Hive Mind

Chapter 1

Scene of attack, Mumbai, March 2084

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Chuck McKenzie: Commander-in-Chief: UN Global Military Forces

Empty city, silent streets, nothing moves. The only noise is that of my boots on broken glass, or the occasional rustle of wind-blown rubbish. Plumes of churning smoke stain the blue sky.

My job is to work out what the hell happened here in Mumbai.

I’ve no idea what weapons made these marks, where the population has gone, or why any of this took place. Before it started, something killed all the electricity, wiped hard discs and there’s not even a trace of security camera footage so far.

An unbroken pane that makes up the entire side of a boutique, bears a line of almost microscopic holes – like someone ran it through a sewing machine. Near the centre of the line, a spatter, dribbles of dried blood, and a pool of it on the ground, indicate that a person died here – unstitched by this mysterious weapon.

But the person has gone, everyone has disappeared. Only the occasional piece of human tissue, a burned finger, a shattered foot, tells the story of two million people. Shot, burned, blasted to death and somehow removed. Given the level of damage and the way nearly every room of every building I’ve entered bears the marks of weaponry, I doubt anyone survived.

How do two million people disappear?

Yesterday I was learning how to retire. I had it all; a small house in Whitby, a garden, the sound of the sea on one side, and on the other, the primary school playground. A quick call from my ex-boss at the UN and I’m flown at Mach 3 halfway round the world to investigate the scene of the biggest overnight bloodbath in… ever.

I stick an electronic marker to the window and raise my wristcomm. ‛Tag 193, check window, and walls inside, find projectiles, measure penetration.’ There’s blood inside, marks from a body dragged through the entrance. Whatever pulled it was able to pass through a standard-sized door.

Whatever went in… I’m beginning to suspect it might be something rather than someone. Something went through the door and removed a corpse. I’ve abandoned my first theory – weapons of mass destruction don’t tidy up after themselves.

I turn away, look down and drop another tag. ‛Tag 194, footprints leading from a pool of blood, strange feet, take photos and measurements.’

Walking down an alley and clambering over toppled bins and stinking rubbish, I enter a square. A hedge-maze, crushed flat, tells me something landed here, something that didn’t leave any trace of the jets and rockets our technology would make in vertical take off and landing. I’ve tagged four such sites already. No need for more.

Something cut trees down, slashed a scorch mark from one end of a block to the other. It blew a hole… wait, this could be important. Walking over the grass, I can line up the hole in the corner of a building with the marks on the wall behind. The weapon was fired from here, by someone about my height. The grass bears no obvious marks. Could a gun so powerful be hand-held by something the size of an average person? That’s truly scary.

‛Tag 195, check the ground, look for depressions, something big was fired from here.’

My wristcomm buzzes, and the duty lieutenant says, ‛Commander McKenzie, sir, Dr. Mikka Lehtonen from the UN is arriving in a stiletto. Where do you want him?’

‛Thank you, Ludmila. Tell him to home in on me and land by the fountain.’

‛The local authorities are still pushing to enter and secure the city, sir.’

‛No. Tell them the wait; I won’t have evidence disturbed. You can send the teams in to process my tags now.’

‛Teams in, sir, understood.’

Ahead, an assault rifle hangs tangled in a fallen and charred branch. Well, about two thirds of a rifle. The rest was cut away, melted. ‛Tag 196, rifle, collect for research.’

I’ve been walking around this place for four hours and seen nothing, nothing, that leads me to the answers I need to “who and why”.

Three contrails cut the perfect blue of the sky. One of the planes dips, contrail fading as the plane enters warmer air.

My wristcomm buzzes again. ‛Commander, McKenzie. We have a new eye-witness.’

‛Details?’

‛She’s being questioned now, but describes people in red clothing and helmets. She confirms the other sightings where witnesses describe people with apparently enlarged heads. This one only caught a glance, saw explosions and raced away in her vehicle, sir.’

‛I want to speak to her.’

‛Understood, sir.’

The descending craft heads towards me, a spiky silver dot that grows recognisable as a stiletto jet fighter, by its squat nose, the down-turned V of its wings and upturned V tail,. VTOL cuts in and a growing circle of litter and dancing twigs blasts away.

I walk over. If Lehtonen’s been in that thing for hours, he may need a hand to get down from the cockpit.

Dr. Mikka Lehtonen of the UN; their great troubleshooter, negotiator, president-breaker and obnoxious pedant. This may not be a comfortable meeting. The canopy opens and reveals the helmet of an NBC suit. Mikka says, ‛Commander McKenzie. Thank you for meeting me.’

