Originality and the Insects is the first flash fiction of 2018. It’s just under 1750 words. I was thinking of working with the title “The Wrong Glasses” but I went through the list of prompts I had collected last year, and noticed some other options.
Somewhere in the middle of the year, Chuck Wendig gave us generator of inspirational themes: http://inspirobot.me/. I used inspirobot for about ten minutes in order to get something worthwhile. They are mostly rubbish, but I saved two… including this one:
- The difference between originality and an insect is that an insect doesn’t kill you.
Originality and the Insects
Xanadu Xavier XtraL lay in her landing chair, aware of a clicking noise. Several clicking noises. She kept her eyes shut while she identified them. Heat base cooling down—that was the regular click-thunk of the compound as it contracted at microscopically different intervals. Three variants of a click-ping—those were gauges hitting rock-bottom (or off the scale and refusing to be beaten). An intermittent crackle in her helmet audio; that probably couldn’t be classed as a click. A clunk of an outside pipe doing its thing in whatever atmosphere existed outside the ship. Irregular taps on the tiny portholes, like someone trying to attract her attention.
Nobody should be out there.
Let alone trying to attract her attention.
She opened one eye.
A shaft of illumination highlighted her right knee, still in the brace position, the joystick, and her left boot against the open door of the third-left locker cover, taking the weight of the third-left locker contents in its box. What was in the third-left locker? She shut her eye again and let the hammering in her head take the place of the clicking for a while.
Next time she opened both eyes, the light caressed her stomach, and highlighted the waterpod at her left elbow. Good idea. She hoicked round, pressed the pump… nothing. Twisting towards it, she tapped the gauge. The needle dropped. Yeah, why would water survive the heat of uncontrolled landing? Well, it should be somewhere around. Ah. There were pools on the floor and gathered between her body and the rest of the curved seat.
Tap, tap, tap-tap.
According to the data on the fourth planet in the Febrius V system, it was an emerging world with a potentially breathable atmosphere and adequate dihydrogen monoxide for water-based life forms to rehydrate if necessary.
Somehow, Xanadu had felt it would be necessary, if she survived the uncontrolled landing she’d needed to make, due to the failure of secondary and tertiary control thrusters. In fact, she was lucky she’d been within entry range. With only her primary thrusters to work with, she’d made pulse after pulse until the ship grazed the atmosphere, followed by a drastically elliptical entry.
She stopped herself thinking of the scoundrel she’d left before she got into this mess. No past, only present. The present was… uncomfortable but tolerable. Except for that damn tapping.
How was she to get out of here?
By fixing the secondary and tertiary engines.
Probably the primaries needed work now too. And the main engine core.
Okay, first, get a sitrep on the engines and core.
That means, reboot the computer.
Okay, let’s see if we can deploy the solar gain accumulator….
Maybe it would help if she unstrapped herself.
And now, move to an upright position.
She hauled herself forward, watched the water pool underneath her, and vowed not to sit again in a hurry. Feet planted either side of the joystick, she grabbed the handholds above the control panel, and peered out of the porthole, the opposite side from the beam of light.
A moue of her lips suggested that she didn’t think much of the view.
She slumped uncomfortably against the sidewall, avoiding the projecting handles of the hatch. Perhaps if she soaked up that water she could suck the moisture out and sit down again.
If she sat down again she might never wake up again.
This wasn’t a bad dream was it?
An hour passed. Xanadu sucked water, found rations, and used the emergency tapes to read the air composition inside and out. The mini-airlock worked perfectly well, thanks to its manual controls.
Well, she thought, shaking her hair free of the helmet, and stretching. I’m ready to face this world. Let’s hope the engines are fixable.
She opened the small hatch and shimmied out.
Warm, sulphurous, but breathable, just as the tapes had read. The ground was squidgy with some sort of moss. The pH of the surface liquid was nothing to worry about, maybe weak carbolic acid, nothing corrosive. The ship was sitting at an angle, on its base plate, so the guidance and attitude controls had worked right up to the end. Why wasn’t it working now?
She climbed up onto the thorax, as she called the large central section, and sat astride the dorsal secondary thruster, pondering. Something flicked past her ear and she shooed it away. Something fly-like. Well, it could fly off.
A methodical approach to problem solving is the first step towards success spaceflight, she reminded herself. She used to hate Professor Methodical, as they all called him. They used to mouth it behind his back during lectures, but it was a mantra that had stayed with her. What would Professor Methodical do if he was stranded on a live planet on a dead ship? Use your ingenuity. Oh ye gods, it was like being in a simulator with him. Wait, was she in a simulator? How could she tell? What is reality? Is being tapped on the shoulder by a small — aggh!!
