Episode 114: Drop

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Samara and Tsang watched in silence as Lion Star flared into existence half an hour ahead of schedule, dropping out of a wormhole just beyond Makassar’s flux boundary. The pirate ship was nearly at rest relative to the planet, and she started accelerating quickly within a minute of the transition. Her vector did not look to intersect the station, though it was still too early to tell. Maccabee’s information said that Lion Star maintained her own orbit, a few thousand klicks out from the station. It was plain that she wanted to be able to maneuver freely if the worst came to pass.

“They’ve got their shit together,” said Samara softly, not taking her eyes from the plot. The enemy ship was maneuvering with a calm professionalism that was rarely seen outside military organizations, at least in the PARC. Other places had better-organized merchant marines, but the PARC just had a loose conglomeration of semi-independent entities, none of which had anything resembling uniform shipping codes. Lion Star didn’t look like a PARC ship, at least not now. No doubt her officers and crew had practiced playing the stupid, stumbling prey when necessary, however.

It took just over an hour for Lion Star to settle into an orbit. Her position did not allow the assault shuttle a direct view of her, but the little ship’s sensors were good enough to pick up the energy signature of a launch leaving the pirate ship only ten minutes later, bound for the surface. Samara had all channels open on silent listen, but she picked up no hint of communication between the station and the ship. That meant that what communication there was--and there had to be something--was being carried out over a secure laser com. There was still no indication that any of the assault shuttles had been discovered.

“I think it’s time,” said Samara. She glanced over her shoulder at Tsang and he managed a small smile. “You ready?”

“Not at all,” he answered. “Let’s do it.”

“Strap in,” she said, turning back to the controls. The shuttle’s engines were already warmed up, had been for an hour--Samara did not believe in being unprepared. It was up to her to make the first move, and then the other shuttles would follow, moving together down to the surface. It was more suspicious, but they had to arrive roughly together; there was no way around that.

Tsang exited the tiny cockpit, and Samara listened for his “All in!” call from behind her, then activated her own shock harness. The loose webbing settled around her and then tightened up with surprising strength, pressing down on her armor. Everyone was fully geared up now, all weapons loaded and ready, helmets on, coms active, though in standby mode. And now, they were all strapped in. Samara gave Alger and Ming another two minutes, knowing that it wasn’t necessary, but taking into account any unforeseen problems. Then she released the docking clamps.

The assault shuttle floated free quite gently, shoved only by the force of the retracting clamps. Samara took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and set her hands on the controls. Unlike Hornet, the shuttle had only secondary holo controls; her primary interface was two sticks, one controlling attitude the other weapons and thrust. This was going to be a bumpy ride, even under the best of circumstances; no one wanted her hands flopping through projected controls that shouldn’t be touched.

Starting up the main engines, Samara pushed the shuttle out of the shadow of the module where they’d been docked for over a day, then stabbed a button with a finger to activate the IFF broadcast. The system did not transmit continuously, but would now respond immediately to any queries. The main holo in front of her showed a navigational schematic overlaid on a real-time external view, and Makassar’s primary caused the image to fade slightly as she turned towards the planet; the star was just coming over the planet’s limb.

Immediately, automated systems on the station started sending queries towards her. The shuttle’s A.I. answered them calmly, transmitting a reasonable point of origin, ID and destination. The automated systems were satisfied and shut down, routing the shuttle’s flight plan into the station’s orbital control manifest. Then, in quick succession, two more shuttles appeared, and again the queries went out. Again, reasonable and verifiable flight plans and IFF codes returned. The station, however, queried everyone again, justifiably suspicious that three shuttles were leaving at the same time, with the same destination, but from different parts of the complex.

Samara watched this all proceed on a secondary screen to her left; immediately upon launch, the three shuttles had reestablished their secure com links, and so Samara was looking at data being streamed from Alger and Ming’s shuttles as well. The station was satisfied with the A.I.s’ replies, and shunted the shuttles back to orbital control.

Toggling a switch, Samara opened a voice channel between the three cockpits. “Everyone stay cool.”

“Oh, aye, we’re cool,” muttered Alger. “Bloody well cool.”

“Nominal,” was all Ming had to say, which was fine by Samara.

