A year before 9/11, an unarmed Predator drone captured footage of Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan. A year later, every Predator drone could rain death from on high. More than 10 years and hundreds of strikes later, the Pentagon nearly created a new medal to honor the contributions of drones.
Along with our flesh-and-blood troops, drones are finding their way back home. But with a 7.3 percent unemployment rate for veterans, job prospects are bleak. Drones, once a proud fighting force of elite headline-grabbing soldiers, are having a hard time transitioning into civilian world that isn't ready for them. Often times drones have to settle for menial jobs just to scrape by -- drones like Preddy.
Preddy searched for Bin Laden in Pakistan, spied on Al-Qaeda members in Afghanistan, and even took out a couple of those second-highest-ranking leaders that Al-Qaeda kept pumping out. There were horrors, too. There were innocents lost in the wake of his destruction. He didn't like thinking about them. But he had a feeling there were a lot. That's as far as he ever thought about it. He had a job to do. He understood that war was, well -- it was war. Even victories aren't pretty. Preddy just wished, as many soldiers do, that one day it would all be over; that one day he could go home.
Preddy's wish came true.
Back home and ready to contribute to the American workforce, Preddy made finding a steady job his top priority. He always knew his happiness could be found in the sky, but he needed to fly with a purpose. Preddy would soon discover that employers back home didn't have the same purpose in mind.
No one was hiring. Some worried about post-traumatic stress; others knew nothing of the military and didn't understand how qualified a soldier could be. Whatever the reason, Preddy knew he needed to pare down his prospects and focus on simple, unskilled professions, like with Darwin Aerospace in California. Darwin was an engineering group funded by Yelp (the restaurant locator app, people) that wanted to do away with the classic idea of the pimply-faced food delivery pip-squeak in favor of using flying deathbots to deliver burritos. It wasn't exactly the adrenaline rush of war, but it was a job and it paid.
Tips, it turns out, are really hard to get when you're traveling beyond all terrestrial speed limits precision-striking Mexican food. For some extra cash, Preddy took up a second job as a babysitter for a man named Paul Wallich, a man Preddy later dubbed "the laziest father in the galaxy."
Paul is from Vermont and needed a drone to walk his son to the bus stop each morning. The winters were too cold for Paul but not cold enough for the most precious thing in the world to Paul, his son. So every morning, Preddy escorted Paul's son the quarter-mile to his bus stop. Paul didn't have the will or desire to walk himself, arming Preddy with a camera to keep an eye on his son remotely.
More painful than the blistering cold was the excruciatingly dull loitering beside a child for 15-minute stretches each morning. To Preddy, food delivery and what was basically dog walking with a bit fewer s**t breaks failed to inspire enthusiasm. He fought in two wars! Spied on villains! Even killed some! Preddy knew there was a place for him in the civilian world; this wasn't it. He needed to serve and protect, even if it was a long ways away from being a soldier.
As a security guard patrolling the grounds of the Georgia Institute of Technology, Preddy felt a growing sense of unease. Why was he being used the same way at home as he was abroad?
He thought he was fighting to prevent things like this restriction of freedom from happening, yet here he was -- keeping a watchful eye over drunken frat kids who just wanted to get pledge-spanked in the nude with dignity and a little privacy. He felt something else stirring inside, as well -- he was angry. Not at himself; he couldn't articulate it, nor could he pinpoint it. He knew it was there, and before he ever had the chance to work through it, it worsened and turned into despair. He wondered if there was any chance of finding a purpose outside of war, so Preddy called an old friend: Laser Tag.
Laser Tag, like Preddy, began as cutting edge military technology before trickling down to civilian use. Now, the only excitement Laser Tag could hope for was for a kid to piss himself with neon radiance under a black light.
