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!


Friday Megalith Blogging

Credit: Marta Gutowska
Some rights reserved.

The Callanish standing stones.


The Another Intriguing Studio Ghibli Project

So it seems that Studio Ghibli are collaborating with Level5 - the guys behind Professor Layton and the Curious Village - to make a game for the DS called, uh, Ninokuni: The Another World.

Ghibli are providing the cut scenes and Joe Hisaishi music. Level5 are presumably providing the gameplay and 3D graphics, and stitching it together into one huge crystal of obscene beauty or Frankensteinian failure.

Ghibliworld have the trailer, here.

Hat tip: Twitch


Miss Baker

Image credit: NASA

I keep a little (well, alright, 200Mb) folder of my favourite space images on my PC, as it's a lot more convenient than finding things among the squillions of images stored on the disparate space agency sites around the net. For the most part, they're ordered by distance from the sun, and then sub-divided by moon/asteroid/whatever.

I like to take a nose around the directories from time to time, to see if there's anything that stands out to me on a repeat viewing - which is what happened when I bumped into Miss Baker above. Well, actually, my first response was to exclaim, "What the hell?" aloud and laugh, and then worry that maybe she actually died on the journey.

Despite the poor grasp of astronautics that she's displaying above, Miss Baker was one of the two first animals to be put into orbit around the Earth by NASA (or by any other space agency). She lived to the ripe old age of 27, and was buried near the US Space and Rocket Center.

Image credit: NASA

Miss Baker rode into space on one of these: a Jupiter Intermediate-Range Ballistic Missile, which, when it was not being used to launch monkeys into space, was capable of destroying cities with nuclear warheads.

I guess my point is that we owe a lot to monkey astronauts.


Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders: Part 17

Previously: “After collecting the incoherent head of EON-5, we returned to Fortress City with the intention of heading north by ship. Perhaps EON-1 would prove more communicative.”

Part 17: Shadowed Streets

As a rust-encrusted tram rattled past, Lady Una pulled me to one side. “Are you insane?” she whispered sharply. “I have no legs and titanium armour for skin, and you want me to take an ocean cruise? I probably won't be able to get up the gangplank without falling overboard and sinking like a stone.”

I opened my mouth, but couldn't think of anything to say straight away. “I hadn't thought of that,” I confessed.

She sighed. “And you're supposed to be one of the nation's leading brains.”

“Sorry. I just don't tend to think of you as... Well, you know.”

She reached up behind her head to touch her hair, as if afraid that it might have uncoiled from its tight bun. “I'm not sure if that makes you charming or inconsiderate. At any rate, I'm returning to Circhester presently, to check on my uncle. I'll take the opportunity to try and achieve neutral buoyancy as best I can.”

I blinked. “Yes, good luck with that.”

She adjusted the fingers of one glove. “You are, of course, very welcome to accompany me.”

“I...” I cleared my throat. “I'm afraid I have to meet EON-4 and John Kirkham. Perhaps if you were to postpone your trip until evening...”

“Time is against us. We don't have the luxury of postponement.”

“So I keep hearing.”

Lady Una took my hand delicately in hers. “Goodbye, doctor.”

“Until I see you.”

We had crossed over No Man's Land at night, just close enough to the distinguished black profile of Prometheus to feel protected. It remained unmoving, its arthropodal legs folded up tightly beneath it. The soldiers standing guard in the trenches had stared at us like we were ghouls walking out of a graveyard. Through a network of cramped and dank tunnels, we had passed beneath the walls of Fortress City and into its almost equally cramped and dank streets of cobble and coal-fire smog.

Now I stood once more in the home of John Kirkham, the city's most prominent, powerful and respected citizen. Professor Suzette Layling sat upright in an elegant wooden wheelchair, studiously ignoring me. EON-4 sat on an opulent couch, his legs crossed. In the centre of the room, perched on what in these times must have surely been a priceless antique table, was the head of the Iron Queen, her single eye clicking as she looked around the room.

