by Louis Evans
Author’s note: This piece relies on a fantasy about drone weapons, the fantasy that has animated the past two decades of US drone attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere. These killings were sold to the American and global publics based on a lie: that drone war is not war. This is false. Building robots to hunt and kill strangers is not a clean, orderly, responsible affair. Like any war, it is instead a knowing policy of the bloody slaughter of innocents. This story engages with that fantasy, but we should not.
* * *
The half-dozen screens split the feed from the drone into a spider’s kaleidoscope vision. Night ops in the suburbs. Dark detached houses. Sparse trees. The drone’s onboard AI effortlessly avoided a handful of telephone wires as it cruised toward the target’s home. Look ma, no joystick; the operator controlled it with no more than an occasional keystroke.
The drone glided into standoff range. Hovered in place. The view showed a handful of darkened windows, one illuminated behind cheap Target curtains. Blue light—no flickering. Someone having a late night online. Heat vision superimposed itself in the drone: a single figure, in bed with a laptop.
A hitherto dark screen lit up; white command line on black background scrolled past as the drone hacked its way into local Wi-Fi and cell networks. Page after page of code, and then a single flashing number: a cell phone MAC address. Whoever was lounging on that bed, he had the target’s cell in his pocket.
“I told you. We don’t engage until we have visual confirmation that the subject is the target.”
A hard look.
“This isn’t the army, you’re not my fucking boss—”
“We processed this. We have consensus. Follow the plan.”
“ . . . fine.”
The drone, unnoticed, was still hacking on autopilot. Another screen flared in the darkness: the subject’s laptop screen, mirrored. Yet another: the subject’s webcam, activated in secret.
They studied the subject’s face in the dark cavern of the command center. Pale skin, hint of stubble, sharp jaw. Cheekbones that in another light might have been handsome, but between the lip sneer and the witchlight of the laptop seemed heartless instead.
But nobody could identify the target by his face.
Long hours rolled by. They watched the subject browse the Internet. They watched him scroll through Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and pornography. They watched him fire off anonymous comments with abandon, dripping with sexualized derision; they watched him write with greater care and restraint on named platforms. “I just think that as a female, you haven’t considered both sides—”
“It’s obviously him.”
“We don’t engage without visual confirmation.”
“It’s been three fucking hours. Are you going to make me wait all night outside of this scum’s house?”
“As many nights as we—”
Chimes. The subject had grabbed his phone, thumbed it on. A steady beeping and then the drone hacked that phone, too, mirrored it onto one of their screens.
Social media app. The target slid along the feed, clicked on a random woman’s profile picture. Zoomed in. Opened direct messaging to an empty page. Activated his camera.
On the heat vision screen, the red-glowing mannequin fumbled at his crotch.
Lurid and red like beef tongue in a butcher’s shop, the subject’s penis appeared on the screen in the light of his phone’s camera.
And again, and again; a series of photographs.
“It’s gotta be—”
“Let the computer make the call. We need to be certain.”
The final program of the evening, long dormant, spun into action. The subject’s penis—the target’s penis—the image recognition neural net that had studied the penis over and over with machine monomania, memorizing its features, its aesthetic fingerprint. It drew from the extensive corpus of unsolicited and nonconsensual dick pics the strike team had collated.
One after another the subject’s photographs lit up with green borders. Ninety-eight, ninety-seven, ninety-eight, ninety-nine point nine nine nine nine—
The subject was the target.
Just a few more of those keystrokes. A single finger stabbed the return key.
Miles away in that suburban street, the drone’s rotors climbed from a buzz to a whine. It fought for height. One story, two, three—
At twenty meters above the ground the drone folded its wings and dove like a falcon.
A rush of air—the tinkle of glass, nothing worse than neighborhood kids putting a baseball through the window—
On the control room screens, in loving slow motion, the feed from the high-speed cameras came as the drone hurtled into the room. The target’s face slack with that emotion that precedes even surprise, his eyes hunting for the source of the noise. In multifarious megapixels, his penis turgid in his hand, the loving tracery of automated target acquisition caressing its every ridge and fold—
That orgasmic spike and ejaculatory gush in the capacitors as all four megawatt lasers fired in unison—
Then darkness, as the successful drone neatly imploded. A little death.
Hugs, cheering, applause in the command center. Champagne and kombucha and the rush of voices who felt the sudden release of tension long banked.
And in that suburb, miles distant, a hand enveloping a void; a neatly cauterized stump. A man unmanned.
* * *
It was not the first man so wounded who went to the police. Nor was it the second.
It is tempting to speculate as to the motives of those men who kept the secret, who entered into a pact of silence with their mutilators. Who gouged a small hole in the burnt flesh of their genitals and pissed sitting for the rest of their private lives, who ended relationships and friendships and sauna-on-Thursday appointments without warning or explanation. But it is impossible to know the motives of those who move in silence.
If they feared ridicule, they were not wrong to do so.
It was perhaps the sixth or the tenth or the dozenth man who went to the police.
The officers laughed at him, of course. “Sure, buddy. A drone vaporized your dick. Okay.”
He insisted, and so they said, “Show us.”
