fridayflash: for real

About three days ago I was driving home from work. I'd spent all day working on a computer with "documents" which are formatted for print but will never be printed out. I spent more time talking to people on chat than I did face to face.

During the drive I adjusted the environment controls in the car because the weather was changing, all the while listening to music on my car radio. But the music wasn't coming from a radio station — it was from my phone, which has a low-wattage FM transmitter. And while my phone can be used as a phone, most weeks it spends more time acting as a low-wattage, miniature FM station with a robot DJ that plays this list I made up.

By the time I was three-quarters of the way home, I was starting to feel hungry, and I had a lot of chores to do, so I decided to stop at a restaurant near my house and eat there to save time. The restaurant claims to be a sports bar, but the two sports channels on the six TV screens were just showing crash reels. One station was showing a guy accidentally throwing his golf club instead of hitting the ball. The other one was showing race cars on a track, all crashing into each other because they were trying to avoid a kangaroo that had wandered out onto the racetrack.

And even though the restaurant was making an attempt to be a sports bar by tuning in to these sport stations (that weren't playing any sports), the place was full of mothers with kids. The mothers and kids seemed to be having nice meals out, but none of them were watching the TV screens.

I ordered nachos, which tasted like... restaurant nachos. The chips were green and white. The cheese was plasticky — I couldn't even tell you what kind of cheese it was supposed to be. The salsa didn't look like salsa, so I stuck with the sour cream and the guacamole.

The server left me the bill and a handful of after-dinner mints, which were sweetened with artificial sweeteners and flavoured with artificial flavours. As I waited for the debit card machine to complete the transaction to pay the bill, I looked around the restaurant. There was a little girl glancing from her plate to her mother, saying, "But Mommy, what is it?" From where I was sitting, I couldn't tell either.

Then what happened? Nothing. I drove home, got on my personal computer, did the stuff I had to do.

And then stayed up all night, trying to remember the last time I did something that didn't involve looking through glass — window or screen — or accepting someone else's idea of a comfortable environment.

Can you?

location, location: #200

This is my 200th blog post! Quite frankly, I never thought I would stick with the idea for so long.

The Eyrea had a previous incarnation on LiveJournal back in the day, but I wound up deleting it after a few months. My needleworking friends complained I wrote too much about writing and film, and my storytelling friends complained I wrote too much about knitting. So on 1 April 2008, I launched DIY-eyrea for all the posts about knitting, cooking, beadwork, and experimenting with fixing up my apartment. This blog launched on the same day for everything else.

I've been thinking a lot about setting lately, both temporal and spatial. The Beach, my neighbourhood, is a bit of a jumble: most of the buildings are from the 1920s, when this was a place to rent or buy a summer apartment to get away from the downtown core. The Fox Theatre has been a cinema since about 1919 (I've heard conflicting dates, but it's at least 80 years old). But there's also an 18th-century farmhouse and loads of more modern buildings. Tourists still ask after the amusement park that was dismantled by 1930 (no, I don't know where they get their info either).

The Beach has shown up as a setting in a few novels. The most famous location is probably the R.C. Harris water treatment plant  that Michael Ondaatje used for the climax of In the Skin of a Lion.

So blog post #200 is about the Beach:

Usually the first thing people ask when they get here is, "Where's the beach?". Kew Gardens is a good place to start. It has a path that leads directly from Queen St. to the beach proper.

Queen St. is hiding behind those trees at the top of the path. The corner of the building on the right is the public library — one of the circa-1920s buildings, although it had a major renovation a few years ago.

The most famous "Beach" local landmark is the Leuty lighthouse. I deliberately took this shot from the opposite of the angle almost all the calendars, flags, paintings, pins, cards, etc. etc. favour. The fence in front demarcates where the off-leash dog run is.

The western edge of the dog run and the lake.

The nigh-constantly morphing stone sculpture. This time the stones are laid out as a labyrinth, but more often they are piled into little towers and other shapes. Some people have told me in very serious tones that it's an ongoing project by a local artist, and that anyone with any respect for creativity would never touch or alter it. Other people have told me it's sort of a communal hobby of the local teenagers. Either way, I like walking along the boardwalk every few weeks and checking what shape it's in this time. I love how the seagulls added themselves as accessories to the stones in the above photo. They were just hanging out like that, not moving much.

Probably what I like best about the above photo is that if someone were to stand on that spot on the boardwalk and make a quarter-turn to the west, they could see the downtown skyline with the CN tower and all the banking skyscrapers, only about ten kilometres away. The Beach is like living in a small resort town, except the city is all around it.

Even the new houses have laneways and garages at the back. You only see the houses and lanes set up like this in old Toronto neighbourhoods, although I have read the layout is becoming more popular in the suburbs too.

This neighbourhood has lots of oak trees in it, and they're still planting them. The tree bearing these acorns is in front of a house less than fifteen years old.

#fridayflash: morning

The alarm woke Andy when it always did, way too goddamn early. A quick glance through the sheer bedroom curtains found the blue-black sky of pre-dawn staring back at him. For the thousandth time he grieved that beds were always at their warmest and most comfortable just when you had to leave them, then slowly eased out from under the covers. Michelle muttered and rolled over on her side of the bed, but didn't wake up.

Andy quickly pulled on his uniform coveralls and a thick pair of cotton socks, then grabbed his tablet off the nightstand and stumbled to the washroom. There was the usual text from Donna, confirming she was on her way to the hub. Good, because he was running a little late. He propped the tablet up against the vanity mirror and glanced over the local weather and news while he shaved and brushed his teeth. When he saw how cold it was, he slipped back into the bedroom and found his favourite pair of thin wool socks by feel.

Socks and tablet in hand, he made his way to the front hall, checking in on the kids as he passed by their bedrooms. They were both fast asleep. He hoped for Michelle's sake they would stay that way until she had a chance to get ready for work and wake them up.

He pulled the wool socks over his cotton ones. His work boots were a bit tight with the extra layer, but not painfully so. He shrugged into his fall coat, checked his tuque, gloves, and wallet were stuffed into the pockets he remembered putting them in, and headed out.

By the time he walked to the hub, the sky had turned the dark grey of pre-dawn, and he could see a lighter streak in the east, just above the stands of pine trees that surrounded the town. Andy palmed the entrance lock and let himself into the break room.

The only person in the room so far was Donna. They nodded a greeting to each other, and Donna cocked her head to point out she had already left his first coffee on the nearest table. Andy picked it up and, between sips, helped her lay out the boxes of doughnuts and yogurt cups on the counter. Donna had already put the bread beside the toasters and started the big coffee maker. His and Donna's brew came from a small maker with a schedule feature that she always prepped at the end of every shift.

The rest of the crew arrived in twos and threes, checking if the coffee was ready and helping themselves to breakfast. Walter sat with Andy in their usual spots, watching Andy use his tablet to run an RFID scan on his toolbox.

"You always check it before you go home," said Walter. "Why do you check it again in the morning?"

Andy shrugged. "Shit happens." He glanced up and saw a pale sunbeam filter through the nearest window.

The entire crew was now sitting at tables, drinking coffee and sharing news with each other over their tablets. There were a few conversations, but mostly people watched holograms together and made comments.

"Okay, but did you see the speech she gave two days ago? Here..."

"No shit, eh?"

"If that asshole gets red-carded one more time this season..."

"Flip that to me, will ya? I'm gonna send it to Trudy. That's hilarious."

Andy's tablet flashed red. "Schedule's here." He swiped his way down it. "Sonuvabitch."

"What?" said Walter. His own tablet had just flashed.

"Frank's got us going to Saskatoon and Orlando this morning, and then Phoenix and Montreal this afternoon."

Walter snorted. "Want to call him up?"

"Better." Andy tapped a few spots on the tablet. Frank's head appeared as a hologram above it.

"Hey guys," said Frank. "The schedules are just getting distributed now."

"We know," said Andy. "Any way we can rearrange ours? Do the warm-weather places in the morning, then the cold ones this afternoon? Or the other way around?"

"Sec." Walter and Andy watched Frank's head glance down at an unseen display. "Like that, you mean?" Their tablets flashed red again.

Walter checked his screen and nodded at Andy.

"Thanks boss," said Andy, and cut the signal.

"So now it's Orlando/Phoenix, and then Montreal/Saskatoon," said Walter.

Andy grunted. "That'll make the walk home less harsh."

The two men drained their coffees and put the cups in the dishwasher on the way out. The locker room was noisier since it was awkward for the crew members to work a tablet and put on their weather gear at the same time.

Andy and Walter pulled their toolboxes to the departure pad.

"Got the map?"

"Closest working pad is two blocks south."

"Two blocks? Doesn't sound like a nice neighbourhood."

They took turns holding their tablets up to the departure scanner and teleporting.

Walter shook his head as they got their bearings and started walking to the broken pad stop. "Look at the cracks in the pavement. You'd think if they weren't going to use it for driving anymore, they'd put paving stones or gravel or something on top."

Andy spotted a row of mangy-looking palm trees in the distance, highlighted by the brilliant blue of the morning sky. They were walking by rows of old hotels, now converted to low-income housing. Since teleportation had become the norm, most families just teleported straight to Disney World in the morning and went home in the evening. Only the diehards who wanted to go to more than one park stayed overnight, usually right at the Disney resort.

"Some places are adjusting better than others. I just hope this isn't another vandalism."

Walter shrugged. "Ours is not to wonder why."

tilly with the others: part 26

The first thing Qxz and Xzq noticed when they entered the meeting location was the smell. The Others communicate displeasure with a very distinct, very personal odour. Any individual emitting an odour of this type is unable to smell themselves, and, through some special trick of neuroscience, is unable to smell any Other in the vicinity who is emitting an odour of the same type for a similar reason. This can lead to strained communications when sexual mates are attempting to convey mutual displeasure to each other, but for Qxz and Xzq at the moment, it meant that they were walking into a stinking environment which none of the team members confronting them were bothered by in the slightest.

Qxz and Xzq focused their attention on Zqx, since it had been the team speaker last time, but it was Bqz who announced it was speaking for everyone else.

Bqz paused. Qxz and Xzq automatically displayed submissive tones. Bqz was so irate it was practically shimmering.

"You two know we cannot chastise you for disobeying the research charter and rules," it communicated. "You have gone through appropriate communication protocols, and you have warned the subject of imminent danger. All this is well within the rules."

Xzq started to communicate something back, but Qxz added its own displeasure scent to the mix, and Xzq stopped.

"It is also within the rules to give the subject minor tasks, especially to teach the subject how to communicate with us. As you know from the charter, tasks also test the willingness of the subject to comply with us."

Bzq's shimmer became a steady glow distinctly in the anger spectrum.

"Where you failed in your roles as subject liaisons was in not providing the subject with any safeguards against the hostiles, and not forming any contingencies to deal with hostile actions on the subject."

"The subject was not harmed — " Xzq began.

"The subject was not harmed! Have you reviewed the surveillance? Does that look like an unharmed example of this species to you?" Bzq's displeasure scent was so strong that Qxz could pick it out of the rest of the room's bouquet.

"If I may, Bzq," communicated Zqx. It addressed the two liaisons. "This team has been on location for seventy orbits of the field planet. We found and lost two subjects during the interspecies strife. Then the strife ended, this subject survived, and our research was progressing per schedule. We are in the final phases of research. We are initiating direct contact. We have less than one orbit to complete the research."

"The rest of the team is not willing to have the research fail," added Bzq. "The team wants a successful mission."

Qxz displayed intense submission. "It is only appropriate to complete the research per the plan," it communicated. "I understand. We understand. Perhaps we could find a way to.... coach the subject on how to avoid the hostiles."

"Too late for that," said Zqx. "The subject species is otherworldly, but not entirely stupid. This individual subject will find its own solutions. I imagine it already has."

Xzq emitted a timid scent. "Do you wish to reassign the roles within the team?" it communicated.

Bzq's angry shimmering dissolved into the deep colours of despondence. "Too late for that," it communicated.

"I understand," said Xzq.

"We understand," said Qxz.

"Then stop making mistakes," said Bzq. "That is all." It displayed dismissal.

If several Others emit the displeasure stench towards one or two of their kind at the same time within an enclosed space, the targets will find the smell lingers with them. They can sense it long after it has dissipated, a phantom disapproval, which, their evolutionary biologists maintain, came to be for the purpose of negative reinforcement. Others prize group bonding very highly.

Qxz and Xzq choked back the nausea and discussed how to proceed.

#fridayflash: data-driven

"Because it doesn't work that way!" Fenmore would have banged his head on his desk if it hadn't been a video call.

On the main screen, Detective Gordon was staring at the camera like a bulldog trying to decide where to bite first.

"Teleport Inc.'s machines gather all the data there is to know about a person when they step onto a departure pad and tap that keycard," he said. "Your network knows their height, weight, hair colour, what's been left stuck between their teeth from lunch. You know what's in their purse, their wallet, what the shape and size of the skidmarks in their underwear are."

"More or less, but — "

"So you have all this data about a person when they use your network to teleport. And you Teleport Inc. folks, you're careful. You've never lost anyone yet, never forgotten to give them their fingernails back on the arrival pad. You have to have data archives."

"Not the way you're thinking of."

"What I'm thinking, Dr. Fenmore, is that under the Criminal Information Act, I don't need a warrant to demand the data I'm asking for. I don't need you to give me the logs of the past week. Just the one. Gina Saunders. I have her DNA sample right here. You find me the record, we know where she last teleported to, and we'll continue our investigation from there."

"But it doesn't work that way," said Fenmore. "We're exempt from the CI Act, because we're considered transportation, not communications. And our data is encrypted. And you can't just 'access' it, because we deliberately stored it in such a way that it can't be queried like a regular database. It's sent redundantly, but not all redundant streams have the same data, so even if one stream gets hacked a hostile force can't go and kidnap someone by re-routing their data..."

"We don't want access to the live data, doctor," said Gordon. "Just the archives. Saunders was last seen at the corner of Bloor and Bathurst on 17 August. We want you to check the archives for then..."

A laugh cracked out of Fenmore's throat. "The seventeenth? That was six whole days ago. Are you kidding me? We only keep stuff for thirty-six hours. Detective, that data is long gone, even if it was legal for me to help you. Do Canadian police still keep notes on paper too?"

Detective Gordon glowered at him. "You better be telling the truth, Fenmore."

Dr. Fenmore tapped his desk in a few different places. "Just sent the documentation proving it. Nice talking to you, Detective Gordon."

Dr. Fenmore made a point of using all the locks on his front door, even though the detectors would let him know if anyone was within five kilometres of his house.

He checked that the arrival pad was completely powered down, then prised off the cover panel and reconnected the wire he'd loosened a week ago. He replaced the cover panel and powered up the pad. The machine ran through boot-up and self-diagnostic processes for a minute or two, and then there was a white flash over the pad itself.

A young woman stood on the pad, her fedora and trenchcoat dripping water onto the rubberised sensor surface at her feet.

"Amazing," said Dr. Fenmore. "Toronto hasn't had any rain since the day you left. How do you feel, Gina?"

Gina Saunders shrugged and stepped off the pad, doffing her hat and coat at the same time. "Fine," she said. "Felt just like a regular port." She noticed the coat rack by the door and hung her hat and coat up. "How long was I gone?"

"Seven days in total," said Fenmore.

"And no-one figured out where I was?"

"The broken circuit meant you registered as arrived on the network, but you stayed in the local cache until I re-connected the wire just now."

Gina raised her eyebrows. "And you think no-one's going to question that the pad was off-line for a week?"

Fenmore shrugged. "Technically it's a lab machine. They're not supposed to be up all the time."

Fenmore watched her check out his living and working space. She ran her hands over his worktable as if she expected the sensors to recognise her hands. As if he'd leave all that data open for access by just anyone. Suddenly she froze and held her hands up close to her face.

"What is it?" said Fenmore.

"I was wearing light blue nail polish when I left Toronto. Look." She flipped the backs of her hands to face him. All the fingernails were bare.

"Oh, that," said Fenmore. "Well, you know, being a man, and not one who wears that sort of thing, I don't have any nail polish remover handy, so I just edited it out of the data record. You understand."

"What, they don't have pharmacies in Australia?"

"If I'd bought cosmetics, it would have shown up on my transaction records. Some marketer or another would have flagged the data, and then it could have gone anywhere. The whole point is to hide the fact that a woman is living here."

Gina frowned. "I figured I'd just find my own way. That last job means I've got loads of credits saved up, even after I give you your share. I just can't spend them in North America without getting flagged."

Dr. Fenmore smiled. "We're in the outback, Gina."

Gina glanced out the living room window. "Looks like it."

"The teleporter pads are the only means of transportation in or out of here. I got rid of my car as a sign of good faith when I joined Teleport Inc. Anyhow, petrol hasn't been for sale within a thousand kilometres of here for two years at least."

"Okay, so I'll teleport out. It's a risk, but if I have to, I have to —"

"You don't understand," said Dr. Fenmore, a little too loudly. "The company hired me to work on secure network nodes, so private areas with teleportation pads couldn't have just anyone using them. The departure pad only responds if it's going to teleport my DNA. It won't take anyone else's. If I so much as have some of your dead skin cells on my sleeve, the departure pad will edit them out."

He watched the information sink in. She was far more pretty than intelligent, this one, but eventually she understood.

"How far is it to —"

"Five hundred kilometres."

More pretty than intelligent, for certain. Prettier still with a pale face.

tilly with the others: part 24

It was eight o'clock in the evening when Tilly finished her shift. Rainia said she would be rush-time overflow (whatever that meant, exactly) for the next few weeks.

Tilly forced herself to go to the kitchen and make a cup of tea. The truth was, she felt tired enough to go to bed right away. Not just tired. Old. She sighed and filled the kettle. Normally she didn't feel old. She just felt like herself.

She tried to remember the last time she had eaten something while she waited for the kettle to boil. On the one hand, she was pretty sure the tomato soup and half a cheese sandwich was the last thing, and that had been at noon. So she should probably eat something, if only the other half of the sandwich. On the other hand, it was already late.

Tilly put a biscuit on the saucer out of habit, then glared at it and retrieved the half-sandwich from the fridge. She was not going to turn into one of those crazy old widows who lived on biscuits and pudding cups. She added a slice of pickle to the empty half of the sandwich plate to make it look more like a meal.

On a whim she brought out one of the old TV trays that some neighbours had given her and Marcus just before Owen was born. The trays had brass folding legs which supported the table top with plastic clips. Two of the trays had had their clips break, but two of them were still good. The trays were made of metal and painted with a cluster of orange and brown roses on a black background. Tilly had always thought they were hideous, but they did come in handy.

She made the tea, brought her dinner to the living room area, and found the remote control. The last time the TV had been on was when she first moved in — another thing she'd lost interest in since Marcus died.

All the shows had already started by time she got settled and started flipping through the channels. She clicked past the sitcoms and reality shows for a while before stumbling upon a documentary about the Crusades. Tilly settled back and took a bite of her sandwich, frowning at its fridge-chill. It tasted like something from a traveler's rest stop from the 1970s. She'd have to wait until it came up to room temperature so the bread and cheese had the right flavours again.

Most of the things the narrator was saying on TV were so generalised as to be completely inaccurate, but the people getting interviewed got a few good pieces of information over. Tilly liked seeing the period artwork, and even the re-enactments weren't half-bad.

The next show was on the Eighty Years' War, which Tilly had written about for her undergrad thesis. The narration started to annoy her after only five minutes, so she put it on mute and filled in her own details for the images. Her sandwich tasted better now.

The episode ended, and the next show didn't seem worth watching, so Tilly turned off the TV set. It occurred to her that she hadn't thought of the Others the whole time she had spent watching television. Perhaps she should start spending her evenings with the set on.

She mulled over the latest information as she put the dishes and the TV tray away. She didn't like the idea of putting herself in danger by spying on these "hostile" types. Besides, the building was busy and had all sorts of people living in it, coming and going at all times. If she was going to do some spying for the Others, she was going to have to figure out a good time to do it.

Tilly left the dishes in the sink and got ready for bed. There would be time to figure out the new directives tomorrow.

#fridayflash: uptime

Beth held back a sigh. Her tablet screen had just gone red, and a blinking  message saying, "URGENT -- report to the Progress Room immediately" had appeared. She undocked her tablet and did a slow jog to the elevators, checking the executive office cluster as she passed by it. All of the executives were away from their desks.

Doesn't mean they're all in the same meeting, she told herself as the elevator call button scanned her thumbprint. But she knew they probably were, since it was time for the weekly status meeting.

The elevator arrived, and Beth told it to take her to the Progress Room, which, it turned out, was only three floors away from her cubicle. She paused in the elevator bays, searching her tablet for all references to robot status and the Office Worker Automation project. If it was urgent and they were asking her to attend a status meeting, then it had to be about the new robotic office team.

Beth adjusted her features into her best poker face, palm-scanned the door open, and followed the arrows her augmented-reality spectacles displayed to make her way to the meeting room.

Sure enough, the entire executive team of GovCorp was there already. John nodded her in, while Ratna indicated an empty chair for her to occupy.

It was Gloria who spoke first. "We were just reviewing the latest weekly status reports, and saw some odd numbers," she said. "The OWA project seems to be losing efficiency every week." She hand-signaled the room's presentation screen. It displayed a line graph in response, showing a shaky but steady downward trend. "We just wanted to know if there were any... technical reasons this should be. We bought these robots expecting 24/7 productivity out of them, or one robot for every 3 FTEs, but we're only seeing about 23 hours of work for every 24-hour cycle. That's a 4-hour lag 3 weeks into the launch."

"That's correct," said Beth. "Per the specifications and instruction manual, the robots need an hour downtime every day for maintenance, recharging, and data backup."

"All of them need an hour, every day?"

"Yes," said Beth. "May I?" She pointed her tablet at the presentation screen and made a few taps and gestures. Messages from her to various members of the executive appeared, pointing out the maintenance duration.

Gloria looked pained. "But we need these to work 24/7! All of our contracts assumed... can't we squeeze the extra hour out of them? Delay the maintenance?"

Beth shook her head and displayed more messages. "The one-hour window is the minimum. Either you run the robots at 100% for 23 hours and then let them run maintenance at 100% for one hour, or you run them at 100% for 14 hours and then let them run at 90% for 10 hours. Those are the choices."

"There must be some alternative." That was John.

"The manufacturer says there isn't. If we want more work, we need to buy more robots. I put that in my pre-launch report," Beth said, displaying the cover page of the report.

"We can't afford more robots," said Ratna. "We need to find a way to make these run 24/7."

"You could hire a human team to do one of the projects," said Beth.

Gloria smiled. "These robots... they're highly... configurable, aren't they?"

Beth shrugged. "Sure. That was a big part of the pre-launch work, getting them set up to take over from the human project teams."

"So... couldn't they just be, configured to work 24/7? Like an override?"

John nodded vigorously. "An override! Change the settings to what we need!"

Beth counted to ten before answering. "There is no override for maintenance mode," she said, displaying the relevant documentation page. "And configuration only switches between 1 hour at 100 or 10 hours at 90. No other choices."

The block in the centre of the table turned blue and chimed. The presentation screen went blank.
"That's the sales report arriving," said Gloria. "Thank you for all of your... information, Beth. We'll let you know what our decision is."

"Wait," said Ratna. "Let her stay. We were going to release the numbers in the next newsletter anyhow, and I want to talk more about this maintenance window problem."

John palmed the cube, which turned pink in response to his positive ID. The display screen showed a line graph, which had a far sharper downward trend than the robot productivity graph Beth had seen when she came into the meeting.

"We won't be needing those maintenance hours at this rate," said Ratna. "What's the analysis?"

Gloria made a gesture with her hand. The diagram transformed into an analysis bar graph. The "lack of customer disposable income" bar stood out amongst the other reasons like a skyscraper amongst bungalows.

"Wha?" said John. "We're not in a recession."

"We will be." Beth said the last, which made the team glare at her, since she wasn't answering a technical question. "Companies all over the country have been replacing staff with robots. The only people left are tech support types like me and managers like you. Everyone else is out of a job. I heard it on the news this morning on the way to work."

"But if we hadn't automated, we wouldn't have been able to cut prices," said John. "Robots work 24/7, okay 23/7, and they're more efficient than humans."

"Why don't you go, Beth," said Gloria. "We'll call you back down when we're ready to discuss the maintenance issue further."

Beth picked up her tablet and headed for the elevator bay. Along the way she spotted a group of robots linking together with their data probes — the robot equivalent of a closed-door meeting. She envied them.

tilly with the others: part 23

This time, Tilly only played solitaire for about five minutes before she started receiving orders. Pizza Tela had just circulated flyers with coupons in them, so most of the calls could be dealt with quickly. Tilly just had to click the button for whichever special the caller wanted, try and upsell them on drinks and sides, and then go through the standard payment script prompts as they appeared on her screen.

After the initial flurry of calls, things settled down again. Tilly switched from solitaire to mah-jongg. The incoming call indicator flashed.

This time, the order was for a large Hawaiian with hot peppers. Tilly listened frantically to the background noise, but the call just proceeded like any other order. The caller gave their payment and contact information, and just rang off.

Tilly opened her spreadsheet and wrote down the details from the call anyhow. Maybe the Others were trying to tell her... were trying to tell her that they wouldn't be trying to tell her anything anymore. She saved the spreadsheet and sighed. That would be a relief.

The incoming call signal flashed again.

Tilly clicked the answer button and gave the Pizza Tela greeting. The caller wanted a medium Hawaiian with hot peppers.

Tilly swallowed and tried to act like this wasn't out of the ordinary at all. She ran through the standard scripts for the upsells. When she got to the payment part, the caller — it sounded like a young man — asked her to hold on a minute while he asked his girlfriend to get his wallet for his credit card number.

The young man yelled a woman's name, something like Marlene, maybe Darlene or Charlene, and asked for them to bring him his wallet.

And then there were two other voices. Tilly couldn't peg an age or a sex to them. They could be women, or they could be young boys. When they spoke, the background noise of the main call seemed to disappear for a moment, and their voices were clear and sharp, far too clear to be overheard if the young man was still holding on to the telephone, or if he had set it down.

It felt like the two voices were speaking directly into her head, taking over her hearing.

