Book 1 - Alien? Cousins

Chapter 1 - Command Bridge


Saturday evening, December 18, 2004

An enormous SLAM! hammered through Planetary Survey ship 6-844-21, usually referred to by her crew as Survey ’21, or just ’21. The ship jerked viciously in mid-flight; lights flickered or went out, crewmembers were thrown from bunks, chairs, or wherever they had been if not strapped in; equipment, clothing and anything else not well secured in position was hurled in seemingly random directions. Damage levels fell off rapidly with distance from the path of destruction that drove almost straight down through the ship.

Battery-backed electron gyroscopes continued to function, maintaining their attitude references – which way was up, which way was North, which way ’21 had been traveling. Automated systems responded to suddenly changing conditions aboard ship, shutting down pre-selected non-essential equipment to conserve power, cutting off power to systems showing immediate failure. Pressure doors closed; plumbing and ventilation valves slammed shut to seal off leaking compartments and systems, limiting contamination and the loss of vital air and fluids. Some energy accumulator cells failed, instantly releasing millions of terawatt-hours of power and flashing the contents of their compartments into twisted, useless and unrecognizable lumps of metals and ceramics, superheated gases venting overboard mostly through the exit wound in ’21’s belly. Their service cooling systems having failed, both fusion reactors, undamaged, switched to emergency cooling and performed an orderly shut-down.

Much of the energy stored in her remaining accumulator cells was spent in automatically cycling the emergency artificial gravity and temporal-distortion safety fields, then stabilizing Survey ’21, which continued generally along her previous course. Her crew decimated, her reactors off-line, and with insufficient remaining stored power either to climb back to orbit or even to maintain level flight for long, Survey ’21 began an automated landing descent.

* * *

“Sound general quarters, collision! What did we hit?” asked the Captain, scanning his console. Surprised, battered and bruised by his safety harness, still partially dazed and disoriented he might be, but command was his responsibility, and his console displays were giving him scant reassurance. Yawning, he tried to clear his ears following a sudden drop in air pressure.

“Maybe what hit us?” returned the Master Pilot, similarly battered. “There was nothing out there, Captain – nothing we picked up, anyway.”

The First Officer, having just gone off duty, had been walking toward the bridge’s exit hatch when ’21 had lurched around him and the emergency safety fields had come on. He had softly landed on the deck between the Captain’s chair and the flight engineer’s, and so was completely unhurt as normal gravity returned. Now he scrambled to his feet, and looking over the flight engineer’s shoulder at a more complete ship systems’ status display panel than the Captain had, he saw the telltale pattern of alarm indicators, and said “We were hit from above, Captain. Dorsal radiator 503, machinery spaces, stores, lab 6, forward sick bay, crew’s quarters below that, engineering, accumulator and machinery spaces below that, ventral radiators below that. Fusion’s down, power storage is at seven per cent and internal artificial gravity is about to go off-line to conserve power. We’ve lost a lot of air, forward sick bay and at least seven crew cabins. I’ll check for casualties and get a head-count. Through-and-through; we’re headed down in an automated descent.” As he talked, indicators showed various systems automatically “waking up” – those systems which had briefly lost power because of the impact coming back on-line over most of the ship and reporting their status; some showing as failed or questionable – and on one monitor screen showing ’21 as a transparent 3-D image, a roughly cone-shaped area of red alarms and magenta unresponsiveness extended vertically through the ship, including through his own cabin.

“Master Pilot, override! Try to hold altitude,” snapped the Captain.

“Got it,” said the Pilot. Her hands already on her controls, she touched a switch under her left thumb to take control of Survey ’21 from the computer pilot. “Steady; I seem to have good control. We lost a lot of altitude, still above local air traffic. No go for climb.”

