Part 2: Supply run
“Good morning ladies,” First Lieutenant Osondu said to his navigator, as he entered the small craft’s cockpit.
“Morning, Runner,” Lieutenant Figueroa replied.
He did not enjoy the fairly unoriginal nickname but would tolerate it coming from her.
“Morning zondagsrijder,” Sergeant Van den Berg added in a high-pitched squeak, which he considered to be his version of a female voice.
“Sunday driver? Really?” Osondu said, raising an eyebrow and throwing his head back slightly. He laughed as he added, “Well in that case I can’t guarantee a relaxing flight for you.”
According to Osondu, there was nothing better than a friendly round of flight-crew banter to start the day. This opinion was shared by the vast majority of crew members, as it contributed to relieve tension. You did not want additional stress before flying off into enemy fire.
“How are we looking?” Osondu asked, taking his place in the pilot’s chair and handing over the data cube with their flight plan and cargo manifest.
“You’re looking great as usual,” his navigator, Lieutenant Catalina Figueroa, replied while winking at her pilot, as she took the cube from his hand. A genuine and gorgeous smile adorned her face.
“Oh stop it, Cat,” Sergeant Marc Van den Berg tuned in from the gunner’s seat, situated to Osondu’s right, “if you get his ego started he’ll want to do fancy flying to impress you again.”
The three of them laughed wholeheartedly, which was a good start. They would need a lot of humour to make this day interesting.
Making supply runs, from one of the freighters accompanying the fleet to their affiliated troop carrier, was pretty much the dullest job a dropship flight-crew could be assigned to do. It only became necessary when there was a shortage of something vital on board and no regular transport ships, or “haulers” as they were nicknamed in the fleet, were available.
Figueroa leaned against the left side of the short, cramped cockpit, trying to give Osondu some space to settle in his seat. The pilot was rather tall, towering at 192 centimetres, making it difficult for him to fit in the confined space. The term “cockpit” was not adequate in order to describe their workspace.
It was the result of engineers asking themselves how they could fit as much cargo space in as small a vessel as possible and remembering at the last minute that someone would have to fly the damned thing.
As they went through the check-list, all three of them were grateful that they did not have to wear vacuum suits on this flight as it was not a combat mission. In case of emergency, the cockpit would seal off and separate from the cargo hold, keeping them from floating away into open space. This was something one should definitely avoid without protective gear designed for that purpose.
Another added bonus of not having to wear the bulky vacuum suits, as far as both Osondu and Van den Berg were concerned, was that they would get to admire Figueroa’s quite pronounced feminine curves that pressed against the fitted jumpsuit she was currently wearing.
The grey and gold suit complemented her sun-kissed skin and short brown hair nicely, making her rather attractive and often the centre of attention at social gatherings. She was aware of this and knew how to play that card to her advantage.
The two men that made up the flight-crew were on opposite sides of the spectrum, Osondu and Van den Berg respectively being as dark and as fair as they came. This meant that the pilot stood out in more than one way, adding his imposing personality to his physical appearance.
Van den Berg on the other hand, being much quieter and shorter than the man from the West-African Commonwealth, was usually able to pass unnoticed, which suited his personality nicely.
The trio had been assigned to the same dropship aboard the troop carrier ISC Phantom Angel for a little over a year now and had already logged hundreds of flight-hours together.
They had reached the point where they knew and felt that they could rely on each other. The synergy that they had developed, while not being uncommon among flight-crews, was part of what helped them excel in their jobs.
“Are we ready?” Osondu asked his crew.
“Yes Sir!” Figueroa responded, her voice sounding unusually monotone.
“How about you, Van?” the pilot asked his gunner.
“Ready when you are,” Van den Berg replied.
“Alright then, here we go,” Osondu said and the three of them adorned the headsets that would allow them to talk to their mothership.
“Papa Alpha, this is dropship Bravo-Three-Delta, in the top hangar on the umbilical, ready for warm power-up.”
After receiving clearance from flight control, First Lieutenant Osondu followed his check-list and initiated the fusion reactor’s power-up sequence. Once the ship’s reactor was online and stable, the umbilical that had so far been transferring electric energy was disconnected.
The maintenance and safety crews that had been on standby surrounding the dropship vacated the hangar before the impressive vacuum pumps sucked the air out of it. Finally, the overhead bay doors were opened, allowing the flight crew to take their vessel for a quick round trip through the system.
Once the troop carrier’s artificial gravity in the hangar had been deactivated, a small boost with the manoeuvring thrusters was enough to get the dropship off the ground.
As soon as they had cleared their mothership’s superstructure, Osondu engaged the small but powerful ion engines that would accelerate their craft towards its destination, while Figueroa plotted the most favourable course, allowing them to reach the freighter that was following Phantom Angel in a lower orbit.
The forty-four hour flight would push the dropship and its crew to their limits, but it was either take on that flight or let the soldiers of the 165th Outer Space Infantry Regiment go into combat without sufficient medical supplies a few days from now.
Luckily, the autopilot took care of the occasional course correction during the flight. This meant that Osondu, Figueroa and Van den Berg were able to relax once the first burn-phase of their flight was over, as they were drifting through space towards their destination.
Task Force Proxima, of which they were a part, had only been assembled a few months earlier and rapidly dispatched to Proxima Centauri by Earth’s International Space Defence Force.
They were headed into what appeared to be the first all-out engagement with the Tarhinan separatists in the last few years. The overall conflict had been going on for over thirty years, following the declaration of independence by Earth’s colonies in the Tarhinan System.
Major battles and landing operations caused so much attrition on equipment and personnel that often years went by while both sides licked their wounds and prepared for the next skirmish. This time however, the outcome was much more critical.
The Tarhinans had managed to establish an outpost spread across the planets orbiting Proxima Centauri, the star system closest to Earth. This direct challenge could, of course, not be tolerated and had led to the formation of Task Force Proxima, a battle group assembling some of the largest interstellar warships the ISDF fleet had at its disposal.
Figueroa punched Osondu in the shoulder.
“Hey, wake up!” she called out, pulling the pilot from his nap.
“What’s up?” he said, his voice still thrown off by the sleep he had just emerged from.
“We’re getting closer. It’s time for our insertion burn,” the navigator informed her pilot matter-of-factly.
“Alright, alright, I’m on it,” Osondu said, not sounding very convincing.
He stretched as well as he could in the confined space and reacquainted himself with his instruments’ readouts. Being ahead of the curve as usual, Figueroa had anticipated that her pilot would be out for a while and had already input the orbital data for the upcoming burn. Osondu only had to re-orientate the dropship according to those parameters and fire the main engines at the calculated moment to adjust their orbit to that of the freighter.
Once this task was completed, he established a comm link with the other ship.
“Escort freighter Atlas, this is dropship Papa-Alpha-Bravo-Three-Delta, on intercept course, request docking permission and instructions.”
“Bravo-Three-Delta, we have you on radar. Permission granted. Pass starboard inner marker, maintain separation and prepare for docking in bow hangar.”
Osondu confirmed reception of these instructions and made some slight adjustments to his course, aiming directly for the freighter’s starboard marker, an imaginary point a mere kilometre away from the behemoth.
The freighter slowly came into view, seeming rather small at first. As they got closer, however, the true dimensions of the Jupiter-Class heavy freighter became evident. These were the largest ships currently in service anywhere in the galaxy, measuring over three kilometres in length. Osondu was tempted to take his dropship in closer but he resisted, maintaining separation between him and the colossal ship he was slowly overtaking.
At first, all they saw was a dark mass blocking out Proxima’s light. Then they moved over to the side illuminated by this system’s host star and the scale of the massive vessel became apparent. The ISC Atlas glowed in a deep red, reflecting the few rays that made it this far away from Proxima.
The vast interchangeable cargo compartments threw shadows on the ship’s backbone and superstructure, making the whole scene look like a work of art, painted on the endless canvas of interplanetary space.
“What’s our VeeRel?” First Lieutenant Osondu asked his navigator, enquiring about the relative velocity between them and the freighter.
“Positive 50 orbital, Negative 35 radial.”
They were much faster than the freighter and were closing in. Osondu took over manual control, oriented the dropship in a way that his engine thrust would cancel out their current motion vector and help him match velocity with their destination. He briefly activated the ship’s ion engines at low intensity until they were no longer getting closer and the sizeable hull next to them was moving much slower indeed.
Once they had passed the entire length of the freighter, they saw that the bow hangar’s doors had already been opened. Osondu fired up his manoeuvring thrusters and nudged the dropship sideways, aligning it with the gaping hole that was apparent where the other ship’s bow had been.
“Atlas, Bravo-Three-Delta. Lined up and matching velocity. Ready for orbital capture,” First Lieutenant Osondu announced via comm.
“Copy that, Bravo-Three-Delta. Confirm ion drive disengaged and manoeuvring thrusters released and synchronised.”
The pilot made the requested verifications and confirmed to the other ship that everything was ready. He removed his hands from the controls as the freighter they were about to dock with was now in charge of operating his manoeuvring thrusters, bringing them into the large hangar and making them dock at a previously designated airlock.