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High Orbit Drop: Lucky Thirteen

by D.D. Schneider 2 months ago in Sci Fi
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Astro-Reaper 1.1 Actual

High Orbit Drop: Lucky Thirteen
Photo by Austin Schmid on Unsplash

Nobody can hear a scream in the vacuum of space, or so they say. Whoever made up this saying hundreds of years ago never dropped from high orbit onto a hostile world. If they had, they would know better.

I march down the hanger bay of the Geminorum class Assaulter Ship, The Shikari. To my right are the Individual Orbital Deployment Apparatus’, the offical acronim being IODAs but we just call them CANs, and my left are the Caracara Drop Ships. The hanger is bustling with activity which only happens in preparation for an assault on a planet or actively in a battle. My focus through this mayhem is to my right as it is the captain’s duty to check his men before a battle. I inspect the CANs and my Droppers who are deploying, shaking their hands for a last-minute moral boost and to calm my own worries.

Each one of these Droppers is a volunteer, knowing full well that there is about a 50/50 chance they will not survive to get to the ground. Lured to the unit by the bonus pay, alleviating prison time, or even paying off debt, they decided that a 50/50 chance of death is more favorable than whatever they left behind.

I remember when I thought the same thing.

“Captain Theseus!” Lieutenant Denny, one of the newer additions to the company, called me over to a Dropper he was having issues with ahead of my current progress down the line. Himself and two other droppers, all in their full armor, were standing like they were trying to avoid one of those three headed snakes on Physis 9.

“LT, what’s up?” I ask but know what is happening before laying eyes on the offender. There is always one or two before a drop who have their doubts outweigh their training. The Dropper in question was a privat, this was their first drop. Any other rank and they would be experienced, as rank progression came with each drop.

“I ain’t doing it!” screamed an irate Dropper. His armor tagged him as Lewis, a big man swinging his helmet over his head like it was a club that he was ready to use on the next officer that tried to get him in his IODA.

I approach directly to just outside Lewis’ swinging distance. I have my own helmet on, as I always do, fully protected from the potential clubbing I could receive so I’m not worried about bodily injuries. Lieutenant Denny should know better than be worried about that while fully armored. I pull up Lewis’ records on the display inside of my helmet and select it to stay in a corner window just outside my view of the panicked dropper with a few chin swivels and eye movements.

“Why is that Private?” I ask, placing my hands on my hips, relaxed as only experience can provide.

“I’ll go back to prison, I don’t care! I just can’t drop!” Lewis yells at me, daring me to step closer. His brown eyes are fiery, and his tanned complexion is betraying his nerves with sweat drenching his face and short cropped hair.

His file states he was serving 59 years due to some accounts of aggravated assault against a Counselor of the Hight Courts. He probably just threw fruit at a corrupt politician during a parade on his home world and had the whole court thrown at him. I had an officer once that joined with the same kind of convictions, he turned out to be a great leader until he took a bad hit on a drop and died entering atmo.

“Why is that?” I repeated, not angerly or with any authority but purely out of curiosity, probably sounding strange as my voice through the suit’s amplifiers making it sound more like a demon than a real man. The sudden display of humanity shocked Lewis. Up close, he really is a bruit of a man standing over two meters and built like he could carry his CAN and use that as his primary weapon, probably the reaons the LT didn't want to get too close. When Lewis did not immediately answer, I looked over to Lieutenant Denny and the two other sergeants that I didn’t have time to identify.

“Did anyone ask Privat Lewis why he has decided to abandon his comrades on the final countdown to a drop?” Cool, calm, my demeanor destabilized the tension in the moment.

The Sergeants were quiet, smart choice in my opinion. Lieutenant Denny, no slouch in his own right but a dwarf compared to Lewis, answered through gritted teeth, “It didn’t come to mind sir, time being the issue.”

“Answer the question Privat,” I order, facing back to the giant.

He is still holding his helmet above his head, prepared to bludgeon anyone who decided to get too close, but the threatening panic in his eyes softened.