John Kirkham breezed in through a pair of lavishly handled double doors, his face hidden, as ever, behind a gold mask with a serene expression. “I'm sorry for the delay,” he said, casually. “Ah, here we are. The spoils of adventure and exploration.”

The Iron Queen said simply, “Who are you? Another mirage.”

“Quite an amusing piece to have on my coffee table,” Kirkham continued, “although I can't help but wonder about its practical applications - or lack thereof.”

EON-4 stood to shake Kirkham's hand. “I'm afraid EON-5 seems to have sustained significant damage or corruption. It will take considerable work to unravel its - her apparent insanity.”

I stepped forward to take Kirkham's outstretched hand. “This is something I'd like to leave in the capable hands of what scientists and engineers exist in Fortress City,” I explained, “while we head north to try and contact the other EON units.”

“I see,” Kirkham said. “Since you left it came to our attention that their seems to be a rather formidable vessel anchored off the coast. I assume that it has something to do with you? Perhaps you intend to sail north and find EON-2?”

I frowned. “Why number two?”

He sounded like he was smiling behind that mask of his. “Well, that was the unit to contact you, correct? And the only one you know to have touched the mind of the Sky Spiders and come back with some measure of coherence?”

“It's also the most distant. We were hoping to reach EON-1.”

Kirkham laughed. “There have been few enough people to arrive at Fortress City from inland over the past couple of years that I can remember them all - name and face. And their stories. Things are happening in the north of this continent, doctor. The poison wastes are just the... the byproduct, the side effect of something more profound and sinister. Something that is almost certainly highly dangerous - probably even lethal to terrestrial life as we know it.”

“And you know,” I said carefully, “that this is the area where EON-1 is located?”

He stepped over to a drinks cabinet and opened the ornate glass front. “I'm a benevolent uncle to most of what remains of the species, doctor. I know a little bit of everything. I know enough, for example, to be more interested in seeing out my life with a glass of brandy in one hand than in solving possibly unsolvable mysteries that may not even hold the secrets to our survival. Speaking of which, would you care for a drink, doctor? Professor?”

I shook my head.

Suzette held out a hand. “Whisky. Whatever you've got. Neat, please.”

“You'll excuse me if I choose to drink alone, ladies and gentlemen,” Kirkham said, gesturing to his mask. “I prefer to share my scars only with myself.”

“Anyway,” I said, “I see no reason that EON-1's location, especially approaching from the east, should be any more hostile than the Frozen North. Suzette- Professor, I hope that you can dedicate at least some time to studying this head with what resources you have, while we are gone.”

She regarded me with aloof curiosity. “I'm sure the gunnery sergeants that constitute my faculty will be intrigued. Are you sure you wouldn't rather drop it off at the Imperial Society on your way north?”

“I don't feel,” EON-4 said, “that we should risk this prize any more than we already are. I'm still not convinced we should pursue EON-1. A bird in the hand, as they say.”

Suzette smiled at me. “Or maybe you're worried that the Society will snatch the prize out of the clutches of the Select Committee? That you might never see your pretty robot head again?”

“I hope you won't take her apart,” I said. “At least not more than you're absolutely certain you can put her back together again. Try talking to her at first. I think there may be a strange kind of consistency to what she says.”

I looked at the Iron Queen then, expecting her to interject. She said nothing.

“Don't worry,” Suzette told me. “I'll look after your strange little toy.”

I stepped out into Fortress City. Already the sky was darkening, black smoke from myriad chimneys coiling up around the blood red sunset. People walked past in small groups, their shoes clicking harshly on the cobbled street.

As I crossed a small, secluded bridge, a voice spoke from nearby. “Gleve? Dr Peregrine Gleve?”

“Yes?” I said, a little surprised.

A man in a long coat stood watching me. He chuckled. “That's something I like to see. Not so common any more. Na├»ve honesty.”

