A disturbance buckled the slender dropcraft, shaking its crew as a tall woman rattled off a mission brief to the preparing soldiers.
“Atmosphere is a low oxygen environment. High levels of sulphur and CO in the air. Pockets of hydrogen are being released from recent tectonic activity, so no active-energy weapons. Subsonic coilguns only.” She looked over to a shorter man nearest to the craft door, tossing an info-tablet to him. “Means no lightning for you too Vulcan.”
“Killjoy.” The man grumbled, stretching his face before donning his HALO helmet, emblazoned with a dozen sigils from as many crafts. “Want me to ask the locals to just stop killing us? I’m good at diplomacy too.”
“I don’t want to see any of the locals, period.” The squad leader flipped to a new document on her tablet. “They don’t much care for us and I don’t much care for them. Our only goal is extracting our operative and getting off this hellhole.”
“So are we getting sent in because we’re Terra’s Finest, or are we getting sent in because if we die no one back home’s gonna notice?” A woman who’s field patch identified her as Freya spoke up. “Because usually when scientists go rogue and fuck off to soil-bound worlds, we don’t go through all the trouble of hauling them back to a tribunal.”
“They aren’t just any defector, corporal. They’ve absconded with technology and intel that Quadrant Command very much doesn’t want in the hands of some backwater industrial civ.”
“Could have just orbital’d their house.” The squaddie opposite of Vulcan quipped, still polishing off their custom HALO helmet’s visor. A plain-text “SOL” was engraved on their shoulder plate, amongst the constellations carved into the paint of the rest of their armor.
“Yeah, that’s a great idea, drop some rods from God on a soil-bound world to kill one scientist.” The fifth squaddie groaned at Sol, pulling on her jump boots. Selene. “They ought to send you to officer school for your tactical thinking.”
“Not to interrupt folks,” a distorted voice came on over the intercom, “but we’re almost in position. Atmosphere’s getting pretty thick, you’re gonna want to go in at a low profile or you’re going to get swept so far off course I won’t even be able to evac you.”
“You heard the pilot!” The leader grabbed her helmet, sliding it on and clicking the seal into place. “HUDs on! I want contact the moment you hit the ground.”
Sirens blared through the hanger door as the squad clicked their gear into place, the hanger door cracking as the cabin’s atmosphere vented rapidly into the partial vacuum of low orbit. Five of Terra’s Finest, orbital assault marines, stood ready at the opening, their squad leader stepping to the front of the pack and looking down over the globe below. A pale green hue illuminated the air, and the curve of the planet could be seen in the distance.
“Five hundred says I hit before the rest of you lot,” Sol chimed in over the squad radio.
“A thousand says I’ll be setting your broken leg,” Vulcan chirped back.
“Jump cleared!” The pilot’s voice came over their headsets, and with that, the squad sprinted out the hanger in unison, impacting the atmosphere at speeds most terrestrial craft would blush at. The mission was now properly underway.
“Squad leader, this is Selene, do you copy?” The woman stood up, her suit already beginning its post drop diagnostics. “I repeat, this is Warrant Officer Selene, does anyone copy?”
Static. The clouds above her were drifting in an unusual pattern, winds born out of competing elements in the atmosphere. Her suit immediately informed her the reason for radio silence: unusually high electromagnetic activity. There was no way for her suit’s transponder to overpower the interference, she’d have to set up an antenna post.
She inspected her weapon, confirming it in good operation. Standard issue coil rifle, subsonic rounds per mission spec. Centering herself for a moment, she placed a hand on the dirt, feeling the ground pulse underneath her. Affinity was lower than she’d like, but she could still feel herself connecting back home, to Terra. But there was… something else here, too. Something competing with her connection.
“Fucking xeno magic…” She muttered under her breath, tapping her wrist console to start displaying vitals. Forty hours of life support with atmospheric filtration. There simply wasn’t enough oxygen in the atmosphere for her suit to keep up. Her HUD informed her the drop site was ten miles north… not unmanageable. With a sigh, she tapped her console, tensing as she felt her suit begin its adrenaline drip. It was going to be a long run.
Vulcan jolted awake, terrified for a split second. Where did he land? Why couldn’t he feel Terra? Why did his head hurt?
His senses rushed back to him and he picked himself up, brushing bizarre alien foliage off his armor as he felt his connection reestablish. He’d felt the call of Terra since he was five years old, and this was the first world to actually severe it for a moment. It gave him an immediate and disgusting feeling, like waking up in his own vomit. What could be strong enough to severe the connection of a fully trained mage? This planet was fucking cursed.
“Squad leader, this is Vulcan, I’m in one piece.” He stood there, blinking as his HUD reactivated and informed him that it couldn’t pick up the squad transponders. “Squad leader, if you can hear this, I’m en route to the drop site. ETA… half an hour.”
His suit’s array let through a low growl behind him, the drop marine turning around to find a small creature snarling at him. Not much bigger than a dog, it looked to be covered in some kind of… fungus? It was hard to tell where the animal began and where the parasite ended. The mission briefing didn’t include anything about parasitic life forms being common in the environment.
“Easy there,” Vulcan murmured, hand slowly going to his pistol. “I’m big and unknown, that means you want to leave me alone, right?”
The creature snarled more, and it was then Vulcan realized it seemed to have multiple mouths as well. In an instant it lept, but not before he held out his off hand, a sigil in his glove burning alight as the creature burst into flames. It shrieked an awful noise, skittering away until it jumped over a fissure in the ground, igniting a fireball that sent Vulcan flying back into the dirt once again.
“…right, hydrogen pockets.” The man pushed himself up once more, coughing as his suit began running medical diagnostics. Nothing but some nasty bruises that’d be keeping him up at night for a while.
At least he could still feel Terra.
Sol wasn’t entirely sure what was happening, but they knew it wasn’t anything good. After touching down and being unable to make contact with the rest of the squad, they made their way to the dropsite within half an hour and began setting up the rendezvous equipment. Now they were sitting behind a rapid-deployment machine gun, watching the clouds above start to twist more violently. There was something off about this place, something deep in their gut that told them it was fundamentally wrong. They didn’t have a connection to Terra, like the others, but they could still feel the alien nature of this place. Of the thirty worlds they’d dropped into, this by far was the most… off putting.
“Squad leader,” they clicked the radio back on, cord running to the antenna array now set up. “Squad leader, this is Sol, can you hear me?”
Static. Why wasn’t anyone picking up? The array was more than enough to overpower the interference in the atmosphere. Unless it couldn’t detect their replies back… but protocol would dictate Selene would set up her array to confirm a successful drop. As far as they knew, everyone could have been blown so far off course as to scrap the mission.
A sound echoed through their helmet, and they looked up to see a craft passing overhead. One of the local aircraft. Surface scans showed this region was unpopulated, but this civilization had begun air travel, so it wasn’t unreasonable for a random craft to be flying through the area. They watched it fade off into the distance, breathing a sigh of relief as it vanished. With active camo, it was doubtful the pilots would have noticed the array.
All they could do was sit, and wait. Wait as the sky darkened.
Wake up my child. There’s work yet to be done.
Freya came to immediately, hand on her service shotgun. She never passed out on jumps, that was part of the job requirement, what the fuck happened? Surveying her surroundings, the memories immediately flooded back: she collided with… something. Something that now surrounded her in shrapnel pieces of varying sizes. A local aircraft, maybe? Her memory was too blurry. Something about this place was giving her an awful migraine.
It was an aircraft, child.
She sighed, sitting down and closing her eyes as she pushed her hands together. What did you see?
Nothing you didn’t. A craft not much larger than you. There was a pilot. Find the body.
She opened her eyes, looking at the diagnostic display on her suit. Armor integrity was low from the impact, but her systems were still functioning. A hairline fissure had formed in her visor, immediately covered in impact gel. That was going be obnoxious to shoot around.
Careful, child. Her connection was growing weaker. There’s another presence here, one that knows I’m here.
Freya stopped, feeling her blood run cold for a moment. Something that could sense her connection back to Terra? Another human?
No child. It’s unlike anything I’ve felt for… as long as I have been One. I will have to consult the others.
An alert on her HUD: the fading thermals of a life form. She dashed over, finding one of the humanoid locals collapsed outside of a burning cockpit; a long and slender entity, with pale skin and strangely wide eyes that were fluttering open and close. She drew closer, and it looked up at her, making a low croaking noise. It was trying to talk to her.
I’m sorry, she thought as she knelt down by the alien. I don’t know if this will work, but I’ll do what I can.
Placing her hands on the local, she closed her eyes, breathing in and letting her connection flow through her. The collective will and determination of Terra, passing through her and into this unlucky bystander. Its wounds began to close, eyes blinking shut as it passed out from the exertion. As quickly as she started it, the process was over, and she stood up, feeling… oddly dirty. She’d healed aliens before, but that felt different, like something was pushing back against her. This whole planet was giving her the creeps.
She checked her shotgun, sighed, and started to the drop site marked on her HUD. The sooner they got this scientist, the sooner she could return to her mothers and sisters.
“Where’s the rest of my squad Sol?” The sergeant was pacing around the temporary encampment, looking at her tablet with increasing annoyance. “It’s been nearly two hours and the weather’s turning bad.”
“Transponders can’t break through this interference.” The technician gave an uneasy shrug. “With how bad those crosswinds were coming down… ma’am, we might be the only ones.”
“Bullshit.” An alert suddenly came up on her HUD, just as Vulcan crested over a nearby hill. “Finally! Vulcan, what the fuck took you this long?”
“Sorry sarg,” came a panting reply over the radio. “Got the smell of the local fauna on me now, been putting these critters down left and right.”
“Get detoxed and get ready to move. The rest can’t be far behind you.” She grimaced as Vulcan drew closer, the marine’s armor stained with acidic blood.
“Hey Vulcan,” Sol piped up, a smile hidden under their visor. “Leg’s in one piece.”
“Glad to see you’re alive too Sol.”
As the two marines bantered back and forth over the exact payout of the bet, the sergeant looked up at the sky with worry. A second aircraft had passed over recently; either this was a corridor, or the locals had reason to suspect something was going on. If their cover was blown, this whole mission was going become a lot more complicated. That was on top of the fact that it looked like a storm was about to start.
“Vulcan,” the sergeant pulled out a set of binoculars, looking at a formation in the distance. “Can you feel Freya or Selene?”
“No good ma’am,” he shook his head, loading magazines onto his suit from a drop crate. “There’s something on this planet interfering with our connection to Terra.”
“How many sigils have you earned, Vulcan?”
“Eighteen, sarge. None of them change the fact that this place makes me sick to my core.”
“Mages can feel Terra out in intergalactic space. If my team’s connection is compromised I want to know why.”
“Fuck if I know ma’am.”
“If I might, sergeant,” Sol spoke up, their voice quiet. “I don’t know what it feels like, not like the others, but I know what home feels like. I know what here feels like. This world, it… it feels like home. But distorted.” They looked at a bit of gib that Vulcan had scraped off of his armor. “You said there were parasites on those creatures, yes?”
“Some kind of fungus, yeah.”
“What if… this place is like Terra? What if these locals have their own connection?”
“…fuck.” Vulcan blinked. “Okay, we need to fucking cap this scientist and get off this planet.”
“They’re coming back, alive.” The sergeant shook her head. “This isn’t just from Quadrant Command. Our orders are coming from Terran Command itself. This scientist knows things that are well above our clearance… but I have a feeling that they didn’t pick this planet out of all the others for the scenery.”
“Sergeant, picking up Freya and Selene’s transponders.” Sol jolted up from their seat, tapping a console on the antenna array. No sooner than they honed in the location, the pair crested over another hill, trotting down the slope to the drop site. At last, all five squad mates had been reunited, the sergeant looking them all over.
“Any broken limbs? Concussions?”
“Healed a local sarge” Freya reported quickly. “Crashed into one of the local aircraft.”
“That’d explain why I’ve seen three of them in the last hour. Did it see you at all?”
“I think I wiped its memory in the process, but it’s alien, can’t be sure.”
“Get whatever gear you need out of the drop crates. Our time table’s cut in half now.” The sergeant looked off in the distance, towards the mission target. “Sol, make contact with our bird and cover the fallback route. Freya, keep our hearts going. Five units of adrenaline everyone.”
The squad made a collective pained sigh, tapping their suits as rain began to fall. The rocks around them began to sizzle, Vulcan cursing as some began to burn away at his paint. With little time to waste, the four began running off into the distance, kept company by the sound of pitter-patter of rain and the sizzling on the exterior of their armor.
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