It was late. Late enough that the buildings of Ravenbank, sitting in the deepest part of the canyon, looked like the mechanism of a watch in the blue-green reflected light from Satella. Hanging like a paper lantern in the sky, it lit the buildings at an obtuse angle, and silhouetted Aurelia sharply against the swirls and lines of the gas giant as she shook me awake.
I shook my head and attempted to get my bearings, not yet able to comprehend what my housemate was saying to me. I’d fallen asleep, reading in the warm calm of a summer evening. My book was laying closed on my chest, and a mug of coffee in indeterminate state sat on the table next to me.
I propped myself up on one arm and asked groggily, “just what are you on about now?”
“The prototype I borrowed from work! I finished putting it together and hooked it up to a motor controller and now it’s attached to the telescope and it’s tracking stuff in orbit!”
I took a sip out of the coffee cup, the bitter taste of cold coffee waking me up enough to formulate a response, perfunctory though it was.
“And uh, why?”
“Come look, come look!” Evidently she thought it would be easier to just show me, so I sighed and gestured to be pulled up off the deck chair. Given I hadn’t heard her bike, we probably weren’t going further than the road.
Aurelia lead me around the side of the house, past the PV system’s batteries, and into the shed. We squeezed around my car from the side door, arriving in the workshop. The bare protoboard of the only working AER 1841-based computer in the universe blinked lights to itself, running calculations to figure out what angle to point the telescope in the other doorway.
“I got it to boot like an hour ago so I keyed in a program to track the LSO station as it orbits Satella with the telescope,” as she spoke, she gestured to the slowly clicking telescope mount, “and it’s been running that for like ten minutes now.”
I decided to shelve the question of just where she got the telescope mount, and instead peered through the telescope. The parallel bays and stacked rings of the long-abandoned station were outlined against the vivid blue-green of Satella as it continued along its transit. Aurelia was grinning at me when I looked up.
“Do you think they’d notice if we made a CCD at work?”
“I’ll ask the boss about making some tomorrow, maybe we can find a use for them.” I shot her a disapproving look and checked the clock Aurelia had made me hang up in the shed. “Now, you’ve woken me up, so you better make sure I get back to sleep.”
I woke alone to the dull hiss of rain hitting solar panels. My blankets had been replaced properly over me, which was appreciated as I re-absorbed my body heat from the bed and traced the lines in the corrugated iron ceiling. Gradually, the sound of cooking implements and utensils reached my brain, and I sat up, wiping the sleep from my eyes.
A shadow in a blue dress moved into a gap in my bedroom’s curtains, holding a mug.
“Morning. I started breakfast.”
“You just want to avoid the rain,” I said flatly and gestured out the window, before swinging my legs off the bed. The last few years, morning rains had become increasingly common. The news said it was because of melting glaciers adding more water to the air, which then cooled and fell as the winds from the rising sun carried it throughout Sahul’s canyon networks. Good for plants and wind turbines, not so good for individuals without enclosed transport, like Aurelia.
“No idea what you’re talking about,” Aurelia said sarcastically, “coffee or tea?”
My desire for caffeine won out over the temptation to tease my housemate. “Tea.”
“Aight.” She spun and disappeared back through the curtain and I threw on some jeans and a work shirt. For better or worse, I’m in the habit of wearing the unofficial uniform of the working class. Probably for the best, I doubt I could pull off the sort of outfit choices Aurelia does.
Upon pushing my way through the curtains and into the common area of our house, I was greeted by the sight and scent of Aurelia heartily wolfing down omelettes. I took a sip of my tea, and feeling my soul return to my body, reprioritised teasing.
“If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were trying to seduce me. Hey, did you actually sleep?” I picked up the fork from my place at the table, twirling the wooden implement once in my hand before starting on my food.
A trace of a blush coloured Aurelia’s freckled face, but she otherwise remained impartial and parried, “Of course I did. Hey, the next eclipse is next week, do you want to go into town?”
I smiled and let her mildly bloodshot eyes slide. “Sure– with your club, or do you want to invite Elise?”
“I was thinking maybe just us, for once. Quiet, maybe. There’s someone talking I was interested in watching.”
My smile grew, “Oh? Someone interesting?”
“You’ll find out.” She looked intently at her breakfast, and I decided to look into it myself rather than press the question; they’d probably have the plans at the library next time I was down there. That decision hardly satisfied my curiosity, though, so I spent the rest of my meal lost in thought.
The rain had largely abated by the time we finished our breakfast, coming down as a foggy drizzle rather than heavy sheets. Sunlight attempted to burn its way through it as we hurried to the shed. Aurelia collected up the prototype into a plastic box and got into the passenger seat while I opened the big door.
