FOR THE 2017 48-HOUR FLASH FICTION CHALLENGE, HOSTED BY SCI-FI LONDON
TRAPPIST-1 Artist Impression
Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser (martin-kornmesser.de)

“This is Captain Janice Harpe of the Odysseus in orbit around TRAPPIST-1d,” she pauses for breath. The report she was trained to make all those years ago clings to her throat. She was a young child when the first of the ships left Earth. Her home, as she came to know it, was on Colony-5, before it was stripped of its resources and skilled and left to drift somewhere outside the Oort Cloud. She was sent for training on Colony-2 after her physical examination revealed her unsuited for the general population. She was lucky.

“We arrived in the Trappist system five months ago. At first, we scouted it; tracked the planets’ orbits, collected data on their atmospheres, or lack thereof, and looked for signs of water. As suspected, D was our best hope,” Janice pauses and tucks a stray lock of her black hair behind her ear. It has been weeks since their last contact with the other teams or with Colony-1. She rubs her eyes with her thumb and index; artificial lighting never agreed with her. She pulls in a deep breath, along with the smell of surface cleaner, before continuing her report.

“It’s as perfect a second home as we’ll get, if you don’t mind the year-long or so occultation from C, and the freezing temperatures it causes… We don’t have a choice.” She looks up, over the camera and out through the porthole above the cold aluminium desk. She slides her hands under the base of her laptop stand for warmth.

“Jan, you ready?” Herman asks in passing by the quarter’s open hatch. A despairing sigh escapes through her nostrils. She presses the blue button on the screen and the recording shrinks, replaced by a green box with the text ‘probe sent’ in bold letters. Her hands quiver and her legs feel weak.

“Coming,” she moans as she pushes herself down and out from under her chair’s bar. One thing she looks forward to on their expedition is gravity. She pulls her body around, then gently kicks off from the wall. Part of her resists the thrust, wanting to stay in orbit. She thinks a short farewell to the ship that has been their home for the last ten years. The gravity was the first to go, two and a half years ago, and neither of them knew what was wrong with the revolving mechanism that kept them upright, unless they made any fast movements.

“Let’s see what it’s like down there and get it over with. I wanna get back to Colony-1,” she huffs as she manoeuvres behind Herman through the ship. She knows it will be a few months before the generation ship arrives in the system, but it has been so long she can hardly remember what life was like among other people. With the fuel run out, the ship is stuck in orbit, with only enough to keep it stabilised for another week.

“Know what you gon’ say when we drop?” he asks over his shoulder. Herman was the enthusiastic scientist who volunteered for the program and dragged her into it. She resents him for that.

“One more leap for mankind.” What better call, she thinks. Humanity ruined its first, and desperately seeks a second.

“You jokin’, righ’?” They brace against the shuttle hatch. He looks to her. She smiles, then slides into a suit. “Righ’?!” he asks again but meets with a wave of her hand. It would be honest to say, Janice remarks; humanity’s next step is its last, if the data is any indicator. She spins the hatch door wheel and pulls at it with her feet hooked on a bar bolted to the wall on the left.

“After you, m’lady,” she gestures for Herman to drift through. She contemplates shutting him in alone, letting him drop to the planet without hope of return or any guarantee Colony-1 will pick him up. He grunts before grabbing the belt on the door from its feeder and kicks himself into the shuttle. The ship won’t survive as long as they would on the planet, she amends to her thought. She navigates around and follows, settling into the pilot’s seat. Herman tucks his feet under a bar on the floor and pulls the hatch shut. The clang against the frame makes her shoulders jump in tension. The sound of no return.

“Looks pretty serene, huh?” he says as he slides into the seat and begins flicking the switches at the co-pilot helm to her right. She looks up at the thermal glass, first seeing her reflection. She raises her arm and runs her hand over her bound hair.

“When did I get so grey?” she mumbles.

“Those few streaks?” Herman shrugs. “Makes you look bad-arsed.” Janice snorts and winks at him. He stretches his hand out and catches the air, then brings his fist to his chest. Sometimes, he was worth having around. She shakes her head and wraps her hand around a lever, watching the dancing greens and yellows just south of the northern pole.

“It feels like a hundred miles an hour but we’re not even moving,” she whispers. A direct view of the surface of uncertainty reflects on her concept of reality and her place within it.

