Castaway Planet – Chapter 07

Chapter 7

“Nebula Drive fully retracted. All smart dust now stowed away. Recovery of materials at 95%,” Sakura reported, partially to herself. The routine, reporting each detail of her tasks, helped calm her, slow the heart that threatened to accelerate out of control.

It’s all on me.

The thought was terrifying, more so because she knew she couldn’t show it. Melody and especially Hitomi could panic if they realized just how scared their older sister was.

But she was scared. Lincoln now loomed up before them, as beautiful as it had been at first with drifting streamers and coils of white cloud across the green ocean and brown-green of islands and continents. It was the salvation they needed, a real, livable planet with an oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere and water and animals and plants…

… if fourteen-year-old Sakura Kimei could manage to land LS-5.

Stop worrying, Whips said. I can tell you’re ready to jet yourself into blackness with this, and it’s not doing you any good. We’ve chosen a landing spot, the apps we’ve got for your display will help guide you, and all you have to do is keep calm.

A hand touched her shoulder. “Whips is right, sweetheart,” Laura said to her quietly. “You told me yourself, didn’t you?”

“I know, Mom,” she said, and tried to keep her voice from trembling. “But still, I’m going to –“

“You’re going to do just fine,” her father said from the other side. “Just take some breaths and relax. Even choosing the points isn’t happening right now. You want to select them once you’re sure where we’re setting her down.”

“Yes, Dad.”

She turned back to the console, bringing up the physical controls. “In a real emergency situation,” her instructor Sergeant Campbell had said, “you do not rely on the projected interfaces. Understand this, boys and girls, projections can fail. Our wireless toys can go haywire, even today. Your local net can shut down. But the real console controls, the ones built into the shuttles, those won’t fail you unless the ship itself is bad, bad damaged. So you can practice all you want on your virtual toys, but in this class you will do everything on real, solid controls, do you understand?”

I understand, Sergeant. She remembered him, a craggy-faced man towering over her, seeming almost two meters high and as intimidating as a thunderhead — but really one of the kindest and most patient teachers she’d ever had. I hope I won’t screw this up after all your lessons. I… just wish I’d had about a hundred more lessons.

The controls of LS-5 responded exactly like the simulator’s. She gave very brief test actuations of all systems to make sure they responded as expected. “All controls active. Test burns all green. On course for de-orbit and landing on Lincoln.”

Lincoln was starting to take on more the aspect of a wall than a planet. She checked all the sensors that still worked, which wasn’t many. “Huh.”

“What is it?” asked Caroline.

“There’s some… strange, really long-wave stuff that the radar’s just able to pick up.”

Her mother’s head snapped up. “You’re not saying it’s… inhabited, are you?”

“I… don’t think so. It’s kinda like some signals you can get from gas giants like Jupiter, random noise at funny wavelengths, and there’s no sign on our telescopic images of lights or anything like cities.” It was disappointing, of course. Discovering a new intelligent alien species would have been awesome.

“Should we wait? See if we can figure out what it is?”

Caroline shook her head. “Mom, that’s an unbounded problem. Looking at the waves, Sakura’s right. It’s got the patterns of some type of natural phenomenon, and they’re hardly intense enough to be dangerous, or even interfere with our systems. We could spend months surveying this planet. But we don’t have months.”

Her mother frowned, then nodded. She knew the truth as well as any of them; Whips was starting to show signs of real skin dehydration, even with everything her mother could do to try and slow it. They couldn’t afford to wait long.

“Besides,” Whips pointed out, “we have done a basic survey on approach, as Lincoln rotated. We know there are several small continents and many smaller islands. We’ve got a basic map of their locations. As Sakura says, we’ve seen nothing to indicate that it’s inhabited — though I guess it could be, especially if the inhabitants are like my people, in the water and not making lights or fires. We also know that there don’t appear to be any huge mountain ranges — largest altitudes we can guess are maybe three hundred meters or so. We’ve got good candidates for landing locations. We know that the atmosphere’s close to Earth’s ratios of nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon dioxide, which means we all should be able to breathe there just fine.”

