With the most delicate finger twitches against the control sticks, I guide my pod towards the target. The spin of the massive wreck looks lazy, but that's only because it's 5 kilometers in the distance. "Shaw. What's the yaw rate on the target?"
Shaw's little claw body boosts ahead of my pod, settling a few meters to the right and above my cockpit. One of his arms flips open, a little running light illuminating on the tip. "9170 kilometers per hour." Not very fast for a spacecraft to travel.
But the ship isn't traveling. It's stalling. A 10,000 kph stall is catastrophic.
"Acronyms, please." The shape of the massive vessel is no clearer as we approach. The violent burn of the engines casts everything into shafts of light and shadow. The titanium and aramid fuselage is warped and shattered from the heat and velocity. Sensory towers bend, and superstructure scaffolding peals off in a constant, haunting cloud of titan debris. Some pieces are hundreds of times larger than my pod.
I blink away the wanderlust. "Pitch?"
"8910 kph." Shaw's response is quicker this time.
"Roll?" No answer. I glance up at Shaw's little body floating alongside my pod. He looks fine. "Shaw?"
"Calculating." It's never good when a robot says it's calculating. Their minds can pick apart math, trajectories, and statistics like a fat guy can pick apart a ham. 'Calculating' means he's trying to invent a lie to tell me- a much harder task for an robot.
I can't help but smirk, the expression pressing my cheeks against the inside of my helmet. The cool pressure of the pads feels nice, reminding me I'm not just a piece of meat. I thumb the control-lock, securing all cockpit controls against input, and stretch my whole body. I arch my back, splay my arms, and point my toesies. I strain against the seat belts, working hard to extend my joints. My space-suit stretches and creaks and the back of my helmet clinks against a metal panel. Outside the cockpit little particles of dust and debris float in space. My left knee pops. My stomach gurgles.
"710." Shaw snaps and spins. "Where are you?" He spins again. I bump my helmet on cockpit glass as I settle back into my seat and snatch the controls. "Roll is 710 kph."
"I heard you!" My voice flutters as a mix of hunger and adrenaline focuses my mind. Luck isn't a lady. Luck's a drunk guy wandering into your apartment butt-naked with a suitcase full of sandwiches made of gold.
With yaw and pitch at nearly 10,000 kph, but roll only 710 kph, the melting, city-sized vessel is like one of those spinning, toy tops, wobbling slightly right before it falls over. If I can settle somewhere in the middle of the rational axis and burn hard enough, I have a chance to attach and enter the vessel. The max velocity of my pod is 1200 kph. Trying to land a large, flying trashcan on a small continent, spinning at 10,000 kph on every axis, is stupid.
But only two terminal axis, with one axis spinning at nearly half of my max burn? I've seen it done. Seen it. Never done it. "Shaw, tell me you've got something."
"Marking projected attach-point." Another of Shaw's arms flips open. A bright green laser cuts into the chaos, illuminating the particles and dust between us and the target ship. The laser point flickers wildly against the rapidly changing surface of the target ship. "You're 1 km out with a minute of burn at max speed." Shaw's engine flame dies, but the nozzle tightens in preparation for thrust vectoring. "On you."
A twinge of animal arousal flutters in my chest. "Go!" We're hitting this lode.
I flex the throttle halfway. My head swims and everything tightens. I'm pressed against the seat as we accelerate towards our target. Shaw's engine burns bright. The little flicks and flecks outside disappear. The pod rattles, sparks and shards snapping across the cockpit as particles bounce away. I strain to focus on the laser, ignoring the dangerous monolith as it spins and swings in the distance.
Shaw's claw body tightens into a rugged metal orb. "Entering the debris cloud." His running lights cut, engine flame the only sign of his existence.
The cloud of radiation, heat, pulverized metal dust, and broken dreams jars my ship. "Entering debris cloud!" My voice is less calm than Shaw's. My seat rattles my spine and the straps pull at my shoulders and crotch. If I didn't know any better, I'd think my pod was already falling apart. "How do I look?!"
"Entry clean. Pod trajectory stable. Fuselage holding." Shaw's green laser is bright as we blast through the cloud to the ship. "1500 meters out."
I ignore the size of the target ship. I ignore the rattle of it's blood around my pod. I focus on my drone's laser, making minute adjustments to my trajectory. They say landing a fighter-jet on a moving aircraft carrier is like putting a stamp in the middle of a living room, turning off every light, and leaping from the couch to land your nose on the stamp.
I narrow my thrust vector, the vibration of the pod the only proof that it's working- the indicator display broke a year ago. I max the throttle, fiddling it through the part where it sticks, and surge my pod towards max velocity. "You just passed 710 kph." Shaw informs. I aim the nose of my pod along the top of the target, adjusting carefully to line up properly. The target ship's size still hides its speed, but I can already tell I'm falling behind.
