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I pulled the alien joystick up and the drone shot up into the blue sky like a cat that just saw a particularly menacing cucumber. It took me a few moments to get used to the overly sensitive controls, but once I did, I felt right at home. 

I was building, flying and racing drones of all kinds for years, and I was good at it. This was right up my alley. I tilted the drone forward as far as it would go, smoothly increasing throttle to full. Soon the drone was flying at its top speed, skimming the waves and trying to reach the first drone, which had gained quite a distance by that time. The distance was decreasing, which meant that the first drone was likely to be carrying heavier cargo that limited its top speed (I felt shivers down my spine thinking about that payload), but it wasn’t decreasing fast enough. 

I looked for the right virtual button, then jettisoned my cargo, which meant that ship had to override several safety protocols for me. It helped a little, and after a few minutes I was getting closer. I was approaching from his six and slightly above, hoping that the other drone wouldn’t have sensors for that sector. 

I was wrong. A full second before I was going to ram its propellers, the drone suddenly dropped a couple of meters lower and veered to the right, then corrected to the initial heading. I overshot it and ended up slightly left and beyond the target. I turned hard right, trying to cut in front of it. It countered by braking and getting higher, then speeding up again, overtaking me in the process. As soon as I got my bearings I tried to ram it from below, which only lead to more frustration. 

I kept trying all kinds of aggressive maneuvers to try and outsmart it, but its collision avoidance systems were top-notch, and it started to look like it can’t be beat, at least when soaring over the majestic sea expanse, giving it the unlimited room for maneuver, the only limit being the surface below. All I needed was to slightly clip one of its propellers – that would be enough to bring it down. But the task has proven to be elusive. I had to act fast.

“Ship, bring the other drones to both sides of the escaping drone, as close as possible without triggering collision avoidance. Keep them glued to its sides at all times.”

I have to say the ship’s AI was excellent with interpreting my commands. It did what I asked it to do with high precision and great speed, without even saying a word. 

I revved the throttle, gaining some speed and altitude and then went into a dive, aiming for the collision into the escaping drone’s upper rear quarter. My angle was preventing it from braking hard and going up, its left and right was blocked by the other two drones, and it could not get any faster, so the only way it could go was down. And there was not much room there. But apparently there was enough to get out of my way by breaking hard and almost touching the water, then speeding up again, while I was busy swearing in Russian and trying not to crash my overshooting drone into the water, which at that speed would be as hard as a concrete wall.

It took me three tries to get it lower and lower and finally it was too low to attempt this stunt again. So when I dived next time, the rogue drone’s weak AI must have mentally shrugged, and deciding that it had fulfilled its duty and oh well what are you gonna do, avoided my drone for the last time by splashing in the water at an incredible speed, thoroughly disintegrating in the process.

A second later my diving drone has followed it to the drones’ heaven, tearing and shredding itself to smithereens. Radiation alarm went up on the shuttle’s wall, blinking red and nervously beeping. The collision must have not gone well for the bomb’s integrity, rapidly downgrading it from a nuclear fission weapon into a dirty bomb, and by the looks of it the terrorists would be worry-free in terms of making babies, combing and shaving for the (albeit short) remainters of their lives. I admit I wasn’t concerned about their faiths that much. It was bad news for the cargo ship’s honest sailors though, if there were any left. Well, there was nothing I could do about that now…

Speaking of the cargo vessel, there was still a possibility it had a second nuclear device on board, so it had to be disabled somehow. Neopanamax container ship with its dual hulls was not a fragile drone, we could not hope to ram it successfully enough to cause it to sink. And we had no heavy weapons that could stop it. Hacking its engine controllers would likely be a temporary solution, and we needed to stop it dead in its tracks and make sure it stayed put.

The shuttle AI has informed us in what sounded suspiciously like Jeeves voice (as played by Stephen Fry) that it had some good news and some bad news for us yet again, sir, madam. Well, I added that last part of course. Sometimes I just can’t resist my imagination. Meanwhile the ship continued.

“The good news was that after being alerted about the operation, the Israeli Air Force has done two entirely correct things: disabled its fighter drone fleet, and scrambled an F-35 squadron along with three helicopters carrying commando teams to take over the ship. The bad news is that while the Americans and Israelis were smart and quick enough to disable their drone units, the Italians were not. Their entire drone fleet based on Pratica di Mare Air Base has gone rogue and is heading our way now. ETA 35 minutes.”

Well, now the birdshit has really hit the turbofan!

“Why would the Horsemen do that?” My question wasn’t really addressed to anyone in particular, but I could not remain silent. Far from that, I was practically screaming. “They can’t possibly hope to defeat the entire air force and navy which is ready to sacrifice every single plane and ship to prevent the nuke reaching their land! This doesn’t make any sense!” I must have sounded a bit hysterical but I just refused to comprehend the motivation behind such an open and hostile action of a normally covert alien faction, which I thought had zero chance of success.

The reply I got did not come from the ship, but from Tia. In a stark contrast to my emotional outcry she was quiet, composed, and deadly serious.

“They are not coming for the Israelis. They are coming for you.”

I stared at her incomprehensibly.

“What? Who am I to justify sending a drone swarm after, and blowing the cover of the whole alien mission? They’d still be here after this is over and could start over, instead of exposing the extent of their infiltration into human top secret networks. This is not making sense!”   

