“Magnetopause in 3, 2, 1….” Koda pulled his visor down. The doctors told him that passing from space into Tacitus’ magnetosphere would be disorienting and, perhaps even painful. Since this procedure had never been done before their advice was based on best guess. His eyes perceived the magnetic fields, but the wetchip addition to his cybersuite interpreted all the visual data. Pulling the visor down would, hopefully, reduce the input. The Albatross shuddered.
He was from duty on Eridani and sent to an orbital med lab for surgical enhancement. They implanted him with a pair of eyes whose optic nerves were light-activated magneto-receptive proteins, suspended inside of a lipid filament. The protein, CRY4, was an apt name considering his orbital sockets were still sore and his eyes hadn’t stopped watering since he woke up from surgery. The humidity on Tacitus was not going to help. The lipid filaments were fed into his thalamus where the doctors strategically placed a bio-chip enhancement so his visual cortex could assimilate all the new data his eyes would be feeding him and make sense of it.
Eridani orbited a red dwarf just inside the habitable zone. It was dark and mostly ice and wind. It was a tidally locked hell just inside the habitable zone of a barely G type, main-sequence star. Mining operations had already begun on the dayside of the planet when Thunea landed elements on the night side. Extracting ore necessary to the war effort was impossible with the enemy at their backs and they gambled on command having some sympathy for their own men.
Orbital recon of Tacitus showed an area in the opposite hemisphere unoccupied by air defense artillery. And intelligence suggested the Thunea would be unable to fire on them. The hole in their ADA grid only allowed for an extremely steep descent vector. The flight crews stripped everything off the Albatross dropship except minimal heat shielding. They’d be coming in steep and hot and waiting until the last minute to brake. It would be a choice between burning up in the atmosphere or slamming into Tacitus at some ungodly speed. And that was assuming they were right about Thunea ADA. He had no illusions about that. It was unlike them to leave something like that to chance. Or maybe they assumed that humans were just crazy, and not dumb also.
It was 2 min of pure terror from atmo to asphalt.
Koda’s head began to hurt. He could make out concentric pulses of blue, waves that seemed to crash into him in time with his heartbeat. He didn’t want to think about what he’d be going through without the visor. There was the added benefit of not being able to see their descent. The pilot had to come in as hot as he could with no braking thrusters. Even the drop gunner was shitting himself though the very nature of his job exposed him to enemy fire.
Before they even arrived at their destination, he could feel the planet tugging at his eyes. There was a liquid tightness around them that made him feel as if they were bulging. At one point he thought a crack in the hull was dropping the atmospheric pressure. But the kid seemed to be doing ok.
They sent him some kid from Dark Ops to rub overwatch for him. Fleet was on standby for a full-scale assault on the planet and didn’t want to be met with that legendary Thunea air defense. At first, he thought it was a joke that they sent him this lone kid. Once he heard the whole plan he just started laughing. The kid was supposed to hack into the Thunea central network from the outside and disable as much of their Command and Control as possible, starting with Air Defense Artillery.
“The Kid.” He’d seen kids. Wide-eyed mouth breathers full of hyperbole and drama. Maybe youthful was a better way to describe her. She was slight and babyfaced and wore BDUs with no rank or group ID, so he just called her “kid” in his mind. No “kid” was going to sneak up to a Thunea network node and jack in, while some sniper with experimental eyes, on a planet where weapons may not work at all, provided overwatch. You had to have a pair of stones to want to do that under optimal conditions. And these conditions were far from optimal.
As far as fleet intel could make out, the Thunea didn’t want Tacticus for its agricultural promise. All their garrisons seemed to be centered around mining operations. They wanted the ore; humans wanted the mud. God forbid any diplomacy take place.
“Command” was emphatic in the need they expressed for the planet’s resources. Without it, the human colonies in this sector would starve. Thunea had hit 3 planets with soylent factories in the last year hoping to starve the “human infestation” into submission.
Koda found it strange that some abstract entity known only as “Command”, was constantly ordering some installation destroyed or some planet occupied. He’d never once seen a member of Command. Not on Qtel, and certainly never in person. Near as he could tell, they were a group of Terrans on Earth, the furthest from the fighting. He’d never been to Earth. He’d never met anyone who had. Well, there was one guy, but he was lying. Nothing that guy said had matched up with what they’d seen in the rags or the Qtel. It seemed to him that the only Terrans that had ever seen Earth were the ones that lived there.
He’d seen Eridani. Eridani was cold. So cold that men’s autorifles blew apart during misfires caused by contracting metal. Entire divisions were wiped out by advancing Thunea. Men who should have been exchanging fire were writhing on the ground clutching at their rapidly freezing extremities. It occurred to him that perhaps he shouldn’t complete this mission. Maybe if there weren’t enough food, the war effort would grind to a halt. Perhaps “Command” would think twice about shipping young men and women off to frozen hells like Eridani. It seemed to him that the only point in securing Tacitus was the perpetuation of war. A war whose only point was its own perpetuation. Or perhaps something some General could point at in a map of the larger Terran territories and feel satisfied with.
And what about the colonists? According to Command, colonies in this sector would begin to starve. They were different from their military counterparts in that they gleefully signed over their lives in exchange for a space homesteading adventure. They were sold a bill of goods in which the hearty Terran spirit would win out over adverse environments and alien incursions. And after generations of salted, husbanded meat and canned produce, they would produce the next generation of soldiers. Conscripts like himself sent off to some obscure yet massive meat grinder in the void where they would die. Fingers would be ripped apart. Environmental suits would be aerated. Their rapidly freezing blood would drift upwards from punctures in low grav while they quietly closed their eyes.
He could tank the mission and allow millions to die. Or he could complete his mission with the same result. He just needed to decide which was better, death by war or death by starvation. In the end, there were no moral choices in space. Perhaps that’s why no one ever left Earth anymore. Maybe to leave Earth was to be caught in an unending cycle of violence, death, disease, starvation. Earth was finite. Which meant its ills were also finite. Space was eternal and likely there was an eternity of things waiting to kill you.
“Drop point in 30 seconds.” The pilot’s “voice” sounded off in his earpiece.
The pilot hit the retros and threw Koda forward against his harness. They were on approach. He slid the visor up so he could get a good look at Tacitus through the porthole. It was a giant brown ocean rushing up at them at Mach 4. He could make out faint traces of blue tendrils licking about on the surface. His head was still pounding, and small azure particulates like blue phosphene ricocheted from eye to eye. Probably residual polarization from the magnetosphere. The good news was that the entire planet wasn’t bathed in deep blue from his perspective. Fleet scientist had warned that if this were the case, the disruptions wouldn’t be localized, and weapons fire would be completely useless.
Proximity alarms blared wildly, diverting his attention to the cockpit. Those were for his benefit. The pilot was jacked directly into the flight controls via a neural link. All those notifications would be processed and addressed in nanoseconds. Despite the pilot’s cybernetic control over the dropship, his hands still rested on the controls. Koda always wondered why they did that. Was it for the sake of contrivance? Or did it serve some other redundant purpose?
The pilot hit retros again, this time adding the whine of rapidly reversing turbofans into the chorus of metallic whines. A wave seemed to pass through the ship, through him. More whining and banging as some part of the ship expanded while others contracted. The Albatross shuddered violently again. The cabin light went from red to green. The door gunner, whose entire body was pressed against the bulkhead with the force of g’s managed to pull back the bay door. A warm plume of invisible yet acrid air rushed into the dropship.
“Go. Go. Go.” The pilot’s voice again. It sounded calm. But not in a reassuring way. It was oddly seductive.
Koda hit the harness fastener thinking all the ship’s forward inertia had bled off. The kid grabbed a hold of his molle but then lost her grip as she stuck her other hand out in a bid for the door. This had the effect of at least altering Koda’s trajectory. Instead of landing on his head, he hit the ground with his body almost parallel. Were it not for the turbofans working overtime, it might have made a slapping sound as if he’d performed Tacitus’ first bellyflop. He slid a few meters with his arms in front of his face, mud bunching up under his chest, and leaving a Koda shaped impression in the skid.
The kid leaped effortlessly from the door gunner’s hatch and into the mud up to his mid-shin. The Albatross sidled a bit then accelerated into its near-vertical ascent back to orbit. Koda stood and watched as it went, wondering how the pilot was taking so many g’s. ‘Crazy son of a bitch.’ He thought to himself.
The kid calibrated her nav.
