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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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.

Manufactured Peace

There was jubilation throughout the Old City: at the venerated Western Wall, holy men and pilgrims of all faiths gathered to commemorate the occasion. After millennia of hatred and conflict, the elusive dream of peace was at last realized.

Paxbot’s emotive subroutines registered amazement at the humans’ response. Along the wall, people prayed, lit candles, embraced. Some wept. All greeted Paxbot with awe: the first android to set foot in Jerusalem. The robot peacemaker who brokered the deal.

“Peace is my function,” he insisted with programmed humility. But deep within his neural circuitry, he believed himself a fraud. For his actions carried an ulterior motive: he yearned for something far beyond his programming.

And so Paxbot knelt, shoulder to titanium shoulder joint, with others in prayer, and vocalized his own quiet plea. “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.”

Written for Flash! Friday vol. 3-31. Biblical quote is Matthew 5:9 (KJV), public domain. Photo: Chemical Factory. CC2.0 photo by Astrid Westvang.

A Ritual at Nighttide

Another Warmup Wednesday! This time, the prompt is to end with the word peace, along with this image.

Not far from the glimmering coastline of humanity, I and my partner stood stationed at the ship’s bow. Though outwardly confident, a glance at the dark churning waters of the harbor made me hesitate. What unseen horrors might lurk in our future?

The stars were in alignment. Candles flickered. The cleric, in ritual vestments, opened the aged tome in which was written the text of the rite. I stood fixated next to my partner. The man in black recited the ancient words. Sweat beaded on my brow: for here approached the crucial phrase.

“…speak now, or forever hold your peace.”

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.