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The Grubbers Book One.
Collie’s Growler assault craft with two Interceptor class Falcon escorts swung in low orbit above the planet Armon waiting on countdown to planet drop. The configuration reminded her of the last operation on Jimson Three. That was another rush job covering someone’s arse. Intelligence had screwed up yet again. The first troop elements had grounded in the middle of a multi battalion sized firefight. Murphy’s Law, the brawl they were supposed to stop; it had taken the full complement of Regals’ troops and flight craft to extract them.
They had lost two Growlers to ground fire with three damaged in two mad, frantic hours. Although heavily armored and highly maneuverable in their roles as front line support, both as flight craft and ground mobile units, losses were expected. ‘Up front and in ya face, that’s my job,‘ was how Vella, Collie’s number two, thought of the Growler’s role.
Unlike the Growlers flying tank design the Falcons though heavily armed were designed for air superiority and recon roles and were lightly armored with no ground capability. Their survivability relied on high speed and heavy-duty inertial compensators shielding the crew from the effects of extreme maneuvers.
Vella had been their only serious casualty. Burns, concussion and heavy bruising from laser back blast. Luckily it had missed his eyes. The Gods had favored them, only a glancing hit.
In reactive fury Collie had armed the Growler’s Lander Carriage self-destruct and bombed the attacking firebase into oblivion. This action had cost them even more damage and earned a tongue-lashing from Commander Vernan, an experience she would be very reluctant to repeat. ‘He can tear strips off your hide and not curse once,’ she had explained to Vella. She half smiled at the memory: And then wondered, not for the first time, at the ferocity of her reaction to Vella being injured.
Leaking hydraulic fluid, trailing smoke from burnt wiring and insulation and with few electronics to speak of, they had limped back to the headquarters shelter, just. Gods, all that was only four days ago. Damn Vella! Not his fault, but she hated solo missions and his absence was reason enough to draw the short straw for a solo drop.
CHAPTER 1 – Armon. Planet down.
Collie swallowed hard trying to make her ears pop. She took a deep breath to relax and swallowed again. Launch sequence always did this to her. She tucked a stray wisp of dark hair back under her helmet and shook her head; the Growler’s environmental systems seemed incapable of maintaining a constant pressure. Likewise the inertial compensators always seemed to lag at launch. The heavy G forces could really hurt if you were not ready. Collie tightened the harnesses again and pressed back into the seat watching the launch monitor count down. Her ears popped again as the bay doors opened revealing a star washed vista. Collie rocked in her seat as the launch tracks hauled the Growler to position.
BRACE, LAUNCH IN FIVE SECONDS the computer intoned, then the rams kicked in and Delta Four hurled into the night. Launch from the Battle Cruiser Regal and the drop to orbit was routine, but brutal as usual.
Everything was in the green. “Just as bloody well!” she muttered under her breath, glowering at the instruments. Her reflection caught her eye and big dark eyes stared back. The cockpit stank of insulation. She rubbed her nose and willed her heart rate to settle.
0615HRS. Dawn would soon be breaking at the landing site. They would be chasing the sun. She shivered and admitted to herself that she was jumpy. Not because of the adrenaline rush of the launch, there were other, new components messing with her nerves. Omens: If this bit were easy did that increase the chance the next would be hard. She shrugged, annoyed with herself for allowing the distraction.
A pick-up mission, a lot of effort for just one person, cracking a walnut with a hammer she thought. Still, a transport beam pickup from dirt side would have an electronic signature that could be read almost anywhere within the system. And reading between the lines and double speak of the pre-flight briefing this was something to be avoided.
Flight leader again, a nominal title really. The two Falcons could well look after themselves. Segal and Decker in Delta Five and The Sisters in Six were old hands. Still, she felt differently toward them. Responsibility didn’t cover it—this was a new feeling—more personal. Mortality was a new word to Collie and she didn’t like it. The word hung like a bad ear worm at the back of her mind.
Alone, Collie wriggled in the semi-reclined command couch to ease the itch along her spine and stared at the canopy instrument bank. Dirty gray plasfoam sealer held new, glaringly white insulation in place over Vella’s empty Tech Specialist couch. Rough, unfinished and unpainted, it was a reminder by omission of blind chance. The comms channel hissed, empty of traffic, radio silence. Collie rubbed her nose again, that insulation really stinks.
Thirty seconds to drop, the Growler’s battle computer intoned. Collie mashed the volume down to a reasonable level, reminded yet again of Vella’s absence. For the first time she recognized feeling vulnerable without someone in the Tech Specialist seat. Trust the computer, Collie reminded herself. With long fingers flying over the consoles, she delegated the set of weapons, detectors and defense modes to the Battle Computer. It would handle Vella’s job. Well, mostly anyway.
ORBIT STABLE COMMENCING DROP
“Don’t think, fly,” she muttered as the three craft began decent into the planet’s atmosphere. Just before re-entry faded the electronics out she saw the Falcons were keeping close station. Hot mission! The cynic in her mind yelled, why else the heavy backup. Dimly in the background she could hear the hissing scream of atmosphere through the Growler’s hull.
Collie watched the power consumption readout show steadily increasing numbers and decent slowed. The three craft, their hulls heated by the atmosphere, would register high in the infrared. We are all blind targets.