Acheron Zulu Time [21:39 Shipboard]
The RAF pilots were on the last leg of their sentry duty when they climbed one of the higher ridges around their crashed APC. At the horizon they could make out the triple-domed Chig base. Woolfe squatted at the ridge of the small mountain and watched the base through his binocs. Megan was scanning the plain below them where the APC had crashed.
"Any activity?" the young woman asked and looked back to her crew mate.
"It looks peaceful, too peaceful for my liking and I only make out four Chigs ... last time we checked there were at least eight chigs patroling the vicinity. They are definitely up to something."
Chambers had squatted down beside him, and now she took the binoculars from him and checked herself. While she swept over the countryside with the binocs, she suddenly noticed movement farther off to the Chig base.
"Get on the radio, Woolfe, we are getting company," she stated matter of factly.
"Where?" He asked, while he got onto the com to their crashed STCV.
"Two Chig squadrons, six per squad, North-North East, it will take them about thirty to forty mikes till their reach the STCV."
After Woolfe had relayed the info to his squad mate, he grabbed his weapon.
"We need about ten mikes if we run!" he said, and was already halfway down the hill. Megan was more slowly, as she had noticed something else. Two Chig fighters had been boarded and started their take off sequences.
Shoving the binocs carelessly into her bergen, she threw the back-pack onto her shoulder, grabbed the M203 and ran.
"We have to make it UNDER ten minutes, Woolfe. They're sending out the cavalary. Two fighters are about to take off."
She switched on the com and Andy's voice wavered into the speakers.
"Yo, Boss, we are already putting up defences."
"Forget the defences, grab a couple of bergens and Pat and then all of you get out of the STCV, prepare for incoming!" she shouted into the com link.
Andy and Anne rushed to the cargo holds and grabbing the bergens, without checking them, they threw bits and pieces into them. Patricia, who watched them siltently, propped herself up and tried to help them as best as could.
"How much time left?" Anne shouted while she put ammo clips into one of the smaller back-packs.
Andy, without stopping what he was doing, checked his watch. "Five mikes, get a move on, Thurston!"
Anne only nodded and helped Pat onto her feet. Hauling her off the bunk she slung the backpack over one shoulder, while she had Pat in a firm grip on her other. Together they made it just out of the APC when the first impacts of laser fire rocked the steel shell. Pat heavily slumped against Anne Thurston but the Flight Officer kept going, dragging her injured crewmate with her.
"Come on!" Andy yelled and waved frantically from behind a boulder. He was scanning the area for Woolfe and Chambers and let out a yelp of relief when he saw them both speeding towards his position.
"Andy, come in ... what is the situation?" Megan's voice crackled over the com, her breathing ragged from the fierce running.
"We have just abandoned ship and now we are evading," he checked the GPS. "ETA is four klicks North, position 1.824."
"We'll meet you there," came the short reply of Megan and they both headed into a different direction. Andy watched them while Pat and Anne reached his hiding place. When Anne nudged him, Andy, without looking away from his binocs, handed her the GPS.
"They are trying to draw fire to themselves," he explained and snapped the binocs shut. "Hopefully it will give us enough time to reach the safe place..."
Anne simply nodded to that and ducked her head when debris of another blast rained down on them. She jerked her head up when she heard a soft groan coming from Pat. Quickly, she scrambled over to her side and examined her. A huge open wound was gaping on Pat's back and when she saw the dead staring eyes of her crew mate, Anne knew she was dead.
"I'm sorry, Patsy, rest in peace," the young woman whispered and put her gently down onto the ground. She almost did not hear the strangled sound coming from Andy as he realised that his mate and lover was dead.
"She can't be!" he yelled, leaving his position to come over to the two women. "Anne, you should have taken care of her ... it is your ..."
Anne slapped him hard before he could continue. "Don't you dare tell me!" she cried harshly. "If it is anyone's fault - it's the Chigs'! Not me, not you, not even her own fault, do you hear?!"
HMS Wellington, Procyon Sector, 21:59 Zulu
Commodore Coulthard was about to rip the ears off his aide, when he barged in again. But he bit down on the expletive when he saw two tired, but obviously cheerful smiles of the two young officers standing in front of his hatch.
"What is it, Peters?" he asked with a sigh, ignoring Lt. Frankel who hovered like a skittish hawk at Peters back.
Before Peters could reply to his CO, Frankel stepped in front of him.
