There was nothing in the Steppes of Siberia, that was the point. A large wide open region of grasslands and not much else, once used for trade routes and for Nomadic migration, it had mostly been left untouched by modern civilization and even now was more or less as it was two, three, four hundred years prior. Still. Peaceful. Quiet.
Until a sonic boom tore through the air, ripping it’s way across the plains in a wave that caused all manner of wildlife to startle and bolt in it’s wake. If there had been people around, they might have cast around furtively for the source of the sound, but they would have been hard pressed to find it, unless they had really good eyesight and were looking almost straight up.
65 miles above the steppes, the Defiance in Obsolesce came careening into the atmosphere, tearing the air asunder as it hurtled towards the planet at twenty-three times the speed of sound. This was typical for a Lander undergoing re-entry. Everything else that was happening was not.
Pilot Mac Grayson had been on a routine supply run to Low Earth Station. He had exchanged containers and even left a little ahead of schedule, headed for an easy atmospheric descent profile that would have put him down in the South Pacific, and then a short flight to New South Wales Spaceport. He had inverted the craft so that the heat shield mounted on the “roof” of the Lander would take the brunt of the friction generated by re-entry, which had the added benefit of protecting the container mounted to the belly of the ship. He had tried to fire the retro-thrusters to slow down the craft for a nominal entry profile, when something shorted in the control panel and he lost helm control. The redundant systems had kicked in, and in doing so, shorted out every other system in the cockpit. He eschewed his instinctive reaction to scream bloody murder at his rust-bucket of a ship, and rapidly tried to bring back up his flight computer and navigation. In this he was partly successful, so much as he was able to tell that he was entering the atmosphere at the wrong angle, too fast and he still had no helm control. It was at this point he had panicked, screamed bloody murder at his ship and then rapidly acquainted his mind with the 5 stages of grief.
It wasn’t until several minutes later when he realized his ship wasn’t tumbling out of control, tearing itself apart in the process that he mentally picked himself back up and tried to get a handle on the situation.
He discovered that, during the initial phases of re-entry, the drogue parachute had prematurely deployed from the bottom of the container. By some miracle it had not burnt up as the ship hurtled through the atmosphere, and was acting as a stabilizing fin, keeping the Defiance in a stable, albeit far too shallow, dive. It wasn’t going to provide enough drag to slow the ship down enough for a safe landing, and that was assuming he could get some measure of helm control regained, but it bought Mac something very valuable…time.
He tried a hard reset of the ships systems, but to no avail. He had exactly one set of controls available to him: the primary engine controls. Not much use to him without helm control. Everything else was out. RCS thrusters. VTO/L jets. Communications. Life Support. Long Range Sensors. All dead. All he had were basic flight telemetry: how high he was, how fast he was going, what direction he was traveling in and roughly what position the ship was in. The first dial was unwinding rapidly, the second was stuck rigidly at the top end of its arc. He made some quick calculations in his head. At his current rate of descent and his current heading, he would come down somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, but there wouldn’t be enough of him or his craft left over afterwards to fill a trash can.
He stared at the row of controls and blank read outs in front of him and sighed.
“Knew I shoulda put this thing in for an overhaul.”
He tried to rest his head back on his seat, but the buffeting and turbulence of the ship prevented him from doing so. All it would take would be one significantly dense pocket of air in the wrong place and the ship would lose it’s stability and disintegrate into thousands of tiny pieces to be scattered across the land below. And if it didn’t? Well, the ship would plow into the planet at terminal velocity…terminal being the operative word. He supposed he could have abandoned ship once the ship hit atmosphere, but stories he had heard of people trying to bail out at hypersonic speeds (and failing) plagued his mind, and he couldn’t quite bring himself to do it, despite the messy alternative. He decided he would go down with his ship. Hopefully no one else would get harmed in the process.
He patted the helm gently.
“Sorry I called you all those rude names old girl. You’ve always done me right. I’m sorry I haven’t always been able to do the same for you. If you got anything left in you, I sure could use it right about now.”
He paused, then gave the helm a quick tug.
“Didn’t think so. Just thought I’d as-.”
He thought he just saw… nah, must have been a trick of the light.
