Chapter 1: Drop Zone
“The drop zone is too hot, we’re going to unload your tubes in one Mike. Ready your men, Commander Rustin!” the captain’s voice roared overhead into Rick “Rusty” Rustin’s ear.
“Lock in, ladies, these ugly motherfuckers are tryin’ to end our trip early!” Rusty shouted through the drop ship, his voice unwavering. Only his third tour, first as squad leader, and Rusty’s face showed no evidence of excitement.
With one hand, he yanked the release on his bucket, freeing the clamps which secured his armor, and therefore him, to the bulkhead. Pushing off toward the deck, letting his mag-boots pull him to standing with a double thunk, a smile crept across the corners of his mouth. “Well I say ‘oohrah’, and ‘give the Devil his due’ to these beetle-faced sons-uh-bitches!” This was a far cry from the timid nausea Rusty’d felt before his first drop, just six months before. Earth months, anyway. Those meant nothing out in the void.
A starburst off the starboard engine boomed and rattled their transport, the lights in their drop-pod flickering in time with the vibrations. Rusty sank lower in his stance, pulling himself towards his mag-boots and into a tight ball; preventing himself from being flung about by the impact. Confident the hull hadn’t been breached, he stood once more, widening his stance like an old seafarer. A whimpering voice barely eked over the vibrating rattle of the drop pod. It was an involuntary squeak of fear, which men were told made them weak. The noise maker would be ashamed, telling himself that no one heard, that it was only loud in his own head, and that the ship had masked the cry, but Rusty had caught it. So had everyone else. They all kept quiet because to call him a coward or weak would be to say the same of themselves. It was the very sound Rusty had made on his first run when a piece of shrapnel from another pod had slammed into his boat just before they broke atmo. The same squeak of terror that others had made the first time a slug had hit their faceplate and rattled their brainpan so hard that they’d been unsure if the lights they saw were Heaven or a concussion. Everyone on that boat had the right to that moment, they had earned it when they signed up for service in the GA, but Rusty couldn’t afford to let the greenhorn live there—he did the same thing Burke had done after Rusy’d squeaked: stomped over to him, exaggerating each footfall, mag-boots clanging with aggravation. “Just what in the fuck are you crying about, Simpson?”
“Nothing sir, it’s just that—”
“You’re goddamn right it’s nothing,” He said and grabbed Simpson’s brain-pail from the mag-latch of his bucket, “You wait till you get home in one piece to shit your pants. Don’t you fuck up one of my missions, are we clear?”
“Roger, don’t fuck up your mission, sir!”
“Good. Now firm it up and keep this on your goddamn skull!” Rusty said and shoved the kid’s helmet into his gut.
“Did everybody hear what I told Simpson? That goes for all you shit-birds. Get those brain-pails on your grapes before you waste all the goddamn money GA spent on you! And charge your rebreathers. No one gives a rat’s ass if you die, If they did, mommy wouldn’t have let you sissies sign up for Galactic Armada, but you can die on your own time, not in one of my suits! Ohhrah?” Rusty shouted through the tube and clapped on his own helmet amidst the cacophony of resounding “Oohrahs” thrown back at him.
Into the helmet comms he softened a bit, if only to preserve his own eardrums, “That a boy, lads. That a boy. Now, who’s ready to dance?”
In unison his platoon, even scared shitless Simpson shouted the same thing they had been programmed to say since day one on Titan, training in those harsh frozen and irradiated conditions, learning how not to fling themselves off-world as they got acclimated to their new suits: “Give the Devil his due!”
His smile, now hidden behind the solar visor of his brain-pail, dominated his face as he said, “Now, we’re heading to meet our new Suzy in 30 seconds. And I, for one, am tired of the foreplay! If you got prayers to say, I suggest now’s the time to say ‘em, because God’s gotta stay behind, I’m only bringing Devils!”
His squad again shouted the mantra of the GA Hellraisers, and Rusty sat back into his bucket once more, feeling the automatic clicks and clacks as his power-armor was pulled and clamped into the seat.
“Fifteen seconds,” came from the comms overhead, now barely audible through their helmets. Only Rusty had his helmet tuned to the general freq and could respond. “Roger that. Send it!”
“Commander Rustin, it’s been an honor, sir. I can’t wait to tell the boy’s I got to fly with Rusty Thrusters! Good luck!”
