Chapter 7:

Any Landing You Can Walk Away From

Challengers


“If you can walk away from a landing, it's a good landing. If you use the airplane the next day, it's an outstanding landing.”

Chuck Yeager, test pilot

***

“Strap in!” Minori punched a button on her pilot’s console. Steel shutters snapped in place over the cockpit windows. With her other hand she activated the ship’s intercom. Her voice echoed throughout the Mistral. “All crew, anomaly warning! EMP is imminent! I say again, EMP is imminent!”

Just then, the Mistral Challenger pitched roughly to one side as the electro-magnetic pulse hit. To my horror, I could feel the ship plummet earthward.

The lights went out. For a few frightening moments we were in the dark, then red emergency lighting flickered on, bathing the bridge in an ominous shade of crimson.

“We are losing power to our primary MHD drive, Lieutenant Asakusa,” Keenan said in his unnaturally calm voice. “You must land the Mistral now while we still have lift.”

“Copy that! Everyone, strap in. We might experience a few bumps.”

I spared a few moments from my terror to admire Minori’s coolness under stress. Her hands moved quickly but calmly across her controls. From time to time she issued terse instructions over her headset to various stations throughout the ship.

The ship started to shake even more as it continued its descent.

While belting myself into my seat, I did a quick headcount and came up one person short. I twisted my head and saw Aiko kneeling on the floor with her arms wrapped around her precious Tama. She whispered something into the big cat’s ears, then pointed to the exit.

Tama’s eyes were as large as saucers, and he was making a low mewling sound completely out of character for such an intimidating beast. He gave Aiko a look of sorrow that was almost human, then vanished in a flash through the bridge entrance.

For a split-second, I thought I saw the tiniest amount of fear show on Aiko’s face, and then I remembered what Minori had told me: Aiko was afraid of flying. And her worst fear was about to come to pass.

The Mistral lurched sideways, forcing Aiko to grab onto a nearby handhold. Her eyes darted around the bridge, looking for something more secure.

I whirled the heavy gunner’s chair around. “Aiko!” I held a hand out to her. “Grab hold!”

When I was in high school, it was always my dream to have beautiful girls throw themselves at me. But I had to travel 140 years into the future for that to happen.

Without hesitation, Aiko launched herself through the air into my arms, knocking the breath out of me. She latched onto me like a starfish on an oyster.

“Brace yourselves!” Minori shouted. A high-pitched keening noise came from the ship’s turbines, rising in pitch and drowning out all other sounds. “Impact in three… “

The floor pitched violently upwards, then down again.

“Two….”

Emergency lights flickered, leaving the bridge illuminated only by strobed red flashes.

“One --“

We came in hard. The Mistral Challenger bucked and shuddered like a living thing as it slammed into the earth. I heard someone scream and hoped it wasn’t me.

Sheer momentum drove the giant vessel forward. Viewscreens showed it mowing down trees and plowing up decaying tropical vegetation, leaving shattered trunks and flaming debris in its wake. Then, with a final boom from the aft section, the Mistral slewed sideways and came to a halt.

Silence descended on the downed craft.

The bridge lights came on again, replacing the red emergency lighting. “Is everyone okay?” Minori asked. She threw a switch and opened the shutters. Sunlight poured into the control center.

I raised my head and looked out through the windshields. Dirt and ash had been thrown up by the force of our impact, obscuring the view of swaying palm trees and towering cypresses.

“I’m good,” I gasped. “Excellent piloting, by the way.”

Keenan straightened up slowly, as if his operating system was rebooting. “My frame and internal systems are undamaged.”

“I’m -- I’m fine too,” Rio said. Her contragrav chair had locked itself to the deck before the crash, and she looked the least frazzled of all of us. Her ponytails swished as she turned to say something to me.

She froze, her mouth forming an unspoken “Oh!”

Aiko was still on my lap, gripping me tightly. I was sure she’d left bruises where her fingers were digging into me.

Her eyes opened and she took several deep breaths. Then, as gracefully as if she’d practiced the move, she let go of me and slid smoothly to the floor.

Her face slightly flushed, she straightened the hem of her tunic and spoke to Rio as if she was coming to the point of a lecture.

“And now you can see for yourself, young Rio, why we must remain wary around Lieutenant Peterson.” She casually flipped her hair off her shoulder and turned to Minori. “Lieutenant, I’ll go through the ship and begin damage assessment.”

Dignity restored, she strode off.

Rio tilted her head to one side and gave me a puzzled look. “But, why didn’t she just take the co-pilot’s seat to start with?”

Keenan tried to be helpful. “Perhaps Ensign Kinoshita is secretly attracted to Lieutenant Peterson and would rather take refuge in his arms than --”

“Keenan!” Somehow Minori managed to shout and grit her teeth at the same time. “Shut up and focus!”

“Ohhh!” Rio said, looking at me with wide eyes. She turned slowly back to her instrument panels, as if pondering what she’d seen.

I found out later Tama had his own padded flight cushion in a shock-absorbing cage just outside the bridge. Which is, of course, where Aiko had sent him right before the crash.

The Mistral crew went through post-crash landing checks. Keenan, Rio and Aiko shared status and damage reports with Minori, who heaved a sigh of relief. “The hull is intact and any systems that are down can be replaced or repaired in the field.”

“The Mistral was built for endurance and toughness over anything else,” Keenan said. “I am relieved the ship’s builders were able to implement a reinforced structure.” He looked as pleased as though he’d thought of the idea himself.

Minori removed her headset, ran her fingers through her lush, dark hair, then stretched. “We can have the engines going and be airborne in just a few minutes. It could have been much worse.”

But of course, things had to get much worse…

“Lieutenant Asakusa! I show multiple aerial contacts,” Rio said. She pointed to one of her screens. “They’re heading straight for us!”

“They're coming from the origin point of the rip,” Keenan said. He checked his station’s displays. “Your contacts, Rio, are personnel wearing contra-grav harnesses.”

“What? What do you mean?” I asked in the silence that followed this announcement.

He looked at me with his unsettling silver eyes and smiled. “I believe you’d call them ‘paratroopers,’ Lieutenant.” He shifted his attention back to Minori.

“Lieutenant Asakusa. The Mistral is about to be attacked by a Cyclad raiding party.”

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