Tuesday, 30 March 2010

The Duel

Mist slackened over the dockside and a foghorn blurted from the unseen distance. Night had turned the illuminations of the gaslights to smoggy grey blurs which served only to accentuate the shadows that lay beyond their reach.

Marcus paced the deformed wooden planks, his hands clasped behind his back and his head bowed. He was deep in contemplation. Fine spray had soaked his clothes until his body was as damp and uncomfortable as his mind.

Next to the edge of the dock stood Marcus’ second. Daniel stood motionless, gazing out towards the unseen sounds of the harbour - the sloshing of the waves as they broke on the wooden supports below their feet, the throb of boats cutting through the treacherous tidal currents, the warped shouts of men’s voices calling out instructions or pleas.

Daniel sniffed, his first movement for many a minute, and then turned to his companion.

‘They are not coming.’

Marcus paused in his relentless pacing, looking up into his friend’s face with a mixed expression of hope and denial. He shook his head. ‘They will be here.’

‘And how long are we supposed to wait for them?’

‘Until they come. I fear it will not be long.’

Daniel huffed and turned away again, cross at his friend for not taking this opportunity to flee. His eyes would have seen nothing even if the scene had been clear for they were full of cold and salty tears.

Marcus resumed his fevered walk. The movement made him feel somehow better, somehow more in control. Daniel was right to fret, he thought, if I stay here, if I face them, then I will die. I know it. He tried not to think about the circumstances that had led him to this place, this godforsaken pit of stench and depravity. If only… but he stopped himself before he could go too far. Choices had been made with reason and with purpose; it was not up to him to judge the consequences. No, he thought bitterly, it was up to him to wait and then to die. A vision of Samantha flooded his consciousness suddenly, wiping out his resolve and threatening to dissolve him in despair; her face, her golden hair, her sweetest of honeyed smiles, her small alabaster hands and her rosy lips. Oh she had fooled him alright, taken him in and led him so far astray that he had no hope now of returning to the life he had once led.

Why did they not come?

A slithering noise stopped him in his tracks, the stretched noise of a damaged leg being dragged along the wooden walkway. The men moved to stand together, the mist swirling around them in rough vaporous wisps as if it was meaningfully forming ropes to bind them together, and both felt shivers of mingled disgust and bitter cold shaking their body.

A single man emerged into the patch of grey light. At least, he might once have been recognisable as a man. Now he appeared to be a ramshackle conglomeration of body parts badly assembled by a partially sighted creator. His face was patched with half healed scars that gave him a highly irregular appearance. This face was framed by locks which were as patchy as the face they surrounded, with clumps of colourless lifeless hair apparently placed at random across the high dome of the man’s head. A slash created a mouth, a dark gap from which issued strange gurgling noises, a tiny stalactite of drool hanging down from one lopsided corner.

The newcomer carried a hessian sack over one shoulder. It weighed him down so much that as he swung it out and down onto the planks he visibly grew, standing taller almost as if he had some pride. Still saying nothing coherent he reached down and started to untie the cord that wrapped together the neck of the sack.

‘Stop. Wait.’ Marcus could hold himself back no longer.

The human scarecrow looked up in surprise, grunting an impenetrable question and letting go of the cord, allowing the ends of the knot to trail reluctantly through his gnarled fingers.

‘I.. I do not know if this is what I.. what I want after all.’ Marcus stammered.

Sunday, 28 March 2010


I stare out through the window at the slow moving Martian landscape. The view is fuzzy and distorted with the constant scratching of red dust and fines over the diamond pane that forms the outer layer. It is a subtle new vista, evolved overnight by the steady three kph crawl of our base. I chew the last of my breakfast eager to get out.

Science rarely offers last chances. If you've searched in nine places and there is only one remaining, then experience tells you that the thing you are looking for will not be there. It has nothing to do with probability, just that's how it goes. We have one last site to prepare, one last science station to plant into the red soil. To be honest, while disappointing, this does not distract from what we have achieved. Being here, mapping, exploring, finding what a robot never can. Our footprints will be erased in the coming storm, but the fact of our being here will remain.

