The world has become a battleground in a war which no side is winning. But for those determined to retain power, the prolonged stalemate cannot be tolerated so desperate measures must be taken. Max Halloran has no idea. He's living the brief and glorious life of a hunter-killer pilot. He's an ace in the air, on his way up through the ranks, in love, and with his family's every need provided for in thanks for his service, Max has everything . . . . . . right up until he hears something he shouldn't have, and refuses to let it go. Suddenly he's risking his life and the lives of all those he cares about for a secret which could expose corruption at the highest levels, and change the course of the war. One man, one brief conversation . . . a whole world of trouble . . .
Release date: August 18, 2016
Print pages: 320
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Heart of Granite
I don’t remember getting the tap on the shoulder at school or the walk to the principal’s office alongside the recruitment agents in their ERC uniforms. But I do remember the dripping jealousy on the faces of everyone I passed and I will never forget how cool that was.
Max was woken by an insistent nagging at the back of his mind.
It probably wasn’t important.
He let his head drop back to the pillow and stared at the ceiling where the dim ridge lights flickered in time with the whirr of the increasingly inefficient air-circulation system. Outside his pod, the squad rack was quiet. No one else was even awake, let alone up.
‘Not like me to wake up early,’ muttered Max.
‘Don’t you read your pings?’
Anna-Beth was lying on her stomach with her head turned away and the sheet clinging to the lines of her body. Max drew a finger down her spine and she rose on her elbows, her long black hair falling either side of her face. He grinned, sliding down next to her and leaning in for a kiss.
‘Not if I can avoid it.’
‘Are you kidding me?’ Anna-Beth put a hand on his face and pushed him away. ‘You were at the briefing last night, right? I wondered why you were still here.’
‘You know, the amount of shit you’re in makes you completely undesirable right now,’ she said, with a twinkle in her eye.
‘Oh, really?’ he said and began to push the sheet down, his fingertips tracing her silky skin.
‘Really.’ Anna-Beth slid a little closer to him, enjoying herself. Her hand cupped his balls. ‘You really don’t know why you’re in the shit?’
‘Don’t know, don’t care.’
‘You’re not bothered about skippering the escort for the marshal general’s cortege, then?’
Max froze, colour draining from his face.
‘That’s tomorrow,’ he said, stomach lurching.
‘Uh-uh. Today.’ She leaned into his ear and whispered. ‘Right now.’
‘Shit,’ said Max, scrambling out of bed. ‘Shitshitshit. Why didn’t they wake me? What happened to—?’
His sweats struck him in the face. He grabbed for them, missed, stumbled against the door and trod on the corner of a belt buckle.
‘Ow, bloodyfuckbollocks! Thanks a lot.’
‘Any time,’ said Anna-Beth, following up with some well-aimed boots.
Max pulled his joggers on and jammed his feet into his boots. He gave Anna-Beth a lopsided smile.
‘Be here when I get back.’
‘In your dreams, drake bitch.’
Anna-Beth’s delicate blown kiss chased him from his room. He paused in the act of sprinting past the squad rec to take in the absurdly neat arrangement of sofas, chairs, screens and consoles. Every coffee- and teacup had been washed, dried and stacked by the gleamingly clean beverage machines – to which a note was attached. Max ran over and read it.
Did your chores for you. We heard it was a late one last night and didn’t want to wake you. Set the alarm to give you just enough time to get to the most important flight of your so-far worthless life. But only just. Love, Inferno-X
‘Very bloody funny. Bastards.’ An alarm began to sound and he glanced up at the mission countdown timer. Lots of red numbers there. ‘Shit.’
Max burst out of the squad dorm and powered along the spine, dodging from side to side to evade the masses dawdling to wherever it was they had loads of time to get. He sprinted through the echoing ‘tenways’ spine-link space that would become Gargan’s bar later, wrinkling his nose at the stale smells of alcohol and sweat that clung to every surface.
