2 | Celestial Hopscotch

ACT I | Aji                             23 June 2018             

All Audiences                      Est. Time: 90 Minutes                                                   PUB F⊗ | Widgets

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Welcome to The Echo By Seas; & Other Stories by Soda Tom. We present today Episode 2 from the first volume of the trilogy, “The Shadows.” ~

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EPISODE 2celestial hopscotch

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< Impatiently, Will Adorjan waited for the Cluster Train at the Sombrero Galaxy depot in Pandora. He tapped his watch to display the temperature: 703 degrees. “Warm,” he said.A leather boot, black, and knee-high, spiked from the doorway of a compartment of the approaching maglev Cluster Train, and into the cramped hallway. The next step was abundantly clear to the boot’s owner; in fact, it was clear to everyone. Ernie saw the boot, and abruptly meandered to safe keeping, stumbling into the wall at his right side; his back as now against it. He breezed, Brother!” Worn incredulity would not change the conductor’s demeanor; – no part of his jaw was curled, and his nose didn’t twist. He hissed: “Know what, fella’s a stowaway!”

A second man was ensconced in brilliant white. He ventilated the cab by opening an exit door of the Cluster Train, trundling the air; clouds of steam were diverted in obtuse puffs from the hatchway slung open by his arm. This second man’s hat, a Stetson, was white; his gloves, vest, shirt, and tie were white, additionally, and his trousers were white. Ernie was frustrated, but prayed to God not to entwine in the likely ruckus. Generally, the last glimpse of the scrum was always a red handkerchief, waved by the man in the black boots; it was folded neatly in the breast pocket of his black shirt; first, the hollow barrel of his pistol would bend around the doorway, and quickly the man in black would square in the hallway’s middle, and issue a gunshot with a puzzling trajectory of fate. Ernie never waited for the gun’s report to push the gunslingers aside en route to his exit: once the Cluster Train arrived, Ernie would hop to the platform, whistle, and holler, “Fall out!” and express his distaste for railway stowaways: “Better yet, fall off!”

The conductor eased precariously onto a bench, built with perfect spacing in even rows aside the two sets of tracks. He put a charcoal-tinted lunch box on his lap, and stared at the Pandora rail. He knew shortly this would cause the pique of an exasperated Little Owl, who was protective of the oak now hanging over Ernie’s bench. The Little Owl grasped a branch with his claws, in protest, strained his neck, and wound his head entirely in a circle. “Ew!” and “Oof!”; “Crash!” and “Bang!” were sounds emanating from the stopped train. The man in black was smashing his chin into the rival, the man in white, who, driven to the floor by the other man’s fist, waited for a redux to job both of his white boots into the rival’s chest; this sent the blackish bloke into a head-over-foot tumble, usually, a somersault, precisely – and precisely seemed oddly the point of it all somehow — to the exit door. Stunned, smiling, lying on his back, the man in black adorn shouted, “Ha-Hah!, clenched his fists, and chased the white bedeck through the cabs, essentially vanishing to any rapt audience. “Alas,” was Ernie’s word; “another trip.”

Ernie whisked ashes from his trousers. He thumbed the nickel cover of his cigar lighter, and caught the rolled paper aflame in a single, proud clap. He craned his eyes at the taupe sky to estimate the weather, and recalled past departures. He scanned the obscure landscape, and guilelessly blew smoke from the platform. His Conductor’s Report was a verbal file, transmitted through a wire lanyard, into a chip at his ear: “Arrived at Sombrero-Pandora at sixteen and thirty hours the ninth day of the week, without event. It was a pleasant ride from Hydra. The temp is a daunting seven-hundred, and three degrees. The sky, sloe, and orange. Five years to daylight.”

A couple spoke a few yards from Ernie’s bench, and noticed him giving the conductor’s report. Her shoulder was leaning against a granite piling nearby, and she overheard him say, “seven-hundred, and three.”

Aji said, to Will Adorjan, “We used to wear thermal, and reflectors, until we realized there would never be any Sun. I think it took a century.”

There is a sun, it’s just not here,” Adorjan said. Aji frowned. “The sun’s a star. People rely upon verity, my father used to say; – his word, verity truth, faith, and experience. They’ll still be warm, and they’ll accept there is no sun. We believe it’s seven-hundred three only because Ernie was thinking aloud. We saw him read the body-control watch.”

Aji said, “That’s a little exhausting.”

No,” Will disagreed. “The truth is concise; everything else is tiring.”

Dogmatic, yes?”

Will stated, “Take the narrows of space for re-entry,” and cocked his head: “He used to say, ‘Remember, the slightest pin, or deceit, a gnat or wasp is the Abyss of life and death, son; heaven, and hell.’ We should shudder, really. Usually, I do. I say Hell is actually benign; perpetual ineluctability. No verity. Forever gray. Everything just beyond your reach.”

