So really, this is last week’s Chuck Wendig Flash Fiction Challenge. I thought I had missed my first one in more than a year and half but then, wonder of wonders, he didn’t put one out for this week. I’m saved! The theme for this one is Pop Culture Mash-Up Edition. This is the one where he gives us two lists of movies/TV shows/whatever, and tells us to pick one from each list and mash them together. I’ve done a couple of these already. A couple of years ago I mixed Jurassic Park and World War Z and also did a mash-up of The Princess Bride and Hamilton.
This time I tried to do less of a pure “fan fic” style story and get more into blending the spirits of the things, and I really love the story that I can up with. It’s a mix of Alice in Wonderland and The Matrix (which I will admit, is a little on the nose, but I couldn’t resist). It’s exactly 2,000 words. I hope you like it as much as I do. Please to enjoy, and as always, please feel free to comment.
The crew of the Valiant were unconscious for precisely forty six minutes. As they awoke they looked at each other across the console, looking for signs of life. When all three of them were awake and alert, the pilot spoke. “What the hell was that?”
The navigator pulled up readings on her consoles. “I’m not sure yet. I’m getting a lot of really weird readings, though. I’m trying to go back and see what happened. We ran into a lot of interference about fifty minutes ago. It really messed us up.”
The engineer was on his feet, moving into the back of the compartment. He began donning one of the exterior environment suits. “The engines aren’t responding,” he said. “I’m going to go outside and make sure the V is shipshape.”
“I wouldn’t do that yet, Ted,” said the navigator. “Like I said, I’m getting some weird readings. I’m not sure yet that it’s safe to be outside the ship.”
“Can’t you scan the hull from in here?” asked the pilot.
“Usually I can,” said the engineer, “but whatever is giving Vi those weird readings is also interfering with my scanners. I can’t tell anything about the ship. I need to do it visually.”
The navigator looked at the pilot. “I think it’s a bad idea, Amare. We don’t know what’s out there.”
The pilot shrugged. “It’s his call, Vi. If he has to do it visually, he has to.” He turned his attention back on the engineer. “Play it safe, though. Make sure you’re tethered. Set the auto-retract and stay on comms at all times. There are only three of us. We can’t afford to lose you.”
“Aye aye,” said the engineer. He made some final adjustments to his equipment and walked into the airlock. As the airlock cycled, the navigator grunted.
“What is it?” asked the pilot.
“Things a starting to clear up,” the navigator said. “I’m getting some data. It’s still weird, though.”
The comm crackled. The engineer’s voice sounded over the speakers. “The hell?”
“What is it, Ted?” The pilot leaned forward unconsciously as he spoke.
“Are you getting any readings yet, Vi?” asked the engineer.
“Some,” the navigator replied.
“The ship is fine,” said the engineer. I’ve been all the way around and there’s nothing going on. She looks perfect.” His voice trailed off.
“What is it, Ted?” the pilot repeated.
“It’s the sky,” the engineer said. I can see stars all around but none of the constellations are familiar, and there’s some sort of haze all around us. How is there a haze in space?”
“That’s probably what’s interfering with our scans,” said the navigator. “Have you got your handheld?”
“Affirmative,” said the engineer, “but it “doesn’t register anything.”
“A haze…” said the pilot musingly.
The navigator heard something in his tone. “What is it, Amare?”
“This is reminding me of something,” he said, “and for some reason I keep thinking of my grandmother.” They were all silent as he continued to think.
After a minute or so the engineer spoke. “There’s nothing else to see out here,” he said, “I’m coming in.”
“No!” said the pilot, snapping out of his reverie. “Wait! I remembered! My grandmother used to tell me stories about her time in space. It’s what got me interested in flying in the first place. She was on the Ephesus Claudio…” he trailed off waiting for the others to recognize the name.
The navigator was the first to do so, and her eyes widened. “The Eph Cee!”
“Aw, hell,” said the engineer, making the connection as well. “A wormhole? Seriously?”
“That’s what the haze is,” said the pilot. “It’s the event horizon of a wormhole. My grandmother described it to me. The Eph Cee got sucked in, everyone blacked out, and they woke up a day’s flight from Vega. The haze blocked all their instruments. It’s why wormholes are impossible to find. The haze hides them.”
The navigator took up the thread. “I studied it in the academy. The Union wanted to locate wormholes and use them as transportation nodes but they couldn’t figure out how to do it.”
The pilot nodded. “Right. Even when they could find one they were never able to figure out how to fly into it deliberately. Every ship that ever went through a wormhole went through accidentally, and the crew always blacked out. The Union finally decided it wasn’t a practical means of transportation and ‘officially’ forgot about it.”
“So now we’ve ‘accidentally’ gone through one,” said the engineer from outside, “and I don’t recognize the sky, so God only knows where we are.” The others were silent, so he continued. “Why did you tell me to stay out here, Amare?”
“I don’t know,” the pilot admitted. “I thought you could try to take measurements of the haze or something. Never mind. Come back in, Ted. We’ll figure out what to do next.”
An hour later they were no closer to having a plan. They had eaten, the small galley providing a healthy, if not exactly tasty, meal, and they were back at their stations. The engines had finally come back on-line along with the rest of the instrumentation. They decided they had drifted far enough away from the wormhole that the haze didn’t affect their systems any more.
The engineer performed a full surface scan of the hull and confirmed that integrity was good. The navigator scanned the skies and noticed two things. One was that they couldn’t scan the wormhole. They could still see the haze if they looked outside the ship through viewports, but nothing registered on the instruments or the viewscreens. “Just confirms the Union’s conclusions,” said the pilot. “The haze hides the wormholes.”
