#FF Photoprompt

Liberty Tarn

The mouth of the tunnel was an orangey glow in the darkness of the night.  The first of the runners came out of the tunnel and started to circle the tarn: the tarmac of the road gave way to a smooth gravel pathway.  Portable lighting had been erected to guide the runners, to prevent accidents. The path came to an end: the bright white lights were set back from the end of the path to allow the end of the path to fall away into increasingly dense shadow.

As each runner reached the last light, they were handed an unlit candle.  Walking now, contemplative, they followed the path to the edge of the water, and lit their candle from a tiki torch that marked the start of a short pontoon.  Walking to the front edge of the jetty, each person knelt, floated their candle on the cold, inky water and bowed their head for a moment.  Five hundred candles had already been lit and floated in the centre of the lake; a light breeze, and the natural movement of the water, drew the candles to the the others, where they joined the lazy swirling gyre.  Each watched their candle drift off into the darkness before moving away to allow the next to take their place

The elite race, longer and over more rugged, although still taking in a circuit of the lake, had finished some hours before.  The weather had not been conducive to personal bests,  being too hot and humid, although the Canadian Paralympian Birt Davies had threatened the course record.  The competition though was besides the point: they’d had a good turn out for it, and Maisy Andrews, the organiser, was pleased that everything had gone well, but only in as much as the competition covered the costs of the event this evening.  There had been no dramas: even Davies and his arch-rival Carlos Xu had steered clear of one another.  Perhaps they sensed that their usual antics, played out for the camera, would not play well today.

Maisy handed over a candle to each runner as they came by.  Some she knew well: they had run this course every year since the memorial began.  Others were new faces, come to take over from someone who could not make the pilgrimage anymore, or who had found that they had a connection, or just that they felt they wanted to pay their respects.  There were fewer runners in the evening, and it did not take long for them to pass by.  Maisy didn’t know how long the event would continue, how long people would come keep coming up to the tarn; she only knew that she would continue to organise it for as long as she was able.  Certainly there were those who asked every year “You’ll be doing it again, won’t you?” anxious to be reassured that, yes, the memorial would continue.  Running the course herself was beyond Maisy, these days, although she had been one of those who had run up the mountain when disaster had struck.  But even if she were the only one to turn up, she would walk, and she would light the five hundred candles, one for each person who had died, and she’d do that every year that she could drag herself up here.

In the last few years, the observance had seen the addition of a party back down in the town.  A wake for a lost friend, not too raucous, but a celebration rather than a lamentation, with poetry, music, and dancing.  No doubt Ellis O’Neill would be holding court, following the annual declamation of his Lay.  These days, this was becoming the only overt reminder of the tragedy that had brought the lake itself into existence.

*****

Maisy and Mervyn, her brother, used to sit together and look at the moon.  He would tell her about the craters and about the Moon mopping up the meteorites that would otherwise have hit the Earth.  And then he’d tell her about the ones that snuck past, relatively small, but moving so fast that their energy, released into the crust of the Earth, created craters tens, hundreds of kilometers in diameter, created trillions of carats of diamonds with the heat and pressure of the impact.

Liberty Tarn was much the same, albeit on a smaller scale, although it was a significantly more recent addition to the geography of the Earth.   It was named after the Liberty space station that had been deorbited by Earth First terrorists.  They had planned to drop the station on a major city.  Mervyn, with two others, had managed to regain control of the flight deck.  They hadn’t been able to save themselves, nor anyone else on board, but then they hadn’t expected to.  Doomed, their last act was to control the re-entry of the station, as best as could be managed and prevent the E1 group from achieving their goals.

The station had come down in the mountains, wiping out a piece of road and severing the connection between two towns.  A small mercy, there had been no one on the road when the crater was formed.   The impact caused localised quakes, landslides, destruction.  Another small mercy, the impact site was relatively barren, with sparse wooded slopes and so the fires that broke out died as quickly as they started.  Another 5 miles further East and the vast forests surrounding the area would have caught alight, a veritable tinderbox after a long, dry summer.

Mervyn didn’t know that his sister was staying in one of the nearby towns, visiting a college friend before heading back for a new academic year.  Woken by the noise of the impact, she joined the group that went to see what had happened, driving into the mountains, only to find the road blocked.  They scrambled up over mud and rocks.  An engineer in the group insisted on checking the tunnel whilst the rest waited impatiently.  No one really knew what to  expect, coming out of the tunnel.  In fact there was little to see.  A big hole in the ground, small fragments of this, that and t’other.

*****

Maisy walked to the end of the jetty. She took off her walking sandals and placed them neatly side by side, and sat down next to them, trailing her feet in the water.  She watched the candles floating on the water.  She watched the stars flickering in the humid air.  Alex, her husband arrived and sat beside her, draping his fleece lined jacket over her shoulders, as the night cooled.  Together they watched the moon rise.

