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Fiction Fantastic 2024 Winning Story: “Shipwrecked in the Sky” by Hunter Lowell

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.

“Shipwrecked in the Sky” by Hunter Lowell, Creswell Middle School

Honorable Mention, Middle School Level, 2024


Shipwrecked in the Sky

by Hunter Lowell

Creswell Middle School

The year is 2273.

The New Dawn hurtles through space, moving at the speed of light. Its lightspeed engines have been in development on and off for forty-two years by the private tech company C.E.L.L. They had launched the New Dawn in 2266, seven years earlier. Aboard are fifty adults and twenty-five children in cryosleep, the process in which live beings rest in deep slumber at very low temperatures. This lets bodies stop developing and continue normally once out of sleep.

The New Dawn has left Earth behind, but no one on board feels regretful.

Pollution sent the ozone layer’s stability plummeting and temperatures skyrocketing. Most ocean life is extinct, and humanity is in poor health from lack of clean oxygen and nutrients. But the worst of it happened when the last of the ice caps melted and put many major coastal cities underwater. Cities like New York, Tokyo and Sydney remain uninhabitable. So, C.E.L.L. invited the twenty-five smartest couples with one child each, from all corners of the globe, to escape Earth and start over.

Their destination is a planet seven lightyears away called B-327. The crew calls it Salvator, Latin for Savior. The New Dawn left in secret, leaving humans’ only home.

But then, on year six, month eleven, day twenty-three, with one week left in its journey, the New Dawn hits an asteroid field.

***

I awake, with a violent shuddering in my cryosleep pod. And then the pod flips.

I hear glass shatter and l land on my back. Everything is pitch-dark. I feel the ground rumble under me, and then go still. What just happened? I remember my parents and I getting invited by some organization on a spaceship headed to the planet Salvator, trying to start humanity over someplace else. Then we blasted off, were put to sleep in a pod, and somehow, here I am now.

I cough and groan for a minute on my back. I sit up and hit my head on the cushion of my cryosleep pod. The thing is upside down and on top of me. There are glass shards on the floor, but I’m uninjured save for a few scrapes and bruises. All I’m wearing is a skin-tight jumpsuit and the air is cold. I need to take stock of the situation, find my parents, and figure out what happened.

Though the lights are still off, I remember the pods have glass covers and are strapped to the ground. But right now, I need to get out from under this pod. I feel around the top and push upwards with my legs. I feel it give, and I roll out from under it.

There’s a loud clang! to my right. I stand up and squint around the room, hoping to see anything. I don’t remember a light switch anywhere, just that the lights were always on. I’m in the children’s bay, where ages one to eighteen are housed. We all should be waking up seven years after liftoff, but no one else is awake as far as I can tell.

All other pods seem intact. I stumble around in the dark, still groggy. My main focus right now is to turn the lights on. I shiver. I also need to get warm. I feel around until I reach a wall. I’m running my hand along it, trying to find a switch when my foot hits a box. I reach inside and I wrap my hand around a cylinder. My thumb slides over a button. Click. A circle of fluorescent light beams the wall in front of me. A flashlight! I inspect the rest of the box. I find a hammer and a half roll of duct tape as well. I stick the items in my pockets and turn around.

The room has a sealed iron door. I see my overturned cryopod. All the other pods are sound, tethered to the floor. On my pod, I notice one of the straps is unbuckled. That explains how it flipped. But the question is, what was that shaking that caused it?

On the far wall, lockers. I head over to them.

The lockers are all sealed with padlocks, but nothing the hammer can’t fix. A few swings and the cheap locks break with ease. After searching each one, I end up with a box cutter razor, a reflective emergency blanket, several hoodies and sweatpants with the C.E.L.L. logo, plus a few pairs of thermal socks and underwear. I pull the thermal wear on, then a pair of pants and a sweatshirt. They all fit me OK, as I was in the kid’s room. I also grab a pair of two-way radios from a bag in a locker. They are standard issue for all crew members.

The heavy sliding door won’t budge, but there is a maintenance vent in the corner of the room. I pry the grated cover open with the claw of the hammer and lower myself inside. Right or left? I decide to come back and try right later. I crawl left and pull up into the captain’s cabin. No pods in here. The ship is flown entirely by the onboard artificial intelligence, Titus. I scan the room, praying to see the robot is intact. And then my flashlight casts over it. Titus.

Titus has a single physical form: a set of treads, a vertical torso, and four spindly arms. Normally, it would automatically do any repairs, probably fixing whatever happened to the ship already, but Titus doesn’t look in any condition to be doing maintenance.

The robot is on its side, two arms missing, and a tread gone. But Titus’ monitor lights up as I approach.

“Ethan Barrows?” the robotic voice echoes.

