ID 36883161 © Andrey Armyagov | Dreamstime
By Chris Hutton
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.
The pop of the metal reverberated throughout the capsule.
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.
“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.
“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?”
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.
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.
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.