While the others were securing the cargo in the shuttle, Kim had time to confer with Shego.
"What's your assessment?" Kim asked. No need to say of what, Shego had been looking over every conceivable part of the shuttle for hours.
"Fly by wire system with five hundred year old computers," Shego said. "What could go wrong?"
Kim sighed. She was too emotionally exhausted to respond with anything other than a tired: "Shego."
"Are we in private?" Shego asked.
Kim nodded, "Radios off, just you, me, and the room's atmosphere."
"All of the checks I've been able to do show everything is fine, but even a vacuum doesn't put the kibosh on entropy," Shego said. "Things degrade more slowly when they're not at the mercy of weathering, but they still degrade, and this is all very old.
"There's no way to know how the systems will respond to reentry until we actually try it."
"I thought the shuttle experienced 3 gs or less," Kim said.
"I'm more concerned about heat and turbulence than the number of gs we'll be pulling," Shego said.
"Ok, fine, whatever," Kim said. "Just walk me through the process."
"Autopilot is supposed to be able to do everything," Shego said. "In theory I could take a nap and wake up on the ground. Though it's traditional for the pilot to handle approach and landing.
"There are four main flight computers and one backup," Shego said. "If the backup stays working that's all that we need. If not then we only need two of of the primary computers. Even if the computers all fail, I can fly it down all of the way on manual, so the computers don't bother me.
"And that brings us back to fly by wire, if the circuits fry there are no mechanical linkages, no hydraulic connections, nothing but electronics connecting the controls to anything that matters," Shego said. "If the electronics don't mind their half a millennium long nap...
"This is where things begin to get interesting. At the beginning we use a reaction control system--"
"Thrusters," Kim said.
"Exactly," Shego said. "I've checked them all, all forty four work for now. We need to use them because at the start there's not enough air to rudder or flap worth a damn.
"Our forty four little thrusters are the things that are
running on five hundred year old rocket fuel. Ever wonder if it gets stale over time?"
Of course Shego was going to make this as negative as possible. Still, apparently the old rocket fuel did work because, "You said they worked."
"Yeah, for now," Shego said. "Once we're into atmosphere for a while, we get to start using our flaps and elevons and even the rudder. Assuming that the auxiliary power units are still working at this stage and thus get hydraulic pressure to them and, I can't stress this enough, the fact that it's fly by wire doesn't bite us."
"You keep on harping on that," Kim said --no effort to hide her annoyance, there wasn't much point-- "when was the last time you flew something that wasn't
fly by wire?"
"Oh, let's see..." Shego said in a way that meant her apparent thinking it over afterward was completely fake, "five hundred and some odd years ago."
Kim groaned, "Ok, stupid question."
"Very," Shego said. "The electronics are powered by hydrogen fuel cells, because nothing says, 'Put me in a high risk environment,' better than something known for its ability to burst into flame."
"Are the fuel cells working?" Kim asked.
"To the best of my ability to check," Shego said. "So, we're in a brick that's smashing into the atmosphere at eighteen thousand miles per hour, everything's shaking and just begging to break down, we're firing off bursts of rocket fuel to keep aimed in the proper direction, and then we start to meander."
That one caught Kim off guard.
"Meander?" she asked.
"It's not your dad's super slick almost mad-science level space plane, Kimmie," Shego said. "It's a space shuttle orbiter. If it's not handled just right it'll get pushed back up. Trust me, you don't even want to know what happens if we bounce on our initial attempt at reentry.
"So to bleed off our speed without getting pushed up we do some nice S curves: four steep banking turns --and I mean steep
banks, 45 degree angles have got nothing on what we'll be doing-- that dissipate things sideways instead of up.
"And that's when we go into full glider mode, drop our nose, and head in for a landing," Shego said. "If the heat shield held out. Did I mention how very, very dead we'll become if the heat--"
"I Know!" Kim shouted. Apparently she wasn't quite as emotionally exhausted as she'd thought because she still had it in her to be pissed off at Shego.
