The Operator

The clock was running in big red numbers, with hundredths superimposing themselves on his eyes like a water flow that his eyes could not resolve. The blue screen indicated a signature event was approaching: spikes in various directions and at various (levels, frequencies, intensities?). A textbook case that would, hopefully, have a textbook resolution. Maybe for the last time. The ground crew had announced their coming online an hour before and was brought up to the moment in a terse exchange. Nerves were on edge all around. The clock seemed to him to be accelerating.

About an hour into the intensified watch word arrived: Mr. Cold Blue was on his way to observe. That was not good news for the operator, since it presaged pressure from the top to make this one work. If there was failure of any kind, the blame would be shoved as far down the chain as possible, most likely right into his shorts. But he was prepared to stand and take it: accusations of idiocy, arrogance, dismissal. All in the name of the country. Some of his friends from radio school understood “the good of the country” to be an intrinsic value in itself, but he had no such illusions. It was just another religion. There might be some satisfaction if Mr. Cold Blue were standing on the firing line next to him, but he was exactly the kind of man who could calmly take a bullet for an irrational abstraction: So be it, he would say, I forfeit this meaningless life willingly.

An hour later the blue values had not changed much. The operator had a growing itchy feeling that this might just be a false labor — but they all continued to play it straight for the sake of their coming visitor. Occasional vector checks with the ground unit. Log checks. Redirectioning of the drone. A few darted looks over his shoulder at the silent guard, ambiguously stationed, as always, at the closed door, but with the gun barrel pointing inward.

A radio on the guard’s side squawked the approach of the visitors. The operator made a quick check over the array of items that were his domain, and practiced under his breath: “Nothing to report, sir.” It was a simple phrase that left plenty of room for the shimmer of insolence.

The multiple knocks came like the handshake of a secret brotherhood, and the guard opened the door, saluted. A superior hopped into the trailer, which shook slightly for some seconds thereafter. After a delay, Mr. Cold Blue stepped up and looked into the gloom of the trailer. His nose rumpled every so slightly. Not to our operator’s surprise, Mr. Cold Blue was followed in by a female soldier — in fatigues but still a smart little number. She seemed to be his adjutant for the day. The operator was already standing and saluted all concerned, then returned to his post without further ado and with a trace of a suppressed smile.

After the formalities about this and that security measure with the soldiers at the door, the adjutant actually came over and looked over his shoulder. He thought he could discern the soap she was wearing, a deodorant soap that he had had occasion to smell before, but he wasn’t sure. She was asking him about the trends, which the printouts and real-time charts already indicated well enough, but she was doing that “nail-down” thing that superiors loved to do. They get you to lay out what you think so that they can praise the thoroughness or — more likely — condemn the lack of insight, too great complacency or overweening excitability. He summed up after his report: “Nothing new to report, ma’am.” Im Westen nichts Neues.