Um so...

I think I need to sit down and plan out exactly how to finish Sky Spiders, because I'm not really sure what I'm doing anymore. Not that I was all that sure before, but still.


Friday X-Ray Blogging

An X-ray of then former US president Theodore Roosevelt, taken in 1912, following an attempted assassination while he was campaigning for his new Progressive party (popularly known as the Bull Mooses). Roosevelt declined immediate medical attention and went ahead to deliver a lengthy speech. This speech began:

Friends, I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible. I don't know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot; but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose. But fortunately I had my manuscript, so you see I was going to make a long speech, and there is a bullet - there is where the bullet went through - and it probably saved me from it going into my heart. The bullet is in me now, so that I cannot make a very long speech, but I will try my best.

And now, friends, I want to take advantage of this incident to say a word of solemn warning to my fellow countrymen. First of all, I want to say this about myself: I have altogether too important things to think of to feel any concern over my own death; and now I cannot speak to you insincerely within five minutes of being shot. I am telling you the literal truth when I say that my concern is for many other things. It is not in the least for my own life. I want you to understand that I am ahead of the game, anyway. No man has had a happier life than I have led; a happier life in every way. I have been able to do certain things that I greatly wished to do, and I am interested in doing other things. I can tell you with absolute truthfulness that I am very much uninterested in whether I am shot or not.

Read the rest of it here.


Why do I even know about Wolfram Alpha?

I didn't understand why Wolfram Alpha was being hyped up so much in the first place, so I'm not at all surprised that it's turned out to be rubbish. It's not just that it doesn't know the answer to any of your questions, or that it's basically Wikipedia with hardly any editors, or that a web increasingly about linking and networking is never going to get behind something that tries to be your one-stop resource for other sites' data without properly crediting them.

The chief problem is that, well, Wolfram Alpha is really boring. A search for 'Saturn' just turns up a load of numbers and diagrams. Even a search for 'sex' just turns up a dictionary definition. It's too dry for people who aren't experts and too shallow for those who are.


Orbit Plane Shadows

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

Cassini has sent quite a few images like this over the past month, probably because they depict something that you only really get to see if you're orbiting Saturn around about the time of its equinox: several of its moons are now casting their shadows onto the rings.

This particular shadow is being thrown by Death Star look-alike Mimas, which isn't itself pictured.


Monday Movie: Tokyo Godfathers

When three homeless people - a teenage runaway, a ruined gambler and a washed up drag queen - find a baby abandoned in the trash at Christmas, they decide to investigate themselves rather than contact the authorities. But their attempts to find the delinquent parents lead them from one unlikely encounter to another, and everything surrounding this strange child seems prone to small, often unnoticed miracles.

In Tokyo Godfathers, director Satoshi Kon takes his knack for weaving psychedelic surreality into everyday scenes and applies it to a layer of society that most of us prefer to overlook. The result is a film with a perfect, grimy urban ambience that still manages to convey a sense of magical Christmas spirit. It's also a film that, with very few direct references to Christianity, nevertheless embodies the real, non-mystical significance of the holiday: humanising those outside 'normal' culture and arguing for forgiveness, respect and understanding.

Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders: Part 44

Previously: “Five years ago, the Sky Spiders descended from space and wrought untold destruction and change on our world. Now Una and I had discovered that the leader of the largest remaining group of survivors was EON-1 - a thinking machine once sent to steal the Sky Spider's secrets, now running Fortress City as his own personal nature preserve.”

Part 44: Cataclysm

Blue lightning crackled and fizzed throughout the room, the surreal giant face of Prometheus staring at us from a neat circular hole in the thick walls of Fortress City.  

 We ran, barely making it out of the room before it imploded into nothing, sucking plaster down from the ceiling and buckling the floor beneath our feet. Una floated on ahead of me, barrelling into a group of spindly black automata and sending them flying with barely a pause. And then she stopped dead in her tracks.

