Fire in the Belly

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


Science Fiction


Sometimes Annette Radcliffe just repeated the phrase, “I am an astronaut” over and over, not because she needed to convince herself it was true, not any longer, but because she loved the sound of it so much. She revelled in that simple affirmation. If she did not say it aloud, she thought it, found herself breathing to the rhythms of it.

    When she was a child she watched the TV reports about the new moon mission that had finally come to pass after decades of promising and fine words and understood exactly how her grandfather had felt when he witnessed the first Moon Landings, over 60 years ago. They had only seen shadowy figures then, not the ultra-high definition images of the 2025 mission to establish the base camp there. Sometimes she didn’t know which thrilled her more. “I am going to be an astronaut!” she exclaimed, as she dutifully ate the breakfast cereal her mother tried to persuade her was tasty as well as good for her.

    “That’s wonderful,” her mother said, “But please, don’t speak while you’re eating!”

    And, thought Annette, as the Aphrodite drifted (or seemed to drift, though it was travelling at thousands of kilometres an hour, even now it had slowed down) towards Venus, there would have been millions of little girls and boys watching the pictures from the moon, and telling their parents that they were going to be astronauts and being told by their mothers and fathers that it was wonderful, but they mustn’t speak while they were eating.

    Of course the vast majority didn’t. A fair number, perhaps most, lost interest and found other dreams. Though her friends and colleagues always spoke of her single-mindedness (and did not always use such a complimentary term!) Annette herself had come close to following other paths. When she was 12, a cousin she was very close to had his life saved by pioneering surgery, and she thought it would be a wonderful thing to be a surgeon. For several years she did not give up this notion, but in the end, she returned to space. At that point, still only in her dreams, though those dreams were beginning to take on a more concrete form. Only a decade later, after her first flight, still only a training sub-orbital one (and as she said, even space tourists did that!) the self-same cousin said, “You know part of me wishes you’d stuck to medicine, and you’d have been a fine doctor or surgeon, and it’s undeniably safer, but I think no matter how fulfilled you thought you were, you’d always have regretted it!” 

    He was right – and, of course, he was also right about medicine being safer. Nobody who entered the training programme was unaware of the dangers. They made sure of that, not that they needed to. In her last year at university, Annette, like everyone else, was shocked and saddened by the loss of the Armstrong when it crashed onto the surface of Mars. But the Mars mission continued, and now there was a base there, named in honour of the fallen. People called them the “Fallen” as if they were casualties of war. The usage wasn’t officially endorsed, but nobody objected. 

    Despite the loss of the Armstrong there had been no shortage of volunteers for the next Mars mission, and Annette was among the throng. She made the short list, but wasn’t selected, and was disappointed but philosophical. The thought came to her unbidden, but she couldn’t un-think it, that Mars was almost too familiar. Even before the moon missions started again unmanned probes had sent back clear images of the planet, as clear as any you’d see on Google Earth. No, it wasn’t safe – the loss of the Armstrong proved that! – but somehow it wasn’t quite so much of an adventure as it might have been either.

    Even as she watched and was thrilled, despite her thoughts, by the pictures of the Mars Mission – this time wholly successful and bringing all the crew home, she put her name down on the advance lists for the Aphrodite mission. 

    For years, it had been thought that a landing on Venus would be effectively impossible, even though they weren’t supposed to use the word “impossible” – but almost by accident, researching something else, a relatively humble scientist (until then) at ANSA – the All Nations Space Agency – had chanced upon a new material that would be able to withstand the conditions of what even hard-headed space scientists, caught off-guard, sometimes called the Fiery Goddess. Of course, unmanned probes were sent first, and the results were almost too good to be true. It wasn’t as simple as that, and new space-suits had to be developed, and all manner of things, but it was as if the mission were meant to be and it could even launch ahead of schedule. Some of the Mars veterans gently teased their colleagues on the Aphrodite that they weren’t travelling as far, which was true, but there was still pretty general agreement among both experts and laypeople that the crew of the Aphrodite were special and would be legends. They launched at dawn, and as they did, could see their destination, which was also known as the Morning Star, rising. It was a scientific and astrological certainty rather than a happy chance, but still rather wonderful.

    Unlike some of the larger crews that had become the norm lately, there were only 4 on the initial mission. Captain Lisa Canning, one of ANSA’s most experienced and respected astronauts, and also acknowledged to be a cool head in a crisis; Command module pilot Ibrahim Salman (who genuinely did not seem to mind not being one of the first humans on Venus and said he would be quite happy to enjoy the view!)  flight engineer Bruno Lavoisier (and yes it was a pleasing coincidence that he shared his name with the man who, centuries ago, discovered oxygen, but as Bruno, a modest, wry man and a favourite with everyone admitted, so far as he knew, he wasn’t a descendant) and Annette herself, who would pilot the landing module. It was called the Kestrel, as befitted the successor to the Eagle, the Buzzard, and the Falcon (and, of course, the ill-fated Hawk). They were  surely running out of birds of prey by now, thought Annette!  Or there might be thousands.  I’m an astronaut, not an ornithologist! I am an astronaut and right now I am about to land the first human space mission on Venus, on the fiery goddess, on the morning and evening star. She gave herself a little mental shake. She was landing an explorer module, not the right time or space (!) to indulge in such poetic thoughts. Not that she had any illusions. The Kestrel could land itself. She did not really hope that some unexpected problem would arise and she would have to rely on her own wits, she respected space and valued her own life too much for that, but she also knew that the adrenalin surge she would have felt if such an eventuality arose would be far from unpleasant. 

