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Snippet #3 for Maelstrom of Treason

 

This is it! The final snippet before Maelstrom of Treason launches tomorrow!

 

An annoying beep kept repeating. Red lights flashed in the cockpit. A half-dozen data windows spat out a litany of complaints about system damage, oxygen leaks, and proximity warnings.

Combined sensor readouts, including lidar and radar, displayed scores of small pieces of debris near the ship, the remnants of the earlier collision.

The ship shuddered violently, shaking Jia against her restraints. She might have survived another ship sideswiping her transport, but if she didn’t figure things out soon, she wouldn’t survive the aftermath.

Fun,” Jia muttered.

Sweat trickled down the side of her face. It didn’t matter if everything she was experiencing was a simulation; she couldn’t treat it like one.

When she practiced in the tactical center, she tried to trick herself into believing it was real. Her body needed to learn how to react without much thought. She wouldn’t have a lot of time in a real emergency to think things through, just like she didn’t have a lot of time in a firefight to consider every last option.

Sometimes a woman could only choose between awful and less awful.

“Spaceport docking control, this is transport MLT11915,” Jia reported. “We have suffered a collision and have heavy damage. Our reactor is stable, but our escape pod was destroyed in the crash. Request emergency landing.”

“MLT11915,” responded Docking Control, “please stand by.”

“We’re not having a fun time here,” Jia snapped. “We’ve already broken atmo. We have massive damage to thrusters and grav emitters.”

“Understood, MLT11915, but you will hold. Contacting emergency crews now. Standby for further instru—”

“Oh, great, no comm.” Jia lifted a hand away from the control panel to squeeze it into a fist.

Another flashing data window popped up to mock her.

WARNING: MULTIPLE THRUSTER FAILURE. SHIP MANEUVERABILITY WILL BE COMPROMISED.

A list of subsystems, along with a diagram highlighting several portside lateral thrusters, appeared. If she were flying in deep space, a little trip outside with a suit and some equipment might help, but right now, she was trying to keep her transport from smashing into the ground with her inside it.

“I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that a portside hit took out the portside thrusters, but this is still annoying.”

A far more worrisome window popped up on the other side.

WARNING: REACTOR CORE MAGNETIC CONTAINMENT FLUCTUATIONS EXCEED RECOMMENDED IN-FLIGHT VARIANCE.

“Of course. This can’t be too easy.” Jia took deep breaths as her fingers danced across the controls. Even without half her thrusters, she could keep the ship airborne and circling the spaceport until they agreed to an emergency landing. If she lost reactor containment, the resulting hole and loss of both primary and reserve power would doom her. At least her reserve power could keep her airborne for a few more desperate minutes.

A shrill alarm sounded, and the reactor core warning window started flashing obnoxious shades of yellow and red. She hadn’t even gotten ten seconds since the last warning.

“Warning, reactor core magnetic containment fluctuations exceed maximum emergency variance levels,” reported the soft female voice of the ship’s AI. “Containment failure is imminent. Core purge is recommended.”

A pilot knew she was in trouble when the computer shifted to verbal warnings. Jia whipped her hand to the other side of the control panel and tapped in a quick code she’d memorized during the preflight briefing. A groan sounded from deeper within the ship, and yet another data window appeared.

“Warning,” the AI continued. “Core purge containment protocol has been initiated. Please enter core disconnect code for next step.”

“If you insist.” Jia entered the code.

Another groan sounded. More data windows popped up, most focusing on systems shutdown and emergency power implementation. She didn’t understand how all of this wasn’t supposed to be distracting, but at least she couldn’t complain about not knowing everything relevant to the current condition of the ship.

“Second-stage core containment protocol has been implemented,” the system AI announced. “Please enter core purge code for final step. There will be a momentary loss of power prior to reserve power activation.”

“Yes, because what I need is any power loss when I’m spiraling to my doom.”

Jia was grateful the limited ship’s AI didn’t have the wit to snark back like Emma as her hand hovered over the emergency purge controls.

They were nothing but a hologram covering an adaptative haptic feedback panel. That annoyed her.

She would have preferred something she could at least tighten her hands around for a false sense of control, but she wouldn’t get that in the kind of craft she was going to fly with a Class D license.

