A Vital Resource

Something completely different – a sci-fi short story (fragment?) from a couple of months ago.

A Vital Resource

Evo felt the shutter lock behind him, sealing him, alone out of the thirty-three thousand on the Lunar surface, into Ancillary Chamber Complex 28.4 (Provisional).

Regocrete

That last part – ‘provisional’ – was his responsibility. Regulations required the final inspection for any new lunar structure, inhabited or not, to be carried out by a suitably qualified human. And it was a good regulation. The human ability to spot unforeseen problems – things that an automated inspection wouldn’t register – or to extrapolate risks based on human behaviour, was exactly what was needed. Inspection had prevented injury and waste when Evo’s colleague Johnson Mugembe had insisted the Assembly delay the incorporation of Complex 19.9a, only a month or so ago. The robot excavators had done their job exactly as programmed, resulting in a barrier of concreted regolith less than 1200mm wide between 19.9a and the adjacent 18.3 Complex, which was already inhabited.

1200mm was structurally stable and fine for the robots. But it had taken Johnson’s intuition, actually observing the interior of the excavated sphere, to realise that the narrowest point would coincide with the planned fish farm, which the robots hadn’t been told about. The chance of a breach between the spheres was still unlikely, but the severity of the damage to the colony, if it did happen, was unjustifiable. So a redesign was ordered.

This Complex, 28.4, was privately funded. It was also an Ancillary excavation, at the end of a long service tunnel on the northern side of the colony, without any close neighbours and a small chance of breach. The eight spherical chambers fitted closely into the depth of the regolith, beneath the covering layer of compacted spoil and above a spine of bedrock running diagonally through the site. The spheres would eventually have a flat, circular surface of aerated regocrete laid into their bases, creating flat, insulated floors, but for now Evo had to inspect the true floor – the internal surface of the chambers, excavated and chemically bonded into a hard regocrete by the bots. He took a deep breath and walked to the lip of the first chamber.

“I wish you didn’t have to go in there alone,” Angeline had said to him that morning, as she tightened the armpit seals of his lo-pressure suit. “Two heads are better than one.”

He had nodded. “They do send us in a pair after the initial inspection. It’s only the first time I have to go in by myself.”

They both knew why. In the case of catastrophic collapse, or a blow-out, the colony couldn’t afford to lose two workers. They couldn’t afford to lose a single able body, really, but this was the compromise that had been made. Nor was their atmosphere easily replaceable – hence the lo-pressure for the initial inspection.

At least it was light inside. Evo’s accompanying crabbot was fitted with several powerful LED lamps. A single lamp easily lit the interior of the first sphere, which was marked on the plans as an entry and administration space. Twin passages led out. Evo took the one on the left, through the series of smaller chambers, before looping round into the big chamber.

It was a beautifully simple design. They were true Bonin Balls, built with nothing more than the native regolith bonded together, self-supporting, airtight and adaptable. The spoil was mounded on top to add a dense, protective mound as insurance against meteor strike and solar radiation. Anthills, the colonists called them. And they were the ants.

The big chamber was big. A diameter of forty-five metres meant a displaced volume of almost fifty thousand cubic metres of spoil. He dialled up the crabbot’s lamps and flooded the space with bright, bright light.

One of the differences between the privately-funded complexes was the finish of the interior. In this case, the robots had polished the regocrete to a marble-like, glossy smoothness. Embedded flecks of mica sparkled in irregular constellations. Evo activated the laser-scanner and stepped back into the mouth of the access tunnel to give the space a critical eye.

It looked good.

“How’s it look, Evo?” called Lesti, almost as if she could read his mind.

“Looks good. No leaks or faults I can see. Roboys have done a good job again.”

“Alright,” she replied. “Take as long as you like. The owner’s on the line, when you’re ready.”

“Tell him five.”

“Roger, Evo. You know you don’t need to speak to him if you don’t want to.”

“Come on,” he replied. “Man paid for this lovely burrow. I can answer his questions. I won’t be long.”

He walked carefully down the steps cut into the wall of the sphere, out into the bowl, feeling like a true moon man. For, despite his wife’s reasonable worry and the real risk, he loved being the first one into these holes. For time immemorial, moon dust, rock and rough, broken meteorite debris had lain in a deep, deep blanket of silence over the surface of the moon. And then, spurred on by the distant program of an engineer, a robot had cut out this Platonic wonder, right into the regolith itself, and created a bubble, a void, an inverse planet within the body of the satellite itself. And in journeying to the moon, mankind had returned to its first homes – caves in the ground.

One patch of the lower surface caught his attention. He walked over and brought the crabbot with him. Inside the polished surface were pale crystals – much larger than the mica flecks – crystals with soft, ethereal hue of purple and faint green.

Evo sat down and reached out to touch them. The ground was cold, of course, even through the insulation of his thigh pads and his gloves. But there was something warm about the translucent clarity of green and lilac that almost contradicted his sense of touch. To see colour out of the rock itself, within all this grey, silver, slate… He had never seen anything on the moon like it.

