He turned the flight helmet over and over in his hands. Painted on the side was Pia Gonzalez’s name and callsign in red-yellow lettering, now peeling from age and neglect. The memory foam inside had reset, ready to mould itself to fit a new face, and Bomber prepared himself mentally for the process. It wouldn’t be pleasant.
     The past had a funny way of catching up with you, he decided. These past few weeks had been a long uncomfortable trip down memory lane. Familiar faces, emotions that had been better off buried . . . Stuff he really didn’t want to deal with. He tried to distract himself with the present and the future. His thoughts turned to Gina, to what he might find when he reached her. He still felt flashes of her presence around him. Maybe she was watching him even now.
     He stood up, helmet under his armpit, and fled the claustrophobic stuffiness of the office. It was an empty box sandwiched into one corner of an old aircraft hangar. Even with the big hydraulic doors shut, Bomber found it easier to breathe in the bigger space. How Colonel Obrin got his hands on the place was anybody’s guess.
     Pia’s helicopter stood in the middle of the hangar, discarded tools and parts strewn all around it. Toledo and a team of Army technicians were still elbow-deep in the copter’s guts.
     He rapped his knuckles on the carbon-plate fuselage to get their attention. “Out of time, boys,” he announced. “We need to get her ready.”
     Most of the techs scurried off immediately, but Toledo stayed behind, wiping his hands on an oil rag while two unfortunate souls put everything back together and sealed the open panels. “Nice machine. You shouldn’t have any trouble getting her to fly.”
     “Pia kept her in good shape,” Bomber said.
     A slight smile touched his lips, and he dropped his voice. “I took the liberty of installing a little hack in the communications system. There’s a new frequency in case you need to contact me without anyone else listening in.”
     Bomber quirked an eyebrow at the pleasant surprise. “Who knows?”
     “You and me.”
     “Nice work. Can it be traced or detected?”
     Toledo shrugged laconically. “There’s always a chance.”
     “Let’s just hope we won’t need it,” said Bomber. He ran gloved fingers over the copter’s sleek grey fuselage, appreciating its lines like the body of a beautiful woman. “Help me run the pre-flights. I want everything ready to go.”
     His feet recognised the well-worn steps up to the cockpit. The bucket seat enfolded him with a sense of warm familiarity. Soft plastic responded to his input, screens coming alive, flight stick adjusting itself to the shape of his hand.
     “Stealth systems are green, Captain,” the controller’s voice warbled from the radio. “Nobody should see you, just be careful you don’t hit anything when you take off.”
     ‘Captain’. Now there was something he hadn’t been called in a while. Something about it didn’t feel right. He couldn’t think of himself as Captain Jacob Dusther, United States Army Aviator, anymore. Those days were gone.
     He said, “Call me Bomber.”
     “Wilco. Pre-flight check commencing. Tick ’em off as they come up, Bomber.”
     They went through every mechanical and electronic part in the copter, one by one, verifying a green response from each system — or at least a yellow within tolerances. There hadn’t been time to get everything up to a hundred percent. It was kind-of therapeutic. It sharpened his mind for the upcoming battle.
     Last to check were the pilot controls; he was about to force himself to put on the helmet when another voice cut into the comms circuit. “Jacob,” said the Colonel, “I’d like a word before you go.”
     “What about, Sir? Should I get the Major?”
     “This doesn’t concern Hawthorn or your mercenary friend. Meet me in the control tower, alone. Please.”
     The odd timbre of Obrin’s voice caught Bomber’s attention. He climbed down from the cockpit, loosened the collar on his flight suit and, out of sheer habit, checked his hip holster. The laser sat snugly inside. He made sure it was in reach, then headed across the tiny airfield to the traffic control tower.

