Monday, March 21, 2016

Stellar Speed

The format of my blog is changing. I'll now be posting one flash fiction story each month. I'd love to hear your feedback on any of the stories. Enjoy!  -HT


     John jammed his carry-on suitcase into the overhead compartment with a grunt. He had purposely chosen the train car near the back for the fewer people. He slumped into a forward-facing seat rather than be trapped with strangers in the four-seat sections facing each other. Pulling up his virtual newspaper, he hoped others would sense his wish to be alone.
     He tried to ignore the murmurs as others gathered. So far, no one had considered sharing space with an elderly gentleman absorbed in his own business. John heard the whistle for the last call and sighed in relief.
     Just as the train was about to pull away from the station, a boy stumbled down the aisle, tripping over a suitcase that was three times too big for him. His elbows were level with his ears as he tried to half-push, half-carry it before him.
     The boy stopped at the empty seat next to John. From beneath his brow, John saw the boy look for help, but nobody paid any attention. Finally the boy just slid the suitcase on its side under the seat next to John. It stuck halfway out into the leg space, but the small boy wouldn’t know the difference.
     John sighed. Not only did he have to share a seat, but it was with an obnoxious kid.
     The boy leaned toward John, interrupting the light for the newspaper. It flickered. “Hi,” the boy said, “my name is Tommy. What’s yours?”
      The sooner he could get the pleasantries over with, the sooner he could get back to his paper. “John.”
     “It’s nice to meet you, John. Isn’t this awesome? I’m so excited. This is my first star trip ever. How many have you been on? Is this your first one too? You’re awfully old if this is your first trip. My parents have been on three, but they couldn’t come this time. My parents told me to sign up with the Junior Explorers program. Do you know anything about it? The Heripedes Star is supposed to have the best solar activity this year. I’m not exactly sure what that means, but it sounds cool. What do you think?”
      The holographic conductor appeared in the aisle before John could answer. It duplicated every few feet, making it appear to speak directly to each passenger as it looked side to side.
     "Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls. We welcome you to Stellar Express. Please, to ensure safety, all passengers must remain seated for the first hour of flight as we reach stellar speed…” John listened repeat the same message he’d heard on the last hundred trips. Didn’t they ever update it? Finally, “And once again, thank you for choosing Stellar Express.”
     Tommy turned to John, eyes bright. “This is so cool!”
     “Sure.”
     “So how many times have you been to the stars?”
     “Hundreds.”
     Tommy’s eyes widened and his mouth rounded like John had just admitted he was a superhero. Perhaps in Tommy’s mind, he had. “Wow,” he said, “you’re so lucky.”
     “Not really. I go for work. I help keep an eye on all the solar activity.  All that traveling isn’t that exciting.”
      Tommy’s face collapsed. “It isn’t?”
     With a sigh, he switched off his newspaper. “If I show you, will you leave me alone?”
     Tommy nodded. John gestured to plug his Perspective Specs into the console between them as he did the same. When they settled in, John closed his eyes and began thinking about his first trip to the stars. He remembered his face plastered against the glass, hands spread, as the special UV filters lowered into place.
     “But it’s pink. I didn’t think it would be pink,” Tommy said.
     “It was on that trip, but the color is based upon how they tint the filter. I’ve seen pink, blue, red, violet, even green and yellow. No orange though.”
     “Maybe this time’ll be orange,” Tommy said.
     John rolled his eyes. “Maybe.”
     The memory-image then focused on a massive flaming sphere. Tommy gasped as an arc of gas leapt from the surface and dispersed into space. A tunnel of similar arcs followed suit. “It looks like those plasma balls back home, but different,” Tommy said.
     “That’s a good description, but these are more controlled. A specific shape instead of random attraction. Here’s another one.”
     John scrolled through his memory to a series of blue solar flares. Random bursts of brilliant light flashed across the memory-surface. “This one reminds me of musical light shows,” Tommy said. He gasped as one of the flares ejected a cloud of gas into the atmosphere above it. Tommy looked at John. “How is it possible to see all this in a month?”
     Perhaps Tommy was more perceptive than he realized. “You may not see it all on one trip, but I doubt that’s what you meant. Our train travels between wormholes at stellar speed, just under the speed of light. The wormholes are like folds in space. When we go through them, we can jump great distances in very little time.”
     Tommy nodded, thoughtful. “I see.”
     “One last image today. This is called a coronal hole. It’s not very interesting to look at by itself because it’s just that big black spot in the middle of the star. But what it does is amazing.”
     “What does it do?”
     “It emits gasses into space, and when those gasses contact an atmosphere, like around Earth, it turns into a glorious light display. Back home, we call it the Aurora Borealis.”
     “I’ve seen that!” Tommy said excitedly. He yanked the Perspective Specs off and bounced on his seat.
     “See, you didn’t have to come all the way to space for solar activity. You’ve seen it at home.”
     Tommy harrumphed into his seat. “I guess. But it’s not the same.”
     Nodding gravely, John said, “That’s true. There’s nothing quite like seeing it in person.”
     “Will you show me more?”
     “No, I don’t want to ruin your first experience.”
     “It won’t. It just helps me know what to expect. Please,” Tommy pleaded.
     “Tell you what, Tommy.” John poked a finger into Tommy’s arm. “Each day of our trip, I’ll share one memory with you. Enough to help you understand, but not enough to bore you. Deal?”
     “Deal. By the way, what causes all this stuff?”
     “Magnetics, but that’s a discussion for a different day. I think right now, it’s time for us to find some supper.”
     Two weeks later, Tommy shook John’s arm roughly, jerking him awake. “Look, John! The Heripedes Star! It’s orange!” 
     “I guess there’s a first for everything,” John said, a grin spread across his face.