The first sign of trouble came when the ship's lights started dimming and brightening erratically. Sefal, checking his console, which happened to be behaving oddly as well, found all three of the functioning engines experiencing power surges. He pressed a button on his intercom, and spoke into it. "Captain, we have a spot of trouble here."
A minute later Kira came striding in. "You seem to have a capacity for stating the obvious, Sefal," she said, an amenable smile across her face. She bent over Sefal's flickering console, and studied the presented data. "Any idea of what is causing these extreme fluctuations?"
Sefal scratched one ear thoughtfully. "It may be that the water content of the upper atmosphere is so high that it's short-circuiting our systems. It's the only feasible explanation I can formulate at this time."
"I see," mumbled Kira. She looked up and over to Keryss' position. "How long until we're out of this atmospheric humidity?" she called across.
Seconds later Keryss called back, "About another two hours, sir."
"Will the ship's electronics stand up to these surges for that long?" she asked Sefal with a slight tinge of worry in her voice.
"Perhaps if we power down as much as we can, yes. Otherwise I'm afraid that the engines will collapse under the strain of so much surging. They weren't really built for humid conditions, and they are over forty years old." Sefal calmly stared the Captain in the eyes.
Kira nodded an affirmative. "Do whatever you think is necessary. I'll leave the matter in your capable hands...er, paws." She turned and hurried away to make a general announcement over the ship's intercom system.
During the next few minutes, the fluctuations became less apparent as the engines' load was reduced. Finally Sefal said, "I've powered down as much as I can without any drastic effects, but I'm not sure if even that measure will help us much. I'd still prepare for an emergency landing if I were you. Sir."
Kira, sitting in her chair, nodded grimly. "Yes, I should. I've had such landings in the past, but never before with cargo in suspended animation. How on Earth am I supposed to prepare those people for a crash landing? Wake them up and say, 'Sorry to disturb you, but would you mind putting this lifejacket on and bracing yourself? We'll be crash landing in just a few minutes, so please fasten your seatbelts?'" Her voice rose noticeably through the last few words until she was almost shouting. Never in her career had she been in such a unusual position.
Sefal shrugged non-committally. "Well, if we crash, and some of them get...irreversibly damaged, shall we say...they won't know, will they? At least we won't have to deal with panic-stricken passengers running about the place, screaming and praying to whatever deity they worship. That could get a little nerve-wracking."
The Captain nodded. "You're right. Why worry them? A few crew isn't that hard to manage, compared to three hundred and twenty raving refugees." She was about to say something else when a strident chime of La Cucuracha rang through the Bridge, followed by an immediate dimming of lights. "Who the hell programmed these computers?!" exclaimed Kira. "Whoever he was, he was a certified idiot with a twisted sense of humour." She broke off her tirade when she noticed Sefal trying to butt in politely.
"That was Engine 3, sir. The humidity was too much for it. If one or both of the remaining two go, we'll be landing much sooner, and harder, than we expected." Sefal wrinkled his muzzle into an approximation of an apologetic grin.
Kira laughed weakly. "Another one of your charming understatements."
At that Sefal managed to look suitably modest.
It was just over an hour later when Engine 1 packed it in, again punctuated by the Mexican chime.
"Great. Just great." Kira belted herself securely into her seat, as did the rest of the crew on the barely lit bridge and around the ship, and watched the main viewscreen, which currently showed a lot of ocean with part of a continent to each side. "Hang on tight, guys. It's going to be a rough ride."
Sefal grinned at her. "Taking after me, sir?"
A frown featured on Kira's face before the joke registered. "Oh, yes, I guess so." She called to Keryss, to get his attention. "Can you put us down somewhere soft?"
"Soft? At this speed? Even the softest foam you can engineer won't be soft enough for this baby when she hits. But I can offer you a choice between water and land. Which do you prefer?" Keryss' fur was fluffed up, and his tail was twitching from side to side in extreme agitation. If he had had knickers, they would almost certainly be twisted.
Kira sighed sufferingly. "Land, if you don't mind. I'm not sure this thing will float too well, especially with a few holes punched in its hull from the actual contact."
The lights suddenly went off, to be replaced a few seconds later by the red emergency lighting system. "Oh, that's just great," mumbled the Captain. "Let me guess. No engines, no power."
Sefal shrugged, the gesture not too visible in the dim light. "Got it in one."
Kira let loose with a sigh of long-suffering. "If we survive this, I'm going to write to the builders of this thing."