***

     Electronic security scanned his face and buzzed him through. He followed the stairs to the top, to the main control room. Going by the dust this place hadn’t been used in a while. Much of the ageing equipment had been cut open, new technology crudely wired in. Colonel Obrin stood by the window and looked out over the field. Little clumps of activity showed down below, carefully disguised as a civilian operation to fool the ever-watching satellites.
     Obrin said, “You’re wondering why I called you.”
     “It crossed my mind, Sir.”
     “I want us to be honest with each other, Jacob.” He turned to Bomber and drummed his fingers on the railing. His forehead wrinkled more than usual, and his bushy eyebrows dipped into a frown. “I like to think of myself as a pretty good judge of character. When we met again yesterday, I saw something in your eyes that I haven’t seen in a very long time.” He paused as if to figure out a way to phrase something difficult. “You . . . know about the memory block, don’t you, son?”
     Bomber crossed his arms with mock casualness. “Jez told me. Something about two years goin’ missing in my head, and that you might be involved.”
     “She’s right. I used to know a sergeant by the name of Jacob Dusther, long before you ever set foot in a damn helicopter. Hell, I remember when you first reported to my unit at Quantico. Another recruit fresh off the farm.”
     Sighing, he grabbed a near-empty bottle of scotch from the top of a console and poured himself another double. Bomber began to realise just how drunk the Colonel already was. The old soldier carried it off remarkably well.
     “I had a project and a team. We were using experimental nanotechnology to help create a new breed of soldiers. Cybernetic implantation, biological alterations, everything. With the nanos we could control everything. Implants never got rejected. Healing took days instead of months. Even your equipment could repair itself, damnedest thing I ever saw.
     “We trained you to be the best this world ever saw, and it worked. Everything ran like clockwork. Until politics got involved,” he spat bitterly. “In the end, the best I could do was . . . rehabilitate you into other projects. That’s how you wound up in F Squadron.”
     “Why tell me this?” asked Bomber, unsure if he ought to be angry or not. “Why now?”
     “To warn you, son. They didn’t want you to recover those memories. Ever. If you mess with the block you might end up a vegetable, or worse.”
     That settled Bomber’s decision. Slow, warm anger began to throb behind his eyes. “You already sent me off to die once, Colonel. I don’t see a reason for the change of heart.”
     Obrin grunted and stared at the bottle. “I deserved that. Just . . . Indulge an old man. Is there anything left in your head from those days?”
     At first Bomber started to deny it, but something stopped him. A faint crawling sensation nagged at the back of his skull. It was like a phrase on the tip of his tongue, just out of reach. The smell of disinfectant. Vague images of a dimmed room, hard metal on skin, viscous liquid everywhere. Coldness giving way to heat. Hands. Voices.
     “Is there any danger of him remembering?” asked the Colonel. His words rang with iron control. Something whirred and started to press into Bomber’s skull, followed by a high-pitched grinding noise, and the faint smell of burning filled the room.
     “Not without killing him. Hypnotic conditioning will lock this entire area of memory against soft techniques, and the implants will prevent medical intervention. You, um.” The voice paused. “You realise he won’t be the Jacob Dusther you knew. He won’t want to think about his past. He’ll grow calmer, cooler, and more aloof as time goes on. Constant supervision will be necessary for the first few months.”
     “I’ll keep an eye on him. I’m fond of the kid.” He chewed the inside of his cheek. “I can arrange places and stations for the others, but Dusther is the real problem. Make sure you get it right.”
     “Yes, Sir.” She hesitated as if wanting to say something more, then thought better of it.
     The Colonel took a deep breath. His footsteps receded slowly into the distance.
     “Jacob? Did you hear what I said?”
     Bomber snapped back to the present. Rigid muscles protested against his movements, but he made them look natural as he faced Obrin. “Sorry, Sir. I really don’t recall.” He added, “I should get our bird up in the air.”
     The Colonel dismissed him with a nod. Bomber climbed back down the stairs and returned to the hangar, trying to recapture the flashback, to shake something more out of the closed box of his memory. Nothing more came out.

