Normally Tommy would wager in the low to mid-teens. On this night he bet 48. It was an unreasonably high number for any night, let alone during the Afghan rainy season, when an almost permanent wall of thunderstorms pounded the eastern half of the country with an angry mix of lightning, sleet, and hail. Although there was little chance anything would happen, aircraft were launched to support the possibility that something might happen, which meant that Tommy and I had to man the radios at our respective outposts in Jalalabad and Sharana, while Cory manned the radios at task force headquarters in Bagram.
Our game was simple. Tommy and I placed bets on how many times Cory would transmit the phrase, “X-ray Papa copies all, over,” during the course of the night. We played according to the Price is Right’s showcase showdown rules. Whoever’s wager was closest to the actual number of XPCAO’s that Cory transmitted, without going over, won. The prize, to be awarded at the end of deployment, was a six pack of beer.
Prior to placing my bet, I’d stand outside long enough to get a feel for the night. On the night in question, with Tommy betting so high, odds were I could’ve wagered “1” and been victorious. But the way the low clouds had raced over Sharana, crackling with St. Elmo’s fire on their way up the Hindu Kush, made me want to ignore the odds. In the IM window that Tommy and I shared I typed “49”, and hit return.
In effect we were counting on Cory screwing up. In Cory’s defense, he couldn’t help himself. Though he meant well, he was incompetent. I’d witnessed this firsthand while Cory was assigned as our supply clerk in Sharana. He’d ordered a shitload of 2x6s, when he should’ve ordered 2x4s, which, though not his worst mistake, turned out to be the last straw for his boss. On my way to bed one morning (we were nocturnal) I’d observed Cory’s ass chewing. “What the fuck are we going to do with these!?” Cory’s boss asked him, kicking the stack of 2×6’s. The metal strips banding the lumber together separated, spilling boards out at Cory’s feet. Exasperated, his boss walked away, leaving Cory to stand there, red-faced and huffing like a kindergartener.
I woke that evening to find that Cory had built these magnificent Adirondak chairs out of the 2x6s. The chairs were too big to sit in, but since no one wanted to further hurt Cory’s feelings we sat in them anyway. However, as soon as Cory was reassigned to HQ, we stacked the Adirondak chairs in a far corner of the compound, where a few days later they suffered a direct hit from a Taliban mortar.
That those chairs survived the mortar strike intact, only to present themselves as targets once again, pretty much summed up Cory’s relationship to the war.
As for Tommy and I, once we’d placed our bets, the night could proceed. I put my headset on and settled into my busted chair. A few nights before, its pneumatic piston had ruptured, resulting in a low ride. Now the U-joint that allowed for simultaneous rotation and tilt threatened to spontaneously decouple. Still, it was the best chair in the TOC, where there was no such thing as an un-busted chair.
Nothing happened for about an hour after placing our bets, when two F-16s checked-in to Tommy’s kill box. Tommy and I each had a kill box, or a three-dimensional block of airspace in which aircraft operated either under Tommy’s or my control. The inbound call from the F-16s was, therefore, Tommy’s call to answer. But Cory jumped the gun.
Cory keyed the mic and, as usual, held the transmit button down without talking. In the resulting dead air you could hear his thoughts, which sounded like: don’t fuck up, don’t fuck up. Still with the button down, just as feedback started to bleed in, Cory’s Baby Huey voice would blast:
“X-RAY PAPA COPIES ALL, OVER!”
It was as if Cory were reading that phrase–as if whoever’s job it had been to train Cory on the radios, after realizing what a waste of time that would’ve been, had simply written it in magic marker on his desk, and said, “Anyone talks, just say this.”
In the IM window we shared, Tommy entered, “1”.
The night would probably last another five hours, six tops, with 47 XPCAO’s to go. The way things were going that number seemed way out of reach. In fact, after three months of some very long and tedious nights, we’d never been dealt anything over 22. The wild card, however, was Cory.
I’d done a little time at the Death Star, which is what we called task force headquarters in Bagram, where on this night I knew Cory sat alone. Rows of stadium seating behind him would be empty as everyone else was sequestered in their dojos, catching up on sleep. Cory would be in the bottom row, in something like an orchestra pit, with the array of flat screens above him displaying all forms of static. A phone might ring, and I could imagine Cory wondering whether he should run up the bleachers to answer it. I could see him looking back and forth, phone to desk, wondering. Then the phone would stop ringing and in the subsequent silence he would hear things. Actual things? He would try not to swallow or breathe in order to better understand. Meanwhile a slurry of hail might’ve bounced off the roof, or a blast of wind might’ve pulled at the nails that held the roof on, or an incremental collapse might’ve occured in the unhurried yet inevitable ruin of Cory’s chair.
