Monday, February 4, 2013

Writing: The Charge of the Danoans, Chapter Two, Part 3

The following is Part 3 of Chapter Two of my second novel submission to Black Library, entitled The Charge of the Danoans.  

Chapter One, Part 1 is located here.
Chapter One, Part 2 is located here.
Chapter Two, Part 1 is located here.
Chapter Two, Part 2 is located here.

Lieutenant Commander Effan’s fighter was at the head of his squadron of Thunderbolts, flying at nine thousand meters and at a speed calculated to conserve the most fuel.  They would slowly decrease altitude until they were fifty kilometers from the spine of the Marendo Mountains, then stay level with the ridgeline until they crossed it.  The squadron’s active sensors were on standby, and vox transmissions were kept to a minimum.  There was little danger of running into any enemies until the squadron crossed the ridge, but caution was the only thing that was going to keep them alive today.  

The Thunderbolts were escorting a squadron of Marauder bombers, trailing his Thunderbolts by thirty kilometers.  Effan’s mission was to sweep ahead of the Marauders and eliminate any fighter protection the tau might have, so the Marauders could move in and lay waste to the tau landing zone.  

This far west, the Thunderbolts were near the limit of their range, so each was fitted with drop tanks to allow them to get over the mountains, have enough promethium fuel to fight for ten minutes at full power and still make it back home.  The target was well beyond the range of the Danoan sensor coverage and its accompanying air defenses, which made the mission border on foolhardy.  When Commander Martin briefed him he would have objected, but Martin’s tone showed that he thought the plan was as foolish as well.  Effan was experienced enough to know when to keep his mouth shut and follow orders, and as a pilot he was accustomed to taking risks.

With the fleet gone from orbit, the Navy no longer had any credibility in the eyes of the Imperial Guard officers.  Commander Martin would have to grit his teeth and follow the orders of General Medvedovsky, a ground-pounder who had not the slightest idea of how to fight an air war.  Effan didn’t care about the politics.  He just wanted to get his men to the target and back alive.

Despite the odds against them, Effan was confident in the abilities of his pilots.  They were all veterans of other wars in the sector, with none logging less than a thousand combat hours.  The tour on Danoan had been quiet before the invasion, and training had slackened accordingly. But Effan knew that the experience of his pilots would more than compensate for that. Intelligence reports said that the tau fighters were technologically advanced, but fragile and prone to failure, unlike his rugged, sturdy Thunderbolts.  Moreover, tau pilots were generally young and inexperienced.  Effan knew that made all the difference.  Green pilots had a nasty habit of dying.  

Thirty kilometers behind Effan’s Thunderbolts, Commander Martin sat in the cockpit of his Marauder fighter-bomber, its four turbofans giving off a steady roar.  His gunners had remained silent aside from their weapons checks a few minutes after takeoff.  So far the mission had gone like clockwork.  In spite of his initial objections, Martin felt his confidence growing with each passing kilometer.  The tau had avoided a direct assault on Vasaius, clearly because they were afraid of the peninsula’s formidable air defenses, and in doing so, must have thought they were being clever. The standard method of attack upon a planet was to saturate its defenses with a direct assault.  After the initial attack smashed through, the rest was mop-up.  Such attacks were costly, so a wise commander attacked with overwhelming forces in order to guarantee victory.

The tau, however, had eschewed the standard method of attack.  They had landed far away from Vasaius, behind the mountains, so they could build up a ground army unmolested.  Clearly they did not consider their forces sufficient to overwhelm the planetary defenses with a direct assault; otherwise they would have done so.  The tau probably had token air defenses guarding their landing zone, but their main defenses were distance and the mountains themselves.  They would not be seriously expecting an attack this far out. 
Martin allowed himself to smile.  His squadrons would run into opposition, certainly.  But the tau were going to be in for a nasty shock when his squadrons screamed over the ridgeline and laid waste to their staging area.  The tau’s caution implied their lack of confidence, and that would be their downfall.  

Kor’vre Gei’shi’s Type 15 superiority fighter, codenamed Barracuda by the gue’la, loitered in lazy circles, just below the ridgeline of the mountains.  His teammates followed him, keeping a loose formation.  Before leaving the sept world Gei’shi had no idea what a barracuda was or why the gue’la called it that.  When he found out that it was species of nasty undersea predator, he heartily approved of the nickname.  The barracuda was vicious and known for using speed and surprise to ambush its prey.  Today the tau were going to demonstrate that their fighters were well named.

Far above the fighters, a widely dispersed swarm of drones hovered serenely, passively scanning the eastern skies with their high resolution optics.  Each drone maintained a communications network with all of the other tau aircraft in the area.  Every aircraft sent tightly-beamed information pulses to all the others, consisting of position updates and sensor data.  As a result, every tau aircraft knew the location and status of all the others, and could see everything that they could see.

