Track 17: Badlands

“So,” I asked, as we boarded a military plane, “why are we leaving?” Several families and individuals, maybe other people in witness protection, maybe families of military brass, and some soldiers and FBI agents were also crammed in with us.

“Did you see the traffic on the way?” Barton asked.

“Kind of hard to miss it,” Eliza said. “We were bloody in it on the way to the police station.”

“Exactly,” Barton said. “It’s going to get a lot worse. Everybody on the west coast is going to want to get to the east coast.”

“Which is going to be a problem,” Hicks said, “because the army’s going to want to get here as fast as possible.”

“Yeah,” Barton said, a haunted look in his eyes, “that’ll be a nightmare.”

“So,” Watanabe asked, seemingly trying to hold back his barf, “where are you going to keep my clients?”

“Can I make a suggestion?” I asked. Hicks made a grunting noise and nodded, which I assumed he’d listen, if not follow it. “My company’s factory has been experimenting with automated defenses for a while.”

“That shouldn’t be necessary,” Hicks said. “But New England might be a good place to lay low.”

“What if they win?” Watanabe asked, instantly sucking all the air out of the room. “There’s a good chance that the Dragon’s Teeth will win. They’ve already steamrollered most of Europe, including France, Germany and England. Russia won’t last the month. China’s already admitted it’s lost more people than it can replace, and India isn’t looking too good either.”

“Well,” I said eventually, “that’s actually somewhat reassuring. Hopefully, they’re spent. I mean, do you have any idea how much manpower all this is taking? Since the US spends more money on defense than Russia and China combined, we might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.” That seemed to cheer up Watanabe and some of the people we were flying with.

“Do you really believe that?” Eliza asked in a disbelieving monotone.

“I don’t believe my theory is impossible,” I said, hedging. “I mean, it makes sense, doesn’t it?” The people became less consoled. A baby started crying. Even Hicks looked a little sick, and something told me it wasn’t because of the plane ride.

Watanabe, head in his hands, said, “Nathan, you realize you aren’t in a courtroom and can’t be sued for perjury as such?”

I shrugged. “Not like I can lie now. Anyone know where we are?”

“Probably around the Grand Canyon,” Hicks said. “Unless the Dragon’s Teeth are trickier than we thought, we-”

Suddenly, there was a loud thump and the sound of screeching metal. The plane began to fall out of the sky as warning lights blared. I would have said something snarky, but I didn’t think anyone could hear me above the new ambient noise. Also, most of the younger children were screaming now. Now was neither the time nor the place.

The plane, after what seemed like a millennia of plummeting to the ground, finally hit the ground with a crunch. One person, a weaseley man who’d been screaming louder than any of the children, hadn’t been buckled in and hit the ceiling of the plane with his head. As the plane skidded along, he turned into a projectile, narrowly missing a family, slamming his spine into someone’s knee, and breaking his neck when his head hit a soldier’s plate at a weird angle. Meanwhile, people were getting shaken up and loose items were being tossed around. I, like many other people, had my head slam into the wall. Then, while I was trying to get my bearings, a soldier’s M4 flew into my face so hard I could feel that the receiver and handguard left an imprint.

Then everything in the cabin became very, very still. After a prolonged silence, the children began crying, adults began panicking, and the FBI agents and soldiers who had their shit together began trying to restore order. Naturally, Barton and Hicks were part of that last category.

After our two FBI friends had wandered off, Watanabe asked, “You going to help them?”

“No,” I said dully, as a massive headache set in.

“Yeah,” Eliza slurred as she clutched the back of her head, blood leaking through her fingertips, “we’re just going to sit down ‘ere for a bit an’ let the professionals do their job for a bloody change.”

As we were talking, one of the pilots stumbled out of the cabin. I think he might have been the captain. “Listen up!” he yelled. We all turned to look at him. “You’ve probably figured it out already, but that wasn’t mechanical failure. We’ve called in to the Arizona Air National Guard, and it seems that something’s attempting to shoot down planes between the Sierra Nevada and the Rockies. We’re one of the unlucky ones they hit.”

“Who are ‘they?’” someone asked.

“We’re unsure,” the captain said. “Still, all we need to do is sit tight and wait for the National Guard to pick us up.” I rolled my eyes at the lie. If multiple planes were going down, then there was no chance it was anything other than Dragon’s Teeth. The only question I had was how? If it was via air-to-air, I had no idea how it had gotten here. If it was surface-to-air, then we could be in serious trouble.

“Hey, Hicks?” I asked

“What is it?” He asked softly, having just been comforting a sobbing child. For once I was glad I was in the mercenary and weapons business. There weren’t many screaming children, at least not the way I did it.

“Shouldn’t someone go scout around a bit?” I asked. “Just… to make sure things are alright? You know, get a good idea of where we are.”

Hicks considered this for a moment, then said, “Yeah, that’d be a good idea.” He got up, and, indicating the child and her mom, said, “Take care of them, ok?” He then left me alone for a few minutes of awkward conversation. I eventually ended up having to talk about how I appeared so calm. That involved lying about how I was still loopy from my head injuries and instead saying something about how panic wouldn’t help.

Eventually, Hicks came back. “You were pretty good,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said. I thought I was talking utter shit. “Anyway, what’s the situation?”

“Marines are going to form a perimeter,” Hicks said. “I’d like us to go up a hill, get a better look.”

“Ok,” I said.

The ramp at the rear of the plane opened and we began to leave the plane. The Marines headed out first, their weapons loaded, but hanging from their slings. Hicks, Barton, Eliza, Watanabe, and I continued up a hill. By the time we were at the first lip, the sun was starting to set. From there, we could see that several over planes had come down in the area. We seemed to be the only survivors.

“So,” Watanabe asked, completely out of breath, “what… what’s happening?” As he talked, we could hear an airplane flying overhead. I turned to look at it. At the height it was flying, I couldn’t really tell what kind of plane it was, other than some kind of jet. It looked big, but again, I couldn’t really tell from the ground.

“Good question,” Hicks said. “The people on-site don’t seem to-”

“Wait,” I said, pointing to the plane, “why’s that plane falling?”

“Oh fuck,” Eliza said. “That’s what I ‘eard.” I turned to her, and she said, answering my unasked question, “I ‘eard a bit of brrrt sound. Must’ve been gunfire.” She then pointed at the sky. “Think it was air-to-air. Look.”

I followed her finger. She was pointing to the plane’s contrails. There, much fainter, ran a parallel line. At a certain point, the falling jet’s contrails began to dip, but the other set continued on. As I studied it, I heard a large thump. Turning to the source, I saw a cloud of dust and debris rise up from behind a mountain. A few seconds later, I felt some clumps of dirt hit me and saw large chunks of metal fall within a few hundred meters of the plane we’d been on.

“So,” I said. “That was air-to-air with one plane being invisible.”

“Yeah,” Eliza said. “That’s… disturbing, innit? I mean, where the ‘ell did that come from? Either it’s got a big enough range and a fast enough engine to fly all the way out from the Pacific to shoot down a single jet liner, or it’s launched from somewhere much closer.”

“I hope it’s from one of the carriers in the Pacific,” I said. “Because if it’s land-based, there’s a much higher chance of us getting company soon.”

“Does that answer your question?” Watanabe asked, pointing. In the distance, heading towards the downed plane, were several trails of dust. Squinting, I could see what appeared to be solid darkness speeding towards the planes.

 

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