a to z: invaders

Yoko Johnson set the photography drone in the centre of the quad, stepped well back, and pulled her personal device out of a hip pocket. She tapped the Send button on the controller interface, and watched as the drone lifted off the grass and flew over a stand of poplar trees.

She paused to appreciate the weather. Outside the settlement perimeter, the native Gaian grass was turned pink for the autumn, but the Earth lawn in the quad was still green, and would stay that way until winter. Dr. Johnson looked up at the gold leaves of the poplars, and mentally awarded the Gaian grass points for being better equipped to handle seasonal fluctuations.

She took a deep breath.  The air was warm enough in the windbreak of the quad, but she could sense the crispness. Maybe it was in the slight odour of sweet rot from the marshlands to the north, where the local snicker flock nested.

She sighed and headed back to the data room. The drone should have sent back some video by now, and her mapping software marked the first few positions.

Devon, her grad student, was already making notes on the screens. 

"You were right," he said. "That day we went out to rescue those kids from the snicker flock. The anemones have moved closer."

Johnson watched the plot points appear on the terrain map. "But we haven't seen one move yet?"

Devon shook his head. "Even the holes in the ground that their tap roots leave seem to fill in more quickly than expected."

"Some other creature that's part of the ecosystem, maybe," said Dr. Johnson. "They need something from the tap-root holes, and fill them in at the same time."

"Where do they get the dirt from?"

Johnson shrugged. "The next hole, I expect." She checked the data screen and frowned. "How long can we keep a drone in the air, videoing constantly?"

"Two hours, tops. Longer if we're okay with recovering it manually from where-ever it runs out of power, as opposed to it coming home by itself when it senses that it's losing charge."

"So we'd need at least twelve, more like thirteen or fourteen drones to keep a constant feed."

Devon pursed his lips. "I see where you're going with that. What about the mappings?"

"It's designed to keep up. It can even keep up with multiple feeds from different survey areas, once we're ready to do things like that."

"Do you think you can get the drones?"

Dr. Johnson nodded. "If I take this to the security council, they'll be practically forcing me to take them." She looked away from the array of screens and closed her eyes. "You know what this means."

"Means we might need to figure out how to chop down land anemones."

"No." She wheeled around. "No. It means either the scans from Earth were inaccurate, or that something evolved between us leaving and finally arriving here." She pointed at the terrain screen. "They're moving methodically, in a pattern. That indicates some level of intelligence."

Dr. Johnson stood up, tapping at her device at the same time. "Keep an eye on things. I'm going to see about arranging a meeting with the security council. They prefer to discuss the urgent things in person, and I'd count this as urgent. I can show them what's on the terrain map so far."

Devon frowned. "Those things can't have the ability to jump or climb. They can't get over the defence perimeter."

"We don't know how they change locations," Dr. Johnson reminded him. She headed for the door.

a to z: history

What gets remembered? What gets recorded?

The people who first colonised Gaia would have said, "everything", and they would have meant it. Their entire community had been recorded for generations. Even before they left Earth, the initial crew of the ship had been recorded giving eligibility interviews, recorded performing tasks needed on the voyage, recorded teaching others so they could pass the skills on to the next generation. There are thousands and thousands of hours for each person. The colony ship's storage cubes weren't even half full when the arrival happened, so important was recording to the colonists.

That's just the audio/visual/text entries. There's also all the measuring: the routine blood samples, the ID swipe required to gain access to any toilet so that the computer could note how much of what passed, and when. All food had to be checked out personally on a per-meal basis for anyone who wasn't a nursing infant — and their meals were measured too, either in time spent nursing or volume of formula consumed. Sleep was tracked. Insomnia was tracked. The amount of time spent at physical activity, spent reading books, spent watching or listening to tellycasts was tracked.

But it doesn't take too much reflection to realise how much was not recorded. There are no recordings of anyone's first kiss. There's no good way to know how often people would order different meals and then share them amongst two or more people — a common social practice impossible to disallow, no matter how much it annoyed the medical officers by distorting the numbers.

History, like cartography, must be filtered by its nature. Just as one cannot replicate a coastline down to the last pebble, one cannot record absolutely everything about even a single person's life, never mind the lives of hundreds.

That leads to the second problem: a filter distorts. Even making things sharper or more to-the-point is a distortion. And sometimes important details get thrown away as noise or mess.

Thus the idea behind Gaia 8: A People's History. The hope is that by letting all the messiness hang out, so to speak, but presenting these little snippets, people can learn more about the history of the colony and and the voyage that led to it.

The Gaia colony celebrates its 1,000th anniversary next year. There will be celebrations, but also reflection, and political decisions. All the more reason to look back — so that we know which way to move forward.

a to z: generation ships

Earth Colony Ship 8 didn't completely shut down for years after the arrival on Gaia. It served as a machine shop, factory, laboratory, and community media hub long after the colonists had settled a village around it.

Most notably, it served as their communications array until they could mine enough ore and gather enough resources to build a planet-side one.

After Captain Sorensen's discovery of the mysterious text-based message, they'd switched to reception only for interstellar-strength messages. There had been some initial worry over "them” finding the colony. Eventually that waned, to be replaced by a new worry: that they were the only ship that had arrived safely.

There were a few different lines of thought about the warning message. There was a conspiracy theory that malevolent forces had sent the message, but this was largely dismissed. Many simply took it at its word. Some worried that “they” had found more than one ship.

Thirty-five years after arrival, the interstellar comm array was one of the few things left on the ship still being put to practical use. Several of the decks had been converted into a museum. The bridge wasn't checked at all unless an alarm went off.

And then the message reception alarm did go off, twice, within a few weeks.

Unlike the earlier message, these had both audio and text attached to them. The first was from Ship 3. They'd arrived, but their target planet was swampy, overheated, and had far too much methane in the atmosphere to allow human life to thrive. The message ended with a note saying the crew intended to try to terraform a nearby moon with a thin atmosphere, but they didn't sound optimistic.

The second message came from Ship 9, and was nearly unintelligible, because the man leaving it was sobbing. Somehow the ship’s sensors had missed a piece of debris coming at it. The hull was breached, and enough of the main engineering area destroyed that the ship was disabled. Life support and the comm array were the only two systems permitted power;  when they ran out of energy, everyone on board the ship would die.

Had died. It had taken years for the message to reach Gaia.

After much debate, a short acknowledgment message was sent to Ship 3, deliberately worded so it could be plausibly misconstrued as an automatic message, as opposed to proof of life. No response ever came back.

The Gaians slowly realised that while they may not be alone in the universe, they were probably the only living humans.

a to z: food

Most of the occupants of Earth Colony Ship 8 spent the final descent to the Gaian surface pressed up against the portholes, getting their first glimpse of a planet, any planet, up-close for the first time.

Declan Oliver spent it staring at a tomato plant.

The colony ship’s artificial gravity worked to balance out the rate of deceleration, the increasing pull of Gaia’s natural gravity, and the atmospheric friction, but there were fluctuations where the compensations ran slightly behind the data. Declan could feel his own body getting pulled towards the floor, or the slight floaty feeling when his bottom was only just in contact with the bench he was sitting on. The tomato plant's fronds reacted in kind, dropping towards the soil or reaching towards the ceiling, like it was doing a very slow ballet specially choreographed for members of the plant kingdom.

A dull roar that Declan felt more than heard announced that the retro rockets were fully engaged. He checked the watering can set on the floor between him and the garden pod. The water’s surface remained level, which most likely meant all the rockets had fired and that the ship would be able to land on its feet.

He made a mental note to empty and stow the watering can before the post-landing inspectors came around. All loose items were supposed to be secured, but he'd wanted to have some idea of what was going on while he observed his plants.

The downward force was building up. The tomato’s fronds were nearly parallel with its main stalk. Declan felt like he was rooted to the bench.

And then, just when it felt like something was wrong and it would never stop, it did. Completely. He let his ears ring in the new silence. He'd never realised how much he'd taken the growl of the great engines for granted. His skin felt strange, and he realised he'd been vibrating, however slightly, his whole life.

In a few days he'd have to add air, water, and soil analysis to his regular gardening tasks, figuring out how much work it would be to coax the vegetables into growing in Gaian soil. The initial scans from orbit had been promising — nothing a little compost and manure couldn't fix — but he and everyone else on his team wanted to check things out in person before starting any experiments. In the meantime, the solar panels on the ship's surface would be deployed, converting Gaian sunshine into something more closely adhering to conditions on Earth.

The conditions that used to be on Earth, anyhow.

The tomato plants had gone through many more generations on the ship than the humans had. A big concern in the agricultural team was that the plants had adapted a little too well to the ship's garden ecosystem, that they'd be reluctant to grow in open air again.

Declan eased himself off the bench and carefully observed the tomato plant from as many angles he could manage without touching it or the soil it stood in. He grimaced. Plants preferred to move themselves slowly, if they had to at all. The next few days would tell him and his team how resilient they were to the shock of the landing process.

“Whole new garden out there,” he said to the plant. He picked up the watering can and made his way to the sink.

a to z: earth

Sometimes they would climb to the top of a building that was still mostly standing, just to enjoy the view. Those were good days. It meant the weather was clear, that the hunt had been successful the day before, that there were enough people at the encampment to take care of everyone who was sick and more besides.

They would stand on the ruins, still populated with ancient office furniture no-one had bothered to scavenge yet, and look south to the large lakes glittering below in the sunlight.

She was the first one to notice the old shoreline, maybe the third or fourth time they climbed the cement staircase. "The three lakes," she said. "They used to be one great lake. Look." She pointed out the edges with her finger.

"It doesn't matter now," he said.

"Of course not," she said, tucking her hand under his arm. An act of contrition. It was against their ways to piece together the past. In their grandparent's day, anyone trying to "avoid living in the now" would have been stoned to death.

"Those hills," he pointed out a series of high grounds forming a crescent shape between them and the home camp, "I'd like to hunt there tomorrow."

Those used to be islands, she thought. She praised his hunting prowess and agreed they would be worth the effort to climb.

"Perhaps we should return to the encampment now and rest," she said. "So you will have lots of energy for hunting tomorrow."

"Perhaps," he said, but he pressed her arm against his ribs, and she knew he would want to have sex first.

They went to the hills at dawn the next day. He walked ahead with the weapons; she walked behind with the rest of the gear.

He was pleased to find there were even more trees than had been apparent at a distance, and more pasture too, but they found only small animals living there: mostly cats and chickens. He thought he spotted a rabbit just before it went into the bushes, but they were too far away to tell.

They only caught one chicken. Chickens were prized, but didn't have the prestige of bagging a deer or a horse.

She could tell he was working himself into a bad mood over the hunt, and suggested they explore the catacombs in the old city for a change.

The people of the encampment called them "catacombs" because they were underground and stacked with old skeletons, but it was clear that wasn't their original purpose. There were brightly-coloured hangings with markings on them, similar to what they found in the carefully stacked and bound papers. And below the hangings... she thought it looked like it was for medical aid, or even food preparation. Nothing she could mention out loud of course.

The flesh had rotted from the skeletons long ago, but sometimes bits of the clothing remained. Some of it looked like it had once been brightly coloured, like the hangings, and made of similar stuff — that weird crumbling not-glass not-stone found throughout ancient ruins.

They'd walked farther than the sunlight could penetrate. Some of the ancient material was shiny and reflected light further inside, but it was too dark to make anything.

"We should turn back," he said. "If there's anything worth eating in here, it will just be rats or raccoons, and who knows what they've been feeding on."

"Wait," she said. "There's more light up ahead. See it?"

"Well of course I see it," he said. "I just mean there's no hunting in here." He sighed. "Stay behind me."

As they moved closer, it became clear the light wasn't the pale gold of the sunlight outside, but a blue-white brightness, stronger than the daylight.

They walked into an atrium surrounded by raised pods filled with dead vegetation. The blue-white light seemed to come from high above, even though when they looked up they couldn't see the sun.

And in the centre of the floor there was a panel, also lit up, surrounded by that yellowing not-glass.

The same types of markings appears on the panel as were on the hangings, as were on the papers. But the panel was making noise, too.

"It's connected to one of those black energy panels," he said. "Old magic. We should leave."

"Wait," she said. "Is it saying something?"

"Live in the now," he growled.

"This is happening now," she said. "Listen."

It was hard to make out, the pronunciation was so odd, but she was right, it was saying something.

"Earth Colony Ship 8, reporting successful landing on Gaia. Atmosphere, water sources, temperature range all compatible. I repeat, all compatible. Ship 8 reporting arrival, safe and sound."

"So strange," she breathed.

"We leave now, or I'm telling the elders," he said.

She blinked, nodded, and followed him back down the way they'd come.

The panel repeated its message.

a to z: drift

Earth Colony Ship 4 was supposed to arrive at its new world in about twelve lifetimes. Accounting for inertial drift, getting knocked off-course by space debris, and whatever the event was, the investigators figure it got about two-thirds of the way there.

The robot probes from Gaia-8 nearly missed it, because the majority of their scans were for lifeforms, or at least carbon masses that used to be lifeforms. Colony Ship 4 has none. Not so much as a carrot stick forgotten at the bottom of a food storage unit. No humans, no livestock, no pets, no garden plants, nothing. Every last scrap of organic material has been stripped. Even items like leather shoes and cotton clothes are missing.

What's not missing is evidence. There's plenty of that. The robots were able to sample enough to confirm several things. The stains found all over the bridge, engineering, and the arboretum? The rumours are true. It's from human blood. Whatever happened, it was violent.

The story about the DNA catalogue is true as well. There's one signature that doesn't match any known species, and no-one's been able to piece out what organism owns the genes because... they're not quite genes, and the sequence isn't quite DNA. It doesn't match the genome structures of local life on Gaia 8 either.

As absolute as the removal of all organics was, the ship itself was left completely intact. Those spooky shots of Ship 4 drifting in space with all the interior lights on are not from a special effects rig. One of the robots took video of a bathroom tap left on, water endlessly running, going down the drain, and filtering through the grey-water recycling, working perfectly. You'd expect a bloodstain to be nearby, but there's not. Instead the closest one is three hatchways down, inside a utility closet. As if the sound of the running water was meant as a decoy but ultimately failed.

Elsewhere, on the residential decks, the robots found music and video players still playing. Education screens stuck on quiz question #5. Plates with all the food removed, but still in cooker modules.

Back on the bridge, a sign that some of the crew at least had had time to react. The cover of the communications panel pulled off and discarded on the floor, several bootprints visible on it. The clear shielding set over the controls. And a single, text-only message, obviously composed with the understanding that no other colony ships would receive it until they reached the end of their own voyages and sent their arrival signal:

STOP TRANSMITTING NOW OR ELSE THEY'LL FIND YOU TOO

 

a to z: communication

"It's protocol." Captain Sorensen held up her comm device, but didn't break eye contact.

Jason tried one more time. "But won't it slow down setting up the shelters and the defence —"

"It's protocol, Ensign. We've got plenty of people to help with the other things. Worse comes to worst, the ship's the best fortress we have. There's not actually any rush on anything except for trying to contact the other ships."

"Yes Captain."

"I want to get on the surface as much as you do. But we need to make sure we tidy up here. Do things right. People will need structure more than ever right now." Captain Sorensen turned away and tapped at the screen of her device.

Jason turned to the communications control panel. It had been hidden under a cover for decades, not available for use while the great generation ship 8 voyaged through space. The engineers who had built the ship back on Earth — the ancestors of everyone now on the ship — had decided to make the room to include a powerful comm array, one capable of reaching the other nine ships in the colonisation fleet. Capable even of communicating with Earth, if there was anyone left on Earth to communicate with. But the array used a lot of power, far more power than a ship on a multi-generation, interstellar flight could spare.

The panel's cover had always been used as a table, a handy empty space in a crowded bridge. Now the cover was stowed in the captain's cabin for lack of anywhere else safe to put it.

Jason studied the buttons on the panel. Unlike any other set of controls on the ship, the labels on this one had never been replaced. He squinted at the unadorned, old-fashioned printing, and hoped he wouldn't miss out on any steps in the procedure.

There wasn't anywhere to set down his own device. He decided to hold it in one hand while he pushed buttons with the other. Maybe it would help him be more accurate.

He verified the status of the ship's solar panels on the device, and the power availability. The checklist put the information right beside the procedure description, so at least he didn't need to do anything there.

