Thursday Comic

Batman: Hush (Volume 1) - Jeph Loeb, Jim Lee et al.

Okay, deep breath. At the start of Hush, Batman is rescuing a Harry Potter look-alike who's been abducted by Killer Croc - only for Catwoman to swoop in and steel the ransom, under the orders (and noxious influence) of Poison Ivy. Pursuing her across the rooftops of Gotham, Batman's rope is mysteriously cut, and he lands head first in the appropriately named Crime Alley. Fortunately, Oracle is paying attention, and she's able to get Huntress (above) to rescue him from the local thugs and stick his broken body into the Batmobile. And inhale.

You might well expect a book to involve some kind of fast-paced opening - introducing the characters and setting up the conflicts and so forth. Hush, however, starts the way it means to go on. Namely by flitting around like a hummingbird and cramming in loads of well-known characters. The dialogue is pretty much exactly what you'd expect from a comic book if you'd never read one before and had low expectations, the motivations are paper-thin, and the story provides no real mystery or insight.

Perhaps it's unfair to judge, though. DC Comics' probable aim in publishing this book was also the reason that I bought it - to see acclaimed artist Jim Lee draw many of Gotham City's most popular characters within the confines of one glossy paperback. To that end, Loeb's writing definitely serves its purpose. Here a stern Batman punches people. There a sultry Catwoman performs acrobatics. And here Superman turns up and pushes out his lantern jaw. If all you want is to own a Batman book full of pretty pictures, then this is a very good bet, and that's certainly the chief reason that I'll probably pick up Volume 2.

Although, that's maybe not the only reason I'll buy it. Perhaps this underpins the whole reason why I thought this book was so shallow, but I liked the bit with Huntress, and I want to see where her chilly relationship with Batman and Oracle goes in the rest of the story. Is that just because Huntress is a main character in Birds of Prey - one of the few superhero comics other than this that I've read? If I was more entangled in the superhero monopoly that has a stranglehold over western comics, would all the other characters seem deeper to me through familiarity? I'm not inclined to think so.

I think that maybe the thing that stands out about Huntress' little sequence is that it's one of the few parts of the book with recognisably human elements to it. The tension doesn't stem from whether or not she can beat up half a dozen reprobates - of course she can - the real drama in this sequence is about how Huntress doesn't fit in with the other darkly costumed vigilantes of Gotham City, and whether she's even going to get credit for saving the most important of their number. It makes me slightly interested in reading some of Loeb's more humanistic works - as opposed to the pretty but unfocused cash-in that we have here.


At once, if not sooner...

Apparently made for the measely sum of $500, this short film set in the universe of Valve's acclaimed Half Life video game shows how the digital age can allow dedicated amateurs to create professional-quality productions. It's intended to be the first of a multi-part series.


Law and Order: UK

British police shows are almost without exception rubbish. They're soapy, melodramatic, unrealistic, slow paced and humourless - everything, basically, that US import Law and Order and its spin offs are not. Except now one of the Law and Order spin offs is British. How 'bout that.

The tried and tested formula has remarkably remained pretty much intact: we start out with two matey cops investigating crime in grimy London locales, before they pass the case on to a prim and be-wigged pair of prosecutors. The fat and fluff of your usual ITV crime drama has been ruthlessly pared away, leaving a lean core of procedural law and underplayed acting. Of course, at the moment it's easy to worry that this is only because the first episode directly ripped off the plot of an existing American episode. Only when the writers are forced to stand on their own two feet will we really know how much they've shed the bad habits of British TV.

Then again, that may all be a moot point. As the credits began to roll (really not sure about that theme tune), my most prominent thought was, “This is too good for us.” Nobody in the UK will watch this show. We may not even get to the end of the first season before it's been shuffled to ITV2, and then ITV will begin the tortuous process of washing their hands of the whole thing.


Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders: Part 33

Previously: “Deep in the Poison Wastes, we finally reached the small and derelict outpost of EON-1.”

