Part 1: Going Down
Dense clouds in various shades of yellow, brown, and grey surrounded the dropship as it pierced the outer layers of an unnamed planet’s thick hydrogen-methane atmosphere.
The so far smooth ride through interplanetary space immediately became bumpy, as soon as the atmosphere was dense enough to affect the small craft’s flight path.
Piloting the dropship, as it descended towards the planet’s surface, was First Lieutenant Emenike Osondu. Since he was flying blind, deprived of any visual reference by the thick cloud layer, he had to rely entirely on his navigator, Lieutenant Catalina Figueroa and his gunner, Sergeant Marc Van den Berg, who would warn him of any enemy activity.
“How’s our comm-link?” Osondu asked.
“Active so far,” his navigator answered, “at our current angle and velocity we can expect communication blackout in five, lasting for fifteen.”
“Fifteen minutes?” The pilot enquired, eyebrows raised.
“It’s a thick-ass atmosphere,” Lieutenant Figueroa replied matter-of-factly.
As they hurled towards solid ground, friction with the atmosphere began to form a plasma cone around the dropship. Soon afterwards, communications with the outside world were cut off, while the super-heated plasma drew a line through the atmosphere, announcing the small craft’s whereabouts to anyone watching.
“This is my least favourite part,” Sergeant Van den Berg stated, while switching back and forth between his various displays.
The ship’s detection capabilities were severely limited during this phase, and even the use of active scanning only bore limited results. On top of that, the dropship’s manoeuvrability was restricted, for any abrupt change to the flight path could overstress the hull and cause parts to fall off, or worse, could overstress the flight-crew’s bodies and cause organs to fail.
Deep within the atmosphere, the clouds being pushed away by the small craft caused it to vibrate and shake heavily. As the descent continued, the temperature on board began to rise and Osondu, Figueroa and Van den Berg relied on their vac-suits’ climate control to prevent them from being baked alive.
This phase of the flight was anything but comfortable.
“Anything on the scopes?” Osondu asked his gunner, his voice calm, hiding the tension within him.
“Negative,” Van den Berg replied curtly, while adjusting the settings on his scanners, “we’re still blacked out.”
Still the flight remained rough. The dropship now shook violently, as the atmosphere could not move out of the way fast enough. The plasma cone that preceded it was the craft’s doom and salvation simultaneously. While it blinded the crew and cut them off from the rest of the universe, it also shielded them from enemy fire.
As the intense friction slowed the dropship down further, the plasma surrounding it slowly dissipated. The visibility did not improve much for the crew, as the thick, toxic atmosphere never allowed for an opening in the clouds. The ship’s sensors however were now able to provide much needed information.
Once the dropship had slowed down further, First Lieutenant Osondu began to add irregular turns to their flight path, aiming to make it less predictable.
“There’s a...” Sergeant Van den Berg began to report a sensor reading, but was cut short as the clouds around them suddenly started to shine in a bright, almost blinding, sinister kind of light. Seconds later, a focused plasma burst, fired from the planet’s surface, burnt its way through the atmosphere, missing them by less than a hundred meters.
Osondu flinched, and the small craft lurched to the right. Figueroa shouted some course corrections based on their new trajectory, which the pilot implemented, while Van den Berg went over the collected data.
“High-calibre plasma canon?” Osondu asked.
“Affirm,” the gunner confirmed his pilot’s guess, before adding, “based on the estimated yield and velocity of the burst, they’ll need about five minutes to recharge the capacitors and fire again.”
“Understood,” The pilot briefly replied, while swerving left, “Cat, keep those course corrections coming,” he added for his navigator.
Closing the distance to their assigned landing site, Osondu made sure to keep his flight manoeuvres as erratic and unpredictable as possible. In addition to the plasma fire, the dropship would soon be in range of surface-to-air missiles. The only respite was that the atmosphere’s density prohibited the use of conventional projectile weapons.
