The faceplate lowers and seals itself as my suit reacts to the hull breach alarm. It’s called a siren by tradition, but sounds more like a wounded bird’s squeak.
Colin tees up the self-repair sequence, though we both know better. With the ship’s diagnostics fried to shit, its proprioceptors can’t locate a breach, let alone fix it.
Orbital decay accelerates. Our TX-1 Orca prototype is licking the fringe of Earth’s atmosphere.
“Nav still responds,” Colin pleads, his suit hunched over the controls.
“Prepare to bail.”
“Negative, sir. We’ve respected her, she owes us a safe ride down. We ditch her now, and it’s a whole different karma.”
Part of me is glad Colin phrased it this way. Now I don’t have to listen to my gut, or his gut, or this jinxed ship.
“Wings on, Grossman. That’s an order.” First time I’ve had to use those words with Colin in — what — twelve years?
I arm the self-destruct (can’t risk gifting a piece of the Orca to the Chinese) and follow him to the wingfitters. Colin is a better-than-okay wingjumper, but an outstanding test pilot. Me, I dig flying and jumping about even… except for the fitting part. I lean back and brace for a jab in the ribs as the wingpack anchors to the connectors on my flightsuit shell. Bruises guaranteed for a week.
Colin gets up, wingpack attached, and turns in front of me. All looks in order. I give a thumbs-up.
My turn to turn.
“Yellow eleven.” Without hesitation, he points to my bottom left connector head.
I tug on the connector — feels solid. The diagnostic on my visor passes it, too.
“Looks tilted,” insists Colin.
I zoom in with a worktip camera on my glove. A tiny fold of the shell fabric is caught under the head. Leave it to Colin to notice such shit. Most jumpers miss it and land safe, nine times out of ten.
Back to the fitter. Detach. Refit. Another jab in the ribs. Get up. Turn. Colin points —
“Enough!” I’m not refitting for another nanowrinkle.
I practically push him out of the airlock. As we fall away, I briefly train the camera on the Orca hull – can’t observe the damage. Must be on the belly, or portside.
Ahead and below me, Colin’s wing unfolds from the pack. It slows his fall, and I pass him just before my own wing snaps open and the suit stiffens for the aerodynamics and temperatures of descent. Working from the center out, I test-check the stabilizer, breakers, ailerons and winglets, all the while bracing for the inevitable shockwave from Orca’s self-destruct.
“Hernandez, tango-bravo-one, homebound.” I am now a small aircraft.
Colin streaks by. Fast. With a visibly brighter friction glow at his right winglet.
“Slow down and check your roll.”
“Grossman, tango-bravo-two…” He sounds detached, like we’ve landed a week ago. “Never bailed before, sir.”
I tap the feed from his visor display. Sure enough, he’s got his camera pointed at the Orca, its hull hogging the centerfield of his visuals.
“Snap out of it, Grossman! Watch your — ”
The glow brightens along Colin’s right-side leading edge. A split-second later, his wing doubles over, origami-like, and Captain Grossman flickers out like a stray bonfire spark.
Of my entire recovery team, just Lazy Charlie… And who’s the hot-ass Major?
“Melanie Lonovoi, Legal Ops.”
“A lawyer? That was quick…” I ignore her hand. Any other day, I’d get busy charming my way into her pants.
No one says much until we board the plane. Major Lonovoi and Charlie strap in first, opposite each other. Colonel Montgomery from cybersupport (what’s he doing here?) plops down next to Charlie, leaving me to either continue being rude or join Lonovoi.
Should’ve stayed rude. Her torrent of legalese starts the moment we lift off. Ethics Commission… Inquiry… Orca project… babble-babble-babble…
We have the same rank, except I earned mine up in the sky.
“Where’s the team?” I shout to Charlie above the engine growl.
Charlie turns to Montgomery. “Sir?”
“At the landing pad, where they should be,” says Montgomery.
“The Orca autolanded an hour ago,” Charlie adds, his face stiff.
“Bull. I scuttled it.”
Yet I don’t recall a shockwave from the self-destruct.
“You did. It didn’t,” says Charlie. “Tell him, Colonel!”
“You’re out of line, Lieutenant… Major Hernandez, the goal of this mission was to evaluate the new crisis management software.”
A ball of ice explodes in my stomach.
“Did our systems really fry?”
“They were designed to go off-line, simulating electrical fire.”
“And the hull breach? Was that real?”
“Trickiest part!” Montgomery’s eyes light up. “We had to engineer an openable six-inch slit in the underbelly.”
“A U.S. Air Force officer is dead, sir. Hope you aren’t gloating.”
“Look: we sent up the ballsiest test crew, they bailed, and Orca still landed. This is the future of spaceflight.”
I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
“So your app landed a spacecraft with a neat, six-inch slit. What if it’d been a four-foot structural fatigue crack? How can you know your software’s decision wasn’t dumber than mine?”
“How do you know that if you’d listened to Captain Grossman, he couldn’t’ve gotten you both down safe?”
My mind rewinds to Colin’s visor feed — sacrificing the last seconds of his life to inspect the Orca hull for damage, baffled, ashamed. Best fucking test pilot I ever knew.
Before I can verbalize any of it, Charlie leans over and clocks Montgomery in the jaw. And again. And again.
“Hey, stop that!” Lonovoi moves to unstrap herself.
I lean over and casually place my hand on hers, pinning the strap release under her wrist.
“I agree, Major. Got to stop such experiments. I’ll testify, or whatever it is you wish me to do.”
Still going… never seen Charlie lose it like this. I’d rate Montgomery’s chances of deplaning unassisted at fifty-fifty.
Sarah Sotan writes in Vermont, USA.