2948-08-18 – Tales from the Service: A Drop to Margaux
This week, the Incarnation began an attack on the Margaux system, triggering a response in force from the Confederated Fifth Fleet. As Margaux is very close to Maribel, by the time this feed item is dispatched, I expect Saint-Lô will be in-system at Margaux.
Despite destruction of the main Hypercomm relay in the Margaux system, we are still receiving reports from the surface, since the Navy set up a series of backup relays in-system which the enemy has not managed to destroy. The best information I have (and this will be several days old by the time you receive it) is that the enemy has about twenty cruisers and five of their big transport ships in Maribel orbit, and that their ground forces have entered Port Mahew to little opposition. This is surprising, as Mayhew is the largest metropolis on the planet and contains most of the ground-side spaceport facilities. The FDA garrison appears to have ceded the city and retreated into the upland Causey Plana without much of a fight, suggesting they are vastly outnumbered. Since most of the extensive industrial base of the planet is found in the Causey Plana region, it seems likely that the enemy will not be content with taking the population centers.
Several things about this battle seem strange to me already from the reports I have seen, but we can discuss those once the situation in-system has become clear. For now, I will observe that I suspect the Incarnation has overstretched itself to attack a world so close to Maribel and the inner edge of the Frontier; even assuming they are staging their forces at Mereena, the logistics situation for a full-scale battle at Margaux is not in their favor.
This week’s entry comes to us from the ground at Margaux – a stranded Marine dropship pilot sent us the story of how she managed to get herself and her ship stranded. While I would normally assume the described stunt was the product of brazen flight-crew bragging, she does have Intelligence-sanitized flight logs and a confirmed kill to back up her story, and this pilot does not seem to be cut from the usual braggart cloth.
[N.T.B. - I wouldn’t underestimate Nate. If they’re hitting a place like Margaux and landing troops in force, it’s because they think they can take it and keep it. I won’t be doubting that until I see some evidence things aren’t going according to their plan. Perhaps the Navy showing up in force with multiple battlewagons will do something to change their calculations, but it certainly didn’t work at Bodrogi.]
When the outer doors of the launch bay opened, Lieutenant Azure Kulmala had a moment to admire the mottled blue orb of Margaux before the launch system hurled her dropship out into the orbital void. Though it looked tranquil from a distance, she had been well briefed on what she was about to drop a platoon of fully-equipped Marines into. The toxic biosphere surrounding Outpost Judicael, where the Marines would disembark, turned an unprotected stroll into a quick way to buy the whole farm without ever facing enemy fire.
Fortunately, the environment worked for the Marines at least as much as it worked against them. With their heavy armor-suits, the Confederated Navy’s shock troops could march through the local flora without any trouble, provided they didn’t need to crack their seals before the suit exteriors had been thoroughly hosed down. Combined with detailed maps of the field and pre-constructed fortifications courtesy of the FDA, the Marines planned to make the most of the home-field advantage.
Gerald Lovell maneuvered sharply in the last moment before dropship launch, and instead of the cloud-flecked planet below, Azure found her forward view occupied by the glinting knife-points of no less than twenty Tyrant cruisers in tight formation around a half-dozen boxy transports. A halo of flashes surrounded the enemy fleet, showing that at least a few of the orbital missile batteries defending the planet had survived the battle’s first twenty-seven hours.
The battle in orbit was not the concern for Azure or the other dropship pilots, however. Lovell, an assault transport, was not equipped to fight heavy cruisers – it would put the horizon between itself and the enemy formation for as long as possible, keeping supplies flowing down and wounded Marines flowing back up to its medical bay.
As the high-gee acceleration of the launch system dropped off, Azure kicked in the dropship’s A-grav system and slewed around to follow the pre-plotted course down to Judicael. All around her, the other first-wave dropships and their escorts, Marine-piloted Puma interceptors, were coming onto the same bearing.
“Orchid, Hawthorn, we read you on course to make landfall at ship time 0755.” The launch controller aboard Lovell always had a calm voice, even in a situation like this one. “Be advised, Coronachs have vectored to intercept.”
“Orchid lead confirming, launch control.” Commander Trengove’s gruff voice didn’t sound flustered, but it never did.
“Hawthorn lead confirms. Looks like two groups of hostiles. They’ll intercept about sixty seconds apart.” Commander Vargas, the interceptor squadron leader, did seem nervous, but Azure didn’t blame her for that – this was Vargas’s first combat as squadron leader. “We’ll try to keep them at a distance, Orchid, but get those turrets warm.”
