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Previous Challenge Entry (Level 3 – Advanced)
Topic: Fire-fighter (10/05/06)

TITLE: Smoke and Shadows
By Jan Ackerson


There are times when I walk the streets of the city, and my nostrils fill with the tang of smoke. Then I know that the Fire Fighters have been making their mischief again.

Once, in the far away past, fire fighter was a noble term. They were brave men and women then—racing toward danger in their screaming red vehicles—who conquered flames, who breathed life into the newly lifeless. Fire fighter—the two short words with their fricative alliteration have been stolen now by bands of bullies with an altogether different agenda. As gunfighters used guns, so the Fire Fighters have chosen fire as their weapon—burning, burning, ever burning.

Evidence of the Fire Fighters’ work can be found nearly everywhere by the careful observer. Look—that charred and ashy pile of rubble—sift through the ash and you may deduce what has been burned. A leather binding. A snippet of text. A tattered ribbon. And see over there, that smoldering ruin—if you listen carefully, you may hear the echoes of its terrified inhabitants.

And so we who worship the Light huddle in the darkness. We evangelize with the furtive passing of scraps of paper on which are scrawled a few words of hope. As the words pass from hand to hand, we listen for the scratch of phosphorus on sandpaper—we lift our heads for the acrid odor of sulfur borne on the breeze. We are always prepared to dart back into the shadows.

Our hearts sing loudly the songs that our lips cannot. We gather tightly in twos and threes and hum fragments of tunes, rich in meaning but with a poverty of melody. Five or six notes only are enough to lift our spirits toward the Light. Yet there are those among us who have barely escaped such gatherings with the kiss of flame on their feet. The Fire Fighters are ruthless in their pursuit.

Perhaps the picture that I paint is unnecessarily bleak. There is a quiet beauty to our life, despite our veil of secrecy. We are Light-bearers, but our Light is unlike the hot and hungry light of the Fire Fighters. Our Light is seen in the touch of fingertips, as sacred syllables pass from person to person, and in the narrow space between a barely breathed affirmation and an ear inclined to capture the whispered words.

And our numbers are growing. When the Fire Fighters’ reign of terror began, some Believers were lost. Many flew off into eternal Light, but there were a few whose fear overcame their faith, and who fled into darkness. Yet we continue to find ways, like those noble workers of old, to conquer the flames, to breathe Life into the nearly lifeless. There are signals—a flick of a finger, a nod of a head, a simple shape drawn on a sooty surface. Eyes find eyes, a meeting place is chosen, and another Believer’s birth reduces the darkness.

You, my reader in the future—you have read my musings, but I am long gone now, enjoying eternity in the City of Light. Did I walk into that city through the flames, or did I awaken there after a peaceful slumber? Reader, you will never know the rest of my story, but something happened today which may, I think, determine the length of my shadowy existence.

I was walking toward my apartment when a man crossed my path, letting a scrap of paper drift from his fingers toward my feet. I had seen him before, but not among the company of the faithful—he was, I believed, a minor public official with some small measure of authority. Glancing about, I stooped to pick up the note, which contained an address, a time, and two crossed lines.

The symbol was unmistakable, and my heart quickened. He is a searcher, I thought, and if I can bring him into the Light, he may use his influence to suppress the Fire Fighters. I met him at the appointed time and place, and I listened to his whispered story—a story of emptiness and desperation, recently relieved by a glimmer of hope. I showed him the Light and he embraced it, and then he embraced me, his new brother.

The smell of smoke clung to his hair.

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This article has been read 1701 times
Member Comments
Member Date
Rebecca Livermore10/12/06
This is a powerful portrayal of what life could be like someday for those of us who believe (and for that matter is for some already). This was sobering, but beautiful. Thanks for sharing!
Karen Schravemade10/12/06
This was awesome. Beautifully written.
Jen Davis10/14/06
Very original. I liked how you contrasted the “brave men and women” firefighters of the past to the Fire Fighters in your futuristic tale. Excellent writing. I have many favorite lines:

“…we listen for the scratch of phosphorus on sandpaper…”

“… in the narrow space between a barely breathed affirmation and an ear inclined to capture the whispered words.”

I loved the simple phrase: "Eyes find eyes …” And the last line was perfect!!!
Linda Watson Owen10/16/06
Intriguing and wonderfully skillful work! You ushered this reader into a dark and smokey world. Yes, the alliteration is very effective. Actually for me the smooth sameness of sounds enhances the stealthy, secretive mood of the story. The suggestion of the new 'friend' at the end is perfect. Such treachery glows against this dark background. Great story!
Donna Haug10/16/06
The first time I read this, I didn't get it at all. I totally missed it. Then, after having read the comments, I went back and re-read the story. It's excellent! I liked the furtiveness and secretive way you wrote. Good writing.
Joanne Sher 10/16/06
Masterfully and thought-provokingly written. Definitely one I need to read over and over!
Donna Powers 10/16/06
This was very well done. It calls quietly to the read and it stirs the soul. Thanks for sharing it!
Cassie Memmer10/16/06
This is obviously written by someone with great talent! Parts made me think of well-written poetry. I enjoyed the futuristic story. Very well done!
Pat Guy 10/17/06
Masterfully written. Awesome perspective. A deep read. And a delight to those who love - words. ;)
Shari Armstrong 10/17/06
Very intesnse, with a hint of Fahrenheit 451.
Sara Harricharan 10/18/06
Pretty interesting. Good job! :)
Frank Creed09/19/07
This is a Biblical version of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. On my personal favorites list of classic science fiction novels, only C.S. Lewis' space trilogy and George Orwell's 1984 rank higher. If you've not yet read it, you must.

My critique of this story is that the story you had to tell cannot be done justice in 750 words. What you have here is a plot synopsis.

I'm a high-school-educated-factory-worker-one-trick-pony: all I've got is voice. You, however are capable of literary science-fiction. If Christian science fiction ever takes off, you've got a real ticket with this setting and concept.

There is somebody you MUST meet--Karen McSpadden. I think her contribution to Light at the Edge of Darkness was by far the best, and I had three stories! Even the reviewer's who did not like the anthology, made Karen an exception.

I just finished a critique of her newest novelette, Riverwater. She too is capable of literary science fiction. To my knowledge she does not yet have a website, but she's in the Lost Genre Guild. If you'd like me to either invite you to the guild, or give you her e-mail address, let me know. I think you two would have a lot in common.