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This week’s fiction comes from the roughly 20,000 words I have written so far this November.  In the true tradition of NaNoWriMo, it has not been edited, refined, fixed, or in any way amended, and is therefore mostly drivel.  Make of it what you will.

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Seth moved through the town searching for a tavern.  The darkness was swiftly falling and he was worried about the warning the gate guard had given about sleeping outside.  The first tavern he came to was called “The Witches Love”, and after a moment’s thought he passed it by.  It wasn’t safe for him to be mixing with witches, even if the chances were high that no witches were actually in the inn.

“The Bonny Lass” was a better bet, and he pushed his way in to the bar.  The place was only moderately busy, and he could see a barmaid lazing against the wall near the fire, so he didn’t hold out much hope of work.  With no money he needed to find somewhere that would allow him to work for his bed.  Sure enough, the innkeeper laughed in his face when he asked about work.

“Look around you, lad.  I’ve not enough work for those I already have.”

“I don’t suppose you know anywhere that’s looking?”

“No.  Now are you going to buy ale or leave my tavern?”

Wondering at the rudeness of the man, Seth left to continue his quest.  He wandered down several streets which contained nothing but houses, and a street entirely of shoe shops.  Imagine having so many shops all selling shoes!  How many people must there be in this city if all of these shoe shops could stay in business?

Around the corner from the shoe shops was the “Cobblers Arms”.  Seth stuck his head through the door and immediately left again.  If there were only three people in the tavern there would be no work there for him.

“The Lazy Shepherd” had a sign with a picture of a boy sleeping while a wolf stalked the sheep.  Seth wasn’t sure he liked the image or the implication, but there was light and noise spilling from the door.  Even as he watched a large man fell through the doorway, his lip bleeding and one eye rapidly blackening.  Another man followed him and started to pound him with his fists.

Seth was moving before he knew it.  With the number of well trained fighters who lived in his home town, brawls could quickly get out of hand, and he was used to taking his turn in the prevention details.  He grasped the second man’s collar and yanked to the side, forcing him to use his hands for support or crack his head on the pavement.  With one hand he pulled the man’s arm behind his back, and with the other he grasped his shoulder.  Kneeling in his back he leant down and spoke seriously to the man.

“I could easily break your arm.  I suggest you calm down before I decide I want to.  I don’t know what that man did to you, and frankly I don’t care.  If he broke the law, report him, and if he didn’t then deal with it like grown men, not like children.  Do you understand me?”

He gave a little squeeze on the man’s arm and watched as he winced.  The man began nodding frantically.

“Good.  Now, go home.”

He released the man and sprang backwards.  Sure enough, the man flailed out as he rolled to his feet, expecting to hit him.  When his fist met air he looked confused for a moment before his eyes focussed on Seth.  He looked him up and down, and suddenly the fight went out of him.  Seth nodded.

“Go home,” he repeated.  “Before you do something you’ll regret.”

The man nodded and stumbled off, weaving from side to side along the street.  Seth turned to the other man.  His confrontation had taken place so quickly that man had only just staggered to his feet.  He was dabbing at his lip with a scrap of cloth.  When he noticed Seth looking at him, he put it away.

“Thank you.  I really thought he was going to do me in.”

“Go home,” said Seth in exactly the same tone of voice he had used to persuade the more violent of the pair to leave.  “I don’t know what went on between the two of you, and I don’t care, but I do know that you aren’t in a fit state to be moving around.  Go home, put a cold cloth on that eye, and sleep it off.”

The man stared at him.  “But I’m the victim here.  Why should I go home?  Who are you to be telling me what to do anyway?”

Seth just met his eyes steadily until he reddened and looked away.

“Fine,” he muttered.  “I’ll go.”  He wandered off along the street in the opposite direction to the first man.

Seth watched him go, and shook his head in bewilderment.  He’d never understood what people found so wonderful about fighting while drunk.  In his experience it just made you sloppy and easily defeated.  He turned to go into the tavern and suddenly noticed that he had an audience.

The Oxford English Dictionary has announced this year’s “Word of the Year”.  Every year they pick one that has been made popular, coined, or otherwise come to the attention of whoever is on the committee and announce that it is an amazing word.  This year’s Word is…

Omnishambles.

