Fairchild loves to fly.
Particularly through the awesomely huge storms that the planet Escudra VI forms, creating the best whitewater that she can find in the sky.
Never mind that the scientists back at base camp warn her off the beast coalescing in front of her.
Or that her own equipment starts to misbehave.
She can outwit this storm. Thread the needle and come out laughing on the other side.
Dying happens to other people. Never her. Not Fairchild.
"Fairchild"—an exciting new hard science-fiction novel by Blaze Ward—begins the adventures of a whole new type of hero.
When you need fast-paced hard science fiction adventure, Blaze Ward is your man. This might be why I have yet to read one of his tales that I didn't immediately love. Blaze's fast, no-nonsense voice effortlessly marries the best of Golden Age SF with the characterizations that modern audiences demand. When I asked him to come into the bundle, he didn't just say yes, he used the theme to hand-craft a brand new adventure with a kick-ass lead heroine. Trust me—you don't want to miss this one. – J. Daniel Sawyer
"Edge of the seat excitement"– Philadelphia Weekly Press
"This is what space opera should be"– Irene Radford, author of Steampunk Voyages
"Recon One, this is Ground Station Beta," the voice coming out of the Science Shuttle's speakers sounded just a little too laconic to Dani, especially for one of the big-brained boffins back at the research station, but Dr. Chike Odille wasn't your normal Planetologist/Geologist. "How's it look up there, Fairchild?"
Dani smiled, alone on her bridge. Nobody on this entire planetary survey crew knew her by anything but the nickname Fairchild. And they were probably all too old and stodgy to recognize even that from the days of her crazy, youthful stunts. At least her legacy was insured on the video channels of various colony worlds.
Oh, for the days of teenage rebellion and armchair anarchy.
And she really wasn't that old at thirty-one.
Dani did a quick scan of the consoles and readouts in front of her without taking her gloved hands from the big, off-white flight controller yoke with all the programmed buttons. She looked up and out the front windshield at the gold/pink horizon, then back to the heads-up display.
All systems within tolerance range. Power flowing smoothly to the thrusters keeping the Science Shuttle aloft and stable. Inside, everything was normal in the weirdly beautiful skies of Escudra VI.
Outside, things were threatening to get a little hairy.
Air pressure kept dropping, but humans hadn't been on this planet long enough to really know what the comfortable or safe range should be. And AI's were too expensive to waste down on the surface of a planet.
The one that had been dedicated to the whole planet just sat in orbit and cataloged all the data from lots of little, dumb, automated stations that were dropped and then parachuted into place, like javelins from the sky. But silicon systems had no soul. It took flesh and blood people to get a feel for things on a new planet.
All that smart systems could tell you were probabilities and past experience. No guarantee of future performance, kind of like some of the men she'd known
"Four and One, Beta Station," Fairchild replied crisply. Almost perfect signal, only minor degradation from atmospheric conditions around her.
She knew Chike well enough to appreciate the hint of concern she heard in his voice, but that was a cultural thing. He had grown up on old Earth, where women were still supposed to be sheltered, rather than one of the colonies where everyone was expected to pull their own weight, even the youngest daughter of the richest man on the planet.
At least she had taken up aerial gymnastics and free-gliding as a teenager instead of clothes and makeup, like her older sister, Chloe.
It had made the bodysuit she was wearing look good on her compact form. She was a meter-seven tall and fifty-two kilos of lanky muscle, with blond hair in a pixie cut tucked up under her flight helmet and bright, blue eyes with a hint of gray underneath.
Her navy blue bodysuit emphasized all the right places, with black gloves, boots, and emergency survival belt to complement it, and a single white racing stripe down her right side, over her small breast, and down to her hip. It drew the eye to the places she wanted it drawn.
Dani knew she was trouble just waiting to happen. And she wanted to look it, too.
"Sounds good, Fairchild," Odille replied. "Be careful out there. We're starting to get some really strange readings on the ground radars and monitors."
Dani could see that.
Originally, she had just been flying a quick aerial survey with the Science Shuttle into the general vicinity of a thunderstorm north of Ground Station Beta. It was the sort of thing she had done routinely on two other planetfall missions before this.
Cakewalk, but it paid the bills until she could convince her father to unblock her credit accounts again.
Even he couldn't maintain that level of stubborn forever.
Still, on the other hand, she just had to have gotten her stubbornness from her mother, the much sainted Sìleas, who had been a fashion model before she became the third Mrs. Alphonse Cooper.
