Ulthara looked around her. In the darkness, she could make out nothing. She pressed a small button on her wrist and a low voice whispered in her ear, “Twelve twenty three pee em.” “Bloody Hell!” she swore. Then she stumbled on something and fell. Sixteen months of rigourous training and lightning reflexes made sure she tumbled and landed on her knees, upright and weapon at the ready for action.
The dust was thick and blotted out the sun totally. The ground was pitted with huge bomb craters. The life sensors she had planted in a thirty metre diameter circle told her there was no life within a kilometre of her. At least no life with any kind of neuron activity.
“Clear.” She spoke the word crisply into the microphone of her helmet. “Okay Lieutenant, wrap up. Pick you up in ten minutes.” That was Mrig Pen, her pilot. He knew she hated death walks, as her colleagues called it. The Force called it “Mission Status Appraisal” – MSA for short, and only when the MSA had been set to “Clr” would the mission end.
As she began packing up the sensors and strapping them to various parts of her body, a sense of unreality filled her. A cold shiver passed through her. For a moment, she felt as if she had jumped into an ice-cold swimming pool. Then it passed, and she was back to her usual self – in control and methodical.
Her plane was waiting for her when she got to the pick up zone. It was the only clear area for kilometres around. At that moment, she knew at least eleven other people were doing the same thing as her. She wasted no time in jumping in and strapping herself in. Switching on the console in front of her, she swiped a card that dangled from her neck on an indestructible chain through a slot.
“A-ok. Here we go. Hold on.” Mrig Pen’s voice was almost cheerful as he took off smoothly and climbed to cruise altitude. As they reached formation, Ulthara could make out that they were early – only four others were there. They would fly at slow speed till the whole unit was together, after which they would fly in perfect formation till they got back to base three hours later.
One by one, the rest of the unit joined them. After the twelfth plane was in position, Mrig Pen’s voice came over the intercom, “We’re going home, Lieutenant!” This time it was really cheerful. After which everything was light banter for a few minutes among the pilots and even some of the death walkers as they locked their planes into the Central Command Autopilot and drifted off to sleep.
“War is hard. And dirty. But this isn’t war.” These were the thoughts that ran through Ulthara’s mind as she armed her weapon. Carefully she aimed it at the back of Mrig Pen’s head. “Poor kid, won’t know why. Wouldn’t understand if I told him,” thought Ulthara as she pressed the fire key. Mrig Pen died instantly. The plane flew on, flown by a computer a thousand miles away.
“Wonder if the CCA can land this thing,” thought Ulthara as her weapon discharged into her mouth, cooking her brains in an instant.