I am a Sikorsky HH-60 Pave Hawk. Mouthful, I know. Just call me Pave—too many Hawks out there. Before I joined the unit, my name was Rita Chen, and that’s still what all my documents show. But only my parents ever call me that anymore, and I’m seeing them less and less these days. I’m deployed eight out of twelve months of the year, and sometimes I choose to stay the rest of the time anyway. What would be the point of going back to some place nominally called “home”? War is localized to my person, not to where I am; so long as I represent the state, I will never know peace.
The US Air Force’s Tactical Gender Program (or TACGENPRO for short) is headquartered at Osan Air Base in South Korea. TACGENPRO grew out of late 21st century social instability brought on by increasingly militant bands of TERFs. Let’s be clear, what you call them and what they call themselves doesn’t matter. “TERF” is the most politically correct term anyway, if you’re trying to be polite: “trans-exclusionary radical feminist” states nothing but the facts. Point is, TERFs were out there trying to bar anyone who isn’t cis from civil engagement and doing their best to repress our species’ tendency to defy all simple binaries. Their tactics ranged from subtle and insidious, like framing hate speech as nothing more than “critiques” of gender, to outright bigotry, like rollback after rollback of laws meant to protect people of any gender identity.
And where there are people to sow the seeds of chaos, there is the US military ready to reap any discord that can be used to destroy in the name of the state. I know, incredibly jaded perspective for someone who’s a part of the Air Force. But I can simultaneously need the military to survive while also hating the fact that it exists—like I said, our species will complicate any binary.
In any case, TACGENPRO is a formalization of TERF tactics and ideology. Gender has a biological basis that can be mapped onto specific genes and neural paths, which can then be manipulated. Pattern-recognition skills for classifying people into different gender categories also have a neurobiological basis that can be repurposed for warfare. And, though the US will never admit it: Gender is the strongest vehicle to propagate the empire’s hierarchy of the world.
Project Meridian, the applied branch of TACGENPRO, isn’t named after the geographical term like most people think. Its name is a total ripoff of China’s neural overlay program, Project Jingluo. Project Meridian was built on its skeleton like a small animal taking shelter in the complex burrows left behind by a larger animal. Project Jingluo focused only on how to create a neural overlay that interfaces with existing neural pathways in the mind. Bad habits, for example, are notoriously automatic and hard to break, in part because the automatic neural circuits are so deeply ingrained. But take that infrastructure and replace the response with something tactical, like quicker identification of threats and faster deployment of defensive maneuvers, and you’ve got a more dangerous soldier on your hands with minimally invasive neural rewiring.
Project Meridian narrows the focus of Project Jingluo to just gender-related neural pathways. Since gender imprints on the body so deeply, defining details ranging from gait to what sensory input we recognize in active conflict situations to how we respond to unknown people, the channels form a vast and potent network that can be harnessed for more complex responses than other pathways.
So that’s where I come in. First-wave group of recruits for Project Meridian, where the tactical modifications to our neural nets see battle. We’ve got people of all genders here, including nonbinary people like me. Figures that the DOD can put aside its bigotry long enough to allow us in and call us “assets” when it comes time to propose personnel to join Project Meridian. But hey, it’s a smart move. If you’re going to weaponize gender, weaponize it all.
“You ready, Pave?”
I flash a grin at the F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot beside me. Martin, call sign Lambda Boomer. Yeah—you think all those call signs in the movies sound cool as hell, until you get piss-drunk at a naming ceremony and realize that they’re all just terrible in-jokes. As a bi guy, he wears the “Lambda” part with pride, but he’s less willing to claim “Boomer.” Contrary to what many people think, “Boomer” isn’t a jab at his age. He’s a little older than the rest of us, sure, but we’re all Generation Delta, long past the Boomers of yore. No, “Boomer” refers to the time he was a complete fool on one of his first training exercises and broke the sound barrier over a tiny town that hardly even saw commercial planes overhead.
“Ready as I’ll ever be,” I say, strapping my helmet and goggles on. Lambda’s got a five o’clock shadow going on even though it’s the crack of dawn, and his dark brown eyes capture the golden hour sunlight in a charming way that’s downright unfair. He is exactly my type, which is unfortunate, as I don’t date coworkers, and I especially don’t date fighter pilots. No one lasts long under the regimens and demands of TACGENPRO, but the fighter pilots burn out fastest, and they often take others with them.
