InvisibleDepleted Uranium Forever

The intruder strode through the kill zone, an amphitheater of yellow sunburnt grass on the edge of a crumbling granite escarpment. He wore baggy shorts and hiking boots—not black PJs and sandals—and advanced parallel to the ridgeline. Loyal could place a bullet through the center of the target’s lizard brain from this distance, even with the crappy scope on his souvenir Winchester. He preferred not to shoot unless it counted for something.

The best course would be to summon Royce and his special brand of intimidation and bluster. Loyal rolled onto his back on the dirty sleeping bag he used for a pad and keyed the walkie. “Intruder incoming two-zero-five degrees. Copy.”

No response. Plus, Royce wouldn’t have a clue what direction to look. Loyal keyed the walkie again. “That’s south south-west, dummy. Acknowledge.”

Nothing but static.

Loyal eased his barrel over the lip of the hide site. He’d need to take action before the target topped the chaparral and ascended to the granite outcrops offering cover. From there the terrain would funnel him into the pocket ravine and the dope crop hidden behind a screen of firs.

Loyal experienced a great temptation to squeeze off a round, as he’d done sixty-six confirmed times in Uncle Sam’s Youth-in-Asia program. The number didn’t mean squat, because most times Loyal shucked the spotter and observer so as not to increment the official body count, which Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and the Joint Chiefs jerked off to every afternoon back at the Pentagon. The war became more about making up numbers than liberty, dominos theories or any of that other crap. Lying with numbers became so detestable that Loyal had developed a lifelong aversion to tallying or being tallied.

His finger ached as the blonde hiker picked his way up through yellow grass and prickly pear. He carried some kind of pack with a robot monkey perched high above his head. The load appeared heavy, but the intruder gave no indication of trouble with the incline or awareness of potential ambush.

Loyal keyed the walkie again to raise Royce, his oblivious son. “Yo howdy. We got us a visitor. Intercept, stat. Copy now, goddamn it.”

He timed the lack of response against tin can heartbeats—one one-thousand BOOM, two one-thousand BOOM, three one-thousand BOOM—before buttoning the walkie one last time. “Boy, you’d best move your fat ass pronto or they’ll be hell to pay. Copy.”

Royce did not emerge from behind the rock buttress. Loyal had no choice but to engage. He backward belly crawled, rolled into a crouch on aching joints and spider walked to avoid a ridgeline silhouette. Lurching down the back shoulder of the hill, he favored the good leg to avoid the bone-on-bone spikes of pain from the bad hip. It took two minutes to gain the deer trail. He wheeled around the outcrop and almost bowled over Royce.

“Holy Christ,” Royce yelled, swinging his chrome Smith & Wesson in Loyal’s direction before swerving it skyward. “You scared the shit out of me old man.”

Loyal clutched the Winchester, muzzle down, struggling for breath.

“Relax.” Royce waved the pistol like a dowsing rod in the general direction of the intruder. “I got him.”

The safety remained engaged on Royce’s weapon. At least he’d hoisted his ass off the ground.

The hiker stood with hands raised, weird backpack propped against crumbling granite. “Hi there,” he said to Loyal. “Look, I’m no threat to you gentlemen.”

The kid was the only one present not out of breath. He smiled like he stood on some college quad between classes.

“I said shut the fuck up,” Royce held the weapon sideways, a gangsta demonstration of how to miss point blank. The boy never had the discipline to learn how to shoot, the big .45 little more than a fashion statement.

Loyal sighed and walked through Royce’s line of fire to the backpack resting against the rock. The monkey’s head perched on a metal bar, protruding high enough on the frame to clear the bearer’s head, studded with compound eyes aimed in all directions. He hefted the pack by the frame, barely able to hoist it off the ground. A hundred, maybe a hundred-ten pounds. A respectable load, even by Ho Chi Minh trail standards.

“Please be careful.” The hiker rocked in his boots. “That’s really expensive.”

“You shut the fuck up,” Royce said. “Who the fuck you work for?”

“He can’t shut the fuck up and tell you who he works for,” Loyal said.

