by Michael D. Brooks
Mason Adams sat in his single-seat glider cockpit double checking his trajectory. It was right on target. The slightest miscalculation and he would lose his re-entry vector and possibly his life. Having to come around for a second pass was not an option — especially for him. He needed to dive in at the shallowest angle possible if his maneuver was going to work. After all, he was the hottest pilot on the circuit.
His detractors called him arrogant and reckless. Mason thought of himself as confident and daring. He was willing to push the envelope and take it to the next level when everyone else was playing it safe. It was his face that appeared most often in the news feeds. When his competitors were barely able to get sponsors, Mason was endorsing everything from astrogliders to zero-g suits.
He punched in a few figures on the navigation computer’s cockpit dashboard. There was a series of beeps and chirps as the computer calculated the figures Mason entered. He could have simply spoken to the computer, but he was a hands-on kind of guy. The dashboard readout showed green. He was good to go.
As he made his final approach toward his target, Mason switched on the cockpit video recorder, took a long look at the 3-D image of himself hovering mere centimeters from his face and ran his fingers through his black locks of hair; he grinned devilishly, thinking: I not only make this look good, I look good doing it. At thirty-five, Mason had the youthful appearance of a man ten years younger, with baby brown eyes, smooth brown skin, and no facial hair.
Moments before reaching optimum distance, he turned off the 3-D image and switched the auto-navigation system to manual control. Keeping one eye on the dark horizon outside his cockpit window and the other on his readouts through his heads-up display, Mason grabbed the joystick between his knees with both hands and tilted the nose of his craft down two more degrees.
Nanoseconds before reaching his fail-safe, Mason punched a red button on the console in front of him activating his boosters and throwing his craft into a rapidly plunging descent toward the ground. His heart was pounding with excitement. No matter how many times he performed this maneuver, he still got a childlike exuberance.
He dove into the planet’s atmosphere, almost parallel with the edge of its atmospheric horizon. He was experiencing turbulent resistance as his glider bounced and rocked upon passing through the thicker layers. Pulling back on the stick, Mason steered his craft back up into the void of space. He needed both hands on the stick to keep his craft on course. He then pushed forward on the stick and re-entered the atmosphere. He performed this maneuver five times.
Mason was skipping off the Martian atmosphere like a smooth stone skipping through water. Upon his fifth and final skip out of the atmosphere, Mason gave a victory shout, and banked hard to port. He finally uttered a command to the computer with smug satisfaction, “Space normal speed, now.” His racer immediately slowed down to a more easily manageable speed. Elated, Mason performed a victory roll then set a course for Earth and home.
He had done something no one else had ever done before. He had performed a quintuple skip and set a circuit record for skips in and out of a planet’s atmosphere. His accomplishment elevated his adrenalin levels; he was feeling euphoric and wondered if the feeling he was experiencing was similar to that felt by auto race car drivers in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries before the automobile was abandoned as an inefficient mode of transportation.
Mason admired the daring and the bravado of the racers of those times. He sometimes wished he’d been living in those days so he could have experienced the thrill of racing some of the fastest land vehicles on the planet at that time with nothing between a driver and the ground except a set of four air-filled bladders.
In ancient times, a car represented freedom, power, independence, and prestige. But now, astrogliders more accurately defined those concepts. Where the old land-based vehicle represented the freedom of the open road and coming of age, the astroglider represented the freedom of open space — the cosmos. And Mason Adams, a young solar wind racer and atmospheric skipper, couldn’t agree more.
Mason was an extreme racer; one of an elite group who took their sport beyond the maximum limits of man and machine. But Mason was a unique specimen. He was cocky. Anyone looking the word cocky up in any database in the system would literally see Mason’s image beside the definition.
All of the habitable planets and moons in the Solar System were now colonized, half a millennium after the first humans walked on Earth’s Moon. In the intervening years, as advances in technology marched forward, scientists, engineers, politicians, and social scientists had raced forward to create an intricate network of space lanes and interplanetary highways. What used to take years now took hours or minutes.
