31.8.08

Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders: Part 11

Previously: “In the heart of the Twisted Forests we thought we had found sanctuary in a dilapidated family home protected by robotic turrets. Unfortunately, the deranged old gamekeeper who lived there turned out to be as dangerous as the strange creatures outside.”

Part 11: Lady Una

The gamekeeper stood over me, aiming the smoking elephant gun at my chest and smirking. I went for my holstered revolver, although I knew it was hopeless. As he leant into the rifle and squeezed the trigger, the old man's head suddenly blossomed open into a bright rosebud of blood.

The elephant gun fell to the floor with a heavy thud, followed shortly by the gamekeeper's limp body. Lady Una slipped her automatic pistol back into her bodice, one arm across her stomach.

I scrambled to my feet. “You've been shot,” I said - rather superfluously, I now realise.

She shook her head. “It just grazed me. Help me up.”

I took her arm and she started to clamber ungracefully up.

The door flew open and Sigrid and Major Thurlow burst in, rifles at the ready. “What's going on?” the Major demanded.

“She's been shot,” I explained.

Lady Una pushed me away and folded both arms over the ragged hole in the front of her dress. “It just grazed me. I'm fine.”

Sigrid picked up the elephant gun and let out a low whistle. “If he'd hit you dead on with this thing, we'd be scraping you off the walls right now.”

Thurlow kicked the gamekeeper's body contemptuously. “Knew we couldn't trust the old fool. Gods, look at his legs. No wonder he was shuffling like a cripple.”

We looked down at the unhappy and bedraggled form on the floor. As the old man had fallen, it was now apparent that his knees were reversed, bent backwards like a four-legged animal.

“These forests,” the Major growled. “We need to get moving. Immediately.”

Lady Una pulled on my arm, still clutching her stomach. “I need a moment alone with the doctor, first.”

“Fine,” the Major said. “But not in here. Stay as far away from this freak's altered body as you can. Come on, Phenice, let's see what EON-4 has made of those turrets.”

The two soldiers filed out, and we followed them, sidestepping into one of the more intact doors we passed on our way to the stairs. It was a bedroom - and a grand one at that. A four-poster bed took pride of place in the room, and there was still plenty of space left for dressers, wardrobes and other, more obscure luxuries.

Years of neglect and alien invasion had taken their toll, however. A gnarled and waxy branch pierced one wall and thrust up through the ceiling, mouldy leaves dropping on the carpet. Every surface was greyed with dust, and strange fungi sprouted at the edges of every piece of dark, expensive wood. It was only with reluctance that Lady Una perched on the edge of the musty bedsheets, still covering her stomach.

“You do realise that I'm not a medical doctor?” I asked, standing uncertainly before her.

She avoided my eye. “Yes, but you may be as much help as any other kind. I- I need to share something with you, something I would much rather have kept to myself.”

“You can tell me in complete confidence,” I said. “Not as a doctor, but as a friend.”

“It was five years ago," she began. "At the start of all these troubles. There was turmoil and danger of a less pernicious but more overt kind than you'll find today, even in Circhester. It would be several years before Kirkham would unite Fortress City; armies were still abroad, fighting as best they could, or just looting. And, of course, there were the Sky Spiders too. In any case, without going into specifics...”

“Yes?”

“There was an occurrence, and, for want of a better word, I was...” She cleared her throat. “Eviscerated.”

“But you survived?”

“After a fashion. My uncle was close to hand. I'm sure you know already, but he was - still is, indubitably - the world's foremost designer of mechanised war machines. Faced with my broken body, he repaired it. The only way he knew how.”

She placed both hands either side of her, revealing the ragged hole in her bodice. Behind it, her stomach was of smooth and polished metal. “So now,” she said, “I'm half woman, half tank.”

“And the way you move?” I asked, carefully.

She pinched the sides of her hoop skirt and lifted the hem of her dress so that I could see. “Caterpillar tracks,” she explained.

“I see,” I said.

She touched her exposed stomach, gingerly, then withdrew her gloved hand as if frightened of what she might have touched. “It hurt when he shot me. Did the round pierce my armour?”

I knelt down to look more closely, and felt myself blushing. Lady Una looked up at the ceiling.

“There's a bit of a dent, I think,” I told her. “But otherwise it seems okay.”

She sighed with relief. “Thank you. I was frightened for a moment. But I need to check for internal damage. Could you please turn around?”

I did as instructed.

“Keep talking to me,” Una told me casually. “If I go quiet all of a sudden, then I've probably just dropped dead.”

“Is there anything I should know for such an eventuality?”

As she spoke, the fabric of her dress rustled. “Take a look inside me. If it's a mechanical fault, try and fix it. EON-4 might be able to help. If it's a problem with one of my organ bottles, then I guess you should bury me and inform my uncle. Can you pass that mirror without turning around?”

I did so. Behind me, I heard a metallic clunk.

“This mirror is filthy,” she continued. “But everything looks okay.”

