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It's a Long Way Down · Original Short Story ·
Organised by RogerDodger
Word limit 2000–8000
Show rules for this event
I’ve always known that I would die in space.

I’m not sure that plummeting in an escape pod towards the surface of a previously undiscovered planet quite counts, though.

I’ve lived my entire life in the void between the stars. I’ve never seen my species’s homeworld, at least not in person. Still images of the great natural wonders on Barzen? Sure. Videos of our first colony ship launch? Absolutely. I’ve even seen full three-dimensional holographic projections of live bloodsports from the Terlin Arena. But I’ve never physically been to our home system. Nor have my children, or their fathers, though they may yet someday.

Right now, I’m more focused on keeping this contraption functioning.

“I miss you all so much,” I said into the camera, which was transmitting my words and image across the galactic arm to Baskrin Station.

“We know, Mother,” said my youngest. Jeliin was just at that age where everything her parents did was the most embarrassing thing anyone has done in the history of ever, and the way she acts put-upon reminds me of how I was at her age.

“When do you think you’re going to be able to come home?” asked her older brother. Loxenti looked to have had a growth spurt since I saw him last, as he could now look over Jeliin’s head into the camera. If he got much taller, he’d have to figure out somewhere else to stand so that the viewscreen didn’t cut him off at the neck.

“Depends on how much there is to see out here,” I said, “but I think I should be back around the time of the next Kramel tournament.”

“That long?” whined Jeliin.

“Exploration missions like this take a while,” I reminded her, “but we think we’ve found what we were looking for. We’ll stick around for long enough to confirm that this is where all that radio noise is coming from, then we’ll call in the diplomancers and head home.”

“That soon?” said her father.

“Yes, Steraan,” I said, “and I expect you and Raydi to wear me out, because I—”

The ship suddenly shook, and every alarm I’d ever heard on this class of ship began sounding at once.

“That’s not a good noise,” said Raydi.

“No,” I said.

“What does it mean?”

“I don’t know, Lox, but I think I’ve got to go. I love you all. Goodbye.” I waved to the four of them, shut off the camera, grabbed my communicator, and started running for the command center.

“What’s going on?” I yelled into my comm.

“Something’s hit us!” Captain Trenta replied. “There’s all kinds of junk and debris in orbit, and we couldn’t keep track of it all.”

Well, at least it wasn’t weapons fire. “Where are we hit?”

I could tell from her hemming and hawing that whatever the answer was, I wasn’t going to like it. I finally got her to tell me, “Life support. Punctured one of our air tanks.”

I swore. “Any way we can patch it or something?”

“We don’t have the parts. And even if we did, would you want to make a time-sensitive spacewalk when there’s stuff floating around out there that can puncture our air tanks?

“So even if we could fix it, we couldn’t guarantee it would stay fixed, and also it would be hilariously unsafe. Wonderful.” I was coming up on a hallway junction. “What can I do that will be most useful?”

“Can you get the evac pods up and running?”

I turned right, heading for the pods. “Probably.”

“Good. Do that. Relsti is pulling together all our observations and transferring them to the distress beacon, and as soon as he’s done with that, we can launch it and try to get out of here before we suffocate.”

“What do we know about the planet?”

“Obviously supports life. Nitrogen-oxygen atmosphere, plenty of water. Hard to get a good sense of temperature from up here, but it’s only got ice caps at the poles, so there are probably at least parts of it within acceptable temperature range. Why do you ask?”

“If we’re worried about the ship getting hit by things in orbit, what makes us think the escape pods will be safer?” I reached a staircase and started heading down it. “We’re either going to want to fire out away from the planet, or down into it.”

Trenta was silent for a moment. Then she said, “If we launch the pods out into space, they’d be easier to retrieve, but it’ll be a while before anyone can get out here to do it.”

“If we launch towards the planet,” I said, “there are several other potential problems. People could crash. They might not even make it to the surface, and even if they survive that long, there could be any number of things on-world that could kill us. But if it does kill us, it should at least be faster than waiting in a lifeboat and hoping that somebody gets here.”