He would not show them. He had nothing to show and said so. They accused him of lying, threatened him with making a false report, shooed him out of the station.
It was easy to imagine the first man a lone nut, in light of his lack of hard evidence. The victims were spread out enough that few police stations had more than one reporter. Those that did attributed the sudden rash of strange claims to a postmodern penis panic.
But if you cauterize off the penises of the scum of the Internet in an area hundreds of miles wide you will eventually evaporate the member of a man whose rage outpaces his shame.
Keiran Kemski stood in the police station lobby, pants and boxers around his ankles. The boxers were patterned with a repeating motif of (turgid) cock-and-balls and pursed red lips. Kieran’s penis was entirely gone.
“Yeah!” he shouted. “A fucking drone vaporized my fucking cock! What are all you sniveling cucks going to do about it?”
What they did, eventually, was book him for public indecency. Mr. Kemski’s testicles remained unvaporized and entirely visible throughout his public petition, and under the eyes of the law the balls are just as bad.
But it could no longer be denied that at least one drone had vaporized at least one penis belonging to at least one American citizen. If the government cannot protect American penises from vaporization, what use is it anyway?
The machinery of justice ground slowly into action. The police made, as it is said, their enquiries. It took a gentler touch than they were used to but as the cops massaged the public, more and more victims began to drip out. Police departments went through the Voltron-origami jurisdictional contortions of such cases; they assembled an interagency taskforce.
As pure policework, the case was a nightmare. Like all the worst features of a serial killer. Nothing connected the victims. They were of different ages, races, nationalities. They lived in different cities and towns and worked different jobs. The sexual angle was obvious, but even there the victims had nothing in common. Virgins and playboys and husbands and everything in between. No shared jilted lovers, no previous connections.
It is said: fish do not know that they’re wet. Sturgeon Holmes would never solve a case of drowning.
The detectives were not idiots. They asked: did you take pictures of your penis? So-called “dick pics,” they said, fingers heavy as they inscribed quotation marks in air. Did you send these dick pics to people on the Internet? Did you, maybe, send those pictures of your penis to strangers, to uninterested parties, to those who might have found these images unwelcome?
And the victims said, well, yeah. Doesn’t everybody?
* * *
The cops kept a handle on things as the tide of victims swelled. Kept things quiet for months.
No noise but no progress either. A succession of drones had vaporized these dicks—but everyone and their kid brother had a drone. They cost maybe four, five times as much as a burrito. The average suburban street saw a drone every six minutes. Amazon, or fast food, or something illicit. If the DEA can’t stop a drone from delivering heroin and ecstasy to your house in fifteen minutes or your money back—and they can’t! snort some blow and call your senator!—how the hell could local California police departments hunt down a handful of dick-seeking killbots among millions?
The tension grew, but the grip of the police held. No need to panic the penis-packing public.
And then the perps hit a celebrity.
TooChill was a streamer, a vlogger. He’d broken out as one of the leading lights of the second wave “extreme unboxing” craze; ridden that for a while. Fallen into obscurity and climbed back out of it for his willingness to skirt the edges of sexual acceptability on the major streaming services. He was perhaps best known for his “I’d Hit It” monthly show where he had sex with whatever had won last month’s poll. Sure, he never showed his junk on camera but it somehow managed to be all the more tasteless for that. Giant eggplant emojis plastered over his groin as he coupled madly with the latest children’s toy craze.
Turned out Mr. Chill was as explicit with his female fans—regardless of their age—as he was coy with his public. Somehow the controversy only redoubled his fame, dectupled his income.
One morning TooChill was live streaming YouTube and placed his emoji-censored penis in the mouth of a sex doll cruelly painted to resemble one of his more public critics. There was a high, sharp whine from outside the frame. The sound of shattering glass. A flash too bright for the screen.
And then the camera stumbling as the crew rushed to surround the fetal and de-phallused form of their erstwhile meal ticket.
Two million were streaming live; nearly one hundred million watched it in the next twenty-four hours.
Cops couldn’t keep a lid on it so they looked the public right in the camera and lied like a politician who knows the journalists have only found one of many, many orgy-frequenting mistresses. “We believe this was a one-time attack. We’re following every lead. The public has nothing to fear.”
There were bubblings and murmurings from conspiracy-minded corners, but the crust of denial held for four more days.
Rockford Beauregard was a movie star turned podcast host turned dispenser of hoary advice chestnuts from a wise old millennial to the riotous menagerie of generations that had followed. His wisdom was simple, homespun, and clear. “Never post something online you wouldn’t say to your grandma. Your armpits and your email—they both need a thorough cleaning.”
In the post-#MeToo world it must be admitted that Rockford—real name Cadyn Vittner—had a well-publicized track record of a certain level of rapey indelicacy with his girlfriends.
In the post-post-post-post-#MeToo world in which Rockford lived, it was not necessary to deny these facts, or even to smear these unfortunate exes overmuch. Everyone just sort of shrugged and got on with things.
And so the tone of triumph was no surprise when indie feminist webnewszine Bitch?! gleefully broke the story that Mr. Beauregard’s penis had been obliterated in the bathroom at his podcast studio during a commercial break.