Part 33: The Turk

Lady Una threw open the tent flap, and we peered eagerly inside. Sitting on the bare ground inside the tent was a stained wooden box with diamond-shaped metal antlers protruding from the top. Thick rubber hoses connected it to a small stainless steel cylinder.

Sigrid looked from Lady Una to me, her eyes just visible behind her protective mask. “I hope you two know what you're looking at, because I ain't got a clue.”

Lady Una stooped to get a better view. “It's a wireless transmitter,” she said. “And the cylinder is a small analytical engine.”

“I think the machine is trying to disguise the signal as natural white noise,” I said. “We had some success at hiding things from the Sky Spiders that way.”

Sigrid shrugged. “But hiding what? What kind of transmission?”

“There are two antennae, facing south-east and north,” Lady Una said. “North is towards EON-2. South-east is towards, well...”

Sigrid said, “A lot of things.”

“EON-2 was in contact with EON-1, we know that much,” I said. “And it thought that EON-1 was near here - just because of the direction of the signal?”

Lady Una pulled a small electric lamp from her pack and held it at arm's length inside the tent. “No, I think it had a better reason.”

Sigrid unslung her rifle. “What the hell is that?”

Something slick and black moved inside the tent, bulging and throbbing out of the sickly soil. I could recognise its otherworldly texture in an instant. “Sky Spider machinery,” I said. “It's in the ground. Growing like the roots of a tree, spreading out from that.”

I turned to point at the fiery rend in the world that split the horizon, spilling black smoke into the sky.

“Let's think about this a moment,” Lady Una said. “If we assume that EON-2 is telling the truth, EON-1 has clearly been lying to it.”

“Or they're both lying,” Sigrid chipped in.

“We're told to expect to find it here,” Lady Una continued, “but in fact it could be anywhere to the south-east.”

“Anywhere at all,” I suggested, “if there's another one of these things out there. A whole relay, perhaps.”

She seemed unconvinced. “Perhaps. But would EON-1 expect to need to go to such great lengths? How many people have passed this way in five years? How many have even left Fortress City?”

“Fortress City,” Sigrid said. “Which is to the south-east.”

Lady Una sighed. “Along with Unity City.”

Sigrid nodded, her breathing apparatus bobbing. “My money being on the latter.”

“But EON-3 is in Unity City.”

“Maybe EON-3 is behind this,” Sigrid suggested. “Maybe One and Three are in it together. Duping poor old Two. Four was probably in on it as well.”

“This is baseless conjecture. Are you okay, doctor?”

I had sat down on the ground, suddenly overcome with dizziness. “I've been better.”

Without getting up from her knees, Lady Una glided over to my side. Sigrid was too distracted by the contents of the tent to be surprised by the manoeuvre.

“We need to leave these accursed Wastes,” Lady Una said.

Sigrid closed the flap of the tent. “I'm with you there. Wait... Look out!”

Lady Una grabbed my arm and pulled me bodily to my feet. “Fuck.”

As smoke swirled around the barren and rocky ground, it parted in a wake, dragging around a sleek, near-transparent figure. It prowled forwards on reversed knees, clawing at the earth with ghostly, inhuman hands.

I coughed into my gas mask. “Disguising the signal as white noise... We had a lot of success with it, but when the Sky Spiders realised that we'd tricked them, they always reacted pretty strongly.”

Sigrid drew back the bolt on her rifle. The Sky Spider automaton didn't seem to notice or care.

“There's no point,” I shouted hoarsely. “Drop the rifle.”

She didn't hear, or wasn't prepared to listen. Worse still, Lady Una had drawn her automatic pistol. The automaton approached us unperturbed - the result of millions of years of technological advancement. Implacable and without mercy.


Next week: Can a surly soldier and a staid tank-woman defeat a sophisticated machine from beyond the sky? Check back in a week's time for the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders!


