Frostbite and Fire

 

Frostbite and fire 05

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Elodie, the firebird’s pilot, calls from the cockpit, ‘Captain Vogel, ma’am, we’re approaching the site. Two minutes.’

Vogel, after eleven years as a mercenary soldier, thinks her decision to join the UN Military’s secret order PHALANX is the best thing she’s ever done. She’s working with people she can control through respect and trust: not money – and doesn’t need to look over her shoulder to see if she’s being betrayed.

She commands a section: four eight-soldier units and four pilots. This unit, Delta, mainly comprised of other ex-mercenaries, hasn’t met the enemy yet. She’s worked with some of the soldiers before. Firoz, dark-eyed, hard-faced, a man who up until now served large companies, dealing quietly with their dirty work. Kpangba, tall and jet-black was the terror of pirates and slave traders anywhere. He’d take missions for pennies just to get at them. Vogel suspects there is a bit of family slave-history there – but Kpangba doesn’t talk about it.

Gianina started as a prostitute, killed a wealthy client and made it look like suicide, became an assassin and worked with Vogel on small exclusive missions. Quick and quiet she’s the most meticulous planner Vogel has ever met. Heidi, Janice and Awenasa worked for other ex-mercenary bosses and can be vouched for. Googoosh, a conscript, enthusiastic and inexperienced has only had a few days training but training is in short supply in PHALANX and Googoosh begged to join Vogel and learn on the job.

Vogel said, ‘You’ll have to put up with me. No swearing, OK? It gets in the way of communications especially when in combat.’ Vogel put Googoosh though severe virtual combat tests and was impressed with her quick mind and speed of learning.

In a few seconds Googoosh faces real action but looks as calm as the veterans.

Every soldier in Green Platoon chose to work under Vogel. She’s quirky and requires her procedure to be followed exactly. This includes working as part of a team rather than her being over-directive. She demands initiative.

Elodie, the pilot, Vogel stole from her commander as part of the price for accepting the commission. Elodie was happy with that after she’d seen helmet-cam recordings of Vogel’s first mission against the aliens. Vogel, with an empty rifle, attacked and killed an alien to save civilians. She could have reloaded her rifle to ensure her own safety but people would have died.

Vogel sits with Delta section – four either side of the fuselage of the firebird. Straps hold her to the starboard bench. Her knees steady a dull black 6mm programmable Valmet rifle set to three-round bursts and loaded with armour-piercing. She calls to the pilot, ‘Elodie, screens on.’

Screens on, ma’am. We have two stilettos covering us at angels fifty, well, in about twenty seconds.’

The four dozing soldiers opposite Vogel wake and stare at the overhead screens. Vogel elbows the soldier next to her. ‘Wake up: pass it on.’

She glances at the left-hand screen above the soldiers on the port bench. But it’s only a glance. A blank map, there’s nothing to see out there but snow and ice. She wonders why it’s called “Greenland”.

The right screen shows the blurred black and grey of a ruined building amid a background of frozen white. A thirty-metre radio mast towers over the desolation. Vogel says, ‘OK, the aliens left maybe two days ago when contact was lost. There won’t be any here but that’s only probably. It will be good practice for you, Googoosh. We land and deploy as if among hostiles. Stay tight, enter the complex, sweep and return to the firebird. Firoz, Kpangba, Janice on flowing point. Googoosh with me; Heidi, Gianina and Awenasa cover our six.’ She pauses, ‘Elodie, temperature?’

Minus thirty-eight centigrade, ma’am.’

Vogel snorts. ‘Nobody take a leak out there. I mean it … and don’t take your gloves off even for an instant.’ Elodie, map of the complex please.’

There you go – and that’s the last satellite pass.’

Vogel says, ‘It’s a burned-out wreck. Hey what’s that?’ She puts her helmet on. ‘Get ready, everyone. Keep her steady, pilot; I want to take a look.’ Buckles clatter against steel as she rises, slings her rifle over a shoulder and, steadying herself, both hands grasping ceiling-straps, approaches the cockpit.

