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American Atheist: 23

by  Nelly

Posted: Wednesday, March 8, 2006
Word Count: 7357
Related Works: American Atheist: #1 • 

Benedykt Gallo, Cardinal of the archdiocese of Poland, always checked the outside corridor before entering his office. It made him feel safe and he trusted no one else. He appeared to be alone - not that he was. Two secret service agents stood concealed within the curtained windows, their presence betrayed by the whimsical odour of pipe tobacco and old sweat. A team of eight Swiss Guard waited in the watch-room to guarantee his personal safety. He could hear their muffled voices through the old stone walls.

There was no one else. He was certain.

He subjected his office to the same intense scrutiny. At a glance he could tell if anything was out of place. It was a talent he possessed long before being given the Gift. He called it a survival trait honed to a keen edge in over thirty years of political manoeuvring. Others called it paranoia and perhaps it was, but he had survived in the halls of the Vatican longer than most and even thrived where so many had failed. If there was such a thing as healthy paranoia, then Gallo had it in spades.

Hundreds of books lined the circular walls in stout oak cabinets. Bay windows were left ajar with wooden slats clinking in a warm breeze. Paintings suspended over marble plinths crossed the room like silent sentries, the closest of which - 'The Nu couché aux fleurs’ by Pavlov Picasso - could just be seen. He had met the artist, only the once, introduced at a dinner party in 1918 when visiting Paris. Gallo hadn’t liked him, Picasso’s bohemian arrogance grated quickly on his nerves. He preferred the company of Picasso’s second wife, Marie-Therese, who had been enraged by her husband’s inability to cope with high society. Gallo had enjoyed Marie-Therese’s anger, gaining pleasure in watching her little face screw up in repeated frustration and kept the painting - which was one of Picasso’s expressions of his love for Marie-Therese - purely as a reminder of the personal hell she suffered, living daily with the man.

His collection included a range of swords: the most expensive being a silver-hilted blade formally owned by an American knight in 1746, a series of ancient maps of Italy, ranging from the Renaissance to the Risorgimento, and a beautifully preserved death mask of the god Hades. This was his favourite. Made around 340BC, in Vergina, Macedonia. Used by high priests when sacrificing humans to appease the lord of Tartarus. It was made from polished black wood, with tiny flecks of gold across its crown. He liked the concept of the mask, not only symbolising Father Death, but also concealing the true face of the wearer. Creating a barrier they could hide behind, making them mere spectators in the pain and blood of sacrifice. It struck a cord of shared emotion - a rarity in his life.

His secretary, Mrs Zielinski, had dimmed the overhead lights and left a single lamp on, bathing the office in the subtle shade of an amber hue. Gallo made it a point to meet Mrs Zielinski’s family. Her husband was a senior clerk in Vatican City. Their four children attended local schools and the eldest had just enrolled in the Pontifical Gregorian University. He asked about them on a regular basis, hiding implied threats behind questions about their health and well being. All as a non-too-gentle reminder of who he was and what he was capable of – if ever betrayed. Through her unspoken fear, both parties had generously profited; he paid well and she kept his affairs in order.

Feeling satisfied all was as it should be, he walked over to a cabinet and fixed himself a drink. He hovered over the brandy before settling for a whisky, dropping four cubes of ice into the bronzed liquid, a generous double, which he downed in one go – it had been a long day and he deserved it. Smacking his lips he poured himself another.

With the whisky warming his insides, Gallo eased himself into his leather chair. Last night, he had captured an American spy and once his head torturer - Bishop Cecilio - was finished with her, it would be leaked to the tabloids.

Pride was a curious thing. As one of the deadly sins, he fully understood the dangers inherent in such an emotion and yet it firmly held him in its grip. His eyes glittered as he imagined the headlines. ‘Gallo on the warpath!’ He took a sip of the whisky and rolling it around his mouth tried another, ‘Cardinal Gallo saves the day.’

He couldn’t help but feel pleased.

Usually, Gallo hunted the Jewish ghetto with Cardinal Pappalardo and Elmo, but when rumour of a spy spread through Rome, he couldn’t resist the opportunity to test his skills. She had proved elusive and resourceful; the chase more draining than he cared to admit. Finally, though, they had her cornered and the game was won.

Now, Gallo wanted to share in his success. The two Cardinals were due to come over, as they always did, have a few drinks and debate the various points of the hunt. After several glasses they would walk over to the Charnel house and kick around the walking corpses. It was something they did after every hunt. It had become a ritual and was always observed. Only they hadn’t turned up.

