Snippet: Cleaning up

Emily was unfazed by the waft of bile from my washcloth. Maybe I just imagined she could smell it. I certainly could, but the residual taste and debris in my mouth might have been responsible for that. Lunch only tasted good going one way. I had now tested this enough times to know. The waste bin sealed shut and rolled away. Emily handed me a fresh towel and motioned for my arm.

She smiled. But I knew that smile already. She wasn’t happy.

Meant to have something new written last week, but fell so behind. Here’s a snippet from something I worked on over the weekend instead.

People in the pods 1

For a while, I remained awake.

It felt like I had only just left home, but the readout told me Earth was now long gone. While I slept, wars had been fought and won. People were born. People died. More, like me, were sent out into space, naked in single-passenger pods hurtling towards calculated destinations. But they were calculated so long ago now. There was no guarantee our destinations would still exist by the time we arrived. While I slept, my pod kept logs of everything until it found nothing left to record. Earth’s end was a sudden interruption to my data feed.

So much time had passed, relative to what I remembered of time. My inertia never faltered. I would reach my destination on schedule. As I returned to sleep, I sighed. The fluid in and around me barely stirred in the bellows of my lungs. Still, I recalled the motions of breathing. They felt good.

The next time I opened my eyes, I saw the nebula and all its rings. A shimmering, bulging mass of blue and peach and purple. Like an oyster encased in layers of concentric shells. From this distance, it appeared still, suspended in the void like my body in this amniotic plasma. But my readout tracked vast fluctuations; pulses within pulses within pulses.

By the time a star produces a nebula, it is already reaching the end of its life. This nebula had already been around for a long time. I hoped I would not be too late to catch the white dwarf. It was a risk I knew I was taking when I departed. At best, we could only estimate how old this star would be, but we had no choice but to act.

I checked my vitals: elevated. That would do no good. I ordered the pod’s mood cortex to shift down, the visual cortex to reset my spectrum. I didn’t need to see the colours of this nebula. I needed to sleep.

I was awakened sometime later by a ping. Had one of my comrades veered off course? Did I even have comrades left? I answered the call.


“Oh thank goodness,” came a voice. “I was starting to think your life support had failed.”

“Who is this?”

“Lt. Astrid Black, sir. I was sent from the colonies to rendezvous with your pod.”

But there were no colonies. Earth was destroyed.

“So much changed after you left. Let me send you a data packet. It’s everything we thought you might be missing.”

My chest heaved at the timestamps on Astrid’s data. To her, I was the benign force of a history imagined; the odd feeling you get when you set foot in a museum. Great grandparents hadn’t been born when I stepped into this pod. Yet still, here we were, she and I, holding a conversation.

Or was I asleep, dreaming a wishful dream that my homeworld was still alive?

Her records picked up where my feed stopped. Earth didn’t die when I thought it did, but what they now called the ‘Final War’, ended the broadcast to my pod. It broke out over what resources were yet unscathed by the changed, and still changing, climate. And once it was over, there was little left to save.

The lab that launched the pods completed a colony ship before the war was over. They settled in the mountains of Venus. Between them and Earth’s few survivors, mankind established three more colonies around Sol. One on Europa, one on Mars, and finally when technology had come far enough, Astrid’s home colony on Luna. Even under such duress, humans still carried on. I felt a pang of sadness, thinking of how much more we could have achieved had we not distracted ourselves with warfare and greed. In my eyes and face, the muscles twitched. But my ducts and sinuses were occupied by plasma. I had no room for tears.

She waited while I parsed each file. I found news clippings about every breakthrough in pod technology. Among them was a dossier on Astrid’s mission. Seven new pods were sent out to meet up with the seven launched in my generation. Finally, I reached a document stamped by the Star Council, the Earth Colonies’ new unified government. It was addressed to me by name.

“It’s your new mission, sir,” said Astrid. “We didn’t forget you. There’s been a change of plan.”

May 2016. Img via NASA.


And then there was Maud. She waited tables at Ming’s Food Court. Some nights for the Chinese, some nights for Thai, some nights for the new Korean place that outdid the rest in the noodle stakes. She was a regular gun for hire in the town’s budget hospitality circuit. Competition was fierce in that place and she knew it. She could pretty much guarantee the biggest takings for the eatery she rostered with that evening. Best service in the district; brightest smile. Hell, I saw a few of the rich folk deign to visit because they heard she was working their favourite cuisine. Old Pierre from Chez Royale down the road tried to hire her one. But he let his eyes slip a little too low and she told him where to go. That’s my Maud.

“If she’s so clever, why’s she working here?” someone asked me once. His name was Billy. He’d visit every now and then to collect stories. ‘Human interest’ stories, he called them. The paper would cite him on the byline, but they were all my stories. I was the story broker in town. I could get anywhere and see anything without anybody knowing or caring. I told him about Sam Wood’s fishing adventure down by the lake. Billy went to interview him, but when I got my hands on the paper, it read word for word like the version I told him. I didn’t mind.

Maud grew up in the house at the bottom of the hill. I remember her birth like it was yesterday. It was messy like Daryl Booker’s birthday the week before, but her momma didn’t suffer as much as poor little Amy Ray’s the month after. Maud was a genius from the moment she opened her eyes. She was no older than three when she tugged on my sleeve and reminded me not to put a bad apple in with the other ones. “They’ll all turn,” she said, and skipped off.

Exercise from Developing Characters by Irving Weinman: In about 300 words, introduce a potentially flat character, using third-person narration, as observed by another character. Make the reader understand something significant about the relation between the observer and the observed.