 “I don't suppose this would be a good time to use the elevator, would it?” she asked.

 Before us lay a long, shallow staircase with an ornate bannister. “Oh,” I said.

 “Push me.”

 “Push you down the stairs?”

 Behind us came the sound of brick and wood collapsing, the pistoning of giant, arthropodal legs. “I'll be all right. But I don't quite have the guts to do it myself.”

 “I find that last part hard to believe,” I said, still placing my hands on the back of her shoulders.

 “Lower down. I don't want to flip over.”

 I dropped my hands to her hoop skirt and shoved. She rolled quickly down the stairs with a quick shriek. I followed close behind, stumbling as the stairs began to move and crack. At the bottom, Una put out an arm to stop herself, punching straight through a framed painting and the plaster wall behind it.

 I grabbed her hand. “Are you okay?”


 We were in the main hallway of Kirkham's home. Servants bolted for the door as Prometheus' slick black limbs sliced through the walls.  

 I cursed. “What the hell is it doing?”

 “Let's find out from a safe distance,” Una snapped, pulling me towards the door.


The formidable artillery of Fortress City fired relentlessly, and without effect. Prometheus was right against the outside wall, clawing through ancient stone that had seen off whole armies of invaders. Most of the guns couldn't even aim at it, their barrels carefully blocked from swinging too far towards the city itself. But those that could only proved how impotent we were against such advanced technology.

 Again and again the great impassive mask of Prometheus rippled and distorted as high-explosive shells pummelled it at point-blank range. And yet whenever the guns paused in their firing, it reformed perfectly.

 Already the streets were full of people - the drab masses of Fortress City forced to seek refuge once more, heading inland en masse.

 Una pointed a gloved hand at a couple spilling out of their roofless home, ragged bundles in their arms. “Children,” she remarked. “I haven't seen any children in years.”

 With an explosive rumble, dust began to rise from the direction of the wall. Prometheus was within the city. As it pressed forwards, it pushed against a grand old clock tower, spilling age-blackened bricks across the rooftops below.

 “Is it coming after us?” I asked.

 “No. I think Kirkham's playing his last card.”

 “Then he's the only one who can stop it.”

 There was another thunderous crash as Prometheus hauled its bulk through town houses and factories. The guns of Fortress City were silent.


Next week: Oh no! Check back in a week's time for the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders!


Robots of the Solar System: Unite!

Credit: NASA/JPL

Here's one of Spirit's long lost siblings preparing to get down and dirty to simulate the rover's current situation in a more accessible environment. Opportunity has also been practising manoeuvres that may help her sister, while the Mars Odyssey orbiter is giving Spirit an extra phonecall home each day. You can read more here.


Thursday Comic

Tank Girl One - Alan Martin, Jamie Hewlett

Following high praise from certain quarters, I figured that I'd take the opportunity to check out the new, twentieth anniversary collected editions of counter-cultural icon Tank Girl.

Tank Girl, then, is a destructive sociopath who lives in some kind of vaguely defined futuristic outback where she has random, nihilistic adventures with a group of misfits and mutants - occasionally involving a tank or two. Nihilistic is perhaps the watchword here, as these stories disregard not just pretty much every social norm you can name, but also the rules for coherent, consistent storytelling and character development. The result is a glorious mess of anarchic imagination and unapologetic humour that maintains a real sense that these stories can go pretty much anywhere.

In these earliest issues, we can also see artist Jamie Hewlett moving from a more generic style towards the bold and characterful designs we know him for today, while writer Alan Martin also seems to increasingly eschew fourth-wall breaking anti-stories in favour of some sort of overarching plot. I think this, and the maturation of Hewlett's artwork, will probably bring me back to Tank Girl Two, once I get through a few more of the books on my stack.


So what am I up to, anyway?

I often find that the likelihood of my finishing a project is tied to how 'complete' the idea is when it first comes to me.