He crushed ice between his teeth.

On impulse, he opened a drawer and fished out a small hand-held mirror edged with silver. There were four such mirrors around his office, and Gallo concealed within his simar a smaller vanity mirror for the odd occasion he was caught without amenities. It made good sense to look his best. He didn’t want to be let down by a hair out of place or caught food between his teeth. His reflection showed a long pale face with high cheekbones and thin bloodless lips. His hair was curled and black. Despite his advancing years, few lines creased his features to mark the passage of time. His acquaintances – for he had no friends - said he was blessed, he looked like a man thirty years younger. And he felt . . . well he felt invincible. He studied the curve of his jaw line and managed a smile. Whatever else happened, he would always have his looks.

He slid the mirror back into its drawer, leant across the desk and buzzed his secretary.

Mrs Zielinski’s prim voice answered immediately.

“Yes, Your Eminence.”

“Call them again. And when you get through, explain I am not accustomed to waiting.”

“Yes, Your Eminence.”

Gallo finished his drink and crossed to the cabinet where he poured himself another. The burning taste eased away his temper and he walked over to the bay windows.

Below, Rome was awash with the stark glow of streetlights, neon signs and headlights. A distant cacophony of car horns and voices drifted upon the summer’s breeze. The city sweltered under the heat of the hottest summer on record. And long after the sun had set, the humidity remained, sapping at his strength.

A large ponderous shape moved through the sky. A Zeppelin making the midnight run. The huge airship was momentarily awash with the crimson lights of advertising, a thousand bulbs blinking in the gloom; the names of a hundred products twisted in reflection, rolling across its bulbous surface. Then slowly, it turned to the north and merged into the sombre backdrop of night.

The intercom buzzed, but Gallo ignored it, allowing his computer to pass it through to speakerphone.

His computer had been installed five years ago, after reverse engineers mastered the intricacies of the Gift’s armour and applied it to the emerging mechanics of the magnetic tape machines. It had produced a quantum leap in science and he had been tutored in its use, as had all those with high enough security clearance. But in truth, he barely understood it. He could only just grasp the controls on the Night-time Flyers. He wasn’t ready for such advancements, and there seemed to be a new one every day. He couldn’t keep up and had given up trying. It wasn’t the world he was born into and it never could be again. Who knew what they would have invented a year down the line or even a decade. The sixties could be a place of super computers and rocket ships, all beyond his ability to fathom.

Ironic that the reason for his inadequacies lay entombed beneath his feet.

Mrs Zielinski’s voice came on through; for once she sounded slightly flustered.
“A man is here to see you. Captain Fraioli of the east watch.”

“Does he have an appointment?” Gallo asked suspiciously.

“No, Your Eminence.”

“Then remind him of the appropriate channels and send a letter of complaint to his…“

“He says it’s urgent,” Mrs Zielinski interrupted, “and needs you’re immediate attention.”

“Does he now?” Gallo was shocked at the impatience of the man. He was inclined to send him on his way, but the unusual method of the Captain’s approach gave him pause. He reconsidered. “Well, don’t leave him waiting, send him in.”
He sat back down flicking at imaginary dust upon his black simar. A captain of the eastern guard wanting to see him was irregular. There must be an emergency for the Captain to bypass his chain of superiors and come directly to him.

He was intrigued.

The doors opened and a stocky well-built man with a shaven head and nervous smile entered the room. He held his hat before him and lowered his eyes. His uniform was stained with black patches. Gallo caught the cloying iron stench that surrounded the Captain - the unmistakable smell of blood.

Suddenly alert, Gallo gave the Captain his full attention, allowing the Gift to rise and send out invisible feelers, probing at the corners of Fraioli’s psyche. Gallo sensed darkness and bleak despair coupled with the faint hope of currying the cardinal’s favour. There was no malice or hate directed towards him. If the Captain represented some kind of trap then it was masterfully concealed.

Still wary of the possibilities, Gallo said, “Report, Captain Fraioli.”

The Captain cleared his throat and shuffled forward. “Your Eminence,” he all but whined, “I’m afraid to say we have suffered an attack on an eastern holding tank.”

Gallo pondered this while keeping his face neutral. Did he mean a jail? Where they take the scum and recruit into the army. What possible concern could this be of his?
“You mean a jail-break?” he questioned.

“No sir, an all out attack. The holding tank has been destroyed . . . there are no survivors.”

“By whom, or what?”

“We don’t know, the bodies were . . . uh . . . torn apart, explosives used in the main chambers. Over fifty jailers dead and a . . . a . . . contingent of German recruitment officers.” He ended in a pitiful squeal on mention of the German officers.

