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The space liner Icarus was in free fall as it tumbled towards Proxima Minor. The co-pilot was frantically trying to call the captain. In the confusion of the panic the co-pilot had mistakenly turned on the ship’s intercom instead.
“Come in Captain! Come in! We need sub light engines soon or we’re going to crash into the planet!”
Throughout the passenger compartments the shaken voice of the co-pilot rang out. The tension that had been brewing on board quickly matured into terror. Passengers started shouting “abandon ship!” and “to the life boats!” Harold and Alfred got swept up with the throng of people clawing desperately at the emergency escape hatches in the floor of the space craft.
Of course, on a space liner there are no actual life boats, instead there are a number of re-entry capsules. Each capsule fits three survivors, has a small distress beacon, a heat shield, and basic tools and supplies for a few days. They were originally used on space stations and vehicles in Earth’s orbit in the early days of the first space migration. During this time accidents on space craft were more frequent. Although re-entry capsules were sound craft that reliably saved astronauts, they were far less popular when they started landing on people’s houses. In the early days of space flight pioneering the re-entry capsules were carefully steered to a safe landing site in the middle of the ocean or regional Siberia. However, with so many more people landing from space unexpectedly they could land just about anywhere. It soon became common place for insurance companies to send alerts to neighbourhoods where a capsule was likely to land and for everyone in that neighbourhood to be standing in the street looking for the shooting star that might crush their home. Whether you loved or loathed these capsules really depended on which side of the stratosphere you were on.
It was within one of these controversial house smashing capsules that Harold and Alfred had found themselves strapped in. They were waiting for a third person to come and join them. It was a firmly established rule that it was not acceptable to leave by a re-entry capsule with less than three people inside. But when the Icarus started shaking violently with turbulence Harold was losing his patience.
“That’s it, no one else is getting into this capsule! We should close the hatch and launch!”
Alfred agreed and hit the release button. The lights dimmed and a voice over with an infuriatingly calm voice came on.
“You have just attempted to activate this re-entry capsule, however, internal sensors detect that there are only two persons aboard. This re-entry capsule is intended for three people. Are you sure your situation is grave enough to warrant a launch with only two survivors?”
Harold gasped, “Good grief, I can’t believe it is delaying us! This ship could hit the atmosphere any second we’re falling so fast!”
He furiously kept pushing the launch button. The voice came over again.
“There are still only two persons aboard this re-entry capsule. Think about the poor people who died long ago on Earth on the sailing vessel Titanic because there were not enough escape capsules. Please make sure there are not other people wishing to escape with you before attempting to launch this capsule.”
The turbulence was getting so strong Alfred could feel his breakfast getting ready to eject from his stomach before they would get a chance to launch. Harold just swore furiously and jabbed the launch button violently. Finally the hatch sealed and the capsule started its launch countdown. Once more the voice over came on.
“Launch procedures are active, please remain strapped in your alcoves. Because there are only two passengers the capsule will be unbalanced slightly and there will be extra turbulence. Such is the penalty for running away too soon.”
“Oh goodness gracious me, is this computer going to pontificate to us all the way down?” exclaimed Harold.
“If we get down on the planet safely,” shouted Alfred.
“What do you mean?”
“Well normally a space ship orbits a planet, which means the ship is travelling very quickly. Because the Icarus phase jumped it was completely stationary above the planet, which is why we started falling like a stone towards it. The gravitational pull of a planet is very dangerous if the vessel you are travelling in isn’t moving sufficiently fast enough to escape the gravity of that planet. Since this capsule is moving at the same speed as the Icarus we’re just going to fall straight through the atmosphere of Proxima Minor and burn up.”
Harold gulped, “You mean… we’re not going to make it?”
“Well… I think these capsules have their own thrusters and automatically accelerate to avoid burn up, but who knows if we have enough fuel or time to reach the velocity we need to safely enter the atmosphere?”
There was one last turbulent shudder and the re-entry capsule ejected from the Icarus. For one brief moment they would see the spaceliner hanging in space next to them, the next the thrusters on the capsule fired and the Icarus quickly sped out of view. The turbulence subsided and the capsule was strangely silent for the first time. The calm and silence so soon after such chaos and turbulence was confusing.
“Wow,” said Alfred.
“Yeah, I can’t believe this is actually happening to us, man, I am actually missing the panic we had just a few minutes ago because I was too scared to even think about how we’re going to survive on the planet below.”
“Yeah, you’re right, even if we don’t burn up on re-entry we’re going to starve to death down there.” Added Alfred gloomily.
“Unless there are fish down there.”
“Do you have a fishing line?”
Before Harold could answer the capsule was seized like a great hand snatching a passing fly from out of the air. The two men screamed the curses they thought would be their last when the tumult ended as quickly as it had begun and the capsule appeared to be bouncing off something. Looking on the monitor screens that ‘something’ turned out to be the solar panels of a space station. A long metal cable had reached out from a harpoon gun on the station and plucked the capsule out of orbit. Reeling in the capsule in the orbit of the planet was no easy task, the capsule had ricocheted off the panels and antennas of the station causing massive amounts of damage to the station’s components.
Harold and Alfred were in too much shock to process what has happening. The flight computer on the capsule had automatically shut down the thrusters when it had been harpooned. This was because it wasn’t unheard of for capsules to be found drifting in space and winched to safety so the capsules were designed to shut down if they would captured by something like a winch cable. In this case, the cable reeled the capsule into a docking port and it opened up.
The two men looked up dazily at the entrance to the pod expecting to see a rescuer poke his head in and tell them they’re all ok. Instead the hatch opened up and several tools, bags, and instruments were hurtled into the claustrophobic zero gravity environment. The men cowered and blocked their faces to protect them from the objects as they bounced around inside the capsule. Finally, they saw two feet, and then two legs climbing in backwards into their capsule and then the sound of the capsule closing up again. Gaping in astonishment there in front of them was a disheveled woman in a ragged space uniform.
“Hi there guys,” she shouted before Harold and Alfred could ask her who she was and what she was doing on their re-entry capsule, “I was watching your spaceliner crashing into this planet and I thought I might hitch a ride down to the surface with you.” Then she started laughing to herself in a somewhat crazy maniacal tone, “I was waiting until some cowards left the ship in a capsule with only two people onboard so that I could stow on board in the empty spot. There’s always one such capsule in every space wreck!”
She continued to laugh to herself as she strapped herself into the empty alcove. She pulled out a small computer tablet from her pocket and pushed a few buttons. She used a remote control to eject the capsule away from the space station and then instructed the computer on the capsule to resume re-entry trajectory. The familiar condescending computer voice rang out.
“This capsule now has the desired three passengers and will initiated standard emergency re-entry procedures. Please remain calm. It is normal for the capsule to get warm during re-entry. This is expected and no cause for alarm.”
Alfred and Harold made contact with the female intruder, she pulled her lips out into a big toothy grin, “Hold on tight boys, because we’re going down!”