“You’re crazy!” Cates said.
At the same time Alyssa said, “I don’t like the sounds of this plan, Dex.”
“We skim down in a single orbit, use the atmosphere as brakes during the nadir of the first stage of the loop then bounce up a bit and repeat. We’ll lose about half the hull on our belly but we’ll be down in twenty five minutes, tops.” Langley jerked a thumb at himself. “At least, if I’m flying. Clearly your guy doesn’t have the chops for this.”
Volk gave the Copernican pilot his best officer’s stare. “Langley, if this is just some overwrought way to make Ensign Cates feel inferior it’s in poor taste.”
“Lieutenant,” he replied, “I did almost this exact landing pattern over Earth less than a week ago in a far less robust or maneuverable craft and on that run everyone who was alive before impact with the ground was just as alive after.”
“A weird way to say it,” Volk countered.
“One of us in the pod died during the orbital bombardment on the way down,” Langley said, matter of fact. “There’s no ground based barrage to worry about here.”
“Mars has a lot less atmo than Earth,” Cates said. “You can’t count on it to brake as hard at any point during descent.”
“Martian gravity is a lot lighter, too, and the thinner atmosphere is an upside since otherwise we’d burn up, you ain’t got the armor on these things to make a really fast landing in standard atmo.” He spread his hands. “Come on, LT, what do you say?”
“Lieutenant,” Cates snapped, “we don’t have the thrust to land safely even with a landing profile configured for maximum air resistance.”
“I wasn’t kidding when I said crash the ship.”
“We’re not all that has to survive the landing,” Alyssa put in. “This is all kind of pointless if the reactor parts don’t survive.”
“That cargo hold is the sturdiest part of the ship, if we flood it with impact gel it’ll be fine.” Langley jammed his hands under his arms and clamped them down tight, clearly anxious to be doing something. “We can do this but if we’re going to try it we need to start down soon.”
“No, this is stupid.” Cates waved towards the back of the ship. “What about the reactor? You heard what they said, we need that to power the dome some other way or we can’t–”
Volk grabbed Cates by the collar of his evac suit and dragged him out of his chair. “Thank you, Ensign, that’s enough. Sergeant Langley, take the conn please. Everyone else take a seat and ready for vacuum. And Alyssa, let the colony know they’re going to have to open both sides of their airlock long enough for us to get through. We can’t go in the normal way.”
To his credit Cates didn’t press the point once the decision was made he just scrambled into different chair and started strapping in. Langley took his place and set to work, changing the lander’s angle of descent sharply and hitting the acceleration thrusters hard. Since his hands were full Volk took his helmet and fitted it in place for him. Alyssa and Cates followed suit. The ship’s comms crackled and Captain Gyle’s voice came over. “Lieutenant Fyodorovich, explain the change to your landing profile.”
He waited just long enough to pull his own helmet on and transfer communications over before answering. “Fyodorovich here, Captain. Have you been briefed on the new situation planetside?”
“The failing reactor? The report just came through. We’ve got Commander Deveneaux working on it. Does this have a bearing on your vector?”
There was a horrible moment where Volk tried to decide if he should acknowledge the potential pun or not. Discretion was the better part of valor. “Yes, sir. Sergeant Langley thinks we can get down fast enough to prevent a catastrophic failure if we make a powered emergency landing.”
“Very interesting,” Gyle said. “Mr. Fyodorovich we don’t have the time to make a replacement for the parts you’re carrying if they’re destroyed on landing.”
“Understood, sir. But we think we can land this safely. What are the odds we find a way to keep the reactor intact long enough to make a conventional landing before it irradiates half the dome?”
There was a long moment of silence on the other side of the comm. Volk hoped the Captain made up his mind before they were too deep in the gravity well to turn back. Finally Gyle came back long enough to say, “Good luck, Lieutenant.”
Volk reached across the board and triggered the manual override to flood the cabin with impact gel. As the clear, noneuclidean liquid filled the chamber Langley got set up in the glove box that would let him manipulate the lander’s controls without having to fight the liquid’s temperamental viscosity. “Ladies and gentleman,” he said, “thank you for flying Drop Ship Transportation, we hope you will enjoy today’s crash for the rest of your lives. We’d like to take this opportunity to remind you that it is a good day to die.”
“Oh, shit,” Volk muttered. “He thinks he’s a Klingon.”