The three shuttles accelerated away from the station and started towards the planet. Their reentry window was already approved, and there were no more challenges for now. When orbital control passed them over to ground control, however, there would be more queries. That would be the real test. The minutes ticked away in silence as the approach path unrolled underneath Samara’s shuttle and she waited, almost patiently, for her bluff to be called.

They were almost hitting atmosphere, such as it was, when ground control started querying the three shuttles. Messages flew back and forth, codes were exchanged automatically; then it all happened again. Someone was suspicious. Samara braced herself at the controls, a pre-programmed evasive maneuver already in place; she could activate it in the blink of an eye. Ignoring the message panel, she kept her eyes glued to the threat display. The shuttle’s sensors did not pick up any targeting scanners, however, and the moment passed. Ground control took over and the shuttles continued on their programmed flight paths.

Samara wasn’t sure she wanted to, but she took a deep, relieved breath anyway. She did not glance over her shoulder at the happy mutterings of her team behind her, though. That much self control she still had left.

Atmosphere rose up to meet them, wisps of noxious gas that barely qualified for the word “air.” The shuttles bounced slightly, but it was nothing compared to the thick-atmosphere landings Samara had done in her distant past, just a gentle rocking, a few soft bumps. Even the inexperienced team members behind her were likely not vomiting, as they would definitely have been on a combat landing in hard air. A few moments later, the shuttle and her two comrades were inside and through the worst turbulence, coasting smoothly on their long, slow descent paths.

There was nothing for Samara to do but sit back and watch and worry. She did all to equal measure; this was all going too easily for her taste. It was almost beyond belief that the IFF codes had worked, but it was impossible that they hadn’t. No matter what else would happen, the Russians would not have let the three shuttles this far into the atmosphere if they’d had any inkling of who and what was on those ships. Lion Star, too, was orbiting placidly, like a grazing cow, oblivious to the venomous snakes slithering under her belly.

Now where, thought Samara, did that metaphor come from? Probably something left over from her childhood. She shrugged it off and kept a close watch. Norilsk spiraled closer and closer as the shuttles passed through three thousand meters and started to slow their descent. Severnaya was now nearly under the horizon, and planetary ground control passed the shuttles on to local control for the final test. Query was answered by codes and the ground station fell silent.

Samara sat up straight in her chair, as much as the shock harness allowed, and her hands tightened on the controls. The shuttles passed through two thousand meters as she waited for the second query, for the same suspicious reaction that the other two control programs had shown. The queries did not come, not for any of the three shuttles. Perhaps the local ground station was not a sophisticated model, but surely there was a human controller, some sort of backup for just this sort of situation. Then again, Norilsk might logically trust to the far more advanced systems of the orbiting station and the city of Severnaya. It might.

Samara released the shuttle’s thrust controls--there was no way she was releasing the attitude override--and fiddled with the holo display in front of her. The navigational overlay vanished and the real-time image of the town below zoomed in. The shuttles were only a thousand meters up, and details resolved quickly. The threat sensors were still green, but there was something down there, and they were close enough that targeting scans were unnecessary. Samara panned the image left, then spun it around as her shuttle executed another lazy spiral over the town. Nothing. Back to the left. There.

Nestled in the lee of one of the town’s larger structures was a weapons mount. It was not on Hornet’s original scans. There were no weapons on Hornet’s scans.

“Evasive!” screamed Samara over the com. She jerked the control stick sideways less than a second before the guns opened fire. Plasma rounds lashed out from the ground and the shuttle bucked as two shots connected with the belly armor, just half a meter from a crippling hit to the engines. Samara banked hard, then jerked back on the stick, slamming the thrust control forward for maximum power. The assault shuttle stuck its nose into the air and screamed upwards, and then the threat panel suddenly turned red and alarms howled through the cockpit and the compartment behind as Lion Star turned on her targeting systems.

Samara risked a glance at the status of the other shuttles. Ming was unhit; her piloting skills were inhuman, literally so, and she’d dodged the first salvos from the hidden guns with almost pathetic ease, moving the assault shuttle through dips and turns that its designers would have been stunned to witness. Alger was just a hint slower, and he’d had to react not to a visual, but to Samara’s shouted warning. His shuttle was down already, and though Samara knew that the damage was not severe, she cursed anyway; there was no way she was leaving those eleven people here while she and Ming escaped.

