2008: A Bunch of Lists

So it's been a year since I last asked myself what cool stuff I found during the past year, and I guess I should set about doing it again. As before, this list is entirely personal - not just in being about what I personally liked this year, but also with regards to what qualifies as belonging to the relevant period. If I saw it, read it, or played it this year, it's eligible - regardless what year you might actually be inclined to attribute it to. Hey, they make a lot of cool stuff in a year, and it takes me a lot longer than that to find it all.

Okay, let's go.

---Of the movies I saw:

La Antena
A perfect evocation of everything great about the era of silent film, and a vibrant fantasy in its own right. I reviewed it here.

Another animated masterpiece from Satoshi Kon, by turns fantastically whimsical and deeply disturbing.

The Dark Knight
Christopher Nolan returns to Gotham City for this sprawling comicbook epic, full of compelling, larger than life characters.

---Of the books I read:

Gods Behaving Badly - Marie Phillips
An understated and touching love story - at least until those pesky Greek Gods start meddling with mortal affairs. Since the rise of Christianity, the denizens of Mount Olympus have relocated to a run-down house in London, but they're no less keen on grand acts of selfish omnipotence.

Ubik - Philip K. Dick
A typical mind-fuck from the king of psychedelia. After narrowly escaping death, a group of superhuman psychics find that the world seems to be decaying at a terrifying rate - and one by one, each of them is turning into a dessicated husk.

Aces Falling - Peter Hart
An engrossing book about air warfare throughout 1918. Hart gives readers what they want, in the form of stories about the famous aces, but also sets them into the context of a new combined theatre of war where lone wolf hunters were being subsumed into a larger, more tactically-minded war machine.

---Of the comics and manga I read:

Death Note - Tsugumi Ohba, Takeshi Obata
Last year I lamented only having read the first volume. This year I read volumes 2-12, concluding the story. The combination of Obata's flawless artwork and Ohba's intense plotting results in something that should be read by anyone with an interest in fantasy or mystery comics - as a teenager who's resolved to rid the world of undesirables by writing their names in a death god's notebook is pursued by a legendary (and anonymous) detective.

Chiggers - Hope Larson
Although Larson's keenly observed tale of summer camp friendship and preternatural intrigue is aimed at teenage girls, it deserves to be (and probably has been) read by all and sundry. Undoubtedly one of the best western comic artist-writers you'll find.

Batman: Harley and Ivy - Paul Dini, Bruce Timm et al.
Cute beyond words, something about the bright artwork, colourful characters and psychotic cheerfulness of this book reminded me of watching Saturday morning cartoons as a kid and coming to the realisation that I wanted to tell stories as well as experience them.

---Of the TV shows I watched:

Batman: The Animated Series
Well, while we're on the subject, I've been rewatching a lot of this nineties cartoon show. Some of the episodes don't hold up too well now that I'm all grown up, but frequently the snappy dialogue and noir-ish art deco stylings produce quite striking pieces of television.

Ugly Betty
The only show I actually watched live and gave a damn about this year, Ugly Betty has the perfect mixture of melodrama and comedy, and an entire cast of memorable and lovable characters.

Mission: Impossible
Something else I revisited this year. Despite being about an all-American team of luminaries toppling dictatorships and preventing alliances with dirty communists, Mission: Impossible was for the most part a genial puzzle-box of a show, with a first-rate cast steadily unravelling devilish plans of deception each episode.

---Of the games I played:

Fallout 3
A huge, sprawling, engrossing game. The narrative and character interaction are over-simplistic, but I found the allure of exploring this impossibly detailed post-nuclear landscape and making a name for myself as a hero or monster to be quite irresistible.

Resident Evil 4 - Wii Edition
So it took me a few years to get around to it, but this atmospheric, grimly realised action horror game, with its memorably over-the-top characters, has easily become one of my all time favourite games (although I think I still prefer RE2, if only because Ada is more sensibly dressed). I've played it from start to finish three times this year, and got a good way into it for a fourth go on 'professional' difficulty (so far it is very hard).

Often indie games tread new ground, brave new forms of gameplay, tackle storylines that no mainstream studio would ever touch. Iji, a freeware game you can download from here, isn't like that. If you could give it a multi-million budget and the latest state-of-the-art graphics engine, you'd end up with a game that was a lot like the games already out there - only much, much better. Iji is a perfect demonstration of why gaming needs auteurs who want to tell stories and explore characters - rather than shareholders who want to play it safe and get a percentage. Melancholy, evocative, and uncompromising.

---Of the Happy New Years I wished you:

I've got to pick the one just coming up, now haven't I? I hope this new orbit brings you happiness and fulfilment, and your resolutions are both feasible and level-headed. In short: Happy New Year!


Tra La La La La...

I've been hard at work these past couple of days, on my new competition game. (Also I've been playing Super Mario Galaxy and reading a book about the air war in 1918, but you don't need to know about that.) This little public domain painting, by William Blake, is what I'm going to use as the cover image.

As you can see, it doesn't really give you much of a clue what the hell I'm making. Or at least, it shouldn't, since there's no dancing about in circles. Although I suppose there might be.


Tiger Stripe Stories

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

Worth reading this news item on the Cassini homepage:
Close views of the southern polar region, where jets of water vapor and icy particles spew from vents within the moon's distinctive "tiger stripe" fractures, provide surprising evidence of Earth-like tectonics. They yield new insight into what may be happening within the fractures. The latest data on the plume -- the huge cloud of vapor and particles fed by the jets that extend into space -- show it varies over time and has a far-reaching effect on Saturn's magnetosphere.


My Top Ten Authors by Quantity

So after a recent reshuffle of my bookcase, I decided to sit down and actually count how many books I have by different authors. It's one thing to try and answer the question, "Who are my favourite writers?" but it's another, possibly quite separate one to try and see which writers you've most read.

Anyway, this is what my list looked like. Conveniently, stopping at authors where I own four of their books meant that I wound up with a top ten.
1.Haruki Murakami (13 books)
2.Alistair Reynolds (9 books)
William Gibson (9 books)
4.Joseph Conrad (8 books)
5.Carl Sagan (6 books)
Andy McNab (6 books)
7.Virginia Woolf (5 books)
Philip K. Dick (5 books)
9.Franz Kafka (4 books)
Arthur C. Clarke (4 books)

That probably tells you something profound. I just don't know what exactly that profound thing is.

Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders: Part 26

Previously: “In the fight against the mysterious, seemingly man-made squid machine, Major Thurlow, EON-4 and myself were cast overboard. Stunned by the machine's death throes, I sank helplessly beneath the waves.”

Part 26: The Sky Spider Automaton

I could hear a thunderous clanging of metal. It reached me even in whatever submarine depths I languished, beneath a crushing weight of freezing water.

Something hit my chest and I leaned to one side, spewing out fluid and sucking back air so cold it burned. The weight seemed to lift from me. I felt dizzy.

“Breathe,” I heard Major Thurlow say softly, “but breathe quietly.”

I opened my eyes. I stared up into a spider's web of wrought iron latticework. It quivered in time with the clanging, flakes of corroded paint falling from it like black snow. Hands grasped my shoulders and the view overhead changed. I was further under the iron web. A black shape moved through the structure above, ponderous and graceful.

The structure above me, I realised, was the Smogton bridge. The silhouette could only be a Sky Spider machine. I sat up, my hands sinking into gritty mud. Water lapped around my heels. The horizon was obscured by thick white mist.

Major Thurlow knelt by my side. He touched a finger to his lips to quiet me.

I nodded that I understood.

