Story notes, Interzone #283

The Winds and Persecutions of the Sky, Robert Minto. Forgot to take notes at the time of reading. This story rushed back to me as soon as I re-read the first few words; the mental image of the protagonist clinging to the side of a crumbling skyscraper as they scale the vines that enfold it is a memorable one. It’s a nice story that juxtaposes two ways of life in the aftermath of a fallen civilization and has some fine moments, although I found the conclusion a little under-supported in terms of character motivation.

Of the Green Spires, Lucy Harlow. A very short story – two pages in the magazine – that nicely demonstrates what can be achieved with flash fiction. Meanwhile an alien plant spreads over Oxford, fruiting wildly. It’s respectfully invasive and although no one understands it, no one is concerned either. Eventually it retreats into a space of its own where it caters for those it has touched. Characterisation is light but enough: the main character is alienated and detached and angry at the start, and by the end has begun to forgive herself for some of what drives this. It’s nicely understated and doesn’t pretend that broken relationships can be resolved at once, or at all, but healing and positive growth is possible.

Jolene, Fiona Moore. I like this story’s conceit of intelligent vehicles that are basically AI citizens; they sign contracts rather than having owners, they collectivise for both social and economic gain, and they invest their income in themselves for maintenance and upgrade. There are a lot of stories you could tell with this idea! The story we have here involves a private investigator cum automotive psychologist who looks into a case where a driver is insistent that foul play was involved in ‘his’ truck – Jolene – leaving him. The case begins to read like domestic abuse – but is it? And is it better to know? I really enjoyed this story. Also, how about this for an opening line:

“I’ve got a case for you,” said Detective Inspector Wilhemine FitzJames. “It’s a country singer whose wife, dog and truck have all left him.”

The Palimpsest Trigger, David Cleden. Palimpsests are strange creatures with powers over memory who have integrated themselves into the seedy underbelly of human civilization. Our protagonist works for one such, delivering “pilla” – the detached cilia of one of these alien beings – to victims targeted for assassination. The manner of death so inflicted is cruel and inevitable, meaning few dare cross a palimpsest – save perhaps another ‘palimp’. Surviving in an underworld dominated by such creatures, how much can one’s own memory be trusted?

Fix That House!, John Kessel. A married professional couple seek to restore a “stately Southern home”; how far will they go to do so? This flash story is slight and I felt the twist came in too fast, with not enough force to the punch after the initial surprise, but I appreciated the dig at wealthy property owners obsessed with ‘authenticity’.

Two Worlds Apart, Dustin Blair Steinacker. James White Award winner. A story about communication, but culturally more than semiotic. Compellingly written with a lively cast of characters. I hope to read more of Steinacker’s work in future. (SG: reading these notes back they are very terse, but I did enjoy this story a lot.)

Story notes, Interzone #282

Verum, Storm Humbert. The black market narcotic of choice is “verum”, a tailor-made substance that induces dreams in the user. Our protagonist is a mixer of verum, and indeed the first who produced mixes that induced dreams greater than the unimaginative output of the “porn barons” his product displaced. But this mixer is growing old and feels a younger competitor nipping at his heels. This is a solid lead story that focuses on the relationship between the two mixers, their experiences and desires, and the lurking threat of betrayal and violated trust. The worldbuilding is just enough though it’s unclear why verum is a black market substance, save that the story demands low-output mixers who tailor their product for individuals.

Can You Tell Me How to Get to Apocalypse?, Erica L. Satifka. A striking opening, featuring a bunch of dead kids performing for what seems like a morning kids’ TV show. We soon learn that the show is largely watched by adults and that these dead kids, deceased parodies of life as they are, are some of the only kids left. This tale of a twisted Sesame Street portrays characters who are reacting to the end of children and the imminent decline of humanity in different ways – but one common element is the retreat into the past, nostalgia and innocence that the TV show represents, for all that it is made possible by animating dead children. What price the comfort of nostalgia?

