- "We are go for operational engagement. All hands report to stations. Repeat, all hands report to stations."
A Hellfire Drop
993 ATA - Aboard the FTS Hephaestus, Assembly Space
Deployment: Corporal J.L. Bronwen—2nd Platoon, B Company, 3rd Battalion, 11th Regiment Marauder Marine Corps (2nd Division)
The battle stations klaxon wailed through the cabin.
“Awright, sweethearts!” Staff Sergeant Jones’ bullhorn bellow was barely less ear-piercing than the alarm. “Drop your cocks and grab your socks, I want this platoon on the ready line in five! Any grunt that isn’t good to go by the time I make it to the drop deck, that grunt will become my personal punch bag for the next month. I ain’t gonna warn you again. You know the drill. Get your asses in gear, marines!”
Corporal Jennifer Bronwen rolled out of her bunk before Jones could upend it for her, dodging the friendly swipe the platoon sergeant aimed in her direction. “You better be on your game, Bronwen, I ain’t got time for your particular brand of bullshit today.”
“What’s going down?” Jen asked as she tugged on her flightsuit. With Thud channelling his inner Sergeant Rock, it was clear they were heading for active engagement.
“Hellfires,” Jones answered with brisk, maniacal cheeriness. “We have ourselves a little insurgency to deal with. Now that those assholes have actually started marking their territory, we know exactly where to bring the shock and awe.”
Jen nodded. “Hot-drop?”
“Most likely. Gonna need your big-girl pants, Jenny.”
“Ah, screw you.”
Jones cocked a reproving eyebrow. “Screw you…”
Jen snapped to attention with a grin. “Screw you, Staff Sergeant!”
Jones nodded, fetching her a hefty pat across the back of the head. “Get goin’, zoomie, they’re gonna want to brief you in with the other bus drivers and the shock jocks.” He gave her a nasty grin. “Matter of fact, you slept through the call just now.”
“Aw, shit, the Air Boss is gonna have my ass.” Jen knotted her flightsuit at half mast, stuffed her feet into her boots, grabbed her VI flight visor and comm wristband and ran for the hatch, followed by Jones’ sardonic laughter. She shook her loose pony tail out as she hustled down the passageway to the pilot’s ready room, retying it into a tight braid that would fit under her flight helmet.
Lieutenant Commander Corcoran, the ship’s Air Boss, glared at her as she ducked through the hatch into the briefing room. She thankfully wasn’t last to arrive, and breathed a sigh of relief as she climbed to the top of the overlarge steps that served as seats for the briefing sessions. “What’s on the vine?” she muttered to her neighbour, Sergeant Adeyemi, as she sat down.
“Something something pre-emptive strike, something something hit ‘em where they live.” Adeyemi snorted. “Well, shit. Seems my crystal ball’s broken.”
“Hilarious,” Jen retorted as Corcoran slammed the hatch shut behind the last pilot in. Since said pilot was the battle group’s CAG, the Air Boss had to chew down on the reprimand bubbling behind his scowl.
“All right,” Corcoran snarled. “Let’s get down to business. Ten minutes ago we dropped out of FTL on approach to Hydatus Teign. Our objective is the sixth planet in the system, where the Hellfire pirates have established a number of forward operating bases to support their expansion starward.” The Air Boss smiled a sharkish smile. “A mistake we’re going to make them regret. Major?”
The CAG, Major Dupree, rose to his feet. “We’ll handle the majority of the targets with airstrikes. They’re in remote locations, so present little risk of collateral damage.” He swept his gaze around the assembled raider pilots. “Your targeting data is being assigned and downloaded to your comms. Make sure you know your targets before you launch.” He brought up a targeting map on the display. “The sticking points are going to be these four targets in the civilian colony.” He zoomed the display in to highlight a group of glyphs slap-bang in the middle of a settlement. “We’ve got no choice on these but to go in on the ground and clear them sector by sector, which is where our groundpounder buddies will be active.” Dupree looked up at the marine platoon pilots huddled in the back row. “You’ll need to keep your eyes skinned for surface fire, but in effect, this is a crop-duster. Get in, drop your teams, stay low and interdict the area of engagement for the enemy. The ground forces will advance under your cover. Once they reach their objectives, provided you are still above bingo fuel, you may engage hostile targets at will to provide ongoing support. Questions?”
