My original science fiction story. It was first published as a flash fiction contest entry submitted to for the contest running October-November 2004. Copyright remains soley with me.

Footsteps on Phisa

© 2004 Deron E. Meranda

Gary was reaching for a white pawn when a deafening clang saturated the cabin. Everything blurred until something hard smacked his back. He bounced and the blur reversed. Then deafening silence.

The silence continued until the weak gravity reclaimed the tumbling chesspieces, followed by the tumbling astronaut, followed again by an “OUCH”. After everything settled and the pointy bishop was comfortably relocated the computer began barking something about an illegal move; apparently undisturbed by whatever had disturbed Gary. The silence was definitely unheard by that point, mainly because the censor-o-matic was busy bleeping out Gary.

* * *

His eyes opened. Reality invaded his dreamworld of Red Kings, White Knights and plum cakes. Even after two years Gary still never won, probably because he refused to play, convinced the computer cheated by causing the incident. After getting dressed he concluded his current reality consisted mostly of hunger. So he went to find some food.

The hatch aperture opened with a whoosh then Liz floated into the hydroponics garden with considerable speed.

“It's here,” she said, before catching herself on a nearby cabbage.

“What?” Gary asked.

“The message, the big one. Let's go.”

Gary understood and dropped his shears, which incidentally fell to the ceiling after another whoosh.

Communication with Earth occurred periodically, but at almost a light-year away news traveled lethargically fast and consequently was never urgent. If it wasn't for the stream of diversionary entertainment most of the reports would have gone unnoticed by the crew, had there been any crew besides Gary and Liz to not do the noticing. But this was, after all, the first reply since the separation was reported.

“Sorry you lost the culinary pod,” the Earth voice began. “We figure a spoke cable snapped. There was a manufacturer recall five years ago, you should have been notified.”

“We're thirty years from Earth!” shouted Gary, which went unnoticed by the voice on the recording.

“The Monterey should continue to Phisa...”

Phisa is the second planet orbiting Nemesis, the dim red dwarf star shyly orbiting the not so dim and not so dwarfish yellow Sun. It was a rather unremarkable planet, except for two things: it's weather was much like Earth's only darker, and it would soon be the second planet to have permanent human residents. Actually there may be many remarkable things about Phisa, but being himself an unremarkable electrician Gary was never informed what those things may be.

Mars, as it turned out, really was home to squat discolored aliens who didn't appreciate retirement communities or strip malls. So Phisa was mankind's next vacant doorstep, and it was this mission to light the way once again for unrestrained human sprawl.

“ good luck you kids. Try not to trash the place until meeting the Irondale.”

“That's it?” said Gary, who hadn't paid attention during the instructions in the middle part. Partly because it was boring, but also because he'd been watching Gilligan's Asteroid on the secondary channel, which he surprisingly found even less boring. Frustrated that no solution to his forfeited game was provided, he dislodged the acousti-muxiplexor.

It would have been fortunate for Gary had Liz heard the crucial message that he missed, but instead Liz had left to attend to the fire in the garden, which was also fortunate for Gary. The fire was ignited by the chance meeting of a pair of shears and a ceiling fixture, although later Gary tried to blame the computer.

* * *

“Where's my sunglasses?” asked Gary, who was already wearing a frumpy hat, lots of sunblock, and a gaudy shirt that read PLANET HOLLYWOOD, EARTH.

“We've just landed on a strange planet and you're going out like that?” asked Liz.

“Of course not. That's why I'm looking for my glasses Miss Smarty.”

Liz scowled at Gary, who blissfully ignored her. This was because all Gary could see were his glasses on top of his hat in the mirrored lens of Liz's helmeted space suit. He took them and smiled. Before leaving he grabbed an umbrella, a box of juice, and his ray gun.

Prepared for egress, they were standing in the airlock as the outer door opened. At that moment a totally unexpected thing shocked Gary. It was not that he was no longer breathing, because that often happens when he held his breath. It was what Gary saw that made him hold his breath. That something was this, nothing.

“Take those stupid things off,” said Liz. “Nemesis is 44 times dimmer than the Sun. Really.”

The next moment another totally unexpected thing happened. Gary listened to her and removed his glasses. His eyes adjusted to the dimness.

What they saw is best described by one word, orange. Unless you were Gary, in which case two words came to mind, orange marmalade. Other words were also ricocheting inside his skull, like pancake and ravioli and vegosynthisteak, although those words were inspired by his empty stomach rather than the empty landscape. The ground was orange with orange rocks. The sky was orange, full of orange swirly clouds.

Gary stepped forward into this monochromatic world then into what felt like a refreshing blue puddle, but when he looked down he discovered instead a squashed box of refreshing juice, presumably orange. He looked back at Liz standing in her space suit, which was not orange but some shade of tangerine. She was still as if staring. Then he saw it, reflected in her mask, written in a strange unintelligible alien script—DOOWYLLOH TENALP, HTRAE.

Behind the words was an approaching golf cart carrying two men.

“Where've you been?” said one man, spitting crumbs of powdered donut. “It's mighty hard playing golf in this dark. Did you bring the lights?”

“Huh?” mumbled Gary.

The now helmetless Liz clarified, “Huh?”

“We've been waiting three months,” he said. “They should've told you how to rebuild your magneto-ion drives to catch up.”

Gary was tempted to use his ray gun, but instead he used his blank stare.

“Say, you play chess?”