"I can too read!"

He's starting with the picture books, one notes.


A Box of Space Snakes

You are a space snake. You live in a box in space. If you are pushed out of the box, you will explode. If you use your gun to push other snakes out of the box, your tail will grow and you will score points. The longer your tail is, the bigger your scores will be, but you will also be an easier target.


My current high score: 258510

The trick, I think, is knowing when to cut your tail off. And also being able to quickly disentangle yourself from it. As in life, so too in games, it seems. When you are reincarnated as a space snake, you will thank me.


Mars out the Window

Stunning image taken by the CIVA imaging instrument on Rosetta's Philae lander just 4 minutes before closest approach at a distance of some 1000 km from Mars.

A portion of the spacecraft and one of its solar arrays are visible in nice detail. Beneath, an area close to the Syrtis region is visible on the planet’s disk.

Credits: CIVA / Philae / ESA Rosetta

News item at the ESA here.

The Rosetta Homepage can be found here. Rosetta is a mission to, among other things, put a lander on the surface of a comet. It was actually the lander that took this image.

Emily Lakdawalla writes about the coolness of this image here.

5 Filmmakers

Five filmmakers I love. Not a comprehensive list - there are many others - but these are the ones I feel reasonably confident talking about. They are also people who seem to be on roughly the same wavelength as me. There may be others who make 'better' films, but these guys make stuff that I like.

Each image is of a selected film for each director. Mouse-over to see the title.

5. Wong Kar Wai

Wong Kar Wai pretty much flies in the face of mainstream cinema - making films without a script; shooting two films at the same time; throwing in sad endings along with the bittersweet and ambiguous. You can never tell what he's working on, or what's going to be next. But you do know that when he makes it, it will be bold, beautiful and undiluted.

4. Jean-Pierre Jeunet

Jean-Pierre Jeunet is a director that makes weird-looking films full of weird-looking actors getting into weird situations. And yet, what makes Jeunet stand out so much is that he is not a self-consciously weird or 'zany' director - instead he draws out what is peculiar about everyday life in a way that is striking, familiar and believable.

Jeunet also makes very sensitive films: we are not presented with all this strangeness to laugh at it or be shocked (well, not entirely), but instead in the hopes that we may recognise ourselves.

3. Tim Burton

Tim Burton is the quintessential outcast filmmaker, making films almost exclusively about oddballs struggling against arbitrary social standards. Given that this subject is arguably one that underpins a huge portion of human suffering and conflict, it's a relief to see Burton handle this theme with equal dollops of black humour and compassion - not to mention his unique and powerful visual style.

2. Hayao Miyazaki

Hayao Miyazaki's films perhaps embody all the various qualities that fawning Hollywood stars like to imagine you can find in those films that win Oscars. Well, one of his films did win an Oscar. But all that nonsense about making you feel a broad range of emotions - excitement, fear, hope, laughter - and taking you to strange new places in space and time, making you believe in magic...

Yes, Miyazaki's films have all of that. But more importantly, as well as producing aching moments of emotion, they are also largely subtle and understated. As well as featuring sweeping vistas and thrilling action, they have quiet, simple moments of touching humanity. Miyazaki's favourite themes of environmentalism, pacifism, and humanism are strengthened by a frank understanding of the difficulties of those paths. His dramatically strange new worlds are fleshed out with the plain, the ordinary and the everyday.

I think it's this combination of incredible vision and simple heart that makes Miyazaki so revered by all who come into contact with his work.

1. Buster Keaton

The films of Joseph Frank "Buster" Keaton Jr. are great evidence that cinema was pretty much born fully formed. Working without CGI, stunt men, ninety years of accumulated cinematic craft, or, for that matter, sound, Keaton was still able to produce films that seem startlingly comparable in technical quality to modern fare. And when you take into account the content of the films, Keaton easily stands shoulder to shoulder with the great filmmakers of any later period.