Aji pointed to a vendor. “Soup?”

Ernie’s uniform was navy blue; broad red stripes lined the middle of the legging; a regulation shine reflected some light from his visor to his cap. “Still spiffy,” the conductor admired, gazing at his portrait in the stainless steel of his lighter; a spate of clouds formed between his arms; silently, uneasily, Ernie faded into the air.

Morning!” Aji quipped.

Unless I’m asleep, and, maybe I am asleep,” he answered, fairly asleep, but flapping the bindings of a magazine, Popular Science, as he addressed her image upon the glass casing, the front door, of his microwave oven.I still don’t like your Skype.”

That was funny, yes, she said, and nodded brightly in the glass of the microwave oven, much like a holograph, or live video. It won’t be morning in Sombrero for several years.”

Really,” he said, rewinding a bed sheet around body, and his flannel pajamas. “A man named Nap is supposed to visit me. He’s US Navy. What to do?”

It’s okay,” Aji said. “We’ve met. He’s okay.”

You want to see the island pier,” he said, still drowsy. “How about a mimosa. I could have one.”

I’m not in the rover, I’m at Sombrero,” Aji replied. “But the wide screen television would allow us to show you Sombrero in her amber glory. Can we use it?”

How about Mars, Saturn, something closer. Maybe a dying star.”

Prohibition returned a century ago in the clusters. That’s a good story.”

Maybe I can beam a mimosa through the microwave.”

I can visit?” she asked. “Coney Island.”

Sure,” he replied. “God, yes. Everyone visits New York City. Seriously?”

Aji was pensive. “It is complicated, but not because of technology,” she said. “My only true interest is this maglev. The Cluster train. (Do you have those chocolate chipsters on Earth? Yes. No?) The camera set is very good, and quick. You’ll see how authentic, Sombrero; you’ll see that. It is our colony. The railway raised this colony from destitution. Hydra is so much larger now, the depot. Yes, we’ve passed a point of no return.”

All about the trains,” he said, sheepish, crackling a plastic foil with cookies. “These?”

Oh no!” Aji said, facetiously. “We’ve sent explorers seeking out chocolate chips throughout the universe.” She paused to smile. “It’s our Big Ben, the mag. It sails through the morning; the evening is whistle-time. They show outdoor movies at some platforms; dinner, noon; the rumble keeps us ‘sane, and lonely,’ is the saying, yes: Lonely under the sherbet sky; it’s a small population. Wait: ‘Orange, and yellow – the train grumbles to the witching hour through our fruitcake landscape. We breathe crazily in our beds, and worry of omen rings.’ Bud Adorjan said that.”

Omen rings?”

Aji heard the Cluster Express rousing to begin another supply route to Hydra. A labyrinth of circles, yes, paring away at the bounds of life. They erode until you die.

He shook his head. He asked, “How does the train move?”

It’s a maglev,” she said, unlocking the monitor into a tablet. “The principle of the train’s motion is magnetic levitation. ‘Maglev’ combines the words. It was invented in 2004 on Earth, no less; the ancient Trans-Rapid of Shanghai. The magnets prevent it from touching the ground, or tracks, and provides the thrust to propel it from place to place. No oil, gas, propane, coal.”

No mining, no gas?”

And no dumb luck,” Aji replied. “Of course, Hydra is huge. Mining, all that, is huge in some locations. We like the clean magnets; the ease of it. It has to be natural. Manufacturing is like a feudal monarchy; — it was king, then deposed by technology. The first Alpha Space consortium was honestly brilliant, and farsighted. They took tons of equipment – tons, they were awed by its size, and weight – to assemble manufacturing outposts like Sombrero, early on. The colony had a 1,000-ton extruder included in the Landing Pack. There was a gag, that the extruder could be easily extruded into space if extra room was needed. But it would be impossible to build, or even to patch a shelter, or anything else, without the extruder. It created everything, from smoky globs of gunk, using a computer model; what a treasure. And it built the train!”

Really,” he said, ambivalently.

The Cluster express rolls from 15,000 stable miles per hour to 55,000 mph in less than sixty seconds,” Aji said, setting the table to span three-hundred sixty degrees of Sombrero, and the maglev’s launch. “Watch!”

The texture of the video reminded him of a blurry form of night vision. Aji was strolling the ash street, with the tablet attached to the visor of her headgear; the monitor was “cheap surplus,” she said, and she neglected to buy coffee from a kiosk at the train landing. She said, spanning the relay in her hands: “I promised you a tour. Let’s do that. I warn you, Sombrero is not so different from say, colonial Pittsburgh, or Alaska.”

Alaska?” he asked. He sipped a mimosa.

