There are some people even Commander Rada Lord Ni Drako defers to . . .
“Claw One, abort, repeat abort.”
Damn and blast it, the Lord Defender swore silently. She pulled back on the stick and shifted thrust to the rear, banking and accelerating away from the spacecraft carrier. This made the third approach she’d been broken off from, and even she had her limits. The hard stars swung around her. Below the Night’s Claw, Drakon IV floated in the silence of space, cloud-marbled and serene. Unlike the mammal in the fighter’s cockpit.
She shifted thrust again once she’d cleared the carrier’s traffic flow and gravity well. Rada Ni Drako reached up and reset the checklist back to the “initial approach” line. She glanced at her fuel indicator and frowned. She had enough for one more approach. If that got waved off, she’d be better off returning to Drakon IV. Because the way her temper was building, if the damn landing signals officer couldn’t get his act together, she’d make her own landing bay in his “shed” using one of her torpedoes.
“Claw One, fourth for recovery, say bearing and velocity.”
Alarm bells started ringing in her mind. “Approach One, two zero by one eight four, forty-five, over.”
Several seconds elapsed. “Claw One, confirm velocity four five?”
Rada tapped the display with a gloved finger. The numbers remained unchanged. “Velocity four five decimal zero, over.”
If I stand by much longer, I’ll lose my reentry window, Rada growled. A quick check of the traffic pattern showed that only the Claw remained in the recovery pattern. A beep in her headset told her to begin decelerating and turning back to the carrier. Rada nudged the stick and set thrust to neutral for the moment, then confirmed atmospheric brakes – off, landing gear – stand-by, ejection system – off.
“Claw One, be advised I show velocity six zero decimal four and below approach azimuth.”
Rada squinted, tripping the secondary velocity read-out on her visor. Nope, radar confirmed the Claw’s internal velocity metrics: acceleration neutral. And she should be below the approach azimuth because of her approach path.
“Approach, Claw One shows velocity four five. Commencing approach sequence.”
“Claw One, stand by.”
A louder chime got Rada’s instant full attention. “Fuel status, minimum” flashed briefly, until she toggled the annunciator off. She had to land. “Approach Claw One, minimum fuel.”
“Claw One, stand by.”
Oh hell no! Rada ignored the order and shifted thrust forward, killing her forward velocity as she “rose up” to meet the approach azimuth. A solid tone sounded in her ear, indicating a solid interception. She lined up, locking her eye on the display and running the checklist by touch.
“Claw One, reduce velocity. Show you at four zero.”
Rada’s display read twenty, matching her visual rate indicator. She continued her approach, now dividing attention between the display and her front canopy. The landing area appeared as a red-lit oblong with white lights on the left and right sides. Landing gear-standby, thrust-four, atmospheric brakes-off, ejection module-off, she recited in her mind as she felt each lever or button.
“Reduce velocity immediately.”
She’d already slowed to the proper speed, and Rada snarled. The bay grew larger and she could see the shadow of the ship around it now. She adjusted her azimuth by a fraction of a hair, and killed more forward velocity, toggling the thrusters on for an instant.
“Claw One, abort, repeat abort.”
“Unable. Minimum fuel,” she reported, eye locked on the display now overlaying the visual on her windscreen. Landing gear down and she felt the thump and caught a glimpse of blue light from the indicator.
Rada extended her landing gear and confirmed her velocity yet again. The Claw slowed further, and she tipped the nose up a few centimeters, and then extended the Azdhag version of an arrestor hook. A good tone sounded and she killed forward thrust as she broke the atmospheric containment field extending out of the open bay. The Claw eased into the carrier’s open maw and she felt her wheels touch just as the arrestor beam caught. A fraction of a second later she slammed against the straps as the tractor beams engaged and jerked the craft to a halt. Son of a dockside whore, that was unnecessary, she grumbled. If I wasn’t flat chested before, I certainly am now. Some idiot had left them set for the Azdhagi and not for her. But she held her peace, finished the post-recovery checklist, and sat quietly until a sequence of lights flashed and a tug hooked onto the ship, pulling it to the refueling line. Rada opened the canopy and clambered out, plugged into the data download system, and set her helmet in the fighter’s tiny cargo cubby. “Right,” she growled. Her boots rang on the steel-plank deck and she stalked through the bay on a direct path to the landing officer’s box. Azdhagi pilots and crew scattered, although a few fell in behind her, no doubt wanting to see who ended up floating in deep space without a pressure vessel.
“Ssssssss—pop” the door seal released and the door swung in before Rada set one boot on the ramp. A medium-sized Azdhag in a survival suit (minus helmet) charged out, glanced around the platform, and trotted down the ramp in a direct course for the Lord Defender. She stopped and folded her arms, feet spread shoulder-width apart. “Claw One,” he bellowed, “I gave you direct orders to abort that landing attempt. You could have killed half of us and destroyed Ancestors alone know how many ships with that sloppy approach.” He rose onto his hind legs, still moving fast. “What were you thinking?”
Rada waited until he got within forefeet reach. Her ears lay flat against the top of her head, and her tail in its special sleeve thrashed back and forth. The signals officer stopped less than half a meter in front of her. She planted one fist on her hip and poked him in the chest with one finger, claws extended. “I called minimum fuel, Signals. I made three attempts, all with in limits for safety, and you called them off each time,” she hissed. “If I didn’t land, I’d have had to do a trans-atmospheric glide, or abandon my ship. That’s what I was thinking.” The last syllable turned into a snarl. She heard rustling and thumps as the pilots and crews behind her backed up.
“I called abort because you were too fast and below intercept azimuth on every—single—approach—,” he snapped in return. The officer flexed his talons and the others eased farther away.
Rada’s forefeet balled into fists. The officer’s tail went rigid. She shifted her weight onto her toes, ready to fight. He scooted one hind foot back, taking a combat stance.
“Not in my hangar bay you don’t,” a deep voice called, breaking the tension. The roundest Azdhag in the Imperial military waddled up to the pair, his breath steaming in the cold of the unheated bay. “Lord Mammal, Koree, run a tape review,” the launch bay chief ordered. “Then you can fight. But not in my hangar bay, unless the winner wants to clean up the mess to my satisfaction.”
Since Tealkak outranked everyone short of a major deity, at least when they were in the landing deck and hangar bay, Rada stood down. Koree did likewise, dropping onto all four feet.
Tealkak lumbered around to face the other Azdhagi. “And I suppose you are all finished with your after-recovery checks, maintenance, and other duties? Or do I need to get out The List?”
“No, Chief, I’m good.”
“Just stopped to see what everyone else was looking at, in case I needed to pull the crash alarm.”
“I followed the pilot.”
“On my way to get a part, Chief.”
The crowd melted away faster than an ice sliver vanished into a cauldron of hot stew. Rada half-suspected some of them teleported, they disappeared and reappeared on the opposite side of the big space so fast. “Hnunf,” the chief grumped.
“I would like to review the approach recording, Signals,” Rada told Koree.
“Very well, Lord Mammal. This way,” he swung around and led the way up the ramp, around the edge of the platform surrounding his “shed,” and through a side door into the workroom. He and Rada entered their authentication codes and he called up the data. Tealkak followed them, and Rada tucked herself into a corner. The chief occupied a lot of volume, especially in the small workroom.
Neither Rada nor the signals officer said anything as the recorded data set played. Indeed, his information showed her fast and low on every approach. But her data, unrolling underneath his, showed otherwise.
“That can’t be correct,” he growled, talons dancing on the data controller pad. A different view appeared, a computer animation of her fourth approach. She came in from below the azimuth, entered the approach window dead center, and followed the beam right into the proper touchdown box.