***

     Bomber laboriously adjusted the copter’s pilot seat, then spent a long time tweaking every control to his style and satisfaction. Pia always liked them on the twitchy side. The only time Bomber had ever tried to fly her bird, many years ago, he came within a hair of running it into the ground.
     He looked up when the hangar’s hydraulic doors began to creak open. A tractor rolled inside towing a bulbous, vaguely shark-like shape behind it. It was a short-bodied helicopter with coaxial rotors, one set of blades above the other, a type of attack ship in service during the Recommunist revolts. The name ‘Kamov’ was emblazoned in red down one side of the nose. Unusually, most of its weapons appeared intact, heavy cannons and missile racks still present in good condition. Crews in civilian clothing readied fuel lines and dragged up ordnance dollies, preparing the thing for combat.
     Finally the cockpit popped, and Hawthorn stood up to wave at Bomber’s staring face. His voice crackled over the radio, “Told you I got your wing.”
     “You’re crazy, Hawk!” Bomber shouted, standing on his chair with hands gripping the headrest. “That thing’s gonna stand out like a fuckin’ neon sign!”
     “If they’re paying attention to me, they’re not paying attention to you. Might give you the edge you need. It’s not like I’m giving you a choice, Jacob, so just appreciate the company.”
     Frustrated, Bomber dug around for his radio headset and wrestled it onto his cranium. “You cannot be doin’ this, Hawk. I’m about to put myself pretty far into the Colonel’s bad books and you don’t want to be there with me!”
     “What, you mean abandoning the mission to save your girlfriend from the Feds?” the Major deadpanned. “I’ve actually been looking forward to meeting her.”
     There was a long pause. Bomber didn’t often find himself lost for words, but this was one of those times. He managed, “She’s not my girlfriend . . .”
     Hawthorn chuckled. “Just you keep telling yourself that, Jake.”
     A series of metal clangs reverberated through the hangar as an ordnance robot loaded the Kamov’s missiles. Fuel pumps filled its tank with a low, mechanical drone. The crews coordinated by way of shouts and aggressive hand gestures.
     “You damn well better not fall behind,” growled Bomber as he tore off the headset. Then he put it back on a little sheepishly, picking up the helmet, and switched frequencies. “Control, am I cleared for take-off?”
     “Affirmative,” came Colonel Obrin’s voice. “Godspeed, Grendel.”
     “Call me Bomber.”
     He switched back to a private frequency, gritted his teeth, and slammed the helmet on his head. The memory foam crawled over him, finding all the organs, then cleared room for things like eyes and breathing. It expanded slightly when it hardened, giving support in all the important places.
     Tractors pulled both helicopters out onto the airfield. From there it was a matter of switching on the autopilot and telling it where to go. He punched in the Feds’ projected course from Jock, then planned his interception. The real challenge would be to shadow them until they led him to the right place.
     The copter barely seemed to move when it left the ground. It glided into the air, effortless, and Bomber let his hands feel the tiny vibration of the craft around him.
     Then he dug the holorecorder from his pocket and pressed play.
     It flashed to life, filling the air with five young faces, laughing and messing around on their way back to base from the local bar. They teased and jeered at each other. A young Jacob Dusther drunkenly kissed a half-undressed Sarah Caine, while Andrew Hawthorn and Jamie Caine touched hands whenever they thought nobody was looking. Pia waved and made silly faces at the recorder.
     The gate guard waved them through without even looking. The group quickly dispersed after that. Bomber and Sarah staggered off in the direction of her trailer. Jamie slunk away without a word, while Hawthorn said an awkward goodbye to Pia. Left alone with her recorder, she suddenly looked very lonely. It only lasted a moment. She soon recovered her smile and held the recorder up to capture the stars on her way to her trailer.
     Bomber felt a bittersweet smile tug at the corners of his mouth. He wasn’t the only one lost in the past.
     “Good times,” he said, and turned it off.

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