“Are you familiar with your own workings?”

She laughed. “That sounds like the start of a ribald joke, doctor.”

I stammered a little at that. “At least you sound in good spirits.”

Another clunk,and further rustling. “In answer to your question, I've tried my best. Obviously, my uncle is nearing the end of his life, and I can't rely on him for maintenance any more. And the machinery that supports his existence is based on similar mechanisms to some of my own replacement organs, so I need to be able to help him as well as myself. Also, without wishing to sound ungrateful, there are many ways I'd like to improve upon my uncle's work. You can look now.”

As I turned around, she glided up beside me, examining her torn and soot-stained clothes. “This dress is ruined,” she sighed. “At least now you'll understand that it wasn't vanity that made me pack several.”

I looked around at the ruined bedroom and shuddered. “I'll be glad to get away from this place.”

“At least we're safe here. We didn't exactly do very well outside in the forest.”

I touched my revolver, almost superstitiously. “No, that's true.”

“Well,” Lady Una said, “if we run into more trouble, just get behind me, okay?”

And with that, she patted her hip with a metallic clang.

TO BE CONTINUED...

Next week: Will our heroes finally get the answers they're looking for when they meet the Iron Queen? Check back in a week's time for the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders!

30.8.08

Some Space News

Image source with more information
Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Cassini sends us this rather awesome image of Prometheus tugging at the thin F-ring. Far weaker than magenetism, images of gravity at work are rare and, I think, profound.

Rosetta, the ESA mission to orbit and place a lander upon a comet, is approaching its secondary target, the asteroid Steins.

Opportunity has succeeded in leaving Victoria Crater, and seems to still be going quite strong, save a few issues with her shoulder.

Finally, you may recall my fascination with (and unhappy ignorance of) orbital mechanics. The latest journal from Dawn Project System Engineer Marc Rayman serves up an entertaining and straightforward introduction to rocket science, so go read it right now.

29.8.08

Friday Gort Blogging


Gort!  Klaatu barada nikto!

28.8.08

I'll be Brief

The Demakes competition has been extended. Which makes me muchly happy, as I was starting to worry that I wouldn't get this thing finished in time. Latest additions include briefings and some rather dodgy and inefficient AI.

26.8.08

Demake-Me-Do

My competition submission is coming along in leaps and bounds at the moment, though I'm still not sure it will leap and bound far enough to be finished by Sunday. I'm currently devoting most of my spare time to this thing, so apologies if I'm quiet over the coming week.

In the meantime, here are some screenshots to keep you occupied. Please click to view them full size, and chew slowly.


25.8.08

DVD Review: [Rec]


Late at night, a reality TV crew traipse through a fire station, bored out of their minds and hoping for action. They get it - at least, on a small scale. Neighbours have reported an elderly woman screaming in her apartment, presumed trapped. Nothing too difficult to deal with. Accompanied by the TV crew and two surly police officers, the firemen bust down the door and find the woman inside to be both disturbed and dangerous. After she bites one of the cops, everyone beats a hasty retreat - only to find that the authorities have sealed off the whole apartment building. What is this, some kind of horror film?


As with The Host (which I reviewed here), Spanish POV horror film [Rec] is another movie that has significant hype surrounding it, hype that is largely justified.  It's not, as one review blurb on the cover overstates, the best film of the year, nor is it in any way ground-breaking.  Everything in [Rec] has been done before.  But I think that if you distil each of those elements down and look at its heritage, you'll see that [Rec] actually does these things better than previous horror movies, and incorporates them nicely into a coherent and straightforward whole.


Straightforward is a pretty good term to use to describe [Rec]. At an hour and a quarter in length, there's little beating about the bush, which leaves the characterisation broad and occasionally stereotypical, but allows you no respite from the fast pace. That's not to say that the film doesn't take every opportunity to cram in tense atmosphere and sinister foreshadowing. Much of the middle portion of the film is spent fostering a sense that the characters are just about staying on top of things - before, naturally, this fa├žade dissolves into frantic and bloody chaos.


I mentioned The Host earlier. While that film has gone on to become one of my all time favourites, I'm not sure I'll be saying the same thing about [Rec] in a year's time, for the simple reason that I don't actually like being scared all that much. The Host wraps up a lot of different things into one big monster movie bundle, but [Rec] is quite simply an out-and-out horror film. Every second of its tightly-packed running time is used to suck you in, fill you full of foreboding and then shock you. If you're anything like me, your heart will be pounding even in the apparently safer scenes. If you have a stronger constitution you should absolutely run out right now and buy this film. If you don't, well... maybe you should anyway.

*Helpful hint: if you're in the US, the distributors won't let you see this until after the American remake has been shown in cinemas.

24.8.08

Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders: Part 10

Previously: “In the midst of the Twisted Forests we had found unlikely sanctuary in a small, crumbling estate guarded by automated turrets. We hoped that the gamekeeper who lived there might be able to give us some understanding of the surrounding madness.”

