. .

Price of Freedom

by Aleksandar Žiljak

Wailing sirens finally break an entire day of tense uncertainty. We all jump at the piercing sound, almost sighing with relief. Waiting is the worst part.. Once it starts, you know what to do and you do it. TV crews leave their drinks, grab their cameras and run out of the spaceport bar, like dogs smelling fresh blood.

I leave after them, and those few people still out run to shelters. Before the sirens even stop I’m left all alone in the street. Then the spaceport sinks into darkness, block by block. Everything is empty and blacked out in just a few minutes. Good civil defence, I think, as I rush to the crew entrance. It will take me twenty minutes on foot and I don’t expect the first bombs for at least three quarters of an hour. Just enough time…

The war had been brewing for a long time. Same old story: a strong, aggressive force pitted against a small nation determined to defend itself. At first negotiations with the help of mediators were tried. Then the big guys issued a ultimatum, expecting the little ones to capitulate. The ultimatum expired this evening without any sign of surrender. Now hundreds of combat aircraft and cruise missiles are just taking off to attack.

I’m a stranger here and basically none of this concerns me at all. Except for one small detail: my ship has been unloading for the past two days in the capital’s main spaceport and, exposed on the tarmac, it’s nothing but a nice, fat target. So I have to break through to it and climb into orbit before it’s too late.

A horn blows behind me. I turn around, a floater slows down and the doors open. Zenia sits at the wheel, wearing a helmet, a flak jacket and carrying a bag. Somewhat more than the personal protection kits that have been issued to citizens for the past couple of days. “Where are you going?”, I ask her.

“To my air defence post”, Zenia replies. I’m left speechless: Zenia is a sweet little candy, her hair brown, her eyes green, her proportions flawless. Her profession? The oldest one, favours for tired spaceship crews charged by an hour. The only use I can imagine for her in the air defence is distracting enemy pilots as they drop their bombs.

“Want some advice from someone who’s been to war and knows what it’s like?” Everybody knows that the local air defence is a pile of junk that won’t last ten minutes. “You just come with me, so we can get lost while there’s still time.”

“You’re afraid?” Zenia studies me. There’s determination in her eyes, and something else. I’ve seen it plenty of times, it doesn’t go until it’s too late, until you’re screaming in the mud, your leg torn apart or your chest shot-through.

I know I can’t dissuade her, not yet, not until death starts raining all around her, perhaps not even then. And I can’t just leave her like that, to be cannon fodder: I’ve spent too many beautiful moments with her. With me, she still has a chance. She will have someone to hit her over her head and drag her to a hole when it gets hot.

“Not for myself,” I answer sullenly as I climb into the seat next to her.

Zenia steps on it, the floater rushes through empty streets, leaving the town and climbing the road uphill, through the forest. The trees rush past us in the darkness. I check the time: the fireworks will start in about twenty minutes. The floater pulls into a clearing and Zenia stops, opens the doors and jumps out. I follow her. A nice view of the city under black-out breaks from the clearing. Starry sky above us, without a single cloud. Would have been nice to be here under different circumstances.

Zenia runs to a large dome at the edge of the clearing. “Come and help me!” she calls. The dome opens wide, revealing a platform with six launching pads holding winged missiles, resembling small aeroplanes. This is something new, I decide, following her onto the platform.

The missiles are built for speed: swept-back three-metre wingspan, warhead embedded in an air-intake, a vertical fin and two thruster rockets slung under the fuselage. “An athodyd?” I ask Zenia.

Zenia nods. An athodyd is the simplest jet engine, no compressor, no turbines. All it needs is some initial speed to work. Hence the rockets. Basic, even primitive, but efficient. “Get them off the feeder!”

I find the line on the nearest missile and detach it. Zenia does the same and we unhook all the missiles, one by one. ‘Feeder’: funny name for fuel- supply. Making my way off the platform, I walk past one of the missiles. Without warning, the warhead’s tip opens and an eye looks at me, blinking, as if driving away the last remains of a long sleep. The missile’s wings bend and stretch.

I look around, dumbfounded as the neighbouring aircraft also wake up and stir. They’re alive!

“It took us a lot of trouble to breed them.”

“They have brains?”

“Primitive ones. At first we wanted them smart, but they kept contemplating the meaning of life. It’s easier to guide them ourselves.”

I worry that it won’t be that easy. Jamming must have started already. At that moment, the sky is torn apart by fiery trails from the first missiles. In a moment, they rise in hundreds. And the first explosions, bright thundering flashes turning night into day for the briefest of moments, some in the air, some on the ground, well beyond city limits. These are the attackers’ cruise missiles being hit, exploding mid-air or crashing out of control.

Swarms of new missiles take off all around the city and I want to ask Zenia how many of them there are, but a roar of rocket engines behind my back deafens me. Rockets are powering up, rasing the missiles and giving them the necessary speed for the athodyd to produce thrust. Once spent, they are jettisoned, just two dark cylinders falling into the forest.

Zenia stands still, her eyes closed in a fury of concentration, and I realise that somebody on the other side miscalculated. Miscalculated badly! Thousands of defensive missiles are already airborne, and all the jamming in the world won’t help the attackers: they are guided telepathically! Soon, they will overrun everything in their path, if only by sheer force numbers. This is what Zenia is doing on the front-line. She obviously has the power, and she’s been drafted and trained – and she’s not alone. Nobody could have imagined what kind of defence was being built here.

Zenia is tense, connected to her missile, her forehead sweaty. The weapon has excellent night vision, Zenia will direct it as soon as a target is spotted. Suddenly, a flash. Zenia staggers and almost falls, suddenly opening her eyes. And in the sky above, brilliant streak of burning fuel tears the night apart. Probably an electronic warfare aircraft, sent ahead to seek and destroy radar stations.

I chalk up one for Zenia. I want to congratulate her, but she closes her eyes again and two more missiles scream off into the night. A minute later, there are more flashes and Zenia collapses to her knees. Too late, I understand what’s happening and rush to stop her, but she pushes me away and launches the three remaining missiles. Three flashes: another plane falls as Zenia sinks without a voice. Each strike is the death of a missile, each death strikes with awful force. Six deaths in succession.

I can barely feel Zenia’s pulse. She’s on the edge, her brain shaken by the fury of explosions. I lift her and carry her to the floater and set the controls for the nearest hospital. The autopilot takes us back down the hill and into the city. Zenia doesn’t come to, her pulse weakening all the while. I am helpless. I am I’m losing her. She is slipping through my fingers and there’s not shrapnel to remove or bullet-wound to press and fill with morphine.

Zenia burns out like a candle. I hold her hands and I know when it’s over, when she finally goes out.

I stop the floater. There’s no more reason to hurry. I step out, the sky is filled with new swarms, taking off into counter-attack. I watch the missiles fly, making for enemy bases, and I wonder how many of those that guide them will end like Zenia, how many will pay the price she paid, the price of freedom.

Translated by Aleksandar Žiljak

Original title „Cijena slobode

Copyright © 1999 by Aleksandar Žiljak

Aleksandar Žiljak was born in Zagreb, Croatia, in 1963 and studied at the Faculty of Electrical Engingeering. Since 1997 he is a fulltime artist, specialized in wildlife illustration and science fiction paintings. Since 1991 he is also active as a writer and has established himself as one of the leading Croatian sf writers. His first story collection was published in 2004. He received the Croatian Sfera Award five time for his short stories and illustrations. He was involved in the InterNova project from early on and has contributed several stories and nonfiction to the German Nova. A translation of one of his finest stories, „Ultamarine“, was published in Nova 17.

© . .

More from this author: