You’d been in the cockpit for eighteen hours.
The might of the Star League Defense Force’s 9th Fleet completely decimated the private Ares Arms security forces over Cromwell, and the entire regiment of Black Knights went down to the planet – all three battalions – along with nearly all of Agamemnon’s marines, and have spent the night and next day bogged down attempting to secure whatever it was that Tokugawa and Kerensky wanted from the place. Bravo squadron had relieved the assault squadrons and had been on station over Cromwell’s largest land mass ever since. You were beginning to wonder if they’d forgotten about you when the radio crackled to life.
“Bravo Lead, Agamemnon flight, report status.”
You stifle a yawn as you check your ship’s state and flip through the telemetry from the rest of the squadron.
“Flight, Bravo Lead, we’re at 80% fuel and fully armed.”
A moment of silence.
“Bravo Lead, close air support mission, target grid 8-7-3, marine unit and precious cargo suppressed by multiple surface assets. Cheyenne 7-9 inbound for pickup. Marines designated Wild Cards, find their cipher on channel 5. Expedite.”
“Flight, Bravo Lead, Wild Cards on 5, Cheyenne 7-9 for pickup, acknowledged.”
You take a deep breath and try to get your game face on before switching over to the squadron channel.
“Alright Bravo, time to wake up, we’ve got some leathernecks down there trying to get away with something important and they need our help. Seven, take your wing and hook up with Cheyenne 7-9, escort them in and back to the barn, the rest of you with me”
You flip your Shiva and burn your primary thruster to slow your ship down enough to fall into Cromwell’s atmosphere. A few minutes later you’ve got air and gravity under you and are making your way with the five other fighters in your wing towards the grid location provided by the Agamemnon. You switch over to channel 5.
“Wild Cards, Wild Cards, Bravo Squadron approaching grid 8-7-3, what’s your situation?”
There’s a moment of silence and then a war zone opens up in your radio, it takes you a second to fumble with the volume and get it down to a reasonable level. A man is shouting into the radio over the sound of heavy gunfire and the occasional explosion.
“Bravo, Jack of Diamonds, I am pinned down under heavy fire from multiple positions, I have several men down and am carrying precious cargo, we can’t make it to dust-off.”
“Roger that Jack, my target system is on channel 4.98, designate targets.”
“Sorry Bravo, left the designator in my other pants.”
“Shit,” you mutter to yourself. You see the signs of the battle several thousand feet below – the landscape rocky and treacherous.
“Those your Shivas Bravo?”
“Roger Jack, stand by.” You switch channels. “Three, Five, take your flights on a CAP sweep of the area, make sure we’re not going to get surprised. Two, on me, we’re going down for a look.”
You drop your fighter down to the deck and pull a few high-speed fly-bys and try to get an idea of where all the players are. You hear some small arms fire pinking against the underside of your bird. You and your wingman pull back up to a relatively safe altitude.
“Lead, Three, we have a pair of medium mechs rolling in on the party a kilometer to the Southeast.”
“Roger Three, you’re clear to engage.”
“Three rolling in.”
“Hey Bravo, are those mechs we’re hearing?” Jack of Diamonds is starting to sound strained.
“Not your problem Jack. Alright, I can see who’s shooting at you but I can’t see you. We’re lining up a run, get ready to pop smoke.”
“Smoke we got, Bravo, look for red.”
“You got that Two?”
“Red smoke, got it, rolling in.”
“I’m right behind you.”
Your wingman drops to a few thousand feet and heads back to the battle, you take a long sweep around to line up behind him.
“Lead, Seven, we’re on Cheyenne 7-9, 10 minutes to atmo.”
“Lead, Three, we’ve knocked down one of the mechs but his friend has teeth, Four’s got to climb out of the well now or she never will.”
“Roger Three, take your flight out of the world and get back to the barn. Five, can you put down that last mech?”
“On it, Lead.”
“Wild Cards, Bravo Two, pop red smoke!”
“Red smoke, Bravo!”
There’s a few moments of silence on the radio, but in the distance you see the dust plumes from Two’s ordinance.
“Lead, Five, mech two is face-down in a ditch, he’s out of the fight.”
“Roger that. Wild Cards, Bravo Lead, how’d we do?”
The voice on the radio is a little more desperate, the sounds of gunfire and cursing a little louder.
“Too far west, Bravo, I think you cracked their lunch truck. Listen buddy, these guys are going to crawl into our foxhole with us in about ten seconds, I need ordinance 70 meters west/southwest of my location, you’ve got to get them on your next pass or we’re dead.”
“70 meters west/southwest, rolling in, Jack.”
You take a deep breath and try to line your fighter up on a spot the size of a small car over ten kilometers away.
“Not too much closer than 70 meters either, those are some big rocks you’re dropping.”
You double-tap your squawk switch in acknowledgement, too focused on the target to speak.
The klicks roll down faster than you’d like, a million tiny calculations and corrections occur in your head. Without a designator, you’re having to drop your bombs and hope Isaac Newton takes care of your friends on the ground. You close your eyes and release.
A few seconds later, there’s a thud as your bombs hit the ground thousands of feet below.
And then there’s silence. Several moments of crushing silence as you wonder whether you just bombed the friendlies on the ground.
“HUA! That’s the one I was looking for Bravo, spot on!” You hear some pained laughing and cheering from the background mixed with the now-sporadic weapons fire, “Cheyenne 7-9, we’re moving to waypoint Epsilon for dust-off!”
You patrol the area as the troop transport picks up its cargo and lifts off. Your squadron, short Three and Four, have a quiet cruise out of Cromwell and back to the Agamemnon.
An hour later, you’re in Agamemnon’s massive receiving bay examining the underside of your fighter while you wait for the crane to take you back to the launch berth. Someone down there had peppered you with a large-calibre anti vehicle machine gun, just missing a few critical systems in the process – enough that you’ll have to put your fighter on the out-of-action list until it can be repaired properly.
Eight marines in combat gear, carrying four bodybags, pull their way down the wall near you towards the lift. They look substantially worse than Bruce Willis at the end of a Die Hard movie. As they pass your Shiva, a massive bear of a man, taps the guy up front. “Hey Top,” and nods in your direction. The group stops, and the front man pushes off the wall and comes to rest next to you at the fighter’s wing. He’s got Sergeant Major’s bars, and the name on his chest is “Janks”.
“You Vagabond?” he asks.
He reaches out and shakes your hand in both of his.
“We were saying our goodbyes down there before you rolled in,” he says quietly, “thank you.”
You nod uncomfortably. “Yeah, of course.”
You both turn and look over to the cheyenne on the other side of the bay, where a small team of engineers are carefully taking away what appears to be a large cylinder under a tarp.
“What the hell is that thing anyway?”
“I dunno,” the marine responds, “sure as hell is important to someone, though.”
The marine’s polite cough jerks you back from your speculation. “Lieutenant, I um…need to look after my dead.”
“What oh? Yes, sorry. Carry on, Sergeant Major,” You give the man a salute. He gives you a sharp salute back and a nod before pushing back to his men and continuing out of the bay.
You look back to try to get another glimpse of the mystery-cylinder, but they’ve taken it away.