Gallo failed to keep his anger in check and his face twisted in rage. This was the last thing he needed. Germany had been growing restless of late. The meteoric rise of the Nazi party and subsequent boom in industry had made them a force to be reckoned with in the mid to late thirties, now fifteen years later, Rome found itself constantly referring back to Berlin when dealing with international affairs. Although it wasn’t all bad. If it hadn’t been for the Luftwaffe, then they would have never won back the British Isles. Still, there would be an inquiry. Questions poised. Germans' poking their noses into affairs, which were none of their concern. There would be a reprisal of sorts. It would be unlikely that Berlin would take this lying down. He could offer more Jews he supposed. Germany’s concentration camps had become increasingly efficient in recent years and an extra couple of hundred to bolster their workforce would probably go a long way to calming things down. He made a mental note to speak with the Chief of Police come the morning. Brushing those thoughts aside for now, he concentrated on Fraioli’s news. What could be the purpose of attacking a holding tank? There were no political prisoners. And there were no resistance fractions with the kind of firepower needed to perform such a massacre.

“No one escaped or survived, are you sure?”

“It is difficult to say for certain, the bodies were massed in a pile and we are still trying to pull them apart.” Captain Fraioli’s face paled, “Some were . . . fused together you see, and it is difficult to determine where one man begins and the other ends. We haven’t been able to find a Jewish prisoner though . . . brought in by the Cardinals last night . . . Dekel something.”

Gallo put a hand to his face, an unconscious act betraying his shock at the mention of Dekel. The Jewish boy caught with the American spy! They had attacked him, ripping open his back with their claws. He could still see the scarlet blood and mangled flesh. Gallo was for leaving him in the street. But it had been Cardinal Pappalardo who insisted they take the Jew to a holding tank and let him die there. Less mess and no unwelcome questions come the morning. In fact that was the last thing the two Cardinals were going to do, drop the boy off and then retire for the night.

The two events must be connected, he did not believe in chance.

“Iron Maiden,” he murmured to himself and when the Captain looked troubled added, “alert the airforce, I want G.91s in the air and looking for any trouble.”

Captain Fraioli still looked confused, but had the presence of mind to say, “Yes, Your Eminence.”

The intercom went again. Gallo dismissed the Captain and the man practically fled from the room.

“Yes,” he snarled.

“Message on restricted Gold,” Mrs Zielinski said calmly, her former composure fully returned.

The restricted Gold channel meant he had to use his computer. It ticked away in one corner, a constant reminder of his inadequacies. The day after it was installed he had it concealed within a mahogany desk and set back out of the way, to be forgotten or ignored. The less he had to do with it the better. Only it found ways to intrude, the occasional bleep of warning or obscure message throughout the day, little reminders that it was there . . . waiting.

He hesitated before crossing the room. His indecision only compounding his anger. He opened the desk drawers and slid out a black keyboard with ghost white letters. How did he access it again? Type ‘unus’ and then ‘contristo’, or was it ‘contristo’ and then ‘unus’? He tried both combinations, but the screen remained blank. He considered striking the keyboard, it wouldn’t be the first time, but curled his hand into a fist and struck the table instead.

“Mrs Zielinski,” he all but roared across the intercom.

“’Contristo’, ‘unus’ and ‘deleo’ all at the same time,” came her measured, practised response.

Gallo flinched inwardly at her smugness. He tapped in his access code and hit ‘relatum’. The monitor crackled with static and he backed hurriedly away as if it might explode and he half imagined it would. A rough voice crackled through the speakers and the grainy image of a man appeared.

“Cardinal Gallo, this is Lieutenant D’antoni, security of the Vault, clearance, finis. We’re enacting protocol seven.”

Gallo thought furiously. Protocol seven? He had heard of it, but couldn’t remember what it meant.

Lieutenant D’antoni read his silence as confusion. “A prisoner break out,” he clarified.

“Another one! Who?” Gallo asked, although he guessed the answer before the soldier told him.

“The American, sir.”

“And where is the team I had assigned to her?”

“Bishop Cecilio has left for the Charnel . . . ” the man’s voice hesitated, “uh . . . Lab Fourteen. Father Elia is missing and . . .” he paused. “Father Naldo is dead.”

For a second Gallo’s mouth worked soundlessly. Killing Naldo was a neat trick indeed.
“Do we know how?”

“We believe she is being accompanied by another person, sir, a boy.”

