After a nerve-wrecking descend, Forne finds himself racing blind through the thick cloud layer of a jungle world. Without a working engine, he approaches a mountain ridge.




Going Down

"Luckily, I never had much time to think."
— Forne Rako I., Haul Emperor

One look at Forne Rako's one-man space fighter would have made any engineer weep. It pulled a long trail of debris and smoke behind as it screamed though the atmosphere of the uninhabited jungle world. From the various systems, only three were still operational: life support, the main computer and the ejector seat. And of those, the ejector seat was the only thing that wasn't on the brink of failing.

A dense cloud layer covered most of the planet's solid surface as Forne had seen while doing his orbits around it. What worried him were the tips of mountains that sometimes broke the uneven gray cloud sea. And the fact that his radar and control thrusters had gone with most of the ship's engine in the explosion several hours ago. And that his speed was probably several times that of sound. He felt like in a very expensive coffin that had been dropped from orbit without much ceremony.

Still, against all odds, he was still alive. 'Lucky as always, eh?' he thought and squinted ahead through the heavily burned windows. Not that it would have mattered much if he had noticed anything. He had to admit that the erratic board computer had made a miracle come true by getting him this far.

When he finally hit the clouds, they were forced away by a shock wave which told him that his estimate of his speed was probably too low. Near the horizon, he got a quick glimpse of the rocky edge of a mountain range looming out of the gray mass. 'Flat angle, fast ... not good.' There was no way to guess how far away those mountains were. He didn't want to leave the ship. At the current speed, ejecting could easily kill him and losing the ship meant losing his only chance to patch the radio into something which might emit any kind of signal. Not that he had high hopes to be picked up, he was just another pilot shot down in this loosing war against the Haul. But a small chance was better than nothing. Forne grit his teeth and stared ahead, his feet shuffling nervously as if that could brake him some more.

His nervousness grew exponentially with every second his ship raced through the gloom. His right paw reached for the eject lever and closed around it.

* * *

The ship's computer would have felt lucky to be a machine if it had been able to feel any emotion. It had no idea of the flight attitude or current speed. Most sensors had been burned to useless clumps of ex-high-tech slag during the reentry, energy was coming from emergency cells which were failing slowly but surely. There was nothing left to brake after the wings, the undercarriage and the cargo hold with the bomb had already been sacrificed to save the pilot's life.

When the signal came to eject the pilot, it had pitifully little data to offer to the ejector seat's survival systems. It transferred what it had, trajectory data from the last remaining gyro compass, simulations of the estimated flight path through an atmosphere of unknown properties of a planet about which it knew little more than its rough size and gravity. The data was marked with error levels that would have made an organic being weep.

But the computer was no organic being. It would fight for it's charge until its energy ran out, no matter whether there was hope or not. After a few microseconds, the data was transferred and the ship's computer killed the inhibitors on the seat. The same signal activated the explosives installed in strategic positions around the cockpit's cover.

A new subprogram was activated. It had been developed just for this occasion. It told the ship's computer to avoid the seat and any buildings on the surface, building up a simulation of the estimated damage it would create depending on where it would come down, looking for a minimum within reach. Of course, there was nothing left the computer could do. All sensors, the main drive and the thrusters were long gone.

Still, it dutifully executed each command, querying for any sensor which might come back, for any thruster to keep it airborne for that crucial moment that might save even a single life. Just as it had been told. Its engineers would have been proud.

* * *

The ejector seat's computer hesitated for several million instructions. There was a high probability of ground being close but it had no idea where it was. Ahead? Above? Below? Left or right? Even the current speed was only a rough estimate with an error level of 573%. That could mean anything from the ship was drifting, dropping like a stone or racing headlong down a ravine at a speed where the wind alone would crush every bone of the pilot if he was ever exposed to it.

