Jasmine at rest

IMGP5962I’ve been on holiday and had a thoroughly relaxing time. So relaxed in fact that I have not done any writing, which is unusual when I am holiday. There’s been lot’s to do like reading and walking and gazing at the glorious views and lying on the sand with my eyes closed listening to the waves and watching the sunset (not the sunrise – haven’t been up early enough). It has been lovely just being. We have kept up to date with the news and there have been plenty of emails to delete every day but for once we have just not felt like bothering. I know that getting home will change all that but perhaps this feeling of “let it be” will continue. We have decided one thing – that I must do more to market Jasmine but how remains to be seen.

To fill in the gap, here is another of my older short stories. This one is fairly recent. I wrote it as a test to see if I could write an SF story based on an article in a random edition of New Scientist. The trouble is I am not sure how fictional it is or how far into the future it is set..

Potential for Evil

The room I was shown into reflected the contradictions of the British Security Service. An antique comfy sofa and dark wood panelling denoting the history of the service while the holographic projector on the mahogany desk signalled that technologically it was up to date. The projection blinked off as I entered like a bubble bursting and the figure behind the desk rose to greet me.
‘Ah, Professor Isabella Boyle.’ He pronounced each syllable of my title and name as if making sure he wouldn’t forget it. He was tall and dark and, I suppose, handsome in a 2020s sort of way. It looked rather dated today, like the pale blue summer suit he was wearing. He indicated the sofa and invited me to sit.
I settled into the soft, low cushions, thankful that I had chosen to wear trousers rather than a skirt despite the continuing summer heatwave.
‘You know who I am but I do not know your name,’ I said, perhaps showing a bit of irritation in my voice.  I had been summoned by my comm implant which let it be known that I couldn’t really refuse but with no information whatsoever about why my presence was required.
‘We don’t go in for identities here,’ he said lowering himself onto the sofa beside me, ‘It’s an historical thing I suppose. You can call me N if you like.’
‘N?’
‘It comes after M. Now Professor I want you to watch this.’
He wiggled his fingers and the projection formed in the air in front of us. ‘Resume, rewind, start,’ he said.
I saw a planar view of some dusty middle-eastern town. There were lots of people, men, women, children going about what seemed to be their normal business. They were surrounded by a cloud of buzzing insects which seemed to hover over or near each person.  As the picture moved I realised we were following one particular character, a young man. He seemed to know where he was going as he strode through the awning-covered streets until he came to the steps of a white concrete building. It appeared to me to be a meeting place where people got out of the extreme heat to eat, drink, chat, play games and do business.  The man we were pursuing stopped, took the bag he had been carrying off his shoulder and drew out a compact automatic firearm, bigger than a pistol. He held it in one hand and started firing.  Immediately people fell to the ground, bleeding, dying. Some fled but he shot them in the back. He turned, shooting continuously, spraying fire into every corner of the building, the gun automatically selecting targets, aiming and firing without any likelihood of missing. The assassin stepped forward and our viewpoint moved with him deeper into the shadows. Many people had no escape because the exits were blocked by those who had the time to start to flee. He carried on shooting, mercilessly cutting down everyone in line of sight.
He reached the far end of the building and paused. Now as well as the cries of the dying and the incessant chatter of his gun there was another noise – answering fire from outside the building. He stopped shooting, held up his hands and exploded. The image disappeared.
‘So?’ I said looking at N, ‘an act of terrorism in some foreign town. I can see plenty of those on newsfeeds if I wish – many closer to home.’
‘Of course,’ N said, a thin smile playing across his lips. ‘Didn’t you notice anything unusual?’
I thought for a moment, ‘The point of view followed the killer. You had a surveillance drone on him. Why couldn’t he be stopped?’
N smiled. ‘It wasn’t one of ours. We hacked it after the incident. The state follows everyone over the age of twelve with flybots but while it stores the uploads it doesn’t have the AI power to analyse them in real time so they’re only good for reviewing events not influencing them. The incident happened three days ago but what was interesting was who committed the atrocity.’
I was surprised at his use of the word “atrocity”.  It reminded me of my childhood when events like we had watched were not daily events. What had happened to make an atrocity an everyday occurrence?
‘A member of a rival faction?’ I suggested.
‘Could have been. There are plenty of jihadi groups vying for the reputation of being the most barbarous. Not that this was any more deadly than many others – just a hundred dead. No he wasn’t with one of them. His home was one of our supposed allies.’  He seemed particularly gleeful by that revelation.
‘How do you know? Whichever country he originated from he could have been a radicalised member of one of these terrorist organisations.’
‘Ah, that’s where you are wrong. You see we have accessed his i.d. He worked for one of our “friends”.’
‘How did you find out?’
