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Space Laureate

Arisia'17 Student Writing Contest - Honorable Mention

Space Laureate

By Sophia Skinner

Wisps of fog accompanied Solda as he crossed the field, grey in the morning light. The terrain sloped gradually downwards toward the sea, encircling the island, where the early dawn broke, setting fire to the waves and mist. His white lab coat, embroidered with branching leaf patterns, flapped about his ankles, the fringes becoming damp in the cold dew. Although it was one island among a chain, it was also a mountain formation, formerly known as the Appalachians. Solda's warm breath puffed in front of him, swirling in eddies past his ears as he walked. He snapped his fingers and bobbed his head to an inaudible beat.
He approached a settlement of stunted, grey, cube-shaped buildings barely taller than the sparse trees, with dim lanterns swaying by the doors, illuminating the mist in warm globes. He continued towards a small wooden building closest to the sea.
As he entered, a bell chimed to announce his arrival. Wooden shelves lined every surface, and a cash register sat at a checkout counter toward the back. The light was dingy but offered warmth and was accompanied by a familiar musty smell and atmosphere.
"Georgia, 'the delivery here yet?" He asked, approaching the half-open door behind the counter, and paused, observing the empty shelves, "This place is picked clean. The shipment made it, didn't it?" Solda leaned on the counter, tapping his toes on the floor, trying to stay casual for the sake of food. "Georgia?" He glanced around at the aisles of shelves again.
An unseen kettle began to whistle, followed by footsteps and Georgia emerged, coffee pot in hand.
"Morning, Solda," the woman addressed him in a light french accent. She wore thin glasses with bags under her eyes and several jackets. Her dark hair was contained in a messy bun. "I was awake all night coding that absurd rocket," she adjusted the rims, "That Russian Hacker just won't stay out of our systems - Anyway, what can I get you? I have one leftover box of dried anything, seasoned with a sprinkling of mold."
"Eh, no thanks. Do you have my electrophoresis?" He asked, tapping his fingers on the counter.
"No, no shipment today, sorry, just more supplies, hydrogen fuel and parts for the rocket." she said as she poured the coffee into a thermos. "Sorry, I'm not sure where your electrophoresis is, Solda. The lack of fresh rations especially ketchup, is quite tragic.
"Strange." He exited the store with his hands in his pockets. Georgia was one of the many scientists on the island. She ran the small store that distributed rations to the mountain's residents and programmed the AI for the rocket that everyone was working on, intended for a one way trip to mars.
Unfortunately every shipment arrived with fewer supplies, as the war burned through their finances. Their organization was a sect of NASA that survived the melting polar ice cap floods by relocating to the mountains. Conflict had sprung up from the worldwide panic of dwindling resources and it was reaching a climax. Every night, on the horizon were the unmistakable flashes of pyrotechnic warfare drawing ever closer.
Unsure, he flipped his hood up and started back the way he had come, towards the labs and the facilities. Without a new set of electrophoresis gel, he couldn't continue sequencing and documenting the DNA of the flora and fauna on the mountain. This was his appointed duty, as well as collecting specimens for the agricultural seed bank to terraform the martian landscape. Although he was only fourteen, every working mind and body had to be utilized, and every resource maximized so that the rocket could be complete in time because everyone knew that they were going to lose the war, it was only a matter of time. Every day the enemy advanced along the mountain range, pushing deeper into their territory. Further inland and up the mountain range were hydroponic farms, their only source of food, engineered to run on seawater and float on pontoons, and they were ground zero for scatter-bomb warfare. The knowledge that they would lose didn't make it easier and it pressed at the back of Solda's consciousness, every now and then, resurfacing in the form of tragic poetry. Popular opinion was that when they lost the war a ruthless, deviant sect of the Russian space program, known as Daesh, would flood in and nuke the entire project because it threatened their own ambitions. He understood that currently the UN had united with the US and a few other countries to work with NASA but the Russian and the Chinese space programs had chosen to oppose them which commenced a global race to escape deteriorating life on Earth. The chinese government had already begun colonizing the moon, leaving the russians growing progressively more desperate to establish their own colony, although they retained the strongest resources due to their low-temperate climate where warm-climate flora and fauna had been migrating for years to escape the soaring temperatures of the equator. However this had all been predicted hundreds of years before, if only they hadn't denied it ...
"Solda!" His train of thought derailed. A lanky boy in grey sweats, Bean, followed by a tall girl with a mechanical arm came running up behind him from the direction of the docks, where the shipment had arrived. "Solda, this is Cera, she's-" he took a huge gasp for breath. "She's a messenger from the front lines."
"Uh, yeah, I know, dude, she's an agriculturalist, she supplies us with GMOs for the seed bank."
"Right over here," She scowled. "...Dummkopf."
"Yeah... Hey, do you have the wheat v. 9.6 yet? That was scheduled for, like, three months ago."
"Okay! Okay!" Bean interjected, "The world is basically ending, Solda."
"Oh. Bean listen though, you reminded me, Georgia was out of electrophoresis, do you have any extra? I think the coevolutionary chain of the finches and pines was broken this morning, evolution maximized. They've been evolving for generations, side by side, see, the bird's' beak evolves to be stronger to pry open pine cones, and the cones just become thicker and less penetrable. But this morning...." Solda produced a heavy looking lumpy thing and yellow feather, "the bird couldn't open the pinecone because the cone's shell is so thick, which also prevents the seeds from escaping and growing.

