This story is by Justin Zoller and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Captain Harris stared at the red planet one last time before departure. Nadine, his botanist and co-pilot, was securing the samples. The optimism of the mission radiated on her face. She pointed to one specific vial marked HBN-2V and stated, “This is why they spent 2.2 billion to send us here.”
Benton was doing preflight checks with the occasional phrase “Go Flight” as he tested the safety zones of the planetary module. He was the engineer of all engineers on the expedition as well as operating navigator for the two pilots. Harris sealed the hatch. Benton climbed the stairs from the lower bay. Nadine strapped herself in for preflight. They would launch in approximately ten minutes and, upon the success of that launch, they would taxi and dock with their command craft, The Galleon. From there was the journey home.
From the side window, Harris admired the ship’s footprint on the foreign planet. “In a matter of mere minutes,” Harris thought to himself, “this imprint will be lost to space, never to be seen again.” As they approached their docking position, Captain Harris observed the red planet in its full, enigmatic view, held in tight embrace by the stranglehold of space and the muscle of vacuum. It would undoubtedly be his final trip to the crimson beauty.
Being at retirement age, Harris chose this last mission because of his personal ties to the mission’s prime objective. The vial Nadine so emphatically pointed to just an hour ago contained the potential formula to fight against many neurodegenerative diseases, including Cerebral Palsy, the disease Harris’ daughter has battled her whole life.
Docking with the command craft was routine and they were once again boarding The Galleon.
After a week’s travel and a calm collective, the trio crew was awakened from a nice sleep to piercing alarms and the red glow of the emergency system. At the helm of the shuttle, Nadine and Harris were evaluating the alarm and within seconds had concluded that the solar sail was not functioning due to a mechanical problem with one of the exterior arms which held the sail taut in place. Harris instructed Nadine to take command of the ship and Benton to suit up. Harris would join him on the hull to assist the engineer in repairs. The solar sail, or photon sail, is a system (not unlike a seafaring ship’s sails) that uses solar pressure against flattened mirrors to propel a ship forward through space. It was the reason they could travel at such amazing speed without burning through fuel.
“No tethers for this one” Benton said, “the malfunctioning arm is on an awkward side of the ship and we do not have time to spare.”
“Understood,” replied Harris.
As they reached the arm, they heard Nadine in their comm’s.
“The arm was apparently hit with some kind of small solar flare,” she stated with both surprise and some calm in her voice. “We are lucky it hit where it did and not in the main hull of the ship.”
“Agreed,” stated both Harris and Benton in unison.
“The arm contracted at the elbow due to electrical interference from the flare, but it did not structurally damage the arm,” she continued.
“And what does that mean?” Harris asked.
“What that means,” Benton interjected, “is that we can still manually elongate the arm without electronics and position it functionally.”
“Then that’s what we will do,” Harris finalized.
As Benton worked, the arm’s hinge relaxed its strength and was now maneuverable. With some effort from both men, the elbow straightened. After locking it, Benton turned to the sail, then to Harris. “We need to get the corner of the sail to the arm’s reach, then we can return to full sheet and be back on course.”
Harris watched as Benton used his thrusters to burst to the sail’s edge. Upon return, Harris clasped the corner of the sail with an open hook as Benton held the sail tight. In a manner of horrific alarm Nadine’s voice screeched, “TO YOUR LEFT!” As they both broke their gaze and looked left, another singular solar flare struck where Benton held and launched him away from the ship.
“BENTON!” Harris screamed “BENTON!”
Unconscious from the impact, Benton was useless as he summersaulted away from the safety of The Galleon.
Harris positioned to jump when Nadine yelled “NO, CAPTAIN NO!”
He paused, “WHAT?”
“He’s too far out. Your thrusters will never get you back. You will be lost and I cannot fly this ship alone.”
Harris’ emotions begged for his thrusters and the safety of Benton, but his hands lay still, knowing full well that what Nadine said was the truth. To attempt to rescue Benton would be killing all three of them.
He watched Benton spinning and growing smaller, wondering if or when he would wake.
“What would he think of the remainder of his existence?”
“How painful will it be to suffocate to death in the vast beauty of space?
“He has a front row seat to his end and to the inevitable vacuum of the universe that would claim and recycle one more life.”
Harris watched with these morose thoughts lingering, and he remembered the imprint on the red planet. “In a matter of mere minutes, Benton will be lost to this universe, never to be seen by human eyes again.”
The remaining days of the voyage home were spent in sadness. The focus was on the last part of this climactic return. They would set orbit around earth in a triangular atmospheric module outfitted with hundreds of exterior 6X6 silica fiber tiles, essentially woven sand, designed to withstand the friction driven heat from their fall to earth.
In the module, they held hands and gave a look of hope as each forced a smile. The launch from the Galleon was smooth as they began their decent. At the planned angle, they had a narrow 40 mile window to enter the atmosphere of earth, or they would be chopped up by the thermosphere
As the shaking started, Nadine closed her eyes and gripped the sides of the cockpit. Harris grit his teeth and simply prepared his body. Everything was out of their hands now.
As the shaking intensified, the module was clapped with a sucker punch as they were rocked heavily from the right side. Whiplashed and head pounding, Harris could only think of the sound he heard coming from the right side of the module. Whirling wind. They had clearly just made their window and were hit so hard from the side with atmospheric pressure that at least one or more of the silica tiles had been ripped from the shuttle. They were falling to earth, but with heavy damage. He saw no lights on the dash or the rear of the module. He waited for the parachutes’ impact as he grabbed Nadines hand. She did not grab back. He forced his sore neck around to get a partial glance at her face. Her eyes were shut and her visor was splashed with blood from the inside. Harris closed his eyes tight until a tear fell. At that moment he felt the parachutes engage and, minutes later, the splash into the sea.
He said a word or two for Nadine then prepared for rescue. The dash lights dead, he turned to activate the GPS box from the back. To his horror, it had disappeared some number of miles above the Atlantic with much of the ship. When was the last time they registered him on radar?
His thoughts were cut short as sea water slowly trickled into the module. He grabbed Nadine by the hand once more and said, “thank you and goodbye.” He reached into the storage box above her head and removed a small insulated rectangle marked “HBN-2V.”
As he kicked his way out of the damaged front exit, he thought about HBN-2V. HARRIS BENTON NADINE -2nd Vial. Sweet Nadine. He remembered the optimism on her face.
The door bust open. He was already 10 feet submerged, and the sea came flooding in. He swam to the surface, expecting a myriad of rescue operators.
Instead, he was welcomed by a mammoth storm and waves twice the size of any he had encountered.
He thought briefly of Nadine’s optimism.
Reality set in after some hours. He clutched the vial and thought of the implications it had to this planet, to Claire. He fastened HBN-2V to the compartment on his chest. The whirling sea left him to drift with only the revolving thought of how close they had come. His mind went to his ultimate failure to the people. To himself. To his only daughter.
His mind went to Benton drifting through the universe, and he whispered aloud, “In a mere manner of days, I will be lost to this planet, never to be seen by human eyes again.”