It had to be Dekel. He lacked the ability or the power to break out alone so the only person who could have done it for him would have been Iron Maiden. The boy now played a part in her plans. Both of them together, they would be trying to find the Gift. If that were to happen, then there would be dire consequences for them all.
“Their current location?”

“We believe they have gained access to the cardinal lift and are currently in route to level six,” the soldier replied flatly. “Should we shoot them, sir?”

Gallo thought fast. It was the level of the Gift; they would practically be upon it. But the Gift wasn’t the only secret down in the darkness.
“No, evacuate the workers. When the spy and her accomplice step out of the lift, secure the level. Then open room thirteen.”

The Lieutenant frowned. “The half-breed? I don’t think . . .”

“Then it’s good I don’t pay you to think, Lieutenant.”

“Yes sir.”

The line was cut and the screen went blank.

Gallo sat back and allowed his anger to subside. He didn’t know how this mess had happened or why Cecilio allowed events to get out of control. But he wasn’t going to let them get any worse.
If the American was so intent on finding her family - then she would be allowed to find her brother.

Now that was irony he could appreciate.


Unita peered out into a poorly lit chamber. It was vast, partly formed from twisted black rock. Light from the elevator pooled out around the door and soaked into the darkness. It gave shape to the walls and Unita fancied a hundred faces were watching her.

Four monitors faced them with dead screens. A number of papers lay scattered about desks and upon the rocky ground. A chair lay overturned. A chipped coffee cup rested on its side leaking its contents across the desk. It had the feel of a place abandoned: as if the people had just got up and left. The sharp smell of disinfectant wrinkled her nose and in the distance a lone corridor stretched away into shadow.

“Big place!” Dekel whispered.

Unita didn’t respond. Something was wrong. She was unsure what exactly. Her head was beginning to throb and a pain danced behind her eyes. She couldn’t shake the strange feeling she was home.

“Perhaps we should wait for the lift to go back up.” Dekel ventured.

“No,” she said quietly, “they won’t let it.”

“You can’t know that.”

“I do,” she looked at him and shrugged. “I’m certain. I’m supposed to be here. This was meant to be.”

“You don’t believe in all that predetermined fate, remember? No gods, no karma, no resurrection, ring any bells?”

Unita ran her hands through her hair. “I know, but that was before Angelo came back.”

“The Cardinal? The one who attacked the priest.”

Unita nodded. “It’s a long story, but he’s dead, only now he’s back. I don’t know why or how, only that it was Angelo.”

Dekel rested his head against the wall. “Dead men and demons, what next . . . The Beast from 20.000 fathoms?”

“Come again?”

“It’s a classic. You must have seen it?”

Unita smiled despite herself. “I’m amazed you have!”

“Five times now,” Dekel said proudly.

“But it’s an American movie?”

“Occasionally a black market copy comes into Rome.”

Unita knelt down by his side and lightly touched his arm. “You’re full of surprises,” she said.

Dekel smiled, but it never touched his eyes. He looked down to his ruined body and coughed. “Can you help me stand?”

“But what about…”

Dekel shrugged. “It’s not going to go away. We need that doctor I was supposed to take you to. Back when you were suffering from stab wounds.”

Unita’s hands strayed to her bandages. The area felt sore, but not as bad as she imagined a knife wound to be.
“Perhaps I got lucky?” she reasoned.

“Now you believe in luck as well? Quite the role reversal.” He offered out his hand and she helped him to stand. Together they stepped out of the lift.

“There is something here,” Unita whispered. “It’s in the shadows, in the rock, in the very air we’re breathing. I don’t understand fully – not yet - but it’s this way.” She pointed down the corridor and walked ahead.

Reluctantly Dekel followed, touching his back as he went, feeling for the lump.

Doors lined the walls made from thick black metal that Unita couldn’t readily identify. Next to each, there was a small box that had her mind of a miniature typewriter. Circular sections of glass afforded a view in.
Risking a glimpse, she saw straw covered floor and a thick section of rusted chain.
“Animals?” she guessed. “Like in the room above. Only these must be bigger.”

“Lions and bears?” Dekel didn’t sound convinced. He peered into the next room. “How would they get down here?”

“The Vaults are huge and old. By now there must be a hundred different ways in. The tunnels probably stretch all the way beneath Rome and beyond, if need be. Trust me, they would find a way.”

“Why then?”

“I don’t know. But I think the answer lies at the end of the corridor.” She ran her hand across the black metal. “It all seems so familiar to me. I’ve never been here, nor could I have ever dreamt of this place, not in my wildest nightmare, yet I can’t shake the feeling I’ve been here before.”