“My wife,” he paused, taking a breath as I assumed he had been holding it expecting to get shot for insubordination. “My wife just had my daughter. I was just told. I need to see that little girl. I need to see my daughter.”

The advanced sound detection that came with the Dropper helmet package amplified the quiet of the immediate area. Around us the hanger was still a hive of activity, the counter in the corner of my display notated five minutes until drop.

I look over at the lieutenant and sergeants who were prepared to either shoot Private Lewis or force him to deploy to the planet’s surface below. The three do not look directly at me, but they do shift their focus from Private Lewis to face me, relaxing their posture.

“Is the rumor about me still floating around?” I ask them.

The off-topic question causes them to pause for a moment, then Sergeant Thompson, now I see his identifier, responds through the external amplifiers “Rumor sir? Do you mean the urban le..”

“I don’t give a flying lizard's fart what it’s called Sergeant, is that legend still being passed around the lower ranks or not?”

Lieutenant Denny speaks up saving his Sergeant. “Yes sir, still very active. Breaker company has a betting pool if it’s true or not.”

I need to talk with Lieutenant Denny about pertinent details, but that will be if he survives his tenth drop.

The rumor was started because I do not show my face to the privates when they join my company. Not that I mean to hide myself from my Droppers, the issue stems from the fact that as soon as a Dropper graduates from the two solar years of training out of Tritan 4, they get placed into a company coinciding with a drop on some planet we need to pacify. Frankly, the run up to the drop has me too busy to take off the damn thing.

Nevertheless, the rumor persisted and grew. Now, if you see the face of Captain Theseus, then you are magically granted a higher probability of surviving whatever comes next. If Captain Theseus speaks without his helmet, and you are blessed enough to hear my voice, then you are guaranteed to survive.

It is a load of drigeen shit, but I won’t correct them.

“Gentlemen, get to your CANs and I’ll handle Private Lewis,” I instruct the three other Droppers as I turn back to focus on the big man in front.

Private Lewis has further relaxed having lowered his helmet to his hip where it is now resting nervously in his hand. His determination is something we will need on the ground; I would hate to have to shoot him now.

“Do me a favor private, go ahead and get into the CAN. You don’t need to acknowledge any of the pred-drop sequences or anything, I just need you in the CAN.” I hear the exhaustion in my voice and wonder if Lewis realizes my patience for this situation is thin at best.

The private obliges and gets into the missile made for human ordinance. He really is a big guy, even though the IODAs are built by the lowest bidder, they are specially fitted to each Dropper to allow the highest survivability when landing. It looked like his CAN was too small let alone the rest of the fitted compartment. He places his helmet on his head and locks it as the medical readings and communication connection flickers on in my display. Before I can say anything he opens his faceplate to look at me directly. Private Lewis is waiting for me to do some underhanded Captain trick like locking him into his CAN before he can escape and is silently daring me to try.

But that's not what I do.

Instead, I lean into his CAN which is set low in the deck now allowing me to look down on him. Certain that no one else on the busy hanger deck can see me, I raise my face plate.

“I don’t know if you believe, or even heard those damn rumors, but here’s some luck for you,” I say at bad breath distance. His eyes, deep set under a thick forehead, were as wide as his open mouth. Seems like he has heard those rumors, or my scarred old face and poor dental hygiene scared him stupid.

“Now here’s a deal for you. First option, you can get out of this CAN and abandon your Company, your Astro-Reapers, and I promise I will double your prison sentence and ensure you’re in solitary confinement. No visitations. Second option, you drop. Survive this drop and planet side, then I’ll sign your release papers personally and you can see your little girl as a free man.”

I do not wait for a reply, I close my face plate and take a step back. His mouth is closed now, but the surprise is still evident as the blood had drained from his skin as he closes his faceplate.

“One last thing Private Lewis. Don’t mention this to anyone, I have an image to uphold.” I say, continuing our conversation in the privacy of encoded laser link communications.

