I had this about halfway done, so I decided to finish it off and post it. I hope taking occasional side trips into not very serious doodles is helping me relax about writing Princess of Shadows. At least, I’m having a little fun with writing something. And I haven’t even gotten to the Cave Women yet….
Once again, this episode has not been closely copyedited, and may cause premature brain-cell death and tooth decay. Despite its failings, it is copyrighted by me, the perpetrator, 2013.
Falling into Terror
They prepared. Once the course was laid in for the planet, and all unnecessary systems were shut down, Mackemann broke out survival packs and checked supplies. “We have to assume that the ship will not be habitable once we land,” he told Paul. “If we make a rough landing, we may need to abandon immediately.”
“Of course, with a really rough landing, you won’t have to worry about abandoning anything, because you’ll be dead,” Jasper interrupted. “The only downside to that is that I would probably be dead with you.”
“You wouldn’t be dead,” Mackemann said back, “because you’re not alive now.”
“And you guys talk about me being rude!” Jasper snapped.
“We have to be ready,” Mackemann said to Paul, ignoring the AI, “not least because this is an un-surveyed world and we have no idea what’s down there.”
“I understand,” Paul said.
Mackemann leaned in close. “Don’t let the short-circuit get your goat, Paul. It’s not your fault you got tagged for this mission out of school. You’re doing fine.”
“Thanks,” Paul said. He wasn’t sure he believed Mackemann, but he appreciated the effort.
“Just remember,” Mackemann said, lowering his voice, “JSP-15 AIs are all a little more than sketchy when it comes to their interpersonal programming matrices….”
“I heard that,” Jasper said.
Once Mackemann had the survival gear checked out, there was nothing to do but wait for the ship to fall toward the planet. It got very quiet in the cockpit, and more than a little cold with the life-support at minimum; Mackemann had them put on pressure suits, per emergency landing protocols, which had the advantage that they could run the suit heat to even things out.
Paul tracked their course and worried about their energy levels. Considering the damage to external surfaces, they would have to expend some energy on internal integrity fields and skin shielding– which Mackemann had managed to coax back to minimal functionality with a lashed-up bypass in the engineering space– to keep the heat of re-entry from burning through something vital. Alliance Sparrow-class scout ships were tough– they had to be, to operate far behind the front in enemy space, where they had to self-sustain, take damage and still get back with their intelligence. Their ship, however, had taken a lot of damage and was going to need all the help it could get just getting to the ground.
But every erg expended protecting the ship from re-entry heat and stress would be one less erg available to power the ship’s flight afterward. And the power for re-entry would be whatever was left over when they completed the necessary braking maneuver to drop them into the planet’s atmosphere. Paul ran through several possible scenarios and could not decide which he disliked the most– they were all fairly ugly. The fly-by-wire subsystem was out, and there was no pre-configured flight-profile for an unexplored world. The re-entry would have to be flown manually. Paul more than half-expected Jasper to be sarcastic about that, but the AI, for once, said nothing. Paul wondered if Jasper realized this was no time to be chipping away at the self-confidence of the only pilot they had.
The planet grew in the one holo-screen they allowed to operate. It looked like most other Class V worlds– blue oceans underlying swirling white cloud systems, with brown-green landmasses scattered about. Paul just hoped that there were some nice, flat plains or sandy beaches to set the ship down on. Even better would be a secret Alliance base with a tarmac, rescue crews and a bar, but he thought that might be a tad optimistic.
The last hour seemed to rush by. Paul finished all his calculations and made sure the space-normal thrusters were ready. Mackemann had both of them put their helmets on, with visors open. “Listen,” he told them, “whatever happens, our information has to get back to the Alliance. That was no motley of Verturi ships we saw out around Dennal IV—they’re building up for something big. Jasper– are you ready?”
“Way ahead of you, as usual,” the AI said. “I’ve been twinning my core functions and all data storage to my Core Transport Unit for the last hour, with updates every five milliseconds. Once we land, pull me and get me in my travel case and we’re good to go. Just don’t drop me.”
“No promises,” Paul muttered.
“I heard that, too,” Jasper said.
“Enough,” Mackemann said. “I don’t know what the situation is on the ground, but we have to do everything we can to regain contact with the Alliance with our information. And stay out of Verturi hands.”
“Understood, skipper,” Paul said.
