2948-11-10 – Tales from the Service: A Return to Friendly Lines
In this final installment of Vardanian Security mercenary Adana Beckett's account of her adventure in the retreat from Outpost Judicael to the Ishkawa Line, we see the concerning development that has plagued Confederated forces on Margaux since the retreat. This change in the paradigm, now weeks old, has been discussed in news articles for some time now - the increasing domination of the high-altitude airspace of Margaux by modified Coronach interceptors capable of making orbital air interception (OAI) maneuvers. This maneuver, for those not familiar with strike ops, is used by low-orbit vessels to attack high-altitude airborne craft and return to low orbit quickly.
Most Confederated interceptors and some gunships are designed with this tactic in mind, but until a few weeks ago at Margaux, Incarnation forces did not seem to possess strike units capable of OAI, or high-performance operation in atmosphere generally. This is yet another adaptation their forces have made to the conditions in the war on the Coreward Frontier, and while it has a number of limitations, including the lack of performance of Coronachs operating in thick-atmosphere, low-altitude environments and the fact that a squadron of Confederated gunships is usually capable of fighting off diving OAI attacks by Coronachs struggling to maneuver in even a thin atmosphere, it does generally suggest that the garrison's control of the airspace over the battlefield is not going to last very long.
Fortunately, rumors (and I know nothing more than rumors) say the Fifth Fleet is doing something about that. Hopefully the fleet will chase Incarnation forces away from the system before the situation becomes critical.
Shepherd was shouting again, and Adana Beckett preferred to pretend that comms had gone out and she couldn’t hear him. The ferocity and urgency of his complaints had increased significantly since his last outburst, and since the crippled Yeren gunship was in significantly less danger this time, she guessed he had discovered the rather volatile nature of the cargo he was strapped in beside. How he hadn’t realized until that moment was anyone’s guess, but Adana decided to conclude that the poor intellectual reputation of ground-pounder troopers had its avatar in Geoff Shepherd.
Unfortunately, the irate mercenary ground-trooper, wearing a full battle-suit as he was, could do a lot more to get Adana’s attention than shout. He was thrashing around violently enough to light warning indicators on her console, next to the numerous indicators already glowing there to remind her that the Hyadean strike rig had been so unflyable that its usual pilot hadn’t even wanted to risk the simple flight back from Judicael to the Ishkawa Line.
Adana was not as good a pilot as the usual occupant of the seat, and she had no illusions about her ability to land the Yeren in one piece. If Shepherd knocked anything loose in his banging about, it might rob her of her semblance of control and send the Yeren into yet another nauseating roll or more dangerous flat spin. “Shepherd, you’re going to break the rig if you keep that up.”
“Beckett, you packed me in here with the biggest damned gun on Margaux pointed at my face!”
He wasn’t wrong, but he was characteristically picking an inconvenient time to be correct. “Not a lot I can do to fix that right now. It’s only a few minutes more until we’re over Ishkawa.”
“I’m picking up re-entry plumes ahead, boss. Strike-launches of some kind.” Hierro, occupying the gunner’s seat behind Adana, interrupted whatever new demand Shepherd was screaming. She let him scream; at least he wasn’t trying to pull the ship apart anymore.
“Over the new line? They have to be friendly.”
“Hard negative on that one, Beckett. These guys are breaking atmo at shallow angles and slow speeds.”
Since most Confederated Worlds ship small enough to land on a planet was built with enough heat-absorbing hull plating to make a standard approach, shallow angles and slow re-entry speeds were the purview of only the lightest-built vessels. The inbound vessels couldn’t be Navy Magpies or Pumas, and they couldn’t be of any of the dozen-odd classes of strike vessels employed by the mercenary auxiliaries operating on the planet. “Coronachs?”
