| Part 5
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. It was Catch-22. The best place to be injured was in the forest, but the forest was too far for her to move with her injuries.
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 a 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 'Oh, no…here we go again'.
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 large rock 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 my own extremities.
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 largeish spacecraft - about the size of a standard 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." She nodded.
"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 blade's 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.
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