My entry for Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction Challenge.
Renner drops his skinny ass on the co-pilot’s seat next to Brook.
“Nice of you to show, Renner.”
“Nil sweat. My pleasure.” Renner’s smirking, and it just ruined her day for good. “All set back there. Everyone’s tugged in and ready to rumble.”
“Who’re we dropping?” Brook flips the switches and disengages the docking clamps. The thrusters fire a short burst, shaking the shuttle. Then it’s smooth sailing away from the station, and towards the grey planet earth.
“New guy. Some professor of metal-something-ornather. Said his instruments detected some sort of earthquake off the scales.”
“Aren’t they always off the scale?”
“I don’t bloody know. Said it might give better insights into what happened to earth.”
“Does it matter what happened to that place?”
“That place,” says Renner, smacking his lips,“used to be home to our people. You know that, right? I’m sure you do. We should think of that place as more than just a rock. It’s a look into our past, our own destructive nature.”
“Sure it is.” Brook tilts the shuttle and turns to her left. Now, for a brief moment, the shuttle is caught in the nothingness between the Terra Zero space station and the old earth. Zero gravity takes away all burden from her shoulders. Makes her feel free and untouched. The grey planet is above them, showing no signs of precious blue water, or healthy atmosphere. Only raging storms disturbing a heavy blanked of grey clouds. It’s lifeless, near-motionless. It hit a stalemate, forever to orbit its star as not much more than a huge asteroid.
“I don’t know.” Brook marvels at the sight. “Sure looks like just a rock to me.”
“Well, that professor back there doesn’t think so.”
Brook brings the shuttle into entry position. Without even paying attention, she calibrates the systems and sets the autopilot to begin descent into old earth’s atmosphere.
She opens up a one-way communication to the back of the shuttle. “We’ll be hitting the atmosphere in a few minutes. Buckle up. Hold on tight. It’ll be a rough one. It always is.” She cuts the channel.
“You’re such a chipper person, know that, Masters?”
“Just be happy I had breakfast.” As much as she’d like to not admit it, Renner’s alright. Too old for this shit, too young to retire. A sense of humor different enough from her own to talk smack, but close enough to laugh it out.
Heavy, black visors slide up from the bottom of the shuttle, covering the cockpit into darkness, save for blinking and flashing instruments. From this point on, it’s all about the autopilot. If it does well, the blinds will come down, and all Brook has to do is land this damned deathtrap. The shuttle starts to shake and rumble. The temperature rises fast, heat’s filling her lungs, making it hard to breath.
Several minutes pass while the shuttle descents, turning the cockpit into a steam cooker of hot metal and human sweat. Brook holds on tight to the controls, as little as that might actually do anything. She hates having to give up control. “Entry into old earth’s atmosphere,” as Renner once said, “is about as smooth as stirring a bucket of paint with a chainsaw.” Brook can’t help but think of that every time they drop. Renner doesn’t see it, but it makes her smile.
The rumble calms down. The heat’s dropping slightly. Her hands are tight around the steering. Renner’s ready to engage emergency override over major systems. One button push, and it’ll be all in their hands. A long minute passes in the dark of the cockpit. Then another one. Brook can feel the shuttle barely missing things outside. She can hear a scrape, like metal on metal, but the shuttle seems stable.
“Why aren’t the blinds down?”
Renner’s pushing buttons. Moving dials. Enlarging vital control windows hovering as hologram before him. “No idea. Jammed. We’re blind.”
Great. Brook closes her eyes.
A deep breath in.
A slow breath out. “Disengage autopilot.” Renner hits the button. A quick jerk of the engines, and Brook takes control. She pulls the shuttle up. Whatever is around them, chance of collision is smaller flying upward. Buying time. Let the tech-savvy Renner figure it out.
“Sensors down,” says Renner. Some messed electromagnetic interferences caused by spontaneous forming storms, or the heavy smoke of erupting volcanoes blocking atmospheric sensors, must have confused that dumb computer.
“No hurry, old man. Gonna do a victory lap.”
“Ja ja. I’m on it.” And that he is. For what it’s worth, Renner does know what the hell he’s doing. He used to be head-engineer back on Terra One. At least that what he claims. He always always says that numbering, instead of naming, the follow-up planet is just another sign of how fucked up mankind has become. Says he came here to retire. To join the ancestors in their grave. For that, Brook always thought he was some sort of psychopathic optimist.
The shuttle begins the shake again. It jerks to the right, after colliding into something heavy. A nerve-grinding scratch along the left side of the hull. Maybe a rock. With it, bright-red flashing alarms pop up in her holographic overlay. They’re losing speed—fast. Fuel is leaking.
He kicks the underside of the console. The visor moves down. “Got it!”
Once she can see, Brook has about a half-heartbeat to pull the shuttle away from a head-on collision into a grey office-monolith from the ancient twenty-first century. The geforce is pushing her ass firm into her seat, and all her blood into her toes. Renner’s face looks like a hanging sack of shit, but his pulled-down lips laugh like a madman, exposing yellow-stained teeth. “Yeehoo,” he yells against the heavy sound of engines trying not to break apart.
The autopilot brought them into an old city. Navigation is screwed up. Sensors are turning circles. And, though the shuttle is stable for now, it’s flying on solar-battery.
She can’t tell what hit them, but it looks like they came out of this with more luck than anyone deserves. Massive ruins of condemned buildings are towering around them. All broken open, crumbling. Their steel-frames exposed, rusting away.
Brook tries not to smile. Her heart is beating in rhythm with the shuttle’s engine. The tremble from the excitement goes all the way into her fingertips, reminding her that she just cheated death.
She says, “Got to bring the shuttle down, fast. Leaking fuel.”
“Good idea, Masters. And good job. Don’t see many pilots like that anymore.”
“Thanks. You too.” She turns the shuttle east, away from the city, and towards an open field. “How did you fix it? Did the kick actually work?”
Renner laughs. “It sure did. Not for the shutters, no. Got this figured out just before. But kicking that damned thing calmed me the fuck down.”
Brook actually has to laugh out loud. “You’re an idiot.”
“One of a kind, baby.”