Tuesday, 19 June 2012

The sun has got a cold

The sunlight stretched its way through the early morning mist, gently nudging aside the soft dew of the night before.

"Good morning, world", said the sun. 

"Good morning, sun!" said the world.

Sometimes it's hard to get out of bed, and this morning the sun found it hard. It stretched and yawned and hid back under the covers, but at long last the sun rose, and the world rose with it.

But then, the sun sneezed.

"ACHOO!" cried the sun, a great stream of burning plasma arcing its way across the cosmos.

"Bless you", said the world.

Eight minutes later, the sun's sneeze reached the world. In an instant, everyone and everything on it was burned up in the molten fiery torrent.

"Thanks", said the sun, wiping its nose with its sleeve.

Sunday, 20 May 2012


It was a curious thing, he had decided. Why send a man to do a machine's job? Presumably it was just to stake a claim, or something. And why did he even volunteer for this?

I didn't sign up for this shit, he said to himself, approximating some gruff, grizzled war veteran. Then he smiled. I'm too old for this shit, too.

He smiled because it was true. He was too old. He had been too old for ten years. Hell, he was probably too old when he started out. Or at least, too tired. But none of that really mattered. He had signed up, he had volunteered, in the brighter days, when nobility meant something. It meant something because there was someone for it to mean someone to.

So noble! Volunteer for your country, kid. Sign up! Do the right thing. Your country needs you! Your calling is blah blah blah. So many words, so little meaning.

Back when he was young, which was any time before he was set adrift out here, he had longed for adventure. For forging a path, doing something that no man had done before. He had done that, certainly. His path, however, had not so much been forged, but meandered.

He was a dot, a blotch on the pure vastness of space. In the sheer unimaginable extent of the universe, he was barely even a speck. If someone brushed him away, who would notice? Who would even know?

I would know, he thought to himself.

The man had been orbiting the sun for - hold on there. This man had, of course, been orbiting the sun for his entire life. He was not backwards. But, for the last 12 years, he had been the closest human to the sun, exclusively. He orbited relentlessly, unquenchably. It's a curious verb, To Orbit. One doesn't often say "I orbit" anything. But there he was, "I orbit-" ing, infinitely. The fire and rage of the Sun was so close that he could only see it at 1% brightness. And still, it spotted his vision almost endlessly. When faced with a vast burning ball of nuclear fusion of seemingly infinite power and brightness, it's easy to lose a sense of proportion. He reduced the speed he was travelling to "a few million something". After all, what does it matter? He would like to think he was the fastest human alive, too.
But from a distance he hung mute and limp in space, a dark blotch on the seething sphere of yellow and red and orange and fire.

This capsule, this dulled and bruised speck of metal, fluid and computer trickery, was his companion, his support. It was his world. He wryly considered himself not only an autonomous nation but a Moon. He wouldn't be so arrogant to call himself a Planet, but not so self-effacing to reduce himself to that of a mere Asteroid.

He floated in space, and he floated in his capsule. His body itself was a mere vessel, almost an irrelevance, a lump begrudgingly included in the trip because Science was not able to rend it from his mind. Not yet. His body - and by extension his mind (or was it the other way round?) was kept alive almost indefinitely in here. He could see, he could hear, and importantly, he could think. A blessing but also a curse. Why couldn't he be a vegetable? At least then he wouldn't know how "selfless" and how "noble" his cause was. The problem was the problems.

"You got any idea how difficult and how expensive you are, son?" he remembered the old, nameless Important Politician snarl. "We need you there in case the capsule gets itself in a fix." So they couldn't send a vegetable, a monkey, a computer. They needed an entirely sentient, intelligent, reflective human to babysit the machine.

He dreaded to think what kind of fix might occur that would need him to actually do anything, anything at all.

Works of Shakespeare: Read. Bible, Qu'ran: Absorbed. Heiroglyphics: Learned. Rosetta Stone: Deciphered (He could have looked this up, but where's the fun?) Works of Shakespeare: Memorised.
And so it went on. He ploughed his way through the wealth of all human knowledge and achievement, assimilating, enjoying, appreciating - but where is the worth in that when you have no-one with whom to share it? Was he the most widely read and most learned human who ever existed? Possibly. He didn't know if his mind had become sharpened or dulled in the last twelve years.

But again, the state of his mind was only important if the capsule got itself in a "fix". And the capsule, being a machine, could be rebuilt and relaunched. He was nothing more than a budgetary requirement and a tick in a box, so someone somewhere could tell someone else somewhere else that they had The Guy Out There, staking the claim.