Something worried him. He ran a quick sonar scan and found, to his surprise, that the sphere had reached hard bedrock. Beneath him would be the hard bone of the moon itself. No more regolith. But previous scans had given bedrock depth of a full fifty-five metres across the site. Someone had almost made a bad mistake. It looked like the robots had got away with it, though.

“Evo? Can you hear me? This is David Gregory.”

“Hello Mr Gregory. I’m receiving you.”

“How do my Bonins look, Evo? Will you be able to give them the go-ahead?”

“Well, you know that I’m only able to give them a first-stage approval. Following the second inspection, you’ll get a definitive answer.”

“You know as well as I do that no-one’s ever contradicted your first-stage inspection, Evo. That’s why I asked for you. I want this one to be right. If anything needs doing, you’ll be the one to tell me. I’ve got big plans. So tell me. Is it structurally sound?”

“It looks good so far. But I think I’m going to run a few lithographic diagnoses before I finish up in here.”

“You take your time, Evo. I’ll be listening in.”

Evo had been looking at the crystals, hard, throughout his brief conversation. A bell was ringing somewhere in the back of his head. Spodumene? He called up a reference chart. Prismatic, striated, pale purple or lilac. Green. Spodumene. Lithium aluminium silicate.

Lithium aluminium silicate.

He was about to get the crabbot to shave into the polished surface and confirm what he saw. Then he looked up at the sphere above him. Its simplicity. Its beauty.

“Mr Gregory, I want to ask you about your intention for the Complex.”

“A studio, Inspector.”

“What kind of studio?”

“A recording studio and concert space.”

Evo found he was grinning a wide grin. “On the moon?”

Gregory laughed. “You don’t believe it, do you? I had to pull every string I could, and then some more. They didn’t want to give me the excavators, of course. I’ve had to wait. And wait. And put up the money myself. Paying over the odds. Significantly over the odds.”

Evo knew a few people who played instruments – largely electronic instruments, considering the restriction on organic material and the near-impossibility of wooden resonators on the moon. But were there enough to justify the creation of an entire Ancillary Chamber Complex, just for the recording and performance of music?

Gregory continued. “Do you know there are fifteen violins on the moon? One of them is a Stradivarius. Three violas. Four cellos. Eighteen flutes. Do you know what that is? That’s the First Lunar Orchestra. We’re going to make it happen. Not just a little piped music into earbuds. Not just washboard and basfibre guitar. I mean music. The sort that makes your hair stand up on the back of your neck. I mean Brahms. And it’s closer than you think. Now that the Bonins are finished, we can move in and start to rehearse. This is the first chance at a dedicated space we’ve had since the beginning of the colony.”

“Mr Gregory, I’m going to get back to you. Some more analyses to do here.”

“Well, now you can look at it all in a new light. In a month or two, we’ll be fitted out and rehearsing. Just imagine it!”

Music. Evo shook his head. Maybe Gregory was right – that was what they needed on the moon. But they also needed lithium.

Yes, spodumene crystals contained lithium, along with the ubiquitious aluminium. But a few crystals themselves meant nothing by themselves.

No, the pale purple moments of glamour, beautiful as they were, meant that the bedrock beneath might be the lithium-bearing pegmatite granite that the colony had been looking for. Their earlier-worked deposits were exhausted. The demand for lithium amongst the electronic engineers was almost insatiable, and its value to the colony was hard to overestimate. Lithium meant batteries. Batteries meant power. There was no wind to turn turbines, no water running to create hydroelectricity. There was only the shining sun and the long lunar day. Followed by the long lunar night.

They had mechanical batteries – the massive, constantly-spinning flywheels buried beneath the deepest spheres. But for the everyday necessities of electric life, these ants depended on lithium.

And here he was. Evo was sat on the inner surface of a sphere dug right down to the bedrock, for some reason, on what might be the colony’s most important natural resource.

Or David Gregory’s recording studio.

It wasn’t even a decision for Evo. It shouldn’t have been. His duty was as clear as the lunar sky.

He got up, switched off his laser scanner and trotted back up to the access tunnel, his crabbot clicking after him.

“Lesti? All clear in here. Book Johnson to join me tomorrow. And you can tell Mr Gregory to prepare to take occupancy of Ancillary Chamber Complex 28.4.”


Evo returned through the airlock, through a magnetic shower intended to remove the sharp-edged lunar dust from the living quarters, out into the adjoining corridor. Once the Complex had been flooded with nitrogen wind and all the particulates shuffled into a less dangerously abrasive powder, they would do without the magnetic shower. Another of his privileges and dangers. Silicosis was a considerable risk for him, Johnson and the rest of the team.

He took off his breathing mask and skullcap, shaking out his hair. There was a public blister just down the corridor, at 27.62(b). He’d sit for a while on the bamboo-fibre bench and complete his report through the direct access. Maybe get some water. Plan the rest of his day.

Time. He had too much of it, really. With that job done, there was nothing scheduled until Johnson came onto shift tomorrow and they could re-enter. He could have rushed forward, found another qualified inspector available. But he knew Johnson. He knew how he worked. And they were friends.