“Landing time!” she shouted, both to Ming and to the people in the compartment behind her. She rolled the shuttle onto its back.

The threat board squealed again, and Samara’s blood went cold as Lion Star opened fire, heavy particle cannons lighting up the upper atmosphere with bright yellow explosions. Some of the fractional-cee projectiles were hitting too hard but most were penetrating, their muzzle velocity cut sharply down by the weapons officer on the pirate ship. Samara dodged frantically, jerking her ship out of the way of the first broadside. Ming’s shuttle was clipped, and a casualty light flickered on one of Samara’s panels, but the shuttle kept moving: Ming was still flying.

The ground weapons fired again, and a half dozen heavy plasma rounds slammed into Samara’s shuttle, but that sort of fire the ship was designed to withstand, and she shrugged it off and nosed the vessel down, aiming in for the town. If she managed to get close enough, Lion Star would be forced to stop firing. Unless the town was evacuated and they didn’t mind punching hundreds of holes in it. Samara could only assume this was not the case. The alternative was death.

Another volley lanced out from the orbiting ship, and two rounds punched through Samara’s shuttle as she jiggled the attitude stick wildly, nearly losing control of the shuttle as it bucked from side to side and flipped end over end, dropping through two hundred meters like a stone before leveling out. The high-vee rounds had passed right through the shuttle as though it wasn’t there, and atmosphere was howling out through the holes. Samara couldn’t spare a hand to slip on the emergency breathing mask that fell from the overhead, but somehow Tsang was there, on his feet even though the shuttle was like a wild thing, thrashing about in the air.

Tsang grabbed the mask, yanked it down, and slid it over Samara’s face; plasma rounds hit the bow of the shuttle at the same time, and the whole ship nearly came to a stop under the heavy barrage. Tsang flew forwards and slammed into the bulkhead with a hideous cracking noise. Samara bit off a curse as the body slid down across her controls. The shuttle tilted madly to port and she yanked it back on course by force of will more than anything else. She was only two hundred meters off the ground now, and more plasma was pouring on; Lion Star wasn’t shooting anymore, but it didn’t matter. Plating crumpled, then shattered inwards. Samara desperately yanked back on the attitude stick, putting tougher belly armor between her and the guns, then felt a sickening feeling in her stomach as the shuttle fell backwards out of the air.

The back end of the assault ship plowed into the roof of the town meeting hall with a thunderous crash, and Samara was thrown against her shock harness with enough force to nearly black her out. Tsang’s head popped open as it was smashed against the bulkhead again, and blood and worse slid down over the controls, but Samara did not release her tight grip on the two sticks. Backing off on the throttle, she shoved the shuttle’s nose forwards, and the ship settled back onto her belly.

This was too much for the sagging roof of the meeting hall, and the shuttle fell through, down another ten meters to the floor of the big chamber. The little ship bounced once, slid sideways, and crushed two internal bulkheads under its massive weight before shuddering to a halt at last. Rushing air howled in Samara’s ears as the big space outside the shuttle depressurized with frightening speed.

For a moment, she couldn’t move. It wasn’t just that the shock harness’s automatic release was not functioning, but her hands would not let go of the controls. “God damn it, let go!” growled Samara at herself. Then she slipped her hands off the sticks and pushed down hard against the manual harness release. The webbing sprang free and retracted up over her head. Tsang’s body, released from its wedged position against the bulkhead, toppled to the floor with a wet thud. Samara tried not to look at her second in command and stood, pulling herself around the pilot’s chair so she could look into the main compartment.

Yakazuma was on her feet already, a portable breathing unit in her hands; she was trying to attach it to a sealed helmet. The pressure would soon be too low for any of them to have exposed skin. Beyond her were Czerney, Obu, Millman, and Luma, looking very grim; there were only two others, Sanchez and Alexander Debros. The rear end of the shuttle was a wreck of twisted metal and plastic; the toilet had broken free and crushed Tillin, and a piece of tubing from the engines had impaled Yang’s head. Her body sat still in her undamaged shock harness. No one was looking at her.

