"A good solution applied with vigor now is better than a perfect solution applied ten minutes later." - George S. Patton, as quoted in The Unknown Patton (1983) by Charles M. Province, p. 165
11 Fourthmonth 322 JR
500km orbit, New Israel
DE39 JRS Oliver Winchester
It had been three days since Second Fleet had swept the Terran Navy from the Epsilon Indi system; two days since five Legions of Republic Marines had landed around the Imperial enclave of occupied Steeltown - the native New Israelis had already done most of the job themselves, but couldn't reach the Terran starships which kept flooding their world with reinforcements. Now, though hugely outnumbered both on land and in space, superior Jeffersonian weapons and technology had leveled the field, but the fighting planetside was brutal - the liberating Marines couldn't use their highest-energy weapons with civilian... no, there had been no civilians on New Israel for three years; with friendly populations intermingled with the enemy.
With no enemy ships left to fight, most of Second Fleet was orbiting the planet, the larger ships carefully using their heavy weapons for surface bombardment when possible. Deitrich, now wearing the two stars of a full Commander, quietly seethed in frustration - while he had declined the offer of a larger ship, wishing to remain with his crew, none of this ship's weapons could reach through the atmosphere with enough accuracy or force to be of use. Good women and men were dying below him and he could do nothing.
The communications officer, Ensign Feivel Hurley, reported, "Enemy counterattack northeast of Steeltown. Ground forces requesting support."
"Aircraft?" asked Dietrich.
"Orbital fire support?"
"Occupied, or out of position!"
Dietrich steepled his fingers and rested his chin on his thumbs, thinking. After a moment, he cocked an eyebrow. "Engineering. Washburn!"
"Sir!" Senior Lieutenant Gail Washburn, Chief Engineer, responded on the intercom.
"Lieutenant, this ship was originally designed to maneuver in an atmosphere and land on a planet, is that correct?"
"Yes sir, but the builders left out the landing gear to get the ship into action sooner."
"Landing be damned. What didn't they leave out?"
"...Well, most of the systems for maneuvering in the atmosphere are the same as our regular reaction control system; the aerodynamic surfaces are installed, but sealed, they'd have to be released from outside; the structural reinforcements are in place, the main engines are designed for it-" Some captains would have cut off the engineer's musings, impatient to get the desired answer, but Dietrich had learned that allowing Washburn to think out loud could be quite rewarding. "What exactly did you have in mind, Skipper?"
"Gail, can we enter the atmosphere, give direct fire support to our ground troops, and safely reach orbit again?"
"Hmm- the necessary flight profiles should be in the computer; the ablative armor was designed to double as a heat shield, it should be good for at least one descent and ascent, though I'd want to visit a shipyard afterward... I'll need to reroute a couple of control circuits, send a crew outside to work on the aero stuff... yes, sir, I think we can."
"Make it so, and expedite."
“Communications. Send to all Roper and Holland class destroyers: 'Our engineer is performing modifications to allow us to enter atmosphere and give direct fire support. Details will be transmitted when available. Suggest you have your engineers begin obvious modifications at once.'”
"Modifications complete, captain!"
Dietrich glanced at the chronometer: forty-seven minutes, just in time to take advantage of the current orbit. "Well done, Lieutenant. Helm! Take us in. Tactical, ready all weapons. Let's strafe the bastards!"
"Captain, incoming transmissions from Robert Goddard, Cheyenne and James Bowie. They'll be joining us!"
Dietrich smiled. "My complements to those captains, and they will be most welcome. Alert the shuttle pilots: each to load half the Marine squad, and all possible of ship's stores of small arms, ammunition, food and medical supplies, as directed by Sergeant Yates. Shuttles to prepare for atmospheric deployment following entry, further orders to come from Marine ground forces."
"Aye, sir. -Mikhail Kalashnikov, John Paul Jones and John Garand also report modifications complete and they will be joining us."
Presently the helmsman said, "Deorbit burn in, ten seconds. Main engines ready.... Ignition!" The young pilot's voice cracked on the last word, which itself was unnecessary, as the entire crew felt the sudden, crushing lurch of five gravities of boost from the warship's powerful fusion drive. The deck and bulkheads trembled with the power. Forgotten loose objects - coffee bulbs, pens, data pads and the like - slammed into aft bulkheads as weight suddenly returned, but despite the recent feverish improvisation, no loose tools would streak through those compartments to wreak havoc on impact. Lieutenant Gail Washburn, Chief Engineer, did not need to browbeat or bully her department. Secretly called "Lieutenant Mom," a mere glance of disappointment from her moist brown eyes would shame even the most space-hardened Engineer's Mate into superior performance.
"Burn is nominal!" shouted the helmsman over the growing vibration and noise, forcing the words past a larynx distorted by five times its normal weight. "Atmosphere in eighty seconds!" The deorbit burn ceased and weight briefly went with it, the crew feeling as though they were being hurled up after being so forcefully pulled down.
The entry angle was necessarily sharp, in order to minimize the time when Winchester would be vulnerable to ground-based Imperial weapons, and to come to the aid of the liberating Marines as quickly as possible. Normally a ship that size would make a shallow, skimming approach, easing its way as gently as possible into the atmosphere; but this was a ship of war, and had been designed with other methods in mind. Oliver Winchester slammed into the all-but-intangible fringes of the atmosphere of New Israel, and the acceleration felt by the crew increased to seven gravities, then eight, then more.
Few Humans can tolerate more than nine gravities for any length of time. The ship had been built for thirty. The inexperienced lost consciousness, while the veterans used the ancient Energy Straining Maneuver developed by atmospheric fighter pilots in the mid-20th century, clenching muscles throughout the torso, forcing blood into the brain. The acceleration girdles and bladders built into their e-suits helped as well, but many suffered burst capillaries, widespread contusions, and other injuries.
Harmonic vibrations chased each other around and through the spaceframe. One built in intensity and volume more than the others, climaxing in a shuddering shriek of torn hullmetal. Suddenly imbalanced, Winchester rocked and trembled, threatening to lose control. Warning lights snapped on across the status board, klaxons howling in accompaniment. Barely able to breathe, Dietrich shouted in a distorted and laborious voice, "Damage... report!"
The equally-strained response came over the intercom: "Number three... aero surface... carried away!"
"Helm!" Dietrich exclaimed, "Roll ship to... compensate!" The ship rotated, steadying as the damaged section was turned out of the worst of the atmospheric friction and turbulence. Then the acceleration began to decrease.
Soon something like normal gravity was felt as for the first time in its existence the 8,000-ton destroyer made the transition from starship to aircraft. The vibration decreased and changed in quality as the ship balanced on its powerful engines, hovering on a blue-white flame, slipping sideways through the atmosphere toward Steeltown, the largest city on New Israel. Dietrich ordered, "Helm, report!"
"Altitude two-zero-thousand meters and descending. Airspeed dropping below sonic. On course for fire-support coordinates, ETA one-three minutes."
"Launch shuttles!" The signal was given and both of Winchester's aging but reliable Type 63 shuttles were allowed to slide out of their common hangar, the pilots catching them on their flight surfaces and streaking ahead of their mothership to deliver their vital supplies to the Third, Seventh and Seventeenth Legions.
"Comm! Who's with us?"
"Jones, Garand, Goddard and Kalashnikov are right behind us. Cheyenne sustained damage during entry and has aborted to orbit. ...James Bowie does not respond and appears to have broken up during entry."
Silence swept the bridge as the destruction of their sister ship was announced. Dietrich broke it, speaking harshly: "Mourn later. Right now, let's kill some Terries for Bowie!”