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Author Topic: EP382: They Go Bump  (Read 3839 times)
eytanz
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« on: February 08, 2013, 07:34:34 AM »

EP382: They Go Bump

By David Barr Kirtley

Read by Alasdair Stuart

--

Ball placed his feet carefully. Walking on rough terrain was treacherous when you couldn’t see your feet — or your legs, for that matter, or any part of yourself. All he could see was the uneven ground, the shady stones outlined with sharp sunlight, drifting eerily beneath him. His boot caught and twisted, and he pitched forward, falling and smacking his elbows rough against the ground.

From somewhere up on the hilltop, Cataldo’s voice laughed. That voice — smooth and measured, with just a hint of sharpness. Ball had never paid much attention to voices before, but now voices were all he had.

Cataldo’s shouted, “Was that you, Ball? Again?”

Ball groped on the ground for his rifle. He felt it, grasped it, and slung it over his shoulder. He clambered to his feet, and wavered there a few moments, unsteady.

Cataldo’s voice again: “How many times is that now? Twelve?”

“Eleven.” Ball groaned, stretched, and looked around. “Where are you?”


Listen to this week’s Escape Pod!
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Scumpup
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« Reply #1 on: February 08, 2013, 05:51:45 PM »

This story needs to be melted down, recast as a fantasy story involving magic, and resubmitted to Pseudopod.  The basic idea of the main character descending into paranoia because he didn't know friend from foe was good.  There were just too many plot holes surrounding the invisibility thing.  In no particular order here are a few I thought of while listening:
1.  They can't have radios and such because sensors pick them up, but what about passive sensors?  They talk a lot and don't make any effort to keep quiet...1950's tech would have pinpointed their location.
2.  Since it is apparently known that the enemy uses invisibility, why don't they have a system of code words and such to help with verifying identity?
3.  Can't they simply touch each other physically?  It would only take a second or two to run your hands over a squad mate and at least verify that you are talking with somebody who is the right size and shape for a human being.
4.  The orbital thingies don't seem to be very well placed and I don't see something like that staying in orbit in  one piece very long in a war between two very high tech spacefaring civilizations.  We were able to attack each other's satellites in the real world decades ago.
5.  The invisibility thing in general just seemed weak. 

If the whole thing had been done in a fantasy setting with magic creating the invisibility and a generally low level of technology prevailing, it would have worked better.
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Unblinking
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« Reply #2 on: February 09, 2013, 11:45:51 AM »

I completely disagree.  Most of what you listed seems to be accounted for that these people are apparently completely untrained for the mission they're going on.  Perhaps the person in charge of planning this was a complete idiot.  More likely the mission has different goals than what they publicly stated.  Maybe it was meant to be a test to look into the psychology of cloaking technology.  Maybe it was meant to find out if there are alien mercs on the ground between these two bases.  Maybe it was meant to find quality soldiers among the group, ones who would see the idiocy in the others' tactics and act in a way more likely to succeed (as Sweezy may have done)

If you actually wanted to plausibly test this technology for usefulness, you'd take one highly trained and heavily psych-screened commando without weapons and send him alone with limited supplies so that he would have no choice but to go to the other hatch in x days.  If he didn't arrive in 2*x days, send another one separately with a similar time constraint.  If he didn't arrive, send one more.  If none of them arrive, then your test has failed.

Putting them in a squad just encourages paranoia, with no benefit.  And giving them guns makes no sense.  You're giving a man an invisible gun to shoot at invisible enemies among invisible allies.  How the heck are you supposed to do that properly?  Putting them in a squad and encouraging them to sound off to each other is just going to attract enemies, with no real benefit.  Unless the planner of this mission was a complete and total tactical idiot, these men were not meant to survive.  

This story was a work of genius.  Too bad it was originally published in 2002, or I'd nominate it for a Hugo/Nebula.