“First priority is air,” said Samara. There was no time to dwell on anything else. Yakazuma tossed the assembled helmet and air unit towards Samara, and the XO caught it with a nod. “Get moving. Luma first, then Yakazuma. The two of you set up on top, in case we get visitors.”

Turning back to the cockpit as the team started moving again, Samara slipped off her own helmet, then the breathing mask from the shuttle, holding in a last breath of stale, canned air. She pulled the sealed helmet on over her head and let it attach itself to her armor. The collar of the suit had to stretch slightly to adjust to the helmet’s somewhat imperfect fit, and then the seal was tight. Air washed over Samara’s face with a brief gust and she took another breath as she let the tank settle on her back. It fixed itself tightly, and the armor rolled out a thin layer of protection over the tank.

“Ming, Alger, status,” said Samara, turning to the few remaining active screens in the cockpit. The laser com link was broken, but she was getting some data from the other shuttles. There was less need now for a secure line.

“We’re down,” said Ming. “Shuttle’s intact, but we’re holed, and I lost Streyer. I set us down by an airlock; we’re near our objective, and I estimate we’ll be inside in another five minutes.”

“We’re bloody fucked,” came Alger’s familiar growl. Samara was relieved to hear him. “I’ve got four dead, two wounded. Hull’s intact, but we’re fully suited now. I’m planning on entering the town and setting up a perimeter. We are near the primary objective.”

“Well lucky us,” said Samara. “I’ve depressurized the meeting hall by crashing through it, so I guess we’ve got all three objectives covered. I lost three, no wounded.”

“Are we fucked?” asked Ming.

“Aye,” replied Alger, “but we’ll show ‘em what fucked is before we go out.”

“Let’s not give up yet. Maccabee’ll be here any minute,” said Samara, trying to keep things in hand. I hope. “Priority one is getting into the station. Report when you are secured.”

“Roger,” said Ming. “Aye,” said Alger. Then the line fell silent.

Samara turned and saw that her team was suited up now, and Yakazuma was climbing up the ladder and out of the shuttle’s top hatch, following Luma. “Anything up there?”

“Just a big mess,” growled Luma, grunting as she wrestled the big Thresher into position on top of the shuttle. “Nothing yet,” added Yakazuma, anticipation filling her voice.

“Let’s get out of this heap,” said Samara. She made good on her words, taking a step over to the ladder and starting to climb. The shuttle didn’t offer much protection, but it was a large target--one better left behind as soon as possible. Climbing out of the top hatch, she pulled the Dreamreaver free of its holster and took a quick scan of the room they’d crashed into. Luma was right: it was a mess.

Ceramacrete and structural steel littered the floor in huge, ragged chunks, and the remaining air was stirring up clouds of dust as it whistled out through the gaping hole in the roof overhead. Pressure doors had already closed to seal off most of the passages out of the large meeting hall, except for one exit on the far side and two behind the raised stage that dominated the nearer of the short walls. Detritus and more dust was blowing into the hall from these open doors as the air beyond was sucked out into the low-pressure atmosphere of the planet.

Samara stepped over to the side of the shuttle, motioning for Yakazuma to follow, then dropped off to the floor, letting her armor absorb most of the impact of the three meter fall. Yakazuma landed heavily beside her, but she heard nothing; the air was almost gone, and the suit helmet was thick. Luma swiveled the Thresher above them, finally ready to fire. The shuttle was near one long wall of the hall, and all the doors on that side were sealed, so she trained her weapon towards the larger open area and let the others climbing out of the crippled ship cover her back.

“Not much cover,” Samara ventured over the helmet com. Chairs and tables were stacked against the walls, and there were some low, bunker-like offices built against the far wall, but the main floor was essentially empty, like an open hanger. Samara was starting to reconsider how useful the shuttle would be as a strong point. At least it sported some armor, unlike the block wall offices or folding chairs.

“We should set up teams at the open doors,” said Yakazuma, her voice still dreadfully eager. “Let Luma cover from here, while we work close in.”

“And if they open up one of the other doors?” asked Samara. There were at least two dozen entrances to the hall.

“We’ll have enough warning,” Yakazuma replied flatly.

Samara shook her head. “No, we need some sort of cover.” She scanned the rubble around them, then turned to the team above her. “Get down off that thing and set up some fox holes in this wreckage,” she instructed. “Someone help Luma off that thing too, she’s too exposed.”

“No shit,” muttered Luma. Then she suddenly squeezed off a burst, and half a hundred rounds flashed downrange to pepper one of the open entrances behind the stage. “Movement!” barked Luma as the gun fell silent.

The others were already off the shuttle’s top, ducking behind pieces of ceramacrete, and Samara dropped onto her belly behind a twisted piece of steel. Yakazuma didn’t move except to turn and raise two of her pistols, pointing towards the doorway Luma had already shot. Samara swore softly under her breath.

“God damn it, Yakazuma!” she hissed. “Get some fucking cover!”

“There’s no one there anyway,” said the other woman, her voice completely calm. Then a stream of plasma rounds sailed towards her from one of the other open doors. The shots were poorly aimed and slammed into the shuttle’s heavy armor without much effect. Yakazuma didn’t flinch, but turned and pumped off two careful bursts from each pistol. There was no way to tell if she’d hit anything, and a moment later, Luma fired another volley at the offending doorway, then spun back and hit the first one she’d fired at again, for good measure. Yakazuma stood unconcernedly for another moment, then sat down behind another chunk of ceiling.

“Shit,” growled Samara. They were pinned under a crossfire. She had no illusions that the Thresher would be able to take care of everyone in those passages. There was undoubtedly some cover to be had. More small-bore plasma fire came down from both open doors, and Luma replied with short bursts in each direction, but one shot landed close enough that Samara heard Luma grunt over the com. “Get down here, now!” she barked. “Everyone else, covering fire!” The rest of the team moved into firing positions and opened up at both doorways, and Luma lifted the Thresher up and leapt off the top of the shuttle. Halfway down, another burst of plasma hit her full in the chest, slamming her backwards against the shuttle--the fire had come from the third open doorway!

“Yakazuma!” shouted Samara as she half-ran, half-crawled towards the prone body of her fallen team member. Yakazuma popped up and started firing on full automatic, switching her aim from door to door, always keeping two under fire at any time. The others each picked a door and hosed it down with multiple bursts for good measure, but the deadly stream of 3mm railpistol fire form Yakazuma was enough cover. She stood up on top of a large pile of debris, and kept firing.

Samara slid to a stop by Luma, who was still breathing, trying to move, and Samara held a hand to her shoulder to keep her from struggling. “Lie still,” she ordered in a voice that brooked no dissent. Luma gasped and collapsed back. The Thresher was lying across her legs; it had taken part of the impact, and its main feed coil was melted, rendering it useless. The rest of the volley of plasma had melted and cracked Luma’s chest armor, and some of the energy had bled through to her flesh. Blood was bubbling out of the holes as the negative pressure sucked on Luma’s innards. The armor’s reactive sealant was apparently not working properly.

Moving quickly, Samara grabbed a small bottle from a clip on the leg of her armor, then sprayed the contents of the bottle over the damaged sections of Luma’s chestplate. The thick foam that came out hardened immediately on the outside, but Samara knew that inside it would also be sealing the wounds in Luma’s chest and stopping the bleeding. The internal injuries that she was sure to have were another story, but the spray might keep her alive long enough to get her back to the ship.

Samara’s helmet was now giving her simulated battle feedback, and she could “hear” Yakazuma’s guns chattering away; then she heard the distinctive whine and heavy crump! of a large-bore blaster cannon. Small bits of debris pinged off her armor--she could hear that for real--and she spun, ducking down as another whine-crump! sounded loudly in her helmet and a second round landed, blasting a chunk of ceramacrete into splinters and knocking Obu sprawling onto his back. Even Yakazuma jumped down off her exposed position now and ducked down behind some cover, holstering her empty pistols and pulling out the second set.

“Where’s the cannon?” shouted Samara over the com as she slid into cover beside Yakazuma about five meters from the shuttle. Another whine-crump!, this time into the shuttle, denting the heavy armor inwards and leaving exposed edges glowing an angry red.

“Third door,” answered Yakazuma.

“Grenades!” Samara ordered, pulling one of her own out. She paused for half a second as the others did the same, then hurled the device with all her strength at the door Yakazuma had pointed out. Six others flew out as well, arcing smoothly through the air. Two came up well short, including Samara’s, but as they exploded, the next cannon shot went wild, holing the side of the building above the shuttle. Then the other four grenades landed, almost at the same time, their fire combining into a twenty-meter ball of plasma that engulfed the doorway.