Luckily, the preciously little data it got from the ship at least told it that the ship was not about to blow up in the next 100 milliseconds. Which meant it had some time to collect data by itself. It started to tighten the seat belts as much as it could, so the hard impact of the wind wouldn't kill the pilot in an instant. While the servos worked on the command, it checked every rescue system at its disposal. The rockets to eject the seat, the wind breaker, a solid sheet of steel that would take most of the impact of the wind as the pilot became exposed to it, the lasers and miniature radar to check the immediate area for obstacles, the position monitoring systems and thrusters for position control.

When the cockpit cover was blown away, the wind breaker was in position and the sensors greedily reached out, looking for any sign of danger, struggling to tell debris from the explosion apart from anything else. The eject rockets fired, the seat started to move slowly 134 milliseconds after Forne had pulled the lever. Slowly at least for something who could execute a billion operations per second.

The seat's computer had no intention to go as fast as possible just to find the ship flying upside down, an inch from the ground. The lasers couldn't penetrate the moist atmosphere outside very far but when radar showed free space above the ship, the computer released all the power of the rockets, trying to get the pilot away as fast as possible. The wind hit pipes and sensors attached to the bottom of them, giving the survival algorithms some more data to chew on. The seat turned it's bottom forward, trying to cover the vital organs and head of the pilot as much as possible.

167 milliseconds after the eject signal, the radar beam was reflected by something ahead. Something that closed in fast.

In an instant, the seat rotated forward up to a 45° angle, turning the rocket in position to lift it more and slow it down at the same time, buying as much time as possible to avoid the impact, even if it meant heavy bruises for the pilot who was now again pummeled by air gusts that must feel like being beaten into a pulp with a concrete wall. Even when the odds seemed impossible, the seat's computer stubbornly refused to accept defeat. It's program simply didn't allow for that and so it fought by firing everything it got, turning the seat even more into the wind for additional contact surface, even considering opening the parachute for a moment. It would have been ripped to shreds by the wind but it would also have bought a few milliseconds, a few centimeters that might have made the difference between life and death.

Fifty meters ahead and ten below, the space fighter slammed into solid rock at 2'836 km/h[1], leaving the second artificial mark on the virgin world since its inception. The shock wave rocked the seat like a level 8 earthquake. Several sensors failed. But the impact reduced the speed and lifted the seat at the same time.

1: All alien units have been converted to ISO units during the translation of the story into your language.

After 281 milliseconds, simulation indicated that the pilot was safe. The seat passed the mountain ridge in a comfortable distance of 1.7 meters at a speed of a mere 580 km/h.

* * *

Forne was starting to worry when the eject seemed to take an eternity. Then, everything suddenly happened at once. The cover was blown away, the seat tried to strangle him and gusts of wind hit his suit like a blows from a sledge hammer. Even in the suit and behind the wind breaker, the impacts drove any thought and all air out of his body. It was so fierce, he didn't even had the time to cry out before pain drove any cohesive thought from his brain. A moment later, the rockets really kicked in, making him feel like being squeezed in a vice.

The world became a red blur, the air as easy to breathe as jelly, every bone in his body seemed to rattle in its joints. Suddenly, the seat turned, his spine was squeezed like a piano accordion. He was grateful to be spared the brutal wind but before he could take a breath, the seat rotated back and exposed him again. His outcry was reduced to a mere gurgle at the back of his throat. Tears ran down his face, as he wished the control computer to hell. If he could still trust his eyes, he was coming closer to the edge of the tunnel his ship had cut through the cloud layer, then he passed through it. Water started to condense on his suit, the transparent face plate. It was like standing in a waterfall. The temperature fell faster than his suit's heating could cope. At the same time, cold helped to ease some of his pain and his thoughts started to clear.

One moment later, an explosion blew the clouds away. The impact of the shock wave nearly killed him. 'Radio ... gone,' was all he could manage to think.

Finally, the relentless pummeling of the wind started to ease and the seat's rockets stopped squashing him. Every cell in his abused body used the perfect opportunity to express its feelings in a wave of pain that made him long for unconsciousness. After being locked up in the wreck of his ship for half a day, unable to do anything but watch his friends die, to wait and hope for rescue, then the stress of the uncontrolled reentry and now this, Forne felt he was way beyond any limits he had.

