Gabriel had just cinched his straps when the Marcinko’s engines ignited, pressing each of them back into their seats in the shuttle. He heard Olszewski mutter a curse from next to him. He looked over at the private with a raised eyebrow.
“Sorry, sir. I’m a ground pounder. I hate this shit. Necessary evil to get me where I need to go I guess, but doesn’t mean I have to like it.”
Gabriel turned back to the front of the shuttle. He stared past the pilot’s helmet and out the viewport, where he could see a sliver of starry space. The ventral bay doors had begun to open.
He closed his eyes and linked his neuretics in to the Marcinko’s battlecomp feed. He saw with some satisfaction the other five in his team all did the same. He knew some did it for the thrill of watching the battle unfold, some for the situational awareness. Whatever their reasons, he didn’t blame them. It wasn’t just a learning experience for him either. He wanted to see the enemy. And see them destroyed.
The specialist that had loaded them and their gear, Allen, was also their pilot. His hand flew over the switches mounted in front of him as he prepared the shuttle for launch.
“Sirs and ma’am, hold on,” Allen called out. “The captain’s got some rapid maneuvers planned, and we’re getting spit out in the middle of them. Hope no one ate lunch yet.”
“Keven?” It was Sowers’s voice.
“Zip it,” said Brevik. “Watch.”
Gabriel kept his eyes closed and let his Mindseye show him the situation.
The Marcinko went to full power and arced down towards Mars. Gabriel felt his chest squeezed by the G-forces and tried to control his breathing as he saw multicolored stars behind his eyelids. After a few seconds the heavy acceleration eased and the stars cleared, leaving him more able to focus on the Mindseye feed.
The battlecomp tagged the blockade fighter with a red icon. The projected path of the Marcinko was just outside of its orbit, but Gabriel saw the flight path of the shuttle, once launched, went almost directly through the red icon. He remembered McTiernan’s order to the tac officer to ‘remove it from the equation’, so he was not surprised when he heard the clank of the internal missile launcher falling into place in front of their shuttle.
The rotating launcher spat two Jayhawk missiles, then immediately swung back up to the ceiling of the docking bay. Another clank sounded throughout the cabin as the launch arm grabbed the shuttle and set it into position above the open ventral doors. The Marcinko began its release maneuver and Gabriel was pressed into his seat. With a loud hiss of hydraulics that could be heard even within the pressurized cabin, the shuttle fell from the docking bay, and he went weightless.
Gabriel’s Mindseye painted a vivid image of the scene around them: the Marcinko peeling away from their position, the two Jayhawks going hypersonic in front of them, and the dusty orange globe below them. The serene image lasted only a split second before Allen fired the shuttle engines and initiated the descent.
The picket fighter never stood a chance. It was only using station-keeping thrusters and apparently not expecting an attack, especially one that came from a hole in space. The Jayhawks were on it before it even had an opportunity to light its engine.
“Hold on!” yelled Allen. Gabriel opened his eyes to look out past the pilot. The explosion of the fighter loomed ahead and grew quickly in size as the shuttle accelerated towards Mars. A sound like nails on metal decking rattled through the cabin as the debris from the explosion peppered the hull of the shuttle.
“We’re clear!” The pilot turned to look over his shoulder. “Everyone A-OK?”
Gabriel saw Olszewski raise a thumb next to him, then heard a retching from Takahashi behind him. He ignored it — at this point he was used to it — and stared out of the pilot’s viewport.
Ahead of them lay Mars. And Renay.