Aphelion Issue 294, Volume 28
May 2024
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Short Stories
Flash Fiction
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By Richard Tornello

Based on art by William R. Warren, Jr. as well as characters and situations created by Bill Wolfe, Casey Callaghan, and N.J. Kailhofer

Some of the individual versions of the stories in this series were written for forum flash challenge contests to help create this "world." As such, stories may not match the characters or settings of the continuous version of the story, which blended all the entries together.

Aphelion One, Day 150

He sat at the command console driving the BUS. That was the name Lt. Chang gave to APHELION ONE, this space craft, if only to himself. So far the Bus has been operating non-stop for 3600 hours that would make it, oh yes, his birthday. The idea of celebrating ones birthday was not an invitation to a party as some on his craft seemed to think. To him, it was one more duty to perform, "Just like driving this space bus on the way to Mars, the The Red Planet, the Western Roman War God's planet."

His official duty is first to his country, the Peoples Liberation Army, Space Command (PLA-SC) and then to family, in that order. As he thought to himself Lt. Chang spoke gently and quietly out loud so as to make conversation with himself and acknowledge what he assumed to be the obvious. "China may be modern and up to date. We still continue to revere our ancestors. My birthday is, thanks to them. To them I owe my gratitude even more so. We are still at one child per family in China. We are the only country on this small blue planet to recognize and do something about human resource allocation. I give thanks to my family and to my country. I am here, Today, Now, xian zai."

Lt. Chang thought in English, the lingua franca within the crafts. This skill made him stand out in preflight training. That fact was instrumental in his selection. Working with different nationalities, communicating in English where misunderstandings could be at worst fatal, a high level of language skill is required. Speaking English among so many different nationalities also allowed for a certain level of misunderstanding, intended or otherwise. A smile came to his usually quiet face.

Lt. Chang was not shy. He spoke little unless directly addressed. Then talk was straight and to the point. He told himself, "Less talk means less room for political misunderstanding. Everything is political." It was a lesson he had been taught once from someone else's faux pas. And, once was enough. "Here," he thought, "Out of the direct gaze of the PLA-SC, here and now was different. Here and now." he said to himself and didn't finish. He had time to think and philosophize since much of the flight was routine and programmed.

"Birth day," he thought while staring at the monitors. "Birth day is a strange concept in timeless, dayless space. Time is for the planet bound where day and night represent the figment of time. Time out here falls away the more one lives here. Infinity, I can't grasp that, but I do believe day and time are usless concepts . The universe is timeless except as required for our mundane life giving tasks.

"Now", he laughed to himself at the word. "A missed second at launch, it could be a missed target and death. The smallest width of a business card off target on the shooting line was a miss by meters down range." These thoughts ran through Lt. Chang's head almost instantly. He dismissed them almost as quickly to concentrate on piloting the Bus.

His official job as part of the team was co-pilot. He had to drive the BUS and get it to Mars, unscathed, in one piece. He had other jobs; some implied by his superiors others for himself. "Working so closely with other nationalities, in the confines of this space craft brought the known and unknown out in each of us. Amusing, sad and terrifying, witness the unsolved murder in The Trailer," as he called APHELION TWO, the following space craft.

* * *

Lt. Chang had been trained form birth to become a member of the Peoples Liberation Army. Successful completion of ones duties here would at least allow for promotion with in the military as well as other business sectors. No one in the country who rose in Party rank was not directly a member of the PLA elite or did not have relatives with strong PLA connections that could pull strings. It simply did not happen. He knew it. It never had to be stated. It was a fact of political life. Then it became a fact of social life.

Good rank meant good family which in turn made for excellent marriage prospects. That thought made Lt. Chang hopeful of the prospects, and suddenly wary. "Suppose the shielding on the crafts were not up to the specs promised? Suppose they were all radiated beyond hope for the future, for children? What then? What of his family line? "What if we're all just throw aways, expendable for others… 'aggrandizement'?" he unconsciously said aloud.

"What grand prize?" someone asked in the back? Quickly recovering from his verbal slip, Lt. Chang said, "No you mistook me. Today is my birthday. I wondering about a prize. Foolish of me to say anything."

"Another birthday? Ain't this the party boat," from yet another voice behind him. He did not turn around. He was in command. As they came closer to the planet more debris could be expected. He must maintain control and not be deflected from his duties.

Lt. Chang dreamed of space flight from youth and here he was, driving the BUS to Mars. A smile crossed his lips . "Party boat? Not yet," he thought. "Dong Shi Hong"* and "Happy Birthday," He sang to himself.

* The East is Red, a song from The Cultural Revolution days.


2009 Richard Tornello

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