Archive for category NASA 50 Years
“My name is Finn, and I was abducted by aliens.”
“Tell us about your experience. We understand.” said Ray, the group leader.
“Thank you. My whole school laughed at me.”
“We understand.” repeated Ray.
“I was pulled up into space by an invisible force. I couldn’t breathe.”
The others stared, glassy-eyed, remembering their own trauma.
“They pulled me into their ship. Huge creatures, with… sort of tentacles… tentacles with tentacles… but stiffer, you know?”
“They moved strangely, floating in space, nothing holding them up. I could hardly move. They measured me, poked me, probed me… I can’t even…” He squirmed.
“And… this is going to sound crazy, but…”
“We’ve all been called crazy,” said Ray.
“I never believed anyone who said this. But I swear they implanted a tracking device!”
“Me too!” someone called out.
“And then… they dumped me, near my home. But I’m convinced they’re causing the disappearances. They keep some, take them to their own world, for… for… I don’t know.”
Muttered hypotheses bubbled through the group.
“They’re forcing them to breed alien hybrids!”
“…locking us up and studying us!”
“I bet they’re eating us!” The children always went for the most direct horror.
“Quiet! Finn’s speaking.”
“People say maybe their world’s a paradise, where everyone’s safe and well-fed. But I was terrified. I can’t believe they’re good. My mouth still hurts,” Finn blubbed. “I just… we can’t stop them. They’ll take us all. They’re a superior species. All we can do is wait for it.”
Finn swam through the wide-eyed audience, and into the coral to mope.
As well as being part of the second cycle of my Writing Cards (and not really Letters) project, this story is an entry in Flash Mob 2013 International Flash Fiction Day blog carnival and competition. Edit: The rest of the mob is now lighting up the world with its pitchforks. By the contest rules it has to have fewer than 300 words; it’s either 293 or 263, or maybe about 500, depending on which word counting software you believe. I counted 263. Or something like that; I’ve changed it a bit since counting.
The first few hundred years were okay. I had a lot of thrilling death-defying adventures. I lived the dream.
I got used to my loved ones dying, and got better at meeting new ones, and better at being by myself. Not a problem; before the accident, I’d stayed eight years at a lab full of one- and two-year contractors and students. I stayed there for a while afterwards too, but it seemed silly to chip away at the minutiae when I’d seen how huge and incomprehensible the whole thing was. Even with the amount of time I had, I knew I could never get my head around it.
In any case, the universe would stick around for a while. I wanted to study the things that wouldn’t. I don’t think I realised back then just how little time I had to do that. I always felt like there were so many more people to meet, so much more alone time to savour, so much more to learn, so many more ideas to realise than I had time to, but somewhere in the back of my mind I assumed I could get back to them later. Oh, if only I could.
I travelled the world while there were still means to do so, tried the foods when I could pay for them, smelled the flowers when I found any, learnt the languages, met the people while there still were some. Had a few wives. A few husbands. A few children. Thirty-three thousand, nine hundred and eighty-three known descendants, before I lost count. They all died, of course. I had my alone time to savour.
One by one, then ten by ten, species went extinct. We got used to it. People are good enough at ignoring things as long as they’re still comfortable. Eventually things were stretched too far to be comfortable. After the human race died out, when there was not much left bigger than bacteria, I went through a moody phase. For a millennium I’d be content just wandering around admiring the landscape, watching erosion create interesting patterns. Then I’d occupy myself by carving my own intricately-shaped rivers by hand and swimming back and forth along them. I learnt to shape them in such a way that oxbow lakes would form naturally to complete my designs. Next thing I knew, I’d be in a ten-thousand-year blue period, craving someone to hold, barely noticing as the mountains grew. Those lifelong romances seemed so short.
Sometimes the despair would give way to industriousness. I tried to work out a chemistry that would allow complex life to thrive in the changed environment. I tried to evolve something from lichen using as sole selection criterion ‘something I can talk to.’ Later I changed the goal to something I could enjoy eating. This was rather more successful, maybe because millennia of hunger had made me less picky. Every so often, I’d find little niches where life had figured out how to adapt in ways more ingenious than I’d come up with. I’d sit and watch them for generations upon generations, but nothing complex enough to be worth watching was ever as successful as before.
