Let's Get it Done!

Right, time to pull my finger out, so to speak, and finish this fucker. It's not a big game at all, probably half the sections are pretty much complete. A few days of hard work should be enough to finish it off. And then we get to testing...


"Twenty primary feathers and the blue dome of the sky"

The idea of a genre of fiction called 'fantasy' has always appealed to me. It seems to suggest a kind of fiction with little or no basis in reality, where you can invent whatever worlds you want to, populate them with the strangest creatures you can conceive of and throw all the rules of the real world out of the window.

And yet the fantasy section of every bookshop is merely full of books about the same old dragons and knights - backwards-looking books that are obsessed with outdated notions of chivalry and social status. Well, bookshops be damned. After waiting for what seemed like forever for it to come out in paperback, I ordered the third in Steph Swainston's Fourlands novels - The Modern World - from Amazon, and, once again, I'm faced with the stark narrative power that comes from placing realistic characters in highly imaginative situations.

The Modern World opens with our dazzling anti-hero Jant - part of the Emperor's Circle of immortal paragons and the only man who can fly - in his strangest situation yet. That is: completely clean of drugs and in good health - bar a few post-traumatic flashbacks to the time he was eviscerated by giant insects. It doesn't last, of course. A new plan to rid the Fourlands of its pesky six legged monsters is being put into action, and Lightning, the Circle's archer and Jant's closest friend in every way except name, has lost touch with his teenage daughter in the grimy city where Jant first got hooked on his drug of choice.

The Modern World capitalises on the careful characterisation of the previous two books to deliver some shattering turns of plot and emotion. Giddy flights of imagination are fleshed out with down-to-earth realism; snappy dialogue provides keen observations on both the fantastic and the mundane. People we're familiar with from the first two books are shown in surprising new lights. Rayne, the Circle's doctor, is an unexpected new focus: immortalised in her old age, mild-mannered and open-minded, dedicated to advancing the cause of medicine even as other doctors dedicate themselves to stealing her place in the Circle.

Events build up to a catastrophic climax, as you'd expect. But there's still a fair few chapters left, after things have wound down to a much more serene pace. At first I thought this was the result of an authorial miscalculation, a narrative misstep. But these last chapters calmly deliver probably the most profound and heartbreaking scenes so far in the series - in the process upending one of the Fourlands' most obvious assumptions, and bringing tears to my eyes.

I've enjoyed all three of Swainston's Fourlands books so far. If more people paid attention to them, they could herald a more sophisticated, self-aware and imaginative form of fantasy. These are books that flirt with our nostalgia for bygone eras and muse about when to let go. These are books that cast the human condition in a strange new light against surreal new backdrops. And if that doesn't appeal to you, these are also books where a winged junkie dukes it out with man-sized carnivorous bugs.


The Turbulent North

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

Jupiter may have a much sharper contrast to its colourful clouds, but I have a real soft spot for Saturn's pastel hues, as displayed rather nicely in this Cassini image.

Just visible towards the top, the last vestiges of Saturn's blue north. It'd be interesting to see if the south pole acquires a similar tone when it enters winter...


Force of Habit

Part 30. My commitment to churning out this stuff amazes even me. I think I've just got into the habit of spending Sunday evening writing it.

I'll try and remember to come up with another recap/compendium before the next chapter.

Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders: Part 30

Previously: “Major Thurlow was dead, killed by EON-4, who was in turn killed by my own hand. I was forced to head north by foot, towards EON-1 and the secret that EON-4 had tried to hide through murder. It was a journey that would take me straight into the Poison Wastes.”

Part 30: Skyscrapers

The red sun was sinking into the horizon, shining through the black skeletons of unfinished towers. Long-necked cranes stood guard over deserted scaffolds. Every construction worker in the city had probably been conscripted. Most of the skyscrapers of Kingchester - the tallest intended to reach sixty storeys - were unlikely to ever be finished.

Any lingering fear of heights I might have held had evaporated by now, by the end of my second week interred in a room on one of the highest floors of the Gilbert Spire. That said, I still had difficulty sleeping through the constant drone of airships docking with the rooftop fuel station, biplanes buzzing about them like frightened watchdogs. Something was happening, and no-one would tell me what.


