Echo five nine eight rockets through the exosphere, and death comes with it.
Outside the drop ship’s starboard side porthole the vastness of empty space gives way to the successive layers of planetary insulation. The black void fades while lighter skies below them begin to appear. A faint orange glow tinges the underbelly of the landing craft as the protective plating heats up. The same plating that lines the ramp to the clutch hold. It won’t be long before that ramp drops.
Overhead a syncopated whir acts as the precursor to another burst from the vapor spouts. The components recede a few inches into their housings on the ceiling a moment before dropping back down to shower the inside of the compartment with ten seconds of mist. The precipitation falls on the soldiers, helping to keep their scales moist and their minds alert while their craft transits the space between the neighboring planets.
As the vapor tails off Lieutenant Graymalkin Testudines, Malk to his noncommissioned officers and Lieutenant Tes to the rest of his men, receives communication from the flight crew on his headset. He acknowledges the transmission and turns from the porthole. An inclination of his beak is the only signal he needs to get his Clutch Sergeant to stand up on the far side of the hold. So in tune are the pair that the elder, more experienced non-com knows exactly what his Lieutenant is asking him to do. The male starts making final pre-combat checks of the soldiers he’s responsible for.
Four squads sit in elongated rows within the hold. Two rows line the hull of the ship, while another two rows run parallel down the center of the space. The squads all face inward, a metal retention bar across their laps holding them in place as the craft bucks with turbulence. Most are males but there are several females intermixed, ones well past the birthing age who can now serve the greater purpose. For there is no greater purpose than the salvation of a planet. When global extinction is a possibility, warfare doesn’t discriminate between the sexes. Propagation of the species is the job of the young.
The lieutenant’s clutch is a collection of masks. For the most part their faces are those of internal focus. The individual soldier wrestling with their impending fear, sense of duty, and overwhelming kinship to those around them. Others wear the extremes of emotion. Body shaking terror. Overcompensating aggression. General malaise associated with a recognition of their own mortality.
Tes isn’t surprised at the makeup. His clutch is a mix of freshly minted conscripts and grisled veterans. Males and females that are survivors of the canal conflicts over a century earlier, and the more recent Supple Lake skirmishes. On the other side there are youths barely past their birth crawl, when a hatchling enters the water for the first time in their life. For his part, Lieutenant Testudines sits in between. Too young to have participated in the faction fighting. Too old to be counted amongst the youth of the clutch.
It’s as tenuous a spot that a leader can be faced with heading into combat for the first time. His veterans eye him warily, second guessing his every move through the lense of inexperience. His conscripts keep him at an arms distance, propping him up by the drilled in sanctity of his rank, their collective weight of expectation thrust upon him that he will do what is right when the time comes.
When you’re in peacetime there are ways to prove your mettle, but the strength of that mettle means nothing when shots start flying. Not unless you can show that you operate the same way when it’s for real. If you fall apart when it matters most, who cares how well you performed in your training exercises?
Then of course, there is the family name to live up to.
Off to the right one of his heavy gunners, Ankyl, reaches into a brine bucket on the floor next to his seat. The male produces a catfish that he promptly tears into with the upper and lower points of his beak. Ankly rolls the flesh around his maw. The slapping sounds he produces while he chews turns a few heads.
Across the center aisle Orcam lurches in his seat. The male quickly upends the brine bucket next to him, spilling the few remaining catfish carcasses and liquid onto the deck of the ship. The male rights the bucket moments before vomiting into it. The stench of his regurgitated bile fills the hold, his fellow soldiers around him cringing as Orcam launches into a second bout.
The lieutenant crosses over to the male as Orcam spews saliva and snot into the bucket. He puts a claw on the private’s shell, tapping his talons gently on the carapace. “Easy Orcam, easy. Deep breaths soldier.”
