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#FlashFictionFriday: Valentine Run (part 2 of 3 Parts)

What has gone before: Part 1 of Valentine Run can be found by clicking on this link.


Ten hours later, Reina slowly woke up in her quarters, pondering how she’d gotten there. Finally, she gave up thinking about it and staggered the two steps to the hygiene unit. Covered in goose bumps, she stood under the lukewarm stream, lathering and rinsing as quickly as possible. Toweling herself dry, she hurried into a clean jumpsuit and fluffed her damp hair with her fingers, then brushed her teeth.

Quickly straightening her quarters, she exited. Image, Reina. Image is everything, she cautioned herself. Portraying herself as a vibrant, well-rested woman, she smiled and greeted everyone. Her manner proclaimed that today was just another day and nothing to worry about. The crew knew as well as she did who hadn’t come back, but they needed to know she was not worried about the situation, that she believed the captain had it under control.

She stopped in the mess hall, grabbing a nutri-bar and a cup of coffee, chatting with the staff there. Then she continued on to the science lab—a closet one meter by one meter on the same corridor as the captain’s ready room. Since the death of the science officer when they first entered Alzhaa space, the room had become her domain. Laying her palm on the key-pad, she entered, so preoccupied she didn’t even hear the door as it whisked shut behind her. The bank of holoscreens sprang up around her immediately, seemingly eager to serve.

Rotating the stool out from under the console, she began accessing her random notes, enjoying the sound of her antique-style keyboard rattling as she moved information from screen to screen. She loved her keyboard and its familiar clatter. It had been trendy to own one when she was in college, and she’d grown attached to hers. Keying on the holoboards just didn’t have the same feel.

Actually, like so many things in space, they had no feel to speak of. Having spent so much of her life in space, Reina Jacobs needed to feel things. The quest for feeling, the desire to truly experience things drove her, more than anything else.

She sat looking at the screens, seeing nothing, still thinking about the situation. Finally, she pulled her thoughts together, formulated her conclusions and recommendations, and uploaded the information to the captain, along with her final summation. She signed it “Professor R. Jacobs, Acting Science Officer.”

She did this instead of chasing Ladeaux’s very charming ass, much as she would have liked to, or hanging out, getting drunk, and talking girl stuff with Cora, whom she’d grown to love like a sister. Instead, she avoided them both in her off-hours except for meals. Ladeaux, damn his warm blue eyes and warmer lips, understood quite well. Cora didn’t, but she had never been in the military.

And her lack of military training was the crux of the current problem.

As long as they were flying, she and Ladeaux would not cross the line by allowing themselves to fall into an affair while they were working together. For pilots, it was an error that could be fatal.

The blurring of the line between friendship and professional behavior was the problem Reina now had regarding the captain. During the first part of the voyage, she’d been a bored passenger and was drawn into an instant friendship with the charismatic Captain Cora Laine. They drank together, played poker, worked out, and joked the way equals with a lot in common often do. They had become—God forbid—friends the way normal women did.

Unfortunately, they weren’t normal women and weren’t equals any longer. Cora was still the captain, but now Reina was a sled-jockey doubling as science officer and was under Cora’s command. If this miserable journey had gone as planned, Professor Reina Jacobs would have been long gone, safely in her new job with both feet on the ground. She never would have served as her best friend’s subordinate when she was so unfit to be anyone’s subordinate.

Cora was smart and savvy, but she had no combat experience and simply did not see the situation and the solution the way a battle hardened tactician did. She saw her pilots as people, not as the tools they were.

When the Alzhaa had finally whittled the able-bodied sled-jockeys down to twelve, five less than it took to fully man the Saracen’s gunsleds, Captain Laine had been forced to conscript her and two other crew members who were former pilots.

Reina’s gut-instincts in the cockpit were still as sharp as ever, and her prosthetic leg was as good as anyone’s natural leg, maybe even better. It was fortunate they were older sleds, much like the ones she’d spent so much time piloting while in the service, and she’d fallen back into the old routine easily.

Cursing the futility of her thoughts, she switched the screens to show the notes on her main research project. Immediately focusing on the problem, Reina began right where she’d left off two days earlier to go and shoot at the Alzhaa. That was how she preferred to spend her waking moments, writing the justifications and preparing her paper on bioengineering common human food crops to adapt to a terraformed environment.  If she ever arrived on Valentine, she intended to present it to the scientific community at large.

