Category Archives: Science Fiction

The Silence of Alium – Chapter 3

ID 36883161 © Andrey Armyagov | Dreamstime

By Chris Hutton

3 – Divergent Paths

          There had been no communication between Lacroix and the Galactic Coalition for over a year. No messages could be received nor transmitted by the research post. As such, Dr. Jiya Kapoor had not spoken with anyone off-base since her father had first communicated that her mother had contracted Huang Gao’s disease. By best estimates her mother maybe had a month left now, if she wasn’t already dead, and Jiya had no way to speak with her, let alone reach her.

          As such, Jiya had been in a miserable state for some time. She attempted to focus on her studies as best as she could, researching the biology of the bentari and other potentially related pseudo-fauna, but as time dragged on it became harder and harder for her to focus on the task at hand. Of course she’d be a liar if she didn’t admit that it wasn’t just the crisis with her family that had disrupted her focus. The state of the research colony had been in rapid disintegration for months even before communication had been lost.

          Something was amiss on Alium, and whether it was a natural migratory shift, or the sign of something far more catastrophic, Jiya could not say with any level of certainty. The Coalition’s research into the planet was too new, with barely a decade and a half of data collected and only by the marginal population of less than a hundred inhabitants, themselves a mix of researchers and necessary station crew with less scientific backgrounds. There just wasn’t enough historical or long-term studies to provide conclusive answers.

          Nonetheless, Jiya feared for the worst.

          Like many mornings over the preceding weeks, she found herself cresting over a hillock just south of Lacroix, well within the quarantine perimeter, and approaching upon Haruka Lake. She enjoyed the walk and it eased the tensions that usually plagued her. A few purple pinwheels twirled their helicopter-like wings and rose up over the thin layer of fog that drifted across the placid surface of the water. A garon mating call rasped from within a small patch of sapphire bentai, or fictusherba sapphyrus, a potential link between the evolutionary trees of the bentari, fictusherba primus, and the squid trees, fictus abora. This potential link was a major hypothesis of one of her three primary research projects, in which Jiya postulated a common ancestor between these three pseudo-fauna, and their own branch on the evolutionary tree above the split with, and separated from, the other primary pseudo-fauna of the Hiawatha savanna.

          This morning, however, she pushed her research aside to simply enjoy the moment at hand, and to take solace in the peace that Haruka Lake provided her. The reed-like bodies of the bentai swayed with a light wind, their blades still spooled tight shielding against the morning dew. The scene reminded her of the bamboo plants piercing the waters of Lake Armstrong by her childhood home, and of early spring mornings as her mother and she waded up to the ankles along the shore collecting Freyan freshwater sand crabs, giggling as the crabs’ legs tickled against their palms. Often, as they bent down to scoop up their prize from beneath the soil of the shore, they had braced themselves against the shoots of bamboo.

          Jiya ran the tips of her fingers up along the spooled blade of the closest bentai. The stalk-like appendage felt feathery to the touch, but also pulsing with life. The bentai jolted, then spooled its blade tighter to protect itself from any potential predators. The tighter it wound and the denser its blade became, the greater threat it posed, it’s reed-like blade honing to a deadly point.

          Jiya let her fingertips fall aside, then toed away a thick clump of Hiawatha moss. It was the closest life form to an earth plant on the planet, and one of the only photosynthesizing life-forms that had a permanent rooted structure, lacking any form of mobility. The soft, blue pseudo-fauna offered a comfortable cushion, but it was also highly toxic to humans, so the fewer spores she picked up on her clothes, the better. She set upon the loose dirt revealed beneath the moss, and stared out across the lake, thinking of home and of her mother.

          Only a moment passed as she sat level with the surface fog, condensation clinging to her hair, before a thunderclap sounded above. Another, and another, and another rung out in rapid succession. The precision of the sound was distinct; man-made. Multiple flying objects had broken the sound barrier. That could mean only one thing; the Coalition had sent a crew to investigate the silence of Alium.

          Jiya looked up. The camouflage of the holographic dome worked in both directions, so at first she saw nothing but a lightly clouded sky. Then the first descent capsule burst into existence, popping through the dome. Immediately, the largest swarm of pinwheels she had ever seen rose up from the northern campus and flocked to the capsule, drawn by its heat. The swarm pushed in upon it crowding into every potential entry, and as the pinwheels landed she knew they would be sinking in their tiny rhizora siphoning heat from the vehicle. With enough force, they would obliterate the capsule.

