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Fiction Fantastic 2024 Winning Story: “Orbit” by JT Myers

The story below is a winner from our Fiction Fantastic Young Writers Contest, open to all youth in Lane County. For more information on this contest, including how to enter, visit here. Support this program with a donation.

You can purchase this story in the 2024 Winners Anthology, Realm of Forgotten Dreams.

“Orbit” by JT Myers, Elmira High School

Second Place, High School Level, 2024


Orbit

by JT Myers

Elmira High School

“Do it.”

“But sir—”

“I said do it. We do not back down to threats. We will make a show of our power and establish this nation as a force to be reckoned with.”

“Sir, if we fire, everyone will. The world—”

“You know better than to question your superiors. Now push the damn button.”

—The beginning of the end of the world

A steel tube sat on the fringe of a gravitational pull around a miniscule blue and green marble floating in a black ocean of emptiness.

Effortlessly gliding at 18,000 miles per hour, the tube made no sound. It split the vacuum like a knife, but there was no air for a scream. Sunlight bathed the black wings of the gliding lump of steel and fed it—just enough—to keep life inside.

Beneath it, the spinning, glittering marble was infested with fleas squabbling amongst themselves over imaginary values and digital affection. They told themselves that if they had more of each (and more of everything), then their specific little flea mattered. Their little flea was loved above all. Their little flea had purpose.

Outside of those little fleas, nothing else mattered. Not the deaths of stars nor the explosive births of galaxies. Not the glittering comets streaking by nor the universe’s mesmerizing expansion. Not even the imminent threat of doom looming over them.

And the little satellite that floated far above was left forgotten.

The radio clicked on inside and static poured out of the speaker. The spaceman twisted a red dial no larger than a coat button and homed in on the signal beamed up from Earth.

Fragmented voices became audible, coming together like a child playing with a jigsaw, forcing each piece together until they find the one that fits. The sentences formed slowly until a steady stream of fuzzy words filled the metal walls.

“Can you hear me? Hello? This is ground control. Come in . . .” Static interrupted the name, but the satellite pilot knew the transmission was for him.

“Yeah, I can hear you loud and clear. What is it?”

The radio continued, still interrupted by patchy static.

“Listen, things are getting pretty tense down here. The president . . . a direct order to bring everyone back in ASAP. They think the safest thing for all . . . to return them back to the ground.”

“You’re getting ahead of yourself there, buddy. What’s going on?”

“If anything happens, they think your chances are bett . . . munications could get knocked out, then we’d have no way of reaching you for a long time—too long of a time! You would be completely stranded. We . . . ur best return path—” the machine rambled out and echoed slightly off the cold steel chamber.

“Hey!” the astronaut interjected. “You still haven’t told me what’s going on! What is happening down there?”

“Things are heating up . . . just invaded . . . world war is looking likely. They want . . . back just in . . . calculated flightpath sending . . .”

“Hey! Hey, are you there? I’m losing your signal.”

The pilot frantically twisted the red dial to home back in on the messenger from Earth.

“Are you there?” he exclaimed.

Only static answered.

There was no more signal being broadcast. The spaceman assumed that communications were impacted as the messenger had said was possible. He was now utterly alone and doomed to a steel coffin.

Without any way to contact the ground, there was no way to plan a safe way back. Within the next three months, he would completely run out of the stores of food and water onboard. He was a dead man walking or, rather, floating, in his peculiar instance. And he knew it.

He flipped the switch, and a sharp click abruptly silenced the static in the room. The stillness in the air flooded his ears and brain. His thoughts didn’t have the space to process in his head because his skull was compressing, squeezing the mind it was supposed to protect.

The panic was overwhelming. The spaceman dropped to the floor and put his hands in his hair and grasped, just to give him anything to feel besides the metal around him. His hands released and slid down to his ears in an attempt to block out the deafening silence.

Curled into a ball on the floor, he blacked out.

Hours later, a yellow light flashed on a screen on the far wall. It beeped and the spaceman was startled awake.

Calmer, he got up and clicked the button beneath the screen. A map showing a calculated course of entry into the Earth’s orbit appeared. The message was transmitted just in time before the signal was cut off.

The astronaut stepped away. He slowly breathed, relaxing himself.

With renewed vigor, the spaceman moved to the front of the craft and started booting up controls for an altered course. The details sent in the message showed a narrow window that provided for reentry into the atmosphere. Anything outside of that time frame, the spacecraft would not have the force nor fuel to push through and would instead skip right off the top of the atmosphere, with deadly repercussions.

