“O Captain, my Captain.” Jonathan earned a glare, and grinned. “C’mon, Aly. Haven’t you seen the Dead Poet’s Society?”
“No.” She brushed off specks of dust from her uniform. Aly was about to tell him off when a figure burst into the room. Her eyes were shining, but not in a good way.
“Jon, tell me it’s not true!” Aly stepped to the side, fiddling with spare papers. He placed a hand on the girl’s shoulder.
“Gia, I have to. This type of discovery is amazing! Planet IOX, quarter of a lightyear away.” She refused to look convinced.
“Let me come with you. We’ve got the same degrees.” He exhaled slowly.
“I can’t. It’s orders from the top.” Aly flinched, expecting a screaming match to ensue. Instead, Gia wiped her eyes.
“Be safe, Captain Alyx.” Jon took Gia in his arms, whispering things that only she could hear. After an awkward pause, Jonathan let her go.
“I’ll see you soon.” He kissed her forehead. She looked at him, then gave a quick nod to Aly before leaving. Jon watched her walk all the way down the corridor, even after she was no longer in sight. Aly bumped his shoulder.
“Let’s go, Jonathan. We’ve got a flight to catch.” He smiled, but his heart wasn’t into it. Aly paused, flicking her short, blonde hair to the side. “She’ll be fine. We’ll be fine. Now, come on.” They made their way to the rocket, with Aly’s stoic, grey eyes looking only ahead. The two astronauts were strapped in, fully suited, and ready to fly after two hours. Georgia was at Mission Control, glancing from the window to the screens.
“You okay?” Blue eyes were gazing worriedly at her when she turned. She gave a breathy laugh.
“I’m nervous, Carter. I’d be less nervous if I was going with them.” He pushed up his glasses.
“Being nervous isn’t beneficial. Could you help me? Something is off in the main system, I think it’s the solid rocket boosters.” She knew he was just trying to make her feel better by distracting her.
“I’ll give it a try.” She sat down next to him, typing in a few codes. “How’s it now?” Carter peered at the screen, then nodded.
“Running smoothly.” The announcer started calling T-minus one minute, and Gia rushed to her station.
“This is CAPCOM to the Proxy. Everything stable?”
“Affirmative, CAPCOM.” Aly’s voice resonated a leaderful tone.
“Mission Specialist, everything stable?”
“Affirmative, CAPCOM. If it wasn’t, I’d tell ya.” Gia could hear the smile in his voice.
“All systems are a go.”
T-MINUS THIRTY SECONDS.
Everyone around her began furiously typing, a general hum of chatter rising. She watched her screen as the speakers blasted.
T-MINUS TEN, NINE, EIGHT, SEVEN-
“Preparing for liftoff,” said the head of Mission Control.
THREE, TWO, ONE, AND LIFTOFF!
The rocket’s engines blasted, the sound vibrating the entire building. Everyone huddled around the windows, watching in excitement as the rocket flew. A powerful tail of fire trailed behind it in a dazzling cape, and the cheers of people down on Earth were as audible as the rocket. Georgia was in the back, touching her hand over and over to ensure that the diamond ring was still wound around her finger. The launch was an obvious success. Only she was not celebrating, and seemed weary as praise was spread. Carter walked over to her.
“Gia, listen. You’re the only person who can talk to the Proxy. If something’s gone wrong, you’ll know. The three months to get there will be a breeze.” She didn’t meet his eyes. “Do you think he’d want you to act like this?” Carter left, sighing. Gia sat at her desk for a long time, head in her hands.
Carter had been right, the three months flew by before she knew it. Then came the fateful day, the landing. It was like any other, until a loud sound burst in Gia’s headphones. She jumped in her chair, startled.
“Gia! Planet IOX, it’s so close!” Joy washed over her as she spread the message. Everyone cheered as Gia eagerly talked with the Proxy.
“Jon, we’re not even there yet! Gia, just a minute. We’re going to switch the cameras.” There was a pause, then a small, grey planet filled up her screen. The first thing she noticed were the four giant craters on the top, bottom, left, and right of the planet. They were all connected with giant holes, like a baseball diamond, but the holes were shooting out steam.
“Geysers,” Gia whispered. The camera switched back to Aly. She was smiling, but her eyes remained on the controls.