It had not been like this to begin with. For the first decade, man-hours were the limiting factor in every equation. Operating remote excavators, writing software, repairing broken equipment, fabricating specific tools, making observations that robots could not be trusted with… Everything required attention and time.

Now it was the other way round. For the past five or six years, the Colony had been sliding further and further into a serious resource shortage. There was a seemingly unlimited supply of moonrock and sunlight and human time, but tools were wearing out. Aluminium could be had for the price of moment’s sunshine, but reagents, iron, complex carbohydrates, starches, water – these were another story. The greenhouses were thirsty and several thousand of the Colonists were devoted to running them at increasingly near-perfect rates of efficiency.

And yet no-one would dream of putting bamboo aside for something as frivolous as seating in current circumstances. Basfibre weave, perhaps.

Even his hair was a luxury. Just about everyone was cutting theirs short, now.

Evo wondered whether war had felt like this. Not for the fighters. But for those left behind, scrimping and saving and sharpening and re-using, to eke out what they could for the sake of some great victory. Not because they were forced, by law or authority, but out of a public and shared compulsion to succeed in one thing needful.

But if this were a war, what were they fighting for? That was becoming the question in everybody’s mind, if not on their lips. And who really was the enemy? The idea of a sustainable, independent lunar colony was no longer one that depended on stability. In fact, stasis would kill them. They simply had to keep on falling forward. But towards what?

Evo wondered whether David Gregory had found an answer.

When the report was completed, Evo looked him up. Billetted in 3.45, right on the other side of the massive network of tunnels and burrows. Currently there. About a two-hour walk. Not that anybody walked on the moon.


Chamber Complex 3.45 was an old one, split into around a hundred and twenty ‘tins’ – the first private quarters that had been built. Expanded aluminium sheeting and crumbling regofoam. Not really the place Evo had expected to find the patron of the First Lunar Orchestra.

Gregory’s quarters didn’t even have a door. Hanging up was a sheet of coarse material that Evo didn’t immediately recognise. The weave was wide and the fibres had to be at least 40 microns. It was fairly ragged, somewhat stretched, and had a discernable shadow of human grease where it was lifted aside.

“Hello?”

Evo recognised David Gregory’s voice immediately. Slightly rasping. How old was he?

“Mr Gregory? Can I come in?”

An aluminium bedframe creaked and a creased hand swept the woollen blanket aside from the doorway. David Gregory stood there, waiting for Evo to speak.

“I’m Evo de Andrada. I inspected your chamber complex this morning.”

“Ah! Evo, very nice to meet you.” Gregory seized his hand and shook it. “Is this about the inspection?”

“No,” Evo replied. “I… just wanted to meet you.”

The older man smiled. He was clearly older. His hair had greyed unevenly and his skin had a slightly desiccated look.

“I want to thank you for going in,” said Gregory. “And giving it as much attention as you did. That’s what everyone says about you, you know? In the construction division. Why, as I think I said, I wanted you to be the one to go in.”

Evo cleared his throat. “We’ll be making the second inspection first thing tomorrow. I have to warn you, we might still find something. That’s the point. Two heads are a lot better than one.”

“I appreciate that,” said Gregory. “After all this time and sacrifice, the last thing I want to happen is a collapse, or some accident. We’d lose the dome, of course, but we’d also miss this chance. This chance to make something greater out of what we’re doing here.”

Evo looked into Gregory’s little cubicle. An alumium bunk hanging against one wall. Several dusty storage boxes. A repeatedly-repaired surface suit. Not much else.

“There’s nowhere to sit other than the bunk,” said David Gregory. “Come round the corner. A neighbour of mine does noodles.”


They sat at bench and table in the passageway outside the eatery. A bowl of rice noodles in a thick, glossy broth. Evo supped at it in wonder. “Is there meat in this?”

“Apparently not. Tastes good, doesn’t it?”

He had to agree. “Delicious, Mr Gregory. I’m sorry I’ve still not really worked out what I wanted to say to you – or ask, I suppose.”

“That’s quite alright. You said you wanted to meet me. That doesn’t need to involve explicit information exchange.”

“But you made me think. When we spoke earlier.”

“About the orchestra?”

“Yes. Exactly. What do you mean?”

Gregory concentrated on his noodles. He didn’t speak for a while. Then he looked into Evo’s eyes with a new, hard gaze. A challenge.

“People are becoming hopeless, Evo. Have you noticed it? We’ve grown to thirty-three thousand inhabitant, can you believe, and for all the security and carefulness, we’re missing something. It’s not Earth we’re missing. Earth is gone to these people around us. Humankind is adaptable – almost infinitely adaptable – and we’ve adapted to this life, underground, lit artificially, living to an abstract cycle, based, yes, on the Earth day. But utterly out of touch with the surface life up there.”

“But you know why we can’t live on the surface,” began Evo.

