A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall
May 30, 2013
USSR Ptichka, 500 kilometers above Mars
For the beleaguered crew of the USSR Ptichka, the orange-red bulk of Mars was the most welcoming thing they'd seen in two weeks. Two weeks of chauffeuring the supreme commander of GREAT JUSTICE around to the far-flung forward bases on an inspection tour. Two weeks trapped in a succession of small spaces with Haruhi Suzumiya and the collection of eccentrics that were her inner circle. To be fair, it wasn't as if the Soviet Air Force-In-Exile was free of eccentrics, but there were certain culture clashes that made life difficult.
"<Ptichka, Phobos Control,>" said the assigned ATC officer at Port Phobos. "<We read your approach as within limits. Welcome back to Mars, Ptichka.>"
"And thank Xenu for small favors," Mal Fnord muttered as he lined the shuttle up on their assigned approach vector.
"I'll drink to that," his co-pilot, Elena van Oorebeek, agreed. The previous two weeks had taken their toll; Elena's curly white hair, normally impervious to the most stressful situations, had started drooping in the last few days. "I will be so happy to have them off my ship."
"Your ship?" Mal said.
"Hey, I'm the one doing most of the escort runs," Elena fired back with mock indignation. "And I can't believe I'll be happy to get back to them."
"Can't argue there. End of the tour, and thank fuck for that, yeah?" The plan as it stood would have Suzumiya's group part company with Ptichka at Port Phobos and return to their HQ at Grover's Corners. Mal was planning on detouring at Starbase One and checking up on the progress of the new Gagarin-class cruiser under construction at the Utopia graving docks. Elena was going to take the weekend off, provision and then get right back to her schedule of running escort for the agricultural transports moving food from the Jovian farms to the more urbanized sectors of the inner system.
"I will be so happy to finally get off this heap," proclaimed Haruhi Suzumiya to her captive audience.
"That's not very fair, Haruhi-san," Itsuki Koizumi said, frowning thoughtfully. "Ptichka is one of our top-line spacecraft."
"Bah! What good is it if the crew refuses to follow orders? 'We can't do this' and 'we can't do that' and 'we're already breaking enough laws of physics as it is, comrade, let's not push our luck.' And what's worse, they locked us out of the command loop! As Supreme Commander, I have the right to assume command in a tactical situation..." Haruhi's rant rambled on as she railed against the invidious threat of Galactic Communism. As she talked, a cynical-looking man put hand to temple in a well-trained motion.
"This is why we never get invited anywhere," Kyon sighed.
Ptichka cruised along a path that would bring it close to Mars before rising again to dock at Phobos. As it powered along, the shuttle crossed the orbit of numerous satellites. Some of these satellites were scientific orbiters from before the Age of Handwavium. The majority, though, were put in place by Martian fen in order to handle the necessities of daily life in a place like Mars. These satellites were small, almost too small for anything but the most powerful ATC radars to pick up.
As Ptichka passed close to one suitcase-sized satellite, the sensors onboard the satellite locked onto Ptichka's transponder and turned the blockish object around. A tiny gravity engine flared to life and the satellite moved to follow the shuttle. Port Phobos ATC noticed the change in orbit, but the computer running the system decided that orbiting object #18230 had just been caught in Ptichka's gravitational wake and would return to its orbit shortly.
Object #18230 did not return to its orbit, instead accelerating a little in order to catch up with the rapidly receding shuttle. As #18230 got closer, another program inside the satellite's limited computer system began to count down. When object #18230 reached just inside a kilometer behind Ptichka and a hundred meters to port, the countdown stopped. The satellite's computer sent a final command to the propulsion system, turning the finely-tuned engine into a mobile bomb.
The gravity bomb detonated right behind Ptichka, the implosion destroying the engine outright and reducing the rest of the satellite into unrecognizable junk. The pulse of gravity waves created by the bomb had a small area of effect, not much more than a few kilometers in radius, but inside that radius the effect was potentially devastating. The pulse shot through the massive black sphere of handwavium that contained Ptichka's main engine. The inner workings of the sphere were disrupted by the sudden change in gravitational forces outside the ship. Thrown for a loop, the engine immediately shut down, protected by safety protocols written into every atom of the handwavium.
