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  1. I haven't had as much time as I'd like to work on my Divergence Chronicles VN, so I thought I'd write a short story instead. This was written in the same vein as the existing Tactical Surface Fighter In Action stories written inMuv Luv omnibuses by the Age team. More background information can be found in the twoblog posts I wrote in the last few days to describe the project and other background details I made. You can also read the story in the original blog format here. I will go ahead and post the images of the pilots I created since I'm pretty proud of them! This is Chief Warrant Officer Vinh Trang on the left and 2nd Lieutenant Ash West on the right. They are both members of the USSC (United States Space Corps) and are part of the SOAG (Special Operations AviationGroup) "Helldivers" Squadron. West is our main POV protagonist. Diving Into Hell! January, 2006 Low Earth Orbit: 1200 Kilometers above US-Canadian Border near Montreal, Quebec One of the best ways to get the blood pumping was to drop like a rock through the Earth's atmosphere. At more than fifteen thousand kilometers per hour, the trip back down to solid ground wouldn't take more than eight minutes. To the seasoned Orbital Diver Ash West, those eight minutes felt like an eternity. The entire chassis of his Tactical Surface Fighter shook around him as they barrelled through the Earth's protective layers. The temperature inside the pilot seat felt like he was sitting in an oven, and it didn't help that he was bathed a dim red light as his TSFs safety warnings refused to shut down. Only a thin layer of metallic plate stood between West and the evergrowing flames surrounding his entry capsule; every hiss and creak of the coffin grimly reassured him that one foot was already sitting in hell, waiting for the rest of him to arrive. One out of every ten divers die on re-entry thanks to an equipment malfunction. I wonder what they heard as they made their last drop? But this wouldn't be his last drop. Ash knew that after surviving Operation Iceberg, the world still had plenty more to throw at him before his time was done. There had to have been a reason whyhesurvived when so many others fell before him. The edges of Ash's vision were completely drowned in black. His heart was firing off like a machine gun in his throat, making it difficult to breathe. ODs trained to resist more than eight G's of acceleration, but that didn't make it any easier. Every second he had to fight himself to keep from blacking out, willing the blood in his head to keep traveling for more oxygen and not pool up in his brain. No matter how well made the flying coffin he was dropping in was, he'd fall as flat as a pancake into the dirt if he wasn't awake to fire his TSF's thrusters at the right moment. He heard the unforgettablepop!as the Re-Entry Shell holding him and his partner disengaged the locking mechanism that tethered their capsules to it. Essentially a giant piece of metal with an engine attached, the shell's primary purpose was to hold the capsules while they were in orbit attached to an HSST spacecraft. When the time for a drop came, the shell disengaged and used its engine to accelerate itself toward their target landing zone; when it finished properly aligning itself, the pilot capsules were released and the shell itself became a one-way ticket bomb for the poor saps on the ground beneath it. The shell was designed to gradually increase its speed until impact, hitting the ground as the pilots were still making their final descent to try and clear the way of any BETA. Except their target this time wasn't an enemy Hive. For the first time in history, the Orbital Divers were being deployed to engagehumanadversaries. This was no training mission either; if his TSF got hit this time around, they wouldn't be cleaning paint off the cockpit. As a member of the Helldivers, the lieutenant knew that this was an inevitable point to reach: countering a hostile nation using ODs was the whole reason his squadron existed in the first place. Ash had finally earned a ticket back down to Earth and a chance to earn his pay. He had the French to thank for that. Since they hadn't been able to deliver him any mail for the last two years in space, he'd be looking forward to that check. "Shrike-1, do you copy?" Over the radio, he could hear a faint voice calling out. As the capsule began to accelerate for final entry, it sounded like the person was on the opposite side of a tunnel. Resisting the beating drum playing in his ears, Ash West managed to formulate enough words to respond. "Roger, Shrike-2. What's wrong?" Generally the only talking ODs did during descent was to themselves, inside their own heads. It was too difficult to concentrate on anything else, and for the most part transmission of comm signals didn't fly during atmospheric descent. If his partner was able to speak with him then that meant they