Part 10: The Gamekeeper

“Yes,” the gamekeeper babbled, shuffling through the empty door frame and into the house of the family that once employed him, his shotgun still broken absently over his arm. “To think that I was worried those turrets would put me out of a job! And instead they saved my life. It's funny how things work out isn't it?”

 Thurlow placed a hand on my shoulder and spoke low in my ear. “The old coot seems to have found his voice, unfortunately. Remember: don't eat or drink anything he offers you. It will all come from the forest.”

 “As I need neither food nor rest,” EON-4 said quietly, “perhaps I should stay outside and see what I can learn about these turrets?”

 Thurlow nodded. “Good idea. And keep an eye on the tree line for any of those forest creatures.”

 The inside of the house was about what you'd expect for a place with a tree growing up through the roof. No floor to speak of, just the forest earth scattered over broken wooden boards. The wallpaper was ripped and burnt and the furniture was broken and rotted.

 Lady Una briefly placed a gloved hand over her mouth and nose, before she found the strength to compose herself. “You've presumably been here for more than the past five years?” she gasped politely.

 “Much longer,” the gamekeeper answered. “My father was gamekeeper for the Portmans.”

 “And these past five years,” Una continued, “you've seen the forest change?”

 The old man scratched at his knotted mop of hair. “Didn't even used to be a forest here.”

 “I'm sure there also didn't used to be strange people, not quite human?”

 “No,” the gamekeeper agreed, “they're new too. Look, let me show you upstairs, milady. That's where all the family records are kept.”

 Lady Una looked at the narrow, rickety stairs and then gestured to me. “After you, doctor.”

 I must have looked a little surprised, because she added, “You are curious, aren't you?”

 “Always.”

 Thurlow and Sigrid were opening up their rations. “Have fun,” the Major said.

*

The first floor of the Portman home was somewhat better preserved than the ruins below. Tree roots and branches poked out of the ceiling and wrapped around the light fittings, but otherwise things seemed to be holding together quite well. The furnishings were faring better up there too, dark wood and mostly unblemished silverware lending the place a more distinguished air. I couldn't say much for the family's choice in trophies, however.

 Lady Una appeared, looking a little flushed. She dusted down her hoop skirt.

 “Trouble with the stairs?” I asked.

 “I'm fine,” she answered, dismissively. She gave up on her soot-blackened skirt and looked around. “Oh, my goodness! You-” She cleared her throat and addressed the gamekeeper. “I see that you have kept yourself well occupied.”

 Mounted in a long row down the length of the hallway were the heads of forest dwellers, nailed to neat wooden boards as if they were hunted deer. The gamekeeper must have been a skilled taxidermist. That line of dark, fish-like eyes seemed even more human than I remembered from the creature that Thurlow had killed.

 The old man seemed disconcerted by Lady Una's remark. “I've done what I can to cull the ungodly and unnatural. To try and keep things... normal. Follow me.”

 He shuffled along, taking short steps down the hallway, apparently oblivious to the dozen pairs of eyes peering down on him from above. I followed at some distance, with Lady Una gliding silently behind me. Down the hallway we rounded a corner, and found ourselves beneath another row of dark eyes - this time the eyes of actual deer. Photographs and oil paintings interspersed the trophies, depicting generations of a happy family; dozens of smiling eyes that had never known the Sky Spiders.

 “The Portmans,” the gamekeeper growled, waving his hand at the images. “One of the finest families you could find. All gone now.”

 At the end of the hall we reached a small wooden door, mottled purple leaves sprouting from the cracks in the frame. The gamekeeper fumbled with the door knob and then let us inside.

 It was undeniably what you'd call a 'spare room'. Sundry items of every kind were bunched into the corners and stacked beneath the cracked window: children's toys, fishing rods, golf clubs, a wedding dress... The gamekeeper set down his shotgun and rummaged through a stack of books and photo albums. After a few moments of uncomfortable bending, he came up with a battered, hardback tome bulging with added pages and photographs.

 “I kept a record of the last five years,” he said, studying the thing. He sounded almost surprised to realise that he had shown such presence of mind. “When the trees came. When the townies started to change. When...” He leafed through the pages with shaking fingers. “When I started to lose the Portmans. And the Iron Queen.”

 Lady Una perked up suddenly. “The what?”

 “Yes,” the gamekeeper said, stepping towards me with the book open. “I started to lose the Portmans slowly. As they started to change.”

 I looked down into the open book and saw a photograph of the gamekeeper and another man standing either side of a young boy and forcing painfully fake smiles. The boy's eyes seemed unusually far apart.

 The gamekeeper sighed. “Yes, one by one they changed. Became strange. Lost their humanity.”

 “What did you- What happened?” Lady Una asked, her voice a little strained.

 The gamekeeper met my eye. For the first time I really looked at him. I saw something I didn't care for at all. “I told you. You have to try and keep things normal. I preserved them the way they would have wanted to be remembered.”

