Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Tales of an Exiled Citizen #9: Light My Fire

Beginning of story
Previous part

No Outsider will ever be able to fully understand just how much terror Fire puts into the heart of a Citizen.  Only Exile invokes more fear, because that necessarily is faced alone -- indeed, if they have several people to Exile, they will wait a couple weeks in between each just to ensure that.  At the most basic level, certainly, everyone can understand not wanting to get burned, it's a universally unpleasant experience.  It is much more than that, though.  People living in closely-built villages have some idea of the existential threat, that a fire in one building can catch on to the next until nothing is left.  Even with that, though, they do not have the same experience as a Citizen, for they at least have the reassurance that they can rebuild their village.  Were the City to be destroyed, it would be virtually impossible to rebuild.  Citizens know enough to maintain it, but they depend on the systems already being in place to do so.  If they had to start over from scratch, they would have no idea where to begin.

Even the fear of catastrophic fires is something that most Outsiders can relate to, if not fully.  What few can ever grasp, is that even the routine use of fire represents a danger to Citizens.  With the Dome sealing them off from the outside world, burning too much consumes the air and makes it hard to breathe.  One way they make sure that doesn't happen is only burning what was produced within the Dome, in the process of being grown it restores the air.  They do monitor carefully to make sure that the balance is maintained and neither too much nor too little is burned.

This fear of Fire is deeply designed in to the City.  Unlike many Outside buildings, flammable materials like wood are rarely used for construction, and they're avoided for most other uses unless truly necessary.  If they can avoid using a flame for anything, they do, and if they can't, they do their best to keep it contained.  While things like candles are a luxury on the Outside, they are absolutely forbidden in the City; had I tried to sell candles instead of Beans, I would have been reported by the first person I offered it to and immediately exiled.

There was an interesting consequence to fire being so tightly controlled in the City: whenever a Citizen did need it, it was available at the touch of a button.  As hard as it is for an Outsider, who has learned to make fires from childhood, to comprehend, a Citizen has no clue how to make a fire other than by pressing a button.  Now back in the Crazy Age, it was a little different.  They did have push-button devices for creating fires they called "lighters", but they produced an open flame that would have scared the pants off a Citizen.  They also had miniature fire sticks like an Outsider might use, but these (which they called "matches") had an almost magical coating whereby you only had to rub them once lightly and they burst into flames.

I, however, had a unique problem.  Once I learned that the Beans needed to be roasted to be fully effective, I had to figure out a way to make fire.  The first thing I thought of was to try to use one of the City's systems, but those all used something called "electricity", which is kind of like a captured lightning bolt.  I wasn't going to have that anywhere near the Shelter, so I needed another option.  That's when I secretly researched all the different ways they made fire in the Crazy Age.  Lighters and matches were long gone, of course, and even if I fully understood how to make to make them, finding the materials would have been next to impossible.

I did find a reference to something called a "fire piston".  Apparently the way it works it that air heats up when it is compressed, and if you do it fast enough and hard enough, it will be hot enough to catch stuff on fire.  Unfortunately, I didn't find any plans for one, so I start to tinker around with trying to make one, without much success.  Then I finally found the perfect solution: using a magnifying glass.  I had been a little concerned with the fire piston, how I would explain what it was for if anyone caught me with it.  But for a Maintenance man, having a magnifying glass made perfect sense.  Also, there was the danger if someone found the fire piston of accidentally setting it off, but using the magnifying glass took some effort, and was most effect Outside anyway.  The one major drawback, that I could only use it when it was sunny, was not really an issue for roasting my Beans, I could just wait until conditions were right.

I didn't have that luxury for my second afternoon in Exile.  It had been cloudy the first night so it hadn't gotten too cold, the sunny sky now would make for a cold, starry night, and I really wanted to have a fire to take the edge off.

While I was out looking to make the digging sticks earlier, I was also watching for anything that would make good kindling.  I found some dead moss, some birch bark, and some tufts of dried grass that I stuffed my pockets full of (granted, they were rather small).  The real jackpot was finding a dead pine branch which still had the dried needles and pine cones attached.  I had carefully added that to the stack of firewood I was carrying back. When I had got back to the Shelter, I moved the big flat rock to where it would get the most sun, and laid the moss, bark, grass, and some of the needle out to dry out as fully as possible.

