Paused Fire - Part One

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
So it turns out time travel is impossible, but not time manipulation! Join a team of miners as they tunnel through an explosion frozen in time to save the people trapped inside. (Image uploaded by BotMultichillT)

Submitted: February 02, 2015

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Submitted: February 02, 2015



My pager went off.  Both our faces forgot what emotions they were supposed to be expressing and sunk.  Our perfect moment shattered by that obnoxious beeping.  Why did it have to be now?  Why did whatever maniac who was blowing up whichever politician pick now?  It’s as if our moment was his countdown.  Drop to one knee… 3.  Open the blue velvet box with the paused water ring that cost me four months’ pay… 2.  Ask her, “Will you marry me?”… 1.  Boom.  Pause.

50 hours until crystallization

The Hadrian hotel had been converted into apartments for me and the rest of the crew.  Every time I woke up on those nice silk sheets I expected to find a chocolate on my pillow.

Everything else was subpar though.  We were on a federal meal plan, which meant all the bread was country style (meaning spongy cornbread) and our serving of protein was either beans or mechanically separated chicken pulp pressed into tiny molds.  Kind of like me and the guys being pressed into that hotel.

“Hurry up Barley, ship’s launching in thirty seconds with or without you,” Hilcox said as he jogged past my room’s open door.

“I was in the middle of proposing,” I yelled back.  I don’t think the words caught up with him.  Even though that was only the second time I’d be using the equipment, I had managed to misplace some of it.  Standard issue backpack. Check.  Rubber-handled pickaxe. Check.  Rubber gloves. Check.  Fire resistant jacket… ziiiiiip. Check.  Where the Hell was my countdown watch?  I threw the glorious silk sheets into the air and saw the watch fall out of them.  The sheets landed on an overturned chair.  Crusts of cornbread sat on used plates.  There was a meteor-like grease smear on the full length mirror in the bathroom.  We’re breaking the mold, I thought.  I clipped the watch to my wrist and rushed out of the room to catch up with Hilcox.  I was the last one to pile into the transport before it launched off the ground like a frog over an air vent.

As the craft climbed I looked out the open sides and tried to spot the window to my room, where I’d left Marcy.  Left her there with an engagement ring before even hearing her answer.  She understood though.  Duty called.  My contract called.  She would wait, finger hovering in and out of the ring in limbo… She would hold on to the moment until I got back.

49 hours and forty minutes until crystallization

The transport flew over our target, the Hadrian multi-sport stadium.  A scrolling info sheet in the transport told me its capacity was thirty thousand.  We hadn’t been called in to see a half time show though.  The stadium was booked today for a political rally.  Edmond R. Pike was talking about his senate campaign.  If I remembered correctly, the senate on that planet was a big deal.  There were only ten slots and bushels of executive power in each one.  No wonder the guy was targeted.

The stadium stuck out of the city surrounding it like a giant bronze dish.  I saw thousands of electric signs on its exterior like twinkling gems set into its rim.  The bowl appeared to be filled with a huge black truffle which mostly obscured the green of the field’s artificial grass.

“Woah, that doesn’t look right,” Muller yelled over the wind as we began to descend.  He scratched his short blonde hair.

“They’re not all going to look like the diagrams in the book dumbass,” Hilcox responded.

“It’s supposed to be orange though.  We didn’t see any that were black,” Muller said, trying to sound smarter than he was.  It didn’t help that the wind from the open doors pulled a rope of drool out of his mouth and dragged it across his cheek.  He wiped it away with an arm that was, embarrassingly, more muscular than mine.  I’d been mining for six years but not even pitting your axe against diamonds will give you muscles like Muller’s.  You had to be from good Goldrian stock to be built like that.

“That just means there’s a lot of smoke,” I said.  He did have a point.  It shouldn’t have been completely black.

We set down inside the police perimeter.  Black uniforms were still ushering confused spectators out and setting up yellow plastic barriers.  Plenty of the witnesses turned around the moment the police let go of them and leaned over the new barriers.  They checked to see if what they saw actually happened.

Muller’s boots hit the pavement with a smack.  He carried three sets of gear between his shoulders and a first aid kit the size of a treasure chest in his arms.  I hated the sight of that kit.  It reminded me how, after millions of people like me died in coal mines and silver mines and uranium mines, they just had to go and invent a new kind of mine even more dangerous than the rest.  It was so damn dangerous we could empty kits that big and then still have to use them as coffins.