So far, The Incarnation hadn’t tried to use its light, agile strike interceptors in atmospheric conditions, even as its dedicated ground-attack aircraft struggled for effectiveness against the vast array of interceptors, bombers, and gunships fielded by the defenders. Nobody knew if the tiny vessels could survive atmospheric operations for long – they certainly weren’t designed with this sort of activity in mind. Evidently, someone in whatever passed for R&D on the other side had figured out how to deal with this issue. “Let me guess. They’re vectored on us?”
“They’re in position for OAI.”
“This day just keeps getting better.” Adana knew that if the Coronachs completed their Orbit-Airborne Interception maneuver, they would pass her at high speed in a dive, each getting a free shot at the Yeren as it passed. The only thing she could do to counter them was dive herself, taking her ship so low that the Coronachs couldn’t both intercept her and quickly climb back to safer orbital altitudes and speeds. Even if this batch was capable of handling reasonably well in Margaux’s atmosphere, they still couldn’t outrun Marine Pumas in a straight-line race.
The damaged gunship’s stability issues went from concerning to terrifyingly dangerous at low altitudes, but Adana liked her odds wrestling the Yeren onto a course that didn’t intersect with Causey’s craggy terrain better than she liked her odds avoiding a succession of high-speed plasma-lance strafing runs. She was trying to get the Yeren down on the Confederated side of the line anyway – as long asthe gunship didn’t explode so completely as to destroy the cargo or occupants, she and the others would be heroes to their compatriots in Vardanian Security’s Margaux detachment.
Shepherd, now knowing how much rode on this perilous flight, continued to carry on, sprinkling promises about how creatively he would harm Adana when they landed into his invective. She doubted these were genuine threats, just as she doubted the Yeren would be landing in the traditional sense. He didn’t know it yet, but Shepherd would probably be getting off the battered rig in one piece, while Hierro, Zdrakov, and herself would have to chance a crash-landing.
“Shepherd, I’m switching gravseld control to you.” Adana broke into his endless stream of cursing. “When we get near the landing field, I’m going to go in as low and slow as I can. When I say so, cut free the cargo and ride it down on the sled.”
“What? Are you crazy? Ride it-”
“The sled is rated for airdrop. I checked.”
“What about us?” Zdrakov, tense but valiantly trying to keep his composure, broke in.
“We’re going to take this thing all the way down.” Adana admitted. “No chance for a vertical landing with no stabilizers. I’ll jettison our fuel and glide it in.”
Perhaps the man recognized the insanity of that statement; the glide ratio of the boxy Yeren compared unfavorably to that of a structural girder. The gravitic drive would continue to operate for a few seconds without reactor fuel as the capacitor banks spun down, but after that, she would be relying solely on the atmospheric-ops control surfaces in its stubby wings to control their descent. If he didrecognize the danger, however, he did not voice any further concerns.
“That’s damned crazy, Beckett.”
“Maybe it is, Shepherd. Make sure that damned prototype gets to our depot.” Other members of the Vardanian Security logistics staff would know what to do with it after that, she knew.
The fire-trails left by the Coronachs falling from orbit burned out and vanished ahead, and Adana knew they would be switching to atmospheric operation mode, whatever that entailed on such frail craft. She pushed the control column forward until the ground filled the view forward, ignoring the distressed screech of air whistling through the jagged holes where the Yeren’s guns had been. Losing altitude in a gravity well was easy, but doing so in a craft that wanted nothing better than to roll and spin out of control was something else entirely.
“There’s no way in all hells they’ll follow us over the line at low altitude.” Hierro seemed to be convincing himself rather than trying to convince Adana. “That would be suicide. Even if they knew or cared about our-”
“Nix it, Hierro.” The tendency of the craft to wobble into a flat spin was strengthening as the craft approached the harsh Causey Plana crags, and she didn’t want any distractions.
Adana slowly brought the Yeren onto a level course again only five hundred feet above the lip of a wide canyon, its bottom a pleasant carpet of local greenery. That greenery, like most of Margaux’s accursed native life, was undoubtedly toxic – Adana didn’t want to think about what might happen if she crashed the Yeren into a stand of something particularly noxious and her thin environment suit tore on impact.