Like his contemporary (and one-time collaborator) Charles Chaplin, Keaton had his own visually distinctive cinematic personality: a clumsy, unsmiling fellow in a flat hat who, though repeatedly at the butt-end of the Universe's jokes, still dusts himself off to save the day from stampeding cows, improbable storms and hungry cannibals. Probably the chief appeal of this character, even today, is that he doesn't look like a man who should really be starring in a film. Short, expressionless, slightly embarrassed to be in this situation, would clearly much prefer it if no-one looked, uncertain what to do, but trying his best - every one of us has been this character ourselves at some point (some of us more often than others).

It's this combination of simple, unflinching humanity and Keaton's own cinematic innovation - conjuring up images that are more convincing than some of today's dodgy CGI - that allows Buster to live on today like no other filmmaker of his era.


My Namelian

Via Tinker comes this nifty little creative activity: Namelians. It's the kind of thing that you only need the slightest nudge to try out for yourself, I think, especially if you're in a whimsical mood. I tried it with 'Pacian' and came up with the following otherworldly little creature:

As you might expect, I've thought this through too much. This fellow is a filter feeder, drifting through an alien ocean, or perhaps even on the breezes of a denser atmosphere than Earth's. The curly hair-like bits sift for little morsels of food, while the creature hangs suspended from its large orange paddles. The smaller paddles provide stability and fine control. With its big compound eyes, it's able to spot predators coming from quite a way away, which is where the funnels and pointy bulge at the bottom come into play: it can suck water in through the funnels and shoot it out of its tail in a short burst to make a quick escape.

This one is called Bobby.


Mimas in Shadows

Mimas, photographed by Cassini against a striking backdrop: blue clouds on Saturn's northern hemisphere, the rings casting dark bands of shadow.

(In other words: don't have enough time to blog fully today, so pretty picture instead!)


Camera with a Baton, but not in my Head

I think it's good to go crazy on occasion. I feel better now, more confident. There's a line right at the end of Philip K. Dick's A Scanner Darkly (I read the book recently) which goes something like, "in his mind, where no-one could see". I think the important thing to remember is that no matter how bad or scared I feel, no-one else has to know if I don't want them to. And thinking like that makes me feel safer, and not so worried about what people think of me.

Today I went in the shop that sells bongs and replica guns and had a good look around, although I'm usually too intimidated. They sell cute cat ornaments and expensive figurines of Betty Boop. I'm glad to see that they sell nothing but junk, because apparently they're closing down.

Also there were some TV crews on the High Street, filming the new police officer-mounted cameras. I didn't see any logos for what channel it was, so it might have been a police training video or something similar. I'm glad to see the force phasing out the old, static CCTV cameras in favour of CCTV cameras that can beat people up and shock them with Tasers.


Egglaying Arm Greenwich Conspiracy

My shoulder is not speaking to me, nor my arm laying eggs, but I would very much like the fairy godmother to fix the mental problems that I have been avoiding for the past four or five years: depression, low self-esteem, zero confidence, inability to function outside of fantasy - before I have to actually finally face up to them myself.

Facing up to them seems to amount to 'snapping out of it' or 'knuckling down' as various voices have told me whenever I've tried to express to others how I feel, which only makes me feel like a greater failure because I cannot. Things that others find easy, I find hard and even impossible. And vice versa, for some reason.

As a kid I always found it easy to do trigonometry, algebra and physics, but hard to speak to people, to make friends and be happy. The trouble is that it turns out to do the first lot of things you need to be able to do the second lot first. I think for a proper job, as opposed to silly dream distant future job, like being a writer, I would quite like to have done something with physics. I liked physics. I really did. I just couldn't do it - not because it was too hard, but because I could not do it, the way a prisoner could in theory run chasing after birds but is stopped by the prison bars. I had no energy. I couldn't do anything at all except read books (about fifty in that one year). I was too unhappy.

So I gave up. I expected to just cease to exist then, somehow, but of course it isn't that easy. Instead I ended up doing a Computer Science degree at a third-rate university, because I could do it without even trying. Only now that's over, I have a first in Computer Science, still without having to do anything, without having to try and learn how to make my own energy or happiness, without having to engage with reality on anything but the most superficial and abstract levels.

