Saturday, December 3, 2011

Excerpt from Darkness Before Light

So I wanted to share a bit of what I've been working on w/ the public at large. I started to write an intro story a month ago or so & just haven't been able to focus too much on it. So here's a section with Captain Liu Wong & his co-pilot Rafael Hernandez as they face piloting their dropship from the orbiting Everest down to the planet's surface.  As always, I'm sure there are edits to make as I refine, refine, refine.

Enjoy this glimpse of my draft!

- Ryan

Captain Liu Wong absently tried to wipe his very sweaty palms on the legs of his flight suit. The thickness of the material prevented him from feeling much more than a vague pressure against his legs.  He didn’t actually remove any sweat, but it didn't stop him from repeating the gesture.
He could feel the moisture trickling slowly down his cheeks and the sheen on his forehead.  It made him feel self conscious although the polarized face plate of his flight suit wouldn't allow anyone else to see it. When he wasn't wiping his hands, Liu was swiping them over the touch display screen centered immediately in front and slightly below his head. Screens of weapon load outs flashed by as he swiped, the next screen showing flight surface statuses, then another of cargo load out status.   
The data was nearly memorized by now, but his anxiousness was making him twitchy.
No one had ever participated in a drop this big and certainly not when there was a vast armada of boulders the size of cars, trucks, (tanks even!) orbiting the drop target. This shit was absurd. There had to be a way for them to blast some of those rocks.
“Captain Liu Wong,” a melodious woman's voice spoke into his helmet's head set, “there is an update on the drop plan. Downloading to your ship now. Please review.”
“Are you fucking kidding me?” Liu responded in a startled voice.
“Are you going to cry, Liu-ie?” asked Rafael Hernandez, Liu's co-pilot and navigator.
Ignoring the normal response from Rafael, Liu swiped to the appropriate screen. Most of the data remained the same: the Dropflight Leader was Thunderhead and he was still Thunderstorm Bravo Two. His Pelican dropship was the second in a four ship flight, designated Bravo One though Four, with Bravo One being the flight leader. The Dropflight Leader commanded the entire dropflight: ninety-six Pelican drop ships.
The updated ordinance load out was highlighted in red text. The main change seemed to be four new cruise missiles which would launch automatically, with jammers at full, after their passage through the debris field.
“Four cruise missiles? Loaded with jammers? Maybe they do know what they're doing,” Liu commented more calmly. In the background, various thumps and whirs could be heard as the automated loading bots maneuvered the cruise missiles into hide-away bays on the bottom corners of the craft.
“I'm glad you didn't start crying.”
“Eat me, Raf,” Liu remarked, using the common name everyone had given his co-pilot. The guy didn't take anything seriously. “Focus on the nav path. I can't believe that CIC got the all the drop paths right, and I'd rather we actually made it on the ground,” Liu directed. On second thought, if they died during drop, they probably wouldn't even know it and everything would be over so much sooner. God only knew what would be waiting on the ground for them!
“Aye, Aye, el Kapitan. I've been over it as many times as you've tried wiping your sweaty palms on your legs.”
“I have not been wiping my palms on my legs!”
A calm woman's voice interrupted the exchange. “All crews, five minutes to drop. Drop bay doors will be opening in five minutes. Your load outs have been updated. The Field General will address you now.”
“Men and women of the United Terran Government, Terran Armored Corps:  we are five minutes from taking the first steps to truly, finally, end this conflict.” Field General Spaulding's voice was solid basalt, deep and strong. “Many of you knew fathers or mothers that have died while fighting the rebellion. Brothers and sisters, friends and lovers. We all have a story.
I'm not going to ask you to fight for the government. But I am going to ask you to fight for the memories of your loved ones, fight for the hope that our children won't have to fight this battle, too. I know you will do your best, but today, do your best knowing that we have a real chance to end the fight. These next few hours will put it firmly in your hands.
We salute you. I salute you. Make us proud.”
