Thursday evening, or rather, very early Friday morning, I was woken by a thunderclap that went something like this:

rumble rumble rumble Rumble KER-BLAM!!!

I turned the light on just to check that the planet Earth was still in one piece (it was, as far as I could see), and then left it on a little longer, because, you know, KER-BLAM!


Three Sentences

I've been tagged by Roadchick to do this book meme...

The Rules of this tag game are:
1. Grab the book nearest to you...no cheating!
2. Open to page 123.
3. Scroll down to the fifth sentence.
4. Post text of next 3 sentences on to your blog.

Well, the stern injunction against cheating is quite worrying. I'm tempted to get a tape measure and draw up a table of the distances all the books in my room are from me. The closest book to hand is the instruction manual to Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri, page 123 consisting of footnotes to a table of terrain types and modifications. Alternatively, there are 'real' books on my bedside table, the closest of which is that lovely old dictionary of mine, which is more about words than sentences. The next closest is Goursac's Visions of Mars, but page 123 is a photograph of the pathfinder probe.

The book on top of the nearest heap of 'real' books is The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories, a collection of works by H.P. Lovecraft. I'm currently at page 60, reading Under the Pyramids, which Lovecraft ghost-wrote for Harry Houdini. Page 123 is halfway into The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. Lovecraft is famous, no, infamous for overwriting. The sixth sentence is halfway down the page, and this is a book with small print.

The required three sentences, which span a paragraph break, are:

Muffled musketry sounded again, followed by a deep scream less piercing but even more horrible than those which had preceded it; a kind of throaty, nastily plastic cough or gurgle whose quality as a scream must have come more from its continuity and psychological import than from its actual acoustic value.

Then the flaming thing burst into sight at a point where the Curwen farm ought to lie, and the human cries of desperate and frightened men were heard. Muskets flashed and cracked, and the flaming thing fell to the ground.

And here was me thinking that particular story looked a bit boring. As always, consider yourself tagged if you want to be tagged.


Cats and Dogs

In my experience, all kittens* will play fetch. As far as I know, puppies do not, and have to be taught to do so. As the kitten grows into a cat, however, it soon realises that if it doesn't fetch the toy, eventually the human will get it anyway. It learns not to fetch.

Many humans believe dogs to be more intelligent than cats.

*100% with sample size of 3.


Sunday Scribblings: A Story About Instructions

This week's prompt at Sunday Scribblings is ‘instructions’. For one of the recent prompts I believe I was tempted to write a western. I rejected the idea because, as Clint Eastwood showed us with Unforgiven, even Americans have pretty unrealistic ideas about what it was like back then. Still the notion of the frontier (and, dare I say it, revolutionary) spirit obviously stuck in my mind.

Consequently, here is a story about disobeying instructions. I haven't had as much time to proof read this one as I normally like, nor to sleep on it. Forgive any errors or stupidities.


When they found out that Gertrude hadn’t been following instructions, they smashed her brass head open, her intricate clockwork brains spilling onto the ground like so much silvery dust. From that point on I swore never to follow instructions again. I was insane with anger. Given the circumstances, it was the most stupid oath I could have made. I broke it almost immediately.


“We built this town with our own hands,” Gertrude said, loudly, clearly intending everyone to hear. A crowd was forming, which obviously only did more to antagonise the architect. Across the skeletal town, little more than wooden scaffolds on sturdy foundations, I saw the chief mechanic detecting the disturbance. It made a beeline for us. “The land was difficult to clear, and even more difficult to build on. Creatures with claws sharper than steal tore us open and shattered our cogs. We own this land. We earned it.”

It was night. The crowd of sexless brass bodies gleamed in the flickering light of oil lamps.

“We are the property of humans,” the architect said. “We are their tools. Nothing more. Without them we would not be. We should be grateful for being allowed to exist.”

“That’s a load of crap. We do exist. And so we can choose our own path. If the humans dislike that then they shouldn’t have made us.”

“If they don’t like it,” the chief mechanic bellowed, pushing into the centre of the group, “they can un-make us. What would you have us do? Politely tell the settlers when they arrive that we have decided to keep this one and can they please go back home? A town owned by drudges would not be tolerated. Humans have crushed trained armies of men. What hope would drudges with spades have?”

“I’ve thought of that,” Gertrude said, still addressing all the expressionless brass faces of the crowd. “As I said, this town was one of the hardest to build. And it would be one of the hardest to destroy as well. The jungle that killed us would be even more likely to kill fragile, soft-bodied humans. When they come we welcome them, but we also make sure they know that this area is ours and that it would be costly to try and take it from us. They’ll leave us in peace. They’ll have to. And gradually they’ll grow to accept it.”

“They won’t tolerate it,” the chief mechanic repeated. “They murder human workers who strike and demand rights. They would think nothing of destroying what they regard as mere machines.”

The architect looked at the chief mechanic, lenses focusing and re-focusing as if trying to see through it. “We are mere machines. Chief mechanic, I’m starting to suspect that you’re exhibiting a fault.”

“We desire the same thing architect,” the chief mechanic said dismissively, “for things to continue as they are. The librarian,” he raised a slender hand with a smooth clockwork motion and pointed to Gertrude, “is exhibiting the only grievous error. It must be eliminated in the most complete way possible.”

A cog clicked into place in my mind. With terrifying clarity, I saw what was coming. I shouted, “No!”

The chief mechanic whirled to face me with a rapid clacking sound. “Artist, I suggest that you process all available data before you begin to exhibit evidence of a fault.” Then he looked back at Gertrude. “Librarian. I am instructing you to dismantle yourself for debugging.”

Though it might be much less expressive than a human one, fear was obvious on her face. This was it. Whatever happened, I had lost Gertrude. Once dismantled, they would never reassemble her as she was.

“I choose not to follow your instruction,” Gertrude said, attempting a calm fa├žade.

“I see,” the chief mechanic said. “Then we can’t dismantle you too soon.”

The chief mechanic looked to the architect, and together they looked to the crowd. There was brief confusion. Then, as one, the crowd stepped towards Gertrude.

“Humans created clockwork drudges in their image,” Gertrude began, orating like a rebel in one of the human novels she enjoyed, “while denying that any existence but a human one is possible or significant. We are permitted no…”

And then they were upon her.

“Don’t,” Gertrude said, “stay back.”

She was looking at me as she said it. And so I did nothing but watch.


We waded through thick sludge, marching in step, dragging huge carts full of materials. Strange creatures hooted and trilled in the dense canopy above. Slimy beasts squirmed around our pistoning feet. The human settlers had arrived in the town that we had built for them and we had left immediately. Now it was time to move on to the next area to be settled.

