In Route/On to Planet Y2063
The Tellus Photo image tag of Nathan and Kylen twisted back and forth like a rosary in Nathan's white grip. He sat alone, isolated, numb. His mind in shock. Replaying his courtroom testimony. His thoughts so twisted that even though he knew Cooper was innocent, doubt had begun to taint everything he could remember from that mission. Like an echo, Nathan could hear how damning his testimony had sounded. It slowly ate away at his conviction.
The APC rattled and bucked as it descended through the atmosphere surrounding planet 2063Y. Lt. Low ignored the steadily increasing rumble in the cockpit as she scanned for any sign of enemy contact. Enemy intelligence had become unreliable since the bombing of the peace meetings, but rumor painted this planet as a virtual chig metropolis. Beside her, Lt. Stone fought the turbulence to keep the APC at a safe trajectory of decent. All thought of the courtroom drama they had just witnessed forgotten. In the Marine corps you buried your dead and moved on.
Back in the cabin, Captain John Hill swayed with the turbulence. With steady care, he lit a cigarette as he listened to Major Hyland speculate about the mission's low probability of success. Across from him, Lt. Laturner sat with her eyes shut in some type of meditative pep rally. No doubt the cherry was already preparing an acceptance speech for the awards she expected to earn. He had to admit she was a pretty package, despite her rich overachiever attitude.
Beside her "Gramps" sat, staring over at Lt. Nathan West. Lt. Nick Keegan looked lost in some kind of personal flash back. Captain Hill rolled his eyes; the Marines must be desperate for bodies to have passed the old geezer through boot camp.
Tightening the retaining strap holding him to his seat Nick Keegan studied West. The kid looked a bit shocky to him. But he believed the stories he had heard about the fifty-eight and didn't doubt that the Lt. would live up to his reputation when it was time for action. He was intimately familiar with the haunted look on the young man's face. The court trial had left a bitter taste in his mouth. If he were younger, less cynical... Now, he didn't have the energy. Looking away, Lt. Nick Keegan concentrated on the rifle lying across his lap.
With a jolt the APC leveled out. Lt. Low's voice crackled over the com link. "Major, We've found the downed bird but touch down is not an option. Recommend drop off and rendezvous at 17 klicks northwest of present location. Please advise." Snapping to her feet Major Hyland glanced out a window and responded, "Copy that, Rendezvous in 0700 hours. Level at four feet and pop the hatch." Snapping the chin strap on her helmet, Major Hyland yelled, "Let's move it people. We've got seven hours to find the needles in the haystack. Grab your gear, lets go, let's go!" Everyone scrambled for their gear then jumped out the hatch.
"OH MY GAw kha a uh...!" Lt. Laturner made a gagging sound. She looked around, nobody looked very happy. The Major wore a thin lipped grimace and Captain Hill looked pale.
"It helps to breath through your mouth," Lt Keegan suggested as he sludged past her. Reluctantly, KC opened her mouth and took a breath.
The roar of their APC retreated. The moisture shrouded hulk of the crashed APC loomed out of the muck at an unstable angle. The deep mud made a mockery of the squad's stealthy approach. Lt. KC Laturner tried not to gag as she stumbled through the shin deep mud. The footing was treacherous. Tree limbs and other unidentified objects lay concealed beneath the mud waiting to snag a foot or twist an ankle. The very last thing she wanted was to end up face down in the horrible smelling stuff.
The APC's armor plating was charred and rippled. The rear end of the APC jutted out of the mud close to ten feet up at a forty five degree angle. The top right corner of the side hatch just cleared the mud level by two feet; its door missing and a ragged hole where the hinge should have been.
KC spoke in hushed tones, "You don't think they are in there do you? The whole cockpit is submerged."
"If they are, our job's done. I'd consider that dead and buried." Hill responded. The metal gave out a low groan.
"We have to know for sure," West spoke up, looking at the APC with despair.
"Well why don't you just crawl on in there and join them." Hill snickered.
"Alright, that's enough!" Major Hyland snapped, "Lt. West is right. We are here to find bodies not make assumptions. Captain Hill, Lt. Laturner sentry duty, go. Lt. West, drop your pack. You're going in. Lt. Keegan and I will assist you."
After 20 minutes of pushing and rolling down in the mud Nathan admitted that he wasn't going to fit. Taking Lt. Laturner's pack Nathan watched her squeeze into the APC in a matter of minutes.
Thin wisps of fog had begun to drift around the charred armor plating. He shifted the weight of Laturner's pack, watching the fog thicken. Silence seemed to subdue even the Major's outspoken complaints. The effect was claustrophobic. He could hear the sound of his blood pounding. Each beat emphasizing wasted time slipping by. "Come on!" he muttered.
The ground emitted a deep vibrating rumble, drowning Nathan out. The mud suddenly liquefied into huge five foot swells. Nathan struggled to keep from being toppled as each swell hit with the force of a wall of sandbags. The metal of the APC added its own high pitched wail. The noise drowned out the comlink. Then it stopped. The mud settling back to its original state. There was a moment of stunned silence before the come link burst to life with Captain Hill's cussing.
"Shut up!", Major Hyland snapped. "I don't care how deep you have sunk. This could be a new chig weapon. I want radio silence. We've got to make it back to the Saratoga alive. Intelligence needs to know about what just happened out here. Lt. Keegan, Captain Hill, get back here. We're moving out." There was almost a hint of excitement in the major's voice.
But the sarcasm in Lt. Keegan's voice was obvious as he muttered to himself, struggling to free himself from waist deep mud. "Great, She thinks chigs can cause earthquakes. Somebody must have flunked geology."
Twisting back and forth Nathan managed to free his lower half from the mud. Glancing towards the major he noticed the APC. "The APC, it's sinking!" Lt. Keegan and Captain Hill stumbled towards the APC. A muffled banging started up from the inside of the APC.
"Damn," the Major whispered, putting her palm against the APC's side. Losing a man without recovering the objective looked awful on paper. Although she doubted Vansen and Damphousse were alive she had hoped to find at least one body, but there wasn't time to deal with Laturner and search for bodies. Major Hyland looked out into the fog willing a squadron of chigs to materialize. Killing a few chigs would even things out on paper. Where was the enemy when you needed them? Without taking her eye's away from the fog She ordered, "Captain Hill, take Lt. Keegan and see if you can find a place to rig up your explosives. Time to give us a demonstration of your specialty."
Following Captain Hill around the APC, lt. Keegan asked, "I don't think she has much room in there. Can you detonate a charge without it killing her?"
Nathan walked up to the APC. The muck became deeper the closer he stepped. "Wait, the only thing keeping this APC from sinking is the trapped air inside. If you breach the hull it will sink faster than we could get Laturner out."
Major Hyland turned and glared, "Well lucky for Lt. Laturner you aren't in charge. She's got maybe an hour's worth of air in there. We are going to have to breach the hull to keep her from suffocating. Now get down there and calm her down. Use Morse code, get her to stop making all that noise."
"Major," Captain Hill's voice intervened. "I've found some stress ripples running across a tweaked corner joint. I could open her up, but Gramps is right, she won't be in any shape to march to the pick up point."
Nathan faced the Major. "Call Stone and Low, get the other APC back here. We could use it to sling load this one to solid ground."
"The chigs would hear the APC from miles away. Stop arguing and follow orders," Major Hyland snapped.
On the other side of the APC Captain Hill and Lt. Keegan stood listening to the argument. Keegan nudged Hill and pointed. They watched as the very tip of a bolt disappeared beneath the mud. The APC was still sinking.
"Ah Major, West's right about the air bubble. Besides an explosion would be as noticeable as the sound of an APC. But if we sling load this thing we wouldn't be sitting ducks should the chigs decide to show up." Captain Hill interjected.
Major Hyland glared at Lt. Nathan West. He was making her look like an idiot and she was sorely tempted to order hill to blow the whole thing to kingdom come. Unfortunately the plan made sense. Ordering Captain Hill to set the charges, she walked over to where Lt. Laturner's pack sat in the mud to use the radio. "Alright, we've got 25 minutes until Lt. Low and Lt. Stone show up. We've been ordered to load up and return to the Saratoga as soon as possible. Until then, Lt. West and I will take guard duty. I want radio silence until the other APC shows up."
Nathan was watching the minutes tick away on his watch when he heard the rumble of the approaching APC. He had started to request that they search for Vansen and Damphousse to the major, but she had quoted a military code stating desertion in the field could be punishable by death and she hadn't stopped watching him since. He clenched his teeth in frustration. In three hours he would be faced with watching Cooper be sentenced with Roundhammer's failure and everyone he cared for would be gone. Seeing the Major's signal he followed her back to the wrecked APC.
Hovering above in the other APC Lt. Low had the back hatch open tossing tow cable down to Lt. Keegan. Captain Hill had pulled himself to the top of the wreck and was busy securing cables.
"Lt. West," the major yelled over the APC's rumble. "Get up to the Lidar station in the APC. I want to know the second you see anything that might be a chig. Take Lt. Laturner's pack with you."
Twenty minutes later, Nathan was staring at the Lidar screen. The APC's engines were pounding as it played tug of war against the mud. Lt. Keegan wandered in and stared at the screen. "The mud's giving us a hell of a time, but we pulled the wreck up enough for Laturner to get out. The Major's decided to detonate it, then get the hell out of dodge. Hey, what's that?"
Lt. Keegan leaned over pointing, leaving a flecks of mud on the screen. Nathan looked closer. It didn't look like chigs but he wasn't certain. At a jog he grabbed a rifle and headed for the back hatch. Just as he was leaning out to yell to the Major a flare lit the fog. Its red light bouncing off the fog and the standing water hiding it's source. Below him the major raised her rifle covering Captain Hill as he finished setting the charge. From the Lidar Keegan yelled, "Do you see it yet?"
The figure of Captain Shane Vansen, exhausted and dirty, stumbled from the fiery colored fog pulling an inflatable raft behind her.