          A second capsule glided through the dome, and the scene repeated itself. Now smoke billowed from the first, and Jiya could see small fires breaking out as the pinwheels wound themselves between the aft heat shield and the capsule itself, piercing through the seal interface gap. As a third capsule broke through the dome, two smoke trails billowed up from the damaged landers that had preceded it. Only this time as the swarm approached a billow of ash, water vapor, and smoke released while the capsule jettisoned its heat shield. The burnt metal alloy arced away, crashing like a meteor onto a distant stretch of plain, and the retrorockets that had hidden beneath its shielding roared to life, slowing the trajectory of the capsule.

          The swarm had fled from the conglomerate cloud momentarily, not yet clasping to the outer shell of the capsule. Then as the fires flared to life from the rockets, the swarm had charged forward again, only this time drawn to the heat of the flames. Hundreds of burnt pinwheels fluttered and fell from the sky consumed by the heat they so desired. Yet a new problem threatened the third capsule. As its descent slowed its parachute slackened threatening to fall upon the capsule, likely catching itself on fire as the cloth tangled against the rockets. Before this could happen, the retrorockets ceased firing and the capsule dropped like a stone, until the parachute fully expanded again sending the whole configuration into a wild spin.

          The third capsule fought back to some semblance of equilibrium, steadying out, and Jiya watched it shift back into a gentle arc. It descended, its chute billowing above, and for a minute she thought it just might land safely. Just as she let out a sigh of relief, convinced the worst had been averted, an explosion sounded and the first of the capsules disintegrated into slivers of shrapnel scattering destruction across the grasslands. The force of the blast blew the remaining two capsules off course, propelling them in opposite directions, the second of the capsules arcing in giant ball of fire, a man-made meteor hurtling towards the surface of Alium.

          The remnants of the three swarms fluttered in the open skies, then merged into one massive swarm and descended upon a new target as the fourth capsule crashed through the camouflaged dome. The pinwheels were hungrier and in greater numbers than Jiya had ever observed, and the chances of any of the Coalition crews surviving were rapidly diminishing. Jiya had to get help.

          As she ran back to Lacroix in search of aid, Jiya just caught sight of a safety tether snapping on the third capsule’s parachute. Yes, they’re going to need help, she thought. If they survive the impact.

Back to Chapter 1

The Silence of Alium – Chapter 2

ID 36883161 © Andrey Armyagov | Dreamstime

By Chris Hutton

Author’s Note:

My schedule remains off and for that I apologize. In lieu of the finale to The Dark Beneath, I will be posting the second chapter of the Silence of Alium. This work has taken a lot of my focus lately as I plan out the long game for the novel / novelette (still up in the air)


2 – Trajectories

          Sergeant Robles held fast to the grip above his head. He’d tightened his safety harness as tight as he could manage, and though he couldn’t be certain, he felt fairly confident he’d cut the circulation to his left leg. Well, maybe not quite, but close enough. The strap bit in against his upper thigh like a tourniquet. It felt painful and numb at the same time, and though his rational mind begged him to loosen the strap, he couldn’t bring himself to do it.

          He didn’t know how he’d ever made Sergeant. Born Rafael Roberto Robles, Rafael had always had an anxious temperament. He’d inherited it from his father, a relapsing alcoholic that had committed suicide when Rafael was only eleven. His mother always told Rafael that his father had been haunted by personal demons that he could not conquer and that he had died from an illness, no different than pneumonia or Huang Gao’s Disease. Rafael understood, but much like his current predicament with the straps, he’d been unable to reconcile his rational understanding with his emotional turmoil.

          He’d joined the army still battling both anger and grief over his father. Anger, because his father had been too afraid to face living, and grief in that his father had been compelled by his anxieties and depression to believe that death was his only option. When he’d signed on, Rafael determined that he would face down death, and that he would not be defined by his father. Now, sweating as the descent capsule Cerebus tugged against its primary parachute and clutching the safety handle for dear life, he could only speculate that his promotions came down to nothing more than attrition. He’d survived his engagements where others had not, even if by blind luck. Courage had nothing to do with it.

          “Sergeant Robles!”