 “You killed them,” Lady Una said.

 “They were turning strange,” the old man said, matter-of-factly. “You know: strange. I mean, you know all about strange, don't you?” He was speaking to Lady Una. I looked at the shotgun lying on the floor and felt the weight of my revolver in its holster.

 “I assure you,” I said, stepping between the gamekeeper and Lady Una, “we're all quite normal.”

 “Oh really? Even your lady friend there? Haven't you seen the way she moves? Don't you wonder why she dresses in clothes my mother would think old fashioned?”

 Lady Una put her hand on my shoulder, tried to push me out of the way, but I resisted. “There are much stranger people in the world,” I said. “And they're all quite human.”

 “And then,” he continued, “there's that metal fellow, so much like the other one. No, you've got a hidden kind of strangeness, but it's still there. You can't fool me. You thought you had one over on me, but it's the other way round, you realise that now.”

 I was about to dive for the shotgun when the old man casually reached into a pile of antique detritus and swung out a fat-barrelled rifle. He aimed it square at Lady Una and rapidly worked the bolt. And then he smiled.

 “You're not stupid,” I said, trying to keep myself between the gamekeeper and his target. “You're crazy, but you're not stupid. I bet you used to pulled that bumbling old man routine on the Portmans as well.”

 He shrugged. “As a joke, at first. But it proved to be useful in the end.”

 “Out of the way, doctor,” Lady Una said firmly, still trying to push me aside. “I mean it.”

 “Let him play hero,” the gamekeeper said. “This elephant gun will cleave right through the both of you. It'll even make short work of your metal friend.”

 “You won't kill us all,” Lady Una said, gripping my waist tightly with both gloved hands. “The two downstairs are soldiers. They've faced armies that would make these forest dwellers look like harmless babies.”

 “Well, I've always thought that it's good to know how you're going to die,” the gamekeeper said simply. He leaned forward, bracing himself in anticipation of the elephant gun's recoil.

 It was a confusing second - and it really can't have been any longer a stretch of time than that. With surprising strength, Lady Una swung me around by the waist, throwing me across the floor and onto my hands and knees. I heard the gun fire while I was still falling, the report shattering the cracked window into shards. I spun round in time to see Lady Una hit the floor some distance from where she had been standing, a ragged hole in the front of her dress. Her hoop skirt deflated instantly, like the sail of a sinking ship.

 The gamekeeper took in a slow, deep breath and let it out again. And turned the smoking barrel of the elephant gun towards me.

TO BE CONTINUED...

Next week: Is this the end of Lady Una? Is this the end of Dr Greve? Will this series be changing location to the afterlife?! You'd better check back in a week's time for the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders!

20.8.08

Mirror


Examine talk. Go!

18.8.08

Something is Afoot


What's this?! It kind of reminds me of something, but I am not sure what.

17.8.08

Not a Crazed Gunman

(Contains bloody, comic violence.)

Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders: Part 9

Previously: “We had pushed into the Twisted Forests and had our first unfortunate encounter with the apparently part-human creatures that dwelt there. Then the factory siren began to sound, heralding our unpleasant welcome...”

Part 9: A Small Fortress

We were surrounded on every side by the thick, tangled branches of untamed and unnatural trees. The ground was uneven and, increasingly, broken by the eroded ruins of collapsed buildings. Mist and shadow obscured the world more than a few metres away from us. We had little idea where we were running to.

But we knew what we were running from.

A sharp crack sounded in the mist and a branch exploded into a shower of bark and splinters not far from my head. I fell backwards and threw my hands up protectively. In an instant, Major Thurlow was crouched beside me, sighting down the barrel of his rifle. He squeezed the trigger and an inhuman shout of pain barked out in response.

The major offered me a hand and smiled lopsidedly. “Take heart doctor. I can't imagine creatures like this have a ready supply of bullets. Every time they fire at us and miss is a cause for optimism.”

“Yes,” I said, brushing splinters from my hair. “Yes, certainly.”

Sigrid called back from somewhere ahead. “Keep moving!”

Thurlow growled and shouted back, “We are moving!”

Then, Sigrid's voice again, a cry of alarm: “Major!”

We sprinted towards her, trees grasping and scratching at our clothes before we stumbled blindly into a clearing. Before we had a chance to fully digest our surroundings, hands grabbed our collars and yanked us down onto the ground. I felt the heat of something whipping close overhead as I fell.

Sigrid and Lady Una were lying against a broken brick wall. The ground was black beneath my hands. Burnt, in fact, soot clinging to my fingers. I coughed, the smell of old smoke filling my lungs. For a few seconds there was a sound like a hail of pebbles hitting stone. Puffs of dust rose from the far side of the wall we sheltered behind. And then just silence.

“EON-4!” Lady Una yelled. “Are you okay?”

His voice was distant, but otherwise unchanged. “I am still fully functional.”

“Keep still!”

He seemed unworried. “Understood.”

