BACK TO BASICS
(The theme for October was Deception, and the element was Fire.)
The brief, three years ago, had been electrifying. Interstellar travel was a reality, with the first exploration ship due to launch in five years. Nick Taylor had been one of three thousand experts pulled onto the project, and the years since had been the most exciting, exhausting, alarming, and thrilling years of his young life.
His section covered crew wellbeing—even at interstellar speed, the closest promising-looking planet was four years away. The ship would transport a team of experts, spend a year on the planet—all going well, of course—and return. Most of the passengers would travel in stasis, since it wasn’t logistically possible to provision up to ten years for so many people, but the minimum crew of nine—three at a time on duty, twenty-four /seven—was their main worry. How could nine people be kept from going stark staring mad in eight years, during the hours they were neither working nor sleeping?
The section personnel were gathered today for an update on that vital issue, rehashing the many suggestions that had been tabled—revolving all the personnel in and out of stasis, or choosing only crew who shared a single language; loading ship databanks with thousands of films and books; hurriedly inventing a Voyager-style holodeck. That one never drew many laughs; it was so obviously what was needed. Entertaining a crew, even a multilingual one, wasn’t the impossibility; relaxing them, however—the five volunteer teams living in trial conditions were all stressed almost to incoherence within months.
Overall coordinator Tom Burkett tapped a pen against his glass for attention, and the heated conversations died. ‘You’ll remember at the original brief we invited some SF writers, in the hope they could think outside the box on this? We’ve got a presentation from William Robertson coming up next. We’ll go through now.’
William Robertson! Nick had been a fan all his teens, still was if he had time to read, and craned eagerly over the heads of the people walking in front of him for his first close-up glimpse of the author.
Robertson was taller, heavier, and older than anyone in the room; he nodded unsmiling greetings as they entered the room, where nineteen chairs were grouped around a steel fire bowl. Fire? Nick took his place with the others, and Robertson, leaning on one of his trademark sticks, bent to touch a lighter to the bowl.
Flames leapt and Burkett spoke up. ‘No talking. Relax and watch.’
This was stupid—there couldn’t be an open fire on a spaceship!—but Nick watched obediently. His frayed nerves eased; he could smell wood burning, and an elusive faint trace of something else. Someone, presumably Robertson, threw a chunk of rock salt on the fire, which sparked and burned blue. There was something else . . . people, shadows against shadows, and the plaintive strains of a harmonica. Horses snorted nearby, and stars burned huge in the night sky. One of the men threw a log on the fire in a flurry of sparks—
Nick flinched, and was back in his seat.
‘How the hell did you do that?’ he exclaimed involuntarily. The others were looking equally startled, and Robertson grinned into his tidy beard.
‘Since we first learned to summon fire,’ he rumbled, unexpectedly Scots, ‘it has been our comfort, our safety, our dreamy pleasure, triggering our most primal feelings of wellbeing. I released a permitted narcotic—milder than a wee dram—to prime you. The crew will have the same narcotic. Imagination—memory—you’ll have all experienced summat different. And will, every time you look into the flames, no matter how often you look. Our trial team use it a few times a week, and their stress levels have dropped back well below concern levels.’
He swung his stick at the fire pot, which flickered as the stick went straight through the image.
‘It’s not real?’ Ann Moore wasn’t the only one to gasp, but she was the only one to speak.
‘Och, it’s real, burning right now, and it will for the next two years. Every flicker, every added log, all captured on holographic film for the journey. Smoke and mirrors, ken? Smoke and mirrors.’