Dust

 

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On the advice of Firoz and Vogel, Sigma Squad have opted for closed helmets, respirators and dust filters. Synchronising their radios to wristcomms they get used to the distortion of each other’s voices.

Rudi says, ‘It’s good to be back in our own firebird. Feels almost like home.’

Awenasa says to the pilot, ‘Nice to have you back, Elodie. That landing was boring. I love boring landings after yesterday.’

Elodie comes from the cockpit and replies, ‘Weird, you look like aliens in those helmets. I feel I should shoot you all. Give the dust a few minutes to settle. I don’t want too much getting in.’

Rudi says, ‘What is it about desert sand?’

Googoosh, slinging her assault rifle over a shoulder, standing in the cramped fuselage of the firebird and holding onto an overhead strap, says, ‘It lacks water. That’s why beach sand is more coarse. When it reaches the right size water protects it on a molecular level from being worn down any more. In the desert the sand is ground finer and finer until it’s dust particles you can’t even see.’

Do you know everything?’

And then some.’

Elodie says, ‘I tried to write a poem about the desert but dust got into every sentence, every word and every letter.’

Vogel calls, ‘Listen, everyone. Mikka Lehtonen and General McKenzie are connected and trying to contact me. I want you all to hear.’

People stop preparing equipment and shuffling round each other.

Mikka says, ‘Vogel, report.’

Chad Base is wrecked. No apparent survivors. We landed three kilometres away; a range at which we’ve established the alien weapons are fairly ineffective. We believe Brigadier Craithie and a flight lieutenant and possibly some others have survived but that’s confusing as there were stilettos in the area and they saw no craft leave. The dust storm is nearly finished here … mainly … there’s still some falling. The thirty-odd giant aliens that pursued us yesterday are dead … suffocated presumably. Those that went west died the same way or were blown up by Safronov’s mines. Nothing’s moving. Chuck, I take it you got away… Our pilot and firebird arrived last night at N’Djamena. Sakakah flight and section were recalled to base but are on standby if we need them. The pilot that brought us here by saracen returned to her base to explain why she bent the last one – on my orders. That’s an MiD from me. Orders please.’

Chuck and Mikka speak together; Chuck’s booming voice drowns that of Mikka, ‘Debrief. Yes, Allan and myself got away along with some others. That is secret. Officially we’re dead for the moment. You will report, at white level security, that you found what appear to be our remains and those of three children. Two six-year-old girls and one of about nine or ten. The girl Markhouss is safe. You are no longer required to protect her. Your orders are to thoroughly destroy the comms unit in Chad Base command centre and get out. We need you in Oslo asap. Did I hear you say “Safronov”?’

Yes, he’s here. Googoosh talked him into joining us.’

That girl again? That’s worth an MiD or two. Can I speak to Safronov?’

Safronov’s thick Russian accent is hard to mistake even through the distortion of the closed-helmet radios. ‘Eh, Chuck, is good to hear you. Where are you?’

Wait a moment, Safronov. Vogel, you either connected him very fast or … are you connected to the whole squad?’

The whole squad. It’s the way I want to work.’

Some warning was due. Follow procedure. Safronov, what is your position in the squad?’

I tag along for a while. Get to know them.’

Very well. Good to hear it. Vogel, I want the comms unit utterly destroyed so that no data can be taken. Then get to Oslo fast. Further orders when you get there, over and out.’

Vogel growls. ‘Destroy a comms unit? Sometimes it would be nice to know what’s happening around us and not just be told to clear up the messes other people make. Right, everyone, take explosive. Gianina, Rudi, Firoz on flowing point. Firoz, take the alien weapon so we can fry data drives. Awenasa and Googoosh take rear. Safronov…’

Safronov interrupts, ‘I come back. I go with Elodie to destroy my mines.’

Vogel shrugs. ‘Whatever. Let’s go.’

Rudi waits until everyone has explosives and Firoz is re-armed. Slapping the door mechanism, he leaps out as the ramp drops and sends vortices of dust spinning either side. His landing is eerily silent, boots sinking in a layer of new dust that billows up around his shoulders as he squats. Gianina and Firoz drop beside him and they take turns to run forward while the other two cover them.

A fitness fanatic before conscription, Rudi finds it novel to be surrounded by people who can keep up with him. Running in zig-zags, he quickly learns to stop and face upwind so his view is not obscured by dust as he kneels.

The sun’s already fierce and Rudi, used to ice and snow, hopes the two bottles of water he loaded his body with are going to be sufficient.

Ahead in the base all horizontal surfaces are covered; a carpet of dust that fell when the wind dropped. On the ground white fangs of broken concrete and steel reinforcement provide the only alternative to grey.

Gianina races past and raises her hand to stop the squad. Only Firoz and Rudi dart past to cover her as she studies her wristcomm. She says, ‘East past the vehicle bay and then north.’

From behind them comes the roar of the firebird rising and swooping away to the west.

Gianina darts past. ‘Admin and science are on the left. Command straight across the quadrangle. Rudi, how would you plan the route out?’

As he sprints forward he says, ‘West to the hangars, south past the accommodation block, see if anything was going to ambush us thinking we’d go out the same way as we came in and then back to the firebird – unless we have contact.’

That was actually not bad for a raw recruit. You lead us out. OK, tighten up and wait for the others. Why tighten up?’

Buildings, shorter sight-lines. I can read books you know.’

Just so long as you don’t have to look things up when you’re in action.’

What? How do you think I gave you those answers?’ Rudi moves his sights along the edge of a roof, down a crack in concrete to the figures of fallen aliens and humans that look like small hills of dust.

Safronov comes on the radio. ‘I blow up mines now.’