Above us, the bridge reverberated with clanging metal. Most of the sounds were distant - the movement of Sky Spider machines across the top of the bridge. But every few seconds there was another kind of sound: not louder, but far more obvious to the ear because of its unique character. The peculiar sound of something enormous trying to move stealthily.

Slowly, his wet hands quivering almost imperceptibly, Thurlow slid forward the bolt of his rifle. Muddy water flowed out from the breech.

“That's no use,” I said, unable to speak above a whisper even if I had wanted to.

“Well it makes me feel better,” Thurlow answered.

“Leave it,” I said. “It'll only get you killed. When that thing sees us, we need to be as non-threatening as possible.”

If it sees us,” Thurlow corrected me.

“It'll see us,” I said.

We could certainly see it now. A black shape like a bat without the wing membranes, moving on four long, clawed limbs. It seemed to have little respect for gravity, pointing straight down while stepping from strut to strut as if it were moving along the ground. As we watched, one of the struts snapped clean in two and the machine reached out for the next one without even changing its stride. Slowly, inexorably, it was creeping down the bridge towards us.

The closest thing it had to a head was an incandescent flower of bright white light, aimed straight at us.

It stopped.

“It sees us,” I said. “Throw down your rifle.”

The Sky Spider machine fell. If I'd thought it was enormous when it was high above us, seeing it plummet directly at us only solidified that impression. Instinctively, I threw my hands over my head. Rationally, I knew it was a pointless action.

Close by, straight up, there was a thunderous impact on metal.

Thurlow grabbed my shoulder, pulling me to my feet.

I opened my eyes. The Sky Spider machine was clinging to the struts of the bridge right above us, blotting out the sky. It fixed its glowing white gaze directly at Thurlow.

I shoved him, hard. He was a strong man, but tall as well, and I managed to knock him clean off his feet. I looked up. Immediately the machine's gaze had switched to me. It stared hard, burning into my eyes like the sun. Dripping wet and freezing cold, I shivered uncontrollably.

The Sky Spider machine turned inside out. Suddenly it was facing the opposite direction and climbing gracefully back up the bridge.

Thurlow stared up at it, reluctant to stand back up. “What just happened?”

“I don't know,” I said, lying.

I offered him my hand.

“Very peculiar,” a new voice said, calm and soft-spoken, but startling us all the same.

EON-4 walked out of the water, rising up like a rock at low tide.

Thurlow relaxed his grip on his rifle. “You survived then.”

“They made me well,” EON-4 explained. “Which side of the bridge are we on?”

Thurlow sighed. “The wrong side. Fancy a visit to Smogton? Perhaps we could visit your parents, Four?”

“The Sky Spiders are doing something there,” I said.

EON-4 wrung water from his sleeves. “It's interesting to ponder exactly what.”

“I'm sure our first priority,” Thurlow said, “is to get to EON-1. Academic suicide missions can wait until after.”

“What happened to the others?” I asked.

“The ship limped off, trailing smoke. I suspect the others think we're dead.”

“Lovely. What do we do now? Can we cross the river beneath the bridge?”

Thurlow studied the murky water. “Perhaps. If we can grab onto the struts to take rests. And if we don't encounter anything nasty from the Twisted Forests.”

“There are better options,” EON-4 said. “For example a military aerodrome not too far distant from this bridge.”

“And you think the planes there will have held up better than, say, this bridge?” I asked. “Or the HMS Inquisitor?”

His single eye rotated thoughtfully. “Well, unlike those two examples, the planes will not have been sitting in salt water all this time.”

“What about fuel?” Thurlow asked.

EON-4 extended a hand towards the mist-choked sea. “All I am saying, is that it is a long way to walk from here to the Poison Wastes, and a walk which will take us quite close to Unity City. A swifter mode of transport than our shoes seems a fine idea for a brief diversion, at least to me.”

“If we can find a plane,” Thurlow said carefully, “can you fly it?”

“I'm well versed in the theory of mechanical flight,” EON-4 responded.

“And your practical experience?” I asked.

EON-4's eye clicked, a little sheepishly I thought. “None.”

Thurlow looked thoughtful for a moment. “We've done more dangerous things,” he said.

“Sure,” I said. “Why not.”


Next week: Can our heroes achieve the age-old desire of heavier-than-air flight?! Check back in a week's time for the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders!


Friday Tuco Blogging



So, The Dark Knight...

...is pretty fucking awesome then. As an avowed devotee of Christopher Nolan's films, I'm kind of ashamed not to have seen it in the cinema, but I picked it up as soon as it came out on DVD this week.

I'll confess, to start with I was a little underwhelmed with Heath Ledger's Joker. It was nicely done and all, but I wasn't really feeling it. But as it all snowballed together in true Nolan style, I ended up agreeing with Michael Caine when he said (with a dash more hyperbole) that this is probably one of the best portrayals of a movie 'villian' that you'll find.

I liked how Nolan/Ledger's Joker was very much superhero comicbook in his motivations and actions, but at the same time pretty grounded and believable. More than that, though, what impressed me was how thoroughly deranged and inspired his deeds were - the kind of things you laugh at gleefully when you see the trick he's pulled, only to stop yourself when you realise how psychotic it actually is.

And, I guess, since I laid into Nolan for his (these days I have to say predictably) over-directed action scenes in Batman Begins, I should also congratulate him here on a considerable recovery - although as with Batman Begins, the chief excitement in The Dark Knight comes from the fast-paced plotting rather than the physical set pieces.


Saturn, I

I seem to have hit a run of coherent captcha images on Blogger. The one above appeared when I logged in to comment on this very blog...


Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders: Part 25

Previously: “When we neared Smogton bridge, our ship was attacked by a giant, tentacled machine. As the deck buckled, I stumbled through a rusted railing and towards its gnashing metal jaws.”

Part 25: Against the Squid Machine

A gloved hand closed around mine, slender fingers pinching with a machine-like grip, and Lady Una pulled me back to safety, throwing a protective arm around my waist. With a crash, the ship's aft superstructure partially collapsed, sheets of corroded iron peeling away from it like torn paper. Somebody - one of the crew, I supposed - leapt for safety, tumbling through the air and into the mist-obscured sea.

Major Thurlow was crouched in the gangway, his face turned up towards the nearest steel tentacle. “EON-4,” he bellowed, “where are you?”

The machine's calm, quiet voice answered from close by. “I'm right here, Major.”

The ship started to lean backwards. Something slid from the deck and into the water with a splash.

The Major turned EON-4 aft, towards the machine's segmented body and the meeting point of its constricting arms, “We've got to take this thing apart before it sinks us. Have you got any ideas?”

EON-4's single eye clicked and whirred. “I'm a philosophical unit, not especially familiar with nautical automata, or even basic mechanical maintenance.”

“I can help,” Lady Una interrupted. “Complex machinery has been a late interest of mine.”

“Well get out of that get up,” the Major said, gesturing to her hoop skirted dress, “because we're going over the side to deal with this thing up close.”

Lady Una stammered. “I- But-” She looked at me for a way out.

“This is no time for propriety or modesty,” the Major began.

“It's not that,” I said. “She can't swim. I'm not all that good with machines, but I guess I know as much as anyone other than Lady Una. Perhaps the ship's chief engineer-”

“He's overboard,” Commander Kelson said gruffly, scuttling along the gangway with a shell under each arm, followed by a sailor carrying two more. “Sigrid said you might need these, though I don't think I like what that implies.”

Major Thurlow grinned lopsidedly. “She's got a good head on her shoulders, I'll give her that. Doctor, EON-4, take a shell each. Let's see if we can't stick them somewhere where they'll do some damage.”