          Staff Sergeant Simmons, jaw set, locked eyes with Rafael. This was his third engagement with Simmons, but he still couldn’t look the man in the eye without freezing like a deer in headlights.

          “Yes, sir.”

          “I need you focused.”

          Great, focused. That’s nice. We’re in a free fall, our fate in the hands of 100 yards of fabric and a tiny web of rope, and not a damn piloted system to control, but I better stay focused. You know, in case there’s an emergency for me to gape at. All of this ran through his head, but Rafael didn’t dare speak it out loud. Simmons scared the Holy Bejesus out of him. It was his eyes. They were black as midnight, and he swore they didn’t shine with even a hint of life. Never had such a man existed with eyes deader than those of Staff Sergeant Simmons. He was a devil made flesh.

          “Yes, sir. I’m focused, sir.”

          “Good. Stay sharp.”

          Sharp. Yeah, I can do that. Rafael lessened his grip on the safety handle relaxing into the soft comfort of the crash couch. That’s when the good doctor burst in from the peanut gallery.

          “Was that the chute?”

          Sergeant Lance daned to open her eyes. “Relax, doctor. It’s nothing.”

          Nothing? Why was the man asking about the parachute? That didn’t sound like nothing.

          Rafael managed a glimpse up through one of the three upper portholes. He didn’t want to look. The very thought of what he might find petrified him. At the same time, he knew that he had to look. If death was coming today, he’d face it, scared shitless, but knowing its inevitability. Directly above the porthole he saw it – a rip in the primary shoot.

          “Well, hell, looks like today’s the day,” he muttered – just barely audible. He hadn’t meant to say it out loud. It just slipped out.

          “Don’t be such a fatalist, Tre.” Private Second Class Walcott. Walcott and Rafael had come up in basic together. She had called him Tre ever since she had spotted his triple R initials embroidered on one of his kerchiefs. Some of the others in basic had taken to calling him Snotrag due to that same kerchief, so Rafael had always felt it best to leave well enough alone and give Walcott Tre. If Rafael was honest with himself, she deserved the command more than he did, but bureaucracy is bureaucracy, and the politics of the moment placed him in charge of team Baker.

          “Don’t be a fatalist? The f’ing chute just ripped.”

          “Keep yourself in check, Sergeant Robles. You have a team to command.” Simmons again.

          “Yes, sir.”

          Rafael held his tongue on any further commentary. The chute had ripped and the winds and the descent sent Cerebus twisting and turning in an awful spin, even as the pull of gravity tugged ever harder, but he’d keep calm for his unit. Shit ton of good it’ll do them, he thought, when we crash into Alium and flatten like a pancake.

          Walcott continued, ignoring Staff Sergeant Simmons. “Today’s not the day. Don’t forget the backup.” Walcott may have been the only one that knew about Rafael’s obsession with death; he’d made the mistake of opening up after one too many drinks on the eve of his promotion to Sergeant. Ever since she had been there to walk him down.

          As if on queue, the backup chute deployed and the entire capsule snapped back yanked upwards from its rapid descent. Cerebus rocked and twisted, rolling in all directions from the abrupt deployment.

          Across the way, Dr. Offredi clung to his armrests for dear life. Private Park had closed his book and sat calmly through the whole affair. Lance, Ruegger, and Simmons did likewise. Karzai smirked, enjoying a private joke, or at least that is what it looked like to Rafael. That left Bills, Varma, and Walcott.

          To his left, Walcott, having succeeded in calming him, now grinned from ear to ear hooting and hollering with each swing of the capsule. Varma, that tank of a man, hollered right back, laughing and swearing and having the time of his life. Varma and Walcott always took an insane level of pleasure from atmospheric entry.

          Bills on the other hand, Bills was new. He had his face plastered into his barf bag, and appeared to be hyperventilating. Lance cocked him a one-eyed glance, muttered under her breath, then stirred to deal with it. Bills was part of Alpha team, and thus her responsibility.

          Rafael didn’t bother listening to their conversation. He closed his eyes and prayed. The backup chute had opened, but if it ripped as well, there were no further lifelines.

          He lowered his head, closed his eyes, and gestured the sign of the cross, as he began his prayer, soft and just barely audible.

          “In nomine Patris, et Filii et Spiritus Sancti.” He finished the gesture, but remained bowed in prayer.

