Aurora heard Rovo’s warning call and responded with habit, “Set them up and let them loose.”
Three Severs sat at the back in their crash harnesses, and each of them pressed a small button under their right hand. The ceiling of the shuttle held drop-down screens hanging from metal bars. The displays swung right in front of the Sever’s faces, each one perfectly aligned thanks to micro-cameras measuring appropriate eye level. Each screen flipped to show a cannon’s feed. Two on the bottom – split to the bow and aft of the shuttle – and one on top, all charged and ready to fire.
Aurora’s snapped on first, giving her the front-facing lower cannon. Showed the world of stormy, musty yellow-gray fog they were descending into as the shuttle went lower and lower. Nothing appeared on her scopes. Who knew whether Dynas had any kind of defense, but survival dictated acting as if the planet bristled with death.
“I’m picking up a heat signature, looks like energy use,” Eponi said through their transponders. “Gonna land on top of it. Feel it’s as good a spot as any.”
“Just don’t get us killed,” Sai said.
“Do I ever?”
“Any sign of threats?” Aurora snapped. She had no problem with squad banter, so long as it didn’t distract in a dangerous moment.
“No,” Eponi replied, but her voice trailed even as she spoke. “Wait—coming behind. A pair of Darter-class skiffs.”
Skiffs? If they flew open top craft like those here, Dynas had a thick atmosphere. Breathable. Skiffs also meant Dynas didn’t understand who they were dealing with. Sure, not having a plated hull or windshield might make for pretty views, but it also made for an easy target. Couldn’t shield open space. Aurora would have loved to trigger a few shots and let go the tight knots always forming in her muscles as missions began, but Gregor had the rear cannon, and the first chance to speckle Dynas’ fog with bits and pieces of an enemy.
The drop ship didn’t shudder when Gregor fired his cannon, a total lack of feedback Aurora should have been used to by now. No projectiles, like in the old models, so no recoil. Just a hum. The whine of a battery being drained. As battle went, lasers made the whole thing feel artificial, like they were playing a game. Aurora knew that feeling would vanish with the first casualty showing what a laser’s direct strike could do to a person, and Gregor’s fire didn’t deliver that absolution.
“They’re splitting their approach. Lightly armed,” Gregor said after his initial volley. “I see two cannons on each one, mounted bow and aft. I’ve already neutralized the front cannon on mine.”
“Only because your pilot doesn’t know how to dodge,” Sai added. “Mine at least understands the concept of a maneuver.”
The soupy fog broke as Eponi soared the shuttle down. Lush deep green poked through, caught by the drop shuttle’s lights, which Eponi switched on as the clouds now above consumed any light daring to try and get this far. If Aurora had to guess, the reason Dynas had life at all came down to its heat trap of an atmosphere boiling up biologic sludge from whatever unlucky collection of rocks collided to form Dynas in the first place.
“Keep your eyes open for ground defenses,” Eponi said.
The shuttle rattled as Eponi finished. Something popped and smoke flooded into the cabin. No, not smoke. Fog from the outside.
“What was that?” Aurora snapped.
“The skiffs.” Sai replied. “Not the main cannons. Something weird. From handheld rifles. My guess, homing drones with explosives attached. Can we move any faster?”
“This is a drop shuttle, Sai. We’re basically falling.” The cocky sass vanished from Eponi’s voice, signaling a pilot focusing on her flying.
Which meant a serious situation. Aurora cut off her own urge to ask Eponi for details — one of the hardest parts about leading Sever lay in trusting the crew, holding off the urge to question their every action, ask for and approve of every detail.
“The second skiff is cutting overhead!” Gregor yelled.
Aurora didn’t need to hear anymore. Her view screen flashed bright yellow in the upper left corner; the shuttle’s scanners indicating a target. Aurora used her eyes, dragging them to the target’s position. The move aimed the cannon, and she stared back up into that fog. Waited. The active contact between Aurora’s eyes and the screen kept the feed active, the cannon primed.
A long dark shadow cut across the screen. Aurora blinked both eyes and the cannon fired a bright green bolt into the ether. Aurora blinked again and again and again, sending a series of shots towards the shape, which flared into a beautiful orange and red rose. Skiff down.
“Took care of it,” Aurora said.
But the fog kept flowing into the drop shuttle. Aurora couldn’t see the hole, and unstrapping during a potential crash landing scenario would put Aurora on the wrong side of every DefenseCorp guide. And common sense — the drop shuttle still continued doing what it had been made for: dropping. The ship wouldn’t have to hold up for much longer.
“Sorry, Sever, seems like that shot killed my coolant. Engines are overheating. Going down here because, uh, otherwise we’re all getting cooked.” Eponi said. “Brace for a wet landing.”
Aurora aimed her cannon down in time to see massive branches, trees, and vines snag the shuttle and swallow it up. The cannon feed held, then shook and went dark. The shuttle filled with roaring, wrecking, tearing as Sever shook in their seats. Seats that didn’t break, because DefenseCorp bolted every drop shuttle chair to the floor with heavy metals. Meant to handle an impact, and to stop a sharp object from piercing through the floor and hurting its occupant.
Aurora had been in plenty of crashes — a standard hazard in this line of work — but most had been on land. One on a beach, as part of a rescue in a resort overtaken by discontent alien tourists. But none into a swamp. So when the shuttle smacked into the water, bounced forward, and settled into a noxious mix of slimy water and terrible gasses, Aurora had a new candidate for worst place ever. She unclipped, clocked the power readings on her suit (all greens) and made for the shuttle’s opening sides. Swamp water had the same idea, flooding into the ship to greet Aurora with frothy filth.
“Pop out!” Aurora said the words that nobody needed to hear. Gregor and Sai, following her, scrambled out through the open door in the left hull, made larger courtesy of a now-downed tree that’d taken its final stab through the drop shuttle’s side.
Eponi and Rovo were already outside, having climbed out through the shattered cockpit window. Rovo looked towards the sky, hunting for any further skiffs, while Eponi leaned back into the cockpit, swatting at buttons. Protocol said it’d be best to shut down the drop shuttle’s systems, drain the batteries in the event of a harsh landing to prevent bad things like enemy scavenging and random explosions.
“What happened?” Aurora yelled to Eponi when the pilot settled back on the drop ship’s nose. “You didn’t make the hit sound serious?”
“Whatever was they fired at us?” Eponi shot back. “It kept going. I lost systems one by one. Had to take us down fast or we would have run right through these trees going a thousand kilometers an hour.”
Aurora looked out over the desolate swamp stretching as far as she could see, which, given the dark, misty conditions, wasn’t all that far. Their attackers, whomever lived on Dynas, weren’t looking for visitors. They were ready to kill keep their world quiet, but they’d missed their chance.
Sever wouldn’t give them a second one.