August’s Shell Case Shorts was all about sci-fi as the prize was nothing less than a signed copy of Dropzone Commander from Hawk Wargames.
There was some great entries but the winning entry had to go to Erin Freeman (@SixEleven) for not only setting his story in the Dropzone universe but for telling the story from the point of view from a dropship pilot, something which is at heart of Dropzone Commander.
So, without further a-do I give you…
Seventeen Minutes - by Erin Freeman
Seventeen minutes. Seventeen minutes was the amount of time between take off and being knocked out of the sky. Seventeen minutes and my world would be turned upside down.
It was supposed to be a fairly routine mission, do it by the numbers and go home. We’d done a hundred like ‘em and there was nothing to make us think this time would be any different. What’s that saying about pride and a fall?
The roar of our twin vindicator cannons reverberated around the cockpit of the gunship, rattling the consoles in their frames and shaking the fillings loose in my head. Another target suppressed. It it rarely matters in war whether you hit the target or not, just whether or not they’re able to fire back. My gunner takes his finger off the firing stud as the temperature gauge starts to turn red and the lack of noise is striking. It doesn’t last for long as movement ahead provokes another withering hail of fire. Something vanishes into a push of red.
The special ops team we were escorting and providing close air support for had been on the ground for four minutes. In that time they had moved into the nearby building and were clearing it room by room. I could hear their comm chatter and bursts of weapons fire. It was messy in there. Above them, my tub and the dropship the special forces had ridden in on were doing their damnedest to keep out of reach of the anti-air fire coming their way from floors our boys had yet to clear. But for all their determination each pot shot only brought more torrents of fire from our guns on to their heads.
A red light winked on the main console accompanied by a dirty squawk. I tapped at the light, irritated, the missile lock detection system had been playing up for days but none of the mechanics had been able to fix it. A swift thump to the console and the light went out and the squawking along with it. A burst of comm traffic from headquarters warned us of light PHR walkers in the area. I couldn’t help but smile. It was me that had reported them in the first place. Everything we’d seen on the West side of the river had been light walkers and infantry. Nothing we couldn’t handle.
Not that it mattered either way. The mission had been designated Priority-one which meant come hell, high water or immanent crushing defeat, we had to complete our mission. UCM Intelligence had indicated the structure the spec-ops team was in was a hub for a network of underground tunnels that connected to buildings two kilometres behind our lines. They’d been making monkeys out of us, and mince meat out of our men, for weeks and the brass had just about had enough.
The plan was drawn up with the usual flare that the UCM was renowned for. Turn up. Shoot our way in. Complete the mission. Shoot our way out. On top of that we only had a vague idea of which building possessed the tunnel network. It was only the volume of light weapons fire we took coming in that validated our suspicions.
The comm burst to life in my headset again although it was chopped to hell with static. A lucky shot had hit the communications relay and was now threading everything with static. I recognise the merest sound bite long enough to recognise the voice of my wingman, Janus. I looked over to him waving to get his attention before tapping my head set and then drawing a line across my throat so he knew my comms were down. He nodded his understanding and signed that light walkers had been spotted moving on our position. I signalled my understanding and passed the information to my gunner who was already spinning up his guns.
Ten minutes into the mission and the barrels of the vindicators were glowing red as their ammunition ripped apart PHR infantry caught in the open and sawed through the legs of a light walker attempting to protect them. The entire area was choked with smoking wreckage and the burst bodies of the dead. The mission was going well, almost too well. Apart from having to continually adjust the dropship’s position to target the oncoming PHR infantry, the mission was shaping up to be as much fun as escorting a senior officer around a recently secured city sector.
What’s that saying about being careful what you wish for?
I was torn from my musings by the threat detection console going crazy. System jammers sent the electronic countermeasures haywire and the missile lock warning shrieked like a frightened child. As I struggled to re-engage counter measures the world was suddenly replaced by a searing white light and the sound of shredding metal, explosions and screaming.
For what seemed like an age all I could see was white light as my brain tried to decipher just what had happened to it. As my vision gradually returned to normal everything felt simultaneously normal yet out-of-place. All I could hear was the chatter over the Comm informing me of the bloody obvious, that PHR heavy walkers were active in my sector. There was no howl of engines. No wind noise. And a strange sense of weightlessness. I had just enough time to realise that we were going down before the ground rushed up to meet me and everything went suddenly black.
I came to only moments after blacking out. My cockpit was a charred mess and the stink of burning plastics hung in the air, mixing with the taste of blood in my mouth. I numbly fumbled for the canopy release and with a systematic bang of exploding bolts it blew clear. I was immediately bombarded by the battle unfolding on the streets. The crack of small arms fire, punctuated by the crump of grenades all with the undertones of flyers streaking overhead and the familiar whine of vindicator Gatling guns opening up.