He hurdled an auto-vac and raced off to the right down an access corridor, battering open the ‘Emergency Access Only’ door at the end. It stank of burnt toast out here within the flank armour. Water poured down the inside, catching a joint above his head and covering the ringing metal stairway, and him, in its fetid warmth.
Max grabbed the rail and swung over, letting go and turning in the air before catching the rails a storey below. He pushed himself back with his feet and dropped again, grabbing the base of the rail and swinging to land on his feet on the walkway.
‘Nailed it,’ he grinned and ran.
Outside the open door to the vast retractable flight deck, he could hear the competing cries and roars of drakes, geckos, chameleons, basilisks and komodos. Once inside, he slowed to a saunter and fought to control his breathing. He had to walk past the cages holding the ground-based lizards on the way to the drake pens, so he made sure he caught the eye of a jockey. He sniffed extravagantly.
‘Wow, that’s some powerful stench you’re developing. New aftershave is it? Eau de Slime-Sucker; for the face-down, sand-eating, lizard-jock in your life.’
‘Drop dead, dragon-shagger.’ A gecko driver made a move towards him. ‘Hey, let’s compare IQs in a year’s time, slop-head.’
Max blew a kiss and walked away. ‘I’m going to look for you out there today. Gonna need a target for my drake to shit on.’
The drakes were calling, the sound echoing from the walls, drowning out the Flight Com orders coming over the PA. The beautiful white Inferno-X drakes were already moving onto the runway. Max broke into a run again, aching to be with them.
Thirty metres of drake moved serenely out of its pen and blocked his way. For about the millionth time, Max wondered why they didn’t just call them dragons because that was sure as shit what they looked like. The drake’s eyes were on him, and so were those of its pilot, Squadron Leader Valera Orin, going through her preflight routine.
The drake’s mouth yawned to reveal its rows of bone-crushing teeth. Its five-metre neck flexed, the scales meshing and moving in a sinuous dance. Along its broad back, bone spurs rotated out to defensive position and then back flush to the armoured scales. And the tail, fully six metres long and run with thorns, whipped up into the scorpion position, its needle-sharp tip glistening.
‘What time do you call this?’
‘Why didn’t anyone wake me? Too busy tidying up really quietly and leaving sarcastic notes?’
‘That was Stepanek’s idea. Good one, eh? It’s almost a shame you’ve just squeaked in this time. But you’d better run and you’d better learn to take responsibility. There’s two minutes on the countdown then I’m giving Stepanek the escort lead honour cap just to piss you off.’
‘You’d give it to Stepanek?’
The drake’s wings twitched in a shrug.
‘Clock’s ticking. Grim’s got your suit already.’
Max ran down the line of drake pens, hearing catcalls and jibes all the way. He played up to it as he went, even taking a bow as he slid to a halt by his pen and Grimaldi, his flight tech.
‘Ah, it’s call sign dickhead. Hardly worth almost getting dressed, was it?’
‘Very funny, Grim.’
Max stripped off his joggers. Grimaldi glowered at him with her trademark disdain and held out his suit, her hands filthy with drake dirt, her face and yellow overalls freckled with soot and dust.
Every time he forced his body into the rubberised, bio-plastic body sheath he wished there was a way to link with his drake without the clumsy mass of neuro-organic receptors. The suit squeezed his body like a too-tight wetsuit and itched like a bastard until it warmed up and expanded a fraction. He dragged it up his legs, over his torso and chest, and forced his arms into the sleeves.
Grimaldi zipped it up as he hauled the hood over his head, and felt the tightness around the sides of his face and the back of his skull. He pushed gently at his throat with forefinger and thumb, positioning the com controls to pick up his subvocalised commands. Moments later, he felt the warmth he longed for through his body and mind.
‘There you are, gorgeous,’ he said. ‘Ready to play?’
Taloned feet slammed against the drake pen and an armoured head reared up. Hawk-keen reptilian eyes stared through the broad window at him and the drake’s mouth opened in what Max maintained was a smile – a hideously toothy smile but a smile nonetheless – despite the Tweakers’ denials that drakes experienced emotion.
