War Drones: A Short Story

Selected amid cheers by colleagues who respected Max Shuler immensely, the government chosen one prepared for a big day the assembled experts agreed was anything but another day at the office.

“You get to push the button, Dr. Shuler,” a normally stern female physicist said.

“Please,” he said. “Call me Max.”

After an elite group of NATO leaders chose an intelligence team to scope out the mission, thanks to Max this crack recon unit surprised themselves by locating the target’s whereabouts in less than a week. They turned over their findings to a drone death squad Max now headed that represented six nations that assembled and prepared to deliver death from above.

Max Shuler knew the hit would be easy. As a seasoned pro with high-profile kills in Afghanistan and Iraq (what he laughingly called surgical strikes), he looked forward to the Moscow strike considering how the target had been asking for it and clearly deserved what Max called “the end time.”

“Five vehicles comprise his convey,” Max said. “We only hit the target.”

A colleague with eyes the color of freshly laid robin’s eggs questioned his decision.

“Why not kill them all?”

“I’m a Catholic,” Max said.

“Just war theory?”

“Yes,” Max said. “A sin is not a sin if it erases a greater sin.”

“So the Pope will understand?”

“Who better than Francis knows the history of his own church?”

“We’re all war drones,” the colleague said. “Human war drones.”

“Roger that.”

Max loved using military jargon. The black jumpsuit uniforms he requested for the assassination team and the unique project patch stitched on members’ shoulders announcing “Operation White Lightning” excited him as well. A skeleton holding a shot glass presumably filled with Russian vodka defined the surreal symbolism of the insignia Max wore at the pinnacle of his public service career.

Looking for life on Mars thrilled him when he worked for “Project Lost Worlds,” but finalizing a solution to preserve life on earth most inspired this career killer who on the weekends read and reread Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels while eating barbecue potato chips and drinking Colt .45 Malt Liquor from the can.

“Shaken, not stirred,” Max joked to Natasha, his wife.

At 6 a.m. on a bright spring Tuesday morning, Max sat before a massive color console mounted on the front wall of the secret underground bunker in rural Pennsylvania near the Gettysburg battlefield and the home of former President Ike Eisenhower. The five other team members sat stiffly in ergonomic swivel chairs behind their leader. Two of those five believed in God. None of the squad experienced second thoughts. Max rolled his shoulders like a heavyweight boxing champion before a title fight.

Resembling the beginning of a violent video game, the screen came to life with movement from a convoy of five black vehicles including two limos, two Mercedes sedans and a smaller car bearing the Russian leader. The trip began from a walled mansion about six kilometers from the Kremlin. No traffic in front. No traffic behind. The cars maintained the municipal speed limit.

“Music,” Max said.

A loud mix began: first, the grim sounds of a Russian death dirge followed by traditional German hiking music, a polka, the Star Spangled Banner and John Lennon singing “Imagine.”

“My wife likes the Beatles,” said a former Nobel Prize finalist and neurosurgeon team member with clandestine experience in surreptitious brain chip insertion, an up-and-coming concentration among surgeons recruited for black operations in which a surprising number of nations now expressed interest.

A thin set of crosshairs appeared at the center of the wall-sized video screen.

“Close up,’ Max said.

As the image zoomed in, Max saw the recognizable white face in the window. Beady dark eyes below a receding hairline blinked in a pasty oval face. Taking hold of the joystick with his left hand, Max ran his thumb back and forth across the top of the smooth chrome control, reminding him of the eight-ball gear shift on the vintage 1966 three-speed Mustang convertible he kept in the garage until the weather got better and he could cruise with The Beach Boys playing on the pristine 8-track tape player he cherished from the good old days.

Pulse steady.

A wry smile.


The free world’s most current pressing threat disappeared in a black and red explosion of smoke and fire.

At the morning meeting one of team drone’s three women gently laid her hand on Max’s shoulder.

“I bet you wish you could tell the world what you have accomplished,” she said.

“No country or individual takes credit or blame,” Max said.

“Of course we disavow all knowledge, but you saved the world,” she said.

“Our former target has daughters,” Max said.

“Yes,” the woman said. “He did.”

After dinner Thursday night the phone rang in Max’s spacious study furnished with handsome mahogany bookshelves and comfortable oxblood easy chairs that shined behind closed hand-carved pocket doors off the dining room.

“I’ll get it, honey,” Max said.

The international caller didn’t even say hello.

“When are you going to get me out of Russia?”


“Just last week I got a big black Z tattoo on my shoulder like we paint on the tanks. That should draw some unwanted attention on American beaches with everybody there rooting for Ukraine.”

“Tell the sand bunnies you’re a Zorro fan.”

“Zorro who?”

“Never mind.”

“I’m serious, Max. I gave you top secret coordinates to make the hit. I was in the limo right behind him. Like Tony Soprano says, ‘Badabingbadaboom!’ ”

“You’re shamefully obsessed with 21st Century American pop culture garbage.”

“The motherland’s young crave McDonald’s, Saturday Night Live, Beyoncé.”

“Russia possesses deep, rich history you should embrace.”

“Like my big sister does? How is Miss Saint Petersburg 2015, anyway?”

“Be respectful of my wife or I might tell some KGB veterans I know you ratted out the big man.”

“Don’t even joke about that.”

“I’m not joking.”

At the Pentagon Monday morning Max washed his face in the conference room bathroom near his office. When he returned to his desk, Space Force Lieutenant General Charles Reynolds was sitting in Max’s green leather chair with his ankles crossed and gleaming paratrooper boots resting on the desk.

“Have a little respect, Charlie,” Max said.

“You’re moving to Utah,” the three-star general said.


“Better than solitary confinement at the ADX Florence supermax prison in Colorado.”

“That’s for criminals.”

“You broke the law, Max. NSA surveillance picked up your phone call yesterday with your Russian wannabe hipster brother-in-law. When we say no communication, we mean no communication.”

“He called me.”

“You told us your extermination informant was Russian special forces.”


“You didn’t say you’re related by marriage and promised to relocate the Russkie bastard here.”

“You’re talking about my brother-in-law, Charlie. The kid visited Atlantic City last summer. Now he wants to be a citizen. He wants to vote. Get into politics.”

“You didn’t say the informant knew the United States of America orchestrated and carried out the executive termination. We were going to blame Iceland if it came to that. So what if they nuked Reykjavik in retaliation?”

“We never would have located the target without the little shit.”

“We never would have found our weak link without him, either.”

“My wife’s brother was our ace in the hole, Charlie. We owe him.”

The general’s expression went stiff.

“America owes nobody.”

The Shuler residence landline rang early Saturday morning.

“Mrs. Shuler?” said a man speaking with a thick Cossack dialect. “We have some bad news for you about your late brother.”

Max checked into the Times Square hotel by noon. The telephone number for The New York Times international editor was more difficult to get than he thought.

“My name is Max Shuler,” he said when the editor answered. “Do I have a story for you.”