Experimental Writing: Part 1

“Niflheim!”

Bjarni Thorssen had long ago decided to live up to the Viking looks that were his birth-right.  On the international stage, a stellar scientific reputation (literally and figuratively) was rarely sufficient on its own to rise to the top of the pile.  To break into the big-time, you need something extra, something on which the Cult of Personality can go to work.  Over the years, Bjarni had let his beard grow (although he refused to plait it), and let his speech become infected by traditional oaths.  Many would be surprised to learn that Bjarni, a giant in height, girth, and character was, by nature, introverted.  In meetings he could be loud and tenacious in fighting his corner, but no one really saw him in his home environment, and the reality would ave jarred with the mead-hall image he liked to project.

There were many jobs that he would never get: it was the peacemakers who got such plum roles.  But various scandals had thinned the herd considerably, and there were many jobs in the international astronomy community that were his for the asking.  He had a long term plan, and right now Director of the European Space Organisation’s Chilean based observatories was exactly where he wanted to be.

Quiet in private, Bjarni’s bombastic public persona had actually been an inspired appointment at a critical time in the funding landscape.  When there’d been talk of budget cuts, Bjarni had lobbied hard and actually been able to increase his budget (to the chagrin of a number of his peers, who hadn’t been so fortunate).  Whilst this funding didn’t mean the new telescope that the community was calling for, and which Bjarni hoped would be his legacy, essential maintenance had become  exciting upgrades, and he’d been able to fund several new post-doc positions.

One of these now stood in front of him.

“You’ll see that the Duty Operator had a go at a quick calculation, which indicates that the object will strike the Earth.  To be honest, I think they were a bit previous in attempting this, and whilst I’m all for open and honest, and I can see where there might be some advantage in releasing the numbers, I think I would be inclined to file them.  There really wasn’t sufficient information to make an accurate assessment at that point.  The object was watched for another few hours, and in the morning it was possible to refine the calculations which show a reasonably close approach, but nothing that’s going to cause people to head for the bunkers.”

“Don’t you believe it” Bjarni growled, “people are idiots.”

Bjarni noted the careful hand calculations and could see that the erroneous early assessment had been made by Earl Travis, a young buck eager to make a name for himself, despite only being a year or so into his PhD.  The revised calculations had been made by the woman in front of him.  Ris Patel, one of his new appointments, had real potential.  Another twenty years and she’d probably be having this conversation on his side of the desk.  She had the rare ability to see the political landscape across academia and the funding bureaucracies that kept this facility operating, as well as being an outstanding astronomer.  She just needed to develop her persona…

The ESO was the first to report on the object, and it was soon confirmed by other reputable observatories around the world.  No one ever found out where the spurious collision story came from, but Bjarni was very impressive in a series of interviews and very carefully explained that, as the ESO had said in their first statement, there had never been any danger to the Earth… He would go on to win an award for this work (a small one, not a Nobel, or anything like that), but the cash was enough for a small shindig at the observatory.  But as Professor Thorssen doesn’t play any further part in this story, we’ll leave him there.

*****

With all the excitement over the object, which the astronomers decided was probably just a very large comet, and then spent months arguing over what to call it, no one really paid any attention to the rather spectacular shooting star that occurred at around the same time.  Esther, saw it, with her older brother Owain. They’d gone out star gazing and were lying out on the hillside above Abercynafon.  Owain was pointing out the constellations (and not just the obvious ones that everyone knows) when a streak of light spurted overhead and fled across the horizon.

“What was that, Owain?”

“A shooting star, bach.  There’s all sorts of little bits of dust and things up there that hit Earth’s atmosphere and burn up.  That must have been quite a big bit of rock though to make that much light and to go on for so long.  It’s a pity we didn’t get a picture.”

Neither of them connected it with the triple sonic boom that occurred about an hour later, nor, in point of fact, did they realise that that was what they were hearing.

At this point there was not much to see, but they had an impression of something going quite fast overhead.  They thought it must be an RAF fighter on night maneuvers.  They didn’t hear whatever it was playing ducks and drakes across the Tallybont Reservoir.  If it had been eligible, it would have beaten the existing record, but Kurt Steiner’s 88 skips were safe in the Guinness Book of World Records for a while longer – this was no small stone, propelled by a human…

Slowed by it’s entry into the atmosphere and then around the world, slowed further by on board systems, slowed further still by it’s journey across the lake, the space craft jinked lazily up the hillside and then settled next to a little knot of trees.

© David Jesson, 2019


 

During 2019, I’m going to be undertaking a writing experiment, as described here.

