The Last Five Minutes

Submitted into Contest #8 in response to: Write a story about an adventure in space. ... view prompt


Science Fiction

    Most spaceships are designed to give their crew members several flashing warning lights or perhaps a blaring alarm before dropping out of the sky, but my lucky streak just so happens to land me in the only one that isn’t. Here I am, hurtling towards a planet at speeds that will crush me and my crew on impact, and not a single red light to speak of. Even the little "check engine" light next to the gas valve remains stoic and dark. Insurance is never going to cover this damage.

    Calypso, our wonderful commander-in-training and significant pain in the ass, scuttles around the cockpit examining all of the dials. The left wall is full of them, measuring gravity levels, emissions, fuel, speed, and a dozen or so pointless other things we never bother to look at unless something is wrong. 

    “All normal!” she shouts at me, as if I’m not five feet away in the pilot’s chair. 

    I shout back at her, “And we didn’t run into the atmosphere?”

    She checks a tiny screen close to the floor. Another design failure. “Not according to the pressure sensors.”

    The pressure sensors line the bottom of the ship to detect atmospheric pressure from around a mile away. If they sense it, the blast disks will rupture and send a report to the cockpit screen. We use them to keep in orbit of a planet, because diving too low can cause exactly what’s happening now. They’re also known to be changeable and glitchy. 

    “Check something reliable.”

    “Fine.” Calypso scans the wall again, this time stopping to stare at another screen higher up. “No atmospheric gases reported on our air sample. According to them, we’re still in open space and at an even keel.”

    “Then how are we headed downwards?”

    I stare out the front glass, willing the screen to power up and tell me what’s going on. It remains clear, my only clues being chucks of space rock that burst into fractals on contact. Damn it, I don’t want to crash on my first mission with a new crew. Even with the nice adrenaline rush, they’ll think I was placed here because I wasn’t competent enough to fly elsewhere, and that’s entirely untrue.

    “Pilot error, I guess,” Valentina chirps from her seat. 

    There it is. The blatant lie. Knew it was coming. 

    There’s no way in hell—or in space—that I caused whatever this is. I am a competent pilot. 

    “Oh, fuck off.”

    “You fuck off. We’re about to waste a perfectly good ship.”

    The last part of that sentence is a lie, too. Valentina lays it on thick with this bold-faced blasphemy. I’ve flown exactly thirty-seven different varieties of cargo ship and fifty versions of a fighter, and to call this ship good is an insult to all of the others. I’ve also crashed a fair few ships in my day, and all of them at least alert you to issues within the console if not give you a full mechanical workup on what’s going wrong. 

    What the hell is wrong with this thing?

    The ship lurches, throwing Calypso into Valentina’s chair and knocking them both to the floor. Valentina deserves it. If I angle the control wheel a little more, I can make them slide across the cockpit floor and hit the doors at the back, which would be funny if I didn’t have to worry about landing the ship in one piece. Right now, angle is everything. 

    But maybe it’d be worth it—just to see—maybe?

    “No,” I say aloud. “We’re landing this ship.” 

    The girls clutch onto the chair with white knuckles, as if they’ve never gone down in a ship before. 

    Their normal pilot must not have ever crashed. I bet he thinks he’s some kind of legend for that. 

    Unpopular opinion: it is so much better to have a pilot that goes down every other mission than one who finesses their way through every trial. When you're with that first guy, you know that they can land that craft no matter what shit happens on the final panicked spiral. The second, who's to say?

    “I need you guys to stand up,” I tell Valentina. “Brace yourselves on the chair or whatever, but I need you to tell me the second we hit the atmosphere.”

    I wish I could look back and see her face as she says the next sentence, because it does not sound friendly. “You want us to stand up?” She must be so pissed. Too bad I have to keep my eyes ahead of me or we’ll all explode like a package of popping candy in a Coca-Cola.

    “Yes, stand up.”

    “How do you expect us to do that?”

    “Brace yourselves on the chair.” I need to tug upward on the throttle within five seconds of hitting the atmosphere in order to survive this crash. “Use the top screen, not the blast disks.”

    “The blast disks are just as reliable as the top screen,” Calypso snaps, “and I can read them from the floor where it’s safe.”