“Right,” Caroline agreed. “We also know that there’s the type of salts we expect in the ocean and my guess at the concentration puts it at an acceptable level. With our limited sensors, Mom, we can’t expect to get much more.” She said the last uncomfortably, her preference being for complete and detailed answers.

“All right,” Laura said. “Then I’ll shut up and let the pilot… pilot.” She smiled at Sakura, and Sakura felt a warm glow and a boost of confidence.

Lincoln’s white-and-green filled the viewport. Close enough. She looked at the projections on the screen. We’re in orbit.. if we get ready to de-orbit, another orbit and a half… that brings us here. She studied the general area they would have to land in and saw one of the sites they’d already discussed, one of her favorites. There, the end of that small continent. I can use the very tip of that, and these points on the nearby islands. The tip of the small continent ended with an almost circular lagoon, with long, gently inclined slopes preceding the lagoon; sheltered access to the sea, easy terrain for exploration, and part of a nice large landmass — fit all the criteria they were looking for. She designated the guidance points to her display app as they swept over the target area. I’ll refine it with radar scans just before we do the de-orbit.

“We’ve got almost two hours before re-entry,” she said, trying to sound calm. “Everyone use the bathroom or whatever before then.”

Nervous as she was, she used the bathroom three times. How could time seem to be dragging by, yet going so fast?

As she sat down for the third time, she saw her timer alert go to yellow. Sakura took a deep breath and raised her voice. “Everyone please make sure you’re strapped down right, it’s going to be a rough ride even if there’s no trouble. Mom — I mean, Captain, can you check for me?”

“Hitomi is secured. Melody, tighten your straps just a bit, honey.”

Melody’s muttered, “What a pain…” brought a quick smile to Sakura’s lips.

“Caroline?” asked her mother.

“Secured, Mom.”


Whips voice was very matter-of-fact, showing how tense he really was. “All hold-downs fastened, all secure.”

“And I’ve already made sure I’m locked down,” said her father.

“All secure, Sakura. Don’t worry about us now.”

“Yes… Captain.”

Focus. Eyes on the instruments and controls. Find those points!

The target location came into view again, the last time before — hopefully — they landed. Get the angle… clouds starting to cover the one, but no problem, I can see through the clouds with radar anyway… radar painting them… designation…

The guide app considered, blinked green. It now understood the geometry. “Caroline? I’ve got the estimates. Can you make sure everything’s right?”

“Of course.” A pause. “I make our first de-orbit burn as being in eight minutes, fifty-two seconds from … mark.”

“Checked,” Melody said.

This is it. Sakura knew that re-entry and landings were the hardest part of spaceflight. “Eight minutes, twenty seconds to burn on my mark… mark,” she said. “It’ll be about one g for eighteen seconds. We’ll have lowered our orbit and me, Caroline, Whips, and Melody’s apps will track our reactions to the first fringes of atmosphere, verifying their models of the planet’s atmosphere and the performance of LS-5, before we do the final de-orbit burn which will last for a few more seconds and drop us low enough, to about eighty to ninety kilometers altitude, for the atmosphere to do the rest of the work. That’s when it’s going to really get rough, but we might feel a little something before then.”

“Okay, Sakura,” said her father.

She watched the countdown tensely. This much, at least, she could automate, putting a simple timer in line with the engine controls. Still, she poised her hands over the actual controls in case it didn’t work. A few minutes later, the main engines roared to life, pressing them into their seats with a full gravity of pressure. Sakura watched, ready to cut the burn off if it didn’t stop of its own accord, but it shut off exactly on time.

Maybe it was her imagination, but in the minutes that followed, she thought she felt phantom quivers, twitches in the big shuttle, as the very outermost fringes of the atmosphere began to touch on this intruder from a distant solar system.

This was one of the sticky parts. The problem with a de-orbit and re-entry was that there was a very narrow band of re-entry angles — slightly more than one degree, in this case — between the extremes of striking the atmosphere too sharply and burning up like a meteor, or literally bouncing off the atmosphere back into space. They had to hit this exactly right, because there were also limits to the g-loading they could take, and what the thermal protection system (TPS) on LS-5 could handle.

