2nd place | ADC Sci-Fi Writing Competition | International Category

 

Story by Ian T. Brown


She saw a flash. Small, no wider than a star at night, but bright. She felt a chill—not from the brightness, but the knowledge that the flash was somewhere it shouldn’t be. Not in the deep black, with the other stars. There, where the painfully deep blue expanse touched the green-brown. Her knees weakened. Were it not for the 0.166 g, she would have fallen—

 

There was a flash at the edge of the telescope’s eyepiece, washing out the black around Arcturus so that she had to pull away. She looked up past the telescope tube, and there it was, a brilliant point of light. So bright. A part of her brain told her it was too bright, but she couldn’t look away. Because that flash was somewhere it shouldn’t be—in a part of the deep black where there were no other stars. Yet there was a new star now. She turned. “Daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaad!”

The following days were a blur of attempted explanation by her teachers at school and by talking heads everywhere else. But her dad made the most sense. “God’s bank shot,” he called it. Whipping through the ecliptic plane at hypervelocity, some thing from outside the solar system had vaporized a tenant of the Asteroid Belt in atomic glory. That was her new star. It got murkier after that. Her dad explained how radiation caused ablation, and ablation caused ejecta, and ejecta could put a stellar body in motion. These were new and strange words for her. But there was one thing on which her father and humanity agreed, and she felt it with the burning clarity of a nova: Psyche is coming. 16 Psyche, a monster of the Belt, its bounty able to fuel industry on Earth and expansion across the solar system, had been roasted by radiation from the collision, and shedding that roasted surface into space, it rolled, gently, perfectly, toward Earth.

“Dad, is what they’re talking about really possible? No one’s ever done it.”

“That doesn’t mean it’s impossible. And it could change everything. It’s a gift—enough for everybody! And we have to do it together. You cling to your squabbles down the gravity well, you lose out! Psyche is coming, on a path so beautiful and gentle that we couldn’t have planned it better ourselves. We just have to go up there and catch it!”

“I’m gonna do it, Dad. I’m going up there. I’ll catch it.”

“I know, Kaylee.”

 

There had been pressure on her hand. Between her fingers. She’d forgotten the pressure was there, until it relaxed. She couldn’t bring herself to look down yet. So she stared for another second at the blue, and brown, and green. Just the one flash. Maybe that would be it. The pressure relaxed more. She could feel the other fingers slipping, sliding—

 

Hot Dog slid his fingers out of hers to cover his mouth. Just a little too late; what had been inside bulged out, through his fingers, and around the cabin in small, morphing blobs.

Damn it, Hot Dog! Every time! Stop eating before the hop!” Pea screamed variations of this theme every time the four of them went up in G-FORCE THREE, the “Vomit Comet” of Kaylee’s astronaut generation. Though, if past was prologue, Hot Dog would forget as soon as they landed, putrid stains on his flight suit—and those of his crewmates—notwithstanding. It was funny how Pea’s rage made her diminutive frame seem bigger. On their first training day, Pea had made the mistake of arrogantly announcing that back in the People’s Liberation Army Air Force, her callsign was “Peafowl,” a tribute to flying skills that matched one of China’s first female fighter pilots. Her classmates looked at the baggy flight suit on her small body, looked at each other, and promptly named her “Pea.” Pea had simmered over this until their cadre’s first flight in G-FORCE THREE and Hot Dog’s bilious debut. Their cadre quickly shifted targets, hanging Hot Dog with the moniker of his stomach contents, and Pea realized there were worse callsigns than hers.

“What’re you smiling at, Kaylee?” She realized her amusement at Pea’s diatribe was manifest on her face. She faced the speaker.

“Just the usual, Lev,” she replied. “You know, how you could set a clock by Hot Dog’s stomach.”

“Or Pea’s sunny disposition,” Lev said, returning the smile. She and Lev had quickly bonded over their shared aptitude for fixing things. In a private moment to her friends, she’d confessed her father’s nickname for her: “Kaylee,” after an old sci-fi starship mechanic equally capable of resurrecting dead machines. Naturally the nickname went public, but her indisputable skills ensured it was said with admiration. Lev was equally handy, though the first time they’d been in the repair simulator, a particularly troublesome servo had exhausted his patience. “This is how we fix things in Russia!” he’d yelled, smashing his clipboard against the servo. Stung, the servo whirred back to life, and Hot Dog blandly noted the similarities to the repair techniques of another Russian cosmonaut he’d seen in an old movie. It was “Lev” from thereon out.

“Okay, ensigns, grab a pipe, gravity’s coming back,” called G-FORCE THREE’s commander over the intercom. Kaylee and Lev grabbed the nearest handholds. Pea was latched on to the opposite side of the cabin, glaring at Hot Dog as his legs went slack from earth’s pull reasserting itself. Hot Dog was glassy-eyed and pale, but once the plane leveled off, he turned back to Pea and asked, without a hint of irony: “You hungry?”

 

The pressure was gone. Which meant he was too. I can’t look. If I look, it comes true. But someone should honor that truth. Twisting her body slightly, she looked down. Her eyes blurred—

Sweat poured down Kaylee’s brow, its salty sting blurring her vision. She blinked hard to clear it. The display hadn’t changed. Still leaking. God, it’s still leaking. Mechanically she reached for the patch kit, knowing it didn’t matter. She’d already used three. It wasn’t leaking anywhere she could reach. Which meant it was behind the paneling, the ductwork—structural. Any minute … any second—

“Lieutenant, should I come in there?” It was Davis, his voice quivering. He was brand new to the Catcher’s Mitt, the deep-space leviathan humanity was crafting to make Psyche its own. He didn’t want to come in. She couldn’t blame him. And there was no reason to order him to. If her compartment blew, she’d die, but the rest of the Mitt would be fine. But the second he opened the airlock, he risked the bulkhead going and decompressing much more than her cabin. She wouldn’t let him do it.

“Ensign Davis, you stay right there. Pea—“ Kaylee quickly corrected herself—“Lieutenant Xu’s team will be here any”—and then she was flung backward. The cabin became a big circle of light in space’s vacuum, and the circle rapidly shrank. The tether—her body jerked, her spine bending the wrong way, and she knew the anchor was gone. Distantly, she registered her suit’s AI screaming about breached suit integrity, damaged O2 tank, decreasing atmospheric pressure—

As suddenly as she’d been flung into the dark, she slowed, then stopped. She felt the tap of faceplate-on-faceplate to establish a local communications circuit.

“Caught you,” said Lev quietly. Despite the vac-suit’s thickness, she sensed the pressure of Lev slapping seals on the damaged areas. She stayed still, partly to let Lev finish the repairs and partly to savor the fact that she wasn’t dead. Lev—EVA pack. Anticipated my worst-case scenario trajectory perfectly. God, he’s smart. Looking back at the hole in the cabin wall, she saw the light dimming with each passing second as hull patches were laid into place. Davis, on the ball. Pea’s crew is there, too.

She swept her eyes across the rest of the Catcher’s Mitt. The Mitt’s pieces had more technical names, of course—the elongated central tube housing the ablation deceleration laser that would patiently slow Psyche’s approach; the other tubes that housed people, life support, future mining equipment, and micro-asteroid point defense lasers, spreading out from the thick power plant module like fingers from a wrist; and the blossoming petals of the Space-Based Solar Power system behind it all, its thin panels, when viewed from the front, like webbing between all the fingers. Like a catcher’s mitt. To decelerate Psyche, grab it and guide it around Earth, pull out its bounty and share it with the world. Just like I told Dad—I’ll catch it.

Thinking of her father snapped her back to reality. “Thanks for the assist,” she said, her voice subdued. “That’s enough excitement for my last day. Ready to find an airlock when you are.” Lev nodded inside his helmet and smiled.

“You nearly missed your ride back to Tranquility,” he noted innocently.

“Well, I won’t chance it again,” she said as Lev’s EVA jets guided them back to the nearest maintenance airlock. She glanced at the shuttle docked on the Mitt’s far side. In 12 hours, she’d ride it to the Moon’s Tranquility Base for her end-of-tour rotation back to Earth. Beyond the shuttle’s exhaust nozzle was the tiny, dime-sized blue marble of home. “Soon as I get inside, I’m grabbing my stuff and sleeping on the shuttle—just to be sure.”

