title
subtitle

Episode 227: Freefall

textbox
If you cannot see the menu bar, please follow the links below

The sun set red over Angstrom and Halley, but the night was lit up by newer stars, each one more brilliant than any the planet’s people had ever witnessed, yet failing so quickly, fading to blue and red and then vanishing into the night. Left behind were only the ugly infernos of the new hell of steel and energy that had been summoned in the lower reaches of orbit. Tracers red and green and blue crisscrossed the night sky, and a thousand man-made meteors streaked across the dome of heaven, ships and parts of ships and men and women tumbling to the ground, burning. And the worst of it, the unchained energies of excited molecules, magnified and focused through thick lenses into beams of coherent destruction . . . invisible, leaving behind smoking craters and burnt flesh, unseen except by the eyes of the cold computers who directed it all at the will of women and men.

Through the maelstrom, Wasp tumbled wildly, spinning end over end and side to side, falling closer and closer to Angstrom’s troubled sky.

The emergency access was black. Completely, utterly dark, the kind of dark that made a man question whether he’d ever known any other light than the play of fireworks that his deprived eyeballs paraded in front of him. Maccabee’s breath sounded too loud in his ears, magnified by the narrow, metal passage. He heard the scrape of Samara’s boots on the grate behind him, heard Simon cough further back. Sixty seconds since the impact. Two minutes, more or less, before Wasp smashed into the atmosphere and followed Hornet to her fiery fate.

“Ahanda,” said Maccabee, moving as fast as his tired limbs would carry him. “Status.”

“I’m firing the emergency thrusters, captain,” came the reply, Ahanda’s voice clipped and tight. “I’m focusing on getting a smooth reentry path, but I don’t think I can totally eliminate the twist.”

“Fuck it,” said Maccabee. “Don’t try. Use whatever you have to time the rotation, understand? Don’t try to stop it, there’s not enough time. Slow us down, and make sure we hit bow-on, understand?”

“Clear, captain,” said Ahanda. He was past the point of questioning an order that would kill Maccabee and the people with him. “We’ll lose the front of the ship.”

“If we’re lucky,” agreed Maccabee. “Get on the com; have the survivors head for the inner-most sections. Not too close to the stern, either,” he added, remembering Ashburn’s report from the engineering section.

“On it.”

Maccabee shut off the connection. “Keep moving,” he called out to the others.

“We’d be out of here already if your slow ass wasn’t in the lead,” growled Samara. Maccabee snorted.

A dozen seconds later, they reached the other end. The hatch cover was still open, for which small grace Maccabee took a moment to thank Ahanda. He climbed out and then turned to help Samara on to her feet. Pushing her forward, he grabbed Simon and hauled him out. “Go!” he barked. They started running.

The count in his head was off, Maccabee knew. Ahanda was slowing them down, which might buy them more time, but might let the planet’s gravity take hold that much more firmly, pulling them down to a quicker impact. Either way, they had only a minute or so to get back to the bridge. Lucky that this was such a small ship.

Maccabee staggered into the bulkhead as something hit the ship, and for a moment he thought he was about to die. But the impact was too small, and from the stern, and he realized what was happening: Josephine was making sure of him. He pushed off the bulkhead and ran again; there was nothing else left to do, and Simon and Samara were already outpacing him. Jumping through a half-open hatchway, he skidded to a stop, took a sharp left, and ran ten meters to the ship’s central corridor. Ahead, the others were waiting for him at a heavy blast door, the door that marked the start of Wasp’s fourth section.

“Run!” shouted Samara. Maccabee ran. Ten meters, five meters, two, and then he was through, skidding to a stop, turning. Samara had slammed her hand down on the door control before he was even past her, and the massive, ceramasteel door boomed shut with a comforting finality.

“All hands!” called Ahanda on the com channel and over the ship’s speakers. “Brace for impact! Ten seconds!”