After finishing the fourth hole, I had a conundrum.  I really wanted to build a proper fire pit, but I was afraid by the time I finished the sun would be too far down to start the fire.  So, instead, I chose the hole I had cleared the largest area of weeds from and set the flat stone with the kindling on top of it.  I then quickly shoved the dirt from the hole around it to make a little wall.  I then made a little pile in the center, first pine needles, then dried grass, then birch bark, and finally the moss.  I quickly broke off a couple handfuls of pine twigs and put them in alternate directions around the pile until I had like a little four-walled house.  Finally I took out the magnifying glass and adjusted it until there was as bright a spot as I could get in the center of the pile.

Then I waited.

Thankfully I had done this many times before and realized how long it would take, so I patiently waited instead of panicking.  I was rewarded soon enough with a whisper of smoke coming out of the pile, but I also knew enough to keep going until it actually burst into flames.  I quickly added on a few of the pine cones, and then some of the smallest pieces of dried wood.  Once those were burning well, I put on a few slightly larger pieces.  At this point the rock was getting full, but I was confident I wouldn't lose the flame for a while.

Now it was time to get a little better fire pit going.  I used my ceramic knives to cut away the weeds from about a three foot area, several feet away from my bed.   I then used the trowel to dig down an inch or two and built up a wall all around the outside, with a trench about 6 inches deep.  I didn't have the luxury of clearing out a full 10 feet of space around the pit and still be in the shelter, and I was too tired to dig a full foot down.  I also didn't have enough rocks to line the pit.  Night was approaching fast, and I wanted to get one more load of firewood before dark, so I left improvements for another day.

In the center of the pit I started building another four-wall structure, this time with sticks that were about an inch or two in diameter.  In the center I put a layer of pine twigs, a layer of pine cones, and then a layer of small sticks.  Then I took a fairly long stick over to the fire on the rock, which was already starting to die down into coals.  I held the tip of that stick in that fire for a few minutes until it was burning solidly, then I walked it over to my fire pit.  I carefully started sliding the stick into the center.  A couple times I had to pull back as it threatened to go out.  Once the fire got going in earnest, I took one of my digging sticks and walked back to the other fire, which was just glowing coals.  I pushed back the stone with my digging stick until the hole was revealed, and then I tilted the stone so all the coals ran into the hole.  Finally I nudged the stone back into place.  Hopefully that would keep the coals hot until morning if the other one burned out.

I stuck a couple of the largest sticks I had on the fire and then started to head out.  The sun had not quite set yet, so I had a little under an hour before it got too dark.  I headed out to a spot nearby where I had seen a couple downed trees, and soon my arms were carrying as much wood as they could.  Hopefully it would he enough to keep me warm through the night.

Part 10: Dream Roast

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Tales of an Exiled Citizen #8: A Hard Day's Work

Beginning of story
Previous part

I had anticipated the possibility of starting over, but I didn't think I would have nothing but the clothes on my back.  This presented a problem.  I figured I would have something other than my bare hands to dig up my buried treasures with: a knife, perhaps, or at least a spoon.  I looked around the Shelter to see if there was anything appropriate.  I did find some rocks, one of which looked flat enough that it might work.

I knew that I might not have a good digging implement, and it would be the first thing I wanted, so I had strategically placed it by the sapling that was furthest north and west.  I had four spots for each sapling, three feet away from the trunk in each direction, north, west, south, and east.  Or did I start with the west?  Shoot, now I wasn't sure which spot I wanted to dig first.

I decided to go with west.  I put my left heel on the sapling, my right heel in front of left toe, then my left heel in front of my right toe, and made a scuff mark where my left toe was.  I started scraping away the weeds with the rock.  It was slow going, but it worked adequately.  After 10 minutes, I had a decent size patch cleared, but my hands were burning.  The rock was just to cumbersome to continue working with.  I needed to find something else.

