Recently my friend Jose and I spent a few hours stuck in adjacent rooms with little to entertain ourselves, and we decided to each write a short-story with a few identical elements. Here are the results:
ON EARTH, NO ONE CAN HEAR YOU SCREAM
As the newly-emptied planet Earth smoldered below him, astronaut Mike Jones floated alone in his capsule, chewing pensively at the end of his space. He was concentrating harder than he’d had to on his applied aeronautics final in college.
The question? What’s a nine-letter word for elephant?
It started with a “p,” and dammit if it wasn’t right on the tip of his tongue. Fucking ZooBooks crossword…
The last human being in existence (presumably) was attempting to distract himself from the fact that he was, presumably, the last human being in existence. Other than creating a symphony from the random tones created by pressing buttons on the instruments, all Jones had to keep him occupied was a couple of old ZooBooks fellow astronaut Rick Berkley had given him as a prank before his pod had disengaged from the International Space Station. Berkley had been a joker, and now he was random atoms, exploded across space.
Jones felt no survivor’s guilt, for he knew the fact he was still alive did not make him a survivor. His pod wasn’t rated to withstand the stress of atmospheric reentry; all it had been made for was to take specific readings of space, free from the interference thrown off by instruments aboard ISS. It could undock from the space station, orbit, and dock with the space station, nothing more.
Unfortunately, ISS had been destroyed, had actually been destroyed before anyone on Earth had died. When China’s silos had opened up to release their phallic fury, the space station had been directly overhead, and, as only American astronauts had been aboard at the time, had been targeted for destruction. Jones had been floating halfway around the planet at the time, safe from the blast and, for the moment, alive. His orbit was to return him to dock with ISS in a little under half a day now, but there would be nothing to dock with, save radioactive debris.
“Puh… puh… um. Python. Pragmatist. Puh-terodactyl! FUCKING ‘PELEPHANT,’ I DON’T FUCKING KNOW!” Jones exclaimed in frustration and tossed the periodical over his shoulder. Behind him, it bounced off a touch-screen GPS panel, switching the voice option from American male to Australian female.
“No GPS data available,” the system said.
“No shit, Sheila,” Jones replied irritably. Why was it whenever he said something witty and quick, no one was around to hear it?
Even more confounding than the crossword clue was the question, “What the hell happened?” The political climate between America and China hadn’t been great recently, what with the former defaulting on loans to the latter, but nuclear war was the last thing anyone could have expected at this point.
Clearly something had happened however, and whatever it was, its consequences had triggered a domino effect, causing allies on both sides to empty their nuclear arsenals and fall victim to their opposites’ counter-attacks. From what Jones could see through the instruments in his pod, the entirety of Earth’s land mass was burned up. The once-pristine atmosphere had taken on a brownish haze.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we now return you to our featured program, ‘The Floating Dead,’ starring Mike Jones,” the lone astronaut soliloquized. Above and beside him, a gibbon leered at him from the cover of ZooBooks: Primate-Palooza! He swatted at it.
His cavalier outlook on his fate was the result of rocketing (no pun intended, though apt on many levels) through all of the stages of grief, arriving at acceptance in what had to be record time. At the abrupt interruption of mission control’s last transmission, Jones had looked out the small porthole in his pod in time to catch the brilliant flashed of the rest of humanity’s obliteration, and denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance issued from his mouth in one long syllable of varied inflection:
Jones had immediately tried raising ISS, and when that failed, he knew they were dead. There were more than enough communications satellites left in the sky to provide optimum relay, and in an event like this, if they weren’t attempting to contact him, or even just answer his call, it could only mean they weren’t there.
This presented a rather major problem, for if they were dead, so was he. His pod, for all its marvelous modern technology, was only capable of self-sustenance for approximately a day and a half, and he was approaching the 24 hours since detaching. He had about 12 hours before his pod lost life-support capability and became a frigid, airless space-tomb. He’d been trying to spend those hours not counting the seconds until his impending doom, and had been doing great before he’d found himself outsmarted by an elementary school reading-level magazine.
“Apparently, I’m NOT smarter than a fucking fifth-grader,” Jones muttered disgustedly. “How the hell is a fifth-grader supposed to know that word anyway?”
He stared out the window.
“Pah… Pacifist.” He chuckled.
Mike Jones would die soon, and dammit, he wanted to die knowing the word. Was that so much to ask?
Probably, he decided with grim resignation. He was without reference tools, no dictionary, no dictionary.com, no “dude, what’s a nine-letter word for elephant?,” so what the hell was he waiting for? Why draw it out? And for that matter, did he really want to die alone in the freezing dark?
“Fuck that,” he mumbled to himself.
What then, were his options for suicide? Looking around the compartment, he saw what little choice he had. A bullet to the head was obviously out, there was nothing to poison himself with, and everything inside the capsule had been designed bluntly, so as not to cut oneself if one should float into it. He could loosen a cable enough to strangle himself with, he supposed, but the idea of floating dead through space forever didn’t appeal to him.
“Well, it wouldn’t be forever,” Jones thought out loud. “Eventually the orbit would decay.”