Another coughing fit stopped me in my tracks. I could taste blood. Around me nothing but thick, roiling mists. Exactly why my time in Gilbert Spire resurfaced in moments like this, I never knew. I suppose that it was the only time I was ever called upon to justify myself - my actions in the Select Committee - and looking back I thought that I could have done a much better job.


I sat in my usual seat on one side of the long, mahogany table. The door opened and a portly man in army dress uniform barged in.

“General Cass,” I said. “At last. I've been answering the same questions from each of your subordinates in turn, so seeing you appear yourself makes me feel like I've made some progress.”

He sat down directly opposite me, steepled his fingers in that way he did when addressing someone he was scared might be smarter than him. “Doctor Gleve. It's been quite some time since we last met, hasn't it?”

“Yes,” I began, carefully, “the Minister for Science introduced us. In fact, I'm surprised I haven't seen her yet.”

He met my eye defiantly. “Parliament has been dissolved.”

“I see.”

“Now is the time for action. Politics have failed us, as you know more than most.”

I decided to let that statement hang in the air.

“You mentioned being repeatedly asked the same questions,” he said. “Well, I'm sorry to disappoint, but I'm not about to buck the trend. I am, however, going to stick to only those questions most important to our immediate aims.”

Again, I said nothing.

“What happened to the other members of the Select Committee?”

I answered without missing a beat. “They're dead.”

“How did they die?”

“Prolonged exposure to an environment hostile to human life.”

He smiled and spread his hands. “And yet, here you are.”

“As we anticipated, the Sky Spiders showed utter indifference to our lives. They made no move to harm us, but as our equipment failed, they made no attempt to help us either. At least, not until I was the last one alive and my pressure suit began to leak. At that point they moved to aid me, I believe only in order to protect the message they had given me.”

“That message being?”

“That they won't tolerate attempted interference of any form, but, if we leave them alone, they won't harm us intentionally.”

“Intentionally,” General Cass repeated.

“Yes. For example, responding to whatever gambit you seem to be mobilising at the moment. You don't stand a chance against them, General. We're as far behind the Sky Spiders as the other species of this world are behind us.”

He kept his voice controlled. “That's what you think is it? A lot has happened while you were away. We've observed these creatures and their automata, reverse engineered some of the underlying principles. The Viscount of Circhester has designed war machines the likes of which the world has never seen before. A million soldiers are going to march on Unity City. Alongside them: tanks, aeroplanes, machine men, air fortresses, golems born of electricity, enough artillery to level a city in a day...”

“I'm sure that chimpanzees feel just as powerful when they pick up sticks and stones.”

He laughed humourlessly. “We're moving you to Ridgeford, doctor. We want to keep you safe, naturally.”

“And out of the way.”

“Given the circumstances, can you blame us for distrusting you?”


I fell to my hands and knees, my fingers sinking into soil that burned to the touch. Instinctively, gasping for air, I pulled down my scarf. Pink froth bubbled up from my lungs. I spat. I couldn't think straight, could barely feel my surroundings. This wasn't, I realised with a sudden shock, that bad a way to die.


Next week: Surely, after all this time, this has to be it for Peregrine! Get your black armbands ready, and check back in a week's time for the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders!


Friday Lando and Nien Blogging

Remember kids: move as close as you can, and engage those Star Destroyers at point blank range.


Fifth Dimensional Dentist

This warmed the cockles of my heart. Or maybe it unsettled me with its wryly humorous depiction of psychedelic events spilling out into a gritty futuristic world. Figure out which by clicking the link.


I'll sleep a little easier tonight knowing that the world's most powerful nuclear state is no longer led by a monstrous fuckwit.

Whether the new guy will actually live up to his luminous promise remains to be seen.

Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders: Part 29

Previously: “We sought the EON units for their knowledge of the Sky Spiders - five of us, though three became separated: EON-4, the one EON unit to fail in its mission; Major Thurlow a brave and dashing soldier; and me, a scientist from the Imperial Society and a member of the Select Committee. At the edge of the Poison Wastes, EON-4 suddenly killed Thurlow, and it seemed that I was next.”