 

She looked. The truth of it was like an icicle through her heart. Then she realized that the air around her was indeed getting colder. Chill touched her fingertips and toes. Her vision blurred further. Across the smudged blue and brown and green, she saw other lights now. Flash. Pause. Flash. Flash. Pause. Blinking like lazy Christmas lights. On, off, pulsing—

 

The pulsing backlight on Kaylee’s handheld woke her. It was a short message from her mom: OMG, Sou Dannity said last night that Russia and China teaming with Quds dead-enders & Anteefa 2.0 to poison food shipments to Moon! U feeling OK? I know some of those people are your friends—but u know I worry. Just want you home safe—watch out! —. Mom was always like this now, ever since Dad passed. No balance. Though her mom’s attitude was hardly unique back home. Most messages from earthside held the same malignant undercurrent. It was like the closer Psyche got, the harder people tried to destroy the unity, the progress, the goodness that had come from that first decision, a lifetime ago, to join and share the windfall that the cosmos was dropping in their laps. It was pointless rage—no nation could do this mission alone. But the voices back home forgot this fundamental truth, or didn’t care.

Her mood dark, she washed, dressed, and headed to the operations center. An ensign noticed her entrance and called out, “XO on deck!” The duty officer approached her, passing her the duty handheld. “Good morning, Commander. Tranquility is secure. Last status report from the Mitt was 12 minutes ago—they’re secure, laser is ops normal. Their updated intercept for Psyche is 2 days, 5 hours, 41 minutes.” Nodding her thanks, Kaylee scrolled down the screen. The data feeds from Tranquility Base and the Mitt all looked good—physical systems normal, supplies well-stocked, no serious medical problems in any personnel, all shuttles full mission capable.

Reaching the bottom of the screen, she hesitated. Since assuming XO duties, she’d asked that the duty report include media feeds related to the Psyche mission to help identify themes that, given Tranquility’s multinational composition, might impact the performance of her people. For years, such stories shared a vibrant optimism. But as passing months brought Psyche’s intercept closer to reality, the stories changed. Governments shifted from chest-thumping to complaining about other countries not pulling their weight. Puff pieces turned to hit jobs. Then there were the rumors like the stuff her mother forwarded her. Each day, the narrative darkened.

She scrolled to the bottom. There was the Dannity story; an ITAR-TASS piece blaming the failure of the latest lunar supply rocket on a cyberattack originating “somewhere” in northeast Asia; and a Xinhua “documentary” on historic alcohol consumption among Russian cosmonauts. She passed the handheld back to the duty officer with a terse nod. Looking around the operations center, she saw Lev bent over a console with his logistics chief. He glanced up, waved, turned back. Pea was alone, staring at a flatscreen display and its live feed from the telescope monitoring the Mitt. Bouncing lightly, she moved to Pea’s side.

“Kaylee,” greeted Pea quietly, eyes fixed on the display. As Tranquility’s senior security officer, Pea felt responsible for all she could see, which included the massive deep-space facility, millions of miles away, preparing to catch Psyche. “Anything good on the blotter?”

“You hacked the Russians, Lev’s a drunk, and you’ve both teamed up with dead-end extremists and bored college students to poison our chow,” she replied.

“Joke’s on the students,” Pea said acidly. “Poison would improve the food’s taste immensely.” Pea touched the monitor, zooming in on the Mitt’s ablation laser housing. “Any word from Hot Dog?”

“Nothing outside normal channels over the last day.” It was still crazy to think of Hot Dog as second-in-command of the Mitt. But he knew how to motivate and care for people, and as for his past issues in zero-g, well, it turned out he had an iron will that proved stronger than his stomach. Pea nodded and finally looked at her. “So long as we’re still on normal channels, everything’s good—” and a blinding white flash from the monitor turned the room incandescent.

Kaylee opened her eyes, and for a terrible second thought she was blind. After a few blinks, she realized she wasn’t blind, but her eyes burned from an intense afterglow that blocked out everything else. Vertigo washed over her, and she stumbled, smashed a leg into a nearby console, and started to fall. Arms caught her and guided her to a chair. Incoherent yelling filled the operations center, until she heard one voice screaming for everyone else to shut up. They did, and then that voice began issuing calm, crisp commands. Pea. God love her. Best in a crisis. She can handle it until I … I … She tried to rise from the chair and failed.

