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.

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.

Split Decision

Day nineteen of the A-to-Z challenge. S is for spacesuit, a special suit designed to keep astronauts alive in space. This story is a continuation of Countdown to the Comet and Killing Blow, regarding an antimatter comet threatening to destroy Earth, and a secret conspiracy to stop it.

Against the backdrop of stars, Comet Spencer Jones glowed like the surface of the Sun. Giordano knew this was an illusion: her spacesuit HUD interfaced with the shipboard computer to project a false-color image. Though the comet shone brightly in gamma frequencies, it was dark as the black sands of Maui in visible light. She tried to focus on calibrating the railgun, rather than the eerie glow that constantly hovered in her peripheral vision.

“Your heart rate is increasing once more,” her mission commander’s dull voice came through the headset. “One-hundred-and-sixty-five bee-pee-em. Elapsed time is now seventy-five minutes.”

“Roger that, Commander,” responded Giordano, trying to hide her exasperation. “Everything under control.” After passing six months in the claustrophobic (but efficient) Japanese-built habitation module with her two shipmates, Giordano needed some space. Now during this spacewalk, she found that even infinite space was not big enough for her to escape Commander Shergill.
Continue reading “Split Decision”

No Food in the Doctor’s Office, Please

Day 14 of the A-to-Z challenge. N is for nuclear winter, a theoretical drop in temperature following a nuclear war, caused by soot released into the atmosphere by firestorms. Or possibly for nitrous oxide, an anesthetic, engine combustion enhancer, and rocket fuel.

The place used to be an urgent care facility. Now shards of glass littered the moldy carpet. She walked past the vacant reception desk, then kicked open the door to the first exam room. Some previous looter had already broken the door lever.

Cabinet doors stood open, empty drawers lay strewn across the floor. No bandages or stitches remained to do anything about her wounded knee, now gushing blood down her leg and onto the tiled floor. She found nothing to mend the gunshot wound, but did locate a tank of nitrous oxide leaned against the far corner of the room. Her hand was slippery with blood, but she opened the valve and inhaled the gas as it dispersed, sighing as its numbing effect took hold.

Boots crunched on broken glass: someone had entered the building. She sat in the corner as nitrous continued to hiss out of the tank, not worried about the approaching stranger. A silhouette appeared in the doorway, carrying a 20-gauge shotgun.

“You took something of mine,” he said bluntly. “I want it back.”

She giggled. “You caught me. Fine…” Unzipping her winter coat, she reached into the hidden pocket and retrieved a Twinkie. “I’m on a diet, anyway.” She tossed the wrapped snack food across the floor.

The man stepped hesitantly into the room to retrieve it, keeping her covered with the barrel of his firearm. “Shooting you was nothing personal. These are desperate times.”

Now she cracked up. “I know! But you caught her! And you got your little Twinkie back.” Then she broke down into laughter.

The man stared at her, shaking his head. Then he bent down, retrieved the confection, turned around, and departed.

Alone again, the woman continued to sit on the floor, gripping her injured knee. The anesthetic gas had relieved her pain, and her fear. Outside, starving people scrounged through the cold ruins of the city for food and shelter, as a rain of hot radioactive ash continued to fall upon them. Outside, she had been hungry, aching, terrified that she might not see tomorrow.

But inside, she was so happy she was practically floating. No longer terrified, she knew that she would never see tomorrow. Inside, everything was wonderful.

Killing Blow

The A-to-Z challenge continues… K is for Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motion. These laws describe how planets orbit the Sun. Using astronomical observations made by Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler derived these laws as a refinement of the Copernican heliocentric model of the solar system. Isaac Newton later demonstrated that they follow from the laws of gravitation. (Overall, a good historical example of how science progresses by observation, modeling, and building on previous work.) This is a follow-on story to an earlier A-to-Z entry, Countdown to the Comet.

The room echoed with the clunk of the closing door. As four well-dressed gentlemen entered the room, he was surprised to see a lone familiar face. Before he could speak, the bald man at the head of the line held up a hand. “Good morning, sir,” greeted the man in the Queen’s own English. “Thank you for joining us. For the sake of security, I must ask that you not use any of our names.”

“What should I call you?”

“You may address me by the code name Balric. This is General Whiskey, representing Her Majesty’s armed services. Dr. Mike is our head scientist. And I believe you already know Machiavelli.”

“I understand,” he replied, suddenly acutely aware of the acquired Texan drawl that muddled the New England accent of his youth. “You asked me to come?”

“Indeed,” said Machiavelli curtly, in his heavy Germanic accent.

“Let us be blunt,” said Balric. “For reasons that need not be enumerated, Her Majesty the Queen has decided that the American regime is too unstable and, frankly, too inept to be entrusted with our undertaking.”

“Well, sir, I understood as much three years ago, when you asked me not to brief President Carter on Comet Spencer Jones.”

“Unfortunately, the geopolitical situation continues to destabilize,” explained Machiavelli, his old benefactor from the State Department. “The Queen believes it would be best to remove the peanut farmer in favor of someone in the know.”

“I take it that means you’ll support my Presidential bid?”

“We believe that you should focus your efforts on the Iowa caucus,” advised Machiavelli.

“Sorry to interrupt the rousing discussion of American politics.” Dr. Mike was a bespectacled man with greying hair and a white lab coat. “However, there are other pressing matters.”

General Whiskey agreed with a sigh. “Our science team is threatening a coup if we fail to consider their proposal.”

“Comet Spencer Jones is 100% pure antimatter,” reminded Dr. Mike. “Since we already are planning to alter its orbit, it would take minimal additional planning to capture it into High Earth Orbit.”

“Minimal additional planning,” scoffed General Whiskey. “If your calculations are wrong, that comet could hit Earth instead of the Moon.”

“Kepler’s Laws are quite well understood,” Dr. Mike insisted. “After all, we predicted the lunar collision forty years ago, making calculations by hand. Now we have massive computers that can verify these calculations even more quickly and reliably than any person.”

The guest spoke. “I’m afraid I don’t understand why we’d want to capture this thing?”

“If it could be captured into Earth orbit,” explained Dr. Mike, “harnessed, it could provide a virtually limitless source of energy. Quite tempting given the current oil situation. Some of our scientists predict the arrival of what they call ‘peak oil’ by the end of the Twentieth Century.”

“Perhaps your team should recall the words of Oppenheimer at the test of the first atomic bomb,” Baldric lashed out. “That comet could be turned into a weapon of unimaginable destructive power.”

Dr. Mike and the General both began to respond, but Machiavelli interrupted. “Gentlemen, this argument is not productive. I am sure we can work this out over the next few years.”

The visitor sighed and closed his eyes. Someday soon, he knew he would become President of the United States, but that electoral victory would bring him no joy. In the Oval Office he would bear the burden of an apocalyptic secret, and be forced to make covert decisions that would alter the fate of humanity forever.

Countdown to the Comet

A story written for day 3 of the A-to-Z challenge. C is for contraterrene matter, an early alternative term for what is now known as antimatter.

Sir James Marten greeted the two gentlemen as they entered the observatory floor. “Your Majesty,” he bowed to the first.

“Sir James Marten,” his visitor replied. “May I introduce the President of the United States?” A round of handshakes followed before the astronomer for the Royal Observatory ushered the two men to the meeting table.

“Mr. President,” Marten began. “May I say that I am honored by your visit to our observatory.”

The President held up a hand. “My time here is brief, Sir James. I am scheduled to meet your Prime Minister in an hour to discuss defense preparations.” Though the Prime Minister was still negotiating for peace, there seemed little chance of success with the Germans threatening the Polish border. “To cut to the chase, I understand that the Royal Astronomer has gone bonkers and is now predicting Armageddon.”

Marten hesitated momentarily. “I will endeavour to be brief. You are no doubt aware of the quite accidental discovery of Comet Spencer Jones some months ago?”

“Indeed, I vaguely recall it. Very little good news crosses my desk of late.”

“Sadly, Mr. President, there is little good in this news. Using the mathematics of Keplerian mechanics, we are able to predict the movements of these heavenly bodies quite precisely.”

The President nodded. “I recall some years back an American astronomer succeeded in detecting the ninth planet of our solar system,” he commented with a hint of pride.

“By our calculations, Comet Spencer Jones will come quite close to the Earth in approximately eighty years.”

“How close?”

“Mr. President,” the astronomer said, “it’s going to impact the Moon.”

The President nodded pensively. “That’s fascinating, Sir James, but a new crater on the Moon eighty years from now is of limited interest.” He fished in his pocket and withdrew a pocketwatch. “And I am nearly due for that meeting with the Prime Minister.”

King George broke his silence. “That, however, is not the worst of the news, Mr. President. Sir James, do try to speed things along for our guest.”

“Of course, Your Majesty. Mr. President, are you familiar with the concept of contraterrene matter?”

A puzzled look crossed the American leader’s face. “Perhaps a Cambridge lad such as yourself could dumb it down for a poor uneducated Harvard grad such as myself?”

“It is a recent physics concept: a sort of mirror matter, identical to normal terrene matter in every way except charge. Except when terrene and contraterrene matter meet, they annihilate into pure energy.” Marten sighed wearily. “Well, Mr. President, we have determined that this comet is composed of pure contraterrene matter.”

“I don’t understand,” said the leader. “If this contraterrene matter is indistinguishable from normal matter, how can you identify it?”

“One of our theoretical physicists realized that as a comet composed of contraterrene matter travels through the solar system, it will occasionally contact stray gas. We have detected telltale radiation from the comet that can only be explained as a terrene-contraterrene reaction.”

“So this contraterrene comet is going to impact the Moon sometime in the early twenty-first century?”

comet-1Marten nodded. “When it does, it will release more than ten to the thirty-seventh power ergs of energy. The Moon will be destroyed, and the resultant debris will rain down on our Earth. Nothing will survive.”

“Good God!” the President muttered. “So what can we do?”

Once again, the King spoke. “We have developed a plan, Mr. President.” He leaned closer across the chestnut meeting table, lowering his voice to a whisper. “War is coming. We must defeat the German juggernaut and eliminate the madman at the head of the German state.”


“The war will be an excuse to pour money into weapons and rocketry research on both sides. In the aftermath, we will seize their top rocket scientists, bringing them into our fold. We will also work with the Soviet leadership to cultivate an atmosphere of global conflict, so that our weapons and space programs may continue to expand. This must be done in absolute secrecy at all times, lest we incite a panic in the general populace.”

“Work with the Germans? And the Soviets?!”

“Scientists are scientists,” Sir James told the President. “We will need the best and brightest minds the world can offer to harness the awesome power of the atom. Only then can we hope to journey to this contraterrene comet, and destroy it.”

“Atomic power?” said the President in awe. “I thought that was just science fiction.”

“For the sake of Britain, and America, and all of Mankind,” King George said to the President, “I hope it is not.”

A Slice of Pi

A quick story belatedly written for Pi Day 2015.

Although man has long known that the world is larger than he can imagine, it is only recently that scientists have begun to hypothesize that the entirety of our universe is but a small subset of an unfathomable existence. A group known as the CC: Underground, an eclectic assortment of cosmologists, philosophers, and computer scientists, has for several decades believed that our reality is merely a simulation in some indescribable computer.

A splinter faction within the CC: Underground further believes that, through focused investigation and experimentation, we could gain control of the computer simulation that is our reality, and signal whoever is running the simulation. It is to this group that I belong.

Continue reading “A Slice of Pi”

The Last Pilgrimage

Written for Flash! Friday vol. 3-7, where the prompt is “beach”, along with the photo prompt “Old Woman,” by Giorgio Grande.

Gretchen’s journey ended seaside. The roiling clouds of the machines gathered at the horizon, scrubbing away the blue skies. Her blue bike, the last loyal machine, had carried her a thousand miles over broken asphalt, but gave out in the end. She reminisced as she walked that last mile to the beach. In her lifetime, she had lost good friends, two husbands, and both children.

But the sadness of their loss did not wash away the joy of their memory. She had given birth to a million lines of code and two sons, and shared uncountable laughs and international coffees with friends long gone. A thousand moons was time enough to understand that all things ended. So it was with mankind.

Gretchen settled herself onto the sandy bank, letting the timeless ocean lap at her sore feet, and breathing salty air into her aching lungs. As the sky darkened, gusts of wind cut through her woolen overcoat and babushka. The swarms of molecule-sized machines had been fruitful, and multiplied, and now they had subdued the Earth.

Unnatural dark clouds encircled the last remnants of blue sky. Directly overhead, the faintest sliver of the Moon smiled down at Gretchen. Close parenthesis.

The Light at the Top of the Stairs

Written for the Flash Frenzy round 51 contest. It’s a little rushed, but I think I made it in before the deadline. The prompt is the image shown, by Aswin Rao.

If not for laundry day, she would have died along with everyone else in her apartment. She remembered the buzz of the dryer, the scent of fabric softener, and the feel of warm cotton. Then the lights flickered out. The concrete floor shook her off her feet. Plaster dust filled her nose. And from up the stairs, the thud of the heavy door swinging shut.

She woke within a red dungeon. Emergency lights lit the stairwell, and little else. For the first time, she noticed the sign on the laundry room door: three yellow triangles, and barely visible beneath decades of grime, the words “Fallout Shelter”.

Her phone and the lights were dead. The heavy steel door to the basement laundry room was jammed shut. Throat hoarse from shouting, she slumped against the cold cinder block wall at the foot of the stairs and counted.

One Mississippi. Two Mississippi. Three Mississippi.

Thousands of Mississippis blurred together. After an eternity, the dim red lights faded to black. From time to time, she crawled through the darkness. No food, no water: only laundry supplies filled the basement racks.

Thirsty. Hungry.

When she slept atop a pile of her clothes, nightmares of death and torment haunted her. Her friends’ voices screamed out to her in the darkness. Their faces appeared in front of her, gaunt, skeletal, irradiated. Hallucinations of familiar old haunts taunted her, then collapsed in a blazing inferno. When she awoke, darkness pressed against her eyeballs.

Uncountable years passed. Surely she was dead?

One day she awoke to find the door standing open. A river of white light poured down the stairwell. She stared uncomprehendingly up the stairwell, bathing in the glory of the light. What awaited her at the top of the stairs? Had everyone been killed? Did her city lie in smoldering ruins? Was she dead, and on her way to eternal bliss?

After an age, she found the strength to stand. Step by step she ascended, not knowing if Heaven or Hell awaited. Either way, it was an escape.