For months I’ve been working on a short story (or perhaps a novella) but after a while I sort of lost the flow, the words weren’t coming naturally anymore. I tried writing anyway and with hard work and lots of rewrites I got the story moving forward again. However, I recently got to a point where I don’t really know where the plot needs to go. Or rather, thanks to the rewrites the plot has a path forward, but it doesn’t feel quite right. I tried shelving the story to let my brain passively figure out the correct way forward for the story while I work on something else. The problem is, there seems to be some kind of mental block; like I’m unable to work on other stories before I have this one out of my system. I figure I should just post the story anyway to give myself mental space to write something else. The thing is, while my brain didn’t work out a “correct” way forward, it did work out three possible ways forward, I just can’t figure out which one is the right one. So here’s the story, as good as I’m able to make it, but with two alternative endings

Everyone remembers their first drop. The feeling when you’re standing there on the tower, a hundred meters up, the wind whistling around you.. You’re too low for any parachute to deploy properly and too high for safety ropes to be effective; you have to rely on the Impact Protection Rig (Impro Rig for short) strapped to your back. Even knowing that thousands of drops are made safely every year, there’s still that tiny grain of doubt at the back of your mind; what if the rig fails this time? You’ve practiced the motions hundreds of times at lower heights: make sure the ground below is clear, find a stable posture on the edge, grab the trigger handles tightly, take two deep breaths, then inhale and step off. Once you’re in the air, exhale slowly and pull the handles. By now it’s next to instinct, you can do it, the rig will work, all you have to do is drop.

You know what happens if you hesitate for too long, the officers never force anyone, they simply lock the door behind you so that your only choice is to jump. No one wants to be that guy. To clear your head from doubts you look out at the view – you can see for miles from here, the fields of wild grass and weeds all around the tower and the forest in the distance – concentrate on the horizon. You walk to the edge of the platform and your training takes over. Placing your feet shoulder width apart, you quickly check the landing zone, then center your mass and relax your shoulders. Breath in,  grab the trigger handle with one hand and the dummy handle with the other, breath out. Breath in, close your eyes, you can hear your heart beating, breath out. Breath in, step into the air, you feel the rush as gravity pulls you down, open your eyes as you breath out. Pull the two handles simultaneously and the Impro Rig fires with a bang followed by a loud hiss.

A drop from 100 meters takes long enough that you actually have time to take in whats happening before you reach the ground. Looking down you see the big red glob of impact protection foam hit the ground and start expanding, growing upwards to meet you as you fall. Moments later you hit it, like landing in a liquid cushion. You sink through the foam, decelerating as it solidifies around you- the entire sensation seems artificial, as if your brain knows physics shouldn’t work like this. You end up standing on the ground, frozen in place for half a second until the foam starts to melt away. The officers have instructed you that this is the crucial moment to get moving, don’t let yourself become a target for enemy fire. I and several of my comrades were so overwhelmed by the drop that we forget this last part. It’s not a big deal, it just means they need more training. As soldiers we are used to this, we get training for everything, even how to tie your shoes if you don’t do it to the officer’s liking.

Once you’re down on the ground you can exit automatic mode, switch your brain back on. The training officers will tell you how you did then send you back to your comrades where you’ll be met with cheering or insults depending on how long you hesitated. It’s only now that you can allow yourself to really think about the risk you took when standing on top of that tower. The simple truth is that the Army doesn’t care about you, not really. What the top brass cares about is good soldiers, and the way they see it, your combat effectiveness is severely compromised if you’re dead. Therefore, the Army does everything in it’s power to minimize the risks of a drop. At the same time, a new recruit is basically worthless to them. It’s only after months or years of training that a recruit becomes an effective soldier. Simply put, the more training you have, the more the Army “cares” about you. Though rare, failures do happen; the charge of the Impro Rig could fail to fire; a sudden gust of wind could blow you off course; the Impro foam could have deteriorated chemically so that it doesn’t solidify at the correct rate and so on. From the Army’s perspective, if a failure should occur it’s better that it happen early in your career, before they spend too many resources on you. In fact they prefer that any failures that do occur, should occur on someones first drop. This is something that every soldier – at least every soldier with half a brain – knows in their heart. This is the knowledge that you have to shut out, no not shut out, you have to unknow it, when setting foot on that platform the first time. Once safely down on the ground, no matter how long you hesitated or what the officers said, you can allow yourself to reknow it.