“Just sit,” said Lev’s voice. “We’ve got this. CO’s on his way over right now. You need to get to the sickbay anyway—”

“I’ll be … fine,” she grimaced, not entirely convinced that was true. “Yes. Sickbay. But first, what … what happened?” Lev didn’t answer. “Lev … what happened,” she repeated. Lev finally spoke, a despondent chord in his voice.

“Best we can tell, Kaylee—the Mitt is gone.”

 

Days passed in a blur. The Mitt was free-floating atoms; radar sweeps from both Tranquility Base and Earth confirmed it. No one knew what had happened. That didn’t stop the rage and accusations from metastasizing earthside. Psyche was past the Mitt’s intended intercept point now, and though the Mitt’s laser had spent years slowing it down, the giant rock was still going just a bit too fast for Earth’s gravity to capture it. No two governments agreed on what to do, and the time something could be done was dwindling.

Then there were the secret messages. Lev and Pea had both approached her to let her know that their governments had sent secret orders to prepare to take control of Tranquility Base “for the sake of national security.” She received a similar message from her own government shortly thereafter. She found laughable the notion that Lev or Pea were a threat to anyone’s national security. But the window for them to control their own destiny was closing, as each hour brought increasingly strident and incompatible “requests” from Earth.

That was why the CO had called the senior staff together and told them he was done fielding “requests.” They were evacuating. They would return to Earth, prevent further loss of life, let the governments sort it out from there. Hot Dog was gone. The Mitt crew was gone. No one else had to die. No one argued the point.

She’d felt immense relief until the CO asked her, Lev, and Pea to stay back after the meeting. When the CO spoke, the relief left her. He had received message traffic from a channel he would not name, but said he trusted. The message claimed some of the newest arrivals to Tranquility had come with manipulated background checks. There were no names, just an arrival window. But he was taking no chances. Pea was to immediately assign security personnel to those names who matched the arrival window and monitor them through the evacuation process. There was no time to trace this group’s activities since showing up, but they could be kept from any further mischief.

As for the evacuation itself, she, Pea, and Lev were to precede the assigned crews for the shuttles, pre-flight the craft themselves, and stay with them until launch. Right now, the CO had said, they were the only three people he trusted completely. So now she and her friends were sprinting to the airlock near the landing platforms. Lev had just finished cross-checking the seal on her helmet when the CO’s voice came over her radio.

“Just got another message from my back channel. We got specific names— She could hear noises in the background. There was arguing, shouting. “—most of them in one place, but three are missing. We need the shuttles ready immediately.”

They were out of the airlock and bounce-sprinting to the launch pads. She heard more shouting and then the sound of something heavy hitting a bulkhead. The CO’s words became breathless and choppy. “—the master chief to guard—rest of the crew to you.” There was a loud crash, and then screaming. Pea was gaining distance ahead of them, somehow at a dead run despite the low gravity. “Wait—new message. Jesus—plosives. In—center—environ—racks and power—shutt—NO!” This last exclamation was cut short by the distinctive and ear-splitting sound of a gunshot. The channel went dead.

“Kaylee—God, what the hell is happening back there?” said Lev through clenched jaws.

“Nothing good,” she replied. “Stick to the CO’s orders, get to the shuttles to evacuate whoever’s left. Look, Pea’s already at the pads.” Pea was a full football field ahead of them, only a few more bounce-sprints to the closest shuttle.

Something flashed to her left. She turned and stopped, stunned, as in the distance a white-hot column of flame leapt from the power plant. Then another. There was a fireball from the operations center, and—she looked at Lev. No words came. Pea was far ahead of them. Then as one, the shuttles blossomed in fire, and Kaylee was tumbling backward across the moon-dust, and regolith came up to meet her.

