‘Snow … in July? You’re kidding,’ Janice says.
Elodie calls from the cockpit, ‘Snow, ice, frost, fog, minus two centigrade. Cloud base at 150 – 200 metres. It’s a mess out there. I’m flying on terrain radar. Sadly someone has to stay in the warm firebird – me. Have a nice day. Landing where you said, Vogel, boss, ma’am, in three minutes.’
Vogel studies her wristcomm. ‘OK, squad, Who’s best in cold?’
‘Me,’ says Rudi, ‘I die at anything over twenty degrees centigrade. I break the ice before I go swimming.’
‘You’re an alien,’ says Kpangba. ‘Ma’am we have to kill him. He’s unnatural.’
Vogel says, ‘You bastards are calling me “Ma’am” just to piss me off. Rudi, I was tempted to have you stay and guard the firebird but come with us. Googoosh?’
‘I’m cold already, uh … sir…’
Vogel says, ‘Go boil your heads. Look, we may have to operate in widely varying temperatures. This is all good info we need to share. I’ve worked in all zones as have most of us mercs.’ She pauses, thinking. ‘Heidi and Googoosh, stay with Elodie.’
Heidi says, ‘Nah, I go. Firoz is a wimp in this temp.’
Vogel says, ‘Firoz?’
He says, ‘Yeah, Heidi’s right. Nice to hear her voice for the first time this month though.’
Vogel looks up at the tiny screens partially obscured by hanging equipment. The fuselage of this firebird is so narrow she could rest her heels on Janice sitting opposite. The firebird’s camera shows frost-glazed flora and powder-snow blown between ice-rimed rocks.
She checks her wristcomm. ‘OK, squad, air cover five kilometres up. Our bomber carries two 3000-kg guided. They should make a mess. We’ve two kilometres to target, all uphill. In this vis the bluff could be treacherous. Take care.’
Her voice is partially drowned as people tuck hair into helmets, check weapons, gloves and boots.
Elodie calls from the cockpit, ‘Rocks obscured by snow. Can’t see what I’m landing on.’
Everyone unbuckles, moves to the cargo-bay door-ramps and grabs overhead straps. Rudi half-squatting so his helmet doesn’t bang or catch on the ceiling.
Vogel says, ‘Kpangba, Heidi, Janice on first point, Rudi with me. Awenasa and Gianina on rear. Keep your sprints to fifties.’
Elodie calls, ‘Brace, brace.’ The roaring of VTOL jets kill conversation.
Everyone bends their knees, but the touch-down is unusually gentle. As the others leap into the snow; Awenasa and Gianina point their weapons at nothing; visibility is down to eighty metres at best. Tattered rags of fog and whirling snow whip through the air.
Kpangba, Janice and Heidi race in zig-zags until ducking down behind rocks fifty metres north east. Vogel and Rudi follow, powder snow creaking under their boots and flying up in spurts as they run.
Stopping fifty metres ahead of Janice, they take cover, aiming their weapons in arcs. Awenasa and Gianina thunder past. As each part of the team leapfrog positions towards the bluff, Elodie calls, ‘First bird up. It’s going to be hard to fly with any precision.’
A four-propeller drone whizzes overhead, tipped and buffeted by gusts. Elodie goes on, ‘I can’t see much … shit that was close. Watch out, there’s a low cliff ahead. Wait, I’ll take a look. Go a hundred metres north to avoid it. Whoa, the wind is serious here.’ She’s silent for a few seconds as she struggles to control the drone. ‘Right, the bluff is really scary, a gentle slope rounding to a precipice. There’s the … shit. Sorry, that’s one drone lost – blown straight into the cliff. Googoosh, help me prepare the next.’
Vogel says, ‘Another hundred metres and we stop. Janice, your team sixty metres east. Awenasa sixty metres west.’
Elodie calls, ‘Second bird up and away. Going right up into cloud to avoid the … shit … bloody gulls.’
The air clears as a section of fog rolls away. Rudi aims his rifle at a distant rock, and marvels at the way the red dot-reticule moves to correct for wind.
Elodie goes on, ‘OK, it’s a bit clearer. There’s the crack. Going in now. It’s … what? Oh bollocks.’
Vogel goes to bring up the drone’s video on her visor, but the clouds are lit by a searing white flash that seems to illuminate the whole sky. Her helmet speakers are saturated with messages; Awenasa saying, ‘Everyone, report in,’ Elodie saying, ‘Are you guys OK? What was that?’ and another voice saying, ‘Athabasca: Green flight. We saw a bright light, what happened?’
As each of Sigma report in, Vogel tunes to Elodie and the flight. ‘Everyone is OK. I have no idea what that was. Green flight, drop to two kilometres. Elodie, what happened?’
