Adventure Science Fiction Drama

Blink…, Blink…, Blink…

The red light silently blinked its notice to the hibernating ship. The craft lazily and silently moved through unexplored space at 100`s of kilometres a second, but inside the ship, it could have been standing dead still.

The ships computer had automatically initiated the wake routine for the captain and the first mate/shiptech. It was prompted by “new mission parameters” which were transmitted from earth months ago and only reached the ship now. This started a cascade of events deep inside the CPUs and memory chips that ran the ship.

Now through sleep glued eyelids, the dim red blinking was Osip’s first interaction with the ship, as opposed to a simulator.

* * *

Osip was the reluctant captain of the Exodus. He had travelled using cryosleep before, but not for this long. His body felt rigid and unyielding, and tingling with many points of pain and itchiness. The longest most people had been in pods is a few months for the journey to Mars, and the odd rare case of the technology used for medical purposes that spanned a few years. This was like almost everything else about this expedition, ‘experimental’.

He carefully tried to stand for the first time in 8 years. His legs would have none of this, and he collapsed in a heap on the ground. An embarrassment he hoped nobody witnessed. According to the program though, it would only be he and the first mate that would be up initially.

Now sitting on the top step to his cryopod, Osip calmly began to check off his own body functions as per his training. Toes and fingers, feet and hands, elbows and knees,… and now for another attempt at standing. This time, he made it but shakily. Now shoulders and hips. Swinging his arms almost sent him to the floor again as his balance wavered, and rolling his hips sounded like a land car driving slowly over a gravel road.

Even thought his eyes were open, all was blurred monochrome shadows. This was to be expected. A well known side effect. It would shortly clear… (should).

I see no movement from the pod at the other end, where the first mate slumbered. At least he is having a harder time of it than me.

* * *

It took Osip a good half hour to get into his uniform. His vision was only slowly improving. He could see colours but much was shrouded in dark blurry shades. He ventured a order to his second:

“report please”

No answer. He turned his gaze directly to the end of the line of pods in the hope to detect his second mate struggling with the after affects of the cryosleep. No movement in the haze.

The confusion in his mind began to clear and suddenly a burning thirst burst across his consciousness. He reached for the hydration tube and sucked. A rush of stale tasting water rushed into his mouth and up his nose sending him into fits of coughing and spluttering.

* * *

Now standing with confidence and most of his uniform on, he slowly began to practice his legs on his way to the other end of the strip of cryopods where the second mate was.

The last cryopod was flashing red like his, but it had not opened yet. As he made the last steps to the pod, a horror unfolded. His second mate is dead. The wrinkled mummified body was decomposed to such a degree that it could have been anyone, but he himself had watched his second climb into this cryopod and succumb to the automatic narcotic injection used as a precursor to cryosleep.

He opened the pod manually. The odour of corruption and decay jolting his sense of smell more than it was ready to handle. A dry reach grabbed Osip as his empty stomach cramped involuntarily. He quickly shut the plexi-glass cover.

* * *

The shock of the loss was lost on Osip. It was just registered as another fact to deal with. He had no close relationship with the man, having only met him on the few training courses run by EXOD.US in preparation for this expedition. Osip had mentally prepared himself for this part of the mission. He was the captain, and this meant he was responsible for the safety of all onboard and the ship itself.

The death of his second cannot interfere with the mission.

But even this far from home, after this long journey, and with all ties to Earth now severed, he was still not a free to act. With his young family back on Earth in a velvet prison, he still had to compute factors contrary to his instincts. He had mildly suspected that his second was also planted to keep him in line, so his passing did free his hand to act, but any of the passengers could also be planted.

* * *

His sight was much improved now. Still a little fuzzy, like looking at the world through a light fog.

He moved over to the cockpit windows. Their new lush home occupied half of the vista, passing rapidly below them in the low altitude orbit. The sensors were already mapping the topology below and analysing everything the ship could sense from up here. Much of the surface was obscured by cloud, but a few bright green and blue patches tantalizingly hinted at the fertility below.

He brought up the detailed NAV app and checked their proximity to the pre-programmed landing coordinates. They should be rounding on this location in about 10 min at the current orbit speeds. A full orbit was 132 min at this altitude. He began scanning out the window again as the orbit brought the landing site into view.

* * *

A strange weather formation became visible. A second higher layer of thick cloud seemed to swirl around the landing location. The closer they came, the more ominous this formation appeared. An occasional gap in the cloud hinted at a huge broad mountain hidden in the clouds. The TOPO computer could already map the foothills of this geological monstrosity.

As they passed closer to the landing location, the elevations began to climb sharply.