I turn back inwards, looking at the other three sat at the table with me. Wei, the eager, young Chinese geologist. Adoyo, our engineer, is bleary and irritated. He has been arguing with the boss again. The boss being sat opposite me, eyes fixed on the latest download package describing his business empire as he prepares his responses to be sent back in the evening reports. Maxwell Johnson, the richest man on Mars. That was the tagline they were using back on Earth. I don't know if they still do, or whether the sheer tedium of real exploration and science has been knocked off the news feeds. I haven't been keeping up.


The muffled noise of tires crackling over the regolith helps to clear my head as Wei races me to the horizon, the lip of an oversize crater. I follow his tracks, nipping at his heels occasionally, while checking that the delivery of breadcrumb transponders is active and tracing our way back. The metal tube we call home is out of sight, but it emits its own beacon, reflected on the display in my rear-view mirror. The breadcrumbs are in case that beacon stops working, which has happened twice in the months that we have been here.

We slow down after twenty k, waiting for the triangulation messages from the positioning satellites overhead to provide us with more resolution on our destination. Wei comes to a stop and I slide alongside him. Looking over he seems troubled. Unusual for him. He's been pretty positive all the way through, even despite the conflicts between Adoyo and Johnson.

"What you thinking?" I ask.

"Nothing. Just, you know. This is the last time."

"Yeah. But there's still plenty of work to do. And the data is going to keep us busy for years."

His fingers click at his equipment. He's just toying with it, switching things off and on again.

"Lal, do you think we're going to find anything now?"

I wonder how to answer that before choosing honest.

"No. We've given it a good try, but this is a puzzle that has been going on since the first ESA orbiter told us the methane was here. Even with confirmation of the Carbon-12 there's no guarantee we will find out where this life actually is, or if it's actually here. Looking back at the planning I did it seems hopelessly naïve now, faced with the reality of being here. Live is buried deep, it must be if its going to survive. The real science is going to be done over the years that these stations are here and working, not by us. Maybe that's not a bad thing."

"What do you mean?"

"For all that machines can tell us what we need to know, we needed to come here. And if we still have no answers then there's maybe a reason to come back. If we do find life then there's going to be so much opposition to colonisation it will probably stop any attempt. Whether it's from fear or a desire to preserve. There'll just be more robotic missions while it gets debated in the UN."

"I don't think that would stop my government. Or men like Johnson."

I shrug.

"That might be true." I reply. "But there still has to be a reason, a purpose for spending the money it would take for humans to live here. Having somewhere to dump surplus population is one thing, but there needs to be a way to support them, and there needs to be a way to make a profit. That's why Johnson is here. Sure he gets the kick out of being the big explorer but everything that man does is to make a profit."

Wei is quiet suddenly. Even his breathing is paused.

"You've never talked like this before."

"No. Because it doesn't matter. Look around us. We're here. Nothing else compares to that. We're the first people to land successfully on Mars. I don't even care if we get home at this point."

My comm beeps. The triangulation overlays on the map and I flick on the electric engine of my rover.

"Let's go." I shout, hitting my accelerator before Wei has even had chance to get started.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

The Switch

Angel clattered down the last of the concrete made stairs and ran forward into the inner court of the tower block complex. The echo of her stilettos enlarged the effect of her entrance, an edgy imbalance to the previously quiet zone. Angel looked around frantically, her overlarge silver hoop earrings swaying in time with her high ponytail, swept back tightly in an informal and temporary facelift, and in obvious distress.
“What’s the matter? He run off without paying?” The old man chuckled.
Angel jumped, she had been looking about so intently but she had not seen the old man standing in the damp stained corner of the lobby. She frowned. “It’s not what you think, old man. It’s not like that.”
The old man chuckled again, his mouth barely open beneath his nicotine stained moustache. “Whatever you say love.” His hands, arthritically cramped together, shook with suppressed laughter and contempt.
“Which way did he go?” Angel asked him. She started to move closer to him, scrutinising him more carefully to see if she could place him in one of the myriad apartments in the complex. Her skinny jeans highlighted every contour of her legs.
“Ah,” the old man shook his head in mock regret, “that would be none of my business.”
Angel stopped within smelling difference and her nose wrinkled in distaste, the old man smelt bad, really bad. “Come on. I’ve told you, it’s not what you think.” She said in her most persuasive voice.
The old man simply grinned, an uneven sight of fractured and missing teeth, enjoyment apparent.
Angel’s heavily made up face changed expression again, from reasoning to pleading.
“He stole something from me. Something important. Can’t you tell me which way he went?”
“See no evil, hear no evil… that’s my motto.” The old man rocked on his battered tennis shoes in glee.
Angel moved away from the man in exasperation, took one last lingering look around the empty courtyard, then turned around and headed, slower now, back up the unforgiving stairs.
The old man listened to the noise of the woman ascending above him, tilting his head in concentration. A door opened, slammed shut, and quiet returned. He chuckled again and began to shuffle his way out into the limited daylight of the court. He turned right and headed towards the exit corridor, taking his time.
Several streets and corners later, all travelled in that slow old man shuffle, the last vestiges of his disguise melted away. Face, body, walk, all transformed in a matter of seconds without an obvious effort or an obvious trigger. Instead of an old man there only remained a young man, a wide smile on his face and his right hand firmly holding something, something that didn’t belong to him, in the pocket of his trousers.
Even the old man smell had gone. Only the reek of recent intercourse and betrayal remained…

