Gianina wipes dust from her visor, stares through the rifle’s scope and says, ‘Finally.’ The huge humanoid alien is down and unmoving after being hit seven times with point-five sniper bullets.
Vogel says, ‘You’ve done it. I think it’s dead. Hard to tell through all this heat-haze. The other two will be in range soon. How much ammo have you got?’
‘Twenty three. Should be enough and Gamma Squad haven’t fired yet. Maybe we won’t need the twenty-mils after all.’ Gianina rolls on her back to watch the firebird land, VTOL jets throwing up dust around the stubby wings. ‘Here they come, I’ll get one now.’ She leaps up, starts sprinting and doges past Rudi treating the injured stiletto pilot.
Vogel says to the squad, ‘Did you just hear a helicopter or am I imagining things?’
Firoz says, ‘Nope, definitely a helicopter to the west on the other side of the base. Who uses helicopters these days?’
From the east come two stabs of searing blue light. The firebird jerks in the air as if hit by a train, turns over, and crashes to the ground, wreckage tumbling over the sand and flashing in the harsh African sunlight.
Vogel calls, ‘Refai, send one of your squads to cover our east flank. Gianina and Rudi, assist the firebird pilot if you can and assess our situation to the east.’ Vogel slides into the sand-hole Gianina dug and takes the sniper-rifle. Through the scope she sees two aliens advancing from the smoking wreckage of Chad Base.
Gianina runs toward the firebird and says, ‘Rudi, help the pilot. I’ll get the rifle.’ The cargo-bay has burst open, revealing weapons including four 20mm sniper rifles strapped to the bulkhead. The pilot wriggles through the cockpit’s twisted door, knuckles white as he grips the frame to make the gap wider.
Gianina says, ‘Here,’ and pulls from the other side. Rudi thunders in, wreckage crunching under his boots. He grabs the frame and says, ‘One, two, three…’ The door folds in half and the pilot squirms into the cargo-bay, his flight-suit tearing on ragged metal.
He says, ‘Out, out: I didn’t have time to shut the fuel down.’
Gianina says, ‘Rudi, grab a rifle and ammo – and run.’
‘On it.’ He slashes retaining straps with his bayonet and passes two rifles and a box of ammunition to Gianina. As she leaps out, Rudi lifts the pilot’s left arm over a shoulder and they run back into the sun.
The pilots says, ‘Thanks. I think I’m OK now.’
Vogel, lying in the sand two hundred metres to the east and facing Chad Base, waits until the red dot is square on the chest of the nearest alien. As she fires, a bright flash and flying debris in the base indicates more aliens or something else is at work there. Her bullet spins the alien round but it recovers and continues to approach.
Another explosion in the base sends a column of dust roiling into the air.
Gianina calls over the radio, ‘Two aliens to the east. Rudi and I will try to drop them.’ She’s lying behind a low dune and loading her rifle, bipod pressed deep into the sand. She says to Rudi, ‘Switch your scope on and let it sort itself out. Do what it says and you can’t miss.’
Rudi grunts. ‘I’m hopeless at long range.’
‘Just keep the reticule centred on the left alien. The dot will wander with the wind and it’s getting quite gusty. When the dot goes over the alien, squeeze the trigger. The scope will outline the target. If it chooses correctly, keep the trigger squeezed…’ Her gun roars. ‘Ow … damn … these things kick and the bipod’s not held by the sand. Anyway, do like I just did.’ She looks through her scope. ‘Down and in bits at just under a kilometre. Am I hot or what?’
The remaining alien fires again. The crashed firebird explodes, burning fuel arching through the air in flaming liquid talons.
Rudi’s gun fires. He squints through the scope. ‘I missed, no … got it. But it’s still coming.’
‘Unbelievable. Fire again. If I do I’ll dislocate my shoulder.’
Rudi fires as another explosion comes from the west. Rudi says, ‘It’s still coming. I think I hit it that time too.’
Gianina winces. ‘Fine, I’ll do it.’
‘I’ll lie beside you and hold the butt.’
‘Make sure you hold the right one.’
‘Not your left one?’
‘Shut up and do it. Don’t bother, it’s down. No it’s up again. Gods these things are tough. You ready?’
‘Ready.’ Gianina fires again and is blinded by an incandescent emerald blaze.
Rudi says, ‘I think you hit its weapon.’
They watch a wall of dust falling in streaks, revealing a shallow crater about fifteen metres in diameter. Gianina says into her mike, ‘That’s the east clear, Vogel.’
‘And we’re clear to the west. Return. Give your gun to Firoz. I can’t handle the whole recoil of those things either. Let the gorilla-guys have them. Rudi take yours to the lieutenant. Gianina take over the point-five. Everyone, move to Refai’s left flank and give support.’
