Dominic Bell - Winner

Competition: Other Worlds short story competition

Dominic Bell is an oil rig worker from Hull, East Yorkshire. After feeding his long-held writing ambition with an OU creative writing course, he is working on a series of First World War novels. He tries to enter almost all the WM short story competitions to both challenge himself to complete projects on time and also to diversify his writing. He is currently taking a WM short story writing course.

Dominic Bell

Not a Drill

Dave woke abruptly to the braying of the general alarm, cursing as he rolled out of bed and started pulling on the survival suit. 0600. That figured. Everyone but the two cadets would be doing their shift handovers on the bridge. The cadets worked midday to midnight to give both shifts of watch officers a chance to instruct or persecute them, depending on mood.
The alarm was still going, strident and deafening. No announcement yet of what the drill was about. He picked up his helmet and gloves and opened the door only to find himself smashed into the opposite wall, the corridor groaning and flexing around him, the alarm changing to the high pitched warbling of the depressurisation alarm. His ears stabbed with pain before the lockdowns slammed shut at each end of the corridor, sealing him in. The alarm cut abruptly. The ever present hum of the ship died away, leaving a pulsing silence as his battered ears recovered. Most of the lights flickered off. Reactor shutdown. Emergency power. Not good at all.
He looked down towards the bridge end of the corridor. The light above the door was bright red and flashing. Less than ten per cent nominal. He looked the other way. Still green towards the drive areas. He should report in. He pulled the earpiece from its pocket in the suit collar and triggered the button on the suit chest.
‘Bridge, do you copy?’ Nothing.
‘Anyone, do you copy?’ Still nothing.
He headed toward the bridge end door and checked the pressures. Nominal this side – outside 5 millibar. Open to space. Through the viewport he could see only debris and twisted metal. It seemed harder to move about. Usually the living quarters of the ship rotated lazily about the cargo grid, just enough to give the crew a comfortable 0.5 g, but it felt like more now. The impact of whatever it was that hit them must have increased the spin.
Where was Tanya, the other cadet? She ought to be out in the corridor too. She would have been asleep. He found the door, knocked, heard a shout, pushed the door open. Dim lit in the glow of the emergency lights, she was trying to rise from the floor, blood dark on her face. He hurried to her, helped her up and sat her on her bed.
‘You okay?’
‘Think so. Got knocked over when whatever happened happened. What the hell did happen?’ He checked the bleeding before he answered. Nothing too serious.
‘Something hit us. How it got through I don’t know – the screens –’
‘They were having problems with the sensors yesterday,’ she interrupted. ‘But save the post-mortem. Any idea of the damage?’
‘No one’s answering on the radio. All I can see towards the bridge from the lockdown port is wreckage. Zero pressure that way. Think the collision spun us a bit as well.’
‘Maybe try looking out of one of the observation domes?’
‘Good idea.’
‘I do have them occasionally.’ She rolled her eyes at him and started to stand up, before sitting back down with an ‘Ow!’
‘My ankle’s twisted, I think, but I’m not taking this suit off to look. You go see what you can.’
He went to the corridor end, and he cycled the door open, stabilising himself as he emerged into the non spinning part of the ship. Or supposedly non-spinning. Except it now was, though slower than the accom section. Which it should not have been. He looked towards the drive space lockdowns. Green lights over those. He pulled himself up the ladder to the dorsal dome, cycled the pressure hatch and pushed it open. There was a dome on each side of the ship, mainly for monitoring EVAs, but also as places where the crew take time out to just sit and watch the universe. It had been his ambition to get Tanya to come here with him. But now he had no eyes for the spiralling stars. Instead he stared at the front of the ship. It was almost unrecognisable, a great bite taken out it. The bridge was just gone, and that would have taken most of the crew with it at changeover time. Only the galley staff might have survived, but looking towards the rec module he doubted it. The top was ripped open. They would not even have had time to take a last breath.
He looked again at the shattered remains forward and saw why they were starting to spin. From forward in the cargo was growing a white column of hydrate. At least one of the deuterium vessels had been damaged and the invisible stream of expanding gas was acting as a thruster jet, spinning the ship faster and faster. They needed to get off here before the centrifugal force made it impossible. He could see no trace of the four forward lifepods, then glimpsed the bright orange of one in the debris cloud that was expanding out from the bow, shattered beyond recognition. That left the single aft one. Time to go.
Tanya was sitting on her bed in her suit when he got back. She looked pale, and he wondered how badly she was hurt. At least the bleeding on her face had stopped. He briefly described what he had seen, his theory that the venting tanks would spin the ship faster and faster.
She nodded. ‘It’s worse than that – the venting will become faster as the container vents erode. Normally they could be ejected, but that’s not an option now. And the whole ship will start to cool down soon, with the main power off. We need to get to a pod.’
Dave helped her to her feet. ‘Come on.’
‘Best get the helmets and gloves on,’ said Tanya.
‘Right,’ said Dave and they helped each other with the seals, but left the helmet visors up. They might need the air later.
They pulled themselves along the hand rails of the half lit corridor towards the engineering spaces. There was a jolt.
‘Something else hitting us?’ said Dave. He was struggling to help her along against the increasing spin. He already felt at least twice as heavy as he had ever done on Earth.
‘More likely a vent valve going,’ she said.
At the end of the corridor the green light had changed to amber. The pressure outside was starting to drop – a leak somewhere. They closed their visors and went through anyway. How long would the air last in the sleep section if they could not get a pod off? A day, two? He doubted any emergency signal had even been sent yet, though base would notice the loss of the automatic half hourly status transmissions soon. How long would rescue take to come? It was a two-week run this one, hauling deuterium concentrate from the naturally enriched deuterium belts of Jupiter to the Martian developments, and they were only five days out.
The ship was rotating faster by the minute, the centrifugal force increasing steadily, He was having real difficulty moving now. Dave pulled Tanya across to the lifepod and cycled the door. With difficulty he and Tanya struggled inside and he helped her to, before strapping himself into the pilot’s seat. He powered up. On the viewscreen debris flashed in front of him repeatedly, the ship now rotating much faster than the wreckage that surrounded it. He glanced over at Tanya. She shook her head. There was no chance of steering it out. No options left, he flicked the switch to auto, and stabbed at the execute button. He felt a great kick in his back as the separation charge detonated. His vision greyed with the acceleration as the pod hurtled into the debris, wreckage bouncing off them, jolting them both violently, despite the craft’s best attempts at avoidance. He waited for alarms and warning lights to come on, but everything stayed green, and slowly the thrusters killed the spin, killed the speed and orientated them with the spaceship below.
Dave lay back gasping, staring at the shattered wreck of what had been the Jovian Venture, tumbling wildly over and over. They were lucky, very lucky to have survived that. He glanced at Tanya. She was out by the look of it. But first things first. He checked the distress beacon. It was working, sending their location and pod status to anyone who could receive it. He recorded a message describing what had happened, added it to the broadcast sequence. Now we wait, he thought. A final check of the atmospheric readings and he took off his helmet, and unstrapped. He pushed himself up and pulled himself over to her. He undid her helmet and eased it off. She groaned, then opened her eyes, looked round to the screen.
‘We made it then. Good driving.’ She smiled at him. ‘You okay?’
‘Been better... Anyone call yet?’
‘No. But the signal’s good – shouldn’t be long.’
It was another twenty minutes before the first acknowledgement came, and forty minutes after that they heard a rescue ship in Ceres orbit was being readied and should reach them in about five days’ time.
‘Now we wait, I guess,’ said Tanya.
‘Yes,’ said Dave. He did not know what else to say, suddenly very conscious of her in the little space. He stared at the shattered ship on the display.
‘I’ll never complain about working cross shifts again. The others didn’t stand a chance.’
‘No,’ she said, her eyes sad. ‘But I’m glad that if only one other person could survive it was you, Dave,’ she said. ‘I didn’t really know any of the others at all.’
Dave nodded. ‘I was thinking the same about you.’
Her eyes softened, and suddenly five days watching the stars and waiting for rescue did not seem so bad after all.

