The Condor glistened; the blue green surface of the world reflected in the coating of aluminium gel sealing away the damaged underside of Jenifer Sketcher’s fighter.
They had managed to recalibrate one of the thrusters to compensate for the off axis thrust. She could at least fly in a straight line now.
Throughout the hasty repair news of the encounter with the raiders had trickled back to them. The comms link buzzed again.
“Shield down on alpha. Cobra is out of range!”
“Kipper to Banks, we’re 490 km out from you. If these guys make a run for it now they might pass close.”
“Roger, we got a sick bird here, stay with them. I don’t think we can tango like this.”
Morris tapped the scanner range icon and extended the vision to 400 km. They had a laggy but effective data feed from the Condor sensors. The projected track of the Cobra would pass 16 km right below them. There would be a good chance that the pair of Diamondbacks would notice the tanker. That would not be good. Either they would leave with parting shots or make plans to return later with friends to rob the little 100t trader.
“Sketch, it’s time to go. Make a vector for Launders, we will come in with you.”
Morris craned his head back and spoke.
“Alerted Launders by text. They are ready and have a SAR VTOL ready to cover.”
The Holofac comms screen below Euan’s scanner console fizzed into life and resolved to a split view image of Commander Marsh and Jenifer Sketcher.
“OK Sketch, we’ll talk you in. Moz and Banksy will come in close. You just need to keep with them. You need to get through the atmosphere tail first to slow down. Line up and aim west. You need a 20 second burn 10 seconds after my mark.”
Jen nodded and adjusted some controls.
Coming in tail first might seem like crazy but was the safest way for a damaged ship. Virtually everything in the fighter was bolted on to be pushed by the engine for its whole life. Going in this way would give about the same stresses as a launch.
“.. two, one, mark!”
Both ships flared their main engines and began to eat away at their orbits.
“Steady Jen. Fly safe!”
“Peri at 2km, five more seconds”
“Ready.. Cut off!”
Their course should take them close to the island airstrip of Launders approaching due east over the Taurian Sea.
“I’m getting a pull to port, flight assist isn’t keeping up. Going to manual.”
Morris and Euan exchanged glances. Once through the enrty interface you could flip around and fly in. But the trick on the way in like this was keeping the fighter tail first. All of her aerodynamics would be wanting to point her the other way. It was like flying blind, backwards, without flight assist it would be like flying blind backwards using just your knees.
A few feint vibrations signal that they are skimming the first whisps of atmosphere. Still travelling at some 20km each second the ships would begin to heat up as they punched into the airflow.
The condor was off to the left, Euan could see occasional jets from the manoeuvring thrusters as Jen expertly held the tiny ship steady.
“Hold it steady Sketch, you are doing fine. See you on the other side.”
Marsh’s face disappeared as the holofac link broke. Forked tongues of orange fire started to lick at the Condor and Lakon. Shuddering and sharp punches caught the ships as they entered the upper atmosphere.
Morris and Euan were pinned to their seats, autopilot holding course. Going in like this was tough on the big ship, her ordinary entry profile would be almost vertical to reduce the time being bash around up here but they needed to stay with the tiny Condor. Smashes and creaking metal mixed with the sounds of the blast furnace and turbulence. Suddenly the fire was replaced by white vortices and the inferno was replaced with a steady loud rushing.
“Woh, Mach 6 in reverse!”
Morris was gripping the seat arms, knuckles white.
The Condor was a little way to the left and slightly above. White trails streamed unevenly from her.
The condor seemed to jiggle in the air for a moment before a panel peeled off the damaged wing.
Euan stared as the remaining thruster of the Condor flared suddenly and she decelerated away from them. He grabbed the controls and toggled off the auto pilot. They had to stay close.
Morris had brought up the module scanner.
“She’s not going to make the flip, that last chunk was half a wing.”
The airspeed readout shows 1.7 Mach. They could hit the brakes and ‘fly’ in normally. Euan triggered the engines and pushed the throttle to full. He then thumbed the boost. Both were pressed heavily into their seats. They were now flying forward again.
“2km, we’re about 25k out to sea. SAR ship is inbound.”
Euan could make out the Condor at the head of a long white trail. Still flying tail first towards them, engine blazing. Then suddenly the engine flame sputtered and vanished.
The Condor tumbled past to their right as Euan pulled into a hard turn.
“Sketch, do you read?”
Jen’s voice crackled over the narrow band link.
“Hold on to your undies Moz!”
Euan banked the ship in time to see the old Condor slam into the water, a shotgun blast of debirs spreading out as it came to a halt in the dark steely blue of the early morning sea.
They descended. The scene was a boiling mass of foam and duralium fragments. The centre section of the ship, the part with the cockpit and reactor bobbed to the surface upside-down, dented and scorched. Huge rips in the bottom where it was once attached to the rest of the fighter.
It rolled upright, it’s surface smouldering and class opaque with dents holes and cracks.
The shadow of the SAR ship, a twin rotor craft jolted Euan back to his seat. The side door slid open and a figure clad in orange jumped out into the boiling soup of bits. The figure kicked their way over to Jens condor and waved up. Four shotgun blasts rang out and deep splashes hit the water each side of the condor.
A second later and the whole scene, ship and diver were thrust upwards atop a gigantic glowing orange inflatable platform.
The diver scrambled over to the canopy, reached in and peeled back a large oval hole. A second later, a wave and a thumbs up.
“She’s alive, unconscious but vitals are good.”
Euan hadn’t realised he’d been holding his breath until he let it out.
“Banks this is Marsh.”
“Sketch is safe, SAR are pulling her in now! Did the reds get away?”
“Banks, Bluster and Micro are dead”