Marjorie particularly liked to watch the sun rise over the mountains. Before each shift, she’d look up the exact time of sunrise and write it down on a sticky note that she’d put next to her keyboard. Then she’d try to get in a position to turn east at that moment without anyone noticing. It was one of those little breaths of freedom that got her through the day—like the first cup of coffee or the privacy in the bathroom stall.
This time, everything seemed right. Her boss was standing over the shoulder of the new girl a few seats away. Marjorie was on a scouting expedition, which gave her some leeway. If she had a target in sight, she couldn’t turn away, even for a second, since Mr. Turner would be standing right behind her nervously tapping his stylus against the side of his tablet, hoping to mark down another kill.
The clock moved to 8:07 p.m. her time. Two minutes till sunrise in Afghanistan. Pale sunlight had already washed over the landscape, lessening her reliance on the black and green feed from the infrared camera. She could see the dirt of the hillside, the splotches of green growth, and the rocky path leading down to the valley floor. She swiveled slowly toward the source of the light, hovering low enough to have a viewpoint like someone sitting on a hillside.
The first sliver of the sun emerged—round and yellow and throwing flares into the sky. Marjorie stiffened inside—the equivalent of a gasp when you can’t make any noise. As always, the sight provoked a moment of reverence she couldn’t explain.
It was worth risking a reprimand from Mr. Turner.
The sun expanded, and everything on her screen brightened and filled with color as if for the first time. She kept her sights on it a little longer than she probably should have. Mr. Turner could always glance over and catch her.
Then she saw something she hadn’t seen before, and she leaned close. Her heart thudded and her fingers clenched the control stick.
There was something in the sun. It was rising, too. It looked like a dark circle in the heart of the sun.
Marjorie looked around to see if anyone else was seeing this. But everyone else peered at their screens, expressionless as always. Mr. Turner hovered over someone else.
As the sun edged up a little further, Marjorie understood. It was an eye. A great eye looking down over everything that happened in that valley. And she felt like it saw the drone she piloted hovering over the little path. And it saw through some connection from that drone straight to her.
She was frozen. She wanted to shout, but she was frozen. The stare of that eye emerging over the world pierced her.
The black pupil was as dark as space. She would have normally turned away by this point. She couldn’t stay still for too long without generating a report on Mr. Turner’s tablet, prompting him to come over and manage her. But she saw some sort of light or movement flickering over the surface of the dark pupil. It was like a reflection on water, and in it she saw people—men and women and children—walking into the sky. They formed a long line, families in clumps, lovers holding each other, and they kept moving, moving up.
Marjorie couldn’t help but think that these were people who’d been killed over there. It was a crazy thought but somehow she was certain of it. She’d often had the thought—before pushing it away—that there were families over there and people who loved like she loved. She tried to keep it away, but here it was in front of her.
The eye stared into her, now almost wholly above the horizon. It saw what she did. The thought of an awareness floating up into the sky made her stomach freeze and her hands shake.
Her panic overcame discipline, and Marjorie pushed herself away from her desk. “No,” she whispered.
She thought of her oldest daughter at home, probably making dinner right now. Walt was probably telling her to make the Hamburger Helper. He always wanted that if Marjorie didn’t leave other instructions. She wanted to be with them. She wanted to call her sons, who were both at State and shared a tiny apartment.
Her phone was down in the locker room. They left all their personal possessions there before starting a shift. She stood, but now Mr. Turner was beside her.
“Marjorie,” he said. He used the stylus to scratch behind his ear, a tic of his that came out whenever he had to talk face-to-face with one of his staff. “It’s not break time yet.”
“I just need to make a call,” Marjorie said. She couldn’t think of any way to explain what was happening. But she wanted to call her daughter first to tell her she was on her way home and not to give Walt any of the Wild Turkey. And then she wanted to call her boys from the car. They’d better pick up this time. She’d try not to bring up laundry.
But she’d left her drone pointed east, and the sun now filled her screen, transformed into a glaring eye. Mr. Turner saw it. He didn’t exactly commit a facial expression, but his brow tightened. He stared at the screen for a breath. Marjorie saw the bright light reflected in his glasses.
Mr. Turner stepped past Marjorie and turned the drone so that it looked at the unpopulated hillside and away from the sunrise. “Jasper,” he called out. “Take this vehicle back to dock. Marjorie, come with me.”
Marjorie fell in step behind him as he headed for the door. “But I just need—” she tried to plead, but he held up a hand and then used his ID card to unlock the door.
They passed through a series of hallways without windows. Marjorie found she had to hurry a little to keep up with Mr. Taylor, and that added to her sense of panic, as if something terrible were happening that she couldn’t quite stop.
Mr. Taylor paused at a door, unlocked it, and held it open.
“Please, my phone,” Marjorie said.
“We need to resolve this first,” Mr. Taylor said. “Wait here.”
His cheeks were flushed, and Marjorie could feel anxiety coming off him in waves. She ducked her head and went into the room.
It was an eight-seat conference room, a table in the middle and a blank whiteboard on the wall facing the door. As Marjorie approached a seat, the door clicked closed behind her. She knew her card wouldn’t unlock it. She didn’t have clearance for this level.
She sat heavily in the chair. It swiveled, and tilted back a little. She leaned forward to put her arms on the table and tap her fingernails on its Formica surface. She liked having the tiny bit of noise for company and she continued doing it.
Walt would eat as soon as the food was ready, Annabelle bringing it to him on his tray. But Annabelle would wait for her mother. Marjorie didn’t want to make her daughter worry. She had to get out of here on time.
She twisted to look at the door, but that was just uncomfortable—both physically and emotionally, since looking at a door made her feel more trapped.
She resumed the rhythmic tapping on the tabletop.
If she could just make sure the boys were okay, too—that they weren’t out drinking; she was sure Luke, the younger, had a fake ID. They wouldn’t tell her, but she wanted to hear their voices. If they were drinking, she’d hear it on them.
She thought of getting home, putting her purse on the entry table and then sitting down across from Annabelle before even taking her jacket off. She’d ask if Annabelle had done her homework, and the girl would say yes, like she always did, whether it was true or not. And Marjorie wouldn’t try to dig out the real story but just tell her daughter to serve herself first. She wanted that so bad. It would probably be Hamburger Helper, but that was okay.
They were like four suns—the suns of her life—just under the horizon and she wanted so badly to see them.
What would Mr. Turner do to her? She hadn’t done anything wrong, or not that wrong. She’d just wanted to see the sunrise. She thought of the eye again, and she felt like it was still watching her, even in her isolated conference room in the middle of its maze of offices and workstations. It was blazing over the world and coming closer, rising over Iran and Israel and the Mediterranean.
She kept tapping. She listened for the sound of someone moving in the hall or the click of the door being unlocked.
What time was it now? She couldn’t even bring a watch past the locker rooms. She didn’t want Annabelle to worry. What would she do if she thought Marjorie was missing? She couldn’t go anywhere and leave Walt alone. He needed help getting to the bathroom and getting changed for bed. Annabelle couldn’t just leave him on the couch. Call her brothers? They were an hour away and they wouldn’t pick up anyway if they were out. Marjorie felt like crying for the first time. She didn’t want her daughter to have to figure these things out without her.
But she thought it probably wasn’t the end of her shift yet. Her bladder would tell her. She almost always felt like she had to pee in the few minutes before quitting time.
Then the door finally did click, and she almost jumped.
Mr. Turner walked in with a younger woman—late twenties—wearing a suit.
“This is Dr. Phelps,” Mr. Turner said. Marjorie had seen this woman before. She recognized the slim figure and the hair tied back in a bun. She’d stood in the door to their bullpen when they called out people who were struggling. A lot of those people didn’t come back.
Mr. Turner and Dr. Phelps sat down directly across from Marjorie.
“You saw something upsetting,” Dr. Phelps said.
“I’m not upset,” Marjorie replied. She didn’t want them to think she couldn’t handle the job. She needed the job. But she could feel the lie in her own voice, as if the truth were clinging to her words insisting that something was very wrong. She willed her fingers not to tap on the tabletop.
“Other people have seen what you saw,” Dr. Phelps said in a voice both warm and dispassionate somehow. “It’s normal to be confused, but I can offer you an explanation.”
Dr. Phelps continued, “A miscreant has gained access to our systems. He has made many threats and demands, but his main threat is that he will find a way to inject ‘morality’ into our operations. He fabricated what you saw—the eye in the sun. It is one of his standard devices. He does it to scare people.”
“Oh,” Marjorie said. She felt a rush and an emptying, as if her body were evacuating cold water that had been dammed up. The thought that something was watching her and knew what she did when she took the vehicle out on an assignment was terrifying. And yet losing that was more terrifying still—more empty and lonely and unsafe. The two superiors stared at her like they expected something more. She had to make them happy with her. “I thought it would be something like that,” she mumbled. “It couldn’t be real, that moral stuff.”
“Right,” Dr. Phelps said. “It was a distortion in the system. It wasn’t real.”
Marjorie fought not to shake.
“Nonetheless,” Mr. Turner put in, “we can offer you a standard relief package. You can take your next two shifts off using sick time instead of vacation days, and it won’t count against your performance assessment.”
“You can rest,” Dr. Phelps said. “And come back like nothing happened.”
Marjorie nodded. The only thing she cared about was that now she could get home before Annabelle would have to worry.
As soon as one of them unlocked the door, she’d bolt, get her keys and stuff, and run to the car. She could imagine pulling up to the house and seeing the blue light of the TV through the window like a sun rising within the circle of her family.