His was the flag on the hilltop, he was the outpost.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Oak Tree

   The sun hung low in the sky, promising barely an hour more light before the night set in. Already a thin sheet of frost covered the grass - the horses' hooves crunched through it as they trod. The smaller horse, a young bay, seemed nervous, stepping lightly and skittishly over this unfamiliar surface. The two riders sat slouched on their mounts. Ahead, a lone oak tree silhouetted itself against the orange sun, its negative burning onto the riders eyes every time they blinked. It had been a long day.
   "I married her because my parents said we were a good match," protested the rider on the left.
   "You married her because she had a nice rack and a pretty smile," replied the one on the right.
   They continued in silence. A minute passed.
   "That may be true. But I wouldn't have got the confidence to ask her to marry me if my parents hadn't convinced me we were a good match."
   "You wouldn't have got the confidence to marry her if your parents hadn't forced you to?" He laughed, briefly sitting up straight in his saddle. The tired horse below barely seemed to notice.
   "Something like that." He paused. "Artley?"
   "What is it, friend?" replied Artley.
   "I think I made a mistake."
   "Oh, I know you made a mistake. I knew that from the moment I met her. The way you cowered when she moved. Duncan, you're wearing the trousers but she is the man in that marriage."
   "I'm not weak."
   "No, you're just her bitch." He laughed again.
   "It's not funny."
   "Duncan, you are the finest man I know. You are a great leader, a fine example to my children, you are noble and upright, you perfect bastard. And the best bit of all is that you realise none of it. But you're also a numpty when it comes to women. It's your only weakness and it utterly baffles me. But thank the gods you have a weakness." He smiled gently, the kind of smile only lifelong friends understand.
   "Thanks, I think," conceded Duncan, and sat up slightly straight himself. His horse, the skittish bay, settled with him and began to tread more confidently. "My back hurts, I can't wait to - " The silence of the early evening was rent sharply apart by the hiss of a crossbow bolt. It was audible for barely a second before thudding thickly into the bay horse's flank. The horse screamed, rearing up and to the side, its injured back leg unable to take the weight of both horse and rider. The mount crashed to the ground, crossbow bolt jutting grotesquely from its buttock.
   "Gods! Artley, I'm pinned." The horse squirmed on the floor, screaming and trapping Duncan beneath. "Shit. Ow! Artley, if you ever loved me, get me out from under this horse."
   "Shut up." Artley jumped off his mount and knelt to the ground. He shielded his eyes with his hands, peering into the setting sun. "Hard to tell where they are. We can't see them if they're in the sun ahead or the dark behind." The bay horse whinnied once more, but then fell silent. Artley looked down, expecting to see Duncan trapped beneath a dead horse. Instead, the trapped man ran his fingers through the horse's main, whispering sweetly. Artley shook his head. "Amazing."
   Another crossbow bolt whipped through the air, slicing through Artley's cloak. The uninjured horse felt it too, bucking, tearing the reins from Artley's gloved hands and sprinting back the way they'd came.
   "Shitballsfuck! That was close." With no horse to hold, he dropped to the ground and crawled to Duncan, putting his arms under the other man's shoulders. "Ready?" Not waiting for a reply, Artley heaved as best he could from his awkward position, and pulled Duncan out from the now alarmingly peaceful horse. "You ok?"
   "I just got crushed by my own horse, of course I'm not ok," replied Duncan.
   "Apart from your pride, I mean?"
   "Then yes, I'm fine. Bruised but fine."
   A third bolt thudded into the bay horse's neck. The unfortunate horse gurgled its last few breaths as crimson blood bubbled out of the wound, spilling onto the white, frosty floor.
   "Oh for - Stop killing my horse!" shouted Duncan. His words hung in the silent air for a moment, unsure of their recipient.
   "First the horse, then you!" came a reply.
   "Arsehole. Who kills a horse?" Duncan asked quietly, but again to no-one in particular.
   "Dunc, it's time to move," whispered Artley. "Chances are they can't see us - " A fourth cross bolt hit the now dead horse, "They just know where we last were. Stay quiet, stay low, and head for that oak tree ahead."
   "That oak tree must be four hundred metres. I'm not crawling four hundred metres, Artley."
   "You could run and die, or crawl and live. Come on Duncan, you don't need me to tell you that."
Duncan replied meekly. "True. But its cold and these are new pantaloons and to be honest I just hate crawling." A fifth crossbow bolt snapped into the cold dirt four inches from his head. Duncan raised his eyebrows. "Wow."
   "Wow indeed. You'll get used to crawling, don't worry. Just pretend it's your wife with the crossbow. You wouldn't want to give her the satisfaction of killing you, would you now?"
   "In some ways, friend, she already has.'

Friday, 30 September 2011

Miaow said the cat

Miaow, said the cat, lounging on the chair.
Miaow, said the cat with her distant, superior stare.
Miaow, said the cat, lazing quietly in the sun,
Miaow! said the cat, because stretching out is fun.
Miaow? said the cat to her humans in the garden.
Miaow. said the cat, as the humans begged her pardon.
Miaow breathed the cat as the humans stroked her tail,
Miaow. frowned the cat when the humans became frail.
Miaow...? said the cat while the humans were asleep,
Miaow! scratched the cat, nipping at their feet.

Miaow, cried the cat as the humans didn't stir.
Miaow? asked the cat as they were buried in the dirt.

Miaow. wept the cat on that bleak and doleful day.
but then
Miaow! said the cat as she leapt outside to play.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Upon Loss

Overnight, the snow has fallen. Not much, but enough. First time in a while though - the early morning peace will undoubtedly by shattered by business chaos and schoolchild glee. And stuck in the middle, the parents, doomed to enjoy neither. A four inch white quilt covers the land, but it seems so much deeper on the window sill next to me. I love this time. It's early, not yet light, and most of the world is still asleep, or fumbling coffee into a mug through blurry eyes. Street lamps cast their amber glow across the broad white blanket. A few listless specks of snow saunter downwards, unworried that they are apparently late to the party. Plenty of room for them, anyway. From my vantage point the whole vista seems muted, as though someone turned the volume down on the television. Or just wrapped it in a quilt. It could be a Christmas card, all that is missing is the frozen lake and a puppy somewhere.

Even the birds are staying home today. But in the corner of my eye there's a shadow, a darting movement in the ivy on the wall next to the window. A leaf flutters downward, put out by some hurried step. I wonder how much life carries on in the darkness, hidden from view. The shadow stops, and I see a beak. A single beady eye, peering out at me. Who is this strange, huge creature, my new neighbour? it seems to ask.  Bravely, it hops out of the ivy, cocking its head to one side.

A fat little robin, chest puffed out, legs spread and diffident. You can't touch me, her cocked head says. I'm invincible. She hops further forward onto the snow but recoils back. Weren't expecting that, were you? Yes, it's cold, and yes, it's not quite as solid as the window sill used to be.

She tries again, gingerly placing one foot in front of another. Half way across the window, her delicate footprints are laid out like shadows themselves in the snow. She goes further, ignoring me now, confidence returned, red breast leading the charge. Reaching the end of the window sill, she flaps her wings once, as if testing the cold air for resistance. She finds it the same as always, lifts her head to the cold dawning sun, flaps again, and is gone.

The scene is motionless once more. A car feels its way silently down the road, driver unsure quite how to behave in this unfamiliar land. Slow is good, be gentle. Be humble in face of the soft and awesome power of the heavens.  Our street is hemmed with cars, just wide enough for one to slip down the middle, but there's no room for manoeuvre or error. Infinitely slowly, this car fumbles its way down the gauntlet and disappears round the corner. Safe to crash later, I think to myself.

On the window, someone else has been watching. Another robin. A different one, I'm sure, for a start it's a He. This chap doesn't seem quite so sure of himself. He looks at the disappearing car, then at me, then the thin line of gentle footprints in the snow in front of him. He follows them to the end of the window with his eyes, then back to the start. He takes a hop, and looks around. Where do these tracks lead? Why do they end? And why has she gone? Another hop, towards the far end of the sill. Some snow comes loose from somewhere above and patters down on him, giving the little bird a tiny white crown. He looks more foolish than regal. Sensing this he shakes it off, more interested in the prints laid out at his feet.

Making his way slowly to the end of the sill, the second robin stops and flaps his wings. Will he follow his mate, frolic after her and enjoy the snow day like so many children will in a few hours? He flaps again, unsure, and steps back. He can't do it. This world is too new, too different. Today is not his day. And so he steps away from the edge, and looks at me once more. I can't help you here, little guy.

Head bowed and confidence shaken, he walks back into the ivy, becomes a shadow once more, and disappears into the pale greenery. The only sign he is in there is the occasional dusting of snow knocked from a leaf as he moves between branches. I follow this trail away from the window, but soon the movement stops.

I peer into the ivy anyway, trying to catch any small sign of this little bird pottering about his daily business, but he is now alone in there, invisible to the watching world.

And then, unbelievably, I can hear the dustmen.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011


It is a curious thing, walking on the Moon. Space is silent and vast, as you would imagine space to be, unless your whole experience of space is defined by cheap afternoon sci-fi filler. A word to the wise - not only do laser blasts not make a sound in space, but no-one actually fires lasers in space. There's no-one to fire them at, no evil alien despots, no roving interstellar pirates, no time worms. We are very much alone out here.

People say "journey to the edge of space", but the edge is right where we are. For all practical purposes we can't get very far, and as such we are sat on the edge of a vast swimming pool, utterly unable to dive in. "One day," we think, and then we dream and strive and invent and spend to make that day a reality.

But if you tip yourself ever so slightly closer to the edge and dare to dip your toes in the murky yet infinitely clear waters of the galaxy, you might find yourself on the Moon. I dared, I dipped, and here I am.

And it is breathtaking. Not least in the literal sense, as you are surely aware, even if you're one of the ones listening out for percussion torpedo explosions and ion cannon windup. Imagine yourself as far away from home as you can possibly be, then double it, then double it, and keep doubling it. And then imagine that you're that far away, further than any distance a human can reasonably comprehend, and imagine that home still feels so close you could stretch out your arm and touch it.

I am alone out here. A single step out of the lander and I am further from human civilisation that almost anyone has ever been. If I walked a hundred steps I might very well be the furthest.

I say walk, but we all very well know that it is more like a peculiar, loping bounce. An enormous, slow motion hurdle. That's a bit romantic and lush though - it's basically a waddle. A space waddle, the most expensive waddle in history.

And so here I am, waddling about. There's a mission, some reason for being here, but right now I can't completely recall it. Vast, breathtaking, alone, and so very, very far away. All these sensations cloud my thoughts, and I can't remember what it is I'm supposed to be doing. Something about Moon rocks. Of course! The scientists want Moon rocks for a thing.

I drop, again in slow motion, to my knees. I gently and gracefully lower myself to the ground with a silent thud. A pool of dust whirls out from under me and I know that the shape of my bottom will be forever etched in the surface of the Moon. That's something to tell the grandkids about.

But I don't have any grandkids, not yet. Better get on that. Not right now though. That would be inappropriate given the serious nature of the mission, and I don't think they make two person space suits. At least not yet. It would be inappropriate, but nice. A good zero gravity screw is what I need right now, help me focus. The mechanics, ha ha, would be tricky, too. Little science joke for you there, did you get it?

Better get moving on those rocks. Can't let down the human race by not picking up rocks. There's a good one, over there. Probably the best rock I've ever seen. Got it. There's another one! That one's even better. Of course, the previous 5 sentences passed in about 10 minutes, such is the nature of life on the Moon, but I don't want to bore you with the finer details. Tell you what, here's a taster. Lift left foot up, move left foot forward, place left foot down. Concentrate really hard on not falling and not floating away.

But I know I won't float away, that's silly! You're silly. Why do you think I'll float away? Because I won't - I don't want to and my mind is better than yours so I'll win this battle of concentration. That's why I am an astronaut and you're not. Unless you are. That would explain what you're doing up here with me.

Are we even up? I mean, I look up and I can see the Earth.

That would explain what you're doing down here with me.

But that doesn't sound right either. Sounds like we're in Hell. Imagine if everyone in hell wore a space suit! They would be hot. Although a space suit is supposed to regulate body temperatures and protect you from the harsh environment of space. So perhaps we should start a campaign to get space suits to those poor souls trapped in Hell.

Think I've got enough rocks now, best start heading back. I can't really carry all of these. But wait till I get them back to the lander, the other guys will be so proud of me! Where is the lander? I can't see it. How long have I been here? I do have a lot of rocks, at least ten. Must have been a while.

Maybe there isn't a lander. Why would they send a space rocket all the way up here with a bunch of guys for me to prance about and collect rocks? That's stupid. Maybe this is what I do. I can't really remember anyway. I'm tired. Wish I could lie down. I can lie down! I'm master of my own destiny out here, no-one controls me. These rocks aren't going anywhere. Maybe then I'll take a nap.

And so I lie down, and make dust angels in the silence.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Daily Scrivening

The air is cold but the sun is warm. I pad outside into the new day with the recycling, and feel similarly warmed at doing my civic and environmental duty. Yes, I am Good Citizen. I feed the cat and change the cat litter. I move about the house with my head held slightly higher than before. I am Responsible Pet Owner. I drink my Fairtrade, ethically sourced coffee and eat my healthy cereal. As I do so I remember how the supermarket categorises cereal as Children's Cereal and Healthy Cereal and I smile. My wife sleeps soundly upstairs because I managed not to wake her with the coffee grinder. I am Good Husband, too.

Soon I will embark on my short commute to work. When I say short commute, I really mean Ten Minute Walk. Yes, life is good. Easy, even. But when I arrive at the office, my micro-reverie will come to an abrupt end. Or rather, an abrupt pause. I will stride to my desk, full of hopes and dreams and vision, I will settle down and try to Get On.

I drag myself home, slower now. I have plenty of time to wonder exactly why getting home is taking so much time. I'm going back to my safe place, my house, my home, my wife. Oh yes, and my cat. I should feel like an Olympiad carrying a torch, the hero, the Adonis all in one. I should be racing, unstoppable. But I am Atlas, the weight of my little world on my shoulders and my shoulders alone.

My wife greets me with a smile, a kiss and the cat. We all three flop on the sofa, and Atlas retreats. I am Conqueror.