Somewhere high over the methane seas, the jumpship hit turbulence, lurching about in the nitrogen-dense atmosphere of Titan. The churning tossed one of the eight rooks out of her seat in a flail of uncoordinated armored limbs. The alien alloys of her powered armor smacked the industrial metal floor, denting it. I looked down as she scrambled back to her seat with wide green eyes and a flurry of almost-dark hair.
Ken leaned forward against restraints. “Goddammit, we told you to strap in!”
We were all lined up against the wall and locked in. Everyone in armor, Ken and me babysitting all eight new additions to the platoon. Four rooks to each wall, Ken and me sitting at the front across from each other.
“Yes sir, Sergeant Awojobi!” the rook shouted, struggling with restraints.
“They gave us morons,” Ken said to me, loudly enough for the whole cabin to hear. “Did you morons even go through any training? How hard is it to fucking strap yourselves in?”
“Yes sir,” the rook mumbled, embarrassed. Everyone else
tried not to make eye contact with Ken or me. The jumpship dropped what felt like a hundred feet, my stomach shoving against my throat.
Titan was feeling punchy today.
Ken was too. “Where in the hell did you all train that we’re getting such morons?”
“Icarus, sir. Dark side of the moon. Like you.” The tag on her shoulder said KIMMIRUT. I was supposed to have memorized the eight names being sent to bolster the platoon, but hadn’t had time to get around to it yet. Mainly because, ironically, the Rockhoppers were understrength and working overtime.
“Like me?” Ken said. “I’m strapped in.”
I caught Ken’s eye and raised an eyebrow. Dark side of the moon. Before the Darkside War, which had been more of an Encounter, Ken would not have taken kindly to the bemused “hey, take it down a notch” look I was giving right now.
But a lot had changed since then. We had an understanding.
I had to suspect Ken still hurt, deep down, over getting Sergeant First Class while I was Lieutenant of a platoon. His family had trained him to be officer class. They were fiercely loyal to the Accordance. I doubted we’d ever have been on speaking terms if not thrown into war together.
“Everyone,” Ken ordered, his tone calmer, “check your restraints.”
I leaned back and closed my eyes. I didn’t want to lose my lunch in front of the rooks. That wasn’t going to inspire much in the way of confidence. And Ken would use that against me for days. But the sour mash of standard issue Accordance protein globs in my stomach was not taking this shaking lying down.
“One hour out to Shangri-La Base,” the pilot shouted
back at us from the cockpit. Alexis Hiteman had been doing bus duty for us for a couple weeks, running the platoon from point to point with gear as needed. A quiet, just-the-facts flyer, Alexis seemed to relish the chance to get to fly alien hardware by himself, without an Accordance pilot overseeing him. A new development in the Colonial Protection Forces, letting humans get their hands on more and more Accordance hardware as the fight against the Conglomerate spread throughout the outer solar system.
One of the rooks threw up. My stomach clenched sympathetically at the sound of splatter.
Alexis shouted back at us again. “It should get better once we’re over the ethane lake and . . . ,” he trailed off. There was a sort of “huh” sound in his voice as something caught his attention.
One of the rooks whispered a little too loudly, “It’s true, the lieutenant can sleep just about anywhere. I heard he took a nap during the bombardment of Icarus crater!”
The awe was misplaced. I had been up for days straight and had nowhere to run. It had just happened. Could happen to anybody. But someone had leaked the after-action report, which included audio of me snoring while the Conglomerate ship all but destroyed the Icarus crater floor.
Ken laughed. “He’s not sleeping, he’s just . . .”
I opened my eyes and decided to chime in and educate them. Tell them I was about to toss my breakfast at any moment, and it was okay. Relax them a bit.
At that moment, Alexis yanked the jumpship hard right. The Accordance-made engines howled, and as we pulled massive gees, I could feel my armor compensating by squeezing my legs to force blood back up my body. It felt like a massive hand had just wrapped itself all around the lower half
of my body and tried to pop me out of the suit.
“Hiteman!” I shouted.
Everyone on my side of the jumpship was hanging from the restraints, limbs sticking out straight forward, eyes bugging. Then it reversed. I was flat on my back as gravity slammed down on my chest.
The familiar thump and hiss of chaff spitting out of tubes near the back confirmed that this was not turbulence-related. Alexis was jinking hard. These were serious evasive maneuvers, the kind I hadn’t felt since we first dropped into Titan.
“Alexis!” I yelled again. I kicked the armor on to pull myself forward against the force of the insanely tight turn and lean into the middle of the aisle so I could look forward through the cabin and up into the open cockpit, out into the murky amber-yellow.
“Damn!” the pilot shouted. “I got a trace, just a blip, of something out in the clouds. Came in for a closer peek so I could pass the contact info back on to HQ, thinking I could sniff a bit closer and save someone else on patrol the trouble. I’m so fucking sorry.”
Alexis was sprinting now, the engines at an all-out howl and the entire jumpship shaking. We were moving at orbital-insertion speeds and Alexis had gone quiet again, but I could see his right hand dancing over the panels in a flurry. He was muttering into his mic.
“What the hell is this?” one of the rooks asked, his face ash-pale.
Bang! Something shook the entire jumpship.
“What we got?” Ken shouted forward.
The jumpship started wobbling violently. Alexis grunted. “Some of the little fuckers got us, one engine out.”