‘Lieutenant Refai here. A group of thirty aliens just over two kilometres north. There were more but some went west….’ He’s interrupted by two more explosions from the west. ‘What’s going on? There must be another force over there. Why don’t we know about it?’
Vogel watches dust beginning to move in tendrils across the surface of the desert. ‘Survivors … must be. We need to hit these aliens at maximum range. Their beams are sufficiently focussed to do damage at under two kilometres. That means we use the point-fives and hope for lucky shots with the twenty-mils.’ She pauses, frowning, ‘Are we getting a dust storm?’
The lieutenant’s snipers open up. Refai says, ‘It’s getting hard to see the enemy in this wind.’
Vogel presses her lips together in concentration. She thinks a dust storm won’t stop the aliens and they will have the psychic advantage of knowing where any humans are. Whereas the soldiers will be blinded and out-gunned at short range. She checks her wristcomm; forty-two minutes of daylight left. She relaxes and says, ‘Everybody back to the firebirds. We’re pulling out and evacuating any survivors over in the west. Go.’
‘Sakakah Green Flight to Captain Vogel. Taking off now. What’s visibility like with you? We have a dust storm coming in from the east, over.’
‘It’s worsening here. We’re pulling out. Can you stay at Laya-Largeau until the storm dies? over.’
‘Understood; holding there unless we receive orders from base, over and out.’
Pounding over the sand, Sigma Squad reaches the firebirds in nine minutes. Sakakah Green Squad are seconds behind. Vogel turns and notes the soldiers at the back are already becoming hard to see. Gripping ceiling safety-straps she leans into the cockpit and says, ‘Fly south, circle the base round to the west. Keep two to three kilometres from the perimeter.’
The pilots says, ‘The dust storm coming in is average in intensity and is predicted to last nineteen hours in this area. We’ll have to fly at two and a half kilometres up or suffer damage to the engines. We have a few minutes to check the west. There is an unidentified chopper over there flying fifty metres above the ground and not using its radio as far as I can tell.’
‘Weird. Let’s take a look.’ Sakakah Green Section’s soldiers thunder up the ramp and strap in. Vogel stays where she can see through the cockpit canopy.
The firebird roars and all Vogel can see is dust until it falls away leaving a world below blurred by blown sand.
They bank as the pilot cuts in forward thrust, relates Vogel’s orders to the other pilots and sweeps south.
The pilot says, ‘Dust … I hate dust. It turns to glass in the engines; it screws electrics and gets into everything.’
West of Chad Base they turn north. Ahead, the dust storm is over a kilometre high and coming towards them. The pilot says, ‘There’s your helicopter, ma’am.’
‘Slow down, I want to see what it’s doing.’ The helicopter hovers low, just above the rising dust, and creeps forward at walking pace. Vogel says, ‘In a moment slow to VTOL. Send the other firebirds to Abeché.’ Looking back into the cargo hold she shouts. ‘Pass me your scope, someone.’
Awenasa, also hanging on to overhead straps, takes one from a seated soldier and hands it to Vogel who says, ‘OK, VTOL now and creep in.’ A soldier stands strapped to the helicopter’s open door and throws objects out. Each has a small parachute. ‘Go in close, nose first.’ She focusses the sights, and gasps, ‘I don’t believe it. Awenasa, take a look at this.’ She passes the scope to Awenasa and bursts out laughing, forehead against the door frame and slapping the bulkhead with a hand.
Gianina shouts, ‘What?’ but her voice is lost in the noise of VTOL. She puts her helmet on so she can hear through its speakers. The rest of Sigma follow her lead.
Vogel says, ‘I can’t believe my eyes. That man out-thinks me every time. Safronov. He’s drawing the aliens away. He must know they can feel where humans are and mindlessly pursue them. He’s throwing imp mines or something down.’
The pilot says, ‘Another explosion two kilometres south east. How close do you want me to go to the chopper?’
Safronov, still fifty metres away, pulls a scope from a cargo pocket, stares at the firebird and beckons.
The pilot creeps the firebird closer. ‘This is getting a bit dodgy…’
Safronov still beckons, waves to Vogel, points to himself and to the helicopter. The pilot veers away and returns to forward thrust. He says, ‘If that meant he wanted to come aboard. It’s not possible and I can’t land here. I can’t see the ground.’
Vogel taps into a mercenary channel. ‘Saffy, you maniac … see you in Abeché.’
‘Eh, Vogel, good to see you. Is good idea I had, yes?’
‘Get yourself to Abeché. Have a shower and we’ll meet in a bar. Vodka’s on me. We need to talk. Over and out.’
Rudi says, ‘Have a shower? Is that some sort of mercenary code?’