“Preparing for landing.” Jonathan began pressing buttons, face serious, but eyes full of wonder. Gia talked them through the process. Soon, they entered the atmosphere and were nearing the ground. Aly switched the cameras again, and Gia transferred it to the main screen so that everyone could watch the magnificent feat.
“Gonna suit up. Switching to Cameras C and D soon.” Jon and Alyx signed off. Everyone was babbling with excitement, but Gia remained still, and Carter noticed.
“How’s it going?” She sighed.
“I’m still nervous. Today’s the day we’ve been waiting for, but-”
“That’s what makes it more nerve-racking.” She nodded. “That’s normal. Everyone here is nervous too, even if they don’t show it. Now, let’s see what IOX is like.” Aly’s camera switched on first. It was inside her helmet, and she turned it around.
“It’s a little like Mercury, but great atmosphere. If it was filled with oxygen, we could live here.”
“Having a bit of trouble with his suit, so he told me to go ahead.” Gia smiled, despite herself.
“The captain’s taking orders now?” Aly chuckled and panned the view of IOX. There were small geysers everywhere, shooting up steam at random intervals. She stepped closer to one, intrigued. Her steps were slow and deliberate. The gravity was obviously heavier there than on Earth.
“Say, Alyx, that doesn’t look like steam from water, does it?” Aly shook her head, studying the geyser. A sharp burst of steam suddenly erupted from the hole, spraying the gas and liquid all over Aly’s helmet. She reeled back, trying to wipe it off, but it burned through her gloves and started opening holes in her helmet. Gia was shouting, trying to talk to her, but her body wasn’t pressurized by the suit anymore. It started swelling furiously, her lips turned blue, and eyes slumped back. Everyone crowded around Gia’s desk, but they could only watch as the sensors in her broken suit started beeping off the charts. Her blood, saliva, and water started to boil. Gia switched back to Jon’s camera and mic, and he jumped at her voice.
“Jon, don’t go near the geysers!”
She took a deep breath. “Alyx is gone. She stepped too close to one of them. It’s not water, it’s some sort of acid.” He stared away from the lens of the camera.
“There was a setting in our suits against all foreign elements. I turned it on, but she must have forgotten.” In those words, Mission Control crumbled, and the winds of hardship blew it away. Everyone fell silent, and a faint sobbing was heard in the back. Then, it happened. It was very subtle at first, even Jon didn’t notice. As Gia lifted her eyes back to the screen, she saw the video shake a little bit.
“Jon-” Suddenly, waves of tremors rocked IOX, and sent him tumbling down a slope. The camera was bouncing around so heavily that all she could see were colored blurs. “Jon!” she screamed. He yelled something back, but it was unintelligible over the sound of rocks rumbling downhill. At one point, Gia thought she heard an avalanche and desperately tried to connect with him, forgetting everyone behind her.
“G-Gia, ca-an you hear-r me?” His cameras switched, showing a dangerously steep ravine, and his position on a small cliff that jutted out from its side. She didn’t even gasp, didn’t even hesitate before answering.
“I’m bringing you back.”
“Gia, what-” She pushed back from the desk and started running to the launch pad, ignoring the outrage of the crowd. A rocket, identical to the one Jon and Alyx took, was awaiting her on the restraints. Perfect. Before she could suit herself up, a hand on her shoulder stopped her.
“Gia, what are you doing? How are you going to bring Jon back?” It was Carter. Of course it was. She took a deep breath.
“I’m going to fly to IOX with the plasma fuel. Yes,” she interrupted Carter, who was trying to make a point. “I know it has only been tested once. But I can get there in a day or two.”
“Do you think this is authorized? The money that’ll be wasted, the resources-”
“I don’t care!” she cried out. “If you were in his position, wouldn’t you want to get out of there as soon as possible?” Carter snapped his mouth shut in a firm line. “I’m not asking you to come with me, or to even monitor the flight. Just...help me suit up.” He stood rigid for a moment, then started to put on her gloves and boots. In half an hour, Gia was ready. As she climbed in the rocket, Carter watched her.