“Come on, think! They have killed all of the advancers. They think that you and the shuttle’s AI are the only ones that can get the message out and end the whole thing. The failure of this mission means nothing – they have failed before and their patience is infinite. They could start again and eventually succeed. But their only chance of success is dependent on you and the AI not telling anything to the orbital AI or any other aliens for that matter. So they are willing to take on any risk to make sure you are not talking. If I’m right, they will stop at nothing to hunt you down and kill you. You and the shuttle.” She suddenly smirked at me. “You know, compared to your FUBAR situation, the suicide mission I’m going to volunteer for is a child’s play. I really don’t envy your position. At least if I survive this, I’m not likely to end up being hunted by an alien race.”

My head was buzzing from the shock of her reasoning. I wanted to argue, to shout at her about her ridiculous idea, but I couldn’t find anything wrong with it. It was the only sensible explanation for what was going on. The only thing I could mutter was “What suicide mission?”

She sighed deeply. 

“Look. We need to stop the ship. Hold it far enough from shore until the commando helicopters get here. We have a swarm of alien-controlled drone fighters coming after us. The ship told us it was not built to withstand multiple missile hits. If the drones fire everything they got at us – we’ll be toast. Meanwhile they can get close enough to the shore for their nuke to have the deadly effect the terrorists are aiming for. We can’t let that happen.”

She looked straight into my eyes. 

“It’s my turn now! I trained for this!”  Tia sounded very determined. “You know, I never told this to anyone, but I have always felt there is something slightly fake about the patriotic calls to die for your country, to give your life for the star-spangled banner and such. I was ready to do that because that was in my contract, but it did have a stale taste to it. But this?” She smiled, her eyes glowing and sparkling with what could only be tears. “We’re talking about the fate of humanity! I don’t care about politics or fake patriotism. Just listen to me and do what I say!”

I didn’t hesitate. There was so much sheer power in her commanding voice, there was no way I would risk standing in her way. I was painfully aware that whatever she wanted to do was extremely dangerous, and that I could lose her before I even had her. If she herself called it a “suicide mission” it must be disastrously bad for her health. I nodded as our eyes met. I opened my mouth, but couldn’t find anything to say. Eventually what I said was “do me a favour though, please don’t die. You can be a living hero, there is no need to be a dead one. Agreed?”

She did not dignify it with an answer, which was very telling. Instead she proceeded with an unmistakably military-grade staccato of commands. 

“Grab controls, and fly in circles around the cargo vessel’s superstructure, facing the bridge. Keep making us intermittently visible. We need to lure as many of them out as we can.”

“Why?” I was curious and worried.

“No time, do it now!” She snapped back, while she was checking her weapon and getting down on the floor, ready to fire from the prone position.

I grabbed the joystick, made us visible and flew up to the ship, starting making circles around it. Immediately I saw people with AK assault rifles coming out at several places, opening fire. There were two with what looked like a Russian 9K38 Igla shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles. I think they had an infra-red homing system, and so could probably track our shuttle. This was not good. Not good at all.

While I was piloting the aircraft, Tia sprang to action: she was lying on the floor, methodically and rapidly firing. She wasn’t even blinking when the enemy bullets hit our force-field. She just waited a few seconds until I made us invisible again, reducing enemy fire to the minimum – either few of them had night vision goggles, or they weren’t functional in daytime. As soon as we became invisible she became a killing machine, letting out rapid series of well-placed shots. The guys wielding anti-aircraft weapons went down first. 

Tia was relentless and brutally efficient. It was a massacre. Even knowing that those guys were ruthless mass-murderers didn’t make it easier to watch. There was no reason it had to be a fair fight, but it somehow felt wrong to participate in killing dozens of people in a matter of minutes. Wrong enough to prevent enjoying it. Or at least, enjoying it too much. I have to admit I still did enjoy it just a tiny little bit. There’s something about revenge. Something bittersweet. I hope not to feel it again. Ever… 

After a few minutes there were significantly fewer terrorists still capable of firing at us, the rest being dead or severely wounded. Some retreated inside the ship, others took cover and stopped firing, realizing it didn’t do much to us.

“Get closer to the bridge, hover one meter above window level, 20 meters out!” Tia shouted. I took us there. The bridge had thick but not quite bullet-proof windows. At that distance Tia’s bullets were going through like a hot knife through butter, and there was nowhere to hide from their deadly reach. We kept strafing past the bridge from port to starboard and sooner than I could say “I hope there’s a special place in hell reserved just for you” it was over. Everyone on the bridge was dead. 

“Get me to the bridge,” Tia said, “I will get out, then lock myself in from the inside and make sure the ship is heading away from shore, and stays on that heading until the commandos arrive and the drone swarm ceases to be a danger. There is no access to the bridge or its windows from outside, and I will dead-bolt all doors. I’ll be fine.”

“Tia, you’ll be dead! What if they get to you? What if they manage to get a clear shot from a container’s top or open a hatch you don’t know about, or do something else you haven’t thought of? What if Israeli commandos kill you before they figure out you’re on their side? At least let me go with you!”

“Listen, I’ve trained for this, I can make a difference. It’s my job. I’ll hold the fort. It’s possible that the drone swarm will defeat the commandos and it will take more time to get it sorted out. Someone should be here. You are a civilian and should not be involved. Besides, you need to get out of here, before the drones get you. Alien or not, the shuttle is not indestructible. You will not survive the battle if you stay in the air.”

As much as I hated it, she was right. But I didn’t have to stay in the air.

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