Later at dinner, Reina sat in a quiet corner of the mess with Ryo and Ladeaux, eating the rather unusual meal the mess staff had put together for them. Their chef, Ludmila Borisova, commonly known as Cookie, still had rations, but she was going to have to be creative if they were going to stretch until they made it to Valentine.

By silent agreement, they talked about everything but the Captain’s intransigence in regard to their current situation. Ladeaux and Reina, both experienced military officers, had tacitly made it clear they would not participate in any sort of discussion that would undermine the captain’s authority. It would do no good to stir up the rest of the crew because at the very least, the way it was now they were all pulling together.

Brandon Ladeaux was tall, his hair was still mostly dark, and he was somewhere near her age. He exuded the same confidence as Reina, that of a lifetime spent successfully cheating death. Ladeaux was the last of the complement of pilots who’d originally left Miranda.

Ryo was a recent addition to the team and was only on his third run as a sled-jock. “I don’t get why they won’t let us leave. We’re transporting cargo, that’s all.”

“How they think is a complete mystery to me.” Ladeaux grinned. “That’s the dilemma though. The Alzhaa don’t understand us at all and don’t want to. They don’t care what our problem is. They just want us to stay the hell away from their systems.”

Finally, Ryo nodded. Ladeaux took a few bites, and Reina said, “The trouble is, the Alzhaa are so alien even the other methane breathers find them impossible to communicate with.”

“It sucks anyway,” said Ryo, his relative youth and inexperience showing. “We’re an asteroid-barge, for God’s sake. It’s easy to see the Saracen is a small planet, not a war-bird. We’re packed to the gills with cargo, not heavy weapons. The Saracen has never even transported weapons between our own systems.”

“I suspect they’re making a point, and we’re being targeted simply to drive it home to both Miranda and Earth,” said Ladeaux. “They don’t want our sort here, and they don’t want us to ever forget it. This is the last shipment of assistance Valentine will ever get.”

Reina nodded her agreement, idly admiring Ladeaux’s rugged profile. The man exuded animal magnetism.

Glancing slyly at Reina, Ladeaux said, “How is it going with Flores, Ryo? You two seem to spend all your free time together.” His eyes twinkled at Ryo’s sudden flush.

The younger man looked down at his cup. “I keep having these random daydreams about settling down with her and starting a family, maybe even on Valentine.”

Ladeaux nodded. “I think you should.”

“I’m going to spring a proposal on her when we’re done with this mess,” Ryo admitted. “I don’t really have anyone back on Miranda anymore, and she doesn’t either. It’s only been five years for me, but it’s time I spent in space between Earth and Miranda. My niece just became a grandmother.”

“None of us has anyone after we’ve been at this job for long. We outlive our planet-bound families and friends by several generations. At least I certainly have.”  Reina pushed down a pang of grief for the loss of her friendship with the feisty captain. “I’m happy for you and Ramona. Relationships are hard to sustain when you’re never planetside.” She paused and then said, “If I may give you some advice: don’t let space separate you. Find a job planetside.”

“Yeah, that’s the trick though, isn’t it,” replied Ryo morosely. “My skills don’t really run to planetside occupations. I’m a good mech, and I’m learning how to be an adequate pilot, but I suspect the colonists have their choice of applicants.” He shrugged and added, “If I hadn’t been the only one left with a ticket to fly when they conscripted me, I wouldn’t even have this to put on my resume. I guess this farce has had one positive effect.” He laughed, but it was hollow. Ryo knew the only reason they had tapped him to be a sled-jockey was no one else was available.

“They’ll always need mechanics for the shuttles. I’ll help you find a job when we get there,” offered Ladeaux. “I’ll be staying on since I’m retiring after this run. I have a job lined up piloting shuttles from the moon base to planetside.” He looked out of the corner of his eye to see Reina’s reaction. “It’s my first planetside job in thirty-nine years.”

Reina had idly wondered if Ladeaux would retire and stay on Valentine after this trip was behind them, and he’d just made her day. Still, although her eyes betrayed her interest, she didn’t otherwise indicate anything she felt.

