Category Archives: Flash fiction

Five Years Ago

###  Five years ago, Cavendish Laboratories, Cambridge, England

“Well, it could be it’s similar to the situation in the dark ages when they thought rats and mice just spontaneously generated from piles of rubbish.”

“That’s ridiculous, James. These fungi don’t spontaneously generate from electronic components!” She didn’t even bother to look up from the microscope.

“Anne, that’s not what I meant and you know it.” He waited, desperate for some response. She finally tore her eyes from the microscope. “Good, you’re paying attention. It’s possible that, like rats and mice are attracted to rubbish this fungus, or its spores are attracted to electrical currents. Or, the warmth an electronic device generates. Once there, it can get nourishment from all kinds of materials: dander, skin cells. . .really, just about anything imaginable. Who knows what sort of weird things people do with their phones?”

Her eyes narrowed in thought.

“But, why now? Why is it only now being detected and why is it only now affecting us?”

“Anne, the Walkman first came out in 1979. We’ve had cell phones for less than 20 years. We’ve only recently started to put things with electrical currents into our ears and all this has been a pretty recent phenomenon considering the entire span of human evolution.”

“Ok, go on.”

They both jumped as the door to the assistant’s research room slammed back against the wall. “Dr. von Höhnel? It’s Geneva.”

###  One year ago, Washington DC, United States

“You mean to tell me you all can’t figure out how this mold is sterilizing people?”

After some time, Fredrick Cole, the President’s Science Advisor stood up. “Mr. President. I need to draw your full and focused attention to this next slide. Sir, this slide is an averaging of our best predictive software from DARPA. This graph shows the effect that sterilization from the Zablocka-von Höhnel fungus will have on the human population over the next fifty years.”

Cole coughed, trying to clear the lump rising in his throat. “The worst-case scenario puts the extinction-point clock at 5 months, 13 days and a few hours, with an error of +/- 15 minutes.”

###  Today, abandoned mining facility, Puelma, Atacama Desert, Chile

The Americans had finally come. Her father said they would and, she knew, he was rarely wrong. Her father also said they would be scientists and would be well educated. The Americans looked the same in their blue and silver Patagonia gear. He had said nothing about that.

When she saw all they were transporting, she knew her father was wrong, which delighted her. The snow shoes and skis would never be used; there had been no rain, or snow, in the Atacama since before she had been born. Her father was hardly, if ever wrong about anything, but these Americans knew nothing about her desert. They may be scientists, but they couldn’t be that smart.

He also said they would bring death with them.

Maybe he could be wrong a second time?


Long Reach

“Hey Cap?” Marten pokes his head into my cubbie, his face a mixture of elation and deep sorrow.

“Ay?” I answer him. I know he can sense my nervous tension. We’ve all been on edge these long hours as they’ve stretched into days that feel like months.

“He’s gone. He pushed the…” I interrupt him, throwing up my hand. “I don’t care to know Sgt. Just the time for the station log.”

“Ah, it was 21:35. Should I call the officers?” He grabs for the door frame just as I hook my foot into cloth floor loop even before the klaxons signal for microG.

I know I’m twirling the gold key on my necklace and I know it’s a bad habit for a commander to show indecisiveness. I know I do these things, and still do them because it’s simply a natural thing for a real flesh-and-blood human. “No, there’s no need, it can wait. Let the dead have their time. Add it to the morning brief. Am I correct that he left no one back on…?”

Marten jumps in quickly, “Ma’am he left with no family here or ah, there.”

“What about, I thought he had a daughter?” I was sure he had one child.

“No, ma’am. Well, he did. She was killed in the strike two years back.”

I should have known that. “Who received life from her death?”

“Sarah McIntosh, ma’am.”

“Ah, same sex, was that?”

“No, just chance. We lost quite a few, there was no reason to, you know. I’ll make sure her and her sponsors are in attendance.”

“Thank you Sgt. Marten.” I look back down at my desk, at all the work I still need to do before my day ends. “That will be all.”

