Flash Fiction Contest Winner #23 – “Of Chrysanthemums and Ash”

Please note: Flash fiction stories are submitted by members of our Discord server. Many contain adult themes and may be objectionable to some readers.

Of Chrysanthemums and Ash

The brightly colored chrysanthemums wilted in less than thirty seconds. I picked one from the ground, holding it for only a moment before the withered leaves and browned stem turned to ash that sifted through my fingers. No wind carried it. The last of the oxygen was on reserve, and environmental controls failed days ago. Everyone had been pulled back behind a small, circular barrier. The central outpost housed us all in small bunks while we waited for help to arrive.
     The world beyond the barrier, once ripe with plush landscapes of colorful flowers, thick jungles, and species that went extinct on Earth long ago, was a wasteland. This barrier was our last defense against a vacation planet that expired a week ago.
I looked at my ash-stained hand. The chrysanthemums had been inside the barrier.
     “Jo?” Tia walked over to me. “What’s wrong?”
     Not wanting to worry her, I wiped my hands on my shirt and shook my head. “Just thinking we should have gone to that futuristic tech planet like you wanted. They probably have enough tech to build their own transport.”
     “See, I was right.”
     “Rub it in.”
     She wiped the last bit of dust from my shirt. “If we wanted an end of the world experience, we would have signed up for that planet.”
     “Instead, we got a two in one vacation,” I said.
     She chuckled and tucked a strand of blond hair behind her ear. “I’m not worried.”
     “Nope.” She popped the ‘P’. “The transport will be here in less than three units.”
     Vacation planets only lasted for a set amount of time. When they expired, they broke down and dissipated, leaving room to create a new planet experience. But this was the first time a transport had failed to show up.
     Possibly for the first time an entire planet of tourists wouldn’t make it home. An emergency transport was on the way, but they were cutting it close.
     “Please return to the outpost.” The voice came through the digital wrist band they required each tourist to wear. It changed colors during the vacation, having a chameleon-like effect that matched the planet’s layout. Right now it was as black as the ash that surrounded us.
     A flash of fear sparked in Tia’s teal eyes as she gripped my hand. “They’re pulling in the barrier. Come on.’’
     We jogged back and rushed inside with the others. The doors sealed behind us. As a last resort the outpost would act as an escape pod. We would hover in place for a few more hours before life support failed.
     Families huddled together, providing each other with as much comfort as they could. I moved to the nearest window. The place we stood moments ago crackled and turned black. Death raced toward the outpost.The planet shook beneath us. Tia grabbed hold of me. I wrapped my arms around her, pulling her close. In the distance, the atmosphere gave way and a plume of ash was sucked into the void of space.
     Cries of fear echoed through the common area. Guides tried to have everyone remain calm, but their voices lacked conviction. Perfumes, body odor, and bad breath swirled in a vortex of the only life support we had left. I pressed my nose into      Tia’s hair, using the scent of her mango shampoo to drive everything else away. It cleared my mind, drove the panic back.
     The outpost shook again, and black decay absorbed the rest of the chrysanthemums and other foliage. A moment of weightlessness turned my stomach. My feet barely left the ground before artificial gravity took hold.
     Outside, vast space replaced the planet, with only a thin trail of ash barely visible in the dark, as evidence it ever existed. That’s how the designers constructed these planets. To just fade away, leaving no damage to the solar system. The only proof this planet had once been would come from holographic photos.
     And now, perhaps, a group of dead tourists.
     “Look!” someone yelled.
     Tia practically pressed her nose against the glass as we tried to follow the arbitrary finger. The outpost rotated, giving us a small view of a large transport ship, it’s lights bright and hopeful in the dark of space. The cries of panic from moments ago turned into cheers of excitement.
     “I told you. Three units.” Tia smiled.
     My shoulders sagged in relief, and I chuckled into her mango-scented hair. “This time, you can definitely rub it in.”