Garnet (part 3)

Just shy of three years later, another fragment. I’m tentatively back on the blogging thing, though at this point I’m not setting any hard guidelines for what gets published. It’s a hard follow-on from the previous fragment, so probably best to go back to the earlier bits before continuing.

For all that the architecture indicated a local origin for the complex, nobody had been able to find any evidence of it back home. The geoarchaeologists had put through several requests for deep archive searches that  came back blank after months of being shunted from one low-priority queue to another; my own investigations, though treated with far more urgency, had returned the same result: there was nothing to imply that anyone had ever come this way from Hearthfire before the current expedition. The whole situation was highly unusual, and I wasn’t surprised to learn that the lead investigator had logged a request for expert help right before he’d been murdered.

As killings went, it hadn’t been spectacular. Doctor Lyell had been found by his research partner, trapped in a chamber near the edge of the complex they had been studying. Both of the examiners had reported that he’d died from lack of air – he was mapped to a ship bio-body identical to my own – but he was badly bruised and his communicator had been smashed to bits, which left little room for accident.

Working back through the witness statements on the terminal was excruciatingly slow: my hands fumbled every second or third gesture, and I still felt too dizzy to read, leaving real-time audio playback as the only option to absorb them. Still, I pressed on and listened, once again, to the recordings of the three surviving ground staff: Sial Hutton, the other scientist, Hu Kielo, the expedition’s cyberneticist and doctor, and Asteyan, its sponsor. I let their panic and concern and wheedling wash over me in turn, and felt no wiser for it once I was done.

Again, I went back to sleep.

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Garnet (part 2)

(just a fragment for now!)

In the end, I had drifted back to sleep. The thought of moving around was still intimidating, and my mind seemed unable to settle down and work properly on anything I set it to. When in doubt, rest. I felt much better on my second awakening, though I still hesitated to leave my cradle. My guts had settled a little, but I didn’t trust myself to move around unsupervised, and there was still much I could accomplish before putting my new body to the test; I had a lot of research to do, and I wanted to test my memory.

I started with the crew roster and the expedition’s finances before giving up out of boredom – the Merry Widow had established a routine that was numbingly uniform, especially given its crew were all biological, and the money was no more suspicious than it had been when I had reviewed it back on Planting. I moved on to the surrounds – the ship, the still unnamed planet it orbited, and the strange complex that had drawn the expedition in the first place.

None of the scientists had come up with a plausible reason for it to exist, though their preliminary reports had all indicated that it was likely to have been made by people from around Hearthfire, and it dated well after the old settlement. The data archives they had uncovered were all garbled beyond usefulness, though they had yet to rule out viable repairs. The planet itself was a lifeless ball of rock and ice, likely barren and sterile ever since it had formed, since Garnet, was far too cool to have ever given it the energy needed for liquid water.

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Garnet (part 1)

I woke up in the dark and I didn’t know where I was. I could hear voices but no words. My body complained to me in unfamiliar ways – dizziness, disorientation, and a strange feeling of being about to fall. It shouldn’t be doing that, I thought.

“Arbiter Trinn?”

The voice cut through my dizziness this time. I tried to reply but ended up with little more than a groan. My body felt all wrong – slow, imprecise, and strangely reluctant to act.

“Everything looks all right, Arbiter. Take your time, I know it can be tough waking up.”

I shifted myself forward but felt restraints almost immediately. I sagged back and made a second attempt at speech, no more successful than the first. It got through to the speaker, at least.

“Easy, easy. I’ll raise the lights a little, then get you some water.”

Light followed, and sight with it – a cramped and windowless room full of unfamiliar devices, and a figure in front of me. Androform, probably biological, possibly female, short with dark hair and pale skin. Dressed in a uniform of sorts, grey and black and strangely loose, holding a bottle of sorts, not properly attached to the floor. Floating. I still couldn’t think properly.

My attendant floated closer and brought the bottle to my lips; my mouth seemed to know what to do better than I did and I found myself drinking, sucking and swallowing without quite understanding how or why.

“There you go. Hang in there, you’ll be fine. The sedative should be wearing off pretty fast.” She smiled and pulled the bottle away – I coughed but felt much better. She pulled back a little and studied me. “My name is Peri, Arbiter. Explorer, crew management and communications.” I decided to gamble on speech a third time, but my attempt to tell her that I couldn’t think properly came out garbled. Peri gave me a smile.

“Just relax, Arbiter. Weightlessness is always tricky, but your body will get used to it; it’s designed for space work, after all. You’ve only been mapped for an hour, so it will probably take some time to get used to it.”

I did not feel reassured. The sharpening sensations throughout my body made my first successful sentence a statement, not a question.

“You put me in a meat body.” The timbre of my body’s voice made it even more obvious. Peri paused for a second before nodding and bringing a mirror in front of me. A stranger stared at me, breathed with me, froze with borrowed outrage and disgust. Brown skin, black hair with a strange slash of green, a prominent nose, a strong jaw. Broad, lean shoulders mostly covered by a uniform much like Peri’s. Breathing, sweating, almost crying.

There it was, then – the dizziness and the strangeness and the unbearable slowness all in one. Nausea because I had a stomach and intestines and blood and hormones to make me feel dizzy. This awful sluggishness because each thought had to crawl its way through a brain and then force its way through lungs and throat and lips and tongue to make itself heard. It had been so long that I had forgotten what it was like.

Why am I in a meat body? And a male one, at that?” I glared at Peri. She glared right back.

“Neuter, actually, though I’ll agree it’s a masculine frame. It’s the only one we have, Arbiter. Perfectly serviceable and well-adapted for the demands of ship work.” She turned aside to stow the bottle in a wall locker and busied herself at a terminal. “I’ve no doubt you’re finding it stressful, Arbiter, but I’d prefer you kept that language to yourself.”

I realised, then, what I had said – and then had to wonder just how badly my condition had confused my thinking. Meat was not a word you threw around, even when you were angry or confused. Billions of people were meat and were no less human for it. Most of me had been meat, even if it had been a long time ago.

Peri was meat.

The churning I felt from the weightlessness and the drugs had a new component, as shame worked its slow, chemical way into my mind. This was not going to be an easy assignment, especially if Peri decided to hold a grudge. My discomfort only grew as I tried to think of a reasonable response.

“I am sorry, Explorer. It has been a very long time since I have been organically embodied.”

Peri nodded and kept about her work. It was probably me she was working on, I realised – a few parts of my body were tellingly numb, so it was probably still connected to its housing in a few places. Was it just drugs, or was it fed intravenously? I would have to learn these things, I realised. Peri finished at her terminal and moved around out of my line of sight before coming back with another one. She removed the restraints around my arms matter-of-factly.

“You’ll probably need to rest for at least a day before you’ll be fit to move around. Doctor Hu assured me that the mapping went smoothly, but the weightlessness will make it much harder for you to adjust. Our visitor bodies have a good deal of helpful reflex built into them, but every mind needs time to adjust.” She placed the new terminal on a table in front of me. “Your body does have direct interface capability, but I’d strongly recommend against using it until you’re properly oriented, just to make sure the mapping holds. If you want to distract yourself then you can use this in the meantime.”

“As you say.” My head was feeling clearer now, but I was fairly sure it would be addled as soon as I tried to move. “You are the expert, Explorer. I’ll do my best to follow your advice.”

She paused a while and offered me a smile. “Peri is fine, Arbiter. You’ll be up and feeling better soon, trust me.”

I attempted a smile of my own. “You can call me Trinn, then. And once you’ve discharged me, you can tell me everything you know about this murder.”

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Meeting of Minds

I spent most of today’s writing time working on something that’s not quite ready yet – hopefully it will be up later this week. In the meantime, please have something inspired by Paul’s recent burst of AW hack activity!

Or you can just view the supporting feature again. It’s much funnier than me.

It had been too easy.