As the ship hurtled through the heavy atmosphere, the portholes and viewscreen showed signs of heating up, turning red and orange at the edges. "Aren't the heat shields supposed to have gone up by now? No, never mind. No power. So in addition to getting pulverised we get to be cooked as well. Who's got the marshmallows?" Kira chuckled weakly at her attempt at lightening the tension in the bridge. Keryss was fluffed up to the point of resembling nothing more than a cat put through a wash and spin-dry cycle. Etayne still retained her calm demeanour, though her eyes and posture showed otherwise. Sefal was totally calm, as if it was routine. Everyone else showed various signs of nervousness, ranging from pointless muttering to long convoluted prayers.
Sweat started beading on people's skin as the internal temperature rose. In the Arrallins' case they panted rapidly and heavily, even managing to look like damp carpets, with the characteristic 'wet fur' smell.
The small ship began to lose its stability, pitching and rocking crazily as it exited the humid upper atmosphere into the basically normal air below, where weak currents pushed it this way and that.
"Ugh, this is ridiculous," moaned Kira, barely a whisper in the seemingly liquid air of the bridge. She wondered how the rest of the crew were faring, especially in those parts of the ship that were sparsely shielded. Most of those around her had simply collapsed from heat exhaustion, sprawled over their consoles or leaning awkwardly from their chairs. Only Etayne was still conscious, although she appeared only a minute or two away from falling into a comatose state.
"I agree with you there, Captain," the bedraggled First Officer muttered, just within audible range. Even that small effort seemed too much, and she slumped back in her seat, into the oblivion of unconsciousness.
Kira followed suit a few seconds later, the arms of blackness welcoming her warmly into its embrace.
When the ship finally did hit, it came down with a splash of gargantuan proportions, diving nose first into the cool, blue-green ocean off the northern coast of the Southern continent. Steam hissed up in a huge cloud from the contact between the ship's white-hot skin and the cold water.
Almost immediately the ship hit bottom, and ploughed through the mud, its velocity decreasing dramatically from the several hundred kilometres per hour it was doing originally to a few tens of k's per hour.
For over two kilometres the ship slid along the ocean bottom, until the water grew shallower as a beach formed. With another giant splash, the ship burst out of the water and, after skidding another hundred metres or so, the ship came to a shuddering halt in a grove of coconut palms.
As the dust settled, the vessel's injuries became apparent. A few of the specially toughened portholes had smashed, admitting water into parts of the ship. Ragged holes, ripped open from the numerous protrusions of rock it had dredged through, exposed the ship's innards, which had been washed or thrown out by the crash. Overall, the prognosis for the survival of those on board was not looking favourable.
It just so happened that the crash occurred in the same bay as Alla's O.E. group were based.
Alla and Nola, after having dropped a few ripe coconuts down on top of the sulking Keltin for amusement, were just riding the thermals for a few minutes with a couple of other friends when they saw the splash out in the bay. Winging their way down to the beach, they were among the first spectators flocking to see this monstrosity that had appeared from out of the water.
"This looks like that thing I saw earlier, Nola," Alla said in an aside to her friend. She craned her head around, trying to see if anyway was going to investigate this strange object. Looking back to the ship, she saw a hole big enough for her to enter, near what looked to be the remnants of a wing. "Right, I'm going in, if no-one else will," she muttered, taking purposeful steps foward to the ship.
Ignoring the comments that arose behind her, she wedged herself into the hole, sucking in her sides a bit to fit through. She found herself in what looked to be a large infirmary, albeit a very strangely equipped one. Through an open door a corridor led away into depths unknown. Barely pausing she went through the door, and followed the corridor. Soon she came to an intersection. Looking down one branch, then the others, she hung a left, and continued exploring, poking her beak around open doors, stepping around or over objects that had clearly been thrown around during the rough treatment the ship had received.
Alla marvelled at the level of damage that had been sustained. Walls had been outrageously bent, doors were warped out of their guiding slots and rails, and what furniture she saw appeared to have been tossed around like so many trees in a hurricane.
Coming to the end of the corridor she had taken, Alla forced herself through a pair of out-of-shape doors, and found herself in a large room, occupied by several beings she had never seen before. The far side of the room was mangled beyond recognition, shards of glass everywhere. Through the gaping hole she could see the sky, and a few of the taller trees.
Making her way carefully around damaged chairs and consoles, she moved up to one of the odd beings which, to her amazement, still seemed to be breathing. Though the being was without fur or feathers, Alla recognized the blond hair on top as a variant of a gryphon's fur. Glancing around, she noticed others having the same configuration. Still others were entirely covered in long, striped fur.
Turning back to what, or who, was in front of her, Alla gently prodded at it with her beak. When it didn't respond to the gesture, Alla gave it a light shake. That did the trick. A pair of startlingly blue eyes slowly opened, slightly unfocused.
"Are you all right?" Alla asked, concerned that this...person was injured.
Eyes widening, its mouth opened, and muttered something unintelligible.