Flight Lieutenant Sophie Castor flies the fastest taxi service on Earth. Her saracen cruises at over Mach 3. One fuselage bay and the rear cockpit have been stripped out and replaced with a pressurised compartment in which Sigma Squad sit huddled and cramped with no room for their weapons other than hand guns.
Vogel looks at her wristcomm and hisses. Awenasa cocks her head. ‘Yes?’
Vogel groans. ‘Bad news. Chad base is already under attack. Sakakah have two flights of stilettos over there and four firebirds on the way.’ She punches buttons. ‘Sakakah Green Flight, this is Captain Vogel, respond, over.’
‘Green Flight responding, over.’
‘We’re five minutes or less from Chad base. What’s the situation? over.’
‘Chaotic. Fifty or more harvesters on the ground. Mostly destroyed by a nuke. Some intact, over.’
Sophie calls from the cockpit, ‘What’s the runway like?’
Vogel says, ‘Green Flight. We want to land there. Is the runway clear?’
‘The runway is not clear, over.’
‘Give me visuals, over.’ Vogel looks at her wristcomm screen. What had been a superbly camouflaged base is a wreck of smashed roofs and collapsed buildings pouring smoke. Vehicles and aircraft lie broken and scattered. ‘Squad, it’s a mess and could be crawling with Taman.’
Awenasa says, ‘And we’re virtually unarmed.’
Vogel changes channels. ‘General McKenzie and Brigadier Craithie, please respond.’ She repeats the request twice and looks at the squad. ‘Damn.’
Sophie says, ‘Nearest decent runway is Faya-Largeau. 218 kilometres away from Chad Base.’
‘Too far. Can you use a road or something?’
‘There are no roads.’
‘Something flat? It is of the utmost importance that we get to the base.’
Sophie is silent for a moment, ‘My tyres are vulnerable enough on tarmac. Sand would overheat and explode them.’
‘Can you land without undercarriage?’
‘At nearly three hundred kph? That’s highly inadvisable at best.’
‘Shit.’ Vogel connects with the flight. ‘Sakakah Green Flight, Vogel here. Can you see any survivors? over.’
‘Two minutes ago we received a mayday from a flight lieutenant five kilometres east of the base, over.’
‘Was anyone with him?’
‘Her, she didn’t say. But she said, “We” and isn’t responding now. We flew over the area and looked for the two forces of aliens apparently pursuing her but they appear to be destroyed. I’ll send the visuals, over.’
Vogel says, ‘Everyone, study your screens.’ The cabin goes silent as people look at their wristcomms and scroll over the site.
Rudi says, ‘A burning bus. Dead soldiers.’
Gianina says, ‘More tracks, zig-zagging. Another set going straight.’
Googoosh says, ‘The zig-zags lead to a motorbike and a half-buried car. Footprints all around it. No people to be seen. No bodies.’
Vogel zooms into video of the abandoned car. ‘It’s poor quality but some of those look like a child’s footprints.’
Googoosh says, ‘They don’t lead anywhere. They’re all hiding in that car.’
Vogel says, ‘Sophie, it’s flat, really flat … can we land?’
‘Not without destroying this plane and endangering ourselves. You can order me.’
‘I don’t want to. What are our chances of survival?’
‘Dumping fuel now. Landing in about one minute. We may lose the engines and therefore rudder control. The parachute should keep us straight. If we roll, we’re dead. Closing my door. It may add strength to the compartment and I can eject without blowing you up. Strap yourselves in tight.’
The door in the crawl-space between the cockpit and fuselage slides closed and locks snap into place.
Vogel says, ‘Don’t know if this is true but I think it’s your head going forward that breaks necks. Helmets on, medikits ready and use your hands to keep your heads still.’
Sophie calls, ‘Five seconds…’
Firoz says, ‘Chill, it’ll be like tobogganing.’
The fuselage crashes into the ground, screeching and booming. Despite her precautions, Vogel’s arms flail; she hits Awenasa to her left. The plane veers and swings. As the parachute’s canopy opens, Vogel feels the harness straps cutting into her flesh.
The noise subsides; the airframe shudders, screeches again and the fuselage tears open near the end of the cabin. Sunlight and billowing sand pour in. Gianina hangs a metre above the ground. Releasing herself she drops, draws her automatic and races out.
Vogel says, ‘Report. Deploy. Sophie, report.’
