Chapter 4

Holland

Juho Jansson: Flying Officer, PHALANX

My juddering stiletto has hardly risen out of the hangar when a Taman harveser blasts past me. A short burst from my cannon and its tail lights up. Not enough to do any serious damage, but better than nothing. The monster races away as my forward thrust kicks in. Maybe I can catch up and aim off if it turns for another attack. Five harvesters! I’ve never see so many together. Where is everyone? I can’t see any more of our craft, only exploding buildings, smoke, fire, and the harsh beams of light blazing from the aliens’ weapons. I can’t take all these aliens on alone.

My helmet speakers blare, “Chuck MacKenzie to Jansson, respond, over.”

“I’m rather busy, over.”

“Get to Tampere now. This overrides all other orders from anyone of any rank. Do not defend this base.”

“If I live through the next five minutes, I’ll see you in Finland, over.”

Boiling smoke, lit by explosions, reflects flashes of orange and white on the Ketelmeer.

The incredible damage these aliens can deal out in only minutes is unbelievable. Where do they get that amount of destructive energy? Their ships are less than fifty metres long. Nothing that size should be able to wield weapons capable of destroying an entire base. We know the Taman have technology way beyond ours, but I’m aghast at their power. If all our bases are hit, we’ll be wiped out. My radar sees nothing, doesn’t register them at all.

Two harvesters turn and head for me. Time for a flip manoeuvre, a barrel roll, an Immelman turn and another flip.

Hopefully the air will clear and I can think again. Dogfights … one minute you’re surrounded, the next, you can’t see a single thing in the sky. So, I’m to abandon everyone down there and fly to Finland.

A stiletto rises from a hangar. Two alien fighters dive at it. I send four sparrowhawk missiles to give one a little distraction, and the other four as it recovers. It spins into the destruction below. The stiletto and remaining fighter weave among pylons as the stiletto pilot makes a desperate effort to avoid being shot down. They disappear in a blast of black dust thrown up from the power station’s coal hills.

All screens on my instrument panel flash red. The word “EJECT” blinks and everything goes blank. I didn’t even feel an impact.

Head up, back straight, pull shield down over my face, breath tears from my lungs at the acceleration. I’m pulled around and jerked like a rabbit in a pack of wolves.

My chute opens and the world comes back into focus. Two harvesters race past. Another, not far away, turns its jets to VTOL and descends. Great, if I survive fire and collapsing buildings, maybe I’ll have aliens to finish me off instead.

My stiletto, trailing swirling smoke, crashes into a huge blaze. Nearly the whole of the base is alight and collapsing.

Time to work out if I’m going to survive the landing. My chute seems well deployed.

I’m drifting into the edge of the compound and headed towards a smashed building. No amount of my pulling the lines seems to help much. Talons of steel reinforcement claw the smoke drifting through them. Smashed concrete, some of it looking very unstable and hanging like the tip of a wave at the top of a wall thirty metres high, is going to be my landing area. Not good.

The smoke makes everything difficult to see. The worst that can happen is my lines tangling with the steel and snapping, or wearing out as the breeze swings me back and forth. That could take time. I’ll be able to study the road below and wonder what sort of splat I’ll make on impact.

I seem to accelerate the last few metres. It’s the canopy that catches and tears. It will never hold me. I may have seconds to climb the lines.

Let’s see what I can do about staying alive.

I’m hanging two metres from the wall. Overhead, gaps in the smoke show me steel and broken concrete leaning out. Precious little of my chute is attached.

Something rips. I jerk down about three metres. Right, I have only one option, a challenging ascent up paracord to some unstable steel and concrete. If I survive that, the climb into the building looks insanely dangerous. I reach down to pull a bootlace out. I haven’t used a prussic knot in years, but it’s the only way out of this.

Movement to my left distracts me. Three soldiers and two civilians race from a shattered building. Four aliens run into view and slaughter them, bodies spinning and tumbling. Time for me to stay absolutely still. I’m a sitting duck.