Part 29: The Happy Cat

The wind blew from the north, bearing acrid dust that stung my lungs and eyes. I blinked hard at EON-4 as he stood on the roof of a corroded shack above me, rifle stock pressed into his shoulder.

I let my revolver fall from my hand. It landed in the dust by Major Thurlow's body.

EON-4's single round eye clicked and whirred as he sighted down the barrel of his rifle at me. “We share a mutual curiosity, don't we doctor?”

I nodded. “Certainly.”

“You know what they say about the cat, don't you?”

“That he died happy.”

A slight rotation of his cylindrical head, as if laughing to one side. “Then let's trade. One question of yours, for each one of mine. Honestly answered.”

I looked down at the Major, crouched down to close his eyes. “I'll start then,” I said, straightening up. “A small one. What is this place? How did you already have it rigged with explosives?”

“An outpost assembled by Academy for Machine Intelligence automata. Something they cooked up after the battle for Unity City, when manpower was at a premium. My turn: are the other members of the Select Committee really dead, as you reported?”

“No. They were all alive the last time I saw them. You were sent to interface with a Sky Spider analytical engine. Did you really fail - as you reported?”

He spoke almost with pride. “Of the five of us, identical in manufacture, it would be peculiar if all succeeded but one, wouldn't it? I've touched the mind of the Sky Spiders, doctor. Do you know what they want?”

“I know what, but I don't understand why. Have you been in contact with any of the other EON units?”

“With EON-1. And EON-5, but only since we encountered her as the Iron Queen. If you could stop the Sky Spiders, doctor, would you?”

I shrugged. “I honestly don't know. Now tell me, EON-4, after all this time, why try and kill us now? What would we have found if we'd reached EON-1?”

EON-4 jumped down from the roof, landing rigidly on the dry ground with knees that bent mechanically. “I'll answer that if you'll answer this: which other Select Committee members came back?”

“Just me.”

“The game only works if you play honestly.”

“I'm telling the truth. They didn't want to leave. Sometimes I wish I hadn't left myself.”

“Unfortunately, I can't afford to believe you. Since we didn't complete our little trade, and I can't guarantee that you'll die happy, I'm going to leave you here, doctor. If you gather supplies from these buildings and head directly south, you may reach safety.”

EON-4 moved towards the monoplane, his rifle still trained on me.

“And you're going to find Lady Una and Sigrid Phenice,” I said. “To kill them too.”

“To divert them. Peacefully if I can.”

“But with bullets if you have to.”

“Needs must. Step back from the aeroplane. Far back.”

I complied, walking backwards over cracked earth until EON-4 lowered his rifle and climbed into the cockpit. As the plane's engine choked to life, the propeller threw up dust in great fits.

Naturally, when I'd crouched over Thurlow, I'd palmed his revolver. As EON-4 started to take off, I pulled it from the back of my belt and shot him through the head. No mean feat firing at a moving target a hundred paces away. More luck than skill, I'm sure.

EON-4's brain exploded into a cloud of tiny, disintegrating cogs. Inert gases puffed out from broken valves deep in his shattered, featureless face. The monoplane still accelerated forward, veering wildly to one side. When the wingtip touched the ground, the whole thing cartwheeled over, flying into pieces under the stress.

As the last piece of metal clattered to the ground, I slipped Thurlow's revolver into my shoulder holster. Burying him - either of them, seemed a pointless waste of energy. Poison carried on the wind. I was alone. My only living companions were far to the north, deeper into the toxic miasma.

I must have been dazed, or reckless, or both. I wrapped my scarf tightly over my mouth and nose, gathered what bottled water I could find in the encampment, and started to trek north, towards pollution, death and the Sky Spiders.


Next week: Alone in the Poison Wastes, inhaling alien toxins - the perfect time to think and recollect. Peregrine is haunted by surprising recollections of his past as he trudges straight up to death's door, in the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders!


Further Hints and Portents

Take the Fair Face of Woman, and Gently Suspending, With Butterflies, Flowers, and Jewels Attending, Thus Your Fairy is Made of Most Beautiful Things, a painting by Sophie Anderson around about the turn of the century before last. I bet she spent as long coming up with the title as creating the image.

