Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Tales of an Exiled Citizen #9: Light My Fire

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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
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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 damage 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