Despite the constant blast of hot air, ice forms and melts on the windscreens like ghostly fire. ‘Take us in on VTOL. Everyone, helmets on, radios on.’

Elodie says, ‘Hang on tight, ma’am.’ The firebird slows and VTOL jets cut in, roaring too loud for normal conversation.

They creep forwards, Elodie’s thumb flicking the safety off the sentinel gun’s trigger.

Vogel, gripping the door frame, knuckles white, says, ‘It’s a snowmobile. For a mad moment I thought … wait … there is a body! A human. What on earth? Elodie, get back one kilometre while I think this through. OK, people. Something weird happened down there. The aliens didn’t collect at least one body but their harvesting-craft left. Strange.’

Elodie cuts in, ‘Infra-red … there could be someone alive down there.’

Vogel shakes her head. ‘I suppose it could be a surviving alien but unlikely. Did seven unarmed civilians fight aliens? The only reasons the harvester would leave are that it’s fully loaded with bodies or all the aliens were dead. No way can seven scientist take on aliens. This is all bizarre. Elodie, land one kilometre east of the base. Cover it with the sentinel.’ She turns and grabs hand-straps by the port cargo-bay door. ‘Change of plan. Awenasa, take Firoz, Janice, and Kpangba. I want you 250 metres south. I’ll take the rest of you north the same distance; Googoosh partner me. Both teams keep parallel. That will leave the sentinel a 500 metre arc when we arrive. The main dome is … was … 30 metres in diameter. We’ll reassess on arrival. Any better ideas?’ No one responds.

The firebird jerks as it touches down. Cargo-bay doors open like wings and the eight soldiers are out in less than three seconds.

Vogel skids on ice and powder-snow. ‘Googoosh, with me.’ She runs north while Heidi and Gianina kneel. Heidi covering the base, Gianina aiming east, to their rear.

After a hundred metres Vogel squats and scans the base. ‘Cover our six, Googoosh. You’re doing well.’ Heidi and Gianina race past. Vogel adds, ‘How many double paces?’

Googoosh replies, ‘Forty.’

That’s your hundred metres then, same as me. Poor Heidi with her short legs has to count to forty-eight. Come on, we’re off again.’ They race past the other two and slither to a halt fifty metres north.

Half a kilometre south, Awenasa’s team are ahead. ‘Awenasa, slow down. Stay level with us.’

Yes, ma’am. Keep pace with you, understood.’

They near the wrecked base. The burned remains of a polymer dome with a streak of black ash staining the ice to the north. The only noise is that of the firebird’s engines turning over and the breath of panting soldiers over the radios.

Firoz here, ma’am. There’s a spent cartridge by the snowmobile … .375 Ruger I think. Yes.’

Vogel says, ‘Hell’s bells. They did fight back. Gods, what happened here? Elodie, anything new on the scanners?’

Nothing, ma’am. The infra-red hotspot was nearer Awenasa’s team, south west edge of the dome.’

Wait. I have a mystery here.’ Vogel nudges Googoosh and points to a confusion of equipment beside the radio mast. ‘What do you think that lot is?’

That bit’s a generator but the rest? No idea, ma’am. Are you looking at the wires?’

Two have ice on them. Two don’t. Why?’

Not a clue, ma’am.’

Join the club. OK, everyone. Move in as usual.’

Heidi and Gianina zigzag towards the base. Heidi kneels, Gianina drops flat, their rifles pointed in random arcs across the ruins.

Kpangba, ma’am. Human male dead and frozen – the one you saw from the air. He’s lying over a dead alien. Can’t move him. Everything’s solid and immovable.’

Awenasa, move in. Come on, Googoosh. Let’s see what the hell happened…’

She’s interrupted by Awenasa, ‘Two people in a shelter made from wreckage. One is moving.’

