Flash Fiction Story 062: Like a Member of the Family

I never wondered if household pets had it better than those animals kept in the zoo. It’s not something one would think about, until they are either one of those things. And when would a reasonable, upright-standing human being ever have the occasion?

When I woke up that day, everything was darkness. Metallic wafts of some harsh kind of solvent wandered into my nose. I fumbled my way through the pitch black, eventually touching what I could only guess were a few leaves of iceberg lettuce. I had a thin suspicion that I was still alive, as I had a hard time imagining that either pole of the afterlife smelled or tasted like this.

That suspicion ebbed for a moment as—after a bountiful feast of lettuce things during that first day—the air grew thin. I felt woozy. I don’t think my eyes started to get heavy, but then again, the sight was the same whether my lids were open or closed. I could feel myself floating away. If this was the end, I’d want to say it was an odd one, but I didn’t have anything with which to compare.

And then, there was light. Sudden; jarring. Three bright, shining holes appeared above me, and I could breathe again.

Days passed like this. Three rays of light, and enough lettuce to feed a king, assuming a king would ever want to eat lettuce. I was contained in some kind of metal box measuring ten meters in any direction. The holes of light were in the ceiling of one corner, the supply of lettuce was stacked in another. Yet a third corner had a tank of water that would soon be bone dry. The fourth corner I used for any… other needs that might arise. I tried not to think about the fourth corner unless I really needed it.

On the third day, the ceiling above me parted and split open. A rush of fresh air and blinding light filled the box, illuminating all four corners of my living arrangements, much to my consternation.

Giant claws pierced the light and grabbed me. The inner ridges of the claws were not sharp, but that made them no less terrifying. I squirmed, but in retrospect I had no hope that it would do any good. My eyes adjusted to the new world and I met my new masters. Spindly, insectoid, and green. Two of them were in were in front of me; one bigger and one smaller. The smaller one—who had plucked me from the box—considered with an array of segmented eyes. The harsh contours of its face betrayed no expression.

“What is happening to me?!” I called out to the creatures. In response, a sound like the largest booming trumpet ever forged echoed back to me. The smaller one rubbed its claw around my face. I squirmed again, tried to scream, and the trumpet is all I got for my trouble.

Years passed like that. The food got a little better, pellets the size of my fist that tasted like a distant memory I had of meat. I came to rely on it, and the long stretches where I wasn’t fed were filled with anxiety that could only be salved by my master’s return and a fresh supply of food. I came to rely on them and even—in my weakest moments—came to feel something like affection for them.

It made me only hate them more.

Better food was out there, too. Somehow, my captors had gotten a hold of a number of items that were indistinguishable—at least, to me—from a New York-style pizza. To get even a whiff of such treasures, I had to perform all sorts of demeaning tricks. Mostly, those tricks consisted of sitting in a human-sized chair they pointed to. Apparently, these creatures from another world were not the most discerning audience in the cosmos.

I wouldn’t do it. I was a human being, damn it! The most evolved form of life on my planet. I would not be reduced to a pet for these things. They were the animals!

But here I am, sitting in their damn chair like a good human, and I’ll be getting some of that pizza here in only a moment.

I still sometimes wonder if the zoo animals or the domesticated have it better. Zoo animals are cared for more carefully. They sometimes get companionship in the form of other animals. 

And yet, this new life of mine has its charms. They seem to like me an awful lot. Maybe I’ve just gotten used to them.

At this rate, I’ll probably never know which one has it better.

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Flash Fiction Story 041: Wow!

We have one rule around here: under no circumstances are you to point any of our massive radio transmitters at any planet we know to be occupied by life. If the planet were primitive, then we would be responsible for widespread panic throughout an entire civilization. The paperwork would be a pretty big headache, I don’t need to tell you. If the civilization has the ability to wage interstellar war, then…

I mean, we have other rules, like not murdering, or leaving your identifier on any food item you place in the refrigeration unit. But the one about the transmissions? That’s the really important one.

So, when I was called into transmitter tower 1029LSB after the ceasing of crepuscular light, I knew it had to be trouble.

