Saturday, September 24, 2016

Mongrel: Zebe at her Sister's Place, (Part 2)

Maggy Cat

Zebe is introduced to the power of the alien's dust by way of a cat that had mangy fur ... 

“That kiss was a payment?” A fury against the new boyfriend gripped Zebe by the heart. 

Xanthe laughed. “No, Neil and I are mates! He’s in it as deep as I am.”

“More like lovers, it looks to me.”

“All right, yes, we’re lovers. We’ve even applied for a hearing to make it legal.”

“You let him?”

“Zebe! I said, ‘We have applied for a hearing.’ And once we’ve tied the knot we’ll be applying to have a child though it’ll be years before it’s our turn.”

“It’s that serious?” Zebe said to stall any further unsettling news.

Xanthe laughed again. “Oh, Zebe! You’ll get on fine with Neil. I’ve told him all about you. How we are. You’ll still be my funny Celtic twin. He’s helping me to help you without thought of the danger to his career.”

Zebe wasn’t mollified by the praises. “Celtic twin! Huh.” 

“Neil said that as soon as I showed him my holo of us. Your dark hair, your eyes and your olive skin. He said that in his experience Celtic types were better at poker than anyone. Probably because in ancient history they were always having to play survival games against all the invaders.” 

“Quite the history buff, your Neil.” Underneath, Zebe was amazed and secretly pleased at the man’s reading of her. Though of course he would’ve had plenty of help the way Xanthe talked up Zebe when Zebe wasn’t around.  

“We don’t eat here anymore, you know,” Xanthe said. “The kitchen’s become quite the little lab.”
Zebe attended her sister with something like horror. “You’ve gone and done what?”

Xanthe had thrown herself down onto her vintage twentieth century couch, plumped up a couple of antique-style cushions and footled her shoes off. She lay back. “Get us our drinks in hand and I’ll tell you.”   

Zebe didn’t move. 

Xanthe said, “I’m not showing you anything while you’ve got that the-end-of-the-world-is-nigh mood on you.”

“Okay!” Zebe approached the transformed old roll-top-desk-made-into-a-drinks-cabinet. Up with the cover. Out with the preparation shelf on its slide-out supports. She stared unseeing at the array of bottles. 

“I’ll have the slitzicky on strawberry rocks,” Xanthe said.

The hot-and-cold food dispenser was next to the desk. Instead of being in the kitchen.  

Skim down the catalogue on the front and key in the code for the frozen strawberries. Press ENTER and wait for the strawberry container to get to the dispenser slot. A tall glass for Xanthe from the top shelf in the cabinet. Fill the glass with berries and slurp over the liquor. A chunky wide glass for herself. Three berries and mash them.  Lots of soda water. A little …

“Here, let me help you. At this rate you’ll need ten drinks before we can get on with the excitement.” Xanthe slurped up half of Zebe’s soda and filled the glass with a good amount of slitzicky – which was still the only successful product to come out of the research done at the SoHAB. She handed Zebe her drink.

Zebe sipped cautiously. “You’re going to save the world with something you’re concocting in your kitchen?” 

“With your help, you bet!” Xanthe laughed. 

“And it’s illegal?” It didn’t take too much thought to come to the riddle’s solution. “You’re stealing something from the labs?”

“Taking. The alien’s leavings. Dust. I extract it from the vacuum cleaner, bag it and bring it home. Merely following up on that thing that you suggested so elegantly but not as wishy washily as my news to you. Therefore much harder to wipe from the records.” 

“Oh. That’s what made you mad at me?” 

“How much training do you need? We’re twins. Have the same brain power.”

“Not look-alike twins.”

Xanthe bridled. “You had yourself changed. You’d rather be an islolate.”

“I didn’t want to be seen to be a clone of you, a glorified cleaner. How would I get work in my field?”

Xanthe laughed kindly. “My dear secret clone. Always half a step behind. The day I got your email, Neil nailed the last strips to the benches.”

Zebe glanced at the carrier bags. 

“Never mind them for now,” Xanthe said. “Normally the dust gets incinerated.

Zebe knew about cleaning because she began in her work as a lab technician cleaning out lab jars. Things like dead fruit fly experiments. Now the matter of cleanliness everywhere in the Reefarium, and indeed contamination, were her responsibility. 