In Liu's imagination was a faded picture of his crying mother, his last memory of her before she, too, left on deployment. That was nearly fourteen years ago, a long time for a scared little boy to remember dark almond-shaped eyes, red with strain, trying to bravely smile.
His own eyes became oddly moist and he blinked a few times.
“Raf, let's fucking do this.” Liu's voice was cold steel.
Rafael was mysteriously quiet for a few moments, no doubt remembering someone long past. When he spoke, there was a slight crack in his tenor. “Aye, Captain. Two minutes to drop. The bay doors should be opening soon.”
On cue, the lights in the bay, visible through the canopy of the Pelican's side-by-side cockpit, went out. The bay was dark, then a red light flashed three times and a buzzer sounded for three seconds.
A white line formed, stretching across in front of the angular nose of the Pelican. It slowly grew thicker, then separated into two white lines, split by a brownish, yellow swirling pattern. The view continued to separate, resolving into a view of the atmosphere of Sigma Draconis Three directly below them. The planet stretched in either direction, with no view of stars to be seen from their vantage point in the launch bay.
It was clear they were moving with speed, as shortly the planet seemed to begin being swallowed by a shadow, slowly traversing from right to left. Liu knew this to be the terminator, the line between night and day on the planet below, but with their limited view, it seemed terribly ominous.
It didn't help that it really was ominous. As that line creeped across the planet, hiding the swirling browns of Sigma Dracons Three from eye sight, so too did the moment of drop steadily approach.
“One minute to drop,” Everest said into his helmet.
The line continued to move, now covering nearly a third of his view.
“Forty-five seconds to drop,” said the melodious woman.
Liu gripped the flight yolk, sitting between his knees, with his right hand, his left now resting on the throttle. Raf shifted in his seat, directly to Liu's right, separated by a bank of switches and displays.
Nearly half of the planet was now covered in darkness, moving from day to night.
“Thirty seconds to drop.”
Liu brought thrust up to 5% by moving his left hand ever so slightly forward, eliciting a click from the throttle control. “Stand by for full power,” he said into the Pelican-wide comm channel. It would transmit to the helmets of the armor crews in the tanks his ship was carrying. The ship hummed with the desire to launch from her shackles, pressing against the clamps keeping her secure in the Everest.
“Twenty seconds to drop,” said Everest with dead calm.
The planet was now nearly two-thirds covered in the dark of night. It crept on.
“Ten seconds to drop.” The night spread by measures.
“Five, four, three, prepare,” said Everest.
On prepare, Liu pushed the throttle to full power. The hum rose to a teeth-rattling vibration as the Everest said:  “dropping.”
Thuds and clangs carried through the hull. Drop rails extended from each corner of the drop bay, providing a guide out of the Everest as the Pelican shot forward. Liu, Raf, and every other body on the drop ship pressed into their seats, indenting their fabric, feeling the seven g acceleration in their lungs. They used the centuries old trick of flexing their abs, forcing blood to stay in their upper bodies as the vessel executed a slight curve up.
Seemingly hours after the acceleration started, Liu killed throttle. They were now, inexorably, falling towards Sigma Draconis Three. Ten seconds of 7G acceleration set them at a quick 686.7 meters per second. He panted in his mask, the fans quietly humming, pushing cold oxygen onto his face, evacuating the moisture so his face plate stayed clear.
The eerily silent acceleration of the giant arrowhead-shaped Pelican was impressive to watch from outside. The drop ships were away, spreading out in a cloud punctuated by green and red navigation lights.  Puffs of flame steered them on their courses.  Shortly they would navigate the debris field, then deal with the Draconian defenses.
“Ready for auto, engaging,” Raf spoke quietly. It seemed the tension of the acceleration had left him.
Liu was still breathing heavy. “Acknowledged, releasing controls.” Liu released the control yolk, letting the Pelican follow its own flight path now, programmed by its supervising lieutenant in the Everest's CIC.
Outside, small thrusters spewed energy in a pattern across the Pelican's angular arrow-head form, tilting her slightly left, then nosing down. Her path seemed to be straight down towards the darkness of Sigma Draconis’s night.
