A slight shudder, a sudden surge of force pressing me back into the acceleration pad, and my drop-pod shoots free of the orbiting drop launcher. Weightlessness grips me as the pod begins the long, slow fall from orbit. Within my implant’s comm-space B’dai and Mamoud show open channels, but are not transmitting. By long tradition, this first phase of the drop is one of silence, contemplation, and preparation.
Strapped down on my back within the coffin-like space of the drop-pod I can barely move, can only see straight up to the wall of the pod less than a third of a meter in front of my face. Fortunately, this is not a problem. I flex my hands experimentally inside the gel-links and then make the first command gesture, activating the pod’s external sensors and internal command links. Immediately the wall of the pod changes to a high-definition view of surrounding space, phased-array optics providing a level of detail that even hanging naked in the void would be hard pressed to match. Along my palms, patterned micro-shocks begin to pulse and move, creating a feeling somewhat like small insects running along my hands. The shocks are not random however. They shift and change in distinct patterns. Patterns I have been trained to read. Flight parameters, pod-system status and orientation, etc. All are quite literally ‘ready to hand’.
I turn my attention to what the pod is showing me. The launcher fired us backwards along its orbital path, effectively canceling much of our orbital velocity and causing us to drop inward toward the planet below. I move my left hand within the gel-link and the pod turns, gas thrusters firing to rotate it around its axis, until my view is facing downward.
Below me Zorm now bulks huge in the forward view. I had thought the gas giant was impressive before, viewed from the launch station only a few thousand kilometers above the cloud tops. Now the distance has shrunk to only hundreds of kilometers and the planet does not fill the view, it is the view. A jovian world the size of Old Saturn in the Sol system, vast colored bands of sweeping storms flowing across its face, dozens of moons orbiting its bulk, and a glittering ring dividing the face of the world in twain. From a distance the beauty of such a world is awe-inspiring. From this close it is nothing less than overwhelming.
A tone sounds inside the capsule. First atmosphere is getting close. Time to prepare. I gesture memorized command sequences, reorienting the pod and opening a window in the view in front of me. Colored dots show the position of my pod and those of the two companions who are making this drop with me, although our pods are hundreds of kilometers apart by now. Experienced hyper-divers, they have made this descent into the clouds many times before. It took me a week of persuasion to get them to agree that I was worthy of their attention and many more weeks of arduous training and virch simulation before they felt I was ready to attempt my first drop. Now that time has come.
I collapse the scan window and bring up an orientation graphic. Entering the atmosphere, I will need to keep the pod at the correct orientation and angle of approach to prevent a tumble or other loss of control that will result in the pod burning up in the atmosphere and my own untimely (albeit temporary) demise. Automatics could handle such things easily of course, but only children and tourists use such toys. Serious hyper-divers (such as B’dai and Mamoud) and those who wish to be taken seriously by them (such as myself) scorn such fripperies; although by system law all divers must make a Backup before diving. There are rumors that some purists reject even this sensible precaution, although neither of my friends could confirm such a thing and made it clear that anyone so foolish would rapidly cull themselves out of the ranks of living divers (although not necessarily from the ranks of legendary ones).
A faint vibration begins inside the capsule, the first wisps of air starting to slide across the hull. Reentry is starting. I send commands through the gel-links, making sure that the pod is holding orientation and angle. Tingling messages run up and down my hands, communicating the results of my actions. So far, so good.
The vibration is stronger now and around the edges of my view a fiery glow is beginning to build. The atmosphere is getting denser and the temperature of the heat shield is rising rapidly. My hands move rapidly through a series of control gestures, adjusting and trimming, controlling the capsule with bursts of thrust from the top of the disk shaped craft to hold it steady.
The glow welling up from around the edges of the disk is so bright as to be dazzling now. I flex a command and the view dims, protecting my vision. Another flex and the plasma wings deploy. Magnetic fields generated by superconducting threads in the pod’s hull power up and begin to expand outward while powerful currents are sent along them by the pod’s capacitors. Taken together they work to grab at the ionized air created by the pods passage and shape it into a virtual drogue, slowing the descent of my plummeting craft.
As soon as the p-wings deploy the surface area available to slow the pod goes up dramatically, pressing me back into my padded capsule and making it harder to breath as the pressure mounts. More troubling, the vibration of the pod increases dramatically, the aerodynamics of the plasma-wing and pod system being considerably more complex than that of the pod alone. My fingers work rapidly inside the gel-links, canceling the tendency of the pod to start spinning here, enhancing the angle of the plasma-wing there. I am sweating now, my heart racing. This is like the simulations, but also unlike for the simple reason that I am actually here. Feeling the real forces that grip my real drop-pod and that will tear it apart if I do not successfully tame and shape them. This is the real thing and my life (Backed up or not) is really on the line.
The shuddering of the drop-pod increases still more as the atmosphere thickens then begins to drop off sharply. My velocity is finally dropping below the hypersonic. At the same time the plasma-wings begin to lose power and effectiveness, the superheated air on which they depend now exhausted. I shut the wings down and the pod continues its glide downward into the clouds below. The vibration is weaker now, but a new element has entered my descent. A deep hum begins to resonate through the capsule, telling me I have dropped below the speed of sound. External sensors, mostly powered down during the heat of the descent begin to come back on line. Soon the final phase of this adventure will begin.
The pod slows, slows some more, and settles into terminal velocity drop. I deploy a drogue, made only of matter this time, slowing my descent a necessary last few meters per second, and finally I can activate the vacuum bubbles. Multiple smart fabric spheres expand out from my craft, hollow inside and containing only nothing, not even air. They rapidly increase the buoyancy of the pod to the point where my descent is first halted and then slightly reversed, the pod rising a short distance before a stable equilibrium is reached. My sturdy craft now floats above a sea of infinite cloud.
During the height of the descent I was too busy to truly pay attention to what was outside my pod, all my attention focused on making the descent safely. Now I have time again to look around.
The light is low here, partly due to the weight of air above me, partly due to time of day. It is just before local dawn and while the sky is bright the sun is not yet risen. Nevertheless the view is glorious. A vast pale sea of cloud rolls out below me, broken here and there by towering storm systems just touched with the pink of sunrise. Elsewhere gaps in the cloud layer lead down into shadow and the hot, dark, depths below. Even here I am tens of kilometers above most of the Zorm’s atmosphere, the bulk of the storms far below me. Yet such is the fierceness of the environment that if I watch a given spot for any length of time I can see it visibly moving, flowing across my field of vision while simultaneously changing from one improbable shape to another.
The sky above me is no less arresting. Half a dozen moons are visible at this latitude, three so close that I can actually see their protective bluesky bubbles with minimal magnification. The blue and green of their enclosed ecosystems seems an especially marked contrast to the pale pinks and yellows of Zorm’s cloud sea. To one side of the moons, the orbiting ring is a slash of rainbows across the night. The original ring was consumed for its ices centuries ago. This new ring is computronium, millions of fist sized processor cores arranged in planar orbits and connected by lasercomm. Billions live within the virtual spaces of the ring and event the rarely reflected light of their thinking fills the ring with fire.
My comm-link chimes and then B’dai and Mamoud are within my sensorium. Their own descents have also been successful and their pods drift on the wind only a few hundred kilometers from my own. We laugh and talk now, recording pictures of particularly striking features around us and sharing them along the sat-link that connects our pods. For a time we drift on the winds, enjoying the experience of where we are and what we have done. Then a pulsing tone sounds through our comm lines and a moment later the shadows of retrieval shuttles are falling across our craft. Time to return to space, first to the drop-station and the celebration of a successful first dive, then to the transit hostel on the fourth moon Oristal, where I will await the arrival of the beamrider to the Xoth-mamet Nexus and watch the Zormrise with a sense of connection I have never enjoyed before.
More about the author, Todd Drashner, here.