    “Sometimes they burst too early. Can’t take that risk.”

    “But you can take the risk of driving us straight into this planet? That makes perfect sense.”

    There’s a difference between calculated risk and stupid risk. Using the blast disks over the atmospheric sample is a stupid risk. And I wasn’t the one who decided on crashing into this planet; the ship made a move to crash and I tagged along for the ride. I would say all that, but I wouldn't want to waste the air.

    I hear Valentina groan, so she must heed my orders to rise. Something rams into our starboard side, but she remains standing. Or at least, she doesn’t fall on anything that makes a significant amount of noise. 

    “You’re up, right?” I ask to confirm. 

    “No thanks to you,” comes her response.

    I’d tell her to fuck off again, if it wasn’t a waste of energy. “Okay, tell me when we hit the atmosphere. That very second.”

    She doesn’t answer right away, so I imagine she’s making a face at the back of my head. She can do that as much as she likes. I’m still going to be the savior when we all walk out of this alive.

    When she does speak, it’s curt. “Of course.”

    “And if you tell me a millisecond too late, we’re all going to die in a hail of fire.”


    “We’re talking Hell’s fury here.”

    “Where do I sign up?” 

    I stop engaging her. Even though the medic is two years older than me, she acts far more immature. Had I known switching crews would suck this much, I would have stayed at the Gemini Base with the rest of the burnouts.

    So long as she answers me at the right time, I should be able to land our ship with minimal damage to the cockpit and enough intact material to fly again after a few repairs. Calypso, commander, took the place of mechanic on this trip as if she had some kind of mechanical skill, so the reconstruction should be covered. 

    “Pressure disks just snapped!” calls Calypso from the floor. “Whatever you’re planning—”

    Valentina cuts her off. “Atmospheric readings don’t detect anything yet. Wait a minute.”

    I’m going to trust Valentina.

    “I’m waiting a minute,” I say.

    The next few moments are crucial. Hit the atmosphere, pull up on the throttle, slow our descent to less than one hundred miles per hour, then locate a good place to slide where the underbelly of the ship will not completely tear off. Simple. Of course, it would be a lot easier with the warning lights blaring, but I suppose we’re past that point. If I miss the margin to pull up, we’ll come in too heavy and obliterate our means of transport against whatever sort of foreign ground this is, and will therefore have to survive on whatever we can salvage from the craft like savages.

    “Atmosphere!” Valentina exclaims. I wrap both hands around the throttle and pull up as hard as I can. The ship’s nose rises slightly, and our speed decreases. Now it’s time to look for an empty stretch of ground. I make a mental note to remind both girls later how close the pilot’s chair is to theirs, how they don’t have to scream, because the ringing in my ears does a fabulous job of garbling my thoughts.

    Sixty seconds to impact, I think. Seventy if we’re lucky.

    My track record isn’t the best. I decide to give us fifty seconds.

    Clouds puff by the side windows. I can see the heat building on the tip of our spaceship. I pull an overhead lever to force-field the cargo hold below us, so the crash will not disintegrate everyone onboard. Forty seconds. 

    Now that I have a clear sight line, there is barely anything at all on the surface of this planet, save for a few skeletal copses of trees. I can land us almost anywhere that I wish, a luxury I so rarely receive. I line up the control wheel, pull the throttle a little bit more, press on the glass guards so I can’t be impaled by razor thin shards, and then all we can do is wait for the ground to hit us. Or rather, us to hit the ground. Valentina, bless her intelligent heart, drops back to the floor next to Calypso so she will have something to hold on to. Twenty seconds.

    Minutes are so long. I use ten seconds to spin around in my pilot’s chair, like my old friends used to when we were on the same squad. They should be here now, instead of these panicked people, telling me if my angle is right and whether or not we’ll lose all of our resources or just a couple. 

    And now we’re on the final countdown. 

    “We’re coming in hot!” Calypso shrieks, although I don’t know how she can tell that from the floor.

    “That’s the only way to come in!” I yell back.

    She screams, and I whoop, and the ground gets closer. I’m cheering when we hit it.

September 27, 2019 22:40

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