On a Thread
By: Eric Johnson
“Nope! There is no way you have ever taken a skiff into space.” The guy next to me said. “They are not rated for that high of flight; they are not even capable of non-atmosphere flight.”
“Ten credits says I did.” I told him, that’s enough for food for a family for a week. He has a family; I don’t so that makes it an even harder bet for him.
“You trying to pull something over on me?” He gave me a calculating look. “You did it in a cargo ship hauling a skiff, huh?”
I motioned to the bartender, my drink is empty. I turned to my contestant and looked him up and down. He looked like a typical settler raised in space and then worked years on the planet: tall and muscular. If I got him mad enough, I would just be a twig for him to snap.
I shook my head at him. “No other ships were involved.”
He pondered this for a moment.
“I got it!” he exclaimed, “You had a modified engine! You had oxygen fuel and…”
He wrenches his face for a moment.
“No wait, the skiff is still an aerodynamic vehicle… It could not fly that high, big engine or not.” He corrected himself.
My new drink arrived. I started to dig in my pocket for some change.
“So tell me, how did you do it?” He asked me.
“You want to know?”
“Then you have to pay to play.”
I moved to pay the bartender a couple of quarter credits. My acquaintance stopped my hand then dropped a couple of quarters himself. The bartender looked at me, I nodded, he picked them up, and wandered back to cleaning glasses.
“Thanks,” I smiled at him, “but I said that 10 credits talks.”
He frowned. I turned back to my drink; the free ones taste the best, and took a sip. I pay him no attention.
“It has to be some trick!” He said, “You are trying to grift me!”
“It was a normal skiff, normal engines, and normal wings, normal in every way. There was no other ship involved and I flew it into space under its own power.” I assured him. “The only thing about a skiff that can handle a trip to space is the pressurized cabin.”
He seemed to think about this a moment. I turned back away from him.
A few moments later, I heard him slap the bar next to me. I glanced over just as he pulled his hand off a shiny 10 credit token.
I stood up from my stool for a moment to dig in my pocket. From a handful of change, I plucked out a couple of 5 credit tokens and laid them on the bar next to his. I pocketed the rest and resumed my place.
“What is your name farmer?” I asked him.
He seemed slightly taken aback that I knew he was a farmer, but answered, “Robert.”
The large muscular shoulder, callused hands, and dirty nails are what gave it away. I replied to him, “Robert, pleased to meet you, I am Matt.” I shook his hand.
I took another sip of my brew before beginning.
It was the Eighth day of Luna and I carried a shipment of fertilizer to settler Franco. He’s that guy who lives so remote from everyone else, that rich guy with all the land.
Well, it was stormy that day, and I tried to delay the delivery, but he was quite persistent. I waited for a clearing in the weather at the airport then took off during a brief window of opportunity. When I hit the sky, it was only clear for about 25 square miles around me, not really that large of an area. Ahead of me, I could see the storm like a wall of stone, dark and grey.
I pulled up into an upward spiral and tried to get as much altitude as I could before hitting the clouds. It seemed like only seconds though before that hole in the clouds closed up and swallowed the little skiff. Since I was in the clouds now, I continued my climb in the direction of the delivery.
Winds buffeted my plane and knocked it hither and fro…
“So the winds boosted you into space?” Robert interrupted my story.
I stared at him for a moment.
“No,” I finally replied, “the winds did not boost me into space. If you would like to finish my story for me, go right ahead.”
“Um, no Matt.” He looked sullen, “I want to hear your version.”
I finished my drink and gestured to the barkeeper.
“Now where was I?” I pondered out loud before continuing.
Winds knocked my plane around, but NOT into space. It was a struggle to keep the plane steady, so my climb was slowed greatly. I was flying on instruments.
“Have you ever watched a thunderstorm?” I interrupted my own story this time.
“I mean have you ever just sat and watched one?”
This time he shrugged.
“Well, when you watching a thunder storm, you only see a very small amount of the lightning. There is plenty of lightning that discharges from cloud to cloud, hidden from view.” I explained. “You might see the clouds flash a little, and maybe hear a little bit of rumbling, but the inside of the storm is even more active than what you see on the outside.”