‛A pleasure, doctor. You won’t need that suit or helmet, there’s no radiation, chemicals or bacterial weapons here.’

The helmet comes off and I’m pinned down by eyes that could cut graphene. ‛Then what is here?’ He slides his legs over the cockpit side, climbs down the hand and footholds on the fuselage, and drops nearly two metres to the ground, like he’s some sort of athlete. ‛Bloody good to get out of that thing, I’m as stiff as hell. Refuelled twice in the air. It’s been a long day.’ The eyes lock on to me again. ‛I asked what is here, commander?’

‛A story that begins with absolute electrical and electronic failure, includes the use of unidentified weapons and ends with upwards of two million people disappearing.’

He grunts. ‛The official story is of terrorists and weapons of mass destruction.’

‛The actual story is probably about aliens.’

His eyes glaze slightly, as if I’ve made a fool of myself. He says, ‛Aliens do not exist. Nothing came from space, or went back.’

‛Nothing we could detect. A few blocks away is an interesting pattern. Someone fired what looks like both barrels of a shotgun at something and hit it. It’s pretty hard to make out, but the pellets that missed hit rusty iron. When our teams have studied it, we may have an outline. As it is, it looks like a human, but with a large and long head.’

He scans around. ‛We alone here?’

‛Yes.’

‛Great, I need a piss like you wouldn’t believe.’ He shrugs off the protective suit to reveal pinstripes, jacket, waistcoat and all. Turning his back, he goes on. ‛Forget aliens. Something happened here and someone wants to cover it up with fairy stories. I want to see these mysterious weapons.’

‛There’s nothing to see except devastation. You see that scorch mark all along those buildings? and the trees chopped down – that may be a single blast from a hand-held device.’

He takes some moments to study it. ‛Not possible. Now tell me why you are walking alone in a disaster zone. I can’t think of any reason, other than that you are foolish and unwise. What am I missing here?’ He zips his fly and turns back to me.

‛It’s the way I work, alone and without distraction. I want a clear picture before anyone messes it up.’

‛I’ll stick with foolish and unwise…’ He looks over my shoulder. ‛Who’s that?’

I whirl round and follow his gaze. A tall man, in a suit, walks from a men’s outfitters. ‛No idea, but I’m going to find out.’ Dodging around a waste skip, also scorched and melted in places, we walk towards the man, who sees us and approaches. Strange, he’s wearing a trilby that reveals no hair on one half of his head, but some on the other – as if he’s bald, but only on one side.

I put my hand out. ‛Commander McKenzie, UN. How do you do?’ I introduce Lehtonen.

The stranger takes my hand, ‛Doctor Jordan Chaucer, Afton Laboratories. How do you do?’

I ask, ‘How did you survive whatever happened here?’

‛It’s a mystery to me. I thought I was dying. Something hit me here.’ He taps his lower back, ‛I fell… That’s nearly all I remember.’

‛Are you injured?’

‛No, thankfully.’

‛What happened?’

‛I heard screams, explosions… I was headed for a meeting. Two creatures burst into the street and mowed everyone down with silent weapons. Literally cutting people in half.’

Mikka sucks air in and asks, ‛What did these creatures look like?’

Jordan shrugs, ‛I only had time for a glance, before I went down myself. They were all short, wearing, suits, large helmets, lots of equipment hanging from their clothes, backpacks… I think that’s about it.’

I cut in. ‛Doctor, I want you checked over and interviewed. I’m not putting you under arrest, only wanting cooperation. You may be holding information you’re not conscious of.’

He purses his lips, ‛Of course. I’m at your service.’ He looks around. ‛How long was I unconscious? You must have spent some time removing all the dead.’

I speak into my wristcomm, ‛Ludmila, we have a survivor. Where’s the nearest team?’

‛You need medics, sir?’

‛Yes, and a team who can walk him out to be interviewed.’

‛There’s a team one block away, sir, at tag 189. I’ll have them come to you now. Medic on the way in a sec.’

I take Chaucer’s elbow, ‛Let’s get you out of here.’

Four figures jog into view, look round the square and head for us. As we walk, I watch Chaucer looking around in astonishment. Clearly he didn’t see the whole thing play out. His presence and survival raise too many questions and they all need to be investigated. I pass him over to a lieutenant, and walk around the square with Mikka.

Back on my wristcomm, I say, ‛Ludmila, find anything you can about a Doctor Jordan Chaucer, of Afton Laboratories and get back to me.’