Maccabee looked around. There was nowhere to go and not enough time to get there. Grabbing Samara, he took another three steps, sat in a recessed hatchway with his back towards the bow, and put her in front of him, her back against his chest. Across the corridor, he saw Simon scramble for a similar position. He put his head back against the cold bulkhead and pulled Samara’s head against his chest.

And then they hit.

The force of the impact was stunning, and Maccabee felt himself blacking out, felt his brain pressing against his skull too hard to stand. Something whistled past them in the corridor, slammed into the blast door with a metallic scream. The sound was lost a moment later in the incomprehensible thunder of the bow collapsing under the strain. Bulkheads flattened against bulkheads, collapsed, and pancaked inwards, crumpling like foil inside a clenched fist. Wasp bucked wildly, throwing Maccabee and Samara into the air, and Maccabee’s arm caught the edge of the bulkhead, breaking his wrist like a brittle stick. Then, they slammed down again, felt the ship roll and a sharp tug, and then, silence. No, not silence, because there was a dull roar from the bow of the ship, like some demon beast was out there, trying to get in, hammering at the bulkhead.

Maccabee tried to put weight on his arm without thinking, screamed, and nearly passed out again.

“Maccabee!” shouted Samara, immediately at his side and helping him stand. “Shit. Fucking shit.”

“Are we alive?” asked Simon, standing up and holding a hand to his head.

“For now,” replied Samara. “Let’s get to the bridge.”

They started moving, and the ship shuddered under their feet as something, somewhere, gave way and fell aside. Then, they felt another kind of impact: incoming fire, from astern.

“That fucking bitch!” spat Samara.

“I can’t believe she’s still shooting,” Simon said, stopping as he reached the ladder that led to the bridge.

“She won’t stop until. . . .” Maccabee trailed off, catching sight of the group huddled in the corridor. They were what was left of his crew—hopefully not all of it. They looked tired, shell-shocked, but not beaten. Not yet. Their dirty, bruised, bloody faces looked up at him, and he knew he couldn’t just walk by. Not that he would have anyway, he realized.

“Czerney,” he said, spotting her towards the back of the group. There were maybe twenty men and women there, some seriously injured, others still apparently whole. “I need to get some guns working again.” Maccabee pointed towards the stern. “Josephine is still out there, still trying to kill us.”

“Trying?” asked Czerney with a tired smile.

“What, you’ve got a problem with landing, lieutenant?” barked Maccabee. He glanced at the rest of them. “We’ll be on the ground soon, and then we can all relax. Until then, I want the wounded moved somewhere safer than here. Czerney, gather up some people. Get to the weapons run. Stay in touch. Get me some fucking guns!”

“Aye!” she barked, hauling herself up to her feet. “You heard the captain!” she said, kicking someone who was a hair slower than her getting up. “Move it!” Glancing back at Maccabee, she grinned. “You haven’t killed me yet, cap. I’ll take care of this lot. You get up there and get us down in one piece.”

The ship shuddered suddenly, another piece breaking free from the hull, and Czerney actually laughed. “I’ll settle for a big chunk, captain, but you’d better move it!”

Maccabee nodded and turned, motioned for Simon to precede him up the ladder, then followed, moving with awkward slowness as he cradled his broken wrist against his chest. The pain was intense, but starting to fade; some of the nanites at least were still active in his system.

The bridge was miraculously undamaged. The emergency lighting was blue, a thin light that cast a pale glow over the control stations. Two were cocooned in crash harnesses, one around Ahanda, the other on Sabli.

“Sabli, what the fuck are you doing here?” asked Maccabee, moving quickly to the captain’s chair, motioning Samara to a weapons console next to Sabli, while Simon climbed into the forward navigation seat. All three activated the crash harnesses at their stations, and Maccabee breathed a sigh of relief as the cocoon of padding and ceramasteel enfolded him. The feeling didn’t last long though, as he thought of Czerney and the others out there.