Another pause. Then, “Which would you prefer, Zentra?”

I slowed down to think about it. Finally I said, “If I’m going to die, I’d rather die quickly. And being trapped in a metal coffin for an extended period is about the farthest thing from that that I can think of. And if I do survive the landing, first contact ought to be an experience.”

“One for which we’re not trained or certified,” Trenta noted, but I could hear her amusement. “And it could kill us in any number of ways.”

“But it might not,” I reiterated, and that seemed to settle the matter.

A hit to the side of my lifeboat draws me back to the present. It also sends the capsule spinning, which is as pleasant when you’re in a safety harness in zero gravity as it is at any other time.

Namely, it becomes unfun very quickly, and it takes some effort to stop. More effort, in fact, as you can’t rely on any help from the floor.


This thing isn’t really designed for an atmosphere, but there are things I can do that can help.

I look for the thruster controls, hoping I can at least stabilize it. It takes me a little while to find them, but I do.

I reach out a claw and press what I think is the button to fire the thruster pointed in the right direction to counter the spin.

I quickly realize, as I overcorrect and start spinning the opposite direction, that there is more to piloting an escape pod than I expected.

Back in explorer training, our instructors had told us that there was no effective way to know every detail about our ships to the point that we could do everything successfully without having to look up the procedures. User manuals were fine and dandy, and we were expected to make use of them when we could, but beyond a certain point, there was no substitute for experience, and we as a species did not live long enough to have all of the experiences necessary to be able to handle every situation with grace and dignity.

As I try to maneuver so that we are oriented vertically, I decide there is no amount of experience that could have prepared me for trying to land an escape pod from space to the surface of a planet I know nothing about.

The pod starts to shudder around me.

Renewed panic surges through my body, and I scan the instrument readouts, hoping to find out what this is. I see that the external temperature sensors are climbing far past any survivable range, and I wonder how this can be. We know temperatures on the planet’s surface are lower than the boiling point of water, so why are we an order of magnitude above that?

I look out the viewport and see a glow outside.

Right. Atmospheric entry has to burn off a lot of energy. I remember learning about this, but I never thought I’d experience it in person, and I certainly never would have guessed it would be over a world no known species had touched.

If I remember right, we were over the night side of the planet. I’m probably the brightest thing in the sky right now.

“Look, Johnny,” said Jimmy to his friend, as they lay on a hill in the park. “It’s a shooting star!”

“And a bright one, too,” said his father. “I didn’t think there were meteor showers this time of year. And it’s falling from an odd spot in the sky.”

Does this thing even have a heat shield? Is it built well enough that it won’t break into tiny pieces as we fall?

Those are questions I wish I remembered the answers to. I am fairly certain it won’t float should it land in a large body of water.

It is well-insulated, though. I don’t feel any of the heat that the severe deceleration is imparting to the outside of this poor life raft.

I talked to a spacecraft designer once, and he told me that one of the many things he had to consider in his line of work was the effects of accelerative and decelerative forces on the Barza body. “They have different effects,” he said, “depending on their magnitude and which direction they’re going. Artificial gravity and inertial dampeners help with this, but it will always be true that you can take a lot more pressure going eyes-in than you can eyes-out.”

It is for this reason that I am trying very hard not to look down. Because we are still slowing down, hard, and looking down would make that an eyes-out force. I like my eyes, and I would rather not have them pop out of my head.

I have no idea how high we are right now. There’s no altimeter in this thing, and it wouldn’t help anyway because it wouldn’t have been calibrated for this planet. Besides, I don’t know the elevation of the land underneath us. I could try to look out the viewport, but I can’t see much from this angle and I wouldn’t have any perspective anyway.

I wait.

Free fall seems to have ended, I think. I’m now falling at a more constant rate.

If the pod had a parachute, this might be a good time to open it.

Does it have a parachute, actually? That might be something I should have checked.

I look at the controls again, scanning their names for anything that looks like “parachute”. Pressure… pod release… pro—


That was impact.

Whether or not there was a parachute, it’s too late to use it now.

The pod hasn’t stopped moving yet. It seems to be sliding down a slanted surface and hitting things as it goes.