‛Yes, sir.’

I set a fast pace towards the shop from which Chaucer emerged. ‛OK, Mikka, do you buy the alien story now?’

‛No.’

‛I’m fairly convinced.’ I push the outfitter’s door open and walk in.

‛Why are we going in here?’ Mikka asks.

‛He was hit just above the pelvis. That doesn’t render people unconscious. His hair was odd, I think he was hiding something under that hat.’

Ludmila contacts me, ‛Sir, he’s 49 years old, South African by birth, divorced, two children, lives in Singapore. A medical doctor who’s into biomedical research. He’s the director of Afton Laboratories.’

‛Get someone else to go deeper, please.’

‛Understood, sir.’

The shop smells of fabric finishers, only half a dozen suits are on display. Shelves upon shelves of expensive material indicate this was not a cheap tailor. I turn to Mikka. ‛There wasn’t a crease on his jacket. Nothing hit him in the back, unless…’ I head into the rear of the shop, pushing doors open either side of the corridor.

Found it. A bathroom, water on the floor, blood in the sink and on the soap dispenser. ‛Tag 197, hair on a sink, looks like it may have been singed. See if it and the blood match Dr. Chaucer’s.’

I scan every room and find nothing of interest. Mikka joins in, throwing cupboards open, he asks, ‛What are we looking for?’

‛Anything unusual, anything disturbed.’ Back in the corridor, I kick the bar on the rear entrance. A commercial bin stands, its contents of bags bulging out like it’s frozen in the act of vomiting. Tearing sacks open and dropping the noxious remains of food, or tatters of material on the alley floor, I find what I’m looking for.

Mikka joins me, looks at the clothes I’m holding up and his jaw drops. Sodden and crusted with blood, the jacket is nearly cut in half by dozens of singed holes, holes that pass through back and front. The trousers, similarly stained, are missing half a leg and a chunk near the waist has burned away.

‛What?’ Mikka says.

‛Tag 198… don’t bother, I’ll bring it in myself.’ I wave the clothes at Mikka, ‛Get a clean bag, Mikka – we’ll take the lot to Chaucer and get his story.’

‛You sure they’re his?’

‛Yes. These are clothes of someone who can’t possibly be alive.’ I smirk. ‛Tell me when you’ve accepted the alien theory and we’ll move on to the walking dead.’

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Chapter 2

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Singapore: June 2084

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Jeanette Hollingsworth: Freelance Pilot

Sun glitters silver on the surf that moves in shining crescents on the shore. Gulls drift and hover nearby, probably wondering if we have sandwiches to snatch. One of my twin daughters holds up two squash balls, wet sand sticking to her chubby fingers.

‛Mummy, if we put two balls together, they can be your plane.’ Amy makes a whooshing sound, and moves her hand as if the balls are a jet powered aircraft. She hardly needs to make the sound, Changi airport, only a couple of kilometres away, makes enough noise.

The golden, almost invisible, hairs on her arm, glisten in the sunlight. I love these times, between jobs, when I can play with the girls. These are the best moments of my life.

I say to Amy and Katie, ‛My bestest little sandcastle builders, we didn’t make this ball-run just to play planes. Quick, put your balls one-by-one into the holes, before the tide washes all our efforts away.’

I reach forwards to help and try to ignore the way my bikini digs into my big hips; I’m past wishing shops made clothes for people other than supermodels.

My daughters, brows furrowed in concentration, push balls into the sand-mound we’ve built. We’ll have to visit shops tomorrow; clothes don’t fit Amy and Katie for more than a few months. At five and a half, both were thin and gawky, at nearly six they’re both pudgy. I reckon they’ll thin and stretch again before we even make it off the beach today.

Katie says, ‛Mummy, what was it like? you know… crashing?’ Balls swish out of holes: sand spurts and hisses to the beach. I stall, not knowing how to answer. She tries again, ‛What’s it like being in a parachute?’

I blow sand from Amy’s hair, and say, ‛Under a parachute. It’s alright usually, but this time my cables twisted and it took me ages to sort them. My poor little head was squashed on my chest.’

Amy asks. ‛Was it scary?’

‛Nope.’ I struggle to blot out the memory and find words that will calm the twins’ fears. ‛It’s so peaceful up there. The world is down below you; everything moves so slowly. There’s no sound. You relax and hang there, until you realise you’re about to land on the only spiky plant in a million miles. Ouch, ouch, ouch.’

Amy giggles. ‛Was it sore?’

‛Not too bad, my G-suit and flying gear are tough; glad I wasn’t wearing this bikini.’