A sickening crunch followed a loud grinding noise. Jia didn’t bother to look at the damage report. From the new vibrations afflicting the ship, she could tell she’d lost another piece of the hull. It was a funny thing, space travel. Living beings put all their hope in ultimately fragile craft to protect them in a hostile environment. The very idea was absurd, but for now, it wasn’t simulated deep space that was going to end her run.

Jia entered the final purge code. Now all that remained was for her to submit it and eject the reactor core. If she were lucky, it wouldn’t lose containment. Mere seconds of high residual temperatures could hurt the already deeply wounded ship. After the purge, she would have a few minutes of reserve power to land

A new warning appeared. Jia’s stomach knotted. Several technical codes popped up, along with maintenance diagrams. About everything short of the ship exploding had now gone wrong.

WARNING: RESERVE POWER INTERFACE FAILURE.

Jia snatched her hand back from the purge controls and gritted her teeth. No. She was an idiot. She hadn’t thought through the entire situation. Without her reserve power, there would be nothing to protect her. An already damaged reinforced hull wouldn’t do much without a grav field backup. Her thrusters would cut out, and she’d tumble to the ground like a drunken duck.

Her gaze shifted to a local map display. She’d been circling the spaceport for several minutes. It sat in the center of the fictional metroplex of Copez. High mountains curved around the northern edge of the urban zone. There was no way she could gain altitude, given the state of the ship. It had been taking all her efforts to maintain her current altitude. Countless sensor contacts from a cove extending from the west side of the metroplex would make a water landing chancy. Even if she survived the splashdown, she stood a decent chance of killing someone else.

Jia didn’t have much time to decide. She could try to force her way into an emergency landing, or she could eject the core without reserve power and do her best meteor impression. Best-case scenario ended with her ship smashed to pieces and her dead, which meant she would fail the exercise.

“There has to be a solution,” she muttered, her jaw clenched. “Something I’m missing. Did I fail to perform an earlier step? No. Everything was by the book.”

Jia closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She knew what she had to do. After reopening her eyes, she cut power to her lateral thrusters and poured what remained of power into the main thrusters. The ship shook and shimmied as it accelerated, barreling away from the spaceport and heading straight toward the mountains.

“MLT11915, you are breaking your holding pattern,” shouted Docking Control. “You need to immediately return to your previous position. We can’t get you down here safely, but emergency flitters are being dispatched for an aerial retrieval. Stay in position for just a couple more minutes, and we’ll extract you.”

“Negative, Docking Control,” Jia replied. “I’m losing core containment, and there’s a problem with my reserve power. There’s only one option left.”

The mountains loomed large in front of her, growing closer by the second. Her ship continued its burn, the thrusters propelling it toward an immovable mass of rock unimpressed by a speck of a human ship. There was only one question left: would the ship crash into the mountain before there was a loss of core containment?

Jia smiled. “This is probably close to how I’ll eventually die. That or get eaten by mutants.”

A bright flash blinded her, and she squinted. The light faded, replaced by darkness. A moment later, a quiet grinding sounded, and soft light infiltrated the darkened cockpit simulator. The side door fully parted, revealing her frowning instructor, Idrin.

He narrowed his eyes. “Congratulations, Jia. You just died. You didn’t even try to purge the core, and you did what, a petulant final burn against the mountain? I don’t care what you’ve seen in movies. That’s not what you do in this kind of situation.”

Jia scoffed. “You want me to do a core purge over a major area?”

“It’s not a bomb. The danger from the reactor comes from the initial breach and damage to the ship. The reactor is self-terminating once you lose containment. You should know that. You answered it correctly on your last test.” Idrin shook his head, looking disappointed. “By the time the core hit the ground, it would have just been a piece of junk.”

Jia locked eyes with her instructor. “A flitter isn’t a bomb either, but I wouldn’t want to randomly drop one into a city and hope no one got hurt. Plus, I wasn’t going to have reserve power. No reserve power and no primary power from the reactor means I’d lose maneuverability, and that means I would have been dropping something a lot larger than my core into the spaceport. It doesn’t need to be a bomb when it’s large and falls from the sky. Even with deflection, there was a good chance I’d hit someone or more than a few someones. Bouncing a meteor away from a building isn’t safe.”

Idrin stepped back and folded his arms. “So, what, you’re saying you had no solution but to crash your ship into the mountain and go out in a self-serving blaze of glory?”

“Exactly.” Jia punctuated her sentence with a firm nod. “Except for the self-serving part.”

