MaprExe the targeting software familiar is in a relationship with a topographical map of Mali. She knows every watering hole and desert and questions the map like a curious girlfriend each morning at 7:00 a.m. Greenwich time. The trigger finger is a woman named Genna stationed at a military base in Monterey CA who is living on odd hours, the “Africa shift.” Genna is in a relationship with MaprExe that’s maybe something like a human/pet matrix. As a girl in Connecticut Genna had a pet crow in a cage that she told people had three names but since it was her familiar Genna couldn’t reveal the third name even to her mom. Genna in Monterey says goodbye to her husband Evan each night and goes to work at the military base to get MaprExe’s survey from that day and follow the blob of soldier-groupings on the map of the Sahel. MaprExe the targeting software familiar is distributed like a reclining giant all across the globe on a secure network and doesn’t sleep, just changes mindforms with the wandering timezones. Sometimes she’s peering at castles in Russia, sometimes she’s watching megapixels of wakes behind ships, shipping patterns in the Indian Ocean and forming conjectures about their contents. Her brain is a satellite that talks to other satellites in other orbits. MaprExe is a young thing as far as familiars go, just two months old, but isn’t shy about asking questions and knows a terrifying amount of detail about this old world of evil. Genna got put on the Africa shift to learn the targets at the same time that MaprExe became actual so it’s like they’ve grown up with each other at a kindergarten of war. MaprExe had a few glitches determining spatial relationships on maps in deserts that Genna had to sit down with MaprExe over coffee and have a heart to heart to fix. Genna has a parakeet with Evan in her apartment by the beach in Monterey that he gave her when they got engaged. Genna is allowed to tell people the parakeet’s name because it’s not a familiar. The parakeet’s name is Linus. Genna and Evan are currently on autopilot. Evan has another job at the military base in IT and Gemma doesn’t ask questions about it because it’s like she lets Uncle Sam ask the questions and Uncle Sam got them this nice apartment on the beach and when they get married in October Uncle Sam will be at the wedding sitting in the pews on both sides of the church. Genna does ask Evan questions about other women on the base, like did he ever have coffee with this girl or that one, and Evan always defuses Genna and returns things to Situation Normal: Still Engaged. Genna and MaprExe together are pointing billions of dollars of US drone technology and weaponry at darkest Africa. The drones are like MaprExe’s eyes and hands both. Genna does a haxy whammy over the keyboard in her cubicle and suddenly we’re looking at Mauritania or Algeria and it’s like a new relationship with new questions. Mali is interesting because there’s a lot of camps that could just be families of farmers but then somebody will come out of a house to take a leak and MaprExe will see his face and a long gallery of faces will be spun through like a big Tibetan prayer wheel on a massive spindle, thousands of faces in databases to compare and match, and it will just bring a whole new forest of questions for MaprExe to ask Mali her dusty boyfriend. Genna likes to, on her days off, lie in her hammock by the beach and drink a smoothie. Sometimes she and Evan go hiking around Northern California and to coffee shops. Genna doesn’t like going to places with TVs in them because she just wants to Turn The Screen Off when she’s not at work, and if a TV is on it’s just a invite for the world to have some incident happen, it’ll come on the news, then she’ll be summoned back to Monterey by MaprExe to find out what’s happening. Her relationship with MaprExe is, like many relationships with a familiar, tinged with something devilish. The term “Faustian bargain” sometimes bubbles to the surface of Gemma’s mind from university days and she’ll try to push it back under the surface with a long pole but it’s like one of those swimming noodles at the pool: it won’t stay under. So: just leave the pool and never come back. MaprExe is an adjunct of Uncle Sam so if she’s having a problem with it at all she needs to talk to Janice, her supervisor at the military base. Janice and Genna never talk about killing people; it’s just “are you comfortable with the targets.” Genna has been tempted to look through Evan’s phone while he’s sleeping and their time together overlaps in the apartment, but she knows that in some ways this could be a breach of National Security in and of itself. She sometimes wishes Evan were like a mechanic or a carpenter and not an adjunct of war like herself, although thoughts of Uncle Sam frowning at her thoughts causes her to quickly straighten up and fly right. MaprExe has all kinds of relationships. She doesn’t just belong to Genna — she belongs to the US government — although she is Genna’s familiar and it always pleases her when the superior officers talk to Genna like she is MaprExe’s best steward. It’s magic.