“Reconfigure for re-entry, Sakura. We want as blunt a profile as we can get,” Caroline reminded her.

Fortunately, LS-5 could shift between multiple design configurations; landing, it looked not terribly different from the original Space Shuttle, a boxy airframe with stubby wings, but it could transition from that to a sleeker hypersonic configuration, a lower-speed, wider-winged subsonic craft, and even reconfigure for vectored thrust as a VTOL aircraft. She made sure the shuttle was in the first configuration. “Locked into re-entry mode. TPS shows all green.”

After a lot of checking and re-checking, Caroline and Melody finally agreed with Sakura on the landing calculations, and put the guidance data into her guide app. “This is it, everyone. We’re landing!”

Hitomi cheered, Melody said something like “Finally!” and Whips sent her an image of thumbs-up, a gesture he was incapable of really making himself.

“This won’t be fun at the beginning,” she said, looking over the stats. “We’ve tried to figure the easiest re-entry we can manage with our configuration, but we’ll have some moments above 4.5g.”

Whips twitched. She couldn’t blame him; for Bemmies, 5g was just about the limit because they were originally water creatures, and they were so much larger than the average human. “How long?”

“Only a few seconds. Mom?”

She saw her mother check the restraints and Whips’ medical readings. “I think it should be all right, honey. Aside from his hydration issues, Whips is in good shape. Just try not to tense up against it too much, Whips; your internal shift-plates need to flex with the pressure, not try to fight it.”

“Okay, Dr. Kimei.”

Everyone else settled back into their seats. Sakura swallowed hard, then took the controls firmly in hand. She couldn’t let go now until they landed, really. The guide visualization counted down the seconds and projected a simulated view for her, with a generated guide path. It couldn’t control anything for her, but it could help her know when she was going wrong — and she would, inevitably. But with these apps, she’d probably know in time to fix the mistake.

“Full de-orbit burn in three, two, one… now!”

The second burn finished, and then there was no doubt that atmosphere was touching LS-5. A faint vibration and a rumble, and Sakura sealed all ports, making sure the TPS was in place and showing green. “Re-entry beginning. We’ll temporarily lose most sensors in the next few minutes, lasting until we’ve slowed down to a few Mach numbers.”

Breathe. Calm. Hold the controls firmly but not tightly, guide the ship. Don’t react quickly! Fast maneuvers will kill us.

The manual controls transmitted more strain, more buffeting vibration as the rumble from outside rose to a frightening crescendo and the hull sensors showed that LS-5 was careening through the atmosphere like a meteor, blazingly hot, but the vibration was less than she’d expected. Deceleration crushed her down, but she forced her hands to stay rock-steady, even though her heart was ratcheting itself into ever-faster beats. Yellow along the guide path and she restrained her panic, forced her hand to move the tiniest, most controlled bits. Green again, and they were holding to the original calculated glide pattern as though running down a set of tracks.

Hitomi gave a series of yelps as the deceleration peaked, forcing them into their harnesses with more than four times their own weight. Whips burbled something in the Bemmie native language and she wanted to reassure him, but she didn’t dare take her eyes from the guide display or hands from the controls.

At least if it screws up here it’ll be fast…

But now the pressure began to ease, and she felt a smile starting as the temperature sensors showed they were past the peak.

As the temperature continued to fall, Sakura finally caused the forward shields to be retracted. They were around Mach 5 and dropping, heading towards their destination. The three points should be coming into view soon.

As the speed fell to that of normal atmospheric craft, Sakura triggered the mode shift from a re-entry configuration (minimal surface area, all-refractory surfaces with ablative covering) to that of a high-speed aircraft, larger wings, multiple control surfaces, more capable and responsive. “Activating atmospheric engines,” she said. Jet intakes opened and Sakura felt the vibrations as the nuclear reactor heated the incoming air and hurled it out the back through jet turbines. Great! All engines were operating just like they were supposed to.

LS-5 now tore through the sky at Mach speeds, fast but far, far slower than it had been. “Atmospheric re-entry complete — guys, we’re a plane now!”

A rippling, pained sigh from Whips. “Thank the Sky Above. That hurt.”

