On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including science fiction, horror, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published four ebooks and one paperback anthology of those stories so far.
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We’re finally starting to emerge from an age of entertainment where, at least in its mass-market form, characters were still pretty black and white. Positive motivations or negative ones, and the latter were often just the result of some kind of intrinsic evil or madness. Makes it easy to know who to cheer for, but I find that the strictly-delineated personality types have become less appealing as I’ve grown older.
Give me flawed, broken, fed up people. Give me people who aren’t still blessed with the naive optimism and physical invincibility of tedious, untarnished youth. Give me people like me, the grumpy old man said.
I think the most interesting thing about a character isn’t their triumphs or failures, nor is it their abilities or the challenges they face; it’s their flaws and weaknesses. The stuff that doesn’t make for good movie trailers. That’s what life is actually full of. The antagonist is most often ourselves.
It drives me to wonder what would happen if our heroes for uncommon times were just a little less rounded and simplistically wholesome.
Rowe was very nearly at the launch point, with only a few hundred kilometres to go. It had been a long time coming, but it had also been an incredibly short handful of weeks.
His target was already clear, even without the benefit of instruments. The feeling that passed through him was new, and something like a religious or superstitious awe.
Seventy-three kilometres wide, he thought. The nightmare we’ve been waiting for since the dinosaurs were wiped out.
The asteroid was vast, and a thin slice of it was visible in the rays of the distant sun. The rest was discernible by the deeper blackness it pressed onto the backdrop of stars. It was headed directly for Earth, as the entire world had known for just under two weeks, and governments for much, much longer. It had an official and technical designation, but the planet knew it as Grendel.
When it hit — if it hit —all of humanity and every other species would be obliterated forever. There was no prospect of survival. Except for Rowe. And the ship. And the inevitably named payload.
Beowulf was the weapon to end all weapons, not just figuratively but also literally. Nuclear and cobalt-nuclear warheads from all of the capable nations of the world had been gathered in secret, and assembled into mankind’s true doomsday device. Nothing had ever remotely approached its power. Nothing ever would again, at least using those same technologies. The only chance to destroy Grendel was to put all of Earth’s eggs in one basket, as it were, and throw the whole lot at it simultaneously.
For such a hideous creation, it was comparatively small, at least relative to the ship itself. The fuel costs to reach Grendel while it was still far enough from Earth for the detonation itself to be survivable were significant. The end of the age of fossil fuels had been brought noticeably closer. The ship was a cluster of skyscrapers, mounted amidst an assembly of engines and fuel pods which made it a virtual moon in its own right. And it had all worked. So far.
The ship’s computer was characteristically sanguine about approaching optimal firing range. Rowe appreciated that. Sanguinity was his favourite trait, and one he had embraced fully as he lay awake each night, imagining that he could actually feel the spread of the cancer through his bones. A tingling here, and the vaguest ache there. His oncologist told him it was too early for such sensations, but that a time would come when they were inevitable.
She’d been wrong about that part. The time would not come at all. Rowe had volunteered for the mission without hesitation, his flight experience and scientific background dovetailing perfectly with the requirements, and of course he fulfilled the primary criterion perfectly: he didn’t mind that it was a one-way trip.
There was a kind of poetry about dying amongst the stars. The world press had loved it, already making him into a latter day Christ on the cross. Except his cross was a couple of kilometres long, and bolted to all the nukes that mankind’s insanity had ever seen fit to build.
The telemetry all looked just as it should. Everything was green across the board. The jazz music that was at least audible above the omnipresent vibration of the propulsion system piped steadily into the flight chamber. All was as designed and intended, as far as anyone on Earth knew.
“You’re coming up on your firing window now, Captain,” came the delayed and relayed voice of remote mission control on the ISS. Communication at this distance wasn’t realtime, but it didn’t matter. The ship was automated, of course. Rowe was just there as backup. If it came down to it, he’d pull the trigger himself. In exchange, he’d die instantly when the shockwave intersected with the ship mere seconds after detonation.
Sure enough, a series of chimes sounded, and a section of the console lit up. It indicated a sixty-second countdown to firing. The explosion would initiate after a further forty seconds. It would take an additional ten for it to reach Rowe, and one final 111th second to end his life.
Rowe sighed, but he didn’t waver. He removed the small device from his crew suit, connected it to a port at knee level, and pressed three controls in quick succession. The launch board went red.
“Launch control malfunction detected,” Rowe said, just as he’d practised in his head hundreds of times. “Assuming manual control now.”
It took twenty seconds before the ISS commander acknowledged the communication, with definite tension in his voice. But this was what backups were for, after all.
Except that Rowe saw himself differently. He wasn’t a backup for mankind, with its madness and its nuclear weapons, and its inter- and intra-national wars. Its injustice and inequality. Prejudice and punishment. He wasn’t any kind of representative for his own species at all.
Rowe was a backup for the wider universe. He was already out here, and technology was advancing quickly. There would be more ships in the future, many more, and the light barrier wouldn’t stay intact forever. They’d solve the propulsion problem, and artificial gravity, and radiation shielding, and everything else. Human ingenuity knew no more bounds than its evil. Soon, people would be everywhere, and that could only be a bad thing for any world that the hand of man would touch.
It wasn’t something Rowe could allow to happen. He wouldn’t.
With remote override disabled and the firing computer inactive, his specified job was a stark and simple one: press the launch button while within the approach window. The window was already closing. The launch button was lit, its cover automatically raised.
Rowe switched off the intercom, and closed the cover and then his eyes. The computer blared a warning, but it only interrupted the jazz briefly.
Humanity had a good run. Not in the sense of goodness, not at all. But it had been given long enough to prove itself. In the end, as in the beginning, it failed.
“We’re undeserving of another chance,” Rowe said to no-one in particular.
Survival of the fittest had always been a monstrously amoral metric. He knew he’d be Earth’s greatest villain of history, but Rowe also knew he’d hold the title for a damned short time. So be it.
He trimmed the ship’s trajectory to avoid Grendel entirely, and instead head out into the calm blackness of space. Maybe it was the first truly, cosmically good thing a human being had ever done. Someone else could be the judge of that.
Rowe sat back, turned up the music, switched the atmosphere over to a helium mix, and waited patiently for his final sleep.
That’s all for today. I hope you enjoyed this brief tale. If you have any thoughts or questions; I’d love to hear from you; you can find me on Twitter.
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Have a wonderful week, and thanks for reading.