… … …
Ritz prods Stoddard awake.
He snorts, rising gingerly from his bunk. Slowly his faculties return to him, and he catches sight of you—scanning you up and down and up again; staring at the frills. You, in turn, scan Stoddard up and down and up again—staring at the flight suit, facemask, and rotary crew helmet.
Somewhat a non-verbal exchange occurs: each weighing whether to comment; each realising the futility of it; and finally an acknowledgement is given from each of the other as an equal, culminating in a spirited affirmation of camaraderie, hand in Nomex-gloved hand.
Ritz, ever mercenary, remains unmoved by the display. She seizes upon the opportunity to open negotiation:
“I need a driver.”
Stoddard rubs his microphone boom, weighing the proposition.
“Okay,” he nods.
Ritz raises a quieting finger to her lips.
Stoddard puts up a similar one to the corresponding area of his balaclava.
An understanding reached, they march off to tow his bird out of the hangar.
. . . you pat Kochiya on the shoulder, helping him shrug off the suspicious efficiency of the exchange, and together head off to the storage areas to ready your equipment.
You retrieve your flak and webbing from your closet, and Kochiya his; Ritz has hers already—they were with her in the trunk. Kochiya volunteers to take a medi-kit, fixing it to his duty belt; you take a belt of your own and pleat your dress at the waist to bring its hem up to your knees, clipping a radio handset on one side and a smoke pouch on the other to fix it in place.
“That’s . . . certainly one way of doing it,” Kochiya remarks—catching the magazine you lob at his face in response.
“Black tips,” you instruct, waving one in your own hand. “No need to worry about over-pen’.” No need to be stingy, either: while the black budget may look tight when viewed from up at COMOPS, on the scale of small-arms acquisition for field activities it comes close to a blank cheque.
Still, you are with restraint, limiting your ancillary gear to personal protective equipment, or else items with immediate relevance—boiling down to a flashlight, a GPS, and a camera. Kochiya further opts for flex cuffs and a taser held prominent in a chest holster, which you raise an eyebrow at—acknowledging, if not questioning. Though of a different tack yourself, you won’t begrudge such an approach.
Shortly afterwards you are seated in the helicopter, now parked out on the grass, with Stoddard performing his final controls tests.
“ . . . oh, where’s— here, route thirty-eight, so then up and over here . . . ” Ritz points out the destination on a travel map, and Stoddard presses it into his GPS. Satisfied, Ritz claps the co-pilot’s door shut and clambers up by your left into the cabin, taking the rear-facing seat.
You slide the cabin door shut behind her, and fix her with a stare, kicking lightly at the rope sitting coiled at your feet. Though you’ve already a solid suspicion, you ask anyway: “The hell’s this for?”
“You wanted to go fast,” she shrugs. A pair of welder’s gloves flop into your lap. “We’re goin’ fast.”
Kochiya blinks as Ritz tosses him a similar pair. “Er . . must we?”
“Of course!” Ritz crosses her arms. “Don’t complain; we’re fallin’ behind on our quota of cool guy shit!”
“I see,” Kochiya nods, smiling a smile that doesn’t quite reach his eyes.
“I used to do cool guy shit, too,” Stoddard pipes up, now over the engine idle. “Once, I blew up a—”
Ritz swings an expert fist back over her shoulder, knocking square on the top of Stoddard’s helmet. “Shut up and drive!”
He grunts and flips her off as he reaches up for the engine levers; though complies, easing them forth and bringing the rotors to speed. Soon enough, the helicopter lurches forward, skimming over the grass—and then upward: you take to the air.
… … …
Despite Ritz’ earlier admonition, the conversation finds its way back to space-shuttle door gunnery, and you find yourself regaling to Kochiya your well-worn tales of roof-borne EOD.
“I’m serious!” you lie. “A .338 doesn’t feel nearly so big when you have to sever an eight-gauge wire with one through gale-force—!”
—Stoddard swears of a sudden, cutting through the snickers. “That had better not be what the fuck I think it is!”
Ritz twists round to look over the co-pilot’s seat. “The fuck do you think it is?”
“Purple pancake, parked out in clean air!”
“Right there; you see it?”
She does, and twitches. “Fuck!”
“Oh, what,” you grumble, looking out the window. You recognise the valley and the river running through it as your AO, but you don’t see anything yet.
“Medium scout,” Ritz calls, presumably for your benefit; “no exclusion field!”
“Ritz,” you murmur, “this had better not be some sort of bad joke.”
Stoddard laughs. “If it is, I’m not laughing!”
Before you have a chance to call him out, the helicopter banks a sharp left, and you finally get a decent view—
Sure enough, along the river-bank lies a Martian scout craft: fifteen metres wide of alloy-purple, promising nothing but headache in its wake. Across from you, Kochiya sees it too, and breaks into a strange grin—as valid a reaction as any, you suppose.
“Down,” Ritz instructs, craning for a better view. “Down!”
“Glad to!”—Stoddard all but plunges downward, dropping as quickly as he can without settling into his own downwash. It’s a survival measure, truly: taking to the relative safety of low altitude, where alien craft can neither maneuver nor thereby bring its weapons to bear; and yet skirting outside the effective range of any dismounted crew. You’re bought some time to—
“Drive me closer!” Ritz continues.
