"Saddle up, people," First Sergeant Yussuf said over the platoon net. The first sergeant's voice was calm, almost conversational, but Alicia was confident that Yussuf had her own share of abdominal butterflies.
"All right, you heard the lady," Alicia said in turn, and the men and women of First Squad headed for the drop tubes.
Alicia and her two team leaders checked each trooper's readouts carefully before they followed them through the hatches and settled into their own drop harnesses.
This drop wasn't going to be like the Chengchou drop in a lot of ways, Alicia reflected as the drop harness enveloped her torso and the umbilicals and tractor locks mated with her armor. For one thing, Chengchou had been a cakewalk compared to this operation. She might have gone into her first drop with Charlie Company without the opportunity to share in the pre-drop rehearsals, and she might not have known her people yet, and there might have been noncombatants mixed in among the targets. But the opposition on Chengchou hadn't had any reason to expect that they were coming. And there'd been no hostages involved.
This time there were six hundred imperial citizens' lives riding on how well they did their jobs, and that made a difference. A huge difference. But at least this time she was no longer the new kid, the unknown quantity, either. She and her squad had made a half-dozen combat drops, two or three times that many live training drops, and more simulated drops than she could count, over the last year and a half. They'd been over the river and through the woods together, and they were a close-knit, intimately fused unit.
More even than any of the Marines with whom she had served, the men and women of Charlie Company-and of First Squad in particular-had become her family. Like any family, they didn't live in perfect harmony. Everyone knew about Lieutenant Masolle's hot temper, and that Lieutenant Paбl was the company pessimist. First Sergeant Yussuf wasn't particularly fond of Denise Cronkite, Second Platoon's platoon sergeant. Within First Squad, Chul Byung Cha and Astrid Nordbш had a long-standing feud (which, as near as Alicia could figure out, went back to a confrontation over some jerk who'd turned out to be married to someone else at the time, anyway). And Йdouard Bonrepaux and Flannan O'Clery were constantly sniping at one another over one imagined fault or another.
But none of that mattered. They were family, and they knew and trusted one another with absolute certainty. However much grief they might give one another between drops, whatever practical jokes they might pull, whatever quarrels might arise, none of it mattered once the drop tube hatch closed behind them.
They were the Cadre, the Empire's chosen samurai, the Emperor's sword, and one way or another, they would get the job done.
"Drop in five minutes," Marguerite Johnsen's AI announced in her mastoid, and she lay back, waiting.