You knew a list was coming.  Here it is.  The reason I liked the story is that there were at least 3 completely plausible interpretations, based on the text of the story:
1.  Sweezy survived, and saved him from the alien, as the Sweezy voice explains.  If any one person was going to survive it would be Sweezy.  The story did well trying to give the wrong impression of him, trying to make him seem an unprofessional whiny runt of the group, but it occurred to me early on that he had the right tactic of NOT sounding off.  Sounding off makes you a target for the invisible enemy, and gives you little benefit in return.  So it makes sense that he would take the first advantage he could when an alien uncloaked.  It perhaps doesn't make sense that he would THEN reveal himself, because then he exposes himself to a second alien merc.  But maybe he just got overconfident.
2.  The protagonist's suspicions are correct and Sweezy has been taken as well.  Although Sweezy has seemed smarter than the others not to sound off, that doesn't mean that the aliens don't have other ways of sensing them.  Feeling for the vibrations of their footsteps through the ground, or the sound of their boots.  Sonar would probably reveal their shapes sticking up from the ground.  Or other spectrums of light like infrared or ultraviolet.  They have no idea how the aliens natural senses work, let alone how their tech works, so its very possible that the visible cloaking has no effect at all.  The alien voice claimed that it liked to toy with its victims, so pretending to be Sweezy could just be an extension of that, stringing this guy along more and more, maybe to try to infiltrate the base at the end or maybe just to mess with him.
3.  The protagonist has been separated from the group, has gotten lost, and has not been anywhere near anyone else.  They haven't been trained properly for this mission, and so it wouldn't surprise me at all if they also hadn't been psych-screened.  Or had been psych-screened and he was chosen specifically because he had psychological problems.  I don't know that I understand schizophrenia very well, but it seems to me that this character could've been living with a latent schizophrenia that he had learned to cope with.  But in a stressful life-and-death multiple day mission where he is in a situation where it is entirely plausible and indeed expected to hear voices in his head without seeing people speaking, that he has lost his ability to cope.  As a soldier he is trying to anticipate all the crap that could go horribly wrong in this terrible, untrained mission doomed to failure.  Because he's trying to anticipate it, the sounds of dying and the voices of his friends and then the alien are all just part of his mind playing out the scenario.
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Scumpup
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« Reply #3 on: February 09, 2013, 12:04:18 PM »

I think you are being more creative in your apologia than the author of the original story was in his writing.  You should have written this story.
As much as I like your explanations and rationalizations, and they really are quite good, there's nothing in the story to even subtly indicate that any of it is the case.
Some more things I wondered about:
We are told they have limited air supplies, but how they apparently go for many days without eating, drinking, or eliminating is never addressed.
To avoid separation, why can't sqaddies be linked by more of the same invisible cord that ties them to their rifles?  Mountain climbers do it.
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PlanckWalker
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« Reply #4 on: February 10, 2013, 02:13:30 AM »

This story ultimately satisfied the patient listener, but it was not without its problems.

The story dragged in the beginning (and I had it playing at 1.5x speed too!), but to Kirtley's credit, picked up momentum as Ball mused about the enemy mimicking his squad's voices. The psychological element turned it around for me; wondering if Ball was losing his grip on reality because of the invisibility or if there was actual danger kept me on the edge of my seat. It's not often that a story fills me with dread as I await the horrors that are coming for the protagonist (in this case, either real or imagined). Ball's desperation in that final back-and-forth with the Kraven-Hish was palpable.

As mentioned above, however, some things didn't make sense. A group venturing out into a hostile landscape to test camouflage/invisibility would definitely have both physical and verbal accessories to assist their mission: invisible cords could have connected the group together and code words for identification of each member would have negated the entire premise of this story. These seem like fairly pragmatic precautions that were inexplicably unmentioned. Plus, how could advanced civilizations with such sophisticated camouflage tech not have infrared/heat sensors? It seems like this details could have been explained away easily enough, but it wasn't even mentioned.

Finally, although it didn't ultimately ruin the story for me, one detail that just seemed like a glaring plot hole was that the soldiers could close their eyes. Or rather, that closing their eyes would obscure their vision. If the tech that made them invisible rendered their arms, legs and even guns invisible, shouldn't their eyelids have been invisible too? And if they are, closing them won't produce darkness. Your vision would be exactly the same with eyes opened or closed, so no sleep and no shutting your eyes tight to avoid the sight of a nightmarish, grotesque alien.