The flight engineer’s station was just behind and about six feet to the left of the Captain’s console, which was just above Survey ’21’s center of mass. He had not yet unfastened his own safety harness to go off-watch when ’21 was hit, and while unhurt he was nonetheless shaken. Still, he was alert and he pointed to a screen showing the view from a belly infrared camera. Far below, a brief thermal pulse had been detected, and he zeroed the camera and zoomed in close. A cloud of dust, smoke and vapor was still rising from a small impact crater in the ground. The crater was still hot but cooling rapidly; a few cattle were moving away from it. “Conn, flight,” he said. “Meteorite, straight down, more or less. We had no warning ’cause our dorsal sensors and comm multiplexer are still off-line for repairs, plus we were doing an active data transmission that filled our remaining bandwidth. I’d imagine Fleet was trying to warn us. Bad luck is all – that’s not supposed to happen this deep in atmosphere. Must have been biggish and dense.”

The Captain said, “First, suit up, please get that head count and do a general run-through, go. Be careful! Flight, I need to know if we’re leaking radioactives, fast. Second, you still with us?”

The Second Officer had just come on duty to relieve the First Officer, but had not yet been wearing his complete seat harness when ’21 was hit. He had been bending down to reach the end of one shoulder strap that had slid off his seat; its heavy buckle had struck him in the side of face as the force of the collision whipped the belt upward around the seat’s left armrest. Bleeding from a deep gash on his left cheek and from his mouth where the buckle had cut it against his teeth, he was still shaky. Holding a cloth to his face, he replied, “Shocky, Sir, I’ll cope. Partial panel here, tactical’s down.”

“Conn, flight. Reactors and primary coolant pumping are not in the main damage zone, but secondary pump compartment one was grazed. Air leaks seem stopped for now. Radioactives – all primary cooling shows intact, that’s a relief. There’s some contamination showing in reactor two’s secondaries, and both secondary reservoirs are showing loss; we lost several secondary loops and may still have leaks somewhere. No delivery from secondary pump compartment two; something’s broken. Power status from storage only – propulsion: we have maybe 20 minutes’ normal flight from now at 10% power, plus normal landing surges and five minutes’ hover. Internal artificial gravity is going offline – now. Half an hour maximum before propulsion’s completely gone. We have power for life-support for about a week after that.”

“Thank you, Flight. For the record, you did ask me whether we should take those dorsal sensors off-line. My responsibility. Very well, I’ll figure 15 minutes flight, starting now.” Activating the ship’s public-address system, the Captain said, “Now hear this, now hear this, this is your Captain speaking. You know we’ve been hit. We were hulled by what appears to have been a meteorite. We’re too badly damaged to maintain flight or return to orbit, and must land as soon as possible. We’re approaching San Francisco Bay and will put down somewhere near there. I will keep you informed as our situation develops. Until further notice, please observe radiation, vacuum and power-conservation protocols. Artificial gravity is offline, so all maneuvering accelerations will be felt at full intensity – please move about carefully and only as necessary until we land. We are not, repeat, are not abandoning ship. Thank you.” Releasing the P.A. switch, he spoke at the Master Pilot’s back. “Damn I hate no options!”

“Aye, Captain,” said the Master Pilot. “I wish we didn’t have to do this, though.”

“Same here, Sarah, but we can’t keep this tub up here. Can’t follow orders either, abandon ship and blow our reactors or auger it in. Hopefully there’s something we can all learn – and maybe benefit from – by putting down where maybe we can do some repairs until we can lift on our own or get a pick-up.”

“Tom, we all know the orders meant to cover contact situations simply don’t touch this one. But I agree – even if we could, we wouldn’t want to light that fuse here or we’d fry half of California. Auger in or just put her in the ocean, and somebody’d find her and notice she isn’t just a big rock, and there’d be too much stuff that’d get recovered. Well, with only 14 minutes’ power, our choices are real limited. I still hate this atmospheric dipping by a crewed vehicle – even though it did save our butts this time. I still have manageable flight controls, tell me where and I’ll set us down like a feather. Carole, you back yet?”

Carole, the co-pilot, had momentarily but completely frozen when ’21 had been hit. Ashen-faced, she was now shaking her head, yawning hard to try to clear her ears and regain her composure. “No, but I’ll catch up. Sorry Captain, Sally. Unhh! Lemme, ahh, let me plot air traffic so we can get through it without any more surprises. At least my traffic computers are still up. Gotta do something about the lack of redundant systems aboard this ship!”

