Flash Fiction Challenge: Your Very Own Space Opera

Posted: September 18, 2015 in Fiction, Flash Fiction Challenge
Tags: ,

So, this week’s Flash Fiction Challenge over at terribleminds (in honor of Mr. Wendig’s Star Wars novel, Aftermath) was to come up one’s own space opera. Mine lacks some action, but I feel set ups the possibility of some space epic-ness, so I give y’all “The Conversation”:

     Amita stopped for a moment as she exited her shuttle, the Hillary Montes rising up before her, to gaze at the landscape that stretched out about her. She had seen it all before, of course: during her descent to the surface from the Hyena’s Smile, in holosims recorded by probes, in old photographs from when humanity had first got close enough to see this place properly a century and a half before. But none of that compared to actually being there, of seeing Tombaugh Regio push out away from her toward the horizon, of seeing Charon hanging in the black, star-speckled sky above her.

    She turned her sights back toward the mountains and set off toward them.

    Even though Pluto was still considered “frontier territory”, with no permanent outposts or colonies on it – the closest being the mining and science stations in orbit around Neptune – Amita was far from the first human being to set foot on the dwarf planet. Thirty years before there had been a flurry of system-wide media as a multi-government expedition entered orbit and touched down on both Pluto and Charon, a demonstration of the extent of Terrestrial reach within the solar system. But ever since there’d been nothing aside from the occasional probe to beam back the full sensory range of experiences that Pluto had to offer.

    The dirt crunching under her exosuit’s boots was the only, lonely sound that her external mic picked up.

    Amita was a quarter of the way up the mountain, moving in bounds and leaps that would have made any mountain goat jealous, when she saw the light. Small and flashing, it’s yellow-white glimmer almost making her think that she was seeing a particularly bright star or nearby planetoid that happened to be just perfectly positioned above the peak. But as she ascended, soaring through the thin, Plutonian atmosphere, she saw that it wasn’t above the mountaintop in the abyssinian sky. No, it was on it.

    “Amita, I’m not sure if you’re seeing this–”

    “I am, Cap,” she replied to the voice that piper in over the speakers inside the helmet of her exosuit. “Any idea what that light is?”

    “Not sure, but I’ve got three guesses that all say it’s linked to that signal that brought us out here.”

    The Hyena was a long-haul cargo ship, ferrying goods and raw materials from the outer solar system toward the inner and vice versa, and had been out in the vicinity of Neptune when both the regional authority and the System’s Parliament had “strongly requested” that they head out toward Pluto to respond to a distress call. Three months later, they had come out of cryo-sleep with Artio, the ship’s A.I, giving them a lecture on the complex and almost certainly non-distress nature of the signal they’d been picking up in-transit.

    “If it’s aliens and I get forcibly probed,” Amita said, her breath heaving slightly as she spoke from the exertion of bounding up a mountain, “I’m filing the biggest workman’s comp claim that civilization has ever seen.”

    “Duly noted,” the voice of Franz Huang, the Hyena’s owner and captain, said over the suit’s comm.

    Half an hour passed before Amita drew level with the light, as she did so, it waned into nothingness, revealing the entrance to a cave where radiance had once shined. She alerted the Hyena and made her way toward it, her curiosity overwhelming her caution, even as Franz begged her to hold off until they could send another probe down to investigate the cave. But, Amita didn’t listen.

    We sent a probe down looking for the source of the signal, and it turned off. I came down to get human eyes on the problem and see what could be seen, and suddenly now there’s a light. A probe isn’t going to find anything in the cave, she thought to herself as she bounded closer and closer, feeling a chill work its way rapidly up and down her spine. Only I will.

    She slowed as she drew within a few dozen yards, kicking up a small plume of dirt that hung about her and slowly dissipated as Amita took gentle steps toward the mouth of the cave. As she entered, the external helmet lights of her exosuit illuminated a broad cone in front of her, showing the slow slope of the cave’s mouth descending into the mountain.

    “I’m entering the cave,” she said over the comm.

    “Am,” Franz replied, sounding urgent. “Please. Don’t. We have no idea–”

    But she switched off the receiver’s volume and proceeded deeper in, the sound of her own breathing continuous and loud in her ears. She had gone several hundred meters down when it occurred to Amita that she’d seen nothing in the cave’s entrance that would have emitted light. She paused in her already slow gait and looked over her shoulder, questioning that realization. As she swept her helmet’s lamps back forward, for the briefest moment she caught of a glimpse of a dark silhouette – humanoid – in the lights. Before she could even process the event, Amita felt her knees suddenly go weak and her body slowly fall as her vision collapsed to a single point of darkness.

    When she woke, Amita was sitting up, propped against a rock wall.

    She was groggy at first and disoriented, her thoughts slow and jumbled.

    It didn’t help that there was a grinning man sitting cross-legged a few meters in front of her.

    As her thoughts coalesced, she became aware of two odd things about the man: first, that he was wearing anachronistic clothing, a T-shirt and jeans; second that he wasn’t wearing an exosuit.

    “There’s…air?” she said, confused, as she lifted a hand toward her helmet.

    “No!” The man said loudly and forcefully, thrusting a hand out to stop her movement.

    The motion snapped her mind back into focus and Amita found herself pushing back against the wall of the cave chamber. “W-who are you?” Amita asked after a long, tense moment.

