From space, the planet looked like it had been shot with a giant cannonball. One continent—the second largest—had a massive crater bored just north of the center. A round, black hole that was far too perfect to have been caused by any asteroid. It was several miles wide, so big you could stand on one side and not see the far end.
“How?” I asked, raising a gloved hand towards the Pit. I was outside our ship, the Endeavor, making repairs with our mechanic, Donald Woole. I’d been told about the planet, even seen pictures, but being confronted with the Pit directly made it more real.
“That’s what we’re here to find out, rookie.” The voice of Hondo, an older boy on the crew, crackled in my earpiece. “Stay focused; you’ve got a job to do.”
I nodded my helmeted head and turned back to the instrument panel where Woole, was working. He was the ship’s mechanic. Like all six of the adults on the crew, he had multiple jobs and was also a linguist, an expert on languages.
He grunted as he twisted a spanner over a bolt. “Hondo’s right,” Woole said. “Best get this ray shield running. Be a shame to come all this way just to burn up entering the atmosphere.” Despite the grim words, he grinned through his visor. The mechanic always seemed to enjoy his job. “You should hand me a smaller spanner. This one’s slipping.”
I reached for the toolbox tethered to my hip. Every tool inside was individually strapped in, so they couldn’t go floating off. I grabbed the one he’d asked for and handed it over, doing my best not to look down as I did.
Because there was no down.
There was nothing above, nothing below, nothing to the left or right. Just a sea of stars, a mechanic, and a boy. And before us, a planet with a hole punched halfway through it
As Woole worked, I focused on the planet, dubbed the Pitworld, to take my mind off the weightlessness and nothingness. The Pit lay smack in the middle of a green swath of prairie that spread across most of the continent. The black grid of a large city sprawled to the east of the crater. The Pit was the size of Delaware, a place on Earth. In planetary standards, Delaware wasn’t very large, but for a pit it was huge.
I tore my gaze away from the great pit to examine the rest of the planet. Large green landmasses set against deep blue seas, with clumps of fluffy white clouds dolloped about. The planet looked so like Earth. The similarities between this planet and our home made the differences seem all that much stranger.
We were there to explore the planet, myself, my sister and our friend, and a crew of six scientists. We were interns, there to run chores so that the team could focus on official expedition business, cracking the secrets of the Pit. My sister and I had been on the crew for just a few months, the time it had taken to travel all the way out here.
The planet had been discovered recently. Universally speaking, it wasn’t far from Earth. Just one spiral arm over. The system had been missed during earlier mapping explorations due to a sort of interstellar electrical storm that had made the area dangerous for decades. When it had cleared a planet had been discovered, an apparently perfect planet. The locals had been thriving, too. In terms of spaceflight, they hadn’t progressed far, but they’d spread across and conquered most of their planet and both their moons.
And they were all gone.
People on Earth were eager for a new planet to colonize, so we’d been sent to find out whether it was safe to send worldships here.
Where had everyone gone? Had they been attacked? Had they all died? That was the mystery of the Pitworld. A popular theory was that the Pit had been dug to escape some sort of cataclysm. But if that was the case, why was it so big? And why had the people not come back out?
“Theus? I need the screwdriver.”
But if that was the case, why was it so big?
“Theus, I need the screwdriver!” Woole repeated.
“Yes, sir,” I said, fumbling with the toolbox. “Sorry, sir.” I still had the larger spanner in my hand; I’d never put it away. I strapped in the spanner and grabbed for a screwdriver.
“No, the flathead,” Woole said with a tone that suggested I was about a half second from being sent back into the Endeavor.
Glamorous as they may sound, spacewalks are dangerous and uncomfortable. One wrong move and you could fly off into the darkness. And even worse, there’s no way to go to the bathroom until you get back inside. I handed him the flathead. I was about to refocus on the Pit when a shadow moving across the roof of the Endeavor caught my attention.
“Did you see that?” I asked, looking at Woole.
“See what?” Woole’s attention was fully absorbed in fixing the ray shield.
I glanced up again. The shadow was gone. I struggled to make sense of what I’d seen. I wanted to say the shadow had looked like a person, but that was impossible. It was just the two of us out here, in an abandoned solar system far from civilization.
“What did you see?” Hondo asked from inside.
“It’s nothing,” I said, feeling silly. “Just my eyes playing tricks on me.” I tried to rub my eyes, but of course, my helmet was there, preventing me from clearing away the sweat dripping down my forehead.
“Done here,” Woole said. “Let’s head inside.” I’d never heard better news. I’d had the urge to pee within about half a minute of my suit getting zipped up.
We used a tether to guide ourselves back to the airlock. The second the tiny room pressurized and oxygen levels were normal, I tore my helmet off and rubbed the sweat from my forehead.
“You fixed the ray shielding?” Hondo asked Woole as the older man took off his own helmet. Hondo had been monitoring our walk from inside to make sure we were safe.