“I do. Radiation. The temperature range. Fourteen days of darkness. The meteor barrage. Of course. But it’s not the surface itself that we’re missing. It’s risk. It’s purpose. We’re safe, here, for the first time since the colony was established. Hungry and thirsty, yes, but safe. The systems we’ve designed around us are resilient and we’ve got backup plans all the way up to our shoulderblades.”

Evo narrowed his eyes. “Why would we want a more dangerous place to live?”

“I don’t. That’s not my point. There’s enough danger here. I still surface walk. Do you know what I do? I’m in the panel maintenance team, day shift. Have been for eight years. How else do you think I’ve managed to earn enough to pay for that beautiful bubble of air? Danger money. You can’t even call it blood money. Do you know what happens when your suit tears up there? Massive depressurisation? Blood doesn’t flow. It evaporates into a red mist. There’s still danger. You know that – you take your life into your hands with every inspection, don’t you? Sidula died only a week ago, didn’t he?”

Sidula had been on another inspection team. Evo knew his face, said hello, but couldn’t claim to have known him. He’d make it back to the airlock, but a combination of lo-pressure sickness, trauma and blood loss meant that he’d lasted about six weeks before giving up the ghost on his sickbay bed.

“What I don’t see is innovation,” continued Gregory. “People are just content to do as they’re told and to eke out their lives.”

“What about this lady?” asked Evo, motioning to the woman industriously manning her wok behind them. “This looks like free enterprise and innovation to me.”

“This is survival,” said Gregory. “And it’s delicious. But what about things that haven’t been done before? Entirely new ideas? Not noodles or better ways to get power out of the sun or a replacement for lithium batteries. Paradigm shifts. I’ll tell you, ideas come into people’s heads all the time. But what makes it possible for those people to carry out those ideas? To fulfil their dreams? Where do they get that hope?”

“Brahms?”

“Brahms.”

“You don’t think that this is something for the Assembly to decide?”

Gregory laughed. “Politics is a mug’s game, Evo. I spent my first ten years trying to run this place. Rules can only change people’s behaviour, not their motivations.”

Evo had to smile at that. “You sound like Saint Paul.”

“Glad to hear it,” replied Gregory, returning to his noodles. “That man changed sides too.”

“Alright, one more question. Is there really a Stradivarius on the moon?”

Gregory’s eyes glinted. “Why do you think I wouldn’t let you sit on that storage box in my quarters?”

“You brought it here?”

“No. A Chinese woman named Xuan Xuilan brought it here at considerable personal expense, in L3. I heard of it five years ago, but I couldn’t be sure if it was anything more than a rumour. It took me three years to track it down.”

“It must be worth more than the price of the Complex.”

“I paid eighty ludo for it. And the holder, at that time, was glad to get it. Xuan died on the surface, maybe twelve years ago, as far as I can tell. Her possessions were put in storage, then auctioned off, sorted, so on. It passed through several hands without anyone really knowing its value.”

“Have you played it?”

“Once or twice. Needs some repairs. The moon isn’t kind on wood. Our dry air down here. And we’re famously short on gut for new strings.”

Evo pushed his empty coconut bowl aside. “Thanks for the soup. You’ll have a final report by midday tomorrow. And thanks for the conversation.”

“Are you a musician, Inspector de Andrada?”

Evo paused. “I don’t know, Mr Gregory. I might be. I’ve never had the chance to find out.”

Changing the World

I’ve been busy writing a new book: Write Your Own Adventure – Using Choice-Based Fiction in Schools.  It’s intended to be a teaching resource for educators who want to use the power of choice-based adventure stories to create a strong writing culture in their classes, to engage uninterested writers and to broaden children’s experience of writing.

And to change the world.

Maybe not all at once, but incrementally, in the same way that Dave Lowery changed the world when he taught me and my classmates how to write Choose-Your-Own-Adventures at Lynncroft Primary School in 1995.  Without his work, there would be no Steam Highwayman, no Words and Ideas nor any Mr Noutch in any of the schools I’ve taught in.

Teaching is a strange profession and at times it can be disappointing to see how pedestrian and predictable teachers are in their methods and philosophy.  I think this is essentially due to many of them reproducing their own schooling, which accounts for the inherent conservatism of the educational system as a whole.  But, wild-eyed and visionary though I am to many of my colleagues, I’m only trying to build a tower on a foundation that was laid in my own childhood.

Have you read Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed?  I think that’s largely to blame for my readiness to accept the responsibility, as a teacher, of changing the world by educating a new generation with a new set of values and interests – not just skills or knowledge.  It’s something I’ve played with exploring in fiction elsewhere in my Teacher on Mars novel – unfinished, obviously, or you’d see a banner atop this website urging you to go buy it online and in your local sci-fi section.

But I wish I heard more stories of teachers unafraid to do something different and to actively shape their students’ futures, rather than satisfy themselves doing a job and fulfilling someone else’s requirements, so I guess that producing this book is another part of that.

Finished date?  I’m aiming to have it done by Christmas.  Buy it for the Literacy Coordinator in your life.