The next step was to press a series of buttons to open the port that protected the dish array, and deploy the dishes. Normally it was the sort of thing that would be automated and fully under the control of the ship's computer, but the engineers had decided that since the comm array would sit dormant for over a hundred years, it made sense for a human to walk the machinery through, one step at a time. That way, if anything wrong happened, it would be easier to abort the procedure and call in a repair team. When they were finally available, thought Jason.

The parts involved had been checked during the post-landing ship inspection, but they moved slowly, stiffly. Jason remembered something from his training, something about how they'd been designed that way in case the atmosphere was denser than expected. Of course, if it were too dense he'd have been sending a distress call — which, unless at least one of the other colonies were very well settled, which never reach the Gaia 8 colonists in time.

Jason stared out the porthole over the comm panel while he waited for each step to complete. His fellow colonists were walking around in the pale red light of early evening. He was too high up in the ship to be able to see their expressions, but every once in a while a few of them would run for a few steps, or dance. He reminded himself he would be doing the same soon enough and pressed the next set of buttons in the sequence.

Finally. The array was powered up and arranged to transmit to Earth and the calculated locations of the rest of the fleet. He dialled through the selection of pre-recorded messages and chose the "arrived safely" one. He pressed the "send on repeat" button and turned on the alert for responses.

The comm panel had a second cover, a clear one that protected the controls from being pressed accidentally, but which let bridge crew see the settings and the status of the array. Jason set it down carefully and locked it with his palm print.

The Captain was on the other side of the bridge, double-checking the navigation controls were powered down correctly. She glanced up as Jason approached her. "All done?"

Jason nodded. "According to the controls everything is working and we're transmitting."

"Good." She indicated the forward viewport with her head. "Now get out there and enjoy the last of the sunshine. We'll have to lock down for the night soon."

Jason smiled, thanked her, and left the bridge. Sorensen could hear him running down the corridor towards the entrance ramp.

She walked over to the comm station. They wouldn't be expecting any responses for weeks, but given Jason's impatience she didn't think a little double-checking was out of order.

The response alert light was already blinking. She sighed. He must have missed something in the checklist. Probably the ship had responded to itself.

To her surprise the message was text-only, not the text-and-sound default. Frowning, she palmed off the lock and lifted the protective cover, then pressed the button which sent the received message to the nearest display screen.

STOP TRANSMITTING NOW OR ELSE THEY'LL FIND YOU TOO

 

 

 

a to z: beasts

When Aïsha was eleven and her brother Roger was eight, they decided they were going to capture a snicker and make it a pet. Snickers were the cat-sized, flying mammal-type species that nested near Gaia's human habitat. They nested in triples — a male, a female, and a third sex the scientists were still arguing over — and they lived on the rodent-sized, reptile-type creatures found all over Gaia. Even though they were a common species, they were wary of any creatures not of their kind, including humans, and tended to scatter if they saw anything approaching. Zoologists spent a lot of time trying to come up with a blind, or even a photography drone, that wouldn't scare them away.

Aïsha and Roger didn't care about zoology. They just wanted a snicker as a pet.

To that end, they'd come up with a way to get past the perimeter gate, decided on which gear they'd need to borrow from their parents' shed to catch and hold a snicker, and plied the communal knowledge base's search engine with questions about what snickers ate, and what they liked to sleep on.

They'd also manufactured a story about how they were researching snickers for school in case their parents asked about their search histories, but since studying snickers didn't set off any of the content control alarms, their parents never asked.

Even though the nearest snicker habitat — a marsh with several nesting triples — was to the north of the human settlement, Aïsha led Roger to the southwestern gate. There was an apple orchard near the gate, and they took photos of the trees for a few minutes.

"Mama will like the pictures of apple blossoms for her calendar screen," said Aïsha. From a distance the position of her head made it look like she was addressing Roger, but she was watching the gate scanner. "Let's go home."

"Okay!" said Roger, and he ran towards Aïsha. He pretended to trip on a tree root that wasn't there, went sprawling, and burst into tears, clutching his shin and screaming.

"Are you okay?" The scanner's blue lens stopped sweeping the area in front of the gate and angled itself in Roger's direction, trying to get a visual.

"Call a medbot!" said Aïsha. "I'm not big enough to carry him to an infirmary!"

"Just a moment," said the scanner, and its lens receded into the wall.

Aïsha helped Roger up, and they ran to the wall beside the gate. As the scanner extended from the wall again to resume gate checks, they slipped into the doorway and through the gate, behind the scanner's line of sight.

"You were telly good at that," said Aïsha. "You even scared me."

"It's nothing," said Roger, but he held his head a little straighter as he ran to catch up with his sister. "I just copy the footballers on those old videos Mum likes to watch."

They ran along the path the zoologists and botanists had established for their work. Every once in a while, a lizard-mouse would scurry across the path in front of them. On either side were tall grasses, pale pink as they lost their chlorophyll for the winter. There were giant land anemones within sight too, rooted things that swatted flying creatures out of the air and stuffed them into their open-topped trunks for digestion, but they were too far away from the path to be dangerous.

Roger froze and stared as a land anemone swiped at a particularly large salamander bat and expertly knocked it into its feeding orifice. "We should go home through the next gate."

"We'll get in trouble if we do that. There's a plan, remember?"

The salamander bat raised a paw, one wing, and its head from the anemone. The anemone shoved it down again, and the trunk undulated as it swallowed.

"Come on, Roger." Roger ran on, checking for anemones and moving to the opposite side of the path when they were parallel to one.

They reached the marsh where the snickers liked to nest. Aïsha stopped several metres away, gesturing for Roger to stay behind her. She pulled a mesh bag out of her backpack, and picked up a rock from the edge of the path. She crawled forward slowly, doing a fair imitation of their neighbour's cat when it was stalking something.

Two metres before she reached the edge of the marsh, the snickers rose in a swarm, all of them making the clicking sound that had given them their common name. Aïsha ran in a crouch, threw the mesh bag over something Roger couldn't see, then stood up and walked back to him. She held up the bag.

It had a baby snicker in it.

The snicker was struggling in the bag, making a noise like an incomplete version of its parents' call. "Ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-"

The snicker flock descended on them, a tornado of brown spiny flight hairs, claws, and sharp teeth. Aïsha screamed and dropped the bag, holding up her arms to protect her face. Roger fell to the ground and curled up, nose pressed into the dirt, forearms boxed around his ears.

It felt like it was going on forever, when Roger heard shouting through his slashed-at ears. The snickers stopped attacking, but he didn't get up. He heard more shouts, and, closer, the sound of his sister whimpering.

"What are you two doing out here?" A warm hand pressed onto his bleeding shoulder, and Roger peeped up to see Dr. Johnson from the university peering down at him.

Roger stared at the zoologist's face, then sat up. A man he didn't recognise was leaning over Aïsha. "This one says they wanted a pet snicker," he said to Dr. Johnson. He sighed. "I'm guessing your family has no idea you're past the gates, right?"

"You're lucky you tripped one of the outward-facing scanners," said the zoologist. She helped Roger up. "Mostly they're just to keep watch on the land anemones."

"But they're rooted," said Aïsha, A tear rolled down her cheek and dropped onto her dress, blurring the red dirt stained onto it by the path.

"They move sometimes," said Dr. Johnson, "Part of the work is to condition them to stay away from us." She noticed the baby snicker, which lay still in the mesh bag. "That poor little thing. I guess we should take it back to the lab, Devon."

Devon knelt down and scooped up the snicker in both hands. "It's breathing," he said. "It looks like it got attacked by the flock, but it's still alive, at least for now."

Aïsha started sobbing.

"Get it to a vet then," said Dr. Johnson. "I don't think we'll be able to return it to the wild, but maybe it can have a halfway decent life in captivity." She reached out and pulled Aïsha to her. "I'll take these two home to their parents."

a to z: arrival

In the video file she's everything you'd expect of an eighth-generation interstellar captain: confident, friendly, direct, able to explain complex engineering concepts in simple terms. She has a quiet voice, but it's low and strong. Even now, two hundred years after her death, after her image and words have become ingrained into every citizen since infancy, people will stop and listen if a recording of her is playing on a screen.

