Thursday, July 21, 2011

Friday Fiction for July 22, 2011

Friday Fiction is hosted by the gracious and talented Vonnie, over at My Back Door. Head on over, make yourself comfortable, and spend some time reading terrific stories until all your troubles are forgotten on the back porch.

This week marked two occasions in space exploration. First was the 42nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing, and second was the final flight and landing of the American Space Shuttle program. In the last fifty years, excursions into space have become almost routine, but we Sci-Fi writers envision a time when they are as common as commuter air travel is today. This week’s excerpt is from Chapter 5 of “Eridanus Comes,” as a shuttle chartered by the Eridani Embassy returns to Earth from a trade conference in the Lunar city, Earthrise. Just as with air travel today, there will always be those less than comfortable with the process, even when it’s an everyday occurrence.


According to the time and the system, they were well past Midpoint, and it wouldn’t be much longer before they started decelerating in preparation for entry-orbit. The last thing he remembered before waking up had been many hours earlier, and he felt a certain satisfaction at having slept through most of the journey.

The pilot announced the imminent rotation maneuver in preparation for deceleration, and one of the cabin attendants floated down the aisle to visually ascertain that each passenger was fastened into their seats and safe. Another collected or secured all loose objects that could become projectiles in either the flipping move or when the engines fired for braking, while the third attendant followed along looking for anything the previous two might have overlooked.

With the checks complete, the pilot announced the move one more time, and then the shuttle performed a flat spin to present the main engines to the direction of travel. A moment later, the vibrations of the engines produced a low hum inside the cabin, and David sank into the back of his seat as the shuttle began to slow.

Closing his eyes, he concentrated on working puzzles and riddles in his mind – anything to keep from thinking about just how fast they were traveling towards the cluttered space around Earth. The shuttle companies trivialized the risks, pointing out the number of remotes that orbited the world sweeping up stray debris before it could drift into one of the traffic paths, but that didn’t do much for his confidence. One repair crew in space losing a tool could create a greater hazard to a shuttle than a dedicated weapon would be. It was not a good train of thought to pursue with nothing but airless death waiting outside followed by an unceremonious cremation as the corpse entered the atmosphere.

Were there atheists on shuttle approaches? They were hurtling towards a huge ball of rock, and their survival depended on a vessel made by humans.

The same kind of folks that made much of his farm equipment, which he needed to repair on a regular basis.

The puzzles didn’t work; the more he tried to not think about his situation, the more his mind went right back to it. He prayed instead, preferring to think about God having the shuttle in His hands rather than trusting the pilot and maintenance crew for his long-term outlook.

The deceleration went on for far too long, in his estimation. It hadn’t taken that long to slow for landing on the commercial shuttle’s approach to Earthrise, and he half-expected if he opened his eyes to see that they were accelerating back towards the Moon, rather than preparing for atmospheric entry and landing at Portland.

The engines throttled back, relieving the pressure that held him pinned in the seat. Was that planned, or was that a problem?

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the pilot said over the address system. “We will be reorienting our shuttle in just a few minutes for aerodynamic flight. Those in window seats will be able to enjoy some spectacular views of the Earth as we orbit into position for our descent and approach into the Portland Terminal. We remind you that your restraint releases will remain locked out until we are once again on the ground in Portland. Please just relax and enjoy the remainder of the flight, and we’ll have you to your destination in no time.”

Great, he thought. They were about to start falling towards Earth, and he was a prisoner in his seat. There was a reason he didn’t travel much, and so far he’d found no reason to change his mind.

The pilot commented about Europe being visible out the left side of the shuttle, while the Mediterranean Sea and the north coast of Africa could be seen to the right. David took a quick look out the window, and then shut his eyes again. It might be a beautiful view to some, but to him it was just a stark reminder of how high up they really were. The crew sounded confident and assuring, but they were well over one hundred kilometers above the surface, upside down and flying backwards. It didn’t feel like a good position at all.

He was pressed back in his seat again as the main engines built up thrust. They were slowing down some more? The deceleration went for some two to three minutes, and then the shuttle’s nose pitched up. Torn between keeping his eyes shut and seeing what was going on, he looked out the window to see the distant horizon of the planet flipping around until it stopped at an odd angle. The shuttle was right-side up, flying forward, but with the nose angled high.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we are now descending into Earth’s atmosphere. Very shortly, your window views will be blocked by the insulating shades which will activate to protect you from both the light and the heat of this phase of our approach. Once we have achieved standard aerodynamic flight, the shades will retract allowing you a view of the landscape as we pass over the Pacific Ocean and the northwest rainforests on our path to Portland.”

The pilot might as well have been driving an old-fashioned tour bus through Manhattan for all the concern his voice carried. The windows darkened, and before long a slight sound penetrated the cabin, growing in volume the longer they fell. The outside atmosphere rushed around the shuttle, generating enough heat as it did to consume rock and metal. How did folks like the rover handle it? How could they get aboard a shuttle time and again like it was just a routine trip into town? He’d seen the red streaks of shuttles returning high overhead in the nighttime; it always seemed incredible that anything could survive the process, much less do so over and over again.

The ride got bumpy, adding to his trepidation. He knew that only meant the air outside was becoming denser and soon would support the shuttle in standard flight. That didn’t dispel the feeling that something was going wrong, though, and he again prayed to take his mind off the barrage of worries assaulting his thoughts.

Feeling some relief when the nose pitched down and the shuttle transitioned into normal flight, he took some deep breaths and made a conscious effort to relax. The remainder of the trip was little more than a flight aboard an ordinary transport, and it wasn’t long before the pilot announced their imminent touchdown on the Portland tarmac. In view through the window were the buildings of the terminal, surrounded by various transports and a couple of other shuttles. They settled to the ground and eased into one of the boarding tunnels, and it was over.

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