Sunday, 21 March 2010


Janek felt scared. From the window of the little bus snaking across the cracked concrete he could see the rocket. It hissed with a thousand stresses and strains from the gases that it expelled, coolant for its chemical engines. He had known this would be how he would be leaving this world, too newly colonised for an elevator and too far from Centre for other, more advanced forms of lift, but faced with the reality of it in front of him a near panic seems to over take him. The shape and physicality of it intimidates him. Even the landing, falling from orbit in little more than a heat-shielded tin can, was less terrifying than the prospect of sitting on top of several tonnes of explosives ready to detonate and propel him into orbit.

The other two men sat in the carriage with him seemed calm. One, a fat business man from the system's fourth planet, was obviously used to travelling this way. The other, Oorta, his attaché and bodyguard, betrays no sense of fear having had all common sense of danger carefully edited out by training and genetic manipulation.

At least the mission has been successful. The planet's contract treaty with the UN had been about about to expire and there had been talk about secession, all too common in the past twenty years. Janek disliked secession. It was always too bloody and it never succeeded, but time and again planets thought they could get away with it. At least this time invasion and cultural shift was not going to be required. Assuming he survived the take-off.

He did not hear the shot. The first he knew was the sticky, wet splash across his face. He turned in annoyance and only then realised it was Oorta's blue blood that had spurted from the gaping wound in his shoulder. Oorta looked annoyed, reaching out with his undamaged arm to pull Janek down, away from the window, across his lap.

An insurrection. Part of Janek's brain is almost relieved.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010


The darkness echoes. There is a dim glow. Ahead a slicing of light from Jean's torch illuminates the metal corridor. The Captain is in the doorway of the control centre. His hands are made of ash. They hang loosely at his sides. Gray overlays black-flecked scales. Loose white flakes drift loose, catching on his clothes, the floor and the walls. He raises his left hand, deep within the ash a red glow kindles, his crumbling hand points, the finger melting and falling as a cone of powder that lands and rolls along the floor carried by the internal convection wind of the ship. Jean looks to where he is pointing. There is nothing he can see. The Captain falls, his body consumed by the burn, falling to dust.


The day started with a little more stimulation then I was used to. For once I was lucky enough to get a seat in the crowded rail carriage, a chance to sit down, claim my own space among the heaving mass of humanity. I settled in for the journey, my document bag clasped firmly on my lap, demure and calm. I set my expression to secure isolation and resolved to make no eye contact. A daily mantra.
Then, at the very next stop, a flock of new travellers flooded in to the carriage. I ignored them except to pull in my toes a little, partially making room, partially in a vague attempt at self-protection.
But I couldn’t ignore the movement.
The train set off, a long way now until the next stop, under the rivers and the dead zone, into the long tunnels black as night and narrow fitting. A highly charged worm. The battered carriage rocked from side to side as it rumbled along the poorly maintained rails but that was not the movement that caught my attention. The rocking of the carriage I found soothing, a gentle lullaby of action, rhythmic meditation for a tired mind.
In front of me however, right at my eye level, a young man was rocking his hips in time with the music he had plugged into his ears. I could hear the faint buzz of electricity. His crotch was jerking back and forwards with an occasional wiggle. This was distracting.
Surreptitiously I glanced up at the man’s face. With eyes half closed he was smiling, lost in his own world.
I envied him his youth, returning my watery eyes to the vision of my wrinkled aging hands as they lay forlornly on the document case. I envied his obvious relaxation, a striking counterpoint to my efforts to portray the appearance of calm. I envied his joy in his music.
My watch beeped and I knew that I was close to my station. Getting a grip on my case, and on my wandering mind, I got ready. When the time came I stood up, trying not to bump into the oblivious boy, and blinked.
The short jump to the station, with the train still rattling at top speed through the dimmed tunnel, was always disconcerting. This time I felt like I had left something behind and I wobbled on the balls of my highly polished shoes.
‘Morning.’ Harry Short had been on the same train. He greeted me now with an expression of inattentive curiosity on his grey and whiskered face.
‘Morning.’ I pulled myself together and turned towards the lift, putting the shiver that ran down my back to the windy absence created by the now departed train.
I recognise now that the real reason for my lack of mental balance that morning was enclosed in the faux leather wrapping of my document case…