A few of the cut saplings were still lying around, but they were too thin to be of much use for digging.  I left the shelter and started searching through the forest.  Walking out into it, I realized another of my follies: I'm sure even to someone who had never seen a forest before, like on my first day Outside, I would have been able to tell that there was something different, that someone had been at work.  Because I was always in a hurry whenever I went Outside, I just picked up whatever dry deadwood was closest.  So for a fair stretch surrounding the Shelter, there was none to be found.

Luckily, that wasn't exactly what I was looking for.  An old, dry piece of wood was going to be too brittle; I need something fresher that could bend a little without breaking.  After about 20 minutes I found a tree that had fallen recently enough its leaves hadn't dropped off yet.  I spent about 10 minutes trying to break off some branches, but they were too green and flexible.  Had I had an axe I might have been able cut one off, but then I probably wouldn't be needing the digging stick.

After about another hour of searching I found a downed tree that had lost its leaves but didn't look decayed at all.  Pulling back on one branch that was half the size of my wrist, I had it just about pointing backwards and was practically hanging off of it when a sudden crack dropped my butt on the ground.  The branch came to a nice jagged point with a good 6 inches of flat, exposed wood, and with a few minutes of twisting the remaining bark and wood fibers, I was able to liberate it from the tree.  I repeat the process 3 more times -- I even managed to stay standing the third time! -- and decided to head back to the Shelter.  Since I was a bit further out than normal, I did pick up what dry wood I could find until I couldn't carry any more comfortably.

When I got back the Shelter I was quite hungry.  I knew I was going to have to make that a priority soon, but right then I wanted to get to work on the digging.  Setting down the firewood and digging sticks, I went and filled up my stomach with water.  I realized it wouldn't keep me satisfied for long but at least I could focus on the task at hand.

I started in on the cleared patch.  I wasn't able to move much dirt at a time, but it was nice to be able to get some leverage with both hands holding on solidly.  While the stick held up well, the edge didn't stay sharp long, and I switched to the next stick before I had finished clearing the roots.  When I got about a foot down I hit something.  My triumph only lasted for a few seconds when I realized it was a bioplastic case.  I had chosen the wrong spot.  I finished digging it out and opened it up.  My set of ceramic knives were still in beautiful condition.  One Cook had gotten a lot of Beans for those; ordinary people didn't have knives of that quality, and since they were virtually indestructible, replacing them too often would arouse suspicion.

Naturally, I couldn't risk something so precious on digging.  They did, however, make the task of clearing the vegetation from the spot 3 feet north of the sapling much quicker.  I gave up on the second digging stick soon after I started on the second hole, and switched to the last one once I had cleared the roots.  It wasn't long before I saw the reassuring flash of metal, and soon I had my vitally important aluminum trowel in my hand.  It was not much less indestructible than the ceramic knives, and rarely did anyone but a Gardener have one, but since they were considered useless as a weapon, they were not quite so closely monitored.

Between the ceramic knives and the aluminum trowel, the third, south hole went much quicker.  I was a bit surprised when I hit a thick clay jar, carefully sealed.  Then I remember making it and laughed so hard I cried a little.  Here I was, holding what would have been a fortune, now almost useless to me.  Inside were fresh Bean seeds, carefully packed and sealed so that they would remain viable for as long as possible.  I had stored them again precisely in case I lost all my trees and had to start all over again.  But I never anticipated the shelter being ruined.  Still, perhaps I would find another shelter out there somewhere and could start growing them again.  I might never be able to trade them again, but at least I would have my own supply.

A lengthening shadow reminded me I had to finish my work quickly.  Still working cautiously so as not to damaging my tools, I did work steadily on the east hole until I reached another bioplastic case.  Inside was a magnifying glass, the second thing I really wanted after the trowel.  I would need to work quickly before the sun got too low.

Part 9: Light My Fire

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Where the Night Finds You, Part 3

Beginning of story
Previous part

"So, what did you do for fun in the suburbs, Toby?"

"You know, the usual stuff -- played video games, watched TV, played ball when it was nice out."

"Was your yard nice and big for playing ball in?"

"I suppose, but Dad would have killed us if we played there."

"Really?  Why?"

"Too many windows to break, and we couldn't mess up Mom's flower beds."

"So where did you play ball?"

"There was a nice park just down the block.  All the kids would hang out there on nice days."

