Love and Death at 300,000 Metres
By Louis Bertrand Shalako
IT WAS A LEAP OF FAITH every time they jumped. Everyone knew the odds. The statistics didn’t lie. People said that when you lost the fear, it was time to quit. Jason Bridger had passed that point a long time ago. Now, he just felt resignation, a kind of fatalism. He no longer cared if he lived or died. While his body still wanted to live and reacted just as it should, his mind was cold and jaded.
From three hundred thousand metres, the planet was just a brightly glowing, blue-white ball with no visible detail. It hung there inscrutably on the screen beside the exit. Beyond, all was blackness backed up by an impossible number of stars. Their intercept arcs looked good. There were four of them this time.
“The weather’s fine.” The Drop Sergeant slapped him on the shoulder.
Two drop points, ten seconds apart.
“Bend your knees. First two. Bridger and Yancey. Drop thirty seconds. Brace.”
They clutched the rails and clung to the back wall until the flashing red lights turned amber.
“One gee.” The impersonal voice of drop control came in their helmets. “Gee dropping. Holding at half a gee ... reducing gee ... hold ... hold. Hold. Prepare to drop.”
As he stepped to the door, Jason wondered if it really was addictive, this flirting with the skirts of death. To be confronted by death was a curiously liberating experience. Now he knew what he was capable of. Angela Yancey patted his shoulder.
The physical touch reminded him that to be too divorced from the moment was unwise. He had a partner to think about, and duty and honour were stronger than pain and despair. It was more than sheer discipline that drove him. One chance in ten of dying. All he could do was to pray. In cheating death so many times, he was cheating life itself. He had let himself down so very, very badly. With every opportunity before him, he had failed to live. He had failed to convince himself.
This was a good time to stop thinking.
The lights ringing the door turned green.
“Go! Go! Go!”
Angela’s hand strong at his back, Jason bent at the knees and pulled hard on the jambs, and launched his body out of the airlock at the planet waiting below. The gut-rush of adrenal juices was not a pleasure so much as a necessity, or otherwise he would have hardly been capable of the act.
He dove out and over in a tuck position, coming out of a full somersault and stabilizing perfectly. With arms close at his sides and his chin up, he was a missile.
It was a kind of exaltation. Maybe that was why he did it. Falling through space, plummeting down towards the blue sky below, was about as close to God as a man could get. It was as close as a man like him ever got to a state of pure grace.
Jason was flying.
Angela followed out of the lock hard on Jason’s heels, with Master Sergeant Julie Southam’s hard hand giving her one final push. She tumbled, as Jason flitted in and out of her view. She struggled to stabilize herself.
Angela had the irrational thought flash through her mind that she could quickly switch off and let her feelings loose. One quick stab at the button would do it. Tumbling, head over heels, and it just seemed to go on forever. Fighting the urge to call out, to curse, to swear and piss and moan ... she tumbled and just couldn’t get a handle on it. The ship and the planet and a dark object she took to be Jason spun through her cone of vision several times in quick succession. One blotch suddenly got bigger.
“Are you okay, kid?” His voice was close and warm in her helmet.
The ship, hanging in black space as she fell away, slid across her faceplate, rotating lengthwise as it went, and then suddenly she felt a strong grip on her ankle.
“Relax.” He was right there.
Off to the bottom, down low on her tactical view, were the two dots of Sam and Alan. The planet was coming up slowly. Most of her icons, the arrows were jammed up against the side of the tactical display.
“Thank you.” The visual horizon popped into view, although slanted up and to the right. “Gyros off. I can stabilize manually.”
“We have a minute yet.”
She didn’t respond. The signals-traffic could still give them away, even though the signals were tightly beamed and slaved into unidirectional, person-to-person mode. A pair of scouts could communicate perfectly well in their insertion-suits deep inside enemy territory.
Jason’s grip shifted. He had both hands on her now, and her body gyrated a little as he pulled her into position underneath and in front of him.
“Doggie style.” She stifled a laugh.
She was still flopping about, so she stiffened up as best she could to make Jason’s task a little easier to manage.
“Play your cards right.”
His silence was predictable. Poor Jason would be blushing beet red! For some reason he always thought his jokes were hilariously funny, whereas hers were often unwelcome. They seemed to make the hard-bitten Jason a little uncomfortable sometimes. Riding along under Jason, with his gyros stabilizing the pair of them, was a safe and comfortable feeling. She enjoyed it for a moment. When she took over using body English only, it was going to take a lot out of her, in spite of years of hard physical training and monthly fitness tests.
“That’s what they all say.”
Angela convulsed in her suit, almost throwing off the descent.
Jason’s hold and her orientation wobbled for a moment, as she stifled it. This was rewarded by an ache where the diaphragm met with the ribcage, down low in the area of her hips. She was going to pay for that later. It fascinated her, since she had an unaccustomed moment to think, how it really was exhilarating to be up here ... floating with Jason. With a turn of her head, she located Sam and Alan. Jason gave her a little tap on the helmet to let her know he saw them too.
She checked her wrist.
“Finally.” She spoke and Jason unceremoniously shoved hard, down and forward on her body.
“You got your three minutes worth.”
Then she was on her own as the first faint hints of atmospheric drag tugged at her outstretched fingertips.
“Bye-bye-birdie.” He focused on the virtual navigation guide-points out in front of his faceplate.
There were two black dots to the right, stark against the white cumulus rising up from below. Then there was one black crescent, as his own pilot chute snagged open and his feet flew out in front of him.
There was radio silence from the three of them. Jason’s thoughts immediately turned to Alan DeKalb over there, watching Sam fall into the clouds.
His heart ached as the silence continued, but the discipline was strong. Jason looked up to pray in the direction of the blossoming black lotus flower above him. The primary chute continued to deploy normally. This extremely intense feeling, of wanting to live in spite of all, was a rare and unusual occurrence—which was just one more reason why he did it. His thoughts raced, his heart pounded, and there was nothing anyone could do, not even scream—Sam wouldn’t even scream.
They were all volunteers. The black dot falling into the cottony white puffs was a friend. Sam didn’t say a thing. He was in there, trying and trying to get the chute to deploy. Sam would sail into the ground at Mach speed in a little less than a minute.
Sam was invisible, gone into the clouds now. He could see it all in his mind’s eye.
Jason fought the urge to retch. He thought of Angela, and Alan, alone in their suits. Sam, alone in that suit, still trying to hit that button, to deploy the chute. With a glance at his wrist, the altimeter display told him it was already too late. There was no way the chute would deploy properly this deep in the atmosphere. It would simply rip itself to shreds. Sam was already dead, yet he was undoubtedly shouting and cursing, twisting and spinning, and trying to rip open the pack with one arm up around behind his back.
He couldn’t afford to puke right now, and so he swallowed it right back down.
They watched their chronometers. They could hardly help it. It was only human, and each marked Sam’s passing in their own way.
It was over now.
Still the awful silence continued.
Three figures squatted low down amongst the tangled underbrush of the jungle floor. They were head-to-head. Eyes met, and right fists touched. A nod, a shake of the head, and the ceremony was over. Jason and Angela awkwardly held Alan as he sobbed and shook in his suit. They could only give him a little time. For them, the grief was there, and real enough, but it would have to be dealt with later.
The mission proceeded according to plan.
Eight days later, they were relieved when elements of the 119th Brigade liberated their hilltop. Their position overlooked a large, mossy plain, first scouted nocturnally by them and then suitably marked with landing beacons.
Guided by laser-beamed landing zone, weather and tactical data provided by the team, neither a ship nor a man was lost in the initial insertion. It was only later that casualties mounted, giving the battle of 9491-G a reputation for ferocity and dogged courage in the face of heavy enemy resistance, on the part of the Third Galactic Infantry Division. The enemy had been routed in this sector, and an advanced battle fleet fueling station would proceed as planned in geosynchronous orbit.
The Commendation noted that exemplary courage and extraordinary devotion to duty on the part of reconnaissance forces was a major contribution to the victory.
A number of recommendations were made, and perhaps suitable chest-hardware would be forthcoming. The news hounds noted that Sam’s body had not been found. With no guidance inputs, and no chute, his body could be anything up to a hundred kilometres from the landing zone. Experts estimated for the evening news that his suited body might have penetrated anything up to ten metres in soft ground.
The 119th as a whole was rewarded with a unit citation, something old hands could point to with pride as the unit rested, refitted, and was brought up to strength with new levies from the Home World.
There is nothing like a real bloodbath to buck up a unit’s morale. The fact that ninety percent of the unit had no memory of the campaign, because they hadn’t actually been there, might have had something to do with it.
While still pretty green, the unit would mature quickly under the pressure of battle. This was the general consensus of opinion. At some point, the new adjutant closed the book on that particular chapter of the Regimental History.
“There was nothing wrong with the suit?” Colonel Beauville was puzzled.