The pod is lined up 1 km above the monolith as the cloud rips across my pod. The G forces crush harder than ever as I continue accelerating. The pain in my eyes tells me I'm approaching 1200 kph.
"1200 kph, max velocity!" Shaw's voice is loud, but distant.
At max velocity the Gs of acceleration taper off a little. I can finally focus. The cockpit is a blaze of sparks and rattling. "Give me a feed of the latch point!" Shaw's feed appears on the display. The image makes my head swim worse than anything so far.
The landing zone looks like one of those stupid slot machines in the "Tuggin' Twiddler Bar and Repair Shop." Portholes, hull cracks, rifts and slits larger than mountains pass at blinding speed in a randomized, vertical flash of pure un-luck. The only thing missing is an annoying jingle.
"Deedle-doodlee deedle-doodlee." I hate Shaw.
"Shut up and give me a reading!" I literally can't focus on the image- it's moving too fast. A burning hole in the armor flashes by, the gash wider than my apartment building. My crappy screen blinks and flickers from the vibration. This isn't going to work.
"This is the center of the stall axis." Shaw's voice is serious again. "There's nowhere else we could try and land."
In the blaze of fire and haze of motion, a lack of movement catches my eye. I look up from the screen and stare straight forward through the crappy cockpit glass. The 'horizon' of the massive ship spreads out in front of me, a sprawling landscape of giant metal ridges, deep valleys, towering spires, and white fire under a cloud of hazy, radioactive fog. The huge planet of steel rotates slowly away from me. Shaw's engine burns above the scene, thin laser pointed down.
I notice a pattern across the surface of the ship. Two skyscraper 'ridge-lines' have just passed away from me, traveling towards the horizon. After a few seconds, another passes below. Another. I see my chance. Between each ridge is a perfectly flat area.
My jerk of the controls sends the pod into a nose-down dive. I float in my seat and strain my neck to keep my gaze on the passing horizon. In my peripheral vision I see Shaw follow.
We surge straight into what I calculate will be another flat area between two ridges. The burn is hard, my neck aching as I stare upward at the horizon. A ridge appears, passes below at breakneck speed. If we hit it I'm dead. The ridge I'm blasting towards bleeds like the rest of the ship, withering and burning.
My stomach turns as the ridge cuts away into the sharp edge of a sheer metal cliff. I jerk the stick and flex my face. My vision goes red as the momentum settles my guts into my stomach, legs, feet, and toes. I'm flying blind, the hard circle of my maneuver all that will save my life. "Shaw-I'm-blind!" I can barely speak. I can't breathe.
"Taper off, you're coming out of the valley!" I obey, trusting him with my life. The G's do not taper off as my momentum shifts. "Down!" I flex my arms, fighting to keep my adjustment controlled. My cheeks are tight against my helmet. Vision red. Stomach in crotch. Teeth hurt.
"Relax." How can I relax? "Good, taper off." I release all input on the controls. "750 meters until rear ridge impact." I gasp as the centripetal force from my maneuver finally releases. I gasp, eyes watering, vision still red. Straight ahead, the wall of the metal cliff descends into the horizon. "250 meters." The cloud is notably less here. The rattling and scraping on the cockpit glass has stopped.
I sigh heavily and thumb my rear view camera, noting the metal cliff's breakneck approach. I am too mentally exhausted to really care as I throttle my pod engine one more time, opening the vector for maximum resistance against the surface. I press against the seat as the vibration of the pod engine shakes me. I want to kiss our lord and savior Newton, as my little pod's weak burn feeds off the approaching metal cliff.
I do a cursory scan of the titan valley my pod has stabilized inside. The cloud of debris is coalescing nominally here, an orange haze settling over ripples and rifts of jagged metal. "Shaw." My whole body feels like this terrain. Broken, seething, and hot. "Did you live?"
"Safe and scanning." I look for his little form, but the radioactive haze, stinging sweat, G-force blood coagulating in my head, and freshly scratched cockpit glass all conspire to steal any visibility. "Within our immediate vicinity I've found ten superstructure canals and fifteen catastrophic stress fractures, all leading straight through to the engine core." At least the robot can see.
"That's promising." My enthusiasm is a little forced. "What's your readout of the core volatility?" Sweat stings my eyes, moisture chafing my butt.
"This close to the damage, my sensors are having trouble getting a clear reading. Too much radiation."
I yell for myself more than Shaw. "Great! Lets get this bitch open." I move through the pain and haze around my body, read to move my pod through the haze of the dying ship. The easy part's over.
Time to take apart the safety mechanism of a small, manmade star.
To Be Continued...
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