Previous Page Next Page

UTC:       Local:

Home Page Index Page

Hero: Chapter Five

       Last updated: Wednesday, March 3, 2004 00:22 EST



    Thor opened his eyes to see the Darhel as the cocooning material retracted. He sat up and stretched but it was more psychological than real. To the team no time had passed at all. Hiberzine suppressed all activity at the cellular level. There was no fatigue or strain.

    He saw Tirdal waiting, looking pretty much as he had before they went under. The JG and the medic, however, were jumpy. The medic was administering the Hiberzine antidote while the JG made sure everybody was recovering well. It was merely ritual; Hiberzine never had any major side effects. However, its process was still not understood, it not being a human creation, and it was always studied and regarded with a bit of awe.

    The others opened their eyes and looked around, taking only a moment to place themselves. As far as they were concerned, nothing had happened. The only real reaction was from Gorilla, who seemed more than glad to be out of the cocoon. He rolled his feet to the deck and sat on the grated floor, just to be out of the bunk.

    Bell Toll checked the internal chronometer in the nanocomp in his head and frowned. They'd been "down" for three months and the voyage was supposed to be a month and a half. What had been the delay?

    "What the hell happened to the schedule?" he demanded.

    "Things with the Blobs have heated up," the pilot said with a worried frown. "There's been another big clash in the sector and high command really wants to know if this is a major staging zone. Because of the fighting we were unable to use their intended system for a jump and had to do a non-tunnel jump then refuel before doing a second jump. There was a nest of pirates there, which were cleaned out. Busy around the Fringe here," he added with a grimace.

    Bell Toll didn't speak, he just grimaced back.

    "For local information," the pilot continued, "We'll be checking out an anomaly around the second gas giant while the team is on the planet, and another stealth ship is on the way in support."

    Bell Toll nodded but didn't ask questions. The probability was that at least a Task Force was following the second stealth ship and for all he knew there might be a dozen stealth ships in the system. But he didn't need to know anything else, just who was available for pickup. Nobody was sure if the Blobs interrogated prisoners, or even took them. But Operational Security was still a standard watchword. What you don't know, you can't tell.

    The JG added, "There's a mission update and a standard news update available to you. I flagged it attention to you if you want to plug in and download it. I'm going to check on the insertion."

    "Thanks," Bell Toll said to his back as he headed forward. He realized the pilot was another navy type who couldn't or didn't comprehend Army thought processes and didn't want to be around them. The discomfort was mutual.

    The team started checking some of the headlines they'd missed over a quarter of a year as Tirdal settled himself in his drop couch. Bell Toll noted the sidelong looks the medic was giving Tirdal and decided that stepping out of the compartment to inquire about that in private was called for. He waved to Shiva to keep everyone else in the small ship, received a nod, and stepped up the bounce field to the deck above.

    The sublieutenant was nervous and looked around a lot, as if expecting eavesdroppers.

    "What's wrong?" Bell Toll asked him.

    "Well," he replied, "it's not going to be on either download, but the Republic lost a lot of ships in the last clash. They held on with fighters but the Blobs really kicked our asses. If the Blobs ever overcome the fighters we are going to be in deep shit."

    "That bad, huh?" Bell Toll scowled. Why couldn't he get good news on this trip?

    "That bad," the lieutenant agreed. "Also, the Darhel was acting really weird. Did you train with him before you left?"

    Bell Toll shook his head. "Only briefly, why?"

    "Just weird," The JG replied. "Kept to himself mostly, worked out in the dreadnought's gym. He didn't even interact with the dreadnought's security team except to show ID, but they definitely were nervous around him, and it got worse as time went on. The first day one of the spacers tried to pick a fight with him."

    "How'd that turn out?" Bell Toll asked, his nerves jumping. He didn't like the possible outcomes.

    "He avoided it," the pilot said. "Just ignored the insults and the shove and walked past him."

    "That was it? No follow up?" He'd expected the Darhel to fight. A human DRT would. It was disturbing in a way that no retaliation took place.

    "Well, not exactly. He walked over to the weights, set up the stack, and bench-pressed nearly five hundred kilos. Like it was nothing. Rep after rep. Everybody got real quiet and just moved away. That was the end of it."

    "Goddam," Bell Toll replied softly. He'd had no clue.

    "That's not all. After that, he was rarely in the gym at the same time as others but when he was it was always like that. He worked out in 2.5 gravities, had to turn it down even when heavy grav personnel turned up, and always pushed five or six times what anyone could believe. It just had people spooked. I mean, none of us had any idea how freaking strong the Darhel are."

