Aerobrake

By Sean Monaghan

The galaxy, for a moment, looked frozen. Claire’s ship pitched on its axis and she had a passing view of the stars in lockstep with her angle through the forward windows. From orbit, especially this low, the distant blazing suns were always sweeping by. The ship’s current altitude, 326 kilometers, had her completing an orbit in just over ninety minutes.

The ranging radar pinged at her. She was less than thirty kilometers from the errant satellite. With a sweep on the controls, she swung the cockpit around on its internal gimbals. For a moment she was in darkness. Only another couple of hours and she would be done for the month. Back to Levithab for two weeks in the station’s gravity spin. After three months on call–basically meaning out all day every day–and a full week in the Demeter’s tiny cockpit and living quarters, she really needed a break. The ship was starting to feel dank and lived in, like old socks that needed a wash, rinse and airing.

The hull’s underside window slots rolled into view as the cockpit slowed. It locked into a position with a heavy clunk. Now she was looking along the ship’s underside, the long, sleek groove with the six chunky bulbs of the grabbers. Below she could see the snowy Andes.

Following the turnaround she called up a hot soup from the dispenser and after a moment a silver tube slid into the dispenser’s slot. Putting the nozzle into her mouth she sucked gingerly. Minestrone. Mashed, by necessity, but still thick and good.

“Claire?” the radio squawked at her. Mandy, back at the McKinnon outpost dispatch. Claire liked McKinnon. After time in Demeter it always felt spacious and clean. Nothing like Levithab, but then that station catered to the tourists and executives. McKinnon was strictly a maintenance hub.

“Hi Mandy,” she said. Mandy was always cheerful and upbeat. She was always in the process of ditching a boyfriend or wooing someone new. Nothing seemed to last more than a week or two. “I’m coming up on our sat. Sweepstar 36. I’ve got a visual. Nasty angle on her solar panels here.”

“I can see you on my scope.”

“It looks like a twenty minute job at most. I’ve got spares on board.” Easy, she thought. Unbolt the sail with the Demeter’s claws, bolt in a new strut and fix the panels onto that. She could do it all from the cockpit through the screens.

“Yeah, sorry honey, I’m going to have to ask you to ditch that and take on a new assignment.”

Claire’s shoulder’s slumped. She could see the satellite, a pinprick of light moving in at her. “Don’t do this. I’ve got leave coming up. Soon as I’m done with this cold little Sweepstar, I’m having time off. You didn’t forget that did you?”

“It’s an emergency.”

“Mandy, it’s always an emergency.” People wanted their communications now. They wanted their Google updates right now. No one could wait a couple of days. No one could wait an hour.

Claire was in her forties now, and felt like she was still clawing her way through life. Myth had it that satellite recovery pilots were well-paid. They were–she was–but there were a whole lot of expenses against that. The monthly payments on the Demeter were more than most people made in a year. And then there was insurance, fuel and consumables. Rental on the slot at McKinnon, commission for Mandy. It added up fast.

“Got a ship in trouble,” Mandy said. “Guy in there’s bleeding oxygen.”

Claire took a sip of water from the cockpit tube. Though it tasted fresh and cool, she always balked a little at the end of a tour, knowing that every drop was recycled from the air and waste systems.

“You still there?”

Claire sighed. Why did they let morons up here in ships? “Well tell him to suit up. There’s no way I can help.” Distances up here were so different to down on Earth. It took a lot of fuel to alter orbit.

“He’s six hundred kilometers from you. In a similar orbit. Fifteen kilometers higher, so he’s a little slower than you there.”

Automatically Claire checked the fuel levels. With a quick burn she could make that distance in maybe twenty-five minutes. At least she wouldn’t have to go high, overshoot and then decelerate to meet the idiot’s orbital velocity.

“I’m the closest?”

“By a factor of five. That shouldn’t surprise you.”

“Of course not. Send me his details. I’ll get underway. What about this satellite?”

“Someone will get it on the next shift. Sorry to mess with your vacation.”

“I can just add it on the end, right?” With the change in orbit, trying to patch his ship and everything else, she was going to lose at least a half a day now.

“Uh,” Mandy said. “Maybe. I’ll have to talk to Nichols.”

“You talk to him.” The data started coming up on Claire’s displays.