We’re running our first training exercise today, now that the last round of mods, supplement adjustments, physical therapy, brain scans, and benchmark tests is complete. They call it “transitioning into” TACGENPRO, a term which manages to be both incredibly apt and incredibly tasteless. When it comes to my actual gender, I never medically transitioned, nor do I intend to. My passport and driver’s license both show an X. My gender has never been visible from the surface. But it’s only now with the US military that my gender is actually classified information. If only my twenty-one-year-old self could see me firing that back now at people asking, “If you’re nonbinary, then what’s in your pants?”
As we’re getting into position and have our orders called out, we’re reminded of our objectives: Calibrate your physical responses to sensory inputs. Monitor your emotional reactions. Solve any issues that arise, or make note of them if you can’t solve them. Remember to work not just as an individual, but also a team.
With an airhorn blast, the exercise begins. Lambda’s part of a fleet of F-16s carrying out airstrikes on identified hostiles and hostile bases; he sweeps away with the others, threading a dark line through the sky before splitting off with a couple other pilots to skirt closer to the ground and carry out a methodical assault. As the HH-60, it’s my job to break past the lines of defense and carry out a swift evac of our people while the hostile forces are engaged elsewhere.
I’m used to flying. I’ve done it since I was twelve. I learned from one of my mom’s former real estate clients—I don’t know his real name; we just called him Mongoose. We’d go over to the Chino Airport every weekend. He started me on Cessnas before we moved on to different airplane models. He was the one who first got me interested in helicopters, too. We’d float over the Los Angeles skyline in one helicopter after another as if we were somehow detached from the rest of the world.
Too detached, maybe. He got handsy when I turned sixteen, and by then I knew well enough what was going on. Lucky for me that I have a good relationship with my mom. She believed me, and I’ve never seen Mongoose around since.
I’m thankful that that incident didn’t take away my love for flying. If anything, I wanted to fly more on my own. Still, that unease, that invisible tension that whispered to me predator, predator, seeking prey, make yourself smaller, make yourself invisible; prepare for fight-or-flight, check your exit routes, predator, predator, so long as you survive, that is enough—the instinct cuts fire through my every cell, even as I’m flying over rice paddies in South Korea, half a world away from the everyday evils of civilian life. I’m stronger now, more trusting of my ability to fight back when cornered. I know I’m not stuck there in the past with Mongoose. I know, too, that I’m not with my back pressed up against the polished wood of a dimly lit bar, unable to do anything but smile as another man tells me he finds Asian girls cute, how he wants to take me home—ignoring the fact that I’m not a girl, nor some kind of pet to adopt. I know I don’t have keys that I’m sliding between my fingers so the jagged teeth are like brass knuckles. It doesn’t matter if nothing happens in the end: the vigilance is still carved into my neurons like floodwaters through silt, leaving path after path of conflict that I have shaped myself around. I know that my heart is racing regardless, using that vigilance to check my exit routes, to catalog my allies, to calculate what paths I can take from here, to camouflage myself in the face of danger. To evade and mask, to feel the pulse of time and select the right moment to break free.
To know exactly when to give in and tell myself, So long as you survive, that is enough.
We complete the exercise successfully, but I’m left shaking. I outline my heightened vigilance during the after-action report and find that the other pilots have similar experiences. For men, the vigilance often manifests as a heightened awareness of their own strength, as if they’re on the brink of a manic break, of losing control: boxes reinforced by years of conditioning, telling them to swallow their emotions, their truths, until the very force of that energy teeters on explosion. Exhilarating when combined with the focus and tech that can rein in and tame that energy. For women, the hypervigilance borders on omniscience, awarenesses spread far to take in every detail and filter it through instinct. The top strategists in the exercise are two women whose quick reads of capricious situations secured early completion of the mission.
But everyone’s reports vary, and there isn’t any experience that can be pinned to only one gender, to say nothing of the vast range of experiences along the nonbinary spectra and the variations between trans and cis members of the unit. And there are misfires: people’s individual baggage and backgrounds can muddle inputs. One of the other F-16 fighter pilots mistakes engine fumes for the smell of ozone and loses focus as Meridian sends him down the wrong channels to the moment after he was raped, when he stood on the porch of a cabin deep in the woods, weeping quietly to himself as ozone from an oncoming storm diffused through the air. He has to bail out of the mission early, his freshly unearthed trauma triggering an anxiety attack deep enough that he’s assigned to the med wing for stabilization and 24 hours of observation.
All things considered, though, our training exercises proceed smoothly. We’re able to address most of the hiccups that occur and smooth our way through bumps. The Air Force is confident enough to deploy us into active war zones. Soon, the lines between my body, my gender, my HH-60, all blur into one machinery of war. The blades of the helicopter and its arsenal become an extension of who I am. The feeling is more visceral than driving a car. You can pull a car over; you can touch your feet to the ground and remind yourself of your humanity.
When you’re in the air, though, only the aircraft keeps you alive. You can almost believe that gravity doesn’t exist anymore. Especially as an HH-60—a helicopter can hover, frozen in spacetime, a constant force on the horizon. Here, with my senses enhanced biomechanically, I can truly be without gender. The borders of the self disappear. Many of the trans and nonbinary members of TACGENPRO have experienced gender euphoria—moments when our genders (or lack of genders) are affirmed; moments when we take another step toward self-actualization and peace. And that’s what I feel when I’m Pave. For as long as I’m in the air, I am nothing but a weapon pointed at an objective. I transcend gender, just as I transcend race, class, religion. I am seen for some value of the “true” me, my life as equal, as dispensable, as anyone else’s. The only body that provokes response here is the aircraft. My Asianness, my nonbinariness, my queerness, my biopolitics, all shift from being a front open to assault, to being as irrelevant as the ether in which I’m suspended. I don’t ever have to think about what I am, only why I am.
But it is not euphoric circuits that find the most use in war. Everyone in Project Meridian may report different outcomes and experiences, but one pattern remains certain: the gender pathways easiest to exploit are those involving defense mechanisms against fear, shame, abuse, and our own emotional fragility and vulnerability as human beings. The machinery of empire doesn’t depend on the subjugation of any one gender, but on using gender to subjugate. Even though I’m agender, the empire’s understanding of me as someone feminine, as someone read as a woman, as someone read as an Asian woman, is what has etched an exploitable neural network into me.
Lambda and I work together more than I expect. The closeness and proximity don’t help to ease my raging attraction to him. Sometimes, right after we land, my body’s still racing with adrenaline, but my mind no longer has a mission to hold on to. So Meridian reverts to its base pathways, and I’m left with a heightened awareness of everything that Lambda does to show that he’s a man. I take in his dark brown hair, wavy and textured with pomade, soon to have grown out long enough from the standard crew cut to earn a disciplinary remark. I take in his stubble, the deep notch of his cupid’s bow, the fullness of his lips; I take in the heady scent of his sweat and musk and pheromones. I take in the breadth of his chest, the way he angles his shoulders compared to his hips, the way he distributes the weight on his body. I can’t say that there’s any one body type that signals “man”; I can’t even say that I’m reading him accurately. After all, there is nothing I manifest to mark my lack of a gender. But with the pathways open, I revert to my more basic social training. I can only say that the way he moves through the world, the way others see him, the way he speaks and present himself, all signal man and stir that part of me attracted to people like him.
“Good job today,” Lambda says, flashing me a grin. His smile crooks up to one side, making him look nonchalant and full of bravado—though I’m beginning to see that he’s masking shyness most of all. “Couldn’t help but notice you out there.”
“Thanks,” I reply. Lambda has stepped closer, his bubble of personal space brushing up against mine. I can’t help but feel his heat against me, can’t help the way my hand quivers at my side, wanting to reach up and take hold of his.
“I, uh…” He looks away. I catch another glimpse of the shyness he’s been masking, revealed for just a moment before he puts on his masculine affect again. All his signals are still pinging me madly: the way he squares his shoulders, straightens up, reapplies his confidence, and says to me, “I just realized that I don’t actually know that much about you. I’m headed to the DFAC. You wanna maybe…?”
Nope. Nope, brakes on now, keep your distance, part of my mind says, while the other part shrugs and says, He’s just being friendly. Men are allowed to have friends, you know. Just humor him. The latter part wins out in the end, egged on by the lingering scent of his cologne and the way his shirt reveals a sliver of his bare throat, just enough vulnerability to be enticing.
