This story is brought to you by FLASH FICTION CHALLENGE: SIX RANDOM TITLES at Chuck Wendig’s Terrible Minds. Two of the other titles, “The Third Girl” and “The Flame of the Years” may make appearances in later stories. This title, combined with one of Joseph Michael’s amazing photos inspired a neat bit of short fiction. Hope you like it! –FY
The greying man leaned against a bulkhead, absently tapping the ash from a cold cigar. “Nietzsche reportedly claimed that if you gaze long enough into the abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” He turned towards his pupils, eyes red-rimmed from too many sleepless nights. “Each of you owes me five pages on how that quote applies to the Way, and the opening of the Gate. Due tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow’s a ship-wide holiday, Professor.” Annabelle, one of his top students, reminded him. “Besides, now’s not the time for ancient fears. In less than twenty four hours, we’ll be on our way home. Why don’t we write about the triumph of the Watchers over the faithless that abandoned their ancient vigil? We can write of our triumph!”
Triago glanced at the sea of eager faces before returning his gaze to the viewport, to the stardust slowly forming a rough circle only a few hundred miles away. He couldn’t blame them for getting caught up in Annabelle’s enthusiasm. She radiated charm, in another time she’d likely be the next captain of the Letzte Hoffnung, and she spoke the words believed by the parents and grandparents and great-grandparents of almost every family on the ship. They all followed the Way of the Watchers, an absurd religion dedicated to the belief that humanity erred in their flight to distant galaxies.
“Of course, Annabelle,” he heard himself say, “Due next week, after the… after.”
She smiled crookedly, glancing back at one of her classmates. The young man looked pained, Triago couldn’t help feeling that someone just lost a bet. He let his anxiety show through more than he realized, and apparently the teenage thought she could change his mind from the borderline heretical assignment. She had been correct, though not for reasons she likely suspected.
“Tomorrow’s festivities must have somehow slipped my mind. Everyone go home and get some rest. Tell… tell your families that you love them. Class dismissed.” He rarely let them out more than a minute early, much less thirty. Excited chatter and the squeaks and squeals of sneakers and seats downed out his thoughts for a few blessed moments as the students rushed out the door before he changed his mind.
Far too soon, the silence settled over the classroom. Triago sighed as he realized the cigar went out a long time ago. He reached into his suit for a light, absently noting how steady his hands remained. They only trembled slightly, and only if you knew to look for it.
He marveled at his own fear, at the persistence of a useless feeling. Though the time for fear passed long ago, nothing could prevent it from gnawing at the edges of his mind. A sense of peace pulsed within him as well. For six generations, his family watched the Watchers. Three short sentences transmitted on a secret deep wave channel discharged his family’s debt, incurred when humanity fled from the Earth.
The ragged abyss stands open.
The canary flies for the coal mine.
The horrors of the ancients stare back.
The last remnants of humanity, scattered to the stars, now knew of the danger coming for them. Another headlong flight, a chance to escape so something could be spared. Triago took a long drag, savoring the musk of the ancient tobacco, better than anything the synthesizers could produce. He managed to blow one smoke ring through two others when he realized that someone else remained in the room.
“Annabelle, is there anything I can do for you?”
The teenage girl glared at the cigar in his hand. “You can put that out. My mother says those things will kill you.”
Triago’s laughter only held the slightest trace of mania, and his smile seemed genuine even to him. He turned back to the viewport, gazing into the chasm in the stars that looked less like a gateway and more like a gaping maw.
“No,” the professor replied. “It won’t.”