“Off the beach, everyone.” Vogel has run over Googoosh’s momentary lapse of concentration, Gianina’s independent initiative and extraordinary skills and Rudi’s quick thinking. Gabriel is coming on board; he once dropped four enemy at nearly two kilometres before they could even work out where he was.
Yi-Ting is a surprise and clearly as skilled as Gianina. Vogel wonders if the squad is formed of strong-minded people who are likely to act more as independents rather than a team. Something is changing, there’s a social dynamic she doesn’t understand. The squad reacted more to the loss of Heidi, Janice and Kpangba than she expected.
She strides out of the shade, across the beach and into the firebird. She’s let Elodie sleep for five hours. They’re still in the dark regarding Athabasca except to know that the problem resolved without them. Now they’re on red alert again.
Elodie says, “OK, Vogel, where now? Rudi, get into the cockpit.”
Vogel waves her quiet. “Rudi, prepare for combat. You’re with Awenasa. Gianina and Firoz together. Googoosh with me. Elodie, where we’re going is three metres up and landing again. One couple stand forward of the cargo doors. One of you starboard the other port. You go first and cover four to six and six to eight. Second couple centre of doors and cover two to four and eight to ten. I think the third pair can work out the rest. I want everyone deployed in less than two seconds. Run, leap and lie down two metres from the bird so you have full field of fire. We don’t stop until we get it right in under two seconds.”
Rudi dives, elbows, hips and knees taking the impact. Sand flies forward but fails to obscure his view. He scans through his sights from their six to eight in an instant. “Clear!”
Four people say the same simultaneously. Vogel’s standing at the starboard cargo door and staring at her wristcomm. “Impressive. Two seconds in the first attempt. Now we’re going to do it ten more times.”
After the third attempt she’s lying in sand and spitting it out of her mouth. She reads text on her wristcomm. “Back in. Something’s coming through.”
The squad scramble in, snap weapons into racks and grab straps. Vogel looks at her screen again, frozen, mouth and eyes wide.
Awenasa says, “Vogel, talk to us!”
“Red aler…” Head thrown back she closes her eyes and splutters with laughter. The others stare. Vogel the ice-woman, the emotionless killer. Something just got through her self-control. She settles and says, “Sorry about…” but laughs again.
Awenasa rolls her eyes. “Anyone got a psychiatrist in their pack?”
Vogel snaps her seat straps closed. “Elodie, Rio Alegre full throttle. They have every squad out and need us for a special emergency that arose as a result. Don’t even ask…”
Elodie calls back, “Sunset over the Mato Grosso. It all looks so pretty down there. Four minutes, people. Could you tell which was Rudi’s flying?”
“We don’t want to know,” Awenasa replies, “It’s scary enough just watching him trying to play the soldier. I wonder how many people he accidentally dropped trees on as a lumberjack?”
Vogel says, “Right, this has got to take less that a minute. Elodie, as soon as we land push all the bergens and Googoosh’s pretty suitcase right to the back to balance the cargo. Rudi and Firoz on straps, your partner assisting I want that thing absolutely secure.”
“What thing?” asks Rudi.
“The thing we’re going to carry; what did you think I meant?”
Googoosh chuckles. “Ooh, the suspense.”
Gianina still stares at Vogel and says to everyone, “Uh … she’s not normally like this.”
Rudi loads his rifle. “How do I say this without getting hanged? Um … haven’t you noticed? When I first joined everyone was acting hard. You all seem to be relaxing a bit. I’m almost beginning to think some of you have human qualities.”
“Someone tie rope from the ceiling,” Firoz says, “I’ll hold him down until you’re ready.”
“Landing: brace,” calls Elodie. VTOL cuts in and the world roars. The ramps open slowly and the quad exits as a crane approaches.
Despite the sunset Rio Alegre Base is bathed in severe white light. Something gleaming is held in a stout wooden frame and lowered into the centre of the firebird. Googoosh asks, “What?”
Vogel replies over the growing rumble of the crane. “Rudi, Firoz, be ready. It’s a statue.”
Awenasa snorts. “A tactical or strategic statue?”
“A political statue. Mikka Lehtonen wants PHALANX to get media coverage and therefore more funding.”
Rudi shields his eyes from the floodlight. “A statue of a tree? How cute.”
“Got it,” says Googoosh, “There’s a boy in the tree. Oh, what was his name? Er, Billy something.”
“That’s right, we’re going to Mississippi,” Vogel shouts, “Billy Reynolds who saved our asses. We’re going to drop him in Greenwood, in a park where he will be installed. OK, Firoz, Rudi: go!”
An elderly man with bent legs and two walking sticks approaches. Vogel holds up a hand to halt him but he huffs in contempt. “Let me through, young lady. USAAF and UN loadmaster for thirty-five years. You are almost at the very maximum safe carrying capacity with that statue alone. I will oversee this.” He pushes past and clunks up the ramp.