were past the "hard" part of the drop; it wouldn't be long now before the capsule around him disentigrated and he could finally be back in control. As if on cue, the rumbling of the craft around him began to die down. He could finally hear himself think. "Wanted to make sure you were still awake. Estimated Shell impact time is less than sixty secs." The other pilot in his Element spoke to him with a certain kind calm that could only come with experience. But it wasn't Second Lieutenant Pierce in the pilot seat over there, but instead the Chief Warrant Officer of their ride upstairs. After the power surge knocked out Jessica's life support systems, he'd been left with no partner when the call finally came to make the drop. The only other person with any kind of TSF piloting experience was Chief Vinh Trang, but despite the age old saying that every cadet was a pilot, her only hours were sitting in a metal box groundside,simulatingwhat a drop would feel like. So, while Chief Trang knew every in and out of theRelianceand all the little math that came in between an OD and their drop zone, she wasn't anywhere close to actuallyfeelingwhat it meant to fall feet first into combat. It struck him that even though it was fair of her to be concerned with his personal safety, that it was just as likely her own nerves that made her break radio contact and make sure she wasn't alone. They would be blind up until the final second their capsule broke apart and released their TSFs, so this conversation was the only proof they had that the other had survived. Despite his reservations of having someone inexperienced like the Chief along, he was glad to know that she was still alive. Given that it was just the two of them that were even capable of making the drop in the first place, he needed all the help he could get to complete the mission and make the trek back to wherever safety was. "I'm fine. More importantly, what's your math tell you about how much longer I'm going to be sitting on my ass here?" Apart from one's own estimations, there was no built in countdown timer for the landing in his TSF's systems. When his cameras finally started to pick up the purples and oranges of the evening tundra sky he'd know they were close. But given that he had a math whiz here, he'd settle for getting the answer a little earlier to pique his curiosity. "Our capsules should finish their burn in ninety seconds. I'll let you know when the shell impacts. Over." "Roger. Shrike-1, Out." Ash resisted as the G's began their final assault on his body: they were on the home stretch now and he could feel it in his bones. Having already gone through a drop twice before, his mind was more focused on the oddities surrounding this mission instead of the death-defying feat he was leisurely partaking in. It was already an awkward situation for him given the fact that he was in command of the air element. Captain Sykes and First Lieutenant Roger's HSSTs were out of range or were otherwise inoperable and unable to take part in the operation; the truth was, they had no way of communicating with anyone else in the fleet since The Day. They just had to keep hope alive that the eggheads were working on some way to recover rest of the Corps, otherwise it was going to be a lonely time for them back on Earth. Great. I bet I'm going to get drafted with the rest of the damn grunts in the Army. Even though the USSC was spawned from the US Army back in 1946, there was no love lost between the two branches. Given their exclusive operation of the US's spacecraft and over four divisions of TSFs, the Space Corps had turned into an amalgamation of the Army, Navy, and Air Force into one beautiful monstrosity. Hell, given the exclusivity of the outfit and its own unique blend of "culture", one could even make some connections back to the US'sotherCorps. "Impact of the shell in five. Four. Three. Two...and one. We have splashdown." The Chief's voice filtered through his headset much clearer this time. Given the shielding around their craft the signal was still audio only, but he could easily picture her locked into her seat a few hundred kilometers away. Imagining a person in that detail came easy when you were forced to live with them for two years in a very small space. She wasn't the worst sight he could think of either, but that was neither here nor there. "Hope those French like the taste of US shrapnel in the morning." Despite being firm allies during the war against the BETA, Ash West had struggled to find any way to sympathize with their now northern neighbors since theReliancereceived word of what had been going on since The Day. The transmission from NORAD was brief but telling: the French had escalated from border skirmishes with the US and had raided the now abandoned Washington D.C. They had even gone so far as to murder the First Lady of the United States and sack the White House, just as the British had in 1812. The world had almost got