This story is by Dylan McIntosh and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“3… 2…. 1….”
The brown and orange leaves, which she had thrown into the air, fell around us. I smiled as she danced as the leaves rained down. A brown leaf descended in slow motion twisting and turning as it fell until it was tanged in her hair.
I attempted to raise my arm to remove the leaf, but it seems impossible. The weight of my arm is too much so I give up. Looking at her soothing blue eyes, she smiles at me. I returned the smile and the sun reflected off the visor, lighting her face up even more brightly. The reflection forced me to blink my tearing eyes and turn away from her photograph.
The force of acceleration pushed me deeper into the seat, bringing the realization that I had exceeded mach thirty. Darkness creeped into the edges of my vision making me acutely aware that I was close to blacking out. NASA has control of the ship for another three minutes until the ship moves beyond the stratosphere. At that point, the Earth’s gravitational pull will recede and I can move freely. Darkness continues to cloud my vision and I blinked several times to fight consciousness.
In the dark distance, I heard her soft voice, “Marty…..”
A sudden shaking rocked the ship and the adrenaline cleared my vision. I looked around trying to gather what was happening. “Explorer III, this is Mission Control. Commander Robbins, we have detected an anomaly, can you confirm?”
“Mission Control, I can confirm. The ship feels like it’s shaking apart. Any idea where the vibration is coming from? Better yet, do I need to worry?”
“Negative, Commander. You are forty five seconds from booster detachment and we are ninety eight percent positive the vibration will clear up.”
“Great.” I replied sarcastically. The vibration continued but appeared to have stabilized. Scanning the displays, there is no fault indication so I looked towards Shelly’s picture taped on the cockpit window. Her smile and soul searching eyes were enough to calm me down in what could be the last thing that I would ever do.
The ear receiver clicked, “Explorer III, this is Mission Control. Ten seconds until second stage booster detachment. Please prepare.” I laughed out loud and gripped the seat handle harder, which was the only preparation I could do for my potential doom. “Explorer III, countdown commencing, 3, 2, 1, detachment.”
I heard the loud click in the silence as the acceleration thrust suddenly died off. The clamps released and the boosters began their descent back to Earth to splash harmlessly in the Atlantic Ocean. I noticed the vibrations subsided but it wasn’t enough to calm my heavily beating heart. Maybe the launch in the colder fall temperatures wasn’t the best of ideas.
“Mission Control, Explorer III, Stage two booster rockets have detached and the vibration is no longer apparent,” I reported.
“Excellent news, Explorer III, we had a suspicion that it may be the booster clamp bolts that may have shook loose during the launch.”
“Thanks, Tom. A bit scary for me,” I told Thomas Myers, who was my best friend. He had introduced me to Shelly when we were all in college. She had been in his Thermodynamics class and he thought we would hit it off, which proved to be correct.
“Marty, I was scared for you. Everyone in the room had our fingers crossed and prayers were flying to every known God.”
I had spent two year working next to every person in the room with Tom preparing for this mission. Every one of them came to our wedding. They had the hardest job getting me off Earth, now I get to complete the rest of the mission. Physically alone, but never alone as their voices were to be my companions for the next several years as I travelled further in our solar system than any other human.
“Thanks Tom and your crew! I’m ready to settle in for the long trip,” I replied. After a long exhale, I could finally relax. The dangerous part of the trip was over and the long solitary journey was only beginning. An uneasy feeling reached my stomach indicating gravity has finally given up on me and weightlessness was achieved.
I took a deep breath, but knew that I was through the last of it. I heard a beep, glanced at the display and discovered the next maneuver was about to happen. Tugging the seat harness tighter, the engines engaged and the ship turned into orbit around the Earth. The flight plan called for three orbits with an engine burn each time to increase speed to propel me towards the destination with as much speed as possible to use the least amount of fuel for potential return home.
The force of the engine burn pinned me against the seat another time. It would be three bursts at ten seconds each. I sat back and just waited as Mission Control completed the path trajectory of the flight plan. I faced the photograph of Shelly as I waited for the second and final burn. I remembered the look on her face the last time I saw her. She knew that this was a one way trip. However she encouraged me to go; even as I resisted not wanting to leave her. She made me promise that I would fulfill my dream to be the first human to travel beyond our solar system. I still remember our last day together as one that will remain forever engraved in my mind.
The second engine burn took place and the velocity pushed me against the seat unexpectedly. My head slammed back into the headrest as I bit my lip. I mutely cursed Tom for not reminding me. Unsure of the speed, I couldn’t seem to pull my head up to see the acceleration readout.
“Explorer III, this is Mission Control. Ten seconds until final burn. You’ll feel the Gs rise again, Marty. Don’t worry, no one will make fun of you if you black out. The human body can only take so much.”
I could barely bring myself to laugh before the final burn took place. This acceleration pushed me even further into the padding of the pilot’s chair that I felt as if I was merging into the metal frame of the chair. The acceleration force pushed the skin on my face back and I closed my eyes involuntarily. The darkness was creeping up on me and I could barely hear the radio through the fog.
“Explorer III, mission control, Marty, are you still with us?” The voice faded out as total darkness closed in around me and I couldn’t tell if my eyes were opened or closed.
“Marty?” A voice reached me from outside the darkness and I blinked several times, my eyes suddenly opening. “Promise me, Marty, that when you are flying among the stars that you will remember me.”
I see her lying on the hospital bed, her eyes bright and peering into my soul. She had the same smile as she did on that fall day when we raked the piles of leaves in our yard, but her face was gaunter than before. Her long flowing hair missing and she wore a blue knit cap to keep her head warm. Her hand reached up to me, the tubes from her IVs dangling. I took her hand and she squeezed mine weakly. I stood up from the chair and sat down on the bed next to her. I used my free hand and gently caressed her face. “Shelly, there is no need to promise. I will never forget you, even when I’m speeding towards the heavens.”
“Please, Marty. I need this,” she pleaded.
I took several long seconds before responding. “Shelly, I promise. I promise that I will always remember you,” I told her knowing that I spoke truly. I leaned over and kissed her. I felt the acceleration beginning to subside. I wasn’t ready to leave this memory and I sure wasn’t ready to leave her again.
She gave me a faint smile and I glimpsed a tear escape her eye.
“Thank you, Marty. I love you.”
I watched as she closed her eyes and visibly relaxed. My own tears began to fall. I hadn’t wanted to leave her after she became ill, but the desire for her not to leave me was even stronger. Her grip released and I watched as her hand fell back to the bed, reminiscent of leaves falling from trees. I heard her final exhale but unsure if it was my own sob or not; the beeping from the heart monitor was becoming irritating. Blinking the tears away, I reopen my eyes to see the indicator blinking from the control panel noting that the Explorer had left orbit. Reaching up, I silenced the alarm and unbuckled my seatbelt. Standing up, I glanced towards her photograph and smiled.
“I love you, too.”