“We head this way about 5 kilometers.” She grabbed the holo and tossed it into the air between them. It showed a topographic representation of the nearby terrain. A small line wove itself between a series of hills and berms. “This is the optimal route for time and effort. We can avoid some of the larger obstacles and lose only about 20 minutes.” She turned and began trudging through the mud toward their objective, her steps stilted and slow.
Tacitus was a heavy gravity planet which meant slow going. On the ship’s artificial grav which was set to Earth standard 1 g, he weighed 72 kilograms. On Tacitus, he weighed 110 kilograms. The increased gravity also reduced forward momentum, so their steps were automatically shorter. When you added the additional weight from the mud accumulation from each step, it was like walking with ankle weights on. They had only managed 2 kilometers before his hamstrings felt like they were on fire.
Tacitus was cold and wet. It didn’t rain but there was an omnipresent mist that blanketed everything. There were columns of water vapor of varying size jutting out of the ground and into the sky. It was these columns that obscured their approach in the Albatross. And they timed their drop and their hike to the objective to coincide with the approach of night. Objects descending from orbit were harder to spot even on a clear day. The flare of turbofan engines would have been obfuscated from Thunea view by ambient daylight.
From a distance, it looked as though they were approaching a caldera. There was a discernable ledge from a distance, and Koda confirmed it through his rangefinder. It looked like a caldera because there was exhaust emanating from it and continuing for several meters before dissipating. It could have been industrial ventilation, but it looked too inconsistent from a distance and was lost in the background of countless cloud columns. The kid signaled a halt with her hands. Koda was more than happy to oblige and he hunched over to put his hands on his knees while he caught his breath. She ran up a large incline then suddenly dropped to her belly as she neared the top. A few minutes later she came gliding back down, also on her belly, toggling her arms from side to side to control her descent.
“It’s not a caldera. It’s a crater. About 3 kilometers in diameter. The Thunea probably bombarded this area from orbit to create a defilade from enemy ground fire and reduce the field of fire from future orbital bombardment. The interior of the crater is completely cooked from their ordinance so movement should be easier.”
It was nightfall and they planted their butts in the mud and pulled out rations while discussing the plan of action. The kid went over a few hand signals she might have to use that wasn’t part of normal operations. Koda keyed his optics to the hand signals and programmed it for picture-in-picture. This would allow him to keep his scope on potential targets while keeping an eye on her.
“You any good with that?” She motioned toward the rifle which was cradled between his legs. The mud was too deep to risk laying it even against one of their packs. The question was trite but valid. It would be easy to assume that because he was sent on an assignment of such importance that he could be counted among the best. Unfortunately, it probably had more to do with availability. It could be said that he was “the best of those available from nearby sectors”. Or merely “not dead”.
“I ain’t no colonist with a carbine.” His response sounded rehearsed. The first words ever uttered to him by a TAC Seargent at Scout Sniper school: ‘You ain’t no colonists with your daddies’ carbine anymore!” It had become a mantra among snipers. Homesteaders were always issued carbines. They were lethal enough for defense and hunting but not lethal enough for mass violence. It was one of the ways colonial pacification always remained within Fleet capacity. Give ‘em enough to protect themselves but not enough to protect themselves from you. The stereotype had become something of a joke among Fleet personnel.
She cocked her head and side-eyed him. “I’m going to run around the outer circumference until I get to about 9 o’clock from your position then make my way down the crater wall. Stay off the bands unless absolutely necessary. Thunea will be monitoring transmissions.” The Kid said over her shoulder as she sprinted off into the darkness.
Koda got to his feet, grabbed his rifle, and hiked up the side of the crater to look or a decent perch. The area near the top was the hardest to negotiate. There was a convex bulge beneath the mud where overpressure from Thunea ordinance had piled earth on top of itself. The dried interior of the crater acted as a buttress that prevented the mud from sliding back into the crater. Once he got to the lip, he dropped to his belly also and began wriggling his way around the edge. Once he found a good vantage, he rocked back and forth on his belly to displace enough of the mud that his body sank down a couple of inches then brought his rifle up, removed the improvised stopper from the muzzle, and brought it to bear.
Koda slid a single silver round into the chamber then pushed the bolt forward and locked it into place. He pressed his eye socket against the scope and could immediately see a kaleidoscope of pulsing trails left behind by the planet’s unusual magnetic activity. Without looking, he thumbed the spindle lock into the open position and relaxed at the sound of its’ soft whine.
The UAR or Universal Autorifle was his weapon of choice and the only weapon for that matter, hence the “universal”. The sniper variant of the weapon was fondly dubbed “Just Another Gauss Universal Autorifle” to jokingly play down its lethality or JAGUAR for short. There were many versions of it in service, chopped down submachine guns for more discreet operations, battle rifles which were the most common. It had a modular system that allowed a single weapon to be repurposed on the fly.
The JAGUAR was magnetically operated which meant that is housed a spindle with magnetic contacts that spun at extremely high speeds. The negative polarity of the approaching spindle head and the positive polarity of the departing spindle head combined to create a simultaneous “push-pull” effect, allowing rounds to be advanced independent of the previous round.
Since the rounds were caseless when the bolt was forward and the chamber closed it allowed for magnetic cavitation that kept advanced rounds suspended, reducing potential friction as it exited the weapon to almost zero.
Select fire versions of the weapon’s fire rate were governed entirely by the spindle. Firing on full auto, meaning that the spindle was rotating at optimal rps. Each strike of the spindle head against the inversely polarized primer would fire one round. Three round bursts meant the spindle would start and stop in intervals sufficient to expel three rounds. One trigger pull would produce three revolutions. Single-shot meant the spindle would come to a complete stop, discharging all its kineto-magnetic potential into a single round. In this mode, the energy transference was the most efficient. And it was, for this reason, snipers only carried this variant of the weapon.
Several other systems went into a snipers’ cybernetics suite. The dragonfly system was slaved directly into his central nervous system. It aided trigger pull when the reticle in the scope aligned with the target. Sometimes he felt as though he was slaved into it. Though he could adjust the tension signal, it often seemed as though the system were doing most of the work.
The second system was just a passive calibration to the planet’s Coriolis factor. Tacitus was larger than Eridani and rotated faster which would increase the angle of deflection should he have to shoot. Additionally, Tacitus increased gravity would pull the round down faster. That information was provided with all the other intelligence during the mission briefing. They were the first vectors he plugged into his optics when dialing them in.
The third system was environmental. It gathered data from the environment and made suggestions to Koda’s HUD on the types of adjustments he should make. If he wanted to lead a kill, he could simply link the environmental systems to the Dragonfly and let it pull the trigger for him, though he rarely did that. Often this system would send some conflicting data. Some planets had highly localized atmospheric conditions. Some of the longer shots might pass through multiple crosswinds heading in opposite directions, or downdrafts that caused the ambient temperature to plummet. In his experience, those shots were the extreme case.
Unfortunately, the planet’s unusual magnetic phenomenon had the potential to completely nullify these systems. Which was why the tank grown eyes were added into the mix. As explained to him in lay terms by a Fleet surgeon: the optic nerves were imbued with magneto-receptive proteins while being grown. This allowed him to see the magnetic fields on Tacitus. The only question that remained was whether seeing the phenomena would be useful. It simply might be the case that the fields were too turbulent or too chaotic for any shot to be made regardless of how visible they were. Based on reports from previous light engagements, rounds failed to hit their targets, and in extreme cases, careened off into nowhere. The gravity on Tacitus was a punishing 1.55 Earth Standard. Autorifles could adjust their fields to compensate for heavy gravity environments but not the volatility in the planet’s magnetic field.
The kid had begun making her way down the crater wall. It was a weird, hunched, pace where she hopped from foot to foot while almost squatting. Running down a concave incline posed a particular challenge in heavy gravity. She was wearing electro-pigmented camo that Koda had also keyed his optics. The Thunea had sensor suites and optics that were at least as good as theirs, and better in some cases. The camo automatically reflected its environment allowing her to blend it. It also eliminated her body heat signature. At night this could be problematic for a sniper, but the suit’s refraction frequency could be paired with his scope so he could see her as easily as if she were naked. He was wearing camo of a type too. It was similar in function to the electro-pigmentation, except it had an added ghillie function. His suit could mimic its surroundings in simulated three dimensions. This was particularly useful when hiding in brush, though it was yet to be tested in mud.
