Sunday, 14 December 2008
Flickering on the glass the image of Saturn fills our vision, overlaid with real-time infrared pictures of the aurora. It is beautful but incredibly unnerving to watch. The blue streaks reach out, sketches of magnetic waves that should not be behaving in this way, red hexagonal shapes below mapping out the nothern pole of the planet with an alien isometric view. None of it looks real.
I wave my hand over the overlay, and begin twitching my fingers to pull up files and videos from half a century's worth of compiled data on this phenomenon. It flies over the screen in waves, from the earliest, laughably low rez videos of early probes and Earth-based scopes, through to the latest purpose-built flyby cameras. The maths underlines it all with records of patterns that should not be natural. This is not a view that Johan shares. Look at pulsars. He has said to me many times. Before we understood them they seemed to be messages from other civilisations, we couldn't imagine otherwise. But the truth is nature can produce very many strange and unusual things that we do not yet understand.
Even aliens, I mutter under my breath.
What? Johan asks.
I smile and shake my head. How are we doing? I ask. Time to get back yet.
Hanging around like this? Yes, I feel exposed. I know we need to collect the data away from the ship to avoid interference from the drives, but do we really need to be here too?
Johan laughs. He is a much more physical kind of person that I am. He has to be here, I can sense that. Simply seeing this thorugh a camera would never be enough for him.
Sunday, 30 November 2008
The monk breaks into an even larger grin and bows in return. Together they walk back up the path, chatting in broken Chinese and sketching out the occasional Sanskrit word in the air in front of them in order to learn more about each other.
The monk's name is Geshe, Wei learns.
The monastery is larger than he expected. It is built of thick, whitewashed walls that seem to erupt from the earth itself, with small red-framed windows and ornamented eaves.
Li spends a few weeks with them, discussing the sutras, enjoying the debates that form the basis of their teaching style, and learning too about the strange beliefs that accompany their faith. Sometimes it seems like they do not follow Buddhism at all, but then a phrase or an expression will turn his misconceptions on their head and affirm their understanding of the Mahayana to be at least as deep as any Chinese priest. It becomes clear to him that their understanding of the psychology that Buddhism propounds is deeper than any school he has previously come across. Yet he can't help feeling culturally adrift, cut off from familiar practises and even his own language. Eventually it is time to leave.
Sunday, 16 November 2008
The crowd is warmed and ready. They have listened to what has been said and know that it makes sense. They have seen the ghostly Christian missionaries come, offering their food and their books of magic to those fools willing to listen and lose their souls to the foreign magic. Big Brother raises his hands.
“These devil princes and their slaves carry weapons that we are supposed to be afraid of. They have defeated the weak armies of the Manchu's but they cannot withstand us. They cannot harm us. We are protected, because we are strong. We do not touch opium, or alcohol or tobacco. We refuse to become slaves.”
Ho'Er knows that this is his cue. His chanting becomes louder. He presses his hands together in front of his chest, his first fingers outstretched. Suddenly he leaps up with a scream and begins his demonstration, leaping with his own well practised kicks, his face an expression of possession and the demon he has become. Reaching the far end of the stage he halts, becoming still once more. The crowd cheers his skills and inside he feels their faith and strength. He has no fear as the young Red Lantern, springing on her tiny feet, climbs up onto the stage, a rifle slung over her shoulder. The crowd fall silent. Even those who have heard of this act are quiet, faced with the reality of the weapon.
The girl raises the rifle to her shoulder and swings it towards a clay pot carefully positioned on the edge of the stage next to Ho'Er. She squeezes the trigger and a firework pop is followed by the sharp crack of the clay collapsing, pieces flying with the bullet's impact. Ho'Er increases the speed and volume of his chanting once more. The crowd is as still as he is. The Red Lantern tilts the weapon towards him and he looks again into her eyes. This is not the first time he has looked down the barrel of a loaded gun, looked into the eyes of the one aiming it at his heart, but he does not have any fear. He knows that he cannot be harmed. Even if there has been a mistake and the bullet loaded into the gun is real the gods know that he is fighting for them and they will protect him. She pulls the trigger.
Smoke pours like liquid from the barrel. Ho'Er raises his hands and turns to the crowd triumphantly. They are cheering him, cheering Big Brother, cheering the Red Lantern girl. Nothing can defeat them.
Sunday, 9 November 2008
The two boys shake their heads.
“He is the most perfect of the Bodhisattva's. He resides in hell to try and bring enlightenment into even the worst of hearts, the most terrible of places. He has forsaken his own Buddhahood until he is able to bring all beings, even those so lost in hell that they can never be freed, to enlightenment. He was born a young girl who prayed for her mother to be released from hell after she died. Finally Buddha granted her wish to go to hell to see where her mother was. Her mother had already been released, thanks to the girl's efforts in accumulating merit, but while there she saw the great suffering of all the other beings trapped there and made her vow. Are you capable of such a vow? Can you strive to learn from King Earth Treasure and bring enlightenment to all beings?”
Sunday, 2 November 2008
It's Nanowrimo time, so rather than write something new I'm going to pick something from the novel I am writing and upload it. Unfortunately, with only two days done, there's not so much to choose from yet, but it proves I'm doing something.
His life recently has been an increasing spiral of change that has wound him tighter and tighter until he thought there was nothing more that he could see, or feel; the shifts from joy to sorrow have been so rapid, as in the blink of an eye, that he no longer feels certain as to who he is anymore. Since the death of his father nothing has been certain; he knows this from when he has caught his mother crying to herself, when she thinks he has not been nearby, or overheard conversations she has had with his uncles and aunts that are now long behind him in Guangzhou. He has even lost those few friends he thought he had to come to this cold, dark town.
His mother comes forward and pats him on the shoulder as the gate is opened to the outside and his uncle gestures to him to follow. Outside a breeze catches down the street, cutting through his clothing even deeper than before. The road is edged with snow that is stamped into the blackened and muddy road.
“Keep wrapped up warm.” His mother calls to him from inside the doorway. He turns back with what he hopes is a smile of confidence. He sees the lacquered scripts fastened on the wall on either side of the door: Long life, happiness, prosperity. Those all feel a long way from him.
In front of the steps are four men dressed in greasy padded jackets, straw hats tied on firmly against the wind, blowing through clasped hands to try and loosen them and keep them warm before the journey begins. There are two palanquins waiting for them. Master Li gestures for Wei and young Li to get into the one while he pulls open the door for the other, pausing only to ensure that they are safely aboard.
Tuesday, 28 October 2008
Monday, 20 October 2008
Monday, 13 October 2008
Monday, 8 September 2008
Monday, 1 September 2008
Sunday, 24 August 2008
He reaches down to the floor, picking up the rough canvas bag he has been carrying and opens its buckles with narrow, pale fingers. Inside there is little. A bottle of water with the seal still intact and a sandwich wrapped in plastic. He draws the sandwich out, again. He cannot quite being himself to eat it. He examines it. There is something wrong with it, something not real that he feels is at the edge of his vision. He tilts his head away from it to see if a different view offers any light. It still appears to him as two slices of foamy, tasteless bread enclosing slowly hardening cheese and ham. A girl is sat watching him from the seats on the other side of the carriage. Her mother, who is travelling with her, has momentarily disappeared.
-Is this really a sandwich? He asks her, holding it up.
She looks at him with a mixture of suspicion and precociousness. -Sort of, she says and then she smiles and looks away.
The man continues to stare at it for a short time and then twists himself in his seat to look for a bin. There is one tucked behind his chair. He pushes the sandwich inside. He doesn't want to take the risk.
Sunday, 17 August 2008
Monday, 4 August 2008
As I lean forward again, shovel extended, I see it. Panic hits me quick, the fear that this is the time. It has been months since one of us last encountered something and the tension had almost gone. Sensing my fear my team also suddenly stop and turn to face me, I am stuck in a tableau, bent forwards, muscles straining as though i am posing for one of the Dictator's celebrations of the workers.
My team assemble in a semi-circle of orange jackets around me to inspect it. Many start to exchange and light cigarettes, their smell bitter over the acrid, rotting food.
Pretty quickly there are two major opinions. The first quickly concludes that it is a militia IED, like the one that claimed Hassan a couple of months back. But the second faction quickly weighs in pointing out how shiny, how manufactured and secretive its design is. American, they say.
I look at it. It is oval, like a pebble worn by a river, with a quicksilver glow marred only by a little fleck of egg stuck to its side. It looks like a bomb but it doesn't feel like one. I stretch upwards, relieving the growing pains in my back and reach out for it. As one the semi-circle take a couple of steps back. I pick it up. It feels cold and heavy. It doesn't explode. Somewhere deep inside my chest my heart picks up its rhythm again.
Monday, 28 July 2008
Monday, 21 July 2008
The nurse is young and pretty but irritatingly patronising. She seems slightly in awe of me, in the way that seems to prohibit my being able to accomplish anything on my own. She assures me at one point that she has read every one of the stories and even asks me to sign my autograph. She asks me what it was like working with the great detective. Holmes' true nature has never been public knowledge and is now protected under the Official Secrets Act. I mumble a little, about him being a good friend and comrade. In the afternoon I manage to get up and find Lestrade's room. The walls are the same thickly painted green, the bed metal framed with a generous enough mattress, but he also has flowers by the side of his bed, and grapes, no doubt a gift from his wife and children. I feel a small stab of memory at the loss of my own wife but shuffle over without betraying myself apart from to lean slightly more heavily on the cane. "Watson!" He says. His eyes have the unfocused stare of someone on morphine. "How are you?" "Sore, and bruised, but I got off lightly. I hear you will live too." He nods. "I won't be playing any tennis this summer, but I was luckier than poor Wilson. He was a good man." A sadness crosses his face. His head tilts with the memory of regret before he looks straight at me. "They say they'll let me out in a few days." "That's good." "Then we can get down to the business of hunting these bastards, whereever they are." "I take it that you have no further news?" "No. Been asked a lot of questions by some young oik from the ministry and got a little in return. They got clean away." There is a sudden, efficient rap at the door. I turn with a wince at the stocky, middle-aged man standing at the doorway in an uncomfortable-looking suit. "Major Lestrade. Dr Watson, sir. A pleasure to meet you again." I nod my head, although I cannot immediately recall his name. Something I choose to put down to stress and the medication I am on, rather than old age. He looks something of a bruiser, one of the quiet, hard men that His Majesty's Service uses as its dark backbone. "My orders are to collect you, sir." He says, looking at me. "Mycroft wishes to talk with you."
Sunday, 13 July 2008
They have to be real photos, developed from the original negative, or polaroids work well. Maybe even better, with little inhibition caused by the repetition of the original event. Digital does not really work at all. Some think that this is because of the resolution of the camera and some still try to use the latest cameras in an effort to experiment and free themselves from the purity, and difficulties, of film. I do not believe this can be done. The capture of a digital image is too transitory, the mechanism for absorbing the image is diluted by all the other images that have passed through it. Maybe the first photo a digital camera takes has power but after that there is nothing left. No essence, no magic.
Wednesday, 9 July 2008
One of the men on the ground, guarding the boxes that almost certainly contain the device, notices our car, our approach having been masked by the noise of the zeppelin. He waves towards us with surprise and the others raise their various guns in our direction. I still have my pistol in my pocket but as I reach for it Lestrade pulls me down.
"There's too many of them." He shouts. "Get us out of here, Sergeant."
The first clatter of gunfire shatters the glass of the rear window as the car accelerates away. More angry than afraid I raise the gun in my hand, automatically pulling on the safety catch and blindly fire off a couple of shots. Lestrade is on the radio, crouched beside me, calling for help. Amidst the smell of gunpowder and the sound of metal screaming I find time suddenly slowing, the car buckles and tilts in ways that I know is not as it should be and the thought occurs to me that I am probably about to die.
Monday, 7 July 2008
And if it were only the nihilists I have to worry about I wouldn't be smoking my fiftieth cigarette since the morning, my lungs hacking their protest as the cold bites into my face, and the reports from my men that need constant attention. Despite my warnings Chairman Trotsky insists that all of this should go ahead. He has something big prepared. Something he wants the world to see.
Sunday, 22 June 2008
Following on from last week - Possibly part of a series.
He stops in front of her, crouching down to examine her. She looks into eyes etched deep within a heavy forehead.
"I don't know you." She says. "You're new. You can't tell me what I can do. I've been here a long time. People know me."
"I'm waiting for a boat." He says. "Probably the same one you are looking for. The thing is, I know where it is, because unlike you I didn't sit here while it rained hoping for luck to come with me."
She shakes her head.
"I don't believe you."
"The trouble is, as you say, I'm new here. I have no-one to sell to. You do. Sounds like we can make a deal."
She looks around, the rain is dying off, the boats are moving slowly, their crews busy with preparations, cursing each other as they collide, their horses getting into each other's way.
"How can I trust you?" She asks.
"I'm the one with something to lose." He replies. "You're looking for the Fragrance of Philanthropic Dissonance." He scratches at the greying stubble on his chin. "I'll tell you where it is."
Tuesday, 17 June 2008
"Hey, you." A man's voice calls out and she feels that it is directed at her. She looks for the source: A man dressed in a faded and torn overcoat is looking right at her. "You've got no right to be here."
"On the man's business. You got no right talking to me like that." She replies.
He moves towards her and the ordinary folk move out of his way, as invisible to them as she is.
Sunday, 8 June 2008
"That's my favourite." Says a man's voice, quietly. "Although its repertoire is even more limited than most."
She makes a show of finishing her inspection before looking back up again to see the source of the voice.
Sunday, 1 June 2008
"Where?" He barks.
"Looks like he's heading towards Crawley, sir."
"Get lamplighters out on the roads. I want him tracked."
The young man snaps off a quick salute and disappears back to the car.
"Why is he on the way to London?" LeStrade asks, mostly to himself. "I had expected him to make for the coast. It's the easy choice from here. A dozen small beaches."
"Perhaps," I offer, "He is looking to meet someone in London. But it does seem strange."
Slowly, my head still sore and my world a little stiff and unsteady, I go to the desk and scrabble through the drawer for a map. As I unfold it LeStrade is behind me, looking to see. I can sense he is keen to get going, to join the hunt.
After a quick study I realise what is likely the man's destination.
"There." I point. LeStrade looks a little confused at first, seeming to have to spell out the meaning of what I am saying.
"We are watching the airfields as much as the ports. It still doesn't make sense."
"I read recently that a new section has been opened there. For private fliers who require frequent access to the continent. It even has its own special entrance, one that is not commonly known, that has few checks or customs controls for those who can pay."
The movement of the car pushes me back into the padded leather with the creak of well designed springs beneath me. My head is starting to hurt and my eyes force themselves closed.
“Are you ok, Doctor?” Asks the young man in the driver seat. I look towards the mirror where his young eyes reflect a kind of fear that the venerable old man behind him might be about to die.
“I'm fine.” I hear myself say. A part of me suddenly realises that it is feeling to tired for this chase, that it is little to me even if the device is taken and used for some nefarious purpose. My only real concern these past couple of years has been the bees. The concerns of crime and Empire have seemed a long way away and with only a small amount of regret I was happy with that. Things are in the hands of younger, smarter men and their own devices. Men who have seen the horror of the War and are struggling to make sure that it might never happen again. Even my regular, weekly readings of the papers to HOLMS have become more sporadic and our discussions of events shorter and of less interest to me. I no longer play through the scenarios with him. Suddenly I feel older than ever, the world gone from me.
“Concentrate on your driving, Sergeant.” Lestrade barks. “We haven't much time.”
“Sir.” He replies. The car accelerates again.
Lestrade turns to face me.
"We will be there within twenty minutes. We've radioed ahead and there's no sign of them there yet. Likely they are keeping a low profile. Probably they weren't expecting us to be able to react so quickly."
I watch the dark, green hedges and white-washed buildings of Sussex rush past me at speeds I've never contemplated before, even on the train, as the young driver wrenches the car around bends and along narrow lanes that had known only silence before our passage. During one particularly tight corner the car skids with a squeal and a curse. I am thrown forwards and to the side, my arms reaching out as I smack into the Major.
"Damnit, Wilson, what are you doing?"
We both look forwards at the cows in the road. Wilson puts the car into reverse and starts to swing it around as fast as he can. Something catches my eye though. The gate to the field is open, explaining the cows, but there is no farmer to watch over them. I look around to see a car, half-hidden under an old oak providing majestic cover against the sun, standing proudly ahead of a small wood. I recognise it with a start, and the figure unloading a collection of boxes into some kind of netting.
"I was wrong." I say. "He was heading towards the airport but not with the intention of going in."
A dark shape looms over treeline. Over the noise of our engine I can hear the high-pitched whine of propellers. It is some kind of airship, smaller than the usual type, with thick, stubby wings lined with six, of maybe more, propellers, each pointing in slightly different directions giving it a movements of purpose and control I have never seen in such a craft before. Men tumble down ropes tossed from its sides, their dark silhouettes broken with the unmistakable shape of sub-machine guns.
Monday, 26 May 2008
Sunday, 18 May 2008
For a long time black holes were considered inescapable. What goes in stays locked inside forever, not destroyed, but hidden. For all he knows, this is still true. Then the techs found that some black holes are not quite what they thought, being a spinning clockwork of singularities held in a special balance that protects what is contained within the mechanism without destroying it, but distorting the time and space within to create a a kind of sub-space, or ur-space, or something. Civilisations would hide themselves inside them, protected from the many and varied dangers of the universe, waiting for a moment when they might emerge, more powerful than their rivals, and conquer their galaxy. Or maybe just hide inside forever, looking to survive the heat death of the universe. Either way they make rich pickings for those with the secret of how to crack the eggs open.
(inspired by Rudy Rucker's blog. Read it.)
“What you looking at?” The DCI asks.
“Just thought I saw something.” Jay replies. “But there's nothing here now.”
The DCI lets out a slow stream of smoke.
“The recovery boys are here, they're going to get the body out for us now. Better go pay our respects, eh?”
Jay nods and follows the DCI back through the cordon.
Ripped off William Gibson for the first line.
Wednesday, 14 May 2008
in the meantime check out this awesome animation:
Monday, 5 May 2008
they will be back to finish it once they realise that it is no longer a threat. it counts three of their ships dead and that has scared them away for now but it can feel them watching with the subtle ping of directed radio waves. it turns its attention inwards, towards its guest. she is conscious but seems strangely calm. she must know that it is dying and that she will die too yet she does not react the way it expects. she sits calmly.
"skatha bruin edge of embers." she says, quietly. "you fought bravely, and well. what is our situation."
it feels sorry for her and briefly keeps silent while it composes a report.
"if we have an hour, or two, it is possible that i can repair myself enough to push us on towards jupiter ring. i doubt that we will have that long before they return."
it feels her nod inside it, the shift of her weight against the seat.
"then we must find another way." she says.
Monday, 28 April 2008
Tuesday, 22 April 2008
-What's he saying? Darren suddnely shouted at Bel. -Anything worth knowing?
Bel just shrugs and pushes another stick into the flames that are only half-visible in the light.
Sunday, 13 April 2008
Sunday, 6 April 2008
There is the scent of snow in the air. Haku had never considered snow to have much of a smell before moving to this temple. The old buildings seem to catch and amplify the weather as though the rotten timbers know what is coming and reflect it inwards.
Haku sighs with the wind and opens the door, brushing the assembled pile of dust out even as a gust catches it and drives much of it back inside. His stomach grumbles. He heaves the broom onto his shoulder and pulls the door tight. He walks to the cupboard and stows it away, bowing to it with a reflex gratitude that does not disturb his poor mood. Then he picks up his cushion and moves to the side of the room. He sits cross-legged, facing away from the Buddha but aware of his presence, and mumbles a short prayer before beginning his meditation.
The darkness grows deeper and the wind picks up its rattles and punches. Haku tightens his robe in an attempt to close off access for the cold but he does not dare start a fire or light a candle until the master is back. He tries to bring his focus back to his breathing and to ignore the thoughts that bubble up in complaint.
He wakes with a start. The numbness of sitting is compounded with the cold reaching into his limbs. The room is completely black and he can see nothing. The wind has died down to be replaced with the quiet shuffle of snow. He has no idea of the time but he knows that the master should be back by now. He unfolds his legs slowly, massaging blood and warmth back into them as he does, and it is a minute or two before he feels able to stand. He moves to the door, stamping his feet against the wooden floor. Outside thick leaves of snow flutter in the strange half-light of the storm. Haku slips his shoes on and crunches his way to the master's small room. Inside it is dark but there is a delicate warmth after being outside. Shivering, Haku lights a candle and inspects the sparse room. The master is not here and his bed is undisturbed. Frowning he looks around to the desk. There is a piece of paper there, neatly tied with a length of string and with Haku's name written along its length.
Shaking with more than cold Haku places the candle carefully on the desk and picks up the scroll. He slips the string from the end and carefully unwinds the paper. In the flickering light be reads the short message.
"I am dead. The temple is now under your care."
The message is signed and stamped by the master. He must have known before he left that he would not return. Haku slumps into the downwards to the stool. He reads the message again. Tears begin to form in his eyes. The old man had been fractious but he looked after Haku after his parents had died, sparing him the draft in the frequent local wars.
Haku stands up again, quickly, and resolves to head out to find his master's body. He tucks the scroll into his shirt and quickly heads back to the meditation hall. Overhead the flutter of an owl causes snow to tumble from a branch. Haku feels a flash of nervousness but he cannot stop now. Back in the hall he ties on his hat, finds a lantern and, lighting it, hooks it onto a walking staff. Contained by a snow globe of light, chanting the sutra for the dead, he heads out along the path to the town.
Monday, 31 March 2008
See all parts...
A car, dark and oversized, stops outside my house. This time I am expecting it. I watch the man, short with a slightly furtive look that is barely hidden by the good suit and haircut, get out of the car and say something quietly to the man at the wheel. I watch him walk up my short path before I go to the door to let him in.
"Gordon." I say. "Come in."
He smiles, although his eyes betray a reluctant pain. It is hard to know whether it is his usual troubles at home or something altogether larger. Close up I see that he is aging well, a touch of distinguished grey frames his temples and his aging skin seems to be bringing out a nobility that was lacking when we first met.
We go through to the kitchen. The remnants of the tea I had been making earlier sits there, almost cool. I offer to make him a cup but he declines. He wants to get straight to business.
I explain everything that happens and he listens quietly, nodding every now and then or asking for a word of clarification. Finally he blows out a long breath and reaches into his pocket. From it he pulls out a photo. It is blurred and and creased but it is unmistakably the man who has taken my machine.
I simply nod affirmation.
"It's no fault of yours, old man." He tucks the photo away again, neatly. "He used to be one of ours. That's why he knew about you, and the codes to use, although how he got hold of them is another matter."
"He worked for the service?" I ask more for confirmation of my amazement.
"He was a good man, we thought."
There is a knock at the door. Outside it stands the driver of the car, also dark suited and with anonymously handsome features.
"Sir." He calls quietly. "Major Lestrade, a call has come through on the radio. They say he's been spotted, on the road back to London. They are waiting for orders."
Sunday, 23 March 2008
“What is it?” Devers asks Sam.
Sam shrugs and gets up, dropping through the doorway into the chill air outside. The driver is already stood there, watching with a casual insolence as he smokes a cigarette.
“Shi shenme difang? Youming ma?” Sam asks.
“Shi.” The driver replies. These are the fire mountains. The place where the Monkey King had one of his trials. Sam remembers the story and looks around. The range seems strangely small compared to how he had imagined it. It does not seem to inspire the fear and awe described in the story of Tripitaka's thirst. Sam is struck by a strange sense of deja vu in the realisation that he is tracing the steps of the novel even if only part-way. Now the Earth seems tamer than it ever has been, ground down under the spreading of human life and its desire to make itself at ease where it can. He shudders and tells himself it is the cold.
The bus shines in the brilliant light when they get on it again. Past the mountains the bus drives on for hours, through the next night and day, until they begin the slow ascent to Tibet. The bus is a copy of the ones used to ferry workers around on Mars and so it is also a part of the training. It is a long, jointed snake of metal, divided into three compartments. Two are living quarters, one of the men and one for the women. The one on the end carried their equipment and scientific instruments. They have to learn to think of it as their refuge.
Half a day into the climb up the winding road they stop at a gully. Instructor Xia blows his whistle and they assemble in a line outside the bus. He speaks first in Chinese and then Sam translates it into English for the others.
“We are now at 1000 metres. Still not so high that you will be feeling the effects of altitude sickness but it is essential that I remind you – if you feel ill effects you must tell me or one of the other masters. More than likely it will be nothing, but we have to be sure. Even people who have been up here many times before can still succumb to altitude sickness. Remember to take your meds, those little machines will keep your lungs working for you. For tonight I want you to rest and enjoy your last beer. There will be no drinking once we are on the top. Anyone found drinking, or even with a stash of alcohol smuggled away somewhere will be immediately expelled. There are no exceptions.”
The serious expression on his face suddenly breaks open into a smile. He reaches into a pocket to pull out a small bottle of baijiu and cracks it open.
“Good luck to all of us.”
He tips a little on the ground and takes a good swig. The students laugh and break up into our natural groups, a few eager ones jumping back on board to get out the supplies they had been hoarding, the rest just taking the chance to stretch their legs.
The next day the bus sets off early. Everyone feeling sore and hungover, headaches grow worse through the day as the altitude increases and all retreat into silence to avoid petty arguments. The bus creaks along a road that is so old its self-repairing nanite cover has been stripped from its pitted surface. Dark patches of concrete are scattered either side where the nanites accumulate in small hollows and against rock. Another day of driving. Eventually they arrive at the training camp.
The camp is situated in the middle of nowhere. There is only the faint dark smear of mountains on the horizon to offer any indication that the world is other than flat, grey and featureless. There is a stench of ozone and acids leaking into the air from rusted and battered equipment. The temperature hovers around zero degrees. If it were not for him being able to breath the air unaided then this is what Mars must be like, he thinks. Silent apart from the sound of the land itself, the sussuration of the wind and the sand sharing ancient secrets.
Sunday, 16 March 2008
The path is now lighter, made of sand and rock as it quickly ascends and leaves the mud behind. The damp does not bother him so much. The exertion brings him to relish the feel of the rain. He reaches the peak and the land flattens off. Ahead, he knows, is a plateau that stretches for miles. The level ground is filled with the warp and weft of streams, bracken and heather. Startled, a moor hen suddenly cries out ahead of him and flees deeper into the stunted bushes. He keeps on. He is not far now.
The clouds lift slightly and his view suddenly extends over the whole of the valley. On the peak of a small lip of land the blackened stones stand out against the sky. He runs up to the first of the three and kneels beside it. He pays no attention to the damp cold seeping into his trousers. His hands run over the rough surface of the stone looking for the faint cups and spirals that remain after centuries of weathering. He feels the vibrations pass through his fingers and leans closer to listen. On the edge of his hearing he finds it, the ringing beats of the rain against the rock. A thin membrane between worlds is being shaken by the sound and sings out with an alien song. Beneath the hard surface of the stone another world is bubbling up against ours.
Sunday, 9 March 2008
The clansmen behind me are silent but I can feel their focus. Their energy is urging and protecting me as I face the straw target ahead. The air in the courtyard is still, untouched by gentle curls of currents stirring over the ruined brick edges of the walls that enclose us. The bow in my hands is taut, the arrow fixed against my thumb. The lacquered wood, curved reflexively in a pattern recalling compound bows reaching back three thousand years, creaks slightly under the pressure. I draw my focus to the target, although it is not so important as the lasers that mark the width of range with a ghost trail of reddened dust at regular intervals.
The sun is weak overhead. A pale touch through thin wisps of cloud. Overhead I hear the gods as them squabble, jostling for the best position to watch my dare to them. When I am ready I draw them bow back just an extra few milimetres and flick my fingers forwards to release the string with an outrush of breath mixed with prayer.
"Ho!" The judge shouts. The speed comes back almost immediately and I know I am the first to see it appear on the board. Everyone else keeps their eyes upwards a little longer, scared of the reaction, but the speed is the only thing of interest to me. "198.5" The judge announces. My clan shouts with joy. I can feel the smile across my face. So close to the limit. So close to meeting the gods' wrath. And yet I escaped. I turn, raising my arms, holding the bow aloft. I sneer at my opponent, at his choice. He had come in at only 175 before. A coward's speed. His clan is silent. We have won. I have won.
An arrow can fly from the bow in excess of 200 kilometres per hour. To do so is to bring the attention of the gods alive in the clouds that extend beyond the edge of the atmosphere and to bring death. That is the challenge. To remain in their eye, to bask in their attention, but to remain alive.
My clan shout and jeer at our silent opponents. They have been shamed. A scuffle breaks out at the corner of my vision but it soon dissipates. Everyone knows the rules. I walk towards the target to pull out the arrow that is firmly embedded through the flag of their clan, Polar Waste. I tuck the arrow away and tear the flag from the pins that held it on to tie it around my head.
"Wait." My opponent has gotten up and walked to the edge of the range, his bow in his hand and an arrow ready. I can see him shaking from where I am. I can only will him not to be so stupid as to try to beat my speed. Not today.
He raises the bow, pointing it towards me. The crowd of clansmen on both sides is silent, whispers of discontent but also appreciation of a show. I cannot show fear but I do not trust myself to speak. I just know that when I meet this guy in hell I am going to give him a bloody good kicking for killing me like this.
He strains at the bow. The point shifts with his fear and anger. I suddenly doubt he would even hit me. I don't see it launch. My eyes are closed. There is a flash of light, a crack of thunder more powerful than any I've heard from nature. I feel myself thrown back against the dummy and we both tumble to the floor. The gods are angry. I roll and try to piece together any evidence of injury. None. I look back through blackening smoke and ugly smells. It is rare for a contest to end in a death.
Then a shadow falls. The flicker of a kite overhead. The fear leaps through all of us and everyone leaps up to run, to flee before the police, or worse, get here to punish us. I laugh. I run too.
As soon as I can I get under cover. I crash through the cracked wooden boards protecting the entrance of an abandoned office. Inside is littered with debris of broken desks and faded pipe. Wong has tracked me, loyal and accurate, amongst the crowd while carrying the case for the bow and its arrows. No matter how fast we are there is no way we can go unnoticed while carrying the bow. He is shorter than I am, and fatter, a perfect guard with the bright badge of our monkey spinning around its atomic system emblazoned on his chest and the short, broad dagger tucked with a sly glint of ready action in his belt. My laughter has cut to a smile which I see reflected in his face.
"We showed them, eh?" He says.
I nod. He continues.
"198.5. That's incredible."
"I cannot believe that Polar Waste idiot decided to try it."
Wong shrugs. Despite his slightly piggish looks I have learnt that Wong is incredibly intelligent. That's why I trust him. You don't want somebody stupid looking after you. I wonder, sometimes, why someone as intelligent as him would choose to run with us. I guess he does it for the same reasons: What else is there except that moment of random choice every moment of our lives. We both know that yesterday 198.5 could have killed us, that the god flying over on his cloud at that time might have had a different margin of error, or a different expectation of what makes a threat.
Monday, 3 March 2008
Sunday, 24 February 2008
Jan is standing next to Sed now. His big, muscled frame towering over him with his gruff expression buried in the darkness of his beard. Sed points and Jan nods.
"Quicker, boys. It's not far off where we saw the Kords earlier today. I have no wish to let them get to this strike before us, again."
The Kords had been shadowing them for weeks. Occasionally there had been violence between the clans but the Kord are cowards, scavengers looking to interfere with other's success. They are not the real reason for Jan's concern. He knows that it has been several months since his clan had a major strike, have returned to the harbour with a chunk of metal of a good size for sale, and he is worried about their food and other needs being met before the bitter winter falls over the plateau.
Once the village has separated into its component boats the men start to row hard in the direction of the strike. The diviners have already thrown their lines out into the water, casting for the shrill little signal that will indicate they have found the meteorite. The divers are limbering up, stretching their muscles and practising their breathing exercises. On the horizon they see lights of other houseboats. The patterns identify them as the Kord and another clan, the Pertri, mixed in amongst each other, both working to slow the other one down. A bonus for us, Jan thinks.
After half an hour of effort the rowing teams are swapped. The boy was sure that the strike was close but Jan knows that the dark is always misleading. Then, after another ten minutes, the linesmen's equipment starts buzzing. They have found something. Rocks are cast out as anchors even as the divers are leaping into the water, their chests and arms lit with bioluminescent cream. The lake is not deep, an average of twenty meters or so and ideal for their work. The bed is soft sand, though, and often swallows up strikes and makes them hard to find. The divers sink down, the fragmented glows of their bodies slowly fading as the push themselves deeper.
After a few minutes they are back at the surface, coughing and sucking grateful air into their lungs. As they are doing this Wer, the head of the divers, signals to Jan: A big one. Prepare two cranes, maybe three. Wer is not a man given to exaggeration, Jan allows himself to feel a moment of joy, hidden in the darkness cast by the torches burning at the corners of his platform.
Sunday, 17 February 2008
My brain kicks in. No, it tells me. Rubbish is collected by trucks, with men hooking the bin to a lifting arm which tips it into the compactor. Shut up, I tell it. That was a long time ago. Things are different now. I go back to making my cup of tea.
Sunday, 10 February 2008
"Dong wo ma?" It says. "Do you understand me?"
"Yes." I reply in English. "I understand you." I pull out a small block of the treats I had purchased at the park entrance and hold it out to the bird. Its body does not seem so large when seen so close up but there is something terrifying in the way it looks at me with its black eyes, the multi-coloured skirt of its feathers cascading down over the edge of the bench. It takes the food from my hand with a carefully vicious stab and swallows it whole. As the chemicals and amino acids in the pellet quickly absorb into its bloodstream it receives both a pleasing kick of a positive behavioural feedback loop and the bootstrapping the next part of its program. It begins babbling about the history of these gardens, its expression of ancient arts and the mores of the scholarly class of old Beijing. The studious official, the good scholar. The bureaucrat as archetype.
The bird starts translating an old poem by Du Fu, fifteen hundred years old and still studied with a reverence that makes my own country's affair with Shakespeare positively healthy in comparison. An old woman walks up to me. A beggar, I realise, her face scarred and her hands broken and bent with arthritis or work. Even though China is undergoing its brightest blooming since the Tang and the age of Du Fu, there is still monstrous poverty. Too much even for the large scale bio-alchemical wizardry of the Chinese science gurus. The old woman holds out her hand and looks at me before realising with disgust that I am white, a scruffy foreigner, and unlikely to be able to offer her much at all. She curses and moves on, aiming for a young, professional-looking Chinese couple, hoping that the man will want to impress the young woman with his generosity.
There is a dampness to the air here that my skin is soaking up with a happiness after absence. Although the air in Beijing is normally as desiccating as the deserts around it the park clearly has mechanisms to raise the humidity to help the plants. After a month in the north I am grateful. Even in my home country, where it still rains regularly, there is a caution to wantonness with water since the droughts began. Memories of them pepper my childhood, the frustrations of the adults and the sense of a danger never quite understood or explained. So here is a good place to sit and wait for my friends, watching pretty girls walking past, listening to the drone of the guide-bird while I feel the joy of water in the air.
Sunday, 3 February 2008
This makes more sense if you have read (1)
As he steps inside I reach into the sideboard in the hallway and quickly draw out a small pistol. When I first retired there were many people who came. I refused to see most of them, and cultivated the sense of slow, crumbling, old age that is very much evident to anyone passing by the house. The visitors stopped but there are still protocols in place for access when needed. And there are still those who would seek to steal my secrets. The more impressive of my enemies are long gone, but England still has them, even after the terrible war that tore all of Europe apart.
I turn to the inspector, keeping the gun pressed tight against my side so that it cannot quite be seen but ready to be used if required.
I stop in my tracks, playing the absent-minded old fool.
“I am sorry inspector. But I was wondering if you had some form of proof of your, ah, sincerity?”
“My chief said I should tell you that Matilda Briggs has arrived from Sumatra.”
I smile and move the gun into my pocket as I turn aside and into the kitchen. The kettle is still warm from my breakfast and heats quickly. The inspector seems at a loss for what to say next, to bring the matter up. I decide to let him wait. He has ruined my morning and I am old enough to be self-indulgent in such matters.
After pouring the hot water into the pot I fill the kettle up to the top and put it back onto the stove.
“Do you take milk?” I ask. I already know the answer but I prefer the burden of infallibility to be placed upon my creation rather than myself. Few people have ever really questioned how it is that the device can know what it knows, or the complexity of the processes I had to develop and program in order to create that ability.
“Yes, please.” The inspector replies, looking cautiously around the room, looking at the jars of honey that cover the table. I pour him a cup of pale tea and add plenty of milk to cool it down.
“We should get started and then perhaps you can explain a little more of why you have come. Please grab that coal and bring it with you.” I point an indicate the dirty, rusted scuttle on the floor behind him. He grabs it with a sense of distaste after taking a quick gulp of his tea.
I draw the key which I always keep in my pocket and unlock the door to the cellar. I strike a match and light the small oil lamp I keep on the shelf just inside the doorway. Collecting the steaming kettle and the lamp I step carefully down, each wooden step is worn to a dirty grey, illuminated only by the lamp and small shafts of light from the small, dirty windows high in the cellar's walls.
In the middle of the room are dark folds of canvas, oiled and carefully wrapped to protect what sits underneath it. I put the lamp down, carefully, and gesture at the inspector to put the coal down near the foot of the stairs.
“I'll need your help to get this cover off. And the windows will need to be opened.”
The inspector moves to crack the windows ajar while I untie the knots carefully mapping the shape of the object underneath. He helps next by pulling the canvas with the practised movements of a solider as I offer little tugs to help it over. Finally falls away to reveal, in a dazzle of reflected points of light, the chrome and brass construct underneath. Above a couple of metallic, polished barrels with tubing and grates is the head, a crudely stamped and riveted face in a mocking frieze of younger arrogance and intellectualism.
“My God.” The inspector mutters. “It's real.”
“Inspector,” I say, “meet HOLMS.”
He stands, awestruck in the manner of most when they meet one of their childhood heroes. Of course, the true nature of our service to the country was always kept secret but I have noticed amongst my visitors and even greater sense of amazement when they finally meet the construct. It amuses me that they do not feel the same way towards me, its creator. My cover, in a sense, is that much more solid.
“The coal, please, Inspector. It will take a while to steam him up and we need to get started.”
I crouch down to open the grating at the construct's base. My hand runs down its side, leaving a faint smear of sweat, and I confess that it feels good to be working on it again. I have ignored it for several months and, as when you meet an old friend unexpectedly on the street, my earlier apprehension is replaced with a quiet joy.
The inspector steps up behind me and I turn to accept the coal for loading. The look on his face tells me something is wrong and I reach for my gun. I am too old and slow. His hand quickly reaches up and down with a force that knocks me sideways. Black and red spots fill my vision as the inspector, a fraud, grabs my face and knocks my head against the floor. I pass out to the smell of lavender.
They will undoubtedly be disappointed to hear that their hero of a thousand hunts and even more soaps, the infamous interplanetary peacekeeper, is now dead. I saw it happen, in a bar, where the man, tired and drunk, was shot in the back of the head by some psychotic lowlife he beat in a game of chess.
Sunday, 27 January 2008
Monday, 21 January 2008
Sunday, 13 January 2008
There is something more than mechanical about them. As with my other, more famous, creation they are greater than the sum of their parts. There is a sense, an instinct there that I do not claim to ever be able to understand, nor do I wish to, but I am slowly coming to perceive it and even trust it.
When I go out that morning there is a certain agitation about them. I put it down to the prediction for rain later in the day and make a note to myself that I should go to the village shop early. After my usual inspections I hear the rare sound of an automobile coming along the road and wonder if, perhaps, the bees are warning me of something else. I remove my veil and pack it away slowly. The vehicle appears to have stopped in front of my house although I am not able to see it yet. Visitors always irritate me. I consider for a moment whether to feign absence. The knock at the door, however, is one of those that indicates the person is likely to be persistent and best dealt with quickly. Although I rarely have much need for one these days I miss having a house keeper to handle such people for me.
I open the door to a middle-aged large-set man wearing a dark, oversize overcoat that gives him the appearance of a rather shabby beatle. His bearing, moustache and grubby boots tell me that he is a policeman.
"Doctor," he says. "Sir. My name is Inspector Grande. May I come in? The matter I need to discuss is of some urgency."
I look at him with a sense of annoyance.
"It always is." I say. I turn, leaving the door open to allow him to follow me. "The kitchen is through here. I imagine you'd like some tea."
Sunday, 6 January 2008
The taxi ascends on to the freeway and the computers take over from the driver with a short warning beep and a scripted message in Chinese, Hindi and English informing them of the additional insurance charge and their rights in the case of an accident. The messages are barely audible under the thud of the driver's Taoist Tech beats. The driver still has a limited say in the direction of the vehicle but primary control now rests with the computers of the central traffic control. The movement on the freeway, though, is not the steady calm grace of motorways back home, but an acceleration into speeds nearing 150 kph amid a chaos of shifting lanes and variable speeds. Lines marking the road's natural channels become mere indicators as 5 lanes of traffic shift in the space seemingly made for only four. The traffic constantly weaves in and out amongst each other with only inches to spare, determined by complex flocking algorithms that European and American governments would never have the courage to trust.
After a short ride they spiral back down to street level again, the adrenaline of the trip metallic in Sam's mouth, and the driver dumps him with a disinterested grunt of thanks onto the edge of the pedestrianised shopping area.