December 2013: The Red Cloak

THE RED CLOAK
(The theme for December was Midwinter Solstice, and the elements were fear and not here, not now) 

red cloak

Warmth spread to his horn-nailed fingertips with the first gulp and he drank again greedily. Wonderful. Wonderful! Between the firebox walls, even the delicate web of flame flickering overhead, this excellent drink, and the cloak slung around his shoulders, he, who had thought warmth and life lost forever, was alive again. He fingered the cloak wonderingly. It was soft, fine, red, the most magnificent thing he had ever seen. As they brought him in, half-dead with the cold and fear, a young Galan in the startled crowd had pulled it off his own shoulders, and, at a nod from an older man, rushed over to fling it round him. The same youngster stood by him now, attentively waiting to top up his drink, beaming at him as though he were the most wonderful sight in the world. It wasn’t a look the traveller was used to, and he wondered uneasily whether he was being wooed. These primitive Northern folk, one heard strange tales—but on the other hand, one couldn’t be a traveller and turn down new experiences, and the lad was, for a Northerner, very taking. He looked back to the glossy-furred Elders smilingly watching him.

‘The cloak,’ he asked haltingly in Galan, ‘how make?’

‘As our Lady returns, we comb ourselves every day.’ The woman picked words he could understand. ‘The combings are spun, then dyed and woven into cloaks. There is only ever one red cloak, it is sacred to us.’

‘We have no thing like this.’ He marvelled. ‘But our fleece are short.’ By Southern standards he was shaggy, with a winter mane of which he was secretly proud, but he felt positively svelte among these hirsute people. His people thought the Northerners wild, with their flowing pelts, but the cloak was superb. He wondered what he could trade for it. Sacred wasn’t a word he knew, maybe it meant friendly, in which case they might even give it to him. ‘You said your—Lady?’

‘Our Lady of Summer. While she reigns, we grow our food, hunt, and raise our young. As the Winter Lord’s dark shadow grows we turn to learning and inventing. Every year, a day comes when there is no daylight at all, and on that day we light the fires, because fire is their link. We spend this day in worship, we sacrifice to him, and he lets the Lady take us back, day by day, to the summer. We do this also on the day there is no dark, because we crave the knowledge the Lord brings us.’

‘We had hear you superstitious!’ He was delighted to get the stories confirmed.

‘What else do Shorthairs—Southerners—say of us?’ one of the men asked with interest, and he felt a warm rush of affection for these friendly, lovely people.

‘We say,’ he confided, ‘that you primitive. Hostile. Must not to visit in winter.’ He shivered. ‘Now I know why. So cold!’

The Galan looked puzzled. ‘Are you cold?’

‘No, no, not now! I ready to die for cold when you find me. Now warm. I not ever see fire like this.’ He pointed a claw at the delicate tracery of flame above. ‘Beautiful. This drink, you call moonshine? I never taste drink like this. Make me warm, happy. Is good.’

‘We learn much during the reign of the Winter Lord,’ the old woman repeated. ‘Fire is precious, for two days a year only, for the rest of the cold time we use the heat that we stored during the months of the Lady.’

He was puzzled, but his Galan wasn’t up to pursuing an explanation and he returned to an earlier comment. ‘You say sac-ri-fice,’ he used the barely familiar word carefully. ‘That is to kill a beast, yes?’

‘No, for the Lord we draw lots. One must burn so the rest can live. This time, it was to be Gered.’ She gestured at the handsome lad who was so attentively caring for him, and he felt a shock of protest. This promising and charming young man? Barbaric!

‘Was to be, not now?’ He looked up and Gered bent forward eagerly, tilting the jug invitingly. Flame reflected, dancing, in his eyes.

November 2013: The Worst Time To Travel

THE WORST TIME TO TRAVEL
(The theme for November was The Unwanted Gift, and there were two elements , Travel, and Forgetfulness)

delayed flights

‘You look, if you don’t mind me saying so, absolutely fed up.’ The fat man, having thanked her for lifting her bag off the seat next to hers in the crowded waiting room, now seemed to want to make conversation and Carol sighed inwardly. But if it passed this interminable waiting time …

‘I hate travelling at any time. But most of all at this time of year.’

‘So why are you?’ He unwrapped a burger, his obvious anticipation undimmed by the soggy bun, flabby burger patty, and wisps of tired vegetable matter being revealed by the process, and she averted her eyes.

‘Oh – my daughter. She sent a note and a gift saying I had to open it immediately, and join them for Christmas. I’ve not been able to reach her, so there was nothing for it but to book. I don’t want it to be an emergency, but I’ll be a little cross if it isn’t. She knows how I hate to fly!’

‘Did you bring the gift?’ He lowered the sad limp burger, and looked interested. ‘What is it?’

‘You tell me.’ She produced what looked like a steel powder compact. ‘It does open, but there’s nothing inside. And anyway, who needs a powder compact these days? I’ve got a powder spray. She gave me that, too, last year, so she knows I don’t need a compact.’

‘Well, now,’ he said thoughtfully. ‘And those powder sprays – last year, you said? But they only came on the market a few months ago.’