‘No, as you may find out this evening, “Have a shower” is what everyone says to Safronov. He’s a combat genius with the worst personal hygiene on Earth.’
Awenasa says, ‘We need to talk to him?’
‘We need him in PHALANX not on the fringe of it. He’s probably being extremely useful but doing his own thing. Brigadier Craithie made it my personal mission to draw Saffy into command. Ideas please; I mean really. It’ll take us fifteen minutes to reach Abeche. His chopper will take well over an hour – that’s all the time I’ve got to come up with a plan.’
She looks at Gianina. ‘Remember that party? It’s tonight. We’ll book into a hotel. We’re going to toast Janice, Heidi and Kpangba and get wildly drunk. Be sober in eighteen hours. Keep your weapons with you. We’ll freak the locals but we don’t want to get caught in an attack while unarmed. That would look very silly. Abeché has had more alien attacks than anywhere else in the world. Why is that? Tell me if you ever work it out. Firoz, please don’t take your rocket launcher down the high street. That’s probably a little over the top.’ To Lieutenant Refai she says over her radio, ‘Refuel at the airport. Book your people into a hotel and send the bill to high command on my authority. Guard the firebirds but otherwise have a good time. Be ready in eighteen hours to return to Chad Base.’
Googoosh frowns, staring at her wristcomm screen. ‘No hotels in Abeché. The nearest is N’Djamena.’
Vogel growls, ‘Everywhere has hotels.’
‘Everywhere but Abeché.’
‘After all the aliens the UN has killed there? The least the locals could do was build a hotel. Downright ungrateful, I call it.’ Vogel growls again and sends a text to Safronov, “Go to N’Djamena – urgent. Do you have enough fuel?”. She grunts and looks at the squad. ‘Great, that gives me two hours to come up with a plan. Now everyone shut up. I have a report to make.’ She hooks an arm through cargo-netting and taps an encrypted message to Mikka Lehtonen, head of PHALANX.
Food, drink and a restaurant in which to relax. Exhaustion hits the squad. They sit back surrounded by deep carpets, embossed wallpaper and chandeliers.
Googoosh slides her plate away. ‘I don’t know what I’ve just eaten … it wasn’t curried lamb as I know it but I could learn to love it.’
Sigma Squad have pushed two tables together and doze around them. Firoz pulled up three extra chairs and made people move aside so he could squeeze them in. The hotel restaurant is deserted apart from an African couple with their daughter. The little girl stares at Googoosh with wide eyes. Googoosh winks and smiles at her. The mother tells the girl not to stare.
Rudi waves the only waiter over. ‘That was nice. Can I have it again? but twice as much.’
Vogel says, ‘Safronov will be here in a few minutes. Pray that he washes. Forget it, just open all the windows.’ She taps a fingernail against the bottle of vodka in front of her.
Firoz says, ‘Yes let’s die of malaria quickly before he arrives. Let the mozzies in.’ He turns his empty glass down and says, ‘Vogel and Awenasa, you turn your glasses down. Get new ones. Don’t drink from the old ones again.’
Awenasa puts hers upside-down by his. ‘Why?’
‘It’s a thing. Three glasses. One for Kpangba, one for Julie, and one for Heidi.’
Vogel puts hers beside the other two. ‘ We’ve toasted them already.’
‘Not my way.’
Googoosh watches the family get up from the table. The mother takes the girl’s hand and pulls her, against the girl’s obvious reluctance, towards the main doors.
Googoosh rises, slings her assault rifle over a shoulder, wishes she’d not downed Champagne quite so fast and walks towards the family. She squats down in front of the girl. ‘Hey, you, how’s it going?’
The father says, ‘We were leaving. We don’t want to trouble you.’
Googoosh looks up at him. ‘You’re leaving with the most beautiful little girl I’ve ever seen and I don’t even get to know her name?’
The mother says, ‘Well, if it’s no trouble…’
Googoosh says to the girl, ‘Hello, you. What’s your name?’
The girl says, ‘Nya.’
‘That’s a lovely name. How old are you?’
‘Seven. What’s your name?’
Googoosh thinks fast. ‘Ah, I can’t tell you that.’
‘Are you a soldier?’
‘How many aliens have you shot?’
The mother jerks the girl’s hand. ‘You shouldn’t ask things like that.’
Googoosh says, ‘It’s quite alright.’
Nya asks, ‘Do you have to be really brave? Can I be like you when I grow up?’
‘Brave? No, you just have to be in a good team.’
‘Can I have your autograph?’
Googoosh laughs. ‘Sorry, I can’t give you that but…’ She thinks hard. ‘Come back to our table. There’s something I can give you.’
