2948-11-17 – Tales from the Service: Boarding a Hellship

While we’ve been covering the adventures of the Marines, FDA, and mercenaries on the ground at Margaux, Admiral Zahariev has been planning his next move to recapture the orbital space above the besieged planet.

The Fifth Fleet has been away from Maribel for several weeks now, its resupply train ferrying supplies out to predetermined rendezvous points in interstellar space. What it has been doing in that time, I cannot say, for the simple reason that this embed team is not with the fleet. Our home vessel, Saint-Lô, remains yard-bound to repair battle-damage suffered during the fleet’s first attempt to relieve Margaux.

Before this war, any spacer would have regarded the idea of six fully-crewed battlewagons going out on operations for nearly a month without a return to port as an insane expenditure of resources better suited to the grand strategy of the Terran-Rattanai War, but this is more evidence that the Admiralty is taking the Incarnation’s push into the Frontier very seriously indeed, rather than worrying about budgets and resource stockpiles.

While news that the Fleet has arrived in Margaux space once more is expected any day now, I cannot provide a date or speculate as to Zahariev’s plan of attack. His force is noticeably smaller than the last time it tangled with Incarnation cruiser swarms over Margaux, but intelligence suggests the enemy fleet is equivalently degraded by the previous battle and by the harassing attacks of the few remaining ground-side anti-orbital batteries on the planet. At least one Tyrant is also believed lost and several others damaged in cutter ambushes at the system’s periphery.

The Navy’s successful use of stealth cutters in harrying attacks on enemy warships and supply haulers has been one of the bright spots for many months. This week, the Navy announced that it had concluded Operation Express, a clever use of steath cutters to capture an Incarnation supply hauler returning from Margaux to one of their forward bases, probably Mereena. While it was expected this vessel was moving critical plundered supplies, it was found to contain instead prisoners taken during the fighting on Margaux - mainly men from the FDA - kept in horrific conditions. As the survivors are still undergoing medical attention and debriefing, no full list of personnel rescued from this hauler has been released.

Sem Ivankov, one of the Marines temporarily placed aboard Mahseer (a vessel which has appeared in this feed before – Tales from the Service: A Tyrant’s Downfall) for the operation sent us a report of what was found aboard. The video taken by the marines’ suit cameras is beyond description, but he did his best to recommend a few words in his written account. If the use of what the Navy is calling "Hellships" for prisoner transport is commonplace in the Incarnation, many tens of thousands of military and civilian personnel from worlds like Margaux and Adimari Valis are at risk of enduring horrors like those Corporal Ivankov saw.

Mahseer shuddered as the assault-docking clamps welded to her hull for the operation clanked onto, then bit into, its massive cargo hauler prey. Two other retrofitted cutters were supposed to be doing the same thing at exactly the same time, but Corporal Sem Ivankov knew better than to expect everything in an operation so complex to work out as planned.

“Docking link established.” Lieutenant Commander Zappa announced over the secure link. “Marines are go.”

Sem and eleven other Marines detached their heavy assault suits from snaking umbilicals and released the hard-lock on their suit joints. One by one, each kicked out far enough to escape Mahseer’s miniscule A-grav axis, then used maneuvering thrusters to drop their magnetic boots onto the hull of their victim.

Boarding operations being a Marine specialty, used regularly even in peace-time to recover hostages from terrorists or rescue unfortunate Confederated citizens from pirate chattel pens, this part at least was completed with no complications – all twelve pairs of boots hit the enemy ship’s hull simultaneously.

“Think they know we’re here, Sarge?” Lukas Okorie, the youngest private, sounded nervous, and Sem hoped his own voice would not betray the churning in his own insides. He had briefly participated in the last phase of street-fighting withdrawal on Mereena, but this was different. Below his feet, inside the hull, was enemy territory.

All at once, the stars all around began whirling crazily, as the ship’s crew belatedly realized the danger. Though the Marines on its hull were in no danger of being thrown off as long as the hull plating itself stayed put, Mahseer’s retrofitted clamps began to visibly flex with the sudden strain. If those clamps broke, Mahseer – the Marines’ ride home if things went badly – might be thrown clear of the hauler.