“What is the azimuth projector set for?” Tealkak grunted.
“For a cargo . . . stand by.” Talons tapped and a new data projection appeared. “It was still set for the high-drop cargo pod, Chief.” Rada leaned forward and around Tealkak’s bulk to see the projection. “That explains the azimuth disparity.” Koree growled. “That shouldn’t have happened. It should have picked up the ID from Claw One and reset automatically.”
Rada and Tealkak sighed in unison. Someone had skipped a checklist item, and it wasn’t the Lord Defender this time. “Claw One registered right when he landed the first time,” Tealkak reminded them.
“But that doesn’t explain the velocity difference,” Koree growled.
Rada rubbed around the base of one ear. “Actually, it does, Signals, if it tried to compensate for the difference between the program and the sensor indicated volume and mass.”
“But the software update is supposed to fix that.” Talons tapped. “Oh.” Koree ducked as Tealkak shoved his muzzle up to see the tiny line at the bottom of the projection. “It hung up before the internal post-installation diagnostic finished, and the system reverted to default, Chief.”
Rada covered her eye with one hand. By the Debt Collector’s black heart, I detest, loathe, despise, dislike, decry, and disdain computers some days. “Call in a tech and fix it.”
“But Lord Mam—.” Claws scratching on the door interrupted Koree’s plaint. The three turned, or tried to, to see who wanted in.
“Lord Mammal?” a small Azdhag wearing communications department insignia tried to enter the room, saw Tealkak, and apparently thought better of it. “Message from the Palace. Call Purple but not emergency.”
Rada and Tealkak both came to attention. “I hear and will obey,” Rada said.
“I’ll get you up front, Lord Mammal,” the bay boss growled and lumbered out, half-squashing the messenger and Rada in the process.
How does he manage to pass his fitness tests? She wondered yet again, following at a safe distance. He’s not a noble, last I checked. And even I have to pass the minimums. He probably had the dirt on someone: most of the senior NCOs that she’d known did. And the Imperials might have a different standard than the Defenders when it came to some positions. Rada rumpled her tail and stopped to let a tow tug cross in front of her. She kept her nose out of the Imperials and the Minister of War left the Defenders alone.
“You’re loaded and good to go, Lord Mammal,” Tealkak called.
“Thank you, Chief. Good hunting and slow prey.”
“You too, my lord.” He tossed her what might have been a salute before trotting away and ducking behind the safety of two layers of energy and sheet steel shielding.
Rada got her helmet out of the storage space and walked around the ‘Claw once more before climbing up the fuselage and into the cockpit. She strapped in and activated the helmet and suit interlocks, then shut the canopy and initiated the start sequence. She heard faint hoots as the hangar bay warning horns sounded. Rada waited for everything to settle to blue before calling, “Launch One, Claw One, ready in standby.”
“Claw one, Launch one, taxi to the gate. Destination?”
“Taxi to gate and Palace, military pad.”
Once in the launch box, Rada ran thought all the checklists once more. She triple checked that the arresting bar had returned to the up and locked position before advancing the throttles to intermediate power and initializing the start sequence. Everything looked good and she had solid blue lights. “Launch one, Claw One, ready for launch.”
A blue light flashed at the edge of the hangar bay opening, followed by brighter amber lights to remind everyone of the pending atmosphere leak. “Claw One, clear to launch, access window eight four five seven mark four is open.”
“Launching and roger, Claw One.” Rada felt the initiators catch as she advanced the throttle. Four, three, two, one, oooofff! The acceleration slapped her back against the seat as the thrusters and push-beam shoved the Night’s Claw out of the launch box and into the empty space outside the carrier. Rada counted three before glancing to the side and banking “down” and away from the carrier, clearing the outer perimeter shielding.
“Claw One, contact Planetary Approach.”
“Planetary approach, Claw One.”
An excerpt from “Omens and Portents?” © Alma T.C. Boykin 2014. All Rights Reserved.