I took one look at the video and enhanced stills from the drone and decided…
I’m not the right guy to interpret these.
I sent a text to Red, with the pics attached. Her nerveware couldn’t handle high res graphics, so she had to review them on a monitor. I figured it would be a little while before I heard back, since she had to set up to view it first.
She called me immediately. “Sorry, Captain, I was in the cargo pod. I’m returning. I’ll look them over as soon as possible.”
For a moment, I thought she might have got it into her head to go ahead and patch that hole. But Red was smarter than that. I went ahead and asked, “Why were you up there?”
“I could get on those guys for staying in the galley waiting for news while neglecting their maintenance, or I could leave them alone and do the maintenance myself. I had nothing better to do, so…”
“You’re in there by yourself?” I scowled. Was she still forgetting safety protocols?
A heavy sigh came across. “No, Captain. I stayed by the book. Hasna came with me.”
‘Hasna’ meant Crewman Ahmad, one of our deckhands.
“Understood. Want to come up to the control room and use the big screen?”
“Um…” There was definite hesitation. “Is it okay if I use the flight engineer station?”
Yup. She was avoiding me.
“Sure,” I replied. I then fired off a similar message to Joss. Zindavoor don’t use nerveware, but they are capable of access similar to somebody like Red. I’m guessing it’s a capability they get from their mannequins, but I don’t know if any Human knows that for a fact. At any rate, they can’t receive graphics directly like a pilot can, so she, too, needed a screen.
I immediately began setting up for her, and still felt a bit disoriented when I looked at the pictures. Sebka B possessed a native ecology; it was a prerequisite for a living atmosphere. Unfamiliar lifeforms were everywhere, much of it reminding me of corral. The ground itself was covered with an ochre-hued something with a different structure than grass.
She was in my control room at a speed that left me fearing for the safety of anyone she had met along the way. Although she looked completely calm and composed when she arrived. I had just finished putting the thumbnails up on the big screen. They still looked a little bizarre.
I turned the ‘ball’ over to her, giving her control of the display.
With an intensity I can only describe as inhuman– I know she’s not human, but that’s the word that comes to mind– she worked her way through the graphics, zooming, panning, going back and forth between different angles of the same point, running repeatedly through the video at different zooms with autocentering set on different features…
After several minutes like this, wordlessly fixed on the screen, she finally looked over at me and realized she had been monopolizing my station for a long time. Her lips drew into a thin line and she stopped the operation.
“To beg the Captain’s pardon. It is inappropriate to act so selfishly.”
“It’s alright. I very much want to hear your thoughts. Could you share them with me?”
The alien took a long time gathering those thoughts. Finally, she stated, “There are no details here to confirm or deny the survival of the troops.”
I frowned and tipped my head. “I can’t imagine there would be anything direct.”
“To be blunt, the primary line of investigation for the negative outcome was the evidence of remains or other indicators of mortality. For the postive outcome, evidence of manipulation of the craft after landing. Digging, bending of wreckage, opened hatches.”
“The absence of the first two doesn’t mean anything though, and the last could simply indicate they closed the hatches upon exiting. If it were me and I thought the craft was salvageable, I would almost certainly do the same. You don’t want alien critters crawling into your ship.”
“It could also mean they never exited. But they would not shelter inside the craft with the threat of shelling and a hardened structure a short run away.”
I nodded. “Which would mean they were incapacitated by the landing.”
A new voice spoke behind us. “They landed hard, but Colin had it under control.”
I looked over my shoulder to see Red there.
She nodded at the screen. “There’s a faint exhaust mark on the ground from the belly jets. He barely warmed the plant life he passed over. He brought it in very fast and shallow, but he put it where he meant to, and he put it there safely.”
She hadn’t wanted to look at them with me, but now that she knew what they showed, it was different? I went over everything I knew about the contents of Red’s skull and couldn’t figure out the thought process that brought her to that result.
Red puts her emotions right out there, so did she not want me to see her crying if they showed signs of a tragedy? But she’d cried in front of me plenty before. She did it after her break-up with Jay, and after her cousin got killed in the war. So that couldn’t be it.
But I considered what she had said and nodded agreement. Joss was zooming in to show the evidence she had referred to, so I watched that, but I responded to Red with what I saw.
“Barely dug any furrow at all. It must have ended in a hard, fast stop. But he was equipped for that, right?”
“You can see exhaust marks ahead of the lander. He was braking to a stop with his retros as he hit. All the couch positions on his lander are airbag-equipped and have full restraints. Ground proximity radar automatically arms the airbag system. There’s no way a stop that wasn’t hard enough to cause visible structural damage wasn’t survivable.”
“And you’re certain it was under the Chief’s control?”
“The automatic landing system on that craft is only capable of landing vertically, or landing horizontally on a proper, flat runway. It can’t handle uneven ground horizontally. It would have taken an unprepared surface vertically if it still had fuel. Colin had been landing vertically up until then, too; you can see the spot where he’s been landing vertically closer to the building.”
Joss had found the traces. The ocher stuff– it looked for all the world like lichen, only orange colored– was faintly singed along a line leading to the lander.
I nodded, and considered something else. “The damage wasn’t anywhere near belly jets, attitude jets, control surfaces. It appears flyable. Why did he land it that way?”
“He had to, Captain,” Joss answered before Red could. I glanced back at Red, and saw her nodding agreement. With a wry smile, probably because Joss had beaten her to the answer.
Turning back to Joss, I asked, “Can you explain, please?”
She panned the picture across to the side of the lander, at the spot of most significant damage. Then she moved downward. “This spot on the ground shows significant presence of liquid, and there is a trail leading to it, along the craft’s course. This is hydraulic fluid or propellant.”
“It’s propellant,” Red stated without hesitation. “The Dragon does not have hydraulics. Flight control uses an alien system based on synthetic muscle.”
“Based on what?” I asked with surprise.
“Material that contracts in response to electricity. We call it synthetic muscle because that’s exactly how biological muscle works. The PTO’s mannequin uses a very similar material. It can’t be anything from the cargo, because he was downed trying to return. The cargo hold was empty. So the only significant quantity of liquid on board was reaction mass.”
“So when he was hit, he was leaking his propellant… probably fast from the size of that hole… and he had to get down in the shortest possible time,” I deduced. “He couldn’t risk a vertical landing because he couldn’t trust that his propellant would hold out until he was down.”
The reaction mass on a Dragon isn’t a fire hazard the way jet fuel can be; like most spacecraft in the ESDF, it uses straight H20. Energy from storage cells or mass converters converts it into plasma in the jets and propels it out the back.
“So that’s my read,” Red said with a nod. “He was alive and well when he brought it in.”
I immediately started a call on the network channel with Battle Group Eighteen Command.
“Go ahead, Higgins.”
“I need to contact Major McNeil, Two-One-Three-Seven Mobile Artillery Company on Sebka B immediately. Subject matter is our downed crew near his position. Priority Urgent.”
“Copy McNeil, officer in command, Two-One-Three-Seven Mobile Artillery Company. Priority Urgent. Stand by, Higgins.”
The call took ages to get through… perhaps it wasn’t, but it felt like an hour passed before I received a return call. Neither of the women in the room with me had budged though, nor had I considered leaving, even though I could have taken the call anywhere in the ship.
The information we had was good. Everyone agreed with our analysis, not only McNeil and his people but also his superiors at the divisional level. But the answer at planetary HQ for Sebka B was absolute.
There was nothing they could do. The area was just been flagged as a no-fly zone under five thousand meters, due to impenetrable air defense in the area.