The Land Rover clicks and pings in the heat of the African sunset. The clouds of dust it threw up drift away and reveal an apparently motionless dot just above the flat horizon.
Safronov hopes the dot is friendly but heaves an assault rifle and rocket launcher from the arsenal stored in the car, slams the doors, darts upwind into scrub-land and takes up position behind a termite mound.
The dot grows into the long angular form of a firebird troop carrier. As it lands VTOL jets blast up vortices of dust, twigs and scorched or suffocated insects.
Safronov waits for the scene to clear and watches the edges of the dust cloud through his sights. No one emerges … no darting furtive figures.
Instead, when the air is clear, the firebird’s cargo doors open and a young woman looks out shielding her eyes from the sun and pulling sunglasses from a top pocket.
Safronov can’t believe his eyes. ‘Is mad … is so mad. Allan is maniac to send a girl into this.’
The woman walks, hands in pockets, down the ramp and heads for the abandoned petrol station Safronov parked beside. He mutters, ‘She’s not even armed…’ Lifting the launcher and wiping termites away he slings it over his shoulder and, keeping the assault rifle trained, stands and approaches the woman.
She shields her eyes again and smiles, white teeth contrasting with brown skin. ‘Safronov, sir?’
He lowers the gun. ‘No, just Safronov.’
‘Glad to meet you. I’ve heard all about you. You have quite a reputation … several reputations.’
‘If Allan Craithie tell you stuff you listen. Anyone else, is all lies.’
She laughs. ‘He told me to always stand upwind of you.’
‘He’s a bastard.’
She holds out a hand. ‘Elodie Azoulay.’
‘I see, that is your name, yes? Give yourself a different one. You won’t want the people you’ll meet, if any bastards come, to identify you. Don’t talk, don’t mention Craithie and for God’s sake don’t mention the UN or PHALANX.’
‘I think I can look after myself.’
Safronov shakes her hand. ‘I just try to protect you. You are going to meet some very bad people.’
She tips her head to one side and jerks her chin in the direction Safronov walked. ‘You were twenty-seven metres that way. I had a sentinel gun pointed at you. It’s still pointing at you. That’s why I’m not standing between you and the firebird.’ She pulls a hand holding the gun’s controller from her pocket. ‘I can look after myself.’
Safronov laughs. ‘Good, is so good. I thought you were just wanting to be upwind of me.’
‘That’s a bonus.’
‘Hey, I don’t smell that bad.’
‘I’ll just stay here. I don’t want to find out if Craithie is correct or not. Now what happens?’
Safronov points to the petrol station. ‘We go in and wait and we drink vodka.’
‘You want me to be on twenty-four-hour red alert and drink vodka?’
‘We are both on red alert. Vodka makes it pretty pink.’ Safronov heads for the building. ‘Is bleak and flat and so hot here. I have some ice cubes. We should not waste them.’ He walks to the car. Slinging the rifle over his left shoulder beside the launcher he pulls a huge bergen over his right.
‘You trying to get me drunk?’ Elodie follows him to the building.
‘No, I’m trying to get me drunk. Is a hard job that needs a lot of work.’
‘You didn’t answer my question. What happens now?’
Safronov reaches the petrol station, its broken shutters flapping in the breeze, and pushes a cracked glass door open. ‘If my plan works, people come. Bad people, good fighters. I trick them.’
‘Mercenaries. They work for anyone. Sometimes they are paid to hunt smugglers and pirates; sometimes they work with them. Drugs, slaves … the dirty work of big companies … anything.’ He dumps the bergen on the counter and pulls straps loose. ‘You sit, get comfortable. Find toilets; see if there’s running water.’
‘Out here in this wasteland? There won’t be anything.’ Elodie draws an automatic from a cargo pocket and pushes through another door.
Safronov stares out of the window, craning to see any dust rising from the track. Yes, what looks like one or two trails swirl in the harsh light. ‘Elodie, we have guests.’