She synced a lapel clip to augment her video, and Aji elaborated, “Science relies upon theories, and math, and research in the field, and it comprises mankind’s best educated guess. This settlement, Sombrero, is almost two-hundred years old; one-hundred ninety-nine, this year. It was, – rr-reading from, yes, the history marker, that’s it! – ‘originally designed as a Bernal Sphere, a habitat ten miles in diameter, for a population of 25,000 people. Population, 21,116.’ Hah. The surface of Sombrero is three times greater than Earth.”


Aji asked, an aside, “Have you ever met Nap?”

There was a pause. “No.”

Aji rolled the camera steadily to display wide-angled views of the township, which “resembled a fishing village in the Arctic,” and “the early American West, with decent appliances” and other fixtures, upgraded to a “proprietary” norm for a “post-nuclear age.” He saw horses tied next to off-road vehicles; brick houses replete with oil furnace tanks, and “some modest rust; there was no concrete to pave the snow-lined roads, dirt and mud replaced with dry, gray ash; a black sky, – the amber color was usually clear in the ‘daylight. The atmosphere sustained life at Sombrero, and was caused by the solstice of two stars, warming and cooling, light-miles from the planet; it could be “night” for years; the parting of the stars would eventually herald two years of ‘sun light,’ and a gold, “amber camber.” The average temperature at Sombrero varied 1000 degrees with light from the stars, or without it, presenting the famous hue technically, a cloudy firmament of yellow-green #1, in daytime, evenings, turquoise #9. You could say beige, yes.”

Aji continued, and snapped photos for him. “One thing only terrifies us: Condensation.”

Hate it,” he said, and sat firmly at the kitchen table.

Aji said, “Condensation means a gas, or vapor, like oxygen, has been reduced to liquid or solid form. The oxygen layer is very light. It is a gem of the planets, and galaxies in the Pandora Cluster, but oxygen is scarce.” She filled a Styrofoam cup, and commented, “We have to say grudgingly the aeronautical government was heroic. We are thirty-one million light years from Earth. There’s six trillion miles to every light year. Those numbers can roll in one’s head like clouds.”

She pointed toward space. “It is that far.”

How?” he asked, finally. “How did it happen?”

Aji smiled, and sat on the bench, and peered down at the tablet on her knees. She said, “The dull tales of history survive. Man, in space. Pioneers. The human struggle, the mother of necessity. Yes. (Pause.) My favorite phrase is more sinister: it is ‘celestial hopscotch.’ The Proxima Centauri was Earth’s nearest star, but it was not an exoplanet; it was not hospitable for human life. The science of the time – a century ago? – adapted to a system of propulsion from the early Bussard Ramjets. A trip to Centauri could suddenly be made in four, four and a half years. Earth was consumed; the space consortium of nations, ASC, ‘Alpha-Space,’ designed their own brand; they called Ramjet shuttles the new Model-T’s. This was generations before 2345, the year the Proxima launch took place; it was hailed as the dawn of the universe. There were cynics: some of the pioneers joked, ‘Where is John Galt?’ So many great people disappeared from society! It was the greatest of great generations. Four, and a half years! Three million people tried the voyage; four thousand landed at Proxima Centauri in 2353. It took nine years. Paratroopers were commissioned by the ASC to build the mega-shelters.”

He wondered, “What do you mean, hopscotch?”

Four thousand people landed at Centauri,” Aji said. “A communique arrived from New York, from the United Nations: Proxima Centauri is not a habitable place. Imagine! These pioneers were twenty to forty years of age. It is the bane of it. Survival meant living in the mega-shelter, procreation; then raising children to train them for the next journey. The journey to a mythical exoplanet. It was hopscotch.”

And the others?”

They dispersed, many returned to Earth, yes,” Aji said, and paused. “Today, we continuously find strange shadows. Some are named for Saturn’s rings, like the Shadow of Mines. They may be ashes, carbon; signs of life, or, perhaps, reflections, yes.” She added, “Sombrero is 31 million light years from your kitchen. It’s not calculable for you, in any meaningful way. I dare say, dare I? Yes. Sombrero was the first habitable planet. And you know what? It took twenty generations. It took fourteen mega-shelters, many beautiful clusters, expeditions to 23 ‘exoplanets.’ Sombrero, 2544 A.D.; population, 21,116.”


  THEME   Theme |Flea Markets, No. 3″ | playlist, nos. 1-15 

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“The Shadows” is one of three works by SODA TOM

Selections have appeared on Tumblr, and Medium, including “The Shadow of Mines.”





Copyright Notice

“The Shadows,” by Soda Tom, Vol. I of III,

from The Echo By Seas; & Other Stories

Copyright (C), 2018; 2017, ff., by the author

All Rights Reserved

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Created by Soda Tom


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