“Sir,” answered Sabli, the word a bit slurred. “Doc Monteux fixed me up a cocktail, told me to get up here and keep things, uh, running.” She coughed, then continued. “I unlocked the control stations, sir, but we’ve got nothing left to control.”

“Thanks,” said Maccabee. “Ahanda?”

“Altitude is sixty kilometers and falling, captain,” reported the other man. He sounded like he was beyond fear, beyond any emotion at all. “Our course is going to take us right into Halley.”

“Fucking hell,” growled Samara. “Figures we’d crash into a building.”

“Controls?” asked Maccabee.

“I’ve got something left in the thrusters,” reported Ahanda. “Might be enough to pull out at the last minute, or maybe to control our descent. So we don’t run into a building.”

“Not enough for both?” Maccabee asked.

“No way to know, captain The impact shattered one fuel tank, and I have negative reading from the others. I’m just guessing at what’s left.”

“Understood. Good work.” Maccabee tapped into the com again. “Ashburn, what have you got?”

“Nothing good, captain,” came the quick reply. Maccabee let out the breath he’d held as he’d called for his engineer. She was still alive. “I’ve been monitoring. Ahanda’s right about the tanks, but I give them more than he does. Use what you need to guide us in. No other choice.”

“Agreed,” said Maccabee. “Samara?”

“Absolutely.”

“Do it, Simon,” ordered the captain. “Now what about power for weapons, Ashburn?”

“You’re kidding, right?” she said. Then the ship shook as another shot hit her hull somewhere astern. “OK, not kidding. Are there even any guns still working?”

“Czerney’s on it right now. Get with her and get her whatever she needs.” Maccabee took a breath. “Do what you can.”

“Understood, captain,” replied Ashburn. She cut the channel.

“Anything on that gunship, Samara?” asked Maccabee.

“She’s on us, Maccabee,” said Samara. “I’ve got nothing on externals. They’re all wiped out. Internal sensors show about seven thousand degrees on the outer hull, which is pretty good for this sort of reentry, but we’ve got no shielding whatsoever. We’re going to have burn through.”

“And nothing on Jo?”

“Targeting scanners are burned away,” she replied. “We should be passing below the fireball soon, though, and if Czerney finds a weapon that’s still functional, we might be able to target locally.”

“That’s a lot of what ifs,” grumbled Maccabee. “But it’ll have to do.” He tapped into the com again. “Czerney, what do you have?”

“I’m on the starboard side, aft run, captain!” came her reply. She was shouting, and the sound of rushing wind was plain to hear in the background of the signal. “I’ve got flame coming in the hull on the forward run, cooking off some ammunition that’s still in the feed lines!” Maccabee understood then what the popping sound behind her was. The rounds wouldn’t detonate at full capacity, but enough heat would set off small explosions. Just one more thing to worry about.

“Any weapons look operative?” he asked.

“Got one at the end of the row, captain!” shouted Czerney. “Ten millimeter laser cannon, thirty terawatt yield! Feed lines are still clean, but there’s no power!”

“Ashburn, you still monitoring?” asked Maccabee.

“Aye, sir,” came the immediate reply. “I’ve got a team running a line out there as of now. Give me two minutes to get it hooked into the run’s system.”

Maccabee glanced at the main holo, cursed as he realized that it was, of course, down, and looked instead to Ahanda. “Status?”

“We are at forty-five thousand meters, captain,” came the robotic reply. “Air speed is roughly eight hundred ninety meters per second, and dropping.”

“Too hot,” said Samara.

Maccabee nodded in agreement. “Simon! Full burn. I want to halve our velocity.”

“Aye!”

Wasp shuddered and shook as her remaining emergency thrusters went into full burn, thrust reversing plates falling into place to redirect the energy from the stern motors. Maccabee felt deceleration push him forward against the crash harness.

“Six hundred meters per second!” shouted Ahanda. The noise from outside was increasing again, and the ship was shaking herself apart, jolting from side to side. “Five hundred!”

