Intrepid City 0:2
TOO CLOSE TO THE SUN
By Ryan M. Danks
The XS–9 rocketed out of Earth’s atmosphere. Propelled by prototype plasma engines, the experimental air/space hybrid plane was the pride of Valiant Industries’ R&D department, which they claim is light years ahead of their competitors.
Colonel Cole Stewart leaned into the cockpit and watched the pilot, Captain Martin, fly.
“You should be strapped in,” Captain ‘Marty,’ as Stewart’s team took to calling him when they boarded, said.
“‘Should,’” Stewart said. “Sounds like a suggestion.”
Marty shook his head, but couldn’t help smiling. “Damned PJs.”
Behind Stewart, in the staging area of the plane, he could hear members of his team telling their new rookie the story of their last operation in Eastern Europe.
“This one guy just wouldn’t go down,” Staff Sergeant Briggs said. “No matter how many rounds I pumped into him, he just kept coming.” Most people would have used their hands to mimic the actions of shooting something, but Briggs pointed his loaded .50 caliber machine gun at the rookie.
The young man’s discomfort was blood in the water for the rest of the team.
“Face was weird, too,” First Lieutenant Lane said. “Pale, with red eyes and big fangs. It was like a friggin horror movie.” She formed her hands in claws and made a menacing face at the rookie, which had a more horrifying effect with Brigg’s machine gun in his face.
The rookie tried to laugh it off. He seemed sure they were joking with him. But everyone else was straight faced. “Serious?” He said.
Stewart’s attention was drawn back to the cockpit by a blinking light on Captain Marty’s touchscreen. “Did something pick us up?”
“Naw,” Marty said. “Nothing can pick us up this high up. That there’s Ground Control reaching out.”
Marty touched the answer button, but it didn’t activate the comms system. He tapped it several times. Nothing. “Stupid geniuses. They make a plane that can drop Paratroopers into an LZ from high orbit, but they can’t get the console to answer phone calls.”
“That’s why I don’t listen to their suggestions to buckle up,” Stewart said, slapping Marty on the shoulder. He stepped back into the staging area, where his Paratroopers were gearing up for the mission ahead.
After breathing on his helmet’s tinted faceplate and wiping off the fog, the rookie leaned back and looked at Briggs. “So, how did you end up stopping him?”
Briggs was too busy connecting his machine gun to his armor’s mechanically-assisted control arm to notice the rookie was talking to him. Lane got his attention for the rookie by smacking Briggs in the chest. “What?” The big man said.
“The ‘vampire,’” the rookie said. “How’d you stop him?”
“Vampire?” Briggs smiled and looked around at the amused faces of in the staging area. “Well, the Colonel killed him,” Briggs said, nodding toward Stewart, who was chambering a round into his sidearm and holstering it in the automatic ejection mechanism in the thigh plating of his armor.
Stewart made the ejector open and close a few times by waving his hand passed it; he still didn’t trust the high-tech gear his superiors forced on his team. Stewart preferred the old parachute and flak jacket rig that never failed him before.
The rookie looked up at Stewart as if to ask how he did it.
Stewart shot Briggs a look of displeasure for getting him involved. “I carved his heart out,” Stewart said. He drew his large carbon fiber knife a few inches out of its sheath, installed in the chest plating of his containment armor, to make his point.
The rookie whistled. “Damn, sir. You’re hardcore.”
Everyone in the room tried to contain their laughter but failed miserably. Everyone but the rookie.
Lane grabbed his shoulder. “Thanks for this,” she said between laughing fits. “Truly. Thank you.”
“Aw, what?! You mean you didn’t–” The rookie got up and moved to the back of the staging area. “You guys suck,” he said as he passed hysterical team members.
The team member the rookie sat down next to offered him a cigarette. He took it, lighting a match on the ‘No Smoking’ sign.
Lane wiped a tear of joy from her face and tossed Stewart an extra magazine for his rifle. “So, Colonel, you finally get hitched, and leave your bride at the altar to go on an OP?”
“I didn’t leave her at the altar,” Stewart said, slapping the magazine and racking his weapon. “The limo just dropped us off at different airports.”
“You afraid married life will suck the adventure of you?” Briggs said, elbowing Stewart in the arm.
Stewart pressed a touchscreen on his forearm to fiddle with his containment armor’s settings –– an excuse to look away. “If I didn’t come, one of you would get eaten by a werewolf or something. Eh, Rook?”