Up to the moment she discovered the new living water in Callum’s swimming lesson tank, she’d been terrified that the wholesale reef death happening outdoors, in unmoderated sea water, would infect her coral nursery aquariums.

Xanthe said, “But after I had a little experience with some of it, I wouldn’t ever waste it again.”

Zebe said what she was meant to. “What little experience?”

“I’d run short on vacuum bags. So, thinking to re-use the bag I had, I shook the dust from it into the incinerator instead of throwing the whole bag in. A glittering silvery swag of it was blown off course …”

Zebe held her hand up. “Wait! Tell me you were wearing your isolation gear!”

“I was, but the mangy cat we feed on the sly wasn’t. The cat was downwind and got snowed over. Couple of days later, when it re-appeared, its fur was suddenly healthier than my hair. A process that would’ve taken weeks with the right drugs.”

“Why did you think it was the dust?”

“Because her fur is silvery now. Black and white in patches, with a silvery overlay. Very now.”  

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Book Review: Stanislaw Lem ...

This week I'm really enjoying Stanislaw Lem - Tales of Pirx the Pilot - Return from the Stars - The Invincible. First published in one volume by Penguin, 1982.

The Tales of Pirx the Pilot were first published in Polish in the 1960s; Return from the Stars 1961 and The Invincible 1967.

Pirx's exploits are set during the 21st or 22nd centuries. Colonisationation of the Solar System is in full swing with settlements on the Moon and Mars. Pirx starts as a learner pilot and works his way up the promotional ladder to being the captain of a merchant vessel.

Interestingly, the article in Wikipedia considers the genre to be medium hard science fiction. I might have agreed with that when it was first published perhaps fifty years ago.

Lem's space travel is by nuclear-powered rocket. I'm not so familiar with the intricacies of modern spaceships as to be able to compare Lem's version with today's realities in a piece by piece way. The rich world building and the stories are what keeps me going.

The descriptions of the dirty gritty space stations; the age of the Blue Star, an old renamed and refurbished but still decrepit spaceship; and a starship's somewhat old-fashioned equipment, as per the detailed descriptions, all put me in mind of an alternate history or a parallel universe.

I laughed about the pilot, suitcase in hand, walking the length and breadth of a busy tarmac to join his ship unheralded. The electric fans, still very much a part of the cooling equipment as if air conditioning hadn't yet been invented.

And yet there is so much in these tales that reads modern. Pyrx has to do a practical exam, which turns out to be a simulated journey. Landing a shuttle on the Moon reads very realistic. And these were stories written before 1969, before the first man on the Moon.

A couple of times disasters happened that were eventually attributed to equipment glitches. The descriptions of these are intricate, logical and totally believable. As far as I can tell there is no shonky science in these tales. [By 'shonky science' I mean an invented fantasy science written up as if real.]

Modern space programs might have gone the way of Lem's future if it hadn't been for ... NASA? The need to economise? The essential difficulties of containing the nuclear genie? There seem to me to be a dozen possible places where present day reality separated from the progression of Lem's future.

As I'm reading translations I'm also sometimes wondering which bits of awkward English I have to thank Lem for and which bits the translators. In addition, despite a lot more misogyny and racism were part of the culture of the 1960's than in today's times, it's still possible to enjoy these fictions. Need to keep the cultural differences in mind and allow for them, that's all.


Monday, September 19, 2016

Mongrel: Zebe at Xanthe's (Part 1)

Landed by Ian Strange

Zebe decides to go see what's up with Xanthe, despite Xanthe's threat that Zebe isn't welcome unless invited. 

Zebe waited in Xanthe’s minuscule front porch, more impatient by the minute. It wasn’t like Xanthe to be late for her twin, even if she was coming from work. Zebe had hardly let Cele know she’d be gone for the weekend, then had to wait for an hour for the boat to take her to the mainland, to then fly to Brisbane. Normally she didn’t mind the journey but Xanthe’s email had been so mysterious. 
The most worrying thing about it was the way Xanthe alternated seeming anger and actual excitement. As if she was saying something more than just the meanings that could be attached to her words.  

Xanthe hadn’t very far to come at all since she had a town house in the SoHAB residential facility, almost next door to the complex. Zebe on her toes could just make out the roof of the central octagonal hall. “Come on, Xan!” she said. “I’m here, on the doorstep.” Her twin-key hadn’t let her into the house, as Xanthe had threatened. There was a new lock, and a couple of newly installed ID scanners. 

 Zebe so wasn’t in the mood for explanations. Even the fact that she was here this weekend was wrong. It’d been Xanthe’s turn to come to Zebe. But as was often the case, if she wanted the twin thing, Zebe was the one who had to let go of anger and irritation. She gritted her teeth. It was the pattern they settled into after their turbulent teens.

Finally a hoverole painted all over with SoHAB security logos swept into the residential transport parking. Xanthe hopped down from the passenger-side before the hoverole skirt had deflated, earning her a growl from the driver. Probably about safety. 

The hoverole settled and the driver also got out. 

Tall, and dressed in the SoHAB security uniform, his muscles were well-defined. Hair blond. That handsome hunk Xanthe had been raving about. Neil, Zebe recalled.He walked round to the passenger side of the vehicle. 

Zebe stepped into the garden to be out of view and so not distract her sister’s tilt at romance. If that’s what was on Xan’s mind. 

Neil reached into the back of the two-seater and delicately handed out SoHAB souvenir bags, one by one.

Xanthe strung them along her arms, five on each side. 

Reading his body language, Zebe heard him say: “That’s the lot. How about a kiss?”

Xanthe lifted her face with a cheeky sideways smile, for him to do the deed. 

The man took Xanthe’s whole Viking-daughter width and length in his arms, snaking in under the bags on Xanthe’s left and around Xanthe’s shoulders on the right. He cupped the back of Xanthe’s blond head and directed it so her lips met his. He seemed to have her measure. 

Xanthe’s be-bagged arms hugged him to her as she also worked at the kiss. 

Her lover walked her backwards until she rested against the side of the hoverole and he leaned into her. 

Zebe closed her eyes. She felt left behind even though it was always Xanthe who began anything new. Zebe swished impatiently at the bushes.

The couple broke apart with a final, ordinary, see-you-later-alligator peck on the cheek. The man got back into his vehicle and Xanthe walked for home.

And I don’t even have a prospective lover on the scene, Zebe thought blackly.

“Cheer up,” Xanthe said. “You look like another wet five-day-weekend.”

“That was last time. Looks like a dry weather weekend from where I’m standing.” Probably Neil was the reason Xanthe had refused to come to Zebe’s. 

At the front door, Xanthe hugged Zebe and gave her the bags to hold. She said softly and with her face hidden between the two of them, “I had the security upgraded.” She stared into an iris ID scanner at the same time as she allowed another machine to scrutinise the inside of her left wrist. 
The door clicked open. 

“You don’t believe in security. What happened?” Zebe likewise spoke softly. The fact that Xanthe was mistrustful about something, straightaway raised Zebe’s paranoias. 

Xanthe waited with replying until they were in the house and she had relocked the door and reset the ID equipment. “Never did anything illegal before!” Xan pulled faces to tell Zebe that she’d cooked up something absolutely fatal. 

Funny faces were a Xanthe thing. Zebe got her way with the poker variety. 

Zebe walked on, into the living room. She stared around. Nothing illegal here that she could see. 

Xanthe came into the room and gently set the souvenir bags next to one another by the door. Just resting them delicately against one another. “Smile,” she ordered. “After all, I’m doing it all for you.”

“All of it for me?” Zebe said. “In your email you said you’d already begun down that road. And anyway, I’m not a good enough excuse for you to get involved in something dangerous to your freedom.”

 Xanthe over-rode Zebe’s piddling resistance. “It’s something you’d never guess of me. But get us a drink first, will you? To get you into the right mood and me to relax after a whole lot of plotting and paying.”

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Mongrel: Zebe's Discovery

Zebe's strand continues with her discovery of the uses for the alien silver. 

Joe Loreno, Beardy and Laura didn’t come back from their leave. Cele and Zebe decided to close the doors. “Let’s face it, Zebe,” Cele said. “We both love our projects too much to risk any further upsets.” In fact, Zebe thought, the slightest inkling of Cele’s project to the public media would blow SoHAB sky high.

Zebe’s and Cele’s reason to SoHAB was that, since they had only two staff, they didn’t have enough presence to show people round as well as work on their projects.

SoHAB were on the ball. And why not with Xanthe in the loop? Zebe doubted SoHAB even saw Zebe’s earlier request for permission from SoHAB to try for a licence to seed Zebe’s new corals through Reef waters. 

Closing the Reefarium to the public for the next foreseeable months was a great solution, Xanthe messaged for SoHAB. 

Zebe rolled her eyes at Cele. “Duh.” 

Cele laughed and started talking about her project. “Some days I still can’t believe what the silly moneybags wanted me to do and that I did it. Then I look into the tanks and see him playing pater familas to a bunch of cetacean-humans and I have to believe it.” 

“Anomalies all, but looking quite happy as far as I can tell,” Zebe said. “I look at the reason why you took that on.” They both looked at the only other person hiding here at the Reefarium with Cele. 

Cele confided in Zebe quite soon after her arrival with Callum, her great-great-grandson. A small baby at the time, he was also an anomaly, but with alien blood if Cele was to be believed. Saving Callum from the EMBers was Cele’s reason for everything she did.

Callum gambolled with the dolphin people. Most of the dolphinate swam exceptionally well but Callum swam well only when he was supported by one of his playmates. “He’ll never be a swimmer,” Cele said softly. “He’s top heavy. The chunky arms and chest. And, anyway, I don’t think he should leave here. I suspect his mother to be in the area. I don’t know what to do.”

Cele would never say her great-granddaughter’s name. “Ushen, you mean,” Zebe said. “I think hang on here a little longer. Take the dolphinate out on trips, a couple of days at the time. They need more time learning their bodies. I’ll have another go teaching Callum to swim. I swear he’s better than he was.” 

Why am I encouraging her? Zebe thought guiltily. If the ordinary reef water is dead, where will there be any fish for the dolphinate to eat?  

Teaching Callum to swim was what resulted in the amazing revival of sea-life in the aquaria. Though Zebe still didn’t know how or why, other than having Callum swim in the supply tank, some of the aquaria had by now dozens of silvery creatures colonising them. Corals of many different species; krill, ditto; and tiny sponges, likewise. 

She knew enough not to wash the supply tank out and start afresh, reasoning that while she had been teaching Callum for about half a year, the effects of his swimming water hadn’t begun until about a month ago. She freshened up the supply tank with surreptitious re-filling from outside, as near to the dolphinate’s home pool as she could feed the underwater hose end, and as many lessons as Callum could be talked into. 

 Cele often said that she used the Huddle’s mud all the time. Or was it that she often said to Zebe, that she used the Huddle’s mud all the time? As moisturiser. Sunscreen cream. An anti-inflammatory rubbed into her arthritic knee. Baby oil. Callum had a very dry skin as a young child, maybe even now, because how else could he be shedding silver than by having it continually replenished?

Zebe watched Cele and Callum like a hawk. Both had a silver-grey sheen to them. Cele used the mud to help the human-cetacean conversion and who knows what else. She said she brought a good supply from the valley and had begun to experiment extending it right away. Zebe itched to get into Cele’s quarters to take a look around.

Callum’s swimming water was alive with the alien silver, is what Zebe thought. The proof were the sea-creatures, her corals and Beardy’s krill. Cele, Zebe believed, had closed her mind to what the mud might contain. Zebe was certain that the working part in the Huddle’s mud was the Moogerah Monster’s silver exudate. 

The alien silver turned the For-Want-of-a-Nail-a-Shoe-Was-Lost story on its head. For years Zebe had nothing to show for all her efforts reviving the different corals. Now she had all the coral she wanted, even after Joe Loreno stole her best batch. 

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Mongrel: Xanthe continued

Otherworldy One of the Huddle
As Xanthe herself says this is a pure info-dump. If you are as patient as her twin you will find out some necessary facts. 

At the time of their capture, what was assumed to be a many-headed, many-limbed creature turned out to be a bunch of separate creatures, some of them very Earth-animal-like, for example the ape, and some, like the lavender-coloured woman with one huge leg, completely other-worldly. 

Cele King knew exactly but would anyone listen? She apparently was paid for her silence with a huge genetic-engineering project to be worked at the Reefarium … funny how I never met her when I came to see you. I suppose you had to sign a secrecy clause as well. Still, I am your twin. 

Cele comes from that same valley where the aliens splashed down and lived for the missing fifty years. I read the historical notes that SoHAB forced her to write before they would send her and the baby up north. Do you know that baby? He should be about thirteen. The female creatures call themselves a huddle when it is translated out. Everyone here calls them that now. 

According to the tests, not one of the huddle creatures is responsible for the continual electrical outages the School has suffered until recently, when the electrical circuits relating to the alien’s abode (polite name for the cage) were finally separated from the general supply. 

Now it is only the video cameras and spotlights in the cage that don’t work but no one is game to go in specially to fix them. The huddle is responsible for the stuff (a mix of various body products including blood) smeared onto the inside of the observation walls rendering them so opaque as to be completely useless. 

Don’t start, Sis. Yes, it is an info dump I’m giving you. How else to keep you up to date with my life? Because that’s what you constantly tell me you want. The reason you want me to visit. Every fortnight? Give me a break. I’ve got a life, you know. Saturday night is the annual SoHAB Staff ball. Of course I’m going which means of course that I’m not coming to your precious Reefarium again. 

Must be even more a ghost house now with Joe, Beardy and Laura gone. 

See how I know your every question, answer and output?  

Anything else you want to know? Mail me as usual. For my personal news you will have to wait, which I know you will gladly do for me, because when you do make it down to town on my express invitation. Yes, you read that right. You are not welcome until I expressly invite you. If you even try, and I know that isn’t out of the question, you will find out I have had the locks changed. 

Ostensibly to keep out my nosy twin sister. Please be patient. All this guff I’m churning out is not aimed at estranging us, but at glazing security eyes. More specifically elevating their boredom levels. I know for a fact that they don’t do big words so I think I’m fairly safe. This only because the facility has had to employ sapients ha ha for most of the jobs that used to be robotic. Did I mention the difficulties due to the mysterious interference in the power supply? Your Valkyrie twin, Xanthe.  

PS. If you’ve ever been to SoHAB, you’ll know the Central Hall is made up of three concentric donuts. The foyer and the donut hole together are shaped like a key hole with a shank to the outdoor. These are the public access areas. Lots of coming and goings there. There’s a rail at a metre-and-a-half distance in front of the barred giraffe-sized door, where there are always people waiting for a glimpse of Brisbane’s most famous resident. 

The aliens nearly always prefer to hide in the centre of their apartment accessed by way of either a dog-legged corridor from the giraffe-sized gate, frustrating for the viewers because there’s no seeing around corners or the service door-airlock-service door arrangement where cleaners and guards ingress. 

A few facts for your delectation and my use as thicket. The back wall of the huddle’s apartment, that was meant to be one-way viewing, has been, as I said, obscured. Regular viewing times have been a wash-out since the Huddle obscured their mirror and refuse to come to the gate. 

I’m wondering how I can relate what I’m doing as a cleaner to auditing Procyon Products’ use of public monies. Still need to write up the project, of course.

Procyon Products as a result are trying to raise money by selling figurines and in fact all things alien. One thing interesting PP has got going are the five silver-coloured dog or wolf pups, all of them males, which were deposited one night by the inside of the giraffe door. The supposition is that the Earth-origin dog or wolf mother tried to hide them from her huddle mates. Since they eat all male intruders. 

PP had the giraffe door open like a flash to retrieve the the pups. They’re being kept in a kennel in the basement. Naming the pups, which are on show daily in the apartment opposite the Alien’s, is fast becoming their favourite fund-raising racket. They’ve begun a silent auction, which is silent only on the names of the bidders. The amounts are broadcast freely, which is where I’ll expect you to find them, Sister, if you’re interested.

 Do you ever wonder what possessed our father and mother to name us as they did, then saddle us with the viking-daughter and Celtic-twin labels? My dearly beloved calls me his Valkyrie. He is in it up to his neck helping me help you. That’s a warning. Don’t come to town and rock the boat. Yes, I love a bit of drama. Though now that I’m living and loving, I’m notching drama back in favour of good deeds and building up social capital. I could go on and have been known to. Remember the screeds I churned out to pass my grades? Back in the day.