February is a Short Month

It's taken me a good week to add the finishing touches to my competition game, leaving me with about three weeks for external testing. It does kind of bother me that there are more judges on the panel than the number of testers I'm probably going to get, but hopefully this thing's simple enough to be pretty solid.

Barring any major developments or disasters, this'll be my last post on this project until it's released to the public.


Let's go to Europa...

Image source
Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

When Cassini was celebrating its tenth birthday, the Planetary Society Blog's Emily Lakdawalla pointed out that, as great a celebration as this was for Cassini, it also drew attention to the fact that it had been ten years since the last major interplanetary mission. Well, the waiting is over, as NASA and ESA have announced that their next 'flagship' mission will be to Europa.

But let's not look too far ahead: it'll take some time for this thing to get off the ground (metaphorically or literally), and we'll probably see interesting things from missions like Dawn, New Horizons and the as-yet un-renamed Mars Science Laboratory long before this mission is even launched.

(It's interesting to note that, due to the nature of space flight, the most powerful camera to visit Jupiter is still Cassini's. So, even when I'm writing about Jupiter, I'm still posting a Cassini image. Call it favouritism if you will. Europa is visible in front of Jupiter's turbulent clouds.)


Dione, Shadowed

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

Once again, Cassini captures Dione effortlessly proving that, around Saturn, even the grey ice moons that we've found to be so common throughout the Solar System can dazzle and enchant.


DVD Review: JCVD

Meet Jean-Claude Van Varenberg - better known as Jean-Claude Van Damme: martial artist and estranged father, an action man doomed to star in second-rate Hollywood action flicks for the rest of his dwindling career. On a sojourn to his native Belgium, Van Damme stops to pose for some photographs with the clerks of a small video store, and then goes into the local post office - desperate to transfer funds to the American lawyers fighting his custody battle. And then, out of nowhere, the post office erupts in gunfire. Is Jean-Claude Van Damme, as a shocked police officer reports, trying to rob a bank?

When actors play themselves in films, there are two obvious routes to go. The first, and least common route, is that of vanity. No actor wants to play themselves as a good guy, because that actually makes them look like, well, a bad guy. And so the more common route is vanity wrapped up in self-deprecation. Look at me, they cry, I know that I'm rubbish! Doesn't that make me great! JCVD, thankfully, avoids either obvious pole. Instead, it just tries to depict its lead in a neutral and natural way: no ridicule, no heroics, no apologies. This is, quite simply, a movie about Jean-Claude Van Damme. It might as well be a documentary. But it's all the better as a strange hybrid of fact and fiction.

Watch it. You'll have an eye out.
It's difficult for me to write about this film, because there are so many great little scenes and deft touches that I want to share with you, and yet actually discussing them before you've seen the film would, I really feel, diminish what's so great about them. Even discussing the film's premise (which is described in more length in most reviews than I've done here) seems like a terrible spoiler.

JCVD is part hostage drama, part art house movie - both halves working on their own and also gelling well together. As events snowballed, I found that the tense storyline really had me on the edge of my seat, while I found the more biographical portions to be evocative, witty and touching - even, in one unexpected sequence, bringing me almost to tears.

That sequence, in fact, had me thinking at first, “Holy crap, he can really act!” And then it struck me: “Wait. Maybe he's not acting.” Or maybe he's telling the truth and acting at the same time. Maybe, as in the rest of the movie, the boundaries between fiction and reality are hopelessly blurred. There's no way for the audience to know for sure, and that's an idea that JCVD quite happily embraces - plays with, even.

There are any number of reasons that you should pick up this movie. Whether it's the sheer novelty value of Jean-Claude Van Damme starring in a low-key drama made in his native country, the profound cinematography, the insightful take on being a star and a jobbing actor - or just because you want to see an interesting film that never strays too far from being about a gripping hostage situation... Well, it gets my seal of approval.

Surprising. Understated. And above all: memorable.