“They want us to what?” Pak threw the old wiring aside and moved out of the way so his crew could keep working on the servo replacement.
“You have to open both sides of the airlock,” Harriet said. “They’re coming in very, very fast and Volk says the lander will punch through the internal door one way or another so he’d like us to get it open if we can.”
“That’s not possible,” Pak said, trying to keep from yelling into his comm. He didn’t want to deafen the woman. “There’s safeties to keep us from opening both halves of the door.”
“Can’t you override the safety?”
“The programming language isn’t one we have a manual for…” Pak looked around for a loose board. “But I can try to do something.”
“Well if you can’t figure it out get your team away from that hatch in eighteen minutes because by that point you’ll be in the line of fire.”
“Great. Great, thanks.” He signed off the comm and looked around. “Gemma! You’re in charge here, finish up these replacements and clear the scene in ten minutes, got it?”
“Ten minutes!” She pulled herself out of a servo hatch and stared at him. “How am I supposed to do that? And what are you doing?”
“Just get it done!” He sprinted off towards the closest network node he could tap in to.
The worst part about an emergency landing was the waiting. There was nothing quite so terrifying as sitting in a chair, looking out a viewport and watching the air around your ship slowly superheat from the friction of your passage, knowing you were bound for a sudden, sharp stop sometime in the near future. Except maybe sitting in a chair with no viewport. Volk caught a quiet whimper come over the open comm circuit he’d established among the four passengers in the lander.
“Everything okay, Mrs. Pracht?”
“Sick stomach,” she said.
“Ah. Well, if you do lose anything your helmet has an automatic suction system that should deal with it. Let me know if it doesn’t.”
“This happens a lot?”
“More than we like to admit.”
“Crosswinds moving north-northwest,” Cates said, cutting in to the channel. “Brace for it.”
“In this atmo it’ll be a walk in the park,” Langley said, his hands working the controls frantically.
And to Volk’s surprise the jolt a few seconds later was pretty negligible. “Damn,” Cates muttered. “How did you do that?”
“Practice. Panic about crosswinds once we’re halfway down, kid. Until then, try and relax.”
Langley had probably meant it as much for Alyssa as for Cates but, if so, it was lost on her. She was starting to huff a bit in her helmet and Volk was getting worried. Spacers went through a lot of training to acclimate to the stress of being in a vacuum suit, to say nothing of space flight and emergency situations. “Calm down, Alyssa,” he said. “Only fifteen minutes to go.”
“Is it supposed to be this warm?” She asked.
Volk glanced out the viewport and watched the air glow brighter and brighter. “No. Not really.”
Where the exterior door and its servos had deteriorated quite a bit the network hub was still in surprisingly good shape. Pak managed to get it open and connect it to his board in under a minute. After that he got so wrapped up in trying to get access he never noticed Harriet coming up behind him. He nearly jumped out of his skin when her hand touched his shoulder. “What?!”
“Sorry…” She huffed, panting and sweaty. “Got… lost. Thought you were… at the hatch.”
He tried to slow his heart down. “No, I had to come here to get in the network. What did you need?” She just held out the small, comm sized box the spacers seemed to use as their all-purpose computing solution. After a moment’s hesitation Pak took it and said, “Hello?”
“Is this the person in charge of reprogramming the hatch systems?” A voice asked.
“I’m told no one down there has any significant experience with this kind of thing.”
Pak grimaced. “True enough. Is it too much to hope you have a solution ready to go?”
“We’re going to do everything we can to help you.” Which he noticed was not a direct answer to his question. “Now, we’re going to be working in ENDEMIC, the English language version of ColSystems’ Dome Engineering Management Information Codec, which is a very simple and robust programming language from that era.”
“I’m glad someone here is an expert on it.”
“I’m just reading from the first page of the manual, kid. We’re not trying anything fancy, just pasting a new command bypass over existing code so hopefully it won’t take us too long to sort it out. Now you need to get system access.”
“I’m working on that.”
“There’s a back door you can use by bringing up the file directory…”
“We’re crossing a warm air pocket in twenty seconds.” For all the animosity previously Cates seemed to function as Langley’s copilot just fine. “Shorter to skirt it to the north.”
“We’re going too fast to cut around it neatly like that. We’ll just ride the turbulence.”
Alyssa whimpered, the only noise she’d made for the past three or four minutes. “Easy,” Volk said. “We’re more than halfway down.”