    "Neither did I," Bell Toll replied, surprised himself. He turned and headed back down to the team. That was definitely something to keep in mind, and to ask about when the time was right. Dammit, no one knew enough about the Darhel. They could teach Intel branch about secrecy.

    As he re-entered, he asked, "What's new in the news?"

    "Besides the military stuff," Shiva said, "which the press got wrong as usual, the Solarian Systems Alliance are going of into philosophical lotusland. It's not that they don't recognize the threat from the Tslek, it's like they just don't care. Their ambassador has been expressing distress, but he's quite adamant that the SSA isn't going to become involved in 'a regional war.' We could just let the next thrust through to teach them a lesson." He was sprawled for comfort, but still stuck in the small berth.



    "I often wonder if the SSA are humans or Indowy," Bell Toll replied. The Indowy were a harmless, endearing race of scientists who were inoffensive and had no concept of fighting at all. They'd been being obliterated by the billions when Humans were brought into the war. And still they had a non-combative attitude. It was genetic.

    "What's that?" Tirdal asked.

    It was one of the first things he'd asked about, and with the tension regarding his presence, Bell Toll was grateful for the chance to talk. Not to mention the impending boredom of the metal and plastic walls.

    "What do you know about human history since we-" he paused knowing that he couldn't say, "threw you Darhel bastards out"-"secured our place as a galactic race?"

    "Very little," Tirdal replied.

    "Oh," Bell Toll said. "Well… let me synopsize."

    "Yes, Sir," Tirdal nodded. He appeared ready to hear anything and remember it all. Maybe he was. It was one more creepy measure of him.

    "Earth and Barwhon were able to destroy the entire Posleen incursion. They had sufficient population to comb the surface and wipe all the ferals out. And it didn't take them long to get back up to populations in the billions. Most of the Fringe worlds were cut out around the main wave of the Posleen. Remember that we stopped one small advance of them; there were trillions of others going in other directions at the time."

    "Yes," Tirdal agreed. "We gave you the technology we couldn't use, to wipe out entire star systems as a means of eradicating them."

    "Yes," Bell Toll said. "And the Fringe specifically the Federation, was secured from those we captured, which are now a buffer zone between the SSA and the Tular Posleen, who were the only ones who came to reason, after we killed enough billions of them.

    "Anyway, after Earth recovered, they wanted to resume business as usual."

    "Business as usual?" Tirdal asked.

    "Yes, stop fighting," Bell Toll said. "It's not natural to us, so they say."

    There was a moment's pause, and when Tirdal answered he sounded more distressed and confused than he had since they'd met him.

    "Not natural for humans to fight? Your seven million years of evolution has been one long, bloody battle. You had aggressive animals, short supplies, little technology for food and horrible means of communicating. The century before we introduced ourselves alone you exterminated over forty million of your own species."

    "Oh, so you did know something about us when we met," Shiva mused. "We always thought so."

    "We've never denied it," Tirdal said.

    "No," Shiva said slowly. "But you never admitted it, either."

    "Anyway," Bell Toll continued, "Earth and the SSA are trying to, have been trying to, go back to a model a bit like the Indowy. No violence, pretend that technology is just a tool, and concentrate on philosophy. What's our term--?"

    "Aristotelian," Shiva supplied.

    "Thanks," the captain said with a smile. "And on the Fringe, we face ferals and potential alien threats like the Tslek."

    "So you're two distinct cultures in one race?" Tirdal said.

    "More than two," Shiva said. "We have dualities about everything."

    "Interesting," Tirdal said. They waited for a followup comment, but he resumed his reticence.

    Bell Toll said, "And that's why we split off, and why the Michia Mentat were busy producing weapons against the Posleen, and didn't get involved in the rebellion. A good thing, too, because that would have scared Earth into drastic action, instead of just deciding we were expensive distractions."

    "Which is why we don't have enough sensats of our own," Shiva said. "The Mentats are still remote, still concerned with personal development and growing technology, not concerned with the mundane world of carnivores and nukes."

    "I would like them," Tirdal said.

    Everyone else laughed. Tirdal did not.

    "So," Shiva said, "I expect this coming war will be us, possibly the Tular, possibly some Darhel, all against the Tslek, while Earth sits fat and happy and tries to undermine our culture from the rear."

    Gorilla asked, "You think it's that bad, Captain?"

    "I do, Gorilla," he said. "I can tell by the pricking of my thumbs. Unless something comes along to tip the balance in our favor, the Tslek are going to serve us up like Cram on toast. Oh, to hell with that. How are the Greenfield Grendels doing in deathball?"