Judges Comments

Dominic Bell has conjured the 'other worlds' required for this contest in his space-opera adventure Not a Drill, our fantasy short story winner. Dominic includes a lot of science in his sci-fi too, but one element in particular that gives his story its winning edge is that he prioritises storytelling over science. The science serves its purpose to create a convincing set-up, and backdrop, for a hold-on-tight, life-or-death scenario as Dave and his injured companion Tanya find themselves the sole survivors on a wrecked spacecraft spinning wildly off course. It's a love story, and a survival story, wrapped in a sci-fi coating.

Not a Drill is a space opera in literal microcosm. The material is potentially there for an epic tale in which we learn everything about the mission, the events leading up to the disaster and its aftermath. Instead, Dominic has zoomed in, with great dramatic effect, on the point of crisis.

The tight focus on two humans caught up in a struggle to survive works really well when it's contrasted with the setting: limitless, unchartered space. Dominic conjures a fraught sense of impending disaster, and the story has a propulsive forward momentum that reflects the urgency of the situation he's placed his characters in. It's an object lesson in how to convey action: strong, efficient sentences with lots of active verbs. Dominic uses verbs well: he successfully creates his two characters, Dave and Tanya,  through their actions.We root for resourceful Dave as he takes his destiny into his own hands and does what he can to solve the problem in front of him; we admire Tanya as she takes an active role in their escape mission regardless of her injury. Under extreme pressure, they both deliver the goods: they are a worthy action hero and heroine. For this reason, the slightly sentimental happy ending works: they have earned their five days of star-gazing in each other's company before the rescue ship arrives.


Runner-up in the Fantasy Short Story Competition, whose story is published on, was Alan C Williams, Langast, France. Also shortlisted were: Mark Granger, Wigston, Leicestershire; Ruth Livingstone, Stamford, Lincolnshire ; Michael Milton, Peterhead, Aberdeenshire; Thomas Pitts, Newbury, Berkshire; Dan Purdue, Leamington Spa, Warwickshire; Jacquie Rogers, Mark, Somerset.

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