‘Yes, I know, but she works with new inventions. Did you ever watch that TV show, a Town Called Eureka? A bit like that. No direct contact with the outside world, that’s why I couldn’t reach her.’

‘And that’s where you’re going?’

‘Yes.’ She eyed him warily, suddenly aware she’d said more to this total stranger than she should. Holly had asked her never to discuss anything about the Centre.

He gave the compact back and took a bite of his burger, and she blinked. Just for a second, as he bit into it, the patty had looked thick and delicious, topped with crisp lettuce, juicy tomato and a generous supply of fried onion rings – the sort of burgers she’d made for Holly and Nicholas, when they were young. The impression was so vivid she could actually smell it, and her mouth watered automatically – then he was chewing, and for all his obvious enjoyment, the portion left in his hand looked as tired and limp as it had before. She looked away politely and focused on the tired, irritable and fretful passengers around them, staring with dulled eyes at the departures board which flickered again. ALL FLIGHTS DELAYED.

‘Not much Christmas spirit, is there?’ He really was a very rosy man, against that snow-white hair and tidy beard. ‘Tell me, did you ever ask her for anything in particular?’

‘No. Well.’ She laughed despite herself at the memory. ‘I asked her not to expect me to travel ever again until they invented a teleporter! I’d forgotten that. So did she, obviously.’

‘She didn’t.’ His eyes lit with laughter. ‘Carol, for security reasons she sent the instructions separately, and they got stolen. You go find a private corner, open the compact, and tell it to take you to Holly.’

She stared at him and he twinkled merrily.

‘I’m by way of being in the Christmas business, Carol. And I love the way your family names reflect my traditions. Now off you go and have a wonderful holiday with your family.’ With that he started to laugh, an old-fashioned belly laugh. ‘I’ve got some planes to sort out!  Ho ho ho!’

 

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I know, I know, cheesy. But it was the winning entry for that month so go ahead, laugh.

October 2013: Back to Basics (William’s in this one)

BACK TO BASICS
(The theme for October was Deception, and the element was Fire.)

firepot

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.’

 

September 2013: The Recruiters

THE RECRUITERS
(The theme for September was Humour, and the element was Outer Space.)

recruiters

‘I’m afraid it’s out of the question.’  The Daolan looked apologetically around the four men facing him.

Admiral Hansen leaned forward. ‘Because we’re from Earth?’

The yellow-skinned alien hesitated, then inclined his head. Humans have met many strange variations among the intelligent space-travelling races, but Daolans, acknowledged as the finest navigators of all, are odder than most, with a gelatinous body shape that can change at will. The Daolan had braced himself into a sitting position with four pudgy tentacles, and used two more to make gestures. The upper part of his sac-like body was fringed with silky follicles, which moved of their own accord as though sniffing the air.

Admiral Hansen looked round at the others, then back. ‘Gorman, we brought you here at some expense for this interview, you must have known we would be asking you to join our crew. I’ll be frank—we were really excited that you agreed to meet us at all, so this is a great disappointment. I accept you won’t take the job. I would like you to explain why, because yours is not the only race keeping their distance. ‘

Gorman shrugged, his follicles rippling, but answered honestly. ‘Earth people have already accrued a reputation for a certain, uh, oddity. I wanted to meet you, because I didn’t believe it could be as disturbing as I’d heard, but . . . you say things that don’t make sense, then look at each other and pull faces. Sometimes you even make odd noises. It is—unsettling. Each voyage lasts at least twenty epochs; I think in your calendar that translates to a year. To be unsettled for that long would be deeply distressing, so I have to say no.’

‘He means joking and laughing!’ Smith realized.’ I once tried to tell a Gannan a pub joke, changing it to a Gannan, a Doonong  and a human entered a bar—he looked at me as though I was deficient.’

‘What, you guys don’t laugh? So a pompous, very dignified Daolan slips on a banana peel—okay, okay, forget banana peel, slips—and is suddenly on his back with his legs waving in the air—you don’t laugh?’ Jackman smirked and looked round for support.

The Daolan looked disgusted, all his nostrils pinching. ‘I’m afraid you just made my point.’

Hansen shook his head at Jackman, annoyed. ‘So, your children—do they play? How do you know when they are enjoying themselves?’

‘They jiggle, and their follicles vibrate. Sometimes their tentacle ends change colour.’

‘And does that disgust you?’ Hansen persisted.

‘Of course not.’

‘But it would be unsettling to anyone who wasn’t a Daolan.’

‘Yes—which is why our young put aside such things when they are of an age to meet other races, at least in public. It is something entirely private.’

‘Well, our smiling and laughing is the equivalent of your jiggling and vibrating. Does that help?’

The Daolan pondered, then nodded. The admiral scrawled quickly on a piece of paper and handed it over. ‘Would you at least look at our offer?’

The Daolan took it delicately in a tentacle and read in silence. Then to their astonishment he started to shudder, and the follicles on his upper body started to vibrate.  The tentacle holding the paper turned blue, then purple, and the admiral grinned fiercely.

‘Oops,’ he remarked, ‘I gave you the wrong paper. Here’s the real offer. I think you’re going to fit in just fine.’