N smiled broadly. He was enjoying showing off. ‘We’re not as out of touch as the public sometime think. We have agents in the field. One of them managed to get hold of the bomber’s body, well, his head actually. It arrived here yesterday.’
‘So you were able to read his implant.’
‘Yes, we know exactly who he is, what he’s been doing, what porn he’s accessed, everything. Except we don’t know what this is.’  N reached into the inside pocket of his jacket and pulled out a small, clear plastic bag. He handed it to me.
The bag appeared empty until I held it up to examine closely. Inside was a bundle of fine wires, each much thinner than a human hair, almost too thin to see. Attached to the wires were slightly larger nodes.
‘Where was this found?’ I asked although I was beginning to get ideas.
‘I think it is called his prefrontal cortex – the PFC? Separate to his comm implant anyway.’
‘Why are you showing this to me?’ I asked although I was pretty sure of the answer now.
‘You’re a top neuroscientist, Professor,’ N said, beaming at me and taking care to look at my face and not my breasts. ‘We think you can explain what this was doing in the agent’s brain and what it has got to do with his actions on behalf of our “ally”.’
I took a deep breath. ‘I suppose you realise that it was connecting to the neurones in the part of the brain that you named. The PFC is responsible for our higher functions – rational thought, decision-making, that sort of thing.’ I dangled the packet in front of me. ‘This is a behaviour modification device.’
‘I guessed that. But what is it doing exactly?’
‘Ah. I would need to know exactly where it was situated.’
‘I can help you there,’ N said, and began waving his hands in the air again. A new image appeared in front of me, 3D this time, – a full colour scan of the brain. ‘You can manipulate it,’ N said.
I raised my hands and fingers to hold the image of the brain, turn it, expand it. I reached in to grasp the piece I wanted to examine more closely.  The silver neural modifier stood out from the grey brain cells.
It was as I thought. ‘It’s made him evil,’ I said.
‘Really?’ N said as if I had confirmed his own guesses.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘A couple of decades ago it was discovered that a part of the PFC was involved in giving the person the potential for evil. That is the ability to perform violent acts frequently and without emotion and be willing to follow orders and adopt the belief system of the group which they have joined. It’s called Syndrome E.’
‘Your typical jihadi,’ N said nodding.
I pointed to the image that hung in the air. ‘This part of the PFC was found to be active in suppressing the moderate, altruistic, risk-averse instincts of other parts of the brain.  It seems that someone has engineered this implant to control the function – turn the evil on and perhaps off.’
‘So it seems. Thank you Professor. I suspected as much but needed your opinion as proof. You see N stands for Neurological Section Leader.’
I was confused. ‘But why would someone do that? Why put that thing in someone’s brain?’
N smiled again. ‘It seems that our ally has decided that trying to bomb our enemies into submission isn’t working. It isn’t. We’ve known that for decades but there hasn’t been any acceptable alternative. So they’ve decided to copy the enemy’s tactic of indiscriminate brutality.  Give them back the terror. But they needed a single minded, evil assassin happy to blow himself to bits if it killed enough innocent bystanders.’
‘Would they be able to find such a person?’ I asked realising immediately that I was being naïve.
‘Of course they could. Think of the Nazis, Irish IRA and protestant militia, Serbians in Bosnia, numerous American college boys.  Every nation has its reservoir of easily led, homicidal maniacs. The problem is controlling them.  With this device the guys in charge, like me, can turn anyone, or almost anyone, into a multi-murderer whenever we wish.’
I suddenly felt cold. ‘You said “we”.’
He gave me that broad grin again, like the cat that not only had the cream but a tasty dead bird as a side dish. ‘You don’t think we’re going to let our “friends” go on with this on their own do you? The Prime Minister wants our own Syndrome E Squad a.s.a.p. and as the leading authority on neural implants you are the person we are relying on to provide it, Professor.’
‘But how will releasing our own programmed killers end the war on terror?’ I asked.
‘It won’t,’ N replied.
‘Then, why?’
‘Because it will be a damn sight cheaper than operating the current fleet of drone bombers. Now, Professor, you’re not getting moralistic qualms about this are you? Not after developing the neural implant that has connected the whole population to the internet and allowed governments and corporations into everyone’s heads.
My uncertainty surfaced as an ‘Umm.’
‘I am sure I don’t have to remind you that under the state of emergency that has existed for the last twenty years your citizenship is dependent on you carrying out your government’s, that is my, wishes.’
I had no choice, unless I wanted to be deported from my own country. Any other that took me would make the same demands on my knowledge and skills. It appeared that from now on I would be harnessing the evil present in most, if not all minds, but perhaps I would also be able to insert an off switch.
‘When do I start?’

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Inspired by Roots of brutality, Laura Spinney, New Scientist p.40, no.3047, 14/11/15

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Jasmine is busy

Here is a comment on the UK General Election. I promise there won’t be many more between now and 8th June.