Woole nodded. He seemed more relaxed than me, less desperate to do all the things you can’t do on a spacewalk. He tugged his gloves off a finger at a time. “Housing just came loose. If I didn’t know better, I’d say it was sabotage!” He laughed as he said it, and Hondo and I chuckled along. The nine-person crew of the Endeavor were the only people around for millions of miles.
“Glad it’s fixed,” Hondo said. “Now we can get on with the mission.”
“Just a few loose bolts,” Woole assured him. “Space gremlins. Happens during these long voyages between stars. I’d be more surprised if we didn’t need at least one spacewalk after a crossing, honestly.”
It was a common joke on starships out of the Roseworld, blaming a failure on phantom space gremlins. Songs had even been written about the space gremlins.
Hondo took my helmet and helped me unstrap my space suit.
“Were there any asteroids or space debris while we were out there?” I asked.
“Did you see something?” Hondo asked. “There wasn’t anything on the scopes.”
“I’m sure it was nothing,” I said with a shrug. “Just my eyes playing tricks on me, maybe the sweat in my eyes.”
Commander Brink strode down the corridor. The tall, gray-haired man was followed by Wallace Darkeson, a geologist. He would be charged with studying the actual formation of the Pit. A stern, gloomy man, his shipboard job was flight engineer. He monitored the ship’s instruments and made sure everything ran correctly. The job seemed to stress him out all the time. He always seemed to be biting his nails or chewing his lip. And he was almost always angry with Woole, who was in charge of fixing whatever broke on the Endeavor.
“You should have told me you were going on a spacewalk,” Darkeson said to Woole before Brink could speak. “I’m the Endeavour’s engineer. It’s my job to know what’s being repaired and why.”
“Now you know. Besides, I was confident we could get things up to snuff on our own,” Woole said. His posture and tone were relaxed. He didn’t seem at all bothered by Darkeson’s anger. He never did.
“Snuff?” Darkeson asked, rubbing at his smooth scalp. “Snuff? What does that even mean? I’m responsible for monitoring the Endeavor; you know that. We’re scientists on an expedition into unknown territory. ‘Up to snuff’ won’t cut it! We need to be able to trust you!”
“Look, I’m sorry,” Woole said, still untroubled. “Won’t happen again.”
Hondo glanced at me. We suspected that wasn’t true. Woole tended to do what he wanted.
“Thank you.” The geologist seemed appeased, though not happy. He slinked away, nibbling furiously at a thumbnail.
“Everything good to go?” Commander Brink asked. I could tell he was giving Donald Woole his best stare. He had a way of stopping everything and staring someone in the eye intently. The commander did that stare with almost every question, as though the answer were the most important thing in the universe. And in a way, it was. If the ray shielding failed, we would burn up on our way through the atmosphere and land on the Pitworld crispy fried.
“Yessir,” Woole said. “Ray shielding should be operational.”
“Should be?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Is, sir. Everything is in order,” Woole corrected himself.
“Great, I want everyone on the bridge and strapped in. We’re preparing for landing.” Commander Brink turned and strode off back the way he’d come from.
“Yessir,” Hondo and I said.
“Aye, sir,” said Woole.
We strode to the Endeavor’s bridge together. All nine members of the crew were there, waiting for us. Commander Brink settled into the pilot’s seat. The bridge was small. There were four chairs up front where the piloting controls lay. Two more seats were behind these. Off to the sides, these were for diagnostics and other shipboard systems. These were all taken up by the adults of the crew.
“Bring us in for landing, Jon,” The commander said to the pilot.
Jon Hadrex was a friendly man who seemed to loved nothing more than flying spaceships. For the expedition, he was an expert on alien cultures and would try to learn what had become of the people who had once lived on the Pitworld.
We’d circled the whole Pitworld twice, scanning the planet and both moons, searching for any signs of life. Other than a few ancient and badly battered satellites, there’d been nothing to find that suggested recent activity. The Commander had tried to connect to the satellites and get a signal, but they weren’t broadcasting as far as any of our systems could pick up.
With the ray shield fixed and the planet quiet, we were all set to land. The ship turned, so we were aimed directly for the pit. Teena Mae, the Endeavor’s copilot, and a biologist, sucked in a sharp breath as the enormous hole filled the viewport. “I never get used to seeing that,” she said. “It’s crazy.”
“Come on, rookie,” Hondo said, pulling on my shirt. “It’s about to get bumpy. Time to strap in.”
Two benches lined the back of the bridge on either side of the door. My sister Helena—or Lena as we usually called her—was already strapped into one of them. Hondo fumbled with his straps as he sat down. Hondo had been our friend for years. Commander Brink’s nephew, he’d gotten us our positions on the mission. I appreciated his help in landing us the internship, even though he was using his experience on prior expeditions to call us both “rookie”.
I sat down and strapped in. I was grateful for the ship’s artificial gravity that allowed me to actually sit. Being weightless was strange. It had been amazing on the first spacewalk, but with each additional walk I’d gone on, the shine had worn off. Gravity could be a hassle, but at least you could count on it. Weightlessness made everything so unpredictable.
The bridge viewport was obscured by the crew in their seats, but the portholes next to our benches gave a small but unblocked view of the outside. Now that the ship had turned, all I could see was starlight, which faded as we descended. One of the Pitworld’s moons, a lumpy brown sphere, slid past our view. It was about half the size of Earth’s moon.
The Endeavor bucked as we approached. The ray shield began to glow red hot from the heat of entering the Pitworld’s atmosphere. Lena groaned. She didn’t like flying and especially hated any kind of turbulence. Just getting her to come on the Pit expedition had taken a little convincing.
“Lena, you can’t let one little crash ruin your whole perspective on flight,” Hondo said.
“Sure I can,” she replied through gritted teeth. Lena could be a little stubborn. She grabbed my hand, though, in a grip tight as a vice. Hondo shook his head, smirking.
Eventually, the heat of re-entry eased off, and the turbulence along with it. Lena didn’t relax even then, keeping her grip tight as we flew. Ignoring the pain in my hand, I focused on the viewport. At first, all I could see was green and black. The green was fields and forests; the black was the cities. Here and there were splashes of bright blue—lakes and ponds—and ribbon-thin bands of brighter colors. The bands came in every color of the rainbow and were sprawled about like roads, but I couldn’t make out what they were made of.
The ship approached the the eastern curve of the Pit. We landed with a light bump in a grassy meadow near the outskirts of an abandoned metropolis. My last sight before I tore my eyes away from the porthole was of distant skyscrapers overgrown with vines, and nearer to the ship were rows of smaller buildings.
“You can let go now,” I said to Lena, unbuckling my safety harness. She released my hand, and we exited the bridge. People always said we looked alike, but I never saw it. Lena was a year older than me, a few inches taller with dark hair.
As we walked down the main hallway, all I could think about was that alien landscape waiting outside. I’d spent the last few years living on a colony on the Roseworld, a planet encased in a protective glass sphere tinted pink. No blue skies there. Then six months aboard the Endeavor. Our ship was large compared to most research vessels, but after weeks of interstellar travel, it had begun to seem cramped. No blue skies there either.
“You’re sure it’s safe?” Lena asked Teena Mae as Hondo lowered the boarding ramp.
“Safe by every standard known to man!” she confirmed, not tearing her eyes away from a small tablet computer.
I was the first one to step outside. I bounded down the ramp the second it touched down on that soft, green grass. I wasn’t the first to set foot on the planet; that honor went to a C-Marine. A platoon had checked out the area and even gone down the Pit before we had been sent out.
The grass was overgrown, coming up to just above my knees. The rest of the crew ranged out behind me, taking in the sight. The small buildings I’d seen from inside were beehive-shaped houses, clustered neatly in little neighborhoods. All the skyscrapers in the distant city had the same shape too, wide and rounded in tiers that got smaller as they neared the sky.
An immense blue sky dotted with clouds stretched above us. It’s easy to take a thing like the sky for granted. We had grass and open spaces on the Roseworld, but it wasn’t the same. It wasn’t Earth. This planet felt so much like Earth it struck up a profound homesickness in me.
I could see the Pit a few hundred feet off. Just seeing the edge of it made me dizzy. Without thinking of the danger, I started toward it, tearing through the tall grasses of the field. I didn’t notice if the rest of the team was following me or not. I walked right up to the edge, so close I kicked a few pebbles down. There were no fences, just a sudden drop like a black hole. The rocks I’d disturbed clattered against the edges of the Pit for a few seconds. I never heard them hit the bottom. Wherever the Pit ended, it was a long way from here.
I stared down. The sides of the Pit were smooth. Dirt and loose rock for several hundred feet, then solid rock, and then darkness. The Pit yawned out to either side. Except for where it stopped right at my feet, I couldn’t see where it ended in any direction. It seemed endless, an eternal mouth opening to swallow us all
I shivered. Not in fear. I was eager. It was the anticipation.
We would be going down there.
Right into the throat of the planet.
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A mysterious world is discovered with a massive, miles-wide pit torn through one continent. The planet is strewn with the remains of a fallen civilization. What happened to the locals, and what were they digging for so desperately? A young intern assigned to the first expedition into the Pit will be among the first to find out...
J.L. Ender was born on planet Earth, third planet in the Sol system, which is located in a spiral arm of the Milky Way galaxy. Ender enjoys coffee, Mexican food, and devastating robot apocalypses. He has tamed a member of the local wildlife, a thing called a dog. In a fit of confusion he named it Bear and often finds himself walking the creature.