Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Colouring in

I've written before about how the characters in the trilogy are split by importance. Echo and York are A list, any character with character B list, people with a speaking part are C list, then anybody else is a cardboard cutout.

What I've only recently realised is that several of the crew weren't content with their place in life. Over the course of three books, the C list get lots of air time, express opinions, laugh and cry and got their kit off. Some of them moved into the B list.

When I started writing, I had a cheat sheet, mostly because I kept forgetting people's names. Only Cavendish (murderous pragmatist) was meant to be in the B list but, as time went on, I added details and colour to the rest of the Bad Girls. Caitlin Acre's line says "angry but funny." and I gave her most of the sarky comments to try and flesh this out. Later on I dropped in a line about her being able to play the flute. She disappears part way through ECHO, but makes up for lost time in OUTCAST and CITADEL. Cromwell and Hall started out in the D list but turn into a double act. Hall doesn't have much to say but gets on with the job. Cromwell is more of a thinker. They are loyal, steadfast and competent. Gregory was great fun to write. A unashamed tart (sleeps with anybody). In difficult situations she's unfailingly cheerful she spends a lot of time off screen, usually in somebody's bed.

Getting to know your characters is important. Echo and York are the focus of the story, but the universe around them is dependent on decisions made by others. I started out with a detailed story, but found that it would have made a novella, not a novel. From there it was a series of set pieces, putting the crew of the Citadel into harm's way and asking what they would do. York would analyse, Cavendish would attack, Acre would make a pithy comment whilst waiting for Cavendish's orders, Cromwell would have figured a solution, Gregory would have relieved the enemy of the keys whilst tumbling with them, Ash would complain about the situation. And Echo wouldn't know what to do in a complex situation (more in a later post).

All well and good, but the trilogy takes place over a three year period. The previous paragraph describes everybody at the start of ECHO and those statements are true at the end of CITADEL.

Jo Zebedee's Abendau trilogy (there's another post) follows relatively normal people in extraordinary situations, and charts how they are changed by their experience. When I read her post,, I wondered if I had made a mistake in not developing character arcs. In the end, I decided that it was okay. The trilogy was their story as much as it was the A listers, but it wasn't a story about them. As much as I liked my people and mourned when some of them died, they are fictional and serve the purpose of helping to tell a story. The CITADEL trilogy has a number of themes (if I haven't written about them before, I will - so many blog prompts tonight) and these are best served by colouring in the crew, but not necessarily changing them.

Perhaps that's something I'll explore in the current work in progress. I have protagonists, and a plot, but I don't actually know what the story is about. I'm twenty chapters in - 60,000 words - but probably only half way through. I know I need to go back and write a tone for each of the chapters (later) so there's still opportunity to pursue that.

And now, here's the Bad Girls doing what they do best. Mayhem and violence

"Fire in the hole."
I zipped the explosives bag shut and picked up both in one hand. The Bad Girls were holding their position and kneeling, backs turned towards me. Cromwell was coming in from my right on an intercept course. She brought me to a halt and wrapped herself around me, protecting me from any shrapnel. I could see that Acre was doing the same for York. The shuttle was climbing away, presumably with Abbott at the controls.
With a boom, the charge blew and, a few seconds later, the hatch cover landed with a loud clang a few metres away from us, dirt and dust shooting outwards.
"Bit too much explosive there, Marianne." mocked Acre.
"Did the job." she retorted.
"Perhaps, but I'd rather not have anything drop on my head."
"She'll be more careful next time." said Cavendish, striding for the entry we had created. "Cromwell and Echo, down. Livingston and Acre, rearguard."
The maintenance shaft was just like the ones in the wreck and the ship in orbit. I handed over the railgun to Cavendish and followed Cromwell down into the tube, using the guide rails as a ladder. We went down a few metres then the path became horizontal and we crawled into the mountain. The intelligence suggested we would need to go fifty metres before emerging into the hangar that was protected behind the blast doors.
"What happened to the missile?" I asked, over channel three.
"Livingston got a lucky shot in." replied Acre.
"Lucky? Kiss my arse, bitch!"
"I'll take that luck, any day." said Cavendish. "We're alive and that's all that matters. Now focus."
"Junction." said Cromwell.
"Not on the plans." replied York. "Where does it go?"
Cromwell shone her lights along the new horizontal shaft.
"Ten metres to the left. Dead end."
"Keep going."
We crawled on. As we passed the side shaft, I looked in. It reminded me of a nest.
"Lights out." called Cromwell. "I'm at the hanger."
It struck me then that, all bunched up in the small shaft, we were the perfect firing opportunity.
"What can you see?" I asked.
"Gunships. A big cargo craft; surprised that fit through the door. Robots."
"Dragons?" asked Acre.
"Fortunately not."
Cavendish had carried the spare railgun in one hand. Now she handed it back to Cromwell who locked it into position on her harness.
"Have they seen us?" asked Cavendish.
"Nothing's moving. I'd say it was a workshop as much as a hanger. Most of the gunships have dismounted panels. The robots have tools instead of weapons."
"When we go, I want everybody out as quickly as possible. Spread out and find cover. Weapons up but watch your targets."
"Yes, Sergeant." chanted the marines.
"Ready." said Cromwell.
"Ready." I said.
Cromwell pushed out of the tunnel, moving left and bringing the two-metre long weapon up. For a moment I was unsure whether to follow her or to break right so we weren't bunched up. Nansen gave me a shove and it pushed me to the right. I ran for the nearest gunship. I could see that the inner workings were exposed and the nearby robots must have been repairing it. They were stood still, inactive. I jumped through the open rear hatch of the gunship and slid across the metal plate floor, coming to rest where I could see out of the other side.
"I don't like all these statues." said Acre. "At some point they're going to start moving."
"Then find the next maintenance tube and let's get out of here before they do."
From my position I could see Acre and Cromwell searching the floor of the hangar for the hatch.
"Got it."
Cromwell ran across and knelt by the hatch cover. Acre moved away to give her space. Nansen had disappeared behind a pile of equipment.
"Do you need the bag?" I asked.
"Still got some plastic." She started to squeeze explosives into a crack.
"Don't send it up like a frisbee this time." chided Cavendish.
"A what?" said Acre.
"Frisbee. A round flying toy."
"You had toys?"
"Of course I had toys. I was a child too."
Somehow I'd always thought of Cavendish as being born an adult.
"Did your parents dress you in pink?"
That started a lot of sniggering.
"Not that I remember. Enough! Focus on the job."
It went quiet. I glanced towards Acre. Gods dancing!"
"Acre, the machine's moving. Behind you!"
"Funny. Is this your revenge for the prank on the Clarke?"
"Acre, it's bloody moving! Turn!"
The robot behind Acre reached out and locked its claw on her arm.
"Shit! Contact, contact."
I heard a noise behind me and turned to see a robot climbing through the opposite hatch onto the load bay of the gunship. Luckily it didn't have a weapon, but the laser cutter it brandished could do me serious damage.
"Echo in contact."
"They're all moving."
"Watch your backs." said Cavendish, calmly.
I heard the first report from a rail gun and the machine attacking Acre spun round. It's arm had been severed, but was still clamped on Acre's armour.
I put the bag with the TNukes down and drew my bolt thrower, clicking off the safety as I raised it. At this range I couldn't really miss and my first round pierced a photoreceptor and the explosive bolt scrambled whatever was in the machine's head. It jerked backwards and stopped. For good measure I put a second round into its kneecap, blowing the lower leg clean off. It toppled over and crashed to the decking.
After a few moments surprise, the marines had re-established their discipline and we're going about the business of systematically destroying the maintenance robots. Livingston was laying down covering fire for Cromwell.
"Fire in the hole."
This time the hatch cover only flipped a metre in the air then crashed down near the opening.
"Form up on Cromwell." ordered Cavendish. She appeared at the far side of the hangar, her weapon up and searching for targets. York was with her, covering her back.
I returned the bolt thrower to its harness, picked up the bag and stepped out of the gunship, just in time to bump into a robot. As it punched at me I dropped to the floor and rolled through its legs. Clearly downward vision was a problem for the machine as it stamped around, blindly. Its foot crashed down too near my head for comfort and, as I tried to crawl out of the way, I realised that it was standing on a loose strap from the bag on my back. I was trapped.
I threw the bag with the TNukes away from me. Without those the whole mission was over. The strap of the other bag was pulled tight across my chest, stopping me sliding out and getting free. I tried to roll over to give myself some slack, but now I was pinned down on my back.
"Echo in trouble." I said, trying not to sound whiny.
"Gods in a row, Echo, we can't take you anywhere." Thanks Acre.
Now the robot was bending over. It wasn't really designed to do that but the claw on the nearest arm was very close to ripping my face off.
"Any time soon." I said.
By lifting my head, I had an upside down view of the hangar. There were still a handful of robots active, much easier to spot with the red markings on their carapace than the black armour of the Bad Girls. A shadow was moving towards me at speed, but it took a few seconds before I figured out it was one of the marines running. Although Ultima was heavy, the energy in the collision wasn't enough to knock the machine over, although it did take a step backwards to steady itself and I was free. I scrambled to my feet and pulled out the bolt thrower. The two figures were a tangle of metallic limbs, difficult to separate. I jammed the gun back in the harness and pulled my combat knife from its mounting on my forearm. In the gaps between the outer plates there were joints, wires and hydraulic cables. I rammed the knife into the nearest elbow joint and cut through everything I could see. Fluid spurted out, spraying my mask, but I kept on with the attack, sawing blindly until the arm dropped loose.
"Thanks." Cromwell pushed herself free and stepped back, then smashed her helmet into the robot's face, breaking the photoreceptor lenses. It reached out blindly with its remaining arm, but wasn't a threat to us now. Even so, Acre put a round from her rail gun through it and it collapsed in a shower of sparks.
"Are you okay?" York was beside me.
"Yes, I'm fine."
"Be careful." His touch on my arm was gentle but firm.
"I will."
"Enough! Let's stop pissing about." shouted Cavendish.
"Yes, Sergeant." we replied.

