"Finish up what you're doing, Fleming. Descent Prep starts in T minus two-forty." Flight's voice came over the station's public address system, echoing around the long circular outer corridor.
"How does he...ooo, fuck yes, nnhh...always know? ...oh yes. Fuuuck!" Fleming's voice rose with a squeal of delight as Jonah pushed hard into her sweet cunt, pulling his own body taut on the grab straps to maximise his thrusting fuck into her. If he didn't use the straps, her delicious little body would tumble away in the low gee from the station's slow spin.
Fleming and Jonah were in what the Vonnegut's crew colloquially called the Fuck Lounge. Originally designed as the station's gym, the crew had over time found a better use for the benches, presses, and the weight pulley systems. One of the Elecs rigged a red lamp over the entry door, connected to an interlock, and generally privacy was respected.
Except when Flight once again proved his fucking annoying omniscience, knowing most of what the crew got up to. Still, long missions needed high morale, and this was the longest mission so far.
"Fuucck, yes," Fleming urged, her legs wrapped around Jonah's waist, her hands gripping the firm moons of his bare ass, as he pumped into her tight little body. She reached up to grip his hair, pulling his lips onto hers, swiftly fucking her tongue into his mouth with the same rhythm his cock made into her.
"Mmmm, fuuu, fuu...cck."
With another high squeal of pleasure, Fleming shuddered and came, Jonah's quick thrusts taking her up over the edge where she could no longer catch her breath. She gasped, and gripped Jonah tight as another ripple of pleasure throbbed through her. Fleming fell back against the couch, a sheen of sweat on her pale skin.
"Oh sweet fuck, I'm going to miss this. Miss you."
Fleming traced her fingers down Jonah's cheek and over his lips, before wrapping her arms around him, burying her head in his shoulder. "Will you still want me when I get back?"
"Fleming, you're only going down there a month. Stop worrying. I'll be here." Jonah held her tight. "Although that Mandy, in Comms, she's..."
"Don't you fucking dare. Stop teasing me, you bastard." Fleming hugged him tighter, and clenched her pussy around his cock. "Betcha Mandy can't do this."
And Fleming proceeded to do what Mandy couldn't do. Several minutes later, Jonah was a puddle of flesh in Fleming's fierce embrace, feeling quite pleased that Fleming could do what Mandy couldn't.
* * * *
"Stand still, girl, or I'll draw blood." Ballard's voice was affectionate, as she calmed Fleming, settling her into the Descent Prep.
They'd run the routine many times in training, to get the sequence perfect, but this time was real. The Descent crew had tweaked and fussed with the hardware, tested the interlinks a hundred times until Flight and Comms stopped moaning; and Soft was finalising the programming load for Athena, the HAL14000 QMR computer on-board the Descent capsule.
Fleming was going down, finally.
She stood naked on a vac platform, her eyes looking inwards as she ran through the flight sequences in her mind, one more time.
Ballard admired the delicate body in front of her, delighting in Fleming's small breasts, her boyish hips. She was tiny, barely five foot, weight being the last thing a descent pilot ever needed. But there was no doubting the fire in the young woman's belly, the decade and half of intense training in her reflexes, her no-nonsense analytical mind. Fleming was no baby girl, and the whole mission knew it. No-one doubted why she was the chosen one.
"Do it," said Fleming.
Ballard took the clippers in her hand, turned the sucker pump on, and carefully slid the shears up, over and through Fleming's hair. Her black hair fell away, quickly sucked into the vacuum systems, revealing Fleming's smooth shaven skull. Once the clippers had done their job, Ballard applied a foam lather to Fleming's head, and ran a fine blade over her skin, removing every last touch of hair.
"Arms up," Ballard said, and repeated the smooth shave in Fleming's armpits.
"Face me, legs apart."
Fleming turned on the platform and rested her hands on Ballard's shoulders, as the other woman crouched before her. Ballard gently stretched the lips of Fleming's sex tight, gliding the blade to remove any last remaining hair from her outer lips and the softest place at the top of Fleming's thighs.
Ballard noticed a tiny silver trace of cum down Fleming's leg, and ran her finger down it.
"That's nice," she whispered. "You and Jonah, that's sweet."
Fleming squeezed the older woman's shoulders in response, her fingers safer than words, safer than tears.
Ballard cupped the younger woman's cunt in the palm of her hand, feeling the warm flesh like a small bird, holding Fleming's core while she efficiently shaved smooth the landing strip at the base of the pilot's belly.