‘How’s she doing?’ asked Max, reaching to slap the warm glass by the drake’s muzzle. The creature shook her head and spittle flew in all directions. ‘Good to see you too, Martha.’
‘One day,’ said Grimaldi, ‘I will beat out of you why you gave her that name. Anyway, she’s peak, of course. Take a look.’
Grimaldi unlatched the pen door and slid it back. A wash of warm air rushed out of the enclosure, which was lit with hot lamps and backed by infrared heat and light. Max’s smile broadened and the warmth in his mind and body intensified.
Max held up a hand and Martha dipped her head so he could run his fingers over her fangs and the eight fuel ducts pulsating at the sides of her mouth. They were full and healthy, the openings pink and clear.
There was a rustling sensation in Max’s left ear.
‘This is Heart of Granite Flight Commander Moeller. Call sign Hal-X, confirm reception.’
‘Loud and clear, sir. Good to hear you.’
‘Nice of you to join us. Slime up. Sky-high in sixty seconds.’
‘Right, close your eyes,’ said Grimaldi. She was holding a thin hosepipe. Barely waiting for him to comply, she pulled the trigger. A fine spray misted out, smelling of oil and sweat. Max held his arms out and turned slowly, letting the liquid settle on every stitch of his suit. ‘All done. Should stop you getting stuck halfway in.’
‘Always the same joke,’ said Max.
‘Gets funnier each time I tell it.’
‘In your flawed opinion.’ Max cocked his head then turned to the faulty fan that wobbled in its brackets up in the roof structure, venting condensation inefficiently. ‘Can you get on to those lazy arses in maintenance? That thing’ll fall on Martha’s head one day. Tell them when it does, I’ll point them out to her.’
‘Sure thing, Max,’ said Grim.
Max raised his hands in front of Martha and the stunning white drake rose up to sit on her powerful hind legs. The front of her chest opened to reveal the receptor pouch within. The lubricant on Max’s suit would mix with the pouch’s secretions to ensure maximum connectivity.
Max climbed quickly up the chest scales, turned and slid into the bespoke pouch, feeling the mind-touch of the drake intensify and a soul-deep thrill course through him. He moved his feet into their bays and his arms into the receptor sleeves, keeping them close to his sides. He stretched out his gloved fingers.
Martha’s chest closed and Max felt a gentle pressure across his body and thick, shock-absorbent fluid fill the pouch, expelling any air within. A layer of skin moved to cover his scalp and he placed his chin on the moulded rest, feeling the pouch tighten minutely against his throat and com controls. His visor, with heads-up display, slid down over his face. The drake shuddered, opened her mouth and roared her pleasure or, as the Tweakers who made her would have it, confirmed her state of readiness.
‘You and me, baby,’ he said. ‘Let’s walk.’
Max curled his toes and the drake rattled her rear talons on the bone floor. The rush of the receptors picking up and relaying his movements to Martha never lessened. He directed her to surge upright, move out of the pen and onto the runway. It was a gloomy day outside. The air was thick with dust and the Heart of Granite had thrown up huge clouds in her wake.
Max looked to his left to where Grimaldi stood proffering a water bottle with a long straw. He took a sip.
‘Not today, not ever,’ said Max, reciting the drake pilot mantra.
‘Look after my Risa.’
Max looked forwards. He moved his leg again and Martha walked past the twenty-three waiting drakes and their pilots that made up Squadron Inferno-X. Radio chatter filled his ears and he laughed.
‘Hal-X on the stand, Flight Command,’ he said. ‘Requesting permission to run.’
‘Stand by, Hal-X.’ A pause. ‘Skin of your teeth, boy. Report to me on landing. You don’t get off that easily.’
Hoots and howls ricocheted over the open com link. ‘Copy, sir.’
‘Depart left, climb to circle above flak range. Hal-X, you are clear to run.’
‘Tail up, Martha, let’s fly.’
