“I didn’t have long to stare, the straps holding me to the drop ship detached and microjets fired, sending me down to the surface with forty-five of my closest friends and one KIA Marine.” No plan survives contact with the enemy. Some of Voss’s Marines do not, either.
Previously: Chapter I : Chapter II
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I felt my stomach turn as the fleet exited warp. Then it embraced my heart as the transport pilot pulled high-G maneuvers to fall into a proper orbit around Sassael, the fourth planet of the Apina Minor star the Apina Binary System. It was a barely temperate planet, on the outer edge of the circumstellar habitable zone with a surface gravity of 1.12g. The cold planet had produced a hardy people, a strong people, a proud people. It produced my people, the Sassaeler people. Shrinking violets were not a thing in my culture.
The dropship lurched as the docking clamps were retracted, and we all were jerked sideways to the rear of the craft as the thrusters kicked in. The inside was dark, with only the red lighting to let us see around the cabin, no windows. Windows would compromise the armor of the dropship; so we sat in the dim crimson cabin as we were chauffeured down to drop height.
If everything was going according to plan—and I was told afterwards that this part did—multiple fighter wings were screaming to the surface ahead of us along with accompanying attack drones controlled from ships in space. Their job would be to suppress any enemy air defenses. They were mostly successful.
We were still eight kilometers above sea level when the dropship started to take ground fire. A railgun round went flying through the cabin so fast my brain failed to notice it. One minute everything was okay; the next moment there was a hole underneath a Marine and one above him. His armor kept most of his body intact, despite the round splattering most of his insides on the ceiling; it was hard to make out in the red light. So much for the dropship’s armor. I’d rather have windows.
The pilot evidently thought that we were low enough—we weren’t—and that it was okay for us to drop now—it wasn’t. The deck panels dropped open, and white light flooded the cabin. I glanced up to the overhead, the blood splatter painfully obvious on the grey bulkhead. I didn’t have long to stare, the straps holding me to the drop ship detached and microjets fired, sending me down to the surface with forty-five of my closest friends and one KIA Marine. His counter-grav chute would deploy at a thousand meters above ground level automatically. I hoped he landed somewhere we could retrieve what was left of his body after this was all over.
I stretched out to get the blood flowing. That many gravities pooled the blood in muscles much quicker than mere sitting still did. Most of our training drops don’t involve braking maneuvers like that, so the Marines who were new to an actual combat drop were not used to this. Luckily, Lieutenant Kreiger wasn’t a total rookie, even if he was pretty green, and was getting his Marines in order. We were in for a hard landing and being limber was a good thing.
The head-up display on my helmet showed our position relative to where we wanted to be. Aside from being eight kilometers up, we were almost fifteen kilometers away from where we wanted to land. If I had my way, it would be a Marine pilot in the dropship every time, instead of a Navy pilot, but no one had promoted me to general yet.
After ascertaining exactly how far off we were, I pressed a button on my wrist to kick the wings out of my jump pack. My staff did the same. Captain Dur was my primary assistant. Master Sergeant Steiner and Gunnery Sergeant Unruh rounded out the rest of my team. All of them were old hands at this.
“Charlie Two, this is Winter Three” I said after selecting the right net on the comm-nets. “Wings out and follow me.”
“Roger, Winter Three. Following you,” Lieutenant Kreiger said.
Below, above, all around us, fighters and drones screamed across the sky. Now that the drop was well and truly underway, our countermeasures had reached full intensity. Drones zipped about spewing out clouds of chaff or pinged enemy targeting sites with enough interference to make them all but useless. The enemy was still firing, but it wasn’t aimed. If the dropship pilot had waited thirty more seconds, she would have been fine to take us right to the drop zone. Coasting across the sky with the dropsuit wings on an unpowered glide sucked completely, even if I did know how effective the jamming was. If we were not on such a strict schedule, I would have dove right for the deck and made my way to the rally point on foot.
