Thirty minutes left before impact. The ship’s main engines had been destroyed when the last of the separatists rammed them in a suicide attack, so there was no hope of repair. The lifeboats were gone – some from getting the passengers off and others from damage during the battle. Now there were a handful of crew members left and no way to get off the doomed vessel as it followed its trajectory according to the inexorable laws of gravity, a course that would see it soon crash into the surface of Mars.
The comm system still worked, though, so the crew had gathered on the bridge to send their final farewells to the relay station in Cydonia. There were five of them there, mostly senior officers, but also a cabin boy. His name was Ibrahim and he was the most out of place among them. He was only 19 and this was just his second voyage as part of the crew. Being attacked by Marsies was not what he’d expected when he signed up to work on a transport ship ferrying people and cargo to and from Earth. He was nervous – the captain could see it in his eyes and his hands were shaking a little bit.
She turned to the view screen. “Are you recording this Cydonia?”
“Roger, Rosy Dawn, you guys can start when you are ready” came the reply.
“My name is Cynthia Fellows, captain of the transport MSS Rosy Dawn, Sirtis registry T75A6N. We were about to leave orbit for Earth when a flight of separatist interceptors decloaked and attacked us. We defeated them after an intense fight, but our damage has left us drifting out of control with a rapidly decaying orbit. Special commendation for specialist Emile LePen who shot down two of the enemy before being killed. Special Commendation for Ibrahim Sawalha who greatly assisted in the orderly evacuation of the passengers and who gave up his own spot on a lifeboat for a fellow crewman. Would you like to go next Ibrahim?”
The young man had looked up when his name was first mentioned and he seemed bewildered at being singled out for special mention like that, but he smiled weakly and seemed to lose some of the nervousness that been haunting him, a small hint of pride creeping over his face instead. “Thank you, Captain”. He faced the view screen.
“My name is Ibrahim Sawalha and I’m just a cabin boy. I haven’t even been part of the crew very long, but it’s been an honor to work here. I’ve learned so much and I really want to move up … ” He paused. “Anyway, Mum, dad, Ayesha, Salah – I love you all. I wish I could come home to you – I even have presents for you from Mars! But now, well, just remember me, OK? Remember the good times, like when we all went to Tahrir for the centenary celebration. Do you remember me carrying you on my shoulders Salah? Do you remember seeing the parade and the fireworks? We had such a good time…”
Executive officer Fergueson spoke up. “You need to keep it short so everyone has a chance to speak, son.”
“Right. Sorry. Well, I love you guys. Always remember that. Allahu Akbar!”
A sandy haired man went next. “I’m the ships purser, Steve Hackett. I can’t say that I ever expected an end like this – I’d always assumed I’d work in merchant shipping another ten years or so and then retire somewhere, but I guess that isn’t meant to be. I don’t really have any family to speak of, but I’d like to send a message to an old friend, Egon Ramis, the supply chief on the USS Lexington. Have a drink for me, Egghead! I’ll miss our next reunion, so I won’t get a chance to have my revenge on you for that last game night. Oh well. Hmmm … I don’t have a will, so I guess give all my money to the ZG Veterans Association. Keep ’em Flying!”
There was a pause. Captain Fellows looked at the chief engineer who was busy working at the navigation console. The captain could guess what she was doing. “Alicia, do you want to go next?”
“I’m busy” came the terse reply.
Fergueson stepped up next. “I am the executive officer of the Rosy Dawn, a position I’ve held for the past 14 months. It has been an honor and privilege to serve with her crew, and with Captain Fellows. To my wife, Stella, all I can say is I love you very much. I’d hoped to see you next month when we reached Earth, but I guess that isn’t happening now. I … really love you.
“Lillian, you be a good girl and take care of yourself. Daddy loves you and I’m really, really sorry about this. I want so much to see you grow up”. His voice became strained. “I want to see you go to school, and grow up and get married, and have children of your own. I just want so much to hold you in my arms right now! Remember me, Lily. Remember Daddy, and take care of Mommy, OK? She’s going to need you to be a big girl now, OK? Bye, bye.”