The image in this particular file doesn't depict the quick-thinking leader from the historical still photos. Patricia Sorensen is past ninety in it, face wrinkled, hair white. She still wore it in the severe ponytail copied by so many. She looks and acts as if, given a ship, she would absolutely pilot a group of colonists off the planet if she were assigned the task, and complete the first-generation tasks as admirably as she completed the last-generation ones on the actual voyage.

The interviewer, offscreen, asks the questions everyone has known the answers to since they were old enough to understand. She responds with absolute certainty and clarity, every time, until — and this is why this video is treasured — she is asked what it was like to work through the final landing and power-down sequence.

For the first time in the recording, in any recording of her, Patricia Sorensen hesitates, breaks eye contact with the interviewer. She glances down the camera lens like it's the gaze of a parent figure wise to her tall tales. She visibly inhales and exhales a long, steady breath.

When she speaks again she's not looking at the interviewer sitting slightly at stage left, but straight down the lens, and those enormous brown eyes of hers never fail to make the viewer feel she's looking directly into their soul.

"It didn't feel real," she says. "We'd rehearsed it so many times. Even before I was selected for the nav team, even before I was an adult... when I was a kid on the ship, we used to play 'Landing on Gaia'. We'd all say who we were going to be — I was always the science officer, never the captain — and then we'd pretend we were landing the ship. And you know, we're kids playing," she chuckles, "so most of the time we'd invent some crisis, everything from a poisonous atmosphere to giant predatory fauna attacking the ship, and usually it would end with all of us screaming our heads off, like kids do. Then some grown-up would stick their head through a hatchway and yell at us to quiet down, and we'd giggle like mad and then spend a couple of minutes lying still, pretending to be dead."

Sorensen pauses, takes another long breath. "Kids don't play that anymore. My grandkids, they play 'When We Landed on Gaia'. When they play, everyone lives, because they know everyone did live. See, on the ship, all the kids knew we were all probably going to die. No adult had ever told us, but we knew."

"So when it was time for me to actually call out the orders and push the right buttons at the right time... honestly, I think the whole bridge just concentrated on the checklist. We knew all we could do was follow procedure. It was either going to work or it wasn't. If anything went wrong, it wasn't going to be some big dramatic panic like they show in entertainment videos, because for any possible thing that could go wrong, there was a procedure for that too. It was just like being in the simulator deck. I mean, sure, a part of me knew that this time when I pushed a button on the control panel the ship was really going to respond, it wasn't just the computer, but we'd done it so many times."

"It was like a magic spell. Reality didn't snap in until we were on the ground and had run the power-down procedure. I looked down to stow away the device I'd been using for the checklist, and I saw a sunbeam on my hand for the first time." She clucks and holds up her right hand, curled with age. "You young people can't even imagine that. Seeing how beautiful human skin looks in sunlight. I was transfixed. I nearly dropped the device."

She nods at the camera. "Sunlight, and silence. It wasn't until we were landed that I realised my entire body had been vibrating my whole life with the engines. It —" she tosses her head, laughs, re-establishes eye contact "— that took months to get over, you know. How still things are when you're on a planet."

One second, two seconds, three, and on the fourth that unafraid gaze finally releases the viewer. Sorensen settles back in her chair and pays attention to the interviewer again. "So yeah. That's what it was like."

a to z challenge: because

Peer pressure can be a terrible thing.

I've had a few writing plans for a while. One of them is to keep revising the novella a posted here as a serial a few years back. It keeps getting delayed, mostly because I keep alternating between being unwell and being overwhelmed at how much book-writing there is to do. I save all my energy for the all-important day job, and there just isn't much left for anything else.

Still and all, it's got to the point where the stress of not writing is worse than the stress of trying to write all the time. I've decided to give Camp NaNoWriMo a go, and commit to revising an hour a day. That will probably make me a bit crispy, based on past experience, but I'm hoping I can gear down without stopping completely in May.

In the meantime, because there's always something else, I've decided to take part in the A to Z Challenge for blogs. Most bloggers I read who have done this choose non-fiction topics, but I've decided to write fiction. Yeah. Don't say it.

The A to Z fiction is an idea I've had around for ages, and already posted three entries for previously for Friday Flash:

I made up my alphabetical list of topics last night, some letters with alternatives in case the first choice leaves me with writer's block. I figure I can write the six days of stories for the week on Sunday, and then just schedule them to publish throughout the week. A to Z posts every day but Sundays. To make it all the way to Z I'll have to post the last story on the last Sunday of the month, the 30th, but that's all right.

By the end of it, I'll have about as many scraps and snippets as I did when I started the novella I'm revising now.

Who knows? It might even work.

joe

“That's me,” said Alberto, taking off the black apron-of-pockets all the servers wore. “See you tomorrow.”

“See you.” Kelly tapped the menu on the register to get to the daily close screen.

“You should kick that guy out first before you balance the till,” said Alberto, one hand on the kitchen door.

“What guy?” Kelly leaned over the bar and squinted at the mostly-dark dining room. Her heart sank as she saw a figure slumped over one of the window tables. She could just make out a pair of long legs stretched all the way under the table and the opposite chair.

“Shouldn't we double up on him? He's got to be at least a head taller than me —” But the kitchen door was swinging shut.

Fine. Technically the guy was in her section. Kelly took a deep breath and flicked on the bright overhead lights, then marched into the dining room.

She stopped a metre and a half away. His clothes looked like they'd been nice, once. Even though the dining room was slightly overheated, he was wearing a black parka. It was open, and Kelly could see a lime green workout anorak underneath, and a battered grey sweatshirt underneath that. His jeans just looked like standard Levi 501s. Kelly recognised the brand of his boots. Her ex-boyfriend had saved up months to buy a similar pair.

The boots were tattered and stained, same as the rest of the guy's clothes. His hair was dark and wavy, but too long and slicked back with what Kelly guessed was grease and not hair product. He had the jowls of someone who lived on a poor diet, but the hollows around his eyes made it clear he wasn't used to having a lot of food at once.

He was staring at the lights, with a look of wonder Kelly was used to seeing on her nephew's face when he opened birthday presents. That gave her an extra couple seconds to figure out where she knew him from. His upper face looked familiar — bright blue eyes under thickish dark eyebrows.

No name came to mind, so she decided to go with her standard closing-time speech.

“Sir, we're closed. Can I call you a cab?”

At first, Kelly thought he wasn't listening, but as she finished her speech his gaze lowered and settled on her face.

Désolé, mais je dois rester ici jusqu'à —” The guy stared at Kelly. “That was English, wasn't it?”

Kelly took half a step back. “Yeah it was English.” Shit.

“Sorry about that.” His accents in both English and French were standard Canadian, near as Kelly could tell.

“I know you just said something about having to stay, but sir, you really can't.” Kelly gestured at the receipt and the five-dollar bill tucked under the empty coffee cup on the table. “Do you need change?”

The man peered at the receipt as if he'd never seen it before. “I don't think so.”

“Then you really have to leave. I'm sorry sir, but my manager doesn't allow customers to remain on the premises when we're balancing the till.”

The man was frowning. “So, where am I, exactly?”

“This is The Haunt.” The man was still frowning. “Near Pape subway station. On the Danforth?”

The man grinned, revealing straight but very rotten teeth. “Danforth! That's Toronto, right?”

Kelly took half a step back. “Yeahhh, last time I checked. Look, do you want me to call someone to pick you up? A cabbie, or...” She didn't want to say “the cops”, but it was starting to look like a viable option.

The man looked out the window, cupping his hands around his eyes to block out the reflections. “There's still a Toronto this time, wow.” He turned to face Kelly again. “Who's the Prime Minister, then?”

“Uh, Trudeau?”

He looked so shocked Kelly involuntarily scuttled back a few more steps. “Pierre Trudeau’s still alive?”

Shit. She was going to have to call the cops. “He died a while ago, eh? It's his son now. Justin.”

“Just-in.” The man chuckled and shook his head. "Haven't heard that one yet. Prime Minister? That's incredible.” He grinned at her, and Kelly realised who he looked like. Fix his hair and teeth, give him healthy food, and he'd look just like —

“Wow. So who's the American president, then?”

