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!