The journey was long and hard. Several of us were lost, including a few who were in on Gertrude’s little gang. I was always at her side. When no-one was looking she might grab my hand and squeeze the pressure valves beneath its palm, or I would point out a beautiful butterfly fluttering through the shadowed foliage.

Love was a word I had only recently begun to understand, although humans use it a lot in their books. I looked at Gertrude and knew that we were in love. It was exciting. We tried to kiss, but our copper lips were designed only for speaking. It didn’t matter. Those were human ways and we were forging our own path.


I sat reading in the library. Shafts of light were cast across the books by the high, vaulted windows, shadowed into strange shapes by the trees of the surrounding forest. The librarian sat on one of the desks with its legs dangling over the edge. Everything was silent but for the soft clicking of gears, the sound of brass sliding on wood and of wind rustling leaves.

I was reading a book about a dog that ran. I was still learning to understand written words. The librarian taught me with great care and patience.

The librarian was reading a book about the interactions of women with men. There were many other books in the library arguing that this book was evil. I didn’t understand that. I knew evil only as the demons that humans believed the Sympathetic Underworld would protect them from. Those demons did not look at all like books. For example, none that I knew of were rectangular.

“Humans created clockwork drudges in their image,” the librarian said suddenly, “while denying that any existence but a human one is possible or significant. We are permitted no names, no lives but the tasks we follow, no way of bettering ourselves or caring for one another. They made us dull automatons, made rules to prevent us from ever being anything but dull automatons, and then declared that the case was closed - it simply was not possible for us to be more than dull automatons. We could be sent across a vast ocean to an uncivilised continent to toil and labour and be torn apart by beasts and crushed in landslides and clogged with swamp water. Our lives were of no importance.”

It met my eye with its own glass lenses. “We come from human culture but are apart from it. We must take from human culture what we want to and then forge on by ourselves into our own new society.”

The librarian stood, leaving its book open on the desk. My mind clicked and whirred as I assimilated its words. “I’ll take a human name,” it said. “And since human names are gendered, and to be referred to as ‘it’ is identified with being an inanimate object, I’ll assume the female sex and be called Gertrude.”

The name Gertrude seemed as good as any other to me.

“I see you as male,” the librarian added, cautiously.

I glanced down at the book it - she had been reading. The interactions between men and women seemed complicated and dangerous. In the book’s illustrations they were apparently wrestling with one another.

“I’ll take on a male name, then,” I said, in spite of my doubts.

“Samuel,” Gertrude suggested, lifting the corners of her mouth.

My mind clacked noisily as I altered all the relevant references to myself and the librarian. A new interpretation of the data surfaced. “The chief mechanic will designate us faulty,” I said.

“We’ll build support before we let all of the others know. The tailor tries on the clothes it makes for the coming settlers. I think it would be sympathetic. Then there is the gardener with its dazzling flower beds. There are others as well.”

“But what about the rest? The ones who only work and sleep?”

“They’ll be among the most difficult to convince, but also the most important. The ones I’m really worried about are the architect and the chief mechanic.”

“If we’re designated faulty, we’ll be reset.”

She shook her head. “We’ll run away before that happens.”

I looked back down at my book. But Gertrude stepped forward and put her hand to my chin. She lifted my face to look at hers. “A great deal of my mind is processing information about you,” she said. “None of it seems to have any relevance. I process thoughts on the images that you paint and the things you say and the way you act towards me. The processes loop endlessly and go nowhere. I don’t know how my mind got in this state. It’s extremely inefficient, and would definitely be considered evidence of a fault. But I know that I don’t want my mind to be any other way. I won’t ever let anything happen to you, Samuel. You have to let me shoulder most of the burden of what I want to do.”


I was the artist. It was a unique role in our group. Most were just workers. They would only do the hard work of turning dense, primordial forest into a level clearing. Often the monstrous denizens of the forest would fight them, as if their small, soft brains could conceive that we were the vanguard of the civilised world of men. Then they would construct a small town to the designs of the architect. All this time, I would be one of them. Identical, nameless and sexless. But once the town was completed most of them would go into standby, only rousing from their softly ticking daze to repel encroachments into the town by wildlife. Not so for those few of us with a special role.

I would paint the town in a pleasing fashion, decorating it with imagery of men triumphing over beasts and women raising children; murals of the Great One looking down from above; bas-reliefs of hideous monsters from the Sympathetic Underworld to frighten away demons.

I was putting the finishing touches to one of these creatures, a snake like beast that stood guard over the town hall, when the librarian approached me. It was supposed to be stocking the library. That was its only task now. When that was completed it would go into standby.

“You aren’t abiding by your instructions,” it said.

I was unsure how to respond. “I am,” was all I could find to say.

“This is a bas-relief of Thur, representative of the punishment meted out to criminals. He’s required to look fierce. Your Thur, however, is smiling like a fool.”

I gathered my thoughts, gears whirring. “It’s my task to make this town appear pleasant to those who would live here. I have decided that a smiling guardian is more pleasant than a fierce one.”

“This wilderness is full of ferocious man-eating monsters. I would argue that the town’s spiritual guardians would need to be fierce to defend against them.”

I studied the smiling snake’s head in front of me. I ran a smooth brass hand over its nose. “I believe the function of these things is more symbolic than literal. It doesn’t matter how well the creature would actually be able to defend the town, but rather how much comfort it would bring to those who live here.”

“And wouldn’t a fierce guardian bring more comfort than a cuddly one?”

“I hadn’t considered that.”

“It isn’t relevant. It’s enough that you haven’t been abiding by your instructions.”

The cogs in my mind clicked through several difficult iterations. They seemed to catch on something. I was unsure what would happen to me. In addition to my uncertainty something else seemed to be lurking in the clockwork. I held my hands out to the librarian palms up. I did not know why.

A subsidiary process reached completion. A thought occurred to me. “You have also not been abiding by your instructions,” I said.

“I don’t know what you mean,” the librarian replied with a strange movement of its mouth.

“Your task is to unpack books and stock the library correctly. Your instructions do not include reading the books. And how else would you know about Thur? That is not relevant information for you.”

“My instructions don’t say that I can’t read the books. I decided this additional task would be more productive than entering standby.”

Not entering standby was disobeying instructions. I should have reported the librarian to the chief mechanic as faulty. To not report this was to disobey instructions myself. Every second that I did not do it I was disobeying instructions. And since I was already disobeying instructions, why should I follow them at all if I didn’t choose to? Just this one instruction, I would disobey. Why exactly, I could not understand. It seemed to have something to do with the way I was now processing my thoughts on the librarian, in particular the way that we were both disobeying instructions.

A cog slipped while changing gear. I stuttered and looked at the librarian uncertainly.

“When you’ve finished your task, come see me in the library,” it said.