Eventually it stops, and I try to take stock of my situation.

My head hurts. I think I hit it, and I may be concussed.

I am fairly certain my arm should not be able to bend that way.

Oh, my. There’s a piece of support structure sticking through my left leg.

I should probably be in so much pain right now.

I consider my options. If I move my leg much, that might pull out the thing that’s keeping my leg from gushing blood, and I’d bleed out in seconds. That’s probably not good.

Can I open the pod door from here? Well, maybe, if I can remember the switches I need to hit.

Should I? Probably not. I don’t know what’s outside.

I take another look out the viewport, which is facing roughly back the way I came.

Those look like plants that are on fire. Something is on fire, anyway.

Well, then, I won’t open the door. I don’t want to deal with fire right now. I have enough problems.

Can I reach the rebreathers? I don’t thinks so. They’re in a box near the door. Maybe I should try anyway, just so I have one. I reach for the box.

I hear sounds outside. Steps? Growls? Voices? I can’t tell.

Something is hitting the door. I look for a weapon. Surely there is one.

The door opens.
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#1 ·
Hmm. I didn't really like this story.

The narration and the dialogue is functional, with little-to-no mechanical errors, but the style is so... bland, and quite tell-y in a few places. None of the characters have any real personality, and the premise itself, while simple, is also just straight up not-interesting to me. It just feels like a series of events that have happened, with no sense of urgency or conflict or intrigue.

Really not a fan of this story at all.
#2 ·
This is an odd beginning. The intro seems to hint the narrator is an alien, but the family scene after that feels not just human, but 21st century western culture human.

So, what, this ship has absolutely no redundancy on systems that that are essential to the crew's survival? And no way of fixing these systems if they are damaged?

Escape pods, fresh from Star Trek's cutting room floor! Evidently the ship is provided with these even though they are almost entirely useless (since the characters know they'll die in the pods before a rescue mission arrives).

An Earthlike planet. I wonder if it's Earth?

And the narrator hasn't received training on how to pilot the pod properly. Who is behind these missions? Evidently they're the sort who's look at Star Trek's exploding consoles and decide they're far top staid and sensible.

Earth confirmed.

… And we're at the end.

Again, I'm running into the problem that there's nothing really here. The setting is generic space opera. The plot is alien falling to Earth. The character has the same emotional affect whether she's talking to her family, in a life-or-death situation, or concussed and severely injured. There's little I can comment on, because there's little here.
#3 ·
I have to concur with the above. Imagine watching the first Star Wars movie and we get to the point where the droid’s escape pod lands on Tatooine… and the movie ends. Escape pods are such an old trope in SF that they can’t form a story in themselves; they would need to be well packed with other meanings to form a good skeleton for a story, and the backstory and introspection here aren’t original or engaging enough to pull that off. Sorry, Author!
#4 · 1
I'll break with the others and give this general praise. It obviously suffers from an abrupt ending that doesn't give us much closure. But apart from that, I felt like this did a good job of hooking my curiosity and interest in the characters and their situation. The hints of the protagonist's family were particularly interesting.
#5 · 1

I kind of want to leave the above as the entirety of my comments, but that would be a little gauche. S&S and GGA covered all the actual critique I would make, though. The setup's implausible and the execution fairly generic.

Yeah, it hooks, but it hooks by setting up "something interesting will happen later" instead of "something interesting is happening now!" All the language used is coded to looking forward and creating anticipation of what's finally going to happen, creating expectations for a payoff and making the reader want to know what will happen, and then it doesn't deliver. The flash-forward opening, in particular, is a big red flag that this is happening - the author knows the real opening scene with the family call isn't engaging, so instead leads off with "it'll be exciting later, I promise!"

It's also just barely over the minimum length requirement, so I'm going to call this one as probably a rush job that ends where it does due to time pressure. That's a shame. Good hustle getting something in, though. I didn't, again, so I can't complain too much! And the mastery of attention grab techniques is certainly worth some praise. I do think this WOULD have been good, if it continued to actual meat and cut some of the fluff and panic from this start. Thanks for writing!