Chapter 7:
He whipped his assault pack off his back and unzipped it. He plunged his hand inside and grabbed the biometrics equipment. The device was about the size of a large camera that a professional photographer might use. He moved quickly and simultaneously counted down time in his head.
30, 29, 28. . . . But the voice in his head was not his own. Instead, it was the voice of the RMD operations officer who had helped train him on how to collect the biometrics intelligence.
"You had better be quick in collecting all the data!" the operations officer had yelled at him during training. "Because the whole terrorist camp is going to be rushing towards you once you breach the HVT’s quarters!" the man had screamed.
Other RMD officers had explained to Adam that the operations officer yelling at him was a way for them to inject stress into the training (since he would experience stress during the actual war operation).
They had used training explosives and recorded gunfire for simulated stress as well.
But the yelling had only lasted through one training scenario. The second time they had gone through it the operations officer had only counted down to 20 or so when Adam had turned around and struck him in the chest.
The strike had been mild by Adam’s standards. But it had been enough to send the man flying across the room and slamming into a wall. After he had recovered from the shock and pain, he had started screaming at Adam. Adam had ignored him, choosing instead to listen to the other RMD officers as they excoriated him.
They had said that if he couldn’t handle the stress of someone yelling, there would be no way he could handle the stress of actual war.
"Actually," Adam had told them, "that is how I would handle the stress of war. I’d take out anything that was causing it."
No one had screamed at Adam after that.
Even still, the operations officer’s voice and cadence of counting had stayed with Adam.
That voice inside his head was just reaching 14. Adam had collected Cisse’s facial image, full body image, and DNA (with a swab inside the mouth) during the first 16 seconds. But he still needed the iris scan and fingerprints.
But before he could start on either of those two tasks, the rest of the Cisse Conglomerate responded to his attack.
A volley of bullets flew into the building, colliding with the interior. They stuck in furniture, crashed through glass, and ricocheted off hard metal and concrete.
Adam turned around to face his enemies, staying in the crouched position he had been in while collecting the biometrics intelligence from Cisse’s corpse. The bullets wouldn’t hurt him. But they could damage his life-support system or spacesuit if they hit them.
The reinforcements now fired an RPG. It flew an odd trajectory, starting towards Adam but then quickly changing angles and soaring over the building. But the next one was closer to being on target, slamming just to the left of him and detonating. The explosion sent heat, energy, fragmentation, and shrapnel bathing over and bouncing off Adam.
The stress of war was now on him, and so he reacted as he had done in training. He used both arms at the same time, sending directed energy blasts towards the growing group of men that were attacking him behind cover 40 or so meters away from him.
Fire and lightning streamed out of him, shaking the remains of the building so badly he could feel the foundation vibrate beneath his feet and the clothes on his body press tight against his front.
His blasts hit his enemies and everything that had been in front of them. The energy tore through everything, digging craters into the earth and setting the landscape on fire. The noise was deafening and the air blurred from the violence and heat.
He sent another set of double blasts after the first ones. And then a third. The combined effort destroyed a sizable portion of the camp. Anywhere the blasts directly impacted now was nothing but a raging hole in the ground. The areas surrounding those holes burned furiously and were strewn with carnage from being so close to the destructive discharges.
No more enemy fire came towards Adam. He turned around to finish his work.
The RMD had initially discussed having Adam amputate Cisse’s head and hand so he could bring those back with him. It would have been quicker and simpler–no onsite biometrics collection. But concerns over how that would be perceived should it ever become public meant that RMD leaders had rejected the idea.
They also decided against Adam bringing Cisse’s entire body back to the delivery vehicle. There wasn’t enough room to get that extra body into the airlock and then onto the vehicle. So they had decided on this time-consuming procedure.
Adam had to hold open Cisse’s eye with one hand while imaging it with the biometrics device in the other hand. It took him longer than he would’ve liked but eventually the machine verified a good capture.
Then Adam imaged all five fingers of Cisse’s right hand using the fingerprint scanning portion of the biometrics device. There was only room for one finger at a time. Going through all five of them took about a minute.
But he had now collected all the biometrics intelligence the mission required him to collect. He put the equipment back into his assault pack and then the pack onto his back. He started flying back to the tree where his helmet was.
The camp still burned–burned even worse, in fact. The fire had spread, its cracking and roaring louder than ever. He didn’t hear any people or wildlife. No movement either. He keyed the radio in his uniform. "Helios, this is Probus. Target destroyed. Collection complete. Over."
Ms. Sherman acknowledged a good copy and then Adam advised he was about to start his return.
He reached the tree and retrieved his helmet and air hose from where he had stored them. Everything looked okay. He reattached the air hose to the life-support system on his back and then donned the helmet. He turned on the HUD and was about to start his return trip when he thought about the RPG explosion.
The fragmentation and shrapnel had hit him pretty hard. He needed to check that there were no tears in his spacesuit.
He visually inspected the suit and felt it with his hands as best as he could. Nothing was torn as far as he could tell.
Now he was ready to start his return flight.
A shot rang out and Adam felt something hit his helmet. He swung his head around, looking down in the direction he thought it came. He didn’t see anything. Then another shot. This one flew right by his head. The pop of that second shot helped him adjust where he looked. This time he found the enemy.
A quick blast eliminated him.
Adam keyed his radio again. "Helios, this is Probus. A bullet just struck the helmet. Break. It appears to be functioning, though. Starting return now. Out."
Adam was above the tree line before he had finished the transmission. His HUD still displayed the coordinates, the crosshairs in the middle, and the red dot that now represented the delivery vehicle. Everything looked fine. And then it flickered once. It was barely noticeable. Or maybe it was just his imagination.
He kept flying higher and faster.
He was at 1000 meters high in seconds. Then came 5000 meters. He reached 10 kilometers and everything still tracked. Adam adjusted his flight path ever so slightly to keep the red dot lined up with the crosshairs. Then came 30 kilometers, 50 kilometers, and 80 kilometers.
He was closing in on 90 kilometers when he thought he noticed another flicker in the HUD. I’m seeing things, he thought to himself. And then another flicker happened, this time with the lights on the visor going dark for a longer instance. Then the flickering became a constant.
Adam now had trouble keeping the red dot lined up with the crosshairs. They were disappearing too much. Ninety kilometers. Off target slightly so he readjusted his trajectory again. Ninety-five; the flickering was worse than ever. Ninety-six; just four more kilometers to go but he was off target again. He tried readjusting again. The HUD lights went off for good before he reached 97.
All he saw before him was a tinted visor and the blackness of space, and some stars beyond that. Behind him, the earth glowed. He flew a little bit more and then stopped, exerting some effort in a rearward direction just to cancel his inertia.
He had no idea where the delivery vehicle was. He might be heading straight for it or be off target. He was trying to spot something about as big as a tractor trailer from three kilometers–approximately 2 miles–away. Maybe more or maybe less.
On land this wouldn’t be an issue. But here, with the darkness and stars everywhere, he might not notice the vehicle even if he looked right at it.
"I’ve got a problem," he told Ms. Sherman after he contacted her with his call sign. "My HUD is gone. It died on me and I’m still two miles away from you. Over."
"You have no visual on us? Over," Ms. Sherman asked.
"Negative. Over," he replied. She told him they couldn’t see him either.
"How’s your oxygen? Over," Ms. Sherman radioed to him.
"Low. Over," he replied. It actually was close to critical based on the last HUD reading.
Ms. Sherman asked him what he was going to do. He told her to give him some time to think.
He decided he had maybe a minute. If he didn’t locate the delivery vehicle by then, he was going to have to turn around and go back to earth before he ran out of air.
And then he’d have a whole new set of problems to address.
Something glistened in the distance. He stared at the spot where he thought he saw it. There. It wasn’t a star. It wasn’t an illusion.
It was to his right, just slightly off center. He had drifted after the HUD had died. It wasn’t much but it was more than he would have guessed. He started moving towards it.
The object grew larger and now he had no doubts. A buzzing sounded in his helmet. The HUD wasn’t working but the audio alarm warning him of imminent oxygen loss still functioned fine.
Adam flew faster.
He reached the door to the airlock when the alarm changed toned. He now was out of oxygen. Mr. Flanagan was inside at the controls to the airlock. He opened the outer door as Adam took a last breath and held it.
He stepped inside and closed the outer door. The vehicle instrumentation indicated the door was closed. Mr. Flanagan broke the seal of the inner door. Adam quickly removed his helmet and stepped inside.
He exhaled and took in some huge breaths as Mr. Flanagan closed the inner door. Sweat dripped through his balaclava and onto the floor as he bent over with his left hand on his knee and his helmet in his right hand. Mr. Flanagan did the best he could to make sure Adam was okay.
Ms. Sherman turned around in her seat up front. She looked at Adam. He looked up and gave her a thumbs up. She smiled. Then she turned around and worked the controls to the radio. "Athena, this is Helios, Probus recovered. Out," she told the RMD TOC.
Adam moved to his seat as Mr. Flanagan returned to his.
Adam set his helmet and his assault pack in the tiny space beside his seat. Then he took off his gloves and balaclava. And his knee and elbow pads too, of course. He could have wringed out the balaclava like a soaked washcloth. Every inch of his uniform inside his spacesuit was drenched too. His breathing slowed and he looked forward.
Mr. Morse radioed the RMD TOC that they were starting their return. Once they started moving, he briefly looked at Adam. "Congratulations on getting the HVT," he said. "You just gave the U.S. a new capability."