"Sir, sorry to interrupt, but .. Sir ... we have received a tracking beacon from the crash site of the number seven-two squadron. We have found the Knights!" There was a definite cheer in his voice.
Coulthard grinned and nodded towards the two young officers. That was a good reason to disturb the solitude in his cabin. He went over to the com and was immediately put through to the three squadrons heading the SAR. He requested two of them to continue searching while he ordered McDougal and his men to Acheron.
Acheron - 4 klicks North of crash site
The Chigs had barricaded themselves behind a natural wall of stones and were firing salvo after salvo of their deadly photon blasters.
The RAF pilots had dug themselves in - trying to make as much cover out of their little trench as they could. The attack had been a surprise for the four of them. They had not counted on the fact that the Chigs would back track them.
"How many ammo clips do you have left?" Meg asked, as she checked her belt.
Woolfe unclipped one from his belt and handed it over to Meg without even looking at her.
"Got five left," he said. "What about you, Andy?"
"Six, and three smarties," the young IV replied.
"Good - use them wisely," Meg replied and took aim.
Chig after Chig came forward like a wave on the beach. The only reason they hadn't overrun the pilots' trench was that they had to cross a small rivulet and both friend and foe knew what damage the water could cause.
"We have to get back to the APC, Boss. I'm sure we can take them out with the laser blaster!"
Andy cried. He had only three clips of ammo left and he cursed himself that he had not brought more spare.
Thurston slipped over to Meg, carefully avoiding the blasters hitting the rocks behind them.
"Boss, how about we use one or two of the smarties on that bunch of Chigs over there," she nudged her head to their right flank, where three Chigs advanced slowly to a rocky surface.
Like their tri-wings, Chigs always did everything in threes and if those could hop over the rivulet, they would be in trouble.
Meg nodded. Trust Anne to come up with an idea. She moved closer, not taking her eyes off the firing Chigs.
"So what do you have in mind?" she inquired.
"Two of us have to get up there and with a smartie or two we can take them out. That ridge is really troubling me, any adventurous Chig can jump off it and by any luck hit our side of the rivulet. Then we are done in," Thurston replied.
"I know," the young Flight Lieutenant answered. Nudging her com link, she contacted Woolfe and Carter.
"Woolfe, Carter, Anne and I will be doing a little exercise."
"Negative, Boss, you know the drill ... either you or Annie." Andy's voice wavered over the com."
"So you are volunteering, Andy?" Megan asked.
"No, Boss, but I do," Woolfe's voice was firm over the com.
Exchanging a look with Anne, both women nodded.
"I stay with Andy, you two go," Anne smirked. "I know I can't keep you away from the fun."
Megan exchanged a glance with Woolfe and then they moved away from the two firing pilots. They soon had covered the few yards to the rocky ridge and started climbing. The first few feet upward were not a problem with all the armour and ammo, but as they reached the top, the ridge went horizontally out above their heads but after much free-rapelling, grunting and shoving, the two RAF pilots reached the top ... and almost ran straight into two Chigs who had had the same idea and were just about to set their feet onto the ridge a couple of metres away.
Woolfe was the first to open fire on them and Megan was only a couple of seconds behind him. One Chig died instantly, the gas from within his armour hissing in the warmth of the day, while the other Chig hid behind one of the upright boulders on top of the ridge.
Megan, still in a crouching position, landed flat on her belly, giving the Chig as little target practice as possible. Woolfe was about to do the same when a shot rang out - one single shot deafening all other soudns of the battle. Megan cried out, not sure if she had been the target or Woolfe, but when she saw the swaying figure of the tall pilot beside her, she knew without a doubt that John had been hit.
Without a second thought, Megan threw first one then the second smart grenade. First sending the Chig behind the boulder into oblivion and when she heard the detonation of the second beyond the ridge, she knew she had taken out some more Chigs. Squeezing her eyes shut for the moment, she slowly rolled onto her back, only to see Woolfe still on his feet but dangerously close to the edge. Time had stopped, or so it seemed.
At first, Megan had difficulties to comprehend what was going on but when the rope around her middle was violently jerking at her, cutting her almost in two at her hip, she cried out in pain and surprize. Her mind registering almost lazily that Woolfe had disappeared beyond the edge and that the rope suffocating her was dragging her down as well.
