After crash landing on a technologically backward planet, the crew of the Imperial Trade Vessel, Eagle, face a tough decision, save themselves, or save the planet.
Copyright © 2005 Alistair Potter
Dead before she was thirty was crap-bad planning, but it was Karla's only option. Reaching over the flight control panel, she keyed in the self-destruct command and pressed the final button.
When nothing happened, she repeated the sequence.
"Shit!" she growled. "It won't go!"
"Plan B," said Jont.
Karla twisted in her acceleration couch. Jont sat alongside her in the ship's redundant weapons station, his thin, almost boyish features were focused and calm.
"What's Plan B?" she said.
"I find a landing site, you get us down. Deal?"
They were almost flying blind; if Jont's abilities could replace the ship's failing sensors, they might have a chance.
She nodded. "Deal!"
Jont closed his eyes and Karla felt the skin on her neck and scalp tingle and grow warm. She'd felt this before, but never so strong.
It was her turn; they were dropping onto a city, the antigravity drive had failed and they had to lose speed without it. Though upgraded to a modern drive, the Eagle was designed when this technology could only shed a fraction of a vessel's mass. Karla still had a rocket propulsion unit to work with, and, in theory, the ship's hull, a truncated cone, had some basic aerodynamic properties.
She touched a button on her headset for an open comms link. "OK, folks, it's about to get bumpy."
Dan Evans, the captain of their small trading vessel, comm'd back using a private vidlink; his blocky weather-beaten face appearing in a tiny window in Karla's eyepiece display.
"What's on your mind, Karla?"
"They still work?"
It was a good question; they hadn't been used in earnest for over twenty years. "They deploy for the rating board." she said. "Whether they still work, we're about to find out."
"Your show," said Dan. "Good luck."
Karla's fingers danced over the controls; then she opened a ship-wide comms link. "Hang on everyone; I'm deploying air brakes in…3... 2... 1... now!"
The hull creaked as a ring of large hinged panels rotated out into the airflow, and a deep hollow moan began to resonate through the ship.
Jont squeezed her arm. "I have a clearing! Forty degrees spinal, I estimate a quarter k."
Good news! A clearing meant avoiding houses and the certainty of fire and mass casualties. Again, in theory, there was a way to steer them towards it.
Karla tightened her seat restraints. "Everyone, this might get rough. I mean it. Strap in, hang on, do whatever you can. Don't ask, just do it!"
What she was about to try was within the ship's flight parameters, but carried a strong advisory warning. She activated the manual thruster controls and stretched out to grip the manoeuvring joystick.
"OK," she said, "I'm initiating lateral glide."
Karla isolated the servos on a semicircular bank of air brakes and retracted them slightly, tilting the ship in a stately manoeuvre. She then applied a lateral thrust to help push them towards the clearing.
"That's enough," said Jont, "we're almost over it."
Karla rebalanced the air brakes and steadied the ship, surprised that it had been so easy. Of course, it wasn't easy; but that's why she got paid top rate, or would do if Dan could afford it.
"Perfect," said Jont.
Karla flashed him a lopsided smile and then turned to look over her other shoulder. Their first officer, Rafe Corlen, sat at the navigation station. Below a sharp line of jet-black hair, sweat beaded his aristocratic brow.
"Rafe" she said, "has this planet got a name?"
He wafted a hand through his holographic display, sweeping away a haze of acrid smoke. "It might be a malfunction, Karla, but I've no planetary beacons. In fact I've no comm traffic of any sort."
"Crap!" said Dan. "If it's that backward, we're in it up to our necks with IMTRAD."
Dan's command couch was above and behind Karla; she turned to catch his eye, and he shrugged. She couldn't fault his ever-buoyant optimism, but a breach of the Imperial Trade Commission's first contact rules was the last thing on her mind.
Perfectly timed, the landing acquisition display above her console flickered to life. Highlighted by a pulsing white band, it showed a small, square target sitting among the crisscross lines of the city streets. Karla zoomed the view, and the square expanded to show a clearing filled with a colourful mosaic of little rectangles. In the narrow gaps between them, clusters of tiny black specks were moving towards the edge of the target area.
Karla puzzled for a moment, trying to identify what she was looking at. When she worked it out, she blinked in surprise; the little rectangles were market stalls and the moving specks were people. Karla checked her instruments; the rate of descent was just within acceptable limits. All she had to do was keep the ship steady and they'd make it; the planet's natives too, but only if they shifted their backsides!
Then the pervasive moan of the air brakes changed and Karla craned nervously to listen. A sudden loud clang reverberated through the hull and the ship began to roll. Karla applied a counter thrust, but the ship kept tilting.
They'd lost one of the air brakes, and she had to retract the opposite one to balance the lack of drag. Giving it her best guess, she rattled in a command and waited for the sickening lurch that came before the wild uncontrollable spin to oblivion.
It never came and the ship settled.
Karla checked the instruments again; they were slightly off target for the clearing, and now in the red for rate of descent. A strange empty calm filled her. If they were about to crash and burn, she could at least get them back on course and minimise native losses.
All content © Alistair Potter.