    Shortly, it was time to move from the scoutship's personnel bay to the drop pod. The small, spherical craft would have the team in a circle facing inwards, their G couches contoured against the sides, packs and weapons between and underneath them. They were re-stowing gear, ensuring it was secured very tightly for the pending screaming drop through the atmosphere of the target planet. The commander followed them down, shouldering his gear on the way.

    Tirdal was closest to him, following everyone else's lead and fastening his ruck and weapon, a punch gun. Bell Toll glanced at him as he finished and snugged into his drop harness. What else was there about the Darhel that he didn't know but should? He was really starting to wonder about them. All he or anyone else had to go on was Tirdal's performance in the Qual course, which was impressive enough. And could they trust him? "We never denied it." "No, but you never admitted it either." What other secrets were hiding behind those gold flecked eyes? But without the sensat they were surely in deep shit.

    Everybody else was already in position and starting to strap down as Bell Toll locked his own equipment in place. He checked everyone's gear as he strode around the ring, all five paces of it, then did another circuit and checked their straps. Nodding to himself, he slumped into his own padding and started buckling in. When done, he plugged a wire into his helmet. "Pilot, we're secure and ready to drop."

    "Acknowledged. All stations secure," was the reply. The hatch dropped, clanged and sealed with a hiss. Whatever happened, they were now committed. It was probably psychosomatic, but Bell Toll always felt as if the atmosphere grew stuffier when that hatch sealed. It certainly had its own plastic and chemical smell that one never got used to.



    The stealth ship was on a ballistic track mimicking a comet or other piece of deep-space debris. It had a very effective near black-body exterior and the entire system was made to absorb or deflect detection systems. The target planet had one large rotationally locked satellite, like Earth and the Moon, and the plan was to do a hard break in the shadow of the satellite, relative to the planet, then whip past the planet at a lower speed, catching another slingshot to push it back outsystem. If any of the trajectory was detected it would look like a very low probability meteor pass. Immediately after the braking maneuver all systems would shut down and they would become a hole in space. This would leave them in micro-gravity but everyone had trained in it before. The microgravity portion would last about a day and then they would be inserting through a low orbit zone of the planet. The main ship would drop the pod and continue on the way while the pod did a small retro burn then used atmosphere to brake.

    There were some dangers. If there were sensors on the "back" side of the satellite they would detect the braking maneuver. Also, if they had been tracked on the way in the change in trajectory would be obvious. The only way they would know was when one of the ungodly fast Blob missile headed their way. And at a good fraction of the speed of light it wouldn't take long.

    The enemy might shoot the pod down as a precaution. If they weren't worried about getting detected they would shoot down every meteor that had the potential to be an insertion team. But the Blobs had as good an appreciation of tactical silence as humans. So far the technique had worked all the other times it had been used. So far as they knew, anyway. There were always teams and craft that disappeared without anyone knowing why.

    The fall in to the system was tedious as nothing else can be. Someone once described combat as "Long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror." While true, it doesn't relay the underlying tension of that boredom, hoping for action to stop it while hoping not to have any action. The sheer hell it plays with one's nerves is indescribable. Any action at this juncture would mean instant, unfathomable death. The boredom was preferable.

    The best thing to do was sleep. However, one can only sleep so long, especially with microgravity to reduce the effort. Each human figured to nap for about four hours of the duration, leaving close to twenty with almost nothing to do but fret.

    Gun Doll listened to her dance music, her helmet display providing her a light show. That was all she apparently needed to keep her in a half-aware trance. Ferret and Shiva muttered and shook their heads at each other. Strange chick. Ferret would watch news and movies, switching between the two as he bored with either fantasy or reality. Shiva would tear through documentary shows from a dozen planets, absorbing history, biology, art and culture at an amazing rate. He retained it all, too. His breadth of knowledge was staggering.

    Dagger simply stared at nothing. It was another part of his act or his personality. No one was sure which, and no one wanted to or dared ask. Dagger was as strange as Gun Doll, in his own freakish way. Hell, they were all strange. One couldn't be a DRT and be normal. The only thing they all shared was a high tolerance for pain and abuse.

    Gorilla kept full surround video and audio going. He wanted nothing to do with reality while cooped up in the ball-shaped coffin. Why anyone with his phobias had ever volunteered, no one would ever know. But he handled it every time. Next to him, Thor read books the really old-fashioned way-text on a screen. Historical fiction, fantasy, travel, romance, adventure, geekpunk futurefic and anything else he could get hold of. Bell Toll often felt Thor would be a much broader troop or even qualify as an officer if he'd read some non-fiction now and then. The man had a voracious appetite for words, but everything he read was escapist. Still, if that helped him cope, the captain wouldn't complain. No matter how removed from reality the man was here, in the field his senses and instincts were good and he could shoot well. He might not fit into a job in the city, but he was just fine in the weeds.