Time always seems so much shorter when it’s behind you, but in my case, things really did happen more quickly back then. Two-year contracts, 80-year relationships, ten-thousand-year bad moods, million-year species. When finally something interesting happened, it seemed sudden even though by mortal standards it took a long time. I still remember watching the sun expand and redden like it was yesterday, and I suppose it was yesterday, for I wouldn’t define days by that pitiful white dwarf I ended up with.
Boy was it hot when the Sun expanded to near Earth’s orbit. I’d been injured plenty of times, many times enough to kill anyone else, and it hurt a lot. If I was having a bad aeon, there were times when I jumped off cliffs or into volcanoes every day in the hope of dying. But the first time I felt the corona of a red giant, I really thought that was the end. A nanosecond of it was worse than all the pain I’d experienced until then. I did not know why my nerves could even feel pain at such magnitude. I just closed my eyes and waited for death to come. I waited what could have been thousands of years, not like the thousands of therapeutically-dull years of river carving, but thousands of slow, slow years in which I felt every moment.
And then… then it was over, but it still felt like a long time looking back. It took me a while to recover emotionally, and the blood-freezing cold didn’t help. The Earth wasn’t engulfed by the Sun, but just continued orbiting the cool, withdrawn white dwarf. The atmosphere and liquids were lost to space. I didn’t miss breathing as much as I missed eating and speaking; the urge to breathe comes more from the buildup of carbon dioxide than from the lack of oxygen, and I had none of that. There wasn’t any life I could see, but from what I’d already seen, I was sure some had survived somewhere under the surface. Sometimes I’d dig down and have imagined conversations with bacteria I couldn’t detect.
The next life-changing event came when the Earth was knocked out of its orbit. A few chunks came off it, and I had less gravity and some fragments to look at in the sky for a while. I took to jumping around the world, pretending to fly. A couple of destructive meteorites later and I accidentally reached escape velocity. Goodbye, cool world.
There was no such thing as a year for me after that, but it may as well have been ten billion years ago. I haven’t come close to any planets since. I’ve passed through a few stars, and I can tell you it doesn’t get any easier. Spent some time squished inside a black hole waiting for the Hawking radiation to free me. I took little comfort in knowing it was quicker for me than for anything on the outside.
Between stars, with no air or plasma rushing past my skin, no sound, almost no light to prove my fantasies wrong, I could construct worlds in my head that felt more real than anything else. I’d forget I was lost in outer space with nothing to look forward to but that moment of beautiful views and relief from cold that preceded an epoch of burning inside a star.
A frequent dream is that of finding the genie again, the god, that creature I had conversed with through that little tear we’d made in spacetime. Back in the old days, even before feeling the hellfire of a red giant Sun, I used to wish I’d asked to be impervious to pain as well as immortal, but now my only wish is mortality. And once again, I feel like time’s running out. The universe is expanding away from me. If I don’t find a way to summon the genie before the last matter retreats over the de Sitter horizon, I will be stuck with nothing but the taste of my mouth and the feeling of my cold, hungry body, for infinitely more time than I had anything else.
He just imagined that in front of him, there was a giant requirement to do what he had committed himself to do. Taylor ran from the insipid story ideas that came to him, squatting in trashy distractions until he thought the ideas had left. But as soon as he stopped distracting himself, they came back. He had 18 hours to write something, and this would have to be it. He still ran, until the interruption of a pleasant procrastinatory conversation with a friend gave him a door, and he ran inside.
On the shelf was a DVD of the movie ‘The Neverending Story’. A story of a boy who saves Fantasia, the world of human fantasy, right when people were beginning to lose their hope, to forget their dreams. What if Fantasia were being destroyed again? What if that’s why there were no good story ideas left? If only he could get to Fantasia, and get a child to give the Childlike Empress a new name, he would be able to restore his hope and the wealth of fantastic story ideas he’d once had. He poured himself a frozen lemonade with vodka and sat down with his laptop to write.
He just imagined that in front of him, there was a giant Apollo White Room, where he could prepare to enter his craft and travel to unknown worlds. He’d had the training, read a summary of the book, watched the movie, and he knew exactly what he had to do. He would journey to the Moonchild.
It would be easier for him than for Atreyu. He just had to keep his chin up as he crossed the deadly Swamps of Sadness, keep his grip when speaking to Morla, find a luckdragon, keep his self-esteem up as he walked through the Sphinx gate, keep his cool as he saw his true reflection in the mirror of true selves, feign surprise when the Southern Oracle told him the Empress needed a new name, and hope he’d written the story well enough to capture a child’s attention.