Strong & Stable

I have been an avid follower of general elections since 1966, or possibly 1964 (I recall Harold Wilson edging to victory).  Sometimes I have been dismayed at the result, a few times pleased, but this year I am dreading the result as it seems a victory for Theresa May is more than just likely but a certainty. Her repeated refrain of “strong and stable” I find sickening.  For her, strong seems to mean belligerent and the ability to ignore all doubt and concern at her actions. I’m not sure we want a strong leader like that. Someone who considers themselves strong can continue on a misguided course because they have bludgeoned the opposition into ineffectiveness. Stable government is another questionable entity. Portugal and Spain had stable government from the 1930s to the 1980s, Russia from the 1920s to 1990 and now again under Putin. Erdogan wants to give Turkey stable government – his own. A government that does not have to worry about the opposition can do what it likes. It is interesting how dictators soon want to change their country’s constitution to make their own power more “stable”. Putin did it in Russia, Erdogan is doing it in Turkey and Trump has already complained that the USA constitution should be changed to allow him to do what he wants.
It seems to me that May’s decision to seek re-election (or election in her case) with apparently little consultation with her colleagues is one sign of a megalomaniac.  It took Maggie Thatcher about 8 years to achieve the staring eyes of the power-crazed despot. Tony Blair took about 6. May has managed it in 9 months.
So, yes, I am scared, wary, despondent and for the first time in my life not particularly interested in the minutiae of this election.

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WP_20170505_15_05_43_ProRight onto the main business – writing.  Jasmine is busy with her case that will be recounted in Molly’s Boudoir (Jasmine Frame 4), so here is another of my short stories. This one is SF about Mars which I wrote before I saw The Martian or read the book it is based on.

Dust

Hello Houston, Marsbase, Sally Armstrong speaking.  We have a bit of a problem.
I don’t know why I’m sending this.  You can’t do anything to help and you probably can’t even hear me since the main antenna went down.  I’m patching this through the Yinghuo and hope the ground to orbit link can punch through the sandstorm.  That’s the problem you see, this effing dust cloud.  If we’d had warning of it blowing in then Mei and Svetlana, sorry, Commander Ying and Mission Specialist Leonova, wouldn’t have set off in the rover.  But without the geostationary satellite we’re blind whenever Yinghuo is over the horizon and only see a short distance when it’s up.  How many times have we regretted the failure of that satellite? But you’ve heard all that before.

Fact is Mei and Svetlana had no warning.  They got one message through when the storm hit.  They said the dust was getting into their motors and they’d lost power.   Damned dust.   Of course we knew it would be a nuisance.   A billion years of rubbing together has made the particles so small that they get through the finest filter.  The air’s thin and the force of the wind is puny, but it blows the dust into every nook and cranny.   Mei and Svetlana will have to sit still and hope that when the storm has passed they can get the motors running again.  I don’t hold out much hope though because they’re already on the spares after their first trip.   They’ll probably have to walk back.  I just hope the dust hasn’t got into their air supply.

I didn’t feel lonely on my own until the storm started.   I think we’ve proved those psych tests were correct, the ones that showed that an all-female crew would get on better than an all-male or mixed team.  Even when the time-lag got so that conversations with you guys back home became impossible, the three of us have chatted constantly.  Now the com is silent and I’m feeling that I’m on my own for the first time; on my own, with a whole barren planet beyond the airlock.

Unless it blows over soon the main antenna may not be our only problem.   If the dust gets into our power system I’m stuffed.  The dust cloud has cut our solar power generation to zero so I’m relying on the batteries but they can only keep the heaters and air supply going for two or three days and the storm could easily last that long.   If we’re without power the mission profile says we get back in the lander and blast off to rendezvous with the Yinghuo.  I can’t think of doing that and leaving Mei and Svetlana behind.

It’s all due to this dust.  Even when you go through the scrubber you still bring the stuff into the base with you.  It sticks to everything and that’s just the start of the problem.  Your eyes and throat are sore because it’s so abrasive and it eats away at plastics.  Thing is we knew all this before we arrived; the mission was designed with the dust in mind, but nothing the engineers thought of has solved the problems.  Just as well that we’re only supposed to be here a couple of weeks.   We always knew it was a political stunt really, a demonstration of Sino-Russo-American friendship. Ha!  Nine months in a steel can, 2 weeks on the surface and another nine months shut up inside again.  That’s the equivalent of two pregnancies – what they used to call a confinement.  Perhaps that’s what makes us women the most suited to long missions.

Mind you, I grabbed the chance to book a place on the mission.  I’ve wanted to come to Mars since I was a kid in the 20s.  Then it was all doom and gloom about global warming and no country was thinking about manned space missions.  Things have changed a bit since then haven’t they.  I discovered all the old reports of the moon landings in the 1970s and it’s been my ambition to go further ever since.  Svetlana and Mei were the same.