“I think they know, Okorie.” Sergeant Sommer’s dry mockery of the young man cued several snickers on the squad link. “Let’s go.”

Though the hauler wasn’t laid out anything like the briefing material had suggested, the squad found an airlock quickly. Rather than cycling their massive suits one at a time through a normal personnel airlock, and thus facing whatever lay inside one at a time, they unpacked an assault airlock and securing it to the hull.

Once all the segments of the assault lock’s deployment ring and breaching charge had been set up, the Marines arranged themselves inside the ring.

“Breach.” Sommer called. Though there was no sound, the airlock’s outer hatch disappeared into a cloud of glittering metal splinters which quickly vanished into a torrent of gray fog as atmosphere from within vented into the void and cooled.

Sommer let the air escape for less than two seconds. “Seal.” He triggered the assault airlock ring, which threw up a dome of flexible self-sealing plastic around the Marines and the gaping hole where the original airlock had been.

As soon as the pressure had stabilized, Sem headed for the opening. He had volunteered to take point, even though it was technically the rookie Okorie’s turn. Okorie would be a good Marine someday, but he still had a long way to go.

The corridor lighting on the hauler had failed, or been deliberately cut, but that didn’t stop the Marines, as their suits had both lights and night-vision helmet optics. The walls and deck were filthy by the standards of any spacer, as if the deck had once been given over to free-roaming livestock and had only been cursorily hosed down. Sem was glad his suit remained hermetically sealed, as he imagined the smell of such filth to be horrific.

Just as it had been on the outside, the vessel was not laid out as the briefing had said, but a hauler was a hauler, and Sem had seen plenty of them. Based on where Mahseer had latched on, the airlock they had boarded led to a lower deck amidships, probably the deck that gave the crew access to the cargo bays.

Though the ship shuddered and sporadic contact with the other two squads from the other two cutters indicated action elsewhere onboard, Sem saw nobody. He led his squad forward, looking for an accessway to the upper decks to join the fighting. If the Incarnation crew of the vessel knew his squad was there, they made no attempt to intercept them.

As the squad hustled forward, Private Okorie tapped one of the large hatchways on either side of a long corridor that seemed to run the length of the deck. “Sarge, what do you reckon is in here?”

“Pressurized cargo hold.” Sommer replied, echoing Sem’s own best guess. “Intel says this ship’s return flight is emergency priority, so whatever they looted from Margaux, they must really need it.”

As the sergeant patiently humored the nervous private, Sem’s suit sensors indicated an acoustic anomaly – a faint, rapid tapping had started behind the door Okorie had just knocked. “Hold it. Something’s in there.”

At once, the squad wheeled and organized a shallow semicircle, guns pointed at the door and poor Okorie, who hadn’t moved as fast as everyone else.

Noting that the rookie had become point-man after all, Sem gestured for him to open the door. It was safer to deal with the uncertainty now than to leave it threatening their flanks.

Okorie hugged the wall, then reached one armor-suited arm across and pulled the manual release latch in the middle of the hatch. It shuddered open on worn-out bearings, and twelve sets of harsh suit-lights shone into the massive cargo hold beyond.

Instead of maddened Margaux beasts, Sem and the others saw only two filthy, emaciated figures crouched on a catwalk beyond the door, pitiably shielding their eyes from the Marines’ lights. The floor of the bay, and likely the main loading doors, was about ten meters below the catwalk, and from that direction a cacaphony of animal-like noises could be heard.

“What is this?” Sergeant Sommer’s suit-external speakers amplified his voice until his deep baritone sounded even more like that of a vengeful storm-god than normal.

One of the emaciated men on the catwalk stood shakily and offered a trembling Confederated salute. “Lieutenant Denzil Vicario, FDA.”

Sommer gestured for the two men – obviously unarmed and barely able to stand – to step out into the corridor, and for the rest of the squad to check the hold. Okorie went in first, and Sem made sure he was second.

At first, when Sem panned the beam of a suit-light over the floor of the hold below, he thought it filled with a chunky beige substance, perhaps some manufacturing byproduct extracted from the many chemical factories on Margaux. It was Okorie who realized what he was looking at first – and who promptly vomited into his helmet.