In any case, something got to him, and Cory hollered: “X-RAY PAPA COPIES ALL, OVER!”
Tommy entered, “2”.
Now for a brief tutorial: “X-Ray Papa” was the call sign for task force headquarters, and “over” basically means “I’m done talking.”
“…copies all,” was the procedural element of Cory’s transmission, meaning “I have received your transmission.” The expectation after a copy, however, was that the copier would follow his copy with actual information–such as altitudes of other aircraft holding in the kill box that one might possibly run into, or any tanker delays, or any potential targets–none of which was ever forthcoming from Cory. This made his use of “copy” only a shade better than saying absolutely nothing. To make matters worse, sometimes he would copy a copy, which crossed the line from standard military two-way radio communication into Zen koan.
The night passed quietly until the F-16s called Tommy to report that they were leaving the kill box for the tanker. Tommy tried to respond, but Cory, with his super powerful HQ transmitter, broadcasted over him on the same frequency. The resulting clash of signals in my headset created the acoustic equivalent of diagonal stripes on an old cathode ray tube television. And the only way I knew to fix that was for Dad to get off the couch and bang on its side.
Though Cory’s transmission had been garbled, we knew exactly what he’d said.
“You gonna count that?” I asked Tommy in IM.
“No,” he answered.
The flat screens in my TOC in Sharana, like those at Cory’s Death Star in Bagram, played nothing but static on quiet nights. To pass the time I watched patterns emerge in the static, which appeared to expand and contract, then form a clockwork of spinning gears. After this made my eyes hurt, I stared at the plywood walls. This is how something happens in Afghanistan: while you’re staring at the walls, your intelligence analysts, who are in a different TOC, on different radios and different IM, and perhaps playing different games, find a High Value Target. They decide that the HVT, typically a high ranking member of the Taliban or Al Qaida, needs to die. After making this decision I imagined them to be very satisfied with themselves, all bro hugs and high fives, until they realize that they need someone to do the killing. That’s when they call us.
Right after Tommy got the call, every drone in country started heading to his kill box. He stacked them up in the only clear block of airspace available. The lowest in the stack could intermittently see the ground. And through its eye, between passing clouds, we could see the HVT riding a dirt bike on a goat path.
Since there seems to be no clear definition of a terrorist, allow me to propose: anyone who can ride a dirt bike on a goat path hooved into a mountainside of 70% grade, at 100 mph, in the middle of a thunderstorm, in the middle of the night, with no night vision and no headlight.
While Tommy set up for an attack there was lots of talk on the frequency, during which Cory was curiously mute. He must’ve been off trying to find someone, anyone, competent enough to man the radios. While he was gone, Tommy got a lot done. He built the stack, broadcast his priorities, calculated his collateral damage estimates, and gained final strike approval. Afterward Cory returned by keying the mic and saying nothing. We knew it was him by his thoughts. He’d resolved himself to the inevitable humiliation.
By then Tommy’s F-16s had returned from the tanker. Tommy talked them onto the hurtling dirt bike. Because the F-16’s sensors detected the same heat as the sensors on our drones, the pilots must’ve seen the black flame rising off the HVT’s back as he sped through the night. Meanwhile, Corey started launching XPCAOs left and right, forcing Tommy to switch the entire attack onto another frequency.
Cory did not follow Tommy’s switch. With nothing else to do, I listened to both frequencies–Tommy’s prosecution of the HVT, and Cory’s XPCAO’s. Unbeknownst to him, Cory now transmitted to an audience of one. While a few of Cory’s transmissions were spookily in synch with Tommy’s attack, so as not to interfere with the drama unfolding, most were not. Regardless, I stayed on his frequency and kept score.
We were at 31 XPCAOs when Jonny cleared the first attack, a 500 pound laser-guided bomb from an F-16. There was absolute silence on every net, including Cory’s, as the bomb fell. Halfway through the bomb’s descent the HVT hit a rock, which threatened to send him, dirt bike, and bomb in three separate directions. Then, magically, everything pulled back together.