*One little footnote about this particular release: I'd say that 95% of this movie is in French with English subtitles, but there are no subtitles for the hearing impaired - meaning no captions for sound effects or English dialogue. And then there's the stereotypically 'Van Damme action movie' cover of the DVD, with explosions and roundhouse kicks. I can't work out if that's hopelessly cynical marketing or a very clever piece of intentional irony.


>down tools

Okay, this thing is at that first stage 'done' that you get with IF games. I've only played the minimal path from start to finish to check that it works in the most basic way.

Over the next few days there's some mild embellishment, spell-checking and proof-reading to do. Then, if you're on my regular rotation of testers, expect me to hit you up with an email at some point over the next month.

Today is the Day

So today is the day that I don't do anything until I've finished my damn competition game.


Thursday Book

How Shall I Tell the Dog? - Miles Kington

When I was commuting to and from university, I'd often buy the Independent to read on the journey. And sometimes, too weary to deal with the problems of the world, I'd skip straight past the national news, the world news, the columns and editorials and letters, and read Miles Kington's humour column first of all. Little in his small corner of the paper reflected the agonies and hardships of reality - only good-natured but razor-sharp wit.

After I left uni, I fell out of the paper reading habit, and it was purely by chance that last year I picked up the edition of the Independent which, past the national news, the world news, the columns and editorials and letters, carried Miles' obituary. He had died from an illness that was more sudden than some, and slower than others, and in the time between his fatal diagnosis and its eventual realisation, he wrote a number of letters to his agent pitching ideas for his last book.

His ideas were, of course, completely absurd, and How Shall I Tell the Dog? compiles these letters into a thin, heartbreakingly funny book. The eponymous letter, for example, wonders about providing the public with a book to help them break the news of their terminal illness to their pets. Miles worries that his own pampered pooch might, having no real understanding of death, burst in to demand a walk as he lies on his death bed - resulting in the unfortunate last words: "Oh, for God's sake, not now, Berry!"

Death and cancer certainly lie at the heart of this book, but Miles writes in a direct, slightly absurd fashion that avoids sounding pathetic or heroic. He's clearly unhappy to be leaving, but he expresses this in a lighthearted way that kind of makes it more palatable, and yet kind of unintentionally sucker punches you for exactly the same reason. How Shall I Tell the Dog? is, I suppose, really a rather strange little book, although I think we can forgive the author for not properly finishing it off. And I think that given all the dumb, inconsequential and sometimes quite nasty humour books that line the shelves of Waterstones, this collection of intelligent writing does us a far greater service than any book he might really have written - had he the time.


Ticked off a bunch of small but menial tasks today. Kind of satisfying. Other than embellishment, there are now only three scenes left to implement - although I suppose that one of those is the ending...


Harsh Mistress

This thing is getting done. I've set myself the deadline of this weekend, leaving me precisely a month for testing before I need to submit it.

I can do it!



IF Review Too

It's been a while since my last one, so Stupid Kittens rose up from the interwebs and volunteered itself for a review over at the IFDB. I think this is one of those things where you're already either appalled or enthralled.

Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders: Part 32

Previously: “EON-4 and Major Thurlow were dead. With supplies from a dying village in the Poison Wastes, I began my trek north, into the heart of the Sky Spiders' weird schemes.”

Part 32: Glad

It was dark. The sky was almost pitch black, churning with windblown shadows. And along the horizon, bulging out at the middle as if barely contained, orange light so bright it hurt to look at and left a lingering after-image. It flickered with the long-legged silhouettes of alien machines.

Smoke coiled and flowed through the air like liquid.

I was starting to doubt the efficacy of my battered old gas mask.

The ground rumbled constantly beneath my feet, but I still just made out the crack of a rifle shot over the din. Turning to its source and wiping soot from my eyepieces, I saw two distant figures on a low crest of ruined earth: one short and aiming a long-barrelled rifle at the sky, the other tall and clad ridiculously in a hoop skirted dress.

I raised my arm to wave to them.