There was just one problem. The course that was sent was incomplete. The signal was, in fact, cut off before the message was fully sent. It was missing the commands for the spacecraft’s autopilot system. The astronaut would have to steer the course himself using the course provided.

He knew he was capable and very well-trained for situations like this. But knowing how to do something and following through are two entirely different worlds. He would have to be perfect if he ever wanted to make it back. The spaceman took a moment to absorb this realization, to accept it, and to move on. He needed to get back home, and he wasn’t going to let his own nerves hold him back.

He stretched his arms in front of him with his fingers entwined and popped his knuckles. The spaceman shook out the nervous feeling that crawled up his spine and he took command of the controls to his little shuttle. He flipped switches and twisted knobs. The craft awoke like a dragon, quaking and roaring, a flame set ablaze in its belly. Colors flickered across the panels and screens. Charts and indicators and flight instruments became visible as the screens warmed up.

Grasping the helm of the ship with one hand, the pilot upped the throttle with the other. Boosters on the sides and rear of the satellite breathed and propelled it forward and towards Earth. Screens showed every slight change in the satellite’s path.

The astronaut paid close attention to the changes on the screens glowing in front of him and to the calculated course he was transmitted. He made adjustments, ever so slightly, to keep a flawless trajectory forward. Any miscue or twitch of the hand would be disastrous, taking away the needed angle to pierce the protective outer layers of the atmosphere.

Keeping steady, the satellite built up momentum, hurtling like a bug on a freeway towards a windshield. It reached the entry point, right on cue, and began to break through the outermost atmosphere. The front of the spacecraft began to heat up, flames erupting around the front as it pushed inwards.

Suddenly, outside of the satellite, far in front of it, a thunderous sound erupted: BOOOOM! A great force rocked the whole shuttle.

The hull screamed and shook violently. The spaceman panicked, thinking he must have made a mistake. The screens in front of him had shown he was still on course leading up to this point, but now he was sent careening backwards and back outside of Earth’s protective bubble.

The spaceman scrambled around the controls, attempting to stabilize the shuttle and bring it to a stop. When it was back under control, he checked his course and the ship’s condition. He had flown without flaw, but something had happened, ruining his chances of making it back home.

Home. He went to the window on the side of the hull to look upon Earth, his home, but he could only look in horror.

Dark clouds in the shapes of mushrooms grew across the continents, hundreds of them, across the visible side of the planet. Fire whipped around the edges of each cloud and, in between the mushrooms, were fading fireflies, little flashes of light glittering across the ground.

“My God,” was all the man uttered.

He noticed one mushroom towering far into the sky, higher than all the other mushroom clouds and even the pure natural clouds. It left a deep wound in the planet, spreading for what must have been a thousand miles in the webbed shape of cracked glass. The mushroom extended toward the direction the ship was headed through the atmosphere. The force of that blast must have been what expelled him from his course, launching him back into orbit around the planet.

While the spaceman was captivated by the continued assault across the planet, a new light appeared on one of the screens. “CARBON-OXYGEN RECYCLER DAMAGED” spanned the screen in bolded red letters.

“Oh, no. No no no no no,” the astronaut rattled off.

The most important function of the ship to a passenger was now gone, damaged in the failed return to Earth. As if the destruction of his planet wasn’t enough, he was now sentenced to his own doom, long before the months’ worth of provisions would ever run out. Without the recycler, only three hours of breathable air remained.

“NO!” he finally screamed and punched the screen that displayed the honest but cold and terrifying message. It cracked like the Earth’s crust below and the words faded out.

The hand that pulled away dripped blood. The spaceman, fully aware of his fate and knowing there were no more chances for optimism, lashed out in his metal coffin. He picked up a coffee mug from his morning breakfast and slung it across the room. He screamed and jumped and smashed the walls with his hands and any object he could grab.

How is one supposed to react when the world has ended, and they are next?

Eventually, the astronaut expressed the last of his rage and collapsed to the floor once more. He looked out the window above him and saw the decimated and burning planet. Tears streamed down his face as he cried for all the people he knew back on Earth; he cried for all the people he didn’t.

The last man alive could no longer bring himself to observe the tragedy of his world, so he found a new window to peer through.

Through this new one, he found a pretty scene of glitter across the black. The stars twinkled and shimmered, distracting him from everything. He peered beyond, and knew that, somewhere else, on some other planet, there was life. This thought comforted him enough, to know that Earth was not taking the random, amazing miracle it had with it to its grave.

The spaceman whispered to the void, to bring a peaceful thought to himself as the oxygen expired.

“I wish you luck. I know you can do better than us.”