So there I was. I was flying blind with only my instruments to guide me. I would have just turned around, but I really needed the money and Franco, he pays well. Besides, I had already burned a lot of fuel just trying to climb over the storm. So I continued.
All around me, the entire time, lightning flashed. A few even hit me. But the skin of the skiff acted as a Faraday cage, as it is supposed to, and I did okay. It is the sudden thunder that accompanies a flash that always throws me off. It can be deafening.
Well, my luck had held up so far, but it quickly ran out. A smell of smoke accompanied one of those flashes and all my gauges went out. I still had control, but I flew completely blind now. I figured my sensor array must have been improperly grounded, which I found out later it was, and that it had taken a direct hit, which I found out later it did.
So now I am flew in a bunch of grey nothing, barely able to see through the rain and flashes, constantly buffeted, knocked around, and nearly completely deaf. At this point, I decided it was time to cut my losses and head home.
I pause in my story to pay the bartender, Robert was not falling for the “pay for my drink” trick again, and took a quick slug.
So I turned my plane around, or my best estimation of being turned around. I tried to dive, but the updrafts kept me aloft. Quite a few close calls scared me as I thought the plane might stall from all the conflicting forces. Somehow I managed to keep going.
Now try as I could, I could not seem to break the bottom of the clouds, I was stuck in the middle of them. With all the jostling up, down, left, right, etc. I had no idea which way it was to the bottom of the clouds.
This went on for some time and I found myself completely lost. I could have been just hovering against the wind from the way it felt. A couple of times I thought I had hit something and the entire skiff shook horribly, but still I flew on.
I looked at my fuel gauge, it read empty. You see the thing about gauges, I still had plenty of fuel but could not see how much. I could stay up for a while, but I did not want to. I wanted down and the sooner the better. Only it seemed my craft had other plans.
The flashing finally let up and the grey became slightly lighter. I figured I had finally broken free and was coming out below the clouds. The grey became lighter and lighter and then the next thing I saw blew my mind. I was looking at the top of the clouds. Worse, looked slightly downward at them, but the receded from me. I felt like I raced downward to catch the clouds, but they moved slightly faster.
“Told you it was an updraft.” Robert said smiling at me.
I stared at him but said nothing. After a moment, his smile faded.
“Sorry, go ahead with your story.” He apologized.
A quick sip and I did continue.
So, here I was, I flew downwards and only gothigher and higher above the clouds. I must say it was a truly unique experience. I was quite certain that it was the sky beneath me was falling, because I could come up with no other reasonable explanation except the sky was falling.
Blue sky hung above me, and I could see the sun. Something bothered me about that though. The sky was blue, but it was a darker blue than it usually looked. Not that soft pastel blue you usually get.
I found next that none of my controls would respond. I tried to put the skiff into a dive, but it stayed almost level, only slightly looking down. It felt like someone had a grip on the tail and held it up. Just out of curiosity, I attempted to look towards the back of the plane, but the cockpit windows in a skiff don’t allow much looking back. Then it hit me. The skiff had rear views: cameras at the back of the plane, usually only used for backing up at the airport. I never used them then either. I fired up the monitors, but I only saw a dark blue color, nothing else. I turned off the monitors.
I looked forward again and the sky ahead of me darkened more, and I could see faint red flashes above me in the darkness. This did not make sense to me, I could see the sun, it was still day time, but the sky darkened more and more.
It hit me quite suddenly. I looked down at the clouds, they were still retreating, and they were extremely far below me now. I looked up and the canopy loomed black. I had entered space. I had no idea why, but my ship continued to climb into space. And those red flashes kept getting closer.
“You know when you see a flash in a thunder storm and a big bolt strikes the ground?” I asked my listener.
He nodded dumbly.
“Well, I came to find out later, that flashes of lightening are kind of like a car taking off in the gravel. The car goes forward, but a lot of gravel shoots backwards. In the lightening’s case, the downward flash throws energy up into the air and when it hits space, it creates these little plumes of light called sprites.
I gulped the remainder of my drink and turned the glass upside down. That was enough for now; I had to fly in a few hours.
Before too much longer I looked down on those red flashes as well. I could defiantly make out the curve of the planet. About that time though, my engines started to cut out. They starved for oxygen. Had my gauges worked they would have warned me about mixture levels way before this.