"That's cool, Toby."

They had been walking a little while, and Satchel noticed Toby sweating a little in the late summer sun.  Up ahead a little bit was a double-wide, 3-foot tall brick wall along the sidewalk, with a row of trees providing some deep shade.  When they reached it, Satchel asked, "You want to sit down for a minute?"

"Sure."

Satchel reached into his bag.  Toby expected he might pull out another small loaf, but instead he brought out two small bottles.  Toby cocked his head with a puzzled look.  The bottles were made out of glass, with metal lids - a bit uncommon, but not too unusual - but surrounding them was a cocoon of knitted yarn, obviously knitted by hand.  That was something Toby had never seen before.

"You thirsty, Toby?" Satchel asked as he held out one of the bottles.  Toby twisted off the lid and was a bit startled when it popped.  He remembered drinks doing that when he lived in the suburbs, but it seemed like that was ages ago.  Satchel noted with pleasure that unlike the bread earlier Toby didn't hesitate and wait to follow Satchel's lead but instead started drinking immediately.  Toby's eyes grew wide when the drink hit his tongue.  The first thing he noticed was how cool it was, which was very surprising in the middle of the afternoon.  When he thought about it a bit later, he figured that must have been what the knitted things were for, to keep them cool.  But after the coolness, he was reveling in the freshness of the water.  Since coming to the city, thirst had driven Toby to drink just about anything that was less than putrid.  He had learned to live with all kinds of off-tastes.  Toby then realized this water too had a subtle flavor... but it was pleasant.  It was a little sour, a little sweet, even a little salty.  He decided as he finished off the bottle that it was kind of lemony.  That definitely was a new experience, when he was living in the suburbs, the flavors of drinks would be very strong.

A bird with bright blue wings and a white belly flew up to where the pair was sitting and for a second it looked like it was going to land in Toby's lap.  Suddenly after some mad squaking and confused pounding of wings the bird circled round and landed five feet away on the other side of Satchel.  "Hello, Pennington.  How is my favorite blue jay today?"

"Jay Jay!" it cried.

"I know what you want."  Satchel reached into his bag and pulled out what looked like an over-sized wallet.  When he unfolded it, though, inside were a number of pockets of all different sizes, some open, some closed with a flap, some buttoned up, and some tied or cinched with string.  He uncinched one of the larger pocket and pulled out an acorn.  Satchel placed the acorn in the palm of his hand and placed his hand flat on the brick wall.  The jay looked around suspiciously at Toby for a few seconds, then hopped over to Satchel's hand, snatched the acorn in its beak and flew off.

Satchel cinched the pocket back up, folded up the wallet, and put it in his bag.  "You ready to go, Toby?"

"Sure."

Satchel reached out his hand and said "I'll take your bottle."  Toby handed his over and Satchel put both empty containers back in his bag.

I Confess....


Friday, November 28, 2014

Where the Night Finds You, Part 2

Beginning of story

Satchel asked, "I need to pick up some stuff, you wanna come along?"

"I guess," Toby answered.

"It's just a couple blocks to the first stop."

The pair walked in silence at a fairly brisk pace.  This gave Toby a better chance to observe Satchel, which was part of the point of the silence, as well as not making Toby feel like he was being interrogated.  Why he was called Satchel was obvious, the big bag under his arm was so well-worn it almost looked like it was a part of him; he must have carried it with him wherever he went.  It was what he had pulled the miniature loaf of bread from.

Satchel was a fairly young man, too: not a single white hair showed on his head or his beard, and while his beard was obviously kept trim, it was not very full to begin with; had he been so inclined, he probably would have only started shaving a couple years earlier.

Despite this, Satchel's face still had a weathered look, and even without many wrinkles he didn't have a youthful expression or exuberance.  He was quite short and wiry, too; despite their difference in age, Toby found he could almost match Satchel's stride.

"Okay, we're here," Satchel announced.  Toby was confused.  They were at a vacant, sunny, weed-filled lot.

"I need to harvest some pigweed."  Satchel pulled out a two-foot tall plant -- one of the smaller specimens -- and handed it to Toby.  It looked vaguely familiar to Toby; he had seen it around before, but he had never paid any attention to it.