The nervous, anticipatory silence of pilots digesting a mission brief was his only response.
“All right. Get your data downloads, and get ready to fly. Troop drops will commence as soon as we’re in orbital range. Good hunting.”
Jen offered a fist to Adeyemi. “Stay alive, bud.”
Adeyemi bumped it. “You too.”
She got to her feet and bounced down the steps, untying her suit sleeves and shoving her arms into them. Zipping up, she activated her comms and pulled her flight data from the download link, synching it to her visor. Settling the frame on her ears, she opened the display and took a look at the 3D render. “Crap, that’s gonna be bitchy,” she muttered as she took in her marked route to the drop point.
“Corporal Bronwen!” Lieutenant Singh, her platoon commander, beckoned her from across the room, where he was standing with a tall, cute blonde girl in an immaculately pressed flight suit, already geared up for flight.
“Sir?” Jen threw her smartest salute as she reached them.
“I want you to meet Lieutenant Bell, your new platoon leader.” Singh gestured to the blonde. “Lieutenant, this is Corporal Bronwen, your platoon zoomie and support squad leader.”
“Pleased to meet you, Corporal,” Bell offered with a smile.
“Welcome aboard, ma’am.” Jen nodded in greeting, then looked over at Singh. “You leaving us, LT?”
“Sadly, yes. The ignominy of becoming a desk jockey awaits me.” Singh winked. “It’s not you, Corp, it’s me.”
Jen chuckled. “All my Dear Johns seem to start that way. We’ll miss you, sir.”
“Thanks, Corp, but you’re not rid of me quite yet. I’ll be leading the platoon on the ground today. Lieutenant Bell will be riding with you. I’d like you to look after her,” Singh instructed. “It’s her first drop.”
“Aye, aye, sir,” Jen acknowledged. She smiled at Bell. “Pleased to have you along, LT. That is, uh… if you’ve done your drop training?”
Bell nodded. “Oh, I have. I’m actually a qualified pilot. And I’ve taken anti-sickness shots.”
“Great.” Jen shot her a relieved grin. “No disrespect intended, ma’am, but there ain’t nothin’ worse than someone barfing in the cockpit on the way down. That shi…uh, stuff, gets everywhere in zero-g.”
“Operations command to all hands,” the intercom blared. “We are go for operational engagement. All hands report to stations. Repeat, all hands report to stations.”
Jen shot Singh an enquiring glance, and he nodded. “Dismissed, Corp, thanks. Good hunting.”
Jen saluted. “Launch deck two, bay four, ma’am. You’re looking for two-eleven, hull number six-ten.”
“I’ll be there,” Bell promised.
Jen headed back to her bunk room, sealing her flightsuit properly. She retrieved her remaining flight gear and was about to head down when Jones stuck his head through the hatch. “Yo, Jen?”
“Don’t get dead, all right?”
“I ain’t the one on the front-line meat detachment,” Jen grinned. “Watch your six, Thud. You’re gonna want to stay alive to meet our new boss.”
“Oh, you met her already?” “Yep.”
“Yut yut.” Jen winked at him as she slid past him in and out into the passageway.
“Behave yourself,” Jones bellowed after her, amusement dripping from his tone. She waved in acknowledgement without looking back.
