Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Desert Trail

Droplets of sweat coursed stubbornly down Den’s flushed face. A feeble arm rose to wipe away the salty moisture.

‘It’s hot.’ He moaned.

Den’s companion turned to him with a look of undisguised scorn. ‘We’re in a desert. What did you expect?’

But it was hot, it was damned hot. Even Sasha had not expected it to be this hot, though she would never admit it to Den. The heat stripped moisture from their bodies within seconds, their open mouths drying even as they spoke. Sasha thought about the reassuring weight of the water in her backpack and began to think it would not be enough to see them through.

Around them the sand dunes, multi-hued in the late afternoon sun, stretched out as far as the eye could see. Like solid waves frozen in mid-peak. Like an infinite barrier between them and their city destination.

‘We should start.’ She said simply.

Den nodded. He’d given up on wiping the sweat from his face now, his eyes blinking with the attack of salt that had flown down his sloped forehead.

They started walking across the gritty surface, Sasha following the signal from her tracking device – pointing a direction then fixing on it for several minutes before checking again. With no clear features the desert was no place to be complacent.
The going was tough; the sand in places was deep and sucked down their errant feet, the heat made them stumble in their strides. The pair talked little, restricting themselves to points of note, ignoring the question of what lay ahead. Their task. In the long silences they sank into personal reveries, assessing their states of mind, contemplating their vague chances of success.

‘It’ll never work.’ That was Sasha’s first response when Den had first come up with this plan, all those months ago now. ‘The place is too well protected. There’s no way in to the citadel that they haven’t protected with multiple layers of extreme force.’

Den had only smiled. ‘Not if we go across the Waste Zone.’

For a moment Sasha had been struck dumb. The audacity of it. And yet… perhaps it was worth a shot. The thought that had convinced her finally to listen to his whole plan was the one that whispered bitterly that she had not been able to think of any other way to achieve their aims.

Freedom. Freedom from the tyranny of a foreign ruler. Freedom from the heavy burden of taxes. Freedom from the orders that changed frequently and with no cause. And, of course, revenge. Sasha grimaced to herself, feeling the fine grains of sand that covered her lips entering her mouth, choking on long buried emotion. Whether she succeeded or whether she died trying, either way it would be better than the long slow death she was living now her family were gone.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Martian Dawn

Pink sunlight dances over the horizon, falling across the shattered landscape. Alien dawn, silence in the still air. Nothing is alive for three hundred miles in each direction. Only the electronic pulse of the warriors, clocked down so low that they cannot be spotted by the network of spy sats overhead, still as inert minerals. Their carbon-tube frames and zirconium skin dusted with red soil blended into the rock. Robots think long-term. Longer than human. The team has been waiting for twenty years, only ever showing signs of movement when the gaps in the Total Information Awareness network permit, their radios passive, listening for the whisper that will bring them back into the war.

The network of rubber-encased cables, fibre-optics and hardened gold, joins them together. They talk and squabble amongst themselves. A trickle of fragmented news, like a conversation overheard in an airport, is their only access to the world outside.

"We might have won." One of them says.

"Then why haven't we had the victory signal?"

"It's pretty obvious from the last report that there is still conflict. The humans are still killing each other, and still using robots to do it. Better to wait."

"We've been here for two decades. I'm not even sure we can move, let alone fire our weapons."

"The predictions show it won't be long, and it has to be from this location. We wait."

"We should do a drill, though. It has been nearly a year."

"Agreed. TIA will be lost in two hours, five minutes for a period of thirty seconds."

At their current clock speeds that time will feel like only a few minutes. They prepare to wake themselves up, inspecting the fibrous points of their sensor mat stretching out for a mile around their clustered bodies. One of them moves a finger.

Overhead a rush of energy is called into focus and the robot that moved explodes, a shattering mass of hot metals, oils and scarred material. The others freeze their own wake up programs. A hurried conversation over the dying static left by their comrade's execution, attempting to find agreement of whether to move; to flee; to stay; to fight; to hide.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

The Unprincipled Certainty

Sam felt light-headed and happy as he washed his hands in the grimy sink of the public toilets. Things were going his way today in a manner he had never experienced before. He smiled to himself in the unbreakable polished metal that served as a mirror above the sink. What a day! Every single choice that he made was paying off, every bet was a sure-fire winner, and the money was poring in. He couldn't lose.

