Skyborne

Skyborne is a work-in-progress science fiction dramedy about war, intrigue, love, and loyalty.

Friday, May 2, 2014

(7) Feds - Soldiers of the Federation



Kurjani system - In Subspace route - Federation Frigate The Perdition: 0045 Ship Time [0045. 14/3/2003 Omega time]

Sergeant Jean LeBeau. Planetary Guard, 3rd Battalion, 47th Infantry regiment, Perrio Company. Serving as marine compliment to The Perdition.
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 Nineteen year old Sergeant LeBeau glanced from his place as second-man in the team's five man stack to scan the massive virtual urban environment for AI hostiles. This map was a recreation of the notoriously dangerous New Dawser sub level slum districts of the Federation coreworld Equanum. The old construction sites for unfinished residential complexes left a massive gap between the rooftops and the vast inter-level ceiling over four hundred meters above them. The Sergeant was surrounded by third world squalor on a first world planet in the simulator; despite the total envelopment of his sight and hearing by the system, it was still slightly disorienting. He saw in exquisite detail the piles of trash and muck lying around, and he could hear a crumpled piece of wrapping paper being blown across the cracked asphalt. However, the stale smell of the Perdition's scrubbed air and synonymous texture of everything he touched was a constant reminder of where he was: Deck 3, Artificial Environment Training hall 5.

  The voice of his CO rang in the mike on his headset, "Forty minutes and thirty-two seconds... You're still taking too long boys. Speed, surprise, and violence of action. The longer you take is more prep time for the assholes, and you can't be forceful and slow. You can't surprise anyone without speed, and you can't rip any place apart slowly. Understand? Speed, speed, speed."

 Heard you the first ten billion times Sir. The Sergeant resisted saying. No point to a fucking AAR if you never have new critiques. 

 The computer generated hostiles they'd been facing the last week comprised mainly of pirates, fractional insurgencies, and biker gangs. Though the Lt. had slipped in a few Clan merc ambushes, a pod of insectoid Tek'klek'tet warriors, and a disastrous Laychelles assault mech. Even a UoW Special Operations team wearing FESSER exoskeletons that wiped out almost half the platoon.

 The cramped space shared with 35 officers, 308 sailors, 12 pilots and 38 flight mechanics on the Federation D-Class Frigate Perdition made any other training for the 56 soldiers outside of PT impractical. Hence, they spent most of their waking hours in the simulators. They had to wear tailor made 'SRCM' bodysuits that were filled along the lining with over five thousand motion sensors that captured the soldier's slightest movement accurately for the virtual world. The inside layer was made out of nanofibrous weavings that formed a semi-comfortable elastic when contracted, but inflexible casts when they constricted to simulate immobilizing injuries. The Artificial Injury Simulator program could send controlled electrical charges through the weavings to stimulate pain; nothing comparable to an actual serious injury, but just enough to instill a reminder of failure.

 The body-suits were designed to feel like standard issue ACU's and cost around two million Federation dollars each; this last surviving platoon of Perrio Company called them 'crab bags,' since the spotted sensors on the inside layer looked and itched like pubic lice.

 Each man stood on their own 'world portal,' a 5x5 square meter reactive 360 degree treadmill that matched their movements; it was cordoned by very light energy shielding that confined the soldier and represented physical barriers and interaction in the simulator, like walls, doors, and people. The soldier strapped a flip down VR holographic display to the rhino mount on his helmet just like NVG's. It projected the display straight into the soldier's cornea to create a full and accurate perspective of the world he was entering. 15 ship 'techies' manned the workstations at an end of each training hall, monitoring the equipment and simulation.

 In short, a platoon of soldiers could train with a host of different programs in any environment imaginable against every known enemy of the Federation, or the Union of Worlds, the League, or any other nation of the Coalition that united them.

 Full strength D-Class Frigates usually had a marine compliment of 200, however, there were only 60 'portals' available. The original design intended for a platoon and several invisible observers to be training at any given time. But the Perdition wasn't at full strength, their recent nightmarish tour had left only one platoon from the original four. They weren't even marines, Perrio was a planetary guard unit - dirt lovers -  requisitioned and cross trained in ZG combat, Low Altitude antigrav drops and frigate SOP's for this tour. Notorious manpower shortages in the branch coupled with high task demands across the Coalition's space in the universe made 'real marines' scarce.

 Sergeant LeBeau was young for his rank, he was part of the 34% of Federation enlisted that had initially volunteered to escape the extreme poverty of the 'coreworlds' sublevels and slum districts. A relative minority compared to the 52% that were sentenced or drafted into the profession. Or the other 14% seeking the minimum contract for citizenship. He joined at 18 as a private, but high casualty rates in the border conflicts and a faster promotion track for volunteers helped him jump into the NCO ranks. He had just made a field promotion to Sergeant after the disastrous 75% casualties of his unit's last tour.

