Friday, September 2, 2011

Wildlife - Part 1 of 2

© 2006 by Henry Melton

From fantasy to some hard vacuum science fiction, first published in ANALOG.  Here's a story I wrote while on a long road trip with my talented nature photographer wife, Mary Ann Melton.

Greg Hammersmith frowned at the frozen image of a blue-winged teal tugging at the grass with its beak.  The keystone is off.  The deck-of-cards projector tracked his finger and corrected the frame.
"Off."  The bird vanished, long enough for him to spray a fresh layer of Canvas on the wall where the image had been.  "Calibrate and burn.  Ten percent impressionist.  Two inch frame, cinnamon."
After the projector did its thing, Greg picked the gadget up and stuffed it in his shirt pocket.
That gives the room some life!
But his smile faded.  I've already used up one bottle of Canvas already.
In his pocket was every picture he had taken in his thirty years as a nature photographer back on Earth.  There were many good shots, one blank space on the wall, and a nagging need to fill it.
One thing for sure, there would be no landscapes.  Not with the scenery outside.
Greg's one-man habitat was sitting two kilometers to the west of Byrgius Crater, site number three in his year-long photo-shoot.  It had taken eight years to get the funding and approval for his unique photo-essay on the lunar landscape.  Twelve sites, one for each month, taking out time to relocate the habitat in the middle of each long lunar night.
The perfectionist in him wished he could set up his cameras and have a complete synodic period of twenty-nine and a half days to get every possibility of light and shadow on the craters and rills he had chosen, but some trade-off had to be made to keep the International Photo-Artistry Guild happy and a one-year job with an even dozen sites was the limit of what they could fund.  As it was, his first site, with no Earth in the sky, had been terminally boring once the sun had set.  At least on the earthward side, subtle changes in color reflected from the Earth's blue and white gave some variety to his shots.
He looked the bird in the eye.  Greg remembered that teal.  The duck had waddled ashore looking for crumbs left over from the tourists, alert for a handout, but still wild enough to keep his distance.
I miss wildlife.  Luna is grand, but it's sterile.
Eighty percent of his photo library were animal shots–his official biographer had coaxed that admission out of him.  He had only gotten into photography to capture the critters.
There are none here.  He hadn't realized how much he missed animals until the tug relocated his habitat from Riccioli a couple of weeks ago, bringing fresh supplies, and two dozen fruit-flies along with the produce.
The infinitesimal insects died quickly, in spite of his precautions.  In all his years, he hadn't really appreciated how short their lifespan was.  Usually they reproduced so fast that they just appeared immortal.
These had survived Lift-Luna's food sterilization somehow, but not totally undamaged.  His close-up macro photos of his guests had shown evidence of deformed wings and if he had been an entomologist, probably other mutations.  Fascinating photos–but they weren't the kind that would sell.
Deedee dum, dedum.  "Time for the photo of the day."
Greg nodded to the computer.  "Okay.  Give me a minute."  He brought up the album and scanned through the last twenty-four hours worth of images.
Each new site took a couple of days to get the cameras positioned.  About half of those he did himself, trudging around the landscape in a vacuum suit, riding a golf-cart.  The others he put on tripods and sent them to position themselves.  From then until the end of the month, he stayed indoors and rode herd on his remote eyes from the comfort of his desk.
At this sun angle, only three of the cameras were producing anything approaching artistic landscapes.  Gigapixel frames were captured from each of the cameras every ten seconds.  Of course he saved it all for later re-evaluation, but for now he scanned the day's worth as a high-speed movie, looking for some transient reflection or coloration that would make for an interesting ....
"Ah, there it is."
He backed up the movie and located the best frame.
Three peaks on the nearby ridge had roughly the same surface angle and the sun outlined similar crests.  "Three Kings" he typed in for the title.  Cropping the image to center the peaks and tweaking the color balance for best effect, he let it sit on the side screen while he hunted for better candidates.  After thirty minutes of searching and three other potential winners, "Three Kings" was still the best.  So off to the L-4 relay station and then to Earth–in under ten seconds the day's tribute to IPAG was in place.
Deedee dum, dedum.  "Review the Brazilian shoot proposal."
He frowned at the images from his easternmost camera.  "Reschedule," he told the computer.  It would nag him about it later.
The next shoot in Antarctica was already contracted.  Perhaps that had been a mistake–two barren environments back to back–but it was only for two months.  Was the boat trip up to the headwaters of the Amazon on over-reaction?
Still, the only way to survive in this business was to think ahead, find out what people want and be the first to give it to them.
It would be nice to be in a jungle shoot again, with wildlife appearing around every bend of the river.
But he could think about that later.  Right now, there was a defect in Camera-8 that he had to resolve.
In the lower left of the frame, where the gray plains were just beginning to show shading as the sun crept across their rising elevation, there was a thin black line, straight as an arrow, where there had been nothing more than the random texture of microcratering.
Did I put it there?  He had positioned the cameras during the lunar night, taking great care that none of the other cameras and none of his golf-cart tracks would be visible from any of the sites.  But taking precautions never stopped him from making blunders before.  Camera-8 was due to supply some great sunset shots in another week, and if he had ruined the frame, then he would have to take action quickly.
Or it could be a defect in the camera or the lens.
He looked at the site map photo he had taken.
"Camera-8, reposition yourself three meters to the south, facing the same direction."
A "Motion Jitter" warning appeared on the screen as the tripod took a few steps to the south.  When it cleared, he captured the first frame.  Visually it looked identical.
"Match and overlay.  Zoom to pixels."
The frames were nearly identical, except at the edges where the errors caused by the re-pointing were visible.
So, it's not a camera defect.  That line exists out there on the landscape.
"Position back one day on Camera-8, match and overlay."
The black line flickered on the screen.
So I didn't miss it.  It appeared sometime today.
"Scan forward in time at 20 X."  He would locate when it appeared.  Maybe as it faded into view, he could see more irregularities.  Straight lines weren't unknown in nature, but true ones were rare.  Catch a horizon or the trunk of a tall pine in the right light and nature will show all her wrinkles.  Greg's career had been built on nature's wrinkles.
He expected irregular dots to appear and then connect into a line.  That's not what he got.
"Stop!  Back that up and replay it."
As the line grew longer leading from the edge of the frame, he felt his remaining hair stand on edge.  He wasn't alone.  Someone was out there.

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