I smile back at him.
“Sure, why not.”
We tell each other about ourselves. I notice that he asks around my intimate life, his questions settling closer and closer until I chuckle and tell him outright, “I’m single. But I prefer to go on dinner dates with people who I’m reasonably sure will survive day after day. And this unit…”
I try to play it off as dark humor, but a weight settles on both of us. Still, he understands, and he backs off—this time, at least.
I learn that he’s Californio, descended from people who were on the land before it was the United States. When the border crossed them, they found themselves saddled with a new nation and in service to a new empire. Me, I’m descended from a Paper Son who immigrated in the early 1900s while the Chinese Exclusion Act was still going on strong. We both grew up in shadows and legacies of racism, and that racism, in turn, has shaped our neural maps. The choice to join the Air Force was the same for both of us, too: it was the only pathway out of the half-lives we’d been cornered into. That’s how it is more often than not. The quickest pathway to inclusion in the empire is by serving it, your body and blood an exploitable resource, your mind a field into which doctrine can be sown and reaped.
War never ends. We have ample opportunity to work alongside each other. Project Meridian has a few more narrow misses, but we’re starting to pull together as squads and as units. We’re deployed into war zones in several continents, and we have higher success rates than non-TACGENPRO squads—the stats back us up now.
I spend more time with Lambda even when we’re not on a mission together. Every now and then, his hand comes close to mine, as if he’s asking permission to hold my hand; every now and then, he asks me if I’ll go out on a dinner date with him. And although the ache deepens every time, I turn him down.
“I’d rather spare us the hurt,” I respond.
Then, the attack on Los Angeles happens. It doesn’t really matter who we’re fighting, but for the record, this time, it’s China. Surprise sea and air strikes leave Santa Monica and Downtown LA in smoking shambles. Chinese Americans grieve doubly, first over the Chinese government carrying out an attack on its own overseas population, then over the specter of the motherland’s annihilation as the US authorizes Project Meridian to carry out a retaliatory strike. I tell everyone else my allegiance is only to the United States and that I fight only on our behalf, but privately, I resent that my allegiance still comes under question at all.
I’m flying in close formation with Lambda, our comms cutting in and out with banter as we make our way over the Yellow Sea, the water beguiling with its shimmering tranquility. We’re to extract a few pilots who were shot down over a rural stretch of coast near Tianjin.
“All clear ahead. Move in.” The comms crackle with the squad leader’s voice. “Remember, stay alert.”
We spot our targets. I’m on high alert, but I’m only taking into consideration hostile threats.
So when everything goes to shit within our own ranks, we’re all caught completely off guard.
Turns out one of the F-16 pilots, call sign Hammer, had come in late and missed the part of the briefing where the pilots to be extracted were identified. He’s already been chewed out for being late, and he’s not about to put his pride on the line by asking someone to fill him in, not when he’s got to focus on the increasingly hostile situation in front of him. So he’s putting his life on the line going into enemy territory, where guerrilla forces have been lying in wait to ambush us, all while he’s still in the dark about who we’re here for in the first place.
Then, Hammer finds out that one of the guys we’re rescuing is the lying son-of-a-bitch who called himself his best friend while fucking his girl behind his back. He’s furious. Meridian absolutely crashes on him. With the floodgates in all his channels open to an unyielding tide of betrayal and hurt, anger and grief, Hammer’s tactical overlay malfunctions and starts identifying friendlies as targets.
Before the rest of us realize what’s going on, Hammer’s gunned down his former friend and has opened fire on fellow members of his squad. Calls go over to medical to disable Hammer. A safeguard has been built into the structure of every Project Meridian pilot’s jumpsuit; in the event of a disruptive episode, medical can remotely inject a pilot with a dose of haldol that can bring a pilot down to a psychiatric baseline quickly enough for further triage.
But Hammer’s a big guy, and the haldol doesn’t do enough to stabilize him. On top of that, the guerrilla forces have called in backup, and we’re dealing with two, three times as many bombers as we expected. I’ve spent my arsenal, and I’m having to use evasive maneuvers with lines of fighter pilots as shields in order to protect my medical equipment and other cargo. No point rescuing people if they’re only going to die in my hold later.