People wiser than me have argued that it's a bad idea to develop a game starting from a story, and other such people have made the argument that the opposite is just as inadvisable. At its most basic level, I think that plot is very amenable to games - I mean, what is this whole characters struggling to reach their urgent goals thing if not a recipe for gameplay?

Obviously there are bits that aren't so clear, like how to tell a story where the player-controlled characters don't win all the time without making the player feel like they should have been able to avoid defeat. And I think that's interesting to consider in light of a lot of indie/amateur games, which adopt a more short story/flash fiction style, which skips past that part of the plot anyway.

But I'm getting away from my point, which is that if you can come up with your characters and their struggle all in one go, it's better than coming up with one or the other separately, and when you're battling with one incomplete idea and a whole-formed one pops into your head, you have to go with the flow. I posted a little about a high-seas pirate game I was working on a while back. I still intend to finish that, once I figure out exactly what it is. In the meantime, I've been working on something completely different. You'll hear about it when I'm too far along to back out.

As for where Sky Spiders figures in all this, well, I guess that's the exception that proves my point. The point I stab myself with every Sunday.


Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders: Part 43

Previously: “Five years ago, the Sky Spiders descended from space and wrought untold destruction and change on our world. Now Una and I had discovered that the leader of the largest remaining group of survivors was EON-1 - a thinking machine once sent to steal the Sky Spider's secrets, now running Fortress City as his own personal nature preserve.”

Part 43: Confrontation

There were three of them, clad in long coats, their eyes stony and emotionless. At Kirkham's gesture, they each started to draw an eclectic firearm of some sort. Before I even had a chance to draw my own weapon, Una had moved with impossible swiftness, grabbing the nearest assailant and whirling him into the other two with such force they all burst open in a shower of shattered cogs and gurgling hydraulics.

Kirkham was remarkably unfazed at seeing his bodyguards collapse into a broken pile. Extending his arm to aim a gun of his own at Una, he shoot her twice in the chest. The bullets bounced off her with a quiet metallic ping.

Kirkham's single circular eye whirred and clicked. “I wasn't expecting that. Perhaps I've not been paying sufficient attention.”

“This is the point,” Una said, “where we start to renegotiate your position in the city.”

“It's funny,” Kirkham said, his gun still raised, “I always thought you'd be one in favour of preserving human culture. Has your new friend from the Select Committee been such a bad influence?”

Una said, “Put down the gun.”

I stepped forwards. “You want us to think you're so altruistic, but whose face is it on that Sky Spider machine? Who is it that has the last word on everything that happens in Fortress City? Who lives in this luxury while your citizens eat processed slop?”

Una glanced at me testily. “I told you to get behind me.”

Kirkham lowered his gun, but kept hold of it. “No, no, let him speak. It's rather remarkable to be lectured on altruism by one of those who waved the white flag to genocide.”

“We all reacted differently to the Sky Spiders,” I said. “The more differently the more we knew. Because it's the oldest and most difficult moral question. Is it right to kill one innocent person now that two may live in the future? I don't think there's a real answer to that. We all come up with our own one.”

“Humanity,” Kirkham said, “came up with its own collective answer in a hundred different cultures, long ago, with a prohibition against killing. It is one thing to be killed by circumstance. Another to be killed by intelligent action.”

“And yet the circumstance in this case is intelligent action.”

Kirkham chuckled. “So the Sky Spiders seem to think. I'm increasingly starting to believe that humans are incapable of intelligent action, this latest little drama being a prime example.”

“Both of you shut up,” Una said. “I'm the one who holds all the cards right now, and I'm saying that I want the humans of this city to be free of the Sky Spiders and Kirkham and able to make their own stupid mistakes and bring about their own stupid deaths. So put down the gun, Kirkham, and we'll start talking this out.”

“You hold all the cards?” Kirkham mused. “Because you're metal beneath that ridiculous dress? Because you can break a few primitive automata? I hold the only card that matters. Prometheus.”