She brushed off the annoying leg and fell backwards.
Have you ever looked into a fly’s eyes? Millions of eyes, all black and sparkling.
As she picked herself off the ground, she thanked whatever god had brought her here for the soft landing.
The fly remained on the side, irritatingly poised at an angle defying gravity. It seemed to look at her with a questioning tilt to its head. It was just keeping in balance, she told herself.
“Look, I need to get back up there and deploy the solar array. Stop irritating me. You aren’t poisonous are you?”
Maybe. It had wicked fangs.
“And I’m so dehydrated that you can leave me alone. I’m not juicy, even if I do look fat. I always look fat in this. Humans do.”
She walked alongside the fuselage about six metres and climbed to the solar array.
“Ah, you see? It’s jammed. Not surprising, really—not coming through your atmosphere like that. Should have burnt off. The flanges worked.”
She fiddled with the sturdy metal struts and hatches a little more, then “Yay!” as the arm unfolded, and the solar array started to unfurl itself.
“Now, we wait.”
The ground was not appealing as a place to sit: soft, but oozing. The fly returned to the secondary thruster and moved aft towards her. She shuffled further back, so she was in the shade of the array. The length of the shadow made her realise…
“Shit, how long are your days here, anyway? Huh?”
The fly tapped on the fuselage. Eight times.
“Eight of what? Hey! Don’t tell me you’re a telepath!”
The eyes blinked in a sort of rippling effect. Three more solar arrays unfurled from their various hatches. Good. The first had earned some juice. Now to get enough to at least get the computer up and retreat inside for the night.
“Okay,” she said, climbing down the fuselage. “When I get in, I’m going to say goodnight, and settle in for a rest and recovery session. And by that I mean I’m going to get myself the hell away from here. So don’t you and your friends stay too close. Because when we go, it’s like… whoosh!”
She got herself half in the module and turned to pull the hatch closed. The fly seemed to watch her.
She let herself down onto the floor.
The fly stood at the edge, its head half in the hole.
“No way, Jose — you stay right where you are!”
It pulled back enough to let her close the hatch. The eyes rippled a pattern, but she couldn’t say what or why.
The computer reboot light came on, and circuits started their oh-so-reassuring hum.
The storage units read fifty percent full when the sun went down. By that time, Xanadu had worked on a plan to utilise the carbolic acid in the fluid beneath the ship to provide the kickstart fuel the primaries needed to lift off. If she could fix the secondary coil coupling as soon as the sun came up, she’d be ready to roll. The tertiaries were using the same faulty coupling. Xanadu smiled grimly as she realised—she’d always said it was a weakness that should have been designed out.
As night went on, the grimness got worse. How long would this night last? The computer had no data on the planet’s rotation.
To save time, she got the computer to strain and load the carbolic acid and start processing. The warning light on the batteries came on after half an hour. There must be a way she could get more done before daylight returned…
The computer flashed a response back on the day length. It had obviously had enough time to measure rotation against the star background.
Four point six earth years.
When she decided there was no point sitting there in stunned silence, she screamed. Once her voice was so cracked it refused further abuse, she wept. Then she curled up and went to sleep.
Tapping woke her. It was still dark. She shut her eyes and told it to go away.
The light outside grew fast. Strange, sunset had been very slow. The tapping started again. Oh heck, what did they want now?
She opened the small hatch. The light came from the bodies of some insects the fly had brought with it. The fly tapped on her arm, then on the side of the hatch, then on the edge of the rim.
Close it again?
The fly took the lighted insects up to the solar arrays. The warning light went off. The processing continued. The batteries charged quickly; Xanadu couldn’t remember seeing anything like it before.
“Engines ready for departure,” the computer flashed.
“Okay” she said uncertainly. She tapped experimentally on the hatch cover. A return tapping suggested they’d heard her.
The light departed. Xanadu watched it float over the uneven bog, and hoped she’d really got enough carbo-fuel to make it off this godforsaken dump.
Well, if it worked, maybe it wasn’t godforsaken after all.
The primaries caught, the secondaries supported, and the tertiary thrusters made all the necessary adjustments for a perfect launch. She hoped she hadn’t boiled too many insects in her wake.
It certainly wasn’t the insects that would have killed her.
© J M Pett 2018