The Galacians had not surrendered yet, of course, but throughout the past month he had never seen a cyborg commander so willing to talk. Alexander still felt a nagging feeling that the parley was a ruse.

His joints ached. The morning air was cold, far too cold for anyone to be up and about. Civilised people had no business being out in the wilderness when it was this cold. It felt strange that this truth should strike him harder than any of  the other senseless things he’d done since crossing the border, but it had a solidity, a substance, that none of the orders and threats and borderline insubordination could quite gather. He could dissemble, he could evade, he could lie to his soldiers and his colleagues and his superiors and himself about how and why he was here – but he was an old man, and his bones complained when it was cold.

“Only one minute to the hour. Still nobody in sight, sir”. The lieutenant from HQ shifted from foot to foot, though Alexander couldn’t tell whether it was from nerves or cold. Slightly behind them both, Graffen stood still as a rock.

“They’ll come. The Galacians keep their promises.” He found himself speaking with more confidence than he thought he had. The younger man – Wyland? Weston? – didn’t reply, though his guarded expression made it obvious enough that he didn’t share Alexander’s opinion. The rest of the Littorand party hung back with the vehicles at the northern edge of the clearing, checking their weapons and scanning the edges of the forest. Nervous, far too nervous. Alexander quietly shook his head. He’d seen grunts get rattled by setbacks in the past, but this time it felt like his men had learned to fear this enemy far too quickly and too thoroughly. Defeat still dogged them, long after they’d turned the tables on the Galacians.

Klaus cleared his throat and Alexander turned his attention back to the south. A lone figure had cleared the trees – a slender young woman dressed in nondescript fatigues, walking slowly but confidently towards him. Dusky skin, short brown hair, shorter than him but not much. No obvious machine parts to give her away as a cyborg. As usual with the Galacians, she had no visible markings of rank on her uniform. Alexander checked his watch – it read 0800 hours precisely.

“That’s close enough.” The lieutenant – Welland, that was the boy’s name – stepped forward and quietly positioned himself between Alexander and the Galacian. “Identify yourself and state your business.” The woman made no reply, though she halted her advance. She ignored Welland and looked Alexander in the eye.

“You are Colonel Alexander of the Littorand National Army. You have led the pursuit of our forces for the last four weeks.” It was not a question. Alexander gently pushed his way past Welland and nodded.

“I am Colonel Alexander. We were told that your commander wished to negotiate. Please inform him that I have come as requested, and that I have no intention of betraying his trust. I am prepared to order my men back to their camp if he requires it.” He could feel Welland staring daggers into him for that last, but he knew it was the right thing to say. Sometimes you had to set your strength aside if you wanted your enemy to listen to you.

The woman paused for a few seconds before replying. “It will not be necessary for your soldiers to retreat, Colonel Alexander. I am willing to trust your word that this is not a trap.” She turned slightly and looked past him. “Lieutenant Simon Wellard, I am Captain Alesini, and I am the leader of this company of the Galacian Autonomous Defence forces. I have also taken provisional command of the Volunteer Army soldiers in our detachment. I am here to negotiate a ceasefire with Colonel Alexander. Please do not interrupt further.”

The lieutenant blanched – Graffen didn’t bat an eyelid. Alexander cursed himself for making foolish assumptions. Of course their commander would be a woman. They were half metal anyway, what difference did it make how they were born?

He nodded to her. “I am sure the lieutenant will restrain himself, Commander. Please allow me to apologise for my presumption.”

She shook her head. “An apology is not necessary. I have one request for you, Colonel. Please abandon your pursuit and allow my soldiers to retreat to the coast.” Alexander extended a hand in front of Welland as the younger man nearly exploded behind him. The woman – Alesini – continued as if she had never been interrupted.

“If you are unwilling or unable to do so, I am willing to offer a provisional surrender, contingent upon the safe treatment of all of my soldiers under the articles of Littorand military law.”

Alexander stood speechless. After months of feints, ambushes, feigned retreats and counterattacks, she was just going to surrender?

She took his silence as a cue to continue. “Our best predictions inform us that the most likely outcome of an extended pursuit is the annihilation of our army, followed by a Boscan ambush of your column. Our preferred outcome is a safe retreat and extraction, but your hierarchical command structure leads us to believe that you are unlikely to pursue this course of action. We would therefore be willing to be taken as prisoners of war and transported out of Boscan territory as rapidly as possible.”

He still couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He felt numb. She wanted to surrender. Just like that.

“If you are unable to guarantee the safety of my soldiers, then I will have no option remaining but to continue fighting in the hope that you make a mistake and give us the opportunity to escape.” She fished an army-issue radio out of a belt pouch and tossed it to him. Shock and cold kept him from grabbing it in time, but Graffen snatched it just before it hit the ground. She stared at him as if expecting an answer.

“I will wait for one day before I resume hostilities. I hope you will be willing to make the mutually beneficial choice.” And without any acknowledgement of his total loss of composure, she turned on her heel and marched back the way she came.

Alexander’s heart sank as the woman – the Galacian commander – slipped back through the trees. He knew already that headquarters would not allow him to honour her terms, not even the twenty-four hour ceasefire. Her proposal – calm, clear, logical, humanitarian – proved every accusation that the generals had levelled against her people.

The Galacians weren’t human. And he would have no choice but to kill them all.

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Desert (part 2 of ?)

Not sure I like where this ends, but it’s midnight so up it goes.

Tam started when the voice rang out, nearly falling backwards off her chair. It rang out a second time, harsh and peremptory, barking out orders or warnings in a language she couldn’t understand. It repeated itself again – the exact phrase, as far as she could tell – before falling silent again. The sounds of the desert, the wind and insects and distant birds, seemed far too quiet after the sudden burst of noise.

After a moment’s hesitation, Tam bundled her tools back into her pack and quietly moved her chair a good distance further back. Better not to provoke whatever was guarding the threshold any further for today, she reckoned. It remained as quiet as she’d found it as she sat down again and looked more carefully at the structure buried beneath the paintings and idols. Nothing leaped out at her – the star was different, yes, but the rest of the building was more or less identical to the dozens she’d already seen: sturdily built out of natural stone, with a door made out of obviously mass-produced metal. It was covered in sand and dirt, and could easily have been standing there for longer than the local tribes’ histories stretched back. The basic architecture, the materials, the much more recent piled idols and painted signs – there was nothing there that she hadn’t seen many times over.

But it listened and it spoke. It was, in some way, alive. It was also the best lead she’d found in more than six months of hiking, digging, and constant interrogation of every community she came across.

The other structures Tam had found had been ruins – some broken into and repurposed as tombs by the locals, but mostly dead and silent. Today’s find had clearly been better preserved than the others she’d looked at, even if the only difference was a rude doorkeeper. The real challenge now was getting inside. Entry would be difficult, especially since she had no desire to antagonise whatever was lurking inside – burning down the door was most definitely not an option any more. If her mark was here then she’d need to be particularly careful, but even if he were elsewhere it would be senseless to stir up animosity here.

Tam turned over a new leaf in her notebook and started on a second map, a local one. She couldn’t understand the doorkeeper, nor could she blast her way in without inviting more trouble than she was prepared for: the smart move, then, would be to find a back door. She marked down a scale and a few landmarks before packing up the chair and stretching. She’d need to find water if she was going to be here for more than another day or two, so a broad pattern would be best; if she didn’t find a well or a stream then she could head back to the nearest village and set out again in a few days for a proper search.

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BONUS ROUND: Adventures in the Sky, introduction

Despite planning to only post on weekdays, I’ve decided to do something a little different on weekends – namely, an annotated playthrough of sorts of Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean, an RPG on the Gamecube that I’ve always kind of wanted to write about. This isn’t going to be a full-fledged Let’s Play – I won’t be offering any screenshots or videos, for one thing – so it might be better to think of it as a travelogue of sorts: an imitation (because that’s the sincerest form of flattery) of this amazing summation of Final Fantasy XII. Posts will come on Saturday and Sunday for the duration of Blaugust (and quite possibly beyond).

