Part 9: Homecoming
After a long and agonizing journey through the vast emptiness of interplanetary space, the time had come for Osondu, Figueroa and Van den Berg to plan their rendezvous with their troop carrier.
They had already burnt through most of their propellant in order to reverse their orbit and end up on a direct return trajectory. The dropship was currently revolving around Proxima Centauri on a highly elliptical orbit, that would take them to the outermost edge of the red dwarf’s sphere of influence.
“What’s our best option?” First Lieutenant Osondu asked his navigator, trying to sound professional. His tight voice, however, betrayed him, giving away his state of mind.
“We don’t have enough propellant for a direct burn towards Phantom Angel,” Lieutenant Figueroa replied, “from where I sit, our best bet is to adjust course for Prox-IV and attempt a MICAB.”
“I’m not sure if I like that idea, but it might be our only option indeed,” the pilot said.
The MICAB, or Minimum Impulse Capture Burn, would allow them to enter orbit around the planetoid. It would also bring them dangerously close to its surface and within range of surface-to-space defences that the Tarhinans may have installed.
Sergeant Van den Berg voiced these concerns, “Won’t that bring us awfully close to the bad guys?” he leaned forward slightly and glanced sideways at Osondu and Figueroa.
“It sure will,” the pilot said, “but it’s either that or orbit Proxima for all eternity.”
“If you put it that way...” the gunner shrugged, his face looking like he had eaten a bad batch of nutrient paste.
Lieutenant Figueroa made the necessary calculations and input the required data into the ship’s computer. They would have to perform a short correction burn in just under two hours that would set them on a path towards Prox-IV.
They would then come within fifty kilometres of the planetoid’s surface, where they would burn retrograde to establish themselves in an eccentric orbit.
They kept themselves busy with in-flight maintenance until the time for the burn had come. Van den Berg ran diagnostics on the weapons systems, Figueroa made sure that her calculations were on point, and Osondu moved to the cargo hold in order to get a direct readout of their engine performance.
While all these tasks were not strictly necessary, they distracted the crew from worrying about the upcoming close encounter with their enemy. First Lieutenant Osondu in particular had strong reservations, due to his most recent mishap.
He silently wondered why this affected him so much. Osondu had had close calls before, but he had always been able to brush it off and keep going. He took a deep breath, pushing back down the emotions that had begun to rise and focused on the well-being of his ship and his crew.
The pilot, navigator and gunner worked slowly and meticulously, spending as much time on their various tasks as possible. When they were done, only half an hour remained before the scheduled course correction.
Osondu returned to his seat and settled down between Figueroa and Van den Berg. They sat there quietly, prolonging the silence that had reigned in the small spacecraft for the last hour.
After a while, the pilot broke the silence, “So, we’re all set?” he asked calmly, still gazing into the void beyond the central viewport.
“Yes Sir,” Figueroa replied, her lips twisted into a smirk, “all you have to do is push the button.”
“And pray that my services won’t be needed,” Van den berg asked, his voice strained, “my little gun struggled to keep a handful of fighters at bay. We’re no match for planetary defences.”
“Sounds like a personal problem,” Osondu said, chuckling.
This caused Figueroa to snort loudly and Van den Berg to turn slightly red.
This brief moment of humorous respite was their last interaction for the upcoming hours. After a brief exchange of small talk, the crew went quiet. One by one, they drifted off into an uneasy slumber, allowing them to pass time as well as recharge their batteries. They would need to be on top of their game for the upcoming manoeuvre, and every bit of rest that they could get would help them achieve this.
Hours later, Osondu was the first to wake up, pulled from his uneasy slumber by the loud and rapid beeping of the radar alert. The passive sensors had picked up signals from the tiny planetoid ahead. Groggy from the dreamless sleep, the First Lieutenant made sure that their active systems were still offline.
This would maximise their chances of approaching undetected. The crew had no intention of giving away their position sooner than absolutely necessary. Satisfied with the results, Osondu stretched while thinking about the upcoming capture burn and the drive flare that the dropship would be projecting into the darkness of space.
He knew that this would point towards them as surely as if they were broadcasting their position on all frequencies.
Long before they would reach the end of their countdown, the trio were fully awake and ready to face the music. Osondu, Figueroa and Van den Berg sat there in silence, safely strapped to their seats.
At T minus five minutes, the pilot rested his hands on the flight controls and spoke in a tight voice, “Be ready to power up all systems.”
Both his navigator and gunner simply replied, “Ready.”
In his mind, First Lieutenant Osondu calculated the ideal moment to activate the ship’s systems. It would take just under twenty seconds for the computer to synchronise with the sensors. The manoeuvring thrusters and ion drive would run automated self-tests and be ready after a minute and a half.
Osondu himself would need to manually orient the dropship for the upcoming burn, requiring another minute, after which he would engage the main engines at full throttle.
He gripped his flight controls tighter, his hands shaking slightly. Staring at the HUD in front of him, he counted down in his mind, while sweat had begun to form on his forehead. With thirty seconds to spare, Osondu shouted, “Now!”
One after the other, the displays in front of them came back to life. The handful of seconds it took for the computer to report ready seemed like an eternity. With each beep and flashing light, Osondu’s heart increased its pace, as he anticipated the moment he had to take action.
As soon as the indicators for the manoeuvring thrusters showed all green, First Lieutenant Osondu began to rotate the ship with precise motions. He pointed the main engines towards the rapidly approaching planetoid and was ready for the capture burn with forty seconds to spare.
“Confirm ship oriented for burn?” he asked his navigator.
“Ship on target,” Figueroa replied briefly. Moments later she began counting down the last seconds. “MICAB in five... four... three... two... main engine start!”
On the word “Start”, Osondu engaged both ion engines at full throttle, causing an impressive exhaust plume to be expelled from the dropship’s rear-end. This was the moment he had dreaded since they had decided on this orbital manoeuvre. Unless the Tarhinans were blind and deaf, they had to have spotted them by now.
His eyes were fixed on the HUD’s timer that was currently counting down towards main engine cut-off. Sweat rolled down his forehead and into his eyes, causing Osondu to blink repeatedly. He strained his ears, trying to listen for any sound that may come from the ship’s sensors over the loud thumping of his racing heart that blocked out his hearing.
Any moment now, he expected some reaction from the planetary defences installed by the Tarhinans. The memory of the armed scoutship getting obliterated in front of his eyes was forever burnt in his mind. As each second went by, all First Lieutenant Osondu could think of was that they might be about to get blown out of the sky.
Seconds turned into minutes and still there was no reaction from the enemy. Osondu gripped his controls even tighter, straining his senses so hard that everything around him seemed to lose focus. He remained oblivious to the fact that the dropship’s main engines had gone quiet until Lieutenant Figueroa reached around and punched her pilot in the shoulder.
“Where are we at?” Osondu asked, shaking the dreadful feeling from him. The inside of his gloves felt damp against his skin and so did the mask he wore underneath his helmet.
“We have achieved orbit around Prox-IV,” the navigator explained matter-of-factly, “we ran out of propellant, so this is it, wherever this is.”
First Lieutenant Osondu remained silent, staring aimlessly in front of him. After a while, he spoke again, “Any reaction from the surface?”
“Negative,” Figueroa replied, “nothing on scans.”
“Nothing locked on to us either,” Sergeant Van den Berg tuned in.
“Anything friendly?” The pilot wanted to know.
“Nothing so far. All frequencies are dark.”
“Good,” Osondu replied briefly, “then we’ll do the same. Send out a signal burst, standard distress call, then power down non-essential systems.”
“I’m on it,” Lieutenant Figueroa confirmed the order and went to work on her console.
It took the experienced crew less than ninety seconds and the dropship became all but invisible next to the cosmic background radiation. Once again, there was nothing else for the trio to do but wait. No one knew how long it would be before their distress call would be answered.
The situation was too tense for any kind of small-talk. Osondu, Figueroa and Van den Berg sat there in silence, trying to distract themselves by occasionally checking their vacuum suits’ monitoring displays.
Osondu’s hand began to tremble. His mind was running in circles trying to come up with some way to pass the time. Even the thoughts of his family, which would usually anchor him to reality, did not seem to have any effect.
The Pilot steadied his hand, closed his eyes and focused on his breathing. Hours had gone by without incident, good or bad. The distance between them and the desolate planetoid had grown steadily and it would be a few more hours before they reached the apoapsis, the farthest point of their orbit.
They had no way of knowing their troop carrier’s exact location and were entirely dependent on their mothership reaching out to them. Osondu had come to terms with the fact that they could be out there for a very long time. This explained that the comm console in front of him coming to life made him flinch.
“Bravo Three Delta, this is Papa Alpha. We have a lock on your position. Hold tight and maintain radio silence, we’re coming to get you.”