The release of the seat belts came as another shock. Because of his suit, he was unable to turn around and see it drop but even if he had, it would have been out of sight after a few seconds in the thick mist. Another jolt and he hang in the belts of his parachute. Painfully slow, Forne lifted his right paw and moved it to the control wristband, clumsily flipping though the options until he found the pain killer.

The drug felt like an icy wave running through his veins from the spot where the suits medical unit had injected it. Slowly, the pain died and his reason came back. 'Must ... stay ... close.' Even though he didn't feel the pain anymore, his movements were slow and clumsy. He forced his arms up into the control hooks of the parachute, turned it around. There was little hope that anything might have survived the impact but it was the only chance he had.

Minutes later, his desperation grew as he slowly floated along the sheer face of a rock cliff. It was probably rough enough to climb but there was simply no place to land without risking to damage or fold the parachute and dropping into the gray mist below like a stone. 'Damn! There must be a way to land! There must be!'

All his wishing didn't impress the rock. He checked his progress on the inertial mapper of his suit. According to the device, he was only 280 meters below the point of impact which didn't sound too bad, so he relaxed a bit and started to go in circles in the hope to find a landing place below the cloud layer.

Water started to condense on the parachute and the strings, running down his arms and body. Without the space suit, he would have been freezing to death in the cold air. At first, it was only annoying. But the additional weight made the parachute hard to control. Forcing it into turns soon took more strength out of his arms than his tired body was able to give. He went through his drugs again, rising the oxygen level in the suit and adding a power-shot on top of that. The med-kit was anxious about his health and warned him that he should take a rest instead. 'After I'm dead.' He clicked the warning away. New strength flew through his tired arms.

When the view finally cleared, he had lost 587 meters of altitude which didn't bother him much. He wasn't the best climber but half a kilometer was hardly any distance, not in a space suit that would keep him warm and safe while he took as many rests in the hooks as he wanted. What bothered him was the sight. The planet below the cloud layer was covered in eternal gloom, covered with a thick, lush jungle that seemed to stretch until infinity. It would have been perfect if the leaves had been green instead of a variety of violet hues. The wall he was flying down turned out to be a solid mass of black rock, near vertical. Forne's hope to be able to take the short route sank with his altitude.

Once, he saw a little plateau. The landing nearly killed him when his speed first ran him headfirst into the wall, then back towards the abyss, his soggy parachute pulling at him with unexpected force. Luckily, he didn't simply abandoned it or he would have been stranded up there, high above the ground on a plateau which turned out to be a trap with unclimbable smooth rock above and below.

It took him three attempts to get the parachute dry enough so that he dared to plunge himself over the edge. There was a short moment of panic when an edge got caught by the plateau. He was forced to fly a tight curve to avoid the cliff. At least it didn't cause any damage. Then he was back in the air, circling, gazing, hoping, praying. But even the image enhancers in the sensor band around the face plate of his suit couldn't make out another place within reach which was flat and big enough to try the same stunt a second time.

Cursing, Forne turned his gaze towards the jungle. He didn't like the idea to try to touch ground between the trees, fearing how long it would take him to cut himself free out of a treetop and the inevitable drop afterwards. Unfortunately, the concept of clearing didn't seem to have evolved on this world, yet, at least not as far as he could see. Infrared didn't turn up any updraft, either.

Half an hour later, he saw something which might have been a hole in the solid cover of treetops but it was farther away from the cliff than he would have liked. On the other paw, he had little hope that he would stumble over another within the limited range in his descending parachute so he went for it.

It was easy to reach. He could even circle a few times above and look for any kind of problems but for once, he seemed to be lucky. The clearing was covered by an almost prefect lawn, completely flat and without any bushes or any other kind of obstacle. His touchdown was impeccable. At the last moment, he reduced speed to almost a full stop, his feet made contact light as a feather. His instructors would have been proud.

Only the foot went right though the illusion of solid ground without meeting much resistance. With a surprised cry on his lips, Forne was swallowed by darkness.


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