Deal with them. Your other pair to the base. Heidi and Gianina stay clear and cover.’ Vogel and Googoosh reach the wreckage of the dome’s entrance and wait until Janice arrives, her boots clumping. She squats at the right side of the entrance and points her rifle in while Firoz does the same on the left.

Vogel says to Googoosh, ‘Let’s go, you on the left.’ They enter.

Googoosh says, ‘Human, ma’am, can’t say male or female; too badly burned, dead. Another, female, dead. One alien, dead.’

Vogel says, ‘Comms all destroyed. That’s why no one received a mayday. One male, dead and another. That’s the whole base accounted for. One alien, dead here too.’ She looks at the short humanoid in its charred red clothing and oversized helmet. The visor has frosted inside, obscuring the face. ‘So five aliens got away. Why didn’t they harvest the bodies? Awenasa, report.’

Female here. She’s in a bad way. Ghastly frostbite. There’s a man, dead, I think.’

Googoosh says, ‘Is he shot up? I mean any obvious wounds?’

Face is burned and one hand doesn’t have a glove. It’s black, maybe burnt, maybe frostbitten.’

Googoosh goes on, ‘He could be alive, just severely hypothermic. He’s not dead until he’s warm and dead.’

Vogel says, ‘Elodie, over here. Land by the base. We need to warm those two up. Two of you treat them with nanos, quick.’

Awenasa says, ‘Will do. Kpangba has already treated the woman. Hey, here’s the rifle. Jesus, they took on the aliens with a bolt-action.’

Stay with them. Heidi collect alien tech; the rest of you collect the human bodies and bag them up when Elodie arrives. Sorry but no one else is going to come out here to get them.’

The firebird lands seventy metres south east, chunks of ice falling from its undercarriage. Elodie says, ‘Problem, ma’am. The VTOL melts the ice and it refreezes. We’ll need to find some way of not being trapped.’

Vogel says, ‘That would be a little embarrassing. Ideas people?’

Awenasa calls, ‘Ma’am the woman is responding, trying to move.’

Get her in the firebird. I’m coming. Move, everyone, or we’ll be stuck here.’ She straddles an area of burnt plastic wall and climbs out of the dome, charred polymer snapping, falling and skittering over the ice.

Awenasa and Firoz try to lift the woman. She reaches for the rifle. Vogel says, ‘I’ll get that for you: relax,’ lifts the gun, checks the breech and magazine are empty and slings it over a shoulder. ‘Googoosh, give me a hand with this man.’

Kpangba here, ma’am. No way are we going to get these bodies into bags, they’re frozen and won’t fit.’

Bring them in. Put them in the back and cover them. I don’t want to be looking at corpses for three hours.’

Elodie’s voice comes over the radio. ‘This is Tampere Green Flight Delta. Request refuel 500 kilometres NNE of Jan Mayen, angels three. ETA 45 minutes plus.’

The radios blur messages, relaxed conversation not terse and urgent combat talk.

We’re treating the survivors. You’ll have to pass the bodies over us.’

Yes, he’s alive. I’ve got a faint pulse about twenty-three beats a minute. Boy was he cold.’

I’m taking a flame-thrower to sort the undercarriage.’

Don’t worry about the tyres, we’re not going to be driving anywhere.’

I dunno, I’ll go too and take an extinguisher just in case…’

Vogel kneels and cradles the woman’s head. ‘Elodie, get someone medical on the line. I don’t want to leave until these two are conscious enough to sit and be strapped in and still breathe. How long will it take?’ She looks at the groaning woman whose eyes show signs of increasing consciousness and agony. ‘Give her your morphine shot, someone. She may be healing but I don’t think it’s much fun for her. Must be like pins and needles on a titanic scale. Thanks, Heidi. Right, close the doors. We need to get this place warmer and don’t let me forget Kpangba and Awenasa are still outside, they’ll cry if we leave them behind. OK, everyone, well done. Thanks for the hypothermia reminder, Googoosh. Now we need to identify our survivors.’

She leans over the woman. ‘What was that?’

The woman whispers, ‘Erin Jackson…’

Is that your name?’