"Ok, so, we land on the ice, assuming the landing gear still works after all of the stress we just put on the shuttle," Shego said. "Since we only have unpowered flight, there's only one chance to land right. Of course we don't exactly have a runway to line up with so...
"Oh, if we hit a bird we could all die. Forgot to mention that," Shego said, "touchdown speed will be over two hundred miles per hour, jets usually land at half that. There's a reason shuttle runways are some of the longest in the world. Or were, whatever."
"Area 51 had a much longer one," Kim said.
"You ever find out what they did there?" Shego asked.
"Flying saucers, alien technology, yada, yada, yada," Kim said flatly.
"That's what everyone assumed," Shego said, she sounded disappointed, "talk about anticlimactic."
"They figured that if they leaked the truth, no one would believe it," Kim said.
"That's one step short of the stupidity of a trap-trap," Shego said. "Anyway, I'm just going to assume that deploying the braking chute won't work--"
"Why?" Kim asked. Shego hadn't reported any obvious problems.
"Because I can only find passing references to the material it's made of and absolutely no information about the shelf life, as measured in centuries, for Kevlar," Shego said. "Plus, if something fails I'd rather it be that than, say, the heat shield.
"Anyway, we barrel across the ice until drag and friction --which won't be so useful because: ice--"
"Glacial ice," Kim said. "You'll get your friction."
"Whatever," Shego said. "Eventually we stop. Do you by any chance have equipment to remove toxic gasses from the shuttle once it's down?"
"More than twenty specially designed landed-space-shuttle processing vehicles?"
"A hundred and fifty people to make sure it's safe for us to get out?"
"Not even close."
"Did you know that it takes an hour for the shuttle to cool down?"
"Any chance you'd swap seats so that I'll be in the flying car and you'll be in the shuttle?"
"Not a chance."
"Get some of that will to live back?" Shego asked.
"You're a better pilot," Kim said.
Shego sighed. "I've done my preflight, and everything is in working order now. What I don't know is what's going to happen when we put this relic through the stress of reentry.
"If we lose power there is literally nothing I can do," Shego said.
"What happened to 'I can work with this'?" Kim asked.
"I can, and it'll be fun," Shego said, she even had a hint of a smirk, "if it works."
* * *
Surge helped Horatio strap into one of the seats in the shuttle.
"I don't see why Kim couldn't take you in Jade with her," she said.
"Best guess is that she's considering doing something profoundly stupid," Horatio said.
* * *
"Are we clear?" Kim asked.
"Perfectly clear," Jade said, "but I again remind you that the stresses involved could destroy both of us."
"Which is why we'll only do it as a last resort," Kim said.
"That has been noted," Jade said. "I repeat that there is no need for you to actually be within me for this mission."
"That has been noted," Kim said.
"If you had not taken steps to keep them in the dark," Jade said, "I believe the others would agree that there's no reason to put yourself at unnecessary risk."
"Which is why they're being kept in the dark," Kim said. Why she'd filled the cabin with air, cut the radio, and was having this conversation the old fashioned way: Jade's voice synthesizer and speakers to Kim's ears, Kim's voice to Jade's internal microphones. Why Kim was supposedly doing a final check of Jade alone while the others got ready for the trip. "If either of us thinks the probability of success for the shuttle is too low the backup plan starts immediately with no objection from the other."
"Understood," Jade said.
* * *
"Everybody's strapped in on the middeck," Hawk said. "I think Operation Horrible Idea is ready to start."
Shego nodded. As she looked to Drakken in the copilot's chair she heard Surge say, "I thought we were going with, 'Best Bad Idea'."
When Shego looked back at Surge and Horatio she saw they were ready too.
"Kimmie," Shego said, "we're ready on this end."
"Ok, I'm ready to tow," Kim said.
"Just remember," Shego said, "Mind the heat shield."
"It's why we're going for a vertical lift off," Kim said.
The shuttle began to tilt.
"This is fun," Amy said with her usual cheerfulness.
Shego rolled her eyes.
