Though Hell Should Bar The Way – Snippet 12


I was using one of the displays on the bridge to read what the Sailing Directions had to say about Hansen’s World. I wanted to learn as much as I could, but mainly I was focusing on something other than the fact that my guts had been turning somersaults ever since we extracted from the Matrix. We were in freefall orbit around the planet. I was hoping that I’d feel better as soon as we landed; it wouldn’t be hard for however I felt to be better.

I’d been told that every time you extracted it felt different; and that every time was bad; and that you never, ever, got used to the experience. This was the first time I’d gone through an extraction, but at least the part about it being bad was true.

The PA system said, “Lieutenant Enery, come to the command console and take the conn for landing.”

There was a pause; I wasn’t really paying attention. Then the speaker added, “Officer Olfetrie, come to the command console and echo the landing from the striker’s station.”

I was reading about vegetable exports from Hansen’s World. If it hadn’t been my name — that kinda cuts through everything, at least with me — I probably wouldn’t have heard a word of the announcement.

Even so, I was half convinced I’d imagined it, until I turned my head. Captain Leary was looking at me; he smiled and pointed to the seat on the back of the console. Cory had been sitting there, but he was heading off the bridge with quick hand pats against the corridor walls. If Enery was coming forward, then Cory was probably heading back to man the back-up position in the stern.

The striker’s station had a saddle, not a couch. I climbed onto it, noticing that my stomach had settled down the instant I registered the command.

The display could be run separate from that of the primary station or it could echo the primary. Cory had been using it separately — some sort of communications program, as best I could tell. I switched it to echo the primary, a view of the planet we were orbiting, plus some smaller insets.

The continent we were over had broad margins of green and dark green, and a gray-brown interior. Some of the darker green patches had straight margins. They must have been enormous to be so clear from orbit. I remembered what I’d just read about the sorghum fodder which, with meat and dairy products, Hansen’s World exported to the whole region.

Enery was on the couch across the console from me, though I hadn’t seen her arrive. The display shifted to bring up the power controls, thruster and High Drive both.

A schematic of the planet — the same continent — appeared above the controls on the display. Enery highlighted Breckinridge — the planetary capital and largest city — on the east coast. A series of numbers appeared in a sidebar beside the schematic.

“Braking to land,” Enery announced. She highlighted the second set of numbers from the top — they were time calculations. The High Drive vibrated; the Sunray began to fall out of orbit against 1 g of thrust.

To my surprise, Enery disconnected the automatic landing program. She lighted the plasma thrusters, adding their impulse to that of the more efficient High Drives, balanced them — and cut the High Drives completely, though we were still in hard vacuum.

We continued to drop, but against the roar of thrusters instead of the high frequency buzz of matter/antimatter recombination. As we entered the atmosphere, buffeting quickly built along with rattles and clangs.

My hand was poised above the Override button and the automated landing controls. If something happened to Enery, it would be my job to land the Sunray. At my level of skill, the best option would be to let the computer do it.

The Sunray slowed noticeably; we were actually braking harder than we had been under computer control. Enery had rotated the ship on her axis as we slowed. At an altitude of three thousand feet we were parallel to the surface according to the reading on my display. We were still moving forward and dropping, but we were in the realm of aircar velocities now.

Inset in the display’s upper left quadrant of the forward view, land swelled from the ocean. Enery brought the Sunray into a near hover, then reduced flow to the bow pair of thrusters by two percent. We set us down in a concrete slip. The berth to port was empty; that to our starboard held two skeletal ships intended to haul containers of bulk produce which would be hooked onto the frames.

Enery shut down the thrusters though the water in the slip continued to boil for nearly a minute as the Sunray’s underside cooled. We rocked side to side, and steam continued to shroud the sensors in the visible range. I heard hatches opening, though that let in not only warm air but steam and whiffs of ozone — unquenched reminders of the thrusters’ plasma exhaust.

“Lieutenant Enery?” I said, opening a two-way link through the console. Ambient noise was still too loud to imagine speaking to anyone without electronic aid. “May I ask you a question, over?”

“Go ahead, Olfetrie,” Enery said. “Over.”

I couldn’t tell whether she was irritated or just surprised that I’d spoken. Her immediate duties were complete, and it’d be another ten minutes or more before the exterior cooled enough for people to leave the ship.

“Ma’am?” I said. “Is there a problem with the automated system that you chose to land us manually? Over.”

There was no response for a moment. Then Enery gave a tiny chuckle and said, “Well, that’s a fair question, Olfetrie. Since you’re an outsider like me, you don’t know that Captain Leary makes a fetish of manual landings and shiphandling generally. I was just demonstrating that he and the people he trains aren’t the only ones able to bring a ship in, over.”

“I see,” I said. “Ma’am, why did you switch to thrusters so quickly, over?”

“We have plenty of reaction mass now,” Enery said, “and we’re about to land in an ocean harbor. Our thrusters and High Drives are both in good shape, but thrusters can be repaired while High Drives have to be replaced.”

For a moment I thought that Enery had finished without closing. Then she burst out, “I’m not incompetent and I’m not a cipher. I’m the bloody first lieutenant of this ship! Over!”

“Yes, ma’am,” I said. “Olfetrie out.”

“Olfetrie, this is Six,” the console said in Captain Leary’s voice. “Woetjans and Pasternak have put together a list of stores and equipment we need to pick up here. I want you and Woetjans to take care of that. Then you can go on liberty until 0600 hours. Over.”

“Yes, sir!” I said. “Olfetrie out.”