The stricken ship was a Boeing-Spader Amdrift 16. Similar to her own Sikorsky, but newer. She’d flown in the Amdrifts for a couple of years. Light and responsive, though with harsh cockpits. No one had thought to include padding on some of the internal spars and she’d had to tape her own pieces of foam in.

A rescue would pay her at regular rates plus expenses, plus fuel. But it was cutting into her vacation time. She was old enough now that she knew the value of time off. More than she could count in dollars.

She rotated back around to flight configuration. The stars spun by as the Demeter’s bow pitched down. The onboard system plotted her an intercept course. Thirty two minutes.

“I’ve got limited details here,” she told Mandy.

“Location?”

“Sure, got that, but no telemetry from his ship.” She started cycling the main engine system to give her a full burn. Something from the back of the cockpit was clicking as if it had fallen out of place. She turned and squinted toward the sound, but couldn’t see anything. Pulling a daughter screen from the side of her main display, she had it run a system check on the cockpit servos. Demeter would be getting a full service while she was on Levithab, but she didn’t want anything fouling up now.

“How about now?” Mandy said. “I’ve routed your security feed to pick it up. Are you looking at his oh-two?”

“If he’s losing it, yes. It’s going to take me a half hour to get there.” Claire watched her screen. She snapped up Mandy’s security and tried to pull the data that way. Nothing.

“I guess the ship’s damaged,” Mandy said. “Maybe it’s lost its feeds too?”

“Gotta be something. I mean, if he’s still intact enough to have sent a distress.” She could see the emergency triangle broadcast coming through. With another snap, she had the Demeter’s probe codes seek back along that broadcast and try to open up the datafeeds from that.

“Oh. There’s something,” Mandy said.

The ship’s telemetry started coming through. On the left half of the screen Claire saw a flash from the main engine: ready.

“His orbit’s decaying,” Mandy said. “He’s…”

Claire stopped listening. The pilot’s name came up on her display. David Scanlon.

Her son.

“Can you confirm that?” she said to Mandy.

“His location?”

“Identity. It’s coming up as David.” Claire kept reading. Employed by Philadelphia Duster Co., a diversified company providing low Earth orbit sweeps. Eighteen years old, two years out of school, with a pilot’s license already.

“David Scanlon,” Mandy said. “That’s right. He’s… oh. Is that…?”

“Yep.”

“I’ll pull you off the mission. Finish up with the Sweepstar. They’ll find someone else to get to David.”

Claire didn’t change her vector. What was he doing up here as a pilot?

“Claire? Acknowledge.”

Reaching for the burn icon, Claire held her finger for a moment. “I’m going to get him. You already said I was the closest.”

“I can’t let you. You’ll be… hey!”

Claire had tapped the disconnect. Mandy no longer had override control. Risky. If something went wrong with Demeter now, it limited options from the outside.

“Claire? You locked me out.”

“I’m going to get him.” She touched the burn control and the blast shunted her back into the seat. As the ship rattled away from the Sweepstar 36, she recalculated the vectors. She pushed it up to a six-gravity acceleration. The ship’s onboards recalculated the path.

“You’re going much too fast,” Mandy said. “You’re going to overshoot.”

The Demeter was sixty meters long. Her main fuselage was a shade under five meters across at the widest point. She looked, to Claire, like a wingless version of the old seaplanes she’d seen photos of, but with the cockpit set far further back. Her main nacelle was right behind the cockpit, and along each side there were three bulbous stubby legs. The underside of the hull, between the legs, was soft and configurable.

She would approach a satellite, nestle it in between the legs, which would then twist to grip it. With a satellite in place, she could effect repairs, mostly with the remote arms and tools that slipped out of slots in the bulbs. A lot of it was automatic, but on occasion she had to do EVA, just to hit something with a hammer or rip away some stuck shrouding.

The little ship was not built to be a racer. Six gravities was above her standard rating.

Claire could feel it in her eyeballs and chest.

“Claire. Unlock your systems.”

She opened her mouth to reply, but nothing more than a hoarse whisper came. Of course she’d experienced burns like this coming up here from the ground, but she’d never run the Demeter at this pace.

“You’re going to wreck your ship,” Mandy said. “Let me have override so you can get optimal delta-v here.”

