Part 2: Fire. Chapter 1

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1

The trees were melting, dripping like candles under the incandescent sunlight, their branches twisting in the heat, bending down until they coalesced into molten pools at the roots. Their leaves vanished in sudden flashes of light and fire.

Midsummer noon on Eridu, the only inhabited world of the Sirius system; the reign of heat; the season of fire in a wilderness of barren stone. This was the time the people took shelter in their underground caverns, shut steel doors on the outside world and cooled off in subterranean lakes that had never felt the fiery wrath of their angry double star. This was the time the rocks glowed and the air became a white dazzle that seared the retina, when the scattered, miniscule oceans evaporated, leaving behind a parched, salty earth. This was the time the planet burned like a phoenix, became ashes that would eventually give rise to a new world when it had swung to the other end of its eccentric orbit around the uneasy giant-dwarf star combination of Utu and Anu.

The low range of hills on which the trees had been erected was yellow under the white-hot sky. Arranged along the flat plain below was a long line of cars, each a fat-tired, all-terrain vehicle. Their varied colours contrasted with the white/tan/ochre of the ground on which they stood.

In the third vehicle, Maddy Hawthorn looked through eye filters at the liquefying trees and wondered, for perhaps the twentieth time in as many minutes, how much longer she would have to watch this. The ceremony was a quaint custom, but it interested her Sirian hosts more than her. In fact, she could admit to herself, it was actually pretty stupid.

A trickle of sweat down her face prompted her to ask the car's AI to kick the air-conditioning up a notch.

There was no denying she had found the forest of plastic trees attractive during the last few months. They were pleasant enough to walk under, if a little too garish in colour for her liking. A stream of water, now long dried-up, had flowed through them. Picnic tables had been set up, and a playground for children. The forest was an enjoyable place to spend an afternoon, to escape the madness of the crowded city of Uruk. Now the stream and the tables and playground were gone, and the actual trees themselves were melting.

This is seriously weird, she thought.

'Having fun yet?' asked Dorac beside her. He seemed way too comfortable, apparently not affected by the heat at all, although he was sipping on a cold beer he had fished out of the car's refrigerator. He didn't wear filters: unlike Maddy, who was Homo sapiens, his small Homo sirius eyes were genetically designed for living on this planet.

Maddy glanced sideways at the enormous man. 'When we came here six months ago you said I would hate Eridu,' she grumbled. 'You were right.'

Dorac Landa Elsilunda chuckled and sucked the rest of his beer down. Even after she had known him so long, Maddy never ceased to be amazed at Dorac's size. His head brushed the roof of the car. The beer can was tiny in his dark brown, six-fingered hand; he only had five fingers on his left: the smallest one had been lost in a gunfight six months ago. It didn't seem to bother him much anymore.

'It's an old custom,' he explained. 'The trees are set up each autumn, up on that ridge. They're made of special thermoplastic that melts when the air temperature reaches seventy degrees Celsius. We know it's a warmish sort of day when they collapse.'

'Summer,' said Maddy.

'Yes. The triumph of Sirius over our pathetic attempt to live here. Or some shit like that. We're supposed to watch it and be reminded of our inadequacy.'

Maddy watched as the last tree turned into a pool of greenish-brown plastic and started to trickle down the slope of the hill. There was a sudden blare of horns from the other vehicles as the trees finished their liquid collapse, some sort of signal that the event was over, that the hottest moment of the year had arrived and now things would start to slowly cool until, in three months' time, it was possible to stand on the open surface again without being burned to a crisp.

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