The police ushered us in through the stadium’s archway.  We skipped the ticket booths.  Hilcox took Muller and ten other guys to the left.  They would start on the left side of it while my unit took it on from the back.  Quid, the sculpting surgeon, jogged up next to me.

“You ever seen this much smoke on one before?” he asked.

“No, but this is only my second excavation.  Watch out.”  Quid and I broke apart as a robotic stretcher escorted by two paramedics rushed between us.  On it a woman in a torn skirt furiously rubbed her leg.  I turned my head to watch her and saw her smack the limb with her purse.  Its metal clasp clanked against her skin as the leg refused to move.

“She’ll have to lose that leg,” Quid said morosely.  He pressed his glasses up the bridge of his nose and ignored the bit of sweat fog that had already built on the lenses.

“What?  Why?” I asked in horror.  “Can’t they just un-pause it?”

“No.  It only works on trapped people,” Quid gestured toward the black mass taking up much of the stadium, “because they’re entirely paused.  That poor woman caught the edge of it. So live, flowing blood will collide with the paused stuff in her veins.  It’ll pool in the wrong places and stop circulating.  It might even start pouring through her skin right above the paused point.  We can’t undo that kind of damage.”

“Let’s go,” I said.  Quid dropped his head, knowing he said the wrong thing.  I didn’t want to hear stuff like that.  I was just there to break up mankind’s newest favorite rock.

My boots crunched on the fake grass and I stared at the looming foaming wall of black and gray before me.  I tried to tune in to the people trapped inside.  Tried to see their outlines through the block of frozen time.

45 hours and sixteen minutes until crystallization

My axe struck the black rock before me and broke off a huge chunk with a shower of sparks and bolts of static.  I kicked the rock aside so someone could cart it away.  Being on point meant I was the one blazing the trail.  Every strike made the tunnel into the black mass a little longer.  So far we’d tunneled fifteen feet into the smokestone.  I had almost no daylight at that point and relied on the illumination from the flashlight on my helmet and the sparks from each strike.

On my first excavation there was almost no smoke.  Our first tunnel was all transparent oranges and yellows.  It was almost beautiful, like burrowing into the sun.  Better yet, the paused fire was mostly transparent so we could see the people we were supposed to be rescuing like bugs stuck in amber.

Since my team came at the explosion from the back we were closest to the stage.  Our orders were to make a beeline past anyone trapped that we could see and go straight for the senator.  He was in that mess somewhere, in all likelihood dead.  The closer you are to the blast center, well… the stopwatches stop what they can.

Craaack!  A ray of yellowish light struck my eyes.  I’d hit fire.

I’d only actually seen a stopwatch once, when they installed one in my hometown’s city hall six years prior to Hadria.  My home world Aphos was one of the last planets to get them, mostly because it was a poor backwater rock.  Both continental governments had a fund nicknamed ‘piggybank’ that they dumped our tax dollars into until we could afford a decent number of stopwatches.

I was eighteen and angry, which took the form of protest signs I shoved in the faces of every elected official unimportant enough to not have a bodyguard.  The union was the first place where I got respect, the one place where the grease on my elbows was a mark of honor.  So every weekend we stuck our heads out of our gopher holes and marched down to city hall to wave our signs around and sing obscene songs about the mayor’s mother getting in bed with the fattest corporate cats Aphos had to offer.  Our signs were the closest things to art we ever made.  I’d put six hours into mine and spent a week’s pay on holographic ink so that when I turned the sign it would switch to a different picture.  Pointed left it showed Momma Mayor walking with a cane.  Pointed Right it switched to a guy in a suit holding her cane horizontally and watching her limbo under it.  How low can you go?

Some of the guys liked to rock cars and hovercraft when they entered the parking lot but I stayed out of it.  Nobody touched the craft that came in with the stopwatch.  It floated by me with a calm hum and I looked up at the machine; it was suspended by a cable from a small crane on the craft’s back.  It was sort of cube-shaped, with an emerald-colored watch face design on each surface.  More emerald bands of metal formed a casing around it.  My grandmother used to have shiny bits like it hanging from the dining room chandelier.

The rowdy bunch of miners I called my family were quieter than I’d ever heard them as it floated by.  Even these hard-living, hard-working guys who could grow beards, appetites, and toenails faster than anybody else seemed stalled at the sight of it.  It was a beautiful thing.

