Gently but assuredly, I push the throttle up. A fiery plume explodes from the engine nozzles. The vessel vibrates a bit but protests none. She’s well made. Money does buy you performance; with greatly diminishing returns on investment. Buyer beware, as they say.
The direction of down, which I’ve forgotten even exists, is suddenly hard at my back. From head to toe, the formerly weightless puddy of my body aches with shock. I ignore it. Biological concerns are irrelevant. Right now, I’m just a control mechanism for this voidframe that needs careful translation.
Numbers on the heads-up display rapidly start changing. Lines start shifting, expanding, and blurring with compounding uncertainty. My eyes instinctively dart every which way, always coming back to that shifting maneuver node and its real-time delta-v calculation. My hands numb from the acceleration shock, even though it’s just above half a G. I barely feel in control attempting to keep the ball on target, like I’ve caught it but with only the tips of my fingers. The nav marker starts slipping to the side and I try to follow it on the stick with piercing intensity. Compound maneuvers like these are the worst.
The thin green ellipse that represents our orbit on the near-field overview falls inside the digital representation of Sibyl’s planetary atmosphere, itself a fuzzy boundary. One tempered alarm sounds. Then the ellipse intersects the looming planetary mass. A far more urgent klaxon blares, accompanied by warning iconography. An achromatic feminine voice sounds off dispassionately.
“Atmospheric entry imminent,” the navigation computer warns in my earpiece. Tell me something I don’t know, sister.
Daring to multitask, I check our trajectory against that of the clipper. The bogey hasn’t changed course, and their deceleration is constantly building, so they probably don’t notice us. One benefit of delaying any re-entry maneuver until the suspect vessel has penetrated the atmosphere and begun aerobraking. Their sensors and communications go haywire as the surrounding air ionizes. That works both ways, but if we have a good estimate of their destination, and I do my job, it won’t matter.
What will be trickier is keeping our ship stable as we plummet down from on high. The computer is not happy with our course and several numbers display in a safety orange glow. At this steep re-entry angle, we're going to ablate the heat shield down to nothing fast. Good thing we don’t need all of it.
“Fletch,” I call out through the comms, “ready those new mag-brakes of yours. We’re gonna be playing with fire double-quick.”
“You got it, boss,” a resolute masculine voice replies.
Fletcher is a good man. Despite approaching middle age, he somehow retains a youthful can-do spirit that I admire. He’s always steady and ready. If it wasn’t for the fact he’s a foreigner, he could have enlisted in the Sibylean Royal Navy and gone far on his temperament alone. Petty officer within the course of four years, easy.
I picked up Fletcher in the concourses of Port Arsalan. Well, he picked me up off the floor first, and moved to single-handedly quell the bar brawl I had gotten into. He has this burly don’t-fuck-with-me build, a sepia complexion, walnut eyes the color of dark Leirean rye, and moppy taupe hair. For someone with a Geminese background—life on the shores of an idyllic ocean paradise—it’s exactly the kind of look I’d expect. He’s the kind of guy you’d picture as a lifeguard in those crummy foreign serials about beach life, so maybe it makes sense he came to my aid.
Normally, I’d not let just any stranger touch me, but he’d proven his chivalry that evening. As my new friend administered first aid to my battered brow, he answered any question I pitched in halting but surprisingly adept Astrilish. He’d come from the Geminese Dominion as the boatswain of a trade ship. But he didn’t want to go back. He didn't receive much appreciation for his lifestyle back home, so he decided to take his chances and find work in the more egalitarian Sibylean Kingdom. Good for him. I was collecting misfits and had a new ship that needed exactly his skills as an engineer.
And right now, I need his specialty in magnetohydrodynamics. Without it, by making the wrong move, we could lose control of the ship, or much worse.
We finish the roll and yaw program and it looks like I did well enough. Minor shifts I can correct for after we descend. The pressure eases off my back as the computer assists in smoothly throttling the engines down to zero. We’re weightless again, but not for long.
“Entry burn complete. Brace, guys, I’m gonna flip her hard,” I warn.
Allowing my two crewmates a couple of seconds to gird themselves, I pull back on the stick, much harder than before. We are already meeting and falling below the jade and crimson glow of aurorae shimmering in the distance. I’ve got to make sure we’re ready for the atmospheric interface. This time the ship positively recoils against the half-somersault we execute, and for a transient moment as I level the wobbling voidframe everything is just the slightest bit hazy.
