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!”

 

Advertisements

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.

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.

All Rise for the Popular Verdict

“Woe unto Babylon!” The man in black stood atop a fiberglass boulder, pointing an accusatory finger towards the painted horizon. “You have given yourselves to carnal pleasures and bloodlust!”

I ran past a thatch hut. With luck, this clueless preacher would distract the audience just long enough. “Twenty seconds,” the producer announced in my earpiece. Fleeing toward the fake jungle, I counted each footfall. “One… one… thou-sand… Two… one… thou-sand…”

“Revel not in immorality! Reject this Hollywood gaud and gore!” This was criminal reality TV: only one contestant survived each episode. As a murder suspect, I was surely the underdog. If I survived the first commercial break, I could plead innocence and play for audience sympathy. A million dollars could buy a decent attorney.

“Fifteen… one… thou-sand…” Then I crashed into another contestant cowering behind a plywood log prop. She was a woman, just a girl, but eight months pregnant.

Agonizing wails came from the village: the preacher, whatever his crime, had met his fate. Tears filled her eyes when she heard the man’s screams.

I sighed and raised my hands. “Oh, fine. I confess!” As the hidden dartguns targeted me for execution, I wished the woman luck.

Written for Flash! Friday vol. 3-41. The novel prompt was Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country, with characters including a young man accused of murder, a pregnant woman, and the setting of a wealthy city in moral decline. Image: View in Village of Adarranu near the Black Volta, 1890s. CC photo. National Archives UK, “Africa Through a Lens” project.

Homo Ultima

One final stroll through the garden. Solomon knew his would be the last footsteps to tread these grounds. And the beauty of this forest merited a last farewell. Once, a billion years ago, there were others. Humankind spread like a weed. Relentless and unstoppable, they subdued the Earth. But time waits not for man.

Solomon followed the time-worn stone footpath along the creek to the clearing. He knew every sparrow, every blade of grass in this hundred acre nature preserve. Since time immemorial, since the Sun was yellow and the days were short, he had tended the plants and cared for the animals.

High overhead, the immense red Sun hovered motionless, as it had for at least forty million years. The blue force barrier held in the atmosphere from the vacuum outside, shielded this Eden from the scorching Sun, and gave the appearance of a cloudless day.

All the others passed beyond the barrier, into the vacuum beyond. Accident and grief claimed a victim every few millennia. Mostly, though, it was the ceaseless boredom of the passing eons that led them to trade the dullness of immortality for the serenity of the grave. Now there were none but he. Homo ultima. The final human.

From bright blue, the barrier faded to dim indigo. No violent gale came: only a controlled release of atmosphere across the long-barren surface of the aged Earth. Birdsong faded away. The leaves of the mighty oak trees began to curl. The grass withered; flowers bowed to the inevitable.

Solomon resolved that his death would not be like the others’. His would not be an act of despair or grief, but love. Not love for any individual, but love for the universe itself. As the barrier faded to black, the grotesque red Sun was joined by countless diamonds in the sky: stars unseen for ages.

“We have been apart too long.”

Written for Flash! Friday vol. 3-38, where the inspiration was J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic Lord of the Rings. This story includes a humble gardener and a beautiful forest. Photo prompt: Mt. Teide: the conic-point that meets the skies. CC2.0 pic by Julie Ann Johnson.

Come to Grief

“I love you.”

“You’re only saying that because I almost killed you.” Zara pulled her hand away from the glass panel, and the crimson circle that would terminate his life support.

Paralyzed below the neck, the man in the biomedical bed tilted his head toward Zara. “Please… daughter. By law and custom, as my sole relative, only you may end my suffering.” His raspy voice raked against Zara’s heartstrings.

Zara stared at the husk of a man. Holographic indicators overlaid his medical data. Age: 437. Pulse, blood pressure, brain activity. Diagnosis: Immortality Treatment Rejection Syndrome. Prognosis: progressive paralysis, agonizing pain, death within the year. In his bloodshot eyes, she saw something virtually unknown to modern civilization: real pain. How could she let him suffer in this cold hospital room? She was his daughter: he was her responsibility.

Zara felt the impulse firing through her neurons: the electrochemical command telling her finger to press the button.

“No!” She turned away from him.

“My daughter… Medical science gave me four centuries of life, but has reached its limit. Close the circle. End my suffering.”

“Growing up, I dreamed of a father,” Zara confessed. “Someone to love me unconditionally. But you weren’t there.” She turned to him again. “I made my own way in life — and quite well! Now you send for me, not to make amends, but merely to press a button?”

“Then you hate me. Push the button. Give me what I deserve.”

“I don’t hate you,” Zara said pityingly. “I don’t even know you. You’re a stranger to me.” With one hand, she stroked his brittle hair. With the other, she pressed the button.

“I love you,” he mouthed silently, and then he was gone.

Zara slumped to the marble floor and cried. “I love you, too.”

Written for the Cracked Flash Fiction Competition, Year 1 week 8, where the prompt was the first two lines of dialogue. The judges had some very kind words for this story.

Meteoric

My rise to the upper echelon of Solar society was meteoric. At sixteen a dropout from unfashionable Old Manhattan; by twenty-five I had offices on four planets, plus a vacation home on Ganymede. Trillionaires marveled as my stock surged. What was my secret?

It was her.

Rebuffed repeatedly in school, I wanted desperately to prove I could be somebody. So I spent my youth engrossed in market research, backroom deals, and schemes to be in all the right places at precisely the right times. Always dreaming of the fiery redhead girl who set my heart aflame.

When I returned to Earth, I showered her with treasures from across the Solar system. Neptunian diamonds sparkling like stars. Crystalline water from the Fountain of Youth on Europa. Martian trilobite fossils.

If only I had known: all the wealth in the universe could never buy her heart.

A story written for Flash! Friday vol. 3-36, inspired by the themes and characters of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Photo prompt is a public domain image from the film “Four Walls”.

A Time To Embrace

Our prophets foretold that my people would find a homeland, in the fullness of time. But now we are scattered to the beginnings and ends of the Earth, and my ragtag band of refugees constantly asks when we’ll find this promised land.

Wind whips my hair as I stand atop a hill overlooking a grassy plain. The threescore of us that haven’t been killed by the hunters, or lost to the diaspora, scrounge for supplies. Our last temporal leap dropped us into a land once known as Persia: a land rich in pre-digital history and mythology. Epic battles between armies of good and evil.

My engineer approaches from the timeship. “I’ve found the problem.” Yet he appears puzzled. “An anachronism lodged in the chronoton inductors.”

Anachronism. A bit of matter sucked into our path as we bridged countless centuries of history. Typically unrecognizable fragments or debris. This one, though, was an apple. Taking the fruit, I turn it over in my hand, examining its golden skin, single green leaf, and neatly snipped stem.

“Never have I seen such a pristine anachronism,” he says. “What could it mean?” I study the anachronism: a fruit out of place in this treeless grassland. Just like me. Just like all of us.

“In this time, but not of it,” I whisper. “I think it’s a sign.” My titanium survival blade cuts through the apple. I offer a slice to the engineer. Then, with loving care, I gather some soil, and gently plant the seeds.

Written for Flash! Friday vol 3-33. Photo prompt: Sinbad the Sailor. Illustration by Frances Brundage, published 1898 in The Arabian Nights, edited by George Fyler Townsend.