    “My name…,” the man said, bobbing his head back and forth, gesticulating vaguely with his hands. “Well, after a while a hard and firm name becomes…superfluous. I guess…well, I guess you can call me ‘Bob’ for the purposes of our interaction.”

    Amita watched him silently, nodding slowly as he finished speaking. “Okay. Bob. How…um…how are you–”

    “Talking?” He interjected.

    “I was going to say ‘not dead’,” Amita replied.

    “Ah,” he said, nodding. “Well, I guess the answer’s the same in both cases. I’m not really here. At least, not in the fashion that you are.”

    Amita blinked. “You’re a hologram?” She sighed. “That explains a lot–”

    “Weeeeeeeellllll…” he said, drawing the word out as he made a pained expression. “Yes and no. A hologram is probably the closest analog that you have, given your current level of technology, so we’ll go with that.”

    Amita paused, turning her head minutely as she looked at him askance. “You’re…an alien?”

    He laughed, his eyes twinkling in the light of her headlamps. “Sweet Fates, no. I’m quite human,” he said once he was finished. “Or, I was. At one point. It’s been awhile.”

    She blinked again. “I…I…um…I’m not sure…”

    He held up a hand. “You have a lot of questions, I’m sure. But we’ve got a lot of ground to cover here and I’m sure if we just continue on, everything will sort of explain itself.”

    “Um…okay.”

    “Okay,” Bob said with a resolute nod of his head. “So, Amita–”

    “How do you know my name?”

    He cocked an eyebrow. “You’re asking the super-advanced ‘hologram’ how it knows your name? I figured we could kind of assume that I can pick up on radio transmissions…”

    Amita sighed. “Okay, okay…”

    He paused, giving her a significant look for a long moment before he nodded, again. “Okay. So. Amita. I think we should start this out by just getting to the meat of it: you’re not the first person that I’ve talked to.”

    “You mean…you spoke with someone from the expedition thirty years ago?”

    A skeptical look crossed Bob’s face. “Those tourists?” He asked, scoffing. “Fates, no. No, no…the last time I spoke with another human was…” He trailed off, looking up and to the right for a long moment. “Twenty-five-thousand years ago?” He paused, then nodded. “Yes. That would be it. Twenty-five-thousand, eight hundred, and seven years ago.”

    “Wait. What? You talked with another human being…here…twenty-five-thousand years ago?”

    Bob blinked and looked at her silently for a moment before snorted out a chuckle. “I forget that you folk of this generation keep thinking that you’re trailblazers. That no one’s trod these paths before you.” He shook his head softly before fixing her with an intent gaze. “Child, this is no virgin territory you’re in. You’re walking on a superhighway.”

    “I…don’t understand,” Amita replied.

    The man gestured and a perfect replica of the Earth and Moon appeared in the air between them. Much like Bob, it was much more solid and substantial than the holographic projections that Amita was used to. “You’re not the first wave of humans to make it off-planet,” Bob said. “As I said, the last wave was around twenty-thousand years ago. Before that, it was around forty-thousand years before present. Before that, one-hundred thousand.” As he spoke, she could see little objects – rockets and other types of spacecraft – intermittently dispersing from the planet’s surface.

    He paused. “My own wave was one-hundred-and-twenty-six thousand years ago.”

    Amita shook her head softly, feeling overwhelmed with what this strange man was telling her. “I..I…”

    Bob held up a hand. “It’s a lot to take in,” he said. “I know. I was once in your shoes…though my instance was a bit more disconcerting. The being that greeted me was a squid of one kind or another.” He paused, watching as Amita continued to struggle with what he was telling her. “Yes: humans aren’t the first terrestrial creatures to make it off-planet.”

    “Why…why are you telling me all of this?” Amita finally asked.

    “Because, while I normally wait until a permanent outpost is established here, something has forced my hand,” Bob said, his demeanor sober. “The many waves of beings from our shared homeworld that have struck out into the galaxy at large have spread far over the many hundreds of thousands and millions of years. But…something is silencing them.

    “For tens of thousands of years, I’ve been here, Amita. Observing the younger generations of our people slowly growing and developing, while also observing the greater community that lies beyond the heliopause. But in recent decades more and more of the others have gone dark and I fear the worst: something is destroying the shining civilizations of our cousins out there among the stars and it will eventually come here. To our home.”

    Bob was silent for a long moment. “Amita, I have a proposition for you. The choice, of course, is yours to make,” he said. He nodded behind him, over his right shoulder. “Behind me, the cave goes deeper and there is an aperture – what you young’uns call a ‘wormhole’ – that will lead you to a planet in orbit around the star you know as Alpha Centauri A. Our people are still there and should, hopefully, have more information than I. Learn from them, see what can be done to protect our home, Amita.

    “Or, alternatively, you can go back the way you came. Get back in your shuttle and fly back up to the Hyena’s Smile and pretend that this was all some weird dream. I leave the choice up to you.”

    Bob heaved a heavy sigh as he finished, his gaze settling somberly upon Amita.

    After a long moment, the dusky-skinned woman stood, using the rock wall to assist her. She looked from the calm and silent Bob, then to the tunnel that stretched upward behind her. Amita looked back to the strange man, nodded, and moved past him deeper into the cave.

    As she moved out of sight, the light of her headlamps fading as Amita departed, the man who called himself Bob sat on the stone floor.

    In the darkness, he smiled and felt the tiniest bit of relief.

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