    Tirdal was the unknown quantity, and everyone except Dagger took surreptitious glances at him. He seemed absolutely calm, staring dead ahead as Dagger did, right at Dagger, right through Dagger. It was almost as if nothing were in front of him and he was staring into the stars. The faint, enigmatic, almost foxlike smile he bore didn't do much to reassure people. Was the Darhel totally flipped out? Meditating? Dead? No one wanted to ask. Dagger was staring back, staring through Tirdal. It was a creepy tableau.

    That just left Bell Toll to keep busy, worrying about his troops, the mission, the upcoming Readiness Standards Evaluation that had to be done, war or no, and little things like his chances for promotion or survival. His mind ran in loops, barely able to concentrate, until he realized he was rehashing the same half-thoughts over and over again, with no conclusions reached. He knew he wouldn't be able to sleep, either. It was a wonderful start to the mission.

    After several eternities of sighing, twitching, moaning, frustrated exclamations, stretching and aimless mental drifting, the pilot called orders through the intercom. "Everyone make final check and confirm gear secure. Stand by for braking maneuvers and microgravity." The cocoons came up, much as they had before, but this time everybody was awake.

    Deceleration hit like a hammer as the ship struggled to take off the velocity it had built up dropping in. Actual deceleration was nearly six hundred gravities but apparent decel was only around six. The compensators were being strained even to accomplish that, and all the troops crunched like atmospheric fighter pilots. The G couches helped compensate, fluid pressurizing limbs to keep blood flowing in the core and brain."



    Thor made a laconic comment in an attempt to hide his nervousness. "Not so bad. Remember the drop on Haley?" His voice was a bit tight from the pressure.

    "Was that the first or second time you tossed your guts?" Ferret asked back. He, too, was trying to sound casual and not succeeding.

    Gun Doll said, "Ferret…didn't you puke…so hard…you splashed me…on that drop?" The G was harder on her; it often was on women. But she'd never once thrown up on a drop that anyone could recall.

    Straining slightly, Bell Toll asked, "Tirdal, how are you managing?"

    "Fine," Tirdal replied. "How long is this phase?" There was no strain at all in the Darhel's low, steady voice.

    "About another nine minutes," he replied, while pulling up the physiological monitors for the team and glancing at them. Everyone was stressed and elevated. Gorilla was doing his usual confined spaces panic: Pulse, 125, respiration 41, all other readings showing clear pain or stress. It wasn't pain. But Gorilla was used to it and knew how to manage it so Bell Toll paid no further attention. The Darhel's readings were also very high but they were in the clearly marked "normal" zone. Heartrate was 186 and that was considered "low normal." His alphas were…really strange. But also considered "normal." If those were normal, then Tirdal wasn't the slightest bit bothered. Or maybe Darhel didn't react physiologically. That had to be it. No creature could suffer through such an unnatural state and not react somehow.

    Without warning the braking thrust ended and they were in microgravity. The cocoons retracted to the standby position again and everybody except Tirdal moved around within their couches. The couches flattened and conformed to the sitter as well and Ferret brought up an entertainment package that involved, based on the sound escaping from his helmet, lots of loud shooting and screaming. Gun Doll started nodding her head and making other movements, some of them a tad suggestive, as she twitched to her music. Shiva wondered, not for the first time, if she'd aspired to be a dancer before her body grew too tall and rangy. She wasn't bad looking, but with her height she'd never have the balance to dance, and she was all hip and shoulder for those long limbs. She obviously found the couch confining.

    "Watcha reading, Thor?" Shiva asked, needing a break from the silence.

    "Devi Weaver's new one, 'Dust of Success,'" Thor replied enthusiastically. "Intergalactic space fleet warfare. National politics, unit wrangling, assorted government idiocy and exploding spaceships. Some of it's based on Napoleonic naval warfare and World War II from old Earth."

    "You like it?"

    "Generally," Thor said. "The politics I can take or leave. But I like exploding spaceships."

    "Ever read about the ancient Greek sea battles with rowed ships?" Shiva asked.

    "Nah, sounds boring," Thor said.

    Shiva sighed and tried to think of another tack. As the only two readers, they should have some common ground.

    Even Dagger gave up his blank stare and brought up a shooting game. His was different from Ferret's, the shooting being more deliberate and more widely spaced. The screams were just as ugly, and Dagger had a grin on his face in short order. His wiry body tensed occasionally, unconsciously working the muscles for a crouch or a run, but they were barely perceptible. He moved very little without conscious thought.