The Frog’s Prince; or, Iron Henry, N.A. Sulway. Not being familiar with the particularities of Grimm fairytales I’m only superficially aware of how this story reworks its originating material, but there is a queer element to the story that is sweet if underdeveloped, and the sexual fluidity is interesting if sidestepped (by amnesia!). To be honest, whilst the central relationship is kind and tragic in equal measure, most of the time whilst reading this I was just thinking about the witch who cursed the frog’s lover. Cursing three generations to self-destruction over their inability to father daughters is a disproportionate response to a refused request to get you a bucket of water from the well you’re sat right next to. Lazy bloody witches, eh?

The Princess of Solomon Pond Mall, Timothy Mudie. Short story about a lonely little girl who lives alone in an abandoned mall, and is sent a robot to keep her company. Her situation only becomes more tragic when you discover why she is alone, and who is sending her things. Somehow she makes living, organic beings – squirrels, her Nana, and every human being who was in the mall – disappear from existence. The story sees her beginning to forge a relationship with the robot and slowly sharing more of her story, amidst fears that she might also make her new companion vanish. The story works as it is but I would honestly have liked to read more: where that relationship goes and what happens; the mystery of the disappearances; the ambitions of her distant keepers.

Heaven Looks Down on the Tomb, Gregor Hartmann. A group of scientists drawn from the Lunar colonies visits Earth in search of data and, well, gut bacteria. Among them are a dozen grad students, who are essentially scientific mules for the latter. Mei is the foremost among these ‘Collectors’ but her position does not afford her much respect from Dr. Wong, the tyrannical head of the expedition, or authority among her peers. When Mei hears that there may be problems concerning the expedition back home, she needs to work with the limitations of her position for the best interests of the Collectors and the expedition’s objectives. A solid story, nicely told, with an open-ended conclusion.

FiGen, A Love Story, Kristi DeMeester. What if you could know the chances of your partner committing acts of infidelity through cheap genetic analysis? What if your marriage felt like it was in a downwards spiral of growing detachment and disinterest? And what might happen if you could know who the most likely object of your partner’s infidelity might be? FiGen runs with these questions, skirting the most obvious story beats and twisting the tale’s direction someone more interesting – and, ultimately, cathartic.

Dorf Fortress #3: Admission

When last we left Roughrewards my starting seven were still hewing living spaces from our endless supplies of mountain chert and swapping stories of the one time everybody punched that alligator a lot. It’s been suggested that a shrine be constructed in the pool of alligator blood to memorialise this founding event, and honestly I can’t think of a more appropriate thing to do in Dwarf Fortress. We’ll get to that at some point.

First, though, I need to get this shithole mountain home functional at a basic level.

I have a farm plot, but what concerns me is ensuring I have enough Plump Helmet seeds to endlessly grow Plump Helmets. For the benefit of those following this journal who know little of the game and are merely looking forward to the point when everything hilariously explodes in my hilarious face, Plump Helmets are the stock mushroom that can be grown year-round and eaten as well as brewed into beer. Dwarfs may get sick of ’em, but they won’t die so long as there’s Plump Helmets. Well, of starvation or thirst, anyway. Unless they get sick. Or–

From what I recall from a fuck-up some years ago, to ensure you have a continuous supply of these mushrooms, you need to ensure that some are eaten and they’re not all brewed. Eating leaves seeds; brewing does not. Or the other way around? My final decision is fuck it, let’s just plant everything and see how we go.

Dwarfs carving out a large room to the east of some bedrooms.

The grand hall to the east of my initial bedrooms is underway. As soon as there’s just enough space to do so, I set the meeting area in here and all my idle dwarfs and animals head straight down and try to squeeze themselves into the same tile. You know, like humans do at house parties.

I’ve drilled the stairwell down a few levels deeper. Partly I’m looking to see what we find: happily, the answer is lots of things that aren’t chert. Different rock, some rough gems, etcetera. No caverns yet, thankfully. A few z-levels below my housing I carve out an area for mining, stone workshops and a stone and gem stockpile. The rationale here is that Dwarf Fortress apparently models noise so I want some distance from the living area, and I want workshop materials close to the workshops. This area will be the central point of our underworld industry.

Above ground, we already have our elf-offending industry (they don’t like it when you cut down trees; I have cut down many). I built a carpenter’s workshop next to the wood stockpile, and it’s been set to making beds and doors for a while now. I also added barrels to the list, because I figured they’d be useful for brewing, but all the barrels that are created are immediately claimed by dwarfs to put in the stockpile so they can store one item inside. O-kay. At least all the bedrooms will soon have beds and doors, as you can see in the screenshot above.