This last intimacy done, the two women stayed in a silent communion for a long, uncounted moment; Ballard's hand cupping Fleming's sex, Fleming lightly touching her doctor's shoulders with her fingers.
Both knew Fleming might never come back.
"OK honey, first thermal layer, let's do this."
Their training kicked back in. T minus one-twenty.
The intense cold of Titan's atmosphere meant that heat retention and heat preservation were essential. The Descent mission required the smallest possible human payload, and it was vital that every joule of heat be retained to keep the pilot and the electronics alive. Fleming was the human payload, and the Descent capsule was the metal and plastic womb that would protect her from Titan's air temperature of 94 Kelvin, about − 180 °C.
"The cold of Hell, if Hell was a cold place," as Flight liked to put it.
"Fucking cold," said Fleming, as she got on with it, unafraid.
The first thermal layer, slicked against Fleming's flesh with a light thermal grease, was a thin gold polymer suit, a second skin, sheathing her body completely. Cleverly designed to breathe like her pores breathed, Fleming shone bright gold. Then, layer on layer, she was covered with the best materials science could conjure: silver and titanium foils, trapped air and heat exchange fluids, the finest fur from pure bred Siberian sable, woven polymers and spiders' silk fibres; until Fleming stood like a tiny knight in high-tech armour, ready to fight a hundred dragons.
Ballard fitted the individually sculpted urine and faeces tubes to Fleming's body. The waste management systems were never elegant, but the home truths of space travel in a confined space. The station had the luxury of Clarke toilets and the cold infinity of space for final waste disposal; but the waste management technology in the Descent capsule was not much more advanced than the ancient Apollo systems, two hundred years before.
"Shit and be done with it," said Fleming, knowing her meals for the next month would be designed for maximum absorption, minimum waste. Taste would be optional.
In fact, Descent showed a direct design legacy from those first Earth return capsules, with their triple parachutes and their curved ablative shields. The major difference, though, was the inclusion of two never-fail rocket ignition systems. Fleming would soar in from the sky, the capsule's speed made sensible by the furnace of entry and the huge parachutes; she'd blow away the shields and chutes, and fly the fucker in on the descent rocket motor, affectionately known as Grumman, just as Armstrong did to the Moon.
A month later, two Titan cycles, the ground exploration complete, Fleming would fire the ascent engine, and of course it would work, the legacy of Aldrin's pen. No-one on the station thought too much about it not working. Madness lay waiting, thinking that.
T minus thirty.
Fleming was strapped into Descent, the final systems checks all completed.
"Hello, Fleming," said Athena, her voice tones calm and modulated, constantly checked by the Quadruple Moral Redundancy algorithms. Artificial Intelligence had entered a whole new level of development after the Discovery mission back in 2001, with the catastrophic failure of its HAL 9000 computer system. QMR worked. Athena almost thought like a human being. Almost.
"Hi, Athena, are you ready for this?"
"Of course I am, Fleming. It's what I was designed for."
It's what I was born for, thought Fleming. "Let's do this."
* * * *
"Hello, Descent. Flight. We're standing by. Over."
"Roger. Descent is undocked."
"Roger. Time counting. How does it look, Fleming?"
"Descent has wings. Let's do this!"
The Descent capsule fell away from the dock, its parting movement slow and gentle, the laws of celestial physics eternal and predictable.
Inside the capsule, Fleming planned to keep her human voice contact with Flight as long as she could. Even though the computers could fly the machines better than any human, the mission Psyches knew that humanity was vital, the familiar sound of a human voice essential. Fleming and Flight would part their fingers ever so slowly, lingering their touch as long as they possibly could.
On Titan's surface, contact with the orbiting station would depend on Fleming's ability to deploy a ballon carrying an interlink comms transponder, its frequencies optimised to penetrate the thick nitrogen atmosphere and bounce the signal to the nothingness of space. But, even if the balloon deployment was successful, the random patterns of Titan's winds and storms meant communication would be unpredictable, sporadic at best. Flight Control would know where the capsule landed, but most of the time Fleming would be on her own.
"Flight, are you copying the very large numbers for range and range rate in VERB 83? And did you just give me a state vector that changed the vehicle config? Over."
"Roger, Descent. We gave you a LM state vector. We have not changed the CSM state vector, however. Over."
"Okay. That explains it. Over."
Fleming looked back at the station through the triple reinforced window, and watched it slowly shrink as the distance between them increased. She waved goodbye, two little flutters of her fingers.
Athena's QMR sensors processed the emotional content in the gesture, and made a note in the mission log.
