Birthday Boy

Look who's twelve!

(He was 12 weeks in this photo.)


Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders: Part 2

Previously: Five strangers were summoned to the bedside of the ailing viscount: a dashing officer, a straightforward markswoman, a humanoid philosophy engine, the viscount’s mysterious and tightly-laced niece, and me: a scientist of the Imperial Society. There we learned of the four missing EON units: thinking machines that might hold the secrets of the Sky Spiders. After five years of silence, one had made contact, claiming that the others were still functioning as well. Any attempt to reach them, however, would be fraught with danger...

Part 2: Caged Birds

A slender silhouette against the white light of morning, Major Thurlow slipped his hands into his trouser pockets. “Anything that might turn the tide against the crawlies,” he said, his mouth twisted into a crooked smile. “This is the perfect time for desperate gambits.”

I nodded. “We lose because we fight creatures millions of years in advance of us. Any chance to play catch-up is a chance worth taking.”

EON-4’s small glass eye flicked from me to the viscount. “Naturally, I wish to learn the fate of the other EON units. Perhaps even to fulfil my own purpose.”

We all turned to Sigrid. She sniffed and wiped her nose on her cuff. “Yeah, okay, count me in.”

The viscount’s head protruded from the thick sheets of the four poster bed. The conversation was underpinned by the wheezing and whirring of his life support machinery - anonymous chemical cylinders and inelegant pumps. Slowly, his bald, wrinkled head was deformed by a spreading smile. He grinned broadly, his eyes acquiring a glassy sheen.

Close by his side, Lady Una touched a gloved hand to the viscount’s forehead. “My uncle needs to rest now,” she stated. “If you gather your belongings and wait in the courtyard, we should begin without any further delay.”

Sigrid met the lady’s eye warily. “Where exactly are we going?”

I cleared my throat. “EON-5 was despatched to a location in the Twisted Forests. That’s closer than any of the others.”

Thurlow gave me a surprised look. “You seem to know a fair bit about this yourself.”

I said nothing in reply.

Lady Una stepped away from her uncle. “Detailed plans have been prepared. Copies of endless scenarios and debates from the Academy and the Imperial Society exist in this estate’s libraries. Almost all of them are hopelessly out of date, even after such a short amount of time, but...” She lowered her head. “You should consider me to be perfectly versed in all of the necessary details. And as the doctor said, the EON unit in the Greyham Forest - now the ‘Twisted Forests’ - is the closest, and arguably the easiest to reach.”

Thurlow laughed - a dry sound that expressed little in the way of actual humour. “Relatively speaking. I had the pleasure of passing through those forests on my way north a few years ago. Even then, well...” He laughed again in the same manner.

Lady Una stepped in between the Major and me, heading for the door. She stood by it, looking back at us pointedly. “My uncle needs to rest,” she repeated. “And I have business to attend to.”

One by one, we filed out of the viscount’s room. Behind us, the machinery that kept him alive whirred and gurgled.


Like the others, I’d arrived late the night before and been given one of the guest rooms to sleep in. My belongings sat in a neat little pile in the corner. Not that I had much with me: a satchel with a couple of changes of clothes, a case containing what few of my instruments had survived the past few years, and a leather holster containing a revolver and a dozen or so rounds of ammunition. I took off my jacket to slip on the holster, threw the satchel over my shoulder, took hold of my case, and walked out of the room and down the stairs.

Things were so quiet, outside in the countryside of Circhester, that it was unreal to me. Wind rustling through leaves, birds chirping - and in the distance, like a half-heard whisper, the soft sound of the sea. If the gates to the viscount’s estate weren’t being watched by a man sitting cross-legged at the tripod of a Gatling gun, I could almost have convinced myself that none of the events of the past half a decade had occurred.

I found Lady Una by accident, around the side of the mansion. She stood by stacks of wooden cages, opening them one by one.

I was just turning to leave her alone when she said, without looking at me, “Curiosity is the foremost virtue of a man or woman of science, don’t you think, doctor?”

I was caught completely on the wrong foot. “I’m sorry?”

She turned to look at me over her shoulder, her reserved features forming the barest hint of a smile. “You came to see what I was doing.”

I shrugged. “I could see birds flying away from here. I was...”



She stepped to the next cage, grasped the latch carefully between a gloved thumb and forefinger, and opened it. After a few seconds, a small black bird leapt out, flapping intermittently, climbing slowly up into the white overcast sky.

“These are your birds, I presume?” I asked.

“Yes,” she answered, opening the next cage. This bird seemed more reluctant to fly the coop, and she shooed it out with a wave of her hand. “Actually, no, not any more. I’m letting them all go. It would be cruel to leave them caged when I can’t be sure that I’ll ever be back. I let them out once a day anyway, but this time they’ll have to fend for themselves.”

“Perhaps some of them will still be around when you come back,” I suggested.

She smiled. “Birds have short memories. And they’ll have to have learned to live from the land by then anyway. That, or die. They’ll belong to themselves, one way or another.”

A small bird, emerald blue, descended suddenly from above and settled on Una’s shoulder. She laughed, almost startling me with the sound. “This one’s lovely, isn’t she?” she said, softly, looking at the bird as it looked back at her, turning its head from side to side to use each eye in turn. “I expect she’ll be one of the first to die.”

“The light that burns twice as bright...” I began.

Una smiled, sadly. “But isn’t she stupid really? Too trusting?”

I shook my head. “She’s just curious.”

The bird turned to look at me, as if noticing me for the first time.

“The little bird scientist,” Una said. “Trying to understand the creature that cages her.”

“Like us and the Sky Spiders.”

With that Una’s smile faded. “Yes. Yes, I often think so myself. Sometimes I try to imagine how well my birds understand the idea of a cage, of the food dispensers - the idea of me, even. And I’m left thinking that they probably only have the vaguest grasp of the concepts. I don’t imagine it improving much, either.”

“I’m sure you’d be surprised. A lot of birds can be very intelligent, as I understand it. Some of them might well be able to get it, to an extent.”

Lady Una opened the last cage and then raised a hand to her shoulder, shooing the curious bird scientist away. “I suspect the Sky Spiders have similar conversations about us,” she said, solemnly. “Only more in the manner of the owners of a factory farm of chickens. On which note, I think we should find the others and get moving. I intend for us to be in Fortress City within a day and a half - right at the bars of the cage.”


Next week: Our five adventurers arrive in Fortress City and find that the place is far from as safe as its name might imply... Check back in a week’s time for the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders!


Friday Muse Blogging

Urania (left), muse of astronomy and Calliope (right) muse of epic and heroic poetry. I figure I need both of them on my side if I'm going to finish Sky Spiders...


The Procedural Generation Competition is over - Space Shot placed joint 19th, out of 60 entrants - very respectable given how slight a game it is. In the end, I didn't vote, as dealing with the fallout of my recent computer switch took a huge chunk out of my free time, but I'm looking forward to playing through the rest of the entries.

Find all the PCG games here.


"Some of my best friends are Warner Brothers"

What happened when Groucho Marx got a cease and desist letter from Warner Brothers? Find out here.


A Wild Sheep Chase: In Search Of Haruki Murakami

Alan Yentob explores the mysterious, offbeat, sexually charged world of Japan's most popular and internationally acclaimed writer.

Haruki Murakami is incomparable, a literary novelist tipped for the Nobel Prize, who writes cool, witty, and often surreal bestsellers. Notoriously enigmatic and media-shy Murakami has always shunned radio and television. However, he agreed to a rare and frank off-camera interview with the producer for this programme.

In this impressionistic film, Alan Yentob travels in Japan through the strange, labyrinthine landscape of Murakami's fiction on a jazz-fuelled 'wild sheep chase' of a journey. In Tokyo and Kobe he delves into the social and political background of Murakami's work and encounters his fans, critics, translators and a talking cat.

A Wild Sheep Chase: In Search Of Haruki Murakami, BBC One, 24th June 2008, 10.45pm.

So, I guess you just missed that then.

I wish I could write like Murakami. The ability to charge aimless everyday scenes with profoundly moving and imaginative surreality seems so appealing to me. If I could do that, I might need less robots and cowboys. Except, I like robots and cowboys.

It is too late for my confused and diluted sentiments to find coherence, but you should know that whatever those sentiments are, they're, well, very much whatever they are.