The shape of story was formed through a four-part prologue: the first part of the prologue is here, if you want to start right at the beginning.  All through, I’m hoping that you’ll help me shape the story.  At various points, I’ll be asking questions with a choice of answers.  I’ll be polling on Twitter, or you can add a comment below.  So for example, you’ve helped me to decide that the story is science fiction, our protagonist, who is a rogue with a dash of ranger,  is an alien, but the story is set on Earth.

Without giving too much away, the protagonist is piloting the craft that has just landed in the Brecon Beacons National Park.  Are they:

Option 1: Escaping?

Option 2: Scouting?

Option 3: Retrieving something?

Option 4: On a jolly?

I ‘ll leave the Twitter poll open for two weeks, and will add in any votes on here that come in during that time.  Feel free to expand on the options in the comments!  I’m not promising to incorporate anything but always good to hear where you thing this is heading!

See you next month!

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Last night I dreamt I went to Barsoom again

I lay down in my hotel room, far from home and low in spirit.  In place of the usual Gideon’s, to my surprise, was a copy of “A Princess of Mars” – a first edition, no less.  I flipped through the pages in a desultory fashion, at once recalling the the adventures of John Carter and Dejah Thoris and puzzling over the mystery of this volume’s presence in my room.

My eyes started to drift shut, and I placed the book back where I had found it in the bedside drawer.  I found my accustomed sleeping position – and immediately fell asleep.

I woke, almost at once it seemed, but with a groggy-start, as if from a deep sleep. I sat up, shook my head and looked around, trying to find the light switch.  As I continued the rise from the depths of sleep, I realised that it was already light, about as light as on Spring day.

I looked around.  This was most certainly not my bed, not my hotel room.  The ground I was sitting on was cold, and covered with greenish-lichen.  I got to my feet: the lichen crunched underfoot as a turned around, looking at the terrain.  The depression of ground spread out for tens of kilometres in every direction; off in the distance, I could see hills, low and red.

I jumped.  It was not as graceful as I had hoped, but John Carter’s first attempts had warned me of what to expect. Leapt and bounded to the top of rise, covering tens of metres with every stride.  From my vantage, I looked around and saw two clouds of dust closing on each other.  I wished I had binoculars, but had little doubt that two tribes of the fearsome, fearless green warriors of Mars were closing on each other ready for battle and conquest.

Dare I go closer?  No.  I was sure to be seen and captured, if I did not stop a radium bullet fired with malice or by mistake.  I continued to look around, warily returning to view the distant fight from time to time.  I saw a flotilla of airships, perhaps from the fair double city of Helium itself, crest the hills.  Gracefully they floated across the arid desert-bowl.  I stood between the ships and the Green Martians and did not know where to look.

I gazed too long at the airships and, when I turned again, I saw that a part of Green Martians had broken free of the battle and were racing towards me.  I turned and ran, taking long jumping strides.  I was just able to keep my lead, but I was no Fighting Virginian and quickly became winded.  I landed a little too heavily on a rock that shifted underneath me.  It threw me off my stride and I tumbled headlong, striking my head on a rock.

Blackness.

I woke in the middle of falling out of bed, and landed on the floor of my hotel room with a bump, that would have been embarrassing if there had been anyone there to see it.  I landed on my shoulder, but not too heavily.  I sat up and saw the glowing red figures of my travel alarm o’clock.  Surely I could only have been asleep for minute, two at the most.

I got back into bed, and wondered why my ankle hurt, why the bed felt gritty.

© David Jesson, 2018

 

 

 

Fire

Fire.  The two-edged sword.  Our ancestors thought they’d tamed it when they started using it to cook their food and to drive the darkness back from the cave-entrance.  (There’s an irony for you – all they really succeeded in doing was creating shadows, but that’s another story).  Fire is never as tame as we think though, and we forget that at our peril.  It’s never good when fire gets out of control and you can pretty much guarantee that if you manage to get away from wild-fire with your life intact then you should thank your lucky stars and think about ways to stop pushing your luck.  If you are on a ship, or an aircraft, then not only is the situation likely to be an order of magnitude worse but there are fewer ways to escape the situation.  It’s easy to say that the automatic systems are going to be correspondingly better, but sometimes that just isn’t enough, and sometimes the automatics are the first things to fail… And when you are on a spacecraft, then things get an order of magnitude worse again.

The automatic systems were amongst those that had been knocked out, but in that whole realm of perversity where you’re never sure whether something is counter-intuitive or not, being in space, whilst making many things more difficult, was going to make putting the fire out a veritable cake-walk.  Sort of.  And yes, there are a number of factors that I’m failing to mention.

