“The Duel” (first ~1,500 words of a Sci-Fi short)

The Duel

A speck, a tiny point of light in an endless blanket of darkness, moving at a galactic snail’s pace – but at speeds humanity never before achieved. She shook her head. Despite her doctoral degrees, five years working on the project, and over a month into the flight, she was ever astounded at their achievement.

“Daedalus, this is Tellus, Commander Isabelle Lyle. Time is zero plus twenty-nine days, nine hours, thirty-two minutes. Status is normal across the board. Yesterday we encountered the radiation spike as expected and I am very relieved to report the shielding did its job. Doctor Malcolm said we all seem to be fine. His report will be attached. Thomas and McKenzie did a rundown of the ship systems and nothing vital appears damaged. I believe Thomas will be forwarding an EVA request after the braking maneuver tomorrow. For the record, barring some sudden change, I am in agreement. Although there has been no obvious signs of internal or external damage, I believe the risk of an EVA is worth double-checking the hull. The last thing we need during the survey or return trip is a damaged shield or corroded external tank.”

Isabelle rubbed her eyes and stared at the monitor. Her own image stared back. She frowned at the video and adjusted a stray strand of hair.

“As usual, the meat of the report is in the attached file. Mark end of status report.”

She paused the recording and closed her eyes. Her stomach was doing the “Transition Two-Step”, as McKenzie liked to call it. Although the outer habitat of Tellus had simulated gravity, the majority of the command and control sections were in the central core of the ship, and weightless. The transition from weight to weightlessness could have disagreeable effects on the stomach – especially if one recently ate. And Isabelle just ate lunch.

Her stomach relaxed after a few deep inhales. She opened her eyes, and resumed recording.

“Personal message to Genevieve Lyle.” She smiled at the screen.

“Hi honey! I just watched your message. I liked the song – you’re getting better every day. By the time I come home, you’ll have your own stream! Tell your class I’m even more excited than they are for tomorrow. I will be recording a special video of it just for you and your class. Mommy already knows about it. When the company sends it to you, she’ll bring it to school for you to show everyone.”

She glanced at the timer running down at the bottom of the screen.

“Okay, Genny, my time is almost up. I love you so much and miss you even more! Tell Mommy I love her and I’ll message her on the next pass. The company will tell her when my next turn is. Love ya, bye!”

After saving the two video files, Isabelle loaded both into a compressed folder with the previous day’s mission report. She turned on the intercom.

“Lillian, it’s ‘Belle.”

“Yes, Commander?”

“I got the report and my personal vid zipped up and ready to go. Make sure you package it with the medical report from James. Oh, ask Mike if he wants to include anything about the ship.”

“Roger, Commander. Mike’s here and he said he’s waiting until after the burn.”

“Alright, get to it. The window opens in an hour.”

“I know.”

Isabelle logged out, unhooked her restraints, and pushed herself up. “Up” was very much a relative term when one was in the core. Any direction was “up” until you reached your destination. In Isabelle’s case, her destination was HM-1, Habitat Module 1, one of four living spaces rotating around the central core of the Tellus to produce artificial gravity.

She felt the pull of the centrifugal force at the half-way point in the crew passage. Practiced instinct took over – she gripped the ladder and swung around until her feet replaced her head. A dozen more steps “down” and she was nearly Earth normal in gravity.

HM-1 and HM-2, the two modules the crew of eight used for sleeping and personal space, were identical. A wide communal space, part hallway and part lounge, ran the center of the modules. Two small rooms – little more than private bunks – branched off from both sides of the hallway. The walking path continued in a full circuit around the ship, joining LM-1 and LM-2, the two Living Modules, and HM-2. LM-1 held the dining area and screens for watching movies and playing games. LM-2 featured some exercise equipment, two shower stalls, and two toilets. There was also a zero-g toilet in the core module fore, and another in the core aft.

“Coming through, Commander!”

Isabelle flattened herself against the wall. Wearing running shorts, a sweat-stained gray t-shirt, and plain tennis shoes, Tellus’s junior engineer, Aaron McKenzie, jogged past.

“How many laps so far?”

“Not enough,” he gasped, “I can still feel my legs.”

“Do you ever not exercise?” She called back.

“If I stopped ya’ll would lose your eye-candy!”

Isabelle rolled her eyes.

“That’s harassment, Mac.” A woman’s voice drifted from LM-2.

“I know, but I let you do it anyway.”

Isabelle smiled and made her way to her bunk.

“Got the report done?” The voice of her second-in-command and pilot of Tellus, Captain Cyril Gore, came from behind his bunk’s privacy screen.

“Yeah. Also sent a message home.”

“To the wife and kid?”

“Eh, just Genny. I only had a short allotment this time. I’ll send one to Lydia when I get more time. Once we sync.”

“God, I am looking forward to that. I never imagined spaceflight to be so dull.”

“Cy, we traveled nearly three AU in thirty days. The last manned flight to come out here took a year. You can’t complain.”

“I can when I’m the pilot and all I do is sit in the chair a few times a day and double check to make sure we’re still floating the right direction.”

“Hey, you could have been hired by IP-Ex. Those poor bastards left two years ago and won’t even begin braking for another three or four months. Can you imagine how bored their crew is?”

Cyril pulled back the blue curtain covering his bunk.

“Yeah, but they get to orbit Jupiter when it’s all over. We’re going to circle a really big lump of rock.”

“A profitable big lump of rock. Ceres has everything DSV needs. And think of the challenge: you get to pilot a kilometer-long, several thousand metric tonne spaceship between asteroids.”

“And Johannson gets to perform an air brake in a gas giant’s atmo.”

“Jesus, Cy, there’s no pleasing you.”

Cyril Gore grinned, flashing perfect white teeth.

“Nah. I have the best career ever. From flying fighter jets to the ISS to our baby here, there aren’t many pilots out there who aren’t jealous of me.”

“Then quit your bitching, Number Two.”

“Aye aye, Commander!”

“Hey, quit flirting with my lady, Gore. I might get jealous.” McKenzie gasped out as he made another lap.

“You’re not her type, McKenzie, you have too many appendages.”

“Variety is the spice of life!”

“I’m also your superior, Mac!” Isabelle called as he disappeared around the curve.

“I like dominant women…”

Cyril chuckled, “You’d think that boy was nothing but cock and balls.”

“I think I’m going to recommend the company double the ration of lotion for future missions.”

Cyril’s laugh deepened, “It wouldn’t be enough for him.”

Isabelle sighed.

“Alright, Cy, I’m going to get some rack time and go over the checklist. You should probably get some sleep, too. We got the maneuver in a few hours.”

“If I could sleep I would. Everyone’s wound up. Why do you think Mac is circling the hamster wheel like that?”

Isabelle nodded and slid into her bunk. She closed the translucent door and pulled the privacy curtain after. Above her head, perfect for viewing when supine, was a small computer screen. She unlocked it and logged in. The checklist for the braking maneuver, twelve pages long – not including appendices – was open from before. She could probably recite the checklist from memory, word-for-word, but it didn’t stop her from going over it again. In a few hours the crew of Tellus would attempt something previously only done in simulation: use the mass driver engines to slow a manned spaceship from over a half-billion kilometers per hour to about one tenth of that speed. In theory, the ship could handle the stress, and so could the crew – provided they remain in their seats in the core section – but the theory relied on perfect execution of the maneuver.


3 thoughts on ““The Duel” (first ~1,500 words of a Sci-Fi short)

  1. Pingback: Is Science Fiction/Fantasy discriminatory? Yes, The Guardian seems to think so… | Aric Catron's Author Page

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