"See how the root is red? And the stalks of the leaves?  That's one of the defining characteristics.  And look at how the leaves near the bottom are diamond-shaped, but they get narrower near the top.  Check out how the leaves are attached, alternating back and forth.  And feel how hairy the top of the stem is."  Toby followed along as Satchel pointed out the plant's features.

"This big spiky seed head at the top is what we're interested in today.  We want the ones that have started to ripen and are no longer green.  You can grab some of the smaller ones and I'll grab some bigger ones.  Just grab whatever you feel comfortable carrying."

They spent the next 15 minutes each gathering up an armful of the pigweed.  Satchel noticed Toby struggling after 5 minutes and let him know it was okay if he couldn't pull up the plant to just break it off.

When his bundle got big enough he could barely get his arms around it, Toby came over to Satchel and asked "Is this good?"

"That's great, Toby!  I wasn't expecting you to pick that much.  And it looks like you did a good job of picking out the ripe ones, too."  Toby smiled.

"What do we do with these now?," Toby asked.

"We need to dry them out.  I've got a place about five blocks away for that."

They walked for a minute before Satchel asked, "Have you gone to school?"

"A couple years."

"Did you like it?"

"Well, the first one I went, yeah, I kind of enjoyed, but I hated the second one."

"You seem pretty smart, Toby.  What was the problem?"

"We didn't really do anything at my second school, except occasionally some stupid boring drills and tests.  They taught us fun stuff at my first school."

"That's too bad you couldn't stay at your first school."

"Yeah, they made me move after... well...."  A tear started to well up in Toby's eye.

"That's okay, you don't have to talk about it."

After walking another minute, Satchel announced, "This is the place."  Again, Toby was a little confused, though not as much as last time.  The house was obviously vacant and looked like the kind of places Toby had been staying in.  He was a little disappointed, he had expected Satchel to have a little nicer place.  What really confused him, though, was how to get in; all the first story windows and doors were well boarded-up.

Satchel took him to the side of the house, in fairly narrow passage with the next house over.  They stopped at a basement window between two large evergreen bushes which pretty well hid them from the street.  Strangely enough, there was a combination lock on the window.  Satchel set down his bundle, dialed the combination, opened up the window, and slid himself in.  He motioned for Toby to follow as he grabbed his bundle and pulled it through.

Toby set down his bundle and followed.  There was a platform under the window to ease onto.  When he pulled his bundle inside and turned around, he got scared.  It was quite dark in that basement.  Satchel sensed Toby's anxiety.  "It's okay Toby.  Here, sit down and close your eyes.  Now breathe in deeply.  For 10 seconds. 1...2...3...4...5...6...7...8...9...10.  Now exhale slowly, again for 10 seconds. 1...2...3...4...5...6...7...8...9...10.  Okay now open your eyes."

His eyes had begun to adjust to the light, so he even though the only light came from the window behind him and another on the opposite wall, he could see that the basement was empty except for a set of stairs.

As they both headed up the set of stairs, Satchel let Toby know they were headed for the second floor.  When they opened the door at the top of the stairs, they walked in to what must have been the kitchen.  The main sign were the holes for the pipes and a couple broken cabinets and kitchen utensils; all the appliances and just about everything metal had been taken.

They headed around the corner into the living room, and Toby headed for the stairs going up.  Satchel yelled "Stop!  Those aren't safe."  He opened a closet door to reveal a makeshift ladder that had been nailed to the wall.

It was a little awkward climbing the ladder with the bundles of pigweed.  Satchel had Toby go first, since he had never done it before, and he did almost slip, but Satchel was right there to catch him.

Turning around at the top of the ladder, they were in a fairly large room -- perhaps a master bedroom originally.  The room was quite bright, because the sun was streaming in through the windows, which were intact but not boarded up.  There was something strange about them, however, and Toby went to take a closer look.  He walked around several blankets spread out on the floor which were covered with a number of different plants, most of which he didn't recognize.  Some looked like they had been picked yesterday and others were complete dry.  As Toby got closer to the window, he saw that a heavy green mesh had been put up in outside the windows, a little distance away from them.

