Water Water Everywhere

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

So, the Phoenix team report that their scooper (above) has successfully scooped up some water ice. This is a great piece of news regarding the aims of this particular mission, but despite what many news outlets seem to be reporting, it is old news that there is water ice on Mars. We've known this for quite a few years thanks to orbital observations by several craft of both the bloody great big ice caps on either end of the planet and also the frozen red soil between them.

Given my fondness for Saturn, its enormous (mostly) water ice rings and its numerous water ice moons, you may also be far from surprised to learn that those science correspondents claiming (and/or implying) that this is the first evidence of any water ice in space should probably be fired. Out of a cannon.

On a positive note, Phoenix's mission has been extended. It also seems that they're overcoming problems with their oven door and the consistency of the Martian soil. Personally, I'm hoping they'll let the thing keep going til it breaks, but then I always feel that way about our robot space-friends.


For the Fans!

The more I see of Resident Evil: Degeneration, the more convinced I become that:

1. This is not going to be a good movie.

2. I am going to love it.
Feeling much better now, but really tired since I've stayed up until about half-midnight writing. Today is - yesterday was NASA's fiftieth birthday of sorts - fifty years since Congress approved its foundation. Please imagine I wrote an interesting post on that subject instead of just petering out and collapsing into bed.


Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders: Part 6

Previously: “Our journey towards the Twisted Forests immediately ran into trouble when our hot air balloon attracted the attentions of Prometheus – a renegade Sky Spider machine that harboured some begrudging respect for John Kirkham, the mysterious leader of Fortress City.”

Part 6: No Man's Land

Snagged on splintered wooden barricades, the balloon fluttered loudly in the cold morning wind. As I helped Major Thurlow out of the torn basket, he leaned on me heavily.

“Grab a satchel each,” Lady Una commanded calmly, miraculously upright in her hoop-skirted dress.

“Choose food and water over ammunition,” Thurlow growled. “We won't find any fit to touch in the Twisted Forests.”

EON-4 slung a battered bag over each shoulder in turn. “We should move sooner rather than later,” he suggested, helpfully. “We managed to make it perhaps more than halfway across the scorched earth. If we move quickly, we may outrun our new friend. It's still quite some way distant, I believe.”

We could all hear it. A sound like heavy weights being dropped in quick succession. I risked a glance over my shoulder. It was vertigo inducing, to see the black mountain of Prometheus surging toward us on a dozen legs. The worst part of all being how easily – gracefully, almost - this small mountain of strange technology moved, its hard human face barely bobbing as it stepped over crumbling trenches and shattered war machines alike.

Thurlow slipped out of my grip, limping badly, and managed to grab hold of a pack and rifle, leaning on the weapon like a crutch. “Duck,” he said calmly.

I shot another look over my shoulder. There was one low, cratered hilltop between us and Prometheus. Now the creature seemed focused on it intensely. Under its unmoving gaze, a crackling sphere of blue lightning was flickering into existence, surrounding the hilltop completely. I followed the major's advice, but perhaps a little too late.

Unmistakeably, the electrical sphere imploded, collapsing in on itself with a ear splitting crack and a powerful inrush of earth and air that lifted me bodily off my feet. I landed heavily on all fours, my fingers sinking into hardened mud. Lady Una grabbed my arm and lifted me up with surprising strength. Together, we began to run. Across the ruined landscape, I thought I could just make out a thin sliver of green that might be distant woodland.

“Where's Phenice?” Thurlow demanded, glancing back at us.

I looked around, but the riflewoman was nowhere to be seen.

“Did she fall?” Lady Una asked, pinching her skirt with both hands and gliding with impossible ease over the detritus of a five year war.

“She was with us when we landed,” I called out, risking an ill advised look over my shoulder. “I'm certain of it.”

EON-4 sprinted easily away from us, then turned to address us from some way ahead. “I'm afraid my memory system is poorly equipped for recording moments of rapid action, but I'm certain she was with us when the basket touched down.”

Thurlow let out a grunt of pain and frustration as he half-ran, half-hobbled forwards. “Well where the hell is she?”

