My Best Face

Entry by: Corone

11th June 2015
Beneath him, that planet boiled. It was almost restful, the way the clouds of poisonous gas swept around in the acidic atmosphere. The storms slid around each other like sharks, and lightning burst in fragments across the surface. But John had no time to look as he pulled himself through the corridor. He’d tried to run but in zero gravity his legs had kicked uselessly in panic. He forced himself to remember his training, and grabbing the handholds spaced along the deck he swam towards the escape craft airlock.

He heard shouts and screams from behind him on the comlink. Thompson was still back there but there was nothing he could do. He turned his head in his suit, but blinkered by his helmet he could see nothing without twisting his whole body. The screams subsided, but he knew the fire was still there, moving like liquid through the station. He had to stay ahead, had to get to one of the escape ships.

Sparks were bursting out from the equipment all around him as he reached the escape airlock. He punched in the code and it opened as if there was all the time in the world. Before it was halfway open he squeezed himself in his thick suit through the gap and turned to close it again. Through the glass of his helmet he looked back down the corridor as the airlock began to close. The fire was following him, slick and yellow in a snake of orange flame. He hammered the seal airlock button pointlessly as the heat and fire powered towards him. But the airlock closed in time, and through the thick glass he saw the flame crash against it and consume the compartment. The whole station shock as another explosion shuddered along its length.

He pulled himself into the cramped pilot seat of the capsule. His fingers too thick to operate the controls he tore off his gloves and let them float beside him. Moving quickly as the ship lurched again he discarded his helmet and began the release procedure. Lights blinked across the panel, failures in the electrical systems were shorting out everything. There was no time to follow the full procedure, he would have to blow the emergency seals or be dragged with the station down to the surface of Venus.

He hit the emergency release; behind him the explosive bolts shattered the docking link, pushing the escape craft into space with a lurch. He allowed himself a sigh of relief, but then all hell broke loose once more. The panels in front of him burst into a shower of sparks as more electrical feedback from his hurried escape drove through the systems. He frantically skipped his hands over the buttons to shut everything down before he lost more control. The lights in the cabin shut down, leaving him in darkness once the strobing flashes from the console faded away.

Everything was dark and silent, and he was falling. Venus’ gravity embraced the capsule and gently drew it closer. Through the window he could see the remains of the station, twisting as it fell towards the planet. Was he the only one to escape? His comms were dead; there was no way to know. One by one he began to switch the systems back on. A few sparked, several remained dead, but the drive system with its myriad backups held firm. He could get home, he could make it. But the navigational systems were fried.

He made a few calculations in his head based on what he could remember of their position. His best guess was that he’d orbit the planet twice before hitting the atmosphere and beginning a decent into the crushing acidic hell that was the goddess of beauty. They’d been planning to take the station home today, just before the rocket test had backfired and set fire to everything. But that meant everything was aligned, Earth was at its closest and if he could just point the capsule in the right direction the deep probes would find him. It was just a matter of trajectory, but it would still be like trying to hit an apple with an arrow, blindfolded while riding a roller coaster.

Outside the window the face of Venus glared at him, the storms rolling across each other. But maybe there was a clue there. The heat from the sun agitated the atmosphere of the planet. As the planet cooled the colours shifted and the electrical activity dulled. He might use that as a gauge. He knew which side of the planet he needed to be on, and he could count the lighting flashes to measure where he was. He’d been doing that in atmospheric studies for the last six months anyway.

But there was another way. Opening his suit he pulled out his grandfather’s pocket watch. It was old but kept good time, and he always wound it every morning. He loved the elegant face of the watch, and its age was a link to the simplicity of home when he spent his day surrounded by technology. They had planned to fire the boosters for the station at five o’clock precisely today. His orbit was carrying him in the right direction, was his watch accurate enough? He set it on the fried control console and listened to the gentle tick in the silence around him.

Checking his pocket he took out his photograph of Alison, and put it next to the watch. It was taken on the beach at Brighton. Her hand held her wind-blown hair from her face as she growled at him for taking her photograph unprepared. Her dislike of the photo was one of the things he liked about it.

“Of all the photographs to take” she had said, “you have to take that one?”

“You look real in it my love,” he’d replied. She’d smiled and kissed him and told him to come home safely.

“Don’t get lost out there, I know what you’re like with directions. I won’t be there to guide you back as usual.”

He stared at her face, sitting there unknowing on the console. Perhaps there was a final hail-Mary in that. Was love enough to point the way? In the vastness of space, could she lead the way home if he just focused on her? Plenty of animals knew how to get home to spawn or migrate. Maybe there was something to it.

He sat there between the storms and the silence, silently falling towards the grip of Venus. He was surrounded by faces, any one of them the key to getting home. He’d need them all, but he had to wonder, which was the best? The face of storms, the face of time or the face of love? When the moment came, and they each gave him a slightly different moment, which would be right?

He sat and watched the stars stare back at him, wondering which was his. He had one orbit to make a decision. One turn of the planet and all its faces before five o’clock came by. When that happened he’d look at Alison’s face once more and find the right moment. One of the faces had to be right. One of the faces would bring him home.