For my next project, I’m going to switch genres and dabble with science fiction. This isn’t hardcore science fiction as I will focus more on the characters in the story and much less on the science; although, it will be informed by some research. Think of this as a literary expression with a scientific bent. Here’s the first chapter, which is clearly a draft, but I like to share excerpts here as a way to get feedback and engage the audience in the creation process. As always, feedback is appreciated.
The angry, red light flashed in the semi-darkness of the cockpit. Jane, the captain of the crew of hardy astronauts, stared at it hopelessly without saying the obvious words that hung between her and her crew. Exhaustion seeped from their eyes. They had reached the point where all the other missions had failed – the same point where the crews had perished in a hail of fire and an obliterated spacecraft. They held their collective breaths waiting for the punch in the face that was sure to come.
The spaceship rumbled and vibrated as the ominous light flashed in a rhythm that mimicked a doomed countdown. Jane could hear it in her head – ten, nine, eight… She tensed up and her head pounded even harder. She had a headache, one that had settled in the back of her skull and had played havoc with her thoughts since they had broken away from earth’s atmosphere. At times, the dull ache lurked in the background, but at other moments, like the one she faced now, it roared in her brain like an angry beast. Every single thought she had funneled through the ache and lost bits of resolution as it appeared in her mind. She felt muddled and lethargic at best like a beast of burden saddled with too much cargo.
Sanjay, the least experienced of the crew who had volunteered for this last-gasp mission because the alternatives were just as awful as his impending fate, watched his captain for any signs of panic. She gave none. She retained her steely gaze and emotionless demeanor, a trait he found off-putting in a woman, but he cast his biases aside and sought comfort in her reaction to their dire situation. He knew the ship needed Jane’s leadership if they were going to survive the entry into Mars’ atmosphere and the hard landing to come. If they made it that far.
Jane had never led a mission to Mars, but she had led many missions into space including an ill-fated one to the moon that had narrowly averted complete disaster thanks to her quick thinking and impeccable calm in the face of certain death. She had been hailed a hero in the Western States of America. Little girls and boys had posters of her, adorned in her crisp astronaut garb, hanging in their bedrooms. She spoke at schools, graduations, and even conferences where hardened businesspeople were reduced to tears when she told the story of how she lost the only man she had ever loved on that doomed mission. She had received many medals and countless accolades for her heroics, and she continued to travel into space as if it were just another job. She could have retired a hero with her picture in the history books and endless articles written about her, but she wanted to push the frontiers of manned space travel.
“What’s going on?” a panicked voice broke into the silence. The four crew members pivoted toward the back of the cockpit and stared wordlessly at Ava Stuart. Jane scowled before she spoke as the ship rumbled and shook as if some giant had discovered it and was attempting to shake them out of it.
“Get back to your seat and strap in!” Jane yelled after a few seconds of blank stares.
“Are we going to make it?”
Sanjay started to express his doubts, but Jane cut him off, “We’ll be fine, but you cannot be out of your seat! It’s too dangerous! Go back now!” She whipped her arm back toward Ava and pointed to the passenger compartment for emphasis.
Ava flinched and stared Jane down for a brief moment. She thought about arguing but decided against it. She pushed herself back grasping the walls along the rattling spacecraft and disappearing from the crew’s sight. She muttered to herself, angry for letting Jane speak to her so harshly. “Bitch,” she thought.
Ava had fought hard to be part of this historic mission. Initially, she had been beaten out for the two civilian slots on the ship by her arrogant and insufferable colleague Mitchell Deerdorff, but Deerdorff couldn’t handle the training and preparation for the trip, so the slot fell the Ava. She knew she was a better linguist than Deerdorff, but she couldn’t help but feel like she had been slighted professionally. The situation cast her as an underdog and sharpened an edge in her that cut the wrong way with many of her shipmates.
For her part, Jane was dismayed that Ava would even consider questioning her authority or the crew’s competence. She had not liked the idea of including two civilians on this trip, but Ava and Wally were deemed necessary if this mission to Mars was to be successful, assuming they actually made it to the surface alive. Wally proved quiet and reserved, usually doing exactly as he was told out of fear of endangering the mission. Jane liked the control she had over him. Ava challenged her, pushed her, and Jane did not like it one bit.
