Prose Header

Down to the Wild Blue Yonder

by Harry Lang

Part 1 appears
in this issue.


Success! The maintenance log was still intact. He queried “retro systems” and was quickly rewarded. A technical service bulletin announced a manufacturer’s recall of a micro relay used in the retro engine ignition system of early-model pods. Aging insulation could permit arcing, and the device was located in a cavity where hydrogen and oxygen might collect. The unit in Pod 22 had been scheduled to be replaced two days ago, but someone had canceled the order.

He banged at the keys in a rage. Who did it? He was shocked to find the log signed by Anita Dunn, the maintenance chief with the perfect record.

So that was it! Dunn wasn’t kidding. Maybe she didn’t have the nerve to brain him with a blunt instrument. But sabotage...

“Control, Control, this is Pod 22,” he called. It made no sense. Murder didn’t fit her profile. She couldn’t have made it through the psych tests if she was a cold-blooded killer, could she?

His analysis had to be wrong but it didn’t matter. His life was over, and Dunn was the only one close enough to grab and drag down with him. It wasn’t like she didn’t have it coming.

He glanced at the screen again to make sure he had his facts straight. A series of notes was attached to the last log entry and linked to the flight control database. One was highlighted in red. Why hadn’t he seen it before?

Down streaked the pod into denser air and the blue-gray gloom of darkening sky and thickening clouds. Mako’s trajectory was shooting him directly into the advancing night. For the first time in his life, he was afraid of the dark.

The ship was in free fall. Terminal velocity finally lifted the heavy hand of deceleration, stabilizing the plummeting craft’s speed and trajectory, but the environment was nearly unlivable. Emergency air from the damaged ejection system was unavailable. Hot cabin air and smoke was all there was to breathe. The sensible thing would be to quit fighting and accept suffocation rather than wait for the implosion.

Not Richard Mako. He still had work to do.

Dunn’s note was a warning not to clear the pod for departure. The replacement part had not arrived on schedule.

Now he remembered.

It was at the end of his shift. He had argued with the flight boss, a junior officer covering the graveyard shift, when no flights were scheduled. Except for a micro-meteor erosion inspection, Mako had nothing scheduled for the next day. If he could knock that out before he quit, he’d get a free day off.

Neither one knew why the pod was redlined. The preflight was all green, but the flight boss was adamant. Mako ran the poor guy through the entire checklist step by step. The maintenance geeks were always warning against clearance for crumbs on keyboards, stained upholstery and the like. That’s why God made preflight checklists. Besides, he only needed it for a short hop sun-side and obviously it was redlined against a trip downstairs, not a little spin around the block. Fifteen minutes, tops.

“Captain,” the flight boss said, “at the very least, regs prohibit departure without operating main engines. The tanks were depressurized and drained—”

“It’s only one orbit of the station, nitwit,” persisted Mako. “I’ll only be using RCS and maybe a retro burst.”

“We have drones, Captain.”

“Which are off line because it’s the middle of the night. It’ll take an hour to boot the remote system and prep the vehicle.”

“The pod is tagged out,” emphasized the flight boss. “I’d need the technician’s code to turn on the power...”

Mako tapped a few keys on the boss’ data pad. A list of codes appeared.

“Look,” insisted the flight boss, hearing the dry click, “Chief Dunn says no, so it’s no.”

“Chief Dunn and Captain Hovis are down on Strato Collector 12 fixing stuff and playing house,” said Mako, “so I am your immediate concern. I’ll use less propellant than she vents to run tests. She won’t even know.”

The kid had been around long enough to know what he was in for if Mako didn’t get his way. He reluctantly gave Mako clearance and disabled the flight control auto-log. Mako got his pod, the flight boss got the captain off his back, and there was no data trail to cause trouble.

Mako noticed the tool in its sheath anchored to the top of the weather radar panel as he adjusted the straps on his seat harness. Given that the pod was tagged out for maintenance, the tool was properly stowed. His pilot sense told him to put the tool in a locker before lift-off, but he might forget to put it back. That would raise questions.

He fired the defective retros just as he cleared the shadow of the low band antenna array. The next thing he knew, it was blue sky with eyeballs out, and he weighed a thousand pounds.

* * *

Mako flipped the com switch again, praying for enough juice to make one last transmission. “Control, Control,” he croaked, “this is Pod 22. Do you copy?”

“Copy... go... Say again?”

“It was Dunn! Check the maintenance log!”

“Roger 22... Chief... attempting... not responding to recall... Pod 12—”

“Dunn killed me! Do you get it? She killed me!”

The lights flickered, and there was nothing but static on the radio. The outburst at Dunn didn’t help at all. He’d just have to die mad.

One by one the dying craft’s systems succumbed to the cascading damage and went dark and quiet, leaving only the crackle of radio static and the eerie whistle of the ship speeding through the heavy air. As Mako fought the imminent blackout, he noticed a sound he hadn’t heard before: a low, swishing pulse like wind puffing at trees or the breathing of some great mythological monster.

In his dazed state, Mako recalled Dante’s fallen Lucifer flapping his impotent wings, forever trapped in the frozen center of Hell, a place that suddenly seemed all too real. The whispering hiss and rumble of the sound was ungodly; it was terrifying. Was it the rhythm of the blood pounding through his head? Some piece of the ship flapping in the wind? The churn of the icy waves rushing to meet him?

Outside, the murky blue-gray had turned pitch black. Or had it? Mako thought he noticed a faint reddish glow surrounding the pod. Probably mist rising from the slushy sea and reflecting the incandescence of the shredded heat shielding, letting him know his time was up.

