When the spaceship hit the atmosphere and shuddered, Nate gripped the straps on the cradle, his torso tightening like a snake around a rat, his insides quivering like jelly.
Bradley held the controls that stuck out like tree roots, wrapping around his hands in some eerie way only Bradley seemed to understand. Jack and Tim had secured themselves to the wall with the ships safety feature, basically a cloudy membrane stretched over them, clinging to the wall around.
“How we doing, Bradley?” asked Tim. The membrane muffled his voice.
“This is the hard part, Tim.” A bead of sweat dripped from Bradley’s forehead to his nose. “Don’t distract me.”
“How’re you doing, Jack?” asked Nate.
“I’m Saran Wrapped to a wall. How do you think I’m doing?”
He wasn’t panicking, so he was fine.
The ‘display’ feature on the ship was a spongy surface that changed shape, representing in odd non-intuitive ways what the trajectory of the ship was in relation to the surface. Nate had watched it enough to get a vague feel for it.
“I think we’re going in too steep,” he said.
“I know we’re going in too steep,” said Bradley. “I’m reserving the last of the fuel to bring us up and slow us down just before we hit the ground.”
“Touch the ground, you mean,” said Tim. “No hitting.”
Bradley pulled back and pushed down bringing immense G-forces that squashed Nate into the cradle like a pestle in a mortar. His view of Bradley started to fade, Bradley’s body flopping around as the rootlike controls held him in place. The G-forces started to lighten, then the ship jolted and spun, jostling Nate and bouncing his cradle around until it finally stopped.
Bradley wobbled, his glasses half off his face, his lips making a perfect ‘o.’ He grinned and spiraled his arms to disengage from the controls. “That was like the time I landed the Harrier on the hoodoo in Kashmir.”
Nate held back his laughter. Bradley was trying double hard to substantiate his story. “Fighting the Kurgans?”
“No,” Bradley said. “I was taking the Dalai Lama to a village across the border, but the computer went haywire. I had to land it manually, and one of the nozzles jammed.”
“So now you’re telling us you were in the Indian Naval Air?” said Tim. “Give me a break.”
“It was the British RAF. We were granted fly-over rights.”
“Never mind,” said Tim. “Somebody better cut me loose or stick me in a microwave.”
They released Tim’s membrane and it whipped him around onto the floor. “Shit. Sorry, Tim,” said Nate. For Jack, they held the membrane and let it recede gradually.
“Well,” said Jack. “Let’s see where we are.”
They opened the side door on the ship, which automagically extended a ramp to the ground. The land was gray-green and barren other than a few spires in the distance that had the appearance of intelligent design, though they tilted at random angles and didn’t seem to serve any function.
They walked down the ramp and stepped into what looked like greenish sand and felt like pudding, but didn’t stick to their feet.
“Eck! This is freaky,” said Nate. He pulled one foot out of the substance, shivered, then put it down to pull out the other.
Tim spat. “Well, at least there seems to be something sentient here.”
“That raises the question,” said Jack. “How sentient? Did we just increase the average intelligence on this planet or reduce it?”
Nate made noises of disgust, pulling his feet up from the ground in a frantic jig as if dodging bullets from a drunken cowboy.
Tim scoffed at him. “I think it’s a wash.”