“Oof. Did you really have to invert that fast, Ash?” Tea protests with a theatrical heave, the reality behind which I find indeterminable at best and dubious at worst.
“Payback for waking me up at the wrong time,” I tease with a playful chuckle that breezes across the comms. She’ll get over it. How else is she going to get home? Indeed, she doesn’t retort or quibble one bit as I much more tenderly pull right on the stick, aligning our wingspan with Sibyl’s horizon in a manner meant to assure her I’m just being droll.
Windsong’s nose sits between the prograde marker—the direction we are flying in free space—and the navigation computer’s orientation marker. I hold it there, confident the curvature of Mother Moon will increase our angle of attack to where it needs to be as we fly along. I take a look at the flight corridor as mapped by the computer. It doesn’t like it, but it acquiesces to my commands. Our glidepath is set.
“Tea, how about one more analysis of the target before plasma blackout? Fletch, are we ready for active shielding?”
“Standing by, boss,” he responds with confidence.
I watch the altimeter drop. One hundred thirty kilometers.
Tea says, “Nothing new. She ain’t bouncing. Right down the middle.”
Good, I would hate to see the target light their engine and skip off the atmosphere. We would have to abort descent and adjust course. In the process, the target would come out of their own plasma blackout, and they’d learn someone was after them. That means Tea’s intuition was right, as it usually is. We’re headed for The Pearls, the hard ice caps of our world: the only place I know of more desolate than the void itself.
One-twenty kilometers. One-ten. One hundred.
“Fire it, Fletch,” I command, just as the hull temperature readings begin ticking up considerably.
There’s a slight jerk on the stick as the magnetic thermal protection comes online, and I can’t tell whether it’s from the system activating or the craft starting to bite into the upper atmosphere. Probably both. There’s enough electrical power flowing through the keel right now to vaporize a person. My nerves are painfully restive, acknowledging just how high the g-forces are going to get in a moment. We’re screaming along at a surface velocity of eight kilometers a second. And the computer is warning me that I need to tilt the nose up more. Reluctantly, I do so.
G-forces are easier tolerated when they’re more directly at your back, like when we were firing the engines in orbit. When we aerobrake, we’re presenting the bottom of the craft to the atmosphere. As the ship goes bottom-first, so do we. And this time it will be a hard fall. My butt is going to hurt when we disembark. I try not to think about it.
“Entry angle nominal at forty-two degrees,” I note. “Prepare yourselves. I may need to bank her hard if we overshoot.”
“We can take it,” Fletch replies.
Ninety kilometers high. A hot pink flash. Plasma forms underneath the bow of the vessel, creeping up her nose. Dark again. The forward cameras are overcompensating their apertures and shutters. I press a button to tone down the auto-focus. I don’t care how intense the visuals get; I need the constant reminder of how delicate the situation outside is, and I can fly on instruments until the glide ends.
The pink-red glow gains again, and the field lines of our new mag-brakes create wonderfully enchanting swirls in a dance far enough ahead of the flight deck for me to see. I’d be fascinated by it if my attention wasn’t split in several ways. I clench my hands around the controls, readying for the magnitude of forces yet to come. Already, I can feel the slight push against my lower back gaining in intensity as our vessel drags against the sky. I’m presenting the largest possible cross-section to the atmosphere and she’s got a flat ass.
“Plasma blackout,” Tea calls. “Sensors and comms are dead.”
“Ready yourselves for some serious gees, meatbags.” I’m not good at humor, but my vestibular system has me feeling loopy. The gradual increase in g-forces is a very strange thing to experience. Especially after returning from most of a gyre in freefall, it’s like a vice suddenly caught you in its grip… and just… won’t… stop… tightening. Throbbing palpitations arise in my chest. I don’t like this. I never do.
“Three-quarters G; eighty klicks up,” Tea reports.
A stronger orange glow consumes the dancing velvet light outside. The vice tightens. There’s now heavy feedback on the stick, which I could turn off, but the fly-by-wire, along with the reconstructed feedback, is helping me keep her steady.
“Temp check, capacitor check,” I shout, darting my eyes to make sure the reaction control system is behaving. All good. But I can’t have my attention on everything at once. Right now, I’m just trying to get the most out of this new shielding of ours while also keeping us from exploding.
Fletcher replies, “Two thousand Celsius outside, eight hundred on the hull. Heat flux is steady, and electrical reserves are good.”
“One G,” Tea reports.