“They’re staying high.” Relief flooded Hierro’s voice. He was a Yeren gunner by trade, and with only cameras left in the hollow shells of his empty turrets, she could imagine how powerless he felt to fight off a half-dozen attackers, even if they were hobbled by atmospheric operations. “We’re clear.”
“We’ll overfly Vardanian’s new base in one-eight-zero seconds.” Adana allowed herself to relax a little, until the Yeren began to roll violently.
“That’s where I get off?” Shepherd still seemed grumpy, but he wasn’t shouting anymore.
“That’s where you get off.”
Below, Adana began to see streams of vehicles and personnel clogging the roads snaking along the canyon bottoms in the brief moments she could see straight down into them. These, she realized, were probably the first wave of the forces who had fought holding actions around Judicael, only now arriving in the new defensive line. A few friendly aircraft briefly darted through the sky as well, but most seemed to be hugging the terrain closely, rather than climbing to efficient cruising altitudes. Adana began to wonder if the Coronachs threatening to interdict air traffic from orbit were a new phenomenon – she had been out of contact with most of the Confederated forces for no more than a full local day, but already the whole garrison seemed to be treating the cloud of strike interceptors in orbit as an immediate threat.
“Yeren VS-542, please state your situation.” Vardanian control, in the person of a sharp-voiced woman, intruded on Adana’s hypotheses.
“Control, this is Five-Four-Two. We're direct from Judicael with high-value cargo. We’ll drop it off as we overfly.” As she spoke, she sent the controller details of what her cargo was, and how damaged the gunship was – that would be quicker than trying to explain.
The controller remained silent for several seconds, presumably skimming the data payload and checking Adana’s voice-print against company records. Adana knew she was operating without authorization, but there wasn’t anything anyone on the ground could do about it, or would do about it, once they realized that she was literally saving Vardanian from bankruptcy. “Five-Four-Two, your situation is acknowledged. Drop your payload on or near this location.”
Adana checked the location against her flight path and wrestled in a minor course change to get closer to overflying the indicated place. “Doing my best.”
The seconds ticked down, and the comms circuit between Adana and her three compatriots remained silent. Even Shepherd stayed quiet, probably girding himself to ride a gravsled down from a few hundred meters in the air.
“Thirty seconds, Shepherd.” Adana finally broke the silence.
Shepherd couldn’t resist grousing once more. “This is insane, but if it works, Beckett, you’re damned lucky.”
“We all are.”
“Cutting the cargo free. Sled coming online.” The trooper’s actions once again set off alarms in the cockpit, but this time, they were the ones Adana was hoping to see.
The timer ticked down slowly. Adana did her best to slow the Yeren down, but speed was her friend when it came to keeping their flight stable and level, so she couldn’t go quite as slow as she was hoping. She could only hope the gravsled would be able to slow its lateral motion as easily as its vertical motion.
“Five seconds.” Adana opened the munitions bay’s rear doors. The turbulence created by the open doors nearly sent the craft careening out of controls, but she knew she didn’t have to fly that way for long.
The Yeren lurched upward suddenly as the massive prototype and heavy armor-suited infantry trooper in the bay slid out. Immediately, Adana closed the rear doors. “Control, Five-Four-Two. Payload dropped. Tune in to Geoff Sheperd’s locator beacon to track it.”
“We are tracking. What about you?”
“Our best option is to glide it in. Where do you recommend?” With the cargo gone and the doors closed, Adana had expected some measure of improvement in the controls, but she found instead that the previously stable pitch controls were now erratically pushing the nose of the gunship down. As close to the ground as she was already, that was a perilous development.
“There’s a wide canyon four clicks south of the tower.” The controller, to her credit, didn’t try to talk Adana through a stabilizer-free standard vertical landing – that was company standard procedure, but this procedure was focused on avoiding collateral damage, not saving the crew. “Think you can make it?”
Adana heard a thump and looked down at the control console, as a trio of new alarm indicators appeared on the console “We’ll just have to see, Control. We’ll just have to see.”