"We shouldn't have just barged in like that," said the first voice. "Into your habitation. We shouldn't have talked to your descendant either. We apologise."

"From now on, we'll respect your boundaries. Promise," said the second voice.

"But you have a problem," the first voice continued. "There's a... hostility living on the same floor as you in your building."

"Goddamn it, Arlene," the young man shouted, almost directly into the phone. "Just read me the goddamn credit card number. I can remember the expiry date. I can't remember the actual number."

"We need you to listen and report back to us," said the first voice. "Could you do that?"

"Got it!" said the young man. "5555.... you still there, lady?"

"Yes, let me repeat that back to you," said Tilly. "That was 5, 5, 5, 5?"

The young man gave the rest of his credit card information, and Tilly finished the call on autopilot, grateful that she'd done phone work for Marcus's business back when.

There was another call ready immediately after this one, and another, and another. It was end of shift before Tilly had a chance to update the notes in her spreadsheet. Most of the calls were for the coupons. Some of them were for other kinds of pizza.

No-one else ordered a Hawaiian with hot peppers, and none of the other calls had seemed strange. All right, there was the man who ordered the meat-lovers with extra sausage. He couldn't answer any of her questions without adding, "Extra sausage, get it?" Tilly had wanted to answer, "All right, you're insecure, I understand, now did you want wings with that?" but stuck to the script.

Just before she logged off, her manager, Rainia, called and chatted with her. She apologised for the number of calls Tilly had had to take, but said it was busy for all of the order takers and couldn't be helped. She praised Tilly for how she handled the call from the meat lover.

Tilly thanked her for the feedback, Rainia rang off, and Tilly logged out with a sigh. She realised her throat was dry. No wonder — she had been too busy to even take a sip of water. She gulped down the water in her glass, poured another glass from the pitcher, and updated her spreadsheet.

The last thing she did before she shut the computer down was send an e-mail to Emily. She simply said she didn't know what the door in the sky was, and not to worry about it unless Emily saw it again.

Tilly drank another glass of water as the computer powered down. She felt hot and uncomfortable, and it wasn't until she got up that she realised she was still wearing her tinfoil hat. She took it off and crumpled it into a ball so it could join its comrades in the recycling bin.

She stared at the darkened computer screen. Things were going to get busier now.

#fridayflash: recreational endeavour #30

We live and work in a beige environment. Beige is best for interiors because it reflects the ambient light, is a warm tone, and is easy to keep clean. We have beige walls and carpets, beige furniture and countertops, beige work equipment and dishware.

We wear beige clothing. Beige is flattering to every skin tone, yet practical and suitable for any season and weather.

We don't wear uniforms. We have choices in cut and fabric composition, with the proviso that the clothing must be suitable to whatever task of work or leisure is at hand.

We have choices in meals as well. There are three choices for breakfast: toast, hot cereal, or cold cereal. There are many choices for midday and evening meals. We can choose rice or potatos. We can choose chicken, seafood, or red meat. We can have red or pale sauce, mild or spicy.

We work six days a week, ten hours per day. Most of us work during the day. The evenings are for socialising, education, and hobbies.

The Governing Corporation encourages us to pursue hobbies which will ameliorate our work skills. We practise music to improve our mathematics, we read to increase vocabulary, we knit to make us more dextrous. We are expected to maintain our physical selves with regular exercise. After all, we wouldn't want to steal from the company by being ill and unproductive.

We also participate in artistic endeavours, so long as they do not infringe on our work time with the Governing Corporation. We may paint on Sunday afternoons, or sculpt.

We may also post a maximum of one piece of fiction per week — so long  it does not exceed 1,000 words.

We are fortunate in our freedom, and enjoy a healthy work-life balance.

We couldn't imagine it any other way.

tilly with the others: part 22

Tilly dunked her shortbread into her tea too hard and splashed. She put the soaked part of the cookie into her mouth with more care, catching it just before it fell off and dropped into her teacup. It was odd, she reflected, how dunked biscuits tasted so good, but crumbs in the tea tasted and felt so bad.

Owen had called yesterday and apologised for the phone call from Beth, which was nice. He didn't actually say so, but Tilly got the distinct impression that Beth didn't know he was going to make the call. They'd had quite the lovely chat. Owen had even told her he was top seller for the month again at work.

"You're lucky. You got along with your in-laws. Oma and Opa Zondernaam liked you," he said at the end of the conversation.

Tilly laughed. "They did not. I wasn't good enough for them, and they thought anyone with an art history degree was... I don't know, I guess you'd say 'flake' nowadays."

"But you were always so friendly to each other. How did you deal with it?"

"We emigrated."

Owen made a noise like he was going to say something else, but just said he had to get back to work. They made vague plans for Tilly to go to Brampton for dinner and rang off.

Tilly leaned over so she could see the kitchen clock from where she was sitting at the dining room table. Her next Pizza Tela shift started in half an hour.

 She finished her tea, put the cup and saucer away, and got the computer desk ready for another shift. Fifteen minutes before she had to log on, she used the washroom.

Tilly sat down at the computer, logged into the order-taking software, and stared at the roll of tinfoil she'd set out for a long time. The alarm she'd set on her computer chimed, telling her she had three minutes before she had to set her status to "active". She frowned and quickly made herself a fresh tinfoil hat, hoping all the while that no-one would order a Hawaiian with hot peppers.

#fridayflash: went bump

“Aren't you afraid?” The bartender gathered the empty pint glass and the tip in one smooth motion.

He shrugged and shifted off the bar stool. “Nah, I walk along there all the time.”

Once he had left the lights and bustle around the bar, though, he started to wonder if he should have called a cab.

It was true, he did walk along the street at all hours all the time. It was always quiet, but there were always signs of life, places he could run to if anything set off alarm bells. There was a 24-hour laundry about halfway between the bar and home. There was the doughnut shop that always seemed to be open, always with the same grumpy old Portuguese guy manning the counter. Hell, there was a police station just a block away from his house.

Tonight things felt weird. He found himself looking for buildings with lights on and people inside. He sized up the people he came across on the pavement, and it felt like they were sizing up him, too.

Screams jumped out of an alleyway about fifty metres ahead, and he crossed the street to get out of range, wondering if he should duck to a side street for a few blocks. As he hurried by, he saw three men in denim jackets beating the crap out of someone who was already on the ground. There wasn't enough light to tell if it was a man or a woman.

The doughnut shop had a brawl going on in it too. Through the shop's plate glass window he could hear the old Portuguese guy shouting at a bunch of teenagers to stop it, threatening to call the police. The kids weren't punching each other, they were.... was that kung fu?

As he watched from the sidewalk, the kids took the fight outside. When one of them whistled the fighting abruptly stopped, and they all started laughing. The whole thing seemed to be a prank on the doughnut shop guy.

He shook his head and brushed through the teens as they giggled on the sidewalk.

Just about even with the 24-hour laundry he caught up to a woman who had been walking the same route as him for about three blocks. She stopped, stood on the sidewalk with her legs apart, and peed. He pretended not to notice and crossed the road again.

Something flashed in the sky and he craned his head to see what it was. A shooting star, maybe... yes, there was another one. One ended with a little explosion, almost like fireworks. Its light made a pale white flash brighter than the streetlights.

He hurried the rest of the way home, caught with the idea of watching for more shooting stars from his back yard. It was darker there than on the street – neither he nor his neighbours had porch lights out back.

He made it to the walkway in front of the house, reaching for his keys in his coat pocket, when he saw someone out of the corner of his eye, over by the gate to his back yard. He startled and dropped his keys. He stooped to pick them up, then took a better look at the gate. There was no-one there.

Strange. He hadn't seen clearly, but the overall impression was of a twelve-year-old kid wearing dark sunglasses.

He let himself in, walked out the back door, and looked at the sky. He watched for about fifteen minutes, but there were no more shooting stars.

He went back into the house, and made it three steps up to the second floor before he changed his mind. He grabbed the flashlight out of the laundry room and headed out the front door towards the gate.

There was definitely no-one there. But in the soft ground just in front of the gate, he found a footprint about the same shoe size as his own. Except this footprint was made by someone with three large, webbed toes.

tilly with the others part 21

They don't have a spoken conversation, not as such, not like some of the animals on this planet do. What we would call sound is involved, but other parts of the spectrum too, and other energies.

If one of them were to attempt to identify itself in sound, it would say its name is something like Qxz, although "name" itself is problematic. These beings simply number themselves from a central registry. They understand that we would think it draconian and cold. They see it as a celebration of individuality — each of them lives in the complete certainty no-one has ever been called what they are called. They find our naming conventions... limiting.

The other one directly involved in the incident — for safety reasons, they prefer to work in the field in pairs — would say its name is Xzq. That's why they partnered up. They are close in age, and so close in numbers.

They don't organise themselves the way we do. The whole concept of "take me to your leader" would be very difficult for them to grasp. They don't have an expression for "importance". The closest approximation would be more like our concept of "appropriate."