They wore glass-fronted face masks that connected to oxygen tanks strapped to their backs. Much more advanced and comfortable breathing apparatus than my own civilian mask, which was intended only for emergencies and instead used for years by someone long dead.

Lady Una stepped up to me so I could hear her muffled voice over the cacophony of a world being reshaped. “Is it really you?” she asked.

I nodded.

She touched my arm. “I thought you were dead.”

All I could think to say was, “I'm alive.”

Through her soot-smeared faceplate, I thought I could detect a smile. “I'm glad.”

“What about the Major?” Sigrid asked. “The tin man?”

I shook my head. “When we can talk properly, there's a lot you need to know.”

We all looked at one another, and then at the hellish vision on the horizon. Sigrid pointed at it, and we walked on together.


It seemed to step over us and the horizon in a single movement of its long, armoured legs. A Sky Spider machine like a mountainous black hand with a palm of fire. We all dropped to our knees instinctively as it passed overhead.

Lady Una shouted, “We're safe, right? As long as we don't bother them.”

“Yes,” I yelled back.

“And because we're with a member of the Select Committee.”

“I'm certain that doesn't make a difference,” I said, though I honestly wasn't too sure.

Sigrid nudged me and pointed into the smoke and shadows that surrounded us. “I'm glad you're certain, because that thing is bothering me.”

“I don't see anything.”

“That's a significant part of why I'm bothered. You have to look real careful like.”

Perhaps, in the rolling smoke, I did just make out something almost solid, a transparent stem, ghostly and jointed like an inverted knee.

I shrugged. It was ridiculous to think that they didn't know we were there, weren't poised to exterminate us as soon as we became pests. As the footsteps of the enormous black machine faded into the rest of the noise, we walked on towards the fire ahead.

Sigrid gripped her rifle tightly, eyeing the smoke around us.


It was a small tent, now holed and ragged, but otherwise untouched. Various tools and spare parts littered the black soil, all of them badly corroded.

Sigrid grabbed my shoulder and shouted into my ear. “So we think this guy has hung around in this place for five years?”

“According to EON-2.”

Lady Una kicked at the pitted cog of an analytical engine as it protruded from the dirt. “We'll be lucky if there's anything of it left.”

With characteristic directness, she glided over to the tent and flung open the flap.


Next week: What strange secrets will EON-1 have to reveal? Will it be mad, like the Iron Queen? Hostile, like EON-4? Or will we finally find the answers we seek? Check back in a week's time for the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders!


Friday Release Day Blogging

If you've been paying attention, you'll know that Chrono Trigger is one of my absolute favourite games. I love the cast of varied and vibrant characters. I love the heady mixture of upbeat optimism and apocalyptic melancholy. I love the colourful and expressive art, the absorbing music, the atmospheric locations and witty dialogue...

And if I have a smile on my face today, it's because with the first ever, much belated European release of this classic gem on the Nintendo DS, I've finally been able to pay my dues to the people who created it.


Thursday Comic

Thunderbolts Vol. 1: Faith in Monsters - Warren Ellis et al.

As I started to get into the first collected volume of Warren Ellis' run as writer of this super-powered Marvel comic, I stupidly found myself thinking, “Wow. This has dated pretty suddenly, now that Obama's president.” The eponymous Thunderbolts, you see, are a disparate group of supervillains hired or conscripted by the US government to hunt down those superheroes who refuse to submit to official registration and control. Every bit of collateral damage, every staged publicity stunt, every abuse of power is clearly reflective of the Bush administration - and that, at first, seems so very last year.

Which is hopelessly naïve of me, I know - and something quickly forgotten once the various threads of the story properly kick off. Okay, so none of these characters are good guys. When push comes to shove, they're all more than happy to ram a third-rate superhero's face into the sidewalk. But only two or three are really reprehensible - and even they get the odd sympathetic light thrown on them.