Everyone laughed at the rookie’s expense. He turned a faced the wall.
“I can go on a honeymoon anytime,” Stewart said, placing his weapon in the mechanical holster on his back.
Lane smirked. “I’m sure she felt the same way.”
Stewart was about to respond when Captain Marty called out from the cockpit: “Finally got in touch with Control. They’re calling off the mission.”
“They give a reason?” Stewart asked.
“NASA is reporting some kind of ‘cosmic storm’ headed our way. They’re not sure what it is, but they don’t want to take any chances.”
Briggs looked disappointed. “We came all this way for nothing?”
“Has situation on the ground changed?” Stewart asked.
“Negative,” Marty said. “This seems like a safety procedure for our benefit.”
“Sounds to me like more suggestions,” Stewart said. “We all know what we signed up for; mission first.”
“Hooah!” The team yelled in unison.
Marty shook his head. “I’ll let Control know we aren’t diverting course, then.”
“PJs,” Stewart shouted. “Mount up!”
They all locked their helmets into place, rechecked their gear, and climbed into the jump pods – one for each team member.
Stewart waited until they were in their pods, then locked his helmet into place. He listened to the internal atmosphere regulators pressurize his suit, then checked his oxygen levels; which wouldn’t be a concern while inside the pod – the emergency oxygen was for orbital emergencies.
“Good luck,” Marty called over his shoulder as Stewart climbed into his pod. The Colonel gave him a thumbs up.
“Mic check,” Stewart said, as he tapped buttons in his pod’s touchscreen to set the landing coordinates.
Each team member reported in and called a positive sync to his coordinates.
“We’re good to go, Marty,” Stewart said through the comms. “Open the launch bay doors.”
“Copy that,” Marty’s voice came back through the comms, clear as day.
The bay doors opened, giving the team a good look at Eastern Europe through the windshields on their pods.
“Beautiful,” someone said. Stewart thought it was the rookie. Whether it was or not, the rookie was the one Briggs made fun of for being “sentimental.”
“Want to take a picture to show your mom, Rook?” Lane called out through the comms.
Stewart grinned as he looked to the West. He couldn’t see the United States from where he was, and Intrepid City was quite a bit inland, but he knew his new bride was down there somewhere. They had known each other for a few years, though Stewart never let his team know about her. There was a certain distance he liked to keep with them regarding his personal life. But Angela had insisted on some of his team being part of the bridal party. And he had to admit that he liked it when she took naturally to them as part of his extended family.
“What the hell is that?” Briggs shouted through the comms, breaking Stewart’s reverie. No one could see Briggs pointing, but they didn’t have to. It was obvious what he was pointing at: far above the Earth’s north pole was a blue and purple cloud, half as big as the planet, descending like a hungry monster looking for something to eat.
Stewart was at a loss for words. “I have no idea. Marty?”
The Captain must have been paying attention to his instruments, trying to line up the small launch window over the LZ. From this height, if the team dropped outside of the window, they would end up in a different country altogether. He didn’t respond to Stewart’s question. Instead, Captain Marty shouted “Clear to launch!” over the comms.
“Copy that,” Stewart said. “Leave the space dust phenomena to the scientists. We’ve got a job to do.” He counted down from five, knowing that after he took off, each of his teammates, in order, would launch one second after the previous team member.
“Two. One.” He pressed the ‘Launch’ button and readied himself to take a few Gs as he rocketed down through the atmosphere. But while the ejection rockets screamed to life, his pod’s safety latches malfunctioned. One side released as expected, but the other stayed locked in place, causing his pod to violently turn, slamming into the drop pod next to him. His windshield cracked from the pressure, and red lights reported a systems malfunction.
The team stepped on each other as shouts of panic and concern came through the comms all at once. Stewart was too busy trying to deactivate the pod’s rockets to join the chaotic conversation.
Like the rest of his team, Stewart was trained in emergency procedures during a drop, but when his pod was pointing at the rest of his team, like a missile taking aim, there was a new level of stress added to an already technical situation.
Stewart’s pod bounced back and forth between the bay door and the pod next to him. By the time he got the rockets shut off, he his pod had wedged between the neighboring pod and the bulkhead of the ship.
“You all right down there?” Captain Marty said.
Stewart craned his neck to get a look into the other pod’s windshield. The pods were at an odd angle, but he could see the rookie’s eyes, wide with fright.
“Oh, sh–?” The rookie said, starting to hyperventilate. Everyone could hear it, now that they had regained their comm discipline.
“Lock it up, Rook!” Stewart yelled through the comms, trying to get the Paratrooper under control before he did something stupid, like eject while they were wedged up against each other.
The rookie, eyes about to bug out of his head, nodded. “Y-yessir.”
Stewart took stock of his situation. The way he was wedged up under the bay door, the rookie still had a clear shot to drop. Maybe if he did it would dislodge both of their pods.
“Alright, Rook. Here’s the plan. You’re going to launch your pod, and–”
“I would caution against that, sir,” Marty said. “I’ve got you pulled up on my sensors, and if he launches, it’ll more than likely tear both your pods apart. And being right under the engines, if you rip into that bay door, you could cause a catastrophic event.”
“Damn,” Stewart said.
“Maybe we should do what Control said and abort mission,” Marty said. “I can have us on the ground in–”
“Negative,” Stewart said. “We’re carrying on with the mission.”
“Want to tell me how that’s possible?”
Stewart looked out over the other pods. His team wasn’t hampered as he and the rookie were.
“Yessir,” she called back, a sense of urgency and concern in her voice.
“Restart the launch sequence. Get down there and kick some ass. The rookie will stay here until we get this sorted.”
“You got it, sir,” Lane said.
“You copy that, Rook?” Stewart said, making eye contact with the rookie.
The rookie nodded an affirmative.
“This sounds like a call to abandon you, sir,” Briggs said. “I’m not sure I’m comfortable with that.”
“I’m not dying, Briggs. I’m just stuck. Get your ass down there and complete your mission. That’s an order!”
“On your mark, First Lieutenant,” Briggs said after a brief moment of silence.
Lane restarted the countdown. Stewart and the rookie watched the rest of the team launch, one by one –– a perfect execution.
“They just showed us how it’s done,” Stewart said, trying to keep the rookie talking, so he didn’t think about being stuck. “And how we’re about to do it.”
“If you say so, sir.”
“Colonel,” Marty said. “I’m getting some strong electromagnetic signals from that storm. I think it’s time for us to bug out of here.”
“Hang on a sec,” Stewart said, clicking through his pod’s touchscreen.
“Sir, I need to insist that we follow procedure and head back to base. I can’t close the bay doors, but you could–”
“What did I tell you about procedures, Marty.” Stewart found a ‘Help’ file that showed a digital overlay of how to manually eject a pod from the launch bay. It indicated a lever above the pods. He looked out his windshield and saw that his rockets had melted the switch above his pod, welded it right into the bulkhead, but the rookie’s lever was still intact.
“Sir, I–” Marty began but cut himself off. “Sir, your pod is registering an open hatch. I think you’ve got a breach.”
“It’s not a breach,” Stewart said, as he crawled out of his hatch and into open space, protected by his containment suit, which had oxygen for ten minutes of floating, or five minutes of strenuous work. “I let myself out.”
“Here’s the plan,” Stewart interrupted him again, not wanting the Captain to scare the rookie. “I’m going to pull the manual override on the Rook’s pod. The rockets won’t launch, so both pods should come loose nice and easy. Nothing breaks on your pretty ship.”
“And, then you come in the emergency hatch and ride home with me?” Marty said.
“No. I’ll jump in the Rook’s pod. We can share a seat all the way down to the LZ. It’ll be fun. Right, Rook?”
“Um,” the rookie’s uneven voice came back. “I guess?”
“That’s the spirit,” Stewart said, climbing to the end of his pod and transitioning to the other, careful not to lose his grip. He had some zero-G training, but not much.
Marty disengaged the plasma engines. “I’m going to slow our orbit so the pods don’t fly off out of control, but you’d better hurry. I’m getting electromagnetic interference with my comm signal with Control. That storm is going to hit any second.”
Stewart looked out the bay and saw the storm, closer than it was before he tried to launch. “Once we’re loose, you take off immediately. Understood?”
Stewart climbed over the rookie’s pod, noticing the young man’s nervousness through the windshield. “No worries, Rook. This is what we trained for.”
“Actually, sir, this is my first Orbital Drop. I trained with parachutes, like most PJs.”
