Lines in the Rock – a science fiction flash story

My nerves were frayed even before they sent me to supervise Ruby. There had been lots of setbacks in terraforming my sector, and the finger of blame was slowly shifting my way. I was struggling to sleep, which led to mistakes, which made both the stress and the insomnia worse. And then the chief engineer assigned me the project’s most infamous technician.

“I’ve got it all planned out,” Ruby said, waving a tablet in front of my face.

I snatched the tablet and peered at the screen, looking for something amiss. It showed a diagram of the landscape beneath our hovering depot, with symbols mapping out Ruby’s plan. As far as I could see, there were none of the smiley faces or penis shapes she was infamous for carving into the landscape. But I wasn’t going to be fooled so easily.

I muted layers of the diagram, viewing different features one at a time. Still nothing amiss.

“This is good work,” I admitted. “You’re a fast designer.”

“I remodelled some of the hills here during phase one,” she said, smiling. “Knowing the lay of the land always helps.”

I restored the diagram on the tablet, then zoomed out for one last look.

“Gotcha.” I pointed at a curved area being prepared for forests. “You’ve left underlying rock in the middle. The trees won’t grow there, and we both know how it will look.”

“Oh, come on,” Ruby said. “Everybody loves tits.”

“No. You clear out that underlying rock. Then you can plant the forest.”

“Fine.” She rolled her eyes, still grinning. “Is that all?”

A terrible suspicion stole over me.

“I need time to study this before we start work,” I said.

“But we’re already behind schedule,” she said.

Just hearing those words made me twitch.

“Fine. There’s a hill they want reduced to rock flats. You do that.”

“Yes, boss.”

I sat scowling in a corner while Ruby steered the depot through the skies. As she got us into place over the hill, I was still scrutinising her plan, redesigning anything that looked even faintly phallic. As she fired up the laser scouring beams, and the air filled with the crackle of disintegrating rock, I started peering suspiciously at anything vaguely round.

As I worked, my foot tapped against the floor, a frantic rhythm growing of its own accord. I couldn’t spare time for this nonsense, but I couldn’t let her sneak something crude through either. My job was on the line.

With a boom, the last of the hilltop disappeared. I looked up at a monitor, watching dust settled over the newly flattened ground.

My mouth hung open at the horror of what I saw.

“How?” I squeezed out the word, little more than a strangled croak.

The rock the flats had been carved from came in two colours. They should have been mixed in swirls and broken splotches, as laid down during phase one. Instead, a gleaming image of a naked man, made entirely from the paler rock, stood out against a dark background.

I flung the tablet aside and ran to the rear hatch. A hot wind full of dust made me choke. Even through streaming eyes, the rocks looked the same – indecency on a planetary scale.

I gripped the edge of the hatch so hard my fingers hurt.

“How?” This time I screamed the word.

Ruby appeared at my side, grinning that same smug, idiot grin.

“I laid down those hills, back in phase one,” she said. “At last, they’re paying off.”

“We have to change it,” I said. “Now! Before anyone sees.”

“We’re already behind schedule. Does this really matter more than finishing the job?”

I stared at the rock flats and contemplated the ruin of my career. Hysterical laughter bubbled up from inside me.

That sound shook something else loose. For the first time in weeks, my jaw unclenched and my shoulders slumped to a natural rest. The laughter became joyful as I finally relaxed and appreciated the effort Ruby put into her craft.

“Leave it,” I said at last, wiping tears from my eyes. “They’ll fire me either way. We might as well have something fun to show for it.”

“They won’t fire you,” Ruby said. “They’re behind schedule, remember? They need every hand they’ve got. Why do you think they haven’t fired me?”

From that moment on, our approach to terraforming changed.

Years later, I went back to that sector as a tourist. I marvelled at the porn studios and pagan temples that had sprung up around our rock formation. I lay in the shadow of the smiley face woods. I listened to the laughter of people who lived here just because of the stupid shapes we made.

I felt happy knowing that they’d named it Rubytown.