At the sound of footsteps on the beach, I look round. Slow steps, the tread of someone not sure of their balance; the sound of someone like my grandmother.

I stand. ‛Gran!’ There she is, thin as a stick, as always. Sadly I didn’t get my hips from her genes.

Amy and Katie look up from their ball-run and scamper to their great grandmother, hugging her unsteady legs. Julie rubs their heads, and says to them, ‛Hello, girls. Albert came with me. He’s in the holiday chalet if you want to see him.’ She points with her walking stick

‛Albert?’ they shout.

‛Albert, the little wallaby.’

Amy and Katie shriek and race up the beach. I hold out my arms for a hug. ‛Gran, what are you plotting? You brought a wallaby four thousand kilometres just to distract the girls?’

‛He’s cute, only not very house-trained; a bit of a disaster in that respect. Sorry in advance. How are you?’

‛Fine … a bit sore.’

The myriad lines in gran’s face, deepen. ‛Tell me about it.’

I look away, trying to be distracted by the horizon and deep cerulean blue of the sky there. ‛Sudden structural failure, I suppose. Um… I don’t really know. No rudder, no elevators. It was only seventeen hours out of its IAA checks too. It felt like the entire tailplane fell off.’

Gran touches my cheek. ‘Where were you?’

‘On the mainland not far away. Kampung Orang Asli’

‛After you got out, did you see it go down?’

‛No, too busy with my ‛chute. I only saw burning wreckage.’

‛Insurance?’

‛Yeah, don’t know what they’ll pay, though.’

‛How low were you?’

I blush. ‛I was crop spraying; what do you think?’

Gran hugs me, all bony arms and shoulders. She growls, ‛Why the hell is someone of your talent crop spraying?’

‛Gran, you know me. As a child I hung about on the edge of the playground, always at the fringes. As a teenager I was never asked to dance in clubs. As an adult, I never got through an interview for any decent job. I’m lucky to even be crop spraying. Life happens to other people – like you. It’s the story of my life.’

‛Every life is a story with its highs and lows.’

‛Gran, I watch people’s stories. I don’t have one. I try to please Danny; I try to be a good mother; I try to earn money from flying, the only thing I know.’

‛And you learned how to fly to please me. In trying to please everyone, have you thought about what you want?’

I stifle a sob, throat catching. She can cut so deep. Why is her love so hard at times? I release her, turn away and rescue a ball swirling in the advancing ripples. Grabbing the toys, abandoned clothes and towels, I rise and turn back to her. ‛Come on, I’ll bet you need something to eat and a cup of tea.’ The sea breeze whips strands of hair across her face. My grandmother, my rock, my favourite person in the whole world, after the girls. What’s she doing here? She’s flown from Australia to Singapore, arrived without warning, and … she’s up to something.

I can’t help smirking, ‛Lovely to see you. You playing chess?’

She takes my arm and we head up the beach. ‛At my age chess is all I’m good for.’

‛Your kind of chess is scary.’

‛It’s fun.’ She squeezes my arm. ‛Today my pieces are you and your delightful husband. Oh, and the girls. I want to take them back to Oz for a couple of weeks, if that’s alright. I’m going to be very busy when I start my new job and won’t have much time to see them.’

‛Job?’

‛I’ve selected myself as head of a new training unit. Oz needs an airforce. Don’t tell anyone; it’s highly secret.’ She squeezes my arm. ‛I’m looking for talented flyers.’

Oh my life … no way. I’m not up to that. She always thinks I’m better than I am; Danny would veto it anyway… I bite my lip, look away and stumble on seaweed. ‛Um, gran, no.’

The wallaby hops from the chalet veranda onto the sand, Amy and Katie bemusing it with lettuce leaves, either waved in front of it or flopping over its head.

‛Gran… did you say, airforce?

Danny storms out of the chalet and onto the veranda. He throws down a newspaper and shouts, ‛Jeanette!’ A sharp, angry summons. Looking round, he opens his mouth, sees gran, and closes it.

We step off the soft sand and gran’s able to walk a little easier. She releases my arm and says, ‛Danny, how delightful to see you.’ She makes no attempt to hide a trace of sarcasm. ‛Are you going to say hello, young man, or just stand there speechless?’

Unsmiling, she says, ‛Hello, Julie, nice to see you.’ Looking at me, he says, ‛That animal just made a mess in the living room.’

Gran says,’ Well, clear it up and make some tea. I think we all need a cosy chat.’

‛I am not a housemaid.’