Max nodded his head. Martha opened her mouth and bellowed. She stamped her feet and powered down the runway and Max’s mind was filled with the promise of imminent freedom. Every footfall reverberated through the pouch, shock-absorbent fluid reducing the shuddering impacts to gentle ripples.
Max opened his mouth and breathed in the acceleration. His arms were tight to his sides, keeping Martha’s wings folded hard against her body while she gathered pace, rocking gently from side to side, tail balancing her lateral movement. Flight crews and ground jocks turned to watch. Strip lights flashed, red pulsing bulbs blurred and alarms Dopplered as he sped by.
In front, the distance markings on the pitted runway began to merge. The retractor stays at the end of the sprint zone glared yellow. Max moved his arms away from his body exactly thirty centimetres. Martha snapped her wings out and with a gasp from Max they were airborne, shooting out of the flight deck and sweeping left. He turned his wrists out a fraction as he cleared the tail. Martha flared her wings and swept into a steep climb, high into the early morning skies of the Mid-Af warzone.
‘This is Hal-X clear of the flight deck, the HoG in my wake and up-wings skywards. Not a cloud up here so it’s gonna be a hot one later. Who’d be a grunt in a dust cloud?’
‘Copy, Hal-X, circle on station,’ said Moeller. ‘And cut the chatter.’
Martha climbed hard and fast, lazy sweeps of her wings driving her on. Their current air speed and altitude were displayed above Max’s right eye. He flattened his hands and canted his body slightly left. Martha cruised in a wide circle, levelling out and giving him a breathtaking view of the Heart of Granite.
‘Look, Martha, there’s your mum.’
And damn him if Martha’s body didn’t ripple in response. Max wondered if it was laughter or love.
Who the hell comes up with ideas like growing battle lizards in big tanks anyway?
Max cruised the length of the HoG, banked above her head and returned aft, four hundred metres above her. Martha was calm, her heartbeat measured and her wings barely beating, enjoying the thermals rising from the desert floor. Below them he could see Inferno-X streaking out of the flight deck and climbing through the dust clouds to circle on station with him.
‘I-X, this is Hal-X moving to lead position.’
Max urged Martha to greater speed, dipping her into a shallow dive to get below the squad before swooping up in a perfect barrel roll through the middle of their spiral. He climbed into the pristine sky and rolled to take in the vast desert and ruined lands in the HoG’s wake.
‘Typically understated,’ muttered Valera.
Max opened his com again. ‘You wouldn’t have it any other way, Skipper.’
‘The sad thing is you really believe that,’ said Abraham, his gentle tone warming the airwaves.
‘That roll will save your life one day, Abe. You should learn it.’
‘You offering nightly tutorials in bed again, Max?’ said Jak-X.
‘Funny, Jaks. I’ll check with the boss but I think those days are gone now.’
‘Flight Com incoming,’ said Valera. ‘Go ahead, Flight Com.’
‘Inferno-X, Flight Com. Marshal General Solomon is one hundred and seven klicks due north of your location. Make best speed. You will be relieving Squadron Lumière-C from the Steelback. The cortege is ground-bound. You know how active the Mafs and Sambas are right now, so this is not a procession. And it is not an excuse to show off your acrobatic skills. Are we clear, Inferno-X?’
A chorus of understanding crammed the coms.
‘Do you understand, Hal-X?’
‘I’m hurt, Flight Com. Do I have the cap?’
‘Confirmed, Hal-X. Flight Com out.’
‘Inferno-X, Hal-X flying skipper for the inbound cortege escort mission. Yes, kids, I have the honour cap. Orders, orders. Triple height staggered chevron. Val-X and Chevron-One at a thousand; Step-X and C-Three at fifteen hundred; Hal-X and C-Two at two thousand. Form up, I-X, let’s show them what the best drake squad in the world looks like.’