Which is just my way of saying that I'm going to focus on my competition game this week. I want to start beta testing in February.

And no, you still don't know what it's about. Because it's not about fairies.

Some days just constitute a complete failure to use my spare time to get stuff done. Today was one of those days.

It's 1am and I am going to bed.


If you're interested in what I have to say about game design, writing, Dada and Chrono Trigger, you might like to read this interview with me over at Gnome's Lair.

Don't all rush at once. o_O


DVD Review: Resident Evil Degeneration

Well, this turned out pretty much as I expected it to. Resident Evil Degeneration is the canonical animated feature by Capcom, the makers of the Resident Evil video games themselves - an Advent Children style attempt to expand on the directorial skills that they've acquired while crafting cinematics for their games. Yep, Degeneration is basically a ninety minute Resident Evil cut-scene. I'm sure some of you have left the building already.

Rather bravely, Degeneration makes no bones about being completely for the fans. Those of us familiar with the series don't need to hear any exposition about the nature of the G and T viruses, and those unfamiliar are unlikely to particularly enjoy being subjected to it. Similarly, there's no attempt to rehash the background behind Leon and Claire's friendship, their experiences in Raccoon City during Resident Evil 2 (though there's a nice little flashback), or their adventures since. It's difficult to tell just how obscure this makes things for the uninitiated, but you can't fault the decision. The decision to still throw in a few cringe-worthy bits of emotional exposition from two new characters: tough girl Angela and Sherry Birkin substitute Rani, is a little more difficult to sympathise with.

If I ask myself what I like most about the Resident Evil games, it's their atmosphere: tense, desolate, eerie. But this atmosphere is cultivated primarily through participation - ruined environments that you explore yourself, spine-tingling vistas that you take in at your own pace, dark doorways that you enter only when you've plucked up enough courage. Necessarily, this aspect is drastically reduced in Degeneration, and instead we're left with all the other aspects of Resident Evil: the haphazard plotting, the impressive but slightly imperfect action sequences, the melodramatic moments of character.

Not that any of that is too disagreeable, or at all unexpected. If you're already engaged with this world, you'll be used to it, and consider it more than outweighed by the chance to see these strong yet paper-thin characters (who we've struggled alongside through such ordeals) battling against weird, inconsistent conspiracies once again. It's also nice that there's some attempt at creating stylish character designs beyond just making them look 'realistic' - in particular I liked the fat, rubbery senator and the nicely elfin depiction of Claire. The strangely flat-faced Leon and strong-jawed Angela, though, might be said to dip a toe or two into the uncanny valley.

Naturally, this release is tied into the upcoming arrival of Resident Evil 5. On the one hand, I think this works quite well. At first glance you might think that the idea of Leon and Claire stumbling into yet another zombie outbreak seems a bit much, but this is our introduction to a world where the collapse of Umbrella has made monster-making viruses the weapon du jour for terrorists around the world. Having two of the franchise's most popular characters experience such an incident first hand provides a nice window into this alternate history.

But on the other hand, the film inevitably leads up to an 'it's not all over yet, folks!' ending that falls rather flat. Merely referencing something not obviously sinister that will appear in RE5 is no kind of teaser or cliffhanger, and anyone who's not yet seen the trailers for the new game will probably be completely baffled.

As a fan of the Resident Evil series of games, I'm glad to own this movie, and I'll probably wind up watching it more times than are healthy. But if I ask myself honestly why any non-fan would be interested in this, I can't come up with anything. While a new game has the space to flesh out backstory and character history at a leisurely pace, a ninety minute film can only avoid it altogether or try and cram it down your throat by the fistful. Degeneration makes the right choice in that regard, but it means that if you're not sure if this movie is for you, it probably isn't.


That Planet - You Know Which One

Uranus is a fine example of a world, with interesting moons and mysterious, pitch black rings (the above image is false colour). It was, I'm sure you'll recall, discovered by the same fellow that discovered Enceladus - our favourite geologically active snowball. Dear William Herschel wanted to call it 'George III' after the man who was then king. The French, not too fond of how George III defeated Napoleon, called it simply, 'Herschel'.

