I don’t know how long we were up on that hillside, just Paul and me. We sat in a shallow trench, bundled up against the blowing snow and looking out over the white valley and the sagging evergreens. In the distance the city huddled against the coast, towers like upright icicles at a spout. The way time went, we got to talking about anything while we were up there.
“The Pashtun people call it benghai– the buzzing of flies.”
“Because of the noise?”
“Sorta. And ‘cause it’s annoying, sticks in your ear. But when you go to swat it away, there’s nothing there.”
I guess it never stuck out for me before. He said that wasn’t possible. Or that maybe I was used to it back in the city, that I grew up never knowing anything else. Like ambulance sirens or crickets singing in the countryside.
I moved the metal weight off a bone in my shoulder and wondered out loud about its name.
Paul snorted, always his own laugh track. “Probably some old general’s girlfriend back in Russia,” he put an arm around me as he spoke, our nylon erupting in white noise. “Lets run through it again.”
My gloved fingers prodded through the finer details of arming the launcher. “Flick, press, wait, squeeze.”
I don’t even know what got Paul so spooked that morning. He woke me between staring matches with the windows. Pulled aside dust bunny blinds to spot something in the sky. In place of static, the large black radio he kept by the door was hissing with an occasional pop and crack.
The day was still a thin line on the horizon when he shoved me out into the cold a few hours later. Besides his old army parka, all I had to brace myself was a pair of ratty gardening gloves and shopping bags tied over my slippers. We were living out in the pines then. Paul threaded this yellowing, pre-century coachmen in among the thicket and jury-rigged it with all sorts of solar paneling and gardening gear. Lived there year round. Inside wasn’t worth being in except to sleep. No tv, phones, nothing like that. He said they were liabilities.
The canopy was a thick tangle of branch limbs, the trunks cobwebbed with Christmas lights and razor-wire, waist-high snow filling the negative space between them. Paul got his shovel and dug away the snow blocking a cubbyhole beneath the camper. From there he retrieved a red toboggan and a long tube wrapped in a blue tarp. I helped him lug the tarp tube out and bungee-cord it to the sled. He hauled the whole thing himself, even tied some evergreen branches to the end to mess with our tracks. I got to carry the radio. It was only blaring static now but he said not to turn it off.
We made our way up the hillside. Keeping to the trees and not talking much, the static noise whiting out our breathing and footfalls. Weaving ski slopes of undisturbed powder descending from the peaks cut arteries across our path. For most we just hurried across, reducing our time in the open as much as we could. For the extra wide lanes Paul would sit and wait with the radio, turning the knob and listening. There were times when I thought he had zoned out or switched off completely while waiting for something in the noise. When he was sure it was clear he’d hustle across, hunker down, and wave for me to follow. Always waiting with a calm, whispered warning on the other side, “Careful now. Careful now.” Metal cables warped with an extra-dimensional sound above our heads, the chairlifts swinging and rusting in the breeze.
The snow swallowed our feet and made for slow going. I don’t know how far we went. Two, three miles. My bags were soggy and full of slush. Hardened chunks clung to my cargoes from the knee down and was starting to soak through, the cold on my legs amplified with the wind. We waded out onto a steep black diamond and stopped beneath a teal cable tower.
Paul pulled off his hat and wiped his face. “Gotta be quick- sun off the snow blinds them for a bit,” he grabbed the shovel and struck it into the snow. “In ten minutes we’ll stick out like a sore dick.”
I kept watch as he started digging. Clearing the snow first. Hitting dirt. Going deeper.
From up there you could see the tops of most hills and the ski-lodge way down below. I recognized it from when I was last there with mom and dad. My first and only ski. I could barely move in the extra-thick snow suit they made me wear, my arms and legs sticking out like a starfish. I remembered them holding my hands on either side as we glided down the bunny-slope. Being bombarded with smiles and encouragement at the bottom for something I barely understood. Thinking about them only made me want to go back to the city, back to a home I knew wasn’t there. It must have been a few months since Paul took me away. But to tell you the truth I’d lost all track of the days. Sometimes when we got a fire going and were sitting around roasting something, Paul would tell me stories about dad and him growing up. Stuff about high school, skateboarding, the girls they’d chase.
“Where do you think they are now? Mom and dad?”
“Blacksite maybe. Jail hopefully.” His face always went screwy when talking about them. “They’re strong people, kid, you shouldn’t worry. Leave that to the adults.”
My nostrils were sticking and I couldn’t feel my toes by the time he started pulling stuff out of the ground. The first was a long, slim container — forest green with big metal clasps on one side. On its lid something alien stenciled in yellow. Sterile symbols and a language I couldn’t read. The other was a bundle he untied and spread out on the snow. It was a huge blanket, silver like tinfoil with a black kevlar trim. It broke out into a field of fractal rainbows as he shook off the dirt and let it flap in the breeze.
“Hold that.” He said as he secured the crate to the sled.
It felt like a fiber- wool or something, but smelt like copper. He said it was for the thermals, that it would make us one with the snow. He bowed with his gloved palms together and laughed.
He wrapped the blanket around me to keep warm as we returned to the concealed corridors in the trees. Our maze to the summit.
Near the top we found a shallow trench, already dug out weeks ago. Paul said he picked this spot because it gave the best view over the valley. The tallest peak was behind us, with its own bunker and a space heater left inside. He tapped his temple. That’s where they’d expect us to be.