10… 20… 30… 40… The escalating elevations slowed and finally topped out at 48,392m above current sea level before stating their descent. And the pass was not directly over the storm eye. This mountain could be even higher!

Osip applied his knowledge of earth topology and came to the immediate conclusion that this is a suicidal landing location! First there was this storm, and even if the temperatures were not deeply sub-zero, the lack of oxygen would be the next problem. The ship was not geared for none-habitable landings. Extra food and medical supplies were prioritised over space suites and oxygen. There could be some oxygen salvaged from remaining fuel cells but alone, Osip doubted he could safely harvest it.

This thought immediately lead him to admitting to himself that he was probably the only engineer left onboard the ship now. Nobody’s getting rich enough to afford this trip as an engineer!

The computer system automatically began the general de-sleep program for all the passengers. Osip stared in shock at the control panel. Are we really going to do the landing with everyone awake! It was completely contrary to protocols. Where is everyone going to sit? Who’s stupid idea was this!

* * *

It was an absolute mess!

Flailing bodies, yelps, complaints, crying, and panic as the passengers awoke from their long slumbers. Osip tried to just stay out of their ways as they stumbled, and crawled around blindly. Demands for medial assistance and loud complaints at the lack of service cemented his ambivalence.

They were making their second great orbit before most of the people had calmed down. Osip was verbally assaulted repeatedly for his intransigence toward them - the paying customers! The louder they yelped and shrieked, the the more they fed his resentment.

He had to now focus on the NAV terrain and weather sensors to try to come up with a reasonable landing location. He had calculated that with everyone now awake, they could make a total of 7 orbits before oxygen levels would become problematic onboard. So 4 more orbits at max to decide on the location of the new human civilisation on Eden.

It did not take so many rounds in the end as a nice break in the weather opened over a very promising river delta region shrouded in jungle. On the next orbit he would begin to manoeuvre the EXODUS into a re-entry trajectory.

* * *

The computer system would not react to any of his inputs to steer the ship.

Is this some glitchy SW, or is this intentional? thought Osip. The ship seemed hell bent to prevent him from deactivating all the automatic systems. He could deactivate some, and that subset of control could be changed, but he could not get all the systems he needed to cooperate to his control all at the same time. “Suka!”, he swore in his native Russian under his breath.

After a frustrated orbit, Osip decided to try to allow the ship to do what it wanted to test a theory. It confirmed what he feared. The ship was on a hidden autopilot, and he suspected it would remain active till the landing routine began. At that point their landing location would be set by physics and their fuel supply.

Their orbit was automatically adjusting to make their next pass go directly over the massive mountain. The singular largest geological feature on Eden it seemed. The storm over it raged on as Osip began to plan how a landing could possibly work.

* * *

The passengers were awake and milling around the cryopod room which terminated at the cockpit. Osip tried to focus on the job at hand (thwarting the pre-programming of the ships computer) while the thirsty and half blind passengers badgered him with ridiculous questions and requests. An older passenger, seemed to be having difficulty breathing which galvanised a small clique to panic around him in vain assistance. A younger woman came to Osip and harassed him for medial assistance.

“I am not a doctor. You have already found the medical pack. I can do no more. Please I need to now pilot this ship. I need quiet.” Osip told her.

The ship started to gently drop altitude all on its own. Osip did a quick calculation in his mind and came to the conclusion that the autopilot was not taking into account the altitude of their landing site. This is going to get interesting!

* * *

The ship started to shake. Osip looked behind to see the new worry on the passenger’s faces. He grabbed the PA mic,

“We are starting our landing routine. It will get much rougher before it is over. Please find solid hand holds and brace yourselves.”

Some of them followed his orders, while others began to loudly complain about the lack of chairs and safety belts. Osip was also perplexed at the stupid programming from flight control, but he could do nothing except strap himself in. He hid his emotions. A skill he was supremely good at.

The shaking grew in intensity and everyone fell silent.

Osip saw how dangerously rapid their descent was and tried to pull up on the joystick. It was locked in place as the computer refused to relinquish control.

The cloud cover was rising quickly underneath them and very soon visibility would be zero. Osip took a last quick look at the huge lump of angry clouds dead ahead, hiding god knows what.

* * *

Osip had no idea when the computer would finally release its grip on the ship and allow him to be the pilot again. He strained against the controls but the computer was hell bent on descending even though their elevation has now dropped below 48,000m. At this rate we will have to climb again to reach the landing site. He had not taken this into account when he last checked their usable fuel levels.

The cloud cover was thick. The front windows may as well have been painted grey. The shaking became extreme. Some nondescript parts began to come loose from the busy ceiling and walls. The passengers were as frightened as sheep being circled by a pack of wolves.