Stewart climbed past the windshield. “An ‘OD’ is like a roller coaster with a really long drop. You’re going to love it.” He got to the manual override and pulled on the handle, which felt like it weighed a hundred pounds. He cursed the designers at Valiant Industries for the umpteenth time.
“Isn’t it a bad omen that they refer to this as ‘ODing?’”
“Probably.” Stewart gave up on pulling the handle. He got it halfway to the ‘Disengage’ label on the bulkhead, but his arms were exhausted.
“What’s going on out there, Colonel?” Marty said, urgency evident in his voice.
Stewart braced himself on the bulkhead and stomped on the override switch. “When I get back to base, I’m kicking someone’s ass for designing this hunk of junk!” A final kick sent the lever home.
The rookie’s pod unlatched and floated away, slightly toward the rear of the ship –– their momentum was slowed, but not stopped. It clumsily brought Stewart’s damaged pod along for the ride.
“Colonel,” Marty said. “We’ve only tested opening pods in space during situations of emergency extraction. Who knows what could happen if you try to shut it again outside of an atmosphere? It may not seal properly. Maybe you should let the Rook bug out, and you can ride back with me.”
“Negative,” Stewart said. “I’m finishing my mission.”
“Dammit, Cole. You’re putting your crew’s life in danger.”
Stewart ignored him, kicking off the ship and floating for a heart-wrenching distance before he was in range to grab onto the rookie’s pod. “You’re clear, Marty. Take off.”
The comms scratched back an incoherent response.
“Marty? Did you copy? I said take off.”
Stewart switched his position on the pod and looked back at the ship. The cosmic storm wasn’t far off, and electricity was arcing off the ship’s hull.
“Marty, do you copy?”
“The fzzzzssh storm fzzzzzsh,” Marty said.
“Colonel?” The rookie said, craning his neck to see the ship through his windshield. “Shouldn’t we–”
He cut himself off as the XS-9 silently exploded, sending debris flying in their direction.
“Oh, crap. Oh, crap.” The rookie was hyperventilating again. That got the Colonel worried, hanging outside of the pod as he was. He switched positions and looked down into the windshield.
“Get it together, Rook. We’re almost through this.”
“I can’t do it, Colonel. I can’t.” He was punching every button he could find. “I’m sorry, but I–” In his panic, the rookie hit the ejection button. The pod’s side panels flew off the pod, sending Stewart tumbling away from the core structure of the pod.
Stewart pushed the panel he was holding onto away from him, which slowed his uncontrolled movement a bit. He was able to see the rookie, helplessly floating in his seat. The distance between them expanded quickly, as Stewart’s momentum sent him in a descending orbit toward the Earth.
“Dammit, Rook!” Stewart regretted the words as soon as they left his mouth. He knew they were the last words the rookie would ever hear.
The storm descended on the rookie’s pod. Electricity arced through the pod’s structure, where the rookie was sitting. Stewart watched his teammate fry.
“Rook!” He yelled, before realizing that no one was left to hear him.
Anxiety started to take over. Stewart’s armor wouldn’t survive reentry into Earth’s atmosphere. And even if it did, he wouldn’t survive the impact that came a few minutes later.
Thoughts of his bride came to his mind. Regrets. He pushed them out, trying to get a grip, determined to find a way to back to her.
Debris from the XS-9 fell past Stewart. His orbit had taken him back toward the ship.
“Marty?” Stewart hoped against hope. He had no control of his movement, but he could turn his neck. And he tried as hard as he could to see behind him, where he thought his pilot might be.
What he saw sent a chill up his battle-hardened spine. One of the XS-9’s engines spun toward him as it descended, out of control, into Earth’s atmosphere.
Stewart was spared the quick death of being smashed by the engine, as it flew past a mere three feet from him. But he couldn’t avoid being engulfed by the cloud of superheated plasma the engine was spewing in every direction as it spun.
He panicked and tried to scrape the coating of plasma off his armor, but he knew that the only way to save himself from burning to death was to take the suit off and expose himself to the vacuum of space.
There were no good choices for Stewart, and as he tumbled toward Earth, he considered which death he preferred. But before he could choose, the cosmic storm surrounded him on its way to the planet.
Electricity arced through Stewart’s suit, shattering his weakened armor. He screamed through the pain until he couldn’t hear his cries anymore.
Stewart’s last thoughts before he blacked out were of his wife, and how sorry he was to have missed their honeymoon.