I finally write another short story! A short, short short story. 1,500 words. I found a great website called Daily Science Fiction. Free SF, every day, to your inbox. 1,500 words or less. The kind of stuff you can read over your morning coffee in your office, during that first fifteen minutes that still belongs to you. So, I wrote this and submitted it to them. Does this mean I shouldn’t have it on my blog? I’m not sure. If they want me to take it down I will! Anyway, so I figured this would be a great re-entry into writing fiction. Well, not really a re-entry seeing as I never wrote even semi-regularly. More, it’s that I started this blog Almost 6 months ago with the stated intent that if I told everyone I was trying to write ten short stories to get better at this and actually publish something that I would be more likely to do so. Because it’s really easy to let myself down, not as easy to let everyone else down. And for six months I didn’t write. I did go crazy, end up briefly in a mental hospital, go through a separation and spend some time kind of drunk. I wrote some poetry, over on my other blog: http://www.stillonthebalcony.blogspot.com, but no fiction. So I made a resolution (I know, I know) to write every day. And I built it into my schedule. And I didn’t all month. I started another short story idea, finally, a week ago but couldn’t figure out how to get it going. When I found Daily Science Fiction, it seemed like something I could give a shot so, two days later, here it is! Does this count as a full short story? It’s only 1,500 words. I’m not seeing any stories in Strange Horizons or Asimov’s that are so short. Of course, that is Daily Science Fiction’s niche, and they pay 8 cents a word, which counts toward membership in the SFFWA. So, I guess I’ll count this as 4.5. I have another 1,500 word story I’d also like to write and submit to DSF, and I’ll count them collectively as one.
So, as always: what I’m doing here. I once read somewhere that everyone has 10 bad short stories in them before they write a good one. This is my attempt to get those 10 bad short stories out.
Aaron will be cleaning the solar panels, making sure we get as much juice possible for the Transmission. Aaron is proud of his work and he’ll expect me to inspect his work, to nod and contemplate the glassy surface of the modules and perhaps draw out a cloth and remove a little speck of dust he missed and tell him what a fine job, buddy. He’s got such a serious working face, the kind of pride only a young child can find in helping, in being included. Aaron has polished the panels for 2 years now. He is eight years old and the youngest person on the planet.
I rise and stretch and walk to the window and see a dronelight illuminating the enormous mushroom trunks. Thomas and Werfel, making rounds, every eight hours, twice around. We’re only up here every 66 days and I tell them I don’t know who moves in during our time down in the valley and don’t want to be surprised. They’ll be armed and practicing good trigger discipline.
I open the hatch and flash red at them and after a minute and come running up to the station, their coats oversized and bulky, covered in patches. “All clear,” Werfel says. “We only seen some skitterers but no one on two feet.” “We only saw,” I say, correcting. “Right, saw” Thomas says. Thomas and Werfel are both 12. They share our only gun between the two of them when they’re on rounds and as often as not they bring home food.
It takes 66 days for the panels to soak up enough sunlight to send the Transmission and it’s too cold on the mountain to stay up here permanently. The rest of the time we stay in the valley, in the wreck of the Fort Laramie, the seven-degree slope of her hull on the valley floor just enough to facilitate endless pinewood derby races. At first, we had enough in our group to keep the station manned in rotating shifts, cranking an improvised generator so we could fire the transmitter every two weeks, instead of every ten.
I send Thomas and Werfel to make sure Aaron has his dinner and go to check on Winter, Morgan and Skilly. Winter is 14, Morgan and Skilly 16. Morgan and Skilly have declared themselves to be in love. It makes sense. They’re lounging in the hall near the rear entrance. Winter is looking at his bandaged hand. The winds always knock some things loose while we’re away, things that need refastened. Winter got careless and laid his hand open on a piece of paneling. Morgan sits against the wall reading and Skilly lays on her back with her legs propped over Morgan’s and her hands behind her head.
“It’s okay, chicks dig scars.” Morgan says, without looking up.
“This is true, scars are dug.” Skilly says.
“What chicks?” Winter asks. “
The ones that will be waiting for you when they finally pick up our signal,” Morgan says. “The adoring throngs turning out for the hero’s welcome and all that.”
“Yeah, but this is on my hand. Who’s gonna dig a hand scar? Who’s gonna even see a hand scar?”
“You’ll have to find ways to nonchalantly show them your hand scar.” Skilly says. “Stretch a lot. Or tell people, ‘Halt!’”
“Nah, fuck subtlety.” Morgan says. “You need to show them that you know you have a sexy hand scar. Run around holding your hand out in front of you yelling “Look, chicks! My scar! Dig my scar! Dig it!”
Skilly nodded. “That’s how Morgan and I met. One aggressively presented scar and I was all a-twitter in my nethers.”
“No, you met because we crashed here together.” “
We crashed here eight years ago. The war that seemed averted when the Laramie launched was in full swing when we entered orbit eight months later. We’d barely had time to register another ship in our vicinity when the rail gun hit us. Less than kilometer from landing and we get ripped clean in two amidships. There were 200 colonists aboard when we left Earth. The morning after the crash, by the light of my first Cydonian sunrise, I counted 27.
“You should all get to the radio room,” I say, “Make sure about the frequencies.”
“We double checked ‘em Cap’n” Morgan says, looking up for the first time.
“Better make it triple. Better safe.”
Morgan, with furrowed brow and salute: “Aye aye, Cap’n!”
There were a few permanent colonies on Mars by that point. Gale Crater. Arsia Mons. Kasei Base. None of them had weapons. Within two days all went silent. I hoped no one had overheard our communications to the colonies requesting help, our bi-weekly distress calls home. Then one night I woke to fire and screams and raining brimstone down on our survival shelters. Later, we watched battles in orbit. Phobos station going up. Then nothing. Two years since we last picked up radio signals on the portable. Since, we’ve hiked the few miles up from the Laramie to the transmission station, every 88 days, to try and phone home.
There is one more. Jenny likes to look out the window. She’s never spoken and she does not like eye contact. She does like to sweep, and she sweeps often. I find her in the hall on the way to the radio room, sweeping the large-patterned steel floor. It’s the sound, I’ve noticed. Repetitive and soft.
“Jenny,” I say softly, and she stops. “Come on, sweetie, it’s time.”
We gather here. We hold hands. Aaron likes to say a prayer so we say a prayer. Morgan takes his place at his terminal and reads charge levels.
“Five minutes and we’re good for fire, Cap’n,” Morgan says. Winter is holding Aaron in his lap; they’re sharing a protein bar. Skilly has her hand on Morgan’s shoulder. Thomas and Werfel side by side against the wall. Jenny sits in the corner with a stuffed animal Winter made for her from rags and a sock. My colony. From 200 to 27 to eight. The owners of a partially-terraformed Mars.
“We’re a go!” Morgan yells, and everyone but Jenny looks up.
It takes 88 days to charge the transmitter through the damaged solar panel. Eighty-eight days of charging for over five minutes of transmitting our automated distress call, and one minute to see if anyone has responded. Morgan flips the switch. “Hap-py Transmission Day!” we all yell together. It’s the only holiday that really matters any more. And it’s more frequent, which is a bonus. No one says anything while we transmit. The only sound is the sharp hum of the transmitter pulsing outside and through the walls. We watch the green letters on the cracked screen:
And now we’re listening. Watching the screen to see the light turn from red to green. It never has before and it does not this time, either. Instead, the light slowly dies and the sound too. No return call. Aaron makes a sound, his lip starts shaking. Winter hugs him tighter. “Shh, shh, buddy. Next time, okay? They’ll hear us soon.”
And Aaron buries his face and cries softly. “C’mon, buddy, let’s go get some juice.” Winter picks him up with a soft grunt and walks out.
“Why ain’t they heard us yet?” Werfel asks.
“Why haven’t they,” Thomas says, correcting.
“It’s a long way to call, Werfel,” I say. “Don’t worry, though. Eventually we’ll…”
“…draw the one black marble!” Thomas says, finishing the first story I told them as a group.
“Exactly,” I say. “Now go start packing up our stuff. I want to be back in Laramie by night. It’s cold up here.”
They help Morgan pack up his equipment and file out and it’s just me and Jenny at the console. When I hear the sounds of packing downstairs I produce a portable solar charger and plug it in.Two videos. The only two we ever received. Jenny and I the only to ever watch them. The first is my wife. She loves me, she says, and there are dull concussions in the distance. The second is a handsome, greying man in a blue suit, flag pin on his lapel. He tells of missiles in the air. Asks for God to help us all. Wishes us good luck. Is cut off in mid-sentence. I turn the screen off. My colony needs a purpose. It does not matter if that purpose is ever realized. I swore to a job when I took command of the Laramie, regardless of how many people I had under my command. My name is Captain Jiayi Liang. I am 43 years old. I am the oldest human being left alive.