          “Angel of God, my Guardian dear, to whom God’s love commits me here, ever this day be at my side, to light and guard, to rule and guide. Amen.”

          Finished, Rafael signed the cross again, then eased against his crash couch, a calm slowly warming through him. The insane rocking of the capsule had eased and the rocky entry had at last abated, beginning the slow and gentle descent, buoyed by the backup chute.

          Walcott, no longer competing with Varma to out macho the other in riding out the frantic bucking of Cerebus, cast Rafael a concerned glance. She was up to something.

          “I’m fine. Really.”

          “Uh-huh.” Walcott didn’t buy it. She glanced about, grasping at the beginning of an idea. As she did, a gentle whir sounded, and two large sections of wall shifted, retracting on a track to reveal two curved windows running along the top of the crash couches, each opening upon an outstanding panoramic view of Alium.

          “I spy.”

          “Really, Walcott,” said Rafael. “I spy? We’re not twelve you know.”

          “It’s a long way down. Just shut up and humor me.” Walcott turned her attention towards the view outside the window. As she did, so to did Rafael.

          Below the Hiawatha Savannah stretched out from horizon to horizon, a sea of purples, dotted with copses of electric blue, all beneath thin wisps of cloud. Rafael knew it wasn’t really a savannah – not a grassland at all. There was no grass on Alium. Evolution had taken a different path here. Yet, the purple mass of the bentari swayed below in a striking resemblance to the grasslands of Earth broken in clusters by groves of aboras, known to most as squid trees or squidders. Much like the bentari were not actually grasses, the squid trees were not trees. Instead they existed somewhere between animal and plant, slow, massive beasts with tentacle-like trunks that rooted and uprooted at will, and blue, scale-like hairs that acted like leaves, generating energy from sunlight.

          Yet in the infinite stretch of falsehoods below, Rafael knew that even this image was in itself a lie, a camouflage of the world as it should be. Alium’s Lacroix outpost existed somewhere beneath that veil, named in honor of the first colonist to discover extraterrestrial life, the famous architect of Enhet Basen at the beginning of man’s conquest of the stars. Considering the troubled history of Enhet Basen, Rafael could not discern if the honorarium bode well or for ill, but his gut assured him that nothing good could come of it.

          Walcott pushed forward with her distraction. “I spy something blue.”

          “A fucking grove of squidders,” said Varma. “Come on, Walcott.”

          “Fine, you go.”

          “Nah, let’s give the new blood a try. Bills?”

          Bills wiped at his mouth securing his vomit bag. “What?”

          “Your turn.”

          “My turn for what?”

          Varma shook his head. “I can’t work with this.”

          Walcott nodded at Private Bills. “Just a game of I spy. It keeps your mind off the descent. What do you see?”

          “Fine, fine,” said Bills. “I spy with my little eye something white and fluffy.”

          Karzai jumped in, unable to sit by while a private on her team disgraced himself. “A cloud? That’s the best you got? You’re descending on an alien planet, an inhabited planet with one of the most unique ecosystems in the galaxy and you pick a damn cloud? You’ve got to give it more than that, Bills.”

          As the two continued to bicker, Rafael searched the skies for the other squads. The Hecate capsule should be somewhere above them, likely just opening its chute based upon the launch sequence, but Chimera and Ladon had to be well on their way.

          Meanwhile Private Bills, still barely holding to what remained of his lunch, gave in, waving off Karzai’s assault. “Fine,” he said. “I spy with my little eye something purple.”

          “The bentari? The f’ing bentari. This is just an embarrassment. You represent Able team, damn it. Hell, you represent Cerebus.”

There it was. Rafael caught site of Ladon, its orange and white parachute stretched out in its wake. “Gotcha,” he muttered just under his breath.

          As he watched it descend towards the vast sea of purple, the capsule blinked out of existence. It had vanished beneath Lacroix’s camouflaged dome, a holographic illusion generated along the perimeter of the base to hide its presence from the local fauna. The system functioned in an arc, requiring two points for each beam of the hologram, much like the old interlacing of televisions. A line of singular nodes ran in 180 degrees around Lacroix, before the second nodes began, each pairing with their opposite node 180 degrees away – the total effect of which was the complete concealment of the base, and anything passing within that barrier.

          Though Rafael could not find the Chimera capsule, he assumed that it too had already descended beyond visual confirmation. Still he searched, seeking any signs to the contrary, but before he could finish a complete scan, a raucous shout from Bills broke Rafael’s focus.

