Unscheduled Arrival at Delta Tropic

Lieutenant Brielle Barron stood on the concrete landing pad between the beach and Delta Tropic. Nightfall would come before she returned, but for now the red-tinged sun made the ocean look aflame. She removed a small lump of gray clay from a container labeled Prototype TKD15-3 and worked it between her gloved palms. This was the step where earlier versions tended to combust, but the whitecoats had that particular bug solved and were on to the next one.

The consistency changed as she squeezed and rolled the clay, from doughy to something more particulate like sand with an unforgiving static cling, and after another ten seconds it diffused into a syrup. Brielle wiped her palms up her arms and down her sides and hips and took a Vitruvian stance to pull her undersuit taut; the molecular machines were miraculous in a lot of ways but still struggled with wrinkles.

The fluid thinned as it enveloped her body, supercharged by capacitor filaments interlaced throughout her undersuit. In seconds she was wrapped in a layer of powerful combat armor just a few nanometers thick. It had a dull reflectivity that acted as a simple camouflage. The dynamic molecular latticework could distribute kinetic impact, radiate heat, absorb electric charge, deflect radiation, filter breathable air from damn near anything, and interface with her neuroloop to provide tactile response and corneal feedback. But if it bunched up wrong it would rub you raw in no time. If it wasn’t comfortable, no one would use it. As one of a handful of people with actual combat experience who were still alive to talk about it, she was uniquely qualified to evaluate new gear. It was that uniqueness that got her a field commission, and also led to her assignment as an equipment tester at a research outpost on a remote garden world at the farthest declination of the Delphinus line.

Here came a piece of the line now.

A white point in the evening sky bloomed into a sapphire streak and slammed into the shallows not far down the coast. Brielle felt a mild tremor worm through the pad beneath her feet, and the whipcrack sound of metal punching through atmosphere rolled over her a moment later.

It wasn’t unusual for debris from the front to come tumbling down to the various planets and moons along the line, but most of it burned up before hitting the surface. Even the occasional battle cruiser wreckages that succeeded in making planetfall, scorched and breached as they were, rarely came down so close to the scattered, isolated lights of population centers. And on this world—which had a designation but not a name—Delta Tropic is what counted as a population center; three low, black buildings above a black sand beach, a couple dozen whitecoats, half as many marines straight out of training as a security detachment, and Brielle, the subject matter expert whenever the subject was combat, which it was in perpetuity. Wasn’t another soul on the planet.

The debris looked like it came down a couple klicks up the coastline around a sheer rocky outcropping that jutted out from the bay. She could run along the beach and look for washed up debris. It would be as good a chafe test for the nanoware armor as any. She stepped off the two meter ledge of the landing pad onto the sand, letting the armor absorb the impact. Time to put this thing through its paces.

Brielle jogged along the water’s edge, falling into an easy, familiar rhythm. Running was her preferred mode of PT. There was no adequate substitute for the raw, chaotic power of an adrenal dump, but a sustained elevated heartrate burned in her upper chest in a way that gave her flashbacks from the front. She ran on the transport ship from Delta Pavonis and in the 1.2 G’s of Nouveau Lyon, along the rim of Arsia Mons, and even on Earth when she’d been granted a pass. She needed to remember the front, relive it, if she was ever going to make sense of it. She was pretty sure she was running towards something, not away. At the moment, anyway, she was running toward the downed space debris.

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