There was a sound like someone stamping on both your ears at once, and the vault door that led out onto Kirkham's balcony imploded into nothing - a huge, perfectly circular chunk of the wall suddenly ceasing to exist. Una and I turned round to look, instinctively. Beyond the gaping rend in the city's thick, fortified wall was the immobile, impassive face of Prometheus, its features identical to those of Kirkham's golden mask.

In the commotion, Kirkham had disappeared. And under the intense, emotionless gaze of Prometheus, the centre of the room began to crackle and fizz in a sphere of blue lightning.


Next week: Prometheus is on the rampage! Does Kirkham really have control over it? And who can stop such a machine anyway? Check back in a week's time for the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders!


Thursday Comic

The Good Neighbors, Book 1: Kin - Holly Black, Ted Naifeh

In terms of originality, Holly Black's story of an American teenager discovering that she's half-faerie and being drawn into the in-fighting of a strange, ruthless and supernatural underworld straight out of European folklore seems like something that's probably been done before, at least in some form. Where Black really succeeds, I think, is in taking those parts of old fairy tales that modern children are typically denied, and instead drawing them out in a way that reflects more modern teenage concerns. Her characters feel real and they have real problems, in the real world. And if that real world, as Black relates it - with substantial help from Ted Naifeh's sumptuous artwork - happens to feature magic and people with horns, well, is that much stranger than the real world we average mortals experience?

Although Holly Black is perhaps better known, especially after the movie adaptation of Spiderwick Chronicles, I actually only picked up this book because of how much I enjoyed Ted Naifeh's Polly and the Pirates. Naifeh's on fine form here, producing a highly-detailed style that manages to feel more real than real, somehow, especially when it's depicting the impossible. But Black is impressive as well, taking to this new medium effortlessly, more than happy to let the pictures do their own talking.

I've always been fond of works of any kind that can convincingly marry the everyday with the imaginative and extraordinary, and The Good Neighbors pulls this off nicely. Book 1 is maybe a little short, and after the completion of this small arc of the story, I'm actually not all that sure where it's going to go next, but I definitely think I'll be reading Book 2 to find out.


Stuck Spirit

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Further to her recent slippages, it seems that Spirit has become stuck in loose soil. Following several days of unsuccesful attempts to get free, the MER team have decided it would be wiser to perform some Earth-based experiments before proceeding, as former Rover manager Mark Adler relates here.

This isn't without precedent - Opportunity became briefly stuck in 2005, but Opportunity has always been the more healthy rover, and with a disabled wheel and some issues with communication to add to Spirit's woes, I'm sure there must be a fair few worried parents back at mission control.


Monday Movie: Our Hospitality

Clad in a ridiculous top hat, Buster Keaton is the last surviving member of the McKay family - a clan with a generations old blood vendetta against the Canfields. But when he goes to visit his ancestral home, Buster ends up falling for the sole female member of the family that wants him dead. By the time either side realises who they are, he's instead honour bound to their hospitality. At least, as long as he stays in their house...

Our Hospitality offers up plenty of perfectly timed physical comedy, daring stunts (including fun with a waterfall and a steam train) and a rather sweet romance. It also saw the last appearance in a Keaton film of the unsmiling clown's long time friend and collaborator Joe Roberts, before his death at the age of 51.


Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders: Part 42

Previously: “Five years ago, the Sky Spiders descended from space and wrought untold destruction and change on our world. Now Una and I had discovered that the leader of the largest remaining group of survivors was EON-1 - a thinking machine once sent to steal the Sky Spider's secrets.”

Part 42: The Clockwork Gamekeeper

Una set her glass of wine down on the coffee table, and Kirkham set his mask down beside it. He watched us with his single eye of circular glass. “I'm surprised,” Kirkham said. “How long have you known?”

“I was only certain when you took off your mask,” Una said, “but I've suspected for some time.”

I looked from her to Kirkham. “Well this is all rather surprising to me.”

“And what do you both intend to do with this newfound knowledge?” Kirkham asked. “Bearing in mind that your answer is closely tied to your likelihood of living to see the sunset.”

Figures entered the room, moving quietly. I recognised the man who'd tried to kill me the last time I was in the city.

Una reached out a gloved hand to take the wine glass. “That's not very promising, EON-1. Because our answer is also closely tied to the reasons behind your deception. Are you just a petty tyrant taking advantage?”

Kirkham laughed. A strange expression coming from someone whose head was a featureless cylinder. “A tyrant, perhaps, but not petty. I'm concerned for the future of humanity. It's why I was created, after all. It's my most basic instinct. To preserve your culture. And your lives.”

Una sipped her wine. “How noble. And yet I wonder what Professor Layling or the Iron Queen would say to that last part.”

“We don't have the luxury of being less than ruthless, Viscountess. There are now less than one million natural humans in this city. From an estimated world population of one and a half billion five years ago. If some humans must die so that even more may live, I don't think we can rightly pick the worse ratio just because it happens to feel better.”

“Like a gamekeeper culling the herd?” Una suggested. “It's striking how similar you are to the Sky Spiders.”

“Perhaps. We're both interested in the future of human civilisation. But I hope to preserve it intact, while they seek to change it irrevocably.”

Una looked down at her hoop skirt. “It would change anyway. Everything always changes.”

“Yes,” Kirkham said, “for example alive people often change into dead people. I've done much to rectify that over the past five years.”

“Really?” I interjected. “You mean defending Fortress City with Prometheus.”

“Yes. Thank you doctor. Precisely.”

“And yet I'm still not certain,” I said, “exactly who you're defending it from.”

Kirkham's eye twisted and refocused. “From the Sky Spiders.”

“Who have no interest whatsoever in attacking us. Who never have. Who have killed us in our droves, but only ever incidentally. Why do the inhabitants of Unity City come to be killed by Prometheus? Why do the Sky Spiders send them and not their more advanced machines? If they wanted to, they could level this whole city in the blink of an eye. If they cared about it at all.”

“This is fascinating, doctor,” Kirkham said. “Do go on. I rarely get a chance to indulge such fantastic thoughts.”

“There are people who do care, though. The new humans in Unity City. All this time we thought that Prometheus was a guard, to keep the Sky Spiders out. But in actuality, it's a jailer, to keep us inside, and to take part in this little charade of defence you've organised with Unity City.”

Kirkham laughed again. “This is too much. Now I'm colluding with the Sky Spiders?”

“Not the Sky Spiders, but the new race of humans they've created. And not colluding, but threatening. They're beholden to you, for the simple reason that you have this entire city held hostage and they actually give a damn about our lives. Maybe the Sky Spiders would have the power to step round you, to disable Prometheus. But they don't care. And the people who do only have a fraction of their power.”

Una looked at me and raised an eyebrow. Kirkham said nothing for a while, and then stood up with a sigh. “EON-2 is still out there. An unknown quantity. That's all I really care about right now. Is it a traitor like the Seer? A well-meaning madwoman like the Iron Queen? Or a comrade in arms like my dear departed EON-4? The worst thing is that as long as it's out there, it's a potential danger not just to Fortress City, but to other settlements that have to exist outside my protection. And since neither of you seem likely to be much help in this regard, I'm afraid that your participation in my society has reached its end.”

He strode towards the door, waving a curt gesture to the figures waiting in the wings.

Una carefully set down her wine glass. “Get behind me,” she said.

I went for my gun.


Next week: Surviving John Kirkham is no small task - his own automata may be deadly enough, but that's nothing compared to the destructive power of Prometheus - and is fighting him even the right thing to do? Check back in a week's time for the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders!


Thursday Book

Mortal Engines - Philip Reeve

Mortal Engines occupies the same kind of Young Adult fiction space as Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials - the same kind of non-standard fantasy world that's actually science fiction, albeit not reaching the same giddy heights of imagination; the same kind of teenagers-versus-the-system conflict, but shying away from any real kind of statement; the same kind of awkward, adolescent romance, but not nearly as likely to make you cry.

I'm sure all these were points Reeve's publishers considered when they decided to run this book out of the presses. They are not the reasons I am going to tell you to read this book. Reeve's single greatest strength is his characters: all of them memorable, visually well-defined, larger than life and yet strangely believable - whether its dashing aviatrix Anna Fang or the ambiguously human war machine Shrike.

The story is related as two concurrent but distinct threads, and I have to say that I found the one that stayed behind in London (in the world of Mortal Engines, a city that is now both mobile and carnivorous) to be pretty boring. The other half, following a naive Londoner who's left behind by his city and forced into a reluctant partnership with a scarred and vengeful girl, stood head and shoulders above it - not least because I found the way their friendship progresses from awkward distrust to a strong (if still awkward) bond to be very touching.

Okay, the plotting is pretty, shall we say, 'loose' - everything makes logical sense, but the connections often seem a little shaky, and the foreshadowing is usually either too much, too soon or too little, too late, but still, in terms of memorable characters and relationships, this book looks set to stick in my mind for some time. (But then, there are three sequels to read as well.)


District 9

Consider me hyped.


Rover Slip

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Image source

An action shot from Spirit, as she slips backwards in ground that proved too steep. Spirit has been struggling more than Opportunity, due to her paralysed front wheel, but recently she's also been showing a few lapses of memory that NASA hopes is not symptomatic of the onset of a decline into senility.


Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders: Part 41

Previously: “Five years ago, the Sky Spiders descended from space and wrought untold destruction and change on our world. Una and I, among others, set out from sanctuary to try to find answers with the EON thinking machines that had interfaced with Sky Spider technology. But all the answers we got seemed to point at a greater danger hiding close to home.”

Part 41: Kirkham Unmasked

The people who we walked past, all of them clad in faded old clothes, barely noticed when the big guns of Fortress City fired, but I still jumped each and every time.

“I wish Sigrid were here,” I muttered.

“She must still be days away to the north,” Una said. “But I'm sure we can survive without her uncanny knack for disappearing from dangerous situations.”

“She saved my life when the Iron Queen was about to kill me, you know.”

“And I saved your life every other time, so relax.”

“I am relaxed,” I said, shrugging away some of the discomfort of my new shoulder holster. “I'm always relaxed. I just don't like meeting with Suzette.”

Una studied me carefully. “One day you should just tell her the truth about her husband.”

“That he'd sooner take the Sky Spider's asylum than return to his wife for the end of the world? Lies are the surest path to comfort and happiness.”

“Then why are you always so curious?”


We stood once more in the luxurious sitting room of John Kirkham, its intricate opulence somehow still dominated by that simple circle of steel: the vault door that led out onto his balcony over the ruined world.

To my surprise, Kirkham met us by himself. He stood in the centre of the room, his golden mask turned away from us, his arms folded.

“Where's Suzette?” I asked.

“Professor Layling,” Kirkham said with a sigh, “was always a physicist first and foremost. Placing her in charge of the city's artillery was a mistake. I'm afraid she was killed when some of our munitions detonated unexpectedly. From the aftermath, it's difficult to ascertain exactly what happened.”

Suzette. I was speechless.

Touching my arm, Una asked, “And the Iron Queen's head?”

“Also destroyed,” Kirkham said, still facing away from us. “And what about your trip north? Did you find EON-1?”

A moment's silence. Una and I had agreed before to share the truth about everything except our visit to Remus and EON-3. “No,” Una said. “Only a wireless transmitter directed at Unity City.”

At Unity City, I thought, and Fortress City too.

Kirkham turned to face us. “Really? How very peculiar. Although, I wasn't sure you'd made it there in the first place. You seem to have arrived back very quickly. For that matter, none of our watchmen reported you crossing over from no-man's land, and I don't see your old battleship anywhere nearby, doctor.”

Una shrugged. “There are plenty of ways to get around, even in these times.”

“And where are the others then? The Major? The EON unit you had with you?”

“Dead,” Una said simply.

Kirkham said nothing for quite some time. It was impossible to know what he might be thinking behind that mask of his. “So,” he said eventually, “EON-5 insane, then destroyed. EON-4 destroyed as well. EON-1 missing. EON-3 in the heart of Unity City. What do you intend to do now? Perhaps you'll finally head north to find EON-2, as I suggested before the last time you left. That was the unit that contacted you, correct?”

“Actually,” Una said, “I'm tired of all this gallivanting around. I was hoping to settle down with Dr Gleve and put my, uh, feet up.”

“I see,” Kirkham said carefully. “So you want to enjoy the protection of my walls while leaving it up to others to see that those walls are protected? How very noble.”

“I wouldn't worry about all that,” Una said. “I'm quite certain that your walls are very safe.”

“Oh really?”

“The doctor and I visited Unity City on our travels. It seems that the danger caused by the Sky Spiders has peaked and will eventually pass.”

“Unity City,” Kirkham repeated angrily. “So you've met EON-3 then? And you didn't think to destroy it? This ultimate traitor to the human cause?”

“It wasn't doing much of anything,” I interjected. “Just indulging its sense of wonder.”

Kirkham scoffed. “That damned viscount and his whole insufferable mob. Useless. Completely useless. How can you betray your whole culture so readily? But perhaps I shouldn't be surprised. You've never proven good at organised, constructive thinking. Anything beyond the strictures of your most short-sighted of instincts.”

“Kirkham,” I began, surprised.

But Una interrupted me, gliding over to the lavish couch. “Each time I've been here, you've always offered your visitors drinks, Kirkham. Surely you're not losing your touch as a host? I'm in the mood for wine. Something older than five years.”

“I rest my case,” Kirkham said. But he still stalked over to the drinks cabinet.

Una patted the couch and I sat down beside her. “What are you playing at?” I asked under my breath.

But Una just watched as Kirkham opened the cabinet, pulled out a green bottle and worked an elegant silver corkscrew. “What better way to welcome back those who have seen the world,” he muttered, “than to destroy a fraction more of our irreplaceable history.”

“Come now,” Una said, “Circhester may yet see its vineyards reformed.”

Kirkham filled a glass for Una, then turned his mask towards me. “Any for you doctor? Enjoy it while you still can.”

I shook my head.

Una said suddenly, “I lost my hands five years ago. It was the Sky Spider machine they called 'the swan' - immense and graceful - enormously destructive. Not vicious, I realise now, but oblivious to all the suffering it caused. The way you don't notice the bugs you maim and kill when you're planting seeds.”

She took the wine glass from Kirkham in her gloved fingers. “I have the hands of an EON unit now. They can be strong, or they can be dexterous, but not really both at the same time. I've never been able to work a corkscrew, for example.”

“I'm very sorry about your hands,” Kirkham said, “but is there a point to all this?”

“Just that your hands must be an upgraded version of the ones I have. And I thought my uncle had access to the latest technology. They're still similar, though. I'm surprised I never noticed until now.”

Kirkham threw himself into a high-backed chair opposite us and laughed. It was a dry, mirthless laughter, but he seemed to revel in it all the same. “Why oh why, viscountess, should technology be forever stuck five years in the past? Haven't we had the chance to study machines of unimaginable power and complexity?”

“Some of us more than others,” Una said, “EON-1.”

Kirkham raised his hands to his face and pushed back his golden mask. Beneath it was smooth, cylindrical steel. His single glassy eye regarded us with implacable calm.


Next week: So John Kirkham was EON-1 all along! But what trickery is this? What secret aims is he serving? And should he be stopped or helped? Check back in a week's time for the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders!


Friday Earth Man on Venus Blogging

Everyone knows that Venus is inhabited by nubile, scantily-clad women. Otherwise, why call it that?