“I’ll monitor it from CAPCOM. It’s the least I could do.” She nodded and entered the rocket. Gia strapped herself in, starting the takeoff sequences. A few minutes later, Carter’s voice was in her ear. “T-minus five, four.” She saw the people of Mission Control starting to run out of the building. A small pit of fear grew in her stomach, but she forced it down. “Three, two, one. Liftoff.” The rocket’s engines burst into life, exploding fiery blasts of heat as it rose up, up, up, to the sky and the stars. As she navigated the vessel, he spoke to her again. “Good luck, Gia.” It was the last sound she heard for two days.
She had been expecting something more exciting, even after she saw the overall greyness of the planet. IOX’s atmosphere was just a kilometer away, and Gia prepared to enter it. The landing was a bit shaky, but successful. She was already suited up and prepared, turning on the protection in her suit and helmet. The planet was almost serene without the enormous earthquakes, the small, gentle geysers sending up steam. She watched them, transfixed. A rock, the size of a basketball, shot up into the air, then zoomed back down inside the geyser. Gia heard a giant boom, and then, a second later, crack! She shined her helmet lights inside the geyser before it erupted again, and saw that the inside of the planet was slowly cracking from the core. The fissures were rippling deeper and deeper the more she looked. Filled with horror, she suddenly started to call Jon’s name over and over into the mic, running as fast as she could with the extreme gravity. Twice, she swore she heard something other than static, but she couldn’t see anything. After a while, she was completely winded, and stopped, hands on knees. She was breathing hard, the oxygen in her tank already half gone. Gia had maybe an hour or so left before she needed a refill. Her ears rung, then filled up with sound.
“G-georgia…” She straightened up and started walking towards the sound blindly.
“Jon! Where are you?”
“Stop! You’ll fall in!” Her feet halted; she was indeed on the edge of a ravine. She peered down, and there, to her heart’s dismay, was Jonathan. Gia could see the hint of his smile through his tinted helmet. She said nothing, only crouched and extended her hand. He stood up, wincing, and grasped her hand. She helped him up, and was about say something when he embraced her tightly. Tears pricked at her eyes, but did not fall. “Come on, Gia. We’re going home.” He did not let go of her hand as they started towards the rocket again. They moved as fast as they could under the pressing gravity. Soon, the rocket was in plain view. Their hands fell apart, the geysers fizzing in front of them. Jon looked at her, and his eyes were the last clear image she remembered before IOX started to shake. What she had witnessed on Jon’s camera was nothing compared to now. The ground vibrated, throwing her somewhere to the right. Her ears picked up a vague noise, but it was lost in the rumbling and thundering of rocks tumbling everywhere. Powerful geysers pushed them up, and gravity shot them back down, cracking the planet even more. A hazy figure loomed over her, but she couldn’t reach them. Gia couldn’t even move, her legs were flaming with pain. “Gia!” She stretched her arm as far as she could.
“Jon…” The dust cleared, and he turned the tinted setting off in his helmet. He grabbed her hands and tried to pull her up, but he was shaking. She winced visibly, her legs chaining her to the ground. The strain on his face was obvious, and he began to speak when the planet began to shake again. It was more violent than before, if possible. He nearly fell in the crater with her. Just then, a tiny beeping went off in her helmet. She exhaled slowly, so slowly. “Jon, can you hear me?” She spoke as loudly as she could. He nodded, and she closed her eyes. “Go to the Proxy. There’s plasma fuel in the engine. You can get to Earth in two days or less.”
“What? I don’t understand what you-” He stopped mid-sentence, then shook his head. The background seemed to fade away, despite everything still shaking. “No way. We’re leaving together.” She was as stubborn as he was.
“I can’t get up, and my oxygen is running low. Jon, you have to go. Now.” She slowly lifted her hands and took something from her suit pocket, glittering brightly against the dull ground of IOX. His eyes started to squeeze shut, welling up at the same time.
“No, I won’t leave you again.” With the last bit of her strength, she threw the ring to him. He caught it, closing his fingers carefully around. “Gia, I…”
“Go.” The word was so simple, yet held so much meaning. Jon was still crying, but he turned away. He ran to the Proxy as fast as he could, refusing to look back and risk more tears. His iron grip on the ring never left, even after he had started the rocket and blazed past the atmosphere. Jon’s mic burst with static, and he barely heard a voice, down to its final breath.
“I love you, Jonathan.”
With his helmet off, the tears rolled freely down his face as he zoomed back to Earth. Thousands of miles away, someone else was crying too, for the very last time.