This month's prompt for the writing group was this photo. I wanted to write an actual self-contained story for this one and to include a bit of speech in which some substantial idea was conveyed. So I made this - it's been tweaked after a couple of comments from the group.
(There's another version where I go into more depth about the history of the thing, but it was a little bit too much. This is the one in which I stripped out all the explanatory stuff)
The sun was red in the clear, noon sky. Marius looked up and held his hand in front of the inscrutable disc – barely covering a quarter of it. His visor darkened, cutting out the radiation which had begun pouring into his eyes. He lowered his hand but continued to look at the red circle. The visor had turned opaquely black over the centre of his view of the dying star, revealing its mane of writhing flares, looping and falling, gigantic and slow around its circumference. His mind glanced back to the archives where he had been shown whales bursting from the surface of the sea and crashing back in again. Were there whales on the sun?
His thoughts were pierced by a squeal of delight from the speaker by his right ear. Turning to look, he saw his sister waving at him from beside a brown boulder. Although the suits were identical, Tinga’s still had the green hue of infancy, marking her out from the rest of the older children whose suits had all reverted to their natural, reflective silver-white.
Marius left his spade poking out of the sand and walked across to see what she had found.
“Marius! It’s a curly shell!” Tinga shouted through her beaming face. Although he was still a few paces away, he could see her wide eyes through the visor’s tint.
“It was just under the pearls, where you said it would be” she continued, handing her net to him. Sure enough, there it was, in her net amongst the usual strings of ancient jewellery and polished stones.
“Well done Tinga, it’s important to take good notice of exactly where the shells are found. Has anybody found any above the Pearl Horizon yet?” Marius looked around at the other children, who shook their heads and said no.
“Do we remember what it would mean if we did find a shell that was at a shallower depth than the pearls?”
Sertorius, a bright but serious boy answered immediately
“It would obviously mean that there were shellfish alive after the Paradise, but we know that’s not true so I don’t see why we have to bother with this stupid exercise.”
Marius had been expecting somebody to raise this point.
“The reason,” Marius answered, “is to demonstrate the power of evidence. Any idea that is worth having will also define its own downfall. A good theory will answer questions but it will also tell you what evidence would render the theory obsolete. The evidence may be in the next hole that you dig”.
Sertorius rolled his eyes and whispered something to the boy next to him, forgetting that whispering wasn’t much use when microphones picked up every word for broadcast to the group. Marius ignored him and the children carried on digging with their little spades and filtering sand through their nets. As they busied themselves, Marius, walking amongst them, said
“In this case, we are testing the theory that during the Age of Paradise, shellfish were simply wiped out. Most other animals were destroyed forever too, but in the case of shellfish we have the unique possibility of proving this theory wrong. If we found a shell from a creature that was born after the Age of Paradise, we would have to revise our view of history, wouldn’t we?”.
Marius decided he’d taught enough for now. He left them to consider his words as they scrabbled in the ground and rejoined Tinga. She was crouched next to a hole, looking closely at the shell she had found. Two of the boys stood in the hole up to their waists, as they tried to clear away more of the stones and sand. The Pearl Horizon here was about a metre under the surface and every now and then some of the formerly precious orbs would be flung out along with the sand.
Having cleared enough sand away for now, the two boys climbed out of their hole to sit and rest. Tinga slid down the side, plunged her hermetically sealed feet into the pearls and giggled as she kicked excitedly at them for a few seconds. She dragged her net through them so that it was full, shook the sand out of it and sat down to remove the pearls one by one - throwing them over her shoulder and out of the hole so they wouldn’t have to be filtered out again.
Marius sat on one of the brown boulders and watched. The two boys reclined next to the hole they had been digging, clad in their closely-fitted silver bodysuits, each capped with a sphere of tinted glass, always darker on the side facing the sun. Between these two, he could see the top of Tinga’s head through the glass of her own helmet, jerking back with the force of her arm as she cast out worthless pearls onto the sand. Similar scenes were played out among the rest of the group as they dug and searched. Fleeting skirmishes would break out as one child or other would fail to resist the urge to fling an ancient necklace at one of their friends. He’d give them another half hour before taking them back to the refuge.
Marius looked back up at the sun, and again his visor compensated out the brightest part of the disc. As it turned opaque, he saw something in the dead centre of the red just before it was obscured. He thought he’d momentarily seen a lop-sided, yellow smile there. His brow furrowed and his lips pursed as he stood up, eyes fixed on the darkened centre of his view of the sun. He was about to instruct the visor to reduce the opacity so that he could have another look, but instead sat back down and blinked a few times. He looked over at his sister once more and saw her entirely occupied, gleefully throwing pearls out of the pit.
Sertorius, standing by another pit, was also looking up. He had clearly seen it too. As the boy raised both arms to point, Marius remotely deactivated his comms unit. Sertorius’ mouth was visibly open and screaming but nobody could now hear him as they sifted their pearls in the sunshine. Sertorius dropped to his knees, still looking upwards, and held up both his hands to shield his face.
Marius instructed his own visor to cancel all protection and looked up towards the sun once more. The tiny yellow smile had already outgrown the red disc of the sun and was now stretched right across the sky, widening rapidly. Marius thought briefly of whales splashing down in the sea.