This blog will contain stories taking place in two universes. In one 'reality', Earth has been hit by a large asteroid that wiped out most of the population. Stories (with the exception of the intro) will follow those spared by the impact as they struggle to survive on the now hostile planet. The other story line involves an invasion by a large alien fleet intent on settling on Earth and ruling over mankind. All stories belong to Mihai Pruna, no republishing without permission.

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Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Reentry (Invasion Story #1)

For this view, space tourists pay millions. I got it for free. And it will make a soothing background as I run out of oxygen and slowly die. At least I stabilized the spin, finally. It was making me sick. But now I can even look to my left and get only mildly queasy. There's supposed to be a short stubby wing tilted at a 45 degree angle, with a moving surface at the trailing edge. Instead, there's a hole in the side of my ship. From my vantage point in the cockpit, I can see some cables sticking out. A punctured thruster propellant tank still vents a visible stream of gas, but the pressure has dropped such that the exhaust has no effect on my prow first, upside down drifting.

My comm. antenna, deployed during the brief battle, is gone and I can't raise anyone on the radio.We flew off the Orion first stage into seemingly random orbits, but each of the 20 ships would pass close enough to the enemy fleet to be able to launch our tactical nukes at the same time. The warheads coming from all quarters were theorized to be able to confuse their defense systems and allow us to score some hits. We were to do multiple passes, as our orbits had been designed to intercept theirs more than once. And even if the fleet were to take evasive action - and we thought they were so out of fuel after breaking into LEO that they wouldn't - our nimble interceptors could alter orbit inclination by many degrees and we could get them again and again.And it worked...the mass attack scored some hits. Not actual hits, mind you, but the warheads were proximity detonated. I saw one of their smaller armed ships - we call them destroyers - simply explode. Who knows what we'd hit, maybe their fuel tanks. And one of their transports started spinning crazily, venting gas from a huge gash in its side. I had leisure time as we were moving away to see it start to drop lower and lower, launching rescue pods. It made me feel kind of bad. We know there's innocent people there. Settlers with their families and such. And even though they come from a different star system, they look just like us. Wonder how'd that happen. Exobiology as a science has just started with a bang. I think it would have been easier not to feel bad about it if they'd been some freaky bug-eyed monsters. But, c'est la guerre...they want to rule our planet and settle over us...and we don't.

I got hit by a laser beam just as I thought I was safe. We were moving away on an orbit similar to theirs but at a slightly different inclination. First I saw some of the temperature gauges go into Especially the left auxiliary tank. I looked to the left just as the tank blew up and with it my left winglet. The ejected mass changed my trajectory and that saved me from getting fried as the laser beam lost its lock on my tiny fighter. I decide to recap my situation and make an inventory of my resources. Nobody can come and save me. I am now rather far from the rest of my squadron, on a lower, faster orbit. I have 72 hours of oxygen left and - the on-board computer tells me - about a week till I re-enter the atmosphere unassisted. I can't survive re-entry with one wing missing and a big hole in my side. First of all a spacecraft has to maintain a certain attitude - heat shield first - in order to deflect the reentry heat from its vulnerable skin.

But, even if through some miracle the ship maintains that attitude as it plummets down towards the ground, air superheated by kinetic friction will enter through the rupture and melt the ship's innards and yours truly.The main fuel tank is intact and other than for the egress from the mother-ship, I haven't used any fuel. I can deorbit at any time. Although one of the six cold thrusters and its associated helium tank are gone, I can use the remaining five to change the ships attitude at will. I managed to stop the spinning, after all.If only I could drop enough speed - and fast enough - to reduce the reentry heat loading by a significant degree, I might survive this. I don't need to worry about landing with a missing control surface, as I can eject at low altitude if I first manage to slow down enough.But even if I fire the main engine at full power until all the fuel onboard is exhausted, it won't make that much of a difference in the delta V. We were only supposed to use it for relatively minor orbit changes and for the final deorbit burn. All these maneuvers were performed rather slowly. We'd know in advance, from satellites and ground based trackers, where the enemy fleet would go trying to escape us. We'd have plenty of time to adjust our orbit accordingly. We had been brought up to orbital speeds and altitude by a huge Orion launcher, detonating nuclear bombs in its wake to increase its speed in thunderous, bum rattling bursts. As such, our rocket engines are not required to be powerful. They were designed to be very efficient and make the best use of the limited amount of propellant available.By the time I'd finished all the fuel in my tank through a full-throttle burn, I would already be toasted crisp about 30,000ft above the ground. No use wishing for a more powerful rocket motor now.....wait a minute!