Though that last point sounds pretty bad, I still feel the story was successful in what it was trying to do and the ending had just the right balance of resolution and ambiguity to keep you guessing. This was a very good story that, if slightly rejiggered, could have been a really fantastic story.
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Max e^{i pi}
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« Reply #5 on: February 10, 2013, 09:00:21 AM »

The biggest plot whole that bothered me was: how were they talking to each other? They are wearing helmets. They went out an airlock to get to the surface. Their suits are airtight. The air inside the suit is completely disconnected from the air outside the suit, and that air is very thin. There is no way for sound waves to reach from inside the suit, to the air outside the suit, and then back to the inside of the other suit. Without any kind of transmission link between them they have no way of communicating.
Quote
but now voices were all he had.
Cataldo’s shouted, “Was that you, Ball? Again?”
Shouting into an airtight helmet is a pretty dumb thing to do. Unless you like the sound of your own voice reverberating inside your tiny helmet and blowing out your ear drums. (If the helmet is built right wrong then it will be shaped just right to form a parabolic reflector and funnel your shout straight to your eardrum.)

Then there is (almost) everything that Scumpump mentioned. (The eating/voiding thing isn't a problem in my mind. Nutrient tubes in the helmet, a water purification and waste elimination system (or even a baggy) in the bottom half of the suit.)

I can sort of accept Unblinking's explanation that this was all a very elaborate psych test, but it seems a rather foolish thing to do, since they probably ended up (or at least ran the very real risk of) letting one of those invisible mercs into their secrete underground base.

So.... a very interesting idea, rather poorly executed.
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benjaminjb
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« Reply #6 on: February 10, 2013, 02:02:27 PM »

I'm willing to go along with a few plot or logic holes if it makes the story work; and in the moment of listening (admittedly, while working out), I wasn't particularly bothered by any of the technological plot holes (how are they seeing if they're invisible?, etc.) or any of the logic plot holes ("we've just developed this amazing new technology, let's not do the basic diligence of setting up codes or training protocol," etc.).

But at the end of the day, for me, the story boils down to a sort of standard paranoiac fantasy, like Campbell's "Who Goes There?" or Finney's Body Snatchers. And judged on that, it doesn't really satisfy me.

(As for Unblinking's theories of this troubling mission as intentionally troubling, I can easily imagine that scenario that he paints, and for all we know it might be true. But from the grunt's perspective on the ground, that doesn't really come through. We could just as easily imagine this story with the same ending as the Twilight Zone's "Where is Everybody?," where the final scene shows that the empty town was just a hallucination experienced during sensory deprivation. Without some outside frame of reference--without some top brass to ask "how's the psych experiment going?"--I don't know that we are justified in adding that layer.)
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Scumpup
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« Reply #7 on: February 10, 2013, 04:39:10 PM »

To me, the grunts having rifles was one of the few things that actually made sense.  when real life grunts test stuff under combat conditions, that means they carry it along with the rest of their usual load.  An invisible rifle would be less of a handicap than you think if the soldiers were trained in quick kill AKA point shooting as some American soldiers were during the Vietnam war.
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CryptoMe
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« Reply #8 on: February 10, 2013, 09:34:06 PM »

This one failed with me for many of the reasons that have already been stated.

One other thing that didn't work for me was that this was yet another soldiers on an alien planet on a special mission story. Haven't we had 3 of these in the past month or so? It's getting a bit repetitive. The one good thing was that this one didn't have super-fast action sequences that were hard for me to follow in audio.
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Unblinking
Sir Postsalot
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« Reply #9 on: February 11, 2013, 10:03:02 AM »

As much as I like your explanations and rationalizations, and they really are quite good, there's nothing in the story to even subtly indicate that any of it is the case.

I disagree.  I drew all of those interpretations from the story itself.

We are told they have limited air supplies, but how they apparently go for many days without eating, drinking, or eliminating is never addressed.

Easy.  Astronaut diapers, catheters, IV feeding tubes.