Saturday, 27 August 2016


I once, casually mentioned to the Gruesome Twosome that they would be leaving home at eighteen. I thought no more about it, but a little while later they asked my wife if they would be eighteen soon, as they weren't ready to leave home yet.

They were three at the time.

The things we do to our children by accident. Fortunately they don't remember that particular episode and weren't scarred for life.

The Gruesomes will hopefully be leaving home next year, off to university and starting on the next stage of their adventures. It will be quite hard I think, both going away at the same time, but we've done the best we can with them and I have to say, I think that they are pretty fine people.

The tenuous connection is that, last week I published CITADEL, the final part of the story that has consumed me for the last five years. It was never meant to be a trilogy, but I got to the end of ECHO and found there was more to say.

ECHO went out in 2012 and OUTCAST in 2013. For reasons that escape me, its taken three years to release the final part. The writing finished well over a year ago but it just sat on my iPad whilst I wrote 20 chapters of something new. I think, in part, it was about not wanting to let go, not wanting it to be over. There's always the temptation to write a fourth book, but I haven't anything new to say and shoehorning another story into the format would not result in a good product.

I've loved learning about Echo and York and writing about their adventures but, just like my children l there comes a time when you have to let them fly away.

Plus (spoiler), not everybody made it home.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Who are you, again?

Yes, it's been a long time since I last blogged. A long long time.

In the gap, Echo 3, which I did eventually call Citadel, lay collecting virtual dust on my iPad and I wrote 20 chapters of a spin off novel, War Crime.

Echo was born out of a birthday present; an Open University creative writing course. More recently I got a Dummies guide to music composition and I've been writing the soundtrack for when Echo gets made into a film. LOL. I may blog about that at some point. Sorry.

So, why dust off Writer's Blog? Well, as it happens, I've just sent Citadel off to Kindle and, in the morning, you can buy it for the equivalent of $2.99. Yes, there will be shameless promotion.

I'm partly excited, and partly not. I'll blog about that tomorrow.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Come and frack in my back yard

I've mentioned this previously but one of the things about being a SF author is the requirement to have a vision of what the future looks like.

I'm the guy that dismissed email as a glorified sticky note and scoffed when a friend told me that broadband would change my life. Doesn't really bode well, does it?

We probably all wonder what the future will bring. I listen to my dad's stories of growing up in the 50s, with rationing and the communal toilets being at the end of the street and compare it to the things we take for granted now. I worry a bit that this is the golden age; the best it will ever be, and that things won't be as positive for my children. That the oil will run out, the temperature will rise and  crops fail on a massive scale. At best, somebody pisses off the Russians and they turn the gas off and we're reliant on the Scots for what's left in the North Sea.

At other times, I'm hopeful that technology will avert the potential disasters. That we'll start to tap what appears to be massive reserves of fuel under the ground, that there are still lots of the brightest minds looking to find answers to our future troubles rather than trying to make my next phone see -through or weigh the universe.

Echo has space ships, laser weapons, faster than light travel, aliens. Nothing that I've created. I took bits of other peoples creations and mixed them together in a particular way. There's science and there's fiction. So I write science fiction.

Different people read different things in my books. Some (blokes normally) comment on the action. The other day somebody commented that she liked the relationship stuff and wasn't so keen on the action scenes.  So I apparently write soap opera, and romance.

The Echo series is drawing to a close. I'm about a third of the way through E3 and, having scrapped a couple of crap chapters, much clearer about where it's going to go. Already I'm starting to think about  what will follow it. I've got a couple of chapters of War Crime (SF set in the Echo universe but with a different set of characters) and Yorkshire Gothic, which is steampunk.

Perhaps I should try and stick to one particular thread. Perhaps it will make the books better if they're more focussed. Perhaps I'm fooling myself about how much control I have over the content. These things have a habit of taking control and going their own merry way.

Hopefully it will be an interesting journey.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

How to be a better saxophone player

It's over

Except, of course, it's not.

I have finished the first draft of Echo 3. I've gone back to calling it Echo 3 as I'm not sure the working title, Citadel, really suits it.

It's been a hard slog, particularly through the middle sections when I wasn't sure where the book was going or what it was trying to say. Once I worked through all that, the back end of the book has been a pleasure and I fairly raced through it.

So, now the hard work starts.

Draft two - work through the manuscript and put in words where currently I have XX, or Fill in this bit. Mostly this is where I couldn't be bothered to go back and work out how many light years the journey had covered, or how long it had taken to get there, or create a name for a minor character.

Draft three - continuity check. There are little things like; what did I call space suits in the first two books EVA suits or vac suits. E3 uses both, and shouldn't. Also, does the ship have Decks (Deck One, Deck Two) or decks, and are they One, Two, Three, or one, two, three. And the same for the comms channels.

Draft 4 - glaringly obvious grammatical error and typo check. This is the first point at which the manuscript will get printed out, because it's much easier to see these things on the page rather than on  the screen.

At this point, it goes to the three First Readers, with a mix of trepidation and anticipation. I have four main questions for the Readers.
Did you enjoy it?
Are there places that I should add something - description, action, whatever? (Last time one of them suggested that the sex scenes should be longer)
Are there places that I should edit it down
Did you get the underlying theme

Draft 5 - changes resulting from the First Readers' suggestions.

Draft 6 - paragraph by paragraph. Could this be written any better? This is a real hard one as I tend to get sucked into reading my own stories, rather than re-writing.

At this point a former professional editor gets their hands on it for a technical check

Draft 7 - changes resulting from the editor's check

Draft 8 - final chance to make any changes.

Somewhere around here I'll be getting the cover art done. I'll be keeping to the theme / layout of the first two, with minor changes

And then it goes out.