Kelly froze. “Donald Trump. Look, do you need me to —”

The man slammed his palms onto the table, making the empty coffee cup jump. "Dammit! I really thought I had it this time." He produced something from his parka pocket that looked like a cross between an old flip-style phone and a garage door opener. "I have to go."

"Yes sir, you really do."

"No, I have to leave here." He held up the device. "It's safest if you duck behind the bar."

Kelly ran to the bar, grabbing her phone off the counter and ducking down at the same time. She reached for the baseball bat they kept there for emergencies. Just as her fingers enclosed the handle, she realised a humming sound was coming from the dining room.

The sound grew louder and louder, and a blueish-white light threw harsh shadows behind the bar. Kelly glanced up at the back wall and saw the liquor bottles caught in so much light they looked like they were glowing.

The hum transformed into a roar, and Kelly pressed her hands against her ears.

The sound stopped, and her ears rang away the last of the hum vibrations. There were no further sounds from the dining room.

Kelly clenched the baseball bat and inched her way around the bar, slowly easing up from her crouch.

There were some weird black marks on the floor, like painted-on shadows, but the guy was gone.

Kelly scuffed at the nearest black mark with her foot. It wouldn't rub off. Fine. She would leave Alberto a note to clean it up when he opened tomorrow.

Numbly she walked to the door and made sure it was locked with the deadbolt. She picked up the receipt and the empty coffee cup from the guy's table on her way back to the bar.

She glanced at the receipt as she waited for the cash report to print, and noticed the note.

"Haven't been in a place like this for years! Thanks so much. Joe."

not all adjectives are equal

Consider the following passage:

The pretty woman ran through her beautiful apartment to the large, pleasant kitchen. She turned off the noisy oven buzzer.

"Dinner's ready!" she called out. 

She entered the tasteful dining room, aromatic casserole held between two cute pot holders. 

Her wonderful family were already at the table. She gave each of them and herself a generous serving. 

Her handsome husband took a bite. "This is delicious, honey," he said.  

"It's yummy, Momma!" chimed in their adorable child. 

The woman flicked a strand of her lovely hair behind her shoulder. "Why thank you, you two."

Refer back as often as you need to, and answer the following questions:

  • What were the main ingredients of the casserole?
  • What style is the kitchen decorated in?
  • What colour is the woman's hair?

Exactly.

Sure I stacked the deck by writing the passage to illustrate my point, but this is something I've been seeing a lot lately. I haven't found any writer's jargon for them, so I'm calling them "empty descriptors".

Most of the adjectives in the sample passage give opinions, not information. The reader learns that the author believes the apartment to be beautiful, the kitchen to be pleasant, the casserole to be aromatic. But they have nothing to go on to build their own picture of the scene. "Aromatic" only means the casserole has a smell, not what it smells like. And what's a "pleasant" kitchen? For me, it's a double sink, a working stove and fridge, and a dishwashing machine; after that I'm not fussy. I know many people are much harder to please when it comes to kitchens.

Size adjectives are also vague without a standard to compare them to. Think about that "large" kitchen. How large? Large for a downtown apartment in Paris? Large even when compared to a McMansion in the suburbs? Large enough to fit my real-life apartment into? The reader doesn't know.

Of course, over-describing can be bad too — consider the "green ceramic bowl heaped with fluffy white mashed potatoes" types of descriptions featured in many a YA series — but it's probably better to leave out the adjectives entirely if they're not communicating actual sensory information.

Another thing about empty descriptors: what if the reader disagrees with you? North American writers especially seem to think nothing of mentioning a "big, beautiful house", not realising that to many readers, big is not beautiful when it comes to houses. "Big" might just mean "expensive", or even "liability" or "foolish". As a friend of mine put it when we attended a housewarming party at a house far bigger than either of us were comfortable in, "I'm glad I don't have to clean it."

Words like "beautiful" can be even worse. Of course, as a writer you may want to convey that a character or characters consider something or someone beautiful, but if so it's that perception you want to convey, not the beauty itself. What if what you consider a "beautiful" house is exactly what your reader can't stand? A lot of people love neo-Georgian and neo-Victorian, but to me all that molding just says, "lots of dusting and painting to do." Then again, a lot of people would find what I find "beautiful" in a house too modern and minimalist. The way around that is to show the house through the character's eyes. I may not agree with them, but I can appreciate that they find the house beautiful. And that was the point, wasn't it?

I'm going to finish off by attempting a conversion of that sample passage, removing all the empty descriptors and adding in sensory information. Probably I should give at least some of these characters names, but I'm just going to stick with "the woman" etc. for now:

The woman ran through her apartment to the kitchen. She turned off the oven buzzer.

"Dinner's ready!" she called out. 

She entered the dining room, casserole held between pot holders. The scents of curry powder and chicken filled the air.

Her family were already at the table. She served everyone before she sat down. 

Her husband took a bite. "This is delicious, honey," he said.  

"It's yummy, Momma!" chimed in their child. 

The woman flicked a strand of hair behind her shoulder. "Why thank you, you two."

Better? Worse? Were you expecting the chicken divan in the original passage? Lasagne? Something else? Let me know in the comments!

 

 

this is life with a sucralose allergy

  • Cranberry juice

It all started with a bladder infection about ten years ago.

I went to my doctor's, who diagnosed the infection and prescribed a course of antibiotics. After making me promise I would finish all of the prescription, she sent me out the door, scrip in hand, and mentioned as I left that drinking lots of cranberry juice would help.

There were two types of cranberry juice in the drug store's groceries aisle. I checked the labels carefully while I waited for the pharmacist to prepare my prescription. One type of juice was full-sugar. The other was reduced-sugar and lower-calorie, and trumpeted that fact via lighter-coloured labelling and a big notice on the front of the jug. I recalled that the previous time I went to see my doctor, for my general check-up, she said I should work on losing weight. Feeling virtuous, I selected two jugs of the reduced-sugar variety and brought them to the pharmacy counter to pay for along with the prescription.

I had one glass of cranberry juice with each meal, using them to wash down the prescribed antibiotics. After a few days, my skin got itchy, then blossomed into red, bumpy hives. I was retaining so much water some of my shoes and clothing no longer fit. I had a constant ache right in the pit of my stomach, and, not to be too detailed about it, but I was constipated.

The doctor called me to make sure I was still taking the antibiotics and to remind me to keep taking them until they were used up.

"I am," I said, "but other symptoms are showing up."

"That's not right," she said, and transferred me to her receptionist to schedule me for another appointment.

At the appointment, I took off my shoes and socks to show the doctor my feet. The hives were packed so closely together they looked more like a rash than individual sores.

"There's more," I said, "on my lower back and arms, but this is the worst concentration."

She shook her head. "This is something else. Are you taking any other medication?"

I was not.

"Are you eating or drinking anything outside your normal diet?"

"Well, cranberry juice, like you said," I said. "But I made sure I got the low-sugar kind, because I remembered you told me to —"

"Is it sweetened with sucralose?" she said. She rolled her eyes when I didn't respond right away. "Splenda."

"It..." I tried to picture the jug's label. "Yes. It has the logo on the front."

"You're going to have to throw it away," she said. "You're allergic to it."

"Are you sure?" I know doctors hate it when patients say that, but it just popped out. Splenda was supposed to be the safe artificial sweetener. Its slogan was, "tastes like sugar, because it's made with sugar." It was okay to heat. It wasn't linked with cancer. It didn't turn into formaldehyde in your body.

"Oh yes," she said. "I see it often. Use the regular cranberry juice. Water it down a little if the sugar bothers you."

I've never had so much sucralose-sweetened stuff in a short period of time as that particular exposure, but it took several run-ins with the following to make me more vigilant:

  • Diet soft drinks
  • Foods advertised as being reduced-fat/reduced-calorie, even if the emphasis is on less fat (low-fat yogurt is especially likely to have sucralose in it by-the-way)
  • Sugar-free gum
  • Sugar-free frozen yogurt

All of the above have given me reactions, including (in fact, usually) when I forgot to read the ingredients list until the reaction had started. So no, it's not psychosomatic. None of the reactions were as bad as the one from the cranberry juice, but that's because I ceased use after symptoms first appeared.

  • Doritos, Spicy Sweet Chili flavour*

I was having lunch with a friend when we noticed there was a new flavour of Doritos out. Neither of us felt like having a full bag with our lunches, so we bought one small bag to share.