With a slight nod, he pushes off from the door frame. I slide the panel closed and I’m left alone with the silence of the station hum and the rich glow of Jupiter and the death of James Woodson and the birth of someone yet unknown all of them heavy on my mind, a physical presence with me in the room. I relax my foot, let it slip from the floor loop and bring my knees up to my chest into a fetal position and I drift. My eyes close reflexively and I can feel the tension stretch and release from my neck. I float for several minutes before my head bumps against something and I reach out with one arm, slowly and carefully. Once re-oriented, I slip my slate from its dock and decide to get some tea in the galley where there will be others like me, tired but restless, busy but idle.

I find a two seat table in the back and dock my slate. There are a few third shifters starting their day here, most all of them recognize me with a salute or a nod and I try to return something in acknowledgement. While I’m waiting for the water to boil a few of them come up to me so they can assert that James had passed and offer condolences to survivors I have to tell them don’t exist. I quickly retreat with my tea.

I finish my Earl Grey and start work on Woodson’s death record. At 67 he was one of the oldest to have lived on Long Reach. At a larger station or dirt-side he might have lived on past his useful life. Unfortunately, Long Reach is too small and remote to have an unbalanced ledger. Scanning his service records, I’m surprised to find he was the first child sponsored and born on the station. I start, one tear rolls down my cheek. Maybe there was something we could have done, maybe I could have moved some resources around, maybe corp could have sent a shuttle off-schedule. Maybe. Maybe we could invent eternity. Maybe we can re-program our bodies not to atrophy.

No, no I ask for no pity and neither did Woodson. I did what I did, no more and no less. If there was something else I might have done or done differently, it’s too late now. Woodson did what all station rats do when it they’ve tipped the balance, when they start to withdraw more than they deposit. We all have a duty to each-other living on a station, isolated and self-contained.

I grab my cup and slate and move a little too fast. I slam my knee into the table attracting the stares of several others in the galley and I know they can see the salt streaks on my face. I don’t care. I can show them how to mourn, how to feel pain, how to miss someone you never really knew.

By the time I make it back to my cubbie, the burning anger has cooled. I know there is more work yet to be done. I know that James Woodson will, in a fashion, live on again. In the next few years or so, his absence will be felt at Long Reach. He was an extremely talented fabricator and tailor. He had started apprenticing a young boy a few years ago, but looking over his service records, I can see he hasn’t shown the craftsmanship or skill of his mentor.

In nine months we will have something to celebrate here at Long Reach. Of course, only if I can find sponsors both willing and able. By willing, I mean a woman that won’t mind carrying a child through to birth and, well some guy to do the deed. By able, I mean they both will have to agree to extra duty around the station for the next eight years before the child can contribute something in return for his life here on station. All that and then Dr. Richards will have to run his tests to see if the willing and able pair should have a child.

So, I rub my sore, burning eyes, maybe a little more than nine months from now.


Digging

“Hot out there?”

Her husband lets out one long tired breath and stumbles over to the sink for a glass of water. “I’m gonna take a shower.”

“Ok.” She watches him zombie-walk down the hall and into their bedroom. A few minutes later she can hear the water start. A few minutes after that, she puts down her travel magazine and begins a search for the sunburn ointment.

His shower done, she waits in their bedroom, a bottle of sky blue ointment in hand. He yells out, “Debbie. Debbie?”

She pokes her head into the steamy heat of the bathroom, “Need something?” She’s got a fiendish smile, grinning ear to ear, hiding the bottle.

“Oh man, I’m burnt through and through. Do you have some?” His wife flips the top of the bottle and says “Yeah, yeah, turn around let me see.”

He turns about-face and leans over the double sink. He lets out a yelp when the cold gel hits the bright pink heat of his skin. “You did a number on your shoulders. You should wear a sleeved shirt.”

“I know, I know. But, hey I had a hat on at least.” She just snorts at him, thankful for small victories.

“What’s this?”

“What’s what? What?” He whips around to look at his back in the mirror, first the left side, then flipping around and squinting into the foggy mirror at the right. “Where? What are you talking about?”

“Here, it’s right here.” She puts her hands on his pink sticky shoulders and turns him around, pointing to a small square of discolored skin on his back. “See, what’s that? Did you lean on something?”

“No, I don’t know what it…Shit!” He lets out a shout of pain. “There’s something there. Damn that hurt!” He presses his finger to the spot and winces again. “Crap, I’ve got to get that out, it’s sharp.”

“Wait, let me look.” Debbie roots through a drawer and pulls out a pair of tweezers. “I can pull it out like a splinter.”

“Ok, just…Ahhh!” He squirms in pain again.

“Be gentile?” Debbie offers.

“Nevermind.”

The metal filing comes out easily once Debbie breaks his skin with a needle. She drops the thin sliver into her husband’s hand. “Well,” Joseph ponders. “You know I might take this in to work and see if Steve can make heads or tails out of it.”

“Steve?”

“Yeah, he’s a guy from the university I know. He works in the geology department.” Joseph walks back into the bedroom flipping the thin metal sliver around in his fingers. “There is absolutely no way I got this digging out in the garden. As thin as this is, it should bend easily.” All his attempts at bending or even marring the thin sliver are wasted.

Debbie shrugs her shoulders, “But, can this Steve guy tell you how it got in your back?”

A few weeks later, the phone rings. Debbie side steps over to the phone and props it up with her shoulder. “Osborne residence.”

“Mrs. Osborne?”

“Yes. Who is this?”

“Ma’am, this is Colonel Olin calling from Vandenberg Air Force Base; may I speak with your husband?”

“Ah, sure. What’s going on is there a problem?”

“I need to speak with your husband.” Debbie puts the phone against her chest and shouts through the window to her husband weeding in their garden.

“Yeah, this is Joseph, what’s up?” His casual tone makes his wife more nervous. Normal people don’t get calls from Vandenberg Colonels.

As the phone call goes on, Debbie turns her husband around and lifts his shirt to search his now scarred back. The last few weeks she has pulled three other slivers from his back. He’s delivered all of them to his friend Steve and apparently, he’s forwarded them on to who knows.

“Uh, well, sir they are doing fine.” Joseph disengages himself from his wife and walks over to the screen door. “But, how do you know what’s planted in my garden? You got spy planes circling my house?” The conversation turns one way and Joseph just stands there staring out to his garden.

“Well, I just need to take a shower. You say they are here, already?” Now he turns toward the front room and peers out at the driveway. “Yeah, the big blue vans…that’s them. Well, ok. I’ll talk to you later, sir.”

Joseph hands the phone to his wife and says, “I’m going to go take a shower.”

She grabs his arm, “Hold it, mister! You are not going to just leave me here without telling me what just happened. Who’s in those blue vans? Why is the Air Force calling you?”

“Uh, the vans are here to take me to Vandenberg. Have you ever seen me pass out when I’m out there?” His eyes glazed over as he starts to turn towards the bedroom.

“No, honey. You’ve taken breaks and gone for a walk or two.” She looks at him with fright in her eyes. “Is it something to do with what the slivers are made of?”

“No, it’s what is written on them. Walks? I don’t leave the garden, what do you mean walks?” Now her eyes are wide open her face screaming fear and terror.

“You do. You tell me you’re going for a walk. You come in here all sweaty and say something like you’re going to cool off and take a walk up the trail.” Tears are starting to stream down her face. “What’s on the slivers, Joseph? Why are there men from Vandenberg in our driveway?”

“That’s when it happens.” He starts to zombie-walk down the hall again.

“What happens, Joseph? Stop!” Her scream doesn’t affect him.

“They implant maps in my back. Maps of Europa. Written on titanium. Written so small you need an electron microscope to read them.”

“Europe? We have maps of Europe! Who are they?” She pleads with him.

“Not Europe, sweetie, Europa.” He raises his arm and points up. “Europa, up there.”