He lifted his hand, and aimed a long-barrelled revolver at my head.


Next week: Who's this? How will Peregrine escape staring down the barrel of yet another gun? Who is it in Fortress City that wants him dead?! Check back in a week's time for the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders!


Futher Adventures in Interplanetary Snow

Image source with more information
Credit: ASA/JPL-Caltech/
University of Arizona/
Texas A&M University

Phoenix is still busy scraping away at Mars, despite dropping solar power as the nights close in. I meant to mention this a couple of weeks back, but Phoenix also recently detected falling snow - albeit falling snow that sublimed away in the thin atmosphere before reaching the ground.

Speaking of snow, Cassini is performing its most daring dive-bomb of the icy geysers of Enceladus today, passing within the did-somebody-move-the-decimal-place distance of 25km of the surface. For comparison, Enceladus is about 500km in diameter, and 237,000km from Saturn.  This is probably the closest Cassini has been to any world since it was launched from the Earth.  Read more here (no, I don't know why they're talking about baseball).


True Facts

This has been a public service announcement.

(Art by Tetsuya Nomura/Square-Enix)


Snowball Over Clouds

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

Here's another vertigo-inducing view of one of Saturn's moons - this time Encedalus, its youthful face hovering over the enormous clouds of its parent world.


Dizzying Mimas

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

This natural colour Cassini image of Mimas and Saturn whispers something of the mind-blowing scales we're actually looking at. And it's also rather pretty.

Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders: Part 16

Previously: “Our foray into the Twisted Forests had ended with the capture of EON-5's raving head. Now we had a choice: head north to try and reach EON-1, or return to Fortress City to take stock.”

Part 16: The Right Decision

Sigrid eyed the forest dwellers with one hand on her rifle sling. “I still don't trust these guys.”

“Good,” I said. “Don't trust anyone.”

Ahead, the forest was thinning out - warped, occasionally writhing foliage giving way to a spacious grove where the trees seemed to shrink away from the shrivelled flesh of a huge and grotesque toadstool. Thousands of spindly spores descended from above, glittering ethereally in the early morning light. I crouched down to tie a scarf over my mouth and nose. Sigrid did the same.

“Do we know what it does?” she asked.

I pushed aside a branch and brought my small, folding telescope to one eye. “Obviously,” I said, “it twists the Twisted Forests.”

Sigrid peered through her rifle sight. “It's terrifying, isn't it?” she said calmly.

“Yes,” I answered.

If a translucent lobster and a mass-production factory had a child, it might look like this - like the Sky Spider facility that EON-3 had apparently interfaced with. It sprouted up from the ground as if it had grown there - which it might well have done for all we knew - looming over us like a bio-mechanical mountain. At first glance you might think that it swayed in the wind, but comparing its movements to the trees below it was clear that it moved with its own slow, lumbering strength, scattering glowing spores and transparent eggs across the forest canopy. Thick veins coiled down to the ground from between its armour plates, throbbing as they sucked up some fluid from the ground, or injected it into the soil.

“I think I'd go pretty crazy if I had to look into that thing's mind,” Sigrid said.

I watched the skittering shapes that clambered up and down the thing, clutching tiny, limp forms in their pincers. “Tell me about it.”

“Have we made the right choice?” she went on.

“I think so,” I said. “We're not even sure what we've found out at this point. Risking it, when we're not sure how valuable it may be seems foolhardy.”

“Back to Fortress City then,” she said, lowering her rifle. “I have family there, you know?”

I folded up my telescope. “Really? That sounds peculiar somehow. Usually it seems that everybody has wound up dead one way or another.”

She pulled down her scarf and smiled cruelly. “Oh, plenty of them are dead too, but I found a few still clinging to life after I came back from the front. To be honest, it's looking at their lives in Fortress City that makes me so keen to get out beyond the bars of the cage.”

“You're not sorry to go back, though?”