The flight deck was swarming with activity, and Jen felt her adrenaline starting to pulse as she sucked in a breath laden with engine oil, ozone, and cooking metal. She did her walk-around, noting no issues, then buckled on her flak vest and bounded up the ramp into her dropship. Checking the personnel small-arms locker was correctly stocked, she nodded to her gunners, Riggs and Kanchelski, then shouldered her way into the cockpit, where, to her surprise, the Lieutenant was already settled in the co-pilot’s seat. “You don’t want the stick, ma’am?”
Bell shook her head, her smile betraying no little nervousness. “No, Corporal, not this time. It’s been made quite clear to me that I’m to watch and learn today. I’ll be your shotgun.”
“You got it, LT.” Jen stepped onto the seat then bounced down into the footwell. Strapping herself in securely, she hit the bank of switches below the main HUD to bring up the command interface. “Pilot’s boat, Corporal Bronwen’s stick,” she announced into her comm mike as she donned her helmet, leaving her atmo mask unclipped. “All hands confirm?” As she received her a series of confirmation callbacks from the co-pilot, rear-gunner and door-gunner stations, she flicked the custom layout config to her saved presets. Throwing her weight back in the seat to test its resistance, she nodded in satisfaction as she felt the right amount of give. A quick glance over the instruments confirmed everything was where she wanted it on the interface and the HUD. “OK, locked, cocked, and ready to rock. Initialising tactical data download.” She transferred her visor data to the ship’s interface. “Guns, here’s our route. You’ll need to stay sharp on the last two klicks into the waypoint, there’s a lot of cover for bad guys down there.”
“Jesus Christ, Corp, that’s not an LZ, that’s a death trap,” Riggs complained. “One little rocket launcher and we’re a smear on the ground.”
“Not if I have anything to say about it,” Jen retorted. “Our only objective is to get the platoon to its drop point. We’ll be going in full throttle.”
“Fuck. We’re gonna be ass-deep in puke back here,” Kanchelski grumbled.
“Ass-deep in puke is better than dead, Guns, knock it off. And watch your language, there’s a lady present.”
“Shit… sorry, ma’am.”
Bell blushed as she tapped her mike. “It’s fine, Guns, I won’t faint at a little harsh language.”
Jen threw her a wink. “OK, enough chit-chat. Let’s get the meat on board.” She switched freaks to the regiment’s dedicated band with a tap to her mike. “This is Warbird two-eleven six-ten. 2B3-niner, you copy?”
“2B3-niner, copy,” Lieutenant Singh responded. “Go ahead, Warbird six-ten.”
“Your chariot awaits, sir.”
“Roger that, Corporal. Standby.”
Ten minutes later, with the platoon aboard and strapped in, Jen completed her final checks and sealed the ship’s cabin. “Final confirmation. Pilot is good to go.”
“Co-pilot, good to go.”
“Guns, door, good to go.”
“Guns, rear, good to go.”
“Second platoon Bravo, all aboard and secure, good to go.” Singh spoke last, confirming that the platoon was strapped in for the ride.
“Roger that, all stations. Warbird six-ten is good to go,” Jen confirmed, switching to the launch bay freak. “Launch control, this is Warbird two-eleven six-ten. We are good to go for launch.”
“Copy that, six-ten. Claw is inbound. Standby for grapple.”
There was a dull clunk overhead as the grappling claw locked into place, gripping the top of the hull firmly and lifting the ship from the deck. The view spun as the claw rotated them through ninety degrees, lining them up with the launch port. Jen flexed her hand on the stick, and took a long, slow breath, willing her heart rate to settle and the butterflies in her stomach to subside.
Every time. It didn’t matter how often they dropped, and this would be her forty-second drop as the pilot in command, she got butterflies every time. She choked back the impulse to ping Thud’s private freak. He had enough on his mind with the rest of the platoon to look after.
The claw reached the end of the launch track and pivoted, pointing the drop ship nose first down the vertical drop chute. Still under the influence of the ship’s gravity, Jen felt herself tip forward in her restraints. Game time.
She blew out a breath as the comm line crackled. “Six-ten, this is launch control. Standby. Chute doors are opening.”
