I relax, sit back and rest my head against the bare concrete wall. The scramble light is green so I can probably enjoy a moment’s peace. I pluck a lingering note from a string.
A woman entering the flight room, smiles and tips her head like she’s trying to make eye contact. “Juho, I believe, it’s quite a unique experience to see a man dressed in a G-suit and playing a harp.”
“Pleased to make your acquaintance. This is not a harp as such, it’s a clàrsach. Please call me Jansson.” I try not to sound too unfriendly. She’s barely out of training and probably nervous as hell.
“Jansson,” she replies, “That’s a bit formal. You can call me Ingrid. They’ve given me P21. It looks sparkly, new and dangerous.” She squeezes through the swing doors. Even under the flight suit, G-suit, and body armour she looks slim and lithe. A wide mouth smiles under a pale face and cropped blond hair.
She dumps her helmet on the plastic bench and sits, scanning the room. “So this is it? We wait in this poky tomb for eight hours?”
I nod at the strip of lights on the ceiling. “Until that lot goes orange or red and the speakers scream at us. Then we move. How many hours have you had on stilettos?”
She looks down. “Four, well, that’s what’s on my log. Four flights, but the instructor included checks and talks in the flight time. Only one flight using the ramjets we’re using here.” Looking at the wall and the dispensers to my left, she asks, “You want a coffee?”
“Thank you, no; I have water here.”
Ingrid rises, wriggles as she pulls up her sagging G-suit and walks to the machine. “Two months ago I was doing philosopy at the Sorbonne. Now look.” She turns and leans against the counter as the coffee machine spits like a cornered cat. Squinting at my notepad and pencil, she asks, “You write songs?”
“I do my best.”
“What’s that one about?”
“How, when the powerful and old can’t find it in their hearts to make peace, they send their children out to die for them.”
“How jolly; I bet the ending is tragic. You do love-songs?”
“I could, I do, but all songs end the same.”
“They don’t have to.”
“I base my songs, even love songs, on hard experience, not fantasy.” Hmm, I’m going to depress her if I go on like this. “Sorry, Ingrid. I’m annoyed at being moved to Chad. It was good to be back in Finland. I’m sick of this desert after only two weeks, and not the best company.”
With a thrust of her hips, she jerks herself from the counter, takes her drink and sits. “I write songs too. How about we write one together? First verse: lonely girl enters a manky room. She’s shitting herself that in ten minutes she’ll be fifty kilometres up and being shot at. She sees a drop-dead-gorgeous stiletto pilot and makes it clear she fancies him.” She winks, grins and sits back, blowing steam from her cup. “Second verse is up to you.” I get a quick smirk from her: a challenge.
Actually, this sort of humour could drag me from the grey depression I’ve sunk into. Maybe I’ll take up the lyrical gauntlet. “Alright, the pilot points out that emotional involvement in a flight is probably not a good idea. He also adds that his own romantic record has been one of tragedy and feels disinclined to extend it.” I pause, pluck another note. “Let’s hope this is a quiet shift, maybe I’ll take you on a training run after. Have you done flip turns?”
“Only in the mark ones. Do I really need to learn them in such a fast, nimble craft?”
“Nimble, yes, but the aliens are a hell of a lot faster. Instructors are very sparing with the truth. We get one chance to launch sparrowhawks as harvesters descend. Flip turns give us a brief opportunity to use cannon as they pass.”
“How many of those weird, crab-shaped fighters have you shot down?”
I shake my head. “Shooting any of those kites down is usually a team job. Fighters are relatively easy. You and I could take one, when you’ve settled in. It’s harvesters that are the problem. You get one attack on the way down, the ground forces do their best to add damage while the aliens are landed, and we get another attack as the harvester tries to return to space. They’re tough and can bite back.”
Holmes’ voice comes through my wristcomm, “Jansson, it’s not orange as yet, but could you go to angels fifty and patrol? There’s a fighter lurking over Sri Lanka. It could come our way.”
My harp goes against the wall. I, rise, stretch, and don my helmet. “Green flight. Angels fifty. Patrol. Understood.” Ingrid’s up, flustered, fumbling with her helmet. I take her arm. “Relax, it’ll be beautiful. Angels fifty. We can see the stars and make up songs.” I get a fleeting smile.
