The dropship rocked back and forth as it was cradled for the first time in a long time by true atmosphere; the high-altitude winds began to buffet the smaller craft as it began drifting down to GATEBELL, performing obvious, wide arcs to their target.
There was no conversation.
By now, every soul aboard The Three Stones had realized what happened; the unfortunate and uncontrollable spiral out of control, the innocent accident, the panicked response-
Historians for centuries, nay, millenia, would be analyzing each and every one of their moves down to the most minute detail, and the burden of history weighted them down more than their suits ever could.
The beep of a warning alarm interrupted all conversation, and the pilot looked down – only for a moment.
“|We’ve been intercepted… LIVE FIRE LIVE FIRE-|”
The ship rocked a bit back and forth as more atmosphere surrounded it, punching through clouds and wind and sky, its’ slow and ponderous descent rapidly turning more and more vertical as the ship picked up speed, aided by CRADLE’s gravity well. The artificial gravity dampeners kicked in as best they could – there was still an uncomfortable pressure placed on the harnesses as soldiers’ bodies pressed against them, the impromptu evasive maneuver’s momentum being borne by it’s living cargo. The only sound over the uncomfortable grunts and frenzied whispered prayers of the soldiers in the dropship were the overlapping warning signals from the cockpit.
However, the AIM-120 AMRAMM did not have this problem of uncomfortable inertia, what with being a mix of advanced electronics, a rocket engine and a lot of explosives.
“|Deploying hull shield-|”
With a hum so deep they could feel it, the Survey Dropship was wrapped in a solid blue glow, it’s shields now taking the brunt of atmospheric re-entry as flames licked against the barrier. Like a spaceship in miniature it fell, and a half-dozen missiles rose to meet it.
“|BRACE. BRACE. BRA-|”
There was a deafening explosion, and the ship rocked violently back and forth – and then another, and another, all in such quick succession that it appeared to be one massive volley.
More warning lights. More automated complaints. More pilot maneuvers.
Another series of explosions detonated against the ship’s shields, as through the clouds the next wave of Karnakian reinforcements plummeted desperately through the evening air, trailing light and fire.
– – – –
77th Fighter Squadron Gamblers watched as their missiles streaked towards the incoming spacecraft, their HUDs pumping information to each pilot within the flight.
“Connect – Good hit, good hit.”
“Goddamnit, they’re still dropping-”
“Bones1-1 this is Gambler1-1 – Captain Washington speaking, all hits, we are WINCHESTER. Any luck?”
“Negative. Good Hits, no Kills.”
“Command this is Gambler1-1. All hits, we are WINCHESTER, no kills. X-Rays have dropped below engagement floor of 3-clicks, requesting orders.”
“Affirmative Gamblers, return and re-arm.”
– – – –
Pilot Tr’k’’i had to give it to these primitives; although their weapons weren’t terribly impressive, they were at least very well trained with their use. Ever since he broke atmosphere there had been some sort of obstacle put in his path; be it the ineffective-yet-still-annoying EM warfare, the air-to-air missiles, or now-
– now apparently the missiles were coming from the ground.
“|Oh Joy.|” he deadpanned, as the ground-to-air missiles slammed into the shielding mere centimeters from his cockpit, bathing all his windows and viewscreens in fire and light.
“|PREPARE FOR HOT DROP, REPEAT. HOT DROP.|” Tr’k’’i barked over the intercom, the alien city looming large in his windows. Another volley of missiles rose to meet him, and he banked slightly, letting them hit the underside shielding of his craft. With practiced motions he ticked off several subroutines, disengaging multiple fail-safes. It was going to be quick, uncomfortable, and sloppy – but the natives were leaving him no choice.
Just a few hundred meters above the drop site he pulled up, hard, blowing out the magnetic ramp locks with kinetic charges. His ship’s momentum drove the craft further down, even with the nose of the ship pointed straight up, and just as the ramp sparked against the surface of the paved roads he cut out the shields-
-and disengaged every harness lock at once.
As his ship’s ramp made furrows into the native soil 3 dozen fresh recruits poured out of the unloading bay, their combat harnesses taking the brunt of the impact with the ground, their own bodies making lighter divots and skids into the soil. With the all-clear indicator lit, Tr’k’’i ejected his ship’s shield drones – their batteries automatically kicking in to protect themselves from ground impact – and kicked on his afterburners, gaining momentum and altitude.
The first FIM-92 Stinger to slam into his hull before his shield could be cycled back on was what he’d call an unfortunate irritant.
