Writing Excuses 10.6: Second Place

Writing Excuses 10.6 writing prompt: Think about the last time you lost at a game. What was the process of thought that led to your loss? Now, replicate that moment in the dramatic structure of the story, except the story isn’t about games.

The almost. The not quite. The second place.

All words to describe a feeling. A state of mind. That of not quite making it, when you knew in your heart of hearts that you should.

And what makes it even worse: it should have been me.

I should have been the one to make the run.

I should have been the pilot on that fateful trip, the one whose name all of history would remember. Instead, I’m doomed to be the backup, the understudy, the one who gets a footnote–if that.

I should have been the one to say those first words.

Let me tell you. They would have been a far sight better than, “Oh shit.”

I’m not kidding. Those were his first words. The first spoken words ever relayed from the orbit of Pluto itself, taking a thousand times longer to return to Earth than the outbound trip had taken in the first place.

“Oh shit.”

Don’t get me wrong, I get it. After all, after a single trip, the Alcubierre had blown a fuse in the most spectacular way possible. The ring was shattered, very nearly taking the ship itself with it. Without a way home, it was going to be a long trip.

Marshall recovered well enough, acquitting himself well of his training. He went ahead and read the speech that the whole world would one day know had been prepared for him. He even made it sound off the cuff; like he was just making it up on the spot.

But when kids look back on this day, they won’t remember the speech. With a half-hidden snicker at the forbidden (that of course the teacher will see) they’ll move on with their lives, forgetting what really mattered about the trip. Forgetting that Marshall opened the stars to them. Forgetting that I even existed at all. All they’ll remember is those fateful words.

“Oh shit.”

Now it’s all up to me. I get to be the one to go to his rescue. The Atlas has been rushed into service, the final weeks’ worth of checkups compressed into three days. The powers that be wanted it to be even faster, to prove that even in the face of such adversity we would not back down.

But the scientists and engineers that had built the Atlas put their collective foot down. Three days. Absolute minimum. Any less and they might as well be flying blind.

Truth be told, that would have been all right with me.

Better story that way.

No one remembers second place.

They say they’ve ironed out the kinks this time. One in a million, this time. One in a million chance that I’ll make it out to Pluto and be stuck out there with Marshall. No hope for either us. Not only doomed to die a cold lonely death, but to be second place even then.

Nope, no sir, not going to happen.

I’m going to save the day.

As the ion drives took me farther and farther from Lagrange Station, I was struck with a sudden sense of deja vu.

Everything I was doing was something I had already done before. The ion drives, the checklists, the charts. Making sure that the fusion generators were running to the edge of their capacity, charging the capacitors that would eventually feed the Alcubierre ring which made everything possible.

The feeling was so sudden and so strong; for a moment I lost where I was. Of course this mission would succeed, it already had. I didn’t need to go and save Marshall, I already had. Everything would proceed as it always had proceeded.

Except if it didn’t.

When the rational part of my mind caught up, I realized that I was remembering the hours upon hours that I had spent in the Atlas simulator. In virtual reality, the mission planners had thrown every possible situation they could think of at me–and some they didn’t; the computers themselves had at times a sick sense of challenge.

I knew the mission like the back of my hand. Better even. Who actually knew the back of their hand that well anyway?

A blinking light on the control screen in front of me caught my attention. The ion drive had shut off after the preprogrammed interval. So wrapped up in my own thoughts; I hadn’t even noticed. Nothing more than a stream of ionized particles, ion drives didn’t light a candle to the chemical rockets of the olden days. Far more efficient of course, especially with the fusion generator to power them. But still, wouldn’t it have been something to ride an explosion into the night?

Without the ion drive, I was drifting. Even drifting, I was traveling at what would have been a breakneck pace in an atmosphere. In the cold emptiness of space, there was no way to judge just how fast I was going.

And soon, I would be moving much, much faster.

The general idea behind the Alcubierre is deceptively simple. Nothing can move faster than the speed of light. Einstein discovered that particular wrinkle centuries ago and it was as true now as it was then.

But there was a catch: nothing can move faster than the speed of light. But you don’t have to.

Space itself would.

Short version: space is flexible. It can expand and contract, most often under the influence of gravitational fields. What’s more, said expansions can move faster than the speed of light, seeing as, strictly speaking, nothing was moving.

I’ll admit, the idea still seemed odd to me when I thought about it too carefully. But essentially, that was the idea. Using physics well beyond my own understanding, the Alcubierre drive created a wave in the fabric of space itself.