David had been in school, last she’d heard. A couple of stupid things she’d done a decade and a half ago, and the boy’s father had sued for custody. She’d barely seen her son in the meantime. Last time had been a couple of years back.

She’d been on the ground, in Memphis. Her sixteen year old son had been dropped at an Arby’s to meet her for lunch. He’d muttered a few non-words, practically eaten his weight in burgers, and stared at her.

“I miss you,” she’d told him. Friends had assured her that it was a transition, that he’d talk to her again.

But then she’d gotten this contract, and she needed the money. Somewhere, almost sub-consciously, she’d known that being in orbit was a way of hiding out. Avoiding something. What she hadn’t counted on was how much more it would make her miss him.

“Okay,” Mandy said. “Keep accelerating like that. Have you got a handle on it? Because you’re about six minutes from him now, but you’re going to have to shed that velocity.”

“Yes,” she wheezed. She tapped the automatics. The main engine throttled back to almost nothing and she came almost weightless again. The forward thrusters flipped the ship around and the nacelle opened up again, shoving her back into the pilot’s seat.

“You’re a hundred thirty kilometers from him now.”

Claire didn’t answer.

He’d talked about his ambitions, sometimes. They’d had a whole week when he was ten, out at Cape Henlopen, with the ocean crashing in and the gulls wheeling. A nice age. Old enough to have intelligent conversations, young enough to not be surly. He’d talked about becoming an architect or an engineer or a political scientist. That last surprised her, but it turned out he followed the machinations of international relations, and the continual acrimonious hedging of Republicans and Democrats. Very aware for age ten.

But here he was a pilot.

He had to be a trainee, so how could he be out on his own?

The ship should have been set up for multiple crew. At the very least a twin berth vessel with an experienced, capable pilot riding along with David. She’d taken some cadets out on occasion, though training wasn’t her forte. She tended to get irritated and impatient with them.

The deceleration diminished. It ramped back to perhaps just two gravities. Able to move her arms easily again, she called up the mission brief David had been working to.

An Egyptian research satellite, monitoring Nile irrigation levels. It swept around in a low-inclination orbit, crossing not only Egypt but numerous other dry countries, doubtless gathering intel on agrarian practices in all those regions.

It had gone on the fritz two days ago and Philadelphia Duster had sent him out.

In a way she thought she should be glad that he had a job.

“What’s their problem?” Claire said.

“Oh, you’re talking to me now?”

“Why would they send David out on his own?”

“Give me a minute. Okay, you’re six minutes out now. He’s moved lower. Whatever’s venting is throwing down fast.”

“I’ve compensated?” Claire could see on her displays how David’s ship was dipping. Another orbit and he was going to go into the atmosphere.

“Yes. Don’t go too low.”

“Roger that.”

It went without saying that the Demeter was not a landing ship. She’d been constructed in space and at the end of her working life she would be disassembled up here. With all her knobs and protrusions she would turn to slag and then vapor if she ever dropped too low.

Not when she still had payments to make on it.

“You’re thirty klicks from him.” Mandy said. “You should be able to get useful imagery from your external feeds already.”

Claire daughtered another display and swelled it so she could get the video from the stern cameras. The onboards threw a ranging list on the side and a reticule around the point where the ship lay. Still too far off to be visible at one-by magnification.

“Got him?”

Claire zoomed the feed in. The ship came into view. A little shaky, but clearly a ship. “I see him.”

He was spinning. Not wildly, but it had something out of control going on, as if it had misfired its retros or been in a collision. It was spinning about its axis every forty seconds.

The Demeter’s onboards flickered, pulling up still images of the other ship.

The Boeing-Spader had a narrower fuselage and two more of the leg pods than her own ship. It had red livery along most of its length with bright brassy trim. Big solar panels, similar to the Demeter’s stowed set, stuck out from midway along the ship.

In the still images she could see a wide gash along the side.

Collision.

“What did he hit?” she asked Mandy. “And where did it go?”

“I’ll look.”

The ranging display flashed as the Demeter came in. The magnification dropped down. She was getting close. Less than eight kilometers apart. Her ship was chugging through burns to match velocity. He’d lost height even in the time she’d taken to reach him. They were at 312 kilometers altitude, with a speed of just over twenty-seven thousand k.p.h.

Nothing like enough to stay orbital.

