When Spindrift slid into the upper atmosphere of her planet, Susan caught herself squealing.
There was nothing to squeal about. It was pure anticipation. When Manifold had described the forces at work, she’d expected shaking and roaring. But all that happened was that the atmosphere around Spindrift slowly turned into a ball of plasma and Molly started twisting the craft side to side to make fine adjustments to their angle of descent.
When Molly heard Susan’s squeal, she started explaining what she was doing as she did it, which Susan found very soothing.
The computer games Susan had played had simplified and dramatized what it was like to re-enter the atmosphere. And though she had read astronaut accounts of it, those had not been what had stuck in her mind, until Molly started reminding her with her words.
Then it all became fascinating again.
This was part of one of her oldest special interests. And she was getting to actually live it. Had been. It just was also so alien and unexpected, flying in adversary to her own government in the process. Not that she felt any particular loyalty to that government.
They’d taken longer than anticipated as well, because of that. So, she was worrying about what her family were thinking.
The crew of the Spindrift had no clue as to what to expect planetside, no idea whether they’d successfully evaded tracking, or what the governments’ reactions would be. They’d been silently listening to popular media for twelve days on the return trip, and there was plenty of speculation there but no indication they’d been spotted. People were talking about Anchor and about what the federal agents supposedly didn’t find at the landing site. People were arguing about where the original landing site had been. But if any government had spotted Spindrift’s return, they hadn’t spilled that news to anyone.
Before they left Anchor, Manifold briefed them on Molly’s flight plan, so they knew every step of it as they went. And from leaving the shipyard to entering the atmosphere of the planet, it was rigidly laid out.
It had figured out a way for them to mimic a meteor from well into solar orbit.
They had used Anchor’s rotational velocity to launch Spindrift outward, away from the sun. This wasn’t enough force to leave the orbit of L4. And neither was the added boost of manipulating Anchor’s Bussard fields to act like a gauss cannon or rail gun. But it was enough to get them visually away from the parent vessel before firing Spindrift’s main engines to get deeper into space and significantly alter their orbit around the sun.
From there, their desired flight path required a constant burn for a few days as Molly fought the sun’s gravity to allow Spindrift to find the right trajectory to hit the planet in the desired location.
It was like how Molly had gotten them to Anchor in the first place, flying through space on carefully managed vectored thrust. There was very little difference between the physics of that and hovering to a landing like she had when she first met Susan and Lesley. It’s just, Susan could not fathom where Molly and Manifold were storing all the fuel necessary for that kind of thing.
Every time she asked about it, one of them would say, “it takes less fuel than you think. And we don’t understand it either.”
At the desired aphelion, Molly had cut thrusters and let Spindrift fall toward the planet for eight days. And they’d practiced with nanites and discussed plans while in zero G, and spent a lot of time in their own Netspaces, hosted by Spindrift’s Network.
It had been easier to spend over a week with three other people in a small spaceship when you could close your eyes and find yourself in a whole world of your own making.
Susan would have done that during re-entry if she wasn’t so focused on trying to sense the physics of it with her own body.
It would take less than an hour for them to reach their desired flight level, where they could gain enough lift from Spindrift’s airfoils to maneuver and stay aloft like any other airplane.
They came in over one of the oceans, angled as if to land near or on a different continent than before. The idea being that if they were tracked, or if their meteoric descent didn’t fool anyone, their apparent flightpath would maybe fool everyone watching.
And that’s when Susan finally experienced the turbulence and noise she’d expected before. Over that ocean, just as the plasma had almost faded out entirely from deceleration, the tiles that provided heat shielding for re-entry broke away.
It felt and sounded like the ship was falling apart, and very quickly. There was a single loud clunk, and then a lot of rattling, and everything shuddered. By now, gravity had slowly returned, so a sudden drop of freefall for less than a second really startled and scared her.
But then Molly had it under control again, and the engines kicked in and she started a long bank to the left, taking a huge U-turn.