Time hangs in the sweltering heat of a plasma fire. A few minutes pass. Steady as she goes, but my buttocks ache, and I feel the sting of a pinched nerve in my lower back. Aerodynamic drag increases incessantly. I’m feeling all sorts of squeamish down below now. It will all be fine, I remind myself. We’ve done this dozens of times, even at this steeper angle. But I really wish the bile in the back of my throat would settle. The bioport under my clavicle stings. The auto-doc is changing up the cocktail on some preset parameters it has for stressed out pilots experiencing elevated g-forces. Some curious new fluid burns across my veins, and I clench my teeth to suppress a yelp.
“How’s everyone doing?” I have to heave the question.
“We’re all looking good,” Tea comes back. I’d hate for anyone to lose it at this point. “Three G.”
“Fucking hell, my gut is doin’ flips, though,” Fletch wails uncharacteristically. I feel concerned for him, but also find it the least bit amusing that such a bear of a man would complain of a tummyache. I hear some labored wheezing from them both through the commlink, and I’m struggling to take long, controlled breaths, myself.
The light outside is now yellow, and though it isn’t blinding, it’s filled out my entire cone of vision, which blurs hard around the edges. My wet eyes instinctively glance at the fixed displays below for the information I need to keep track of. As the RCS fires in spurts to keep us steady, the plasma flickers angrily. We’re a fireball screaming across the upper atmosphere, inviting death, but keeping it just barely at arm’s length.
“Aud nineteen and decreasing rapidly,” I report, referring to nineteen times the local speed of sound. About five-point-five kilometers per second at our altitude. To anyone below looking up, we’re another shooting star.
“Woohoo!” comes a shrill Tea.
“Okay badasses,” Fletcher barks, “I’m dumping the seed.”
We can disperse alkali particles into the plasma stream as we begin to slow down considerably. It keeps the mag-brakes working for a bit longer by holding the decaying conductivity of the plasma outside high enough for the magnet to stay effective. Fletcher informed me it should also keep the hull heat flux from jumping too high when he needs to turn the shield off, as hot gas starts directly attacking the hull. A well-controlled hammock of heat is better for our resupply costs than a sudden exploding fireball.
Sparks flash in front of the nose and sear through even the brightest and hottest of the plasma glow. He’s right: I do feel a bit badass in this moment. The ship side-slips a bit in the newly induced turbulence. I tread my foot lightly on the yaw pedal and correct our orientation with the port quarter RCS. The tail rudder is useless in our aerodynamic shadow.
“Nearing five G,” Tea moans. We’re all feeling it. Even my flight suit is weighing me down hard. Typically, we are re-entering Sibyl’s atmosphere at half this deceleration profile. “Anyone want to sing a song?”
“Like what?” I grunt unenthusiastically.
“Do you know the words to Vera Parvati’s ‘Falling For You’?” she asks.
“Tea...,” I protest.
“‘The Lithowreck of the Lightfoot’?”
“Tea! Shut up,” I snarl.
Maxing out at five full Gs after spending all that time weightless in the void and she’s got the gall.
“Aud thirteen, skip,” Fletch pivots us back to the job. “At eleven, I need to shut off the shielding. Get ready for a jolt.”
My eyes flit to the g-force indicator and it’s finally decreasing, but I can’t feel that, myself. As far as I’m concerned, Sibyl has me strangled, just as she always has.
Forty kilometers altitude. The inertial guidance module says we can’t be more than one hundred kilometers off our plot. That’s... pretty damn good. I won’t have to bank the ship back and forth between the deadbands, after all. I know my ship. Windsong is not much more than the streamlined hauler on which she’s based. She won’t handle well in a roll reversal. She’s massive, doesn’t bank well, and is far less forgiving if I’m also pitching.
The forewarned jolt occurs, and the flight stick rumbles more. Angry atmosphere strikes the ablative layer of the vessel. There’s at first another yaw to the right, a bank left, and a hard lift from the underbelly of the craft that flips my stomach. But I push the other pedal, twist the stick hard right, and bring it down in a reciprocal motion, always with my eye on the navigation ball, and I’m able to null out the turbulence with the RCS before too long.
“How’s the hull, Fletch?”
“We’ve done okay, I think,” he replies, relieved. “Only… twelve-hundred degrees and falling. Like I promised, we saved a whole lot on repair and resupply costs, skip.”
The vice relaxes more, and I can actually see what’s in front of me. It’s mostly a vague ultramarine haze, but a calming one. I can bring the nose down a bit now. With deceleration easing, I have enough energy in my limbs to reach up and flip the overhead switch labeled “ATMO” to “=”, and that will start the minutes-long process of re-pressurizing the cabin.
