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.
© Werrf February-April 1999
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