The storm drifted now way below me, but I could only see the far edge of it because I could not see directly below me.
Then the engines died. You do not know silence until you are just entering the vacuum of space and your engines stop turning.
I hung there for a short time, though it seemed like forever and then started to fall. I could see the sprites below me, the storm, and the planet. All of them at once rushed towards me. To add to my confusion, everything started to spin, The skiff spun in a dead stall.
I took a moment and looked at Robert. He held his hat in his hands and crumpled it up. Standing behind him are several other bar patrons gathering around to get their own telling of the story, for free I might add.
So, I pulled the stick and started working the pedals against the spin. I have practiced this many times in a simulator, but have never faced anything like this. I do not think anyone has. I found freefall from space in a skiff a unique experience. I did manage to pull of out the spin, and pulling the stick, I was eventually able to get the nose to respond and pull out. Gee forces pressed me to my seat as I made the maneuver at speeds the craft never would have achieved on its own, but I was slowing down fast now that I lad leveled out some. I had to get the engines restarted.
Skiff engines require blow starts. That means they have to have a lot of air forced into them to get the turbines spinning. On the ground, there is a large truck that does this for me. In the air, I had to rely on my own speed. I had very little time to get the engines started before I would be going too slow to fire them up. I quickly fiddled the controls and dumped fuel and fire into the engines. A sudden roar and I knew I succeeded. I pulled up and tried to gain some altitude above the clouds, but I could not get enough speed now to pull up. Pushed the throttle forward and tried again. I could only hold altitude now. I flew above the storm, but if I lost any more altitude then I would be in the middle of it again.
I stopped and listened. The engines did not sound right. They sounded quieter than usual. No, IT sounded quieter, I only had one engine restarted, the other failed to start. I pulled at the controls again and dumped more fuel and fire. The skiff shuttered, but still did not pick up speed. I tried it once more and had the same result. I would have to land on one engine.
The bartender stood next to me at the bar, I look down and he turned my glass upright and filled it again. Not one to argue, I drank a little more.
The people behind Robert conisted of the rest of the patrons of the establishment.
Now, it is not that hard to bring down a skiff with one engine, but to do so in this storm, with no gauges, and no visibility, it would take a miracle.
“Now you can see I am standing right here before you,” I interrupt myself, “so you know a miracle must have occurred, but you have to stick with me here and once I tell you, you still will not believe it.”
So I held the plane up as long as I could above the clouds. I wasted some fuel in the restart attempts, but I figured I still had enough to make it past the storm, but I could never seem to find the edge of it.
I flew as straight as I could for about an hour and by this time I skimmed the tops of the clouds. I finally gave in and went for a dive downward through them. My old acquaintance, the color grey, greeted me there. Everything was grey and I had to hold my eyes level with a dirt spot on the windscreen to tell if I still went up or down.
“It’s an inner ear thing.” I quickly explained. “You look at something level with your eyes and you can tell by your sense of balance as to if you are facing up or down.”
The whole group nodded together.
So I flew completely by ear, one engine, thunder, lightning, no gauges, and totally blind in the grey. Oh, and the turbulence had gotten worse, much worse. Maybe the lack of engine power made it worse, but my skiff tossed all over, I gripped the stick half out of steering, half out of needing something to hold on to. Downward I went.
I managed to get somewhere this time. It did not take me long before I burst out of the bottom of the clouds. Below, the terrain was called my name, and I hoped not answer it too quickly.
I found visibility here only slightly better, I could make out some shapes below, but had no idea what they belonged to, and I hadto get closer. This idea almost sent me back into the clouds it scared me so much, but I had already been there and knew what waited for me. I decided to take my chances with the ground. I pointed downward, though not too steep, and made my way.
Now, when you are flying a skiff, the only thing you can hear from outside is the sound of the engines, or in this case, engine, and thunder. But that day I heard something so loud that I could not hear the engines over it. It sounded like a plasma engine taking off over the ocean. And more than hear it, I felt it. The entire ship vibrated in its fury. I looked out the window and could not see anything but occasional shapes in the rain. Then a dark area appeared off to my right and it closed on me fast. I was not flying in that direction so it had to be coming at me.
“Was it a twister?” One of the patrons interrupted and he received dark stares from others around him.
“Yes,” I answered him, “it was a twister.”