The drop-suits were capable of sustaining human life of a kind almost indefinitely, when sufficient resources were available, or even a couple of weeks in full deep-space mode. Originally designed as escape and survival suits for the Fleet, subsequent development made them a formidable weapons-platform in their own right. The unit’s own recon suits were unique in the service.
“According to information provided by our own technical people and the factory reps from the Home World, the general consensus is ... in spite of certain indicators in the redundant software systems, nothing they can really put their finger on, but there was once a glitch in testing ...”
“Cut the crap!”
The telemetry, the data stream before and after the drop, was all they had to analyze in the absence of a body or wreckage.
“Well, that’s all they’re giving us, sir!” The captain was fifteen years older than his superior. “What can we expect? I can’t give you what I don’t have.”
Either he didn’t hit the button or it didn’t work, and herein lay the problem.
“I want you to say it wasn’t suicide.” Robin “Butch” Beauville grunted in disgust. “I’m sorry, Stan. No one wants to make the call, and those suits cost about a hundred billion dollars each. War is very public these days, and everyone has some interest in some outcome.”
Both men’s thoughts turned to the video logs, endlessly analyzed, officially and unofficially. The only thing anyone got out of it was a kind of vicarious horror, and after a time, even that wore off. Lieutenant Ginoro was just dead.
“No one wants to besmirch Sam. Or Lieutenant Ginoro’s service record either.” Stanley Zonta felt the same way. “I can’t make the call. He seemed perfectly fine before the drop. Alan can’t recall any little indicators either, even with the benefit of twenty-twenty hindsight.”
The two sat regarding each other with a kind of mutual trust and confidence. Captain Zonta just shrugged. He disposed of the three sections in the field, and Colonel Beauville took responsibility for the unit. There was no real hostility, just tension and confusion in the air. Both men were taking it too personally. It was hard.
“Of all the people under my command, I liked Sam the best. He was the easiest to get along with. He stayed out of trouble, with eight good missions. He was an exemplary soldier. I don’t know, Colonel. I just don’t know. Personality-wise, he was the best balanced of them all, and quite frankly, the most likable.”
“Well, I know.” The colonel was worried. “I know that they had better find something wrong with one of those suits, somewhere in the service, or they are going to crucify Sam, and Alan, and us. They don’t give a tinker’s damn about the facts, but I do. This is a people problem, Stan. Tell me about our people. Your people.”
After a long, searching look from the captain, the colonel spoke again.
“I love them as much as you do, Stan. But you work with them much more closely—I’ll always be the old man, to them.”
“The one that worries me most is Jason. I asked him how are you today once.”
“What did he say?”
“He didn’t say a thing. He just looked right through me. It was like he didn’t even recognize me. It really is a stupid question, isn’t it? But they’re all different, distorted people in their own way. No one could survive the first drops without some strong focusing skills. You have to be a proper psychopath just to make it through the training—you and I both know that, sir. I don’t know what else to say, Colonel.” The captain sighed. “It is a kind of refusal to die more than anything. But they like it too much, is what I’m thinking.”
There was a long silence.
“Maybe the thrill wore off.” Captain Zonta wondered. “I’m sorry, that was just a really shitty thing to say right now.”
“Is this going to happen again?” Colonel Beauville had a tight, pained little grin at the captain’s jibe. “When I had seven missions, and they offered me promotion, I took it. For some reason, this death-seeking stuff is totally alien to me.”
“Hell, yes. It will happen in some unit somewhere. It’s just a matter of time. We’re all bucking those one-in-ten odds, and after fourteen missions in the case of Angela, one wonders just exactly what her problem is.” Stan thought. “She owns a small farm in Ohio. She could opt-out at any time. But she just won’t do it.”
“And Jason has twenty-three. At some point you have no odds at all.”
Captain Zonta had personally done nine combat missions, and thirteen under training conditions, having re-upped rather than get out when he could. The odds in training were more like forty-to-one, or about half of what twentieth-century Bomber Command crews faced over Germany. That precious little tidbit of information was one of the first things recruits were told. But the trainees only got one real hard-space certification drop, and then they were shipped out to face the enemy.
They all knew the odds. Recruits were never hard to find, and as Captain Zonta had to admit, the recruiting videos didn’t even come close to doing it proper justice.
There was just the three of them, as Vernon and Metcalfe were needed elsewhere. Rumour had it the unit would be going back into action in a month or so, and rumour was so very often half-right.
Alan was dead drunk, asleep in his chair. Angela looked over the table at Jason.