There was another crack, and a distant hilltop imploded in the same fashion as the first. I looked back at Prometheus, still bearing down on us. “What's it doing?”

Thurlow grimaced. “If it wanted us dead, doctor, I'm quite certain it could have killed us in mid-air. I don't think this is violence directed at us, so much as a temper tantrum. Prometheus knows that daddy wants us left alone, and it wants us to know how unhappy that makes it.”

I looked yet again at that impassive face, so reminiscent of Kirkham's. “How can you be so sure?”

“Well, the other option is that it's bored out here by itself and it intends to toy with us for as long as possible before moving in for the kill.”

“I prefer the first hypothesis,” EON-4 interjected.

I looked back over my shoulder once more to see Prometheus tear noisily through the rusted skeleton of an armoured vehicle. The trouble with something so huge was that it was difficult to judge how much it was gaining on us. All I could be sure was that it was, in fact, gaining on us. Kirkham's silhouette jutted up higher into the sky each time I looked back.

Of course, if I'd spent more time looking forward I wouldn't have fallen into the trench. I rolled and managed to land on my back. At least I'd landed on something soft, I thought at first. Until the furry expanse that had cushioned my fall moved beneath me. I leapt to my feet, brushing my arms and legs compulsively. Rats. Crawling through the rag-clad bones of a dozen dead soldiers - a sea of mangy brown rats.

“I wouldn't be too frightened,” a voice said softly, startling me all the same.

I whirled round to see Sigrid Phenice sitting on her haunches in the trench with me, her rifle across her lap.

“I've been looking around,” she said. “There are enough dead things about to keep the rats well fed. They're unlikely to try sampling live human flesh unless you lie still for too long or something.”

“Really reassuring, thanks.”

“I wouldn't worry too much about him, either,” she went on, nodding in the direction of Prometheus' footfalls. “Either he's not really trying or he can't shoot straight. He'll never keep us from the forests.”

I stood on tip-toe to look around for the others. The trench was only waist high, but from here I could no longer see them. “We need to get moving,” I suggested.

“No,” Sigrid continued, “if I was going to worry about someone, it wouldn't be the rats or the big noisy crab. It'd be the other ones.”

Something in the tone of her voice made me crouch back down. “What other ones?”

She smiled. “You see? The really dangerous ones are the ones you never know are coming. Look.”

She got onto her knees, casually brushing a few rats aside, and rested her rifle on the parapet. She gestured for me to look through the telescopic sight and I knelt down beside her. It took a while for me to make out the forms I was looking at. They were human, at least to a point, uniformed even. But they moved on all fours, crawling through craters hand over hand. And above the neck, their heads disappeared into branching, sun-bright tangles of Sky Spider machinery.

“I've done a rough count,” Sigrid whispered. “There are no more than two hundred.”

“Well,” I said, “it could be worse.”


Next week: Check back in (half) a week’s time for the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders, and meet the two hundred new members of the cast!



Well, I'm just recovering from a weekend of throwing up. If I'm feeling better tomorrow I'll hopefully have the next instalment of Sky Spiders for you...


Midnight Sun on Mars

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

Whichever planet you're on, as long as it has a tilted axis, the seasons work the same. This is essentially a time-lapse image taken by Phoenix, showing the movement of the sun in the Martian arctic as the Red Planet enters northern winter.

So: a photo of an alien sunset that doesn't happen. Rather nifty, I think.


Ring Scale

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

This monochrome Cassini image lends Saturn an everyday solidity that belies its gargantuan scale. Janus, a speck in the centre of the picture just above the rings, is about 180km across, and Pandora, just to the left of Janus (you'll want to click for the full view to see them properly) is 80km in diameter.

Saturn, on the other hand, stretches across 120,000km, and is over a million km from Cassini's wide-angle (ie. not especially telescopic) camera.



Been shopping.


Gun Mute: Version 6 and Extras

Gun Mute: Version 6

Version 6 of Gun Mute fixes a few bugs that you hopefully never saw, but that might have been a bit jarring if you did.