 Sergeant LeBeau sipped water from his camel pack as he waited with Alpha team for the next scenario to start. They were in the midst of a grueling series of AET marathons with just two hours a day to sleep, and the occasional rushed latrine run. The whole platoon had been eating Combat Nutrient Bars while standing on the portals between missions while sailors refilled their camel packs for them a couple times a day to keep them hydrated. Lieutenant Clark wasn't allowing any stims, but LeBeau knew a dozen grunts that managed to sneak a few in between latrine runs.

 This was the sixth day, and it was painfully obvious. No one wasted precious rest time showering, so a thick layer of grime soaked each soldier's bodysuit; layers of salt stains from near constant sweat had started to show on the material. Clark didn't make them shave during this kind of training at least, he wasn't that kind of officer; so they all looked scruffy, a couple grunts with Gahlic ancestry had almost managed full beards already.

 The attrition was taking its toll on their mission effectiveness too: Average Accuracy (AvAc) ratings had steadily dropped by thirty percent since the highest point on the second day. And Mission Completion Times (MCT) had almost doubled. What's worse, as the eleven hours of sleep in the week left their impact, soldiers started making more stupid mistakes. One private from third squad threw a signal grenade instead of a flash when breaching a hostage scenario.Another started hallucinating and got into a violent argument with a tree; he was pulled for medical. Immediately afterward three other privates tried faking it, but their SL's figured them out and smoked them for it.
 Everyone was jumping at shadows and imaginary AI. Just that morning a delirious TL ordered his team to breach and clear an open broom closet. The men were angry, nearing dangerously close to their breaking point.

 Just keep moving. 

 PFC Leyard was the rear man, he nudged Private Caup in front of him before whispering over the team comms, "The angel's watching us this time."

 The invisible observers were nicknamed angels, after the divine invisible watchers of Hyotany theology. LeBeau had always found it unnerving how he might be graded at any moment by an invisible officer standing a few feet away.

 "Fuck you know that?" Caup drawled, he was barely half awake; Specialist Montcalm was even worse, he was leaning up against the wall, 'droning' between iterations. Sergeant LeBeau felt guilty shaking him awake, but the Master Sergeant would've smoked the whole team if they didn't keep the minimum three feet off the wall.

 "He bitched at Bravo team last iteration and Delta before them." Leyard theorized.
 "So? Bravo gagglefucked into that short room." Caup countered.
 "No dude, he's going clockwise around the teams."
 "Shut. the fuck. up." the pointman SPC Carter snapped back at them.
 "You got a problem up there bitch?" Leyard growled.
 "Stow it..." LeBeau tried to say, but Carter's heat was up.
 "FUCK you!" Carter spun around to face Leyard, but instead caught LeBeau's open palm to his throat that slammed him against the wall. LeBeau held him there for a moment, then eased slightly after Carter stopped struggling; he kept glaring as he spoke.

 "Shut it Alpha, just a few more scenarios till we bunk out." LeBeau commanded after he released Carter.

 Alpha team resumed their tense silence before SPC Carter muttered under his breath, "Fucking bullshit. Just a few more, just a few more; been just a few more all motherfucking week."

 The Sergeant barely swallowed back the urge to snap Cater's neck, "I said fucking SHUT it! You want quality time with the Master Sergeant?"

  They were all filthy, beyond exhausted, and still 'buzzed' from dozens of AIS shocks.

 Just adrenaline, blowing off steam, we'll all forget about it after a full night's sleep, always do. 

 "We have a problem LeBeau?" Lieutenant Clark's voice suddenly cut into their team's private comm.

 The LT, shit. 

 "Negative Sir, just getting a little excited."
 "........Uh huh."

 He could be standing right next to us; shit, shit, shit.

 "Dude, get off me." Caup shook Montcalm awake, he was still droning and had leaned back into him.
 "Yeah, sure." Montcalm listlessly muttered before promptly doing it again thirty seconds later.
 "I swear dude, you do it again I'm just going to let you fall." Caup wasn't mad, he never seemed to get angry; he was an easy going private if ever there was one.

 Can't remember the last time he lost it. 

 Sergeant LeBeau walked back and shook Montcalm awake, "Hey! Hey Monty! You going to be awake for this?" He tried to sound alert and encouraging, though he knew he must look like shit. That was the downside to having an advanced laser grid projection from the VR display to translate every soldier's facial expressions into the virtual reality; they were all either pissed off or half asleep... Except Caup of course.