Near the farm, I carve out a space for a still and a kitchen. “Fresh” beer and prepared food for all! It’s the same ingredient either way, but hey: civilization.

I have no idea how much time has passed since the game began. Is it over a year? Probably not, but my dwarfs and I did spend a lot of time with that alligator. I figure traders will show up soon enough, so I mark out an area for a broker’s office, and then try to place the trade depot. After a little trial and error I realise I can’t, and this makes me more conscious of a problem I’ve been ignoring since I began: my top level, and therefore every branch off the stairwell it contains, is too close to the edge of the map.

When I started the game I chose a small embark area, on account of harebrained assumptions concerning the computational capacity eaten by this ridiculous simulation, and when I carved out a tunnel into the mountainside I went right up to the edge, because that’s where the earth was. In retrospect I should have curled a tunnel down and back on itself, or just dug straight down at a central point in the map. It’s whilst thinking about this that I also admit I’m already thinking “when this fortress fails, I’ll do a better job with the next one.”

Sorry dwarfs. Mentally, I’ve already written you off.

Anyway, I’ll persevere until something goes wrong. And I certainly shan’t do anything to hasten that!!

The top layer of the fortress, with several new rooms added: a trade depot, an office, a still and a kitchen.

I eventually carve out a new room for my trade depot, opposite the original location. I leave the latter empty. I’ll have a nameplate for it engraved, simply reading “Folly”. Or perhaps I could use it to store the dead lungfish remains which, for some reason, are scattered all over the place above ground. I file this under “harmless Dwarf Fortress weirdness” and move on.

All of the above is quite a lot of work to be getting on with, and my dwarfs are busy. I tinker with the job settings – I’m still doing this manually in the game – pretending I’m optimising things, as if I know what I’m doing. Most of the dwarfs are veeeeeery slowly lugging rocks around, or much more rapidly hacking holes in the earth. One lucky individual is making more doors and barrels, and another – who I have also made my broker – is cranking out stonecraft goods. I plan to trade these with everyone, especially the elves, because they’re stonecrafts and contain no wood. Theoretically.

The text reads, "Some migrants have arrived!"

It’s during this levelling-up period for the fort that my first migrants arrive! This is traditionally the point at which a DF diary or let’s play moans about bloody migrants complicating things, but I’m really excited. I want more workers to grow my fortress faster, and there’s plenty of work that needs doing. Let’s see who we got!

The new arrivals are a Planter, a Thresher, and a child.

Oh, fuck off.

[Next time: more migrants, some with useful skills but mostly not! Traders, with more goods than anyone could need or indeed desire! An artifact befitting this fortress! More things I don’t understand, and a growing, anticipatory sense of failure! DORF! FORTRESS!]

Story notes, Interzone #281

Last year I was posting reading notes on Interzone short stories as I caught up on a backlog of magazines that built up during my relocation.

This was part of a personal aspiration to read a short story and an essay every day. Achieving something so simple is sometimes harder than it sounds. 

Sharing those notes here fell by the wayside due to holidays and work, but COVID-19 is inadvertently providing a little time to redress this…  

The Realitarians, James Warner. Apparently part of a series of tales about “feline sleuths”, this one features a woman with a tendency to get mixed up with bad sorts luring a physicist into a kidnapping, following which things rapidly unravel. She’s not a good person, and nor are any of the humans around her. Are the cats? Well, one of them at least might be a “realitarian”. An off-kilter story with an easy humour that left me wanting to read more about these feline sleuths.

Float, Kai Hudson. A very short story about a girl who thinks of herself as a “dirtworm”: a ‘natural’ human living in a zero-gravity space habitat without any modification or adaptation for that environment. She travels to Earth and we see it through her eyes. This is as much a character sketch as it is a story, primarily told through internal monologue and memory, from the point of view of someone who feels unavoidably out of place. It’s simple and it works.

