Chapter 14

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Caroline Pierce stared silently as the dropship ascended through the wispy clouds, trailing its own thin line of vapor. The deep roar of its four engines had long since been defeated by the humming of the wind. With that sound went the last of the remaining rocket fuel. There would be no more missions to the orbiting starship.

Caroline looked away from the shrinking spacecraft and surveyed the rest of the sky, searching for the tiny glimmer of the Facem, orbiting hundreds of kilometers above the surface. She could not find it.

The accident was so wildly unlikely that she still doubted it had truly happened. There must be some mistake. That idiot Archer must have gotten confused. Maybe he did it himself. Either way, there was no escaping the fact that the starship was permanently crippled, which held any number of consequences for the colony. Perhaps the most important was the fact that they no longer had control of the spacecraft, and seeing as it was currently in a dangerously low orbit, there was a good chance that it would deorbit soon enough. When that happened, nothing would save the colony.

Caroline turned away from the dissipating ribbon of exhaust and ducked through the opening of a field tent. The soft light of computer monitors greeted her.

"Good afternoon, Admiral Pierce!" exclaimed Hernandez as he saluted.

"At ease, Lieutenant. Is Archer still breathing?"

"Yeah. Though I'm not sure if that's a good thing," Hernandez said with a grin. "David's reporting that his flight's good and green. Feeling good about this."

"Are you? Well that makes one of us." Caroline found herself a seat. "Is the Facem still operable? Could we get it flying again?"

"Oh sure. Some basic rebalancing to make up for the scratch and it'll work perfectly. The rock didn't hit anything too vital, thank the stars."

The admiral grunted.

Outside, a fleet of armored trucks pulled to a stop. Each one carried a broad radio dish, each glinting like a crescent moon in the setting sun. A flood of technicians began tending to them the moment the trucks halted, connecting wires and adjusting antennae.

A longshot, though Caroline, but it was their only chance to regain control of the starship. The radio array was the only one capable of direct contact with the Facem, the only one able to track it as it streaked across the sky. Nothing else would allow her to take control of the starship's thrusters and guide it back to a safe altitude. The ship's computer would not give up its authority to a relayed command.

The problems were many and worrying. First, the connection could only be held while the Facem was visible in the sky, leaving her in the dark most of the time. There was no guarantee that the maneuvering thrusters would be able to wrest the bulk of the starship up to where it needed to be, what with the unexpected change in the center of mass that came with a complete hull breach.

For a time, Caroline watched the technicians rush like a group of ants to prepare the radio array for its work, then ducked back into the field tent.

"How about as it is? Let's say I want to use the thrusters now, without rebalancing the ship. Would that work?"

Hernandez breathed a sigh. "Might. Might not. I guess we'll see when we try."

The thin whine of tracking motors erupted from behind her. The shouts of the technicians rose to a fevered pitch.

"Looks like we have a connection," said Hernandez.

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