Vogel says, ‘OK,’ and squats beside Rudi. Gianina sprints past the science block. A sound like low thunder comes from the north west.

Rudi jumps over corpses and ducks down under the eaves of the command centre. Vogel sprints to the right and squats on the other side of the main entrance. She says, ‘Point, secure the building.’

Rudi pulls a frag grenade from his belt and darts past the entrance, glancing in and stopping beside Vogel. ‘Entrance clear.’

Firoz and Gianina run in. Rudi following.

As they move through the building, checking every room, the smell of putrefying flesh gets through their respirators. Rudi imagines his visor obscured by vomit. He takes deep breaths. His nausea settles.

Gianina shouts, ‘Command centre secure. Rudi, drop your HE here and collect the rest at the main entrance.’

Elodie calls from the firebird. ‘Landing two kilometres west, there’s a patch of bare rock here, over and out.’

Vogel says, ‘Understood.’

Rudi runs along the main corridor and scoops three ten-kilo packs of high explosive, left with their straps upwards for him to push his arm through. He thinks, Straps up … I’ll remember that. Diving back toward the command room he says, ‘Rudi returning.’

Gianina piles the hard-drives Firoz tears from the consoles he smashes open with the butt of the alien rifle. Gianina says, ‘Rudi, pile the HE at the end of the corridor. Firoz will light it up from the other side of the compound.’

Firoz says, ‘That’s everything,’ and tosses the last to Gianina.

Gianina says, ‘Rudi, you and me out. Firoz will finish here.’ They race out of the door.

A blue flash lights up the remaining dust above the wrecked roof of the command centre. Firoz says, ‘Hard drives destroyed.’

He runs from the building as Sigma Squad flow around the periphery of the quadrangle and cover him.

Racing to the accommodation block opposite, Firoz says, ‘Take cover,’ lays down behind alien bodies, settles his breathing, aims and fires.

Rudi’s blinded by the blast of dust until it passes and reveals a rising cloud, curling in the air above. Debris patters down, some of it sparkling as it falls back on the building. Rudi mentally slaps himself for being distracted and goes back to covering the others.

Googoosh says, ‘If that place held the last working toilet here I’ll beat you senseless, Firoz.’

Elodie says, ‘Firebird approaching; eighteen minutes away.’

Vogel says, ‘Who is it?’

Not responding but checks as one of ours. ‘There’s a clean-up scheduled after we’ve finished.’

Well, whoever they are, we still have four buildings to secure and the hangars. Stay in your teams and work fast. Awenasa and Googoosh, with me. We’ll do the hangars.’ She heads for the first and dodges past an abandoned stiletto. A helmet lies where the pilot must have dropped it. The blast has blown dust from it and reveals the name “Juho Jansson”. She squats, waiting for the others and wonders where the pilot’s body lies. Into her helmet mike she says, ‘General McKenzie, Brigadier Craithie, Mikka Lehtonen, respond. Urgent.’

Chuck here, Vogel, what is it?’

Firebird, UN, headed this way. It’s not responding; no one has informed us and we’ve not secured the base. Do you have any information?’

Nothing. I’ll get people onto it. Chuck and Mikka will be busy. Don’t try contacting them today, over and out.’

Awenasa races past followed by Googoosh. They move to the hangars. Vogel’s radio is a repetition of, ‘Admin clear, hanger one clear, science clear, hangers two and three clear.’ Nothing moves apart from Sigma Squad. All PHALANX security tags register no life-signs. Vogel wonders how Chuck and Allan survived what must have been one of the closet shaves they’ve ever experienced.

Awenasa leads point to the accommodation block as Gianina and her team enter the other end. This building, flimsier than most, is a wreck of smashed and tumbled plasterboard. Gianina almost bumps into Vogel. ‘Well, that half is clear.’

Vogel says, ‘All clear here too.’

Googoosh says, ‘What’s this? Stuffed toys … homemade. Yeah, there were children here. Cute. I’ll make it my personal mission to return these to their rightful owners. Until then they can be our lucky mascots.’

Firoz says, ‘You are soft and a bit weird.’

Elodie calls, ‘Firebird forty seconds.’

Vogel says, ‘Deploy.’ The squad split and return to the quadrangle. Hitting General McKenzie’s channel she hisses as she’s put on hold.

Elodie is surprised when Rudi switches to one-to-one connection. She asks, ‘What is it, Rudi?’

That poem. That was very clever.’

Wow! someone actually noticed? I’m touched … and surprised. I had you down as a hunk, sure, but not artistic.’

I’m not really. I appreciate good art and that was good.’

Sweet. I owe you a drink; thanks.’

Chuck gets back to Vogel, ‘What is it, Captain?’

Any news on this firebird?’

Nothing. No one knows anything. You’ll have to deal with it, over and out.’

Elodie says, ‘What? The firebird is headed right into the quadrangle! Can’t be anyone military. Idiots.’

Vogel watches the firebird through her sights. ‘Fall back, back past the bank of dust left by the explosion. Gianina to the south. Awenasa and Googoosh on me.’ Vogel sprints through dust and comes to a halt behind wrecked concrete, the steel reinforcement tangled or jutting as treacherous barbs and hooks.

The firebird touches down in the north east of the quadrangle near the admin block and slants on some debris.

Rudi’s behind a tractor lying on its side. He rests his assault rifle on the differential. Like many of the team, he’s gone for the new 6mm Valmet programmable rifle and an intelligent scope. He wonders if, in five years, guns will actually need a soldier.

Gianina and Firoz cover the flanks and rear. He relays what he can see. ‘Cargo doors opening. Some sort of machinery, well something on a trolley. People … what?

Gianina says, ‘Report.’

Children. There are children on there.’

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©Gary and Christy Bonn, 2014

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