Royce glared.

“How’d he get this far, anyway?” Loyal said.

“I was irrigating.”

Loyal cocked his head, attempting to telegraph watch your mouth, cause now he’s asking himself ‘irrigating what?’ Royce stared back, clueless. He’d probably been snoozing instead of trimming, demonstrating yet again why he never held a job longer than six months. Loyal had given up hope that the business would teach Royce something about manhood. Commerce was no substitute for war.

“Dad?” Royce said.

Dad?” Loyal said. “Why don’t you show him your driver’s license so he’ll know exactly who you are? Oh, I forgot. They took that away after your last DUI, didn’t they?”

Royce opened his mouth, but no sound escaped. Loyal had seen more than one man with a bullet through the brain adopt that same look of stunned wonder before dropping like a sack emptied of its contents.

“Easy for you to say,” Royce said. “You just sleep all day on top of that hill.”

“Mistaken once again. I wasn’t the one sleeping when this one walked up, was I? Holster that weapon and stand down.”

Royce closed his yap, face coloring into reds and purples. At least the hiker had the decency not to smirk. Loyal considered the odd pack arrangement. “You law enforcement?”

“No,” the hiker said. “If I were, I wouldn’t travel alone and carry gear marked with bright colors.”

Even Loyal recognized the primary-colored logo on the side of the device. “Fair point. What is this thing?”

“Trekker unit,” the hiker said. “It captures a three sixty-degree data stream in real time, uploaded digitally to the cloud.”

“So this is like, what, a survey?”

“Exactly,” the hiker said. “But informal.”

Loyal remembered his own days as a soldier ant, gathering crumbs of intelligence. The village census, rice paddies under cultivation, a detailed account of farm animals. All passed up the chain to McNamara’s bean counters so they could jump to conclusions invalidated by the harsh light of history. According to their count, both North and South had been depopulated a couple times over, which meant there was nobody left to fight except ghosts. He wondered what cloud held the intel gathered in the jungle so many years ago at the cost of so much blood and treasure.

“Well you can’t be passing through this way,” Loyal said. “It’s private property.” Technically, it was state land, but they had the guns. Loyal looked up at the thunderheads building on thermals. There’d be enough rain in the evening to wash away tracks.

“Understood.” The hiker smiled, friendly as a bible salesman. “All I need is safe passage.”

The kid’s teeth looked perfectly aligned and white, unlike Royce’s yellow splayed picket fence. The boy’s mother harped about orthodonture and Loyal always scoffed, but hell if she hadn’t been right. Royce’s life might’ve been a damn site different with a straight set of choppers.

“The company has no interest in impeding the flow of commerce,” the hiker said, glancing over Loyal’s shoulder to the screen of firs at the edge of the pocket ravine, trees stunted to avoid throwing too much shade but retain the look of natural growth. Scrub fir bonsai.

Loyal turned to look at the grove as if discovering its existence. The camo netting up top was supposed to make the weed invisible from the air.

“We’re totally cool with free enterprise,” the kid said. “I told the same thing to Captain Bondurant yesterday.”

“Bondurant? What’s that old fraud have to do with this?” Loyal had seen the guy in town with his Viet Nam Vet ball cap riding around in the F-350 Super Duty with the Purple Heart vanity plate. The man had gone to fat, like Royce.

“We had a nice chat over a couple beers,” the kid said. “His beers, of course. He told me stories about Nam. He’s quite the colorful character.”

“Bullshit. My dad here—” Royce started.

“Shut it.” Loyal turned to the boy. “If by colorful you mean bogus, you’re right, he’s a regular rainbow. The man never stepped foot in a jungle in his life unless it was on some Costa Rica cruise vacation.”

“So can we get back to the point then?” Royce said. “Like what we’re going to do with this motherfucker?”

“’We?’” Loyal said. “You mean like when ‘we’ pay for the groceries?”

Royce white knuckled the pearl handle of the .45.

“Excuse me,” the hiker said. “May I offer a potential solution?”

“For chrissakes, drop the hands,” Loyal said.