That was me. A cosmic surfer. The second human being in history to ride a space bubble to the edge of the solar system.

I’m not sure why I imagined that the reality of the Alcubierre drive would be any different from the simulators.

Despite that fact that I was traveling just shy of a hundred times the speed of light, as far as I could tell I might as well have been standing still.

The moment the Alcubierre drive had engaged, the stars had gone out. It was a curious side effect of the Alcubierre field that light tends to slide along the sides of the field, colliding in a faint wake on the far side. I’m told it’s for the best: even the light of a star can be blinding when you’re colliding with a hundred times as many photons per second.

Still, it’s disconcerting.

Now that the drive was engaged, I had only to wait.

162 seconds.

That’s it.

5 billion kilometers, and I’d be there in less than three minutes.

Despite the fact that it should have been me out there and Marshall flying to my rescue, I had to admit… That was pretty cool.

With fifteen seconds to go, I could feel my heart rate picking up. Based on Marshall’s reports and what little long range telemetry mission control had received, this is when the Prometheus’ Alcubierre ring had failed. When collapsing the wave and returning space to its normal configuration.

The engineers on the project claimed they had found the issue. An instability in the equations governing the turbulence of quantum foam stirred up by the collapse of an Alcubierre field. Or something like that. It was something that hadn’t come up in years of automated testing, so the chances of it happening twice in a row were essentially nil.

At least that was what they said.

They also claimed that they’d tweaked the timing. Collapse the field a fraction of a second more slowly and the turbulence would be directed perpendicular to the ring, rather than directly into.

Personally, I thought that was something they should have thought of before sending the first ship. But what do I know?

Ten seconds. Was this it? Was this the moment when I became the second person in the history of the human race to set eyes directly on Pluto?


Eight. A slight vibration echoed through my seat. Something that had never come up in the simulation.



Five. The vibration was back, hard enough up and down that I could hear my own teeth rattling together.

Nothing I could do about it now. If I didn’t shut down the Alcubierre drive, there was no telling where I would end up. Two weeks and I could be at Alpha Centauri–if that was the way I was facing.

I wish I’d thought to look that up before I left.



Two. I shut my eyes.


Gradually, I became aware of a sound.

My eyes were still squeezed shut. I found in that moment that I didn’t want to know. I didn’t want to know if I was to be the hero who rescued the first Alcubierre test pilot or only its second victim.

But there was a sound in my cockpit, a sound that I recognized.

“Carter? That you?”

Marshall. I’d talked to him less than a week ago, at his going away celebration. It was a bittersweet moment, knowing that–unless something went horribly wrong–he was going to be taking my spot in history. But I had to be happy for him. After all, if something did go horribly wrong, I couldn’t be too happy about it. Too suspicious.

Slowly, I opened my eyes. Scanned the control screen.

A few numbers were on the high side, but all well within parameters.

I glanced out the viewports.

The Alcubierre ring. Solid. Unbroken.

I let out a breath I hadn’t known I’d been holding.

“Ha,” I cried out, “Take that, Einstein.”

What can I say? At least it was better than ‘oh shit.’

It took the better part of six hours to match velocity with the Prometheus and link the two ships.

Marshall was going to have to abandon his ship. For the moment, only the Atlas would be going home. Theoretically, it would be possible to Alcubierre field to move both ships, even linked together as they were now. It wasn’t like they were actually moving after all.

But that had been deemed too much a risk by the powers that be. ‘Bring him home,’ they’d said. There would be other missions. Prove that the technology works and the stars were quite literally the limit.

The ride home was cramped but uneventful. Both the Promethus and the Atlas were designed with a second seat just behind the pilot’s for incidents exactly such as this–well, not exactly, but you get the drift. That doesn’t mean it’s particularly comfortable.

The same as the way back, it only took 160 seconds to return to Earth orbit. Of course, that was after six hours to link, another for the spacewalk, and two more on top of that for the Atlas’ computer to calculate the proper trajectory home.

That’s one of the problems with moving so fast–if you’re off by even a little, you can easily end up thousands of millions from the middle of nowhere.

But we made it, and in the end, that’s all that’s important. We’d done it. We’d taken an unbreakable law of nature and gone right around it. The stars were open to us, to all of humanity.

And I was part of the story.

Second place.

But hey, I got to be the hero. Perhaps second place isn’t so bad after all.