It, essentially, was heading straight down, gaining more velocity from the planet's gravity well to make sure it had enough to sprint through the window in the debris field. Gaps between the hurtling rocks formed at various intervals in an intricate dance. Computers had crunched and whirred aboard the Everest finding the right paths. Regardless, five gigawatt lasers in gimbal mounts about the Pelican's hull twitched to and fro, their acquisition radars hunting for rogue bits.
“All Thunderstorms, all Thunderstorms, this is Thunderhead,” spoke a steady male baritone into Liu and Raf's helmets. “After crossing the debris field, proceed to formation on your flight leads. Follow the drop plans and we'll get on the ground in one piece. Thunderhead out.”
Raf and Liu shared a quick look at one another over the central console of the Pelican cockpit.
“Thirty seconds to debris field, Captain,” said Raf. His voice sounded like it had risen an octave.
“Understood.”  Raf swallowed.  His certainly had.  They have to get these guys on the ground.
“Ten second 2G burst coming in thirteen seconds,” Raf added.
Liu braced, then was pressed back into his seat again. After the 7G acceleration from launch, 2G's didn't feel like much, excepting a solid punch in the gut.  Several never-ending punches to the....
The thrust burst ended, having accelerated the Pelican to a quick 882.9 m/s. Liu scanned the vista outside the canopy, although he knew that there was no way he could spot with his eyes any bit of debris headed their way. If he did, it was likely too late. Instead all he could see was black, the night side of Sigma Draconis.
A violent roll left, tilt down, then what sure felt like reverse thrust made him shift right, rise in his seat, then tilt forward in quick succession, ending his scan. His ears were filled with the thud of his own arteries.
“I guess we're in for some chop, huh, Captain?” remarked Raf.
Another jerk left as the Pelican rolled right.
“Shut up, Raf, and hold on.”
Maneuvering thrusters scattered across the Pelican's hull allowed it to roll and tilt in the vacuum of space. Using the yolk, Liu told a computer what he wanted to do and that was converted into sequenced blasts from various thrusters, giving him “fly by wire” capabilities.
“another-,” Raf's voice was chopped off with a grunt as another burst of acceleration kicked in. They pressed back into their seats and then felt the ship tilting back, moving away from a ninety degree drop towards the planet to a less aggressive angle. The acceleration ended, releasing its grasp on Liu and Raf. Liu checked the velocity to see an even 1 kilometer per second.
Several thuds, then four green lights switching to red indicated the release of the cruise missiles. Flares of white thrust from missiles accelerating forward and away glared against the polarized face plates of Raf and Liu.
A shrill tone and several more orange indicators lit. This time from the threat assessment controls.
“Shit! We're being painted by targeting radar!” Raf shouted.
“I see it, the cruise missiles are squawking and jamming,” Liu's hand on the yolk hit a small switch, flipping his primary swipe-display to show threat locations. His voice caught, looking at the indicators.  Was this right?  “They're fucking behind us! And the cruise missiles with their jamming are zooming ahead of us!”
“Orienting defenses aft!” Raf responded, flipping his own display to show the threat locus. There were ten gimbal turret mounted one gigawatt lasers on the Pelican, five ventral and five dorsal. Their gimbal mounts provided 360 degrees of x-axis coverage and 180 degrees of y-axis coverage. In response to a few swipes of Raf's fingers, the ten gimbals twitched aft, pointing their laser weapon towards the direction of the threats.
A new woman's voice came onto the helmet speakers, tight and drawn, “All drops, all drops, targeting radars are located in the debris field, I repeat, in the debris field, accelerate away as you clear! I say again, accelerate as you clear!”
“Kill the auto, Raf, we're getting the fuck out of here!” Orange indicators switched to red. The threat locus display now showed thin red arrow points accelerating towards them from the rear.
“Missiles! Not clear what they're locked onto, but I'm going to try to get some of those jammer cruise missiles turned around,” Raf shouted.
Liu hit the chaff and flare dispenser on his flight yolk, twisting back and to the left. Thrusters pitched the Pelican back, so its nose rose and then tilted it left. Liu increased thrust, initiating a 3G burn from his main thrusters.