And now, to use my degree and take control of my finances, I must get a job in IT. I can't imagine anything worse. I wish now that I had become a physicist instead, but that's not possible, not until I'm fixed: turned somehow into a normal person. And I have no idea how to do that. I want drugs and therapy, but I'm afraid that I'm not actually depressed or avoidant or any of these things I think I might be. I'm worried that the only thing wrong with me is that I'm a useless person, that I am like Lord Jim: simply 'no good', and the only solution is to snap out of it or knuckle down and because I cannot, then... I don't know what. Turn myself in to the Life Police. Confess to being a failure in the first degree.

I'm not sure that I should post this. I'm in a bad frame of mind and this is so fucking LiveJournal, but here it is. The history of what is wrong with me, submitted to the internet like an error report from HijackThis.



In the future people will no longer want nostrils on their faces, but will instead have them removed and grafted onto their elbows. The chief advantage of these 'smelbows' is that when an unpleasant smell is detected, you will be able to merely roll down your sleeves.


Banks: See Hear

After this incident Mum drew my attention to this:

Thursday 15 February - Programme Information - See Hear, Saturday 17th February, BBC2 @ 12pm.

In this week's programme, presented by Memnos Costi and Elizabeth Young, we look at the problems facing deaf people trying to access banks and building societies.

The item looks at how banks and building societies deal with issues such as contact via third parties; TypeTalk and textphones; lost or stolen cards and the provision of interepreters. Underpinning many of the stories featured in the film is the conflict that arises between banks and their deaf customers over what 'reasonable adjustment' to goods and services, as laid down in the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA), actually means.

That final sentence sums up the message they tried to shoehorn in - a nice balanced message - explicitly stating that banks are trying hard to cater to deaf people but are being held back by concerns about confidentiality and security. And yet the segment seemed to show that that's far from the truth. After trying over two days to contact ten leading banks by textphone, they got only two to answer - on the second day. Although the talking head for banks assured us that banks are happy to accept typetalk calls, it wasn't much work to find someone who had had their typetalk call refused. Similarly, the talking head told us that banks are happy for a third party to be used to inform them that a card has been stolen. Except that the same person had been refused in this respect as well. To me, this looks like not even trying at all.

Certainly, the segment did make the argument that banks are interpreting the clause 'reasonable adjustment' to do as little as they can. For one thing, it doesn't seem like an unreasonable adjustment just to answer your fucking textphones. For another, most of the 'reasonable adjustments' quoted were with respect to internet banking, which isn't being created with deaf customers in mind. When it comes to making adjustments solely for deaf customers, the banks simply aren't doing it. This isn't a conflict of opinions. It's clear evidence that the DDA is failing.


Kirby Dance

<('_'<) (^'_'^) (>'_')>

Also, Primeval > Doctor Who.


A Conversation with a Textphone

I feel like I should post an apology to the woman I just spoke to. But also I am very angry, and she was there. And to take the conservative angle, she didn't have to be there. If you're going to work in a call centre for a company with shitty discriminatory policies, then you can't complain when someone calls up and gives you an earful for it.

I've written before about how companies stick textphone numbers all over their pamphlets and adverts. Let's be clear: these textphone numbers are for hearing people. Not for hearing people to call, obviously, but for hearing people to look at and think, "Ooh, what a nice company! How egalitarian! How well they treat even their deaf customers!" If you are a hearing person, I hope you are well served by looking at these pretty numbers. I hope they make you feel all warm and fuzzy. Because that is the only service they can provide.

My mum recently had to contact her bank to activate her credit card. Don't worry! Although she is deaf, right in the pamphlet it says that she can call the following textphone number! Call it. Engaged? Sceptical son dials number. Not engaged, there is just a recorded message saying that this is a textphone and providing a voice phone number. After that, it rings. Call it again. Engaged. Now ringing. Now line unobtainable. Call number for reporting stolen cards and forgotten PINs. Same thing.

Call first number through Typetalk. Typetalk say that a human - not a textphone - answers. Don't worry, the human who answers the textphone number says, the textphones are down because of the weather. Ah, okay, says space cat mother. I'll call in a few days.

Four days later. The snow has melted away to nothing. The weather is grey and slightly chilly. Unlikely weather for interfering with textphones, surely? Call number. No textphone answers. Call the number for lost cards. Same deal. Angry space cat son dials first number. A recorded message tells him that this is a textphone number. As soon as the recording has finished, a woman answers. With her voice.

Pacian: Hello. You're not a textphone, are you?
Woman: No.
Pacian: Well then could you tell me what a deaf customer is supposed to do if they want to activate their credit card? Because none of the textphone numbers in the leaflet that came with the card work - including the one for lost and stolen cards.

This is the woman I feel like I should apologise to. This is also the woman I think seriously had it coming, just for working for a shitty bank. Basically, the woman has one piece of information to give me: a number which she assures me is the real textphone number. I am not surprised that the number in the leaflet is not the real textphone number. Space cat mum once called a company's customer services through typetalk to complain that she couldn't get through to their textphone number.

Mum: Can you please tell them to turn on the textphone. It's showing as engaged.
Kind woman: Well, I'm sitting right next to the textphone and it's turned on. What number are you dialling?
Mum: [gives number displayed proudly in phonebook and numerous adverts, making hearing people feel all warm and fuzzy inside]
Kind woman: No, that's not the number. This is the number. [gives a number identical to the one mum dialled, but with two digits swapped around]
Mum: [dials new number with textphone, successfully completes transaction with kind woman]

So, this new number is all that the woman can say to me. But I am annoyed. I don't like making phone calls and I hate the fact that because banks and companies are universally shitty towards deaf people, I have to make twice as many phone calls as I might otherwise have to: phone calls for myself and for my mother. I demand to know what space cat mum is supposed to do if her card is stolen and I am not around. None of the textphone numbers they've given out work. Would she be liable for any purchases made by the thief because she is unable to report the card stolen?

Woman: I'm afraid that I can't answer that question, as this is a different department.
Pacian: Well this seems to be the Department for Discrimination Against the Deaf, so I thought you might know.

The woman seems a little offended by this, because she makes me repeat it twice. But as I repeat it, I become more and more certain that it is justified. This is a call centre that is answering textphone calls. That's like ordering a takeaway from a kosher restaurant and finding that they were unable to fulfil the order, so got the pork pie shop next door to make a delivery instead.

I copy down the new number at this point. Then I am given the real textphone number for lost and stolen cards. It is identical to the one space cat mum was trying. After making sure that the woman understands that this is not acceptable and that complaints are going to be made, I lose the will to fight. I hate the bank and want it to go away.

Pacian: Well, I have this new textphone number now which you assure me is the real number for deaf people to call, but which you can apparently only find out by making a call to a voice phone. Thank you and goodbye. [hangs up]

Now space cat mum dials the new number with her textphone. I watch the little screen with cynical interest. But wait! It's connected and something is appearing!


Space cat mum and son debate whether this is someone taking the piss, or if the building really has been evacuated. Perhaps there are a number of different recorded text messages for when no-one is there and they have merely selected the wrong one.

Finally, space cat mum gets me to make the call to the voice number in the pamphlet. The nice man who answers gives us a voice number to call if you are disabled. We explain that this is not much help, and the problems we have encountered with three different textphone numbers.

Pacian: When we tried one of them we got a recorded text message saying that the building had been evacuated, so you might want to check that no-one is on fire or anything.

Space cat mum verifies her identity, and, lip-reading as I repeat what the nice man says, activates her new credit card. Hooray!

I decide to blog this so that everyone can know that their banks are shitty and the textphone numbers in their pamphlets do not actually work. First of all I search the internet for "banks textphone", but that just gets me a list of bank homepages with their textphone numbers on them, including the bank I now hate with a vengeance. I click that link and find that their website lists for their textphone three or four numbers that are completely different from any of the three numbers tried so far. Space cat mum shows me that the pamphlet was printed this month (it is the 12th) and so the website should not be more up-to-date, surely? Next I search for "banks textphone blog" and am gratified to see one of my own blog posts ranked seventh. This one is third and is worth a read.