She comes back into the room and pulls a black pendant from a pocket. ‘Put this on. Keep it against your skin and don’t take it off or the sentinel gun will think you’re dead and kill everyone else.’
Safronov scans the walls. ‘It shoot through concrete?’
He takes the chain, slides it over his head and tucks the security chip between his chest and combat tunic.
Elodie says, ‘It’s a present from Craithie. He wants you in PHALANX whether you enlist these mercenaries or not. He also wants any weapons and tech collected in this mission – if there is a mission.’
Safronov watches the approaching trails. ‘If we kill them all he can have the craft they came in too.’ He pulls a flask, a glass and a bottle of vodka from the bergen.
‘A harvester? Not a chance. They’re virtually indestructible and return to space if all the crew are dead.’
Safronov pours vodka, dribbles water from the flask onto the floor and tips ice into the glass. Raising it to Elodie he says, ‘First taste to you,’ and passes the drink to her.
She says, ‘I sveikata.’
‘You speak Lithuanian?’
‘No, my boyfriend does.’
Safronov turns. He can see two distinct plumes now. A 4×4 bounces into view and stops about fifty metres away. A slim woman dressed in black gets out and stands behind it leveling a rifle on the roof and pointing it at the building.
Safronov narrows his eyes. ‘Must be Vogel. I’ll go out and meet her. You stay here.’ He takes the glass and empties it. ‘Wish me luck. She’s hard.’
Holding only a phone he walks through the door and approaches the newcomer. He waits until he can recognise the woman, presses call and says, ‘Vogel.’ Two vultures circle high overhead; another joins from the south east.
Vogel keeps the gun trained on him until her wristcomm beeps. She glances at it, her eyes hidden by reflective glasses, her face by long jet-black hair. She relaxes, slings the gun over her shoulder and says, ‘When do I get the rest?’
Safronov shrugs. ‘I pay the rest when we’re finished.’
‘Finished what? I don’t play games.’
‘Wait until we have everyone then I only need to speak once. Come into the shade.’
‘Everyone?’ She walks beside him.
‘Whoever turns up. I put out a general call.’ Safronov checks the time. ‘They have seven minutes. How many do you command?’ A third cloud of dust lifts in the distance. Elodie leans against the steel of the canopy support, half-hidden, the gun controller in her hand.
Vogel ties her hair back into a ponytail. ‘How many do you need?’
‘As many as you can rely on.’
She looks at him. ‘Are you starting a war?’
‘Forty to sixty maybe more. Depends on the job.’
Safronov says, ‘We wait here where people can see us.’ He leans against a pump and the next car arrives, waves of dust curling either side of its tyres. ‘Perera I think. He can enlist about the same as you. If they’re all still alive.’
A short, lightly-built man kicks the door open, dons a broad-brimmed hat and throws his arms wide. ‘Hey, Saffy. I heard you were dead again.’
Safronov speaks into his phone, ‘Perera.’
The man approaches. Dressed in shorts, T-shirt and sandals he looks anything but a soldier. ‘What’s this about?’ He joins them and holds out a hand. ‘Vogel? You surprise me. You actually want to go into action?’
She fails to take his hand but narrows her eyes and stares at Safronov. ‘What is this? I don’t go into action any more. I coordinate.’
Safronov checks the time again. ‘Wait, wait. I tell you soon.’
The third car roars over the rise and along the track. Vogel says, ‘That’s Meen. I recognise her car. Why did you invite that bitch?’
‘Is a general call.’
‘I’m not working with her.’
Safronov sighs. ‘You are free to leave any time.’ He gazes down the track and scans the horizon for aircraft. ‘This must be all of us.’ The car stops and a middle-aged woman with short hair dyed bright red, steps out and walks towards them. The rest of her is lit blood red by the setting sun.
Safronov says her name into his phone. Unlike the other two she’s already dressed for combat and carries a 7.62mm M15. Her helmet dangles from an arm.
