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Drone

By Theo Czajkowski

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He left the house in Iztapalapa with the sun still behind the mountains. He and the other riders of the cablecar floated in silence over the azoteas to the first stop on the green line, which he took to Chabacano and transferred to the blue. At the terminus of the latter he boarded a small white van with some others which conveyed him to Ciudad Satélite and dropped him off in front of the appointed Starbucks. The sun was well established in the haze by then and he went over to a stall to buy a cigarette which he smoked waiting for the client.  

The Mexican arrived 20 minutes late in a silver Japanese pickup. When he pulled up Sergei climbed into the backseat as if it were a taxi and wished him good morning. The men chatted by way of introduction, cruising past the outlets and industrial parks and the shanties on the hillsides beyond. The client guessed the other’s nationality, a rare enough feat. The Mexican, whose name was Ricardo, seemed enthused by Sergei’s making a life abroad and said he came from a family of adventurers. His father had been all around Mexico backpacking, as had he. He lived in the hills surrounding the city, away from the chaos. He said his love for the outdoors made him well suited to this work. He dressed like a naturalist in cargo pants and hiking boots and a coarse buttonup. He wore wraparound sunglasses and the ridges at the back of his shaved head suggested a landscape.

Sergei said he enjoyed nature too and that the pollution in the city was awful. People were so irresponsible. At this rate there would be nothing left to show their children. Ricardo said that this was true but that part of the problem was there were more and more children and less and less space.

At Tepotzotlán they exited the highway and started west in the direction of the hills. As they neared the site Ricardo began getting into the details of the job. His boss had recently bought a certain number of hectares from an oligarch who had in turn been liquidating the hacienda that had been in his family for generations. For a long time the land had been dedicated to grazing and husbandry but now only a small fraction catered to those pursuits where the oligarch was set to live out the rest of his days more or less rustically with the remainder of the land sold to companies looking to stage their product in warehouses for distribution to the city. They passed a row of these huge structures now, gleaming white at midmorning, including one that belonged to Amazon. Ricardo continued saying that a substantial number of squatters had invaded his client’s new property. The goal was to assess the extent of this invasion. It was possible the intruders made their living in the garbage dump adjacent to the property. They’d even staked out plots with piles of rocks and brush where they grazed their animals and these would require mapping. Most of Ricardo’s clients sought more thoroughgoing surveys, with the drone working on a grid over multiple days, but in this case a manual sweep would suffice. His boss just wanted eyes on the trespassers.

They turned left and found themselves in a residential area with family convenience stores and hardware stores and women leading children along the sidewalk. The next turn set them back on a course for the sierra and soon the street turned to dirt. The track led gradually upward into the first of the hills and they bounced over stones and wound along the scrubby slope until the shrubs and prickly pear grew too dense and Ricardo pulled the truck into the shade of a tree and cut the ignition. He grabbed his hat from the passenger seat and got out of the truck and Sergei followed.

They continued on foot 20 minutes angling toward the crest of the hill and stepping around manure and they had to stop twice so Sergei could remove the thorns that had penetrated the soles of his tennis shoes to prick his feet. On the larger hills to the west they could hear the intermittent yips of coyotes and lowing of cattle. They came upon a power line Ricardo had mentioned whose lofted wires muttered curiously in that lonely place so as to make the wanderer doubt the reality of their muttering absent anyone to hear. A track ran beneath the giant towers and this formed the western boundary of the property. The two men followed until they reached the opposite flank of the hill which faced north and the basin of the purchased land opened before them. The parkland was crossed with makeshift demarcations which from this distance looked like lines of droppings left by a small creature. A few shacks stood within these bounds. In the foreground two steer, one brown and the other black, looked out at them from a stand of low trees, motionless save the switching of their tails. The sun approached its zenith and the smell of the dump a few kilometers distant reached them on the breeze.

Sergei pushed the joystick forward and the drone shrunk into the distance and its whirring mingled with the buzz of the wires and then it was as if the device had never been.

The wind was stronger on the northern side and Sergei said so to the other, adding that the drone’s battery might not last as long in these conditions. Ricardo said that in any case this was the place and that Sergei was to proceed as he saw fit. Sergei started off the track up the hill and Ricardo trudged after. They passed large divots where boulders had been dug up to use as markers and blackened areas where tires had been burned giving the illusion of shade with no tree to throw it. The sun beat on Sergei’s ears and neck and he made for the lee of a nearby prickly pear. The Mexican continued on a few paces and took a seat on a boulder in the partial shade cast by the branches of a gnarled tree and looked out at the property.

Sergei surveyed the area as well and without redirecting his gaze unzipped the bag at his hip which contained the drone. He squatted and began the assembly, unfolding the arms and fixing the blades to the four rotors, checking the battery and camera and setting the drone carefully on a boulder while he opened the app and connected his phone to the remote lengthwise so that the resulting apparatus formed a rough square. Then he took up the drone in one hand and manipulating the remote with the other set the blades to whirring and then the thing seethed a few feet in the air like a malign insect before sucking precipitously into the glare. Sergei pushed the joystick forward and the drone shrunk into the distance and its whirring mingled with the buzz of the wires and then it was as if the device had never been.  

