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Vignette: Nonsuch

By Jason Sharp



On the Sea Lion Press Forums, we run a monthly Vignette Challenge. Contributors are invited to write short stories on a specific theme (changed monthly).


The Sixty-Second Vignette Challenge is on the theme of Celebrations, coinciding with the Coronation of King Charles III (known to some as Arthur), and can be found here.


This vignette was from the Fifty-Fourth Challenge, on the subject of Broadcasting.


***


“Ready?” Malcolm asked.


“Mmm..,” Bill started, peering into his viewfinder.


“Not quite yet, Mal,” Hamish cut him off. “That bloody truck is still idling at the gate. If he goes in while you’re talking, it’ll ruin the shot.


“It won’t be long, I’m sure,” called out their local liaison, a Tobagonian woman named Trudy, from her golf cart.


“Hopefully not,” Malcolm agreed. “I’m looking forward to the air conditioning at the Visitor’s Centre.”


“I expect you don’t use much air conditioning back home, hey?” Trudy replied.


“Doubt there’s a single unit in all of Rupertsland, love,” Bill agreed.


Off to their left, the security arm at the gate swung upwards and the truck’s diesel engine rumbled as it inched forward into the site. They watched it proceed up the road for perhaps half a minute, then Hamish said: “That should be good.”


Malcolm rolled his shoulders and straightened slightly. “Cue it.”


Bill didn’t move. “In five, four, three, two...”


“...The St. Joseph Launch Centre, on the beautiful island of Trinidad, is Great Britain’s primary space port,” Malcolm recited, slowly waving his left hand behind him, the right keeping his hand-held microphone under his chin. “Since its opening in 1946, dozens of rockets, ranging from tiny sounding rockets to the mighty White Knight satellite carrier have roared into outer space on missions for His Majesty’s Government, his dominions, and private industry. Today, we’re here to witness the launch of Rupertsland’s first satellite, Nonsuch One...”


“...Cut,” Bill said after the pause. “Do you want a fourth takes or are we good?”


“I think we’re good,” Malcolm said. “Hamish?”


“The sound seemed reasonable. Let’s get inside before we die,” Hamish suggested.


***


The lobby of the St. Joseph Vistor’s Centre was adorned with space-related memorabilia: Mock-ups of rockets, satellites, and spacecraft; a surplus Lancelot-III engine; a White Knight payload fairing; plaques and photographs; art; even a collection of wax figures representing the early leaders of the Empire’s space programme. Bill was moving the camera about the lobby, shooting short snippets of videotape for any montage segments they’d edit together later on, while Trudy had disappeared to find her boss for his impending interview.


“I suppose we’ll be able to watch Rutherford Row at the same time as everybody else now,” Hamish muttered as he examined his microphone room. “No more waiting three days for the reels to be flown in from London.”


“Sod that drivel, how about live football?” Malcolm retorted.


“Bah, professional sports are a racket, Mal. Overpaid gits kicking a ball around a big pitch.”


Malcolm stared at the sound tech. “I’ve seen you watching the Canadian hockey broadcasts, Hamish. What do you think that is, if not professional?”


“Yes, well, they’re not getting paid anything like those floppy fools back in the home isles,” Hamish grumbled. “And there’s no corporate advertising on their uniforms, either. That’s just disgraceful. Right, this is good to go as soon as Bill’s done.”


***


“How’s that?” Malcolm asked.


“That’s good, that’s good,” Bill replied as Hamish adjusted the height of the boom microphone just out of frame.


“We can move around if you prefer,” said their guest. “Some crews prefer to shoot me against a plain wall so there’s no visual distraction.”


“The lighting’s good over here,” Trudy said, pointing to a corner. “The BBC people use it frequently when they come by.”


“And we could do that, Miss Rampersad, but let’s get one in front of this mural first,” Malcolm said.


“Absolutely, we can do that.”


It was a weird contrast between Malcolm’s Grenville Row silk suit and their guest’s khaki shorts and white shirt, but a lot of the launch centre staff seemed to dress that way. Even Trudy and the few other women on site wore shorts instead of skirts. “Ready then? Cue it,” Malcolm said.


Bill started recording and said: “In five, four, three, two...”


“I’m with Simon Hartwell, Director of Guest Services at the St. Joseph Launch Centre,” Malcolm said, turning to face Hartwell. “Mr Hartwell, first off, thank you for this opportunity to speak with you.”


“Oh, it’s my pleasure, of course,” Hartwell nodded.


“Tell me, it’s a day that Rupertslanders have been waiting many years for. Will it be a happy occasion, do you think?”


“Nothing’s certain in this business, but I believe so,” Hartwell said to Malcolm. “The White Knight has a ninety percent success rate, and the weather here today is sunny and warm, with favourable winds at all altitudes. The greatest risk to a happy day is the possibility of mechanical difficulties, which are not uncommon and do sometimes force us to reschedule launches.”


Malcolm nodded. “Our viewers back home may be wondering why the White Knight is launched from distant, tiny Trinidad, rather than from Great Britain herself. What is the rationale for that?”