Yes, really.  It means something which appears to be a shambles no matter which direction you look at it from.  While it’s not the worst word I could think of, it certainly doesn’t scream “Word of the Year” to me.  Mind you, it’s better than some of the others on the shortlist.  See if you can match the following words with their definitions:

“Eurogeddon”               you only live once
“mummy porn”            using a computer and TV at the same time
“green-on-blue”           a derogatory term for the lower classes
“to medal”                    a financial problem in a certain part of the world
“second screening”      to win a medal
“Yolo”                            a genre inspired by 50 shades
“Pleb”                            military attacks by neutral forces

The thing that strikes me most is how many of these potential “Words of the Year” are not, in fact, words.  Three of them are phrases, one is an acronym, and one is a contraction of a longer word.

I’m also amused by the fact that most of them I hadn’t heard even once before they occurred in this article.   Perhaps I don’t watch enough TV.

 

Short Martian Aside

From here:

It is at the base of this peak that the rover expects to find some of the most interesting rocks during its mission, although it will be many months before it gets there.

The rover is expecting things now?  Why did nobody mention it was sentient?

 

Have you ever watched a TV show where the main character decides to murder their ex-husband’s daughter’s dog, and been utterly confused as to the reason why?  How about someone who walks up to a complete stranger in the street and kisses them?  How would you like the ability to ask your TV for a summary of the reasons behind it?

That possibility is coming closer.  With all the episodes that are now stored in digital TV recorders (a whole week’s TV plus every episode of the six different series’ you are watching, for example), all we need is the software to analyse them, and it’s here.

StoryVisualizer, created by scientists in France, can analyse the faces, surroundings, and key phrases spoken by the characters in a show and stitch together a summary of the parts of the plot that contain them.  At the moment it’s PC based, but it won’t be long before it’s integrated into TVs – perhaps in combination with a Siri-like command structure (“TV, show me what Jimmy Olsen did which led to him jumping out of the plane without a parachute.”).

I can see it being useful if you’ve had a long break from a show and lost the plot, something which given the lunacy that surrounds TV scheduling these days seems to be ever more common.

Tzk’l scratched at his ar’dh with one forelimb.  He glanced at his podmates to see how they were reacting to what they had discovered.  Mrrk’l was frowning pensively, while Pyk’l was clearly upset, his ppdorth drooping in a most unattractive way.

“Why?  Why would anyone do that?”  Pyk’l moaned.  The damage to the first two experiments wasn’t too bad.  A trace of foreign contaminant, some lingering pressure holes.  The third experiment was ruined, the tkali structures set back decades in growth.  There was traces of fire damage, something which should have been impossible on the planet in question.  Four, five and six were fine, apart from traces of the same contaminant that tainted the first two, although the logs from the gravity generators on Five showed some unexpected readings.  It had taken many drrr to clean the contaminant from the atmospheres of the planets, and the podmates were frustrated.

The three podmates were approaching the seventh experimental planet, intent on discovering if there was any damage to this one.  They hoped not – Seven was the most promising of the experiments and it would be a shame if it were ruined.  It would decrease the un’k of their pod and require them to send one podmate to the home world for retraining.  However, given that the damage extended to all of the other planets in the system it was very likely that this one had also been ruined.

They slipped into orbit around the planet and within seconds a picture was building up of the surface.  Mrrk’l hissed, his ar’dh twitching uncontrollably.

“The experiment shows the same contaminant.  No damage detected yet, but analysis shows that if the contaminant remains for longer than one drrr there will be irredeemable changes to the biosphere.

“Begin the cleaning process,” instructed Pyk’l.

Tzk’l instructed the computer, and soon three rescue pods were racing towards the atmosphere.  When they touched the outer edge they slowed and began scrubbing the air to remove the contaminant, a polycarbon string molecule with nano-fibre attachments.

Tzk’l was watching the readouts closely, and he began to notice something odd.  The contaminant levels were not dropping as fast as they should be.  He released another rescue pod.  Perhaps one of the pods was not working as efficiently as it should.  The rate of cleansing increased, but it was still not as fast as it should be.  He frowned.

“Mrrk’l, what is the status of the surface scan?”

“It finished 2 ikkitz ago, why?”

“Is there a foreign body present?”

“You think the source of the contaminant is still present?” asked Pyk’l.

“The cleansing is not proceeding as fast as expected.  If more contaminant was being released it would explain it.”

“Hum.  You are correct.  The scan shows a foreign body present on the northern continent.  It is large – a spaceship, perhaps.  A smaller body is present also, emitting lower amounts of contaminant.”  Mrrk’l’s ar’dh was twitching at a ferocious rate.

“Can both be removed from orbit?”

“The smaller, perhaps, but the larger is too heavy for our tractors.  The smaller appears to be a life form, I’m not sure how it would react to being removed.”

“A spaceship and a life form?  Mrrk’l, are you sure?”  Pyk’l’s ppdorth stood tall, and his eyes were bright with excitement.  Mrrk’l was oblivious to the rising mood in the lab, however.  His voice still reflected anger.

“Yes, the scans are definitive.”

Tzk’l had caught on to what Pyk’l was implying.  “If we discovered alien life – just think how high our un’k would rise!  The ruination of this experiment would be forgotten.  We must go down there.”

Quickly, the shiplab was instructed to land next to the foreign contaminant.  The three podmates emerged with no regards for safety protocols or experimental contamination.  If they could not remove the alien life form the experiment was ruined anyway, and if they succeeded in removing it they could fix the experiment later.

The alien spaceship was sleek and shiny.  It was roughly half the size of the podmate shiplab.  There appeared to be no sign of dzuuzi engines, which led Tzk’l to believe that it was powered with some primitive burning compound.  How this race ever managed to get into space was a puzzle best left for another time.  He waved around his ar’dh and pointed towards a wooded area.

“The trail of contaminants leads in that direction.”

The three set off to hunt down the alien life form inhabiting their experiment.  Very quickly they were under the trees, dappled sunlight making ever-changing patterns on the leaf-covered ground.  The trail of contaminants led in a wide arc through the woods, and the three followed it for perhaps half a klkkk until they came to a clearing where the sunshine fell unhindered from above.  At the edge, leaning against a tree, was the life form.

It was bright white.  It seemed to consist of a long thin trunk with two high branches and two low branches.  The lower branches were horizontal, bent out to the side.  The trunk and upper branches were almost vertical, leaning against the tree.  There was a soft rasping sound coming from the figure, and Tzk’l wondered whether it was an attempt at communication.  The noise didn’t change when the podmates approached, through, so perhaps it was a natural sound emitted by the creature?

Mrrk’l hesitantly reached out and touched the top of the being.

“Hard, feels like synthetics.  Perhaps this is an outer shell?  Something protective like those who engage in dangerous experiments wear?”

“There is nothing dangerous here,” scoffed Pyk’l.

“There is nothing dangerous to us.  This creature may be different.”

“True.”

Pyk’l poked the lower branches of the creature.  “It is softer down here.”  The creature twitched slightly when touched, and began to squirm.  Suddenly it let out a loud scream, almost too high pitched for the podmates to feel.  It unfolded at a remarkable rate, becoming entirely vertical and causing the three podmates to leap backwards.  The lower branches were revealed to be a very effective locomotion system, and the podmates watched in astonishment as the figure disappeared into the distance at high speed.

A metal replica of the creature, until now unnoticed in the shade of the trees, whirred into motion and followed the creature at a slower pace.  The podmates followed it curiously, attempting to talk to it but getting no response.  It led them directly back to the alien spaceship, where it disappeared into a hatch.  The spaceship immediately started to emit huge quantities of the contaminant, and slowly began to rise into the air.  It gained speed quickly, emitting a horrible whine.  The podmates ran back to their shiplab and entered the control room.

Tzk’l commanded the rescue pods to continue their cleansing work while Mrrk’l set the shiplab to follow the alien.  They had left orbit and were well on the way to leaving the system when the alien ship suddenly shivered and then disappeared.  One moment it was there, and the next it was simply gone.

“Where did it go?”  Tzk’l asked.  The others shook their heads in shared bewilderment.

“That did not look like dzuuzi engine output.  The alien race must have found some other way to travel long distances.  We must examine the data before we can learn to track the spaceship.”

“It will be an interesting challenge.”

 

Today I bring you an article about whether your biological make-up influences how you vote.

I’m not going to summarise it; if you want to know more you will have to read it yourself.  This is because I have brain-freeze, not from NaNoWriMo, as you might expect in November, but from a two-day course at work run with the aim of learning how to analyse processes to improve them.  It involved simulating a business by doing soldering to make an incomprehensible widget with no purpose, which was good fun, but also an awful lot of brain-numbing analysis and long days.

A survey which was released recently has discovered that “middle age” is now later than we previously thought.  Almost 20% of people said that middle age is a state of mind, but of those who specified an age, the average was 55.  Previous estimates have been around 36.

The thinking is that people are living longer, so the boundaries are having to be redrawn.  One statistic in the article sprang out at me: there are more people over 65 than there are under 16.

I have a habit of taking trends to their extremes to see what would happen, so naturally this statistic reminded me of Children of Men, a film in which no children have been born for 18 years.

The film is a loose adaptation of a PD James novel by the same name.  I’ve seen the film but not read the book, so I decided some research was in order and hunted up a copy to read.

(Warning: this post contains spoilers for major plot points).

The Film

It’s been a while since I saw it, which means this section is mostly focussed on the points which are easy to remember.  The UK is one of the last remaining functioning governments in the world, partly due to their extreme stance on immigration.  The chaos is immense.

In the midst of all this a man, Theo, is kidnapped by activists and asked to accompany a young woman on a journey, as protection for her.  He agrees, and it’s not until after quite a few shenanigans that he discovers why she is so important: she is pregnant.  The activists are planning to use the child as propaganda, so the two of them run away with the intention of delivering her to a group of scientists who are trying to cure the infertility crisis.

The baby is born on route, and Theo is gravely injured in some fighting.  The pair are last seen in a small row-boat, Theo slipping into unconsciousness as the scientist’s ship approaches through the fog.

There was one scene in the film which I think will stay with me for many years to come.  The baby is born during a battle between the activists, immigration prisoners in a prison camp, and government forces.  The building in which they are trapped is surrounded and under heavy gunfire.  Suddenly the sound of a baby’s wail fills the air.  Nobody has heard this sound for two decades.  The fighting stops as people look at each other in bewildered awe.  The young mother carries her child out of the building, through the surrounding army to the relative safety of the rest of the battle.

And then the fighting recommences.

The transition from awed silence to deafening gunfire is instantaneous, as if someone has thrown a switch and recalled all of the soldiers to their duty.  It is a stark reminder of something – something which I am having trouble putting into words, and which is perhaps best left as an unstated feeling.

The Book

The book, as I was warned, is much more cerebral than the film.  The film was, for the most part, strict action-adventure.  The book, in comparison, gives detail on the political structure of the country, and even hints of the way the rest of the world is coping.

The book is written partially as a third person narrative, and partially as a series of diary entries by Theo, who in the book is the cousin of the Warden of England and therefore slightly more immune to punishments than the average person.

The differences were not limited to the amount of background detail that was included.  There were differences in plot, both major and minor.  The ending, in particular, was radically different, with Theo killing his cousin and taking on the role of Warden to protect the newborn child and his mother.

One of the minor differences was the way the infertility presented.  In the film, the women are barren; in the book it is the men who suffer.  The book also came up with both a sensible response from the government (compulsory sperm testing of all healthy males in an attempt to find someone who could father a child) and a way that the pregnancy could have occurred without them knowing (the father had epilepsy as a child and was exempt from the testing).

I was impressed with the way the details were doled out at just the correct pace, interspersed with enough action to keep me interested.  Some of the details of social response to the situation were fascinating just from a psychological viewpoint, though they added very little to the plot.

All in all, I would recommend both the book and the film, for different reasons.  I may have to investigate and see if other books by PD James are equally enthralling. 

Goldie fired up the engines.  The gravity waves coming from the previous planet were still going strong, but they were pushing her away from the next planet in the system.  She began to cut across the gravity fields and eventually dropped into orbit around the planet.  Some preliminary surface scans showed a vast ocean, with hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of small islands.  Some of them were only centimetres across.  She brought up a more in-depth scan and studied the results.

The largest island was 45 metres wide, 60 metres long, and surrounded by waters deeper than they had any right to be.  Goldie couldn’t imagine the type of geological processes which caused that to happen.  Perhaps it had something to do with the gravity waves coming off the larger planet next door?

Whatever the reason, the fact remained that none of the islands were large enough for her to land the ship on, and the water was too deep to risk landing partially on an island.  She would have to skip this planet and move on to the seventh, and final planet in the system.

“Ah well,” she thought philosophically, “at least it gives me more time to work on my NaNoWriMo entry.”

 

Just kidding.

Here’s the real story:

 

Goldie fired up the engines.  The gravity waves coming from the previous planet were still going strong, but they were pushing her away from the next planet in the system.  She began to cut across the gravity fields and eventually dropped into orbit around the planet.  Some preliminary surface scans showed one massive super-continent covering most of the planet, and a vast array of different species of plant life.  The most exciting thing was a collection of buildings near the equator.  They seemed to be made of complex materials, mostly metal alloys.  Definitely constructed by intelligent hands!

This was the first true proof of alien life that Goldie had come across.  There were rumours of other explorers, other employees of the Company, who had encountered aliens.  Some claimed that if you met aliens the Company would take you away and question you, and you might never see daylight again.  Others claimed that finding aliens got you a huge reward, so large that you retired to live out your life in luxury.  Nobody really knew.  Goldie suspected that nobody had ever actually met aliens before.  Surely they wouldn’t be able to hide it?  Wouldn’t everyone know?

But here was proof of alien intelligence.

These buildings, on a planet which no human had ever set foot on, meant that the human race was no longer alone in the universe.  Provided, of course, that they were inhabited.  Suddenly anxious, Goldie re-examined the scan.  The buildings didn’t show any life signs, but they were, as far as she could tell, complete.  No crumbling edges or caved-in roofs, and the vegetation around them was well-controlled.  Perhaps they were still inhabited.

If that was the case, what should she do?  What if the aliens were primitives and thought she was a devil coming from the sky?  Or what if they were unfriendly?  She wasn’t trained in first contact – but then who was?  Humans had been out in the universe for hundreds of years now, and not encountered any other life forms, how could anyone be an expert in meeting aliens?

The chances were they wouldn’t even recognise her as a life-form.  Her sensors weren’t picking up life-signs from the planet, after all.  If they were that different their sensors probably wouldn’t pick her up either.

Maybe.

Enough dithering.  Her job was to explore the planets that she found, just a quick preliminary survey, and send the data back to the Company.  She couldn’t do it from up here.  Quickly, before she lost her nerve, she punched in a course for the computer to land the craft near the buildings.  While she was waiting she packaged up the data she had gathered so far and sent it off.  The Company didn’t like incomplete data sets like that, normally they insisted on a full system review before any reporting, but if there were aliens, and they were unfriendly, she wanted people to know about it.

The spaceship gently touched down a few hundred metres from the buildings.  Goldie pulled herself into her spacesuit and loaded the bot up with supplies.  Before she stepped out of the airlock she carefully checked the outside conditions.  Reasonable temperature, a nice, non-toxic atmosphere, and gravity well within the expected norms for this planet size.

“Looks like the aliens are all I need to worry about on this planet,” she said to the bot.  It looked at her, but didn’t say anything.  Once more she wished for a decent conversation-bot.  It would make the loneliness much easier to bear.

The airlock finished cycling, and she stepped out onto the planet.  Almost immediately the suit’s external microphone relayed a loud buzzing noise.  It sounded like… crickets?  Or maybe mosquitoes.  She always got those two muddled up in her classes at school.  It’s not like she encountered either of them very often out here.  The source of the buzzing seemed to be the buildings.  Maybe it was the sound of the alien language?  That could make communicating hard.  She set off to walk the short distance to the structures.

As she approached she examined them closely.  They were relatively small, obviously designed for individuals or small groups, rather than huge numbers of people.  The structure seemed to be mostly metal, with small amounts of some other substance mixed in.  She would have to look closely at it when she got there to find out what it was.  She drew closer, and more details began to emerge.  There was no sign of a door on this side of any of the structures, but there were small holes at various heights with a hazy field around them.

She arrived at the nearest structure moments later, and began to circle it slowly.  No matter which side she looked at, there was no sign of a door, or entrance of any sort.  There were only the small holes.  She looked closer at the hazy field and noticed that it was made up of millions of tiny particles, all moving around.  As she watched, she became convinced that there was some sort of purpose to the movement.  Some of the particles were going into the holes, and some emerging.  Every so often a group would go off around the building.  She followed one group and watched as they passed into another opening further around.

It was when a large group of the particles floated past with a small branch held in the midst of the group that she realised what she was seeing.  The particles were alive.  They were working together, somehow transporting things and, presumably, building these structures.  Amazing.

Amazing, yes, but there was no way she was able to do more than observe here.  There was no first contact to be had when she could barely see the creatures.  She couldn’t even say for certain if they were intelligent or not, although the presence of buildings seemed to indicate the possibility.  She took a cursory wander around the rest of the structures, finding them all the same, and then knelt to take some samples of the earth.  With luck there would be some dead creatures in the samples.  That would make the boys in the labs happy.

Disappointed, but slightly relieved that the burden of first contact wouldn’t be falling on her today, Goldie made her way back to the spaceship and left the planet.

 

The Author

Nicola Higgins is a 30-something martial artist who runs two Brownie packs and works full time. She somehow still finds time to write.

Her favourite genres are near-future and alternate world science fiction and fantasy.

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