One of the first of many drills that those going into space must learn to do in their sleep is to get into their space-suit as soon as they hear any one of half a dozen warning sirens.  I was terribly – nearly terminally – slow getting into my suit.  A disgrace to my tutors and more importantly it nearly cost me my life.  In my defence, things had been a little…trying of late, although this is not an argument that I would want to make to St. Peter, or more likely a bright red chap with a pitch-fork.  Suffice it to say that I had been running a ship that the Board stipulates should have a skeleton crew of three (and deep-space operations are never carried out with skeleton crews), on my own, for over…oh by now about 100 hours.

I’d thought that I’d got things onto a fairly even keel, and taken the opportunity to catch up on some sleep against the time (which I was fairly certain was coming) when I’d need to be back at full alert.  Such as when something (I’ll probably never know exactly what) ended up working a little too hard, sending a shower of sparks over something else already at a critical level and leading to the most recent of my problems.

Should there have been enough of my mortal remains left to find at some stage in the future, the pathologist would have had a tough time choosing a cause of death.  Since fatigue never actually killed anyone except through the kind of circumstances where a man is struggling to put his suit on in an emergency, they would probably have gone for smoke inhalation.  Just before the point where that would have been the only decision left to make, and after all, one that was out of my control, my hind brain realised what was going, and gave me a swift kick in the form of convulsive coughing.  I dragged myself into my suit and felt the cooling flow of air as I sealed the helmet.  There was a worrying moment as my fume fogged brain searched for the leak which my nose said had to be somewhere since I could smell and feel the biting, acrid smoke drying out my nose and throat.  As the oxygen cleared my head I realised that it was simply that the filters of the recirculating system were struggling to cope with the smoke that was clinging to my ship-suit and hair – it had been that close.

As has already been intimated, many of the automatic systems were down – the fire suppression system being the one that I was currently missing the most.  Bits of damage control were still up.  In theory it should have sealed the compartments automatically, but obviously hadn’t.  I said a brief prayer (scripture actually tells us to ask for things – we might not get them, but it’s ok to ask) as I bypassed the subroutine and keyed the doors to close: the alternative was that I’d have to close the doors manually.  There were two things wrong with that.  One I probably wouldn’t have enough time before the fire spread.  Two I wouldn’t be able to get to the other side of the compartment that was merrily ablaze to close the other hatch.  I’d be in danger of losing half the ship including access to the power and propulsion systems.  I punched the button and mercy of mercies the hatches closed.

Have you ever come across the triangle of fire?  Basically it states that for combustion to occur there must be three ingredients: a source, fuel and oxygen.  Remove any one of these and the fire will be controlled, contained and (hopefully) put out.  It is something that is true for all fires, even those that occur in micro-gravities (and therefore obey obscure physical principles not seen in the general course of life planet-side).

It was slightly drastic, but as I’ve already said, I was on my own and to avoid some of the big risks I was willing to take a few (reasonably) small ones.  I bypassed various connections to the air conditioning system and created a direct link between the department that was being toasted and the nearest airlock, which I vented, removing the air from the compartment and snuffing out the fire.  I resealed the airlock, but left the compartment under vacuum.  Safer, in the long run, as it would allow me to ensure that the fire was fully out.  You’d be amazed at how long things can smoulder for, and residual heat can be a real problem.  Not to mention free radicals.  In ancient times hunters and the like would carry a piece of charred wood, usually still smouldering, in a special container since it is easier to (re-)ignite than even dry wood because the free-radicals reduce the energy required to start the oxidising reaction.   Not that there is that much wood on a spaceship, but the science holds for other polymers of which there are several tonnes worth on even the smallest of spacecraft.

I was in big trouble.  FTL was out of the question and even the ion drives were going to be temperamental at best.  Long range comms were patchy.  I was hoping that my AI companion was still mentally in one piece and that it was just having trouble talking to the ship’s computer.  It would be a while before I could sort that problem out, so for the time being I would ignore it.  Ok.  What are the positives?  Well, for a start I’m still alive…

 

© David Jesson, 2017

Flashfiction -Photoprompt

We had made the campfire, cooked something to eat, and swapped yarns: the whole thing was quite festive.

The fire was dying down, so we lay down and looked up at the night sky, continuing our discussion about how Earth-like the planet was, complete with the rock shaped by wind and water.  The night-sky was both familiar and unfamiliar – we could still make out the Milky Way, but none of our familiar constellations.

As wreckage from our spaceship made shooting stars,  two questions were in everyone’s minds: How were we going to get home?  Did we want to?

© David Jesson, 2017 (100 words)