29 – Free fall

The retros were not firing. It was actually surprising that anything at all worked on this clunker, but he had hoped that at least something as basic to survival as the brakes would have been even marginally functional… they weren’t.

As it was, he was now on board fifty tons of metal that were, save for what little lift re-entry speed still gave it, practically in free fall.

Most of the in-atmo instruments were dead, but years of practice told him he had six minutes at most before hitting the ground.

A zig-zag pattern to reduce his speed would have been his first option, but it was difficult enough to keep control as it was. He was sure any attempt at anything more fancy than a straight flight would probably just break the ship apart.

He scanned the fast approaching surface of the planet for visual cues to his position. The clouds made it difficult to tell for sure but, if he had timed the entry vector right, he should be somewhere near Gernsback Point.

The approaching coast looked frustratingly nondescript… but the three crescent shaped islands seemed familiar enough. If he was right, and that was a big ‘if’; Moebius Peak would be his marker.

Suddenly the clouds parted. He could clearly see the outline of the white mountain rising tall over the eastern sierra. He was coming in too fast.

The controls fought back as if they hated him while he tried to keep the angle of attack just right. If he pulled the nose to high he would loose lift too fast and stall.

The mountains became a menacing mouth full of sharp teeth, and they were closing on him fast.

“–Come on! Pull up, you big piece of junk. Pull up!” He heard himself screaming.

Suddenly the last peaks zoomed past him, a bit too close for comfort but without even grazing the wings. He saw the vast expanse of Gibson Valley open up in front of him.

He strained his eyes, trying to find the runway. It should be a bit to port… right past the lake.

“–Gotcha!”

The tiny black line was right where he expected. He was still going too fast. It was going to be close… and probably quite hard.

He wrested against the stick, trying to make the curve as fluid as possible. The strip appeared to jump and wiggle all the time, but he knew it was the ship vibrating from the strain.

As gently as he could, he began to pull the nose up. The timing had to be just right or he would end up as a dark and flaming smear on the tarmac.

“–Easy, easy…”

He wanted to wipe the sweat from his brow, but that would have meant letting go of the stick and he was not about to do that now.

“–Here goes nothing.”

He pulled the switch, and felt the landing gear thump into place beneath him, just seconds before hitting the ground. He felt the shock, and slammed his feet hard against the wheel brakes.

“–Please, let this at least work.” He thought as the end of the runway began to get close.

He was secretly surprised when they did work, and doubly so when the retros finally woke up and fired, slowing the ship until it stopped.

The hull integrity alarm was still pinging loudly. He slammed his fist on the cutoff switch hard enough to add a fresh dent to the console. The noise died down. He slouched back into the seat, exhausted.

He was barely out the hatch and off the ladder when he heard Smitty’s infuriatingly cheerful voice behind him.

“–See? Didn’t I tell you she was a dream to fly? And all I ask for her is five thousand credits. It’s a steal, man! Tell you what. I’ll even be a pal and take that old rust-bucket you call a ship as downpayment, just to show how much I like you.”

He turned around and punched him in the face without a word, knocking him cold.

He stared at the unconscious swindler at his feet and carefully considered waiting for him to come around just so he could punch him senseless once again.

“–Oh, fuck it.” He said, finally deciding it wasn’t worth the effort.

“–I need a drink.”

Rumor at the nearby trading post was that the old miner up Druillet hill made ends meet distilling the best moonshine this side of the quadrant. He was just in the mood to find out if it was true.

• • •

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