Demeter was one of four Earth-like planets in the Helios system and a core world in its own right. Being the fourth planet in Helios’s Goldilocks zone, it was also basically a habitable ice ball. The entire sunlit surface appeared white with occasional hints of gray scattered throughout. Modesto wondered what it was like to grow up there.
He also realized he didn’t care. Who came from Demeter anyway? The world was founded as an afterthought.
But it did provide Modesto with a golden opportunity. He turned back to his sole companion on the shuttle, Mitsuko Yamato, sitting lotus-style in midair as she had requested the grav plates nulled for the trip.
“I can get us to the Challenger in half the time,” he said.
Yamato did not open her eyes. “I’d rather you stuck with our assigned route.”
“Seriously,” he said. “We can bypass the shipping lanes and be on the Challenger in less than an hour.”
Now she opened her eyes. “I’m no pilot, but even I know we have to make two orbits to reach the Challenger, one to reach their orbital plane, the other to catch up to them. That’s three hours.”
“Gravity is our friend.” He pushed the controls forward, and the surface of Demeter, white with pockets of gray city sprawl, grew in the viewport.
“What are you doing?” said Yamato. “Gravity.”
“Gravity plating initiated,” said the computer pleasantly. Yamato settled to the floor.
“Good idea,” said Modesto. “You’ll want to strap in for this. We’re taking a shortcut.”
“Through the atmosphere?” She leapt to her feet, barefoot, and scrambled into the seat next to Modesto. “That’s insane.”
“Do it all the time.”
White mist began to rush up from the nose of the shuttle. It soon turned faint pink and began to glow.
“Warning,” said the computer, “atmospheric entry. Raise altitude to avert thermal damage to hull.”
Modesto merely pressed his foot down. Outside, red fire began to engulf the hull.
Yamato grabbed the console tightly. “If you’re trying to impress me, it’s having the opposite effect.”
“Relax,” said Modesto. “In about ten minutes, we’ll be out of it and be headed directly for the Challenger.”
Something behind them boomed. “Warning. Fuel tank rupture. Disengaging orbital burn engine.”
“Oh, no.” Modesto began tapping controls. The shuttle’s nose dipped.
“Retros engaged,” said the computer. “Overriding manual control. Stand by for hard landing.”
“No, no, no, no, no, no, no.”
“Jettisoning orbital fuel.”
“Ah, shit! I just wanted to take a shortcut.”
“You wanted to show off,” said Yamato.
“I ran this seven times in the sim!” Modesto beat the console with his fists. “It should have worked.”
Yamato had managed to calm herself, outwardly at least, and said, “Did you factor in for the age of the shuttle or that Demeter is the smallest of the class E worlds in this system?”
No, Modesto had to admit, he did not. He had used the newer XB-79 shuttles in simulation over Tian, whose orbit lay some four hundred sixty million kilometers sunward. To add insult to injury, Tian also was behind the sun at the moment. Not that it mattered. Demeter lay a mere hundred and thirty kilometers below, a distance that rapidly shrank with each second.
And the computer was going to crash land this thing.
He’d complain about it later. Right now, G forces began pressing him back into his seat, something modern atmospheric entry usually did away with. Modern entry also usually avoided nose dives from orbital altitudes.
“Speed!” he shouted over the din of the ship rattling around him.
“Seven thousand kilometers per hour and falling,” the computer chirped with what sounded like pride in its voice.
“Level up,” he wheezed. “Level up!”
“Lateral stabilizers inoperative.”
Did the computer just cluck at him?
“Nice going, flyboy,” said Yamato, grunting as she talked. “You’re going to smear us all over the ice.”
“Speed five thousand five hundred kilometers per hour and falling,” said the computer, its tone now cheerful again.
“Gravity to inertial dampening mode!” Maybe, just maybe, if the polarity were reversed on the aft plates while the G forces exceeded three, they might not black out.
“Initiating gravity plate protocols.”
Why the hell wasn’t that automatic? It was on fighter craft.
Some of the pressure in Modesto’s chest eased. He could move more easily now as the ship decelerated. The fireball outside had dissipated, though the hull smoked. What had they picked up that would embed itself in the hull like that?
“Well,” said Yamato, trying to catch her breath, “you did it. You broke the ship.”
“Shut up,” he said. “I’m trying to regain manual control. Computer, can we regain orbit from this altitude?”
“Orbital fuel jettisoned. Orbit not attainable at this time.”
Well, shit. “Speed.”
“Three thousand six hundred kilometers per hour and falling.”
“Unable to comply. Manual control offline.” Before Modesto could protest that the computer could easily give him retro control, it said, “Warning: Collision imminent.”
“Oh, my God,” said Yamato.
In the forward viewport, a mountain loomed on the horizon.
Directly in in the shuttle’s path.
“Emergency jettison!” Modesto shouted.
“Stand by,” said the computer. “Initiating drive jettison.”
He hoped the explosive bolts would slow the fuselage’s forward momentum enough to avoid the mountain. Unfortunately, he’d be at the mercy of the chutes.
Modesto and Yamato were thrown forward as the drive sled beneath the shuttle shot ahead of them.
“Drogue deployment,” said the computer as something above them popped. Ahead, the shuttle’s engines slammed into the mountain, disappearing in a yellow-orange blossom of fire.
“Main chute deployment.”
Moments later, Modesto and Yamato were jolted as the emergency chutes caught the wind and jerked the shuttle into a slower descent.
Modesto turned to Yamato, who looked as though she were weathering a heart attack. “Cold weather training?”
She seemed to want to say “Duh,” but the royal in her simply said, “Of course.”
“Let’s break out the parkas before we debark. I hope we’re near a mining facility.”
“You’re assuming it would be serviced by ground transportation. If it isn’t, we could be there for days.”
“Think positive, Yamato. It’ll get us out this.”
“I’m positive you’re going to be court-martialed.”