“Again, you just killed yourself,” Idrin insisted. “It doesn’t matter if you did it fancier than slamming into the ground. Running into a mountain finishes you off well enough.”

Jia shook her head. “And if this were a real scenario, I would have probably saved dozens, if not hundreds of people, and all I had to do was sacrifice one: me. Easy math there.”

“You could have—”

“No, I couldn’t,” Jia interrupted. “And we both know it. This ship was going down no matter what I did, and if I’m going to die, I’m not going to take innocent people with me. I don’t even want to practice doing that. Now, if we want to do the scenario again where there’s a syndicate headquarters beneath me, we can talk about where I’m crashing, but I doubt I’ll be that lucky in real life.”

Idrin lowered his arms. A grin took over his face. “I’m surprised.”

Jia frowned. “By what?”

“You’re a by-the-book kind of woman.” Idrin inclined his head toward the simulator. “I assumed when I gave you this scenario that you’d just go through the core purge protocol since that’s what is the recommended emergency procedure in a situation like this, but instead, you did what I’d hoped you do. It just wasn’t what I expected.”

“I’m confused.” Jia released her restraints and crept out of the simulator. “You wanted me to crash into the mountain?”

“What I wanted to do was subject you to a no-win situation.” Idrin shrugged with a satisfied smile. “Life’s not fair, and you can have crap luck, not that I have to tell you that with your job and all. But it’s not the easy ninety-nine percent of the time that requires good piloting and training. It’s those few minutes of terror.”

“I’m beginning to get it.” She thought it through. “It’s still annoying.”

“Emotional stability is part of the consideration for getting your license, and I’ll have to sign an affidavit to my belief that you demonstrated emotional stability and a lack of antisocialness when you go for your license.” Idrin inclined his head toward the simulator. “I agree, deciding to barrel right into the spaceport with a heavily damaged transport isn’t the preferred outcome.”

Jia stretched her arms above her head before lowering them and shaking out her cramped hands. “I half-wondered if I was supposed to figure out some ridiculous out-of-the-box solution where I happened to have a super-AI with me to hack the system in some strange way or pull off some insane aerobatic maneuver that would save me.”

Given her normal experiences, the idea wasn’t impossible.

“We train you for the most likely scenarios, and there’s only so much fancy flying you’re going to do in a transport. It’s not a fighter.” Idrin walked over to the simulator. From the outside, it looked rather unglamorous, just a featureless squat black trapezoidal structure. He patted the side. “I have to admit something.”

“What?”

Idrin locked eyes with Jia. “The thing is, you kind of scare me.”

“I thought you liked what I just did. It’s simple math. I’m not suicidal. If I could have survived any other way, I would have taken it.”

“You don’t understand,” Idrin replied. “You’ve only been training here for a couple of weeks. You’re not even observing another pilot full-time, let alone training full-time. And not only are you in the simulator at this stage, but you’ve also mastered most of the basic procedures and several of the practical skills already. You’re one of the best natural pilots I’ve ever seen.” He squinted. “You’re not screwing with me, are you? This isn’t a joke, and you already knew how to fly? Because it’s hard for me to believe you’ve made this much progress in a few weeks.”

“Why would I spend money to come to a pilot training school if I already knew how to fly?” Jia asked. It’d never occurred to her that her rapid progress was unusual. She was putting in the required pre-study time and wanted it more than most.

“I don’t know. I’ve had a lot of strange students in my time, so I wouldn’t put it past someone to try that.” Idrin nodded toward the door leading out of the simulator chamber. “But if you really are new, you’re one of the best I’ve ever seen. You never knew you had this in you?”

“I never tried to fly a ship before by myself.” Jia headed toward the door. “I don’t even like flying my flitter that much, but a ship’s a different thing. I feel a lot more…alive trying to fly one.”

“You ever think about quitting the police force and becoming a full-time pilot?” Idrin smiled. “I bet within a year, you could become a top instructor here. You’d be wasted on a passenger transport moon run route, and unfortunately, it’s all about seniority, not talent for most big commercial positions.”

“I am leaving the police force.” Jia stepped through the door, following Idrin. “But I’ve got something else lined up, more private security than piloting.”

“Too bad. A gift like yours should be used.” Idrin frowned. “A hell of a waste.”

Jia spared one last glance at the simulator before the door closed. “Don’t worry. I’m confident that flying half-destroyed ships is a skill that will serve me well in the future.”

______________

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