‘The drone hit some sort of invisible barrier. I’ve got a vague picture of a structure behind it but then the drone died as that flash happened.’
Rudi taps Vogel on the shoulder and points to her right ear. She tunes back into the squad. ‘What’s happening? I was talking to the flight.’
Kpangba says, ‘The same time as the flash happened I saw a vertical beam or explosion east up the hill. If something in the crack exploded there could be some sort of entrance at the top of the cliff.’
Elodie says, ‘You want the last drone?’
Vogel says, ‘Yes, I want to see everything. Launch it. Stay where you are, everyone.’ A thick flurry of snow and fog reduces visibility to less than ten metres.
Elodie says, ‘The drone will be over you in a few seconds. Where do you want it?’
‘Check the cliff-top east of us and then head west.’
‘The weather is deteriorating; can’t see a damn thing. OK, I’m east of you and descending. Shit, I’m only ten metres above the cliff and can’t see… Not again!’
Rudi shouts, ‘Alien weapon. Some sort of laser beam…’
Vogel says, ‘Yeah, I saw. Green. OK, squad, fall back in fifties. We’ll reform.’
The fog to the east flashes green, incessant stabs of light from many directions. Vogel says, ‘Janice, get your team out…’ She’s distracted by a red light on her visor and a head-up-display of the squad’s life-signals. She says, ‘Fall back, everyone. Janice, Heidi and Kpangba are hit.’
A tearing gust clears the wall of fog and reveals a line of troops walking down the slope, not running, dodging, or taking cover. Awenasa calls, ‘Single shot. Save ammo.’
Vogel guesses about eighty troops are headed towards them. The air fills with the sound of assault and sniper rifles. Rudi fires steadily, stopping only to duck behind the rock he’s using for cover. He blows snow from his scope.
Vogel says, ‘Move west in fifties: go!’ As she runs, she adds, ‘Elodie, we’ll draw them west. I want you three on their flank.’
More green lights flash, this time not diffused glows obscured by fog but searing stabbing beams that ignite frozen ground and explode rocks. Spectres of steam and smoke whirl away.
Three beams, aimed at the zig-zagging Rudi, hit a boulder. It smashes, tumbling rocks and throwing him to the ground. He lies motionless.
Vogel, tormented by constant fire is unable to help him. She races another ten metres and dives behind a boulder. The front of it explodes but Vogel is able to drop two more of the enemy before she has to run again.
The line of soldiers continues to advance, despite having lost at least half their number. Awenasa drops the one stepping over Rudi.
Firoz shouts, ‘Contact!’ and a minigun blazes to the east of Vogel and her team. Soldiers spin and fall.
Awenasa says, ‘Vogel, we’re pinned down against a cliff.’
‘On it.’ Vogel is stunned by the suicidal tactics of the attackers. Concentrating on Awenasa and Gianina, they ignore the fact that’s she’s dropping them as fast as she can shoot.
They’re distracted as a single beam, fired from behind them, slashes several in half .
Awenasa and Gianina are able to break cover and counter-attack. The squad mow down the remaining attackers.
Vogel shouts, ‘In fifties to Janice. Go!’
She catches up with Rudi, who’s walking, apparently unable to run. ‘Rudi, report.’
‘Battered and bruised everywhere.’
‘Catch up if you can.’ Vogel reaches the area Janice, Heidi and Kpangba fell. The medikit she pulled from a pouch drops from her hand as Gianina arrives at her side.
Vogel has seen terrible sights, even held people as they died, but never nothing.
The area is incinerated and still smoking, not even a trace of weaponry or armour. She says, ‘Form on me. In fifties. Firoz, stay parallel, fifty to my right.’
They reach the top of the cliff and stare at a hole. If it had been an entrance to something, now it’s a mess of melted rock, still too hot to approach closer than fifteen metres. Vogel lifts her wristcomm. ‘Get me General McKenzie or Brigadier Craithie and patch them through to my video.’
‘Allan here. I’ve been watching all along. Sorry about your losses, very sorry. You’ve done all you can there. Our science team will follow up. Sorry to say this but we need you elsewhere urgently. Get your pilot to drop you at Chersky Airport where you will board a waiting saracen. Your pilot will follow you in the firebird after collecting any belongings you have in Yeniseysk. This could be a long job. I’ll have details and visuals sent directly, over and out.’
‘How are we going to get all nine … six … of us in a saracen?’
‘Drop all your equipment. Re-equip in Chad. Over and out.’