It hasn’t been a disappointment.  How could I live without seeing the Martian dawn.  First there is the bright red haze on the horizon while the sky overhead is still black and the stars are shining. Then this small but fiercely intense Sun climbs above the crimson crags.  I’ve discovered so many shades of red since I’ve been here.  I think our eyes have adjusted to the monochromatic scenery and found variations which we didn’t see when we arrived.

Damn.  It’s got quieter all of a sudden.  The white noise of the dust hitting the dome is still there but something is missing. The air pumps have shut down.  It’s a closed system with no interface with the Martian atmosphere but, as I say, this dust gets everywhere. Time to strip the pumps down, again.  The bearings last for no time once the dust gets into them.  There’s enough air in the dome and the lander for a couple of days, especially with just me breathing, but if I don’t get the pumps working again it’s another reason for aborting the mission.  Damn this dust.

I thought Mei and Svetlana were the lucky ones as they get to do the expeditions, but leaving the base for more than an hour or so is really uncomfortable.  You’ve guessed it – the dust.  It gets inside the pressure suits and collects in the creases and seams.  It irritates like, well, a speck of dust in an oyster. After their first trip they couldn’t wait to strip the suits off.  Their skin was blotchy with allergic reaction and they were covered in tiny scratches where the creases had been.  They’re like tattoos because the dust gets beneath the skin.   Mei looked like an old Ming vase with tiny cracks in her porcelain skin.  They weren’t happy about going on this second trip but you guys insisted.  You had to have some scientific data didn’t you, to make this trip more than just a propaganda exercise, and we have to feed the Net’s demand for pictures and sensational discoveries.
Life.  That’s the big one isn’t it, what everyone back on Earth is hoping for.  Well I think people’s hopes have been built out of nothing. Even if Mei and Svetlana do make it to that strange outcrop of not-so-red rock, I don’t think it will be the hiding place of Martian life.   You weren’t really convinced either, were you, but it keeps interest in the mission alive. Now we’ve secured our future on Earth there is less interest in escaping to other worlds.  Only people like us want to get out, spread our wings, see places no-one has seen before; with our own eyes not robot cameras.  Who knows Yinghuo 11 may be the first and last mission to bring real people to Mars.  We’ve certainly proved that it will be pretty impossible to live here.

I’d better go and look over those air pumps. Want them working for when Mei and Svetlana get back.   If anyone is listening, Sally Armstrong signing off.

Hi Houston, Sally Armstrong here.   I’m in the lander, setting up the launch countdown.  That’s if the dust hasn’t buggered up the systems like it did in the dome.  Still no sign of Mei and Svetlana.  The storm blew over yesterday after two whole days. They had to make it back by now because they only had air for three days.   I’m trying to save power and air so that I can wait till the last moment before blasting off but it’s getting cold and my chest is starting to hurt.  If only I’d been able to get those pumps going again, or the solar cells.

I went outside after the storm.  It was against protocol with the other two still away, but I had to try.  The effing dust had etched the panels so that they were opaque and corroded the connectors.  No hope of getting any power.   While I was wasting time trying to fix the main antenna a seam went on the dome.  Dust particles burnt through the seal.  The internal pressure just ripped the skin open. If I’d been inside I wouldn’t have had a hope of getting my helmet on.   So I cheated death and have been sitting here since.
It’s strange the other two seats being empty.  I keep on looking to my right and left and expecting Mei and Svetlana to be there.   I reckon I’ve got another three or four of hours of air which means I have to fire the engines in the next two to rendezvous with the Yinghuo.

Half of me knows they’re dead but the other half is still waiting and hoping they’ll appear over the ridge and we’ll all be together again.  I don’t want to leave.  It’s not having to sit in that can for another nine months – I really wanted to explore this place.  It’s barren and lifeless and, yes, the dust is a bugger, but it’s new.  When I pick up a pebble in my hand, okay, I can’t actually touch it, but I can turn it over, feel its texture, its weight, and know that no one has picked up a piece of Martian rock before but us three. We have that in common.
I don’t want to go home on my own.  Not sure if I can.
The launch sequence has started.  At least the screen is telling me it has.  Come on Mei, Svetlana, I don’t want to go without you.

We’re into the final minute.  Houston, if you receive this and something happens to me I want you to know it’s been worth it.  I know I speak for Mei and Svetlana, too.  They’re dead now, I’m certain.  The dust got them, the bloody dust.  Now I’m relying on the launch systems working.
Twenty seconds.
We wouldn’t have missed this trip for anything.  Now Mei Ying and Svetlana Leonova, you will be out there forever, Mars is yours now.   I love you.
10…
Here goes.
7…
6…
5…
4…
3…
2…
1…
Oh f…

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