‛Neither am I, young man, and Jeanette needs looking after, given that you’ve lost yet another job and she’s the only breadwinner.’

Oh dear, why does she taunt him so? I’m the one who gets it in the neck afterwards. I say to Danny, ‛I’ll clear the living room while you make tea.’

Gran seats herself in the shade. ‛You’re not going anywhere, my love. I need to talk to you. In fact, while you’re here, Danny I’ll speak to you both.’

‛What’s this about?’ snaps Danny. Suspecting some sort of argument is about to erupt, I look to see if the girls are within earshot. No, they’re down by the shore and still pestering the wallaby, which looks amazed by the presence of so much water.

Gran says, ‛I said airforce, Jeanette, because we’re under attack.’

I’m stunned, but blurt out, ‛Is this about those chemical accidents all those months ago?’

She steeples her fingers and stares at me over them. ‛Mumbai etcetera? Yes, but those were alien attacks. People are calling the aliens “Taman”, apparently a corruption of “demon” in some language. These attacks are still happening. The cities were emptied of bodies by the aliens. Everything else you heard from UN Global was just cover-ups. Now the attacks are small. Starting in Mississippi, and then happening randomly. The last one was right here, well, Kampung Orang Asli. The UN and governments want it all kept secret to stop panic, but some leaked video of the Mississippi attack just went viral on the net.’

‛What?’ I collapse into a chair, the wicker creaking in sharp protest.

She turns to Danny, ‛You’re needed. We can’t detect these craft, they’re utterly cloaked.’ She opens her handbag and draws out an envelope. Envelope! I haven’t seen one except in films. She waves it at Danny, ‛This is not a job offer, but a conscription. A car will be picking you up from here in an hour or two.’

Danny takes the envelope and tears it open. While he reads, expressions of anger and confusion fight for possession of his face, I say, ‛What’s all this?’

He reaches the bottom of the single sheet of paper, and his expression freezes. Gran winks at me and says, ‛I think he’s got to the bit about salary.’ Looking back at him, she says, ‛Yes, your genius will be required, but not your prima donna nonsense. I don’t work for them, but I know some of those people. Mess with them and they’ll mess you back a lot harder … and you can’t storm out in a huff; they can huff louder. A little growing up may be necessary.’

He looks up at her, his features twisted in fury. ‛You arranged this, didn’t you?’

‛Not really, they need the best heads. There are few people in the world with your intelligence, well, there’s one: you. I just put in a good word on your behalf.’

‛Why didn’t you ask me first?’ he roars. The girls look back at us from the shore.

Gran says, ‛This is war, Danny, not time for politeness.’

‛Bloody hell.’ He hisses and storms into the chalet.

Aliens? Danny conscripted and leaving? gran training an airforce? Through my daze I feel her hand go over mine. ‛Let’s talk about you, my love. You and the girls.’

‛Where’s he going?’

‛I don’t know. There’s a lot of secrecy. Countries are trying to organise a united resistance, a force to respond to these attacks. Since Universal Disarmament, we’re hopelessly unprepared. This is all top secret, you understand.’ She pats my hand.

‛I’m not going to tell anyone. War… I need to keep the girls safe.’

‛You, me and Danny will all be busy. Somehow we’ll make sure the girls are alright between us.’

My stomach knots. ‛Gran, no. I’m not up to being a fighter pilot. I panic. Yesterday it didn’t even occur to me to release my ‛chute and use the emergency one. I didn’t get my lines untangled until just before I hit the ground.’ Tears flood my eyes. I always fail to meet her expectations.

‛If I can’t move a piece forwards, I must move it sideways. Will you take on other jobs? You could free up a pilot or two for me.’ She’s stroking my hand.

‛Yes … nothing too…’

‛My dear, I only mean cloud seeding, coastal patrols, that sort of thing. It’s all a lot easier and safer than crop spraying.’

‛I don’t have a plane that can handle that.’

‛I have. I came in it today. It’s sitting at Changi.’

I look up, wipe a tear away. ‛What?’

‛A mark one stiletto. Armed with a rotary 20mm cannon. Just don’t fly with a wallaby, even a sedated one. I don’t recommend it.’

‘You have a stiletto? You flew it?

She laughs. ‘Gently. Don’t look at me like that. I’m a lot tougher than I look. Now it’s yours. Take it and don’t argue.’

‛But … they cost millions.’

‛Chess can be rewarding, when you play with kings and queens. I’m not having you fly in anything less.’

‛But it’s VTOL, supersonic, cannon… why? it’s all wasted on patrols.’