“About had enough, pal?”
Jason had been keeping up with them both, drink for drink, but he gave the impression of stone cold sobriety. He shook his head morosely. There was a hint of defiance or something about him tonight. Something deep and unsaid lurked within him.
“Well, I don’t know about you.”
“We had better do something about Alan.” His face was long in the dim light of the bar.
The three bolted for the nearest steakhouse upon disembarkation, as per tradition. But the food tasted like ashes, and the drink was the only thing that could satisfy them.
“We’ve been hitting it pretty hard. And not having any fun at all.”
“We’ve seen better days. Let’s find a room for the boy.”
Jason drained the last half of his mug of lager in a couple of big gulps.
Like the Fleet in port after a three-year cruise in deep space, they stumbled along the sidewalks, singing, laughing, supporting Alan between them. They must have passed three or four tawdry motor-court type hotels along this suburban highway, before they could agree on anything.
As soon as they got Alan into a room and a bed, there was an awkward moment. As if by mutual accord, neither one let it go on too long. Jason had the room on the left of Alan, and Angela had the one on the right.
“Goodnight, soldier.” She wondered what she really wanted.
With a quick nod, he turned and headed for his room. As she fumbled with her own key, she heard the other door open up and slam shut again.
He lay in the darkened hotel room, listening to the swish of rain and watching the flicker and sweep of vehicle headlights wash across the pale ceiling. Sleeplessly, he lay there and tried not to think, with only the on-off button, the single un-blinking green eye of the video set to keep him company. There were so many things that he wanted to say tonight, in the wake of Sam’s death, and once again, he had discovered that he did not have the courage.
He flaunted death, he taunted death, and all because deep down inside, he knew he was gutless.
It was more than Sam’s death, and the deaths of others, friends who passed in the night.
Jason ached inside, with the knowledge that he was a moral coward, and that he would pay for that weakness dearly, every stinking day for the rest of his life. Some things deep inside of a man never change, he thought in anguish. While things hadn’t been so bad lately, he had to acknowledge the truth. He was suffering, from some thing, some affliction, that he could not name. Everything about him was just wrong, somehow.
With a deep sigh of self-loathing, he flung off the sheets and swung his feet to the floor. Padding to the bathroom, he relieved himself and spent some time in there, scrubbing his face thoroughly and luxuriously, such a wonderful thing after days in a suit.
He snapped off the bathroom light and waited for a moment, getting his bearings in the blackened room by the faint glare of green from the video set. Padding along carefully, wary of forgotten coffee tables and unfamiliar furnishings, Jason was resolved to a long and frustrating night. What struck him as odd, as he found the edge of the bed, was that normally he never had any trouble sleeping, and strangely enough, it was easier for him to sleep in the suit than without. It was sobering to think just how wrong a man could be about so many things. His state of mind tonight was nothing if not unpleasant.
Jason dropped carefully onto the bed, suddenly becoming aware of a soft, warm form in there beside him at about the same time as his tired mind and dull senses registered that the smell in the room was distinctly different from when he had left it.
“I bribed the night clerk.” Angela giggled as he snapped on the bedside light in pure, unadulterated shock.
“Jason Bridger, I want to have a word with you.” She stared into his eyes with the most wanton look, and his heart almost stopped dead in his chest.
The hatch slid back and Jason stepped to the door. The lights flashed amber. The Drop Sergeant’s voice was close in his ears. He felt a tap on the shoulder.
“I just want you to know one thing.” She ignored the fact that everyone else within earshot of the bridge monitors would hear it too.
“You love me?”
“What?” He was completely mystified.
Eleven seconds to zero ...
“I wait until I see your chute. Then I pop mine. You never knew that before, did you?”
For the first time in his career, he froze for a half second in the door.
“Go, go, go!”
“I go where you go. I die when you die, Mister Bridger.”
Angela had both hands on his hips and she gave a hefty, no-nonsense push.
As Jason leapt out of the ship for the twenty-fourth time, her words were right there with him.
“We’ll talk about this later. See you on the ground, dear.”
“Go, go, go!” The sergeant booted Angela out of the door and into the cold hard vacuum of space.
Louis Bertrand Shalako lives in southern Ontario and has written for community newspapers and industrial magazines such as “The Delhi News-Record,” “Ontario Tobacco Grower,” “Brant News,” and “The Nanticoke Times.” His fiction has appeared in “Bewildering Stories,” “Aurora Wolf,” “Algernon,” and more.