The floodgates burst, and the truth came roaring out. Not just celebrities and the vocationally odious, but also titans of industry and commerce, the extremely quiet and exceptionally rich. Most damningly: the frighteningly ordinary. Men who lived lives of quiet satisfaction and leavened that satisfaction with a thoroughly commonplace smattering of cruelty and online nonconsensual cockshots.
CNN skyped Lorena Gallo, nee Bobbit, at her Florida retirement home. The chevrons indicated that the anchorman was broadcasting from an “undisclosed location.” For some reason, Lorena laughed, rolled back over in bed, hung up on them.
The Governor of California called for all drones to be grounded throughout the state. Amazon’s regional director of PR made it clear that if this happened the Governor would lose his recall election before he could fly back from his “fact-finding trip” in Thailand. And, in fact, the Governor proved remarkably loathe to return to California, land of the unregulated drone army. For some reason.
Within days the first manifestoes began to drop, claiming credit for the attacks. Soon there were dozens, thousands. Most were that dull commonplace of the selfie-cam age: the talking head, captured addressing its own image. A few had real production values; women and genderqueer shock troops posing like Black Panthers, laser pointers in one hand and drone chassis in the other. One of them was put out by an anarchist circus.
Of course the police, the state troopers, the FBI, and, when relevant, the highway patrol, questioned these purported perps. But none of them were, in fact, responsible.
The reign of terror continued. Dick pics dropped to a planetary low not seen since the days of the daguerreotype. Bottled-up misogynists were reduced to shouting at women in their actual lives, who then had the option of hitting them over the head with various handy implements.
When a sting operation finally nabbed the mysterious assailants, the world breathed out a sigh that quavered between relief and disappointment.
* * *
The Direct Intervention Castration Kommittee was, in the end, exactly as most had expected. Six sexual radicals and intersectional feminists, squatting together in a warehouse in a mid-sized city in the East San Francisco Bay. Three were dropouts of prestigious engineering programs—Advanced Artificial Intelligence and Aeronautics, the pre-drone-war track—and the other three were their polyamorous lovers. Diverse in race and gender identity in the longstanding California fashion.
The news cameras hovered lasciviously over shared beds and homebrewed kombucha and the warehouse detritus of countless fruitless protests. (Literally hovered: newsdrones.) None of them would sit for interviews or reply to shouted questions from human reporters or crowdsourced drone screamers. Only once did the mask crack. Reporters managed to separate “Sister Gloria” (birth name: Sofia Julieta Maria Istavez Martinez) from the other five defendants. They showed her a video of her teenage speech at a high school protest, her impassioned and precise words in favor of nonviolent civil disobedience. “How did you go so wrong?” they asked.
“It worked, didn’t it?”
And then the guards and lawyers managed to muscle her away.
* * *
The Committee did not plead guilty; they lawyered up and prepared to fight every charge. And so: voir dire, the choosing of a jury.
“Are you familiar with the Direct Intervention Castration Kommittee?”
“Never heard of them.”
“They were the ones who vaporized the genitals of—”
“Oh. Oh! Them.” A certain shifting in the seat, hands drifting down innocently between the legs.
“Yeah, I, uh—I don’t think, you know, I could be really fair—in a case like that—”
And again and again, until sixty candidate jurors sat in the box.
The prosecutor coughed. “Your honor, it does not escape the State’s notice that not one of the potential jurors is in possession of a penis.”
“The state feels that a jury that is immune to the crimes committed by the perpetrators cannot possibly—”
“Your point, counselor?”
“The state requests permission to offer extraordinary protection to candidate jurors.”
They offered anonymizing masks and titanium jockstrap cups alongside witness protection. They offered round-the-clock defense drones and free relocation to tropical paradises and guaranteed synthetic replacement penises, paid for by the government. And what do you know, they scraped and scrounged and managed to empanel a jury.
Didn’t help much, though; after six months of closed-chambers trial and seven days of deliberation the jury returned a verdict: it was hung.
The State heaved a long-suffering sigh and set about trying to find a brand-new jury composed of at least fifty percent accidental eunuchs. One bright afternoon a phalanx of men in boring suits appeared at the prison, said that Uncle Sam needed the Committee for his research projects on next-generation drone-slash-psych warfare, and made them disappear off the face of the earth.
Well, maybe it really was Uncle Sam. Every three-letter agency denied it, for all the good that does. Maybe—the theory got out—it was an undetected arm of Committee sympathizers who all rolled natural twenties on their bluff checks. Maybe a foreign power. Maybe little grey men from space. In the age of the post-truth net, one loses track of easy answers.
There were, at least, no more dick-pic-targeted-penis-vaporizations attributed to the Committee. And the wave of copycat attacks was no larger than expected, and generally less well-organized. But still, decades later, all across the nation and indeed the globe, whenever men reached for their phallus with one hand and their phone with another, that low drone whine could stop them dead in their tracks.
Louis Evans is against cruelty in all its myriad forms. His fiction has previously appeared in Vice, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Nature: Futures, Analog SF&F, Interzone and more. He's online at evanslouis.com and Mastodon at wandering.shop/@louisevans.