To many nights of watching Air Accident Investigation is the lead in for this story. It is inevitable that with any air or spacecraft type that sooner or later some kind of in-flight incident will occur. With the United States reluctantly conceding that Sky Lynx Space Transportation Services are the most expedient means of transporting people and equipment to the International Mars Expedition it would only take a single fatal incident to undermine that newfound confidence in a commercial carrier. When that incident occurs to the Inter Planetary Transport Craft X003 Excelsior it is not clear-cut if this is a politically motivated deliberate act or indeed the inevitable accident waiting to happen.
When X006 Excerptor crashes, it’s a different matter.
The control tower was a quiet place, the thick tinted windows muting the glare of the low morning sun and the bustle of activity on the ramp. Robbie McIntyre sat in his usual seat overlooking the hardened pads, a coffee mug half full but still warm on the desk. Indolently he glanced at the displays to his right, but other than the mesmerizing sweep of the radar beam there was nothing on his screens, nor did he expect there to be. A speck of light far away in the distant sky as its black faded through blue to ochre could only by a quirk of refraction have been an incoming craft, more likely it would be the last glimmer of the morning star. Almost certainly if it was going to be one of their craft it should still be way too far away, its lights too feeble at that distance and all but invisible to the naked eye.
Closer to hand and more relevant to Robbie’s attention was the constant movement of vehicles around the two skeletal framed craft occupying the still brightly lit pads at gates numbered two and three. What seemed a steady stream of trucks but what was in actuality only six in number were running between the craft, loading box like pallets onto the racking structure of the craft on pad three and unloading similar aluminum boxes from the framework of the craft on pad two. Empty pallets, rare earth and high value metal ores, diamonds, specialized biological and pharmaceutical compounds leaving, foodstuffs, manufactured goods and building supplies arriving. The normal commerce of a busy cargo hub, excepting this was no normal hub and these no normal craft. These ungainly looking thirty five meter long craft that when viewed from above with their forward outrigger arms outstretched resembled a roman cross, required no steel hull to traverse a great ocean or all encompassing aluminum fuselage to jet through a vast open sky, nothing more than an open lattice framework to keep the cargo in place was required, for these craft would see no wind or rain in their crossing of the immensity of space. This hub was on the colonized planet Mars.
All these Inter-Planetary Transfer Craft operated by Sky Lynx Transportation Services on the Lunar to Mars runs and accordingly sometimes referred to as Mars ships had names beginning with EXC and these two, IPTC XF-02, named as the ‘Exceeding’ recently landed onto pad two and IPTC XF-08, the ‘Exchanger’ nearly completed loading on pad three were no exception.
On pad one, only some hundred yards away sat an even more ungainly craft. An orange cheese truckle shaped body and marked 143-L03 in large black letters sat atop spindly tripod legs, but no activity currently disturbed this vehicle, simply referred to as ‘the shuttle’. Its time would come when the big ships had gone.
For the tenth time Robbie ran a predictive programme that would soon be loaded into the master flight computer aboard XF-08 Exchanger, the furthest away of the open frame cargo carriers and due to take off in less than three hours.
The radio crackled into life. “Hello Mike Bravo One this is X-Ray Zero Three Excelsior.”
Excelsior was in-bound and Robbie had heard from them some eight hours ago when they initiated deceleration. He wasn’t expecting to hear from them for another three. It didn’t matter, that was the whole point of being there. He flipped transmit.
“Mike Bravo One here, go ahead Excelsior.”
Robbie was patient. He knew Excelsior was around eight hundred thousand kilometers out and there would therefore be at least a five second delay before a response.
“Bravo one, Excelsior here. We have a problem.”
“Mike Bravo One here, go ahead.”
The five second delay again. “Excelsior here, we lost an engine. Declaring an emergency.” The voice exuding a calm in contravention to the message.”
‘Which one?” Robbie asked, radio protocol dispensed with.
“Number one. It blew up on us.”
“Can you make orbit on three?”
“It’s worse than that. We’re holed and tumbling.”
“How many, how bad?”
“Hard to tell. Haven’t got back into the cabin yet but we can see it’s a mess back there.”
“What do you have working?”
“FMC. That’s about it. Number one fuel tank is holed and venting. We have quite a bit of oscillation but we’ve isolated the other tanks and are using number one in an attempt to control pitch and roll. When it finishes venting maybe the gyration will ease as well. Navigation is down so we’re flying blind. All main engines are shut down until we can get a fix on you guys. Life support seems out so we’re on cans. This will be touch and go even if we can stabilize into orbit. You had better have some help on hand.”
“I have you four hours out from orbit. Have you run deceleration at all?”
“Affirm. The clock was at minus 7.42.38 when it shut down. We can pull the extra G but that depends on how long it takes to stabilize.”
“Roger to all that. Standby.”
Robbie hit the big red button.
The guppy pod had always been the emergency room even way back when it was the messing area for the original twenty people on the planet. At twenty-four feet across instead of the twelve of the other surface cylinders it had a floor area miniscule by terrestrial standards. Now, as the occasional council, court and more recently visitor greeting room it still was the place to go when the shit hit the fan.
Harry Broadbent as governor of the colony always tried to look the part, unusually this morning he looked like shit, bleary eyed and unshaven with his jacket all creased. David Livermore the CFO, his shirt hanging out and hair awry had clearly run into a fan on his way there. Dirk Van Osteen the Afrikaans manager of Off World Exploitation, the mining subsidiary and employer of sixty percent of the Mars population, stumbled in half dressed. Doc Galbreith and Constable Lesley Parkinson were already there and waiting, their attire immaculate even if their faces wore a hint of fatigue. Both had been on duty some hours before the call and had come straight from their respective locations, the doc from his emergency room two pods down and Lesley from her desk almost opposite the guppy pod.