Gei’shi watched two waves of icons on his tactical display, closing in from the east.  The icons were purple and threatening, each one representing a gue’la aircaft.  The drones had reported no sensor emissions, so the gue’la were coming in blind.  Gei’shi knew that imperial passive sensors were not as good as those of the tau, and even if they were, they almost certainly could not detect the reconnaissance drones, hovering to conserve power, their stealth fields activated.  The plan was working.

Gei’shi’s fighter team consisted of experienced pilots, but none of them had flown in combat before.  Still, they had undergone countless training missions, both live and simulated, and had practiced this form of ambush again and again until it had become routine.  The training was not real, but it was as close as they would get.  Soon they would find out whether or not all the sweating would keep them from bleeding.

Kor’vre Ge’shi led his fighters into one last circle, extending its radius to time it so that his fighters would be in the optimal position to strike when the gue’la crossed the ridge.  His fighter’s battle manager began to automatically assign targets to each of his teammates, updating their systems with data pulses.  No gue’la aircraft would go untargeted.  His team was ready.  As were the fighter teams of the other three kor’vres, and the four drone fighter teams. The eighteen gue’la fighters would cross the ridge to find themselves under attack by ninety-six tau fighters.

"Drop tanks,” Effan voxed to the squadron, and accessed the jettison controls.  He selected the tanks and pressed the switch.  There was a thump, and his Thunderbolt jumped a few meters as the weight came off.  He thumbed the trim control on his stick to compensate.  The ridge was fast approaching.  The instant he crossed it, he would be scanning for the enemy landing zone.  

“Full military power,” he announced, and slowly advanced his throttle into the detent.  The pitch of the fighter’s turbofans increased.  “Once you cross the ridge, augurs on.”

He aimed his HUD’s flight path vector directly on the ridgeline, adjusting it with minute twitches off his flight stick.

Ridge crossings were always exciting.  Even though the flight path vector told him that he would pass safely over it, there was always a feeling at the last second that the vector was wrong and he would crash, turning his soaring fighter into a fireball.  And so it was this time, a rush of adrenalin, a flash of trees atop the ridge ridiculously close, and he was past it.  Directly ahead, perhaps twenty kilometers away in a sheltered valley, was the tau landing zone.  It was tiny at this distance, but unmistakable.  

Effan’s warning receiver screeched in terror, and everything went insane.

Kor’vre Gei’shi’s sensor beam locked on within seconds of a Thunderbolt clearing the ridge, and he immediately loosed a pair of air-seeker missiles at it.  He tracked the missiles as they homed in, already angling his fighter to bring his ion cannon to bear.  The Thunderbolt snap rolled at the last second, but it was too late.  One missile shredded the Thunderbolt’s tail, while the other flew directly into the right engine, detonating in a fireball.  The Thunderbolt, in a testament to its ruggedness and its pilot’s skill, stayed intact and airborne.  Gei’shi continued to follow it to make sure it was going to go down, but as he watched, one, two, and then three missiles from different directions hit the fighter’s fuselage in rapid succession, exploding it into a million pieces.  His fighter’s battle manager automatically selected the next target and Gei’shi rolled and banked to get into position.

“Raider flight, Thunder Flight!” Effan gasped through the g-forces, “Engaged defensive!”  He did bother listening for a reply.  All he could hear over the vox was his squadronmates screaming for help and dying.  Effan’s Thunderbolt had already taken one hit, but it was still flying. There were tau aircraft everywhere, missiles arcing through the sky, flashes of ion cannons and burst cannons streaming past his cockpit.  His eyes darted from the saturated warning receiver and back to the HUD’s altimeter.  He was dangerously low, hugging the ground and maneuvering violently.  The fighter bucked as something hit it.  A few lights on the caution and warning panel lit up, and he risked a quick look at it.  The ENG FIRE light was still off, so that was good.  Everything else was bad.  He had to get back over the ridge.  He rolled until the horizon was vertical and pulled hard on the stick, instinctively adjusting his throttle to maintain corner velocity.  When his heading reached a course back towards the ridge, he pushed the throttle to the stops and leveled out.  Hundreds of liters of promethium were dumped into the engines, and the fighter leapt forward on afterburner.   

Then a missile slammed into the cockpit.

Commander Martin and his Marauder squadron were just over two minutes behind the Thunderbolts, and getting ready for the ridge crossing when all hell broke loose.  Even from thirty kilometers he could see the fireballs in the clear sky.  He had heard Effan’s desperate cry over the vox, the frantic screaming of his warning receiver in the background.  

By the sheer amount of explosions he was seeing in the distance, there was nothing to be done.  “Raider Flight, Raider One,” he voxed to his squadron, somehow keeping his voice steady.  “Abort mission and return to base.”  

The squadron reversed course and increased power, running home.  The tau, busy annihilating the fighters, did not bother to pursue.  There was no need.  With the fighters escorts wiped out, there would be no more airstrikes.

Stay tuned for Chapter Three...

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