Some workers detached it and took it inside.  Our heads leaned to the side so we could follow it. 

And just like that Marcy was standing next to me.  I hadn’t heard her approach.  She was just there, like a bit of sun glare.

“It’s beautiful isn’t it?” She said.

“Yeah,” I muttered.  “Do you think we’ll ever have to use it?”

“Hmm,” Marcy said, coiling her blonde hair around a finger.  She was dressed in what I thought was her Sunday best, and what she thought of as casual Friday.  “No.”

“Why are you so sure?”

“Nobody cares enough about Aphos to try and blow any of us up.”

“I wonder what your dad would say if he heard you say that.  He’s been mining here for ten years.  Says it’s the cleanest dirt he’s ever had the pleasure of breathing in.”

“How do you know who my dad is?”

“I work with him.  You’ve got his cheeks.”

“And I’m guessing he taught you how to make signs,” she said, glancing at the bloomers on the limboing Mayor Mom cartoon.  I coughed and turned the sign to change it to the tamer picture.  The fake cough turned into a real one.  I never got what Marcy’s dad was talking about; the dust seemed pretty bad to me.  It did eat up my grandfather’s insides.  Then when grandma had him cremated I couldn’t stop thinking how he would’ve hated becoming dust.  We should’ve mixed him with cement and cast a statue.

“I still don’t get how they work,” I said.  I of course knew, it was all anybody had been talking about for weeks, but I just had to hear her explain it to me.  She leaned her head even more to see through the open doors to where they were setting it up.  Her head touched my shoulder.  Only later did I realize that it felt like getting hit with that first ray of light after breaking through the smoke.

“Well it turns out all those time travel stories weren’t worth the headaches people got trying to figure them out.  Paradoxes just can’t happen.  So travelling back and telling yourself not to eat that rotten sandwich or jumping forward to see what color your great grandkid’s eyes are isn’t a choice… but time manipulation… that we can do.  So if you think someone’s in danger of getting killed you set up a stopwatch and give it a trigger.  If you’re afraid of an avalanche make it the pressure of tons of snow that’ll set it off.  If you’re afraid of bombs, give it a smoke detector.”  She made her hand into a fist, funneled her lips, and made the sound of an explosion.  Her fingers uncurled and spread apart.  She stopped her hand in mid-air.  “When it goes off, everything thicker than the air in its range gets paused.  Time stops.  So if it’s a bomb the smoke stops spreading and the fire stops burning.  It gives us time to gather our heads.”

“We should just freeze most people until we figure out how to live forever,” I said.  “I don’t mind waiting a couple hundred years if it means I can stop worrying.”

“You really don’t know anything do you?” she asked.  Everyone clapped around us.  Apparently they were done installing it.  The watch, glistening green, hung over the main podium like a guardian angel.  “It’s not perfect,” she said through the dying applause.  Everyone started picking up their signs again and marching around the building.  They needed the best sign up and waving so I picked it up and rejoined the line.  Marcy paid no attention to the big, sweating, polyester-covered bodies around her and kept talking.  She was two steps ahead of me and walking backward so we were face to face.

“See you have to reverse the stopwatch before fifty-one hours is up.  If you don’t the frozen time it… it kind of crystallizes you know?  Gets stuck in its ways worse than old Goldrian ladies.  If the people aren’t saved before that they just become statues, forever!”

“And that’s why they hire miners to dig them out of all that paused stuff right?” I asked.  She smiled.  I could tell she was onto me.

“Yep.  All this paused stuff has energy trapped in it too, so you need people to do the work.  If robots or machines do it they short out.”  She grabbed my arm and pulled me out of the line.  The line took no notice.  The marchers morphed to fill in my hole and kept going.

“Are you thinking of being one of those guys?  A time miner?”  When my mom asked questions like that she looked worried, but not Marcy.  Marcy smiled like a drunk wing walker.

“Maybe,” I said.  “Think it’s better than this nice union gig I’ve got now?”  We both looked back at the protest.  The soles of their shoes thudded on the concrete in rhythm.

“The best time miners get juicy contracts.  They travel to exotic worlds… they save people.”

“Well I don’t know,” I said with a smile.  “Really shouldn’t waste all this sign-making talent.”