    The landing was unproblematic and perfect. Millions of miles away and in a nanosecond the voice of the CapCom at ANSA confirmed what she already knew. The ground-based commander, Pablo Morales, was one of her old mentors, and a dear friend, though of course he knew when to keep things practical and professional. 

    The veterans of the Moon and Mars missions had always said that no matter how vivid and vibrant and high dimension images from the unmanned probes were, nothing compared to actually stepping down onto the surface of a new world for the first time. Lisa invited her to be the first down, as she had landed them, but Annette was something of a traditionalist. “That must be you, captain,” she said, and although they were all on long-standing first name terms, her use of “Captain” was not ironic.

    Lisa said simply, “We greet you in the name of all peoples of the Earth, Morning and Evening Star.” Of course they all knew it was scientifically incorrect to call Venus a star, every ten year old schoolchild knew that, but it was still absolutely the right thing to say.

    “How can somewhere look so much like religious folk imagine hell to be, and yet be so amazingly beautiful,” Bruno said, when they had all descended from the Kestrel. It was a rhetorical question – but one, Annette supposed, they were all asking. “Well done, my friends,” Ibrahim said from the command module, only pride and joy in their achievement in his voice. 

    This is what makes it worthwhile, what makes it the most wonderful job in the universe by a million lightyears, thought Annette, what makes the feeling sick in the centrifuge, and the boring drills about putting your suit on, and the months and years away from your loved ones. As all subsequent crews had, they stood in silent tribute and gratitude to the crew of the Armstrong for a moment, and above them Ibrahim held the command module in a hover. 

    They were not the only ones respecting the moment’s silence. Annette was the first to notice the static pillar of light. In itself, that was nothing unusual or even interesting. In space light played strange tricks, and they had all turned out to be entirely explicable, Well, nearly all. 

    Now pillars of light, especially under the influence of the solar wind, could make noises, too, though their helmets sometimes made it hard to detect external sounds (of course they had integral microphones and earphones to converse with each other).  But these were not the random rhythms of nature – they were the rhythms of speech, at first unintelligible to them, but then, after a noise a bit like the tuning of an old-fashioned radio (they had all observed one in the museum) it honed in on the right frequency. “We expected you. You sent your heralds.” It would have been going too far too speak of a face, but the pillar was certainly not without animation, and not without some of the movements that a face would have made. “We should have made ourselves known then, perhaps, but what’s the saying you have – better late than never!”

    Of course this cannot be happening, thought Annette. Though it is entirely respectable and even orthodox to reflect on the fact that there may be life on distant exoplanets, on the so-called Goldilocks planets, and most think it is more likely than not, there is NOT, repeat NOT , life, at least not sentient life, on any of the other planets in our own solar system.  We have known that now, beyond all doubt, for near on seventy years. I am not seeing this and not hearing this, But if I am, then please don’t let me be the only one of us who is!

    “You are asking yourself certain questions,” said the voice. Annette thought of it as the voice. She wanted to avoid a pronoun. That would humanise the entity, even the non-binary “they” that she entirely approved of in principle, but still found awkward in practise, yet something in her screamed out that “it” was wrong. She would, had she been forced to specify, said that she was more inclined to female than male, but also had a feeling that she was dealing with something beyond and outside all that – including the non-specific “they”!

    “I am – wondering how to refer to you,” Annette said, sounding, to her own muffled ears, ludicrously like a pedantic English teacher.

    “That is not wholly untrue, and please believe me when I say it genuinely doesn’t matter. It is of no consequence. But you are also thinking that all you have heard and believe is wrong and that there quite simply isn’t – not just isn’t, but can’t be – life here.”

    It was, indeed, a given. Or anyone who suggested otherwise was consigned, at best, to giving interviews on obscure heritage TV channels. 

    The next noise did not sound remotely like a laugh that Annette had heard before in her life, and yet she knew that it was a laugh, and it did not seem to be a malicious one, more like an indulgent but slightly frustrated parent attempting to laugh off their child’s wilder notions. “We respect some of your work, and certainly your courage, but thinking that life is dependent on the constrictions of a children’s fairy-tale – oh, my word”

    “It’s not as simple as that!” Annette said, determined she was not going to be wholly cowed by a pillar of light with a shape that might be a face of kinds if you used your imagination. “That’s just a metaphor!”