Up until now, the flight had been almost mundane and normal outside. There was nothing about Escudra VI to make people nervous. Just another planet, habitable if somewhat dry and arid.
But outside, the air was starting to get weird.
That was a scientific term. Dani was sure of it. Even xeno-meteorologists used it from time to time. She'd been there listening, and only mostly drunk.
"Perhaps, dear, we should consider discretion?" a new voice chimed in from the console in front of Dani. Unlike Chike, this voice had an edge to it, one just the slightest bit this side of vicious, biting sarcasm. "Just this once, mind you. Wouldn't want you to develop a reputation, or anything."
Dani scowled at the handheld computer, the Aide that was her Governess. The AI had been her constant companion almost since birth, learning all Dani's foibles and tricks and duly reporting them to Dani's parents. At least until she'd threatened to reprogram the damned thing or sell it to a street urchin.
"It's fine, Eleanor," Dani growled back at the handheld comm secured into the dash-port, before switching to honey. "I would have thought you would have developed a taste for adventure by now."
"Unlike you, dearie, I was programmed for sanity," Eleanor huffed in a scold.
Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise, as the wise, old scientist Franklin used to say.
…and boring as hell.
Besides, the best part was just about upon them. This was what got Dani out of bed in the morning.
On the very edge of her scanners, Dani could see the anvil of the greatest, most awesomely huge storm head she could ever remember beginning to turn, to fall as it reached that final stage of life.
On Earth, nasty ones got to fifteen or maybe twenty thousand meters at most before they collapsed in on themselves. Escudra VI was a larger world, but had about the same gravity as Earth. The top of that beast was easily forty thousand meters, maybe fifty, depending on the topography over there as the weather front climbed a low mountain range and began to transform itself into bottled anger.
She couldn't remember exactly where the line of the ridge ran, and didn't care enough to bring up the local topographical radar display right now.
It was enough to anticipate what was coming next.
She hoped that the folks back at Beta were getting as good a view of this as she was.
The feeling in her stomach was almost the same as when some cute boy or girl in a bar first spotted Dani, and screwed up the courage to walk over and talk to her. That fine edge of just how far she could tease, how thin she could cut her odds, before she either scared them off or just surrendered and let herself be well and truly ravished.
A good ravishing every now and again kept the senses sharp and the reflexes tight. She was living proof.
Out there, she could feel it. The Science Shuttle's controls started to get a little mushy as the air turned weird and the wind began to race.
On Earth, the best place to experience those winds was right about a kilometer and a half off the deck.
That was where the outflow boundary would be the roughest, the strongest. The squirreliest.
Here, she let her instincts lead her to a spot right around four kilometers up where she could thread the needle.
The best whitewater you could find in the sky.
Dani turned the Shuttle's nose into the wind and accelerated.
Not much. Just a couple of strokes with the paddles to establish a path down that massive river.
There. The gust front was running.
The storm had died at the very peak of the ridge as it moved and that anvil was now a column of hot air roaring straight down on this side of the ridge and slamming into the ground.
There was no virga here, no column of precipitation. Just lightning.
Escudra VI was a dry world. It had been wet once, but that was so long ago that the boffins thought they might be able to establish when the Elder Race had disappeared, just by figuring out how much the terraforming had failed on certain worlds humans had found when they started exploring the galaxy.
So right now, there was no water to cushion the fall of that air. Nothing to absorb the heat and dissipate the energy that had climbed so high into the mid-afternoon sun.
It was going straight down like a cliff-diver.
Dani tasted the power as the air on the backside of the storm had nowhere to go but downhill as well, doubling the flow that was coming right at her and the blunt bow of the Qunsahr Industries Shuttle, Mark 4, Heavy.
Gods, she was almost wet with anticipation.
"Fairchild," Odille's voice had gone up half an octave. "Something strange is happening with that dust storm. Recommend you shear off and let this one go."
Yeah. Strange, all right. Even Riggel III hadn't been able to kick up a storm with this much power. Dani had never heard of any planet yet that could.
This was gonna be awesome.
"Still on the beam, Ground Station Beta," Dani replied coolly. "See you in two hours."
Never let them know she would have worked for free, just to have moments like this on strange, alien worlds.
It was getting intense. Choppy. Like riding an angry bull or a horny fireman.
Outside pressures would be popping her ears right now if she was out in that crap. The abrasives in the howling wind would leave fine scratches on anything softer than the two-centimeter-thick diamond windshield between her and the storm. Even the tough metal hull of her steed would probably be polished clean by this one.
Now the air was turning solid. The whitewater was hard and furious, coming for her soul.
The Shuttle's dull, gray, metal solidity actually bounced across air pockets too big for the blunt lifting surface on the little canards up front or the bigger deltas aft to control.
Dani dialed up the engine power and pushed the nose of her bull down, looking for the thicker air where the fun would really be found.
This was the kind of power that made her heart race. BASE jumping off space-scrapers could only barely approximate the run of speed before the human body hit terminal velocity.
Dani goosed the engines a little higher yet as the air fought her. Outside, the canards were starting to lift the nose, all by themselves, so she leaned her weight hard into the control yoke to hold the line as all that energy washed over her.
One quick glance to confirm that the scanners were transmitting everything cleanly back to base. Understanding a storm like this one would go a long ways towards deciphering the whole meteorological cycle for the planet.
And it gave her something to do.
"Fairchild," Odille called suddenly. "Abort, abort, abort. Eleven o'clock and closing hard. Get sky, girl!"
Dani sneered at the universe.
Dr. Chike was a boffin. Maybe he'd done commercial, industrial fishing on the homeworld to pay for college, but he'd grown soft into middle age.
Dani was never middle-aging.
"I did warn you, dearie," Eleanor sneered at her. But she did that anyway.
Nothing was too minor for Eleanor to complain about. Nothing.
Dani glanced at the radar feed from Beta's antenna as something beeped plaintively.
And then glanced again.
Was that even possible?
Radar was radar. You fired a loud, focused radio ping at the sky and listened for the reply. Time to echo indicated vector, the distance and direction.
Intensity indicated power.
Dust storms were an active force of nature, reshaping and sculpting planets. But this was something entirely else brewing.
The winds of a good storm started off generating creep as they pushed stuff across the ground, like water moving gravel. Once you had enough power, you got saltation as the sand and lighter stuff became airborne. The really light stuff, the dust or the fragments of larger bits that got smashed, ended up in suspension, flying like little bugs.
That was the dust cloud everyone watched on the evening news when it suddenly erupted, like a surprise pie in the face. Normally, they were about that dangerous, too, if you took care.
And saltation made it even more fun when it induced a static electricity field across the particles, a negative charge relative to the ground that caused more particles to be cast aloft and ground up. Every dust storm generated some level of static electricity. The Science Shuttle was specifically shielded, both internally and externally, to ignore the intense charge in the air.
Hell, she could fly right through a real thunderstorm, letting lightning strike the hull of the craft, and be perfectly safe. She'd done it, any number of times on Riggel III and other places.
This beast in front of her barely had any lightning, or moisture of any kind.
So far, so good.
But that was a wall of solid, electrical charge coming at her. The radar thought it was a force field, maybe, or a permanent lightning bolt fifty kilometers across and twenty tall. And it was coming at her at a closing rate of over seven hundred kph, between the mad, avalanche rush down the mountainside and her own engines pushing forward.
Like riding an angry bull or a horny fireman.
Even the Shuttle thought she was about to fly into the side of a mountain now, regardless of the fact that there were none close and she was above them all anyway.
Various flight system warnings began to chirp madly.
Dani's lizardbrain wanted to jerk back on the yoke and slam the power to the stops to throw herself into the sky. It took everything she had not to react. That was the difference between dumb-kid Dani and oh-so-much-more-mature-and-calm Dani.
Never say middle-age. Old people were White Picket Fence.
She'd rather be dead than dreary.
Besides, as nasty as those winds were, that sort of response right now, trying to pull up and run for it, might cause her to turn turtle without even realizing it. At this altitude and speed, she'd hit the ground like one of those javelin probes from orbit before she even knew what happened.
There was only one way through this bitch storm right now anyway, threading the needle of her Shuttle through some class five and class six whitewater.
Dani took a tighter grip on the flight yoke as she glanced down at the airspeed indicator. It and the ground-speed radar were locked in a heated argument and trading insults electronically, but that could be forgiven in the face of a tidal wave of electrically-charged air coming at her at roughly one hundred sixty kph.
Maybe this hadn't been the best idea, after all?
Anything I do and I'm dead.
This is why they hired me. I'm better than the storm is.