Max rose to two thousand and watched Inferno-X form up. Valera and C-One peeled off left, diving in a long shallow circle. C-Three mirrored the move, climbing right and up. Both chevrons moved into perfect position simultaneously. It was simple and beautiful; not a wingbeat was wasted. White scales glittered in the bright sun, drake roars and calls filled the sky and Martha returned the cry. His private com clicked open.
‘Good work, Hal-X. Keep it tight. I’m here if you need me.’
Max relaxed into the flight, feeling the rush of air as Martha powered forwards, and the vibrations of her wingbeats massaging his body through the modulations in the pouch. Martha’s mind-touch was like a comfort blanket, reading and reacting to his micro-movements. Using her senses meant opening his mind to her a fraction, and it was seductive; she was always there wanting more, tempting him with images of freedom and power. One day she’d get what she wanted, and he’d Fall. Martha grumbled, sensing his briefly sombre mood.
Max used Martha’s eyes to glance left and right at his eight-strong chevron, using his mind to suggest the movement and seeing what she saw projected in his visor. He remembered the first time he’d done that, back in the training days. He’d been so confused by what he was seeing that he’d all but flown the poor drake into the ground. Now it was easy, filtering Martha’s view and adding his own to give him all-round vision.
‘Inferno-X, Hal-X. We’re in the cruise. Maintain formation and course. You all look beautiful.’
‘Aw, shucks, Max,’ said Borini. ‘Makes me go all gooey inside.’
‘“Shucks”, Bor-X? Really? Holy Mother, where did you dredge that up?’ asked Jes-X.
‘I have depths of linguistic skill others only dream about, Jessy,’ said Borini.
‘Keep it well hidden, don’t you?’ said Nuge-X.
‘All right, all right,’ said Max. ‘Let’s focus.’
Max relaxed further, letting Martha ride the thermals and keeping her dead-on north. The next battlefront, where the behemoths of United Europa and Mid-Af would clash, was a hundred and fifty klicks south, just a couple of days’ standard march for a behemoth. More land to slash, burn, and then own – and turn into vast, fertile croplands – if you cared about that. Max supposed he did, but mostly he cared about the next fight: lighting up enemy drakes, toasting enemy grunts and later, leading the celebrations at the victory party.
Ahead it was all blown sand, dust and scorched earth. But there was brightness on the northern horizon: water glittering under the sun. It was probably still dyed red from the blood washing off the Mediterranean beaches. That had been some battle.
Max and Martha looked around; Inferno-X was still alone in the sky. He had half-expected them to be shadowed by now, most likely by forces from the Samba bloc. They had the impressive Águila and Relámpago squadrons but there was no evidence of them so far.
‘Inferno-X is approaching the target zone,’ said Max. ‘Orders, orders. C-Three, three-sixty sky-watch for enemy specks. C-Two, we’re on friendly drake watch. C-One, eyes open for vortices in the dust. Hal-X out.’
Max was enjoying the minimal stresses on the pouch, just the gentle push from the wings. This was as close to weightless as a drake pilot could get. Martha cruised above the sand and dust, and the moment’s relative quiet was wonderful. Then his earpiece, set into the hood of his suit, crackled.
‘Vortices ahead, bearing three-five-five,’ said Valera. ‘Big enough to be our target. Anything from Flight Com, Hal-X?’
Max couldn’t see anything in the dust from his height, but on the horizon he could just see three black dots: the Lumière-Cs. They were flying a wide holding pattern, definitely a guard formation.
‘Nothing yet, Skipper. I’ve got spots ahead.’ Max opened his squad com. ‘Inferno-X, we have vortices ahead at three-five-five and closing, specks in guard formation above them. Val-X, stay in formation and descend into the cloud; confirm target by sight. Hal-X out.’
‘Copy, Hal-X,’ said Valera. ‘Leading descent.’
Max watched C-One disappear into the murk, following the vortices in the cloud formed by sprinting ground lizards, and the more confused eddies associated with the lumbering pace of larger, multi-legged constructs.
‘Step-X, maintain course, eyes open for incoming targets.’
‘Copy, Hal-X,’ said Stepanek.