Bits of this I enjoy, bits I dont, and bits I find really hard.

This was never meant to be a trilogy. I've enjoyed it for what it is but, then, it will be over. Perhaps I'll have some time to devote to being a better sax player.

Saturday, 26 April 2014

Let's go but, inconspicuously, through the window

Being a writer is generally a fairly solitary existence with only the people in my head for company. However, today I found myself surrounded by lots of writers. Real writers with real books. Glossy and tactile things. And they had bookmarks and key rings and all sorts of promotional stuff. It was pretty cool - or it would have been if more buyers turned up.

I do have an actual hard copy of Echo, which I've managed to repossess from my Dad, but hard copy is a route I've been hesitant to go down as there's capital outlay and you need to spend several hours sitting at a trestle table waiting for the hordes of book buyers that, unfortunately, weren't able to find Authorcon in Manchester today.

Now I've no problem with sitting at a table ready to sign my stuff. It shouts I Am An Author, rather than I am somebody who's got his mates to part with a couple of quid for an e-copy of his stuff. I already have the tee shirts and a key ring (please don't take it, otherwise I can't get back into my house). But, to get to that stage, I need to have real books, preferably without having to devote half the garage to storing them.

I met some interesting people today. Dave Weaver runs a writers group in St Albans that has been spectacularly successful in getting published and a conference in Hertford that offers the opportunity to make a pitch to an agent or publisher. Sort of Dragons Den for writers. That sounds very exciting and I think I'll go to that next year.

Chris Nuttall sells thousands of books. He bangs them out at a rate of knots (3 months !!) and yet they're quite good. I've just read Ark Royal, expecting it to be a war story. But it wasn't. It was a story about people at war. I wasn't quite HMS Ulysses, but it was on the right track. I suspect Chris is very very focussed when he writes.

So, it's been a fun day, discovering that part of the enjoyment of being an author is holding your own with people who are also authors and generally realising that you are not alone (where have I heard that before).

I wonder if there's a writers group round here?

Monday, 24 February 2014

It's not the fall that kills you, it's the sudden stop


We had orbited the planet for three days, running scans on the planet's surface but answers still eluded us. Something was generating massive levels of electromagnetic interference across a wide band of frequencies and Eleanor Pearce had been unable to break through. There was a cloud of scattered wreckage in orbit and a single anomaly on the surface. As the ship circled, we debated the possibilities.

The specialist team were excited by the idea that this could be a human expedition. This close to where we had calculated Erth's system to be then that was not unlikely. Perhaps it was a first attempt at colonisation; a pilot for the Visionary programme. Ships like the Clarke could have reached this system in a hundred years. Several generations but, considering the journey that established the Sleeper Empire took five thousand years, not unreasonable. Surprisingly, nobody seemed interested in the idea that this could be an alien colony, although the photovoltaic panels we found in orbit were almost identical to ones we had found on board the Clarke, which suggested humans had been here before us.

"Send down a landing party." demanded Professor Hofmann. He didn't volunteer to be part of it, even though he had been unexpectedly proficient at zero g manoeuvring when exploring the massive volume of the lost visionary ship and documenting the name plates on the dark and broken cold sleep units.
"What for?" asked Echo. "If this is older than the Clarke, then we're not going to learn anything that we didn't find there. I think we should push on and find Erth."
There was support for both views across the crew. In the end I agreed to Hofmann's request. Cavendish was keen to get off the ship and do some exploring and she had asked Echo to go with her and the Bad Girls. They armoured up and boarded a shuttle with Dryden at the controls.
"Contact with the shore party lost." called Pearce. "Dryden is bringing the shuttle back to the ship." We'd expected this and I wasn't too concerned. If we couldn't re-establish contact with Cavendish, the shuttle would return to pick them up at the same point after four hours.
There was little we could do so I stood down the bridge crew. Pearce had been running her systems for three watches and needed to get some sleep, so Ash took over as Zero. Ruth Jasper was using the time in real space to refine the resolution of her astrogation equipment and had taken over the navigation deck. Once she wasn't needed she left the bridge to continue her work. She hoped to be able to tell us something about the planets in the next system before we left.
I glanced at the main screen. Normally when we had sent out a landing party, it would be filled with images from their suit cams and systems status reports. At the moment it was blank, which was disconcerting. But the Bad Girls could handle anything the planet could throw at them. Running a starship required more than standing on the bridge and giving orders;  there were thousands of systems that generated operating reports that needed to be reviewed. When I commanded the Nemesis I had a crew to filter out the routine no-change messages. Each of my current crew had their own areas of responsibility, but I took on a large part of the responsibility of making sure that nothing was overlooked. A couple of hours quiet in my office should polish off the majority. However, I only got an hour.
"Captain." The intercom opened from the bridge. "Dryden hasn't returned yet. No response to my calls."
The gravity well for this planet was relatively small. Ground to orbit should have taken only fifteen minutes. Dryden could have taken a different course and be orbiting round the back of the planet, but our comms system should have picked up any signal from the other side.
I opened the ship wide intercom. "Command crew to bridge."
Jasper was on the bridge nearly as quickly as me. Pearce took less that a minute despite having been asleep. One of the hangovers of military service was the ability to snap back into duty mode in an emergency. Her ship suit was crumpled and the laces of her shoes were undone, but she was at her station and starting the scans as Ash briefed her.
"Nothing on full active scan, Captain." she reported. She looked up at Jasper.
"Ruth, give us a course change to look over the far side." Jasper was an astrogator rather than a navigator but, after coming out of cold sleep, she had spent a lot of time studying with Grace Hemingray and had stepped competently into the role after my first officer's death. She had already plotted Dryden's expected course to orbit, with leeway for the impact of the storm, but the shuttle should still have emerged within a short distance of the ship.
The new course appeared on the main screen. I took the helm and activated the drives. Pearce was head down, working her screens. A glance at the repeater screen behind her suggested she was pulling up the scan results covering the time period that the shuttle should have been returning. I concentrated on my task. She would tell me if she found something useful. Ash was sending out messages, alternating between channel Zero which Cavendish might hear, channel One, the shuttle's operating frequency, and Three, for the rest of the Bad Girls. And Echo.
My lover was out of contact on a potentially hostile world. There was debris in orbit and our shuttle appeared to have gone down. Over the last year she had spent several periods in the ship's sick bay with serious injuries; three bullet wounds as she led my crew out of a firefight on a Vrgarr orbital, and multiple shrapnel impacts when an Imperial Navy fleet tracked down the Empress in exile and attacked her ships. She had recovered quickly and without long term effects. But that was because, technically, she wasn't human. A quarter of her DNA was of alien origin and much of the rest had been changed. Enhanced. She was a genetic construct. Faster and stronger than most humans. Raised by the Empire and trained as an assassin. She could look after herself. At this point I refused to be concerned and pushed away any thought of her in danger.
"Captain." called Pearce. "I've got a brief shadow that I believe to be the shuttle, but it didn't make orbit."
"I'll accept your best guess."