After dinner, Reina did her usual stint in the flight simulator, practicing battle maneuvers. Ladeaux’s tests were complicated, realistic, and in some cases, harrowing. Following that, she showered, then lay on her bunk in her quarters, drinking the brew of the week and reading her mail. It was all from her new staff, detailing the arrangements they were making for her arrival.

As she clicked through her missives, she realized she was stopped only a month away from Valentine if they were to light up the drive, but years away if they had to idle along as they were doing. The Saracen was a cargo ship and not set up to be self-sufficient so the crew and passengers would starve long before they got there. Now they were down to three fighter pilots, there was the distinct possibility Reina would never have the opportunity to meet her new staff or put her antique book collection on those lovely shelves in her new study.

The tap on her door made her look up. “Enter.”

The door whisked open, and Cora entered. She dropped into the desk chair. “I know what you’re doing. You’re separating yourself from me so when you get yourself killed, I’ll still be pissed as hell at you.”

“You still don’t understand. This isn’t about you or me. This is about expedience and what is best for the Saracen. Fraternization is an unduly familiar personal relationship, and it interferes with getting things done in the most advantageous manner. I have to do it.” She clicked her mail off, set the notebook aside and sat up. “You have no combat experience. Your attempt to protect your marines is compromising your mission. Friendship has no place here, Captain, though you are the best friend I ever had. I just know what has to be done, and you refuse to accept it.” Reina’s words felt harsh as she said them. “Since you’re here, you may as well at least drink the last of this week’s vintage. I’ve already had more than enough.”

“I thought you’d like to know I’ve come to a decision.” Cora poured a short shot into the glass Reina handed her. “Per your recommendation to Ladeaux and his complete agreement with your assessment of the situation, I’m taking the Saracen in to Valentine system tomorrow, no matter what. I’ll either berth her in orbit there until I get enough fuel and supplies to take her home the long way, or we’ll find another way home. You and Ladeaux both assure me I can get her away clear if I run like hell now.”

Reina nodded, not trusting herself to speak.

Cora swirled her glass, watching the amber moonshine as it eddied. “It’s the only choice. I can’t take the Saracen back to Miranda system through Alzhaa space right now, which is what the plan was. The Saracen never had the ability to go around the Alzhaa if she’s carrying a full payload. But now, thanks to all the delays, if I were to turn back to Miranda, we wouldn’t have enough food to make it even half the way home. Hell, we may not have enough to make it to Valentine on full rations, even though we have only half the crew left. It’s eighteen hours to the safe zone on a dead run and another month to Valentine. But since I can’t go back, I must go forward.”

The captain stood and walked to the door and then turned back. “La Fontaine died an hour ago.” Cora chuckled bitterly. “Here we are on an asteroid stuffed to the rafters with the most modern medicines and medical technology our civilization has to offer, and we still can’t figure out how to keep a woman alive when her guts are shredded.” She sighed, a gesture of resignation. “Only three of you pilots are left. I hope you’ll be enough. Ladeaux is putting together the final plan as we speak.”

Reina nodded as a feeling of relief swept over her.

Cora continued. “We’ve been idling along as fast as we can since yesterday, building up speed preparatory to slingshot out of here. Since the Saracen’s drive signature is what seems to attract the Alzhaa, we can’t really go until the sleds are all in place to cover our ass. Once we have your birds up and flying, we’ll light up the drive and run like hell, and won’t stop for anything.

“Maintenance tells me the fuelcels are failing to hold a complete recharge. There’s little room for horsing around. If you want to actually get to Valentine Station, stick to the plan.”

“The fuelcel issue has me worried too,” Reina agreed. “I’ll do my best, I promise, but what’s the point of all the lives that have been lost over this if we can’t protect the Saracen from some suicidal Alzhaa whacko?” Reina’s gaze was stone cold sober. “I spent thirty-three years in the service. Every single day I knew what I was there for. It was my job, my duty, and my privilege to protect our people in situations like this. Trust me, Captain. I am prepared to do what it takes to get you  and your cargo to Valentine.”

Cora just nodded curtly, the door shutting behind her.


Valentine Run, Part Two, © Connie J. Jasperson 2011-2017 All Rights Reserved

Valentine Run is dedicated to my parents who loved nothing more than a good space opera, in memory of those hours we spent gathered around the flickering light of the TV, watching the original Star Trek.

