Copyright© 2014 by Feral Lady
In the morning, Cone arrived at the employee cafeteria thirty minutes late.
“What happened? I’ve never know you to be late,” Lan asked. “I ate breakfast without you.”
“An unexpected contract bid came in late last night. A slight inconvenience that had to be handled before we go to the trade show,” Cone responded, out of breath. “Let’s go aboard and depart for the station. We are still within our flight plan window for a timely arrival and unloading.”
Lan shrugged the delay off and they settled in for a brisk walk to the corporate hangar. Cone grabbed an apple and devoured it before they got off the floor. Neither of them noticed the FastNews flash about the arrival of the Yellow Horse Space Yacht Rally from Atwood; an annual yacht club event that was timed with Lava’s Full Moon Festival. This type of yacht is often called a weekender. Such boats are designed to undertake short journeys, rarely lasting more a day. This rally was a five day cruise with nightly layovers at each system over the route.
Cone looked very tired. Lan suspected the board meeting went long and his friend didn’t get much sleep last night. The CEO did the flight check efficiently but rings under his eyes showed fatigue.
“Are you up to piloting? I can get us there is you need to cat nap?”
“It was a late night but I am not over the hill. I’ll get my corporate shuttle safely to the dock. You unload and I’ll sleep. Here’s my PDA if you want to call Raf Ram.” He tossed the durable unit at Lan who quickly put it aside.
Once Cone lifted out of the atmosphere into near orbit, the shuttle’s active sensors painted a confusing picture of hundreds of small spacecraft. At the same, the near-space controller responsible for the departure lane from Lava flashed a heavy traffic warning. Lan could see the arriving small craft were jockeying for placement into the space station’s auxiliary arrival holding-pen, a designated parking area for those forming a line for docking facilities. The docking lines were established well away from the fragile station infrastructure but towards the planet side, since that is the direction most personal craft arrive. Commercial and corporate arrivals used different docking procedures and facilities. The normal shipping lines had huge vessels that parked on the sun’s side of the station.
Lan knew, the station was a commercial entity, so the Rollin’s shuttle would be received through one of the main docking portals.
Pointing to the sensor monitor, Lan said, “Wouldn’t want to be working that controller’s shift. The personal parking orbit wasn’t buoyed for that amount of traffic all at once.”
“Surely, the station was expecting their arrival and put on more traffic controllers. It must be some yachting event.”
Lan shrugged, activating his PDA to see what if anything he could find out about the event. He was in the range of the station’s public network and the FastNews satellite feeds.
It wouldn’t be until later that they would learn the yacht club’s volunteer organizer was thrown into the position after the normal event volunteer was called to active service in the Empire’s Reserve Fleet. In the changeover of responsibilities the station wasn’t notified. The lone controller responsible for personal craft was overwhelmed and the tired, amateur pilots were largely belligerent at the poor service. The overfilled holding pen had many of the small craft too close to the extreme edge of an asteroid belt. A FastNews camera attached to the entrance buoy alerted the newsroom to the unusual development.
In a rage, a yachting pilot jumped the line; bouncing over a number of small asteroids, trying to sneak into the holding pen. The angry pilot ignored the warning buoy that broadcast an obstacle warning. Bouncing his agile craft over the last obstacle, his limited sensors didn’t see a yacht boosting out of the remote pen. It hadn’t dawned on the inexperienced pilot that the obstacle was another craft not the rock. The other craft was newly approved to enter the final approach for docking. Neither craft had a chance. The last thing the raging pilot saw was the impact warning on his flight console; his craft rammed the other yacht’s nacelle deflecting him back into the sharp end of the asteroid. The speed of the deflected craft and the angle of the collision with the spinning rock crushed the fragile hull, ejecting the raging pilot into space without a survival suit. Other waiting yachtsmen, close to the crash site, immediately began squawking their distress beacon trying to draw the station’s attention.
In a moment, the innocent craft was knocked into another, high-speed trajectory taking it towards the planet and its departure lane. The kinetic energy of the impact damaged both the ship’s integrity and caused the pilot’s navigation console to unleash a killing surge of electricity. The second pilot never knew his end but the two remaining occupants did.
Plugging into the station’s network Lan immediately saw a flashing mini-window used to alert the populous that an emergency had been declared in space.
He tapped on the mini-window searching for details as Cone shouted, “Wow! Look at that sensor return.”
Lan’s head snapped up to see the navigation VidScreen that tracked the near-space vessels change a blip from green to pulsing red. The mini-window Lan had tapped started a live feed announcing a collision. Both men weren’t distracted but followed the pulsing red blip that was tracking a path parallel to them, rushing towards the planet’s departure corridor.
The announcer’s monotone voice repeated, “Search and Rescue has been dispatched from the station to assist. All auxiliary docks are temporarily closed during this emergency.”
