Sunday, 24 February 2008


The sound of water laps gently through the knotted reeds of the platform. The subtle motion rocks Sed as he lies, on duty, looking up at the stars. Then, it happens, a brilliant firework strike of light scorches the sky and flies overhead. With the practised enthusiasm of his young age he jumps up. He knows the importance of getting to a strike quickly. He hauls the little bell up, almost the total of their village's supply of metal, and rings it furiously. The men in the little huts curse and groan as the pull themselves out of bed. Sed has not taken his eyes away from the place where he saw the strike fall, using the stars as a guide to counter the slow twisting of the house boats, made more furious now as the men start untying the ropes binding them together. Torches are lit and their coloured lanterns hauled up higher to indicate their claim.
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

Garbage In Garbage Out

I look out of the kitchen window while stood at the sink, a half-clean mug in my hands. The rubbish collector moves along the street, pausing regularly to grab the next bin at the street edge with its giant paw and tip the contents into its mouth. The rubbish is pre-digested by microbial matter lining the bin's guts so the scene looks like the unholy union between a giant iguana and a woolly mammoth enjoying a can of coke.
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

Joy of water

The peacock jumps on to the bench beside me.

"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

Bees (2)

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.


Beltran Trask was the most feared bounty hunter in the sector. Amongst the various legal entities that make up the Comity, his name was the one that the crats wanted attached to their reports, to have tagged their Wanteds, to have agreed to be on the case looking for their criminal.
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.