Of course, with the vastness of space, adhering to established routes was an option not for the adventurous. The careless and unfortunate did upon occasion get lost in space, but most times, they’d be found and rescued. Other times, unwary travelers weren’t so fortunate. The occasional subspace news reports would transmit a story about a missing person. But those instances were rare.
Mason was the adventurous type, but despite his boldness, even he wasn’t foolish enough to go adventuring off into the unknown. He left that business up to the professional explorers. Besides, if he disappeared into the unknown, who else would be able to set new records and envy him? But he did enjoy taking his glider through its paces around the inner planets. He’d fly past Mercury and use its gravitational pull to whip around it, whiz around Venus, and skip off the Earth’s atmosphere and careen toward Mars.
The space debris that used to orbit most of the planets in the system had been removed as menaces to navigation. So he and the rest of the solar wind racers were free to “skip” without interference from authorities as long as they kept away from the main space lanes. You had to respect the winds and the law. Not doing so could be costly — even deadly. But the trade-off was an adrenal high that was well worth the risks. They lived for the sheer pleasure of pushing glide racing to its ultimate limits.
For them, there was no greater thrill in the Solar System than being buffeted by the stellar winds, racing between the planets, and skipping planetary atmospheres. They couldn’t put the top down and let the wind blow through their hair and in their faces, but the sensation of acceleration pressure when they reduced the intensity of their deflector screens was without equal. They’d be pressed back into the cockpit seat feeling every muscle-straining sensation of the forces of gravity and weightlessness pressing and pulling against their bodies. It was not unlike the sensations experienced by the first astronauts — just not as violent. Every extreme racer’s goal was “to feel the crush.”
But there was one more thing Mason wanted to feel, and that was the envious admiration of everyone when he performed a sextuple skip. Like the quintuple skip, it had the virtue of having never been successfully achieved, and it held a more ominous reward of certain death for anyone who tried and failed. Many a racer had been killed attempting five skips.
Mason adjusted his course to take him toward the two innermost planets. He would use the gravitational forces of them and the strength of the solar winds to catapult him toward Mars. What he was about to do was make more history. He had to let everyone know what he was about to do. Flipping a switch on his dashboard, he notified his sport’s governing body of his intentions and requested that it be solarcast live throughout the system.
There was a long pregnant pause on the other end of the communication. Mason imagined the conversation taking place between astonished racing circuit officials. He smiled at the thought. The voice on the other end of the two-way communication sounded perplexed and incredulous.
“Are you sure about this?”
“Never been surer of anything in my life.” The statement was smothered in cocky overconfidence.
“Well, it’s your life.” The voice had resigned itself to a tone of indifference.
Mason got the all clear signal and proceeded on course for Mars. He never doubted he wouldn’t get the go-ahead because he was Mason Adams. Most of his colleagues already thought he wasn’t operating on all his thrusters. He figured that they apparently decided if he wanted to kill himself on a live solarcast, they weren’t going to stop him.
He skimmed Earth’s atmosphere to pick up speed, and raced toward Mercury. He circled the planet once and sped on to Venus where he made two orbits to gain more speed before accelerating toward Mars like a projectile. He had a few hours to go before reaching Martian space. He spent the time taking a much-needed nap. He was awakened by the computer as he approached Mars. He maneuvered his glider into an optimum position to execute a sextuple skip.
“Yes, Mr. Mason?” The voice resembled that of a stuffy, uptight butler.
Mason preferred that his computer call him by his first name. It seemed less formal when one considered the formal tone of its speaking voice. “How much time do I have left before making a final approach?”
“Thirty Earth minutes.”
“Great. More than enough time. Thank you, computer.”
“You’re welcome, Mr. Mason.”
Mason began a complicated task of calculations and space-based maneuvers with military precision. Everything had to be exact. The slightest miscalculation and his family would be mourning his loss instead of rejoicing in his triumph. The glow of the red planet was rapidly filling his cockpit window. He quickly reached the Northern Hemisphere and made a half dozen passes simulating his atmospheric entry.
After completing the final pass, Mason brought his glider in for atmospheric penetration, just as he had done hours before. In a repeat of his earlier skip, Mason grabbed his joystick and punched the red button. But this time, an unexpected burst of solar radiation interfered at the very instant he reduced his deflector screen. His instrumentation experienced a sudden power loss equivalent to an electromagnetic pulse caused by a radioactive burst. He was instantly flying blind and on total manual control.