“Shut down!” barked Maccabee. Simon killed the thrusters, and the ride evened out again.

“We’re at four fifty, captain,” said Ahanda. “I think drag will keep us here, or slower.”

“Altitude?”

“Thirty-eight thousand meters.”

“Ashburn,” said Maccabee. “You’ve got a hundred seconds until we hit the dirt. I’d like to take that fucking gunship out before then.”

“Sixty seconds!” she shouted.

“Czerney, that cannon have any self-targeting systems?” Maccabee asked.

“Hell no, cap!” shouted the lieutenant. “I’m going to have to aim the fucker by hand!”

“You know that’s not possible, right?” he asked her.

“Aye, captain!”

Maccabee grinned. “Czerney,” he said, “as soon as you take that ship down, I want you out of there, understand? You’ve got seventy seconds. Seventy, you read?”

“Crystal!” she called back.

“Fire at will, lieutenant,” Maccabee ordered.



“Aye!” Czerney shouted. There wasn’t a real need for her to shout, not with the sophisticated com gear implanted in her head, but the noise was just so un-fucking-believable! Even with the breathing unit covering her nose and mouth, she felt cold and short of breath, and the wind was ripping through the weapons run at hundreds of meters per second, making it nearly impossible to move. She’d managed to prop up a plate of ceramasteel decking with the help of the four men she’d brought with her, but all she could manage now was to cower behind the damn thing and wait for Ashburn. And in another few seconds she’d have to open the gun port! Fucking insane.

A moment later, Ashburn was there, crawling on her belly into the weapons run, a power cable clutched in one fist, her mouth and nose covered with a breather mask as well. Moving carefully, Czerney lowered herself onto her belly, and slithered forward, reaching out a hand towards the engineer. Ashburn grabbed Czerney’s outstretched arm and the lieutenant hauled her in, fighting every centimeter of the way until they were both sitting against the deck plate, panting with exhaustion.

“Time?” asked Czerney. She’d lost count already. Seventy seconds? Impossible.

Ashburn shook her head, leaned towards the gun, and then got caught in the rush of wind. The howling fist of air knocked her sideways and pulled her into the air, but Czerney was there, grabbing Ashburn’s belt and hauling her down and out of the worst of the flow. They collapsed in a pile on the deck, but Ashburn wasn’t even paying attention to the fact she’d nearly been killed, was just reaching for the cannon again, her free hand frantically pawing at the dead power feed line. Czerney reached out and grabbed Ashburn’s hand, then added her own to the connection, pulling sharply up on the quick release handle. With both their hands working, the two women managed to pop the handle free, and the feed line fell from the cannon.

“Push the line in!” shouted Czerney. Ashburn hauled up the line in her hands, slammed it home in the slot, and waited as Czerney put both her hands on the quick release, bunched her shoulders, and slammed the catch home. Still underneath her, Ashburn waved frantically at the two techs who’d come with her from the engineering bay, and one of them nodded, reached out a hand, and powered up the line. Immediately, lights and readouts came to life on the cannon’s diagnostic display.

“Get out!” Czerney yelled at Ashburn. She rolled off the other woman, grabbing at her chest for the thin lifeline she’d put in her combat vest so many hours ago, when she’d geared up for this little gig. Czerney didn’t wait to see if Ashburn was leaving, but clipped the line to her vest and looked for a place to secure the other end. There was no time to evaluate different options; Czerney saw a stanchion within arm’s reach, looped the line around it, and sealed it, the grippy molecules embedded in the fibers bonding instantly to each other, stronger than any knot she could have tied. Then she stood up.

The force of the wind was incredible, but less now than before, she noticed. It was hard to even move her arms enough to grab the cannon, haul herself up to it, and hit the switch that opened the gun port. “Opening outer doors!” she shouted over the com, linking in to the command channel without a moment’s thought. The gun port hatch slammed open so fast she couldn’t even see it move. The roar of the wind doubled, but it was buffering her from two sides now, almost balancing her, nearly crushing her.