Ten minutes later, the trajectory plot indicated it was time to turn the ship for re-entry. Paul did so, then shifted everything to manual and waited. Time started playing tricks on him again– the minutes now seemed to ooze past like thick oil.
At five minutes Paul started the countdown to burn, started the integrity and skin fields, and said a prayer. It seemed to mostly be around the theme of ‘please get us down’. Then it was thirty seconds, and then ten.
Jasper yelled, “Retro!” and the ship bucked, pressing Paul and Mackemann into their seats. The gees built to about five or so, just as Paul had calculated, and went on for minutes. He watched the ship’s energy reserve and sweated.
“Cutoff!” Jasper yelled.
The deceleration ended. Paul immediately turned the ship, positioning it for re-entry. He checked the energy reserve readings and felt his throat tighten. Not good.
“Sphincter-check time,” Mackemann muttered.
“I don’t have any,” Jasper said.
“Lucky you,” Mackemann said.
Paul noticed a slight vibration in his control surfaces. In the space of seconds, the vibration became a shuddering. “Upper atmosphere,” Paul announced. “Skin temperatures increasing.”
“Put a little more power into the skin field,” Mackemann said.
“We don’t have much to spare,” Paul warned him.
“We don’t have any choice,” Mackemann said.
Paul obeyed. The ship continued to shudder; the external view showed a white-red vortex of flame building around the ship, until it obscured the planet below. Paul, working to keep the ship in the correct orientation, switched to a stern view. Behind the scout ship was a tail of super-heated plasma miles long. No secrecy there– they were advertising their arrival on the planet to any being who could look up.
“Passing one hundred thousand meters,” Mackemann said. “Surface temperature stabilizing, but we don’t want to have to keep it where it is for long.”
“It’ll take as long as it takes,” Paul said. Sweat stood on his face. The ship was showing a tendency to yaw to starboard; Paul had to constantly compensate, or the ship could tumble out of control in a moment.
“Passing ninety-thousand meters,” Mackemann said.
“That jury-rig you pasted together on the internal shielding is starting to go,” Jasper said.
“Try to keep it breathing for just a few more minutes,” Mackemann said.
“It’s not really under warranty, you know,” Jasper said.
“Oh, shove the comedy routine, all right?” Mackemann said.
The shuddering in the ship frame grew worse. Paul glanced at his readouts. They were approaching the moment of maximum dynamic stress, as the ship reached its greatest velocity before the thickening atmosphere began to slow it down. If something was going to fail catastrophically, it would be now.
“Seventy-thousand meters,” Mackemann said.
Something shrieked in the aft end of the ship. In the external view debris flew off the ship and vaporized in the plasma stream. The ship bucked; Paul cursed and fought with his controls.
“We’ve lost a secondary stabilizer,” Jasper said.
“Tell me something I don’t know,” Paul said. In addition to the yaw, the ship now wanted roll. Paul now had to think about compensating in two different directions at once. The next few minutes were lost to him as he struggled with the ship’s controls.
Mackemann called out the steadily decreasing altitude. Slowly, Paul noticed the ship stabilizing; in the external view the aurora glow of the re-entry envelope faded. Airspeed—and it was airspeed now—came down to the merely supersonic.
“Skin’s temperature’s dropping,” Jasper announced.
Paul put the nose of the ship down. They were deep in the atmosphere now, sharing the sky with high clouds and sunlight. The ship leveled out and glided. “We did it,” Paul said, feeling like a man reprieved from the headman. His hands trembled on the controls.
“We’re not out of this yet,” Mackemann said. “Jasper, what’s it look like ahead?”
“Ocean under us at the moment, but there’s a landmass ahead,” the AI replied. “Can’t tell too much about it yet. By the way, we just passed ten thousand meters.”
Paul didn’t like their glide ratio much, but there was little he could do about it. “We’re zero on auxiliary power,” he said. “Emergency cells only at this point.”
“Jasper, can we direct some of those to the impulse thrusters?” Mackemann asked.
“Yes, but they won’t give us more than a minute or two of powered flight,” Jasper said.
“Even few seconds thrust could make the difference,” Mackemann said. “Switch half the cells over.”
“On it.” Paul reckoned it was a sign how preoccupied the AI was that it didn’t make a snarky comment. Jasper performed the switch-over. The two main impulse thrusters immediately showed positive for power on Paul’s panel, but at low levels. He didn’t engage the thrusters yet. Wait.
