Part Four

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, the Sergeant had to rely on all her training to restrain 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 up on charges!" It almost worked. Unfortunately for the RAF officer, 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 a direct order."

"Yes, sir, but that order was then countermanded by my CO. And he outranks you, sir."

"What's going on here?" Bates asked.

"The Flight Lieutenant was trying to get to the flight deck, sir."

Bates walked round in front of Mike and placed a hand on his chest. That one action somehow managed to convey to Mike the message that further resistance would not be tolerated. He stopped struggling.

"Why do you want to get to the flight deck?"

"My CO's still down there!" he yelled. He could feel the rage building up inside him, looking for a way out. And the Major was a perfect target. "You 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." Anyone else would sound angry at this point. Bates just sounded dead.

He 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?
He examined every inch of the bay, searching for a way to get out of it before Becky spotted him. There wasn't one. He was trapped.

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?" she asked, sounding puzzled.

"He didn't make it…" Mike said. Before he could finish, Becky's face crumpled.

"God, no!" she cried, tears appearing suddenly in her normally clear, bright eyes. Mike quickly explained, before she could get into a full-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 just bugged out and 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. Mike cursed himself, then started after her - knowing it was a pointless task to try and calm her down.

I squinted through my rifle's sight, keeping the cross hairs centred on the Chig soldier in the lead. As the last of the armoured creatures came into view, I gently squeezed the stock, letting loose a single bullet. By the time the lead Chig hit the ground, the rearguard had followed him. I switched the weapon to fully automatic and loosed a stream of lead that left the last three aliens quietly liquefying on the ground.

I stayed in place for a few more moments, surveying the scene, making sure all the Chigs were dead, then I rose from behind my cover and moved off again, stepping across puddles of slowly dissolving Chig on the way.

An hour after the attempted extraction, and I was still trying to put as much distance between me and the Chig pursuit as I could. It didn't help that I also kept encountering Chig patrols.

Now, two hours after crashing on this planet, I was looking for somewhere to hide. So slowly that I wasn't aware of it at first, the green light that managed to filter through the clouds above was taking on darker shades of aquamarine... night was falling on 2063-Yankee. Looking around, there was no sign of cover anywhere. This part of the forest was totally devoid of any undergrowth, there were no fallen trees, not even some rocks to hide under. I leant back against one of the trees and tried to massage my aching feet through my boots. As I did, I kept scanning the area for a hiding place.

I started and grabbed for my rifle as I saw something move out of the corner of my eye. Thirty feet away, an odd looking animal about the size of a badger was rooting through the moss and leaves of the forest floor. When I started, it jumped back, then bolted across the forest floor and straight up the nearest tree. I followed it with my rifle until it was out of sight, lost in the branches. It was surprising that such a large, heavy creature could get up the tree so easily. Most likely all the animals on this planet were adapted to living in the trees - after all, there was no other cover around.

I looked up at the tree above me. Well, I thought, who am I to argue with local knowledge? I turned to face the tree and started climbing.

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. Her voice was calm on the surface, but only someone who didn't know her would make the mistake of thinking that meant she was feeling reasonable.

"I'm giving you an order, Flight Lieutenant. Don't go in there."

"They left him down there to die!" she shouted, 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, you know that! 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," he said in his best CO's manner, "I'll have you arrested and taken to the brig. Then there will only be three aircraft in your Squadron, and three aircraft aren'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."

"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. Now 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 anger. 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 anyone so aggressively upset before, even in twelve years of marriage. He didn't have much of a chance to try and figure out what to do, though, before he was forced to reluctantly 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 looked down at the sobbing woman in his arms, then simply nodded. The Major was right…but that didn't make it any easier.. The Major took the hint and left.

I'm not sure what woke me up - it was either the increasing light, or possibly the clicking Chig voices. I peered down through the branches of my bed-tree, and saw five of the black-clad aliens standing around the foot of the tree. I kept as quiet as possible, and watched as one of the Chigs bent and picked something from the ground. I was too high to see what it was, but whatever it was seemed to get the five alien soldiers very excited. Their clicking chatter increased in volume and rapidity, and they began to point in various directions. I held my breath and watched. After about three minutes of clicking conversation, they seemed to reach an agreement and headed off to the west. I allowed myself to breathe again.

I sat astride on the branches that had supported me for the night and tried to rub the kinks out of my back. I found myself staring off to the north. In the distance, I could see a small range of hills - not incredibly high, but high enough to provide a good clear view all around. It struck me that if I was going to find the Marines - and that was still my mission - then an area of high ground would be the best place to start. I began mentally planning the journey to the hills.

As I surveyed the land between my tree and my destination, I struggled to keep my mind on the situation in hand. Like most of this planet, the land between my perch and the hills seemed to be mostly jungle. I spotted a couple of clearings here and there - they were almost perfectly circular, leading me to wonder… …what was Becky doing right now? Probably tearing the Ark apart to get another rescue mission together…

I sighed. My struggle to keep my mind on the situation in hand seemed to be a losing one. I slung my rifle over my back and began clambering back down the tree.

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 was immediately struck by the difference in their bearings. The shorter of the two - a young man with a long narrow face - carried with him an impression of both grief and joy, with decided overtones of guilt. West, she decided - she'd heard his fiancée had been one of the Tellus survivors, which would explain the joy.

The second Marine, a tall, well-build man with cropped dark brown hair, however, seemed simply to be feeling the grief and guilt. Almost certainly Hawkes, she decided. A Tan…an In Vitro as young as he was wouldn't have had too many friends outside his Squadron. She suddenly realised what he must be feeling. All these thoughts went through her mind in a few seconds, then 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.

"Yes, Lieutenant?"

"Is there any news on Captain Vansen and Lieutenant Damphousse yet, sir?" Reggy sighed.

"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.

Next : Search And Rescue Part Five

Previous : Search And Rescue Part Three

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