‛I said I won’t have you fly in anything less. My love, you haven’t sussed it yet have you?’

‛What haven’t I sussed?’

‛I don’t think your plane suffered an accidental structural failure. I think you were shot down.’

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Chapter 3

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Holland

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Susan Holmes: Flying Officer, UN security Forces

I’m in my favourite position, slouched until my shoulders are half way down the back of the office chair, calves either side of the monitor on my desk. I sweep my hair forward until it covers my face and neck. Go away world. I don’t want to see you, or this mess of an office, or hear the constant din of this base. I’m half way across the goddam world and stuck in Europe with no time to actually go sightseeing.

The phone goes… Why a phone? Why haven’t our wristcomms arrived? It’s like living in an old film. I lift the receiver and say, ‛Flying Officer Holmes: supplies.’

‛Hi Sue, Janis here … supplies? You’re a fighter pilot. What happened?’

‛Janis, why the hell are you calling me at work? You’re worse than my mom.’ I grin. Janis, my best friend, has the same approach to protocol as me. She’s my role-model.

‘You never call me, so I have to call you.’

‘I’m always busy, that’s why. Everyone here has at least two jobs and apparently I’m good at organising people. Not only am I asked to race fifty kilometres up and kill invading aliens, but when I land, I learn that we’re out of toilet rolls and it’s all my fault. So what’s new?’

‘Hey, I’m black-rated. That’s new.’

‘Woo-hoo! So you know everyone’s secrets, huh? I bet you’ve peeked at my file already.’

‘It’s open on my screen. But I reckon black-rated means I’m just left in the dark. I want you to do some snooping for me.’

‘Me, snoop for an intel officer? That’s the wrong way round.’

‘Look, people are leaving their posts in the UN, loads of them. Half of them have travelled to your place this morning. What’s going on?’

‘I dunno. I can ask why the runway’s been so busy today, but this place is constant chaos anyway.

There are a whole bunch of retired, USAAF, RAF, Norwegian, Dutch air forces, army and civilians all mixed up. Nearly all of them are ancient; it’s like an old people’s home here, but with everyone in uniform.’

‘See what you can do. Anyhow, how’s it goin’?’

‘You should know. Since the aliens started these random attacks, we get scrambled every couple of days. The aliens drop in, kill a few civilians and harvest the bodies. Half the time we get a pot-shot at their harvesting craft, the rest we fail to intercept. Our patch is too damn big.’

‛It says here you’ve been in action a lot, including fifteen sorties where you’ve had contact. How are you handling it?’

‘OK. Their harvesters carry some punch, sure. But in the air they usually ignore us, just concentrating on getting to the ground and back out again. It’s the ground forces that take the damage.’

‘But they do have the new nanobot medikits. Have you used them? I hear they can cause problems.’

‛I’ve never been injured.’ Hmm, her voice is rising in tone, time to leave the subject, or she’ll dwell on the danger too much. ‘There’s a bright side to my job, quite a hectic social life.’

She takes the bait. ‛Any men?’

‛Nah … not really … well there is one.’

‛Well, out with it.’

Good, her voice has settled a bit. ‛Tall, plays a harp…’

‛Harp?’

‛Yes, an Irish harp. His dad’s from Finland, his mother from Ireland.’

‛So what makes him so fit?’

‛His eyes … broad shoulders, and a smile that has women falling over furniture or fainting.’

‛Go on…’

Oops, I must have drifted away at that point. ‛He’s called Jansson and flies a stiletto like me.’

‛So when are you going to nail him?’

‛Every woman on the base wants to nail him, but he doesn’t seem interested. There’s a wall of restraint around him, like he’s been hurt too often. It’s all so romantic.’ I do a long fake sigh.

Janis says, ‛Sort him out by Christmas and tell him I’ll cook duck, pheasant and salmon like I always do.’

‛No way. If he ate your cooking he’d marry you, not me.’ I look up. ‛Hell, someone’s coming. I’ve got to go … hey, you call me. Don’t wait for me to call; you know what I’m like, OK?’

I put the phone down as commander Chuck McKenzie crashes the door of my office open. He’s frowning as usual, intense and driven; he works his staff until they look as ragged as his uniform.

I jump to attention, brush my hair back, try to look more military than hippie, and say, ‛Good morning, sir. What can I do for you?’

Fists thrust in his jacket pockets, he says, ‛Briefing, follow me.’ He turns and strides away, paper fluttering as he passes pin boards either side of the corridor. I wonder if his grumpiness has anything to do with the entire base being on orange alert for the last half hour.