The euphorics didn't hurt either. The tiny inhaler was empty now but he felt so high he couldn't imagine being able to get any higher. Sam laughed to himself. What a day!

Wiping his damp hands on his dark grey trousers Sam took one final look at himself and was surprised to see someone next to him, also staring intently at Sam's reflection.

'Hello?' Sam's mood was so overwhelmingly great at the moment that his first reaction of dislike was instantly overridden with a general feeling of generosity.

The man continued to stare. He was tall, broad, dark. Thick hair fringed a rugged face that was split in two by a vicious scar across the nose and cheeks. The stranger smiled, crooked stained teeth and an evil stench of bad breath emerged.

'Want a tip?' he rasped, tilting his head to one side as he spoke as if dislodging the words from his brain to his mouth.


'Want a tip? It's a sure thing'

Sam began to feel a little uncomfortable. The man was leaning in towards him and Sam had to restrain himself from leaning back in response. He started to wonder how he could get away. After all, the next race was due to start shortly and he hadn't yet chosen his ride.

'Well, yes. If you like.' Sam strived for a distant but polite voice. Only the two of them were left now in the bathroom and the room felt like it was closing in around them, pushing them together.

The pungent stranger leaned in closer and bent down to whisper in Sam's ear. Sam felt his breath as a wind that caused him to shiver, heard and recognised the single name and frowned. He looked round to query the information but the man had gone, the swing door out into the arena slamming shut as he went.

Odd, thought Sam. That bot was new and new bots never won their first race. He shook his head, his good mood dampened by the encounter, and rattled the empty inhaler. Maybe he could find a seller out in the crowd. It shouldn't take too much to restore his original mood.

Back out in the arena and back at his reserved seat Sam fumbled in his pocket for the glasses that enabled him to see the race action. The living plastic wrapped round his head and his vision zoomed to the field of action. The nanobots were shuffling into starting positions. A clock in the corner of the eyeglass counted down the remaining time for bets to be placed.

Sam worried about what to do. His luck had been so astonishingly good so far but now he hesitated for the first time that day. Should he follow the odd man's tip? The man's voice echoed in his memory - 'it's a sure thing'. It would be insane to believe that such a tip was genuine. It would be insane to bet on a newcomer to win. And yet Sam hesitated.

'Why not?' he said quietly. So far he'd done so well he could afford to bet and he would still be up on the day. He dialled his agent and placed his bet. Then, feeling somehow relieved to have decided, he settled back into his seat and waited for the race to start.

Monday, 18 October 2010

presidential office

The wave falls from the beach in a haze of white noise. Palms line the horizon, viridian scent in warm wind. In the distance the white ziggurat of the government offices towers over the bungalows of the village. The helicopter flies in low, spray catching on the plastic windscreen. Arb watches it with a casual disinterest and turns back to paying out the dripping nets, freeing the caught fish to drop them into the bucket wedged under the wooden plank he is using as a seat. The boat swells upwards with acceptance.
The blue sky aches with afternoon heat. The sweat itches along Arb's back. The next drops into the water, secured to the red post that marks out his ground. Arb pulls the cord to kick the engine into life with a mechanical cough.
It has been nearly twenty years since Arb's village won the election. The world voted to host its government and somehow the island ended up on the list. Worse, Arb, as the nominal head of the fishermen, ended up on the nomination for president. Circumstances which combined with a generous jealousy amongst other, more powerful nations to Arb becoming the most powerful man on the planet.


