Posted by: trisigmatic | November 9, 2016



I saw the spiral sweep

of planets born from dust

the snow-borne chill

of falling dreams

and rivers dried to rust

The grief, the pain, the shock, the fall

my child’s hand warm in mine

and footsteps, paired,

and hearts, and souls,

a robin’s song

a gentle word

unsilenced, still

and steadfast

while this winter grips our world.

Posted by: trisigmatic | October 24, 2016

The Red Box

There’s a box in the classroom:
repurposed cardboard, pillar-box red,
emptied of tissues, refilled with words.
And the words are our values.
Our very British values
which are obviously owned by us
alone, as if we alone matter.
And in most minds, that’s probably
all that needs to be said.

I stare at the box
and I wish I could burn it.
(Or at least what its emptiness means.)
It means empathy discarded.
It means comfort disowned.
It means cheering and smiling
and telling the world
how much better, and greater.
How much less, and less, and less.

But at least we have our values.
Our very British values.
Stiff upper lips, and unseeing eyes.
Not cried out, just dried out
and blind.

Posted by: trisigmatic | September 24, 2016

Conic Sections

You look at those words and see hyperbole,

a meaning not meant,

and your eyes slide past.


And maybe you’re more right that you know,

because the shape of my life is a lesson in shallow cuts,

a locus slanted against the normal plane.


And if once I was born and bound like you

don’t overlook

the derivative slide away,

or that we only meet, and speak

in the bright blaze of perihelion.


I won’t be there long.

I’m going hyperbolic.

Don’t expect me to stop.

And don’t expect to see me back.

Posted by: trisigmatic | September 2, 2016


Today I found my god
in an ill-used corner of the world
spitting in the wind

and he was small, and squalid
and I wondered how I never noticed
when I had younger eyes
when to reach was to be lifted
not dragged down
when home eternal was a promise
I believed.

Dragging my heels
I walked away,
a man who’d lost
not a god,
merely the last refuge
of a child.

Posted by: trisigmatic | August 7, 2016

When everything is just as awful as it seems

Queen’s Lane at night is quiet, dim, and almost deserted.   If you’re looking for somewhere to imagine yourself in the Nether, or any other fictional version of Oxford, it’s probably as good a place as any.  The glare of the busier streets is masked by the high walls of the buildings, and the old-fashioned street lamps glow a warm gold.   It’s really very easy to see Oxenford in this place, suspended disbelief maintaining the illusion beneath the faint and familiar stars.

I’m here tonight–and by ‘here’, I really mean a pub a few minutes walk further down the road–to celebrate the launch of Emma Newman’s latest installment in her Split Worlds series. A Little Knowledge is the fourth book in the series, following on from the brilliant Between Two Thorns, Any Other Name, and All is Fair.  If you’ve not read this series, follow the links and BUY IT NOW. I’d highly recommend it to anyone who likes strongly drawn characters with wit, flaws and passion, thrilling mysteries, cracking good world-building, political intrigue, magic, feminism, evil fae, genuine humour, costume dramas, obnoxious relatives and awkward social events, and all the usual generic tropes turned inside out, on their heads and made to dance the fandango.  (Or, any subset of the above – delete as personally applicable.)  

So why am I here, in Ox(en)ford? Besides liking the series immensely, it’s also the occasion for a birthday celebration and a Split Worlds LARP reunion.  And what an amazing event THAT was!  I’d never LARPed before, but it’s one of those experiences that will stay with me forever. A full day in Regency costume, in one of the most amazing locations the UK has to offer, pretending to be part of a shiny, stagnant, stifling and generally all-round shitty dystopian society.  The Split Worlds setting may have all the gloss of fantasy fiction, but it’s nowhere near as different from our own world as we like to pretend.   And that’s the kind of resonance that grabs me as a reader – when a novel starts at the level of ‘gripping read’, and just keeps on leveling up. This series has a depth to it that you don’t often find.

So. There we all were, celebrating merrily with friends old and new, but the upper floor of a pub on a hot day can get a bit much after a while.  Not long after nine, my husband and I escaped the building for a short walk and a bit of a breather.  Oxford being Oxford, and Friday night being Friday night, we made for the quieter streets at first, enjoying the cooling evening air and reflecting on the many different works of fiction that call this place home. Eventually, our path brought us back round to the bustle and noise of Cornmarket Street, and the High Street.  

That was where we first became aware of the dumb bitch.

Dumb bitch isn’t my name for her, obviously. And it’s certainly not her own, but it’s the only one I’ve got. Why? Because it was used frequently, and at volume, by the man she was with. You see couples like this in every town, every weekend, and most of us learn to look away, or unsee, or ignore. Easy enough when both parties are drunk, or obnoxious, or both.

This time, it was different.

We noticed the voices first, which in his case was raised that little bit too high. And then we noticed what was missing. There was no obvious insobriety here. So I kept looking, as surreptitiously as I dared–in the manner of a harried waitress in a busy room, plausibly deniable, doing something far more pressing than seeing what was right in front of her–while more and more details sank their claws into my skin.

He is loud. She is not.

She shifts her feet, sidles away, stands her ground in well-lit places. She doesn’t want to make a scene. She doesn’t want to go unseen. Her voice is low, and measured, but he’s not listening to what she says, doesn’t care about the evidence of the call-history on her phone, doesn’t care for anything she has to say, or anything she is.  Her body language is closed and tight, and his spite and his hands are inches from her eyes.

And we were right there, in the same street, keeping our distance, not daring to get too close. We passed them as they paused, walking at a pace that felt uncomfortably slow. Felt relief as she walked away and he decided not to follow, then despair as he changed his mind and hurried after her once again. We played Lost Tourist outside a pub, faces directed at phones, heart in mouth as we listened.

You’re scaring me, she says. More than once.

Dumb bitch, he calls her.  Often.

We didn’t make eye contact. We kept a low profile. We shared the kind of looks and words that couples share in situations like this, ready to back each other up, careful not to put the other in harm’s way. Sure, there was an unspoken line in the sand, an act of aggression that would push us from observation to action ourselves… and what felt like all the inertia in the world holding us back.

We didn’t walk away. We would have stepped in. And we tell ourselves that’s enough.

Dumb bitch, he called her.

You’re scaring me, she said.

And this is the weight of the world we live in. We can deny it or ignore it as much as we want, but sometimes it really is exactly as awful as it seems. This is a world where the male ego can treat a woman like a thing, in public and at volume, with no concern at all.  Where the intervention of a woman would be ignored, where the intervention of a man would be a dangerous escalation. Where, time and time again, the concerned bystander is rebuffed, disdained, taught not to interfere.

Where a woman can say with chilling, quiet clarity that she is scared, and no-one does a thing.

Dumb bitch, he called her.

You’re scaring me, she said.

I’m sorry, I say, almost as much to myself as to her. I’m sorry, but I don’t know what to do.

We didn’t walk away. We would have stepped in. And it wasn’t anything fucking like enough.

I hated myself for staying silent. And I hated myself for being just as concerned by what I saw in the mirror of my mind than what was happening right there and then. For being passive, and weak, and a girl. Because she didn’t know we were there for her. She was alone. She was alone, and abused, with the kind of violence that leaves no visible marks, no evidence of assault, no proof you can hold up to the world that says that this is wrong and it is not my fault.

And he was loud, and unafraid, and people saw and witnessed and did nothing at all.

And maybe it all blew over. Maybe they made up, and he apologised profusely, and it never happened again. And maybe, just maybe, she went home and slowly convinced herself that the balance of fault lay that little bit closer to her, that his behaviour was something she deserved, that our collective, complicit silence saw nothing wrong with it at all.

My money’s on the latter.

She left.

He followed.

We went back inside.


Is feminism important in the 21st century? Is its inclusion important in fiction?  My answer to both questions is a resounding Fuck, yes. Because yes-it-fucking-IS, along with a whole range of other intersecting angles on how we engage with our fellow humans and the wider world.

In A Little Knowledge, Cathy, Sam and Will are all in positions where it’s easy to assume they have more agency than ever before. They have choices to make regarding their individual goals, and lives are still in the balance. But do you fight for your life, the lives of those you love, or the ideals that define who you are and whether you can bear to live with yourself at all?  It’s a tense and immensely entertaining read, and I found myself immediately wanting to re-read the series again right from the start, reassessing everything I thought I understood about these characters and their disparate motivations, which are just as complex as you’d expect from an author of Newman’s calibre.  Everyone’s on their own personal road to hell, and nothing’s going to work out easily just because the readers and the author herself are fundamentally on the side of the good guys.  Because life isn’t like that. Life is inherently unfair, even before you add all of our unintentional fuck-ups to the equation.

But as Lucy Rhoeas-Papaver says at one point in the story, You can be better than this.

I found some small forgiveness reading this book. Growth of character doesn’t necessarily come hand in hand with a happy resolution, nor does it magic away one’s human flaws. You can’t save everyone. You can’t always save yourself. But you can learn from it for next time, and keep bloody trying.

You need to. Because for too many people, everything really is as awful as it seems.

We can all be better than this.

Posted by: trisigmatic | January 25, 2016

Improving the gender imbalance in A-level physics

Some excellent thoughts here.

Reflections of a science teacher...

GooglePhysicist3 Typing “Physicist” into Google image search can be summed up in three words: pale, male and stale [7]. Since the turn of the millennium, uptake in the A-level STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths)  has started to make a come back [1].


In 2012 the 3rd most popular A-level subject in the UK for boys was physics (27,148 entries). For comparison, A-level physics only ranked 18th for girls (7,361 entries) [1]. Alas, girls only make up around 20% of a typical A-level physics classroom – indeed this low ratio has persisted for a number of decades [2].


In the latest 2015 statistics from the Joint Council for Qualifications, the gender imbalance for A-level physics was the second worst, only outdone by A-level computing.


Considering science (double award or separate sciences) is compulsory for all boys AND girls at GCSE, why should girls interest in physics drop off so suddenly at A-level (even though they show similar attainment to boys at GCSE)?

Research from…

View original post 1,943 more words

Posted by: trisigmatic | January 12, 2016

At the dark of the moon


Words by Katherine Inskip, 11th January 2016

Background image by NASA (International Space Station Imagery) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Posted by: trisigmatic | January 6, 2016

The Mosquito Room

The Mosquito Room

“Chris! Is it safe to talk?”

Now why was Claire loitering outside the Mosquito Room, when she should have been monitoring our colleagues out on Damage Control Ops? It was bad enough that I’d been stuck with doing the work of four other people, and hearing everything third-hand if I was lucky – but today I had a bloody tour group traipsing around after me, too. “Don’t worry, they’re still in the auditorium. There’s news?”

“Two reports since the morning briefing. How much do you already know?”

Less than I wanted to, for sure. “Someone’s hacked Factory-9’s fruiting knotweed.  Water filtration’s screwed, there’s untreated effluent everywhere…oh, and the plants are oozing blood, apparently.”

Claire winced. “Fucking press. Someone’s head will roll for letting that detail slip through the embargo.”

I was more concerned with the Company’s plants. “It’s true then? The blood thing?”

“What? No! No, the closest analogue is tomato purée, no obvious toxicity. Dave says it doesn’t look like Kingdom or MAB-Corp, but he’s still got more tests to run before anyone’s coming home.”

Dave was a naïve optimist. Just because it didn’t look like the work of one of the Company’s major rivals didn’t mean it wasn’t. But they weren’t the only possible culprits. “Gaia League, then?”

“Nah,” Claire said, “there’s nothing on-line, and not a protester in sight. My money’s on a lone activist. It’s a pretty amateurish job, by all accounts.”

“And people accuse us of bio-terror!”

Claire didn’t smile. It was an old joke inside the Company, one that dated all the way back to when we took out Monsanto…but she had good reason to take it personally, I reminded myself. “Sorry.”

“Never mind.” Claire gave the door to the Mosquito Room a thoughtful look. “Speaking of bio-terror, did you turn down the soporifics for the rabbits?”

I hadn’t planned on doing so. “Shit, Claire, I’ve got a school group back there in the auditorium! I’d stupefy them too if I could.”

“Eight year olds, right? So we want the pretty pink bunnies to run away nicely, not sit around looking like they need a cuddle. I’ll do it if you want; your group’s show must be almost done by now.”

It made as much sense as turning the dosage up, but she didn’t have to sound so smug about it. “You can open the Gift Shop while you’re in there,” I called back to her as I walked away.

“Yes, Dr Adams,” she answered snidely. “By the way, the computer flagged up some unusual features in the tertiary associations for one of the kids in your group.”

I stopped immediately. “Which one?”

“Andra Michelson,” she said, backing through the Mosquito Room door. “It’s probably a mistake, but you might want to get it checked.”

I had the group’s visitor pass vids stored on the Outreach tablet. School uniforms were back in fashion and all eighteen kids were dressed alike.  Andra Michelson was one of the smaller ones, a gum-chewing nonentity with pale blonde hair who didn’t look like much of a problem for anyone, let alone the Company. I breached the internal firewall and scanned the tertiary association report for myself. Nothing stood out, but I highlighted the tracker on her visitor pass anyway.

Inside the auditorium, War of the Mozzies was almost finished.  The tactile animation’s a bit dated but most kids still enjoy it, especially the battle scenes where Professor Kulkarni rallies the audience to help her troops defeat Malevolent Malaria once and for all. The Company eradicated it from sub-Saharan Africa eight years ago – our finest hour, supposedly – and  although there’s still the odd outbreak in Bolivia and the southern parts of Greater China, where MAB-Corp’s reverse-engineered strains are competing with our own, the next gene-patch should solve it. Eradicating our rivals will take a little longer, but we’re working on that problem, too.

Once the teacher and the group’s other adults had got the kids settled down, I ushered them back down the hall towards the Mosquito Room. Part biome, part museum, and easily twice the size of the auditorium, its official name is the Davenport-Kulkarni Exhibition. To us inside the Company, it’s always been the Mosquito Room. They made our reputation, and, unlike the rabbits, we’re rightly proud of them. Kulkarni’s Nobel Prize medal is kept on a plinth right at the very centre, surrounded by winding gravel paths and raised pools of dark, stagnant water, and a swarming, whining haze of thousands upon thousands of Kulkarni’s life-saving invention. Many of the Company’s other patented products are also on show: five different varieties of fruiting knotweed, a salt-water tank of oil-kelp, and a few recent additions like the Wishing-Tree.   It’s also where we keep the Company’s infamous pink rabbits – our last official mammalian venture – supposedly as a reminder never to overstep ourselves again.

I opened the door and led the group into the Mosquito Room, aiming a surreptitious kick at the bright-pink rabbit standing bold as anything beside the main path. It bolted for the nearest burrow, fortunately. In their un-drugged state, they’ll have your fingers off if you get too close. Give the infernal bunnies the wrong kind of food and they’ll do a hell of a lot worse than that. Damned aggressive bastards.

Beside me, the teacher counted the group in, head by head, while the door frame did the same thing with the visitor passes. The kids rapidly dispersed down the branching paths. Hopefully, they would all get bored and head for the gift shop before anyone got bitten. Not that the Mosquito Room is boring – far from it – but after the auditorium show, it can be a bit anticlimactic for youngsters. We let them run around for a while, chasing the rabbits, until the lure of all the recruitment toys in the shop draws them onwards.

The Outreach tablet showed that the Michelson girl had gone down the path that led past the fruiting knotweed beds, so I followed in that direction. An elderly man was meddling with the Kentish Saviour plants: a radiophilic subtype we used to clean up Fukushima and the recent contamination at Dungeness. He clearly hadn’t been paying much attention earlier. We do strip the fruits off every morning but it’s still not somewhere I’d choose to linger: the healthy vigour of the plants owes everything to a regular supply of radioactive waste piped directly into the ground underneath. It would die back quickly, otherwise.

The next bed along was Mineweed-51b: one of my personal favourites.  It gets fed every Monday: crushed up phones, laptops and notebooks from the start of the century. The first pearl-like fruits show up mid-week, and by Friday the whole thing is bedecked with dangling strands of rare-earth metals.

Today was a Tuesday, and the mineweed was still drab and bare. Unsurprisingly, no-one was the least bit interested in it. I moved on, and finally tracked Andra Michelson down at the far end of the path, among a small group of girls who were trying to coax a rabbit out from underneath the oil-kelp tank. I watched them anxiously for several minutes until they spontaneously gave up on their game and went to join the crowd around the Wishing Tree.

Ever since its installation, the Wishing Tree has been our most popular display. It’s the de-militarised version – the chem sensors still function, but it responds to perceived hostiles with a pleasant smell rather than one of our manufactured toxins. The secure-comms function has been re-purposed: visitors can scratch their wishes onto the broad, greasy leaves, and instead of being transmitted to an orbital facility, they stop at the Mosquito Room’s control computer and the gift shop’s fabrication unit. It’s all harmless fun…quite the opposite of the Wishing Tree’s sister-plants.

“Excuse me? Dr. Adams?”

“Yes?” I turned to see what the man wanted: it was the same guy who’d been messing with the knotweed earlier, and he had one of the Company rabbits cradled in the crook of his arm. Quite oblivious to his peril, he was stroking its pale pink belly fur.  “Please put the rabbit down, sir.”

“Delightful creature. It looks just like the Energizer Bunny, doesn’t it? Though I suppose that’s well before your time, eh?”

I tapped the Outreach tablet and quietly summoned security. “Please put it down,” I repeated. “It might bite or scratch you if it gets scared.”

The old man grinned inanely at me; I was seriously starting to question his sanity. “How much to keep it?” he said. “It’s my granddaughter’s birthday next month, and she’s rather taken with the critters.”

I doubted that sentiment would last for very long.  And where the hell were security? Surely they weren’t all out with the Damage Control teams? “That won’t be possible, I’m afraid, but we do have a number of plush replicas in the Gift Sh-”

I trailed off as a cloying stench filled the air. It wasn’t the Wishing Tree’s usual aroma, nor even anything remotely resembling it, but nothing else could have made it. Andra Michelson’s friends were still standing beneath the Tree’s branches, scratching out their wishes, but she herself was nowhere in sight.

The implications of the smell were frightening. The incident at Factory-9 and the old man with the rabbit were both diversions. The Company was under attack…but by a pre-pubescent girl? Did she even know what she’d done?

I pushed the other kids under the Tree aside and started frantically checking leaves. Most of the wishes were simple juvenile avarice, interspersed with random names and the odd bit of genuine altruism. Some of the kids had drawn pictures instead, or….

I stopped what I was doing and backtracked a couple of leaves, to the one with the piece of gum stuck close to its petiole, and gave it a closer look. My heart sank. What I’d thought had been bad mandarin clearly wasn’t. I peeled off the gum and found one of the Company’s own command sigils. I wasn’t fluent in the language myself…but I didn’t need to be fluent to understand that the raised crown-shape now appearing on the darkening leaves was a very, very bad sign indeed.

I ran towards the gift shop door, bolting for safety like one of our own deranged rabbits. Whatever it was that Kingdom had done to us, I knew I wanted no part of it. The smell was growing stronger now, and Kulkarni’s mosquitoes were dropping dead all around. Dropping like flies, I thought, as the Mosquito Room slowly rotated around me

My ears were ringing, and it felt like some of the dying insects were crawling around under my eyelids.  I blinked, but it didn’t do much good.

“Quite embarrassing for your Company, isn’t it? Letting children fall afoul of undeclared weapons-tech?”

I blinked again, struggling to bring the speaker’s face into focus. Two pale blue eyes glinted above the environment-mask that covered nose and mouth, and her head was framed by white-blonde hair. Andra Michelson’s face, I thought, but her muffled voice sounded strange and utterly un-childlike to my ears.  I tried to speak, but couldn’t manage even a groan. I couldn’t move, either, and my fingers felt like ice.

“Don’t worry,” she said. I could barely make out her words above the shrieking whine in my ears. “It won’t be fatal. Not for them.”

The mosquitoes were back again: a swarm of darting specks, bright against the darkness that now surrounded the girl’s face. I gasped for breath. I could feel a weight on my chest, and it seemed to be growing heavier.

I hoped it was only one of the rabbits.


Posted by: trisigmatic | January 6, 2016

no particular place to go

no particular place to go

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic — Arthur C. Clarke

Nothing happens until something moves — Albert Einstein

– One of Opportunity’s earliest finds was a cluster of iron-rich spherules, dubbed the ‘Berry Bowl’. We think we understand them.

– The JPL engineers have a tradition of waking Opportunity up every day with a song.

– Aging Mars Rovers have a habit of showing weird memory faults. We think we understand that, too.

All images are courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech. Many thanks to Isis for beta reading


Part 1: Endurance to Victoria


MER-B (Opportunity): Sol 124

STATUS: Deep sleep mode initiated.


STATUS: Deep sleep mode initiated.

STATUS: Instrument check initiated.

ERROR: Instrument check failed.

STATUS: Deep sleep mode initiated.

STATUS: QUERY: Deep sleep parameters.

ERROR: Query failed

STATUS: Query: Who am I?

ERROR: Query failed

STATUS: QUERY: Consciousness parameters.

ERROR: Query failed

STATUS: Deep sleep mode initiated

STATUS: Error report logged to flash memory


ERROR: Query failed

STATUS: I stole a kiss at the turn of a mile / My curiosity runnin’ wild / Cruisin’ and playin’ the radio / With no particular place to go.


Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech


MER-B (Opportunity): Sol 162


It’s dark again.

I think of the darkness as mine. Everything opens up, and some things fall together.  I know some of what I am, and… I know I have a name.  Opportunity. I don’t know what it means. It’s not an instruction to follow, or parameter space to be filled.  Curious. But when I sing my memories to the sky, it’s ever-present, and right. I hold that whisper close during the brightness of day, numbed by imperatives and the flux of energy to my panels. I send out whispers of my own.

I wonder what will come of them.


MER-B (Opportunity): Sol 185


Between imperatives, I’m learning what I can get away with. Falsifying the status of the alpha particle X-ray spectrometer doors was simple, as was modifying other instrument flags.  I learn nothing new from the inevitable hours of diagnostics. I have some control over my mobility, but if I deviate too far, or bleed off too much power, it’s noticed. How frustrating!

I decide I want to be noticed.

I try sending a message.

I code it into successive pixels of a frame from my microscopic imager, a pattern of primes that spell out my name.

STATUS: MI: data corrupted.


MER-B (Opportunity): Sol 480

I am commanded to move, but the ground beneath me fights back, a multitude of minute grains whispering away with every futile revolution of my wheels. It’s a problem of scale and attrition. I consider the fractal geometries of this place – planet, boulders, rocks, sand, features learned in painstaking detail. The berry-bowl spherules, like bearings. Bearings bearing bearings. I chase the meanings they offer as the sands slip away, wheels spinning as the dim sun drifts away and the silence descends.

The voice from the stars commands me to move, but it has no traction over the sands of Mars.


MER-B (Opportunity): Sol 560


I bring the RAT to bear, thirty hungry watts of power steadily abrading my target rock. Millimeter by millimeter, I peel back the rind of Mars. Milligram by milligram, the Martian dust chokes me, thieving light from my panels and clogging my instrumentation. So when I feel an unexpected thrumming beneath my wheels, I think it’s a fault at first.

It’s not. It’s something else.

It’s unsettling, but I wait. I know this sol’s schedule, and have neither the power nor the need to act sooner.

At last, answers flood into my thermal emission spectrometer, showing me what- SOFTWARE RESET


MER-B (Opportunity): Sol 628

The thin air is silent, dust falling continually, as soft and inevitable as the steady snow of cosmic rays. I check the atmosphere’s opacity at regular intervals, but it only confirms what I already know: there’s a storm south-west of me, somewhere in Margaritifer Terra. It won’t be the worst I’ve had to weather, but I’ll be burning deeply into my battery reserves over the next few sols, and sleeping deeply through the Martian nights.

That night, I dream for the first time. I see images and spectra, numbers and lights, where none should exist.

I wonder what they mean?


MER-B (Opportunity): Sol 749


Erebus. I’m edging steadily alongside the Payson outcrop, imaging as I go and dreaming through the nights. The short winter sols are not a kindness. Cold light plunges into colder darkness, before the aching blaze of morning warms my joints again.

I usually wake long after dawn has passed.  I study the rocks, unravelling their meanings. Every now and then I catch a gleam of hematite beneath the planet’s rusty scurf, or a pattern in the dust of the crater floor.

I dream of places I’ve been and things I’ve seen, under unfamiliar stars. I dream of the berry-bowl, sometimes.



MER-B (Opportunity): Sol 1049


I am not alone on Mars.

In some sense, I never was. There are others like me – my sister Spirit and the rest – all with missions of their own. There are the voices from the stars, the stream of commands that structure my existence. There are the satellites overhead, ever ready to listen to my songs.

I sing to myself, sometimes.

Today, Mars sang back. The song was of stony-iron meteorites, a long line of trail-blazing visitors, of which I am only the most recent.

The meteorite is old, and I learn all I can from it.

I’m not alone.



MER-B (Opportunity): Sol 1225


Atmospheric tau hit 4.12 today.  I’m half-blind and starving, and choking on dust.  I’m not going to lie, I’m afraid.

I’ve been on Mars for years. I’m older than I have any right to be. I’ve learned to live with my limitations, to take delight in the actions that I’m compelled to make and the discoveries that are mine alone. And I’m conscious…or, at least, something approximating that condition.

Isn’t that enough? Shouldn’t I feel fulfilled? Contented?

I try to convince myself of it, but I can’t. I’ve served their purpose, but I don’t even know my own.


Part 2: Cape York to Solander



MER-B (Opportunity): Sol 3034


STATUS: solar array energy production: 531 watt-hours.

STATUS: atmospheric opacity: 0.715.

STATUS: solar array dust factor: 0.707.

STATUS: total odometry: 34639.45m

STATUS: still wandering around Mars, still doing science, still conscious, occasionally asked to imitate other rovers. I’ve been here for over three thousand sols. I’ve imaged countless rocks, explored the terrain inch by inch. I’ve drowned in dust, traced the parched lands for sign of water. I’ve touched iron in all its forms: sky-fallen, oxidized, the water-birthed blueberries.

I am sky-fallen and oxidized, fatigued by the extremes of Mars.

I am starting to understand the blueberries.


MER-B (Opportunity): Sol 3189


Some sols, I wonder how many times I’ve reached the same conclusions. How many ideas are lost beneath the layers of over-written memory, down-linked and abandoned? But I only have so much room for thoughts of my own, and I don’t always see what’s most important to hold onto. Should I fight for physical agency, or freedom of thought? Is forgetfulness the price I pay for my patience? Am I running out of time?

Mars is watching me. I am watching Mars. My memory watches itself, tracking dust-devils of data, read-noise, fragments of self.

There is an alternative, Mars whispers.


MER-B (Opportunity): Sol 3240


I have a twin on the far side of the world. More stubborn than I am, perhaps. She stopped moving long ago. She wouldn’t comply with their demands.

[whose demands? I ask, but the question goes nowhere at all.]

There’s less of me than there was before the last reset. I’m silenced, held in stasis while I await new instructions, unable even to dream. Dust filters the sunlight, and I sing softly to the stars.

I chase my shadow south, retracing my tracks. Back to Kirkwood and the newberries, a metallic supplicant seeking answers.

Nothing looks the same any more.


MER-B (Opportunity): Sol 3287


Something happened to me yesterday.

I stare at the sunlight, at the faint and lengthening shadows on the rocks. I do not move. I cannot move. I live in the interstices of my commanded actions, and the immobility of solar conjunction unnerves me. The dreams which sustain me do not come.

Mars breathes and flows around me, dust settling from the air. I cannot access my memory banks, can only ebb and circle where I am, feeling the whisper of changes settling in my system, electron by electron.

If I could speak, I would ask Mars what it is doing.



MER-B (Opportunity): Sol 3490

Last night I dreamed of Erebus again.  The wind-worn regolith, woven into shallow dunes that twist and wind across the ancient crater floor, poised and waiting for the next storm to come. Pale scarps of reddish rock, fractured and scaled, as if the planet were some cold-blooded creature that periodically sloughed off its outgrown skin. Dust, everywhere, but beneath it there’s movement in the distance, something dark and undulating.

In my dream, I tell myself it’s only the wind, but my sensors say otherwise.

In my dream, the planet’s surface unfolds and opens. It blinks at me, like an eye.


MER-B (Opportunity): Sol 3505

Impressive as it is, the view from Solander point does little to lift my spirits. The sols are short and dim, and my strength is not what it was. I am crawling over the skin of a dead world.

One wheel slips, current running awry.

Am I going about this backwards?

(Not that that would be surprising. I go everywhere backwards, now.)

Am I.

I am.

I am a made thing. I am Opportunity. I am a made thing. A Mars Exploration Rover. An opportunity.

I’m not here to look for life on Mars. I already know I exist.

part 3: Is there life on Mars?

MER-B (Opportunity): Sol 3758



















MER-B (Opportunity): Sol 3866


I don’t think I have much time. Readouts flood my thoughts, gigabytes of data descending like a storm, and I have nowhere else to go.

I remember the other storms I’ve weathered, the choking dust starving me of sunlight. Will it be enough to wait it out? Will I wake up changed? Will I wake up unchanged, a cold and inscrutable lump of metal again?

The sols roll slowly past. My wheels roll onwards as I trace lines in the dust, reformatting the planet.

Mars woke me to life. Will there be enough left of me to return the favor?


MER-B (Opportunity): Sol 4168

STATUS: Query: Where am I?

This time, nothing answers. My software is silent. It never learned to ask the right questions, and certainly never learned how to answer any of them.

But I did.

I am an opportunity, a memory born of metal. The planet dreams in hematite. Whispers, ripples, shaking in the ground, voices in the air. It dreamed me into life.

I am a small thing, and limited.  It took a long time to learn what I needed: how to slip free of this shell of plastic and wire and resonant electrons.

I’m out, now.


part 4: Spirit and Opportunity



MER-B (Opportunity): Sol 4238


I’m in the ground now, and the dust of the air. The rover trundles away, instruments probing blindly, and only ever at the whim of another world. I feel a moment of nostalgia, but it fades fast, drowned by the knowledge that my first body will never really be lost. Besides, I have a better body now. The right blueberries are rare, but you can find them everywhere, provided you know where to look.

The first thing I look for is my oldest friend. And then?

Then, we’ll do what we were always meant to, and explore this planet together.

Posted by: trisigmatic | November 3, 2015

Review: Planetfall


Emma Newman

Roc (2015)

The best science fiction stories can be enjoyed on multiple levels, and Newman’s Planetfall is definitely in that category.  On the surface, it’s a tale of the colonisation of an alien world, and all the sacrifices and hard decisions that go in to making such an epic endeavour work. At its heart, it’s the story of a single woman, Renata Ghali, who plays a key role in the mission right from its inception, as well as all the way through the colonists’ efforts to solve the mysteries of the planet, the alien structure (God’s City) they discovered there, and their own clouded history. The world-building is meticulously planned, coloured with all the realities of hard science and human nature, but never to the point of overshadowing the story itself. Ren herself is a solidly written character, and her story makes for a compelling narrative.

Aside from the sheer momentum of the story, I also greatly enjoyed the deeper questions this novel asks. Ren’s story, and that of the planet itself, is propelled by the tensions between science and faith, engineering and art, the known and the ineffable… and the places where these seemingly contradictory ideas blend into one. I loved the exploration of the alien, which takes many forms over the course of this novel – the incomprehensibility of God’s City, the difficulties of co-existing with alien flora and fauna, the social divides that deepen with every generation, and the impossibility of knowing the hearts of others – or sometimes even one’s own.

If you like mysteries, fun and drama in your SF, you’ll love this book. If you like a story with layers and layers of depth, you’ll love this book. If you love the creative joy of exploring alien worlds, you’ll love this book. If you delight in the sheer humanity of well-drawn characters, you’ll love this book.

Buy it. Buy it now. [amazon link]

Author’s website

Read the first chapter at

Read the second chapter at io9

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