‘C-Two, follow my lead and keep the chevron tight. We’re going to relieve Lumière-C the way only I-X can.’
Max angled Martha into a climb to get himself and C-Three two hundred metres above the Lumières. Martha’s senses confirmed his chevron were in perfect form behind him. He cruised in a wider circle directly above the three dull brown Lumières who were flying a standard sentry formation, a hundred metres above the sand cloud. No doubt they’d seen the incoming Infernos and were off guard. They really should have known better.
‘C-Three, we’re going straight through their formation, pull a loop and settle in their wake. Easy stuff. On me, let’s go in three.’
Max imagined noise and Martha bellowed, her jaws dripping saliva, some of which blew back across his visor and was whipped away by the wind. Max leaned forwards, his arms tight, and straightened his body head to toe. Martha dived, her form arrow-straight and her wings tight to her sides. Her speed was incredible and the air screamed past, whistling through her furled wings and singing along her tail.
Max trimmed his direction as he closed on the Lumière drakes, his smile broadening with every heartbeat. He’d calculated it perfectly, of course. Martha was on collision course with his target and the Lumière would be unable to evade him. Max laughed, pulse racing.
‘You’re coming in too close, Max,’ said Kullani. ‘Ease down.’
‘I’ve got this, Kul-X. You’ve all got clear air, that’s what matters.’
‘It’s gonna cost you if you hit.’
‘I’m not hitting anyone.’
With the Lumière’s scales large in his vision, Max twisted his body and Martha barrel-rolled past, missing the brown drake by a hair. Max and Martha roared with delight.
C-Three screamed through in his wake and he led them into a tight loop that finished with them right on station.
‘Oh, we are on rails today,’ purred Max. He opened his com. ‘Lumière-C, you are officially relieved. Inferno-X has the reins.’
The coms lit up with furious shouts and threats.
‘Hey, that’s how the greatest squadron in the world flies. Lessons offered. Spaces still available.’
The Lumière drakes peeled away, heading west towards the Steelback. Max could still hear them muttering their threats, their drakes taut in the glide.
‘Holy Mother, Max,’ said Losano.
‘I know. Perfect, weren’t we? Orders, orders. Mont-X, Nuge-X, Red-X, take sentry. The rest of you with me.’
Max dived through the dust cloud, levelling out sharply at fifty. Ahead he could see the marshal gen’s cortege and it was properly impressive; a Komodo One, surrounded by iguanas, geckos and basilisks. The chatter on the waves was still hot and his earpiece crackled insistently.
For the moment, he ignored it, choosing to bring his chevron in close to the Komodo One.
‘C-Three is sky-high on lookout, C-Two on mid-sentry, C-One on close quarters patrol. Inferno-X has arrived,’ said Max. ‘Skipper, I think we’ve introduced ourselves.’
‘You’re an idiot, Max. I’ve got Moeller in one ear and the marshal gen in the other and neither is impressed.’
Max sighed. ‘Copy, Val-X. My holy arse, but there’s no sense of humour or style any more, is there?’
‘You do remember who we’re guarding here? Val-X out.’
Martha’s warmth filled his mind. At least she’d enjoyed it. Below Max, the cortege spread across two kilometres of Nor-Af desert. It looked more like a relief force than a guard. Perhaps it was.
Max stared at it, trying to work out where Marshal General Solomon would be riding. Right in the centre was the Komodo Class One. It was about a quarter the size of a behemoth like the Heart of Granite and was designed as a troop carrier, or as a stupidly slow and vulnerable mobile hospital. It was lumbering along on its twelve pairs of legs, leaving Max wondering why any patient in their right mind would take a bed there. Better to die in the sand than puke your last in that thing.
The chances of the marshal gen being on it were minimal. It was escorted by half a dozen Geckos, the standard ground assault lizard. It was probably full of her luggage or something.
