Authors: B. V. Larson
“Depressurization!” shouted the weaponeer next to me. “Seal up, everybody!”
Sargon linked with Veteran Harris and reported the hit. It had to be a chunk of shrapnel. There wasn’t any other explanation. I frowned in concern. This shouldn’t be happening. Nothing like this was in the briefing.
I looked up at the hole and my computer systems automatically went to work, analyzing and recording it. Our helmets did more than protect our brains. There was a full set of computer displays inside. The heads-up display, or HUD, overlaid whatever we looked at with computerized data concerning the item in question. Our eyes were tracked, and whatever we focused on was analyzed and anything the suit’s computer knew about it would be immediately displayed. Viewed externally, the sophisticated helmets were a cross between a biker’s protective gear and something a deep sea diver might have worn a century ago. But from the inside, it looked like a flight simulator.
The computer listed “hull breach” as the number one analysis bullet point. There was a small suggestion box at the bottom of my faceplate that recommended patching it immediately. The recommendation wasn’t very useful in this instance, as I wasn’t qualified, nor did I have any gear for the job. I stayed in my seat.
Veteran Harris came back down the row and stopped at the leak with what looked like a plunger. The silver tip moved like liquid and looked gelatinous, however, as if it was made of flexible metals. It melted into the gap and sealed it.
The old man gave me the finger and walked away. I stared after him, bemused.
“That guy hates me, but he seems to be looking out for me at the same time,” I told the weaponeer.
“Just don’t get between his guns and the enemy. He’ll cut you down if he has to. The same goes for me.”
I shrugged, less than encouraged. My job was to snipe and scout. I was expendable and expected to die. New troops in every legion started off that way. To get good gear, you had to earn it. Only experienced survivors who’d proven themselves in combat became regular light troops, or heavy troops with expensive armor and energy weapons. Good gear wasn’t produced on Earth, and the legion had to use hard-won Galactic credits to buy it. They didn’t like wasting such a precious resource on a loser.
The buzzer finally sounded, and the big light on the ceiling went green. It was go-time. All thoughts of equipment and Cancri-9 vanished from my mind. I wasn’t even worried about the saurians I was about to meet on the planet’s surface. I was worried about not going
on my first day out.
Properly managing a drop-pod wasn’t a trivial task. First off, just loading yourself into one was dangerous. Rather than a calm process where each soldier was strapped into the delivery system by competent techs, the method used was dangerous and tricky.
You began by rushing to a circular hole at the end of the row of jump seats. When the light flashed green, you had to drop within a second down into the hole, careful to place your arms flat at your sides and keep your face looking straight ahead. It was rather like jumping off a diving board feet-first, forming an arrow with the body to fall in the smallest region possible.
Waiting for me below was an automated system. It sensed the falling body, and shot two half-shells from both sides at once. If your form and timing was good, and you were mildly lucky, the mechanism caught you and enclosed you in an instant capsule. The capsule was then shunted at a right angle, loaded into the ejection gun and fired like a bullet out of the bottom of the lifter.
I watched as Veteran Harris went first. He did it like a pro, because he was one. He stepped out over the hole in a smooth hopping motion, pointing his boots downward and keeping his arms stiffly to his sides. He vanished, and the ship shuddered as he was grabbed, encapsulated and fired in about a second. The line then moved forward and the light went green again. A bio specialist took a deep breath and dropped. She did it correctly as well.
At the back of the line, I felt vaguely sick. When I’d first learned how we were expected to deploy, I was shocked. How could such a dangerous, complex system be the best method?
The answer was simple: it did the job as fast as possible.
Ships cost money—a lot more money than any legionnaire was worth. The legion didn’t want their ships low over the planet for one second longer than absolutely necessary. The lower a ship was, the more vulnerable it was to defensive fire. That’s why they usually didn’t land in a hostile environment—they didn’t want to get blown up. They didn’t want to linger in low-orbit and give us ample time for a safe drop. They wanted to fire us out the aft port like machine gun bullets so their lifters could escape as fast as possible back up into far orbit, where they would be safe.
And if we did screw up, if we did go
—that was no big deal to the officers in charge. They thought in terms of equipment and missions. There was nothing more expendable than our flesh in their equations. They could always reconstruct us from stored data, or just recruit fresh bodies on Earth if we managed to get ourselves permed somehow.
My turn came up surprisingly fast. The troops were marching forward, firing out of the ship at a consistent rate. At the last moment, Sargon the weaponeer spoke to me over his shoulder.
“Just drop straight in the center. Don’t try to hold back or put out your hands to protect yourself. Trust the machine. If it screws up, you’re meat anyway.”
With those words, he took a final stride out over the opening and disappeared into it. I heard the ship clang a shell around him and a split-second later the deck shuddered with the recoil as he was fired down toward the planet.
The light went green again, and I realized numbly it was my turn.
I gripped my snap-rifle tightly against my chest and gave a little forward hop into nothingness.
I dropped into the black, circular hole in the deck. My heart was pounding and strange, loud clanging noises greeted my ears.
Time seemed to slow down. I was only aware of the scene below the deckplates for a split-second, but I saw a lot. Under the deck, the lifter was wide open. On each side, I could see impossibly bright stars dotting the blackness of deep space. Below me was Cancri-9, a mottled world of brown, patched by green spots and occasional drifting clouds.
Closer at hand, huge robot arms moved with blurring speed. All around me, other legionnaires were dropping obediently into the waiting machinery. Pairs of arms clapped together, enclosing each soldier within capsules. They beat together with such fierce regularity, I thought they resembled a robotic audience giving a standing ovation.
