The Mars Tiles

August 10, 2017 at 7:36 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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Martian_face_viking

This story ran in Eidolon magazine in 1999. My style has changed much, but I’ve resisted the temptation to ‘fix’ everything. Therefore, please consider this an ‘artefact’.

While sitting on the toilet of my rented worker’s cottage last Saturday night, I became aware of something that had been staring up at me for months. My floor tiles are not rectangles of slate. They are in fact textured photographic plates of the surface of Mars, coated with a protective epoxy resin. Though I find it more exciting to have images of Mars on my floor than common slate, I can’t imagine that the arrangement is permanent. Further, I feel strongly that my new awareness has placed me in danger.

It was late and I was drunk. To prevent the toilet from spinning, I was rocking and trying to focus. My gaze eventually fell to the floor, whereupon my disinhibition allowed me to penetrate the tiles’ disguise. Heedless of time, I stared in wonder at spectacular canyons, towering volcanoes, dry ocean beds and massive craters. The detail was incredible – superior to anything that’s been on TV. The planet looked like a raw, early Earth. But that comparison falls way short of the truth. Mars is so much more… epic. It’s maddening; the words don’t exist to describe what I saw. How can they, until we’ve been there to invent them?

At first my discovery seemed accidental. Then I recalled a prelude. I was surprised on viewing the cottage for the first time. It had just been renovated and I’d been impressed by the ancient, polished bedroom floorboards and the sheer indulgence of slate through the rest of the house. I remembered thinking, ‘who lays slate in their lounge, kitchen, bathroom and toilet – especially in a rental property?’

Then there was my criticism of the renovations after moving in. They’d looked fantastic during the agent’s tour, but fell apart under scrutiny. Doors had been badly rehung; the paint had drips and bristles and many floorboards were cracked, pitted and badly filled. Shabby work; except for the tiles. They had been immaculately laid. The other renovations seemed desperately ham-handed in comparison, as if seeking to draw attention from the perfect floor.

Finally, there was the anvil. I’d picked it up at a garage sale, since it looked like the one in ‘The Road Runner Show’. While hefting it though the house, I tripped. Fifty kilos of hardened steel plummeted pointy-end first into the lounge room floor. I should say onto the lounge room floor, because the anvil not only failed to shatter the tiles, it didn’t even mark their clear coating. It actually bounced twice before coming to rest.

That my tiles are textured photographic plates of Mars makes sense of the foregoing phenomena. They have been hidden in my home. By the Americans. In a place the rest of the world will never think to look. Until it’s safe to retrieve them.

After my discovery, I began to feel frightened.

The tiles had been laid immediately prior to my tenancy. Was I their unwitting guardian? I thought back to my tour, how the agent had drawn me away from the meandering competition to say she liked me and would put three ticks on my form. Though unemployed, I beat fifteen other applicants. Had she selected me because I was too stupid to notice the plates? Or was I someone who on recognising them, would realise the importance of keeping the secret? When I summoned the courage to ring her this week, I was told she’d been transferred. They wouldn’t say where. Since then I’ve received notice of an inspection that wasn’t due for five months. They’re coming tomorrow.

Yesterday I found one of my rubbish bins smashed. The old security door I’d propped against my rear lane entrance had fallen. Yet there’s been no wind. I suspected a burglar, but nothing was missing.

It’s now Friday night – almost a week since my discovery. I’ve just spent an hour taking Polaroids of the tiles. None has come out properly, though all the lights are on. Only those taken near the skirting boards bear any resemblance to their subject. The walls are crystal clear, but there’s only black where the tiles should be. I tried to chip a piece off one of them after I ran out of film, and nearly brained myself with my mechanic’s hammer. It bounced back with more force than I’d put into the blow. My telephone has rung three times. Each time I’ve picked it up, there’s been silence. I put my answering machine on and there hasn’t been a call since. ‘Skat’, my cat, refuses to come inside.

I’m writing this because I feel too foolish to tell anybody. Reading it over I feel better, since it all sounds like crap. Dave, my best friend (my only friend) is coming over. We’ll get pissed and I’ll read him this and he’ll laugh himself silly. The night is very quiet. A van has pulled up; I can see it through the gap in my curtains. White Mitsubishi: nothing threatening about that.

Ah, here’s Dave, running up my stairs. I’ve got to go.

*********

They say I look good for 35.

I’m 31.

Still, I know I’ve been here a while. I have injection scars on both arms. I’m fatter too.

Dave came to see me today. He’s still my best mate. I couldn’t help myself – I had to ask again what happened, even though it meant loss of privileges. They had him out of the booth before I’d even finished my sentence. Poor Dave. He only ever gave away that one morsel when he first saw me here. He was rattled and I was together enough to exploit that. I’ve never hurt a living creature in my life. If there’s only one thing I know for sure, I never touched Skat. I saw the look in Dave’s eyes though. He believes them, whatever they told him. The Americans. So why does he keep visiting?

Maybe he feels guilty about living in my old house. It’s all open plan now, apparently. The owner gutted it after the fire. The floor’s been carpeted. Whacko; it’ll be warmer in winter.

I get ‘New Scientist’ in here with the staples removed. The other month they ran a Mars special. I leafed through it till Mills snatched it from me to make hats. I didn’t bother chasing him. I’d seen all the pictures before.

I look forward to bath time. They let us lie as long as we want. Until the water gets cold if we like. I enjoy floating and staring at the ceiling. Just the other week, I noticed patterns in the flaking paint above me. I thought I saw a huge blueprint, covering the whole room. I have a theory, but the ceiling’s too high for me to test it. I’m going to have to wait until one of the paint flakes falls. This will be difficult, since I only have a bath every third day. So I’ve decided to map every flake. I’m going to start soon. That way, I’ll see if any are missing each time I come here. If I wait long enough and no paint flakes fall, I’ll know they’re not really paint flakes. Then I’ll find a way, somehow, to get up to that ceiling and find out what’s really going on in this joint.

Pic by NASA.

Brought to you by Imagine Day the book.

 

 

On spec

August 9, 2017 at 9:06 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments
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Eidolon

 

Long ago, but not very far away, a young man wandered with scant purpose

through Melbourne’s CBD.

He happened upon a bookshop (now gone) specialising in speculative fiction.

In its window was a handsome periodical (now defunct) dedicated to same.

The man was young enough to vow – and mean it – that one day his writing would appear

in that magazine.

In rather less time than anyone expected, this dream came gloriously true.

Twenty years on, the same man writes

to remind himself

why he is here.

And what he can achieve

if he follows his dreams to

the end.

 

Brought to you by Imagine Day.

 

 

 

Seeing red

February 23, 2016 at 5:19 am | Posted in Short Story | 6 Comments
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Spin to win.

Spin out.

Guy and Jock were catching up over coffee.

It wasn’t real coffee, because they were 58 million kilometres from Melbourne.

And it wasn’t a real catch up, because they’d spent four years in training, 252 days on a dummy Mars run in a dummy spaceship and 126 days on a real Mars run in a real spaceship.

To say they knew each other well was a gross understatement. They weren’t merely used to living cheek by jowl, they were virtually in each other’s DNA.

Despite the best efforts of mission psychologists to match personalities, such extended intimate proximity can make a person twitchy. So double macchiatos halfway to the Red Planet were a no-no.

Jock looked down at Guy over his nano-wafer sippy cup. ‘So, how’re they hangin’, Man?’

‘Oh, you know,’ replied Guy with a shrug. ‘Same same.’

‘No shit?’

‘No shit.’

A single sphere of brown fluid escaped the straw. Jock trapped it in his meaty hand and mashed it into his mouth.

Guy watched him, noting that this was the seventy-seventh time he’d seen his crewmate do this. They really needed to upsize that cup for Jock’s big, coarse face. He took off his glasses and cleaned them on a napkin floating beside him. ‘How’s that video game coming?’

‘Finished.’

‘Already?’

‘Yep.’

‘That was quick.’

‘I’m getting better.’

‘How many’s that, then?’

Jock looked listlessly around the tiny dining quarters and sighed heavily. ‘All of ’em. And some of ’em twice.’

The geoscientist registered mild surprise. ‘You have come a long way.’

‘Yeah. But what am I supposed to do now?’

‘Shall I ask Control to send you a new game?’

‘You told me yourself; we’re too far gone. The files are too big. We can only receive text now – remember?’

Guy brightened. ‘Ah, yes. But that’s OK Jock; I’ll get them to send us more books!’

The flight engineer glowered. ‘You know damn well I hate books.’

‘Yes, but under the circumstances … ‘

‘Forget it. Always have and always will. Hated ’em.’

‘But what about that moon murder mystery? You seemed to like that.’

‘You read that to me in training. When I was sick.’

‘And?’

‘The drone of your voice sent me to sleep.’

‘Ah yes,’ said the smaller man. ‘How could I forget?’

The pair lapsed into silence. Guy began to look thoughtful. After a while, Jock noticed. He crushed the sippy cup to the size of pea and flicked it expertly into the reconstitution unit. ‘What’re you thinking about?’

Guy looked up quickly. ‘I was wondering if there’s any book you’d read.’

‘You mean apart from equipment manuals?’

‘Yes.’

‘You mean, read a book … for fun.’

‘Yes.’

‘No way.’

‘No?’

‘Never.’

Guy rotated pensively. ‘But what if there were one book.’

‘What sort of book?’

‘A murder mystery, set in space.’

Jock stretched his broad arms, which no amount of weightlessness had been able to atrophy. ‘Did we not just have a conversation about such a book?’

The cleaned glasses glinted. ‘Yes, we did. But what if this book were set in our spaceship?’

‘This one we’re flying in right now?’

‘Yes. Would that interest you?’

The broad arms folded. ‘A murder mystery.’

‘Yes.’

‘On our ship.’

‘Yes.’

‘Who gets murdered?’

‘Me.’

‘By whom?’

‘You.’

‘Why?’

‘Because I set you off.’

‘How?’

‘By bugging you about a murder mystery.’

Jock frowned as his brain caught up. ‘Not much of a f*cking mystery, is it?’

‘That depends’ said Guy.

‘On what?’

‘Whether you’ve noticed.’

‘Noticed what?’

‘The fact that I’ve been writing.’

‘You’re always bloody writing. You send the damn emails.’

‘Do you know what’s in those emails?’ Guy’s eyebrows arched.

‘No. Nor do I give a shit. I do every bloody thing around here and you send reports about it.’

‘So, you wouldn’t know if I’d been writing a book on the side.’

‘Have you?’

‘Maybe.’

‘And why exactly would you do that?’

‘That’s the mystery!’

Jock propelled himself to the snack machine. Not because he was hungry, but to break the annoying patter. He grabbed a tendy sandwich at random. Curried egg. Not his favourite. But he munched into it just the same. He glared at Guy through big bites. ‘Are you trying to tell me that Control have been happy for you to write a damn book instead of doing your work?’

‘Maybe they don’t know. Maybe I’ve done it during your sleep cycles.’

‘But they log every keystroke. What’re you writing it on – toilet paper?’

Guy paused, as if contemplating whether to proceed. ‘What if Control were in on it?’

‘In on what?!’

‘The novel.’

Jock laughed shortly. ‘Bloody hell, Man; have you been sniffing the coolant again?’

‘What if Control said it was OK for me to write a novel to entertain you when you ran out of computer games?’

‘Entertain me?!’

‘Yes.’

‘But why?’

‘To stop you thinking murderous thoughts.’

Jock stuffed the last of the sandwich down this throat. ‘Mate, if you keep this shit up, I’ll have more than murderous thoughts.’

Guy smiled. ‘Maybe that’s the idea.’

‘Oh for f*ck’s sake; are you deliberately trying to wind me up or what?’

‘Easy, Tiger; we don’t want to reach the climax too soon.’

Jock screwed up his face. ‘I really wish you wouldn’t use that word.’

‘It’s a literary term.’

‘Yeah, well keep it up and you may just climax on your own pancreas.’

Guy laughed heartily. ‘That’s very good, Jock. Do you mind if I use it?’

Jock pushed himself from the table towards the VacuJohn. ‘I’ll give you something better than that, Guy.’

‘What?’

‘The murder weapon.’

‘Really? What’s that?’

‘This dunny.’

‘How so?’

The flight engineer opened the cubicle door. ‘I estimate that, with a good seal and enough pressure, I can get your eyeballs out of your skull, down this chute and into the hydroponic radishes in time for dinner.’

Guy’s smile wavered. ‘That’s very … specific, Jock.’

‘It is.’ Jock gazed at his hands – opening and closing. ‘But I’ve been thinking about it.’

Gif by Lookang.


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