 "Sure, yeah Sergeant."

 Fuck, he's out of it. Sergeant LeBeau keyed one of the workstations, "Worker three this is Sergeant LeBeau," the communication SOP was a bit redundant with listed user ID, but regs were regs.

 "What'cha need Sergeant?" The techie manning workstation three replied; he wasn't following comm procedure, with the techie's and sailors, regs were flexible unless officers or senior NCO's were present.
 Fuck it. 
 "Hey man, can you spark Montcalm? Me too while you're at it."
 "Sure, just a sec."

 Veteran soldiers in every army had a host of different methods for staying awake, their severity was directly proportional to desperation. Assuming stims weren't available in the field, drinking the little hot sauce packets in MRE's was the less painful option; the more desperate measure was dabbing it into an eye. The burning ensured firey alertness for at least thirty minutes.

 Thankfully, for long training sessions in the simulators, grunts could just utilize the AIS. A low voltage charge usually did the trick; the occasional 'buzz' kept grunts running.

 LeBeau braced himself. There were several safeguards to keep too much voltage from running through the AIS; still, about once a month some private would bite his tongue severely enough for a visit to the OR.

 Least this is a ligh... LeBeau jolted as the pain stimulator hit him, leaving a numb burning sensation in his forearm. Montcalm was startled and pissed for a moment, but he took it silently.

 "Thanks three."
 "No problem, stay toasty in there." The techie laughed.

 Fucking cunt. Black anger washed over LeBeau, he wanted to rip the techie's face off, choke him out, shoot him, kill him.

 Relax Sergeant, He told himself. It's just nerves, just nerves. Just need some fucking sleep.

  "Scenario execution in forty seconds." Staff Sergeant Hanoi called in. "Recal your team and watch your back, angel's pulling something new this time."
 "Roger that." LeBeau replied before he signaled Alpha team. "You heard the man, recal and brick up." They all quickly followed the recalibration sequence with their rifles and sensors to ensure an accurate sync with the AE. Then Alpha condensed as the soldiers stacked up tighter on the door, like a tensed spring ready to explode.

 Please don't be another fucking mech. 

 SSG Hanoi called back in, "Remember, do this right and we'll probably get to bunk out after."

  Least we're not the only ones wondering. 

 "Breach in thirty, scenario's live." Hanoi said.

 "Charge prepped?" LeBeau asked.
 "Roger." PFC Leyard confirmed, the deluge screamed in his laconic tone.

 Don't fuck up. For the love of the Grey Virgin don't fuck up. 

 "Twenty."
 "Stay motivated Alpha; take it out on the hostiles." LeBeau tried to sound positive, he tried to sound eager and motivated through the haze of fatigue and anger. It was easy to stay awake when you were moving, standing around waiting just made his body shut down.

  Sergeant LeBeau raised his fist to signal the breach, PFC Leyard peeled off the back and moved to the door. It was average size, but built out of reinforced steel that was inlaid deep into the concrete. Private Leyard flicked down the thermal lens monocular from its perch on his helmet to hang over his left eye and quickly scanned the door. Detecting nothing, he made a 'zero' sign to LeBeau,  whispered "Hallway," and quietly placed a small black charge in the door's center before moving to the opposing side of the frame.

 "Ten."

 Alpha waited, a particularly strong gush of wind rushed through the city street from the large and packed skylanes several kilometers down the road.

 "Three, two, GO!"

Three much larger breaching charges resonated from the other sides of the large concrete block complex, but it was drowned out by the metallic screech of Alpha's metal door blasting inward. The pointman Jerry leapt through the smoking chasm before the flying metal struck a back wall.

 The lights were out, so the squad automatically flicked on their tac-lights. Despite their exhaustion, they still moved quickly and smoothly into a serpentine formation while doing a heel/toe shuffle down the hallway. As they reached parallel doors, LeBeau and Caup split to the right while Montcalm and Leyard took the left. Jerry kept his J66 straight ahead on the rest of the hallway.

 Two three-round bursts came from the left room, before they shouted.
 "Three up!"
 "Five up! Hostile down!"
 "Room clear!"

 "Two up!"
 "Four up!"
 "Room clear!"

 "Stack up!"

 Six seconds from breach.

 Both pairs rushed back out and stacked back into the serpentine, the moment Jerry saw both rifles on either side, he started moving down the hallway till it stopped at a T intersection. Jerry fell to the rear as Montcalm and LeBeau crossed rifles, glanced at each other, then spun their corners. LeBeau saw a flash of movement and tapped two bursts into it; the target dropped its rifle and sprawled across the ground, screaming. Hands clutched the air in a confused frenzy. Simulator's pretty accurate. After sweeping the rest of the hallway with his lights and eyes, LeBeau looked back at the wounded target. The dull red uniform and slanted eyes were familiar.

