Aurora Borealis

Passadena, California. 21 January 2010. 06:27:43 UTC

Spirit Control watched their four-hundred-million-dollar baby dig itself into the maddening crust. The rover had been trapped for nine months at Troy, a thermal vent named by a literary minded space scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab for its association with siege. Spirit’s front left wheel bit deeper with every turn. The right had skittered lamely across the Martian soil until a month ago, when its motors – damaged three years earlier – suddenly began to operate as though the machine sensed the animal finality of its situation, its wheels increasingly immured in tiny silicate trenches. Winter was approaching, and with weak sunlight in the southern hemisphere, Spirit’s batteries wouldn’t last. In a daring manoeuvre in September the microscopic imager had been lowered to peek at the obstruction beneath the vehicle. Subsequently, in a move which spoke of desperation, a middle-aged gentleman was dispatched from England to assist. Today, contours mapped, material strengths and elasticity computed, the rover might at last break free. A note arrived from Church the Bootmaker, London. In a fluid, economical hand it said: Wishing you every success. With our sincere apologies for any inconvenience.

‘Start the fifth extrication drive,’ said Mission Leader Bridget Tuft. She prayed for success, aware of the ironies, and signalled to send the order. In fifteen minutes the instructions would be received and unpackaged by Spirit’s on-board computer. It would all be over before they saw anything. The dance would take only moments. They waited.

On the surface of the red planet, Spirit’s cameras captured everything: the sad, prosaic turns, the rhythmic genuflection of all six robotic legs and then that inspired spring, that hopeful slide. Spirit was free! As it rolled to a safe distance away from the vent the cameras focussed on the stubborn obstruction. The image, when it arrived, filled the monitor banks at JPL. It was a slightly worn British size nine Oxford Brogue in oxblood tan. Church’s distinctive patterning formed a constellation of dots on the surface of the upper. What appeared to be a Burlington argyle sock poked hopefully above the topline.

Tuft tutted in frustration. ‘Congratulations team,’ she said. ‘Now, let’s roll this rover out. We have work to do.’

Chennai, India. 21 January 2010. 12:18:02 UTC

On the moon, there are:

  • 80 archaeological sites
  • over 100 metric tons of human artefacts including
    • 17 sick bags
    • 3 lunar buggies
    • 7 combination scoop-and-tongs (scongs)

The list went on.

And yet.

None of the 80, unbelievably, were protected as UNESCO heritage sites. The US government seemed uninterested in applying. And now a prize offering $30 million for the first robotic lander to scout up there again, an extra $5 million if the robot stumbled bovinely across these elegies to human endeavour to snap a verifiable photograph of this assorted junk. A gold rush had begun. Tranquillity Base, the obvious target. Tonight, the team from Chenai University would be triumphant. Flight Director G.S.Shrinavam was aware that he would go down in history as the despoiler of a sacred secular monument. For scientists like him it would be worse than the when the Taliban used dynamite on the Buddhas of Bamyan, worse than the accidental bombing during the first Gulf War of the historical Tower of Babel. But G.S.Shrinavam would be steadfast. Like the warrior Arjuna in his beloved Bhagavad Gita, G.S.Shrinavam would ignore the consequences and act on duty. He came from a distinguished line of poets.

In his small but well appointed Mission Control Room in Mahindra World City he peered, hawk like, at the footprints beside the Apollo 11 landing stage. Not Armstrong’s famous footprints, but another set. Unpaired. Apparently unhinged. He saw clearly the left leather sole of a dress shoe, accompanied by a bare right foot. Five largish toes were clearly visible in the dust. In the control room the image composites were assembled over hours. Trajectories were traced. Finally, G.S.Shrinavam called together his disciples. He straightened his creaking back.

‘Here,’ he said. ‘Was danced a most spirited waltz.’

Inari, Finland. 21 January 2010. 23:57:44 UTC

The bridge. He was watching for the bridge. It would appear soon, he was sure. Like the mythical bridge, Bifröst, from the old Norse sagas, connecting worlds, connecting Earth with Asgard, the home of the gods. It would appear in the heavens. There would be a day where he would rise along its path, cast off this aching shell and ascend. But not tonight. Tonight, though cold, he fizzed with possibilities.