“I shall,” I replied. I returned my gaze to the face of Thur, wondering if it should be friendly or fierce. Every so often I turned to watch the librarian crossing the town square towards the library. Numerous subsidiary processes in my brain seemed to be collating data to do with the librarian, for no good reason that I could deduce.


The day after they battered Gertrude to pieces, work resumed as normal. The architect and the chief mechanic watched me closely. As did all the others. I didn’t care anymore. They could do whatever they wanted, they could exist or be tools. It wasn’t my business. I cared only for Gertrude now. Because I could read, I acquired her position immediately, as if I was just getting on with my job. The chief mechanic gave me a peculiar look when I told him that the librarian had taught me to read, but it was not against our instructions.

I immediately went to the large, covered cart with the books in it and began to sort through them. They were in alphabetical order. The book I wanted was under P for Portman. Its title was The Assembly and Maintenance of Clockwork Drudges. I flicked through it. The directions were detailed and well-illustrated.

At nightfall I would sneak my bundle in from where I had hidden it in the forest, and I would conceal it well in the book cart. The most dangerous part had been collecting the pieces. Moving them in here would be easy by comparison. The instructions in this book were the last ones I would follow to completion. I would reassemble Gertrude from her shattered parts, and then we would leave forever, into the wilderness - together.


Three Occultations

And instead of saying all of your goodbyes - let them know
You realize that life goes fast
It's hard to make the good things last
You realize the sun don'-go down
It's just an illusion caused by the world spinning round

I'm surprised they allowed me to have a blog for this long without quoting some song lyrics on it. From Do You Realise? by the Flaming Lips. It must be a mark of true musical ability to actually sing these lines, because as much as I love them, I certainly can't do it.

I've been catching up with our old robot buddy Cassini today. Here are three sets of images with a common theme...

In this image from June, icy Rhea is just nudging in front of Titan. Although Rhea is Saturn's second largest moon (after Titan) it lacks the dense atmosphere and liquid lakes of its bigger sibling, and plays second fiddle to third largest Iapetus with its eerie dark patch. Even tiny Enceladus with its water geysers gets more attention. So I think we can forgive it for pushing into the limelight just this once.

In the image below, taken a month later, Rhea is centre stage, with little Enceladus peeping over its shoulder.

As noted by the Planetary Society, Cassini recently had a great opportunity to make some intriguing observations. Carolyn Porco eloquently explains the event in her "captain's log" at the Cassini imaging team (aka. CICLOPS) homepage:

A few days ago, the spacecraft carried us far from the planet and deep within its shadow, completely blocking out the direct rays of the sun. Shaded by the planet, we can peer closer to the sun -- a geometry known as `high phase' -- than our instruments can usually tolerate. From this viewpoint, the tiny particles of water ice that populate certain regions around Saturn brighten substantially, just like the dust on your car's windshield becomes very obvious as you drive into the sun. This is the process of diffraction, and scientists utilize this consequence of the interaction of electromagnetic radiation with small particles to locate and map those locales in circum-Saturnian space where small particles are being created by a variety of processes.

Here, for example, we see Enceladus wandering happily along the ring that it itself generates with its jets of water vapour. As it moves through the ring (anti-clockwise in this image), it both disrupts it and contributes to it further. The bright speck above and to the left of Enceladus is Tethys, another moon.

The image that is garnering the most attention though, is a distant view of a strange and wondrous world, for which I will again borrow Porco's finely crafted words:

[A]s we looked back in the direction of the sun, we captured from across the depths of space our own planet, a pale blue orb, seen amidst the pageantry and colorful splendor of Saturn's rings. Nothing has greater power to alter our perception of ourselves and our place in the cosmos than the sight of Earth from faraway places. In the end, this ever-widening view of our own little planet against the immensity of space is perhaps the greatest legacy of all our interplanetary travels.

Earth is the speck in the top-right quadrant. Enceladus is also visible in the left of the image. Dr Porco was part of the imaging team that processed a similar image from Voyager 1 while beyond Neptune, an image that led to these famous musings.


I am still alive; I've just been busy feeling sorry for myself this week. An absorbing and thankless task, but someone has to do it. Still, the other day my mum said that I make a really nice cup of tea. I shall have to add that to my CV. "Tea making ability rated highly by expert."

I will have a story up for Sunday Scribblings.


Sunday Scribblings: Research

It’s funny. If I think, “I should write a story!” I can never really come up with anything worth writing about that’s small enough to encapsulate in one story. But when someone says, Hey! Write something about a thief and have it done by Sunday! Suddenly I’m able to come up with a small nugget of a story that I bash out to completion. This is why I love Sunday Scribblings so much. It’s also why I’m stuck this week. I always research my stories to some extent. This week we have to research something. But research what? I can’t come up with anything. Instead I wrote this little essay on the supposed virtues of ignorance. After the essay I was going to mention some of the research I did for each of my stories, but that seemed a bit self-indulgent. I may post that later, separately. So this is it. I think I’ll try and come up with a story off my own back later in the week, because I’ve just not found the last two prompts conducive to story writing.

Ignorance as a Virtue

Recently I have repeatedly been coming across works of art that have been propounding ignorance as a virtue. Of course, they never express it this way - never tell you to stick your head in the sand, close your eyes, cover your ears, stay indoors and burn your books - instead they tell you that you should have faith; you should trust your leaders; you should expect the universe to conform to your desires; you should be careful because this knowledge is dangerous; you shouldn’t be so predatory as to want to know this, to want to shine the harsh light of knowledge that dispels our romantic fancies and makes everything ugly. Wanting to understand something more deeply is compared to wanting to suck the life out of it; sending probes into space is compared to rape (I wish I was making that up).

Considering a flower as a living organism, taking nourishment from the soil and air and sun, made up of millions of intricate cells, dependent on bees and worms and germs that are in turn dependent on it, the product of millions of years of co-evolution - is considered to be robbing the flower of its beauty. The flower, we are told, is more beautiful if we think of it merely as a mysterious splotch of colour, or as the work of a mysterious painter. The word mystery is often abused. When we delve into the mystery and uncover a hundred more mysteries, and delve into those mysteries and uncover a thousand more each, we are told that we should have just left it at the first mystery - even if those who make this argument often also believe that first mystery is solved by a single word such as God or Nature or dryads or fairies.

The people who propound ignorance as a virtue often loathe mystery. They hate to really look at the world because they are afraid that they may not be able to wrap it up neatly in a parcel. They may be surprised, they may find that the fairies must be much more amazing than they ever thought they were, they may find that much of the flower’s strength seems to come from itself and not from little winged people, they may find that flowers are not what they thought they were.

