2952-05-01 – Tales from the Service: The Magpie’s Last Landing 

Three days ago, Seventh Fleet announced that an invasion of the world of Ayama here on the Sagittarious Frontier had been ongoing for nearly a month, and was expected to be in its final stages. 

Ayama, one of several worlds slated for the first phase of colonial settlement of the region before the war, seems to have been used by the Incarnation mainly as a staging point for ground troops being prepared for operations elsewhere. One hopes that the invasion was timed for a moment when enemy numbers there were at a minimum, but no information about this has been made available. 

This account reached us about five days ago, but it seems to describe events that happened within the first few days of the invasion of Ayama. Naval Intelligence initially requested we hold it for a later time, but following the announcement by headquarters, they released their hold and let it be released immediately. 

Lieutenant Daniel Kuhn clambered out of the belly hatch of his Magpie gunship and paused for only a few breaths before tossing aside the bag dangling from his arm and reaching a hand back in to assist Val Isakov. 

The burns on his leg and side hurt despite the maximum dose of painkillers he’d administered to himself, and half his ribs felt broken, but he held his breath and pulled as soon as Val grasped his wrist, ignoring the pain until he had hauled her up to lay on the hull next to him. 

Val whimpered and clutched the bandaged stump of her right leg, which ended just above the ankle. Her foot had been so badly crushed and trapped in the ruin of her gunnery station that amputation was the only hope of getting her free. Her leg was probably broken above the stump, too, but they couldn’t do anything about that. 

“I don’t... suppose we can...” Val’s labored voice brought Daniel back from a loathsome memory of blood and the feeling of bone under the edge of a med-kit vibro-scalpel which was never meant for such radical incisions. “Can get Haak out?” 

Daniel shook his head glumly. “We’re in... no shape to try.” The Magpie had rolled over to starboard after striking the ground, and crushed that side of the crew compartment on that side like a tin can. Ismail Haak, the starboard gunner, had nearly been sliced in two by pincers of crumpled metal; when Daniel and Val had regained consciousness in the wreck, their compatriot was already dead. 

“How long until... someone picks us up?” Val shuddered, eyeing the local star already heading for the horizon. “It’s going to get cold.” 

Daniel looked around at the rugged hills into which they’d crashed. Ayama was theoretically a pleasant, Earthlike planet, but the scraggly, gnarled tree-analogues which populated this region had a cruelly hostile appearance that agreed with Val’s assessment. 

“We should get clear of the ship.” There was no guarantee that the first people to investigate the wreck would be friendly. True, the Incarnation defenders had been hard-pressed and on the retreat when they’d been hit, but Daniel had no idea which side of the lines they’d come down on. “And scuttle it. Find cover.” 

Val nodded. “Aye, Lieutenant.” With a deep breath, she rolled over on her stomach and began half-crawling, half-sliding toward the mound of rocky turf that covered the strike gunship’s smashed bow. 

Daniel took a moment to locate the bag he’d tossed aside, then turned and pulled himself to the half-open doors of the Magpie’s munitions bay. The easiest way to set the scuttling charge was normally to do it from inside, but he wasn’t sure if he’d be able to climb out a second time. After pushing one of the doors open all the way, he reached in past the sleek noses of a pair of air-kill missiles and scrabbled around for the scuttling charge’s manual override. 

The roar of an aero-engine echoed forlornly off the hills in the distance, and Daniel looked up, half expecting an Incarnation Sirocco to rise above the ridge-line, its laser arrays blazing. Nothing of the sort happened, but the sound confirmed that enemy forces were in the area; the Confederated invasion force, supported in the air mainly by Magpies and Pumas from the carriers in orbit, wasn’t using anything with air-breathing engines. 

“Is that...” Val hissed in pain. “The trouble I think it is, sir?” 

“Yeah.” Daniel reached in again, and this time the knob he was looking for. Fortunately, it was undamaged; he shuddered to think of what he’d have to do if it had been otherwise. “Fifteen minutes?” 

“Plenty.” From the bow, Daniel heard the sound of pebbles rattling against the Magpie’s hull. “As long as you help me walk.” 

Daniel turned the knob until it clicked fifteen times, then pushed the recessed center and turned it fifteen clicks in the opposite direction and withdrew his hand. The mechanism of the scuttling charge, entirely mechanical, emitted a bright chime, then began to tick ominously. 

“Set.” Daniel extracted his arm and slid down the side of the Magpie toward the bag. When his feet hit the churned dirt, pain flared, but he gritted his teeth, scooped up the bag, and followed the bent and torn hull around to where Val was. 

Unsteadily, Val sat up and let Daniel help her up into a standing position, her amputated leg between them. Though each time she leaned on him was new agony, he helped her stagger away from the wreck, following the terrain downhill merely because the going was easier. Neither of them had any idea where they were or where they were going. 

After thirty or forty paces, Val stopped and turned to look over her shoulder. “It was a good rig, sir.” She shook her head. “Hate to leave it now.” Though she was doing her best not to show it, Daniel could see in her slightly glazed eyes and waxen skin the early stages of shock. “And Haak...” 

“Come on, Isakov.” Daniel pulled her into motion again. 

They’d just gone around a protruding rock formation down the slope when Daniel’s fifteen minutes expired. The explosion of the scuttling charge was almost soundless, but the pressure wave made Daniel and Val stagger. The bomb worked by filling the passenger compartment with two aerosolized explosive components and then igniting them, turning the whole craft into a fuel-air bomb without the need to carry a bulky, vulnerable explosive payload. 

Looking up, Daniel saw twisted pieces of metal glittering in the afternoon sunlight as they tumbled groundward. Some of this shrapnel rain landed around them, but it was all small pieces, too small to do them any harm. 

“Good rig.” Val’s voice was growing increasingly dreamy. “Always a smooth ride.” 

“It was.” Daniel agreed, looking around for likely places to find shelter. “Right up until that final landing, anyway.”