© David Jesson, 2018

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#FF: Colony

“As per the agreement, our colony will be mining beryllium only. Any secondary products will be turned over to your people – with a small fee for the processing of course.”

Beryllium’s quite rare, in the Universe as a whole.   In some ways it turns out that Earth-like planets are probably less rare than beryllium.  This one was pretty typical.  When the terraformers were finished, it would almost be a carbon copy, except that the continents would look funny compared to home.  We could afford to lose the 400,000 tonnes of beryllium that the X’ would mine.  It was an excellent deal.  The X’ were past masters of extracting minerals.  They could probably extract the beryllium without digging anything else up if they really wanted to, and it was only the beryllium they really wanted.

Nobody really knew what they did with all the beryllium they collected – ate it for all we knew about them.  There were some who said we shouldn’t let them have it, particularly if they were that desperate for it; others said we didn’t need it, so why shouldn’t we capitalise on the fact that someone else wanted something that would potentially be a bit of pain for us to sort out.   Berullium used to get used for all sorts of things, mainly as an alloying addition, or in on of its mineral forms such as the semi-precious beryl.  It got used in missiles, super-duper special air-frames, X-ray equipment and all sorts of other things but, with the exception of beryl, we’d found better ways than using an element that was a pig to extract and a pain in the…in the…neck to process, let alone recycle at end-of-life.   No, we were better off without it.

Without a doubt, the X’ would make back the fees that they paid for the right to set up this mining colony.  We’d probably get offered more than we really wanted in purified elements, but the X’ seemed to produce everything at six-9s purity and whatever they produced, we’d end up using or we could sell it at a premium on the galactic market.  For example, another element that isn’t used very much anymore – by humans at least – is gold.  24 karat gold was a touchstone for a long time, but even this was only three-9s pure.  To go from 99.9% to 99.9999% pure takes so much effort that nobody bothers very much.  But the X’ can turn out that without blinking.  So, they’ll charge a “processing fee” and we’ll get the materials that are going to help us turn this world into a home.

And that’s where I come in.  The X’ are pretty tame as far as aliens go: they’re basically humanoid, sensory appendages aren’t too wacky, no tractomorphic limbs, but the semi-prehensile ears are slightly disconcerting.  It would be a mistake to assume that they are human though; it would be a mistake to ascribe human priorities to their thought processes.  I like to think that we’d have included this in the contract anyway, but they always insist that we provide a team of inspectors.  What they don’t specify, but which we learned to be a priority after the first time, was that you need to have a few X’ specialist xenologists on the team.   They really don’t think the way that we do – or perhaps that should be the other way around: we don’t think like them.

There were a couple of points during my university years when I wondered if I’d made the right choices, whether I’d studied myself into a dead-end.  The X’ were something of curiosity.  On the face of it, we had lots in common, but they never seemed to want to talk to us.  Then we started to colonise planets which were rich in beryllium, as rich as any planets could be, and that’s when real first contact, or perhaps I should say first negotiations began.

Which is why I find myself here today.  If you were to ascribe a human drive to today’s visit, you’d say that they wanted to show off, that’s the only possible explanation for this demonstration of their engineering prowess, their elegant architecture, their overall better-than-human colony, right?  And this is why I’m here.  There’s a small group of us who can at least make an attempt at talking to the X’, trying to meet them half-way.  We don’t really understand them, and they don’t really understand us.  Let’s say it’s a religious function – it isn’t, they don’t have religions in the same way that we do, but it’s a useful shorthand – it’s not something that they’re doing because they want to, it’s something they have to do.

I’d done this enough times that I’d got the measure of it, without becoming blasé.  One of the things that the older generations of diplomats had impressed on us newbies in the Xenoc department was that it didn’t take much for things to go south fast.  There were frequent reminders of the events on Ross 128c – events that are still classified, so don’t ask me for the gruesome details.

Today was not to be a day when things went wrong, and to be honest we’ve yet to see something that knocks the X’ out of their urbane rut.  The Engineers did their thing, the scientists did theirs, and the Security people made a show of ensuring that the only thing the X’ really were taking was the beryllium that they’d done the deal for.

My turn: show time.

I’ve said that the X’ are similar to humans: this extends beyond physiognomy.  They share a – not belief exactly…acknowledgment?: they think in terms of the ancient elements of air, wind, fire and earth and so there is only one way to end this review:

“Is coffee not the summit of perfection?  Is the drinking of coffee not to be at peace with the Universe?”

“There’s probably some truth in that!” I grinned, ruefully.

