Search and Rescue
This story takes place shortly after ‘…Tell our Moms We Did Our Best’. It’s an attempt to explain how the 58th were re-united after their disastrous last mission. It’s also an attempt to remind everybody that it’s not just the United States versus the Chigs in the war. The Wildcards will play their parts, of course, but it’s primarily about RAF pilots.
Note: The British characters in this story pronounce ‘Lieutenant’ as ‘Lef-tenant’.
I’d also like to say that things like ‘colour’ and ‘manoeuvre’ aren’t misspellings – they’re British spellings.
I'd like to acknowledge the assistance and support of Anton Bates, without whom this document would never have made it this far, and Kashpaw, my beta-reader
Comments, complaints, criticism, marriage proposals and death threats are welcomed atWerrf@AOL.com
All characters in Number 5 Squadron and the SAS, as well as the officers and crew of the HMS Ark Royal, are my creations, and may not be used without permission. The characters of Shane Vansen, Nathan West, Cooper Hawkes and Vanessa Damphousse, as well as the Space: Above and Beyond premise are the property of Glen Morgan and James Wong, and are borrowed here without permission. No offence or copyright infringement is intended. ‘Learning to Fly’, by Pink Floyd, is mentioned but not quoted (yet!). Again, no offence or copyright infringement is intended.
Number 5 Squadron Royal Air Force
Squadron Leader Drew McLean ………….. Newly promoted CO of Number 5 Squadron
Flight Lieutenant Rebecca Johnson ………. XO of Number 5 Squadron
Flight Lieutenant Mike Barrett …………… McLean’s navigator
Flight Lieutenant Chris Thompson ……….. Johnson’s navigator
Pilot Officer Jane Hayes ………………….. A new pilot
Flight Lieutenant Michael Lewington ……. Her navigator
Fourth Company, Second Battalion SAS
Major Anton Bates ……………………….. CO of the Company
Captain Kelly Thornton ………………….. His XO
The First Combined Air Wing
Wing Commander John 'Reggy' Reginald … Newly promoted CO of the wing
Squadron Leader Tom Rankin ……………. Reggy's XO
Flight Sergeant Nicola Gates ……………... Reggy's aide
HMS Ark Royal
Captain Edward Frobisher ………………… CO of the Ark Royal
Dr. Maria Peltzer ………………………….. A civilian Doctor
I stepped into the briefing room and looked around at my Squadron. My Squadron. Number 5 Squadron, Royal Air Force. I’d been in command here for over a month now, but the thought of being in command still gave me a bit of a thrill. I offered a nod to Wing Commander John ‘Reggy’ Reginald, my immediate superior, the Commanding Officer of the 1st Combined Air Wing, and, until recently, the CO of Number 5 Squadron. He returned the acknowledgement, and I crossed the room to sit with the rest of the Squadron. I noticed that the Squadron wasn’t alone here. We had been joined by the other section of the wing, the fourth company of the second battalion of the SAS. I also noticed that the GROPO’s and the flyboys were staying well separate. The 1st Combined Air Wing still wasn’t very combined. I gave Major Anton Bates, the CO of the SAS company, a wry smile. He ignored me. Captain Thornton, his second in command, was sat next to him, and she returned my smile nervously. We all knew there was a lot of work to do before everyone here was truly comfortably with their comrades.
I settled into a seat next to Flight Lieutenant Becky Johnson, my second in command. She grinned and tapped her wrist, indicating the time. It was a running joke in the Squadron: I’d be late for my own funeral if some Chig ever managed to kill me.
"Right, then," Reggy said, "now that Squadron Leader McLean has decided to grace us with his presence, we can get on with it."
He turned to the large map behind him. There were three points highlighted: The position of our own ship, the HMS Ark Royal, the position of a Chig fleet, and the position of celestial body Twenty Sixty Three Yankee. I cast a professional eye over the map and guessed that, if 2063Y was our destination, we would have at most five days there before the Chig fleet could arrive.
"Here is our destination," Reggy continued. "Celestial Body Twenty Sixty Three Yankee. Two weeks ago, the Chigs ambushed an ISSAPC carrying survivors from the Tellus and Vesta colonies here. Fortunately, thanks to Marines from the USMC, the civilians escaped. However, one of the APC’s was damaged. The cockpit section was ripped off, and fell into the atmosphere. Radio contact was maintained right up until the craft entered blackout due to re-entry. At that time, both pilots were alive, though one was unconscious. Our mission is to locate and extract them. I’m open for objections. This is your first assignment together. I don’t want to rush anything."
I looked at Bates. I knew we were both thinking the same thing. I held out a hand to indicate he was welcome to speak, to tell the world what we had been complaining about just the night before in the Ark Royal’s bar. He accepted the invitation with a nod, then stood up.
"With respect, sir," he started, not wanting to offend his new CO, "we’ve been fit for operational duty for the last month. It’s about time we got some action."
"You may not think that after this one. Drew?"
I stood up to answer. Unlike Bates, I’d known Reggy for six years, and I wasn’t worried about offending him.
"I agree wholeheartedly with my colleague, sir. There’s not much point forming an elite force if we don’t use it."
"You consider yourselves an elite, do you?" A scathing reply.
"Yes, sir." A flippant, slightly rebellious answer.
"You consider yourselves up to this?" A subtle hint of scorn.
"Good. So do I." That was the problem with Reggy. You never knew when he was really questioning your ability or when he was testing your confidence.
"The mission will proceed in the following manner," he continued. "Arial patrols by the Tornadoes will locate the pilots, then the SAS will recover them. It sounds simple, but don’t be fooled. There are at least three squadrons of Chig fighters on the ground, and four companies strength of ground troops. They also appear to be searching for the marines, so it’s likely you’ll end up stepping on each other’s toes. It could be rough."
"Sir, every pilot in my Squadron is at least the equal a Chig squadron." It was no idle boast. The least experienced pilot in Number 5 had fifteen kills to her name.
"And I have to say, sir," Bates piped up, not wanting to be left behind, "that I consider one of my men the equal of twenty Chigs." I didn’t know the SAS very well, but I was pretty sure that they wouldn’t be here if they weren’t at least as good on the ground as my people were in the air.
"Okay, that’s enough bragging. Are there any questions?"
Becky looked up. Even in the middle of a serious briefing, her face still carried a decidedly mischievous look. She probably didn’t even know it was there, but it still made everyone who didn’t know her think she was always about to make a joke. I was so distracted looking at her that I almost missed her question.
"What sort of surface are we looking at on the planet, sir?" Once again, she surprised me. The mischievous look didn’t hide a joke, after all, but a serious, professional question. It seemed out of place coming from her mouth.
"We don’t know. The only surveys suggest a rocky surface, with a few plants, mainly lichen, but the only data we have at present was taken from a single probe dropped by the USS Eisenhower. We quite simply have no idea how widespread those conditions are."
"If they’ve got three squadrons on the surface, how can we be sure they won’t attack us?" I asked.
"We know from experience that three squadrons of Chigs wouldn’t stand a chance against the Ark Royal, so we aren’t expecting any trouble from them."
"So why don’t we attack them?"
"If we eliminate a Chig outpost, we’ll have an enemy fleet breathing down our necks in five days. That won’t help find our people."
"It’s a stand off, then? How do we know they haven’t already sent for reinforcements?"
"We don’t, but the fleet seems to be holding its position. At the moment, both sides are expected to continue their work unmolested."
"What if they find the ‘Cards first?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"I said, what happens if the Chigs find the WildCards before we do?"
"I didn’t mention the WildCards." As usual, his voice was calm and cultured, the very image of an English Gentleman.
"Sir, please don’t play us for stupid."
He sighed. When he did speak, his tone was that of a harassed father talking to his pushy seven year old.
"All right. Yes, the Marines we are looking for are from the 58th Squadron. Captain Shane Vansen and Lieutenant Vanessa Damphousse. And if the Chigs find them before we do, they’ll either be killed, or they’ll be taken prisoner. Either way, we’ll know, and we’ll eliminate the Chig presence from the planet. Anything else?"
Everyone shook their heads.
"Good. I want the fighters in space for a CAP in twenty mikes. We’ll be in range of the planet in two days. That’s when the real work begins. Dismissed."
Reggy turned and stalked out of the briefing room.
"Another fabulous briefing from Reggy, the Wonder-CO," Becky said, her voice dripping with irony, as well as the slight hint of a lilting Irish accent that she was always trying to lose..
"Calm down, Flight Lieutenant," I replied, trying to keep my voice neutral.
"Sorry, Drew," she replied. She didn’t sound very contrite. Throughout the three years we’d known each other, I’d had a problem with Becky – she thought of me as her boyfriend, not a fellow officer. Even now that I was her CO, she didn’t hesitate for a second before making statements that anyone else might consider disrespectful. But, I must admit, she was right. Reggy was renowned for making his briefings short and to the point, and sometimes they were too short, and the point was often some way away when he finished.
We let the SAS soldiers file past us and leave first. I was about to follow them when I noticed Captain Thornton waiting behind. She noticed me noticing her and came over.
"Um…" she began nervously, "A few of us are going to head down to the bar. We were wondering if you’d like to join us when you get back?"
I looked over the young Captain’s shoulder. The two Lieutenant’s in her Company were watching nervously. It was clear that it had been their idea, but only Thornton had had the guts to suggest it. I gave the two male officers a wink, then turned back to Captain Thornton, and allowed the full accent of my native Scotland to flow into my voice.
"Who’s idea was this?"
"We…just thought you might like to join us, that’s all," she said, rather lamely. I gave her a grin.
"Aye, well I’ll pass the offer on to the others. I don’t know what they’ll say, but I’ll definitely be there."
"Okay. I’m looking forward to it, sir."
"Oh, and tell your Lieutenants that Flight Lieutenant Johnson’s already spoken for, and if they want to have a go at Pilot Officer Hayes, they’ll have to come through me." I’d seen the various men in the Company eyeing up some of the female members of the Squadron, and decided to put a stop to it. I wanted the two groups working together, but not that closely. At least, not yet.
"I’ll pass the message on, sir." She turned and walked back over to her junior officers.
I headed out of the Briefing Room, only to find Becky waiting for me at the door.
"What was all that about?" she asked, somewhat coldly.
"Nothing much. Kelly was just inviting us to join them at the Tut ‘n’ Shive later."
Her left eyebrow shot up.
"So it’s Kelly now, is it?"
"You don’t think anyone could possibly replace you as the light of my life, do you, my beloved Rebecca?" I asked in my best Shakespearean manner.
"They’d better not," she replied archly, then turned and stalked into the hangar bay. I grinned and followed.
"Ark Royal, this is Flogger One, request launch clearance, over."
The acknowledgement came back loud and clear.
"Roger that, Flogger One, you are clear for launch, over."
"Thank you, Ark Royal, out."
I gripped the controls lightly, checking that the neither the throttle or the control stick was too stiff, or too loose. Everything, as usual, was perfect. I nodded at the Flight Sergeant in charge of the ground crew, signalling that all was well, then powered up the flight systems. Behind me, my navigator, Flight Lieutenant Mike Barrett, flicked switches and checked instruments.
"We’re ready for drop, skipper," he reported.
Whatever anybody said about the Tornado F22 – that it was out of date, that it was based on a hundred-year-old space frame, that it was designed when the only reusable space craft in existence was the Space Shuttle – some of which was true – it still had one major advantage over such fighters as the rather more common, American-built SA-43 Hammerhead: A two-man crew, one to fly, one to spot targets, to mark them, to check the lidar, to keep an eye out.
And, of course, it was still a bloody good aircraft.
There was no time for more idle speculation, as the space doors creaked open in front of me, revealing the stars outside. Then the spacecraft leapt forward, blasting its way out of the carrier, and I was pressed back into my seat by the G-forces. I checked my rear view mirrors, saw that the five ships that made up the rest of the squadron had all launched correctly, then sat back as the autopilot began to follow a lazy curve down towards the light green planet below us. From high orbit, it looked like a jungle paradise, but we knew from the briefings that it was just the thick, soupy green atmosphere that gave it that appearance.
The wings of the jet began to glow a bright red as the fighter entered the atmosphere. I looked around, and saw that everyone else had also hit the atmosphere at just the right angle. No one was going to burn up or bounce off.
As we penetrated deeper into the green soup, the fighter’s atmosphere sensors began to take readings. Then, with absolutely no warning, we dropped out of the thick green cloud and into a crystal clear atmosphere. Below us, a thick green canopy of jungle stretched out to both horizons. We could just see the dark shapes of flying animals moving across the top.
"Wow…" somehow, Becky summed the sight up best with that single word.
"Okay, clear the airwaves," I said in my best authoritarian voice. "Begin grid search from here. Set course heading…"
"Zero Five Zero," Mike supplied.
"…Zero Five Zero, descend to Angles five." I passed the course on to the rest of the squadron and gave the order to descend to five thousand feet. At the same time, I manipulated the controls to nudge the aircraft into the new course. As soon as we were heading in the right direction, I gave the order to activate the autopilot.
"Roger that, autopilot active." Mike sounded confident and sure of his job. At this point, he was flying the aircraft, working with the computer to ensure the most efficient possible search. At this point, the pilot was dead weight.
With Mike and the computer collaborating in the search for the missing Marines, it was my turn to watch the main LIDAR screen. It was missions like this that made me glad to be a pilot. Watching the LIDAR is probably the most boring job around.
My index finger tightened on the throttle, and a low-grade communications laser linked my fighter with Becky’s. The laser comm was a new design, being tested on the Tornado. Rather than standard radio communication, which could be easily intercepted by the enemy, the laser comm was a direct, point to point link, very useful in this sort of situation. In a dogfight, it was less useful, due to the ridiculous manoeuvres that had to be pulled, but in straight flying it was probably the best method.
"Flogger Two, Flogger One, do you copy, over?" I spoke into my helmet mike, hearing my own voice through my comm set.
"Roger, Flogger One, read you L&C, over," Becky replied, chirpy and confident.
"Are you in communication with anyone else, over?"
"Negative, Flogger One, just you, over."
"Good. What’re you doing tonight?"
She laughed. We both new that carrying on an affair between CO and XO was a bad idea. The problem was that we couldn’t stop. After all, two weeks before we’d both been simple pilots, the same rank, with no ‘Chain of Command’ keeping us apart. Luckily, the RAF weren’t nearly as restrictive of such things as, for example, the US Marines. As long as it didn’t interfere with our performance, we were free to do more or less whatever we wanted.
And we did.