40 hours until crystallization

A pungent mix of smells burst from the wrap as I took my first bite.  Damn government issue lunches.  They came in little gray boxes so you couldn’t see the contents.  When you open it up it’s juice in a box, smashed fruit in a tube, sponge cake in a wrapper, and some kind of protein perfectly concealed in a tortilla with its edges tucked in tighter than a kid on Christmas eve.  I held my nose when chewing the first bite.  They only giving me twenty minutes for lunch, so at least my suffering could only last that long.  A drop of brown mush fell from the wrap and landed on my pants.  Beans maybe.  Could be that potato stuff they flavor with pork broth.

The explosion stood before me, its black shell now torn away in three places.  Trucks came in and out, beeping and honking at each other, so they could haul the paused stuff away.My unit was sitting up in the stadium’s bleachers for lunch.  One guy said he was going to walk up to the skyboxes and eat in style but when I turned around I noticed he’d stopped halfway there.  He was just a black dot in a sea of empty blue seats, eating something no stadium vendor would ever sell.  Guess the journey to greatness is just too damn long, I thought.

The other teams were still hard at work tunneling deep inside.  Like ants they marched in and out of their holes, occasionally pulling out a person encased in frozen fire.  The victims were dragged over to the side and dumped in a pile, where Quid and the other sculptor surgeons went at them.  They would do their best to chisel as much of the fire away as they could without accidentally taking chunks of frozen flesh with it.  The more they could get, the less likely it was that the victim would suffer further burns when they were unpaused.  From that distance all those golden rocks with human centers looked like a pile of candies.  My stomach grumbled.  I was practically pouring the government lunch down my throat but that wasn’t fooling it.  Halfway through the partially frozen fruit mush I spotted something that made me choke on a little chunk of mango.  There was someone on the explosion.  He had climbed up near the top of it and was going at it with a pickaxe.  The guy wore a miner’s uniform but he clearly wasn’t with us.  It was protocol to always go at these things from the sides in case of loops.  I turned to my teammate Andon, who was feasting on a chocolate bar he’d obviously picked up from one of the stadium’s vending machines.

“Andon, what’s that punk doing?

“Where?” He asked through a mouthful of chocolate.

“Up on the cloud.” I pointed, he squinted.  “No over there.  Right there.  On that ridge with the three bumps.  See the sparks?  He’s going at it.”

“No way.  I think I know what he’s doing, come on.  We might get a reward for this.”  Andon rolled up his chocolate and pocketed it before descending the bleachers several rows at a time.  “Come on,” he said, waving me down.

Not like I’m missing anything here, I thought as I stared at the gray cardboard box in front of me.  I tossed it aside and hopped down to catch up.  By the time I got down to the fake grass, Andon was feeling the smoky curves of the cloud, looking for a way up.

“Aha!” he said, his hand sinking into a divot.  “The guy hammered out some steps.”  Andon started to climb.  Once he was about eight feet off the ground I started ascending behind him.  The hand holds were a little too small for me, giving me a clue to the mystery miner’s size.  There was no way they’d ever hire a guy that small.

Andon disappeared over a swell of smoke and I struggled to catch up.  Black dust from our team’s efforts blew over my face and stuck to the back of my sweaty hands.  As I rose the sounds of trucks faded away and were replaced by the steady bell toll of a lone pickaxe.  It sounded weak and fast… but experienced.  No sliding sound of metal on stone.

“I got you, you little thief!” Andon growled.  I climbed even faster, my fingers slipping here and there.  It occurred to me that I had no idea how high the cloud was.  Sounds of a struggle cascaded down.  Chunks of frozen smoke were tossed over the edge.

“Let me go!” a nasally voice cried.  ‘I didn’t do nothing!”

“The Hell you didn’t,” Andon said.  Someone threw a punch.  There was a flat hollow sound of fist on chest and breath hissing out of lungs.

I was just about to cross the topmost swell when a head peaked over the edge.  Hair obscured the eyes and blood dripped off the tip of its nose and into my eyes.  I swore and wiped it away with my sleeve.  I pushed the head back over the edge and pulled myself up simultaneously, trying to make sure we were both safe on the smoke ridge.  Jagged smoke crystals poked me in the back as I lay flat on the ridge the mystery miner had carved out.  My head shot up so I could survey the bloodshed.  The intruder had a nosebleed.  Andon pulled the small thin man up by the shoulders.  Blood dribbled down the outdated mining uniform.  We hadn’t worn shirts with buttons up the middle for two months now.  He looked younger than either of us and his frazzled bowl cut of blonde hair was streaked black with both dye and smoke residue.