We unloaded everything into the trench and secured the silver blanket down with bent rods. Paul propped up the middle to make a miniature tent and set the tube-thing under there. Together we unwrapped it like a waiting gift. It was a MANPAD, any gamer could tell you that, but definitely not American. It was about my height, painted a light green, with the thick, reinforced metal flared at one end. A lunchbox with a grip and trigger was slapped to the bottom. A stubby, black rubber scope hooked to the side. What surprised me was the weight; it’s not something that gets across in VR. On my first heave I nearly cracked my skull open against the side. It was awkward to carry standing up so I sat in the trench, back against the wall, its length resting on a groove in the dirt pile behind me.
Next was the exhumed crate. Paul popped the clasps and leaned it forward to give me a good look.
“Got these from a pal, new 9Ms,” long thin sharks nested in vacuum foam, ”they lock to sound, uses a target’s prop whine against it.”
He gently lifted the nose of one and turned it over in his mitt. ”They don’t know we got ‘em, probably won’t have countermeasures.” Gunmetal skin with a strip of white near the middle. Four fins at the back and a stubby narwhal horn on the nose. “Probably.”
Cradling it in his forearms, he got behind the trench and loaded it into the launcher. There’s some added weight on my shoulder but it fit so snug that everything felt solid, like one whole piece.
He came back around, covered everything in evergreen, then posted up next to me. He showed me how to look through the scope, how to arm and shoot the thing, and what to be careful of when it went off. The foliage sat low on the slope and parted just enough to give us an IMAX view of sky ahead.
Then we waited. A universe of background radiation still leaking through the radio. We talked about everything and nothing. Before all this, he only ever seen me in a diaper with a lot less hair, so we had some catching up to do.
He told me a story about driving mom and me home after I was born. We were in his old Toyota and it was snowing pretty hard out that night.
“Your mom never took her eyes off ya the whole trip, but I take one glance at ya and POW-” A suffocated clap. “Wheels hit gravel and we go spinning. Smack the bed into a telephone pole, knocked out power for a thousand families upstate.”
He said no one was hurt thanks to me. I was the only luck they had that night. Mom even paid for the damages because Paul didn’t have a license or insurance. My parents never mentioned an uncle, and sitting with him at the time, I wasn’t sure why. I learned so much from him living out there; how to start a fire, skin a rabbit, and pick out bird calls. He told everything about the past, life outside the city, and the reptilian government in Congress. He seemed to know so much and had an answer to every question. Nothing was off-limits.
“So why here?”
“They’re running a pattern around our way, either a tip-off or being extra fishy.” He sniffled and shifted the radio dial forward a touch. “This here’s a bushwhack on their parade route.”
“Yeah but how do-”
The hissing came first. Overriding the radio static and polluting the air with cracks and pops.
Then came the buzzing. A pulsing hum, sourceless in the sky and whining to be heard.
We both froze in place, just listening as the buzzing rose in volume. Inbound from the city, Paul muttered. He had been right. It was incessant. Always right above your head, as if it never heard of the Doppler effect. I had blocked it out before. You had to, as a self-defense mechanism, as a way to carry on with your day. It was why mom wore ear muffs to bed. Why dad took an umbrella on sunny days.
I pressed an eye to the black rubber scope and got to see the buzz up close. It was hard to settle on as it tracked just to our left. I felt Paul’s hand lift the front of the barrel to help with the weight. I could make out the distinctive wide-v tail fins, the flexing plank wings, the slender tadpole body supporting a bulbous tadpole head. Even at that distance I could see the eye under its chin swiveling about, combing through the hills in infrared.
“What now?” I said.
Paul exaggerated a frown and a shrug. “You tell me.”
I tried to settle my breathing and squared up the drone in my sights. Reached forward and flicked the antenna up. A radio icon started blinking in my peripheral. Pressing the trigger, a tone next to my ear overtook the hissing and buzzing. The radio icon went solid, my sights were good. I counted one heartbeat and squeezed the trigger all the way.
Everything after that happens in half a second. All the weight kicks forward, the back end pops up, and I almost lose the launcher from my double-handed grip. Paul keeps the front-end up and the missile slides out cold, waits a beat, then burns thrusters. The heat hit my face like a warm summer’s day. Before I could even register that, it’s already climbing. Twenty feet, forty, eighty, gone. A wafting contrail, ash grey, the only evidence it was ever there at all.
I lowered the scope and followed the trail up. Caught sight of the drone in all that blue just as it splintered. It blossomed bright reds and oranges, consumed by thick smoke that jellyfished in the sky as pieces arced and sailed away. The sound hit us two heartbeats later, a door in the heavens slamming shut.
Paul wooped and knocked me on the shoulder. “Nice shot, that’s all you, kid!”
I let the launcher fall and watched the lonely cloud float away. I was shaking but didn’t feel anything more, anything less.
Paul was laughing and cursing and really letting the bruised sky have it. I imagined some dam in him, built brick-by-brick over the years, had finally come to crack.
He smiled and looked down at me and beneath his frosted eyebrows I could see the water shimmer in his eyes. “That one’s for your ‘rents.”
We burned the camper that night. Set out across the open snow for a storage shed Paul had spotted near the resort. Some place to hide away for a while, he said. We huddled together beneath the rainbow cloak for anti-warmth, and pulled some essential junk on the sled. I wasn’t sure how things were going to turn out then. But I will always remember looking back at that bright bonfire- a glowing heart in the dark border between blue snow and velvet night. The buzzing overhead and hissing in our hands telling us one thing: keep moving.
Adam St. Pierre is a writer and journalist based in Vancouver.
Photo Credit: flicker.com/sasanusia