This story is by Sean Harline and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
He had survived. He wasn’t sure if anyone else had because his suit had automatically started up Survival Mode before he could confirm anything. He wouldn’t be sure until he was rescued. It was a completely unexpected event and he and everyone else had only an eight-minute warning.
Everything had been going smoothly. The Fibonacci system had not one, but three Earth-like planets that could theoretically be colonized. Their orbit around two seemingly unstable stars meant that 166 people could be sent to safely study the system and approve it for colonization; three 50-man teams made up of geologists, biologists and chemists for each planet and 16 astronomers to study Fibonaccis A and B.
They only got eight minutes because the near-light-speed transmissions from the Fibonacci A base had cut out in the middle of a standard message. That coupled with the immediate fluctuations in readings from the two stars meant one thing to the rest of the scientists: prepare to evacuate now.
Should an astronaut become incapacitated in outer space, the suit he’s wearing is programmed to activate Survival Mode. Survival Mode puts the astronaut into an induced coma. The filters in the suit repurpose waste into fuel for the suit and the person inside. A one way near-light-speed SOS signal continuously transmits from the suit to call for rescue. The program and systems were capable of operating smoothly for weeks after activation and significant bugs wouldn’t develop until months after.
The suits were built to last and endure. Three layers of protection against practically anything space could throw at it. A battery designed to handle all essential functions of the suit could last for 30 days before the recycling program would start. A clock would track time since activation and create conditions to replicate REM sleep and induce dreaming so the brain would remain active.
He was one of the geologists on the second farthest planet FAB-129. A planet which he and the 49 others had jokingly called Bobby Pin because of a comment one the botanists made about some local flora. Spending three years on an uninhabited tropical planet with 49 likeminded individuals was a veritable vacation. Reports were due to the nearest system, Tiberius, every 10 days, since 10 days was how long transmissions took to reach Tiberius. If anything went wrong, then help would arrive in three weeks. Most of their work took 7 days, and the remaining 3 they would spend on some of Bobby Pin’s volcanic-black beaches. The botanists had set up a crops greenhouse and some biologists were able to smuggle some fish and crab onto the “Necessities” list, so every so often they would hold a barbecue on the beach to celebrate advances in research.
They kept these barbecues secret from the other 116, who didn’t have it as easy. FAB-48, the furthest of the three, had an average temperature of 0° centigrade which it rarely went over, and FAB-12’s average temperature was 50° centigrade and often hotter. But none of the scientists on any planet dared to talk about planet life to the astronomers on the Fibonacci A base. Whatever they were dealing with on the planets, at least they had ground to stand on. After they would undoubtedly clear the system for colonization, he was sure he’d retire on Bobby Pin.
Tiberius. He was back on Tiberius. In a park that looked a great deal like the one he grew up playing in. He was talking with someone else he had met on Bobby Pin. He didn’t recognize her face, yet knew her by name. She wasn’t sure how he knew her name, and he couldn’t think of how either. A siren interrupts them as they talk. Earth’s sun had just gone supernova. While Earth was 28 light-years away and everyone knew it, the two of them began to panic. The sky got brighter and the ground below them began to quake. In an instant, Tiberius shattered. The scare shook him out of the coma and he was adrift again.
Disoriented, he barely had a minute to gain his bearings before the program would put him under again. He was still in the Fibonacci system, he had to be. Only eight hours had passed since activation and the distinct blue shine of Fibonacci A confirmed it. What confused him was, from behind Fibonacci A, Fibonacci B had not only begun to shine a dark hot-red, but seemed to have suddenly grown double its normal size.
He wasn’t near any recognizable planets or formations. Given the visible size of Fibonacci A he guessed he was somewhere near the orbit of FAB-48. The heads-up display estimated he was traveling at around 21,000 meters per second away from the center of the system. As he tried to reel around and identify anything, the sedatives kicked in and he was gone again.
FAB-48. He had seen pictures of the icy planet and its surface. Ceaseless storms at the north and south poles, thought to be byproducts of the planet’s peculiar magnetic field, covered the entire planet with clouds and snow. The line of the equator was the only place where the suns shined. He knew the ashy wasteland where he now stood had to be somewhere else, but everyone was telling him that the grey skies of this world were the white skies of FAB-48. Its frozen oceans were boiling. Snowcapped peaks bordering the horizon were erupting molten rock. In the sky, where there should have been two stars, one shone intensely. As this red star grew bigger in the sky, it got hotter on FAB-48’s surface. He thought about taking a layer off, but there was too much work to do. They had to rebuild camp after harsh winds blew away anything not tied down. He looked up again to see an eye looking right back at him. Its blink blew away FAB-48’s atmosphere and sent him hurdling into space.
Another jolt and he was awake. Where was he? That’s right, he told himself. FAB-48 had its atmosphere blown away by Fibonacci B and me along with it. His heads-up display showed him the suit had been active for eight days. Ever since its activation on FAB-48 when Fibonacci B began to go supernova. He could really go for some grilled crab before the suit put him back under.
FAB-12. Everything was on fire. It had just formed as a planet and was still cooling. Readings were promising that this would turn out be a fine Earth-class planet someday. But why send a man to a planet that wouldn’t cool for millions of years? The normal bluish light of the sky turned a blood red. He looked up to see a Fibonacci A become engulfed by an expanding Fibonacci B. The red star expanded into FAB-12’s atmosphere and threatened to crush him. He put his hands up to try and halt the great ball of fire. The weight of the star shot him into the planet. He saw the stone around him crack and shoot off into space. Then Fibonacci B opened its mouth and bit him in half.
The nightmare startled him awake, but a pain in his lower back kept him from immediately falling back asleep. The display showed four months had passed. The star map couldn’t triangulate his position. He missed living on FAB-12, despite the heat. A message showed itself to him on the heads-up display.
“ATTENTION ANY FIBONACCI SURVIVORS: PLEASE RESPOND!”
As he began to record a response, he blacked out.
Earth. Though he had never been there, he’d heard countless stories. Years after the Fibonacci system was designated safe for colonization, he left for Earth and fished for shrimp and crab. What were other planets compared to Man’s first home? Suddenly a loud crack broke in the sky and his boat was rocked at once. Before it could steady, it was shot into the sky and out into space. The immediate sensation of not being able to breathe in sent him into a wave of panic. Blood pooled in his head and shook him awake again.
The distant butterfly-shaped glow that greeted him as he woke was obviously what the Fibonacci system had become. Heads-up display read eighteen months since activation. An indicator message explained that the SOS message would continue to transmit, but energy that could be directed to sending and receiving messages and other manual inputs would be diverted to life support. Operating like this, the suit and survival program should remain functional for another two years. The map was able to pinpoint his location now, using photos received from a deep space probe sent into the Delta Sector. He had just entered the furthest known region of the galaxy.
Darkness. Swimming up, he saw black shores. His first view of dry land was met by a spear piercing the center of his crustacean shell.
A jolt, met with a less intense, but gravely more terrifying darkness…