EON-4 looked from the Major to me and back again. “This does not seem like a good plan to me.”

Lady Una took my arm. “Me neither.”

“If you have a better one,” the Major said, “you have the time it takes us to get over that railing to think of it.”

“At least leave EON-4 here,” I said. “He's vital to our ultimate goal.”

The Major hefted a shell under each arm. “So you say, but if we sink here he's no more use to us than if he gets torn apart over there - and whatever he says, I'm sure he knows more about automata than he's letting on.”

“I am standing right here,” EON-4 said.

Thurlow stood up and turned to the squid machine. The deck thrummed as the superstructure folded further in on itself. “Good,” he said. “See that you keep that distance from me. Come on.”

I followed after him, but Lady Una pulled on my arm. “I should be the one going,” she said. “Don't die. If you can help it.”

“I'll certainly try my best.”

She pulled me closer still and kissed me on the cheek. “That's only for if you don't make it,” she explained. “If you live, forget I did it.”

“I'm sure I'll be fine,” I said, just as a mechanical tentacle flung a screaming sailor high into the air.

Major Thurlow waved to me. “Stop mooning and get a move on!”

I rushed aft, following close after him and EON-4. The squid machine's arms were close over us, crushing down onto the ship and shattering the rusted deck into uneven and disconnected shards. But it was massive and cumbersome and we were small and nimble. When the Major leapt over the railing, towards the segmented body, I paused only just long enough to see him land safely before following myself.

As my feet hit the smooth armour plating, I started sliding immediately towards the churning water. EON-4 grabbed my sleeve and pulled me to my feet.

“What do you make of that eye?” Major Thurlow shouted over the clanking of giant machine arms.

Jutting up from the automaton's body was a brass periscope that ended in a spherical glass eye. “Worth messing with,” I suggested, “but not likely to stop the thing now it has a grip on us.”

No sooner had I finished speaking then a tentacle rolled back onto the mechanical squid and snatched up EON-4, flinging him across the sea. The humanoid philosophy engine's featureless cylindrical head had registered little in the way of surprise, and he had made no sound.

Thurlow jammed one of his shells into the ring around the periscope. “It can't fight us if it can't see us,” he yelled, popping the shell's percussion cap and reaching inside. “Sixty seconds!”

I looked around frantically. The machine's eye fixed on me, and I heard the sound of at least one of its arms clattering through a rapid motion. Just behind the eye I saw something promising.

“Here!” I darted forwards. As I did so, a tentacle clanged off the armour where I had been standing on a moment before.

Thurlow saw immediately what I meant. “What is it?”

I started kicking at the fine mesh of the grating. “Exhaust, coolant vent, ballast tanks, something else - it doesn't matter. It's a way in. How long?”

We both ducked as another tentacle whipped overhead, trying to knock us overboard.

“I've lost count.” the Major confessed. “Keep kicking!”

Under both our feet the grating gave way. The Major set the fuse of his second shell in the same manner as the first. “Fifteen seconds this time!”

I handed him my own shell. He had just removed the cap when a tentacle punched right towards me. I tried to dodge to the side. I don't think it actually touched me, but it didn't matter. The gust of air in its wake was enough to pitch me off the squid-like war machine and into the sea.

I hit the water with stinging force, and had just resurfaced when Major Thurlow landed on top of me.

“No,” he gasped, “under!”

He grabbed a fistful of my hair and dunked me back beneath the water. It felt like I sunk deeper than I'd ever swum in my life. But when the war machine exploded, the shock still pulsed right through me. I saw the air rising from my lungs in a flurry of bubbles, and then passed out.


Next week: As great as the dangers may seem beneath the bridge, there are yet worse things crawling atop of it. Thurlow and Peregrine come face to face with implacable alien machinery in the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders!


Friday Radio Guy on Skis Blogging

Credit: Deutsches Bundesarchiv
(German Federal Archive)
Some rights reserved


Ice White Gem

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

Click for the full view, because this Cassini image of the Solar System's most popular snowball, Enceladus, is simply gorgeous.

We're looking at the little world as it passes through Saturn's shadow. As you may recall, Saturn's rings create a system where a lot of light gets reflected around to its night-side, and some of this light is reflected again from its cloudtops and moons. All the same, Enceladus is about as in the dark as it ever is, and so the exposure time for the image has clearly been ramped up. Happy side-effect: stars! And not the blurry streaks we usually get, but a beautifully jewel-studded night sky.

Also of note - though far less surprising - is that we're also looking at Enceladus' south pole - the site of its famous tiger stripe Sulci, and its more famous icy geysers of profound mystery. So, an image of one of the most intriguing of worlds, against a starry backdrop. It reminds me just why I'm so fond of Cassini.



This 'Shorty' seems to be some kind of seafaring fellow.


Five Shots from Mad Max

What would Freud say?

>Get ye gun

You can't get ye gun!

Don't mess with May Swaisey.

A shot also seen in Mad Max 2.

"Our work here is done."

Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders: Part 24

Previously: “Heading north on a battered old ironclad to find EON-1, we had to pass beneath Smogton Bridge. But it seemed that since I'd last passed this way, Smogton had fallen to the Sky Spiders. And then there was the strange sonar contact following us from beneath the sea.”

Part 24: What Lies Beneath

Lady Una reached out for the railing.

I held out a hand to stop her. “Don't put your weight on it.”

She clung to the hatch instead. “I almost wish I hadn't come up here, but I could hear that awful sound. It's them, obviously.”

I peered ahead into the thick mist. I could just make out the skeletal fingers of Smogton Bridge rising from the water. “Obviously.”

She followed my gaze, further up, towards the source of the metallic groaning and clattering. At times, spindly shadows seemed to be visible. But we could make out no more than that. “Their machines?”

“Of course.”

She looked me straight in the eye. “Can you be more specific? What kind of machines? Doing what?”

“Why- How would I know that?”

She smiled mirthlessly. “We both know how. And I suspect we could even agree on the why.”

I folded my arms against the cold. “Well I don't. All I can tell you is that they shouldn't bother us. We're no direct threat to them.”

Lady Una raised an eyebrow. “That's quite possibly the most sublimely na├»ve thing I've heard anyone say in five years.” She looked up, sharply. “Gods, I didn't realise how close we are.”

The bridge was starting to loom overhead, an intricate wrought iron web against the white sky.

“Me neither,” I began.

At that moment, the persistent thrum of the ship's engines quickly ebbed away. Now we could hear only the lapping of water against the ship, and the creaking of the bridge as it swayed beneath a heavy, moving load.

“That was intentional,” Lady Una said, “correct?”

“I'd imagine so,” I answered uncertainly.

The Commander appeared on a higher deck, leaning brazenly over the railing. “I knew it,” she hissed. “Whatever that echo is, now that we're not under power it's gaining on us.”

“Then start the engines again,” I whispered back.

She gripped her pipe and laughed silently. “Unlike you, I'm not angel-shit crazy. This close to the crawlies, we coast. Besides, now they've made their move, our shadow can't back down, and I doubt we could outrun them in this old heap.”

A sailor stepped up to her with an armful of rifles and she passed two down to us. “Stand by to repel who-knows-what. We certainly can't bring the ship's gun to bear on it.”

“I always wanted to die at sea,” Major Thurlow said, stepping politely past Lady Una, his rifle casually resting on his shoulder. “Sigrid's up top, and the tin can's in the bridge nursing the green gizmo. Are you two sure you want to be on deck for this?”

“I should be on the front line,” Lady Una said, working the action of her rifle. “Besides, if we're sinking, I don't want to be trapped inside.”