“Probably same one that hit my farm.” He added, but by several people shushed him.
Robert though seemed in thought for a moment, and then spoke up. “So was it the tornado that threw you into space? ‘Cause that would be an updraft.”
I just shook my head at him. Someone behind him though hit him with their hat.
So this tornado headed straight at me, my entire plane is vibrated, and I cannot hear the engines or the thunder. My ears are still ringing from the noise.
I tried to steer away, but the craft started crabbing towards the dancing devil. It had me caught in the suction zone.
I prayed and steered. I held my skiff at bay as best as I could, but it was a losing battle. When the twister grabbed the plane, it was kind of like when you shoot a piece of paper with a rubber band. One moment that paper is sitting there minding its own business, the next it seems almost instantly somewhere else. My skiff played the part of the piece of paper. We suddenly moved so fast that it threw me out of my seat. When I checked my seat later, the five-point belt remained completely buckled. I have no idea how I left the seat.
I banged my head good, but remained conscious. Through the front glass, all chaos was going on. I saw things going past that I was not sure whether they were upside down or not, or if maybe I was.
It all came to an end rather suddenly or at least the part that I can remember. The plane hit the ground, but it seemed somehow a soft landing. As I flew across the cabin, I remember thinking that I hoped it was not a water landing.
I emptied my glass, the bartender had bottle in hand and saw my dismay. He refilled it quickly. He balked when I started to dig for change. He made a motion to finish the story.
I guess I can put off that flight later on tonight. I took a sip and continued.
When I came to, silence rang in my ears and I lay across one of the ceiling control panels. The knobs ate into my back.. I pulled myself up, and I felt bruised over my entire body. By some miracle I did not have any major injuries.
I paused to see if anyone would comment about the miracle. Thestory held them too enthralled.
So by standing up, I found that the plane pitched at a slight nose down angle, and tilted to the right some. Oh, and it sat completely upside down.
I stepped lightly around debris that littered the ceiling of the cabin. I stopped to pick up a pack of Chewies and popped one in my mouth. It seemed awkward trying to operate the door handle since it was at the wrong height, wrong side, and well, upside down. I managed it and stepped over the wall in the doorway and into the back of the skiff. Bags of fertilizer lay scattered everywhere.
I made my way through cargo area and before I could quite make it to the door, I heard a tapping. Someone banged on the outside of the skiff. A thought crossed my mind, “I hope they don’t scratch my ship.”
I smiled and finished my trip to the door. That is where the tapping came from.
Fiddling with the lock and handle, I finally managed to get it to open.
“Do you know who was standing right outside my ship?”
In unison, the group shook their heads.
They all stand there in silence.
“Do you know what he told me?”
Again, the synchronized head shakes.
“He said that he tried to get a hold of me at the airport and delay the shipping since the weather was so bad, but I had just taken off.”
Of all the places I could have crashed, that tornado threw my skiff down on top his pile of hay bales. And that was my miracle, the only way I survived the whole ordeal.
I made the delivery, he paid me, and he gave me a little bit extra for making it so convenient to just dump the fertilizer on the hay before he spread them on the fields.
“So how did you go into space?” Robert asks
“Oh, that.” I acted dumb.
It took three days to get my plane back to the airport for repairs. They said they had been looking for me. I explained where I had been and then they filled in the holes.
You see, in the storm, I go so turned around, I had flown into a restricted area, the area where they operate the space elevator. I actually collided with the uplink cable. Every time I pulled on the cable, it would create some slack, and the operators of the elevator would have to pull the slack out or risk losing their orbit. Every time they pulled the slack, I went higher. We were having a tug of war and I was losing big time. The only thing that set me free was that my engines starved and stopped pulling. That released me from the cable and I fell.
“But that was not under your own power.” Robert claims, reaching for the coins.
“It was my own power because I was pulling the satellite station and the cable would only go one way to release that tension.” I explain, “I just kept pulling, and they kept releasing the tension.”
“So what happened to your skiff?” Robert watched me pocket the coins.
“Warranty.” I said simply. “Bad construction caused the problems; they repaired the whole thing, good as new.”
“Still got a bit of a fertilizer smell though.” I added.
I got up off the stool and made my way through the press of bodies. I had to get back to work.