She opened her eyes, pushed herself up on her hands. “Lev,” she croaked. No answer. On her knees now. Her faceplate was streaked with regolith. She brushed it off, and a few yards away she saw Lev, lying on his back. Motionless—no, he was moving, slowly, but moving. Pea. Where—

All the shuttles were gone. There was nothing recognizable, only blackened ground, scattered chunks of charred debris, here and there something still burning. Pea. No sign—and then she saw something recognizable. Barely. Nothing to be done. She turned away. Lev was struggling to his feet. She pressed her faceplate to his.

“Pea’s gone,” she said simply. “Are you okay?” His face held a grimness she’d never seen before.

“I’m venting,” he replied quietly. “AI shows multiple tears, cracked O2 tanks, damaged CO2 filters. Something smashed into my back in the explosion.” His gaze swept the launch-pads and the other buildings behind her. “Kaylee, it’s not going to matter anyway.”

She followed his eyes. The power plant was still spewing columns of white-hot flame into the black sky. The operations center, barracks, environmental support—whatever had been done to them, it was thorough. A years-long repair project, if it ever happened, and of no help right now if it did.

“Lev … how long?” she whispered.

“A few minutes. I … Kaylee …” She watched him struggle to find words, failing. Finally: “Let’s just look at Earth, Kaylee. Hold my hand. We’ll just look. We may even see Psyche’s transit, right? It’s getting close. We’ll look, and hope everyone back home can figure out a new future.”

She nodded wordlessly, took his hand, and slid her eyes from the grayness around them, up through the deep black, to their world. Even through the thick gloves, she felt his grip. Strong. Tight. Like he hoped to take that feeling with him. When he—

On Earth’s face, she saw a flash. Small, like a star at night. So bright. Part of her mind told her that it was too bright, to look away, but still she stared. A chill gripped her body, driven by the knowledge that the flash was somewhere it shouldn’t be. Not in the deep black, with the other stars. There, where the painfully deep blue expanse touched the green-brown. Shining with a star’s atomic glory. Her knees weakened. Were it not for the Moon’s tenuous pull, she would have fallen. The flash was bright … brighter … gone.

There had been pressure between her fingers. She’d forgotten the pressure was there, until it relaxed. She couldn’t bring herself to look down. Not yet. So she stared for another second at the blue and brown and green of home. Just the one flash. Maybe that would be it. Just the one … the pressure relaxed more. Even through the thick gloves, she thought she could feel the other fingers slipping, sliding—

The pressure was gone. Which meant Lev was, too. I can’t look. I can’t. If I look, it comes true. But someone should honor that truth. She was the only one who could. Her eyes blurred. She turned her head, twisted her body slightly, looked down—

She looked, and the truth of it was like an icicle through her heart. Lev was lying on his back, the hand she’d been holding now splayed gently across his waist. After a few seconds, she realized that the air around her was indeed getting colder. There was already a deeper chill in her fingertips and toes. She checked her read-outs. No alerts, but the suit’s internal temperature had decreased slightly. There was a micro-tear somewhere. Hardly surprising, given the violence of  the shuttle’s explosion. Didn’t matter. Even if she fixed it, there was no shelter to seek.

Her vision blurred further, cool tears streaming down her cheeks. And then, on the smudged blue and brown and green reflection of Earth warped across Lev’s faceplate, she saw more lights. Flash. Pause. Flash. Flash. Pause. Flash. Wrenching her eyes away from Lev, she looked earthward. Each flash like a new star, quickly born, quickly dying, blinking like lazy Christmas lights, pulsing on, off, on, atomic glory in each—

The pauses between got shorter, until she couldn’t tell when one stopped and the next started. It was almost beautiful. And then a black shadow crossed Earth’s curvature, blotting out the flashes in its passage, smoothly and silently gliding across the sphere like a hand waving in front of her eyes. Psyche. So close. Humanity’s great goal ever since she’d been a child. Psyche had come. And a few seconds later, Psyche was gone.

Harder and harder to see. Not from crying—no tears left—but condensation inside her faceplate. Much colder now. She tried moving her fingers, tried to walk. It was all numb. With the faceplate fogged up, she felt sudden vertigo, couldn’t tell if she was upright or falling through the vacuum to lie next to Lev. No sense of time. No sense of motion. No senses left. Just a thought: I’m sorry, Dad. I didn’t catch it.