"Flight. On Mark, 9 30 to ignition."
"Mark. 9 30. Counting."
Fleming took two deep breaths to steady her heartbeat, but she couldn't stop her pulse beating faster. The biomeds fed her life parameters back up to Flight, who watched the steady flicker from the corner of his eye. His own heart was beating faster.
The station was much smaller now.
"Flight. On my Mark, 7 minutes to ignition... Mark. Seven."
"Descent, we'd like you to select aft OMNI now. It will be good for both LOS and AOS. Over."
"Roger. Going to aft OMNI."
Fleming stabbed the antenna select, knowing she'd be busy for a while, before Descent hit the point of atmospheric entry. At that point, all she could do was hang on and ride the fall, tipping over the point where she could not breathe.
"Descent. Five minutes to atmos. Four to ignition."
Flight's heart thumped. Ballard closed her eyes. Athena's station-side twin QMR 14000 made a mission note, and synched with Athena the record of multiple emotions.
"Flight, I've got a 500 alarm. Went to DESCENT 1, proceeded on it, and I'm back at AUTO again. What was that? Over."
"Roger. We saw that, Fleming. Code. It's all okay."
"All right. I say again—okay. That wasn't an alarm; that was a code. Okay." Fleming repeated her words, reinforcing as much to herself as Flight, that she understood.
The communication link crackled.
"Descent. We recommend you yaw 10 right. It will help us on the high gain signal strength. Over." Flight was asking for a better line of sight for the high gain comms antenna.
A moment later, Flight checked the mission time.
"Descent. If you read, you're GO for powered descent. Over."
"Descent.Your alignment is GO on the AGS. On my Mark, 3 30 until ignition."
"Roger." Fleming punched out her response.
"Mark. 3 30 until ignition."
Fleming's fingers flew across the controls, her concentration intense. Athena registered and understood this trained response, and her QMR parameters settled. This was predicted and predictable behaviour. Fleming rattled off the capsule status as she entered the new descent control sequence.
"Roger. Copy. Thrust translation—four jets—Balance couple—ON. TTCA throttle—MINIMUM. Throttle—AUTO CDR. Prop button—RESET. Prop button. Okay. ABORT/ABORT. Okay. STAGE—RESET. ATT CONTROL—three of them to MODE CONTROL. Okay, MODE CONTROL is set. AGS is reading 400 plus 1. Standing by for..."
The communications crackled, and transmission was lost for a moment.
"Say again, Fleming?"
"I'll leave it in SLEW. Relay to me. I've got good signal strength in SLEW."
"Descent, we've got you now. It's looking good. Over."
On board the station, Mission Control held its collective breath, waiting for the outcome of Fleming's engine start. Finally, Fleming's calm voice broke through the interference.
"Descent looks good."
"Roger, Descent. Everything is looking good here. Good luck, see you on the underside."
Flight looked across at Ballard, but her eyes were unreadable. The station's QMR 14000 could not process the emotional response it was sensing. Besides, the comms link was suffering interference. The computer determined there was too much ambiguity for a reliable message to go through to Athena, so it chose silence.
After the burn of the thrusters stopped, setting up the capsule's trajectory for entry, Fleming was surrounded by silence. The rush of her own blood sounding in her ears, the only sound. The read-out lights flickered and needles rocked, data feeds of numbers unravelling, analog feeds of angles and declinations swaying; and she entered a timeless zone of waiting, wondering.
Within her body, Fleming felt a visceral thrill, a low hot heat. She shifted slightly in the pilot's couch, her body's response unexpected. She smiled, remembering Jonah and his helpless sigh, and her nipples ached and tightened. Mandy might be so lucky, when she was gone.
Athena sensed the inputs from the biomeds, and recorded an anomaly in the mission log. She too knew about the unreliable comms, and couldn't fully process Fleming's human response. She too chose silence.
Slowly the quiet in the capsule gave way to a low hiss, then a louder, steadier rush. Fleming looked through the observation port above her head, and saw a glow; first a blue corona flickering, then a steady orange stream. The soft rush grew louder, accompanied by a first buffet and bump as Descent hit the first million molecules of air, then a billion molecules began to burn, then a billion more, and the capsule streamed a long burning tail of bright white light.
High above, the crew on the station watched as the white burning light streamed down into the moon's darkness, Fleming's infinitesimal angels, dancing on the point of a pin. Ballard shut her eyes and couldn't watch, Flight's eyes wept as he couldn't not.