Two chips were enough to give me two hives.

"What's in these things?" I said, and glanced at the back of the bag. Sure enough, there was sucralose listed.

And that's the thing about sucralose/Splenda. It's everywhere, including in food that is not even marketed as being diet/sugar-free.

* I just checked for a source for the ingredients list. I couldn't find a primary source, but for a secondary source I found, it looks like the sucralose has been since replaced with dextrose.

  • Protein powder
  • Tylenol and other over-the-counter medication, most often the "coated for ease of swallowing" varieties
  • Mouthwash (most often noticed in the alcohol-free antibacterial varieties)
  • Toothpaste
  • Gripe water, various flavours

Unlike, say, peanut allergies, it seems that most people with sucralose allergies get uncomfortable but non-life-threatening reactions. My reaction is consistent with the other food and drug reactions I have: hives, water retention, gastric distress related to said water retention. If I'm dehydrated to begin with and I have a reaction, I can get a headache as well, although drinking lots of water usually takes care of that and lessens the reaction symptoms at the same time. There are many anecdotes of a reaction triggering a migraine — coming from a family of migraine sufferers (although, thank goodness, not one of them myself), I can see that, especially if stress is also a trigger. "OMG I accidentally ate sucralose!" could easily turn into "OMG I'm getting a migraine!" if stress triggers are an issue.

Some people seem to get the "opposite" reaction from mine, in that they get diarrhoea instead of water retention/constipation. I kind of envy them, because at least their body is making quick work of getting rid of the allergen. I can have lingering symptoms over a couple of days.

Lip balm

I had a sucralose reaction yesterday afternoon. On Sunday I'd bought a tube of lip balm from L'Occitane (a company that is one of my go-to places because they don't pack products with icky ingredients), just quickly glancing at the ingredients list to check it was glycerin-based, not petroleum-based (I like how the glycerin ones feel on my lips better).

Unfortunately, I didn't read the entire ingredients list. Monday morning, the balm felt... weird. By midafternoon the tip of my tongue felt strange, if not actually numb, so I double-checked the ingredients.

And there was sucralose, about third from the end of the list.

Oh well, I thought, I'm not swallowing the stuff. Most of it's coming off on my tea mug. I just won't wear it every day.

During my commute home, I started to feel those little points of irritated, itchy skin that means I'm in danger of forming hives. Then the pit of my stomach started to hurt. By the time I got home, I felt ill enough that tossing a brand-new $12 tube of lip balm in the trash was a no-brainer.

Allergens vs. toxicity

This time during my post-reaction research, I found a lot of sites, from snopes.com to sucralose.org, throwing shade on people who claim sucralose can cause adverse reactions. The Snopes message boards on the subject were especially illuminating on how proud sceptics can be dismissive of other people's stories.

A few things about that:

  • There is a difference between an allergen and a toxin. Sweet almonds are good food, unless you're allergic to them, in which case they can be deadly. Bitter almonds are poisonous to everyone. So telling me my allergy isn't real because sucralose "isn't toxic" doesn't actually follow. I can't find any credible source saying it's toxic, but that doesn't mean I can eat it. I can eat peanut butter sandwiches as often as I like, but just one bite is enough to kill my peanut-allergic friends.
  • Sucralose.org, among others, claims that no-one, ever, since its invention, has been allergic to sucralose. I know two other people besides me. All of us have had the allergy confirmed by doctors. My doctor, I hope I made clear from the top of this post, has absolutely no tolerance for non-scientific or otherwise uninformed opinions, yet she was very familiar with people having reactions to sucralose. And yet when I search for things like "how common are sucralose allergies", I can't find anything about the rate at which the general population is affected.
  • While I agree with the old saw about the plural of anecdote not being data, it seems to me that there are a lot of anecdotes... but not a lot of data refuting them. The ones that do tend to conflate allergens with toxins, or spend more time attacking those who claim to have reactions than showing no-one's having reactions. Maybe I'm just searching using the wrong terms, but it doesn't seem like people are scrutinising sucralose/Splenda the way they did, say, aspartame.

I am most emphatically not advocating for sucralose to be removed from products. What I would like to see, however, are some changes to labelling, and to attitudes:

  • It only takes a tiny amount of sucralose to sweeten something. Consequently, it tends to get buried in ingredients lists, down at the end with the preservatives, emulsifiers, and other difficult-to-pronounce chemical terms. I know from personal experience that even if you're specifically looking for it, it's easy to miss. I would love to have it listed with the other common allergens like soy and eggs. If it doesn't merit the designation "common allergen" (and how many people are allergic, exactly? why does there seem to be no-one studying this?), at least note it separately, the way "contains aspartame" is.
  • Formulators of cosmetics, oral hygiene products, nutritional supplements, drugs: does your product really need sucralose in it? Is any consumer really going to miss it if it's not there, or think your product is inferior because of sucralose's absence? The lip balm I just tossed is a great example of a product probably not needing sucralose. It already has a glycerin base, which already makes it taste sweet. Or consider protein powders, which will never be consumed on their own anyhow. Leave off the artificial sweetener. Customers will flavour their protein shakes as they see fit.

The worst thing for me as someone allergic to this stuff, besides the ubiquity requiring a "constant vigilance" attitude to ingredients, is that sucralose hasn't been on the market that long. I can remember when it didn't exist at all.

Which just makes its ubiquity, and the laissez-faire attitude of both the manufacturing companies and the watchdog groups who are supposed to regulate them, all the more infuriating.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to force myself to drink some more water to try and rinse this stuff out of me.

15 minutes in 2008

Spring 2008 is when I read a Wired article about the walled garden Facebook was setting up, and about how despite their claims, absolutely everything that social network offered was already available elsewhere on the net, for less hassle, with no walls and better flexibility.

I had joined Facebook in 2007, but never cared for it. I found I spent far more time trying to navigate the opaque user interface than actually enjoying content, and I discovered to my horror that real-life friends who seemed more than reasonable in person spent a lot of time on-line sending each other "quizzes" designed to suck personal information from you.

Instead, I followed the suggestions in the Wired article and joined Twitter (for status updates), and started a blog (for "wall" postings). Actually, I started two blogs, the one you're reading now and the one for all things DIY.

Part of starting the blogs was researching which blogging platform to go with. I checked out WordPress, which meant signing up for an account, but ultimately decided to go with Blogspot.

Okay, done and dusted. Life moves on. Right?

Not so fast.

Around 2012, I started encountering error messages like this whenever I went to comment on someone's WordPress blog:

Notice how prominent the WordPress logo is. That became a factor in the troubleshooting later on.

Sometimes I could leave a comment after logging in with my Google account and doing some random browser back-and-forth. Sometimes I would get stopped at that point and not be able to leave a comment at all. Given that most of the time this was to participate in Friday Flash, I felt really bad about not leaving comments on posts that I'd read. A lot of people have their comments sections locked down at least a little bit, so that spammers will have a harder time leaving comments, so usually I would have to proffer up some real e-mail address. But WordPress knew about my main address, and it wasn't going to let me use it.

I looked into it, and discovered that WordPress has no way to let you delete an account. Even if that account does not, and never has had, a WordPress blog attached to it. You cannot use an e-mail WordPress knows and say, "meh, the security on this blog doesn't require me to log in, so I'm not going to."

This is... not the norm. Most other systems either let you choose, or else use cookies to keep things as un-painful as possible.

According to WordPress, this is a feature, not a bug. It's supposed to stop people from impersonating you. I'm not so sure, if only because if it weren't for fifteen minutes back in 2008, they would have no idea who I was anyhow.

It got to the point where for some Friday Flash authors, I just left them comments over Twitter, explaining that WordPress wouldn't let me leave comments on their blog.

Friday Flash doesn't have the participation it once did, but #craftblogclub does, and a lot of its regulars use WordPress. Once again I found that I couldn't participate in a community and leave comments on people's blogs. So I reluctantly used the Forgot Password feature to get into my WordPress account, found my profile, and changed the e-mail address to a different active one I have. You have to use a real e-mail address you can access because they verify it.

Okay, done and dusted again, right?

Not so fast.

