Being one of the foremost Croatian SF authors, Aleksandar Žiljak resides in Zagreb. He won SFERA Award five times, equally excelling in illustration and prose. Aleksandar Žiljak published in Germany and Denmark, and currently co-edits the anthology of Croatian science fiction.
PRICE OF FREEDOM
Wailing sirens finally break the whole day of tense uncertainty. We all jump at the piercing sound, almost sighing with relief. Waiting is worst of all. 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, 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 blackened out in just a few minutes. Good civil defence, I nod as I rush to the crew entrance. It will take me some 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 was brewing for a long time. Same old story: a strong, aggressive force next to a small nation determined to defend itself. At first, negotiations with the help of mediators were tried and then the big guys issued a ultimatum, expecting the little ones to capitulate. But, the ultimatum expired this evening, and there’s still no surrender. And so, hundreds of combat aircraft and cruise missiles are just taking off to attack.
I’m a stranger here and, basically, all this doesn’t concern me at all. Except for one small detail: my ship is being unloaded for the past two days in the capital’s main spaceport and, exposed on the tarmac, it’s nothing else but a nice, fat target. So I have to break through to it and climb into orbit before it’s too late.
At that moment, 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 a bag. A little bit too much for personal protection kits being 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 way I can imagine her in the air defence is to distract enemy pilots as they drop their bombs.
"You want an advice of someone who’s been in the war and knows what’s it 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 scream in the mud with 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 lovely moments with her. With me, she still has some chance. There will be someone to hit her over her head and drag her to some hole when it turns 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, leaves the town and climbs 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 exits 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. I wish we came here under different circumstances.
"Come and help me!", Zenia calls me as she runs to a large dome on the edge of the clearing. The dome opens wide, revealing a platform with six launching pads carrying winged missiles, resembling small aeroplanes. This is something new, I decide as I follow her on the platform.
The missiles are built for speed, having swept wings some three metres in span, a warhead surrounded by an air intake, a vertical fin and two starting rockets slung under the fuselage. "An athodyd?", I ask Zenia.
Zenia nods. An athodyd is the simplest jet engine, no compressor, no turbines. Admittedly, it needs some initial speed to work. That’s why 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 ... Somewhat funny name for fuel supply. I want to get off the platform, I walk around one of the missiles. Suddenly, the tip of its warhead opens and an eye looks at me, blinking, as if driving the last remains of the long sleep away. The missile’s wings bend and stretch. I look around, dumbfounded, 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 then they started contemplating the meaning of life. It’s easier to guide them ourselves."
It won’t go that easy, I’m afraid. I’m certain jamming started already. At that moment, the sky is torn apart by fiery trails of the first missiles. Suddenly, 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. I realise these are the attacking cruise missiles that are 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. Then, a roar of rocket engines behind my back deafens me. The rockets rise the missile and give it the speed necessary 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 the spasm of concentration, and I suddenly realise that somebody on the other side miscalculated. Miscalculated badly! There are thousands of missiles already airborne, they will simply run over everything in their way by sheer numbers. And not even all the jamming will help the attackers: the missiles are guided telepathically! Now I know what is Zenia doing on the front-line. She obviously has the power, they drafted her and trained her, together with others. Nobody ever dreamed what kind of defence was being built here.
Zenia is tense, linked to the missile, her forehead sweaty. The missile certainly has excellent night vision, Zenia will direct it as soon as the target is spotted. At that moment, 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 find 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, flashes and Zenia collapses to her knees. Then, too late, I understand what’s happening and rush to stop her, but she pushes me away and launches the remaining three missiles. Three flashes, another plane falls as Zenia sinks without a voice. Each hit is a death of a missile, each death strikes with full power, 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. I 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 senses, her pulse gets weaker and weaker. Helpless, I feel I’m loosing her. She seeps through my fingers, and it’s not shrapnel or bullet to just press and bandage and shoot 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 counterattack. I watch the missiles fly 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.