Its pilot huddled in the niche formed by the cactus as though at a urinal, occupying the scant margin between the needles and the sun, the better too see the screen of his phone. The drone was laboring but on the screen the savanna scrolled by serenely enough. With the battery going fast he set about capturing the first set of three panoramas to be taken from as many different points above the property. Between the trees that dotted the parkland he discerned a number of shanties, metal and plastic constructions that stood fairly obvious against the dry browns of the landscape. Besides the dwellings there were a few scattered tanks set on pallets and more blackened areas where fires had been and some tangles of metal. Nothing moved except the occasional scrawny head of livestock.

Recalling the drone to the hillside he turned to face the country and wait for the machine to announce itself out of the ether. Out towards the garbage dump a dust devil had arisen to prosecute its slowmotion maelstrom and fade into nothing. Presently the dark dot appeared in the blue like one of the eagles that circled in the vecinity and it swelled and zoomed up to hover irate overhead and Sergei coaxed it down with one palm outstretched as the Mexican looked on and the device settled in the foreigner’s hand and fell silent.  

Cheap nosejob if you want one, Sergei said.

He set the drone on a shaded boulder to cool and took the opportunity to smoke a cigarette and sip water as the other sat texting. With the cigarette still burning between his lips he took up the drone and replaced the battery and checked the configuration before stepping out once more into the clear with the machine in hand.

Over the next 15 minutes he captured the final three panoramas, this time surveying the eastern end of the property. The visuals were much the same as they had been on the previous sortie, with somewhat more detritus and the hovels appearing in greater density due to the proximity of this part of the property to the limits of Tepotzotlán. The pilot guided the device home and it alighted in his palm and when the drone was quiet again he told the other that the photos were in the can. Ricardo seemed grateful and said all that remained now was the video. He proposed Sergei fly the drone snaking over the property at a lower altitude, capturing as much of it as possible in a single take. Then they’d be out of there. Sergei agreed and set about inserting a third battery.

With the drone airborne again Sergei made a beeline for the far ridge, from where he would zigzag in a rough diagonal southeast before heading home. When the drone reached the ridge he rotated the device around to begin its new course and he set out across the property reducing altitude by as much as he dared. Instead of a birdseye he now scanned the terrain quarterwise so that the purplish tops of distant hills were visible above the layer of haze and he could make out the baking concrete expanse of the new airport ten kilometers east.

He approached the point at which he meant to stop and orient the drone back in their direction when something caught his attention off to the right.

This part he didn’t mind. A brisk manual cruise as if through the eyes of some apex predator. He whizzed over the corrugated tin and blue tarpaulins of the homes of the intruders whose luck had just run out, over the poor dumb cattle and the stunted trees.

He approached the point at which he meant to stop and orient the drone back in their direction when something caught his attention off to the right. Someone looked to be taking a siesta on a blanket beneath a tree, defined against the rectangle of material on which they lay. He eased the drone closer and saw the blanket was not a blanket but a piece of translucent sheeting smeared with blackened blood. The woman lay curled slightly with her back to the drone, black hair playing out onto the grass. A man’s t-shirt covered her down to the thighs, between which something resembling a string of sausages emerged to terminate on the plastic. In this attitude it was as if she herself were doubled in the womb with the umbilical cord binding her to some yet larger entity. The flies were thick enough he could see them from there and he remembered the coyotes they’d heard barking in the hills, remembered Mexico meant navel of the moon.

 

They followed the power line back the way they had come and angled off when they intersected the trail. There were no thorns on the return downhill and the pickup emerged in short order between the trees. The job behind them, Ricardo seemed to be in good spirits. He said as he climbed into the vehicle it was good to have had an excuse to get out in nature.

Passing through the residential area they parked outside a convenience store which they entered after Ricardo suggested they get something cold to drink. The red awning was among the many sponsored by Coca-Cola, the name of the family enterprise spelled in the usual sans-serif type beneath a prominent Coke logo. At the refrigerator Sergei grabbed a sports drink, Ricardo an agua de jamaica. Ricardo paid for both and they stood outside the store sipping their beverages watching a pickup loaded with rebar the ends of which dragged noisily in the street as the vehicle passed. Ricardo said he would make the bank transfer as soon as he got home. Sergei said this was fine. The Mexican said he would recommend Sergei to others he knew who needed the same work done and Sergei assented to this as well. Ricardo asked what the turnaround would be like for the footage and Sergei said he would have it by the end of the day tomorrow, he just had to do the editing.

 

 

Theo CzajkowskiTheo Czajkowski is a native of the Detroit area residing in Mexico. Recently his fiction has appeared in Arboreal Literary Magazine and Panorama Journal.

Header photo by StockSnap, courtesy Pixabay.

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