The Buried Past – a flash science fiction story

The snow was everywhere. It covered the valley like a shroud, hiding the wreckage of a hundred spaceships, their outlines as blurred as my memories of battle. If not for GPS, I wouldn’t have known that I stood by the resting place of the Falling Dream. But somewhere under the snow was the ship on which I had almost died.

“Is this her?” Calder asked.

I looked at the towering heap of snow that hid a conning tower, the white curve that concealed a bow, the indentations that might be shuttle bays.

“I think so,” I said, my breath freezing in front of my face. “But I need to be sure.”

With thickly gloved fingers, I pulled out a tablet and fumbled with the screen. My mechanical hand was more dexterous, but I still favoured the real one. The therapist said I always would.

An image of the Falling Dream appeared, showing her at the height of her glory. I compared the outline with the one in front of me. It could have been a match for my former home, or for any of a dozen other ships abandoned here.

I thrust the tablet back into my bag and stomped uphill, along the sloped deck. In places, I sank up to my waist in the snow, but I kept going. I needed some souvenir to remind me of what I had survived, some compensation for my lost hand. I had to be sure it came from my ship, and for that I needed a better view.

Calder cursed, but she followed. That was why I’d trusted her to come with me. She always had my back, even when the darkness descended and I couldn’t care about anyone but myself.

The higher I got, the harder the wind blew. There was nothing left to shelter me. Snow plastered my goggles, forcing me to stop every few steps and wipe them clear. It stuck to the front of my body, forming a thick crust that fell away in chunks, only to be replaced on the next gust.

I was almost at the top when a fresh blast of wind crossed the edge of the wreck. It flung me from my feet. I hurtled back, crashing awkwardly into the snow. The breath was knocked out of my body and black spots danced across my vision as I went tumbling downhill, spreading my arms and legs in a desperate attempt to stop my descent. At last I skidded to a halt, bruised and winded, half-buried in a white drift.

Calder slid down the slope to me, using her backpack as a sledge. Even with her face wrapped in goggles and scarf, I could sense her concern, that stiffness of body that always gave her away.

“Are you OK?” she asked.

“I’ll live.”

I got to my feet and looked upslope. Now I knew what I was looking for, I could see fierce winds buffeting every raised point in the valley. There was no way I could secure myself up there long enough to view the shape of the wreck, if that was even possible.

I punched the snow. It was too soft, too yielding to provide any satisfaction.

Calder probably didn’t realise she’d taken a step back, but the movement made me stop and take a deep breath.

There had to be a way to do this.

There had to be.

I looked down. I was in the indentation of one of the shuttle bays. There would be markings around its mouth. I could use them to confirm that this was the Falling Dream.

Starting where I had fallen, I dug deeper into the snow. My mechanical hand was faster and stronger, but I used the one of flesh and blood too, frantically scooping up heaps of snow and flinging it aside. Soon I was a foot down, then two, three, digging myself deeper into the featureless, freezing landscape.

“Hela,” Calder said, “what are you doing?”

“Digging,” I snapped. “Looking for markings.”

“Be careful,” Calder said. “You don’t want to get buried down there.”

I ignored her. She didn’t understand. She hadn’t been there. Hadn’t seen her own hand vanish into a fine red mist. Hadn’t heard the screams of the dying. She hadn’t lost her ship and everything it represented.

Now the hole was taller than I was. Even through gloves, my flesh was getting numb, while my mechanical fingers slowed and stiffened in the cold. Snow tumbled onto my head, but I kept going. Deeper. Further. Faster. Down here was my ship. Down here I could find-

The collapse came suddenly. Snow fell in from all sides, knocking me to the ground, burying me beneath its weight. The world went dark, just like it had in the battle, and I screamed for all I was worth.

I tried to stand, but I was too deeply buried. Just drawing my arm in to me was a struggle. My breath came in shallow gasps. My lips went from numb to tingling and then I didn’t feel them any more.

Something brushed my shoulder. That single movement was the finest thing I had ever felt.

I forced my arm around and took Calder’s hand where she had plunged it through the snow. She heaved and I pushed. The snow became lighter as she dragged me up, and I scrambled frantically to get clear, to escape my icy tomb.

At last, I lay panting in the snow beside her.

I looked at my mechanical hand. The glove had come off and the joints had frozen up. At least that hadn’t been my real fingers.

“What now?” Calder asked wearily.

“Now we go home,” I said, and it was as if I had left some great weight behind me in the hole.

“But your ship…”

“Let the snow bury the past. What I have now is better anyway.”

* * *

 

My new e-book, Old Odd Ends, is out today! It’s a collection of over fifty flash stories I wrote last year, featuring a magic-wielding gambler, a steampunk noir detective, and much more. It’s only $2.99, so if you’d like to read more of my stories and help me keep providing them every week, then you can go buy a copy now.

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I’ve Written a Little Code – a flash science fiction story

The rebel ship Small Necessity hurtled through the hollow sea of space, engines constantly accelerating as she ran from the Imperial pursuit ship. Somewhere in the darkness, missiles were hurtling past, their guidance systems foiled by the Necessity’s shield of countermeasures – programs that jammed targeting systems, misdirected rockets, and preemptively detonated warheads.

Russ’s fingers darted across the keyboard. The pursuit ship’s e-war team had locked frequencies with receptors in the Necessity’s computing network. Their hacking codes were worming into the system, trying to bring down the shields, while he fought to repair, rebuild, and fend them off.

A few unprotected seconds were all it would take for a missile to hit.

“How are we doing?” Captain Tuer stood at his shoulder, peering at his system admin screen as if she could understand what was happening. Maybe she could – they’d been here plenty of times before.

“They’re good,” Russ said. “They got through the first firewall. But I’ve written a little code to-”

“Last time you wrote a little code it was to diagnose our systems,” Tuer said. “It brought everything to a halt.”

“That’s because it was missing an iteration limit,” Russ said distractedly, trying to code while monitors showed how close the missiles were coming. “This time – shit!”

A brute force attack had carried the hackers into the guidance-baffling software. The ship shook as a missile hit the port bow.

Strapped into his seat, Russ hit the key to lock off that part of the mainframe. A back-up guidance-baffling program stirred into life.

He’d known that this would happen. He’d just hoped it would take longer.

Sirens screamed. So did a voice over the intercom. People were dying in engineering, but there was nothing he could do about that. All he could do was to stop more missiles hitting.

Somebody swore on the other side of the bridge. The hackers had broken into the navigation system. Two crews were now fighting over the ship’s course. Even as Russ countered that, weapons control went down, then the program for detonating pursuing missiles.

Every time he fixed a glitch in the code, two more popped up. The hackers were all the way in.

He wanted to fix the beautiful, broken programs he’d written to run the ship. But as he kept fighting fires, more were springing up. He needed to put out the dragon lighting them.

“I’m going into their systems,” he said.

“What?” Tuer asked with a frown. “Couldn’t you have done that before?”

“Not while maintaining ours,” Russ said.

It was easy to reach the pursuit ship’s network. He just piggybacked the two-way signal they were using. Moments later, his screen was full of data as his console got to grips with what it was seeing.

The Necessity shook as another missile hit. Across the room, the rear gunner bellowed an obscenity as his targeting system went blank.

“Do something,” Tuer said, pointing at the furious gunner.

“Can’t,” Russ said. “Not while I’m doing this.”

“Then stop doing that and do your job! This is your stupid little code all over again.”

Russ grinned. She was more right than she knew.

The pursuit crew were busy attacking. They’d only just realised that he was in their system. He opened their diagnostic software and dropped in something of his own – a copy of the little code he’d tried to use on the Necessity.

The one with the unending iterations.

On his screen, data usage stats soared. The other ship’s systems started grinding to a halt.

He flicked back to his own network and reactivated the rear gun systems, then the targeting bafflers, then the code that detonated pursuing missiles.

“They’ve stopped accelerating,” the helmsman said.

“They’ve stopped firing,” someone else announced.

“We’re losing them,” Captain Tuer announced, gazing in incredulity at a monitor.

Russ grinned. He imagined the fury of the pursuit ship’s system administrators as they tried to work out what was wrong. They would be looking for hostile worms, not a friendly little diagnostic program. By the time they found it, the Small Necessity would be well away.

The crew cheered. Tuer patted Russ on the shoulder. The Small Necessity hurtled on through the hollow sea of space.

