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Episode 3.1: Down the Well
As soon as the bay doors opened, the change in heat and pressure was obvious. Donovin Lamont could hear the metal and ceramic clink and groan in response. Earth’s jewel blue really struck him at that moment. When the lander tipped forward, the module was shot with naked sunlight. They were free, not so much flying as falling. Looking up, Lamont could see the Bronco shrink into the blackness with a speed that made him queasy. He thought to close his eyes, then said, “No. Look down.”
Lamont’s personal journey was interrupted by Commander Liu’s voice in his helmet. “We’re away. Attitude control.”
Garcia: “Deceleration thrusters engaged. We have positive attitude … now.”
As Anna spoke, Lamont felt the lander shift back and stabilize. The shot of sun burst in again and stayed.
Garcia: “OK, Commander, we are in the gravity well, velocity 1,2000 kph.”
Liu: “Um, yeah, could we slow that down to closer to 1,000 kph? We don’t want to break the sound barrier in this thing.”
Garcia: “Adjusting descent veloc … ”
Mischenko cuts in. “Commander, atmospheric shielding is … is depolarizing.”
Liu was surprised by her own panic. “What!? Mischenko, you said ‘Green,’ dammit. What’s status?”
The glow through the glass was no longer sunlight. Angry, orange spikes stabbed up and wrapped the lander in a closing fist of fire. Lamont was sure he heard the tinkling clinks of ceramic in a kiln.
Mischenko: “Positive is now negative and vice-versa. Earth’s magnetosphere … ”
Lamont felt himself spin forward, then his head snapped back. His view from the crew cabin rotated. Earth was now up.
A shutter, a jolt, and the egg carton cracked.
Lariat lander was not made to enter Earth’s atmosphere head-first. Ceramic composite heat-shielding was on the bottom and the sides of the craft, much like the original Earth orbiter/landers, like Columbia. An electromagnetic field was to be the shield for the rest of the vessel. Earth’s atmosphere wasn’t having any of it. She treated the Lariat like any rock entering her space.
If someone from the surface could see the Lariat, its crew and its payload drop into Earth, they might have been reminded of fireworks and exclaimed, “Ooooh, a ‘Starburst’!” The payload in the wider undercarriage of the Lariat took the most shear and broke off from the ship, leaving the crew module to spin its own way down. If there was one redeeming aspect to the day’s events, it was that.
Free of the payload’s bulk, the crew module’s descent velocity was greatly reduced. However, this grace simply slowed the crew’s descent from flaming oblivion to catastrophic break-up of the module and scattering to the points of a dysfunctional compass.
Lariat was not a safer vessel for the crew than their own enviro suits. The suits still relied on technology that had suddenly become unreliable, though. Parachutes were practically ancient technology, but to survive entry into the atmosphere, they had been packed into shielded compartments on the backs of the suits. They required the suits’ technology to be functional to deploy. Anna Garcia could not get hers to do so.
“Garcia to Liu. Come in, Commander.” No answer. “Garcia to Bronco. Come in, Bronco.” Nothing. “Lariat crew, come in.” No answer. She looked around. Just to her left, she could see Donovin Lamont spread-eagle in a flat spin.
Anna’s training responded faster than her mind. She clapped her hands to her sides, her ankles together, and bent toward her pinwheeled colleague. If she missed, she knew his flat spin would send her into an end-over-end spin. “Don’t miss,” she told herself.
As she closed in, she spread her arms, to slow her speed and to grab him. She wrapped her arms around his torso. Now they were rolling together like a sled going downhill. “Vin! You OK?” She didn’t know if his helmet audio worked. “Donni, you awake?”
A drowsy slur came through her helmet radio, “Don’t call me ‘Donni’.”
Choking back joy, fear and panic, Anna managed to tell him, “Glad you’re back. Listen, I need you to engage your thrusters, just the legs. Got it?”
“OK. Just the legs.” Donovin bent his forearm panel toward his face and tapped the controls for leg thrusters. They jerked upward violently. Anna almost lost her grip, but held on.
They were descending now as if by parachute when a voice came into both of their helmets. “Lariat crew, sound off. This is Cdr. Liu.”
Donovin exclaimed, “That’s Liu! She’s alive!”
At that moment, Anna’s parachute deployed on its own and they were pulled back up.
Anna scoffed, “Are you shitting me?”
To be continued Oct. 2!