Sometimes, I really hate the Navy.
Forty-five Marines coasted through the sky to Feinler City. We were not in anything that resembled a formation, more like a gaggle. A gaggle of Marines gliding at seven thousand and five hundred meters is hard to see from the ground, even with decent optics. However, it’s not so hard to see from a kilometer away. The Alliance fighter pilot certainly saw us.
“Fighter incoming!” someone screamed over the comm-net. It wasn’t one of my staff. There was too much panic in the voice. I turned to look at the craft, made out its curved, matte grey airframe. It was not one of ours.
“Scatter,” I commanded. “Dive! Dive! Dive! Hit your jets, Marines!”
Immediate action in the event of a Marine coming under attack by an enemy aircraft was for the Marine to dive to obtain maximum airspeed and augment it with the dropsuits jump jets. The Marine should also keep the wings out and maneuver violently to ensure that they remain as hard to hit as possible.
I don’t know how hard it is for a fighter pilot to hit a violently-maneuvering Marine with his railguns, but an air to air missile had no problem taking out two of Kreiger’s Marines at once in a ball of fire. A burst of fire from his rails managed to hit a third Marine, cutting her in half. I decided to hang the standard operating procedures and fumbled with the straps to my own railgun on my jump pack. My sidearm wasn’t powerful enough to do anything to the enemy fighter. It’s more or less impossible to get the gun off the jump pack while the jump pack is still on, but I was going to at least try.
Meanwhile the fighter was lining up for another pass. A mere fifteen seconds had elapsed, and he’d killed three Marines with ease. Four more minutes of this and there wouldn’t be anyone left. Just as he’d finished his turn, he was hit by a missile. The Sassaeler fighter screamed past us, and the pilot wiggled her angular wings.
Sometimes, I really love the Navy.
“This is Winter Three,” I said over the comm-net. “Resume course to drop zone.”
Four Marines were dead, and we hadn’t even hit the ground yet.
“Winter Three Actual, this is Winter Six, over” the comm-net sounded in my ear. It wasn’t Colonel Stern, but his comm operator. I imagined the colonel would be a bit busy on the ground to be sending comm traffic himself, but he wanted me to answer and not one of my staff.
“Go for Winter Three Actual.”
“Winter Three, what’s your status, over?”
“My status is that the dropship pilot fouled up and dropped us eight thousand meters up and nearly fifteen kilometers off course. We’re on glidepath to drop zone, but have taken significant casualties.” Ten percent was pretty significant. “ETA to drop zone is . . . “ I had to switch the heads up display in the helmet to check. “Four minutes, over.”
“Copy ETA of four minutes. Interrogative: do you need corpsman support at the DZ? Over.”
“Roger. Winter Six, out.”
The Eagle fighter screamed over us as Winter Six ended his transmission. My suit’s aural sensors dampened the harsh growl of the thrusters (an Electro-thermal Magnetoplasma type, if anyone cares), but I could still feel the vibration in my suit. I was happy for the escort.
I couldn’t talk to the fighter pilot; I had no idea what comm-net the pilot was even on. Without an inkling of what squadron or wing the fighter was a part of, it would be impossible to find out. Fortunately, by unspoken agreement, the pilot had decided to give us air cover as we made our way to Feinler City. Though, thanks to the encounter with the Alliance fighter, we’d lost a lot of altitude, more than I would have liked. We were much more visible at two thousand meters than five or six thousand.
It was the middle of the afternoon local time in Feinler City. Even the most amateur of tacticians understands that this is suboptimal for a combat drop, even if there are all sorts of low-light/no light sensors available to the enemy. On the upside, on this clear afternoon, I could see the city quite clearly. Looking even further south, I could see the Alliance garrison, but couldn’t make out any details.
Less clear, but still visible in the afternoon sun was tracer fire from rapid firing railguns reaching up from inside the city to try and hit the fighters, dropships, and drones darting across the sky. Sometimes the defenders connected with the flash of an explosion.