Mortality is incurable." Solda riffled through his other pocket, "Here, I already started a poem about it. It's about the futility of all effort."
"Ok, enough with the doom and gloom Mr. Existentiality, we have a job." Cera said, not bothering to cover her yawn.
"Right on it, German Engineering." Solda said, offended.
"Solda, actually though, we.... lost the war." Bean said. "The treaty was signed early this morning. They gave up our project, we're completely vulnerable. We need to leave now. We don't have time for poetry."
"Uh, this is literally the perfect time for poetry." But he stuffed the objects back in his pocket anyway. "But seriously, we're not ready. We can't launch now. The expected date of completion is still months away. We'd, like, disintegrate in the atmosphere or something."
"Ugh, come on!" Cera who had been jogging in place impatiently grabbed them by the shoulders, pushing them forward. "This is cyber warfare, jungen, all of our telecommunications are being monitored so we have to deliver the message verbally. We have maybe hours at best."
Bean made a face, "verbally? What does that mean? You sound like a bird." Solda snickered.
Cera looked at him. She felt bad for them, they must have had the briefest education before entering the scientific field."What's the quickest way over the mountain. To the labs?"
Solda gestured toward the path that they were on, "there's a tunnel that goes    through, it's faster than going around. Just follow the trail."
Cera set off at a run without looking back. "Morons."

"What just happened." Solda whispered, dropping his attitude. "Why now?" "Dunno. Sometimes things happen for no reason." They started making their way up the mountain side. "I've never been over the mountain before." They took an overgrown path, ascending through rocks and boulders. They discussed a new rap album and listened to it on Solda's phone, sharing earbuds. They speculated when the first house would be underwater, and they complained about the constant brush fires that plagued the dying mountainside.
They were gasping for breath by the time they reached the summit. A crisp, salty breeze blasted up the mountainside, chilling their lungs.
Solda's pupils dilated to slivers. "The fog is gone." Hundreds of miles of flat ocean, darker areas ruffled by wind, a gleaming runway welcoming the dawn. It was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen. It made him feel something in his chest, like a tight squeeze. "It's not really worth it though, is it." He mused, letting his arms stretch out, catching the wind. "This bogus war ain't worth all the beauty in the world."
Bean sat down cross-legged, picking at the gravel. "I'll second that. But... I think it's still nice. It makes things just a little more bearable." After a second he added, "And, uh, you got any Prozac on you? I forgot to dose up this morning because we were busy island hopping with Cera."
"No, sorry." Solda said, lowering his arms, and closed his eyes, after images clouding the darkness. "I think I'll call Alex to make sure everything's ok. Maybe she can pick yours up?"
They continued down the other side of the mountain, Solda muttering into his phone. A massive facility came into view with the NASA logo emblazoned across the roof, and farther down was a small cluster of buildings. The ground shook and a deafening rumble filled the air as an arrow formation of enormous, matte black drones tore white rifts through the sky above them. The Russians - Daesh. As Solda watched, one veered suddenly becoming engulfed in flames and smearing across the sky like a stray paint stroke. A second lost a wing a moment later, spiralling into the ocean with a concussive splash. Solda spied the culprit on a neighboring peak: a rotating artillery stockade, defending the peaks. Their last line of defense.
"Solda, run!" Bean yelled and they flew down the mountainside. They arrived at the facility, greeted by a pair of huge doors, rolled up to reveal a long track loaded with a shuttle painted with strange colors. The massive room was filled with hanging chrome parts and walls lined with scaffolding. Workers milled about in blue jump suits, assembling each section of the rocket like a horizontal stack of donuts. They took a moment to watch as it was erected in the middle of the room, the ceiling receded to make way.
They hurried to the left toward a door in the wall and up a staircase that led to a control bridge behind glass windows. Inside was a small group of people of all ages dressed in light micro gravity suits. Another quake rocked the building and a woman dressed in black performing key-smash at a terminal screamed, "Barrel bombs!" The speakers crackled over each other frantically, directing and redirecting the human traffic. The group began arguing, with increasing volume. "Second round, incoming!" The woman in black yelled into a mic. "AT shield holding!"
"Hey, you." a guard dressed in grey pushed over to Bean and Solda through the chaos. "BIOTECH, come with me." He said addressing Solda, then he turned to Bean, "Who are you? You aren't on my list. If you haven't been allotted a position on the shuttle, leave." His hand had crept to his holster. It was shaking. "Wait... you're McNeely's son. You aren't allowed here. The mentally diseased are forbidden."
Solda grabbed Beans' shoulders. Tears were streaming down his face. "Look Bean, I gotta retrieve the seed data and genetics from the lab. Just down the mountain. Stay here."

