Every single glowing round passed behind the stupid fucking thing by yards. I was so stunned I was unable to get in a second burst. The drone wobbled off and the catcalls intensified; some of them this time from my mates.
Mainwaring told me where I was going wrong. I needed to ‘lead’ the aircraft – at this distance, I had to aim a second in front of it and let it fly into the bullets. I should have known about this from the Saturday afternoon war movies I used to watch with my granddad; the ones where the Spitfire pilots talked about ‘deflection shots’ – firing at an angle ahead of a crossing enemy aircraft, taking its speed and distance into account.
Round three. This time, my lead was perfect, but for some reason all my bullets disappeared below the drone.
Next time, Mainwaring said, be aware of distance, then fire. Cheeky bastards had flown it further away than last time, catching me out. My lead had been good, but because of ‘ballistic drop’, the bullets had fallen well below the target. I’d show him this time!
Round four. My bullets passed behind it again. The drone-operator had increased its speed. Watch your range, Mainwaring told me, but don’t forget the speed of your target.
Round five. It came screaming in from the left, jinking up and down as well as accelerating and decelerating. The dodgy bastards were taking the piss. I wasn’t even close.
The laughter behind me grew to a cacophony.
‘Am I right in thinking, Para-boy, that you’re an SAS wannabe?’
I said nothing. I didn’t like the way this was going.
‘Didn’t I warn you,’ Mainwaring shrieked, ‘that if you miss, the enemy aircraft will see your tracer and your position will be compromised? Stand by for incoming—’
I began to run.
I ran as fast as I could, legs pounding the rock-hard earth, arms swinging, as I made for the nearest cover, a concrete pillbox around 200 metres away. Over the whistles and catcalls behind me I heard the buzz-saw signature of the drone. The louder it got, the faster I ran. Cary Grant running for his life in North by North-west had nothing on me…
The drone swept in behind me, drowning out the laughter.
I was still thirty metres from the pillbox when it slammed into the small of my back. I hit the ground and the lights went out. I thought I’d been split in two.
I tried to open my eyes, but couldn’t. I heard people talking, but they made no sense. Where were Mainwaring and my mates? Where was I?
‘You okay, mate?’ a bloke said.
‘I think he’s dead…’ A woman’s voice.
‘He fell off his bike in front of that man’s car. He was in the air, upside down, when the car hit him.’
I wanted to tell them that wasn’t what had happened at all. I wanted to tell them I’d been on Salisbury Plain in a live firing exercise against a target drone when the bloody thing decided to go rogue and everything turned to ratshit.
Fuck! The pain…
Someone was trying to move me. I felt like I was being pulled, pushed and prodded. Every time they touched me I wanted to open my mouth and scream, but I couldn’t even whimper.
‘I thought it had taken his head off. It hit him in the back and he was upside down, mate. His head went under the bumper and his feet went through the windscreen. His back must be broken.’
If my back’s broken, why the fuck are you trying to move me? If my back’s broken, how am I going to do SAS Selection?
They’ll pay for this, I thought. A drone goes rogue, hits me in the back and kills all my dreams. My God, I’ll have them…
‘Get the boards. Quick.’ Another woman. Stern, authoritarian.
‘I tell you, he flew off the bonnet and then the guy drove over him…’
‘Drove over his head,’ the first woman said.
‘No, it drove over his shoulder…’
Whatever, I thought. The pain that had threatened to overwhelm me was replaced by a feeling of immeasurable tiredness. I felt myself sliding and falling.
‘Sir, wake up. Can you open your eyes for me?’
I opened my eyes and my confusion deepened as I slowly saw a black woman backlit by a bright orange halo. I thought for a moment that Diana Ross had come to take me away…
‘Can you feel my hand?’
I couldn’t, but all was not lost: I felt something on my face – the rain I could see sparkling in the glow of the street lamp.
‘Can you feel me touching your fingers?’
I was aware of having hands and feet, but I couldn’t feel her touching them.
‘Can you grip my fingers?’
I couldn’t. I couldn’t move a muscle. I tried to shift my head, but it wouldn’t respond. Nothing responded. I couldn’t even speak. I was totally fucked.
The woman unzipped my Barbour jacket. ‘Sweet Jesus, he’s wearing a bin-bag under his coat.’ At best she must be thinking I’m mad and at worst a weirdo pervert.
Leave me alone, I wanted to tell her, because all I want to do is sleep.
Suddenly and with no warning I felt like I was being hit on the back of the head with a road worker’s mallet every time my heart beat.
‘Yeah, he arrested,’ a paramedic yelled. ‘He’s military. Suspected spinal and internal injuries…’
I couldn’t open my eyes but at least the pain was telling me I wasn’t dead.
I wanted to go to sleep again, but a voice in the back of my head told me I needed to stay awake.
And someone seemed to be shoving the end of a broom shank deep into me, just below my rib cage, next to my spine. Every time the ambulance hit the tiniest bump it felt like it was going to burst through my chest. I was John Hurt in my own nightmare version of Alien.
We hit a pothole and I suddenly found my voice. I screamed – full throat, full belly. It filled the ambulance and blotted out the sound of the siren.
‘Fuck me!’ the paramedic said.
I passed out again.
‘Corporal Macy, can you hear me?’
Of course I can hear you; just give me some bloody morphine…
Then: closed abdominal injury, mate, the voice at the back of my head said. Fat chance of the love-drug.
The pain had got worse.
If I couldn’t put up with this, how would I ever be able to pass Selection? Fuck Selection, I’m tired…
‘Corporal Macy, can you hear me?’
I opened my eyes a crack and found myself blinking against bright, brilliant white. No wonder people said they saw angels in places like this. They were delusional; just like I was now.
A guy in a green smock leaned over and shone something into my eyes. ‘You’ve been in an accident, mate.’
Now there’s a surprise.
My head and back were on fire. I tried to move my feet and legs, but couldn’t. With a supreme effort, I managed to raise my head and shoot a glance down my body.
I was on a bed wearing a green gown, in an operating theatre with a lamp suspended over me. It was pushed up and switched off. Maybe they’d already given up on me…
A six-inch square rubber block was strapped tightly to my belly. The strap had some kind of winch attached to it. It was fucking killing me.
At least I now knew why I was paralysed. My wrists and ankles were cuffed to the bed with more straps.
‘Can you tell me where the pain is?’ the guy in green asked.
‘Everywhere,’ I said. ‘Please, morphine…’
Someone else approached the bed, a stethoscope around his neck. They looked at each other, then at me. ‘Not yet,’ he said. ‘Can you tell us where it hurts most?’
He injected my right arm with a clear liquid from a big syringe. Whatever it was, it wasn’t pain relief.