“Copy.” Jen watched the doors slide open, and grimaced as the swirling clouds of the planetary atmosphere below came into view. She swapped freaks to the intercom. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your pilot speaking. Welcome aboard flight six-ten with express service to downtown Hydatus Teign. Our weather today is cloudy, and we’re expecting a little chop on the way in, so please be sure to keep your seatbelts fastened at all times. Barf bags are available in the seat pocket in front of you, and we’ll be doing our best to make you shit your pants in just a few seconds’ time. Have a nice day!”
A chorus of jeers and thumps echoed forward from the rear compartment, and Jen grinned to herself. “Ready, LT?” she asked.
Bell nodded, her face pale as she stared at the planet below them. “I hope so.”
“Six-ten, you are good to go,” launch control confirmed. “Call your drop, and good hunting.”
“Standby for go on my mark,” Jen confirmed. Here we go. “Three… two… one… mark!”
She hit the launch tab, and was thrown back in her seat as the catapult hurled the tiny craft clear of the titan’s superstructure, straight at the planet below. She let out a whoop of pure adrenaline, then focused on her instruments, waiting for the right moment to fire the ventral thrusters and flip them into the correct orientation for atmospheric entry.
“Holy Mary, Mother of God!” Bell groaned from between gritted teeth.
“Y’alright there, LT?”
“Yeah,” Bell confirmed. “I just… wasn’t ready.”
“You never are, the first time,” Jen commiserated.
The planet’s atmosphere was dense and wet, a combination that made for a rough, bouncing entry flight that jarred Jen’s arms from wrists to shoulders as she wrestled the ship into the correct approach. “It’s like pea soup out there,” Bell commented. “Nothing dangerous on the telemetry scans from control, though, it’s all just cloud.”
“So much the better,” Jen said. “Heavy atmosphere like this screws with local sensor range. We’ll get a lot closer than we otherwise might before they spot us.” She glanced up at the theatre HUD. “OK, I see sixers eleven through thirteen in country with us, good. And sixers six to nine up ahead.” Jen pulled up the route map again, looking at the 3D render to remind herself of the settlement layout. “There aren’t many towers, so…”
“Two-eleven, all craft, this is the CAG. Be advised, the enemy’s been alerted by the initial strikes on their remote positions. Expect resistance on approach, repeat expect resistance on approach.”
“Roger that, sir.” Jen hit the intercom. “Buckle up back there, we’re going in hot. Guns, on your stations.” She looked over at Bell. “When I give the word, throw as much tinsel as you can, broad spread.”
Bell nodded. “Understood.”
Jen checked her readings one more time, banked around in a wide arc, and as she came back to her original flight path, rammed the afterburners to half-bore as she dove for the ground. Levelling out at forty metres, she sent the dropship screaming over the town, hitting the braking thrust hard enough to make her almost headbutt the canopy as they came up on their drop zone. “Now, LT!” she yelled, and the countermeasures blew out all around them in a mushroom of electromagnetic static. Slapping the VTOL control, she dropped the ship most of the way to the deck, catching it five metres from the ground and bringing it into hover. “2B3-niner, you are go for dust-off!”
“Great job, Bronwen,” Singh replied. “See you on the flip side.”
“Sir, yes, sir!”
Twenty seconds ticked by, then she heard Thud’s voice. “You’re all clear, zoomie six-ten, get yourself some free skies.”
“Copy that.” Jen threw the VTOL control into lift and powered the dropship back into the sky, tearing the atmosphere with the howl of the thrusters as she pulled clear of the danger zone. “Six-ten, drop complete,” she reported. “Commencing interdiction activity. Everyone keep an eye out for bad guys. We need to give the platoon as much cover as we can.”