“Ma’am, didn’t the intel report say that the Gendarmerie did not have heavy weapons?” Captain Dur asked me on our private comm-net.
“That it did,” I replied.
“I think the Gendarmerie would like to differ,” Master Sergeant Steiner said.
“Roger that. Break, break.” I switched to our attached platoon’s comm-net. “Charlie Two, Winter Three. We’re going to drop some altitude and get some speed. If we start taking intense ground fire, fold the wings and get to the deck as fast as possible. How copy?”
“Copy drop altitude and gain speed, aye. Prepare to hit the deck in the event of intense ground fire,” Lieutenant Kreiger said.
“Let’s go in.”
I pointed my body down to the deck and tucked my chin. Thankfully, we were coming into the city from the east, not over the high-rises. Otherwise I might have attempted a landing on one of the roofs and then bounded to the Administration Complex on the vertical, a complex and risky maneuver.
Tracer fire streaked past us, the glowing railgun rounds looking almost like lasers at their speed.
“To the deck!” I ordered and hit the button on my wrist control for the wings. They folded in on the jump pack and I started to fall like a rock. A one thousand three hundred and fifty kilogram, person-shaped, metal rock.
The most common ways Marines screw up a combat drop is to open their counter-grav chute too late. The ground is safer than hanging about in midair, but only if the landing is at a safe speed. Incidentally, the second most common way is for the Marine to open the chute too early, leaving them to hang helpless in midair.
At five hundred meters, I started to seriously look for a place to land. It took only a second to find a spot of road. At three hundred meters I pressed the button for the chute. The counter-grav chute flew out of the jump pack and expanded the array, slamming my body into the front of the armor at five gravities. At ten meters, the counter-grav cut out, and I landed on the suit’s shock absorbers, rolling as I did. My landing did much more damage to the road than the road did to my armor.
I twisted the latch on my chest that held the straps to the jump pack. Now that I was on the ground, the jump pack was useless dead weight. With the jump pack off me, I could finally undo the straps holding my railgun in place. Only once I had my weapon out and was combat ready did I take a moment to check the status of my team and then Kreiger’s platoon. Somewhere between my order to hit the deck and now, Kreiger had lost another Marine.
Five Marines dead before we even hit the deck. I hoped that the rest of the regiment was faring better.
“Winter Three, this is Charlie Two. Over.”
“Go for Three.”
“Orders, ma’am?” Kreiger asked me. He sounded a bit out of his depth.
“Link up with your company, Charlie Two. My staff and I will accompany you to the rally point. Over.”
On my team’s own private net, I said, “Alright. Form up on me. We’re going to go with Kreiger to link up with the rest of the regiment. Tracking beacons show that most of the regiment is already at the Administration Complex. Third battalion is already clearing it.”
Our armor had tracking beacons that broadcast their position on an encrypted sublink. The command suits had the software to decode the data and display it. Fighters had the ability as well, to ensure there wasn’t a friendly fire incident with their ordnance. Which explains how our rescuer had found us.
“Winter Six, this is Winter Three.”
“This is Winter Six. Send your traffic, Winter Three.”
“Winter Three is on the deck with Charlie Two. Our position is niner-zero-zero meters to the east of the complex perimeter, advancing to you. Over.”
“Winter Six copies all. Be advised, enemy Gendarmerie forces have already engaged friendly forces in squad strength. Stay alert. Over.”
“Roger that. Winter Three, out.”
I stood up with my railgun across my chest and looked to my team. There isn’t any way to see someone’s face from behind the helmet’s visor. Each one was a blank visage, looking back. Maybe it’s intimidating for the enemy to be killed by someone whose face they never see; I don’t know. For now though, we were the impersonal manifestation of three hundred years of wrath.
“Okay, Lieutenant Kreiger,” I said on his platoon comm-net. “Let’s get this invasion on the road.”