The damndest things go through your head before a drop.
In hindsight, I think she really wanted a Killer. Her daddy was a Killer and her brothers were Killers, too. It makes sense. But I’m not a Killer. I’m a Watcher. I thought she wanted me regardless. So where did I go wrong?
But this is not the place for such thoughts. Once you’re sealed up tight in a Cap, there’s nothing but the faint red glow of the LED timer, the intermittent hiss and rubbery taste of your oxygen supply, the hard caress of the fifteen-point safety harness across the map of your body, and the odd burst of radio traffic in your ears to keep you company. The wait is everything.
Some claim visits by astral well-wishers. Still others think of the family they left behind; maybe for one trip, maybe forever. It all depends. All I could see was the goodbye letter, still rich with her perfume. Pretty cruel if you ask me. She wrote it on paper. Who bothers with paper anymore?
I mean, to send me something like that? Here? Now? Before a drop? Fuck! She watches the Feed, she knows what its like. But she sent it, nonetheless. She said I was ‘interesting’, but not ‘interested’. She said I was ‘good-looking, but not ‘attractive’. She said my job took me too far, too long, and far too often. She said it had begun to ‘catch up with me, physically’. She said she needed a man who could keep pace with her ‘changing needs’, whatever that meant. And of course, she ended it saying she hoped I would be mature enough to understand, but that she didn’t expect me to. The whole thing was so down-the-nose. But I must say, I admire her pre-emptive approach, cutting me loose at a time and place when I was largely unable to mount a counter-attack.
Especially when I’m strapped chin, belly, arms and legs inside a vacuum-sealed, ceramic-alloy Capsule in the firing tube of an orbiting Destroyer, just 15 seconds from the drop window, with very little opportunity to respond to the obvious flaws in her argument. Perhaps it’s for the best.
Man, I really wish I could cover up that LED! There’s nothing worse than watching the seconds creep by. I’d prefer not knowing when it’s gonna happen, you know? I’ve been in the launch bay gathering B-roll before, so I know what happens: Hundreds of thousands of Caps hang from gleaming metal rails that snake along the launch bay, just waiting for the word…
…and upon that word, they drop one by one through a hole in the deck, drifting aimlessly toward the shimmering GravCloud hovering along the belly of the ship, before a sudden force snatches them with invisible hands, hurling them toward the planet below. The sudden increase in momentum slams your stomach back around your spine, and its not uncommon to pass out on the way down.
I’m told the ‘Cloud is a mirror image of the gravity found on the planet below. I’m not sure how it really works – something about introducing sudden directional gravity to a weightless object – but it makes an invasion like this possible at a fraction of the energy cost.
In just a few more seconds, swarms of caps will punch through space, skimming along the atmosphere like flat rocks on a still pond. But right before I fuck the ground moving a couple billion klicks a minute, the gyros will kick in, the jets will fire and I’ll come to a sudden stop like a spent man in the arms of the prom queen.
The Killers are grunts, stars of the show. They take the field, attacking everything in their path with total ferocity. Me, I’m a Watcher. It’s my job to document this ferocity, which explains the swarm of A/V gear covering my suit. The moment I hit, the sensors are rolling, taking directional cues from the ‘Cap gyros. Eyes and ears of the invasion, that’s me. Even as I’m stumbling around punch drunk from the impact, the gear is sending clean, focused intel back to the ship. The gear is designed to fire when it sniffs fresh O2, so I don’t waste memory filming the inside of my cap in the event I pass out and start babbling commands.
Watchers compile specific footage of specific invasions, and beam it to other worlds, show them we mean business. Seems to be working so far. Ratings are high, and resistance has been minimal, which means we’re spending less fuel and deploying fewer troops. Think of it as economic combat.
I feel a jarring sensation; they’ve chambered the next round of caps. I’m next. I hear radio traffic in my helmet confirming this:
“Roger, tower. Launching One-Thirteen; One-Fourteen, four-one.” I’m Cap one, row one-fourteen. ‘Four-one’ means I’m clear for launch.
Dammit! Again with that letter! It’s a terrible time to reflect on this, but just between us? I always thought it was her love that made me invincible. I’ve been in some pretty tight scraps, I don’t mind saying. But I managed to come home clean every time. She used to tell me she’d lie outside at night gazing at the stars; find the one I was working, and never take her eyes off it till she got the call from me. I’d come home, fall exhausted into her arms, and she’d murmur, “I kept you safe, baby. I didn’t take my eyes off you, not once, you’d be so proud,” over and over as she stroked my hair. I can’t explain properly how much those moments meant to me, and to think I never told her. I thought she just knew… I should have said I just should have. Even once. I feel my throat constricting now as I think about her voice, and I take a long gulp of air to loosen up, fight it off. But I’ve never felt more alone.
Thinking back on the letter, I tell myself she’s probably looking up, but only as far as the ceiling these days. (OK, that was off sides…) With a sudden lurch, the Cap swings horizontal. I’m supported by the straps, poised over nothingness, biting down hard on the bitter tang of rubber, panicked snorts escaping through flared nostrils, fighting for focus. I feel the beginnings of an anxiety attack coming on. Breathe, slow down, relax, the MedTechs are probably monitoring my vitals.
Suddenly I’m free-falling, biting down, making fists of my eyes, waiting to be snatched like an apple from a tree branch, and flung full force toward the planet below completely exposed, totally vulnerable.
But all I want to know, all I could ever hope to care about, is that maybe she’s watching the stars just this one more time…
…just for old times sake.