Vogel, out of breath from sprinting to the supplies department of the UN Military base in Tampere, runs into the musty warehouse. Pushing aside other soldiers, she heads for the desk and shouts, ‘On General McKenzie’s orders everyone step back. Green Delta need supplies urgently.’
She drives her dark penetrating glare at a supply assistant and, pushing aside a pile of combat clothes and the soldier waving a requisition order, Vogel says, ‘Supply staff, you are mine for a while.’ She grins, ‘Please. Ignore everyone else. You, I need 6mm Valmet magazines.’ She points to another assistant. ‘I need a U-54 programmable scope. You, I want new armour front and back. You, thirty-two units of nano-medikits. One thousand 6mm Valmet armour-piercing. I want all of Delta equipped with U-54’s.’ She pauses for breath and points to the last of the staff. ‘I need a nano-deactivation unit. I want…’
‘A deactivation unit? … but…’
‘No buts, call the general if you need to.’ Before long all of Delta Squad have found their way to the desk. Googoosh is holding an alien needle-gun and frowning. Janice teases her, ‘What’s up? Did you want one in pink or something?’
Vogel shouts, ‘Firebird, five minutes,’ and with a brand-new and over-stuffed bergen over her shoulder, pushes through the crowd.
Vogel wipes sleep from her eyes and a strand of hair stuck to the side of her mouth. She dribbled while sleeping but she thinks: Nearly everyone does. Except for Heidi. Heidi of the short, curly blond hair and few words. Heidi who sleeps without her head lolling like everyone else.
Kpangba’s rests against the fuselage wall. His mouth hangs open. Firoz, as always, has his head tipped forward and snores.
Vogel glances at her wristcomm and wonders if it was that that woke her up. Another false alarm, like the one that had them running to the firebird? Elodie’s voice come through Vogel’s headset. ‘Are you awake now, ma’am? You’re damn hard to wake up. That’s three times I’ve tried. I was thinking of using the klaxon.’
‘I’m awake enough to remember that I told everyone not to call me “ma’am”.’
‘As you wish, boss. Ten minutes.’
Vogel elbows Gianina beside her and kicks Rudi who sits on the bench on the other side of the firebird’s fuselage. ‘Wake up. Pass it on.’ She sends the latest downloads on her wristcomm to the overhead screens while sipping grapefruit juice from a collapsing carton.
The data displayed will tell the squad all they need to know without Vogel having to answer innumerable questions. Their secret base is hidden in rolling wooded hills just over a hundred kilometres north east of Yeniseysk, Russia.
Vogel says into her mike, ‘How are you doing, Elodie?’
‘You’ve another four-hour flight coming up. Sleep when we arrive. We’ll do everything else. You want us to set up your new scope?’
Everything else… Vogel looks at the mounds of equipment and personal belongings piled and strapped to the deck. There’s virtually nowhere to walk. Feet and legs lie over bergens and weaponry. Vogel smirks. Googoosh has a suitcase like she’s going on holiday.
Janice wipes thin mousy hair from her face, and moans, ‘Firoz, you’ve farted again.’
Vogel looks at the screens and checks her orders. ‘First mission, to be dealt with asap, is a trip to Wrangel Island. Harvesters may have been coming and going there.’ Wrangel, over a hundred kilometres wide, Vogel thinks that’s a huge area to search and notes the hilly and rocky terrain.
Elodie says over the speakers, ‘Going to VTOL, don’t unstrap after. I’m going to roll us out of sight into a vehicle bay.’
The squad are more or less awake and alert, Googoosh already using her wristcomm to scroll through a map of Wrangel and filling an overhead screen with instructions on using needle guns.
Vogel says, ‘Watch out, Googoosh. Taman weapons don’t have safety catches.’
‘That’s what Brigadier Craithie calls them. Apparently it means “demon” in some language.’
The VTOL engines roar and the firebird rocks until Elodie touches down.
Vogel brings up images of the base. Kpangba says, ‘Wow … it’s like a palace. Indoor swimming pool as well?’
Rudi says, ‘Has to be indoor. I work this far north. It’s snow half the year.’
Vogel unstraps as the firebird moves forward. ‘It’s a private residence on loan. Don’t break anything.’
Elodie opens the cargo-bay doors, emerges from the cockpit, stretches and says, ‘Right, I get first choice of room.’ She unhitches a bergen from the deck. ‘Then I get a shower, sleep and food. Understand, you lot? Food. But first I’m going to see my new toy.’
Vogel clambers over equipment and joins her. The ramp booms under their boots. Resting on concrete pillars, the entire underside of the house is a car park. Apart from another firebird, a mark one stiletto and two 4x4s there’s nothing to see but wooded hillsides in the distance. Elodie says, ‘No more noise from the ramp when you guys deploy. This…’ She points at the other firebird, black and menacing, ‘is made of graphene, even the engines. It presents twenty percent less profile to the air, is faster, goes further, and…’
Vogel interrupts, ‘Smaller.’
‘Yes, it’s going to be a bit cramped.’ She walks to it, running a hand over a stubby wing. ‘But, it has the latest in cloaking … and a toilet!’
‘Absolute luxury. Anyway, go and get some sleep.’ From the widest pillar in the centre of the building a door swings open and a short Chinese woman approaches them. She nods. ‘Vogel and Elodie, I believe.’ She watches the squad unloading the firebird. ‘And Sigma.’
Vogel extends a hand. ‘You must be Kiew.’
‘I will show you around then I must get back to work.’ She shakes Vogel’s hand and smiles, her face wrinkling into hundreds of tiny lines.
From the gloom and bleakness of the car park, Kiew leads them into luxury. A spiral staircase around the glass column of a lift-shaft is covered in a deep red carpet. A creeping vine has been trained along the edge of the ceiling.
They enter a circular room hung with chandeliers. Art Nouveaux paintings hang on the wall. Elodie says, ‘I’m not up to this. I think I’m making the place dirty.’
Kiew says, ‘Enjoy it. You’re going to be on Wrangel soon and let me tell you it won’t be much of a holiday. I’ve been monitoring drones over it for two days. You want to see the living definition of “bleak”?’
Vogel says, ‘Kiew, Elodie needs a bedroom. Where…?’
Kiew points. ‘That corridor and up the stairs at the end. There are keys in all the locks. Pick a room.’
Elodie hefts her bergen, looks at her assault rifle, military boots, around the room again and shrugs. ‘What the … Vogel…? Thanks, Kiew.’
As she leaves, Vogel says to Kiew, ‘Tell me about Wrangel.’
‘Come. I show you.’ Whistles and shouts of surprise rise from the entrance as the rest of the squad enter. Vogel follows Kiew under an arch and into a sitting room. Ignoring the palatial furnishings, she stares at a two-metre-high screen.
Kiew picks up a control and points at the screen. ‘Grass, heather and rocks … and more rocks. Mist, fog, frost and snow and high winds. Don’t forget your bikinis.’
‘So what’s this about alien traffic?’
‘A mystery. We can detect alien craft, harvesters and fighters easily now. There seems to be another type of cloak. We may or may not be seeing alien craft over Wrangel. It’s all vague. What puzzles the whole of intel is, if there is another type of cloak that blinds us, why aren’t all their craft using them? The answer could be that it’s new tech and only used on critically important craft until the tech becomes more available.’
She scrolls east along the island. ‘There’s no population on the island to speak of and those that are there haven’t been attacked but two of them clearly describe a harvester. No cloak can fool the naked eye.’ She scrolls to the north east. ‘This area is the most desolate, even the musk oxen are fewer there. A boat carrying a science team mysteriously disappeared without trace three days ago.’ She sucks air through her teeth. ‘But there’s nothing there. Nothing that could interest the aliens unless they’re acting in a whole new way.’
The sound of gear being dumped in the room behind is replaced by footsteps approaching until the entire squad stare at the screen.
Kpangba says, ‘That’s our playground, huh? If we go in it will be in an unarmed firebird. That new one carries nothing. We get air-cover?’
Vogel says, ‘Nothing planned as yet. The island lies at the most extreme ranges of the Russian and Canadian bases. We’d only get a few minutes of patrol at best unless they refuel. But, you’re right. I want cover as we go in and out. Canada’s the closest.’ She turns to the squad and says, ‘This is Kiew, intel officer. You guys rest and get all your best winter gear ready.’
Googoosh says, ‘If you don’t mind, I’d like to stay here and study the island.’
Firoz says, ‘The more eyes the better. Any food round here?’
Kiew says, ‘You beat the ancillary staff here. I have some food but not enough for all of you. They will be here in about an hour.’