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Wilson's Clipboard

Wilson stood in front of the open cargo door and tapped his clipboard against the handrail of the gangway. The clipboard was a fake, a prop, an affectation that was as unnecessary as the clear glass spectacles that perched on the end of Wilson’s angular nose.
A drone emerged from the gangplank with a whirr of sudden braking. Its low level body flittered across the raised threshold and banged onto the gangway, stopping at Wilson’s feet. A camera head scanned Wilson’s knees and beeped.
‘What did you find?’ Wilson asked. He made an effort to ensure that his speech was clear and simple (not his usual style at all). These drones were basic models and very little effort had been spent on their cognitive abilities.
The drone flashed its data through to Wilson’s implanted receiver and he frowned. ‘Nothing?’
The drone flashed an identical data package and Wilson kicked it off of the gangplank and down into the far distance of the floor of the hanger deck. There was a brief clang and a frustrated whirr as the drone righted itself and set off on its next mission.
‘There’s no point taking it out on him. It’s not his fault.’
Wilson started, he hadn’t heard the man creeping up on him but he recognised the voice all too well.
‘It must be faulty.’ He started, trying to justify his pique. ‘It reported nothing at all but there must be something. A ship can’t just turn up empty and not have any data on board to explain why.’
‘Can’t it? This ship seems to be telling you that it can.’
The other man was shorter than Wilson but carried more authority in the relaxed set of his shoulders and the way his hands nonchalantly rested in the pockets of his regulation jumpsuit. His face was kind and his eyes were alive with joy and a twinkle of good humour. The man’s genial demeanour only made Wilson seem more pathetically sour and Wilson was not ignorant of this effect.
‘Then something is wrong with the system. The data must be there but we’re just not getting to it yet.’ Wilson paused. ‘Unless you know different?’
Wilson had remembered the rumours about Mack and his set. The experiments and missing equipment. The personnel who also disappeared.
Mack smiled with the still-mobile left side of his face. ‘I don’t know anything that you don’t.’ He said, walking stiffly past Wilson and up into the ship.
‘Hang on. What do you think you are doing?’
‘I’m going to have a look around. Are you coming?’
‘But we don’t know that it’s safe…’ Wilson protested weakly. The empty ship made him feel scared and he couldn’t explain why. Since the moment he had spotted the dark green blip of the incoming signal he had experienced an odd feeling of dread in the pit of his stomach. ‘We don’t know why it’s empty.’
Mack paused and turned back to Wilson, making no attempt to hide his contempt. ‘You’re right. You don’t know anything.’
Wilson felt the focus of his fear shifting. ‘We… we should wait for the inspectors to… to arrive.’
‘Yes. Yes we should.’ Mack raised his left hand and starting wagging an accusatory finger at his bureaucratic adversary, his face turning red and ugly with anger. ‘And that is what you would do because you are a coward. A yellow-bellied hollow shell of a man with a misplaced ego large enough to smother your pathetic weaknesses in red tape and excuses. Pah! Arguing with you is a waste of my time. Do what you want, I’m going to look around.’
Wilson watched as Mack disappeared into the shadow of the ship, drenched in nervous sweat, his heart racing wildly and erratically with the effort of enforced confrontation. He looked around the vast expanse of the otherwise empty hanger. There was no-one watching. He felt his trepidation being transformed to rage. How dare he! How dare Mack talk to him like that! As if he was nothing.
I’ll show him, Wilson thought, I’ll show all of the engineers and pilots and, yes, even those darned drones. Dropping the clipboard to the floor of the gangway and clenching both hands into determined fists, Wilson followed Mack into the darkness…

Monday, 8 March 2010

a discussion between monkeys

"It is a common misconception." Hutton Ambo removes the pipe from his mouth, stabbing the air with it to emphasise his point. As he is currently in the body of an eighteen year old who has barely fluff on his chin and upper lip the action is both more irritating and ridiculous than usual. I roll my eyes.

