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The Ride Home

This story takes place half a century before Eloran Autumn.

Helena Yue was a trained astronaut, with more than five thousand hours of EVA experience in low Earth orbit, most of which had been spent fixing faulty satellites and helping stranded shuttles. She was a space repairwoman, the proud heiress of a long legacy of orbital workers that went back to the early interplanetary age. Before embarking on the Migrant-class vessel Look At What We Have Here, Helena Yue had entertained the though that there was nothing that could surprise her any longer in space. She had seen and done everything.

And yet she couldn’t put her eyes away from the planet below. Elora was magnificent. Its shallow oceans gleamed in sapphire and emerald under the yellow sun, bordering verdant archipelagos scattered all across the planet. It wasn’t Yue’s first exoplanet. She had spent several months working on the assembly of Tau Ceti Station as well as Vynar Gate in Kapteyn, but Elora wasn’t the same. It was a super-habitable world, the first of its kind ever discovered, five hundred lightyears away from the Earth. And they weren’t here just to explore.

They were settlers.

Helena’s djinn drone beeped as it stabilized in front of her. The small, all-purpose utility robot assumed the shape of a simple white sphere with RCS thrusters and communicated with humans via various beeps. Apparently a full text processor would have been too much for its puny CPU but Helena Yue suspected its engineers to be trying to make it more human by not giving it the ability to speak. It was a bit of a paradoxal approach but worked fairly well for the cleaning bots installed aboard the Migrant ship.

“Okay, okay, I’m getting to work.” answered Helena with a smile which the djinn did not pick up. The robot’s name was painted in red letters on the side: LILY. It was marked with the bird emblem of Saïmour, the ship’s engineering section organized as a cooperative. Helena rotated ninety degrees with her backpack thrusters. A vast hurricane filled the ocean underneath, covering a small, half-emerged continent in rain. Thirty hundred meters away was the white shape of an Open Source Orbiter locked on the same orbit as Helena. The vehicle owed more to the makeshift vessels of the industrial space age than to modern modular designs. It was made of a huge SSTO section that was more reminiscent of a launcher booster than anything else and of a comparatively paltry crew capsule. This Open Source Orbiter was named Cervantes and had been assembled inside the Migrant vessel after the destruction of one of its “official” orbiters during the initial geometry drop. Helena would nag the engineer responsible for this stupid loss (a badly riveted hardpoint leading to the shuttle being simply ejected into space) at every given opportunity because the replacement was truly abysmal. Even the usually daring people from the Talasea cooperative, the explorers of their little expedition, would flat-out refuse to step inside Cervantes’ cramped capsule. To them the ship looked and felt way too unreliable.

Helena did not necessarily see it that way. She had worked on satellites and vessels that weren’t only unreliable but actively dangerous, complete with exploding engine sections, unresponsive commands and fuel tanks leaking compounds that could give one cancer by merely looking at them. In comparison, Cervantes was a paradise to work on.

“Control to Helena, we’re here, say hello!”

The astronaut looked up and saw a faint glimmer high above her. Look At What We Have Here was in medium Eloran orbit, a hundred kilometers or so above Helena. The ship itself was so massive - about four kilometers long - that Helena could even make out a few details like the five habitat sections rotating in unison. Ten thousand people were aboard that vessel, and in a few months they wouldbecome Elora’s first human population.

“Hello there, Control!”

“What’s your status?”

“I am approaching Cervantes. My own orbiter is stabilized one kilometer away, within the safety margin for an RCS explosion. Ship is responding to my commands but I am not seeing any effect on the engines. Looks like something’s dead in there.”

“Yeah, probably the switches. We keep having problems with those. They work well until Cervantes comes back to orbit. Engineering is suspecting the vibrations during takeoff.”

Helena chuckled.

“Well, Cervantes is essentially a big rocket stick, you’re asking for vibrations with an SSTO design like this. I’m honestly surprised we didn’t have the issue sooner. Alright. I’m at the orbiter.”

Helena Yue attached herself to Cervantes then signalled the djinn to hover above the main entry hatch.

“I am in position. Ready to enter.”

“Our readings tell us Cervantes is correctly pressurized. Confirm?”

Helena linked her suit to the orbiter’s mainframe. “Confirmed. Capsule atmosphere is breathable. Manual override doesn’t seem to do anything. I’m getting an all green from the mainframe but neither the engines nor the RCS thrusters are responding.”

“How are the fuel tanks?”

“19% remaining. Is that normal? I was expecting them to be fuller. Do we have a leak?”

“The last descent has been slightly more rowdy than expected, Cervantes had to reignite thrusters to avoid a storm. It’s fine.”

“Alright. Requesting permission to enter the orbiter.”

“Permission granted, Helena.”

The astronaut attached her manoeuvring backpack to Cervantes then opened the hatch and entered the airlock, followed by the djinn. She hated the inside of that ship, especially the midsection that provided direct access to the propulsion apparatus. It reeked of amateurism despite the engineering achievement that had been the assembly of such an orbiter aboard the Migrant vessel. The djinn came to a halt next to her, extending a tendril to establish a direct link with the on-board system. Helena now faced amakeshift control panel beyond which stood several dozentons of unburnt chemical fuel. In a sane ship she would have been able to access that from the capsule alas Cervantes was anything but a well-thought-out design.

“Alright...Control, I have reached the propulsion systems. I am going to perform local ignition tests on theRCS and main thruster. How copy?”

The answer returned nothing but a garbled sound. She tried on another frequency.

“Control, I am going to perform local ignition tests. How copy?”

“Copy. We’re getting some interference here. Solar flare, looks like.”

“Don’t we have advance warning satellites for that?”

“We do...we do. But that system’s activity is hard to predict. Getting a lot of unexpected variations from the second sun. Should be gone by now. Confirm?”

“Yeah, confirmed. Radio’s clear.”

The djinn beeped twice before turning its camera towards Helena and moving up and down repeatedly, trying to draw her attention.

“Hang on, I think my djinn’s found something. What’s going on, little one?”

It only took a glance on the instruments panel for Helena to pick up the anomaly. A single temperature gauge had sprung to life, rising up from the cold state of inactive thrusters.

“Er, Control, I have some strange readings here...”

Then the three other temp gauges started rising as well, quickly followed by the pressure indicators. The djinn emitted a distressed beep.

“Control, Helena, temperatures are rising, pressure is rising, and I’ve got a turbopump active, I repeat, turbopump just activated with no input on my end!”

“What the...get the hell out of this ship, the main thrusters are still armed!”

The solar flare, thought Helena. It’s the solar flare. The main switches were disconnected from the mainframe by the vibrations during take-off and the microcurrents created by the sudden solar influx sent an impulse which was interpreted as an ignition order. Oh, shit.

“I’m purging the fuel tanks!” She reached for the emergency fuel safety command, only to find it unresponsive. Piece of junk.

The engines ignited.

Helena found herself pushed against the control panel, quickly followed by the djinn that did not have time to activate its thrusters. Cervantes’ thrust wasn’t torch-like but it was still enough to be dangerous.

“Control, I’ve got an uncontrolled engine ignition, commands are unresponsive, repeat, I have lost control of the orbiter!”

“What’s the RCS state?”

“My RCS are fucked! Switches won’t come back online, I’ve got no trajectory control from the main maintenance panel. I am trying to reach the capsule.”

Helena grabbed the safety handle and tried to push herself towards the capsule which was now above her relative to the axis of thrust.

“Helena, Cervantes is going straight for Elora on a descent trajectory!”

She pulled herself up through the hatch, entering the main crew compartment, which was the only part of the ship capable of surviving a tip-first re-entry. Helena immediately found the commands used for controlled manoeuvres. She grabbed the throttle as if it had been a lifebuoy, pushed it all the way to zero but nothing happened. The djinn was now beeping uncontrollably, still attached to the propulsion panel and desperately trying to regain control of the ship.

“No dice on secondary controls. Ship is dead. Explosive bolts are hooked to a manual override, I can still detach the capsule.”

“Helena, we may...”

“You may what? You can’t catch me, you don’t have a torch in orbit. I can’t evacuate. There’s only one way this ride ends, and I don't want to remain attached to a melting ship.”

Helena grabbed the djinn’s handle and pulled the robot inside the capsule, much to the despair of the small machine, before closing the hatch. The bolts exploded and Helena felt a familiar weightlessness  surround her, now that she was away from her unresponsive engine section and only submitted to gravity. Elora filled half her porthole. Her heart rate had noticeably increased. Hey. You’re not going to panic now, are you?

“I’ve got RCS on the capsule. I can partially control my trajectory. How copy?”

Garbled response. Goddammit. The djinn emitted a high-pitched beep.

“Yes, I know. I’m trying to prepare us for re-entry and...are you bloody kidding me? Control, this is Helena, the interface of the capsule is in goddamn RUSSIAN, how old is it? Hey, little one, you know Russian?”

The djinn beeped happily, twisting its tendril to connect with the control panel. Over the course of a few seconds it managed to switch to battery power, make the various alarms shut up and allow Helena to stabilize the ship with the RCS thrusters. The astronaut thanked Lily with a pat. This is going to be the most improvised re-entry of all time. I do not even know where I am heading. Angle of descent seems acceptable, though.

She looked to the side. The atmosphere below was traversed by two vast hurricanes in the process of merging under the umbrella of a massive equatorial storm. Far away, against the planet’s rotation gleamed a transoceanic ridge, snow-tipped mountains catching the sun.

“Control, if you can hear me...I am reentering...correction, no human ever launched from this planet, so...I am entering Elora’s atmosphere.”

The capsule started to shake. External temperatures were rising fast but they were below the threshold over which Helena would begin to worry. The djinn wrapped its tendril around a safety handle, a rather desperate measure that Helena complemented by hugging the small robot so that it wouldn’t be damaged by vibration.

“You’re going to see Elora, Lily...and if it’s half as beautiful as it looks from up here, you’re going to love it. I promise you.”

Fire filled the porthole, flames of superheated plasma raging as the capsule entered Elora’s upper atmosphere, as fast as a shooting star. Helena closed her eyes. There was nothing else she could do. She was at the mercy of the elements and whoever had built that positively ancestral capsule. A giant’s hand took and shook the vessel for what appeared to be an eternity, then a brutal slowdown and —


Helena blinked. Sapphire filled the porthole again but this time the blackened expanse of space had disappeared. There was but blue light scattered by the atmosphere, reflected by the ocean, blue like Helena had never seen, blue from a planet so far away from home it could have been in another universe.

“Still with me, Lily?”

The djinn beeped cheerfully.

Unbeknownst to Helena, her capsule was actually a copy of the late Low Age Zvezda capsule, itself a distant derivative of the industrial era Soyuz. It was a vessel made to carry its crew safely back to the Earth...but Elora’s ground gravity was at a mere 0.8 Earth gees.

Touchdown was incredibly gentle. Helena felt like a feather in the wind, carefully carried down by three oversized parachutes, impacting the ocean as if her capsule had been a hot air balloon coming back to land after a nice Sunday afternoon flight. The capsule sunk for a few meters then deployed its floaters and stabilized itself in mid water. A gust of wind pushed it against a nearby reef and it finally came to a rest, scratching against a wall of purple coral. Helena opened the upper hatch, stepped out and took a deep breath.

The first thing she noticed was the scent of the wind. Byproducts of local biological activity smelled like lilac, salt and gooseberries. The air was warm, the waters shallow and full of life. Pseudoalgae formed complex colonies floating in the wind, extending towards the nearby underwater valley by way of pillars reminiscent of kelp forests. Pseudobirds roamed the skies above, their large wings taking the wind that came from the Eloran East. A few kilometres to the Eloran West was an island that shone under the afternoon glow, autumn-coloured pseudotrees growing against the silver mountains.

Helena took another breath.

I am home.

Image credits -- NASA public domain, HTV re-entry.

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