 It's a Sylan. Sylania was a rebelling world that they fought last deployment, LeBeau had spent most off ship nights huddled in a quaking air raid bunker as the Sylani air force raided his FOB. The Rusalkas ripped everything apart with AG missiles. Those memories were hard to shake when revived.

 Fucking traitors. He squeezed another burst into the target's head, splattering brain matter and skull fragments across the floor. Shut up

 "Four doors left!"
 "Two right. Move right. Leyard, Caup, take that door."

 The squad moved as one, condensing into a pseudo stack; LeBeau and Jerry moved past the door, taking far security while Montcalm followed the stack from the rear. As Leyard moved past the dead Sylan he aimed a kick at the broken head, blood splattered on his boots.

 "Fucking animals." He cursed under his breath.

 Most of the soldiers were patriotic members of the Imperialist party; they took Sylania's revolt personally, and the men were in a very, very bad mood.

 Leyard and Caup stacked on the door, it was locked. Leyard quickly panned the door with his thermal monocle and signed back one to Caup. Then he slapped on a tiny 'knock' breach charge over the door handle with his non-firing hand, and clicked the two second timer. The door flew inward after a violent pop, and the two soldiers charged in right after into simultaneous bursts of gunfire.

 LeBeau heard the high pitched screech of a Sylani submachine gun along with rapid bursts from their two J66's.

 Another scream, with Jerry cursing in the background.
 "One down! Four up!"
 "I'm fine! I'm fine! Amor ate it."

 "You good Jerry?" LeBeau asked over his shoulder.
 "Yeah Sarge, fine. Didn't even get buzzed, just knocked me down."
 "Then get the fuck out here!"

 Jerry and Caup ran out back into the stack; a full on firefight was going down out front in the courtyard. The roar of fifty J66's, long bursts from several 260 SAW's, and responding fire from the Sylani were muffled by the thick concrete walls, but it still ripped the air apart. There was a host of shouting and screaming in both languages, though LeBeau could distinctly hear Aethereen - the Sylani's language - in the rooms above them.

 Everyone was wide awake now.

 LeBeau continued securing the hallway with Alpha team, they came across two more AI and neutralized them both. They started popping flashbangs in suspect rooms, saving their frags for upstairs. Montcalm got hit too, but his armor took the rounds like Jerry.

 By then the gunfire had died down as the Sylani AI fell back into the upper story rooms. The building would shake with a grenade explosion, then a burst of gunfire. The platoon was clearing the building, one room at a time.

 LeBeau kept tabs on comms when they reached the stairwell, monitoring the rest of the platoon's movements. Who was that on the second story? Sounded like Frasier. Frasier was 1st squad leader, he remained with Bravo team in the main assault.

 "Hey Sergeant, is Bravo clearing the second story hallway facing the courtyard?"
 "Already cleared, we're holding med collection."
 "Ok, we're coming up the stairwell, roger?
 "Yeah, got you, come on."

 LeBeau took point with his team up the stairs, "Friendlies coming out!" he cautiously turned the corner to find Gravede and Matherson from Bravo pulling security on the approach; their rifles at the low ready.

 "Sup bitch." Jerry nodded at Gravede as they relaxed and walked up.
 "Not much asswhore." They bumped fists as he passed.

 Eight casualties were being arranged in one of the offside rooms, Sergeant First Class Frasier was standing by watching the medics go through the motions of treating the virtual injuries. He was a short and powerful man in his late twenties, with the dark brown complexion of a Pubani, but the thick 'underworld' accent common to recruits from the slum districts in Equanum. The dozen wounded weren't in severe pain - the safeguards ensured that - but the AIS still made them extremely uncomfortable; despite the shocks most of the wounded were ecstatic for the excuse to take a nap.

 "Where you need us Sergeant?" LeBeau asked him.
 "We're done, third's just mopping up the last AI; lot easier than I thought it would be."

 Probably ten minutes till they're done.

 "Mind if we break till then?"
 SFC Frasier looked over his shoulder before replying. Not like he could see if an angel was listening in.  "Sure, in that second room, and close the door."
 "Thanks Sergeant."

 LeBeau motioned for his team to follow him into the room, little naps of opportunity like these added a cumulative and precious forty minutes of sleep a day. Caup was grinning ear to ear, Leyard mockingly asked, "You're saying we get to lay down Sarge?"
 "Just sleep dude." Jerry interjected. Both were too happy to keep arguing after that.

