Communion Of Dreams

“Your lot got the right idea, I say.”

I wrote the following for Chapter 12 of St Cybi’s Well some months back. It’s set near the visitor’s center at Stonehenge, and occurs just as the pandemic influenza* is getting started in the UK, when people aren’t quite sure yet what is happening. The main character, Darnell Sidwell, sees a group of protesting people, and finds out that they’re members of the ‘British Defense League’, my fictional version of this group.

Before he got to the front of the protest, he looked over the fence, saw something of a party going on. People drinking, dancing to music from a portable sound system, standing around smoking. A couple of young men were standing beside the fence, watching the crowd flow by, passing a bottle back and forth.

One of the men saw him looking at them. “Wotcha lookin’ at?”

Darnell walked over to them. He stopped a couple of paces before the fence. “Nothing, really. You?”

“Oh, a Yank, are ya?” The man seemed to relax a bit. His friend, who had been looking down the road, turned to look at Darnell as well. “Jus’ watchin’ this lot go by. Havin’ a bit of a laugh. You got any cigs?”

“No, sorry, I don’t smoke. Yeah, I’m a Yank.”

The friend spoke. “Your lot got the right idea, I say.”


“‘Bout the illegals.” He turned to his mate. “We should do that.”

“Yeah, kick ‘em all out,” agreed the friend. “All the Pakis and Blackies. They the ones what got this flu goin’. ‘Cause they’s dirty.”

“Uncivilized,” added his friend, taking a long pull on the bottle, then handing it over to the other.

“Flu?” asked Darnell, feigning ignorance.

“Yeah, the flu. What’s got ever’one comin’ here.” He gestured towards Stonehenge. “All the nutters lookin’ like Druids or Harry Potter. Ain’ you heard of it?”

“Um, no, I was just coming over to visit Stonehenge. Isn’t it always like this?”

“Nah. There’s a flu goin’ ‘round. Bad one,” said the man.

“People dyin’,” said the other. “Gov’s tryin’ to hide it, but word’s out.”

“Me aunt’s a nurse o’er London. She tol’ me mum.” He gestured behind him, towards the party going on. “Others heard ‘bout it too. Then some heard th’ nutters were coimin’ here, thought that we’d have a chance to make th’ telly.”


The first man tilted up the bottle, drained it. “Say, got anythin’ t’ drink in your bag, there?”

“Just water.” Darnell smiled. “It’s a bit early for me.”

“Yeah, well,” said the second man, “ain’ for me. Drink’ll keep the sickness out. Alcohol kills it. Ever’one knows that.”

“Sounds like good advice,” said Darnell, turning to walk away.

“Hey, Yank,” called one of the men.

“Yeah?” asked Darnell, pausing.

The two men exchanged glances. The first one said “You seem OK. Word to th’ wise: don’t stick around too long.”




From the news yesterday:

Yahoo News asked Trump whether his push for increased surveillance of American Muslims could include warrantless searches. He suggested he would consider a series of drastic measures.

“We’re going to have to do things that we never did before. And some people are going to be upset about it, but I think that now everybody is feeling that security is going to rule,” Trump said. “And certain things will be done that we never thought would happen in this country in terms of information and learning about the enemy. And so we’re going to have to do certain things that were frankly unthinkable a year ago.”

Yahoo News asked Trump whether this level of tracking might require registering Muslims in a database or giving them a form of special identification that noted their religion. He wouldn’t rule it out.

“We’re going to have to — we’re going to have to look at a lot of things very closely,” Trump said when presented with the idea. “We’re going to have to look at the mosques. We’re going to have to look very, very carefully.”


Following that news item, Bend the Arc Jewish Action issued the following statement:

“Registering everyone of a certain religion to a list? We’ve seen that. It doesn’t end well.

“There is no way American Jews will ever find it acceptable for anyone – anyone – to be registered, singled out, profiled, discriminated against, or in any way mistreated by the government on the basis of their religion in this country. Mr. Trump’s suggestion is as terrifying as it is abhorrent.

“This runs counter to everything we believe in as Americans and Jews and we will not stand idly by as fear and bigotry are used to dominate our politics.”


St Cybi’s Well is set in an alternate time-line to our own, where the United States has become a ‘Constitutional Theocracy’ in part as a response to the 9-11 attacks. It’s fiction.

At least, I intended for it to be fiction …

Jim Downey

*What is referred to as the ‘fire-flu’ in Communion of Dreams, set 40 years later.

That’s not a bad idea …

Via BoingBoing, this news item:

Navy Revives Ancient Navigation as Cyber Threats Grow

Sometimes old school is best. In today’s U.S. Navy, navigating a warship by the stars instead of GPS is making a comeback.

The Naval Academy stopped teaching celestial navigation in the late 1990s, deeming the hard-to-learn skill irrelevant in an era when satellites can relay a ship’s location with remarkable ease and precision.

But satellites and GPS are vulnerable to cyber attack (paywall). The tools of yesteryear—sextants, nautical almanacs, volumes of tables—are not. With that in mind, the academy is reinstating celestial navigation into its curriculum. Wooden boxes with decades-old instruments will be dusted off and opened, and students will once again learn to chart a course by measuring the angles of stars.