As the nose of his glider entered the atmospheric edge, it tipped over as if it had been tripped while walking. This sudden and unexpected turn of events sent waves of panic through Mason. He was experiencing a sense of fear which he had not felt in many years.
The warning klaxon was blaring in his ears. He could barely hear the concerned voices coming through over his communications link. All he knew was that he was tumbling wildly out of control and was as frightened as he had been as a little boy when he had gotten separated from his mother at a crowded merchant district on one of Saturn’s moons.
He knew he needed to get control of the situation before he and his glider became a permanent part of the Martian landscape. He forced himself to swallow his fear and fought to regain control of his composure and his glider. The first thing he did was query his computer.
“Computer,” he shouted, “what the hell just happened?” It took considerable effort to speak, choking down the panic in his voice. There was no answer. “Computer?” Now, the panic he had initially felt was reasserting itself. He shouted again. “Computer?”
The klaxon, which had been blaring throughout the cockpit, suddenly silenced itself and the computer chirped a series of familiar sounds before finally speaking. “Yes, Mr. Mason. I am here.”
“What the hell took you so long?”
“Sorry, Mr. Mason, but a sudden burst of solar radiation produced the equivalent of an EMP at the precise moment you lowered your deflector screen. It caused me and all of the onboard systems to crash. I was forced to reboot myself and all support systems. I am currently running a self-diagnostic and evaluating our current situation.”
“And that would be what?”
“That would be dire, Mr. Mason.”
It was at times like this that Mason wished the computer weren’t so frank.
“How much time do we have left?”
“We have approximately five minutes before we impact with the Martian surface.”
“Damn, that's not much time.”
“No it isn't, Mr. Mason.”
“Well, let's get started. You work on trying to stop us from tumbling, and I'll work on figuring out how to get us out of this once you do.”
“Very well, Mr. Mason.”
Mason checked the cockpit chronometer. There were now four point five minutes left. His glider was still tumbling end over end when the computer finally stabilized their rapid descent with two minutes left before impact. They were upside down and had fallen into a narrow canyon.
Mason was hit with a sudden pang of panic which was quickly replaced by his survival instinct. With the ground racing up unmercifully to meet them, while fighting g-forces, Mason managed to wrestle control of his glider from the hands of fate and flip it right side up.
Thirty seconds before impact, Mason managed to punch the red button shooting him forward. He could feel the chilly grip of the grim reaper tightening around him. He was flying through the ravine at death-defying speed traversing it like a bobsledder flying down an icy course. It took all the strength he had to hang on to the joystick and keep from crashing into the sides of the gorge.
Unfortunately, a ninety-degree turn was fast approaching. Mason took a deep breath, said a silent prayer, yanked on the stick, and hit his retrorockets. His glider abruptly nosed upwards as he corkscrewed his way out of the ravine just seconds before he would have become a permanent resident.
He didn't breathe again until he was clear of the Martian atmosphere and once again in open space. That's when he gave himself time to realize he was still alive. “We made it. Computer, we made it.Π He was breathless and half hysterical.
“Yes, Mr. Mason, we made it.”
“Computer, full stop.” His glider came to a full stop just above the northern pole. It was only then that he realized that the racing circuit ground stations on Earth were still trying to reach him.
“Mason. Come in Mason. Come on, buddy, say something. We all know you're okay. We saw the whole thing.”
Mason had forgotten that his attempt was being stellarcasted. “I'm okay.”
“Everyone thought you were a goner, pal. That was absolutely amazing. What we all just witnessed is going to be talked about for months. Come on home, you lucky son-of-a-bitch, and get some rest. You’ve earned it.”
“Roger that. Heading home.” Mason took the time to breathe a few more sighs of relief before turning his glider around and heading for home. As he was regaining his composure, he was also regaining his cocky attitude. “So, what do you think, computer? Did I make that look good or what?”
“Yes, Mr. Mason. You made that look good.”
Copyright © 2009 by Michael D. Brooks