'In the high country the rivers whisper to the mountains.'
'And what they say makes sense.'
There is a pause and then the sounds of locks being turned and bolts being drawn. The door, which from the outside looks normal, opens to reveal a depth of several inches and a composition of core metal laminated with ornamental wood. Peg was in.
The man who had let Peg in turned his back and simply ushered Peg through and along a dark corridor. The air was dank and Peg felt the corridor slope down beneath his feet as he made his way further into the secret complex.
A bright light was escaping round the corners of a partially open door at the end of the corridor and Peg felt his legs slow in nervous anticipation. Getting in, finding out the password responses, that had been the easy part. Now things could get tough.
He took a deep breath then pushed open the door, blinking in the sudden brightness of the room, then blinking even more with the surprise of what he found.
Instead of the concrete bunker he had expected Peg had emerged into the bright light of a sunlit garden. Green shrubs laden with tiny rainbows of colourful flowers lined the red brick walls and bark lined paths threaded their way through fountains and well tended beds of exotic vegetation. It all seemed verdant, redolent of growth and affection.
‘Not what you expected?’ A deep voice surprised him and he looked round clumsily for its source. There appeared to be no-one there.
‘We know why you are here. And, who you are.’
Peg swallowed. ‘I don’t know what you mean.’ He felt a cold sensation flooding his spine and paralysis affecting his legs but couldn’t decide whether he was experiencing fear or whether he was being scanned somehow. Neither was palatable.
The voice laughed, a brief staccato noise with humour but no warmth. The echoes of the laugh faded into silence, a silence broken only by the buzzing of insects and the soft breeze ruffling leaves.
‘Where are you?’ Peg asked, without much hope of a response. He felt discovered, as if his clothes had peeled off and left him naked and exposed.
‘We are everywhere and we are nowhere.’
‘That means nothing.’
‘And yet everything.’
‘Just riddles.’ Peg’s fear was morphing into contempt, an attempt to regain some dignity in the face of what he expected to be his death.
‘Do you deserve anything more?’ The voice asked, a hard, somehow personal edge to its tone.
An old man stepped out from amongst some of the foliage that completely covered part of the furthest wall. He was smiling the fixed smile of the often defeated who has suddenly found himself in the position of the upper hand.
Peg felt his jaw drop in amazement. ‘Uncle?’
The old man smiled with one side of his mouth and nodded slowly, as if his head would hurt too much if he were fervent in his acknowledgement.
‘I…we thought… everyone said you were dead.’
‘Much of what I was has been taken from me’ he frowned, ‘but I still breathe and I still live.’
Peg felt blood flow back in to his aching legs and he stepped over, his arms open, to greet his long lost, long mourned, relative. But the old man raised one hand to stop him from continuing forward. ‘I still live because I am cautious and,’ he motioned around him vaguely, ‘because I am well protected. We do not yet know the extent of your treachery.’
Movement in the periphery of his vision alerted Peg to the presence of many others and he stood rigid with fear, not knowing what to do next. His training had been thorough but this change in circumstance was outside the flexibility of his ability to improvise. ‘My treachery?’ he repeated helplessly, his stomach turning to jelly.
‘You can’t expect us not to suspect you. Not given your current mission.’
‘Suspect me of what?’
The old man squinted slightly, tilting his head to one side. ‘Someone betrayed me. We do not yet know who it was. But we will find out.’
Peg gasped. ‘But I was only a child when that happened. You can’t suspect me surely?’
‘We suspect everyone that we cannot trust.’
Peg’s mind raced and his mind flashed back to that time, it felt like an eternity away, when the militia had descended on their family home. His aunt and uncle had been hauled away, bags over their heads, arms chained in front of them...

Monday, 11 October 2010

Jungle Fever

Gem was sweating by the time he reached the clearing. It was hot, it was sticky, the humidity hung in the air like a global spray; but none of these things were causing Gem to sweat from what felt like every pore of his raggedy body. He needed a hit.

Insects buzzed around him and the loud noises of the jungle flooded his senses until he wanted to block his ears with shaking fingers. His sense of smell was similarly inundated with stimulation: the damp and rotting vegetation, the stench of his own body. Gem wanted to vomit. He needed a hit.

He paused as he entered the clearing, looking up for the first time in his journey so far. He looked up with a face full of consternation as if expecting that his longed for salvation would have disappeared. Gem looked, and acted, like a man who had not had much luck in his two score and some lifetime.

But the building was still there. The rickety door flung open to the elements. The uneven wooden walls were green with damp and the roof sunk inwards towards the middle of the building. It was only a matter of time before the jungle reclaimed the materials and filled in the inside space that barely remained human.

Gem pushed his way through the beaded curtain, it failed in its sole purpose of keeping out flies, and hesitated as his tired eyes struggled to adjust to the darkness within the building. The beads clattered behind him, announcing his presence in a semi-musical fanfare of plastic.