But enough to possibly correct.

“Okay,” Mandy said. “Looks like he came in on a Japanese whaling sat and something glitched with his systems. His ship flipped and smacked that thing straight into the ocean. Huh. Okay. I’ll send you over the telemetry record. He was about to grab it when a nose retro fired and gave him that spin you’re seeing now. Hit the satellite like a baseball bat. Home run. Up and over the bleachers. Splashdown.”

“I might think you were funny, if it wasn’t David in there.”

“Yuh, sorry. What are you going to do?”

“Any sign of comms yet?”

“Nothing. Even the telemetry is buggy. Think he’s running suit air now. Cabin pressure is zero.”

The Demeter came up within a hundred meters, matching velocity. She got a general alarm from the system. A plot appeared showing her parabolic arc into the ground.

“Splashdown indeed,” she said.

“Could you repeat your last?” Mandy said.

“Unless I can get him stabilized, we’re going into the northern Pacific in under thirty minutes.”

“You’re never going to stabilize that. I’m getting your visuals here. He’s going like a windmill.”

Claire brought her ship within fifteen meters. If she went EVA and scooted directly to the center of the rotation, she could clamp on. From there she could use the hand-hold points to climb down to his cockpit. She would need a full tank: if she tried to run on an umbilical, it would be twisted up within a few minutes.

“Can we program Demeter to come pick us up?” Already in her mind she’d abandoned David’s ship. She hated to think the dollar value of it. How much had he invested?

“Pick you up?”

Claire explained. Once she had David outside the cockpit they would let go, if she could get her timing right. The spin would fling them away, into a temporary higher orbit.

“Demeter can do that,” Mandy said. “I think. Might take a minute to program. You need to give me access.”

“Get on it.” Claire released the override.

“It’s not a good idea. You could end up anywhere.”

“Playing a percentage game now.” It was either that or watch him plough through the atmosphere. Claire slipped out of the cockpit into the cramped airlock and started getting her suit on.

“What if he just got out himself?” Mandy said. “You could go get him manually. Without having to risk-”

“Have you talked to him?” Claire imagined him stuck in the cockpit, unconscious from the impact. “Has there been any communication?”

Mandy didn’t reply.

“He’s not dead.” Claire felt her jaw tightening, her teeth grinding. “Not yet.”

“You’re too tied up in this. Let me get-”

“I’m going out there.” The suit’s waist seal flashed green. A good seal.

“I was going to suggest we get someone on the line to help talk you through this. It’s your son, you’re not thinking straight.”

“He’s another pilot in trouble, Mandy. I’m going to get him out.”

“The ship did a burn,” Mandy said. “I guess trying to get to a higher orbit?”

“Tell me only good news here.”

“Sorry. It’s worse. Going into the atmosphere pretty soon.”

“I’m going as fast as I can.”

“You won’t have much margin.”

Then it came to her. A better solution.

“I still think-”

“Hush. I’ve had an idea. How long before we cross the Rubicon?”

“Rubi… oh. Point of no return in, say, eleven minutes. It’s a fluid scale here. Lots of variables. You’ve got some atmosphere bite already.”

Still in her suit, Claire scrambled back into the cockpit. She killed all the daughter screens and expanded her main control, putting it into satellite retrieval.

“What are you doing?” Mandy said.

“Gonna grab him.” With a twist of her hand Claire had the Demeter fire maneuvering thrusters front and back.

“Grab… like a satellite?”

“You got it. I can put a hardline onto him and maybe pick up his controls. Talk to him if he’s still conscious.”

“Or still ali…” Mandy trailed off. “He’s not a satellite, though. I mean, not a robot. There are protocols for crew rescue.

Already Demeter was spinning, coming close to David’s ship’s rotation. In the cockpit, Claire could feel the fraction tug of the spin, pulling the chair against her.

Claire rotated the cockpit so she was facing out through the ship’s keel. With a couple of minor adjustments she got the Demeter’s underside facing David’s ship and spinning at the same rate.

With delicate pushes on the maneuvering thrusters, she brought the ships closer. The leg buds detected the proximity and began softening, ready to mold into the shape of his hull.

The distance closed to within three meters and she gave a little burst on the reverse end thrusters, directing them out and away from the other ship. It wasn’t often that she picked up something so big. Most satellites were less than a quarter of Demeter’s length.