The hiker shook out his arms, then extended his right towards Royce. “Name’s Damon.”

The bid for personal connection reminded Loyal of a particular lieutenant who taught new grunts how to conduct themselves if captured, instructing them to carry photos of fake wives and kids. Loyal used real pictures of the infant Royce and the boy’s mother. It took him a while to understand that the Vietnamese phrases the lieutenant taught them translated roughly to “I’m an idiot for getting captured, please shoot me in the head.” It took him a while longer to understand the kindness in this. Those that learned the language understood that the pictures wouldn’t save them, while those that didn’t clung to hope.

Royce examined Damon’s outstretched hand as if it were coated in manure. Loyal stepped in and locked palms, engaging Damon’s tropical blue eyes. “I’m Loyal Westerman. This is my boy, Royce.”

Damon held a firm grip. The boy had sand.

“I thought you didn’t want him to know who we are?” Royce said, waving his .45 Scarface style.

“Holster that weapon and shut up,” Loyal said. “He knows who we are. If he doesn’t, he can figure it out in about three seconds. Isn’t that right?”

“Might take a minute or two with the spotty satellite links,” Damon stifled a grin. “But yeah. The maps say this is Department of Natural Resources land. You must have the place on the other side of the ridge. We have no interest in invading your privacy.”

“Some of those old maps are inaccurate. Computers just make it worse.” Loyal avoided what technology he could, having witnessed the mistakes committed by the herd. But he wasn’t stupid. Life was a delaying action, not a path to victory.

“I’m here to fix that,” Damon said. “The thing is, your operation is already a matter of public record. I’d say the high-res orthographic flyovers make your camo netting look about as natural as a Barbie doll posing in Playboy.”

Loyal laughed. With an Internet full of porn, this kid had probably never even seen a centerfold. Loyal had caught glimpses of what Royce looked at on his goddamned laptop, none of it airbrushed like the old days. All private parts defoliated.

Damon stood in his polo shirt with the company logo. Loyal remembered Dave, the CIA guy, who mentioned Princeton at least once an hour, blown in half by a Claymore before he’d had a chance to finish his notes for that novel that wouldn’t have been any good anyway.

Loyal realized he was still laughing. “So you’re what? An engineer?”

“Yes sir. Double E—electrical engineering—from Stanford.” Damon said. “I’ll go back for a Masters in a few years. Until then I like to hike, so this suits me.”

“Do you like to hike, soldier?” the Major asked Loyal near the end of his first tour, recruiting for an Operation Phoenix survey team. “I enjoy a good walk, sir,” Loyal said, neglecting to consider Royce’s mother, who somehow still anticipated a timely homecoming. The team stole through the jungle chasing the ghosts of the French. The CIA guys scribbled in black notebooks. Loyal came to understand his role when they caught that village headman en flagrante with the arms cache. Janitorial staff, clean up on aisle five. He’d always wondered how they wrote that stuff down.

“Dad?” Royce said. “You’re drifting again. What the fuck we doing here?”

Royce was in charge of the books for the dope business. The boy stole small amounts in clumsy ways, probably figuring his old man’s distaste for numbers allowed him to do whatever he damn well pleased. Loyal didn’t know what disappointed him more, the theft or the artlessness of its execution.

“What you are doing . . .” he sighted the Winchester and flicked off the safety. “Is holstering your weapon.”

All shades of purple and red drained from Royce’s face, his mouth a circle of similar circumference to the small o of the end of the barrel now aimed between his eyes.

Royce holstered the pistol. “Dad?” he whispered.

“So. Damon.” Loyal nudged the barrel toward the pack. “What happens if we just shoot the shit out of this rig?”

Damon bit his lower lip. “Company helicopter arrives in thirty minutes or less. Police reaction is slower, but larger scale. The company does not prefer that scenario and it sure won’t do my performance review any good.”

He laughed, but it wasn’t convincing. The kid had a hell of a smile. “Well we can’t have that,” Loyal said. “This couldn’t be the first pot grow or meth lab you folks stumbled into. What’s SOP?”