* * *
Hawk had a good view of Amy and Henry, but the arrangement of the middeck chairs meant that he couldn't see Blok. Still, if things went wrong Blok had a better chance of surviving than anyone else.
Amy was chipper, Henry was calm. Hopefully things would work out.
* * *
The moment the shuttle was close enough to vertical that they wouldn't be dragged along the heat shield, Shego said, "Alright Kimmy, we're probably crushing the hell out of the engines now, so get us off this rock as soon as you can."
"We will be ready to make the lift momentarily," Jade responded.
That's went the music started.
Horatio mumbled, "Good choice," in his ever deteriorating mode of speech and then Shego recognized the song.
"This is cliché," Shego said.
"It's tradition," Jade countered.
The shuttle started to lift.
The lyrics started:
I like to dream
yes, yes, right between my sound machine
On a cloud of sound I drift in the night
Any place it goes is right
Goes far, flies near, to the stars away from here
Well, you don't know what we can find
Why don't you come with me little girl
On a magic carpet ride
* * *
"We've reached the midpoint," Jade announced over the radio. "Beginning deceleration."
"I vote another episode the radio show," Hawk said, "When we left off Ford and Arthur were at the crossroads of two alternative futures and Zaphod was in an abducted building being towed to The Frogstar."
"Or we could just put on a concert," Henry said, "A decent concert would last us until we were back on earth, no need for more voting."
"Please think over your options for the next eight minutes," Jade said.
"Why eight minutes?" Amy asked.
Slow ride; take it easy,
Slow ride; take it easy,
"Because we're decelerating," Shego said flatly. "How original."
"Don't talk over the music," Jade responded.
* * *
"We have reached Earth," Jade reported. "I will begin lining you up for your reentry vector."
* * *
"Braking maneuver is over," Shego said. "Flip us right-side up and detach the tow cable."
"Will do," Kim said. "And don't worry, we'll get any birds out of your way."
* * *
"The friction's going to fry us!" Drakken said.
"It's drag, not friction!" Shego shouted. Brilliant scientist, yes, but damn did he not know aeronautics. Shego growled. "Something's wrong here."
"What's wrong?" Kim asked over the radio.
"Don't know," Shego said. "I tried to switch over to full manual but it's acting like--" the controls went from sluggish to entirely non-responsive. "Shit! I've got no control."
* * *
Kim said, "Jade, it's time for--"
"Kimberley, you are lacking information," Jade said.
"We talked about--"
"You turned off the radio too soon," Jade said.
There was a painful high pitched noise. Kim covered her ears and wondered what could have gone wrong to produce such a noise.
"Let me finish," Jade said.
Oh. Apparently the noise had been punishing her for not listening. Kim considered delivering a lecture on how cars aren't supposed to disobey their drivers, but she had a feeling Jade would ignore it.
Instead she just said, "That was not
"This was moments after you stopped listening to the radio," Jade said.
Shego's voice came over the speakers, "Surge, I need you to talk to the shuttle."
"I thought everyone was against me using my powers," Surge said. "You know how they can be."
"Nothing fancy," Shego said, "just get the control surfaces to listen to me."
"Doesn't Sarah's power have a habit of blowing things up?" Kim asked.
"Attempting to steer the shuttle to a safe landing by repeatedly colliding with it to effect course corrections has a very low probability of success," Jade said. "At this point I estimate their odds of survival are better by a statistically significant margin if we allow them to attempt Shego's plan."
"Alright," Kim said. "But if that plan doesn't work we're implementing plan B"
"Agreed," Jade said.
* * *
Surge was out of her seat, space suit glove off, touching a wall of the cockpit.
"Something's wrong with the computers," Surge said, "it'll take me a minute to figure out how to get your commands around them."
"We don't have a minute," Shego said. "Make the ship bank left."
Sparks erupted from something Horatio was pretty sure sparks shouldn't come from. The shuttle banked.
"Steeper," Shego said. "A lot steeper."
steep?" Surge asked.
"Shoot for just shy of 90 degrees," Shego said.
"Things are going very
wrong down here," Hawk reported.
"If it looks like lightning don't touch it," Shego said as the shuttle banked more steeply. "We've got bigger problems up here."
"I don't know how long I can keep this up," Surge said.
"Then now is the time to figure out how to make the shuttle listen to me," Shego said. Something on Shego's left --controls? a computer?-- exploded. Shego took a glance and then said, "We didn't need that anyway."
* * *
Horatio reached out and took Surge's free hand --her right hand. Her left was surrounded by pink plasma filaments and pressed against an electronic panel of some kind on side of the cockpit.
"The only way I can get your commands passed the computers is through me," Surge said. The plasma filaments multiplied and intensified. "You should be in control now Shego," Surge said, "but I have no idea how long I can hold it."
Hawk's voice came over the radio, "Things are getting very violent and very pink down here."
"If we live it'll be because of violent and pink," Shego said.
"There may be another way," Kim said over the radio.
"The other way she's referring to has an extremely low probability of success," Jade said.
Surge looked to Horatio, smiled, then said, "Profoundly stupid."
That was still Horatio's best guess, so he nodded. Then he said, "If we die, maybe you'll be with Jana again."
For a moment the name seemed to hit her like an electric shock, that hadn't been Horatio's intention and he was about to apologize when Surge's entire posture changed, something more calm, more determined, and then Surge asked, "She never gave up on me?"
"Never, Sarah," Horatio said. He had no idea what effect the words would have, but he wasn't going to lie.
Sarah --Surge-- closed her eyes, held Horatio's hand more tightly, and did something that made even more plasma filaments appear.
"Shego, get us home," Surge said.
* * *
"Get ready to deploy the landing gear," Shego said.
"Hydraulics are shot," Surge said. "All three sets."
"Tell it to deploy anyway!" Shego shouted.
"What goo--" Surge said. "Oh."
"What happened?" Blok asked.
"When the hydraulics failed stuff blew up and the gear deployed using springs," Surge said.
"This thing was built with redundancy in mind," Shego said. "Surge strap back in."
"You'll lose control," Surge said.
"I s-- brace!" Shego said.
A rough bump knocked Surge to the ground.
"We're on the ice," Shego said. "You still connected, Spark Plug?"
"Yeah, Glow Stick," Surge said from the floor.
"And we have drag chute deployment," Shego said. "Nothing left for you to do kid."
* * *
With the others finally back on earth, at long last Kim was able to breathe easy. It didn't last long.
"Shit!" came Shego's voice.
Kim didn't have time to see what was happening. Jade started moving very fast and announced, "Implementing plan B."
* * *
"Ow," Blok said.
Something crackled on a radio but he couldn't make it out. He slowly got to his feet. Earth gravity. Such a welcome burden. Based on the state of his space suit and the chair he'd been strapped into he must have turned to stone on instinct.
Always a shame that he couldn't take much more than basic textiles and leathers through the transformation with him.
What was left of the suit radio crackled again. He looked it over. The mic, transmitter, and receiver seemed fine, but the speaker was just too beat up to be of use. He could probably cannibalize one from elsewhere.
* * *
Amy, Hawk, and Henry were all alive, but he couldn't wake them. He'd check on the others, but for the moment he was working on the radio.
When he thought it would work he said, "My radio was damaged; I didn't receive any of your previous transmissions."
"I said," Jade said, "that it was good to finally have one of you humans awake. Then I kept on saying variations on, 'Can you here me now?'"
"What happened?" Block asked.
"The shuttle began a roll which could have killed you all," Jade said. "In order to get it back on the ground I rammed the rising right wing, forcing it back down. Kim and I were damaged in the process and I have no information on those inside the shuttle."
"Everyone is alive on the middeck," Block said. "I'm the only one conscious. I'm not a doctor so I can't assess them. I'm going to check the cockpit now."
* * *
"Please tell me that the planet that hit me was earth," Henry said as he woke up.
