Dropships suck. I can’t decide whether it’s the cramped conditions, the oppressive heat or the fact that most of the time all that separates you from the cold embrace of space is about two inches of reinforced battle-plate. They say it’s thick enough to deflect artillery rounds, but first hand experiences tells you that no matter how much time and money is put into upgrading and retrofitting protective systems, you can be damn sure that the other side has put twice as much into figuring out how to beat it.
Here I am, sitting in the pitch-black interior of a bird, jostling shoulder-to-shoulder with three other members of my squad. On the other side of the dropship’s troop bay sits the Lieutenant (we call him “Loot”) and the three other unlucky SOBs. On a normal deployment, we sit in the bay until the dropship hits atmosphere, at which point the side doors open and we get to watch as the pilot weaves us through anti-aircraft fire. If we make it to the ground, then we either fast-rope out of the sides or hop down depending on the circumstances. The amount of times we’ve had a “normal” deployment have been few and far between, though.
The heat inside the dropship rockets upwards and the bird starts shaking like we’re being thrown around inside of hurricane. Over the sound of metal rivets popping, I hear Loot break onto the squad’s battle-net, which had been mostly silent since we left the orbiting fleet.
“All right, men, we’ve hit atmosphere. Time on target is t-minus fifteen minutes. Intel says to expect light resistance until we hit the ground, but be ready for anything.”
My helmet’s integrated display brings up a little timer which begins counting down from fifteen minutes. All around me I can hear the sounds of weapons being loaded, from the small click of an assault rifle magazine sliding home to the double clank of the squad’s heavy weapons expert loading his light machine gun. I slide a mag out of my belt pouch and jam it into the receiver. In the small amount of space I have, I work the charging handle and feed a round into the chamber. Peterson, the machine gunner, turns to look at me with a big grin on his face.
“Man, I hope we get to ground soon.”
“Why’s that Peterson? Are you still afraid of flying?”
Peterson’s idiot grin widens even further, stretching the scar that tugs at his lower lip.
“Nah, man, I farted. Just one of the benefits of a high-protein diet.”
I roll my eyes and turn to face the dropship’s doors which have begun to slide open. Before the doors retract, I spot the other dropships making the decent with us onto the planet’s surface. Our whole company has been deployed to assault the target, a fairly small operation by this war’s standards. One of the other vessels slides in close to ours, and I see a solider wave at us. Holding onto my crash webbing, I give a friendly wave back.
Just as the soldier in the other ship turns to tap his seat-mate on the shoulder, his ship explodes and flings shrapnel everywhere. The shockwave rumbles out from the expanding fireball and shards of metal ping off our ship. One particularly huge chunk flings itself into our bay and misses me by two inches. I turn to tell Peterson how lucky I am when I notice that the flak has lodged itself into the wall where his head once was. His decapitated corpse limps forwards and falls out of the troop bay, taking his machine gun with it.
“God dammit,” Loot curses over the net “I told that moron a million times to secure his crash webbing! Now we have no light machine gun.”
One of my other squad-mates, probably Carter, our sniper, begins to make a smart ass remark when the entire ship shudders and drops a good twenty feet. I hear someone throw up on the other side of the bay as the co-pilot breaks into our frequency.
“Bad news boys: that last blast killed the pilot and we’re losing fuel. I’m going to try to keep this thing gliding as long as I can, but I think your time on my ship is done. Get prepped for an emergency bail-out and...Good luck.”
The Lieutenant doesn’t even need to give an order; we’re all double checking the parachutes that we strapped to ourselves before making the drop. They seem redundant in space, but if you ever need to bail out of a dropship in atmosphere, you’re thanking your lucky starts that you’re carrying the extra fifteen pounds.
We throw ourselves out of the dropship and watch as the whole hulking black mass spirals away, the co-pilot giving up the last few minutes of his life to make sure we’re clear of the space craft. I turn and orient myself towards the planet’s surface, watching as red and yellow tracers of anti-aircraft fire streaks towards the heavens accompanied by giant bursts of light that can only be ground-based cannon defences.
The world we’re going to was once a tropical paradise, a loose collection of islands that used to feature white sand beaches, beautiful girls and mixed drinks. Now, after a couple nuclear bombardments, ash streaks from the sky and the one-time resort cities are hollowed out husks of their former selves.
My helmet recorder absorbs all of this, and I try to angle it to get the best view of the defensive emplacements, just in case they need to send someone else down. The wind is whipping past me as I fall through a layer of clouds, my camouflaged gear-encumbered body breaking up the gentle zephyrs.
I’m getting close to the ground so I pop my chute, and try to point myself towards the designated landing zone. The AA fire, which looked so mesmerizing off in the distance, is now getting too close for comfort. I instinctively tuck myself into a ball and throw off my aerodynamics sending my body into a tight spin. Before I try to uncurl my legs, machine gun fire rips through my arm and my chute, tearing a chunk of fabric and sending a geyser of blood splashing onto my face.
As I choke through my own fluids, I key my microphone and hope that someone can hear me.
“Loot! Carter! Anyone! I’ve been hit by machine gun fire, and I’ve lost some of my parachute! I’m heading down into a residential zone near the west coast!”
I’m getting very, very close to the ground now. Carter comes in over the net, his voice concerned. “That area’s got the highest concentration of pre-war refugees, man. You know what they say about bad luck, it comes in threes.”
“This is four, Carter. Peterson lost his head, remember?”
I can almost picture the smirk forcing itself onto Carter’s face, “Yeah, but that didn’t happen to you.”
That’s the last thing I hear before I slam through a wall.