“You’ve got maybe six minutes now,” Mandy said.

“Roger that.” Claire knew full well. The time was rolling by on a big daughter screen she’d already pulled out.

From the tips of the legs tendrils whipped across and grabbed hold of David’s ship. Drawing themselves back in, they pulled the ship close. As it came in, Claire’s window slot fell into its shadow. With a thunk sound the two ships came together.

“Got ‘im,” Mandy said. “Well done.”

“Let me concentrate.”

“Okay. Four minutes thirty.”

Working quickly Claire had Demeter’s onboards work to slow the spin. If she could get them leveled out she would be able to aim up and out of the atmosphere. David’s ship might be a complete loss, but that was very low on her scale.

“Demeter’s sent tendril’s into his ship’s systems,” Mandy said. “There’s some nominal control. He can adjust attitude a bit, maybe. No atmosphere in the cabin. The main engine’s out. Comms are gone. His ship’s pretty dead.”

“We can bring it in for salvage maybe. Once I’ve got him safely off.”

“Yeah. Maybe. Might not be time for all that.”

“How long have I got?” Claire figured that she only needed a couple of minutes to fire up her main engine again and push them higher.

With the cockpit rotated back into position, she clambered into the airlock and started it cycling as she fumbled with the helmet.

No time for a full cycle through the lock. She got a good seal on the helmet, grabbed hand-hold and blew the outer door.

Air blasted by her. The whole cockpit and cabin emptied. It was only thirty cubic meters, but it packed a real punch.

She hoped that with Demeter already compensating for the spin that the little ship would be able to just add in for the sudden venting.

There wasn’t enough air to replenish that. Not after a week since docking and six other proper cycles. She was going to have to ride back in her suit, probably with David in the Demeter’s sealed emergency bunk. She might have to use his tanks.

She didn’t dare think of any alternatives.

Like, he was already dead. Or something else went wrong.

She climbed out of the lock onto the ship’s exterior. Pulling herself along the rungs she could already feel her palms getting sweaty. The suit was doing its best, but her hands still felt slippery.

“Watch your heart-rate,” Mandy said.

Claire looked along the length of the bonded ships. Even with the nasty gash along the hull David’s seemed shiny and new compared to the Demeter. Her own ship had chips and bumps all along the paintwork and edging. Amazing how in a vacuum things still wore out.

Their spin had almost abated now and she could see out into the stars again. They were coming into daylight, dropping out from behind the planet.

She climbed up to David’s cockpit and peered through the viewscreen.

There he was. In a suit. He waved at her and tapped the side of the helmet.

Relief. He was alive.

Claire tapped the viewscreen and pulled right up so her visor touched. “Come on,” she said, “do the same.”

She knocked on the glass. If the interior was evacuated he wouldn’t hear, but he should recognize the signal.

As she watched he slipped out of his harness and swept up to the viewscreen. She pressed her visor in and he did the same.

“Can you hear me?” she said. In all the reflection and refraction from the glass and their visors she could barely see his face.

He turned his head, but there was no response. The viewscreen glass was probably too thick to transmit much sound.

“David?” she shouted.

“Mom?”

Her heart leapt. “Yes. See if you can open your lock from inside.”

“I’m stuck.” His shout sounded so distant and thin that she barely heard it.

“I’ll try to cycle in from out here.”

“I don’t… Mom? What?”

Then Mandy crackled in, her voice suddenly loud and crisp after David’s distant shouts. “Claire?”

“Just going to his lock.” Claire pulled away from David’s cockpit and headed for the airlock.

“You’ve got maybe two minutes.”

“That can’t be right. I blew my own lock.” Claire’s mind raced. If she could fire up her main engine she might be able to gain some altitude with David’s ship attached. It was a standard procedure with a satellite. Not with one about to enter the atmosphere, though. And the velocity required might be too much for the legs. David’s ship might tear away and wreck them both.

No. She had to get him out and into her ship, then let his go and burn with the Demeter alone. His was a loss anyway.

“You’re already streaking,” Mandy said. “You need to get back into your ship.”

“I need to get David out.” Quickly she punched the lock emergency code.

“I’m giving you a count,” Mandy said. “If you’re not back inside your ship before that, you’re dead. Do you understand?”

“You’re the dispatcher, Mandy. Don’t tell me how to run my ship.”

“Huh. Well, until you said that, it’s been nice knowing you.”

“Let me concentrate.” The emergency panel flipped open and she grabbed the red handle inside. Standard emergency access.

“Ninety seconds,” Mandy said. “I’m sending it to your HUD.”

Claire’s helmet display flared. 89. 88. It went to three decimal places, the last figures flashing too fast to read.

Claire yanked hard on the handle. It jerked up and came right off in her hand. Cursing, she tossed the broken piece, sending it tumbling away.

She could see the Earth rolling by below. The sun glinted off the Pacific.

Reaching into her tool belt she found a multi-driver and rotated out a probe. Jamming it into the hole, she wrenched the tool around, looking for the release.

The HUD flicked down to 70.

Despite her digging around, the probe wasn’t releasing the emergency lock.

“Try the hammer,” Mandy said.

“I’m going to break everything.” If only she had an hour and could cut in with a laser torch.

“Try. Hit it on the end of the multi-driver.”

“I’ll wreck it. Then I won’t-”

“Now you’re worried about wrecking a forty dollar tool?”

The display went from 61 to One Minute and flashed on that before changing to 59.

“Better do something,” Mandy said.

Claire got the hammer. She positioned the multi-driver and released it to grab a handhold.

51.

Holding her breath, she swung the hammer over her back. Making sure her aim was true, she brought the tool down on the driver’s handle.

The multi-driver shattered. Fragments bounced up at her. One struck her visor, creating a short hairline crack.

The HUD flickered and went off. It came back on again. 51. It didn’t change.

“Uh-oh,” Mandy said. “You’ve got suit damage. I’ve got a row of reds here.”

“My visor.” The HUD had jammed, just staying on 51. At least the crack wasn’t growing.

“No. Worse. You’ve got punctures on your chest. Pinpricks. You’re losing air.”

“How long?”

“You need to get back inside,” Mandy said. “You need to let him go.”

The multi-driver’s handle had gone, but the solid part of the probe was still wedged into the gap. There was enough protruding that she could take another swing.

“Claire. You’ve got thirty seconds.”

What she should have done was stayed inside the Demeter and given a light angled burn right away. She could have lifted them slowly to a higher orbit and turned to slow into that.

No. She’d done all right. She’d needed to see about getting him off the ship. That was procedure. She’d just wanted to see him, wanted to check he was all right.

“Twenty seconds.”

“My display says fifty-one.”

“That’s because you…” Mandy trailed off. “Wrecked it,” she said quietly. “Sorry. I told you to.”

“It was a good idea.” Claire swung the hammer again.

The probe went into the control system. Part of the external hull split, the thin metal tearing as the probe drove along it.

“Fifteen,” Mandy said.

The airlock door hadn’t budged.

“You need to get back into your ship and break away,” Mandy said. “Now. You don’t even have time to do that. Hurry.”

Claire took pliers from her belt and peeled back the damaged parts. The ship’s skin tore like a soda can. She saw insulation and circuits. And the end of the broken handle. With the pliers she pulled the handle stub up and out.

The door shifted. Just a couple of centimeters, but it was enough.

“Time’s up,” Mandy said. “You’re officially in the atmosphere.”

Claire turned and grabbed the edge, lifting the door from its frame. The inner door was open too. David hung there in the opening. He beckoned her over.

“We have to go,” she said.

He kept waving her over.

With a twist she moved to him and pressed her visor directly against his. “Let’s get out of here.”

“Mom,” he said, his voice closer than before, but still distant. “You shouldn’t have come.” He reached around behind her and pulled the outer door closed.

“What are you…” she stopped. Without direct contact she couldn’t talk to him.

He dogged the hatch closed and moved back to her. “I’ve been watching the readouts. We’re too low.”

“There’s a margin of error. We need to get aboard the Demeter and undock.”

“Can’t.”

“Are you talking to him?” Mandy said. “He’s okay?”

Claire ignored her. “Listen to me,” she said. “I’ve been flying for years, you’ve been up here for, what? a few days. I know we can-”

“We’re in atmosphere, Mom. We need to pilot ourselves down.”

Claire sighed. It had always been like this. Even though she didn’t see him that much, he still had to contradict her.