The crater’s interior was busy with Thunea activity. They had created improvised roads and the floor was dotted with small outposts at regular intervals along the inner circumference. An armored vehicle was heading toward the crater’s center and the source of the exhaust plume they had seen from a distance. The plume was thick and milky with striations of yellow at its origin. Koda thought he could see something in the column of exhaust. The kid was on the crater floor now. She needed to get to the eastern side of the exhaust plume. Now she was hiding among palates of supply crates waiting to begin her approach toward the Comms shack. The plan was for her to tap into their communications and transmit a virus to their Command-and-Control systems which would cripple everything from surveillance to air defense. His job was to keep Thunea forces off her and otherwise distract them until she achieved her objective.
Koda surveyed the crater’s interior and discovered dramatically reduced magnetic activity. Which he found strange since he could see fields intermittently on the hike from the drop point. At various times the fields were so thick it made his eyes hurt. When he made a visual survey, he could see the magnetic fields but also that they seemed to reduce at the crater’s edge. He also noticed during the hike that many of the fields seemed to be emanating or flowing into the ground. It was possible that beneath all of Tacitus’ mud, there were nodes of iron ferrite conducting them. It would make sense that a detonation large enough to create a four-kilometer crater was also powerful enough to depolarize some of the ferrous metal within the blast range.
The armored personnel carrier stopped at the comms shack and four Thunea got out. It seemed they weren’t going to be lucky after all. Two of them began walking south toward the exhaust plume. The other two simply stood outside the shack with weapons drawn. The Thunea were still a mystery to humans despite being at war with them for more than two decades. They were much larger than humans at more than two meters in height and much bulkier. There was no variance in Thunea phenotypes near as anyone could tell and there were no indicators of sex. They had no head to speak of. The body ended at a neck with what could only be described as a “pipe cap” on top of it. They were humanoid despite the absence of a head, two powerful arms, and two powerful legs sheathed in dull black graphite believed to be some kind of armor. The lower torso had what looked like a ribcage standing out against the dull black, the area closest to the sternum lightening to a dull grey or silver. They were actually small arthropodic extremities the Thunea kept pressed against their bodies. It was widely theorized by Fleet scientists that these members were for tasks requiring fine motor skills. When you killed one of them the legs would flail briefly, and the ends would bend inward and the joint would extend outward. Almost like a cockroach dying. It was creepy to watch and Koda never got used to it.
The kid was on her belly painstakingly crawling toward the shack. She couldn’t stand up and she would be entering their visual range soon. If they didn’t move by the time, she got close enough he was going to have to take them out. She had a while yet, at that pace, before that decision had to be made. Meanwhile, the other two had reached the plume and walked partially into it. They were stationary as if interacting with something inside of it. After several moments the plume began to dissipate, and a sense of dread replaced it. Koda could see that the plume wasn’t being generated by a natural phenomenon. There was a type of elevator housing and the two Thunea appeared to be operating it.
It was cause for concern because they could be bringing up more troops or more personnel. There was no telling how many of them were housed beneath the crater’s surface and the shaft look large enough that its platform could 20 or more Thunea infantry. Koda did some crude math in his head. He could see the lift controls though partially obstructed by rapidly dissipating exhaust. There was some magnetic disturbance in the vicinity of the shaft, but not enough to completely obstruct his shot. The Cry4 eyes were lousy with depth perception which made taking the shot a risk. What if they were calling the lift so they could take it down to their installation? It would halve their numbers near the shack instantly. There were other guard shacks along the perimeter, but too far away to be an immediate threat to the kid. He had to assume they were bringing others up from below. It could be relief elements for the perimeter in which case there would be at least a dozen. There was no guarantee that shooting the lift controls would stop the lift, but he had to take the shot anyway.
There was a brief yet powerful flash of light and then enormous pain that originated with his eyes and ran the length of his optic nerves into the thalamus. At first, he thought a counter-sniper had shot him and blown the back of his head out, such was the intensity and force with which the pain seemed to move. He barely managed to stifle a scream. He’d learned that one on Eridani while having to snap off a frozen pinky that had been inadvertently exposed to the cold. It had frozen through and as his hands shook, it began to rattle against the rifle’s stock, making his shot impossible. The pain took several moments to subside, and movement of any kind was painful until it did. Koda couldn’t even open his eyes at first and had no idea if he made his shot or not. Eventually, his arms and legs unstiffened. His eyes were throbbing but decided he needed to open them anyway. That’s when he realized he was blind.