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Altitude, Part 4

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Captain Ray waved the children back to their seats. "Strap yourselves in, we're going to reenter." They floated to the front seats and bound themselves into the acceleration couches.

The spaceman looked over to the kids. "This will be a little rough." He turned the ship. They had been pointing nose down. Now the rocket's tail pointed in the vector they'd been travelling. The spaceman fired up the drive torches. It felt like a giant hand was pushing them into their couches. Cord grunted with surprise.

"We'll bite atmosphere and turn back to that crater," said Captain Ray. Within seconds, the rocketship creaked and shuddered as it plunged back to planetside. An orange light from superheated gases glowed through the canopy. Captain Ray held the control-stick steady.

The ship's phone crackled. "This is Chan. You've got incoming, Ray."

"Can't see anything through the ionized gases, Chan."

"From the geosynchronous, it looks..." Chan paused. "It looks unfriendly."

Captain Ray hesitated. "I'm pulling out," he said.

"They're not responding to pings, unknown signature. They just pulled a 12g maneuver."

The ship's phone lost the link. "Perdition," muttered Captain Ray. He pulled up on the control-stick and throttled up the drive torches. This time, everyone grunted from the acceleration. It felt like they had slammed into a wall and then gotten squeezed under a heavy steel plate. It was hard to breathe.

Through the canopy, the horizon receded and the orange glow disappeared. "Okay, I need radar." The display flat on the control console showed a long hook near the center of the screen.

"What's that?" asked Cord.

Cliff answered, "I think that's our trail through the atmosphere. It reflects radio and radar."

"What's that?" she said and pointed to two small dots.

Captain Ray shook his head, "I've been asking the same thing," he said. "I've bought us some time by getting higher, but those things are faster than we are."

Cliff said, "So, we're goners?"

Captain Ray fiddled with the ship's phone. "What? No. Don't be so dramatic. Those boojums could be anything."

"Unfriendly?" asked Cliff. The spaceman rubbed his chin.

"Are we being shot at? Who would shoot at us? What are we going to do?" asked Cord.

Captain Ray twiddled some knobs on the phone. It remained silent. "So much for that."

"What's the plan, sir?" asked Cliff.

"Well, remember those life-bags I talked about? We could climb in those and abandon the Flying V."

"This is almost too exciting, isn't it, Cliff?" asked the little girl.

Cliff ignored his sister because the spaceman was doing something interesting with the drive torch controls. Captain Ray glanced at the boy. "Adjusting the antimatter feed and the choke to the torches," the spaceman explained.

"And that'll help us go faster," said Cord.

"Amongst other things," said Captain Ray.