A decision was made—somewhere, but not by someone.
Tsering shook me awake. There was urgency and concern in his young face I had not seen before, and this was someone whose brother had self-immolated less than a week prior. The black window whispered to me it was still the middle of the night, but I would have been groggy even if not for the late hour (or early, depending on your point of view); my Buddhist hosts may have rarely imbibed, but I was still beholden to life-long vices. I was technically only there in a journalist’s capacity, after all.
“You must come look,” he said, ushering me out the door. We strode by a portrait of the Dalai Lama—a dangerous thing to have in Lhasa, especially in March. This month in 1959 he fled this Tibetan city under imminent threat from the Chinese, never to return.
He led me quickly up the stairs and out onto the roof of the Potala Palace. Hundreds of monks, many of whom had returned from effective exile in India, had been occupying this museum and World Heritage Site in protest for almost a month now. Before its current designation it was the primary residence of the Dalai Lama for 300 years.
There were already a dozen or so people on the roof when we arrived. 13 floors below in the courtyard I could dimly make out a level of activity unusual for this time of night. 1,000 feet below, at the bottom of the Red Hill on which the palace was built, I could also see lights from the camp of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army.
“Do you see, over there?” asked Tsering, gesturing to the west. This was the highest elevation ancient place in the world—it was frigid outside, and snowing lightly. At a distance the weather obstructed the view somewhat, but you could make out what looked to be a golden haze, rapidly descending from the mountains towering above the city. I wished I had my camera to record the ethereal, ghostly site, but one of the conditions of letting me document and report on the occupation was that I couldn’t take pictures or videos; photographs are strictly forbidden inside the palace. It was curious to me as an outsider which rules were not to be broken.
“Yes, I see,” I replied softly, though I wasn’t quite sure I believed.
“Have you ever beheld such a thing?” asked another, older monk I was yet to be introduced to during the two weeks I’d been their guest.
“No, I’m afraid I have not.” And I was afraid. We stood in awed silence as the golden cloud reached the bottom of the mountains and continued over the city. Once it became clear it was heading directly for the palace, nervous murmurs rustled through the crowd and some headed inside, though there were now about 50 on the roof as word spread through the immense, thousand-room structure.
100 yards out I discerned it was not a cloud of any sort, but rather a swarm of what initially gave me the impression of large fireflies. There must have been thousands of them, and the glow emitted from each lit up the tiny snowflakes in its vicinity. The horde enveloped us, and my ears filled with the buzzing sound emitted by these strange creatures as they dashed around the roof’s stunned occupants.
The way they now moved changed my impression from fireflies to hummingbirds, as they would fly—almost imperceptibly quickly, leaving behind a fading streak of light—from one place to another before pausing to hover in place. It was as if they were inspecting something, and they were. One stopped a few feet in front of my face and I instinctively held out my hand as if to provide a perch, but it retreated slightly so it was out of reach. My stomach suddenly dropped as I realized these were not nature’s creations, but Man’s. More likely, a product of a product of Man. My perception of mechanical hummingbirds was solidified, along with the sinking feeling inside of me, as I noticed that each one of them now had a several inch needle extending from it, like a razor sharp beak.
I began to hear strange noises all around me—coughing and gurgling, and the terrible sound one makes when trying to scream with partially severed vocal cords. These needles were now being driven into the exposed necks of all those on the roof. All those except for myself, apparently.
I came out of the daze into which I’d been lulled by the incredible arrival, and heard several shouts from the courtyard below. I could also hear heavy footsteps from within the palace, as I saw the entire hilltop was engulfed by these messengers of death. I could see them zipping in and out of the open palace windows, some of which were now illuminated by lights within. Most were dark except for the bright streaks—disappearing as fast as they materialized—like thousands of tiny shooting stars in the darkness. There was nowhere to run.
Because of the nature of the wounds inflicted, many of the autonomous assassins were sprayed with blood, and now shone closer to a scarlet color. All around me was a dazzling red and gold light show of flying machines, dancing in the snow. It would have been beautiful to an uninformed observer.
There was a cane on the ground near me which had been dropped by an elderly monk who no longer needed it. I picked it up and attempted to fight some of the attackers, but the few swings I got off struck nothing but the cold air. Within seconds both my hands were impaled several times each by tiny spikes, rendering them useless; I dictated this account to a machine of my own.
Almost as soon as they began the terrible noises stopped, and the buzzing started to dim. The swarm once again became a cloud over the city—no longer entirely golden—and ascended the mountains, fading out of sight.
I saw Tsering laying face up on the ground, a look of wonder in his eyes and disbelief on his face. The blood blended in with the maroon robe he wore, and the holes in his neck and chest were almost too small to notice in the pale moonlight. If not for the open eyes he may have been sleeping.
I sat on the roof for a long time trying to make sense of what had just occurred, my heavy breath a fog in front of me. I didn’t even notice the pain in my hands, which were becoming numb, along with my mind. The snow got heavier and began to cover up the stained layer beneath it, until a pure white blanket covered everything in view. I’d never felt so alone—now the sole living thing in this massive complex. Why use lights at all, especially on the approach and exit? Why spare a witness, even if he is American? The protestors’ voices were soft, and sound doesn’t travel as fast or far at high altitude. Snow dampens echoes. But there I was, left to tell the tale. Did they think—assuming they were in fact thinking—that no one would believe me? Surely others in the city must have seen them.
My brother was a drone pilot in the U.S. Air Force. He would be thousands of miles away from targets, with “99 Red Balloons” on loop in the background, manually carrying out the will of his superiors. Now judge, jury, and executioner are one and the same. The algorithms are too complex for any human to understand what goes into a kill decision, but the p-value was .01, and that was that.