Green Section’s ready-room is slightly larger than a tennis court. Notices cover the walls; angled screens at the top show data on previous missions or maps of the next. Doors lead to locker and changing rooms, wider swing-doors to the apron where firebird troop-carriers wait, fuel lines attached and engines turning over.
Rudi scans everything for the first time. He’s alone and has a moment to find a drinks machine and choose a sofa. Automatic 10-gauge slung over his shoulder, he loosens his combat tunic and makes Darjeeling tea.
To the left of the machine, helmet-cam photos of action show aliens shooting or being shot.
Alone … he knows that means all four squads of Black Section are out, a busy night, maybe four simultaneous attacks, maybe one major alien strike. Thirty-two troops out fighting to stop civilians being slaughtered and their bodies harvested and flown back into space for no obvious reason.
Boots thump in a corridor and a tall woman with broad shoulders enters carrying a 7.62mm assault rifle. She nods at Rudi. ‘Wilson, I thought you’d be early. Call me Awenasa off duty and ma’am at other times. Choose one of your names to be called by.’ She dumps a small rucksack and her rifle on a coffee table. ‘Mine’s a black coffee, strong.’
‘Understood, ma’am. Call me Rudi.’
‘No, you say, “Get your own damn coffee, ma’am”, but I’ll let you off this time.’ Joining him at the machine she says, ‘Here’s you locker key,’ jerks her chin at a door, ‘that room. Good to have another male in Delta Squad, it was becoming like a hen-party. Your stats say you’re crap at long-range but outstanding in close-combat. That will balance the team nicely. Where’re you from?’
‘Georgia, US originally but brought up on UN bases across the world, ma’am. Mainly Europe.’
‘Georgia? Then we’re old enemies. I’m Cherokee … but brought up in Oz so I don’t know what that makes me.’ She grabs a mug; it clinks against the metal spout. Pausing, head to one side she presses “Double Espresso”. ‘What you do before being conscripted?’
She snorts. ‘You look the type, mister hunk. There aren’t many men taller than me.’ She frowns as more boots rumble in the corridor. ‘I’ll introduce them as they come in.’ A short, olive-skinned man enters. ‘That’s Firoz, Iranian, ex-merc. A mean bastard but that goes for all of us. Favours heavy calibres. The pretty one is Googoosh also Iranian; she’s a conscript like you. She doubled the average IQ of the squad when she joined. The blond is Janice from England…’
Janice interrupts, ‘Scotland: get it bloody right, ma’am.’
Awenasa goes on, ‘And is really easy to wind up. Ex-merc too.’ More soldiers come through the door and head towards Awenasa and Rudi. ‘The one that looks like a black basketball-player is Kpangba our other token male. He’s spent the last ten years killing slave-traders. Heidi is German, or Austrian or something and doesn’t talk much just kills stuff. The last one you need to treat very carefully. She’s Gianina and the meanest bitch in the squad. Used to be an assassin and merc boss. She’s the sergeant.’
Of all the soldiers gathered around or elbowing each other aside to get to the drinks unit, only Gianina offers to shake Rudi’s hand. ‘Gianina, what do we call you?’
‘Rudi,’ he says, surprised at the strength of her grip. He returns it.
‘Nice short name. I tried “Goosey” on Googoosh, but she wasn’t happy.’
Kpangba chuckles. ‘Goosey … I like it.’
Googoosh says, ‘Ma’am, is it alright if I kill Gianina and Kpangba?’
‘Please do. Make it messy. Right, everyone. Black Squad are all out. Green Alpha is already loaded and waiting in their bird. Beta and Gamma are getting a briefing in the command room. When they get here Captain Vogel wants us in virtual so Googoosh and Rudi can learn to work with us.’
Janice says, ‘Great, a day off. What scenario?’
Firoz says, ‘Getting wasted and sleeping while the aliens do whatever they want. We haven’t covered that yet.’ The group move to the sofas. Leather creaks and weapons clatter as people settle.
Googoosh says to Rudi, ‘Why a shotgun?’
‘It’s what I’m used to. Out in the woods, bears, wolves.’
Gianina says, ‘Loaded with?’
‘Slug and SSG alternate. I’ve got HE in my pouches.’
‘You’ve already shot an alien I hear.’ Everyone stares at Rudi.
‘Yeah. Our town was attacked; the owner of the gun-shop was killed. The alien aimed at me. I rolled. Grabbed the gun-shop owner’s weapon. Shot the alien. The UN soldiers took on the rest.’
Firoz’s personal phone goes, he looks at it and chokes, spraying coffee over Awenasa’s gun and rucksack. Janice leaps up and bangs his back to help him breathe but he’s pointing wide-eyed and stabbing a finger at Gianina, to his phone and back to her. She pulls her phone out, flicks it on and gasps.
