Alien Cradle - By Jeff Inlo

Rumbling, shaking, unsettling turmoil; Rath Scampion hated atmospheric entry. Despite the presence of heat casters, the bright orange flares bursting across the viewshields convinced him that he was about to ignite into a spectacular light show. The bone-jarring convulsions made shuttle turbulence seem like a light cough. His jaw quivered, his teeth chattered from the intense vibrations; all the while he held steady to the flight stick as if it was his only lifeline. His fingers turned white from the ferocity of his grip. With the scout vessel in computer pilot, he had no true command. The shake of his arm caused no pitch of the wing or jolt to the thrusters, but holding the instrument gave him some sense of security, some belief that he maintained control.

"Damn, I hate this," he shouted into the loneliness of his single-manned cockpit.

He bounced with the lurching of the craft as the thrusters, both fore and aft, compensated automatically for the pitch and roll of the unsteady descent. His stomach muscles tightened and his mouth went dry. Not a new experience, not even close. He had suffered through this hundreds of times before, entered atmospheres which tried to toss him back into space as if God Himself was belching in the face of his ship. Still, he prayed to survive, and for the most part, he always doubted his chances. Wide-eyed, he scanned the display monitors before him. Everything read on the line.

He wanted to close his eyes, but he couldn't. The recesses of his brain exploded with fear. His mind echoed with one thought What are you nuts? His instincts demanded that he remain alert. Perhaps there was some chance he could pull off a miracle of his own if disaster struck.

The moment of pure disorientation sprung on him without warning. He lost his breath, suffered the inability to swallow. He never wore a flight suit, too constraining, so he had nothing to neutralize the physiological strain of propulsion shift, that sudden careen when the ship alters from a space faring vessel into more of a standard aircraft.

As much as he hated reentry, he didn't welcome the effects of gravity with any greater appreciation. In space, there was never really a fear of falling. Certainly other threats existed - exposure to the vacuum or radiation, loss of heat or oxygen - but if the craft lost all forward propulsion, it would just drift in space. Within an atmosphere, there was gravity, and if he lost power now, he would drop from the sky like a meteorite.

That thought always chewed at his nerve-endings. He wondered how long he would remain conscious if his ship ever spiraled out of control and plummeted eighty or ninety thousand meters to a hard surface. How long would it take? Would he scream?

Really not an end he would choose. Better to lose power in deep space and accept death with a modicum of self-respect than to face drawn out minutes of shrieking terror.

Rath whistled a deep exhale as he focused on his mission objectives. He voiced his instructions to the shipboard computer. "Launch probes and submersibles. Scan all wavelengths and spectrums. Commence landing."

He peered out the forward viewshield. The navigational computer would select the safest site and land the scout without the pilot's aid. He was truly nothing more than a passenger, the computer did the driving. During descent, a few turns brought him a twinge of anxiety, but even that began to ease as he noted the decreasing altitude. He looked over the barren landscape with a more relaxed eye.

The planet Fenrir; why did the expansionists always choose ancient mythology as a source for the names of these planets? He didn't know the story behind Fenrir, but he doubted this planet gave it justice. The surface was rugged, but harsh. There was an emptiness about this place, a desolation he had seen so many times before. The absence of life brought a sense of detachment from old earth legends, not the distinguished beauty of some ancient tale dedicated to the power of supreme beings.

"Rocks and empty water, always the same."

Brown and pale gray, nothing else. It was what he always saw. The planets of this class melded together in his memory. Sometimes he would see shades of red or orange from an active volcano, but never green. Never.

The craft shuddered slightly as the Boscon Props kicked in at two percent power to facilitate a slow descent and soft vertical landing. A good feeling, not like the violent shakes