For four hours, we flew back and forth along a pre-programmed search pattern, flying back and forth, scanning all the time for the telltale signs of a crash landing, without result. At the end of the four hours, I called Mike.
"We’re running low on fuel. Time to go."
Due to the lack of information on the planet, we had no idea how dense the atmosphere would be, so the autopilot hadn’t been configured for our actual fuel consumption rate. This meant we had to pull out of the atmosphere manually. Left alone, the computer would fly the fighter back and forth until it ran out of fuel.
"Just give me five mikes. We’ve nearly finished this sector."
"Mike, we don’t have five mikes. If we wait any longer, then run into a dogfight on the way out, we’ll be dead. No fuel to manoeuvre."
"All right. All right. You have control, I have the LIDAR."
I ordered the rest of the Squadron to follow, then released the autopilot and shoved the throttle forward, pulling back on the stick. We ploughed up through the soupy atmosphere and back out into the crystal clear darkness of space.
The Ark Royal hung in the vacuum ahead of us.
"Any sign of enemy activity?"
"Negative, the skies are empty."
"Good. Ark Royal, this is Flogger One, request landing clearance, over."
"Roger that, Flogger One," came the reply from the carrier. "Any luck, over?"
"Negative, Ark Royal, still no sign, over."
We cruised in slowly and silently.
"Why’s it so quiet?" Mike asked me.
"Because we’re in space. No air equals nothing to carry the vibrations equals no sound."
"Okay, but why haven’t we got any music on?"
I smiled grimly. Normally, at the end of a successful mission, I put ‘Learning to Fly’ by Pink Floyd on. It was the Squadron’s anthem.
"Because this wasn’t a successful mission. We didn’t find them, remember?"
"All right. Do you have to be so upsettingly accurate?"
In front of us, the massive space doors on the Ark Royal slid open. The fighter passed easily through the entrance. I shuddered slightly. Three years before, I had been serving on the HMS Invincible when she was struck by an asteroid. The damage was minor, but the doors had slammed shut to prevent atmosphere loss, even though a Tornado was going through them at the time. Before that, no one believed that the ship would sustain damage while fighters were docking, so there were no safety systems on the doors. Afterwards, it was decided that maybe it wasn’t so unlikely after all.
Despite the fact that safety systems were now in place so that the doors couldn’t close while a fighter was docking, I still remembered the image of a Tornado being sliced neatly in half by the doors. It wasn’t a pleasant one.
I shook myself out of my reverie as the locks slammed into place, holding my fighter firmly in place as the cockpit was retrieved and lifted out of the body of the ship. As the canopy cleared the level of the floor, I saw the flight crews rushing in to get the fighters spaceworthy again.
As soon as the cockpit was locked in place, I raised the canopy. The Flight Sergeant in charge of my fighter took my helmet, then left me to climb out by myself. I steadied myself on the deck, then checked the cockpits. Everyone had landed safely and was on the deck. I looked around and saw Reggy standing by one of the pressure doors with a ‘Come here’ look. I put my Squadron before my CO and headed for the nearest cockpit. As I did so, I noticed a brief flash of irritation on the Wing Commander’s face, and allowed myself a brief smile.
"Everyone all right here?" I asked the two officers climbing out of their plane.
"Fine thank you, sir," replied the pilot, Pilot Officer Jane Hayes. She was the newest addition to the Squadron, and I didn’t want her dying too soon. With only six fighters out of the full complement of thirteen, I didn’t want to lose any part of the Squadron, especially a new recruit. She had only been with us for a month, arriving on the supply ship Orion Conveyor. When she arrived, she had already picked up an impressive ten Kills, all taken on the voyage out to us.
Her navigator, Ed Lewington, grunted briefly then turned to work on the plane. I let him. Lewington wasn’t very talkative at the best of times, and after an unsuccessful flight it was best to leave him alone.
I went around the whole Squadron, checking for any problems, just to be assured that everyone was all right.
And then, finally, I strolled over to say hello to my superior officer.
"Finished, Squadron Leader?" he asked as I arrived. He was fairly good humoured about most things. Being kept waiting wasn’t one of them.
"Just about, sir, yes."
"No luck down there I take it?" He sounded depressed. He wasn’t a desk man, but taking the job of Commanding the Wing had left him effectively grounded. He didn’t like it.
"Nothing yet, sir. But I suppose we shouldn’t have expected to hit it straight off bat. We’ll try again tomorrow."
"At your discretion, Squadron Leader. I want a full report on what you found down there on my desk in thirty mikes."
The fighter shot out of the launch bay and began it’s carefully calculated drop towards the planet. After three days searching, we were still no closer to finding the missing Marines. Still, our luck had held so far. The Chig fleet five days away hadn’t moved toward us yet, which meant that at the very worst we still had that long to complete our mission.
For four more hours, I watched the LIDAR and cursed the autopilot. Mike, on the other hand, was in his element. He played with all his high-tech equipment, making adjustments here, changing sensor frequencies there, and talking to the computer by keyboard all the time. Still, I suppose it was a form of justice. He spent most of our missions in the background, letting me do the flying, telling me where the Chigs were. I owed him a mission like this one for all the times his sharp eyes had save both our lives.
To be honest, he was enjoying himself so much I almost regretted it when I had to say "All right, time’s up. Punch up a course for home."
He knew better than to complain and ask for more time, so he just sighed.
"Roger that, skipper," he replied, and moments later, all six fighters began to move up through the atmosphere. We were halfway up when a slightly worried, slightly puzzled voice came over the radio.
"Flogger One, this is Flogger Two, I’m getting an odd signal on the LIDAR, over"
"Roger that, Becky. What sort of signal, over?"
"I’m not sure…Chris says it could be a signal from a US APC, over."
"Where?" I wasn’t about to doubt Flight Lieutenant Chris Thompson’s skill with a LIDAR.
"About a hundred and fifty K’s from here. I’m breaking off to investigate, over."
"Negative, Flogger Two, stay in formation. We don’t have enough fuel to…"
It didn’t help. Becky’s fighter peeled away from the group and began heading back down. I swore. My discipline problem was coming back to haunt me.
"Flogger Two, rejoin formation, that’s an order, over."
"I won’t be a second. I’ve got to check this out."
"She’s not changing course," Mike reported.
"Damn. I don’t need this. Flogger One to Flogger flight, carry on back to the Ark Royal, I’ll be with you in a second."
With that I disengaged the autopilot and jammed my foot down on the rudder pedal, turning a near-vertical climb into a steep dive. I pulled back on the stick and headed out after the errant fighter.
"Mike, how much spare fuel have we got?"
"Give us maybe ten mikes at full thrust before we can’t make it back."
"Great. Flogger Two, this is Flogger One. Come in, over."
"Stand by, Flogger One."
"That was not a request, Flogger Two. Form up on my wing, now, over."
"I don’t care what you’re getting. Turn round and form up immediately. You don’t have enough fuel for this."
"Just a couple of…"
My temper snapped.
"NOW, Flight Lieutenant!"
"Negative, Flogger One, I’m going to find those Marines, over."
"Flogger Two, you will turn round now, or I will be forced to bring you down."
"Yeah, right. What good would that do, hm?"
"It’d make you a lot easier to find."
"Sorry, sir," she replied airily, "I think I’ll keep going."
"Dammit. Mike, target her."
The target appeared in the HUD, and I fingered the weapons control over to missiles. A lock tone keened through the cockpit as I prepared to fire. I tried hard to ignore the fact that my trigger finger, normally totally steady, was shaking like gravel in an earthquake.
"What the hell…!" I could hear the warning tone from her Lidar Warning Receiver over the radio.
"Last chance, Becky. Don’t make me do this."
"For God’s sake, Drew…" My heart wrenched as I heard her voice shake. I wanted to leap in and protect her, to shoot down the bastard who was trying to kill her…but I was the bastard trying to kill her. It took all the self control I’d developed over sixteen years in the RAF not to just turn back. I steadied my voice before speaking again.
"I’m aiming for a non-vital system. You’ll have plenty of time to eject. And we’ll know where to pick you up. We won’t know that if you just plough yourself into the jungle somewhere."
"I’m sorry…" I muttered as my finger began to tighten on the trigger.
Just before I fired, the fighter ahead dipped it’s right wing and steered back towards me.
"Thank God for that," I muttered, switching off the weapons systems. I swung the plane around and headed for the Ark Royal. It was only then that I realised how much I was shaking. I also noticed that my face was soaking wet. I was very, very pleased I hadn’t had to shoot her.
End of Part One.
As the canopy of my fighter slowly wound up, Flight Sergeant Williams stepped up to take my helmet, but I brushed him aside and hauled myself up. I was standing behind Becky’s cockpit a couple of seconds later. I held myself back as she climbed out, then I struck.
"WHAT THE HELL WERE YOU DOING?!" I yelled, my mouth inches from her ear. She jumped about six inches straight up, and came down facing me. A small part of me quailed at the look of pure fear on her face, but the rest of me wasn’t going to stop.
"Sir!" She stood quivering to attention
"What were you trying to do down there?!" I was angry.
"Sir! Doing my job, Sir!" Her voice trembled slightly, but she was remarkably calm for someone who just a few minutes before had been on the wrong end of a Tornado fighter.
"Don’t think you can get out of this by saying ‘Sir’ all the time, lady. You are in trouble. You were not doing your job, you were trying to kill yourself and your navigator! The RAF is no place for suicidal maniacs!"
"Sir! I was trying to save those Marines, Sir!"
"I don’t care what reasons you thought you had for your actions, Flight Lieutenant. You disobeyed several direct orders, do you understand that?"
"Sir, yes, Sir!"
"I ought to have you Court Martialled. Both of you." A look of surprise passed over Chris’s face, followed quickly by a refutation by Becky.
"Sir, I was solely responsible for my actions on the planet, and no blame should be passed to Flight Lieutenant Thompson, Sir."
It wasn’t easy to stop myself from hitting her at that point. This was the first time I’d had to discipline anyone in the Squadron for misbehaviour in the field since I’d taken command. Damn, I thought, how the hell does Reggy make this look so easy?
Trying to control myself, I pointed at the cockpit she’d just vacated.
"Flight Lieutenant Thompson, would you look in there, please."
Hesitantly, he did as he was told.
"What do you see?"
"Instruments, sir. Computer readouts, LIDAR display…"
"And a bloody great control column in the middle of it all. Would you mind telling my why you didn’t use it?"
He just stood to attention and stared straight ahead.
"I was trying to get a positive fix on the distress signal, sir."
"You were disobeying direct orders! Five of them, to be precise! We are here to find these marines, not hinder them by making ourselves a target for every damn Chig squadron on the planet! What did you think you’d achieve?" I was focussing my wrath on both of them, now. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the Squadron huddling in a corner under the protective shield of Reggy. None of them wanted to be on the receiving end of a loaded me.
I turned my attention back to the cowering pilots in front of me. It’s difficult to cower and stay at attention at the same time, but these two were managing it.
"You two are experienced pilots. You know that a Squadron has to work together or die." I looked Becky straight in the eye.
"By pulling that little stunt," I continued, "you risked your own life, your Nav’s life, and, more importantly, twenty million pounds worth of fighter. As if that wasn’t enough, I had to come after you, so you risked my life, my Nav’s life, and another twenty million pounds worth of fighter. Altogether, not a good day for you, Madam!"
I turned my back on the pair of them.
"Dismissed. Report for debriefing at 0900 tomorrow. In the mean time, you’re both restricted to barracks until further notice."
I stalked back towards the Squadron, leaving the two pilots to scurry out. I stopped in front of the rest of the pilots. They stood rigidly to attention, everyone trying to hide behind my superior officer.
"You heard that. Debriefing at 0900. See you then."
They all left, pleased to have got away without further yelling. As I wandered out of the launch bay, Reggy fell in beside me.
"You handled that well," he said quietly.
"Yeah? I didn’t think so."
"That should’ve been my job, you know."
"Not any more, sir. You’ve been promoted, remember? You only get to tell me off, now."
"Too true," he sighed.
"Besides," I continued, "It meant more to her coming from me."
"There is that," he conceded. "Have you proposed to her yet?"
I dipped a hand into my pocket to finger the small box inside. It contained a small ring I’d purchased a month before the war began. I’d spent the better part of a two years trying to find an appropriate moment to give it to Becky.
"Not yet, sir. And I don’t think it’s really appropriate at the moment."
"You may be right there."
We walked in silence for a few moments. Then…
"You want to go to the Tut?" he asked, referring to the officer’s club, the Tut ’n’ Shive.
"Not now. There’s some things I need to deal with. See you there later?"
We went our separate ways.
When I reached the barrack room, Becky and Chris had already settled themselves down to a long night’s confinement. She was lying on her bunk reading an old paper novel while he was at the rooms single computer console, writing a letter.
"Afternoon," I said as jovially as I could. "How’s things?"
The imprisoned pilots looked at me as though announced my intention to leave the RAF and join the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force as a potato peeler.
"The Wing Commander asked me if I’d mind inviting the pair of you to join us at the Tut ‘n’ Shive," I announced in my very best English Gentleman’s manner. "I’d be so thrilled if you’d come, what?"
"I, er," Becky said hesitantly, "I thought we were confined to quarters?"
"Absolutely, confined to quarters until further notice. Consider this further notice, old girl."
"Aren’t you angry?"
"Me? I never was angry. It was Squadron Leader McLean who was angry. He’s in a corner somewhere sulking because he can’t execute you. I’m here to invite you to the pub."
She looked at me with a calculating expression.
"I’m not sure how easy it’s gonna be to get used to you being my CO," she said.
"You’ve got the easy part," I replied. "I’m the one in charge, remember? As well as my first command, I’ve got you to think about."
I looked over her shoulder at Chris.
"I, uh…I’ll be up later."
"Roger that, old boy." I turned back to Becky and offered her my arm. "Shall we?"
"We shall," she replied, taking it.
The Tut was nearly full by the time we got there, but the Squadron had taken over two large tables in the corner and carefully reserved seats for Becky, Chris and my humble self. I grinned at my pilots as I slipped into one of the seats.
"How the hell did you manage to keep three seats?" I asked. Normally at this time, you couldn’t keep a seat free without stapling a Chig to it.
"Well," replied Flight Lieutenant Anna Winters, "there were a bunch of Royal Marines who wanted them, but we told them who we were keeping them for and they sort of backed down.