Baten Kaitos is a bit of an odd duck, but at its core it is a game in the mould set by Final Fantasy VII, complete with pre-rendered backdrops and wonky, frequently perplexing character animations that aim to capture the expressiveness of sprites from the 16-bit era but mostly end up eroding the viewer’s patience. By the time of its release, Final Fantasy itself had, for better or worse, moved past this phase; X and XII both made a point of putting the camera at ground level and actually showing their protagonists conversing and interacting, instead of sticking with the gods-eye-view that the older games had used. In a way, then, Baten Kaitos ended up being a swan song for a genre that had already largely died off or evolved.

These days, the game is remembered (when it is remembered at all) for two things: its gorgeous backdrops and its often-terrible voice acting. The English dub is rocky to say the least – while there’s a lot of competent and sometimes even moving voice work there, much of it was clearly recorded in a hurry, with the kind of first-take only-take attitude that’s been the meat and potatoes of Audio Atrocities for years now. The throwaway NPCs are especially terrible, but none of it is ever really in the clear: the whole body of spoken dialogue was clearly recorded on the cheap and directed by someone who was either horribly pressed for time or simply didn’t care. It’s not enough to ruin the experience (though a few heartbreaking moments in the game are heartbreaking for all the wrong reasons), but it’s certainly not the finest hour for Western localisation of Japanese entertainment (to be fair, I have never heard the original Japanese dub, and there’s every possibility that it’s just as patchy as the English one).

The part of the game that grabbed my attention, however, was the battle system. The most basic outline should be very familiar to everyone who’s played a game like this before; your party and the bad guy of the minute line up facing one another and take turns trading blows until somebody falls over. The big twist here is that everything – and I mean everything, from weapons to spells to equipment to food – is represented by playing cards called Magnus. You attack by selecting weapon Magnus, you defend with shield or armour Magnus, you heal your party members with a tried-and-true Wolfenstein-certified roast chicken Magnus, and so on – the fact that everything in the world is at heart a Magnus even becomes a plot point as the game moves on. Cards have numbers in their corners, and you play them by designating one of their numbers – you can pick up bonus damage by playing your numbers in ways that make a straight or two/three/four/more of a kind, which is neat. The game also has an interesting elemental system where two opposed elements that are part of the same attack (fire and water, say) will actually cancel one another out, so you generally benefit from getting a character to focus on one element over another when you construct their deck.

The other neat thing about the game is its setting: rather than being another dull little planet with two or three blob-shaped continents (complete with the contractually obliged frigid northlands), Baten Kaitos is set on a series of islands floating in the sky. The characters even have “wings of the heart” that allow them to fly (though this never has a meaningful effect on gameplay, even in the prequel, and doesn’t seem to have affected how anybody in the world goes about their lives). I certainly can’t blame the game too much for this – it’s a lot hard to design play areas for characters who can fly at will!

At any rate, the outline of the game is pretty straightforward: at its heart it’s a save-the-world romp with a beautiful world and an entertaining cast. It plays with the jRPG formula in interesting and sometimes seriously subversive ways, but it still operates within it. It’s far from perfect, but the game did enough things right to win it – and much of its cast – a place in my heart. I hope that by the end of this, it will be apparent why.

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Desert (part 1 of ?)

So it’s Blaugust once again – there’s even a goddamn facebook group now – and I’m in it to win it this time. Not super happy with how this one came out, but them’s the breaks.

The gate was not spectacular to look upon – nothing but a metal door set into a low, broad arch of stone in the hillside. Dust covered every surface – there was even some wiry grass growing in the dirt piled in front of it. If Tam had not been forewarned, she might even have thought it a ruin and passed it by. She reminded herself to thank the villagers who’d given her the map once she’d crossed this one off the list and returned to what passed for civilisation around here.