The XO stepped back. Only the engineer remained, but she was still working furiously at the nav console.
“Alicia?” asked the captain.
“I’m busy. I don’t have anyone to say goodbye to anyway. And I’m busy.”
Captain Fellows looked over the console. It showed the ships current orbit – well it’s descent, really. The ship was already in the upper reaches of the atmosphere and the autopilot had started making slight attitude adjustments to keep the ship from spinning as air resistance tried to turn it. Displayed on the screen were several other courses, too – all of them still crashing, but some faster, some slower, and some at shallower angles.
“What do you have?”
The engineer finally turned around to face the others, the sweat glistening off the dark skin of her forehead. “I’m almost certain we can use the maneuvering thrusters to slow our descent enough to allow us to come down intact. We’ll hit hard, make no mistake, and everyone should be in pressure suits because I’m sure the hull will crack, but I’m also sure we can survive.”
“Those projections on the screen don’t look very survivable.”
“I still haven’t figured out the details. I need just a bit more time. Everyone get suited up while I work it out!”
A voice came over the comm system from Cydonia. “Rosy Dawn, did I hear right? Are you going to try for a soft landing? We’ve got rescue teams standing by.”
Everyone turned to look at the captain with hope and fear on their faces. There were tears in the XO’s eyes, and a terrible sadness in Ibrahim’s face. Only Alicia seemed different, with her fierce and defiant look.
“Yes, Cydonia”, said the Captain, “we are going to try for a soft landing. As soft as can be, at least. Everyone get suited up.”
Four of them left the bridge to go aft to the crew common room, where they normally relaxed when off duty. There was a small galley for preparing snacks and light meals, several entertainment consoles, corridors leading off to other parts of the ship, and here was also where the lifeboats for the bridge crew were accessed. They were gone now, but there were still a few pressure suits in storage lockers next to the boat hatches. Fergueson, Hackett, and Sawalha began suiting up while Captain Fellows took two suits and went back forward into the bridge. She shut the door behind her.
“Tell me what our chance are. Realistically.”
Alicia turned and stared at her captain hard for a moment. “Not good. It’s a long shot. Really long, in fact, but we do have a chance. We lost a lot of forward velocity from maneuvering during the fight, which is why we’re going down in the first place, but if we can kill the rest of our forward v then all we have to worry about is slowing our free fall enough. After that it’s really just a matter of trusting the hull to hold up on impact. It’s not made for it, but it is a good, solid design. We do have a chance!”
The captain had been pulling on the pressure suit while listening – a single piece jumpsuit design with a detachable helmet. The skin of the suit was designed to tighten up once you had everything on and you activated the controls. It wasn’t comfortable or very functional if you had to move around much, but it could save your life in an emergency, and that was all it really needed to do.
Sealing the front of her suit she said “get suited up now and I’ll take the controls and get us slowing down.”
“OK” said Alica as she got up, “just use the forward thrusters to drop as much speed as you can, but watch the fuel gauge. We lost pressure in two tanks during the attack and we’re going to need at least 70% of our remaining reserves for the descent.”
The captain keyed the all-ship intercom “Everyone grab hold of something – I’m about to engage the thrusters and you’ll experience G towards the front of the ship. Once you’re suited up get back to the bridge and strap in to a chair. Thrust in 5… 4… 3… 2… 1… now.”
The forward maneuvering thrusters, normally used only in short bursts to make tiny adjustments in position, now came on at full power and stayed there, pushing the ship backwards to slow it’s speed around the planet. Even though they weren’t made for much force, they still managed to create about 1/4 G, and the crew found themselves using the handholds on the walls as the now climbed “down” into the bridge.