Unfortunately for Qxz and Xzq, what they have just done is very inappropriate, and the rest of the away team is working with them through a review of the incident.

"Using materialisation in front of the subject, direct communication with the subject, attempting direct communication with the subject via direct communication with non-subjects..." Zqx recited some more rules, mostly to do with visual appearance. "That's an awful lot of rules broken."

"The subject was in distress," Qxz communicated. "Our presence comforts her."

"Per the visit recording, it didn't comfort her this time. The action was not appropriate. Furthermore," Zqx continued, "the action was not appropriate last time you used that appearance, back when the subject was still maturing."

Qxz and Xzq scanned for evidence of sympathy from their team-mates, who had consensually elected to remain silent and let Zqx do all the communicating. Xzq briefly believed that Bqz, the eldest member of the away team, felt sorry for Xzq, but then it realised the tint was wrong and really Bqz was feeling a bit sorry for itself. It was hard to smell, but Xzq suspected it was because Bqz didn't want to endure the review. Xzq didn't blame Bqz.

"We have previously discussed, and we all agree," Zqx indicated the rest of the team, "that either you two start following the rules, or else we will search the registry for appropriate replacements. This project is nearing its end. We do not wish for it to be appropriate to start all over again on this planet."

Bqz flashed briefly.

"Ah yes, thank you for reminding me," added Zqx. "Also, many of us are anxious to return home and communicate directly with our relations. Much as we wish this project to come to an appropriate conclusion, of course."

"I understand," Xzq communicated.

Qxz smelled a little hostile, but after a brief pause it communicated it understood as well.

"Is there anything else to discuss?" communicated Zqx.

There was not. The group dispersed. Qxz and Xzq ensured they were in a private area, where their communications could not be perceived by the others.

"It was inappropriate to understand so quickly," communicated Qxz.

"But I do understand," replied Xzq. "We are not them. We should not spend so much time acting like them."

"The portal was in the wrong place," stated Qxz.

"The portal was in the wrong place," agreed Xzq. "It should have been detected at installation that the altitude did not match the location. Poor communication all around."

"How can we communicate the replacement portal?"

Xzq indicated indifference. "As the group has communicated to us," it replied. "We follow the rules."

#fridayflash: it's not the heat

The truth of Toronto summers is that the entire populace waits for them, pines for them, longs for the day when they don't have to spend ten minutes bundling up before they head outside; yet once they arrive, that same populace shuffles around in the fetid polluted air like microbes beneath the clingfilm covering a mayonnaise-dressed salad, left too long out in the sun.

Karen drew out a long breath in exasperation, then stopped short because the air hurt to breathe that strongly. A row of smokers stood next to the curb, mixing the scent of their cigarettes with the fumes from the cars. Karen noticed they were all sullenly blowing smoke back towards the doorways they weren't allowed to be less than five metres away from, and wondered why they didn't just quit if it bothered them so much. Especially in this heat. Who wanted to hold a smoldering tube of paper and dried leaves up to their mouth voluntarily when everyone's clothes and hair were already damp at eight o'clock in the morning?

She walked by the entire line of them, then turned right at the corner. Off the main street was a residential area with narrow houses and old trees. The air was better here, but Karen could feel the droplets of water sticking to the backs of her hands as she walked. She bit her lip, resisting the urge to check the time on her cell phone. She tasted like base metal and car exhaust.

At the next intersection she finally let herself check the time. She was early. She let herself stop for a moment and try to cool down. The soles of her nylon stockings felt funny, and she realised they were melting slightly.

"Keep going," she muttered to herself, and crossed the road.

She heard a low rumble from behind and above her. The sun was still shining where she was, but as she glanced over her shoulder she saw that a black stormcloud  was overtaking her.

No. Perspiration she could comment over, but getting soaked in a rainstorm... no.

She walked faster. A run in her nylons trickled up her left leg.

Karen turned down the next side street and started checking house numbers. Once this had still been part of the same residential area she had just walked down, but now all the old houses had been converted into professional offices.

She felt a heavier wet spot splotch onto her shoulder, and a glance at the sidewalk confirmed it was a raindrop, not just her imagination or a random congealance. The number she wanted was on the other side of the street. She checked no cars or bikes were coming and crossed.

The numbers by the front door said "77A", so she navigated the frost-tilted stepping stones to the back to find 77B. A peal of thunder sounded so close and so loudly it made her jump. The sun was gone and all the foliage had turned the vivid green that meant the plants knew a storm was coming.

Karen figured out how to open the gate and let herself into the yard. She slammed the gate hard behind her, but it wouldn't latch automatically. The random drops of water were accelerating to rain in earnest, so she just pushed the gate shut and squelched across the lawn to the back door. She knocked, hoping they would answer before the storm dumped on her. Now that she was away from the street, she could smell the copper in the air that signalled a lot of rain was coming soon.

A hand pushed part of the lace curtain covering the door's window aside, then let the curtain drop back into place. Karen heard bolts and locks being worked.

The door opened, revealing a tall, willowy woman with a long braid of thick grey hair thrown over one shoulder. "Come in!" she exclaimed. "Looks like you made it just in time."

"I'm Ally," the woman said, closing and re-locking the door. She gave Karen a look-over. "Oh honey," she said, "did you think you were coming for a job interview? Do you actually need those tights?"

Karen checked her stockings. Both legs had sizable runs in them, and she could feel large holes in the soles. It was cool in Ally's apartment, but not the artificial chill of over-used air conditioning. Better than that, though, it was dry. Karen felt damp and covered with pollutants.

Ally picked up a pair of blue flip-flops from the shoe rack. "I got these for a buck and have never worn them," she said. "You take them if you want. Part of the reading fee. There's the washroom if you want to get that plastic mesh off your legs, and I'll find a bag to put your shoes in."

Karen was surprised by how much gratitude rushed into her voice when she took the flip-flops and thanked her.

When she emerged from the washroom, Ally had disappeared. Karen followed the sounds of someone moving around and found her in the kitchen. Ally gestured her towards the nearest chair at the kitchen table.

Karen sat down, and Ally took a seat opposite her. Karen held up her hands. "How do I — "

"Are you right-handed?"


Ally gestured for Karen to extend her right hand. Karen did, and Ally started kneading it with her fingers.

"Strong mounts, strong lines," she said. "Lots of possible paths here. Hard to say what to read first." She glanced up at Karen's face. "You're a fire girl. Summers must be very hard for you here."

tilly with the others: part 20

interlude 2: owen

"Oz! Get in here, asshole." The voice was Tony di Lucci's, and Owen knew better than to jump when that asshole said to jump. He walked carefully and deliberately to the sales office area, pretending to take care over the cup of coffee he was holding.

Tony and Vijay were waiting for him at his office door. All the other salespeople had posters of recent-model luxury cars on their doors. Owen's had a photo of a vintage Bentley and a poster for the movie The Wizard of Oz. "We're OFF to see the Wizard!" it said in big red letters, above Judy Garland prancing down the Yellow Brick Road with the Scarecrow and the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion.

"You did it again, man," said Vijay.

"Did what?" said Owen, fishing his office keys out of his pocket.

"Haven't you looked at the awards board yet?" said Tony. And then to Vijay, "Goddamn asshole hasn't even looked at the awards board yet."

"Frank told me last night," said Owen, opening the door and setting his coffee cup on his desk.

"Top seller, best margins. Fourth goddamn month in a row. You're making us look bad, Oz."

Owen shrugged. "Just trying to get by, same as everyone else. Seems to me I've sent some business your way, Tony."

"That's what really chaps me, Oz. You're out of here at six o'clock, on the dot, every goddamn night, and you still do the best volumes. What gives?"

Owen walked out of his office, ducking his head through the doorway in the practised, graceful way of the very tall. The awards board was down a staff-only corridor that led to Frank's office. This month's award used the same photo as the other three —  taken in Frank's office, with an excessive use of flash that made Owen's blonde hair look white and his pale skin look reflective. At least Brenda, Frank's secretary, knew her way around photo editing well enough to get rid of the redeye, although now that he thought about it, his eyes weren't that shade of blue either.

Top Performer, June 2012. O. Zondernaam.

"Nice. The awards company spelled my name right." Vijay laughed, but Tony spluttered off random expletives that didn't even add up to an insult. The previous three months of awards had come back with "Zondernaam" spelled with only one "a", and Brenda had had to have them redone.

Tony wandered off to the showroom, probably to speculate with a junior sales assistant on "how Oz had done it again." Vijay followed Owen back to his office.

Owen got as far as inside the door when he realised someone was behind him, and turned. Vijay extended a hand.

"Fuck Tony," said Vijay. "You earned it, and you give your extra leads to people to make us all look good. I just wanted to say thanks."

Owen shook his hand. "Just remember me when it's your turn, eh Vijay?"

"Sure." Vijay took half a step out the door and paused. "How's your mum?"