She laughed. “Are you kidding? The grass is always greener. Factory manufacture slop three times a day is always better than never knowing when you'll next get a chance to eat.”

I pointed at the Sky Spider... thing. “Have you seen enough?”

“Me? I don't know what I'm even looking at, doc, so if you're good to go, so am I.”

We turned from the structure and back into the gloom of the woods. Forest dwellers watched us with keen curiosity.

“Aren't you worried,” Sigrid pressed me, “about Unity City? I mean, taking such a big detour. We might even end up back here.”

“Not quite,” I said. “I'm hoping to take us around Unity City in the opposite direction. Up the coast and then west, avoiding the Poison Wastes as much as we can.” I tugged my scarf down. “I question the effectiveness of our protection from noxious vapours.”

Sigrid looked puzzled. “So we're, what, rowing?”

“Not quite. I'm the last surviving member of the Select Committee.”

“I don't know what that is.”

“Good. All you need to know is that it's a position that comes with a number of significant perquisites - in addition to considerable distrust and back-stabbing. A few years ago, I commandeered an ironclad steamship, and to my knowledge it's the last one in working order. It should still be docked at Portensea after I made the crossing from Ridgeford.”

Sigrid twisted her mouth. “I get sea sick.”

“It's a short journey, I promise. And for all we know, it might not even be necessary. I'm certain the Iron Queen is capable of rational thought and communication. She's shown a strong sense of purpose, and with a little time I think we might be able to unravel just what it is that she knows.”

Sigrid glanced back at the huge structure that was busy reforming the Twisted Forests into something new. “I'm not sure we really have more than 'a little time', doc.”

“Perhaps. But we could at least leave the Iron Queen with people who could focus on studying her, while we leave in search of other options.”

“Back to Fortress City then,” Sigrid repeated.

I nodded, feeling a vague sense of relief at the idea of returning to what passed for civilisation, confident that I had made the right decision. I had no idea that I had far more dangerous enemies in Fortress City than anywhere else in the world...


Next week: A return to Fortress City, and the revelation of strange new dangers! Check back in a week's time for the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders!


What now?

Well, the Demakes competition is over. Thanks to the people who voted for my unfinished game. :-P

During the voting period, I was reluctant to mention publicly just how little fun I had finishing the demo for Freefall Brass in time for the deadline - in particular, most of the plot and writing was the product of my last few hours of stressful slaving over the keyboard.

If I do keep working on Freefall Brass, I'll probably be giving the whole thing a bit of an overhaul. My first brush at a jazzed-up combat screen appears above. Obviously, it doesn't gel very well with the rest of the game, so that'd need sprucing up too.

The plot, as it stands, would also need a thorough rethink. I did my best with the time I had, but my chief concern was coming up with an interesting beginning, and I don't think I came up with something that would provide lasting interest. At least, not lasting interest to me and I'm the guy who'd have to work on it.

In any case, I'm planning on entering a short IF game in the mooted TIGSource Halloween competition, and then I'm going to focus on a project entirely of my own devising. That means I'm giving myself about a couple of weeks to work on Freefall Brass. On the one hand, I look at how much work I've done on it so far, and I think it'd be a shame to not at least stick some interesting prose into the scaffold I've made. And on the other hand I look at the amount of work left until I'd be happy with it, and I think I'd much rather be doing something else...


And finally...

You can now download parts 1 to 15 of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders as a PDF from here.

I've decided to forego any kind of in-depth recap, since the post I made on the cast serves that function pretty well. And with that, services shall resume as usual. At least, until part 30...


IFComp 2008

The games for the annual Interactive Fiction Competition are now available for download - a frenzied hubbub of text-based games all clammering for your attention.

Meanwhile, voting for the TIGSource Demakes Competition ends on Thursday Saturday, so after that I may have some posts on my personal picks, as well as some hand-wringing about whatever is to be done with Freefall Brass.