The new files are in the same place as the old ones:

-Windows executable - a zip file containing a simple double-click-to-run file for Windows.
-.t3 file -a file that can be run with interpreters for Windows, Mac and Linux.

And because that's not especially interesting, here's a little something... extra.

Gun Mute: Extras

1.  Design Notes

It took twelve A4 pages to design Gun Mute. Here are the four most interesting ones.

This was my first attempt at putting names to puzzles. In the next such document, the cast was pretty much finalised, but there are a few differences in this one. (Warning: puzzle spoilers!)

Atomic April was originally a lot more complicated than she is now. I had trouble making this puzzle hang together until I decided to give her a 'transparent brain jar'. Now she's one of my favourite characters.  If you can make any sense of the diagram above, you're doing better than me.

I wrote out the Sheriff's speech in one go, during a bout of insomnia. My handwriting is much neater at one in the morning it seems. (Warning: plot spoilers!)

Towards the end of development, I suddenly became worried that the game was too short, and quickly cooked up three extra characters who never made it into the game. The hypnotist would have been called Mesmer the Amazing.

Obviously, you can find additional design notes on this blog, in my Gun Mute category.

2. Deleted Scene

This tutorial sequence was completed but never fully fleshed out. Ultimately I decided that it was completely unnecessary and only likely to interrupt the game's urgent flow towards noon. (Warning: plot spoilers!)

3. Alternate Ending

The game was originally going to end with Mute and Elias riding away on a robot horse, with Juanita tagging along if you had de-programmed her. As I worked on the game, though, it became increasingly more difficult to come up with a good reason why they'd leave town after systematically killing everyone who might cause them trouble, especially after I started adding more friendly and ambiguous characters. Eventually I came up with the ending that the game currently has, which nevertheless went through two or three iterations.

4. Secrets

It really is worth pointing and waving around friendly characters, especially after you've relieved their burdens. I did my best to implement responses to pointing at pretty much every object around them.  Most of it is just small talk, but there are a few mentions of bigger things. It is possible, for example, to get Elias to mention Robo-City Alpha.

5. Feelies

I did start work on a little extra that was going to be included with the game: a tourist pamphlet for the Radiation Plains, trying to appeal to the inhabitants of 'Robo-City Alpha'. It started with a foreword by Sheriff Clayton, talking about his efforts to make the area safe, and then featured three testimonials by happy tourists, including a robot drone looking to relax among the meat bags, a once-human intelligence from the Atmospheric Networks (as mentioned by the plainswoman) who enjoyed reminding herself of the misery of physical form, and a third perspective that I can't actually remember. All this was interspersed with little boxes dispelling common myths about the plains, such as the likelihood of turning into a mutant zomboid.

The chief issue with this document was formatting: I just lumped it all into a crappy html file, and I didn't really have the confidence in it to spend time getting it into shape. The Radiation Plains tourist brochure may now be lost for all time, as I don't seem to have backed it up from my old - now deceased - computer. I wouldn't worry too much, though - it really was a bit rubbish.

6. The End

Well, that's pretty much everything I can think of that might interest you. Please stop playing Gun Mute so that I won't have to fix anymore bugs.

Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders: Part 5

Previously: “Time to move on from Fortress City. But will a hot-air balloon get us past Prometheus, the renegade Sky Spider machine?”

Part 5: Lab Rat Balloon

I sat on a grass verge, looking out into the blackness of night.

“Trouble sleeping?”

“Dreams,” I answered.

Lady Una glided out of the shadows, moving noiselessly over the cobblestone path. “Nightmares?” she asked.

I shook my head. “Memories.”

She smiled lopsidedly – a strange gesture for her delicate features. “Same thing these days. May I sit with you?”

“Trouble sleeping yourself?”

“Always,” she answered, and then folded up in a peculiar and graceful motion that found her seated on the ground beside me, her high-necked, hoop-skirted dress uncreased.

“I think, perhaps... you should consider wearing more practical clothes once we leave the city,” I suggested.

“I know about the Select Committee,” Lady Una responded.

I was unsure how to respond. “Excuse me?”