That was it! He could use the pod’s maneuvering thrusters to move himself into Earth’s gravitational pull. The capsule would burn up in reentry, which sucked, but at least he’d be warm, and on his way home. He could consider it a sort of Viking funeral in space. A small grin appeared on his face as he ran the firing sequence through the computer.
He keyed the ignition.
Weightlessness subsided slightly as the pod’s forward motion pushed him back in his seat. Behind him, he heard a ruffling thump as several issues of ZooBooks struck the pod’s aft bulkhead. The pod cruised along for a few minutes, and then the engines and gravity cut out, returning Jones’ stomach to his throat, as free-fall always did.
“Eeebiddaeeeebiddaeeebiddathat’s allllll, folks,” Jones said to no one.
His pod had become Earth’s captive, and as his final descent began, astronaut Mike Jones tried to think of ways to distract himself until his demise. Should he sing a patriotic song? No. Nationalism had brought the present circumstances. Tetris was out. He toyed briefly with the idea of masturbating, but to what? Every woman he’d ever met, or even seen on TV or in porn had been vaporized, and jerking it to the recently deceased just felt disrespectful.
The newly-freed Primate-Palooza! floated by his head, and Jones eyed it questioningly. They were, after all, primates… could he pretend they were just hirsute, ugly human beings?
He could not, he decided. It wouldn’t matter anyway; erections were pretty hard (lol) to maintain in microgravity, and besides, the human race needed to die with dignity! He would not go out with a nature magazine in one hand and himself in the other.
The ride was getting warm and bumpy; Jones decided whether or not he had an audience, he would go out speaking of humanity’s accomplishments.
“As I sink toward my home, I’m in awe of the fact I was able to leave it,” Jones began. “No too fucking shabby for a race of beings that began life throwing its own feces from tree limbs. Over the course of human history, we have triumphed over disease, famine, wild beasts, the elements; so many things that would do us harm, we conquered. In the end, no one could beat us but ourselves.”
The pod began to buck. He was getting hot.
“We managed to conquer the land, the sea, the air, the OHMYGOD PACHYDERM! THE FUCKING WORD WAS PACHYDERM, SONOFABI-“
Astronaut Mike Jones and his pod disintegrated several miles above the surface of the earth. On the charred continent of Australia, a burnt, empty piece of crossword fluttered to the radioactive ground.
* * * *AFTER EARTH: GOOD VERSIONJose Ceja
There’s an itch in my eye.
It’s not one of those normal itches that can be scratched out with actual scratching or an ounce of blow.
This itch is unscratchable
I only get itchy, whenever I look out the window. We don’t go on trips very much- or at least I don’t. My dad takes me on trips with him to Earth wherever we have business. I hate the way it smells down there. It’s a mixed stench of Mars Cabbage and Mars Cat droppings. I hate Mars too. My family moved to Titan near Saturn at the peak of democratic hysteria during the Reagan Wars of 2032. My grandfather always dreamed that life would be this way: barbershops open at 6am, current President Reagan is still alive, everyone’s lawn is mowed daily, Russia has been broken up into tiny territories all owned by the United States, and China is next. “It’s America for real Americans,” he called it. He decided to leave all of that for the booming oil business on Titan. Once they drained Mercury of all of its oil, they needed more apparently.
“I don’t get it, dad, if they need energy, why don’t they just use solar power?”
“Because son, we’re America. Not San Francisco. You saw what happened to them! They started using solar power. And now they don’t shower. Their women are hairier than a Jupiter potato. And all they do is sit in circles and play with the drums and smoke plants. Those plants can be used to make oil! Hell we can use them to make oil! The skinnier ones can be shipped off to mining plants on Venus, the fatter ones can be sent to processing plants on China. It’s natural order son. And they first step to breaking that order is taking advantage of The Sun. We’re Am-“
This time I’m not so lucky. Not only do I have to listen to this, but Grandpa Rush is dying. We can’t have a father and son business if there’s no father and son. “Ma and Pa” maybe, but then who will stay at home and cook and spend dad’s money on spaceamazon. Reagan? The negroes? Bah! Dad says that’s preposterous. SO that’s why I’m boarding the shuttle with him to Earth. Saturn Gameboys don’t work near Earth. It’s stupid electro stupid magnetic stupid field throws my space AA batteries out of space whack. So now I’m stuck, staring through this small window, with Earth as my only entertainment. It’s a short ride, but I hope I don’t blind myself by the time it’s over.
They say that Neptune women are prettier than Earth women. It’s definitely true, but for some reason they’ve got this saying on Earth:
“Neptune women are prettier than Earth women. But you should never marry or have kids with them.”
Maybe it’s because they eat their firstborn sons or maybe it’s because of their purple arms. Either way, Earth cesspools and strip clubs are filled with them. Back during the Nixon Wars, Earth was sending all of its garbage to Neptune. They managed to fit all of our trash into their diet, and now they live in cesspools on Earth. Go figure. But only cesspools in the south United America Mexico. Turns out, they like sunlight in the form of heat. Go figure.
“I have to attend a private meeting first.”