A minute passed. Two. Three. Everyone was seated now except Alicia who was still getting into her suit while working against the oddly directed weight. Finally the captain shut off the thrusters “We’re at the fuel reserve limit now.” Alicia looked at the console – not enough! They still were going a little too fast. At this rate they’d have a ground speed of about 125 km/hr when they touched down. She glanced at the captain who merely gave a little sardonic grin and ordered everyone to get their helmets on and rebreathers activated.
“Eight minutes until we land” she said.
“Land? That sounds optimistic” said Fergueson.
“Maybe it is, but I’ll take it” she replied. There really wasn’t anything to do at this point but hope for a miracle, so she might as well be optimistic no matter what. She turned the ship into a belly flop to maximize their air resistance, and brought the landing thrusters online. These had more kick than the maneuvering thrusters, and the crew found themselves pressed into their seats with more than 1.3 G of force as the thrust reached maximum output. Still, they were coming in awfully fast.
The tension among the crew was palpable as the ship began its final descent. Ibrahim quietly muttered a prayer while the captain piloted the ship and the XO monitored the various status boards. The engineer kept a constant check on the course and made occasional comments to the captain to increase or decrease thrust. The purser sat silently and stared at the cockpit window.
We’re getting a lot of heat buildup in main engineering and on the upper deck” said the XO.
“Not surprising” said Alicia, “we took a lot of damage to those areas in the fight, so there’s bound to be hull damage. I’m sealing the interior bulkheads in case something happens.”
“Has anyone noticed the glow outside the window?” asked the purser. “It almost looks like we’re on fire.”
“Well in a sense we are”, said the captain. “Normally we reenter nice and slow and fly down to the surface under power, but now we’re coming in way too fast and friction is heating up the hull.”
“Is that bad?” he asked nervously.
“Yes, but there’s nothing we can do that we aren’t already doing.”
They were starting to hear noises now too. A rushing sound as air sped past the hull, and metallic groans and strains from the ship itself as it reacted to the unaccustomed stresses of the rapid descent. Suddenly there was a dull crashing noise and the whole ship shuddered as an alarm went off.
“What was that?” asked the purser, a hint of panic in his voice.
The XO replied “we’ve lost atmosphere in the engine room. Bulkheads are holding, though.”
“I guess the cactus on my desk isn’t going to like that” said Alicia.
“That’s not funny” snarled the purser!
“Focus people” ordered the captain. “We’re half way down. What’s our trajectory looking like?”
The engineer looked at the console. “We’re still coming in too fast, forward velocity.”
“OK, I’m going to realign and hit the forward thrusters again.” They felt the forces around them shift again as the ship turned nose first into its dive and the front engines came on again to slow it’s speed.
“What’s that red light?” asked Ibrahim.
“It’s the overheat warning on the forward thrusters” said the XO. “You might want to back off on them, Captain.”
“Keep monitoring them. I need to ride them as long as I can to cut our speed, otherwise…”
There was a flash and boom as something exploded outside on the front of the ship. Everyone was jerked in their seats as the thrusters cut out.
“TF1 is out. TF2 has shut down automatically”. I’ll see if I can override it” said the XO.
“We’re going to die” said the purser quietly, “that’s all there is to it.” He turned and looked at the cabin boy and repeated a little louder “we’re going to die.”
“Shut the fuck up, Steve” said Alicia.
“Don’t worry Mr Hackett” said Ibrahim. “Allah is watching over us and nothing happens save by his will. Put your faith in God and let Him guide us down.”
“Captain, I’ve got a yellow light on 3 of the landing thrusters” said the XO.
“Roger” she replied”. “We’re almost down now.”
“It doesn’t matter because we’re going to die!”
“Shut up, Steve! V 312 vertical, 175 horizontal. Altitude 1.2 klicks.”
“Screw it. Override thruster safeties”
“I don’t want to die!”
“Ya sin. By the wise Qur’an surely you are one of the Messengers upon the straight path…”
“Thruster TL4 offline. TL5 offline.”
“Brace for impact in 5… 4… 3… 2…”