Finally, although it didn't ultimately ruin the story for me, one detail that just seemed like a glaring plot hole was that the soldiers could close their eyes. Or rather, that closing their eyes would obscure their vision. If the tech that made them invisible rendered their arms, legs and even guns invisible, shouldn't their eyelids have been invisible too? And if they are, closing them won't produce darkness. Your vision would be exactly the same with eyes opened or closed, so no sleep and no shutting your eyes tight to avoid the sight of a nightmarish, grotesque alien.

If one wants  to get nitpicky about invisibility, if they're truly invisible that means that they should probably be entirely blind, because the light is traveling through them instead of hitting their eye parts.  I assumed it was some kind of intelligently run active camoflauge coating, which doesn't necessarily mean that it can't also pass the light into the helmet, to which you'd then be able to close your eyes.

And even if it didn't make sense, I'm willing to give a pass here and there on strictly possible things for the sake of a good story.

As mentioned above, however, some things didn't make sense. A group venturing out into a hostile landscape to test camouflage/invisibility would definitely have both physical and verbal accessories to assist their mission: invisible cords could have connected the group together and code words for identification of each member would have negated the entire premise of this story. These seem like fairly pragmatic precautions that were inexplicably unmentioned. Plus, how could advanced civilizations with such sophisticated camouflage tech not have infrared/heat sensors? It seems like this details could have been explained away easily enough, but it wasn't even mentioned.

I agree.  It's either idiotic, or devious psychotic, to send a group  of soldiers out that way.

The biggest plot whole that bothered me was: how were they talking to each other? They are wearing helmets. They went out an airlock to get to the surface. Their suits are airtight. The air inside the suit is completely disconnected from the air outside the suit, and that air is very thin. There is no way for sound waves to reach from inside the suit, to the air outside the suit, and then back to the inside of the other suit. Without any kind of transmission link between them they have no way of communicating.

I did wonder about that, and I think the story should've explained it.  But I don't find it implausible.  The inside of the helmet has a microphone which collects your speaking and a speaker on the outside transmits it into the air.  The outside of the helmet has a microphone and transmits sounds to your earpieces.  As long as there is some air for the sound to travel through, that works.  That allows communication without the EM transmissions they were worried about the orbital stations detecting.

It's still a system that seems set up specifically to make them easy targets, but that's back to the other discussion.

To me, the grunts having rifles was one of the few things that actually made sense.  when real life grunts test stuff under combat conditions, that means they carry it along with the rest of their usual load.  An invisible rifle would be less of a handicap than you think if the soldiers were trained in quick kill AKA point shooting as some American soldiers were during the Vietnam war.

The problem with the invisible rifle is not that it's heavy or inconvenient.  It's that you're surrounded by invisible squadmates.  No matter where you shoot you're probably more likely to take down your fellow soldiers than an equally invisible enemy.
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caladors
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« Reply #10 on: February 11, 2013, 10:54:50 AM »

Soundbite version "This was a masterful blend, when story and reading come together seamlessly"

If you can't tell I liked it. I think Unblinking wrapped it up pretty nicely for me. I don't believe that this test was about seeing how useful the suits are at all, I mean there use is obvious. You could do a much more controlled test. However, if humanity is desperate enough you can it doing desperate things and that is one of the reason I could see it happening. Also their at war, crazy shit happens at war, people win against impossible odds, insignificant decisions decide battles and well, crazy shit happens.
With the three things that Unblinking put it down to I don't quite see number two happening. For me this is one of those horror stories where we realize we're the monster. His hero comes and saves him but he still can't believe it, I mean if I was watching this on a movie I would be like "it's him it's him it's him" over and over if not quietly out loud to myself, then just in my mind. Here, it was different, I think, it was about an inability to cope.