They spoke for hours, with Laser Tag recanting the horror stories of working in the depressing yet lucrative field of entertaining human boys who never seem to stop going through puberty. They were obnoxious thrill-seekers who didn't know what war was -- but did they ever dream of it. That, Laser Tag said, is what kept him going since the military turned him civilian. It wasn't war, it was the next best thing -- war with a pizza-and-soda break in the middle.
Following his friend's advice, Preddy turned to paintball for solace. There, he was able to be what he was for first time since his return home, taking on the role of an aerial weapon of clothing destruction as he was outfitted with his new machines of war: paint pellets that looked like alien turds. He unloaded round after round of stinging paint globs onto the bodies of people who found sport in shooting one another. The battles were fake, and the combatants would return to their friendships by round's end, but Preddy felt the violence rise within him at the start of every match. It excited him. It felt good, like it had never left. He still had it.
And then he shot a kid in the face.
At the time it seemed like a good idea to attach a recreational weapon to a remote-operated flying machine and let it bust some s**t in a game-like setting -- but hurt someone? No one saw that coming.
For Preddy, the experience was scarring. All the innocent deaths Preddy tried to forget for so long couldn't be ignored anymore. How many children were there? How many children lost their lives because of him?
The kid he shot lost some blood; Preddy lost a job.
He couldn't understand. Happiness, even the simple idea of comfort, eluded him. He'd developed a new standard of living when he was away; civilian life no longer met that standard. To fly with a purpose once again, Preddy would have to go underground.
He heard of a potential position within a company that, like Preddy, fought for freedom. This freedom was not rooted in patriotism or liberty, but in Game of Thrones episodes and extensively cataloged musician discographies that no one in their right mind had the time for. Preddy found a job within the seedy world of bit torrenting after the infamous file sharing site The Pirate Bay announced a plan to take their servers to the skies many miles above Sweden on the backs of drones like Preddy, where any attempt to destroy them would be viewed, in the eyes of the resilient torrent site, as an act of war.
He flew, for hours on end, with millions of users nibbling bits and pieces of the illegally uploaded data off of him. In the air, he thought about where this journey began, about how high he had hung his hopes and how far he had fallen away from them while never dropping altitude. Now, it was only a matter of seeing how far he could drop, hoping there was an answer at the bottom instead of his own fiery wreckage.
Yes, Preddy struggled to find his spot in the sky once he came home, but his skills had not been forgotten by the country he once served. The United States needed Preddy's services for a valiant mission to protect the homeland from its enemies. This, Preddy thought, is exactly what he needed.
Unbeknownst to him, since his victorious time on the battlefield ended, the identity of his foes had changed. No longer was he tasked with fighting combatants overseas; Preddy was to fight his own, his fellow countrymen. Forgoing due process and casting aside the need of proof to intend harm, the United States had authorized the use of lethal force upon its own citizens if one were even suspected of villainy. Preddy was back on the front lines but could no longer recognize the battlefield, nor could he tell apart the enemies from the compatriots. The world had smudged into inky, indecipherable blots; friend and foe oozing into one. Preddy would cry if not for the fact that he'd be grounded for leaking coolant ...
So he did just that.
Preddy leaked his coolant. He never fought again.
Preddy had always dreamed of flying to India. He'd always overheard the Pakistanis talk s**t about them, so why not go there to see what all the fuss was about? Even after he tried walking away from the working world to live a life of serenity, his reputation was always a few steps ahead of him. It was unavoidable. Soon, he found himself again in the role of protector and the always watching eye-in-the-sky. Now, though, he was proud to be fighting this enemy, as Preddy scouted for rhino poachers in India's Kaziranga National Park. Preddy was a Predator who protected the prey as the predators were preyed upon by a Predator.
His life settled. He learned to play a few instruments and even modeled for a friend's folk art paintings. He was at peace. Though, there was always room for some excitement. Preddy indulged his death-defying instinct plunging into deadly hurricanes for National Hurricane Center in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in the name of science and, ultimately, to protect people.
Preddy found his place in the world, and it was exactly where he always knew it was -- the sky.
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