The battle to remain awake and sensible was now a matter of futile heroics. The cockpit’s emergency lights faded as Mako saw stars and down he went, hearing the sudden burst of a radar warning along the way, unaware of its significance. Something was approaching the ship.

“Not authorized. Return to Collector 12 immediately! Pod 12, your flight is not authorized! Do not approach Pod 22! Do not attempt rescue! Return to base immediately!” The transmission came through loud and clear, but Mako was out cold, shooting toward the point of no return. He felt nothing as Pod 12 sped out of the darkness and slammed into his ship like a freight train, forcing solid contact with his damaged docking coupler.

The hatch aft of the pilot’s station popped open and a slight figure floated into the cockpit. Mako was quickly unstrapped and pulled from the wreckage of his plummeting ship.

Chief Dunn guided Mako’s limp, weightless body through the smoke-filled docking corridor, fighting hard as the joined ships wobbled and turned in the dense air. Once through, she secured Pod 12’s hatch, made sure Mako was still breathing, strapped him into the co-pilot’s seat and slid into the pilot’s seat. With a nervous eye on the altimeter, she connected him to the ejection system’s emergency air, just in case. His damaged face plate worried her, but hopefully it wouldn’t be a problem.

“Here goes nothing,” she said out loud as she hit the switch to disengage the docking coupler.

Nothing was exactly what she got. She tried the switch again to be sure, but Pod 22’s mangled coupler held her ship in a death grip, dragging it down to the slushy sea.

Plan B absolutely could not work, but she was out of options. Fighting Pod 22’s added drag, she maneuvered the ship into the proper orientation and prepared for ejection.

Mako’s damaged helmet would never withstand the pressure at this altitude.

The helmets were universal and Anita Dunn was out of time. They were already too low to be saved, but she pulled off her helmet and swapped it for the unconscious pilot’s.

Mako moaned as Dunn secured the protective shroud, grabbed the ejection handle and wondered what heaven would look like.

* * *

Mako’s eyes opened just in time to see the flare of an ejection thruster die in the black distance. His own thruster quit at the same time, giving him a few seconds of free fall before he felt the reassuring tug from above. Happy day! Nothing to worry about now but being ripped apart by the wind or freezing to death despite the best efforts of science and technology. A pilot riding the cool breeze au naturel had a maximum of twenty minutes to live under the best conditions. Nighttime, clouds and extreme pressure were not the best conditions.

He tried to get his head around the situation as he twisted and swung beneath his brightly illuminated rescue balloon. Small stabilizing thrusters in the pilot’s seat kept lethal gyrations at bay, but their propellant would be quickly spent. Mako’s hands and feet were already numb, but at least his head was staying warm.

What happened? His ejection system was dead, and his faceplate was cracked; yet here he was, alive and airtight, bobbing within sight of another balloon. Nobody could’ve reached him from orbit, and the only ship docked at Collector 12 had lifted off as he watched.

Fred Hovis had shuttled Anita Dunn down to the collector. It was just the two of them. There was no one else aboard the collector, and Fred would never break regs to try such a hopeless rescue.

“Dunn!” he called. “Chief Dunn! Anita!” Her com status was green. She was receiving but there was no response.

Two shafts of light sliced through the mist, illuminating the floating pilots. The rescue drones had found them. Grapples from the drones’ rescue bays snaked through the sky, snagged the shroud lines hanging from the balloons and began reeling them in.

The wind subsided, as if in answer to some supernatural command to allow the rescue to proceed unimpeded. Mako gazed across the stillness of the gloom separating the two of them, hoping to find some sign of life. He found nothing but the glint of the searchlight on the jagged red edges of a smashed faceplate and streams of crimson running along the contours of the helmet, drizzling like rain down to the distant sea.

“Capt. R. Mako” was clearly stenciled on the side of the damaged helmet she wore.

“Jesus Christ!” he said softly.

The rescue bay door closed and the compartment filled itself with air, warmth and light. The drone was smart enough to know that its occupant wasn’t seriously injured so it waited while he strapped himself in. Mako felt the gentle push of smooth acceleration as the vehicle began its climb away from the slushy sea and the crushing sky back to the strato-collector far above.

There was a lot to think about in the windowless rescue bay as the craft made its way skyward. He could think about how lucky he was to be alive, or who would represent him at the court martial or how much jail time he’d have to do. He could sink into irreversible despair or turn over a new leaf. But every thought he tried to pursue arced back to the dead woman floating in the blue-black sky with her blood dripping from his helmet.

“Jesus,” he said again. It was the only thing he could squeeze out through the numbness of his shock and disbelief. “Jesus Christ!”

He was still repeating it when the drone docked and the hatch slid open.

Captain Hovis stood in the hatchway, wishing for the power to change reality. But the power didn’t come.

“The chief said that no pilot was going to die if she could help it,” he said. “I guess she finally made a mistake.”

“Why didn’t you stop her?”

“I ordered her not to fly. She acted upset and went to the head. Only she didn’t go to the head; she went to the flight deck. I didn’t know she’d disobeyed the order until the deck rattled from lift-off and I saw her heading into the clouds.”

Hovis looked down, almost like he was bowing his head to pray. Mako wasn’t sure, but he thought the corners of his eyes were wet.

“I told her to turn you in to the Colonel,” said Hovis. “She said we couldn’t afford to lose a good pilot.” He shook his head. It was a tired gesture full of loss and defeat. “We have three weeks till they can pick us up. Stay the hell out of my sight.”

Mako was still sitting in the darkened rescue bay when the deck shuddered and the low, icy tone of the docking alarm sounded. The second drone was back. Chief Dunn had returned from the bottom of the deep blue sky.

Copyright © 2016 by Harry Lang

Proceed to Challenge 698...

Home Page