Chapter 2: A Dead Man
Rusty Fuckin’ Thrusters. He hadn’t heard that name for a while now. Rusty was dead. If his career hadn’t been over before he signed up for service, it definitely was once he’d gotten the Hellraisers’ wetware burned into his cortex. Drivers on the Terran Circuit weren’t allowed to use stims or cybernetics to gain an advantage. It was all about the driver getting a “feel” for their rig.
Commander Rick Rustin was dead now, too, in his drop-pod, along with all his men. Until the pod made landfall, it was a giant tomb filled with talking corpses. That was the most comforting thing Burke had ever told him. Rusty’d gotten a feel for the drop by now and could deal with it by closing off his comms, turning the dial on his visor up enough to block out the flickering lights of the rattling pod, and the dazzling helmet torches of his squad casting wild arcs throughout the pod as their heads bobbed and jerked. He’d arranged this sensory blockade as a default setting in his wetware so he could dial for it without much of a conscious effort. It was awful kind of the GA to allow him a few Gigs of storage space in his own brain for personalization of his gear.
Rusty began to get lost in his silent death until an increase in his weight upset his senses. The tube was rolling. The ablative shielding tearing off in uneven swaths, causing their slow roll to gain momentum. The crash buckets that had done so well in absorbing vibration, keeping his bones and organs from being liquefied, could do nothing to alleviate the G-forces of the centrifugal spin. Through clenched teeth, Rusty shouted into his mic, “Pop your stims!” knowing that if he was feeling the crunch, his men were, too. He’d be lucky if Simpson wasn’t passed out with a full urine reclaimer already. You better drink up, Johnny, he thought.
A tightening on his neck let Rusty know the suit was preparing to dose him. It swelled like a blood-pressure cuff to help the sensors find a vein, and then WHAMMO! The icy fix filled his carotid artery and raced into his skull. The intense cold of the stims didn’t dissipate as the fluid spread through his body but instead gained intensity. His skull felt to have swelled to maximally fill the brain-pail, its prongs and sensors digging into his scalp more with each throb of his pulse, and then he was socked behind the eyeballs by the mother of all ice-cream headaches. Rage followed and Rusty clamped his hands around the roll-cage of his bucket, disengaging his comms just before releasing a tremendous roar, fogging up his visor and only making his headache worse. Hairs on his spine, neck, and arms stood on end and his flesh tingled. The unbearable cold suddenly snapped into intense heat and his body became a furnace with which his suit’s thermal-exchanger needed to deal. In an instant, he was ripped to pieces molecule-by-molecule and slammed back together by the drug. At least that’s how Burke had described the sensation, and after a handful of stim pops of his own, Rusty couldn’t find a better way to put it. Rusty added, to benefit his cadets, that they’de be royally pissed off by the ordeal and should try and not clobber anyone on the same team.
Regaining focus, Rusty dialed back his visor and saw fire at the far end of the tube that was the drop-pod, so now not only was he still dead, but apparently he was gonna have to participate in arranging the funeral. He was sure that the pod’s fire suppression would come online any second now… why wasn’t it coming on, the ship was designed to detect… no that wasn’t fire, but the vaporization of the hull. Rusty was looking through a hole. The goddamn ship was breached and the friction was making quick work of his transport.
“Eject! Eject! Eject, goddamnit you worms, Eject!” he shouted into the comms and one-by-one his team’s buckets vacced into the bulkhead and their canopies came down. One after another, they shot out of the tube in little egg-shaped escape bubbles… all but Simpson.
Rusty reached for his sidearm, and even with the power-armor, it was some undertaking to fight the Gs of the spin. He took aim at Simpson’s chest. “Wake the fuck up, soldier,” he shouted.
Rusty squeezed the trigger and the drop-pod ripped apart fully, throwing he and Simpson askance.
Rusty yanked the eject handle for a second time and still nothing, the hunk of the drop-pod his bucket was latched to had no power. He was a falling duck. Reaching for his sidearm, he planned to shoot the couplers that held his seat to the hull fragment and somehow get enough clearance to pop his chutes. He found only disappointment. Rusty’s holster was empty. It took him less than a second of confusion before he remembered that the sidearm was gone, ripped from his hand by the violent death throes of the escape pod. His plan was now shit. Confusion became rage again.
Scanning his HUD, Rusty discovered that he had less than two minutes to impact, that he’d already reached terminal velocity for this planet, Xaron 3, and that there were roughly twelve chunks of the drop-pod at or above his approximate altitude.
He hoped like hell one of those sections went by the name Simpson.