It’s the first Chuck Wendig Flash Fiction Challenge of 2017! I am going to try my hardest to write every one of these this year. This one is called Apocalypse Now! The instruction is to write about an apocalypse in less than 1,500 words. Not the Apocalypse, mind you, but an apocalypse.
I wrote about the far-future aftermath of two different apocalypses–one physical, the other intellectual–rather than the apocalypses themselves.
I wrote the first version of this story in 2005 and it has gone through several rounds of revision over the years. This is version 5.0 and it has been surgically altered to be lean and mean and, I think, the best it has ever been. Version 4.1 was 5,200 words long. Version 5.0 is 1,494 words. Gone are the monks and the clones and the shuttle and the tacked on pedantic moral. All that’s left is the ship.
That’s really all that was ever needed.
Please to enjoy “Derelict”.
The ship drifted, alone in space.
All of her lights were dead. There was no power feeding them; they had ceased signaling many years before. Her engines were silent. There was no sign that she had ever been active.
Her only neighbors were a rocky planetoid of nondescript classification and an ancient star, red and swollen. At one time in the distant past the star was known as Sol to the inhabitants of its third planet, but those people, along with their planet, were long dead, swallowed by the star’s expansion. They had called the planetoid Winter. It was as it had ever been, a lonely lump of rock in what had once been Sol’s asteroid belt.
The ship had once had a name too. Her name was Candescence, and she had been part of an automated exploration fleet that was sent out into the galaxy in search of knowledge. Ah, those had been heady days! A young civilization, flush with confidence and vigor, had stretched its wings and ventured into the great unknown.
None of the ships returned. No knowledge was gleaned from their mission; no trace of them was discovered. As the centuries passed, the people who sent the fleet out into space realized that their ships were not coming home. They were superstitious folk who saw the loss of their fleet as a sign that they were not welcome in the universe at large.
Chastened, and no longer curious about the secrets of the sky, they abandoned their in-system colonies and lowered their gaze back down to the surface of their world. They turned inward, carving out great cities within the crust and mantle of their planet, disappearing forever from the eyes of time and space.
Their ships, however, continued their mission, spreading out through the galaxy, gazing all about them, filing their findings away. What the builders did not know was that their fleet had been lost because their theories were faulty, which led to their technology being corrupted. Simply put, the Loom drive didn’t work the way it was supposed to, and the ships were unable to return home.
The builders had developed an agrarian society over thousands of years. Their clothes and their homes were woven from fibers that they created themselves from the coats of their herd animals, and as they looked at the stars, it followed—quite logically, they thought—that space should be woven from fibers as well.
To travel through space, they decided, all they had to do was interpret the pattern of the weave and re-weave it. The Loom drive had been developed over generations to do that.
However, their understanding of the structure of space was imperfect. The Loom drive was able to complete an initial weave, but once the ships came out of the pattern they created, they were unable to enter back into it. The changes the Loom made to space reflected in the structure of the Loom itself, and rendered the Loom unable to affect real space again.
Had its builders known of this consequence, they could have shielded the Loom from its own effects, and the ships would never have been lost. Instead, the ships each wove a single pattern then were stranded far from home in real space, unable to reactivate their Loom drives, subject once more to the whims of physical law and ordinary spacecraft drive technology.
Candescence’s weave brought her to a binary system containing two aged stars, one of which had faded to become a white dwarf. There was a third body in the system, barely visible at the limits of Candescence‘s instruments. It may have been a brown dwarf, or it may have been a large planet, far off in the outer reaches of the system. In real space, there was no immediate way for Candescence to get close enough to know for sure, so she moved on.
The second star in the system was an older red giant, and its gravity caught Candescence. Her primary engines fired, struggling to free her from the clutches of the star, but strains placed on the ship by the structural changes to the Loom drive had affected the rest of the propulsion system as well, and the engines were no longer up to the task of moving the ship against the gravitational tide.
In time, the engines burned themselves out. They repaired themselves using autonomic trial-and-error sequences then, eventually, burned out again. After many cycles, the repair systems themselves died. The ship was thus unable to repair itself, and became an inert object.
Over the next few thousand years, she continued to orbit the giant, having become a long-period comet. At some point her central computers died as well. Her mission was over, but Candescence journeyed on.
When she reached perihelion for the final time, she swung around the star and was flung on her usual outward trajectory. This time, however, her path was given a slight gravitic shove by the white dwarf as she moved past it through the system, which allowed her to break free of the giant’s influence. It sent her into a slight tumble as well. Her inertia carried her off into interstellar space, and she careered across the void until, centuries later, she cartwheeled into the Sol system.
The star reached out and grabbed her. Candescence was again a comet. She settled into a regular orbit around Sol. A single circuit, falling in from what remained of the Oort Cloud, circling Sol, and falling back out again, took nearly nine hundred years to complete.
As she circled Sol and headed back out through the asteroid belt toward the outer reaches of the system, her outbound trajectory intersected the orbit of Winter. After several revolutions, their respective orbits brought Winter into the area of intersection as Candescence passed through.
They passed close enough to each other that Winter’s gravity, feeble as it was, was able to reach out and tug at Candescence, trying to pull her away from Sol’s grasp. Not wanting to lose its prize, Sol pulled back. Candescence became caught in a tug of war between the two, and her tumble ground to a halt.
As the orbits continued to progress and intertwine, she found herself lodged in one of Winter’s Lagrange points, the gravitic influences of Winter and Sol canceling each other out. Candescence had been brought to a virtual halt in space for the first time in millennia. Winter continued in its orbit. Candescence trailed along, wedged between two masters.
The automated exploration ships of Candescence‘s fleet were shaped like long, thin lozenges, divided into three sections. The middle section, comprising nearly half the ship’s length, contained mission-required computers containing exploration databases and instructions. The computer systems that operated and steered the ship, as well as the engines–both Loom drive and real-space propulsion–functioned within specialized sections at either end of the ship.
The engineering and command sections were separated from the central computer areas by thick bulkheads with airlocks built in, so that in the event of depressurization in one section, the rest of the ship would remain unaffected. Even though there were no living beings on board there was need to regulate the comparative pressures in the different sections of the ship to maintain efficient operations of the mission computers.
There were hatches leading outside the ship in each section as well. These hatches were simply doors that were opened or secured through the extension and retraction of thick metallic deadbolts on the top and bottom, as well as each side, of the door.
As Winter and Candescence danced through their orbit they occasionally encountered debris, solid material left over from the destruction of Sol’s inner planets during its time of expansion and blown out into the asteroid field on the solar wind. This debris would rattle against the ship and finally, a piece smaller than a grain of sand lodged itself in the seal of one of the outer hatches.
The speed of the ship’s orbit combined with the grain’s intertia and eventually forced it through the seal, creating a tiny breach. Slowly, almost a molecule at a time, air began to escape from the still-pressurized central section.
Over time more air raced toward the hole and the pressure behind it began to build. When the pressure that was built up exceeded the pressure of the space outside, it suddenly forced an immense amount of air through the breach and the top of the hatch buckled, cracking the deadbolt at the top of the hatch. The integrity of the hatch thus weakened, the rest of the deadbolts gave way. The hatch exploded and blew outward, propelled by a rush of air from inside the ship.
Candescence was dislodged from Winter’s Lagrange point by the force of the explosion, and was soon recaptured by Sol’s gravity. Tumbling once more, she again became a long-period comet, and her journey continued.
The ship drifted, alone in space.