“But dad what am I supposed to do? I hate it here!”
“You’re a smart boy- you went to Space Harvard. Go figure something out.”
Our hotel is on Washington Street. It just so happens that it’s Washington Remembrance Day VI. There’s a parade going on. Hundreds of people are there cheering, waving tiny American flags. Millions of pieces of red, white, and blue confetti are falling from the sky like salmon in heat. Space salmon, sorry.
“Ugh, these people are so loud!” I leave the hotel to find a nice quiet park or library. I thought I saw one when we were flying in.
I walk up to the gold glittering corners of Hoover and Coolidge. There was a parade going on there too. This time it was for veterans/winners of the Korean War. Hundreds of people were there cheering, waving tiny American flags. Millions of pieces of red, white, and blue confetti fell from the sky like salmon in heat.
I walk away disgusted up to Taylor and Heston Avenues. There’s another parade happening. This one’s a pride parade. American pride. Hundreds of people are there, cheering, waving tiny American flags. Millions of pieces of red, white, and blue confetti are falling from the sky like salmon in heat. I look around for a friendly face and see a man with a mustache and an odd outfit.
“Excuse me sir, do you know where I can find the nearest library or park?”
“Well howdy there, partner! Yessir I reckon I can! The nearest Wal-Mart is just around the corner on Franklin.”
“I’VE HAD ENOUGH OF THIS PLANET!”
I’ve had enough of this planet. I run into the middle of the parade and catch a ride on the non-tax, non-government funded “Salute To Traditional Values” float and I take it all the way to the hotel.
As I salute the soldier at the door, and recite to him the Pledge of Allegiance so that I may go through security so that I may go through an x-ray machine so that I may go to my room, I hear planes fly overhead. It’s weird though; no one’s seen a plane in years. I noticed a weird design on the sides of the aircraft, aside from their multicolored paint job. It looked like the emblem on the United America Canada flag, but green and the edges of the tips were longer. I thought nothing of it, and neither did the soldier.
Limping a bit, I open the door to the hotel. Dad’s suitcase is on the floor and the keys to the shuttle are on the nightstand. There’s a note too.
“Be right back. Met up with a war buddy of mine from when I willingly signed up for the draft. We’re gonna go catch some communists get the death penalty for sharing gum with each other. Don’t take the shuttle.”
But I take the shuttle. You best believe I take the shuttle. I take the keys and throw away the note. Next thing I know, I’m back in the sky.
“Faster faster faster faster
Space porn is terrible, but it’s all I’ve got. Exhausted, I stretch and stare out the window.
Huh, Earth got really cloudy all of a sudden.
I turn on space radio. And through the static I can make out:
“San… Fra… Cis… O.”
I dock with the rest of the ship and take a nap.
My dreams take me to-
No, that’s not right.
My dreams put me-
No, that’s not right either.
I dream of a French maid, outside of her outfit, underneath a gazebo in a garden that hides a tiny cottage for 2 or 3 on a planet that I don’t think I’ve ever been to before. A hovercraft lands in the front yard and she readies herself and lays out on the swing.
“Mike!” she yells, “Can you come here?”
“I’ve been jonesing for you all day, Mike.”
She shows him her loading bay.
“Loading bay alert! Fire in the loading bay! Section quarantine in progress!”
I run as fast as I can, my lower half already drenched in sweat. But it seems I have come too late. The ship has ejected the loading bay, and all of the shuttles with it. I take the horizontal escalator to the cockpit and manually remove the sun shield from the windshield.
Billions of tiny pieces of rock/Earth whiz past me like I’m a stationary rock in a stream and they’re salmon in heat. I turn on autopilot and set course for home. On my way to cryostasis, I see a large chunk of the planet headed straight for the ship. I try to steer out of the way, but its gravitational pull is too strong, and the ship and I start falling for it.
“You are in restricted airspace. If you do not comply with Space Zimbabwe government regulations when you land, you will be executed on site.”
“On site?” chimed in another voice.
There’s no air in space, how could these people have survived? Under the trees I find a runway that leads up to the most magnificent palace.
It’s Castle Zimbabwe.
There’s a few ways I can end this. The first way involved the Prince of Zimbabwe framing San Francisco for the attack. The second is like The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, but where the Prince of Zimbabwe frames San Francisco for the attack. The third is like The Wizard of Oz, but where the Prince of Zimbabwe frames San Francisco for the attack. The fourth is real Zimbabwe being a front for Space Zimbabwe, which has actually been in space this entire time, but where the Prince of Zimbabwe frames San Francisco for the attack. The real ending has Mike team up with the Mikes from all of these other timelines that are off by a butterfly effect factor of how close amoth flew next to Marsha Brady’s head during the taping of an episode of the Brady Bunch, to fight the combined forces of all of the Princes of Zimbabwe, MegaPrince of Zimbabwe. Three Mikes die, Marsha’s brought back to life, her and mainline Mike get married, the MegaPrince of Zimbabwe is defeated, and the story ends ends with mainline Mike looking at his kingdom, there on his throne, as the new Prince of Zimbabwe.