“Great question,” Damon said. “There is a program.” The smile brightened. The lip quiver stilled.

“Why am I not surprised?” Loyal said.

“It’s called GO—Geospatial Obfuscation. Basically, we go in and replicate some data. The image skips over to the next ravine, like a record. Sort of pixilates reality.”

“How much?” Royce said.

Finally, an intelligent question.

“The service is free,” Damon said. “We just want the data. You remain invisible forever. Virtually.”

Royce looked like a puppy dog eyeing a steak, but Loyal had a feel for the elastic nature of certain words. “Forever” had proved laughably short with Royce’s mother, but closer to the conventional definition while raising the boy. “So how long is ‘forever?’” Loyal said. “Virtually?”

Damon cocked his head. “I’d say five years. By then we’ll be imaging down to the centimeter. Everything will be high res 3-D. Autonomous drones will replace people like me.”

Five years sounded pretty good. Even odds he’d be dead or out of the business by then anyway. “Guess when they know everything there is to know,” he said. “You’ll be out of a job.”

Damon shrugged. “Probably stuck in some cube.” He looked disappointed.

Loyal imagined rivers of numbers the size of the Mekong, Nile, Mississippi and Amazon flowing into a big sea of equations. It was best not to count at all. McNamara apologized for the war before he died of old age, but The Beast put in motion years before still stalked the earth. No point resisting.

“Captain Bondurant opted for the program right away,” Damon said.

“I told you, Bondurant wasn’t any goddamned captain,” Loyal said. “What do you mean he opted?”

“Well, he saw the wisdom of it,” Damon said. “He figures marijuana will be legal within five years anyway.”

“You mean,” Royce said. “Bondurant’s a grower?”

Damon’s smile froze. “I thought you knew. Since you’re practically neighbors and in the same business and everything. He’s got quite the operation up there. Maybe an acre of plants, with an irrigation system and everything. Very high tech.”

“Of course it is,” Loyal said. “The old dickhead was probably in on it from the get go.” Loyal’s weapon pointed at Damon, whose hands were back up, face clean out of smiles. Strange how automatic it all felt. Cleanup on aisle five.

“So,” Loyal said to Royce. “You still want to know what it’s like?”

“Dad? What the hell you talking about?”

“You and your screenplays. You’re always asking me what it’s like. What you feel when you pull the trigger, what stays behind in your own head. Here’s your golden opportunity to acquire that information first hand.”

“Gentlemen,” Damon said. “Let’s be reasonable.”

The boy’s lip began to quiver in earnest. For a moment, Loyal thought they might both be reduced to tears over the tragic waste of potential, but the wave of sentiment passed.

“Dad. You can’t be serious.”

It looked like he might pee himself. “You’re right, I’m just kidding,” Loyal said to Royce. “I know you’re never gonna do anything difficult.” He jerked the muzzle toward the backpack. “Your job is to pick that thing up and walk north. Stick to hard ground and shuffle your tracks. Get to the ravine up by Bondurant’s place and smash the thing good with a rock, then drop it in where it’s deep, but not too deep, because it needs to be visible. Don’t leave any fingerprints. Get out of there before it rains, then clear all your gear out of my place and get back to the city, because your ass is fired.”

“Dad,” Royce said. “What the fuck you going to do?”

“Go write yourself a screenplay.”


“Git before you lose the light. Don’t blow this.”

Loyal turned to Damon. “Sorry, kid.” He nudged the barrel of his weapon toward the grove with its shielding screen of scrub fir bonsai. “Let’s take a hike.”


Robert P. Kaye’s stories have appeared in the Dr. T. J. Eckleburg Review, Beecher’s, Pear Noir!, Ellipsis, Per Contra, The Los Angeles Review and elsewhere. His chapbook “Typewriter for a Superior Alphabet” is published by Alice Blue Press.

Photo Credit: Christopher Woods is a writer, teacher and photographer who lives in Texas. He has published a novel, The Dream Patch, a prose collection, Under a Riverbed Sky, and a book of stage monologues for actors, Heart Speak. His photographs can be seen in his gallery –