She says, ‘Safronov and two amateurs. Who’s the little girl hiding over there?’
Safronov says, ‘Our pilot.’ He holds up both hands for silence as they all start talking. ‘We are here…’
Meen interrupts, ‘We’re here to kill aliens.’ She slaps her rifle. ‘That’s why I went for heavy artillery and armour piercing.’
Safronov silences them again. ‘How did you know?’
‘Why else would the UN have let you out of prison? You’re working for them, obviously.’
‘I escaped from prison when base was destroyed. Yes, I work for them, for free, well, standard pay and so will you.’
Perera snorts and folds his arms. Neither Meen nor Vogel respond. Safronov goes on, ‘We wait here until an attack happens within range of the firebird. We go to meet the aliens and destroy them. There are eight per harvesting craft and they are heavily armed. The aliens carry some weapons we don’t understand but they’re all powerful. The craft usually attack individually and unescorted. They come, kill and take human bodies away. Why?’ He shrugs. ‘Is a mystery.’ He fires up his phone. ‘I’m sending a secret video to all of you. It was taken by a boy when an attack happened in Mississippi. You will see the aliens, how they operate and their weapons. After we have destroyed them you will want to call up all your people and join the UN. You will do this because you will have seen what we’re up against. If you don’t, we all die. The world is losing this war.’
Meen says, ‘It’s not a secret video. It must have been leaked. It’s all over the net.’
Vogel snaps. ‘It’s a fake. Everyone knows that. Anyway, Safronov, I don’t go into action.’
Safronov shrugs, ‘Then go home and wait to die. Or…’ he pauses, thinking, ‘enlist people for us. We need experienced troops, techs and pilots. Yes, you could do that but you come today … tomorrow … whenever. The UN has lost too many people. Now is mostly retired commanders and inexperienced conscripts. They don’t cope and we will all die. Did I say that before?’ He looks at Meen. ‘We run this as a standard military exercise. You are second-in-command.’
Meen says, ‘I need more information regarding this war. Stats in particular.’
Safronov says, ‘Is all secret. The boss says data like that will be released only to people who commit to contact with the enemy.’
‘And the boss is?’
‘Allan Craithie … brigadier.’
Meen’s eyebrows rise. ‘He’s still alive? He must be ancient. Craithie … regular army but could be worse.’
Safronov looks at the three of them in turn. ‘You have ten minutes to prepare for combat or run away. There are UN weapons, helmets and radios, armour and other gear in my car.’
Safronov is asleep under the stars, hammock and mosquito net slung between the roof-rack of the Land Rover and a tree. Across his chest lies the assault rifle; motion detectors on the ground give him a sense of security.
His phone screeches and the detectors squeal their alarm at the same time. He spills out of the hammock and grabs his helmet. As he runs towards the firebird its cargo doors swing open, light pouring out and illuminating a loping hyena scared by the alarms and activity.
Safronov’s hardly sat and strapped himself to the bench Elodie slept on when the other three enter; the doors rise and close. Elodie throws the VTOL to maximum.
When forward flight cuts in and the roar of VTOL diminishes, Elodie shouts over the intercom, ‘Maximum range. We’ll need refuelling before we can get back here. This could take a while. Go back to sleep.’ With that, she throws the throttles wide open and drowns any hope of conversation.
Safronov dozes. Vogel and Meen go through PHALANX combat records and casualty rates. Perera runs through the video again and again, stopping where he sees aliens and skipping the moments when they’re harvesting human corpses. The engines’ roar goes on until Vogel clamps both hands over her ears and hisses.
After an age they slow. Elodie says, ‘One minute. We’re over Adrar in Algeria. Dawn in eleven minutes. It’s an unusual strike. The harvesting craft we came after attacked a residential area but has already left. A second came and is attacking a hospital. Gunfire up ahead, what looks like lasers too. The harvester is parked beside a crane in a building site. On your screens now.’