“Maintain position!” Jane commanded.
“We should pull back, Jane! It’s too risky!” Olivia shouted through the din of the groaning ship.
“No! We can make it!” Jane replied forcefully. She glanced at her co-pilot for a moment before she returned her focus to the controls and the flashing red light. The light mesmerized her. She found an odd comfort in its rhythm despite the warning it conveyed. It was like the flicker of a lighthouse in a dense fog.
“Olivia’s right! It’s too dangerous!” Sanjay interjected. “What do you think Frederick?” Sanjay looked to his left at his always-somber colleague. Frederick blinked and stared back as if he had been awakened from a dream only to be plunged into a nightmare.
“We do as Jane says!” he yelled just as the ship throttled forward and shifted violently toward one side like the bottom had fallen out. Olivia yelped and grasped at the wall next to her even though she was securely strapped into her seat.
“Damn it, Jane, we’re not going to make it!” she yelled fueled by the anger of feeling helpless.
Jane turned to Olivia and sucked in air before she steadied herself. “Lieutenant Warner, calm down and focus! We can do this! Remember all the training we went through! Focus on your training! We can do this!”
The rattle and roar of the spaceship became louder and more pronounced as the ship hurtled toward Mars’ atmosphere. Sanjay glanced out the window of the craft and gulped. He had a sinking feeling that he had found his end either in the space above Mars or on its inhospitable surface. He had been prepared to die, but now that he was staring death in the face, he felt less sure. His resolve began to crumble, and he wanted to cry. He looked at Jane, her face placid yet pained. He wouldn’t cry in front of a woman.
“Frederick, give us some more thrust!” Jane commanded. Frederick looked at her as if he was translating her words into his own language, he was European, but English was his first of many languages. He blinked twice before he reached out to the controls and pushed a lever away from him. The ship shook and the entire crew could feel the momentum propel them forward with blunt force like a dull ax striking a firm young tree.
The darkness gave way to a glare outside the ship like a distant fire on the horizon. The colors both fascinated and horrified the astronauts as they looked on with great trepidation. Olivia’s hands shook noticeably as she monitored her bank of controls. Her voice began to waver when she spoke, so she kept her words clipped and efficient when she responded to Jane or the others as they prepared to cut through Mars’ atmosphere. She felt little hope that they would survive. The ship heaved under the stress like a hulking, beached whale taking its last few breaths. The warning light had been flashing since they reached the farthest edge of the red planet. Olivia felt her constricted heart beat in step with the pulse of the light. She feared she couldn’t breathe as panic rose from the darkness to pull her under.
Accepting her imminent death wasn’t something Olivia had thought much about when she had taken on this mission. She had wanted to be on one of Jane’s crews since the beginning of her career as an astronaut. Jane was her hero, someone she looked up to and admired, but she had only met the woman once in her entire time in the Western States space program. Her assignments were always small ones into the outer atmosphere of earth to collect samples and observe the tumultuous weather patterns that had erupted on the planet since the climate began shifting dramatically at the beginning of the century. She had only been to the moon once despite spending more than a decade in the space program. She had been a rookie astronaut when Jane led the doomed mission back from the moon. In Jane she saw the strong woman she wanted to be, and now she was the second in command on what was sure to be the last attempt at a manned mission to Mars.
Frederick looked out the window to his left. The glare from the atmosphere almost blinded him. He blinked repeatedly and thought of his wife and children left behind on earth. He had taken this assignment for them, to ensure his kids would have a future even if it was on a distant planet that seemed harsh and unkind. Earth had once been hospitable, but the changing climate had torn it apart in ways he could have never imagined when he himself was a child. Now his kids, like all other people on the planet, faced almost certain extinction as the havoc wrought by climate change had taken its toll on their home. He breathed in deeply and sighed to himself almost resigned to his fate. The spacecraft shook violently and he braced himself against his seat despite being strapped in tightly.