          “Well, I didn’t see one but I got a damn rhino right here.” Bills groped lewdly at himself, emphasizing his point. “But if you don’t want to see that, go ahead and take your own turn.”

          Karzai shook her head. “I spy with my little eye, something tiny struggling to compensate.”

          “Oooh, oooh!” Private Ruegger chimed in. “Private Bills. Am I right?”

          Rafael shook off the distraction and resumed his scan of the skies. The descent was routine, save for the reliance on the backup chute, but even so he was in charge of half of the squad. He owed it to them to be alert, for whatever good it might do. Death was not coming today. It had been forsworn.

          “Bingo.” Karzai waved in a mock display of showmanship. “Give the man a prize.”

          “Up yours, Ruegger.” Bills had decided the entire game was bullshit. “And you, too, Karzai.”

          “Not on your life.” Karzai smiled. She liked having the upper hand.

          Off to his right Rafael spotted it. Then again to his left just above where Ladon had vanished. Death was coming after all.

          “Everyone, shut up.”

          Simmons leaned in. “Sergeant Robles?”

          “My three and eight, sir.”

          Simmons scanned the horizon. Everyone did, and as they did a hush took over the capsule. Two pillars of smoke rose out of nothing, as if appearing in thin air. They billowed up from beneath the veil and that could mean only one thing – Ladon and Chimera were burning. With every passing second Cerebus sped closer to the holographic surface and closer to whatever fate had befallen the other squads.

          Simmons took command. “Sergeant Robles, call up Ladon and Chimera. Lance, Hecate.”

          “Yes, sir,” they responded in unison, Lance rousing into action for the first time.

          Rafael dialed in to Ladon’s frequency, even as he knew that he should be calling the platoon leader. Soon they would be within the camouflage boundary, suffering from whatever fate had befallen their comrades. Calling them was a waste. A warning needed to go through. Yet Simmons had never led them wrong, and the chain of command was the chain of command.

          “Ladon, this is Cerebus. Do you copy? Over.”

          Nothing. The line didn’t connect. Although he knew that if Ladon was gone, there was little chance of reaching Chimera, Rafael dialed over to their frequency.

          “Chimera, this is Cerebus. Do you copy? Over.”

          The same silence greeted him.

          Across the way Lance shouted directions to Hecate above, alerting them to the smoke trails.

          Simmons turned to Rafael.

          “Robles, platoon leader.”

          “Yes, sir.”

          He dialed in, but it was too late. Cerebus descended beneath the barrier and all communication lines went down. Rafael dropped the dialing mechanism and turned his attention out to the panorama below. Swarms of violet engulfed both Ladon and Chimera as flocks of pinwheels, distant cousins of the bentari, enveloped themselves around the capsules as tongues of flame and plumes of smoke trailed behind. Could that many pinwheels feed off the heat of one capsule? Was it even possible? Something unnatural was happening and there were only seconds to respond.

          As that thought flashed through Rafael’s mind, Chimera’s parachute shredded beneath another swarm.

          Simmons shouted at Robles in the background but his voice had muted. Rafael tuned out all distractions. He had a mission.

          “Well, hell,” he said as he unbuckled his safety harness. “Looks like today’s the day.”

          As the last buckle unclasped, he shot from the security of the crash couch and leapt towards the retro rocket panel, tucked between the two panoramic windows. He slammed his hand against the jettison button, just as a swarm of madly twirling pinwheels, part of Alium’s unique flora-fauna hybrids, crashed against the windows. On its own, a singular pinwheel was nothing to worry about – merely a leafy, bug-like flier no bigger than a dragon fly. In swarms pinwheels could wreak havoc on machinery, feeding off heat, clogging electrical systems, and if gathered in enough numbers they could tear a parachute to pieces. Of course until today, that had all been hypothetical. Pinwheels existed in the roots of the food chain, their population tightly limited by predators. Obviously those constraints had lifted.

          The heat shield ejected from Cerebus, plummeting to Alium, and sending forth a great cloud of steam and smoke. The pitter patter of the pinwheels leaf forms’ battering into the windows rose to a cacophonous din and Rafael could feel the seconds stretch for hours, every movement slow beyond measure. As the smoke of the jettison procedure wrapped around Cerebus he could see the pinwheels retreat, but soon that vapor would wisp away and the flock would return. Today Rafael would face death, but he would not join her.