* * *


I’ve been playing a lot of Terraforming Mars this year. Sooner or later, it was bound to show here.

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The Colour of the World – a flash science fiction story

exoplanet-571906_1280The ground vibrated with the slow, steady rhythm of the vast geo-forming pump, a pulse that filled Zara’s body like a second heartbeat. It promised something better than the dull brown landscape visible through the visor of her spacesuit, a landscape whose monotony ground like sandpaper at her mind. It promised the fertile land that would come once terraforming was complete, a land that would be home to her kids. Paul and Jasmine were somewhere in the geodome up the hill, playing with their friends, while she created the world they would live in.

A world of endless, soul-crushing brown.

Of course, if they let her do this her way then she could see this place transform and brighten in her lifetime. She knew better than anyone which gasses to pump into the rocks, what energies to run through them, to bring the geological changes they needed.

She glanced over at Jim. He was preoccupied taking readings with a scanner. He would never notice.

Casually approaching the pump’s control panel, Zara turned a couple of dials. The long rubber pipes from the geodome didn’t change, but the gas mix in them did.

The ground trembled. Zara frowned. That shouldn’t have happened.

“That’s weird,” Jim said over the intercom. He was peering intently at his scanner. “This says that-”

A nearby patch of ground exploded. Zara fell, black rocks raining down around her. One bounced lightly off her head, and she sighed in relief to see that it was full of air bubbles.

Relief turned to fear as a larger explosion rocked the ground beside the geodome. The crater it left crumbled around the edges.

Frantic voices emerged over the coms. Zara didn’t need them to tell her what was at stake – Jasmine and Paul were in that dome.

She leapt to the controls as another explosion hurled dust into the air. Whatever chain reaction she’d caused, she had to stop it. She twisted dials and flipped switches, pumping different carbon and nitrogen mixes into the ground, trying streams of rare elements and different electro-magnetic pulses, desperate to alter the reactions. The oxygen feed remained untouched. They needed that for the dome’s air.

A roaring filled her ears as the ground gave way beneath one side of the geodome.

“We’ve got a breach!” someone screamed over the coms, as a dense cloud emerged where the dome met the crater. “We need to stop this before-”

Coms died as more ground gave way.

Zara stared in horror. In her mind’s eye, Paul and Jasmine gasped for air in a collapsing dome. She almost puked across the inside of her visor.

What if they ran out of air?

She looked again at the dials. Saving oxygen would do no good if she couldn’t stop this.

Trembling fingers grasped the dials as she frantically ran through the chemical options in her head. Then she flipped the switches for two of the rare element mixes and twisted the oxygen fully open.

The thudding of the pump grew faster as it struggled to keep up with her demands.

The ground rumbled beneath her. She forced herself to look at the geodome, to look at the crater, to face the results.

The ground shook. The whole dome seemed to teeter upon the edge of oblivion.

Then something changed at the edge of the pit. The surface bulged. Brown rocks turned to red, orange, and purple. Coloured seams spread out across the landscape. Crystals appeared in the cloud of escaping gas, filling the gap beneath the edge of the dome.

“Holy cow,” Jim whispered into the silence of their coms. “It’s beautiful.”

The geodome stopped shaking. Slowly, carefully, Zara eased off the feed of oxygen, then the other gasses. At last she turned off the pump and stood in shamed silence.

A crackle of static was followed by another voice over the coms.

“This is Mayor Davies,” the voice said. “Initial reports indicate that no-one has been seriously injured. Thank you, geochemical team, for a quick save and some beautiful new rocks. There’s repairs to be done, but this place is looking a lot more colourful.”

Zara shook her head. What would she say about this? How could people ever trust her to work again?

Jim laid a hand on her shoulder.

“I didn’t realise how crazy the endless brown was driving me,” he said. “Those colours… Whatever you did, I think people will forgive you.”

“I’m not sure I can forgive myself,” Zara said.

“Give it time.”

As the sun sank towards the planet’s horizon, gems cast light across the landscape, a sea of reds, oranges and purples.

* * *


If you enjoyed this then you might also like my collection of short science fiction stories Lies We Will Tell Ourselves. And if you’d like to receive stories straight to your inbox each week, along with a free copy of one of my books, then sign up to my mailing list for all that plus news on my latest releases.

Songs of a New World – a science fiction flash story

Photo by Dejan Hudoletnjak via Flickr Creative Commons
Photo by Dejan Hudoletnjak via Flickr Creative Commons

There was a lonely beauty to working with chorister birds. The first to land on the terraformed planet, Simon stepped out into woodlands unseen by any other human and released his birds to fly free among the trees. Nature surrounded him, its beauty the inspiration for the song which would spread with his birds, comforting and encouraging settlers as they landed far from home. Other choristers might be out there in the woods, but by the time he met them the settlements would be rising, humanity claiming the land it had made inhabitable. The beauty would start to fade.

Following the birds with the strongest voices, he headed along a ridge line scattered with pale, jagged rocks and young pines. Hearing the birds respond to their surroundings, he whistled a new refrain, building up the harmony of their intertwining chorus. It became more soothing, in tune with the woods.

As the wind carried away his birds’ voices, he heard those of another chorister ringing across the valley, reaching him from the distant hills.

Captivated, Simon climbed a rock to hear more. It was the most dazzling chorister song he had ever heard. As the wind died down and the voices of his birds reached him again, he was stunned by how much cruder his own work was. He had thought himself sophisticated, but his music was nothing compared with this.

Around him, the focus of the music became lost as his birds explored the new world, picking out local inspirations and broken fragments of the song from across the valley. But he could not remember where he had meant to take the composition, how he wanted the birds to sing.

All he could think about was the other song.

He had to know who had created it.

Hefting his pack of supplies, Simon trudged down the valley and toward the far side. It was a gruelling trek, the ground uneven, the fresh foliage thick and tangled. He was soon exhausted, but he kept whistling as he went, trying to keep his birds with him, striving to weave their song around this new world.

Sweat-soaked and aching, he started up hill. The other song came clearer to him here. His early musical training had been in jazz and blues, and he followed that improvisational discipline, playing around with the tune he heard, trying to whistle a fitting response. Something that would fuse their songs, and those of the two flights of chorister birds. Something that would bring a higher harmony to the planet.

Everything he tried sounded wild and clumsy, not even close to the beauty the other chorister was crafting. He wanted to cry at the wonder of that tune, and at his inability to match it.

Reaching the top of the far ridge, he sank broken to the ground. His body ached, his throat was raw, around him was a chaos of disconnected notes. Worst of all, there was no-one in sight.

Head in hands, he struggled to find even the simplest tune.

Then a whistling emerged from the woods behind him. Picking up the notes he had left discarded in his wake, it threaded them together, connecting them into the already amazing song.

Suddenly Simon heard how it could work. He smiled and leapt to his feet, whistling as he did. The tunes melted together. The valley cam alive.

Someone walked out of the trees. She smiled at Simon, and he smiled back.

“I’m Bernie.” She held out her hand. “Your song was amazing. So many ideas. I wanted to…”

She shrugged bashfully.

“My song?” Simon shook her hand. When he was done, neither of them let go. “Yours was, was…”

“Nowhere near what we’ve made together?” She tilted her head, and Simon listened with her.

Around them, a new world resounded to the beauty of their music.

* * *


This week, I received a mystery parcel in the mail. It turned out to be a buddy box from Blurt, an organisation dedicated to supporting people with depression. It had been arranged by Simon Prebble, a friend of mine. We’ve known each other for years but aren’t particularly close, and it took me completely by surprise, in a good way.

Depression is really hard to deal with, and having people reach out with random acts of kindness, not trying to fix you but letting you know that they care, is a wonderful thing. That box of treats moved me so much I cried a little, and it’s helped me through an increasingly tough week.

So this story is dedicated to Simon and his wife Bernie, as a small way of saying thank you.

I haven’t found out much about Blurt yet, but they look like a good source of support for people with depression. If you want to find out more, then you can follow this link.