Harmony, Andy Dudak. This is a dark one. A spy or agent strangles an official in a military-occupied city and then attempts to escape. The city is dominated by a song which never stops playing and captivates its listeners, making puppets of them. The song’s disorienting, subversive effects on the point of view character is very nicely handled.

A Dreamer Arrives in the Occupied City, Malcolm Devlin. Surprisingly close to the conceit of the story that directly precedes it. Another city, this time occupied by mysterious, never-identified creatures called “lopers” which – somehow – mean people do not dream. But a woman who returns to a club and the friends she once sought to escape with her new love finds, performing there, a singer who does dream. The story is more concerned with suggestion and implication than anything pointed. In this sense it is both a little like dreams, and is delicately written in that it deftly leaves a lot up to the reader. Despite admiring some elements I found the lack of resolution dissatisfying and the closing character moment unearned. (I did read this story in two halves, on opposite sides of a weekend, so perhaps I missed something important!)

Scolex, Matt Thompson. An addict and former gene-drug producer is tempted by one huge payday to act as a mule for a mysterious new high called Scolex. His employer turns out to be a figure from his past, and his trip – both physical and pharmacological – will take him back home – literally and figuratively. The story’s conclusion is fitting, and the setting left me intrigued.

Cafe Corona, Georgina Bruce. Very short piece that seems to be derived from the biggest moment in astronomy in 2019: the photographing of a black hole, complete with corona. A strange flash story that superimposes that image everywhere, and imagines that said image can be… pushed through? (I didn’t really get this story. Maybe I should re-read it when I’m less dog tired.)

Our Fathers Find Their Graves in Our Short Memories, Rebecca Campbell. Damn, this is maudlin. An epitaph to deceased humanity, crumbling away as capitalocene climate change eats away at the foundations for civilization and, ultimately, life. As humanity declines it retreats into memory. The counter ticks down. The lights go out. The story should be bleak but in its nostalgia and in its personal storytelling it feels more like a farewell, a tidy shutting-down, than the trailing off of hope and human life.

Dorf Fortress #2: Overreaction

It has come to my attention that in the previous instalment I neglected to name my fortress. Welcome back, therefore, to as-yet unglorious Roughrewards, newest colony of the Sunken Attic.

If you’re thinking the fortress name is pretty good and the civilisation name is a little underwhelming, you’re not alone.

When last we left our brave and stupid dorfs, they were busy attempting to punch to death a fully-grown if unconscious alligator and making little headway against its thick scales.

Screenshot of the description of the beaten and bruised alligator.

Fearing that they might expire from exhaustion and dehydration whilst flogging this dead horse, I created a second squad containing my miners, reasoning that they might attack it with their picks. Nope: they too joined the punching party. Presumably they also gouge rock and soil from the very earth with their bare hands.

Screenshot of the miners heading for the alligator, which lies in a pool of its own blood between the wagon and the river.

One of the 39 pages of combat logs describing an alligator being punched and acquiring bruises.

Eventually I gave up, disbanded all military squads and set a burrow. This worked, in that the dwarfs stopped punching the poor reptile. After a short period, during which the alligator neither expired nor moved, I cancelled the burrow and marked the wagon to be dismantled. A few dwarfs got a little spooked by the beast but this didn’t seem to stop their efforts to fetch items for our new stockpile.

I spent a little while designating new areas to be dug out and watching as my dwarfs lugged items back and forth. As you can see from the above screenshots I’m currently playing the game vanilla – no custom tilesets or fonts – but it remains compelling just to watch the simulation tick.

When I next checked on our scaled friend, I paused the game in sudden horror. It was gone. Reassuring myself that there were no new combat reports, I tracked it down using the Units list and found the creature slowly limping southwards. I watched it as it exited the map, and felt a brief moment of regret for what might have been.

In retrospect, looking at the incident from the reptile’s perspective, it was wronged in all this. First our idiotic expedition leader sticks their hands into the river right in front of it, inviting attack whilst attempting to pillage the creature’s own food source. Then when it does what instinct compels it toward, it does little more than gash a dwarf in the leg and a dog in the… in the false ribs? Okay. Sure. And then in response it is punched at least 700 times whilst it fades in and out of consciousness. During all this three of its toes explode in gore and its neck is somehow ripped open.

Dwarf Fortress: never proportionate, ever.