"From the angle of travel, the shuttle was operating on antigrav, rather than the main drive. I would have expected a transition at no more than five kilometers. You know what Dryden's like. Point the thing vertical and jam open the throttle. "So something went wrong at low altitude and he was trying to build up to escape velocity using the antigrav."
With a world of this size, antigrav would just have been enough to reach orbit. Pearce's explanation seemed logical; a failure of the drives. Did the antigrav fail as well? "How quickly did it go down?" Although streamlined, to avoid external panels and aerial burning off during atmospheric entry, shuttles weren't aerodynamic. A shuttle with neither drive nor antigrav would fly like a brick.
"Quicker than it came up."
"Can you plot the descent?"
Pearce looked at her screens then threw up her hands, helplessly.
"No. The best I can give you is a general direction."
"That will have to do." I opened up the ship-wide intercom. "All hands, this is the captain. Secure for atmospheric entry."
I turned to Pearce "How low do we need to be for the sensors to work properly?"
She considered for a few moments. "Compromise between penetration of the EM interference and coverage, about sixty klicks high."
"Miss Jasper, plot me a course."
As she worked, I pulled up a general systems overview onto the main screen. The engineers were making their preparations but, with the Bad Girls off the ship, nobody was taking charge of the internal checks. I opened up the intercom again.
"Scientific crew. Pick a deck each and go and make sure there's nothing that can be damaged if there's turbulence, and then seal all the hatches. Your stations are on deck five until further orders."
They acknowledged their instructions without complaint. They wouldn't be as efficient as the marines but, looking at the navigation screen, I wouldn't be entering the atmosphere for another forty five minutes. We were in the optimum orbit to drop down to the landing party's position but chasing Dryden's path would take some complex orbital manoeuvring. The first burn was due in three minutes.
"I'll check the top decks." offered Ash, who had nothing else to do at the moment.
As the countdown clicked over I activated the drives and started altering course. The navigation plot showed a basket shape. As long as I could keep the indicator within those bounds, we could hit the next waypoint. The mouth of the basket was wide and most of the crew could have taken the helm but, as we progressed, the margins reduced. I regretted not having Dryden, the best pilot on the ship, at the helm. But not as much as I regretted the loss of grace Hemingray. We'd lost crew before; Anton Bruekner had disappeared when the AltSpace creatures had entered the ship and Ashok Chakrabarty had been murdered by the rogue Imperial commissioner Madeline Butler when he tried to protect  Hemingray. Their bodies lay on the Clarke along with one hundred thousand colonists, the Visionary ship now a massive sarcophagus.
I remembered a conversation between the bridge crew after we had managed to bring our crippled ship back to port, more than a year ago. Hemingray had just completed docking.
"Gods on a bicycle, Pearce, I wasn’t sure we’d make it back."
"We didn’t all make it back." pointed out Ash
"True, but we knew the risks when we signed up. And I’m sure we’ll come back without somebody in the future." Hemingray had been correct, but I had never imagined it would be her.
The next waypoint required simultaneous pitch and roll. I needed my wits about me, so I banished the ghosts of my friends. For now.
Ash was back on the bridge and we all strapped in to our seats. My call for Go, no go was met with positive responses from all decks; secure and ready. The gravity well wasn't deep or strong but the interplay between it and the ship's artificial gravity could be unpredictable, particularly with all the electromagnetic forces adding uncertainty. Jasper counted down and, on zero, I fired the drives, slowing the ship and starting our descent. There was a slight vibration as we crossed into the atmosphere, enough to have created ripples on the surface of a coffee cup, but not enough to spill it.
Another basket diagram guided me along the path that we estimated Dryden's shuttle had taken. Although I was alert to signs that the systems failure would affect us, I refused to speculate on what had happened to him after the ship had gone down. As we crossed through the outer layers of the carbon dioxide atmosphere and slowed, I rotated the ship so we were falling stern first, the drive thrust preventing us from plummeting to the surface. My ship could no more fly without power than Dryden's craft.
"One hundred klicks. A little off." A slight adjustment brought us back on track.
"Eighty klicks. Ground speed one thousand KPH."
"Engineering to bridge." Lewis Keyes' voice came over the speakers.
"Bridge." replied Ash, taking over the comms role to allow Pearce to focus on the sensor return.
"We're picking up some funny readings from the drive and there have been some drops in the power output."
Whatever had effected Dryden's shuttle has also effecting us. I glanced at the engineering repeater screen behind Jasper. The power plant generated a variable output, depending on demand, so it was difficult to see what the engineers had noticed. I held my course.