Samara popped to her knees to get a clear shot and shouldered her rifle. “Fire on all targets!” she yelled. The rest of team responded smoothly, as one unit, automatically dividing up the three doorways between them so each was equally covered. Small-bore plasma rounds rocketed their way, and Samara felt one score her shoulder armor, but she felt no burn-through. Obu took a round to the chest, but it only felled him for a moment. The P-8 armor was holding on. Railgun rounds streamed downrange in controlled bursts as each member of the team looked for something like a target before committing their precious ammunition.

The fireball by the third doorway was finally dissipating, and Samara was satisfied to see a ragged, gaping maw where the neat doorway had once stood. Then she saw the squat, ugly barrel of the blaster cannon about three meters into the exposed passage; its front blast shield was flickering and dying, but still intact, as was the weapon itself. “Down!” she screamed, throwing herself sideways. Whine-crump! Samara saw Sanchez’s torso disappear as the round hit him full in the chest, sending limbs and head flying in a wash of blood that settled in a fine, pink mist. She felt a scream rising in her chest, but pushed it down; she ignored the way her hand slipped on a smear of blood from one of Sanchez’s legs as she struggled to her feet, dropping her rifle and pulling out the Dreamreaver. She had just a moment, just half a second for the cannon’s power cell to cycle back to ready. A rifle shot from somewhere connected hard with her thigh, and pain and heat spread through the leg--definitely penetration--but she ignored that too and fired two shots at the cannon. She let her momentum carry her onwards and back down, and then her helmet simulated a hollow, echoing boom as it sensed and recorded the cannon’s death.

Samara rolled onto her back, the Dreamreaver clutched against her chest. “Luma, you still with me?” she asked.

“Still here, boss,” came Luma’s pained voice.


“I’m fine,” he answered, but his voice sounded strained.

“Millman, you’re helping Luma,” ordered Samara, her mind working quickly. A few more plasma bursts headed their way, but most of the opposition seemed momentarily out of commission. Yakazuma fired a few return shots, just to keep anyone from getting too bold. “Czerney, you’re covering them. Debros, you and Yakazuma are covering the lot of us; Obu, you’re with me.”

“Where are we going?” asked Millman as he low-walked to Luma’s side and shouldered the Thresher off her legs.

“We’re getting the fuck out of here,” replied Samara. She activated the command channel then and connected to Ming and Alger. “This is Samara, what’s your status?”

“We’re inside,” came Ming’s ready reply. “We’ve secured the power station, and are about to shut it down. Minimal resistance.”

“I’ve got plenty for ya, lass,” growled Alger. He sounded in pain, but Samara ignored that; he was still in action and that was what mattered. “There must be a fucking battalion down here. I’ve lost two more, and we’re outgunned. No sign of the target.” There was a pause, presumably so that Alger could go about killing someone without any distractions. Neither Ming nor Samara said anything. Samara’s heart was racing. The situation was rapidly getting out of hand. Then Alger came back on: “We’ll not hold them much longer.”

“Right,” said Samara. “Ming, you shut down that plant, then create as much havoc on your side as you can. Alger, hold tight. I’m coming to you.”

“You’ll have to fight your way through the bastards,” he rumbled.

“That’s the idea.” Samara grinned fiercely, though neither of the others could see her. “Call me if you’re in trouble.”

“Damn it, lass, I’m already in trouble!” Then Alger laughed. “Bastards won’t know what hit ‘em!”

“I’m on my way,” said Samara. Then she switched over to her team’s channel. They had already dispersed around her, and there was no enemy fire now. That was a fleeting calm, Samara knew. She rolled over and pushed herself up onto her feet, then ducked to pick up her discarded rifle. “Time to go.”

Keeping low and moving quickly, she led the way from the shuttle towards the back wall of the hall, opposite the stage. The others moved out behind her, keeping enough distance between them so that a single shot or volley couldn’t kill more than one. Samara heard Czerney mutter from behind her, “I hate this shit,” and grinned. She was starting to remember just how much she loved it.