“I'm behind her,” I said.

The Commander let out a low yell. “It's reached the surface!”

We ran astern, our footfalls rattling the deck and throwing up flakes of rust.

“What is it?” the Major called out to the upper deck.

Sigrid answered. “Don't know. Think we're gonna need bigger guns!”

At first I could see nothing but the mist. But shortly I could perceive a writhing silhouette, like angry snakes sprouting from a segmented shell.

Lady Una saw it too. “A giant cephalopod or nautiloid. Something from the Twisted Forests for sure.”

“No,” Major Thurlow said, “listen. Listen to it clanking and whirring, almost louder than our friends on the bridge. It's a machine.”

The Commander called down to us. “Sky Spiders? If so we should abandon ship.”

“No,” I said. “A human machine. Like nothing I ever saw before, but human all the same.”

It was closer now. Much closer. I could make out the dull sheen of its brassy segments.

Major Thurlow cursed under his breath. “We're not even going to dent that thing with bullets.”

The Commander slung her rifle over her shoulder. “Let it come to us then.”

I'm sure we all looked at her like she was mad.

“You don't make a ship with robotic tentacles to attack at long range,” she explained. “Let it get right up to us, and we'll hit it where it hurts.”

“If we can find anywhere it hurts,” Thurlow growled. “Get EON-4 here.”

Sigrid said simply, “Out of time.”

The squid machine hit us with the sound of high precision robotics tearing into flimsy rust. The deck lurched beneath us, throwing us in every direction. I reached out blindly for the railing.

It disintegrated in my hand, and I fell forwards, into the mist, and towards viciously churning metal tentacles.


Next week: Is this the end of the HMS Inquisitor and all who sail on her? Heroics are called for, and the Five will be divided! Check back in a week's time for the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders!


Nightly Lucubrations

Been a while since I last reviewed anything on the Interactive Fiction Database, but a couple of games from the recent IF Competition put me in a reviewing kind of mood, so here's a review each of The Lucubrator and Nightfall. I found Nightfall (pictured above) to be one of my favourite IF games of the past couple of years, so be sure to take a look.


Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders: Part 23

Previously: “Heading north on the HMS Inquisitor, we found ourselves tailed by a mysterious sonar contact. Ahead of us lay the Smogton bridge and our route to EON-1.”

Part 23: Beneath the Bridge

It was difficult to find a good place to lounge on the deck of the Inquisitor. The railing was rusted through and not to be trusted with your weight, while the walls shed flakes of paint on anyone or anything that got too close.

 So mostly, when I felt the urge to gaze into the distance, I did so from the bridge, or through the porthole in Lady Una's cabin. The view I saw unfolding, however, was not one conducive to good humour.

 A gentle voice interrupted my reverie. “Humbling isn't it?”

 I turned with a start to see EON-4 entering the bridge.

 “Quite,” I answered. “One wonders what they could possible be doing.”

 With the clicking of hundreds of tiny gears, EON-4 walked up beside me to look through the grimy window. Together we peered out at the thin, grey slither of land on the horizon, and the thick black cloud that hung over it, flickering with red flashes that resembled silent, unearthly lightning.

 “Something profound,” EON-4 said. “Something on a scale so grand we probably couldn't begin to understand it. Perhaps factually, in some vague sense. But not in the sense of truly grasping... well, why.”

 I mulled over his words for a while, before he spoke again. “We pass under Smogton bridge soon, I believe?”

 I pointed to the thin line in the mist ahead of the ship.

 EON-4's single eye clicked into focus. “Ah yes, I see it now.”

 He turned to the glass circle of the ultrasound machine. “The Commander wondered if I might be able to make some sense of this thing. I can't say that I've ever seen one before, however.”

 “You understand the principle?”

 “Yes. Quite devious, I think. One wonders how they came up with it.”

 “The same way humans come up with anything,” I said. “Necessity. Perceived necessity, anyway. In this case it was a hoax.”


 “Mostly a hoax, anyway. In the Danegeld War, the Danes supposedly developed an unbeatable sub-marine ship. It threw all our lot into a panic, and they came up with this echolocation instrument. In the end it turned out the Dane's ship couldn't go a full mile before the electrical engines shorted out, but it was still a nice piece of propaganda on their part.”

 EON-4 focused on me. “You're not thinking that this is such a craft, are you? Whether human or otherwise?”

 “Well, that or a giant creature of some sort from the Twisted Forests. It seems unlikely to me, but Lady Una would know better than me about that. If only she'd come out of her damn cabin.”

 He looked down at the green display. “The third option is of course that this is a flaw in the system. That would also explain why this 'object' seems to be keeping a constant distance from us.”

 “I think it's better to overreact than to fail to act at all.”

 “If it's a Sky Spider vessel, there would be nothing we could do anyway.”

 “I'm not so certain. And we seem to have a fair few human enemies for some reason.”

 “It still seems most likely to be an erroneous detection,” EON-4 said. “And if it was truly something dangerous, why aren't we already dead? There are more solid threats ahead that we should be worrying about.”

 I turned back to the bridge ahead. “Perhaps. We've never had trouble passing beneath it before, but you don't wander so close to them without a little apprehension. Although if things were that bad, someone would have hit the button and taken the bridge out by now.”

 “Assuming there's anyone left.”

 “Assuming that, yes. The Commander wants to stay as far east as we can, but if they're on the island that will probably turn out to be a mistake. I suppose you have to take risks to get anything done, though.”

 “By the way,” EON-4 stated calmly. “I can see movement on the bridge.”

 I thought about it for a few seconds. “Then there's no-one left on the island, the Sky Spiders have crossed the bridge, and we're sailing right into mortal danger in a leaky bathtub with a half-functional gun.”

 “We have to turn back,” EON-4 said. “We can go find EON-2 by looping around the island.”

 “We'll have to talk to the others about it,” I said. “But I think we should keep going just as we are.”

 “As we are?” EON-4 asked, almost without intonation. “Straight to the bottom of the ocean you mean?” 


Next week: Our heroes pass beneath the Smogton bridge - and find themselves facing danger from every side! Check back in a week's time for the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders!


A Scoop of Space Ice Cream

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

Here's an appealing view of Enceladus, nicely showing its wrinkled, crater-free surface - the most obvious indicators that something interesting is happening on this little ice-ball.


The Stormy Sea

I had a little debate with myself about just what I was going to post here - if anything. My current project is further along than Gun Mute was when I first alluded to it, but I'm really wary of announcing things that I might never finish. Then again, I suppose I've put enough effort into this intro sequence that I'll have to release something, so here you are.

In unrelated news, I'm reading Treasure Island.


Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders: Part 22

Previously: “Certain that we were temporarily safe, we set off out to sea, heading north towards EON-1.”

Part 22: Echo

“How are you feeling?”

“Okay, for the moment.”

Lady Una sat facing the open porthole in her cabin, next to a heap of faded books. “You were right,” she said. “It helps.”

As she focused on watching the horizon, I sat on the bunk beside her and took the opportunity to study her aristocratic profile: singular and delicate. “Thank the Commander,” I said. “She told me on my first voyage. You know, if you went out on deck...”

She shook her head. “No. I'm too frightened of going over the side.”

“You probably have less reason to worry about that than anyone else on board. I'd imagine you're quite bottom-heavy.” I caught my tongue. “I mean- That is to say, your centre of gravity seems like it would be lower, what with-”

“I'm many things, doctor,” she interrupted, “but pointlessly vain is not one of them.”

“So come outside.”


“Fine. I know better than to try and change your mind.”

“In some ways,” she said, wistfully, “I think it would be better if I could actually throw up and get it out of the way. The trouble with having an artificial stomach that's been constructed with forethought, and a natural inner ear. I feel nauseous, but it doesn't amount to anything. I miss that brief sensation of relief after you've emptied your stomach.”

I followed her gaze out towards the misty horizon. “I guess you never knew what aspects of your old body you were going to miss until you lost it.”

“You have no idea how right you are.”

“But I doubt you miss the parts about not being bulletproof.”

She smiled. “And how many times have you been shot, doctor?”

“Well it would probably just take the once. I've certainly been shot at enough times to feel like I could use metal skin.”

“You've got mine. Just get behind me, I told you already.”

“The others will think I'm a coward. Hiding behind a lady.”

“They'll all get shot. Then it won't matter.”

I laughed. “You think of everything don't you?”

A knock rattled the cabin door.

“Come in,” Lady Una called out, speaking in the manner of one used to being attended to.

A young sailor entered, wearing a patched old navy uniform. He saluted. “The Major said I might find you in the Lady's cabin, sir.”

“I've told you before,” I said, “don't salute me.”

“And the Lady, sir?” he asked.

“Salute me if it makes you happy,” she said. “I don't mind either way.”

“The Commander wants you on the bridge, doctor,” the sailor announced. “She says it's very important.”

I turned to Lady Una. “Come along too.”

“I'm fine where I am. I don't want to upset the equilibrium by moving.”

“Suit yourself.”


The bridge was a cage of rusted metal and cracked glass, crammed full of the most important instruments of the modern steamer. Commander Kelson was waiting for me, her empty pipe hanging from her mouth.

“How much do you trust this ultrasound echo thing we got from the Society?” she asked.

I thought for a moment. “In principle? Absolutely. The equipment itself? Somewhat.”

She pointed to the small circle of green glass that constituted the machine's output. “Look at this thing. Either it's broken, or...”

I peered into the glass. Lights and electrical switches inside were designed to try and represent the echoing response from a pulse of high-pitched noise put out by an electromagnetic speaker beneath the ship. A technological gimmick for helping fishing vessels track shoals of fish, never developed far enough to make it to mass production. One of the many pieces of electrical rubbish I'd managed to acquire over the past five years.

“It's broken,” I said. “You were right, we need to get this ship in dry dock and scrape a good load of barnacles and gods know what from the bottom of the hull. We'll be passing under the Smogton bridge soon. Maybe we'll find better docks at High End.”

“It's broken,” the Commander agreed, touching her pipe. “But, I can't help but wonder, what if isn't?”

I looked at the screen. “Then there's something about twenty metres long following our every move from beneath the sea.”

She winked. “But there can't be, right?”

“Sure,” I said. “That's what they said about creatures from the stars.”


Next week: What's following the HMS Inquisitor? Check back in a week's time for the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders!


Friday Good News from Space Blogging

Image credit: NASA/ESA
Image source

Spirit is still lucid, much to the delight of her friends on Earth - who are making careful plans to keep her in good health, despite the heavy dusting her solar panels have received.

Researchers also believe they've obtained the first visible light and infra-red images of planets orbiting a star other than the sun (visible light pictured above). Interestingly, the theoretical underpinning of this detection included an analysis of the way a planet seemed to be 'shepherding' the young star's dust cloud - in a similar fashion to the way several moons shepherd Saturn's rings.


A Sudden Darkness

After surviving a difficult winter, Mars Rover Spirit has been caught off guard by a sudden dust storm. The plucky robot was given emergency instructions to help her cope with the lowest solar power levels she has yet seen, and, according to the news release, should re-establish contact with NASA some time today.

In a slightly worrying repeat of Phoenix's last actions, Spirit's emergency instructions included turning off several of her heaters, including one that protects a scientific instrument. After almost five years of good fortune, this will hopefully only be a memorable hiccup for one of humanity's foremost explorers.


Not to Rise Again

Credit: ASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/
Texas A&M University

After eight days of silence, NASA has declared that it does not expect to regain contact with the Phoenix lander. The Phoenix team seem rather upbeat about the robot's achievements in this news post.


On Second Thoughts

I don't think I'm going to have an entry for the latest TIGSource competition. I've left it too late, partially due to Fallout 3 eating up all my time in front of the computer, but also because when I've been in a game-making mood, I've actually found myself thinking about a project entirely of my own devising instead.

And also because I've about had my fill of deadlines at the moment. :-P

I don't want to go into details until I'm too far into it to turn back, but know that I am working on something.

Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders: Part 21

Previously: “Pursued by unknown assassins, we finally set off on our journey north to locate EON-1.”

Part 21: Casting Off

The docks at Portensea were deserted now, but the detritus piled high - abandoned luggage, rusting equipment - proved how busy they had once been. As we rounded a mountain of rotting suitcases, and our immediate destination came into view, Lady Una stopped dead in her tracks.

“This is it?” she demanded. “You have the privilege of commanding the world's last coal-fired, floating scrapheap?”

I tried to look at it as if seeing it for the first time - the pitted, rusting superstructure, the squat, armoured turrets, and crooked funnels. For the longest time now, this had been home and sanctuary for me. “The past five years have been hard on everyone, and the HMS Inquisitor is no exception.”

“It's a fine sight,” Major Thurlow attempted. “A sterling relic of naval might.”

“Does it actually float,” Lady Una asked, “or is the gangplank holding it up?”

“It floats,” I assured her - clearing my throat and avoiding her eye.

She studied me carefully. “Who are you trying to convince when you say that?”

Sigrid walked on ahead of us. “Not fond of the sea, milady?”

Lady Una blinked. “I... I can't swim very well.”

Sigrid absorbed this fact with little reaction. “Best not fall overboard then. Perhaps if you dressed a little more sensibly...”

“Thank you,” Lady Una replied curtly. “I'll take that into consideration.”

I followed her up the gangplank, watching as she glided hand over hand, never letting go of the chain link railing. On the main deck, the Commander greeted me in her customary manner, lifting her pipe up in one hand.

“How did the repairs go?” I asked her, knowing that Lady Una's ears would have pricked up.

The Commander hooked her pipe on the corner of her mouth and, with both hands, gripped the binoculars that hung around her neck. “Good and bad. The dry docks are all crumbling to nothing. I didn't want to risk putting the ship in there and not getting her back out, so I decided to forego it entirely. Without a chance to check out the hull beneath the waterline, she's probably only got a year or so left in her.”

“Well that's the bad,” I agreed, “what about the good stuff?”

“I was able to trade for parts to fix the pumps. We're finally putting out about as much water as we're taking on. We won't recover the bottom deck any time soon, but at least we're not sinking any more.”

“Delightful,” Lady Una interjected.

“And aren't you going to introduce your new friends?” the Commander asked.

“Of course. This is Lady Una, Sigrid Phenice and Major Thurlow. We're expecting one more, a mechanical fellow. This is Commander Kelson.”

“Pleased to meet you all. Oh, that reminds me, we lost another three crew members.”

Lady Una looked shocked. “Dead?”

“Hardly. Just tired of slaving in the engine room. It's nothing we can't cope with.”

“I'm surprised we've kept as many people as we have,” I commented.

“Well, doctor, not everybody's as keen on the shore-side delights of the new world as you are. This old heap is as good a place to stay as any hovel on land. Oh, right, one last thing. We had to expend a shell.”

Major Thurlow raised an eyebrow. “At what?”