Taylor stopped to take a sip of his drink, check his email, and try to forget how unlikely it was that a child would read his story and give Empress Moonchild the new name she needed. He’d cross that bridge when he came to it.
Ahead of him, the Nothing had already devoured the landscape. To the left and right was more nothingness. Behind him, he could see the Ivory Tower glowing in the distance. Andy, his Andalusian horse, had no problem galloping over the featureless landscape. When they arrived at the Ivory Tower, Taylor approached the bearded man.
“I’m sorry. But this is not the time and the place for adults. Adults do not have the imagination required for this quest. I must ask you to leave.”
“If you don’t want me here, you shouldn’t have sent for me.” Taylor had his lines memorized.
“It was not you we sent for,” said the man. “We wanted Taylor.”
“I am Taylor,” he said.
“Not Taylor the worn-out adult! Taylor the child!”
That is not what they’d said to Atreyu. “I’m the only Taylor you’ve got,” said Taylor. “I’m old enough to know what to do. But if you want, I’ll go back and write advertising copy.” Taylor turned away and pretended to leave.
“No, wait, come back, please,” said the man. Taylor turned back.
“If you really are the Taylor we sent for, you would be willing to go on a quest?”
“Yes, of course.” This was the script Taylor was used to. “What kind of a quest?”
The man gave the usual spiel about finding a cure for the Empress, to save Fantasia. It would be very dangerous and important, and he had to go alone, weaponless. Taylor feigned bravery as he accepted the challenge, knowing that having already seen the movie, he would be in no real danger. He did not need to feign awe as he was given Auryn, the amulet which would guide and protect him.
Taylor rode off into the sunset, knowing that the creature of darkness which would be tracking him down would be an easy kill. After riding for hours, they stopped and decided it was time to eat.
Taylor looked up from his laptop, suddenly aware that his stomach was growling. He topped up his frozen lemonade and made some toast. “Not too much,” he said after the first few bites. “We still have a long way to go.”
Taylor and Andy had searched the Silver Mountains, the Desert of Discarded Drafts, the Crystal Heads and the Sadness Swamp without success. He saw there was only one chance left. To find Melpolia, the ancient muse, whose home was in the deadly Forests of Disbelief.
Taylor led his horse off a cliff, and into the treetops which appeared ahead of them and disappeared behind them as they walked. Everyone knew that whoever stopped believing in the forest would fall to the bottom of the ravine. Taylor kept himself aloft by describing the feeling of branches underfoot to himself as he went, but the horse soon began to fall. “Andy! Can’t you feel the branches poking into your hooves? Can’t you hear the twigs cracking? Andy, please!”
As the horse fell into the void, Taylor could see just how impossible the forest was. He fell, but instinctively reached out and grabbed a branch that his muscles still knew was there. Of course it was there. If he could write it well enough, it was there. Taylor climbed back to the top and ran with his eyes closed, letting out shrieks of delight as he realised what a marvelous reality he had created. When he got bored with that, he just imagined that in front of him there was a giant red tabby, and then he collided with something soft.
Taylor rolled his chair back from his laptop and sighed loudly. This was a ridiculous idea. A giant cat? A giant cat was the best he could think of as a muse? Well, it would have to do. It was dark out. He was running out of time.
The wind seemed to sigh as Taylor looked up at Melpolia the giant red tabby.
“Oh, no. Not an adult,” the cat hissed. “Adults are no fun.”
Taylor sniffled a little, remembering his cat allergy. “Look, if you would just help me in my quest to save the Childlike Empress… I have a deadline, you know.” He grabbed Melpolia’s fur as the treetop beneath him threatened to give way.
“Oh, we know the Empress is sick, but it doesn’t matter.” Melpolia turned away and started licking itself.
Taylor sneezed violently, and fell a metre or so when he forgot to believe. He climbed back up.
“Do you even care?” Taylor remembered this line from the movie.
“You don’t really care whether or not I care,” said Melpolia.
Taylor started to protest, but realised Melpolia was right. He didn’t care. He just wanted to get through the story, get some readers, and save Fantasia so he would have ideas to write other stories and keep food on the table.
Food. Taylor finished a piece of toast. Why wouldn’t the characters ever just do what he wanted them to? He only had eleven hours left. He took a last gulp of frozen lemonade and slammed the cup down angrily on the table. Fine. If he wasn’t going to save the Empress, he may as well have fun.
Taylor sneezed again, and his tree swayed with him. “You know how I can help save the Empress, don’t you?”