“You’ve got hull heating now,” Mandy said. “You’re in aerobrake.”

“I need to get back to my ship and get us up to a higher orbit.”

“Whatever.” David turned away and moved for the pilot’s seat.

Claire grabbed his ankle and yanked him back toward the lock. He kicked her off.

“Claire?” Mandy said. “We’re going to lose contact soon.” Her voice was flat. As if she knew she was talking to a dead woman.

Cursing, Claire grabbed for David again. She climbed up his torso and shoved her helmet against his.

“Watch that,” Mandy said. “Your visor’s cracked already.”

“It won’t make any difference.” They were going to burn up now. Her son, the Demeter, all lost and fragmenting as they shot into the atmosphere.

“Let me go,” David said. “I need to be in the chair.”

“Let him pilot,” Mandy said. “He still has some attitude control.”

“But no burn,” Claire said. “He can’t pull us out of this. I should have done that first.”

Mandy didn’t say anything.

“Mom. I need to work here.” David pushed back and got into the main seat.

“You should find somewhere to strap in.” Mandy’s voice crackled. “We’re losing contact.”

“I…” Claire stared at David. “We don’t have a heat shield,” she said.

The radio just clicked static back at her.

“Demeter?” she said. “Do you copy?” No response. Normally the HUD would give Demeter’s answer, but it was still stuck on the 51.

Her ship had burrowed into David’s ship’s systems. Mandy had received the telemetry. Maybe there was a way to route back and fly Demeter from here.

Moving up beside David, she pulled a daughter screen from the side of his main display. His helmet moved as he looked at her, but he kept working on the display, one hand on the control yoke.

Did he believe he could actually fly through the atmosphere?

Working fast on the screen, Claire hunted for Demeter’s systems. It should be easily recognizable. She ran a search and found data streams.

David grabbed her shoulder and hauled her up. Leaning into her he touched visors again. “You should strap into the jump seat.”

“I’m trying to get us out of here.” She found an access to Demeter’s control interface. Switching through she accessed the main nacelle control. If she could get a burn then they might just pull away.

A lot of systems were dead already. No forward thrusters, no external video feeds. The internal temperature was over eighty degrees centigrade already. No external readings.

No fuel. The tanks were dry.

David had emptied them. She could see the list of remote commands.

Was he determined to kill them?

She held the little screen up. “What did you do?”

He shook his head.

Claire kicked up and touched helmets again. “You took control of Demeter? You could have blasted us away.” She could feel weight returning as the atmosphere dragged on them.

“You’re too hopeful,” David said.

“But then you emptied the fuel.”

“It would have ignited.”

“So we’re burning up?” As she said it she knew what he’d done. And it made sense.

She would have done the same. Except it was her son. She hadn’t focused on the most practical solution.

“Demeter’s our shield?” she said.

“Yes. Strap in.”

Claire swallowed. Her ship. Burning apart under them.

The ship shuddered.

Slipping the daughter screen back into the slot she moved to the jump seat. It was still an iffy proposition, riding his damaged ship down through the atmosphere with the Demeter attached. The two were strongly bonded externally, and there were some internal tendrils, but they wouldn’t hold it in if the clamps burned away.

Very chancy.

She wanted to be in the pilot’s seat. It took experience to do something like this. She watched his gloved fingers dance across the display. His other hand moved fast, pushing the yoke back and forth, left and right, keeping the attitude thrusters working. She wondered how long before the poor little nozzles turned to slag. They were never designed to operate in atmosphere.

Just as Demeter had never been designed to be an ablative shield.

She got into the jump seat and struggled with the harness. The ship shuddered constantly now, with occasional sudden jerks. Even through the insulated suit she could feel the heat climbing.

When she was clicked in, she looked up at David. He glanced her way, lifted his hand from the display and gave her a thumbs-up.

Claire took a breath. It was heartbreaking to think that he wouldn’t get a full life. She tried not to blame herself, but she could see so many levels where she’d gone wrong. From fifteen years back, to fifteen minutes. If she hadn’t gone into space, he might have done something safe like accountancy or sports casting.

Maybe, though, it was just in the blood.

Sitting, watching her boy pilot the melded remains of their two ex-atmo ships down towards the ocean, she couldn’t help but feel admiration. Maybe she had done all right after all. Here he was confident and assured, doing something nearly impossible.