Seeing the other Marine’s distress, Sem looked again. This time, he saw a face peering back up at him with listless, blank eyes. To his horror, he began to see others – face after face, body after body, buried in the material filling the hold.

Upon the realization that the substance in which they were buried were more men, Sem nearly voided his own stomach as well. The hold had been filled with living men as completely as if they were a substance, until they could not stand without standing on one another, could not lie down without being trampled. The cargo hauler had left Margaux orbit six days before – they had, presumably, endured this purest form of human-devised hell for the entire duration.

The utter callousness on display overwhelmed even a hardened Marine, Sem backed out of the hatch, blanked his suit’s sensors, and focused on his breathing until the roaring sea of helpless anger receded. He would kill the chip-heads later – right now, he needed to find a way to help the wretches in the hold below.

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.” 

2948-11-03 - Tales from the Service: A Tight Spot Over Judicael

In this third installment of the tale submitted by Adana Beckett, we rejoin her four-mercenary prototype-weapon rescue team shortly after takeoff from Outpost Judicael in the last hours before Incarnation troops moved in.

In their attempt to save an expensive prototype weapon from being slagged or captured by the enemy, the quartet took off in a damaged Yeren strike gunship only to be pursued by Incarnation ground-attack aircraft. The matchup would have been favorable for a functioning Yeren, but Ms. Beckett had instructed her compatriots to remove all their guns. With unresponsive controls and no firepower, she still managed to evade these opportunists - if she were a Navy pilot, this would doubtless be behavior worthy of merit award. Though she freely admits to being only an acceptable pilot, Adana Beckett performed well under pressure - we can only hope Vardanian Security gives her more than bragging rights to compensate this action.

“Do you think they saw us take off?” 

Adana Beckett ignored Zdrakov’s inane question, knowing that it would be a miracle deserving of recognition by the Pope if the Nate aircraft hadn’t seen them.  

Had she not been so busy, she might have silenced the nervous chatter with an acid remark, but it was taking all of her concentration just to keep their ride in the air. Without aerial stabilizers, the Yeren gunship they had launched out of Outpost Judicael yawed fiercely as if it was a ground vehicle fishtailing on ice, and it was all she could do to keep it from entering a fatal flat spin. Adana had expected that flying the craft when even its own crew had found other transportation would be a challenge, but she hadn’t expected the vehicle to manifest a fresh determination to hurl itself in a random new direction every half-second. 

“They saw us.” Hierro, using the cameras of the craft’s two remote turrets, to keep track of the enemy intruders, answered his nervous compatriot in an equally uncertain tone of voice. Even though the inertial dampening system was keeping gee forces from crushing their bodies into gritty paste, everyone on the tiny flight deck could see how often ground and sky chased each other across and around the transparent canopy. “Two Nate birds headed our way.” 

“Sure would be great if this gunship was carrying guns.” Shepherd, whose disdain for the situation seemed to be deepening with every moment the Yeren remained airborne, remained clearly more angry than afraid. “But some idiot removed them before we took off.” 

Adana again had no time to reply to the remark, and the other two didn’t seem interested in tangling with the caustic infantry trooper. Strapped as he was in the munitions bay with the payload they were risking their lives to recover and disoriented by the dampeners, he couldn’t possibly see the drunken dance of the craft or realize that with such erratic flying, even fast-tracking turrets remotely operated from Hierro’s console couldn’t shoot accurately. She knew she had made the right call to order the guns pulled out, and Shepherd would just have to figure things out on his own. 

“Beckett, if they get those beams on us, the bad stabilizer will be the least of our problems.”  

“Kill the chatter, boys.” Adana snapped back. Hierro probably meant well by the reminder, but she knew the stakes well enough and had plenty to deal with. Under normal circumstances, the big, broad-winged Incarnation ground-attack aircraft would be prey for Confederated gunships, even Vardanian Security’s old Yerens, but they could see hers was badly wounded. Fortunately, she could outrun them as well, if she could manage to fly in a straight line for longer than two seconds at a time. 