Dekel placed a hand upon her shoulder. “Let’s go and find out then. Maybe there’s an answer for me as well.”

Behind them the sharp sound of metal upon metal echoed from the darkness, it was followed by a high pitched whistle of escaping gas. The floor throbbed and the tiny typewriters abruptly lit up.

“That’s new,” Dekel said.

A door ahead of them shuddered and rolled up into the roof.

“I don’t like this,” Unita warned and then gagged as the stench of the cell struck her hard: old urine and faeces, rotten meat and grime. A cloud of flies swarmed from the cell, their angry buzzing magnified in the narrow corridor. She pressed herself against the wall and dragged Dekel back, allowing the flies to rise to the cavern roof and pass.

“They’ve opened it on purpose,” she snarled. “Whatever’s living inside won’t be happy to see us.”

Dekel ran his hands furiously through his lank hair and then beat at his clothes. Clumps fell loose revealing his red and blistered scalp.

Unita chose not to mention it.

“If it’s an animal,” Dekel finally said, “it might be scared, may not come out at all.” He grunted and closed his blood-shot eyes. “Or,” he added in a tight whisper. “It could be angry at being held captive down here.”

“Good point,” Unita conceded. “Have you still got the handgun?”

Dekel wiped at his eyes, leaving a red smear across his cheeks and fished it out of his pocket. “Should you use it?” he asked hopefully.

“I missed both times before with the machine pistol, it’s impossible for you to be any worse than me.” She glanced down at the pistol. ”Take the safety off, aim and slowly squeeze the trigger. It will have a kick so be prepared for it.”

“How many shots do I have?”

“I don’t have a clue. Not many, so don’t waste them.”

A heavy grunt echoed from the cell, followed by the sound of something unmistakably heavy shifting.

“It sounded . . . human?” Dekel whispered and forced himself to stand.

Slowly, emerging from the shadows came a misshapen arm, easily the size of a stout tree. The skin was mottled grey, bloodless and dead. Thick veins bulged out from the flesh, wrapping around impossibly large biceps which flexed as the rest of the being stepped through the doorway.
Far taller than any man could ever hope to be. It towered over them, a solid mass of muscle. Black metal was bolted crudely to its skin and wielded into its back. Wires and cables dripping with an olive slime slid from its shoulders to attach directly into the base of its skull. The head had been shaved and revealed deep stitches from where the skull had been opened. Its face – if that’s what it was – resembled a flat rock. The skin thick and callused. One eye had been removed and stuffed with shards of jagged crystal that emitted a faint purple glow. Across the bulk of its body, fragments of bone pushed out from its skin, splitting the flesh to stand exposed.
Its eye focused on Unita.

She saw familiarity there and felt it too - a connection with this monster.

Dekel lent forward and retched.

“The woman,” Unita whispered, “it’s the son of the woman, Elia only told half the tale, its father was one of the inner circle. Like me . . . it’s my . . . brother!”

“What are you talking about,” Dekel screamed. “It’s not even human!”

Both their voices were drowned out as the thing spoke; its voice a long deep howl, forming one word.


It started to shamble forward and before Unita could stop him, Dekel raised the pistol and fired. The first shot struck it square in the chest, but the creature didn’t slow. The second shot found its neck and ripped clean through flesh to imbed itself into the wall. The third shot struck it in the face, ripping off a section of its skull. Then it was upon him, one mighty fist hammered down and smashed Dekel into the wall. Dekel’s skin tore and his arm snapped horribly around.

It bore down on Unita.

She turned and ran, only to find the lift doors had shut and the room was sealed. She spun back on her heel as the creature gained entrance to the room.

There was no escape.

The Aeritalia G.91 roared into life. The restraining wheel blocks were swept away and the signalman gestured green for go. With a high pitch squeal of rubber the fighter plane surged forward, racing across the tarmac airstrip in a blue blur. Its twin electric JB5 single shaft turbojet engines were capable of generating over two thousand pounds of thrust and the narrow nose of the lightweight aircraft lifted effortlessly until the plane took to the air easier than any bird could ever hope to manage.

It rose steadily into the night exhaust ports firing; climbing until it gently banked and levelled up, drawing into formation with six other G.91s.

Captain Lancione tried to ease back into his chair and studied his controls. Elevation was ten thousand feet; his heading was North, Northwest. The fighter handled as smooth as he had hoped. The G.91s' were earning back their expense.
Never before had the Italian airforce such an obvious advantage over the other Nations. But the G.91s changed all that. Some said they were ahead of their time. They certainly made the German Heinkel He 219 look woefully inadequate. As a consequence, Germany had ordered thirty of the design and intended to phase out the Heinkels by year’s end.