The muscles and tendons throughout my body soften and, as all those acids flush out, my fatigued flesh feels viscous. Our pre-programmed medical mixologist synthesizes a new cocktail that soon blends into my blood. A cool sensation wraps my body like an icy throw blanket.
My sense of balance is restored. Surroundings are curiously normal. And even though I miss the alluring darkness, and we’re still screaming through the middle layer of the atmosphere at two kilometers per second, the most primal depth of my mind feels at ease.
Our vessel passes through the terminator into the gold and lavender dawn that our world is known for. Sibyl’s atmosphere is aglow in a wondrous tangerine off to starboard. The morning light is diffuse enough that I can just about make out the dot-like stellar disc of Astrild sitting tangentially to Dowager’s blurry crescent smile. As soon as we hit our default cruise regime of twenty-five kilometers altitude at Aud four, and once I made sure it was safe, I retracted the canopy shielding. Augmented reality projections off. HUD to minimal. There’s no way I’m missing out on two starrises in a row.
Amber starglow embraces my face. Though I can’t feel it, I pretend that the radiation is thawing my cheeks. It brings back vague and fleeting childhood memories of prancing about snow banks under curiously open blue-gray skies.
There aren’t really seasons on Sibyl as on many other worlds. She has a not-insignificant axial tilt, but because she’s a moon, a gyre around Dowager is just too short for a proper season to exist. Yet, during an abnormally balmy and calm rayspan, whenever the incidence of starshine was right on your skin, Astrild would gingerly caress the coldest patches. It would be a once or twice per year experience. Rare for the often leaden skies of the temperate zone, so you’d remember it, deep in your bones.
Up here closer to the poles, the weather is far clearer. Below, Astrild’s rays have illuminated thin filaments of water vapor arranged in beautiful mare’s tails that follow the ever-flattening curvature of Sibyl. Polar stratospheric clouds cross the skyscape in iridescent sheets. Tendrils of bouncing light carve into what’s left of the night. High up across this raytime side of the moon, the specularity can be blinding for those of us accustomed to Sibyl’s more diffuse skies.
Sensors and comms must have come out of plasma blackout by now. I’ve got forward readings. Why hasn’t Tea—
Oh, there she is.
“Suspect vessel bearing three-zero-zero, nadir twenty-one degrees, relative; range one-five-five, velocity Aud four-five.”
Tea shares the vector with my HUD, which flips automatically back to full display mode. The target conveniently appears with a slender arrow leading exactly where we need to go. But we’re a ways behind them, and that has me worried. We’ll need to use some leftover gravitational potential, as well as what’s left of our onboard propellant.
“Nosing down, we’re going in. Ready air intakes,” I command.
“Interlocks primed, skip,” reports Fletcher.
“Engaging control surfaces,” I come back, switching RCS to minimal.
My grip tightens around the throttle.
The engines roar to life and the pilot seat plows again into my back. I bank the ship carefully over and down, not wanting to execute any overly drastic changes in attitude at near-hypersonic speeds. Re-entry is hard on a vessel, but only on the well-protected underbelly. Supersonic airflow around the craft is a different beast altogether. A brazen move can tear any airframe to shreds.
I can just make out a glimmer in the distance against the darker side of the starrise. Shiny; that’s our target. We’re descending upon them in a regnant manner, our speed quickly gaining, relative velocity decreasing.
Because I see nothing on the map in the center console, I say: “I’m not seeing any change in movement. How far are we from the closest polar outpost?” Tea replies that we’re passing over Lodestone, explaining why I couldn’t get my answer at a glance. Our marker is right over town.
“They really are going for it, aren’t they?” Fletcher muses.
“For The Pearls? Yeah,” I concur, while fighting the high-level wind shear and other aerodynamic forces on the hull. “Predetermined route if I hazard a guess. They’ve got to be bingo fuel.”
“Speaking of bingo fuel, our propellant is about to run out, skip.”
“I know.” I just need the performance boost from the vacuum mode. We’re not going back to space today. The ship should be good for continued flight once we open the intakes and harness the airflow for propellant. A verbal fifteen second warning from the computer. I check our distance to the target. We’ve caught up to the clipper, within fifty clicks.
“Alright, Fletch. Mode switch.”