Gripping the nearest rock, she groaned when the impact of Woolfe's body hit the rope and cutting even deeper through the garments of her uniform. Propping herself against one of the boulders she slowly tried to haul Woolfe up again when she heard his voice over the com.
"Megan, cut it or I will ..." his breathing was laboured and the gurgling in his voice did not bode well.
"You better shut up and help me, Woolfe," Megan spat out. "Get your fucking hands onto the rope and get yourself upright so we both can climb down!"
Woolfe squeezed his eyes shut for a couple of times to get rid of the dizziness and did as he was told. When he had found sure footing, he let Megan know and he was relieved when he saw her small form advancing down towards him. A wave of nausea washed over him and before he knew what was happening, his hands lost its grip on the rock and he fell the last few feet onto the hard ground, dragging Megan with him.
The number four-eight squadron veered and banked right in unison, as it left the formation of the other two squadrons. The call had just come in and while they slowed their travel speed to wait for an STCV catching up with them, Duncan McDougal coudl not suppress a grin twitching the corners of his mouth.
His navigator on the back seat thumped his shoulder in silence, both men relieved that they had found the Knights at last.
Amidst the blasts of the still incoming fire, Megan sat on the ground, Woolfe's blood already coagulating beneath her.
"Woolfe!" Megan cried and tried to cover the gaping stomach wound with her own hands. Warm blood was making it difficult for Meg to keep her gore slicked hands on the wound.
"Boss," Woolfe breathed, his eyes staring in disbelief into Megan's face. "I feel so cold ..."
"Shh, don't speak, James, please, don't speak. I'll get you back to the APC ..." Megan cried and put his head into her lap after she had managed to put a make-shift dressing onto the wound.
They crouched there together. Andy was still firing, as was Anne. But they didn't notice it. Megan had the strange sensation that all noise was deadened all of a sudden. All she could hear was Woolfe's heavy breathing and her own choking breath.
"I will die, right?" Woolfe asked suddenly. "Don't lie to me, Meg, I know what a stomach wound means ..."
"You will not die, James," she said softly, swallowing her tears. "We'll get you out of here and off this sodding planet."
Woolfe smiled at that and raised a shivering hand to her face.
"You are lying, Boss, but I forgive you," James said. The young woman shook her head and took his hand into hers.
"Just you wait, James, we will laugh about this when we are back on the Wellie."
"Aye, sure we will," the young In-Vitro sighed and a shiver ran through his body.
"Megan ..." he breathed, his eyes fixed on her face. "Megan, I ... I never told you this ... but ... "
"Shh, don't speak, James it can wait." Megan replied softly.
"No it can't ... Megan ... you ... I mean ... I don't have family, like any of us and .. and ... all I have is you and this RAF signet ring ... Take it ... please," James said and Megan had to strain her ears to hear him.
"James," she replied and shook her head no. Tears ran down her face but she could not hold them back.
"Please, I want you to have it ... to remember me by," the InVitro's breath was more laboured than before. "You are our mother, not only our CO. You were there when we ... I needed you ... I ... never told you this ... but ... but I think you're a wonderful woman ..."
Megan stared at him, hugging him like a little child while she listened silently to him. She was shaken by his confession and proud that she had touched the heart of this fine man.
Gently she touched him with her fingertips, ignoring the reek of blood and sweat - the reek of death. She helped him when he slipped the ring off his finger. The ring was heavy and far too big when James slipped it onto her ring finger. It seemed like a travesty of the exchange of rings at a marriage and somehow, Megan felt as if this was as life changing as a marriage could have been.
"Megan?" Woolfe asked, and Megan held him closer.
"I'm here, James."
"Will you do me a favour?"
"Sure, whatever it is, James ..." Megan's voice trailed away.
"Kiss me ... I ... I never have been kissed ... I know that will be the last time ... and ... I just don't want to die ... without ...
The young woman touched his lips with her fingertips and nodded her head. She understood. After so many years spent together they understood each other without words. James had never been loved, had never felt the loving touch of a woman beside the more maternal and friendly touches of herself and his squadmates.
She bent down, her shivering lips only inches away from his. Their lips touched. It was an innocent kiss, a kiss which bonded rather than ignited passion. Megan realised that this was it. In the end there was only love and respect for each other. No pain - no anger at death. Just the love and respect and the sure knowledge of loss.
Woolfe's eyes fluttered shut, his breathing laboured.
