Cosmic Trailblazers

Wrote this a while back based on a writing prompt from /r/writingprompts:

“Alexander Pope wrote, ‘Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night. / God said, Let Newton be!'” As soon as I flicked the lighter, the spherical flame danced near my thumb. I touched it to the end of the rolled paper, then brought the other end to my lips and inhaled. “And all was light.”

Forty-eight hours until my next duty shift. With only one week until the SpaceX ship “Ghost of Christmas Future” made its historic landing, I was beginning my final scheduled weekend break. Two days with no landing simulations, no laboratory activities, no maintenance duty. Just me, myself, and I.

And my roommate. In the hammock nearby, he chuckled and stretched out. Most of his free time was spent staring out the porthole, watching Mars grow ever larger. “Care for a hit, Carl?” I offered, but he held up his palm and shook his head. “You know I can’t,” he said sadly.

I shrugged and took another puff. “You know we’re naming our colony after you?”

“Sagan City,” he nodded, still staring out the porthole. “It must’ve bruised your CEO’s ego considerably not to name it Muskopolis.”

“Elon Musk himself allowed us to vote. The scientists were adamant.” Smoke poured from my lips as I spoke, curling in unusual ways as my breath yielded to the air currents from the ventilation system. I closed my eyes for a moment. There was something about microgravity that made mary jane extraordinary. “You’re not pleased? It’s quite an honor.”

“Newton would be pleased,” Carl answered. “I might’ve preferred something more whimsical, like ‘Helium’.”

I imagined stepping out of the “Ghost of Christmas Future” airlock, my boots printing the Adidas logo into the Martian regolith, and there in the distance, Dejah Thoris, princess of Mars, beckoning me forth. “You’d have my vote, but you’d be the minority. I think ‘Bradbury’ was the runner-up.”

“Yes, he told me so.” Carl also closed his eyes. His spectral chest rose and fell in imitation of breathing. His face grew melancholy, as though recalling the experiences of his youth.

“I don’t get it, Carl. You’ve been dead all these years. A ghost. You can’t eat or drink. I’ve never seen you sleep. You obviously can’t blaze, and I’m guessing you can’t get laid, either…”

He nodded wearily.

“So why do you stick around? Why do any of you ghosts stay?”

You could say that “Ghost of Christmas Future” was haunted by its past. Percival Lowell. Angeline Stickney Hall. Robert Goddard. Neil Armstrong. To most of the crew, this would be a metaphor for “standing on the shoulders of giants,” as Isaac Newton likes to say. But luck made me one of the point-zero-zero-one percent of humans who is psi-sensitive, and to me, ghosts were as real as farts in an elevator on Taco Tuesday, and often equally unpleasant.

Not the scientist ghosts, mind you. Notwithstanding the unpleasant supernatural chills, pre-mouthwash-era halitosis, and constantly having to lie to the ship psychiatrist, it was amazing to work shoulder-to-spectral-shoulder with the greatest intellects in human history. To be tutored in physics by Albert Einstein. To hear Isaac Asimov opine about our onboard computer AI. Enrico Fermi himself saved my bacon during an incident with a portable nuclear reactor.

But by my estimates, the ghostly population outnumbered the living, breathing crew by more than 50:1. And most weren’t cool like Carl Sagan. There were mindless thrill-seekers hoping to find a bigger rush in death than they did in life. Trekkies from the Original Series days, sixty years ago, who died with their Spock ears on. And at least one prattling geologist from Saint Thomas Francis University who probably bored himself to death. Looky-loos of all sorts.

“No one was as surprised as I to learn that ghosts exist,” Carl explained. “In the thirty-two years I’ve been dead, most of the ghosts I’ve met eventually grow bored, and decide to move beyond.”

“And you?”

“Just because ghosts exist, we cannot presume that there is a ‘beyond’. It’s possible that all these ghosts are simply giving up their existence. Not moving into a heaven or a hell… Just oblivion.”

“And that doesn’t appeal to you?”

Carl thought for a moment. Stars twinkled in his eyes. “When there’s still so much out there to see and discover?” He shook his head and gestured out the porthole. “Someday, perhaps. But not in my lifetime. Not in a hundred lifetimes. Perhaps… not even in billions and billions of lifetimes.”

“Ha, you finally said it!” I threw my spent butt at him in my excitement. It passed through him and bounced off the wall. Ashes scattered in all directions. I drifted over to corral the debris into the ventilation filter. Nothing in the room was flammable, but I wanted no evidence of contraband floating around.

After a while, I positioned myself near the porthole, a few feet from Carl. My velcro shoes gripped the floor, and I swayed in the draft from the air duct. We stared at the red orb, the harbinger of war, our future home. “Carl, dude…” I said, enthralled by the view. “Mars is so big!”

 

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6EQU–

It was too late to turn back — for all of them. Three weary explorers stared out the porthole as the spacecraft A Shot in the Dark hurtled toward Comet 266P/Christensen.

“Collision course set,” announced Michelson as the main rocket engine died. “That’s the last of our fuel.”

Dr. Grigori stared out at the stars.

“What should we tell Earth?” Dr. Markova asked.

Michelson shrugged. A world now plagued by climate shifts, mass extinction, and natural disasters too numerous to list needed hope, not more bad news.

It had started decades prior. A mysterious radio signal from the stars. “Wow!” writ large in the margin by a grad student. Astronomers worldwide tuned to 1420 MHz, but heard only silence. For decades they wondered: was the Signal merely radio noise, or the first evidence humankind is not alone?

The mystery deepened: the Signal returned, and Comet 266P/Christensen was pinpointed as its source, but against expectations, the Signal showed hints of advanced intelligence. So billions of dollars in venture capital funded A Shot in the Dark — a one-way mission of discovery. Investors dreamed of alien technologies to save the world and pad their bank accounts. If successful, the crew would be hailed (whenever future investments could fund a rescue mission) as heroes by a world desperate for hope.

But just before arrival, Dr. Grigori made a horrifying discovery. “The Signal is not from the Comet; the comet’s halo merely reflects and amplifies it.”

“From where?” Michelson asked.

“Are you familiar with the Gaia Hypothesis?” asked Markova. “That Earth is essentially a single, unified organism?”

“Decades of pollution,” muttered Grigori. “Neglect. Abuse.”

Markova looked grim as the Signal played over the speakers. “This Signal,” she explained, “is the death rattle of Planet Earth.”

Written for Cracked Flash Fiction, Year 1 Week 38, where the prompt was the first sentence of the story. This story references the famous Wow! Signal, along with recent (at the time) articles suggesting that the signal may have originated from two comets.

Lonely Pilgrim, Long Road

Winter. Frozen earth crunches beneath my boots. My breath lingers in front of my face. And the wind is bitter cold.

Bare branches reach heavenward in prayer to the blanket of clouds that promises a blessing of snow. The faintest strip of grass demarks the roadway from the woods, yet the road leads me on.

Better days I’ve left behind me. My pack is heavy on my shoulders; my soles are worn to nothing. Perhaps better days will come in the miles ahead.

Wherever I stop, people ask me where I’m going. The road is here; I’m going to follow it.

Written for Flash! Friday vol. 3-49. Image: Young hiker @ Gibson Ranch Regional Park. CC2.0 photo by Ray Bouknight.

Starfall

From the day of her debutante ball, there was war in the hillsides of Darlington county. The battlefield was upper crust bachelordom; the prize, Estella.

Even when we were children, I knew she was special. With her Gram’s name, her mama’s land, and her daddy’s fortune, the man to claim her heart would rule the country club set.

All the belles were dressed in the colors of the season. Gold, scarlet, persimmon; they danced and swirled like the leaves in the wind beneath the spreading oak trees, before the white columns and black shutters of Starmont plantation.

Estella smiled politely at my lone rival, then winked in my direction. The battleground had been washed clean by the tears of the also-rans. With that alluring bat of her eyelashes, I was certain of my victory.

I never noticed her dark horse suitor, the waiter with the hors d’oeuvres tray, standing next to me.

Written for Flash! Friday vol. 3-48, where the prompt was Gone with the Wind, including a man v. man conflict, and a plantation owner’s daughter. Image: Oak Alley Plantation. CC2.0 photo by Corey Balazowich.

Until the End of Time

Ever since toddlerhood, when Maria opened every tuna tin, and Purrsia anointed Maria her true master, the two had shared a special bond. Maria knew the spot behind the ears where her fluffy feline loved to be scratched, and Purrsia knew Maria’s every mood.

From dim childhood memories into the bright shining future, time marched relentlessly. Tock forever follows tick, and tick tock. Little girls become young women, take fancy to young men, and promise forever. Little kittens become fat old cats, and shed fur on fancy dresses. It was the way of the world: predictable as the sunrise, everlasting as words carved in stone, unavoidable as bullets from a gun.

Maria held the hymnal open, but her blue eyes rolled off the blurred lyrics. The words failed to focus, like writing in a dream. So she mouthed along silently to the somber organ music, swaying like a metronome to the steady measure of the choir.

Alone in a crowded church, when she meant to be front and center and wearing white. Instead, her dress and veil were black like the preacher’s vestments. The sound of gunshots haunted her waking dreams. Purrsia had cuddled in her lap all morning, kneading, rubbing her whiskers sympathetically against her longtime master. White furs intertwined with black fabric such that tears could not wash them away.

The sun set beneath the stone-strewn hillside, and her heart sank into the ground. Maria had always believed there would be new sunrises, but in this marble garden she had seen her future end.

Written for Flash! Friday vol. 3-46, where the novel prompt of the week was Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. This story includes an odd cat (all cats are odd) and a theme of death. The rather neat image prompt is “Alice in Wonderland: White Rabbit – Who Killed Time?” CC2.0 photo by Brandon Warren.

Never the Bride

There he stands, by the preacher, oceanside. Immaculate tuxedo and perfect blond hair glowing with sunlight.

White dress. White gloves. Lanolin smooth skin. Her cherry lips quiver. Today they would tie the knot on the shores of this island paradise. My revenge on her will be black as its sands, treacherous as its tides.

How green his eyes! Like the hills of the Emerald Isle. We were so young and innocent, he and I. Together we kindled a flame that burns my heart like the devil’s brand.

Struggle all you want; the knot won’t come untied. No one can hear you. A shame to stain red such a lovely dress, but honey, you can’t have him. He’s mine.

Written for Flash! Friday vol. 3-45, whose theme was Moby Dick. This story is set on an island, and includes an overall theme of revenge. Image is Naufragos/Shipwrecked. CC2.0 photo by Luis Marina.

Against the Undertow of Deep Time

“I’ve cheated death!” As the negentropic field faded, Darien surveyed the lava tube. His eyes widened. How long?

“Nadine?!”

It was far too late. A magma flow had crashed through the wall untold ages ago, crushing her negentropy field. Even her bones had long since turned to dust. Thousands of years? Millions? The Pu-224 power core — half-life 80 million years — felt cool against his hand.

Climbing out of the lava tube, Darien saw waves crashing upon a barren shoreline. No advanced civilization here. No cure. No utopia. No happily ever after. Blackness pressed against his eyeballs. He gasped. There was no oxygen!

“I’ve cheated only myself.” He collapsed to the eroded shore. Salty waves washed away his tears. “You win.”

Written for Flash! Friday vol. 3-45, whose theme was Moby Dick. This story includes a man vs. nature conflict, and an overall theme of the power of nature. Image is Naufragos/Shipwrecked. CC2.0 photo by Luis Marina.

Galaxyrise

Tearful eyes watched as the spiral arms of the Milky Way vanished into the distance. “Oh, Liksandr!” She fell into her husband’s embrace. “Why?!”

Liksandr gazed through the transparent wall of the orb at the ethereal glow of the EM-drive. “The Tronic Progeny work in mysterious ways,” Liksandr muttered bitterly. Titan was one of the safest worlds, yet occasionally the metal-bodied Progeny swooped down from the smog-covered skies, kidnapping humans, hurtling them across the cosmos in translucent vessels for reasons unknown.

“Andromeda.” Zabesh wiped away tears. “Two million light-years in minutes.”

“And two million years back home.” Aalemi. Everyone they knew on Titan. “Dust to dust.” Those reviled descendants of the first robots, the Progeny had far surpassed their creators. Man had spread to a thousand worlds, and was on every one a slave.

“We’ll never know Aalemi’s future,” it dawned on the grieving mother. “Never see her marry. We’ll have to start anew. Just us.”

“Us and the Progeny.” Liksandr spoke the name like a curse.

As Andromeda loomed large in their vision, a projected hologram appeared.

“Aalemi?” Zabesh wept again to see her daughter.

“We beat you here by five centuries!” Aalemi smiled. “So much has changed! Oh…” Aalemi’s hologram stepped aside. A metallic spherical body entered the projection. “Mom, Dad,” she embraced the spheroid. “I’m married!”

Written for Flash! Friday vol. 3-44. The novel prompt was Pride and Prejudice, and this story… has very little to do with that prompt. But there is a mother anxious to marry off her daughters, and an overall theme of family. Image of the Andromeda galaxy is public domain from Pixabay.

Two Old Top Dogs of War

Swords drawn, armor polished, we face off across the manicured lawn. Two sovereigns who each would rule the world. Today that quest will end for one of us.

From a ragtag band of savages, I built an empire. Armed with a machete, i hewed paths through dense jungles. I turned game trails through mythic woodland into cobblestone roads. Always on the move, searching, conquering.

Move. Countermove. At every turn I find her waiting. My equal and opposite: if I am king, then she is my queen, and I her most reviled foe.

The castle walls stand stout against the onslaught of her armies. With chisel and hammer I cut these stones, then mortared into place. These walls have served me well. Every day I sat upon a gilded throne, plotting to outflank her. Each night I payed tribute in her temple, then prayed that her ambitions would not spell my doom.

In her eyes, I see something familiar. Fatigue. Despair. Like all great sins, our lust for power imprisons us. Today, thrust willy-nilly into battle, the quest will end for one of us. Swords drawn, we face off across the lawn. Two sovereigns who rule the world, but not ourselves.

Written for Flash! Friday vol. 3-43. The novel prompt was Shakespeare’s classic play Macbeth, with a theme of the dangers of power and a setting of a castle. Photo is Inverness Constabulary Dog Handlers, 1969. CC2.0 photo by Dave Conner.