2948-10-27 – Tales from the Service: The Last Flight out of Judicael

“You really think this is worth what we’re paid, Hierro?” 

“The job can't always be glory, Shepherd. Sometimes you have to tow the line to keep the gig, even if the boss is out of her mind.” 

Adana Beckett picked up her compatriots’ chatter on a short-range comms circuit long before they or the damaged Yeren strike gunship they were minding appeared through the thick black smoke obscuring most of the Outpost Judicael strike facilities. Turning around for the dozenth time to verify that the heavy-lift hoversled borrowed from the base motor pool was still following close behind her, Adana turned up the volume to listen in, and slowed her pace. A quick departure would be better for everyone’s health, but if she was about to face a mutiny, she needed to know. 

“And if the boss gets us all killed, what good does keeping the job do our crispy corpses?” 

“Beckett has a plan.” Zdrakov chimed in, the distracted tone of his voice suggesting he was still cutting away the gunship’s unnecessary volatiles. “It probably doesn’t involve any of us dying, especially her.” 

“Flying out of here in something with no stabilizers isn’t a plan.” Shepherd was in his usual state of high dudgeon, where the universe was – at least in his mind – conspiring to inconvenience and humiliate him. If he wasn’t the best assault-suit trooper in mercenary service, no company would put up with his attitude, but the fact was that he was indispensable at the bloody tip of Vardanian Security’s spear. “We might get airborne without losing control, but how are we getting back down? Strike ejection systems don’t work in-atmo at low altitude. We can’t just fly in circles until something gives out or Nate comes up to knock us down.” 

“Yeren’s designed to be capable of water hard-landings.” Hierro, a Yeren turret-gun operator who had transferred into flight-crew from a hangar technician team, probably knew the aging Jie-Yu rigs of the company’s gunship force better than any other person still in Judicael, now that the bulk of Vardanian’s strike-craft, crews, and support teams had relocated to new bases behind the Ishkawa Line. “Suppose there’s a reservoir up there in the inner Causey she plans on pancaking into?” 

“With no stabilizers, it would take the best pilot on the Frontier to pull that off. You think Beckett can do that?” 

Adana knew Shepherd was right about that – she wasn’t the best pilot on the Frontier. She wasn’t even an average pilot in terms of the company’s own squadrons – she had hung up her own wings years ago for a rear-echelon job with better pay and somewhat less daily risk of being blasted into a constellation of carbonized gibbets. She had qualified as a Yeren pilot when Vardanian had acquired its fleet of the gunships, but only for the purposes of ferrying rigs from the company’s carrier to mission-area bases and vice versa. What she planned was easier than a controlled hard water landing – not that there was a body of water in the Causey big enough to try that - but her way would be somewhat more destructive to the craft. There was some risk to everyone involved, but she had run simulations on her wrist computer and liked the odds. 

Zdrakov seemed to know Adana’s limitations just as well as she did. “Nah, a water landing’s too much for her. It’ll be simpler.” He was an engineer responsible for maintaining the tools and machinery of the company’s hangar support crews – including the simulators. “Yerenruns on a crew of two, though. Shepherd, there’s nobody stopping you from leaving before she gets back.” 

“Believe me, I’m thinking about it. I’ve got plenty of power in my suit for a run overland to the new line.” 

Adana winced at this – she would need Shepherd and his heavy armor-suit to extract the cargo from the Yeren if her plan worked, and if it didn’t, she didn’t want to face down Incarnation outriders with three sidearms and unarmored environment suits. Shepherd was, unfortunately, necessary. It was time to make her appearance, mutiny or no. 

Keying in her own transmitter, Adana took a deep breath and started moving once more. “What’s our status? Nav says I’m a couple hundred meters away, but in this smoke I can’t see anything.” 

“No trouble here, boss.” Hierro replied hurriedly. “Jumper’s all hooked up, and Zdrakov has most of the weapons hacked off.” 

“Good.” Adana knew the main Incarnation force was still hours away, but their forward patrols on light aircraft and ground vehicles could start engaging the perimeter auto-turrets at any moment. “Cargo’s ready to load. Get the rig’s ventral bay open and clear anything out. This package and Shepherd’s suit both need to fit.” 

Hierro clicked his comm in acknowledgement just as Adana passed into a less smoke-choked area and saw the Yeren squatting on its pad. 

 Shepherd was still standing sentry, heavy rail-cannon tracking the obscured horizon, and he spotted her immediately. “Took you long enough, Beckett.” 

“Should have sent you for the prototype.” Adana shook her head. Inside her helmet. “You wouldn’t have had so much trouble loading it onto a sled.” 

“That thing’s the size of a family-cabin lighter. You want to cram it into the munitions bay?” 

“I ran the numbers before I rounded you sorry lot up for this. It’ll fit with enough room for you to sit behind it.” 

Hierro paused his work of hurling various parts and loose clutter out of the interior of the Yeren to look across the field at Adana’s payload. “Can’t believe the eggheads wanted us to use that thing in combat.” 

“They still do.” Adana didn’t know much about how the prototype weapon worked, but she knew its operator manual had a vast number of cautionary messages about keeping all equipment, personnel, and important terrain outside of its arc of fire. The slightly wider end of its oblong shell bore a matrix of small grav-shear emitters, and it apparently contained a miniature phased-matter reactor hooked to a single bottle of magnetically contained phased-matter. Evidently, this vast power arrangement still gave the ungainly device only two shots – with each firing, the device was consuming enough electrical power for a fleet destroyer to fight a two-hour battle, assuming it worked as intended. 

Shepherd, despite grumbling, shouldered his railgun and helped line the sled up with the munitions bay doors. Her calculations had proven correct – the device would fit – but not as she had hoped. The bay narrowed as it progressed toward the Yeren’s bow, and the only way the experimental cannon could fit inside was with its dangerous end pointing backwards, toward where Shepherd, with his bulky armor, would be forced to sit. 

Adana expected another fight, but the big trooper didn’t seem to recognize the portent of the grid of protrusions facing aft, and neither Hierro nor Zdrakov, if they knew, decided to tell him. Within ten minutes, they had secured the payload, strapped Shepherd into place, and closed up the bay. 

As Adana strapped into the pilot’s chair on the tiny flight deck, Hierro took the now-defanged gunnery position, leaving Zdrakov to occupy one of the folding jump-seats at the rear. “Better hope Nate isn’t upstairs today.” The gunner observed. 

At that moment, a rumble of aero-drive systems heralded the approach of a group of flying-wing Incarnation attack aircraft. “Nate’s upstairs today.” Zdrakov, strapping himself in, seemed more amused than afraid. “Let’s go.” 

Adana switched her comms to transmit to the tower, only belatedly realizing that she had seen it burning merrily on her return to the pad. Rather than wait for clearance, she switched the engines from warm-up to start and remotely detached the jumper-cart'sumbilicals. “Liftoff in ten seconds. Nine...” 

One of the enemy aircraft broke formation and turned to head directly for the pad, and Adana realized she didn’t have nine seconds before its strafing beams cut the Yeren in two. “Dustoff!” 

Throttling the engines to maximum and hauling back on the controls, Adana wrestled the damaged, bucking Yeren into the sky. 

Four unprepared mercenaries, a crippled craft, and an expensive, even volatile, payload were the last Confederated forces to leave Outpost Judicael by air, and that dubious honor will likely be milked for free drinks by Adana Beckett, Geoff Shepherd, Owen Hierro, and Antonin Zdrakov in station bars for the rest of their lives.

Of course, their trials were not over. Going up in a damaged strike-craft is one thing – getting down another matter entirely.