"She's good. I just visited her with the girls a couple of weekends ago. Why?"

"Alison said Beth was worried about her."

Owen hit the power button on his computer. "Beth's a worrier. And my mum's always been on her own trip." He pointed to the Wizard of Oz poster on the door. "I definitely inherited some of her sense of humour. I mean, who puts up something like that when they're selling cars?"

"It works, though. I've heard people dropping their car off for service asking if the Wizard is in so they can say hi. Some of them, I don't even think you were the one who sold them the car."

Owen yawned and picked up his cup of coffee. "Yeah, even Mercedes owners like the odd funny."

Vijay left, and Owen sat down behind his desk. He pulled out a stack of sticky notes and wrote "Call Ma" on the top one. He'd told Beth that the retirement home idea wasn't going to fly, not after the way Ma had reacted when he brought it up after Dad's funeral.

He checked his e-mail, finished the paperwork on the last two deals from the evening before. The photo of his parents that he kept in his office caught his eye, and he turned the frame so it faced him better. It was from just over a year ago. Knowing what he knew now, he could see his father hadn't been well, but at the time no-one had known. It was from maybe three months before the diagnosis, and at least five months before the hospital.

His mother had a nice dress on, a pearl necklace, nicely coiffed hair, and far more fashionable glasses frames than most women her age would go for. Owen shook his head. Tilly — and he did think of her as Tilly even though he had always called her Ma — always seemed to be in disguise, like she was going to switch back to peasant blouses and love beads the moment the camera was turned off. His dad was the one who looked comfortable in a suit. In the old photos of them from university, his dad was the one who looked like the long hair and beard was a disguise.

Someone knocked on his door. Owen looked up sharply to see a young couple standing in the doorway.

"Are you... Oz?" said the woman.

Owen stood and held his hand out. "Owen Zondernaam," he said. "What can I help you with today?"

#fridayflash: action

This one makes more sense if you read its prequel first.

The subway train screeched into another station. Someone disembarked a few cars up from the one Ben and Lisa sat in. Ben was knitting a sock on two circular needles. Lisa was adding a neckband to a sweater.

The chimes sounded, the doors closed, and the train lurched off again.

Ben knitted all the stitches off one circular so that the sock was suspended from only one of the needles, with the excess joining cord pulled out between two stitches at the halfway mark.

Another station, another few passengers left the train. Ben asked Lisa if she had the yarn clippers. Lisa said she thought Ben had them.

Behind them and across the subway car aisle, Wei Li and Chandra were giggling over something on a smart phone. As the doors closed, Chandra made a swiping motion over the screen. Both teenagers stopped giggling.

The train jerked back into motion and Olof slowly opened his eyes. The rest of his body hadn't moved and still looked like he was dozing — arms crossed, legs splayed in front of him.

Opposite him, Jennifer stared out the window, even though there was nothing to see but blackened concrete walls and utility wiring. She started as if something had caught her eye and leaned towards the window.

Ben rose from his seat as if getting ready to disembark at the next station. He wrapped one arm around the chrome support pole that ran between the top of his seat and the ceilling, hiding the circular needle in his free hand.

"So you found it?" said Lisa. Ben turned to her and nodded once.

Lisa rose and slammed her hand against the emergency stop strip above the windows. The train screamed to a halt, throwing Jennifer and Olof into the door partitions in front of them.

Lisa reached into her knitting bag and grabbed a smooth black ball. She threw it overhand onto the floor in the gap where the exit doors were. The ball broke apart on impact and released purple clouds of smoke. Olof, the two teenage girls, and Jennifer were all reduced to spasmadic coughing. Ben advanced towards Jennifer, his half-finished sock held over his nose and mouth by the excess joining cord of the needle left inside it. He looked like he was wearing a DIY version of the emergency oxygen masks used on airplanes.

Jennifer pushed herself back onto her seat and tried to stand, but a fit of coughing forced her to double over.

"Witch ninjas," she gasped. "I should have known from the kniting."

"Pretty slow for an eldritch demon, aren't you?" Ben took a gulp of sock-filtered air as he ducked around Jennifer, then took one end of the free circular needle in each hand and pulled it around Jennifer's throat, forcing her upright. He looked up at Lisa, who had pulled her knitting over her head so that her nose and mouth were covered.

"Now!" Ben shouted. Lisa leapt in front of Jennifer. She held a rune-carved dagger up to the coughing eldritch demon's eye, made sure she had the proper placement, then shoved the point of the dagger home.

Jennifer opened her mouth to scream, but nothing came out but the start of another cough. Her head started to collapse around the point of the blade, green mist escaping from her ears and nostrils. When there was nothing left but a smoking, blackened lump on top of her neck, Ben released his circular needle garrotte and let the demon's body fall to the floor.

"Impressive," said a voice beside them. Ben and Lisa whirled to face Olof, who had pulled his muffler over his nose and mouth and had risen to stand beside them. Wei Li and Chandra were still doubled over, coughing.

Ben pulled his own dagger out of his pocket and held it up to Olof's face. "You're not supposed to be in this dimension either, paladin."

"Yes," said Olof. "And those daggers pretty much useless against anything but demons. They're not even sharp. What else have you got?"

"You got anything, Lisa?" Ben glanced down and noticed the purple smoke was starting to dissipate.

Lisa shrugged, reached into her cargo pants pocket, and pulled out a steel knitting needle.

"Old school," said Ben.

"What are you going to do, scratch my back?" said Olof.

"No, this." Lisa kicked Olof in the groin. As he doubled over, she shoved his forehead back and pushed the knitting needle up one of his nostrils as far as it would go.

It was a classic stilletto kill. A thin trickle of blood ran out the nostril and down the length of the needle. Lisa shoved twice more to ensure the brain was pierced more than once.

"That's disgusting," said Chandra. She coughed, and a little bit of purple spittle appeared at the corner of her mouth. "But it doesn't matter."

"Why not?" said Ben.

"Because we put bombs under the subway car," said Wei Li. She held up the cell phone, which now displayed a countdown.

"Uh huh," said Lisa. "And how were you planning on leaving before the bombs went off?"

"Oh," said Chandra. "Right. Shit."

Ben glanced at the countdown display. Forty-three seconds to go, assuming these two paladin ninnies had made the countdown in seconds. He jimmied the door open with a needle gauge and slid under the train.

Chandra took half a step towards the opened door. Lisa held up the bloodied steel needle. "I could stiletto paladins all day."

"In seventeen seconds, we're all going to be dead anyhow," said Wei Li, flashing the cell phone display. "Thirteen. Nine seconds... five..."

The screen counted down to zero and flashed red. Nothing happened. The two teenagers stared at each other, then at Lisa.

"Amateurs," said Lisa, and flung crochet hook shivs at each girl. They stuck neatly into the centre of the forehead. Chandra's and Wei Li's bodies slumped to the ground.

"All done up here," said Lisa as Ben climbed back into the subway. "Were there even bombs underneath?"

Ben shrugged and pulled off his sock mask. "Yeah, but they forgot to attach the ignition wires to the explosives."

"Great," said Lisa. She pulled the unfinished sweater off her face and shoulders. "I should get this thing back on the needles. I want to wear it for real tomorrow."

tilly with the others: part 19

It was only eight-thirty at night, but Tilly was tired. She paced through the entire apartment again, not just opening the closet doors but pushing aside clothing to make sure the man in the boiler suit wasn't hiding anywhere. She even pushed aside the shower curtain.

He wasn't anywhere, and it was physically impossible for him to leave that quickly. Tilly slumped against the doorway to the bathroom. Maybe Beth had a point. Maybe she was losing it, needed full-time care...

But Emily saw them too, and she saw a door in the sky. It's not just me.

Unless Emily had made up a story after hearing Beth's poison... but then how had she known what details to use?

Tilly shook her head and made herself walk to the bedroom. Enough. It was time to get ready for bed.

She turned back the bedclothes and pulled a nightgown from a dresser drawer. She gave a lopsided smile when she recognised which sheets were on the bed. She and Marcus had bought them at The Bay at Bramalea City Centre the night Beth went into labour with Emily.

The lopsided smile turned into a frown when she noticed a centimetre or two of the hem had ripped away from the top of the sheet. Maybe she'd try to mend it in the morning.

She climbed into bed and turned out the light. She discovered that now that she was ready to go to sleep, she couldn't. She sat up in bed; sometimes it made her more tired and then she could get to sleep.

The bookmark was in the middle of the table. She couldn't get around that. She'd double-checked several times while she was searching the apartment, and it was definitely on top of the table. She was sure she hadn't put it there.

She lay down again.

"You're going to have to be more clear about who you are and what you want," she said out loud.

No-one was there.

She knew no-one was there.

But the breath after she finished the sentence, the lights in the parking lot outside blinked out.