Again Liu and Raf were planted into their seats. More flares and more chaff erupted from the Pelican's flanks. Clouds of aluminium scattered and white-hot phosphorus spun into space, calling to the missiles hunting their charge.
The maneuver maintained the Pelican’s forward velocity, but also now gave the Pelican an 88 m/s drift to the left. It also exposed the five dorsal laser turrets to the vector the enemy missiles would be approaching from.
“I can't tell how many of those missiles are after us or not, but the cruise missiles have been oriented back and are heading our way again. I don't know if it'll do any good. Fuck fuck fuck!”
“Good work, Raf, we'll get out of this, yet,” Liu said. He reoriented the Pelcan down again, bursting another few seconds of 2G acceleration. With the ship now moving at over 1.2 km/s, they would somehow have to bleed that velocity if they made it to the atmosphere. The most likely avenue would be following a serpentine path once they got enough friction in Sigma Draconis Three's atmosphere. If you turn enough times, you'll drop plenty of speed, but it also meant you spent more time in the atmosphere where defenses could shoot at you. Several repeated beeps and flashing red lights from the threat assesement controls indicated that the laser turrets had identified missiles tracking their ship. First things first:  get past the missile barrage!
Raf interrupted Liu's thoughts, “Time to missile intercept thirty seconds. Count four birds. If you tilt us back, the turrets will have better angles of fire.”
“And expose a larger radar signature, never mind we're going to hit atmosphere in fifty seconds or so. Where are the cruise missiles?” Sweat trickled down Liu's forehead, echoing the strain in his voice.
“Twenty seconds and they'll pass us. No guarantees on how well they'll work. Their closing velocity is too quick to do much good!” Raf responded.
Twenty seconds, missiles will be up the thrusters. Ten seconds or so till jammers. Damn it, it will be close. Give me five seconds, four, three, two, now!
Liu pulled back on the yolk, tilting the Pelican's nose up, letting the dorsal laser turrets swivel and target. The jammer cruise missiles blazed by, their on board electronics creating a cloud of white noise for the chasing Draconian missiles to see through. The Pelican's lasers pulsed coherent light at them, concentrating fire between sets of gimbaled lasers, then swiveling to intercept another missile as a target detonated.
Swivel-target-pulse, swivel-target-pulse was the pattern being repeated.
The four missiles chasing them were now molten wreckage, spinning down into Sigma Draconis  Three's atmosphere. But hundreds of other missiles were seeking out the other craft of the drop flight. Each individual ship was essentially on its own.
Liu tilted the Pelican back down, finding the right attack angle to insert into the thicker atmosphere. The threat assessment controls showed yellow tell-tails of targeting radars of various types, but there were no more reds.
The radio spewed chaos.
“Thunderstorm Charlie Four, mayda-”, a crazed male voice was cut off.
“Thun-”, a woman's pitched voice started, then broke off.
“-ucking hit! Lost main thrusters! In free fall! Mayday mayday!” another voice of a desperate man, realizing his ship was in free fall into a planet's atmosphere.
Some mayday calls continued, but most ended abruptly at some point as missiles swarmed over damaged ships. At least, now, the missile barrage had passed the drop flight.
Liu’s jaws flexed as he switched the radio to just the Bravo flight frequency, ending the litany of maydays.
“Bravo flight, we're hitting the atmosphere out of formation, but good work on keeping your ships together,” spoke a far too calm baritone voice. “Reform as you can on Bravo One,” said the Bravo flight leader, piloting Bravo One. “Continue on to the drop zone identified by your downloads. We still have our battalion to deploy.”
Liu responded, voice tight, “Bravo Two, wilco.”
“Bravo Three, roger,” said a shaking woman's tenor. Sounds like Vicki was shook up.  Understandably.
“Bravo Four, roger,” said a hard breathing male. That would be Iakopo.
“The flight made it, holy shit,” remarked Raf.
Liu could only nod, his hands starting to shake.

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