The Commander waved her pipe at the sea. “Who knows? Used to be the sea was the one place you could be sure you were safe. But now all sorts of things swim out of the Twisted Forests or blow downwind of the Poison Wastes.”

“That's eight shells left then?” I asked.

The Commander tapped her pipe on the railing as if emptying it of ash. A habitual gesture - we'd seen no tobacco in three years. “Seven. I've had a good look at what's left, and I think one of them's poorly made. We'll save it for last and hope it doesn't take the barrel with it when we let if off.”

“Well,” I said.

“Oh yeah, last thing now for sure. We loaded the fore turret, but it's no good any more. Only about forty degrees of turn in the thing. Mechanism's all rusted solid. Might be an idea to disassemble it and use the parts to repair the midships turret. Course, if we do that we'll have to hope the aft one doesn't give out while we're working, or we'll be defenceless.”

“We need to leave as soon as possible, Commander. But if you hired any crew here, discharge them first. Someone wants our heads.”

She looked at me with her cold grey eyes. “I don't know how you do it, doctor. I really don't. No, no new crew. We'll cast off as soon as your 'mechanical' friend turns up. No sense hanging around to get shot at. And it's not as though we have to clear it with the harbour master.”

She hooked her pipe back in her mouth and strode purposefully off towards the bridge, barking orders as she went.

Lady Una slipped her arm in mine. “You know,” she said, “if this thing can float, maybe I stand half a chance myself.”


Next week: Out on the open sea, something is following the HMS Inquisitor. What is it? And will seven shells be enough to stop it? Check back in a week's time for the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders!


Fallout Thursday

Wandering through a retro-futuristic post-nuclear wasteland where the best dreams of the 50s have all gone horribly wrong, it's not surprising to find an abundance of damaged garden gnomes. But as you can imagine, it took a great stroke of luck to find an intact specimen. I purchased mine from a civilised ghoul for the rock-bottom price of one bottle cap - I can only assume she didn't understand its true value.


Phoenix and Ash

If you're interested in the plight of Phoenix, it's worth reading Emily Lakdawalla's report at the Planetary Society Blog. The poor lander is behaving pretty much as expected, but attempts to power it down to prolong its life can hardly be described as going smoothly.


Let's Prognosticate!

So has McCain won yet or what?

Then again, my last prediction about the 2008 US election doesn't seem to have come to pass. Yet.

Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders: Part 20

Previously: “After an attempt on my life, I was just starting to relax in the company of an inebriated Lady Una when gunshots brought me sharply back to reality.”

Part 20: The Assassin

I shook Lady Una gently by the shoulder. “Wake up,” I said. “There's trouble.”

She put her hand to her head and frowned, eyes still closed. “You don't have to be so bloody loud about it...”

“Come on. Up!”

Unsteadily, she rose from her bedside chair. “My head... Gods, I'm never drinking again.”

I drew my revolver. It still looked a little damp from my plunge into the canals of Fortress City. Lady Una glided ahead of me, and out into the hallway.

Major Thurlow awaited us. He smirked. “I couldn't find you in your room, doctor.”

Lady Una still frowned, fingers pressed to her forehead. “Surprised, Major? I thought you were a man of the world.”

“Oh, it takes a lot to surprise me, milady.”

I said, “But-”

“I left my automatic pistol on my night stand,” Lady Una interrupted, “is there cause for concern, Major? The doctor- We heard shooting.”

He stroked his thin moustache. “I don't think so. It had pretty much stopped moving when I left to find you.”


“You should probably come look. Especially you, doctor.”

Lady Una glanced at the stairs. “You two go ahead. I'll be down shortly.”

I slipped my revolver back into its holster and followed the Major downstairs and out to the front of the estate. He looked back once to wink at me. I studiously ignored him.


Lady Una, now in a hoop-skirted shirtwaist, sailed up to us as we stood around the thing, studying it in the ruddy dawn light. “What is it?” she asked me.

“I haven't the least idea. Some kind of humanoid machine. Thurlow said it moved like nothing he'd ever seen.”

She looked down at it, studying the shattered clockwork that lay behind its bullet-riddled skin of black-lacquered metal.

“I don't sleep much these days,” Thurlow explained. “And I didn't much trust your one-eyed soldier to be a good look-out - no offence, my man - so I spent the night on the porch. Saw this thing climb over the wall and scuttle around - fast, spider-like. It didn't really stop until we turned a machinegun on it. Don't much like the look of those claws.”

I shook my head. “This isn't a Sky Spider machine. That's all I can tell you.”

Lady Una made a thoughtful noise. “I know what this is.”

We all looked at her.

“I suspect EON-4 could tell us more if he were here. This was made by the Academy for Machine Intelligence. It was designed right towards the end of the war, intended to be a kind of offspring of the humanoid philosophy engines and more cumbersome war machines. The last records that we have here describe all the prototypes as being unbalanced and unwieldy.”

Thurlow prodded the mass of metal with the tip of his shoe. “Not this fellow. Quick as the wind. Balanced like a cat struck by lightning.”

She drew a breath through her teeth. “As things became more desperate, there was talk of using an existing solution for motion control. Specifically, a freshly donated human spinal column. I suspect this machine is evidence that somebody ended up putting that plan into motion.”

I looked from Lady Una to Thurlow. “The man who tried to kill me was definitely human.”

“Man?” Thurlow asked. “Pretty sure it was a woman after me.”

Lady Una fiddled with the tiny button on one of her gloves. “Just because they looked human, it doesn't mean they were underneath. It's not always so easy to tell these days.”

Thurlow snarled. “Mixing human flesh and machinery. The sort of thing the Sky Spiders would do. You have to wonder about the kind of twisted mind that would do it to their own kind.”

I cleared my throat. “Which brings us to the obvious question. Who is it that is sending these people - or machines, or some combination of the two - to kill us?”

“The most obvious answer,” Thurlow said, “would be the Academy itself.”

“But they sent us EON-4 as well,” Lady Una countered.

“Precisely. And where has he been through all this?”

“Probably fending off an assassin of his own,” I suggested.

“The Academy has no reason to wish us dead,” Lady Una said firmly.

Thurlow laughed. “Well as far as we know, nobody has any reason to want us dead except the Sky Spiders, and they'd send a far more effective machine than this to do the job.”

“There-” Lady Una began, then stopped. “There's also the Select Committee.”

Thurlow seemed bemused. “The who?”

I glared at Lady Una. “The Select Committee are all dead. And even if they weren't, they'd have no reason to try to kill us.”

“Are you so sure our deaths wouldn't be in tune with their aims, doctor?” she pressed. “Mightn't we be-”

“No,” I said, rather curtly.

Thurlow brushed between us, heading inside. “It's all meaningless. Whoever it is, when they come for us, we just get them first. Problem solved.”

Lady Una raised her face to the rising sun. “I'm almost glad to be heading out to sea,” she said. “Assuming I can stay afloat.”


Next week: Will our heroes sink or swim? And who is it that's trying to kill them? More importantly: what strange things have swum out of the Twisted Forests and into the open sea? Check back in a week's time for the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders!


Friday Release Day Blogging

I'm not normally one to buy things just after their release date, but I've been hankering for a good, up-to-the-minute PC game without heavy-handed DRM for a while now, so I picked up Fallout 3 as it hit the shelves today. So far, I'm impressed. I really like the idea of taking the laborious and boring tutorial and character creation sequences that many games begin with and instead incorporating them into segments of the protagonist's childhood.

By nature of their underlying structure, it's easy for videogames to seem more like spreadsheets or word processors than actual pieces of entertainment or storytelling. Any move towards making things more naturalistic should be applauded, in my book.