He puffs on the pipe and coughs, his new lungs untrained to accept the stink of the cherry shag tobacco that he insists on polluting us all with, before he continues.

"It's not that consciousness is a quantum activity in the sense of the brain's physical position in the universe, like some would think. That there is some special effect at work in the structure of the human mind that somehow gives it consciousness, or even life. It's more pervasive than that. The whole universe is alive, what Professor Rucker called pan-psychism. We are merely bubbles that erupt from the underlying quantum foam of thought that is at the heart of every particle of matter. That is what allows us to travel between universes, what we call parallels, by the sheer effort of thought. We are slowly training out wavelength to a new frequency, one that slips us through the brane separating the parallels and into the specialised host body waiting for us."

"Yes, but what I wanted to know is why is our the only parallel to have developed the technique? Why do none of the other monkeys seem to be able to do it?" I look to the girl who has asked the question. Her mind really isn't much older than the teenage body she is in; her first mission and clearly uncomfortable, she's provoking the debate and pushing Ambo's buttons in all the wrong ways.

"Well, that's simply not true." Ambo replies. "There are many agents who have come from different parallels. We do try to reduce the amount of interference and limit the knowledge of the ability to travel. We don't really know what the effect of large amounts of inter-parallel travelling would cause."

"That's why we focus on cleaning up our own mess and, occasionally, that of others." I say. Time to bring this to a close and back to the mission. "We aren't evangelists, these other parallels must be free to develop as they would."

"So long as they don't break our rules." Ambo says.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Face First

The force of the fist smashing into my face drove me against the side of the ship and I crumpled down the cold metal to the wooden floor. In apparent slow motion the man came towards and heaved me upright by clenching a huge fistful of my hair and tugging until I rose, gasping with pain. I could feel blood dampening my cheeks, mixing with the tears that coursed freely down my face, diluted drops that dripped nonchalantly to the floor.

The man peered closely at me through my swollen vision and I cowered in anticipation trying to raise my hands to protect my face but failing to find the strength to move. His face was contorted in violence, his features unrecognisably human.

'That's enough.' A woman's voice broke through the rushing noise of blood racing around my heightened system. 'Back off for now.'

The last was ominous, threatening a resumption of hostilities, and I could see that I had a painfully narrow window of opportunity.

The man crossed rapidly to another part of the room and came clumping back with a stool for me in one large, manicured hand and a brass mug of water in the other. I perched, protecting the base of my spine which was throbbing in a most unpleasantly insistent way, and took the mug, sniffing it before I drank.

'Are you ready to talk?' The woman asked. She moved into my line of vision as she spoke and I realised with a jolt of recognition that I knew who she was. Her face betrayed no knowledge of me, however. Perhaps I was still safe.

I nodded. She smiled, inclining her head in a gracious invitation for me to continue.

My mind raced as I pondered, trying to work out strategically what the best thing to say would be. But I was taking too long and the woman's fixed smile began to slide away. She started to physically move away, nodding to her tame thug as she went.

'No, wait!' I yelled. She turned back to me, her satisfaction apparent.

'Go on.'

'I'll tell you whatever you like. Just keep him away from me.'

She frowned. 'What do you mean? You'll tell us whatever we like? We just want the truth.'

I drew a deep breath through sore ribs. 'Would you recognise it if I told you?'

The woman flinched. Unexpectedly I had scored some sort of point. But then her features composed themselves back into her former resolution and she shrugged.

'If you're telling me it doesn't matter then you are telling me that you don't matter.' She said simply.

I wished I had her composure but both of us knew how important this was. We were dancing around each other, hesitating to be the first to give anything away. And, somehow, I was expected to convince her to change sides.

I began to think that I should never have said yes to the old man...