Bullets ricochet off the hull of the downed gunship with a comical spanking sound focussing my concussed mind. Glancing behind me I could see that neither my co-pilot or gunner had to worry about being focussed ever again. How I’d survived a nose first impact with the ground has remained a mystery to me but I was eternally grateful none the less.
Above me Janus’ gunship was still airborne, furiously jinking and bouncing his aircraft in an effort to avoid the worst of the anti-air fire. The hull was scorched and dented from a few lucky escapes where explosives had glanced off or failed to detonate. A smoky contrail and a desperate near miss gave Janus a target of opportunity. I watched from my cockpit as he expertly wheeled on the spot and targeted a crumbling residential building two blocks down.
The familiar, comforting, sound of the vindicators rippled into life and the facade of the building exploded into an expanding cloud of dust and debris before the entire side of the building, already undermined from centuries of neglect broke away altogether and toppled into the street bringing with it broken bodies in opalescent armour.
I remember punching the air like some wet behind the ears, green back, rookie. The PHR deserved everything they got for standing in our way when by rights they should have been fighting alongside us. My elation was short-lived, however, when another rocket burst from the shadowy depth of a nearby tenement and crashed into the back of Janus’ gunship. Flames and smoke belched from the number two engine and the deep throaty engines became plaintive and stuttering.
For a moment I could see Janus struggling with the control stick, desperately trying to keep his bird aloft. He’d lingered too long, stayed on station to try to provide cover for what was turning into a cluster fuck. The gunship lurched upwards, looping drunkenly down a narrow street. I lost sight of him but the explosion and resulting fireball reaching skywards moments later told me all I needed to know of the fate of my friend and his crew.
With nothing left for me to do but survived I yanked my rifle free from its magclamps on the cockpit floor and made a run for it. I already knew the PHR had me zeroed in as the odd opportunistic shot had come my way. I ducked, I wove and put as much covered as I could between me and where I suspected the sharp shooters were hiding. I felt a round tug at my tunic but ignored it. Stopping meant dead.
I slid to a stop behind a pile of concrete just as a PHR heavy walker lumbered into view. I recalled the garbled comms transmission. Heavy walkers active in your area. No fucking shit. In the area they looked like plucked chickens. On the ground they looked like big scary chickens with massive guns. It’s torso swiveled, weapons tracking skywards as it sought out fresh targets.
They say in combat time slows down and reactions faster and senses heightened. I don’t know if that’s true or but because when something big comes up against something equally big hell breaks loose to the extent your mind wants to find the darkest corner possible and hide. When the shooting started my instincts took over. I’m not sure how I managed to scramble beneath the debris, let alone curl up into a fetal position, clutching my head as the ground reverberated with the concussive forces being unleashed around me. By the time silence has returned to this corner of the city two more aircraft were smoking wrecks on the ground and the third had bugged out, smoke pouring from its engines.
I risked a glance over the debris and felt the colour drain from my face as barely 10 feet away stood the walker, weapon systems smoking and the sensor dish mounted to its body clicking and whirring. I had no doubt in my mind it was looking for survivors, something else to shoot at. After a few long minutes it loosed a volley of shots into my downed craft almost, it seemed, out of principle and stalked off with what I can only describe as a sense of disappointment.
I stayed put for a few minutes to make sure the walker had genuinely moved on before I broke cover. I had to link with the special forces unit and somehow get the hell out of this God forsaken city. With no chance of rescue, at least not from the air, I had to move. The first rule of being downed behind enemy lines was evade capture and, frankly, I was too pretty for prison. My options were clear; either try to hot foot it back to base or link up with the spec-ops and exfill with them. As base was the other side of a war zone it was really no option at all. The second rule of survival training was await for rescue. In the absence of rescue I decided I’d settle for the next best thing; somewhere to hide.
I peered over the balcony rail of an Easterly facing apartment on the 5th floor of an old tenement. In its heyday it would have been quite luxurious but the centuries, and the Scourge, had been cruel. Overlooking the crash site I was in the building diagonally opposite that of the spec-ops team who were plying their trade in. I could only cross my fingers that they were having a better time than I was.
I stood watch at that balcony for what felt like hours when in reality on minutes were ticking by. The scene below me was oddly calm, the nature left to run-amok oblivious is to the sudden violence unleashed moment before. The scene was ruined seconds later by the walker once more striding into view. It’s body swiveled, as it began to scan the ruins and buildings in the area once more, seeking easy prey or any survivors it might have missed. Hot on its heels a couple of units PHR infantry, clearly emboldened by the presence of such awe-inspiring weapon of war, trotted into view. I immediately dropped down behind the balcony, gripping my rifle tightly. I’m not ashamed to admit that I felt fear or, for that briefest of moments, gave into the real chance that I might not make out in one piece.