#fridayflash: just before all hell broke loose

Since I wrote a writing structure post this week about head hopping, I decided to do some in this week's Friday Flash. Further to what I said in the blog post: this story may well suck, but it won't suck just because the head-hopping is in it. That's the same logic as saying purple prose is evidence writers should never use adjectives.

just before all hell broke loose 

Jennifer found a seat to herself on the subway and sat down. She gave the rest of the people in the car a glance-over because she always did, and as usual it was a depressing sight. There was a man in falling-apart late middle age dozing next to the door. There were two teenage girls giggling over something a few seats away. There was a younger man knitting what looked like a sock, and a woman beside him and about the same age knitting something bigger. A sweater, maybe.

Jennifer looked at the window and watched the blackened cement walls whiz by. Humanity sucked. She could hardly wait for the coming of the Eldritch Old Ones, when she would be freed from her stupid human body and take her rightful place amongst the ancient gods again. All of these idiotic...

....teenagers could just shut up, thought Olof. He kept his eyes closed and let his head sway with the motion of the train. It never worked, but he always hoped people would shut up if they thought they were near someone who was asleep. There were plans to make, wheels within wheels. At least that Eldritch pawn sitting across the aisle from him hadn't seen through his disguise. He hadn't even had to open his eyes all the way to notice her fingernails and ears weren't quite human-standard. He didn't need to open his eyes at all to feel the gaze of Wei Li and Chandra. They giggled...

...looked away again, and pretended to be checking out downloaded photos of Justin Bieber on a cell phone. Really they were reviewing the ignition sequence for the bombs one more time. Chandra tapped out a caption for a photo. From more than half a metre away it looked like Bieber sitting on a motorbike, but from the right distance and angle it resolved to a wiring schematic.

Do you think we can tip off that paladin before it happens? she wrote.

"No way!" gasped Wei Li.

Too bad, he looks like he has a lot of experience, tapped Chandra. I hate collateral damage. Did you see him spot that Eldritch when she got on?

Wei Li giggled and nodded.

Chandra swiped the screen and changed to a photo of the bomb placement pattern under the subway car. From far away it looked like Bieber standing beside a split rail fence. Wei Li gave a pop-eyed gasp and Chandra said, "I know!" to cover up. Wei Li took the tablet from her and tapped, What about those two humans playing with the pointed sticks?

Chandra grinned. "What can I say? I think..."

"...I'm going to have to switch from double-pointed needles to circulars," said Ben. He and Lisa had set up their code to use knitting jargon. No-one paid any mind to knitters talking shop on a subway train. We're going to need more firepower than we originally planned.

"What, use the Magic Loop method?" said Lisa. Are there paladins here?

"I know, I know, following the crowd, but for this pattern I think it will help me get these done faster. I'm starting to get second sock syndrome." They are all engaged to attack the Eldritch. There are two sets of them. "How about you?"

"Almost done the neckband. Wish I'd darned in the ends as I'd gone along." The Eldritch is top pritority. Let's just keep it clean.

"At least it's stash reduction. Gotta support local yarn shops, but gotta reduce stash too." Getting rid of the Eldritch is good, but getting rid of the paladins and the Eldritch is even better.

"True," said Lisa. "I hope I brought a darning needle along." She reached into her knitting bag and pressed her thumb into a rune carved on a smooth black ball. The ball glowed red, then white. The light pulsed softly.

"I have a spare," said Ben. "Here." He reached into his own knitting bag and deftly palmed a short dagger whose handle was carved with more runes. Only the very tip of the blade showed past the end of his fingers as he dropped it into Lisa's knitting bag.

"Thank you," said Lisa. She pretended to inspect the sweater she was working on. "Three more rounds."

tilly with the others: part 18

Tilly frowned at the book she was trying to read. She'd made it through the introduction and half of the first chapter, and even though it had only been a few days since she'd put it down, she was having a hard time remembering what arguments had already been presented. She remembered from the first time she'd read it, back when she was pregnant with Owen. It seemed to her that the text had been a lot less dry then.

Maybe it got better towards the end.

She scan-read the first half of Chapter One again, and had just started reading fresh pages when the phone rang. She threw her bookmark in the book and picked up the phone.


"Mrs. Zondernaam? It's Beth. Your daughter-in-law."

"Oh hallo Beth, how are you?" Please don't let this be about Emily and those damn e-mails.

"I'm fine. How's your, uh, job?"

Tilly rolled her eyes. "It's fine. It's a little boring right now. We'll see how long I want to keep it."

"Oh, so you're going to quit?" Beth sounded far too eager for Tilly's liking.

"Eventually, of course. But right now I've just got started."

"I'm so glad you're going to quit. That will be a big relief for Owen and I."

"I said, I'm not quitting quite yet."


"I said I would quit eventually. Not yet."

Tilly heard Owen bellow "What?" in the background. From the humming sounds she could hear over the phone, she guessed that Beth was in the kitchen running the dishwasher and Owen was in the family room. Probably he was watching TV with the girls.

Beth's voice was distorted, like she'd covered the phone with her hand, but Tilly could still hear her. "She's confused. First she said she was quitting her job, but now she says she isn't."

"I never said I was quitting my job right away," Tilly half-shouted into the receiver.

There was a click, and no more sounds came out of the phone. Tilly swore under her breath. Apparently Beth had remembered about the mute button.

I will wait until I hear a dial tone or until five minutes are up, she thought, glancing at her CD player/radio/clock to note the time. She started to open her book again, but it was too awkward for her to do with one hand. The book slipped to the floor. The bookmark fell out and floated to a spot exactly underneath the centre of the coffee table.

Tilly closed her eyes, trying to think of something happy.

"Hello? Hello? Mrs. Zondernaam? She hung up," Beth's voice was saying.
"I'm right here," said Tilly. "I'd appreciate if you'd tell me you're going to put me on hold."

"I didn't," said Beth. "I used the mute button."

"From this end, it's effectively the same thing."

Tilly waited for Beth to say something. She knew she wasn't on hold again, because she could hear the dishwasher hum and, a bit more distantly, a television programme. Ha! she thought. Caught her, and this time she can't say I'm confused.

"Mrs. Zondernaam," said Beth, with the slow, cold voice of someone who is about to punish a very ill-behaved adolescent, "your son and I would feel a lot more comfortable if you were to live in a location more... appropriate for your age."

"There are lots of seniors in this building, and everything I need is a short walk away. Very economical, don't need a car, lots of people on hand if I ever need help with anything, which is rarely."

"But if you were somewhere where supervised care was available when you needed it, when the time comes that you need it..."

"Beth!" The "-th" sound came out the Dutch way and made Tilly spit a little. "I am sixty-seven years old. If I were seventy-seven and infirm, I would think this was an appropriate conversation. Since neither of those things are true, you must stop. You're welcome to talk about this in ten years' time or when I break a hip. Not before."

"You could go the same community my parents are in," said Beth. "My father loves the golf course, and my mother always attends all of the lectures on money management..."

"I don't golf, and I don't need to be lectured on how to save money. Now, did you want to talk about anything else? How are Mercedes and Emily?"

"I'm not done talking about this, Mrs. Zondernaam."

"I am. How are Mercedes and Emily?"


Tilly waited, but only the dishwasher and the TV show made any sound over the line. "Is Owen there?"

"He stepped out."

Liar, thought Tilly. She remembered a rule of Marcus's from when he was working on a big sale. Eventually, during negotiations, there would be a silence in the conversation, and whoever tried to fill it would always wind up losing any advantage in the deal. All right, she was losing. It was time to cut and run.

"Well, I better let you go, Beth," she said. "I appreciate you're trying to take care of me, but I really don't think that's appropriate for me quite yet. Say hallo to everyone for me."

"I just wish you would consider it," said Beth. "Bye." The connection cut immediately.

Tilly replaced the phone on its cradle and closed her eyes.

"Don't let her get to you, Tilly." The language was Dutch, and the voice was directly behind her. Tilly started and twisted around to see one of the men who had been at her parents' doorstep all those years ago. At least, he was dressed like one of them, grey boiler suit, black bow tie... In one hand he held his flat cap. In the other, he held up her bookmark.

"Don't lose your place now," he said, and put the bookmark carefully on the coffee table. Tilly stared down at it as if it had come alive, then back at where the man had been, but he had disappeared.

But the bookmark was on the coffee table, not under it like it had been before. Tilly made herself get up and look around the apartment. No-one was there, and the chains were on the door.

She sank back into her armchair, shaking, and let herself cry.

#fridayflash: the first

She was just about what he'd expect in a lady scientist. Mousy hair, weak blue eyes, too pale and angular to be pretty. She spoke passable German, though, which was nice. It meant they didn't have to use one of those translation apps on her tablet. He hated those. They always butchered the nouns.

"Mr. Schwartz," she said, smiling and extending her hand. She asked him to sit down, so he did, giving the room a quick once-over at the same time. It just looked like a regular office space. So they didn't intend to use him as a lab rat quite yet.

"May I call you Ernst?" she said, glancing down at her tablet.