“What’s that?”

“Nothing, love,” she smiles, “just a random thought.” She pushes the lever up. The shuttle detaches from the ship in orbit around the third planet from the sun, assigned to them, and drifts away from the dock. She looks to the planet’s horizon in a thought of the two other teams, sent to E and F for the same reasons. The flat nose of the shuttle pulls down, looking to the surface of the brown planet below, gaining speed sans propulsion. “Steady, now,” Janice says to the shuttle as she taps the reverse thruster buttons.

“She’s diving good,” Herman says, half of his face covered with a gas mask under his helmet. He glares at her. “100kms above ground.”

“Yeah, yeah. Now-now.” She faces the viewport again. If the shuttle is compromised, there is nothing a helmet can do to save her, let alone an air mask, she wants to argue.

“Entry in one minute,” Herman says after clearing his throat. Janice rolls her eyes then presses the button on the side of her helmet until the glass retracts over her head, grabs the translucent mask inside, and fits it over her face.

“Happy now?” She frowns. He nods then returns to his monitors. The shuttle resists her control and trembles as it pierces into D’s thin atmosphere. Veils of red-orange light flashes passed the viewport. Janice strains to keep it from spinning out of control. The cone-sphere shape of it makes her job easier. Raging flames of magenta hurl across each port tube. The shuttle shakes the couple in their seats.

Janice reaches her hand over the seat’s arm. Herman grips her gloved hand in his. She closes her eyes for a moment and rests her left hand over her pelvis where no success has been achieved; the cause of their acceptance into the program. Three minutes of fury feels like hours. She tightens her grip. She hates atmospheric entry. The purple fury dies down to an orange flutter, then to a clear plane of earth far below.

“No clouds,” Janice sighs, “as expected.”

“None here, yeah. Maybe on the other side, or on the GM line?” Herman points his thumb to the side of the shuttle.

“Ever the optimist, hmm?”

“One o’ us gotta be,” Herman’s words trail off. Janice ignores his quip. Months of isolation has put a strain on their marriage, more than either of them expected. “Subsonic.”

“Got it.” Janice taps at the buttons again and steers the shuttle to their target near the GM line dividing the ‘bright’ from the ‘dark’ faces of the planet, as it became colloquially known. “Rivers?” she asks pointing to the streaks of dull blue on the surface.

“Hey! There’s hope for us yet!” Herman shouts. Janice tugs a corner of her mouth up in a pretence of joy. “Get ready. Deploying parachutes in five…” Janice pulls out the steering wheel from the helm and braces while Herman counts down. They slam forward against their safety belts, look to one another, and break out in a laugh.

“Jan!” Herman screams. She looks up and gasps as she pulls back on the wheel before turning it to the left. The steep cliff zips passed the viewport to Herman’s side. “That was close. Let’s not do that again, ’kay?” Janice struggles to steady the shuttle and brings it down to land across a streak of a flat rocky mountain. It’s final, she sighs in thought, feeling her eyes swell—they are under the dependence of aide from Colony-1. She turns to him.

“Got the cam?” she asks. She releases her safety belts’ clip and stands up. Her knees wobble. She holds onto the back of her seat for balance. “Not as bad as I expected.”

“Gravity’s not so strong here as Colony at least,” Herman says, pulling out a digital camera from the pocket behind his seat. He reigns it over his head and walks to her in stagger. “Ready?”

“No choice in the matter.” She shrugs. She turns the hatch door wheel and a hiss escapes as the seal breaks. She looks to Herman and nods. She pulls in a deep breath then climbs down the step-ladder hanging from the foot of the frame.

“Say it, Jan,” Herman urges as her boot meets with the ground below. She looks up to him and sees the beginning of an eclipse behind the shuttle. Dread and regret descend on her.

“We’re done for.”

“What?! No, no. Let’s try that again.”

“Its beauty will be our end,” she says and shakes her head, “it’s already getting cold.”

“We got tech, we can survive.”

“It’s over. Colony-1 is better off trying somewhere else.”

“What d’you mean, Jan?”

“In a few days, both faces will be dark and freezing, for about twelve to thirteen months. The planets are too close. We won’t make it.” She looks up to where she thinks the ship is in orbit. The regret deepens. Was it better to stay until it finally plummets to the ground, and die quickly? Herman follows her gaze. He drops his head and glares at her with his brows furrowed.

