Down to the Wild Blue Yonder
by Harry Lang
Captain Richard Mako woke up heavy, eyes stinging from the smoke seeping through the cracks in the faceplate of his damaged helmet, ears ringing, head pounding, daylight streaming into the cockpit from a bright sky that should be dark. It would take some time for his bruised brain to recall the blast that tore his ship apart and kicked him out of orbit, but Neptune gave him a lot of sky to fall through, and the rugged little craft might just hold up until splashdown on the slushy sea. He’d have time to remember plenty.
Rosy sunset clouds swam majestically upon the fiercest winds known to humanity like plump, lazy whales waiting to swallow a scrap of plankton. Or waiting to swallow a man, just like Jonah, Mako thought disjointedly as his head slowly cleared and the smoldering craft tumbled, flattening him like a flounder on the damaged ejection seat.
Spiderwebs everywhere he looked. His helmet had taken a hit from a tool left aboard by a maintenance tech. The aft retro cluster had exploded, the tool flew out of its anchored sheath like a bullet and ricocheted from his faceplate. That’s what happened. His micro-meteorite shield would’ve withstood the impact but he wasn’t going EVA, and he didn’t expect his ship to blow up; so he left the shield flipped up on top of his helmet.
Now he was on fire with no escape. Even if he could get out of the burning ship, his helmet would never hold pressure, and he would die horribly in the freezing, poisonous sky of the alien world.
He was 32 years old. 32 was way too young for a handsome, black-haired, blue-eyed rocket man to die.
“22, 22 do you copy?” crackled the scratchy radio transmission from on high, nearly overpowered by the sizzle of Neptune’s background radiation. “Come in Pod 22. This is Atmospheric Transfer Flight Control. Do you copy?”
Reflex and training overrode the confusion buzzing through Mako’s swimming head and told him to coax enough thrust from the leaking jets to stabilize the craft before heat destroyed his control interfaces. The craft settled down; then all his flight control indicators flashed red and went dark. That was that. Hopefully the automatic guidance systems would keep the craft stable and steady, but Mako had no more say in the matter. He was no longer a pilot.
“Pod 22, do you copy?”
Mako struggled to reach the com switch an inch away from his left thumb. “22 copy,” he grunted through clenched teeth, wondering how long he’d have to endure the stress of deceleration before the craft reached terminal velocity and everything turned weightless. “What do you want?” A racket of rattles and whistles mingled with ripping explosions as layers of thermal material tore free of the craft’s leading surfaces.
“Come left five degrees.”
“Negative,” croaked Mako. “Actuators frozen, reaction control system... no response.”
“No! I can’t do anything but go straight down!”
A moment of silence. Far below to his left, Mako saw an automated gas collection barge sparkling silver and red in the last rays of the setting sun as it cruised the high-speed currents of the stratosphere. The gas men called the barges “catfish” because of a vague resemblance to the creatures back home.
A tiny golden flash indicated the departure of Pod 12 on its way upstairs after a routine maintenance mission. The dashing Captain Hovis and his pixie girlfriend Chief Dunn, noted Mako, his thoughts suddenly focused and hot as the glowing debris trailing his doomed ship. Headed up to the cozy base above the clouds while I head down to the slushy sea. Couldn’t have worked out better if they’d planned it this way. Bet they’re holding hands and waving goodbye. Bastards.
The sturdy, bullet-shaped pods were made to shuttle equipment and maintenance teams between the gas collectors and the refinery complex orbiting just beyond the drag of the atmosphere. Mako couldn’t decide if it was dumb coincidence that his crippled pod streaked past the nearest landing platform or if it was one of God’s little jokes. So little power would be needed to swing the wreck into an orbit around the collector, bleed off speed and float into a docking ring. It wouldn’t be the first broken machine he’d saved.
* * *
“Now don’t forget, Rickenbacker,” said Captain Fred Hovis as Mako climbed into the right-hand seat for his first pod ride. “For you, this is just a fam hop.” Fam; familiarization. “Look out the window, enjoy the scenery and, for God’s sake, don’t touch anything!”
“Aye aye, Cap,” barked Mako with his best eager-beaver wink, taking a good-natured poke at the captain’s service as a former naval aviator. He was a year or two older than Hovis and equal in rank but, out here, he was the new kid. He’d behave himself for now and play the wide-eyed tourist.
Even without his hours on the simulator, Mako would’ve felt right at home. The cockpit layout was remarkably similar to the spaceplanes he had flown for the U.S. Air Force, but it had additional redundancy. Olive-green bulkhead, black panels, hazy blue holo screens, along with the familiar smells of ozone, grease and composite materials. There was even the same low wheeze of an air exchanger due for maintenance.
The one significant difference was the ejection system. Rockets too massive for elegant integration into the seat design crouched beneath the tightly packed balloon system with its helium tanks, air supply and tracking gear. The whole arrangement looked angry, as if it felt cheated by every safe landing.
They were dropping a couple of techs on Collector 7. Neptune was really big, and the trip was long. Hovis took the opportunity to brief his new protégé on the layout.
“As you know we have eighteen strato-collectors positioned twenty degrees apart in a ring around the planet,” he said. “They collect the local gases and boost them up to the refinery platform to be separated and catapulted sunward. Each collector is buoyant and virtually self-sustaining. They produce fuel in situ, and their weather monitors are smart enough to direct the stabilizers and keep them steady under all conditions.”
“How much do we still owe on all this?” asked Mako.
“Zero,” said Hovis. “The whole shebang broke even three years ago. But this is just a demonstrator. The completed architecture will have buoyant collectors at various altitudes all the way down to the slushy sea. Apparently, there’s enough naturally-occurring deuterium and tritium down there to keep the lights on throughout the Solar System for the rest of forever. Product ferries will load up, climb to the next level, dump their cargo then go back for more.”
“And everything gets boosted to the next level and then the next, like climbing a ladder,” said Mako.
“Exactly,” echoed Mako faintly. The big sky of Neptune had him by the eyes and wouldn’t let go. Mako had tamed many species of sky in the blustery heights of Earth’s temperamental atmosphere, but nothing could have prepared him for the scale of the giant blue world. Continents of deeply shadowed clouds drifted far below, sculpted into arctic mountain ranges and canyons cut through ephemeral ice and fanciful snow. Vast fields of mist flattened by floods of wind stretched to distant horizons like pale, pastel-tinted plains lined with rich blue veins of deep, luminous air.
The ship dropped through thin white ribbons that were blown at incredible speeds by winds that would pulverize the strongest ships on Earth in the blink of an eye. The “cool breeze” was the name the pilots used to taunt the predatory gales that sprang and rushed upon them with claws gleaming and teeth bared, splitting open the eggshell hulls of ships flown by the not-quite-clever-enough. The cool breeze...
“So why Neptune?” Mako asked, shaking off the reverie. “We got lots of air on Earth and plenty more on the other giants. Why come all the way out here?”
“Exotic hydrocarbons that don’t show up anyplace else,” explained Hovis. “The deuterium and tritium are a big deal, but the real prize is the dust.”
“Dust? You mean like—”
“I mean like unique carbon configurations we never imagined until we found them here,” said Hovis. “They’re present as particulates. Nobody knows how they form, but their uses are practically unlimited. They can be strong and flexible, electrically conductive, heat- and pressure-resistant, whatever. Superior to anything found or made on Earth. They’re planning to fabricate domes for Venus with the stuff.”
Mako turned his attention to the craft’s configuration monitor. The aerodynamic profile changed itself constantly, responding to the extreme conditions. Airfoils appeared and disappeared. Surface areas warped from convex to concave then back to their base shapes. The brute force of thrusters provided most of the stability for the pods on their ballistic trajectories, but variable geometry was a real fuel-saver.
“Asteroids,” announced Hovis. “I’ll bet it’s asteroids!”
“You bet what’s asteroids?” responded Mako, unimpressed by Hovis’ scientific acumen. His thoughts had moved on from clouds and dust to more pressing concerns.
“The dust. Probably from asteroid encounters. They may even be extrasolar.”
“Yeah, that’s fascinating,” observed Mako, “but what about girls?”
“Girls?” chuckled Hovis. Space Com Deep Space Operations was the last place to look for that kind of fun. “Things must be worse than I thought back on the ground. Did you really come all the way from Earth to find a date?”
“No girls,” proclaimed Hovis. “We have two captains, three chiefs and seven techs who may resume their feminine ways once they head back toward the warmth of the sun, but out here we’re all business.”
“Chiefs?” questioned Mako. There were no chiefs in the Air Force.
“Any enlisted warm body qualified as a technical expert and leading anything between a crew and a section gets addressed as Chief,” explained Hovis with some amusement, his Navy background on display. “It’s a Space Com thing. They like to throw around ‘Mister’ too. Chief Warwick oversees catapult operations. Chief Dunn runs the pod shop and maintains drones. You want to be on your best behavior with her; she holds your life in her hands. Chief Hart leads an IT crew. They’re all fanatics about their professional reputation, especially Dunn. Flight safety improved dramatically after she showed up. She takes it personally. And she knows her stuff. There is no record of her having ever made a mistake. Kind of scary when you think about it.
“But they’re not girls,” emphasized Hovis. “Seriously. We have no time or space for lovers’ spats and no way to run home to mama. Colonel Sharp bounced his own nephew out of here last year for showing ‘inordinate interest’ in one of the techs. There’s a carefully cultivated social dynamic in place here, and God help the moron who upsets it. You have been warned.”
“We’ll see,” said Mako. “I didn’t sign up for a freakin’ monastery.”
“Not exactly what I said. You just have to remember...”
The next thing Mako knew, they were flying inverted and dropping. Hovis was cool but the civilian technicians screamed their heads off.
“Wind shear,” snapped Hovis. “We have damage.” The upside-down ship continued on course and accelerated. The approaching strato-collector got real big real fast.
Mako continued to do as he was told. He didn’t touch anything but watched as Hovis scanned his indicators and squeezed off a few RCS bursts to right the ship. Or tried to.
