// 2020-05-20 // by Neon
[The previous section of this story can be found here. The next section can be found here. If you are a new reader, the first section of this story can be found here.]
"What the fuck..."
In his nine years of his service as an Air Force UAV operator and even a year spent flying under Zulu Division, Josh had never gotten used to seeing these alien ships. He'd earned his clearance and risen up the ladder, but does any elite pilot ever expect to be promoted to the effective rank of extraterrestrial traffic cop? Probably not, he guessed.
No going back now, though. Not after what they had done to him.
He panned and zoomed the camera to get a better look at the ominous disk-shaped vessel. Smoke billowed from the craft, obscuring it near completely on the optical spectrum. A huge track of scorched earth trailed the southern side of the craft where it had upturned the ground as it had come skidding to a halt into the side of a farmstead.
ELINT suggested that the patrol had experienced a CPC malfunction during the re-fire stage of atmospheric entry, causing its propulsion output to diminish below safe levels and result in uncontrollable descent velocity.
"Skyline to command, I have a visual on the OZ. Starting my sweep now."
You'd think this kind of incident was unheard of, but it happened more often than one would think. Usually at least a couple times every year. Not that different from the terrestrial Air Force, funnily enough. For all the mystique they were so fond of cultivating, the cylindrical wreckage below was a testament to the fact that a Zeta pilot wasn't really any more immune to a Class A mishap than one of their human counterparts.
Josh flicked his camera over to FLIR and took stock of the scene. Three automobiles were parked back to back in a line on a dirt road leading right up to the farmhouse. Six heat signatures stood out amidst the scene. IFF signals indicated the vehicles to be the ground team. Two more friendlies emerged from the farmhouse adjacent to the barn that the craft had crashed into.
Josh zoomed in further on the heat signatures coming out of the house. There were three of them clustered right next to each other, but only two friendly signals. The third individual looked to be struggling against the two friendlies, being dragged out of the house by force. Josh hadn't zoomed in enough to make out the blurry images, but he had a pretty good idea what was happening here. Cleanup.
His stomach wretched a little. The LZ looked to be secure. No reason to keep watching what was about to happen to that unlucky bastard down there. He panned the frame back a bit. The farm that the patrol vessel had crashed into was located in a clearing with woodlands to the east, separating it roughly 500 feet from a nearby county road to the west.
The road was near completely empty, with one southbound vehicle on approach. Josh expected it would continue to drive past, unaware of the scene unfolding to their east.
Unexpectedly, the vehicle slowed down and pulled over to what appeared to be a small path into the woods along the side of the county road. Bad move. Josh had to call it in.
"Skyline to command. I've got eyes on an unsanctioned vehicle due west of the OZ. Currently tracking; footage should be coming through now."
The voice of mission command crackled back over the radio, "Confirmed, Skyline. Weapons tight. Continue tracking the target and await further intel."
He shuddered in his seat. He knew where this was going. He'd seen it happen before, but he wasn't usually the one pulling the trigger. Not inside of American borders, at least. Usually, these engagements took place in locations isolated enough to where there wasn't really any possibility of neutral onlookers. But this? Who knows. This could be just a curious civilian.
He armed strike missiles and continued to track the target. The drivers' side door opened and an individual stepped out. Josh switched the camera back into optical imaging mode and zoomed in as best he could on the target.
He could only make out so much over the camera feed, especially with the inclement weather, but it was enough. Looked to be long pink hair, bright red outfit, and black thigh-high boots? Josh chuckled over the radio.
"Only one vehicle occupant. Looks like our farmer friend ordered himself some company. Just some cheap hooker. Advising a nonlethal intercept by ground team."
"Unconfirmed. Continue tracking the target, Skyline."
The woman stumbled down through the ditch beside the road and clambered into the woods toward the landing site. Josh switched back to FLIR imaging in order to keep sight of her as she disappeared under the treeline. Whoever this chick was, she had no idea that she was just a trigger pull away from being blown into a million pieces. Josh could feel an uneasiness in his gut. This wasn't right.
He continued to track the target as she made her way through the woods. She stumbled and tripped and fell while walking through the overgrown terrain, but eventually she made it to the edge of the clearing. She abruptly stopped and crouched behind a bush or some other vegetation. Probably shitting her pants at the sight of the downed Zeta vessel. A year ago, Josh probably would have done the same himself.
He waited a few minutes, patiently observing her, until command broke the silence over the radio, "We have COMINT confirmation of target identity, Skyline. Tango is a rogue diplomat who we have reason to believe poses an intel security risk to the Directive."
Butterflies ran through Josh's stomach as command gave the order. "Advise termination. Weapons free."
His hands were shaky, palms sweating and leaving a sweaty mess all over the flight controls. He covered the trigger. He tried to reason with himself. Do it, just press it, Josh. Don't break the chain of command. You're just doing what you're told. You've basically done this before. You're a soldier. This won't be your first kill.
He flipped back to optical. The lone woman was barely visible underneath the vegetation, even under max zoom. Several faintly pink pixels of her dyed hair were all he could see. But it was enough. Those few pixels, they were a human being. A living and breathing American human being, whose rights Josh had sworn an oath to protect under the Constitution.
He couldn't do it. He wouldn't.
The radio blared at him again, "Skyline, that is an order. Engage the target."
He switched it off. He had spent years flying these things, and he knew every trick in the book to make his trusty Predator drone do what needed to be done.
Josh disengaged the weapon systems and jettisoned the drone's now-inactive payload so that it could not be re-armed. He panned the camera back over to the downed Zeta patrol ship and fiddled with the drone's communication controls. Outbound transmissions were obviously disabled for OPSEC purposes, but Josh had been at this game long enough to have a couple of tricks up his sleeve to get himself an open channel.
He re-aligned the aircraft to send multiple VHF bursts in the direction of the nearby Washington, DC. Josh set the radio to quickly repeat a burst to the more common commercial television frequencies, and then to several HAM radio channels. He had to ensure that someone was going to hear this.
"My fellow Americans, my name is Joshua Ames, United States Air Force. Look me up, I'll be dead in a few minutes. You have been lied to. We are not alone. And I've been helping to hide them from you. They put worms in our brains to blackmail us into doing what they want and slaughter us if we don't. This shit is all the way up to the top. The public needs to know. Please, if you're hearing this, re-upload it somewhere. I've encoded a video stream in this transmission. See for yourself what their ships look like."
He teared up, his voice frantic, "Fuck me, they're targeting our own people. They want me to kill an American diplomat in cold blood. I won't do it. To them we're just cattle--"
His controls went out. Josh sighed. His message was out there. Any second now, they'd know. They'd know he wasn't a slave to those grey motherfuckers anymore.
Artwork created by me using GIMP. The assets I used are sourced from public domain and are listed below.
A full resolution download of the artwork for this section is available here.