Now Susan entered the ship’s Network, where Molly, Manifold, and Lesley were observing everything from Spindrift’s sensors.
“Hey, Sweetie,” Lesley said. “How was it from that side?”
“Anticlimactic and serene right up until we dropped the tiles,” Susan replied. “At least I can replay the experience online to see what it was like for you.”
“I’d describe it as the same, but look at this!” Lesley gestured about.
Molly really had a flare for the dramatic. She’d devised a Netspace Bridge for the Spindrift in a similar way to what Anchor had. Only, there was no furniture and no instruments panels.
They were simply standing, or lying, on top of Spindrift as if they were surfing it. And all around them were colored holographic style markings hovering in the air as a heads up display. Susan saw it all in her own language. And there were menus and commands set up for her to access so that she could alter her view or change the types of readings she could see.
It was breathtaking.
She felt the wind as only enough force to give her a sense of movement and speed. It didn’t affect her voice, hearing, or movements in any significant way. She still felt like shouting over it anyway.
“This is incredible!” she told everyone.
Lesley’s Network avatar looked mostly like her actual body did. There were some subtle differences, and if anything they just made her look even more like Lesley to Susan. She was wearing her favorite Pride outfit, though, which made Susan grin back.
Susan knew that Lesley was deliberately underplaying to her own desires there, though. She’d figured out her ideal body back on Anchor, and now was compromising and depriving herself of it to avoid shocking her dysphoria when she logged out of the Network.
This prompted Susan to revisit her own feelings again. The ones she was suppressing and ignoring, that were growing stronger. She knew exactly what she needed, but she wasn’t willing to admit it to herself yet, let alone talk to an alien snake and her ancient disembodied parent about it.
Lesley might take it particularly well. It wasn’t anything Susan hadn’t talked about before. She’d just passed it off as an unreachable childhood fantasy, an old game of make believe that she revisited sometimes. And Lesley had made a point of taking it seriously and telling Susan it was one of the things she loved about her.
But Susan didn’t really know. A fantasy becoming a reality could be an unexpected shock to loved ones.
And she also didn’t want to admit it to herself because she didn’t plan on returning to Anchor, if she could help it.
So she shook her head and refocused on what the others were doing, which was preparing to do some reconnaissance.
Right now, they were keeping an eye out for interceptors or ships that might have been sent to catch sight of them.
The hull of Spindrift was fluctuating in color ever so subtly to match its surroundings. The top of it, where they were, was the slate gray of the ocean. The bottom of it, when Susan checked, was visually the same light gray as the overcast sky. And the whole of it carefully modulated its reflectiveness across the spectrums so as to blend in passively to their surroundings as best as it could.
The shape of the ship had not changed all that much. Some of the angles were more severe. No surface of it was perfectly flat. But Manifold had apparently found that added baffling around the engines, hiding the vectored thrust system behind hatches until they needed it, and using adaptive nanotech surfacing for everything would apparently be enough to slip past radar and most other sensors.
It had even managed to cut down on the noise the engines created, so long as they didn’t break the sound barrier. Which they’d been doing long before they entered atmosphere. But now they were going slow enough to avoid that sonic boom.
Which would make this part of the trip longer.
Next, they would weave their way across their home country at high altitude, looking for a good low altitude path to their desired landing place. Susan and Lesley had picked that out from previously generated maps, looking for highways that would lead them home. They were prepared to hitchhike if necessary, but a bus route should be possible to find after a bit of a hike.
If needed, they’d overshoot the country, turn around again, and fly in low over the opposite coast. That sort of depended on whether they felt they were spotted or not, and what kind of argument they had about it at that point. Otherwise, they’d stall, begin to drop out of the sky above their landing zone, then pull up and engage the vectored thrust.
Again, Molly’s flare for the dramatic.
That was hours away, yet.
They’d considered coming in at night, but Manifold said the difference to their stealthing was negligible, and they would benefit from seeing where they were going more clearly.
Susan wasn’t sure of that. It didn’t make sense. She figured that their superior technology would better overcome night conditions compared to that of humanity’s. And night would give them cover once on the ground.
But Manifold was adamant. Its last word on the matter was that a meteoric re-entry would be less visible during the day, and that that was their most vulnerable, most visible moment.
Phage had spent the last 12 days watching in amusement and concern as the denizens of its military compound tracked Molly’s path from starship to planet.
The conversations had sounded something like this:
“We’ve got a new object. It’s offgassing and accelerating at an unprecedented rate!”
“Is it a spacecraft?”
“We think so. It became visible several kilometers from the interstellar vessel, so we think there was some sort of thrustless launch system. Possibly centrifugal force from that thing we think is a habitat cylinder. It’s how we’d do it.”
“Yes, we almost missed it. But here’s the strange part! It’s burning an unbelievable amount of fuel in a direction that makes no sense.”
“If I may, it might use something for thrust we haven’t considered.”
“Yes, but at our first glance, the physics don’t add up for any element, compound, or ionic mechanism that we know of!”
“Well, keep watching it.”
And then, a few days later:
“It’s definitely on a trajectory for re-entry. It’s coming right at us, sir.”
“We’re also having a hard time tracking it. It’s all black, tiny, and absorbs most radiation we scan at. The heat management on whatever it is is phenomenal.”
“I’ve come to expect no less from it.”
“Likewise, sir. I still can’t explain the sheer amount of thrust that came out of it. The closest source of power of that magnitude I can think of would be fusion, but the math still fails.”
“That’s our current guess, and a bad one.”
“So, these people have a lot they could teach us.”
“This is our second lesson, sir, and we’re already falling behind.”
“Understood. What else have you got?”
“Well, unless they alter their vectors in some unexpected way, we don’t exactly have to track them. They’ll enter our atmosphere here, moving in this direction, and if they fly like one of our shuttles they’ll land here. But I don’t expect that.”
“No, sir, not with the way they took off when we spooked them the first time. Not with how they’ve been flying through space, defying orbit like an interplanetary VTOL. And not with what looks like an infinite source of propulsion.”
“What does that mean?”
“They’re trying to evade us, sir, and they’re pulling out all the stops to do it quickly and unexpectedly.”
And now, after spending eight days setting up a tap so that it could monitor the installation from an outside vantage point, Phage overheard:
“They’ve hit re-entry as predicted, sir.”
“Tighten the noose!”
Phage’s amusement finally faded in the face of concern. It realized it may have misjudged on whether or not to warn Molly. It now did not have enough time to intercept, unless it could think of something very creative.
It wasn’t great at being creative. People were better at that. Which is why it liked being around people. As many as possible, when it had its way.
“I think they expected us to be at a lower altitude,” Molly said when she caught sight of the first blips in her sensors.
The others saw her as her avatar perched atop Spindrift with the rest of them, and that avatar did the speaking. But she was Spindrift. She saw through all of her sensors in a way that bodily senses just could not mimic. And when she returned to her body, her memories of it would flatten and become hard to interpret. But while inhabiting Spindrift this way, her conscious mind was expanded to adapt to it.
Manifold was doing something similar as her navigator, but focusing more on maps, signals from satellites, and all the active sensor radiation that was thrown their way.
The humans were providing a valuable sense of urgency about whatever it was that caught their eyes, which hadn’t been anything yet.
“Wait, what?” Susan exclaimed. “We were spotted?”
“Yes,” Molly said. “Lying in wait around our entry point and closing in now.”
“Oh, I see one,” Lesley said. “Too far away to identify.”
“Zoom in on it.”
“Oh, it’s a radar plane.”
“I’m getting an active signal from it,” Manifold interjected. “And I recommend gaining altitude and changing heading. It may not have seen us, but best to be sure.”
“Done,” Molly said, as she made her adjustments. “I’m marked a path that I think will get us past them. Can you check that, Manifold?”
“Looks good. Though we won’t know until they react or don’t react to it.”