* * *

 

This story exists in large part as a thank you. My friend and fellow writer Russell Phillips is always helping me out with website problems, as well as offering other IT help. His catchphrase, “I’ve written a little code…”, symbolises the casual calm with which he can do things with computers far beyond my ken. Thanks Russ. I hope you like the story.

And if you, dear reader, enjoyed this, then please share it, and consider checking out my collection of sci-fi stories, Lies We Will Tell Ourselves.

Ghosts of the Space Lanes – a flash science fiction story

spaceship-1516139_1280The Star Runner turned as I tilted the controls to port, edging us into a thinner area of the asteroid field. The grip of the yoke was well-worn, a perfect fit for my hands. A lucky charm in an area most spacefarers considered cursed. So many ships had been lost here down the years, from human freight haulers like our own to the exploration pods of alien civilisations. Everybody kept coming because of the riches in these rocks, but few relished the journey.

Rappoport, the cargo master, ducked beneath the low doorway from the crew quarters and joined me on the bridge.

“Captain, there are ghosts,” she said.

I flicked my eyes away from the holobox showing our position in space. Rappoport was white as a sheet and her hand trembled as she placed it on my shoulder.

I hated to be touched and Rappoport knew it. Whatever was affecting her must be extreme.

“Are you back off the waggon?” I asked, holding back the snap of anger.

“No, captain.” She looked shocked at the suggestion. “There are ghosts. Spirits of those who’ve died out here. I’ve seen then. So have Angelo and Dover. Everyone’s unhappy.”

I flipped a switch, turning on the autopilot and a dozen different proximity sensors. Our course would be less efficient without me shaving it short by running close to the rocks, but this would at least keep us safe while I dealt with the crew.

All dozen of them, from the navigator down to the handyman, were waiting for me in the rec room.

“There’s no such thing as ghosts,” I said. “Get back to your stations.”

“No, captain.” Angelo, the tubby little mechanic, folded his arms and stared nervously at me. “We want to turn back.”

“Do you know how much we lose if we do that?” I said.

“Everybody knows this place is cursed.” Dover pushed herself away from the wall, slipping into the fighter’s stance she took when on edge. “We ain’t going no further.”

Murmurs of agreement told me how close they were to mutiny. My own crew. Disgusting behaviour, but I’d lecture them on that later. For now, I needed a way forward that kept crew and ship heading towards our cargo’s destination.

“Tell you what,” I said. “Show me these ghosts and I’ll turn us around. But if you can’t – if you’re all high or dreaming – then there’ll be hell to pay.”

They led me into the creaking corridors connecting the cargo containers. We didn’t suit up – the lower shielding here wouldn’t matter as long as we didn’t linger too long. I had no intention of lingering at all.

“Well?” I snapped. “Where are your-”

I froze. A pale figure hung in the air in front of me. Indistinct as it was, it reached out a hand, pointing off to the left, and let out a terrible wail.

My blood froze. Was I losing my mind, or was this really a ghost? I trembled, dreading either thought.

The apparition flickered, and for a moment it became clearer. It was no human – the eyes were too large, the hands three-fingered. As I watched, my skin growing cold, the ghost slowly turned, pointing at something we were leaving behind.

Heart hammering in my chest, aware of the gazes of my crew boring into me, I forced myself to take a step forward and then another, until the apparition was close enough to touch. As I reached out it flickered again, becoming pixelated before returning to its hazy form.

Relief washed over me and I laughed, as much at my own foolishness as anyone else’s.

“It’s a hologram,” I announced. “Something from an alien ship, probably a rescue beacon pointing to where they’ve crashed.”

“Holograms can’t project through walls!” Rappoport protested.

“And where’s the holobox frame?” Dover asked.

“Aliens,” I said. “Alien technology. Who knows what these ones can do? Dover, go turn us around.”

“But if it’s not a ghost-” Angelo began.

“If it’s not a ghost then it has real technology,” I said, rubbing my hands together in glee. “Real technology no human’s ever seen, and that we’ll be first to bring to market. We’re rich, boys and girls.”

Cheers rang through the corridor as Dover hurried back towards the bridge.

Cursed indeed, I thought to myself, trying to shake off the creeping feeling in my spine. Maybe we’d make this place a lucky one instead.

* * *

 

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