It was night outside, but a kind of hellish night, the dissipating glow of nuclear blasts still in the air, burning trails of fire marking the passing of other ships. The outer hull of Czerney’s own ship still glowed ugly red, and she could feel the heat radiating off it, even here, but her eyes were drawn almost instantly to the bright glow of thrusters, just a few hundred meters off the starboard side: the gunship. Her target. She could see the flicker of light as the enemy ship’s own particle cannons opened fire, but their effectiveness was much diminished in the ever-thicker atmosphere. What really caught her eye was the way the other ship bucked up and down in her field of view as the two vessels, one crippled, the other under power, dropped side-by-side. An impossible shot.

“Thirty seconds!” shouted Maccabee’s voice in her ear. Wasp shook again as more fire from the gunship hit her, and Czerney flinched when a piece of the ship gave way somewhere forward of her position, slid back along the hull, then fell away, bouncing along the outer skin of the ship and flashing through her field of view like a glowing ember before whipping out of sight.

Her fingers were moving, now, finally, almost of their own volition, activating the cannon’s manual control, shifting its firing arc slightly up and towards the stern. The gunship was keeping an altitude advantage, following Wasp down to her certain death. Brightly-lit skyscrapers were already visible just a few kilometers below, reaching up like glowing fingers, coming up with frightening speed. Czerney put them out of her mind, put away the thought that the Spire, clearly visible ahead, was on fire, and might yet collapse, killing God only knew how many people, put aside the knowledge of her certain, imminent death—only twenty seconds left, part of her brain reported—and worked the cannon, moving it with agonizing slowness onto target.

She’d done what she could to aim the thing. Her fingers moved to release the safety mechanism, to lock out fire control and take manual control of the weapon. There was no safety code required, as command lockout would be instantaneous, had power been supplied to the bridge and the tactical A.I. There was no such power, though, not now. All of it was routed to Czerney, to this one cannon. The weapon hummed to life, and Czerney laid her head against the top of it, sighting along the barrel. It was a laser; there was no need to account for wind speed or gravity or anything else that might interrupt the beam. Atmospheric distortion would be minimal at this range.

The gunship dropped into her view, bounced out again, went higher. Fifteen seconds left. Buildings appeared in Czerney’s view, the first one distant, the second one only half a klick away, frighteningly close. Thirteen seconds. The gunship dropped again. Rose up. Dropped slightly. Just far enough. Czerney pressed the firing button.

She saw nothing, of course, nothing but the vomit of flame and debris that exploded out of the stern section of the gunship. More buildings were popping up, close and far, everywhere, and now the gunship was spinning away from them, out of control, disappearing behind a building, and Czerney turned, aimed for the hatchway, threw herself forwards, unclipping her safety line at the same time. The wind caught her, threatened to throw her past the hatch, but she caught the forward edge with one outstretched arm, felt her forearm shatter; but the impact threw her clear of the run, into the next corridor. She slammed down, slid two meters, and was caught by Ashburn. And then, Simon lit the thrusters one last time.



Maccabee slammed into his crash harness as the landing thrusters came on at full burn. The first second passed, and nothing seemed to be happening. Then, slowly, centimeters at first, then meter by meter, Wasp’s nose lifted, slowly bringing her towards an even keel.

“Airspeed three hundred meters per second!” shouted Ahanda. “Two hundred! Altitude one thousand meters!”

Wasp sideswiped a skyscraper with her port side a half second later, crushing that side of the hull inwards four meters and gouging a three-hundred-meter-long scar along the face of the building. Maccabee jerked against his crash harness again, forwards, then sharply backwards. All hell was breaking loose around him, everything that wasn’t triple-bolted to the deck coming free and flying through the air, overstressed bulkheads shattering like glass. Pieces of metal flew across the compartment, and Maccabee started to pass out as Wasp rolled drunkenly on her side, rolling over to port off her keel.