As if to drive the point home, shortly after the pilot had thought about it, Sergeant Van den Berg announced, “We’ve got incoming! Multiple SAMs, closing in fast!” before continuing, almost in the same breath, “PDC online, point-defence lasers engaging!”
The only indication that anything was happening came from the gunner’s displays, which showed the blips of the incoming missiles disappearing one by one, while the laser’s temperature gauge slowly began to climb.
Almost perfectly in sync, the three crewmembers let out a sigh of relief. From there on, the flight remained uneventful for the next few minutes.
“Not as bad as I had feared,” Marc Van den Berg stated, some sweat apparent on the part of his forehead that could be seen through the visor.
“That’s what she said,” Catalina Figueroa joked, throwing a wide grin at the Sergeant.
“Stop it you two,” Emenike Osondu interjected, but there was no hostility in his voice, “pick it up when we get back to base if you want.”
They all shared a brief laugh, enjoying the light-hearted moment, but then quickly became serious and focused again.
The ever-changing yet repetitive display of swirling clouds around the dropship seemed to have no end. Osondu kept flying evasive manoeuvres even though the Tarhinans were not firing at them anymore. Despite the now monotonous feeling that began to set in, the crew remained professional and never let their guard down.
Suddenly, everything changed.
The small craft broke through the bottom of the cloud layer. The desolate landscape below them extended to the horizon and was bathed in an eerie orange glow. The deadly atmosphere had left the planet void of any kind of vegetation. Soft, dusty hills spread wide, only to be interrupted by rough canyons that intersected the landscape like massive scars.
First Lieutenant Osondu barely had time to rearrange his derailed facial expression. No one had expected clear skies on the last part of their journey. Before anyone could react, the ship’s hull began to resonate, the armour being bombarded by countless high-velocity projectiles from ground-based rail-batteries.
The pilot immediately pushed the throttle all the way forward and oriented the ship upwards, accelerating back towards the clouds. This drastic manoeuvre inflicted some serious gee-forces on everyone on board, blurring their vision momentarily.
It took the dropship only a few seconds to disappear into the cloud layer. In that short amount of time however, the armour plating as well as some hull-mounted sensors and modules sustained heavy damage.
A multitude of orange and red markers filled the flight-crew’s displays, accompanied by an intense, high-pitched beeping. Osondu muted the alarm and ignored every warning indicator as long as they were under fire, focusing instead on getting them out of harm’s way. He trusted that Figueroa and Van den Berg would handle whatever damage control was possible given the situation.
“How are we looking?” the pilot asked, as soon as the clouds protected them once again from projectile fire.
“We’ve lost active sensors, about thirty percent of our armoured plating, but hull integrity doesn’t seem compromised,” Sergeant Van den Berg replied.
“Starboard engine is losing thrust,” Lieutenant Figueroa added, before continuing, “also, we’re going to overshoot our landing site.”
First Lieutenant Osondu closed his eyes tightly for a second. After opening them again, he stared at the display in front of him, while he continued to perform the random manoeuvres that had so far saved their lives.
“What do you two think?” he then asked, “Can we make it to our landing site if we double back and approach from a different angle?”
“Doubtful,” Van den Berg replied, drily, “we can’t take many more hits like that.”
“They’ll see us coming,” Figueroa added for emphasis.
“Then we’ll have to come from where they won’t expect us,” Osondu said, a grin forming on his face.
“Oh gods, what crazy manoeuvre did you come up with now?” his gunner asked, turning his head towards the pilot in order to watch his facial expressions.
“Simple,” Osondu said, “we’ll dive out of the clouds as steep as possible and pull up at the last moment and come in low and fast.”
Figueroa and Van den Berg exchanged glances behind Osondu’s head. They came to a silent agreement that their reservations would most likely be overheard.
“You’re the boss, boss,” Lieutenant Figueroa briefly said.
Not saying anything, Osondu reversed their course and began to climb. He knew that his navigator would indicate to him when he had to initiate the dive. He purposefully remained off course, mentally preparing himself to adjust the heading at the last moment.
After what seemed like an eternity of flying through the dense clouds, Lieutenant Figueroa glanced over to her pilot and calmly said, “Now, dive dive dive.”
Without replying, Osondu put the dropship in a steep descent towards the surface. Within seconds, they broke through the cloud cover, and the uninviting ground stared up at them.
The altimeter portion of their head-up display could barely keep up with the rate at which they neared the planet’s surface. Even without the clouds, air resistance was an obstacle, and the small ship began to vibrate furiously.
As if this was not enough strain on the small craft, the Tarhinan rail-batteries resumed firing and kept a steady flow of projectiles aimed at the dropship. Many of which missed, but enough found their target, so that the situation became more dire with every passing moment.
“Distance to ground?” First Lieutenant Osondu asked, while maintaining a firm grip on his controls.
“Passing 5000 meters,” Lieutenant Figueroa responded.
“Warm up the manoeuvring thrusters, we’re gonna need them.”
“Manoeuvring thrusters on standby, synchronised with flight controls,” she confirmed the execution of her pilot’s order.
“Damage report,” Osondu requested next.
“Armoured plating approaching critical,” Sergeant Van den Berg reported, “a well-placed hit could endanger hull integrity.”
At this speed, any sudden change to the flight path could destabilise the dropship, which was not known for being the most optimised for atmospheric flight. This meant that the ship and its occupants were left at the mercy of the rail-guns that were relentlessly firing at them.
Van den Berg glanced at the vertical speed indicator and said, “Aren’t we going too fast? We’ll break apart if we pull out of the dive like this.”
“That’s what the manoeuvring thrusters are for,” Osondu explained, his voice shaking from the strain he was under, “if we slow down now, we’re an even easier target.”
“We’ve lost the starboard engine,” Figueroa interjected, accompanied by a renewed beeping of the master warning.
“Shit!” the pilot exclaimed, “Mute the alarm.”
The descent continued. Propelled by its remaining main engine, the dropship kept accelerating towards the surface. As they passed 3000 meters, First Lieutenant Osondu throttled down and the craft began to slow down slightly, having well exceeded terminal velocity.
“Passing 2000!” Figueroa announced, her voice tight.
“Count down to 1500,” Osondu ordered, his breath now ragged.
“Seventeen hundred!” the navigator shouted, louder than necessary.
“Sixteen hundred!” she continued, only moments later.
“Fifteen hundred!” she finally said.
Osondu pulled out of the dive, hard. He pushed the throttle forward in order to increase the lift on the ridiculously small lifting surfaces that did not deserve to be called wings. The manoeuvring thrusters kicked in automatically, further cancelling out the downwards motion.
The strain on the hull was enormous. On top of the wailing plasma injectors working at full capacity and the shrieking thrusters, the sound of the struts, bending under pressure, filled the small cabin. The flight-crew was shaken so hard that it became almost impossible for them to read their displays. Once again, gee-forces pressed them into their seats, pushing their bodies close to their limits.
The dropship was slowly levelling off when a projectile finally managed to punch through the hull. The intense pressure of the hydrogen-methane atmosphere that came rushing in was more than the battered craft could handle. It broke apart mid-air, raining down debris on an unforgiving world.
“Great, now you’ve killed us,” Lieutenant Figueroa said, as the holographic simulation dissolved around them.
“How do you figure?” First Lieutenant Osondu replied as he got up, a smug look on his face, “The way I see it, this was the only way to make it through. It just didn’t work out.”
“We could have aborted the mission,” Sergeant Van den Berg countered, but the pilot waved him off.
The trio left the simulator and made their way to the mess hall. They continued talking about their horrible demise.
Ultimately, Figueroa concluded, while laughing and punching Osondu in the shoulder, “Well tomorrow we head out for a nice relaxing supply run. At least you won’t be able to blow us up then.”