“Tanya coming?” Harry asked of Lesley, the question referring to Tanya Jones, the Commissioner of Police.
“She’s an hour out with the guys from Harkness. I spoke to her just a few minutes ago and she’ll head back if it’s needed. Like us she wants to know what this is all about.”
“Excelsior.” Harry said. “They’re inbound with a major incident. Three dead, two serious. All life support is out. They can’t land, even orbit is questionable.”
“Draken’s teeth.” Van Oesten grimaced. “They just going to fly by?”
“Tracking puts it more likely as a strike.”
“Fuck.” Van Oesten breathed.
“How can we stop that?” David asked.
“It’s not certain yet. Robbie tells me, and he should be patched in by the way, so we can talk to him.” Harry punched buttons on the communications panel. “Hello Robbie, are you there? I don’t have picture. Do you have anything?”
“Sound only Harry, but loud and clear. Very loud.” Robbie answered.
Ignoring the jibe Harry turned back to the room. “Robbie tells me they’ve got a holed tank but it’s nearly vented so they should get some control back soon. With that they hope to stabilize and run an orbital burn. That will help, but not enough. They still can’t land.”
“Isn’t there some sort of plan for this?” David asked.
“In concept.” Harry told him.
“No more than that?”
“OK the idea is that you can repair a damaged ship once it’s parked in orbit. So long as there is one here to ferry its cargo it doesn’t need to land. It won’t be easy or quick but it’s do-able.”
“Once it’s in orbit.” Van Oesten noted.
“Once it’s in orbit.” Harry confirmed.
“What if they can’t make orbit?” David asked tenuously.
“Don’t even think about it.” Harry told him.
“Seriously, is there anything, however daft it sounds that could be done?” David questioned.
“Piggy back?” The voice came from the tower.
“Who’s that?” Harry asked.
“Kirk Michaels. We’ve got Exchanger this trip, I’m P1.”
“Hi Kirk, what do you mean by piggy back?” Harry asked.
“One atop the other, strap them together then put the brakes on.” Michaels said.
“David said daft, but that’s not so bad an idea if it were do-able.” Harry returned.
Another voice came from the tower. “There are some thirty ton strops lurking over on the flight line, even if it can’t be a direct bolt up job that would be better than letting Excelsior impact.”
“So who is this?” Harry asked again.
“Peter Hopkins. Flight line Chief.”
“Who else you got there Robbie?” Harry queried.
“Four pilots and most of the flight line maintainers. Pretty crowded.” Robbie told him.
“What do they think?”
“We have to try.” Robbie said.
“How? Harry asked. “Give me a plan and I’ll go for it.”
“We have two ships on the ground.” Kirk said. Mine is ready to go. But she’s full. Exceeding is half unloaded. Get her empty and skyward with a full compliment. Lash her to Excelsior and at least get her into orbit.”
“OK, who is going to fly her?”
“I’ll volunteer.” Kirk Michaels said. She’s not my ship so I can’t dictate. But I would be willing to swap.”
“Chief, is this a viable solution?” Harry queried.
“I’ll have to run a few ideas, but it should work.” Pete Hopkins told him.
“How quickly can you get Exceeding unloaded?” Harry asked.
A hushed conversation could be heard over the live link. “We think three hours.”
“Not enough time.” Harry observed. “Without brakes they impact in two and a half.”
“The shuttle.” Someone said. The accent was North American. “It’s ready to go, and it has a twenty ton winch for picking up equipment. It’s not meant for it, but it’s space capable. The big ships have a frame lifting hook point so at least we could slow Excelsior down.”
“That hook.” Chief Hopkins pointed out, “Is for lifting generators and the like, not a fully loaded ship.”
“Quarter g, quarter the weight.” The voice answered. Maybe that’s too fast for orbit but at least it can avoid impact and maybe we can slingshot around for a second attempt.”
“Do it.” Harry said. “It’s a better option anyway because if it doesn’t work at least we can get the crew off.”
“I’m not shuttle trained.” Kirk Michaels said.
“Alan and I are.” Richard Price, Exceeding’s P2 spoke up. “We’ll do it.”
“Chief, can you make this happen?”
“Forty minutes.” Hopkins answered. “To run an ‘A’ check then it’s good.”
“So get going.” Harry ordered. “And I want Exceeding empty in record time. “The Exchanger crew will take the shuttle out and intercept, but I want no bloody silly heroics. We get everyone back alive.”
“Got it.” Hopkins said, and immediately started giving orders.
Peter Hopkins’s orders didn’t work out quite like he intended. Nevis Hadley, the North American voice they had heard and pilot of the USS Discovery, the NASA rocket ship sat over a thousand kilometers away, was having none of letting someone else fly his shuttle. Well, truth to tell it wasn’t his shuttle but since landing Discovery he’d been at a loose end and had kept busy flying Harry’s shuttle for over two earth years. He’d accrued more shuttle flight hours than anyone anywhere in the galaxy and he wasn’t slow to tell Harry so.
Harry saw the sense in it. It would be silly to risk all the competent flight crew he had, and if it went wrong he could lose all of them. Best to keep at least two on terra firma and let Nevis be the hero. Nevis and a team of eight were sky borne in under the forty minutes.