In addition to the substantial collection of warning indicators related directly or indirectly to the stabilizer outage and the rushed removal of the weapon systems, Adana suddenly noticed a new blinking red light on her console. The wild maneuvers were threatening to overwhelm the inertial dampening system. Given that the Yeren was at that instant pulling thirteen gees and probably had been doing so erratically since takeoff, this did not surprise her. 

Fortunately, Adana was beginning to get a feel for the sorts of instability to expect out of the Hyadean strike rig without its stabilizer. It tended toward yaw wobbling and violent rolls, but its pitch seemed to remain rather stable and controllable, and with two big graviticthrusters, there was no lack of thrust. So far, she’d only managed the wobble by flying tight S-bend curves whenever it got bad, and had not gotten a handle on the roll, but she hadn’t plunged the Yeren into the craggy Causey terrain yet, and that might be enough control to outfly enemy rigs designed mainly to strafe ground forces and survive whatever those same forces threw back at them. 

“Hierro, query the Judicael datanets. Find if any of the auto-turrets are still online.” 

Though he didn’t acknowledge verbally, Hierro got to work – Adana saw the comms antenna come online and make contact withwhatever computer systems still lived at Judicael. The main nodes of the local datasphere had been slagged hours before, but there were probably enough secondary nodes still active to keep the network running in ad-hoc mode. 

As he worked, Adana managed to pull the controls until the craft leveled off into a wide, arcing turn back toward their point of origin. In the first minute of the flight, they had wandered more than sixty ground klicks in a direction generally away from her intended point of hard landing. Through the turn, the roll briefly halted, and the Yeren flew almost normally. 

“Whew!” Zdrakov, not used to combat flying, seemed to think the instability was solved. “Quite a ride, Beckett. Why don’t we get-” 

Hierro placed a waypoint over a likely cluster of auto-turret installations, and the marker appeared in the smart-display in front of Adana. “Hold on!” She wrenched the controls out of their temporarily stable state and the Yeren tumbled down toward the ground. Perhaps the reprieve had allowed the dampeners to cool off, perhaps not – given that the pursuing Nate aircraft had almost made good their interception, she didn’t have time to wait longer. 

“Those turrets are set to kill everything.” Hierro, his voice tense as the ground spun ever closer, seemed to be taking his mind off the possibility of a crash by considering the possibility of being shot down by friendly air defenses. “They won’t challenge our IFF.” 

“Good.” Adana did not elaborate. The spiraling dive had quickly passed beyond her control, and it was taking a worryingly long time to convince the gunship to level off. By the time she managed it, the turrets were coming up, and she didn’t have time to explain.  

More warning lights – these target-lock indicators – lit up the board. Despite the violence of her maneuvers, she noticed that at least one of the locks came from the Incarnation assault craft pursuing her, which she had hoped would not be able to keep up.  

The turrets and the pursuing aircraft opened fire at about the same time. Though the laser pulses which scattered in the Yeren’s shear-screen defenses and melted chunks of its armored hull were invisible and instantaneous, white-hot beams of light passed in the opposite direction with the vaguest sense of motion. These she knew to be railgun-fired projectiles moving at a not-inconsiderable fraction of the speed of light and superheating the air they pushed aside.  

As the turrets tracked the weaving, barely-controlled gunship across the sky, a few slugs began to shatter in the shear screens. As soon as she saw them, Adana let the Yeren have its head. The yaw wobble turned into a wild flat spin in the span of a second, and just as quickly, the two boomerang-shaped enemy aircraft appeared ahead of her. 

Before they could vanish once more, Adana firewalled the thruster controls and heaved against the controls to fight out of the spin. This time the dampeners really did fail, if only for an instant, and the Yeren’s aging frame groaned under the momentary load.  

Adana didn’t see the two aircraft flash past into the teeth of the turret cluster. She blacked out momentarily with the loss of the dampeners. When she came to a moment later, the only thing ahead was Margaux’s clear, slate-gray sky. 

“What in all creative hells did you just do up there?” 

Adana saw the drunken roll starting again just as Shepherd’s complaint reached her ringing ears, and grabbed the controls to fight it all over again.

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.