Sigrid pulled a small cylinder from her belt. A telescope, I assumed at first, until she folded one end over and I realised it was a periscope, that most useful of tools for any modern soldier. She gingerly peeped the topmost lens over the wall and put her eye to the other end. “An automated turret. I've faced those kinds of things before, in the Danegeld War. We've got no chance without armoured vehicles or a couple of weeks and a dedicated team of trench diggers.”

“It's not the creatures?” I asked.

“Maybe it is,” Sigrid answered. “But they'd have to be a lot more technically minded than I'd have thought.”

She offered the periscope to me and I peered through it. Ahead was a clearing in the forest. The trees had been burnt down in a wide circle of black earth. In its centre was a large but dilapidated house, held up only by the ugly and leafless tree that seemed to have burst out from beneath its roof. At three points around the house were fat metal poles topped with gatling guns and an array of mirrors. As I watched, one of them twitched, turning its mirrors on a different part of the tree line. Not far from us, but on the wrong side of the wall, EON-4 lay on his front on the ground, perfectly still.

I handed the periscope to Thurlow. “It's Fortress City's little brother.”

A gunshot sounded from within the forest and we all ducked down closer to the ground. Sigrid scrabbled to bring her rifle to bear, but before she even had a chance to get her finger on the trigger one of the turrets opened up, bullets whipping overhead and into the trees. There were a few more scattered gunshots from the forest, but with no indication that it was more than a token gesture of defiance.

“We're in a pretty nasty position here,” Thurlow hissed. “The forest creatures know this ground better than we do. If we can get this close then there's no reason they couldn't. We have to either get back out there or...”

Lady Una took her turn with the periscope. “Or get on the right side of those turrets. Hallo, who's this?”

From the direction of the automatic gunfire, a weak and uncertain voice: “If you're looking for a safe place in the Forests, you've found it! Who are you? You look unchanged. Can I trust you?”

Thurlow laughed and said, under his breath, “You can't trust anyone, you fool.” Then responded aloud, “We're a team of explorers from Fortress City. Aid us, and you'll be handsomely rewarded.”

We must have all looked at him because he shrugged and whispered. “Well, our company is a kind of reward in itself, surely?”

“Do you have supplies?”

I looked at the moderately sized satchels we each carried. Before Thurlow could answer, Lady Una shouted, “No!”

A pause. From outside the clearing, a vague sense of movement. Branches moved and leaves rustled.

“The guns are off!” the voice said. “Move quickly! The first forest dweller I see, they're coming back on and they won't distinguish friend from foe!”

Thurlow experimentally lifted his rifle butt over the wall. When the guns didn't fire, we got to our feet and ran towards the house, picking up EON-4 as we went. Standing beside the nearest turret was a dishevelled old man with a scraggly beard and ripped, unwashed clothes that must once have been a rather smart suit. A broken shotgun hung over his arm. He eyed us each in turn as we approached, a mixture of manic emotions evident on his face, not least of all suspicion.

When we finally stood before him, he seemed unable to speak.

“How long have you been holed up in this old place?” Thurlow asked, looking over the half-ruined house.

“I... don't know,” the old man said. And then he smiled, clasping his hands. “I wondered if I was the last one left - the last human I mean. This is the Portman family house. I was their gamekeeper. I'm the last of this household left, at least.”

“Interesting toys you have,” Thurlow said, gesturing to the turrets.

“Yes,” the gamekeeper said, as if he only half understood. “Toys. To keep foxes from the pheasants, originally. Peashooters almost. Originally.”

“No offence,” Lady Una said, “but we don't intend to get bogged down here. We need to move on as soon as possible. We need to know everything about the surrounding land. Do these forest dwellers keep your house under constant observation, for example? Will we be able to get back out?”

The gamekeeper opened and closed his mouth a few times, silently. “I don't... know. I did once. But that was a long time ago. Or maybe not so long. I can't tell.”

“Let's go inside,” Thurlow said, “if we may. We could use a chance to rest and eat.”

The gamekeeper nodded. We turned to the house, sitting so incongruously in this forsaken woodland. I was reminded of the Viscount's manor in Circhester - but only in contrast. This was not a pleasant anachronism, not a relic from the idyllic past. Just one of countless ruins that marked the end of human civilisation.

TO BE CONTINUED...

Next week: Next week it's into the mind of the gamekeeper! What unhinged lunacy lives alone in the Twisted Forests? What has he learned about the forest dwellers – and perhaps even EON-5? Two of our heroes meet mortal danger in the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders!

15.8.08

Friday Halcyon Blogging

Credit: David Meeker
Some rights reserved

The Woodland Kingfisher. (Halcyon senegalensis.)

NB. This is a teaser.

14.8.08

Iceball Skeet Shoot

Image source with more information
Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

An image from Cassini's most recent fly-by of Enceladus taken from the astronomical hairbreadth of 2,500km above the surface. Well worth clicking to view the full image.