“Not that it matters, but yes,” said Melpolia while it licked its left side.
“It does matter!” screamed Taylor. “If I don’t save her, the Childlike Empress will die, and I always wanted to meet her!”
“It’s really not important. I have some preening to do, you know.” insisted Melpolia.
“If you don’t tell me, Fantasia will disappear, right when I’m starting to enjoy it!” yelled Taylor.
“Oh, alright,” said the giant red tabby. “The truth is, I don’t know. Maybe you could ask the Southern Oracle…”
“Right, 10 000 miles away?” Taylor had forgotten that from the movie. The only point of going to see Melpolia was attracting a luckdragon to take him to the Southern Oracle.
“Yes, as it happens.”
“Great. You wouldn’t happen to know where I could find a luckdragon, would you?”
“A what? Luckdragons don’t exist. They were just made up for a book.”
Taylor started to fall. Melpolia found a patch of fur near its right front paw that hadn’t been preened for a while, and went to work on it.
The falling sure felt real. Taylor closed his eyes and waited to hit the ground.
Taylor poured himself another frozen lemonade, without vodka this time, the way he’d always loved it as a kid. He’d had so much of it one summer that his friends had started calling him Frozen Lemonade. They still did, sometimes, but it embarrassed him more now. He’d started adding vodka in his mid-twenties. The vodka made it taste terrible, but what self-respecting adult drinks virgin frozen lemonade?
Taylor woke up next to some kind of giant goat. “Are you a luckdragon?”
“Goodness, no. I’m a deus ex machamois.”
Taylor giggled. “A deus ex machamois? And let me guess, you can fly, and you caught me when I fell from the nonexistent treetops?”
“That’s right. A giant flying squirrel would have made more sense, but I guess you panicked. Panic is sometimes good for creativity.”
“You mean… I just made you up to save my life? And you’re really here?”
Taylor could picture it in his head. A giant chamois, flailing through the air, always looking for footholds in the clouds. Eat your heart out, Rudolph! He laughed so hard he almost peed himself. On the way back from the toilet, he spotted the bag of sour miniature easter egg candies he’d bought for his nephews, and opened it. Forget the waistline; a little sugar once in a while couldn’t harm him.
“I’m here, alright. You passed out before I even caught you; you’re not used to landing on giant flying goats any more. My name’s Rudolph.”
Taylor laughed. “So… how far away is the Southern Oracle?”
“Why, it’s just around the corner!”
Taylor grinned. “Do I have to go visit that gnome couple and drink eye of newt to make me healthy, now?”
“Only if you want to.”
Taylor secretly wanted to know what the potion would taste like. He found the gnomes’ home, where Urgl hurried to make him a healing potion. “This one will do you good. It has eye of newt in it. And wing of cat, hair of tortoise, face of gnat, eyelash of porpoise.”
Taylor gulped it down in delighted disgust, feeling the eyes slide down his throat and the wings try to flap their way back up, chewing the eyelashes so they wouldn’t tickle.
“This one’s eye of newt,” said Taylor as he put a sour egg into his mouth. He grimaced as the sour taste electrified his tongue.
Then it was Engywook the scientist’s turn to tell him about the Sphinx Gate he would have to pass. “The sphinxes’ eyes stay closed until someone who does not feel his own worth tries to pass by. They can see straight into your heart.”
Taylor did not stay to watch a hesitant traveller get shot by the Sphinxes’ eyes. “Thanks for the newt eyes!” he yelled as he ran down to the gate.
Taylor approached the Sphinx gate with confidence.
Taylor couldn’t think of anything good enough to write. All his ideas seemed stupid again. He decided to write as quickly as he could whatever came to his head, whether he liked it or not.
Taylor ran between the sphinxes as he saw the eyes beginning to open. The sphinx eyes fired a blue laser of self-doubt at him, but he could jump over and under the laser beams like a character in a bad science fiction movie. He leapt over the last one and rolled along the ground giggling on the other side, almost wanting to go back for another go. There were plenty of other roll marks in the sand. He wondered if anyone was really confident enough to keep the eyes closed, or if the survivors were just the ones who ran through anyway.
And now for the mirror of true selves. When he started the quest, he would have been afraid to look at it, but he wasn’t afraid any more. The mirror showed him as a young boy, enthusiastically writing into his notebook. And then a middle-aged man, typing into his laptop just as excitedly.
Finally, he arrived at the Southern Oracle. As expected, it told him that in order to save Fantasia, the Empress needed to be given a new name by a human child.
Taylor swore and wished he’d put more vodka in his frozen lemonade. He’d forgotten to think of a solution to the ‘human child’ problem. In the movie, the human child is the reader of the book, but who would ever read this one? He hadn’t even made the deadline. He made some more toast and settled down to write an unhappy ending.
Taylor rode Rudolph back in the direction he’d come, trying to enjoy the ride even though he knew he’d failed in his quest. Fragments of Fantasia floated around the void like stars. They flew toward the brightest: the Ivory Tower.
The Childlike Empress was beautiful. She reminded Taylor of his first crush.
“I have failed you, Empress.”
“No. You haven’t. You brought him with you.”
“The child. The one who can save us all.”
“No I didn’t. Nobody is going to publish this. No child is going to read this.”
“Yes, you did,” said the Empress with conviction. “He has suffered with you. He went through everything you went through. And now, he has come here. With you. He is very close. Listening to every word we say.”
Taylor could barely believe what he was writing. He popped another sour egg into his mouth.
“Where is he? If he’s so close, why doesn’t he arrive?” A piece of ivory fell from the ceiling and narrowly missed Taylor’s head.
“He doesn’t realise he’s already a part of the story.”
“But it’s just me!” Taylor protested. “I know I’m in the story. I know I’m writing the story. I know no kid is reading this story.”
“The child began to share your adventure as soon as you let him. As soon as you started believing the story.”
“But there’s nobody here but me!” Taylor said.
He was right.
Taylor almost choked on a sour egg. “No way!” he said aloud.
“He’s been a part of you all along, but you slowly stopped listening to him, when you thought you had to keep you feet on the ground. He’s still inside you. You just need to let him call out my new name. He has already chosen it.”
“This isn’t real. I’m just writing this. This isn’t real.” said Taylor under his breath. He could make them say something else if he wanted. He could make the Empress look up a name in a baby name book herself.
“What will happen if he doesn’t appear?”
“Then our world will disappear, and so will I,” said Empress Moonchild.
“How could he let that happen?”
“He doesn’t understand that he’s the one that has the power to stop it. He simply can’t imagine that something he’s writing can be so important.”
“Maybe he doesn’t know what he has to do!”
No baby name book. The characters wouldn’t let him. But he didn’t know what to write next. “What do I have to do?” Taylor wondered aloud.
“He has to give me a new name. He just has to call it out,” said the Empress.
All Taylor called out was “But it’s only a story. It’s not real!”
“Taylor! Why don’t you do what you dream, Taylor? Why don’t you live the fantasy life you created?”
“But I can’t, I have to keep my feet on the ground! I’m a grown man!” Taylor was already yelling loud enough for his neighbours to think he was a nutcase. What harm would there be in yelling a name as well?
“Call my name! Taylor, please! Save us!”
Taylor was confused. “Me? My horse died, I almost died falling off trees, I swallowed porpose eyelashes, and I could have just come straight here and given you a name myself?”
“Not you. The Taylor who’s writing the story. You needed to go on the adventure so he could find the child in him.”
“Alright! I’ll do it! I’ll save you. I will do what I dream!” Taylor grabbed his cup and held it up in the air triumphantly. “Frozen Lemonade!” he screamed.
And then it was dark. “Really? A power cut, now?!” he said in frustration, wondering when he’d last saved his writing. Taylor jumped as a beautiful voice responded.
“In the beginning, it is always dark.”
Taylor saw a tiny glow, and watched it grow to reveal the face of the Childlike Empress. “Seriously? You can’t tell me this was all real! I was just making excuses for my lack of ideas! There is no Fantasia.”
Taylor felt the floor beneath him tremble. It was not the floor of his apartment.
“Not any more,” said the empress. “But now that you have named me Frozen Lemonade, you can begin to rebuild.”
“Wait, I have to rebuild?
Frozen Lemonade showed Taylor the glowing object she’d been holding. A pencil. “Give me your hand.”
Taylor held out his hand, and Frozen Lemonade placed the pencil between his fingers. “Now what are you going to write about?”
“I don’t know.”
“Then there will be no Fantasia any more.”
“How much can I write with one pencil?”
“As much as you want. You don’t even need to use this pencil. The more you write, the more magnificent Fantasia will become.”
So he started writing. He barely noticed when he was transported back to his apartment and the pencil became a glowing laptop screen. He and his laptop had many other amazing adventures, but they are other stories.