Strafing the area around them, they managed to open up a clear corridor for the platoon to advance, and as a result the ground troops covered the distance to the objective rapidly. No sooner had they reached their access point, however, when the regiment freak squawked to life. “Mayday, mayday, this is six oh-seven! Six oh-six just went down, looked like a hand-held rocket launcher, came outta nowhere, no time to evade. We are breaking flight, coming around for another pass. Shit, they’ve got emplacements everywhere over here! Jesus Christ!”
“Six oh-eight! I’m hit, mayday, mayday! Requesting high-altitude support!”
“Negative, we can’t support from range, there are too many civilian targets on the ground.” The CAG sounded pissed. “Break off and regroup, steer clear of that sector.”
“This is 4C3-niner! We’re in that sector, dropped from six-oh seven. Our platoon’s pinned down! We can’t reach our objective, we need immediate close support or we’ll be overrun.”
Jen glanced at the HUD, noted the position of the platoon. They were close by, and the enemy positions were still busy with chasing off the other group of dropships. “CAG, this is six-ten, I can cover 4C3 if I can get one backup.”
“Six-twelve here. My guys are at their objective, I have your back, ten.” Adeyemi sounded confident, as always.
“Get on it, six-ten,” the CAG ordered. “But watch yourself in there.”
“4C3-niner, this six-ten. I see you, hold your position we’re comin’ for ya.”
“Be advised, six-ten, they’ve got rockets.”
Jen grinned as she deployed the minigun and dropped the ship to street level, hovering a bare two metres above ground, and expanding the HUD to show her a marked street route to the pinned platoon. “I know, 4C3. Stand by and cover your ears. Six-twelve, any chance of a screaming banshee to shake things up a little?”
Adeyemi’s rich laugh boomed over the comms. “You got it, six-ten. Inbound, standby.”
Adeyemi’s low altitude fly-by at Mach 1 jarred every building and shattered every window in his flight path, the howling shriek of the sonic boom obliterating Jen’s engine noise as she rolled her own craft along the street. Her gunners picked off the dazed pirates clinging to the rooftops, and when Jen bounced the ship up into the air on the VTOL thrusters, it was the work of seconds to clear the route for the platoon. “4C3-niner, you are all clear.”
“Copy that six-ten. Beers are on me!”
“Pilot,” Bell cut in, “we’re coming up on bingo fuel.”
Jen checked her instruments and nodded. “Yeah, hanging around in VTOL does tend to drink it. OK.” She flicked her comms. “CAG, this is Warbird two-eleven six-ten. We are bingo fuel. Repeat six-ten is bingo fuel.”
“Roger that, six-ten. Break atmosphere and come on home.”
“Wilco, CAG. Six-ten out.” Jen pulled the dropship into a climb for the atmospheric boundary and leaned back in her seat with a relieved sigh. Bell grinned at her.
“Great job, Corporal.”
“Thank you, ma’am. How was it for you?”
Bell chuckled. “Instructive.” She arched an immaculate eyebrow. “Is everyone in the platoon as good as you?”
“No, but Thud—excuse me, Staff Sergeant Jones—runs a tight crew. You don’t need to worry, LT—we took good care of Mr. Singh, and we’ll take good care of you.”
“I appreciate that, Corporal, thank you.” Bell checked her HUD. “OK, we’re locked to our flight path.”
“Roger that. Let’s go home.”
Where to find it?
|Board games||Burning Suns|
|Books||Conflagration (Book One) • Conflagration (Book Two) • Conflagration (Book Three) • The Art of Burning Suns|
|Series||Conflagration - Issue 1 • Conflagration - Issue 2 • Conflagration - Issue 3 • Conflagration - Issue 4 • Conflagration - Issue 5 • Conflagration - Issue 6 • Conflagration - Issue 7 • Conflagration - Issue 8 • Conflagration - Issue 9 • Conflagration - Issue 10 •|
|Snapshots||A Hellfire Drop • Jennifer Bronwen • Keera Naraymis • Kiith Kohath • Pitch Dark • Shan'Chael • The Sweet Science|