At it's closest approach, Cassini reached within 50km of the ground. If that seems close, the next fly-by of this intriguing and geologically active moon will pass within only 25km. All these daredevil antics, you might suspect a robot of a mid-life crisis...

Read the news item here, or the Cassini blog here.

12.8.08

And Again...


Another month, another couple of reviews added to the IFDB, this time of Centipede and The Moonlit Tower.

11.8.08

Reference

A GENTLEMAN OFFERS HIS ARM

To an old lady or to an invalid a gentleman offers his arm if either of them wants his support. Otherwise a lady no longer leans upon a gentleman in the daytime, unless to cross a very crowded thoroughfare, or to be helped over a rough piece of road, or under other impeding circumstances. In accompanying a lady anywhere at night, whether down the steps of a house, or from one building to another, or when walking a distance, a gentleman always offers his arm. The reason is that in her thin high-heeled slippers, and when it is too dark to see her foothold clearly, she is likely to trip.

Under any of these circumstances when he proffers his assistance, he might say: “Don’t you think you had better take my arm? You might trip.” Or—“Wouldn’t it be easier if you took my arm along here? The going is pretty bad.” Otherwise the only occasions on which a gentleman offers his arm to a lady are in taking her in at a formal dinner, or taking her in to supper at a ball, or when he is an usher at a wedding. Even in walking across a ballroom, except at a public ball in the grand march, it is the present fashion for the younger generation to walk side by side, never arm in arm. This, however, is merely an instance where etiquette and the custom of the moment differ. Old-fashioned gentlemen still offer their arm, and it is, and long will be, in accordance with etiquette to do so. But etiquette does not permit a gentleman to take a lady’s arm!

From Etiquette, by Emily Post

10.8.08

Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders: Part 8

Previously: “On our journey to locate the missing EON units, we had reached the Twisted Forests. Major Thurlow had passed through this strange area once before, the only survivor of a hundred soldiers that attempted to cross the Forests from one side to the other.”

Part 8: The Forest Dwellers

Weighed down by a pack of supplies and stumbling over the thick roots of gnarled and verdant trees, I was not especially surprised to discover that I was the least physically fit of the five of us. I lagged behind the others, and had fallen flat on my face at least twice.

Lady Una glided effortlessly beside me, only the slight mud stains around the edge of her dress showing that she was walking and not floating over the untamed, overgrown soil. “You can take my arm, doctor,” she suggested, “if you need help staying steady.”

My throat was cold and raw, so I could answer only hoarsely. “Or you could just let me in on your secret.”

“Excuse me?”

I mopped my brow with my sleeve. “You seem to have discovered the secret to moving with easy grace in every situation. I have to say that I'd be very thankful for that kind of knowledge myself about now.”

She looked at me carefully and said, “Ballet.”

“Ballet?”

“From as young as I can remember until I was a young woman. It's physically demanding, and requires absolute control over your movements.”

I looked at her in her high-necked dress and gloves, her hair tied up in a tight bun. “I can't picture you in a tutu.”

She blinked. “Well... good. I don't really want you to picture me in a tutu.”

“In any case, if we pass somewhere that's offering ballet lessons, sign me up.”

“But your masculine pride somehow won't allow you to take my arm?”

“Fine.” I slipped my free hand into the crook of her arm.

At the head of the group, Major Thurlow turned round to hiss at us: “Will you two be quiet? When Phenice suggested this might be a good place for a stroll I thought it was clear that she was being sarcastic.”

Lady Una and I looked at one another and then walked on in silence. When I stumbled, she turned out to be a remarkably sturdy person to lean on.

Thurlow dropped suddenly to one knee, holding up a hand. The rest of us followed suit, Lady Una crouching elegantly, and EON-4 dropping onto all fours as if he was about to do push-ups.

A pale mist pervaded the forest, foliage fading away into shadowy silhouettes as it retreated into the distance. The whole place was shaded, a thick canopy of leaves blotting out the sun. I could see dozens of unidentifiable shadows, but nothing that was clearly the centre of Thurlow's attention.

Slowly, Lady Una crept forward. I retrieved my hand and followed after her.

“What is it, Major?” she asked, sotto voce.

In answer, he simply pressed the stock of his rifle to his shoulder. “I doubt there's any human who can answer that question.”

Sigrid lay down on her front beside him, looking through the sight of her rifle. “It's a deer,” she said.

I followed the line of their barrels. I could just make out something vaguely deer shaped ahead, though if my attention had never been drawn to it, I would have assumed it to be a bush or small tree. Until, that is, I saw it move, lifting its head. It certainly did look a lot like a deer to me, though I'd never had much chance to look at one before.

“It's not a deer,” Thurlow said.

When he fired, I jumped out of my skin. But it was what happened next that really surprised me. The creature leapt up, catching the branches of a tree. For a moment its elongated head and long grasping fingers were perfectly silhouetted against the mist. And then, with a long, gurgling screech, it fell into a heap on the forest floor. Reacting to the gunshot, flocks of black, long-necked birds fluttered up from the branches, cawing harshly.