He throws a sharp salute, puffing his chest out and testing the limitations of his personal CAN. “YES SIR,” he yells back to me, though the sound is dampened out of my personal preference, otherwise I am sure the big man could blow out my eardrums.

I continue the final inspections of my Company, the Astro-Reapers. Not including Private Lewis, everyone seemed squared away, the NCOs doing their noncommissioned job of making sure the Company is prepared to drop, practically and not just on paper. Those noncommissioned and commissioned officers are all experienced and survivors of multiple campaigns on worlds across the galaxy, I know I would get in their way if I tried to help.

I make it to my CAN when Sergeant Major Vickers finds me. He does not salute me, preparing to get into that habit before getting to the ground. Instead, he shakes my hand.

“How are they looking?” I ask him, more as a friend than his superior. He and I both have twelve drops, just different trajectories in the career. We started at roughly the same time, and have shared experiences on other back of the galaxy worlds, so we rarely find time to adhear to the strick chain of command standard to other companies.

“Point and shoot sir, they’re good to go. But point fast, otherwise they’ll fuck everything and the dog up.” Vickers was always an interesting guy. His eighth drop was a bad one, he received a hit on the way in but survived landing and a real tough fight afterwards. I know because I was there, and he was never the same because of it, as his language would indicate.

“Means we have to be as spry as these young guns huh?” he and I were both well into our late thirties in terms of solar years, moving significantly slower than we once did.

But we can still bring the pain from high orbit on any day that ends in Y.

“Yes sir,” he says. “Are the projections for this drop as bad as the skuttle has been? The brief from General Beaudaws for this drop was light on details.”

Normally this would get someone shot for insubordination or treason or something, technically you cannot criticize your commanding officers while in the Armed Forces Serving for the Galactic High Counsel. I run my company differently, and my people know I do. I am more likely to shoot them for not asking a pertinent question.

“Don’t be going soft on me now Vickers,” I say as a jab. Though his helmet and faceplate are down, I know his face is as emotionless as the suite is.

He does have a point. The lead up and info dump to this drop was shotty at best. None of the normal Standard Operating Procedures are being followed, in fact this is not a full planet take down like we are supposed to be attached to. Astro-Reaper company, Breaker company and two squadrons of Caracara Drop ships acting as close air support and battlefield transportation, would be dropping on one city to specifically capture one building, a none descript warehouse of some kind, and hold that building until told otherwise. The numbers do not add up, we are too small of a force to do what needs done planet side. Droppers are shock troops sent down from high orbit over a planet to scare the bad guys before punching their face in. We are not built to be doing quiet operations like this one implies needed doing.

The timer in my display notated in bright red that we broke two minutes until drop, meaning the lids to the CANs were about to close. The point of no return was fast approaching.

“Can’t do anything about it now, can we. See you on the ground Vickers,” I say, slapping his shoulder armor. With a lazy salute, he turns and walked the few meters to his own CAN.

We do not talk about it, but this is drop thirteen for the both of us.

Unlucky.

There is no time to think of the implications my thirteenth drop may have as I get into my CAN and the final countdown begins in the hanger. The lid of the CAN begins enclosing me, hushing the alarms and blaring lights, and my suit finalizes the connection with the systems onboard. We never know what we will be facing on the ground. Every info brief on resistance has been wrong in my experience, so I instruct all my Droppers to power down their suites and rely on the IODAs power and operating systems. The coordinates for landing are preprogramed, and the flight controls for the IODAs track our retinas, so there is no reason to have the suit on.

A transmission indicator pops up with no identifier tag on my display after the suit has completely powered down. I acknowledge and am greeted to General Beaudaws. Bald, wrinkled, and perpetually angry, he was not someone I was hoping to talk to right now before the drop. He seemed distracted, looking away from me and shuffling things around him, but that doesn't explain why his identifier didn’t pull up for the transmission request.

“Theseus.”

“General, to what do I owe the pleasure?”

“Mission update,” he said, dabbing his head with a cloth. That was not a good sign.