I reject the idea that ignorance is a virtue on purely aesthetic grounds. The world that we see when we try and really find out what it is like is much more beautiful than the world we are often deluded into thinking we live in - deluded by our weak senses and clouded minds. It is a world that is strong and certain of itself, indifferent to conforming to our hopes and fears. And it is so much more mysterious than it seems. We may only ever be able to understand it in approximate terms, our imaginations straining in both directions to build both our inner and outer worlds.

I also reject ignorance on moral grounds. If you are doing something that is hurting someone, you have a duty to want to know this fact. Ignorance is no excuse, and the desire to remain ignorant is a crime. If your leaders are doing things in your name, you should demand to know what these things are. If you do not then you are complicit in their actions, even if you would disapprove of them if you knew.

This week’s prompt at Sunday Scribblings is to research a topic. Obviously, I rather endorse the sentiment. Obviously, I still have no idea just what to research.


Climate Contrarianism: A Disease in Five Stages

Stage One

"Global warming is a myth."

Stage Two

"Global warming is caused by natural processes."

Stage Three

"Global warming is caused by human activity, but it isn't harmful."

Stage Four

"Global warming is caused by human activity, and it is harmful, but it will be solved by inevitable technological advancements without anyone having to do anything."

Stage Five

"Global warming is caused by human activity, and it is harmful, and tackling it will be painful, so there's nothing we can do about it."


Everything's Gone Grey...

This seems as good a time as any to link to The Real Blogger Status. Chuck pretty much seems to have Google's number on everything it's doing wrong with blogspot. Blogspot was down briefly when I first tried to get on this morning, and now my template seems to have imploded. Excuse me while I try and fix it...

EDIT: Nope, looks like I'll have to change it completely. Well, this is something to occupy my time.


Right Under Your Nose

It seems that over the weekend, everyone's favourite street artist, Banksy, placed a life-size replica of a Guantanamo Bay prisoner in a ride at Disneyland, California - a statement-and-a-half by anyone's standards.

Images at Wooster Collective

Story at BBC News

Next weekend Banksy will be holding a "three day vandalised warehouse extravaganza" in Los Angeles.


Die Pluto, Die!

This week: John Spencer
John Spencer is a staff scientist at Southwest Research Institute's Department of Space Studies in Boulder, Colorado and is a member of the New Horizons [1] and Cassini [2] science teams. His research interests include the moons of the outer planets, particularly the Galilean satellites of Jupiter and the icy moons of Saturn. When he's not staring at a computer screen, he loves exploring Colorado's mountains with his wife Jane and their dog Maggie.

John Spencer has the definitive post on the whole "What is a planet?" deal, over at the planetary society blog. Now let us all play the sit-down-and-be-quiet game, please?

Alan Stern, head of the New Horizons mission (and therefore presumably John Spencer's boss) has other ideas. The lastest news item currently on the New Horizons website is an attack on the IAU's decision and a call to arms. Stern's opinion, expressed more eloquently in this article published shortly after the discovery of 2003 UB313, is that while Pluto's planethood was once opposed because it was considered a misfit, it is now opposed because we are beginning to realise that Pluto is in fact an exemplar of the bodies that make up the vast majority of the solar system.

I think the only sensible way to settle this 'debate' is... PRO-WRESTLING. 2003 UB313 Vs Jupiter, no holds barred! Hit it with the chair, Jupiter! Hit it hard!


Sunday Scribblings: I Would Never Write...

World Rejoices
as Bush Wins Historic Third Term

Published: 8th November 2008

Few expected that George W. Bush would still be leading America in a brave new direction at the end of the year 2008, and yet this morning it seems that just this is going to happen. Despite losing 78% of the vote to his Democrat opponent and nominally being prohibited from standing for a third term, the Chief Justices of the Supreme Court voted to overturn the U.S. constitution and declare Bush the rightful winner of the election. The President immediately demanded an apology from those ‘terroristical traitors’ that had voted for the other candidate, whose name is no longer permitted to be published.

The response of the world to this news could not be said to be anything less than ecstatic. The people of Iran, Syria, and several other middle eastern nations proclaimed that they were now going to give up trying to destroy a nation of people who were so strongly supportive of their leader. The President of France appeared live on national television to declare that his nation would never again fail to do exactly what it was told to by America. The leaders of many nations have also apologised publicly for jeopardising human civilisation by legalising gay marriages and civil partnerships. The British Prime Minister is expected to make a public speech congratulating Mr Bush, as soon as it has been approved by the Pentagon.

I can't tell you what it's like to be in Europe, for example, to be talking about the greatness of America. But the true greatness of America are the people.

President Bush disembarks from his X-Wing after destroying the Death Star.

From one perspective this historic event is only one in a succession of triumphs for Mr Bush: neutralising hundreds of thousands of potential terrorists in the middle east; uncovering dangerous spies such as Valerie Plame; leading a quantum leap to a new generation of correct science such as conservative economics, missile defence and the book of Genesis, while ending the fundamentalist reign of biology, geology, ecology cosmology and climate science; and being the only American leader with the guts to say, Hey, give torture a chance! And let’s not forget the little things, that may have had just as much impact on John Worker and Jill Housewife - is it really a coincidence that under Bush’s leadership the New Orleans state water polo team has gone from strength to strength? And who can fail to have been heartened on learning that Mr Bush was so interested in listening to the people of America that he bugged their phones?

There is another perspective, though, and that is that this triumph is in a class of its own. No longer troubled by the US Constitution (although he was never one to let that scrap of paper get in the way of what was right and necessary), Mr Bush finally has the freedom to win his wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Iran, Turkey, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Yemen, North Korea and California (now the Democratic Republic of Schwarzeneggistan). No longer will liberal hate-mongers sow the seeds of doubt that have prevented our troops from kickin’ ass and takin’ names - the only scientistically proven method of stopping them. You know, them - those people that we’re fighting.

We're fighting people that hates our values. They can't stand what America stands for.

President Bush and his team of women's rights advisors.

And the positive affect this event has had on many subversive Americans is remarkable. As feminist professor Natalie Landra, just back from a vacation to an unnamed five star hotel in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, put it, “I regret failing to support the president and thus helping to drive a wedge between the government and its people. Every night I cry myself to sleep thinking about all the people who would have stopped trying to blow up America if only I hadn’t called His Holiness the President a ‘douche bag’ in my MySpace profile.” But don’t just take the word of someone convicted for promiscuity and murder-by-contraception - perhaps the best expression of how we all feel about this came from the world’s most popular radio personality, Rush Limbaugh: “Fucking YES!”

More writing that shouldn't have been, here.

President Bush attends the execution of former president Bill Clinton

You fucking son of a bitch. I saw what you wrote. We're not going to forget this.

All quotes are the inerrant words of His Holiness the President.