The hike had not been pleasant. High summer had left much of the land scorched and barren, and there had been few wayfarers along the roads to ask for stories or directions. Worse had been the constant weaving and backtracking through the scrub to make sure she didn’t miss her mark. Her water was still holding out, but she knew from the itching on her face that she’d spent enough time outdoors to expect a vicious sunburn.

Still, she was here now, and if nothing else she’d at least be able to leave with a new story to tell and one more candidate crossed off her list. The gate had all of the icons she’d expected; made from stone, clay, wood, even iron, they all warned of danger within. Lions and burning suns adorned the front, and a mighty crescent swept the length of the structure, daubed in ochre across the raw stone. An unfamiliar detail caught her eye: an eight-pointed star, right above the doorway. Tam blinked and realised that the star was actually carved into the stone of the structure. Suddenly, this place seemed a lot less ordinary.

She dropped her pack in a hollow and dug through it for her tools. Mallet, prybar, sketchbook – if she couldn’t force her way inside, she could at least get a record of the place’s appearance and draw a more accurate map than the one she’d been given. Some cursory knocks on the door didn’t persuade it to budge; her attempts to get the narrow end of the prybar wedged into the doorjamb were no more successful. For the first time since she’d set out, she found herself seriously contemplating breaking open her hidden jar of thermite.

In the end, she relented. The stuff was under embargo, and breaking regulations to get inside what might just end up being another tomb would not earn her much regard when she returned. Figuring that she could use a rest before proceeding further, she unpacked her chair and sat down to update her map.

She was so absorbed in the detail that she just nodded and muttered when the door spoke to her.

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All The Lost

“People of Earth, my fellow human beings, please hear me: we stand at the beginning of a new era. For all of our lives – for all of the lives of our parents, our grandparents, for all of reliably recorded history, we have been struggling to recover from the great disaster. The story of our planet, these past three centuries and more, has been the story of the single greatest enterprise undertaken in human history: the monumental task of repair, recovery, and restitution that our ancestors left for us when they allowed pride to rule over sense.

“The ancient mistakes have caused so much damage, so much pain and misery, that they have come to define our entire species: we are the children of those who have laboured tirelessly to repair our broken world, and we have taken up their cause without flinching or faltering. I speak to you now to tell you that we have completed this colossal undertaking. The chapter that began in time beyond recall, when the last throes of the cataclysm died away, is complete. We have healed our world.

“We have reclaimed these things – our biosphere, our society, our government, our identity as a species – not by forgetting the past, but by remembering it. Those ancients who nearly destroyed the planet did so with powers that have become all too familiar to us, powers over matter, energy, and information that made their atrocities not only possible but inevitable. We have not forgotten.

“We have restored our world not by embracing these ancient and terrible powers, but by rejecting them. We have steadfastly held on to our limitations and chosen – not out of principle but out of necessity – to remain human, to constrain our powers within the scope of our imagination. Our strength and success have come precisely because of this restraint, not in spite of it. A world in which we are no longer human is a world we are sworn to reject.

“The peace we enjoy now is a thing we have earned – I doubt that any person could reasonably claim otherwise. Were we to simply accept it as our due and quietly continue living in the garden we have rebuilt, no fault could be laid at our feet. And yet it is precisely because of this peace, this culmination of centuries of dedication and sacrifice, that I call upon you to support me in an endeavour that will make all of our previous efforts seem as nothing.

“The ancients did more than simply shatter our planet: they shattered our species. In the years before the calamity, brave souls flew away from our world. They sought as many things as the human heart can hold: knowledge, sanctuary, liberty, transformation, destruction, apotheosis. Some flew knowing the fate that awaited our world – others left long before the tipping point. It is certain beyond any possible doubt that this diaspora, this scattering of humanity, have by now transformed themselves almost beyond our knowing. They are riven away from us by centuries of time and by distances we can barely comprehend.

“They are our family.”

“Every soul that lies out there amongst the stars is a sister, a brother, a cousin to us. Wherever they may have gone, whatever they may have become, they all came from the same place and the same people: they came from our world. They came from us.

“And so I now propose a task, a great labour, whose scale and scope promise to span greater times and distances than any we have even contemplated to date. We must find them: all the lost, all those branches of our mighty human family tree that have stretched beyond us. We must go to them and make to them the same promise that we made to ourselves, long ago: the promise of hope, of reconciliation.

“The promise of community.”

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Review: Castoff World

Okay. Okay. Okay.

Welcome to December the 2nd, 2011.

I wrote this yesterday and promised a follow-up, so here we are again, again!

RNG results: Tone, Nitpicks, Content

Castoff World is a fairly predictable beast – a post-ecotastrophe story set on an automated garbage-collecting ship in the Pacific Ocean, occupied by a young girl and her grandfather (spoilers: the grandfather dies). There’s quite a lot going on in the background: the protagonist is stuck in the middle of the ocean because of some unspecified political upheaval back on dry land, there are roaming bands of pirates she has to hide from, the ship gradually gets smarter to the point where it actively takes care of her, ultimately depositing her back on land. Much of the exposition is handled by back-and-forth conversations between the child and the grandfather, which are filled to the brim with euphemism and the kind of deliberate baby-talk that some find touching and others find kitschy; I didn’t enjoy wading through them.

This, coupled with the very leisurely pace, made it difficult for me to feel anything as the story progressed. It certainly didn’t help that pretty much every element of the plot save the machine’s growing agency was so utterly predictable that I could probably have stopped reading a third of the way in and still been able to deliver a decent plot summary. Of course the grandfather gets sick and dies. Of course the girl gets reunited with human society. Of course there’s a final scene where an animal frequently associated with the girl’s deceased mother is prominently featured, because you can’t let the scientists be right all the time. Aiyah.

Nevertheless, I don’t mean to condemn it utterly – there are some nice moments of techno-speculation, especially improvised uses for high-tech plastics, and while the plot is ploddingly conventional, the themes are at least somewhat less so – yes it’s after the apocalypse, but at least the blame (as much as there is any blame at all) is laid at the feet of purely human matters rather than being apportioned to science and technology – indeed, technological progress is identified as the reason everything isn’t yet completely fucked.

At the end of the day I can’t say I dislike this story, but that’s mainly because I really don’t care about it – there’s nothing strong or clear enough in it to provoke a reaction of any sort in me.

Three and a half stars.

  • reviews to date: 1
  • average score: 3.5

The next one will probably be up some time two years from now. Don’t hold the line.

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Big Dumb Objects

“Everyone here? Good, let’s get started. Projections are showing that this may be a very narrow window of opportunity, so the sooner we’re in the field the better. Now, if someone can turn the lights off… good. An external trawler noticed this and sent it through to us about eight hours ago, realtime.”

“Ah, sorry I’m late! Hi, Captain! Did I miss anything?”

“Just the deadline, Connor. Now, I’ll ask Dr Pearson to explain-”


“Sorry, Angela! It’s a bit dark, couldn’t find my way-”

“Yes, thank you, Connor. Dr Pearson, could you please run us through this?”

“Of course, sir. We think we’ve picked up another mayfly phenomenon. The trawler’s viewers haven’t been configured for local conditions, so it took us a while to notice that there was anything unusual going on here. We’ve touched it up a bit with false colour here. As you can see, the expected view of the local star is obscured by an object that our records confirm wasn’t there – or anywhere else nearby – twenty minutes prior, the closest time we have reliable visuals of the area.

“Subsequent pictures taken with better-adapted hardware… so, and… so, make it fairly obvious that we’re not just dealing with a stray asteroid or piece of human space junk. By our best estimation, the object is an upside-down cube, following a fairly standard orbit around the star, but near enough to the second planet that it ought to be a satellite. The surface is featureless, as far as we can tel, and none of our examinations to date have shown any indication of recent activity. Its temperature is well within the expected range of orbital debris, there have not been any disturbances-”

“Um, Dr Pearson?”

“-any disturbances in the local-”

“Excuse me, Dr Pearson!”

“-planetary yes Angela, what is it?”


“Tipped a hundred and eighty degrees from its customary orientation.”

“But it’s a featureless cube. How do we know which way it’s supposed to be facing?”

“Angela, if you’re having me on-”

“I mean unless you’re about to show us some images of the interior that clearly demonstrate the proper orientation-”

“Look, Angela, I think we really need to move on.”

“-but barring that there’s no way to say that it’s upside-down. There’s, like, a one-in-six chance.”

“Angela! If this is your idea of a-”

“Thank you very much, Dr Pearson. Howes, that’s enough backtalk.”


“And even then, orientation is purely a matter of convention. It’s not as if the way the thing being tilted relative to the plane of the ecliptic actually means anything-”

Will you shut up, Howes-”

“-and at any rate, we can just reorient on approach and have it at whatever configuration we want-”


“I’m not sure that she’s actually plugged in, sir.”

“-though if it’s just another piece of funnily-shaped rock then reorienting will be as much of a waste of time as approaching in the first place-”

“What, you mean she just sent a persona?”

“-still not sure what we’re meant to be looking for, anyway-”

“A pretty hastily made one, too. Much less convincing than Stephanie’s.”

“Connor! How dare you!”

“See? At least hers has enough awareness to react to direct challenges.”

“-all this need-to-know nonsense really isn’t helping-”

“Dr Pearson? Really?”

“I’m sorry, sir…”

“You mean the upside-down cube thing didn’t tip you off? It’s not the first time she’s gotten a heuristic to string together bits of jargon for a report.”

“Connor, that’s really mean!”

“Except that you’re just software, and chances are that Stephanie didn’t consider this meeting important enough to request a digest, so odds are she’ll never know I even said this.”


“Um, hello? Dr Pearson? Captain Schultz? I am talking to you, you know.”

“Dear lord. Are you really here, at least?”

“Yeah. I was feeling bored when you called.”

“You too, Connor? You know, it’s really rude to talk over someone when she’s trying to make a point.”

“Well, that’s a relief. Look, the window’s probably expired already – mind dropping down to meatspace and having a real talk, face to face? We need to be sure this wasn’t just another false alarm.”

“Sure. Twenty minutes real?”


“Hey, don’t ignore me! I’ve got things to say as well!”

“For the love of God, will you shut up, Angela! You always have to ruin everything!”

“Oh, well at least you’re paying attention to me, Dr Pearson.”

Stop it! Will you just stop talking!”

“Jesus Christ. I’m breaking, Connor. See you in twenty.”

“Just snapping out like that? Some officer. At least Connor had the courtesy to disengage by going out the door.”

“Oh my god you stupid pile of subroutines, will you quit it?”

SP_PHYS:   Does it go on much longer?

BC_ENG:    maybe another two minutes subjective
           she ends up going back to talking about geometry until
           you end up punching her in the face

SP_PHYS:   And you're being completely level here?
           You didn't just sim this up in your own time?

BC_ENG:    really happened, I swear
           you think I have the imagination to come up with upside
           -down cubes?

SP_PHYS:   Let's not rub it in, okay? At least my personae know
           when the jig is up.

BC_ENG:    it was still pretty mean for you and angela to bail
           like that
           thought old man schultz was going to cry for a minute

SP_PHYS:   Okay, okay. I see where this is going.
           How much to keep quiet?

BC_ENG:    what, to angela? let's call it three shifts

SP_PHYS:   You're a bastard, Connor.

BC_ENG:    well, I didn't punch her

SP_PHYS:   Neither did I! It wasn't even Angela who got punched!

BC_ENG:    if it means that little to you...

AH_COMS:   Hey guys!

BC_ENG:    hi

SP_PHYS:   No, no, you win. Shoot me your schedule and I'll take
           whatever I can fit into my own.
           Oh. Hi, Angela.

BC_ENG:    done.

AH_COMS:   Haha, you two been wagering again?
           I keep telling you not to bet on news, Pearson.

SP_PHYS:   Yeah. I guess some day I'll learn to keep a closer eye
           on current events.

I have no idea what I have just written.

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