“We’re not going back home, are we?” he asks, unsure of whether he wants to know her thoughts. She stays unmoving, staring at the black-crescent red sun. Her helmet’s auto-tint hides her intent. “Jan?” he asks with a trembling voice. The optimist in him didn’t prepare for the chance they would be stranded, despite knowing the risks.

“How long ’til Colony gets here, do you think?” she asks.

“Dunno, maybe in ’bout a month? Why?”

She pulls off her helmet and takes a deep breath in. She looks to Herman. Her breaths come short and fast. The scent of sand permeates her nose, reminding her of the simulated smell of rain on Colony’s VR platform. She closes her eyes as she pulls out the sidearm she tucked in her utility belt before leaving the ship; insurance kept it hidden under her laptop. She points it at him.

“Jan, please, no. Don’t do this?” he pleads with his hands up in surrender. She averts her eyes and sighs.

“Maybe not now, but it’s an option if they…”

“They will! I promise we aren’t lost.” His voice trembles, betraying the lack of confidence in his own words. Janice looks up to the sky away from the sun.

“Wonder how the others’ missions went?” she mumbles, hoping they fail as well. Their accomplishment would ensure her and Herman’s demise. His arms fold over her, forcing down the gun to her hip. His helmet slides back over his head. He presses his cheek against hers, a feeling she hasn’t experienced in years. A tear leaks out the corner of her left eye, colder than it should be.

“Find us?” she whispers a prayer to anyone listening.

 

Original:

“We arrived in the Trappist system five months ago. At first, we scouted it―tracked the planets’ orbits, collected data on their atmospheres—or lack thereof—and looked for signs of water. As suspected, D was our best hope,” Janice pauses and tucks a stray lock of her black hair behind her ear. She rubs her eyes with her thumb and index—artificial lighting never agreed with her. She pulls in a deep breath, along with the smell of surface cleaner, before continuing her report.

“It’s as perfect a second home as we’ll get, if you don’t mind the year-long or so occultation from C, and the freezing temperatures it causes… We don’t have a choice.” She looks up, over the camera and out through the porthole above the cold aluminium desk. She slides her hands under the base of her laptop stand for warmth.

“Jan, you ready?” Herman asks in passing by the quarter’s open hatch. A despairing sigh escapes through her nostrils.

“Coming,” she moans as she pushes herself down and out from under her chair’s bar. One thing she looks forward to on their expedition is gravity. She pulls her body around, then gently kicks off from the wall.

“Let’s see what it’s like down there and get it over with. I wanna get back to Colony-1,” she huffs as she manoeuvres behind Herman through the ship.

“Know what you gon’ say when we drop?” he asks over his shoulder.

“One more leap for mankind.”

“You jokin’, righ’?” They brace against the shuttle hatch. He looks to her. She smiles, then slides into a suit. “Righ’?!” he asks again but meets with a wave of her hand. It would be honest to say, Janice remarks—humanity’s next step is its last if the data is any indicator. Janice spins the hatch door wheel and pulls at it with her feet hooked on a bar bolted to the wall on the left.

“After you, m’lady,” she gestures for Herman to drift through. He grunts before grabbing the belt on the door from its feeder and kicks himself into the shuttle. She navigates around and follows, settling into the pilot’s seat. Herman tucks his feet under a bar on the floor and pulls the hatch shut.

“Looks pretty serene, huh?” he says as he slides into the seat and begins flicking the switches at the co-pilot helm to her right. She looks up at the thermal glass, first seeing her reflection. She raises her arm and runs her hand over her bound hair.

“When did I get so gray?” she mumbles.

“Those few streaks?” Herman shrugs. “Makes you look bad-arsed.” Janice snorts and winks at him. He stretches his hand out and catches the air, then brings his fist to his chest. She shakes her head and wraps her hand around a lever, watching the dancing greens and yellows just south of the northern pole.

“It feels like a hundred miles an hour but we’re not even moving,” she whispers.

“What’s that?”