I only fired one of my missiles during the first encounter with the alien fleet. I have three missiles left in the bay just behind the cockpit. If I could somehow remove the warheads and fire the missiles while deployed, but still attached to the rail... It'd be a real kick, maybe ten or so Gs from each missile, with forty seconds of burn time, but subtract that and the main engine delta V from my current velocity and I would reduce the peak heating maybe in half. I use the ship's computer to make these calculations. Of course, I have no idea if the damaged ship can take even that. Most definitely we will start rolling as soon as we hit some air because of the missing wing. I'll have to patch that hole somehow. It's a chance of a snowball in hell that I make it down to an eject-safe altitude still alive, but it's a hundred percent chance I die if I don't do anything about it.

And what a shame that would be. Cause, Lieutenant James Reynolds, you dreamt about flying in combat and about flying in space ever since you watched Battle of Britain and seen your first and last Shuttle launch. You just never figured you'd get to do both things at the same time. Or buy the farm during your very first mission. Into your academy years you dreamed about being in tight spots on a dying spaceship or surrounded by hostile fighters, always saving the day, just like they do in movies. Time to see if there's any grain of truth in science fiction.First part is easy. I deactivate the warheads using the a text-based command line interface pulled from deep within the weapons computer. All that training and my nerdiness is paying off. I read everything I could get find about the F1000 interceptor and quizzed our instructors until I could see them cringe every time I raised my hand in class.Now there's absolutely no way the warheads will ever go off unless reset and reinitialized, which of course I don't plan on doing. I deploy all three missiles. The pylons pop out behind me and looking up through the hatch window I can see the conical warheads, almost two feet in diameter. These babies are big! I eject the toolkit from its compartment in the instrument panel- I bet they thought this was wasted payload mass. Then I put my helmet on and connect it to the portable air tanks strapped to my back. Too bad I can't hook up to the ship's life support. The engineers that built this thing didn't account for EVERY possible scenario. Bless them, they built a wonderful ship with plenty of redundancy and that redundancy might just save my life. I'll be using quite a lot of air, and I'll have to hold my breath for a while if I eject too high up. Oh well, we'll cross that bridge when we come to it. My suit is now pressurized and I vent the air out of the cabin, then pop the hatch open. I float out of the cockpit, attached by the ship with a safety line, almost banging my head on one of the missiles in the process.

And then I look around and it hits me...All blank space, all around me, no point of reference. No up, no down....just the planet suspended above me...or below me, looking much bigger than it did when seen through thick glass. I am just a speck of matter surrounded by a void stretching to infinity, I am so alone...there's no way I can make it out of this alive....and as I float to the end of the tether I get yanked back. The physical shock shatters my wakeful nightmare. I wedge my boots between the frame of the open hatch and the top of my seat and start working on the warheads. I cut the thin aluminum skin and then unscrew each of them from the mount that holds it attached to the body of the missile. After about ten minutes of unscrewing and pulling, I finally have the first warhead completely free. I pause to think about what will happen to it. I plan to throw it far ahead, such that there is no chance of it hitting me as I 'brake' the ship. Eventually it will reenter the atmosphere. There will be no radiation leak, because the shroud is designed to withstand the heat. The missiles were made to be used, if need be, from orbit against ground targets. Of course, now the warheads won't explode on impact, but they might shatter and thus radioactive material will be spilled on the ground. I hope it will fall in the ocean and remain intact, but you can never tell. Of course, after what we did to the environment by launching five Orions, and considering what would happen if the invaders decide to bomb us, the paltry amount of material I'm dropping is hardly cause for concern. Yet, I have this nagging vision of a child picking up a piece of glowing weapons grade uranium from the mud. I absolutely can't think about it if I want to live. I put my arm around a missile pylon and fling the warhead as far as I can, then, without pausing, I proceed to work on the next one. By now I have figured out the drill and for the remaining two it only takes five minutes to get rid of them. I disconnect the red wires that activate the mechanism that detaches the missiles from their rails and pushes them forward and away upon firing. I hope the clamps are strong enough to hold the missiles attached to the pylons later on.

For an added measure of safety, at least in my mind, I bend the front part of the rails over the missiles' body and intertwine them around the warhead mounts. Then I go investigate the damage. The gash looks almost sealed, the laser beam has melted components and framework into an almost uniform gray layer which now is solidified again. That's good news, as nothing I have aboard can cover the damage. Done with the outside work, I scurry back inside and pressurize the cockpit. Again I curse the lack of an oxygen line to attach to my helmet. I'm wasting air while waiting for the pressure to reach breathable level.But I'm not wasting time. I arm the missiles and start the ignition procedure for the main engine. It's going to take a few minutes to prep it for firing as it's been offline for a few hours now. I wrestle with the attitude thrusters and manage to bring the ship in a retrograde position, so that when I fire the engine and the missiles I will be shedding velocity. Finally I am able to put up the visor and stop precious air from flowing out of the portable tanks. I'm all strapped in and ready for the jolt. If a missile separates during firing, it's quite possible it will come into the cockpit and decapitate me. In that case, I hope it will happen too quickly for me to realize my impending demise.