Vogel carries a bowl of noodles and a fork into the living room. Janice, pointing at a photo of a massive bluff of rock on the coast, says to Firoz and Gianina, ‘That has to be it.’
Vogel says, ‘What?’
Janice turns. ‘We’ve all been studying Wrangel on and off.’ Facing the screen again she says, ‘That crack.’
Vogel says, ‘Is a crack. Well done. What about it?’
‘If an alien craft is visiting, that’s the only place we’ve found that it could hide in.’
‘Zoom in.’ Vogel shakes her head. ‘No, not big enough.’
‘That’s what we thought at first but Googoosh said we’re assuming too much.’
Gianina says, ‘Googoosh has a point, Vogel. She said we assumed the aliens were invading but they never have. We assumed they’d never change tactics but they did. We assume they are collecting humans as food but where’s the evidence? We don’t actually know anything.’
Vogel swallows noodles and wipes her bottom lip with the back of her hand. ‘Where is this going? Are you saying we just assume that harvesters can’t shrink?’
Janice laughs. ‘We hadn’t thought of that. But we’re assuming that harvesters and fighters use their wings to create lift. What if they can roll until the wings are vertical and fly into the crack?’
Kiew comes through the arch. ‘A ranger says he thought he saw something like green lightning the day the boat was sunk. He was near the east side of the island, fourteen kilometres from this crack and the science team would have passed through that area.’
Janice says, ‘I wanted to talk to a park ranger but as our wristcomms are locked out of everything except the squad, Kiew called them. That crack is deep enough for tens of thousands of gulls to have colonised.’
Vogel stares unmoving at the screen, a forkful of noodles held over her bowl. ‘Insane. How on Earth do we get into that thing? We could climb up or abseil down … but we’d be too exposed. No way. Too dangerous.’
Firoz says, ‘Heidi said send a micro-drone in. It means blowing secrecy but we’d see what was in there.’
Vogel relaxes and eats. Through a mouthful of food she says, ‘Plan … send a drone in, have a tactical bomber in the area and at least two refuelled stilettos. See what’s in there, blow it to pieces and we’ll be on hand to go in and pick up anything nice and shiny. Any better ideas?’
Janice says, ‘Expensive…’
Vogel nods, ‘Let me ask for it all and we’ll see what happens.’ She hands her empty bowl to Janice.
Janice adds, ‘That’s nearly the same plan as Googoosh came up with.’
‘That kid’s too bright for her own good and getting on my nerves.’
‘I heard that,’ comes Googoosh’s voice from a sofa.
Vogel snorts. ‘Good. Stop it, you’ll be taking over my job soon. Right, give me a minute to call people.’ She walks to a quieter area and calls Chuck McKenzie only to discover neither he nor Allan Craithie are available. Instead she gets Mikka Lehtonen, the civilian political head of PHALANX.
‘Mikka here, what is it, Captain?’
‘I would like a flight of two stilettos, a tactical bomber with sufficient punch to destroy an entire block and a refuelling plane with enough fuel for the fighters, the bomber and our firebird stood by and ready to roar in an hour or so. We’re off to Wrangel Island. It’s going to take us two to three hours to get there.’ She waits. ‘You still there, sir?’
‘I am. I can’t fund this sort of thing too often. Passing you to General McKenzie.’
Chuck says, ‘Chuck here; are you sure you have the correct location?’
‘No, sir, but it’s our best guess.’
‘A crack in a cliff. Approximately thirty metres high and deep enough to house a sizeable colony of gulls and maybe a harvester.’
Chuck grunts. ‘I’ll tell Athabasca Base to set it up. They’ll contact you if they need more information. Meantime have Kiew send all the details to them.’
‘Thank you, sir, over and out.’ She walks back to the others as Elodie comes through the arch.
Vogel says to her, ‘How are you doing?’
Elodie raises her bowl. ‘Rested, nearly fed and ready to go. This stuff is delicious. I said I’d marry the chef – and then found out she’s a woman. I’m thinking about becoming a lesbian.’
‘You won’t have time for much fun of any sort right now. Eat up. Is everything ready? Everyone, can you squeeze three micro-drones into the firebird? I want you all with medium to long range weapons. No needle guns or shotguns.’
Her wristcomm beeps. On the screen is written, “Ready in one hour. Tell Canada when you set off: Chuck”.
Vogel presses squad call. ‘On your feet, everyone. Time to knock on the aliens’ front door.’
©Gary and Christy Bonn, 2014