Without waiting for Trengrove to relay the suggestion, Azure flipped the switch that retracted the protective shells over the dropship’s dorsal and ventral turrets. Unlike the Navy’s gunships, which used rapid-fire railguns, the Marine dropship turrets used plasma lances, which fired slower, but didn’t need to score a direct hit to cripple another small strike-craft. Combined with the practiced marksmanship of her two gunners, Amjarr and Cearra, the weapons should make short work of any Coronachs which slipped past Vargas’s Pumas.
With the course set in and the gunners preparing their weapons, Azure switched circuits to the troop bay intercom. “Comfortable back there boys?” She had never been considered attractive, but she knew how to sweeten her voice so the Marines in the bay thought they were being piloted by the most beautiful woman on Earth. For the period between launch and touchdown, after all, they had nothing to do but lock their suit joints and pray or fantasize. On most drops, there would be time enough for both. “Could get bumpy before we go atmospheric, but nothing we can’t handle. Turret feeds are on channels nine and twelve.”
The confidence she used when talking with the troopers was, of course, entirely false. Azure had dropped Marines in combat situations before, including once in a raid on a small Incarnation outpost in January, but this was the first time Lovell and its compliment had faced massed opposition. As the first Confederated ship to respond to the attack on Margaux, Lovell was laughably outgunned, and its 19th Marines could only delay the inevitable on the surface, but nobody had questioned the deployment all the same.
Ahead, the thrusters of several escorting Pumas flared into sudden acceleration, and Azure checked the plot to see what they were chasing. Though it was too far ahead to see the fight clearly, the plot showed four Pumas tangle with a group of six Coronachs, the agile Marine interceptors nearly able to match the lightweight Incarnation units turn for turn. Seamless teamwork and the Pumas’ heavy armament soon reduced the enemy formation from six to three, and the survivors broke contact and fled. The second group of interceptors received a similar welcome, though Azure did not watch it long enough to see the outcome.
“Orchid units, we are now tracking a third enemy formation vectoring to intercept.” The launch controller’s warning corresponded with the appearance of four new pips on the plot. Azure groaned; only two of the Pumas were in any position to intercept, and they would have to fight the Coronachs practically on top of the dropships.
“Gunners, heads up.” Commander Trengrove growled. “Looks like there’s going to be a furball right on top of us. Hit a friendly, and you’re staying with the ground-pounders to dig latrines.”
Given Margaux’s toxic reputation, the commander’s threat was probably idle, but Azure didn’t envy any gunner unlucky enough to test it. The Pumas, being far more durable than their opposite numbers, could stray close to the scorching plasma lances of the dropships safely, but the powerful turret weapons could still slag a Marine interceptor with a direct hit.
“Enemy will be in weapons range in thirty seconds.” Azure sent on the ship-wide comm, to both the gunners and the payload of Marine grunts. The false-confidence act sounded so hollow in her own ears that she doubted it did much good for the morale of her human cargo, but she soldiered on anyway. “You might experience some mild turbulence caused by your wonderful pilot keeping all your sorry asses alive. No change in ETA.”
The timer ticked down until the quartet of Coronachs caught up with the formation of dropships, swooping past the rearmost ships without even bothering to close in to the optimal firing range of their own plasma weapons. Azure had just enough time to see the quartet diverge into two independent pairs before the leading Incarnation interceptor hurtled into weapons range. Cearra’s turret belched a dart of white-hot contained plasma at the leader, but the Coronach snap-rolled out of the way quickly - inhumanly quickly.
“Damn it all.” Azure double-checked to make sure she hadn’t leaked her alarm into the ship-wide circuit as the Coronachs slashed at a dropship just ahead. The two turrets on the targeted ship spat their own fire, but neither scored a hit on the nimble enemies. “Orchid Actual, these Nates are Immortals.”
“Concur, Orchid Eight.” Trengrove replied. “Hawthorn is appraised.”
Even as he spoke, the Coronachs swept around for another pass. The dropship they targeted lurched and gushed a hazy cloud of crystallizing atmosphere as the needling plasma weapons in the interceptors’ noses managed to pierce its weak gravitic screens. A moment later, the stricken ship seemed to simply come apart, without even the dignity of an explosion.