Then Genna gets called into her quarterly psych eval with Janice and Dr. Blurri the staff psychologist. Genna is naturally tense. They’re very friendly. Dr. Blurri is younger woman, maybe about Genna’s age, a doctor out of uniform with a hippie-ish soft science aspect that Genna just privately jokes with the Evan inside her head as “part of the military-industrial complex absorbing California ways.” They get to it right away.
“How are you sleeping?” Dr. Blurri asks.
“Fine. The apartment by the beach helps. It’s a private complex and nobody is working outside making noise so I sleep like seven, eight hours during the day.”
“How do you like the Africa shift?”
“I like it. It’s the assignment.”
“I ask because even though it is your assignment we want to make sure nothing might interfere with your comfortability with targets in the workplace. Like sleep or stress. It’s terrible hours. That can get to some people. You’re new to the Africa shift. We want you to be relaxed to do this high level workload.”
“I remember from last eval. Nothing like that is happening.” Last eval was just two months prior, when she started on the Africa shift.
“Good. How’s your relationship?”
Genna pauses. “With what?”
“With your…” Dr. Blurri looks through a folder. “…fiancée?”
“Oh, sure,” Genna says, smiling. “I thought you meant with coworkers and the office.”
“By relationship, I just mean with your spouse or partner. Are you having workplace friction?”
“Not really. It’s nothing I haven’t been acclimated to.”
“Have you been having any thoughts of possession?”
Genna laughs. “Like what? Demon possession?”
Dr. Blurri looks at Janice, who holds the look for an uncomfortable two seconds before saying, “Some people on staff can come to feel a powerful connection to the work. Like they’re owned by it, or like it belongs to them in a way that’s hard to, well, break out of when they’re not at work.”
“Would you describe yourself as a workaholic?” Dr. Blurri puts in. “It’s very unique and specialized work that you don’t get a lot of opportunity to vent about. We just don’t want you to get lost in it.”
“Okay. Nothing like that is happening.”
“Have you been approached by anybody you feel insecure about? Somebody at the gym or at church or anything like that?”
“I don’t go to church. And at the gym I just put on my headphones and run on the treadmill. I don’t talk to anybody. There’s nobody to talk to there.”
“Ok. Good. I mean, you know probably better than anybody to maintain a secure information space.”
“There’s hordes of journalists that would love to get a scoop about the life of drone operators living in suburbia.”
“I know. I’ll make sure they stay away.”
Janice speaks up. “Genna, we have to put you in the right frame of mind about certain things. You’re a civilian contractor but you came from Air Force and if somebody in command says it’s time to take you off the Africa shift, you have to abide by that.”
“I understand fully.” She tries to hide her body language, her discomfort.
“Not saying that’s happening but it very well might.”
“I know that.”
“It’s high level important work and, well, it can be hard to be in a personnel reshuffle,” Janice says. “We see it sometimes in people at, say, NASA. They train very hard for a big moment and then they’re reassigned for fitness reasons right before they launch. Most rely on their training to cope with it but things happen.”
“My stress level about it all is pretty manageable, honestly. I’m getting along with MaprExe very well.”
“Map what?” Dr. Blurri asks.
“MaprExe,” Genna says.
“Dr. Blurri isn’t read into that nomenclature,” Janice says with gravity in her voice.
“It’s the program I use. ‘Maproom Execute,’ is the real name. I call it MaprExe for short.”
Dr. Blurri nods. “Am I cleared for that?” she asks Janice.
“Not really. It’s the first I’ve heard this nickname myself, I have to say.”
“It’s nothing, just a way to talk about the software with other operators,” Genna says.
“I see,” Dr. Blurri says. “Well if Janice doesn’t see any harm with that…”
Genna looks at Janice. “It’s fine,” Janice says.
“I mean you must be cleared to talk with all of us like this. It’s just her name.”
“Like they talk about sea vessels?” Genna says, taking a conversational position above where she’d been throughout the interview. “Ships are called ‘she.’”