Already switched on and warmed up, J11 roars as I rise from the hangar. The blast of grit and desert dust obscures my view through the blur of the vibrating canopy.
Everything clears and settles as I cut in forward propulsion and circle, waiting for Ingrid. She’s going to have to be faster than this in a real scramble. She catches me and we point our noses at the clouds. “See you in heaven, sweetie. Afterburners on.” The seat of the stiletto punches me in the back and I’m off, hopefully pursued by Ingrid. My last wingman in Finland failed to use instruments in cloud and spread himself over the rocks below.
Ingrid is spot on my right about three hundred metres away, fire blazing from her engines. I ask, “P21, How’s it going?”
Minutes later, I say, “Chad, this is green flight at angels fifty and patrolling.”
“Understood, green flight. Hold it there.”
“This is green flight, holding.” I switch to flight transmission. “Well, Ingrid, pretty isn’t it?”
“I’ve never been quite this high. It’s all…” She sounds more relaxed now.
“Bright and beautiful. What shall we talk about?”
“Um, the third verse?”
“Go on.” We settle into a lazy figure of eight at Mach one.
“When she says that in war lives are short and you need all the love you can get.”
“Ah, that one.” Deep breath time. How is it that she’s got right under my skin so fast? Am I that desperate, or is this the affect of constant danger and not knowing if I’ll be alive tomorrow? War and sudden attraction… One of us will have to change flights if this is going to go anywhere. “In the fourth verse he answers that he’s been so lonely for so long, he’s likely to fall one hundred percent and finds that terrifying.”
“In the fifth, she answers that such is the ambivalence of human existence. Fear of love is fear of life itself.”
“I might have expected that from a philosopher. Were you in the debating society, perhaps?”
Holmes’ voice cuts in. “This is Chad command. Green flight rise to angels fifty-five. Head ninety-six degrees. Prepare to intercept incoming fighter.”
“This is Green Flight. Rising to angels fifty-five. Heading ninety-six degrees, understood. Request estimated time until contact.”
“Two minutes, Green Flight. It’ll be on your screen about now.”
“Two minutes. Understood.” Our science teams have made radars that actually pick up the Taman craft at last. I test for alien electronic countermeasures, not that my unit can pick up much; alien tech often gets ahead of ours. “P21, this is weird. We have a fighter two thousand metres below us, flying straight and level and using no ECM jamming. You think it wants to be shot down?” This is worrying. Why isn’t it climbing, getting into position? I’m rattled. “P21, prepare for incoming missiles, or something.”
But the fighter carries on like it can’t see us.
I say, “P21, on my wing. Arm all sparrows.”
“On your wing. Sparrowhawks armed. Understood.”
I turn and dive. This doesn’t feel right, but we’ll launch all sixteen missiles and turn this thing to mince if it doesn’t … but it doesn’t.
I get lock-on and press fire. Eight streaks of white leap from under my cockpit. “P21, launch and break right.”
“Already did, J11.” She shouts, “We did it! It’s going down. Woot!”
“P21, on my wing. Mach one and stop playing around. Congratulations.”
“Woot yourself. P21, calm down. We’re still on patrol. Be vigilant.” Great, this kill will boost her confidence. Now all I have to do is bring her skill up to the same level.
She says, “Now tell me about the last verse; does she get to call you Juho?”
Holmes’ voice blasts my ears. “Green Flight, new and heavy ECM in your area, we’re trying to crack it, Jansson! Harvester above you one thousand and diving.”
I yell, “P21, break right!” and pull left so hard the world goes white until my G-suit kicks in. The sky flashes as the harvester uses its own mysterious, blazing weaponry.
I use a stalling flip manoeuvre by rote. Engines off, activate rear vertical takeoff nozzles, spin 180 degrees, engines on, afterburners on: thumb over cannon trigger, press. The rear of the harvester flares as two hundred rounds of twenty-millimetre armour-piercing crash into it in two seconds.
It’s gone, hardly damaged and outpacing me, heading straight down. Far to my right, a trail of incandescent material burns through the sky in a lazy arc.
“Chad, this is Green Flight. P21 destroyed. No survivor apparent. Returning to base.”
I press my lips together, harden my heart. “Sorry, Ingrid. That could have been … but you got the last verse. They’re all pretty much the same.”
©Gary and Christy Bonn, 2014