“Nothing, love,” she smiles, “just a random thought.” She pushes the lever up. The shuttle detaches from the ship in orbit around TRAPPIST-1d, and drifts from the dock. The flat nose pulls down, looking to the surface of the brown planet below, gaining speed sans propulsion. “Steady, now,” Janice says to the shuttle as she taps the reverse thruster buttons.

“She’s diving good,” Herman says, half of his face covered with a gas mask under his helmet. He glares at her. “100kms above ground.”

“Yeah, yeah. Now-now.” She faces the viewport again.

“Entry in one minute,” Herman says after clearing his throat. Janice rolls her eyes then presses the button on the side of her helmet until the glass retracts over her head, grabs the mask inside, and fits it over her face.

“Happy now?” She frowns. He nods then returns to his monitors. The shuttle resists her control and trembles as it pierces into D’s thin atmosphere. Veils of red-orange light flashes passed the viewport. Janice strains to keep it from spinning out of control—the cone-sphere shape makes her job easier. Raging flames of magenta hurl around each port. The shuttle shakes the couple in their seats.

Janice reaches her hand over the seat’s arm. Herman grips her gloved hand in his. Three minutes of fury feels like hours. She tightens her grip—she hates atmospheric entry. The purple fury dies down to an orange flutter, then to a clear plane of earth far below.

“No clouds,” Janice sighs, “as expected.”

“None here, yeah. Maybe on the other side, or on the GM line?”

“Ever the optimist, hmm?”

“One o’ us gotta be,” Herman’s words trail off. Janice ignores his quip—months of isolation put a strain on their marriage, more so than either of them expected. “Subsonic.”

“Got it.” Janice taps at the buttons again and steers the shuttle to their target near the GM line dividing the ‘bright’ from the ‘dark’ faces—as it became colloquially known—of the planet. “Rivers?” she asks pointing to the streaks of dull blue on the surface.

“Hey! There’s hope for us yet!” Herman shouts. Janice tugs a corner of her mouth up in pretense of joy. “Get ready. Deploying parachutes in five…” Janice pulls out the steering wheel from the helm and braces while Herman counts down. They slam forward against their safety belts, look to one another, and break out in a laugh.

“Jan!” Herman screams. She looks up and gasps as she pulls back on the wheel before turning it to the left. The steep cliff zips passed the viewport to Herman’s side. “That was close. Let’s not do that again, ’kay?” Janice struggles to steady the shuttle and brings it down to land across a streak of a flat rocky mountain. She turns to him.

“Got the cam?” she asks. She releases her safety belts’ clip and stands up. Her knees wobble. She holds onto the back of her seat for balance. “Not as bad as I expected.”

“Gravity’s not so strong here as Colony at least,” Herman says, pulling out a digital camera from the pocket behind his seat. He reigns it over his head and walks to her in stagger. “Ready?”

“No choice in the matter.” She shrugs. She turns the hatch door wheel, a hiss escapes as the seal breaks. She looks to Herman and nods. She pulls in a deep breath then climbs down the step ladder hanging from the foot of the frame.

“Say it, Jan,” Herman urges as her boot meets with the ground below. She looks up to him and notices the beginning of an eclipse behind the shuttle.

“We’re done for.”

“What?! No, no. Let’s try that again.”

“Its beauty will be our end,” she says and shakes her head, “it’s already getting cold.”

“We got tech, we can survive.”

“It’s over. Colony-1 is better off trying somewhere else.”

“What d’you mean, Jan?”

“In a few days, both faces will be dark and freezing, for about twelve to thirteen months. The planets are too close. We won’t make it.” She looks up to where she thinks the ship is in orbit. Herman follows her gaze. He drops his head and glares at her with his brows furrowed.

“We’re not going back, are we?” he asks, unsure of whether he wants to know her answer. She stays unmoving, staring at the half-red, half-black sun. Her helmet’s auto-tint hides her intent. “Jan?” he asks with a trembling voice.

She pulls off her helmet and takes a deep breath in. She looks to Herman. Her breaths come short and fast. The scent of sand permeates her nose, reminding her of the simulated smell of rain on Colony’s VR platform. She closes her eyes as she pulls out her sidearm, and points it to him.

“Find us?”

END

Title:
LUMINOUS SKY

Dialogue:
It feels like a hundred miles an hour but we’re not even moving.

Science Theme:
A year long eclipse occurs which changes the world forever.

Word Count:
1300