Jesus, Chuck managed a whole three-word sentence, things must be desperate. I race after him, pausing only to grab my comms tablet – something a pilot can’t afford to be without. Waterproofed, we even have to take them in when we have a shower in case we’re scrambled.

I jog along the corridor. Chuck’s holding the next door open and looking at me like I should be sprinting. He’s all frowns and hard worry lines, something’s up. Why does a commander collect and escort a mere flying officer to a briefing? Oh crap, I was on the phone…

We leave the prefab offices and head for a domed concrete bunker. Outside, the fresh air, noise of jet engines being tested and the general haste of people, contrasts with my sleepy and stifling office. Chuck strides fast, I can keep up, but though my legs are longer, it’s still an effort. He says, ‛You’ve been selected to join another team.’ He flicks a glance at me. ‛You will disappear from the world.’

‛What?’

‛No communication: secret.’

‛Er … can I call my mom and warn her I’ll be out of contact for a while?’

‛No.’ He pushes the doors open. I catch them as he heads for an inner door and leads me into a meeting room filled with about a hundred people, lit only by a screen that nearly fills the far wall. People mutter, look round, mysterious figures in the faint light. On the screen is a face I remember. A senior guy from the UN; some sort of politician.

Looking at the screen, Chuck speaks into his wristcomm. ‛That’s the last, Mikka. Jansson, Holmes, switch your tablets off. I don’t want you being scrambled during the brief.’

Mikka seems to be punching keys and occupied with something else. After a moment, he looks at his camera and says, ‛Craithie, Jansson and Holmes, you are the last in this meeting. Like everyone else here, you’ve been hand-picked. If you consider yourselves unable to maintain absolute secrecy, or if you feel that you cannot give me one hundred percent of yourselves over the coming months, leave the room now and nothing will be said.’ He waits. ‛Well?’

Chuck says, ‛No one’s left the room.’

Mikka goes on, ‛From now on, you will not repeat anything I say except to the people in the unit you’ve just joined.’ He pauses, as if turning something over in his head. ‘Since Universal Disarmament, UN peacekeeping forces have dwindled and are too politically fragmented to handle these alien attacks. Our response has been disorganised and inadequate. What UN bases we have are too vulnerable.’

Mikka sits back, looks away from the camera, purses his lips and runs fingers through his hair. He sighs, breath booming into his mike. ‛I’ve just learned that UN Lima is under attack. The enemy has every advantage. They have superior weapons, can drop out of the sky anywhere and have an agenda we do not understand. I am resurrecting a secret organisation, PHALANX, to defend the planet. The bases from which you’ll operate will be very hard to identify from space and easily camouflaged. We can use old quarries, hospitals, industrial estates, and so on. Commander Chuck McKenzie will give you your specific orders. I want you at you new posts now. That is all.’ The screen goes blank and lights come on.

Chuck tears at a cardboard box. ‛Come and get your wristcomms, people. Jansson, take your stiletto to Finland. You’ll receive your orders over Tampere. He tosses a wristcomm to him. Looking at me he says, ‛Holmes, set your stiletto for ferrying and head for Chad, Africa. You’ll receive new orders over Abeche.’

‛Ferry? But that means…’ I blurt out.

He cuts me off, ‛That was an order.’ He snaps the wristcomm around my left wrist. ‛But, yes, I can imagine you’re not feeling overjoyed about being unarmed.’ Turning to Craithie, he says, ‛You’re coming with me, Allan.’ He looks at his watch. ‛Holmes, Jansson, why are you still here? Holmes, I want you over Abeche in four hours.’

Holy crap, that’s about five thousand kilometres. Kickstarting my wristcomm, I speak direct to the loudspeakers in my hangar. ‛Susan here. Alice, I need G19 stripped, fuelled and loaded with two, thousand litre, fuel pods. You have twenty minutes.’

Shit. I run to my office, scrabble together what few personal items I have there, scatter paper and files in my hurry, and leave the mess for the poor victim who takes over. No more toilet roll hassle for me. Race to my quarters, stuff my remaining possessions into a suitcase and a rucksack. I shout at some poor grunt to help me take them to my hangar.

I jog there and into the din of G19’s engines turning over. Its ugly outline vibrates.

Alice, my engineer, waves a clipboard at me and shouts, ‛All checked and correct. You’re cleared to fly immediately. Get dressed while I stow your stuff.’ She waves the clipboard at the sky as the hangar roof grinds and screeches open. ‛All clear above and behind.’ Referring to our gliding days years ago. She nods to the ready-room. ‛Sally’s there to help you into your G-suit. What this all about?’