Osip desperately tried to make sense of what controls he had over the ship, and what would actually help. Up until now, he could have cowered with the passengers for all his impotent efforts, but he was the pilot and captain. At least the illusion of control will calm the passengers.

The Topo computer streamed a real-time count of both the ships’, and the terrain elevation and most importantly, the difference. Osip’s trained eye was, glued to these numbers and being powerless to change the ships trajectory only made them more ominous. Forward facing radar was coming up blank. Could this be true, or the result of some as yet unknown interference.

* * *

Suddenly, a group of lights on the NAV computer blinked out. Osip immediately renewed his grasp on the joystick and pulled,…. too hard! The entire ship bucked with the tail section dramatically dropping. He had to re-modulate his input, but finally he was in control!

Being in control of the ship, but flying blind, broke a new nervous sweat on his brow. Osip needed confident visibility. He contemplated a suicidal manoeuvre: dive lower in the hope of getting under the thick cloud.

The passengers were very quiet, but Osip could sense the fear and nerves behind him. He did his best to ignore it.

He gently pushed the joystick away and felt the nose of the Exodus dive. Altitude had dropped below 2000m. Still blind!




Suddenly they were through!

Dark grey rocky knobs jutted out of the thick green carpet below. Patches of blue water dotted the valleys, and to his starboard side, the slopes of the mountain vanished up into the clouds again. The ships elevation was 38,782m.

Osip did the math quickly and shook his head. Jungle at over 37,000m! What else have I assumed wrongly?

* * *

Landing locations were thoroughly non-existent in this wild terrain. He had to either turn to port and hope for some more flat topology, or turn starboard toward the mountain in the hopes of finding a place to land above them. Fuel was getting low so whatever the choice, there would be no turning back.

Port it is, at least it give us more air space as elevations decrease. He moved the joystick gently to the right, but as the ship banked, the NAV computer lit up again and took over control! The Exodus reversed the banking manoeuvre now to starboard with a rough, jerky motion. Panicked shrieks and sobbing from behind him.

The ship now pointed at the rising landform disappearing into the clouds. The NAV computer blinked off again returning control. Osip once again grabbed the controls, increased thrust, and pulled back on the joystick.

He picked up the PA mic again: “the pre-programmed landing site is above us in the clouds. I cannot override the computer systems to choose a safer location. We have no choice but to attempt a landing on the chosen site. The re-entry may not be the worst part of this landing yet. Hang on and try to stay calm.”

It was a useless gesture. The passengers exploded with comments and questions and began to wander around the open space again. Osip pulled harder on the controls and nudged the thrust a bit harder sending some people spilling to the back to the ship.

The controls read: 6.3 min of maximum afterburner remaining, and currently set at 89% afterburn. We have 7-8 min left before we unceremoniously find a landing site right under us.

As the ship ascended the ground under the ship also ascended. But it’s rate exceeded their climb, plunging their real flying elevation rapidly. Osip pushed the throttle to 100%. The ship's uncertain reaction to this, eliciting more frighted quailing from behind.

Osip was putting all his strength into the joystick but the ship would not climb any faster. They were again in the thick clouds and Osip began to admit to himself: this is going to be my last landing.

2.8 min of maximum afterburner remaining. Their pitch of ascent slowly increased but their air speed was decreasing. The rate of actual decent had slowed, but no where near enough for a safe landing. Osip realised that stall speed on this ship was probably quite high. But there was nothing to do but to hope against all hope.

* * *

He could see it happen. Their attack angle simply could not be maintained by the thrust coming out of the virtually depleted engines. At some point, there will be a stall, and a freefall, and then a crash landing.

0.6 min of maximum afterburner remaining. This is it, thought Osip.

Their relative elevation was now under 400m and rapidly dropping. But their actual altitude was about to top 50km! The two numbers converged at an ever increasing speed as the reaming fuel vanished.

0.2,… 0.1,… then 0.0 blinked quickly in red.

The engines spluttered once, giving this groin a tickle as thruster support failed, then another burst of power shook the ship, then nothing - sudden silence.

A smooth second of weightless reversal of momentum, a surprisingly short freefall, concluded by a deafening crash. The Exodus made a clumsy reunion with terrafirma again after 8 long years.

* * *

3 dead, and a variety of injuries was the final tally, much of it thanks to the stupid mission programmers. The vessel was still intact, but its flying days were over. Osip typed this short terminus report on the ships computer and submitted it to the log.

Humanity, rudely wakened from its artificial hibernation, was ready to sprout anew.

March 25, 2021 14:55

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.