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.

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