“Frederick, are the thrusters at full power?” Jane asked.
“Yes. They’re maxed out!” he yelled over the rising noise.
“Brace yourselves! We’re entering the atmosphere in ten, nine, eight…” Jane counted calmly.
The spacecraft shifted violently and for a brief moment Jane thought it had been broken in half. The glaring light that had been on the horizon engulfed the ship and blinded its occupants. The astronauts shielded their eyes with their arms in unison as if they were performing some morbid dance. Jane could hear Ava crying into the internal microphone that linked them all together.
“Hang on! We will make it!” Jane yelled in her bravest voice. She didn’t believe it herself, but she had trained herself to stay outwardly positive no matter the situation. Her demeanor had saved her and most of her crew on that ill-fated trip to the moon. She had been hailed a hero after that mission, but she counted it as one of her greatest failures despite the fact that five of the six people on that disabled craft had miraculously made it back to the surface of the earth safely. Of course, the one who didn’t make it, Lieutenant Bradley Bell, had mattered most to her. She had never forgiven herself for not bringing Brad home. The look on his daughter’s face when she saw her at the hospital afterward would forever be seared in her memory. She had failed the ones she loved most, and to her that was unforgivable.
The roar around the spacecraft increased and the shaking intensified. Besides Ava’s wailing, the others remained quiet – at least on the comm system. Jane turned away from the light to glance at her crew. Olivia tilted her head down with her eyes closed as if in prayer. Frederick blinked into the light before them mesmerized by the glare and the imminent fate that awaited them. Sanjay stared back at her in his foreboding way. She had never liked Sanjay, but her commanders insisted that he be on the mission. He had received very high marks from all that had worked with him. He was considered one of the best by all the men he worked with, but Jane felt he had an issue with women. She sensed it in the way he took orders from her and the way every single request was taken as an affront to his manhood.
Sanjay acknowledged her with a slight nod. Tears puddled in his eyes. Jane was shocked by his display of emotion, something he’d shown no signs of in the years that she’d known and worked with him. He could be charming and engaging, but he was also arrogant and chauvinistic. She felt a perplexing kindred connection with him at that moment in spite of the things she knew he had said about her.
Nothing he had said was really new to her. She’d always been accused of being like a man. “Plain Jane” was the moniker that others, especially men, used behind her back. She knew this because she heard it in the whispers back at the base. Throughout her career, even after the heroic moon mission, many of her colleagues referred to her as Plain Jane as if it were a phrase that completely defined her. None of her male colleagues had to deal with such a dismissive attitude.
When she had first heard this encapsulation of who she was, she became enraged, but there was nothing she could do to stop it. She was who she was. She felt as feminine as any other woman, but she refused to kowtow to outdated expectations for her gender. It was 2099 for goodness’ sake. Hadn’t enough time passed to toss out preconceived notions about women? Hadn’t her gender achieved the pinnacle of success without having to apologize for their differences, without being compared to men?
Despite all the progress, her life was still defined by how others’ perceived her. She resented the Plain Jane nickname. She really hated it, but she resigned herself to ignore it and go about her business in the best way she knew how. Her father had always told her that doing would quiet her detractors more quickly than talking, and she had taken that to heart. “Doing” pervaded her entire career. Her approach, thanks to her beloved father, had driven her success, but the detractors still encircled her like a pack of hungry wolves. All of these thoughts throttled the dull ache in her head and she grimaced.
Sanjay turned away from her as if he was fed up with the battle that raged in the subconscious space between them or maybe he thought she had grimaced because of him. She stared at him for a brief moment before she turned her attention back to the flashing red light. She tried to focus on it hoping that it would distract her from her headache. She braced herself in her seat. The ship jarred left and she heard Wally cry out. The moment of truth had arrived. Either they would perish in the volatile atmosphere above Mars or they would plummet to the surface in a last-gasp effort to preserve the human race. There was no middle ground. The ship rocked and the roar of entry consumed them. Everything went black in a violent whiplash. The angry beast had swallowed them whole.