“This is Gina one, all systems are good. E.T.A over Rome in one minute, control,” he said into his radio.

“This is control,” came back the nasally voice, crackling with static. “Understood. Stay at present heading and watch your radar.”

Lancione checked his radar, but the green screen remained blank. “Roger that, control,” he said and tried to get comfortable. Unfortunately his blue flight suit rode up in the most inconvenient of places and he spent a second trying to pull it back down. The suits were a new design to complement the G.91, even replacing the still relatively new MA-1 flight jackets, of which he much preferred. The suit had been designed for the higher altitudes the G.91s’ were capable of and took into account the much lower temperatures, by insulation and interlocking ceramic plates, that provided a body armour of sorts. The armour would never have been able to withstand the fire of a 20mm cannon – not much could, but it was flexible and aided manoeuvrability, although Lancione suspected it was really just for show.
At least that was the idea, Lancione’s was a size too small and he had only discovered the tailor’s mistake when getting ready to fly. There wasn’t enough time to find another flight suit. Not that he would have found one to fit him, he was a small man, dubbed ‘tiny’ by his friends, barely making five foot two.

Stuck to the inside right window were two photographs. The first was of his daughter Emily, whose ninth birthday had just passed. She stood with her hair braided in a flowery dress waving at the camera. Despite the photograph being black and white, he clearly remembered her dress was made from cotton, a vibrant red and the petals of each flower, the colour of corn.
The second photograph was of the actress Ingrid Bergman, whom he had seen on stage performing Joan of Lorraine at the Argentina theatre and later watched in the Farnese cinema in the feature film adaptation. He had been struck by her strong, dignified and sophisticated character, so unlike the women of his life. He became a fan and spent many evenings in the petit d'essai" - French for "little art house” in the heart of old Rome. The photograph was a rare signed copy he paid 20 Lire for after a four-hour wait in the Farnese’s smoky back room, only to glimpse her agent. But it was worth every lira.

Lancione had been with the airforce for twenty years. It felt longer. Sometimes he couldn’t remember a time when he wasn’t flying a plane of some sort. He was a career man, through and through and would be until the day he died. From fighting against the Russians in the Winter War - he could still feel the biting cold, remember struggling with the Fiat G.50 freccia and the fields of blood red snow – to fighting alongside the Luftwaffe in the second invasion of Britain. He had participated in over three hundred combat missions and secretly considered himself to be one of the best the Italian airforce had to offer. But never in his long-standing military career, could he remember being scrambled to look for Foo fighters.

Or as his wingman smilin’ Illario referred to them - ‘little green men’.

Lancione was in the control tower when the first of the Foo fighters had appeared on radar. Things were quiet with no scheduled flights until the following morning. He had taken a shine to the communications officer, a Mrs Filippa Noto – a recent transferee from Florence - and had been making the moves on her all week. He knew she was interested, just playing hard to get. Only the day before she had flirted outrageously in the canteen, lifting up her long pleat dress to show him a tantalising glimpse of thigh. Even thinking about Mrs Noto stirred his pants. He had been putting in the hours when the radio operator - a spotty faced junior on his apprenticeship - had leaned towards the radar screen and muttered.

“What’s that?”

Lancione had chosen to ignore the boy, but Filippa was a diligent woman and masterfully avoiding Lancione’s wandering hands walked towards the monitor. When nothing appeared, she started to tell the boy it was his imagination, it was late and why didn’t he go on home to bed when they reappeared. Three blips rolling across the screen.
Lancione had swaggered over. Deciding his considerable experience could easily solve the problem. But they appeared again, moving so fast as to be nothing natural. He shouted at the boy to raise the alarm and as the klaxon shrieked its warning he knew they were in trouble. The blips had moved at Mach 3, over 1020.87 meters a second and then completely vanished. Three times the speed of sound and three times faster than any plane on the planet - even the famous Luftwaffe could manage.

Command’s response was to scramble the jets. The issue was compounded by news of an assault on the eastern holding cells, with over fifty confirmed dead, although the final figure might be more. He guessed it wasn’t going to be the Americans, they rarely hit Rome, and when they did their bombs only struck the Jewish quarter or fell harmlessly into the Tiber. It was more likely this was a rouge fraction, perhaps the French allied with the British gathered in sufficient numbers.

Or as his wingman had joked at the hurried briefing, it was Foo fighters: those elusive ghosts that appeared on radar, but were never seen.

