The one thing that I can never decide," said Price, "is if we should go in with our seatbelts buckled or unbuckled. If the area is hot, then we want to get out as quickly as possible. But if something should go wrong on the landing, we'd want to be belted in for our own protection."
"Unbuckled," said Coollege. "If we crash, we're probably not going to be in very good shape even if belted in. Besides, the enemy will probably kill us anyway."
"Thank you for that delightful thought," said Price sarcastically. He realized that he was just talking now because he was nervous. He was always nervous before a landing even if he knew everything that he needed to know for survivable. Any mission did that to him.
Monier was leaning over, pushing at her pack. She straightened up and said, "I'm ready."
Price was struggling to get his pack shouldered. He adjusted it until it was fairly comfortable and buckled his pistol belt. Then, shifting the pack slightly, he tightened down the shoulder straps.
"You're not ready until you've got your pack on," Coollege told Monier. "If something happens and we have to scramble out of the aircraft you will leave behind everything that is not fastened to your body."
"Of course," said Monier.
Over the intercom, Stone said, "We're about to enter the atmosphere. Let's be alert."
"Have they spotted us?"
"No indications. Scouts are still harassing the Citadel."
"Citadel?" said Price.
"That big city area at the top of the world," said Stone.
"How long until we touch down?"
"About twelve minutes. I've got everything set passive. We haven't been detected, as far as I can tell."
"Keep me advised."
Price leaned back in his seat, and wiggled, trying to get comfortable with the pack on his back. He reached down and tried to buckle the seatbelt but it wouldn't adjust enough so that he could still sit there.
Coollege brought him one of the rifles and handed it to him, along with a bandolier that held a dozen spare magazines for it. He drapped the bandolier over his head and shoulder so that it was hanging across his chest.
"Ten minutes," said Stone. "No indications that they enemy is aware of us."
"Monier?" asked Price.
She closed her eyes and then shrugged. "I'm getting nothing. No hostile vibrations out there. If they know we're coming, they don't care."
"Crap," said Coollege.
"Once on the ground," said Price, "we get out quickly and get away from the ship. Stone's got to take off as fast as he can. We don't want to expose him to hostile fire if we can avoid it."
"Sure, think of him," said Coollege.
"And if he gets out, he's no longer a beacon that leads right back to us," said Price.
"Right," said Coollege.
"Once on the ground," said Monier, "what are we going to do?"
"Get away from the landing zone as quickly as we can," said Price. "If the enemy is monitoring, they might know that we landed. If they want to search, that would be the place to start it."
"Yeah," said Monier.
"Five minutes," said Stone.
Price put a magazine into his rifle, slapped the bottom to seat it and then worked the bolt, looking down into the breech to make sure the first round was seated properly. He wished again they could have brought the laser rifles. No problem with ammunition. No worry about an accidental discharge as long as the battery pack was unplugged.
"Everyone set?" asked Price.
"Set," said Coolledge. She was sitting calmly on the edge of her seat her backpack forcing her forward.
Monier looked scared. Her face was drained of color. Her fingers danced over her rifle, touching the trigger guard, the bolt, the barrel, as if trying to make sure that all the parts were still there. She looked up suddenly, her eyes wide and said, "Set."
Coollege hitchhiked a thumb at Monier. "If she's psychic, how come she's so scared?"
"Shut up, Jackknife," said Price.
"It's okay," said Monier.
"No, it's not. If we're going to work together on this, we have to trust one another."
Coollege nodded slightly and said, "Sorry."
"No," said Monier. "I don't blame you. It is a radical concept."
"Two minutes," said Stone.
"Here we go," said Monier.
Price laughed and said, "I don't care how often I do this or how small the team is, someone always says that."
"Brace yourselves," said Stone.
Price leaned back in the seat, his hands on the arms, and waited. Monier had her eyes closed and her lips were moving as if she was praying silently. Coollege was looking toward the window but there was nothing to see except the darkness of night. No lights to break up the landscape, nothing traveling on the ground and nothing coming up to intercept them.
"About a minute. You'll know when we're down. Get out as quickly as you can."
No one in the rear answered. The lights had been turned down to a red glow that was just bright enough so that Price could see the outlines of the others. Their faces took on a strange look in the dull red light.
They bounced once and then dropped sickenly, like an elevator that was falling free. They bottomed out, hit the ground and bounced again. Price lost his grip on the arms of the seat and fell to the deck. He rolled to the bulkhead and tried to sit up.
"You okay?" asked Coollege.
They stopped suddenly, as if they had run into something solid. The rear of the ship lifted and then dropped. Monier fell forward landing on her face. She grunted as she hit the deck.
As soon as they stopped, Price leaped up. He shook his head as if to clear it. He worked his way toward the rear door and bent low to twist the locking wheel.
Coollege joined him. "Hurry."
Price spun the wheel and pulled in and lifted up. The door slipped out of the way. "Go."
Coollege jumped down, onto the soft ground, not realizing that she was the first human to set foot on the planet. She stumbled and put out a hand to stop her fall.
Price saw Monier and said, "Hurry."
She reached the door and dropped through. Price followed her, turned, and pulled at the door so that he could close it. He heard the quiet clicks as it locked.
"Jackknife? Where are you?"
Price saw Monier crouched near the rear of the ship. He reached down and grabbed her under the arm. He pulled her to her feet. "Let's get moving."
She strumbled forward and then stopped. She looked back, confused.
Price pushed her toward a black smudge in the distance. "We'll head for those trees."
"Over there. Come on, we've got to move."
Behind them there was a single flash of light and then a roar began building. The ship lifted like a helicopter and spun to the right until it was facing the direction from which it had come.
"Rocky's going to take off. We've got to get clear."
At that moment Monier disappeared from sight. Price glanced down and spotted her lying at the bottom of a ditch. He jumped in and as he did, the engines of the ship roared as it lifted off. At five hundred feet it turned away from them, changing from a large black craft into a bright burning fire. The nose came up and the roar became deafening as the ship shot higher into the atmosphere. In seconds it was faded from sight.
Price stood up. Through the tall grasses and low bushes he could see Coollege moving. She was crouched over, bent at the waist like a woman fighting a strong wind.
"Get to the trees," he said quietly. "We're right behind you."
She turned and began to lope across the field, running toward the trees in the distance. She vanished in the darkness.
"Come on," said Price. He climbed from the ditch and knelt in the thick grass. It was a dry, bittle grass that rattled as he moved.
Monier stood up and reached out for a hand. Price took it and hauled her up. He pointed toward the trees and said, "Run in that direction. Coollege is waiting."
"Okay," she said but she didn't move immediately. Instead she seemed to stare at the trees moving her face back and forth like a radar antenna searching for the enemy. "Nothing out there in front of us."
"Then move it," said Price.
Monier got to her feet and began to jog across the field like she was trying to burn off calories. She did not resemble a military officer on a mission but a long distance runner on the track.
"Amateur," he said. He waited until she was about halfway to the trees and then started after her. He kept low, using the shadows for cover.
As he got close to the trees, he slowed and then stopped short. He listed to the sounds around him. He'd been a dozens of planets and there had always been background noise. Insects buzzing, small engines, animals or people. Here there was nothing. Just the same quiet that he'd heard in the isolation chamber.
Price didn't answer. He stood up and began to work his way into the trees.