© David Jesson, 2018


 

“Oh Muuuuum … that’s gross!”
“Someone’s got to deal with our waste product Michael and, because it’s such a nasty job, the pay is good, really good.”
“But still Mum … groooossss!”
“Sweetheart, I think it’s time we had the chat”
“Huh?”
“The one about your father …”
“How did we get from you shovelling poo at work to my father?
“Frankly, it’s not that big a leap …

curly cue

“Jan, thank you for talking to us at such short notice.”
“Not at all Principal. You know Michael’s schooling has always been of the highest importance to me.”
“Yes, that’s why we decided to speak to you straightaway, rather than leave this small concern festering.”

Jan groaned inwardly. She’d heard this nonsense so many times before, and she knew only too well what it meant. The underlying message was always present in her interactions with authority here on The Colony.

“Thank you Principal, I appreciate that. Has something happened? When last we spoke, you appeared to be satisfied with Michael’s focus and achievement levels.”
“Indeed we were Jan, but in the last few days … well, it’s like he’s had a complete personality switch.”
“Oh? He’s seemed the same at home.”
“He’s been disruptive in class, not handed in his home assignments, even though the work is already complete in his workbooks. When questioned about it, he said he felt there was no point to it any more.”
“Are you suggesting Michael’s suicidal?”
“No, no, not that Jan. I’m sorry to have startled you. The impression I’m getting from reports of his interaction with staff and pupils is that – for some reason – he believes his future is to become a deadbeat, so why should be bother to put in the work now.”

This time Jan’s groans were all too audible. She covered her face with her hands, fighting back the tears.

“Jan, please let us help you. I know your interactions with authority must’ve been challenging. But here at Colony High, we genuinely do admire you. Your work ethic, your high standards, your impeccable morals … honestly Jan, there isn’t a better parent. And the fact that you’ve done it alone, without support from a partner, from parents, from the authorities, makes us all the more admiring of what you’ve achieved. Please Jan, let us – let me – help you?”

When Jan raised her eyes back to the screen, the other members of Colony High’s governing body had been removed from the conversation. Only the Principal’s face remained on screen. In all honesty, he did look truly concerned … and unexpectedly kind.

“I told him the truth about his father.”
“Ah, I see. That can’t have been easy for you.”
“It wasn’t. But it sounds like I let my personal feelings show through which wasn’t my intention.”

A sound like a cross between a sob and a sigh escaped from Jan.

“Michael previously believed his father had died on the journey?”
“Yes. It seemed like the best way not to pass on the stigma until it was unavoidable.” “That decision’s served him well. He’s fully integrated with his peers and whilst not the model pupil, has long been well-regarded by staff and is even on track for the mentor programme.”

This time, there was no mistaking the sob.

“I shouldn’t have said anything. Why oh why did I let my annoyance and ego get the better of me?”
“There’s no need to be so hard on yourself Jan.”
“Yes Principal, I’m afraid there is. All this year, ever since he found out what I do for a living, he’s gone on and on about it. Calling it gross, ragging me, even making me feel guilty that it might reflect on him. Finally, I just snapped.”
“I suppose there’s no option for you to change jobs?”
“No Principal, there isn’t. In order to live here and to keep Michael at Colony High, I need to earn sufficient credits. Dealing with waste disposal is the only job which pays enough so I earn the same as other two-adult families. If Michael’s father had genuinely died on the journey, the Colony would be providing me with a pension to make up the difference. But as he choose to skip out on me – they don’t. They put me under a lot of pressure to return when they first found out. Truth be told, they’re still trying to persuade me to go – just now they use more subtle means. But you know all this. You’ve always judged Michael and me by a different standard to ‘normal’ families. You pick up on tiny transgressions immediately, stuff other ‘normal families’ get away with. I’m not blaming you mind, I’m sure it’s Colony policy as I experience it everywhere.”

Jan raised her eyes back to the screen. The Principal looked pensive.

“I’ve said too much haven’t I? I’d better start packing; the eviction order won’t be long in coming.”
“Jan, whatever makes you think that?”
“I’ve criticised the Colony. We both know dissenters aren’t welcome. Especially ones who don’t fit the ‘normal’ profile. The fact that it was him who deserted me and that I did nothing wrong doesn’t seem to matter – never has. I still get treated like dirt. Only good enough to handle the Colony’s waste matter. Know what? I chose to come here for a new life, but it seems our prejudices came with us.”
“Jan, this conversation has been private for some time now. There is no reason for its substance to be placed on the record, and I will not be doing so. Let me talk to Michael. I can help him to understand. I’ll tell him about being on track for the mentor programme and I’ll offer to be his personal mentor to keep him there. Colony High values both you and Michael. The Colony needs more people like you, regardless of what a few small-minded individuals in authority think.”
“Yes, but …”
“There’s a change happening Jan. Slowly but surely, good fair-minded people are achieving positions of authority. Thinking is changing, policy will follow. Will you let me help you?”

This time, when Jan looked up at the Principal on screen, she smiled through her tears.

“I will Principal. I will.”


© Debra Carey, 2018

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