Ptichka twitched as the engine shut down and she went from a ship under powered flight into a wholly ballistic trajectory. The shutdown had more immediate effects inside, as the engine also provided gravity for the crew inside. In Ptichka's wardroom, the members of the SOS-dan cried out in surprise as they suddenly started to drift out of their seats.
(music_LOAD: "Master Alarm," James Horner, Apollo 13)
On the flight deck pandemonium reigned. Alarms nobody had heard outside flight simulations started blaring, Ptichka warbled in surprise, and the internal gravity cut out with a sickening lurch.
"Master alarm!" Elena snapped as she hit the panic button, shutting off the buzzer and calling up a status readout on her HUD.
"All hands secure for maneuvers!" Mal said into the ship's intercom. He gingerly nudged the ship's nose back into line with Ptichka's assigned flight path. "What's our status?"
"Internal gravity's out," Elena replied. "Inertial damper's on minimum power, engines..." she trailed off, rechecking the readout. "Fuck!" she swore, "Mal, we've lost the engine!"
Mal gave the throttle an experimental twist, and got nothing back for his trouble. "Lost it as in lost it?" he asked, worried. Handwavium engines were supposedly indestructible, and yet nobody had really put that to the test. If the engine was gone, then the aft fuselage and who knew what else might be missing as well.
Elena entered a series of commands on the co-pilot's keypad. "It's still there, but in safety mode." She entered another command, then pounded the console in frustration. "Gorram it! The hun dan thing isn't responding to boot commands!"
"Ptichka?" Mal asked. Ptichka whistled her own frustration as she failed to get the engine restarted. "Great," he said. "What next?"
Port Phobos ATC
"Huh, that's weird."
"I've got Ptichka in my scope, and it looks like she's wandering off flight path?"
"Seriously? The Reds ought to know better than that."
"Well, I'd better warn them back in, maybe somebody's leaning on the wheel." The ATC operator opened a channel to the wayward spacecraft. "Ptichka, Phobos Control, status check. You're drifting off your flight path, return to assigned vector, over."
The answer came back immediately. "<Phobos Control,>" replied the ship's commander, "<Ptichka is declaring an emergency. Repeat, Ptichka is declaring an emergency. We struck a gravitic mine on our flight path, we are adrift and in need of tow, over.>"
It was a tribute to the professionalism at Phobos ATC that the operator took that in with only a blink. "Roger, Ptichka," she replied coolly. "Dispatching tugs now." At an adjacent console, another ATC operator ordered two tugs to prep for immediate departure.
The shift supervisor looked over at the screen showing Ptichka's trajectory. "Hang on a second," he said. "Did Ptichka say they hit a gravitic mine?"
The operator mentally replayed the last transmission. "Yes sir, he did."
"Fuck! Ground loop, get in contact with Helium. We need minesweepers in low orbit ASAP!"
"What? Oh, right. Not now Jefe, I'm busy. Strap in," Mal ordered. "B, OMS status?"
"OMS is at ten percent. We've got maybe a meter a second acceleration."
"I said not now, Jefe. RCS?"
"RCS is at full power but yeah, not much more juice there either."
"What do we need to change vector?"
"At least two-fifty per second if we don't want to hit the planet. Maybe if we vent the cargo bay?"
"Dammit Colonel, listen to your superior officer!"
Mal shook his head. "No, not enough specific impulse unless we overpressure it, and we don't have the time or gas."
Haruhi finally had enough. Grabbing the back of Mal's seat, she pulled herself close and yelled "COLONEL FNORD!"
Mal flinched and turned to meet Haruhi's eyes. "What are you still doing here?" Mal demanded. "Get secured!"
"I have tolerated your constant insubordination for the last two weeks, but this has gone far enough!" said Haruhi. "Stop this prank of yours, turn the gravity back on and get us back on course to Phobos!"
"Prank? What prank!? Secure for maneuvers dammit, I've no time to play games!"