The woman nods. ‘Is Petraneck alright?’

Who? You mean the man we found you with?’

A flicker of fear in her eyes, Erin says, ‘Is he alive?’

Hey,’ Vogel says, brushing Erin’s curly brown hair from her face, ‘You’re both going to be OK. I mean really OK. Your fingers and toes, even his face will totally recover. You’ll need a little specialist attention when we get back to Finland though…’

Erin gasps, real fear in her eyes. ‘No, not Europe. Please, no. They will deport Alexej to Russia. He’s Russian.’

What’s wrong with Russia?’

He was one of the people who sabotaged the secret oil drilling in Greenland. He spent three years in a German prison. The Russians will put him away for fifteen at least. Don’t take him to Europe.’

Sorry, we don’t have a choice.’

Elodie shouts back. ‘Ma’am, The nanos work more slowly when cold. But they do generate a little heat from their own activity … hang on … yes. You can expect an 80% recovery in fifteen minutes whatever the temperature.’

Firoz says, ‘OK, our man, what was it? Alexej Petranek? I wish I had a name like that, has a pulse of fifty-three now. Looking good. That must be just the nanobots, amazing.’

Vogel says to Erin, ‘I’m getting sore knees. Can you sit yet?’ She gets a nod and several hands help Erin to the port bench and fit a harness round her.

Vogel sits opposite. ‘What happened at the base, Erin?’

Erin has her eyes closed. She says, ‘Oh God,’ over and over.

Erin!’ Vogel snaps, ‘what happened?’

Erin’s eyes jerk open. ‘I … I was coming back from a collection…’

Collecting what?’

Meteorites; on pack ice you get only this year’s. The meteorite that struck Mars at Christmas sent debris in all directions – including ours.’

Vogel waves her silent. ‘Back at the base…’

I saw something drop out of the sky … and drove my snowmobile into a hole by accident. I wrecked it. I collected my samples and took the rifle…’

Why do you have a rifle?’

Polar bears. We don’t kill them unless we have too, we…’

Vogel says, ‘Sorry, I’ll stop asking stupid questions. What happened?’ The soldiers sit or stand all looking at Erin.

She goes on, ‘I saw aliens. They were attacking. I shot one. Two went into the dome. I had two more bullets in the rifle and two spare in my pocket. I put a spare in the magazine and went in. The aliens had their backs to me and were just blazing at everything with laser beams or something. The place was already filled with smoke. I shot another in the back. The other one turned to shoot at me but part of the ceiling collapsed on it. I shot two more bullets at it through the debris but by then it was on fire anyway. I turned to run out but fire burst up at the entrance. The heat drove me back. But the heat behind me got worse too.’

How did you get out?’

I didn’t. I couldn’t even breathe. I couldn’t move. Alexej ran through a wall of flame … all his clothes on fire. He lifted me and ran back out, rolling me in snow. I don’t know much of what happened next. I only remember a haze of pain and Alexej saying someone would come for me. I think he thought he was dying. He tried to keep me warm. He must have built the shelter.’ She bursts into tears and covers her face.

Elodie calls, ‘Flame-thrower’s exhausted, I’m going to have to take off. Sorry, guys. Port cargo door opening.’

Kpangba and Awenasa dash in, Kpangba hitting the button as he passes it. The ramp rises and closes. Awenasa secures the flamethrower and rubs gloved hands together, her whole body shaking with the effort.

Erin’s stopped crying. She staring at her hands, dumbstruck. Her fingers, rigid blackened claws, are turning pink and beginning to move under her control.

Alexej gasps and opens his eyes, his charred eyelid recovering. He looks around, jerking his head and gazing from one face to the next. Firoz helps him sit up. Alexej sees Erin. ‘They came… Someone came!’

Vogel turns to him as Elodie performs the gentlest VTOL take-off she’s ever managed. When the noise diminishes, Vogel says, ‘Alexej, we are UN Military. We were sent to your base to see what happened. We didn’t expect anyone to have survived.’ She looks around. ‘Strap him and yourselves in.’ Looking back at Alexej, she says, ‘How did you survive?’