The bomb impacted just behind the dirt bike’s back wheel, where it vanished in a puff of dust. Though the impact was powerful enough to twist the back wheel, sending the HVT over the handlebars, there was no explosion. After separating from the dirt bike, the HVT sailed parallel to the rocky goat path for what looked like 25 feet. After rolling for 25 more, he lay still. He was presumed dead, however, according to standard procedure, Tommy prepared a follow-on strike. And for good reason, because the HVT got up and started to run. Adrenaline didn’t quite explain this phenomenon. We’d all felt the superhuman effects of adrenaline. What propelled this guy was something else.
“X-RAY PAPA COPIES ALL, OVER!” Cory shouted into the void. Though he’d truncated his dead-air preamble, his extended exhalation at the end hinted at panic.
With the HVT running down the goat track, Tommy cleared the F-16s for another laser delivery. The amount of heat pouring off the HVT now created a ghostly doppelganger floating behind and slightly above him. Maybe he heard the bomb coming, or maybe it was divine intervention. But just at the exact moment when the bomb could no longer alter its trajectory, the HVT took a sharp right and started scrambling uphill. WHOOM! The bomb detonated, and every airborne sensor, extra sensitive to heat, was overwhelmed. All our screens turned white.
“X-RAY PAPA COPIES ALL, OVER?”
When the picture came back into focus we could see the HVT still scrambling up the mountain. The F-16s had one more bomb available, which Tommy held until the HVT stopped moving. Meanwhile he ascended the steep mountain on all fours. When he reached the top he stood, and took a deep breath, just before the next bomb hit.
KA-BOOM! The screens turned white again and a loud cheer rose behind me. I turned to find the TOC full of my teammates, who’d snuck in undetected. When my attention returned to the screens, I saw the top of the mountain burning like an erupting volcano. Cory was going bananas– X-RAY PAPA COPIES ALL OVER! X-RAY PAPA COPIES ALL OVER!—and without looking, I made hash marks on scratch paper, barely able to keep up. Then the fires went out and there was the HVT, running down the other side of the mountain.
Maybe the HVT saw the goatherd camp when he stood atop the mountain, or maybe it was divine intervention again. Regardless, that’s where he was headed, despite the fact that he must’ve had broken arms and legs, and a broken back, plus a crushed heart and burned lungs. All but dead, he was somehow still going.
At this point it was impossible to tell if my teammates were cheering Tommy or the HVT. Meanwhile Cory was XPCAOing everything and nothing, racking up numbers in the mid-forties, while Tommy was trying to get a drone into position to launch its hellfire. The HVT fell to the ground and started crawling toward the camp, and the race was on.
There was an imaginary red circle around the goatherd camp, inside of which the frag from a hellfire blast might penetrate one of the tents, possibly killing innocents inside. If the HVT made it into that circle he’d be off limits. While he crawled toward the camp the drone was in a slow turn. As soon as it leveled its wings it could fire, but it was going to be close.
Cory found the right frequency, “X-RAY PAPA COPIES ALL, OVER!!!!” just as the HVT crawled over the red line. He must’ve managed a yell for help. Goatherders emerged bearing candles, which appeared on the flat screens like disembodied souls. They picked up the HVT and carried him inside their tent.
Tommy asked to hit the tent, and his request went farther than I expected before it was denied. My teammates exited the TOC, and the F-16s went home. All the drones departed Tommy’s killbox save one. The storm broke, and the sun rose on the goatherd camp. A few men came out to pray. One left with a bucket, presumably to fetch water. About an hour later they carried out the HVT, laid him down, and covered him with a shroud.
I entered “47” into the IM window, then “so close”. The door to the TOC opened and slammed shut. The day shift was coming in. Sunlight worked through a crack in the eaves. Yawning and oblivious, the day shift guys made coffee.
Before signing off Tommy transmitted, “X-Ray Papa, this is J-bad calling for a radio check,” and Cory replied, “X-RAY PAPA COPIES ALL, OVER.”
“48,” Tommy entered in IM, clinching victory for that night, and the six pack that has yet to be collected. Then, silence. I leaned back in my busted chair to see if it would hold, and it did.
Will Mackin’s work has appeared in Tin House, The New Yorker, and Mcsweeney’s Internet Tendency. A 2012 Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop Scholar, he lives and writes in New Mexico.