"Colonel, I am this close to throwing you out of GREAT JUSTICE, and if you don't turn the gravity on I-"
Something deep inside Mal's head finally broke. "Commander Suzumiya," he snarled, "you will secure for maneuvers right goddamn now or you'll be secured. This is my ship, we are in an emergency and you will obey. SECURE. FOR. MANEUVERS. NOW!" Haruhi glared at Mal; Mal returned the glare. A tense second later, she gave a derisive sniff, pushed off the commander's seat and pulled herself into the jumpseat sitting against the bulkhead.
"This isn't over," she warned.
"Whatever," replied Mal. "Phobos Control, where the hell are my tugs?"
"<Still four minutes, Ptichka, over.>"
"It's too long," Elena said. "We're too close to the planet."
"How long until we hit no return?"
"Ninety seconds or less." Elena swallowed hard. "Probably less." In less than two minutes, Ptichka would be inside the deepest part of Mars' gravity well, the place where handwavium engines couldn't completely ignore the laws of physics. Once Ptichka crossed that threshold, there was no way a tug could catch up before she touched atmosphere.
Mal summed up the situation succinctly: "Shit." He thumbed the radio back to life. "Phobos Control, belay those tugs. We're too far down the well for them to catch up. Unless you can have them here and matched up in-" he looked at the instruments "-sixty seconds, don't bother."
There was an uncomfortable silence on the other end of the line. "<Understood, Ptichka,>" said the traffic controller. "<We're standing by for any messages you might want to transmit.>"
Elena looked at Mal. "What now?" she asked.
The question hung in the cockpit, now deathly silent aside from the hum of the circulation vents. Outside, Mars steadily grew bigger in the windows. The shuttle was locked on a ballistic track and unable to change its vector enough to avoid impact. With no chance for a tow, Phobos had -- politely and regretfully -- written off Ptichka and all aboard.
"What's our ground track?" Mal asked.
Elena looked at the nav panel. "If we keep going, we're over the southern highlands, heading north-northeast over Hellas."
"Utopia Planitia is the only one close to our track."
"Right then." Mal yanked on the control stick, pulling Ptichka into a nose-up position. "Phobos Control, Ptichka. We're going to make an emergency landing at Utopia Planitia. Repeat, Ptichka is making an emergency landing at Utopia Planitia. Call the Trekkies for us and let them know company's coming, do you copy?"
In the ATC room, everybody stopped when Ptichka declared their intentions. The duty operator licked her lips nervously. "Ptichka, could you repeat?" she asked. "You said you're going to make an emergency landing on the surface? Without engines?"
"<That's affirmative, Phobos. We're headed for Utopia.>"
"Roger that, Ptichka, we copy you en route for Utopia. Godspeed and good luck."
"<We make our own luck, Phobos. Ptichka out.>"
Mal shut down the radio; this was going to be tricky, and the fewer distractions the better. Elena looked at her fellow cosmonaut as if he'd grown a second head. "Um," she said, "you do realize we're still screwed, right?"
Mal grinned. "I've got a plan. How's the deflector array looking?"
"Pretty good, but I don't see... aha!"
"Set the belly shields to maximum power and configure to a disc shape, as wide as we can get it. It won't be perfect, especially along the edges, but it ought to give us some friction."
Elena activated the tactical computer and entered commands like a demented typist. "Got it, got it. What about flight control once we're in?"
"That's a bit trickier, but..." Mal tapped his own control pad. "Ptichka? Do you think you could take control of the deflectors and map aileron movements to the shields?" Ptichka warbled confidently. "Atta girl, little wing."
"Deflectors ready, boss-man. Angle of attack looks good. Entry interface in thirty seconds... mark!"
"All right, here we go." Mal took a deep breath and tightened his grip on the control joystick. "Everybody hang on to the lap bar."
Utopia Planitia Colony, Mars
"Oh, man," Lt. Max Lovelock, intrepid Starfleet shuttle jockey, stretched as he relaxed in the pilot's lounge at Utopia Planitia. "Another day, another credit."
"I hear you," replied Lt. Hikaru Kizaki, Max's wingman. The tall Japanese woman dropped a beer in her partner's outstretched hand and sat down. "It's times like this I regret leaving Honolulu. At least there we didn't have so many idiots getting themselves in trouble."
Max rolled his eyes. "Please don't go into one of your old Coast Guard war-stories," he begged. "I'm trying to relax here!"
