Ready for Liftoff

Submitted into Contest #74 in response to: Write a story that takes place across ten seconds.... view prompt


Adventure Fiction Suspense

“T-minus ten seconds until liftoff...” The scratchy voice from base camp reaches Fiona’s ears in the cabin. The first thing she thinks of is the equipment. Could there be any malfunction? No, no, all the systems are working perfectly, and the last time they were checked was this morning. All the screws are tight, all the cargo is secure, all the straps are fastened, ready to be launched into space. There is no possibility that hasn’t been looked at, no potential that hasn’t been examined. But Fiona still worries.

She has run through this drill a thousand times. She’s sat in the simulator and felt the thrust necessary to launch a rocket into the atmosphere. The first time she went through the simulation, she passed out from the force. But now, after multiple voyages, it’s a familiar feeling. She tenses her stomach in preparation for the thrust she will feel in ten seconds time. 

A captain has a checklist of items to worry about, most of them mechanical. After all her years of studying these ships, Fiona runs through them quickly. Images appear and vanish in her mind. And she’s left with other thoughts, ones that don’t flow as easily.

“Nine seconds…” The next thing she thinks of is the crew. The five people whose very delicate lives will be in her hands. Fiona didn’t grow up believing she was a leader. She took instruction well. She was adaptable, moldable, coachable, everything an air force pilot was supposed to be. It was only because she was told to be a leader that she became one. She knows she was not the first choice to head this mission, and so do the others strapped in beside her. They have all assured her they trust her completely, that they will do whatever she asks. That’s how it has to be. But Fiona doesn’t trust any one person completely, doesn’t even believe that’s possible. Everyone wants this mission to be successful. She thinks they’ll say anything to make it work. They’ll do whatever it takes to leave the ground.Will they trust her in six months? It will be years before they return. If they do. 

“Eight seconds…” The next thing she thinks of is her family. Thinking of her parents seems more like a courtesy. She thinks of nights spent studying, days spent drawing in her bedroom in Sioux Falls. Her father’s eyes behind his glasses, as she watches him read in the den. Her gaze glued to his, daring him to look up from the newspaper and at her. He never did, and it had to be purposeful the way he never did. Almost like she was challenging him, and he hated to lose. No, there’s nothing to cry about there. It’s one of the reasons she’s quitting this planet for another one.

“Seven seconds…” The next thing she thinks of is Mars. Her mind wanders to that desolate place, unsure of what she might find there. Nothing really ties her to Earth anymore, especially not after what happened two years ago, but does anything really pull her away, other than a sense of duty? 

Scientific curiosity, certainly. Thinking of what could wait for her there keeps Fiona awake sometimes. She knows they’re praying for some sort of answer about the universe, some solution to the problems they’ve created here on Earth. Maybe even the one thing they’re too scared to say might be there. Water, the stuff that makes all of them up. But what keeps Fiona awake even more often is the fear that what she’ll find there is nothing. Nothing at all but red dust. Three years in a tin can for red dust and the remains of a robot that sent out one hopeful message before it malfunctioned and died.

“Six seconds…” The last thing she thinks of is herself. Fiona has always excelled at her work, finding satisfaction in following orders and solving problems. Shutting off the part of her brain that made things complicated. She treated every action as a simple math problem. This helped her. She went from flying planes to flying rockets. She spent fifty days in the International Space Station. A national newspaper wrote a profile on her: Powerful Women in Science. There was a picture of her in front of her parents’ house in South Dakota. The photographer told her not to smile, that it looked better with a serious expression. She followed directions.

When NASA announced the launch of the Orion mission to Mars, Fiona trained for five years in a group of ten people. The group was made up of two women and eight men that would eventually be whittled down to five. The other woman was Ivy, who quickly became her closest friend. Fiona hadn’t had many female friends as a kid. She existed in a male-dominated world. Working with Ivy was the first moment it had started to be more than just work. This memory sticks in Fiona’s mind as the countdown continues. 

“Five seconds…” Fiona wasn’t picked to be one of those five people going to Mars on Orion. When she wasn’t chosen, Fiona left NASA. The rocket she’s sitting in now belongs to a private company, owned by a billionaire. How different it is. When the money flows freely. Fiona’s been assured that when she gets back, she’ll never worry about anything again. She won’t need to work another day in her life. It feels strange to no longer be serving her country, not really. She’s used to being told she’s serving a function for the greater good. Now she seems to be filling some hole inside herself.

“Four seconds…” Her mind should be clear. But the last thing she thinks of is Ivy. Fiona knows Ivy was the better choice to be Orion’s captain. She was born for a mission like that. A command out of Ivy’s mouth was an order you felt honored to follow. Astronauts kicked themselves for disappointing her. Ivy never doubted how much her crew trusted her, the way Fiona did now. 

The thought of three years without Ivy was soul-crushing. The thought of only being able to speak to her through a headset, until the ship got too far away and even that wouldn’t be possible.

The night before the Orion mission launched, Ivy sat on the threadbare couch in Fiona’s apartment. Fiona made spaghetti with meatballs and they ate it wordlessly. 

“Let’s not say goodbye,” Ivy said. “Maybe that’s easier.”

Fiona agreed. 

“Three seconds…” As time runs out, the memories flood Fiona’s mind. Her hands on Ivy’s face. Their stolen moments, pinkies touching under the table. Ivy’s long, dark hair, her powerful gaze, her smile. Whispered words in the middle of the night. Unkept vows.

“Two seconds…” Two. The number of years that have passed since she watched Orion break apart in the time it took her to blink. The brutal silence of it. That macabre firework. The crowd gathered watching the launchpad at Cape Canaveral, squinting up in disbelief. The press coverage. The interviews. The funerals with empty caskets. And then-- the panic. The second mission, hurried to approval. The new team. The second choices. The rush of the money, coming in and buckling Fiona into Ivy’s empty seat. 

All of a sudden Fiona wishes she had more time to think.


December 31, 2020 21:46

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R. K.
18:03 Jan 07, 2021

Hi! I thought your story was very creative and I love how you developed Fionas character throughout the story. I didn’t under the ending to well, it almost seems like the conclusion was crammed into the last second. But I love how you added the little details and information about her that made her relatable and interesting


C. D.
21:22 Jan 07, 2021

Thank you! You're right... I wanted to hint at it more during the story, but also wanted the ending to be shocking... it's tricky!


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