All I really want to say is, if you can read this Planetary Society blog post on the pronunciation of Uranus without so much as chuckling, well, you're a much better person than me.


Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders: Part 28

Previously: “Separated from our friends, EON-4, Major Thurlow and I needed to find a way to get to EON-1. To that end we commandeered an experimental monoplane and embarked on a flight across the country.”

Part 28: Percussion

We landed somewhere north of Unity City and south of the Poison Wastes - a small, rural military encampment of prefabricated buildings and a flagpole flying a faded rag. As the Major and I jumped down from the observer's seat, EON-4 singled out one squat shack in particular.

“The mess,” he said. “There may be some rations or clean water. I wouldn't recommend drinking any groundwater.”

The ground beneath our feet was dry and cracked, dotted with yellow clumps of sickly grass. What trees we could see through the dust that carried on the wind were pale and leafless. Thurlow pressed his sleeve across his mouth and nose, and I followed suit.

He gestured towards the mess. “Let's not spend longer in the open air than we have to.”

“It's probably just dust,” I said. “It's a westerly wind.”

“All the same, let's not hang around to find out.”

The door to the building opened with ease, though Thurlow braced his shoulder against it. We stepped inside to find a sparse and clean canteen, chairs tucked neatly under their tables, bright daylight still finding its way in through the dust-caked windows.

“What is this place?” Thurlow said. “I guess towards the end they were building places to house conscripts that were never going to turn up.”

He clambered over a counter top to get to the cupboards, leaving muddy bootprints across the spotless surface. I looked around and sat down at one of the tables, enjoying the feeling of being on solid ground for the first time in hours.

“Tinned food,” Thurlow muttered. “Not too old by the looks of it, either, and I bet it would have kept for the full five years anyway. I wonder what lunatic kept stocking this place after the end of the world.”

He sawed open two tins of fruit with his combat knife and climbed back over the counter to sit opposite me. I sighed.

He grinned. “You're thinking of Her Ladyship, of course.”

“We have reached the conclusion that she thinks we're dead.”

“Take my word for it: on the many occasions that I've turned out to still be alive, no-one's ever held it against me. Well, now that I think about it, I should say no-one that I actually liked.”

I picked out a slice of pear and put it into my mouth. Thurlow did the same. We both spat our mouthfuls back into the tin.

“So,” Thurlow said, “I suppose we'll just have to starve.”

We sat in silence for a moment. Thurlow added, “You know, I really don't understand this place.”

“What about it?”

“What exactly we were doing building huts in the middle of nowhere while creatures from the stars disassembled our civilisation.”

I shrugged. “It sounds about as good a reaction as any other we had.”

“But who built it? How did they find navvies but not soldiers? And-” He stopped talking abruptly and stood up. “And I'm wondering why there are wires running along the underside of that counter. Up! Out!”

The Major sprinted out through the door like he expected the place to explode. Having reached the same conclusion, I was out the door only moments after him.

A rifle shot battered my ear drums and Thurlow dropped to the dirt with a yell of pain.

Standing on the roof of a nearby shack, EON-4 worked the bolt of his rifle. It was a reprieve of a fraction of a second, and I took it - diving under the wing of the monoplane and into cover.

Thurlow screamed. He was still alive and still in open ground.

“That's the thing about the Poison Wastes,” EON-4 said, his voice calm and booming. “Electrical wiring lasts a few days at best - and it's never as reliable as clockwork and valves in the first place. Trying to use explosives in this environment was my first mistake.”

My revolver was in my hand. I drew back the hammer.

“Doctor,” EON-4 continued. “You'll notice that I've engaged you in conversation - and also that I've left the Major alive. I have no interest in killing you. Please consider this to be, at worst, an aggressive negotiation.”

Thurlow clutched his shoulder, blood spurting out between his fingers. He spoke through clenched teeth. “You think we're stupid? If your damn fuses hadn't failed we'd be in pieces right now.”