"Oh, all right. If you insist, I won't. Still, at least we're off-duty."
The ever-present announcement speaker chimed. "All hands, yellow alert. Rescue teams One and Two to main hanger."
Max groaned. "So much for off-duty." He flipped open his communicator. "Lovelock to Command, on my way. What's the situation."
"S&R mission," replied the duty officer, one of the omnipresent neo-Vulcans whose name Max couldn't remember for the life of him. "You'll be briefed once you're airborne. Speed is of the essence, Lieutenant. Command out."
Hikaru glanced at Max. "That was informative," she noted.
Max gave Hikaru an exasperated look. "C'mon, let's bounce," he said. "Maybe then they can give us some straight answers."
Down in the wardroom, the four members of the SOS-dan's "inner circle" sat strapped into their lounge chairs and wondered what the hell was going on. "It's pretty quiet up there," Kyon noted. "You think maybe he killed her?"
"Doubtful," Yuki said absently, staring out the holographic viewscreen that served as the wardroom's front window. "Killing Haruhi would make more noise."
"<Flight deck to wardroom,>" Major Oorebeek's crackled through the ship's intercom. "<What's your status?>"
The four exchanged puzzled looks. "Uh, we're still here Major," Kyon replied. "Where's Haruhi?"
"<The Supreme Commander,>" Oorebeek said with distinct relish, "<is obeying orders for once.>"
"(That does not sound good. At all.)" Itsuki muttered.
"<Anyway, things are getting heavy right now, so stay strapped in until we give the okay. Oh, and you might not want to look out the window for the next couple of minutes. Flight deck out.>"
"What did she mean about not looking out the window?" Kyon asked, puzzled. Itsuki shrugged and Yuki looked blank (as usual).
Mikuru started to say something, but cut off the first syllable with a startled squeak. Eyes wide, she pointed a shaking arm towards the window.
Outside, Ptichka was surrounded by a corona of fire.
Over the years that humanity had photographed, orbited, landed on, poked at and generally meddled with the planet Mars, a lot of thought had gone into the topic of getting things to the surface with a minimum of trouble. Back before handwavium, much of this thought had revolved around the (eventually and they meant it) manned exploration of Mars. This meant getting humans and all the things they needed to survive (air, water, food) to the surface. In the popular culture the answer was simple: send a space shuttle. That's what they're for, right?
The truth was more complicated than that. The air on Mars is too thin to slow down a large object like a shuttle on a direct descent trajectory. With a little luck the shuttle could aerobrake into a stable orbit, but that's about all. And assuming that the shuttle's pilot could bring the ship to a normal landing speed, there just wasn't enough atmosphere on Mars for the shuttle's wings to work. Conversely, there was just too much atmosphere for the shuttle's orbital maneuvering thrusters to be useful. Damned if you do, damned if you don't.
Mal Fnord and Elena van Oorebeek were two of the best fliers in Fenspace. In private, Mal was prone to say that they were in fact the best fliers in Fenspace, full stop. The two pilots found their skills tested in ways they never dreamed of as Ptichka fell through the Martian sky. Around them the shroud of plasma caused by Ptichka's shields slamming into the thin air glowed a brilliant yellow-orange.
"Give me a count," Mal said as he concentrated on keeping the shuttle's belly trimmed for entry.
"Altitude 65,000 meters, speed 3500 meters per second." Elena read off the dials. "Shields are holding."
"I feel heavier," announced Haruhi. The two pilots jumped a little, having forgotten their passenger was still there.
"The damper's on minimum power," Elena said, "so we're picking up a little G load. Looks like 1.4 out of... ooh, seven. Ow."
"No shit," Mal said. Just then, Ptichka trilled an alarm and the master alarm light went off. "Fuck, burn-through!"
"Location?" Elena snapped.
"Dead center. The tiles can handle it. Shields... are still holding at 90%," Mal said, relieved.
The Starfleet rescue shuttles Moore and Gilliam circled high above the plains of Mars, just like they'd done for the previous fifteen minutes. "I am telling you there's nothing out here," complained Lt. Kizaki, onboard the Moore. "Command wants us looking for a ship in trouble? What ship?"