Looking up, the young Private tries to force a smile, but his eyes betray the intention. Tes can see the fright gripping the male. “It’s just a little air sickness Sir. The turbulence…”
The officer smiles back. “I know Orcam, me too. Never could stand flying, and space travel is the worst kind. It’ll be over soon. Just remember to stay with your battle partner. Keep your eyes on your squad leader. Shoot. Move. Communicate. Just like we’ve trained. Right?”
The smile comes in earnest. “Right Sir.”
“You feel any kind of way just remember you’re ready for this. You’re amongst the best there is. There’s no one else I’d rather have watching my back than this clutch. You’re part of that, and you’re capable.”
The private doesn’t speak. He simply nods.
Tes smiles and softly punches the male in his chest plate. “You’ll be fine.”
The lieutenant starts his own checks of the two squads that make up his section. While he’s overall in charge of the entire clutch, the divide of responsibilities between him and his Clutch Sergeant, further enhanced by the squad leaders, gives him the greatest amount of command and control. The organization allows Tes to not only react and maneuver his force towards their objective, but handle communication between the other clutches in the unit, his superiors, and air support.
The inside of the hold suddenly flashes with white light. The heads of the clutch perk up and swivel around. His earpiece chirps with another transmission from the flight deck. “Harassing fire L.T. Nothing targeted yet but expect it to pick up soon. Standby. We’re ten minutes out.”
“Received,” Tes keys back and then yells out over the hold. “Standby troops! Ten minutes!”
“Ten minutes! Ten minutes! Ten minutes!” the clutch yells back in orchestrated unison. The chant has barely dissipated when the hold lights up again. More than a few murmurs of trepidation sound out amongst the soldiers.
The concentrated bioluminescent light comes from shore batteries far below them. Streaks of bright blue and white flash into the sky, silent but incredibly powerful. A near miss could disable the craft’s avionics while a direct hit would blow them to pieces. Long ago, long before Tes was a hatchling, their planetary neighbors the Chelydridae had conceded the arms race existing between the two worlds. Instead of focusing on ships or an orbit network of armed stations, such as the one Tes’s own Temminckii had surrounding their planet, the Chelydridae dedicated their resources towards building defensive systems that could be fired from the surface. Their projectiles were inaccurate but vastly less expensive to manufacture compared to the Temminckii’s fleet. The resultant side effect was that the Chelydridae could place more batteries on their shores than the Temminckii could put ships into the skies above them.
It also forced the type of conflict Tes is now being propelled towards. By giving up air supremacy in favor of air defense artillery the Chelydridae ensured a ground conflict should enemies ever choose to invade. No other planet in the known systems had the same resources for the batteries, meaning no other race had the energy necessary to equip their interplanetary ships with the capacity for bombardment from orbit.
Moreover, on top of the bioluminescent cannons lethality was their versatility. Ships trying to get into range for an attack would be targets the moment they entered the thermosphere. If leveled out, the cannons could fire at troop transports dropped into the oceans attempting to make an amphibious assault. Either way, invading armies would be crushed by the interlocking fields of fire.
The only remedy was the Temminckii’s drop ships. Hundreds of smaller craft that could maneuver through the air space above the batteries with a greater chance of avoiding their deadly blasts, and then disembark shock troops tasked with overwhelming and destroying the artillery positions. In this Tes and his clutch, along with all of the other drop ships, acted as both a diversion and a lead assault element. Even now the larger naval transports were floating down to the oceans. They would push to the beaches and deliver the Terrapinlys, larger land dwelling cousins to the Temminckii that would take the fight inland once the shore batteries had been neutralized.
Without the drop ships in the air the batteries would be free to fire at the cruisers in orbit. Without destroying the cannons, the batteries would level out and target the naval transports and slaughter any troops landing on the shores. Both sides know that this action is the only recourse. If the Chelydridae could neutralize the raiders coming from the sky, they would rule the day. The fate of Tes’s world depends on the first wave of attackers accomplishing their objectives.