Overhead screens light up showing street maps, video of the scene and the targeting computer’s interpretation.
Safronov throws medikits to each of soldiers. ‘Nanos, top secret. Pour them into a wound and it’ll be fixed in minutes. If you do use them you’ll need specialist follow-up. If any nanos aren’t used they find other jobs to do and you end up with extra knees or something.’
Vogel says, ‘Why didn’t you tell us about these?’
He studies the screens. ‘I just did. Perera on point; Meen on six. We go into the back of the hospital. Looks like they went in the front. Elodie, did you hear that?’
‘Loud and clear. There are wrecked and burning vehicles all over the place. I’m going to have to land among them.’
Safronov frowns and watches the screens. ‘I see, I see. Is not good. The aliens must be round the back too. Plan, we stay in a tight group and rendezvous back here if we’re split or if Elodie has to leave,’ he points to the map, ‘beside that mosque there. Don’t leave wounded aliens: kill them. They’ll be moving round the building killing and letting their harvesting robots collect bodies. We follow the screaming or let noise direct us. The robots are metal and hard to kill. Their weak points are their mouths and underside. Unbuckle and hang onto the straps by the doors. Elodie, starboard door only.’
‘Starboard door only. Ten seconds. Brace, brace.’
Perera locks and loads his assault rifle. Vogel sets her 6mm Valmet rifle to three-round bursts and snaps a bayonet on. Safronov leaves his launcher, choosing speed and agility over firepower.
The cargo door flips open and has barely banged onto the street when Perera rolls diagonally and rises kneeling on one leg. Safronov and Vogel follow, leaping out and crouching in the shadow of the firebird, Meen covering them.
‘Clear,’ Perera says, and races forward in a zig-zagging crouch between two burning cars and the tangled wreckage of a bus.
They gather behind a low wall. Safronov rises, scans, ducks down and whispers into his helmet microphone, ‘I not know where they went in. We’ll use the small entrance to the left of the main one, go!’
Perera darts through smashed panel fencing, dodges past a metal mast and jumps over the corpse of a UN soldier. The door bursts open as he nears it and several children run out followed by a nurse. A searing blaze of light blinds Safronov, the image of incinerated children burned into his retinas. He pulls his visor down.
Meen squats shoulder to shoulder with him, facing back. She snarls, ‘Kids … let me kill at least one of those aliens.’ Safronov raises his rifle as another figure leaves the entrance, a short figure, dressed in a red spacesuit with an oversized helmet and carrying a long weapon. The figure flails and spins as Vogel, Perera, and Safronov fire together. The alien’s armour tears apart.
Safronov pulls a frag grenade from his belt, dashes to the side of the entrance and then across it, to squat the other side. ‘Clear.’ Perera dashes in followed by the others.
A thin cloud of smoke flows along the top of the corridor. A metal spider-like robot appears at the other end, a human arm hanging from its jaws. Perera’s bullets ricochet off metal. Vogel kicks a door open, darts past Perera, tosses a frag grenade into the robot’s mouth and runs back.
They tumble into an office and the grenade sends bits of robot clattering along the corridor.
Safronov grips the handle of another door and puts his back against the hinges. ‘They know we’re here. If they concentrate on the corridor we flank them this way. On three.’
Perera and Vogel crouch ready to fire.
He doesn’t get to finish. Meen shouts, ‘Six! and blazes at an alien running past the open door. Something bangs against the wall and Meen lobs a grenade into the corridor as the others cover her. She throws herself to the floor of the office and aims her rifle at the doorway.
The explosion punches plaster from the wall. She rises through the falling dust, jumps into the corridor, fires a burst and leaps back into the office. ‘Second alien down.’
Safronov says, ‘Ready? ’
Vogel and Perera nod; he opens the door and Vogel hisses at the sight of so many bodies.
Perera runs out. ‘Clear.’ They enter a junction of corridors with seating areas and desks in the corners. An alien lies dead amid two soldiers, one still giving off smoke from his burned flesh.
The remains of men, women and children lie tangled.
The sounds of jets and machine-gun fire come through the skylights. Safronov says, ‘Elodie, respond. Do you need help?’
‘I’m fine. Just using up the last of our fuel.’
Perera says, ‘Shit. Where now?’
The answer comes in the form of screams and flashes to their left. Perera leads, squats and aims at the next junction. Vogel overtakes him and lies down, her gun pointed along the corridor. Safronov passes, squats at the entrance of a huge waiting-room and waves everyone forward.
Melted plastic chairs give off trails of black fumes. Four adults run from a door on the other side. One carries a baby, a tube hanging from its neck. Another helps a limping adult.
Safronov says, ‘OK, four corridors, each cover one. Call for support if you need it. Fleeing civilians. This will be a hotspot.’
Vogel sprints across the room to deal with a robot following the people. She empties half a magazine into its mouth at point-blank range.
More staff and patients pour into the room as Vogel squats beside the entrance and pulls a fresh magazine from her thigh pocket. An alien, carrying what looks like a curved sword, races in and heads for the civilians. Safronov, Perera and Meen shout, ‘Down! Everyone get down.’
Vogel sees the civilians are between the alien and the rest of the team. She drops the magazine and launches herself shrieking at the alien’s back. It turns and she smashes the butt of her rifle across its visor. The alien staggers back, raising the blade only to drop it as Vogel leaps into the air and strikes again, her body and legs jerking with the force of the blow. The alien falls on its back, visor smashed. As Vogel lands she puts all her bodyweight and strength into one savage thrust, burying the bayonet in the alien’s forehead.
A UN soldier enters, armour and helmet gouged and bloody. An empty medikit swings from her belt. She sees the mercenaries and says, ‘Who are you?’
Vogel says, ‘Friends. How many have you brought down? We’ve killed three and seen two more dead. Two robots destroyed.’
The woman sways; Perera catches her and helps her into an undamaged chair. The soldier says, ‘You got three? That’s all of them then … shit.’
Perera says, ‘How many did you lose? We saw some of your dead.’
The woman hides her face behind tear-streaked fingers. ‘I’m the only one left.’
Safronov clasps Vogel’s hand. ‘That was so beautiful … so beautiful. I remember that for the rest of my life. You one hell-cat.’
Meen says, ‘I thought you didn’t do action, Vogel?’
Vogel slots a new magazine into her rifle and lifts the mysterious alien blade. ‘This is mine. Call that action, Meen?’ She turns to the soldier. ‘Soldier, how long have you been in?’
The soldier looks up. ‘In?’
‘How long have you been a soldier?’
‘How much training?’
‘The training was part of it. The first three days.’
Vogel says, ‘Ridiculous. OK, Safronov, if those stats were accurate I believe we’re losing as you say. I’m in. I’ll call up my people today.’ She looks at Perera and Meen. ‘What about you?’
Perera says, ‘Not sure if I’ll convince everyone. I’d say thirty at least. Meen?’
She shrugs. ‘Fifty to seventy. I’ll try to pull in other bosses and their teams too. I don’t know how they’ll respond. I’ll tell you later.’
Safronov calls Elodie, ‘You can pick us up now.’
‘No I bloody can’t. I’m out of fuel … and ammunition.’
‘Were you attacked?’
‘No, but can one of those harvesters take off from underneath a collapsed tower crane? I pretty much buried it and it hasn’t moved yet.’
Safronov says, ‘Get out of there and join us.’ To the UN soldier he says, ‘Tell the local authorities to evacuate back at least one kilometre. Get yourself out too. That alien craft could destroy itself.’ He pulls out his phone. ‘Eh, Allan, speak to me. You awake? Yeah … yeah … we kick bottom. I have presents, fighters, for you.’
©Gary and Christy Bonn 2014