After a while, the ride smoothed out. There was still some shuddering, but she got the sense they were through the worst of it.

Well, except for the landing.

David held his hand up, fingers splayed. Did he mean five? Five minutes?

Her radio crackled again.

“Mandy?” she said.

Mandy swore. “Seriously? You’re alive?”

“For the moment. I think we’re going to impact in a few minutes.”

“I’m still tracking you. You look like a meteor. It’s on the T.V.”

“Great.”

“Three minutes twenty left in the air. You’re still going pretty fast. That was some amazing piloting, Claire. You swung left and right, burning off speed and altitude as if you were designed to land.”

Claire smiled. “That wasn’t me.”

David showed her four fingers.

“I don’t know what you’re going to do now,” Mandy said. “You’re going way too fast and way too steep.”

“I think I know,” Claire said. She kept watching. David gave her three fingers.

She was still angry with him, but proud too. If he pulled this off and landed them, she was going to give him the talking to of his teenage life. Then she was going to treat him to the biggest and best meal at the place of his choosing. That would probably be Carl’s Jr., but she could tolerate that.

Two fingers.

She made sure her straps were tight, and wedged her feet in.

One finger.

Smart kid. She hoped it worked. There was a lot to get through yet.

He waved his hand quick, as if silencing someone. Back on the display, he tapped. His other hand yanked the yoke back.

They were either going to explode or gain altitude.

The blast kicked her back into her seat. The ship shook and shuddered. Her helmet knocked back against the bulkhead.

Suddenly she jerked forward. Her forehead hit her visor. Something white flashed across the windows.

She had a moment of weightlessness again.

They’d bounced on the ocean.

She imagined the practically molten remains of Demeter shattering into millions of pieces as they struck the chilled water.

Another bounce. More water over the windows.

“Goodbye Claire,” Mandy whispered.

“Still alive,” she whispered back.

“Hey!”

Another bounce, then another, and suddenly they were flipping. The cockpit whirled around her.

Another second of weightlessness and they plunged straight down, nose first. The ship’s prow pointed at the bottom.

Dazed and dizzy, she could see bubbles streaking past the windows. The descent slowed and they rose slowly. In a moment they were at the surface with water lapping against the windows. She could feel the bobbing motion.

David hung from his harness.

Claire punched her release and climbed down to him. She grabbed his hand. It was limp.

They had to get out of here. She had no idea how long they would stay afloat.

He fell when she unbuckled him. Getting her shoulder around under his torso, she hauled him around. Glad for the cramped cockpit, she pulled him to the airlock door. It opened easily.

Hoping that the outer door wasn’t fused into a solid mass, she punched the release. The door shivered and she felt the pressure of a surge of air rushing in. The door swung away.

Blue sky, some high streaky clouds.

A wave washed water over the airlock’s lip. Claire pushed David up and out. He rolled into the water and floated.

Good. It would be a fine time to find out that their suits didn’t float. She guessed that the pinprick holes in hers wouldn’t matter.

Another waved dumped more water over her.

Climbing out, she floated out next to David. A wave tried to push them back in. She got her boot on the lip and kicked away. The ship had settled further and water rushed constantly through the gap.

Demeter’s cabin and engine nacelle rose up beside her. They were blackened and melted, like the streaked and runny remains of a cheap candle. She dipped her helmet into the water and looked down. She could only see a few meters down, but it looked like almost the whole of the ship had burned away. She could see some parts of David’s ship through gaps.

Pulling back up, she looked at David, peering into his visor. He blinked and grinned back at her. He gave her a thumbs-up sign. She wanted to take her helmet off and talk, but it was better to stay suited until they were rescued. She grinned back and put her thumb up too.

He seemed to mouth I love you, Mom.

“Love you too,” she said.

“Claire?” Mandy said.

“Oh, you’re still in range, huh?”

“Yes. Just. How come you’re alive?”

“Well, it turns out my son is a very good pilot after all.”

“Cool. I’ve got a fix on your location. There’s a navy ship about eighty klicks away. They’re sending a VTOL. I guess they can pick you up.”

“Okay,” Claire said. She rolled forward in the water and put her arms around David.

He rolled too, hugging her back.

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