"These Marines wouldn’t happen to have been from ‘B’ company, would they?" I asked. ‘B’ company weren’t exactly our best friends. Just a few days before, we’d been sitting in the Tut listening to them making tasteless jokes about the RAF. The joking had ended when one of the Marines made a crack about me, at which point the whole Squadron had attacked them automatically.
"Why, yes, I do believe they were something to do with that unit, sir. How did you guess?"
"Just lucky, I suppose."
With that, I settled down next to Becky to enjoy night at the pub with my friends.
Reggy stood in a corner and watched as I marched to the front of the room. As I requested, a map of 2063 Yankee had been placed on the screen at the back of the room. I gripped the podium.
"Okay. Thanks to Becky’s suicidal urges, we’ve got our first bit of objective evidence that the Marines may have survived the landing. She picked up a distress signal from their APC. They were unable to get a positive fix on the precise location, but we have been able to rule out most of the planet. As a result, we’ll be concentrating our search in this area."
I indicated a large red circle on the map, with the point at which Becky had picked up the signal at the centre.
"A small problem," I continued, "is that this is also the area being searched by the Chigs at this precise moment. If we’re going to engage the Chigs at all, this is when it’s going to happen."
I never saw where they came from. All I saw was that all of a sudden our six Tornado fighters were being chased by fifteen Chig fighters. And they didn’t really look like Good Guys.
"Bloody hell, Floggers, break and evade!" I yelled. I grabbed the throttle and stick, immediately deactivating the autopilot, and yanked the stick hard to the left. I was just in time. A Chig plasma burst passed just inches from the side of the plane, so close I felt the turbulence toss the plane around. I slammed the throttle forward, igniting the afterburners, and pulled back into a full loop-de-loop. The fighter complained slightly at being subjected to such a high-G turn after hours of gentle flying, but pulled the manoeuvre off happily enough. As I rolled the plane, a green box appeared around one of the Chig fighters on my HUD. I squeezed the trigger, and a small Spitfire missile dropped off a wing pylon and charged toward the enemy aircraft.
"Fox Two," I declared over my tactical radio. The missile shot toward its target, letting out a stream of cannon fire as it did so. Only a few of the shots hit, but they were enough, softening up the enemy enough that when the missile did hit, the explosion was really quite pretty.
I looked out to starboard, to see Becky’s plane flying in perfect formation. I did a quick check around, and saw everyone else had teamed up in pairs to hunt Chigs. I also noticed a small problem.
"Flogger Four, Flogger One, you’ve got one bandit on your six, over."
"Roger, Flogger One," came the strained voice of Flight Lieutenant Anna Winters, "I had noticed, over."
"He’s mine, over."
I shoved the stick hard over to starboard, lined the Chig up in my sights, and gave him a nice long burst of cannon fire. He broke hard to evade it, pulling his fighter up and away – and straight into the Spitfire Becky had launched.
"Good Shot, Two, over," I said, giving her the deserved credit for the kill.
"Thanks for the setup, over," she replied.
I scanned the sky for a target, seeing that it was pretty much mopped up. The odds were always in our favour – they only outnumbered us two to one. They never really stood a chance. I looked ahead again, picked a target that was trying to run from the fight, and showed him what I thought about pilots who abandoned their colleagues in a dogfight. The description of my precise feelings on the matter came in the shape of a Hurricane medium-range missile. He acknowledged that he understood the lesson by blowing up.
"And don’t you forget it," I muttered. My attention was suddenly snapped back to my own situation when I heard a yell from behind.
The reason for the exclamation was a rather large, flaming Chig fighter that was barrelling towards us. I flung the stick hard over to the left, checked that Becky did the same to the right, and broke hard away, narrowly avoiding a mid-air collision.
By the time I’d recovered myself, I realised one of the last Chig fighters had picked me as a target. I was about to execute some hard manoeuvres to get rid of him when I noticed that one of the Tornadoes was trailing two Chigs. A quick check identified it as Jane Hayes’ aircraft.
"Flogger Six, Flogger One, you have two bandits on your tail, I’m moving to assist, over."
"Roger that," she replied. "As soon as possible, please, over." She was trying to keep calm, but this was her first large dogfight, and it was pretty clear that she was frightened.
"Um, skipper, I don’t know if you’d noticed," Mike said from behind, "but we’ve got a bandit on our tail as well."
"Well spotted. Any other gems of observational genius you’d like to share with me?"
"No, that’s about all I’ve got right now."
"Pity. Flogger two, see if you can help me out here, over."
"Roger, Flogger One, I’m moving to assist, over."
I released a second Hurricane, which quickly hunted down and killed one of the Chigs. The second was more of a problem. He was following all of Jane’s manoeuvres, and adding a few of his own to shake me off his tail. It was probably an interesting sight – A Tornado, followed by a Chig fighter, followed by a Tornado, followed by another Chig fighter, in turn followed by another Tornado, all pulling exactly the same manoeuvres. At the time, though, it wasn’t so much ‘interesting’ as ‘terrifying’.
The Chig in front of me was firing randomly, hoping that one of his shots would hit Jane. Unfortunately, his tactic nearly paid off, as one of the balls of plasma skimmed the spine of her fighter.
"Oh, Shit. Jane, you still there, over?"
"R…roger, Flogger One…" she replied. She sounded pretty shaken up. I could hear the warning tones through the radio as she wrestled with the damaged aircraft.
"Are you okay?"
"I’m still alive…"
"Damn, this guy’s good. Jane, on my mark, I want you to break hard right, give me a chance to kill the bugger, over."
"Skipper," Mike yelled, "this bugger’s breathing down our neck!"
"I know, Mike. Three, two, one, mark!"
Jane’s fighter curved off to the right. The second Chig followed, but this time, because I knew where Jane was going, I could pre-empt his flight path with a stream of cannon. The explosion lit up the sky. Unfortunately, it was followed a couple of seconds later by a second explosion. That one was my own starboard wing. Moments later, before he could follow the shot up, a Tornado – I didn’t see who – ripped him apart with cannon. I struggled with the stick, trying to persuade the plane to fly straight.
"It’s not gonna work, Drew," Mike told me, "the whole wing’s gone."
I looked over my shoulder to confirm that the entire starboard wing had broken off. No wonder I was having trouble keeping control.
"Becky, I’ve lost my wing, I’m going to have to eject. You’re in charge till I get back, over."
Without waiting for confirmation of the order, I grabbed the yellow and black handle between my knees and braced myself for the acceleration. I yanked up hard, and the rockets around the base of the cockpit ignited, hurling us safely away from the dying plane. I gritted my teeth as we went from dropping slowly to going up at over sixty miles per hour in less than a second.
On board the HMS Ark Royal, Major Anton Bates of the SAS waited outside the Loading bay used by Number 5 Squadron. If they found anything, this was the best place to be, close to the loading bays that housed the APC’s that would be used to rescue the Marines on the ground. Also, if they found anything but didn’t report over the radio, he’d be able to find out sooner. Both solid, sensible military reasons. He refused to admit that if anyone was killed, he wanted to know about it. Emotions weren’t a luxury he allowed himself these days.
He flattened himself against a bulkhead as a medical team ran past, carrying a stretcher with them. He turned to watch them, and realised they were waiting outside Number 5’s bay. He walked over to join them.
"What’s going on?" he asked quietly. The doctor jumped, startled by the sudden voice.
"Wha…God, you scared me.," she replied.
"Sorry. What’s going on?"
"Number 5 Squadron’s coming in, two injured people."
"Any idea who?"
"No, sorry, Major…?" She was trying to make this more than a casual conversation. He regarded her quickly. Young, earnest, not unattractive, and quite short, a good foot less than his six foot frame.
"Bates." He replied shortly.
"I’m Doctor Maria Peltzer. Nice to meet you, Major."
"Likewise, I’m sure." He put a good deal of meaning into that sentence. Basically, he meant ‘Stop talking. I just wanted to know who was hurt.’ She took the hint and shut up.
"Major Bates!" It was a stern, somewhat authoritarian voice. Bates looked up and saw Wing Commander John Reginald, his new CO. It was, he had to admit, rather strange to have a pilot in charge, rather than a soldier, but Reginald clearly knew what he was doing.
"Sir. What’s happening?"
"Are your men ready for a recovery?"
"Yes, sir. Will we be needed?"
"I hope not."
At that moment, the pressure doors along the corridor opened, and they got their first view of the bay. A quick glance confirmed that one cockpit was missing, and a second was damaged. Wing Commander Reginald started forward into the bay, but was cut off by the Doctor, her cheerful smile suddenly replaced by a look of grim determination to do her job.
When the medical team were out of the way, Bates followed Reginald into the hangar. He scanned the room, trying to remember who was in the Squadron, who was missing. A double check confirmed that Squadron Leader McLean was nowhere to be seen. He walked over to the damaged cockpit. The crew were still inside. Peering over Doctor Peltzer’s shoulder, he identified the pilot as the youngest member of the Squadron, a Flying Officer, though he couldn’t remember her name.
"I’m fine," he heard her tell the doctor. "Look at Ed." Bates assumed she was referring to her navigator.
As the doctors moved away from her and started fussing at the back of the cockpit, the youthful pilot painfully removed her helmet and climbed stiffly out of the cockpit. Without thinking, Bates offered her his hand to steady herself. She took it gratefully, and looked up into his stern face.
"Thanks," she said warmly. He didn’t reply, just kept his hand steady as she climbed out.
"Are you all right?" he asked as she steadied herself on the deck.
"Fine…"she replied, somewhat distantly, "I’m…fine…"
She wasn’t fine. Without any warning, she collapsed. Bates caught her as she fell, and lowered her gently to the deck.
"Doctor!" he called. A couple of seconds later, the Doctor was at the young pilot’s side. So were the rest of the Squadron. Bates backed carefully away as the crack fighter Squadron suddenly became medical orderlies and helped lift their injured colleague onto a stretcher. He leaned against a wall, closed his eyes, and tried to banish the feelings rushing around inside him. Fear…anger… worry… He could normally forget such emotions in a few moments of concentration, but this time it was a lot harder. He opened his eyes and watched the stretcher being wheeled away by some of the very best fighter pilots in the war, then closed them tight again and concentrated.
His concentration was broken by a heavy hand landing on his shoulder.
"You all right, old boy?" Reginald asked.
"Yes, thank you for asking, sir," he replied, still somewhat shaken by the strength of emotion he’d experienced. "If you’ll excuse me…" He didn’t wait for a reply, but turned and marched out of the room.
I opened my eyes slowly. The light filtering through the cracked canopy had a peculiar reddish-greenish quality to it. After a few moments, I realised it was because the light of the planet, naturally green, thanks to the thick green clouds that covered the planet, was having to filter through a thin layer of blood to get to my eyes. I reached up and flipped my visor open, clearing the red from my vision, then gingerly removed my helmet and felt for the source of the blood. It turned out to be a cut on my forehead, probably caused in the first few moments after ejecting, when the acceleration threw most senses wide of the mark.
Behind me, someone groaned.
"You had to do it, didn’t you, skipper?" Mike asked. "You had to get us shot down."
"Sorry," I replied, "I thought you’d like a nice walk in the woods."
"Can’t they come up with an ejection system that’s not so painful?"
"Would you stop complaining and get the damn canopy open?"
There was a brief pause, then the canopy began to open slowly. I carefully unplugged myself from my life support equipment, then clambered painfully out of the cockpit. I sat on the edge for a moment, surveying the ground I would be dropping on to. It looked solid enough, so I let myself drop off the side.
I landed up to my ankles in soft, spongy moss. It squelched. There was another squelch next to me as Mike landed in the moss.
"Oh, God," he complained, "did you have to land us in this stuff?"
"I didn’t exactly get a choice of landing sites, y’know," I replied. "Now stop complaining and get out the survival kit."
While he squelched round the side of the cockpit to retrieve our survival equipment, I climbed back up on top of the ‘pit. As far as I could tell, we’d landed in a small clearing, covering roughly an acre. Once again, I thanked the computers that controlled the parachutes and guided the cockpit to the best landing area.
Then again, I thought, maybe not so good. I could just imagine humanoid figures in black body armour crouching in the shadows of the trees – dead black eyes staring at me through the sights of a plasma rifle…
I slipped off the side of the ‘pit again and squelched round to the back.
"Come on, Mike, hurry up," I said, looking nervously back at the trees.
"This damn panel’s stuck," he grumbled.
"Let me at it…"
I pushed him aside, grabbed the handles on the removable panel and tugged. Nothing happened. The panel was bent in at the centre – probably during the ejection. I took a firm grip on the handles, braced one foot against the side of the ‘pit, and pulled as hard as I could.
There was a sudden CLANG as the panel came free – but I didn’t really hear it that well, as I went sprawling backwards into the moss. In fact, the only sound I heard with any clarity was ‘Squelch’.
I managed to sit up, then struggled to my feet as Mike began pulling things out of the compartment hidden behind the panel.
"Right," he said, "We’ve got two SA-210 rifles, two K-Bars, two short range two way radios, one long range orbital radio, one emergency medikit, two temperature controlled bedrolls, two rucksacks, two torches – IR and visible light – various bits of climbing kit, and two personal packs."
As he spoke, he’d been pulling items out of the compartment and piling them on the ground. The last two items were a welcome peculiarity of the Tornado. The survival pod had room for two extra items for the pilots – anything that could be helpful in the event of an ejection could be put in there. Mike had brought along a personal CD player.
"Just to keep us going," he explained. I raised a cynical eyebrow.
"Entertainment is a recognised essential," he argued. "Man cannot live on bread alone, you know."
"Maybe man can’t," I replied, "But the RAF are certainly supposed to."
"All right, then, what’ve you got?"
I carefully opened the second package to reveal a two foot long bayonet, wrapped in a standard issue towel with ‘HMS Ark Royal’ on it.
"French bayonet," I said, holding the sheathed blade up to the light. "A real antique. Nineteenth century. Still pretty good at cutting things, though." I pulled it out of the sheath and held the razor sharp edge up for Mike’s inspection. Shortly after the start of the war, I’d taken the blade to the Royal Marine’s armoury and asked them to put a ‘good edge’ on it. They’d done pretty well.
"And the towel?"
"Everyone should know where their towel is."
He looked at me as though I was insane.
"What are you on?" he asked.
"Forget it. Let’s get to work."
I wrapped the towel around my neck and stood up.
"Get the radio going. I’ll set up the antenna."
Mike set to work on the radio while I carefully rested the miniature parabolic antenna on the side of the cockpit. I plugged the cable into the base of the antenna, then fed it back over to where Mike was sitting.
"Ready?" I asked. He plugged the lead from the small solar panel into the radio and looked up.
I nodded, then plugged the cable running from the antenna into the side of the radio.
"Okay," Mike said, standing up, "She’s ready to go."
I nodded, then adjusted my microphone slightly and turned to face where the Ark Royal should be. There was no need, but it made me feel more comfortable.
"Ark Royal, this is Flogger One, do you copy, over?"
There was a moments silence, then the radio crackled back into life.
"Roger that, Flogger One, reading you loud and clear. Say your location please, over."
"Ark Royal our position is…" I looked at Mike.
"Lat’ one-five-three degrees, two-zero minutes, one-five seconds, Long’ one-zero degrees, zero minutes, five seconds."
I repeated Mike’s list for the benefit of the controller on the Ark.
"Roger," he replied when I’d finished, "read your location. What is your situation, over?"
"No injuries, survival kit intact, no sign of enemy soldiers, over."
"Understood, Flogger One. Nearest extraction site is at Charlie Thirteen, repeat – Charlie-One-Three, over."
"Charlie-One-Three, received. Any further instructions, over?"
"Flogger One, you are to change your callsign to avoid confusion with air traffic. Please adopt callsign ‘Crusoe’ for communication with the ship, over."
I grinned wryly. Someone up there had an interesting sense of humour. Robinson Crusoe indeed.
"Understood," I replied, "callsign ‘Crusoe’, out."
Mike looked up as I finished the conversation.
"What’re our extraction instructions?" he asked.
"Charlie-One-Three, and if you could translate it to English I’d be most grateful." The extraction orders contained both a location and a time, but only the navigator knew what it meant. Mike flipped quickly through his little code book until he came to the correct section.
"Charlie-One-Three…Bearing Zero-Eight-Nine, ten clicks, and we’ve got…" he checked his watch "…two hours to get there."
"Well," I said, picking up my pack, "we’d better get going, hadn’t we?"
I swung the pack up onto my back and squelched towards the treeline.
Major Bates thrust a magazine into his rifle and felt the click as it snapped home. He looked around the loading bay at his team - thirty soldiers, all fully armed and ready to go. He turned to the two officers standing behind him, Captain Kelly Thornton and Lieutenant Stephen Wilson.
"All right" he said in clipped tones, "Lieutenant Wilson, I want you with me. You’ll command team two."
"Yes, sir," the Lieutenant replied. Bates turned to Captain Thornton. All of twenty five years old, to the veteran Major she seemed more like sixteen.
"I want you to remain in the second APC with the support team. If we need support, come in and help us. Do you understand?"
"But sir, I…"
"This is an important mission, Captain, and you don’t have the experience to carry it out."
Without another word he turned to his men and began barking orders. Behind him, the Lieutenant turned to the Captain.
"Don’t worry, it’s just his way," he said.
"What, to insult everyone, and undermine his XO in front of his men?"
"No, to be totally honest. He’s not going to risk a mission just to make someone feel good. You’ll get used to him. And he’ll get used to you."
"Anyway, if you want to stay here, you’d better get ready to back us up. See you in an hour."
With that, he turned and boarded the APC, leaving the fuming Captain behind him.
"Everything all right, Lieutenant?" the Major asked as the Lieutenant boarded.
"Yes, sir. Ready to go."
"Will she do the job if she’s needed?"
"I think so. She’s got experience."
"Not with us, she hasn’t." After three years serving together, Wilson had become used to the Bates’ dead, emotionless voice.
"Sir…may I speak freely?"
"Speak." The reply was short and to the point – the reply of a man who didn’t want to waste words on needless chatter.
"With all due respect, she doesn’t have experience with us, and she won’t get it unless you use her on missions. She knows her stuff. And she’s got the guts to put it into practice."
"What do you base that conclusion on?"
"She had the guts to kick you in the balls, sir."
The Lieutenant was rewarded with a brief flash of pain in his CO’s eyes. It vanished quickly and was once again replaced by the dead look.
"That was training. This is reality."
The door clanged shut behind them, shutting them off from the rest of the ship. The APC was now a sealed, self contained system. The deck lurched slightly as the cargo box was lifted up to join with the rest of the ship.
Deep in the bowels of the Ark Royal, Flight Lieutenant Becky Johnson surveyed her people. There were only seven of them – Drew and Mike were missing on the planet below, and Jane and Lewington were in the sickbay. Not the best start to her first mission in command. After only a week as the second in command of the Squadron, she was suddenly in charge. And she didn’t like it one bit. It was one of the basic truths of Military life – advancement is all too often Dead Men’s Boots. And in this case, the Boots belonged to the man she loved. She consulted her notes quickly, then looked up at the attentive pilots.
"Okay," she said, her voice cracking slightly. She paused, then tried again. "Okay. We’ve got two of our people down on the planet, and we’ve got the protect the APC that’s going down to pick them up. And remember, our CO’s down there."
"So, if he doesn’t make it back, we all get promoted," cracked Flight Lieutenant Anna Winters. Her grin disappeared as Becky rounded on her.
"Another comment like that, and I’ll make sure you spend the rest of the war flying APC’s from Mars to the Moon!" she shouted. "He’s our CO, and you’ll damn well show some respect!" Winters, a large woman who was generally considered to be more at home with the SAS than the RAF, quailed slightly under Becky’s wrath.
"Sorry, ma’am," she stuttered, "It was only a joke…"
"A JOKE?! You don’t make jokes about killing your CO!"
By this time, Becky was face to face with Winters, despite being a good foot shorter than her muscular subordinate. Standing on tiptoes with her face thrust up as far as possible did nothing to take the menace out of her hissed words.
"Squadron Leader McLean is more than your CO. You owe him your life. Several times over. Never forget that."
Winters’ face was pale as Becky stalked back up to the briefing board. She spun and faced the quaking pilots.
"Now," she said, quietly, seething with anger, "would anyone else like to make a joke about our Commanding Officer?"
The briefing lasted another ten minutes, then Becky dismissed the assembled officers, and they filed out to their planes. Chris Thompson was the last to leave, following Becky out. When he reached the door, he spotted Wing Commander Reginald standing at the inner door. As soon as Reggy saw Chris had noticed him, he beckoned the navigator over. Chris crossed the room to join him.
Reggy looked worried.
There was a pause.
"Can I do something for you, sir?"
"This is unofficial, Chris. But it’s officially unofficial, if you know what I mean."
"I think I can follow you, sir."
"Good. What’s morale like?"
Chris sighed. He hated talking about Squadron morale behind their backs.
"Well, considering we’ve just almost halved out effective fighting force, I’d say morale is pretty good. Becky’s a rather upset, though."
"That’s to be expected. How upset?"
"She nearly got into a fight with Flight Lieutenant Winters just now. She was so angry, I think Anna was actually afraid." Reggy was startled by that. They both knew that getting fear out of Anna Winters was like trying to get a straight answer out of a politician.
"Is she capable of commanding the Squadron?" Reggy asked.
"I think so. But I’m a bit worried about her. She’s taking the Skipper’s loss rather personally. I just hope to God we can get him back, otherwise we might lose a damn good pilot."
"Yes, I’d rather not lose McLean. He’s probably the best pilot on the ship. Me included."
"Absolutely, sir. But I wasn’t talking about McLean. If he dies down there, I don’t know that Becky’ll be able to carry on flying."
"You think it’s that bad?"
"It could get that bad."
Reggy paused for a moment, puffing through his moustache.
"Keep an eye on her, Chris. I don’t want to lose both of them."
"Of course, sir."
There was an awkward silence as they both considered the terrible idea of Becky leaving the war…or, even worse, taking a Tornado and making the Chigs pay for killing the man she loved. Finally, Reggy broke the silence.
"You’d better get back to the others. You don’t want them taking off without you, do you?"
Chris snapped to attention and saluted his CO, then turned and headed back to the Squadron. He faltered slightly when he saw Becky standing in the doorway of the briefing room.
"Have a nice chat?" she asked, her voice so cold that Chris actually shivered slightly.
"Just discussing Squadron morale, ma’am," he replied.
Her dark mood lightened slightly.
"Chris, we’re the same rank. You don’t have to call me ‘ma’am’."
"Well, we may be the same rank, but you’re the CO at the moment. That means I have to call you ‘ma’am’, ma’am."
She scowled at him. Her lighter mood had lasted approximately five seconds.
"Let’s go," she snapped. "We’ve got a flight to lead."
"Of course, ma’am," Chris replied, and followed her out of the room and onto the flight deck.
The bayonet banged against my leg as we walked, the rifle weighed my right arm down, the straps of the bergen dug into my shoulders, and my feet were being rubbed raw by my boots. I turned to Mike, who was struggling along next to me.
"You still with me, Flight Lieutenant?" I asked.
"Just about," he replied, his voice sour. "I’m beginning to remember why I chose the RAF instead of the Army."
"Really? Why’s that?"
"Because I’m not all that fond of walking."
"Really? Why, I love walking," I replied, adjusting bergen, bayonet and rifle.
"You look it," he growled, pausing briefly to rub his complaining calves. "Honestly, I signed up for the RAF, not the SAS. Why don’t we get Bates to do this bit, then we can get back to what we do best?"
I froze. Up ahead I’d heard something blundering through the trees, stepping on fallen branches. Mike hadn’t noticed, and carried on walking and muttering up a small ridge.
"Meant to fly, not walk…use a radar, not a rifle…all this time fighting G’s, where do I end up…?" He finally noticed that I’d stopped, and turned back.
"What’s up, ski…?"
I held up a hand to silence him, then pointed in the direction of the approaching noise. He looked where I was pointing, then understanding dawned, and he threw himself onto the ground and crawled back to me.
"What is it?" he asked.
"Probably Chigs. They’re heading this way."
No sooner were the words out of my mouth than three Chig soldiers – quieter than their comrades – appeared at the top of the ridge. It’s difficult to say who was more surprised – but it was probably us, since the lead Chig was already raising his weapon before we recovered from our shock. It was only by luck that his first shot missed, giving me a chance to raise my rifle. I didn’t miss. The lead Chig fell, and Mike took the others down a second or two later. As the last Chig dropped to the ground, green spooge dripping out of the armour, we ducked and ran for cover behind a fallen tree.
Crouching behind the tree, Mike looked over the top, searching for something to shoot.
"What do we do now?" he asked.
"We haven’t got a choice. If we let any of ‘em get away, they’ll know where we are. We’ve got to kill them all."
I pulled the bayonet out of it’s sheath and laid it on the ground by the trunk, then pointed my rifle in the general direction of the Chigs.
"God, what I wouldn’t give for a Tornado right now," Mike muttered.
"What I wouldn’t give for the Ark Royal."
There was no time for any more talking, as a group of Chigs appeared at the top of the ridge. They took a couple of seconds to look at the three bodies at the bottom of the slope, then they raised their weapons. Too late.
The first two Chigs fell to Mike’s rifle fire, dropping and sliding down the slope. I followed up by killing three more, then the two survivors turned and began to run awkwardly away through the forest.
"We can’t let them escape," I shouted, somewhat unnecessarily. "You take the left, I’ll go right."
I grabbed my bayonet and took off after my designated Chig as Mike ran off in the opposite direction. Ahead of me I could hear the crunching and crackling as the Chig lumbered quickly through the trees. I ducked under a low hanging branch, then suddenly realised my quarry had stopped and turned, and was now standing right in front of me, swinging his curved blade in a massive overhand stroke that should have sliced my skull neatly in two. I just managed to get the bayonet up in time to parry the blow, stopping it a couple of inches from my head. The Chig didn’t seem to worry about his ambush failing, he just swung the blade again, this time going for my leg. I jerked backwards and swung viciously at his head.
Somehow, he swung his blade up again and caught my blow, then threw me backwards. We began to circle each other, looking for and opening, a chance to attack. He saw his chance first, and darted forward, aiming for my left arm. I dropped to my knees and held my sword out in front of me. This had two effects: the Chig’s blade went harmlessly over my head, and his charge ran him straight onto my blade. There was a sickening crunch as the razor sharp metal cut through his armour and dug into the body behind. I let go of the sword and threw myself aside as the Chig collapsed to the ground, green spooge pouring in all directions.
When he finally stopped moving, I slowly approached the body. The spooge bubbled and fizzed slightly, squelching horribly around my boots. I steeled myself, then put one boot on the dead alien’s chest plate, got a good grip on the hilt of the blade and pulled. The sword reluctantly moved a few inches, then slid out like Excalibur from the stone, sending me flying. I just managed to avoid landing in one of the puddles of spooge, landing unceremoniously on my backside.
I stood up, and activated my short range radio, while at the same time wiping spooge from the blade with a corner of my towel.
"Mike? D’you copy?"
A few moments later, his breathless voice came through.
"Roger, Skipper, I’m still here. How’re you doing?"
"One Chig down. You?"
"Same. I manage to get a shot at the little bastard. He lost interest in things after that."
"Good. Small problem, though is that their bosses are gonna miss ‘em. We’ll probably have company before long."
"Well, with a bit of luck they weren’t due back for a day or two."
"Yeah, let’s hope so. How far d’you think we are from the rendezvous?"
"Not far. I’d say no more than a mile."
"Good. I think I can find it from here. See you there in ten minutes?"
"Roger. If you get lost, give me a call."
"Understood. See you there."
The major drawback in being a navigator was the position of the seat. It was impossible to see anything in front of the aircraft – that privilege was reserved for pilots. Still, Chris didn’t mind much. As long as he had his computers and his Lidar, he was at peace with the world. There were moments, though, when you wished you could see out ahead. Such as the moment when the space doors opened in front of the plane, providing a beautiful view of clear, open space. Moments like this one. Seconds before the engines threw the little ship away from the carrier, there was a chance to truly appreciate the awesome size and majesty of the universe.
Not for the poor Navigator, though. All he got to look at was a bank of computers.
Still, the thought of missing out on that sight was infinitely preferable to the thought of him flying. Despite Squadron Leader McLean’s insistence that he, Chris, was perfectly capable of taking control of the plane, Chris Thompson could not fly to save his life. Or anyone else’s life for that matter. The one time he’d tried to fly a straight and level course – in a simulator, thank God – he’d ended up running straight into the side of a hill. Even that wouldn’t be so bad, if it weren’t for the fact that the hill was only four hundred feet above sea level, and he’d started off at thirty thousand feet.
"Are we ready, Chris?" Becky’s voice came over the intercom.
"Roger that, Becky. Ready for launch as soon as you want."
Without another word, the fighter shot out from the carrier, followed by the rest of the Squadron, and curved ‘upwards’ to join formation with the APC carrying the SAS rescue party.
"APC four-three-niner, this is Flogger One, we’re on your three o’clock, you are cleared to begin atmospheric insertion, over." Becky’s voice was clear and authoritative over the radio. Chris was struck by the similarity between Becky’s command voice and McLean’s.
"Roger that, Flogger One," the APC’s pilot replied, "Come left, heading four three niner, stand by for atmosphere insertion."
"Roger that, four-three-niner."
The Tornadoes turned in perfect formation to follow the APC down to the planet. This was where the fun started.
"Chris, watch the Lidar. I don’t want the Chigs creeping up on us."
"Definitely," Chris replied, gluing his eyes to the Lidar screen.
I squinted over my rifle, peering out through the leaves. The clearing was about twice the size of the one we landed in, but otherwise it looked identical – complete with a thick layer of moss. I shifted uncomfortably on the branch, then resumed peering out at the treeline. I started as a loud voice sounded in my ear.
"Can you see anything?" Mike asked.
I peered down to see the Flight Lieutenant looking up at me.
"Mike," I replied, "This is just a thought, but it might not be such a brilliant idea to startle someone who’s sat forty feet in the air on a branch, looking for signs of aliens who’d like nothing better than to blow your head off. Next time, give me some warning."
"Sorry, Skipper," he replied. "But can you see any Chigs?"
I made one last pass before replying.
"I can’t see any. I’m coming down."
I strapped my gun onto my back, checked my harness, then swung my leg over the branch I was sitting astride, braced myself for a moment, then slipped off and abseiled to the ground. Mike stood guard as I freed myself from the harness. There were a few spots of spooge on the front of his flight suit, but other than that he seemed okay. Then I noticed a white bandage on his right leg with a few spots of blood just showing through.
"Any sign?" he asked.
"I couldn’t see anything," I replied. "What happened to the leg?"
He looked a little embarrassed.
"Oh, nothing much. Just a scratch."
"Come on, Mike. I know you, you wouldn’t put a bandage on anything less than a severed artery. Less than that, you’d use a band aid and an aspirin."
"Well, I was going over that Chig I killed, I found his knife. Thought it’d be a good souvenir, so I pulled it out and…well…"
"And…?" I prompted.
"And, I dropped it. It sliced me leg on the way down. Pretty sharp." He was clearly embarrassed – he wanted to end the conversation, but I couldn’t let him off that easily.
"Oh, God, Mike, no wonder you didn’t join the Army. If you can’t even handle a simple knife…!"
"Careful with your disparaging comments, skipper, or I might just have to mention the minor incident of Reggy’s birthday present."
It was about time to finish this conversation. I very smoothly changed the subject.
"Yes, well… anyway, we’ve got twenty minutes to wait. I just hope the Chigs don’t find us first." I rested my rifle against a nearby tree, then sank gratefully to the ground. Mike grinned and sat down next to me.
"What is it they say about infantry work?" he asked. "Ninety eight percent total boredom, two percent abject terror."
"I’ll be quite happy with twenty minutes of boredom, thanks. I’m not really into terror."
"I hope the Chigs feel the same way."
The red glare outside the windows slowly faded as the APC settled into atmospheric flight. Sergeant Paton turned away from the window and back to the squad, who were receiving their final briefing from Lieutenant Wilson.
"There’s not really much to say. Two pilots are trapped on the planet, and it’s our job to pick them up. We’re not expecting any enemy activity, but be ready, just in case." He turned to the Major and saluted.
"Company briefed, sir," he reported.
"Carry on, Lieute…"
"Sir!" he was interrupted by the Private manning the scanners.
"What is it, Private?"
"Signs of firing near the extraction site, sir."
The Major pushed his way through the men and leaned over the screen.
"Here, sir. Looks like two SA-210’s and about fifteen Chig rifles."
"They’ve been compromised." He straightened up and turned to address the rest of the company. "Everybody get ready, we’re going into a hot zone. Sergeant Paton, get up to the flight deck, tell them to inform the fighters we have enemy activity around the LZ."
"Yes, sir." Paton responded quickly and efficiently, slipping between the men up towards the flight deck. Bates hurried back over to the screen.
"Have we got a picture of the landing zone?"
"Here, sir." The Private tapped a few buttons, bringing up a picture of a clearing on the screen.
"No bloody cover," Bates muttered. "We’ll have to stay with the ship." He turned round to see Sergeant Paton standing next to him.
"Paton, get back up to the flight deck and see if the fighters can give us any air cover."
"They can’t sir. They’ve picked up twenty four enemy fighters closing on the LZ. Once we touch down we’ll have thirty seconds to get out again or we’ll never make it back to the Ark."
"Oh, that’s bloody brilliant."
I glanced quickly around the side of the tree, ducked, and ran for another bit of cover that much closer to the edge of the clearing. As I ran, Chig plasma bolts followed my course, some of them getting so close I could hear the sizzle as the water in the moss boiled away. I jumped, rolled, and came up firing from behind a tree. I could see Mike just a few yards away, up on one knee, taking pot shots at any Chigs that showed themselves.
"How long?" I asked into my microphone.
"Five minutes, tops," he replied.
"Roger that. Watch your six over there."
I squinted down the sights of my gun – not very easy when you’re wearing an airtight helmet, but just about possible. Was that a flash of black behind that tree? I fired a couple of rounds, just to check, and was rewarded with the sight of a large Chig soldier to lurch out and die. What a shame.
I became aware of a dull rumble from somewhere overhead, which slowly grew to a deep roar. A British Army APC swept in low over the trees, then swung round and touched down in the clearing, the exhaust from the engines producing huge clouds of steam from the moss. The door opened a second or so after the big ship settled onto the ground and an SAS officer leaned out.
"We’ve got thirty seconds!" he yelled over the engines and the firing. I held up an hand to show I’d received the message, then activated my radio.
"Mike, get going. I’ll join you in a minute."
I saw him nod, then he broke his cover and ran for the APC. Immediately, five Chigs appeared and started firing at him. I returned the complement, killing two of them and forcing the others to duck. Looking back I saw Mike being hauled into the ship by the SAS. I gave the Chigs one last burst to keep their heads down, then made my own run for the ship.
As soon as I left my cover, the two remaining Chigs started firing. I heard their shots pass either side, and threw myself to the ground as one sizzled overhead. Looking up, I guessed I was still fifty feet from the APC. I could hear the people on the ship firing into the trees, but the Chigs carried on firing at me. I rolled onto my back and fired into the trees. How long left? Ten, fifteen seconds? It couldn’t be much more than that. I rolled over again and began to crawl towards the ship, but even as I did, I could hear the engines revving up, ready for takeoff. Forty feet to go. The engines began to rotate downwards to provide thrust. I tried to stand, but the Chigs began firing again, only just missing, so I fell flat on my face again. I looked up just in time to see the APC slowly lifting up and away from the planet, then slowly accelerating away as four Tornadoes fell into formation behind it.
I was trapped on the planet.
On board the APC, Sergeant Paton struggled with Flight Lieutenant Barrett, trying to keep him from barging through into the cockpit. Luckily, he’d never had SAS training – he didn’t stand a chance. Nonetheless, it was taking most of Paton’s training to keep hold of him.
"Let go of me, damn you!" he yelled, struggling and squirming, trying to break her lock, but she wasn’t planning to let go. He tried a different tactic.
"Sergeant, if you don’t let go of me this instant, I’ll have you brought up on charges for obstructing a senior officer!"
It almost worked. Luckily, just before she was forced to release him, a stern, authoritarian voice came from behind them.
"Don’t let go, Sergeant, that’s an order."
"Yes, sir," she replied, not even bothering to look. She knew her CO’s voice when she heard it.
"Sergeant," the RAF officer growled, "I just gave you an order."
"Yes, sir, but that order was then countermanded by my CO. And he outranks you, sir."
"What’s going on?" Bates asked.
"The Flight Lieutenant was trying to get to the flight deck, sir."
Bates walked round in front of Mike and placed on hand on his chest. That one action somehow managed to convey to Mike the message that further resistance would not be tolerated. He stopped wriggling.
"Why do you want to get to the flight deck?"
"My CO’s still down there! You left him behind! Left him to die!"
"If we’d waited, we’d all be dead already. You know that."
"There’s always a chance! We could have stayed and fought!"
"We had four Tornadoes as an escort. There were twenty four Chig fighters closing on our position. If we’d stayed, you’d be dead, I’d be dead, and your precious CO would be dead. That’s all there is to it."
Bates turned to leave. Instantly, as if released from a spell, Mike began struggling again.
"What sort of a monster are you? You’re leaving him to die, he…!"
Bates turned and skewered the unfortunate navigator with a glare.
"If he is dead, I’m sorry. At least now he has a chance of survival, which is more than he’d have had if we’d stayed. I was not going to risk my company to rescue one man. There is nothing more to say, sir."
This time, Mike just stayed in a sullen silence.
"Sergeant, take him back. Have the doctor check him out."
"Yes, sir," Paton replied. She turned and marched the reluctant Mike into the stern section of the ship. Bates just sighed. If Mike’s reaction was anything to go by, the rest of the pilots wouldn’t be too happy that he’d left their CO behind.
Mike’s first thought as he looked out of the window of the cargo module was one of terror. Standing in the middle of the loading bay, hands on her hips, was Flight Lieutenant Rebecca Johnson. How was he supposed to tell her that he’d allowed Drew to be left behind on the planet?
The door clanged open, and the soldiers began to make their way out. Mike sighed and made his own way to the exit. The moment he popped his head out of the door, however, Becky saw him and hurried over.
"Mike!" she called. "Thank God you’re okay. I was worried sick," she looked around as the last soldiers filed out of the ship. "Where’s Drew?"
"He didn’t make it…" Mike said. Before he could finish, Becky’s face crumpled.
"God, no!" she cried, tears developing suddenly in her normally clear, bright eyes. Mike quickly explained, before she could get into a fully fledged sobbing fit.
"Don’t worry, he was alive last time I saw him. He just didn’t get to the APC in time.
"And you left him?" she hissed.
"I didn’t have a choice, dammit! It was Bates. He refused to stay, he didn’t even give him a chance!"
Mike didn’t have a chance to say any more, as she turned and stormed out of the landing bay.
I crouched over the ex-Chig, using his decomposing body for cover as I scanned the area. No sign of any more Chigs…but that didn’t mean very much. They could be anywhere. Chigs were sneaky bastards.
Finally satisfied that the whole patrol was dead, I picked up my Bayonet and moved off again.
I suddenly noticed that the peculiarly green light on the planet had a decided blue-ish tint. I looked up at the sky, and realised that the sun was going down. I tried to remember what I’d been told about the planet – the briefings hadn’t exactly stressed the length of the day here. It wasn’t considered very important to fighter pilots, as we’d never be there more than a few hours at a time. Luckily, though, I could remember it for this planet, as, by a coincidence, the day here was twelve hours, exactly half the length of an Earth day. And, I recalled, there was a negligible axial tilt, which meant that the length of the day stayed more or less constant throughout the year. That didn’t matter very much, though, as I hoped I wouldn’t be there long enough to notice the lack of change in the seasons
Still, I thought, not much point just sitting here…I’d been operating on five hours of sleep for the last fourteen hours – not exactly unheard of these days, but since I wasn’t going to be flying anywhere in the near future I might as well try and get into a more human sleep pattern.
Slinging my rifle onto my back, I found a tree that looked strong enough to take my weight, and began to climb. It wasn’t an easy task in my bulky flightsuit, but the rough bark provided plenty of good handholds. In five minutes, I was up in the branches. Near the top, five branches spread out in all directions, providing a fairly flat platform. I stretched myself out on it, using my bergen as a pillow, and almost immediately fell asleep.
By the time Reggy caught up with his favourite Squadron’s executive officer, she was nearly at the SAS’ debriefing room. He stepped in front of her, intending to calm her down before she could get to her colleagues.
"Becky…" he managed to say before she ducked under his arm and continued her march. Reggy swore and hurried after her.
"Becky, you’re not going in there."
"Try and stop me, sir," she replied.
"I’m giving you an order, Flight Lieutenant. Don’t go in there."
"They left him down there to die!" she hissed, her face suddenly twisted into a snarl of hatred. Reggy was stunned by the sudden transformation. It was hard to believe that this was the same happy-go-lucky young RAF officer he’d known for eight years.
"They had no choice. If they hadn’t left, everyone who was down there would now be dead. That includes Bates, Thornton, and even you. And Drew would definitely be dead. At least now he has a chance."
"I don’t care. I’m going in there, and I’m going to kill him with my bare hands!"
She began to storm away again, but Reggy caught her shoulder and spun her round to face him.
"If you go into that room, I’ll have you arrested and taken to the brig. Then there will only be three aircraft in your Squadron, and three aircraft isn’t enough for the MoD to keep a Squadron together, so it’ll be disbanded, and the pilots will be sent to other Squadrons. Do you want to be the one to tell McLean that you destroyed his Squadron when he gets back?"
"He’ll get over it," she snarled.
"Will he? When I first met Drew, the only thing that really mattered to him was getting his own Squadron. Then he met you, and he had two reasons to live. No he’s finally got his Squadron. Are you going to take both his reasons for living away from him? Because believe me, if you go into that room, you won’t see the light of day for a very long time."
She glared at him, her face full of hatred. Then, slowly, the hatred and anger drained away, and was replaced by fear and grief.
"I don’t want to lose him," she whispered. Reggy was at a loss. He was used to dealing with rebellious officers – this one especially – but he’d rarely been confronted with a force like Becky Upset before, not even in his twelve years of marriage. He didn’t have much of a chance to try and figure out what to do, though, because she began to sob, and he had no choice but to embrace her. She clung to him tightly, sobbing her heart out into his uniform jacket, her body shaking with grief.
As he stood holding the distraught pilot, the SAS company began to file out of their debriefing. Some of them spared the two RAF officers a startled look, but the looks Reggy returned were so full of venom that they scurried away. Bates left last, and he shared a long look with his CO.
"I did what had to be done," he said. Reggy just nodded. The Major took the hint and left.
When I woke up, the first thing I noticed was that it was lighter. I immediately assumed I’d been asleep for six hours, and that I was seeing what passed for sunrise on this planet. It wasn’t until I checked my watch that I realised that although I was indeed seeing sunrise, I hadn’t been asleep for six hours. I’d slept right through the night, snoozed the day away, and was now waking up at the end of my second night on the planet.
I sat up slowly, rubbing the kinks in my back, and looked around. The forest canopy stretched out as far as I could see in every direction except one. Off to the north I could see what looked like a large range of hills. Not too high, but high enough to give anyone up there a far better view of the surrounding area than someone down in the forest. And if I wanted to find the Marines, where better to start?
I was about to start down the tree again to make my way over to the hills when I noticed something: a small spark of light on the distant hillside. I rummaged in my bag and dug out my night vision goggles. They were a good set, doubling as normal light binoculars. I pulled them on and adjusted them to maximum magnification. I could just make out what looked like a camp fire in the mouth of a cave…and was that a humanoid figure walking around? Suddenly the light from the camp fire flared, and I caught a brief glimpse of a human face. I was in little doubt: I had found the missing Marines.
And they were fifteen miles away.
Across territory being patrolled by the Chigs.
Becky tried to subtly loosen her collar, but she caught a stern gaze from Reggy and quickly lowered her hand again.
"Remember who we’re here to meet, Flight Lieutenant," the Wing Commander said sternly.
"Yes, sir," she replied. "And remind me, just why do we have to meet them in dress uniform?"
"Respect, Flight Lieutenant. They may be Yanks, but we still have to show respect."
Becky sighed. Reggy had some strange ideas sometimes. When the Americans arrived, she’d outrank them by one rank, and Reggy would be three steps above them…but he still insisted on showing them respect. Weird.
At that moment, the cargo box of an ISSAPC was lowered into the bay. The magnetic clamps slammed into place and held the box solidly in position, then the door was opened from the inside. A stream of personnel came out – mostly reinforcements for the various Infantry forces stationed aboard the Ark, but with a fair smattering of Navy personnel. Finally, two USMC officers came out, both wearing, Becky noted, their olive green flightsuits. She stepped forward to meet them.
"Lieutenants?" she said, deliberately using the British pronunciation of ‘Lieutenant’. "I’m Flight Lieutenant Johnson. Welcome aboard."
The shorter of the two Marines saluted.
"Thank you, ma’am. Lieutenant Nathan West, United States Marine Corps, and this is Lieutenant Cooper Hawkes."
"This is my CO, Wing Commander John Reginald. If you’ll come with us, we’ll show you to your quarters."
Becky turned stiffly and led the way out of the docking bay. Behind her, she could hear the big Marine, Hawkes, trying to talk quietly with his companion.
"Why’d you call her ma’am? She outrank us?"
"I think so," West replied. "I’m not sure what the RAF ranks are…"
Becky felt a thin smile creep onto her face when she heard that. She almost hoped they would assume she was below them. If nothing else, it’d give her someone to shout at.
"Sir?" West asked, addressing Reggy. The Wing Commander turned.
"Is there any news on Captain Vansen and Lieutenant Damphousse yet, sir?"
"We did detect what appeared to be their distress beacon, but we’ve been unable to locate it precisely."
"How many Squadrons do you have searching?"
"Just one. Number 5 Squadron."
"Just one?!" Hawkes burst out. "What the hell are you guys thinkin’? That’s Shane and ‘Phousse down there!"
"Lieutenant Hawkes!" Reggy snapped, his eyes blazing. "The resources allocated to this mission are neither your responsibility nor your concern. I may already have a letter to write because of this mission."
That statement stunned the big Marine into silence. It also struck Becky like a slap in the face. Since the failed rescue mission, it was the closest anyone had come to an admission that Drew might not survive. She already knew it was possible – but she’d never realised how much it would affect everyone else. She was now the CO of Number 5 Squadron: it was her job to look after the people under her command. And it was her job to build their confidence in their missing Commanding Officer.
The trouble was, she had no idea how to do it.
My first bullet went straight through the lead Chig’s head, throwing him back into the rest of the patrol. I clicked the rifle over to automatic fire and sprayed the Chigs with bullets. The two second burst accounted for five of the six remaining aliens. The fifth threw himself aside and returned fire. I dropped left, ducking behind a rock, rolled right and came out the other side. A single bullet dealt with the last Chig. A quick scan of the surrounding region didn’t reveal any more aliens, so I sat back against the rock and pulled out my direction finder. I’d taken a bearing on the light I’d seen the night before and, after I’d entered my estimated range, it was now pointing me in roughly the right direction.
I shouldered my rifle again, and began marching in the direction indicated by the little black box in my hand. A couple of miles later, I noticed that the ground I was walking on had a decided uphill slant. I also realised that the trees were getting thinner. Suddenly, without any warning, the trees stopped and I found myself on an open hillside. The ground was covered with short, wiry vegetation – it looked like a cross between grass and the moss that was so predominant in the forest. One thing was certain. Any Chigs on the hillside would stand out a mile. Unfortunately, so would I.
Captain Shane Vansen, executive officer of the 58th Squadron of the United States Marine Corps Space Cavalry, shifted the bulky M-590 rifle in her lap and looked out across the bleak landscape of Planet 2063 Yankee. What a place to be marooned. Just a few miles from here the rocky highlands with their scrubby little trees gave way to lush jungle. That would have been a much better place to be shipwrecked. But she couldn’t move that far. Shit.
As the last light faded, she activated her night vision goggles, and the landscape was suddenly a lurid green. It was always the same with night vision goggles. Why couldn’t they come up with something in colour?
Suddenly, from the far side of the dip, she heard the rattle of pebbles falling. She looked over and saw a humanoid figure slipping down the hillside, eventually disappearing behind what was left of the ISSCV’s cockpit.
"’Phousse!" she called quietly. "’Phousse!"
Back in the cave, Damphousse woke up quickly.
"What is it?"
"Get over here!"
Recognising the excitement in her friends voice, Damphousse grabbed her M-590 and hurried over to the cave mouth. Shane shifted herself round painfully to get a better view of the remains of the cockpit.
"What is it, Shane?"
"Something just fell down behind the cockpit. Humanoid."
"I don’t know…I didn’t really get a look at it, but it looked like it was carrying something."
"Are you sure?"
"Of course I’m sure. Listen…"
There was a faint clang from behind the cockpit.
"D’you think it’s Chig?"
"What else would be out here on it’s own?"
The two women levelled their weapons and waited for the enemy to appear.
Once again, the sky had turned blue, and now black again.
I’d been walking for miles, I wasn’t sure how many. I checked my watch. Twenty-four hours since I’d seen the fire. I was fairly sure that it had been around here somewhere.
I suppose, with hindsight, it may have been a mistake to try and walk at the same time as scanning the horizon with night vision binoculars. And it’s just possible that not watching where my feet were wasn’t the best idea I’d ever had.
Still, I wasn’t thinking that at the time. All I was thinking as my foot slipped was, not to put too fine a point on it, Shit.
At which point, the whole hillside began to slip. And, since I was standing on it, I started to slip with it.
I just about managed to hook my arm through the strap of my rifle, and hung onto it like grim death – until a rock approximately the size of a motorbike slammed into the side of my head, then carried on to catch a glancing blow on my arm, at which point I lost interest in holding onto anything except various bits of Squadron Leader Drew McLean.
After what seemed like several minutes, but couldn’t really have been more than a few seconds, I came to a stop. In all probability, anyone else would have been happy to slide to a halt on a nice, flat strip of grass. I, of course, had to do it with more style. I slammed to a halt against the side of a nice large rock with a loud clang.
I did a quick systems check. My left arm was feeling somewhat bruised, but was happy to carry on working, while my right arm was definitely complaining, and was planning to get a petition together. The legs, which had been threatening industrial action since the ejection, had finally decided to go on strike for a while, and the ribs, chest and abdomen were demanding better working conditions. I decided to ignore all of them, and pulled myself upright, leaning heavily against the rock that had broken my fall. And probably a few ribs.
As I leaned against the rock, something odd struck me about it. Rocks were, by their nature, hard and cold. However, they were also often noted for being quite rough, and, although they were often grey, they rarely felt painted. This rock, on the other hand, was very smooth, and the surface had a decidedly painted attitude. It felt more like the side of, say, the cockpit section of a USMC ISSAPC. I rapped it gently. It clanged.
Turning around, I looked up at the rock. There was a definite tapering shape to it. It did indeed look a lot like the ejected cockpit section of an ISSAPC, standing up on one end. And if there’s an APC cockpit here, then surely there should also be a couple of Marines in the local vicinity as well.
The two women sighted along their rifles. Something was moving behind the wrecked APC. They could hear it walking around – and it was definitely humanoid.
Vansen leaned low over the barrel of her weapon.
"Come on…" she muttered under her breath. "Show yourself you Chiggy bastard…"
Suddenly, a biped shape appeared around the side of the crashed ship. Both Marines fired immediately, sending whatever it was diving for cover. They carried on firing for a few seconds, then stopped.
"Was it a Chig?" Damphousse asked quietly.
"I dunno…it moved a bit fast for a Chig" Vansen replied.
"Did we get it?"
"I think so…I’m not sure…"
They sat and listened.
After a few seconds, a plaintive voice came out of the dark. Speaking English.
The cockpit looked in good shape. Considering, of course, that it had somehow survived re-entry, something that an APC cockpit was never designed to do. In fact, it looked very much as though the impact would have been easily survivable. I bent down to check a small panel. Sure enough, it had been removed, and the emergency survival kit inside was missing. It looked as though at least one of the two Marines had survived the crash.
I noticed something else around the panel. Bloody handprints. Whoever had retrieved the kit, had been covered in blood when they took it. So if there was only one survivor, the chances were she was badly hurt. If both had survived, at least one of them was severely injured. Thank God I’d been carrying the emergency medical kit.
I walked further around the wreck, looking for anything that would tell me how many survivors there had been. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a spark of light. A spark that looked very much like the elusive camp fire I’d been chasing. Looking up, I also saw two humans crouching over rifles. At the very last moment, I realised that they had no idea if I was human or Chig. I worked it out about a second before they fired.
I hit the ground hard, landing behind some very thoughtfully positioned rocks. I huddled down as bullets and shards of stone flew around me. After a few seconds, the shooting stopped. Two human voices filtered their way through the planet’s calm, still, night time atmosphere. I couldn’t make out the words, but I recognised the voices. Lieutenant Vanessa Damphousse and Captain Shane Vansen of the USMC. I decided that now would probably be a good time to inform them of my identity.
"Okay," said their erstwhile target, "I’m sorry I made jokes about the USMC. You’re very good pilots, honest. It was just a joke. So could you stop shooting at me now, please?"
The two Marines looked at each other.
"Who’s there?" Vansen called.
"Squadron Leader Drew McLean, of Number 5 Squadron of the Royal Air Force. Could you stop shooting now, please?"
Grinning delightedly, Damphousse jumped up and rushed down the slope to help McLean up. Shane just tried to work out how best to apologise for firing on their rescuer.
The two Marines looked at me intently.
"Did the others get away safely?" Damphousse asked.
I sighed. This was the part I’d been dreading.
"Lieutenants West and Hawkes returned safely to the USS Saratoga with the Vesta and Tellus colonists. Lieutenant Wang…Lieutenant Wang was unable to leave the cargo container of the second APC. He manually disengaged the pod and continued to fire on the Chig fighters that would otherwise have killed the colonists. The last Chig fighter was damaged and collided with the pod. Lieutenant Wang was killed in action. I’m very sorry.
Damphousse simply collapsed. She began to slip down the cave wall she was resting against. Vansen caught her and held her as the young woman began to sob uncontrollably. I got to my feet and walked out of the cave. I knew the feeling of loosing a comrade, but from all I’d heard the Wildcards were more than a Squadron – they were just inches away from being a family.
About half an hour later, Damphousse came out as well. She spotted me crouched on top of the hill that sheltered the cave and came up to join me.
"Any Chigs?" she asked, crouching down next to me.
"Haven’t seen any. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean there aren’t any."
There was a long, awkward silence.
"Did he die well?" she asked at last.
I had to think about that one.
"I wasn’t there when it happened. The only ones who really know are West and Hawkes."
"You must know something," she pleaded.
"When I found out who was down here, I pulled out the black box recording from his APC. As far as I can tell, he deliberately stayed behind to cover their retreat. He killed at least five Chigs before…well…"
"He saved a lot of lives by giving his own. If it weren’t for him, West, Hawkes and all the colonists would be dead."
"I never thought…" she began. "I never thought he’d be the one to give his life for the colonists. Shane, Nathan, even Coop…but not him."
"I never knew him," I replied. "I wish I had. But from what you’ve told me, he gave his life for what he believed in. Just remember that."
"Have you lost anyone in the war?"
"A few. No more than most, I expect. Most of the Squadron I trained with at Cranwell…about half my current Squadron…" I paused. I wasn’t sure if I was ready to talk about my other loss. She noticed my hesitation.
"Who else?" she asked softly.
"My parents," I replied shortly. She gasped.
"Oh…God, I’m sorry…I didn’t mean to…"
I ignored her and carried on. I’d started now, I couldn’t leave it half finished.
"They were at the battle of the Jupiter line. My father was flying an APC, trying to get wounded from the Montgomery back to Earth, but the Chigs jumped him before he cleared the fleet. My mother was flying a BC-48, tried to help him out…she ran out of ammo before he got clear, ended up ramming a Chig that was about to kill him. A couple of seconds later, a load more Chig fighter arrived. He dumped the cargo pod and started dogfighting with the Chigs. They recovered the pod after the fight." I stopped and tried to smile proudly. From the look on Damphousse’s face, I got the impression I didn’t do a very good job.
"They were both awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously. ‘They gave their lives to save others’."
"I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to…"
"It’s all right. They were professional pilots. They knew the risks. If they’d had to choose how to die, that’s what they’d have wanted. I just hope I go the same way."
There wasn’t much she could say to that. In a desperate attempt to change the subject, she noticed my bayonet.
"I like the sword," she said. "Not exactly standard issue, is it?"
I pulled it out and held the blade out for her inspection. She examined the polished metal intently.
"It’s nice. Good edge on it, too."
"I took it to the Royal Marines to get it sharpened. It’s French. Nineteenth century."
I reversed the weapon and offered the hilt to her. She took it and held it carefully.
"It’s got a good balance. Must be great for killing Chigs."
"Yeah. That blades been in at least three Chig chests."
"It’s a real antique. Where’d you get it?"
"It’s a family heirloom. I inherited it from my father."
She stopped dead when she heard that, and realised that, far from changing the subject, she had in fact been talking about exactly the same thing.
"Oh, no. I’m sorry."
"Forget it. It’s made me think of the good times again."
I checked my watch.
"Come on, it’s getting late. We’d better get some sleep. We’ll have to signal the Ark Royal tomorrow."
With that, I turned and headed back into the cave to begin my last night on planet 2063 Yankee.
Becky took a mouthful of brandy, held it on her tongue for a few moments, then let the liquid burn down her throat. She looked down at the empty glass, then up at the barman.
"Give me another."
The civilian behind the bar looked at the glass.
"I think you’ve had enough."
She glared at him.
"Believe me, mister, I haven’t had anywhere near enough. Now give me another."
The barman shrugged and began to pour brandy into the glass.
"Say when," he said. Becky waited until the glass was about to overflow.
"When. Leave the bottle."
The barman thought about protesting at that, then changed his mind and left the bottle on the bar next to the depressed pilot.
From the other side of the room, Chris watched and worried. He’d never seen his pilot in such a sorry state.
"Chris? You still with us?"
"Yeah…sorry." He turned back to his companions. The navigators of Number 5 were engaged in their favourite pastime…’Having one for the pilots’. Since Reggy – and, more recently, McLean –had always firmly insisted that the pilots obey the RAF’s twelve-hour bottle-to-throttle rule, the nav’s had got into the habit of taking two drinks at once…one for themselves, and one for their pilot. It was as convenient an excuse for getting drunk as any of them could come up with, and it worked.
But tonight, Chris wasn’t joining in. Becky was drinking enough for both of them.
"Is she all right?" asked Pilot Officer Linda Wells. She was the newest Nav in the squadron, having joined as soon as the war started.
"No, Linda," Chris replied, "She’s not all right. She wouldn’t be trying to get drunk if she was all right."
"Do you think someone should go talk to her?" This came from Flying Officer Lucy Adams.
"I’ll do it," Linda said, rising from her seat. She’d just started towards the half-drunk pilot when the doors swung open, and in strolled one of the visiting American marines. Chris recognised him as Hawkes, the big IV. He also noticed the effect he had on various female officers…several jaws dropped.
The big Marine stood in the door for a moment, looking around, trying to find something familiar to lock on to.
"Now, that is what I call a man," whispered Flying Officer Lucy Adams.
"Forget it, Lucy," Chris advised.
"Forget it? How can anyone forget a guy like that?"
"He’s an American Marine. You know, the guys who can’t decide if they’re pilots or cannon fodder. More importantly, he’s a Wild Card. You know what they say about loving a Wild Card?"
"Don’t. It’s as dangerous to fall in love with a Wild Card as it is to have someone promise you’ll be okay in an American film."
"I think I can handle a little danger," she replied, still watching the muscular young man.
Chris sighed. Lucy was rumoured to have joined the RAF because she looked good in the uniform. At times like this, that was easy to believe.
"Just ignore him. Maybe he’ll go away."
To Chris’s relief, and Lucy’s evident disappointment, he did indeed go away, heading for the bar. He dropped into a seat and waited for the barman to provide him with a drink.
Becky turned to regard the Lieutenant somewhat blearily. "Come here often?" she asked.
Hawkes, somewhat unsurprisingly, looked confused. "I only just got here," he replied.
The Flight Lieutenant sighed.
"Forget it." She handed her drinks card to the barman to pay for Hawkes’ drink. She nodded at the glass the civilian had placed in front of the Lieutenant. "Have you ever had decent beer before?"
"Drink it all the time in the Tun…" he mumbled. He wasn’t used to intense personal scrutiny by attractive women.
"I’m not sure US Navy drinks come under the heading of ‘decent’. Or, for that matter, beer. Be careful how you drink that."
Hawkes looked confused, but drank carefully as ordered. When he got through the foam and tasted the beer, he spluttered rather, taken by surprise by the strength of the drink. Becky, sympathetic and helpful as ever, roared with laughter.
"I warned you!" she laughed. "We Brits take our beer seriously."
The big IV looked at his glass suspiciously, then took another, even more careful sip. Becky was watching carefully for any signs of splutter. He successfully lowered the glass from his lips without coughing, and the older pilot slapped him cheerfully on the back.
"Good man! Well done!"
Hawkes chose that moment to put his foot right in it.
"Nate…Lieutenant West…said I oughta come and apologise. I didn’t know you’d lost people down there…"
Becky stared at him for a moment, her eyes wide. Then she turned back to her drink, trying to hide the tears that were trying to get out.
"Our CO," she said quietly. "He was…shot down. He’s still down there somewhere."
Hawkes seemed not to have heard her. He took a long swig of his beer, coughed a couple of times, then continued.
"I just wish I coulda told Shane…just how much she meant to me, y’know?"
"And it’s all my fault." Becky was similarly unaware of her interlocutor’s words. "He was worried about me…why did I have to do such stupid things? If he hadn’t been worried about me flying off somewhere he would’ve been okay…"
Across the room, Chris kept worrying. This wasn’t looking good at all.
Damphousse examined the connection on the end of the antenna.
"I don’t think it’ll fit the radio," she said. She looked up at me. "Why can’t you use standard equipment?" She sounded exasperated.
"It is standard," I replied. "Only the US uses different equipment."
She ignored that.
"It’ll take a while, but I’ll rig something to connect them."
"Good. Get to work."
I left her to work on connecting their radio to my antenna and clambered up the slope to the cave. Vansen was half-heartedly working her way through a tin of minced ham. Looking at it, I couldn’t blame her lack of enthusiasm.
"What do they call those things again?" I asked.
"Meals Rejected by the Enemy," Shane replied. I raised an eyebrow.
"I don’t blame them. Come on, let’s have a look at this leg of yours."
I knelt down by her feet and examined the bandage wrapped around her thigh. It covered a nasty break that had forced the jagged end of the fractured bone through several layers of muscle and skin. Damphousse had managed to partially set the bone, but it would need surgery to repair properly. It also needed a new bandage, as the old one was soaked in blood and quite filthy.
"This might very well hurt quite a bit," I warned her.
"That’s nothing new," she replied.
I carefully began picking at the bandage, slowly peeling it back from the wound. The dirt and blood had crusted, making the bandage almost a solid lump. I unwound it as slowly and carefully as I could, but all the same Shane winced now and then as I accidentally tugged at the injured leg.
Eventually, after working at it for ten minutes, I peeled the bandage away to reveal the gash in her leg. For some reason, the blood hadn’t clotted, and the wound was still open. The flesh was raw from the bandage, and it was only luck that had stopped it from becoming badly infected. I quietly blessed the field medicine course I had taken just before the start of the war, and pulled my bergen over.
"Any idea why it’s not clotting?" I asked her. She shook her head.
"Maybe something in…" she flinched slightly as I probed the wound.
She shrugged. "Not my first scar."
I fiddled around in my bergen and pulled out a small first-aid kit. I carefully applied a small dollop of antiseptic to the wound, covered it with a sterile dressing, then carefully wound a fresh bandage around it.
"How does that feel?" I asked. She flexed the leg slightly.
"Better. Thank you."
I nodded, satisfied. "Welcome, Captain."
I was about to leave when I noticed the tin she’d been eating out of. I sniffed it experimentally, then examined the contents. I frowned.
"You eat this stuff?"
"Not out of choice."
"No wonder you’re not healing properly. This sort of stuff can’t be good for you." I adopted my best aristocratic voice and said "You really should complain about this, old girl. They ought to give you some decent grub, fighter for your country, what?"
She almost laughed. "Complain to the Marines and they just say if you couldn’t take it, you shouldn’ta’ joined."
"I say…that’s no way to treat a lady. Especially when she’s fighting for her country, doncherknow?"
"I don’t know how many ladies you’re gonna find in the Corps."
"You shouldn’t put yourself down like that. I know a charming young lady when I see one."
She grunted. "I know a coupla’ dozen Chigs who’d disagree with you."
"Chigs don’t count. Let’s get some real food down you, eh?"
I rummaged in my bergen again.
Becky awoke slowly. She wondered for a moment where she was – this bed was certainly more comfortable than her usual bunk in Number 5’s bunkrooms…
Then she felt warm flesh pressed against her. She snuggled back into his arms happily. Drew must have changed his mind about putting their relationship on hold until after…
Was on the planet. Marooned.
So who was she in bed with?
Come to that, why did her mouth feel like something had crawled into it and died there? And her head…
A glance around the room confirmed the worst. She was in the Ark’s guest quarters. The only guests on board were the American Marines…West and Hawkes.
Her hand shot over her mouth as she remembered getting drunk in the Tut’ with Hawkes…they’d left together…then…
Try as she might she couldn’t remember. but it didn't take much to figure out what had happened after they left together.
A second, slightly panicked look around the room showed the other bed was empty. Carefully, so as not to disturb her partner, she crawled out of the bed and glanced around.
There were her clothes…discarded in a heap on the floor, next to the Marine’s flightsuit. Sheer horror lanced through her as the full impact of what she had done hit her.
Chris strode through the corridors of the Ark Royal. A little clock in his mind counted down the minutes to Number 5’s departure. Becky had never made it back to their quarters the night before. He’d checked the sickbay, the flight deck, the observation deck…even the brig, in case she’d managed to get drunk and disorderly again. But he hadn’t expected to find her in any of those places. Now he was going to the part of the ship he knew she’d most likely be – and the area he hoped more than anything she wasn’t.
He was now in the guest area of the ship – he could tell because it was clean and well lit – and he was aiming for one room.
Just before he reached it, the door to that room – which, he noticed, was now decorated with the crest of the 58th Squadron of the United States Marine Corps – flew open, and Becky came flying out. Her hair was in disarray, her uniform was crooked, and she looked like hell.
"Becky…?" he asked. She spun around to face him,
"Oh…! Chris…! What are you doing here?" she asked.
"I think I could ask the same thing. Have you been in there all night?"
"In where?" she looked a little desperate.
"In the Wild Cards quarters. Becky, what’s going on?"
The strong, slightly angry pilot crumbled under the questioning.
"Please, Chris…don’t tell anyone? You mustn’t…"
Chris stared at her for a few moments. She was asking him to cover up for her. To betray his commanding officers trust, his own principles, and his honour as an RAF officer.
On the other hand, she controlled the very fast and very powerful jet fighter they fought in. When you looked at it that way, there wasn’t really much of a choice, was there? He nodded slowly.
"Okay, Becky. I won’t tell anyone," he said. Then in a desperate attempt to recover his honour, he added "But I won’t lie for you. If anyone asks me, I’ll tell the truth. But I won’t go out and tell anyone."
She looked pathetically grateful.
"Thanks, Chris. I really apprec…"
He cut her off by turning and almost marching away. "We’re due in the air in twenty minutes. Come on."
She followed a few steps behind him, almost like a grateful dog that had been forgiven.
"I’ve got it!" Damphousse called from outside.
I pulled myself upright and hurried out to where the radio had been set up on a rock. Damphousse was twiddling with a couple of knobs on the front when I reached her.
"Got it working?" I asked.
"I’ve spliced the connections together," she said, indicating the mass of wire and insulating tape that was holding the antenna lead and the radio together. "We just need to find the right frequency."
"It’s 23.5 MHz," I told her. "The Ark should be overhead in…" I checked my watch, "…about twenty minutes."
"How’s Shane doing?" she asked.
"Last time I looked, she was tucking into a bag of dumplings in butterscotch sauce. She’ll be okay, we just have to get her back to the ship."
Damphousse looked relieved for a moment, then wrinkled her nose. "Butterscotch sauce?" she asked.
"I know how it sounds, but it’s actually pretty good. Well, compared to that minced ham, anyway."
"I’ll take your word for it."
"Come on. There should be enough for three in there."
I led the Lieutenant back up to the cave. Inside, Captain Vansen was sitting up and poking at the golden-yellow contents of a plastic bag.
"Don’t play with it!" I chided her. "Eat it! It’s good for you."
"It looks revolting," she replied.
"Worse than your minced ham?"
She stared at the bag for a few moments.
"Good point," she said, and speared a dumpling with her fork. After carefully knocking off the excess butterscotch sauce, she raised it to her lips. Just before she bit into it, she looked at me.
"If this kills me, I’ll never talk to you again."
"Trust me," I replied with a grin.
She gave me a glare, then took a cautious bite of the dumpling. She chewed for a moment, then her face changed, her eyes going wide.
"This is good!" she exclaimed, dipping the dumpling into the sauce again and taking a rather larger bite. I chuckled as she devoured the rest of the meal.
"I told you so," I said. She didn’t reply, too busy trying to get at the dumplings. I reached into the pot of boiling water with my knife and pulled out another bag, which I passed to Damphousse.
The dumplings lasted ten minutes, their rapid disappearance accompanied by occasional ‘mmmm’s of enjoyment. They were followed by a thick, rich, energy-crammed chocolate cake – which was, if anything, even more of a hit than the first course. By the time the food was finished, the two Marines had had to loosen their belts twice. I sat back and watched them drink hot, freshly brewed coffee.
"So," I asked, "was that better than your minced ham?"
On the bridge of the HMS Ark Royal, Captain Edward Frobisher was drinking a cup of tea. It was a very nice cup of tea. It contained exactly the right amount of milk, it was the precisely correct blend, it had stewed for exactly the right length of time, and it was exactly the right temperature. It was a good cup of tea.
He sat in his command chair with the delicate porcelain cup resting on the delicate porcelain saucer, the both of them balanced on the arm of the chair. He carefully lifted the cup to his lips to sip the hot, brown liquid….
…He didn’t manage it. A Midshipman called from the other side of the room, forcing him to lower his cup again.
"What is it?" he called back.
"We’re getting a message from Crusoe, sir!"
The cup fell unheeded to the deck as the Captain bounded across the bridge.
"Give it here, son," he ordered. The Midshipman surrendered his headset to his CO. Frobisher pulled the headphones over his ears and listened. Through the hiss of static, he heard a voice…..
"…repeat, Ark Royal, this is Crusoe, come in, over."
The grinning Captain pulled the microphone closer to his lips.
"Crusoe, this is Ark Royal, go ahead."
He could almost hear the grin on McLean’s lips.
"Ark, Crusoe, damn good to hear from you. Have located the Marines, we’re ready for a pickup at any time. Coord’s enclosed, over."
Frobisher glanced at the Midshipman who was still hovering nearby.
"Download the co-ordinates," he ordered.
"Already got ‘em, sir. 231 by 102. Directly below us."
The Captain returned his attention to the radio.
"Crusoe, help is on its way. We’ll be with you soon."
"Roger that and thank you, Ark. Can’t way to see you, over."
Becky looked rather distracted as she outlined the days search route. The rest of the pilots barely noticed – they sat, made brief notes, but pretty much ignored the detail. This mission, important though it was, was starting to get, not to put too fine a point on it, boring.
So it was a relief for everyone, especially the temporary commander of the Squadron, when Reggy appeared in the briefing room with Major Bates and Captain Thornton in tow.
"All right, Becky," he said hurriedly, "Sit down. You’re being briefed too."
"What’s happening?" she asked, slightly dopily.
"Mission’s changed. We’ve picked up a signal from Squadron Leader McLean. He’s located the Marines and they’re ready for extraction."
He marched quickly to the front of the room as Becky sat down and watched eagerly. Reggy clicked a few buttons on the keyboard next to the briefing screen until a map appeared of one of the hilly areas of the planet. He indicated a small dip in the centre of the screen.
"Our people are here. Lidar suggests there’s a force of Chigs moving in their direction, so the extraction has to be fast and well armed. Number 5 will fly fighter support for the APC. Major Bates, I’d suggest you instruct your pilot to approach from here…" the Wing Commander indicated a canyon that approached the dip from the south, "to avoid any possible ground fire. We don’t expect any, but we’ve already got three people down there, we don’t want to add to the total. Can your pilot handle that approach?"
Bates’ face didn’t change.
"Sir, I’m sorry to report my pilot is unable to fly. He was injured last night."
Anyone else, Becky thought nastily, would’ve had the decency to look apologetic, or upset, or something after making a statement like that. Reggy swore.
"You didn’t think to mention this earlier?"
"I’ve just found out myself, sir."
"How was he injured?"
"I don’t know, sir, I’ll make enquiries."
Reggy sighed and turned to Becky.
"Don’t look at me, sir," she said before he could say anything. "We’re down to nearly half strength as it is, I can’t afford to lose another pilot."
"All right, we’ll figure something out. Maybe those Yank Marines would like something to do."
Chris was the only one who noticed Becky wince when he said that.
"Right, you have your orders. Get to your stations, flights leave in twenty minutes."
There was a general clattering of chairs as the pilots and soldiers stood and filed out of the room.
Captain Kelly Thornton rechecked her weapons for the third time. SA-210 with two spare clips, handgun with two spare clips, Kairbairn-Sykes combat knife and six grenades. A light job – go in, get the people, get out. At least, that was the theory. This was to be her first real mission with the SAS. She was glad it was just a simple pilot recovery.
Trying to hide the butterflies in her stomach, she looked out of the window of the APC, checking that the five Tornado fighters were still there, ready to defend the slow, lumbering transport ship. The planet curved away below them, the green upper cloud layer concealing the dense jungle below. In just a few minutes, she would be on that planet, and everyone would be looking to her. Hopefully.
She looked around the APC, examining the faces of the others. Everyone was calm and ready to go. She looked at the Commanding Officer of the mission, Major Anton Bates. He was relaxed and composed, not a single shred of emotion showing on his face as he quietly began to reassemble his weapon. God, she thought, you have to be pretty damn confident to be able to field-strip a rifle on your way down to a fight.
The co-pilot, a Marine Lieutenant named Hawkes, appeared at the door to the flight deck.
"Two minutes!" he yelled, then went back in. Bates snapped the last pieces of his weapon into place and stood up.
"Right," he yelled over the sound of the engines, "you heard him, two minutes! Let’s be ready, gentlemen."
He made his way over to the large side door and looked out of the main porthole. Further down the bay, two soldiers manned the large side cannons, while the rest of the men prepared for a possible fight.
With a last check of all her weapons, Kelly heaved herself to her feet and made her way over to Bates’ side.
"Any last orders, sir?" she asked.
"Just keep the men together, Captain. And make sure they obey orders."
The view through the porthole suddenly became green as the transport entered the planet’s atmosphere. There was a general checking as magazines were added to rifles and safety catches were taken off.
Suddenly, outside, the green atmosphere cleared, and the whole planet curved out beneath them. Kelly felt her breath catch in her throat as she surveyed the panorama. It was, without a doubt, the most beautiful thing she had ever seen.
Standing next to her, Major Bates also took his first look at the surface of Planet 2063 Yankee. God, he thought. How boring.
Becky was starting to get tired of the spectacular sight of the planet below them. After so long going up and down, up and down, searching for the missing soldiers, it was, to put it bluntly, boring. She cast a quick professional eye over the fighters escorting the APC to the ground. Everyone was here, and everyone was ready.
"Razor One to Razor Flight. I’m going ahead to check the LZ. Everyone stay with the transport unless I call you in."
Without waiting for an acknowledgement, she opened the throttle all the way and the aircraft sped forward.
"We’ve got incoming!"
I swore. Damphousse came pelting down the hillside, unslinging her gun as she ran.
"How far?" I asked.
"About a klick from here. Moving toward us."
"Great. Any sign of the Good Guys?"
I left Damphousse and Vansen checking their rifles and ran over to the radio.
"Ark Royal, this is Crusoe, come in, over."
"Go ahead, Crusoe," came the reply.
"We’ve got Chigs inbound, can you give us an ETA of the pickup?"
"Roger that, Flogger One. Extraction team are in atmosphere, should be with you in two mikes."
"Roger, Ark Royal. Can you give me a frequency to talk to them, please?"
"Broadcast on frequency four-three-one-niner."
"Thank you, Ark Royal." I quickly adjusted the broadcast frequency on the radio, then grabbed the mike again.
"Pickup, this is Crusoe, do you read me?"
An unfamiliar voice with an American accent came back.
"Yeah, reading you, Crusoe, this is King of Hearts."
"We’ve got Chigs inbound on our location. If you could get here as fast as possible, we’d appreciate it."
"Understood, Crusoe. We’ll be with you as soon as we can."
"Any sign of Chigs?"
The responses were all in the negative. Becky looked around nervously. She didn’t want to be involved in a dogfight while the APC was picking up Drew.
Suddenly, the radio crackled into life.
"Flogger One, this is King of Hearts, we’ve got Chig soldiers advancing on our people. See if you can hold them off for a bit, over."
"Roger that, King of Hearts," she replied. "We’ll do our best. Floggers, form up on my wing, and get ready for a ground attack, over."
With that, she pushed the throttle hard forward, sending the fighter surging forward and down. A few metres from the ground, she pulled the stick back, pulling out of the dive and carrying on towards the target.
In the back of the APC, Captain Thornton looked up as the door to the flight deck opened once again and Hawkes came out.
"We’ve got Chigs movin’ in!" he shouted as he grabbed a spare rifle. Kelly shifted her gaze to Major Bates. His face had suddenly lost the last few traces of humanity. Only the eyes gave away the fact that he wasn’t a Silicate. Or dead. He walked slowly over to the door and raised his weapon.
"Get ready." He said, just loud enough for her to hear. There was no time to pass the order on to the other soldiers. Just enough time to be ready.
There was a familiar roar at the end of the canyon we were sheltering in, which suddenly got an awful lot louder as four Tornado fighters swept in at the end. The Chig soldiers just climbing up the lip of rock that protected us were stunned – easy targets for the fighter’s cannon. All four suddenly erupted into fire. A few milliseconds later, so did the Chig soldiers. As they passed over their former targets, one of the fighters pulled a victory roll. Becky. Who else?
Unfortunately, moments later, more Chigs reached the top of the rock and came charging down. The Tornadoes turned as hard as they could and came back for a second run. They killed the Chigs climbing the slope, but stopped firing as soon as they reached the top. Fighters are good, but against ground targets, they’re just not accurate enough. Nobody wanted to risk killing the pilots they’d come to rescue…and that was just fine by me.
I ran across the small stretch of open ground to where the two Marines were sheltering.
"How long?" Vansen asked.
"About a minute," I replied. "They can’t come straight in, not with the Chigs here."
There wasn’t time for any more talking, because at that moment the Chigs opened fire. Chips of rock flew around us as bolts of Chig plasma slammed into our shelter. I rolled to the side of the rock and started firing. I saw a couple of Chigs go down, then I was forced back behind cover. As I rolled back in, Damphousse stuck her gun out the other side and started to fire. After a few seconds, she too was forced back.
"Not good," she yelled.
"Definitely not good!" I replied. There was another burst of gunfire behind the rock, and I guessed that the Tornadoes were still harrying the Chigs, preventing them from sending reinforcements. Unfortunately, there were more than enough of them already here to make our lives miserable. And very, very short.
The APC thundered through the canyon, way too fast. Rock walls flashed by the window. This was the worst time for any Infantryman: your life was in the hands of the pilot. You just had to hope he was good. As far as Kelly could tell, Lieutenant West was good. She just hoped he was good enough. Hawkes had dressed himself in a flak jacket and helmet, ready to cover the SAS if necessary.
In the window, the rock walls moved suddenly away, and the APC began to lose speed rapidly, throwing the unprepared Captain against the Major, who just swayed slightly. She looked up at him and prepared to apologise, but he was just staring straight out of the window. She held onto a grab rail and stood ready to jump out of the ship. The APC began to turn, presenting the door to the stranded pilots.
"Thornton!" the Major barked.
"Take team two to the left. Team one with me."
Behind them, the men organised themselves into teams and lined up behind their officers. Bates hit the button to open the door, still ten feet from the ground and jumped out. Kelly followed him, bending her knees to cushion the impact and rolling as she hit the ground. As soon as the roll stopped, she sprang to her feet and began to run off to the left, checking quickly that her team was following. In the rush of the moment, she completely forgot that this was the first time she’d done a mission like this. The training took over, leading her from one piece of cover to the next, automatically searching for the next cover. She glanced briefly off to the right, and saw Bates leading his group, just ahead of her.
Suddenly, bolts of hot plasma burst around her feet and she threw herself behind the nearest rock. As her men piled in behind her, she stood and began firing over the rock. She flipped her microphone down out of her helmet.
"Team One, Team Two. We’ve secured our position, providing cover."
"Understood, Team Two," Bates’ voice came back, completely dead. "Remain in position."
"Yes, sir," she replied. She replaced her microphone and continued firing.
I pressed my back against the rock and put a new clip in my rifle.
"How long are they going to take!?" I shouted. Vansen had propped herself up against the rock and was shooting at whatever crossed her sights.
"’Phousse," Vansen shouted, "see if you can get up the side, give us some flanking fire."
"On my way," she replied.
I began firing wildly over the rock as ‘Phousse ran for the rocks at the side of the canyon, forcing the Chigs to keep their heads down. As soon as she fell behind a large boulder, I retreated back behind cover. Suddenly, the roar of engines filled the canyon and a British Army APC swept into view. The engine nozzles rotated and the ship turned so the main door faced us. When it was still about ten feet from the ground, the door opened, and a stream of soldiers came jumping out. I couldn’t make out any details, but I knew who was in charge. Bates.
I nudged Vansen, who was still firing at the Chigs.
"Help’s here!" I told her. "We’ve got to hold on till they can cover us."
"Understood," she replied, and began shooting again.
After a few moments, gunfire began sounding from either side of us, as the SAS opened up on the Chigs.
"We’ve got cover! Let’s go!" I shouted. I waved to Damphousse, who nodded and strapped her rifle onto her back. I followed her example, then helped Vansen down off the rock. I began to half carry her toward the APC. My gaze fixed itself on a single soldier standing by the door of the ship and I forced all thoughts out of my mind but the necessity to reach him. Looking to the left, I saw Bates fighting like a machine. There wasn’t a trace of emotion anywhere on his face.
Suddenly, something hit me from behind, throwing me forward. Vansen flew off somewhere to the right. I rolled when I landed, feeling a sudden pain in my side. There go a couple more ribs, I thought.
Captain Thornton surveyed the scene in front of them. The pilots were getting ready to run for the ship, and the Chigs were keeping their ugly heads out of sight for the time being…the mission looked just about complete.
She was about to order her men to prepare to fall back when she spotted the end of a metal tube sticking out from behind a Chig-held rock.
That, she thought, looks suspiciously like a Chig mortar.
As she realised what it was, there was a burst of smoke as a shell was fired. A moment later it exploded, right behind two of the fleeing pilots. They were thrown to the ground by the force of the impact. The Chigs took it as a signal to start firing again. She pulled her microphone down out of the rim of her helmet.
"Team One, Team Two, men down."
"Roger that," Bates replied. "Return to the ship."
Knowing better than to question an order, she simply replied "Yes, sir." Turning to her men, she called, "We're falling back. Skirmish order, let's move!"
The men quickly split themselves into pairs. She grabbed the nearest soldier – Sergeant Nicola Paton – and began to move. The rest of the men moved the same way, one running for cover while the other covered him. It was a tactic that had worked well for a hundred and fifty years, and it was still working.
I forced myself to stand up and pulled my gun off my back as I scanned the area for Vansen. This task wasn’t made any easier by the smoke that covered the area. Suddenly, a dark, humanoid shape appeared from out of nowhere, and I nearly shot it. Then I realised that it was Major Bates.
"Where’s Vansen?" he asked.
"I don’t know," I replied. "Over there, somewhere." I gestured vaguely, indicating the area where she’d been thrown. I followed him as he headed in that direction.
"Go left!" he shouted. We split up, staying just close enough to see each other, hoping to cover more ground. After a few moments, I heard Bates curse off to the right. I looked over quickly to see that he’d stumbled on something. A brief check confirmed that it was a semi-conscious USMC pilot. I ran over to join him and helped as he lifted Vansen back onto her feet.
"Get going, McLean," he snapped.
"I don’t think I’ll obey that order, Major," I replied, taking one of the Captain’s arms and wrapping it around my shoulders.
"I know my job, Squadron Leader," he replied, "and this is it."
"Agreed, old boy," I said in my most annoying aristocratic accent, "but this soldier also happens to be a friend of mine, and we’re wasting time talking about it."
He didn’t bother to reply to that one. He just grabbed Vansen’s other arm, wrapped it around his shoulders and started toward the APC. On the way, he flipped his microphone down out of his helmet rim.
"Team Two, this is Team Leader, are you all aboard?"
I didn’t hear the answer, but it seemed to please Bates, as he picked up speed. I had to force my complaining legs in their constricting flight suit to keep up. Suddenly, without actually noticing it, we were in the APC. The soldier outside jumped in and hit the emergency close button.
"We’re in, let’s get outta here!" he shouted with an American accent. The engines wound up quickly, and I felt the ship begin to rise slowly from the surface of the planet. I just lay on my back for a moment.