The other 7 that immediately followed – the ones fired from rooftops, from alleyways, from car parks and street corners, would be what he’d call an absolute catastrophe.
“|For FUCK’S SAKE-|” Tr’k’’i cursed over increasingly earnest and overlapping warning indicators, working furiously to push power to his shielding, to increase his momentum to move out of range-
He wasn’t gaining altitude.
Tr’k’’i cycled an increasingly-impotent hull shield as he drifted almost due east, the orange lights of the city below him flickering in and out of his view.
Impact. Shield was up. He drifted East, engines smoking.
Impact. Shield was up. Ailerons were unresponsive, and another alert blocked his view.
Impact. Although his nose was up, pointed at the stars – at his home – hope died in his heart as he suddenly listed hard to the right. Tr’k’’is’ survey dropship was built to withstand multiple types of damage, from atmospheric hazards to aggravated fauna, but it’s designers never meant for it to take this kind of abuse.
His craft spun out of control, gimbaled engines kicking on and off in a futile attempt to right his ship. With a surprising amount of calm he tapped on his console, opening up a wide-band comms channel as he watched the hostile alien world spin around him.
“|STLFLARE. STLFLARE. STLFLARE. This is dropship SECOND HELPING. I have been shot down. Crash point estimate 30 leagues East from GATEBELL Drop point One. Repeat. This is dropship SECOND HELPING. Crash point 30 leagues East from GATEBELL Drop Point One. Will establish Sanctuary and shelter in place.|”
He tapped another button on his console, and a recording of his voice began to repeat the message, on all bands.
“|At least they’ve stopped shooting at me.|” he thought, right as his ship slammed into the side of a gray mountain.
– – – –
“FUCK YEAH! FUCK. YEAH!”
“Command this is Gambler1-1, did we catch that on video?”
“Negative, Gambler1-1. What happened?”
“Some lucky gropos fucks shot one of the bastards down!”
“Gambler1-1, please advise. Where is the enemy craft?”
“Looks like… Stone Mountain – Yeah, slammed right into the general.”
“Copy that, Gambler1-1. Mission hasn’t changed; get back to base, reload, rearm, and then establish air superiority over the downed craft.”
– – – –
“|By all souls-|” Lt. K’uree whispered, listening to the STLFLARE broadcast drown out all communications, before suddenly and abruptly being silenced.
Aq’rel’a laughed mirthlessly, her gaze never leaving that of the frozen natives’.
“|We’ve got to get off of this planet.|”
“|We should have never come to this planet.|”
“|That may be-|” grunted K’uree as he stood, wobbling to his feet. “|But here we are. ‘The past is stone, the future is water’ after all.|”
Aq’rel’a murmured a half-committed response as K’uree ran down the landing ramp yet again, the new umbrella of drones already being peppered with arms fire of various strength, high above his head.
“|Chief? Chief Ri’tiki?|”
“|Center point, Lieutenant.|”
Lt. K’uree pivoted at the bottom of the ramp, jogging towards the impromptu POW camp.
Well. It’s a POW camp now, what with all the shenanigans and goings on. If everyone would just stop shooting for a few minutes, K’uree was sure that they could clear up this misunderstanding and get things back on tra-
“|Mm? Yes Sir?|”
Security Chief Ri’tiki tilted his head slightly at the Lt., pausing a moment before continuing. “|…as I was saying before you interrupted me, dropship Second Helping has landed mostly intact about 30 leagues due East of here, which means the entire point of getting reinforced has just been proven moot. I need you to lead these-|” Ri’tiki gestured broadly to the 3 dozen fresh recruits, standing at attention around an even larger group of very disgruntled natives. “|-soldiers through hostile territory, rescue the pilot, scuttle the ship-|”
“|Scuttle it, sir?|”
“|We can’t let these natives get such technology. Not only would it totally skew their development, but – K’uree, you’ve seen a dynamic capacitor failure. Do you think they have the materials to contain that blast?|”
“|…I mean, the mountain would stop at least half of it, maybe-|”
“|Sorry sir. I guess I got my brains knocked around harder than I thought. Take the troops, rescue the pilot, scuttle the ship. Anything else?|”
“|Yes. Don’t die. I don’t need any more corpses.|”
Lt. K’uree suddenly found himself stone-cold sober.
“|Any more, sir?|”
“|…move quick. Don’t let their larger armored vehicle-cannons hit you… a drone can only do so much.|”
– – – – –
Matriarch Tr’Nkwi was absolutely going dull, and that was the beginning and end of that conversation. There was nothing to help it, and as she idly pulled loose another feather – one that molted due to stress, as opposed to age – she wondered if she’d go bald first.