Now ladies and gentlemen: remember: working in a call centre is a lot like joining the army of a dictatorial nation. Many factors may force you into that line of work, but you can't really be that surprised when someone then has a go at you for it.

Working for a bank, I have now decided, is inexcusable whatever the circumstances.


Thought of the Day

Freedom of speech is exactly the opposite of freedom from criticism.

It is spectacularly hypocritical to claim that someone who criticises your views should shut up because they're infringing on your right to freedom of speech. You have a right to espouse whatever offensive, racist, misogynistic, homophobic or merely incorrect crap you want - and others have a right to call you out on it.


Flowsnakes on a Surburb

As you can see, the tracks of many flowsnakes are visible on the road. Majestic, long-necked lamp posts survey the carnage with aloof disdain.

It is always important to know your enemy.

"I don't see any flowsnakes at all! Do you think they might be... invisible?!"

Best to hide until it all blows over, we decided.


Fukkin Zen-Nosuke

Seen in the credits for the computer game Dino Crisis 2. Not that there is any reason why the name Fukkin should leap out at me. I just felt the guy deserved some credit. Here is his page at IMDb. If you are making a computer game and need someone to do some motion-capture acting, perhaps of a guy being eaten by a dinosaur, then give Fukkin a call.


The flowsnakes visited last night, nibbling on the ends of my toes. I curled up into a tight ball under the quilt, but still they nibbled. They had wriggled down all the way from the sky, they had, so wriggling into my bed was no problem.

The weather man says we can expect more subzero temperatures tomorrow. And 2 to 8 centimetres of snow. I shall be sealing all the doors and windows with duct tape. No more flowsnakes will be getting in here, that is certain.


Minutes from the End of Civilisation

I like to make crazy shit up when I write stories, except when it's science fiction.

The five NPT-recognized nuclear weapon states have failed in their obligation to make serious strides toward disarmament--most notably, the United States and Russia, which still possess 26,000 of the 27,000 nuclear warheads in the world. By far the greatest potential for calamity lies in the readiness of forces in the United States and Russia to fight an all-out nuclear war. Whether by accident or by unauthorized launch, these two countries are able to initiate major strikes in a matter of minutes. Each warhead has the potential destructive force of 8 to 40 times that of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945. In that relatively small nuclear explosion, 100,000 people were killed and a city destroyed; 50 of today’s nuclear weapons could kill 200 million people.

While the possibility of launching these powerful weapons may seem remote, experts in Russia and the United States are concerned about command and control systems that depend on complex electronic communications and information. Past incidents suggest that technical failures, misperception, and miscommunication happen in even the best-maintained systems. Such errors could lead to an accidental launch already programmed in the event of attack. Experts have documented four nuclear false alarms--in 1979, 1980, 1983, and 1995--where either the United States or Soviet/Russian forces were placed on the highest alert and missile launch crews were given preliminary launch warnings.

Sixteen years after the end of the Cold War, following substantial reductions in nuclear weapons by the United States and Russia, the two major powers have now stalled in their progress toward deeper reductions in their arsenals. Equally worrisome, the United States, in its 2002 Nuclear Posture Review, declared that nuclear weapons “provide credible military options to deter a wide range of threats,” including chemical and biological weapons, as well as “surprising military developments.” In early 2004, this new concept, which espouses the quick use of even nuclear weapons to destroy “time urgent targets,” was put into operation. That the United States--a nation with unmatched superiority in conventional weapons--would place renewed emphasis on the need for nuclear weapons suggests to other nations that such arsenals are necessary to their security.