She takes Nya’s hand and leads her to Sigma’s table. The parents follow. Googoosh sits in her chair and lifts Nya onto her lap. Unslinging her rifle, Googoosh slips the safety off, works the bolt and catches the cartridge that flies out. Hanging the rifle over the back of the chair, she pulls a multi-tool from a pouch in her belt, flips it open and draws the bullet from the cartridge. Tipping the nitrocellulose onto the tablecloth she says, ‘Everyone, give me your napkins.’ She takes two and wraps them around the top of the cartridge. ‘Cover your ears, Nya.’ she holds the percussion cap over the flame of a candle.
Nya squeals at the loud detonation. Googoosh dunks the cartridge in her Champagne to cool it, pushes the bullet back in place and puts it in Nya’s hands. ‘Make it into a necklace or something. Next time you meet me I’ll be a brigadier. Call me Afsoon and I’ll know who you are. Afsoon was a nickname I had when I was your age.’ She runs her fingers through Nya’s hair. ‘Night, night, Nya, sleep well.’
When the family have left the restaurant, doors swinging on springs, Firoz says, ‘That was so beautiful. You’re as soft as an un-fossilised coprolite. Marry me. I want to have your babies.’
‘Un-fossilised coprolite? Get you, swearing in front of Vogel.’
Someone crashes through the doors. Googoosh looks at a man radiating fierce animal energy. Broader-shouldered than anyone she’s ever seen, his combat fatigues stretch and bulge over muscles she thinks would scare a weightlifter. Though clearly human there’s no mistaking his primordial ancestry. He looks like a Neanderthal going to war.
Vogel jumps up. ‘Saffy, I need to talk to you in private. She lifts the bottle of vodka and a jug of ice and heads for a table on the far side of the restaurant.
Awenasa says, ‘This could be interesting.’
Gianina twirls the stem of a glass between her slim fingers. ‘They don’t get on well usually.’
Rudi says, ‘Tell me about Safronov.’
Awenasa says, ‘That would take weeks.’
Googoosh pours half a glass of Champagne. ‘Give us the abstract, a summary, a synopsis … whatever.’
‘He spends half his time in prison and the other half winning battles. I’ve lost fortunes having to turn down jobs because I knew Safronov was on the other side. No one sane goes up against him.’
Rudi picks up his fork as the waiter puts another plate in front of him. ‘Prison?’
‘The last time was for nearly a year. He killed a UN officer who cocked up in the field and blamed a junior. Saffy hates regular officers. He says he escaped from prison when it was destroyed in an attack on a UN base. Now he works more or less alone. He’s helping PHALANX but only on his terms.’
Googoosh says, ‘He sounds a bit scary.’
Gianina puts her glass down and rests her pointed chin on her hands. ‘Scary if you are on the other side. Working with him is heaven. He’s great fun and solves problems on the spot – when he’s on the job. He’s a total pain when he has nothing to do. In the field he has such a reputation that people give in if they know he’s been hired to sort them out.’
Googoosh stares at Safronov. He’s sitting back, arms folded across his chest and staring at the ceiling. Vogel is leaning forward and slapping the table. Googoosh says, ‘Do we need him?’
Awenasa says, ‘Yes.’
‘Vogel is cocking up. Grab your chairs and follow me.’
‘What are you going to do?’
‘Get myself thrown out of PHALANX probably.’ Googoosh rises, takes her assault rifle from the back of the chair and heads towards Safronov. As she approaches he turns to look at her and she’s stunned by the most spontaneous and friendliest smile she’s seen for years.
‘Hey, Safronov, I’m Googoosh. I’ve been hearing all about you.’
He stands and holds out a hand. ‘Is good to meet you, Goo…’
‘Googoosh.’ She pulls a chair out and sits, ignoring Vogel’s hostile glare. The rest of Sigma Squad join them. Gianina puts a bottle of Champagne on the table and slumps into a chair.
Googoosh says, ‘You were killing aliens today. Very clever.’
Safronov sits again. The wooden chair creaking under his weight. ‘I do it for Craithie. Good man.’
Googoosh takes the cue and plunges in, avoiding Vogel’s eyes. ‘We work for him too. We’re called Sigma Squad and do secret missions.’ Vogel tenses but Googoosh goes on, ‘He gives us jobs that others can’t do. Challenging jobs. In the last few days we’ve rescued people in Greenland, hit a secret alien base in Siberia, busted some corrupt companies and were sent to Chad to clean up.’
‘Secret? You should not be telling me this stuff.’
‘Oh, I really should.’
‘Because, you’re going to join us.’ Everyone is silent, hardly breathing. Googoosh leans forward, elbows on the table and stares directly into Safronov’s eyes. ‘Now.’
©Gary and Christy Bonn, 2014