Czerney!

“All thrusters!” shouted Maccabee, suddenly awake again. “Roll to starboard! Roll to starboard!”

“I’ve got nothing left!” roared Simon in reply. “I’m at full burn!”

Wasp steadied, started to roll back to starboard as the port thrusters overwhelmed the half-smashed starboard motors.

“Fifty meters per second!” shouted Ahanda. A moment later, almost exactly keel-down, Wasp landed.

She hit dead center in a broad boulevard less than twenty meters wider than her hull. The lowest deck flattened instantly, the reinforced hull and ceramasteel struts crumpling under the thousands of tons of weight bearing down on them. The next deck crushed upwards, one meter, then two, then stopping. Half her momentum spent, Wasp slid forwards at twenty meters per second, scraping along the ceramacrete road, building up a bow wave of shattered pavement, pounding it to dust under the twisted wreck of her forward sections.

On board, everything that wasn’t secured flew forwards, crashing into the forward bulkheads with enough force to dent the ceramasteel plating. Men and women without the benefit of seatbelts or other restraints tumbled across the decks where they’d taken shelter, in the thick of a maelstrom of spinning debris and collapsing superstructure. Maccabee hit his crash harness so hard he blacked out for a moment, coming back to consciousness only as the ship ground to a halt, the ear-splitting thunder of her landing fading away only slowly, replaced by the distant, pinging sound of cooling metal, and the terrible noise of screams.

Before Maccabee could even collect his thoughts, he heard an unfamiliar voice on the com: “Command, this is engineering! There is a fire in the main bay. The hydrogen tanks may be ruptured.” The man’s voice was raw with fear and pain. “Evacuate!” That was all.

Samara tapped into the all-hands channel before Maccabee could. “All hands, abandon ship!” she shouted, her voice clear and strong. “All hands, abandon ship!” Already, Samara was raising the crash harness off her seat, sliding out from under it before it was fully open, moving first for Sabli, who was still unconscious from the crash. “Don’t sit there, Maccabee!” she growled at the captain. “Move your sorry ass!”

Maccabee felt for the release catch on the harness, caught it with a finger, and jerked on it. Miraculously, it worked exactly as it was designed, snapping free from him and retracting into the overhead. He nearly fell out of his chair getting up, and only Simon’s outstretched hand kept him from hitting the deck. Nodding his thanks at the other man, Maccabee turned to see that Ahanda was also free from his chair and already moving towards the exit. “Let’s go,” he said to the others. He let Simon support him as Samara carried Sabli towards the hatch and ladder.

“Captain,” said another voice in his head: Ashburn. “I’m just outside the starboard weapons run. Czerney’s with me.” Maccabee knew what was coming next. “She’s in a bad way, captain. I can’t get her out on my own. Half the corridor’s smashed in, I can barely crawl through it.” She sounded on the verge of panic, for the first time since, well, since Maccabee had known her.

Maccabee took a deep breath and opened his mouth to respond, and then engineering called again. “I’ve confirmed the hydrogen leak, command! We’ve got ten minutes, tops! Get the hell out of here!”

Simon, lowering Sabli towards Samara while Ahanda waited with Maccabee, scowled. “What the fuck else could go wrong?”

“Captain, this is Russ,” came a tired, hurt voice over the com. Russ sounded angry, too. “Captain, I’m outside the hull, helping Doc Monteux. We’re receiving incoming fire from the next block. Light arms. It’s coming from one of the buildings. I think . . .” He trailed off. Behind him, Maccabee could hear the sound of plasma rounds smacking into the hull. “I think it’s the gunship, sir. She’s crashed into the skyscraper.”

Maccabee closed his eyes. She still wasn’t dead. Still! Opening his eyes again, he pushed past Simon to the ladder, spun, slid down the rungs, and hit the deck below next to Samara. Turning to her as she lowered Sabli to the deck, he said, “We need guns.”

Samara just smiled.