Interestingly, here’s a passage from Chapter 13 of St Cybi’s Well:

After selling Darnell the books he’d purchased, the bookseller had kindly recommended another nearby shop which specialized in all manner of maps, from antiques to the latest Ordnance Survey publications before he closed up his store. Because once he heard the news of what had happened, he immediately understood why Darnell had selected the books he did, and wanted to go make his own preparations.

So with only a slight delay Darnell was able to get Landranger maps covering most of Wales and the border country and get back on the road. They sat in a large sack on the floor of the passenger’s seat, cheap insurance should the cell network or GPS system go down.


Jim Downey

The Warriors of 1812

Seems like an appropriate subject for post #1,812:

Gorman sketched out an early version of the thinking in a paper he wrote for DARPA after his retirement from the Army in 1985, in which he described an “integrated-powered exoskeleton” that could transform the weakling of the battlefield into a veritable super-soldier. The “SuperTroop” exoskeleton he proposed offered protection against chemical, biological, electromagnetic, and ballistic threats, including direct fire from a .50-caliber bullet. It “incorporated audio, visual, and haptic [touch] sensors,” Gorman explained, including thermal imaging for the eyes, sound suppression for the ears, and fiber optics from the head to the fingertips. Its interior would be climate-controlled, and each soldier would have his own physiological specifications embedded on a chip within his dog tags. “When a soldier donned his ST [SuperTroop] battledress,” Gorman wrote, “he would insert one dog-tag into a slot under the chest armor, thereby loading his personal program into the battle suit’s computer,” giving the 21st-century soldier an extraordinary ability to hear, see, move, shoot, and communicate.

At the time Gorman wrote, the computing technology needed for such a device did not yet exist. By 2001, however, DARPA had unveiled two exoskeleton programs, and by 2013, in partnership with U.S. Special Operations Command, DARPA had started work on a super-soldier suit called TALOS (Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit) unlike anything in the history of warfare. Engineered with full-body ballistics protection; integrated heating and cooling systems; embedded sensors, antennas, and computers; 3D audio (to indicate where a fellow warfighter is by the sound of his voice); optics for vision in various light conditions; life-saving oxygen and hemorrhage controls; and more, TALOS is strikingly close to the futuristic exoskeleton that Gorman first envisioned for DARPA 25 years ago, and aims to be “fully functional” by 2018. “I am here to announce that we are building Iron Man,” President Barack Obama said of the suit during a manufacturing innovation event in 2014. When the president said, “This has been a secret project we’ve been working on for a long time,” he wasn’t kidding.

Yeah, though I’d say it was much more like the powered armor from either Starship Troopers or The Forever War than Iron Man. But then, something like military applications of a powered exoskeleton is hardly a new idea, no matter how you want to look at it. And it certainly isn’t surprising that this is something DARPA has been interested in, as I have noted in a number of previous posts.

Still, interesting to see it actually being translated into reality.


Jim Downey


It’s been a month. Let’s have another excerpt from the current chapter of St Cybi’s Well I am working on, this time set at this site. A somewhat-related personal experience from a decade ago which … inspired … the larger scene from which this is drawn.


“Yes.”  The old man took a deep breath, let it out in a sigh. “Think of the reliquary at St David’s. What did you feel there?”

Darnell thought back. It had only been a few days, and yet so much had happened that it seemed to be an age ago. “Solace.”

“Solace,” repeated Eleazer. “Gentle reassurance, succor for the spirit in time of turmoil.”

“Yes,” agreed Darnell.

“Comfort, but not a cure.” Eleazer looked him full in the face. “Was it enough?”

Darnell saw the reliquary in his mind, found himself standing there before it again, feeling what he felt. “No.”

“Solace is what the holy men offer. It is what they always offer. Just as the leaders, the kings and princes and politicians, offer power. That’s what they understand, how they try and shape the world.” Eleazer gestured towards the memorial to Dafydd ap Gwilym. “But the poets … ah, the poets, the artists, the musicians … they offer something else, don’t they?”

“Do they?”

Eleazer nodded. “Yes. They offer dreams. Dreams of a better world.”



Jim Downey

‘Watch the skies, everywhere!”

That’s from the 1951 classic The Thing from Another World, one of the first (and defining) science fiction movies which set the stage for much of what was to come even to the present day.

It was also very much a product of the early Cold War era, reflecting the fear* of the USSR and atomic weaponry. This is typical — science fiction usually is a reflection of (or commentary on) the technology and social conditions of the era when it was created.

So, what to make of two news items which showed up this week?

Here’s the first:

First State Legalizes Taser Drones for Cops

It is now legal for law enforcement in North Dakota to fly drones armed with everything from Tasers to tear gas thanks to a last-minute push by a pro-police lobbyist.

With all the concern over the militarization of police in the past year, no one noticed that the state became the first in the union to allow police to equip drones with “less than lethal” weapons. House Bill 1328 wasn’t drafted that way, but then a lobbyist representing law enforcement—tight with a booming drone industry—got his hands on it.