The main engine is ready, and I push the ignition button, then steadily advance the throttle until it hits the stop. I feel a slight acceleration pushing me in my seat.Time to light the fires.I say a quick prayer I remember from childhood and push the firing button on one of the missiles. My right hand is firmly gripping on the stick to steady the rotation induced by the slightly asymmetric thrust of the rocket. 3...2...1.... I am suddenly pushed in my seat and everything rattles. Including the stick in my hand, making the attitude thrusters fire randomly. I grind my teeth and stare at the flight path predictor display, moving the stick around until the rotation is neutralized, then bringing the ship back to retrograde. After 40 seconds of sweating, praying and cussing, the missile is exhausted and the shaking stops. No time to rest, I have to do this as fast as possible, cause by now I must be falling towards the atmosphere. I fire the second missile, then the last one. My attitude thrusters are all but exhausted. The main engine is still firing at full throttle. I go outside again. By now the planet appears a little larger in my field of vision. Seems the continents parading below me are also moving slower. I unscrew the rails, all the while keeping a weary eye on the horizon, which is the best way to gauge my altitude. Fortunately the pylons appear undamaged and they should be able to retract. On second thought, maybe I should leave them out deployed. They might stabilize me a little bit and provide extra drag to slow me down faster. They have special coating to withstand hot exhaust gases in case a missile fires too soon. Maybe they won't melt during reentry. Removing the rails seems to take forever. Fortunately there's a modicum of gravity from the continuous thrust of the engine, and I am able to support myself against the open hatch. As soon as I'm done, I push the missiles away and rush back in the cockpit.

And not a moment too soon. The hazy layer that marks the atmosphere when seen from orbit has disappeared, which means I am about to enter the soup. I shut off the main engine and vent all the propellant out as a precaution. It's about to get hot. I bring the ship into an approximation of re-entry attitude - normally the computer would do that, but in my case it doesn't matter that much, I bet we won’t remain in that position for too long. I got so used to the missing thruster by now that I can maneuver without burning too much propellant, which I'm almost out of. We’re coming down hot and heavy!First, I feel a slight buffet and a rolling tendency, which I counteract with the thrusters until finally their fuel is completely exhausted.I switch to aerodynamic controls and set the right elevator and the right body flap full up, while the left body flap will be down. I hope this will slow the rolling motion due to the missing wing, or, rather, due to the asymmetric lifting force produced by the right wing. The buffeting increases and soon the horizon rolls around me so fast that sky and earth blur together. I tumble end over end and all I can do is hang on, try to hold the contents of my stomach in, and pray.

It starts getting warm, then hot. That's it, I've had it. I expect the ship to fall apart at any minute. But nothing happens and my altitude indicator winds down while my Mach meter has dropped below one....I made it. I deploy the drogue chute which is supposed to slow the ship down after landing.In this case, I will use it to stabilize my fall before bailing out.I feel a great yank and the sickening rolling stops. The nose is now pointing straight down and I see green under me. Before I started the engines for deorbit, I made sure I'd be over land when and if I made it into the lower atmosphere. I was moving southwest and I started my de-orbit burn over Siberia, by the arctic circle. By now I must be over Southern Europe. The air pressure in my tanks is almost zero. I pull the eject handle and, surely for the last time today, I feel the great kick in the butt only a rocket can deliver. I am out now, I clear the drogue chute and then my own chute opens and the seat falls off. I take one last look at my ship falling away from me and thank her for bringing me back alive.

I feel sadness as if I leave a dear friend behind, knowing I won’t ever see them again.I am gently floating under a beautiful clear sky, and am low enough to raise my helmet's visor and pull in a breath of fresh air. I am very lucky to do so and all I can do is be thankful that somebody's been watching out for me. What a story this will make! By now I'm low enough that I feel I have a chance with my rugged cell phone, which I carried with me in a breast pocket throughout the entire mission.I get a couple of bars and I am roaming. That makes me smile...the bill is going to be huge. I try to call my wife and let her know I'm OK. Says network is busy. I try to call my CO on his landline and I get no answer. I try to call various numbers in the states and cannot get through. What the hell is going on? Could it be... I tune in on a radio station, it's in Italian. I understand some..."Gli Extraterestri...Stati Uniti..invasione" all in a very urgent voice and that's all I need to hear. War has come home and I need to find a way to get there and defend my country and protect my family. The ground is coming up, I steer towards a pasture and I get ready to land.


Shaun said...

I'd love to see your stories in a book, with illustrations by, say Alexander Preuss.

Mihai Pruna said...

Here's how the Terran interceptor might look like: