ODE TO JOAN OF ARC
SHE FELT A BEAD OF SWEAT trickle down her back, while others formed ready to soak her shirt beneath her encounter suit. The overwhelming urge was to scratch at the irritation from the carbon that leached out from the suit, but she couldn’t. Couldn’t because of the large rubber gloves covering her hands. Hands that rested either side of the communications rig, waiting. Waiting for a signal. A word. Anything that would tell her what was happening in her own little sphere of the war.
She had not taken her eyes from the leader board, out front, in over ten minutes. Concentrating on the usually ever changing data. The lettered tiles were not flipping over. A fact that relayed the alarming truth. The battle was not going well. Four squadrons had flown out in the early hours of the morning to engage the enemy, through the thick fog that covered the tiny hamlet. The base lay hidden, nestled in the sheltering cover of trees. All but the runway that is. A thin ribbon of concrete that gave away their position like a lit beacon flashing, ‘look we’re here!’
We’re here. She tried not to think about it. About what had brought them to this moment in time, this moment in space—in such a short time. Diplomacy having long since failed. The Peace talks having fallen on deaf ears, the bombs had starting flying instead of the rhetoric.
Concentrate on your job, she chided herself. To do otherwise was to invite the ‘what ifs’ and she knew where that path lead. She ignored the physical irritations of thirst, sweat, hunger and the onslaught of fatigue. She ignored the reality of the stats board a while longer. Regardless, a small needle of fear stabbed deep inside her. It reminded her this wasn’t just some drill, wasn’t just another exercise. This time it was for real.
From within her tiny oasis of calm, alone in the semi-lit claustrophobic room on the ground floor. Which, in truth, was no more than a furnished ten by six, with two doors and a desk that ran the length of the glass panel. She looked out onto Eng. Ops and to the three officers who, likewise clothed in dark green encounter suits, sat waiting for the inevitable.
Their faces obscured by black rubber gas masks, eyes lost to view, she wondered what they were thinking. Had fear begun to creep into their thoughts, their conversation? She envied them their company in her solitude.
A light glowed on the console, which squeaked. She flicked a switch to respond.
“Intel.” The word came out muffled, inaudible even to her ears. She tried again, louder.
“Status report.” The disembodied voice asked without any hint of emotion.
“Nothing, as of this time.” There was a moment’s silence.
The voice spoke again. “Nothing?”
“Nothing, Sir,” she added.
Four squadrons, twenty planes to a squadron. Eighty planes in all. Not one, in over three hours, had reported in. If they were talking to anyone at all, they weren’t talking to her.
“Nothing, Sir, nothing at all.” She repeated her statement of fact. No one had made a mission report. She’d already surmised no one was ever going to make a report, of any kind.
When she’d dialled through the bandwidth earlier, she’d heard nothing but background static. For the last hour she had not heard any kind of chatter. Nothing. She knew the enemy could be blocking all communications. And so, breaking protocol, she’d tried all the other major frequencies. Even the emergency channels. Nothing.
The world had gone silent. Her world had gone silent. It had made her feel quite sick. If it wasn’t for Petrie coming in from the corridor on his way through to Intelligence, she might have lost it then and there. Even thrown up. As it was, the mounting tension was eating away at her guts.
“Thank you for your service.” The disembodied voice said as if, in a moment of divine revelation, it knew the truth. The line went dead.
She adjusted the headset sat atop her head. It didn’t quite fit while wearing a gas mask. Nothing fit. Her clothes, the situation, anything. Her personal jigsaw puzzle was missing pieces it would never have. As an analyst it was her job to sift through data, to piece together information, and report its content. Nice, neat, concise.
She did so now, to herself. Taking what she knew and filling in the holes with intel taken from subtext—she read between the lines, divining. The conclusions were unmistakable. No one was coming home. Whoever the enemy was, and she still didn’t know for sure, they had vanquished everything they had sent out to meet them.
Germany and, maybe, the whole of Europe, was falling. Had fallen. The world too?
She scanned both sections of the leader board. Engineering had ceased updating maybe twenty minutes earlier. The flutter of tiny flashing lights, on the Ops board above it though had continued up until a few minutes ago. It was no coincidence that the updates had stopped the moment Group Captain Howard had asked her for an update.
All Intel, both upstairs and down, had stopped flowing. They were, in all probability, no longer in contact with HQ at Rheindahlan let alone the now missing squadrons. And next door, in Intelligence?
She wondered what news they had from their own sources. It would have been a simple matter to get up, walk to the door open it and find out. But she didn’t, instead, in frustration; she flung the now useless headset down on the tabletop. It skidded to a stop against the plate of congealed, stone-cold eggs that had been breakfast. Served almost to the minute the intercom system had sounded an alert and everyone had donned gas masks.
Nine seconds. It was all they had. Get it on in less than nine bloody seconds. It was the drill. Only, this time, it hadn’t been a drill.
That had been several hours ago. Several painfully long hours ago. Time stretched, seconds became as minutes, minutes as hours. Now, she felt as if she had just run out of time. If she had been religious in any way she might have begun to pray. As it was she felt a strange emotion well up from deep inside her, one of desolation, one of loss.
Peeling off first one, then the other glove, she tugged at the straps of her mask, loosening the pull-ties. She lay the mask down in front of her. Hands still clutching the vulcanized rubber. She knew with a certainty that she couldn’t explain to herself, let alone anyone else, she was never going to need it.
That she was never going to see the light of day dawning over the conifer forest at shift’s end. Or feel the soft caress of a gentle breeze upon her face. To breath in the scent of her mother’s cologne or her treasured roses. And never again smell that sweet smell of her father’s pipe tobacco of an evening out on the balcony back home.
In a heartbeat she would lose it all. In a heartbeat she would pass from being, to ghost. Pass from living, to dead. And, with a conviction that only the dead know about, she picked up a red-wax pencil and wrote on the Plexiglas desk top.
Not an epitaph but a statement of fact. Her name. A name that she felt she’d had to live up to her entire life. Now, aged 19, she was going to be burnt alive. The acrid smoke that had begun to creep beneath the door to her right was beginning to fill the room. An intense heat penetrated the buckling metal, which squealed in pain and on the point of giving way.
Life, she thought, had only one certainty—Death.
The fiery flames of Hell had come looking for her. What else could she do? Standing tall, she met them head on. After all, she had survived one fire, so long ago; maybe she could this time as well.