Dani took an unconscious deep breath and flexed all her muscles rigid as that wall of bright red on her scanner charged closer.
At least Eleanor had the courtesy to stay quiet. Or maybe she understood that her own survival was rather tied up with Dani's at this point. Just like every other time. Distraction snark right now would probably be detrimental to everyone's health and well-being.
The only way to describe the sound on the hull was like driving a metal sports car with a canvas, convertible roof through a sudden squall. The waterfall of rain pouring off the roof of an Italian villa, heard from the inside of the vehicle as the rumble of the falling water overtook the screaming of the antique, internal combustion engine as you drove hard, just moments before spinning the steering wheel around tight and jamming on the brakes fast enough to keep from slamming Rudy's prize antique motorcar into a brick wall as she'd fishtailed it across wet bricks.
Her brother had gotten over it. After all, there were no scratches on the paint or anything.
Around her, the Shuttle wobbled.
She was white-water rafting in the nastiest zones and bouncing off rocks and water that had the same amount of torque, even if it was nothing but air.
And then something behind her went spang.
The yoke turned unresponsive, sluggish.
Panels on both sides of her started to flash bright red signals and scream like colicky nieces and nephews in the dead of night.
This was very much not good.
"…child, do you…?" came over the radio, along with a burst of static that was physically painful to experience.
Something shattered behind her with the sound of tearing metal.
And then silence.
Absolute, dead nothingness.
The really eerie kind.
You've-just-lost-all-power from a cascading-hydraulic-failure kind.
The only sound besides Dani's harsh breathing was wind screaming wildly across the outer hull and wing deltas as the engines fell silent, a dead horse rotting in the sun.
You could kill a Qunsahr Industries Shuttle, Mark 4, Heavy, theoretically. Dani had come close, on Riggel III, but the subsequent flight investigation had discovered maintenance corners cut by a lazy ground crew. She had still managed to glide the beast in soft enough that only one front landing foot had to be replaced.
Dani wasn't going to be that lucky, today. She was riding a corpse. That bull had just died of heart failure mid-buck.
Instead of panicking, Dani reached out and scooped up the Aide containing Eleanor and stuffed it into the customized pocket of her emergency flight suit, right between her breasts. Where Eleanor could listen to her heart rate and monitor other vitals when Dani was doing crazy things.
Like every other time.
At whatever altitude Dani had lost everything, the ground was coming up from below like an angry shark smelling an injured sea lion.
"A pilot in a normal flight suit with a parachute would be a dead man right now, you know," Dani announced as she checked buckles and straps. "Aren't you glad I got permission to wear my free-glider instead?"
Eleanor harrumphed from Dani's tiny cleavage with an amazing level of disdain for an electronic lifeform without lungs.
"A normal pilot wouldn't need a free-glider right now, dearie," Eleanor sneered with an icy disdain she must have learned from Chloe. "They would be watching the bow wave from a safe distance and elevation, drinking tea, and measuring sciency things, wouldn't they?"
…and boring as hell…
Dani checked her consoles, but the best she got right now were a few yellow lights, and one big, green, virtual button on her main console as the shuttle suggested strenuously that she eject.
And then something else popped and that console went black.
Dani smelled smoke.
She pulled down her face mask, locked it in place, and felt the life support system pressurize from internal oxygen.
Lizardbrain took over now.
Lots and lots of training was designed to make this process automatic. Dead-drunk, half-asleep, and still automatic.
Feet together. Left arm on lap. Head back, spine straight and relaxed.
Right hand reaches down.
Locate the lever by touch. Push down in a hard but firm motion and lock it to reveal a side panel that opens aftwards with a snap.
Middle finger into the recess. Giving fate the bird, as her old instructor used to say.
Jab hard, listen for the sound of whistling air as the electro-chemical timer ignites.
Pull right hand onto your lap.
Take a breath.
Cross your arms over your chest, protecting the boobs with the elbows.
Acceleration straight up. Whatever straight up happened to be at the moment she and the dying shuttle parted ways.
Nine-point-nine meters-per-second squared acceleration as gravity got her greedy fingers on Dani's toes, like a squid wanting to feed.
One hundred sixty kilometers per hour wind in the face, a blow like a sledgehammer only barely subdued by Dani's flight suit. Air temperature readings at sixty-eight degrees Celsius.
Tumbling ass over teakettle as the Shuttle disappeared from sight, somewhere below and behind her.