“This is Titan, it’s high ground,” I said to Ken. We’d lost Saturn to the Conglomerate. Those floating jellyfish-like starships had taken the atmosphere and held it, but we had the rocks above, and Titan had been held solid for two months now. Up the gravity well, above all those other moons; this was well behind the line.
“I think we have a cricket drone swarm,” Alexis shouted back. “But I’m not sure. I’ve never actually run into a cloud before. Just in training simulations. Never actually been in the air with them.”
Point defense systems kicked on. The autoguns started chattering away.
“Can we make it to Shangri-La?” I shouted over the constant firing.
What sounded like large pieces of hail hitting the jumpship filled the cabin, and Ken and I looked at each other.
“Brace for impact,” Alexis said, matter-of-factly answering my question. “I’m shutting down the other engine so they don’t jam it up. It’s just a matter of seconds.”
Even as he said it, the roar faded into a whine and then silence. The hail-like sound continued, and then the point defense guns ran out of ammo. The whistle of Titan’s thick atmosphere rushing past us was the only sound in the cabin.
“Helmets up!” I ordered as we plummeted. Mine slid up over my head and into place smoothly with the thought. The suit connected into me via some invasive alien tech, tendrils sliding up into my spine to synch nervous systems and armor.
One of the recruits started babbling on the public channel, a mix of fear and swearing.
“Get that off the public channel,” Ken snapped.
“Hold your weapons tight,” I said as calmly as I could. I was sure my voice quavered slightly.
We hit. My restraints snapped and I flew forward into the bulkhead. I staggered back to my feet and looked around as my brain caught up. It was dark inside and full of debris. Liquid ethane, laced with methane and propane, poured in through rents in the hull. “Mayday, HQ, anyone riding shotgun?”
“Go for HQ.”
I stood up. Right before we sank into the ethane lake, I could see the tiny hump of a distant hill. Alexis had ditched us as close to solid ground as he could. “Everyone, secure your weapons and get out.”
In the cockpit, Alexis lay crumpled forward, spine twisted. He hadn’t been in armor. Ethane gushed in around him as the jumpship settled further and then stopped.
We were in the shallow end of the ethane lake.
“HQ, we’re down. Our pilot ditched. Said it was crickets.”
There was a pause on the other end. “Coordinates?”
I read them out. “How long for backup?”
“There shouldn’t be anything out there, Lieutenant” was the response.
“We need evac and support nonetheless,” I said.
“Twenty minutes” was the terse response.
I broke out of a gap in the hull and pushed through helmet-high water. Ken stood farther up the shore ahead of me, hip-deep in it. “Get to shore! Come on!”
He wasn’t shouting or berating, Ken was calm under pressure. But he knew what needed to be done. We needed visibility, and quick.
“Alexis?” Ken asked.
“Dead. I want a headcount and weapons count,” I said to Ken as I looked around. Far overhead, Titan’s permanent layer of haze seemed to cap the orange thickness. And the
hydrocarbon-rich clouds below that hadn’t vomited out the enemy.
“All eight accounted for. Five of them held onto their gear.”
The recruits were slogging up onto the shore.
“Who’re the squad leaders?”
“Tony, Yusef, raise your hands,” Ken ordered over the public channel. They did so.
“Squad leaders, take point,” I replied. “The three of you without weapons, fall into the center as the rest of us fan out. Yusef, your squad looks up to the clouds. Tony’s squad watches the lake.”
“Shouldn’t we get back into the jumpship for our weapons?” someone asked.
“We stay the fuck put,” Ken growled.
They were nervous. Jumpy. Scared. The Accordance had Titan swept. Orbital defenses in the form of thorny-looking platforms in orbit above us. None of this should have been happening and we all knew it.
“You mayday out to HQ?” Ken asked, private channel.
“Twenty minutes out,” I replied. “They said nothing should be out here.”
“Well, something is damn well out here and we have to deal with it,” Ken replied.
I walked around so that each of the recruits could see me checking them over. On the public channel, I cleared my throat. “Listen up! You’ve heard this before but let me repeat it: There are many aliens out there. They come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. There are five aliens we need to worry about right now to survive the next twenty minutes before help comes.
“Drivers: They’re cat-sized and scaly. Those pronged rear feet will sink into the flesh of your back and hook on. That
pink ratlike tail? Once it plunges into your spinal cord, you’re a brain-dead meat puppet at its total and utter disposal.”
The placid liquid ethane on the other side of the jumpship started to boil.
“Trolls: Yes, they look like rhinoceros that stand on two feet. Either of which could stamp you into a puddle. That bio-armor? Nothing short of depleted uranium gets through it. Keep out of the way.”
Insect-like forms swarmed and thrust their way through the lake, surrounding the jumpship as they schooled in our direction.
“Raptors: Our enemies decided that a velociraptor with a brain, thumbs, and a running speed of a cheetah wasn’t good enough, so they made cyborgs out of them. They smell like chicken if you hit them with a laser.”
Tiny wriggling metal legs glinted in the dim light as they began to surface and skip over the ethane at us.
“Crickets: These insect-like robots are the first wave. The winged variants provide air support as well. Shoot them to bits. But watch out, because the leftovers reassemble as needed. So make sure the bits are really, really tiny, and then shoot them some more. Those of you without weapons, stomp them!”
I didn’t have time to talk about Ghosts. The masters of it all. Covered in advanced adaptive camouflage, running the battle in secrecy. Nor was I even allowed to tell these recruits what the Ghosts really were.
“Remember your training!” I shouted as the cloud of crickets churned out of the water to the shoreline. “You know what to do:
“Kill them all!”