The scorching heat of the desert wind blows fiercely over the sand, piling and sculpting it, building tiny rivulets into mighty dunes that tower over us, flying between them, we speed toward the drop zone.
Wind gusts whistle angrily through the open sides of the transport thopter, grit pelts against the exposed skin at the edges of my goggles and rebreather mask. The edge of the storm was our cover, blowing sand masking our approach from the locals, but man, we were riding a demon into the maw of hell. Our AI pilot barely holding the thopter steady against the buck and whip at the violent edge of the storm. I'd seen one like this before, a giant wall of lashing wind and sand, on another planet, only two of the squad returned, the others never recovered. Sunlight flashes off a solar panel below, bringing me back to the present. Blistering warmth beats down from overhead, making sweat drip down my back but the heat can’t stop the goosebumps prickling under my gear as the transport thopter races over the sand.
The thopter slows, hovering low against the horizon, the pounding of its blades a palpable force in my chest. We trust the AI not to slam into the sand as we reach the drop zone. There is a brief respite as the swirling core of the storm passes over, the precision of algorithms hold us steady against the buffeting of the sandstorm. Tension twists a knot in my gut as the green “go” light above the door starts blinking. I adjust my gloves. The squad Sergeant grabs the coil of descent cable, and with a fool’s grin he tosses it out the open door. It falls, trailing into oblivion fifteen metres below, tugging and snapping as gravity attempts to free it from the eyebolt anchor. Felix, our jump leader, checks his wrist display readout, confirming the thopter is still hovering on station, AI holding the correct height. It was a long way down the cable, don’t want to splatter on the sand. He nods to Sarge. Sarge locks eyes with each of us, mimes locking his mouth and tossing the key, reminding us of our orders. Clipping himself and his gear bag to the overhead stringer, he heaves the bag out the hatch, it sings its journey back to us as it zips down the line. Clicks and tugs as the two fire-teams snap safety harnesses to the overhead, each checking the hookup of the teammate in front. My hands grip and pull at Doc’s line, the two of us near the back and last to go, I tug each of his carabiners, then I adjust my gloves again, tightening the straps. One scare during training was enough, now I check them with a cursed compulsion.
Felix stands next to the vortex of the open hatch, taps Sarge on the shoulder, and Sarge, his boots on the edge of the abyss, looks back at us, flashing a thumbs up. He drops and disappears into the storm. Felix watches his wrist timer count down and Bart moves into position; after a small eternity, he looks up and taps Bart. I watch, as Bart sits with his ass hanging out the hatch, storm sandblasting his balls, he tenses and kicks out, swinging away from the thopter as the line slides between his hands. Visibility out the door is non-existent, Bart fades into dust as he descends three metres to the sand. I shiver. The cable slackens and jerks as one by one the two teams zip down and unhook below, clearing the line. Our squad maintains the communication blackout as ordered, no shouts or radio chatter from our squadmates on the ground. The noise from the thopter buried under the howl of the storm, like everything else. Maybe they’re dead. Felix’s tap on my shoulder startles me out of my reverie, just him and I left. I kick my feet to push away as I swing out into the swirling brown mess. The cable hisses through my gloves as I rope down, hot on my palms through the tough hide.
Central first picked up the signal during a routine cartography drone flyover, it scrambled the nav-signal and the poor drone drifted five klicks off course before the AI noticed. The strange radio waves didn’t match any broadcast pattern in central’s database. Just hours before, the local sheriff's outpost received confusing reports of a bright flash in the sky. Our radio jockeys said the signal was transmitting using strange patterns, but they were pretty sure it wasn't an emergency broadcast. I’d overheard them chatting in the canteen back at base, they couldn't stop talking about how weirdly encoded the modulation was. Two days ago, after a long shift and too much thinking, I went for a drink with Hickman. After we had a few too many, he'd told me that on the radio-scopes, the signal looked kind of brainwaves through an amp-encoder, but he’d be damned if he knew what that meant. Scuttle-butt on base was the crypto-cyphers couldn't decode the signal either, leaving the generals scratching their heads, so they sent us.
My knees flex as I sink into the sand at the bottom of the rope, I tug on it sharply and step aside. I remove the tough descent gloves and tuck them into my pack as Felix slithers down the line. We move to join the rest of the squad. Bart and Rhodes spread out, long rifles at the ready, shaved heads on a swivel. Back at base the squad joked they were related; they look so alike, matching scars, one above the left eye, one the right, mirror twins. Hiking swiftly to the sloping points of the dunes, their boots stir tiny avalanches of sand, our hawks of warning. The down pressure of the thopter engines has blown sand into piles around the drop zone, and we shuffle-climb over the dip at Sarge’s signal for us to move out; viral blooms of tan camouflage and weaponry dissolving into the sand. Looking back at the thopter, Sarge keys two blips over the team radio channel, the AI responds with cheerful single chirp. Beastly engines surge as it speeds away, the brownout departure blast lost in the grit already stirred up by the storm. A series of hand signs pass between the teams as we follow Sarge’s orders. I lean into the wind and dust, we hike toward our objective: a small town next to a verdant oasis, it sits ten klicks away, the closest settlement to the source of the signal.