          The shield gone, landing procedures could be initiated. Of course Cerebus was nowhere near ready to land, but one problem at a time. Rafael hit the ignition on the retro rockets, their engines sparking to life. A great upward force exerted on the capsule slowing Cerebus’ descent. More importantly, the pinwheels turned mid-flight shifting and reorienting – descending like moths to flame and burning in the fires of the rockets.

          So far, so good. Rafael signed the cross then looked above through the upper portholes as a great shadow descended upon the capsule. They hadn’t detached from the parachute and with the rockets going full blast, a collision was imminent. Rafael slammed a full stop on the rockets as the chute tangled with the capsule. With the sudden loss of upward momentum, the capsule dropped, yanking at the ropes of the parachute and sending Cerebus into an uncontrolled spin.

          With no belt securing him, Rafael continued along the trajectory of the previous upward momentum even as the capsule rapidly descended. He didn’t even have time to shield himself. He thought of his father and what it would be like to meet him, then Rafael crashed headfirst into the ceiling of Cerebus, his world exploded, and then there was nothing.

Back to Chapter 1

The Silence of Alium – Chapter 1

ID 36883161 © Andrey Armyagov | Dreamstime

By Chris Hutton

Author’s Note:

Yes, today is supposed to be a writing blog, but I have a story itching to get out and I couldn’t shut it up until I wrote it. So I hope you enjoy the beginning of The Silence of Alium. I will return to the blog soon.


1 – The Burning Sky

          The stars shined through the black of space, tiny pinpricks of light, distant beacons sending out messages from the past. How they shined! Their light did not twinkle, but rather, with no atmosphere to refract that light, shone true and steady. No matter how many times he witnessed their brilliance in the unimpeded vacuum of space, Dr. Carlo Offredi never ceased to be amazed by their majesty.

          How many of those distant systems had already blinked out of existence, he wondered as he stared out through one of three small porthole-like windows. They were positioned in a circle in the upper portion of the descent capsule, three skylights to the universe beyond. As the faintest tug of gravity settled him into his seat, the doctor continued to ponder the view.

          How many billions of Earth analogs had formed, their own ecosystems evolving and collapsing and their species never escaping their individual geocentric understanding of the heavens? Then again, how many of those systems spawned life at all, let alone life that freed itself from the constraints of its birth planet and fled out into the stars?

          He liked to think that the number was beyond measure, but Carlo had grown to doubt the probability of intelligent life. The numbers were in its favor, but centuries of interstellar exploration had turned up hundreds of habitable Earth analogs, a good five percent of which supported native life, but none of which showed signs of intelligence or civilization. Each such life-bearing planet had been quarantined, allowing only for the presence of a minimal research crew, which had to operate under the strictest of procedures. Abiding by the Centauri Mandates was a must, along with the ELP provisions of the Space Settlement Act of 2069 and all subsequent Amendments. Essentially where there was life there was bureaucracy to oversee it – and Dr. Carlo Offredi was part of that machine.

          “Doc, you secure?” Staff Sergeant Simmons locked his ever vigilant gaze on Dr. Offredi.

          “Yes, Simmons. Not my first rodeo.” Carlo gave his safety harness a firm tug, visual confirmation that he was secure.

          A safety light glinted off of Simmons’ bald pate providing a halo effect around him as he stared down the doctor. He cast a striking silhouette, his dark features lost in the resulting shadow. Carlo thought the man looked like an angel, a solid, immovable angel that he sure as hell didn’t want to cross.

          “Good.” Simmons nodded, then turned to his second-in-command.

          “Sergeant Robles, call platoon leader and confirm package Omega is secure.”

          “Yes, sir.” Robles, strapped in so tight it was a wonder the harness wasn’t cutting off circulation, tapped an earpiece and began barking up the chain of command. Carlo tuned him out.

          He tried to revert his gaze to the stars, but their uninterrupted brilliance had abated, the characteristic twinkle of atmospheric interference just beginning.

          Bang!

          The pop of the metal reverberated throughout the capsule.

          Bang!

          Bang!