Lan pointed at three yellow pulsing blips leaving a main docking portal on the far side of the station. Cone looked at Lan, knowing Lan’s finger movements were making the same obvious conclusion he surmised.
“If anyone is alive on that ship they are going to burn up in the atmosphere with that kind of trajectory,” Lan said.
“If they don’t hit a boosting departure-vessel from the planet,” Cone countered, while punching the sound button on the center console used for entertainment.
The default channel was FastNews. Lan closed the mini-window on the PDA to hear the console’s news report, inadvertently tapping the station’s Instant Community Channel.
“We are fortunate to have a speeding drone intercepting the crippled pleasure craft,” the Fastnews commentator said.
“Please help us. The navigation console is destroyed. The pilot’s dead,” a woman reported with deep breaths. Her voice coming out of the PDA in Lan’s hands.
Both men quickly shifted their focus to the PDA. The mini-window on the device showed an attractive woman wearing a crash helmet, surrounded by grey smoke. The camera shifted to the destroyed pilot station and a gruesome sight of a charred man in his acceleration chair. Shaking, the camera panned the rest of the small bridge, finally steadying on a pre-teen girl, also in an emergency helmet.
“We are out of control. The bubble dome is cracked and the port nacelle is sparking with a green discharge.”
“The drone has intercepted the yacht. Arndt, you’re a retired search and rescue commander. Do you want to describe the scene,” the Fastnews commentator said from the console. Cone muted the entertainment channel’s sound.
The external view of the yellow, pleasure yacht was distressing. The drone was positioned above the plane of the out-of-control craft. The hull shape was a twin keel due to the two separate engines; the standard low-power engines were considered reliable but not sporty. Between the engines is a black tinted, Liquidarmor bubble where four passengers can enjoy the view of space. The glass on the bubbled command deck of the yacht showed a nasty crack on the side, not far from the emergency hatch that was on top of the doomed craft. A sporadic, short-circuiting electrical current was discharged from one of the engines.
“Please help me save my daughter,” the woman pleaded “My name is Alison Day...” Lan’s eyes went back to the PDA video. She wasn’t just a pretty face. The woman radiated spirit and resolve rather than despair and hysterics. He felt tightness in his chest, a shadow of his past in his thoughts.
Cone looked at the speed differential of the rescue ships to the woman and the distance to the edge of space, where the upper atmosphere would begin the fiery process of incinerating the yacht. The navigation plot pushed the flashing red blip passed them on the opposite trajectory.
“Too far back,” Cone commented. “The lead rescue shuttle isn’t even in the asteroid field, he is going around the yacht fleet.”
Cone flipped the shuttle out of the departure lane, dampeners kicked on trying to shift the stress. Lan’s eyes burned, a flash of a memory of his wife filtered behind his eyelids, touching a raw emotion, her beautiful eyes pleading for help from the approaching lava flow. The stressed shuttle rocked Broken Wing out of his memory. Invisible forces pressed him to his seat.
The graceful corporate shuttle nosed towards the planet, chasing the women. Shuttles of this type are primarily used by the military, ministries, and the social elite. It is a particularly expensive ship for its class. The Shearwater is twin engine, mid-wing, and based on a tactical ship class. Its distinguishing design element is its stabilizer system that creates near Intruder class heavy fighter performance when exercising extreme maneuvers in space. The high performance engines vibrated the ship frame as Cone went to full military power. With a simple command Con red-lined the engines for the acceleration.
Cone weaved through the edge of the asteroid field to get a clear line on the yacht, controlling his speed turns with touches of his finger on the dampener pad, increasing the pressure from the anti-gravity plates when sweeping tightly around unexpected obstacles. Lan trusted Cone but hated not being the pilot, even when it was obvious his best friend was making a least-time approach. They both knew what had to be tried and how they were going to do it.
The boundary line began flashing on the navigation display, quietly reminding both men of what was ahead, as if the planet didn’t already fill the visual display.
“Call it in,” Cone said. “I’m too busy.”
Lan tapped his headset after changing hailing channels to the rescue frequency, which was full of chatter, “Break, Break, Break, this is Rollin’s Shuttle One in pursuit of ... Alison Day. We are responding to the emergency. Setting Responder beacon on, two souls on board this ship.” Looking at the navigation plot for a moment, Lan added, “I expect intercept at the boundary, going off comms.”
Cone abruptly banked the shuttle, twisting it in a spiral to get by the last rock between them and their target. Lan stowed the headset and unbuckled his seat restraints, clasping his PDA tightly between his fingers. Con slightly reduce power, pulling back the strain on the overheating engines. The shuttle passed just above the distressed pleasure craft, moving ahead of it on the same heading.
Cone quipped, “You know this would make a great movie. Retired warrior saving beautiful woman and her child from imminent death, struggling with his own painful memories. The hero reeks of desperation but has a history of beating the odds. Geek CEO risking death, skimming the atmosphere.”