In the face of the major powers’ continued reliance on nuclear weapons, other nations are following suit. Since the end of the Cold War, three countries have announced the possession of nuclear weapons--India, Pakistan, and North Korea. Israel possesses weapons but chooses not to declare them. The director of the IAEA, Mohamed ElBaradei, believes up to 30 countries have the capacity, and increasingly the motivation, to develop nuclear weapons in a very short time span.

Read the rest at The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists


A Story About Goodbye

This week's prompt at Sunday Scribblings is Goodbyes. It chimed with various things I've been thinking about, in particular, at the forefront of my mind was a colourised version of this image, as presented in Olivier de Goursac's Visions of Mars (although this particular image is a vision of Earth). To see the colours of a Martian sunset, look at this image.

Evening Star

The sky is a murky, ruddy pink and the sun sits on the horizon: small and blue. Descending with it, imperceptibly, down beneath the world, is the bright evening star.

"Does it look any different?" a voice asks softly.

I stop looking over my shoulder, turn from the small window to the dim, electric-lit room around me. "I woke up sitting here," I say. "It wasn't a dream, was it?"

Yelena shakes her head and slams the door closed, checking that it seals properly. Now more than ever, it feels like we live in a soap bubble. Bulging with air and ready to pop.

The television, fixed to the paint-scabbed metal wall, shows nothing but static.

Yelena sits next to me on the couch and picks up the remote.

"Don't," I say suddenly. "Turn it off. I've had enough of it."

She nods and stabs the remote with her thumb. The screen blinks to black. "Is he okay?"

I look at Michael. Sitting on the couch opposite, head thrown back, staring at the low, domed ceiling. He lifts his head, looks first at Yelena, then at me. "I'm fine," he says flatly.

"Does it look any different?" Yelena asks me again.

"Does what look any different?"

She gestures out the window, at the setting sun and the evening star. "Earth," she says.

"It looks about the same. How's Abel?"

"Sedated. Chen is staying with him."

Like a powerful magnet is pulling on me, my head turns until I'm looking back out of the window. "I thought it might get less blue," I say. "If the ocean's are getting covered with dust and smoke."

"Maybe it will," Yelena says matter-of-factly. You can't really be anything but matter-of-fact in this kind of situation.

"We don't know that it was nukes," Michael chips in.

Yelena shakes her head unenthusiastically. "What else would it be?"

"Bio-terrorism," Michael says, slowly, if parcelling out its import into more manageable monosyllables. "Some lethal disease cooked up in a terrorist's basement. I bet it spread across the world in less than a day, on airliners."

"You're an American," I tell him. "Someone sneezes and you see bio-terrorism."

"Well, yeah. You say that, but I bet they were sneezing."

"It wasn't bio-terrorism or bio-anything else," Yelena says firmly. "We'd have heard something about people getting ill. And look at the logs: we lost Baikonur, Kennedy and Jiuquan within minutes of one another. A virus wouldn't do that."

"Al Jazeera's still broadcasting every hour," I chip in. "They were talking about mushroom clouds and radiation sickness. It's pretty unequivocal."

Michael grimaces, as if literally having difficulty swallowing the idea. "But who would nuke us?"

I laugh mirthlessly. We three are all wearing the same uniform but for the flags on the sleeves. "What makes you so sure that 'we' didn't nuke anyone ourselves? If not to start with, then in retaliation?"

"But why did it start?" Michael asks.

Yelena sighs. "I doubt anyone actually wanted it to happen. It probably started as a mistake, but once it got underway, they were fighting for their lives. No-one would stop."

"That's bullshit," I snapped. "You're saying that because they started killing everyone they had to keep going, or else - or else what? The other side would kill everyone instead? It's bullshit."

"It's those Russian missiles," Michael muses. "A wire sparked or a program crashed or something and the missile was launched. No offence, Yelena."

"Check your own house is in order before you start throwing accusations like that around. You've got that nuclear place in America that's always catching fire and worse."

"That's not a nuclear facility."

"It is a-"

"That's not a nuclear weapons facility," Michael interrupts, correcting himself.

"What does it matter?" I ask. "I don't care who started it. It happened. And Baikonur, Kennedy, Jiuquan: they're silent."

Michael rubs his unshaven chin. "Maybe they're still there."

Yelena stretches, creakily. I notice that her eyes are red. "Even if they are," she says, "you think they care about us right now? Not their families? The people dying right in front of them? You think they have enough food to stuff it into a rocket and send it to us?"

Michael clicks his tongue. "I guess the space programme's going to take a bit of a back seat over the next few years, huh?"

"Decades probably," Yelena says. "If human civilisation on Earth can even crawl back up from this."

I finally say what's been on my mind all this time: "We're pretty fucked."

Michael just shrugs.

Yelena turns to face me, fixes her eyes on mine. "We are not fucked. We're lucky. Would you rather be in London right now?"

"If it was a full nuclear exchange, I'd have died instantaneously last night."

"Right," she says, as if that settles it.

"But instead, we, Yelena, Michael - all of us - we are going to starve."

Yelena slides forward, to better face me. I think this is turning into another argument, and I'm not sure I can be bothered. "I don't think so," she says.

I shrug. "We eat more than we grow. Food is the problem. It's the only thing we can't get from Mars. I don't see how we can be more fucked than that."

"Food is the problem," Michael agrees.

"We would be more fucked if food wasn't the only thing we don't have here," Yelena says. "We have water from the ice, we have oxygen from the water, we have fifty years of power from the reactor - more than enough time to find more uranium, I might add - from the power we get heat, light-"

I look down at my crumpled uniform. "And yet, if we starve, all that oxygen and water and power and heat and light won't make us less dead."

Yelena shakes her head vehemently. "We're not going to starve any time soon. And in the meantime we can try to find ways to increase our food production. We've got the material to build more pressurised glass houses. Chen thinks we may even be able to use cling film, tent poles and old heaters, if we keep the partial pressure of nitrogen high and the overall pressure low. We got some Frankenstein seeds in the last supply, part of an experiment - they might grow in Martian soil, with a few added chemicals."

"None of us are old, Yelena. We could live another forty, fifty years. Do you honestly think we can consistently produce enough food in all that time, with cling film greenhouses? It's going to be a constant battle."

"I didn't say it would be easy. But we don't have any choice but to try. We've got better odds than certain death. We've got better odds than the people back home."

"In the short term, yes. But when the nuclear winter passes, those that survived - eating rat meat or one another, whatever - they'll still have a world with liquid water, one bar of air pressure and food."

"Contaminated food."

"As opposed to our sickly, half-starved crops. Chen's still finding those bloody aphids lurking around. Now he thinks they're adapting to the lower gravity."

Michael laughs unexpectedly. "Chen says they come to him in his dreams and taunt him in Mandarin."

I had something to say, something angry and powerful that would leave Yelena's argument shattered into pieces, but Michael's comment, his laughter more than anything, has interrupted my flow. Yelena just raises an eyebrow and ignores him. He covers his mouth with his hand to stop the incriminating sound: laughing while everyone is fucked.

Yelena sighs. "Look, we've been split in two. Pockets of people on Earth and one on Mars, we're all going to be struggling for the next few years, perhaps for the rest of our lives. I guess a lot of us won't make it. But we have to try."

"I'm not saying that we shouldn't. I agree with you, it's hard but we have to try. It's just…."

She leans forward, resting her elbow on the back of the couch. "What?"

I look out of the window. The sun has set, and the blue evening star is low on the rocky hilltops. Soon it will be gone too. "I just wish this hadn't happened. It's going to be really hard. We need the people at home."

Yelena reaches over to squeeze my shoulder. "I know," she says. "I feel the same way. There's nothing to say, except, I feel the same way."

The conversation has deflated. Michael gets up then, says he needs to check the pressure sensors. We're leaking again, he thinks, losing precious air from our little soap bubble. Yelena follows after him, squeezes my shoulder once more in parting.

I stay staring out the window until the evening star sets. Best to get back to work after this, I think. Back to the business of staying alive.

"Goodbye," I tell the little star, under my breath.