Cover Art © Innovari | Dreamstime.com – Space Cruiser Spaceship Photo

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#FlashFictionFriday: Valentine Run #serial (part 1 of 3)

The enemy, a crippled Alzhaa cruiser, now at two hundred units distant and closing fast, appeared to be preparing to ram the Saracen.

“No….” Feeling almost as if she were dreaming, Reina Jacobs watched as Baker deliberately intercepted the enemy’s volley meant for the Saracen, inserting his sled in the path of the enemy’s bombardments. The rainbow sparkles as his sled disintegrated mesmerized her for a moment.

Reina  was perfectly lined up for what had to be done but was too close to do it safely.

Whatever safely meant any more.

Hopefully, her shields could take what she planned, or she’d be joining Baker. Gauging the charge left in her fuelcels, she closed on the enemy’s stern. They’d proven unable to see sleds as small as hers coming in so close to their cruisers, one of the few advantages the Mirandan fighters had. The little shimmy as her shields brushed theirs had surprised her. Hopefully, if they felt it, the Alzhaa would assume it was debris from Baker’s sled.

Now traveling as fast as her sled would go, Reina was directly behind the Alzhaa ship, on their tail and closing. As soon as she was lined up, she pressed the firing button, launching her torpedo into the odd-shaped opening that seemed to be a vent of some kind for the craft’s propulsion system.

She was too close behind them and traveling too fast, with nowhere to escape. The enemy boat fragmented around her, and she put everything she had into driving through the debris. A sudden, loud clanking noise and a slight shudder of the craft indicated something had gotten through the shields, which flared as most of the bits of flotsam and jetsam that had once comprised a fully crewed Alzhaa cruiser pulsed away from her now partially crippled bird.

The gunsleds were normally quiet, with little ambient sounds to speak of, so noise of any kind when you were in space was bad. A red light appeared on the holodash of the console and Reina noticed it was growing warm in the cockpit. The tang of ozone flavored the air being vented into her suit. The air cleared, and the red light stopped flashing as the backup system came online.

She was alive and would make it back to the Saracen, which surprised her. The chatter on the comsender continued, pilots verifying positions, and Ladeaux answering, “meet at the rendezvous,” and then “Damn, Jacobs… good one.”

“Yeah. Made it, alright. I got winged though. It took out my ventilator, but the backup is still functioning.”

Something about the Alzhaa ships inhibited their implants, making normal head-to-head communications impossible, so Baker and Ladeaux had cobbled together old-time communication gear, which worked well enough over short distances. The headsets with an earpiece and a small microphone were awkward, and you had to listen hard sometimes, to discern who was speaking.

Sitting in the pilot’s bucket, Reina usually felt nothing. Other than the brush with the underbelly of the Alzhaa cruiser and the impact of the debris, the ride had been as smooth as if she’d been sitting in her berth.

Her headset made a hissing noise, followed by the voice of the Captain, Cora Laine. She rattled off an unintelligible string of epithets, the gist of which meant the Saracen was still waiting for Reina.

“Gunsled 12 returning to base,” Reina responded. “La Fontaine… did she make it back?”

“Yes.” Cora sounded angry. “Your concern is duly noted, Jacobs. My ready room—immediately upon your return.”

“Aye, Captain.” As she prepared to return to the Saracen, she listened to the chatter, a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach as she heard La Fontaine had arrived back but was not expected to survive her injuries.

Her headset crackled again, this time with the voice of Lt. Ryo. “Baker… La Fontaine… they got Morgan too. We’re in trouble now.”

As if they hadn’t been in trouble all along. The pilots had just spent twenty-two hours periodically fighting off suicidal Alzhaa with no progress, but at least the Saracen had not been forced to retreat this time. Still, they hung there, staring at the edge of safety, regularly being hammered to death.

The Alzhaa cruisers were much larger than the little Mirandan gunsleds, more like giant in-system liners. Their cruisers were all-out war machines with highly advanced armaments the Mirandans didn’t have, but they were lumbering space-tubs compared to the nimble little gunsled.