“Start helping me think of alternative paths and evasion maneuvers, please.”
“Of course. Already doing so.”
“Focus on flying, not politeness, if you will.”
“OK, will do!”
Unexpectedly, right then, there was that message ding that had been so much more common on the Sunspot, and this time, when Molly acknowledged it, it was followed by a voice. It was deep and resonant, like someone with a broad chest and open, clear nasal passages. Almost soothing, if it weren’t for the urgency in its tone.
“Do not answer. I am tracking you as only I can. If you can safely land, I will cover your ground movement. I cannot reliably help you until then.”
“What was that?!” Susan shouted.
“The voice of Phage,” Molly replied.
She noted that Susan shivered.
“I think that means we’re going to go right for our landing zone,” Molly said.
“I don’t think that’s what it was suggesting,” Manifold responded.
“Keep yourself open to other options, please.”
And at that point they were passing over a wing of fighters, so everyone started watching those planes to see what they did. Within seconds they were far behind each other, but with their own instruments they were able to keep track of them.
It was a very tense number of moments kept in silence and possibly held breaths.
“I think they’re turning,” Lesley said as evenly as she could.
“Hard to say if that’s just their standard search pattern yet,” Manifold stated.
“Approaching some ships,” Susan exclaimed.
“If they don’t launch anything, we won’t be able to tell what their reactions are,” Lesley observed. “They move too slow.”
This was mostly guessing on everyone’s parts, as it had been from the beginning. Susan and Lesley had some kind of knowledge from their own people’s pop culture, but it wasn’t reliable, mostly propaganda. Molly and Manifold knew their own equipment, but were entirely out of their element. But Molly felt a sense of confidence from the tones of everyone’s voices. It at least sounded like they all knew what they were doing.
Guessing and making quick decisions was really all they could do, besides just being as alert as possible.
Thirty minutes later, they all started to feel like they’d done it. An hour after that, they crossed the coastline.
When Susan had seen her own planet growing in size before them on their approach from L4, the feelings she’d experienced were more profound than when she’d seen it on leaving. They were the same feelings compounded by the sensation of returning home, and they were so hard to describe.
She would never, ever forget those sights, no matter how long she lived, and she knew she was no longer the same person she’d been before and never would be again. She’d also seen the look in Lesley’s eyes that echoed all of those emotions.
Those moments had demanded silence and contemplation. There was the realization that not only they, but the ship they were on, were just so amazingly tiny. Especially as the planet had shrunk to a bright point, or then grown from that point to this massive world where she had lived before. Words were inadequate, and it felt that life itself was inadequate as well. The world was a living thing that was older than even the ancient beings she traveled with. She knew it with a certainty. She had more in common with Manifold than with that planet.
And that planet was home.
In contrast, crossing the coastline of her country, as much as she resented its culture and politics, was profound in a different way. She wanted to cry with relief.
And memories of her family and her own apartment, her hometown, that she could not bring herself to access when she had been in space, all came flooding back. She’d been distracted by how unreal her life had become before, but now she could not wait to collapse into her own bed. It was a cold weight that pulled in her gut, and a loving warmth that comforted her from all around.
In that feeling, she wondered what Tallis and Berg would say when they say her and Lesley on their doorstep. She wondered what they’d eat. She could smell the house, the soaps from the sinks, the bags of pinewood chips they used to deter pests from their clothes, the stain of the wood trim in the living room, the cooking. So many dishes that Berg loved, only a quarter of them edible to Susan, but all of them smelling divine.
She thought about sitting together and going over the photos that she and Lesley had staged. With Molly and Manifold’s permission they’d collected imagery of Anchor and its corridors and Garden, along with various required shots of the planet, moon, and an asteroid. Many of these photos would become classified material in the hands of any government. But Susan’s favorites were the ones she and Lesley had taken from the various Netspaces aboard both Anchor and Spindrift. Those were so corny and utterly unbelievable. In half of them, Lesley looked indescribably different and Susan looked markedly younger. And then, there was the selfie they took from atop Spindrift with the planet looming behind them, just out there in space without any spacesuits flashing a peace sign.