"Do I get to call you Gertrude instead of Dr. Abramovic, then?" he said.

Her smile widened. "It's Gerry for short."

"I'd prefer Mr. Schwartz, Dr. Abramovic."

She didn't react the way he expected. The smile dimmed, but a trace of it remained as she tapped a few things into her tablet.

"Mr. Schwartz, I represent the company that runs the teleportation network you, ah, used professionally until recently."

"You mean the shipping business that I got sacked from."

"If you like."

"I'm not going to try to commit suicide with it again if that's what you're worried about."

Dr. Abramovic shook her head. "No no, I'm not a psychiatrist. I specialise in anaesthesiology, actually."

"The only thing I was anaesthetised with was about two litres of vodka. A little out of your area of expertise, I'll wager."

Dr. Abramovic set her tablet down on the table and very deliberately pushed it to one side. She leaned forward on her elbows and looked him straight in the face. "Mr. Schwartz, my employer hired me to find out exactly what happened when you teleported with that shipping crate. You are the first living creature ever to be teleported, and we need to know exactly what happened to you, how it affected you, and what your perceived experience of it was."

He snorted. "My 'experience' was that one moment I was drunk and trying to off myself by running onto a pad just before Frank threw the switch, and then the next moment I'm just as drunk, but now I have this customs officer screaming at me in Afrikaans."

She leaned back in her chair. "Let's start with the basics. Have you always lived in Hamburg?"

"Born and raised."

"And you started as a dock worker in April 2043, correct?"

"Sounds right."

"Why did you choose the profession?"

He shrugged. "My uncle got me in. It's a living, or at least it was."

"Mr. Schwartz, we are paying you twice your old salary to participate in our research."

"So like I said, my uncle got me in."

"When teleportation replaced ships, you worked on loading and unloading containers from the teleportation pads."


"2043 to 2053... that's a ten-year career, and you've never been late or disorderly on the job before, until two weeks ago."

He stared at the table and clenched the fist he held on his lap, so she couldn't see. "My wife left me."

"I'm sorry to hear. But Mr. Schwartz, why come in to work at all? Why not just call in sick?"

He gave a short laugh. "It seemed like a good idea at the time."

Dr. Abramovic nodded. "All right. That's not entirely relevant to the teleportation part, but I was curious. Thank you for explaining."

He couldn't think of a single polite thing to say to that.

Dr. Abramovic slid the tablet in front of her. "The security camera's files show that you were completely on the pad before the switch was thrown. That may have saved you from losing a limb or two."


"I compared the logs of the departure and arrival pads. You were in transit for about two hundredths of a second. I know that's a very short interval, but do you remember anything that may be from when you were in transit?"

Schwartz shook his head. "I had just run onto the pad. I was facing the shipping container. Maybe if I'd been looking out to the loading area, or watching Frank... maybe I would have noticed something then."

"And your own account plus the one in Johannesburg indicate that you were indeed still intoxicated when you arrived... Did you feel more drunk, or maybe less drunk, than before you teleported?"

"I damn near threw up when I realised what had happend, but I was probably about as gone as I was beforehand. Nah, no difference."

"The exam Dr. Gutman gave you shows you're in about the same shape as you were last September, when you had your annual physical..." Dr. Abramovic frowned into her tablet and tapped a few keys. "Mr. Schwartz, I'd like to have you take some tests over the next few days, maybe include some brain imaging. Are you comfortable with that?"

"Sure. You are paying me to be a lab rat, after all." Schwartz pulled out his own tablet. It wasn't as big or as new as Abramovic's, but he kept it in a hand-embossed leather case.

They recorded a series of appointments, and Schwartz left.

After he stumbled onto the tram that would take him home, he found a window seat and pressed his forehead against the cool glass.

The teleport had just felt like he had blinked quickly, and in the interval all his surroundings had changed. Quick and simple as that, it was true. But... he remembered the shock of the change in temperature and humidity, the assault of all the new smells, the abrupt shift in room tone.

He'd thought he'd succeeded at first, that he'd died. A half-remembered myth came back to him, about how the dead simply passed to a different world just like the one they'd come from, how the newly-born of our world were the dead souls of another world beyond. There really had been a very brief moment of joy before that idiot bureaucrat had started screaming at him.

But there had been something. Before the joy, after Frank had thrown the switch. That sensation of blinking. And within the blink... Schwartz squeezed his eyes shut.

He knew it now. That fraction of a moment, born of his anger and shame and self-pity, that selfishness and loneliness he had felt. It would affect the lives of practically every person on the planet. In two hundredths of a second, he had changed the course of history.

tilly with the others: part 17

Tilly followed the crowds across Spadina Avenue to the median where the streetcar stops were, a shopping bag full of vegetables and sausages bumping against her leg. That was the problem with going to Kensington Market — it was hard to resist the bargains. She promised herself a couple of sausages and some nice salad for dinner, and tried not to think about all the groceries already sitting in the fridge at home.

Marcus had been in the hospital for six months before he died. She really ought to be used to buying food for one by now. Then again, she reflected, there had been a lot of days where she simply never cooked, because she was at the hospital from early in the morning until after dinner-time. Breakfast had come from the doughnut shop beside the hospital gift shop where she had bought Marcus his newspaper on the days he was awake enough to read. Lunch had been usually from the same place, although a few times she had Marcus's lunch for him so the nurses wouldn't nag him for not eating. Dinner just didn't happen most days.

No wonder I want vegetables, she thought. I've been living on junk food for half a year.

All of this, she realised as she waited for the streetcar, was just procrastinating on deciding how to reply to Emily. Two strange men asking after her by name wasn't that difficult to explain away. The house had only been sold two months ago, after all.

But the door in the sky... how was she going to reassure a ten-year-old about that when the only reason she believed it at all was because a homeless man had told her to watch out for one?

Plausible deniability. It was one of Marcus's favourite phrases, and it popped into her head so strongly in his voice that Tilly startled, earning her suspicious looks from the other people waiting for the streetcar.

"It's an idea," she muttered under her breath in Dutch. She wasn't sure if it was to Marcus or herself, and at the moment she didn't care who was staring at her over it.

The streetcar arrived, already jammed with people, as usual. Tilly pushed herself on with the resigned aggressiveness of a naturalised Torontonian, and manoeuvred to a pole so she could hold herself upright.

By the time they arrived at her stop, there were so many people between her and the door she had to fight her way off. Back home in her apartment, she put the groceries away with exaggerated care, dreading when she would run out of excuses and have to turn on her computer again. Eventually the groceries were put away, the kitchen was wiped down, and she had no choice. She sat down at her computer desk and powered up.

Plausible deniability. All right.

Hallo Emily:
 I hope your friend likes her new neighbourhood. I always thought it was a good place to live. That house is a mirror image of the old house, so if Caitlin's parents have any questions about the plumbing, wiring, or ductwork, tell them to tell you and you can send me an e-mail about it. Some of the plumbing and wiring is a little non-standard, so if they replace a sink or buy a new light fixture, they may find things are not as they expect. It's not dangerous, just odd.
I'm glad you thought about safety when you were talking to those men. There was a mixup with the movers when I was moving out, so I'm sure they were just checking up on that. I don't think there's anything to actually do. The part about the door was strange, but that sounds like the power of suggestion to me. You were thinking about the house and how I just moved, you'd just seen me at my new apartment, which is high up in the sky, and then those things maybe got mixed together for you. I don't mean I think you made it up, because I know you don't do things like that. I just mean that moving and housing were suggested to you, and maybe the way the man gestured was ambiguous. That's all. After all, how could a door floating in the sky be real?
It was very lovely to hear from you. Write me again when you have a chance. I e-mail my old university friends in Holland all the time, and we have a lot of fun writing each other.
Tilly read the e-mail over. All right, she had some idea what the door in the sky could be, and truth be told she was only in touch with two friends from university; everyone else she e-mailed back home was a relative, and writing them was far more of a pain than fun. The vocabulary might be a little past Emily's comfort zone. That was all right. The e-mail passed for plausible deniability. She hit the Send button.

She had thought that once she replied the restlessness and nervousness would go away, but it just felt like it was getting worse. She left the computer on and made herself fix dinner.

The e-mail application made the "new message" chime when she was finishing her salad. Tilly forced herself to finish eating and wash the dishes before she went to look.

She told herself that it might not be Emily. It might be her sister or Marcus's sister being their usual nosy selves. It might be Bea or Dine writing her. Owen forwarded her jokes sometimes.

She walked over to the computer. The e-mail was from Emily, and all it said was:
But Oma, I SAW it.
 Tilly stood and stared at the words, waiting for more, waiting for a reply to form itself and absolve her of trying to explain the unexplainable to her grand-daughter. But computers are not machines prone to miracles, and of course nothing came.

"I can't do any more of this tonight," she said out loud, and shut the computer down. She flopped into her favourite chair and snatched her book off the end-table.