“Got it,” Thurlow said casually, getting to his feet.

“What is it?” I asked.

Thurlow just shrugged.

“If you don't know what it is,” I asked, “why exactly did you shoot it?”

“We can't afford to take chances.”

Lady Una smoothed down her skirt as she stood. “Chances like letting off a gun and waking up a flock of noisy birds? Weren't you only stressing the need to be quiet a moment ago?”

“I'm certain it had already noticed us. Better to kill it noisily than let it disappear and engage us on its own terms - or worse, fetch its friends.”

Sigrid still lay on her front, scanning the trees with her rifle. “Assuming of course that its friends aren't within earshot.”

I started towards the creature Thurlow had shot. “Can we take a closer look? I'd like to get an idea of what we just made an enemy of.”

“Be careful,” Thurlow said, helpfully.

I unbuttoned my jacket and drew my revolver. The others followed me at a moderate distance. “It does look somewhat like a deer,” I said, as I drew nearer. “But also kind of...”

EON-4 finished my sentence for me. “Human.”

“Exactly.”

I stood over the thing now. It stared upwards with lifeless eyes.

“I don't like its expression,” Lady Una said softly.

Sigrid nudged the thing with her foot. “It's the expression of something that was shot out of a tree.”

“I think it's wearing clothes,” I said.

Lady Una clasped her hands together. “Just rags. Did it used to be human?”

Thurlow stood some way away from us, looking about nervously. “Maybe it just doesn't have ready access to a tailor. Look, let's keep our distance from it. If there's one thing I've learned about the Twisted Forests, its not just that things change here. It's that whatever causes that change is contagious.”

At that we all hurried back several paces, though EON-4 seemed to step back more for our comfort than his own. Lady Una began to speak, but stopped at the first syllable. A sound rose out of the mist. A keening wail, like a chorus of people crying out in grief. But-

“That's not a natural sound,” Lady Una said. “At least not natural to this world.”

Sigrid lifted her rifle. “It's a factory siren.”

“In the middle of a forest?” EON-4 asked.

“This didn't used to all be trees,” Thurlow explained. “There used to be towns and cities and roads around. The forest just grew over the top of it. Up through it, rather. Trees of types never seen before, splitting open the pavement and growing faster than you'd think possible.”

“If we can hear that siren,” I suggested, “doesn't it seem likely that whoever triggered it would have heard our gunshot?”

“A call to arms,” Thurlow said. “Do we all have weapons? Good. I suspect we'll need them.”

TO BE CONTINUED...

Next week: Who runs the factory in the Twisted Forests? What, if anything, could possibly be manufactured there? And will our heroes escape those strange, contagious changes? Check back in a week’s time for the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders!

8.8.08

Friday Sherlock Holmes Blogging


Basil Rathbone portrayed Holmes in fourteen films between 1939 and 1946. Against his performance, all other attempts to play the great detective pale into insignificance.

Ultimately, the only person unhappy with Rathbone's Holmes was the actor himself, frightened of becoming typecast. According to legend, he quit the role after a fan asked him to sign an autograph as 'Sherlock Holmes'.

7.8.08

Vertigo

Image source with more information
Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Here's a dizzying view of Saturn from Cassini, looking askance at its cloudtops against a background of the rings. The rings appear warped where we're actually looking at them through Saturn's upper atmosphere.

5.8.08

Martian Shadow

Credit: NASA/JPL

Emily Lakdawalla found this beautiful image of Opportunity studying its own shadow. She also has the definitive post on the recent run-away rumour train concerning Phoenix, which I will link to without comment.

4.8.08

Calamity Annie


Auntie Pixelante's Calamity Annie is a game about a lesbian cowgirl shooting her way through a succession of bad hombres with ridiculous nicknames. Hey, that sounds like

Calamity Annie offers up some retro-tastic visuals and audio, coupled to simple but addictive gameplay. Best of all, though, in the style of the classic games of yore, the storyline and characters are fleshed out more through careful implication than outright exposition. There's a whole heap of personality to this one, and it's all presented in an unpretentious and entertaining fashion that's rare in modern games.

(Also, the chief love interest wears glasses, which is enough for me.)

3.8.08

Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders: Part 7

Previously: “Crouched in a rat-infested trench, we were sandwiched between Prometheus, the renegade Sky Spider machine, and a couple of hundred former humans – their heads encased in sun-bright tangles of alien machinery.”

Part 7: Enemy of my Enemy

Major Thurlow had apparently been less than pleased at my disappearance. “Where the Devil were you?” he demanded. “You found Phenice, I see.”

The riflewoman said nothing.

“I think,” I said, carefully, “we're running the wrong way.”

Thurlow pointed at the huge crab-like silhouette of Prometheus. “We're running away from that thing. A pretty sensible direction, if you ask me.”

“But one hundred and eighty degrees from the direction I'd recommend.”

Lady Una raised an eyebrow. “Are you quite all right, doctor?”

“There are more mind-locked soldiers heading towards Fortress City than I can count.”

Sigrid sniffed. “No more than two hundred.”

Thurlow tightened his grip on the rifle he was using as a crutch. “Then we move faster.”

“We can't move fast enough,” Sigrid said simply. And with that she turned to scamper over the ruined ground towards Prometheus.

I waited to see that Lady Una and EON-4 were going to follow suit, and then began to move towards the leviathan machine myself.

“This is insanity,” Thurlow called out. “We know we can kill a human body. That thing is unstoppable – all we can rely upon are its good graces and it has precious few of those. Come back, damn you!”

I risked a glance over my shoulder to make sure that the major did eventually decide to limp after us.

When we next crested an embankment of crumbling earth, there was nothing but a few hundred metres of open ground between us and the pistoning limbs of the stolen Sky Spider machine. Its expressionless face - the face of John Kirkham - looked down upon us with no perceptible antipathy or affection.

Lady Una stopped in her tracks and grabbed my arm. “Are you certain about this?” she asked, her voice hushed.

I attempted a smile. “Not in the least.”

She pursed her lips. “Well, at least you're still sane, if not quite sensible.”

“Here it comes,” Thurlow hissed, needlessly.

“Lower your weapons,” Sigrid said calmly. “Let's not antagonise the fella.”

The footfalls rumbled up through the ground and into my stomach. As Prometheus cast its shadow over us, my fears that this might not have been a brilliant idea were tempered by the reality that there was probably nothing I could do to stop Prometheus if it decided to snuff us out of existence.

As Prometheus stepped over us - though at the time I was convinced it was stepping on us - I threw my hands over my ears and ducked. It felt like the vibration would shatter my skull like a rotten egg. I screamed, and couldn't hear the sound leave my throat.

And then the sensation faded. Like a foot lifting from my throat, the shadow of Prometheus left us. Explosive pops sounded, and I looked up to see Prometheus casting electric blue spheres around it. They imploded in the same fashion as those it had fired at us, sucking the mindless soldiers up into the air, where they were trapped in turn by more spheres, and then crushed into tiny points of light that fell upon the battlefield like stardust.

Sigrid uttered an oath that I can recall but not, in good conscience, relate.

Prometheus continued to stomp away from us, in the direction of Unity City. Again and again the air and ground around it imploded, dozens of writhing figures being thrown up into the morning sky.

“Now's our chance,” Lady Una said, brushing dust from her skirt. “We must move past it quickly. Hopefully we will remain unnoticed.”

Sigrid checked the breech of her rifle. “No argument here.”

With what supplies we could carry on our backs, and Thurlow limping heavily, we left the scorched ground surrounding Fortress City. It was not the best start to our journey we could have hoped for, but, with what little civilisation we had to rely upon, it was perhaps the best we could have hoped for.

*

Gradually, the shell-blasted mud of No Man's Land gave way to more fertile soil. Weeds bearing colourful flowers sprouted up around the trunks of fallen trees, and strange fungi coiled and sprouted in every shadow. Ahead of us, green trees crowded out the horizon, sheltering thick and exotic foliage beneath their leaves.

“This is it,” Thurlow said. “The Twisted Forests.”

Lady Una surveyed the view with her hands on her hips. “And somewhere in there is the Sky Spider installation that EON-5 was despatched to.”

Thurlow jabbed a finger at the forest. “If we head in there, we'd damn well better find what we're looking for. I passed right through the Forests, from one end to the other, with a company of one hundred soldiers. Machineguns and the lot. Seven of us made it to this side. Five of those died within a week of stepping beyond the trees. And the only other survivor besides me is, assuming his condition is unchanged, stark raving mad.”

“A fine place for a stroll, then?” Sigrid suggested.

Thurlow just looked at her through narrowed eyes.

EON-4 stepped ahead of us. “It will be interesting to see,” he mused, “exactly what the Sky Spiders get up to when they decide to start changing the nature of earthly life. We may perhaps learn something about ourselves - about humanity I mean, as much as that includes me.”

Thurlow stood up straight, experimentally putting weight on his injured leg. Satisfied, he began limping towards the forest. “Yes, perhaps we will. Just as long as it isn't our earthly lives that wind up changing.”

TO BE CONTINUED...

Next week: What creatures dwell in the Twisted Forests? What relation do they have to life on Earth - or life off Earth, for that matter? And are they friend or foe? Check back in a week’s time for the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders!

1.8.08

Friday Competition Blogging


The TIGSource Bootleg Demakes competition.

Not saying I'm going to enter. Just saying that code has been written, and there is a title screen. Playing a little loose with the competition theme of modern games remade for older systems.

NB: The TIGSource forums have been experiencing a few issues with virus-y hacks lately, so I'm not actually linking to the competition page at this time, especially because I know a few of you are less than computer savvy. ;-)