Monks in Space

I wrote this piece in 2013, but I’ve had the concept since around 2004/5.  Monks in Space.  A space monastery in the Kuiper Belt.  Excellent.

The First Chapter
It was Brother Isador, returning from a baptism on a nearby asteroid, who found the drifting escape pod.  The spherical capsule had long since burnt out its distress beacon, but the polished reflective surface made a spark in the darkness that caught Isador’s attention.  As he neared it he scanned for transmissions – none.  He would certainly find nothing more than the remains of a lost soul forgotten in space.

But he didn’t.  Matching trajectory and velocity at about thirty metres he saw a movement through a tiny, trapezoid window.  Then a face.  A haggard and desperate face.  Isador offered a brief prayer of thanksgiving for the preserved life within the pod – and a prayer that he might serve his maker in preserving that life further.

He approached, programmed a tiny rocket drone to thread a cable through a projecting rung, fired it, and powered up all his boosters to begin to slow the pod’s flight. Once in the hangar beneath the refectory and with the gentleness of the abbey’s air on his cheeks, Isador and the other monks wrestled with jammed catches and an electronic lock coded in an unfamiliar script.  They opened the hatch and found a man inside, unconscious and breathing shallowly in the remnants of his thin air. He had a wasted and enervated body, lank and dirty hair.  He wore an old-fashioned suit that seemed to have been fitted to a larger, form.  How long had he been drifting in space?  Neither the pod nor he could tell the monks, who carefully carried him up to a cell and laid him on clean sheets. Continue reading

Die Ner – Rafe Castleman Reviews

I didn’t fancy eating anywhere by myself that evening. There was a crowd I sometimes spent time with, a sort of fried-egg shaped friendship group, a bit crinkly at the edge, some genuinely pleasant people in the yolk and a lot of rather shallow and flavourless trend-followers around them. But it would be more pleasant than eating by myself. Before I decided where we should meet, I had to choose my target.
Thinking about Max’s warning, I aimed without a particular play in mind. A single spontaneous review was unlikely to do a lot of damage – or boost a first-tier noticeably. But I’d heard interesting things about a place called Die Ner in Covent Garden. It was a Sahi affilliation, so I tucked the Double-Diamond away and fished out a dormant contract I played with in the name of Lucretius Segnit. He had built up a considerable celebration allowance in the last year, so I fiddled his birthday and booked a table for ten.
Antony was in the bar when I got there, drinking Northumbrian lager. We chatted about shallow social things while I cracked the shop lay and started reading the place from the inside out. Our table had been ready for twenty minutes, but the staff wanted to keep us at the bar. I didn’t mind. It wasn’t my allowance I was drinking.
Antony’s friends arrived, together with a half-Samoan skinner called Timeo and a pair of sisters I had met before. We headed to our table in the dark rear of the restaurant.
This wasn’t a gimmick eatery like Eis had been. You could actually eat ten times a week here on a Sahi grade eleven, if you knew the exchanges, but I don’t think you’d want to. They had settled their menu a good long time ago and it wasn’t going to change any time soon. To access it here all you had to do was make your personal query gesture and it slid into view on the back of your sub-dominant hand. I watched Meera and Aruna scrolling through it with their elegant, lozenge-shaped fingertips.
“What do you fancy, ladies?” I asked. “Do you want a recommendation?”
Meera cocked her head. “Have you eaten here before?” she asked, coquettish and a little rushed. She’d had a strong drink before arriving, then.
I replied with a single nod. My eyes began reading her and running a tickertape of physical stats through her rather restrained aura. Height 1654, weight 5423 + 158, plenty more. I pinched it out with a hidden fingertip gesture.
“Perhaps you might enjoy the lobster quinoa salad,” I said. “Quite refreshing. Very reminiscent of a splash of seawater over the gunwale of a speeding catamaran.” It was in my interest for as much variety as possible to arrive on the table, of course. I watched Meera scroll back up and then flare her nostrils – almost certainly to find reviews on the social bands.
Her sister was seated beside me and hadn’t looked up. “I don’t know where to start,” she said. “There’s so much more choice than I’m used to.”
I leant into her personal space. “Then cross out anything you’d have normally. Live a little, Aruna!”
She looked up directly into my eyes. Something flashed there. “Well, there’s this fricasee of porq with araquee blossom and wild rice…?”
“Why not?” I replied.
“Oh, urgh, it’s tankmeat,” she said suddenly. “How tacky.”
“Try it,” I urged. “You might be pleasantly surprised.”
She looked unconvinced.
“Try it! If you don’t like it, have mine. I’m having the turbot in whitest sauce.” The top of the menu. “You can try both, if you like.”
She didn’t know how to take that. The invitation to actually eat off my plate… perhaps it slightly revolted her, as it would so many. Yet at the same time there was that transgressive playfulness. She was a couple of years younger than me and much more used to conventional eating habits. I was sure that she had never needed to scavenge behind eatery waste-chutes to quieten a churning stomach.
“Why not, then?” She gave a flick of her rather spectacular hair. “Four-score years and ten is my lot, after all.”

The food came. It was good, unspectacular, the service unobtrusive and convenient, the wine I had chosen was drinkable and not extravagant. But the dessert posed a problem. As the waiting staff brought out the new dishes, something caught the edge of my attention. A scent. I had ordered a dish of pickled pears – something I had never eaten before – and it came, quite beautifully presented on a heavy cut-glass plate, garnished with tiny sprigs of mint in flower. But there was a taint in the flavour, even before I put it in my mouth.
I had stopped chattering and bent over the food to really smell it. Filling my lungs and dialling my nasal diagnosts to maximum sensitivity, I tried to identify it. Was there a hint of raw meat in this? A contaminated board, an unclean knife, a stained wipe… Perhaps even the hands of the waiting staff… And not any meat. Uncooked… Liverish… Whale meat?
The others had noticed my change in attention and were watching me. I ignored them. Lifted a spoon of pickled pears to my lips and savoured.
Beaver. Definitely beaver. I knew it. I had eaten beaver three times. Once in Canada at a rural festival, once in Deptford in a swanky sea-themed hole and once in Milan. I had eaten the tail, the flank, the brains and the loin. If that had not been sufficient for me to gain an exact flavour profile, then nothing could. I had eaten it more times than I had eaten many tankmeats.
I was going to enjoy this.
“What’s wrong, Rafe?” asked Timeo with a rumble. “Is something wrong?”
“Yes,” I replied. “I don’t generally expect to find stray flavours in my food – least of all in a finely balanced dessert like this.”
I raised a hand in the old-fashioned way. And clicked for service.
Our tableman had been fine – so far. How would he handle this?
“Your preparation area is contaminated,” I told him. “And it is very likely that you could cause a serious reaction in someone unfortunate enough to be susceptible.”
“I’m very sorry sir. You would like something else?”
“No. Not at all. I would like to talk to your head chef. You can tell him that Rafael Castleman of the Open Menu has some advice for him.”
The tables nearby had also fallen silent now. Silence rippled out like a stone disturbs still water.
Only a few moments later – to the house’s credit – the chef arrived. He was a tall, lanky man by the name of Giroflet. I’d never come across him before.
“What seems to be the problem, sir? I understand you do not enjoy the dessert?”
I gave him a toothy grin. “No, that’s not right. I’m quite enjoying myself. And I would have enjoyed this very-well executed little dessert if there hadn’t been an awful taint.”
He looked at me quizzically, whipped a forked spoon from his breast pocket and tried the dish. “What do you taste, Mr Castleman?”
“Beaver,” I replied.
He looked at his waiter. “The gentleman tastes beaver.”
“I do,” I replied. “Distinctly.”
“It is impossible,” he replied. “I taste nothing.”
“But I taste everything,” I said, pushing back my chair. “Have you ever eaten beaver, chef?”
He disregarded my challenge. “I can taste nothing of the sort,” he said calmly. “There is no beaver in the kitchen and there has never has been and there never will be such a ridiculous ingredient while I am chef.”
“You have a contaminated preparation area, chef,” I said, “And I will be writing exactly that unless…”
“Unless nothing,” he snapped. “Unless nothing. I expected nothing less from you, Mr Castleman. Or rather, Mr Segnit. Threats. Attempts to bully and bluster and bluff your way on an empty hand. I do not even desire to know what it is you want from me. I know your ways. I know your slant, sir, your thumbscrew words and reviews. But here nothing will work. In my kitchen I have the most up-to-date volatile chamber available commercially. And if you so desire, we can take your dish of pears and combust it right now. And exactly what flavours are present, perhaps we can let everyone see.”
I had to smile. The man was going to give me exactly what he wanted. The irony was that however up-to-date his volatile chamber, it could not compete with the three Rettier diagnosts implanted in my opthalmic bulb, each running their own identification protocols on every bite that I ate, every scent that I smelt, every savour that drifted past my nose. And I hadn’t even had to ask them about this – plain, simple old unaugmented memory had done it.
“Ideal,” I said. “I see no purpose in wasting any time.”

The kitchen had been in full swing, the very middle of service, but when the chef and I entered the brigade were standing back from their positions. Giroflet marched to a glass-fronted cabinet built into the wall and remotely slid a door aside with a gesture. “You will not be familiar with such equipment, Mr Castleman,” he said with a sneer. “Typically more useful for creating than criticising, but in this instance, perhaps demonstrative.” He nodded me the readout it stood, void and green in my upper left eye, while I waited with crossed arms for him to press the button.
He did so, and in a flash of intense heat and low pressure the food sublimed straight off the dish, its molecules unaltered. Every volatile was charted, right down to the single molecule.
Not a single shadow of beaver anywhere.
I immediately replayed my own readings. The two Rettier 409s in tandem had tasted, said their memories, nothing but perfectly ripe Wilson pear, cider vinegar pickle, anethole, menthole… Nothing indicative of raw meat.
The 309 said the same – after a rapid reboot.
So how had I tasted raw beaver?
The chef was looking at me. “It grieves me that you no longer have a dish of pears to enjoy,” he said. “But if you came with another intention – not the intention to enjoy the food set before you – who am I to cross your path? Please leave this kitchen. And my restaurant. And do not try to bluff with me again.”
A security man in his uniform black had appeared from somewhere, but I had no intention of staying. Return to the table and admit I had been wrong? Return to that silent room where I had faced the chef with such conviction? When my own nose had lied to me? What was this.
“Your machine says there was no beaver in this, but if I tasted beaver then I tasted beaver.”
“I think you are over-taxing your imagination, Mr Castleman. A hysterical experience, perhaps. And if a single subjective opinion should react in such a way… Well, I dismiss it!”
A heavy hand grasped at my sleeve, but I shook it off. “Get off!” I shoved a pastry chef out of the way and headed towards the service entrance.
“You’ll think hard before publishing a review based entirely upon your imagination, I’m sure,” said the chef. “Although perhaps rather more of what you have written was made up than you ever realised.”
His tone was so disgustingly smug that I wanted to spit. I wanted to throw something with clang or slam a door. I was searching for the last phrase to end it all.
I had nothing left to say.