“Hells.” Someone shouted on the squadron channel. “Orchid Ten is gone. Kicking out a beacon for recovery.” Surely most of the suited marines and the equally protected crew of the ship were still alive, but Azure knew no recovery tug was coming for them. Lovell couldn’t stick around long enough to pick up survivors.
The swerving Coronachs drifted for a moment into weapons range of her own ship’s turrets, and Azure felt the dropship lurch as both gunners fired forward at almost the same instant. Neither seemed to be hit, but Azure thought one might have had a close enough shave that some of its sensors would be damaged by the plasma flare. Already, the formation had closed up around the space left by Orchid Ten’s destruction, and the enemy couldn’t fly straight for more than a second without running into turret-fire. Despite the danger on all sides and the two Pumas close behind, the Coronachs prowled wolf-like among the dropships, their Immortal pilots seeming almost to live up to the name.
As the enemy slashed at a second dropship behind Azure’s own, one of the Pumas managed to get a targeting lock and fired a missile. Azure winced at the risk being taken; an exploding missile could cripple several of the tightly-flying dropships at once. Still, it seemed to pay off; the targeted Coronach tumbled skillfully out of the engagement, trying to outrun or outfly the missile.
Azure lost track of it; by the time it returned to the fight, the dropships would be entering atmosphere, and safe from the lightly built Coronachs which could not survive atmospheric insertion at speed. She looked back to the other side of the plot just in time to see the second targeted dropship explode. Looking up, she saw glowing pieces of its hull tumble past her viewpanel, outpacing the racing formation in their plummet toward the atmosphere.
A warning indicator squawked, and Azure threw the helm to one side before she even registered which one it was. The second pair of Coronachs zipped past her at a steep angle, and the screens registered glancing hits but no damage. “They’re on me.” She called, though there was nothing anyone could do about it. One of the Pumas was coming about to try to chase them away, but she needed to survive at least one stern-to-bow pass before it could do anything meaningful.
Acting more on blind instinct than on any knowledge of what the enemy would expect, Azure threw her ship into a series of random jukes and rolls to the extent of what her slot in the formation would allow. One of the enemy interceptors flashed past already in a turn, seeming to intend to head off the rescuing Puma to let its wingman close in for the kill.
This time, his weapons found a solid hit on Azure’s gravitic screens, and new alarms began to wail. Another hit like that, two at the most, and she would be as finished as their other victims. The turrets spat fire once more, but the superhuman pilot of this final Coronach avoided the shots with a flamboyant maneuver far more elaborate than was entirely necessary. “Show-off.” She grumbled. Naval Intelligence said that the Immortals thought themselves a superior breed of human, and perhaps for once the spooks had gotten something right.
This time, the nimble Incarnation ship came at her ship head-on, weaving through the spurting fire of the other gunships’ turrets. Azure grinned, despite the expectation that she was about to die. If the smug bastard wanted to play a game of chicken, he could learn that the Confederated Marines didn’t flinch. She flipped the switch for the rotary strafing cannon mounted under the gunship’s nose and aimed it manually. There was no hope of hitting the Coronach with such a clumsy weapon, but she knew it could at least influence his choice of which direction to get out of the way.
“Boys and girls, you might want to brace yourselves.” Azure pushed the cannon’s firing stud, and glowing tracers zipped out into the void. She had only a second to walk them closer to her assailant, not enough time to see what he did about it. Instead, she fired all thrusters and slammed the main drive into reverse, hauling her clumsy dropship around until its broad back flipped forward in the opposite direction from which she had herded the Coronach with the cannon.
The rending crunch and screech of no less than five new alarms signaled success, but Azure had no time to celebrate, as she had to scramble to reroute power between her damaged systems and bring the ship back into the proper alignment for an imminent atmosphere insertion. The tough-built gunship had survived a glancing collision with the much smaller Coronach in good enough order to make landfall, but only tumbling debris remained of the Incarnation strike-craft. Getting back to Lovell, she knew, would be another matter. Hopefully Outpost Judicael had a few mechanics on site.
By the time Azure had wrestled the ship into some semblance of order, the engagement was over. One of the other Coronachs had taken a glancing hit from a plasma-lance turret and limped away, and its unharmed associate had remained with it, keeping the pair of Pumas from closing in for an easy kill. The missile-targeted interceptor was nowhere to be seen.
“Hope everyone’s all right back there.” This time, the syrup-sweet confidence was less of an act. “That bump you felt was a bit of science up here in the cockpit. Turns out these Immortal guys... aren’t.”