The Captain had been working his console. “’21 is her class prototype; never had full redundancies, but when we get back to base I’ll say that so it’ll get heard. Here’s the chart – computer says we’re going in practically in the middle of the south Bay, what luck, and we’ve about a seven-mile radius circle to look for some place suitable. Let’s see – SFO – too much red tape at a place like that; too far away anyhow – Oakland, San Jose, the same. Moffett – worse: NASA, Lockheed, ex-military plus the old Blue Cube, still way too much paranoia. We don’t need those big runways anyhow, or want to cause that much commotion when we drop in. Little places are all we can reach anyhow – Hayward, San Carlos, maybe Palo Alto.”

“I don’t think Hayward’s a good choice,” said Sarah, “any residual radiation will head downwind for – what – they use miles – about two miles; somebody’d get unhappy. Palo Alto or San Carlos – let’s try for San Carlos; usually nobody’s downwind for a couple of miles, and it’s nearest our flight path.”

“Okay, Pilot, sound reasoning. Go for San Carlos; hide in plain sight. Flight, is our radar masking still on?”

“Aye, Captain.”

“Well surprise, more things are still working. Flight, radar masking off now, please, and activate our visual beacons. Commo, please set me up for voice with San Carlos Tower.” While the engineer shut off the radar-suppression field, the communications officer set up the radio mode and frequencies to contact San Carlos Airport’s tower.

“Conn, commo. For San Carlos Tower select Ship to Shore channel six, your mode is voice only, push-to-talk.”

“Thank you, Commo, channel six, voice, push-to-talk. Everybody, wish ourselves luck, ‘The X Files’ never had it so good.” The Captain worked a channel-selector control and then pressed the manual “Talk” switch on his console. “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday. San Carlos approach, San Carlos approach, this is unscheduled flight Survey ’21 declaring an in-flight emergency; we need to land immediately.”

“Survey ’21, San Carlos approach. Good evening sir, please state the nature of your emergency.” The voice from the speakers was a brusque but polite feminine.

“San Carlos approach, Survey ’21. Midair collision, we think with an incoming meteor. We’re losing cabin pressure; unknown casualties; imminent loss of propulsion; multiple system faults; transponders nonfunctional. Present position relative San Carlos bearing now about one-one-eight degrees true, range about three-one miles, course two-four-two degrees true, ground speed two-four-zero knots, altitude about six-one thousand and descending. We must request a straight-in approach and landing clearance, please.”

“Survey ’21, San Carlos approach. Understand losing cabin pressure, casualties, plus numerous malfunctions. How many souls on board and, uh, please say again your position, altitude and speed, and do you require medical assistance? All inbound traffic, repeat, all inbound traffic for San Carlos, wave off, I repeat, wave off to alternate fields.”

“San Carlos, Survey ’21. Souls on board five-seven; still unknown casualty count. Position relative to San Carlos still bearing one-one-eight degrees true, range now about two-seven miles, altitude five-zero thousand and descending, ground speed now two-six-five knots. We may still have medical personnel on board; I will inform you what we may need when I find out.”

“Survey ’21, San Carlos. I don’t recognize your flight profile sir, please state your aircraft type and flight origin.”

“San Carlos, we’re an orbital survey vehicle, ma’am, but we have adequate maneuvering ability.”

“Uh – roger, Survey ’21. How much runway do you need, sir?”

“San Carlos, we don’t; we land vertically like a helicopter. We need about a 400-foot diameter clear surface, ordinary dirt will do if it’s fairly level. We won’t be ground maneuverable immediately; can you please spot us somewhere out of the way? We suggest the empty lot at the far eastern end of your facility – we have your airport in sight now and that area is clear.”

“Survey ’21, San Carlos. You are cleared for a straight-in approach and emergency landing at your discretion. Please be advised that site is unimproved and might not be completely free of debris.”

“San Carlos, Survey ’21. Thank you, it looks good enough to us as-is.”