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Machines of Kali

1. The Scientist

High above the Islamabad suburb, a Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicle circled at an altitude of ten thousand feet. At that height, it was invisible to the eye. Mounted on the bottom of its fuselage, a high speed digital video camera recorded everything below it. Above it, a geosynchronous satellite transmitted its signal, in turn, back to the warship U.S.S. Courage.

Every eye in the ship's weapons room was focused on this video feed. Across a dozen different screens, its blurry image came into focus. A sprawling, one-story adobe house revealed itself. From the camera’s height, the building looked like a child’s sandbox mold.

The young comm officer wouldn’t turn away from his screen. “Sir,” he said, “we have confirmation. The target is on site.”

The Captain ordered, “Lieutenant Ellison, you may engage.”

Ellison uttered one word, “Fire.”

The sailor nearest him flipped a switch. A deep basso rumble shook the room. On the deck of the giant warship, a fuse blew off a silo cover. The Tomahawk Cruise missile burst forth, its burning exhaust filling the sky as it sped off over the horizon.

Rocketing at two thousand miles per hour at an altitude of one hundred feet, it cut a swath of backwash over the choppy waters. Deep inside its steel hull, a microchip communicated with a Global Positioning Satellite. They triangulated its path over the Indian Ocean. Relentlessly, the Tomahawk hurtled forward, carrying its uncanny warhead toward an unknowing target.

“Alpha-bravo away,” said the sailor. “Time to target, six minutes.”


Six minutes.

Far off in his safe-house in Islamabad’s suburb, Abdullah al-Qawi shoved a clump of goat meat into his mouth. While the cloth-bound burqas of his wives floated in the background, he listened to his sons. They talked with the languor of the entitled, recounting their previous night’s adventures at the dance clubs.

Abdullah was a pious man. He did not approve of his sons’ dancing. Or drinking. Or womanizing. But Abdullah was also an urbane man. He realized that today’s younger generation partook of many pleasures that were denied to the older. So it had ever been. So it would ever be.

“Faiz, Ude,” he said to his sons, “have you heard anything from your friend Rawal? I do miss him.”

“Oh, Father,” said the short one Faiz, “you know he’s busy in Tora Bora fighting the Americans. He hasn’t been in Islamabad in months.”

“Yes, but I thought perhaps he had tired of that and came back. You know I would give him a place in my army.”

“Of course, Father,” said the tall one Ude, “but who knows? Perhaps he is dead.” The two boys laughed – no sentimentality here.

Their father sighed. Though he had ordered thousands of deaths, it still bothered him that his children were so jaded. What Abdullah did, he did for the ages. Children today, though, they were a different breed. They drank, they danced, they had no respect for the laws of god or man. What kind of a world was he fighting for, that it would be inherited by such as these?

Though he did not realize it, he and his feckless progeny had less than six minutes to live. His courier Jabbar - betrayer to the end - was already half a kilometer away, running as fast as his cotton robes would let him. Outside the window, Abdullah’s neighbors continued their eternal drift. Overhead, the sun burned hot.


When the Tomahawk Cruise missile passed from water onto land, it switched from G.P.S. guidance to TERCOM. The Terrain Contour Matching program compared the signal from its altimeter to a digital map stored in its computer. Tick by tick, the missile correctd its flight path continuously, guiding itself over the uneven surfaces of mountains, hills, and river beds. Three thousand pounds of steel hurtled over the Pakistani territories well under radar cover.


There would be no warning.

As the Tomahawk vectored into the Indus River Valley, its servomotors finalized the aileron deployment. Navigating the passageway north by northeast at supersonic speed, it bore down upon the sandy suburb of Islamabad. If a human eye had been aboard the missile, it would have beheld a magnificent vista of low-slung buildings hovering under a cover of gently swirling zephyrs.

Ten thousand feet above this landscape, the Predator flashed a laser downward to spot the house underneath. The Tomahawk, fixing upon this laser light as a homing beacon, switched from TERCOM to direct targeting, and guided itself to its final destination. Inexorably, the Cruise missile sliced toward the bayt of Abdullah al-Qawi.

Time to impact: thirty seconds.


Thirty seconds.

Abdullah had thirty seconds to live. In thirty seconds, he would be vaporized into nothingness. All of his armed guards were powerless. All of his followers were meaningless. All of his wealth was worthless.

Twenty seconds.

Outside in the street, passers-by heard the droning roar coming from the south. Those versed in the sounds of war knew what it meant: fate was bearing down. Everyone ran for cover, sheltering themselves with walls and diving into the earth.

Ten seconds.

Inside the house, of course, they heard nothing. With a solemn attitude, Abdullah turned to his sons. In the last ten seconds of his life, he admonished them, “You should really pay more respect to your friend Rawal. Paradise awaits him.”


The Tomahawk slammed into the bayt at eighteen hundred miles an hour. In a millisecond, compressed particles exploded outward, propelling fragments of its steel sheath through the furniture, walls and inhabitants of the building. Hyperpressurized air molecules blew apart the flimsy adhesion of the clay material, followed by shock waves that flattened the remaining tissues and organs of al-Qawi and his family.

Outside the bayt, vehicles and people were shredded by the debris blowing through them. Secondary fragmentation followed, and a cyclone of metal flayed the remaining bystanders in every direction. Under the heat of the blast, some of the cars caught fire and burned, creating a chorus line of destruction up and down the avenue.

Inside the bayt, the explosion had created a vacuum at its epicenter. As the air rushed in to fill the void, it created a high-velocity wind that pulled everything left – glass, furniture and body parts – into the core. They collapsed into a pressurized, heated mass, whose swirling waves of smoke spewed upward into a mushroom cloud of monstrous proportions. Black and vile, it billowed over the neighborhood, casting the world into darkness.

Against this hideous gloom, only the flickering flames of the burning cars provided any respite. In their dim glow, dying people and animals could be seen crawling over the ground, choking in the mist. After a minute, the strong desert wind returned. It blew away enough smog overhead for a shaft of sunlight to reveal the devastation underneath.

Ten thousand feet above the explosion, the Predator’s digital camera continued to transmit. In the control room of the U.S.S. Courage, a burst of white blinded the video screens. A cheer erupted. When the image came back, it was clear. One moment the bayt was there; the next it was not.

Captain Mulroney, with a satisfied look on his face, stepped forward. He spoke into the microphone, “Target is destroyed. Repeat. Target is destroyed.”


At the Pentagon, the Under Secretary or Defense, Edgar Lemon, sat back from the video monitor. For a few seconds, he stared at the Predator’s silent transmission. Through the haze of pixelated dust, he could barely see the burning cars. But he clearly saw the hole where Abdullah al-Qawi’s house had been.

In his office, there were two other people. One was a ferret-faced man with a bowler hat, wearing a dark blue pinstripe suit. The other was a striking woman with dark hair, attired in a jet-black pantsuit. Both wore I.D. tags emblazoned with ‘Delta-4’.

Lemon turned to the woman, and said, “You get that, Dr. Anderson? Target is destroyed.”

“That was weak,” replied Robin Anderson. “Weak. You know we’re going to get hammered for this. You know that. We took out a dozen bystanders. At least.”

The Under Secretary was seventy years old; when he smiled, the wrinkles on his face contorted in unison. He turned to the man, and said, “Director Snyder, I appreciate that your subordinate here, Dr. Anderson, has opinions. Perhaps, in the future, she can keep them to herself. Especially when she’s addressing officers in the field.”

Morris Snyder’s face turned red. “Yes, sir. She was only offering what she thought was a professional assessment.”

Dr. Robin Anderson leaned forward, her face hardening. “Mr. Under Secretary, Archer will change all of this. Once Archer goes online, those ‘officers’ will be looking for new work. This kind of warfare will be considered barbaric, a relic of the stone age. And it should be. Collateral damage like this can’t go on.”

Lemon smiled indulgently as he addressed his naïve charge. “Dr. Anderson, you know better than that. Archer won’t change anything. After all, this is war,” he said. “In war, there will always be collateral damage.”


2. The Detective

These kids were a sullen lot. No surprise.

Neither was it a surprise that they had congregated so quickly at the corner of Twenty-Sixth and Cermak. Here in Chicago’s inner city, crime scenes attracted attention like the circus. The police were Andy Frains, their Mars lights Klieg lamps, and all those howling sirens screamed, over and over and over: Showtime!

But, really. Did these guys need to bring the clown act? Everything they wore was so oversized, so festooned with cartoons, that the only thing missing was the tiny car. Carlos had always thought these young men dressed like the world’s largest six-year-olds. Acted like them, too. They slouched, they fidgeted, and they twisted their baseball caps in every conceivable direction – right, left, rear. Anywhere but forward.

And those pants. Their baggy jeans hung so far below their buttocks that the entire street had a clear view of their designer underwear. A few of them, by jamming their hands into their pockets, had dragged their belt lines almost to their ankles, as though they were pulling off their pants for a prostate exam by John Wayne Gacy’s clown doctor.

From the other side of the yellow tape, Carlos Rios appraised these man-children. To a cap, they glared back. In a strange way, he understood. Their dull insolence masked a mindless yearning for respect. To each other, they were the princes of the city. To Carlos, they were fugitives from the juvenile ward at Chernobyl.

Jesus H. Christ, he thought, here they are - Chicago’s best and brightest, the future of the Western World.

“What happened?” he asked.

They stirred, but stayed silent. Carlos rubbed his goatee. These guys were mopes.

Glancing up and down Cermak Avenue, he saw rush hour rubber-neckers backing up five blocks out in both directions. He turned to the cop beside him, “Who’re these kids?”

The cop looked over his shoulder at the motley crew. “Just bystanders, Detective Rios. They were here when the first responders arrived.”

“Responding to …?”

“Got a nine-one-one call. A motorist said there was a stiff by the road. He didn’t give his name. Said he was late for work.”

Carlos grunted, “Uh-huh.”

“Anyway, here’s where we’re at.” The cop flipped through his notebook. “The victim here is a sixteen-year-old Hispanic male. Name Hector Vaccaro. We I.D.’ed him from his wallet. Called his house, asked his mother about his whereabouts. She said he went out today – she don’t know.”

“His mother don’t know what? Where he went earlier, or where he ended up?”

The cop hesitated, “Uh, both, sir.”

“No one told her?”

“Figured you may want to do that, Detective Rios.”

“Friggin’ great.” Rios muttered. He stopped, started over. “Ok, sure, I got it. Listen, you get together with Detective Jackson and see if you can find any witnesses.” The fresh faced cop – a rookie, no doubt – turned and melted into the crowd. Rios followed him with a coy smile.

These Academy grads. They get smaller every year.

Rios turned once to check his back, then followed the yellow ribbon. Down the sidewalk, Hector Vaccaro waited patiently. Laying face up in the gutter, his sightless eyes were focused on the video store across the street. Underneath him, a rivulet of blood swirled from his corpse into a nearby sewer hole.

While the bystanders stood by, Rios bent down, snapped on plastic gloves, and inspected the body. Hector didn’t mind. He was almost drained, his expression pale. Rios probed the boy’s torso for a bullet hole – nothing. Then, his head – bingo.

Pulling the hair back, right at the top, a small entrance hole. The wound was unusual. There was minimal bruising trauma, not much blood either. It looked like an ice-pick penetration.

A sunbeam crossed the asphalt. A glint of light flashed in Rios’s eyes. Kneeling down to get a closer look, he saw a shiny steel fragment embedded in the pavement, covered in blood. When he focused on it, he saw that it was long and cylindrical with three fins at the back. At first glance, it resembled a dart, like those they threw at the Twilite Club. Those, though, had cheap wings made of plastic, and needle tips that broke like condoms. This was different.

This was a dart on steroids. It was eight inches long, and its metallic fins, as steely as the body itself, seemed to be molded directly into its barrel. Its tip was not so much a needle at the head as a sharpening of the body. Rendered all the more lethal by its inch-thick diameter, the stubby, contoured spike looked just plain mean.

Carlos knew. It had to be the murder weapon