Despite no longer being anywhere in my WordPress profile, WordPress was still giving me the same "you must log in" error message when I tried to leave a comment on a WordPress site. This time, however, when I went to log in and see if I had somehow not saved my profile changes, I got this error message:

So basically I couldn't leave a comment using my old, supposedly erased e-mail address, but I could only log in to WordPress if I used my new e-mail address. Which I did and... my old address wasn't anywhere in my profile.

At this point I was frustrated enough I decided to pursue things further, and contacted their support. It's interesting — all support is conducted via the community forums, and your question has to be tagged a certain way before WordPress staff will even look at it. Luckily for me, there was a more experienced WordPress user on the forums the night I wrote up my issue, and she tagged the forum thread so it would be looked at.

I received the response about 36 hours later — not bad for a turnaround time. They said that if I wanted to use the old e-mail "to open another account" (ha!) I had to remove it from my Gravatar profile.

Huh? What's this? Two profiles? Apparently so.

Fortunately, a direct link was provided in the response, because I hadn't noticed a second profile location for Gravatar when I was trying to fix my profile before. I had to go in, delete my old e-mail (now referred to as a "secondary address"), and just leave the new address (because we still can't delete an account once it is created).

And... yay? it worked.

So I suppose all's well that ends well, except that a) for at least two years I've only been told "accounts can't be deleted" with no instructions for a workaround, and b) again, all of this stems from fifteen minutes of activity in 2008.

Think of something that takes fifteen minutes, and think how it could affect the rest of your life. All I can think of is casting a voting ballot or getting pregnant, or maybe causing something catastrophic like a car accident. Nowhere would I include something to do with checking out a free (er, and legal) Internet service I never actually used. Think about it — even Revenue Canada and banks only keep or expect records from seven years ago.

And how does this work in the EU with their "right to be forgotten"? Does WordPress have a different process for people who live there? If they do, what happens to their supposed "security" logic?

Why, on something as ephemeral as the internet, am I committed to something that took 15 minutes in 2008?

#fridayflash: shimmer

"Vibrata. Vibra-Girl. The Vibrator… oh sorry. That last one sounds like a sex toy."

"They all sound like sex toys."

"Not… okay, yeah." Enduro-Man scratched at a spot just above the giant letter "E" symbol on his chest. He leaned forward and checked the City Hall clock tower. "If Zephyr’s intel is solid, we have about fifteen minutes."

Estressa clenched the lip of the rooftop they were sitting on. "Yeah."

"You okay? It'll be easier with you here, but if you want to back out, no-one will hold it against you."

"It's just —" A dozen things came to mind. Estressa chose the least personal one. "I'm a bit scared of heights."

"You don't have to sit on the ledge with me. Here." Enduro-Man swung behind Estressa and pulled her away from the edge. "Better?"

"Thanks."

Enduro-Man returned to the ledge. "You don't have a uniform yet either."

Estressa shrugged. "Black yoga pants, black t-shirt. Amaza said so long as it was comfortable, I could wait. My youngest is starting kindergarten next year, and —"

Enduro-Man shushed her with a wave of his hand. "There's the truck," he stage whispered. He half-climbed off the roof, holding onto the ledge with one hand. Even from her safe perch, just seeing him hanging eighteen stories above the street like that made Estressa want to pee. She stood to take the pressure off her bladder.

He swung back onto the roof. "Five minutes, starting now," he whispered. He frowned. “Maybe it should be noun-based, not verb-based."

"Sorry?"

"Your moniker. Like, how about Shimmer?"

"Sounds like an eyeshadow." Estressa turned and placed herself next to the penthouse wall, forehead and fingertips resting on the bricks. "I have to get ready."

"Fifteen seconds… ten, nine, eight… no!" Enduro-Man’s voice rose from a whisper to a bark. “The sensors are picking up the laser controllers! They're spooling up the hypno-ray already!"

Estressa pressed against the wall.

"Step aside," Enduro-Man said. “I can break through and —"

"No." Estressa squared her feet. "I got this."

She closed her eyes and thought this is way too dangerous and if Bill ever finds out you're leaving him to baby-sit so you can hang out with capes instead of going to night school like you said and what if the bad guys kill you? He'll have to raise the kids on his own and find some way to get them to remember their mum but leave out the part where she thought she could be a hero because apparently being a wife and a mum and a court reporter wasn't good enough and if things don't start working soon all the capes will think you're a fraud…

Her forehead pushed into the bricks, and she felt her fingers sinking in. She took a shuffling step forward, pressing her knees into the wall. It was like walking through a pile of sand.

So now you get to die a martyr because once they can see you inside they're going to shoot you before you're even free of this wall and Enduro-Man will be stuck outside until he smashes the wall down and damages the building, which is exactly what you're here to have him avoid doing because the insurance companies are lobbying against the capes and the Diamond King gang will turn on that hypno-ray with the diamond scattering the beam over the whole city and enslave Bill and the kids and everyone else…

She felt her hands reach into air, and solidity at the back of her head. Her face emerged from the wall. She was in darkness. At the opposite end of the room, Diamond King stood under a chandelier, giving a speech. He waved the stolen diamond around, demonstrating how it would fit in the hypno-ray’s lens clamp. The attention of the henchmen was on their boss. They all had their backs to her.

Estressa’s nose wrinkled as she noticed the room was full of cigarette smoke. Realising her hair and clothes would reek of it, and that she would have to explain that to Bill as well made her anxious enough that she finished passing through the wall easily.

Fortunately, her powers never seemed to make her sink through floors.

She glanced over her shoulder, quickly locating the door to the balcony before focusing on the henchmen again. She took a sliding, careful step backwards.

The Diamond King shouted, and the henchmen spun around. Estressa took three steps backwards, reaching the door. She unlatched it with her left hand while punching the nearest henchman with her right, years of multi-tasking ensuring her aim was true in both cases. The henchman knocked into the two approaching behind him, while Enduro-Man opened the door.

"Where did you get the muscles to punch like that?" he said as knocked out the groaning henchmen and leapt to nab a frightened-looking Diamond King.

"I lift toddlers four hours a day," said Estressa.

"What's that slang for, some kind of —" Enduro-Man crushed Diamond King's hand around the diamond, then extracted it and stuffed it in his cape pouch while the arch-villain howled in pain. "Wait, you mean real toddlers?"

"Yeah. Although the eldest two are grade-schoolers now. But they still like to be carried sometimes."

Enduro-Man pursed his lips and nodded as he handcuffed Diamond King. "Huh. Can you power down the hypno-ray while I bring this crook to the police?"

"Like unplug it?"

"No!" Diamond King shouted. "That will destroy it! It needs time to —"

Enduro-Man hoisted the arch-villain over one shoulder. "Yeah, that should be fine. See you at HQ, Shimmer."

He strode out the door. Estressa stepped over the henchmen, making sure they were all out cold, and decided just this once it was all right to pull out a plug by the cord.

She sighed. The name was going to stick.

light everywhere

In this age of selfies and surveillance, it's a real curse to dislike photos of yourself. In my case, I actually don't mind having my photo taken — I was raised by photography enthusiasts, so a lot of my childhood was spent being told to "hold still just like that for a second" — but I'm not crazy about my own looks. There's a reason why my last Twitter selfie was a picture of a small mirror with only part of my face reflected in it.

But I need photos for LinkedIn, and for the About page on this web site, and (eventually) for books I publish, and and and... so I've been keeping an eye out for photographers who are good at photographing people.

I was lucky enough to make Ardean Peter's acquaintance on Twitter a while ago. She posts regular blog and vlog entries that are fun and positive while remaining level-headed, and she does portrait photos and business photos. She has a fantastic web site showing off her work. I really love how she uses light, both in her portraits and her architectural photos — and I love that her photos of people, while usually posed, look like the subject is comfortable in their own skin.

Ardean's based in Toronto, same as me, so I signed up for her mailing list and entered the contest she held for a business portrait. And I won!

The session took about an hour and a half. That might make people who hate having their photos taken cringe, but it was a lot of fun. Ardean has enough energy for both herself and her subject (and probably to power a small town if we could find a way to collect it!). The photos where I'm smiling or laughing — I really was smiling or laughing about something we were talking about. The ones where I'm more serious-looking are from naturally quieter moments. I was really impressed by how well she built a rapport. It was like having a really good café chat and by-the-way-you're-posing-for-photos.