He lets Firoz and Kpangba help him up, his legs slipping, weak and uncoordinated. As they secure his harness he looks at Erin. ‘You’re alive … alive!’

Vogel says, ‘Alexej, pay attention! You’re both alive and will be in perfect health – all your wounds healed due to a miracle of nano-tech. Now, tell me how you survived.’

He looks at her and shrugs. ‘I was cleaning the radio mast…’

Vogel frowns and interrupts, ‘What?’

We had a severe and prolonged storm, the mast and retaining wires were covered in ice … too much. They were not far off snapping under the weight.’

And?’

So I clean them with the hose.’

Vogel waves him quiet. ‘Pardon my feeble brain, but how does putting water onto frozen metal in sub-zero conditions get rid of ice? Sorry to sound dumb but I have to make a report that my superiors won’t laugh at.’

Super-heated steam. It…’

Right … I get that bit now, thank you. What happened next…? wait … an alien harvester lands beside you and…’

The doors opened. What am I to do? I have nowhere to run. I turn the hose on the aliens.’

Vogel leans back and looks at the ceiling. ‘And boiled five of them before they even got out. Well … fuck … me…’ Her ban on swearing fails.

Not so. I only hit two or three, maybe four. One of the aliens aimed a gun at me as I sprayed him … it. The gun exploded, … electric?’ He shrugs. ‘I don’t know. It knocked several down and tore my visor off.’

Elodie calls, ‘ETA three hours, refuelling in forty minutes. Don’t take any straps off. It’s a superlifter and they make hellish slipstream.’

Erin looks at Alexej. ‘They’re taking us to Europe.’

Alexej’s eyes blank, his face pales.

Googoosh says, ‘Listen, there’s a way out of this. Alexej, you become a European citizen.’

His head snaps round and he stares at her, frowning. ‘What? This is not possible.’

You marry Erin.’

No … they arrest me long before that can happen.’

Googoosh laughs until she coughs, settles her breathing and says, ‘Captain Vogel is captain of a ship over international waters for the next couple of hours. International law says she can marry you. I’d marry any man who’d run through fire to save me.’ Firoz elbows her. ‘Except you, Firoz, you perv; keep your hands to yourself.’

Firoz snorts, ‘What’s so perverted about a man fancying a woman?’

We’re not even the same species, that’s what.’ She looks back at Vogel. Ma’am, marry them.’

Vogel looks from face to face. ‘Is this true?’

Googoosh nods. ‘Yes, ma’am. As soon as we land the local law prevails. Alexej will be married to Erin and … Erin, are you European?’

Yes … from Jersey, UK.’

Then Alexej will be a European – and Russian – but they won’t deport a European national.’

Alexej shakes his head. ‘This can’t be true.’

Googoosh almost bounces in her seat. ‘It is; it is!’

Vogel shrugs. ‘Fine, I’ll give it a whirl. Do you two want this?’ She gets nods from Alexej and Erin. ‘Googoosh has got me thinking. There may be another way.’

Elodie calls back. ‘Oh God … this is so romantic.’

Vogel says, ‘Shut up and fly, you sad git. Alexej, if I inducted you into the UN Military before we land you’d get immunity. Someone as quick-thinking as you would be an asset. I’m sure there would be a place for you somewhere. If you were on a scientific base presumably you have a degree in something.’

Botany.’

Ah … um … well, there’s your answer. You can teach the canteen chefs how to make a decent salad. That’ll save lives for a start.’

Erin says, ‘Marry us anyway.’

Vogel spreads her hands in defeat. ‘Well, OK, but you asked for it. Don’t blame me if it all goes pear-shaped and your children turn out as mad as Gianina and Kpangba.’ She glances at Googoosh. ‘Interesting first mission for you? Don’t expect them all to be like this.’

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©Gary and Christy Bonn, 2014

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