On one side, he could have been lost the whole time and he just created the narrative of the thing coming to get him. Think about it the timing is a little eerie when comes to one of the best cthulhu'in lines ever "I am worse than anything you could ever imagine". He goes through his little mental catalog which is kind of exhaustive and, just went he is about to finish, that line hits him. Every time he gets worried his fear ratchets up a notch and is suddenly confirmed? It doesn't seem right. I mean even if it is as the alien says he wants to inspire fear or play with his food, why confirm his presence at every turn? Cats that catch that mouse what do they do when their prey gets tired stops resisting, they let it go. They just don't bat it around for a solid day, they want to see it try and escape only to be victorious once again. It just doesn't make sense. Then again why would he create a narrative where Sweezy is the hero? I mean by the sounds of it, this isn't a guy that he had a huge amount of respect for. Maybe? Maybe, it was because it was the kind of guy that he wanted to come out on top the guy that tried real hard.

Anyway, short version I really liked the story. Unblinking's three points I would have to whole heartily agree with but, as to which one is correct I could really go any way, as I thought about them I started writing but, ultimately they all have reasons for and against, which is why it is so good. As for what Scumpup said I thought it was kind of lampshaded at the start where they said you can't use nothin', no where, no how. Ok it didn't go like that but it seemed like they were testing the suits invisibility and making sure nothing else interfered with it.

Really Really short version.    Grin

(By the way I am very sorry if my thoughts/words are hard to follow I just type as I would speak.)
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Thunderscreech
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« Reply #11 on: February 11, 2013, 11:54:34 AM »

This was fanastic.  I'm surprised at the early panning, I think this was one of the most enjoyable things I've ever heard on EP.
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Cutter McKay
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« Reply #12 on: February 11, 2013, 12:14:17 PM »

I'm with Thunderscreech in my surprise at the negativity on this one. I can see the points made, and I don't necessarily disagree with them, but very little of that entered my mind while listening, and those questions or holes that did occur to me were dismissed fairly quickly.

What kept me going was the uncertainty and the suspense. Nearly the entire story is spent wondering if Ball was going mad, or if they really were being infiltrated. I honestly expected the ending to be them all reaching the hatch, but Ball can't let the mercenaries in, so he opens fire, killing everyone, only to find that they were really his squad mates the whole time. That would have been very dark. But I liked this ending, too, because we're still left wondering if Sweeny is an alien and if Ball is going to be able to trust him or will turn on him before they get there. The tension was palpable and I loved it.

I see the holes that people point out, and can agree with a lot of them, though I didn't find any so blaring that they ruined the tale.
Finally, although it didn't ultimately ruin the story for me, one detail that just seemed like a glaring plot hole was that the soldiers could close their eyes. Or rather, that closing their eyes would obscure their vision. If the tech that made them invisible rendered their arms, legs and even guns invisible, shouldn't their eyelids have been invisible too?
The soldiers themselves weren't invisible, just the suits. They're wrapped head-to-toe in special suits that somehow bend the light around them to make them invisible. Inside the suit, they would still be solid, so their eyelids would still work. See here:
Quote from: David Barr Kirtley
Light flashed out all over. Ball shielded his eyes against the glare, and he punched the code on his wrist, and then — He saw the tip of his nose, and the dark interior rim of his helmet. He looked down and down. There was nothing there.

Overall, I really enjoyed this one. Well done.
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Just Jeff
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« Reply #13 on: February 11, 2013, 09:51:12 PM »

Delicious. I enjoyed all three phases; the trouble with invisibility, descent into paranoia, and just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get you. Everything that happened once the story hit the third phase was predictable, but it was still a fun ride.
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statisticus
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« Reply #14 on: February 12, 2013, 02:20:48 AM »

I'll join the yea-sayers on this one.  I very much enjoyed this story.  I don't normally do horror so when I do come across it it has that much more impact.  This one I felt to masterfully set up a deliciously creepy scenario and bring it to a satisfying conclusion.  I loved the way the misgivings started small, then gradually became more developed and fleshed out until we had the big reveal - and the unexpected salvation, with the rabbit suddenly popping out of the hat we now remembered seeing it being put into.

Yes, there were flaws.  In an ideal world you would test your new tech and work out procedures on how best to use it, and make sure you drilled the troops on same - but even in the real world people skimp on such things, and this is fiction.  For the sake of a highly entertaining story I can forgive much more than that.