Firoz, still unable to speak holds his phone to Googoosh and shows her the screen.
Googoosh sees a list of names, including hers and that of a colleague. She says, ‘What?’
Gianina says to her, ‘What were you before you were conscripted?’
‘I … I was an investigative reporter.’
‘Really? Well, you’ve pissed someone off mega.’
Gianina frowns. ‘We joined this unit two weeks ago. Before that we were mercs and assassins. Firoz and me are on the same net. There’s a contract on you.’
Firoz, chokes out, ‘And someone just took it.’
Gianina snorts. ‘Yes, me, you idiot. You want someone we don’t know to accept it?’
Firoz says, ‘But that means…’
Gianina says into her wristcomm, ‘Captain Vogel, ma’am. Urgent. We have one fuck-ton of a problem.’ She looks round at the others. ‘On the plus side I just got paid the first half of the contract. That’s thirty grand we can spend on a party.’
Kpangba whistles and looks at Googoosh. ‘Sixty grand to have you killed? That’s top rate. You have a powerful enemy.’
Googoosh says, ‘But wait … on that list is a colleague of mine. He’s in danger too? I’ll have to warn him.’
Firoz says, ‘Who?’ and shows her the screen again.
‘Ah … his name isn’t on there now.’
Awenasa groans, ‘Oh crap, this just get worse.’ She also speaks into her wristcomm. ‘Ma’am, we need you right now.’
Googoosh, pale and pinched, says to Gianina, ‘You accepted a contract to kill me?’
‘Yes, and if I don’t complete it in thirty-six hours, a contract goes out on me. That’s how this net works.’
Feet pound up another corridor and Captain Vogel dressed as always in white, grey and black disruptive pattern camouflage, her black hair in a long braid, crashes through the door and runs over to them. ‘Well? Spit it out.’ She drops her assault rifle over Firoz and Janice’s laps.
Awenasa says, ‘Ma’am, there’s a contract out on Googoosh. Gianina just accepted it so no one else could. There’s a contract out on one of Googoosh’s friends too. That’s been accepted by someone and we don’t know who.’
Vogel says to Googoosh, ‘Civilian or UN?’
‘Civilian, ma’am. Achille. He’s a statistician.’
‘Who wants you dead?’
‘I don’t know. But it was Achille that tipped me off about a pharmaceutical company that may be working with a medical insurance company…’ She pauses. ‘It’s complicated.’
Vogel says, ‘Keep it simple and short.’
Googoosh links her fingers and taps them against her lips as she thinks, staring into space. Looking up at Vogel, she says, ‘Ma’am, it’s about a thing called LD-50 or in this case TD-50. “T”standing for “therapeutic” and not “lethal”.’
‘I said, “simple”.’
‘Drugs work in percentages. This is a biological drug not chemical. A protein. It works on cancers. A crooked doctor calculates how much a patient will cost the insurance company. If it’s going to be a lot the patient receives LD-05 and has a 95% chance of dying quickly … and cheaply. If the patient is likely not to be expensive he or she gets LD-95 – and stands a 95% chance of recovery. This means the death rate remains the same as you’d expect but the insurance company pays out a lot less. The medicine has to be made up daily, well that’s what the pharmaceutical company claims, and couriered to the doctor. It would never have been discovered had it not been the sort of thing Achille is looking for anyway.’
Vogel slaps her forehead. ‘Right, plan … no one’s going to kill you, Googoosh, but we can’t do nothing. This is a situation that could only get worse. If Gianina doesn’t kill you she’ll have a contract on her and so it will go on until either half all the mercs PHALANX pulled in have accepted contracts to protect each other and they’ll have assassins we don’t know on their tails. Suggestions please.’
Googoosh says, ‘I need to phone Achille.’
Vogel snaps, ‘No, we go and get him while we think this over. Someone is headed his way right now with a long gun.’ She says into her wristcomm, ‘Major, can you take over the briefing? I have a little problem.’ She taps another button. ‘Elodie, scramble. Where are we going, Googoosh?’
‘University College, London. He’s a research student there.’
As they crash through the doors to the apron, the ground crew have already detached the firebird’s fuel hose and Elodie runs the engines up. Vogel and the squad thunder up the ramps and hit the close button. Elodie has them airborne before the squad have strapped themselves into the benches’ safety-harnesses.
Facing each other either side of the narrow fuselage, the soldiers wait until forward propulsion cuts in and they can talk.
On the overhead screens, Vogel brings up aerial views of London. Eyes narrowed and lips pressed into bloodless concentration, she studies them.