    There was no set schedule here. The troops needed time to flake off and be ready for whatever followed, so they napped as they wished and sucked paste meals in their couches. Latrine facilities were plumbed into their suits. It was practical, covered the essentials and was mentally draining.

    "Shiva," Bell Toll said, interrupting his thoughts, "Let's run through the scenario again, then the troops can look at the maps as we get them and prepare to unload."

    Glad of something to do besides wait, Shiva said, "Yes, Sir!" and brought up a tactical screen.

    Tirdal simply waited, as he'd done for hours so far.

    Some time later, after the troops had reviewed rough maps built from flybys and everyone except Tirdal had complained, the ship came round on its second pass, ready to drop them onto the planet. The pod was in a launcher that was mounted perpendicular to the "line" of the ship's movement. The pilot cut in on everyone's screen and gave them a trajectory chart, with the release point marked with a classic red X. The closure was shown by a blue dot on a curve, while the upper right corner of their visors had a countdown running. The couches enveloped them again, and everyone tensed up. Almost everyone.

    As the ship came opposite the insertion point, breaths were held and muscles taut. There was no real significance to this stage of the insertion, but it was a vector change, and thus of note to the human mentality. And, of course, an error would cause them to crash or whip past into nothing. Recovery in the latter case was iffy. In the former, impossible.

    As the timer hit zero and the blue dot hit the X in the display, a WHUMP! sounded through the pod as compressed hydrogen and magnetic flux tossed them from the stealth ship onto a new trajectory toward the planet proper. The felt Gs were extreme but brief, perhaps 10 G for two seconds, then microgravity returned.

    The pod entered an elliptical orbit that should coincide with a proper entry angle into the atmosphere, at which point flight could begin. Until then, there was nearly an hour of microgravity. Games and music resumed with varying amounts of attention. No DRT troop would admit to being scared on an insertion, but most were.



    The first touches of atmosphere whispered threateningly against the field around the pod, and insertion proper began. The flight through atmosphere was the kind to cause newbies to wet their pants. Even experienced troops found them disorienting. Because of the need for stealth, no powered maneuvers were allowed. The result was a literal tumble through the atmosphere, the forcefields in close to protect the ship and within the atmospheric plasma caused by friction between the craft’s “surface” and the rarefied atmosphere. From outside, the craft resembled a meteor. From inside it was a roller coaster crossed with a nape of the earth flight by an insane pilot on drugs. It flipped from side to side, barrel rolled, pitched and cocked in various attitudes and at differing speeds. It tumbled, rolled like a die and occasionally bucked. The internal temperature rose steadily as they dropped deeper, since there was no way to radiate the incoming energy. The occasional dense pocket of atmosphere caused jarring, teeth clattering jolts as they slammed through or bounced off. Space inside was at a premium to start with, and the maneuvers made helmets bash into bulkheads and knees into gear and racked weapons. No one spoke, though they did grunt and make other utterances at the painful jolts. Occasional curses shot out. They mostly kept their eyes closed, not from fear, but to reduce the disorientation. It was the type of ride adrenalin junkie civilians would pay big money for, and experienced professionals could take or leave, preferably leave.

    But it was nothing compared to the finale.

    Below the cloud layer, the “wings” melted out and back into brakes to slow the vehicle to a “reasonable” speed. Were it not for the inertial dampers, the crew would have been squashed by the violent deceleration. As it was, only long practice prevented them from heaving their stomachs. It was a harsh change of orientation, the pod being upside down and rolling at better than 5000 m/sec, then suddenly nose down and steady at barely sub-Mach speed for the local environment. The pod was above ocean, and splashed into the waves in an angry hiss of steam. It was not a landing per se, rather a controlled crash and a big splash. The brakes shifted again in their forcefields and became small fins and low power impellers started up. Most of the remainder of the insertion would be under water, and slow. The process was semi-automatic, Bell Toll indicating a route and the craft’s AI handling the trip from there. That saved having personnel pilot the craft, to be left stuck during the mission, or having to risk a take off and another landing. Besides, most of the procedure was either too complex for a human pilot—like the insertion and braking—or too simple and boring to bother with a pilot. The pod wasn’t streamlined, though it could morph quite a bit. Its forcefields could assume any shape needed. That wasn’t an issue. But while the speed of sound is much higher in water than in air, sonic shockwaves under water are rare and almost never a natural phenomenon, and fast mechanical sounds are distinctive. Stealth predicated slow, cautious travel. After crossing light years in days and thousands of kilometers in minutes, the last leg would be hundreds of kilometers in long hours.

    Special warfare troops get long, boring training followed by long, boring practice in the art of staying sane while doing nothing. Each has his or her own particular coping mechanism. Good teams are those in which the members have learned not to drive each other to violent rage with annoying quirks, like breathing in an unpleasant fashion or shifting a leg in that manner that makes another want to crack his head after the ten thousandth time. Tirdal was the odd troop in this equation, and the others shifted unconsciously in slight but real bother at the disruption of their familiar relationship. The pod used propulsion that was as close to silent as was possible for Republic technology. As the ocean grew shallower and the coast approached, the speed would slow even more and even slight noises would become more of a risk. To that end, silence reigned until everyone had triggered isolation circuits in their helmets. All talk would be through an intercom circuit, connected by wires, not an RF net, to further reduce stray emissions.

    Talk picked up at once, everyone glad that particular ordeal was over, and wishing to escape from considering the pending risks for at least a few moments.

    Almost everyone. Dagger and Tirdal were silent.

    “We’re down,” Gun Doll said.

    “Cheated death again,” Thor added.

    “Yeah,” said Gorilla, his pulse dropping below 120. With a screen before him not showing the confines of the pod, and voices in his ears backed up by natural sounds, he could handle it. He could also handle it inside a box if he had to; he had in training. But if the technology was available to be less uncomfortable, he’d use it.

    “We got a count on how long to shore, Captain?”

    “Thirty-seven hours,” Bell Toll replied. “Here’s the map,” he continued as he displayed it for Gorilla and left the link open for anyone else. “We go down around this peninsula, up into this bay and get out near the river delta. Hopefully, it won’t be too swampy. We’ll move around to here, upriver about twenty klicks, and that’s where we start working.” The site in question had been known beforehand, but the exact approach hadn’t been decided until they were in-system and could get a good view of the terrain.

    “Lots of walking,” Thor said. It wasn’t a complaint, merely an observation. “Gorilla, can you handle that crate of bots for that far?”

    “Sure,” the hulking troop replied, unconsciously flexing his rock-hard shoulders. The bots weren’t light, and were bulky, but some would be deployed and a few would get lost. His load would decrease as they traveled.



    Tirdal wasn't the only one Shiva spoke to. Nobody liked Dagger much, either. But he was very good at his job. He was just creepy in demeanor. Nor was he enthused. "The goddamned Elf is number three?"

    "Enough of that, Dagger," Shiva warned. "You know this. Deal with it. And it shouldn't come up, anyway."

    "No," Dagger said, "Unless things go in the toilet anyway, in which case we can just assume we're dead."

    "Dagger, deal with it," Shiva warned again.

    "Oh, I'll deal with it," he promised. "Maybe we'll get lucky and the Darhel will die first."

    "Dagger!" Shiva's voice was sharp.

    "Oh, relax, Sarge. I'm not going to gap him. I'm just pondering possibles."

    "He'll do his job. You do yours. Capiche?"

    "No problem."

    That was a lie, Shiva decided. Dagger was always potentially a problem. But he could do his job, and did, even if he ran command ragged in the process.

    He spoke to each member of the team. Gorilla didn't seem worried. But then, he was a specialist himself, and only along for a job in his own mind. Gun Doll just said, "Well, let's hope it doesn't come to that. And that he's as good as he appears to be."

    Thor and Ferret just grunted. They knew they were low men on the pole anyway. Once Done, Shiva reported to Bell Toll. "Spoke to everyone, Sir."

    "Yes, I listened in," was the reply.

    "Think it's okay?"

    "Yes," Bell Toll said. "Dagger's just nervy and trying to put a face out. The rest aren't a problem. Tirdal sounds as ready as anyone."

    "Well, it's the situation we have, Sir. It'll just have to do."

    "It'll be fine," Bell Toll assured him.

    "Yeah. So why am I jittery?"

    "You're nervy too."

    "Yeah, that must be it. Think I'll read a bit while we travel, Sir," Shiva said. He was never jittery. He'd made his career on being calm and collected.

    "Fine, Sarge. We'll review intel again after we sleep, say from 0200 to 0700."

    "Yes, Sir. I'll tell them."

    Even Dagger was playing games now. The trip was too long even for his persona. Thor and Ferret started a joint shooting game of some kind. That was to be encouraged, as it required coordination between the two. It wasn't as good as a training sim, but it was still interaction. Gorilla kept his screens up, looking at anything rather than the tight quarters. Gun Doll was alternating map games with music.

    Tirdal appeared to be meditating. His bio readings were at the very low end of Darhel normal. No programs were running in his helmet. Three hours into it, Gun Doll saw him through her visor while switching from her game back to music. He had a limp look that didn't match the natural body tension of a game. But his eyes looked to be open and alert behind the dim red glow of the pod's lighting reflected off his visor.