Those photos would have a tendency to mark all the others as fakes. No one would be able to take them seriously, she hoped. Except anyone with whom she felt safe enough to share the secret of her nanite cluster, if she kept that.
Here, flying inevitably toward home, she was actually on the fence about it. And she was having a hard time making that choice, because she was so focused on memories of Tallis’ smile and Berg’s hug. And Fuckwind’s laugh, their cackle. MIxel’s knife collection. And Kirkleson’s slobbery kisses and clattering of claws on hardwood flooring. And she wanted a mulled tea so badly, she’d do anything to get it.
In that moment, she’d forgotten some of the gut wrenching fears that she still harbored.
And there in the Network of Spindrift, she reached out and gripped Lesley’s hand.
But they both still kept their eyes out for other aircraft. They dared not take their gazes off the horizon.
Phage stayed at its communications vantage point as long as it could, long enough to catch the moment when awareness of Spindrift’s re-entry hit the public. But not long enough to confirm the military had lost sight of them, or kept tracking. The last word it had heard was that they were having trouble locating the alien ship, and speculating broadly as to where it might be.
But, then, Spindrift passed by the point at which it had to abandon its post to keep up and hopefully intercept.
It was amazingly fast propelling itself through the air, for what its mass consisted of. But it wasn’t as fast as a spacecraft on an absurdly souped up fusion torch. It had outclassed itself with its own work.
Not that they were exceeding the speed of sound, but Phage definitely could not do that and keep its nanites. Not without gathering some fuel itself and doing something, well, creative.
It was exceedingly good at predicting where a traveling object was going, though, even with a pilot directing it. So, it knew when to move, and it did so long before Spindrift passed its position. Before Spindrift had reached the coastline, in fact, which is how Phage knew not to trust they’d lost their pursuers. There was another line of radar there, and millions of eyeballs, to possibly catch them.
They were headed for one of the largest national parks, again with a forest. The worst place to land an aircraft, but a great place to hide one if you could find a clearing large enough.
That gave Phage a nasty idea, and it started collecting energy as it flew.
At a certain point in its own flight, Phage ceased to be stealthy, and it had to shield its nanites in a magnetic field to protect them from the heat.
An hour and a half later after crossing the coast, they converged on their landing field, an evergreen forest, and Molly abruptly pulled Spindrift into a stall.
She could see both Lesley and Susan brace themselves within the Network Bridge against the forces of deceleration, even though they didn’t need to. It appeared they intended to ride the descent out there, keeping their eyes on the horizons.
And the ship began to seriously drop, as the sun started to set in the West.
So, Manifold had timed all of this so that they’d be hiking through the woods at dusk or even during the night, if they were bold enough to leave the ship during that time. The ship itself would be better camouflaged by the darkness. Molly took some time to consider that, but in this freefall she was also taken by how gorgeous and strange this planet was.
That sunset was nothing like a sundeath aboard the Sunspot. It was so much better. The colors were deeper, and covered a wider spectrum. The clouds glowed with it. And below them the green of the trees deepened and deepened and deepened.
She remembered then that she needed to scan for a landing spot, and dedicated her attention to that.
Two quick decisions and some furious maneuvering later, treetops were rising up all around her and the humans were shouting.
“I caught sight of a fighter, and there was a fireball,” Manifold said.
“What?” Molly asked as she touched down and cut the engines.
“I caught sight of a fighter chasing a fireball,” Manifold clarified. “The fireball was headed toward a mountain side. And where there is one fighter, there are likely at least two others.”
Susan and Lesley had seen it, too, as they were in the midst of talking about it when they converged in the cockpit, waking up mid sentence and starting to unharness themselves.
“ – gotta be a hundred kilometers away, easily,” Lesley was just suddenly saying out loud, struggling with her harness.