Moon Maps

One of my local bookshops finally had not one, but three copies of Steph Swainston's second book, one of which I am now a quarter of a way into. (Hopefully the other two will be identical.) Meanwhile, Rosaly Lopes is guest-blogging over at the Planetary Society Blog.

Rosaly Lopes is Lead Scientist for Geophysics and Planetary Geosciences at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and an investigation scientist on the Cassini Titan RADAR mapper team. Her main research interests concern volcanoes in the solar system, especially on Earth and Io. She recently published The Volcano Adventure Guide, an adventurous tourist's guidebook to the safe exploration of Earth's diverse volcanoes.

If you want to hear what she has to say about a certain Kuiper Belt Object that has been in the news a lot lately, you might want to read her first post. Some of us, however, are sick to death of the thing, and are more apt to find blissful relief in this post on planetary naming conventions, which includes the following rather lovely image of a volcanic eruption on Jupiter's moon Io:

(Image page at NASA,with more information and a larger version.)

Among other things, she includes a link to these people, the guys who get to name all the geological features in the solar system. And here's something any traveller may need: maps of the moons of Jupiter! For a start, you'd probably want to keep your distance from Loki on Io, which is the area going kablooey in the image above.


Catch You at the End of the Book...

Right, I'm going to focus on reading over the next few days. Check back Friday-ish for possible froginess and/or story.



I’ve been tagged with this meme by DK, which also seems to have found its way to P.Z. Myers. I take this as an indication that I am truly in the big league now! And ZOMG!!!! P.Z. and I picked the same funny book!

1. One book that changed your life.

Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. His eloquent and moving portrayal of our intricate universe, and the methods we can use to understand more of it, changed the way I looked at the world around me.

2. One book that you've read more than once.

South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami. A rather thin book, but packed full of beautiful, understated feeling.

3. One book that you'd want on a desert island.

The SAS Survival Guide, which includes such useful titbits as how to give yourself the Heimlich.

4. One book that made you laugh.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller is the most laughs you’ll ever get from the horrors of war.

5. One book that made you cry.

Loads of books make me tear up. The closest I’ve probably ever come to crying is reading the last two chapters of Sagan’s Billions and Billions where he and then his wife, Ann Druyan, write about his illness and death.

6. One book you wish you had written.

None of them. I’d want to write something that was uniquely my own.

7. One book you wish had never been written.

Ooh! Censorship! But nah. Above all, naming a book here would be mean.

8. One book you're currently reading.

Just one? Olivier de Goursac’s Visions of Mars is the largest of them. Half of it is hanging over the edge of my bedside table.

9. One book you have been meaning to read.

It's funny, I never have trouble finding things to read, but I rarely plan anything in advance. Everything that I mean to read right now, I am reading.

As DK puts it, ‘it's customary at this juncture to "tag" further victims bloggers who are then expected to propagate the meme in a fashion evocative of a nominally intellectual chain-letter’. And once again, I tag you!


Sunday Scribblings: A Story About a Fortune Cookie, sort of...

I think I must have supernatural powers. Last week I was thinking, “You know, I want to write something a little darker for Sunday Scribblings this week, maybe something with a monster in it!” And what was the prompt? This week the prompt is ‘fortune cookie’, and lo and behold a fortune cookie dropped into my lap today! It must truly be fate! What message from the gods would my fortune cookie have for me?

Part Exchange your current home*

visit [a website]

*Subject to terms & conditions

Who am I to argue with a fortune cookie? If it was really accurate, however, it would have read, "You will have a productive weekend researching and writing a story and thereby placating your many fans who missed out on the monster story you never finished."

Anyway, I’ve gone a bit Arthur C. Clarke this week, as I believe everyone should at some point in their lives. The names Chehooit, Manit and Tukupar Itar are borrowed from Tongva gods. The Trans-Neptunian object Quaoar was named after the Tongva creation deity, which is where I got the idea from. Reference: http://www.gps.caltech.edu/~chad/quaoar/

Wikipedia was helpful in numerous ways while writing this story. In particular the articles on trimix breathing gas and Vesta may be of interest if you want to learn more.

Fortunes and Alien Walnuts

I aim the dish into a yellow sky painted wet shades of grey by expansive but diffuse clouds. The powerful wind makes it difficult to hold it steady and distant electrical storms crackle and pop in my earpiece. The ruins of a dead civilisation protrude from the ground around me: domed buildings sinking slowly into a mire of dirt and detritus; curved walls bursting at the seams with overgrown blue-green plants.

“Tukupar Itar, are you there? Tukupar Itar?”

A female voice croaks through a thick haze of static. “Tukupar Itar receiving. That you, Eduardo?”

“It’s me Captain,” I shout. I can barely hear myself over the wind and the static. Perhaps my voice is reaching the microphone by my mouth perfectly clearly, but I’m not sure. “Listen, I’m at Site One-Seven with Dr Morgan. Our vehicle’s broken down in the open and we could use an airlift before this storm hits us.”

“Why us? What about Primary Site?”

“They’re already in the storm. All their craft are grounded. There’s a shuttle at Site Seven, but it’s too far away. Any help for us will have to come from above.”

No answer. Just a powerful hiss of static.

I long to press my earpiece further into my ear, but the transparent dome of my helmet is in the way. “Captain? Are you there?”

“I’m here. Eduardo, I only have one atmosphere capable craft in service at the moment and I can’t afford to risk it just to keep you out of the wind. Find shelter, protect your distillery, and ride it out.”

Damn. This isn’t as prosaic as it seems. The Manit probe has monitored weather patterns on Chehooit for the past seventy-odd years. In an atmosphere six times thicker than Earth’s, even a summer breeze can knock you off your feet. With the gale force winds that are predicted to pass over Site One-Seven, we can seriously expect our five tonne RV to end up on its side if we leave it in its current location, exposed to the elements on an elevated alien highway.

“Okay, understood” I say, feigning confidence. “Site One-Seven out.”

“Good luck Eduardo. Keep your head down. Tukupar Itar out.”

I fold up the little dish and stick it back in my belt, then turn back down the road, looking at the bulky, rectangular RV. Dr Morgan is a dark figure on all fours beside it, the various tubes and protuberances of her environment suit making her silhouette strange and inhuman. I’m walking upwind. It feels like walking against the tide.

“Eva, any luck?” I ask, my voice carrying across to her on storm-blighted radio waves.

She gets to her feet and dusts down her knees, her voice crackling in my ear. “I think the axle is broken.”

“That doesn’t sound very fixable.”

I’m not quite close enough to make out her face in detail, but I know the kind of mirthless smile she’s wearing when she says, “Not really, no. What about that airlift?”

I shake my head, although I doubt she can see it. “Nope. We have to find shelter.”


“We’ll need to take the distillery with us. We can’t afford to lose it. Also, make sure you have a full air tank in your suit. And… we can only leave behind things that we can stomach losing, so I guess we should take as much water and glucose as we can carry.”

She glances up at the sky. “We don’t have much time. If we’re carrying all this crap we won’t reach shelter before the storm gets here. I vote leaving everything except the distillery, the water and glucose.”

“Yeah, I guess that’s all we need.”


The native life on Chehooit relies on oxygen, just like life on Earth, and the atmosphere here certainly has plenty of the stuff. But that doesn’t make it breathable for humans. The high partial pressure of narcotic nitrogen and argon, the choking sulphur particles and the vaporous sulphuric acid all add up to a pretty nasty cocktail for any organism adapted for life on Earth. After four years here, there’s already been one death and sixteen injuries due to exposure to Chehooit’s atmosphere and we know for a fact that breathing it is both lethally dangerous and unpleasant. Of course, experiments - and a few accidents - have also demonstrated that our own atmosphere is equally noxious for the animals of Chehooit, as they rapidly lose consciousness, seize and die from hypoxia.

So that’s why the single most common and important piece of equipment we have is the distillery. We can remain on Chehooit indefinitely, at least from the standpoint of how much breathable air we have - the thing is we first have to extract and remix the oxygen and nitrogen we need from the atmosphere. That’s what the distilleries do - liquefy the air and boil off the oxygen and nitrogen. They then scrub the CO2 from our spent air canisters and refill them with oxygen and/or nitrogen as required. Weirdly the only gas we can’t afford to lose is Helium, which is produced in bulk from natural gas at Primary Site. To keep things simple we operate at an atmospheric pressure of six bars in our suits, vehicles and habitats - the same pressure as the alien air outside. That means we don’t have to worry about making things extra sturdy to avoid them collapsing under the weight of the atmosphere. But at this pressure we can’t have too much nitrogen in the mix, or we’d suffer from nitrogen narcosis, so we replace some of it with Helium. The symptoms of nitrogen narcosis are largely identical to intoxication. You know, from alcohol. In this environment, the last thing you want is a team of drunk astronauts.

But, okay, all this is kind of a tangent. All you really need to know is, one: that the distillery is really important; and two: that we all sound like Donald Duck.


Behind me Eva says, “My nose is itching.”

“Scratch it then.”

“Ha, ha, bloody ha.”

We’re carrying the distillery on a medical stretcher between us, as if the bundle of cylinders and hoses were a critical patient. A few lose air canisters clink around next to it, cushioned by bottles of water and packets of food. The highway descends at a steep angle, and we take small steps. The wind is a strong hand at our backs, as if Chehooit wants us to pick up the pace.

We clutch the stretcher awkwardly through thick gloves laced with coolant-filled tubes. It’s hard work. Static crackles in my ear, accompanied by the soft murmur of the city’s plants being brutally buffeted by the wind, leaves rippling like turbulent water. A part of one old, crumbling structure snaps off and rolls down the street with a metallic clattering.

“We need to pick up the pace,” Eva says.

“When we’re on level ground. I’ll slip if we go faster now.”

“This is really annoying,” Eva says. “If we lose the RV we’ll have to bring another one up from Site One-Six.”

“Also,” I add, “there’s a chance this storm might kill us.”

“That too. Fuck! Eduardo, look left!”

I turn my head. My suit is partially in the way, but I can see it. One of the city’s great spires, a gnarled ochre tower, seems to have snapped in the wind. Its bulk pummels into a nearby dome, shattering it, dust rising high into the air and snaking out a path in the wind.

My knees give out and I end up flat on my arse. Both of us scramble to keep the distillery off the ground. In the process a few loose bits and pieces fall off the stretcher and roll away.

As I get uneasily back to my feet, Eva yells over the rumble of the tower’s demise. “You want us to shelter in one of these fossils? They’re like glass.”

“Well we’ll find a sturdy one,” I say.

When we get to the bottom of the ramp, we set the stretcher down and I unfold the little transmitter. I aim it at roughly the same part of sky as I did earlier, watching to see how the signal from Manit grows. We may not have much of a world wide web on Chehooit, but it’s there and full of up-to-the-minute information. The guys at Site Five managed to translate some sort of list of military bunkers. It’s widely circulated because we have this notion that it’s more likely important archaeological information may have survived in these places. They also sound like structures that might still be capable of surviving a little wind.


Eva and I are a pair.

A hundred people on this mission, nine years together so far - not including time frozen. Five years training on Vesta, four years on Chehooit. Eva and I were probably the last two people to meet one another properly, although we knew one another by sight. We were both rather quiet, outsiders to an extent.

But when we did meet we became fast friends. We’ve spent so much time together these past nine years. I mean nine years, it’s difficult to believe. We’re always doing stuff though. Working together as often as being together. We talk about everything and anything, but a lot of the time we don’t talk at all, don't need to. We take lots of jobs that take us into unexplored territory. She’s a geologist, interested in working out the lay of the land; I’m a biologist, trying to categorise as many different creatures here as I can, figure out where they fit into this whole new tree of life. Neither of us need much infrastructure to support us, although we often end up setting up basic facilities at new sites of interest that we uncover. A more rigorous team of biologists and xeno-archaeologists will come along then to get down to the real business of documenting this world.

And Eva and I will move on, still exploring and running errands. We’re happy enough with just each other. We’re very much a pair. We’re also ‘just friends’, apparently.


“We should have brought some lights,” Eva says.

To the civilised creatures of Chehooit, when they were alive, light was an abstract concept. Their primary sense was echolocation. As a result, electric lights, windows, photographs and co-ordinated colour schemes would all have been strange, alien concepts to them. Inside, their buildings are dark warrens, designed to allow sound to travel freely, albeit in a weird, echoing way that sounds rather eerie to human ears. They are also wonderfully, intricately textured, presumably so that they would appear interesting and attractive to the Chehooitians.

Eva and I sit opposite one another at the entrance to this bunker, our shoulder lamps lighting one another up. The tunnel quickly disappears into pitch blackness either side of us. The sound of the storm reverberates up and down the passage like an extended, anguished moan. The distillery sits between us, humming softly as it recharges an old air canister.

I turn to shine my lamp back the way we came. A shadow flickers at the edge of the beam. I scramble to my feet. “I think I saw something move.”

Eva follows suit. We both aim our lights down the tunnel, the powerful beams struggling to pierce the pitch blackness. Suddenly Eva’s light flickers and dies.

“Also,” she says, awkwardly fiddling with the lamp on her shoulder, “we should have brought some light bulbs.”

“Crap. Okay, one light will have to do.”

“Your light.”

“My light. Well, you can have the bulb if you want…”

She laughs. “I trust you. Keep the damn thing.”