A blurted curse comes from behind him. Durkam, a bulky female who had birthed dozens of clutches leans away from her right leg. Sparks fly from the launcher attached to her limb, one of the four strapped to her arms and legs. In the event her squad needed short range artillery support, Durkam would go to ground on all fours, where her launchers would open and launch mortar projectiles against the targets highlighted in her heads up display.
Another burst of sparks emits from the leg launcher, followed by a thin tendril of smoke curling into the air. Durkam’s hands are full of camoalgae, used both for concealment and hydration of their scales. She goes to wipe them off but Tes waves for her to stop as he crosses over. Dropping to a knee next to the female, the Lieutenant uses his claws to turn a recessed dial in the metal housing.
“It’s that damned servo board L. T. Thought for sure we had it fixed this time but the thing’s no better than my droppings.”
Tes grins at the old female as the housing separates with a hiss of compressed air. A large shower of sparks flies out of the opening, forcing the officer to turn his head. When they’ve dissipated Tes turns back, reaching into a side pouch on his belt carrier and pulling out a spare component. “It’s alright Durkam. I was afraid this might happen. Better now than on the deck.”
As if sensing the absence of sparks within the cabin, the flashes of light outside the craft pick up in intensity. Several times the interior lamps flicker and blackout completely, each instance accompanied by a jolt and rumble from the ship as it’s systems momentarily short out from the near misses. Tes grumbles but his claws work deftly as he methodically removes the malfunctioning servo board. Placing it in his beak, the Lieutenant connects the leads from the replacement before slipping the thin piece of electronics into the requisite slot, most of which is done in intermittent darkness. Another twist of the dial and the launcher’s housing slides back together with a prolonged push of air.
The surrounding squad members and those able to see from across the center aisle nod in approval. That the lieutenant would have the foresight to even carry spare components was something to be proud of, but the way he performed such a technical operation in the midst of a landing while under fire? That was downright impressive.
While standing up, a beam cuts close to the drop ship and all avionics short out. The craft suddenly freefalls, the group within the hold collectively feeling the sinking in their stomachs. Tes goes weightless for an instant as several of his clutch cry out in anguish. When the engines and lights kick back on the Lieutenant crashes to the metal flooring.
A brilliant flash of red and orange illuminates the hold. The drop ship rocks as a concussive wave slams into the hull, followed a moment later by the report of the explosion. The officer gets tossed across the deck, coming to rest against the feet of his troops. As he does so his earpiece crackles with the voice of the pilot. “We just lost six zero six L.T.”
Despite not hearing the transmission many of those in the clutch cry out. Between the fall from the near miss and the explosion they know they’re in it now. The final approach where the fire will be the most intense and they will be the most vulnerable. One male screams above them all, his voice on the verge of hysterics.
“I knew it! I knew we wouldn’t make it. We’re dead. We’re all gonna die!” The rant comes from Chordats, the second squad leader. As he bellows the confidence drains from the faces of the soldiers around him, young and old alike. Tes scrambles to his feet and rushes over, throwing a claw up to signal his Clutch Sergeant that he’ll handle it.
“Stow that shit troop!” the Lieutenant says as he leans over the male.
Chordats continues to yell. “We ain’t supposed to be here! I ain’t supposed to be here!”
Tes squats a little, putting their eyes level, their beaks practically touching. “You look at me Dats. Look right at me. Listen to what I say, but don’t you speak another fucking word.”
The male’s mouth opens halfway to rant but then whatever he was about to say catches in his throat. The officer sees the recognition come back into his eyes. “I don’t want to hear another outburst like that again, you understand me?” Tes goes on. “We’re minutes out. Minutes. Whatever is going to happen is going to happen. Ranting about it now won’t change that, but it will take the heart out of your soldiers. Heart that we’re gonna need if we’re going to make it through today, got it?”