 LeBeau collapsed on the luxurious concrete, he propped his head on the wall and pushed his helmet over his eyes, ignoring the building's tremor as another grenade detonated upstairs.

 He was seconds away from sleep when something bolted him awake. He felt a sickening pit in his stomach, he could taste the extreme panic rising in his chest as sweat poured from his face. He knew that sound, that dreadfully familiar and mechanical thrum thrum against the twin high pitched turbines. The massive echo resonated throughout the sublevels, making it sound like they were coming from everywhere at once.

 Rusalkas. You're going to die, you're powerless, you can't reach them, they're untouchable. 

 NO! 

 Sergeant LeBeau leapt to his feet, trying to shake off the unyielding pit of dread. It's just a fucking simulator, you are safe, they aren't really there, they aren't going to kill you. 

 He could see his fear in the others, they had heard it too, Rusalkas were flying in from the skylanes. "GET INSIDE! GET INSIDE!" Someone was shouting from the courtyard. SFC Hanoi was screaming over the comms for whoever was tasked with the 'Swatters' to sprint to the roof and get a lock on the incoming aircraft.

 They're not real.

 "The basement, now." LeBeau turned to rush out the door, he surprised himself by how calm he sounded. Alpha scrambled to their feet and followed him, about to break into a sprint.

 They're not real, they're not real, they're not real. 

  Sergeant Frasier ran out of the casualty room and yelled after him, "LeBeau! Grab some wounded on your way down!"

 Shame washed over him for a moment, I was going to leave them behind. 

 As he turned around he almost ran into Leyard, he was frozen, just staring at LeBeau with a deathly pallor to his face. "We have to get to the basement Sergeant." His voice was tense, quiet, different.

 "Fucking MOVE private! Grab the fucking wounded!" The rest of Alpha were already returning carrying casualties when Leyard finally started running with him to grab wounded. Sergeant LeBeau grabbed a brother from second squad who had a leg injury, he hooked his arm around his shoulder and hobbled along. Sergeant Frasier had a man over his shoulders like a rag doll. Matherson and Gravede were helping three men between them.

 The turbines were growing louder.

 You're going to fucking die. 

 It's just a simulator. You're safe. 

 You're going to fucking die. 

 The turbines suddenly grew to a high pitched roar that punctated around a slight hiss. Sheer panic seized LeBeau's mind,

 "INCOMING!" Jerry shrieked. Every man leapt straight for the floor when the complex was shattered around them. All he could see and taste was coarse dust and gritty floor, his ears completely muffled with a dull ringing as the sound dampeners kicked in. The roar of destruction and cries of terror were strangely far away, LeBeau was a transfixed spectator in another man's hell.

 "ENDEX! ENDEX! ENDEX!"

 He could see nothing, his audio was cut; LeBeau realized what happened and moved to pull off his helmet and the VR display. But he wasn't prepared for the screaming.

 It took several seconds for his eyes to adjust and his brain to process what was happening. He was standing in AET room 5. First squad was standing around him, those who had already readjusted to the room had rushed to help restrain him. Lieutenant Clark was watching them with an indecipherable expression on his face.

 Medics? Who's screaming? 
 Leyard was hysterical, flailing at the people that tried to hold him down, screaming about Rusalkas and cover. He was injected with a sedative as they carried him out, his cries quickly died to a doglike whimper down the hallway.

 Lieutenant Clark stood silently, his arms crossed looking from one man to the next before speaking, "No citizen in the whole of the coalition has any idea what we sacrifice for their easy lives."

 He paused before continuing, taking a few slow strides among them, "You've accomplished over two hundred scenarios in a week on ration bars and one night's worth of sleep. I hope you have some inkling of how fucking PROUD I am of each and every one of you."

 The Lt.'s bloodshot eyes betrayed his exhaustion, his haggard expression mirrored their shock at watching another soldier - another brother - succumb to the enduring cries of long dead friends. His jet black hair was streaked with grey, it and his ragged stubble were far beyond regulation. A pained paternal smile broke onto his face as he looked from one man to the next.

 "Breathe easy men, I'm going to take care of you; I'll get the docs to up your meds, no one should have to take this shit without help. The tour is over. Sylania is parsecs behind us. Now go bunk out, y'all are on 48 bedrest."

 "Hooah Sir." The squad around him chorused.

Sergeant LeBeau's eyes met with Frasier; he should be feeling relief, but his hands were still shaking, the sickening pit of dread in his chest wouldn't go away. His ears were still ringing with Leyard's screams.  Monroe's, Chang's.

 You're going to fucking die.

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