I risked a glance over the balcony, with great timing as ever, as I’m just in time to see the target building implode. Spec-ops had continued with their mission, despite the chaos unfolding outside. As the PHR forces scattered I realised that the spec-ops were already out and moving to envelope the PHR infantry. Caught unprepared and in the open the PHR infantry were torn to pieces. The walker, quicker to recover turned and began stalking towards the UCM infantry, its weapons spooling up. I wanted to shout a warning but at this distance it wouldn’t be heard.
My eyes scanned the sky in vain for some sign that reinforcements were on the way to save the out-gunned elite soldiers. And once again my timing was uncanny as no sooner had the thought entered my head but a second squad of special ops broke cover from the building opposite my own. It turned out they were keeping tabs on the battle all along and had been waiting for the opportune moment to strike. The walker had its back to the men as it stalked towards the first squad. To my surprise they ran for the building I had taken refuge in. My angry objections died in my throat as the entire bottom three floors of the building they had just vacated disappeared in an expanding cloud of fire, debris and shattered glass.
The PHR walker immediately span on the spot, forgetting all about the spec-ops team it was hunting. It gave the soldiers the opening they needed. Aiming for the weaker knee joints of the walker both teams unleashed their anti-armour rockets, blasting apart the poorly armoured joints, smashing the legs apart and pitching the walker into the ground with a fatal and final thud.
Time seems to slow down as I watch, such a fearsome machine of war put out of action by the simple act of surprise and a few well placed high velocity armour-piercing rounds. The earth shakes as it crashes down into the ground, smoke trailing from a variety of wounds. I can’t say the sight of it doesn’t fill me with a mixture of emotions, the first of those is vengeance for the downing of my fellow pilots, pride in the ability and quick thinking of our troops comes a close second.
From my vantage point it looked like a slaughtered bird, letting out various groaning sounds that I could only assume were its systems and power plant failing before the walker’s shattered body gave up and went limp, fluids and gases venting from its cracked armour like blood.
The loss of the walker took the fight out of the PHR troops who turned tail and ran for it…towards the building I was hiding in. Broken or not they spotted me soon enough and a hail of gunfire was spattering all around my vantage point within moments. Abandoning my vantage point I ran back into the building, looking for the nearest stair case to move higher into the structure. I dive into the stair well, my heart pounding. Below me I can hear yelling and then a flurry of gunfire. The blood rushed in my ears as I gripped my rifle tight, risking a glance over the railings to determine how much time I had.
I could feel the icy effects of panic creeping over me, threatening to drain my energy and slow me down. Evade capture, evade capture, evade captures. I repeated the mantra over and over giving me drive to move my aching muscles once more. I hit the stairs just as an explosion below shakes the building and I get knocked from my feet. I didn’t wait to find out what happened I just ran.
Bursting through the door to the seventh floor I darted into the nearest room and behind the first piece of cover I can find. Rifle resting on what I suspect was once a sofa, before nature claimed it, I had a perfect view of the staircase so I could cut down anyone that came after me. I clicked the selector switch from semi-automatic to full automatic as the sounds of gunfire gradually moved up the stairs.
As the last of the gunshots rang out I screwed my eyes shut and waited for the inevitable. Who was I trying to kid? I was a pilot not a soldier and I didn’t stand a chance against a single PHR ground pounder let alone a squad of them. The sense of panic returned and I didn’t have the strength to fight it off. As the door slammed open I dropped down and cowered behind my makeshift barricade.
I remember the slightest tremor of heavy footsteps entering the room. It seems like an odd thing to notice now, but, back then, the headset I’d been wearing the entire time was hissing static. The shot that had caught my tunic had severed the wire from my headset to comms pack and I hadn’t even noticed. It’s funny what your mind focusses on the moment before you die. But instead of feeling the cool metal of a gun barrel against my head I feel a strong hand grip my shoulder and pull me bodily upwards.
“Hey, get ready to move out.” The gruff voiced beyond my tightly shut eyes commanded me. My heart soared; it was a voice I recognised, or at least a dialect I recognised. Peering through flinching eyelids I was met by the glassy stare of a gruff spec-ops squad leader. He was covered head to toe in shit and gravy and looked every bit the grizzled elite soldier he truly was. I know full well I grinned at him like an idiot. At first his distaste is evident but it eventually gave way to a barely perceptible smile and points out of the window to the west. I stand up and look out. Shielding my eyes against the sun I could just make out a huddle of APCs churning up dust as they raced to reach us.
I slid to the floor and let out a sigh. I glanced at my chrono and smirked. Mission complete T plus 31 minutes.