Roaring and hissing sounds reverberate through the ship. Within a hot moment of Fletcher’s command, our vessel consumes several tons of super-heated, friction-scathed air per second, chilling all of it by twelve hundred degrees in far, far less than another second, just so it can pass back over the microfusion reactor and roast again, becoming our exhaust trail. I sense another minor quaking, but otherwise the transition is flawless. As a pilot, I couldn’t ask for a better gear change than one I don’t have to think about.
We’re now hovering just above the target in relative flight. At a velocity of Aud four-five or so, no one is going to be making any sudden moves for fear of sideslip and aerodynamic instability. If the clipper was going to evade or otherwise throw off pursuit, they’d have made a move by now, or preferably while they were still in orbit. There’s a certain inevitability to all of this.
“Thirty clicks. Lowering our velocity to match. Hail ‘em, Tea,” I command.
“Unknown vessel, this is the Registered Royal Interdiction Cutter Windsong. In operating without an identifying squawk code or broadcasting a flight plan, you are trespassing over Sibylean aerospace. By the authority vested in us in clause three-point-one of the Royal Interdiction Code, you are hereby ordered to land and surrender for inspection at the nearest and timeliest availability. Should you require assistance, we will render it upon assessment of your vessel. Send your response on this band.”
Legally speaking, she could have gone with half of that. Guess she’s feeling courteous now that we’re nearly on the ground.
Our engines thrum, happily slurping the pristine arctic atmosphere at an insatiable pace. No response. I hold speed and attitude while Tea does her thing at the comms, giving the suspect vessel the repeat orders they are entitled to. With crystal clear visibility and a superior perspective, I look down and observe the clipper’s shock diamonds trailing its fuselage in the twilight. They dance back and forth in beautiful indigo and orange oscillations, the latter perhaps indicating a fuel-enriched mixture that flares every so often. But since we’re keeping up with them just fine, they can’t be running their arcjets on more than air. Color me intrigued.
Canting my head a bit to the side as if it would help him hear me, I gesture to Fletcher.
“Anything interesting on passive scopes? EM? Signals? Acoustic?”
I pretend I can see Fletcher shake his head.
“Nothing, skip. To me, it just looks like we ended up with another passenger vessel gone wayward. Can I bring up the standoff sensors?”
He might be right. I glance at one of my many multi-function display panels. The optical recognition software has identified the clipper as a Delta Heron STX; a sleek suborbital most often used to ferry corporate executives or government personnel in luxury. ‘Suborbital Transport Extended,’ I think it means, crudely advertising a modest voidcraft capability with limited onboard propellant. The frame is slender, long, and built like its namesake. And it doesn’t have too much room for cargo. I’ve seen their more vanilla brethren used in criminal enterprise before, but they certainly aren’t favored. The prospects of this interdiction are looking dimmer by the moment. And to think we pulled the extra Gs for this.
I sigh out my order. “Nothing more than radar for now. We’re out in the middle of nowhere and have plenty of time. Wait... that’s not a strobe.”
A signaling light, flashing a brilliant neutral white and scintillant in the deeply chilled air, emanating from the tail of the bird. At first I had dismissed it as a standard anti-collision light, but it’s flashing erratically. No, it’s a beacon. All vessels are equipped with such simple devices, but we have never used our own save for testing. There’s really only one reason to flash it. “They’ve surrendered…”
Our engines hum as we all fall silent.
A moment later, from Tea: “... and shared landing coordinates.”
The collective air of disappointment in the cabin is palpable. I lean back in my seat and lower my shoulders with an exasperated concession. Much to my chagrin, it’s looking like this little adventure we just had will only barely pay our expenses. And that’s after Fletcher’s new extravagant electromagnetic toy proved its worth and saved us the need to replace the ablative re-entry panels.
Ledger troubles are my fault. I could run with a less well-equipped ship or pay my crewmates a more nominal rate. But I just… can’t. This is what I know how to do. And my crew are the only friends I have. Only the unassuming expanse itself knows me any better.
“Okay,” I bark, to rally the troops, and myself. “Standard descent and detention procedure. You both know the drill. I’ll give them some room and then slow it down for VTOL.”
“Aye,” Tea responds.
“Aye, skip,” from Fletcher.
As I watch the clipper glide into the lower atmosphere, headed directly to the flat ice sheets it promised it would, my heart and mind feel emptied of purpose. After this job is done, I will be forced to touch base with society again. I’m not looking forward to it. Choosing the life of an interdictor was only a means to an end, and already I miss the cold embrace of the void dearly.