Staying Warm on Mars

Image source with more information
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Phoenix team are starting to make ruthless decisions in the name of efficiency, switching off heaters in order to make the best of the dwindling autumn light. It may seem suicidal, but the lander's camera should keep itself warm, while the heaters are a considerable drain on its resources. Ultimately, the only thing it should really need to keep warm are its batteries.

Meanwhile, far to the south, the Mars Rovers are enjoying the seasons changing in the opposite direction. After a dangerous winter of rock-bottom solar power, Opportunity (above) has now crawled back out of Victoria Crater (once expected to be its final resting place) and is now setting off on an epic journey to an even larger crater. Well, epic for a wounded, dust-covered, semi-autonomous robot, anyway.


Light and Shade

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

Dione, to my mind the prettiest of Saturn's grey moons, and Enceladus, snow-white world of mystery, touch heads for this Cassini image. Well, okay, they're still over three hundred thousand kilometres from one another, but objects in space have a more nuanced take on physical intimacy.


DVD Review: La Antena

As you can probably gather from my interest in video games of all eras, I've never quite understood why, in those art forms more reliant on technology, the effective storytelling techniques of one generation are all too often abandoned completely once more advanced technology becomes available.

This is apparently something that Esteban Sapir has been thinking about. As far as he's concerned, a silent movie is a 'pure' movie - one where the moving pictures themselves must provide the emotional power and character, where every frame must be well composed and relevant. To that end, he wrote and directed La Antena ('The Aerial'), where all the computer-aided wizardry of the 21st Century is used to recreate (with a little embellishment) a silent movie in proper 1920s style.

La Antena tells us the story of a surreal city, where every citizen has lost their voice. Their words appear as comic-book captions that are mostly supposed to represent their lip-reading one another, but which at times also take a more solid presence, with characters moving their subtitles around, covering them up and crushing them in anger.* Following on from the likes of Fritz Lang (“the head and the hand” and so on), Sapir fills La Antena with strong, simplistic symbolism - creating a film where the story not only directly revolves around symbols, but where those symbols can be interacted with as physical objects.

Although the characters are mute, the film also creates a deaf audience. As in a silent film, there are no sound effects, and only the most obvious noises are enacted by the instruments that create the film's entertaining and engrossing musical score. The sole exception to this deafness is also perhaps the most memorable - and tragic - symbol in the film: La Voz, 'The Voice', the one woman in the city who retains the ability to speak. In order to furnish her sightless son with a pair of eyes, La Voz has entered into a shady deal with Mr TV, a man who, with his television transmissions and TV meals seems to have complete control over the city. Once Mr TV has the power of La Voz's voice, however, his evil schemes will be able to take a drastic leap forward - and the only people who stand in his way are a downtrodden family of TV technicians.

Through strong characters and surreal settings, Sapir succeeds in creating a constant stream of visual poetry and unbounded imagination - but best of all, he creates a tangible sense of tension between that imagination and the crushing, unsympathetic boot of totalitarianism. At times, the soaring imagery gave me a spine-tingling sense of the potential of human imagination, but this sensation was never present without the reminder of our capacity to oppress and destroy the wonders that we create.

Some might think it strange to suggest that one of the most striking and memorable movies of the beginning of the 21st Century should be one which takes great pains to emulate the movies from a century beforehand. But I, for one, think that La Antena is a sumptuous reminder of everything wondrous and forgotten about the era of silent film-making, as well as a beautiful film in its own right.

*(For those of us not fluent in Spanish, this does mean two sets of subtitles to pay attention to, but the dialogue is always concise.)

Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders: Part 19

Previously: “Pursued through the streets of Fortress City, I found brief sanctuary in the home of Sigrid's surviving family. It seemed unlikely that I was the only one to be targeted, however, and soon a heavy knock sounded at the door.”

Part 19: Caterpillar Tracks

Sigrid, Mack and I, all bearing arms, stood poised to leap into action as we opened the door. Outside, leaning against the wall, an unfastened bow-tie hanging from his neck, was Major Thurlow.

“Somebody tried to kill me,” he said. “I shot back, but I don't think I got them.”

Sigrid jabbed a thumb at me. “Same with the doc.”

Thurlow looked at me, standing in the hallway wrapped in a blanket and still decidedly damp. “Looks like you have a story or two to tell.”

“Okay,” Sigrid said, “that clinches it. Mack, get Irene and go stay with the Wheelers for the rest of the night. Major, Doc, we need to get to Kirkham and find EON-4.”

Thurlow smiled and shook his head. “Whoever was behind this, they're familiar with the city, and they know more than a little about us. I think we need to get moving. Get out to sea and onto that boat.”

“Ship,” I corrected reflexively.

“Whatever. But EON-4 can take care of himself. He's made of metal and I'm made of flesh. We can head straight out, and swing by Circhester. Once we're behind the gates there, we'll send a telegram to Kirkham and wait for the tin can to show up.”

Sigrid slung her rifle over her shoulder and turned to me. “I'll get you a towel. We're leaving.”


The gates of the viscount's estate opened slowly, leaden with armoured weight. Beyond them, Lady Una stood beside a weathered old soldier with an eye-patch. As always, machinegun posts oversaw the courtyard from secure vantage points, shining spotlights into the midnight darkness. It was a place that exuded security. But Major Thurlow was still far from happy.

“If you have any staff you've hired over the past few weeks,” he told Lady Una, “send them into town for the night. The same if there's anyone who's been giving you trouble - threatening to quit, anything of that sort.”

“Everybody here,” the man with the eye-patch said, “can be trusted.”

Thurlow raised an eyebrow. “I see. That's a very untrustworthy thing to say.”

The man stomped off in a huff, while Thurlow grinned wryly.

Lady Una seemed to have dressed hastily, her hair was pinned up in a rough bun that spilled out another curl every few seconds. Beneath her dressing gown she wore a long nightdress, pinching the sides of the skirt to keep it away from the caterpillar tracks hidden beneath. “You can stay in the same rooms as when you first arrived,” she said. “Please be quiet. My uncle has taken a turn for the worse and I don't wish him to be disturbed.”

Thurlow regarded her uneasily and then, with a short bow, headed into the mansion. Sigrid followed suit, avoiding the Lady's eye completely.

When we were alone, Lady Una stepped closer. “Yes,” she admitted. “Okay. I am drunk. And you can tell.”

I said nothing. I could smell the brandy on her breath.

“I don't normally drink at all,” she continued, addressing the tips of my shoes, her words running together. “But what with my uncle, and the prospect of a journey out to sea, I just needed something to take the edge off. I'll confess, I'm embarrassed to have you see me like this.”

“It'll help you sleep,” I said. “Go to bed.”

“Is that your recommendation as a doctor?”


She smiled lopsidedly. “But you're not a medical doctor.”

“I know.”

She looked around uncertainly for a moment and then glided inside. I followed behind her until we reached the stairs. She looked back at me.

“I still really want to know how you manage this,” I confessed.

She bit her lip coyly. “Curious as ever.”


She lifted her nightdress so I could see her tracks. “Triangular, you see?”

She rolled forward, and the entire assembly of the tracks spun round, catching on the lip of the stair and lifting her up. “It's slow going,” she explained, “but I get there. I'm sure most people think I'm just wearing ridiculous heels.”

I shook my head. “You don't seem the type.”

She smiled to herself. “You don't know how I was before.”

“Nobody ever does.”

She continued mounting the stairs, one at a time. “I'd have something witty to say to that, if I was in my right mind.”

“I've no doubt.”