Googoosh, still looking crushed, bites her lip. Vogel says, ‘I know you want to phone Achille but we need to plan what you’re going to say. What sort of person is he? How will he react if you tell him the truth?’
Googoosh shrugs. ‘I’ve never met him. Look, I think I can handle this.’ She pulls out her phone, gets no answer, calls the university switchboard and asks them to send out a PA call.
Vogel says, ‘Achille is phase one. What do we do next?’
Firoz says, ‘The orders, well, the funding of two hits comes to a large whack. Must have been approved at the top. What company was it you were investigating?’
Googoosh says, ‘Aalsprech, based in Tallinn, Estonia.’
Vogel says, ‘What are you thinking, Kpangba? We can’t waltz in and arrest the directors.’
Kpangba shrugs. ‘I don’t know what I’m thinking, ma’am.’
Googoosh says into her phone, ‘Yes, get him to call me but on your phone – not his. Look, this is urgent.’ She pauses, listening and replies, ‘No, he must stop whatever he’s doing. Nothing is more important than this … no, I can’t tell you anything.’ She rolls her eyes. ‘Right, tell him it’s a UN security emergency and he’s under arrest unless he cooperates immediately.’
She looks at the others, ‘Getting there … do carry on.’
‘Hell, no,’ says Awenasa, ‘It’s fun just listening to you.’
Vogel holds out her hand and waits until Googoosh puts her phone in it. Vogel listens for a moment. ‘This is Captain Vogel of UN Military. Get Achille to the phone immediately.’ She hands the phone back and looks at Awenasa. ‘Swear once more and your head comes off.’
Googoosh is speaking into her phone again, ‘Achille, listen, put your own phone down wherever you are, just leave it – and any other devices that may be traceable or tapped. Find dark glasses, someone else’s jacket, something you wouldn’t normally wear … and a hat or something.’ She listens. ‘Right, yes, an assassin. We’re going to get you out. Meet us … hang on…’ She looks at Vogel. ‘Ma’am?’
Vogel scrolls through aerial views of London. ‘On the roof of the Bloomsbury Theatre … don’t know if it’s strong enough. OK, Gordon Square Garden in an hour and a half.’ She holds out her hand for the phone again. ‘I need to speak to him.’
Googoosh passes on the information and hands the phone over. Vogel takes it and says, ‘Tell me everything you know.’
Kpangba rests his head against the fuselage. ‘Time for sleep, everyone. I hate these long rides.’
Elodie hovers over an expanse of pale grass cut through with footpaths and surrounded by trees. Klaxon blaring she descends slowly as people run out of the way carrying children or struggling with pushchairs.
The firebird touches down, the door-ramps swing open and Delta Squad deploy amid dust, grass and litter blown up into frantic vortices by the VTOL engines.
A firebird landing is a signal for civilians to panic suspecting an alien attack. The squad are unsurprised that the area quickly empties. Only one figure strides towards them from among the trees.
Gianina says, ‘What the … Vogel.’
Googoosh chuckles. The figure wears a onesie tiger-suit – head and all. ‘Well done, Achille. Run!’
They pile back into the firebird. This time Elodie waits until everyone is strapped in before lifting off. She says, ‘Estonia, ma’am?’
Vogel replies, ‘Yeah. It’s on our way home. Near enough on our doorstep. She looks at Achille as he pulls his tiger-head off. ‘I’m Captain Vogel. Did you find out any more?’
The pale, blond and gracile man nods, loosening shoulder straps that Kpangba had been over-enthusiastic with when tightening. ‘Yes, a little. I couldn’t do much without creating suspicion. The drugs are made in Tallinn, not in the company headquarters, and delivered anywhere in the world within twenty-four hours. The production laboratory is in the district of Paljassaare next to a sewage treatment unit. If … if you were able to take three or more shipments before they left, they could be analysed for TD-differentials and the company, the insurance company and any doctors the packages were addressed to, would be investigated.’
Janice says, ‘A sewage treatment plant? Firoz will think he’s home on leave.’
Vogel, frowning, closes her eyes. After a moment she shakes her head and says, ‘Right, there’s only one way out of this. We screw them before they screw us. It’s one or the other.’ Opening her eyes, she scans the squad. ‘I want Googoosh and Rudi to protect Achille and the firebird. Awenasa, sort out point and rearguard. How long, Elodie?’
‘One and a half hours roughly.’
Vogel takes a deep breath, lifts her wristcomm and speaks to base command. ‘Iraina, What data has intel pulled up so far?’ She waits. ‘Nothing? Nothing? There has to be something!’ After a moment, she says to the squad. ‘No one knows any dirt on Aalsprech. Do you know how that makes me feel?’
Awenasa nods. ‘Any business that secret and squeaky-clean is suspect.’
Vogel says, ‘We go in as if it’s an alien attack. We can’t walk up to reception and ask for drug samples. Googoosh, do you know what we’re looking for?’
‘Then you’ll need to come. Elodie and Rudi will have to cover. We blitz our way in as usual but all out the port door. Expect tough security. We may have a few locks to break. Be hard but don’t damage the locals. Elodie, drop us at the main entrance and I mean have the port ramp open right at the door. We need as much surprise as possible. Everyone, you have one hour’s rest: take it.’
Awenasa calls, ‘Straps off, brace by the doors.’ Buckles clatter, soldiers rise, grab overhead straps, stretch limbs and move to the door-ramp.
Elodie calls, ‘Eight seconds. I’ll have back-blast from the building. Brace, brace, brace.’
The squad know Elodie. When she says a third “Brace” it’s time to bend knees and expect a jarring impact.
The door-ramp is deployed and the firebird hits concrete simultaneously. Apart from Rudi, Achille and Elodie, all race out, only to be stopped by locked glass doors in a glass wall.
Rudi hears the whine of electric motors. He looks up and fires. Two hanging baskets fall, along with the light sentinel guns they obscured either side of the entrance. The squad drop, roll and re-deploy. Rudi leaps back and half-squats at the top of the ramp. Even as a rookie he knows the game-plan just changed.
Vogel says, ‘Elodie, take the glass out.’
The squad dive under the firebird as Elodie aims its 12.5mm sentinel gun. Glass explodes, falling in a cascade of splintering sheets.
‘Go,’ shouts Vogel. Awenasa, Janice and Kpangba take point, glass shards crackling and kicking up from their boots as they storm the reception area.
Rudi destroys a sentinel as it swings towards Janice. Kpangba blows another from the wall, a cloud of plaster dust billowing as two three-round bursts of 7.62 pulverise it.
Janice shouts, ‘Secure.’ Vogel and the rest of the squad enter.
Awenasa says, ‘No one here. Three doors, all steel.’ She pulls one. ‘Locked.’ She pounds it with a fist. ‘Thick.’
Vogel goes to speak but stops when Firoz and Gianina race back to the firebird. Firoz shouting, ‘Rocket launchers, on it, ma’am.’
Vogel says, ‘Clear the area.’
Firoz sprints up the ramp and goes to the back of the hold. Wrenching a door open, he passes two loaded launchers to Gianina, says, ‘One for Rudi,’ takes one himself, and a pack of four rockets. To Rudi he says, ‘You hit the centre door while we deploy. Go!’
Rudi kneels, squints through the sights, aims the launcher and flicks the safety off. The rocket flies at an impossible speed and blows the steel door down the corridor it blocked.
From the right Gianina fires at the door on the left wall. Firoz destroys the last.
The squad pause to let flying debris and dust settle. Vogel says, ‘Rudi, Gianina, Firoz, lock down this area. Awenasa, take over. Googoosh, with me.’
Through the central door comes a burst of tracer. Vogel says, ‘Rudi, another sentinel. Can you see it from there?’
Elodie says, ‘Rudi’s down. Treating him now.’
Rudi gasps out, ‘Not sentinel … soldiers.’
Vogel says into her wristcomm, ‘Command, I want one more squad here.’ Through the helmet network, she says, ‘Everyone cover the entrances. Defensive fire only. Use frags until the squad get here.’ She tosses a grenade into the central entrance, and crouches.
As it explodes, Elodie calls, ‘Everyone down!’ and sends another rocket deep into the central corridor. The explosion throws a dead guard through the doorway, tumbling his flailing body over the wrecked glass at the entrance.
Vogel senses the squad now has the initiative and says, ‘Awenasa, go!’
Janice and Kpangba take point and dive into the corridor. Awenasa follows, saying, ‘Two wounded or dead here. Gianina, deal with them.’
Janice scans the room ahead, squats in the doorway, another steel door torn from the frame, sees two guards and some civilians with their hands in the air, and says, ‘Bloody hell. Ma’am, get in here!’
Kpangba races past her, scans the room and says, ‘You, everyone. Keep your hands in the air and go to the reception area. Gianina, seven prisoners for you. I’ll bring them.’
Vogel and Googoosh run in. Googoosh freezes, unable to believe what she sees.
Vogel lifts her wristcomm and says, ‘Command, I need to speak to Brigadier Craithie or General McKenzie.’
She hears, ‘Chuck McKenzie here. What is it, Captain?’
‘We’re in a pharmaceutical company in Estonia. They have an alien in some sort of glass holding-tank.’
‘Secure the area until I get there.’
©Gary and Christy Bonn, 2014