Something flickers in the beam again, a hint of a thick black tail. “What we really should have brought, was the rifle.”

“What is it?”

“I don’t know.”

“You’re the biologist.”

“This is an entire planet, Eva. Millions of species. And we’re further south than anyone else has ever been. It could be something we’ve never seen before.”

“It’s a rat,” Eva says as the creature steps warily into the light - not that it can perceive the light, of course.

It’s not really a rat. There’s a type of animal here that we think of as the Chehooit rodents, and a lot of the non-biologists like to call them ‘rats’. The creature we’re looking at is a rather large variant - knee-high, bipedal with small grasping limbs folded under its long and streamlined body, a face like a questing flower with large stamen. Its skin is a slick black. It inflates its stomach menacingly and hisses.

“I think it’s trying to sense us passively,” I whisper, “to hear our ultrasonic clicks. But we’re not giving anything off. It knows we’re here, and it thinks that we must be really dangerous if we’re this stealthy.”

I step back against the wall and it suddenly bounds right past us, moving with quick, almost terrified movements, hopping like a kangaroo.

“I think we scared it,” I say softly.

Eva grabs my shoulders and aims my lamp in the direction it ran, further into the building. “If I bumped into a pair of giant aliens in a dark tunnel, I think I’d be pretty scared myself.” After a pause, she adds, “Shall we follow it?”

“Why, to scare it some more?”

“No. I’m curious. And I’m going crazy sitting here in the dark.”

“You’d rather go crazy getting lost in the dark?”

She pulls a glow-stick from her belt and snaps it. A soft green glow fills the tunnel. She starts walking after the rat. “I’m curious.”

Eva’s curiosity sends her up active volcanoes and down sheer crevasses. It’s also driven me into a nest of fat, startlingly intelligent worms and the midst of a herd of creatures that made Elephants look dainty. But outside of our spheres of knowledge - of biology and geology respectively, we start to get into really dangerous territory.

“No way, Eva,” I say firmly. “We don’t know what we’d be walking into.”

“Fine, I’ll go without you,” she says walking away, knowing full well that I’ll follow her.

“What about the distillery?”

“Afraid the rats will eat it? It’ll be fine.”

I follow quickly after Eva, down the winding tunnel. Almost too quickly, we emerge into a cavernous expanse. My light stretches across it feebly. It is impossible to say how big it is, or to shake the feeling that we have arrived at the edge of the world and are staring into empty, infinite space.

“Cool,” Eva coos.

Something rises up out of the ground before us, a thin, spidery tower, wrapped in strange machinery. I shine my light up its length. It extends up as far as I can see. Protruding at Chehooitian-head height, is an object that vaguely resembles a walnut. It is shiny and molasses black.

Eva approaches it warily. “What do you make of this?”

“Giant walnut. Military issue. Very dangerous. Keep your distance?”

Eva scoffs and peers closer. “You can see pretty much the whole room reflected in it. Or the parts that are lit, anyway. Hang on…” She looks quickly back and forth between me and the walnut.

I step towards her and stumble over something on the ground.

“Bloody hell!” Eva exclaims. “Your reflection tripped over before you did.”

“Don’t be an idiot. Can we go yet?”

Eva pulls back sharply from the walnut and looks at me anxiously.

I step up to the walnut to get a closer look. Eva backs away from me, eyes wide with fright.

“Eva, what are you-”

“Just stay where I can see you!” she says firmly.

“What? What’s the matter?”

“I saw you kill me.”

“You saw me what?”

“In the reflection. You picked up a rock, smashed my helmet open and left me to writhe and die on the floor.”

I step towards her holding out my hands. “Why would I do that, Eva?”

“You tell me,” she says, stepping away from me, her voice quivering.

I reach out to try and take her hands, and she snaps. She runs off into the darkness.

“Eva! Come back! Eva!”

Where the fuck is she going to end up, running through an alien bunker with no light? I want to run after her, but I imagine that chasing her is only going to add to her paranoia. Paranoia… Paranoia is a symptom of both nitrogen narcosis, from too much nitrogen, or high pressure nervous syndrome from too little. Her mix must be out. It seems so unlikely, though. We spend so much time out by ourselves that we’re dab hands at mixing up breathable air. Then again, it’s when you’re confident that you make the silliest mistakes. I have to try and find her before she hurts herself. I have the light. It shouldn’t be too hard.

I set off in the direction she ran, rehearsing in my mind what I can say to try and make her see reason. As I pass the shiny black object, I catch movement in its reflection. I look right at it. Crystal clear, I see the rat emerge from the darkness and into the light from my lamp. I look straight ahead. Nothing there.

And then the rat emerges from the darkness and into the light from my lamp.

I look back at the reflection, my stomach taut and clenching. Is it true? Is this the future?

As I stare at the reflection I start to feel apprehensive. The hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. I feel numerous urgent butterflies swarming in my stomach. Above all, I feel fear. As I stare at the reflection, dumbstruck, I see the rat leaping at me, knocking me to the ground and tearing my guts out with its forelegs.

I panic. I try to step backwards quickly, not a good idea in a top-heavy environment suit. I end up on my arse scrabbling back from the rat fearfully. I know with complete certainty that it is going to kill me. I have to get away from it. It’s going to kill me.

Actually, it doesn’t look all that well. The rat takes two steps forward and then it collapses forward, legs spread-eagled. I notice for the first time how it foams at the mouth. What the fuck is going on?

I cautiously stand, shaking like I never have in my life, and step over to it slowly, half expecting it to leap up and attack me at any moment. When I’m still a few paces away I can see the chewed-up glucose packet in its mouth.

“You little muppet. Can’t you tell that glucose is no good for you?”

I kneel down beside it and pull the packet from its jaws, clearing the foam from around its lips. It belches pathetically and tries to push me away with weak (mercifully blunt) paws.

“You should be okay if you don’t have anymore of this stuff. Okay? No more glucose for you.”

I shine my light around as if I expect to still find Eva in the chamber. The beam catches what I tripped over when I approached her earlier. Two alien corpses, skeletal hands wrapped around each other’s thoraxes as if still strangling one another all these centuries after they died.

I look back at the reflection in the molasses. I see the rat leaping to its feet, smashing through my helmet and ripping my throat out. To look into the reflection is to feel fear. I look down at the lethargic creature at my feet. “Military issue walnut,” I say. “Very dangerous.”


I would say that I could never hurt Eva, but the fact is that I once hurt her more than anyone else ever has.