Aliens. I’ve never actually seen them close up. They’re covered head to foot in armour and helmets. They work very efficiently. The four of them each shot a different person, one taking the last out. How did they do that so efficiently? They only saw them for a fraction of a second. Surely some of them would have shot at the same person. They must think, plan, and talk very fast. Either that or they’re telepathic.

Instead of grabbing the bodies and taking them off to the harvester, two of the aliens squat beside the corpses and do something to them. After a moment, the aliens move out of sight.

My lines jerk. A voice, with a rich Russian accent, says, “Eh, up here. You come this way.”

“Up there is absolutely what I intend.”

“Eh, I cut the lines one by one.”

“That’s more likely to end in ‘down’ rather than ‘up’. Leave them alone.”

“Yes, yes. I do my best.” He calls, “Four lines cut and tied to steel. You are safe. Is all good.”

Clever; one line would probably take my weight.

The man shouts, “Two more, I cut the rest. You hold on.”

“Right now, I’m an expert at holding on.”

“Is good. I do it good.”

I drop another half metre and slam against the wall. Dozens of lines drop around me. I’m supported by the remaining six. He shouts, “Climb when I say go: go. No, idiot, walk up holding the rope.”

“As you wish.” I plant my feet on the wall and walk up. He must be pulling the lines. The man has the strength of an ox.

He shouts, “Wait, wait.” Some shards of concrete clatter past me and thud below. “Is good, go again.” Three more paces and a massive hand clamps round my wrist. The man calls, . “Ha, got you!”

I’m face to face with the strangest person I’ve ever seen. Red-faced from effort, arteries pumping in his neck, is a man, all muscles and shoulders. His face is stunning, brutal, sharp angles of bone, huge yellow teeth, eyes bulging from effort, a nose that could break battleships, enlarged pores, and the bluest eyes, piercing, like sapphires in sunlight; they put mine to shame. On the other hand, I get the warmest, happiest, most ingenuous smile I’ve ever seen from an adult. I’m hauled to the relative safety of a crumbling concrete walkway.

He slaps me on the back. “Eh, is good. You OK?”

“I was until you hit my back.” I choke and splutter. Close to him, I get a waft of body odour so strong it would make vultures throw up. “Thanks for that. Right, let’s get out of here.”

The man says, “Ah, no way out for me. This is a prison, all locked downstairs. Automated sentry guns.”

“There’s a way out for both of us.” Shattered concrete crumbles under my feet. “I think this lot may fall apart at any time. We need to get out quick. Pull all the lines up, Mr muscles.”

“Call me Safronov.”

“Call me Jansson.”

“Swedish?”

“Half Finnish and half Irish.”

“Finnish? I love you. Best soldiers on earth. You kick Russia’s bottom. We need kicking from time to time.” Safronov jerks lines from where they’ve stuck. “How much string you need?”

“All of it.” If I can knot two or three strands together, and there’s enough, we can abseil down. I spend ages untangling what Safronov retrieves. “Don’t coil it. Let every loop lay on top of the line below it.”

“Is good, just tell me what to do.”

Just for conversation, I say, “I’m a fighter pilot. What do you do?”

He’s deep in frowns, laying the rope. “I’m a soldier. I join whatever army pays.”

“What’s a soldier doing in prison? If you don’t mind me asking.”

“I drank vodka. Pissy officer picked a fight. I hit him.” He pauses. “He died. That’s why I here for over a year.”

I’m kneeling, knotting cords. I look up into his eyes. “I’m an officer. I do my best. Sometimes I make pissy decisions.”

He grabs my hair, tips my head back. “So do I. But people can be bad. They need to…” he pauses, maybe struggling for words, “You can make mistakes in battle, but don’t bring them home and blame others.”

“I’ll try not to. Now, this is all ready. I’ll go first to show you how it’s done. If the ropes tangle, it’ll be easy to sort them, if they don’t catch on anything.”

He slaps my back again. “Eh, I can do anything you do.”

I belay the cords, step over the rope and say, “The rope comes between your legs, like this, round your leg, across your front like this and over.”