Another rifle shot. The bullet struck the dead, dry ground next to the Major's head, throwing up a puff of yellow dust. “Nevertheless,” EON-4 said. “You can die quite slowly if the doctor chooses to continue cowering out of sight.”

Thurlow laughed, his dashing smile shining through the grimace of pain that contorted his face. “That's what you think, is it?”

Within the space of a second Thurlow had pulled a revolver from his belt and taken aim. With the third crack of a rifle, EON-4 had shot him clean through the head.

“I'm sorry doctor,” EON-4 called out, “but I'm a philosophy engine, not a war machine. I had to act in self defence. And don't let my vulnerability move you to a similar act of futility. I'm fully versed in the philosophy of marksmanship. Are you still there, doctor? You've gone very quiet...”

I rolled out from under the aeroplane on the opposite side. EON-4 made a stark silhouette against the dust-clouded sky - pointing his rifle quite a few degrees in the wrong direction. I aimed my revolver at the centre of his body and squeezed the trigger. The hammer released with a limp click.

It seemed my trusty revolver had received one or two dunkings too many.

“Well,” EON-4 said, seeming about as smug as you can with a featureless metal cylinder for a head, “this is an interesting predicament. I seem to have you at gunpoint, doctor. And there are a lot of interesting questions I've always wanted to ask a member of the Select Committee. The kind unlikely to be answered in more sanguine circumstances.”


Next week: Oh dear! What on Earth is going on now? Why does EON-4 suddenly seem to want everyone dead? Check back in a week's time for the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders!


Friday Superhero Blogging

There is something about Oracle that makes her my favourite superhero.


Four Years Later...

Image source with larger version
Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Here's something I can't believe I missed: a gorgeous mosaic image of Saturn as it appears four years into Cassini's mission and approaching equinox. Several moons are visible, most obviously the massive, orange-brown Titan in the lower left of the image.

Just to highlight how much Saturn changes over its orbit (and we've seen only four years of a thirty year circuit around the sun), here's a similar image from soon after Cassini arrived at the ringed planet:

Image source with larger version
Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute


I just finished Neil Gaiman's Stardust. Right at the end, a character turns up called Lady Una. I was rather surprised.


Fokker E.V

According to Wikipedia:
The Fokker E.V was a German parasol-monoplane fighter aircraft designed by Reinhold Platz and built by Fokker-Flugzeugwerke. It entered service with the Luftstreitkräfte in the last months of the First World War. Dubbed the Flying Razor by Allied pilots, it had the distinction of scoring the last aerial victory of the war. After several fatal accidents due to wing failures, the aircraft was modified and redesignated Fokker D.VIII.

Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders: Part 27

Previously: “Separated from our friends, EON-4, Major Thurlow and I needed to find a way to get to EON-1. One particular mode of rapid transport suggested itself.”

Part 27: Aerodrome

We stood in the long afternoon shadows of Smogton's modernistic towers. The airstrip was now long overgrown, the plaster of its blocky buildings cracked and stained, their roofs bending inwards under the weight of stagnant pools of rainwater.

 The ground and air reverberated with the thunder of distant alien machinery.

 “Every picture tells a story,” Major Thurlow said. “That heap of bones over there? Latterly a barricade of dead horses. And that automobile is riddled with holes and pointed straight at the exit. Looks like like the rank and file had a disagreement with the poor fellows in charge.”

 I looked around at the various wings and fuselages rusting into the ground. “I don't see any aeroplanes in one piece, let alone in a state to carry us into the sky.”

 Thurlow stroked his thin moustache. “They were probably stripping planes for parts. The ones they repaired flew straight to Unity City, and never came back.”

 EON-4 walked ahead of us. “And yet, I believe there may have been one plane that they would not have committed to this engagement. In part due to its perceived value to the conflict in the future, and in part due to its unreliability under the stresses of combat.”

 The Major and I watched as EON-4 approached a corrugated iron hangar and lifted the shutter. Behind it, in remarkably good condition was a sleek, two-seater monoplane.

 EON-4 looked back at us with his single eye. “The Falcon F.VI.”

 I folded my arms nervously. “Wait, I've heard of that one. Wasn't that the new prototype where the wing kept coming off?”

