Explorer One – Mission Eleven
Flynn lowered his head to see what had triggered the alarm. Before his eyes could even focus, Explorer One jerked and shimmied. It groaned with a deep vibration that echoed in his bones.
As he was processing the alert, Explorer One started to pull to the right. Hard.
He grabbed the controls and attempted to level the vehicle, but it wasn’t working. As the ship rolled he had only a moment to regain control. He powered the right wing repulsor and ramped up thrust on the right engine. The roll slowed, then stopped, though he was still fighting hard against the controls as they continued to gain speed.
“What the heck is going on back there?” Flynn asked.
“We have a major problem,” David replied. His microphone sounded blown out, like uncontrolled wind was whipping over it.
“Repeat that?” Flynn asked, checking the growing list of alarms on his flight console.
“Multiple critical errors,” David reported, his voice slightly clearer. “We have a major hull breach back here. I’m looking at open sky, Flynn. I think we’ve lost the left wing.”
Flynn twisted in his seat, but he couldn’t look back far enough without loosening his restraints. The blinking alarms all but confirmed David’s report. Everything that was glowing red represented hardware on the left side of the vehicle.
“David, are you okay?” he asked, still fighting to keep them in the air.
“I am, miraculously, okay,” David answered. “What’s our flight status?”
“All hydraulic systems failed on the left wing. The antenna is out. Belly fuel tank number one is reading empty, but we still have tank two. Left repulsor is offline. Right wing and nose repulsors are operational.”
“Can you keep us in the air?”
The aileron controls on the right wing were suffering under load as it worked to keep them from rolling. The right repulsor was putting out more power than it was designed for, so Flynn expected it to burn out sooner than later. Without it, the ship would begin to spiral out of control.
“That’s a negative,” Flynn said. “We’re going to peak and then it’s a downward trajectory.”
“Next advisable action?”
Flynn took one hand off the controls to access the topography maps he had on hand. There wasn’t going to be a good place for them to land, assuming they made it down before the repulsor gave out. He glanced out the front window and saw the upper levels, much closer to them now than the lower levels. He thought about it only for a moment. The solution was up.
“Do you trust me?” Flynn asked.
“I do,” David replied. “Entirely.”
“Then hold on. This is going to get rough.”
“What are you doing?”
“Crashing,” Flynn replied.
He adjusted their heading, pointing the nose slightly upward and using thrust to continue the climb they had been making before they sustained any damage. He checked the throttle while fuel level alarms started to blink. The navigational computer continued to raise their altitude until their expected apogee cleared the edge of the upper levels. If they maintained their velocity, he could make it.
“Remember how you wanted to actually see the upper levels?”
“I do,” David said, his voice weary.
“In a few minutes we’re going to be in the upper levels. Once we’re there, I’m going to pull a hard stop on all propulsion and use the repulsors to slow us down as fast as I can. We’re going to feel some major gravitational exertion, so be prepared to black out.”
Flynn checked the charts again, Explorer One was on track.
Then, without warning, their velocity started to drop.
He was going to investigate the cause, but there was no need. Despite his fighting on the controls, the ship began to roll again. A new light appeared on the alert panel.
Right Repulsor Failure.
Flynn held the controls and fought the sudden forces working against him. The ship wanted to roll more than ever, but if they were going to survive, he was going to have to keep them upright. As he pushed hard left, however, he experienced a new problem.
The nose of Explorer One was beginning to lift and he couldn’t force it down again. The trajectory warnings indicated that they were losing forward velocity as the remaining wing’s drag increased.
“We’re going vertical!” David yelled over the radio.
“I know,” Flynn replied, his heart pounding in his chest. “I don’t know if I can stop it.”
He decided then, that no thrust was better than too much thrust, so he cut the right engine to reduce the push on that side of the vehicle. When he flipped the switch to kill the power, however, he heard a nasty sparking sound that spread through the cockpit. The engine must have cut off, because the nose started to respond, but then a distant rumble rattled his seat. He knew before the alarm even sounded that adjusting the fuel line had caused something to go up in flames back there.
“Status?” he asked.
“I just saw engine three explode,” David reported. “It’s looking bad back here.”
Flynn checked their trajectory one last time and saw they had the altitude they needed to hit the upper levels. He slammed the emergency power cutoff and heard the rumble of the engines fall silent.
There were a dozen alarms still sounding, but now that the engines weren’t fighting for control he could get a better grip on things and reposition the craft for landing. He still had one repulsor to help with that effort.