bombed back into the stone age and now they wanted to finish the job. As far as Ash was concerned, the bastards needed to be taught a lesson and the Helldivers were the perfect choice. He heard the engines on his capsule shut down as they entered the final descent stage. Whatever anti-air defenses the French and Canadians had setup apparently weren't very good at their jobs. They should go talk to the Laser-class next chance they get for a real lesson in Anti-air. "I guess this is the part where we buckle in, sir?" For the first time since they started their conversation, Ash thought he could detect a hint of nervousness from the warrant officer. A rare smile made its way through the cracks as Ash responded. "What are you talking about, Chief? This is the best part!" Just as he said that the camera feeds from his TSF's head unit began to light up as the capsule broke up around them. The IR feed projected in front of his eyes showed nothing but the fading images of evening in the Canadian skies before he angled down to look at the ground. He only had a few seconds before he had to focus on his landing, but Ash could see the light reflecting off of the nearby St. Lawrence river and the fast approaching concrete buildings of former CFB, now FAB St. Hubert Airfield. The destruction of that base was their primary objective in a decisive tit-for-tat display of force projection designed to show the French that the United States could hit them anywhere and any time. It also happened to be the same base that housed the army group currently away galavanting across the United State's east coast. The lieutenant noticed that the pieces of his capsule were already starting to make landfall. Each shard seemed to explode upon impact as if it were packed with explosives thanks to the sheer speed they were falling with. It was an important part of the landing stage, however, as those pieces would act as their TSFs' personal welcome mat for any hostiles waiting beneath their feet. Ash gripped the controls with white knuckles as he willed his Raptor's Pratt & Witney PW-100 Jump Units to ignite and slow his descent to the ground that was less than just two kilometers away. External microphones were picking up a cacophony of activity, most notable the base's alarm and the growing rumble of vehicles and equipment being roused to fend them off. "Shrike-1 to Shrike-2, you are free to engage!" "Roger." Lieutenant West brought up his targeting reticle that allowed him to aim the F-22A's twin AMWS-21 assault cannons and began to strafe the base's facilities even as he was in the process of falling to the ground. They only had one opportunity to capitalize on the chaos of their sudden and devastating landing, so they had to inflict as much damage as they possibly could before the base's personnel could react. His 36mm depleted uranium rounds smashed into the concrete and brick buildings and tore them apart as if they were made of paper. A warning klaxon went off in his ear to alert him something was attempting to lock onto his TSF. He turned to see a radar missile station attempting to angle itself to fire at him despite his rapidly declining altitude. Given the Raptor's advanced suite of jamming technology and other anti-radar systems, they might as well have gotten out and thrown rocks at him. A single 120mm shot made short work of the tower just as he felt his TSF sink its feet into solid ground for the first time in two years. Just less than a kilometer away, Chief Trang successfully landed in her F-15SE and began to track targets on the base's western side. Though not the technologically superior 3rd gen craft the Raptor was, the upgraded Silent Eagle was capable of keeping up with its own quasi-3rd gen stealth suite and upgraded avionics. The chief wasn't a bad shot either as he watched a series of hangars go up in smoke before their doors could even open. "Sandral infrared system spotted at your nine o'clock!" West forced his cameras to track in that direction to his left even as Trang laid on a withering amount of firepower on the buildings in front of them. Infrared missiles were still a danger to even a Raptor if they managed to get a lock, especially at this short range. TSFs weren't equipped with chaff like aircraft of old and the F-22's jamming system was only effective to a certain minimum distance. Luckily, his partner had successfully shut down the enemy AA emplacement before it could even fire off a single missile. "Nice shot, Shrike-2." His next target priority was the air control tower to shut down any chance the base would have of organizing its defense. With the French's communications already shut down thanks to a US ground team, West and Trang planned to be uninterrupted in their assault for at least two minutes before word could trickle out to nearby CFB Montreal. The tower disappeared after a quick burst from his assault cannon and joined the rest of the base in burning, as the base's fuel