Mez watched the Windslipper 4 disappear from the Command screens. The data streams ended abruptly with millions of zeros trailing each other homogeneously. The humans and mimicrons gasped but their horror didn’t last long. The Jovian Commission’s Fusionjet Program had already gobbled up hundreds of mimicron pilots and eighty-two human explorers. Mez guessed they had grown accustomed to the fatalities. What they weren’t used to was the price tag for this particular launch. Tacacorp, a quasi-government outfit that operated Callisto, was seeking to gain the commission’s contract and had sunk a lot of development into their Windslipper Project.
This deficiency in empathy didn’t stop Mez from feeling sadness over Natan VanWehl’s fate, a one-time colleague at the Goliath Project, a friend, and a human.
“Why do humans do this when we have mimicrons?” Mez had asked him once.
“Because it’s there, staring us in the face, challenging us, daring us one-percenters to abandon our slavery and face this nasty, sublime universe.”
With the value of human labour and life at historic lows, Mez understood why authorities had recently switched policies to allow people back into space exploration. Mimicrons, as it turned out, was more expensive and less intellectually and physically agile than homo-sapiens.
Mez ordered a copy of the data, but he’d have to wait until after the official Tacacorp briefing. Competitors received this, hours after, so Mez had to make do with what he saw on Command’s vast public screens, paying attention to the error alerts.
Forty-eight seconds of atmospheric deployment.
The fusionjets didn’t even ignite.
Less than a minute, he pondered.
This sudden cut in data meant that the Windslipper blew up as it attempted to ignite its fusionjets. The majority of missions matched the same result, each lasting only a moment inside the harsh Jovian sky. Other failures were attributed to bad deployment during atmospheric entry, or fusionjets failing to ignite, causing the aeroskaphes to plunge into the planet’s interior where they would melt and disintegrate into atoms.
Mez retired to his cubicle on the X-axis wing of Ehricke City. At 0.7 gees, the sector was considered prestigious among Galilean indentures. Mez slept, waiting for the Windslipper mission results, hoping to get some rest before his own mission started in forty-nine hours
The cubicle’s A.E. alerted him of an incoming call. Mez jumped up, allowing the simulacrum to materialise.
“Mez Tanar,” said an executive when the simulacrum took shape.
“How can I help you?”
“My name is Jorn Equos from Tacacorp.”
“I know who you are,” Mez gave the simulacrum a frown. “Are you personally giving me the Windslipper’s results?”
“No, I’m going one better. I’m making you a proposal.”
Mez should have known better. They had poached Natan, and now the man was dead. “I already work for Goliath.”
“No, you don’t. Not as a pilot. They’re dropping humans and are now using mimicrons. I guess the cost-to-benefit ratio has poisoned their minds. Tacacorp remains firmly pro-human. We want flesh and blood to fly those things, and last I heard, you’re dying to do so? What do you say?”
Surprised by the revelation, Mez searched the Interportal for that information. The news had broken minutes after the Windslipper’s demise. “I’ve invested too many years on the Goliath’s subaerine. I can’t just flip over on a whim.”
“Subaerine,” spat Jorn. “You aren’t going to achieve buoyancy, not at those speeds. We are testing fusionjets, not dirigibles. We’ve successfully tested plenty of those. There are thousands of them down there, floating around aimlessly, with nowhere to go. I understand the principles behind what the good engineers at Goliath are trying to achieve, but it’s not going to work.”
Mez read a section about his own mission.
Despair and relief shredded his heart.
On one hand, his lifelong ambition to achieve greatness, to stamp his mark on human history, even if he risked death, eluded him once again. He’d attempted a bright-side crossing on Mercury, only to have it end in disaster. He climbed Mons Olympos, only the sixtieth human to do so. He applied for a sun-dipping expedition, to see how close technology could send a man into a heliosphere, but the introverted Mercurian government canned it, citing security concerns.
On the other hand, Mez knew what pending suicide missions do to one’s psyche. Akin to death row, waiting years to take on an extremely high-risk venture caused considerable mental damage and pain. Yet, the relief made Mez feel guilty.
“You’re not going anywhere,” said Jorn, “Goliath’s got you grounded. But we have Windslipper 5. Mission launches in fifty hours.”
Mez’s head swam. “I can’t fly an aeroskaphe.”
“Sure you can. You’ve been skipping in and out of Venus’s stratosphere your whole life. You’re the best pilot in the Jovian System. Flying an aeroskaphe is no different than any other Venus or Earth shuttle, except, instead of rockets, they have fusionjets, and other niggly bits, but the same nevertheless.”
“Who were you originally planning on sending?”
“Some mimicron, but then the results came in. We won’t be broadcasting the data publicly. The JC has permitted us to withhold it. The results demonstrate a breakthrough, but you need to be on board if you want to find out. That’s why we thought of you. This is looking good.”
“Wasn’t Natan VanWehl the best? And you burned him up.”
“VanWehl was second best. What do you say? Look, if you decide to do this, you’re gonna want to make the best of the next fifty hours. We can always go with a mimicron, but where’s the glory in that?”
Fear of missing out prompted him to say, “I’ll do it.”
The simulacra smiled. “Nice.”