"I love you, Megan," she heard James whisper and a shudder went through his entire body.
"You will not die, Woolfe! WOOLFE? Don't leave me! Do you hear me? DON'T YOU DARE DIE ON ME!"
The young officer grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him until she realised how stupid and irrational her action was. Taking in a deep breath she steadied herself and bent down over Woolfe.
The big In-Vitro was gone. His lifeless shell cradled in her arms.
Megan was jerked out of her stupor when she heard a shout. She looked up and saw that Andy was slowly - too slowly - sliding down further into the ditch, his eyes staring widely at her.
"Andy!" Anne shouted and while still firing at the Chigs, she grabbed his shoulder and tried to pull him up again.
To Megan it seemed as if these seconds stretched into eternity. She crawled over to Andy and out of training rather than conscious thought she checked his vital signs. Nothing.
Grabbing his M203, she pulled him towards Woolfe and joined Anne. Firing like a mad woman, she was not able to think straight. All she knew was that the Chigs had to pay. Three of her officers had been killed by those bastards and it was payback time.
Anne was the first who stopped firing. Over the racket of the photon blasters she heard the unmistakable sound of thruster revving into gear. When the first detonations forced them to get behind their trench, Anne had to grab her CO. Megan had not stopped firing, had used up every shell.
"Stop it, Meg!" Anne shouted hear her ear and shook her hard. "Listen!"
Above five Tornadoes in diamond formation strafed the remaining Chig squadron with constant fire while a STCV landed nearby. Dragging Meg away from the bodies of their friends and towards the Royal Marines who jumped out of the STCV, Anne stumbled towards the craft.
Megan wound herself out of Anne's grip and stopped one of the Marines, it was Captain Jamieson of the 22nd Royal Marines Squadron.
"Get the bodies!" she said and the Marine nodded. "Don't worry, Flight Lieutenant Chambers, we will," he answered grimly and nodded.
Megan Louise Chambers watched as the coffins were put onto the airchute releases on flight deck 7. The pilots from the number four-eight squadron had slowly carried them in after the chaplain had draped them with the Union Jack. Slowly, the pilots, lead by their CO Wing Commander Duncan McDougal, had lined themselves up beside the two lone survivors. Meg felt the brush of Duncan's arm on her shoulder, but she was unable to look up or give any sign to tell him she appreciated his presence.
Now, as Chambers and Thurston raised their arms in silent salute, giving their dead friends and comrades their last fare-well, Coulthard came forward. The Air Commodore opened a small, well-worn book of poetry and started reading:
"If I should die think only this of me: That there's some corner of a foreign field that is forever England. There shall be in that rich Earth a richer dust concealed; a dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware ..." his voice broke off then and the chaplain spoke a few words from the Psalters and the two remaining officers of the seven-two watched as the coffins were released into space through an air-chute while Air Commodore Coulthard and a Warrant Officer were neatly folding the Union Jacks into triangular shaped packets.
Chambers directed her dry eyes away from the closing air-chutes to the flight deck port and she watched the coffins with her friends' remains floating through the endless night of space. When she turned she was surprised to find the Commodore and the honour-guard still present.
Air Commodore Coulthard saluted her and as the guard lined up on both sides of Chambers and Thurston to form some sort of corridor, Coulthard presented the folded flags with the Flight Lieutenant stripes of their dead comrades neatly placed on it. Meg stared at the medals and stripes which had been posthumously given to her tank squad and she swallowed hard.
Too late, her mind screamed, clutching her fist with the signet ring. In a haze she heard the Commodore's words.
"In the name of His Majesty's Royal Air Force we present you these flags of honour of those fallen in this war. They were our brothers and sisters, our family and they will live in the memory of those who remain ..."
Meg clutched the flags to her chest and waited until the officers had filed out of the flight deck slowly.
Suddenly, she remembered something she had promised her Uncle Mac a long time ago. Back then in her childish naivety, she had wanted to look after all IVs, had wanted to take care of them, keep them safe.
On Acheron she had not been able to do that, her friends had died. She had failed them. Closing her eyes, she tried to suppress the rage at herself. She should have been in one of those coffins, not her friends who all had so much life to catch up with. The burning pain inside almost choked her, and she wondered if it ever went away. But she knew that it wouldn't, the pain would stay and it would always remind her of her loss and her shame. It was the burden of those who remain.
© Una Fritz March 1998 - January 2001