 “Only when performing high acceleration manoeuvres. It should be perfectly safe as a passenger aircraft.”

 “Wait,” Thurlow said, “the what kept coming off?”

 EON-4 laid a hand on a group of faintly rusted red barrels. “The F.VI used a unique high-performance petroleum blend unsuitable for any other engine. We just need to fill the tanks and taxi out onto the landing strip.”

 I touched the single wing, experimentally. It was raised up over the fuselage to afford the pilot and observer a commanding view of the ground below. “Perhaps there are safer ways to get around? We could always focus on returning to Fortress City. If the others succeed we'll meet up with them soon enough.”

 EON-4 clambered up to look in on the pilot's seat. “With the utmost respect doctor, that's a mildly cowardly sentiment. We have the capacity to help our comrades, and I believe we should take it. I will certainly be leaving in this aeroplane, whether either of you accompany me or not.”

 I raised my chin, a little peeved. “Well, if you put it like that. At least I have a pretty good idea of how I'll go if I die over the next few hours.”

 “Burning to death in the wreckage of a crashed plane,” Thurlow added helpfully, under his breath.

 EON-4 reached into the cockpit to flip some switches. The monoplane choked and juddered. “Would you give the propeller a hand, Major? And then stand clear of it.”

 Thurlow obliged, and the engine shook throatily to life, the propeller spinning into a whirling blur.

 “The tanks are full,” EON-4 explained. “There should be room for two in the observer's seat.”

 We found a pair of goggles each on a table of maps and toolboxes, and then Thurlow climbed into the seat in the front of the plane and helped me to squeeze in next to him. EON-4 released the wheel brakes and the plane began to roll forwards. The wings and fuselage creaked uneasily as he tested the ailerons and rudder, and then we were turning onto the long stretch of unkempt weeds that constituted the landing strip.

 Thurlow shouted to me over the roar of the engine. “I hope he knows what he's doing!”

 On each of the five bounces it took to get airborne, I seriously wondered the same thing myself, but then we were in the sky, suspended only by the monoplane's lethally unreliable wing. I suddenly wished that I had learned more about heavier-than-air flight.

 “Look!” Thurlow exclaimed. “What are they doing?”

 I followed his pointed finger into the heart of Smogton. It was a slightly different view from high above, but I could still make out the familiar streets of red-brick houses, the chimneys of long disused coal-burning factories, the more regal and modern faces of the Academy for Machine Intelligence and my erstwhile home, the Imperial Society of Science - all these things making up the city of Smogton. And the city of Smogton curving in on itself, sinking down in a reluctant hemisphere of broken concrete and tumbling brick; pushed down by the pulsing white light of a black machine that stood over the city like a demonic, long-fingered hand.

 Thurlow screamed at me. “That was a city of centuries of work, home to hundreds of thousands. Now look at it. Whatever gods there may be that care the slightest about the human race, I hope they curse these creatures to Eternity.”

 It seemed a hopelessly primitive sentiment to me, but I suppose it was all we really had. EON-4 banked to the left, and Smogton Bridge slipped across the face of the world towards us, still carrying its pilgrimage of strange automata, giant machines that now seemed small and insignificant compared to the enormous construction that was destroying Smogton itself.

 As we passed high above them, each of the Sky Spider machines turned its brightly glowing head up to look at us, then looked back down, unconcerned.

 “We can't stop them,” I said. “You know that, don't you Major?”

 But my voice was drowned out by the engine, and carried away by the freezing wind.


Next week: Our heroes close in on EON-1, and the biggest surprise yet! Check back in a week's time for the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders!


Long Live Martian Robots

Image source with larger version.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Today marks the fifth Earthly anniversary of the NASA Mars Rovers' Martian adventure. Not bad for robots with a life expectancy of three months. Spirit touched down 3rd January 2004, Opportunity 21 days later.


New Year's Resolutions

These are all pretty obvious:

1. Finish Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders.

2. Finish my EnvComp game in time for the deadline.

3. Finish at least one other game.

4. Read more.

5. Groom my cat every day.

I think it is always important to aim low. (Except when fighting zombies.)