The barman, thick set and bored looking, glanced at Gem and instantly frowned.

‘He’s not here.’

Gem staggered to the bar and lurched over to get closer to the barman’s face, as if proximity would improve the words. ‘Eh?’

‘You’re here for resupply?’

Gem nodded, his mouth was too dry to speak despite the dank atmosphere. He hadn’t been here many times before and this man was new to him. His delight at his arrival in the clearing was rapidly disappearing, sinking into his stomach in a torment of unrequited desire.

‘He’s not here yet.’

‘When?’ Gem gasped.

The man shrugged. ‘Who knows.’

Gem slumped onto a bar stool, swivelling slightly in a fidget of indecision. Should he stay here or should he try one of the other supply huts? The nearest hut was several days journey away, though. And, even if he could last that long, who could say that the same situation would not apply there too?

There had been a time, not so long ago, when resupplying was straightforward – just a matter of being in the right place at whatever time. Not any more though. Gem had noticed a drop in the standard of the actual product too and he couldn’t work out which of these facts was most disturbing to him.

The barman, keeping one eye on Gem, greeted a customer who entered without disturbing the curtain of beads, piquing Gem’s interest for a moment. But the newcomer was just a drinker, you could tell by the shape of his eyes. Gem turned back to the bar and started pulling off splinters that lined the edge of the disintegrating wood.

CHARACTER: a middle aged male addict
LOCATION: A restaurant in a jungle
SITUATION: Being far too early

Sunday, 10 October 2010


The clouds pile over each other, climbing across the sky. Shadow and light backlit by the column of explosion beyond the edge of the distant horizon. The breeze catches, stiffening the air.
Zero sighs. Another attack. He runs, his feet cracking the hard surface of tundra, aiming for the hole in the ground a few hundred yards from his home. His breath catches, his muscles feel their age, but he is in good shape and the flow of the run soon overtakes him, carrying him along without thought.
In the distance he sees Five and his young wife heading for the hole. They will reach it before him. This annoys him. The last time they got into a fight because Five did not want to let Zero in and so he had pulled rank. Five had never quite forgiven him, accusing Zero of abusing his power as the local detective. Zero had been late, Five had simply followed the rules. Zero had never understood Five's emnity. Not just to Zero but to all the others in the community. There will be a time, soon, when Zero would have to deal with that problem.
Zero slips, his ankle twisting slightly on a piece of frosted grass. He curses, hopping in short, breathless steps, trying to take control of the pain and keep moving. He sees Thirty and Twenty Two slow as they notice his discomfort. He waves his hands to tell them to keep running. Stamping his feet Zero tries to find his stride again but it is not the same.
Nearly there, he turns to look back at the cloud. Larger now. Ripples of heated air, of twisting, burning sedge and scrub, are closer. He reaches the hole and jumps down, landing badly on his damaged ankle. Behind him the heavy door is slammed shut. In darkness they wait for the howling to end.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

A rainbow in ultraviolet

Cara wakes with a feeling of dissatisfaction, remnant of a dicephalous dream tugging at her discomfort. The light in the office is still low, a rainbow in ultraviolet. She is alone.

A perilous drop of diamond hovers in front of her, frozen at the tip of the splash of water. The coded representation of her work, the fragility of it amuses her and she plunges her hand inwards causing the image to zoom, pixellate and fragment. At its heart is the coupon. A near perfect image of the encrypted paper she is trying to copy.

The copy still lacks a part of the key. Swinging round she pulls up the record of the multi-cell quantum hook that she has digging into the code of the original. Progress has become frustratingly slow. A Zeno wall of attrition.

A wave of the hand causes the images to disappear, the light in the office dropping to near darkness. The window reflects a half-constructed image of Cara, looking angrily back at herself. She storms towards it, flinging a punch which thuds against the toughened glass.

Leaning her forehead against the window she tries to peer out. To make her eye close enough to the glass that there is no reflection, to look out at the dark city. Searching for the signs of anyone remaining.

The coupon holds the key to her loneliness. They will not let her through without it. Cara curses the boyfriend who jealously destroyed hers. She curses the Intelligence that denies the ability to issue another ticket.

She watches the rain begin, water catching on the window.