"No, I'll do it, I'm... faster a-and you know it..." Solda stared at him with a mixture of horror, relief, then guilt, "The bio-chem lab, room 601?"
"No-" Solda began, lifting an arm to stop him but Bean pushed past and was out the door. The guard relaxed. The workers in blue were fitting the rocket to the shuttle as Bean stepped outside.
Moments later, the shuttle began boarding the scientists. Announcers called, "DOD, HQ, EECOM, CAPCOM, SURGEON...." Solda, now clad in a light blue suit, scrambled against the tide of bodies but was swept away in the madness, aboard the shuttle. He saw Alex and Georgia and many others but not Bean. Or Cera, strangely. There were tens of people boarding, but Solda knew that there were hundreds more that populated the island.
He overheard Georgia talking into a Bluetooth, "--AI for the rocket is still incomplete, Cher. There is miles of code still missing. Ask yourself what is the most essential thing to achieving a goal. The answer is wanting to, the AI needs to want to fly even just near light speed or it we'd never a get up to a hundredth of that. But what does this rocket want to do? Well right now it probably wants to explode, or go for a swim, or do nothing--" A metallic clang announced the airlock closing, and the clamor died down as the astronauts settled into their routine.
The seats were arranged in rows but at such an angle that if it had been a car, the car would be standing on its rear end, the front pointing upward. Solda felt something pressing against his thigh from inside his pocket. He had donned the uniforms but had kept his lab coat. He removed the pine cone and the feather from his pocket, holding one in each hand, recalling. People around him shouted off protocol checks, scrambling to fulfill them.
"This is it," Georgia whispered, although her Bluetooth was powered off.
Alex shouted through the background of ever-present noise at Solda who was swiping through his control panel, checking if the data had made it. "Where's Bean? Isn't he coming?"
Solda shook his head, grimacing, "He can't, remember? Mentally unstable people and handicaps aren't allowed." He struggled to make himself heard above the noise.
"What? You're mentally unstable!" Alex screamed over the noise. She began climbing through the seats toward the airlock. "Where is he?" She demanded, not looking back. Solda explained, climbing after her.
Exiting the shuttle, the two were faced by the same guard in grey, standing at the end of the bridge. He drew his gun, gripping the magnum with both hands in front of him. Alarms were blaring and flashing throughout the facility but his words were cold and clear. "Kindly re-enter the shuttle," he said without inflection. "My family is in there and we need every scientist we got to get that thing in the sky."
Solda backed off, reaching for the shuttle door, but Alex stepped forward. "I'm leaving." she said, looking the man in the eyes.
"Alex, don't. Alex-" Solda said. His voice grew quiet, "I love you... Don't do this."
"'Love you too. Get back in the shuttle."
The man shook as Alex approached him, tremors running through his body, his hands jumping wildly on the gun. They all heard the click as he released the safety. "I'm warning y-" Before he could finish Alex jumped off the bridge and onto a scaffolding and then the floor, dashing for the huge doors. "CAPCOM!" The guard yelled after her. "Get back here!"
Shocked, Solda gripped to the railing, watching her flee. A deafening blast issued from the man's gun, sinking a .45 slug into the side of the shuttle, inches from Solda's nose. Solda jerked backwards at the shot, and scrambled back into the shuttle, the airlock securing with a clang and pneumatic hiss.
As the rocket ascended through the atmosphere Solda scrolled through his control
panel, checking the astronaut's stats. This was Alex's job, but no one would notice.
Adrenaline levels seemed to be surging, their heart beats a little high. He smiled as he let the feeling wash over him. He closed out to a camera view on the side of the rocket. The earth's curvature flew by becoming tighter and tighter in the most brilliant blue he'd ever seen.
Red lights began flashing. He checked his dash: cabin pressure had shot up in the lower levels. Suddenly his ears popped and then felt like they were bursting. The most acute pain he'd ever experienced stabbed his gut and he doubled over, squeezing his eyes shut.
He knew that he would die. The whole crew knew that they would, from the beginning. That's just the consequences for launching an unfinished rocket. But of course they thought that they would have just a little more time. Hopefully get somewhere first. Mars was the plan, but that didn't look like it was happening. Seconds remained in their lives and the only desperate question was what to do with them. What will you do? What will you do?
He reached out, tapping the com. "Come in, Ground Control. This is..." He trailed off as he heard someone else on the line sobbing, although it sounded more like ripping paper within the static. He turned it off. There was a long moment of silence and weightlessness. Solda felt grief more sharp than any physical pain, stopping his breath in his throat in a inaudible, violent sob. Tears, salty tears like the ocean drifted through his eyelashes in undulating spheres. He recited the words of the poem he had written earlier, grasping at closure before his molecules drifted apart.
The sky is black.
My back is to the sky.
Above the sky, I'm liberated in the ether Whether or not I belong
Is everything wrong?
Or is it right?
It's all in sight
But still in spite,
I feel a fear so bright
I know that it must be right. I will die tonight.