He had been a banker in London until the crash, and now retirement in Finland, above the Arctic Circle. On nights like these he sat in the garden, staring upwards from his deck chair, the only furniture he had bothered to rescue from his home in Stoke Newington, a flask of hot tea at his side and an electric alarm clock to guard against dozing in the dangerous chill.

There! It appeared near the pole star first, a delicate arch, then scythed through the sky, slashing dots before plunging its billowing curtain of lights down upon these lonely latitudes. He sighed, keeping his eyes open for as long as he could. He allowed himself to remember her then.

What would it be like to hold her again? To dance once more with her? They had danced together first a lifetime ago under these Northern Lights, These Aurora Borealis, the Spirit Dance of the Cree Nation. Afterwards he had bared one leg to the knee, removing shoe and sock, borrowing from his Lodge the only sign of sure commitment he could muster. He proposed marriage. She had laughed at him, then accepted.

Tonight’s show was magnificent. Bright enough perhaps to knock out electric appliances like the Big One they’d watched from Quebec in March 1989. As sleep came, he thought he should probably check his clock. He registered too that his right foot was growing oddly numb. One day he would ascend to her.


18 Responses to “Aurora Borealis”

  • marc nash Says:

    “suddenly began to operate as though the machine sensed the animal finality of its situation” – YES OH YES, I love this line.

    Fantastic lyricism that makes a sacredness of the new science (nice irony).

    Subtle, almost archeological recurring motifs of dance and single shoes. Stellar.

  • Tony Noland Says:

    I loved the image of the prosaic leather shoe left behind. Reminiscent of Cinderella’s magic dance out of her own world.

    My favorite line: “He proposed marriage. She had laughed at him, then accepted.”

  • David G Shrock Says:

    Anything that starts with astronomy related gets my attention. Like the connection between the three. Final section is beautiful connecting memory of proposal to aurora. Nice description of aurora, too.

  • Linda Says:

    “There! It appeared near the pole star first, a delicate arch, then scythed through the sky, slashing dots before plunging its billowing curtain of lights down upon these lonely latitudes. He sighed, keeping his eyes open for as long as he could. He allowed himself to remember her then.”

    The entire piece lovely, but this bit… ahh… perhaps because I saw a meteor earlier this week arc through our heavens… really fabulous stuff here… Peace, Linda

  • Catherine Ryan Howard Says:

    Beautiful descriptions, wonderful idea. Great piece!

  • Marisa Birns Says:

    Here, I say, was written a most spirited story!

  • Anne Tyler Lord Says:

    Aw, that was really beautiful! The shoe was such an interesting story element. I love the futuristic space setting. And, as always, your writing is so smooth and well-done!

  • Melissa Says:

    Simply beautiful. In every way. Makes me want to have a whole book of this, open for my reading while I’m curled up beside a fire.

  • CJ Says:

    Quite lovely – I love the technical along with the mundane (the shoe – LOVE the shoe!), set against the romantic.
    It must have been difficult to write, but you pulled it off seamlessly. Thank you!!

  • Laurita Says:

    So much to enjoy about this piece, I can’t possibly pick a favourite part. Beautifully written, as I’ve come to expect.

  • Lou Freshwater Says:

    This made me think of Calvino’s “Cosmicomics” for some reason. Probably because it is wonderful.

    My favorite line:

    “He came from a distinguished line of poets.”


  • shannon esposito Says:

    Wonderful piece! Your tech skills as a writer are way over my head, but the message is loud and clear. Did we really bomb the Tower of Babel? I need to get out more 🙂 Nice one!

  • Amy Says:

    Brilliant, as always! I, too, love the shoe.

    Well done!

  • ~Tim Says:

    Very nice weaving together of disparate elements. And it’s sweet.

  • mazzz_in_Leeds Says:

    Burlington socks, I remember them!

    “He came from a distinguished line of poets.” great line, and the Aurora description was excellent

  • Laura Eno Says:

    How did I miss this last week? The connectivity of the three places was great, the bridge that opened between them leaving a shoe in one, a bare foot in another and a numb foot in a third!

  • GP Ching Says:

    A story well told! I enjoyed the dichotomy between the the science fiction elements and the romantic elements.

  • Eric J. Krause Says:

    Excellent descriptions throughout. I enjoyed reading this one.

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