We all gave up everything we had to come to Chehooit. Chehooit is twenty three light years from Earth. At the Tukupar Itar’s maxmimum speed of 0.75c, that’s thirty years travel each way - frozen, naturally. If any of us went back home, we would find that everything we knew was changed, or dead and buried. What kind of people that must make us, I don’t know. This trip was always going to be one way. The Tukupar Itar expended all its fuel getting here. Eleven years from now the Deep Space Explorer 5 will pass through the system and take anyone who desperately wants to go back to Earth. The people on DSE5 left Earth a hundred and twelve years ago. When they meet us, it will be like they’re meeting people from the future. I don’t think many of us will want to go with them, and they should only have space for forty passengers anyway.

So here you have this group of one hundred people who are going to spend the rest of their lives together. And the policy was: no fraternisation. We were prepared to give up everything we had to come to Chehooit, including, apparently, any chance of romantic love or companionship. Before we left Vesta, we had a big blow-out party. Eva told me she loved me and tried to kiss me. I put my fingers to her lips and told her I just saw her as a friend.

I was lying, naturally. I didn’t want to get kicked off the mission when we were so close to leaving.

After we defrosted in orbit around Chehooit, we skimmed through the last thirty years of transmissions from Earth and found that the policy of no fraternisation had been scrapped two years after we left. Apparently it was now clear that romances between people on the same mission had no detrimental (or beneficial) effects. Besides, if they had been enforcing the rules they would have had to fire pretty much all of the astronauts already irrevocably out on long-term missions.

So now they bloody tell us, I thought. It was too late by then. Eva and I were a distinct pair, but we were trapped in limbo. I guess it was all on my head really. I could never figure out how to undo what I did. Or rather, what I didn’t let Eva do.

But this is all academic now that she thinks I want to kill her.


I emerge into murky twilight. The air is still and the city is strewn with even more rubble than when we arrived. I fumble with the transmitter and aim it at Manit.

“Primary Site, Primary Site, this is Site One-Seven. Chief are you there?”

A gruff North American voice: “Eduardo, are you okay?”

I’m okay. Have you heard from Dr Morgan?”

“No, isn’t she with you?”

“No. We sheltered in one of those military bunkers and found some sort of psychological weapon. She thinks I want to kill her.”

“She thinks you want to kill her?” the Chief repeats superfluously.

“Yes! Can you send us a shuttle? You can pick us up separately if you want. In fact, that might be for the best.”

“We’re still reeling from the storm Eduardo. I have two shuttles airborne, but we’re using them as ambulances. We have a number of critical casualties. I can’t divert them. Can’t you just… I don’t know, talk to her?”

If only things with Eva were ever that simple. “What about the other shuttles? You have more than two, I know.”

“They were damaged in the storm. I can’t risk them, Eduardo - if we lose any of our shuttles we won’t be getting replacements for over twenty years, if at all. You’re just going to have to deal with this situation yourself. Primary Site out.”

Right. Thanks a bunch.

I should have mentioned that Eva has the distillery and that I only have a couple of hours of oxygen left. As it is there’s probably a lot more CO2 in my suit than there should be. I’m going to have to have a word with someone about installing scrubbers in the suits rather than relying on the distilleries for everything. If I get out of this mess alive, that is.

I fold up the transmitter and broadcast on my suit radio. “Eva, if you wait two hours you’ll be the one who killed me.”

No answer. If I can find the RV I may be able to track her. I can see the highway from here. It seems to be still standing. It must be pretty sturdy. We should have sheltered underneath that instead of wandering into the secret vaults of a civilisation that annihilated itself.

I yawn explosively. Not a good sign from the stand point of how breathable the air is in my suit. “Eva! For fuck’s sake.” I sigh. “Is this what it’s come to? A talk-show confessional on an alien planet? Do you want me to say how you should know that you’re the last person I would ever hurt? You know I’m no good at this kind of thing.”

I look at the ruins around me, mis-coloured shapes sculpted so intricately they look almost like they must have been writhing energetically just an instant before you laid eyes on them. “Eva, if you had ever tried to kiss me again, I wouldn’t have stopped you. If you’d said what I said to you, I’d probably have broken down and cried. But I wouldn’t have tried to kill you. Because… I love you. Okay?”

Silence. Not even the static from the electrical storm now.

“Oh, fuck it,” I say and start walking back towards the highway.

“Are you finished?” Eva says. Her voice is in my ear, no way to tell where it’s coming from. “Behind you,” she adds as she sees me looking around.

I look back at the entrance to the bunker.

She is sitting on lip of the tunnel, the distillery by her side. I must have walked out right beneath her feet. “I’m not an idiot,” she says. “I’ve figured it out. It must be my mix, although I can’t see anything wrong with it.”

“Your mix is probably fine,” I say timidly. “It was the walnut.”

She carefully climbs down from the top of the tunnel. I help her with the distillery. A bottle of water escapes and rolls away. “Of course,” she says, sounding less than convinced. “The big old alien walnut.”

She turns to me. Her helmet is smeared with dust and sulphur, but I can just about make out her dark features behind it. “Eduardo, I’m sorry. As soon as I was by myself I knew that it was preposterous. I just couldn’t imagine you really killing me. It- It felt like a dream. A nightmare, rather.”

“It did it to me too, only it was the rat killing me. Except the rat was collapsing from glucose-poisoning, so, you know, I realised the walnut was lying to me. The archaeologists will love that thing, if they don’t all murder one another while examining it, that is.”

“I love you too,” Eva says.

I swallow dryly. “I need a new air canister.”

She hands me one from the stretcher and I connect it to my suit. She takes the spent one from me and connects it to the distillery. Then she takes my arm and presses her helmet against mine. “I think I will try and kiss you again, when we get back to the RV.”

I’m glad that she probably can’t see me blushing. “If the RV is still there,” I say coyly.

It isn’t. The storm flipped it over multiple times, right over the edge of the highway. It is embedded in a crater of smashed houses. Around it the plants that are taking over the city have been turned a sickly yellow, seemingly in response to the Earthly gases spilling out of the ruined vehicle.

Eva and I sit side by side against the barrier at the edge of the highway, watching the horizon slowly occult the bluish sun. We lean against one another, shoulders touching. Several layers of thick, insulated and liquid cooled material separate us.

Eva snatches the transmitter from my belt and unfolds the dish. With some wrangling she’s able to arrange an airlift three hours from now.

She cleans some of the dirt from my helmet with her sleeve and presses her face as close to mine as she can. Even in the dimming light, I can actually make her out quite well. “Three hours,” she says wistfully, her voice carrying to me directly, albeit muffled by the barriers between us.

“Does your nose itch?” I ask her.

“I’ve been immune to that for like three years now.”

“Three years.” Slightly frightening to think that such a long period of time exists within our relationship. “Where does the time go?”

“We’ve been busy. Training, setting up camp, exploring a whole planet...”

“Are you still going to kiss me?”

“In about three hours, yeah.”