    “Of course it is,” the tone was more conciliatory. “But you still work on the assumption that for life to exist anywhere else then there must be exactly the same conditions that you need. Has it never occurred to you that even on your own lovely planet – and I don’t mean that ironically – there are creatures that dwell in conditions that would kill most others in an instant – in sulphur lakes, and the like …..”

    “Tardigrades,” Annette said. “Yes, of course I’ve heard of them, but surely, any – well, higher life forms are another matter.”

    “And can you give me any good reason why they should be?” Annette realised that she could not. She was sure they must be, and it was presumed all of ANSA’s astronauts had at least a basic grounding in science, but that question baffled her.

    “I like your spirit. Would you like to visit our world beneath the surface?”

    At one and the same time Annette thought she would like nothing more and like nothing less. One of the few things she found unpleasant about being an astronaut was the sense of being confined behind the helmet. They were far removed from the original ones and much more comfortable, but she was slightly claustrophobic and occasionally, even now, the barrier between herself and the world outside made her feel uncomfortable, but it was a price worth paying for the glorious vastness of the cosmos. But she had never been able to fathom how anyone could find caving an exhilarating sensation.

    All the same – to be the first human being in the history of that cosmos to explore an alien world? Hurriedly she reminded herself she was a part of a team. “Only if my colleagues can come, too,” she said.

    “Annette – do they look especially interested?” if there had been a finger to point, it would have been pointed. As it was, Annette automatically turned towards her colleagues, who appeared to be very interested in a rock they had found and already taking samples and doing analyses.

    “I am not going alone,” she said, and would have admitted to no-one, not even, not really, herself, that solidarity with the others on the mission was her only reason.

    “Then I am afraid you are not going at all, and now I must leave you. You will wonder if this has all been some kind of fantasy, and after all – though this isn’t a thing that ANSA talk about much – at least not officially – space psychosis is a recognised condition, and there is even a special treatment centre with trained experts.” Yes, Annette knew this was true. Everyone knew about it, but talking about it was – well, Pablo would have called it, in one of the quaint phrases passed down to him by his grandfather, who had been to an English public school, bad form. “But you will know it is not. I will make sure of that. This may sting for a second, but will do you no harm.”

    She did, indeed, feel a brief burning sensation on her belly, and like all astronauts, feared any damage to her spacesuit, though there were all manner of safety devices and back-up systems built in. But no damage appeared to have been done, and the brief pain faded in a couple of seconds. “Annette, stop wool-gathering, and come and have a look at these rocks!” Bruno called. 

    “Our resident geologist has gone into overdrive,” Lisa said, affectionately, “But I’ll admit they’re fascinating. Mind you, I don’t blame you for looking at the view instead of the ground!”

    The mission was an unqualified success. The images of it held the whole world (not to mention those living on the Lunar and Martian bases) spellbound, and when the crew finally arrived home, they were given a heroes’ welcome in every continent on earth.

    So there was massive surprise worldwide when Annette Radcliffe, the commander of the landing module, the epitome of the girl next door who had become a pioneer and an inspiration, announced not long after her return to earth that she was going to leave the space programme and train as a surgeon. That had also been a childhood dream of hers. Of course people tried to dissuade her, though her immediate family did not deny they were also a little relieved. Pablo, for his part, was a little disappointed, but also said, in one of their little heart-to-hearts, “I don’t blame you, Annette. There’s a lot to be said for going out on a high, and ANSA’s loss would be medicine’s gain. Just humour me by thinking it over for a while and not acting – well, on the rebound, I suppose.” Out of affection and respect for him, she agreed, but knew she would not change her mind.

    She wasn’t the only mature student, and by no means the oldest, but she did understand that her classmates felt a little awkward and, yes, overawed, by having the legendary astronaut in their midst. Although she was quite a wealthy woman by now and paying her own way, not to mention an endowment, she had made a point of proving she reached the highest entry standards, and was not there on her name and her fame. Her natural modesty and good humour won them over, and though she would never be quite an “ordinary” student, the awkwardness passed and she was popular – and well-respected.

    Naturally enough, the students themselves had a medical, and hers was an especially thorough one, as it was known (though again, not always talked about that much) that space travel, especially long periods in space, could affect a person’s health, hers was particularly thorough, but revealed that she had suffered no ill-effects and was in robust health. But the examiner did notice the scar on her belly – not a nasty or suppurating or vivid one, but definitely there. Fundamentally honest, for once Annette told a white lie. “A childhood scalding accident,” she said, “Very painful at the time, but has given me no trouble for decades. I forget it’s there most of the time.”

    The examiner nodded, “Shame you didn’t have a graft, I suppose, but nothing to worry about.”

    All the same, the examiner reflected, when she couldn’t quite get to sleep that night, it was quite an odd scalding scar. Rather too symmetrical, and an odd colour.

September 27, 2019 07:02

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