Of Cloudless Climes and Starry Skies
UEEN Marine Dropship ‘UEE Egret’
August 23, 2937
Investigating Elysium III
Bell stared hard at the grayish-green planet as they coasted through the Elysium system. They had been aboard the “UEE Redmann”, a Bengal class carrier, scarcely two hours hence in it’s orbit around Elysium IV; had given the marines a chance to move about while they refueled and checked over the Egret’s armaments. Rumor was that the Elysium system was being scouted by Vanduul raiding parties and that they had made landfall on Elysium’s third planet, classified as a future terraforming target. Their job was to take the 27th in and land near the last known location of where Vanduul scouts had been seen entering orbit. The “Redmann”, currently in tow, was there to act as a tactical emplacement covering them as they entered and exited orbit.
“It doesn’t look like much,” she observed. “Other than using it as an outpost to reach deeper into UEE territory why would they be there? It is not even a good location for that. There are better staging areas for them to choose from. They had to know they would be seen this close to an inhabited planet.”
“I’m not the person to ask. I just drop the grunts where they tell me too and pick ‘em back up when they are done thrashing aliens and wasting ammo.” Deckard remarked with a smirk causing Bell to smile a little under her serious façade. “Besides, this is a clean and sweep, reports say their numbers are small and your devil dogs should be able to root ‘em out and hunt them down inside a day. This mission is a cake walk for the newly reformed 27th; you know, just to get their feet wet.”
Bell nodded her ascent and smiled lightly, but her eyes remained glued to the planet. Her brow still furrowed just slightly. Deckard might have missed that sign four or five months ago, but he read her features now like they had been partnered for years on these flights. He knew what she was feeling, he felt it too; there was something more at work here than a simple scouting party looking for a staging area. There was something darker at work. It was in his gut, a gnawing trepidation, a rumble of warning that said turn around. He had felt it many times before, had pushed through before, and had stared into the abyss and lived to tell about it. This would be no different.
Bell held her tongue, but he knew she wanted to high-tail it out of there. She followed his lead, trying to emulate the flint-faced resolve that had taken him years to build up. They had a job to do; take these marines in, drop them off, and when they were done go and get them. And she would do that job even if it meant her life in process.
To their left the blue giant pulsed with electrical fury through the polarized diamond-cut starprism windshield. To their right the deep black extended outward; specks of light flickered in the far distance like some ancient wisps tempting travelers to leave their path. Deckard felt invigorated by the prospect of one day traveling to those systems that no human had yet seen. There was a peace, even a comfort, in the depths of the black where a man could refashion himself and emerge back in the world as a new creation. He could reinvent himself there and leave all of his past behind him. He needed a chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure; it was his new found dream. Soon, he thought to himself, soon I will travel without restriction or war, just one man among the stars and the openness of the void. He let his mind drift off for a short time.
When they were within a scant five clicks of the atmosphere Bell toggled the comm panel, “Command this is 47449 the UEE dropship Egret, preparing for atmospheric entry. Over.” Her voice was flat and routine, the comm messages had become rote memorization and flowed without need of conscious thought.
The comms came alive as clear as polished crystal, “Copy that 47449. You are cleared for drop. Over.”
“Copy that, Command. 47449, out.”
Bell nosed into a shallow entry and held the Egret stable as they pushed downward into the greenish haze of the planet’s atmosphere. Flares sparked off of the nose of the ship as they dropped, the gases of the atmosphere flaring up around them like orange and green fireworks. Deckard glanced over at Bell, noting that her jaw was clenched and her brow held a bead of sweat even though there was no real stress on the yoke. The green haze made for some breathtaking scenery with the sun glazing across the horizon as it began to rise over their destination. The ship lazed out under the cloud cover of green into a stark landscape of browns and greys; jutting spires of brown streaked grey stone rose upward creating a scene of jagged and dangerous razors reaching out to the stars like rusted blades in a pit waiting for an unwary denizen to fall into them.
Bell pulled back slowly on the yoke guiding the Egret toward the landing area displayed on the scans; a rare flat plateau among dagger like peaks. She set the ship down gently on the surface and waited for Sarge to give them the sign to seal up the hold. From there Deckard and Bell would wait it out with systems powered down to avoid detection by heat and electromagnetic scans.
“You don’t look too good, Marx.” Deckard remarked, his expression showing his own nervousness about the mission. “Once we have the hold sealed up I am going to get into my armor and I suggest you do the same.”
Bell nodded her agreement and wiped the sweat from her palms on the legs of her pants. She unfastened the seat harness but stayed in her seat watching the marines of the 27th as they headed out into the desolate terrain. Their faces were covered by the vacuum suit helmets, but she could tell by the gestures being made which one was Sarge. They headed down the incline in formation, graphically displaying their attitude on this mission; more drill than actual warfare.
Deckard slid silently into the hall and tapped his code into the Glas panel releasing the pilots’ armory door. He emerged a few minutes later suited up with his helmet under his left arm and his rifle grasped in his right hand. He sank back into his seat and leaned his rifle against the arm of his flight chair.
“Get yer gear on soldier,” Deckard stared hard at Bell and scratched his chin through the goatee which was in need a trim, “We may have to move at any moment. And if we get a hull breach these helmets…”
“…are all that stand between us and a painful death?” Bell cut him off with a grim smile and raised eyebrows.
Deckard grinned back at her, “Alright, alright, just go get suited up.” He leaned back and kicked his feet up on the console. Now we wait for the marines to clean up the area, he thought to himself, may as well get some shut eye.
* * *
Roughly three hours later….
The comms lit up with static and screaming, jarring Deckard awake. He rubbed his eyes and sat up straight. Bell was already on the comm with Sarge.
“Say again 27th. Say again. Over.” She gripped the comm panel so tightly her knuckles had turned white.
“Massive force of Vanduul. Severely outnumbered. Need immediate evac! Over!” Sarge’s voice was rattled; the man who never lost his nerve was shaken so badly he sounded like he was ready to try and run. Nothing about that was good. Bell blanched under the duress in his voice.
Deckard toggled on his comm system, “Command this is dropship 47449. Over.”
Bell did what she could to calculate in the position of the 27th, her hands shaking and breathing through her mouth. Her lips were dried and tacky but she wasn’t able to get a grasp of her emotions. She couldn’t do Tiber II again. She knew she wouldn’t be able to hold it together if it turned into another bloodbath.
Deckard, on the other hand, turned into cold forged steel. He went back and forth with Command about going in, but was met repeatedly with orders to lift off and return to the “Redmann”. He ended his comm link with a simple statement, “Affirmative Command, we will bring the 27th to the Redmann. Out”
Bell, hearing the blatant disobedience to a direct order from Command, turned from her comm channel and stared blankly at him for a moment.
“No time to waste, tell them we are inbound and to give us a clear shot in.” Deckard grabbed the yoke and toggled full control to his seat. Bell relayed the message and signed out with directive to keep their channel open in case something changed. Deckard shoved the throttle to maximum and pulled back on the stick enough to get them airborne, then made a beeline for the 27th.
He was about three clicks out when the bombardment started. They were shelled from at least three different positions. The rockets and plasma cannons rocked the ship like a toy boat in a bathtub making it nearly impossible to get a clean line of sight on their objective. He could hear the groans and cracks of the hull being torn into, watched as his left bank of weapons disappeared from his readouts. The Egret’s shields were at half power by the time he saw the red flares laid out by the 27th.
He shoved the nose toward them and came in hard and fast, skidding across the ground for nearly a hundred meters before grinding to a stop with the hold doors already open. The marines piled in dragging wounded and dead with them; in some cases only body parts made it back.
Without waiting Deckard shoved the nose up and hoped they had the doors closed. There was only one chance of getting out alive with Egret’s shields depleted and the existing damage, straight up at break neck speed and hope they could clear atmo before they got shot down.
“C’mon baby, you can do this.” He said out loud caressing the yoke and trying to soothe Egret with a calm voice. She squealed at him and the rear shield began to give way under the pounding of the missile batteries.
“What?” bell said with a confused look on her face.
“Just talking to her, Bell. She has it in her.”
Egret pushed hard against the gravity of the planet and limped her way clear of the artillery. The rear section was mush, but two of the main thrusters, seven of the 8 maneuvering thrusters, and the engines had held together; she was clearing the atmosphere. Claxons blared at him as he looked over the panels at the damage. Before Bell could see the readouts on the coolant leaks for the engines he locked down the power readout panel. He saw the pain and anguish she was in. Felt her slipping away from him. He toggled off the alarms and shoved her hard towards the Redmann.
Bell tried the comms but found nothing for her effort. She noted that the arrays were gone. Not damaged, just gone. Deckard ordered her to head back and check on the marines and told her to take her helmet just in case. She wasn’t happy about it but unbuckled and quickly headed back.
He pushed the Egret toward the Redmann with a deft skill that comes from years of combat flying. She wanted to twist and drift away from the carrier, but he massaged her in the right direction. Tears clouded his vision as he guided the dying beauty toward her last destination.
He looked over the damage readouts again and knew there was only one option. As soon as Bell had closed the hold doors, he dropped the hold clamps and let the transport hold drop from the Egret, momentum causing it to drift toward the Redmann. Once the hold was released it set off the automatic homing system. The Redmann would see he had jettisoned the marines and would send out a retrieval crew.
He pulled back on the yoke and propelled her out away from the survivors and the Redmann. His eyes stared blankly out into the black.