Four iguana support carriers were travelling at the major compass points around the komodo. They looked like miniature behemoths with their similar shape, and ability to carry two hundred people in their spine and bone pods either side of the gut. The marshal gen was most likely in one of them – unless she was riding a Basilisk. He had to suppress a chuckle at the thought. There were about fifty of the supremely fast runners though, unlike their mythological namesake, they couldn’t turn anything to stone. Max felt that was a genuine omission. Tweakers always missed out the really important stuff.
Nope, it had to be an Iguana. His money was on the one to the north.
Max brought C-Two into a low pass across the Geckos, each of which was carrying around thirty elite fighters. Max shuddered seeing the pilot’s pouch. The poor slime-suckers who drove them were face-down in lubricant, breathing through tubes and with their eyes wired into the lizard’s via a sensory mask. They lay at the base of the neck, the pouch protected by thick, armoured scales.
‘Inferno-X, Hal-X. Maintain your chevrons. C-One, maintain proximity to the cortege. C-Three, remain sky-high at a thousand. Give me a four-klick diameter, I want early warnings of any incoming Sambas and Mafs. C-Two, we’re reforming on point above the dust cloud, sweeping east and west. We’re the eyes, nothing gets past us. Let’s fly.’
Max brought his chevron in a tight circle above the cortege, and then shot high and steep back through the cloud and into clear air.
‘Hal-X, Flight Com.’
‘Go ahead, Flight Com.’
‘Patching the marshal general through. Flight Com out.’
Max had time to blow out his cheeks and feel his nerves echoed in the tremor that ran through Martha’s body.
‘Hal-X, this is Solomon.’
‘Ma’am. It is an honour to fly your guard.’
‘We are aware of your talents without the need for demonstrations. A word of warning: arrogance in pilots is only tolerable because your lives are short and violent. Foolishness is absolutely unacceptable when it risks expensive equipment. Do anything like that again and I’ll ground you.’
‘With respect, Marshal General, I was in total control of my drake at all times.’
There was an icy silence that shredded Max’s good humour. He bit his lip harder with every passing moment.
‘You may be in control of your drake. Do not assume everyone else is.’
‘Report to me when we reach the Granite.’
‘Yes, ma’am. Before or after I see the flight commander?’
‘Even you can work out the chain of command, Hal-X. Solomon out.’
It was a huge honour to have the cap, recognising his talent and standing in the kill tables, and he had a brief moment of worry he might have blown it with his stunt. He quashed it though because no matter what she’d said, Solomon was impressed and you don’t bench your best pilots.
‘Inferno-X, this is Hal-X. We have the honour. Maintain your altitudes and circle on station. The cortege is making best speed to the HoG, let’s try to be patient.’
Max heard some muttering.
‘Come again, Kul-X?’
‘Nothing,’ said Kullani. ‘Pots, kettles, that sort of thing.’
‘Stay focused,’ said Max.
It took every scrap of willpower Max possessed to take his own advice. The cortege was so slow he wondered how the squadron stayed in the air. Fighting the twin enemies of boredom and stalling was no easy task.
Max shrugged his shoulders and Martha rippled her wings.
‘Sorry, Martha, didn’t mean that one.’
Martha’s warmth suffused him as if she understood and they turned a lazy circle to bring the chevron back into position, his movements echoed by C-One and C-Three. Time and again they repeated the manoeuvre while the ground lizards crept along beneath the cloud.
Max took C-Two on another sweep west where the dust was even denser than over the cortege, caught in a trap of thermal activity. Martha’s neck tautened but Max had already seen what she was stretching towards. Away to the west, perhaps three klicks distant, there were vortices in the dust cloud. They were violent and spread over an area of some four hundred metres, approaching at pace: incoming drakes.
‘Flight Com, Hal-X. Confirm position of Lumière-C.’
‘Lumière-C is south east of your position, Hal-X.’
‘Well, we’ve got vortices approaching fast from the west. Val-X, do you copy?’
‘Copy that. I have the cap, Hal-X. C-Two, angle down and intercept. Let’s see what we’ve got.
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