“We can’t just fly through it, we’ll hit the updraft and bounce like a bad penny!”
“You have pennies on Rodenberry? I thought the Federation was beyond money.” Even Langley’s barbs had lost their playful edge and sounded more like a straining man trying to distract himself.
“Steady, Langley,” Volk said. “Banter isn’t necessary if its distracting you.”
“Gotta rag on someone, LT,” he shot back, “or I wind up doing it to myself. That’s even more distracting.”
“By all means, rag on me then,” Cates said. “Just don’t smash this thing on the ground.”
Another nervous sound from Alyssa. Then they hit the turbulence and engine two burst in to flames.
“Try compiling it again.”
Pak hit the right key on his board. “Same error message. Maybe we’re going about this all wrong, Mr. Deveneaux. What if, instead of creating a new opening subroutine, we tried just disengaging the safeties on the servoes for the inner door and cranked it open by hand.”
“That’s going to be very slow to open and reseal, Pak,” the stranger on the comms said. “I don’t know if that’s adviseable.”
“We have eight minutes left. I think It’s or only option to get this done before your ship crashes straight through the hatch and we can’t reseal it at all.”
“Fair point. Okay, Pak, try the following commands…”
Volk finally got the fire in engine two out. “You have full thrust on the starboard side again, Mr. Langley.”
“Peachy.” The lander’s engines roared back to maximum, a new and somewhat ominous whine added to the mix. “We are twenty seconds away from the dome, people. If you’re the praying type, now is the time.”
A quick glance at Alyssa told Volk she’d taken Langley’s advice some time ago. Assuming she hadn’t passed out. The woman had many admirable qualities but a love of flying wasn’t among them, unfortunately. He ran through a mental list of things he needed to do before crashing the lander and he could only think of one thing left to do. “Mr. Cates, stand by to release the braking parachute on Mr. Langley’s command.”
“Wait, this ship has a parachute?”
“What?!” Volk and Cates demanded in unison.
“Langley to Borealis, confirm entry hatch is open!”
Pak clung to the side of the manual servo release, doing his best to resist the rushing tide of air trying to rip him out onto the surface of Mars. “This is Pak Teng Won at Hatch Five, hatch is open.”
“Then hang on to something, we’re coming through and it isn’t going to be pretty.”
“Already hanging on, thanks.”
But his words were lost in the deafening howl that rose up, swallowing even the roar of the wind, as a flying craft the size of a house tore through the hatch. A wave of scalding air bore through the hatch with it, momentarily reversing the flow of wind through the hatch and almost knocking Pak to the ground with the suddenness of the reversal. As soon as he had his feet again Pak hit the automated controls for the outer hatch, sealing the dome again in a matter of seconds. But he didn’t pay attention to that because the ship smashed to the ground with a horrifying grinding, hissing noise.
Half an acre of Martian corn flashfried into ash under the superheated hull or got ripped up in a tidal wave of dirt and plants that scattered everywhere in front of the sliding extraMartian object. For a moment he didn’t think it would stop before it hit a building but then a colorful black and gold object exploded from the back of the ship and expanded into a parachute that looked like it was half the size of the Sunbottle. It billowed under the force of the air for a moment then tore in half down the middle but that was enough to stop the ship before it even crossed the clear space between the fields and Old Borealis. Pak heaved a sigh of relief. Then realized that even though the ship hadn’t hit anything that was no guarantee anyone was alive in that thing.
He’d covered half the distance to the ship when hatch popped open on the top of the ship and a suited man dragged himself out, a weird slime dripping from his whole body. He looked unsteady but that didn’t stop him from ripping his helmet off and throwing it down hard enough that it bounced five times before rolling to a stop. “Perfect landing, Cates. Let’s see you do that next time.”
Pak let his headlong dash slow to a walk. Ramone had sent bottlers with hookup cables to loop the lander in. The parts on the ship would let them fix the Sunbottle. All four passengers on the lander had crawled out and looked like they were okay.
Gemma came up by him, looking equally shellshocked by the craziness that had come and gone in the last half hour, and asked, “So, are we done?”
Pak took a deep breath and let it out. Laughed. And said, “Yeah, I think the disaster is averted. For today.” He slapped her on the back. “Good work.”
She turned bright red for some reason. “Uh, yeah. Thanks.”
Pak put it out of his mind and went to see if they needed any help unloading the lander.