She shot a glance at her mother. “Is he –“

“Just some strains, Sakura. No injuries. Just focus on flying.”

Below her, green and brown with occasional splotches of brighter color streamed by. “We’re over the target continent. Expect to see our landing site any minute. Transitioning to subsonic flight.”

The third configuration deployed larger wings, gave her more control. She tested this new setup. It responded just like in the sims. Maybe she could do this after all.

A bank of clouds was moving in over the target region, but that shouldn’t be a major concern, Sakura thought. She had infrared and radar to penetrate the clouds, and it didn’t look like a big storm. The long-range radar located the tip of the continent, built up an outline picture of a gently sloping section of land coming down from the small mountains she was approaching, a section of land narrowing to a narrow tip with a nearly circular lagoon — like a gigantic arrowhead with a huge hole punched through the tip. Beyond the lagoon was a narrow, triangular section of the continent and then the sea. To either side were two smaller islands.

Her guide program recognized the three points she’d designated — the triangular tip and the other two islands — but, oddly, showed yellow for the correspondence. Sakura didn’t understand that. She could see clearly it was the same group she’d chosen. She re-designated, the display went back to green, and the guide path solidified.

There were no flat landing fields here. She’d have to go to VTOL configuration at the end, which made her a little nervous. That was the hardest mode to control and she maybe hadn’t practiced that one as much as she should. Still, she only needed to hold it together for a few seconds, enough to get them down.

She was grateful — so very grateful — that everyone else was staying calm and quiet. They didn’t need to see her worry. And she couldn’t do this with Hitomi screaming or worrying in her ear.

Gingerly she tested the controls as she began the final approach. They were exceedingly responsive — almost too much so. She nearly spun LS-5 out before getting a feel for the ship’s performance. Fortunately, Hitomi took it as a fun stunt rather than thinking something was wrong.

Then the two island key points went yellow again. “What the..?”

“What is it, Sakura?” asked Caroline.

“Lost lock on two of the guide points! That makes no sense. It’s just a geometric relationship.” She swallowed, forcing the acidic bile that was trying to rise from her stomach back where it belonged. “No… no problem. We’re close now, I can tie the display to the radar and focus on where we’re going.” A glide path calculated to the nominal surface appeared, guiding her like a pathway. It was a lot better than nothing, telling her the right ratio and where she needed to think about changing modes to land.

Suddenly the ship bobbled, jolted; there was a rattle from the forward viewport. Storm… entering the fringes. That was sleet or something. Radar showed it shouldn’t be too bad, though it was larger than she’d thought; it would be raining for a while.

To visible light, it was dark gray outside, and at this altitude mostly fog and rain; hints of terrain, maybe trees or something, began to appear as they descended, but if she’d been relying on eyesight she would have panicked. But LS-5 wasn’t limited to visible light; in infrared and radar, the clouds and rain was practically gone. Wind might still push on the craft, try to distract her, but it couldn’t blind her, and that was the important thing.

LS-5 bucked slightly, but she was getting a real feel for the controls, and she saw that she was staying pretty close to the middle of the glide path. Radar showed they were approaching the target area, clearing the higher ground in their path, dropping —

Just about there. She could see the lagoon up ahead. Final mode change time, to VTOL. Changeover initiated…

Suddenly a gust of wind struck LS-5, sent the shuttle swaying sideways through the air, just as the mode conversion began. The jolt made her pull a little harder than she intended, but the shuttle’s dynamics had already changed. Desperately, Sakura shoved the stick back and sideways, trying to compensate, even as she heard the sergeant bellowing not fast, not fast, don’t overcompensate!

But it was too late now, too late by far. Still moving at well over one hundred kilometers per hour, LS-5 heeled over, slammed diagonally on its tail into the alien soil of Lincoln, performed a spectacular somersault (had anyone been outside to see it), smashed back down and skidded uncontrollably, the cabin inside now filled with horrified screams and curses and cries of pain. Careening onward through the storm, LS-5 carved a trail of destruction straight down to the shore of a storm-lashed lagoon, where it dropped over a sharp incline into the water, flipped, and came to rest, tail-first, with a thunderous crash.

Movement ceased, and the storm roared its triumph.