He would find out soon enough.

“No Martians yet,” Illario’s voice broke through the radio. “Still early days, keep your eyes peeled boys.”

Cackles of laughter erupted from the other pilots. The five other voices sharing the night belonged to Luigi, Carlo, Nico and Orfeo.

Lancione waited briefly and then interjected. “That’s enough, let’s try and keep the airways clear and Illario?”

“Yes, Captain.”

“No more wise cracks about Venusians or Martians or whatever comic strip you’re currently reading.” He couldn’t keep the humour completely out of his voice.

“Future horizons is a dignified publication,” Illario sniffed. “Actually, I’m reading Masker at the moment, he’s a super detective, but really is only based on the French character Fantax, who is not only a skilled detective, but a great fighter as well . . .”

Laughter from the squadron drowned out Illario’s voice and Lancione joined in.

“Okay,” Illario managed to get in once the laughter faded, “I’m going from childhood to childhood. I admit it.”

The jokes continued until they came upon the capital.

The glow of Rome appeared through the dark and he led the squad in a slow circle of the city that would bring them back towards the Vatican.

The chatter fell away as all minds turned to the job. Somebody had killed those jailers. The killers might be up in the air, though Lancione seriously doubted it. But they had to be sure.

The 20mm M61 cannons they each were packing insisted upon it.

Illario’s voice crackled through the radio. “Captain, I’ve got something. A blip for a second, due North of my position, about eight kilometres, I’m going to check it out.”

“Luigi, go with him, the rest stay in formation.”

“Wilco,” said Luigi.

Lancione glanced again at his radar. It remained blank. Eight klicks were easily within range, but he had picked up on nothing. They were out here chasing ghosts, when he could be slipping off that tight skirt Mrs Noto liked to wear. He imagined the feel of the cloth when Illario’s voice snapped back in.

“I’ve got visual.”

“Confirmed,” Luigi echoed. “We’re closing on a . . . well it’s a . . . um . . . Illario what the hell is it?”

“St. Elmo’s fire, marsh gas, top secret American planes, even elves! Take your pick Luigi, but I’m going to settle for the classic U.F.O!”

“Illario!” Lancione bellowed. “What’s going on?” Even as he spoke, he adjusted his heading, coming about on Illario and Luigi’s position.

“I’m not sure Captain,” said Illario. “Something just buzzed by. Um . . . a ball of light cut right between us, about four meters in length.”

Luigi’s voice cut in. “And golden, real bright, actually hurt my eyes to look at.” He sounded out of breath and excited.

For once, Lancione had nothing to say. He fell back on his training.

“Stay alert, we don’t know what this is - if anything,” he added quietly.

A sphere of shining gold erupted out of the night and flashed past his starboard wing, narrowly missing him by inches. He felt its warmth upon his face for a brief instant and then it vanished into the dark.

All at once his squadron began to talk, filling up the radio in their excitement.

“Quiet, quiet,” Lancione shouted into the noise. “We will retain our airs and graces while in the air, gentlemen. Now let's turn around and see if we can find our little friend again.”

He was relieved when the radio fell silent.

The radar however remained blank. How could it do that, appear and just as suddenly disappear. Like nothing he had ever seen before.

Grimly, Lancione shook his head. Illario’s mad ideas were getting to him.

He completed the course change, allowing the squadron to regroup and then followed a slow graceful arc to put the G.91s’ in the direction of the uncorrelated target.

No sooner had he adjusted to his new heading than it appeared again.

“Match its speed,” he warned and slowed the fighter correspondingly.

They closed within three hundred meters and he felt a kind of awe at the sight. It had a nucleus of liquid gold that spun in constant motion, an aura of light radiated from its centre, shifting through the colours of the spectrum, a madcap flash of reds and oranges, greens and barely perceived purples.

“Control,” he murmured, “ we have a visual on target. Um . . .what do you want us to do?”

Static was his only response.

“Control,” he repeated, but Carlo’s gravely voice cut across his own.

“We have another sir, over to port.”

Lancione glanced over in time to see a second orb thrust directly up from below to come level with the squadron. His first thought was a missile fired from the ground, but this kept pace with the G.91s, remaining a healthily four hundred meters away.

The second one was larger than the first and instead of being gold was rusted red.

“Control, make that two uncorrelated targets we have a visual on. I’ve never seen anything like it.” He could hear the wonderment in his voice, but ceased to care. It was out of this world.

The golden sphere’s colour began to fade. The aura shrinking away until it was little more than a faint glow. It started to take on a hardened appearance like tarnished metal. It stretched out in size becoming thinner until the ends were narrow points.