‛Sorry, even I don’t know half of it yet.’

It’s all a blur as I get assistance from Sally and a hug from Alice. Clattering up the ladder and into the cockpit, I’m only half strapped in when the air raid siren goes. Shit. Do I run to the shelter or fly? Fly. My canopy is already closing and, if we’re being attacked, an exposed stiletto in its hangar would be too tempting a target. Sally and Alice dive through the hanger blast-shields.

I slide the comms tablet into its socket and punch final checks. Everything flashes green and I throw VTOL to max – no time for a pretty take off. Fumes blast up from the hangar and I pop up and out like a cork.

The control tower to the south explodes. A harvester, fifty metres of blue and black, nearly indestructible material, screeches past me. From its lance-like weapons, green fire blazes. More harvesters race across the apron; buildings erupt in bursts of spinning debris before them. Turning, the harvester’s insectile silhouette shows against a plume of fire and burning debris on the far side of the base.

Straight to afterburner, I throw G19 hard to port. I’ll be near Mach 2 in a few seconds, but that’s not enough to outpace these alien craft.

The base is being totally razed; the air fills with the searing light of alien weaponry and the debris of exploding buildings. Shit, there’s nothing I can do but run.

Wonder if Jansson got away? No, he’d stop and fight – and he has weapons: lucky bastard. I keep low, between the trees in a suburban avenue. God knows what I’m doing to people’s ears… any windows close by are going to shatter, but I can’t afford to be seen.

Two bars of livid emerald fire cut the air above me. Shit, that’s an alien fighter on my tail. Pulling hard starboard, I dive under power cables and weave between lines of pylons. My radar says, ‛Bandit six o’clock, level, two hundred.’

The bastard’s right up my ass. Why’s he low and not above me?

Fuck, I’m headed for a power station. Six cooling towers gleam white dead ahead. Maybe I can use their billowing steam as cover. No, it’ll only be for a fraction of a second, then the alien will see me again. What the hell am I going to do?

‛Mayday, G19 in trouble, unarmed and under attack.’ As if they don’t have enough problems of their own…

A tiny figure leaps from a huge bulldozer as I race between hills of coal. Too many pylons, I can’t react in time. I need to get away from them, but that will expose me…

My rear-cam shows the cloud of black dust my supersonic shock-wave kicked up. It also shows a burning mess like a meteor. The spiky remains of the fighter with half a pylon wrapped round it. Great, the coal dust screwed his vision.

Time to get away.

‛This is G19, problem solved. No further need for assistance, over.’ No response to either of my messages… Bad news. I hate to think what the base looks like. God knows how many have died. Why didn’t we see the aliens coming sooner? I hope this Mikka Lehtonen has funding for some serious research. I settle to 1500 kph and blaze over flat countryside.

My wristcomm buzzes, who knows its access? Chuck’s voice barks out, ‛Holmes, respond.’

‛This is G19, Holmes responding, over.’

‛Where are you?’

‛West of Hamburg and headed south, over.’

‛You survived, good.’

‛How’s everyone?’ He’s not using wireless protocol, so I abandon it.

‛Heavy casualties … massive’

‛Sally? Alice…? Jansson?’

‛Don’t know who the first two are, but Jansson took off. Given the confusion here, I’ll send your final coordinates encrypted now.’

‛What’s there?’

‛At the moment, very little. Here, we’ve been hit hard and lost vital personnel; PHALANX may be a little chaotic for a while, if it survives at all. Do what you can out there and we’ll be in contact when we’re back on our feet.’

He cuts the connection. I pick up the coordinates and scan old satellite images. Rocks, sand… nothing. The nearest dirt track lies 83 kilometres to the south.

I’m not allowed a single call, huh? ‛Hi Mom … sorry I didn’t catch you. No doubt you’ll hear about an attack on the base – I’d already left it and I’m fine. I’ll be out of contact for a while. Don’t worry, I’ll be back in touch as soon as. Love you.’

After Rome it’s over the Med and Sicily; the north coast of Africa comes up in less than an hour. That’s probably the last I see of the colour green for months.

God knows what desolation I’m headed for. I take it that it’s a base in early stages of construction. Someone had better have ordered toilet rolls.

Check the sky, check rear-cam, check radar – for what it’s worth – for another two hours. It’s hard not to daydream and take my eye off the ball.

Stay alert, I’m nearly here. There it is. I circle and stare down.

Oh for fuck’s sake…

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