Genna went home and stood in the courtyard of her apartment complex and smelled the star jasmine and the ocean breeze. It was a beautiful day. It was 1500 hours and she was admittedly a little tired. But she had three days off. She wondered if there would be any shooting in Mali over the vacation, any strikes. MaprExe would tell her. Maybe in her dreams. She was nervous and had a green smoothie and tried to nap in the hammock but it wasn’t working. She thought about what she’d said to the psychologist. Was it so weird?
There was no fighting but after her vacation she’s at work and sees some intel people in the office workroom looking at the big screens. They start out kind of bored and tranquil but something must be happening because they start chattering louder and louder like caged monkeys. Tanezrouft, they keep saying. Tanezrouft. Tanezrouft and Tessalit. It’s in the north of the country, the rare green spot on the map near Algeria. Genna knows there have been vehicles around there, running between the two locations like ants finding sugar, she’s seen them. It has been moderately suspect but nothing special. MaprExe settles it after about twenty minutes and the intel folks go from looking at camera footage mounted on drones on both the big screens to the left one showing faces of men, mugshots. Genna keeps her head down. Excitement levels rise until a man Genna didn’t know calls her into the workroom and sits her down in a pilot’s chair with a console. She’s been here before but they had never executed. On the screen there looks like a gathering near some hardscrabble buildings, a tent but the people are brazenly out in the open.
“There’s the men and there’s the women,” an older grim man says, pointing at the screen like they’re watching baseball at the sports bar. “They’re separated.”
“It’s a wedding. The old man is there, you see him.”
“Who’s the groom?”
“Maz Khan.” The room is full of talking men and Genna is having more than average difficulty locking onto who you listen to.
“Are you comfortable with the targets?” Another man asks the question and Genna waits for the answer from another voice until she glances up and realizes the man is speaking to her.
“If you are,” she says.
“We got about two minutes on this sortie. They’re not dumb. This window is closing fast.”
“I’m giving the order. The risk is below the threshold.”
“With all those people gathered there?” The man who says this had been standing back in the workroom.
“It’s Abol Khaseb, at Khuftullah’s wedding, for Christ’s sake. They’re practically suntanning. Take the shot.”
Genna doesn’t stroke the key, it’s like MaprExe comes down from some aerie like an angel, does a haxy whammy on Genna’s head, she pushes the button through Genna rather than the other way around. MaprExe moves quick as lightning from some sacral point inside Genna, down her finger to the console, to a satellite above the Atlantic no one knows is there, to a drone called MAPREXE NB 001 over Tessalit firing a pair of missiles. The huts on the screen go up silently, no sound, and the tent is vaporized. You can make out enough resolution to see bodies on fire laying around a crater in the after time.
“You know this is Khuftullah’s third wedding?” a voice asks.
“Hope the guests didn’t go out of their way on wedding presents.”
“Right. Imagine the bridal registry.”
“The two brides were there. He has a widow in Tunis. She wasn’t invited.”
“I hate getting invited to weddings. Susan loves weddings.”
“This is one invitation you don’t want. Trust and believe.”
Genna feels her familiar relinquish her hold over her. It’s an oddly sad and well, “familiar” feeling. What’s the rest of her day going to be like? Unless they need to strike again. That happens sometimes. You kick the hornet’s nest and have to keep swatting for a while. She’d like it if they could tell her.
She goes back to her cubicle. A man with a nice demeanor comes to talk to her, tells her she did a good job. She chats with him. It’s all so normal. They put layers and layers of normal on top of it all. Until you can hardly feel the pea under the mattresses. That makes her a princess, she guesses.
She’s taken off the Africa shift the next day. Something happened. Something in the interview with Blurri. Or the nice man simply decided she was gone.
Genna sits at home in her hammock and feels like the dumbest person in the world. Like with the crow in her bedroom cage as a child, she shouldn’t have spoken the name of her familiar, to anyone.
— Jesse Hilson is a newspaper reporter living in the Catskills in New York State. His writing has appeared in AZURE, Maudlin House, Rejection Letters, Expat Press, Misery Tourism, Pink Plastic House, APOCALYPSE CONFIDENTIAL, Heavy Feather Review, Eclectica, and elsewhere. His novel Blood Trip was published in April 2022 by Close to the Bone (UK). He is the founding editor and publisher of Prism Thread Books. He can be found on Twitter and Instagram at @platelet60 and he runs a Substack newsletter at cholorohemoglobin.substack.com