“When winch get to link two hundred sixteen, you increase speed.”
I have no idea how many links it’s done so far. But it’s plugging along nicely. Probably about two links per second. A safe, slow beginning. I watch for two minutes. That’s probably about right. “All good. At least two hundred sixteen links now.”
Two links per second may seem like a good clip, but it would take about thirty hours to raise the chain at that rate. I don’t want to be out here that long and we definitely don’t want to stay in this risky constant-thrust situation for that long. I press the control lever forward. The winch speeds up. Everything seems fine, so I put it in the final position.
Now the links fly out of the winch faster than I can count and the chain rises at a brisk pace.
“The winch is at maximum speed. All is good.”
I keep my hand on the control lever and my eyes on the chain. If that sampler gets to the winch, everything will go south. The sample container will be torn apart, all the samples will die, and we’d have to make another chain.
I don’t want to do that. Lord, I cannot express how much I don’t want to do that.
I squint into the distance, ever vigilant. Boredom is a real problem here. I know it will take quite a while to pull up this whole chain, but I have to be ready for the sampler.
“Sample device radio signal strong,” Rocky says. “Getting closer. Be ready.”
“Be very ready.”
“I am very ready. Be calm.”
“Am calm. You be calm.”
“No, you be cal—wait. I see the sampler!”
The end of the chain, with the sampler attached, rushes up toward me from the planet below. I grab the control lever and slow the winch. The sampler climbs slower and slower until it’s at a crawl. All but the last few links of the chain fall to their doom and the sampler is finally within reach. I stop the winch.
Rather than risk stupidly dropping the big orb, I grab the top remaining link of the chain and unhitch it from the winch. Now I have a ball and chain. I hang on to the chain for dear life and clip it to my belt. I still don’t let go. I’m not taking any chances with this.
“I have the sampler. Returning.”
“Amaze! Happy happy happy!”
“Don’t be happy until I’m inside!”
I take two steps and the ship shudders. I fall to the hull and grab two handrails.
“What the heck was that?!”
“I not know. Ship move. Sudden.”
The ship shudders again, this time it’s a steady pull. “We’re thrusting the wrong direction!”
“Get inside fast fast fast!”
The horizon rises in my view. The Hail Mary isn’t maintaining her angle anymore. She’s tilting forward. That is absolutely not supposed to be happening.
I clamber from handhold to handhold. I don’t have time to attach the tether each step. I just have to hope I don’t fall.
Another sudden jerk and the hull slips sideways under my feet. I fall on my back but I keep my death grip on the sampler chain. What is going on?! No time to think. I have to get inside before the ship capsizes and kills me.
I cling to the handholds for dear life and crawl to the airlock. Thank God it’s still facing more or less up. I hold the sampler to my chest and fall inside. I land headfirst. Good for me the Orlan helmet is so sturdy.
I squirm to my feet as best I can in the clunky spacesuit. I reach up, grab the outer hatch, and slam it closed. I cycle the airlock and get out of the suit as fast as I can. I’ll leave the sampler in the airlock for now. I need to know what the heck is wrong with the ship.
I half climb, half fall into the control room. Rocky is in his bulb.
“Screens flash many colors!” he yells over the din. He points his camera here and there, watching the feed on his textured screen.
A metallic groan screams from somewhere down below. Something is bending and doesn’t want to. I think it’s the hull.
I get in the control seat. No time to strap in. “Where’s that noise coming from?”
“All around,” he says. “But loudest at starboard dormitory wall segment. It bending inward.”
“Something’s tearing the ship apart! Got to be the gravity.”
But that bothers me in the back of my mind. This ship was made for acceleration. It endured four years at 1.5 g’s. Surely it can handle this similar force? Something doesn’t add up.
Rocky grabs several of his handholds for support. “We have sampler. We leave now.”
“Yeah, let’s get out of here!” I throw the spin-drive controls to full. The ship can pull up to 2 g when push comes to shove. And I think push has definitely come to shove.
The ship lurches forward. This is not a graceful, well-executed burn. This is nothing short of panicked flight.
The efficient way to leave a gravity well is laterally, to take advantage of the Oberth effect. I try to keep us more or less level to the ground below. I’m not trying to get away from Adrian. I just want to get into a stable orbit that doesn’t need engines to maintain. I need velocity, not distance.
I need to keep the drives at full power for ten minutes. That should get us the 12 kilometers per second we need to stay in orbit. I just need to point a little above the horizon and thrust.
At least, that’s what I want. But it’s not happening. The ship keeps yawing forward and drifting laterally. What is going on?!
“Something wrong,” I say. “She’s fighting me.”
Rocky has no trouble hanging on. He has many multiples of my strength. “Engine damage, question? Much heat from Adrian.”
“Maybe.” I check the Nav console. We’re gaining velocity. That’s something, at least.
“Hull bending in big room below dormitory,” Rocky says.
“What? There’s no room below—oh.” He can sense the whole ship with his echolocation. Not just the habitable area. So when he says “big room below the dormitory,” he means the fuel tanks.
“Turn off engines, question?”
“We’re going too slow. We’ll fall into the atmosphere.”