While Toby was checking out the windows, Satchel pulled another thin cloth out of his bag and spread it on an empty spot on the floor.  He carefully placed the plants in his bundle on the cloth, giving them as much space as he could in between.  "Toby, could you hand me your bundle?," he asked.  Toby did, and Satchel finished filling up the space on the cloth.

Satchel then moved over to one of the cloths that was filled with dry plants.  "Could you help me push these towards the center?," he asked Toby.  In a couple minutes they had freed up about 6 inches on the top and bottom and a foot on the sides.  Satchel then folded the top and bottom down over the dried plants and asked Toby to hold them.  Satchel proceeded to fold the one side over and started to roll it into a bundle.  Satchel pulled two pieces of twine out of his bag, tied up the bundle, and stuck the whole thing back in.

"Thanks, Toby, you were a big help.  That is so much harder to do by myself."  Toby smiled.  Adults thanking him for anything was something he wasn't used to, but it felt natural coming from Satchel.

"The next thing I have to do is drop this off to be threshed.  You okay with meeting someone else, Toby?"

Toby shrugged and said, "Yeah, sure."

"Great!"  Satchel smiled.

Next part


Thursday, November 27, 2014

Where the Night Finds You, Part I

"Hey kid, you hungry?"

The question was almost rhetorical.  The hunger in his eyes was unmistakeable, as was the fear.  It was bad enough that a stranger was talking to him, but a stranger acting kind?  That was something he had hardly ever experienced in his short life.

The man took something out of his pocket and held it out to the boy.  The boy cocked his head with a puzzled expression on his face. It looked something like the loaves of bread he vaguely remembered eating as a younger child, except this was much smaller and not sliced.  It was also much rougher, like the biscuits he would occasionally find in dumpsters behind restaurants.

"It's okay, kid, it's really quite good."  The man broke off a piece and popped it in his mouth.  He waited ten seconds, held it out again, and said "Try it."

Hunger finally overpowered the boy's fears, and he took the small loaf.  He gave it a sniff.  The smell surprised him.  It was nothing like anything he had experienced before.  It was very rich but subtle, a blend of scents he mostly couldn't identify.  He inhaled deeply and puzzled it out for a few seconds before giving up and taking a bite.  It was surprisingly dense, and he was torn between savoring the flavor and filling his stomach.

"You from the suburbs?"  The man knew this was the most critical part.  If he didn't engage the kid before he had finished eating, he was likely to bolt.  But he had to ask simple "yes-or-no" questions the boy could answer with a nod or shake of his head so the boy didn't have to interrupt his meal to answer.

The boy nodded his head yes, but the man already knew that would be the answer.  He was obviously too healthy to have grown up in the city.  He was lacking the obvious signs of being malnourished as a baby.  "I've lived in the city all my life," the man added.

"This your first time in the city?"  Again the boy nodded his head yes.  This also was a pretty easy question, it had been a long time since people from the suburbs came in to the city unless they absolutely had to, and the kid didn't look that old.

"You lose your parents?"  This was trickier.  The boy didn't have any obvious scars on him, so he probably wasn't running away from abuse, so the man knew that this was the other likely reason he came.  The answer came not as a nod but as a glare as the boy stopped in mid-chew.  "It's alright, we won't talk about that," the man said.

"You just get here recently?"  The man didn't really need to ask that question, he knew everyone in the neighborhood, so when a new face shows up, he noticed.  Again, the boy nodded.

The boy was almost finished.  As he put the last bite in his mouth, the man introduced himself.  "My name is Jake, but everyone calls me Satchel.  What's your name?"  

The boy paused to finished chewing his food, then replied "Toby."

"Nice to meet you, Toby. You busy?"  Satchel knew the answer to that question too; it was the reason he waited and observed Toby for a couple weeks before approaching him, so he could catch him when he had some down time -- and was hungry, of course.  Satchel had asked the question very nonchalantly, but this was the critical question.  If Toby left now, there was a good chance he would move on and Satchel would never see him again.  But if Satchel seemed too desperate, Toby would get creeped out and would leave.

Toby shrugged his shoulders and answered, "Not really."

"Good."  Satchel smiled.

Next part