“Yes, I know this. I remember. You go; I follow.” He unties the sleeves knotted around his waist and pulls his overalls up. The cords rasp against my flight-suit and stop blood getting to my right leg. The base is more or less quiet now. The attack must be over. Pace by pace, I descend. Safronov calls down, “When you get to the bottom, get a rifle and cover us.”

Hmm, a quick-thinking man; there are aliens about. At last, I’m on the ground. A huge streetlight has fallen and crushed the razorwire fence. It’s no trouble to walk along it and dodge among the tangles. I get to the victims of the alien attack, lift two rifles and spare magazines, and notice that one body is missing. Odd, I didn’t see the aliens return to collect it, but then I was busy.

All is still quiet. Laying the rifles aside, I strip the combat jacket and trousers from the tallest casualty. Safronov comes to my side. Boy, can he move quietly.

He says, “Good man. I get changed. Then we get out. Cover me.”

“Of course.” I lift the rifle. “Ah, I’ve not seen this type; how do I use it?

Naked, he snatches the assault rifle, cocks it and hands it back. “Point it and squeeze the trigger. What were those things?”

“Aliens.”

“What?” He pulls the uniform on and jams his feet back into his boots.

“Aliens. Some months ago, they struck Mumbai and some other cities. They changed tactics when we mounted counter attacks. Now, they’re attacking our bases.”

“Why they come here?”

“No one knows. They collect corpses. They must have millions of them by now. It’s all a grisly mystery. How come you don’t know any of this?”

“I get told nothing, bastards. Let’s get out of here, down!” With one mighty push between my shoulder blades, I’m thrown to the ground. Safronov drops too, while cocking his rifle and snapping off two shots.

Movement behind an articulated lorry, two aliens fall and he pumps more bullets into them. The legs of another come into view. I shoot and miss. Safronov drops that one too, its weapon sending a searing green light in an arc, boiling the metal of a truck. Blazing diesel erupts from the fuel tank, and an alien, trailing flames, races round the cab. This time I get some hits in. The alien falls into the spreading pool of fire.

“Go,” Safronov commands, “we need cover.”

I race after him. The harvester rises from behind a burning building and blows smoke into a twisting frenzy. We race away, dashing down concrete alleys, vaulting fences and rolling under lorries as the harvester’s weapons turn the area we left into a boiling hell. We shelter beside a shattered wall.

Safronov rises, looks at the devastation around and squats beside me again. “What is happening?”

I say between ragged gasps, “We’re losing a war. That’s what’s happening.”

“A war?”

“A war against aliens.”

“War is what I’m good at.”

“What are you, Safronov, a mercenary?”

“I trained in UK, but the UN forces kick me out long time ago. I take any job against pirates, drug gangs, slavers.” Apart from distant sirens, the base is uncannily quiet, the air a mass of turbulent smoke. I wonder how many bases have been destroyed. I ask, “What rank?”

He snorts. “Any rank. I work alone; I command units whatever is needed.”

I stand, slip the assault rifle’s strap over my shoulder and look around. “Safronov, when I said, ‘Losing a war’ I was half joking. I think it was nearer the truth than I imagined. We’ve lost a lot of people today. We need pilots, we need soldiers, techs anything.I’m pretty certain we’re going to need help, experienced help. What can you do?”

“You want me to fight alien bastards? Maybe, but not yet. How many people you need?”

“As many as you can rustle up.”

Safronov points to the sky. A harvester rises, a diminishing dot high above, travelling at an incredible speed.

“How do I contact you?”

I expose my wristcomm. “Give me your contact details. When I get the address, I’ll send the name of the man you should talk to.”

“Is who?”

“A chap called Allan Craithie, Brigadier, commander of ground forces.”

“Craithie, tall, strict and always puts you on charges? I know him. He trained me. Total bastard. Very good soldier. I love him. I know many, many good people, skilled soldiers, OK, mercenaries. It will take time to get them together. You pay?”

“Safronov, this is not about pay. This is about the human race just surviving.”

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©Gary and Christy Bonn, 2014

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