Lan stood there stunned, feeling his inner outrage building over the tight feeling in his chest, then it bled away as he looked at Cone’s curled lip and stupid grin. Cone had always known how to release Lan’s pent up stress with his snippy comments like a younger brother. The CEO was wickedly fast in assessing and executing his thoughts.
“Thanks. I needed that slap. This isn’t about my wife. People are counting on us.” The men smiled broadly at each other.
Lan opened a panel above his head, pulling out a crash helmet. The self-sealing emergency gear fit with any skinsuit or a Class C pressure suit like the one the woman was wearing. A limited oxygen supply canister is attached to the flexible mask. He left the flight deck and made his way to the aft storage hold, resetting his PDA to its vidpad default that Lan used to control the Mosquito.
“Hope there are no trouble shooting faults in the interface this time,” Lan muttered.
In the cargo hold Lan disengaged the magnetic clamps holding the prototype down, trusting his friend not to make a sudden maneuver causing the rescue craft to crush Lan.
Doubt made Lan to stop and tap his helmet. “I am boarding the prototype, hold things steady.”
Two clicks sounded in his helmet, acknowledging the request, making him feel better. The long cylinder like rocket awaited him, its telescopic safety hatch gave the craft a slight humpback look.
Once Lan reached the craft’s ladder he climbed to the top and spun the old fashioned hatch open and lifted the heavy airlock door. There were limited controls inside the vessel since it was intended to be operated by remote control. It was only a prototype not much more than a mock-up to show off to potential investors. It fortunately, had a manual pilot station that an occupant can use to maneuver the vehicle. The physical controls wouldn’t give much in the way of finesse due to their rudimentary nature.
Lan spun the lock closed and strapped himself into the acceleration couch harness, after snapping the PDA into the command console.
He tapped his helmet, “Internal power is cycling, Cone. I’m strapped in and the VidScreen piloting software is connected and online. Once the Mosquito’s internal power cycle is complete, I will switch to the crafts comms.”
Two clicks answered. Shortly after, an internal speaker announced, “Internal power online.”
Lan affixed a wireless strip to his helmet, just above the suit’s seal. “Mosquito Mic check.”
“We are good to go,” Cone responded. “The Boundary limit is 10 ticks out. I will open the ramp door in three minutes for a soft release. Don’t wait for ramp closure to hit your main drive. No pressure, but you’ve only time for one approach on the target.”
Lan double clicked back, afraid of what he might say. There was every chance the Mosquito’s powerful repulsion engine would rip off the shuttle’s ramp, perhaps destroying Cone’s ship.
“I am ready. Stop the shuttle, and I’ll try not to wreck you on my exit,” Lan announced, comfortable in the acceleration couch.
A minute later, Cone responded, “Ramp open ... Full stop ... You’re clear to exit. Don’t worry about the paint job, the insurance company has it covered.”
Lan grinned, released the prototype’s simple, mechanical-clamp release and activated the maneuvering thrusters. Orange flame fired and the energy gently pushed the craft out the back of the shuttle. Checking both the interior camera and external-ramp camera, Cone saw Broken Wing’s safe departure; Cone flared his own maneuvering thrusters to create some separation from the prototype, closing the ramp door. The shuttle twisted to set up Cone’s own escape from the approaching atmospheric boundary.
Cone felt relief at the successful separation, so he reached out to his friend, “Make sure you check the seals before you open up her airlock.”
After a moments delay, Lan radioed back, “This isn’t my first solo cruise into the dark.”
Cone laughed back, “Check twice or die once.”
“Snappy comeback. Now leave me alone.”
Cone took off his headset and unmuted the FastNews channel to get an update, glancing at the entertainment display. The shuttle’s sensor suite was great but the news hounds had a camera on the distressed vessel.
“Look at that!” A news anchor blurted replaying a short video clip. “Our drone caught a shuttle going right passed her. Did she move into traffic?”
“Camera 2,” an off-screen voice yelled, uncharacteristically.
Cone saw himself on the console display with the Mosquito gently pulling away, and then its Supreme Thruster flared moving Lan out of the screen’s view. FastNews had redirected a second drone to cover the incident.
The news program shifted to a different commentator standing at large VidScreen. A graphic of the space station, rescue shuttles, yacht and boundary was in the camera frame. The real-time tracking-plot of all the vessels moved on the VidScreen’s graphic. Cone’s corporate shuttle was added to the screen, nearly on top of the crippled ship. The graphic was cartoonish, rather like a network weather map.
“What you are seeing is an unidentified shuttle that just released what looks like a large torpedo,” the excitable commentator announced. “We are seeking clarification from the Space Station on this development.” He held a hand over his earpiece. “We’re going to track the torpedo ... Back to you, Aaron.”
The anchor asked, “Arndt, in all your years of service have you seen a torpedo craft like that?”