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.

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