The advantage the Alzhaa had was in their superior armaments. Compared to a Mirandan torpedo, their magnetic-field bombards were ship destroyers. The little Mirandan gunsled made up for that lack with speed, maneuverability, and human adaptability. The Alzhaa never altered their strategy no matter what, so the Mirandan defenders had capitalized on those advantages as much as they could. Nevertheless, the Alzhaa weaponry was gradually whittling them away.

Reina maneuvered her gunsled into the open slot on the Saracen’s maintenance deck and ran through the shutdown protocol. She could see so far only she, Ladeaux, and Ryo had made it back in one piece and that worried her because as far as she knew, she was the last to return.  Ladeaux is back, she thought with a peculiar sense of relief. She felt more than just professional admiration when she thought about Ladeaux.

God help them if Ladeaux failed to return from one of these little jaunts because he was the only person left that the captain would listen to. She desperately didn’t want to think about the others who didn’t make it. Nine pilots left this place this morning. Now we’re down to three.

The canopy snapped open, and she disconnected from lifesup. Reina stood reeling with exhaustion as the mechs swarmed the gunsled, shouting instructions and opening up the guts of the beast before she was even fully out of it. She took a moment to pull herself together before she jumped down, thanking the men and women who tended her gunsled. Forcing herself to appear confident and full of energy, she walked to the lift, the image of the iconic sled-jock.

What the crew saw and admired was the retired colonel, full of life and, despite the fact she was worth six of anyone else, forced into an early retirement over an artificial leg.

Maintaining the image was as much for the crew, who desperately needed to see it, as it was for her own vanity. “No one wants to see a tired, bitter, old woman” was her motto, and after a lifetime of habit, she never appeared anywhere public without her veneer of pleasant self-assurance. She refused, however, to answer to Colonel, preferring to live in the present. Reina was now a leading researcher and professor and proud of what she’d accomplished over the last ten years of immersing herself in her chosen field of plant biosymetry, a branch of terraforming.

She was amazed how quickly those ten years had washed away over the last weeks with her abrupt return to active duty, washed away as if they had never been. She’d fallen into the role of sled-jockey as if she’d never fallen out of it.

Her boot heels rang on the metal deck as she headed toward the captain’s ready room. Pasting a smile on her face, she entered the room fully prepared to be dressed down and not feeling at all humble or contrite.

The captain sat surrounded by holoscreens, bloodshot eyes absorbing everything, fingers flying over the holoboard while snapping instructions. Her headset lay on the desk, as with the Alzhaa interference no longer in play, normal communications had resumed. She paused, turning her face to the door as Reina entered the room.

Loosening the collar of her shipsuit, Reina sprawled in the lone chair without being asked.

“What was that all about, Jacobs?” Cora’s harsh voice grated. “Just what the hell were you doing there in the first place? Your instructions were to clear the space and return to the Saracen.”

Reina was tired and didn’t give a damn about the niceties but they had to be maintained or all her work trying to impress the importance of the separation of rank upon her friend would be wasted. “Captain, I had no intention of disobeying your instructions. However, after the enemy took out Baker and La Fontaine, I was the only one positioned to run interference for you. Please, re-run your holos, sir, and watch the remaining cruiser.”

Cora murmured “Replay trace 67329aR,” and the holos sprang to life between the captain and Reina.

Standing, Reina pointed as she spoke. “As you can see here and here, Baker and Lafontaine’s joint attack crippled the remaining Alzhaa cruiser. Still, the enemy ship was running on momentum and travelling fast. Your ass was in their sights, and they weren’t going to let you go. Their captain made the only decision possible, at least the one I would have made, and used whatever power was available to gain even more speed.

“By my calculations, they were out of those magnetic-field bombards they use so well. From my vantage point, I could see the enemy setting up to ram you. I knew what had to be done. Where would you be now if I had stuck to the plan? I can assure you this ship was not built to stand up to those sorts of negotiations. If they’d managed to blow their drive on impact, even the mighty Saracen would have disintegrated. An asteroid-barge is a tough pile of rocks, but in the face of that kind of detonation—no. You and your crew would be nothing but dust and sparkly shit.”

Captain Laine glared at her but said nothing.

A wave of exhaustion caught Reina by surprise, and sitting, she leaned her elbows on the desk, resting her head in her shaking hands. She looked at Cora through her fingers, seeing her angry and uncertain of what to say. Aware of what she must look like, with her iron-gray hair plastered to her skull with sweat, Reina suppressed a sigh. Looking like a tired old woman wasn’t a confidence-inspiring way to appear if she wanted to sway the Captain.