          Directly across from Carlo, a young soldier, eighteen at most and baby-faced as they came, jumped in his seat. He rose balloon-like, floating and slowly drifting under the minimal gravity. At his apex he grabbed at his unfastened safety harness, pulling himself into his seat as the continued shaking of the descent capsule jostled him from side to side. The newest member of the squad, Private Bills worked clumsily at his harness attempting to secure the straps but fumbling his grip with each bang. The whole capsule shook.

          “It’s like a train wreck,” Private Bills said. “Nah, nah, it’s like a train wreck followed by a train wreck, followed by ten more train wrecks.” At last he buckled the first strap of the five-point harness, and smiled as if he had just won a marksmanship award, or whatever it was soldiers did. Dr. Offredi was along for the ride, but he wasn’t military.

          Private Second Class Varma chimed in. He looked old for a private, maybe just a few years shy of Carlo, but he also looked more seasoned than even the sergeants. Varma was a bulwark of a man, a literal human shield. He hadn’t even bothered to strap in but was standing aloft, or more accurately swaying as gravity slowly increased, and holding a safety handle above his seat as he rode through the turbulence. “You been in many train wrecks, Bills?”

          Bills grinned, a cocky smirk. He hadn’t learned the pecking order yet. “Does your mom count?”

          Before Varma could respond, Bills doubled over. “Oh holy balls, I’m going to throw up.”

          “First drop?” Carlo asked.

          Bills’ team sergeant spoke up, Sergeant Lance. She exuded calm. “Yeah. New blood,” she said, taking no notice of the loud fireworks popping and banging at the tin can protecting them from what would otherwise mean certain death. “We’re poppin’ his cherry.”

          “No,” Bills chimed in. “I thought I made it clear. Varma’s momma already took care of that.”

          “Stow it, Private.”

          Yet another private piped up. They had a full house. The squad was divided into two four-man teams, Able and Baker, each commanded by a Sergeant and both under the command of Staff Sergeant Simmons. With Dr. Offredi included, the capsule held ten passengers in close quarters. As the pull of gravity increased, Carlo could tell his sense of smell was returning. Based on the cramped conditions, and the adrenaline-fueled descent complete with macho posturing and rather rank body odors, he wished that his sinuses had stayed clogged.

          “Lock that in your V-containment or I’m going to pummel you when we land, Bills.” Private First Class Ruegger. Thin, spectacled, he looked the part of a young commissioned officer or a specialist. How he’d wound his way into the rank and file of the enlisted, Carlo couldn’t even hazard a guess.

          “Just say barf bag you pretentious fuck.” Private Second Class Waller, Walker. Ah hell, Carlo couldn’t keep track.

          “Say, again?”

          “You heard me.”

          The two continued to bicker. Across the way Bills clicked together the last buckle of his harness, while Varma continued to ride the turbulence. Sergeant Lance had shut her eyes and tuned everyone out, and Sergeant Robles was still barking into his ear piece. The last two privates were strapped in just to Carlo’s left. One, a young Korean man, leafed through the pages of a creased, dime store paperback. Carlo didn’t know his name, but he did know the woman sitting just beyond him. Private Karzai. She stared out at the stars, watching as Offredi had moments earlier, oblivious to the bickering. Catching his gaze she smiled at Carlo.

          “Enjoying the view, doctor?”

          Is she talking about the stars or something else? Carlo assumed it had been the stars. The good doctor knew his place in the colonial order. A military woman like Karzai would eat him alive.

          “Doctor?”

          “Yes, very much so.”

          Bills interrupted. “Come on, doc. You can’t be telling me this don’t feel like a shit ton of train wrecks to you, can ya?”

          Bang!

          Bang!

          Bang!

          The capsule continued to shake as it plunged into the atmosphere, the violence of the descent increasing exponentially.

          “As I said, not my first rodeo.” He was posturing, playing along with the enlisted. That wasn’t like Offredi. He feared he might be trying to impress Private Karzai.

          “Anyone else feel like they’re in a train wreck?” Lance. She didn’t even open her eyes as she spoke, her voice smooth and serene – at complete peace.

          “Hell no, sir,” Walker/Waller grunted. All officers were called sir, regardless of gender. “She rides like a beaut.”

          Varma, still riding out the bucking and popping of the descent, agreed. “Best damn roller coaster at the fair.”

          Karzai tapped Carlo on the shoulder, then pointed up to the windows. “You’re about to miss the best part.”