Once both doors were closed, I closed my eyes and began my daily ritual of organising what I needed to do today; there was an issue with the serial controller on the current run of prototype boards which needed to be fixed, the software team wanted an update on the extra instructions they’d requested, which meant trying to get Aurelia to write proper documentation or getting her to talk and write it myself, and we needed to think about the computer’s case at some point.
“It’s really … insulated in here, the rain sounds like it’s really far away.” Aurelia said after I’d re-opened my eyes and shifted into neutral, and I couldn’t help but chuckle.
“That is sort of the appeal of a car, yes, the rain stays out there.”
At the behest of the key in the console, the engine of my car sparked to life, somewhat grumpy from being cold-started. The change in pressure from the aforementioned rain probably didn’t help, given any small ethanol engine with a carburetor is going to be temperamental at the best of times. I eased it into first, rolled a few metres forward out of the shed, closed the door again, and we were on our way.
My car glided quietly along the road into town, the surrounding scenery abruptly transitioning from the stands of pine trees used equally for building and land stabilisation, into fields of sorghum in concentric rings around town. Covered canals struck out from the semi-circular lake that mostly surrounded the town proper, visible as we crossed the bridge over it and onto the old tent retaining wall.
“Hey, check it out, the decorations have started going up!”
Aurelia’s exclamation was entirely unnecessary – the star and planet decorations were pretty hard to miss, draped between arcology buildings across the street, but I shot her a quick smile and returned my focus to the road. Due to an interaction between the orbital eccentricity and orbital period of Sahul that Aurelia could explain better than I, Sahul is only eclipsed by Satella four times a calendar year. Traditionally, their rarity and novelty has resulted in them being days of “rest,” where rest means drinking and partying.
Despite the festival preparations in evidence, the rain appeared to have scared off most of the usual foot traffic. The town of Ravenbank was mostly a collection of large round buildings, manifestations of the prevailing architectural style at the time it was built; 3-10 storey hollow cylinders with an internal garden and large surrounding grounds. Often the outsides would be ornamented with trellises for climbing plants and animals. High density housing like this resulted in most people living within walking distance of their workplace, but today most were huddled waiting for trams, even though the sun was finally winning and the rain was thinning to fog.
AER occupied a quadrant of two floors of a building on the far side of town from the bridge, with Advanced Electronics Research stencilled into perforated aluminium cutouts in the windows overlooking the parking lot for it’s cluster of buildings. We disembarked the car and headed inside through the fog, and into the lobby.
We climbed the stairs in the lobby and started on the way to our office, but two doors down, Jeremy, one of the software guys, popped his head out of the door to his office with a “Hey!”
I stifled a sigh, acutely aware of their outstanding requests that I’m fairly sure were going to be shot down, and forced myself to respond as nonchalantly as possible. “What’s up?”
“Uh, the director was in here a few minutes ago. He was looking for you two, seemed to be in a bit of a state.”
Aurelia spoke up while I was still processing Jeremy’s statement.
“We’ll head straight over.”
She turned and headed back down the stairs, pulling me along. In short order we stood in front the door to the director’s office. Aurelia let me go and offered me a weak smile. After taking a breath, I opened the door.
AER director Dawson Glen spun on his chair to face us. He was a balding man in his mid-50s, but his eyes had a probing intensity, and conversationally he had a tendency to jump between topics by–presumably–some internal logic I’d never been able to get a read on. Outwardly, while not intimidating, he typically radiated confidence, and I suspect that was a significant part of how he got elected director. I found him quite difficult to deal with.
“You’ll never guess what I got in the mail today,” he said, eyes darting between myself and Aurelia.
I cocked my head to one side, indicating for him to continue. Instead of responding, he turned around, and presented us with a diminutive plastic box. It had a rubberised keyboard on top, and a picture of a hummingbird in the top right corner.
“A friend in Shigekatzu sent me that. Apparently they’re being sold there now.”
Aurelia studied it appraisingly, and looked back up. “Hummingbird managed to put out a computer already?”
Glen nodded. “They’re at least six months ahead, and they’re selling for cheap. I’m told they’re quite popular.”
I frowned, not sure how to take this development. “What’s the go, then?”
“Well, we’re not going to be first. So we’re just going to have to be the best. This thing is anything but powerful, and it’s built so cheap it’s unpleasant to use. We’re still early enough in our project that we can make some changes. Aurelia, I want you to draw up some specs for a 16-bit processor. Make it simple. Haley, I need you to figure out what else in the design we need to change to accomodate that.”
So much for making some CCDs.