The evening after the first drop, recruits will inevitably end up sitting around in the barracks discussing their experience. Some of them – often the ones who were afraid but don’t want to seem weak –  will brag about not hesitating at all. Some will be excited to do it again and some will freely admit to being scared. Eventually they will start to tell exaggerated stories. After my first drop there were rumors about someone in another platoon who shit their pants the moment he hit the Impro foam. There also an old story about a guy who fired his rig too early and got yeeted off the platform by the force of the blast and fell to his death. That story has been circulating around the base for years and I believed it at the time but now I know it’s not true, the rig only arms itself once sensors tell it it’s falling.  Officers count on this behavior, it’s a way for the soldiers to process the experience and normalize the idea of free falling to the ground.

Recruits have to do at least three successful training drops from the 100 meter platform before moving to the next level. The height of the tower is increased to 150 meters but that’s marginal. The main increase in difficulty comes from dropping out of a crane rather than from a platform. A Drop Master will help to attach some special straps on the Impro Rig harness to the crane, and replace the dummy handle with the trigger handle for the quick release. Once you’re strapped in the Drop Master leaves the room and the floor is opened beneath your feet. This setup is meant to simulate dropping out of a hovering VTOL transporter. Just like the troop bay on a VTOL, the tower has no windows, making it impossible to concentrate on the horizon. Instead your mind tends to focus on the big opening below you, that feeling of being dangled in the air like some kid’s toy about to be dropped from the balcony. Despite the fear that is bound to start rising in the heart of even the bravest recruit – I freely admit I felt that fear – you need to pull that release handle. Once you’re in the air it will be just like previous drops, it’s just that first step that’s hard.

The trick that every recruit learns is to think of the Drop Safety Signaling Light as the start signal for a race. You focus your eyes on the light, steady your breathing – in through the nose, out through the mouth –  and the moment the light switches from red to green you yank the release handle. Keeping your eyes on that light is crucial, let them wander and you’re bound to look down at the emptiness beneath your feet. In a moment your mind will be sucked down that hole and if you have any tendency for vertigo what so ever, it’s going to kick in. Better then to release as fast as possible when the light switches and let the brain’s auto pilot do the rest.

When they’re not doing practice drops, recruits in the Airborne Infantry are trained in all the same ways that normal soldiers are trained. There’s physical exercise, obstacle courses, long marches in heavy gear, marksmanship, hand to hand combat, and live fire exercises. Plenty has already been written about this subject, no need for me to elaborate. What makes the Airborne Infantryman stand out from the average soldier is the ability to drop straight into combat. Whereas paratroopers of old had to deal with the parachute before they were able to join the fight, and therefore had to be dropped some distance from the actual field of battle, the Impro Rig allows soldiers to start fighting mere seconds after touching down. I already mentioned starting to move the moment the Impro foam melts away but there’s more to it than that. First, the drop can throw off your sense of directions so when you touch down, you’ll have to orient yourself. Second, a single soldier is not an effective combat unit, and despite dropping out of the VTOL together, drop troopers won’t land in a neat little group. They will have to find each other on the battlefield and regroup. Third, even when it’s empty, the Impro Rig is rather bulky and heavy. A good soldier can learn to fight with the empty rig on their back but they won’t be fully effective. This means they will have to fight their way to some good cover then dump the rig while maintain fire towards the enemy. All of this requires special training drills.

Learning to undo the straps of the Impro Rig with one hand is simple but tedious. Doing it while firing your rifle with the other hand is trickier, but everyone learns it eventually. By far the more special exercise is Post Drop Disorientation. Training officers will have a squad of recruits spread out in an exercise field then detonate a low power concussion grenade in front of them. They then have to regroup behind cover while being fired at with simulation rounds – these are essentially paintballs that leave a mark without causing damage. No one gets it right the first time – your squad is bound to mess up in some way. I remember the concussion grenade being so much more disorienting than we had expected and by the time my squad had oriented itself, one of my comrades had been hit with a paintball. Our neighbor squad did better initially, they successfully regrouped behind cover but spent so long fumbling with the Impro Rig straps, the training officers easily managed to lob a few dummy grenades at them. As a soldier you quickly learn that if you want to slack off, you’d better get good quickly. By the second or third time running the disorientation drill, we all did it close to flawlessly.