Mackemann set the ship’s canopy to transparent, and all at once they were surrounded by sky. They descended through cumulus clouds, passing through cotton-wool whiteness into bright sunshine. Below them was a wide sea, glinting in the sun; ahead was dark land. Paul felt a lurch in the pit of his stomach; behind the fringe of coastline was a tall range of snow-topped mountains, jagged saw-teeth pointing skyward, looking as if they were ready to snatch the scout-ship out of the air.
“Ah, hell,” Mackemann said. “Jasper, are we going to clear those?”
“Only if we stay above seven thousand meters, and considering that we’re now at six thousand, it ain’t looking hopeful….”
“Power to thrusters,” Paul said. “Climbing….”
The impulse thrusters shoved him and Mackemann back in their seats. The scout-ship climbed. Paul could feel it shudder and moan under the added stress. Just a few minutes, he pleaded, whether with the ship or with God, he wasn’t sure. Just a few minutes.
They reached the land. The mountains came at them, much more quickly than Paul expected. He gave the thrusters an extra push. The scout-ship complained but climbed. One ice-topped peak in particular lunged at them. It glittered in the sun, horribly close—and then shot past beneath them, as if it had leapt upward and missed its catch.
“Holy spit,” Jasper said. “We cleared that by about two hundred meters. It’s a really good thing I don’t have a bladder.”
In front of them now was a long slope, covered in glaciers, descending from the peaks down toward braided river-valleys. A warning tone chimed from Paul’s panel; the emergency power-cells were empty.
“Zero power on all cells,” Jasper announced, redundantly. “We’re going to drop like a gut-shot canary….”
“We’re catching some up-drafts,” Paul announced. The controls were stiff in his hands, but not impossible. “I think we can make that stream dead ahead.”
“Do the best you can,” Mackemann said. “Either on the ice below or in the water, prepare for crash-landing.”
“Wait!” Jasper said. “I’m picking up something….”
“What?” Mackemann demanded.
“Power-source reading,” Jasper said. “Not quite on our track, more to the south and east…looks like a base reactor of some sort.”
“Alliance?” Mackemann said.
Jasper actually didn’t answer for a moment, which Paul would have thought impossible. “No,” the AI said. “Verturi. Definite Verturi signature.”
“Damn,” Mackemann said. “The weasels are here?”
“Worry about it later,” Paul told him. “We’re landing here, like it or not.”
They left the glaciers behind; forest, thick and green, passed underneath. They dropped under two thousand meters, and then one thousand. Paul worried that they were coming in too fast, but he wanted to hang on to as much air-speed as they could, as long as they could, to reach the river, shining ahead. If they went down in the trees they wouldn’t have a chance.
Then they were over the river. It was wide and smooth-surfaced. White-winged flyers rose in flocks before in them in alarm, going by too fast for Paul to get even a glimpse. Paul pulled up the ship’s nose, trying to bleed off airspeed, while Jasper called out, “Six hundred meters…five hundred meters…slow it down, you stupid organic, you’re too fast…four hundred meters….”
The ship slowed and came down. They passed over a rocky set of rapids perhaps a kilometer long, and Paul fought to keep the ship off those, and then they were past the rapids and over another broad stretch of the river. One hundred meters, he heard Jasper say, but it was a faraway sound, much quieter and distant than the hammering of his own heart, the pulse of his own breathing, and the sound of the wind over the ship’s airframe. The primary was behind them; he could see the ship’s shadow on the water before them, growing larger and more solid.
The ship’s belly kissed the surface of the water. Just a shudder, and the ship was airborne once more, skipping off the river like a flat stone. Paul fought the controls, easing the ship back down. The ship hit the water again, and this time it stayed. Water rooster-tailed behind them, spray covered the canopy. Something shrieked and the ship lurched, but it stayed on its belly and slowed.
“Trees!” Jasper cried. Paul saw a tall stand of trees dead ahead, growing on a spit of land protruding into the river. He tried to turn the ship, but there was no power and the vessel didn’t respond to the controls, because it wasn’t a flying machine anymore, just a dead-weight of ceramic and metal plowing through the water. Paul had one moment to taste rage and failure, before the ship hit.
Next Episode: Run Through the Jungle