Sublime Ground

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

Any doubts that Phoenix might have landed on the wrong spot have been dispelled, as the white layer dug up by the robot's arm has been seen to be subliming* away over time - confirming, according to NASA scientists, the existence of ice.

*The low temperature and pressure on Mars conspire to make liquid water impossible to exist, so when ice heats up it will instead sublime straight to water vapour.

Oh, and a Sol is a Martian day, but you knew that. ;-)

Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders: Part 1

Pulp adventure... begin!

Part 1: The Five

By the time I met him, the viscount was more machine than man. The master bedroom of his ancestral home - a place of dark, ancient wood - was filled with paint-flecked metal cylinders and pumps. A multitude of hoses snaked under the covers of his bed, connecting with the lumpy figure beneath in ways I cared not to think about. Only the viscount’s head emerged from the sheets: bald, shrivelled and wrinkled in the harsh white light of morning.

The hissing, wheezing machinery left little room for the five of us standing around his bed. We stood uncomfortably close together for complete strangers, all our eyes turned to that little head on its pillow.

The viscount’s eyes swivelled around in their sockets, scrutinising us one by one. “You’re all here,” he observed, his voice dry and weak. “And I’m sure you all want to know why. I’m also sure you each have your suspicions - some more accurate than others. Let me confirm what I’m sure is obvious: this concerns the Sky Spiders. But these days, what doesn’t?”

I glanced at the person to my right, a short and stocky woman, weather-worn and dressed like a navvy. She met my eye and then turned her gaze back to the viscount.

“I can’t promise anything profound,” he continued. “In all likelihood this will amount to nothing. But there exists out there a potential source of knowledge about the Sky Spiders. We have no way of knowing what this knowledge is, what advantage it might confer on us - if any. But we have a duty to human civilisation to find it. Our first duty is always to learn, to grow, to try to overcome our problems, however insurmountable they may seem. But first, allow me to make formal introductions.”

He fixed his eyes on me. “Dr Peregrine Gleve from the Imperial Society of Science.”

I straightened my tie reflexively. “I’ll be glad to help in whatever way I can.”

The viscount turned to the man to my left, a dapper fellow in a black suit, his hair slicked back and his thin moustache filed to points. “Major Fabian Thurlow, formerly of Her Imperial Majesty’s Tropical Expeditionary Force.”

He bowed, elegantly. “Charmed, I’m sure.”

Next, a figure in a three piece suit, it’s head a slender column of shiny steel. “EON-4, from the Academy for Machine Intelligence.”

A gentle voice emerged from it. “It is my pleasure to serve.”

Now the viscount looked to the stocky woman to my right. “Sigrid Phenice, formerly of the 4th Company Rifles.”

She just nodded like we were all casual acquaintances in a bar. “Sirs. Madam.”

Finally, the viscount turned to the young woman by his bedside: tall and slender, her plain, reserved face set on top of the high collar of her dress, her figure devolving below the waist into a broad hoop skirt that reached the floor. “And this is my niece, Lady Una. A mathematician and naturalist, to be my delegate on this endeavour.”

She looked around at us. “I can’t claim to be worthy of the Imperial Academy, but I hope my studies may still be of some use.”

The viscount’s head produced a smile. A somewhat gruesome gesture. “My niece is too modest for her own good. Now, allow me to get down to business. First I must relate some details of recent history which some of you are likely to be more familiar with than others. The pertinent events occur five years ago.”

Major Thurlow looked at me and winked. “Quite a few more pertinent events to be found then compared to these more turgid times.”

The viscount laughed, the sound rattling through his ancient lungs. “Yes, indeed! Following the arrival of the Sky Spiders - a rather pertinent event, you’ll agree Major - and working from the assumption that such an advanced civilisation must rely heavily on technology similar to our own analytical engines, the Academy for Machine Intelligence rushed the EON series of humanoid philosophy engines to completion.

“Five units were constructed, and each was tasked with infiltrating a Sky Spider structure deemed likely to house analytical machinery - their ultimate goal being to interface with this machinery and obtain intelligence. One by one, telegrams reporting success were received from each EON unit. Of the five, however, only one returned.”

EON-4 stepped forward. “I think it is important to be honest, your Lordship. Full possession of the facts guards one against the unexpected. I was certainly the only EON unit to return. I was also the only one to fail to achieve the mission objective. It does not, therefore, seem improbable that it was exactly the act of succeeding at their mission that resulted in the disappearance of EON units one, two, three and five. Disappearance, that is,” EON-4 fixed the single glass lens in its featureless head on the viscount, “until now.”

The viscount nodded. “Una, show them the telegram.”

Lady Una turned to a tiny bedside table tucked in among the dense forest of hoses leading into her uncle’s bed. She carefully opened a narrow drawer and took a folded piece of paper between gloved fingertips, passing it first to the Major, who, after studying it for perhaps half a minute, passed it to me. This is what I read:



I handed the telegram to Sigrid. She studied it carefully and then gave it to EON-4.

After a few seconds, EON-4 reached up a silvery hand to mime the action of scratching its head. “Most peculiar.”

“EON-2 was sent to a structure in the far north of the continent. Apparently, it is still in the vicinity of that location. The other EON units weren’t sent quite so far. I think it’s fair to surmise that they are also still close to the locations of their objectives.

“But if they’re so close, relatively speaking,” I began, “why didn’t they come back?”

“Perhaps they were captured,” Major Thurlow suggested. “Perhaps EON-2 has only recently escaped. Out in what was once the world of humans, wondering what the hell happened to the Academy for Machine Intelligence.”

Sigrid cleared her throat, awkwardly. “I take it then, your Lordship, that you intend for us five to try and find one of these EON units and see what exactly they know about the Sky Spiders?”

“If you are willing,” the viscount said, “yes. It will be dangerous, of course.”

The Major scoffed. “Simply existing is dangerous these days.”

“But that’s while trying to avoid the Spiders,” Sigrid said. “For this, we’ll need to head right for the heart of their spidery business.”

“There’s more,” the viscount added.

EON-4 looked at each of us in turn with its glassy eye. “Yes. It is possible that the failure of the mission was inevitable. That the disappearance of the four other EON units was an intrinsic result of the information they learned - a factor that may not be restricted to machine intelligences.”

“In short,” the viscount said, “I’m asking you to look into the mind of the Sky Spiders. And hoping that it won’t drive you mad.”


Next week: Will this disparate five accept the viscount’s mission? What can have happened to the missing four EONs? And what the hell is a Sky Spider anyway? Check back in a week’s time for the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders!


Friday Medieval Guy Blogging

These medieval guys are stabbing one another.

Historians believe this may be why everyone from the Middle Ages is now dead.


Hundreds and Thousands

Image source with larger version
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

I'm still settling in to my new computer (here's something you can do right now: burn a CD of all the free programs you've downloaded, so you won't have to find them all again), so here's a pretty picture: Martian soil sprinkled on a blob of silicate and photographed by Phoenix's microscope. The white bar in the bottom left shows the scale of one millimetre.


Right, so...

Just a quick note that my computer died, and with it my ability to blog securely and privately. On the plus side, I've written the first two parts of the upcoming serial, so you have that to look forward to when I get a new PC. Which should be some time... well, in the future...


"I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that."

Really tired. Kind of in a bad mood. Still waiting for my cold to trail off completely.

My computer is experiencing a reluctance to function. On the plus side, I may have to get a new PC. On the downside, I may have to get Windows Vista.

Sometimes, my cat sticks out his tongue.


I'm worried that I'm getting out of practice since I last wrote something, so I'm going to try and write a pulpy little serial. Just a thousand words a week, each instalment ending in a cliff hanger. Have some characters in mind, but not really sure what I'm going to write about.

Certainly not going to be any good.


Ice Beneath

Image source with more information
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/
University of Arizona/Max Planck Institute

"We were expecting to find ice within two to six inches of the surface," said Peter Smith of the University of Arizona, Tucson, principal investigator for Phoenix. "The thrusters have excavated two to six inches and, sure enough, we see something that looks like ice. It's not impossible that it's something else, but our leading interpretation is ice."

Camera on Arm Looks Beneath NASA Mars Lander

Of course, we've seen ice on Mars before, from orbit, but we've never before been within (robotic) arm's length of the stuff. Any worries that the immobile Phoenix lander might be sitting on the wrong spot have surely been allayed a little, though it's not until we actually start digging that we'll know for sure.