There's a complex, interweaving kind of involvement to Faith in Monsters. At the start of one chapter, you might find it keenly conveying the fear experienced by ordinary (if super-powered) citizens as they try to stay true to their (sometimes slightly warped) values and avoid the authorities. Then you turn the page and find yourself rooting for the people trying to blow them up live on the evening news and get applauded for it. It's a book that shows how the superhero genre is as ready to tackle heady, pertinent themes as any other sub-genre of science fiction - even if two very short stories at the end, slipped in as an appendix and neither written by Ellis, will remind you of the simple punch-and-quip formula it often adheres to.



While I work on my own IF game, a few nuggets of IF news from the wider world:

Blue Lacuna is currently making waves. It's supposed to be expansive, nuanced and newbie-friendly. What little I've seen of it so far actually seems quite impressive.

And first round voting for the XYZZY Awards has begun. Here's hoping that Eric Eve's Nightfall gets some love.


Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders: Cast

(The main characters and what we know about them so far. SPOILERS.)

It has been five years since the Sky Spiders descended. The world has been irrevocably changed. Most of the remaining free people are huddled in poverty behind the protecting guns of Fortress City. Many others live strange, transformed lives within the Twisted Forests. And then there are those in Unity City...

In this world, five disparate heroes were seeking the one connection, the one potential source of knowledge on the Sky Spiders and their terrible reign. Five heroes hoping that they had not merely found a route to madness, quick death, or worse... Five heroes, now three in number.

The Supplicants:

Viscount Cyrus of Circhester
Once the designer of formidable war machines, he now relies entirely upon arcane life support equipment. Cyrus hopes to uncover the information learned by the EON units.

A humanoid philosophy engine sent to investigate the Sky Spider's analytical machines. A telegram from EON-2 claims that all the EON units but EON-4 possess 'vital information' about the Sky Spiders and are still to be found in the vicinity of their old objectives.

The Five:

Dr Peregrine Gleve
A scientist of the Imperial Society, and a member of the Select Committee, a group of scientists sent to negotiate with the Sky Spiders. The other members are missing - though Peregrine has reported them dead.

Lady Una
Niece of the Viscount of Circhester, she is familiar with the science and history of these times. Mortally wounded after the arrival of the Sky Spiders, her uncle refashioned her into a hybrid of woman and tank. Una knows several of Peregrine's secrets, and his role in the Select Committee seems to be a point of tension between the two of them.

Sigrid Phenice
A soldier of the 4th Company Rifles and something of a loner. Straightforward, taciturn and a crack shot. She doesn't care too much about politics or philosophy.

Major Fabian Thurlow (deceased)
An officer of the Tropical Expeditionary Force, he has an intimate knowledge of the madness that lies in the Twisted Forests. Killed by EON-4 while en route to EON-1.

EON-4 (deceased)
The only EON unit to report failure in its objectives and return to human civilisation. Peregrine now knows that EON-4 was lying about its failure - the reasons for its deception unknown. Killed by Peregrine in self defence.

Supporting Characters:

John Kirkham
Leader of Fortress City, a man who wears a golden mask. He stole Prometheus from the Sky Spiders during the battle for Unity City.

Commander Kelson
Acting captain of the HMS Inquisitor. She provides transport for Peregrine, but shows no real commitment to his larger goals.

Professor Suzette Layling
The scientist in charge of the thunderous guns of Fortress City. Wife of Dr Frederick Layling, a member of the Select Committee.

General Cass
Architect of the battle for Unity City. His atrocious failure - leading to the death of a million soldiers - was also Kirkham's triumph. Cass is presumed dead.

EON-5/The Iron Queen
An EON unit dispatched to a Sky Spider structure in the Twisted Forests. She seems to there have lost her mind and refashioned herself as the forest dwellers' 'Iron Queen'. Her severed (but still gibbering) head is now in the possession of John Kirkham.

The EON unit sent straight into the heart of the Sky Spiders' machinations in the Poison Wastes.

Dispatched to Unity City. According to EON-2's telegram, it must still be located there.

Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders: Part 31

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 31: Ghost Town

I sat up, coughing. My throat and stomach muscles hurt. Twinges flickered in my lungs with every breath. Where was I?

A room lit only dimly by what light could filter in through the filth-caked window panes. The edges of the window were packed with rags and tape. I was lying on a musty bed. My jacket was folded neatly over the back of a chair.

I reached for my revolver instinctively. My shoulder holster was gone.

I got unsteadily to my feet. The door was unlocked. As I pulled it open, its yellowed paintwork shed a small shower of flakes.

Outside was a small sitting room, its window and door both sealed with rags and tape in the same manner as the window in the room I awoke in. A man with stark white hair sat sleeping in a ratty armchair. He opened his eyes as I suppressed a cough.

“You're awake,” he said.

“Where am I?”

He stood up. His face seemed surprisingly young. “This is Plainham. Not anywhere in particular, really. No-one's passed through here in years and the telegraph cable is in tatters. We were starting to wonder if there was anyone left but us.”

“Not too far from the truth, really. Dr Peregrine Gleve.”

He shook my hand. “Dr Miles Serene. I gotta say, it's nice to have another man of medicine about.”

“I'm not a medical doctor.”

“That's a shame.” He pointed at the top of my head. “If you won't ask about my hair, I'll ask about yours. Everyone in Plainham's as bleached white as I am. The poisons in the air, the water, the animals, it bleaches the hair. You dying yours, or what?”

I sighed. I didn't have time for this. “Not everywhere is like this. In the south we call this place the Poison Wastes.”

He shook his head slowly. “Over the years people have left here. Some of them went south-”

“I wouldn't beat yourself up over it. They're probably dead anyway. Poison is the least of our worries.”

He took my tone in his stride. “I see. There's so much we don't know.”

“What's the last thing you heard about?”

“Last I heard, we were marching on Unity City. We could see the flashes and smoke from here, so I imagine it didn't go too well.”

“To put it mildly. Look, I need to head north.”

He nodded. “I'll lend you a gas mask. We have a surplus now. Where are you going, if I might ask?”

“I'm looking for a mechanical man. He was heading right into the source of these poison clouds.”

Dr Serene nodded. “The mechanical man. Our last visitor, all those years ago. And now his friend. Or enemy...”

“At this juncture, I honestly don't know which.”

“And you say that there's no poison to the south,” he mused, “but it might even be more dangerous? What kind of danger?”

“Unity City.”

“Stay a little while,” he said. “You need to eat and build up your strength.”

“What do you have to eat in this place?”

He looked a little sheepish. “Whatever the hunting parties find. Often we're not really sure what it is we're eating.”

“I think I'll go hungry. Do you have my gun?”

“Well, I suppose you seem friendly enough. You do know that your pistol is a different calibre from your spare bullets, don't you?”

I suppose I should probably have checked something like that before taking Thurlow's revolver. “No, actually, I didn't. It was my friend's gun, until he died.”

“I'm sorry. I'll show you how to put on the mask and see you out.”


In my funk, I'd made it further into the Poison Wastes than I should have had any right to. Outside, the air was thick with dust and fumes. I could only just make out the dilapidated buildings of Plainham, the gas masked forms moving furtively between them.

You might think it would be easy to lose yourself in that kind of place.

But straight ahead, visible over the thick, ground-level murk, was a great mushroom cloud of black smoke. It poured out of the unseen horizon like liquid, rising high into the sky and quickly tumbling back down as a discoloured snowfall of ash.

I wondered what it had looked like when EON-1 first set off in that direction. Smaller certainly, less pervasive, but no less frightening - and humbling. Now I was to follow in his footsteps.


Next week: The Sky Spiders are working right through the crust of the world. To do what? And for what purpose? Should any mere human try and approach such dangerous geological construction? Check back in a week's time for the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders!