media. One in particular, a grieving father, was interviewed by a journalist of relative renown—not the fringe personalities who cheered on the protests; mainstream. It led to the backlash of other mainstream outlets, politicians, military officials, followed by a public outcry—certain patriotic members of the public who ostensibly outnumbered the protesters. The journalist almost lost her job, but another pilot murder put the interview with the father out of memory. Everyone rallied. Pilots were heroes again.
Rita tried not to think of the father. Nor the graffitied messages she saw throughout the city. Nor the direct message she’d received. She’d reported it immediately of course. She was told it was random, another angel of death—named reversely for the accusations hurled against the pilots themselves. She was issued a new laptop.
Out here, in the open, an avenger would not see Rita as an individual pilot, who may or may not be directly responsible for the loved one to be avenged. She was one of many angels, and all were guilty. Go back, her training told her. Collect your award.
She went left instead.
The people she passed did not clap for her as the donors and politicians had. When they noticed her, their gaits changed, their bodies slowed, stiffened, receded a step or two up their stoops. Their conversations stopped. Heads at bus stops rotated collectively in her visored peripheral vision. Music rang out from someone’s speaker, an eerie, meaningless beat for the motionless. She was uneasy; Rita was trained to find such company unsettling, threatening. She felt like an imposter. She wasn’t who they thought she was. She was merely in costume.
So when the old woman called out to her, Rita thought she’d meant to call for someone else. She approached from the middle of the sidewalk, marching at Rita’s own speed along the tunnel of motionless watching bodies—the sense, as their gap closed, that Rita was approaching a funhouse mirror. Rita’s stiff leather uniform in this reflection became a haphazard layering of softer leathers and fringe, worn as though they’d been thrown on the woman’s hunched little body, except for the pink leather pants which clung to her quick flamingo legs. Rita’s boots were replaced by plodding, differently pink tennis shoes; her helmet by a crown of gray braids, a cirrus of fly-aways framing the woman’s visorless face. She wore no glasses. She wore no makeup. “Been waiting for one of you,” the woman said once she reached Rita. She would have seen her own reflection, looking up into Rita’s visor. Wrinkles spiraled her beetle-black eyes.
“What’s the matter with you people,” the woman said then, snapping her attention to the surrounding onlookers. Her voice was strained and breathy, a sound like scuffing shoes. “You’re in the presence of a soldier here.” She stepped toward the bodies on one side, who responded by backing away. “Come on, you, come on.” She snagged the wrist of a young man and dragged him before Rita. The young man kept his head down. “Oh, for crying—” The little woman lunged to tap the bottom of the boy’s chin, and he looked up, the muscles of his face held static, a martial discipline. “Shake her hand.” The boy did, his grip barely there. “And say thank you.” The boy coughed a low thankyou, then fell back into his shoulders and skipped to the sidelines.
“Young ones,” the woman said to Rita as an apology. “Come. I’m over here.” She gestured toward a brightly lit barbershop. A group of men stood outside, watching in red silhouette. “We’ve got things to discuss. I’m Odette if I didn’t say so.” Rita should have said no, but like that poor boy, she couldn’t seem to resist this woman. She also felt a sort of protection within her orbit, that if Odette left her side, the surrounding bodies would seize their opportunity, find motion. “I’ll make you something. What you hungry for?”
Rita watched the barbershop men as Odette dangled a fob—“Not sure what was the matter with keys”—and took her through the door between the barbershop and a grated storefront. Rita watched the door behind her as Odette used an actual key to check her hallway mailbox, which got stuck. “This damn thing.” She rattled it, maybe harder than necessary, until it came loose. “Follow, follow,” she sang, squeaks of airy trumpet. She took the stairs with surprising agility—Rita had guessed by the hunch and wrinkles that Odette was well past seventy. She stopped to click her tongue at a mess of spilled rice on the way up.
The apartment was alive. Flora invaded every corner of the small studio, casting spidery shadows as the lights came on. Lacey greens and yellows dangled overhead. Ivies crept along shelves and countertops. A palm spread its fronds out the single, open window, tattered where that window had been closed on it. Heavy monstera leaves brushed Rita as she entered, as if trying to escape past her. Odette pushed the thing back with little affection as she closed and bolted the door. “Make yourself comfortable,” she said, then rushed to remove a fern and wipe its soil from the only chair. “Do whatever with your boots. We ain’t eating off the floor.”
The plants were not all in the best shape, Rita realized as she took the seat. She’d crunched a few dead leaves with the boots she left on. Odette snatched up a couple of them but left the rest. Otherwise, beneath the blankets of vegetation, and the gnats that idled in the lamplight, the place presented itself as orderly, uncluttered. The sink was empty. One paperback shared a side table with a cactus and a neat stack of unread mail, to which Odette added. A bed was hidden behind a folding partition covered in vines. Rita assumed the bed was made.
Odette removed her topmost layer of leather and hung it in the closet. “I’d ask what brings you to the neighborhood, but I know you probably can’t say. Can you say?” She stopped what she was doing in the closet to examine Rita, who said nothing inside her helmet. “I know a lot of them out there,” Odette continued, “they have some unfriendly opinions about you people, but that’s all they are. Opinions. Believe me, I know different. Post office. Thirty-five years.” She produced a lawn chair. She unfolded it and sat before Rita. “Never hear the end of it, but do they get their packages?” Every movement she made was sharp, as though her limbs made their decisions before she did. Odette craned forward in her lawn chair, a mischievous spreading of her wrinkled face. “I have a favor to ask.”
Rita thought she could hear squeaking, perhaps from Odette’s chair, perhaps from Odette’s throat. Then, memory dashing her impish expression, her palms raised, Odette cried “Dinner!”
While she busied herself at the kitchen counter, she sang a song Rita almost thought she knew. Why am I here? Rita wondered. She did not wonder why Odette wanted her here—she had a favor, she said, which meant she wanted someone dead, and she thought she could charm Rita into making it happen. She’d have to find a way to disappoint her, but still she asked herself, Why did I come all this way? Why did I leave the reception? If she looked out the window now, would she see Odette’s neighbors gathered? Would they have signs?
This apartment had an odor, she realized while she waited, sharp and camphorous—something Odette treated the plants with?—an established sub-smell that the earthy musk and Odette’s cooking hovered above. And something else Rita hadn’t noticed before. The small terrarium on the kitchen table next to her had something other than greenery inside of it. Something with bright orange scales. “That’s the snake,” Odette said when she saw where Rita’s helmet was pointing. She set a plate of scrambled eggs and a fork before Rita and returned to her lawn chair with a lit joint. “Scrambled’s all I can do.”
Rita couldn’t eat the eggs because of the helmet. Just as well—eating it would have meant getting closer to the thing with orange scales. Would Odette be amused to discover Ringo Kid’s fear of reptiles?
“I don’t think I can help you,” Rita said.
Odette waved away Rita’s concern, or a gnat, and breathed out a lungful of smoke. She offered the joint to Rita, who held up her gloved hand. As it was, she worried—was she worried?—that the contact, even through the helmet, might affect tomorrow’s drug test.
“Got this pain,” Odette said.
It’s her, Rita understood. The favor is herself.
“It started in my side, right here, maybe six months ago. Six? Yes.”
She’s tried, can’t bring herself to . . . needs assistance. Quick. Bloodless.
“Thought it was sciatica. But I don’t know.”
“You seem all right,” Rita said. The stairs. Bending to pick up dead leaves.
“Oh, it’s tiny. Tiny, tiny. But it’s there. I’m waiting for it to grow. I’ve seen things like it.” As if to prove the pain wasn’t holding her back, she dove beneath the dining table and emerged with a spray bottle. She went about spraying the nearest plants. “I don’t mean to bore all hell out of you. Tell me something about yourself.”
She sprayed a plant so close that Rita could almost feel the mist through her leather skin. “I won an award tonight,” she said.
“You did!” Spray, spray. “For bravery, I bet.”
“I suppose so.”
“Well.” Odette returned the bottle, took her creaking seat. She didn’t wince as she did, but made a face as though looking for the pain. A veinous hand gripped her upper leg. “Tiny for now, but I’m waiting. The way these things go.” And as though to apologize for changing the subject, “Good thing they never made me a pilot. I’m sure I’d be scrambling all the wrong brains.”
There again, the squeaking sound. Not coming from Odette, Rita decided. Did she keep mice somewhere, food for the reptile? Under the bed maybe, waiting in the dark? Rita watched the terrarium from the corner of her visor—she couldn’t tell how big the thing was.
“You know I’ve never even been on a plane?”
“I’m not that kind of—”
“I’d like to. I would. If I were on a plane right now, I’d be flying somewhere with sand. No beach. Can’t swim anyway. Just give me sand. Hills of it, and all around me, sand and sky and a hot sun.” She scratched her head with smoking fingers. She seemed unconcerned with the plate of cooling eggs. “Promised her. My sweet little Nemi. Practically raised the girl, gave her clarinet lessons right here until she gave up on it, broke my heart, but still. She was my special one. Grown now, sure is, family of her own, moved away long ago. Still sends me letters, and cards on my birthday, only they’re never birthday cards. She thinks I hate birthdays, not sure why. She draws these funny little pictures—I’d show you if I had one. She asks about her mama.”
The squeaking sound grew into a rustling, as though from the leaves about them, but the air was still, and this rustling had weight beneath it. The bed. She turned to look. She stared at the foot of the bed on the other side of the vined partition until the covers moved. Someone was in the bed, and that someone was now groaning.
“Ada,” Odette called toward the partition.
The groaning stopped.
“Pills’re wearing off.”
Rita was beginning to realize her error in following this woman—rather, she’d known her error, but the time to be proven wrong had passed. She thought of the angel of death message she’d received. You will see our faces before we pluck out your eyes, followed by strings of smiley face emojis. Her supervisor had told her it was nothing, but she knew it wasn’t. She knew it was only a matter of time. Her assassin could be in the bathroom right now, waiting for Odette’s cue. Her assassin could be behind that partition.
“Poor Ada’s in a bad way I’m afraid.”
“Has she been to a doctor?”
Odette squawked. “We’re well past doctors.”
“I’m sorry, I have to—”
“In a minute.” She took Rita’s knee, looked into her own eyes. “Please.” Smoke rose between them.
“I can’t help you,” Rita said.
“You can. I’ve seen it.”
“That’s just the movies.”
“I’ve seen it with my own eyes. Fella was in a car. Was tearing through our neighborhood, just outside there—I was on my way over. Tearing through, who knows what he just done. And then—” Odette clapped her hands in front of Rita’s visor.
“Odie,” the groaner called from behind the partition. There was too much air in her voice. “Who is that, Odie?”
“A friend, baby,” Ada called back without turning from Rita. “The guy slumps. It’s like he disappears from the driver’s seat.”
“You bet. You see it out there? They’re still working on the hole he made in that grocery.”
“You don’t know it was—”
“I know it. Don’t worry. I’m not one of them. It’s a gift, what you got. It’s a gift.”
The groaning gave way to long wheezing breaths. “The hell you bringing friends over here for?”
Odette cleared Rita’s uneaten eggs and started to talk about Ada’s condition, loudly despite Ada’s being awake, but Rita could not focus. The smell, now that she understood its source, was becoming unbearable. So was the question she’d been asking herself since she began her training. Can I do this? She’d been recruited; she’d had no ambitions to become a pilot. It had been sold to her—the benefits, the esteem, the assurance that she was one of the good guys. She hadn’t bought the line entirely, but the valor narrative, the movies, made it easier to evade the question, didn’t it? And then the technical nature of the work, a matter of routine tasks. Can I do this? became a question of performance, of operation and efficiency, and she found that she could do that, she was good at that. She’d won an award.
“They tell me I’m strong,” Odette was saying from the kitchen. “That’s just an apology. They say you’re strong because they want you to do it all. But I do it. Because of who she was. Because I promised Nemi I would.”
Now Rita could again evade the question, couldn’t she, because she had no ability. “It doesn’t work that way,” she said. But that clarification didn’t satisfy Rita. Odette still saw her for something she didn’t think she was but might very well be. The clarification didn’t satisfy Odette either.
“Tried to do it myself,” Odette said. “Wasn’t my idea. Was Ada’s. And it took convincing.” She spoke while flipping pills from a pillbox. “A pillow, we decided. While she was asleep, as close to sleep as she gets.” She dropped the pills into a small granite bowl. She ground them with a pestle. Her breath heaved beneath the lurching bow of her shoulders. “She fought me. I didn’t expect it. She slapped and scratched and she pushed with her whole body.” She went to the fridge, took from it a cup of applesauce. “Of course I gave up. She’s right over there listening. We cried and held each other. I’d forgotten we could feel like that.”
Odette turned to face Rita, who still sat, in her uniform, in the garden-room’s only chair. It was a mistake, Rita knew, to leave the reception. Ostentatious, yes, a big illusory movieland performance, but it offered its pilots something that was missing in the outside world. It offered them certainty.
“You don’t do anything your heart tells you is wrong,” Odette said. “But could you at least do one thing for me. Please, for the Ancient of Days, take the snake with you. I can barely keep these plants alive.”
Odette took the applesauce and spoon behind the partition.
“Heard you talk about me.”
“Who else’m I gonna talk about? Sit up, baby.”
Now was her chance. The door was right there, past the monstera tree. It doesn’t work that way, she’d said. But of course, there were other ways. There was no need for technology. Her fellow pilot had been killed with a knife. Stabbed like twenty times. That the Liberator was bloodless didn’t make it more effective. Bloodless was for the donors and the politicians. Bloodless was for the executioner. But in the end, a splat—she did not cringe now as she thought it—was a splat.
“Why’d you tell her about Nemi?”
Rita stood, but she didn’t go to the door. She took the three steps in the opposite direction, parting a drapery of browning tendrils. A leaf or two floated free as she approached the partition. She saw the woman on the other side. The body beneath the sheets did not seem capable of fighting anyone, even Odette. The limbs were those of a mantis, the face exoskeletal. The rods of her neck held her trembling lips to the spoonful of applesauce.
Rita hadn’t intended to show herself, perhaps too used to being invisible, but in that instant, Ada’s eyes rolling up from their concentration on the spoon, Rita understood what it was that Ada saw at the foot of her bed, the shape she’d been expecting for so long to see—and how could she still, this doomed woman, be so unprepared? Rita saw herself in Ada’s screaming eyes. It frightened her. It made her feel boundlessly powerful.
The applesauce splattered the sheets, beneath which the woman hid. Odette looked at Rita as though equally surprised to see her there. Then she went about calming her friend or sister or lover, touching a bony part of her. “Ada, now, you wanted this.”
“She’s lying,” Ada shrieked through the fabric and a tight throat. “She’s lying.” The sheets were pulled with her as she slid to the floor on the other side of the bed. A few shredded leaves were left in her place. She continued to scream from the floor, mostly nonsense, some of it prayer.
Odette sprang as though to stop Rita, though Rita hadn’t moved. “You will do it.” This was not a question. Veinous hands clenched Rita’s gloved wrists. “You will.” An object was launched at them from the other side of the bed, the spoon perhaps. Then something else, a lighter—“Ada, will you for crying”—a small vial, a remote control. Odette pushed Rita to the other side of the partition. “Next week. Don’t tell me when. Pick a day. Maybe a nice day. Find a nice peaceful moment in the middle of the afternoon—I’ll keep the window open, I’ll let the sun in. But do it. Oh—” She bent herself over the kitchen table and came back with the terrarium. “Don’t forget.” She pushed it into Rita’s arms, and she pushed them both out the door saying, “Thank you, God bless you, may he forever shine his holy light—” An ear of monstera clung to the slammed door. Rita heard the bolt, and the woman on the other side, begging for her life.
She tried not to think about what she held in her arms as she descended. She focused instead on its weight, its thick glass—how had Odette lifted it?—on not dropping and breaking the thing. She tried not to think about the agitated prisoner inside. The barbershop, she remembered, seeing the glow of its sign at the end of the hall. She’d leave it there. They would know these women. They would understand. Perhaps this has all happened before. Tell Odette I couldn’t do it, she’d say. Tell them I’m sorry, and thank them for the eggs.
The lights inside were still on, and there was music going, but other than that, after the door clanged behind her, and other than the panting inside her helmet, the shop gave no sound. Some men were sitting. Some were standing. No one seemed to be receiving a haircut or a shave. All were facing her. How had she forgotten? You will see our faces before. . . .
Only these faces were not smiling at the swordless Saint Michael who’d alighted in their doorway—only a matter of time—and who held in her arms, perhaps, a bomb. Someone dropped a can of beer or soda and it rolled and foamed. Though no one moved, the sound of the dropped can had set the group to a higher, collaborative attention—Rita could feel their minds preparing, signaling, reaching internally for weapons.
Her muscles burned. She would let the thing go if she didn’t think the movement, and the crash, would complete the circuit that the dropped beer or soda had triggered. Her visor steamed with hot, pumping breath; it obscured their unsmiling faces. She should say something—what would the actress have said?—but nothing came. She bent slowly. Her backside slid down the glass of the front door. She set the terrarium, not a bomb—how could she convey it?—down at her feet. She did not look at the surrounding faces. She looked through her own fog at their feet, their ready legs, their rigid fingers. She saw, beyond the fog, her mother, sitting in the front pew of a church.
Without turning, she opened the door behind her. Once outside, the muted beat still vibrating, still menacing, she walked backward, her red reflection in the barbershop window backing away from her until the unmoving figures beyond the stooped, retreating soldier left her helmet’s view.
No one clapped for the pilot as she ran back to the convention center.