There was a blur of motion as the two closest arms swung toward me. I was caught like a bug, two halves of a capsule slamming together around me. I was instantly cocooned. The noise was deafening, and I felt an instant jolt of claustrophobia. I could see how rookies might well panic and screw up at some point during this procedure. They might have hesitated, messing up the timing. Or, they might drop with their arms out as the slamming hands came together like cymbals performing a crescendo. Any such mistakes would have proven fatal.
The sickening motion didn’t stop once I was enclosed. I felt like a ping-pong ball between two desperate opponents. Inside the pitch-black capsule, I was viciously shunted to the right and spun around. My head slammed into my helmet during these maneuvers, and I grunted helplessly in pain. I could tell my feet were now aiming upward and my head was aiming down toward the target world. I knew this intellectually, but I had no way of seeing anything from the interior of my tube-shaped coffin.
The big gun loaded me into the breach. I thought I heard a tiny click, and I would have put my hands to my ears, but I couldn’t move my arms, and my ears were buried inside my helmet in any case.
The gun fired, and a surge of crushing pain rushed through me. The acceleration was horrible. It wasn’t like a rollercoaster or an elevator. It was more like falling from three stories and slamming your boots into the dirt.
Fortunately, my legs were slightly bent when the jarring impact came. Otherwise, they couldn’t have taken the shock, and I might have popped a knee. We’d been warned of this, but I’d forgotten all about it. I’d gotten lucky.
After that, the long fall began. I knew I was rushing down into the atmosphere of an alien world, but, for the moment, I only felt relief. I wasn’t dead yet, I hadn’t even seriously screwed up, and it would be another minute or two before I had to do anything that required thinking.
One thing began to bother me, however: the HUD in my helmet had yet to light up. It was supposed to automatically connect with the drop-pod and provide a steady stream of data as I fell. Was I trapped in a defective pod? Was I about to be driven into the ground at six thousand miles per hour, without the pod even performing the courtesy of firing a retro? I knew such accidents happened at least once during any legion drop. The delivery systems were workable but far from perfect.
After about ten long seconds, the lights flickered on. I had no idea why they’d waited so long. Maybe Veteran Harris had rigged it as a joke. Maybe this short blackout period was normal, and no one had seen fit to tell me about it. Whatever the case, I could now see that I had about two minutes left before I reached the ground.
The capsule was already reducing its speed. After initial acceleration, most of the journey to the surface was spent braking so the capsule wouldn’t plunge into the ground. The trip was further lengthened by the fact that I was coming in at an angle in order to reduce the friction created as the pod encountered the atmosphere. A direct entry would burn up the drop-pod.
Two minutes isn’t long, but when you’re in a polymer tube rushing to your death, time seems to crawl by. At last, the final warning buzzer sounded, and the pod spun itself around so I would land on my feet, rather than my head. I braced for impact.
The landing itself was surprisingly mild. I was shocked with a jolt, which was mostly absorbed by the pod, but after that the capsule fell over and sort of rolled until it came up against something hard, and stopped. I was shaken but unhurt.
I was down, lying on my back in a polymer tube on an alien world. I had no idea what I would encounter when I exited the pod.
I gritted my teeth and squeezed the stock of my rifle. I took a deep breath and I punched the release button.
This was the moment of truth. I might be at the bottom of a lake, or surrounded by alien troops, or maybe submerged in a pool of lava—a fairly common natural landmark on Cancri-9. There was nothing to do, however, but risk it. Sitting in my cocoon wouldn’t save me for long if any of these things were the case.
The capsule fell apart into two halves. I scrambled up and almost pitched forward onto my face. I had to grab hold of a tree to steady myself…A tree?
In all the sims I’d played on Cancri-9, there had never been a tree. But here it was; a tall, lush growth that firmly fit the description. True, the plant was odd-looking. It had fern-like spears firing out at the crown, and nothing else. No branches or leaves. It looked like a palm, but with fronds that were big and feathery, like the largest of soft forest ferns.
I ripped my eyes from the tree and looked around. It wouldn’t do to be shot down while admiring the scenery.
I didn’t see any of my people in the immediate vicinity, but I did see more capsules coming down. They were falling out of the sky, causing trees to crack and split when they were hit.
It occurred to me that I wasn’t out of danger yet. If one of these capsules happened to land on me—well, it would be time for my first revival.
To protect myself as best I could, I hugged the tree my capsule had rolled up against. I waited until several other troops were out and walking around before leaving this position.
Not everyone made it down alive
. I met the woman who seemed to be in charge and checked her nametag, which identified her as Bio Specialist Anne Grant. She had severely short dark hair and small features. Her eyes were careworn, but her face was pretty. She had the look of someone who was continually hurried and stressed. I could only imagine what doing revivals all day long must be like.
Grant knelt down to open a
capsule that lay inert after it landed. This one looked burned outside. A brown residue coated the exterior, a stain resembling boiled sugar or oil.
The mess turned out to be burnt blood. The recruit inside was female, and part of her head was missing.
“She must have screwed up somehow when she was encapsulated,” Specialist Grant said. “There are always a few splats.”
She looked at me then, running her eyes up and down once. “You look fit. Get up in that tree you’ve been hugging like momma and see if you can spot an officer. I’m going to call in this splat. If they can transmit her data now, we can revive her down here and get something useful out of her.”
I nodded and climbed my tree. Although they weren’t normally front-line combat troops, bio specialists were officially superior in rank to recruits—hell, everyone was. They usually didn’t give orders to my kind, but when there wasn’t a veteran or an officer around, they served in that capacity. I thought the specialist’s orders were a good idea in any case.
I shimmied up the same tree I’d landed near, and crouched in the ferny crown. At a height of about thirty feet, I couldn’t see much more than I had from the ground. The canopy of fern fronds was thick, and it obscured the immediate vicinity.