Vogel says to the squad, ‘Pull out. Back to the firebird. Rudi, treat yourself with nanos; we’ll deactivate them during the flight and you can get medical follow-up later.’ To the flight she says, ‘Sigma to Athabasca Green Flight. Bomber not needed, we’re pulling out in a few minutes, cover us to Chersky if you have the fuel, over and out.’
She looks at the squad. ‘Awenasa, stay with Rudi. We’ll pick you up. The rest of us back to the firebird, collect as many alien weapons as you can carry but stay alert and ready for surprises.’
As she runs she says, ‘OK, squad. What could we have done better?’ Years of experience have taught her to deal with disaster head-on and not suffer constant brooding over mistakes and “If onlys”.
Awenasa says, ‘We did nothing wrong. Everything was against us. At about ten to one against us, we kicked arse.’
Vogel zig-zags down the slope, squats beside a boulder and dead enemy soldier and lifts the dropped weapon beside it.
Gianina, about thirty metres from Vogel, says, ‘No way!’
‘I know this man!’
‘This soldier. The scars on his face, everything… Can’t remember his name but he was a merc I’ve worked with.’
Vogel rises and sprints to another body. ‘Must be a mistake. No trained soldier would adopt tactics like that.’
‘No way am I making a mistake.’
Vogel decides two alien guns are all she’s able to carry without slowing her down to the point of vulnerability. ‘You really a hundred percent sure?’
‘Absolutely. Hang on … Marchant, no, Mitchell. Australian guy. Hey, no ID, no wallet, nothing … what’s going on here?’
Vogel says, ‘Keep moving. You ask what’s going on? As if we’re ever going to be told. We’re grunts now. We get sent in with the minimum of info we need to do the job and nothing after completion.’
Googoosh, panting after a sprint, says, ‘So we work it out ourselves. Professional soldier comes out of an alien bunker, or something, and acts like … ah … these guns are heavy … so he had lost his memory or something?’
Gianina says, ‘They were fighting like aliens.’
Googoosh gasps. ‘They were controlled by aliens! The aliens are psychic in some way, yes? Brainwashing? This was a base … maybe an experiment … to control humans.’
Vogel says, ‘Oh what? I hope Brigadier Craithie is listening in. I don’t want to be the one saying that to him.’
Firoz says, ‘Well, we stopped them. What is it they were trying to hide?’
Gianina says, ‘Their methods, their tech. Whatever it was they didn’t want us to see it. I wonder how many more of those poor bastards were in there?’
Firoz says, ‘Three of these guns is all I can carry as well as the minigun. I wonder how many more experimental bases they have?’
Vogel watches him sprinting, hardly slowed by all the hardware he carries. She says, ‘Shut up, you’re going to give me nightmares. Shit, maybe we could have been brainwashed too. Anyway, business. Firoz, good work. Your counter-attack saved Gianina, Awenasa and I. Rudi, cool in combat, well done. How did Googoosh get on?’
Firoz says, ‘She was fine.’
Googoosh snorts. ‘No I wasn’t. I didn’t even fire once. Every time I aimed you got there first. How many rounds did you actually fire?’
‘Nearly empty. So nearly a thousand.’
Vogel feels the atmosphere tipping more into the positive.
Elodie asks, ‘Why Chersky?’
‘Don’t know.’ Vogel’s wristcomm vibrates. ‘Wait, getting orders now. I’ll tell you when we’re in the firebird.’
Elodie pounds up the ramp, straps two alien guns to the ceiling, her own by the cockpit door and dives into her seat as the others race in.
Vogel buckles her harness, eager to read their orders, and lets the others secure equipment. Elodie runs up the engines and lifts off.
A few seconds later, the cargo doors open again. A gust blows a shroud of snow around Awenasa and Rudi as they climb aboard.
Vogel waits until forward flight is resumed. ‘OK, squad. Fun and games. Look at the screens. That’s a nine-year-old girl from Chad, and Chad Base is where we’re headed. She’s called Markhouss and we’re to protect her but pretend to be just another squad on R&R. We’re to tell no one why we’re there, not even the girl, and never mention her or the nature of our mission to anyone even those senior to us except to the following.’ She looks at her wristcomm. ‘General McKenzie, Brigadier Craithie, Lieutenant-Colonel Holmes commander of Chad Base, and Flight-Lieutenant Hollingsworth also based at Chad.’
Gianina frowns, ‘Sounds improbable who’d R&R in a base?’
Vogel goes on, ‘I agree, I think that idea was born out of desperation. I haven’t finished yet. We’re to protect her with extreme prejudice. Googoosh and Rudi, in case you don’t understand, it means killing our own if necessary.’
Googoosh says, ‘What?’
‘Like I said, we’re political pawns. Be ready for weird orders.’
©Gary and Christy Bonn, 2014