Ardean went through and picked out what she thought were the best shots, but made the whole set available, and sent me a link to download everything. I made a subset of the photographer selection, and cropped them down to make them more "head shot" (most of them are photos of me from the waist up).

There are cameras and photos everywhere. There are not too many real photographers. I am very grateful I got to get photographed by one.

the universe talks back

All hail Universa, Mother of All! Your humble creation beseeches you to —

Humble, oh yes, I know all about your humility mate, species with over ten billion sentient members and even then you stand out as more than a statistical blip. You and your beseeching. If you're not attending to some basic bodily function, you're beseeching me about something.

And I didn't create you, not directly. I just started the Big Bang. And whenever I dip into this fragment of space-time to check out the results, there you are, beseeching. Makes me wish I'd considered different parameters.

I am soooo glad you lot can't actually hear me, no matter what the nutter on the corner claims.

Holy Mother, I'd give anything for my dear children to be alive again…

Yes, and so would that runner-grain whose seeds you ate this morning. Wouldn't like it very much if I granted its prayer, hmmm?

Look, it’s awful to experience, I get it, it's just… when it comes right down to it, you're just a set of chemical reactions, you know? A clump of carbon-based matter. When your children got run off that cliff, gravity did what gravity does. It's the whole every action has an equal and opposite reaction thing, you know?

Shit. No, you wouldn't know. Wrong century. Oh, and wrong planet. Sorry. Some of that lot had started calling me “Holy Father” by the time they figured it out.

One really rotten thing about being omniscient is that it's so easy to get confused about the little details.

Thank You so much for this beautiful day.

Glad you like it, but you do realise it's just part of a weather system, right? And that prevailing wind you're so cheerful about because it’s making your feathers ripple, you do know it’s causing a gale on the other side of the ocean? So while you’re enjoying the sun, the next continent over is in full-on disaster mode. I’m sure it will be on your news transmissions soon if you bother to check them.

But hey, enjoy.

Because God is with us! God will help us destroy the heathens! A new kingdom of God will rise up from the ashes and

Got some bad news for you. I'm with everybody, and everything, because it was my Big Bang that set off the lot. Every single molecule in this universe.

And, you know, not that I'm not proud of all of it, I really like that speed of light as a constant thing, but as to who's running what on your little planet... I just can't be bothered. You can all blow yourself to bits and the laws of thermodynamics still hold, matter can neither be created nor destroyed, and so on and so forth.

Because you are going to blow yourself to bits. I'm not confined to time like you lot are, so — spoilers! — I know how it ends.

Er, ended. Ended. Just there. Right, what else is going on in this corner of space-time?

Oh Creatrix, if we could have but one miracle, let it be now as we —

I ought to know better, because I know everything there is to know, but this whole “miracle” business… you know, planning everything out before the Big Bang was hard work. It took me I don’t know how long, mostly because there wasn’t any space-time yet, but seriously…

It’s just I created a rational universe. There’s a lot of chaos in it, sure, but it’s rational. I could have made it irrational, but then I thought, hey, why worry about all the maintenance? Design it right up-front and let it spin on its merry way.

But instead you give me this miracle business. Learn a few things about space-time: that thing you want changed has already happened. I am not messing up my laws of physics to make you happy for a few moments.

Sometimes I think I should just wad it all up and start again. Then I think what a mess that would make my lab report.

Holy Mother, we beseech you, we pray that —

LA LA LA LA CAN’T HEAR YOU, CAN’T HEAR YOU, LA LA LA…

I’m taking a step back now. Just so. I’m taking a step right back, totally outside of space-time. I can’t hear you outside of space-time. It’s quieter from a distance.

Better from a distance.

Better.

punishing self-defence

My brother told me about this at Christmas-time, and I'm still pondering it, so it seems like it wants to be a blog post. What happened (at least the third-hand version) was this:

Niece the Elder (age 7) was at a reading table at school, the only girl in a group of boys. She was fine with that — most of her friends are boys. Like every other table in the class, there was a pile of books in the middle, and the kids at each table had to choose a book, read it, and write an assignment about it.

Even though she was fine with being in the group, one of the boys at the same table was not fine with having even one girl present. Niece the Elder wanted to read a book about cats, but the boy snatched it away and shoved a book about princesses at her.

"You have to read that, 'cos you're a girl," he said.

"But I want to read about cats," said my niece.

"Well, we're all boys, so we can't read about princesses."

"I want to read about cats!"

"Oooh, so what are you going to do about it? Cry? That's what girls do, cry. Crybaby!"

Nobody less than twice her size makes Niece the Elder cry, so instead she picked up the princess book and threw it at the boy.

It hit him in the face, so he started crying, which brought the teacher over. My niece was up-front about throwing the book, so she was told to go sit by herself and do the assignment. In this classroom (and this is a whole other blog post), sitting by yourself is in itself a punishment.

As my niece got up and left the table, she patted the boy on the arm. "Now who's the crybaby?" she said. That's when she got assigned a detention.

In the note to Niece the Elder's parents, the teacher added that my niece was assigned to another group "where she would be happier." Presumably one with no young Archie Bunkers in it.

And here's my thing.

Of course Niece the Elder should have been punished for throwing the book. She has to learn that physically hurting people to get your way, even when you're in the right, is a bad thing to do. I think that part is beyond dispute. Physical violence cannot be condoned or excused in a classroom setting.

But I keep thinking about it from the boy's point of view. Sure, he got hit in the face with a tossed picture book, but it was his own actions that started this whole thing. If he'd been less of a junior asshole, none of this would have happened.

As far as I've been able to learn, besides a mark on his face that has long faded by now, this kid got everything he wanted with no consequences. He got to make his reading circle boys-only. He removed the only person in the group who had the guts to stand up to him. He bullied and belittled a fellow classmate for no other reason than his own budding sexism, and he totally got away with it.

So yeah, I approve Niece the Elder getting a detention because of the book-throwing, but I can't figure out why the kid who started it all not only got off scot-free, but was positioned as the entirely innocent injured party. And although this particular incident was a boy versus girls thing, I recognise it's a bullies versus the bullied thing. Boys can be victims of bullying too, and girls can be shits.

I've been discussing this with my friends and thinking back on my own years in elementary school, and we have similar stories. J-A recounted how a boy used to pinch her when the teacher wasn't looking, and when she pinched back in self-defence, he would howl. Then she would get in trouble with the teacher. I have memories of being told not to "pick on" classmates — after they'd picked fights with me, and I'd had the... luck? temerity? to win.

An interesting point about my experiences: although usually the reason kids would pick on me was because I was a "browner" (if that's not in your local slang, they meant kid with good grades, teacher's pet), I also happened to be one of the tallest kids in the class. From a physical standpoint, if I'd ever learned to fight — not that I ever did — I could have seriously hurt any of the girls and most of the boys in my classes up to about Grade 5 without even thinking about it. It wasn't just mean to pick on me; it was potentially suicidal. They were counting on my track record of not hitting back to get away with it. Which they did. When it was really bad, I used to hide in the back of the class and read a book during recess until the teacher specifically told me to go outside.

Damn. Now I wish I'd risked a few detentions and decked the little bastards while I still could.

Niece the Elder is only in Grade 2, and she's one of the smallest kids in her class — she doesn't have the physical advantage of height that I chose not to use. She's been in school for four years, and already she takes detentions in stride as part of the cost of getting an education. Her parents have long noted a pattern: she never starts a fight, but if someone starts one with her, she'll damn well finish it. Meanwhile, her marks are among the highest in the class, so eventually I suppose she'll start getting picked on for those in addition to liking cats over princesses.

I admire her willingness to stick up for herself, and for keeping punishments in perspective. When I was her age, even a verbal reprimand from a teacher would leave me upset for days.

But I'm very uneasy with this idea that people who stick up for themselves when they're bullied get punished, while the ones who did the bullying get coddled as victims. I keep thinking about how this is going to play out in high school... and then university... and then adulthood. I keep thinking about what Niece the Elder is actually learning from these incidents: not just that violence is bad, but that sticking up for yourself leads to punishment, while the instigator never gets touched. And what's that boy learning? That he can verbally push people into acting out, at which point he may need to work on ducking faster, but he will get his way if he keeps acting like a shit.

Neither of those are very good lessons.