The squad all report in. No one describes serious injury. Sophie calls, ‘Getting out.’
Rudi and Googoosh follow Gianina. Vogel helps Awenasa with a quick-release that fails. She draws her bayonet and cuts the straps. By the time they’re both out, the squad is deployed, spread in a semi-circle and pointing weapons into bleak desolation. A vast cloud of desert dust, torn up by their crash landing, drifts downwind. Sophie, pulling off her G-suit, points east of a slanting column of smoke and says, ‘That way. Get away from the plane.’
As one, the squad race south east. Vogel’s helmet speakers blare, ‘Captain, Sakakah Green Flight here. Do you need assistance? over.’
‘We’re OK, but poorly armed. Can you give us cover?’
‘Understood. There’s nothing much else to do. It’s all over here. Firebirds will arrive in nine minutes to secure the base.’
Four silver specks glint in the deep blue sky and circle overhead. Four hundred metres from the saracen Vogel says, ‘Awenasa with Rudi; you’re first point. Googoosh and Sophie with me. Firoz and Gianina together. Anyone got a spare weapon for Sophie?’
Firoz says, ‘Only a knife. There will be weapons by the bus.’
‘Plan: get the girl and any other survivors out of the car. See if the car and bike are usable. Maintain position until the base is secure. Return to Chad Base. Await orders.’
Awenasa and Rudi finish their zig-zag sprint. They drop to one knee as Vogel and her team dash another hundred metres. Gianina and Firoz stop covering the rear and run past both teams. Gianina and Googossh taking their turn to cover the rear.
A few minutes later Firoz, peering into the car, says, ‘Nobody here and there are no tracks leading away. Definite tracks of a child … could be more than one. There’s a load of bottled water on the back seat; cover me as I dig it out.’
Gianina adds, ‘This area… Firoz, do you think VTOL jets have been used?’
‘I’m busy; anyway Sophie may be the best to decide.’
The rest join them. Sophie, staring at the sand, says, ‘VTOL? it’s possible. Wait…’ She points, ‘What’s that?’
Rudi says, ‘On it,’ and sprints fifty metres to a small brown and black object. ‘Melted water bottle … with drops of water still inside. It hasn’t been here for more than a few minutes or it would all have evaporated in this outrageous heat.’
Vogel says into her wristcomm, ‘Sakakah Green Flight, Vogel here. You received a mayday. Where were you at that time? over.’
‘Nearing the base; maybe sixty kilometres away. When we arrived Gamma Flight got a call from the survivors. Wait, I’ll bring them in. Hassan, you spoke to the survivors, what did they say?’
Hassan says, ‘General McKenzie asked us to check the smoking areas near them and then commence ground strikes… Incoming! You people on the ground; aliens headed for you on foot. They’re leaving the base now. Head east: we’ll take care of them.’
From the other side of the base four more stilettos roar eastwards and dive. They break the sound barrier too late for a silent approach and alien beams lash into the sky.
Vogel says, ‘Change of plan. Head east all together. Tactical will slow us down.’ They jog forward at a sustainable pace to put distance between them and what Vogel hopes are more heavily-laden aliens.
Googoosh says, ‘So McKenzie, a flight lieutenant and some children are here when Sakakah arrive but…’
Vogel calls the flight, ‘Sakakah flights, were there any other aircraft around when you arrived? over.’
‘I think there was, over.’
‘Not possible. Our instruments would have picked… Watch out. Damaged stiletto coming your way.’
A fighter, spinning and trailing a corkscrew of black smoke, hurtles towards them. Vogel says. ‘Spread out north and south.’ The squad splits, dust flying up from their boots.
Sophie grabs Vogel’s arm. ‘Follow me.’ She runs directly towards the plunging stiletto.
Googoosh says, ‘Makes sense,’ and follows.
Vogel says, ‘It does?’ but runs after them. A needle of white smoke stabs from the cockpit and points at an angle to the ground. The pilot’s ejection-seat turns and rises vertically before dropping from the pilot as the parachute opens.
Sophie says, ‘That’s one of the most beautiful sights in the world.’ The stricken stiletto turns into a flaming meteor and falls apart, the main body of it exploding a hundred metres past where they had been standing.
Vogel shouts, ‘Look up!’ and runs to avoid tumbling debris.