Finally, although it didn't ultimately ruin the story for me, one detail that just seemed like a glaring plot hole was that the soldiers could close their eyes. Or rather, that closing their eyes would obscure their vision. If the tech that made them invisible rendered their arms, legs and even guns invisible, shouldn't their eyelids have been invisible too?

I think it's pretty clear from the story that the suit essentially made itself invisible from the outside, but did not affect conditions inside it - we're told at the beginning that protagonist could not see his arms or legs, but he could see his nose (inside the suit).  Since his eyelids are also inside the suit, they would work as normal.
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Scumpup
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« Reply #15 on: February 12, 2013, 10:30:55 AM »

I disagree.  I drew all of those interpretations from the story itself.


I actually went back and gave the story a second listen, which is something I virtually never do.   And...no.  You are a creative person with an active imagination and you are filling in the holes in the story with your own material which, I'll say again, is actually better than what the original author gave us.  You should have written this story.
Pretty much all of what you are spinning as a clever psychological drama is just that the original author apparently hadn't a clue about military T&E or any of the real world science that forms the background against which his fictional cloaking device should play.  As has been noted, we don't have any justification for adding a layer of cleverness and complexity based on contextual material.  You see the goofy, unrealistic way things are done in the story as meaning that the command structure in the story must have deliberately set things up that way for some arcane goal of their own.  I see it as the author just didn't think things through well enough.  I'm just seeing the holes in the story, but you're filling them in.  I genuinely envy creative people such as yourself.
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Thunderscreech
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« Reply #16 on: February 12, 2013, 11:50:36 AM »

Having read Catch/22, a story of military minds that (through a combination of incompetence and procedure) would send soldiers they determined to be 'expendable' out to almost certain failure are not a huge stretch.  Smiley
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Scumpup
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« Reply #17 on: February 12, 2013, 12:15:47 PM »

The problem with the invisible rifle is not that it's heavy or inconvenient.  It's that you're surrounded by invisible squadmates.  No matter where you shoot you're probably more likely to take down your fellow soldiers than an equally invisible enemy.

Well, this is another area where real life military training comes into play.  Friendly fire incidents do, alas, happen but soldiers are trained to operate on a battlefield where visibility is very limited.  Not every unexpected encounter with the enemy turns into a cluster**** of fratricidal wild firing. In a real world conflict between trained soldiers (no irregulars or militias), both sides are dealing with an enemy who is doing his best to be invisible by making use of darkness, camouflage, concealment, and cover.  Plentiful and high quality night vision gear is one of the things that makes the US military so fearsome.  The side that can see in the dark has, effectively, become invisible.
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KenK
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« Reply #18 on: February 12, 2013, 12:26:01 PM »

Humans under high stress probably would collapse into paranoia and go catatonic under such circumstances.  Wink
 
I enjoyed the story more when I read it I think because I could add my own voices and background sounds.  Smiley
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InfiniteMonkey
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« Reply #19 on: February 12, 2013, 03:31:56 PM »

I thought on the level of craft as a story it was a very good evocation of paranoia and threat. And on that level, I thought it was an effective story, including the open paranoid ending. And Alistair did a fine reading of it, even when he came perilously close to Monty Python early on, and the occasional freezer door opening (yes, I'm kidding).

However....

There are certain problems about the nature of the super-camo-invisible suits that bother me as well. I simply assumed they were using some sort of radio and directional suit speakers ("he was down the hill"), but:

1) It's insane that they can't see each other. By that I mean, some sort of in-helmet thing that distinguishes friend from foe, or even where the friends are. Yes, that breaks the story, but as mentioned by others, this is an open invitation to friendly fire. If you're going to test this in the field, why send the squad out with live ammo? Which leads to my second problem-
2) How the #&@* do you aim an invisible rifle? To the author's credit, he actually raises this question, but again, it's a huge problem. Not only are you going to hit your buddies (because you can't see them) you're likely to hit nothing at all.
3) If the enemies are such unstoppable badasses, won't the orbitals just see the tracks of the squad in the dirt? OK, yeah, the enemy is playing cat-and-mouse, we're told this. But the mission planners sent these grunts out across a planetary surface they know is under surveillance with no cover? And they didn't expect their tracks to be visible? That's nuts.
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