    "Whatcha doin', Tirdal?" she asked on the common freq, curious.

    "Talking to whales, " Tirdal said, turning slightly in her direction.

    "Very amusing, Tirdal," Shiva muttered. "I didn't know Darhel understood the human sense of humor." He was on the public channel, too.

    "Only incompletely," Tirdal replied.

    "Well, no matter. But if we're going to work as a team, you need to work hard on fitting in with the rest of us. If it's some private thing you're doing, say so. If not, tell us the truth. We need a handle on you as much as you need one on us.

    "So what is it you're doing?"

    "Meditating, mostly," Tirdal said without pause. "It helps me focus on the mission. Otherwise, my…Sense…is alert for Tslek." It was mostly a true statement.

    "Hear any?" Shiva grunted.

    "Not so much hear, as know. There's no sense yet. When I get one, it will be just a general feeling. Imagine you see city lights on the horizon…it's that kind of awareness until I get close enough for details."

    "Hell, Tirdal," Gun Doll put in, "We can sense that much." She sounded rather disgusted.

    "Of course you can," Tirdal replied, his voice still deep and slow, unstressed. "When we get closer, however, the local life and environment will cloud your senses, whereas mine will get clearer. I'll find individuals, and be able to tell their mental state, as clearly as I can feel your physiological frustration over not getting 'laid' the last night before we left."

    There was a moment's pause, then an embarrassed chuckle all around that shut off quickly as they each realized how open they were to the Darhel's powers.

    Thor changed the subject quickly.

    "What's the local gravity, Sarge?"

    "Er…one hundred and twelve percent of Earth normal, Thor," Shiva replied.

    "Guess that explains it. It feels about like home."

    "You're from Ridloe? Yeah, I guess it would be."

    "Reminds me of Talin," Gorilla commented.

    "That's where you won that pig screwing contest, right, Gorilla?" Ferret asked.

    "Pig wrestling," Gorilla corrected him.

    "Sure. I know what I saw." He made a squealing sound. There were more chuckles.

    "You can try it next time, Ferret," Gorilla said, easily. It was an old joke. "Those genetically altered razorbacks are vicious."

    "Nah," he replied, no witty answer coming to him. It had been a mean pig, and Gorilla hadn't even been drunk. He'd just decided to try the local entertainment and after a few muddy rolls and grapples had tossed the pig against the wall, stunning it and making people leap back, beers sloshing. Even the locals had been impressed.

    Talk tapered off again. No one asked Tirdal any more questions. They were afraid of the answers.




    0100 was officially lights out. Gun Doll and Gorilla stayed awake a bit longer, the others started closing their eyes and trying to sleep. The process was made harder by the tight quarters that allowed no movement, the mostly upright position that was not comfortable nor natural for humans, and the lack of activity so far. Spasmic twitches betrayed bodies that were not fatigued enough. Still, rest of some kind was necessary. They'd be going for hours, perhaps days once ashore. Fitful sleep was better than no sleep, even if annoying.

    There were various drugs, systems and training techniques that had been used over the years to "induce" sleep, not to mention ones that obviated the need for it, removed "boredom" reactions, removed such problems as claustrophobia and otherwise reduced the strain of DRT travel methods.

    The problem with most of them, the exception being Hyberzine, was that they had long term deleterious side effects. By and large the DRTs avoided the pharmacopia available to them and just "toughed it out." And they only took Hyberzine during the extended travel involved in moving from star system to star system.

    Maybe some of the pharmacopia would have been appropriate, but there were too many horror stories of drugged troopers losing it on missions to be willing to take the chance.

    Chimed tones woke everyone at 0700. Shiva followed them with his own gravelly call.

    "Rise and shine, boys and girls. It's another spiffy, action-packed DRT day. A day without pain is a day without sunshine! First, we'll start with a rousing breakfast of Eggs Benedict and Celebes Kalosi coffee-"

    "Ah, hell, Sarge, give it a break!" Thor snapped. He'd finally gotten to sleep about 0400, tossed and turned in his literal rack and was not feeling rested. He wanted more sleep and wasn't going to get it.

    "Everyone acknowledge and I'll stop. Dagger?"

    "Yo," was the reply, sounding a bit strained.

    "Gun Doll?"

    "I'm here," she said, following it with a yawn. It was almost sultry under the rasp.


    "Yeah, if I have to."


    "I hear you."


    "I am awake," he replied. He sounded as alert as ever.

    "Okay, well, we don't have Eggs Benedict, but we do have hot chow, and we won't be using any once on land. So dig in while you can. Only twenty more hours of plastic chow and comfortable racks."

    "'Comfortable,' the man says," Ferret griped. "I think there's a conspiracy between the Army and the Navy to make these damned pods as painful as possible, so we'll be glad to get out of them even if it means dying."

    "So the secret's out," Shiva replied. "Guess we'll have to kill you on this mission to keep it under wraps."

    The typical complaints continued as each pulled a "rat" or ration pack from his or her ruck. Once opened, the meals were self-heating, a catalyst in the pouch warming the surface. With a little stirring, the contents were piping hot. If a bitching troop is a happy troop, morale was high indeed.

    "Anyone want to swap for tuna with noodles? Anything?" Gun Doll asked.

    "I got chicken with rice," Gorilla replied. "That work?"

    "Please," she said, relieved. Tuna with noodles was appropriate for interrogating prisoners. It wasn't food for people. She could smell Gorilla's revolting chamomile tea, too, but said nothing. If it helped him relax, that was good, and she'd tolerate it. What kind of masochist drank chamomile tea?

    Tirdal had Darhel rations. The packaging was obviously different.

    "Darhel can't eat human food, Tirdal?" Bell Toll asked. He'd thought they could.

    "We can," Tirdal said. "There's a few enzymes we have to avoid, but most of what you eat, I can."

    Thor asked, "So why the special rats?"

    "It's designed for high energy and is strictly vegetarian," Tirdal replied. "We avoid meat."

    "Can't? Or won't eat it?" Dagger asked.

    "I can and have, but prefer not to," Tirdal said.

    "Afraid to hurt an innocent cow?" Dagger pushed, apparently wanting a reaction.

    "Hand me your meat patty," Tirdal said in response. He clearly intended to take up the gauntlet.

    "Sure," Dagger agreed, tossing it. Tirdal caught it and, after a brief meditative pause, took a bite. His face as he bit was as expressionless as they had ever seen it but his teeth were obviously designed to cut flesh; they sheared effortlessly through the unrehydrated patty, rather than ripping it like human canines. He chewed slowly, swallowed, and tossed the rest back to Dagger. "Satisfied?"

    "No problem," Dagger said. "Just wondering." He hadn't been the only one. One of the training segments for DRTs was a survival course where one ate bugs, snakes and anything else that happened across one's path. If Tirdal couldn't or wouldn't eat meat, he'd skated the course no matter what his records showed.

    But Tirdal had clearly been distressed by the act. Or at least it was clear to Dagger. He wasn't sure who else had caught it. Useful to know. It went along with that story that Darhel couldn't kill. That's why they'd blackmailed humans into fighting the Posleen for them. No matter what anyone said, the Darhel was a second-rater.

    "Come on, Dagger," Gun Doll put in. "You know I can eat anything you put in front of me. I just don't like the taste of mammals. Icky."

    "Just wondering," Dagger said again.

    No one commented on the huge volume Tirdal packed away, like a teenager with late night munchies. Perhaps he ate fewer but larger meals, or smaller daytime meals. Perhaps he was nervous and eating to compensate. It might be that he had a higher metabolism; he had mentioned that the food was "higher energy." Or maybe he was just a pig. It wasn't anything important, and no one felt friendly enough to inquire, especially after Dagger's hazing made everyone feel awkward.




    The team spent the morning reviewing their data and doing isometric exercises in place. The pod was too small to allow more than two troops to move around at a time, and even then, there was too little room to do anything other than walk circles. The cramped confines were one of the things they'd trained for. That didn't make it pleasant. They were only too glad to walk those circles, around and around in front of teammates who either ignored them or stared through with dopey eyes, seeing but not noticing. After lunch, most of them brought up displays of open space to fight the growing claustrophobia one couldn't avoid after hours in a closet. Gorilla had even kept his screens up while eating and sleeping.

    Bell Toll said, "We're heading north on our last leg, if anyone's interested." Everyone clicked over to the map to see. "The bay is a glacial formation, which is interesting as we're at the 37th latitude. There's some odd climatology here. It's deep and narrow, and the river delta is fairly solid and not marshy once we get inland. It shouldn't be hard to walk. I can't get a good image on the shore, yet, so we'll assume heavy growth. If it's not, we're lucky."

    "So with that in mind, everyone get some sleep," Shiva said. "We'll wake, eat and run ashore. Local dark is when, Sir?"

    "Actually," Bell Toll said, "that will put us ashore right about local dark, if we get six hours rest and allow two hours for eating and prep."

    "You heard the man," Shiva said. "Nighty-night."

Home Page Index Page




Previous Page Next Page

Page Counter Image