“Just as well,” said the engineer. “I’m not sure I’d want to go through that as routine. Blacking out, then the ship being non-operational when you come out? No thanks.” He mock-shuddered. The others agreed.
The other thing that the navigator’s scans had registered was that they still didn’t know where they were. The engineer hadn’t recognized the sky when he was outside, and the navigator’s computers didn’t recognize it either. “How is that even possible?” asked the engineer. “Every star in the Union is in that database, even the ones we’ve never explored!”
“Then we’re obviously outside the Union, Ted,” said the navigator. They all looked at each other bleakly. “We’re going to have to figure out how to deliberately enter a wormhole.”
“Or how to deliberately accidentally do it,” said the engineer, “which is the same thing, I guess.”
“Either way we’ll be heroes if we can pull it off,” said the pilot. “Let’s get to work.”
Before either of the others could respond, an alarm began to sound, the tone deep and resonant. “Proximity alert!” shouted the navigator, spinning back to her station. Her fingers flew, and the viewscreen’s orientation changed. “There!” she called.
A small, one-seat ship no larger than a Starfighter had flashed by them and was streaking away from them. “Hail that ship!” called the pilot.
“On it!” the engineer answered. “I’m not getting a response. I don’t know if he’s getting our signal or not.”
“Follow him!” said the pilot, grasping the controls. “Vi, lay in a pursuit!”
Her fingers flew. “Go!” she said.
“Keep calling them, Ted,” the pilot said as the Valiant leaped forward in the wake of the small ship.
“I’m getting a signal back,” said the engineer. “It’s basic machine language so I can translate. All it says is, ‘I’m late,’ repeated over and over again. It’s an autoresponse. Whoever he is, he’s ignoring us completely. His ship is sending the signal.”
“Keep us behind him, Vi,” said the pilot. “If he’s late, then he’s going somewhere. Maybe we’ll get some help there.”
“He’s faster than we are, Amare,” she said. “He’s already pulling away from us.”
“Has his course deviated?” asked the pilot.
“Not a millimeter,” said the navigator. “Straight as an arrow-shot.”
“Stay on that course if we lose him, then,” said the pilot. “Eventually we’ll get to wherever he’s going.”
“Is that a good idea?” asked the engineer. “What he’s late for a massive battle or a ‘We Hate Visitors from Space’ club meeting or something? We don’t know what we’re getting into.”
“We don’t have a choice, Ted,” said the pilot. “You’re the engineer. You know how much fuel we have left. What about supplies? We have to find help somewhere or we’re not going to last long enough to figure out how to get back through that wormhole.”
The engineer sighed. “I know. And you’re right. I know exactly how much fuel we have and the state of our supplies. That’s my job. I’m cautious to the point of paranoia, though. You know that.”
The navigator spoke up. “We’ve lost the other ship, Amare,” she said, “but he stayed on that same course the whole time we had him pinged.”
“We’ll stay on it too, then,” said the pilot. “We don’t have a choice.”
They flew on in silence, becoming increasingly aware of their fuel situation. After almost two hours of following the strange ship’s course the pilot was beginning to think that they had lost it somehow. He was about to suggest that they turn around and go back to the vicinity of the wormhole when the engineer spoke up. “I’m getting a comm signal.”
“From what?” the navigator said. She gestured at her console. “There’s nothing out there.”
“Something’s out there,” said the engineer, “because I’m getting a signal.” He routed it to the speakers. There was a series of clicks and pings.
“What is it?” asked the pilot.
“No idea,” said the engineer. “I’ve never heard anything like it.”
“Can you trace it?” asked the navigator. “Maybe it’s some kind of homing signal. That other ship must have followed it somewhere. Maybe we can, too.”
“Let me see,” said the engineer. His fingers danced on the comms board. “I think you were right, Vi. It’s a homing signal. As soon as I scanned it, it lit up like a Christmas tree. It’s like it was waiting for us. We can follow it.”
“Send me the bearing,” the navigator said. The engineer typed some more. “Got it.” The navigator looked over at the pilot. “You want it, Amare?” she asked. “This is our last chance to turn away and figure this out on our own.”
The pilot shook his head. “We need to try to resupply, if nothing else,” he said. “We don’t have the fuel to keep wandering around unknown space. Lay in the course, Vi,” he said, “and Ted, keep an eye on comms and let me know if anything changes.”
“Aye aye,” they chorused.
After another hour of flying, the engineer whistled.
“What is it, Ted?” asked the pilot.
“The signal disappeared,” said the engineer. “It was there one second, then it was gone.”
“I guess we’ve arrived, then” said the pilot, and he brought the ship to a full stop.
“Arrived where?” asked the navigator. “Amare, there’s nothing here. Look at the scanner. No ships, no stars, nothing.”
The pilot thought about it. “You know, it occurs to me that we’ve haven’t actually scanned anything since we’ve been here except for that one ship,” he said. “Everything we’ve seen has been visual. Naked eyes.” He paused. “Forget the scanners, Vi, forget the viewscreen. Ted, open the observation port.”
“Aye aye.” The engineer tapped a command into his console and the entire front wall of the Valiant’s bridge opened like a clamshell, giving them a direct look at the space around them. They gasped.
They were in the midst of a great cloud of silvery haze. There was no star in sight but the haze reflected and refracted some unknown light. Before them in space hung two asteroid-sized bodies. One was colored red, the other blue. Comms clicked on of its own volition and a single word in their own language emanated from the speakers.