And here’s the second:

Welcome to the World, Drone-Killing Laser Cannon

Hang on to your drone. Boeing’s developed a laser cannon specifically designed to turn unmanned aircraft into flaming wreckage.

The aerospace company’s new weapon system, which it publicly tested this week in a New Mexico industrial park, isn’t quite as cool as what you see in Star Wars—there’s no flying beams of light, no “pew! pew!” sound effects. But it is nonetheless a working laser cannon, and it will take your drone down.

* * *

Instead of a massive laser mounted on a dedicated truck, the compact system is small enough to fit in four suitcase-sized boxes and can be set up by a pair of soldiers or technicians in just a few minutes. At the moment, it’s aimed primarily at driving drones away from sensitive areas.


I’m already seeing posts by friends on social media complaining about drones being operated by annoying neighbors, with discussion about what possible solutions there might be to deal with them (both by legal recourse and um, more informal approaches). There have been a number of news items already about people who have shot down drones, and there’s even a company advertising a specific kind of shotgun ammunition for just that.

“Watch the skies!”, indeed.


Jim Downey

*As good an explanation as any.

Thoughts on this day.

I wrote this nine years ago, and posted it to this blog seven years ago. It seemed like a good time to repost it.

And as my birthday gift to everyone, Communion of Dreams is available for free download today. Please, spread the word to anyone who might enjoy it.

Jim Downey



Thoughts on This Day

One birthday, when I was nine or ten, I woke with anticipation of the presents I would receive.  Still in my pajamas I rushed into the kitchen where my parents were having coffee, expecting to get the loot which was rightfully mine.  My father happily handed over a small, wrapped box.  I opened it eagerly, to find a little American flag on a wooden stick.  My father said that since my birthday was July 4th, he thought I would appreciate the gift.

Horror-struck first at not getting anything better, then a moment later at my own greed, I guiltily told my parents that I thought it was a fine gift.

After a moment, of course, my folks brought out my real presents, and there was a fair amount of good-natured teasing and laughing about the little trick they had played on me.

That was almost 40 years ago, and I can no longer tell you what presents I received that day.  But the lesson in expectations and perspective my dad taught me that morning always remained with me.  My dad had been a Marine, fought in Korea, and was a deeply patriotic cop who was killed while on duty a couple of years after that birthday.  I have no idea what happened to that little flag on a stick, but I do still have the flag taken from my father’s coffin, carefully and perfectly folded at the graveside when we buried him.

I’ve never looked at the American flag without remembering what a fine gift it really is and, as so many others have written, what it represents in terms of sacrifice.  I love my country, as any Firecracker Baby is probably destined to do.  You just can’t ignore all that early training of patriotism, fireworks, and presents all tied up together.

But that doesn’t mean that I am blinded by patriotism.  As I’ve matured and gained life experience, I’ve learned many other lessons.  Lessons about tempering expectations, living with occasional disappointment, accepting that things don’t always work out the way you plan no matter how hard you work, how good your intentions, or how deserving you are.  Still, you learn, grow, and do the best you can.  This, it seems, is also the story of America.  I believe we are an exceptional people, holding great potential, with our best years still to come.  But nothing is guaranteed.  We must honestly, and sometimes painfully, confront our failures, learn from them, and move on.  The original founders of our country were brilliant, but flawed as all humans are flawed.  Some of their errors led directly to the Civil War, that great bloody second revolution of the human spirit.  That they made mistakes does not negate their greatness; rather, it shows us our potential even though we are not perfect.  They knew, as we should know, that only we are responsible for our self-determination.  Not a king, not a God, not a ruling political class.  Us.

Today we’ve been gifted with a small box with a flag inside.  A token of our history.  Let us not take it for granted.  Let us not think that the thing itself is more important than what it represents.  Let us look on it and declare our own responsibility, our own self-determination.

Happy Independence Day.

One fourth.

Tomorrow I turn 57. Yeah, on the Fourth of July.

That might seem a little weird to someone who doesn’t have a birthday on the Fourth. Not to me. I’ve grown up with it.

But you know what seems weird to me?

That I’ve been alive for almost one-fourth of the entire time that the United States has existed. Run the numbers, and you’ll see.

It’s very odd to realize just how young our country is in some ways. And how much things have changed just in my lifetime.

I remember the early days of the Space Race. I remember the night Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the Moon.

And I remember growing up with casual racism of the worst sort. When homophobia was so deeply ingrained and widespread that the word itself didn’t even really exist. I remember using words like n***** and f***** without a trace of embarrassment, because they were so common.

Things have changed somewhat. Not enough. But still, too much for some people. Because change can be scary. Threatening.

The length of my life will take you to the time of Sputnik. The length of another such will take you back before Kitty Hawk. And just one more will land you well before the Civil War.

Change can be hard. And the fight never ends. But have hope: progress can be made. Both for individuals and for countries. Perhaps, even, for the whole world.


Jim Downey


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