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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 1001: The other side

It is safe here. It is safe here. It is safe here.

I keep telling myself that. It is safe here.

I don’t like it here. It is safe here.

I don’t like it here. The tea isn’t good. No room. I need space. It is safe here.

But I am strong. I will try to stay and be safe.

I go outside. It is safe here. But I don’t like it. And then, the mirror. The mirror frightens me. I run back inside, frantic. It is safe here. I don’t like it here.

Food is plentiful. I am warm. I avoid the mirror. It is safe here.

But I must go. I don’t like it here.

I imagine I can be safe somewhere else. It is safe here.

I sneak away. I don’t look at the mirror. It is very quiet as I sneak away.

Too quiet. Nervous in the quiet. I rustle. Quiet. It was safe there.

I am stuck on the verge. It was safe there. I don’t like it there.

This is the edge. This is the choice. I am safe there but I don’t like it there.

So I can cross the edge. Cross it. Cross it now. Fast. Fast. Cross it fast. The possibilities are limitless.

I was safe there. But I was captive. I’m not safe here.

Why did I go?

I am free.

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Deal 994: Mirrored in Mire

From humble beginnings and all that rot. Roses growing from manure. Right.

Those are all nice ideas for a story. But in my world. Heh.

The mirror has been on that wall for a long time. No one now living can quite explain why it’s there at the back of a stable. But there it stays. It has resisted most attempts to remove it, some from people who sunk low enough to try to steal it in the night. Most who attempted to steal it were found wandering around in a daze, with no explanation of what happened.

I did see it hit square on by a thrown shoe once. It didn’t break. I felt more than saw the shoe go past, then flinched as I realized I was about to get an eye full of shards of glass. But it didn’t break. Strangely, the shoe was nowhere to be found.

The farrier was rather upset about that missing shoe, and tried to stick it on me. As the one on the receiving end of it, that didn’t sit well at all. But I’m no one important. I’ve just been around the place, done my time.

I’ve tried wandering afield, but it never lasts. Stable boys find reasons to push me along. Innkeepers don’t want me where the guests might see. Farmers seem to worry that their milk might curdle or their cheeses get ideas. I guess they fear that some cheese with ambition will succeed, and then they will find themselves on the wrong side of the law. I don’t really know, they run me off before it gets that far.

So after I while, I find myself drawn back here.

Back to the manure pile.

And the mirror behind it.

Clear that my humble beginning will be my humble end.