Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Chapter Eighteen

Standing on the deck in the hangar bay, wearing a close fitting black outfit, Price felt foolish. Commandoes from Earth, about to infiltrate the enemy's position wore black outfits, painted their faces with camouflage paint and wrapped their heads with bandanas that would keep the sweat out of their eyes. Intelligence officers on a ship in space didn't do that.

Next to him, Coollege and Monier were dressed in the same fashion. Near them, sitting on the deck, were their backpacks which contained everything they would need to survive their two days on the planet's surface. Readings from the surveillance computer on Clark's scout ship showed that they could live in the atmosphere though the oxygen content was slightly higher than Earth normal. Gravity was higher and the average temperature was higher. It was a hot, dry, place where the would feel as if they carried an extra fifty or sixty pounds, but on which they could survive.

Stone, dressed in a flight suit without insignia was sitting on the deck, looking up under the ship. He was studying a hatch that didn't seem to fit properly. He slammed the heel of his hand into it, heard it pop into place and said, "That's got it. No one touch it now."

"We about ready?" asked Price.

"Colonel coming down to say good-bye to us?" asked Stone.

"He did that at the staff meeting," said Price. "We're ready to go when you are."

"Then let's go. Are the scouts out yet?"

Clark and his boys launched about two hours ago," said Price. "Everything is ready."

"Get your stuff stored, then," said Stone. "We'll get going in a few minutes."

Price picked up his pack, slung it over a shoulder and moved to the rear of the ship. It was larger than a scout but smaller than a shuttle. It had a cockpit that could accommodate two pilots, a cargo bay that could carry six soldiers and their assorted equipment, or enough gear, food and ammunition for a platoon for the better part of a week.

The exterior was painted with a special coating that could, by the introduction of a magnetic field, change color so the ship could be used at night, high noon, land in a desert or in a dense green jungle. The camouflage could change to reflect its surroundings. And creating variations in the magnetic field they could create a mottled pattern. It was a camouflage design taken from the cuttlefish on Earth.

Price opened the side hatch, tossed his pack in and then followed it. There wasn't much headroom. Price pushed his pack along the deck and then climbed up into one of the seats. He stored his gear, straping it down so that it wouldn't shift under acceleration.

A moment later Coollege dropped into the seat opposite him. "I don't think I'm going to like this, Tree. They're sending us in again without a proper briefing."

"We have to go in to gather the data," said Price. "Then we can provide proper briefings for the others."

Coollege pointed. "What about her?"

"I have a name," said Monier.

"Don't mind Jackknife," said Price. "She's always snotty at the beginning of a mission, especially one where we don't have much in the way of information."

"I don't need you to apologize for me," she said.

"Or course you do," said Price. "Somebody has to point out that you're acting like a child."

Coollege hitchhiked a thumb over her shoulder, indicating Monier. "We don't know how she's going to react in a hostile environment."

"That's it," said Price. "We never know how the new guy is going to act on the first mission. Just drop it now. We all have to work together or we could all die together." There was a silence and Price said, "Have I made myself clear on this? Do you understand me?"

Coollege didn't speak right away. Finally she said, "Yes, sir." She turned to Monier. "Sorry."

"No problem," said Monier.

Before anyone could say anything more, Stone said, over the intercom, "Let's get settled back there. Hatch secure?"

Monier looked at Price who said, "Use the lever to seal the door. Green light will tell you that its sealed right."

Monier turned and did as she had been told. When she finished, she worked her way forward and took one of the remaining seats. As she belted herself in, she said, "I'm not getting much on this planet. There is something wrong there. I don't see any real danger... there seems to be people around, but there is something wrong with them."

"This is a great time to tell us," said Coollege.

"I have a green board," said Stone on the intercom. "We will launch in two mintues. Let's get the gear stored and the seatbelts fastened. There won't be another warning."

Price settled back and said, "We're going to have twenty hours before planetfall. We'll have plenty of time to review the data, if we think it necessary. I am satisfied with the briefing by the operations officer."

"This is not going into a planetary environment where the inhabitants are human. We don't blend in," said Coollege.

Price took a deep breath and exhaled. The arguments had already been made in front of the Colonel but he had decided that more information was needed. Something from the ground. Something that had a human imprint on it so that it could be done quickly without haven't to delay for computer orders and observations. Robots and computers were fine, but they didn't think for themselves and that was why Price and his people found themselves on the ship. Price could have explained this to Coolledge but she had been told it all before. Debate was no longer needed. The orders had been issued.

"Survey said there were no people for us to worry about. We just observe, move around a little and then Rocky picks us up. We don't have to concern ourselves with blending in. It'll be no sweat."

The ship moved, turned, and the view through the tiny window changed until Price could see the control room at the far end of the hangar deck. Behind the glass of the windows, people were working. Lights were flashing. They were preparing to launch one of the ships.

They slipped forward, slowly at first and then faster. The lights of the hangar bay disappeared and were replaced by the darkness of space. Price searched for stars that he recognized, but they were too far from Earth and without a base to work from, he couldn't be sure which star was which. The perspective was changed and the few constellations still recognizable weren't visible.

As soon as they were clear of the ship and the fleet they began a rapid acceleration. Looking out the window during the transition always made his head ache so he glanced back at Coolledge. She was sitting bolt upright, her fingers gripping the arm rests and her knuckles were pure white.

"Relax," he said.

"I hate to go to light speed. I just hate it."

Price said nothing. He waited, but there was nothing inside the cabin to tell them that the transition had been completed. Nothing to suggest they had burst through the light barrier. No change in sound, no bump or bounce, but when he looked out the window, the stars had changed color. It was the only way for him to be sure the transition had been made.

Monier leaned closer and said, "What do we do now?"

"We sit here and try to rest. We review the information we have. We eat as much as we can becaue once we're down, we can't worry about such things."

"Sounds like fun."

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