Vogel shouts to Firoz and Rudi, “You may want to listen to this guy.”
The man says, “Move those packs forward. What sort of knot do you call that? Looks like crochet to me. Use clove-hitches tied off and then secure with cranks and wedges. Jesus, did any of you go to school?”
After Elodie has them airborne and on forward thrust Vogel says, “Closed helmets, closed visors. Don’t speak to anyone, don’t sign autographs. Look cold, hard and utterly focussed. Use the deployment we’ve practised. Elodie, after we’ve deployed slash all these straps; it’ll take years to clear them.”
Googoosh says, “I think we should escort the statue.”
“We will not…” Vogel catches her breath, “We will escort the statue. Do not look at the crowd. Keep alert.”
“And we should wave to everyone when we leave.”
Vogel leans her head against the fuselage wall. “Everyone will wave to the crowd as we board the bird. Should we blow kisses, Googoosh?” Sarcasm drips from her words.
“No, that would look unprofessional.” Firoz snorts and shakes with silent laughter.
Vogel snarls. “Anyone want to pick up the contracts on those two bastards?”
Rudi puts his hand up. “Is that a contract to buy them a drink for being cool?”
Vogel sighs. “Shut up. Rudi, you’re right, we’re beginning to sound more like regular army. In some ways this could be good but there are big risks, everyone. Googoosh and Rudi are particularly vulnerable. You can all behave how you will when we’re not in action. Otherwise piss me off and you’re out of this unit.” Her normal sub-zero frozen hardness wraps her in comforting familiarity. She’s back in her own head for a moment and wonders if Brigadier Craithie would be proud of her.
After an age of thinking and planning how to deal with each of them individually and as a group without her usual tools of money and fear she decides she’ll call him when she gets a moment alone.
Elodie calls, “Rudi, can you come and take over? I want to rest. There’s another long flight coming. When we get back to Rio Alegre you all owe me a drink and a week in the Mato Grosso. That’s each of you owe me a week, OK?”
Elodie sleeps head back and to the side. Rudi shouts, “Five minutes, everyone. Have your passports ready.”
“Shit!” Elodie jerks awake. “Did I sleep all that time?”
“Yes. You owe me a week in the Mato Grosso. We can look round art galleries together, go to poetry recitals, read books to each other, see classic films … while the rest get pissed and end up in jail.”
“Idiot! Look at our fuel!”
“A tanker is on its way and will be overhead when we take off next. I arranged it by text so you wouldn’t be disturbed. Look, Vogel is right we’re putting too much strain on you. We do need another pilot. I can’t help you fly and still be ready to fight. If I was wounded and unable to fly… I really need you to help me with VTOL too.”
Elodie unstraps. “The toilet is mine. Anyone in there already gets pissed on.”
Firoz quips, “Hey, give me a minute to get in there…” He watches Googoosh looking at the statue. “What’s up?”
“He was the same age as my nephew … my little nephew. It’s so horrible…”
Vogel says, “Stay focussed.”
Googoosh hardens her tone and features. “You can count on me in action. Judge me then.”
“I’ll be watching.”
Silence fills the fuselage, broken only by the sounds of preparation and Elodie banging the toilet door and racing back to the cockpit. After a moment she says, “I have control. One minute.”
The squad rises and grab straps. Rudi darts in and grabs his rifle.
“VTOL brace, brace.”
The cargo ramps fly open; Vogel lands on short grass, her gun pointing at a crowd of onlookers restrained by ropes. ‘Clear’ is called six times. The flashing of police vehicle lights silhouettes the people and splashes whirling colours on buildings and trees. The flash of cameras resembles an artillery barrage.
Vogel says, “Elodie, close ramps after this crane has done its thing. Awenasa and Rudi stay with the bird.”
The windscreen of the approaching crane reflects Elodie slashing straps and lit by innumerable camera flashes.
Googoosh says, “This is sort of spooky. I don’t like big crowds.”
Vogel replies, “I know what you mean. Let’s get out before the arguments start. Meanwhile, look a bit more relaxed. We don’t want to add tension.”
Firoz groans. “Get out? There are at least five women blowing kisses at me.”
“Good thing you have your helmet closed,” comes Gianina’s voice, “Or they’d be screaming and running away. That’s the statue hooked up. Ready for a walk in the park?”
“Sling your weapons over a shoulder,” Vogel says, “Googoosh with me either side at the front. you two at the back.”
Rudi talks over the cheering and clapping of the crowd. “Listen to these guys. Thank God for radio. Can’t see you. How far have you got?”
“About half way.” Vogel looks at her wristomm. “Something coming in Black Level… Elodie, run everything up. Everyone back to the bird. Go!”
©Christy & Gary Bonn 2015