“Primary is no go,” alerted Hovis. “Take it, kid.”
Mako was happy to find the backups in fine shape. He flipped the ship, angled away from the collector and shot past it instead of into it. By the time Hovis had assessed the damage and was ready to resume control, Mako had the ship turned back toward the collector, moving at a reasonable speed. They floated into the docking ring like a tuft of thistledown drifting on a lazy summer breeze.
Everybody made it to work that day without a scratch thanks to the new kid. Not bad for a fam hop. Maybe Dad would let him drive next time.
* * *
“Roger your situation, Pod 22.” The catfish vaulted into the sky to become one small star among many before vanishing into thickening haze. “Rescue drones have been dispatched from Strato Collector 12. Can you eject?”
Mako switched the radio off in disgust, years of training and experience going up with the incandescent trail streaming from the pod. Idiots! If he could punch out, he’d be riding the cool breeze beneath his rescue balloon instead of roasting alive and waiting for the mounting pressure to wad him up like a sheet of paper.
Mako had made his share of payments on the farm. Neptune was the most demanding assignment in the service. The cool breeze had claimed more pilots than all other hazards in the solar system combined, but Mako always came back in one piece thanks to steady nerves and an uncanny knack for right choices.
Not this time, he thought. Today the farm is all mine.
What happened? Why did the retro cluster blow up? The system had been green on the preflight. The pod was redlined for maintenance, but the job he needed it for was so small and easy that there was no reason not to take it out. Even so, he ran through the preflight checklist twice just to be sure.
The main keyboard was under his right hand, and the computer was still active, though sluggish. He called up the pod’s maintenance schedule, looking for anything out of the ordinary. Ever since the days of the Wright brothers, pilots understood that every “incident” was ultimately traceable to a specific human being. Mako was a dead man, and it was somebody’s fault. He wouldn’t rest until he found out who to hate.
Shimmering blue sky was swallowed by murky twilight as the ship tore into the ghostly mountains of a cloud bank. The impression of speed was overwhelming, and Mako screamed despite his determination to die with dignity. No telling when the atmospheric pressure would start working on the hull, squeezing tighter and tighter until the lethal atmosphere forced its way in. He wondered if he’d still be conscious when the burning ship’s crumpled remains splashed down in hissing showers of ice and steam on the slushy sea.
His thoughts returned to Dunn and Hovis as the overheated computer struggled to retrieve the requested data. His first look at Anita Dunn told him that Hovis’ “carefully cultivated social dynamic” would just have to get out of his way. From her straight blonde hair, high cheek bones and deep brown, almond-shaped eyes to the way she stretched her legs and pointed her toes when she pushed off a bulkhead in micro-g, everything about her was perfectly tuned to light fires and shout down the civilized voices of Mako’s psyche.
Caution was the order of the day. Captain Mako’s impulsive nature had caused some hard feelings and misunderstandings during his Air Force days, leading to uncomfortable encounters with superiors that he did not wish to repeat. Like every beautiful woman he’d ever known, the chief came complete with an inflated self-image and a high appraisal of her own worth, just the type to tell on bad boys who pulled her pigtails. His work was cut out for him. But once his imaginary x-ray vision was switched on, his course was set. Anita Dunn was worth a lot of risk.
It took time and patience but, one day, almost unexpectedly, the opportunity presented itself. It was after hours in the pod shop, when charm and conversation had erased time and left the two of them alone in the empty hanger. Mako knew she kept her eyes off the clock because she was interested. He knew it.
The moment of truth arrived. It was not his style to hesitate or ask permission.
“You are way over the line, Captain,” she said, her weightless arms pinned to the chromium oxide green bulkhead like delicate blue wings, little beads of sweat on her forehead, her warm, brown eyes hard and unyielding.
“Like I haven’t heard that before,” said Mako with a little-boy grin as he let go of her wrist to reach for the Velcro strip at the top of her tunic, more convinced than ever that the attraction was real, the outcome desired and inevitable.
A hatch swished open. Mako pushed off like a kid caught with his pants down, nearly knocking his brains out on a low-hanging girder.
“What’s going on?” It was Hovis.
Dunn put down the wrench that Mako hadn’t seen her grab when he was busy up close. “The captain was concerned about an overheating issue,” she said, smoothing her rumpled tunic, making sure everything was buttoned up prim and proper. “It’s been resolved.”
“Well, Chief,” said Mako as hot venom spread from the sting of rejection and threatened to trigger an outburst of mindless violence. “You know how these machines work. It’s liable to come up again.”
“I’ll make sure it’s fixed for good,” promised Dunn, her low, even tone expressive of deep fury and possibly the anticipation of impending revenge. “Depend on it.”
Hovis just glared like a wolf guarding his territory as Mako floated out of the compartment, saying nothing but promising trouble.
Once Mako got his mind back he worried about a summons to the Colonel’s office. When it didn’t come he felt relieved. Then he thought long and hard about Dunn’s promise to fix the problem “for good.”
* * *
Copyright © 2016 by Harry Lang