“Yes! I thought I was alone!” I yell.

“As I am separate from the main generator, I can still operate. But not physically, I’m afraid,” says Titus.

“So, what happened?” I inquire.

“The New Dawn flew through a patch of asteroids. Although the exterior is tough, the interior felt every impact. We’re in the clear for now, but not long. We should have a week left until we land in Salvator, but the engines cut off,” he explains.

So that’s what flipped my pod . . . and Titus, apparently.

“What happened to the power?” I ask.

“When the asteroids made impact with the hull, the whole ship shook. I ran a diagnostic of the ship and learned that the main generator had been ruptured. Now the engines shut off, the heating system is down, and the rest of the asteroids are headed our way.”

This sounds horrible. But what terrifies me is the fact that it all rests in my hands. Titus is immobile, which means I need to make all the repairs.

“Can’t you just wake everyone up?”

“It would be much too dangerous to open seventy-four cryopods in low temperatures, total darkness, and unresponding engines. I am sorry, Ethan. You will remain on your own,”

“What can I do?”

“You will first need to start up the backup generator on the far side of the ship. Then activate the heating system, or you will die of hypothermia in approximately four hours. Then turn on the engines to steer out of the way of the asteroids. They will make impact in seven hours.”

I feel dizzy. The flashlight hits the ground. I drop to my knees, as I realize humanity’s last hope for survival rests on my shoulders and time is not on my side.

I set up a radio next to Titus, the talk button held down with tape. I clip the other radio to my collar, collect my supplies and crawl through the vent. Titus guides me through the ship as I explain where I am. No electricity means no security camera feed for him to track me. Plus, every door is sealed, requiring electricity to open. My limbs are icy and I have goosebumps as I make way through the tunnel, heading towards the back of the ship. My head pops up into the bathroom.

Although I had been in every room on the ship before, that was nearly seven years ago. Next, I end up back in the kid’s bay, where I take a left in the tunnels into the adults’ cryobay. After pulling myself inside, I visit my parents’ pods. Like graves. I shake my head. Can’t think like that.

We’re from Australia, and both of my parents have IQ levels over 130. I peer inside. Their resting faces give me hope. I don’t bother searching the room for supplies; I’m in a hurry. The tunnel in the corner of the adult’s bay is only about ten feet long with one other connecting room: the engine room.

Out of the vent, I look up at a gnarled machine. A hunk of gears, metal, and wires tower above me. The first lightspeed engine. I radio to Titus.

“The engines look fine.”

“Good. How is the main generator? Salvageable?”

I peer at a mass of torn metal and showering sparks.

“Completely destroyed,” I say.

Thankfully, each of the machines are in different housing units. I shine the flashlight to the right of the generator. An identical but smaller machine seems to be in good shape.

“Found it, Titus,”

“Does it work?”

“One way to find out.” I say, switching a lever into its “on” position, then stepping back. Several lights flash and a low humming noise begins. Lights power up overhead. Real ones. I hear the clunk of doors simultaneously opening.

“Yes! Titus! We did it!”

“I see that. Outstanding job, Ethan. But it has dropped to thirty-five degrees on the ship. You need to get the temperature controls back on track, now. You don’t have long until hypothermia kills you.”

Back in the captain’s cabin with Titus, I cut two arm holes in the emergency blanket with the box cutter razor. I then put on thermal socks with custom-cut thumb holes on my hands. I throw on the extra sweatshirts and pants and get ready to leave.

“Temperature is down to twenty-five degrees. Move quickly,” Titus tells me. “You work well under pressure. But how well under the cold? You have less than three hours to turn up the temperature.”

“I don’t need that right now. Let me focus and try not to die. Your facts aren’t exactly inspirational,” I say.

“Right. But hurry.”

I head down from the captain’s cabin to the rec room where the temperature panel is located. The rec room is a large, square room with couches, armchairs, tables, and TVs. Bedrooms were never built because we were supposed to sleep in our cryopods for the duration of the flight.

The panel is held up by two small screws in the wall. During the shaking, though, they have both shaken out. The panel itself hangs out of the wall connected by wires. It should be an easy fix; all I need is a screwdriver. I walk to the adult’s bay, hoping to find a toolbox. In the corner, inside a locker (lockers are no obstacle when I have my hammer with me), I find a big zip-up bag full of tools. I grab a small screwdriver and turn around. And then the ship starts shaking.

This time it’s like an earthquake. The floor shudders violently and I’m thrown off my feet. The screwdriver flies out of my hand. My head hits the floor and everything goes dark.

Two hours later

“Ethan, wake up. Ethan, wake up. Ethan, wake up. Ethan, wake up.”

My eyes flutter open. I’m so cold. “T-T-Titus, I’m here. You c-can stop,” I mutter into the radio, teeth chattering.

“Oh, good. Are you fit to walk?” I hear the voice crackle through the radio.

“My head hurts. I’m going back to sleep now.”

“Ethan, you are delusional. You have about an hour left before you freeze to death, and you likely have a concussion. Snap out of it and turn that temperature up, or you die.”

The robot has my attention now.

“And then everyone else in those pods will die. Your parents, and your friends. You are humankind’s last hope. Do you want that?”

“No, I don’t.”

“Then snap out of it. An asteroid just hit the New Dawn. It is one of many. The asteroid field is arriving quicker than expected. Now get to the panel.”

“Yes, sir.”

I feel like I’m getting yelled at, but I know that I need it. I shakily get on my hands and knees. My teeth chatter and I can’t feel my fingers as I crawl over to the rec room. I can’t imagine trying this without lights or with sealed doors. I sit on my knees at the base of the panel. I lift two hands and clumsily twist the screws into place. My vision is darkening. I’m falling asleep again. I twist the dial until the display reads seventy-three degrees. I let go, drop to my back, and close my eyes.

Titus wakes me up a few hours later.

“Enough rest,” he says. “Come see me in the cabin.”

I grab a bottle of water and a can of peaches from the emergency food supply. I sit down next to Titus and begin eating. The ship is significantly warmer, and it feels great.

“You have one last step that is crucial to your survival. You need to activate the engines,” Titus begins.

“Sounds easy. I was just in the engine room,” I say.

“The asteroid field will reach the ship very soon. You need to take a spacewalk and repair a section of thruster that the second asteroid hit. I can guide you.”

“Wait, what?”

“And then I can turn on the engines. I can download myself into the ship’s control computers and fly the ship away as soon as you are back inside. There are spacesuits for everyone on the Dawn, below the bathroom. There are also repair tools in a closet behind the door to your left.”

A spacewalk? I didn’t sign up for this.

“OK, Titus. I got this,” I say, headed to the supply closet Titus had mentioned.

“The repairs needed are on the left thruster’s open-and-close mechanism. If I cannot open the thruster, the propelling force of the flames cannot escape and push the New Dawn forward.”

“Uh . . . got it. I think.”

I open the supply closet. I grab a welding tool, a welding visor that clips over my helmet, and several scraps of flexible repair metal. In the airlock, I pull on a space suit, clip on my welding visor, and throw my tools in a bag. I go over some safety checks with Titus, then I’m ready. I clip my tether to a hook on the wall. I hit the “open” button and the door slides open, revealing the expanse of space. I throw myself into it.

I have no weight. The New Dawn is equipped with artificial gravity with minimal windows, so I hardly realized until this point that I’ve really been in space. I grab onto the side of the ship, finding handholds in the metal as I make my way towards the back of the ship.

The thruster appears from behind the New Dawn as I approach the end. I float up to it and sling my bag from over my shoulder. I unzip it and pull out the welding torch. The tool is cordless, designed for space repairs. I inspect the damage. It looks like a meteor has clipped the arm that opens and closes the flap. Half the arm is connected to the ship, the other half to the flap, but there is no connection between the two.

Luckily, the arm snapped on a long stretch of cylinder, and not a moving joint. I flex the repair metal around the snapped arm and start melting metal to metal. I continue this for a few minutes until I’m satisfied.

“Titus, get ready to fly, I’m on my way back,” I say through the helmet’s communications radio.

“Move quickly. The asteroids are nearly here,” Titus’ voice booms.

I scramble towards the airlock. It is about thirty feet away, when something flashes in the corner of my eye. I look up to see an asteroid headed right towards me, along with around fifty others. A rock hits me in the side before I have time to react. I lose all grip on the wall and get thrown into space. The New Dawn gets smaller and smaller as I float away. I frantically try to pull myself in with the tether, until it goes taut. Asteroids fly everywhere as I pull myself back towards the ship. For a moment, I believe that I will run out of energy before I reach the ship. My arms burn and my fingers cramp.

Now the New Dawn is in arm’s reach. I haul myself into the airlock. I hit the button on the wall and the door closes. I lay on my back and radio to Titus.

“You’re clear! Go!”

The ship instantly shoots away. I hang onto the door handle as we peel away.

Titus stops the ship so I can gather more food and water, then sit in the cabin with him. I lean my head back, sigh, and get ready for the remaining ride.

One year later

The New Dawn landed safely one week later. My parents wouldn’t have believed what happened if not for Titus backing up my story!

Anyway, Salvator is absolutely beautiful. We’ve set up a town and begun work on cities for future generations. We continue to make breakthroughs every day. Salvator is a fresh start, a chance for us to prove that we can learn from our mistakes and keep our new home clean.