Excerpt for Astronauts: A Short Story by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

ASTRONAUTS

MILO ABRAMS




OTHER BOOKS BY MILO ABRAMS


The Woods

Waiting for the Fall

Origins

To Kill a Ghost

We, the Animals




This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to any actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.


Copyright © 2017 by Milo Abrams


All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by an information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the copyright owner.


For more information on Milo and his other books, visit www.miloabrams.com


Smashwords Edition



To my wife, Megan: All of the beauty across the entire universe was just a rough draft to get to you. I love you.







Trillions of miles from home, Fritz sat staring out a small porthole window at the front of the space shuttle. Below him was an alien world with exponentially more water and life than back home. For him, it was a childhood dream come true.

"How much longer?” he called back to Graham.

“About another ninety minutes. We need to finish all our checks before we descend.” A disappointed smile crossed his face. “You should probably wake Hank.”

Fritz nodded then drifted effortlessly past him toward the back portion of the shuttle. He never questioned Graham’s authority. Even though it was only the three of them, Fritz was the low man on the totem pole. It was a position he had been used to his entire life.

As soon as he reached the bedding area, gargling snores echoed off the thin metal walls of the shuttle. Hank was fast asleep in his bunk, twitching under a soft blue blanket. Fritz knew he would be pissy if woke him, but they were less than two hours from the climax of the mission, as Hank called it. It was the moment they all had been waiting for.

He gently shook Hank’s shoulder.

A single snore shot from Hank’s throat as he lifted his arm and turned away from Fritz. He had fallen asleep in his suit so he would be ready the moment it was time to go.

“Come on, Hank,” Fritz whispered. Afraid his crew mate would turn and knock him senseless, he backed away and grabbed a small book from Graham’s bunk, then took aim. The book drifted silently, tumbling end-over-end in slow motion through the air until it collided with the back of Hank’s head.

Hank shot upward, smacking the unaffected portion of his large head against the ceiling of the bunk with a painful thud.

“What the hell?” he yelled as he turned. His large, dark eyes met with the sight of Fritz slowly escaping to the front of the shuttle.

By the time Hank followed him out, Fritz was back to staring out at the strange world below them.

“Morning, sunshine,” Graham said smiling.

Hank gave a grimace of pain as he rubbed the back of his smooth head where the book hit. He drifted toward Fritz then huddled beside him at the window.

“All you do is stare out that damn thing,” he grumbled.

Fritz didn't take his eyes away. Stars were faintly visible beyond the planet’s edge like tiny pinpricks in a black back-lit covering. “I don't understand how you can't,” he fired back.

Hank straightened his shoulders, his eyes rolling upward in boredom. “So it's a big watery rock. Big deal. We've got water at home, oceans and oceans of the stuff. I just want to get down there, stretch my legs, and see some aliens and shit. That's exciting.”

“There's no guarantee you'll see anything, Hank,” Graham called from behind them. “Probes and rovers have only ever seen plants.”

“Bullshit,” Hank scoffed. “Plants are food. If there's food, there's at least something down there to eat them.”

Graham smiled. “Keep dreaming, kid.”

Fritz wasn't sure how he felt about the whole thing. The point of their mission was to go where the probes and rovers couldn't. To get on the ground, in the dirt, and really see what was there. Looking can only go so far. Sometimes you just had to get your hands dirty.

“I don't know,” Fritz uttered. “Hank has a point. If there's nothing but plants, then why are we only allowed on the surface for an hour? It barely gives us enough time to land, collect samples, and then get back up here before the shuttle passes around in orbit.”

Graham’s eyes were dark and cold. He wanted to give Fritz a better answer, but he couldn't. He was obedient to a T. “Those are our orders,” he said. “Our superiors are more familiar with this place and protocol than we are. As much like home as this place is, we can't be sure of anything until we go there. There's no way to even know if the smallest bit of plant life that was seen is hostile or not.”

Those words grated across Hank’s skin. “Sounds like you watch too many movies. I still call bullshit. You know they aren't telling us stuff.”

It was the same old routine. Hank would doubt authority and Graham would ignore him as long as he could. Of course there were things that Graham knew that the others didn't, but it was always a matter of safety.

Fritz let their bantering fade into the background. They were flying around the planet at over seventeen thousand miles per hour, and Fritz couldn't believe how beautiful it was.

After the debate ended, Hank threw up his lanky arms and drifted back toward the bunks. Fritz caught something on his face as he passed by that he had never seen in all of the time they traveled together.

Sadness.

So he followed him.

“You okay?” Fritz asked.

Hank was floating near his bunk, and in his hands was the small book that hit him earlier. It was the manual for the ship’s night shade. The night shade was a technology that allowed all of the external windows on the lander to view the outside as if it were daytime even if it was the middle of the night. The only difference was everything had a green hue.

He raised his hand up and slowly rubbed it over his forehead and back across is smooth bald head. “You really think they have everything out in the open?” Hank asked.

Fritz’s thoughts stuttered. After an awkward pause, his voice barely croaked out. “I believe Graham. I believe what I'm told, not only because I want to, but because I have to.”

“And that doesn't bother you?” Hank turned toward him. His eyes were slanted downward.

Fritz had never seen Hank so forward with thoughts that weren't complaints or witty remarks. He looked down at the manual, grasping for a response to supplement his lack of a truthful answer.

“I like the night shade as much as anyone, but I don't think I'd ever bother reading the manual.”

Hank carelessly tossed it aside, letting it spin as it drifted away toward the rear of the shuttle.

“Graham’s been messing with it a lot lately,” Hank said.

“Is there something wrong with it?”

Hank shook his head. “No, everything seems fine.”

“Then why worry? I bet he's just making sure it works properly.” Hank wouldn't look him in the eyes. He liked Hank, and he wanted Hank to like him back. “And…what if there is something there besides plants? Would be nice to know so it doesn't come sneaking up on us.”

Hank smiled at the thought. He drifted over and patted Fritz on the back. “There's the adventure I was looking for. The fun shit.”

Fritz returned the smile. As he did, he noticed the way Hank’s eyes weren't squinted slightly with his smile—it was an immediate red flag. Years of psychological analysis to prepare for space travel had taught him to read people, and one of the easiest things to notice was a fake smile.

Hank left him at the bunks and returned to the porthole in the front, but Fritz didn't follow. Instead, he reached under his pillow and pulled out a single picture. In it was a woman holding a small infant.

“Is that your family?” Graham asked from the doorway, his voice smooth and low.

“Yeah,” Fritz said rubbing a finger near their faces. He never talked about them because he never wanted to explain his pain.

“Most astronauts don't have families anymore,” Graham said, “because it's too hard on everyone. In the early days it might not have been so bad, but with all this long range space travel—I couldn't imagine it.”

Fritz remained still as Graham appeared beside him, his eyes low and focused on the picture.


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