Eis Part II – Rafe Castleman Reviews

eis2The plan had come to me the same moment I had seen her. It was quite simple. First I had to get everybody in the place raving about it, publically. Then I had to melt all the ice-cream in the building.
Zahra Fukasawa was in fact exactly the sort of person the management would have hoped to attract to Eis. She was here spontaneously, I was sure, because the restaurant would have been unable to remain silent about such a scoop. It also fitted what I knew about her.
She was a soundscaper. A half-Iranian, half-Japanese citizen of the world who had found some celebrity a year or so previously, her art a form of dance and musical composition that turned ambient noise into rhythmic, melodic expression. It got recorded, but the thing died in captivity as surely as orcas used to do. No, to experience it, you had to be there live, or ride someone who was there.
That’s why I had known I could create a real spike. Any other celebrity of her class would have been a success for Eis, but for me, Zahra Fukasawa was the opportunity we had been looking for.
First, of course, the waiting staff identified her. Her aura was relatively discreet – not anonymous by any means, but from where I sat she had a lot less flashing around her than, say, Niki Booker-Cosens, Thought-Patterner, hiremeforyourcognitivechange, discretiondevelopmentdirection over there in the booth by the street. But there was a collective shifting in their seats from the customers and a waiter hurried out with another table and set it near the other end of the bar, one chair for her while her minder stood.
I don’t normally open my vis to the public channels for long, but tonight I needed to know what everyone was thinking. Looking around I could see updates and pops, messages and updates and status reports being published all around the room. Zahra Fukusawa here in Islington gosh you wont believe this shes here!!! @Eis with @ZahraF This place @eis just got cooler… and so on.
I was on my twenty-eighth ice-cream. Just over halfway. This one was rare Welsh lamb, served with candyfloss, a very pleasant pink and pink with a single mint leaf. In less than the time it took me to eat the single spoonful, I had created a guest account through a dummy identity on the most popular Zahra fancom, and posted that she’d been spotted in Eis and had promised to give a performance.
By the pine-corn-old coin sorbet that followed, my message was being referenced all round the room and much further abroad as well. I shot a line to Max, typing by habit into a keyboard only I could see overlaid on the bar. Get me a Zahracrowd. Fanstorm.
In the meantime, they had sat her down and welcomed her and the big minder had already turned a couple of print-hunters away. She needed to perform, not simply sit and guzzle cold dairy products.
To my left was a woman whose aura said she was thirty-one, Viki Crane, much more besides. She looked bemused by the stirrings. But she had an air about her… The air of someone who always knows more than you. I swung my stool towards her.
“I’ve got no idea either,” I said. “Some sort of celebrity, I think.”
Her eyes twitched. “Zahra Fukasawa,” she said. “The soundscaper? You must have heard of her. She won the Lit Medal last year?” The slight hesitations told me that she was reading her facts off something virtual.
“Oh, I see,” I replied. “A musician. Funny, I thought she was someone important.”
“Deeply important,” replied Miss Crane, with a shake of the head. “She’s redefining music.”
“Music’s all the same to me,” I said with a shrug.
Her need to be right was far more powerful than her sense of bashfulness. “Oh, no. If she performs tonight you’ll know that you’ve heard something special. She can turn your own heartbeat into something wonderful.”
While I was winding this woman up I was tracking Max’s progress. Already the queue outside had doubled in length and chatter on the fan sites was peaking. The problem was that at the moment, there was no way she would give a free, impromptu performance here. It would be squandering her considerable social pull for the sake of a place she had simply popped into hoping to get a little sweet supper.
So I needed to pretend to be someone else again.
I faked up a message from an address that could be Eis’s management and sent it straight to Zahra’s sponsor, flattering her grossly, describing the wonderful serendipity of the evening, such pleasure in having her come and grace the new endeavour, proposing an alliance of convenience for a limited time. In return for an ‘impromptu’ performance in house tonight, we, the management of Eis, would arrange for twentieth grade contracts for a year with SBS, our parent consort, for Miss Fukagawa, her sponsor and thirteen other nominees.
By the second spoon of the spicy marron glace ice, I had seen Zahra whisper to the manager and then stand while her table was tidied away again. She had barely had the time to take a single lick of a beautiful vanilla cone that they had brought her.
“Dear diners,” began the manager, an anonymous, large woman dressed in black and possessing a particularly fat pair of lips, “We are honoured by the presence of Miss Zahra Fukasawa, who will now perform a spontaneous soundscape. Please ensure your aural implants and augmentations are channelled to our house band.”
The room, already virtually abuzz, now really began to bubble. People were telling their relatives, making distant friends jealous, publicising eyeshots, uprating the restaurant, surfing on a virtual wave of hype even while they sat in the semi-dark on their leather bankettes. I turned to the Viki lady. “So this must be a real spontaneous thing, for her.”
“Oh, I’m sure not,” she replied breezily. “Probably a well-prepared scheme.”
“I didn’t read about it with the opening,” I said.
She frowned a moment, then thought her way to the high ground again. “Maybe it wasn’t available on your level of access.” I really had to work hard to keep my grin to myself.
“Well, this is going to be the partnership the manager mentioned at the door, then,” I returned. There was no way this woman was going to admit she had heard nothing of the sort, but a startled look in her eyes told me she had taken the bait.
In a few moments I had my next ice-cream and Zahra had finished her preparations. Diners were mentioning a partnership, maybe even a sponsorship between the restaurant where they were eating right this moment and Zahra Fukagawa herself, even as they watched with open-mouths, but my mind was elsewhere. I was researching thermostat codes.
The public lay was, as I mentioned, a seamlessly well-designed interface that allowed customers to interact with a menu, log preferences, link images, read histories and discussions and much more beside. Behind it, on a visual channel unobservable to eyes without a certain ram loaded, was the business lay, giving the waiting staff information on their customers, orders, spacial patterning, calorie consumptions and, crucially for an ice-cream restaurant, temperatures. With it I could see through the bar to the kitchen and even the stockroom. I could see the till in virtual blue above the centre of the room where Zahra was now wheeling her arms in some presumably intricate and musical fashion, see the unpaid and the booked.
But back to the kitchen. It was empty now. The three kitchen staff had come out to watch and listen to the show. The barstaff were also enraptured. There wasn’t even a kitchen porter around. I identified the access interface for the freezer, hacked it with a freely-available maintenance override ram I fed into it, and reversed the temperature flow, while leaving a trace that gave the impression of factory-sourced malfunction. Thankyou online community of freezer electricians and your well-organised maintenance archive.
I returned my attention to the room around me and even tuned in to the house band. There was a relationship between her movement in her headscarf and bootleg slacks and the complex, cross-rhythmed melodies I could hear. All around the room, conoisseurs were nodding and giving themselves little smiles of satisfaction. To me it sounded like repetitive cutlery-dropping – but then maybe that was in fact where she had sourced her basic sound palette.
People were leaning in through the open doors, then, before anyone in the rapt staff could do anything about it, trickling inside in quite an English way, not wanting to take up space they hadn’t paid for but unwilling to miss the opportunity of hearing and seeing and experiencing this music-changer at work. Her minder looked panicky for a moment until he realised they were going to follow his hand signals and keep a good distance. After all, they wouldn’t want to trespass on their own heroine’s creative space.
They kept pressing in, until my eyes counted more than a hundred standing there, as well as us. With the conditioning off – I had done that as well, of course – more factory faults – the temperature in the room slowly began to rise and the little spheres of perfect chemistry began to lose their integrity and sink into puddles of expensive custard. Not that anyone was paying attention.
I was on my forty-third when she finished. My desserts had kept coming simply because of the conveyor belt in front of me, but I was fairly confident that these would be the last frozen things leaving the kitchen that night. It was a homage to the old neapolitan, but using Brie, pink caviar and rye to mess with my expectations. Too rich, really. Or perhaps that was simply the temperature.
“Incredible,” breathed my new friend to my left. “Don’t you think?”
“Hard to believe,” I agreed. “Very hard to believe.”
Forty-four was anchovy, kalamansi and basil. Very finely balanced. I concentrated on it while I listened to the increasingly frustrated customers around the room.
I sent Max a single word.
Now.
“What do you mean, I can’t have another one? You can see this one melted while we watched your performer!”
“Wait how long?”
“How can an ice-cream restaurant not have any ice-cream?”
That was the one I had been waiting for.
Then I heard Zahra. “I thought I had been given twentieth grade,” she was saying sharply. “You think I just give my performances away?”
I got the clear from Max, then pushed myself off my stool and headed out to the street, typing on my thighs as I went, grinning like the shark leaving the empty lagoon. The review was out in eight minutes. Two minutes before Zahra Fukagawa’s sponsors filed a lawsuit against Eis and eighteen minutes before the value of SBS contracts plummeted to the lowest they had been that year.
Of course, our contract holdings were all in Cornucopia now.