Anyway, how about a few shots of the shitty hovel that is Roughrewards?

Here is the entrance with a ramp going lower, west of the wagon, river and memorial alligator bloodpatch:

A screenshot of the entry area to the fortress, with other feature points to the east.

The entryway tunnel precedes to an area I’ll later use for a trade depot, a stairwell leading down, a farm plot and a stockpile.

An unexciting screengrab of a stockpile, stairwell, farm plot and corridor.

Two levels below we find an initial set of what will become bedrooms. I have plans for a grand hall to the east, which will be used as meeting area and dining room.

Eight 3x3 bedrooms, arranged either side of a west-east corridor.

Whilst digging this lot out we struck chert and bauxite, two of the bajillion different kinds of rock that the game’s terrifyingly broad or deep – how would I know which? both? – geological simulation features. I also remembered to make a wood stockpile and to allow corpses in my refuse pile, which almost immediately results in this:

A screengrab of text from the game reading "fluffy wambler remains"

I have no more idea than you do. I guess the cats got ’em.

Dorf Fortress #1

A few weeks back I grew obsessed with Dwarf Fortress. I blame one of my workplace proximity associates, because he started talking about the Villain Update when we were at lunch. Thoughtless bastard.

After a few weeks of watching YouTube Let’s Plays (mostly by Kruggsmash) and re-reading diaries (mostly Glazedcoast and Onionbog) I decided it was time to actually play the game. Last time I tried it didn’t go so well. Dwarf Fortress’s interface is famous for two things: being extremely difficult to get on with, and being functional and logical once you’ve become accustomed to its many idiosyncrasies. It is an interface that flies in the face of contemporary ideas about user experience. The game also uses pseudo-ASCII art so, like, who cares?

After generating a new world and searching for the recommended newbie embark site – soil or clay, shallow and deep metals, serene or calm surroundings, some woodland or trees, and most importantly no bloody aquifer – I embarked with the default loadout. Strike the earth!

The first thing one should do when beginning a game of Dwarf Fortress is check out your immediate surroundings. My dwarfs were clustered on a hilly plateau, apparently many z-levels above sea level. The hill towered upwards still further to their west, which is great as it gives me some soft soil or rock to dig into for an initial entrance. To the east of my dwarfs lay a fast-flowing river, perfect for fresh water.

Elsewhere there were plenty of trees dotted about, and the grass looked like normal grass rather than, say, eyeballs on stalks. All good. The list of creatures in the area was slightly more concerning: seven hippos and an alligator. The hippos worried me as these animals can easily kill humans if they are disturbed, and I figure that they could pulp an idiot dwarf without breaking their stride. The alligator, listed as an ambush predator, worried me less. It was sat in the river nearby, but so long as no one went near it I should be fine.

Another thing it’s recommended that new players do with the default embark loadout is disable everything to do with fishing or hunting while you get your initial rooms dug out. This prevents dwarfs wandering about and, say, aggroing ambush predators in the nearby river. It’s a good tip, so I disabled everything that was recommended. I also made my fish cleaner work as a miner, as the fish cleaner is generally considered the most useless worker in the default loadout, and two miners makes mining faster.

Next I designated a 3 block wide corridor with a sharp turn in it – wide enough for a trade caravan, long enough to give me some room to assemble defences – leading to a 5×5 trade area, a 3×3 area for use as a stairwell, and a 12×12 stockpile. Once that is dug out I’ll move on to a dormitory or rooms, farms, and space for various workshops and stills. Baby steps, though. Finally, I designated a bunch of trees to be chopped down. There are as yet no elves to tell us off for this.

With everything designated, it was time to unpause the game and let my dwarfs get to it!

It all went rather well, until about three seconds had passed and my fisherdwarf walked right up to the river and was attacked by the alligator. For fuck’s sake, man. Didn’t I– oh. No. No, I didn’t disable his fishing labour.

Like I said, the interface is pretty complicated. But this screw-up was on me.

I decided to react by assembling a military squad, aka. a crack team of loyal dregs. I allocated a couple of dwarfs – everyone except my miners and woodcutter was standing about uselessly anyway – to a squad and ordered them to kill the alligator. After unpausing, they enthusiastically attacked the creature. Unarmed.