tanks ruptured and belched black smoke into the night sky. Not a single hostile TSF was able to deploy before it was destroyed in its berth, and the same went for the rest of the airbase's compliment of transport and rotary aircraft. Both visual and thermal imaging came up clean after a quick sweep as not a single hostile could be detected in the rubble. The base had gone silent. A priority transmission appeared on his Heads Up Display as the Combat Controller that was a part of the US ground team attempted to contact him. Meanwhile, Shrike-2 moved in front of the Raptor and began to make another sweep of the perimeter to ensure they weren't in for any nasty surprises. "...Come in Shrike Actual. Do you copy? This is Rover." Static was followed by a masculine voice over the comm channel, the tone reduced to a harsh whisper. After their ground infiltration of the base ahead of the TSF drop, the special forces team was supposed to fall back and act as the air element's eyes and ears on the ground. Contact from them meant there was either trouble ahead or a change of plans was in order, neither of which were good in West's book. "Go ahead, Rover. This is Shrike." "Shrike, we confirm that FAB St Hubert's primary facilities are down. Secondary objective as follows: destroy the warehouses to your southwest, on the opposite end of the airfield, and then bug out. We're detecting a lot of radio chatter in CFB Montreal and outgoing signals to Valcartier up north. How copy?" West grimaced as the air controller alerted him of the Canadian's quick reaction to their attack. The plan was to get in and out without any significant engagement against enemy TSF battalions given their lack of presence, but if they were already aware then they had a scant few minutes to get out. The stealth systems wouldn't mean a thing if they had a regiment of TSFs combing the area searching for them. "Shrike, Copy. We will finish the warehouses and then push the throttle till we hit Lake Michigan. Over and out." He closed the channel and opened up a new one with Shrike-2. In his HUD, he could now see a small live image feed Chief Trang as she piloted her TSF. He noticed that her face was full of sweat and contorted into a figure of discomfort that wasn't unexpected to see after someone's first successful drop. She should have counted herself lucky to be a part of such a "safe" operation to be her first. "Shrike-2, we have a new objective." Using his TSF's rear cameras, he pushed a still image of the looming outlines of the target buildings to Trang's feed. Apart from the slight tightening of her jawline, she made no move to protest the extension of their stay in French Canada. "Do we know what it is?"she asked. "Doesn't matter," West said, shrugging. "The faster we take it out the faster we can leave. Hostiles are prepping to sortie just a couple mikes from here, so we don't have time to contemplate." "Roger." Trang's F-15 fell in behind his Raptor as they engaged NOE flight along the airfield's now thoroughly wrecked strip. Twisted pieces of metal jutted out of the ground and turned their path into an impromptu obstacle course, forcing the TSF's to weave around the larger pieces. Crushed underneath much of the remains of their capsules were aircraft of all shapes and sizes, including two of what looked to be Rafales that were either on patrol or were otherwise parked outside of their hangar. West grunted in satisfaction to see his Raptor's closest rival pounded into dust. With just a few kilometers to go, his radar began to pick up movement in front of him. In front of a barbed wire fince and other concrete defenses that protected the twin warehouses were two hostile TSFs, crouched down low with their FWS-G1 assault cannons trained directly at the two US TSFs. Before West could say anything, the two enemies began to fire and unleashed a withering barrage of 36mm fire in their general direction. "Shit!" He shifted to the left as Trang did the same toward his three o'clock. Running on instinct alone he thumbed both triggers and began to fire back in their direction. Given the enemy's proximity to one another, West decided to use the 120mm high explosive cannon round on the ground directly between the two enemy TSFs. By crouching down and powering off their systems, the enemies had basically looked like two other buildings or towers in the distance. Only when the Americans got close enough could they have discerned the actual shape profile to that of an enemy TSF, but by then it had already been too late. It was a clever trick, but the enemy's accuracy left much to be desired as his Raptor and Trang's Eagle reported all green. The same couldn't be said for what West could now identify as two Mirage 2000's as they scrambled to maneuver out of the way of the Americans' firepower. In a crouch, their TSFs couldn't adequately move or make use of their jump units fast enough to dodge the 120mm round before it impacted, enveloping