“|Dropship SECOND HELPING has crashed, Matriarch. No souls lost, but the ship is un-salvageable… at least given these readings.|” Notified Itick’’t, and Tr’Nkwi couldn’t help but let out a very improper, joyless laugh.
“|But of course it did. Of course. No, obviously they haven’t developed the technology to colonize their sister planet because they’ve apparently just poured it all into their military-|”
“|Matron?|” questioned Navigator Rr’it’sqk, turning slightly in her console.
“|That was our last unarmed dropship, Navigator.|” sighed the Matriarch, tapping through a few command alerts on her station. “|Which means that we’ll need to send another ship, potentially with more souls, down to reinforce our initial position.|”
“|It means I’m ordering armed landing craft, filled with soldiers, to establish a militant perimeter on an alien world, Navigator.|”
Navigator Rr’it’sqk blinked as the implication hit her, and the Matriarch grinned an unsettling grin.
“|Ah, there it is-|”
“|S-surely there’s another way-|”
“|Sure. Surrender, let these primitives wipe out everyone we sent down – what are we at now? 12 dead, 40 wounded to some degree, another 100 engaging? Let them die and the natives have our technology; how would that damage their own world? How could they even remotely begin to safely deconstruct those bloody gifts?|”
The bridge remained quiet as the Matriarch continued her rant, as confession is good for the soul.
“|Maybe we let them die regardless – remotely detonate our dropships’ drives, wiping out another 80 leagues of their city? Vaporize our friends and family, as well as those noble defenders who surrendered – not counting the civilians! How many souls… and then what? We leave? We stay, and the fleet comes, and then what?|”
Matriarch Tr’Nkwi’s hind-claws were tapping against the ground, a nervous tic that was far below her station – and was the only sound that broke the silence between rants.
“|The first soul must have a sense of humor, or those idiots of the Seven Rings are rightand I’m suffering now for some sin I did in a past life-|”
“|Matriarch.|” Engineer Strri’rii said, as matter-of-factly as you please. The simple statement was enough to break Tr’Nkwi’s thoughts, and she paused.
“|I… I’m sorry.|”
“|We’re in uncharted territory, Matriarch. It’s understandable.|” Strri’rii bowed his head a little, before continuing. “|However, if I may – I think we’re going about this incorrectly.|”
Lead Engineer Strri’rii simply responded by pulling up a significant amount of data on one of the main screens – filtering it out to weapons impact, impacts-per-second, locations of enemy positions-
“|’If we are to be damned, and to nest in darkness, let us not do so on a gentle sin.’ If we send the rest of our security staff-|”
“|If we do that then all pretext is gone and this is an unsanctioned military engagement-|”
“|If we do that then we’ll overwhelm their local defenses. We’ll wipe out their ability to strike us from the ground, and our combat ships can withstand the damage from the air – Matriarch, with all due respect, because our claws are broken we can neither knead roots or defend the hearth.|”
Strri’rii’s voice echoed unchallenged in the bridge, and he continued unabated.
“|We send everything we have. We remain non-lethal, but we disable what we can – be it with EM Warfare, as Itick’’t might be able to provide, by strategic, quilltip weapons fire – or just by soaking up their ammunition until they run out. We accomplish Security Chief Ri’tikis’ goals, we rescue our people, we save theirs, we leave. Yes, this is a blow to their people’s pride, and yes, this becomes a problem for our ambassadors, and yes we’re all probably going to be under a Confessors’ gaze for the next ten-score years, but it stops…|” Strri’rii waved his hand at the monitors, all of which showed various scenes of destruction. “|…this.|”
Matriarch Tr’Nkwi ran her fingers through her feathers, down and across her neck. She pulled her hand away and looked down – at least a dozen, maybe two dozen of her beautiful plumes rested there. With an unbidden exhalation of breath they scattered, and she laughed.
She laughed as the stress finally got to her.
She laughed as she approved Chief Engineer Strri’rii’s desperate, terrible idea.
She laughed as more of her flock – her children, fresh faced and young, full of promise, hopes, fears, aspirations and failings – geared up for battle.
She laughed as her combat ships warmed their engines, as siblings and co-workers and lovers filled with varied and rich lives, with untold stories and unsung songs, filled the bellies of those beasts.
She laughed as her mind darkly wandered to those she would lose and those she had already lost – each one a tragedy; the years and years of toil and sweat and mistakes and successes in the making, those lives not just taken, but broken in their prime.
She laughed until the tears fell, and then she just cried.