The cabin explodes into sputtering. “What are we—?”—“You what—?”—“Wh— I’m not fuckin’ doin’ that!”
She chuckles, and clips a retention lanyard to her belt. “Wasn’t askin’!” Punctuating her words, she shoves your side door open, and nods at you—“Hey, give us some cover!”—before sitting outboard and shouldering her rifle to do just that.
Kochiya laughs along, clipping himself in and pulling his door open as well; the rotor blast now assaults your senses in earnest. You mutter a curse at both of them, and turn to press yourself up against the cabin wall; barking at Ritz to take the rear, and bracing against the doorframe to cover the front. She in turn scoots out onto the skid, leaning forward to keep her head away from your muzzle.
“The fuck—” Stoddard sucks in a breath, ridding himself of hesitation. “Alright; fine! Fine!” He brings you yet lower, into the valley to hide between the peaks; circling counter-clockwise, to present the two rifles on your side and the empty co-pilot’s seat toward anyone within.
You grunt, pressing yourself harder against the wall. “Kind of pushing it, here, Ritz!”
She— snorts. “What; just now? You’re givin’ me the patience of a saint!”—That dissipates your tension the barest bit; you’re forced to stifle a laugh despite yourself. “Real life hasn’t gotten to you yet, eh?” she continues. “How ’bout you, Assistant; how’re you holdin’ up?”
Kochiya hums; his tone wavers oddly, in a way you can’t discern between rueful, strained, or simply on-edge. “I did say it sounded like fun, didn’t I~?”
“‘Fun always, fun forever’,” Stoddard grumbles. “Focus on shooting, yeah?”
“ . . . doesn’t look like there’s anything to shoot,” you say: the river-bank, at least, is clear, and you haven’t been taking any fire.
“Fire anyway!” Ritz calls, and does so; the rest of you follow suit, earmuffs crackling as you dump rounds into the treeline in hopes of spoiling a possible ambush.
. . . nothing.
“Oi,” you say, patting Ritz on the shoulder. “You still ‘feelin’ it’?”
“Pretty well,” she says. “It’s probably comin’ from inside the thing, then!”
“And I suppose you know just what to do next?”
“Yeah—knock!” With that, she fires off a burst . . . which lands squarely in the river. “Uh, help?”
You chuckle, and pull your rifle back to pivot it by the front sight block—“Watch your head!”—holding behind the hull in a reverse lead to bounce three rounds off its top. Ritz hisses as the muzzle blasts, even suppressed, jar her skull.
“A bit of warnin’ woulda’ been nice, maybe!”
“Maybe learn to shoot!”
She harrumphs, not deigning to respond.
“ . . . well, nobody’s answering the door!” Stoddard pipes up. “What now?”
Ritz cocks her head, thinking for how best to piss him off with the next thing out of her mouth: “Put us down on the roof!”
“You want me to do what.”
“We’re gonna clear it; you’ll be safe up there!”
Stoddard groans—but groans “Fine!”, figuring it better than ceding any more time. He dips down and keeps his approach over the river, to keep the craft within your field of fire. Nothing emerges, and so he draws closer; you can make out the gouges you shot into the top, now—what a lousy grouping—and the downwash sprays the side of the hull with water.
Finally he makes a simple pedal turn and glides over the craft, alighting as if on a simple landing pad. You toss a smoke grenade out over the edge, having signalled your intention beforehand; between Stoddard’s rotor blast and this model’s accelerated burn rate, it clouds visibility for just long enough that you’re able to drop down and take positions trained against the door of the craft.
“Payday,” Ritz murmurs, electrified.
You twitch at that. “Sure there isn’t anything you’ve been leaving out?”
“Nah,” she grins, rolling her shoulders. “Just excited, is all.”
You return her grin, minus its mirth. “Outstanding. In that case, why don’t you take point?”
Kochiya perhaps breathes a sigh of relief at that; though his expression is still frozen in that odd rictus. So, together, you grin and grin and grin, perhaps convincing yourselves that you are having fun.
The door does not wait for a point-man. It slams open with that awful ‘clunk–whine’ which sucks a spirit dry.
Your rifle snaps up, sighting in on whatever might lurk behind—
Three pairs of red-glaring eyes; three pairs of rabbit’s ears.
Three weapons clattering to the floor.
Otherwise, three drawn, miserable girls.
Alien—perhaps. Martian—perhaps. Mars has stolen and worn the faces of men before. Somehow, this doesn’t strike you as such.
The smallest one, clad in once-bright orange, speaks first. Her—its—her voice is high, and faint:
Your rifle does not lower.
[ ] Take no chances: formally detain them and check them into alien containment
[ ] Take them in, but on easier terms: they could be abandoned Martian experiments
→ [ ] Ask Eri to keep it under the table
[ ] Deal with this independently for now
→ [×] How? (Write-in)
[ ] Other (Write-in)
… … …
Just making sure, but ‘independently’ is not a euphemism for ‘with bullets’, okay?