Lancione was about to comment on this when the second orb shot starboard. It passed clean through the fuselage of Carlo’s fighter. The G.91 flipped up into the air and came apart in an explosion of glittering debris and twisted metal. Before Lancione had a chance to respond the first sphere stopped in mid-air. Nico, who had been travelling directly behind at four hundred kilometres an hour, hit full on and it passed through his plane like a hot knife through butter. Splitting the G.91 neatly in half. His fighter fell apart and Lancione clearly saw Nico still attached to his chair tumble quietly away into the night.

Then his senses kicked back in.

“Evade evade evade,” he screamed into the radio and brought his fighter up into a sharp climb.

“Control, we have entered into hostilities with the targets, both Carlo and Nico are down,” then to his remaining squadron. “Weapons’ hot. Repeat weapons’ hot.”

He caught a glimpse of Illario’s fighter performing the same sharp ascent as his own and accelerated to attack speed. A flash of gold to his starboard and he saw the first sphere shoot through the night and into the cockpit of Orfeo’s fighter, that flashed like a sparkler on fireworks night.
The fighter plane continued its sharp ascent but with no pilot, it turned into a tumble and in horror, Lancione watched it crash into Rome, exploding in a fireball across the city’s centre.

His radar flashed a blip and on instinct he banked hard to starboard. The fighter plane groaned and with the increased speed it pinned him to his seat. But he was rewarded by the red orb missing his G.91.

They liked to come from below he realised and dipped the fighter down.

“Illario, Luigi, descend to three hundred and engage. Get clear of the city,” he snarled.

“That’s too low,” Illario began.

“If you want to live, then trust me.”

He forced the plane lower and Rome increased in his view, he changed angle again, more on impulse and was amazed to see the golden orb flash away. If he hadn’t changed just then he would be dead!

Focusing on an unexpected chance, he levelled up and pushed for maximum speed, keeping the orb in his sights. Ignoring the effects his fighter would be having on the population below. His engines alone would be shattering windows for miles.
Switching to the 20mm, he flicked off the safeties, levelled up the nose and took his best possible guess. The cannon made a fast thumping sound and bullets flashed with tracers. Immediately the orb went up. No angled ascent, just a ninety degree change in position that had the captain flying abruptly alone.
Lancione knew he should take his own advice and keep going, but instead, he thrust the stick back and went up in the hardest ascent he could manage. The pressure was tremendous and his vision dimmed. But he refused to lose consciousness and flipped the plane a three sixty, coming back down to be rewarded by the orb directly before him.

He fired the 20mm.

It tore into the golden orb and the thing imploded. Liquid falling like rain into the city below.

“Yes,” he roared, thumping the seat.

Screams of terror made him glance back nervously to the radar. His two remaining fighters were zigzagging across the night. Like him, neither one had moved to the city’s limits. Through his cockpit he could see a flash of red following Illario and another gold on Luigi. Where had that come from?

“Both of you get out of there,” he began, but his voice was cut short, as both planes erupted into scarlet balls of fire.

Stunned, he nevertheless dragged at the controls, urging the fighter to new speeds and headed away from the centre.

“Control,” he screamed, “squadron down, no one else, I’m trying to break away, control control.”

Nothing came across the radio other than static and his panic increased.

The two blips on his radar closed the distance between them in short seconds. He banked to starboard and then to port, taking the G.91 up and dropping the fighter plane as near to the buildings as he dared. But they drew closer relentlessly until with sweat tricking across his face he glanced through the window and saw the red orb flying level with him.

“No,” he managed to whisper wrenching the stick to starboard only he hit something hard, the side of the plane crumpled in the impact and the G.91 twisted over. Frantically he fought for control, the lights of the city now appearing above him. He flipped the plane back and glanced up to get his bearings.

A figure stood upon the plane. A slender construct made of streamlined sliver and gold, like a statue, beautifully carved into the abstract form of a woman. Her femininity was exposed as a dark panel of tarnished gold, her breasts full and swollen with nipples as beaten silver. Her face was hidden beneath a honey-coloured mask with circular insect-like eyes. She glowed, as if she had just stepped fresh from her creator’s furnace and Lancione plainly felt the heat - even through his helmet and uniform. Gracefully she extended her arm, two joints flexing and revealed a six-fingered hand.

Lancione’s mouth worked soundlessly. What was he seeing?

Then the red orb split his fuselage in two. The G.91 shredded in the sky and Lancione was thrust unprotected into the night.