“I've mentioned that my uncle's library carried copies of files from the Imperial Society, have I not? They really were surprisingly detailed – although, of course, they could say nothing of what is presumably known only by yourself among all humans.”

I shifted uncomfortably. The ground beneath me seemed to have suddenly become hard and uneven.

Lady Una studied her fingernails in the moonlight. “There's no need to squirm doctor. You did what you thought was right. There's no shame in that. I trust you.”

“I'm really not sure why.”

She turned her pale face to look at me. “Will you trust me in return, doctor?”

“Are you doing this to the others as well?”

She frowned. “What do you mean?”

“I can't see why you'd single me out for special trust, given what you know. So I suspect you're doing this to Thurlow and Phenice as well, maybe even EON-4. Taking us aside one by one and making an agreement of mutual trust?”

“Maybe I am. Would you like to be the one to turn me down?”


“Well then, I'll trust you to help my uncle in his quest. And you'll trust me to dress myself. Okay?”

“Okay,” I said, uncertainly.

She leaned back on her gloved hands. “Now perhaps you'll tell me exactly what it is about this view that you find so appealing?”

I looked out into the darkness. There was almost nothing there, just faint gas lamps, moon-silvered rooftops and a sprinkling of stars. “I'm not sure. I just felt the need to get some fresh air and look out to sea. I think I can almost hear it at times, but maybe it's just the blood in my ears.”

She shivered. “It just looks desolate to me. A lot of dirty rooftops and the unfriendly depths of space.”

I laughed. “Country girl.”

She looked a bit bemused at that. “What is that supposed to mean?”

“I like the rooftops. It's nice to know there are people behind them, sound asleep. It feels surreal. Like the world behind me is a dream, or this is, and I don't know if I'm awake or not.”

To my great surprise, Lady Una reached over and pinched my arm through my shirt.


“Awake,” she stated. “They're both real.”

“Bit too literal. That hurt.”

“I don't know my own strength. But you'll live, I'm sure. How is your rat?”

“Relocated, at least. Still alive, I hope. Certainly finding life harder outside the city than within its walls.”

“Did Prometheus react at all?”

“No. The thing hasn't moved since I first saw it. There's no way to know if it'll react the same way to a hot air balloon with humans in it as it did to a rat tied to a helium balloon. The wind is moving in the right direction, at least. Surprising...” I met her eye. “Surprising that EON-4 managed to get the balloon from Kirkham, don't you think?”

She said nothing.

“I can't keep my eyes open much longer,” I admitted.

“Must be the company.”


“Hardly,” she repeated, then, with a twist of her mouth: “I've never flown before.”

“Me neither. There's nothing to worry about though. Flying is perfectly safe.”

“Exactly what are you basing this confidence on?”

“Nobody was ever killed flying through the air,” I answered. “It's falling you have to worry about. Specifically: hitting the ground.”

She smirked. “I should have guessed that was coming. Sweet dreams.”

With another strange and elegant motion, she stood up and offered me a gloved hand to help me to my feet.


The following morning we five assembled on the observation post on the top of Fortress City's keep – a rusted, paint-flecked structure that rattled in the wind. Lady Una clutched the railing with one hand, her hoop skirt billowing like a sail. She met my eye and smiled.

When Kirkham's men finished loading the balloon with supplies, they helped us into the basket one by one, and then untied the tether. For a lurching moment, the balloon dropped. And then it buoyed back up, floating on the wind.

Thurlow leaned over the edge, looking down at the charred ruins of no-man's land. “Well, that didn't take long.”

Below us, Prometheus began to extend its jointed legs. With patient deliberation, its inexpressive face turned upwards.


Next week: Will our heroes survive the attentions of Prometheus? What horrors lurk beneath them in no-man's land? Check back in a week’s time for the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders!


I really can't do anything on Saturdays. I should probably stop planning things for them. Anyway, tomorrow I will hopefully have an update for Gun Mute that fixes a few egregious bugs. I may possibly also be in the mood to drop a few hints about the shape of my next IF project...


Friday Quistis Blogging

There is something about Quistis Trepe. I am not sure what it is.


Further Degeneration

Just in case you thought I'd taken a break from being a Resident Evil fanboy, let me point out that the upcoming CG animated movie Resident Evil: Degeneration now has an offical US website. There's nothing much there at the moment except for the teaser trailer and a promise that more is to come in a week's time...


Another Tiny World, Arbitrarily

Makemake, the second brightest Kuiper Belt Object after Pluto, has officially been categorized as a dwarf planet. As usual, I need to stress that this whole form of categorisation is completely artbitrary, not reflecting any kind of real attribute that these worlds possess or lack. I still think that Asimov came up with the only really valid categorisation for the worlds that orbit a star, dividing them up into gas giants (Jupiter, Saturn et al.) and 'debris' (everything else, including Earth).

But I do like the dwarf planet category, if only because it highlights worlds that might otherwise never make the spotlight. So: Makemake. It's bright. It's in the Kuiper Belt. At 1600 km across, we're confident that it's probably pretty round.

Not about to steal Best in Show from Ceres any time soon, methinks.

Hat tip: Planetary Society Blog


I thought that I was eating more than usual lately, though now that I think about it, I'm not sure how I reached that conclusion. Anyway, I decided to step on the scales and see if I am approaching normality, and was surprised to see that I'd actually lost a couple of kilos. All things considered, I realise I'm actually eating about the same amount as ever, and I'm also getting a lot more exercise, so I guess that is why.

If you want me, I will be standing behind this hat stand. You may not notice me at first.



So I opened up my old, broken computer and took the hard drive out. Not really sure what to do with it now, but there is some stuff on it that I'd like to save if I can.

The post-it warning might seem a bit paranoid until you see the huge magnet on the shelf where I normally put random things.

Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders: Part 4

Previously: “Searching for the missing EON units, we found ourselves trapped in Fortress City, the way ahead guarded by a renegade Sky Spider machine...”

Part 4: The Delinquent Child

The walls of Fortress City weren't, as those who had never seen them often imagined, a single impenetrable barrier, but instead were layered like a half-disintegrated onion, inner barriers mounting up to the main walls, outer trenches and barricades devolving into tank traps and the lethal gaze of the city's big guns.

Halfway to no-man's land, buried beneath an avalanche of sandbags and topped with an unmanned machine-gun post, was a squat and eroded pillbox, its slit eyes peering out across the wasteland. Inside, feeling the oppressive weight of cold stone on all sides, I met Suzette for the first time in five years.

“Well,” she said, looking at me through a bristling multitude of lenses, “look which lizard decided to come crawling out of its hole.”

“Hello, Suzette,” I answered flatly, “I can't tell you how pleased I am to see you again. I brought a friend. We need you to tell us about Prometheus.”

Suzette somehow succeeded in peering over her goggles. “An EON unit, presumably the fourth one, the one that came back empty handed.”

“A pleasure to meet you,” EON-4 said.

“That's a philosophical proposition in itself,” Suzette responded. “Are you really pleased to see me – or just programmed to say that you are?”

EON-4's eye swivelled and refocused on her. “It seems you have better reason to believe I am pleased to meet you than I have to believe the same of you.”

With a clattering of cogs, the cradle from which Suzette dangled repositioned her closer to the narrow windows, her feet dangling a few centimetres above the floor. “A tin can with a sense of humour,” she mused. “What wonderful toys you bring for me, Gleve.”

She leaned forward to peer through a pair of binoculars mounted on the lip of the window, and grasped a brass speaking tube with emaciated fingers. “Position unchanged,” she said. “Declination thirty degrees, range four hundred metres.”

She looked over her shoulder at me. “You might care to cover your ears.”

I did so, just in time to have my bones thoroughly shaken up by the thunderous report of the city guns.

Suzette, unrattled, looked back through the binoculars. “Visual contact lost,” she told the speaking tube. “Target presumed destroyed.”

With a further clattering, Suzette's cradle crawled along its track on the ceiling, carrying her on a veering path towards an untidy desk of maps and telegrams. Curiosity overcame me and I stepped into her place to look through the binoculars.

“How are the other members of the Select Committee?” Suzette asked nonchalantly. “Did any of the others ever turn up, or are you still the only survivor?”

All I could see was a cluster of smoking craters in the churned-up mud. My eye picked out movement among the haze of dust and debris thrown up by the barrage, and my imagination shaped that movement into strange and horrific forms. “We need to learn about Prometheus,” I said. “We're part of a group hoping to get to the Twisted Forests by the most direct route possible.”

Suzette snorted. “The most direct route would be to load you into a shell and blast you across.”

I stood up and walked over to stand by her side at the table of maps. “A novel idea, unfortunately requiring more development time than we have to spare.”

“Only if you want to survive the journey,” Suzette said. She laid a finger on one of the maps, right next to a small plastic toy crab. “Prometheus. Our over-enthusiastic little guard dog. If the Sky Spiders can't get past it, you sure as hell won't.”

“How did you gain control of it in the first place?”

“We didn't. We still haven't. We raised it from the larval form we stole from the Sky Spiders during the battle for Unity City. A huge stroke of luck, some call it. I just call it the best thing that we were able to achieve with a million deaths. We raised it, so it respects us, in some alien fashion. But that doesn't mean that it likes us, or that it'll stop short of hurting us.”

I looked down at the map, trying to interpret the spaghetti of trenches and contour lines. “We need to distract it,” I said. “Lure it to the other side of the scorched earth.”

“How?” Suzette asked. “Don't think we haven't tried before. It only responds to genuine threats, and then it responds with lethal force.”

“What kind of lethal force?”

Suzette shrugged, the cradle rocking with the motion. “We're not entirely sure. Things that it takes an especial dislike to seem to... implode.”


EON-4 stepped forward. “What about aerial targets?”

Suzette looked puzzled. “Huh?”

“Prometheus destroys anything that enters the scorched earth, but do things in the air qualify as having entered it?”

Suzette frowned. “No idea.”

“Isn't there a hot-air balloon at the top of the fortress?” I asked.

“Yes, and it goes straight up and comes straight back down. It's tethered. We've only got the one, and we need it for spotting distant artillery targets.”

“We'd only need to borrow it. You can get it back as soon as the wind changes.”

Suzette was evidently far from impressed. “We still have no reason to believe that Prometheus won't pop you in mid-air, assuming the wind even carries you far enough in the right direction.”

“Experiment,” I said. “Experiment and observation. We don't know at the moment, but we will very shortly, I promise you.”

She smirked. “Kirkham will never agree to it.”

EON-4 spoke up again. “Perhaps I can help there. John Kirkham has requested to dine with me this evening. To discuss philosophy, I believe – that is my primary function, after all. Perhaps I can persuade him to relinquish the balloon to us, in the hopes that we will be able to return it.”

“Perhaps you can.” Suzette removed her goggles and looked me in the eye. “Well, I can only wish you the best of luck on your insane suicide mission, Gleve. At least this time my husband won't be going with you.”

“Thank you Suzette,” I said, earnestly. “I can only...”

I couldn't find the words. I just mumbled a goodbye and left.

Outside, EON-4 looked across the ruined landscape at the distant silhouette of Prometheus. “I feel quite confident that things are progressing well,” he said.

“Really?” I answered, starting to head back into the city. “I don't.”


Next week: Will our heroes make it to the Twisted Forests? Will Prometheus mind them passing over its head? What happens when a hot-air balloon implodes anyway? Check back in a week’s time for the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders!


Friday Racing Driver Blogging

Lewis Hamilton, recent winner of the British Grand Prix, to much rejoicing.


Quite Incurable

Poizoned Mind

Not that I don't have anything better to do right now (for example: sleeping, it's almost 1am), but I've uploaded a new version of Poizoned Mind that runs under Windows Vista without Aero switching off. Note that the URL to the old version (hosted on Willhostforfood) still works - and still points to the old version.

I may release a similar fix for Space Shot during my next bout of insomnia.

One thing I keep toying with is the idea of releasing a "Gold Edition" for Poizoned Mind, with the option to turn on proper line wrapping. But then I always feel a chill breeze, and an electric blue George Lucas materialises over my shoulder, giving me an encouraging nod, and suddenly I feel like maybe I should leave things as they are.


Spot the Difference

Saturn, Late 2004
Image source with more information
Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Saturn, 2007.
Image source with more information
Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Saturn, 2008.
Image source with more information
Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

And because I've gone on about Saturn's not being blue about as much as I can (it is not blue anymore, end of information), read this news item on Cassini entering the second phase of its mission, and this nice little summary of its mission so far.

(Also, as Saturn approaches equinox, the shadows cast by the rings are getting much thinner.)


Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders: Part 3

Previously: Five of us were chosen by the viscount to find the missing EON units and uncover the secrets of the Sky Spiders. Heading towards the nearest EON, we reached the outskirts of Fortress City.

Part 3: Fortress City

Fortress City was a sprawling imbroglio of noise and activity. A million people were crammed into crooked, soot-blackened houses, trying frantically to convince themselves that human civilisation continued as normal. Then again, perhaps for them, in those brief few years, it actually did.

Moving inland from Circhester, we actually couldn't see the main fortifications that protected the city – just the encircling wall of ancient stone and a few token watch towers guarding against a hypothetical threat from the coast. It seemed like any other city you might find in the world: trees and fields giving way to buildings and cobbled roads dotted with wrought iron gas lamps. The exception, of course, was that in this city, people thronged the streets, hurrying about their business, loitering happily, hawking their scavenged wares.

We moved into the city on foot, some of the viscount's men struggling to follow us through the crowds with our belongings strapped securely to a horse-drawn cart. Lady Una glided ahead of us, her hoop skirt moving smoothly over the cobblestones as if her feet didn't even touch the ground, and I found myself walking alongside Sigrid Phenice, the gruff soldier. She stomped along with one hand on the strap of the rifle slung over her shoulder, head down, showing little interest in small-talk. Which suited me fine. The last five years had done strange things to my humour.

Ahead of us, the central keep rose out of the city, town houses clinging to it like barnacles. An ancient castle, now hybridised with the great steel machinery of modern artillery – fat factory chimneys, enormous loading cogs, and the long barrels of obscenely huge cannon. At the highest point, a railed observation platform jutted out from the ramparts, tethered to the colourful bubble of a hot air balloon.

“Quite a sight, isn't it?” Thurlow called out from behind. “Gives new meaning to the phrase 'human scale'. Affirming to one's sense of significance, don't you think?”

I glanced at Sigrid and met her eye.

She declined to answer the Major's remark; as did I.

At that moment, several of the fortress guns opened up, a series of thunderous reports that sounded deep in your bones before it reached your ears. The clouded sky flashed bright white. And the people of Fortress City continued to bustle around us, unconcerned. Certainly, the guns didn't fire again that time, and whatever they were shooting at must, at the very least, have decided to hastily reconsider its course of action.

I glanced about me at the other travellers. They hid it well, but I could see that, like me, they were starting to mull over the thought of moving past those guns and towards what they aimed at. Well, each of the travellers but EON-4, its featureless head bobbing mechanically as it walked.


John Kirkham said there was no way across the zone of scorched earth dividing Fortress City from the rest of the continent. And he took us out on his balcony to show us why.

I'd heard the name John Kirkham enough times, but never met him. His house was pressed up right against the inside of the front wall of the fortress keep. A huge circular door was set in the wall of his sitting room, like the entrance to the innermost vault of the world's most paranoid bank. On the other side was Kirkham's balcony, an elegant affair with a small circular table in one corner.

“I like to take my afternoon tea here,” he told us, “and meditate on the state of the world from above.”

I looked out at the world as John Kirkham saw it. It was a barren expanse of churned-up mud, divided up by trenches and craters, and dotted here and there with the splintered wooden forms of tank traps and dead trees.

“Yes,” Thurlow said. “I can see the appeal.”

Lady Una stepped forward, placing a gloved hand on the balcony's ornate railing. “It certainly won't be easy to cross,” she said. “But hardly impossible.”

There was no way to tell what expression Kirkham really had, behind that immobile mask of gold, but somehow I got the impression he was smiling. “You think that because you haven't seen it yet.”

“Seen what yet?” Lady Una asked, a little curtly.

Kirham raised a hand to point across the wasteland. “Prometheus.”

It was something that I'd assumed was a part of the landscape, a low and midnight black mound like an outcrop of rock or a burnt-out building. But actually looking at it, it was unlike anything Earthly. Its complete blackness had a kind of vibrant sheen, something that's difficult to explain unless you've seen something like it before. Which, of course, we all had. Except...

“It's a Sky Spider machine,” Thurlow hissed, stepping back warily towards the door.

Kirkham clasped his hands together. “Actually, it's our Sky Spider machine.”

“That face,” I said. “That human face, like a statue.”

The others stepped up to the railing to look. Overall, the thing looked like a curled up crab or closed fist, fat appendages bunched up beneath it. But what perhaps had lead to us overlooking it as some hill or ruin was the way it was topped with a human head and shoulders, completely immobile and inexpressive. A human head and shoulders, I now realised, with the same serenely beautiful features as Kirkham's mask.

“I'm impressed,” I said, speaking under my breath. “Very impressed.”

Kirkham touched a finger to his golden lips. “I wouldn't be too eager with your praise, doctor. Prometheus is a blunt weapon. Effective, but destructive and unrefined. It destroys anything that enters the scorched ground. In this way it keeps the city safe from incursion - and also prevents us from moving inland. I'm sure that you all arrived on this side of the scorched ground by sea, and that's how I recommend you cross to the other side.”

“That's not an option,” Lady Una stated flatly. “It would increase the length of our journey across open country tenfold, and take us right past Unity City. We'd stand a much better chance of passing Prometheus, especially since it is, apparently, a known quantity.”

Kirkham spread his hands, palms upward. “Not quite as known as we'd like, otherwise we'd stop it from attacking us too.”

Lady Una didn't seem to enjoy Kirkham's sense of humour. She looked from his golden mask towards me. “See that Dr Gleve is given every relevant piece of information regarding Prometheus,” she instructed Kirkham. “We'll be crossing the scorched ground as soon as we can. We need to know anything that might distract or allay this creature – or machine, whatever it is.”

With that she glided back through the vault door, the others following close behind her. Thurlow paused to slap me hard on the back, laughing to himself.

“Doctor,” Kirkham said, turning his golden face to me, “I'm hardly capable of giving you such technical details myself, so I'll refer you to Suzette. Professor Suzette Layling – I believe you must know her from the Imperial Society?”

“Yes,” I said, trying to keep my expression neutral. “I know her.”

This was just getting better and better. Even if the Sky Spider war machine wasn't going to murder me, Suzette certainly would.


Next week: What is Prometheus? Does it have a weakness? And what's the deal between Peregrine and Suzette? Check back in a week’s time for the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders!


Last three books I read...

Ubik, Philip K. Dick

After reading A Scanner Darkly, I read quite a few other books by PKD, but none gave me quite the same sense of 'wow'. Until Ubik, that is. This book freaked me out, moved me to tears and made me laugh. (It also features a minor character called Edie Dorn who I fell for hopelessly.)

The Prefect, Alistair Reynolds

Not one of Reynolds' best books, but it's interesting to explore an earlier and more civilised (by some standards) period of his future history, even if it means the gorgeously baroque and gothic elements of many of his works are toned down somewhat.

What Was Lost, Catherine O'Flynn

A story divided between tales of childhood loneliness and adult disaffection, tempered with good humour and strong characterisation. It works better in its slice-of-life character-driven moments, but the plot threads come together nicely in the end.


Metropolis Un-Amputated

So it turns out a museum in Buenos Aires has been in possession of a complete copy of the visually entrancing Metropolis the whole time - including the quarter of the film chopped out and believed lost forever when it was dumbed-down for American audiences. Read the full story at Zeit Online.

Hat tip: Twitch


Reviews +2

I've added another couple of reviews to the Interactive Fiction Database, this time of Vespers and Downtown Tokyo, Present Day (pictured above).