Chordats looks to his left where the rest of his squad sits in line. The male slowly turns back to the L.T. More of the recognition climbs back into his eyes, along with the slightest return of resolve on his face.
“Your squad needs you Chordats. They’re hanging on by threads here. Don’t cut them loose, pull them up. I need you to be what I know you already are.”
The male nods. Tes stands and taps him on his shell. Another series of flashes illuminate the inside of the craft. The Lieutenant crosses back to the porthole and looks out. He can just make out the divide between coastline and ocean below, and the flickers of the shore batteries firing. Barely perceptible winks of light before the streaks fly past. A plume of orange far off to the right cuts through the black sky. Tes watches in horror as another craft with an entire wing sheared off plummets to the waters below, trailing a streak of fire behind it.
Chordats rant comes back to him as he watches the demise of another clutch. We shouldn’t be here. Perhaps. It’s not the first time the thought had crossed Tes’s mind. The cause was just, he knew that. The Chelydridae had advanced their artillery technology to the point of being able to launch projectiles that could reach the Temminckii’s home world, albeit the cannon was much further inland. Moreover, they had developed munitions specifically designed to evaporate mass bodies of water. In the face of such a powerful threat, the Temminckii had no other choice but to launch a preemptive strike to secure their planet’s survival.
Of course, there were those back home that had been opposed to the conflict. None more so than Tes’s own father. A renowned veteran of multiple conflicts turned elder statesman, his retinue had wheeled him to the rocks of the Contingent when the tides were right. Those atop their perches rose in respect, for Tes’s father could not rise himself. Having given all four limbs and his eyesight to the planet, Genus Testudines was as revered among their kind as one could be. Save for the fact that he gave voice to the minority.
The transcripts had come down to Tes while he was still in his Officers Basic Course. His father spoke to the Contingent, citing an argument that going to war over a sole source of intelligence was practically as blind as he was. That efforts should at least be made at corroboration, if not fully converted over to diplomacy should Genus have his wish with the Contingent.
Males and females who moments earlier stood in honor shouted him down. Some even went so far as to suggest his courage had failed him. That the old warrior had grown timid and senile, the loss of his limbs and sight the outward manifestation of his relinquished conviction. Genus Testudines weathered all of their insults while cutting them with truth.
None of the Contingent’s hatchlings would ever see the inside of a drop ship. None of their clutch would ever land on hostile shores, or storm rocky cliff faces. They railed for a planet to sacrifice it’s young and old alike, an endlessly seeping wound of blood and treasure, yet they offered none of their own to support a cause they so feverishly defended.
The shouts were louder after that. Genus wasn’t even able to finish his final sentences. Tes had heard the recordings of the deliberations. It took the head of the counsel, the Contingency, standing to quiet that of the members. The Contingency thanked Genus for his impassioned plea before promptly ruling in favor of invasion.
His father had expected as much. He relayed it to Tes a week later. Wars were a profitable thing for those in power. When the only repercussion was the enhancement of your family’s wealth, what consequence was it to sacrifice a few hundred thousand not of your own clutch to secure said fortune? In the end his father had been wheeled out from the rocks. The Contingent rose again, the respect restored now that they had achieved what they had been seeking.
The opposition Genus had presented didn’t make life any easier for a brand new Lieutenant going through his first training course. Instructors as well as students set out to show their displeasure with the family line, but Tes shut them all down through his dedication to the service. He knew now, and probably better than most before, that all roads were leading to war.
As such, the young officer set out to become the best leader he could be for the men he knew he would inherit someday soon. In every task and evaluation, weapons, systems, physical fitness, actions on contact, Tes emerged as the most technically and tactically proficient amongst his peers. Through performance, guts, motivation, and excellence he won over all who doubted him. The high marks earned him a place in the drop ships, long viewed as the most elite in their ranks.
Turning back from the porthole, the Lieutenant moves into the center aisle where his Clutch Sergeant meets him. The male inclines his chin to Chordats. “That was handled well Malk,” the grizzled veteran croaks out.