No wait, there it was again. Was he going crazy?
Maybe, but that didn’t change the fact that one status light on his control console was blinking sporadically on and off.
One RCS thruster was online…barely. He checked the number. Number 8. A nose thruster. Ok, so he had a limited ability to pitch the nose down. That still wouldn’t help him much. Without a way to slow down, it didn’t matter which way the ship was pointed. Up, down, forwards…
“Backwards.” His eyes widened. Could he? He checked his reading again. The altimeter was still unwinding like a propeller. He had maybe minutes at best.
He grabbed the pitch and roll stick and pushed it forward. The Number 8 thruster fired once, coughed, and fired again. He checked the position indicator. The ship had barely moved.
“Dammit! What’s going on? It’s like something’s holding this ship…in place…ah dammit.”
He looked up at the big red handle. He had never, ever, in all his years had to pull the big red handle. He had even written in sharpie next to it “NEVER PULL THIS HANDLE.”, back when he first flown in the Defiance.
“Well. There goes my paycheck.” He sighed and reached up and yanked on the handle. There was an explosive THUMP and the ship shuddered violently. Out the lower cockpit windows he could see the container, now separate from the Lander and getting further away. There was no time for recriminations however. Now that the only thing keeping his ship stable has gone, he was seconds away from losing any control he had gained from the maneuver. Of course, judging by the appearance of the ocean looming larger in the upper windows, it wouldn’t matter for very much longer.
He pushed on the controls again, urging the nose thruster to work. It responded, firing strong and true for several seconds before coughing and dying. It had been just enough though. The Defiance in Obsolesce was no longer barreling it’s way back-first towards the ocean. It’s number 8 thruster had pitched the nose down just enough so now it was flying stern-first, pointing it’s mighty engines towards the water.
“Come on Baby!” Mac flicked several switches and then rammed the primary throttle as far forward as it would go.
The Primary Engines ignited with a deafening roar, belching out fire and fury in an inferno that lit up the sky. The Lander was a SSTO craft; a Single Stage To Orbit. That meant its Primary Engines were powerful enough to lift both it and any cargo it was carrying from sea-level into orbit without the need for a booster or carrier aircraft. Even so, to cancel out the incredible inertia the ship had built up in its crash-dive through the atmosphere would possibly require more thrust then the ship was capable of giving.
The incredible G forces slammed Mac into his seat, but he gripped the controls with the desperation of a man hanging on to the edge of a cliff to prevent himself from falling.
The altimeter continued to wind down, though it was getting slower. The airspeed indicator too was dropping, but was it enough?
Out of the corner of his eye he could see the surface of the ocean. Too close, too quick!
The engines roar had pitched up to a shrill scream in his ears, pure white noise that reverberated in his chest and head. The altimeter clicked down the last few hundred feet and then…stopped.
Height: 50 feet. Airspeed: zero.
He blinked. Took a breath. Blinked again. Let out the same breath in what sounded like a short laugh.
Then the engines flamed out and the Defiance in Obsolesce crashed backwards into the ocean, kicking up a splash that rose dozens of feet into the air and a plume of steam that rose hundreds.
The ship plunged beneath the waves briefly before, against all common sense, it came bobbing back up to the surface. Despite all evidence to the contrary, the one thing Lander-class ships were really good at was floating.
He pushed open the top hatch and took a deep breath. The air was a balmy 72 degrees Fahrenheit, and there was not a cloud in the sky, save for the tower of condensation and steam from where the ocean had boiled under the onslaught of Defiance’s main engines at maximum thrust. Mac pulled out the portable SOS beacon from the ship’s emergency kit and activated it, mounting it to the secondary antennae array. He then sat back and laughed from the sheer relief that he and his ship had survived. Lander-class ships were built tough, and even one as old and poorly maintained as the “Defiance” still had a few tricks up her sleeves it seemed. It was going to cost him a small fortune to recover and repair her, but he was so happy just to still be alive that it really didn’t bother him at that moment. He just continued to laugh.
He did stop laughing a few minutes later, however, when the cargo container he had jettisoned splashed down at terminal velocity a few hundred feet away from him and exploded, the wreckage sinking to the depths like a stone.