The white hot heat seared away every last remnant of life from the outside of the capsule, every last virus and bacteria, every last living thing, making it pristine and pure as it plummeted down.
Inside the capsule, Fleming's little body, so full of life, so full of heat, lay cocooned inside her shining armour as the capsule hurtled down. She rode the incandescent flame, her eyes shining bright, her heart beating hard. This was why they sent her. Let's do this! It's what I was born for.
Athena recorded the biomed parameters, and her QMR processors began to heat with the unpredictable responses. The heat archives accepted the extra joules, storing the energy for later.
The capsule buffeted and swayed as it hit the thicker air, then steadied as it slowed.
* * * *
The silence on Titan's surface was shattered by a sonic boom from the capsule's arrival, high up in the atmosphere.
Ixtil looked up but could see nothing. Muscles flexed.
* * * *
As the capsule slowed, Fleming felt twin thumps as the ablative heat shield was first blown away, then the faintest sensation of weight as the chutes opened. The capsule rocked and swayed like a lullaby, hanging from the chutes.
Fleming started the descent motor and jettisoned the chutes, and began to fly the capsule in. Just like Armstrong did that July day long ago.
"PROGRAM ALARM." Fleming was instantly alert.
"It's okay." Athena responded.
"It's a 1202. Give me a reading on the 1202."
"I've got - I'm GO on that alarm." Athena reinforced the message to her human pilot.
"Go. Thanks, Athena."
"Fleming. Plus 25, throttle down."
Athena was acting as Fleming's second in command, feeding her altitude and advisories, as the pilot used her human eyes, instincts and reflexes to find the best landing place.
"Copy. 6 plus 25...same alarm, and it appears to come up when I have a 1668 up. What is?"
"I'll monitor Delta-H," replied Athena.
"... looks good now," noted Fleming.
"It's Descent 2 fuel to Monitor. Coming up 9 minutes." Athena alerted Fleming to her fuel reserves. "You're GO for landing."
"Understand. GO for landing. 3000 feet." Fleming rattled off the acknowledgement automatically, her training discipline kept, even as her heart rate peaked.
"PROGRAM ALARM. 1201."
"1201 alarm. We're GO. Same type. We're GO." Athena repeated herself, reinforcing the training drill for her pilot.
"2000 feet. 2000 feet. Into the AGS, 47 degrees." Fleming punched it in.
"35 degrees. 35 degrees. 750. Coming down to 23." Athena calmly fed Fleming the capsule's height and flight inclination data as the pilot flew the craft down.
"700 feet, 21 down, 33 degrees.
"600 feet, down at 19.
"540 feet, down at 30. Down at 15.
"At 400 feet, down at 9.
"350 feet, down at 4.
"We're pegged on horizontal velocity.
"300 feet, down 3 1/2, 47 forward.
"On 1 a minute, 1 1/2 down."
"I can see our shadow out there. Very faint."
Fleming could see the capsule's shadow flickering over the ground, as she searched for a safe landing place.
Athena continued to to feed her flight data. "50, down at 2 1/2, 19 forward."
"Altitude-velocity light." Fleming noted the warning.
"3 1/2 down, 220 feet, 13 forward."
"11 forward. Coming down nicely." Fleming responded.
"200 feet, 4 1/2 down." Athena continued.
"160 feet, 6 1/2 down.
"100 feet, 3 1/2 down, 9 forward. Five percent.
"75 feet. Looking good. Down a half, 6 forward.
"60 seconds. You're GO for landing." Athena's deeper tone warned Fleming of their fuel reserve.
"Lights on." Fleming hit the control.
Athena continued her call outs.
"40 feet, down 2 1/2."
"Kicking up some dust." Fleming was so close now. Her heart thundered. Athena's QMR understood this reaction and found no anomaly. "I see a faint shadow," Fleming repeated.
"4 forward. 4 forward. Drifting to the right a little. Okay. Down a half."
"30 seconds." The fuel warning, again.
"Okay. ENGINE STOP." Fleming cut the rocket motor, and the capsule settled the last few feet to the surface of the moon.
"ACA—out of DETENT. MODE CONTROL—both AUTO. DESCENT ENGINE COMMAND OVERRIDE—OFF. ENGINE ARM—OFF." Fleming completed the final shut-down sequence, disabling the rocket engine.
She settled back in her seat. "We did it. We're down."
Athena registered the response, and again determined it normal and predictable, given the circumstances.
"Fuel a bit low, there," Fleming commented. "Cut that a bit close."
* * * *