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Deal 1012: Jupiter Bound

Spiral on my Mind 20:
Fish, Eye, Strength, axe, Transformation, fork, War, dog, and Unity

I’m having trouble imagining a harsher place to set up home than right here, right now. When we left, everyone was so sure about what we’d find. Too sure as it turned out. But exploration is like that. Sometimes you head to the top of the world, and all you find is a nice view and thin air. Sometimes you find storms larger than your homeworld that no one knew would be there.

Heh. “There”. As in “here”, exactly where we planned to settle.

Or in this case, exactly where we expected to pass over frequently in our final, stable orbit.

No one expected to be able to fish off the veranda. At least not from here. There was talk of a mission plan that involved a zeppelin that sought buoyancy at the one bar level. They were crazy enough to imagine that fishing might be possible. At least until they found themselves at the mercy of the wind at the one bar level, and got sucked into the eye of a storm.

There isn’t much you can make the shell of a zeppelin out of that would survive the eyewall of a Jovian storm.

That just seemed like a tragedy waiting to happen.

So our mission avoid the atmosphere as much as it can. Except apparently, it can’t. We’re in a polar orbit, inside what we assumed was the bounds of the magnetosphere. Observations and models of the mission were pretty clearly drawn up on the assumption that we could avoid the top of atmosphere, while still taking advantage of the magnetosphere to keep us safe from the worst of the solar wind.

That is critical to our long term survival. Too much exposure, and we’ll die. Slowly.

Touch the atmosphere with anything more than the gentlest of kisses and we’ll die. Quickly.

We’re equipped to spend years in orbit, decades according to the planners. Longer, even. We are a tool in storage here in the most unlikely of places. If things go well, we become a colony. We provide a valuable pool of self-sustaining humanity, far away from that single, fragile basket where all the rest of us live.

Why?

Well, several reasons leap to mind. First, there is always that threat of the mythical World War Three. Mythical, I say, because it is all too real, but simmering slow enough that no one has had the nerve to admit it. The field of glass west of Japan ought to have been a clue that something was up. I don’t know, really, we were already under way when that happened. How it happened, we might never know. No one will tell us. In any case, I suspect this is the fork of the trousers of time we find ourselves on. The war is real but unstated. We have arrived, and nothing is as we were led to expect.

Second, is the threat of a dinosaur killer. That basket that everyone else lives in is fragile, and there’s only the one basket. It wouldn’t take a very large rock to cause it irreparable harm. A rock that is rather small compared to many that are wandering around without leashes out here. But given what we are observing, that pathway seems less important right now. Or, perhaps, more important to humanity as a whole than to us as individuals.

We arrived expecting that there would be room for us between the magnetosphere and the atmosphere, and that the atmosphere was a dangerous place. We were part right. The atmosphere is a more dangerous place than we understood. I guess there had been little interest in the polar regions before our mission plan was finalized. The whole place just looked like a banded Easter egg of winds of various depths. We knew that the top of the clouds would be a smorgasbord of interesting chemicals, and that the atmosphere itself was mostly hydrogen and helium. We count on those traces to remain viable here in the long run.

But in the short run, we have a very narrow band we can sit in.

Or the dog barks.

And then its all for naught.

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Deal 1011: The Gift of Wonder

I’ve found some old photos of a visit to the fair, when I was younger, so much younger. I’d almost forgotten about being talked into the magician’s tent show that day. From the pictures, it must have been a two act show. As I sit here and remember, with pictures of the posters that promised the worlds of wonder to behold within as reminders, I recall the shows.

The first act blustered out on stage, and left the audience alternately confused and annoyed, the stinker. By which I mean he stunk. Somewhat literally stunk. He drug me on stage, and proceeded to taunt me at every turn. The balloon became a dog on his command, but then was promptly popped with a needle. He showed a magic mirror that could tell the future, but all it predicted for me was humdrum work at the factory. He didn’t even give me a choice! And when he finished with me, he just shooed me away like an unwanted puppy.

Sure, the things he did were astounding, but at every turn, he popped everyone’s sense of wonder and left the crowd sitting on their fingers. By that point I was ready to write it all off, and expected the other act to phone it in as badly as this one did.

But I stuck it out. I’d paid my hard-earned dime for my seat, after all!

I could tell the next performer was different just from the way he walked on stage. He had presence under the lights. The stage wasn’t all that fancy, but he knew he belonged on the best stages in the world, and acted as if this was one of them. His act exuded quiet strength at every turn, especially when dealing with gentler topics.

He produced a flock of birds from nowhere that swarmed around the audience and returned to the stage to line up and mutter amongst themselves. Each bird did a trick as it appeared. You could tell the birds respected him, and that he loved his birds as he tore them in two to double them, found them folded up in silk, and even lined them up, invisible, on his stick so clearly that when the stick vanished and a line of birds was suddenly beating their wings in its place, it took a moment to realize the stick was gone.

He seemed to single out each of the people humiliated earlier for a special moment. To me, he offered a choice among several jewelry boxes. The one I chose had an egg inside, which he broke open to reveal a gemstone on a chain. It was only as he was settling it around my neck that I realized it was my birthstone. Or at least a good simulation of it. He took that moment to carry my imagination outside of the tent on the boardwalk, and to see the opportunities that were hiding in all things mundane.

After his last bow, I could tell the whole audience was profoundly affected. Usually loud conversations about how the tricks were done are overheard in the aisles and lobby. But this time, the conversations I heard seemed less about tricks and more about what each had seen, and people felt. That schmuck from the opening act had left everyone cold. But this guy, well he had us all dreaming.

Years have passed, and I still occasionally rediscover that stone stored safely away in its cheap mount and slowly tarnishing cheap chain. With it, I’ve preserved the program, and some snapshots. And I cherish those memories.

Much of what he had promised had indeed come true. I had married well and happily. I made a difference in the world, and would someday (but not too soon!) leave it a better place than I found it. But in the end, all of that was incidental. As I sit here and reminisce, I can see how those moments of wonder opened my eyes to the wonders around me, and changed me for the better.

Now today, I get to offer a moment of wonder to an audience of my own.

I hope I can find my way to do for them what was done for me those many years ago.

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Deal 1009: Titan Lab 1, Day 25 Spring.

Time go for a stroll outside, so that means getting dressed for the weather. The extreme cold temperature is relatively easy to handle, my suit is well insulated and is provided with electric heating elements woven through the garment. Even though the atmospheric pressure is high, it is only moderately higher than back home. We actually keep our shirtsleeve atmosphere inside the station at a slightly higher pressure to reduce the effect of any pinholes or leaks.

The biggest problem is the lack of free oxygen outside. Without it we couldn’t breathe for long. With it, we need to be extremely careful about sparks since the lakes of hydrocarbons that drew us here are combustible if oxygen is provided. When stepping outside, we need to be careful not to carry any oxygen with us we don’t know about or risk a “combustion event” that could threaten our survival.

The mirrors in the locker room are not there for our hair. They are part of the ritual of donning the suit and preparing to exit. A last minute inspection for anything contaminating the suit’s exterior could be critical.

The frogs in the locker room are there for luck. The croak a friendly greeting when we return inside, and are always glad of a little attention before we head outside. They were packed as part of an experiment whose direct phases are long over. But since they’ve been exposed to too much of the exterior soil and trace compounds, we dare not eat them. So they have become mascots of sorts. They are the only living creatures we know of to have handled the soils of Titan with bare hands, after all.

And they lived to tell the tale. To croak about it, at least. Something the rats that have been exposed to it cannot say. They did croak, but in a far more metaphorical sense. So we take as few risks as possible, and go to great lengths to not track in any soils.

We’re at the beach here, at a shoreline of a hydrocarbon lake so large that the opposite shore is hidden below the horizon. Even on a clear day you cannot see the other station on the far shore. Naturally they can’t see us either. And that is good, we rarely speak and despite our remote location we are fiercely competitive.

We’re both here because of the vast lakes of hydrocarbons. These are a valuable fuel in this day and age. Here on Titan we can simply drag a bucket to lift a lifetime’s worth on Earth. And we do that to power the station, we burn it with carefully hoarded oxygen to generate much needed heat and electricity. We’re pretty sure the other team is doing the same, but we know so little about their mission. We think they may be below the surface much of the year, either in tunnels on the shore, or some have speculated, in pods located within the lake itself.

We don’t know, and have no time for the idle curiosity needed to find out. Our flight suits have the range to visit, but any attempt is strictly forbidden to us by our sponsors back home. I guess part of our story is the isolation, and friendly neighbors would ruin that plot point.

Besides we are competing to survive in a supremely hostile place. It is only logical to be concerned that our limited resources could be a tempting target of a raid. The reverse has certainly been contemplated.

So in spite of all that, and in spite of the risks involved, today it is time for a trip outside.

The undersuit goes on easily. The isolation layer goes on over that, with a light armour shell over the whole thing. I can move pretty naturally, and even survive a bounce or two off our normal surface conditions.

I’m more at risk over the lake, but we avoid the liquid and stay ashore as much as possible. One day, though, we’ll put out a boat. I’d like to see a sailboat plying the lakes, enjoying the views of the planet and its rings overhead, all while dodging lake-monsters and shoals. But that day is still far off. Today is just a stroll around the base to check our fenceline.

Fenceline that is more virtual than physical, of course.

The ground is dimly lit by the distant sun, but with a little artificial light I can see enough to do my job. But there are always shadows. And the shadows move, and there are stories of things that move with the shadows. Things that ought not to exist, but there is the evidence here below me. Something has disassembled a sensor stand and stolen some components. Something that can’t exist.

But the radio is still silent. We don’t really know if our opposition is even still alive. We expect they aren’t sure about us.

We don’t know for sure about the conditions back home, either. The radio from home has been silent for a long time now.

Nothing for it but to put what I can back together, and then get back inside before I meet it face to face.

To face.

Something is out here.

I can feel it watching me.

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Deal 1008: Standard Story

Once upon a time, the standard collection of three brothers were assigned the usual set of pointless tasks.

The oldest brother, being at all times the biggest and knowing himself to be the smartest, took no care at all. His task was completed swiftly, but without any wisdom was not completed well. Worse, his actions had offended the richest man in the kingdom, and he was soon served with a suit for his troubles. As the case progressed, it became clear to all that he had failed miserably.

The middle brother, often ignored, took up his lute and spent his time at music, letting his assigned task languish as he pursued his art. He spent many hours of many days in many inns and clubs. He chased elusive sounds. He chased a true love. He found many things to be happy about, and in time found himself married with a enough children to fill out his band. In due time, he died as he lived, a happy man surrounded by the joy he brought to all around him. And yet, as these stories go, he too must be judged a failure for he had ignored the arbitrary task that fate (or the Author) had assigned him.

The youngest brother, going by all that is expected in this sort of story, set out diligently to accomplish his task. From time to time, stories of his one brother or the other’s fate would reach him as he sought first the tallest tree in the forest, then the sharpest herring, then some knights with weird and rude habits of accosting people and setting tasks, and finally a decent shrubbery. Along the way he was plagued by rabbits, coconuts, and swallows. Eventually, stories came to be told of his exploits, and even the Author had to admit that by the arbitrary rules in play, he had succeeded.

Except for one thing.

Where was the bat?

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Deal 1007: Stubborn Swamp

Stubbornness has always run in my family. At every turn, we’ve always turned back and tried again. This has not always ended well, lots of effort has been sunk into goals doomed to fail. And yet, occasionally the persistence pays off.

I’ve wondered at times if there is a system to it, of if the universe is just random.

I know it isn’t rewarding the “pure of thought” or “pure of mind and body” because some of those who succeeded were clearly scoring low on those scales. I mean, “chicken racing”? Really?

And “frog jumping”? Again, really?

Especially when after setting up the contest, you rig it by feeding iron slugs to your opponent’s frog. Just to win a bar bet. And then when caught red handed, you parley that into an annual event?

Some kind of strange clumsy dumb luck is clearly at work, there. Failure leads to failure, as odd stepping stones through the swamp of failure to learn, failure to succeed in industry, and failure to buy property that isn’t nearly all swamp.

And yet, somehow, the stubbornness is admirable.

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Deal 1006: Tanka thrice

Shakes off each change as
if the very idea
were his to command
dangling rewards before the
universe is usual.

Siren’s call brought men
upon the shore to die but
never him because
the quest held no lure to cause
neglected duty to home.

With each croak, Bullfrog
reminds Raven, his wager
fails the test of time
where hero’s knowledge brought
The Fates to admit their loss.