Lantern: a short story

I’m completely unprepared for this catastrophe. It’s every astronaut’s worst nightmare.

Inside the Soyuz MS-28 descent module, we’re a little cramped, and longing to stretch our legs. Screens in front of us show that everything is going according to plan. After leaving the safety zone around the International Space Station, we’re in a stable orbit around Earth, waiting to re-enter the atmosphere. No indication of anything wrong. Mission 101 has been a success, until now.

Without any warning, the three of us are floating in space.

Unprotected from the cold. Unshielded from the radiation.

No oxygen.

I can’t believe this is happening. The crew is trained for emergencies, but in the case of suddenly being outside the spacecraft with no air supply, there’s nothing to be done. Just a few more seconds and I’ll lose consciousness forever. Shocked, I stare into the star-speckled blackness.

‘Erin?’ Someone’s calling my name. Surely my mind, about to expire, is playing tricks on me?

Then my crewmate Tanya floats into view. She looks surprised, but not frightened.

‘What – ’ I begin, and then I realize that there’s air. I can still breathe. ‘Tanya, what’s going on?’

‘I don’t know,’ she says. ‘ I think we’re still in the capsule. Maybe it’s a hallucination? Or a virtual reality environment?’

Relieved that I’m alive and not about to suffer a grim fate, I glance around. Ali, my other crewmate, waves and floats the short distance to meet us.

‘This is very worrying,’ Ali frowns. ‘Why is this happening? Where have our headsets gone? What if Mission Control are trying to contact us?’

There are no answers. We gaze at the marbled surface of Earth below us. It’s a view you never get tired of. Yet we’ve been away for what seems like a long time, and despite the privilege and wonder of being in space, the three of us are eager to return home. It seems unfair that we’ve prepared so much for this journey, travelled so far, only to delay the reunion with our families, friends and colleagues.

Tanya is growing impatient. ‘How long is this going to last? We should be preparing for re-entry.’

Rapidly, the stars are obscured by a vast neon cloud. We shoot confused looks at each other. But that’s only the start of it. An enormous pale globe appears in the middle of the cloud. It looks like the Moon, complete with a face composed of craters. There is absolute silence. Until the globe speaks. A smooth, impersonal voice emanates from the crater that serves as a mouth. Except somehow it goes straight into our heads without travelling as soundwaves.

Do not be alarmed. There is nothing to fear. I apologise for interrupting your journey.

‘Apology not accepted!’ Ali shouts. ‘What’s the meaning of all this?’

‘And who are you, anyway?’ I add.

Let me introduce myself. My name has no equivalent in any of your languages, but you can call me Lantern. I am of a different species to yourselves. I represent an alliance of two hundred and eighty seven worlds.

‘Very funny,’ Tanya snaps. ‘If this is a game, we’re not playing.’

It is not a game. There is currently a time suspension on your spacecraft and the surrounding areas. This will minimise disruption to your processes.

My excitement is growing. Extra-terrestrials! Beings from other planets, wielding vastly superior technology. I can’t quite believe it. However much I want to meet real aliens, I can’t let my hopes get too high. This could well be a simulation, some experiment upon our minds without our knowledge. My crewmates must be thinking the same thing; there is wonder upon their faces, but also caution.

‘How do we know you’re for real?’ challenges Ali.

There is nothing I can do to convince you. If you prefer not to consider my request, I will cancel the time suspension, erase your memories of this incident, and allow your journey to continue.

We look at each other, and then nod in agreement.

‘We’re listening,’ Tanya says.

The white globe glows brighter and the craters appear to deepen.

The Alliance has been watching your species for some time. You show much promise, but you are not at the stage of joining our network yet. We find your technology interesting. As representative, I will make you a proposition. The spacecraft in which you are travelling would make an excellent addition to our museum, which contains examples of craft from all over the universe.

I’m taken aback. ‘You want the Soyuz?’ I’m not sure whether to be insulted or flattered. This is an up-to-date fourth-generation craft, and yet it apparently belongs in a museum!

‘It’s not ours to give away,’ says Ali.

I think you will change your mind when you hear what we can give you in return.

‘OK, so what happens if we agree?’ Tanya says.

You will remain inside your spacecraft while we pull it out of orbit and through a portal. This leads to our part of the universe. Upon arrival at our main hub, your spacecraft will be accessioned to the museum. You will be warmly welcomed and treated with respect. Then you will be shown many sights of the universe which none other of your species will ever see.

My head spins. The chance to see the wonders of the universe. The chance of a lifetime! ‘What kind of sights?’ I breathe.

The globe face disappears and is replaced by a series of amazing visions. We veer towards a blue ocean planet at amazing speed. Diving beneath the surface, bombing through the depths, we see cities and towers and watercraft.

Then we’re suddenly confronted by the unbearable brightness of a star, its light leaching into something unseen, something dark. A black hole. Abruptly we’re flung towards distant galaxies, more ancient than our own Milky Way. Clusters of light are racing to meet us, separating into constellations. A binary star system leaps into view, and then a planet, orbiting the hotter and brighter star. We descend through swirling clouds, crash through dense greenery and into shining prisms. Figures are gliding about but we’re going too fast to take in the details. We zoom into a cavernous space, some kind of hangar. And there we stop. Spacecraft of all shapes and sizes are ranged along it. Charred, travel-worn rockets beside shimmering, sleek triangular vehicles. Intimidating mother-ships and tiny saucer-shaped machines.

Something familiar catches my eye. Is that the Pioneer 10 space probe? Last heard from twenty years ago and assumed to be leaving our solar system. It seems that Lantern’s people added it to their collection. This place must be the museum.

The mind-boggling trip is over. Lantern is back.

What I have just shown you is a mere fraction of the available sights.

We’re all stunned. There are no words to describe the feeling of what we’ve seen. And I’m hungry for more. The prospect of letting the extra-terrestrials be my guide to the universe is very tempting.

Tanya obviously feels the same way. Once she has her breath back, she thinks it over. ‘If we go with you and see all of these things, how do we get back to Earth?’

You will not wish to see your home planet again when there are so many others to see.

Really? I wonder if Lantern understands about families, about love. ‘But we’ll always want to come home. We’ve been away for so long already. On Earth, there are people we care about.’

‘Erin’s right,’ says Ali. ‘Home means a lot to us.’

‘Couldn’t you take us home again after you show us the sights?’ suggests Tanya.

We could. However, there are problems with time difference which you may find objectionable. Through the portal, in one of our superior spacecraft, you will be able to return to your planet, but thousands of your years will have passed since you left. There may be difficulties adjusting to the environment and culture of the future.

‘And everyone we care about will be gone,’ I say.

I look at Tanya. As the Commander, she has final decision over the mission. By the excitement in her eyes, she seems to be in favour of Lantern’s plan. It’s the chance of a lifetime, after all. But she sighs and shakes her head sadly.

‘Lantern, we thank you for your offer. But we have to do what is right. We must go home.’

You are refusing the opportunity.

The globe grows even brighter, until it stings my eyes. For a moment, I fear that Lantern’s angry, that we’ll be taken away by force and never return to Earth.

I am sorry for your decision. Perhaps you are not ready for such an undertaking after all. Your brains need to develop further, beyond the illogical attachment to other members of your species. I will now erase your memories of this incident.

There’s a green flash.

We’re in the descent module, preparing for re-entry into the atmosphere.

We’re going home.

I wrote this story in 2017 for a competition run by the National Space Centre. You had to include an item from the museum in the story! In this case, the Soyuz.

4 thoughts on “Lantern: a short story”

    1. Thanks! I thought it might as well be on my blog, or no one will ever see it 😀

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