The pilot descends about a kilometre away. Stilettos pound the advancing aliens with missile and cannon fire. Vogel sees Sophie running. ‘Sophie, stop!’
‘I’m going for the pilot.’
‘You’re headed right towards…’
‘I know, ma’am. Please don’t order me to stop.’
A voice from Vogel’s helmet speakers says, ‘Lieutenant Refai, Green Squad, Sakakah here. Captain, where do you want us?’
‘About three hundred metres north of the crashed stiletto. We need weapons; bring out what you have spare, especially assault, sniper rifles and rockets. Sigma form on me.’
Sophie reaches the abandoned motorbike, lifts it and kicks it into life. The stiletto pilot is seconds from landing.
Vogel snarls, runs with Googoosh and joins up with the squad as they race for the landing firebirds.
Green and black flights declare they’re out of ammunition. ‘There are a couple more aliens on the way, ma’am, and some from the north. Maybe ten or so. We have fuel and ammunition arriving at Laya-Largeau. We’ll be about thirty-five minutes.’
Vogel calls Sakakah Green Squad, ‘Refai, have your firebirds move one kilometre south after you’ve deployed.’
Rudi empties a water bottle as fast as he can, takes his helmet off and empties half of another bottle into his sandy hair. ‘God, it’s hot here. Can we go back to Wrangel?’
Vogel says, ‘Sigma, collect weapons from Green Squad. We’ll cover Sophie. Green squad, give support and guard our right flank.’
The two squads meet; the six of Sigma tired from running in searing sunlight. The Sakakah squads, thirty-two soldiers in all, are fresh. The lieutenant says to Vogel, ‘I suggest you take Gamma squad. They’re our most experienced and have two good snipers. I’ll take the other three and go north three hundred metres.’
‘Understood. Firoz and Awenasa, take the rocket launchers, everyone take two rockets and anything medium to long range. Gianina, the point-five sniper rifle. Let’s go!’
Sigma and Gamma head west. Sophie blazes towards them, zigzagging and sending up clouds of dust to cover her.
Googoosh says, ‘Clever. The person that used the bike before must have been shielding the car the same way.’
Vogel calls, ‘Sigma and Gamma, form a line three metres apart, dig shallow holes and shoot when ready.’ She drops the assault rifle she took and uses her hands like shovels to push sand into a wall between her and the enemy.
A green beam cuts through the cloud behind Sophie but misses her and her passenger. Dust flies up in a crescent wave as she heads south towards the landing firebirds. Vogel says, ‘Sophie, can you get behind us? You’re obscuring the enemy. We need to see them and you’ve totally blinded Gamma squad.’
‘The pilot has injured his spine and is in pain. I want to treat him with nanos.’
‘We have nanos and morphine. Bring him here.’
‘Understood.’ Sophie changes course. Another beam, much closer to her this time, stabs through the haze. Firoz launches a rocket, explodes it ninety metres behind the bike and fills the air with churning brown dust.
Vogel says, ‘Sophie, continue two hundred metres behind us. Rudi, treat the pilot.’
Rudi leaps up and runs east. Vogel crawls into the hole he made, deeper and better than hers.
The bike races past, the pilot barely holding on.
Gianina on the far left, says, ‘Got the first in my sights; he’s way ahead of the other two. He’s just in range. This is going to be a piece of piss.’ She fires. ‘What? Hell, I hit him in the chest. I saw it. He’s still running. Vogel, these aliens are different. More like humans but huge! Look at them through your sights.’ She fires again. ‘Fuck’s sake, die!’
Vogel says, ‘Mind your language,’ and watches the alien hit a second and third time. The alien fires back but at two kilometres the beam is unfocussed and only stirs up more haze. She calls Lieutenant Refai, ‘Refai have you any SAMs?’
‘No. We do have a twenty-mil sniper rifle in every firebird. I’ll call them up.’ He comes back to her moments later. ‘On their way. I didn’t think we’d need them. Aliens usually fall over dead if you touch them. By the way, did you just tell one of your squad to stop swearing?’
‘I did. I don’t like it.’
‘Now I’ve heard everything.’
A firebird’s engines fire up to the south.
Vogel says, ‘This one’s not falling over. Gianina’s hit it five times and … no … it’s down.’
Gianina says, ‘I hit its leg, I think. Maybe there’s less armour there. What? it’s up again.’
©Gary and Christy Bonn, 2014