The walkway clanked under the young soldier’s heavy boots as he stepped from the flight deck into the drop ship. The interior was dark, barely illuminated by two lines of pulsing blue lights running along the ceiling. He walked down the narrow corridor, past the enclosed forms of the men he’d trained with for the past few months, until he reached the open door of his own drop pod. It was painted a heat-absorbent black, its design functional and blocky, with his name and rank projected above it in blinking blue letters by the HUD in his helmet. He checked the seal of his suit, the armoured uniform he had grown accustomed to during training, now growing strangely claustrophobic. Then he unslung his weapon, a high tech automatic railgun, from his back. Reflexively, he pulled back the lever to open the chamber, checking the ammunition load and the blinking series of LEDs indicating the power level of the battery, even though he’d checked and rechecked already, waiting for the scramble order earlier that day.
He slipped the gun into the waiting receiver in his pod, and the machinery hissed as hydraulics drew the weapon into a recessed cavity. Another blue light blinked on above it, indicating that it was stowed correctly. He stood there for a moment, his mind suddenly blank and empty, until he remembered where he was, then stepped quickly into the tritanium embrace of the capsule. The doors hissed shut, and for a moment, the only source of light was the dim glow from the small window in front of his face. A burst of panicky adrenaline swept through him, filling him with thoughts of faulty equipment, sealing him into the robotic drop ship until it’s final kamikaze assault on the enemy’s base. A moment later, though, his HUD blinked and brought up a message reading ‘Seal Formed’, and the faint inside lights switched on. He took several deep breaths, his chest plate feeling tight around his ribs, and forced himself to relax.
“Pod locked, all systems normal,” whispered the soft, calming feminine voice of the AI into his ear, confirming what his readouts had already told him.
He waited there in the dimly lit enclosure for what felt like hours. Every so often a rumbling vibration would come up through his boots, indicating the launch of another drop ship, or perhaps an orbital defense weapon striking the shields of the vessel he was on. His mind began to drift, back to memories of the past: stumbling upon his mother, crying silently in the kitchen in the middle of the night before he left, as he snuck downstairs to find something to eat. Later, his father, face solemn but proud, presenting him with his grandfather’s gold watch, the one he wore when he’d gone to war. His fingers went to his wrist, feeling the contours of the watch through his bulky protective gloves, and a strange feeling of calm filled his mind, settling him into a state of blank patience. Finally, there was a deeper vibration, the whole of the pod seeming to hum, as the engines of the craft that bore his platoon rose to life.
“Warning, launch imminent. Warning, launch imminent,” whispered the AI, “Please ensure all equipment and personnel are stowed and ready.”
The scarred face of a technician appeared suddenly in the little window, startling him, even though he’d been waiting for it. The man tapped on the thick glass, and the waiting soldier nodded. The face disappeared, doubtless checking the rest of the men. “Now disengaging docking umbilicals,”, the soft voice continued, as a series of rapid thumps echoed through the young man’s feet. Finally, the quiet buzz of the engine rose in pitch, and the man felt a shift in his balance, as the craft tilted, then the strange pressure of acceleration, pushing him into the side of the capsule, the padding there cushioning and supporting him.
The feeling of acceleration rose, until it felt as though his whole squad was resting on his chest. The soldier's breath caught, and he unconsciously squirmed, struggling against the embrace of the drop pod. He forced himself to relax once more, and remember the breathing techniques the worn out old battle-axe of a drill instructor had taught him. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Feel your chest expand, push up on your diaphragm. Finally, enough oxygen was making it into his blood, and he felt himself calming.
"Warning. Warning. Atmospheric impact imminent. Atmospheric impact imminent," the artificial woman crooned into his ear, a note of urgency in her digitally generated tone. The young man twisted slightly, exerting his muscles to bring his chin to a switch, making a velocity and heading readout appear on his HUD. Just as he was focusing on it, though, his vision shook and his whole body was jolted and shaken sharply as the nose of the drop ship dipped into the atmosphere of the planet. His vision stabilized as the craft bounced up, and he studied the telemetry readout, but for some reason, he couldn't make sense of it. He knew he'd been trained to know what those numbers meant, but at that moment, when he tried to focus on the gibberish projected into his helmet, all he could think about was the watch on his wrist, ticking, ticking.
The ship bounced twice more, rattling him about in his capsule, and making him feel like a child's toy, then broke through into the atmosphere of the planet. The external temperature gauge began to rise, as the friction of the craft's passing against the air heated it's armour plating rapidly. The soldier braced his hands against the side of the pod; this, he knew, was when the true danger would start. The acceleration eased off, releasing the pressure on his chest, but he couldn't seem to draw a full breath. His tongue felt too big, and his mouth dry and scratchy. In seconds the calm voice of the AI would announce a countdown into range of the planetary anti-air defenses. He knew that his ship was the most advanced around, with the best stealth technologies, and the smartest pilot program that money could buy, but the terror remained in the back of his skull, like a little spiny worm.
"Now approaching combat envelop. Evasive maneuvers active in 5...4...3....2..." murmured the AI, confirming the young man's fear, but her last words were lost, as the whine of the engines suddenly blossomed into an ear-piercing shriek of rage. He felt the ship twist to the side, then all sense of balance and location were lost as the computer threw the vessel bodily into a series of impossible twists, turns, jukes, dives, and spins. As it did, the soldier cued up an external view through his helmet feed. His breath came short as he tried to make sense of the tumbling perspective, the red ground spinning away to be replaced by the orange-ish sky, all punctuated by brilliant green blossoms of defensive blaster cannon fire surrounding them. Suddenly, the ship seemed to drop out of the sky, the altimetre spinning upwards as though flicked by the finger of God. The man's heart leaped into his throat, and for a moment he was terrified, convinced that the engines had been destroyed by a lucky hit, and he was moments from death. Then, the craft stabilized, settling into inhumanly precise terrain-following flight.
"Now entering drop zone. All units, prepare for launch," the calming AI woman whispered, "Repeat, prepare for launch, drop imminent."
Adrenaline surged through the soldier's limbs again, but this time, he didn't try to push it away, instead, he embraced it, made it his own. His heart was pounding, and his helmet felt to small. He felt out the small handles on the sides of his pod, and gripped them tightly, his knuckles white under his gloves. The ship juked, then jumped once, then, with an mighty thud which echoed through the panels to the young man's feet, the first drop pod was away. More crashes followed in rapid succession, sweeping up the ship to fire each soldier at extreme velocity towards the ground, until suddenly, all the lights on his HUD went a deep blood red. He bit down hard on the rubber tongue-guard, and let out a deep breath, then the world exploded with velocity as he was crushed into the bottom of his capsule. His vision went grey, a tunnel appearing at the corners of his eyes, and then he impacted onto the surface of an alien world, and the safely enveloping cocoon of his drop pod spat him out with his weapon, to fight.
6 months ago