"Oh, c'mon Kizaki," replied Lt. Lovelock, Hikaru's opposite aboard the shuttle Gilliam. "Command isn't in the habit of sending rescue shuttles out on hazing missions. If they say there's somebody in trouble out here, there's got to be something."
"Yeah, well, my sensors don't see jack. I've got you, and I've got lots of rocks sixty thousand feet below us."
"Such poetry in your soul, Lieutenant," Max chuckled. "Though I admit I don't see much else either.... hey! I've got a new return!"
"Above us, heading 357 mark 18. Big signal, and a fast one too - HOLY SHIT! BREAK BREAK BREAK!" Max yelled the last as he pulled the Gilliam into a tight diving turn away from their search grid.
Aboard the Moore, Hikaru blinked, then followed suit. The two boxy shuttles veered off, as mere seconds later a huge black and white shape riding on even larger wings of fire slammed through the space where the two Starfleet craft had been at a little over Mach 2.
Hikaru stared at the apparition that had come far too close for her liking to running over her shuttle. "Holy shit that was close," she whispered. Then, assuming the professional demeanor expected of Starfleet officers, she brought the Moore around and contacted Utopia. "Moore to Planitia, we have made visual contact with target and are in pursuit."
"Two contacts just behind us! Looks like Starfleet sent an escort."
"Did we hit them?"
"Doesn't look like it."
"Okay, then I don't care. Give me a count, speed distance and ROD?"
"Speed 700 meters a second, 500 kilometers to target, rate of descent 65 meters a second."
Mal ran the numbers through his head. "Shit, we're going too fast, we'll overshoot." He twisted the control stick hard to the left. Ptichka responded by rolling into a steep bank to port, almost bringing the edge of the wing perpendicular to the ground.
"That seems to be doing it," Elena said. "Speed's dropping, down to 647."
Mal rolled the shuttle over to starboard, dumping more speed while bringing the nose back onto the original flight path. As Ptichka slowed, the plasma sheath surrounding the shuttle died away, the atmosphere no longer hitting ship or shield hard enough to ionize.
"Hey boss, I just had a thought. Utopia doesn't have a runway, does it?"
"Nope. We're going to have to land a few klicks short and slide out."
"That's going to be hell on the belly. We'll lose a shitload of tiles, might even rip open the hull."
"At the last possible second, we'll switch the deflectors back to conformal and jack them up past full power. That should hold together long enough for us to slow down."
"Gotcha, boss. I'll get the switch program ready. Speed 580 meters a second, 450 klicks to target, rate of descent still 65."
"The hell is he doing?" Max asked nobody in particular as he watched the target slalom back and forth through the air.
"S-turns," replied Hikaru "I read about it in History of Spaceflight. The old-style shuttles did that to get rid of velocity when they came down."
"No shit. Whoever's flying that tub, he's doing it old school."
"Speed 300 meters a second, 200 klicks to target, rate of descent 55 meters a second!"
"Dammit," Mal growled. "Start looking for a flat patch, we're landing short."
"Got a decent looking dune field about fifty klicks away, one o'clock low."
The shuttle twitched in midair. "What was that?"
"Sound barrier. We're subsonic. B, status!"
"Speed 236 meters a second, altitude 11 klicks. Twenty klicks to LZ, descent 50 meters a second!"
Mal threw Ptichka into a wide circle. With the shuttle now flying slower than the local speed of sound and barely five miles above the surface, the two pilots needed to stay in the air long enough to find a flat stretch of terrain to land on before the massive unpowered glider stalled out. Ptichka swung out to the east of their ground track, flying almost upside-down as Mal and Elena looked for a likely touchdown point.
"Speed 200 meters a second, can't stay up much longer." Elena said. "Pick a spot or we're all gonna die."
Mal looked out the window and saw a fairly level stretch between two large dunes. "Got it, we're going in." Mal lined up the shuttle's nose on his chosen runway and pushed down hard. No longer trying to lose speed, Ptichka shot forward like a ski-jumper on a ramp.
"150 meters a second, altitude 3,000 meters. Everything's looking okay."
"All right, final stretch. Keep up the count and be ready to switch over on my signal."