My comms crackle. I curse under my breath—the hostiles have shifted their priorities from taking out the front line to laying waste to any recovery capabilities.
“They’re coming for you!”
“Thanks, I’m well aware!” I yell back at Lambda. The mics are good enough to pick up any volume of speech, and the signal is strong and reliable over a distance, making yelling into the comms completely unnecessary. But yelling is my only state when there are bullets whizzing by and missiles cutting through the air. I may be an HH-60, I may be a Pave Hawk, I may be a machine calibrated for war, but I am also still human, and still prone to very human terror.
“I’ve got your six!” Lambda says, his voice like a scratched record over the speaker. He’s panting with exertion. I can imagine his dark eyes darting to and fro, wild like a cornered animal’s, even as he performs flawlessly. He sucks in a deep breath, then rattles on: “Viper’s leading a squad to flank from one side, and Zero Bolt’s going to lead on the other. We should be able to break through hostile ranks enough to get you out there to assist with Hammer. We’ll figure out how to handle the bombers later.”
There’s an elegance to the way someone from Project Meridian pilots an aircraft through active fire. The machine doesn’t lumber; there is no slow swing of the center of gravity as the aircraft goes around turns. Instead, aircraft piloted by Project Meridian personnel respond instantaneously to fire like dancers pirouetting through streamers and confetti. But even as Lambda and the other fighter pilots weave around me, I still struggle to break past enemy lines, where Hammer’s aircraft has been grounded and disabled. I can see him as I sink closer to the ground: he is locked in the cockpit, his hands balled into fists as hot tears stream down his face. Veins bulge on his forehead and against the muscles of his neck. It’s the oldest story in the book, revenge between men where the woman is exchanged like nothing more than a MacGuffin, and yet the humiliation of it, the significance ascribed to it, is still enough to spark such wanton destruction.
“All right. I’m going in.”
“Stay safe, Pave.”
“Thanks. Be a lamb, will you?”
“Hah. Like I’ve never heard that one before.”
A compact transport chopper lands just before I do. Medical personnel hop out and activate the emergency release on Hammer’s cockpit to inject him with another dose of haldol, though not before Hammer knocks out a doctor and a nurse with the sheer torrential force of his fists. With his agitation contained, Hammer is strapped down and loaded into me with a team of paramedics. I shudder. The sight of restraints, especially in a psychiatric context, makes me ill with the rot of memories I’ve suppressed too far down to dig up now. I can’t afford to trigger my own episode in an active battle ground.
My chopper blades pulse like a heartbeat as I take flight again. The danger’s not over—the guard of F-16s around the rescue helicopters has been keeping us safe from incoming fire, but they can only last so long. In the distance, halfway to the horizon, I spot a plane going down in a blaze, trailing black smoke as it nosedives toward the coast. I clench my fists, my mind flashing to the sight of Hammer clenching his own fists; I wonder if I, too, will become like him, my own mind betraying me, my own circuitry working against me.
“Hey,” Lambda says suddenly, hauling me away from the looming spiral of my thoughts. The sound of artillery fire bursts through the speaker, clipped and distorted at such a great volume. Lambda’s panting harder now with the strain of surviving the assault, but I can still hear the smile in his voice, especially when he shocks me by saying, “If we survive this, will you join me on a dinner date?”
Dating within the ranks is a terrible idea, I tell myself. I think about how we could be ripped from each other at any moment, about how he could disappear in hostile terrain, his body never even recovered for us to mourn; I think about how all of this—Project Meridian, TACGENPRO, our entire purpose for existing—could collapse in an instant if the rest of us have malfunctions like Hammer and people the horizon with targets. I think about how the missiles are already whooshing past us, about how I can only provide aerial reconnaissance now, helpless to intervene between the bullets and Lambda; I think about how my reconnaissance is the only thing keeping him alive.
I think about how we’re always about to die, if not now, then later. I think about how weaponizing the core of us means we’re always disposable as casualties of war, how we will always be more tool and data than human.
I think about creating a demilitarized zone, just him and me, where we can slot into each other as the flawed people we are, and not as the weapons we’ve become.
I think about the day we’ll be decommissioned and might finally know peace.
“Yes,” I reply, breathless. “Yes, I will.”