It turns out that a dwarf is entirely willing to punch an alligator repeatedly, and indeed is capable of bruising every single part of its body and even knocking it unconscious. Unfortunately, it is also rather difficult to kill an alligator this way. And even an unconscious alligator will interrupt the task of any dwarf who came anywhere near it. Did I mention the stupid bloody reptile had hauled itself onto the land and was currently sprawled in a pool of blood right next to my wagon?

At this point my “military” have been punching the alligator for what must be several in-game weeks, and it’s no closer to being dead. There are thirty pages of combat logs, each line stating that the alligator has a new bruise. I dread to visualise this. But my biggest concern is that whilst unarmed dwarfs can’t kill a creature like this, they will not stop trying. If they keep at it for long enough, they can actually die of dehydration. Whilst punching a freshwater reptile. Next to a river.

Smells like Dwarf Fortress!

Next time: how to defeat an unconscious alligator, I try not to fuck up channelling, and possibly some screenshots of our mountain hovel.

Voting Labour

No one likes being told how they should vote. Instead, I’ll share a few reasons why I’m voting Labour.

Critically, I want to emphasise that in the UK General Election 2019 I have a choice to vote for something that I value, that resonates with me, that feels urgent and necessary, and charts a path forwards through the many challenges faced by the UK and our entire civilization (if you feel this is melodramatic, I feel you are not paying attention). This is a stark contrast with GEs prior to 2017, which for me were typically sordid exercises in lesser-evilism. But I don’t want to talk about lesser evils, or reasons not to vote for other parties. I want to talk about reasons for voting Labour, today.

Economically, Britain needs to both end austerity and take proactive steps to address rampant inequality. There are powerful moral arguments to be made for both, but also economic arguments. Austerity has been a clear failure via whatever metric you choose, having neither reduced the national debt nor produced significant economic growth. Inequality concentrates wealth and those who do not benefit do not spend; low spending and hoarding of capital suffocate economic growth. Labour proposes to address both with a progressive tax on the country’s highest earners, the introduction of a superior living wage and the scrapping of austerity schemes like Universal Credit. A modest raise in corporation tax will also help here, and may even result in companies choosing to invest in R&D rather than continue to bung cash to shareholders. This is extremely basic economics.

The NHS is one of Britain’s most beloved and fiercely defended institutions, for all the negative headlines and scandals. Labour intend to deliver the investment the NHS needs to address crumbling infrastructure and take steps to reverse privatisation of and marketisation within the NHS. Other services, like rail, energy, mail and water will return to public ownership. You may have heard arguments about historical problems these services had when under centralised public ownership. To that I reply that their performance under private ownership has a track record of worse services and higher costs both to users and to the state.

In addition Labour, uniquely among UK political parties, are exploring alternative models of ownership that decentralise control and support people getting involved in the services that they rely upon. This is one way in which the 2019 manifesto marks the start of a potential journey – one that indicates the sincerity and seriousness of Corbynism when it comes to engaging with the problems we face.

The housing crisis in the UK is no secret, unless you’re lucky enough to be a homeowner. Living in Brighton & Hove I was very familiar with my partner and I paying well over half of our income to subsidise the mortgages of buy-to-let landlords and live in sub-standard, poorly-maintained properties whilst getting hit with arbitrary fees from lettings agents. Meanwhile new homes have been constructed at a pitiful rate for years; as any stan for capitalism will tell you, the whole edifice is driven by companies pursuing their self-interest, and for the majority of big construction firms increasing supply by constructing large numbers of houses would undercut the prices they’re able to charge for a more limited supply. This is basic market forces. Combining a rent cap with large-scale construction of new council homes will significantly alleviate the mounting pressures on those seeking stability and security in their home.

I’m frankly exhausted by Brexit, so I will simply say that for several years now it’s been evident that Labour’s policy on the subject has never been complicated, except in comparison with tedious ultras to whom “cancel it entirely” or “enact the worst form of it” are the only two options on the table. Don’t @ me.

Last but certainly not least, on the environment Labour’s policy is more radical than even the Green Party might offer. Committing to net zero carbon emissions by 2030 is a titanic and challenging commitment, but also one that is absolutely necessary given the scale of the problems we face today. Between this and a Green New Deal backed by a National Investment Bank, Britain could become a leading nation in combating the unfolding climate crisis, and in mitigating those effects which are already inevitable. This is the world we live in now, and of all the major UK parties only Labour is taking this seriously.

A lot of these policies came out of the Labour Party Conference earlier this year, some with unanimous support. Labour over the last few years has transformed into an admirably (if messily!) democratic party, with rank and file members offered more of a say and more influence on policy than at any point in the party’s history. I’m proud to have joined the party in 2017 and to have played a tiny part in its transformation from a rudderless vehicle for failed politics to the dynamic force for positive change that it is today.

Perhaps another day I’ll address why I will not vote Liberal Democrat, or – ha ha – Conservative. But for today, this is about hope: for real progress and positive change. The dream of electoral democracy is that it can offer us the vision of a path toward a better future. I invite you to join me in voting for hope.

Aphelion excerpt #1

When Hal awakes, a woman is sitting beside him. It takes him a moment to realise it is not the woman from his nightmare, but Miranda, another technician from his team. She looks up from the tablet she’s reading when she notices his weak movements.

“Hal,” she says. “I’m glad you’re awake.”

How long was I out? Hal wants to ask. “But it’s meaningless,” he mumbles, groggily. “I don’t remember…”

“I’m not surprised,” Miranda tells him. “Mild concussion from the crash couch. It could have been a lot worse. You probably saw what was left of Argento.”

Hal remembers the dark room he was trapped in, and the bloodstain around the wrecked pod. He shudders, feeling nauseous again.

“Try not to move too much. You’ve got some recovering to do.”

He nods, numbly.

“First things first. Do you remember your name?”

“Hal,” he replies. “You… called me by it less than a minute ago.”

“Excellent. Either your short term or long term memory is functioning fine. I’m slightly worried by the sarcasm deficit in your response, but we’ll chalk that up to having survived an interstellar starship crash.”

“Try not to give me too much credit,” Hal groans, his voice sounding weak to his own ears. “I might not have figured that one out.”

“There we go. Much better.”

Hal shuffles his arms, making to try and sit up, but his limbs feel weak and he quickly gives up. “So… what the hell happened, Mir?”

“Great, you remember me. I wasn’t sure if you were just being rude. So we carved you out of that room with cutting torches. One of our spidermechs – we lost more than a few, but enough are still functional – carried you through the ship. Now you’re here, in the infirmary, with all the other wounded we’ve recovered so far.”

Hal looks around. The pallet he’s lying on is surrounded by towering high shelves stacked with metal and plastic crates of uniform dimensions, each with neatly printed labels. Miranda shrugs.

“Infirmary, cargo bay, whatever. We’re making do here, Hal.”

“How bad was the crash?”

“Bad enough. The Gaia came down hard. It’s a real big ship, and it’s not designed to so much as kiss atmosphere.”

“Skip the obvious stuff, Mir. My brain isn’t leaking out my ears, is it?”

She shrugs again. “No more than usual, chief. Look, we don’t really know how hard she hit. The primary network is offline. We don’t even know how many people are online. The rescue parties are literally making lists as they find people.” She looks down at her tablet and frowns. “There’s the good list, and the bad list. You’re on the good one. The other one makes depressing reading.”

“How… many?”

“About six hundred alive so far. About half of us are injured, maybe fifty incapacitated.”

“Six hundred?” said Hal. “Jesus Christ.”

“Yeah,” replied Mir. They were silent for time. The Gaia’s Disquiet had a crew complement of more than six hundred, and had been carrying thousands more passengers.

“It’s slow going,” she continued, eventually. “There’s a lot of structural damage. A lot of doors auto-sealed during the crash, and pretty much every single one needs cutting through. We’re trying to get the primary network back online, but whatever got fucked up is sufficiently fucked up that we need to take a look at the actual hardware.”

“And we’re at the wrong end of the ship for that?” guessed Hal.

“We’re at the wrong end of the ship for that.”

“So what’s our plan of action?” said Hal. “Rescuing survivors… sure. What about after that? Where are we? I don’t even remember where we were when… well, I don’t remember much. Working. Then the orders to get my arse into a crash couch.”

“Yeah… a plan. About that.” Miranda put a hand on his shoulder. “How are you feeling? Up for a short walk?”

[This is an early scene from a novel I am (slowly) working on. The setting is actually shared with several vignettes I’ve posted here in the past.]

Vignette #12

Gloria’s hand is warm in his, feeling alive and vibrant against the sharp cold gusts of wind that carry across the seafront. They stand side by side, looking out at the waves, which glisten and shine in dappled sunlight.

“It’s beautiful,” he says. He steals a glance sideways, drinking in her face in portrait, glowing radiant in the bright light. “You’re beautiful.”

She laughs, tilting her head back as he admires her. “Stan, you’re too pure for this world.”

“I prefer to think of myself as a dedicated observer of universal truths.”

She looks at him and smiles. Their gazes meet, her brown eyes sparkling. “A speaker of universal cliche, more like.”

“Classics, not cliche,” he challenges. He sweeps his free hand toward the vista before them. “Is the sea cliche? Has it been done too many times?”

“We could have gone to the dump instead. Picked through some romantic detritus.”

He shakes his head. “No, I took you around the second hand shops yesterday. It’s been done.”

She laughs again and shoves him gently. He leans back, putting his weight gently against the counterbalance of her grip, still soft and warm, then pulls gently back. He almost leans in for a kiss, but she has turned her face back to the sea.

“You could have found the beauty in broken old toasters and rusted bicycles,” she tells him. He looks out at the sea once more, hunching his shoulders against the cool wind, and explores what lies before him.

“I’d rather find it in mottled seagulls and discarded instant barbeques. The true icons of the British seaside.”

“No, the over-priced pubs and fish and chips are the true hallmarks of the seaside.”

“The former is why people eat barbeque, and the latter is why the seagulls mass here. QED.”

“For a foreigner, you really have grasped British culture quite well.”

“I don’t understand,” he says, looking at her again, eager to gauge her reaction. “No one here is watching reality television.”

She laughs once more, and looks at him again. Her skin glows in the sunlight, surrounded by loose hairs that wave in the wind. “I love you, Stan, you romantic idiot.”

[This was a writing exercise, challenging me to match setting and mood in a scene of dialogue.]

The Mountain Speaks

In the town at the foot of the mountain, men descended on the ethnic group not like a marauding tribe of raiders and pillagers, nor like a conquering army. They did not even come at night like assassins.

They came openly, as if daylight made them innocent. They came with paperwork, and orders, and steely-faced men with rifles who stood behind them. They came with authority backed by violence.

They dragged into the street, through apologetic words or unapologetic force, all adult men of the ethnic group. These men, distant rulers had decreed, were traitors to the nation.

The men who resisted were beaten by those who dragged them out. All the men were put in chains. Then they were marched away, in long lines like ancient slaver trains, escorted by soldiers with guns instead of guards with whips.

Incessant gunshots could be heard throughout the night, distant echoes from not-so-distant valleys. Children wept. Above the town the mountain stood impassive.

The soldiers returned the next day. The men of the ethnic group were not with them.

The men with the paperwork went to the houses once more. This time they took the women. Some soldiers leered at the women, their faces less steely now the men were gone. We will not speak of the women who were defiant.

The women who were taken from the houses were put in chains, like the men before them. The people of the town who were not members of the ethnic group watched from their windows. Their thoughts were private for no words were spoken. Only the soldiers spoke, and laughed.

The women were marched away. That night there were no gunshots, but the children wept again. The mountain watched in silence.

Neither the soldiers nor the women returned to the town the next day, nor ever again. But the men who had commanded the soldiers went to the houses once more, and this time they took the children.

The children wept still. Some screamed and wailed. They could not put words to their loss and grief. They did not understand, but they feared.

The men put the children of the ethnic group into carts. The carts were filled with crying children who clung to each other. The town had never known so many tears to be shed.

Maybe that is why the ground shook. Maybe that is why the children stopped weeping. Maybe that is why the men with the orders fell still in fear. Maybe that is why the people of the town who were not of the ethnic group looked to the mountain.

For the mountain spoke.