Still, Reina had to tell Cora the truth, to try to get her to see reason. “You’re a good captain, but the Saracen is a cargo ship. You’ve never dealt with this kind of situation before. We’re losing this fight because we’re playing their game.” She was so tired she could barely control the trembling. She was running on adrenaline these days, but what choice did the pilots have? “You’ve got to make a run for it, Cora. It’s your only hope. I think we can cover you so you can get to Valentine safe-zone if you will just commit to running as hard and fast as the Saracen will go and letting us do what we do. Let Ladeaux draft you a plan since you doubt me, but please take my advice on this.”

Cora bristled, hearing only the implication she might be incompetent. Despite her indignation, she poured a synthjuice and handed it to Reina. “I expect compliance, even from you. You bloody well better follow orders like any other sled-jock, or you’ll sit it out in your freaking quarters.” She looked at Reina, shaking her head. “Get some rack time now, or I’ll have you confined to sickbay until you do. The doctor has a prescription for you, so stop by sickbay and pick it up. Then go to your quarters and swallow it like a good girl. Do you understand?”

Reina looked at the juice and then knocked it back. Her gaze met the captain’s, and she nodded. “Aye, sir. I do need the rack time. But I’m not a marine anymore—that part of my life is long over. I’m tired and re-tired, you know? And now that La Fontaine and Baker are out of it, we’re in a bit of a pickle. For my team, we had it set up so they did the dirty work. The other teams are also decimated—I counted only two other flyable ships besides mine in the hanger.”

Captain Laine sighed. “I hear what you’re telling me, Professor Jacobs. Ladeaux told me the same thing. Now get out of here and get some rack time.”


Valentine Run, Part One, © Connie J. Jasperson 2011-2017 All Rights Reserved – Dedicated to my parents who loved nothing more than a good space opera, in memory of those hours we spent gathered around the flickering light of the TV, watching the original Star Trek.

Cover Art © Innovari | Dreamstime.com – Space Cruiser Spaceship Photo

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#flashfictionfriday: Hope in the Desert of Plenty

Sunset_in_Dubai_desert_12I dreamed of a green oasis, and woke this evening, feeling disoriented at the normality of our desert home. A little voice in my head kept saying this is wrong, this is not how it’s supposed to be. The voice was mistaken because this is how it is, and what it is.

Grandfather frequently moans that it wasn’t always this way, blaming this and that technology we can no longer use, but it doesn’t matter. Yes, I remember those days, and maybe it’s not supposed to be, but it’s life, and we live with it.

At sunset, I went out to work in the garden and found the wind had blown the muslin sun shield off the dandelions. I replaced it, but don’t know if they were harmed by the direct sunlight. The wind usually rises later in the day, so perhaps they weren’t exposed to too much. I don’t know what will happen if they don’t make it.  I do have plenty of the leaves dried and have saved every seed, but fresh greens are essential, and dandelions are the faithful greens that produce all year round and keep us alive no matter what happens to the other vegetables.

Other plants frequently fail when the temperature reaches the high 120s. With luck, we’ll get one more crop of beans harvested before the rains.

The Himalaya blackberries are covered with small berries and with constant care they might survive the drought. The berries are a staple, lending sweetness to our food and blackberry wine makes life pleasant. They’re also attractive to the wasps that pollinate our crops, so we desperately need them.

But it’s been a hard, hot year, and even the Scotch broom, which we’ve come to depend on for everything from fuel, to building materials and fibers for cloth, is struggling. Hopefully, I’ll have enough water to keep the plantation alive. My fog traps have grown steadily less productive, as they do every year at the peak of the heat, but we’re not going thirsty yet.

Water is an issue, but when is it not? It’s always darkest before the dawn, someone once said. I like to think of it as “driest before the monsoon.” November is coming, and the downpour will begin, those brief weeks of dangerous weather and devastation, fearfully clinging to hope we won’t be washed away in the floods.

But this year, if we make it through the winds, it will be a blessing and not a catastrophe. Yes, it’s too much water all at once, but we’ve adapted. Where we once lived on the ground, we have raised our shacks on tall stilts. Our dandelion, blackberry, and broom plantations are situated on high, raised platforms, with muslin sun filters, as are our goat pens. I know, it seems odd when for eight months out of the year there is no water for many miles, but we’re safe from the wildcats and feral dogs, and they can’t get to our goats. The wild rabbits can’t destroy our farms.

Our village of twenty families has survived when the others failed because we learned how to shield our crops from the both the broiling sun and the punishing downpour with sturdy awnings. This year, the moment the rain stops, we’ll be more than an island of shacks on stilts in a shallow sea. This year we will become an oasis.

Every year until now, we’ve struggled to save that water, as within a month the sea becomes large puddles and within another month we’re left with scant barrels of water and our fog traps to get us by for the rest of the year.

This year we’re prepared for the monsoon, and will be able to save the runoff in a cistern. It’s impossible to labor outside during the day, but we spent our chilly nights building it, covering it with soil to insulate it from the heat, so it resembles a small, perfect hill. We lined the interior with fired ceramic tiles, and made sure every roof is pitched and has gutters to channel the water into it. This last year there was no rest for the wicked, as they say, but it will be worth it. Next year we won’t have to choose between thirst and watering the livestock and plants.

Grandfather is filled with doom and gloom, but not me. Next year will be a year of lush gardens, of cool, sweet blackberry wine at sunrise when the work-night has ended. Next year all our babies may survive.

Next year.

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#flashfictionfriday: October Sky

Louis_Français-CrépusculeIt had been the coldest October I could remember. Rafts of ice floated up and down the lake, blown by the winds, breaking up and re-forming as if dancing a ballet. The leaves had been off the trees since the end of September, almost as if they couldn’t fall fast enough.

It was in the last, quiet hour before sunset when the real beauty of my rustic lake home was revealed to me. The sun drifted its way behind the hills as the wind died off to nothing. The lake became a mirror reflecting the pink-blue-purple-gold of the sky and the deep green of the evergreen forested hills. It was a green so deep that it appeared to be black.

I would sit at my frozen picnic table with a steaming mug of coffee warming my hands, watching the snow geese and the western grebes. Only the voices of the loons and the geese pierced the blanket of peace I had wrapped about myself.

When the colors had faded, and I could no longer feel my fingers, I would go back into the house and stoke up the fire, still in the thrall of the lake’s spell. Then, only when I had absorbed the tranquility of my lake, would I pick up a brush and enter my world of canvas and color.

On the first morning I saw the naked trees stark against the incredible sky, I knew I had to somehow capture the power. Attempt followed attempt and soon my house was littered with the “almosts.” The bones of the trees were right, but the essence of the sky was missing. Each night I worked longer and more feverishly until one day I realized that I had to back off and gain some perspective.

And so it was that in the small hours before dawn one morning I put away the brushes and paints, and covered the canvasses, frustrated by my inability to capture the essence of the lake and the sky that was mirrored in it. Exhausted, I fell into my bed drained and unable to concentrate, yet sleep escaped me. My mind was filled with the loons and the trees and their sky.

At last, knowing it was futile to try to sleep I rose and made myself tea. Wrapping a blanket about myself I walked out to my small sitting room to watch the trees greeting the pale dawn. The warmth and fragrance of the steaming cup of tea made me feel rested as my bed never had, and the familiarity of the ritual soothed away my frustrations.

The serenity of the moment deepened, a sense of sacredness pervaded the garden. Willingly, I gave myself to the experience, allowing the essence of the moment to seep into my soul.

The air felt strange, alive and crystalline, and the trees beckoned to me. I could feel them calling me to come out and greet the sun with them, and bemused, I answered their call. Stepping outside, still wrapped in my blanket, I walked through the frozen grass, until I was in the orchard among the trees on the shore of the lake.

Looking west to the black-forested hills, I held my breath, overcome by the feeling of anticipation that infused me. Something told me I stood on the verge of an event, vast and unfathomable, though what it could be I couldn’t imagine.

Gradually I realized that the ground was vibrating, and had been for a while, shaking as if a giant walked nearby. As I became aware of the vibrations beneath my feet, a deep rumbling began to penetrate my reverie, shattering the peace. The unfamiliar thunders grew louder with every moment, and the birds fell silent as if waiting to see what approached.

Huddling nervously in my blanket, my eyes were drawn to the north and there, emerging from the mist I saw machines—great, huge, monstrous machines I had no words to describe. They came slowly and relentlessly down the middle of my lake. The waters rolled and boiled around them as they passed me by, paying me less attention than they did the trees. The ice floes broke and tipped crazily, riding the waves that danced about the giant treads.

The line of machines continued south, grinding through the swamp, going I knew not where and coming from where I could not imagine. As they came, the waters grew, and waves began splashing at my feet and then my knees. At last, realizing that I was in trouble, I turned and raced for the higher ground and the safety of my house.

Still the waters rose, following me, and still the machines came rolling down from the north.

I closed the door and stood to gaze out the window at the rising waters and the monstrous machines that continued their unrelenting journey south. The waters rose, and my house began swaying, creaking and groaning under the water’s assault.

I fell to my knees praying to the God I didn’t believe in, but he wasn’t listening.  My house shook and rocked, and lifted with the rising water, turning slowly as if to say goodbye to the lake and the hills to the west. Dishes and furniture careened off paintings and walls—my life in small objects passing before my eyes. I looked, disbelieving, through the shattered windows and saw the inconceivable sky spinning around like a child’s top spins.

I covered my head, and screamed my prayer, but the only answer I received was the sure and profound sound of breaking glass and furniture shattering.  At last, when I believed it would never stop, the floor I clung to gave a great lurch and the noise of destruction stuttered into silence, a silence every bit as loud as the din had been.

Throwing back my blanket, determined to get out of the wreckage while I could, I saw the last of the machines going south into the broken swamp. The trail they blazed through the marshland was a great scar that would never heal, and I wept at the sight of it.

I surveyed the damage to my home with stunned eyes. My house was now perched all askew upon a slight rise that had been perhaps fifty feet behind it before. Everything I had ever owned was now in full view of anyone who might choose to make a leisurely visit to my remote home. Every item of clothing, every bit of dish, smashed or whole, everything dangled from the branches of the broken trees, displayed everywhere.

Despite the carnage, the sky hung pink-blue-purple-golden and unchanged while the naked trees made lewd gestures with my most personal of possessions. The ridiculousness of the situation penetrated my shock, and I began laughing, and falling to my knees I laughed until I couldn’t breathe. Eventually, my laughter became sobs, and I howled until I was spent.

The silence was too much, making me intensely aware of my frail mortality. Stepping through the rubble, I gathered my canvasses, paints, and brushes. Miraculously my easel was untouched, and so I did the only thing I could think of.

I painted the pathetic wreck of my house reflected in the perfection of the lake and the hills.

I painted the obscene trees against the incredible sky as they proudly displayed the debris of my life.

And then I painted those awesome machines as they paraded past me, not realizing that I was there and not caring.

When I was done, three paintings leaned against my ruined fireplace. Exhausted, I found my bed and righted it. Crawling into it I finally fell asleep, resting dreamlessly.

When my eyes opened, I was disoriented. I awoke in my bedroom and looking around, I could see no signs of the previous day’s events. In disbelief, I went to the kitchen and found all my kitsch and accumulated knick-knacks still to be there, whole and in their tasteless entirety. There were no broken dishes, no broken furniture.

Awed and amazed at the power of the dream I had just experienced I set about preparing my breakfast. “Idiot,” I muttered, still feeling rather giddy. I wondered what my sister would say when I called to tell her about it.

Making a cup of coffee, I went to sit by the window in the sitting room.

As I passed the fireplace I froze. Three pictures leaned against the uninjured hearth.

One was of obscene trees decorated with my personal possessions, silhouetted against an incredible sky. In the second picture, my sad house perched askew on the hill, broken and sad, framed by the astounding sunset.

And the third picture was a terrifying image of gigantic, grotesque machines tearing up my lake, plowing through the swamp with the waters roiling wildly about the monstrous treads, beneath the sky that had eluded my skills until that night.

Even I had to admit that the power of the paintings was overwhelming.


October Sky © Connie J. Jasperson 2016 All Rights Reserved

Written circa 1992 and originally published On Wattpad, December 2012

Republished on Edgewise Words Inn, April 2015

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