“Bastard took a swing at me with his axe,” Andon said, gripping the man’s arms tightly.

“What are you doing here?” I asked him.

“None of your business,” he sputtered back through the blood.

“I’ll tell you what he’s doing,” Andon said loudly.  “He’s a gemhunter.  Guy was trying to steal some of the paused stuff and sell it so his black market buddies could make all kinds of ridiculously expensive rings and things for bimbos and gold diggers to wear on the red carpet.”

“You guys don’t need all of it,” the thief said.  “A guy’s got to eat.”

“Oh you eat this stuff?” I said, rage welling up inside me.  I pulled myself up and grabbed some smoke pebbles from the ridge.

“Hey man what are you do…” the thief started to say before I shoved the pebbles in his open mouth.  He spit them back out, now coated in a film of blood and spit.  I wondered for a moment if it tasted like a cigarette before the guilt got to me.  It was hard not to fly off the handle sometimes.  I worked hard to afford that paused water ring.  I did it right.  The government claimed anything created by stopwatches so that it could use the proceeds from the gemstone market to fund the miners.  Every rock that guy took was another piece of imitation beef jerky I had to eat instead of a real cut of meat.  Every paused fire necklace he sold was another week I had to wait for new boots to replace the ones with the shredded soles. 

I took a deep breath and turned away from the thief.  From the top of the cloud I could see the concentric blue lines of seats, like calming ripples.  It was a good thing Marcy didn’t see me shoving rocks in a guy’s face.

“Screw you,” the thief snarled.  “If I could’ve found a frozen guy,” he spat blood, “and chipped the frozen ink out of the pen in his pocket or his hand… I could’ve paid my rent for two years.”

“Oh really?” I said, anger surging again.  Andon picked the guy up off his feet and leaned back, presenting him as a target to me.  I stomped over to him and put my face inches from his.  The expression in the thief’s eyes changed from disrespect to fear.  His pupils shrank into glassy specks of darkness.

“So how much would you get for the tears you chiseled out of their eyes?  How about those beads of frozen sweat the fire pulled out of their skin before it engulfed them?  What are those worth?  Would you take the blood from their veins?  You could be a rich man if only you broke a chunk of fear-induced piss off of one of their thighs!”  I reared back to punch.  The guy squeezed his eyes shut.  Another lovely paused moment.  So much momentum… so much force behind my hand.  So much potential energy in the thief’s pained expression when I hadn’t even hit him yet.  Being around all this stopped time… it gave me a sense of things.  I sensed… in that frozen moment, in that painting of time, that I didn’t want to hit the guy.  So I dropped my fist and let him keep anticipating it.

“You don’t want to tune him up a little?” Andon asked, disappointed.

“No,” I said.  “Let’s just turn him in.”  I descended first, then the thief, and then Andon.  When I grabbed the guy’s shoulders I noticed his eyes were still scrunched shut.  He was still in that moment.  He was feeling the pain he knew he deserved.

We marched him to the front gate where we had some of the police on crowd control arrest him and lead him away.  Andon patted me on the back and headed back to work.  It took me a moment to realize my lunch break was probably long over.  Work would have to wait though, since someone very important was coming towards me wearing a dark green suit that probably cost more than everything I owned, transplantable organs included.

39 hours and twenty-six minutes until crystallization

“Greco Barley?” the man asked, looking back and forth between my face and the screen on his phone.

“Yes sir,” I responded.  The guy unleashed a big camera-loving plastic grin all over me.  It didn’t look right, especially because I could see police barriers and ambulances moving around behind him.  He tossed me the phone and I barely caught it.  There was a picture of my miner’s ID on the screen.

“That’s a pretty lousy picture of you,” he said and chuckled.  He reached his hand out to take the phone back.  “Do you know who I am?”

“Yes sir,” I said.  “You’re on the dedication page of the time miner’s manual.” I stuck my hands up to frame an invisible quote.  “Roma Trist: Interplanetary Financial Officer for Stopwatch Services”.  My arms dropped.  “What are you looking up my picture for?”

“Well I just wanted to commend you,” he said, sounding affronted.  “I can’t tell you how much these thieves take from us every year.  Since I’m the bean counter for every government involved, I’m the one who has to explain the little holes in the bottom of the bag that beans have been dribbling out of.  It’s nice having dedicated guys like you sewing them up for me.”  He slapped me on the arm sportingly.

“What are you doing here anyway?” I asked.  “You can’t be at every pausing.”

“Maybe I can,” he said and bugged his eyes out.  “Who knows what special treats the R&D guys have given out.”  He laughed at his own joke and only stopped when a siren distracted him.  “Anyway, I was actually here listening to the speech.  Part of his campaign was increased stopwatch presence so I thought it best that I be here to represent that.  Luckily I was way in the back, so the blast didn’t even come close.  The shockwave though…” he shook his head, “passed through me like cheap coffee.”  There was that smile again.  It probably tarnished the silver spoon in seconds.

“Is that all?” I asked, eager to get back to my tunnel. Trist dropped the grin.

“No,” he said.  “I want you to go around and tell your buddies we’ve got a specialist coming in.”

“What for?”

“Ehh…” Trist scowled, “Some of the other higher ups were here too and they’re concerned about the smokestone.  I told them they were wasting resources but they didn’t care.”

“There is a lot more smoke than normal,” I said.

“Yeah well every minute we spend worrying about smoke is another person who dies trapped in the fire because you couldn’t reach them before crystallization.”

“So who’s this expert?” I asked, trying to hide my annoyance.  In one sentence he had shifted the blame from his colleagues to me.

“Some chronogeologist… Her name’s Druda Poi.  They want her to look at the site: check for paused radiation, map the loops, other junk like that.  So go tell your guys.”

“I’ll make it my top prio…” I choked on the sarcasm as a banshee wail swept across the stadium entrance.  Screams followed it.  It can’t be.  It’s too soon.  Before I could finish the thought, I was back through the gate and examining the explosion.  The front was intact, the left side was fine, and the back was…

A long trail of blackened and melted turf marked the entrance to my team’s tunnel as if a jet engine had come barreling through.  There were bodies scattered here and there, most of them wriggling.

“Medics!”  I shouted.  “Medics!”  I leaned down to examine a blackened face.  “Andon get up!  Andon!”  No use.  If I had tried to open the flakes of charcoal that were his eyelids they would’ve broken off in my hand.

24 hours until crystallization

My first ‘catnap’ shift passed with no sleep.  It wasn’t because I was stuck in an onsite tent and had forgotten my earplugs.  It wasn’t because Roma was a smug wad of money with legs.  It wasn’t even because Andon was dead.  I’m a callous bastard, I thought.  After a full digging shift, a lunch of efficiently packed sludge, and a citizen’s arrest, an accident just seemed like the natural progression.  Andon told the best jokes.  Hilcox had nothing on him.

The accident was the real reason I couldn’t sleep.  Stopwatches weren’t perfect… there were always anomalies to deal with in the pausing, like finding a bubble in glass or an aquifer under your feet.  We had weeks of safety training all about the loops.  They are irregularities in the pausing process.  Andon called them ‘instant replays’ whenever he was making another fantastic joke about how our job was like going to the movies.

What killed him was a sealed time repetition in the body of the paused explosion.  In bubbles like that, instead of stopping, time replays a few seconds from the last moments before the pause.  A wave of fire flies out again, and again, and again, and nothing will ever stop it… unless some unlucky lump like Andon breaks the seal.  Then the internal pressure changes and all that fire comes pouring out through the hole.  What’s left is an empty chamber at the end of the tunnel and a few corpses pushed out of the tunnel by the blast, dead as can be.  Like some kind of undead being birthed from the mouth of Hell.

We needed that specialist to get there.  Her transport wasn’t due for a few hours yet and I hated the idea of going back to work without her examining that screwed up fireball first.  Loops were supposed to be infrequent.  They were supposed to be about the size of a basketball.  That thing was riddled with them.  I saw guys walk by the tent entrance decked out in their full fire gear: padded gray suits with orange stripes.  Face masks that look like fireplace grills.  We worked slower than the Interplanet Mail Carriers in those things.  Sleeping was made even less likely as I heard the howl of escaped fire every three minutes.  The loops were huge too.  We found bodies in a lot of them.  Several guys got down on their knees and prayed right there that those people were dead before the loop started.  If they weren’t… then they had been dying over and over again since the pause.  They burned.  They left.  They came back.  They burned.  They left… so on and so on until we punctured the loop.  I kept thinking about the other people who were bound to be agonizing in perpetuity right then, while I struggled to sleep.  They’d started the great sleep a thousand times and I couldn’t even get a regular one going.  Where was that damn expert?

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