The landscape grew larger and larger in the windshield. "125 meters a second, 2,000 meters."
"Almost there, almost there..."
"1,500 meters, 100 meters a second."
"Beginning flare." Mal pulled up on the controls, letting Ptichka's nose pull up and catch a little more air underneath the wings. "Get ready for switch."
"On it. 1,000 meters... 900.... 800... 700..."
Ptichka drew nearer to the plains of Mars.
"500... 400... 300... 200..."
"100... 50.. 40, 30, 20, 10..."
"NOW!" Mal barked.
Elena hit the switch. The large intangible forcefield wings vanished, leaving Ptichka on a ballistic track less than thirty feet from the ground. At this point the trajectory was just flat enough that the shuttle gracefully belly-flopped onto the surface.
"TOUCHDOWN! Shields are at 85% and falling! Speed 75 meters a second and falling!"
Everything was moving according to plan, when out of the blue Haruhi shrieked "ROCK!" as a house-sized boulder appeared in their path.
"HOLY-" Mal yelled, slamming open the forward RCS thrusters. The thrusters fired, throwing out a paltry stream of exhaust as the boulder drew closer.
All available power thrown to the shields and thrusters, Ptichka careened across the field, churning up a wake of displaced rocks, sand and dust. Almost uncontrollable, the shuttle slid along, moving slower...
...until she came to a full stop, barely ten feet from the massive rock.
"Shields at 2%, hull status green, life support green! No punctures or breaches detected!"
There was a moment of silence. Then Mal and Elena whooped in joy, while Ptichka made a noise that sounded like an entire rain forest's worth of parrots singing the Hallelujah Chorus.
"That was a hell of a thing!" Elena said. "I thought for sure we were dead at least five times there!"
"Bah and humbug," Mal declared. "We are the best pilots in the whole goddamn solar system, and by Xenu and Jesus we proved it today! Though," he admitted, pointing at the rock sitting right off the shuttle's nose, "Junior there gave me a bad turn."
"Hey, any crash you can walk away from."
"Too right. And speaking of walking away..." Mal turned on the intercom. "Flight deck to wardroom, what's your status?"
"<Wardroom here, Colonel,>" Kyon replied. "<We're still here, scared out of our wits but we're here. Does this mean we're out of danger?>"
"We're out of the immediate danger of a horrible fiery pancake death. We could still end up sitting here until life support runs to zero-" Mal said as the two Starfleet shuttles zoomed overhead "-but that doesn't look likely. Flight deck out."
150 km southeast of Utopia Planitia Colony
After the excitement of falling from Martian orbit, meeting the two Starfleeters and arranging for a tow back to Utopia was almost anticlimactic. Almost. Trading gossip while waiting for the tugs, Max Lovelock let slip the latest juicy morsel drifting around the interwave.
Haruhi took it quite well, all things considered.
"What!? There are sliders in Fenspace!? They're on Venus right now? Lieutenant, call Utopia Command and get me a transport ready!"
Max scratched his head sheepishly. "Uh, I'm sorry ma'am but I can't do that. As soon as Colonel Fnord called in that you'd hit a mine, Phobos ATC shut down all traffic coming in or out for at least the next 36 hours. You won't be able to even get to Phobos until Saturday morning."
Haruhi's anguished wail could be heard in Port Lowell. "No! No! This can't be happening! My life's dream, so close! Fate, you terrible monster, why do you deny me this?"
Itsuki's ever-present smile grew that much more pained. Mikuru fluttered around Haruhi making tiny soothing noises. Yuki ignored her commander's antics with supreme indifference. Kyon sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose. He glanced to his right, only to find that the two Soviets had escaped up the flight deck ladder and had sealed the hatch behind them. "Cowards," he grumbled.
"<You bet your ass,>" replied the intercom, just low enough that only Kyon could hear.
Kyon sighed and went to calm his wife down.
(music_load: "Omae no XXX de Ten wo Tsuke!," Iwasaki Tarou, Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann BEST SOUND)
"A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall"
a Fenspace story by Sean M. Breen
side-story to "Legend of Galactic Girls" by Rob Kelk
©2010 Sean M. Breen