"It was indeed," Jade said. "You're only the second to wake up after the collision. Please assist Blok in bringing the others to me so that I can scan them."
* * *
"Get your hands off me or lose them!" Shego shouted.
"Sorry," Henry said.
"We didn't realize you were awake," Blok said.
"We're bringing everyone to the wonder car for medical scans," Henry said.
Shego nodded. "I can walk myself."
Blok shrugged, "Saves us some trouble." Then he turned to Henry and asked, "Who do you want to take next?"
"I'll carry Dr. D," Shego said, "you two get Surge and the self-proclaimed oracle."
* * *
Kim groaned as she woke up.
"You were right, Princess," Shego said from under Jade.
Kim's head hurt and she had no idea what Shego was talking about.
"That it was fly by wire wasn't the problem," Shego said. "If not for the computers refusing to relinquish control even after something made them stop giving orders to the flight surfaces, we'd have had a perfect trip."
"How is everyone?" Kim asked.
"You're the last to wake up," Shego said. "Your car scanned everyone."
"Everyone has survived with minimal injuries," Jade reported. "Though the five of you with concussions should know that the negative effects from even relatively minor concussions, like your own, can last for more than a month."
Horatio gave a flat, "Yay."
"They can also go away in a few days," Kim said, "so it might not be that bad."
"Thanks doc," Shego said to Kim as she rolled out from underneath Jade, "but I kind of trust the car more.
"Speaking of the car . . ." Shego said. "Jade, what do your diagnostics say now?"
"Your repairs, and the speed with which you did them, are impressive, Shego," Jade said. "I am again operating at 100% and believe I have found a new mechanic.
"Horatio, I would like to speak to you about your condition in private," Jade said, "and --with permission-- I will begin scouting the nearby area in greater detail."
"In private?" Kim asked.
"Jade has respect for doctor patient confidentiality," Hawk said as if it were a minor revelation. "Good ethics programming."
"Thank you," Jade said.
"You're welcome," Hawk said, then he turned to the others. "So what do we do while they're busy with that?"
"For now we make camp at the shuttle," Kim said. "So the first things we want working are the heaters, we can use the shuttle for shelter. Once that's done, we get down to the basics of staying alive."
"Food, water, weapons," Shego said.
* * *
Surge helped Horatio into Jade and then started to leave.
"You might as well stay," Horatio said. "It looks like you're the one who's stuck helping me, so . . . Jade, I authorize you to share my medical information with Surge starting now and ending if I tell you to stop."
"Understood," Jade said.
Surge walked around the car and got in via the other side. When she sat down beside Horatio she said, "I don't consider myself stuck; I'm helping you because I want to."
The car started to rise, "I'm going to be scouting the area while we speak."
* * *
Kim was setting up a heater in the shuttle's middeck, which seemed to be the general living area. Shego was on the middle bunk, sleeping. All the others were checking the cargo hold.
The airlock opened. Kim looked up to see Hawk, Blok, and Henry walk in.
"Obviously we haven't checked everything," Hawk said, "But it looks like none of the bigger things broke loose so nothing got smashed, crushed, or otherwise rendered useless by having something giant land on it."
"In fact, as near as we can tell," Blok says, "it looks like our supplies didn't get worse than some dings and dents."
"Amy and Drakken are checking on things with sensitive parts," Henry said; "seeing how they held up with the rough landing. Still, it's looking like pretty much everything stayed strapped in, just like us, and thus it couldn't get too badly damaged."
"Thanks for the damage report," Kim said. "For now, we'll check individual things as we need them. First things we're going to need are those water purifiers and food. If we do the water first, we can use dehydrated foodstuffs."
Henry cringed, "Have you ever tasted that stuff?"
"Unfortunately," Kim said. "But right now I just want to eat something, no matter how unappetizing it is."
"We're on it, Red," Blok said.
The three returned to the cargo hold and Kim was back working in silence. The difficulty wasn't the heater itself, it was making it work using the power sources they had on hand that was proving problematic.
Still, they were on earth, and she was making them a place to stay. They'd come home.