“Prepared to receive, sir.”

“Everything will continue as planned. We will jump into high orbit and deploy both Astro-Reaper and Breaker companies and the Caracara squadrons, then jump back out to the far side of the solar system when you are clear. Land and take the target building, then await orders from there.”

Mission brief had my Astro-Reapers taking the building while Breaker provided security, so far nothing sounds new. General Beaudaws was not the kind of leader to sweat the small things, literally or figuratively, something else was the issue.

“Copy all, sir.”

“When you take the building, there will be an entrance to a cellar underneath. I need you to enter it alone.” He said, and for the first time looked me in the eye.

“Sir? Did I hear that right? What am I to find there?” They can't shoot me for questioning my superior right before a drop, so I take the chance.

“You did Theseus. That’s all I have. Give 'em hell,” he finishes with a lazy salute.

“FROM HIGH ORBIT!” I belt out with the traditional response in a Dropper unit.

He ends the transmission, and the counter fills my display with no time to think about the last minute, incredibly strange orders.

3…

2…

1…

I watch the doors of the now empty hanger bay open quickly from the CAN’s viewing port and the Caracara ships lift off the deck. I have enough time to see the first craft leave when myself and the two other companies of Droppers get shot out the bottom of The Shikari like missiles ready to ruin someone's day. It happens so fast, and the CAN so specially fitted that it takes a moment for me to realize I am now a projectile beginning a trajectory to impact the planet below. There is always a moment when the IODA is seemingly motionless in space, I see the planet below in shadow as we approached opposite of the only star in this system. From my vantage, I see the Caracaras are maneuvering into formation, wide apart so in case they are unfortunate enough to break up in entry they don't take out anther craft.

I connect to the Company Net so I can hear if there is any chatter from the Droppers. Not that I need to, all life sign indicators are in my display now, but I prefer hearing their voices. I did this on my first drop to remember I am not alone, and it has become my personal tradition. Now, as a captain and leader of warriors, I need to hear their voices when they face death.

That is when the first Caracara drop ship gets hit by an unseen projectile, and the flight crew begins screaming as the cabin loses pressure and stability. Two seconds later, the craft implodes on itself, completely opposite of what I've ever seen. Instead of breaking apart or blowing into atomized particals, the unlucky Caracara ship caved in on itself suddenly until it no longer existed.

The Droppers hanging in space see this and the net goes quiet. A Private Nickerson says, in his armature wisdom, “That can’t be good.”

Rockets engage, the two Dropper companies begin their flight as human missiles to the surface. Fast and small, the IODAs are designed to be hard to hit in open space. The issue is, even a glancing blow from any traditional weapons can cause a failure when entering the atmosphere. That does not include whatever just took out the Caracara.

It has been a while since I tried to take control of my CAN on the way down, I like to think fate will handle that part for me, so I enable the IODA's autopilot option. Either I survive and have a job to do, or suddenly it is not my problem. Instead, I am focusing on the trajectory of the two companies while keeping an eye on the structural integrity and life sign indicators on my display. The flight down is uneventful, seemingly more like a training mission with no resistance. All signs green across the board, though I have no idea how the two squadrons of Caracaras are holding up.

One kilometer out, IODA structural integrity indicators start flashing yellow across both companies with partial hits and damages sustained from an unseen advisory.

One kilometer is too close to turn back, and the Shikari has jumped by now so there would not be a place to retreat to anyway.

Those unfortunate Droppers know they will most likely die entering atmosphere. This burden of knowledge placed on their minds breaks some of their psyches, and they begin screaming what will soon be their last words on this plane of existence.

All I can do is listen to my Droppers as they flame out over a no name back-world.

Sci Fi

About the author

D.D. Schneider

Writing is a hobby of mine, only a hobby. There are so many perfessionals out there, I'd rather keep the joy in the hobby than compete as a professional.

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  • Jori T. Sheppard2 months ago

    Fantastic idea. Great premise. Very creative and enjoyable. Keep up the good work

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