“But only if the engineering makes sense.”
“You’ve got clearance. Meet me at our training facility when you’re rested.”
Within ten hours, Mez found himself inside the emulator, testing the Windsplitter 5. “Why so soon?” he asked.
“Tacacorp is spending whatever it takes, for obvious reasons.”
As the hours ticked by, Mez examined every aspect of the mission.
Jorn reported, “We’re increasing initial coolant pressure by eleven per cent. It’ll keep the fusionjets stable during ignition.”
“What about the aeroshell deployment,” asked Mez. “87 kilometres into the troposphere looks like the right drop, at an angular entry, aligned with wind direction, say 200, 220.”
“That’s pretty much the standard. The three-centimetre titanium aeroshell can withstand up to 20 million rads. Should keep all the A.E-controlled navigation systems from glitching.”
“What about the booster?”
Jorn paused, then said, “There’s no MHR.”
Horror purged the confidence out of Mez. “How am I supposed to reach escape velocity?”
“It’s a weight loss issue,” answered Jorn. “Don’t worry. This isn’t a suicide mission. We have dropped a metallic hydrogen rocket down to a dirigible cluster floating on the surface. It’s operated by mimicrons, all of them survivors of failed missions. Once you achieve ‘stable flight’ with the fusionjets, they’ll deploy and attach the MHR to the Windslipper. Tested it on Venus, works perfectly. It’s all in the simulation. You still got another thirty hours.”
Feeling inspired, Mez continued working on the simulator.
Mez looked up and saw Niad Seffin standing on the platform outside. “I didn’t expect to see you here,” he told her.
“You’re an indentured subject of Goliath Enterprises,” said the CEO. “And you are in breach of your contract.”
“What use am I to you now?”
“That’s beside the point,” Niad answered.
“That is the point. What are you going to do? Slug it out with Tacocorp? Go right ahead.” Mez knew a legal tussle with the Callisto government would take resources and time, and he only needed a few hours. She could use force, but Goliath, despite its moniker, was terribly outgunned by the space-mining conglomeration.
“Let me remind you, that all operational data is the property of Goliath Enterprises.”
“We don’t need your data,” shouted Jorn from the control room. “And your ex-hotshot pilot is right, go right ahead.”
“Why did you shut me down,” Mez asked her.
“To put an end to this one-percenter madness,” said Niad. She leaned over and spoke under her breath. “We have solved our mimicron problem.”
“That still doesn’t help me, does it.” Mez knew she had a close relationship with Natan VanWehl, but he didn’t expect his death would have clouded her decision-making. He wondered what motivated her, but time was running out. “Where’s the second drogue parachute?” he called out as he waited for CEO Niad Seffin to leave.
“There’s only one drogue chute,” explained Jorn when Niad finally retreated from the platform. “We need to hit the atmosphere harder, to ignite the fusionjets earlier.”
It made sense. Goliath had been creeping back impact pressure in the last three missions, with incremental success. Jupiter’s winds were harsh; its ice ammonia clouds brutal. Easing the fusionjets into ignition was a logical conclusion.
When launch time arrived, Mez spent the remaining hours meditating, his mind still wondering why his ex-boss would take such an emotional stance.
“It is time for launch,” said the Command’s A.E. “Good luck.”
Mez sealed his titanium mesh suit and entered the Windslipper 5. The aeroshell closed around him as he waited for the countdown to begin. With not too much fanfare from Ehricke City Command, the Windslipper launched from Galileo’s Gate. It sped into the darkness, emerging from Ganymede’s shadow to face the king of the solar system. Mez noticed the radiation levels rise. The Windslipper picked up speed to about 40 kilometres per second. Maz wished he could see the gas planet with the naked eye instead of relying on fragmented visuals from sensors under constant subatomic particle attack.
Cocooned for the next thirty-six hours, Mez ran further simulations, particularly the critical atmospheric deployment of the aeroskaphe. Next on his critical list, were the fusionjet ignition procedures.
As the Windslipper edged nearer to Jupiter’s exosphere, Mez noticed the radiation spike again. This, he knew, was the last radiation belt he would endure. He hoped the titanium mesh, its crystalline structure, would be enough to protect the majority of cells inside his body. Mez touched the hundred-millimetre-thick helmet shielding his head.
The drogue parachute deployed.
Radiation, he thought.
The Windslipper went into rapid deceleration.
Mez recalled a secret Goliath research program regarding how radiation disturbed the neuronetic brains of mimicrons, causing errors of judgement, memory loss, and even delusions. The real reason why humans were allowed back into the program, was due to the high dysfunction rates of mimicrons. This data was never released publicly, Goliath wanting to use it as an advantage over the competition. Instead, they lobbied the Jovian Commission to lift the ban on human pilots.
At Mach 50, Windslipper 5 slammed into the troposphere, with a peak deceleration of 304 gees. The aeroshield lost half of its total mass before it prepared for deployment.
And here I am, he thought, relying on a bunch of stranded, brain-damaged mimicrons to get the MHRs to me.
He glared at the distorted visuals, praying that the fusionjets work, so he could at least get a chance to see a glimpse of Jupiter’s unforgiving, merciless sky.