"Sixty klicks altitude." announced Jasper. I made some adjustments to keep us at this position. It was much easier to do this with the antigrav, but I wasn't going to risk a transition between the two systems.
Pearce was running scans in various parts of the EM spectrum. Infra-red seemed to be the least affected, although the planet's surface was uniformly cold. The ambient atmospheric temperature was two hundred and twenty kelvin but, even that low, if the shuttle had hit hard, the site would stay hot for some time.
"We're dropping." warned Jasper. I pushed the drive a little higher. "Still going down."
"Bridge to engineering, we need more power to the drive."
"We can't get any more out of the power plant. And there's a ten percent loss in transfer to the drive."
Losing ten percent of the power plant's output was a massive inefficiency. The reactor itself was situated on the mid-line of the ship, three decks up from the stern point with heavy shielding. The cabling passed to the other engineering systems through Faraday cages which should have protected them.
"Find out why," I demanded, "and fix it!" I wasn't normally short with my crew but we'd come too far and were too close to our goal to fail now.
I briefly considered supporting the drives by activating the antigrav systems, but realised that would divert more power away and would probably have the opposite effect. I left the engineering problems to my engineers and concentrated on keeping the ship upright.
"Shutting down non-essential systems." called Ash. For a few seconds the extra power fed into the drives and pushed the ship upward, but then the drain continued and, once again, we were descending, although not at the same rate as before.
"Forty klicks."
We were still drifting along the path that we thought Dryden had followed. Without knowing how badly he had been effected I had no way to tell whether we would pick up traces. I wasn't even sure if we were going in the right direction and every second took us further away from the point where the landing party had been set down. I had to keep the ship flying or everybody would perish.
"Thirty klicks."
"I've got him." shouted Pearce, excitedly, ignoring the fact we were almost out of control. The vector diagram appeared on my screen. A difficult manoeuvre at the best of times; potentially catastrophic with our current difficulties. I adjusted my controls and the position indicator started to move, stubbornly coming to rest just outside the outer limit. The course change had reduced the effectiveness of the main drive and now we were dropping quicker than before.
"We're going in." announced Ash, watching the rate of descent indicator. He had basic piloting qualifications but had observed how the ship handled as we landed on a dozen worlds, often in difficult situations. He activated the intercom.
"All hands, prepare for impact, prepare for impact."
Pearce and Jasper were fastening the straps on their seat harness. I had to keep control of the ship and couldn't take my hands off the control panel. Ash had noticed and came round to my position. He pulled the straps tight then returned to do his own. I nodded my thanks.
"Ten klicks." I hoped the engineers had taken notice of the announcement. They should have been strapping in but it was possible that they were physically re-routing wiring
We were still outside the basket. I estimated that we'd come down a couple of klicks away from the shuttle. I refused to think of it as the crash site.
"When we land, Pearce and Ash, go down to deck five and make sure the medics are ok, then get one of them down to engineering." Not quite a standard triage. If we were to get off this planet we needed healthy engineers; they would be the priority for medical attention. Getting the ship out of the system required Jasper to navigate. She would stay in the safest place on the ship; the bridge.
I abandoned all efforts to get the ship down at a particular point and opened up the drives to maximum. The rate of descent was slowing. Pearce called off every thousand metres of altitude.
"One thousand metres!" I could hear the fear in her voice, but she was still functioning. All my crew had been in difficult situations before and survived. I'd read something that talked about everybody presuming they would cope well in a crisis but, in reality, higher functions shut down in favour of basic fight or flight responses. The more you trained and the more you experienced danger, the better able you were to cope with it next time. There was no shame in fear, only in letting it consume you.
"Mr Ride, how fast can we touch down? Gravity on this planet is point nine standard."
Nathan Ride was a naval architect. He designed starships for a living.
"The landing tolerance is twice the standard landing force, to allow for high gravity worlds. The published impact tolerance is usually twice that."
As the carbon dioxide atmosphere thickened, the drive was having more effect, but we were still coming down too fast.
"Five hundred metres."
Citadel ships were tough and massively over-engineered. It was why I had chosen one as my fighting platform. I knew a lot of engineers. They always built in additional safety factors.
"Impact in five, four, three, two, one."
The seat smashed upwards, the impact overwhelming the inertial dampers and forcing the air from my lungs. Everything went dark.