“There are a few reasons for that. Most notably, the Earth’s rotation is such that a rocket launched from the equator requires less energy to reach orbit than it would from a higher latitude. The weather is also more favourable, and there’s much more open ocean under the flight path of the rocket – so less risk of anything accidently falling on somebody’s shed.”


“Or a sensitive French military facility,” Malcolm quipped.


“That would certainly be awkward,” Hartwell agreed.


Malcolm nodded knowingly. “Are any of those factors particularly relevant to the launch of Nonsuch One?”


“Absolutely. Communications satellites such as Nonsuch One are deposited in what is called a geosynchronous orbit – meaning in this case that it will appear to be stationary in the sky over Rupertsland. That requires a lot of energy, and while some of that comes from small, extra rockets attached to the White Knight, some of the energy also comes from the fact that we’re launching so close to the equator. It will all pay off when your Eskimos can sit in their-”


“Cut!” Bill interjected.


“Oh?” Hartwell said, brows raised. “Was that too technical?”


“Not at all, you were great,” Malcolm said. “It’s just that the Eskimos aren’t authorised to use televisions. Part of the government’s cultural preservation mandate, you see.”


“It would throw off the audience back home. We could edit it out, but it’s easier just to re-shoot,” Bill added.


“Oh, I wasn’t aware of that,” Hartwell said. “Sorry, chaps.”


“No, not at all. How would you know?” Malcolm replied. “Everything before that was brilliant. If we can just start over and not mention Eskimos, that would be ideal.”


“Certainly,” Hartwell agreed, patting down his hair.


“Excellent, thank you. Cue it, Bill.”


***


“I’m very good, thank you,” Prime Minister Abner Simmons said. He and Malcolm were facing each other in the VIP lounge of the Visitor Centre rather than standing side by side. This was less a matter of varying the shooting style and more a matter of obscuring the still-damp sweat stain under the right shoulder of the Prime Minister’s jacket.


“Prime Minister, you’ve been advocating for this for some time now,” Malcolm replied. “You fought and won an election over the issue, in fact. Does today vindicate you at last?”


“I would say my position was already quite reasonable and agreed upon by the good people of Rupertsland. From Hebron to Coppermine and from Moose Factory to English Mines, it was agreed that we needed closer ties and kinship, both internally and with the Empire, in a way that only a modern satellite can provide,” Simmons proclaimed. “Today we take a bold step into the future.”


“I understand it will be a few weeks before the satellite is fully in service, but dare I ask if there are plans afoot to celebrate its arrival on station?” Malcolm asked.


“I shall take the opportunity to speak to the nation from your television studio in York Factory, in fact,” Simmons announced, clapping his hands together. “You should take note. I believe you’ll find it interesting.”


Behind Bill, Hamish frowned as the unexpectedly loud sound but said nothing, and so Malcolm continued. “I shall certainly look forward to that, then, Prime Minister. I see we’re about an hour from lift-off – are you feeling any nervousness?”


“I have complete confidence in Sopwith Aerospace and the good people here at St Joseph,” Simmons said. “They’ve cautioned me that there could be delays, and that’s reasonable, but my gut feeling is that we’re in for a pleasing show.”


***


“Now, dare I say it, Chief Factor, but the company was initially reluctant to support the government in this endeavour,” Malcolm led off a few minutes later and a few feet to the east.


Edmund MacDougall, the senior most executive of the Borealis Company and the most powerful man in Rupertsland, did not flinch. “Quite so, for you can imagine the expense involved in such an effort. Given that rocket launching is a risky proposition, the Company was long of the view that mail, radio, and factory-based local broadcasting were sufficient for the needs of the nation.”


“But the Company did come around and provide loans to procure the satellite and the rocket,” Malcolm noted.


“The Prime Minister did make a persuasive case to the people, and the Company took note,” MacDougall replied, glancing away for a moment. “The, uh, business case satisfied the Factors such that the Company decided to provide financial support.”


“Does the Company have any plans of producing its own content for broadcast?”


MacDougall adjusted his spectacles, momentarily reflecting the glare of sunlight from the room’s east-facing windows. “As you know, the Company celebrated its three hundredth anniversary not so many years ago. It’s been suggested that a retrospective series on its long and triumphant history might make for compelling viewing both for Rupertslanders and our cousins throughout the Empire.”


“Would that include a look at what became of the Canadian part of the Company?” Malcolm queried.


“Well, I don’t think anybody’s particularly interested in a chain of department stores,” MacDougall said. “Do you?”


“Likely not, Sir,” Malcolm declared. “Thank you, Sir... cut.”


Bill stopped recording and looked up from the viewfinder.


“Was that inadequate?” MacDougall asked, frowning.


Malcolm held up a hand and wiggled his fingers. “It was a good start, Chief Factor, but in retrospect I wouldn’t have asked about the Canadians. As you note, the home audience won’t care. Can we do a second take? Are you comfortable here? You seem mildly distracted. We can set up in a different location if you prefer.”


“Oh, it’s just the coloured woman over there. You don’t expect to see them in a place like this,” MacDougall said dismissively.


“She’s our media liaison, Sir,” Malcolm nodded. “I think we forget how liberal other parts of the Empire are sometimes.”


“I hear enough about it when that couple appears on Rutherford Row,” MacDougall grumbled. “Missus MacDougall is always commenting upon the woman’s hair. Here’s fine. I shall just have to concentrate on the task at hand.”


***


“Are we sticking with the original plan?” Hamish asked as the countdown passed the fifteen minute mark.


“Why wouldn’t we keep to it?” Malcolm replied. “Trudy assured us they will be recording the launch itself, and we’ve seen past examples of that. It’s good quality tape. They’ll have a duplicate to us before we leave. We’ll focus on recording the reaction of the Prime Minister and the Chief Factor to the launch.”


“It’s an easy thing to edit together, Hamish,” Bill remarked. “What’s the problem?”


“Honestly, I’d just like to watch the launch myself, but you and I are going to be looking at them instead, that’s all.”


“Adjust your location, then,” Bill groused. “Move over to one side a bit and you can sneak a peek. Just don’t dip the boom down for fuck’s sake.”


“You alright with that, boss?” Hamish asked.


“If it doesn’t interfere with the shot, that’s fine,” Malcolm agreed. “Right, so let’s get that last snippet in while we can...”


***


“As you can see, we’re now just eight minutes from lift-off,” Malcolm said. He was standing out on the balcony, framed such that the launch complex was just beyond his right shoulder. From this distance, the White Knight was just a tiny white stick with a bulbous tip. A space-going cotton swab, perhaps. “The weather remains bright and hot, ideal for rocketry. A wide area of sea and air has been closed off by the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force to ensure no intruders put themselves or the launch at risk. One the launch pad well beyond, every indication is that the situation is baseline, as the boffins are wont to say here.”


***


Chief Factor MacDougall pursed his lips together.


“Twenty seconds. Nineteen. Eighteen,” the public address system echoed.


Prime Minister Simmons murmured: “Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed...”, then went silent, lips still moving as his eyes flickered to the camera.


[i “Fourteen. Thirteen. Twelve. Vehicle is on-” [/i]


“My God, I hope this thing works,” MacDougall muttered.


“Nine. Eight.”


MacDougall’s aide lifted a camera up to his face and waited, fingers quivering.


“All very exciting as the final seconds pass,” Malcolm’s radio counterpart murmured from close by.


“Five. Four. Engine Start.”


“Oh, look at that!” MacDougall exclaimed.


“Lift-off.”


“And we have lift-off as the White Knight thunders clear of Complex Two Able!” the radio journalist blurted. “Nonsuch One begins its voyage to the heavens!”


Hamish swivelled his head for a quick glance as the roar of the rocket’s engines slammed into the building and hammered at their whole bodies.


“Good heavens, what a sight!” Simmons called out, his voice nearly washed out by the noise.


“Vehicle has cleared the tower.”


Hamish turned back and adjusted the boom just before it dropped into Bill’s field of view. The cameraman shot him a dirty look, then risked a quick glance out of the window himself.


“Vehicle pitching downrange.”


***


“The audio’s rough,” Hamish said as they huddled in a corner of the VIP lounge a short time later. Stewards in white suits had appeared with trays of canapés, exotic fruit, and cheeses. Out on the balcony, under the sun, corks were popping and the pale, sweating Rupertslander delegation were loudly and boiserously celeberating what had, so far, been a flawless launch.


“Bloody Nigel rambling on like a football announcer all through it,” Bill snarled, reaching for the bottle of cold ginger beer he’d procured from a passing steward.


“I thought it actually added to the moment,” Malcolm shrugged.


“Ah, you can barely hear him,” Hamish said. “Once the engine sounds reaches us, there’s about fifteen, sixteen seconds of just... noise, really. You can tell that he’s talking, but you’ve got to strain to understand him. I should’ve just lifted the boom clear and enjoyed the whole show.”


“Live and learn,” Malcolm said. “I can do an over-dub if need be. Any issues with the shot, Bill?”


“The tripod wobbled a bit when the initial shock got here. Other that that, it was fine. I don’t think the boom came down too far... fortunately.”


“I noticed Trudi was behind the VIPs for a bit. Was she in the field of view?” Malcolm asked.


“Aye, she’s just beyond the Prime Minister’s shoulder,” Bill confirmed. “Why, problem?”


“Thought it ironic given the Chief Factor’s reaction earlier,” Malcolm said. “Not much to be done about it if we want the shot, though.”


“More access to outside television means the people back home are going to see things they’re not used to,” Hamish observed.


“I’m sure that was taken into account in the business case,” Malcolm said. “Drink up, have a piss, change tape, whatever. I want to get some reaction bits with the Chief Factor and the Prime Minister while they’re still sober.”


****


Jason Sharp is a contributing author to the anthology Ten Years Later, a collection of stories to raise money for the DEC Ukraine Appeal; all proceeds of the book go to the appeal.


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