          Carlo gripped the sides of his seat, using every ounce of self control that he had to not white knuckle his chair as the capsule listed side to side while the atmosphere outside buffeted at its thin metal shell. “No. Not for the world.”

          With great control, and far less nonchalance than he had hoped, Dr. Offredi turned his head up to the three upper portholes. The sky beyond burned, flames licking at the windows, and the deep blue of Alium’s atmosphere tinting a cherry red, darkening to a burnt umber, and at last to black as the windows’ protective layer crisped in the fireball of atmospheric entry. As even the black began to flake away Carlo could see wisps of ablative shielding shriveled like burning paper, disintegrating into charred curly-cues before peeling completely away and being consumed in the flames.

          BANG!

          The entire capsule shook, slamming in every which direction as the atmospheric friction battered it on all sides. Varma held tight to the grip handle, but his muscles bulged and his veins distended under the strain as gravity slowly took greater and greater hold.

          “Buckle up, Private.” Sergeant Lance opened one drowsy eye as she spoke, watching to see that she was obeyed. The soldiers knew their place. Orders were not to be tested.

          “Yes, sir.” Varma waited until the capsule listed just right, then lurched into his chair using the momentum and the renewed gravity to propel himself into the safety of the crash couch.

          He deftly maneuvered his straps buckling and securing the five-point harness with practiced ease. “Tight as a bug in a rug, sir.”

          Carlo closed his eyes and settled his head back into the contours of his cushioned headrest. His skull sank into the soft security of its safety, minimizing the painful jolts of the violent entry, but the crash couch could do little to minimize the strain as gravity tugged him down towards Alium and returned weight to his atrophied limbs. He could feel the heaviness of his boots anchoring his feet to the aluminum-lithium alloy flooring, and even his hands felt like lead weights pinning down his arms.

          “Focus on your breathing, or the slow whistle of winds returning. Anything but your weight.”

          The voice came from his left. Carlo didn’t need to open his eyes to know it had been Private Karzai. His stomach tingled, a lightness erupting in it that he hadn’t felt since he was a teenager. Hell, Carlo. Get a grip. You’re a grown man. A professional. Not some daft kid.

          The effort was futile. He couldn’t will the emotion aside. Even as he cursed himself for his crush and swore it off, he simultaneously felt mortified that Karzai had witnessed him in a moment of weakness.

          At last he did as she said, focusing on the in and out of his breath. Still gravity yanked him down, the growing awareness of weight a sucker punch to his gut. So much for that.

          He shifted his attention to the increasing cacophony that engulfed the capsule. The descent vehicle bucked against the external pressures, the metal continuing to pop.

          Bang.

          BANG!

          He had become accustomed to this sound, although Private Bills still appeared to be struggling to remain in his seat, his every instinct screaming for him to run. And why shouldn’t that be his instinct? What rational mind thought it was sane to hurtle towards a planet trapped in a tin can engulfed in flames relying on a couple parachutes and a few retro rockets to hopefully slow your momentum just enough that you weren’t obliterated on impact? In what universe did that qualify as an acceptable method of travel?

          His eyes still shut, Carlo focused as a high whistle joined the loud banging. Slowly the whistle eased off to an even keel of high winds howling just beyond the windows. He opened his eyes. The protective layer on the windows had all but burnt away and the blue of Alium’s atmosphere once more dominated Carlo’s line of sight. It rushed by the last of the flames dying off, and Carlo gave up all attempt at grandstanding. He white knuckled his chair, fully aware of what came next. There was was no manual override and the backup was subpar at best. The automated system would kick in or it wouldn’t. In the history of planetary colonization and manned atmospheric entries, this next stage was the critical phase – the one most likely to result in a catastrophic failure. If their descent were to fail this would be the point where it all fell apart.

          Private Bills faked a cool smile, as if his shaken grin could cover for the rivers of sweat drowning his uniform. “Hell, that wasn’t so bad.”

          He had no idea.

          The chute opened and the descent capsule yanked back with incredible ferocity. The world blurred as the capsule swayed in all directions. The sudden and violent shift made the popping of atmospheric entry seem like an evening stroll. The wind screamed, their descent rapidly slowing even as the capsule rocked back and forth with an increasingly erratic intensity.

          That’s when Carlo heard it. Amidst the howls of the wind came the unmistakable sound of ripping cloth. The parachute had torn.