Transit

The plunge from sub-orbit is a turbulent downward pitch complete with all the rage and heat of atmospheric re-entry. The pressors could have slowed the descent to minimize the friction and buffeting, but speed was ordered and downhill is where to get the most of it.

Charli regards the Deputy Director’s original ambivalence toward the use of a pressure suit with a shrug like a shudder.

His disregard for the physical ramifications of their ballistic trajectory is, at the least, disturbing. It has, however, been her intuition since their first meeting, without ever finding it necessary to test her belief, that questioning Mr. Hergenrather’s decision-making at any point would be an effective barrier to further career development.

She had pushed the winged needle to within an RCH of its limit on the climb, an effect similar to being catapulted into the mesosphere. The Gs, even with her best suit on, blurred her vision to a troubling degree and hurt more than she expected it to do.

Cresting, she makes a calibrated course correction and applies thrust, more than enough to overcome what might have been a brief, enjoyable weightlessness, making the vehicle more bolide than aircraft.

Pressors configured to project a wide, blunt buffer in front of their plummeting projectile create an intense shockwave. It deflects a great deal of the heat and their re-entry resembles a meteoric event. Still, if there was a naked eye to witness their descent into the northeastern New Mexican desert, they would appear little more than a tiny fireball streaming into the wasteland.

Then, nothing.

What her boss is experiencing in the generously appointed rear cabin she can only imagine, but at least if he blows beets all over the upholstery, he won’t blame her for doing as she was told. That’s really all that matters. And hope to St. Elvis he was strapped in at least.

With only modest maneuvering altitude to spare, by her reconning, onboard alarm systems clamoring, Charli bangs the repellor array full on-line and the dive bottoms out a mere four hundred meters above the desert floor—tight, but adequate—and she has found her mark within a kilometer. Not a hole in one; more like a long tee shot rolling out inches from the cup.

She keys the ID protocol and the pre-established routine to align and deposit the craft in the first available berth initializes.

An arcing turn and deceleration threatens to tear some of her favorite organs loose from their moorings, but lines her up with the approach beacon. Her head feels full of clouds, her vision gray and fuzzy.

Somewhere along an imposing wall of ancient, weathered rock, transformation optics conceal the docking portals and the ordnance bracketing them. She is trying to recall with clarity her one previous visit here as she braces for collision with a rugged, looming stone face. Transition through the palisade into the bay is barely a waver of illusory visuals around the penetration. The holographic curtain across the mesa face remains undisturbed.

Cooling mist fogs onto the craft and steam billows from its skin as it is nestled into its docking cradle. Silent fans suck at the cloud of superhot vapor bursting from the interface.

A banging sound intrudes upon Charli’s first conscious moments of a near-blissful peace—one derived from a trajectory best described as stationary. The sound awakens an awareness of where she is and why she’s there. A good deal of pain awakens along with it. And something is pounding on the side of her sled.

She reaches out, allowing the grimace and groan she would have withheld almost any other time, pokes an index finger into a panel over there, and then flips a couple switches here and here. Her hatch unseals with a gasp and the banging sound stops.

She allows only enough gap to hear the sounds of the bay mechanicals at their tasks through the roar of steam pouring off the fuselage in flags. She feels the heat forcing itself through the crack.

Mr. Hergenrather is smiling up at her.

“Good job.”

An affable Hergenrather is confounding. As is his apparent ability to withstand physical extremes. Her eyes focus on him. His eyes are so expletive blue.

He gives her a wink, turns into the cloud, and it swallows him.

She manages a perfunctory salute into the billow where she saw him last. The hatch seals and Charli rolls back into her seat. It hurts less there and nobody around here cares what she does anyway.

     ~      ~

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