Susan opened her eyes, sighed loudly, and just watched her harness retract, then said while getting up, “Sure! That sounds about right. But did you see how low it was! That was no meteor.”
“Oh, yeah, no. No meteor would fly at that angle. Well, I don’t think. It’d burn up long before it got the chance, right?”
“Well, actually, I don’t know. But it looked almost insubstantial to me. Like the plasma that surrounded our ship as it was coming in, but without the ship. And there were no sparks or chunks coming off of it.”
“I mean, it’s a hunch, but I don’t think that was a meteor. I really don’t.”
“It was following a parabolic arc,” Manifold spoke up. “Starting from the ground, some distance eastward. That was not a meteor.”
“Do you think it distracted the military from our landing?” Susan asked.
“I do not know,” Manifold said. “I’ve been monitoring all radio channels, but our pursuers are using a verbal code I have not cracked yet.”
“Can I listen to some of it?” Lesley asked.
But when Manifold obliged, she shook her head.
“I can’t understand it either.”
Molly decided to start pulling herself from her pilot’s seat at that point, and that’s when they heard the muffled boom roll over them.
“If that was the fireball, that ought to convince someone it was something!” Susan exclaimed.
“Do you think it was Phage?” Lesley asked.
“It promised us cover, didn’t it?”
“OK, we’ve got to decide whether or not we’re going to move,” Molly said, holding herself a little taller than them.
“Hey, wait, though,” Susan said. “After eight days in freefall, I should be wobbly. Why is standing up in a full G so easy?”
“Your nanite terminal is helping you compensate,” Manifold said.
Susan suddenly became very solemn, mouth shut, and looked around the cabin at about waist level, like she was trying to think of something she’d lost.
Molly didn’t want to rush her friends through a moment of concern like this, but something was telling her it was urgent, so she asked somewhat loudly, “Do you think, if they find Spindrift, that they might fire weapons at it?”
Both Lesley and Susan’s heads snapped up, eyes wide. Manifold’s little solar system stopped spinning.
“I sure hope not,” Lesley whispered.
“That,” Susan said, “is a scary idea. That was an awful lot of armed force we just evaded.”
“What should we do?” Molly asked. “I want to get you home.”
“We should take our kits and exit the ship immediately, and you two should take off as soon as we’re clear,” Susan said definitively.
Lesley tilted her head toward Molly, looking at her out of the corner of her eyes, and said a little quietly, “she’s right, you know.”
Susan didn’t waste any time, and went to her cabinet where her kit was and started inspecting it and prepping it to fit on her back. “Can we contact you somehow through the nanites?” She asked. “Or, maybe we can surreptitiously use the internet in some way while you’re still nearby?”
“I don’t like this,” Molly said, realizing the statement was useless. Susan was right. This is what they had to do, and do it as quickly as possible.
Lesley was one step behind Susan and paused only long enough in front of Molly to say, “I hate this so much, but it’s the safest for all of us.”
“Yeah,” Susan said, hiking up her backpack and tightening a strap. “If you make a scene blasting off, you can get out before drawing any missiles or whatever. And you can draw attention away from us. We’ll be fine.”
Oh, but wait! Molly had a counter argument, “But if we went to all this trouble and bluster to try to evade them, only to touch down for a few minutes, aren’t they going to suspect we’ve dropped someone or something off?”
“Or picked someone up,” Susan nodded. “We just don’t know. But that’s the long run. This is now. Every second we sit here, we risk our lives. Come on, Lesley, let’s move.”
“Right behind you,” Lesley said, strapping on her kit.
Molly felt herself panicking. This wasn’t at all how she’d imagined this happening, and she didn’t know what to do about any of it.
Manifold had started spinning again, but hadn’t said anything. Usually it would have interjected by now with advice.
Molly glanced at it.
It tilted slightly in the direction of her pilot seat.
“We can operate the airlock,” Susan half shouted as she turned and marched toward it, as if Molly was already back in the cockpit and she needed a raised voice to be heard. “You should get this machine warmed up and ready to go!”
Lesley gave Molly a sad and longing look, but half smiled and stepped after her girlfriend.
“I’ve got the ship all ready to go,” Manifold said quietly to her. “You should say your goodbyes.”
Molly felt rushed, frozen, and completely out of control of the whole situation. She had nothing more she knew how to say, and all she could do was hope they would be alright.
As the hatch to the airlock was opening, Susan walked back out of the little hallway, looking down at her feet. She stopped at the edge of it and looked up at Molly with tears in her eyes, and said, “Molly, thank you. Thank you so much. You know we’re just trying to keep each other alive right now, right? I don’t really want to make you go back to Anchor. But we have to do this. For each other.”
Lesley stopped next to her, biting her lip and trembling a little. She waved.
“We will keep in touch. We’ll figure this out!” And Susan backed into the airlock, dragging Lesley with her.
The hatch shut and it started cycling.
Molly let out a long breath and started to crawl back to her pilot seat.
She was so distraught and feeling mindlessly belligerent, she held her breath and entered the seat head first, where she coiled around and around in it until her tail entered last. And then she stuck her face back out of the goo, breaking it. Then she sat there, refusing to connect with the ship right away.
She just listened to the airlock finish its cycle and waited for the feeling of the gangway doing its thing. When it was done, and only when it was done, would she take control and lift off. And she would wait until her friends had reached the trees and put some distance between themselves and the rocket wash.
She idly thought about the other exit from Spindrift. The one that would destroy it.
She was sorely tempted to use it, but knew that wasn’t a reasonable thought. And she’d be damned if abandoned Spindrift after so recently naming it. She loved it and its name. Flying home while inhabiting its body, as Spindrift itself, would be a distressing defeat, but it would also be her respite.
She would return to who and what she was. The life of her ships. The very spirit of exploration. The pilot.
The gangway clicked back into its place, sealing Spindrift’s hull and becoming airworthy again, so Molly took one more look around the cabin with her own eyes, and then dropped into the Network and took possession of the ship’s systems.
She watched Lesley and Susan hike away into the trees, constantly turning around to look back and make sure she was OK. Her heart hurt with every glance.
They were still connected to the Network, of course, and would be until Spindrift was out of range. They’d even have their own Network of sorts when they were close enough to each other. They’d probably benefit a lot from that.
She sent them a message, not prompting for any in return. She said, “Thank you, friends. Thank you. I will check on you.”
And then she began liftoff.
To avoid disturbing the trees too much, or risking collision with them, she started slowly. She was not in the mood for speed, anyway. Even if it would have served her better.
When she was finally a good fifty meters above the treeline, she started to angle the ship upward and engaged the rear thrusters, just enough to continue hovering.
“Wait. Is Phage still on the planet?” she thought.
She had just enough time after that thought to catch the flash of movement coming directly to her aft from a tree covered hill. Just enough time to panic and follow the reflexes she’d ready primed herself for and trigger the eject system.
The top panel of the main controls flew toward the ceiling and an arm with a lid for her pilot seat slammed forward as the crash gel sucked her into the orb and out of the way. There was a hissing as it sealed and pressurized her container. And then there was a Spindrift shattering boom!
The nose cone of the landing craft detached on its own rockets, dragging Molly’s pilot seat with it through a hole of ruined debris, clear of the cockpit of the now failing vehicle. There was a nanite bin in the ejection mechanism, and the nanites within the crash gel could also be used for any survival purposes.
Manifold had been alerted the very second Molly had activated the mechanism. It was already residing in the nanite bin, ready for Spindrift’s Network to rip to shreds when the drive finally failed its containment.
Molly wondered if Susan and Lesley had gotten clear enough to avoid that explosion. She wasn’t even sure how bad it would be. The technology that was about to destroy itself was a huge unknown.
She realized she was about to be stranded, and didn’t know if she cared.
And that’s when the shockwave of the engine exploding hit her.