04 May 2012

#fridayflash: newsmagazine story

The #fridayflash after this, I wrote the "happy" version of this story as I had originally intended. It was a good exercise to do both versions.

May 2068: Is small-town Canada disappearing?

HORNPAYNE, ON — "This is nothing," Jane Fenton tells me. "You should hear the stories about living here before they built the road."

The road was built in 1980, almost ninety years ago. Before that, the only way in or out of Hornpayne was by rail. Rail was why the town was built to begin with — the town marks the farthest point between the major rail stations to the west and south that a diesel engine can go before it has to be refuelled. At its height at the turn of the century, Hornpayne boasted not only rail and road access, but an airport as well.

"We used to have over twelve hundred people living here," adds Roger Fenton, Jane's husband. We're sitting around their kitchen table, drinking coffee. Roger and Jane have lived in this town for their entire marriage — fifty-two years next month. They are Hornpayne's oldest residents. Tomorrow, they will be the first family to be teleported out as the town officially shuts down and quietly wipes itself off the map.

They are philosophical about the changes. "This place was founded as a railway division point," says Roger. "Sure, other industries grew up here, like the logging, but now that there's no more rail..." He trails off and sips at his coffee.

Jane tries to fill in the silence. "Back in the early 1900s, when the town was founded, it was to support a relatively new technology — rail — in a relatively new country. Canada was only forty years old when Hornpayne was established. Now we're living through another major period of technological change. Vat-grown lumber means the logging industry has been killed off, and teleportation means no more rail or air travel."

"This is a wonderful place in the summer," Roger says. "Lots of boating, swimming, fishing... and in the winter, people ski and snowmobile all over. Great place for winter sports."

"But it does get cold," says Jane.

Roger shrugs. "It's Canada," he says. "It gets cold."

It's the cold that ultimately drove the decision to abandon Hornpayne. Teleportation pads don't work in weather colder than -12 Celsius, and even since global warming took effect the town has seen weeks each winter with temperatures colder than -20. The population is too small to justify having more than one indoor pad hub, but its layout makes walking to a hub in the depths of winter impractical. It's too small, too closely structured around the now-obsolete petroleum lifestyle.

Tomorrow, Roger's and Jane's neighbours will help them load the belongings they haven't already packed onto transport skids. First, their possessions will go into the specially-equipped, petrol-burning transport truck sitting in their driveway. The truck will be driven to the pad hub by a member of the relocation crew. Roger and Jane were offered a lift in a friend's car, but have decided they will walk the short distance to the hub instead.

"It's a way of saying good-bye," says Jane. "You know, see everything properly one last time."

When the truck gets to the hub, its cargo will be off-loaded onto the transport pad and sent to Sault Ste. Marie, where the Fentons have chosen to re-locate. They were married there, and have adult children who live in the area.

Roger and Jane will use the people-departure pad to follow their belongings to the Sault. Meanwhile, the transport truck will be pulling into their next-door neighbour's driveway to be loaded with another household's worth of belongings.

Jane starts to take a sip of coffee, then sets the mug down and says, "Oh! I almost forgot. I have cookies to use up. Please have some with us."

She rises and pulls a bag of cookies out of an otherwise-empty kitchen cupboard.

"It's always hard with moving," says Roger. "I remember the night we moved in here, we got into town after all the stores had closed and we couldn't get groceries until the next morning."

There are six chocolate chip cookies left in the bag. Jane puts two in front of each of us. "What about breakfast for tomorrow?" I ask. "By the time you get your things to your new house, it'll be almost lunchtime."

Jane smiles. "The community is putting on a waffle breakfast at the hub," she says. "I guess we'll get something to eat before we step on the pads. The relocation people said they'd do the cleaning up for us."

The pad hub will remain in place only long enough to secure the buildings and ensure nothing hazardous to the local environment has been left out in the open. The last load the petrol-burning transport truck will carry in Hornpayne will be the dismantled pad hub. Its driver will use the soon-to-be decommissioned highway to return to the relocation base in Thunder Bay.

I ask the Fentons what they think will happen to the town in the future.

"People still might come up here in the summer," says Jane.

Roger grunts and shakes his head. "Nobody uses cars anymore," he says. "Hardly anybody uses snowmobiles anymore, and they don't have the range of a car anyhow. Air travel is gone, even if the landing strip at the airport was maintained, which it won't be..." He sips his coffee, shakes his head again. "Nope," he says. "No-one will come here anymore."

"It's a pity," says Jane. "It's such a beautiful town."


  1. That's such a sad story. The price you pay for progress I suppose.

    1. It was supposed to be a shiny-future story, and then this came out (oops). I picked Hornpayne because I know people from there.

      But yeah, progress is never all-positive, although it's often pitched that way.

      I just marked this story as a serial on fridayflash.org so that I'll write the happy version for next week.

  2. This is sad but that's ok. Puts me in mind of abandoned mining towns.

    I like the fact the teleportation pads are just part of the backdrop rather than the focus of the story.

    1. Good point about the mining towns -- any time there's an economy limited by physical geography...

  3. Good aping of the news-mag presentation style. I agree it's a sad story, but it's good that you rounded it rather than only presenting the jingoistic edge of progress.

    1. Yeah, I stumbled on some newsmagazine style stuff when I was writing it -- "So *that's* why they always sound like that!" moments. Things like using the present tense to make it seem more immediate.

  4. Nothing every remains the same - it sounded such a nice place. Sad story I too liked the presentation of it.

    1. I knew two sisters who grew up in the real town. One of them returned as an adult to take a job with the railway company. They joked about how isolated and small it was, but had a lot of affection for the place too.

  5. This is so believable Katherine, very solid sci-fi. For all we know this is to be the shape of the future too, tele-transporter pads and such. Sad to say though, that people's lives are very seldom allowed to get in the way of progress.

    Happy birthday, I hope you've had a really enjoyable one. :)

    1. Thank you for the feedback and the birthday wishes!

      I'm very much into the idea of teleporters -- not just in science fiction, but real life. If you know any engineers, please start mentioning the idea to them.


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