Flash Fiction: “An Optimal Day”

I hope to do more science fiction stories in general, as I feel this section is a bit lopsided with fantasy-genre tales. Maybe this will work, maybe not. Let me know in the comments either way!

An Optimal Day, by Alexander Paul Willging

Word Count: 997

The planet designated Antares-342 was—from one independent probe’s point of view—entirely fascinating.

As Seraph Mark VII understood it, his human creators would have appreciated the planet for its crystalline surface, which reflected the blue-white sunlight into a prism of red, violet, orange, and green shades. Mountains towered like cathedrals—and as he thought this, Seraph called up an associated image from his databanks. The Notre-Dame de Paris, which nearly matched the closest landmass in size and depth.

But Seraph had no real conception of human standards for beauty. In keeping with his mission parameters, he was far more interested in the planet’s chemical composition.

The atmosphere was teeming with hydrocarbons. In the distance, vapors rose up from the surface of a liquid nitrogen ocean. And Seraph’s bio-motion sensors were pinging constantly from all the activity beneath the planet’s surface.

This world was an anomaly compared to all other worlds that the Seraph Exploratory Probe series had investigated in the last decade. It was new and full of possibilities to catalog and collect. He didn’t know how else to describe this sensation inside his operating matrix. It was so…

Optimal.

***

With his tractor treads carrying him at half-speed, Seraph descended the crystalline tunnel on the southern side of the landmass—now designated Minerva Hill in his survey records.

His twin cameras took a panoramic view of the tunnel walls. There were repetitive etchings on the walls. Could they be hieroglyphs? A primitive writing system? Seraph’s pattern recognition wasn’t finding a suitable match, but he had faith he could figure it out.

And even if he didn’t, surely one of his Earthside monitors would.

***

Bio-motion activity detected.

With his tractor speed increased by seventy percent, Seraph raced to the other end of the tunnel.

***

Seraph extended one of his field cameras over the ridge at the cavern below. A pack of small quartz-shelled creatures were gathered. It was difficult to categorize them by Earth’s standards. They were crab-like, with a cluster of eyes and antennae sticking out the top of their carapaces. When startled, one of the quartz crabs would contract its eyestalks into the carapace and emit a high-pitched squeal.

His camera swung to the far left side of the cavern. There, two crabs were locked in some kind of conflict. Possibly two males in competition. Their shells had turned brown-red and they were exuding some kind of pheromone into the air. A bitter variant of ethylene, Seraph noted.

Field sensors picked up ethylene throughout the cavern. It was strongest around the younger crabs. And when one of them emitted a tiny, subsonic warble, at least three or four older crabs would flock toward it. They sheltered and tended to their young until the warble passed, releasing a high concentration of ethylene as they surrounded the maturing larva.

So fascinating. Seraph inched closer to the ridge, hoping to just a little more field data—

Crack.

The ridge’s structural integrity wasn’t as strong as he’d believed.

Seraph tumbled down into the cavern. It was only by pure fortune that he was able to activate his emergency subroutine and deploy airbags to cushion his fall. His auto-gyro worked at full speed before he could right himself on the cavern floor.

The colony of quartz crabs skittered and clacked across the cavern, huddling far away from the robot. Seraph tried to extend his cameras and his two largest manipulators. Maybe he could imitate the crabs behavior and gain their trust.

But he didn’t have time. A picosecond later, there was a deep-throated hiss from the tunnel. Seraph extended his rear camera just in time to catch a glimpse of something large and fast slithering into the open.

Green-gray scales with random crystals embedded into the skin. Yellow eyes and giant fangs. It was serpentine, but far larger than any Earthside snake.

And it was bearing down on the lone robot.

Seraph would not go quietly. He remembered Operating Protocol Zeta.

ZETA 1a: Stay operational until human retrieval.

ZETA 1b: Protect data and samples at all costs.

But what could he do? He had no weapons and his chassis couldn’t stop a giant serpent from squeezing him until he broke.

Then Seraph remembered that he wasn’t alone.

One camera was still pointed at the quartz crabs, huddling on the far side of the wall in terror. Their pincers dug futilely at the wall, trying to escape. The air was rich with ethylene vapors.

And the serpent wasn’t going anywhere near them.

Seraph pulled up an audio file he had collected not more than eighteen seconds ago. A sample of a quartz crab larva’s cry for help.

He uploaded the file to his external speaker system and raised the volume to the highest level.

The larva’s warble echoed across the cavern walls, nearly drowning out the serpent’s hiss as it slid down toward Seraph.

And from the other side came a chorus of frantic warbles and clacks.

Seraph watched as the multitude of crabs came racing to his aid. They scrambled and swarmed over him, covering his chassis with brown-red shells and furious pincers. The air was thick with ethylene.

A pained hiss echoed off the cavern walls. The warbles rose up in defiance.

Seraph noted the power surge inside his processor when he picked up the vibrations of the massive serpent sliding away from the crab colony. Apparently the ethylene was a deterrent.

And it looked like Seraph had made some new friends as well.

This expedition was going better than he expected.

***

One standard hour had passed. Seraph Mark VII was releasing a faint vapor trail of ethylene into the air and a low-volume warble as he emerged from the tunnel onto the surface of Antares-342. A small pack of quartz crabs, both young and old, came scuttling out after him. Their stalks wavered in curiosity.

Seraph was curious, too. He was looking forward to seeing how his friends would like things on the surface.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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