“Be better if it didn’t happen at all Slats.”
The Sergeant smiles in return. “One in every clutch Sir. I would’ve knocked him cold and left his ass on the ship. You did it better than I ever could.”
Coming from Sergeant Slatichus, the compliment is pure validation. “I appreciate that.”
“We’re ready Sir. You made us that way. Remember that when the ramp goes down, and do what you do best. Be yourself.”
The two males, separated by a century of life at least, extend their claws and shake at the forearm. As they do a transmission goes into each of their earpieces. The Clutch Sergeant nods and then retreats to his place at the rear of the hold. Tes moves to the head, where the ramp will lower, and turns to face his soldiers. Cradling his rail rifle, the Lieutenant barks orders over the hum of the engines.
“Two minutes! Two minutes! Two minutes!” the clutch responds in unison.
“Outboard personnel stand up!” As the soldiers repeat the command the squads lined against the fuselage stand. “Inboard personnel stand up!” The squads in the center aisle rise to their feet while chanting the same.
“Ready, front!” Tes screams. The squads perform a facing movement so that they all point towards the head of the ship. “Equipment check!”
From the rear of the craft the members of each squad give a final look over their gear before tapping the shell of the soldier in front of them. The process repeats itself until the checks make their way to the squad leaders. Tes watches until all the squads are complete and then barks another command. “Sound off for equipment check!”
The squad leaders look at him and reply in turn. “First squad up! Second squad up! Third squad up! Fourth squad up!”
“All squads up!” the Lieutenant signals to his Clutch Sergeant who waves in receipt of the status. “Standby!”
Tes watches them while feeling his own surge of adrenaline. The same twitches of their hands. The flickers of their eyes. The stamping of their feet. They are restless. Overpowered with fear. With the heart thumping unknown. The squads close in on the ramp, waiting each excruciating second for it to drop so that they can learn their fates.
Feeling it all himself, Tes pushes through and pulls them back. “Remember your objectives. I want plenty of spacing between you, and keep your rushes limited. Don’t give them anything to shoot at!
“Squad leaders keep your people moving. Don’t get bogged down. Remember, we do this for each other. Whatever happens, we fight for this clutch. For the male and female to your right and left, no one else! No matter what happens, if we stay together we’ll make it through today!”
Several nods come back to him. Tes turns and faces the ramp. The flashes are near constant now. The ship bucking and dropping continuously. The soldiers behind him call out their anguish. “Standby!” he yells over his shoulder.
The Lieutenant wrestles his own anxiety. Momentary thoughts rifle through his mind. His mother’s smiling face at their weekly dinner. His brothers and sisters, looking up at him in his uniform. His father’s words delivered upon his departure, tears streaming from his sightless eyes.
“Don’t be a hero son. You do what you were born to do. That’s it. Then you come home to us.”
The last thought is that of Reesa. Sweet Reesa. They hadn’t told anyone. It was against everyone’s wishes, what with their age and his orders, but they couldn’t wait. They had to know. Had to be together even if separated by hundreds of thousands of miles of space. The ceremony was small and quick, but when love isn’t a question the length of time for it’s pronouncement is a minor detail. Tes hopes he will see her again.
Shaking free, he admonishes himself for getting lost in his own thoughts. Now is the time to be focused, not daydreaming. His task is at hand. His purpose. Above all else. On top of the mission and all of the objectives, his drive is to do it right. To make the decisions that will give them the best chance for survival and victory. To lead unflinchingly and unapologetically, no regrets, while bringing them all back home.
The ship suddenly pitches upward, presenting the belly of craft. A huge rush of air accompanied by mechanical propulsion echoes over them. The ramp drops with ferocious speed.
“Let’s go!” Tes screams, his words cut off by the unintelligible war cries of the squads behind him and the enemy fire ahead.
Echo 598 rushes onto the beach.