“What happened?” I asked the technicians assembled, although I already had an idea. Each tower is operated by two technicians: a level two and a level one. Level Two was seated in one of the auxiliary chairs, placing him as far from any of the instrument panels as he possibly could be while still staying at his post. His superior—Level One—sat at the main control console. His arms were crossed, an expression that plainly said, “It was his fault, and I’m not taking the rap for this.”

“All right, men?” I asked. “What happened?”

Silence passed, as Level One gave Level Two the stink-eye. “You better tell her,” Level One said. “It’s just going to get worse the longer we wait.”

“I…” Level Two began. “I…” he tried again. “I sneezed.”

Level One scoffed and returned his attention to his readouts. “I want you to put in your report that I was doing my job when all of this went down.”

I ignored him and remained focused on Level Two. “Despite some of the more ominous legends about our company, we do allow our employees to… sneeze?”

Level Two didn’t meet my gaze. “I was near the primary transmitter control…”

“Which you shouldn’t do until you’re a level one like me,” Level One chimed in.

“Do you want my report to reflect you were interfering with my investigation?” I asked. That shut him up. I turned my attention back to Level Two. “Go on.”

“And then I sneezed…”

“I got that part already…” Then the implication hit me. “Wait, the primary controls?”

He nodded quickly.

“Oh, no…” I sprung myself over to the control and retrieved the log from the memory banks. Sure enough, Level Two had transmitted 72 seconds of nonsense out toward the outer reaches of the Stwormian Belt. “If these calculations are correct, you either sent this signal out into a vast expanse of empty space, to a planet that has just recently figured out electricity can be used to do stuff with, or deep into the heart of the Gudmon Empire.”

Level Two gulped. Given that he didn’t purge his latest meal all over the carpet, I figured he was made of fairly strong stuff. 

“You’ve heard what those Gudmons do to the people they conquer…” I shot Level One a glance. “What? They use us for fuel in their damned spaceships.”

I looked at the readouts further. There was no way to determine where the signal might have actually gone. Then again, it wasn’t much of a signal. In fact, despite the fact that it wasn’t static, it was still pretty close to gibberish. Measured by intensity alone, it would only amount to this:

6EQUJ5

I sighed; the choice was clear. “If it was sent out into the void, then there’s nothing here to report. If it was sent out to the Gudmons, then you’ve completely obliterated our civilization…”

Level Two whimpered.

“—I’m not done yet. If it got sent to this backward planet that probably thinks nothing can go faster than the speed of light, then they’ll spend the next 100 years trying to figure out what happened 20,000 light years away, and still not be able to answer the question, because another signal will never come their way.”

I tore out the log printout from the station. “Either way, I really don’t see how the absolute pain of a further inquiry will help anyone in this room. Anyone want to question my thinking there?”

Neither of them said a word as I tore the report further and put the remaining pieces in my pocket.

“Is this the last time or the first time I’m going to have to come down here?” I asked.

“Last,” Level Two yelped.

“Very good. Carry on.” I said, and then left them to their work.

***

August 15th, 1977, sometime after 22:16 EDT (02:16 UTC)

Ohio State University Radio Observatory - Known as “Big Ear”

Perkins Observatory

Delware, Ohio

Jerry Ehman took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. Replacing them, he looked at the printout again.

It was still there.

A 6 on the scale was unusual, but not so rare that it never happened, but most signals never got above a 4. But going beyond the scales and into the—at that point theoretical—parts of the meter denoted by letters?

There was no other explanation that Ehman could come up with in that moment. This was a signal from an extra-terrestrial intelligence. What kind of machine did they possess that could reach out into the cosmos like this? What were they trying to tell us?

He realized he was getting ahead of himself.

He circled the line on the printout in red pencil and searched for something to describe the momentous discovery. Something that would make Magellan or John Glenn or Neil Armstrong proud. In a desperate attempt to stem the tide of the growing panic within him, Ehman scribbled “Wow!” in  the same red pencil.

What else was there to say?

Art by Eris O’Reilly

Art by Eris O’Reilly