The final stage of drop training is dropping out of a real VTOL. By this time the recruits who can’t handle the stress have already dropped out or transferred to some other branch of the military. The ones who are left are sure to drop without hesitation. Initially it feels similar to dropping from the tower, you get strapped into the crane by the drop master, nothing to look at but the red signaling light in front of you. Your squad mates get strapped in to the cranes next to you but for some reason there’s rarely any talking. Unlike the tower, the floor doesn’t open. Instead the VTOLs engines start up, filling the troop bay with a deep rumble and within minutes it starts rising into the air, the whole aircraft shaking as it hovers above the launch pad. The drop master makes one final check then announces “ready for take-off” and moments later you feel the rush as the VTOL shoots upwards. More than a few soldiers have thrown up at this moment.

Soon enough the acceleration slows down and you settle in for the cruise. It only takes a few minutes to reach the training field and at this point the floor opens. You can see the ground rushing past below you and have to force your eyes back up to the signaling light. “Ready to drop” the drop master announces and as he starts counting down the VTOL slows down to a hover. This time it really is a race when the light switches. You have a few seconds before the VTOL accelerates again, a security maneuver meant to avoid enemy fire, and you need to release before that. By now this shouldn’t be a problem, being in a real VTOL as opposed to the tower is pretty minor, but every now and again there’s a soldier who has stuck with the program until now despite not having the mental fortitude. They get swiftly kicked out of the regiment if they fail to drop on time.

The Impro Rigs were first envisioned as a direct replacement for parachutes. Already during development the Army realized the rigs would be far too expensive to be used as a one to one replacement. As long as other methods for deploying soldiers – for example simply landing the VTOL and letting the men inside disembark – were tactically viable, the cost of using the rigs could not be motivated. During initial testing, they also found that rigs are so big and heavy they prohibit soldiers from carrying much else; using them for deployment far from supply lines is therefore not a viable option. Taking all the advantages and limitations of the system into account, the Army’s strategists have come up with a tactical doctrine suitable for the Airborne Infantry. We were meant to be used as a rapid strike force to be deployed directly on the battlefield, preferably in urban areas where vehicle mobility is limited, to support troops already on the ground. The idea was that a unit of Airborne Infantrymen would drop in to complete some given objective then get lifted out by VTOL as soon as it was completed.

The Impro Rig was in it’s final stages of development and testing when the Taiwan Strait conflict was heating up. I don’t know the details of how it happened but apparently one of the high ranking officers in charge of the project thought this was a great opportunity to test the system in battle field conditions and simultaneously prove its effectiveness to the top brass. Final testing and acceptance was rushed through and a company of paratroopers were equipped with Mark I Impro Rigs and sent off to Taiwan. They were deployed during the Battle of Taipei and the results were disastrous. Not only did they fail to prove the rig’s tactical advantage, but far too many of the men were killed or injured – even by the Army’s standards.

The alternative ending

The other alternative ending

Things have improved a lot since then, the rigs have been upgraded, battle tactics have been redefined, and soldiers get a lot more and better training. As a result the casualty rate in battle has been lowered significantly and the Airborne Infantry has proven its worth to the top brass. A lot has changed since the battle of Taipei but it hasn’t been forgotten. There’s a rather strange tradition within the Airborne Infantry that came out of the remaining men honoring their fallen comrades. When a current or former soldier in the Airborne Infantry passes away, they will be given what’s called an airborne funeral. The body will be cremated and the ashes will then be placed into an old, decommissioned Impro Rig which gets strapped into the crane of a VTOL. The closest relatives of the deceased then get taken up in the VTOL together with the ashes and get flown out to some remote area, often over a desert or ocean. There the relatives will be allowed to say their final goodbyes before the Drop Master pulls the release handle, letting the ashes fall down down to earth. Yes, everyone remembers their first drop but no-one remembers their last.