“Come drink with me, doctor. Peregrine. It's pathological to do it by yourself, I understand.”

“You've had enough.”

“Well then come stop me from having any more.”

“What am I supposed to do? Swallow the keys to your liquor cabinet?”

She laughed explosively and then covered her mouth, embarrassed. She cleared her throat. “Keep me company, that's enough.” Then she touched a hand to her forehead and sighed. “What am I saying? Please ignore me, doctor. I'm babbling.”

I said, “I-” And then stopped.

She continued up the stairs, with me following by her side. “Are you my friend, doctor?”

“Yes,” I answered, without hesitation.

“Really? Do you really want to be friends with a half-human freak?”

She mounted the final stair and, from the landing, looked down at me.

“That's a loaded question,” I said. “I'm your friend.”

She turned away from me. “Come talk with me, please. I won't get to sleep. I'm wide awake now.”

I followed her in silence, into her room. A single oil lamp was turned down low on a reading table piled high with books, casting soft shadows onto the walls. A small clockwork bird sat still in its cage, feigning sleep.

Lady Una sat down in a high-backed chair. “Sit on the bed,” she instructed me. “I can't use it properly any more anyway.”

I sat down on the mattress, facing her.

“There's brandy,” she said, gesturing to the bottle on her bed stand, “if you want to try and catch up with me.”

I poured out a glass and downed it, immediately breaking into a coughing fit. “It's strong.”

Lady Una shrugged. “I'm no connoisseur. I just grabbed the first thing on the shelf. Tell me about the Select Committee.”


“What do they look like?” she asked. “Do they really look like spiders?”

I let her needle this one answer from me. “Vaguely.”

“And the other members, are they really all dead?”

I pressed my lips together. “Why do you want to know?”

She yawned, and I yawned too. We both laughed quietly, and then she said, “I'm curious.”

“Good answer. Okay: no. None of them are dead.”

“What-” she yawned again. “Do excuse me. What happened to them?”

“I can't tell you that without telling you the whole story. And we've already established that I'm not going to do that.”

She smiled, looking strangely satisfied. “I rather admire you,” she said softly, “Perry.”

“Uh, yes, don't call me Perry. I really don't like it.”

She said nothing, and I realised she was asleep.

With that, I found myself moved to curl up on the bed and close my eyes. I was too tired to leave, but unable to sleep either. I simply lay there, on Lady Una's bed, listening to her breathe.

I lay there until the first gunshots sounded from outside.


Next week: Who is it that so wants our adventurers dead? Have they bitten off more than they can chew by tackling the viscount's estate, or will this be a risky battle for all concerned? Check back in a week's time for the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders!


Beautiful Plumage

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

With the sun hidden behind Enceladus, Cassini is able to capture its icy plumes in all their subtle glory.

(Click for the full view, I recommend.)


Springtime on Saturn

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

Okay, yes, every springtime is an autumn as well. More generally: Saturn is approaching equinox. Not only has the northern hemisphere lost its blue tint, but now the whole face of the world is losing the huge shadows of the rings, as they begin to meet the sunlight edge on.



Oh TIGSource, not again!

So TIGSource have blessed us with another competition, and over a month to work on it. As I mentioned at the close of the last competition, I'm hoping to enter a short IF game into this one. No details until I've got enough done that I'm sure I'll finish.

Also, even though I've tried to cook up an entry for every single TIGSource competion since they started, I think that this is going to be my last one for a while. I finally have another project entirely of my own conception in the works, and I want to start giving it some priority. What is it? Well, you'll find out in due course. :-P

Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders: Part 18

Previously: “On the streets of Fortress City, after safely handing EON-5's head over to John Kirkham and his scientists, I found myself once more staring down the barrel of a gun.”

Part 18: Sanctuary

Something in the man's cold, emotionless eyes told me that he wasn't prone to hesitation. I did the only thing I could think of to get myself beyond the reach of his long-barrelled revolver, and threw myself backwards over the bridge railing. As I fell, I heard the plink of his bullet hitting the side of the bridge. And then I hit the water with a cold, slimy splash.

I emerged from whatever canal or river I had plunged into - more artificial than natural, it seemed - some distance downstream, soaking wet and thoroughly bedraggled. I disappeared into the nearest winding cobbled lane, sticking to the shadows and avoiding the occasional set of footsteps.

I navigated by my hazy recollection of the old city, from long before the world changed, and frequently found myself running into dead ends and broken, impassable streets. Eventually I stood before the cracked wooden door of a narrow, crooked house, part of a whole street of buildings that leaned to the left, like dominoes frozen in motion.

Answering my knock, a short, stout man with thinning grey hair looked me over with a wary eye. “Whatever you want,” he said politely, “I'm afraid we haven't got any. The soup kitchen opens at dawn, just down the road.”

I shook my head. “I'm looking for Sigrid Phenice. My name is Dr Peregrine Gleve.”

He opened the door far enough that I could see the shotgun he held close by his side. Some way behind him, down a narrow and unadorned hallway, Sigrid appeared, her sleeves rolled up and her hair down. “It's alright, Mack,” she said. “Let him in. Gods, doc, what happened to you?”

“Somebody tried to kill me,” I said, stepping past Mack as he set down the shotgun. “And then I went for a short swim.”

Sigrid grabbed my arm. “You're shivering. Come on, let's sit you by the fire.”

She led me further down the hallway, and then sharply left and into a cramped room with a tiny curtained window, lit only by the flickering light from a fireplace.

An old woman sat rocking in a chair, knitting a scarf that pooled into a ludicrous heap at her feet. She didn't look up as I entered.

Sigrid pulled a wooden stool and a blanket out from some secret cranny and set it close to the fire. “Come on doc, let's get you out of these wet things. Don't be shy.”

I sat down on the stool in my underclothes and wrapped the blanket around me tightly, only shivering more profoundly now that I was no longer walking through the streets. “Sigrid, there are plenty of people who want me dead, personally, but I can't help thinking that I'm part of a team now. I'm not sure if this was someone out to kill me in particular, or to kill all of us.”

She nodded. “Well, I don't think there's so much we can do about that at the moment. The others can handle themselves. They'll need to if someone wants us all dead, 'cause I don't see that that someone would want to leave much time between offing each of us.”

“I suppose that makes sense.”

“Dry off for a while, and we'll see about finding the Major. EON-4 should be pretty safe with Kirkham, and the Lady's in her little fort in Circhester.”

I tried to keep my eyes from the hypnotic motion of the old woman's knitting needles. “Do you know where Major Thurlow might be?”

Sigrid shrugged. “No. But I know where I am, so if someone wants us all dead, I expect they'll come knocking sooner or later. And would you tell me, doc, just who is that wants you dead 'in particular'?”

I tried to laugh her question off. “Just powerful people who don't trust me.”

“Nobody's powerful anymore. Nobody but John Kirkham and the Sky Spiders. Maybe the Iron Queen before you knocked her block off.”

“My enemies were powerful once. People respect that. And that makes them powerful still. Don't ever doubt the ability of the human species to get one over on itself, even in its twilight age.”

“Is this to do with that Select Committee you mentioned? What's that all about, anyway?”

I shook my head. “Nothing. It doesn't matter.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Sure, I believe you.”

We both started as a heavy knock sounded at the door.

“Mack,” Sigrid called out. “Don't answer it.”

From somewhere in the shadows, Sigrid retrieved her rifle with its telescopic sight. I looked at my revolver, dripping wet in its holster, and hoped it was still in good enough condition to fire.


Next week: Who has come calling at this late hour? Friend or foe? Check back in a week's time for the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders!