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The Europa Goodbye: Chapter 5

Titan - 2336

Winston Carmichael’s eyes opened an hour before the alarm was supposed to go off. 0300. He grunted and pushed himself up off the bunk. The gravity was lighter than he was used to, so Winston felt stronger than he had in years. The old pains were never quite gone, just asleep, but his knees felt teenaged again. His back, too. It gave him a spring in his step that he hoped would bleed over to the rest of his squad.

Winston wondered if he should put Jane on his life insurance policy as he looked for his left boot. The pile of old uniforms on the floor made for effective camouflage as Winston continued his search.

“Crap, it's in the shower,” Winston said, as he awkwardly walked with one boot on to find its mate. Putting his foot inside, he felt his ID badge and multi-function device stop the advance of his big toe. Winston smiled. That was an old trick he figured out when he was a Spacer First Class, and kept losing his wallet. If he put it in his boot before he went to sleep, he'd always find it the next morning.

Why his boot was in the shower, he'd never tell. Jane in supply wanted to give him a good send off, just in case. They both knew the score. First wave drop teams had a thirty percent casualty rate. Not enough for him to buy her a ring, no matter how much he wanted to. Winston knew she'd probably accept a ring from him just to be kind, but Winston didn't want to pretend. He was getting too old to believe in fairy tales.

He looked around, seeing the messy three meter cubed room, and smiled. Only NCOs and officers got quarters to themselves on troopships. It had been several years since he got his stripes, but the sight of them on his coveralls still made him swell with pride. "Better go wake up the kids," he told the pile of dirty uniforms near the door. Either he'd deal with them when he got back, or they'd be someone else's problem.

The door across the hall opened to reveal Corporal Boris Chen, the leader of Bravo Team. Chen had been with First Squad longer than Winston had. He was a good kid, but wasn't ready for his stripes just yet. Winston made Chen a deal: if the whole squad survived this next drop, then he'd start studying for the promotion board. Chen said that was a sucker’s bet, but Winston knew he’d planted the seed in his mind. Sometimes all a Spacer needs is for an NCO to tell them they've got potential. Winston had already overheard Chen studying for the board with the Squads newest member, Spacer First Class Darius Maroney.

Maroney was a Martian, with two living parents and a girlfriend back home. Winston hadn't had a chance to learn much about him, though not for lack of trying. Learning about soldiers told them you cared. If the spacers understood that leadership valued them as humans, then they'd go further. Do more. Accomplish the mission. And one day, they’d be able to lead other humans, too. The circle of life would be complete.

Chen stood in the doorway, in full EVA suit. Winston walked closer and looked at the readout on his arm. He tapped a button on Chen’s wrist and a holographic readout was projected. Chen always liked his personal space, but Winston had to review his suit functions before they made the drop. The onboard computer was calculating the pressure needed and the relative strength of Chen’s drop suit.

They’d spent the whole previous day helping Chen repair his suit. Winston had first tried getting his suit in line at the mechanical bay. But mechanical was short of parts, just like everyone else, and only repairing the suits that rated under sixty percent survivability. Chen’s suit rated sixty-three percent. So Technical Sergeant Jane Good called in the infinite favors owed to her throughout the ship, and seventeen hours before the red light went on for drop she showed up with a box of spare parts. That, and a bottle of synth-whiskey.

Both helped. After ten straight hours of repairs, they got Chen’s survivability rate up to eighty-two percent. Not the highest in Winston’s squad, but Chen was grateful for what he got. Winston was grateful for the company Jane had provided afterward, and the warmth the whiskey had added to it.

Chen waited until Winston nodded at the data in the readout, then knelt to latch his boots. He put his helmet on, and a faint hiss let Winston know he had a good seal. The holographic projection confirmed this, and Winston gave him a thumbs up. Chen returned it, and headed out of the squad bay.

Darius Maroney’s hands were shaking as he kept trying to latch his left boot. Winston didn't blame the kid for being scared. He knelt down and latched it for him, and then looked him in the eyes.  “How we doing, kiddo?” Winston asked. “You feeling ready for that big green light?”

Darius nodded. “I, uh… I don't know what I’m doing, Sergeant. What if I fuck up?” 

“How many drops have you been on, kid?” Winston asked, as he tapped the button on Maroney’s wrist. A holographic readout projected: suit rating ninety-seven percent. Full oxygen tank. Enough caffeinated ration paste for a three-week patrol. Maroney’s suit was in better shape than Winston’s. 

“This is my first, Sergeant Carmicheal.”

“Well shit, kid, of course you don't know what you’re doing. You’ve never done this before. No one expects you to be an expert. All you gotta do is keep an open comms line with me, and follow my instructions. ROE is simple: if someone shoots at you, shoot back. If they have a friendly IFF tag, politely ask them to stop first. If I die, Chen is in charge. You think you can keep track of all of that?”

The rookie nodded, looking only half convinced. Winston picked up Maroney’s helmet and placed it on his head. Then he double-tapped the latch key, and heard the faint hiss of pressurization.

Winston placed his own helmet on, tapped the latch locks, and heard the hiss of air filling inside of the helmet. “The drop is the easiest part. All you gotta do is fall. It’s the landing part that nobody likes. Just make sure you land feet down. Your dying would look terrible on my yearly review.” 

That actually got Maroney to laugh. It was a nervous chuckle, but it was a start. If the kid gave himself a heart attack on the way down he’d be no good to anyone outside of a life insurance check. 

Ten minutes later, Spacer First Class Darius Maroney was still safe in the launch bay of the Ganges, in orbit of Saturn’s largest moon. That wouldn’t last long. Soon they’d all be on the express elevator to hell.

“You guys want to just sleep in tomorrow?” Winston asked, as the squad prepared for their drop. First squad was with the first insertion wave of a much larger operation. 

“That jazz band is playing tonight,” Chen said, performing a function check on his rifle. “We could go to that.” Winston and Chen laughed. Darius didn't understand the joke, but that was alright. He was too nervous to laugh. The laughter was broken up a moment later by the ringing of a general alert klaxon.

 Winston glanced at the digital readout in the corner of his helmet HUD. Less than a minute to go.

As the minutes ticked away towards H-Hour, he helped his squad to check and recheck their gear.  It was mostly a nervous tic. By now their kit had been given pre-flight once-overs and twice-overs by a battery of Fleet Air Ops technicians, the Ganges loadmaster, and about five times by Winston himself. 

This would be Spacer Maroney’s first time using a descent rig, in combat or otherwise. Although his training had familiarized him with the basic principles, this drop would be as much a baptism by fire for Darius as for any other greenhorn about to fall into hell for the first time.

The klaxon rang again and the voice of the shipboard A.I. sounded in everyone’s ears: “Prepare for primary launch sequencing. T-minus fifteen seconds and counting. Repeat: standby for launch.”

The countdown timer ticked away the seconds in the corner of Darius’ HUD. T-minus thirteen. Twelve. Eleven seconds. As it passed below ten, the casing for his launch tube descended from above until it formed a seal with the bottom bulkhead of the launch bay. For a second he was in silence, before the readout in his HUD lit up the darkened tube with a menagerie of technical data and a greenlit grid of outlines.

Eight seconds. Darius felt a quick jolt as his launcher lifted him into the ceiling of the launch bay, towards the outer hull of the Ganges. Darius gave in to temptation and looked up. He’d seen it dozens of times before, both in simulated drops and the endless drills which his training cohort had conducted outside of Fort Victory on Phobos. All that seemed like another lifetime, now. This was the real deal.

Somewhere out there, beyond barely even a meter of the spacecraft’s hull, was the vast emptiness of space. Nothing but stars and the distant glimmer of the sun to separate him from endless night.

Except this time, there would be something else out there. Titan stretched out across the darkness. Down on its surface, thousands of Draconists waited for the start  of Operation Blue Danube. Waited to fight them to the death over a barren and primordial world that had little more than symbolic significance to either side. Only the hardy colonists who eked out a living there had any real stake in this fight, and most of them had been herded into resettlement camps by the ICA in the preceding months.

As his launch tube extended, Darius gulped and mumbled an old prayer. He muttered a faint “amen” as the timer ticked off four seconds to launch. His ascent stopped a second later with a deep, bass clang.

Three seconds now. The sound of rushing air rumbled around Darius as the atmosphere was vented from his tube and back into the Ganges’ life support systems. The top of the tube slid open with a bass growl that Darius felt in his chest as its vibrations reverberated through his descent rig.

The faint light of space spilled in and lit the walls of the tube. He couldn’t help it; he looked up again, straining to see something, anything. The limb of Titan greeted him, glowing a sickly mustard yellow in the dull light of the distant sun. Beyond that, nothing. Not even stars awaited him. Darius stared in awe, barely able to see even a sliver of the view between the top of his helmet visor and the edge of the launch tube.

Then the timer ran down. The A.I.’s anodyne voice returned: “Launch sequence engaged.”

Darius wasn’t sure what happened first. All at once, his body was rushing upward, or downward, carried on a plume of exhaust gas from the primary launch sequence firing. The breath was forced from his lungs in a great gasp as the shock of launch G-forces hit him like a baseball bat to the chest.

The next instant he was falling towards Titan with the speed of a bullet, soaring on the impulse of his launch like a living missile. He looked around, careful not to disturb his path with exaggerated movements. He seemed to be alone, lost in a solo descent like a meteor streaking toward the surface below. No Ganges behind him, no satellites around him, not even his own platoon mates joining him on the way down.

Darius blinked rapid fire commands into his helmet control suite, aiming them at various segments of the HUD with small jerks of his eyes. He pulled up the map of the target zone and pulled back to show his projected trajectory down to it. Still more than three hundred kilometers to go.

The voice of Aelita, the Ganges’ shipboard A.I., sounded in his ear. “First wave, be advised: you will be in range of hostile missile fire in approximately one minute.” Her voice was as calm as ever.

Darius’ heart did a flip in his chest. There was no turning back now. The only way out was towards the hostile moon rushing up to meet him. He steeled himself for whatever was down there and gritted his teeth to distract from the fear clawing at his throat and threatening to strangle his breath in his lungs.

Another alarm chirped and a separate voice piped up. “Missile alert. Prepare for evasive maneuvers.”

Darius’ heart skipped a couple of beats as his descent rig automatically warmed on its RCS thrusters. The missile alert suddenly flared into a harsh, staccato klaxon–missile lock.

The descent rig immediately pitched him into a loop-de-loop as it evaded the enemy vampires. At first he wasn’t sure if there actually was anything to dodge. Then, to Darius’ unblinking horror, he saw a streak of white exhaust tearing upwards through the thick haze of the Titanian atmosphere. The artificial voice cut in again to punctuate his terror. “Warning: cluster missiles detected.”

The thruster pack kicked into overdrive. Darius tried to suck in a breath as the G-forces pressed at him from every angle but found it hard to breathe at all. He resigned himself to letting the suit’s automated oxygenator keep his blood supplied at the right mixture and silently said his prayers.

Darius looked up and noticed with a start that the yellow-hued atmosphere was growing very hazy in his forward view. He knew from the extensive pre-op briefings that this meant he was about to enter the final descent phase, which would be accompanied by a slow, high-G burn transition to a non-terminal trajectory. If anyone’s rig failed to cycle over, they would be left to splatter helplessly against the surface of Titan.

The calm voice standing in for his suit systems spoke up again. “Spacer First Class Maroney, please authenticate your atmospheric entry phase. You may use eye commands or—”

Darius blinked rapidly to give his affirmative and the prerecorded alert cut itself short. He pulled up the notification and saw that it was an update on his descent trajectory. The system showed a projected touchdown somewhere within a few kilometers of the rally point. Everything was nominal so far.

He ran a mental checklist of their objectives. The primary goal of Operation Blue Danube was to land a handful of Special Orbital Assault & Recon teams behind enemy lines while the vanilla infantry and armor assaulted from the north and west. Once landed, they were to seek and destroy enemy hardpoints along the axis of the mechanized divisions’ advance. But first they had to the ground in one piece.

“Alert,” said the prerecorded alert voice. “Adjusting descent trajectory now. Standby for G-forces.”

Darius felt the G-forces spike again as he pulled into a shallower descent angle. The haze of Titan’s atmosphere whipped past as his descent rig brought him from headfirst to parallel with the surface.

By now the atmosphere was so thick as it rushed past Darius that it seemed like a mustard yellow ocean. Soon he would drop through and see the moon’s surface. Whatever madness awaited him, he would face it there. Among the wastelands of a world he’d spent three months wargaming for. A world with vast seas of electrically-charged dunes, and craggy outcrops of dark water ice frozen harder than rock.

Just then the clouds thinned enough to grant Darius his first glance at the Xanadu uplands below him.  Wind-scoured ice valleys and ridgelines spread out in every direction, to every horizon he could see from the confines of his helmet. The faint light of the sun, made fainter still by the well of atmosphere, shimmered off of the plateaus below with the sheen of light on an oil slick. Everything was painted in hues of deep, burnished bronze. It was breathtaking, awe-inspiring beauty, frozen in a primordial eternity.

Then things started to go wrong. “Warning: hostile autocannon fire detected.” The voice sent ice colder than the Ligeia Mare rushing into Darius’ veins. He rode that surge of adrenaline and terror the rest of the way down to the surface, watching anti-air fire burst all around him. The rugged, broken landscape below rushed up at him at ballistic velocity for another few seconds, until the suit kicked on his final stage of descent—the landing phase. The thrusters kicked on high as the rig opened a massive drag chute behind him. He coasted to a stop, landing with some modicum of grace in spite of his inexperience and his current state of shock. 

His rig automatically shed itself from him like an old shell falling off the back of a crab, folding in on itself like electronic origami until it lay on the ground with all the grandeur of some ancient surface probe. Perfectly belying the fact that it had just deposited a fully-armed special operations spacer on Titan in one piece, right as an explosion went off. That seemed to be about his luck.

The concussion knocked Darius off his feet. Seeker mines will do that sometimes. Somehow he'd managed upside down against a rock formation. Arms and legs still worked. Neck was functioning. No paralysis. Darius grew up around veterans of the Mars-Titan War, men and women who’d taken bad falls and broken their necks in ways the medics couldn't fix. Sad, broken-down old warriors in hover chairs that told stories from decades ago as nurses fed them soup. He didn’t want to end up like that.

Darius pushed himself off the rock formation and fell to the ground. The comms must have been hit in the blast. All that was coming through was ringing. No…there was a voice. It was getting louder.

“Hey, kid.” It sounded like Sergeant Carmichael, but it was warped, and distant somehow. Darius wished the goddamned ringing would give it a rest so he could hear what was being said, and by whom.

As his ears cleared, he finally heard the voice of his squad leader coming through. “Are you alright, Maroney? I thought you might have been a goner for a minute there, over.”

Darius darted his gaze toward the vitals readout on his HUD. Nothing was damaged internally, and his suit integrity was still nominal. He let out a sigh after realizing he’d been holding his breath. He chinned the microphone toggle on his radio. “Roger that, Sergeant Carmichael. I’m still in one piece. Over.”

“Good,” said Winston on the comms channel. “Then let’s link up with the rest of the squad and we’ll see if maybe we can change that. Sound good, over?”

“Yes, Sergeant. What’s your current location, over?”

“About half a klick downslope from yours. Look up, you should see me waving, over.”

Darius looked up, and sure enough his HUD pinged Sergeant Carmichael’s position just downhill. He was waving a hand over his head as he stood next to a figure tagged as Corporal Chen. “I see you,” said Darius. “I’m heading that way now, over.” He picked himself up, feeling the ache starting to creep into his joints from the concussion, then started off down the gently sloping hillside.

He arrived four minutes later, and was already thanking the heavens that Titan’s low gravity did not pull on the gear strapped to his back as much as it would have back on Mars. “Took you long enough,” said Chen on a localized comm link. “We need to get moving soon, or the Dracks will be all over us.”

Sergeant Carmichael turned to Darius and said, “The Dracks will be swarming this LZ in no time. We need to link up with anyone else who made it down if we’re gonna salvage this shitshow of an op. You two better keep up.” Without another word, he turned and headed off to the north, followed by Chen. Darius fell in behind, wondering why the hell he’d ever listened to that Spacer Corps recruiter in the first place.

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