He pointed Explorer One toward the surface of the upper levels and immediately wondered if he had made the wrong decision. It looked barren and lifeless up here. What good could possibly come from this, even if he was successful?
He swallowed the doubt. It was far too late now.
“We’re on final approach,” he announced. “Brace. Brace. Brace!”
Flynn repeated the call all the way to the ground. He tried to keep them level as they touched down, but the velocity was too high to dream of any such control. The repulsor had done its best, but it couldn’t stop this much mass.
Explorer One collided with a hard crunch, and Flynn felt the entire cockpit bending around him. The nose took the brunt of the impact, and a moment later there was an explosive pain as a metal panel collapsed on his leg.
He wasn’t sure if he yelled or not, but he maintained his grip on the ship’s controls. He watched their speed rapidly decreasing, and when he knew the worst was over, he let the pain overwhelm him. He faded out of consciousness as David called for him over the radio.
David Nash had expected to die.
Instead, there had been a rough landing, and then silence.
He remained still for a long time after that. He heard noises echoing through the downed ship. There were popping sounds, hissing sounds, and multiple alarms beeped loudly from his command console.
Finally, he decided it was time to move.
“Flynn,” he said, reaching down to undo his restraints. “Are you with me?”
There was no response.
“That was one heck of a landing,” he said, ignoring Flynn’s silence as he got his footing and made his way to the manual release mechanism for the bay doors. He gave it a pull, but was not surprised when it failed to work. He looked around for a moment and found that one of the door panels had been ripped from its hinges, so he simply pushed his way out.
He hit the ground with a soft impact. His legs sank right into the surface. At first, he couldn’t tell if he had landed in some kind of snow or dust. He found his footing soon enough and shuffled forward to the front of Explorer One.
The nose of the ship had hit first, absorbing most of the impact and, unfortunately, taking most of the damage. It was crumpled inward and the damage had wedged the cockpit door shut. David gave a few futile attempts to open it, then looked through the cockpit window where he saw Flynn, motionless, with what looked like the main flight computer housing shoved against his leg.
David saw Flynn’s breath fogging up his visor, which meant the pilot was still alive, so he slammed his hand against the cockpit window several times and yelled through the radio until the pilot suddenly jerked awake.
“There we go,” David said.
“Oh man,” Flynn growled. “Wow, that is painful.”
“A broken leg can be mended,” David said, relieved to hear his friend.
Flynn looked up at him in the cockpit visor and waved. “So we made it?” he asked.
“We made it,” David replied. “The first two explorers to reach the upper levels.”
After trying a few different ways of getting into the cockpit, David Nash decided the only way in was to disassemble the front of the structure bolt by bolt. It was cumbersome with his thick flight gloves, but he made the best of it, chatting with Flynn and ignoring his growing hunger and thirst.
“It’s like something just tore through our wing structure,” he was saying as he pulled another massive bolt away from the ship. “I can’t imagine what we hit.”
“Whatever hit us,” Flynn countered. The pilot couldn’t help David with the physical labor, so he was busying himself looking over their flight data. A healthy dose of painkillers was keeping his mind off his mangled leg. “I didn’t hit anything. We were clear and flying straight. The object entered our trajectory.”
“Too bad it didn’t take out the right wing,” David mused. “I would have liked to have had our long range antenna. At least mission control would know we’re up here.”
“Maybe,” Flynn replied. “It might not have been strong enough to reach down there.”
“Well, at least we’d be able to try.”
Flynn was about to agree when he suddenly remembered something. “That’s it!”
“Our very first mission. We picked up a data signal remember? It overloaded our systems with all its transmissions.”
“Yeah,” David replied. “They built a tower out in the frontier so they could connect with it.”
“How does that help us?”
“David, it has to be transmitting from somewhere up here,” Flynn explained. “If we can find the source, we might be able to send our own message to mission control!”
“Awesome,” David said. “Good. So, I’ll get you out of the cockpit and—”
“You should focus on finding the signal source,” Flynn said, stopping David. “I can’t go anywhere with my leg pinned like this.”
“I don’t know where the source is,” David countered. “I know what I am doing here. One thing at a time. Get you free, then we figure out what comes next.”
Flynn gave a heavy sigh and started typing on his console. “I’ll lock down the location of the source for you. You work on that for now, but once I have a direction, you need to reconsider.”
“I’ll reconsider when I’m ready,” David said, sliding over and starting on the next bolt.