the two machines in a bright explosion. Rather than wait for confirmation of the kill, both West and Trang continued to fire their smaller 36mm rounds into the growing smoke until their magazines were expended. "Hold fire, Shrike-2. Let's advance in a pincer and make sure they're dead." "Copy that." Trang sounded legitimately surprised, almost out of breath by the very sudden and very real danger of TSF-vs-TSF combat. It was a completely different beast than fighting the BETA because your opponent had the same kind of tools and plays in their book that you did. Only those with more experience and a healthy dose of luck came out on top in the end; it also helped they had nicer, more expensive tools thanks to Uncle Sam. By the time they got to the end of the airfield near where the enemy TSFs had ambushed them from the fires had been going on for some time. No movement could be detected by either machine's sensors, and it was unlikely the pilots even had the opportunity to bail out before the smaller rounds had penetrated the cockpit block. Given the angle from which West and Trang were firing, their return fire had also managed to completely destroy the warehouses the two Mirage's had died fighting to protect. Wonder what was so important in these shelters that they'd assign two TSFs to guard them? A cursory glance even with his Raptor's enhanced imagery feed showed nothing but some concrete turned to swiss cheese and the innumerable bullet impact craters left behind by their rifles that covered the ground and nearby buildings. He noticed a large amount of what appeared to be wooden crates, or what was left ofdestroyedwooden crates, inside along with what appeared to be the semi-recognizable form of rations scattered all over the ground. The warehouse must have been where they kept their foodstuffs and other edibles. Odd to see such a place so heavily defended, but he wasn't the French commander in charge. Speaking of, his radar began to sound off as a number of contacts appeared at their 3 o'clock at an extreme distance. The Canadians had finally gotten off of their asses to come and help. "Shrike 2," West said into the narrow beam channel, "Hostile contacts! Too many for us to engage. We're leaving!" Chief Trang nodded, her shoulders noticeably sagging in what West could only imagine was relief. No doubt she was glad to get out of harm's way rather than jump feet first into it. West oriented his Raptor toward the general southwest direction that would take them flying over Lake Ontario and pushed his cruising speed to max. He felt a considerable kick as the Raptor accelerated into the night sky with its powerful engines working overtime to put some distance between the Americans and their pursuers. He watched Trang's F-15 with his peripheral cam and while it lacked the same kind of sheer power as the F-22, the Silent Eagle managed to maintain a loose formation with its Element partner as they prepared to enter the United States, and safety. The Helldivers first mission against human opponents was no doubt a resounding success. Despite that, West's thoughts lingered on the warehouses and what they had contained. The Helldivers had specific orders to target the enemy's foodstuffs, so Command had some reason for wanting to do so, but the more he thought about it, the less West truly wanted to know the consequences of his and Trang's actions that night. Lieutenant West eventually put his doubts aside and focused on what they had accomplished instead. They had truly managed to dive straight into hell and come out unscathed. That had to count for something, and maybe it was something worth actually smiling about. By the time the pair of divers were cruising over Lake Michigan, West had an ear-splitting grin on his face. Aftermath The Sixth French Republic along with the Canadian and remaining European governments would eventually engage in a conditional armistice to the United States of America and the Empire of Japan following the recapture and defeat of French/Canadian forces during the battle for NORAD. One of the primary driving events of the French Commander Lea Gegranne's planning and execution of the NORAD battle prior to the Four Country Conference was to bring acute awareness to the dangerous famine occurring in Canada and the threat of starvation that threatened every French, Canadian, and European citizen living there. One of the conditions of armistice was the agreement on the part of the United States and Japan to help feed the millions of citizens under threat of starvation. The Helldivers would go on to serve with distinction as part of the United States combined armed forces against the French Canadian alliance, and later, the invading BETA. Much of the remaining USSC personnel in space were requisitioned to take part in the JFK Hive Operation as the bulk of the Orbital Diver Corps along with the UN Divers, but many pilots and navigators still remain trapped in space.